Considering the cult movies of Billy Wilder

Following is a special guest post by Jeff Alexander, his contribution to the Billy Wilder Blogathon scheduled for June 22.  You can contact Jeff directly by way of Facebook here or leave a comment below.

Ask anyone familiar with the name of Billy Wilder to list his films and it’s a safe bet that Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) and Fedora (1978) will be far down, with Some Like It Hot (1959) and Sunset Boulevard (1950) understandably among the first.  As for their actual quality, I put Stupid and Fedora above Buddy Buddy (1981); Kiss Me, Stupid above the more popular Irma La Douce (1963); while Fedora ranks just above The Front Page (1974) and about on the same level of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970).

Stupid and Fedora were plagued with production problems and both were commercial failures, having gained a cult status years after their release. The two have quite a bit in common, as a result, and not just because they are part of the Wilder lexicon of movies.

First, Kiss Me, Stupid.  It was envisioned initially for Peter Sellers and Marilyn Monroe.  But Monroe died even before Wilder got Irma La Douce filmed, although Sellers was subsequently cast in Stupid, bowing out after a series of near-fatal heart attacks.  According to Cameron Crowe’s excellent Conversations with Wilder, scenes with Sellers as Orville J. Spooner were filmed, but put away and Wilder shrugged off any desire to see them unearthed and viewed.  Probably painful memories.

Ray Walston, on hiatus from the title role of TV’s “My Favorite Martian” and a supporting player in Wilder’s The Apartment, was cast after Tony Randall, Danny Kaye and Bob Hope (!) were reportedly considered to fill Sellers’ shoes.  Dean Martin (whose last name is never mentioned throughout) was always to be “Dino,” and Cliff Osmond, Kim Novak and Felicia Farr (freshly wed to Jack Lemmon, another Wilder favorite) took other major roles.

It’s a twisty comedy, with Dino stranded in parched Climax, Nevada, for a night.  Desperate to sell him their repertoire of Gershwin-like tunes (and those are actual songs written by the Gershwins), piano teacher Orville Spooner and gas station attendant Barney (Osmond) work out a scheme where Spooner’s wife, Zelda (Farr) switches places with Polly the Pistol (Novak) for an evening of dinner & romancing.  Zelda, unaware of the plot, winds up in Polly’s trailer behind the Belly Button saloon (love that name!) and soon encounters the crooner on her own.  The prostitute becomes the wife for the night, while the wife becomes the prostitute.

Derided for being vulgar (this was six years before the X-rated Midnight Cowboy won its Oscar as Best Picture and three years before The Graduate hit the big screen), the movie is loaded with double entendres the type which could engender heavy laugh-track use a decade later on TV’s “Three’s Company.” An example: “She grows her own parsley.”  Novak is quite touching as Polly and the lovely, gracious Farr might have been a bigger star had the movie been more successful.

Walston, although funny, pushes the comedy a little too hard — understandable since he was rushed into the production, while others had the luxury of rehearsing/filming with Sellers.  Dino is as relaxed as always, not taking himself too seriously — his stock in trade in so many of his movie roles, including Matt Helm.

The VHS release from more than 20 years ago (which I own) contains a scene between Zelda and Dino where it is merely suggested that the two spent the night together.  The subsequent DVD release contains that scene but as an extra, but incorporates a more telling one into the body of the film where there is no question of the seduction.  The suggested scene is actually a little better played and preferable to the more blatant one.

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Morals on the big screen were a little loser by the time Wilder filmed Fedora, notable for its style of flashbacks-within-flashbacks.  In this one, there was no question that the title character and a lover spent the night together (in the 1940’s), a sequence occurring minutes after a nude scene in a pool was included.

Rather than give too much of the intricate plot away (both Stupid and Fedora have official DVD/Blu-Ray releases), I’ll just say that Marthe Keller and Hildegarde Knef star in it with William Holden portraying an independent producer trying to coax the reclusive Fedora (a Garbo-like actress) back into the movie business.

There’s excellent performances by Holden, Jose Ferrer, Frances Sternhagen and Mario Adorf, but Knef and Keller are hampered by dubbing of their voices by actress Inga Bunsch.  Ironically, the dubbing does work on one level — it does add a little to the mysterious allure of the beloved, but almost forgotten Fedora.

Financing was reportedly the problem behind this one and Wilder was more pressured into completing the project than he was on the earlier The Front Page.  In an interview, Sternhagen remarked that it was a shame that Wilder didn’t rehearse scenes more in depth and Holden, who already made Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17 (1953) and Sabrina, (1954) replied that Wilder used to.  Still, it doesn’t feel rushed, although there may be a scene or two which seem rather incomplete.  But a hospital sequence featuring a heavily-bandaged Fedora has the pace and tempo of a horror movie.

