Billy Wilder: from poor Austrian journalist to Hollywood superstar

The director’s newly translated writings reveal how his life as a penniless reporter shaped his hit movies

In an arresting scene from one of director Billy Wilder’s most famous films, Some Like It Hot, Marilyn Monroe sashays along a Chicago railway station platform in a figure-hugging outfit, leaving Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis gobsmacked.

Until now, few have made the connection between this scene and some of Wilder’s own experiences as a young Austrian journalist in the 1920s. This month, the first major collection of Wilder’s journalism ever published will reveal the way his early writings shaped and influenced memorable scenes, characters and plots from films he later wrote and directed, including Sunset Boulevard and The Apartment.

In Billy Wilder on Assignment, Wilder’s German-language journalism from both Austrian and German publications is collected together in one volume and translated into English for the first time.

The all-female musical troupe in Some Like It Hot appears, for example, to have much in common with the Tiller Girls, a famous British dance troupe Wilder wrote about for an Austrian tabloid in 1926. “This morning 34 of the most enticing legs emerged from the Berlin express train when it arrived at Westbahnhof station,” he writes, aged 19, in a paragraph that could have been lifted straight out of the movie’s script. “Those figures, those legs…”

The young Billy Wilder in 1926.
The young Billy Wilder in 1926. From the book Billy Wilder on Assignment: Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna. Photograph: Princeton University Press

Another of Wilder’s articles from the collection, which was first published in a German literary magazine in 1929, is a highly critical profile of the spendthrift behaviour of the silent movie director Erich von Stroheim. He highlights the actress Gloria Swanson’s performance in von Stroheim’s movie Queen Kelly, and describes von Stroheim as “the man we love to hate”.

Later, Wilder casts both Swanson and Von Stroheim in Sunset Boulevard – Swanson as a bitter, forgotten silent film star and Von Stroheim as a formerly successful silent film director who is now working as a butler. At one point, the audience sees Swanson watch the film Queen Kelly.

“In a lot of these early pieces, I think you can see the germs for a lot of later ideas,” said Noah Isenberg, professor of film at the University of Texas at Austin and editor of Billy Wilder on Assignment, which will be published on 27 April in the US and on 1 June in the UK. “And beyond that, you can see a lot of what we come to expect from a Billy Wilder movie: the dramas and the comedies, all that sparkling wit, that charm, that mordant humour and sarcasm. A lot of that is on full display in these articles that he wrote from the tender age of 19 into his 20s.”

His journalism demonstrates that he was a “born entertainer”, Isenberg says. “You can see, even in the very short pieces that he wrote, there is this desire to entertain and even to dazzle his reader.”

For the collection’s translator, Shelley Frisch, the articles feel like new Wilder films she has discovered: “So much of what we see in the Wilder films seem to be very visually based,” she said. “But strip that away and all of it, including the amazing ability he had to make characters come alive as full-blooded, three-dimensional people, is right there in his journalism.

“You see in these pieces the journalist Billy Wilder studying the human condition from all possible angles and then when you see him make films, he’s studying the human condition all over again – and building on the observations he made in these early journalism pieces. It’s clear to me that he carried his articles around in his head as ideas he wanted to build on.”

In one of his most successful observational pieces, ‘Waiter, A Dancer, Please!’, the personal experience Wilder relays could be a plot from one of his films. He writes: “My trousers aren’t ironed, my face is badly shaved… my stomach is so empty that it’s hurting and my nerves are shot. Behind every knock on the door the venomous face of the landlady, shrieking, with the bill in her hands.” Walking along Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, he meets a friend who takes him out for lunch and somehow persuades him to hire himself out as a dancer, despite being unable to dance.

Jack Lemmon as CC Baxter in Wilder’s The Apartment, with co-star Shirley MacLaine.
Jack Lemmon as CC Baxter in Wilder’s The Apartment, with co-star Shirley MacLaine. Photograph: Cinetext Bildarchiv/Allstar/United Artists

The next morning, at an audition, he is asked: “So, where have you danced?” “Nowhere,” he confesses. “I see. Amateur. Got it,” is the hilarious reply. He is hired on the spot and immediately taken to a hotel ballroom to dance with elderly ladies and other men’s wives, at which point he discovers that he hates dancing – and is trapped.

“The one with the long neck has asked for my name, letting me know that she plans to come often, now that I’m a dancer here,” he writes.

In this way, “like CC Baxter in The Apartment, he’s a bit of a schlemiel, to use the Yiddish term,” said Isenberg. “He’s the architect of his own misfortune.” He is also exploring, with subtle humour in his journalism, the tension between the haves and the have-nots that he later conveys with great comic effect in his films.

During this period, Wilder would sometimes have to pawn his typewriter so he could eat while he was waiting to get paid for a freelance commission. “Clearly, he was getting by on very little,” said Isenberg. Living hand to mouth as a journalist in this way may have influenced his decisions as a film-maker later on: it taught him that “sex sells”, and that “if he could entertain an audience, he could sell a piece”.

Like CC Baxter and other characters in his films, he knew what it was like to “try to claw his way through a sometimes unforgiving world”.


Donna Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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