Read Excerpts from the Diaries of Hollywood Legend Charles Brackett

It's the Pictures That Got Small

The following are some excerpt from Charles Brackett’s diaries, portions of which have been published in It’s the Pictures That Got Small: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age. Charles Brackett was the longtime writing partner of Billy Wilder. In the following passages he recounts working with Wilder and interactions with a variety of Hollywood notables.

August 18, 1936: Worked with Billy Wilder, who paces constantly, has over-extravagant ideas, but is stimulating. He has the blasé quality I have missed sadly in dear Frank Partos. He has humor—a kind of humor that sparks with mine.

[At this point, Charles Brackett adds the following note to the typed tran­scription of his diary.]

(It’s time to examine him as he was then: 32 years old, a slim young fellow with a merry face, particularly the upper half of it, the lower half of his face had other implications. But from his brisk nose up it was the face of a naughty cupid. Born some place in Poland [“half-an-hour from Vienna,” he used to say, “by telegraph.”] he has been brought up in Vienna and schooled there, the Lycée—which means he had just about the education of a bright American college graduate. He’d gone to Berlin, worked at various things, among others he’d been a dancer for hire at fashionable restaurants. And he’d written an article about his experiences in that capacity. He’d then become a successful screenwriter: Emil und die Detective [1931] was a delightful and successful picture he wrote.

Because he was Jewish and had an acute instinct for things that were going to happen, he had slipped out of Germany as Hitler began to rise.

In Paris he had written and directed a picture in which Danielle Darrieux played the lead. One great advantage was his: he had cut the teeth of his mind on motion pictures. He knew the great ones as he knew the classic books. He’d been brought to Hollywood by a German producer and set to work on Music in the Air. Music in the Air was a real abortion. After it ap­peared, other writing assignments were not easy to come by.

There was a time when, due to the protective affection of a woman who ran a conservative apartment house on Sunset Boulevard, he was allowed to sleep in the ladies’ room, provided he was out by the time the tenants began to appear.

Discouraged and just about to go back to New York, he called his agent to an­nounce his departure. His agent had been trying to get hold of him for days: he’d sold three stories.

This all sounds improbable, but it was the kind of improbability that was built into Billy Wilder. Before we were joined in collaboration, I’d known him as a jaunty young foreigner who worked on the fourth floor at Paramount, where I worked. He had been a collaborator of Don Hartman’s. Only one anecdote about him at that period sticks in my mind:

I’d gone to meet somebody with whom I was to have dinner in the Holly­wood Brown Derby. While I waited, Billy came in and I asked him to join me for a drink. As we sat together, the swing door was opened on the wintry evening to admit a luminous figure. “Look who’s coming in!” I breathed.

Billy gave a cursory glance over his shoulder. “Marlene!” he snorted. “That excites you?” I admitted that it did. “She’s old hat for us,” he said. “Let me tell you if the waiter were to wheel over a big covered dish with her in it stark naked, I’d say, ‘Not interested,’ and have him wheel her away.”

I was enormously impressed with this world-weary man. It wasn’t for years that I came to know that Marlene had been an idol of his, worshipped since he first saw her.)

November 23, 1936: At the studio was amused by the account of Mr. Wilder (the compleat amorist) of one of his methods of seduction. “You go out about the second time with a girl. You are quiet. You listen. Just at the last moment, when you’ve taken her to the door, you kiss her—surprisingly—then you hurry away. You stop at the nearest drug store and telephone her. ‘I’m never going to see you again—it’s too disturbing—it’s going to get me. I’m not go­ing to get involved in anything like this.’ Instantly she tells you to come right back. By the time you arrive she’s begun to undress. You see her endishabille. You’re in bed almost immediately.”

Today Mr. Wilder was not so successful on our story. We accomplished almost nothing. . . .

