Billy Wilder's Old-Fashioned Way
How soon they forget came home recently when a friend described his meeting with a studio development person who'd never heard of Star Wars. So is that where we are in 2010? Imagine then, how Billy Wilder felt when his 20's jokes and references fell flat before since born onlookers in 1974's The Front Page. Looking back ten years is chancy enough now ... imagine Wilder gag mentioning Leopold and Loeb, fifty years after the two made news. To him, these were current events. Billy the insider excluding us outsiders disdained a 70's zeitgeist and fell in the trap we all do of thinking our old days were the best days. He declared as much during interviews that got testier as decades and decline wore on: They say Wilder is out of touch with his times, said Billy, Frankly, I regard it as a complement. Who the hell wants to be in touch with these times? Fair enough ... unless you're asking other people to finance movies for a mass and, damn-them-all, modern audience. Billy had skated a cutting edge before. In fact, he'd done so longer than most any director working. I was looking over 1959 trades just yesterday: Some Like It Hot was just out and folks were raving. It was 20's set too but ahead of that time, as well as the decade when it was made. Wilder being fifty-three in 1959 had more patience with youth and maybe better idea of what they'd come to see. His winning streak of the period suggested he knew what all of us wanted to see. Some Like It Hot opened as Witness For The Prosecution came off months of hit-making and would be followed in a year with BW's redefinition of serio-comedy that was The Apartment. When in this business did any director measure so precisely the pulse of his public?
There were earlier setbacks that might have foretold The Front Page's fate had Wilder chosen to recall. His Spirit Of St. Louis reached back thirty years for its history and took lumps from kids who didn't know Charles Lindbergh from Krazy Kat. That had been 1957's miscalculation. It seemed to Universal in 1974, however, that a paying public was ripe for nostalgia. Hadn't The Sting struck oil? Well, yes to its customer's embrace, but no to their willingness for old-timers to broadcast memories of so far back minus ironic distance young(er) director George Roy Hill managed with characters distinctly hip despite their period garb. I watched that again recently and noted a little of the freshness Some Like It Hot once brought to snap brims and running boards, then calculated that Wilder was about Hill's age when he'd made SLIH. Where is the cut-off for directors being relevant? Not many in their late sixties ring bells for current youth (though I watched Frenzy last week, and well ... AH sure did with that one). Billy Wilder was like a lot of veterans who felt alienated by seventies' tastes alarmingly changed. It had taken that long for a counterculture to shake cobwebs (including his) out of an industry down for counts. The Front Page was pre-blockbuster era (that is, Jaws and Star Wars) when it still seemed possible adults would go to movies, thus Universal celebrated Wilder as Hollywood's last great apostle of the written word. Might The Front Page flash back to retro-fueled grosses The Sting enjoyed?
The Front Page wasn't a flop. It just wasn't enough of a hit. Wilder slowed down dialogue so he wouldn't lose current beneficiaries of public education (that very level Star Wars would seek and conquer), but misjudged appetites for profanities and vulgarity he'd been blocked from using over most of a career till then. Suddenly there were swear words flying every which way, so much so as to blunt the effect of a closing line Wilder treasured from the source play (The son-of-a-bitch stole my watch!). A lot of sex gab laid heavy on attempts at gaiety, something The Sting had neatly avoided by keeping its humor nearly G-rated. Wilder clearly enjoyed having the leash off ... too much so, in fact. Still in all for his efforts to be outrageous, any solid precode from forty years before seemed more authentically so. Walter Matthau felt Wilder leaned too hard on salty talk and said so to a USC class he visited during summer of 1975. We were on the Universal lot to learn how pictures got made. With W.C. Fields and Me and Gable and Lombard in production, it seemed U was still drunk on days past. Offices around the lot confirmed as much for being occupied by Alfred Hitchcock, Hal Wallis, Don Siegel, and yes, Billy Wilder. I kept waiting for the Laemmles to show up in the commissary. Matthau was quite free telling what Billy did wrong with The Front Page. I remember wondering if someone in the group might go and tell Wilder what his friend was saying about him. By then, The Front Page had come and gone. There wouldn't be any more Billy Wilder movies for Universal. He wanted them to back Fedora, but got the air and wound up having to make it with German money. The Front Page is around on DVD and showed up recently on Cinemax HD. Not having bothered to go in 1974, I did penance and watched. Well, there's nothing so terribly wrong with it was how I came away from the viewing. Could there be fainter praise than that?