Strange Magic: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder

MAY 23-26, 29-30
JUNE 3, 5, 12, 15, 21-24

Curated by Donald Brackett

It was called the Golden Age of Hollywood for good reason. The early evolutionary phase of the film industry, which we can designate as being roughly from 1929 to 1959, immediately established the stylistic devices, narrative techniques, creative content, and future direction that cinema would take as both a visual art form and a commercial business enterprise. Most importantly perhaps, the paradoxical fact that cinema could be both entertaining and profitable, as well as both philosophically challenging and emotionally comforting, was already etched in celluloid almost from its beginnings at the turn of the century. Fine cinema is quite simply the best of both worlds.

There were, of course, truly great films before ’29 and after ’59, but they often demonstrate the overlooked fact that film, like every other cultural communication device, is recursive, reiterative, and clearly illustrates the spiral growth pattern where each historical element builds upon the former and expands towards the next innovation exponentially. Once it gets underway, this pattern almost inevitably leads directly from D. W. Griffith to Terrence Malick, in a breathtaking lineage that continues to astonish us with its apparently limitless potential for human storytelling and the making of shared meaning in our cultural lives.

Among the many screenwriters, producers, and directors who blazed that ever- expanding trail, few would have an impact on both comedy and tragedy quite as important and long-lasting as the iconic collaborative partnership of writer-producer Charles Brackett and writer-director Billy Wilder. Ironically referred to as the “happiest couple in Hollywood,” despite the fact that they disliked each other intensely, and often identified literally by critics as “brackettandwilder,” as if they were one person, the artistic franchise or brand they forged permanently places them in the Golden Age pantheon as masters of two kinds of cinematic magic: the screwball comedy and the film noir classic. Precisely how they pulled this off so powerfully still remains a mystery.

The first double feature in this series, Ninotchka (1939) — the second film Brackett and Wilder wrote together for the great Ernst Lubitsch — and the Oscar-winning Sunset Boulevard (1950) — their last feature written together, produced by Brackett and directed by Wilder — amply highlights the paradoxical nature of their mutual genius. How they accomplished this monumental achievement, and the nature of their often painful collaboration, forms the basis of a book I am writing with the same title as this film series: Strange Magic: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. For now, we can all savour the strange magic of their partnership by viewing the remarkable output that lit up the screens of the world. Their explosive partnership touched more hearts and minds than perhaps any other such collaboration before or since.

One of the most famous comments about the two apparently competing theatrical genres of comedy and tragedy is that “Comedy is simply tragedy plus time.” This remark is often attributed to the great Carol Burnett. It was in fact uttered by Charles Brackett to Billy Wilder in the studio office of a Hollywood executive who was desperately trying to understand their original intention of making Sunset Boulevard as a comedy!

Like McCartney and Lennon, another of the most influential partnerships in history (and one most accurately designated in that order), Brackett and Wilder each needed the balancing opposite aspect of the other in order to most fruitfully produce and manage their mutual gifts. One without the other could be great, compelling, even delightful, but together they formed an almost incomprehensibly brilliant structural unit: the heads and tails of a superbly minted coin.

In keeping with that observation, it seemed far more useful, in creating double features for his series, not to present comedies with comedies or tragedies with tragedies. Instead, most (but not all) of our Brackett/Wilder evenings will pair one comedy with one drama, in order to illustrate most effectively their strange magic together.

Brackett and Wilder’s amazing 13-film partnership had begun rather arbitrarily in 1938, when producers at Paramount tossed together the barely-English-speaking Wilder with the worldly and senior literary figure Brackett and told them to write Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (screening at the end of this series) for Ernst Lubitsch. They quickly bristled at having other producers and directors wielding power over their hard-fought words, even when the results were as marvellous as their fine films with the great director Michael Leisen, including Midnight (1939), Arise My Love (1940), and Hold Back the Dawn (1941). (Midnight screens in this series.) After concocting the wacky wordplay of Ball of Fire for Howard Hawks in 1941, Brackett and Wilder swore that they themselves would write and produce and direct all their own future work.

After the gentle silliness of the superb The Major and the Minor launched their independence in 1942, Brackett and Wilder never looked back, creating a string of popular and critical hits which explored the full spectrum of human emotions, from the dark claustrophobia of Five Graves to Cairo in 1943 and Oscar-winning paranoia of The Lost Weekend in 1945 to the subtly incisive political satire of A Foreign Affair in 1948.

But it was clearly the bone-chilling, dark noir nightmare of 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, a disturbing meditation on our attachment to celebrity and the manic self-absorption of Hollywood itself, for which Brackett and Wilder are rightfully remembered as cinematic artists par excellence. It alone is visionary in its insights into the fame-addicted world we now inhabit. It also changed my life forever when I saw it on television one lonely, rainy day off from school when I was an innocent ten-year-old. It still has the power to change your life today.

Looked at in its entirety, the collaborative career of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder can easily be compared to the 13 records created by The Beatles, both in their sheer impact on popular culture and in the intimacy and almost alchemical insights of their difficult but magical partnership. So, get out your handkerchiefs — you’ll need them for the flood of tender tears produced by both laughing and crying, often at the same time, at the splendid gifts Brackett and Wilder, working together, left behind for us to admire and enjoy. — DONALD BRACKETT

Donald Brackett is an art/film critic and the author of two books on the dynamics of creative collaboration: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos (Praeger, 2007) and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter (Praeger, 2008). He is currently writing Strange Magic: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, a book focusing on the partnership and conflicted relationship of Hollywood writer-producer Brackett and writer-director Wilder and their ability to create both comedies and tragedies at an equally high level. He is related to Charles Brackett as a second cousin on his father's side, and grew up being equally haunted by the Brackett/Wilder talent for both laughter and tears.

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Thursday, May 23 – Opening Night Intro
Friday, June 21 – Concluding Remarks

Donald Brackett, curator of this film series and author of the forthcoming Strange Magic: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, will introduce the opening night program of Ninotchka and Sunset Boulevard on Thursday, May 23 and will also be in attendance on Friday, June 21 to introduce the final double feature of Double Indemnity and Bluebeard's Eighth Wife.


Click for film notes + showtimes

Recent Showings

"Garbo Laughs" in this celebrated 1939 political satire, and the star's first comedy, by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.
The final collaboration between Billy Wilder and long-time writing partner and producer Charles Brackett, this is classic noir at its most brittle, bizarre, and baroque.
Wilder and Brackett’s 1945 film won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Screenplay, and remains one of cinema’s most memorable depictions of alcoholism.
Barbara Stanwyck stars as a saucy stripper who takes refuge with eight eggheads compiling an encyclopaedia, in this stellar screwball comedy directed by Howard Hawks.
A cash-strapped career woman disguises herself as a little girl to save train fare, only to meet a handsome major who takes her under his wing, in this 1942 Brackett/Wilder sex farce.
Stranded in German-occupied North Africa, a British soldier is forced to assume the role of a hotel waiter, in this 1943 wartime espionage thriller from co-writers Brackett and Wilder.
Stranded in Paris without a penny to her name, an American chorus girl poses as Hungarian royalty to infiltrate high Parisian society in this 1939 tour-de-force screwball comedy.
Jean Arthur and Marlene Dietrich are romantic rivals in Billy Wilder’s cynical, satirical 1948 comedy, set in the ruins of postwar Berlin.
An insurance salesman gets seduced into plotting a client's death in Billy Wilder's superb 1944 film noir, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray.
Brackett and Wilder's first screen-writing effort together is this battle-of-the-sexes farce set on the French Riviera, about a rich American determined to find his eighth wife.