Billy Wilder (1906-2002) was a master writer and director, responsible for such films as Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960). Like most directors, he had his share of failures, but also his share of less famous talked-about films that deserve to be revisited. Here are three such Billy Wilder films:
Ball of Fire (1941): Written by Wilder and writing partner Charles Brackett, but directed by Howard Hawks. A witty comedy about a group of professors attempting to update their encyclopedia entry on modern slang by hiring a local girl sing as a live-in consultant, Ball of Fire is the last film Wilder wrote without directing it himself. Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, both of whom would work with director Wilder later on, star as the youngest professor and the “slang” girl.
The Major and the Minor (1942): The first American film Wilder ever directed, The Major and the Minor is a screwball comedy in which a cash-strapped 20-year-old woman (Ginger Rogers) pretends to be 12 years old in order to pay half fare on her train ride home. During the trip, she meets an engaged military man (Ray Milland) and complications ensue. As with several Wilder films, the director doesn’t mind making his audience uncomfortable at times, such as in a scene in which it seems as if the military man is, if only for a moment, falling in love with a 12-year-old girl. It works because Rogers is so great in the part. She’s a 30-ish actress playing a 20-ish woman playing a 12-year-old girl, and she does it with such ease, we can almost forgive the man for being fooled; in the end, of course, it is the 20-year-old woman beneath the disguise that Milland had truly been falling in love with. Or so we hope.
Ray Milland would work with Wilder again, winning the Best Actor award for his portrayal of an alcoholic in the classic Lost Weekend (1945).
Stalag 17 (1953): With his love for language, it's no surprise that Billy Wilder would be drawn to adapting stage plays to film. Set in a German prisoner of war camp, Stalag 17 was likely a difficult play to “open up” for a film, but Wilder was not daunted by the claustrophobic setting, using fluid camerawork to make you forget that most of the film takes place in one set. William Holden, who plays a cynical American prisoner suspected of being a spy, wanted no part of this film but was forced into it by Paramount. Ironically, and justly, he won the Best Actor award for his work in this film.