An Invitation to Hollywood
“I would rather sleep in a bathroom than in another hotel.”
– Billy Wilder, quoted in Life at the Marmont
On January 22, 1934, after less than a year in Paris, Wilder traveled by ship to New York, where his brother Willie was now living. During his Atlantic crossing, he read some books in English that he was familiar with in German, desperately trying to learn a language he had never studied. Wilder says, “In school I had studied Latin and French. Counting German, all of a sudden that made three dead languages that I knew.” 
As if things weren’t tough enough, Wilder’s tourist visa expired and he was forced to leave the country to reapply for a permanent US visa. He had to endure yet another period of exile – this time only a few days – south of the border in Mexicali waiting to get this vital document. Parts of the experience can be seen in the 1941 film Hold Back the Dawn starring Charles Boyer, script by Billy Wilder (and Charles Brackett).
Wilder’s big break came when Paramount’s Manny Wolf decided to team him with the established writer Charles Brackett. Although the two were opposites in many ways, the partnership went well and produced scripts for Ninotchka, Hold Back the Dawn and other above-average movies. Working with a co-writer was nothing new for Wilder. In fact, during his entire writing career, Wilder wrote very few scripts without a partner. With the exception of Double Indemnity (co-written with Raymond Chandler), Brackett would co-write all of Wilder’s films through Stalag 17.
It was his work on Ninotchka (Garbo laughs! was the publicity catch phrase) that brought Wilder together with the great director Ernst Lubitsch. Lubitsch soon became Wilder’s idol and mentor, and Wilder always kept a sign hanging in his office that asked, How would Lubitsch do it? Indeed, Billy now wanted to become a director himself. This was partly because he was getting tired of directors who, in his opinion, were botching his and Brackett’s scripts with their lack of directing talent. His low opinion of some directors became clear when he was once asked if he thought it was important for a director also to know how to write. Wilder’s response: No, but it helps if he knows how to read.
Wilder’s directorial debut was The Major and the Minor starring Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland. Not only was the film a resounding success, it reveals Wilder's early talent for directing (and writing) comedy. The popularity of The Major and the Minor (1942) meant that Wilder could keep on directing, a fact that surprised more than a few studio skeptics. His next film would be Five Graves to Cairo (1943) with Erich von Stroheim and Franchot Tone. Shot in the desert near Yuma, Arizona, Five Graves was a war story very loosely based on Rommel’s (von Stroheim) North Africa campaign.
Billy Wilder’s next film would leave no room for doubt about the director’s talent. Double Indemnity (1944) would be an almost unanimous critical success, garnering seven Academy award nominations, even if it was not that big at the box office. Today, more than 50 years later, most critics agree that this classic film noir is one of the best films of all time. In creating the Double Indemnity script (based on the James M. Cain novel), Wilder worked with the famous crime novelist Raymond Chandler. Although the two did not get along very well personally, their collaboration produced a masterful script and some of the snappiest dialog ever heard in a movie. At one point in the film, Walter (Fred MacMurray) inquires if Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) will also be at his upcoming appointment with her husband by asking, Same chair, same perfume, same anklet? The verbal sparring between Walter and Phyllis, dripping with erotic overtones, is a classic piece of movie dialog – “There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff…” Wilder the director also managed to coax outstanding performances from his stars, including Edward G. Robinson, for this dark tale of lust and murder.
For his next film, Wilder turned to the theme of alcoholism. The Lost Weekend (1945) brought the team of Brackett and Wilder back together. Based on a novel that Wilder had read on a train trip, The Lost Weekend was a tense, unrelenting story about a writer battling his drinking problem. Ray Milland earned an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of five days in the life of the alcoholic Don Birnam. The film won a total of five Oscars and earned $4.3 million in the US alone, a very respectable sum for the time. But, proving the often false validity of the Academy Awards, The Lost Weekend, showered with Oscars, and as good as it was, just doesn’t hold up as well over time as Double Indemnity, which failed to win a single Oscar.
