WITNESS for the PROSECUTION (1957)

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION: Billy Wilder Film Study

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Billy Wilder was known for his reverence for the structure of a screenplay, and subsequently, it influenced his films. In particular, he preferred that all screenplays and films be constructed in a three chapter format like a good play. Agatha Christie’s WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION was an international success on stage, and being tossed around as a possible film adaptation by producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. The producers approached Marlene Dietrich to play the iconic role of Christine Vole (Vivian Leigh was also considered). Her only condition was that her friend, Billy Wilder, direct.

CREDITS:

Directed by: Billy Wilder

Produced by: Arthur Hornblow, Jr. (Edward Small Productions)

Screenplay by: Billy Wilder, Larry Marcus, Harry Kurnitz

Based on Agatha Christie’s 1925 original story

CAST:

Tyrone Power as Leonard Vole, the accused

Marlene Dietrich as Christine Vole/Helm, the accused’s wife

Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfrid Robarts Q.C., senior counsel for Vole

Elsa Lanchester as Miss Plimsoll, Sir Wilfrid’s private nurse

John Williams as Mr. Brogan-Moore, Sir Wilfrid’s junior counsel in the trial

Henry Daniell as Mr. Mayhew, Vole’s  solicitor who instructs Sir Wilfrid on the case

Ian Wolfe as H. A. Carter, Sir Wilfrid’s chief clerk and office manager

Torin Thatcher as Mr. Myers Q.C., the Crown prosecutor

Norma Varden as Mrs. Emily Jane French, the elderly woman who was murdered

Una O’Connor as Janet McKenzie, Mrs. French’s housekeeper and a prosecution witness

Francis Compton as Mr. Justice Wainwright, the judge

Philip Tonge as Chief Inspector Hearne, the arresting officer

Ruta Lee as Diana… She’s a young woman watching the trial, waiting for Leonard to be freed.  *(I had the immense pleasure of screening this film with Ruta Lee presenting a Q & A intro of her experience in this film at the 2018 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. She was even more of a crowd-cheering delight than you could even imagine- with all the Hollywood glamour and effervescent energy decades younger than her eighty-five years.)

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Billy Wilder’s WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION is essentially the same courtroom drama as Agatha Christie created, but Wilder enhanced the plot by playing up an extended focus on key characters. This was especially true for the witty banter between Elsa Lanchester’s nurse Plimsoll and Charles Laughton’s Sir Wilfrid. I don’t know what the Hollywood obsession is with fawning over cantankerous, obstinate men, but the formula has worked well. The two actors were married in real life, in a marriage of mutual convenience as Laughton was gay and Lanchester had more ambitions for a career than for a traditional family dynamic. It was said that both Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton had a crush on Tyrone Power.

Elsa Lanchester and husband Charles Laughton on the French Riviera in 1938

Elsa Lanchester, Charles Laughton on the French Riviera- the couple were married (of convenience) in real life.

Tyrone Power; Marlene Dietrich; Witness for the…

Both Dietrich and Laughton had crushes on Tyrone Power- can we blame them? 

The film starts with barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Laughton) coming back home after several weeks of recovery from a heart attack. His doctors’ orders are to avoid stress; no murder trials especially. And yet, that’s exactly what he does. His new client, Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) challenges his curious mind through a maze of challenges of incriminating evidence, including a surprising show of loyalty from his wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich).

There were concerns that Power looked older than his part due to years of alcoholism. In an odd twist of fate, even though it’s Laughton’s character that is constantly under a microscope for a bad ticker, Tyrone Power is the one who (in real life) succumbed to a heart attack during filming of his very next film, SOLOMON AND SHEBA (1959). As such, he was unable to complete that film, and Yul Brenner was brought in to complete. WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957) was also the last motion picture feature for Una O’Connor. Her role provides comic relief, thanks to the enhanced dialogue.

Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, Charles Laughton and director Billy Wilder on the set of _Witness for the Prosecution_ 1957_

Billy Wilder enjoyed working with both Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton, admiring their professionalism greatly. From “Conversations with Wilder,” Wilder chatted about this in detail with Cameron Crowe…

BW: “Laughton was everything that you can dream of, times ten. We would stop shooting at six o’clock, and we would go up to my office and would be preparing for next day’s shooting. There were twenty versions of the way he could do a scene, and I would say, “ That’s it! All right!” And then the next day, on the set, he comes and he says, “I thought of something else.” And that was version number twenty-one. Better and better all the time. He was a tremendous presence. Tremendous presence, and a wonderful instrument, wonderful vocal instrument. When he spoke to the audience, they were very quiet. Because they knew. He did not just speak. He said something. And the sum total of it was a great performance. He only got one (Academy) Award, for THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY the VIII (1933). But he was an absolute marvel.”    

Vista on Instagram_ “Witness For The Prosecution (1957) An American Thriller Film Directed And Co-Adapted By_ Billy Wilder Based On A Novel Of The Same Name By…”

Secrecy is a critical element to the success of this film. Not unlike how Alfred Hitchcock handling of PSYCHO, the audience is firmly instructed to not reveal the climatic ending. Even the cast and crew were sworn to secrecy with the last 10 pages of the script saved until the final day of shooting.

The setting is prepared for Billy Wilder's fabulous courtroom drama _Witness for the Prosecution_, 1957_

Prepping the set

The Sketch Artist_ 18 Classic Film Costume Designs by Edith Head

Edith Head costume design for Marlene Dietrich in WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957)

As for the Hitchcockian feel of this film, Alfred Hitchcock said, “Many times, people have told me how much they enjoyed WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957). They thought it was my film instead of Billy Wilder’s. And Wilder told me people asked him about THE PARADINE CASE (1947), thinking he had done it.” 

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It was well-received by critics, fans, and at the box office. Even Agatha Christie herself said at the time that it was the only film adapted from one of her stories that she actually liked. (Later, she also enjoyed the Sidney Lumet version of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974).) While WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION was nominated for several awards, including 6 Oscars (including Best Picture nom), Marlene Dietrich was not one of them. She was so confident that she would be an Academy Award nominee, however, that she prepared the news to be included in her Las Vegas show opener. Alas, that never came to fruition.

Tyrone Power admires Norma Varden's hat in…

One more tidbit that I found of personal interest (and yes, spoilers abound). Ageism is a running theme in this story- with the challenge of aging actors behind the scenes. We see Tyrone Power as Leonard Vole, portrayed as the gold digger wooing Emily French (Norma Varden), depicted as the older widow of means. Furthermore, we are led to believe Dietrich as his war bride is somewhat more age appropriate to him than, say, a 22 year-old Ruta Lee. The 43 year old actor Tyrone Power’s aging reflected his ill health, but his charm and good looks persuade us to not believe our own eyes. Meanwhile, Dietrich’s master skills in camera lighting and makeup make us believe that there was a much wider age gap between Christine Vole and Emily French than in reality. (Dietrich was 56 years old and Norma Varden was 59 at the time of this film’s release.) I may chalk this up to yet another case for women actors being forced to play either much younger roles, (with the enhancement of makeup, lighting, and plastic surgery) or spinsters in their 40s and 50s. Despite the hodgepodge of ages, we are pulled into the superb performances and timeless storytelling for a classic courtroom drama of suspense that continues to captivate.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Nicholas Ray’s In A Lonely Place

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IN A LONELY PLACE (1950)

This is one of many postwar films where Hollywood takes an introspective, and in the case of the film noirs like this, a darker view of itself. Not unlike private dicks such as Sam Spade, here it’s a Hollywood screenwriter who is showcased as the loner, cynical figure. Going deeper, darker, and more complex than Joe Gillis in Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is as hardened as his name projects.

 

In addition to placing Hollywood as an industry under the microscope, Nicholas Ray’s IN A LONELY PLACE studies the concept of perspective into main focus. How does Dix view himself, how do others who interact with him view him, and how do we as an audience view him? Look closely at the camera angles from the very beginning. There are times when it seems the characters are looking and speaking directly to us in the audience. Note when the characters are perceived in deep close up shots.

