Billy Wilder: The King of Comedy

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Not that many people know the name, but mention the films and they nod. For a period of time, this was the best writer/director in the business. An occasional miss, but his films were gold: box office hits and critical successes. Not all of his films were comedies but his films were smart, and they had bite.

He was Austrian by birth, made films in Germany but moved to Paris after the Nazis rose to power. He arrived in Hollywood in early 1930s, as part of a wave of European filmmakers who fled to America. His first notable screenplay, Ninotchka, starring Greta Garbo, earned him an Academy Award nomination. His next big film, Ball of Fire, directed by Howard Hawks, and starring Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper, also earned him an Academy Award nomination.

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In 1942, he directed his first film, which he co-wrote, The Major and the Minor, starred Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland. Two years later he delivered Double Indemnity, for which he was nominated for Academy Awards for writing and direction. The die was cast in the type of films he would create.

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His next films were The Lost Weekend, The Emperor Waltz, A Foreign Affair and A Song in Born. Of those films, The Lost Weekend, collected Wilder Academy Awards for writing and direction, and also took home award for Best Actor and Best Picture. That film is memorable because of the theme, an out of control alcoholic who experiences a long weekend of drinking, and a crucial point in his life.

So, you might be wondering, he’s made a few comedies but he scores big several dramas. Why is he the “King of Comedy”? Patience.

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Three more dramas follow: Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole and Stalag 17. Two of the three was big successes, but Ace in the Hole is just too dark and downbeat. Sunset Boulevard wins another Academy Award for best writing, and Stalag 17 would give me another writing nomination, and William Holden a Best Acting award.

Next come two light comedies, Sabrina and Seven Year Itch, not blockbusters but solid hits, and films that would endure. Wilder showed an ability to use actors against type, to mold them through the story into believable and sympathetic characters.

Well, that formula didn’t work so well in the next two films: The Spirit of St. Louis and Love in the Afternoon. The Spirit of St. Louis was not horrible but casting James Stewart as Charles Lindbergh was wrong, and the production suffered continuous problems making it improbable to break even financially. Love in the Afternoon, with Gary Cooper in the lead was another wrong casting decision. Two times in a row actors too old for their roles were cast. A script that was not very interesting certainly didn’t help.

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Four of his next five films were big hits. Witness for the Prosecution, based on an Agatha Christie work was a big hit, but it doesn’t feel like a Billy Wilder film, even though he adapted the work and directed the film.

Some Like it Hot is every bit the classic it is. Directed, produced and co-written by Wilder, he is not just an auteur, he as successful one. Much has been written about the production and Wilder’s relationship with Marilyn Monroe. It makes interesting reading. Two things are also significant about this film. Billy Wilder fully develops his comedic brilliance. Granted, he has written many comedies, many of them successful, but his writing clearly shifts into a higher gear. And second, he teams with Jack Lemmon, a partnership that will pay dividends in many following films.

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Next up, The Apartment, another major commercial and critical hit. Jack Lemmon returns, and provides his best acting role to date. Fred MacMurray appears in an a very unsympathetic role, but is highly effective. Contrast this role with his Disney films and My Three Sons role. The film tackles some very adult themes successfully, a sign that the times are changing with the new decade of the 1960s. Wilder wins the Academy Awards trifecta: Best Writing, Best Direction and Best Picture as he takes home three statues.

Over the next six years, he make five films but couldn’t repeat the success of his last two films. One, Two, Three is a swing and miss. Irma la Duce re-teams Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in a comedy/farce about French prostitution. It is better than his last film, but hardly a Wilder classic. Kiss Me, Stupid may be Wilder’s worst film. Slated to star Peter Sellers, instead you got Ray Walston. Didn’t matter, Sellers wouldn’t have helped this film; what was Wilder thinking?

The last of the five films was The Fortune Cookie. Not only was this a return to Wilder at his best, but it is biting, and adroitly mixes drama and comedy, a talent of his. The second important thing about this film was teaming Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in their first film together. The rest is history. It is important to note that Wilder used black & white instead of color for this film. Strangely, it works.

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Wilder’s next two films are disappointments. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is an odd choice for Wilder. It is long, ponderous and not very interesting. In the hands of a different director it might have had a chance. Fine performances by Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely and Christopher Lee are wasted. Avanti!, starring Jack Lemmon and Juliet Mills, is a story about middle aged people taking place in Europe, not much for American audiences to get excited about. It is not a bad film, it has moments, and from another director, it also might have had a chance.

If you are Billy Wilder, you have set the bar very high for yourself. Wilder spent most of the past decade failing to live up to what audiences became to expect. His next film, a remake of The Front Page, is a terrific film. Lemmon and Matthau re-team and deliver great performances with Wilder’s rapid-fire comedy.

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Wilder winds up his career with Fedora and Buddy, Buddy. Neither film has any of the Wilder magic. With this, his film career, which started in 1929, is over.

All told, Wilder made about as many dramas as comedies, but his skill at constructing smart, funny and biting situations and lines of dialogue is unparalleled in film history. Even in his darkest dramas, he inserts an absurdity that shows that he cannot be serious all of the time.

Bill Wilder learned how to write intelligent films about characters in unusual and challenging situations was greatly influence by his early life experiences. He grew up quickly, and experienced different cultures and situations as be bounced around Europe, before landing in California. As a young man, he experienced love affairs, tangled with unscrupulous characters and was probably wise beyond his years. All of this color provides a wealth of material for a young screenwriter.

Wilder was a good director, but he was a better writer. It’s even written on his headstone. Wilder surrounded himself with talented writing partners but he had too much freedom to pick his own projects. As his own producer, he had no one to talk him out of bad script ideas. His past success guaranteed his ability to green-light films. While not all of his films were original ideas, he developed his own projects. On the back-end of his career, his hits were modest, and his misses were significant, but he never stopped trying. He loved being a filmmaker.

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In his heyday, no one had more success than Wilder. While most people will think all he did was Some Like it Hot, that was not his best or wittiest film, but it’s great to have on your resume. If you are unfamiliar with his work, dig around and sample some of his other films from the 1950s and 1960s. Even in his misses, there are interesting moments and risks he takes as a storyteller. When he wanted to be, he could be the King of Comedy. He just thought it was more fun to be the jester.


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