Tag Archives: Billy Wilder

Bertram Potts from Ball of Fire

“You’re big and cute and pretty…to me you’re a regular yum-yum type.”

An English professor who looks like Gary Cooper? It’s almost too good to be true, but it is true in Howard Hawk’s 1941 Ball of Fire and not even Barbara Stanwyck’s stripper Sugarpuss O’Shea can resist him.

There are many things to admire about Bertram Potts. Besides the fact that he looks like Gary Cooper. He’s a professor of English, and he’s not a stuffy professor of English. When the film opens, he is working on slang for an encyclopedia and he reveals a lively curiosity and interest in new knowledge, especially what he calls “a living language” filled with the slang of ordinary Americans and spoken by characters like Sugarpuss and the garbage man.

In fact, his interest is right in line with real-life authors (like the actual author of the film’s script, Billy Wilder). Raymond Chandler was greatly interested in what he called American English and thought that for a while (namely in the 1930s and ’40s) it was filled with the kind of variety, color, and flexibility often associated with Shakespeare.

It is very appropriate, then, that Bertram Potts should also quote Shakespeare to Sugarpuss. He gives her a ring that is inscribed with the location of the quote from Richard III (she asks who Richard ill is), “See how my ring encircles your finger? That’s how your heart embraces my poor heart. Wear both the ring and my heart, because both are yours.” 

But not only is Bertram Potts erudite, he is also sweet and adorable. He’s completely bowled over by Sugarpuss (“a little sun on my hair and you had to water your neck”), way out of his depth, but it is the sincerity and sweetness of his response that wins her over. Without guile, he assumes her declaration of love is exactly as it appears. He takes her at her word, takes her seriously and treats her as a person of value.

He is also about as nonjudgmental as a person can be. He is, admittedly, angry when he discovers that she used him, but that is not judgmental. But does he mind that she is a stripper? Or the girlfriend of a gangster? He always sees her as a person and never as an example of a certain type of woman…though Mrs. Bragg, the housekeeper for the professors, certainly does. Sugarpuss is simply the woman he loves…and who knows some “mouthwatering” slang.

Bertram Potts (or Pottsie, as Sugarpuss calls him) even gets to be heroic. But not by the traditional beat-the-bad-guy-up method – though he does get to eventually beat the bad guy up – but via intellectual knowledge. He and his fellow professors are able to outwit the villains using their knowledge of history, literature and science.

And he looks like Gary Cooper. The only wonder to me is that Sugarpuss does not fall for him sooner, though she does comment that he doesn’t know how to kiss (“the jerk!”) and looks like a “giraffe.” But he had me at “skidoo” (which he traced from the word skedaddle).

This has been my post for the “Reel Infatuation Blogathon,” hosted by Silverscreenings  and Font and Frock. Be sure to check back for more screen crush posts in the recaps for days 1, 2, and 3 of the blogathon.


Posted by on June 23, 2017 in Movies


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Sunset Boulevard (1950)

MV5BMTc3NDYzODAwNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODg1MTczMTE@._V1_SX214_AL_Sunset Boulevard defies categorization. It’s a film noir, gothic, horror, melodrama, suspense, tragicomic romance. It’s surreal, but properly grounded in reality. You laugh, you cry, you cringe, but you never look away. It’s absolutely spellbinding. And has there ever been such a weird, yet utterly compelling ending as when Norma Desmond descends the staircase, now completely lost in her delusions, believing that the media cameras are really the cameras of Cecil B. DeMille and that he is shooting her as Salome, descending the stairs of the palace? When watched in isolation on youtube, the scene looks melodramatic, but when seen as the climax of the film, it is shiveringly effective.

I’m gushing a bit. I had very high expectations for this film and in one of those rare instances they were actually met. I even went out of my way to prepare for watching this. I wanted to see Gloria Swanson when she really was a big star in the silent era. I wanted to see some of the movies that Erich von Stroheim had directed during the silent era and also some of the movies Cecil B. DeMille made during the same time (some with Gloria Swanson). Fortunately, since the film is so iconic and most people have a general idea of the plot, it still feels fresh even though you know what’s going to happen. The drama is not in what happens, but how it happens.