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As Hard As Dix Steele…

What can we tell about Dixon Steele’s character from the early scenes? What do others around him tell us about his talent, his temperament, his aggression, his empathy/compassion towards others? Does he possess a sense of entitlement? How much do we view this storytelling from Dixon’s point of view?

Dix is a man who has a past of violence, where his past appears to be catching up to him. Bogie (Humphrey Bogart) has mastered the art of portraying the tortured soul, who is both very masculine with moments of vulnerability under the surface. When we initially observe his exchanges with Detective Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), it becomes apparent that their relationship is complex. Both served in the war, both experienced violence, but are they truly pals? This concept of the postwar vet who internally battles the violent ghosts of his past is a frequent theme in Film Noir. It is revealed that Dix has a police file, indicating more than one incidence of potential violence. There is an obvious tension. Dix is under constant study and interrogation.

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With Captain Lochner- there is sarcasm, quips exchanged, while being screened. Dix does not take any of this seriously. Does he not take it seriously because he’s innocent or because he projects lack of empathy? Meanwhile, Detective Brub is forced to play the dual role of pal and cop. The friendship side of their relationship is frequently tested along the way as Dix’s violent nature bubbles up. This tension forces Brub to question his own nature.

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Art Smith as agent Mel Lippman– he portrays the nervous character who embodies the typical Hollywood agent archetype. While he worries about how this situation can result in a true scandal, the parallels to real-life Hollywood paranoia of jobs being easily yanked away to the undercurrent of Communist paranoia of the 2nd Red Scare. Ironically, Art Smith was himself a victim of the witch hunts and subsequently blacklisted in Hollywood.

Gloria Grahame as Laurel Gray

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Gloria Grahame is Laurel, Dix’s neighbor and knows very little of him initially other than the casual glance across a courtyard. That is until the overzealous coat check gal, “Mildred” that Dix brings home one night who lands up murdered.

Martha Stewart in In a Lonely Place (1950)

Laurel is very different than Mildred. Mildred (actress Martha Stewart, b. in October of 1922 is still with us at age 97 as of this article’s publication) is presented as lively, decidedly naïve, and a bit of a sychophant. In contrast, Laurel is a woman who knows what she wants, is more ambitious, and less naïve about the Hollywood game. There appears to be more of a kindred spirit between Laurel and Dix. Is this why she offers an alibi when it does not appear she actually saw Dix leave with Mildred? Laurel studies Dix deeply in the interrogation, sizes him up. She seems to be flirting throughout the interrogation.

Backstory:

In the mid fifties, Grahame career was skyrocketing. From the heart-warming small role in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, to appearing in 4 major releases in 1952, Grahame was much more than a familiar face of film noir. She was nominated for an Oscar in a Supporting Role for her performance in THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL. But it was her personal life and loves that made her more ‘femme fatale’ than her many iconic film noir roles. She was incredibly shy and insecure in real life and her scandalous relationships with the men her life didn’t help her charm the Tinsel Town tabloids. Her first marriage to Stanley Clements left her black and blue. Her second marriage was to director Nicholas Ray. He was an addictive gambler and equally addicted to sleeping with a lot of actresses who were not his wife. One day, the director came home to find his wife in bed with his son (from his first marriage, her stepson) who was home from military school. He was a mere 13 years old.

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And yet, this scandal seemed to actually boost her career as the offers continued to pour in. Her 3rd doomed marriage was to scriptwriter Cy Howard. But soon the fighting erupted and she replaced him with a fresher take on her trademark pouty mouth and sleepy eyes via plastic surgery. When it came time for her 4th marriage, Tony Ray, her former stepson of source of scandal, was now legally able to marry and she was single again. He was 23 and she was 37.  They initially kept their marriage a secret but when tabloids exposed them, the public was less forgiving this time. The stress resulted in mental breakdowns and shock therapy for Grahame and the two divorced in 1974. Her final relationship, and many say her true love of her life, was with Peter Turner, who was 3 decades younger. She remained with him until her battle with cancer took her life at age 57. Tony Ray died relatively recently- June 29, 2018, at age 80.

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According to imdb, Producer Robert Lord was worried about having Nicholas Ray and Gloria Grahame, then husband and wife whose marriage was on the rocks, working together. He made Grahame sign a contract stipulating that “my husband shall be entitled to direct, control, advise, instruct, and even command my actions during the hours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., every day except Sunday. I acknowledge that in every conceivable situations his will and judgment shall be considered superior to mine, and shall prevail.” Grahame was also forbidden to “nag, cajole, tease, or in any other feminine fashion seek to distract or influence him.”

Nicholas Ray and Humphrey Bogart were friends (drinking buddies) so one can only imagine how Bogie worked to help keep the peace on set. It was Ray’s idea to cast Grahame and the closeness of their work only forced the demise of their marriage. As such, it was Ray who rewrote an ending from the novel of a violent serial killer to a screenplay that was more palatable but still reflected the darkness of his own relationship. It wasn’t a box office success but it affirmed Ray’s respect by his peers in the industry.

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Questions to ponder…

~What does this film convey about secrecy, privacy, trust, suspicion?

~How many times do we see a character sizing up another character? What does this reflect about psychosis of Dix, and about psychology as a theme within noir?

~Is this equally a woman’s film as much as it is a man’s film?

~What does this film explore about postwar domestic lives/marriage dynamics?

~Is this a voyeur film?

Bottom line, IN A LONELY PLACE is a film that intentionally, and uncomfortably, places the audience in a position to ask more questions than assert firm answers. By questioning the morality of Dixon Steele, we ponder the shades of morality in all of us.

Credits:

Directed by Nicholas Ray

Writing credits: Andrew Solt (screenplay), Edmund H North (adaption), and Dorothy B. Hughes (story)

Produced by Robert Lord/ Henry S Kesler (assoc producer)

Music by George Anthell (score)

Dir of Photography: Burnett Guffey

Film editing by Viola Lawrence

Art direction by Robert Peterson

Gowns by Jean Louis

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, Carl Benton Reid, Art Smith, Jeff Donnell, Martha Stewart, Robert Warwick, Morris Ankrum

*look for James Arness as an uncredited young detective

 

Billy Wilder Film Study: SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)

SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959): Film Study

*(the following is based on a prior article on this film but with substantial research and content added for the purpose of a Billy Wilder Film Study course taught by Kellee Pratt in the Fall of 2019.) 

“I think that Billy as at the height of his powers. I think it’s the best thing he’s ever done, comedy or drama. It’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen.”

… Jack Lemmon reflects on Wilder’s SOME LIKE IT HOT

Written (along with long-time writing partner IAL Diamond), produced, and directed by Billy Wilder, this film is a comedy that’s both classic and contemporary. Then and now.

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It was a slight change of pace for Wilder who was better known for his darker edge in filmmaking as evident by the majority of his films up through this time. (And they continued thereafter.) But here was a Billy Wilder film that was pure light-hearted fun, with a slapstick tone reminiscent of the silent comedies.

The story is simple enough. Two broke and struggling musicians (Tony Curtis as Joe and Jack Lemmon as Jerry) in 1929 Chicago witness a mob hit after a speakeasy raid and find themselves desperate enough (both financially and eager to hide from the mafia) to take on a gig with impossible odds. They’ve got the musical skills to fit the bill and the sojourn to breezy Seminole Ritz in Miami would be a warm welcome from the freezing Midwest winter. But the cross-dressing in order to join this all-female band requires a leap in courage – and adaptation, in more ways than they bargained for.

The simple act of walking becomes their first lesson on the challenges of being female

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like Jell-O on springs…

Early on, they discover the challenges of passing as women; from the wardrobe, even down to the walk. They meet the beautiful Marilyn Monroe as Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, one of the members of their new troupe and Joe (dressed as ‘Josephine’) is fully smitten. Meanwhile, Jerry (dressed as ‘Daphne’) finds he’s become a target of cupid’s arrow himself. Joe E. Brown portrays the wealthy ‘mature playboy’ Osgood Fielding III, in dogged pursuit of Daphne. As you might imagine, it doesn’t take long before the mafia tracks the boys down to their beach side hideaway. The hilarious antics and chaotic pace entangle as the fellas do their best to keep their gender roles in check, and balance their romantic pursuits, all while trying to save their skin from the mob’s hunt.

