Billy Wilder and the 1930s Romantic Comedy

Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder
Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder

With a career as a writer-director as long, prolific, and varied as Billy Wilder’s, the Wilder you get may depend on your starting point. Starting with Wilder’s career as a romantic comedy screenwriter in the 1930s, then: the jaundiced satirist recedes, replaced by a man fascinated by Cinderella stories, while the analysis of gender in later comedies like Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and Kiss Me, Stupid now seems to emerge from a specific historical context. Like Jerry and Joe disguising themselves as women to get a gig, a screenwriter in 1930s Hollywood who wanted to get somewhere could do worse than learning how to inhabit the heroine’s point of view.  

Wilder arrived in Hollywood in 1934, but his career as a screenwriter didn’t take off until he started working at Paramount, where he was soon paired with Charles Brackett. Their first film, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, was directed by Wilder’s idol, Ernst Lubitsch, who had helped to make romantic comedy a Paramount specialty. But by 1938, Lubitsch’s sophisticated, “European” mode of romantic comedy was out, and Frank Capra’s screwball, “American” mode was in. The paradigm shift occurred when Capra’s It Happened One Night became a surprise hit in 1934 and swept the Academy Awards. Whereas in the early ‘30s Lubitsch had presented American stars like Miriam Hopkins and Gary Cooper in comedies of manners full of adroit sexual innuendo, screwball comedy gave audiences American stars who acted like children and engaged in roughhousing and pratfalls that had previously been reserved for professional comedians. 

As Elizabeth Kendall argues in The Runaway Bride, however, there was a lot more to the new, Capra mode of romantic comedy than that. As she sees it, Capra inaugurated “Depression romantic comedy,” whose distinguishing features are reconciliation between the classes and a new way of presenting so rightwomen in Hollywood film. In fact, the two work together: the heroine of Depression romantic comedy, whether rich or poor, represents “the people” precisely because of her physical and emotional vulnerability as a woman. Her choice of romantic partner, furthermore, bears the weight of imaginatively reconciling a resentful Depression-era audience to income inequality in America. And since the heroine of this type of romantic comedy is the emotional center of the film, this also means that the actresses most closely associated with the genre made important creative contributions to it, which Kendall sees in terms of collaboration with the genre’s signature directors.

Wilder and Brackett, therefore, started writing romantic comedies at a studio associated with the genre, when it was all the rage. They wrote four in close succession that each starred one of the signature actresses of Depression romantic comedy: Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife in 1938 and Midnight (directed by Mitchell Leisen) in 1939, starring Claudette Colbert; Ball of Fire (directed by Howard Hawks) in 1941, starring Barbara Stanwyck; and The Major and the Minor, Wilder’s Hollywood directorial debut, in 1942, starring Ginger Rogers. Ninotchka in 1939, for which Wilder and Brackett were reunited with Lubitsch, is the odd woman out, but its successful transformation of Greta Garbo into a romantic comedy actress demonstrates how inescapable the genre was in the ‘30s. 

Once his career as a director was launched, Wilder took a break from romantic comedy for six years, and when he returned to it, it was with the tonally experimental A Foreign Affair. This reworking of Ninotchka plays like Henry James’ The Ambassadors with more Friedrich Hollaender songs and stars Capra’s principal romantic comedy actress, Jean Arthur, as the naive American confronted by European ambiguity. When Wilder returned to the genre again in the 1950s, it was with a new generation of actresses. Kendall gives little attention to Wilder in The Runaway Bride, perhaps because his reputation as cynical is at odds with the optimism that she attributes to Depression romantic comedy. But because of the centrality of the heroine to Capra’s version of the genre, Wilder couldn’t write romantic comedies in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s without making the heroine the audience’s identification figure. As he continued to write for the genre, this fact forced—or allowed—him to explore questions of gender in a way that pays off spectacularly in some of his most famous later comedies.

