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Fashion and Lifestyle – Billy Wilder’s Escape From the Nightmare of Europe

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Fashion and Lifestyle – Plenty of Hollywood auteurs can claim a Freudian dimension
to their work. But how many ever met the great man himself? When Oscar-winning
director Billy Wilder was 19 years old, he was making a living in the rackety
world of journalism in Vienna. He wrote for Die
Bühne and Die Stunde, composing
crosswords, squibs, columns, gags, movie reviews, theater reviews, interviews,
anything and everything. In those days, his byline was Billie Wilder (he
changed the spelling when he moved to Paris and decided “Billie” was a girl’s
name); the surname was pronounced “vilder,” rhyming with “builder.”He haunted Vienna’s café scene and wrote in a snappy version
of the distinctively European manner termed feuilleton (the word survives in
today’s German newspapers for their arts sections). It was the style of writing
you’d find in that part of the publication languidly perused by the
discerning literati in cafés: the reviews, the critical essays, and the personal
musings. Wilder himself rhapsodized about café culture: “Coffeehouses have something
in common with well-played violins. They resonate, reverberate and impart
distinct timbres.” In December 1925, Wilder’s editor told him to go to Sigmund
Freud’s house at Berggasse 19 and ask him what he thought about the growing
phenomenon of fascism, without any sort of arrangement or appointment—an
ambush-interview that the British tabloids call “monstering” someone. So young
Wilder—whose 1950 movie Sunset Boulevard was
to feature the most famous Oedipal relationship in movie history, between aging
silent star Norma Desmond and young screenwriter Joe Gillis; and whose 1959
comedy, Some Like It Hot, would show the fluidity of identity (“I tell ya, it’s a whole different sex!”)—rang the bell
and asked the maid if Dr. Freud was at home. Sigmund Freud appeared, with a
napkin around his neck; Billy Wilder had the bad taste to interrupt his
lunch. Freud ignored his proffered business card and curtly told him to be on
his way.Sadly, Wilder’s own write-up of this aborted interview does
not surface in Billy Wilder On Assignment,
a richly enjoyable and atmospheric selection of the director’s journalistic
writings in Vienna and later in Weimar Berlin, edited by Noah Isenberg and
translated from the German by Shelley Frisch. In interviews, Wilder later also remembered
putting the same question about fascism to Alfred Adler, Richard Strauss, and
Arthur Schnitzler as part of a general article. Sometimes he claimed to have
spoken to all four on the same day. Was the article abandoned? Lost? Was he exaggerating
or even inventing? I don’t think so: The very fact that Freud had nothing to
say argues in Wilder’s favor. Wilder the fabulist would be unable to resist a
pithy quote.The journalistic work of Billy Wilder in Vienna and Berlin
paints an amazing picture of improvisation and survival, excitement, cheek, and Schnauze. This was a young man who, with
nothing much in the way of formal education, made a decent living in
journalism and then, by cultivating a side hustle in screenwriting, created the
parallel career in the movies that was to be his ticket out of the European
inferno. This thrilling and valuable book lets us see the European roots of a director who made so many classic American movies, and how they were shaped in
the tumult and horror of the twentieth century. In Vienna, Wilder’s crowning
achievement was to interview jazz titan Paul Whiteman. Already affecting the
rakish hat that stayed with him all his adult life, he got embedded in Whiteman’s
entourage when he and his orchestra traveled on from Vienna to Berlin. Wilder
stayed on in Berlin, one of the most important movie industry cities in the
world. It was from Berlin in the early 1930s, seeing how Nazism was to take
over Germany, that Wilder joined the Jewish exodus, heading first for Paris and
then, when Columbia Pictures bought his script for a comedy caper called Pam-Pam and even offered to pay the boat
fare, Wilder sailed for Los Angeles. Wilder’s father had died in Berlin on a
visit to his son. But his mother, grandmother, and stepfather remained behind in
Austria. All were murdered in the camps.  Wilder’s journalism shows us the European roots of
Americana, and of course the colossal enthusiasm for America—the Amerikanismus—that was everywhere in
Berlin and Germany in the late 1920s and early ’30s, an association annulled by
the grim nationalist diktat of Hitler and then effaced in the cultural memory
by the fact of America and Germany’s enmity in World War II. Wilder adored the
American reportage of his great journalistic mentor in Berlin, Egon Erwin
Kisch, who published his account of U.S. travels in a tone of ironized
infatuation as Paradies Amerika. Wilder
naturally reviewed Hollywood movies, including ones from his own future stars
Gloria Swanson and Erich Von Stroheim. Wilder the critic is dismissive in these
pages about Von Stroheim’s much-cherished, much-cut masterwork Greed: “lopsided and full of meaningless
symbols.” Did Von Stroheim ever see that review? Did Wilder ever dare mention
it to him when they worked together?You could read Wilder’s journalism as part of the
pre-history of America, or maybe it is that you could read his movies,
particularly his comedies, as a post-history of Europe.It is in 1929 for the Berlin paper Tempo, that Wilder mentions the taste of a wildly fashionable new
drink that would still have been unfamiliar to his readers: “Coca-Cola, which
tastes like burnt tires. But it is said to be very refreshing.” (Later, in Wilder’s
