Kings of Comedy

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BILLY WILDER 1906-2002
His movies were joyfully sardonic and still sparkle like champagne

A jazz age thug carefully steps into a huge hollow cake; his job is to pop out later and gun down a big gangster. A henchman hands the thug a machine gun, then warns him, "And don't mess up the cake. I promised to bring back a piece for my kids."

The henchman is a minor character in a fleeting scene in Some Like It Hot, but Billy Wilder couldn't resist giving him a line with a nifty reverse spin on it. That was Wilder all over. He gave Hollywood's top stars their finest, fullest roles: Greta Garbo (Ninotchka), Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity), Gloria Swanson (Sunset Blvd.), Audrey Hepburn (Sabrina and Love in the Afternoon), Marilyn Monroe (Some Like It Hot), Jack Lemmon (The Apartment and six others). And what was in it for the viewer? Roiling dramatic dilemmas, complex adult characters and, memorably, some of the tastiest slices of dialogue in movie history. That was the icing on Wilder's cake.

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Being the cleverest fellow in movies had its perks: six Oscars (out of 21 nominations), for writing, producing and directing. It also earned Wilder, from the sterner critics, the label of cynic. They said his films were long on wit and short on compassion. Pick up a rock, and Wilder's view of the human condition would crawl out from under it. Nearly 40 years ago, critic Andrew Sarris wrote, "Billy Wilder is too cynical to believe even his own cynicism." Today we can see that Wilder was less a cynic than a premature realist. An Austrian Jew who left Germany in 1933 and who lost relatives in Auschwitz, he earned the right to be a little sour on human nature.

Yet if a cynic he was, it was with acerbic joy--a shameless love for all the scoundrels who schemed to get rich, kill the cuckolded husband, exploit the misery of a man trapped in a cave, beat a murder rap, shin up the corporate ladder, bamboozle an insurance company or steal a nice guy's girl. For Wilder, mankind was divided not into the haves and have-nots but into the haves and let's-gets. He celebrated the ugly American: brash men on the make, women on the take. What knaves these mortals be! How smart they are, though not as smart as they think.

And what squirmy fun their machinations are to watch. It's hard to think of another filmmaker whose pictures have given so much ripe, intelligent pleasure and are still as fresh as when he concocted them. And what about his rare failures? "Well," as Joe E. Brown says at the end of Some Like It Hot, when told that his fiance is really a man, "nobody's perfect."

There was a bit of Billy in all these characters. A con man by nature and force of circumstance, he was also a quick study. Arriving in Hollywood in 1934 with a resume of scriptwork in Germany and France but knowing hardly a word of English, he was writing screenplays at Fox within the year.

His very adaptability helped him see both sides of any issue. In Double Indemnity insurance man Edward G. Robinson spits out suicide rates with the fervor of a baseball-stats maven. In The Fortune Cookie shyster Walter Matthau says that insurance companies have too much money: "They've run out of storage space--they have to microfilm it... So don't give me with the scruples." Wilder never straddled the fence; he trampolined from one side to the other.

That is called drama--the conflict of two seductive types, like the romantic and the cynic. The cynic gets the best lines, but Wilder made sure that this battle of heart vs. mind was a fair fight. And often he gave the heart every reason to conquer--as in the climax of Some Like It Hot, when a despondent Monroe sings (tremulously, beautifully) I'm Through with Love and Tony Curtis waddles in on high heels to plant the most eerily passionate kiss in film history.

Temperamentally, Wilder was a conservative. As a writer, he partnered with Charles Brackett for 15 films over a dozen years (1938-50) and with I.A.L. Diamond for 12 films over a quarter-century (1957-81). He stayed married to the same woman for more than a half-century. He remained true as well to his mordant muse, both when his movies were acclaimed hits and later, when they tanked at the box office. Fashions changed; he didn't. A Wilder script was always recognizable by its adamantine dazzle, whether in 1931 Berlin (Emil and the Detectives) or 1981 Los Angeles (Buddy Buddy).