It Happened One Night made love in romantic comedy a battle between the man and woman for the upper hand, but ultimately Claudette Colbert’s Ellie Andrews brings about the couple’s union by taking the risk of vulnerability. Her character in Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, Nicole de Loiselle, is also charged with the task of making heterosexual romance work, but that’s where the resemblance ends. It has a curious structure that resembles two comedies joined together. In the first, which is like a romantic comedy plot in miniature, Colbert’s penniless aristocrat’s daughter meets cute with Gary Cooper’s American millionaire and, after some skirmishes, they have a rapprochement, realize they love each other, and decide to marry. Only then does she learn that her fiancé has a habit of marrying women and divorcing them when he tires of them. 

Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert in 'Bluebeard's Eighth Wife' | Paramount Pictures
Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert in Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) | Paramount Pictures

In the second part, taking place after their marriage, Colbert sets about psychologically demolishing him so that they can realize the love that they felt for each other in the first part, which his male and millionaire privilege has previously made impossible for him. It’s something like a farce version of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. But whereas the question of who holds the power in the relationship is even more slippery in Phantom Thread than it is in It Happened One Night, in Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, Colbert easily overmasters Cooper. 

The movie ends with Cooper in a straitjacket, at Colbert’s mercy, an image of male sexual passivity that Wilder had perfected by the time Marilyn Monroe climbs on top of Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot. But Cooper has been too emasculated and has to break free of his bonds and threaten Colbert with violence to show that this situation will not continue indefinitely. Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife makes the struggle for power within Capra-era romantic comedy so naked that no truly satisfactory resolution seems possible, so the attempt to give the film one leaves a (probably intended) bad taste. 

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All of the Wilder-Brackett romantic comedies have a fable or fairy tale as their basis: Ball of Fire draws on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, while Midnight, Ninotchka (and therefore A Foreign Affair), and The Major and the Minor draw on the perennial romantic comedy favorite Cinderella. Midnight is the clearest use of the latter fable in a Wilder-Brackett film, uncomplicated by politics or Freudian psychology, and also brings it together with the gold digger theme and masquerade plot—all of the elements that Wilder explored again in Some Like It Hot

In Midnight, Colbert’s Eve Peabody is an adventuress who arrives in Paris down on her luck, but believes she’ll get back on her feet in no time. Before she can start, she meets a cabbie, Tibor, and recognizing each other as fellow refugees from hardscrabble backgrounds, they exchange their opposed philosophies: Tibor is happy with just getting by, but Eve wants to marry a millionaire and achieve security. In the course of the conversation, they also fall in love, but Eve is determined to stick to her plan, so she ducks into a society party and soon finds herself playing cards with the second man to fall in love with her that night—this one a wealthy playboy. 

Without a centime to her name or a place to stay (that she’s willing to accept), she’s forced to assume a false identity that seems to miraculously become reality when she finds herself in a luxurious hotel suite whose absent occupant happens to share her fake name. It’s a remarkable opening sequence: the combination of desperation, surrealism, and meandering is more reminiscent of Scorsese’s After Hours than of other romantic comedies of the era. When Eve awakens the next morning surrounded by servants, the dream, paradoxically, continues, deepening both her and the viewer’s disorientation. It’s something of a let-down when the “fairy godmother” responsible for all of this is revealed, along with his motivation for helping Eve pull off her masquerade and, just possibly, achieve her goal of marrying a rich man. Her lifelong dream has become a nightmare, however, because of her guilty awareness that she’s betraying her true feelings. Cinderella had no qualms about marrying for money, but for the “democratic” heroine of Capra-era romantic comedy, it’s an ethical quandary. 

The guilt of materialism becomes acute in Ninotchka, whose heroine isn’t merely democratic—she’s a Communist. Like Eve, Ninotchka is a kind of anti-Cinderella. Her transformation—from an ethically-committed, socially-oriented Soviet official to a woman who understands the value of living for pleasure—also becomes a nightmare when it allows her class enemy, the former Grand Duchess Swana, to blackmail her. When Eve tries to live for pleasure, she feels guilt for not honoring her feelings; when Ninotchka tries to live for pleasure, which includes honoring her feelings, she feels guilt for not sacrificing herself for the common good. Eve’s problem is resolvable: she abandons her wealth obsession and chooses to be with the man she loves. Ninotchka chooses to be with the man she loves as well—she’s in a romantic comedy, after all—but since in this case romance and ethics don’t coincide, we’re left with a more melancholy and mature view of the choices available in a spectacularly flawed world.