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Billy Wilder exemplifies that he could handle anything… from light-hearted comedies like this, to thought-provoking dramas. His legacy as one of the very best writer/directors in Hollywood reflected dramas that had some elements of dark comedy in it, and comedies with flickers of darkness underneath, as well. Let’s face it, we all know that tragedy and comedy are just 2 sides of the same coin of storytelling. And Wilder was the master like none other.

Some highlights of Wilder’s brilliant mastery in SOME LIKE IT HOT…

The Cast: It takes a skilled actor to command a great performance. But it takes a master director to bring out his/her very best. It helps to start with a stellar cast (no problem here) but you can’t fake chemistry. Curtis and Lemmon are a dynamic duo – both adept at comedy and drama and play off each other like they’ve been close chums their entire lives. I’m a bit biased; but for me, Jack Lemmon can do no wrong. He worked very well with Billy Wilder and their partnership across seven films remains one of the best actor/director collaborations in Hollywood history. And while it’s no secret that Wilder did not enjoy working with Monroe, it speaks volumes to their professionalism and skills to bring such iconic results.

The Writing: Billy Wilder would often take rather unexpected situations (like cross-dressing jazz musicians in the roaring twenties on the lam from the mob) for his stories then highlight the most fascinating characters that become vibrantly alive and real, thanks to his writing. We are pulled in and can’t get enough. Here’s an example of one of my favorite scenes that showcases this; starting when Joe asks Jerry (giddily shaking maracas, still dressed up as Daphne from his date), “who’s the lucky girl?” to which Jerry responds “I am”:

Some other fabulous lines:

Sugar: “Water polo? Isn’t that terribly dangerous?”

Junior: “I’ll say. I had two ponies drowned under me.”

——

Sugar: “Real diamonds! They must be worth their weight in gold!”

—–

Sugar: “Story of my life. I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop.”

—–

Sweet Sue: “Are you two from the Poliakoff agency?” 

Josephine: “Yes, we’re the new girls.” 

Daphne: “Brand new!”

—–

Sugar: “I come from this musical family. My mother is a piano teacher and my father was a conductor.” 

Joe: “Where did he conduct?” 

Sugar: “On the Baltimore and Ohio.”

—–

Osgood: “I am Osgood Fielding the third.” 

Daphne: “I’m Cinderella the second.”

—–

Osgood: “You must be quite a girl.” 

Daphne: “Wanna bet?”

Note, cross-dressing is not as relevant today as a vehicle for comedy as it once was as a premise, simply because we have evolved as a society that is more aware and accepting of transgender, transsexual, and cross-dressing populations. Keep in mind, the ‘high jinks of cross-dressing’ as a comedy tool has been utilized in a multitude of films and TV shows. But SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) holds up better than most because it doesn’t rely upon that element as a singular joke or gag to occupy the entire film. Billy Wilder was smart enough to know that. His talents of layering multiple characters and sub stories, while creating delightful obstacles of chaos resulted in cinematic magic. Magic that is still as contemporary as it is a classic.

Pre-Production… How it All Came Together:

The Mirisch Production company, ran by brothers Walter, Marvin, and Harold is where this film’s production started. Mirischs’ association with Billy Wilder began with LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (when the Mirisch brothers were with Allied Artists) and lasted seventeen years. LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON was also Billy Wilder’s first teaming with writing partner IAL “Izzy” Diamond (Izzy was born Itec Domnici on June 27, 1920 in Ungheni Basarabia, now Moldova.) Wilder agreed to do various projects with their new independent production company with a film concept based on a West German film, FANFARES OF LOVE (1951), which was a remake of a French film, FANFARE OF LOVE (1935.) Its premise was of two musicians who dress in women’s clothing as a hide-out. Based on this simple vaudevillian joke, Walter Mirisch said, “I remember making the first deal for Iz’s services to collaborate with Billy, and Billy indicated that he would again like to work with Iz on SOME LIKE IT HOT.”

Along with many in the Hollywood networking circles, Tony Curtis used to watch movies at Harold’s house (on Lexington Drive, behind the Beverly Hills Hotel). Lew Wasserman was Tony’s agent and Lew was the master orchestrator of setting up social interactions to help broker film deals in the industry. Curtis had met Wilder years prior, then met Harold through Billy. Harold asked Tony to come early to one of these film parties to chat with Billy Wilder. This is when Wilder approached Tony about a part, and he agreed before even knowing any details.

BW: “Well let me tell you about it. These two guys see a murder and they’re recognized by the gangsters and they have to dress up like girls to get away and work in a girls’ band, that’s the story.”      

TC: “Sounds good to me.”

BW: “You’re not worried about it?”

TC: “No.”

BW: “I’m going to get Frank Sinatra and Mitzi Gaynor, that’s the cast.”

TC: “Great.”

A week later, Curtis runs into Wilder…

BW: “I’m not going to do it that way. I saw Jack Lemmon in a movie (OPERATION MADBALL) and I liked him so much I’m going to have him play the other guy, and I’m going to try to get Marilyn Monroe.”

The three main parts were then signed on. (Marilyn and Tony signed on first. Each got 5% of the gross, with $250k cash, Lemmon got slightly less cash with no gross, as the lesser name of the three.) Casting was laid out except for one hiccup. Wilder planned to have Edward G Robinson Sr. play the rival mob boss, poised against George Raft as the other mob boss, in reference to another film they made together, SCARFACE, with a coin of flipping a coin. A similar scene was drafted as an insider joke, this time with Edward G Robinson Jr. flipping the coin. But things take another flip when Wilder discovers that Raft and Edward G Robin Sr. got into a fist fight on set once and Edward refused to ever work with Raft again. So, Wilder was forced to keep his son (Edward G Robinson Jr.) in the role of “Johnny Paradise,” George Raft as “Spats Colombo,” and inserted Nehemiah Persoff as “Little Bonaparte.”

Jack Lemmon described his first pitch from Billy Wilder as bumping into him, and Billy’s wife Audrey, at a restaurant. Billy summarized the role as two fellas running from the St. Valentine’s Massacre mobsters by crossdressing as disguise and that he should expect to be in drag a minimum of three-quarters of the film.

JL: “I said yes, no script, no nothing. And I did it because my first thought was. Oh Jesus Christ, we’re in drag and everything, but wait a minute, Billy Wilder is doing it, it’s not going to be in bad taste and the man is a bloody genius and so forth.”  Two or three months passed when he received 60 pages of the script, with the final act missing. Lemmon soon discovered that Billy and Iz never finished the script before shooting began. Jack described his first reading of these pages: “I fell off the goddamn couch, literally, fell off the couch. They were the greatest sixty pages I ever read.”  

Working with Marilyn…

From multiple interviews with cast members and Billy Wilder himself, there is no doubt that Marilyn was a serious challenge to work with. There are several comments indicating that she would have extreme difficulties showing up less than 2-3 hours late to set, and that her acting coach Paula Strasberg was so hands-on with her that it was to the point of emotionally dependent abuse, not to mention Paula’s presence being an uncomfortable slap in the face to the director.

Several interviews reflect scenes here she was required to say only two lines but it would take 60 – 80 takes. And then there were other scenes that ere several pages long and she’d do it in one take. They would allow extra time in the scheduling because of this. They also had to write her lines and sneak them behind the camera, or into drawers when such challenges popped up on set. So why did Billy Wilder want to work with Marilyn again (after similar conditions on SEVEN YEAR ITCH)? Because he knew Marilyn had star power and the results were always brilliant.

But in fairness, Marilyn became pregnant during filming of SOME LIKE IT HOT. This created its own challenges in wardrobe and promotional photo shoots.  Tony Curtis, many years later, in his book claimed her pregnancy was a result of a rekindled affair they had during filming. She was married to Arthur Miller at the time, as was Curtis to Janet Leigh. She miscarried that mid-December and her marriage was falling apart, but she admitted to taking barbiturates and alcohol while dieting during this time, as well. Everyone referred to Marilyn’s emotional state as the cause for her on-set difficulties but I think it’s clear there were MANY challenges she had to overcome.

