Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Book: Ready When You Are, C.B. (Charles Brackett)

You know the old Hollywood joke, the one about the actress so dumb she slept with the writer. Here’s how famous the team of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett were: when the two of them were just writers, producing some of the wittiest scripts of the Studio Era (Midnight, Ninotchka) before Wilder transitioned to the director’s chair and amassed one of the great résumés in film history, sleeping with one of them likely would have done an actress’ career some good.

And it probably would have been Wilder, if Brackett’s diaries are any indication. Charles Brackett kept meticulous track of his daily minutia, chronicling one of the most storied partnerships in movies. Film historian Anthony Slide has done an extraordinary job of excerpting those journals in the new Columbia University Press book It’s the Pictures That Got Small: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age (2014). Slide suggests that Brackett will become known as “America’s foremost, if not only, Hollywood diarist.” I’d give Brackett the title by knockout. This view from deep inside the studio system at its height is one of the best books ever about Hollywood, as well one of the finest on writing in years.

Brackett was on his second bid for screenwriting success when, in August 1936, he was paired with “jaunty young foreigner” Wilder to work on Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife for director Ernst Lubitsch. Brackett describes their first work session: “Wilder, who paces constantly, has over-extravagant ideas, but is stimulating.” Three weeks into the partnership, Brackett calls Wilder “a hard, conscientious worker, without a very sensitive ear for dialogue, but a beautiful constructionist. He has the passion for the official joke of a second-rate dialogist.” By November, Wilder is laying out his psychologically opportunistic approach to seducing women during their story sessions.

Like many a great twosome they made an odd couple. Wilder was earthy, European and liberal while the urbane, East Coast Brackett was a peripheral member of the Algonquin Round Table and maybe the only Alf Landon voter in Hollywood. In private Brackett comes across as a spectacularly dyspeptic figure, apparently not liking anyone (“Chaplin seems to me as repellent a human being as I’ve ever been in the same room with”) or anything (The Palm Beach Story is “the latest Preston Sturges opus and one of the weakest – disagreeable people, unappetizing situations, exaggerations”).

But reading his diaries – the entries here span the years 1932-1949 – provides a keen sense of the grind of working in the dream factory. The awareness of every perceived slight, the primacy of money as a way of gauging status, the near-hysterical faith in preview cards, and above all the constant nagging sensation that his work is subpar and anyway, he’s just wasting his time. The book contains a lot about the inner machinations of Hollywood organizations – Brackett served as president of both the Screen Writers Guild and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – and surprisingly little about his wife Elizabeth, who battled alcoholism and depression and spent many years in institutions.

Writing for himself, Brackett holds nothing back, his entries often hilariously bitchy. On a dinner at Joan Crawford’s house: “A grim evening – all four adopted children as hors d’oeuvres.” Alfred Hitchcock is a “monstrous egotist.” Brackett visits the set of Wilder’s directorial debut The Major and the Minor to find co-star Ray Milland giving “a dry, wooden performance (his usual performance to speak the truth).” A few years later, Milland would win an Oscar for his harrowing work in Brackett-and-Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. The casual anti-Semitism of the era occasionally rears its head, and some of Brackett’s judgments seem unduly harsh –

On thinking about Billy’s attitude and that of all the Mittel Europeans I know towards their American citizenship, it seems to me this: they’ve come into a department store, been crazy about its stock, and put themselves down for a charge account. No more involvement than that.

Wilder remains the locus here, Brackett readily acknowledging he feels like a planet orbiting his partner’s star. When one of Brackett’s children runs off to get married in 1942, the story makes the newspapers. “I was surprised. Expected them to read: Billy Wilder disturbed because of elopement of daughter of collaborator.” By 1939 he’s prepared to end their relationship, fed up with Wilder’s manners. He later wrote: “I came to bed and found myself fretting at the prospect of becoming Billy’s stooge producer – a prospect I detest.” Brackett would prove no stooge as a producer, putting his stamp on films like Niagara, Titanic and The King and I after his break-up with Wilder.

Insights into their process and their quarrels – with each other and with directors and producers – are manifold. Both Brackett and Wilder lobbied to have Lucille Ball star in their script Ball of Fire, a truly tantalizing proposition. But Howard Hawks deemed her a second lead at best and insisted on Barbara Stanwyck, whom Brackett pronounces “a pleasant, heavy-faced girl, very wrong for Sugarpuss.” For decades the legend has held that Brackett didn’t want to pitch in with Wilder on Double Indemnity because he found James M. Cain’s story odious. Here, Brackett makes it plain that Wilder “was having a touch of claustrophobia at being tied down working with me” and welcomed the respite. He would consult with Wilder and his grudging new confederate Raymond Chandler on their adaptation and ultimately finds the film good, not great: “The direction is uneven and some of the writing extremely poor, and my black heart sang like a bird.”

The book and the Wilder/Brackett collaboration come to a close with Sunset Blvd. (1950). Even as their decade-plus-long partnership is torn asunder, Brackett can’t help marveling at Wilder’s inventiveness. The material has the pace of a thriller, frissons arising as ideas that will become part of film history bubble up half-formed, the two men setting aside their differences to express their joint frustration with their original choice of leading man, Montgomery Clift, who walked away from the film fearing it too closely mirrored aspects of his own life. “God help people who have to deal with the young Mr. C in a couple of years, maybe a shorter time than that.” Brackett was an unhappy but hugely productive man who’d already left behind a considerable body of work. This warts-and-all account of that working life may be his greatest legacy.