Great Directors Made Little #3 / Film Directors with their Trousers Off

Saul Wilder, AKA Billy, demonstrating that Jean Renoir was not alone in being dragged up by his parents. I thought this was mainly an inter-war custom, where mothers dressed their boys as girls because, consciously or unconsciously, they were afraid of losing them in another Great War. But this image predates WWI and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Maybe he’s just in rehearsal for SOME LIKE IT HOT.

Excitingly for regular Shadowplayers, the other kid in this picture is W. Lee Wilder, Billy’s idiot brother, who traded handbags for motion pictures and gave the world THE MAN WITHOUT A BODY, or parts of it, anyway. Even at this tender age he is unable to look down on his little brother.


Maurice Zolotow’s Billy Wilder in Hollywood isn’t very well-written, and the chapter on Wilder’s witticisms selects some questionable examples, but it’s invaluable research material because it was written years and years before the other Wilder books and documentaries, when Billy was somewhere near his prime (even if the movies were flopping) and it deploys different anecdotes and opinions from the ones Wilder dined out on in later years.

In particular, there are a few unmade films mentioned — the Marx Bros vehicle A NIGHT AT THE UNITED NATIONS, for instance, and one which basically invents the “gangster with crying jags” gimmick from ANALYZE THIS! and THE SOPRANOS. Nobody gave Wilder credit for that at the time, but it’s his. There’s also one from the early fifties in which a Hollywood screenwriter can’t get work because he has no talent. Ashamed to admit this to his wife, he pretends to be a blacklisted communist. Trust Wilder to find the most infuriatingly un-PC angle to explore that particular tragedy.

There’s also a very promising one about an English lord (Charles Laughton was intended as star) who seems to be staying afloat financially while his peers, if you’ll pardon the pun, are all reeling from taxation. The plot twist reveals that Lord Laughton is earning a mint on the side in the US as a masked wrestler. Wilder reports pitching this to Laughton and having the Great Man rolling on the floor in hysterics, weeping and begging for mercy from the comic onslaught. But, as with most of these ideas, Wilder says he couldn’t crack the ending.

Maybe some creative type in Hollywood can appropriate this one and solve it for him?

21 Responses to “Great Directors Made Little #3 / Film Directors with their Trousers Off”

  1. Even as an adult Billy had that baby face. Goes to show how things run full circle, from baby Billy in drag to Tony and Jack in same. We’ll never know if whether W. Lee also had a skirt on, impossible to tell.

  2. W Lee’s male pattern baldness is quite an interesting look for a child. I guess they both had their heads shaved for nits.

    Give little Billy a cigar and glasses and he could pass for his 90-year-old self.

  3. Not just a baby face. The tilt of the head and the quasi-smirk on the face was constant throughout his life. Baby Billy seems to be saying “Can you believe I’m going to be stuck with these Bozos for at least a decade?”

    Zolotow was an alcholic and Billy confronted him with this fact. Not the best way to endear yourself to a biographer.

  4. Worse than that — “He was this broken-down guy. Eventually I felt so sorry for him I told him he should have a drink!”

    Zolotow complains in the book that Wilder keeps offering him booze, whereas by Wilder’s account it was just once, to try and cheer him up.

  5. His features are what is called “elfin”, Billy.

    Some people tend to have faces that don’t alter from childhood to oldage. Guess they can pass off as eternally young which is a feeling you get with Wilder in his films and interviews. You know I can picture Wilder being asked if he missed the days of childhood innocence and showing that person his baby pictures, “That kid look innocent to you, that was me and I haven’t changed!”

  6. Love that word, nits. Can’t tell you how many nit-pickers I’ve encountered in my lifetime, more than I care to admit.

  7. All those unmade projects sound so juicy it is a pity Wilder didn’t go on with them. And the prospect of Wilder and Laughton making a frontal attack to peership through wrestling is delightful.

    Incidentally, I have a picture of little Charlie Laughton at a tender age with skirts, too: Was this the reason he got on well with these other toddles transvestites, Jean and Billy? Do the skirts make the directors?

  8. Is there any record of Laughton meeting Patrick MacNee or Peter Cushing? Because they were juvenile transvestites also.

