I am grateful to the Columbia University Press for sending me a copy of this new book, BILLY WILDER, DANCING ON THE EDGE (2021) by Joseph McBride.
I can of course only say what I personally think of the book. If you are a fan of Billy Wilder’s films, whatever my following comments, you will want to judge it yourself .
It can be argued that Billy Wilder has been written about many times, both in book form and in magazine articles and film tributes and documentaries, and not least in interviews he gave in his lifetime.
The author ,Joseph McBride, is undoubtedly an expert on the work of Wilder, having interviewed and observed the director at work. He has also done dvd commentaries on several Wilder films.
The author describes the book as ‘a critical study not a biography.’ Of its 650 pages, 100 pages cover the index, filmography and copious sources. Over 100 pages concern Wilder’s work pre-Hollywood.
That said, I don’t think this book is aimed at the average classic film fan. More likely it will be of interest to film students,academics and critics who wish to study in depth the career of this famed writer/director.
When I see a paragraph that says, “I’ll begin with the locus classicus of negativism towards Wilder….”, I know I’m going to struggle.
The book quotes liberally from other sources and I’m sure that the author has probably read everything ever written about Wilder. He attempts to piece together the creative life of this artist who produced such a variety of films.
But in doing so, there is not a lot of details about the most famous films, like “Double Indemnity” or “Stalag 17” ,or even “Sunset Boulevard.”
The film which is discussed at some length is HOLD BACK THE DAWN ( directed by Mitchell Leisen ) and I did enjoy all the observations about this film. Though I don’t agree with the comment on the film’s title – “The film’s title…….seemed hackneyed and generic……a film’s reputation can be hurt by a weak title.”
And, ok, I’m a Melvyn Douglas fan ( I can’t find Melvyn ‘s name in the index), and I take exception to the description – “Melvyn Douglas was something of a second rate star….his less than glamorous appearance works to the film’s advantage.”
However you rate Melvyn Douglas in the Hollywood hierarchy, in “Ninotchka” he is surely up there with Cary Grant in his suave appearance and performance – which is necessary for the character he plays.
And we’ll also agree to disagree about “Bringing Up Baby” ( which is mentioned in a theme about screwball comedies):
“BRINGING UP BABY is painful to watch……because of the highly abrasive degree of physical and psychological animosities.”
Illustrations in the book are sparse and not particularly rare.
Although not a biography, a few pages about Wilder’s private life would have been useful.
Is it a critical study? It is clear that Mr. McBride is an avid Wilder fan. Any criticisms that he quotes from other sources ie Wilder was a cynic, are shot down as quickly as they are raised.
As I said, only my opinion of a book which has been written with enormous enthusiasm and vast knowledge. It is after all about one of Hollywood’s royalty – a man who gave us some of the best comedies and dramas of the twentieth century.
The following photos are not from the book.