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.”

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

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

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

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

Daphne: “Brand new!”

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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.”

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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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Happy Birthday, Billy Wilder! (Bloggers Beguile Us with Bday Bash Gifts)

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For the 2nd year in a row, the ‘Cubish duo’ Aurora aka @CitizenScreen of Once Upon A Screen and yours truly of Outspoken & Freckled aka @IrishJayhawk66 are so in awe of the mega talents of writer/director Billy Wilder that hosting a birthday party blogathon in his honor is simply a must! I think Billy would appreciate the best gifts are those in the form of words about film, don’t you agree?

My lovely co-host Aurora kicked off the day shift of this birthday blogathon bash (see her post here ) as she has been tweeting out fab tweets all afternoon of our talented participants, and now passes the baton to me. Look for my tweets this evening at @IrishJayhawk66 for additional participants as they trickle in.

So let’s honor him and continue this ‘Wilder birthday party’ by reading all of these fascinating posts on all things Wilder…

Wilder Entries

Movie Movie Blog Blog – “Straight Down the Line” – The Importance of Dialogue in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity

Mib’s Instant Headache – Witness for the Prosecution

By Jeff a guest post on Once Upon a Screen – Considering the Cult Movies of Billy Wilder

Dial M for Movies – Billy Wilder vs. Censorship

Moon in Gemini – Remembering My First Movie: Irma La Deuce

Movie Movie Blog Blog – Billy Wilder and the Marx Brothers – A Match Almost Made in Heaven

Love Letters to Old Hollywood – Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche are John Barrymore’s parents in… Midnight (1939)

Cinephilia – Reaching for the Moon

Pop Culture Reverie – A Foreign Affair

Girls Do Film – Billy Wilder and The Apartment: “Shut Up and Deal”

Goose Pimply All Over – The Seven Year Itch

Movie Rob – The Private Lives of Sherlock Holmes

Wide Screen World – Stalag 17

Caftan Woman – Rhythm on the River and The Emperor Waltz

The Stop Button – Five Graves to Cairo

Le Mot du Cinephiliaque – One, Two, Three

Old Hollywood Films – The Fortune Cookie

Movie Rob – Buddy Buddy

In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood – Midnight

Serendipitous Anachronisms – The Private Lives of Sherlock Holmes

A Shroud of Thoughts – The Apartment

Twenty Four Frames – The Major and the Minor

The Wonderful World of Cinema – Love in the Afternoon

Silver Screenings – Billy Wilder’s Life-Affirming Ninotchka

Critica Retro – Kiss Me, Stupid

The Cinematic Frontier – Sunset Blvd.

Outspoken & Freckled – Some Like it Hot

Shadows and Satin – Famous Couples of Noir: Norma and Joe (and possibly Joe and Betty, too!) in Sunset Boulevard

Cinephiled – The Major and the Minor

Stars and Letters – Correspondence on The Spirit of St. Louis

Flickin’ Out – The Lost Weekend

Almost Ginger – Some Like it Hot

Be sure to check back for blog posts still yet to come- and follow us on twitter, too. Great writers deserve praise (hence our reason for this annual event) so please leave kind feedback for these extraordinary bloggers! (Because that’s what Lubitsch would do!)

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Billy Wilder’s SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)

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To honor Billy Wilder’s birthday (today would have been his 109th birthday), I’m sharing my thoughts on one of his most beloved comedies of all-time, SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959). 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.

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

 

like jello on springs...

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.

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…

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

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

getting ready for a scene, outside

getting in the drag mode, in slippers

Tony Curtis in Josephine wardrobe, as Wilder checks details

Tony Curtis in Josephine wardrobe, as Wilder checks details

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wardrobe also played a key role in convincing cross-dressing. Here famous designer Orry-Kelly checks details and fit.

“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.

This article was my contribution to the 2nd annual BILLY WILDER BIRTHDAY BLOGATHON, hosted by the ever-lovely Aurora aka @CitizenScreen of Once Upon A Screen and yours truly of Outspoken & Freckled. Please explore both host sites as each of us will list the many, talented participants’ posts- enjoy!

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And happy birthday, Billy!!

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ANNOUNCEMENT! 2nd Annual BILLY WILDER Blogathon

I reached out to my Cubish cinema sister Aurora of ONCE UPON A SCREEN aka @CitizenScreen to see if she wanted to reprise our BILLY WILDER birthday blogathon again this year. As we contemplated our insanely busy schedules, we agreed we are of course out of our minds to add anything else to our plates- but of course we’ll happily celebrate Billy’s birthday in style. After all, “what would Lubitsch do?”

The Billy Wilder Blogathon

This is all about Billy Wilder.  The great.

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Beginning his screenwriting career in 1929 Germany, Wilder would make a definitive mark on Hollywood from behind the camera, both by way of his pen and later as a premier director.  Films written by or directed by Billy Wilder continue to spark debate and adoration to this day thanks to his sharp wit and memorable imagery. Wilder directed only 27 films yet stands among an elite group of seven directors who have won Best Picture, Director and Screenplay Oscars.

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These may be mere numbers contrived from opinion, but they are nonetheless impressive:  Five Billy Wilder films are listed on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) list of 100 Funniest Movies of all time: Some Like It Hot (1959) is listed at #1, The Apartment (1960) at #20, The Seven Year Itch (1955) at #51, Ninotchka (1939) at #52 and Ball of Fire (1941) at #92. Four Wilder films are on the AFI list of 100 Greatest Movies of all time: Sunset Blvd. (1950) at #16, Some Like It Hot (1959) at #22, Double Indemnity (1944) at #29 and The Apartment (1960) at #80. And perhaps most astonishing – when one considers his mere 27 films – is the fact that Wilder directed fourteen different actors in Oscar-nominated performances.

Now, putting all stats and numbers aside, what makes Billy Wilder one of the greatest directors who ever lived is not reflected on a list nor is it illustrated by his numerous awards, but rather by his enduringly entertaining filmography. A Wilder film grabs the viewer from the opening shot and always leaves a lasting impression because a Wilder ending is always memorable.

For all of those reasons and because we’re girls gone Wilder, Aurora of ONCE UPON A SCREEN @CitizenScreen and I (Kellee @IrishJayhawk66) are giddy with excitement to announce the second annual Billy Wilder Blogathon.  As was the case last year, this will be a one-day event to celebrate this master’s work on what would have been the 109th anniversary of his birth on June 22. And we hope you are willing and able to join the celebration.

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Entries for this event can be anything Wilder related – commentaries on his films or television work, created by his pen or from his place behind the camera.  You choose, blog and post and we’ll be sure to enjoy it.  We are, however, encouraging no repeats to ensure as many of his classic works are covered.

And now the usual drill…

Participants:

  • Let us know which Billy Wilder film or TV program you’d like to dedicate a post to. Choose from any he wrote, directed or produced.
  • Post your entry by June 22 so we can properly promote it in celebration of his birthday.
  • Be sure to include the title of your blog, twitter tag, etc. or any information that would assist us in identifying your page and facilitate communication.
  • Please post one of the event banners on your site and in your entry to help us promote the Wilder love.
  • Aurora and I discourage repeat choices.  However, several bloggers have chosen the same Wilder film and knowing each person’s take will be different, we’re changing that policy.  In fairness, however, no more than two per movie if it comes to that.
  • Have fun!  It’s sure to be a Wilder time!

Participating Blogs and Wilder topics

Movie Movie Blog Blog – Double Indemnity

Once Upon a Screen – Ace in the Hole

The Cinematic Frontier – Sunset Blvd.

Mib’s Instant Headache – Witness for the Prosecution

Outspoken & Freckled – Some Like it Hot

Critica Retro – Kiss Me, Stupid

In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood – Midnight

Shadows and Satin – Famous Couples of Noir: Norma and Joe (and possibly Joe and Betty, too!) in Sunset Boulevard

Wide Screen World – Stalag 17

Caftan Woman – Bing Crosby movies: The Emperor Waltz and Rhythm on the River

A Shroud of Thoughts – The Apartment

Old Hollywood Films – The Fortune Cookie

Cinephiled – The Major and the Minor

Rachel the Cinephile – Wilder and Lemmon films

Twenty Four Frames – The Major and the Minor

Moon in Gemini – Irma La Deuce

The Wonderful World of Cinema – Love in the Afternoon

Girls Do Film – The Apartment

Silver Screenings – Ninotchka screenplay

Pop Culture Reverie – A Foreign Affair

Cinephilia – Sabrina

Stars and Letters – Correspondence on The Spirit of St. Louis

Flickin’ Out – The Lost Weekend

Jeff – Fedora and Kiss Me, Stupid (guest post on Once Upon a Screen)

The Stop Button – Five Graves to Cairo

Almost Ginger – Some Like it Hot

Serendipitous Anachronisms – The Private Lives of Sherlock Holmes

Movie Rob – Buddy Buddy and The Private Lives of Sherlock Holmes

Goose Pimply All Over – The Seven Year Itch

Love Letters to Old Hollywood – Midnight

Le Mot du Cinephiliaque – One, Two Three

Shut up and deal.  And happy blogging!