Excerpts from “Marilyn Monroe” by Donald Spoto:

Page 405:  Professionally idle, dependent on his wife’s income, humiliated by what he saw as her childish caprice and contemptuous of Hollywood in any case, Arthur could no longer tolerate her or the marriage.  But there was another problem, and that autumn, the atmosphere on location in Coronado was thick with tensions.  “Arthur told me he would allow Marilyn to work only in the morning,” (Billy) Wilder recalled.  He said she was too exhausted to submit to outside work in the afternoon sun.  “The morning?  She never shows up until after twelve!  Arthur, bring her to me at nine and you can have her back at eleven-thirty!”  We were working with a time bomb, we were twenty days behind schedule and God knows how much over budget, and she was taking a lot of pills.  But we were working with Monroe, and she was platinum – not just the hair, and not just her box-office appeal.  What you saw on the screen was priceless.  The reason for Arthur’s request was simple:  in late October, the Millers learned that Marilyn was pregnant again.  Fortunately, her most strenuous scenes were already shot and the filming of Some Like It Hot was completed on November 6.  By this time, director and star were barely speaking.

Page 407:  Returning to New York before the end of November, Marilyn was determined to rest during the early stages of her pregnancy.  But on December 16, she miscarried; it was the last time she tried to be a mother.  Both for sleep and as a tranquilizer, she had been taking Amytal, a brand name of the barbiturate amobarbital, and now she guiltily recalled Leon Krohn’s warning, as she wrote the Rostens: “Could I have killed it by taking all the Amytal on an empty stomach?  I took some sherry wine also.”  For weeks she was inconsolable, convinced that the drug abuse she now freely admitted had caused the spontaneous abortion.

I’ll leave you with some behind-the-scenes snapshots and the man behind the magic, Billy Wilder, as he orchestrates his talented cast in SOME LIKE IT HOT…

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Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe get direction from Billy Wilder- in matching swimsuits

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getting in the drag mode, in slippers

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Tony Curtis in Josephine wardrobe, as Wilder checks details

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Billy Wilder shows Jack Lemmon how to cut a rug in full Daphne garb

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Joe E. Brown (Osgood Fielding III) teaches Jack Lemmon (Daphne) how to tango. Director Billy Wilder observes.

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Billy giving direction to Marilyn for the ‘train station runway’ scene.

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Makeup was an essential factor in convincingly playing Josephine and Daphne. Tony Curtis pictured here in the makeup chair.

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“Does this make my ass look big?” Wardrobe also played a key role in convincing cross-dressing. Here, famous designer Orry-Kelly checks for details and fit.

ACE IN THE HOLE (1951)

Film Study: ACE IN THE HOLE (1951)

(The following are my notes from my Billy Wilder Film Study class, from the Fall of 2019. It goes deep into details and background. I don’t recommend reading any further if you haven’t already screened this film prior- expect spoilers. Enjoy!)

 

 

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Welcome to the dark, morally corrupt media circus. Billy Wilder’s film noir under a blazing New Mexican sunlight shows us an ambitious reporter’s consequences when he faces moral choices, and picks poorly. Over and over again, until the wakeup call comes too late.

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There are no nighttime shots of rain-soaked streets reflecting the flickers of street lamps through the fog, hinting of crime and doom. Here, noir can be found in a dark cave in a desolate desert. But even more dangerous than falling rock and choking dust are the ruthless ambitions of a man willing to trap you there, for the sake of a buck and 15 minutes of fame. That anti-hero’s true darkness comes from within. But he isn’t the only one willing to sell his soul under the big top.

Also titled THE BIG CARNIVAL, Billy Wilder followed up his success from SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) by going even darker in ACE IN THE HOLE. This is the first film in which Billy Wilder played the triple threat of writer, producer, and director. It also marks the first film Wilder made following his break off from writing partner Charlie Brackett.

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In the classroom, we’ll skip the introduction (approximately 16 minutes’ worth) for the sake of time allowance. This is an interesting cut for me to make because it was Billy Wilder who chose to add the intro, which is essentially laying the background into our leading man’s character and sets up the story. His co-writer Walter Newman didn’t feel it was necessary, because he believed the real story begins at the cave-in. As with any Billy Wilder film, it’s obvious Wilder won that debate. The first chapter to this corrosive tale is valuable as a predictor of the doom Tatum will face as hard as he hits the floor in the last frame. Here are some takeaways from what we’re skipping…

 

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Proudly perched in a broken-down convertible dragged behind a tow truck, Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum rides into the rustic town of Albuquerque, with odd mix of desperation and bravado. He’s been fired from the big city newspapers and he arrogantly pitches for a job at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. As he rudely insults everyone in the newsroom while also being brutally honest about his occupational sins (mostly drinking) that landed him seeking new employment, his salary offers decline lower and lower as he boasts. Of visual note is the “Tell The Truth” embroidered sign hanging on the wall, which Tatum prophetically toys with. Despite the warning signs, editor Boot (Porter Hall from DOUBLE INDEMNITY) offers him the gig. A year has passed by, and restless Tatum is agitated and weary of this small town’s quiet and slow pace. Things are about to pick up speed.

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[Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum: Douglas’s performance is perfection in this role. This film follows his successful turn in CHAMPION (1949), which was his first Oscar nomination. It’s hard to believe that Kirk’s big screen debut occurred only a few years earlier with THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946). His career successes continued for decades, and he continued to make public appearances beyond his 100th birthday. He thought highly of his experience working with Billy Wilder, as one of the greatest filmmakers in history.]

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In pursuing a story on rattlesnakes, Tatum and junior reporter Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur) go on the road and pull over at a touristy trading post for gas. Herbie cannot find any attendants, but eventually walks in on an old woman who is so engrossed in prayer, she doesn’t notice him. This is a foreshadowing cue of strange tidbits to come. A police car with siren blaring rushes blast them, speeding up the hill to an old Native American cave ruin.

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Now let’s begin…

The two follow the siren, then pause long enough to meet Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling). Her husband Leo Minosa is trapped in a collapsed section of the cavernous dwelling. We immediately know how she feels about him (“the dumb cluck”). She’s not worried about the predicament of her husband, she’s annoyed. It’s also apparent she dislikes everything about her surroundings and lifestyle. Up the hill, we are introduced to the deputy sheriff (corrupt law figures will only worsen as the story unfolds), and Leo Minosa’s father Papa Minosa (John Burges) who is, in stark contrast to a majority of the characters in this film, one of the most humane and loyal. We additionally witness the local Native Americans and their stance on the issue, as they state they believe the ground is too sacred to enter. They refer to it as “Curse of the Seven Vultures.” This will become a headline exploited by Tatum, as he leaps at the chance to dominate this scenario, on his own terms. On a deeper level, there is profound social commentary and foreshadowing of those who have already exploited that dwelling- and those who are yet to come.

  • Were the Indians correct? Was this a curse that Leo himself triggered? Note the contrast of Lorraine and Papa Minosa, as Tatum and Bernie enter the cave- Papa does the sign of the cross in hopeful prayer, as she appears coldly detached, smoking a cigarette.
  • Note: the conversation regarding “human interest.”
  • These interior shots are traditional camera stylings of noir, with low lights (thanks to the flashlights), claustrophobia, and shadows cast by the dust, lurking dangers.
  • Is the cave a parallel for Tatum’s ‘digging himself into a hole’?
  • Pinned in under rumble, Leo comments that his found artifact may have possibly started an Indian curse. Is he already aware of his sealed fate?
  • How does Tatum “embroider the truth”?
  • Note: some exterior shots were in Gallup, NM

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Jan Sterling as Lorraine: She’s aloof and cold and her cynicism is overt. She’s a parallel to Tatum in her cynical, twisted morality. She’s on to him and has assessed the score of the situation by the time Tatum first alerts his editor with giddy enthusiasm. She bites into an apple like Eve in a corrupted Eden. Wilder gives her character some of the best lines. Later, when Tatum wants her to play the worried wife and asks her to attend a rosary vigil, she explains she’s not the church type, “I don’t go to church. Kneeling always bags my nylons.” Wilder credited this line to his wife, and it’s easily one of my favorites. Jan Sterling was an actress on stage, film and tv. During this point in her career she was married to her 2nd husband, actor Paul Douglas. She was most active in the 1950s with memorable and hardboiled films such as JOHNNY BELINDA (1948), CAGED (1950), and MYSTERY STREET (1950). But it was in 1954 that she was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe for her role in THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY.