    Interesting that Wilder and Laughton enjoyed each other so much. Others found Billy a martinet: Robert Stephens was driven to attempt suicide (well, his marriage was breaking up also) and Peter Sellers had a heart attack shooting Kiss Me Stupid and declined to work with Wilder again… Even Jack Lemmon seems to have found it hard going, every time.

  9. Not that I am aware, but then, not everything makes it into the chronicles ;p

  10. Christopher Says:

    John Huston was every bit as good as Billy Wilder only with an added western or 2..who needs John ford!?..

  11. I think Billy and Laughton understood each other. Billy had absolutely no intention of standing in Laughton’s way to do anything he felt like in Witness For the Prosecution. That’s because he delivered very time.

    You’re right about Stephens. As for Peter Sellers, bless him, he was INSANE!!!!!!

    Jack Lemmon is a different story. He set goals for himself personally that meshedwith Billy’s desire for excellence. Mroepver I think Billy saw his younger self in Lemmon in many ways. Certainly in The Apartment
    I interviewed Lemmon once in his office in Beverly Hills. It was all about Billy to hear it from him. Billy and Cukor.

  12. The difference between Wilder and Huston is that Wilder was, I’d say, a better writer. I think comparing their careers before they started directing confirms this.

    It’s perhaps a shame Wilder didn’t make more straight dramas in the last half of his career, and more originals as opposed to adaptations, but I love The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes passionately so I can’t regret that choice too much.

  13. “Peter Sellers had a heart attack” – or, according to The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, ELEVEN of them, during Kiss Me Stupid. I think I would almost rather find the rushes of the Sellers/Martin version of that film than, I dunno, Ambersons – the Ending. Well, not quite, but sometimes…

    My favourite unmade Wilder from the Zolotow was his Laurel and Hardy project, partly because of the opening (a slow move in on the Hollywood sign reveals, curled up asleep inside the final two O’s, our hapless heroes) and partly because the story – two washed-up silent comedy stars find odd-job work, but their female employer falls for Stan and causes the partnership to finally split) eventually provided the seed of Sunset Boulevard. A beautifully odd evolution.

  14. THe straight drama he did make, Fedora, is highly underrated.

  15. I just want to know what the hell possessed him to make Buddy Buddy. I’d much rather have seen Laughton as a masked wrestler.

  16. Fedora was a problematic shoot, and Wilder wasn’t too satisfied with the results, which probably led him to make Buddy Buddy to see if he could improve on it. I think also he may have sensed that opportunities were getting fewer and he better take this one. (It had been four years between The Front Page and Fedora, three between Fedora and this.) The script was thrown together quickly, drawn from a successful French movie from the makers of La Cage au Folles. And the result is just horrible. One of those blots, like Laurel & Hardy’s Atoll K, which you wish had never been made. Not easy to say exactly why, though Lemmon blamed himself for overacting and reckoned Wilder wasn’t his old self because he didn’t step in and correct it.

    There’s a funny Matthau story connected with it which I should tell you though…

  17. Avanti! is underrated. It’s a melancholy romantic comedy with Jack Lemmon and Juliette Mills (who I saw the other night at the Renoir retro opening, accompaned as always by her still-spectacular hubster Maxwell Caulfield.)

  18. Yes, I like Avanti! — a little overlong but very sweet.

    Excitingly, just discovered a still of the tiny Fritz Lang, also in drag. Expect that one soon.

  19. Another nit-
    Around this period, all small children wore dresses, until about age five, whereupon half of them switched garb. Not to be crude, but it was mostly for ease of access when things underneath needed trading out.

    Not that it isn’t fun to see them all from our cultural vantage point, however.

  20. Was it absolutely all of them? — it does seem to get referred to a lot by biographers as if it was worthy of note.

    But maybe the noteworthy cases were just after WWI, when there seem to have been a lot of mothers dragging up their boys as some kind of response to the war. Peter Cushing and Patrick MacNee were child drag artists of this kind.

  21. That’s probably true, about the WWI situation, but in turn of the century European and American households it was the social norm, with Victorian roots.

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