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.