Sunset Boulevard is often called a critique of Hollywood, which it certainly is, but this film is not limited to that. It’s about individual people more than monolithic Hollywood. It’s about obsession and ambition, wanting love (intimate love and also the more general and all embracing love of fans, people you don’t even know). It’s about wanting to be someone important, to be acknowledged, to earn money, to have a career that provides meaning and identity. These are universal themes that have meaning anywhere, it’s just that Hollywood magnifies these things, so it is an ideal setting.

Gloria Swanson and William Holden

Gloria Swanson and William Holden – surrounding by pictures from her lost glory days

The film manages the unique feat of having both an unforgettable beginning and an unforgettable end. The movie opens with the body of Joe Gillis (William Holden) floating in a swimming pool, shot three times with a revolver. We then hear his voice narrating throughout the film, telling the story of how he got there, how Joe Gillis, a struggling screenwriter, became involved with the fading, forgotten silent movie star who cannot accept that her time has passed.

On a side note, it seems incredibly cheeky of director Billy Wilder to have a corpse narrate our story, but somehow it doesn’t come off as macabre unless you think about it too much. There is a sharp, biting humor that pervades the entire film, especially in Joe Gillis’ narration, wryly commenting on the action in hindsight.

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is borderline insane throughout the entire film and one of the things that impressed me is how Swanson never goes over the top. It seems like she does, multiple times, but it is believable and not just theatrics. It is like the character Norma Desmond is acting all the time. She cannot behave normally and naturally. She is always putting on a show for some invisible audience, using the people she interacts with as her props.

It is amazing, however, how much sympathy both she and William Holden garner for their extremely flawed characters. She is imperious, arrogant, commanding, childish, and manipulative. She has attempted suicide several times and is quite willing to threaten it if she thinks it will get her what she wants. But this fact is also tragic. Even if she is incapable of killing herself without grand gestures, she is still unhappy enough to be willing to die. If she can’t be Norma Desmond, a beloved and needed movie star, then she isn’t anybody at all.

Nancy Olson and William Holden

Nancy Olson and William Holden

William Holden’s Joe Gillis is also a flawed character and capable of a little manipulation of his own. When he first meets her, he thinks he can manipulate her into giving him a job to brush up her ridiculous script of Salome that she believes she will make her comeback with (though she hates the word comeback; “It’s a return!”). He doesn’t mind taking advantage of an extremely vulnerable and deluded woman. He also doesn’t seem to have a problem flirting with his friend’s fiance, Betty Shaefer (Nancy Olson).

Erich von Stroheim is fascinating as Norma’s inscrutable butler, Max. Max was once a promising director in the silent era who discovered Norma Desmond when she was sixteen and made her into a star. When her career was wrecked by sound, he asked her to take him on as her butler/jack-of-all trades – he can even play the organ like a regular cliched horror villain. It is not clear what his motivations are. Does he feel guilt over how he made her into a star and set her on the path that has so crippled her emotionally? Does he still love her madly, does he share in her obsession over her own greatness? It is never clear. The only thing that is clear is that he made things worse by feeding her delusions that she is not forgotten. He writes fake fan letters and requests for her autograph, confirming to the end her own image of herself. Is it the image he gave her at the beginning? Is he perhaps her evil genius? But he doesn’t play it like a moustache-twirling villain. There is pathos in his unwavering devotion to her.

Gloria Swanson and Cecil B. DeMille

Gloria Swanson and Cecil B. DeMille

Joe Gillis’ love interest, the aspiring screenwriter Betty Shaefer, is played by Nancy Olson. It was only her second movie, but Wilder chose her because she could bring a breath of fresh air into a very gothic and cynical film. Cecil B. DeMille also does a fine job playing himself, the director who made so many pictures with both Gloria Swanson and, in the film, Norma Desmond. I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised at how natural he seems; he did start his career as an actor on Broadway, though he quickly turned to directing plays and then silent movies.

