If anyone was an auteur-level director from the ’40s to early ’50s, it was the great Billy Wilder. And yet he ducked out of the realm of personal filmmaking for a 4 and 1/2 year period in the mid ’50s. Call it his house-director phase in which he made five engaging, pro-level studio entertainments that nonetheless didn’t exactly have that distinctive Wilder stamp.
The films were Sabrina (’54), The Seven Year Itch (’55), The Spirit of St. Louis (’57), Love in the Afternoon (’57) and Witness for the Prosecution (’57).
During those 4 1/2 years, beginning with the release of Stalag 17 and ending when he began work on Some Like It Hot in early ‘58, Wilder apparently decided it would be better to stop being “Billy Wilder” for a while.
Was it because the studio chiefs (and perhaps even Wilder himself) had recoiled from the battery-acid tone and financial failure of Ace in the Hole? Was it the basic schmaltzy mood of the mid ‘50s, the era of Eisenhower-era conformity, the underlying mindset of Invasion of the Body Snatchers?
Was it some kind of twitch in his chest, something in the air that told him that it would be temporarily smarter to put away the acrid pen and sharp satirical impulses and just submit to the flow of the times? Did Wilder decide to just enjoy the money and be a successful director because there was nothing wrong with that?
Jarring social changes happened during these 4 and 1/2 years. Brando-ish rebellion (“Whadaya got?), Elvis, Little Richard & Jerry Lee, “Howl” and Neal Cassidy and Jack Kerouac, spiritual fatigue and ennui in your middle-class suburbs (No Down Payment), blacklisting & Commie witch hunts, H-bomb testing in the Pacific, monster and sci-fi movies, black leather juvies, Fats Domino, be-bop babies, The Blob.
Did Wilder feel thrown by all this? Was he amused by it? Excited? Energized? Confused?
Surely you raised these topics during your hours and hours of conversation with Wilder in the mid to late ‘90s. Did he ever give you a money quote or some kind of concise answer about any of this?
Mr. Crowe to HE: “I think there’s truth in the theory that the lack of success of Ace in the Hole gave him pause. He was very proud of that movie, he said, particularly with that wickedly dark tone that could hold a line like his wife Audrey pitched — ‘kneeling bags my nylons.’ While I was interviewing him, he heard that Spike Lee wanted to remake Ace. He was very pleased about that. He was a fan of Spike Lee and the sharpness of his voice. When I wrote other directors to ask if any of them had questions for Wilder, Spike wrote back in twenty minutes about Ace. This made Billy VERY happy.
“But in the ‘house director’ phase you are pinpointing, there are certainly movies that he was very proud of. He loved Sabrina, particularly the Holden performance. He really disliked Bogart, but was still proud of the movie and the filmmaking. Love in the Afternoon was his Lubitsch tribute, and he was proud of that, even with the age difference that kept Cooper in the shadows for many of the set-ups. And Witness had his favorite actor of all-time, Charles Laughton.
“So it wasn’t like he was directing with a studio gun to his head. I think those were the movies that allowed him to keep working while putting his touches on the material as he went.
“I think the one movie where he felt most slapped down by a changing culture was Kiss Me Stupid. He loved Dean Martin, thought he was the funniest person he’d ever encountered in Hollywood. Couldn’t get enough of Dino. Years later, when I even mentioned Kiss Me Stupid, he would moan in pain. And not particularly for comic effect. ‘You are hurting an old man! You give me a stomach ache with these questions about Kiss Me Stupid!’
“He also liked telling the story that he could always tell the state of his career by the way the studio guard responded when he saw him at the gate. ‘This is when you know you have failed,’ Wilder said. ‘When the ‘hello’ is just a little flat.”
“So to answer your question, in his long career the roller coaster dipped a few times, but I don’t think he ever felt muzzled until probably after the Irma La Douce and Kiss Me Stupid run. Of course this is a conversation that could run long into the night, debating the ebb and flow of his incredible career and the many rhythms of the Wilder canon.”