Perhaps to compensate for all the bad news, after his return to the US Wilder was dating two women while he was still married. If Wilder’s career was shooting skyward, his first marriage (to Judith Iribe in 1936) was going in a different direction. Although his marriage didn’t end officially until 1947, it was probably really over before he left for Germany. One of the women he was dating became his mistress for a time, the other would end up becoming Wilder’s next wife.
After The Lost Weekend and its two Academy Awards for Wilder, the director would go on to make his first Technicolor movie, The Emperor Waltz (1948), one of his most forgettable films. Few Billy Wilder films are in color, and his next was no exception. A Foreign Affair – with Marlene Dietrich, Jean Arthur, and John Lund – was set in post-war Berlin and featured some aerial footage of a devastated Berlin that Wilder had shot during his tour of duty there in 1945. Very different from his later One, Two, Three, also shot in Berlin, but in the 1960s just as the Wall was going up, A Foreign Affair offers a good picture of Berlin and the US forces there right after the war.
Wilder went on to make a string of mostly very successful movies, starting with the critically acclaimed Sunset Boulevard in 1950 that earned him his third Oscar. (Hollywood’s revenge for his Sunset exposé about Tinseltown? Because Paramount owned all the rights, Wilder did not receive a dime for the Andrew Lloyd Webber revival of Sunset Boulevard.) But with Sunset his writing partnership with Charles Brackett was fading out about the same time his marriage to Audrey Young faded in. In the summer of 1949 the pair married quietly in Nevada, with a short honeymoon at a modest hotel at Lake Tahoe. They remained married until his death in 2002.
On his next several films, Wilder was in a continuing search for a new writing partner. For a time, he would work with a different co-writer on each film until he finally found the right one. Ace in the Hole (1951, aka The Big Carnival) did poorly at the box office (it did much better in Europe), but not because of the writing. Wilder’s next film, Stalag 17, would be a big hit in 1953. Based on a Broadway production, this film was concerned once again with the Germans and the war – this time in a prisoner-of-war camp, or Stalag.
After Stalag 17, Wilder found another play and a new co-writer to help him adapt it. Ernest Lehman and Billy revised the script for Sabrina (1954) in several ways. One of the biggest changes made for the film was to make the character of Linus (Humphrey Bogart) more of a cad, consistent with Wilder’s preference for the flawed hero. Sabrina would also be his last film for Paramount, where he had worked for some 18 years.
With Love in the Afternoon (1957), Wilder began a successful partnership with the screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond (Itek Dommnici), with whom he would begin a series of films that are now considered some his best work. With the exception of Witness for the Prosecution (1957, based on an Agatha Christie novel and play), Wilder co-wrote all of his next twelve movies with Diamond. This body of work, stretching from 1957 to 1981, includes film gems such as Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (for which Wilder received three Oscars in 1961), The Fortune Cookie (1966) and The Front Page (1974) – all four featuring a young Jack Lemmon. Unfortunately, it also includes not-so-sparkling gems like Irma la Douce (1963) and Kiss Me, Stupid (1964).
Billy Wilder worked with some of the most famous actors and actresses of all time. Wilder’s first Marilyn Monroe picture was The Seven Year Itch in 1955. Four years later he would again direct the troubled Monroe in Some Like It Hot. Wilder favorites included Audrey Hepburn, William Holden, Marlene Dietrich, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. On the other hand, Wilder and Humphrey Bogart did not get along at all.
Even in his nineties, the Wilder wit continued to sparkle, and over the years he produced one of the world’s largest collections of quotable utterances. Speaking of his 1979 film Fedora, Wilder said, “…if that picture were a person in a crowd, I would not put my arms around it. I would just say, ‘Hey, how are you? We had a good time didn’t we?’” 
During the 1980s and '90s, Wilder collected a wide array of Austrian and American honors and awards, including the National Medal of Honor from President Clinton—all a tribute to his vast talent and significant contributions to the cinematic world.
More about Wilder’s films on the next page.
NEXT > Billy Wilder Filmography
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Billy Wilder in Print
Here are some of the best books written about Billy Wilder
and his films.
