In honor of what would have been Billy Wilder’s 100th birthday, NYC’s Film Forum is currently hosting a retrospective titled “Essential Wilder.” Running until July 20th, the lineup features films co-written by Wilder either for himself or for another director (Howard Hawks, Mitchell Liesen and Wilder’s idol Ernst Lubistch, to name three). Wilder’s classics are represented, as well as films deemed by most to be “Lesser Wilder,” though a die-hard fan may take issue with that label: Wilder had a few misfires in his career, but only one of them is in this retrospective.
Because the series is called “Essential Wilder,” there are no screenings of Wilder’s horrendous Buddy, Buddy, nor are there any sightings of Jack Lemmon’s flat, naked ass from the otherwise mildly diverting truffle, Avanti. Film Forum also won’t be wearing Wilder’s Fedora nor reading The Front Page. In their places are movies about adulterers, perverts, lawyers, criminals, liars, wimps, snitches, drunks, and any combination from that list. Also present are numerous shots of the old New York, so many that Wilder should be mentioned in the same group of NYC directors as Lumet, Scorsese and Lee.
This week finds some choice Wilder works, and that aforementioned misfire. Thursday brings Witness for the Prosecution, a fun Agatha Christie mystery headed by Mr. and Mrs. Charles Laughton (both Oscar nominated), and made memorable by Marlene Dietrich’s supporting turn. Friday unspools Sunset Blvd., Wilder’s masterpiece and my second favorite movie of all time. It deserves a post all to itself at some future date.
Saturday is the adulterous double feature of Kiss Me, Stupid and The Seven Year Itch. Critics called Stupid “smarmy,” but at least—in its recently restored incarnation—it is honest about its smutty agenda. Itch, despite providing the iconic image of Monroe on that subway grate, is far smarmier for its failure to be true to its dirty-minded intentions. Monroe’s line about keeping her drawers in the freezer when it gets hot outside is smuttier (and more unsanitary) than anything Stupid has to offer. Perhaps the censor did Wilder in, but Itch is the one movie in the festival I find below par. It’s essential solely for that one scene of Monroe.
Wednesday, July 5 brings The Lost Weekend, the only Best Picture winner written by Charles Brackett and Wilder, or Brackettandwilder as they’d become known in Hollywood. Best Actor winner Ray Milland finds creative, alcohol-related uses for windows and chandeliers, then suffers a still-shockingly gruesome case of the DT’s. Though overdoing it just a tad, Milland is still effective as he stumbles all over Third Avenue, desperate for booze. “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” he says, but his desperation is anything but quiet. Milland begs for booze, and if the censor hadn’t been around, he might have done some very debased things to get it. Far more harrowing than the recent alky fairy tale, Leaving Las Vegas, Weekend was even endorsed by Seagrams, who intoned in their ad that “Some men should not drink!”
Weekend is also notable for inspiring the one line from Bob Hope that I thought was actually funny. After Milland received his Oscar, Hope said “I thought they would have hidden it in the chandelier.”
Speaking of Milland: before to Weekend, he appeared in one half of a double feature that I saw at the Forum on Independence Day. Both films showcase two actors in comic roles whose next films for Wilder—both dramas—would immortalize them. The Major and the Minor describes Milland’s hilarious Major Kirby and Ginger Rogers’ Susan Armstrong, who is masquerading as a 12 year old for reasons too complicated to get into here. Fresh off her Kitty Foyle Oscar, Rogers looks 12 like Wesley Snipes looks albino. Yet everyone is fooled except for Milland’s soon-to-be stepdaughter. Wilder uses the all-teenage boys school setting to emphasize that all men are born perverts; the horny cadets spend all their time trying to sprinkle Ginger on their overheating loins. At times, Major threatens to become the Porky’s of 1942. Brackettandwilder write some excellent, uproarious dialogue for Wilder’s directorial debut, including the line about “slipping out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.” But their real achievement is keeping the censor from realizing that this is, in Wilder’s words, “the story of a man who gets a hard-on every time he looks at this woman he thinks is a 12-year old.” Milland’s attempt to explain sex to Rogers is worth the price of admission.
Brackettandwilder also wrote Ball of Fire for Rogers, but she refused to play a scandalous woman. The role instead went to Barbara Stanwyck who, with her incredible legs and overall hotness, had by this time cornered the market on movies where a less than virtuous woman blew the gaskets of uptight, virginal men (see The Lady Eve).Howard Hawks directs this screwball comedy take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (“there are eight of them,” says Stanwyck) where a bunch of dirty old men and one Gary Cooper are captivated by an on-the-lam Babs. Stanwyck’s slang-spewing Sugarpuss O’Shea (try saying that three times fast) is hired by the encyclopedia writing “dwarfs” to help Cooper with his volume on slang. Little do they know that Stanwyck’s involved with some gangsters. There are prime swipes at my home state, New Jersey, and great slangy dialogue by the English-as-a-second-language Wilder. Stanwyck would entice another dumb dude, though in far more sinister fashion, in her next piece for Wilder, Double Indemnity.