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Thursday, August 05, 2010

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 ... and here was 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. Wilder had cut edges before, and longer than any director working. I was looking over 1959 trades 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 The Sting again recently and noted freshness like Some Like It Hot brought to snap brims and running boards, then calculated that Wilder was about Hill's age when he made SLIH. Where is the cut-off for directors being relevant? Not many in their late sixties ring bells for current youth (there was Frenzy from Hitchcock to serve as exception to the rule). 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?


Blogger Mike Cline said...

I saw Billy's THE FRONT PAGE at the long-gone FLICK THEATRE in Boone, N.C.

I was entertained, but not to the point that I have ever had the urge to see it again.


8:36 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Good thoughts and observations, as usual. But as to Wilder, or any director, being out of touch with audiences once they reach Social Security age, we should remember THE FRONT PAGE came just a year or two after AVANTI! and only four years after PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. Both of these were notorious box office disasters in their day, and I'm sure you, John, could comment on the way United Artists handled, or mis-handled, their respective releases. But I had the opportunity to view both last year. Wow! Fair to say the pair hold up marvelously. Despite the apparent miscasting of tiny Juliet Mills, AVANTI! is fresher and funnier than ever. And thanks to the abundant extras on the DVD we now can speculate that the bigwigs probably did Wilder a favor condensing HOLMES down from four hours, since in its present form it's practically an unsung masterpiece. Today, each of these films show the director at the height of his talents and, I suspect, hold more appeal to contemporary audiences than the average mid-seventies release.

9:57 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Re today's banner: kudos to that drive-in owner for getting all 10 Commandments on one marquee. (I gather he or she was Catholic, since this list splits the "Thou shalt not covet"s into two and omits the one about graven images.)

1:11 PM  
Blogger Dugan said...

I saw PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOMES at a drive-in didn't even realize it was a Wilder film, which had no place at a drive in. I remember going to AVANTI when I knew who Wilder was but I knew Wilder as the director of films like ONE, TWO THREE, and SOME LIKE IT HOT, AVANTI seemed very slow and out of it. THE FRONT PAGE also seemed out of it especially with I feel a very miscast Jack Lemmon. I thought Wilder's most interesting later film was FEDORA, but that was just to inside Hollywood for movie audiences.

1:15 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Saw "Sherlock Holmes" again recently and enjoyed more than ever before, even though I think its lead is miscast. Imagine possibilities of Christopher Lee as Holmes under Wilder's direction ... as it is, his is my favorite performance in the film as Mycroft.

As regards "Avanti," I saw it recently as well and thought it good in parts, but too long. Part of the trouble is I've never been terribly impressed with Jack Lemmon ...

1:49 PM  
Anonymous Bill Luton said...

On a side note John, I wonder if Some Like It Hot came about because of the 20's/30's gangster revival at the time which seemed to have been popularized by The Untouchables tv show? Lots of b gangster films such as King of the Roaring Twenties, The Purple Gang, Rise & Fall of Legs Diamond followed.

4:47 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

"Part of the trouble is I've never been terribly impressed with Jack Lemmon ..."

I agree. Jack could be irritating some of the time.

6:01 PM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

To me, Billy Wilder's gift as a writer was hinting, rather than saying, what was on the character's mind. He was -- and this is no insult -- perhaps the most clever screenwriter of the
40s and 50s. But when movies loosened up in the '60s and beyond, Wilder went haywire, his characters swearing for the sake of swearing. Have you ever seen "Buddy Buddy"? Un-subtle would be an understatement. There's something to be said for the boundaries forced upon movies 60 and 70 years ago.

6:27 PM  
Anonymous Jim Cobb said...

I saw THE FRONT PAGE in its initial run and was very disappointed. I do think Universal was looking for something else along the lines of THE STING. But at least some of the problem was that both Matthau and Lemmon, wonderful actors though they were, were both too old and mis-cast. Carol Burnett is also way over the top and again, miscast, as Molly. Ultimately it was just paced too slow and attempts to update the material for a new audience (i.e. the gay couple) was just too cutesy. And the ending where the fates of the characters spelled out, is done in the style
of AMERICAN GRAFFITTI... yet another Universal film. Not sure if Wilder was entirely to blame, but Universal in this period tended to produce a lot of junk.
In short, give me HIS GIRL FRIDAY anyday.

9:04 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

Saw Private Life of Sherlock Holmes when it came out.Didn't know much about Wilder then 'cept for Sunset Blvd..We only went because it played up the Lock Ness monster in TV trailers and posters.Much of the witty dialog went over our heads in those days..but Now I count it in my top 5 Wilder favs..I sort of re-discovered it again in the late 70s through an LP of collected Miklos Rozsa film scores and it is definately my favorite of the scores he did for Wilder.

11:22 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

The problem with The Front Page is that changing Hildy to a female is such an improvement in every way that changing her back seems a willful throwing away of one of the story's strongest assets.