Hollywood profited from Wilder's voice, mimicked it in films by lesser artists and finally consigned it to retirement. The old pro watched a new generation--the "kids with beards"--come to power, yet he kept going to the office, planning scripts, dreaming schemes. Only toward the end did he acknowledge that his big carnival ride was over. At a 1997 testimonial he told the story of an old man who informs his doctor that he can no longer pee. The doctor's diagnosis: "You've peed enough."

Today American movies are sadly and irrevocably bereft of Billy Wilder's misanthropic humanism and sparkling wit. Now that's enough to make you cynical.

MILTON BERLE 1908-2002
Tuesdays with Uncle Miltie--Mr. Television, the pioneer of a new medium, says goodnight

In the summer of 1956, Elvis Presley was a guest on Milton Berle's show. He performed his rawest, swiveliest version of Hound Dog, while Berle simultaneously mocked the singer and toadied to him. This was a historic show-biz collision: the pioneer rock 'n' roller and the pioneer TV comic. It's no exaggeration to say that Uncle Miltie was the Elvis of the boob tube. That's why they called him Mr. Television--and why his death last week at 93, from complications of colon cancer, finally closed the first crucial chapter of American TV history.

Berle became host of NBC's Texaco Star Theater in September 1948--barely a year after the network had begun programming seven nights a week--and the comedy-variety hour was an instant hit. It often attracted 80% of the viewing audience and was responsible, more than any other show, for the surge in purchases of TV sets. You couldn't invade your neighbor's house every Tuesday night to watch Berle; you had to buy one of those mammoth pieces of furniture with the 12-in. screen. Millions did just that, because of this 40-year-old veteran of vaudeville, burlesque and movies.

If Berle's TV presence was historic, his show often looked prehistoric, and not just because Miltie often sported caveman skins. He was known as the Thief of Bad Gags for pilfering other comics' shtick, and from the start, his TV show was a kind of museum, or maybe a pawn shop, of broad comedy. And we do mean broad; Berle often dressed as a woman. TV's first drag star wore anything to get a laugh, occasionally quick-changing frocks a dozen times in a single skit. He walked goofily on the sides of his feet and ran amuck through the studio audience. If it were possible, he would have stuck his head through the TV screen, jack-in-the-box-like, and licked your face.

Berle had an appealing bunch of second bananas: sideshow spieler Sid Stone, the merry Texaco men ("Tonight we may be showmen/Tomorrow we'll be servicing your cars") and that sultan of stooges, Arnold Stang. Berle would shout, "Maaaakeup!" and Stang would get a powder puff right in the kisser. But Miltie was the center; his energy and ego demanded no less. This was wet comedy: not just Berle's seltzer and spit takes but his preening gushiness. He geysered gags, worked overtime to win tears of laughter from his viewers. He was not a comic artist of the medium like Sid Caesar, Ernie Kovacs, Jerry Lewis. He filled no elevated definition of funny. But his manic attack inspired awe, obliterated resistance. Besides, what else was on?

Since you ask: sermons. In 1952 Berle, who had recently signed an astounding 30-year contract with NBC, got his first real competition from Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, who attached a laser gaze to his homey homilies. Tuesdays at 8, it was cool TV vs. hot TV, Father Fultie vs. Uncle Miltie, goy meets Berle. The Catholic priest put a dent in the doctrine of comic infallibility and, worse, in NBC's ratings. Berle later joked, "He stayed on longer than I did because, let's face it, he had better writers. Mark, Luke..."

Before the '50s were finished, Berle was too, at least as a TV megastar. He kept busy doing guest spots, movies, Vegas. He was president of the Friars Club, the fraternity of comics whose insult-a-minute roasts would, in later years, be broadcast on prime-time television. But the Friars was a minor realm indeed for the man who, a half-century before, had started the TV-buying stampede. Back then, Milton Berle didn't have to buy a television. He owned it.