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Thursday, July 11, 2019

Billy Wilder and United Artists Join Hands

Making Industry Out Of One Director's Comedy

Was Billy Wilder, with United Artists, the only director-distributor to make a franchise out of creative output? I mean product flow that for a while seemed reliable as next year’s Christmas, the stamp spelled Comedy on each update they did. Hitchcock's suspense, as I'm helpfully reminded by Scott MacGillivray, was lucrative for Paramount, as was DeMille in spectacle mode under same aegis, but his were spaced wider and seemed more free-standing than a freshest Wilder jape pushing limits farther out than the last. He began the 60’s like a coming decade’s surest thing (in a same way that Woody Allen would become in the 70's, adds Scott). 1959’s Some Like It Hot ($16.4 million in worldwide rentals) was something brand new in suspense-laced farce, had Marilyn Monroe doing precisely a role her public wanted to see, and made saucy the prospect of lead men in extended drag. Wilder habitually came back with profit, excluding WB's The Spirit of St. Louis, for which he’d not be blamed, for it wasn’t him that insisted on (mis)casting James Stewart or choosing this project in the first place (I still say Spirit might have clicked had they used Tab Hunter as Lindbergh --- think of star fee saved, plus youth audience served). Some Like It Hot would be surpassed, awards-wise and profit-wise (for distributing UA at least) by The Apartment, which followed up too on Wilder as edge-pusher at limits long in place re screen expression. Even nearing sixty, he thought like a writer-director half that age where it came to instinct for patron preference.

Any Idea From This Ad and the One Below What This Show Is About? Me Neither.

UA Damage Control Gets Out Conventional Ads, Too Little and Too Late

Franchise notion came quick to UA marketing. To follow general release of Some Like It Hot and The Apartment came combo billing for the “mirth-quakes,” a policy repeatable should Wilder continue his “laff hit” streak. Imagine a double feature for each year between a latest Wilder, a 60’s sky as limitless as UA would enjoy with paired James Bond reissues once that group got propulsion. Trouble was momentum broke by One, Two, Three, a late 1961 release unwisely sold on Billy Wilder’s name and image rather than the film’s cast and comedy values. This was hubris of unique sort for a campaign presumed to reach viewership that may well not know Wilder, despite two home runs he’d hit in a past two seasons. Saul Bass design for poster art did everything but announce what One, Two, Three was about, star James Cagney lost in eccentric scrawl that was cast credits. Worse was alternate style of the director seated on a ladder beneath three balloons, art to promise merriment upon buying a ticket, perhaps, but who was this nondescript man, and why pay to watch him? United Artists must have picked their focus group from Manhattan art houses, or critic circles who thought we all knew Wilder by sight and would take on face value any of his offerings.

Gotham First-Run Ad Celebrates Wilder's Boundary Push
As fuel to fire, the director characterized exhibitors as “being here to steal,” backlash from which was recalled by Greenbriar in June 2006. Shoveling behind the horse parade were quick fixers issuing a “United Artists Advertising Supplement” to clear waft of Bass and Billy Balloons, but better late than never was this time too late for damage done. Or maybe few saw fun in Soviets dropping an Iron Curtain down Berlin’s middle. Writers have asserted this as reason for a One, Two, Three bust, though I think it was too-smug selling that fouled the well. Consequence was four million in worldwide rentals for One, Two, Three, less than half of what The Apartment took, and a fourth of Some Like It Hot’s outcome. Again as with The Spirit of St. Louis, there wasn’t Wilder to blame, his comedy bite sharp as ever, so onward and upward to Irma La Douce for 1963, and hopeful return of a master to (commercial)form. For its part, One, Two, Three, not a candidate for revival, single or paired, was given over to ABC for network premiere on January 31, 1965, just over three years after theatrical. Billy Wilder films were especially unstrung by television, all of his UA’s save Witness For The ProsecutionSome Like It Hot, Avanti!, and Fedora shot in scope. Let the record show that One, Two, Three is lately reborn on Blu-Ray from Kino, even if it needs a refresher in Political Science to get comedic points, but again, that’s no failing of the writer-director. I just wonder if young people today can watch the film with any idea of what is going on in it, or why.

From My Mid-60's Scrapbook: All-Night Jack at a Charlotte Drive-In

Irma La Douce was the daisy, or doozy so far as revenue, with an epic $22.3 million worldwide. The story was about prostitutes, one of them Shirley MacLaine, with Jack Lemmon, most likeable of comic names by then, as her dual-posing customer. These stars, with much good will a residual from The Apartment, kept Irma La Douce out of serious harm’s way, even if more than a few critics saw Wilder’s latest as a joke too ripe to tell general audiences. That last became crux of the pitch, Irma La Douce loudly “naughty” in ads, grown-ups dared to come, let alone bringing children. Again it seemed Wilder was recipient of ideal timing, United Artists paving way later in a same year with Tom Jones, and Never On Sunday previous. Double-billing for encore runs was gravy to UA spoons, Irma La Douce a natural fit with Tom Jones, as was Never On Sunday with thieving-for-fun Topkapi, ideal for drive-ins like these enroute to Charlotte in 1966. Collateral benefits spread to Jack Lemmon, acclaimed “King Of Comedy,” at least by the management of Charlotte’s Queen Drive-In for “6 Solid Hours Of Laffs” as supplied by features not directed by Wilder, but certainly enabled by ones he did: How To Murder Your Wife, Under The Yum-Yum Tree, and Good Neighbor Sam. HE HE HE AND HAW HAW indeed.


Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Was Billy Wilder, with United Artists, the only director-distributor to make a franchise out of creative output? I mean product flow that for a while seemed reliable as next year’s Christmas, the stamp spelled Comedy on each update they did.

Woody Allen and United Artists in the '70s. Each new Allen picture rolled around and UA was happy with the consistent returns from the steady audience. (Ditto the additional rentals on the college circuit. I remember one campus film series that ran only Woody Allen pictures throughout both semesters, year in and year out.)

I might also add Alfred Hitchcock and Warners in the '50s, or Hitchcock and Universal in the '60s.

10:19 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Yes --- Woody Allen! I was thinking of filmmaker/company associations before Wilder, but indeed Allen had a run of comedy success UA would have envisioned for Wilder, but did not altogether get. And to think ... Allen is still going, persistent if for a smaller audience.

And a good point about Hitchcock, his run for Paramount a mostly successful one that allowed for a number of combo revivals right into the 60's after he left them.

11:14 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

I seem to remember reading that UA and/or Mirisch used the Wilder relationship as a model for a team-up with Blake Edwards. That started out strong, things got complicated though... he had to take GREAT RACE over to WB to get more budget, other projects went sour, etc.

11:59 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Put me in the minority, but I've always found Wilder's comedies too frentic and self-consciously "naughty". By the '70s, he was like a school boy who wanted to prove he knew dirty words. His dramas, however, are another matter entirely.

2:06 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

It's hard to think of Wilder as a comfortably predictable "sure thing". SOME LIKE IT HOT is naughty, pain-free laughs, while THE APARTMENT is bitter reality behind all those jokes and magazine cartoons about office sex. You can imagine real-life philanderers taking girls to THE APARTMENT, anticipating a mood-setting sexy romp and getting a figurative (and maybe literal) slap across the face.

Yes, he did keep going back to sex comedy. But ONE TWO THREE showed satiric nerve; THE FORTUNE COOKIE took what could have been safe and surefire on a risky detour into guilt and racism; THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES is a better Sherlock movie than many "serious" efforts, and pretty damn good for a supposed wreck; and FEDORA is a nicely acidic bookend to SUNSET BOULEVARD.

BUDDY BUDDY can only be equated with the final PINK PANTHER films: The band gets together to revive the old act and find it doesn't play any more.

7:47 PM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Funny (not HE HE and HAW HAW funny) that Billy's worst movie was his biggest commercial success.

10:56 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Why has no one mentioned KISS ME, STUPID?

7:37 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I didn't because the next Greenbriar post will focus on KISS ME, STUPID.

8:54 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...


Loved the column on Billy Wilder. One, Two, Three is one of my favorite Cagney films. Remember my disappointment in receiving the poster-I ordered it without having seen it. Perhaps my nomination for worst one sheet ever. About revivals-Locally here in Hampton Roads, a local movie critic does an annual classic movie festival. A few years ago, he included One, Two, Three, and at the end of the festival, the audience voted Cagney's performance "Best Actor" of the films shown.

From the time period covered, you left out the film that Wilder spent a great deal of time on (to the point of having a detailed screen treatment done if not a first draft script and reaching agreement with the cast). I refer to the never made “A Day at the United Nations” that would have starred The Marx Brothers.

More details can be found at

Joe from Virginia Beach
Joe McGrenra

2:29 PM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Love Kiss Me, Stupid. Baby.

10:12 PM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

I have a different take on this article from John's: in my humble opinion, One, Two Three should've been a success, but most moviegoers couldn't get the first poster made by Saul Bass, and nobody was willing to just take a chance on seeing this now acclaimed and quite funny movie (said current acclaim coming after a reappraisal by critics and movie cineastes), so it failed.

As for the other movies of Wilder's mentioned that did succeed (apart from Some Like It Hot, which for me is still a classic-especially because of the ending, one of the greatest in movie history-and The Apartment, as well as Topkapi and Never On Sunday) the rest mentioned are forgettable; Irma La Douce is a musical without the songs, and as for Tom Jones, Danny Peary said it best in his book Alternate Oscars about how dated and foolish the whole thing is (his choice of Oscar for Best Picture of 1963 was none of them, BTW.) It's too bad that the last movie James Cagney made before his retirement, although great and well-written, was a flop.

9:45 PM  

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