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Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire (1941) | RKO Radio Pictures
Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire (1941) | RKO Radio Pictures

By the time Wilder and Brackett wrote Ball of Fire, they were the hottest screenwriting team in Hollywood. A vehicle for Samuel Goldwyn’s contract player Gary Cooper, it was directed by Howard Hawks but contains few of his themes and little of his style, and its reputation has suffered among auteurists for that reason. It does feature a point of continuity between Wilder and Hawks, which is setting a lone, sexy woman against an all-male backdrop—the only other significant female role being that of her rival or foil. But in Ball of Fire and The Major and the Minor, Wilder works this up into the un-Hawksian idea of a woman reigning over a group of men sexually. The development is anticipated in Midnight when Tibor takes Eve to the Parisian taxi drivers’ favorite hangout, only to have her become the incongruous belle of this working-class ball, to his chagrin. 

Midnight and Ninotchka largely abandoned romantic comedy’s “battle of the sexes” theme in favor of concentrating on the heroine’s ethical dilemma. This was an advance in Wilder and Brackett’s writing, and it’s retained in Ball of Fire, but gender returns as a theme in this film, with a vengeance. The heroine is so central to Capra-era romantic comedy that even though Ball of Fire was written for Cooper, it’s focus is the heroine’s ethical conflict once again. However, Cooper’s Bertram Potts does get an arc. It’s the familiar Hollywood arc of learning to be more conventionally masculine so that he can become a viable romantic partner for his love interest, but the greater focus on the male protagonist allows Wilder to start thinking about masculinity as a problem. Bertram is his first “beta male,” the type played by Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. But Barbara Stanwyck’s Sugarpuss O’Shea is the primary protagonist, and the one who, like Lemmon’s Jerry or Bud, must choose between the world of conventional masculinity (represented in Ball of Fire, as in Some Like It Hot, by gangsters) and the “female world”—or, in Ball of Fire, the professors’ world of unconventional masculinity. Like Jerry and Bud, Sugarpuss is bullied in the world of conventional masculinity, but has something to gain from it: theoretical male privilege, in Jerry’s case; the chance to graduate from exploited exploiter to pure exploiter, in Bud’s; material gain, in Sugarpuss’. 

But within the limited sphere of the professors’ world, Sugarpuss reigns supreme. The wild imbalance of power between Sugarpuss/Snow White and the professors/dwarfs has two sources: the compromised masculinity of the men and the sexual power of the woman. The all-male world that Sugarpuss enters in Ball of Fire, quite unlike the adventure-oriented all-male world that the heroine enters in a typical Hawks film, consists of a secluded group of elderly pedants, with the exception of the middle-aged Bertram, who’s prematurely de-sexed. Bertram’s characterization nods to previous screwball heroes, from Cary Grant’s paleontologist in Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby to Henry Fonda’s ophiologist in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve, while Cooper had previously played an overgrown boy in Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

As for Stanwyck, she had played the same kind of power imbalance in The Lady Eve and could do it in her sleep. It Happened One Night had presented romance as a mutual, if fraught, exchange, but romantic comedy in general upends the gender hierarchy, a tendency that screwball comedy exaggerates. The power granted to the heroine in screwball comedy doesn’t normally include sexual power, however, which is the element Sturges introduces, ushering romantic comedy into the noir decade. And whether in The Lady Eve or Ball of Fire, no actress assumes power, sexual or otherwise, over men with less fuss than Stanwyck. She delivers her complex, articulate lines (no less so for being slang-filled in Ball of Fire) at top speed, purring like a Ferrari, leaving confusion in her wake as dazzled, dazed men try to figure out what hit them. It’s an apple, in The Lady Eve, while in Ball of Fire Gregg Toland pulls out all the stops to suggest Cooper’s bedazzlement by Stanwyck’s sequinned showgirl costume in the seduction scene. Her midriff-baring outfit, undoubtedly an homage to The Lady Eve, becomes Kim Novak’s skimpy hooker-waitress uniform in Kiss Me, Stupid, her navel jewel all that’s left of the ‘30s romantic comedy heroine’s dazzle.

