Tales of Buffalo Billy: Noel Simsolo's "Masters of Cinema: Billy Wilder"

By Noah IsenbergMarch 27, 2012

Masters of Cinema: Billy Wilder by Noel Simsolo

“EVERY DIRECTOR HAS HIS OWN colors, like a painter,” observed Billy Wilder in 1962. “Some paint like Dufy, others are darker, like Soutine, say, but I’ve never wondered about whether I was bitter or cruel or pessimistic or anything. I like the story, that’s all there is to it. I tell stories I like.” A writer by nature, Wilder was a man of uncommon wit and unforgiving sarcasm who made his martinis with the same verve as he made his movies (“I like to mix a little vinegar in the cocktail,” he once quipped). His was a raconteur’s cinema, long on smart, snappy dialogue, short on visual acrobatics. And though his dizzyingly prolific, half-century-long career brought us everything from romantic comedy masterpieces Some Like it Hot (1959) and Sabrina (1954) to such acerbic gems as Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951) and The Apartment (1960), Wilder remained forever reluctant to embrace the notion of director as artist; he saw himself merely as a trafficker in mass entertainment. Famous for doing very few setups, he generally shied away from any show of technical virtuosity at the expense of what Jack Warner always called the three most import things in a movie: “Story, Story and Story!” In the words of Marlene Dietrich, who starred in A Foreign Affair (1948) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957), “Billy Wilder was like a master craftsman who knows his tools and uses them well to create a structure he can garland with humor and wisdom.”

Wilder, who made it to a spry 95, has been dead for 10 years as of today. It seems fitting, then, that a reappraisal, even a tribute, like the one Noël Simsolo offers in Masters of Cinema should come along. This slender, richly illustrated and appropriately entertaining volume was originally released in France in 2007, and is now available in an elegant English translation by Trista Selous under the auspices of Cahiers du Cinéma. Equal parts photo scrapbook, thumbnail production history, and long-form essay, Simsolo’s Billy Wilder gathers its material not only from the standard literature of contemporary Wilder Studies — including Ed Sikov’s definitive biography On Sunset Boulevard, a sprawling work that’s still the leader of the pack, and Cameron Crowe’s animated Conversations with Wilder — but also from a large body of French sources, most of them first published in Cahiers. In keeping with the basic parameters of the Masters of Cinema series — other recent volumes include companions to Fellini, Welles, Bergman, and Chaplin — which adopts the auteur model first introduced by the Cahiers crowd in the 1950s, Simsolo provides an anatomy of Wilder’s life and of his individual style of direction. (Given his status as a studio professional, Wilder has often eluded the kind of ardent appreciation that French cineastes reserve for renegade directors.) The story Simsolo tells unfolds along a narrative axis that leads from Wilder’s childhood in Vienna through his distinguished career as a writer and director in Hollywood and abroad, encompassing dozens of screen credits, more than a handful of Oscars, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. And, of course, since it’s Wilder we’re talking about, there’s an anecdotal surplus unmatched in any history of the motion pictures.


Born in the third week of June 1906 in Sucha, a small Galician town south of Kraków, Wilder entered the world in the outer provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, Max, ran a small chain of railway station restaurants and his mother, Eugenia, née Baldinger, was from a middle-class Jewish family in the hotel business. At birth, he was given the name Samuel. His mother, however, a terrific fan of Americana, insisted on calling her son “Billie” (slightly modified with the Germanic spelling) after Buffalo Bill, whose touring Wild West show she purportedly once saw. (His older brother Wilhelm, two years Billie’s senior, was known as “Willie.”) When he was still a young boy, Wilder and his family moved to Vienna, where assimilated Jews of their ilk could seek cultural and financial advancement. Never the star student, he attended primary and secondary school in Vienna’s Eighth District, learning the bulk of his lessons outside of class. Milling about the streets, in the wartime ration lines and at a “hotel by the hour” around the corner from his school, he gleaned some of his lasting insights into the social condition: the powerful drive of human impulses and man’s propensity to disguise or to repress those same impulses. Wilder would frequently return to these fundamental ideas, particularly the lengths to which humans are willing to go for sex and for money, in his later work as a screenwriter and director.

