In recognition of MGM’s release of a Collector’s Edition DVD of Billy Wilder’s brilliant comedy Some Like It Hot, here are my thoughts on the great writer-director composed shortly after his death in October 2002 and published in the Hudson Institute’s American Outlook magazine:
Wilder in Retrospect
by S. T. Karnick
Filmmaker Billy Wilder—winner of six Oscars and countless other awards, and widely respected as one of the greatest directors of the American cinema—died earlier this year, at the age of 95. Wilder was sometimes vilified as shallow and cynical, and even several obituaries remembered him this way. In fact, he was neither. He was a great satirist whose true motives were often misunderstood. Among other attributes, Wilder’s patriotism has received insufficient notice, especially because it stands in such stark contrast to the attitudes of so many of today’s Hollywood celebrities.
Wilder began his career in the 1920s in Vienna, Austria, as a newspaper reporter, but he was attracted to the cinema and began to write films in Germany in the early 1930s before trying his luck in Hollywood. The acclaimed German expatriate director Ernst Lubitsch teamed Wilder with a genteel American writer, Charles Brackett, and the two soon whipped up a series of witty, sophisticated screenplays including Midnight, Ninotchka, and Ball of Fire. In 1941 Wilder began to direct the films they wrote, creating hits such as The Major and the Minor, Five Graves to Cairo, and The Lost Weekend.
With Raymond Chandler, Wilder cowrote and then directed Double Indemnity (1944), one of the most intelligent and morally complex entries in the film noir style that it helped popularize. Wilder classics from the late 1940s and ’50s included A Foreign Affair, Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, The Seven Year Itch, The Spirit of St. Louis, Love in the Afternoon (with new collaborator I. A. L. Diamond), Witness for the Prosecution, and Some Like It Hot. His only musical, The Emperor Waltz (1948), was not a box-office or critical hit, but it is still well worth watching.
It is also a good illustration of Wilder’s American patriotism. Wilder had loved America since childhood—the name Billy (his first name was Samuel) was reportedly taken in honor of Billy the Kid—and he said that the day he became a U.S. citizen, in 1939, was the most important moment in his life. He served in the U.S. Army in Berlin just after World War II. Wilder tends to be cynical about the nation’s big cities, as in The Lost Weekend and the crime and scam films, but highly respectful of small-town American life, as in The Major and the Minor. In The Emperor Waltz, Wilder directed Bing Crosby as an itinerant American gramophone salesman in beautiful pre-World War I Austria who shows a countess (Joan Fontaine)—and the Emperor—that the American way, with its respect for entrepreneurship, individual freedom, and the family, is the best thing going.
Similarly patriotic but with rather more sophistication, Stalag 17 depicts a group of American POWs in Nazi Germany, trying to discover who among them is a spy—and learning exactly what it means to be an American. Cynical hustler J. J. Sefton (William Holden) reminds his fellow prisoners that financial success is no sin and that the politics of envy can have disastrous consequences. The Spirit of St. Louis presents Charles Lindbergh (Jimmy Stewart) as a model American. In Sabrina, the all-work, prototypical American businessman played by Humphrey Bogart proves more attractive to the elegant young lady played by Audrey Hepburn than does playboy William Holden, and a romance undertaken to further a business merger blossoms into true love.
Wilder’s vision soured significantly in the 1960s, as so many other things did. Wilder had always been known as something of a cynic, and Sunset Boulevard and his 1950 film, Ace in the Hole, certainly cemented that impression. But even his most apparently cynical films upheld bourgeois values, usually by showing the consequences of their absence. In The Apartment (1960), junior executive Calvin Baxter (Jack Lemmon) makes it in the world of big business in New York City by lending his apartment to higher-ups so that they can conduct their extramarital affairs safe from discovery. Ultimately, however, he and elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), his boss’s mistress, decide to change their ways and get married. In Irma La Douce (1963) and Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), marriage and sexual fidelity are once again at the center, so much so that the Catholic Legion of Decency banned the latter film. Nonetheless, the central assumption of both of these films, however appalling the supposedly humorous events depicted in them, is that marriage and fidelity are good things that are lamentably undermined by circumstances and the characters’ weaknesses. In The Fortune Cookie (1966), a photographer (Jack Lemmon) injured during a football game fakes serious injuries and sues the team, persuaded by his brother-in-law, a sleazy lawyer known as Whiplash Willie (for which Walter Matthau won a well-deserved Oscar). But his real motive is to get his ex-wife back, and in a further twist, we know that she has never been faithful to him, can never do so, and has no intention of doing so, wanting to get back with him only for the money.