Overall, Fedora is the kind of movie where you have to think about it after to add up all the elements.  Wilder and his collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond (with whom Wilder worked on all of Wilder’s films starting with Love in the Afternoon from 1957) penned a nice little mystery (based on Tom Tryon’s novella) making it a good choice as a double feature with Sunset Boulevard (the stark, black-and-white Kiss Me Stupid, in contrast, might be a bookend to Some Like It Hot).

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As essential as Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment are in the Wilder library, Kiss Me, Stupid and Fedora should not be given short-shrift.  Failures at the box office, they might have been, the two are the type which merit at least one viewing — maybe more in order to sort everything out.  I have seen each at least a dozen times over the years and still get pleasure from each.  And wasn’t that the purpose of Wilder films?

Be sure to visit Once Upon a Screen and Outspoken & Freckled this Monday (June 22) as we delve into the films of one of Hollywood’s greatest writer/directors.  Expect over thirty Wilder entries.

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11 thoughts

  1. I saw “STUPID” many years ago, thought it OK, but not enough to put it on my upper tier of Wilder productions. I have not seen FEDORA and your review summons me to see it NOW! I’m hoping someone contributes a look at FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO for the Wilder Blogathon. It too is seldom mentioned, but I find it most entertaining. It was named a TOP TEN at the Long Beach, CA. Film Forum from a showing of over 900 films in a 17+year existence. Eric Von Stroheim, Akim Tamiroff, Anne Baxter and Franchot Tone all contributed wonderful performances in a most unusual story.

  2. I can certainly understand your indifference towards “Kiss Me, Stupid.” When I bought the VHS, I was not familiar with it at all and thought the casting was really unusual – Dean Martin, Kim Novak & Ray Walston. As for Fedora, I hope you do enjoy it. I need to see Five Graves to Cairo — it’s one of Mr. Wilder’s near-forgotten ones, to be sure. I don’t even think about it when I’m thinking about Wilder films.

  3. FEDORA is, for me, a missed opportunity, as I think it’s a really good script marred by two factors; (a) it should have been done in black-and-white, as that would have not only made the plot work better but also be more suited to the ambiance of the film, and (b) while Marthe Keller can be good in the right role, without giving anything away, she simply does not have the sense of mystery needed for the role. KISS ME STUPID is also marred by miscasting, and I’m afraid I’m much harsher on Walston than you are; while I’ve enjoyed him in character parts, he simply is not leading man material, and in “trying too hard”, as you put it, he becomes insufferable.

    Despite my disagreements with you, I did enjoy your write-up. If I had to pick my favorite overlooked Wilder films, they would be FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO, SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS (despite the compromises with the material), PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, and AVANTI.

    1. A missed opportunity is a good way to describe Fedora. I agree, it might have been more successful (maybe not at the box office) as a black-and-white film. It’s hard to think of an actress who might have been able to pull it off. Frances Sternhagen, in an interview, said that Meryl Streep might have been able to work the part, maybe even playing both roles! If they remade it, she probably could.
      I like Holmes and Avanti and considered writing about those, but Stupid and Fedora reached me in more personal ways. I found myself thinking about them after seeing them — always a plus for a good film. The only Wilder film that I have seen that I did not like was Buddy Buddy, which I like to call Cruddy Cruddy!! I’m sorry that it was Wilder’s swan song in movies and his last with the Lemmon/Matthau team (Grumpy Old Men was actually a better movie!).

  4. Stupid was a film considered vulgar, as you mention. I remember some years ago when I bought the VHS tape, I felt I should have carried it in a brown paper bag! Having not seen it at that point, I stilldidN’t know what to expect. Ironically, if the film were to be released today, it would probably rated PG. I like the film though it’s not top Wilder. I always thought Fedora was underratered. Reminds me a bit of Sunset Blvd. the Hollywood theme,I guess. buddy, Buddy is a mess. Sadly. Excellent post

    1. When I bought the VHS (for $19.95), I thought the title was a little racy, the cast was definitely offbeat. Ironically, I bought it and watched it the first time during the same period that Ray Walston was playing Judge Bone on Picket Fences. His acting in Fences was MUCH better than in Kiss Me, Stupid. You’re right, if released today, it would be PG, not even PG-13. Thank you for the compliment on my essay, too. That’s why I chose both films to write about — to bring them to the attention of people who had not yet seen them and might appreciate them.

  5. Thank you! When you watch Kiss Me, Stupid, try NOT to think of Peter Sellers in the role (it’s hard for me not to!!!). Both films have a lot of surprises along the way, that’s also why I like them.

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