After defying his parents’ wish for him to become a lawyer — an exalted career path for good Jewish boys of interwar Austria — Wilder started working as a cub reporter at a leading Viennese tabloid. He claims to have landed his first job by walking in on the paper’s theater critic, a certain Herr Liebstöckl, having sex with his secretary at the office one Saturday afternoon, a story that almost seems to have slipped from the pages of one of his Hollywood scripts. As Wilder tells it, the editor looked him in the eye and responded, still buttoning up his fly, “You’re lucky I was working overtime today.” Wilder is said to have put in a fair amount of “overtime” himself. Late in life, he liked to attribute his chronic back pain to youthful bouts of promiscuity in Freud’s Vienna: “It is the result of those hot nights in Vienna when I was screwing girls standing up in doorways.” He had a habit of embroidering his reminiscences, though — an almost chronic condition among his set of German and Austrian-born émigrés in Hollywood, which included Otto Preminger (Anatomy of a Murder), Edgar G. Ulmer (Detour) and brothers Curt and Robert Siodmak (Donovan’s Brain and The Killers). “In a single morning,” he crowed to Playboy’s Richard Gehman of his early days as a journalist, “I interviewed Sigmund Freud, his colleague Alfred Adler, the playwright and novelist Arthur Schnitzler, and the composer Richard Strauss. In one morning.”

Billie shared his mother’s passion for all things American, as well as her gift of gab, and took an early liking to spectator sports, jazz, New World journalism and motion pictures. In the mid-1920s, just before his twentieth birthday, he came into contact with American big-band leader Paul Whiteman, who was touring Vienna, and decided to follow him to Berlin. Among the photos tucked away in Sikov’s biography is a wonderful snapshot of the stout, mustachioed Whiteman posing with his band in Vienna, a precocious teenaged Wilder right behind him, sporting a dapper suit and snap-brim hat with a devilish grin on his face, as if to say, “so this is how they do it in America.”

While living in Berlin, in what were perhaps Wilder’s most formative years, he continued to work as a journalist, filing freelance pieces with a number of “boulevard” newspapers. One of his first assignments, “Herr Ober, bitte einen Tänzer!” (“Dear Waiter, a Dancer, Please!”), was a four-part exposé for the Berliner Zeitung chronicling his experiences working as an Eintänzer, or taxi dancer, at the posh Eden Hotel. He charmed wealthy older ladies looking for a little distraction, and then told all. “I wasn’t the best dancer,” he later remarked, “but I had the best dialogue.” Wilder’s journalism bears many hallmarks of his subsequent screenwriting: the droll, chatty sense of humor, the penchant for social satire, and the love of spectacle.

In 1996, a collection of his Weimar-era writing, Der Prinz von Wales geht auf Urlaub (The Prince of Wales Goes on Holiday), was put out by a small Berlin publishing house, but has yet to appear in English. It’s a shame, as these scattered pieces — urban ethnographies of sorts, profiles of writers, movie stars and poker players, dispatches from the international film scene — reveal the creative sensibility of their author. One of my favorites, a portrait of Erich von Stroheim, chronicles the Viennese-born filmmaker’s rise from “goulash-balancing” server at Manhattan’s Little Hungarian restaurant to the megalomaniacal director of Greed (1924), and his subsequent transformation into what Wilder called “the complete fool of Hollywood” with his late silent film, the infamously troubled Queen Kelly (1929), starring Gloria Swanson. (We get an early flicker of Wilder’s brilliant notion to pair them onscreen in Sunset Boulevard.) On the cover of Der Prinz von Wales geht auf Urlaub is a period photo, not unlike the one with Whiteman, of Wilder posing in front of a luxury automobile, yet another hint of his early ambitions and yearnings for American-style success.

It wasn’t long before Buffalo Billie crossed the Atlantic — and became Billy — for good. Having accumulated a host of screenwriter credits in late Weimar Berlin, including the legendary late silent Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday, 1930) and several talkies for the powerful Ufa studio, he very shrewdly sensed the seriousness of Hitler’s ascent to power in January 1933. The day after the Nazis set fire to the Reichstag, in February of the same year, he skipped town for Paris, where he set up temporary shop at the Hotel Ansonia, living with fellow refugees and future Hollywood film personnel Peter Lorre, Franz Waxman (then still Wachsmann), and Frederick Hollander (then Friedrich Holländer). With the support of an émigré film crew, Wilder co-wrote and co-directed one feature while still in France, the low-budget Mauvaise Graine (Bad Seed, 1934), which portrayed a band of car thieves on the loose and anticipated the next phase of his budding career in miniature: “With its encounter between people of different social backgrounds,” writes Simsolo, “role playing and trickery, it already reflects all Wilder’s themes.”

A temporary visa in hand, and a modest amount of film experience under his belt, Wilder arrived in Hollywood in 1934. Although he was fortunate to have secured a short-term writing contract from Columbia, his early days in Southern California were anything but glamorous. The first place he found to hang his hat, so the story goes, was in the antechamber of the ladies’ room at the Château Marmont Hotel, where he spent a few sleepless nights before finding temporary digs in a one-room share with Peter Lorre. To improve his poor language skills, he listened to radio nonstop — mostly baseball games and soap operas — and chatted up as many young native women as he could before marrying first wife Judith Coppicus in 1936. (They divorced 10 years later; in 1949, Wilder married actress Audrey Young, to whom he remained married till his death in 2002.) In addition to his own natural talents and tireless dedication, Wilder benefited from collaborating with an unusually proficient, gifted group of co-writers, starting with Charles Brackett, former drama critic at The New Yorker and the son of a conservative senator from Saratoga Springs, who helped give birth to some of the best and most successful Hollywood screenplays of the era. The celebrated Brackett years — which included Wilder’s 1942 directorial debut The Major and the Minor and such acclaimed pictures as The Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset Boulevard, not to mention the frothy Alpine musical The Emperor Waltz (1948) — were followed by another stretch of charmed collaboration. This time he teamed up with the equally witty I.A.L. Diamond, a Romanian-born writer who arrived in America as a young boy. Known as “Izzy” or “Iz,” as Wilder liked to call him, Diamond’s initials stood for “Interscholastic Algebra League,” betraying his schoolboy prowess in mathematics and, to a lesser extent, his later talent for writing mega-hit comedies. Together with Iz, Wilder co-wrote Some Like It Hot, the largest grossing comedy of its day, and nearly a dozen other major features, mostly independents produced by Wilder and the Mirisch Company.

An early and enduring influence on Wilder’s work was the great émigré director Ernst Lubitsch, who had left Berlin for Hollywood in the mid-1920s and who knew, perhaps better than anyone, how to sneak in erotically laced, naughty plot lines under the veneer of European refinement. Wilder and Brackett first met with Lubitsch in 1936 to discuss Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), which they co-wrote, followed by the highly acclaimed Ninotchka, a Wilder apprenticeship of sorts, a year later. For years Wilder kept a sign in his Beverly Hills office with the motto emblazoned upon it: “How Would Lubitsch Do it?” In Volker Schlöndorff’s documentary Billy Wilder Speaks (2006), he describes how, on the eve of The Major and the Minor, he went to see his German mentor for advice. He tells him, “Tomorrow morning, I’m shooting the first takes of my first film. I’m going to shit in my pants.” To which Lubitsch retorts, “I’m making my seventieth film, and I shit in my pants every day.” Cut from the same cloth, they both maintained a deep appreciation for the French tradition of romantic farce coupled with the more vulgar, potty-mouth schtick of a cigar-chomping wise guy.

Part of what Wilder admired most in Lubitsch was the handling of eroticism in his films, always suggestive rather than explicit. In 1975 Wilder said of Lubitsch, “he could do more with a closed door than most of today’s directors can do with an open fly.” Of course, Wilder proved to be the master of his own domain in moments such as the scene in Double Indemnity when Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) drops by the bachelor pad of hard-boiled insurance man Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) for an evening quickie; we observe Walter lying on the couch enjoying what appears to be an après l’amour cigarette while Phyllis touches up her makeup. Asked many years later whether the scene was to suggest, in a sly evasion of censorship, that Phyllis and Walter had just copulated, Wilder responded unambiguously: “Of course, and very good sex, or how could she persuade such a man to kill her husband? I learned from Lubitsch that the scene between two lovers the next morning tells you much more about their sexual behavior than actually showing them having sex.”


In 1945, Wilder returned to Germany in U.S. Army uniform as the head of the motion picture section of the Psychological Warfare Division. His main task was supervising the production of Hanuš Burger’s Die Todesmühlen (The Deathmills, 1945), an unflinching look at the Nazi concentration camps and the failure of the German population to recognize the mass genocide that had occurred in their midst. Wilder’s own mother, along with his stepfather and grandmother, had perished in Auschwitz, and in his confrontation with the Nazi atrocities so soon after the war he found little to laugh about. It’s hard not to imagine him harboring at least some survivor guilt, especially at a moment when his Hollywood career was in such high tilt. Simsolo quotes him musing darkly on the subject: “You’ve got optimists and pessimists. The first died in the gas chambers. The others have swimming pools in Beverly Hills.”

But by the time he made his irreverent comedy A Foreign Affair, just three years after the war had ended, Wilder had no trouble poking fun at the halfhearted and corrupt process of de-Nazification, implicating Germans and Americans alike. For a good gag, he introduces an unruly young German boy who writes swastikas on everything he sees, just as reflexively as Dr. Strangelove would later raise his right arm in the Hitler salute. In Wilder’s highly satirical rendition, Nazis are generally more buffoons, or perhaps dirty swine (“These Nazis ain’t kosher!” Sgt. Harry “Sugar Lips” Shapiro tells us in Stalag 17), than murderers: Stalag’s Oberst von Scherbach, played with puckish delight by Otto Preminger, barks his orders while rattling off various sardonic asides and insists on wearing his jackboots, for optimal heel-clicking, when speaking with headquarters. Similarly, the heel-clicking Schlemmer (Hanns Lothar) of the Cold War Berlin comedy One, Two, Three (1961), claims to have seen and heard nothing because he spent the war in the underground (the subway, that is); and, of course, Marlene Dietrich, as Erika von Schlütow in A Foreign Affair, plays the classic opportunist, happy to hitch her cart to the best horse in town, whether it’s an S.S. official or a captain in the U.S. Army.

Wilder’s wicked sense of humor also came across off screen. During a visit to Paris, to scout locations for Love in the Afternoon (1957), he received a request from his wife Audrey to bring home several Charvet ties as a birthday gift for a friend’s husband and, for herself, a French bidet, something he knew wasn’t apt to fit in his hand luggage. From his Paris hotel, he fired off a cable: “CHARVET TIES ON WAY. BUT BIDET IMPOSSIBLE TO OBTAIN. SUGGEST HANDSTAND IN SHOWER.” Wilder’s wit often relies on showmanship, not surprising for someone named after Buffalo Bill: a stew of boyish pranksterism with a dash of unreformed chauvinism of the old school. One particular anecdote, concerning the audience response cards collected after a preview screening of Ninotchka in Long Beach, stands out from the rest. As Wilder recounted to Cameron Crowe, Lubitsch picked up one of these cards and suddenly broke into a fit of uncontrollable laughter; on the card, possibly written by none other than Wilder himself, were the words: “Funniest picture I ever saw. So funny that I peed in my girlfriend’s hand.”

In the preface to his book, Simsolo compares Wilder to his Hollywood contemporaries, highlighting essential differences between his approach to comedy and that of Capra, Cukor and Hawks. “His humor is darker and more disturbing,” he insists, “and his bold play on sexual ambiguities and innuendo-laden dialogue verge on the vulgar.” In most cases, Wilder was able to smuggle in, seemingly undetected, social and sexual transgressions — Ginger Rogers masquerading as a twelve year-old in The Major and the Minor and becoming a kinky love interest in the process, or the similarly age-inappropriate romance between Gloria Swanson and William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, not to mention the burlesque cross-dressing of Some Like It Hot or the iconic shot of Marilyn Monroe, skirt raised, atop a gusty subway grate in The Seven-Year Itch (1955) — without much resistance. As is made clear in some of the signature lines from his great films, he refused to give in to schmaltzy sentiment (“Shut up and deal”), just as he refrained from rendering moralizing judgments of alternative lifestyles (“Well, nobody’s perfect”). But on occasion, he took things a little too far or, in retrospect, was simply too far ahead of his times. For Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), his delirious sex farce co-starring Dean Martin and Kim Novak, he received some of the most vicious press in his lifetime: The New York Herald Tribune called it “the slimiest movie of the year.” Allowing a married woman, albeit one posing as a prostitute, to live out the teenage fantasy of sleeping with a pop idol was beyond the pale for most. Wilder recovered, though he continued to lick his wounds for many years to come.


One of the main virtues of Simsolo’s little book, beyond its appealing format and the crisp quality of its prose, is that it inspires us to go back and watch Wilder’s movies, most of them now available on DVD, and to reread the many books, interviews, essays and other sources on which he draws. What a complete pleasure to pull my Wilder box set from the shelf and revisit movies like The Apartment, Some Like it Hot, Ace in the Hole, enjoying them every bit as much as — if not more than — when I first saw them, savoring the very facets of Wilder’s craft that Simsolo highlights. During the past couple of years, a number of Wilder’s lesser-known pictures have been gaining attention. His wartime drama Five Graves to Cairo (1943), which boasts among other things Stroheim’s sinister performance as Field Marshall Rommel, was screened last February in New York as part of the monthly Not Coming to a Theater Near You program at the 92Y Tribeca (and will hopefully find its way into wider release), and last summer Criterion brought out a beautifully restored version of Edgar G. Ulmer and Robert Siodmak’s People on Sunday, one of Wilder’s earliest screenplays.

But not everything Wilder touched turned to gold. More than a couple of his films flopped at the box office (e.g., Ace in the Hole) or earned him scorn in the eyes of critics (e.g., The Fortune Cookie). In general, Wilder was suspicious of generic trends in American film, especially those he witnessed late in his professional life, when he became increasingly disenchanted with the business. In a 1975 New York magazine profile, he sardonically quipped,

I’ve often thought I would do a porno-horror movie, and capitalize on two of the going trends. The plot would have a sloppy hooker who gives all her innocent customers crabs. The crabs grow into giant octopuses and eat New Orleans. Do you see beauty in that? You get both nudity and animal horror in the same picture. I might call it Deep Jaws.

But he continued writing up until his last years, and although Buddy Buddy (1981), a largely forgettable comedy co-starring old Wilder standbys Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, was his final film, he toyed with a number of other ideas: competing, unsuccessfully, with Steven Spielberg to direct Schindler’s List, or, in a far less serious vein, writing the story of the famous French farteur Le Pétomane. As he reached 90, Wilder was fond of telling a joke — one that has been retold by many of his critics and biographers — that doubles as an allegory of the comparatively dry final phase of his career. A guy goes to see his doctor and announces he can no longer pee. The doctor asks, “How old are you?” “I’m 90,” he says. To which the doctor tartly responds, “You’ve peed enough!”


LARB Contributor

Noah Isenberg is professor and chair of culture and media at The New School, as well as the director of screen studies. His latest book, Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins will be published by the University of California Press in early January 2014.  


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