#FilmmakerBios: Billy Wilder

220px-billywilderparamountpubphoto1942

1942 publicity still of Wilder 

Woody Allen isn’t the only film maker that we’re discussing this week! Coming in a close second for funniest screenplay, Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot was also selected as top comedy film on American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Laughs poll in the year 2000. This film wasn’t the only Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond collaboration recognized on 101 Funniest Screenplays; The Apartment was another. Though Wilder’s genius can be realized onscreen, Gene D. Phillips’s Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder provides a groundbreaking overview of a filmmaking icon.

Wilder began his career as a screenwriter in Berlin but, because of his Jewish heritage, sought refuge in America when Germany came under Nazi control. Making fast connections in Hollywood, Wilder immediately made the jump from screenwriter to director. His classic films Five Graves to Cairo (1943), Double Indemnity (1945), and The Lost Weekend (1945) earned Academy Awards for best picture, director, and screenplay. During the 1960s, Wilder continued to direct and produce controversial comedies, including Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) and The Apartment (1960), which won Oscars for best picture and director. This definitive biography reveals that Wilder was, and remains, one of the most influential directors in filmmaking. This excerpt offers readers a closer look at the conception of Some Like It Hot:

‘“I. A. L. Diamond and I got the idea for Some Like It Hot from an earlier German film, Fanfaren der Liebe [Fanfares of Love, 1932], which was set in Bavaria,” Wilder said. The original German film was co-written by Robert Thoeren and Michael Logan, who were scriptwriters at Ufa in Berlin at the time. Thoeren was now working in Hollywood; he had repeatedly coaxed Wilder to do an American remake of the original picture. Wilder obtained a print of the German picture and screened it. (Thoeren did not live to see Some Like It Hot; he died in 1957.) Fanfaren der Liebe was about two starving musicians who don a number of disguises to get work; for example, they wear blackface to join an all-black jazz band. Only the film’s final episode caught Wilder’s attention. “When the two guys dressed as women and joined the girls’ band called the Alpine Violets,” he thought he had the makings of a farce.

Gerd Gemünden writes in his monograph on Wilder that Wilder was influenced in remaking Fanfaren der Liebe by the successful German remake in 1951, directed by Kurt Hoffmann. But Wilder emphasized that his movie was derived from the original film. Wilder pitched the concept to Walter Mirisch, insisting that the premise of the two musicians in drag could be the basis for a classic screwball comedy. Mirisch had faith enough in Wilder to give him the go-ahead.

In its original version, Wilder said, Fanfaren der Liebe was a low-budget, second-class German flick “with heavy-handed, Teutonic humor.” The two musicians are shown smoking cigars and shaving while in drag—rather crude jokes. Diamond pointed out that the sturdy Charley’s Aunt was the classic example of a hero dressing as a woman in American cinema. Jack Benny starred in Archie Mayo’s successful 1941 picture, playing an Oxford undergraduate in Victorian Britain impersonating an elderly dowager who chaperones young society ladies. Diamond was confident that, since Charley’s Aunt had been a hit, the general public would accept another farce about crossdressing.

In brainstorming with Diamond about the plot, Wilder noted that Fanfaren der Liebe dealt with two guys who joined a girls’ band simply because they needed jobs. “When we talked about it, we decided that the two guys should join the girls’ band as an absolute question of life and death. Otherwise, it would seem that at any point in the picture they could simply remove their wigs and tell Sugar Kane, the band’s sexy vocalist and ukulele player, that they both love her and hence are rivals for her affections—then take it from there.” Wilder continued, “So we invented the fact that they had witnessed a gangland killing and had to disguise themselves to protect their lives. Then we set the story in the Roaring Twenties, in order to make this element of the plot more believable,” since mob warfare was rampant in the Prohibition era. “And so we brought in an actual gangland killing, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, as the killing which they had witnessed.” Wilder concluded, “So it was not that Mr. Diamond and I just sat down and said that we were going to do a satire on the old gangster pictures. That is just how the scenario developed. As Lubitsch used to say, ‘We began to have a picture.’” Like Lubitsch, Wilder loved what he lampooned. The America he depicts in the Roaring Twenties is gaudy and vulgar but also full of fun.’

If you want to read more, Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder is available at your favorite bookseller or online from the University Press of Kentucky.

Phillips E

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About University Press of Kentucky

The University Press of Kentucky has a dual mission—the publication of books of high scholarly merit in a variety of fields for a largely academic audience and the publication of books about the history and culture of Kentucky, the Ohio Valley region, the Upper South, and Appalachia. The Press is the statewide mandated nonprofit scholarly publisher for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, operated as an agency of the University of Kentucky and serving all state institutions of higher learning, plus five private colleges and Kentucky's two major historical societies.

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