1961 movie One, Two, Three, James
Cagney was to play a Coca-Cola executive in Cold War Berlin.) Like so many European
incomers to the United States, Wilder brought with him something that is often overlooked
in histories of prewar immigration—an existing passion for America, whose
cultural life Europeans naturally invigorated and reinvented with their own
experience and expertise. You could read Wilder’s journalism as part of the
pre-history of America, or maybe it is that you could read his movies,
particularly his comedies, as a post-history of Europe—the styles and talents
of Europe, extensively assimilated and normalized in America’s safe prosperity
and freed from the tragic horror of European history.In Vienna, Wilder’s most breathless and most excitable
journalism centers on the arrival of the Tiller Girls on the train at Vienna’s
Westbahnhof—a naughty-but-nice English female dance troupe, known for their
saucy high-kicking routines. He writes: “These are the Tiller Girls, the
charming Lawrence Tiller Girls from Manchester. Everyone is chirpy, busily
squealing and giggling. You don’t know where to look first. Sixteen magnificent
girls, gathered together, cultivated in all parts of the world. Those figures,
those legs, those little faces, and well-bred to boot; aristocratic you might
say.” Some Like It Hot was of course
remade from a German film called Fanfaren
Der Liebe (itself remade from a French film), but Wilder was clearly, ecstatically
remembering something from his own past. His big break in Berlin came when, desperate for cash and as
yet without journalistic contacts, he took a job as a dancer-for-hire at the
Hotel Eden, one of the tuxedoed young men dancing with married ladies, while
their bored, portly husbands sat it out. As Wilder reports in the Berliner Zeitung Am Mittag: Table 91. An older lady in a bottle-green
dress, with a long neck and hair the color of egg yolks; and a little lady,
whose reddish snub nose is trying too hard to look uppity. I stand in front of
them, a second Buridan’s ass, sweat on my brow, showing all my colors, helpless
and wobbly. Then I mechanically thrust my torso forward, toward the one with
the snub nose, purse my lips and say very softly: ‘May I ask for this dance…?’
… The little one gets up, places her chubby arm around my shoulder. We dance.It could be a Wilder movie.As good fortune would have it, one of the seated husbands
was the poet and novelist Alfred Henschke (pen-named “Klabund”), who was amused
by young Billy Wilder gallantly guiding his wife, stage star Carola Neher,
around the dance floor; he struck up a conversation and encouraged Wilder to
write up his account, which was to be the cornerstone of his Berlin
journalistic life and the most substantial and cinematic of the pieces
collected here. (As for Carola Neher, she divorced Henschke, went to the Soviet
Union in 1934, where she was eventually to be denounced as a Trotskyite, and
died in prison in 1941.)Wilder doesn’t mention fascism in these pages. His
journalism doesn’t register it. Maybe that isn’t too surprising. Berlin itself
was the city most resistant and indifferent to Nazism at the time. In some
ways, Wilder’s journalism is the epitome of Weimar Berlin: though not in that
decadent and specious style that we have all learned to recognize from the
movie Cabaret. Wilder’s journalism is
not in denial exactly, but it defiantly offers an alternative to the ugly new
extremism. His writing is intent on not giving fascism the oxygen of publicity
or the time of day.He is jaunty and funny and cordially cynical with the
rhythms of the born entertainer—something like a 1930s incarnation of Fran
Lebowitz. Wilder often sought out a kind of metropolitan innocence, perhaps
most characteristically in this novelistic sketch for the Berliner Börsen Courier, called “Berlin Rendezvous,” in 1927—a
reverie about where men and women meet up for a first date in Berlin: “the
Kranzlerecke, the famous street corner on Kurfürstendamm, the Berolina in
Alexanderplatz, and the Normaluhr, the oversized clock at the Zoo railway
station.” This last, in fact, is a key location for the 1930 movie he wrote: Menschen Am Sonntag (People On Sunday),
an experimental narrative of ordinary people’s “urban pastoral” experiences in
Berlin on the weekend. That is the “reality” toward which Billy Wilder’s
journalism gravitated. Or is it? The most brilliant piece in this collection is
Billy Wilder’s short story “Wanted: Perfect Optimist,” again published in the Berliner Börsen Courier in 1927, a
fiction with something of Gogol or Kafka. It is set in New York and is about a
man who answers a job ad and finds that his employer will pay him handsomely
for doing nothing other than smiling. He has to just sit in the chair and
smile—but his mouth must never relax from a convincing smile the entire working
day. It is desperately hard, but he keeps fanatically smiling. Finally, his boss
confesses that he has been crookedly selling moldy food and he needed a jolly
optimist in the office to boost his brazen confidence: “When I see you, nothing
can go wrong, nothing!” But when the man comes into the work the next day, the
office door is chained with a notice: “Closed down for bankruptcy.” Did Wilder,
in this story, foresee the endless, fatuous smiling optimism that preceded the
Wall Street crash of 1929 or Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and the drumroll of
impending spiritual bankruptcy? Either way, when Billy Wilder boarded the RMS Aquitania
in 1934, bound for the U.S., he was nursing his own, doggedly
persistent kind of optimism.
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