Before becoming Billy Wilder, the director of “The Apartment”, “Some Like It Hot”, “Sunset Boulevard” and “Irma la Douce”, Samuel Wilder was a student, journalist and film buff. Armed with confidence and a love of jazz and storytelling, he carved out a life for himself in Vienna between the wars and in Berlin during the Weimar Republic.
The filmmaker was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire – present-day Poland – in 1906 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father ran several cafes and restaurants. He spent his childhood in Krakow and his adolescence in Imperial Vienna. In his twenties, he lived a life of journalistic escapades to the bustling cultural hotspots of the day, full of artistic events and social events. The book “Billy Wilder On Assignment”, recently published in Spanish by Ediciones Laertes, collects his dispatches from that time. The translation of the compilation by Luz Monteagudo brings together around fifty articles selected and edited by Noah Isenberg in English. Isenberg, in turn, chose them from two anthologies in German, one from 1996 with the writer’s Berlin works and another from 2006 with his Viennese texts.
The then Billie Wilder was never Austrian: after the First World War, the Wilders were considered Polish citizens. He does not appreciate the country which rejects him as a citizen, but he discovers his passion there: telling stories. His father, on the other hand, had another destiny in mind for his son: to become a lawyer, a job that seemed perfect for a Jewish kid in the twenties. “I didn’t want to and saved myself by becoming a journalist, a very underpaid reporter,” he told Cameron Crowe in the book Conversations with Billy Wilder.
In Vienna and Berlin, high society and middle class mingle, and elite culture meets popular entertainment. At Christmas 1924, at the age of 18.5, Wilder applied for a job at the tabloid magazine “Die Bühne”. He got it in early 1925 after sneaking into the newsroom. The filmmaker has never been a reliable storyteller in his life, tending to embellish stories. When he was hired at “Die Bühne”, he said he caught the theater critic having sex with a secretary.
True or not, in August of that year Wilder had already appeared in a photo with the friends of Max Reinhardt, the film producer and director of theater and cinema, an advocate of expressionism and a magnet for talent. Wilder combined “Die Bühne” with “Die Stunde”, another tabloid from the same publishing group, and threw himself into writing. He explained to his biographer Hellmuth Karasek: “I was bold, I was full of self-assurance, I had a knack for exaggeration.
The new book features Wilders’ stories of encounters with stars such as actress Asta Nielsen and the band Tiller Girls, as well as the Prince of Wales, during their layovers in Vienna. Of the British heir, Wilder writes, after talking about fashion: “An intelligent man, this Englishman! By the way, he brought me to his fashion tastes: I’m going to dress in English, from today! Because going to English is cheap, and what’s cheap enough these days? »
In the summer of 1926, American jazz bandleader Paul Whiteman visited the Austrian capital. Wilder interviewed him for “Die Stunde” and Whiteman invited him to listen to the band in Berlin. Wilder didn’t hesitate. He went to Germany to work both as a journalist and as a press officer. At the end of the 1920s, Berlin was a completely Americanized city, overflowing with cinema and creativity. Journalists have crossed paths with personalities like millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt IV. Wilder spent those years writing for various publications, among them the “Berliner Zeitung” and the “Berliner Börsen-Courier”. His signature appears on profiles of actors such as Adolphe Menjou and filmmakers like Erich von Stroheim, a director who would eventually work with Wilder in “Five Graves to Cairo” and “Sunset Boulevard.” The journalist records the anecdotes and the people around him: he interviews a witch, the world famous clown Grock, the oldest living Berliner and a poker player.
The new book opens with related stories. One article recounts a heat wave, another explores Berliners’ tastes in alcohol, and another recounts a day of filming in a film studio. The section includes the mythical “Waiter, a dancer, please!”, which gave rise to the legend that Wilder once made a living as a gigolo. Published in January 1927, the story chronicles the then-journalist’s moonlit adventures over two months as a dancer for hire at the Hotel Edén. “Saturday is the worst day for the dancer. All halls are full to the last seat. On the dance floor, fifty couples gather, stepping on each other’s toes, panting and practicing. A single mass of flesh, quivering rhythmically like aspic. There is not a gender note.
During this period, Wilder began to take an interest in cinema. His film reviews are perhaps the worst in this compilation, although the book includes the article that inspired “People on Sunday” (1930), one of the key films of the end of the Weimar Republic.
Wilder had previously worked as a screenwriter in the shadow of other screenwriters. He even wrote the screenplay and starred in “The Daredevil Reporter” (1928), the precursor to “The Front Page”. But “People on Sunday” opened the doors to the industry for him. This led him to write dozens of screenplays in just three years, and he was hired by production company UFA. When Adolf Hitler came to power, Wilder traveled to Paris, where he made his directorial debut with “Mauvaise Graine.” A few weeks later, in January 1934, he embarked for the United States on the liner SS Aquitania. He had $20 in his pocket and English books to improve his knowledge of the language. Across the ocean, glory awaited.
Fernando Trueba, who was a friend of Wilder, said: “I don’t remember anything special about that job in our conversations. I don’t think he enjoyed his work as a journalist at all. He recommends a new book on the filmmaker, who reflects on the traces of the past in his filmography: “Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge”, by Joseph MacBridge. As his wife Audrey said, “Long before Billy Wilder was Billy Wilder, he acted like Billy Wilder.” This volume proves it.