Of the studio-era Hollywood directors whose best films have proved to be of lasting value, Billy Wilder was the one who brought off the least likely feat: He won mass popularity by making movies that embody a dark and bitter vision of the world. Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950), the most impressive films Wilder made in the first part of his career, were not only financially successful but critically acclaimed as well. He was a writer, moreover, who started directing his own scripts in 1942 primarily to protect the words—a fact that set him apart from nearly all his contemporaries and helped to establish him as a key figure of Hollywood’s golden age.
The modern-day tendency to see the director of a film as its prime creative mover, however, has obscured the fact that Wilder’s scripts were invariably written with collaborators. He collaborated with the same man, Charles Brackett, on all but one of the features he co-wrote in Hollywood prior to 1951. In 1948, he went so far as to describe himself and Brackett, who produced the films that they wrote together, as “the happiest couple in Hollywood.” And yet, in that same year, Wilder unilaterally decided to dissolve their partnership and collaborate with others. He never worked with Brackett again.
Neither man publicly discussed their break save in general terms, nor did they talk with any specificity about how they wrote screenplays together. Because of this mutual reticence, and because Brackett wrote no screenplays of any consequence without Wilder, his name is now familiar only to film critics and historians. Hence the importance of “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age,* a new volume of entries from his hitherto unpublished diary. In addition to relating his side of the break with Wilder and providing an exact description of the nature of their collaborative process, the book reveals that Brackett was a talented writer in his own right and a shrewd chronicler of the film industry in the 1930s and ’40s.
Above all, “It’s the Pictures That Got Small” is an indispensable guide to the complex, increasingly awkward relationship between two men who had next to nothing in common and yet contrived to make a fair number of the studio system’s finest films.
Gifted though he was at comedy, life was no laughing matter to Billy Wilder. Born in 1906 in what is now Poland, he moved with his Jewish family to Vienna when he was a child, then he went to Berlin to pursue a career as a journalist and screenwriter. As a result, he saw up close the anti-Semitism that he described with typically caustic irony when speaking of the German people in old age, long after his mother and grandmother had vanished into the maw of the Holocaust:
I know the decent ones, I know the indecent ones, I know the ones who stood outraged—but within them [all] there was a little jubilation: one Jew less…I could have maybe saved my mother—but I didn’t dare because then there would have been one more.
Brackett, by contrast, was an upper-class Harvard-educated WASP from upstate New York. Fourteen years Wilder’s senior, he made his name by writing amusing novels and short stories about the privileged class into which he was born and the Manhattan-based writers and artists whom he befriended. (One of his novels,Entirely Surrounded, was a 1934 roman à clef about the Algonquin Round Table, of which he was a member.) In 1927, he became the New Yorker’s first drama critic, but Hollywood was already taking an interest in his work, and by 1936 he had become a full-time contract writer for Paramount.
Wilder fled to Paris when the Nazis came to power, then emigrated to Hollywood in 1934 and landed a job of his own at Paramount. His command of English was limited, which meant he was lucky to have forged a writing partnership with Brackett, with whom the studio placed him in 1936. The two found themselves turning out screenplays for such top-tier directors as Howard Hawks, Mitchell Leisen, and Ernst Lubitsch. Their specialty was sophisticated romantic comedies with a satirical twist, most notably Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939), the story of how a sober-sided female Russian diplomat (Greta Garbo) is wooed and won by a debonair Westerner (Melvyn Douglas) who introduces her to the joys of capitalism. They also wrote screwball comedies, of which Hawks’s Ball of Fire (1941), in which Gary Cooper plays a scholar of slang who falls for a brash nightclub singer (Barbara Stanwyck), is an enduringly choice example.
Brackett and Wilder were the oddest of couples, just as Brackett himself was a misfit in Hollywood: He was a Republican Wasp, a pairing of traits unusual to the point of singularity in the screenwriting community, which was dominated, then as now, by left-leaning liberal Jews. But the two men shared a coolly detached sense of humor, and each possessed in abundance what the other lacked. In a diary entry dating from the start of their collaboration, Brackett called his new colleague “a hard, conscientious worker, without a very sensitive ear for dialogue, but a beautiful constructionist.”
