“Do you want to earn money?” a man known only as Roberts asks the 20-year-old starving journalist Billie Wilder. He’s not yet “Billy,” but in 1927, writing here in the Weimar pages of Berliner Zeitung am Mittag, he is already and without a doubt that European-born but somehow fundamentally American voice of Hollywood comedy—make that the voice of Hollywood comedy.
Roberts, his hair “shiny as rain-slicked asphalt … his nose and his lips those of the dead Valentino”—not Valentino but “the dead Valentino,” pure Wilder, mingling the crude and the sublime—looks to Billy like the type of guy who pays his rent on time. “The word ‘inhibitions,’” he writes hungrily, “has never crossed his mind.”
Billy, meanwhile, a spunky young smart-ass on the make—think William Holden (but Jewish!)—doesn’t have two girls, let alone two pfennigs to rub together. Hence the perfect beauty of Roberts’s offer:
“Do you want to earn money?”
I am now slack-jawed, Wilder writes.
“Money, lots of money!”
Not a word.
“You’ll become—a dancer for hire with us. You’ll present yourself tomorrow.”
That’s the idea—classic page 25 of a Wilder script—be a gigolo. Dance cheek by jowl with some giggly old flirt, tickle her double chin (for double the price). Maybe walk her down the moonlit Schlemielplatz and trade your body for a fistful of cold, fast cash … but don’t end up facedown in Norma Desmond’s swimming pool … or shivering to death in Central Park so your boss can borrow your apartment for another night … or shot in the shoulder by Mrs. Phyllis Dietrichson …
They’re all here, inchoate and between the lines, in Billy Wilder on Assignment, a delightful and illuminating collection of Wilder’s tyro reporting, presented for the first time in English, Wilder’s third language, by (my pal and former professor) Noah Isenberg, editor, and translated by Shelley Frisch. Collecting this sampling of early essays, profiles, personal adventures, and film reviews, they have pieced together a sort of memoir of the artist as a young man, and, as such, a book that will own a spot on my Wilder shelf beside Ed Sikov’s unbeatable biography, On Sunset Boulevard, and Cameron Crowe’s fabulous book of interviews, Conversations with Wilder, three acts of a life that will make any comedy-lover’s heart burn like the Reichstag.
Who was it who said reporters make the best screenwriters? Try this setup from Wilder’s gigolo story: “In the ballroom. Packed. Cigarette haze. Perfume and brilliantine. Preened ladies from twenty to fifty. Bald heads. Mamas with prepubescent daughters. Young men with garish neckties and brightly colored spats. Whole families.” Now that’s why Fitzgerald died in Hollywood. He didn’t get it. Wilder did.
Billy Wilder on Assignment shows a Wilder out for money and a good time, seemingly born for the American way, and the American way of making movies. The word that recurs most often in these pieces? “Fun.” Of a new movie, Wilder writes: “This rousing, fast-paced detective film provides good entertainment because it’s fun.” Of the Tiller Girls (like the Rockettes but English) in Vienna: “They rode on the roller coaster four times and found that quite a bit of fun.” Of Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr.: “He’s so rich that if the urge should strike, he could buy the entire Unter Den Linden including the Brandenburger Tor, just for fun.”
That’s the idea—classic page 25 of a Wilder script—be a gigolo. Dance cheek by jowl with some giggly old flirt, tickle her double chin (for double the price).
That’s what money is for. That’s why Wilder wants to be Vanderbilt and Roberts; they have the means to have the fun, and moreover, they know how to have it. This is why we love Some Like It Hot. For the amoral exuberance, the hedonism of “Nobody’s perfect,” the unabashed capitalism of “You’re a guy. And why would a guy want to marry a guy? Security!” Where else but America?
And who else but a gigolo? A European, a sophisticate-in-training but never a snob, and already a devotee of Ernst Lubitsch (referred to by young Wilder as “the Almighty one”), Wilder was a fellow with a Ph.D. in pleasure. Like Leon in Lubitsch’s sweet-as-sin, love-or-politics comedy, Ninotchka, Wilder, who co-wrote the script, knew just how to French a Communist. Enjoy this taste, s’il vous plaît:
Ninotchka: When I kissed you, I betrayed a Russian ideal. I should be stood up against the wall.
Leon: Would that make you feel better?
Ninotchka: Much better.
As she stands against the wall, he blindfolds her, pops a Champagne bottle, and at the “shot” she slides “dead” to the floor.
Ninotchka: I have paid the penalty.
Sam Wasson is the author of several books, including The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood