Billy Wilder’s Other Half

Book review: It’s
the Pictures That Got Small
”: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s
Golden Age
edited by Anthony Slide; foreword by Jim Moore (Columbia
University Press

Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood's Golden Age

It might seem odd to call the man who co-wrote Ball of Fire, Ninotchka, Midnight, The Lost
and Sunset Blvd. an
unsung hero, but Charles Brackett has always lived in the shadow of his
high-profile writing partner, Billy Wilder. This valuable compendium of diary
entries from 1933 to 1950, painstakingly edited by Anthony Slide, not only
sheds light on that renowned 
collaboration but evokes the reality of daily life in the heyday of the
Hollywood studio system.

Anyone with a rose-colored view of what it must have been
like in “the good old days” will have a rude awakening after reading Brackett’s
account of the vagaries, petty jealousies, and peccadilloes of studio chiefs,
producers, and directors way back when. It’s a miracle that anything worthwhile
came out of such a maelstrom. After having producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. pitch
him the story of Midnight, in
December of 1937, Brackett writes, “The story seemed to me as he told it in his
office after luncheon to have the traits of all Parisian Paramount comedies. No
reality of characters or background—one forced and familiar situation after
another.” Four years later, while working on the screenplay for Ball of Fire in July of 1941, Brackett
notes, “A day at Howard Hawks’ is always a day of hell. He applied his fabulous
anti-architectural methods to the script all morning.”

A graduate of Harvard with a law degree, Brackett began
contributing theater reviews to The New
in the 1920s. While his subsequent short stories, plays and novels
never achieved great success, he was welcomed into the fabled Algonquin crowd,
including Alexander Woollcott and Dorothy Parker. When Hollywood first
beckoned, in 1933, with a screenwriting contract at RKO,he (like so many other
New Yorkers) wasn’t in a position to refuse a steady job at a healthy salary.
He returned East after his first contract expired and relocated to Los Angeles
a few years later.

But his heart wasn’t in it. He returned to his home town in
upstate New York as often as possible, and mused, in one glum 1942 diary note,
“Sat sadly toting up my invisible balance sheet, regretting bitterly that I
ever left my beloved Saratoga [Springs] where I think—oh well, why fool myself.”
Some days he openly questions his talent, while other times he asserts his
opinions quite decisively. Another reason for his melancholy—seldom if ever
mentioned here—is that his wife spent many years in a mental institution. (We
learn a great deal about Brackett in an introductory essay by his grandson, Jim
Moore, who is working on a full-fledged biography. Editor Slide also provides
an informative preface which explores, in some detail, rumors regarding
Brackett’s sexuality.) Yet another troubling aspect of his personality is his
dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semitism, which is expressed on a regular basis
throughout the diaries.

There is so much to glean from these observations—including
the politics of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—that one is
almost tempted to take notes while reading.

Perhaps the most intriguing takeaway is that Brackett and
Wilder had a volatile relationship right from the start. Although dubbed “The
Happiest Couple in Hollywood” by Life
magazine in 1944, Brackett had doubts about their ability to coexist early on.
In a 1939 entry he writes, “Violent quarrel with Billy whose manners are [words
have been scratched out] & from whom I fear I shall have to part company,
much as the thought of working alone now terrifies me—reconciliation—but I
doubt the value of any reconciliation with him.” In 1942 he muses, “Another day
of hell. There are times when I look at Billy, the best dramatic mind with
which I ever came in contact, with the appalling feeling that his mind is
dropping apart before my eyes—its brilliant decisiveness crumbling to utterly
foolish indecisions.”

If Wilder didn’t feel inspired on a given day, he wouldn’t
report to the studio. Brackett couldn’t get through the day without taking an
afternoon nap. Meetings for the Screen Writers Guild and the Academy would
often drone on till the wee hours of the morning. Lunch in the commissary, or
at Lucy’s,across the street from Paramount, would usually involve playing a
word game with fellow writers. These and other details are what make this
Hollywood chronicle so immediate, vivid and valuable.

Columbia University Press has a coupon code that offers a
30% discount when purchasing the book through its website. The coupon code is:
SLIITS and here’s the

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