Archive for Maurice Zolotow

Based on an idea by Billy Wilder

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2016 by dcairns

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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.

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Blind Spots

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2016 by dcairns

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Ray Walston, an unsatisfactory substitute for the indisposed Peter Sellers, and Cliff Osmond, an unsatisfactory substitute for the area of wall he’s standing in front of, in Billy Wilder’s arguably-still-great KISS ME STUPID.

One kind of directorial blindness is obvious — Quentin Tarantino giving himself the job of lisping narrator in THE HATEFUL EIGHT. I suppose the idea that he’s a recognizable voice and he IS the director could be said to justify that one, if the idea worked. But Tarantino casting himself in PULP FICTION is harder to excuse — an actor with Tarantino’s limited manner and range and skill set could never hope to get cast in that movie, with more lines than Rosanna Arquette, if not for the fact that he was the guy who could give him that part.

And then there’s someone like Jules Dassin, working with his wife Melina Mercouri, and evidently convinced that everything she did was sexy, adorable, funny and convincing. I like Mercouri, but she does get carried away sometimes, and Dassin was evidently not going to be the man to rein her in. I don’t think it’s because he was afraid to do so, I think it’s because his critical eye relaxed unduly whenever he gazed upon his tall thin Greek wife.

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But, excepting such obvious cases of prejudice, what are the cases where someone who really should know better casts badly and fails to notice? I think the most inexplicable case on record is that of Billy Wilder’s affection for Cliff Osmond. Wilder, who had talent and knew talent, did not know that Osmond lacked talent. Not totally lacked, just lacked it enough to make his presence problematic when surrounded by really good people with really good material. Wilder went on the record saying that Osmond might be the new Laughton. And Wilder had worked, very successfully, with Laughton. Interestingly, he had planned to have Laughton play the character of Moustache in IRMA LA DOUCE, but Laughton became terminally ill. According to Maurice Zolotow’s unreliable Wilder bio, the director carried on meeting with Laughton, pretending that the actor was going to recover and play this comic role for his friend, thus comforting the great star on his death-bed. Lou Jacobi eventually took the role — but Cliff Osmond is in the picture too, as a policeman, making his first appearance for Wilder, and it is perhaps this connection that set in Wilder’s mind the curious idee fixee that Osmond was in some way Laughtonish. True, he was fat, and true, he wasn’t handsome, but many people are fat and unhandsome. Only Laughton is Laughton. Wilder might as well have cast me.

Osmond went on to prominent roles in KISS ME STUPID, THE FORTUNE COOKIE and THE FRONT PAGE. He’s in more Wilder films than Marilyn Monroe, Walter Matthau, Ray Milland, Fred MacMurray, Erich Von Stroheim or Audrey Hepburn. He’s level with William Holden.

I’m curious — who else do you think represents a blind spot in an otherwise talented director’s career? And more importantly, why?

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

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2010 by dcairns

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?