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Have You Seen…? Episode 10

Creative Commons 2.0

Have You Seen…? Sunset BLVD is the latest installment from David Hast and WGVU’s Scott Vander Werf, the first of two installments focusing on the great writer/director Billy Wilder. Sunset BLVD is the 1950 film noir that sees through the illusions of Hollywood.

[Clip from Sunset Blvd]

David Hast: Scott, have you seen Sunset Blvd?

Scott Vander Werf: I've seen Sunset Blvd many times. 1950 classic directed by Billy Wilder. It is the quintessential movie of the classic Hollywood period.

DH: Yeah, it's definitely the greatest movie ever made about Hollywood. And I would say one of the greatest movies ever made period. And we're talking about Billy Wilder today and superlatives come easily with him. He has done many of the greatest and best things in Hollywood.

SVW: And he also was somebody that started out as a screenwriter before he became a director. So he understood the value of structure and the actual story coming first.

DH: Billy Wilder is in many people’s, here we are with the superlative, the greatest writer/director in the history of movies. He was an early writer/director…we talked before in our show about screwball comedies, probably the first real writer/director in Hollywood was Preston Sturges. And he, just like Wilder, was writing in the 1930's for comedies, screwball comedies. Wilder wrote some serious movies, too. Wilder’s, most famous writing jobs in the 30's were Ninotchka for Ernst Lubitsch starring Greta Garbo and he wrote a great screwball comedy with his writing partner Charles Brackett called Ball of Fire with Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper. And then he transitioned into being and directing his own movies, too. Every movie he directed from 1942 until the end of his career in the early 80's he also wrote, he always co-wrote, he always had a co-writer.

SVW: Yeah. He had a methodology where he would write in his office with a co-writer and they would just be bouncing ideas off each other.

DH: Yeah, he just totally believed that two heads are better than one. They say that he was a little nervous about his accent, Wilder was a like many Hollywood talents in the 1930's. He was a refugee from the Nazis in the early 30's. And when he came here, he didn't speak English. So I think in his early career he said that he wanted people who could handle the idioms, the expressions, American stuff. And so he co-wrote with Charles Brackett, who is an American born writer. Later in his career he switched to another writing partner for a lot of movies. I.A.L Diamond who was an immigrant like him but came here younger. But I think he just like that the team writing process. When you look at comedy, for example, and he made a lot of comedies, comedies now often have many writers because they sit around and they tell jokes and see if the other one laughs.

SVW: So let's start at the beginning with Sunset Boulevard. This is very famous. It's not a spoiler. It begins with William Holden's character. Joe Gillis face down in a swimming pool and he's dead. And but he's also the narrator.

DH: Yeah, I mean, that's one of the many things that are just absolute genius about this movie. It's got the voice-over narrator, like many film noirs. You know, the sort of flat affect, you know, guy telling the tough story and you see this dead guy in a pool. But it's him, he's telling the story from the grave and the home movies, a flashback. And then of course, you find out how he ends up dead in this pool.

SVW: Which he's a screenwriter. He's working in the studio system. I can't remember. How did he get hooked up with Gloria Swanson?

DH: He's trying to escape. Guys are trying to repo his car because he's a struggling screenwriter. He doesn't have any money and he blows a flat, and he pulls into this of what he thinks is an old abandoned mansion of the stars on Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard. The title of the movie and ends up going in and then meeting he recognizes her like, wait, I recognize you used to be big Your, you know Norma Desmond used to be big and that she won the most famous line. She goes:

Sunset Blvd: “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small”

SVW: You're talking about the mansion. It's actually a character part of the movie as well for this gigantic tomb that’s filled with all of her paraphernalia from her golden years as a silent movie star.

DH: Right. I mean, it's just it's got the movie had cast many real directors and stars from the Silent era. Some of the greats will be done as in the Eric Vonn Stroll Hines. It Buster Keaton has a little bit part. And Gloria Swanson herself like that. First. It was troublesome to cast because none of these great silent movie actresses wanted to play a washed up silent movie actress trying to make a comeback. And Gloria Swanson did. And Gloria Swanson is the movie in. I Mean, William Holden is great. It's a great film noir its great. There's a love story and a conflict. But Gloria Swanson steals the movie. She's amazing.

SVW: And the subtext, though, the it it's an indictment of the studio system. It's an indictment of the sort of toxic star machine that Hollywood created and also the obsession with youth which we still have today within popular culture.

DH: Yeah, definitely. Yeah. I mean, it's even pointed out you're only 50, just be 50. Don't try be 25 again. But she can't let go of who she was. Very influential film. I've no question It's a huge and wasn't definite influence on Mulholland Drive. The David Lynch film even down to the abbreviation in the title like Sunset Boulevard. The title is Blvd and in Mulholland Drive usually see at Mulholland Dr. And then the main character and Mulholland Drive is named Betty. And the innocent Girl who’s the girlfriend of who's in love with William Holden in this is also named Betty.

SVW: The film that he did prior to that is Double Indemnity

[Clip from Double Indemnity]

SVW: 1943, the book came out called 3 of a kind that had 3 novellas and it by James then came the writer in double Indemnity was one of those.

DH: It is arguably the essential film noir. Here we are with superlatives again, if I were going to tell somebody if somebody said I'd ever seen a film or what is that, genre, or what should I see? I without hesitation if I was gonna say one film, it will be Double Indemnity, which is early in the genre, really which started in the early 40's.

It's only 1944. And it's just a perfect version of what film noir is everyone was afraid to make it because the two lead characters played by Barbara Stanwyck and Fred Macmurray are just totally horrible people.

SVW: Initially Barbara Stanwyck who had worked with Billy Wilder in Ball of fire. She declined. She didn't want to do it she had to be talked into it.

DH: She didn't play characters that were that bad. She played characters that are complex. Some of them lived on the wrong side of the track. Some of them did do some bad things, but she's is totally… the bigger story was talking Fred Macmurray into it. Fred Macmurray, you know, a lot of people don’t remember him now, but he was a major actor. But in romantic comedies and screwball comedies, he was a nice guy. He always played nice guys. And when he replaced this murderer who you know and people were telling him, don't do it, it's going to ruin your career. He almost didn't do it.

SVW: And you were talking about how Billy Wilder as a writer, was always using a collaborator. Charles Brackett was his traditional collaborator. But he thought that this movie was trash. Double indemnity was trash. So he collaborated with Raymond Chandler, the great noir writer, who created the Philip Marlowe character. But they hated each other's guts.

DH: They hated each other, it was the first screenplay he’d done. So he had no idea how to write a movie and Wilder was one of these great Hollywood film writer. And yeah, they hated each other, but they wrote an incredible script and its worth mentioning right here, too, that that it, Wilder as a writer director, his scripts were the movies we’re talking about Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard. We're also going to talk about some like it hot and the apartment. Arguably, these are four perfect movies. There's like not an ounce of fat on and there's not a shot too many are a shot too few occasionally there was a scene they shot that the knew to throw out to make the movie better. Wilder famously actors could not change a line. I mean, that's a way of working it in movies. You know, an actor was, you know, with some better if I said this instead, directors usually open to those things. Everyone knew you didn't change one word of Billy Wilder scripts because they were so great.

David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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