The USPS recently issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next few weeks. In this post LR Simon discusses the career and influence of Billy Wilder.
Like the other directors featured in this series, Billy Wilder started his film career as a writer. He had worked as a journalist in Berlin before becoming interested in film and writing screenplays. He wrote the screenplay for Emil and the Detectives (1931), and then moved to Paris as Hitler came into power. He made his directorial debut in France with Mauvaise Graine (1934), moving to Hollywood before its release. His first big American hit as a writer came in 1939 with Ninotchka, and he made his American directorial debut with The Major and the Minor in 1942. He would go on to direct Double Indemnity (1944), arguably the best noir film; Some Like It Hot (1959), one of the best-loved comedies in film history; and Stalag 17 (1953), one of the best prisoner of war films.
Because he was a writer, Wilder believed that films were at their best when the script was honored. He became a director in large part to protect his scripts from misinterpretation. Once a director, he began to tailor scripts for actors, because he thought all actors have limits; this, however, did not keep him from casting against type—Fred MacMurray was not a likely choice to play a scheming insurance salesman in Double Indemnity, for example.
Wilder had great admiration for directors who were also writers, such as John Huston and Akira Kurosawa, but also for directors who respected the writers, such as Ernst Lubitsch, for whom he wrote several screenplays. Wilder learned much about directing from Lubitsch—not only how to respect the script and the medium, but also “to do things as elegantly and as simply as possible.” Despite directors’ having much more influence on set than writers (during the studio era, writers were not allowed on set), Wilder did not subscribe to “auteur theory”:
Film’s thought of as a director’s medium because the director creates the end product that appears on the screen. It’s that stupid auteur theory again, that the director is the author of the film. But what does the director shoot—the telephone book? Writers became much more important when sound came in, but they’ve had to put up a valiant fight to get the credit they deserve.
Wilder’s influence on cinema extends beyond the technical—many of his films pushed the limits of what was acceptable under the Hays Code. Double Indemnity centers on marital infidelity, a topic that the code made almost impossible to treat honestly on film. Some Like It Hot features transvestitism and a nod to homosexuality, and was released without a Production Code Seal of Approval; it was a huge critical and box-office success, and may have been the single most important film in terms of ending the power of the Hays Office.
While Wilder’s legacy of expanding acceptable content in films is important—invaluable, even—some of his attitudes are less honorable. For example, Wilder was never blacklisted, but he had no sympathy for those who were, and he held some blacklisted artists in disdain. Of course, nobody’s perfect.