Kellee

Happy Birthday Billy! The BILLY WILDER BLOGATHON is here…

STALAG 17 (1953)

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Billy Wilder was an Austrian born filmmaker/writer/director… and all-around cinema genius. Born Samuel Wilder on June 22, 1906 in Sucha, Austria, Wilder went from being a Viennese reporter to a free-lance writer in Berlin where he started working on film scripts in 1929. As Hitler rose to power, Wilder moved to Paris to direct his first film, as he feared his Jewish ancestry would threaten his existence in nazi occupied Germany. Via his film connections including friend Peter Lorre, he made a new home the United States. Once in the U.S. he found great success in writing and directing films. But it became a very personal film for Wilder when he made STALAG 17 (1953).

Robert Straus and Billy Wilder poke fun on the set of STALAG 17

Robert Straus and Billy Wilder poke fun on the set of STALAG 17

Billy Wilder giving direction to Otto Preminger

Billy Wilder giving direction to Otto Preminger

His parents, Berl and Gitla Siedlisker died at the hands of nazis. He discovered that his stepfather had died at a concentration camp in 1942 and his mother was murdered a year later in another concentration camp, Plaszow. Additionally, his grandmother died in 1943 in a Jewish ghetto. While he generally avoided discussing this dark and tragic topic openly, this horrific tragedy no doubt left and imprint on his life. His successes grew with films across the 30’s and 40’s and into the 50’s. But it was during the early 1950’s with films like ACE IN THE HOLE (1951) and STALAG 17, Wilder felt free to take a more cynical, personal cause approach to his filmmaking.

STALAG 17 was originally a play written by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski which ran on Broadway, as directed by Jose Ferrer, for 472 performances. When Wilder took it the big screen, Paramount wanted to downplay the German negativity to avoid offending West Germany audiences, so they suggested making the German officers Polish. Wilder refused. And despite solid profits from STALAG 17 (1953), Paramount felt less generous in sharing to make up for the financial loses from ACE IN THE HOLE (1951), which experienced less than stellar performance at the box office. (A film that was ahead of its time and is much more appreciated today.) Wilder made this his last film with Paramount.

This story is based on reflections of the real experiences from Stalag 17B in a POW camp in Austria. The big screen version begins with a voice-over narrative, as several Billy Wilder films did. At the POW camp where the entire story takes place, we are introduced to a cast of characters from one of the barracks and the nazi guards:

William Holden… Sgt. JJ Sefton

Don Taylor… Lt. James Dunbar

Otto Preminger… Oberst von Scherbach

Robert Strauss… Sgt. Stanislaus “Animal” Kuzawa

Harvey Lembeck… Sgt. Harry Shapiro

Richard Erdman… Sgt. “Hoffy” Hoffman

Peter Graves… Sgt. Frank Price

Neville Brand… Duke

Sig Ruman… Sgt. Johann Sebastian Schulz

Michael Moore… Sgt. Manfredi

Peter Baldwin… Sgt. Johnson

Robinson Stone… Joey

Robert Shawley… Sgt. “Blondie” Peterson

William Pierson… Marko the mailman

Gil Stratton… Sgt. Clarence Harvey “Cookie” Cook

[Warning: the following Synopsis will likely contain spoilers…]

Stalag 17

Stalag 17 confrontation

The men have planned an escape for two of the prisoners. They all discuss the details of the route inside the barracks: from a secret opening under the stove, over to the latrine, to an underground path to a spot near the fence by the woods nearby. The men show a unified presence to support the escape plan – all but one, Sgt. Sefton. Sefton is a hard-core cynic and the camp’s unapologetic black market profiteer. Instead of a ‘good luck’ send-off, he immediately starts taking bets against the two men making it successfully out of the camp. He’s certain they’ll fail, claiming the odds are not in their favor.