  • In what ways to do we see a parallel between Lorraine and Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis in DOUBLE INDEMNITY?
  • Do we feel sympathy for her? She says she was duped by Leo. He lied to her.
  • “Honey, you like those rocks as much as I do.” (Lorraine to Tatum, she sees him all too clearly.)
  • Tatum frequently forces her to bend to his demands with violence. He often feels threatened by her ability to see right through him or mirror him; holding up a mirror into his own darkness. They are very similar creatures.

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Ray Teal as the Sheriff Gus Kretzer: He’s another unsavory opportunist. His rattlesnake in the box feels symbolic. Dangerous, untrustworthy, an omen of warning. But of whom? The sheriff? Tatum? Lorraine? Perhaps all of them? At one point we see a ‘Re-elect Sheriff Kretzer” banner draped across the mountain. At this point it feels like an unholy dance on sacred ground; spitting on a graveyard. You may recognize this character actor from several western tv series such as “The Lone Ranger” and as another Sheriff, Roy Coffee, on the popular “Bonanza” show. But he also played bit roles in film, such as THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946) and JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961).

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Charles Lang, Jr: He did the camera work for several Wilder films: A FOREIGN AFFAIR, SABRINA, and SOME LIKE IT HOT. When we see the big drill atop the mountain, there is a wide, aerial shot of the media circus with cars lined up like a drive-in movie as they watch the entertainment unfold before them. It’s a very startling, almost breathtaking, view, amongst many of the beautiful shots in the film. Charles Lang had 151 film credits to his name as cinematographer. He was the youngest to ever be nominated for the Academy’s Best Cinematography Oscar at age 28, and the youngest to win, at age 30. He was nominated as a Director of Photography 18 times, with 5 of his films winning the Oscar for Best Picture.

Frank Cady as Mr. Al Federber: Is this character a reflection of the sheep-like mentality of the general public? It’s certainly a morbid interpretation, not unlike those who clamor to watch the aftermath of a car accident. But here, he’s gone out of his way to make the catastrophe into his family vacation. How would this persona be reflected in today’s society? Is this characterization even more accurate in real life today? Frank Cady is a character actor you may readily recognize from popular TV shows like Green Acres and Petticoat Junction, as “Sam Drucker.” But he was also a prolific character actor on the big screen in films like Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW.

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At one point, after we see Tatum visiting Leo a 2nd time, the tone is more somber. He has a tougher time lying the feigned optimism when Leo discusses his anniversary coming up. The media circus spins at its most frenzied after Tatum returns. He forces his way through the crowds. We also notice that Tatum is now drinking, another signal to his decline into ruin. He faces his boss, Mr. Boot, who stands as his polar opposite in the world of journalistic ethics and their conversation reflects that. There’s a certain fatherly role that Boot provides. But Tatum doesn’t take his fatherly advice. Boot attempts to save Herbie, as he reluctantly realizes that Tatum is likely a lost cause now. Too late to save him.

Enter Richard Gaines as Tatum’s former big city boss, Nagel. Tatum has Nagel over the barrel, and he knows it. This is the moment Tatum has been looking for, all along. Nagel’s demeanor is very different from the fatherly, ethical journalistic stylings of Mr. Boot. Gaines may seem familiar to you as Mr. Norton in DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) or as Charles J Pendergast in THE MORE THE MERRIER (1943), amongst 78 other acting roles from 1940 to the early 1960s.

 

I think one of the most obscene moments arrives when the camera follows the mobs of the crowd, as we hear a band selling sheet music to the profane lyrics, “We’re coming, we’re coming Leo, Leo don’t despair. While you are in the cave hoping, we are up above you groping, and soon we’ll make an opening, Oh Leo.” The song was written by the infamous songwriting teaming of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, who also wrote a slew of classic tunes for Paramount and other studios like “Buttons and Bows” from Sunset Boulevard, “Streets Of Laredo,” “Vertigo,” and “Que Sera, Sera.” There were over 500 extras in this vast scene, and Wilder noted that the numbers in the crowd actually grew as onlookers blended in during filming, out of curiosity.

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It is in this final chapter of the film (approximately the last 30 minutes), Leo’s options have run out and any hopes for survival look grim. Throughout the film, Tatum has grown increasingly violent and spirals more out of control. Tatum’s options have run out as well. Like other Wilder anti-heroes (Fred MacMurray in DOUBLE INDEMNITY and Bill Holden in SUNSET BOULEVARD), Tatum’s change of heart comes too late. The scales of justice have already rendered their verdict as guilty.

Being a film that was made following the tremendous success of SUNSET BOULEVARD, plus the first film made post Brackett breakup, it’s been suggested that Paramount gave Wilder free rein to make a thoroughly Billy Wilder film. This unyielding, dark view into human immorality is quintessential Wilder, through and through. It was considered a failure at the box office in America at the time, although it did well in Europe. As Wilder explained why audiences stayed away, “they went to the theater with the idea that they (to see ACE IN THE HOLE) were going to get a cocktail, whereas instead, they got a shot of vinegar.”

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Despite the lack of popularity at the time with mainstream audiences, it went on to become a critical favorite many years later. Today, the chilling spectacle and sensationalism of journalism is almost commonplace. These glimpses into human depravity are not unexpected from someone like Billy Wilder who barely escaped being murdered in Hitler’s concentration camps, unlike his family’s fate. We’ve witnessed this dark side of Wilder before, and we’ll see it again as we explore more of his filmography.

Other questions to consider…

With themes of darkness and corrosive journalism ethics, does Wilder relate to Tatum’s character at all?

Are there any redeeming qualities to Tatum?

Is Tatum’s finally telling the truth his last Ace in the hole? Why doesn’t it work?

CREDITS:

Produced/Directed by: Billy Wilder

Written by: Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, Walter Newman

Associate Producer: William Schorr

Director of Photography: Charles B Lang Jr. ASC

Editorial supervision: Doane Harrison

Music score: Hugo Friedhofer

Art direction: Hal Pereira, A Earl Hedrick

Edited by: Arthur Schmidt

Costumes: Edith Head

CAST:

Chuck Tatum ~ Kirk Douglas

Lorraine Minosa ~ Jan Sterling

Herbie Cook ~ Bob Arthur

Jacob Q Boot ~ Porter Hall

Mr. Federber ~ Frank Cady

Leo Minosa ~ Richard Benedict

Sheriff Kretzer ~ Ray Teal

Smollett ~ Frank Jacquet

Becoming a Mensch: THE APARTMENT (1960)

*The following are my film study notes, from the Billy Wilder Film Study course I taught in the Fall of 2019.

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THE APARTMENT (1960), a Film Study

By Kellee Pratt

Becoming a mensch. That’s the real theme here in Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT (1960). In our last session, we screened and discussed SOME LIKE IT HOT (1958). As we’ve mentioned before, Billy followed a pattern of making comedies when he was feeling down (to lift up his mood), then making darker dramas, when he was in a happy place in his life. Clearly, he was still riding high from the success of SOME LIKE IT HOT, to make his next film which could be described as a mix: partly romantic comedy, partly drama with noir tones, and partly black comedy.

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Working again with his favorite writing partner Izzy Diamond, Billy Wilder was inspired to write THE APARTMENT from a couple sources. Initially, he got the idea from watching David Lean’s 1945 British film, BRIEF ENCOUNTER, based on Noel Coward’s 1936 play, “Still Life.” The plot centers of a couple’s extramarital affair, where they carry out their secret romance at a friend’s apartment. Billy was fascinated, not as much by the complexities of this couple’s secret relationship, but about the owner of the apartment. What was that backstory, he pondered.

By the end of the 1950s, the production code was beginning to loosen (after all, he delivered  great success with his last film, which did not pass the code due to its cross-dressing and homosexuality themes), and the time felt right to explore a film based on an apartment hosting extramarital affairs.

