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December 8 – December 17

Major and Minor Notes: A Billy Wilder Centennial

2006 marks the centennial anniversary of the birth of one of the all-time great figures of the Hollywood studio system, Billy Wilder. In honor of this occasion, we have compiled an eclectic collection of Wilder’s work as both a screenwriter and director including his early collaborations with Ernst Lubitsch and Mitchell Leisen and a rare propaganda piece produced for the U.S. Government.  Many of these works were praised by critics yet failed to connect with audiences.  As a result, they have often been overlooked in the canonization of the filmmaker’s rich and varied body of work.

Wilder’s journey to Hollywood fame was a tortuous one which began with his work as a scriptwriter in Berlin, most notably in collaboration with Curt and Robert Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer, and Fred Zinnmemann on People on Sunday. With the rise of Hitler, the Austrian-born filmmaker fled Germany, working briefly in Paris—where he collaborated with Alexander Esway on Mauvaise graine—before eventually moving to Hollywood. Wilder spoke no English when he arrived, but thanks to the aid of friends such as Peter Lorre he began a long and successful writing partnership with Charles Brackett in 1938 which lasted for thirteen films, including Wilder’s Hollywood directorial debut The Major and The Minor. The postwar period is generally regarded as Wilder’s golden era, when he produced such classics as Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment.  But it also marked a time when he asserted his independence from the studios with his first self-produced film, Ace in the Hole, and forged a new partnership with screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond.  That collaboration continued through the 1960s and 1970s and resulted in some of Wilder’s more offbeat works, such as the world-weary Avanti! and the revisionist The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Wilder was praised throughout his career for his dark comic sensibilities. These films reveal a more varied and nuanced portrait of an incredibly prolific artist.

Special thanks to Universal Pictures.


December 8 (Friday) 7 pm

The Major and the Minor

Directed by Billy Wilder
US 1942, 16mm, b/w, 100 min.
With Ginger Rogers, Ray Milland, Rita Johnson

An insouciant comedy, The Major and the Minor showcases how gifted studio directors like Wilder were able to skate pirouettes around the Hollywood censors while gliding over the perilously thin ice of blatant sexual innuendo. Disguised as a twelve year old girl in order to secure train passage home, Ginger Rogers quickly attracts the amorous attentions of Ray Milland, an upstanding Army major who is smitten by the nymph. “A premature Lolita,” Wilder would later claim for this delightful farce of American sexual mores.

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December 8 (Friday) 9 pm

Five Graves to Cairo

Directed by Billy Wilder
US 1943, 16mm, b/w, 96 min.
With Franchot Tone, Anne Baxter, Akim Tamiroff

For his second American feature, Wilder crafted a wildly entertaining and suspenseful WWII thriller that is stretched taut as a garrote from its haunting opening sequence right up until the final credits. Five Graves to Cairo distills the Second World War into a fever pitched battle of wits, fought at dangerously close quarters, between British colonel Franchot Tone and Erich Von Stroheim’s luxuriously malevolent Field Marshal Rommel.

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December 9 (Saturday) 7 pm

Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival)

Directed by Billy Wilder
US 1951, 35mm, b/w, 111 min.
With Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur

Wilder drew on his past experience as a reporter in Vienna to inform one of his darkest works. Kirk Douglas stars as a cynical journalist from New York City who takes a lesser job for a newspaper in Albuquerque. He stumbles upon a man trapped in a mine and proceeds to exploit this hard-luck, human interest story to get front-page headlines.  Wilder’s first work as a producer skewers the sensationalist drives of the media and reflects his desire to create work with greater moral complexity than was possible in the studio system.


December 9 (Saturday) 9:15 pm

Death Mills

Directed by Billy Wilder
US 1945, 16mm, b/w, 22 min.

Wilder, who had lost many of his relatives in the German concentration camps, offered this outraged plea for accountability in response to a commission by the U.S. Office of War Information to document the liberation of the camps.  This print is part of the Fort Devens film collection, a group of propaganda and military training films currently held by the Harvard Film Archive.

A Foreign Affair

Directed by Billy Wilder
US 1948, 35mm, b/w, 116 min.
With Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich, John Lund

In A Foreign Affair, the famously jaundiced sense of humor shared by Wilder and co-writer Charles Brackett was turned upon a remarkably timely subject: the interaction between the American occupiers and native Germans in war ravaged Berlin. The result is a deeply subversive comedy of manners that pits a corn fed ingénue, played by Jean Arthur, against Marlene Dietrich’s sultry blackmarketeer, with both women vying for the affections of Army soldier John Lund, whose world-weary cynicism emblematized the Wilder anti-hero. Among the finest of Wilder’s early films, A Foreign Affair today remains strangely underappreciated—even despite Dietrich’s luminous presence in one of her great postwar roles.

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December 11 (Monday) 7 pm

Mauvaise graine

Directed by Alexander Esway and Billy Wilder
France 1934, 16mm, b/w, 77 min.
With Danielle Darrieux, Pierre Mingand, Raymond Galle
French Language Version

The privileged son (Mingand) of a wealthy doctor is compelled to fend for himself after alienating his father. He takes up with a gang of car thieves but his affections for the gang leader’s sister (Darrieux) puts him in great peril. Wilder’s career in France was brief (he directed one feature and wrote numerous scripts for which he did not receive credit before leaving for Hollywood) and reflects his sense of displacement; Mauvaise graine lacks the comic dexterity of his later films but provides an effective balance of humor and suspense for which he would later gain great acclaim.

