Portrait of the Director as a Young Journalist

A collection of Billy Wilder’s work as a reporter in Vienna and Berlin reveals his early influences and the verve of the roaring ’20s.

Before Billy Wilder became the iconic director of films like Sabrina or The Seven Year Itch, he was Hollywood’s best paid screenwriter – but only after he had honed his craft as a cub reporter in Vienna and Berlin. Available in English for the first time, the collection Billy Wilder on Assignment reveals the apprentice years of the master humorist and cinematic storyteller, painting an evocative picture of the jazz age, and along the way, a portrait of Central Europe between the wars.

Wilder chose his profession early, fast talking his way into Vienna’s Die Bühne right after his Matura in 1924 – by catching its head theater critic in flagrante with his secretary. While working his beat, he met novelist Joseph Roth, publicist Alfred Polgar and a very young Peter Lorre. But Vienna proved too small for him: When an interview with American bandleader Paul Whiteman led to an invitation to Berlin, Wilder accepted and never came back. When Hitler came to power in 1933, he left for Hollywood – and the rest is history.

With most of Wilder’s stories three pages or less, editor Noah Isenberg divides the book into three sections: 1. Features and opinion pieces; 2. Portraits; and 3. Reviews. The latter offers the least to modern readers: Most are on forgotten silent films, with a write-up of the 50th performance of the Threepenny Opera alone of historical interest.

His features and opinion pieces, however, show the young stringer at his best, reporting on five o’clock tea dances during a Berlin heat wave or making a cynical appeal in the vein of Kurt Tucholsky that lying ought to be taught in schools. As a transplanted Wiener, his Ode to the Coffeehouse, which equates the institution with a well-played violin – “they resonate, reverberate and impart distinct timbres” – is particularly heartfelt, as is his plea against renovating them: Scraping the grime off the walls is excising the essence of all the great conversations held there over the years.

But it is in his portraits where Wilder really comes into his own, using the same love for detail on millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr. (with a grease stain on his tie) and the oldest woman in Berlin (more interested in her grandchildren than official well-wishers).

Many pieces offer a glimpse into early influences – it’s hard to read Wilder’s bubbly report on the arrival of the British dance troupe the Tiller Girls at Westbahnhof and not see a template for the all-woman jazz band in Some Like it Hot. Likewise, a lengthy profile of Austrian actor-director Erich von Strohheim (“the man we love to hate”) reveals his high regard long before they collaborated on Sunset Boulevard.

Becoming a Mensch

Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder on Assignment – Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna

Edited by Noah Isenberg
Translated by Shelley Frisch

Princeton University Press
pp 192

© Courtesy of the Publisher

Perhaps the greatest insight is the realization that Wilder was himself a Wilderesque character. Placing himself in his stories, his written persona is a quick-witted, loveable rogue, often embroiled in sleazy business, but with integrity and basic decency intact. In one article, he writes about busting out in Monte Carlo, desperate for a meal and a ticket home.

He borrows an empty violin case to justify wearing a tuxedo during the day and resolves to swindle billionaire Sir Basil Zaharoff out of some cash. But his elderly mark – happy the young man plays the violin and not roulette – disarms him with effusions on his favorite virtuosos and he loses his nerve.

Wilder’s blueprint is perhaps most apparent in an investigative piece on his time as a hotel dancer: In his best-known article, he devotes equal parts to the glamor of the illusion he sells and the unheated apartment he returns to. The tale ends with a ravishing client convinced he’s an imbecile – a rented pair of legs – but she still requests he take her home. At the door to her house on Kantstraße, she asks if he knows who Kant was. Unwilling to “spoil the setup for which she paid seventy-two marks,” he confidently asserts that he was a Swiss national hero. She laughs and strokes his cheek before locking the door behind her, leaving our hero – like a Jack Lemmon or a William Holden – to turn up his collar and walk home through the November rain at two in the morning.