Given that America had become more grotesque than even a brilliant satirist such as Wilder could depict in films without driving audiences away in horror, it is little surprise that the director’s career began a steady decline in the late 1960s.
In his prime, however, Wilder was one of the greatest of all filmmakers, and in my view the greatest American satirist of the twentieth century. Wilder recognized that to be truly effective, satire has to have a core of decency to which to compare the manifold evils of the world. For Wilder, the Austrian immigrant who achieved wealth and fame in America, this core of decency was ordinary, bourgeois American life. That life was far from perfect, as Wilder well knew, but it was the best thing on offer, and those benighted souls who thought themselves too good for such an existence and tried to escape it paid a heavy price in his films.
Wilder rightly saw himself as a realist, and he should be remembered as one, but he was no materialist. Happy endings may seem a cliché to sophisticated people who pride themselves on their realism, but Wilder knew that life does provide happy endings for those who live honestly, decently, and right. Wilder said, perhaps rather surprisingly, “Anyone who doesn’t believe in miracles isn’t a realist.” This greater, deeper realism is the one that Wilder strived for and surprisingly often achieved. That America makes such a natural home for people of Wilder’s abilities and tenacity is a miracl
e that Wilder himself appreciated, exemplified, and depicted on film for all the world to see. For all their surface ugliness and cynicism, Wilder’s movies are a sustained love note to America and its way of life.
Thanks, Pascal. I’m definitely interested in knowing the film and director to which you refer.
I’m honored Sam by http://stkarnick.com/blog2/2007/02/billy_wilders_witness.html.
I’m posting this here since hardly anyone but you will read it.
Since my insights to Witness could prompt such a fine response from you, maybe the other film will do even more. (Please email me if you’ve an interest.)
I say “more” because I couldn’t find your name connected to the other popular director’s work in any way.
That evidence (or lack) tells me that you have discounted his body of work for good reasons.
My surmise is that he’s consistently overly broad for your tastes.
However, his overarching theme is corruption and its consequences, and that fits well with your societal concerns displayed both here and at RC.
I believe there is truly great effectiveness of one of that director’s works. I think you may find it ironic (as do I) that he actually needed to be obvious for one particular audience segment.
The ones I’ve found who benefit most from this film simply need to have it laid out in the open. It is rare, but in hopeless cases (some revealing signs of being deliberately obtuse) even with blatant scenes pointed out to them they refuse the message.
But if interest in reform is indeed a key concern with you, you know bluntness is the only way ever to reach some. I think this one is worth your reassessment.
Oh. Should you see where parts of my last post could be redacted, please do so.
Once a viewer has seen the film, he is aware of how he was affected. This movie usually succeeds with its demonstration of what I am observing, even after all these years (when the viewer has near certainly been exposed to lesser lights).
Now this is a difficult thing to discuss in an open forum because I’d feel guilty in giving away the “mechanics” of this film and thereby ruining the experience for any who might stumble in here. Indeed, Wilder himself never wished for that to happen, as witnessed by the closing voice-over request.
I think a case can be made that Wilder wished to protect his amazingly successful demonstration of human gullibility at least as much as to preserve innocent enjoyment of the film (beyond obviously bettering its chances of financial success).
Furthermore, working with your own evaluation of Wilder, I think you implied there is good reason for us not be so convinced of his lauded and perhaps cultivated appearence of cynicism. Indeed, there is reason to suspect from his whole body of works that he just so happened to provide a measure of protection to his viewers from cynics by unmasking them and revealing a bit of their tactics.
Our gullibility — and maybe our guilty pleasure to be willingly gulled by masters — I think is the overarching theme and social commentary. I think he employed a disarming measure here too. I don’t believe I’ve seen another film that has quite as many subtle puns as does this movie. Include in this two and maybe three (Wilfred) character names. Double entendres R us.
I hope I’ve added to your appreciation for this classic. And that I haven’t written too much.
I agree that the word “infer” is correct in this case, as the film is largely free of explicit social comment, and is all the better for it. But just as you suggest, there are some very provocative themes and pointed moments. Which theme are you referring to, specifically–the social class material, perhaps, or the ethnic angle, or something else?
I am curious as to your view on the social commentary that may be inferred from two movies, one of which is mentioned above: Witness for the Prosecution.
Let me save the other for now since it’s not a Wilder film.
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