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December 11 (Monday) 8:45 pm

Midnight

Directed by Mitchell Leisen
US 1939, 35mm, b/w, 94 min.
With Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, John Barrymore

Claudette Colbert stars as a down-on-her-luck showgirl who travels
to Paris with dreams of finding a wealthy suitor.  She draws the affections of a Hungarian cabdriver (Ameche) but quickly abandons him when she catches the eye of a scheming aristocrat (Barrymore). Despite tensions between director Leisen and screenwriters Wilder and Charles Brackett, the film holds up with the great screen comedies of the 1930s thanks to its witty and sarcastic script and standout performances from the three lead actors.

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December 12 (Tuesday) 7 pm

Bluebeard's Eighth Wife

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
US 1938, 35mm, b/w, 80 min.
With Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper, Edward Everett Horton

Gary Cooper portrays a millionaire who, after having married and divorced seven women, meets his match with the daughter of a fallen French aristocrat. She has no intent of becoming yet another of her husband’s romantic casualties and schemes to change his ways. Although they received much greater acclaim for 1939’s Ninotchka, this first collaboration between screenwriter Charles Brackett and Wilder demonstrates how well-suited the duo’s comic sensibilities were to the “Lubitsch touch.”

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December 12 (Tuesday) 8:30 pm

Hold Back the Dawn

Directed by Mitchell Leisen
US 1941, 35mm, b/w, 116 min.
With Charles Boyer, Olivia de Havilland, Paulette Goddard

Among Wilder’s more accomplished early scripts, Hold Back the Dawn was drawn from the young writer’s own experience stranded on the Mexican frontier awaiting passage into the United States with other WWII émigrés. Charles Boyer is the smooth talking Continental who attempts to charm his way across the border in
the arms of a naïve schoolteacher played by Olivia de Havilland. Although director Mitchell Leisen famously tampered with the script—a move that drove an irate Wilder into the director’s chair—Hold Back the Dawn embodies the Wilder touch in its dark undertones, gallows humor and gossamer dialogue.

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December 15 (Friday) 7 pm

One, Two, Three

Directed by Billy Wilder
US 1961, 35mm, b/w, 108 min.
With James Cagney, Horst Buchholz, Pamela Tiffin

In one of his final screen performances, James Cagney stars as C. R. MacNamara, a manic Coca-Cola executive based in West Berlin trying to win favor in the company by brokering a deal to sell soft drinks to the Soviets. Meanwhile his boss’s daughter, who has been left in MacNamara’s care, has fallen for and married an unabashed Communist from East Berlin (Buchholz). In the farcical style that only Billy Wilder could deploy, MacNamara schemes to convert the young Red to the ways of all good Americans. Although the targets are broad and at times painfully obvious, One, Two, Three succeeds thanks to both Wilder’s and Cagney’s impeccable comic timing.

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December 15 (Friday) 9:15 pm

Kiss Me Stupid

Directed by Billy Wilder
US 1964, 35mm, b/w, 126 min.
With Dean Martin, Kim Novak, Ray Walston

Dean Martin puts a humorous spin on his public persona in the role of Dino, a Vegas crooner stranded in a small Nevada town while en route to Los Angeles. An amateur songwriter (Walston, in a role originally intended for Peter Sellers) tries to sell one of his ditties to the lecherous singer but fears he will make a play for his wife (Felicia Farr). Enter Kim Novak as Polly, a prostitute who poses as the songwriter’s wife. Wilder’s most scathing critique of American culture since Ace in the Hole, Kiss Me Stupid is a tawdry farce, savaged by critics and condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency for its provocative subject matter. 

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December 17 (Sunday) 6:30 pm

Avanti!

Directed by Billy Wilder
US/Italy 1972, 35mm, color, 140 min.
With Jack Lemmon, Juliet Mills, Clive Revill

A ruminative late master work, Avanti! offers a delightfully unsentimental portrait of an American executive (Lemmon) thrown into mid-life crisis by the premature death of his father in far away Italy. Wilder and Diamond’s script is a delicate, often bittersweet study of Americans abroad and the blossoming of illicit romance in the twilight years. Set against the sun-drenched Mediterranean, Avanti! brought a new relaxed pace and spontaneity into Wilder’s cinema and marked a highpoint of his late films.

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December 17 (Sunday) 9 pm

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

Directed by Billy Wilder
UK 1970, 35mm, color, 125 min.
With Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Geneviève Page

A brooding period piece, Sherlock Holmes marked a radical departure for co-writers Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond with its revisionist portrait of the great detective as a towering, tortured egoist and drug addict with homosexual inclinations. The recently reassembled version of the film restores the full dimensions of Wilder's bold intertwining of a classic detective thriller with a nuanced psychological study. Wilder's careful attention to details of gesture, costumes and sets is evident throughout this ambitious film, which also boasts a darkly comic and sophisticated screenplay.

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