A real-life Hollywood scandal inspired this theme further. Noir actress Joan Bennett was married to producer Walter Wanger starting in 1940 and the two formed a profitable production company along with director Fritz Lang. A decade later, the business and Wanger’s career started to sour, just like their marriage. Bennett started an affair with her agent, Jennings Lang. Wanger had his suspicions and hired a private dick follow her. One day, on December 13, 1951, as Bennett and Lang got out of her car from a rendezvous, Wanger shot Lang- a few inches below the belt. Shockingly, Lang survived, as did Bennet’s career (somewhat) and her marriage to Wanger (for another 14 years, at least.) But the apartment used for Bennet and Lang’s trysts belonged to an underling at Lang’s agency. Diamond suggested the circumstance of the borrowed apartment for extramarital affairs storyline was not motivated by generosity of friendship, but rather for ambition in business- a climb up the corporate ladder. Later in his life, Tony Curtis suggested that his many extramarital affairs, that were carried out in a similar fashion at a friend’s apartment, may have also been an additional influence.

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From the very beginning of writing this script, Billy Wilder had Jack Lemmon specifically in mind for the main lead of CC Baxter. In his truly breakout role as Daphne in SOME LIKE IT HOT (1958), Lemmon exhibited a rare combination of talents, flipping back and forth from comedic moments to dramatic, that Billy Wilder wanted to expand in this role in THE APARTMENT (1960). Lemmon also embodied a relatable, authentic everyman connection for the audience. And boy, does he deliver.

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Shirley MacLaine was a young, rapidly-rising star. At the age of 20 years old, she went from being an understudy to starring (thanks to an ankle injury) on the Broadway production of “The Pajama Game,” when Hollywood producer Hal B Wallis discovered her and signed her to Paramount Pictures. MacLaine’s film debut in Hitchcock’s THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (1955), led to a string of four more equally successful films. Her lead in SOME CAME RUNNING (1958), earned her first Oscar nomination, with the 2nd nom from her role as Fran Kubelik in THE APARTMENT (1960). In the role of Ms. Kubelik, they needed a young and attractive actress who could portray this range of comedy, sadness, darkness and drama; someone who could convince audiences she was equally bright but perhaps unwise to fall for a wolf. MacLaine fit the bill. She was a mere 25 years old when she filmed THE APARTMENT (1960), but this was not her only Wilder/Lemmon film. She reunited with the two in the 1963 romantic comedy, IRMA LA DOUCE, where she was nominated again for Best Actress Oscar.

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Paul Douglas was intended to play the role of the slimy boss, Mr. Sheldrake but right before filming was scheduled to begin, the actor suffered a fatal heart attack. Wilder then asked Fred MacMurray to step in. Fred had reservations as he had just signed a major contract with Disney to portray characters quite the opposite from unethical Sheldrake. Wilder in his persuasive methods reminded him of his range of abilities that he exhibited for him in the past, years earlier in DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Following intense negative fan reactions after THE APARTMENT’s release, despite its enormous successes, MacMurray stuck only with lighter roles thereafter. His portrayal of the rotten Sheldrake was so impressive that Disney fans were horrified in watching his darker side.

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The rest of the cast is a dream team of character actors, mostly recognizable from their television roles. You’ll recognize “Sylvia,” (Joan Shawlee), from Billy’s last film, SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), where she played “Sweet Sue.” For me, Jack Kruschen as Dr. Dreyfuss is a stand-out. While his resume also reflects this uncanny ability to ride the fence between drama and comedy, here he portrays the most standup, decent character in the entire cast. There is no doubt where Dr. Dreyfuss’s moral compass points. This is an important role in this story because he helps lead by example for CC Baxter, in his journey to “be a mensch.”

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This film takes a hard look at morality in American life, and who else but a foreign-born journalist-turned-storyteller to see it so insightfully? It was a bold move to showcase this grim tale of extramarital affairs and suicide, which also indicated a turning point of realism in cinema. Embracing such taboo topics could only be done as masterfully as with Billy Wilder’s brilliance.

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Some things to look for in Wilder’s showcase of dark and light themes can be explored in contrasting Baxter’s apartment (both inside and outside) vs. the office vs. Mr. Sheldrake’s home. CC Baxter’s apartment is often shone as dark, claustrophobic, cluttered in a lived-in way. This will sometimes serve as a seedy, film-noireque backdrop for immorality, as the hub of extramarital trysts, and the location where Fran attempts to end her life. But it also serves as the location where she later heals, and as such the claustrophobia turns into a homey coziness. The basement Asian restaurant where Fran secretly meets Sheldrake (and a New Year’s Eve party later) has a similar feel.

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In contrast, Jeff Sheldrake’s home is bright, spacious, opulent in higher-end living. It’s a reflection of his public face vs. his hidden life. His narcissism won’t allow the two spaces to cross. He believes he is detached and superior to his own darker reality. Additionally, the office spaces are linear, cold, modern. On one hand, this was more typical of any large office of its day, but the set was designed to showcase the endless rows of desks, with no personality nor any allowance for deviating from cultural conformity. If you’re familiar with King Vidor’s 1928 classic, ‘THE CROWD,” you’ll recognize a similar view of endless desks.

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One of the overriding themes is of the “takers” in this world, as Fran Kubelik addresses. Such selfish opportunists abound in THE APARTMENT… Mr. Sheldrake, the executive playboys, and even CC Baxter himself. We see Baxter evolve and develop into a human being by the end of the film, but initially his motivations are strictly self-serving and ambitious. But Baxter is a realistic, fascinating character because we see ourselves in him as we watch him grow and struggle in facing these moral dilemmas. We believe he is a decent guy but misguided by his aspirations in climbing the unethical corporate ladder.

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THE APARTMENT (1960) was a big success and the winner of 5 Academy Awards. Billy Wilder was the first in Academy history to win the triple crown of Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay (along with IAL Diamond.) Best Film Editing winner was Daniel Mandell, with the winners for Best Art Direction, Black-and-White, going to Alexandre Trauner and Edward G. Boyle. Rounding out the Oscar nominees: Jack Lemmon for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Shirley MacLaine for Best Actress in a Leading Role, Jack Kruschen for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Joseph LaShelle for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White, Gordon Sawyer for Best Sound.

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The Billy Wilder Film Study

Starting in early September, I started teaching this semester’s selection in my ongoing classic film series- BILLY WILDER, a Film Study. I will share with you my film notes. The below are my brief notes from our first class. As with my past courses (Film Noir, Screwball Comedy, Alfred Hitchcock, Ray Harryhausen), the first meeting is an overview of Wilder’s background, key elements of style, with a PowerPoint of highlights from his career. More to come!


BILLY WILDER, a Film Study

by Kellee Pratt

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In this class we will explore the writer/producer/director Billy Wilder through his films, his collaborations, and his cinematic style. Known for his razor-sharp dialogue, Wilder mostly tackled comedies and yet, there was always an unmistakable ‘darker edge’ looking into the human character. He suffered great loss and tragedies from a young age, and his exploration into characters and storytelling tells us he didn’t suffer fools gladly.

As a huge fan of filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch, Wilder worked with him early on in his career and that infamous “Lubitsch touch” remained with him as a guiding influence his entire career. Drama, romance, slapstick, screwball, comedy, film noir, perhaps even a musical. Through a multitude of genres, Wilder mastered storytelling from the lens of a writer first.

Some described his approach that of a darkly cynical auteur. But considering he was just as famous for his diversity of genre as his collaborations, that label doesn’t quite stick. So, how do you define one of the most famous filmmakers of the 20th century, responsible for so many beloved, critically-acclaimed classic films? By what markers would you illustrate his signature? That’s what we’ll explore together.

Schedule:

9/9 ~ Introduction/ Overview

9/16 ~ BALL OF FIRE (1941)

9/23 ~ ACE IN THE HOLE (1951)

9/ 30 ~ STALAG 17 (1953)

10/7 ~ WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957)

10/14 ~ SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)

10/21 ~ THE APARTMENT (1960)

10/28 ~ THE FORTUNE COOKIE (1966)

We encourage participants to watch designated films at home, per schedule. However, you are not required to watch any/all the films outside of the class. For time allowance (depending upon the length of each film, and to allow time for discussion), we will not always be able to show an entire film inside of class. Expect to see clips and engage in discussions. We welcome your views! Handouts will be provided for further details.

