It’s the Pictures that Got Small: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age

| January 26, 2015

Between 1932 and 1949, screenwriter Charles Brackett kept a diary of his everyday life working in Hollywood.  That diary has now been edited down to about 400 pages, chronically Brackett’s experiences during this tumultuous time in American and film history.  The book is largely focused on Brackett’s relationship with legendary writer/director Billy Wilder, who created such amazing films as Double Indemnity, The Apartment, and Some Like it Hot, but when he and Brackett were writing partners they received a lot of acclaim for films like Lost Weekend, and Sunset Boulevard.

Billy Wilder and his works are like a religion to me.  His capacity for making a variety of different types of movies, all sharply written and brilliantly structured are what have made Wilder my favorite filmmaker ever.  This gets at my favorite thing about this book:  I learned a lot of interesting new things about Wilder and his life.  I never knew he was a womanizer, or that he was a manic depressive, or that he was terrified that the British would lose World War II and he would be enslaved by the Germans.  Honestly, everything about Wilder’s life was so interesting that I found myself gritting my teeth and forcing myself to get through any part of the diary that wasn’t directly about him, which gets at the thing I most dislike about this book:  its bizarre focus throughout.  A lot of world changing events happen during the time of the diary.  Franklin Roosevelt rises to power, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and launch the United States into World War II, we dropped 2 nuclear bombs on Japan, and the infamous Hollywood blacklist began labeling filmmakers as communists and destroying their entire career.  The diary very quickly glosses over these events as the uninteresting backdrop for Brackett’s moving from movie to movie.

Editor Anthony Slide has an odd opinion about what should and should not be left in the final book.  For example, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Slide includes a note about Brackett’s continued involvement in the war from home, but we never here Brackett talk about his experiences during the war, or get any sense of how he feels about the war.  Brackett is keenly interested in politics as a key member of a large republican Hollywood organization, but as elections come and go there’s no mention of how he’s getting involved with the political process, which presumably he is.  I don’t mean to say that all scraps of these aspects of Brackett’s life are omitted.  There are some nice moments informed by events happening at the time.  Brackett has some nice things to say about FDR after his death, which is a nice shift from Roosevelt’s election early in the book to which Brackett’s only reply was “cowards” referring to the American people who elected him in a landslide.

While more and more of Brackett’s reactions to major world events are left out, what is deemed worthy of us to read is even stranger.  For the 18 years the diary spans, Brackett’s routine remains somewhat unchanged.  He goes to work, he writes for a while, he goes to meetings, he goes to movie sets, he complains constantly, he goes to lunch, and occasionally he spends time with his family.  There are entire pages where all Brackett does every day is go to the studio, write, and have lunch with someone or other.  As he gets older, he naps more too.  I don’t know why I need to know about Brackett’s every luncheon and nap for 18 years but it has been conveniently assembled for me here.

The best part of the book is his relationship with Billy Wilder, which is worth reading the rest of the nonsense to get to.  Brackett is presented as a ornery old bastard who rarely has a kind word to say about anyone or anything.  Of the 100 or so movies he mentions seeing in the book, he truly liked maybe 3.  He was even overly critical of an early cut of Double Indemnity, but thankfully acknowledged the simple fact that the final version of the film is flawless.  He’s constantly complaining about Wilder simply because Wilder had a brain of his own and didn’t automatically hear Brackett’s opinions as the word of God, so they would argue about every little aspect of any given script.  After completing each film with Wilder, he had this moment of clarity where he was convinced it would be the last time he ever had to put up with them, but then the next film would come along and they’d be right back at it.

Hearing about Brackett’s limited involvement with Double Indemnity as well as his work on Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard makes for some really interesting reading.  However, I wish Slide had used Brackett’s diary as a reference to create a more conventional biography of Billy Wilder.  That’s a book I really want to read.

Available now where books are sold.

About the Author:

Joe Sanders Joe Sanders is a podcaster, playwright, and college instructor in Kalamazoo, MI. He has a master's degree in playwriting and a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Western Michigan University, where he currently teaches thought and writing, and is the host of the Quote Unquote Guilty podcast, part of the Word Salad Network.
Filed in: Books on Film
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