Unfortunately, Sefton’s predictions ring true as the entire camp is called to the muddy yard the next morning and the Nazi Commandant displays the two dead bodies in the center for all to see. As punishment, the guards make them fill in the escape tunnel and remove their stove. They can’t figure out how the guards figured out their plan. Two more prisoners are added to this barrack, including an officer, Lt. Dunbar, that reveals to the group how he foiled the nazis via destroying an integral point of transport. Sefton knows Dunbar from his past; when he attempted but failed to make officer level. He makes verbal jabs at Dunbar for being a spoiled little rich boy who he suggests bought his way in to being an officer. At mail call, a prisoner on crutches with a missing leg is able to smuggle in a radio. They briefly listen to details of the troop movements, before guards approach and they hide the radio.

The men let loose in the barracks

The men let loose in the barracks

Shapiro and "Animal" combat the Stalag 17 tension with their own Betty Grable dance

Shapiro and “Animal” combat the Stalag 17 tension with their own Betty Grable dance

Nazi guard Sgt. Schulz announces a representative from the Geneva Convention will be making a visit soon. Just in time for Christmas, they’ll all receive a good delousing and new blankets. From the reactions its obvious they are expected to lie about their actual conditions during this visit and the blankets won’t be around for long. Schulz is one guard in particular the POWs enjoy teasing:

Shapiro: Hey Schultz, sprechen Sie Deutsches?

Sgt. Schulz: Ja?

Shapiro: Then droppen Sie dead!

another funny exchange…

Sgt. Schulz: How do you expect to win the war with an army of clowns?

Lt. James Skylar Dunbar: We sort of hope you’d laugh yourselves to death.

Their secrets, including the radio and Lt. Dunbar’s recent maneuvers against the nazis continue to find their way into the guards’ knowledge.  Dunbar has been taken by Nazi guards and is being tortured to reveal more details. At this point, they know someone from inside the barracks must be a mole betraying them. The tension in the barracks are growing thick. From Sefton’s cynical attitude and his ability trade favors, they assume he must be the betrayer and all the men band together to beat him. Sefton maintains his innocence, keeping a low profile.

Sefton (William Holden) starts to make a discovery

Sefton (William Holden) starts to make a discovery

 

a simple lightbulb is the key to the treason puzzle

a simple lightbulb is the key to the treason puzzle

But soon, during a Christmas celebration that is interrupted by an air raid, the mole slips up as Sefton stays behind and hidden when the real traitor makes his contact with Schulz, revealing how he exchanges information- via a lightbulb and the chess set pieces. Now that Sefton knows the enemy’s identity within the barracks, it’s not long before he finds an opportunity to reveal his true colors. It’s also the ideal time to show his own true character, as maybe not as much of a bad guy as all had thought, by helping Dunbar escape himself.

It’s in signature Billy Wilder fashion to tackle a subject like this, one so dark in reality (one that also must have been such a personal journey), and with complicated characters that are not so ‘black and white’ in morality.  But then he twists it so it’s funny and entertaining with his witty dialogue and characters that draw us in because they often surprise us in the end. He takes an anti-hero like Sefton and turns him into the most brave and honorable character by the film’s conclusion, despite himself.

He adds flavoring of characters like Shapiro and “Animal” who deliver the funniest moments throughout with their chemistry and friendship, Animal’s obsession with Betty Grable, and some profoundly real moments too. In example when Shapiro brags that his multiple letters received are love letters as a result of being so popular with the ladies, yet it turns out the letters are repeated overdue bill notices of his Plymouth being repossessed.  And in another ‘harsh reality meets dark humor’ moment, another POW reads his wife’s letter in which she reveals how a baby just showed up at their door and she chose to keep it- a baby that astonishingly possesses ‘her eyes and her mouth.’ He tells himself and his fellow bunkmate he believes it. Later on we see him speaking out loud, repeating that, “I believe it” as he tries to convince himself and wrestles with, struggling to see if this is something he can live with.

These are all heartfelt touch points that Wilder shares with us in his own, and very brilliant way. This review of STALAG 17 (1953) is my birthday tribute to Billy Wilder who was born 108 years ago today. It is shared with other brilliant Wilder films in the BILLY WILDER BOGATHON that Aurora of ONCE UPON A SCREEN and yours truly are hosting today. Here is the full list of participants.

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BILLY WILDER Blogathon

This is all about Billy Wilder. The great.

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Beginning his screenwriting career in 1929 Germany, Wilder would make a definitive mark on Hollywood from behind the camera, both by way of his his pen and later as a premier director. Films written by or directed by Billy Wilder continue to spark debate and adoration to this day thanks to his sharp wit and memorable imagery. Wilder directed only 27 films yet stands among an elite group of seven directors who have won Best Picture, Director and Screenplay Oscars.

