Based on an idea by Billy Wilder


Billy Wilder dismissed the drama FOURTEEN HOURS, in which a suicidal man perches on a window ledge, as uninteresting, and said that in his version the man would be a philanderer escaping a jealous husband, fleeing onto the window ledge and being mistaken for a suicide. He then has to play along.

It feels like Billy Wilder couldn’t open his mouth without somebody making off with his words, because the late Gene Wilder’s THE WOMAN IN RED and the film which inspired it, Yves Robert’s UN ÉLÉPHANT ÇA TROMPE ÉNORMÉMENT took that idea and spun a whole movie around it. (Love the prophetic seagull cries: when you hear them in the Wilder, you know they came from the French original. Not an American idea.)

Maurice Zolotow’s biography of Wilder features a couple of ideas which Wilder never got around to finishing. In one, a gangster is tormented by inexplicable crying jags and must seek therapy. This of course is the starting point of both ANALYSE THIS! and The Sopranos. Those both came along at around the same time, and could be interpreted as not so much cases of parallel development as parallel swiping from Billy Wilder.

The bio also tells us of a story Wilder pitched to Charles Laughton, after they had enjoyed working together on WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. In this one, set in post-war Britain, the gentry are being hit with property taxes, and finding they have to tighten their belts. But one stately lord (Laughton), seems to still be living high on the hog, and none of his blue-blooded friends can figure out how he’s doing it. The truth eventually is revealed to the audience: he’s been earning a fortune with his secret identity as a masked wrestler.

This pitch had Laughton rolling on the floor in hysterics, begging for mercy, But Wilder could never work out an ending for it.

Nobody, so far as I know, has adapted this idea, perhaps because its social moment has passed, but I may have just discovered where Wilder got the idea from.

In P.G. Wodehouse’s Ring for Jeeves, aristocrat Bill Rowcester (pronounced “Roaster”) is able to employ servants, including the mighty Jeeves, even as fellow aristos are having to get actual jobs for the first time in their lives. In this story, the secret is that Bill has been earning money on the sly as a bookie, wearing a preposterous false beard and eye-patch, in what turns out to be one of Jeeves’ less inspired ideas.

(Bill “Roaster” is very much like Bertie Wooster, but for this plot Wodehouse wanted to work with a hero who was financially embarrassed and romantically involved, neither of which would work for Bertie. An excuse is found for Jeeves to briefly come to work for another master.)

Did Wilder borrow the idea and adapt it? The timing seems right: Wodehouse’s book was published in America in 1954, and Wilder worked with Laughton in 1957. (He planned to cast Laughton in a supporting role in IRMA LA DOUCE in 1963, but Laughton fell ill with the cancer that would kill him. Zolotow tells us that Wilder carried on the pretense that they would make the film together, visiting the ailing actor for regular story updates.)

I like the idea of Wilder being influenced by Wodehouse. Everyone should be.

8 Responses to “Based on an idea by Billy Wilder”

  1. Hi Mr Cairns

    Regarding the masked wrestler idea both being done: that sounds awfully similar to Nacho Libre to me! Are there any more stories about Wilder being swiped from, or has thia delightful well been already dried? (The only one that comes immediately to mind is Stalag 17 and Hogan#s Heroes)

    Thanks very much for your wonderful film blog! Also, on an unrelated note, since you’re a fan of obscure and unfairly forgotten cinema, do you have an opinion on Svengali ( still a brilliant and unique film, almost like an American Archers film) or Allen Baron’s masterful, nasty Blast of Silence?

    Thanks again!

  2. Thanks! Yes, I would love to get around to those two flicks.

    Wilder pointed out that William Holden’s character in Bridge on the River Kwai was stolen from William Holden’s character in Stalag 17. Other than that, I can’t think of any more, but doubtless there are some, even discounting direct remakes like Sabrina…

  3. I remember a failed comedy pilot about two waiters on the run from the mob after a witnessing a (failed) hit at a big dinner. If memory serves, there was a weak echo of the Curtis-Lemmon byplay and a fleeting moment of escaping in dresses. While the “Some Like It Hot” references were plentiful, presumably the actual series would have been more a comic version of “The Fugitive” (in fact there WAS a short-lived sitcom, “Run Buddy Run”, about a nebbish on the run from mobsters).

    “Some Like It Hot” and “The Apartment” were both done over as Broadway musicals. “Ninotchka” was musicalized on stage and in film as “Silk Stockings”. Somebody MUST have tried to do the same with “Sabrina”.

    Also, Wilder had an anecdote about an unmade comedy: In a town where all the men are off to the Crusades, the wives are all stuck in chastity belts. But one man has the key to them all: the village blacksmith, to be played by Cary Grant. There was a movie titled, among other things, “The Chastity Belt”. Instead of a whole town of belted wives, you had Tony Curtis slapping a belt on his bride before going off Crusading.

  4. There’s also Up the Chastity Belt with Frankie Howerd, which is awful.

    Wilder’s idea SEEMS to come to an end the moment we see the star’s face. Big laugh, then what? No doubt that’s why he didn’t proceed with it.

    Oh, having looked up Nacho Libre, a film I never bothered to notice much, I can confirm that it’s a remake of Wilder’s masked wrestler idea, with a monk instead of a lord, and a different motivation: following his dream rather than financial necessity. I prefer Wilder’s take.

  5. I think there was a real Nacho Libre in Mexico – a priest or monk who wrestled to raise money for an orphanage. I doubt if he was acquainted with Wilder’s work.

  6. Hmm, probably not. When was this? Maybe he inspired Wilder?

  7. Matthew Davis Says:

    Nacho Libre was inspired by a genuine Mexican priest/wrestler Father Sergio Gutiérrez Benítez who funded his orphanage by wrestling under the nom-du-lutte “Fray Tormenta” in the mid 70s who was himself inspired by two 1963 Mexican films, “El Señor Tormenta” (Mister Storm) and “Tormenta En El Ring” (Storm In The Ring) both about a poor Mexican priest who funds his orphanage by fighting as a lucha libre wrestler at night.

    So, Nacho Libre is a film inspired by a man inspired by a film. Ow!

  8. Outstanding! Human culture just consumed itself like a multidimensional ourobouros.

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