Billy Wilder’s expansive career began in Germany at the end of the ’20s, continued briefly in Paris when he fled Hitler in 1933, and picked up in Hollywood the following year. He knew very little English when he moved in with a fellow émigré, actor Peter Lorre, but he learned fast: his partnership with Charles Brackett turned out a couple of the wittiest and most memorable screenplays of the late ’30s, Midnight and Ninotchka. By 1942 he had become a director, and he remained one for four decades, collaborating on all his own scripts, first with Brackett and then with I.A.L. Diamond.
A complete retrospective of Wilder in the year of his centenary would take weeks. The Harvard Film Archive has packed a dozen features and one short into 10 days — but not the obvious choices you might expect to see in a Wilder tribute. You won’t find Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, or Some Like It Hot here — films that are easily located at video stores and show up regularly on Turner Classic Movies. The series focuses instead — fascinatingly — on the early and later phases of his career. Not all of it is golden. Wilder had a blaring, crass side that became more pronounced in the ’60s and ’70s, like the Cold War farce ONE, TWO, THREE (December 15, 7 pm), with Jimmy Cagney as a Coca-Cola exec trying to break into the East German market, and AVANTI! (December 17, 6:30 pm), with Jack Lemmon as a dyspeptic American who travels to Italy after his father dies on holiday in an automobile crash and discovers that the Englishwoman who perished with him had been his mistress. Lemmon was the favorite leading man of Wilder’s later pictures; his frantic farceur style suited the kind of comedies Wilder was interested in turning out.
On view are three samples of his early days in Hollywood, before he turned director: BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE (December 12, 7 pm), which he and Brackett concocted for Ernst Lubitsch in 1938, and MIDNIGHT (December 11, 8:45 pm) and HOLD BACK THE DAWN (December 12, 8:30 pm), both of which Mitchell Leisen directed. I wasn’t able to see the last of these, which was suggested by Wilder’s own experience struggling to get into the US and stars Charles Boyer and Olivia de Havilland. The other two are a study in contrasts: Midnight is effortlessly charming whereas Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife falls flat — partly because of a lack of chemistry between the two stars, Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper. It’s an intriguing failure, though, because it’s one of those distinctly ’30s combos: high comedy crossed with romantic comedy. Cooper plays the much-married American who courts Colbert, the daughter of a bankrupt French marquis (Edward Everett Horton). Both Bluebeard and Midnight cast Colbert as a dry-eyed, wised-up heroine fighting to keep afloat in the torrents of the Depression. In Midnight, which showcases one of her best performances, she’s an American who winds up in Paris. In the opening scene, a train conductor finds her asleep in one of the cars, in a lamé gown, grasping a sequined — but empty — pocketbook. She peers out into the drenched nighttime cityscape and quips, “So this is Paris, huh? Well, from here it looks like a rainy night in Kokomo, Indiana.”
The quartet of early Wilder-directed movies comprises two from the war years: his first, THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, and FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO (December 8, 7 and 9 pm); and two from the post-war years: A FOREIGN AFFAIR and ACE IN THE HOLE (December 9, 7 and 9:15 pm). The Major and the Minor is a rather shrill, knockabout wartime comedy that hinges on the idea of Ginger Rogers passing for an 11-year-old so she can get a reduced train fare home from New York. Ray Milland plays the cadet-school major who falls for her, but not really, until she drops the little-girl look. The pedophilia joke doesn’t work the way the cross-dressing would a decade and a half later in Some Like It Hot, but it’s a must for Wilder aficionados, because you can see where he’s going. The most acclaimed of the four is Ace in the Hole (sometimes known as The Big Carnival), where Kirk Douglas is a hard-boiled Manhattan reporter covering the story of a man trapped in a New Mexico mine. I prefer the quick-witted espionage thriller Five Graves to Cairo, with Franchot Tone as the hero and Erich von Stroheim — as Field Marshal Rommel — in an entertainingly flamboyant variation on his performance as the commandant in La grande illusion.
A Foreign Affair, a romantic comedy neatly stolen by Marlene Dietrich from its star, Jean Arthur (in an awful role as a strait-laced congresswoman), was shot in bombed-out post-war Berlin, and it represents one response — the hard-boiled vaudevillean’s — by the Jewish, Vienna-born Wilder to returning to Germany after the Holocaust. (Dietrich is a Berlin cabaret singer, the one-time mistress of a high-ranking SS officer, who’s managed to evade de-Nazification by attaching herself to a Yankee captain.) The horrifying, rarely screened 22-minute “DEATH MILLS” (it’ll precede A Foreign Affair) is another. In Joseph Kanon’s novel The Good German, one of the main characters, a sympathetic German frau who’s barely survived the war, talks about what it’s like for her to watch the footage of the liberation of the camps that the State Department has foisted upon German citizens: “Death Mills” is the documentary they would have seen