Frank McHugh, Everybody’s Pal

Frank McHugh (1898–1981)

Frank McHugh was never destined to be the top banana in a film. He lacked any traditional leading man looks. His voice was never skilled to ever become a songbird. And other than portraying a dancing cat with simple steps while chewing a cigar, he was certainly no Fred Astaire. But he had all the right stuff to be a very popular second banana in over 170 roles from 1929 to 1969, across Broadway, film, and television.

Francis Curray McHugh was born May 23, 1898 in Homestead, Pennsylvania into the entertainment industry to his vaudevillian parents, as he and his siblings joined the family business before Frank turned double digits. As a youngster in his parents’ McHugh Stock Company (Edward and Catherine McHugh based in Braddock, PA), he was schooled in Pittsburgh then joined the Marguerite Bryant Players at the age of 17, alongside Guy Kibbee. He went on to tour stages across the country, including a stint on Broadway in 1925. He married fellow actress Dorothy Spencer in 1928. He moved to Hollywood in 1929 and a year later, he was signed on as a contract player for Warner Brothers.

While he cranked out films in Hollywood like a racehorse, he claimed he never felt like one. If anything, he said that he found acting in Hollywood to be a pretty easy gig. He suggested that he never acted, instead his approach was natural and essentially himself. “Mostly I wound up as the friend- dumb but loyal. I guess my dumb look was convincing.”*

McHugh had the knack for the easy-going sidekick. Frequently as a drunken working guy. In those early talkies, when he wasn’t playing a drunk reporter, he was the prize-fighter’s second. Frank laughed, “… for the next three or four years I did nothing else but play drunken reporters. I finally had to call a halt to it. I didn’t mind being a drunken reporter, but it was getting to that the only time they called for me was for that role.”* 

By 1950, he was in his early fifties and moved his family from Hollywood to Connecticut, just outside NYC. Like many others of his experience and age, McHugh made the transition to television at this time, mostly of the ‘live drama’ productions. But he also found work on westerns, comedy, and variety shows like “F Troop” (1966), “The Red Skelton Hour” (1959), “The Lucy Show” (1967), and as “Willie” for 27 episodes on “The Bing Crosby Show” (1964-65). On September 11, 1981, at the age of 83, he died of natural causes.

Hollywood's Irish Mafia_All Irish Americans the original members of the group were Cagney, McHugh, O'Brien & Tracy_ Ralph Bellamy and Frank Morgan joined later

In the 1930s, decades before the ‘rat pack’ of Sinatra, Dino, Sammy and the rest of the swinging Vegas cool set, Hollywood originated the concept with an Irish-American version known as the ‘Irish Mafia,’ a term coined jokingly by columnist Sidney Skolsky, although they simply called themselves ‘the boys club.’ In addition to Frank McHugh, there was James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Spencer Tracy. Later came Allen Jenkins, Lynne Overton, George Brent, Louis Calhern, William Gargan, Regis Toomey, Ralph Bellamy, Lloyd Nolan, Frank Morgan, with James Gleason and Bert Lahr tagging along.

In those early years, when he wasn’t paling around with his fellow Irish blokes off-set, he worked nearly every film Warner Brothers made….many with Cagney (11 films), O’Brien, and Jenkins. Because he often served as comic relief- with his unique laugh like a funny, wheezing squeezebox, “ha ha ha…”- he brought a good-natured ease next to some of the biggest names of classic Hollywood. Here are some stand-outs for me…

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In William A Wellman’s LILLY TURNER (1933), McHugh gives a compelling performance as a more complex alcoholic than his typical lighter fare of jovial drunk. It’s a meatier role for Frank. Co-starring Ruth Chatteron and George Brent, it’s a Pre-Code I recommend.

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During this same era of Pre-Code splendor, Busby Berkley musicals reigned supreme. Co-starring his friend James Cagney, Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, and Ruby Keeler, the same year turned out Lloyd Bacon’s FOOTLIGHT PARADE. McHugh gives a memorably funny spin on the exasperated dance instructor, who goes toe-to-toe with the great hoofer Cagney in a big musical production- of feline focus. Take a look as cigar-chewing Frank McHugh practices with crooning Dick Powell: CLICK HERE

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In Tay Garnett’s ONE WAY PASSAGE (1932), escaped murderer William Powell finds true love on the high seas with a terminally ill Kay Francis. McHugh is a mischievous petty thief who has some great albeit small scenes, including one where he fools a bartender. It’s a true Pre-Code so don’t expect a sunny or miraculous surprise. But you get hilarious McHugh (yes, he plays a drunk again but look for an especially funny gag with a mirror), plus Powell and Francis as the leads in a beautifully doomed romance, so who cares?

Frank McHugh (R) in Going My Way (1944)

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Leo McCary’s GOING MY WAY (1944). Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald, and Frank McHugh all as Irish-American priests… be still my shamrock heart. McHugh worked on many Academy Award nominated films, and this one, which won the Best Picture Oscar, along with many awards, is certainly a prime example. It’s a beautiful film saturated in Irish culture and McHugh does his smaller role justice aplenty.

Despite being such a reliable inclusion for decades in Hollywood, he earned few awards. He did earn accolades from both the US military and servicemen for his great contributions to WW2 war efforts. McHugh supported the war efforts through star-studded USO tours including the multi-city Hollywood Victory Canteen train tour. For more information, I encourage you to read this piece from the NY Public Library, based on his archived documents, the Frank McHugh Papers.

I don’t believe Frank McHugh gets the attention he deserves for such a prolific career. Hard-working folks like Frank rarely do because they are humble regarding their contributions and their talents make it look easy (when it’s not). What are some of your favorite FM films?


This article was my contribution to the WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON, Nov. 15 -17th, 2019. Hosted by Aurora @CitizenScreen of Once Upon A Screen, Paula @Paula_Guthat of Paula’s Cinema Club, and yours truly. We have enjoyed hosting this blogathon for eight years. I encourage you to read all entries and leave glowing comments on their sites. 

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*(“No Retirement For Frank McHugh,” The Blade, Toledo, Ohio, Nov. 19, 1967)

Seeing Donald Pleasence

Seeing Donald Pleasence

As a (slightly rusty) artist, I’m always people watching. I don’t sketch as much as I used to, and now it’s mostly dogs, but I still find myself looking deeply at people features, their body language, attitude, smile, and gate… but mostly I look at their eyes.

And it’s for that reason why my entry for the What A Character! Blogathon is the English Actor Donald Pleasence.

Donald had a remarkable demeanor which complemented any role he took on…with his bald, distinct look, his smile that could run the gamut from a sneer to a broad grin, and his eyes… eyes that could telegraph with equal weight and emotion… humor, madness, delight or sincerity. Couple that with his acting range and you find a memorable on screen, stage, and tv personality who will live on for generations.

Though he played a range of wonderful characters in his day, he became known as someone who could pull off the more extreme of character archetypes, from a fanatical President in Escape from New York (1981) to a double agent in Fantastic Voyage (1966) to the arch-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld in You Only Live Twice (1969).

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But far and above my favorite role was an early one, that of Colin Blythe, a mild-mannered prisoner of a German POW camp in The Great Escape (1963)

He isn’t an exaggerated character in this role, but a struggling one, a gentle, quiet, intelligent, prisoner, who while playing a vital role in a choreographed escape, starts to rapidly go blind. And just as his blindness is discovered and his only hope of escape vanishes, his friend (James Garner) steps in with an offer to take care of him and to lend him his sight. It is throughout all of this I see Donald’s eyes, so expressive in humor, grief, fear, despair, and friendship.

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Beside Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid (1969), and the trio of friends in Gunga Din (1939), this is my favorite buddy relationship in any film. My reasoning, the characters are heroic and sweet, charming and good-natured, burdened and generous. You feel their growing friendship and leave no man behind promise. To my mind, it’s THE most authentic of any buddy relationship I’ve had a chance to view on film.

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And throughout the film, as he experiences and expresses a range of emotion, from his early scenes forging documents for the escape, to when his realizes he would be a liability to the group, on up until the final moment when Colin meets his untimely end at the hands of a German patrol, I look at his eyes. For it’s there that I find the spirit of this character actor, time and again.