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Ray Milland and Ginger Rogers in The Major and the Minor (1942)
Ray Milland and Ginger Rogers in The Major and the Minor (1942) | Paramount Pictures

If Ball of Fire illustrates female sexual power, The Major and the Minor is conflicted about whether to think of women’s sexuality in those terms. The wholly unbelievable premise of the film is that Ginger Rogers’ Susan Applegate, a young woman who’s tried to make it in New York, wants to return to Iowa and marry the dull boy who was in love with her, but when she finds at the station that she can’t afford the fare, she decides to masquerade as a 12-year-old to get a half-price ticket. On the trip she meets Ray Milland’s Major Philip Kirby, who’s on his way to the military academy where he teaches. They develop a mutual crush that’s obviously foiled by her disguise, but before she can unmask herself, she’s discovered by his fianceé, and has to continue to pretend to be little “Sue-Sue” so there won’t be a scandal over her spending the night in his compartment. (This seems to be one of Wilder and Brackett’s extra-dry jokes: that Susan is trying to avoid a military sex scandal by pretending to be a minor.) Circumstances make it necessary for her to spend a few days at the academy, and antics ensue. 

The Major and the Minor is highly original in the way that it uses the farce form to submit its subjects—the problem that female sexuality poses for both women and men, and the concept of age—to rigorous philosophical scrutiny. Philip Kirby’s credulity is even harder to accept than Osgood Fielding III’s, since, unlike Joe E. Brown, Milland is a sexually viable romantic lead. Milland manages to pull it off by lending the Major an eccentricity to rival Kyle MacLachlan’s Agent Dale Cooper. It’s as if the sexual naivety of the screwball genre is disrupted by having Freud dropped in its lap. Wilder’s friendliness to Freudian lines of inquiry makes his use of masquerade in comedy very different than Sturges’ in The Lady Eve: in Wilder it brings out a disjunction between conscious and unconscious desires. Philip’s half-conscious attraction to a woman who he thinks is a 12-year-old girl forces him to confront some very uncomfortable questions about exactly when a child becomes a desirable woman. 

The difference from Some Like It Hot and Kiss Me, Stupid is that any inner questioning that results from the masquerade happens to Philip, not to Susan—the person actually undergoing it. And yet based on The Major and the Minor‘s opening sequence, the impulse behind Susan’s masquerade may very well be—like Jerry and Joe’s when they flee from the mob—to escape her gender. We watch a jaded, exhausted Rogers arrive at a wealthy man’s apartment to provide him with “personal services,” which he, like the smarmy elevator boy, accurately interprets as coded sex work, but which a desperate Rogers had hoped was a legitimate job. She had, after all, as she lets us know in a monologue, paid money for the course and for her equipment, but all she gets out of it are corny, and very insistent, passes by falling-apart older married men. 

But if she had hoped to escape from this by disguising herself as a 12-year-old (who acts likes she’s 6, as the film’s real, and hip, young adolescent girl tells her), she finds out there is no escape. The viewer might be worried that the spectre of age-inappropriate romance would become too uncomfortable once Rogers starts mingling with infatuated teenage boys, but on the contrary, the sexual threat continues to emanate from the male side. They all have the same date-rape technique, derived—appropriately—from military strategy. Rogers, whose harassed working girl persona was established in George Stevens’ Swing Time, is perfect for the part of a woman who experiences her sexuality as a source of vulnerability, not power. 

The Major and the Minor is divided on almost every subject it touches. On the one hand, the military academy students are compromised in their masculinity, like the professors of Ball of Fire. As adolescent boys, they’re wholly subject to Rogers’ sexual power, without being capable of sexually satisfying her. On the other hand, they are, unlike the professors, being literally schooled in the ways of conventional masculinity, and as such they pose a threat to her. Milland tries to bring these irreconcilable truths into coherence in his long “birds and bees,” or rather “moth and lightbulb,” speech to Susan. His rhetoric, however, comparing the transformation of an attractive girl into a sexual being at puberty to a deadly “light” (like the dazzling light shed by Sugarpuss’ costume) flirts not only with a dangerous area of sexuality but also with victim-blaming. In almost so many words, he tells Rogers to quit being so sexually provocative so that boys will quit losing their minds around her, a process which, however uncomfortable it may be for her, seems more dangerous for them. 