Reality meets art so often in the film, it is astonishing, once again, how cheeky Billy Wilder was. Gloria Swanson’s career really did deteriorate after the coming of sound and when she made Sunset Boulevard she hadn’t made a movie in nine years, though she was not sitting around in a ruined home bemoaning her glory days. She was evidently a very busy woman, starting businesses, acting in summer stock, promoting health foods. Erich von Stroheim was also a promising director from the silent era, but because his movies always went massively over-budget, over long, and because he wasn’t a ‘team player’ and pushed the censorship envelope, his career was ruined and he was reduced to acting in bit parts, often as Nazis.

William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Nancy Olson, Erich von Stroheim

William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Nancy Olson, Erich von Stroheim

When Norma Desmond shows Joe Gillis footage from one of her silent movies, it is footage from a 1929 silent film called Queen Kelly, that was never completed. It was directed by Erich von Stroheim and starred Gloria Swanson, but owing to censorship concerns and huge financial issues, Swanson and her backer, Joseph P. Kennedy, pulled the plug on the film. It was the end of his directing career and hers petered out soon after.

According to an interview with Nancy Olson, in one of the documentaries on Sunset Boulevard: Centennial Collection, Billy Wilder told her the movie was about people who were on the make, which makes sense with my idea that it is not a film exclusively about Hollywood, despite how often reality meets art in the film. These are people who are willing to sell themselves to achieve their goals.


Posted by on March 26, 2015 in Drama, Film Noir


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Witness for the Prosecution – Movie, Play, Short Story, from Agatha Christie to Billy Wilder

Charles Laughton as the barrister and Tyrone Power is on trial for his life

Charles Laughton as the barrister and Tyrone Power is on trial for his life

One of the best adaptations of an Agatha Christie story is Witness for the Prosecution, released in 1957 and starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and Elsa Lanchester. It is a courtroom drama, but also a suspense story and even a bit of a comedy. It is one of those films that you think perhaps Alfred Hitchcock could have directed, though it does contain the trademark biting wit of the actual director, Billy Wilder, who also co-wrote the screenplay, with barbed words and witticisms zinging through the courtroom.

The movie is known for its surprise ending and when I first saw the film, I unfortunately knew the surprise, or at least some of it. But what I discovered is that even though I knew the twist at the end, I did not have the ins-and-outs of how it was worked out quite right and my enjoyment was nearly as high as if I had not known what was coming. And even knowing everything, the film loses nothing in subsequent viewings. There is too much humor, good characterizations and the fun of knowing what is coming and watching people’s reactions to things other characters do not know.

Not only did the movie introduce me to Billy Wilder, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton (I already knew Tyrone Power from his swashbucklers, like The Mark of Zorro and The Black Swan), but it also made me want to read the original Agatha Christie story. Witness for the Prosecution is based on a 1953 play, which Agatha Christie adapted from her own short story from 1925. I read them both and it was fun to see how the basic story remained the same, but was changed to suit the increasingly visual mediums, from page to play to celluloid.

51XqC-+3slLBut the story remains the same in all three. Leonard Vole is a pleasant young man who seems to have a way of unconsciously making people, especially woman, like him. He becomes platonically involved with an elderly lady who is murdered, but leaves all her wealth to him. Unsurprisingly, he is then accused of the murder. His solicitor and barrister work to get him off in the face of nearly impossible odds. To make it worse, Vole’s German wife, Romaine (Christine in the movie) seems curiously antagonistic towards him and surprises everyone by refusing to give him an alibi and instead stands up in court to denounce him (since they were not legally married because she had a husband in Germany still living). The solicitor and barrister then receive evidence that might disprove her story.

Short Story by Agatha Christie (1925)  – The short story is told from the perspective of Leonard Vole’s solicitor. We see everyone, Leonard and his wife Romaine, from his perspective. In this original version, Romaine dominates the story. The story is really about her, though we do not meet her right away. The solicitor, Mr. Mayherne, believes Leonard when he tells him he is innocent, though the case looks very bad, but cannot figure out the motivations of Romaine.

