Billie Wilder, second from right, with Paul Whiteman and his band, 1926 Filmarchiv Austria

It’s his first day as a dancer for hire. Billie or, once Americanized, (and quite readily) Billy Wilder sits in a perfume-laden hotel ballroom. Gussied-up guests, dames in “crocodile-leather shoes,” men with “garish neckties” surround him, and, formerly poor, he feels foreign here. His first dance with “an older lady in a bottle-green dress” nearly freezes his legs. But it’s not long before throngs of dancing couples are water to his gills. In Wilder’s buoyant prose, they “jump, grind, chuff, and hop,” as Jazz artists bob heads and tap feet to their own self-made rhythms. We only grow so used to Wilder’s ballroom groove before other topics follow suit.

This details but one of 74 journal entries in this 212 page book by Billy Wilder, one of the most prominent film directors of the mid-20th century, known for such works as The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Some Like It Hot (1959), both titles including Marilyn Monroe as their main character, in case you were wondering just how elite Wilder was in the Golden Age of Hollywood. But before his award-winning cinema career and even before he stepped foot in the U.S., Wilder published widely for various newspapers in both Berlin and Vienna.

Many of Wilder’s journal entries serve similar slews of bite-sized glimpses into the international urban culture of the 1920’s, one heavily derivative of the American Jazz Age, even in European Berlin and other cities. His entree of anecdotes are much varied in selection with displays both of greasy-collared poverty and his affiliations with cognac-sipping movie stardom. Yet he never withholds a light dash of pep even for the crudest moments. Some giggling isn’t uncustomary, for example, when he describes a shrieking landlady behind his door; it's all thanks to the clumsy curtness and levity with which he swerves to new topics.

With expansive eyes and ears, Wilder absorbs sensations frivolous as the metamorphosing “botanical monstrosity,” the Rose of Jericho, but on the flipside probes deeply into the art of deception, something he sees as fit for school curriculum. On the one hand he thinks lies ‘. . . could be learned . . . by employing the scientific method.” Yet, in an article published nineteen days later, he declares, “Anything but Objectivity!” while demonstrating the neurosis resultant from using the word “but,” to signify indecision, permitting the patient awaital of scientific proof. Wilder denounces such in favor of firm opinions, opinions though they may be. So much for deceptive tact! You too may feel that what Wilder lacks in this he makes up for in blatancy, breadth, and piercing poetry.

BILLY WILDER ON ASSIGNMENT Fuses Frolic with Philosophy

Wilder calls Jazz “an essential regeneration of Europe’s calcified blood,” phrasing awfully pretty from the pen of a renowned quipster. A certain poetic beauty, even scholarly wit, shows too when he considers a painfully banal-looking man. Dissecting the universality of his features, Wilder interprets that “fate has destined him to be the victim of the undeveloped physiognomic memory of his fellow men.”

With a rather acerbic nostalgia, the future film director bemoans the loss of antique coffee house interiors by the feminizing sweep of new design fads. It just doesn’t feel homey enough without blood-stained walls of times past—not to Wilder at least. His prose is full of seethingly passionate and funny theses just like this one in which he also detests the sandpaper removal of a violin’s long-accrued atomic residue of “countless concerts” only to be recoated with a “fine gold” finish that subverts its soul to kitsch.

In another article, Wilder documents the snazzy Tiller Girls as they prattle on about the waltz and their crush on debonair Rudolph Valentino and then, full of whimsy, ride roller coasters, water jets, and bumper cars. These rambunctious “little sheep” can hardly be told apart and seem as frivolous as comic-relief side characters; Wilder’s snip-bits are full of such types. One fictional man he portrays is hired solely to smile at the front desk of a marmalade shop. Yes, that’s all, and it seems sort of a mocking gig in light of Billy’s own hustle-and-bustle. But, in this writer’s opinion, his prose contains no trace of bitterness on this absurd phenomenon. His movie reviews sometimes do, however, given their scathing critiques of such film flops as Miss Midshipman, in which Wilder perceives “the tritest absurdities in witless situations and situationless witticisms.”

Wilder’s film reviews overall give samples of performances and plots as well as succinct summations of quality, which range from decisive dismissals to moderate praise or even boisterous approval, all before he was a director himself: perfect fodder for cinema lovers.

A fun and intriguing journalistic compilation full of famous presences, Billy Wilder on Assignment should entice anyone interested in easy-dosed cinematic and cultural pictures of a bygone time.


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Billy Wilder on Assignment: Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna

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Anthony Neri

About the Author: Anthony Neri

An avid philosophizer and Dostoevsky fanboy, Anthony spends his time ruminating on very deep moral questions. Is he a genuine old soul or does he feign as much for the mystique?--perhaps a bit of both. When he isn't tormenting himself existentially, he reads fiction and translates ancient Greek and Latin texts, all the while developing his own literary flourishes with the hope of producing his very own dazzling prose. Cliche? Maybe. But he figures everyone starts out as a cliche.

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