Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett collaborated on fourteen pictures together before going their separate artistic ways in 1951. (Wilder went on to have an equally fertile collaboration with I.A.L. Diamond with whom he shared screenwriter’s credit on a dozen features.) The three pictures up for discussion here were produced at Hollywood’s style capital, Paramount Pictures and signed by mindful contract director Mitchell Leisen. Two were written by Wilder and Brackett, while To Each His Own was produced without Wilder’s participation.
A clean DVD copy of Hold Back the Dawn is available at classicmoviereel.com. Short of a fine grain 35mm print of To Each His Own, you’re not likely to find a more breathtaking presentation than Arrow Video’s blu-ray. As for Arise, My Love, avoid the bootleg copies floating around on eBay at all costs. It may take some doing, but there’s a lovely pressing out there. Hey, I found it. Anything can happen during a pandemic particularly when one is locked away, denied their 60-foot screens and stadium seating, and left to their own devices.
Arise, My Love (1940)
The camera floats past the firing squad through the basement window of the jail behind them — the masked victim is but a ruse, a cynical distraction on the part of screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. Our hero, a cocky freedom fighter (Ray Milland), has spent the ten months since the Spanish Civil War ended imprisoned and awaiting a similar fate. Up steps an enterprising newspaperwoman (Claudette Colbert) claiming to be his wife (and looking for a scoop), and the chase is on. When the focus is romance (Milland tricks Colbert into being his “mystery date”) and adventure (an undercranked, rear-projected car chase through backlot Spain leads to a mighty impressive aerial confrontation between miniature planes), the film sparkles like a freshly uncorked magnum at Maxim’s. (Director Mitchell Leisen saw to it that the Paramount replica of the famouns French eatery, known for its Art Nouveau decor, was authentic, down to the napkin holders.) Looking to be as timely as possible, the screenwriters turned to the news of the day for their ending. No sooner does a stock-footage formation appear overhead than its time for the film to trade in its glitter for a propaganda-charged climax.
Hold Back The Dawn (1941)
The script originally was set to open with Georges Iscovescu (Charles Boyer) stuck in a Mexican hotel room, narrating the story of his life to a cockroach. But Boyer was so annoyed at the preposterous nature of the scene that he insisted Liesen have the opening rewritten. That tore it! It was this artistic clash that determined Billy Wilder would never again write a script that he didn’t direct. No stranger to self-promotion, Leisen, whose director’s credit was frequently splashed in cursive across the screen, replaced the cockroach, and the border town flophouse became Paramount Studios, where Bucharest refugee Iscovescu arrives to sell his story. His incorrigible former dancing partner (and lover) Anita Dixon (Paulette Goddard) picks Iscovescu out of a crowded cantina and hips him to the fact that marrying an American would guarantee quick passage to America. The next day, our smooth-tongued fancy man sweet talks his way into the heart of Emmy (Olivia De Havilland), an unworldly American schoolmarm on a day trip with her students. The writers never back away from exposing the shitheel side of a character: after their whirlwind courtship, Iscovescu celebrates his “curious honeymoon” by sleeping with Anita. (And wait until you see the depraved lengths De Havilland goes to to win back her son in To Each His Own.) Note how Iscovescu’s dialogue gradually diminishes during the last third of the feature. Hell hath no greater fury than a screenwriter scorned. Wilder advised Brackett, “if that son of a bitch won’t talk to a cockroach, he won’t talk to anybody.”
To Each His Own (1946)
How did this one pass the censors? A night of premarital sex between a small town druggist’s daughter Jody (Olivia De Havilland) and misanthropical World War I ace-turned-stunt-pilot Captain Bart Cosgrove (John Lund) results in a bun in the oven of the soon-to-be widowed unwed mother whose soldier boy was shot down over the skies of France. Jody’s intricate plan to restore motherhood by pawning the child off as a war orphan and later claiming him as her own goes seriously wrong. The intricate flashback structure follows Jody through the outset of World War II, where she ultimately meets up with her son, also played by Lund. (The actor, making his big screen debut, is entrusted with one of the most eloquent curtain lines in all cinema.) With the exception of a pair of theatre tickets conspicuously placed in a scrapbook for Lund to find, this is a glowing illustration of the studio system firing on all cylinders. And though it’s a man who ultimately prompts Jody’s final decision, her character is about as feminist as Hollywood was permitted to make ‘em in the ‘40s. Few actresses suffered as well as Ms. De Havilland — check out her revolving door sickbed sendoff in Gone With the Wind. Owing to the script by Brackett and Jacques Théry and Leisen’s emboldening understanding of Jody’s behavior, the undisguised sentiment never approaches maudlin.