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Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Wildly Inconsistent Billy Wilder.

Here is a list of the movies that Billy Wilder directed.
He made quite a few great ones.
He also made quite a few awful ones.
And he wrote a whole lot of movies in Germany, in German, that never show up anywhere.
He also wrote a few great ones here that he didn't direct.
"Ball of Fire"
"Bluebeard's Eighth Wife"
They were directed by his idol,  Ernst Lubitsch.
I'm going to attempt to separate the ones he directed into great, so-so, and awful.
Beginning with awful.

Director (27 credits)

Awful:                                              So-so:                                     Great:

1981 Buddy Buddy

 1978 Fedora
                                                          1974 The Front Page
 1972 Avanti!
                                                           1961 One, Two, Three
                                                                                                            1960 The Apartment
                                                           1959 Some Like It Hot
                                                                                                           1957 Witness for the Prosecution
                                                                                                           1957 Love in the Afternoon

                                                           1957 The Spirit of St. Louis

                                                            1955 The Seven Year Itch

                                                                                                            1954 Sabrina

                                                                                                            1953 Stalag 17

                                                                                                            1951 Ace in the Hole

                                                                                                             1950 Sunset Boulevard
                                                            1948 The Emperor Waltz 

                                                                                                                 1945 The Lost Weekend

                                                                                                             1944 Double Indemnity
                                                             1942 The Major and the Minor

Now, I know that this is all subjective, but I think I have good reasons to back up all of my 
Eight great ones are pretty good on anybody's resume.
But they were mostly made when he was younger.
He had a prime, and that was it.
Let me give you an idea of how one of the bombs went wrong:
"A Foreign Affair" took place in post-war Berlin.  A comedy.
The female leads were Marlene Dietrich and Jean Arthur.
It was made by Paramount.
They needed a male lead for them to fight over.
Dietrich and Jean Arthur must have been pretty expensive, so Paramount probably told Wilder to pick anyone he wanted from Paramount's contract players as the male lead.
You know who Wilder ended up with?
John Lund.
John fucking Lund.
As in "Has there ever been a bigger stiff in front of a camera than John fucking Lund?"
He was best known as Grace Kelly's fiancé in "High Society".  That guy.  Get it now?
You know who else was under contract to Paramount at the time?
Robert Preston.  Mister "Ya got trouble right here in River City".  That Robert Preston.
But this was 9 years before he exhibited that he had that kind of charm.
But if the alternative was John fucking Lund, wasn't Preston at least worth a screen test?
This requires imagination.  
Imagination that Wilder did not have.
Wilder must have known what a stiff Lund was.  If that was his best option, you've got to be smart enough to close down the picture.
That's just one example:  Ray Walston for Peter Sellers in "Kiss Me Stupid?"
Keep looking, or bale.
I'm just saying that this brings Wilder down a few pegs among the all time greats.
Too many failures.
We can argue about all this in the comments section.

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  1. Mr. Rothman:

    I agree with you about Buddy Buddy (Cruddy Cruddy) which was, sadly, Wilder's swan song as writer/director. But I give fairly high marks to Fedora, Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (not a typical Wilder film by any stretch of the imagination), The Front Page and Kiss Me, Stupid.
    To me, Fedora and Kiss Me, Stupid are Wilder's cult movies. Peter Sellers was originally cast in the role that went to Walston in Kiss Me, Stupid, but backed out when he suffered near-fatal heart attacks - Names bandied about to replace him were Bob Hope, Danny Kaye and, I believe, Jack Lemmon.
    I wrote a short piece for a blog about Billy Wilder two years ago, covering these two wildly different movies.
    If you are interested in reading about my take on them, here is the link:
    But I also agree with you about John Lund in A Foreign Affair, which should have been better what with Dietrich and Jean Arthur.
    However, Some Like It Hot -- only so-so? Uh-uh!!!

