The great movie director Billy Wilder, whose six Academy Awards rank him among the best who have ever stood behind a camera and told the people in front of it what to do – was once asked during an interview for a biographer the accomplishment for which she was most proud.
The answer from Wilder, being Wilder, was a surprise. The accomplishment that gave him the most satisfaction, he said, was being the answer to a clue in the New York Times crossword puzzle. He had accomplished that not once, but twice, “17 across and 21 down.”
The answer was not just whimsical or eccentric. Instead, it Harkens back to Wilder’s youthful days in Vienna and Berlin where, with an overabundance of energy, he worked as a newspaper reporter, Arts reviewer, and creator of crossword puzzles.
Wilder was born as Samuel Wilder in 1906 into a family of Polish Jews. He got the nickname “Billie” from his mother and later changed it to “Billy” when he immigrated to America. Wilder grew up in Vienna and had no interest in formal education clean the family business. Becoming a journalist allowed him to be a full participant in Vienna’s exciting and raucous street life.
Wilder was a glib and easy talker, and he could interview anyone and just about everyone came his way. He once bragged that he had interviewed Sigmund Freud, his associate Alfred Adler, the playwright Alfred Schnitzer, and the composer Richard Strauss, all in the same morning.
A visit to Vienna by the American Jazz Band led by Paul Whiteman provided Wilder the opportunity not only to listen and review high-quality music and to meet more of the rich, talented, and famous but also to change his own circumstances. Whiteman liked Wilder so much that he invited Wilder to travel with the band to Berlin.
In 1926 Berlin was everything but Vienna was, only more so. Wilder continued to meet and make friends easily, and he attracted the attention of the influential people who recognized his talent and energy and who gave him a helping hand on his way. Wilder wrote incisively about the people he met, the events he saw, and the things he experienced. His journalism was informative and well-structured.
Berlin was home to a thriving and well-regarded movie industry, something that Wilder was drawn to almost immediately. After several uncredited ghostwriting gigs, Wilder received sole credit in 1928 as the screenwriter for the movie Der Tuefeldsreporter (Hell of a Reporter). The movie was about a peripatetic journalist in Berlin, not unlike Wilder himself who also had a cameo role in the film. It was, as they say, the start of something big.
Two years later in 1930, Wilder wrote the screenplay for Menschen on Sonntag (People on Sunday). Much about that movie foreshadowed the characters and the scenes he would use in many of his Hollywood productions. When Hitler came to power in Germany, Wilder, who is Jewish, left for Paris. There, he made his debut as a film director with the movie Mauvaise Graine in 1934. Wilder had found his calling, and before that movie was released, he abandoned journalism in Paris and relocated himself to Hollywood.
It took Wilder less than a decade to establish himself has a major talent in the film industry, both as a writer and a director. His status has since risen to that of a legend. The memorable films that he produced, the screenplays he wrote, and the stars he developed and worked with are all too long for a single list.
Wilder always believed that a good movie started with a well-written script. The writing should fit the style of the director and the actors who were working with it.
A compilation of Billy Wilder’s journalism, Billy Wilder on Assignment: Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna, has recently been published and is available to those do want to know more about how this man became such a giant of the film industry.
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