Tomorrow, June 22, is the centenary of the birth of Billy Wilder.
I've long thought that Wilder was better when he wasn't trying to be funny. The Wilder films that hold up as undisputed masterpieces tend to be the really dark, sour movies where the only jokes are bitter ones: Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole. Sometimes an otherwise good Wilder film is dragged down by bad comedy scenes: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes has a lot of very memorable scenes, and a very powerful ending, but a lot of the comedy is just lame, especially the way it turns Watson into a gibbering, shouting idiot.
Wilder's comedies, on the other hand, mostly don't work for me any more. Some Like It Hot is a movie I like less every time I see it. When I was younger, I loved the picture, but now I just find it short on really good jokes, filling in the gaps with cornball stuff (plays on the meaning of "conductor" and such). The plot takes too long to get going and wraps up too quickly. The lighting and set design are undistinguished and sometimes quite ugly. The performances don't do much for me either: Lemmon is grating, Monroe has been better elsewhere -- she's not helped by the fact that her character is such an idiot; unlike Hawks's Lorelei Lee, Wilder's Sugar Kane is just a walking joke, not a person -- and while Curtis is good, the totality of his performance is hurt by the fact that his "Josephine" voice is dubbed by Paul Frees. Sure, the closing line is great, but it feels like two hours of setup leading up to that one punchline.
There's something so on-the-nose and uninteresting about a lot of the jokes in Hot and other Wilder comedies: there's no twist on the gag, no surprise. He tells you what he's going to do (Curtis will have to get out of his millionaire disguise before Monroe comes to the hotel room), he does it, and he tells you it has been done (Curtis gets out of the tub with his clothes on). He doesn't often get ahead of the audience, or give them something they haven't been set up for.
Samson Raphaelson, who wrote many of Ernst Lubitsch's movies, once sort of summed up the problem with Wilder and Izzy Diamond's gag writing, at least as it compares to truly great comedy writing. Wilder brought out the movie Love in the Afternoon, a tribute to Lubitsch (and quite a charming movie, though not particularly funny). Raphaelson went to see it and was asked what Lubitsch would have thought of it. Raphaelson singled out one gag from Love in the Afternoon as symptomatic of its problems: a couple is kissing in the streets of Paris, and they're so oblivious to everything that they stand there kissing as a street-washing truck comes by and sprays them with water. Lubitsch would never have done something that obvious, Raphaelson said: if he and Lubitsch had done that scene, the truck would have stopped spraying when it reached the oblivious couple, and then started up again once they were safely out of range. That's a small example, but it's a good one: great comedy writers (and directors) "plus" a gag, add something extra to it that the audience might not anticipate. Wilder seldom does.
Also, as a comedy director, I just don't think Wilder had much of an ability to extract great comedy performances. He didn't allow performers to be spontaneous, but unlike his idol Ernst Lubitsch, he couldn't really mold performers into being funny his specific way. Instead the comedy timing and delivery in a Wilder film often becomes a generic mush, with performers delivering their lines at the exact pace and rhythm that Wilder wants, but with no sense of character in the delivery, and not much of interest going on around them. If you compare Wilder's CinemaScope Tom Ewell-starring spectacular The Seven Year Itch to Frank Tashlin's obviously Itch-inspired comedies with Ewell the following year (The Girl Can't Help It and The Lieutenant Wore Skirts, which both pair hapless Ewell with hot blondes), you'll see the difference between a merely proficient comedy director with some good ideas, and a comedy director who actually makes something interesting and unique happen onscreen.
Now, to pull back from the Wilder-bashing a bit, there are two Wilder comedies I do love. One is his first film as a director, The Major and the Minor, a near-perfect comedy of questionable taste that has all the charm and good jokes that Some Like It Hot doesn't. It also has better comedy performances than usual for a Wilder comedy; maybe his inexperience led him to give more leeway to performers like Ginger Rogers and the marvelous Diana Lynn, to let them be themselves. The other great Wilder comedy is the nasty and amoral Cold War comedy One Two Three. Here he let two performers get away from him: James Cagney couldn't be completely controlled (though Wilder tried), and Pamela Tiffin somehow turns another one of Wilder's women-suck caricatures and turns it into a weirdly lovable character. But mostly it works because it has more and better jokes than most Wilder comedies, including one of the great jokes in movie history -- the scene where Horst Buchholtz is tortured by the East German police using the most horrible tactic the Communists can come up with:
...He even manages to "plus" the gag by adding the bit with the Russian-made record player. That one gag makes Wilder's whole comedy career worthwhile. But I still think that his real talents lay in the sour, depressed, somewhat noir-ish world of Walter Neff or Norma Desmond.