It was probably in the summer of 1957 that I saw The Spirit of St. Louis at Richland’s Neptune Theatre.
That was probably also the very first Billy Wilder film that I ever saw, although I did not think of it as such at the time. All I recall from that viewing is Charles Lindbergh, played by the incomparable Jimmy Stewart, as he’s flying over the Atlantic Ocean in his tiny one-seater airplane, seeing a house fly in the cabin. Now the weight of the plane and everything in it had been calculated down to the last fraction of an ounce, and there was no room for error if he was going to make it to Paris, as he only had barely enough fuel to make the flight. And he thinks to himself, will the weight of that tiny fly make a difference? What if it’s flying around inside the cabin; will that add to the weight of the plane?
Such are the tiny details that are sometimes stuck in my memory.
The next Wilder flick to come my way was also at the Neptune: the movie version of Agatha Christie’s courtroom drama Witness For the Prosecution. That was probably the following year, and at the age of nine I certainly couldn’t follow all the legal maneuvering in Christie’s twisty turny plot, but I followed most of it, and the surprise twists have remained with me ever since.
But while Christie’s plot may make for a few gasps on the first viewing, such as the climax of the film when the surprise witness of the title is revealed, it’s Wilder’s additions that make the film enjoyable to re-view time and time again. As I can attest, having just watched it for probably the fourth time the other evening. Many directors and screenwriters have tried to improve on Christie while transferring her works to the screen (for example, see Kenneth Branagh’s recent remake of Murder On the Orient Express; on second thought, don’t bother. It’s awful. He tarted it up with irrelevancies. Stick with Sidney Lumet’s 1974 Murder On the Orient Express.) Now where was I?
Oh, yes. Wilder didn’t try to improve upon Christie’s plot so much as supplement it by adding some welcome humor. Not only do Wilder’s additions give the viewer some much needed comic relief, they also serve to provide some helpful distractions as Christie’s plot unfolds. Plus, the movie sports a wonderful performance by Marlene Dietrich, a performance that must be viewed more than once to savor all its subtleties.
On a Sunday afternoon in 1959 our family went to the Academy Theater in Lebanon, PA, to see Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. This was unusual, as I don’t recall our parents taking us to the movies very often as a family. Anyway, we got there about 20 minutes into the picture, just as Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis were witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. So although we had missed a lot of exposition, we got enough in that moment to comprehend why two guys would want to disguise themselves as women to play in an all female band. I can still recall some of the laughter from that initial viewing, including Joe E. Brown’s final line, which might have gotten the biggest laugh of all. And oh, yeah, it was the first time I saw Marilyn Monroe in a movie. She’s absolutely wonderful as Sugar, possibly her greatest performance, although it was a very troubled time for her in her personal life. She was pregnant during filming, and if you look real close you can see it in a few shots. Alas, she miscarried shortly after filming completed.
The movie has been voted the greatest comedy of all time, and I’m not going to object to that. I’ve seen it at least four or five times, most recently the other evening, and it’s even funnier today that it was back then, if that’s possible. Nobody’s perfect, but Some Like It Hot comes close.
My mother was a Jack Lemmon fan, so the following year our family repeated our trip to the Academy to see Billy Wilder’s followup, The Apartment. We even repeated our walking in during the middle of the movie; I don’t think our parents were very good at checking start times.
The Apartment is usually called a comedy, but actually it’s probably more accurately classified as the first dramedy. Roughly the first hour plays as a romantic comedy, although rather racy for its time, but about halfway through, there is a marked shift in tone, and for the balance of the film there are very few laughs. There is an attempted suicide and a brutally realistic scene as a doctor tries to save a life.
Some critics thought it was too “dirty”, but audiences loved it. They weren’t as prudish as the critics of that day were, and The Apartment went on to win Writing, Directing, and Best Picture Oscars for Billy Wilder. Need I say that it still holds up very well?