July 28, 2021

“Nobody’s Perfect” — Billy Wilder on the Human Condition

By Stuart Mitchner

Here in the summer of 2021, when misinformation pollutes the Net and truth is a shadow of its former, undernourished self, I’m reading “The Art of Little Ruses” in Billy Wilder On Assignment (Princeton Univ. Press 24.95), a collection of Wilder’s salty, spirited writings from 1925-1930, edited by Noah Isenberg and spiritedly delivered into English by Shelley Frisch.

Writing in the May 1, 1927, Berliner Börsen Courier, the not-quite-21-year-old Wilder admits that as much as he appreciates and honors “the so-called truth,” he “can easily imagine that in two or three decades lies will be regarded as an indispensable and hence utterly unobjectionable implement in our daily lives.” So why not teach “the art of lying” as “a mandatory school subject, accessible to everyone and anyone,” making it “no longer the privilege of the few who have a natural predisposition in this arena” but  “the consummate moral and social justification of this hitherto maligned resource.”

Cynicism Rules

The cat-who-swallowed-the-canary wise guy on the cover of On Assignment already looks the part of the multiple-Oscar-winning Hollywood director Andrew Sarris deemed “too cynical to believe even his own cynicism.” If anything, based on the features and opinion pieces in this lively book, he believed in his own cynicism 40 years before Sarris downgraded him to the “Less Than Meets the Eye” category in The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968.

Labeling A Foreign Affair (1948) and One, Two, Three (1961) Wilder’s “irresponsible Berlin films” (“a series of tasteless gags, half anti-Left and half anti-Right”), Sarris singles out the “penchant for gross caricature” he says “marred” classics like Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Some Like It Hot (1959). When he pompously concludes that Wilder “is hardly likely to make a coherent film on the human condition,” I can almost hear Berlin Billie saying, and Hollywood Billy chiming in, “When was the last time coherence had anything to do with the human condition?”

Thinking Like a Director

In “The Art of Little Ruses,” Wilder operates like a director rehearsing a scene, with his reader cast as an actor approaching “an influential patron” without the benefit of “what could have been conveyed in a single year of systematic instruction in matters of tones of voice, catch phrases, arm movements, and facial gestures,” plus various other “Americanizing” lessons “in seamless life management.” Otherwise, when you enter the patron’s presence, “your posturing is reduced to a low level of groveling, your rapid breathing robs your voice of the proper intonation and the requisite chest resonance. Your gestures are feeble and unconvincing.”

Wilder goes on to envision scenarios based on “the art of swindling” and “the subject of indignation,” in which he coaches the reader: “Very good … just make your voice a little deeper. Make the movement of your hand toward the floor somewhat more pronounced, and slow down the whole thing by two seconds.”

Seeing like a Director

Wilder’s screenwriter/director-in-embryo surfaces again a few weeks later in “Naphthalene,” as he frames a scene around his bow-legged landlady, “a retired circus rider,” who walks into his room and opens the double window: “I wanted to register strong protest. But the draft coming in from the courtyard lifted my unpaid bill for April from the desk, then it fluttered for a while between the still life with tomatoes and the dusty floor lamp, until it fell right next to the calendar, just where the zero of the day was. (It was May 10.)” Next Wilder turns his camera-eye to the hallway, where the landlady, her cousin, and the maid “were standing in front of a huge open suitcase” into which “they were cramming whole piles of carpets, old clothing, and stuffed animals. The landlady herself commanded every movement, in her right hand she held a bag out of which she dumped some sort of white powder over the whole chose, the way confectioners’ sugar is poured over pancakes. I came closer and saw the women embalming my coat.” The piece ends with the embattled lodger laid up with a cold, capped by a high fever that inspires a vision that would have been a challenge to film: “My hot eyes saw only the three Ice Saints, Mamertus, Pancras, and Servatius juggling mothballs right next to my bed.”

Cole-Portering the Prince

There are hints of the Wilder-to-come throughout On Assignment — touches like the Americans at Cafè Florian in Venice “bent over newspapers as big as bedsheets”; the house in Genoa where, “about 480 years ago, Christopher Columbus’s diapers were hung out to dry”; the Berlin bookstore “that smells better than Coty and Chanel and features a charming disharmony of colorful book covers almost as pleasant to look at as women with ingeniously applied makeup.” And who else but the screenwriter who made Garbo laugh in Ninotchka could create a comic short subject around a want-ad for “a short, fat man with a bald head and good teeth”?