12:53 AM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Someone had to say it.

3:16 AM  
Blogger Tim Tipton said...

Carol Burnett stated it was her
worst performance on film. After
the release of the film, she and
her husband Joe Hamilton saw
it on a plane. It was so disapoint-
ing that she went to the stewartess
and asked to speek on the loud
speaker. She, said: "Ladys &
Gentleman, I'm so sorry for my
poor performance in this film. I
promise you I will no longer
disapoint you again!" The
passangers of the plane applauded
and Ms. Burnett felt she was vindicated.

3:54 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Heard from Griff via e-mail and he has some interesting points to make about Wilder and "The Front Page.":

One primary problem with Wilder's adaptation of THE FRONT PAGE is the casting of Jack Lemmon in the Hildy Johnson role. The dynamic of the play works best when Hildy, tired of the reporting game, is plausibly something of a young idiot in love, with Walter Burns clearly his older, crafty mentor actively working to sabotage this. With Lemmon and Matthau basically contemporaries, the whimsical idea of a youthful Hildy throwing his journalistic career away for love was altogether lost, and the already freely adapted story was further coarsened. Matthau is terrific as Burns; if the Jack Lemmon of 1957 had played Hildy, the picture would have worked a lot better. Bert Convy -- of all actors -- was a sharp Hildy in the hit 1969 Broadway revival that probably partly inspired Wilder's remake; Richard Thomas was excellent as Hildy in the 1986 Lincoln Center revival. [Rosalind Russell, of course, was immensely plausible in conveying the hilarious young-idiot-in-love side of Hildy in HIS GIRL FRIDAY.]

Wilder, who had earlier shown an almost magical touch in adapting modern plays to the screen -- I swear, STALAG 17, SABRINA, WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION and even AVANTI! are all superior in construction to the plays that inspired them -- is on uneasy ground here. Few of Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's additions to the play work very well, or work as well what they replace. [That said, the picture's nod to the way the famous photo of Ruth Snyder on the electric chair was taken (also alluded to in Cagney's THE PICTURE SNATCHER) and the ensuing ridiculous joke involving young Keppler (Jon Korkes) did make me chuckle.] The sub-plot with the flamingly gay Bensinger (well played, nonetheless, by David Wayne) didn't go over in 1974 and makes me wince today. Wilder has almost no idea what to do with Mollie Malloy, but he can't eliminate the character; poor Carol Burnett has no luck at all here.

While I normally have few issues with strong language in films, I agree that Wilder and Diamond's attempt to update the Hecht & MacArthur dialogue with a great deal of profanity backfired; not only did it defuse the impact of the play's famous curtain line, this failed to amuse, and likely even alienated a percentage of the adult audience that did turn out to see the picture. For the first time, this didn't seem like Wilder dialogue -- it wasn't sparkling, trenchant, real, funny. It just seemed kind of ugly. Perhaps a little desperate. Wilder's pictures were always classy. [Even KISS ME, STUPID has Alexandre Trauner sets and trunk songs by George and Ira Gershwin.] THE FRONT PAGE didn't need such coarseness: the play is basically a somewhat elegant comedy about an ugly story, and that's why it's still revived today.

Still, the picture is fairly handsome. Wilder seems to have worked well with young cameraman Jordan Cronenweth, and the film is nicely designed by THE STING's Henry Bumstead. The scene in the theatre where organist Susan Sarandon sings "Button Up Your Overcoat," is a lovely moment. Wilder did assemble a great supporting cast. [That's Allen Jenkins as the telegraph guy in the last scene with Matthau; it was his last film appearance.] It's a shame it isn't better. At least they show it uncut (and letterboxed) on cable. Universal's broadcast print was badly pan-and-scanned, and oddly retained a bit of the film's profanity... but simply blanked the key part of Burns' curtain line: son of a _____!

7:57 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff follows up with "The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes":

I think it was terribly important for Wilder to get back to work -- and fairly quickly -- after the catastrophe of THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, the commercial (and largely critical) debacle of AVANTI! and the end of his production association with The Mirisch Corporation. He had to show the industry he was still a major producer-director. He had run for cover before, adapting plays into films when a major project wasn't at hand; it was something to prime the pump. He may have picked the wrong play, or simply pressed too hard this time.

8:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jack Lemmon looks a bit like Leo Gorcey in that bottom still.

10:14 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

My main impression of The Front Page when I saw it was much like yours, John ("Nothing so terribly wrong with that..."), but that everything about it just seemed so tired. Probably better if everyone involved, from Wilder on down, had done it fifteen years earlier. I think the 1930 Lewis Milestone version, even in the crummy PD dupes that have come down to us, plays much sharper today. And of course His Girl Friday is out in front by many peerless miles. And alas, Carol Burnett is all too right to be embarrassed; too bad Wilder didn't give Susan Sarandon a crack at Mollie Malloy instead of making her play Peggy Grant.