It’s notable, however, that in a film that gets queasy comic mileage from the idea of the sexiness of pubescent girls, the real teenager, Lucy, isn’t sexualized at all, even though Diana Lynn is conventionally attractive. Lucy has achieved what Susan could not: she has taken herself out of the game of gender and sexuality that seems such a mortal danger to both male and female participants. She’s achieved this through her ambition to be a scientist, but we’re never made to feel as though something is lacking in her life because she’s uninterested in romance. 

She’s not a nerd, either—after letting Rogers know that she’s seen through her disguise, she assumes a nonchalant pose on the floor and offers her a cigarette. And her obsession with science hasn’t deformed her emotionally or morally, as often happens to characters of this kind in comedies. The friendship she forms with Susan is a rare example of space being given in a Hollywood film to women outside of sex and romance. It anticipates the space given to friendship between men and women in Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, which becomes the basis for a new kind of romance that jettisons poisonous gender roles.

Those poisonous gender roles, hinted at in Ball of Fire and The Major and the Minor, become the subject of the loose trilogy of Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and Kiss Me, Stupid, three comedies about a man’s escape from participation in the sexual exploitation of women. Women are seen strictly as victims of predatory male sexuality and the homosocial bonds that underlie exploitative economic systems. Accordingly, the call-back to the often forceful and assertive heroine of ‘30s romantic comedy has to come in the form of Jack Lemmon’s androgynous Daphne. 

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Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot
Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot (1959) | United Artists

“I’m Cinderella the Second,” Jerry, as Daphne, snaps upon meeting his unlikely Prince Charming, Osgood Fielding III. Some Like It Hot revisits Midnight‘s gold digger version of the Cinderella fable, but as in Ninotchka, the emphasis is on the fable’s theme of transformation rather than on upward mobility. Jerry tries to escape from his masculine identity as Ninotchka tries to escape from her superego, but Jerry has a secret weapon: masquerade, with the Freudian dimension introduced by Wilder in The Major and the Minor. If Ninotchka used the Cinderella fable to illustrate the impasse between ethics and pleasure, Some Like It Hot uses it to orchestrate the triumph of the pleasure principle. There’s no ethical dilemma or Depression-era guilt for this Cinderella, only a head-on confrontation with the “reality principle” as arbitrarily signified by Jerry’s gender. 

Transformation is a motif that appears when comedy is close to fable, or “romance,” a realm ruled by wish-fulfillment. And romance is as far from the disillusioned realm of satire as it can get. The viewer wants Jerry and Osgood to end up together because the structure of the comedy has made them a couple, and the structure of the genre calls for couples to marry. Comedy’s happy ending is always a triumph of wish-fulfillment over reality, but not usually as nakedly as in Some Like It Hot. A happy outcome ought to be impossible, but in the event it doesn’t require the deus ex machina of traditional comedy, only radical acceptance. 

Likewise, the presence of the Cinderella theme in A Foreign Affair and of transformative masquerade in Kiss Me, Stupid suggests that political or sex satire isn’t the whole story about these films. Once he starts directing, which coincides with the winding down of the romantic comedy fad that Capra started, Wilder seldom builds his films around a female point-of-view character. But Kiss Me, Stupid—which like Some Like It Hot and The Apartment makes (misguided) male characters our guide to the film’s world—hands over protagonist duties to the wife at a crucial point, gives her knowledge denied to her husband, and allows her to bring about the comic resolution. The beating heart of the film, beneath its brittle, Brechtian exploitation of Kim Novak and her character, is a sweet-natured tale of two women gaining fulfillment by masquerading as each other, and undermining patriarchy in the process. Examining Wilder’s early work in romantic comedy makes it easier to spot the element of enchantment that lingers in his tonally complex mature comedies, and that sometimes, as in Some Like It Hot, runs away with the show.