In England they have solicitors and barristers. The solicitor is the one who works closely with the client, acts by the authority of the client, but cannot speak in court. The barrister does not have as much contact with the client, cannot act for them, but is the one to make the case before the judge. In the short story, we hardly meet the barrister. He has perhaps one line, but the story is not centered in the courtroom. It begins in Mayherne’s office, passes through the courtroom briefly and then wanders away as Mayherne follows a lead that might break Romaine’s testimony. It is very interesting, but lacks punch when you already know what is coming.

witness_playPlay by Agatha Christie (1953) – In his introduction to The Mouse Trap and Other Plays, Ira Levin writes that Agatha Christie began writing plays because she felt that when other people had adapted her novels into plays, they adhered too closely to her novels, thus making the play confusing. When she adapted her own works, she changed and simplified plots, once even changing who the murderer was and occasionally removing Hercule Poirot from his own story. For “Witness For the Prosecution,” however, she expanded the plot rather simplified it, though she does change some things.

In the play, Mayherne becomes Mayhew, but must share space with the barrister, Sir Wilfrid, as the story becomes a courtroom drama. The plot remains the same and Romaine remains a figure of mystery, much speculated on by the lawyers. And where the short story really doesn’t speculate on who the murderer is if Leonard didn’t kill her, the play offers a suspect in the murdered woman’s housekeeper, the extremely bitter Janet McKenzie, who is also in the short story but less prominent. The play also provides one extra twist to the end of the story that was not in the original story.

Film, directed by Billy Wilder (1957) – Reportedly, Billy Wilder did not want to make Witness for the Prosecution; he felt an adaptation of a play wouldn’t be particularly challenging for him. However, he does an excellent job and really brings the story to life. Where the play is just a courtroom drama, Billy Wilder brings humor and humanity. The biggest change is how he makes Sir Wilfrid (Charles Laughton) the center of the story and gives him a story of his own that is separate from the trial, though connected.

Sir Wilfrid worked so hard that he suffered a heart attack. The movie opens with his return to his office with a nurse in tow (Elsa Lanchester) and orders from his doctor not to take any stressful cases. But Mayhew the solicitor brings along Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) in an effort to interest Sir Wilfrid. With his nurse protesting all the way, he decides to take the case. Suddenly, not only is Leonard Vole’s life at stake, but also Sir Wilfrid’s, who has to take pills throughout the trial for his heart.

MV5BMTc0MjgyNTUyNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDQzMDg0Nw@@._V1_SX640_SY720_The relationship between Sir Wilfrid and his nurse, played by married couple Laughton and Lanchester, is great. She is the super-cheerful, commanding kind of nurse so often found in Agatha Christie novels who have a habit of saying “we” instead of “you” (how are we doing today?). But she has her match in Sir Wilfrid, who hides cigars in his cane and whisky in his thermos instead of cocoa, and their interaction provides half the laughs. But they also develop an unexpected and mutual respect for each other in the end.

Laughton is the real star of the film. His Sir Wilfrid is brilliant, petulant, warm-hearted and tyrannical, but also truly cares about his clients and is not in the business just for his reputation. As a result,though, of Sir Wilfrid’s prominence, Leonard Vole’s wife (now called Christine and played by Marlene Dietrich) is slightly less the overshadowing figure that she is in the short story and play, but her character remains a highly interesting one, and the one around which the plot still turns.

I don’t want to spoil the ending if you’ve never seen the play or movie, but it is an excellent film. Along with And Then There Were None (1944), it was one of the few movie adaptations of her books that Agatha Christie liked.

Random Note – in the film, the murdered woman’s housekeeper, Janet McKenzie, is played by the inimitable Una O’Connor (The Bride of FrankensteinThe Invisible ManChristmas in ConnecticutThe Bells of St MaryThe Adventures of Robin Hood). O’Connor also played the housekeeper in the play only several years earlier. Since McKenzie seems extremely bitter in the play (though I’ve only read the play, but that is how it seems) and is comedic in the movie, I am extremely curious how she played the role on stage.

Here is a clip of Sir Wilfrid cross-examining Janet McKenzie.

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Posted by on January 26, 2015 in Drama, Fiction, Mystery, Plays, Suspense


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