SFU prof takes on the strange magic of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett

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      SFU Continuing Studies professor Donald Brackett’s fascination with cinema began in 1960 when he was 10 years old. “I was home from school, and I put on the television, and, alone, watched Sunset Boulevard,” he tells the Straight by phone. “And it completely blew my mind.” Besides the usual epiphany about the magic of cinema, he was deeply struck that “a relative of mine wrote this sinister thing. 

      Charles Brackett was the cousin of Donald Brackett's great great grandfather. Though Donald Brackett never met his famous relative, he is now writing a book on Brackett’s years of collaboration with Billy Wilder, entitled Double Solitaire: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. As part of his research, he has curated a program of 10 of the duo’s best-known films, opening Thursday (May 23) at the Cinematheque. Many of them were not only co-written by Brackett and Wilder, but produced by the former and directed by the latter; a unique arrangement, which gave the partnership a rare degree of autonomy in Hollywood. As Donald Brackett puts it, for many of the films in the program, “they had complete control . They just had to contend with each other.”

      Part of what fascinates Donald Brackett about the collaboration is that the two had a famously combative relationship. Arbitrarily yoked together to write Ernst Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife by Paramount execs in 1938, they were noted for doing things like “throwing telephone books at each other” while hashing out screenplays. Brackett at one point even had to bow out of a film, Double Indemnity, when his partner’s grimmer view of human nature proved too stifling. “It’s a very sinister, perverse murder story, and Brackett said, ‘I hate these characters, they’re unsavoury, I need a vacation from this.’” (Wilder would replace his collaborator with Raymond Chandler, probably to the film’s betterment).

      All of this is very much up Donald Brackett’s alley. He has previously written about Brackett and Wilder in his book, Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: Creative Partnerships Made in Hell. “For years I’ve been fascinated by the collaborative process, especially where there are two opposite temperaments that don’t get along,” he says. According to Donald Brackett, Charles Brackett was an erudite gentleman, “lighthearted, elegant, sophisticated, and charming,” whose background included moving among American literati in Paris in the 1920s, and writing drama criticism for The New Yorker. Wilder was, by contrast, almost a “street urchin” who fled Vienna at the rise of the Nazis; a man whose sensibility was “cynical, sarcastic, dark, depressed, and satirical, but with a very biting, and slightly nasty side.”

      “You can especially notice their differing temperaments once they have their ‘divorce,’ let’s call it, because they’re almost like an intimate couple in their relationship. There’s something missing in their later films, no matter how good they are, and that’s because there’s no limit being put on them by the other partner, no kind of harmonizing element, no opposition. So for instance, the very first film Wilder made after Sunset Boulevard was 1951’s Ace in the Hole. It’s quite visionary, in its looking ahead to our celebrity-obsessed reality TV environment, but there’s something missing in it, in that it’s relentlessly dark. There’s no lightness, no charm, no humour. And that’s what Wilder was, an extremely depressive, dark character. Anything that has a sparkling wit and lighthearted banter, that comes from the Brackett side.”

      Charles Brackett, for his part, would go on to work with Marilyn Monroe, years before Wilder used her in Some Like It Hot and The Seven Year Itch, casting her in Niagara. Later films for which he was noted include The King and I—not a movie known for its cynicism.

      Does Brackett have a favourite of the movies in the series? Besides Sunset Boulevard, which remains a pivotal experience for him, he says, “I think I like Ball of Fire, with Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper. That’s one of the early comedies they did, I think in 1941." With Howard Hawks helming, it was the final film they wrote for another director. "It’s hilarious. There are all these professors hanging around a house together, trying to write an encyclopedia. Each one has a different topic, and Gary Cooper is writing something on slang or English language that’s unique. And he finds Barbara Stanwyck, and she’s sort of a gun moll, and she starts using all this slang that he doesn’t understand. It’s a kind of satire on erudite professors and the academic world. He brings her home as kind of a research subject, and all these professors fall in love with her while she hides out there from gangsters. It’s very funny , very well done.”

      Besides the balance of personal temperaments, Brackett is fascinated by the way Brackett and Wilder’s work spans both screwball comedies and black-as-night film noir. Sometimes their collaborations combine elements of both. “Even Sunset Boulevard still has light moments in it,” he observes. “Weirdly enough, it was initially to be a comedy, and that’s when Brackett said to some studio head, in trying to explain it, that comedy is really tragedy plus time."

      More information at the Cinematheque.



      A. MacInnis

      May 26, 2013 at 10:42am

      There was no way to really work it into the article, but people seeking another (less than obvious) recommendation for this series should check out A Foreign Affair. It seems more Wilder than Brackett - there's a really finely-honed cynicism to it, and relates more to the director's background than his partner's: the film skewers the American military occupation of Germany, post WWII, and stars Marlene Dietrich, whose actual return to Germany after the war was rather troubled (she was booed at the airport by people who thought she'd betrayed her country for leaving - or so I recall from the Maximillian Schell documentary about her). Wilder, for his part, besides fleeing the Nazis to come to America, had previously assembled a propaganda piece/documentary for the American government, Death Mills, using images from the liberation of concentration camps to educate Germans as to what the Nazis had been up to, so he had his own level of personal investment in the project... The film's political/ personal charge makes it one of Wilder's most interesting, in my opinion, but it has been strangely neglected in America (it was available as a European DVD for years before it finally got put out here). Maybe Americans are sensitive about seeing their occupying armies depicted in a less than sympathetic light?

      donald brackett

      May 27, 2013 at 4:11pm


      Your comments about "Foreign Affair" are right on the money.It is a vastly underrated film, done on precarious location shoots in a daring, almost documentary style, immediately after the onslaught of world war two......in a paradoxical deal with the government for tax credit which resulted in a strangely alluring cinema verite style which is especially gorgeous in its crisp black and white portral of a postwar reality program called Berlin. Oddly enough there is quite a lot of Charles Brackett in the Marlene Dietrich character.....

      Martin Dunphy

      May 27, 2013 at 5:19pm

      A bit off-topic (because Brackett was not involved), but if the German milieu is of interest to Wilder fans, a look at 1961's One, Two, Three is called for. It's a pretty funny, well-paced Cold War farce about a Coca-Cola exec (Jimmy Cagney) in West Berlin getting mixed up in his boss's daughter's romance with a damned Commie!
      It's worth keeping in mind while watching its portrayals of the Russians that the Berlin Wall would go up less than 12 months after location filming.

      A. MacInnis

      May 27, 2013 at 10:58pm

      Martin - Cagney was delightful in One, Two, Three, but it's been awhile since I've seen it... mostly I just remember him bustling with energy, seeming perfect for a Wilder film. It's one I've been meaning to revisit for some time...

      Donald - I'll think about Brackett-in-Dietrich when next I watch A Foreign Affair... Thanks! I'll be checking out Ball of Fire this week for the first time... I'm a big Stanwyck fan so I have high hopes...