  2. The Major and the Minor is on my top 20 comedy list. I think it is a perfect LITTLE movie. Ginger Rogers was very fine in it and I also loved her in Monkey Business (Howard Hawks). I am also fond of Irma La Douce, Seven Year Itch, Some Like it Hot and even One, Two, Three. I think of myself as having a quirky sense of humor and these movies are pretty darn quirky.

  3. I mentioned in a very recent comments section that if a very well-made comedy never makes you laugh, which was the case with SLIH, it can't, in my eyes, be anything more than so-so.
    Marilyn was great, but in a tragic way. Hope was already reading off cue-cards, it didn't suit Danny Kaye's image. Lemmon might have pulled it off, but the script was dreadful. And he was already starting to wear on me.
    Cult is cult, and there's no point arguing about that.

  4. The Fortune Cookie is overlong but I always thought it was a very enjoyable movie. Maybe it's because the street where Jack Lemmon's character lived always reminded me of my 1960's street in Buffalo. But the real bomb of the bunch is definitely Kiss Me, Stupid, which is such an incredible misfire it's almost unwatchable. Everything about it misses the mark -- the casting, the "adult" dialogue, the indoor sets that are supposed to be outside -- it's just a total mess.

  5. In "The Fortune Cookie, EVERYBODY was terrible, except Matthau, who was great. Lemmon just rolled over and played dead for him. They looped every bit of Archie Moore's dialogue, turning him into a basso profundo. I can't imagine why. Nobody is likeable in it, including Matthau, but he is so fucking funny that it is worth the trip. But it is really flawed.

  6. Noting the overall graphic makeup of the list, you seem to associate Wilder's decline in general with his association with I.A.L. Diamond.
    There does seem to be a trend toward verbal and visual gag comedy with Diamond, as opposed to Wilder's earlier collaborations with Charles Brackett (Paramount's publicists called Brackett and Wilder "Hollywood's happiest couple").
    With Wilder and Diamond, the emphasis shifted to blasting hard laughs out of the audience; actors like Lemmon, Matthau, and some of their favored supporting players, such as Cliff Osmond, were more than willing to do that.
    For whatever reasons, Wilder and Diamond became inseparable professionally; after "Some Like It Hot", it became a fact of life in the business that when you bought Wilder you got Diamond as part of the deal.
    From what I've read, the two men were totally in sync as partners and as friends - no feuds, or even mild disputes, are reported, which in Hollywood is almost unheard of (but you already know that ...).

    Still, to put this into a kind of "perspective", have you ever seen any of the Poverty Row pix made by Billy Wilder's older brother, "W. Lee Wilder"?
    He was like the Billy Carter of the family; he got into filmmaking because he felt if his little brother could make movies, how hard could it be?
    It says something when the "best" of W. Lee Wilder's output were TV episodes of "Gangbusters" from the early '50s.
    Or when WLW's "legacy" is his son Myles Wilder, who produced "The Dukes Of Hazzard" and "Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp".
    Look at any of those, and suddenly Billy's left-hand column doesn't look so bad ...

  7. I didn't know Myles Wilder was Billy Wilder's nephew. I never would have suspected it, considering that I mainly associate him (and co-writer William Raynor) with a terrible show called "Hank," which ran on NBC on Friday nights, after "Camp Runamuck" (another winner), I think. (NBC's slogan for Friday nights should have been "Must Avoid at All Costs TV.")

  8. I never heard of Myles Wilder, but I'll bet he never hired John Lund.

  9. Didn't Tom Miller start out as Billy Wilder's assistant?

  10. Yes. Tom Miller was a protégé of Billy Wilder's, and spoke very fondly of him.

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Hi. I am, according to my Wikipedia entry,(which I did not create) a noted television writer, playwright, screenwriter, and occasional actor. You can Google me or go to the IMDB to get my credits, and you can come here to get my opinions on things, which I'll try to express eloquently. Hopefully I'll succeed. You can also e-mail me at Perhaps my biggest claim to fame is being responsible, for about six months in 1975, while Head Writer for the "Happy Days" TV series, for Americans saying to each other "Sit on it."