3:14 PM  
Anonymous Malcolm Blackmoor said...

A few months ago I heard Billy Wilder tell a really good story in a documentary and made the mistake of wanting to tell it to a friend who is both vague and uninvolved in film matters. (Have you seen 2001? I'm not sure)

'Do you know who Billy Wilder was?'

'Was he Kim Wilder's father?'

Only English readers will understand that as she was referring to the pioneer English rocker Marty Wilde and his gorgeous blonde singing daughter.

I no longer talk to her of such matters.

5:46 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard L. Roberts supplies some cogent observations on Billy Wilder via e-mail:

Someone in your comments hit it on the head regarding Wilder, he began to flounder the minute Hollywood began to loosen up and relax against the taboos. I frankly see the slide for him beginning with ONE, TWO, THREE, which is way more strident than it need be (and wore out James Cagney into a twenty-year retirement). IRMA LA DOUCE is way too long, as Wilder's comedies all began to be (perhaps the old rule of comedies over 90 minutes is a truer axiom than most would like to admit), KISS ME STUPID is just unpleasant, despite one of Dean Martin's great performances, and THE FORTUNE COOKIE, even with discovering the great teaming of Lemmon and Matthau, could lose a half hour and no one would miss it. After that, it was all missteps from a director who should have stuck with sublety and probably would have become passe just as all the old directors did, but we might have had a few more late pictures we didn;t have to apologize or make amends for. As much as I like Matthau and Jack Lemmon together,because Matthau did seem to reign in some of Lemmon's mannerisms when they teamed (Lemmon could be a very good actor when he put his mind to it, but he could also be very lazy and fall back on his "ain't I cute" schitcks), none of their movies together were as good as they were.

I saw THE FRONT PAGE when it came out and hoped it would be all it promised on paper (perfect combination of Director and Stars, and a great group of supporting players), and it does have its moments, but this was also around the time that Howard Hawks was being rediscovered and the original Milestone version had resurfaced, and this new FRONT PAGE quickly paled in comparison to what had come before (as well as indeed not coming close to the recent Broadway revival, which from the surviving recording of apparently had a great Walter Burns in Robert Ryan). I kept going to Wilders new movies hoping he would regain some of his lost magic, but it got worde and worse. I'm glad be lived so long to at least be revered and remembered well, but in my book, THE APARTMENT really is his last great picture.

4:46 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

Lots of bits and pieces of trivia pop into my mind reading this fascinating -- and very educated -- collection of comments:

I too remember seeing "The Front Page" in Westwood when it first opened and the thought that ran thru my mind then, as it does now, is: "Why this?" There just appeared to be no rhyme or reason for a re-do of "Front Page" at that time, and one suspects that Wilder (and Diamond) were, to use Hitchcock's phrase, "running for cover" -- meaning "Playing it safe", in order to set-up a project at Universal. It's the only explanation I can come up with.

And, in terms of then theatrical revivals, I seem to vaguely recall that both leads had just done a very successful stage revival of this here locally, at the Ahmanson (The Music Center), but one's memory can play tricks --(Maybe it was something else). But, possibly that was the reason.

Whatever the reason, the result, as everyone here has pointed out, is it just wasn't a Billy Wilder film, which at least "Avanti" was.

I do have the dimmest recollection of sitting backstage at The Shubert Theatre in Century City, on a couch next to Walter Matthau one night, and listening to great, one of a kind stories about Wilder he was swapping with some othe film people. One of them stands out: Billy and Charles Brackett were shaping-up "The Emporer Waltz" at Paramount. Crosby was set in the lead. They needed a strong female to play the aristocratic daughter of Franz Josef, I believe. They approached their first choice, Garbo. After bringing her to their office at the studio, she did the unbelievable -- she agreed! Billy, in his overenthusiasm, slapped her leg, and said to his partner, "Didn't I tell you this was a great broad!" Garbo walked out. Charlie never forgave him.

My then writing partner and I were out at MGM toward corporate sunset time. We were there under the auspices of veteran producer Samuel Marx, who really liked us, and a property we had, that he also liked, called "The Bright Side",as well as an independent idea I was pitching on a remake of the studio-owned property, "Libeled Lady". The studio had only recently completed "Buddy, Buddy" -- a bust. Sam told me that Jack and Walter were so angry at Billy, they both told him when shooting had completed they would never work with him again!

P.S.: I couild easily see the late Bert Convy -- who was a theatre-trained actor first, a game show host second, being a very credible Hildy Johnson, and it would have been far better casting -- but Universal certainly wanted a "name", and Billy was comfortable with his pals, so that was that!

As always, best wishes, John.


11:36 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

RJ, as always this is such great stuff from you! That's a wonderful anecdote about Wilder and Garbo. I read recently that Wilder and Charles Brackett actually came to blows on the set of "Sunset Boulevard," and that this led to their split-up after the film was completed. Wonder if that story is true ...

8:42 AM  

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