- Conversations with Wilder
by Cameron Crowe. Paper, 400 pages. Knopf, 2001.
Amazon.com: “An invaluable, photo-intensive volume, …a kind of remake of Truffaut’s must-read interview book Hitchcock, with Cameron Crowe in the inquisitive Truffaut role and wily 93-year-old Billy Wilder as the crafty master director.”
- On Sunset Boulevard:
The Life and Times of Billy Wilder
by Ed Sikov. Hardcover. Hyperion, 1999.
Publishers Weekly: “The book’s film criticism works best as a tool for gleaning Wilder’s sensibility from his scripts and direction. The often irascible, always witty Wilder emerges from these pages as shrewd, eminent and, especially in comparison with today’s tepid Hollywood fare, daringly authentic.”
- Nobody’s Perfect:
Billy Wilder: A Personal Biography
by Charlotte Chandler. Hardcover. Simon & Schuster, 2002.
Publishers Weekly: “…a rich compendium of primary source material, containing interviews with Wilder himself, Kirk Douglas, Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Ginger Rogers, Jimmy Stewart, Gloria Swanson and others. …readers will not find critical appraisals of Ace in the Hole or Sunset Boulevard. However, the author does richly document the making of some of Wilder’s masterpieces…”
- Wilder Times: The Life of Billy Wilder
by Kevin Lally. Hardcover, 496 pages. Henry Holt, 1996.
Amazon.com: “In the first English-language biography of Wilder in a generation, Kevin Lally, managing editor of Film Journal International, recounts Wilder’s story, from his childhood in Vienna of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Hollywood, where he worked as a screenwriter before becoming a director. Lally also takes a close look at each of Wilder’s films.”
- Billy Wilder: Eine Nahaufnahme (in German)
von Hellmuth Karasek, Heyne, 1992. ISBN 3-4530-7201-4. A German biography of the Austrian director. “Ein Glücksfall von einer Biographie: Hellmuth Karaseks Großaufnahme von Billy Wilder” - Die Weltwoche
Chateau Marmont Books
Two books about the hotel known as the Chateau Marmont, 8221 Sunset Boulevard, a piece of Hollywood history and home at one time to many Hollywood and Austrian film people, including Hedy Lamarr, Peter Lorre, and Billy Wilder:
- Hollywood Handbook edited by André Balazs. 1996, Universe Publishing, a division of Rizzoli, New York. Paperback. ISBN 0-7893-0023-0.
The Chateau Marmont opened for business on Feb. 1, 1929 as an exclusive apartment house. In 1931 it was sold and converted to a hotel. The 1932 Olympics filled the Marmont to capacity and it soon became THE hotel for the Hollywood community. This fascinating book is an illustrated collection of writings about the famous people and sometimes bizarre events related to living at the Marmont. Contains segments by and about Billy Wilder, Hedy Lamarr, and much of Hollywood. Many photos by Helmut Newton and others. - More about this book.
- Life at the Marmont by Raymond Sarlot and Fred E. Basten.
Publisher: Roundtable, 1987. ISBN 978-0915677238
All about the hotel that Wilder and other stars learned to hate, but that later drew leading rock and folk stars, from Jagger to Baez, and TV performers like John Belushi, who died there. Sarlot was a co-owner of the Marmont; Basten is the author of Glorious Technicolor.
- Billy Wilder Filmography
- Austria - Country Information - Learn more about Wilder’s homeland.
- Famous German Movies - Films from Germany have made their mark on world cinema—and influenced Hollywood
- Germans (and Others) in Hollywood - About the three main waves of Germanic immigration to Hollywood
- Berlin City Guide - Sights, history
- German Cinema - From the German Way book
- Famous Germans, Austrians and Swiss
- Famous Graves - The graves and cemeteries of the famous
WILDER ON THE WEB
- Billy Wilder - Internet Movie Database
- Billy Wilder - Wikipedia
- Billy Wilder: About film noir - An interview with the director about film noir – those by him and others.
MORE > German-Hollywood Connections
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