As this suggests, Wilder remained unsure of his command of the English language, though he came to speak it with characteristic pungency. So he took the lead in shaping the structure of their first screenplays, while Brackett wrote most of the dialogue. (Given his political inclinations, one suspects that the most famous joke in Ninotchka was written by Brackett: “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”) Both men learned from the elegant romanticism of Lubitsch, for whom they wrote their first screenplay, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, in 1936, but the ironic wit of their work was wholly original, and within a short time they were one of Hollywood’s most admired writing teams.
Neither man had any interest in directing the films that they wrote together. Even if they had, it would have been discouraged in prewar Hollywood, where it was taken for granted that writers wrote and directors directed. But Preston Sturges broke that unwritten law when he directed The Great McGinty in 1940, and Wilder decided to do the same thing for the same reason: “What we wrote was a bit of toilet paper that [directors] either used or they didn’t…I just wanted to protect the script.”
To this end, he directed a pair of modestly successful features co-written with Brackett, The Major and the Minor (1942) and Five Graves to Cairo (1943). In these films he worked out the basics of his mature directorial style, which was not unlike that of a stage director. Though he had a sure eye for isolated images, he had no larger interest in or talent for telling a story visually. For Wilder, cinematic storytelling was a fundamentally verbal process illustrated with handsomely shot pictures. Indeed, he claimed that any other approach was self-indulgent: “When somebody turns to his neighbor and says, ‘My, that was beautifully directed,’ we have proof it was not.”
Not surprisingly, Brackett feared that Wilder was starting to dominate their partnership, confessing in a 1943 diary entry that the younger man had “done the major part of our work for the last three years.” He opted, presumably as a matter of self-protection, to produce the films that he co-wrote with Wilder as well as other projects of his own. Meanwhile, Wilder struck out on his own and hit the box-office jackpot by collaborating with the mystery novelist Raymond Chandler on Double Indemnity, a screen adaptation of James M. Cain’s bestselling 1943 novella about an insurance salesman (played in the film by Fred MacMurray) who conspires with his lover (Barbara Stanwyck) to murder her husband for profit.
Double Indemnity appears at first glance to break with the well-established precedent of the Brackett-Wilder films, not merely in its sordid subject matter but in its seemingly anti-romantic tone as well. The two principal characters are a pair of tainted opportunists who know what they are and what they deserve. “We’re both rotten,” Stanwyck assures MacMurray at the end of the film. “Only you’re a little more rotten,” MacMurray replies, then shoots her. But Wilder simultaneously leaves the viewer in no doubt that MacMurray loves the woman whom he despises. Among other things, we know this from Miklós Rózsa’s background score, which is mostly taut and dissonant but also contains a romantic love theme for the two characters.
This bifurcated view of the lovers in Double Indemnity was to emerge as the defining aspect of Wilder’s later work, and it is no coincidence that a friend of German descent, the film composer Hugo Friedhofer, epitomized it with particular acuity: “In spite of that post–World War I cynicism that infuses practically every picture that he’s ever made, he’s still a kind of Wagnerian pussycat at heart. He’s fundamentally got that schmaltz outlook.”
Wilder reunited with Brackett in 1945 for The Lost Weekend, a film about an alcoholic writer that is more melodramatic (and thus more dated) than Double Indemnity but closely resembles it in tone and style. It was a huge critical and box-office triumph and won Oscars for best picture, director, and screenplay. But after making it, Wilder spent several months in Europe viewing and editing death-camp atrocity films. This experience, coming as it did on the heels of the discovery that his long-missing mother and grandmother had almost certainly been murdered by the Nazis, solidified his barely disguised pessimism and disgust for the exigencies of human nature. And so, after two lesser efforts, a fluffy musical called The Emperor Waltz and A Foreign Affair, a more potent but uneven comedy filmed partly on location in Germany (both 1948), he and Brackett made Sunset Boulevard (1950), the bleakest and the most original of their films.