December 10, 1941: A loathsome day. Billy and I were beginning to discuss our script when Sy Bartlett, now Captain Bartlett, strode into the office, full of the confidence of a uniform, and began to try to get Billy to go to Washington on a Signal Corps job. He bragged of his own contributions to national de­fense, naming an instance which alarmed me with its foolishness, and seemed about to stay, when I said to Billy, “Don’t you think we ought to do a little work?” Whereupon there was a scene. I was standing in the way of national defense—he hadn’t expected that of me! Billy was upset. I regretted having offended the ass. The morning was lost. Lunched with Billy gloomily at Lu­cey’s. We did a microscopic bit of work in the afternoon. The war news was terrible—two great British ships lost, possibly a third—the Japanese streak­ing all over the map. At the end of the afternoon Joe Sistrom and I had a talk in which he predicted Russia’s making peace with Germany, failing to declare war against Japan (as it has up to now) and seeking to profit by the general war, to set up a new economic system and grow rich. . . .

March 7, 1946: Academy Award Day, and after a first cursory discussion of our scene Billy and I knew we wouldn’t be able to do any serious work and turned to cribbage. Ray Milland came in, so strung-up that his words weren’t always in the right place in sentences. I said, “Ray, I promise you that if you don’t get the Award I will commit hara kiri.” And he quite surprisingly and untruth­fully said, “Oh, I’d rather have you around than the award.” . . .

We arrived at the Chinese just as the orchestra was starting to play. The show was a little more cumbersome and pretentious than last year but good. The clips began and the Technical Awards and Johnny Seitz didn’t get the Camera Award and Doane Harrison didn’t get the Film Editing Award. At intermis­sion I whispered to Billy “This isn’t going to be any walkaway,” and he whis­pered back something about the power of Metro. And the intermission was over and . . . Bette Davis reading a horrible quotation from John Cowper Powys about writing, and then she got the envelope .lled with the winning writers’ names—and suddenly, before she’s opened it, I who had been taut as a fiddle-string, knew that it was all right. And then she read “Best Written Screenplay of 1945—The Lost Weekend ”—and I wasn’t in the least surprised but was mighty pleased.

Billy and I walked up and got the Awards, they photographed us a little, then the Directing Award clip was on and “Best Director, Billy Wilder.” We were being photographed some more and missed hearing “Best Picture of the Year, Lost Weekend.” Henry [Ginsberg] took the Oscar from Eric Johnston, though I believe it ought to go to me. There was the breathless wait for the next-to­the-last award: “Best Actor, Ray Milland for his performance in Lost Week­end.” The final award for Best Actress went sentimentally to Joan Crawford, who was at home ill.

There were a million congratulations and photographers in the crowded backstage, a Paramount party at La Rue’s, very warm and sweet . . . and a com­pliment from Hedda which went right down to the dark springs of snobbism and pleased me mightily, something to the effect of “It’s so wonderful you should have overcome the disadvantages of gentle birth and come to this. . . . I looked at all the other people on the stage and there wasn’t another top-drawer person among them, male or female.” . . . It was an excellent party and I brought the Oscar home . . . , and it stands on the table beside me, strong, ugly, preposterous . . . [ellipses in original] Billy got bad news while we were at the party—that our dear Ernst has had another attack.

May 2, 1949: There were tensions between Billy and von Stroheim on the set and I had to do my best to ease them, get the scene we did yesterday typed, telephone Theda Bara to try and get her to sit at the bridge table, a job she refused with hauteur. Had to get Jetta Goudal on the phone for the same purpose. She refused with hauteur, but as bad luck would have it, knew Bill [Holden] and Betty Allen and yukked about them for a good half hour. Finally Billy and I decided on good, kind Anna Q. Nilsson, who arrived about 5. I had to see to what she shall wear. The rushes were brief and showed the mo­notony of attitude in Swanson and Holden which is beginning to worry Mac Marshman and me considerably. Mac said quite simply, “It just occurred to me this can be a picture that nobody will like.” I’d thought of that before.

May 24, 1949: All day they shot a scene of von Stroheim driving Gloria’s car up to the gate, the reason it consumed so much time being that von Stroheim can’t drive a car.

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