The comic verve that would one day energize Some Like It Hot and Love in the Afternoon drives Wilder’s infectious August 1927 jeu d’esprit on the Prince of Wales, “a funny boy, a snazzy guy.” As you read it, the piece begins to sing its own tune, a series of riffs on a “bored stiff and deeply unhappy” prince waiting for a German Cole Porter (or in this case, Princeton resident Frisch’s translation). It doesn’t pay to run incognito to the Kit-Kat Club where they’ve been playing the same songs for seven weeks, or to Sandringham where they play golf so badly that the chickens get a good laugh. Another trip around the world? “The prince knows the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia as well as his pants pocket and holster. As for Egypt, the crocodiles already whistle his name in front of the pyramids. Australia gets on his nerves. New Zealand, Guyana, Jamaica, Ceylon, the Fiji Islands, Hong Kong, and Malta: ditto. Fun, thy name is colonies.”

How about Canada then? An order is placed for “a real Canadian ranch, the kind the wild guys over there live in … A simple ranch with six bathrooms, two billiard rooms, a bridge room, a dance hall, three bars, and so on.” The daily schedule offers more fun in the same key (“the prince gives Black Bottom lessons”), ending with a hunt at three in the morning. “He rode off in his nightshirt. Yes, indeed! — Hello, prince, you are a funny boy.

Making a Movie

Probably the most free-spirited and joyously uncynical episode in On Assignment is Wilder’s recounting of the making of People on Sunday (1930), a slice of Berlin life codirected by Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, both destined for Hollywood careers, as were cameraman Eugen Schüfftan and his assistant Fred Zinnemann. In “Here We Are at Film Studio 1929,” Wilder, who provided a seven page script, mentions two working titles, Young People Like Us and That’s Exactly How Things Are, both of which make clear “that what we’re aiming for is less contrived and less busy, with less drama and less paper!… In the course of one Saturday and one Sunday we followed five randomly selected young people and had a look at how they spent their weekend.”

Writing in the freshness of the moment (he’s 23 in 1929), Wilder describes “a very, very simple story, quiet yet abounding in melodies that our ears pick up every day.” True, although it’s a silent film, and regardless of which score you select if you’re watching the Criterion DVD, what you see is music for the eyes: “No stunts, no clever punch lines, and ‘not the foggiest notion of the laws of drama.’ The five people in this film, that’s you and me.”

What happened to the cynic? This is a filmmaker in love, discovering his vocation, it’s a mission, an adventure like no other, no studio bosses (no studio for that matter): “Oh yes, we lack a strong storyline, a tangible conflict, and God knows what else. Let’s hope so. We skirted all the beaten paths for miles, on a narrow and utterly unused, terribly isolated route; the sign indicating the direction said ‘LIFE.’”

“A Strange Sense of Calm”

In “Young People Like Us,” an essay included with the Criterion DVD, Noah Isenberg notes that although People on Sunday “was made at an especially fragile moment in history, between the recent stock market collapse and the rise of National Socialism, its lyricism evokes a strange sense of calm, purity, and innocence. The key concerns of the film, and of the film’s characters — fighting over matinee idols, burning one’s tongue on a hot dog, having one’s portrait taken by a beach photographer, scrounging together enough money to spring for a boat ride — are indeed rather trivial when compared with the grand historical events unfolding offscreen.”

Isenberg’s introduction to Billy Wilder On Assignment ends with Wilder boarding a British ocean liner bound for America in January 1934, having acquired “a few more screen credits and a little more experience in show business, but very little of the English language,” although he “purportedly packed secondhand copies of  Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbit, and Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel in his suitcase. He had gone from a salaried screenwriter at UFA in Berlin to an unemployed refugee in Paris to an American transplant with twenty dollars and a hundred English words in his possession.”

“Fake News”

In Warning Shadows (Norton 2010), writing about one of Billy Wilder’s darkest films, Ace in the Hole (1951), Gary Giddins quotes the fallen journalist played by Kirk Douglas: “Bad news sells best, ‘cause good news is no news.” As Giddins points out in a piece written well over a decade before the Trump presidency and the post-election Big Lie, the “human interest” story “with which Wilder’s corrupt journalist hopes to spark America” is “news of a kind that is neither bad nor good. It is fake news, comic book news, binge news that everyone can follow.”

So here we are in the summer of 2021. Billy Wilder died in 2002. His films on “the human condition” have brought him a shelf of Oscars, 10 films in the National Film Registry, and Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment included among AFI’s greatest American films of all time, with the last lines from the last two providing a choice of cynical captions for our time, a toss-up between “nobody’s perfect” and “shut up and deal.”


I found a copy of the Criterion DVD of People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag) in the collection of Princeton Public Library. It can also be streamed online in the Criterion Channel.