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These may be mere numbers contrived from opinion, but they are nonetheless impressive: Five Billy Wilder films are listed on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) list of 100 Funniest Movies of all time: Some Like It Hot (1959) is listed at #1, The Apartment (1960) at #20, The Seven Year Itch (1955) at #51, Ninotchka (1939) at #52 and Ball of Fire (1941) at #92. Four Wilder films are on the AFI list of 100 Greatest Movies of all time: Sunset Blvd. (1950) at #16, Some Like It Hot (1959) at #22, Double Indemnity (1944) at #29 and The Apartment (1960) at #80. And perhaps most astonishing – when one considers his mere 27 films – is the fact that Wilder directed fourteen different actors in Oscar-nominated performances.

Now, putting all stats and numbers aside, what makes Billy Wilder one of the greatest directors who ever lived is not reflected on a list nor is it illustrated by his numerous awards, but rather by his enduringly entertaining filmography. A Wilder film grabs the viewer from the opening shot and always leaves a lasting impression because a Wilder ending is always memorable.

For all of those reasons and because we’re ‘girls gone Wilder’, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen and I -Kellee (@Irishjayhawk66) of Outspoken & Freckled- are beside ourselves with excitement to announce The Billy Wilder Blogathon. This will be a one-day event to celebrate this master’s work on what would have been the 108th anniversary of his birth on June 22. And we hope you are willing and able to join the celebration.

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Entries can be anything Wilder related – commentaries on his films or television work, created by his pen or from his place behind the camera. You choose, blog and post and we’ll be sure to enjoy it.

And now the usual drill…

Participants:

Let us know which Billy Wilder film or TV program you’d like to dedicate a post to. Choose from any he wrote, directed or produced.
Post your entry by June 22 so we can properly promote it in celebration of his birthday.
Be sure to include the title of your blog, twitter tag, etc. or any information that would assist us in identifying your page and facilitate communication.
Please post one of the event banners on your site and in your entry to help us promote the Wilder love.
Have fun! It’s sure to be a Wilder time!
“Some pictures play wonderfully to a room of eight people. I don’t go for that. I go for the masses. I go for the end effect.”

… this intro post was lovingly written by co-host Aurora

Participating Blogs Thus Far…

Once Upon a Screen – The Major and the Minor

Shadows and Satin – Ace in the Hole

Screenkicker! – The Apartment

Wide Screen World – Sunset Blvd.

Make Mine Criterion! – Kiss Me, Stupid

30 Years On – The Lost Weekend

Critica Retro – Irma La Deuce

Cinema Dilettante – A Foreign Affair

The Vintage Cameo – Witness for the Prosecution

Tales of the Easily Distracted – One, Two, Three

Cindy Bruchman – Double Indemnity

Girls Do Film – Ninotchka

Thrilling Days of Yesteryear – Five Graves to Cairo

Vintage Girl – Some Like it Hot

Outspoken & Freckled – Stalag 17

Classic Becky’s Brain Food – The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

Twenty Four Frames – Ball of Fire

The Great Katharine Hepburn – The Front Page

Spoilers – “Billy Wilder Speaks” and other interviews

Mildred’s Fatburgers – The Fortune Cookie

Pre-Code.com – Fedora

Joel’s Classic Film Passion – Ocean’s 11

A Shroud of Thoughts – Sabrina

Barry – Avanti!

[This] Girl Friday – Midnight

Stars and Letters – Jane Wyman letter to Billy Wilder

The Movie Rat – Emil and the Detectives (’31 and ’35)

So that means there’s so many great choices still left to pick, such as…

CASINO ROYALE (1967), LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (1957), THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955), THE EMPEROR WALTZ (1948), BUDDY BUDDY (1981), THE BISHOP’S WIFE (1947), A SONG IS BORN (1948), HOLD BACK THE DAWN (1941), ARISE MY LOVE (1940), RHYTHM ON THE RIVER (1940), THAT CERTAIN AGE (1938), BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE (1938), CHAMPAGNE WALTZ (1937), PEOPLE ON SUNDAY (1930), DEATH MILLS (documentary, 1945), THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS (1957), MAUVAISE GRAINE (1934), KIDNAPPED (acting role, 1938)….plus more!

Following is the complete gallery of banners for this event. All were conceived, designed and delivered by Kellee…

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