Sunset Boulevard, the story of a failed screenwriter (William Holden) who becomes the “kept man” of an aging has-been silent-film star (Gloria Swanson) and is murdered by her when he tries to leave, does not fit neatly into any recognized genre. All but operatic in its quasi-Gothic expressive intensity, it is also noteworthy for the genuine sympathy with which its characters are portrayed, as well as a nimble verbal wit that leavens a loaf that could easily have become too sour for general consumption. For the first time, too, many of the sharpest lines in the script sound as if they must have come directly from Wilder, not Brackett: “I talked to a couple of yes men at Metro. To me they said no.”
To have made such a film, which Wilder rightly called “revolutionary for its day,” speaks well of the two men’s continued creative sympathy. But Wilder had tired of working with Brackett, so much so that he decided to terminate their collaboration while they were still writing Sunset Boulevard. “One of us said, Look, whatever I have to give and whatever you have to offer, it’s just not enough,” he later explained. It seems as likely, though, that Wilder, unlike his more equable partner, longed to make movies that were even harsher in tone, because his next project, Ace in the Hole (1951), was his darkest film, a grim variation on The Front Page, the perennially popular 1928 Ben Hecht–Charles MacArthur stage play about newspaper journalism (which in 1974 Wilder would adapt, poorly, for the screen). In it, a washed-up reporter played by Kirk Douglas gets hold of an exclusive story about a man trapped in a collapsed mine shaft, puffs it up into a media event, and loses what is left of his shriveled soul in the process.
“It is the best picture I ever made,” Wilder later said of Ace in the Hole, and for all its Menckenesque excesses of caricature, it now looks prescient, even prophetic, in its scalding portrayal of a mass culture in which the media can make anyone a celebrity. It was also a box-office flop, and Brackett knew why: “I admire toughness. I don’t admire hardness. That picture wasn’t tough. It was hard. But then, Billy’s hard, isn’t he?”
He was—but not hard enough to face the prospect of commercial failure. So he opted for safety. Of Wilder’s next six films, four were adaptations of successful stage plays, one was a dull dramatization of Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 flight to Paris, and one, Love in the Afternoon (1957), was a romantic comedy that was derivative of his prewar work. Not until the end of the decade did he regain his nerve and return to form with Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960), a pair of comedies written with I.A.L. Diamond, Wilder’s collaborator on Love in the Afternoon, with whom he continued to work for the rest of his career. The latter, a satirical rom-com that takes an extraordinarily dark turn, won him more Oscars.
As for Brackett, his diaries reveal that he learned in 1948 that Sunset Boulevard would be their final film together, not from Wilder himself but from a press release. Years later he told a friend, “I never knew what happened, never understood it.” Though he continued to write and produce glossy films throughout the 1950s, none of them was much worth discussing. To the day of his death in 1969, Brackett never came to terms with Wilder’s gratuitous cruelty: “It was such a blow, such an unexpected blow, I thought I’d never recover from it. And, in fact, I don’t think I ever have.”
In time Wilder received his comeuppance. While he went on to direct nine more films after The Apartment, only one, Irma La Douce (1963), was commercially successful, and none was even remotely comparable in quality to his earlier work. After making his last film, Buddy Buddy, at the age of 76 in 1981, he spent the remaining 21 years of his life in unhappy retirement, giving frequent sour-grapes interviews in which he sniped at the industry that had turned its back on him.
He should have known better than to expect otherwise. Many of his own films, after all, portray a corrupt world in which even the most seemingly likable people cannot be trusted to do the right thing. But while Hitler had taught him that lesson, Billy Wilder seems to have thought he would be the exception to the rule. It never occurred to him until it was too late that this assumption, like the happy endings of the scripts that he wrote with Charles Brackett in the earlier years of their partnership, was only a movie-house dream.