Billy Wilder: How a tabloid reporter became a revered filmmaker

A book compiles the early writings by the creator of iconic movies like ‘Some Like It Hot’ and ‘Sunset Boulevard’ during his years in Weimar Berlin and interwar Vienna

Billy Wilder, portrayed during his years as a journalist in Vienna.
Billy Wilder, portrayed during his years as a journalist in Vienna.

Before he was Billy Wilder, the director of The Apartment, Some Like it Hot, Sunset Boulevard and Irma la Douce, Samuel Wilder was a student, journalist and film lover. Armed with self-confidence and a love of jazz and storytelling, he carved out a life for himself in Vienna between the wars and in Berlin during the Weimar Republic.

The filmmaker had been born in a town near Cracow in modern-day Poland, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire, where his father ran several cafes and restaurants and where he spent his childhood. His teenage years were spent in imperial Vienna. As a twentysomething, he lived a life of journalistic escapades in these bustling cultural hotspots that were full of artistic and social events. The book Billy Wilder On Assignment: Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna, recently released in Spanish by Ediciones Laertes, collects his writings from that time. Luz Monteagudo’s Spanish translation of the compilation brings together 50 articles selected and edited by Noah Isenberg in English. Isenberg, in turn, based his selection on two anthologies in German, one from 1996 with the writer’s Berlin works and another from 2006 with his Vienna dispatches.

Wilder was never Austrian: after World War I, the Wilders were considered Polish citizens. He did not appreciate the country that rejected him as a citizen, but it was there that he discovered his passion: telling stories. His father, on the other hand, had another destiny in mind for his son: to become a lawyer, a profession that seemed perfect for a Jewish kid in the 1920s. “I didn’t want to, and I saved myself by becoming a journalist, a very underpaid reporter,” he told Cameron Crowe in the book Conversations with Billy Wilder.

In Vienna and Berlin, high society and the middle class mingled with each other, and elite culture met popular entertainment. On Christmas 1924, at the age of 18 and a half, Wilder applied for a job at the tabloid magazine Die Bühne. He got it at the beginning of 1925 after sneaking into the newsroom. The filmmaker was never a reliable source about his own life, having a tendency to embellish stories. On his hiring at Die Bühne, he claimed that he had caught the theater critic having sex with a secretary.

Paul Whiteman's orchestra, 1926. Wilder is on the right, with his hands on his pockets.
Paul Whiteman's orchestra, 1926. Wilder is on the right, with his hands on his pockets.

True or not, in August of that year, Wilder had already appeared in a photo with the friends of Max Reinhardt, the film producer and theater and film director, an advocate of expressionism and a magnet for talent. Wilder combined Die Bühne with Die Stunde, another tabloid magazine from the same publishing group, and he threw himself into writing. He explained to his biographer Hellmuth Karasek, “I was daring, I was full of assertiveness, I had a talent for exaggeration.”

The new book features Wilder’s stories about meetings with stars including the actress Asta Nielsen and the band Tiller Girls (the inspiration for the all-female band in Some Like It Hot), as well as the prince of Wales, during their stops in Vienna. Of the British heir Wilder wrote, after chatting about fashion: “A clever fellow, this Englishman! By the way, he’s brought me around to his taste in clothing: I’m going to dress in the English way, starting today! Because going English is cheap, and what is cheap enough these days?”

In the summer of 1926, the American jazz conductor Paul Whiteman visited the Austrian capital. Wilder interviewed him for Die Stunde, and Whiteman invited him to hear the band in Berlin. Wilder did not hesitate. He went to Germany to work both as a reporter and as a press agent. At the end of the 1920s, Berlin was a completely Americanized city, brimming with cinema and creativity. Journalists crossed paths with figures like the millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt IV. Wilder spent those years writing for various publications, among them the Berliner Zeitung and the Berliner Börsen-Courier. His byline appears on profiles of actors such as Adolphe Menjou and filmmakers like Erich von Stroheim, a director who would end up working with Wilder in Five Graves to Cairo and Sunset Boulevard. The journalist recorded the anecdotes and people around him: he interviewed a witch, the world-famous clown Grock, the oldest Berliner alive and a poker player.

Billy Wilder, in a still from 'Hell of a reporter' (1929).
Billy Wilder, in a still from 'Hell of a reporter' (1929).

The new book opens with some of Wilder’s articles. One chronicles a heat wave, another explores Berliners’ tastes in alcohol and another recounts a day of shooting in a movie studio. This section includes the well-known “Waiter, A Dancer, Please!”, which gave rise to the legend that Wilder once made a living as a gigolo. Published in January 1927, the story recounts the adventures of the then-journalist’s two months moonlighting as a dancer for hire at the Eden Hotel. “Saturday is the worst day for the dancer. All the halls are full to the very last seat. On the dance floor fifty couples crowd together, stepping on each other’s feet, panting and sparring. One single mass of flesh, quivering in rhythm like aspic.” There is not a note of sex.

Billy Wilder (in the middle) and Peter Lorre (right) with other Jewish refugees from Europe in Hollywood.
Billy Wilder (in the middle) and Peter Lorre (right) with other Jewish refugees from Europe in Hollywood.

During that period, Wilder began to grow interested in cinema. His film reviews may be the worst part of this compilation, although the book includes the article that inspired People on Sunday (1930), one of the key films in the late Weimar Republic.

Wilder had already worked as a writer in the shadow of other screenwriters. He even signed the script and acted in Hell of a Reporter (1928), the forerunner of The Front Page. But People on Sunday opened the doors of the industry to him. It led him to write dozens of scripts in just three years, and he was hired at the UFA production company. When Adolph Hitler came to power, Wilder traveled to Paris, where he made his directorial debut with Bad Seed. Weeks later, in January 1934, he embarked for the United States on the ocean liner S. S. Aquitania. He had $20 in his pocket and English books to improve his knowledge of the language. Across the ocean, glory awaited.

The Spanish filmnaker Fernando Trueba, who was a friend of Wilder, says, “I don’t remember anything special about that work in our conversations. I don’t think he valued his journalistic work at all.” He recommends a new book about the filmmaker, which reflects on the traces of the past in his filmography: Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge, by Joseph MacBridge. As his wife Audrey put it, “Long before Billy Wilder was Billy Wilder, he was acting like Billy Wilder.” This volume proves as much.

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