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Early Billy Wilder

January 4, 2011

by John Farr

Billy Wilder’s early films, like this week’s Classsic, One, Two, Three, launched a brilliant career. Here are three other gems.


The Major and the Minor (1942)

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WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

Unable to pay for a train ticket back home to Iowa, big-city office worker Sue Applegate (Rogers) decides to pose as a 12- year-old girl for a reduced fare. On the train, kind Major Kirby (Ray Milland) takes “Sue-Sue” under his wing, but her scheme is danger of exposure once Kirby’s fiancee (Rita Johnson) and her in- the-know 12-year-old sister (Diana Lynn) enter the picture. Also, little Sue’s developing a not-so-little crush on the Major .

WHY I LOVE IT:

Leave it to legendary director Billy Wilder to turn what could have been a dunderheaded studio comedy into a first-rate howler with satirical overtones. With puckish irreverence, Wilder –in his directorial debut-shouldered a potentially dicey subject (a blossoming romance between a soldier and a minor) and lathered it with just enough intelligence, wit and compassion to please Hollywood audiences! Rogers and Milland play their roles with an insouciant innocence, too, under his peerless direction. You’ll love “The Major and the Minor,” a madcap Lolita story like no other!


The Lost Weekend (1945)

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WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

Struggling writer Don Birnham (Ray Milland) has a nasty drinking problem that worries his brother, Nick (Phillip Terry), who’s reluctant to leave his sibling alone. Don convinces Nick and his own girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) to take in a concert without him, promising to do some serious work on a novel. Instead, Don hunts for a hidden stash of booze, finds money, and goes on a hellish, two-day alcoholic binge.

WHY I LOVE IT:

Billy Wilder’s searing look at the “problem” of alcoholism was harsh, unpleasant stuff for audiences to swallow in the ’40s, but Paramount execs-who nearly shelved “Weekend” over pressure from temperance and liquor lobbyists-were thrilled when it became a huge hit. That’s due entirely to Milland’s riveting, Oscar-winning portrayal of Don, a man so hysterically self-destructive that he sacrifices his dignity and others’ goodwill to keep himself in a state of perpetual stupor. Cheery it’s not, but “Lost Weekend” is a landmark work, showcasing Wilder at his gut-wrenching best. Wyman also excels in an early role as the concerned Helen.


Sunset Boulevard (1950)

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WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

Ducking into the garage of a decayed Hollywood mansion to evade his creditors, heavily indebted screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) encounters Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an aging star of the silent screen who recruits Gillis to work on her hopeless comeback script. Penniless and cynical, Gillis agrees to help the wealthy, barely remembered star, and eventually becomes Norma’s kept man.

WHY I LOVE IT:

Recently remastered by Paramount, “Sunset Boulevard” is finally getting its due. One of the all-time great Tinseltown satires, this noirish tale of an opportunistic, down-and-out young writer and the nostalgic, delusional film luminary who ensnares him takes a harsh look at an industry that eats its own. Holden, whose character narrates from beyond the grave, is impeccable as the sardonic Gillis, but the show belongs to real-life silent star Swanson, an ideal choice to play the creepy, twisted Norma. Great support form Nancy Olson (as Joe’s appalled girlfriend) and Erich Von Stroheim (as Norma’s protective chauffeur) round out this shocking, sordid gem. Are you ready for your close-up?


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  • comments (0)
  • rayban

    John, I love all three of your choices, I love Wilder Light and I love Wilder Dark. I do wish, though, that “Ace In The Hole” (1951), “The Fortune Cookie” (1966), “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” (1970) and “Avanti!” (1972) were better-known films of Wilder’s in today’s wildly overly-critical film climate.