The above article and original artwork is a guest post- created by Gary Pratt. In addition to being my husband, Gary would likely describe himself as a Santa Claus wanna-be, who grew up on a pig farm, then became an artist. He has spent a majority of his adult years leading innovation in the corporate world, and loves being a dad when he’s not otherwise watching old movies and scribbling cartoons. 

This post is a contribution to the 8th annual WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON, hosted by Kellee Pratt @IrishJayhawk66 of Outspoken & Freckled, Aurora @CitizenScreen of Once Upon A Screen, and Paula @Paula_Guthat of Paula’s Cinema Club. Be sure to read all the entries from this multi-day event. 

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WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON: Day 1

Eve Arden

Today we bring you the first day of the 8th annual WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON, hosted by yours truly and my fellow co-hosts, your ambassadors of classic film: Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club @Paula_Guthat and Aurora of Once Upon A Screen @CitizenScreen.

In celebrating this annual event, this weekend we honor the unsung heroes of big and small screens everywhere, the unforgettable character actors. Who are those familiar faces who repeatedly steal every scene from the leads that you look for? Here and now, we salute you! Whether it’s the frustrated hotel manager, or sharp-witted maids, that sassy sidekick, or even the best friend… in so many ways, the character role is often our favorite, albeit small, performances of a film. We have invited bloggers to scribe on their favorite characters. Here they are!

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Joey at THE LAST DRIVE-IN aka @LastDrivein writes in his entry on THELMA RITTER… “With her warm and weather worn face, Thelma Ritter is the quintessential expression of a working class dame, the working class mother, the everywoman. And no one can deliver a snappy quip quite like Thelma Ritter.” Read on for What A Character! Blogathon 2019: Thelma Ritter “Always a bridesmaid and never the bride”  

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FlickChick over at A PERSON IN THE DARK scribes on ESTELLE WINWOOD, describing her as fascinating in her personal life as her on-screen persona… “She was smart, she smoked, she drank, she loved men and she looked down her veddy English nose at just about everyone. She lived to be 101 and remained feisty, irreverent and utterly charming in her crusty, dismissive and oh-so-British way.” Read more of, What A Character: The Ever Scandalous Estelle Winwood.” 

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Terry aka @mercurie80 at A SHROUD OF THOUGHTS outlines the prolific career of FRANK FAYLEN, including “…his three best known roles are very different from each other. Bim in The Lost Weekend is sadistic and actually takes joy in his taunting of the patients in his charge. Ernie Bishop in It’s a Wonderful Life is respected in his community and would do anything for his community. He truly has a heart of gold. Herbert Gillis is a bit of a curmudgeon, particularly with regards to his son Dobie, but in the end he is only looking out for his son’s best interests.” Discover more… “Frank Faylen: More Than A Cab Driver.”

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Patricia at THE MOVIE NIGHT’S GROUP GUIDE TO CLASSIC FILM presents FAY BAINTER in “The Lady and the Mob” (1939). As Patricia states, “It’s not often that Ms. Bainter gets to lead a film, but when she does, it’s always a pleasure. She takes an okay script and an average part, and gives the audience a decidedly better experience.” To read more… “Fay Heads The Mob.” 

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Maddy over at MADDY LOVES HER CLASSIC FILM offers us HENRY DANIELL. As Maddy explains, “Henry could dominate and steal even the smallest scene that he appeared in. He always brought his A game to every single performance. He was also one of those actors like George Sanders, Richard Burton, or Claude Rains, who had been blessed with a truly magnificent and distinctive voice.” Explore more of Maddy’s thoughts on him… “What A Character Blogathon 2019: Henry Daniell.”   

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Rich of WIDE SCREEN WORLD brings us UNA O’CONNOR. As Rich reveals, “Best known for playing saucy old broads with a wry sense of humor. A standout visibly as well as audibly: big round eyes and a, um, characteristic nose coupled with a sharp voice that was usually accented in either Cockney English, Scottish, or her own Irish brogue.” Explore more on his thoughts as he visits her gravesite… “Una O’Connor and Her Final Resting Place.”  


More entries are on their way. Keep check checking back with us here, and with my fellow co-hosts all weekend.

Saturday, 11/16: Day 2… Aurora/ @CitizenScreen at Once Upon A Screen

Sunday, 11/17: Day 3… Paula/ @Paula_Guthat at Paula’s Cinema Club

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My aunt Carolyn

I don’t usually post items so personal. Something so removed from my classic film thoughts. But as my family will come together today to honor my aunt Carolyn’s life, I felt compelled to share a few thoughts of my own.

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My aunt Carolyn…

A summation of one’s life cannot be judged on only one slant of their personality, nor on the declining years if they battled health challenges. We are complex, or even mysterious to our closest loved ones, and Carolyn was no exception. As the oldest grandchild growing up with six aunts, who range from 5 years older than myself to a bit older than my parents, Carolyn was the eldest, and the head of the “coven.”

I wondered, if being the oldest daughter when your parents have 7 children, was the reason as to why she never married and never had children. My understanding is that she was engaged, more than once. Perhaps she grew weary of being taskmaster. But then again, she also seemed to love having her brood of younger siblings, nieces, nephews, etc. to extoll her outspoken opinions, advice and direction.

When I think of Carolyn, I recall what a beauty she was. There are several pictures of her from her youth that I distinctly recall. I was impressed that she looked so much like Elizabeth Taylor in those photos. Like me, she had fondness for old movies and many of our conversations would center on that. She was fortunate enough to travel many times in her life, to many cool and exotic places. She possessed the family trait for archiving, as can be seen in her many genealogy binders that she and her sisters would work on. It wasn’t until I came to her townhouse to help organize her personal possessions for an estate sale, that I discovered she had archived her entire life. In surprisingly INCREDIBLE detail. It was as though she needed us to know every aspect of her life. Of its significance. For posterity.

While she may have been known for her inflammatory and nearly combative rhetoric in her later years by the younger generations of her family, I also recall her immense kindness. She had a heart of gold when you were lucky enough to be the recipient, which I was upon many occasions. As our parents split in the mid 70s, my sister and I briefly stayed at a house in Westport, up the street from Guardian Angels church- the first floor belonged to Bob Daniels, the 2nd floor to Carolyn, and the attic apartment to my father. It was a lot more fun to sneak down to Carolyn’s and spy on her. Perhaps to ask her a million annoying questions, as kids often do at that age. It was around this time that I was obsessed with anything on ancient Egypt. Carolyn seemed to share my passion and gave me a coloring book, brimming with images reflecting the walls of the pyramids. She was kind enough to notice my interests and that means a lot to a kid going through hard transitions.

Carolyn also inherited the family trait of creativity and artistic skill. She was a very good artist. I was always fascinated by her latest projects, but it was her large portrait of her sister Debi that stays with me as her best work. I know she played a heavy hand in my lifelong appreciation for art.

Ultimately, one of my favorite memories of Carolyn is at Christmas time at Gardner Lake. In my childhood, we often would spend a chunk of the holiday season at my grandparents’ house. As a kid, I would get excited to see all of my aunts and cousins. Holidays meant crowded chaos, and I loved every minute of it. Sometimes I was a bit jealous of the big family dynamic- how cool to have that many sisters! But I never felt completely on the frayed edge. We were in the family, too. We’d pile in to that little cottage, sleeping on any spot available, from the floor, to a couch, to an old army cot. We’d play board games and Grandma would cook up a storm- leaving an orange and an Archie’s comic book in my sock, dangling from a hook. But I’ll always remember Carolyn skillfully taking the time to work on a beautiful gingerbread house with us. That memory stays with me, too.

In her later years, we didn’t always agree. If she dropped an especially painful insult, I would call her out on it. To call her “feisty” is an understatement. But that’s not the whole picture. There are many strong, intelligent, and yes, BEYOND feisty women in my family. They don’t always rub people the right way, but I’m forever grateful for them. They helped mold who I am today- and helped me pass on these traits to my own daughters. Everyone has their own snapshot into the mysteries of a person’s life. She cared for me. I cared for her. That’s the Carolyn I remember.

Carolyn Jeanne Shindler (December 25, 1943 – September 21, 2019)

 

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