On April 18, 1948, the New York Times ran a short article about Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett under the headline “The Happy Union Of Brackett And Wilder.” Part of a series of Hollywood profiles by Phil Koury, it paints a glowing portrait of one of the most successful filmmaking teams in cinema history. At the time the article was published, they had worked together for nearly 12 years, and their 12th film was about to be released. Everyone Koury talked to commented on how remarkable it was that two men with such wildly disparate backgrounds had formed such a harmonious, productive partnership. “It is impossible to tell from a study of one of their scripts,” Koury wrote, “where Wilder ends and Brackett begins.” On November 5 that same year, Brackett was handed a draft of a studio press release announcing that his partner had signed a two-picture deal. From then on, Wilder alone would serve as writer, producer, and director. A bit past six months after they were called “the happiest couple in Hollywood,” Wilder unilaterally filed for divorce. And he did it by press release.
After they were through, neither Brackett nor Wilder talked in much detail about the specifics of their partnership or its end. Wilder often relied on metaphor, as in his explanation to The Paris Review in 1996:
It’s like a box of matches: You pick up the match and strike it against the box, and there’s always fire, but then one day there is just one small corner of that abrasive paper left for you to strike the match on. It was not there anymore.
He was a little more specific when talking to Cameron Crowe a year later:
We were having a discussion one day in a car, parked at the studio. Nothing to do with pictures—a personal discussion about his grandson, I think. Then it turned. He kind of flew off the handle. He just… [Pauses, admits thoughtfully] I kind of made him dismiss me. And that was how it ended.
At the end of his life, Brackett also mentioned that blowout fight in a car, but neither of them went into more detail—it isn’t even clear what year the conversation took place. What’s more, their stories don’t always corroborate each other: Wilder said the split was a long time coming; Brackett lamented, “I never knew what happened, never understood it, we were doing so well.” (He did tell Time in 1960 that Wilder had “outgrown his divided fame,” which is a wonderfully delicate way to call someone a climber.) It clearly wasn’t a pleasant topic for either man, however, and a combination of their reticence and the passage of time has made the answers to many of the questions about their collaboration murky and obscure.
But not completely unanswerable. Brackett, one-time president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, left them his papers. They can be found at the Margaret Herrick Library: 975 separate folders of scripts, letters, receipts, and memos. (Cataloguing isn’t complete yet.) Just the names of the folders give some sense of Brackett’s privileged life and times: “Residence—Chateau Marmot,” “Residence—Château Élysée,” “Household—Domestic help,” “Invitation Lists—Providence, Rhode Island,” “Knickerbocker Club,” “Bel-Air Country Club,” “Mayfair Club.” But the jewels of the collection are 55 bound notebooks, Brackett’s handwritten diaries, consisting of a single volume from 1912, and then nearly daily entries from June 1932 through November 1962. Unfortunately, Brackett’s spiky, cramped handwriting is nearly completely illegible. However, at some point, Brackett was apparently considering writing an autobiography, and had Helen Hernandez—the secretary Brackett shared with Wilder during their years together—transcribe some of the diaries. These transcriptions cover 1932 through 1949, the great bulk of Brackett’s time with Wilder, and they’re at the Herrick for anyone to read.
And they’re spectacular: witty, urbane, gossipy; hilarious and cruel one moment, and deeply moving the next. Columbia University Press is publishing them this fall, in what promises to be a major event in film history—Hollywood will get its Pepys. Brackett meticulously recorded years of dalliances, rivalries, politics, scandals, and endless dinners, plus Groucho Marx’s otherwise unrecorded, definitive insult of Victor Mature (“He looks like something the cathouse dragged in”) and an unpublished bit of Ogden Nash verse spontaneously composed on the occasion of a terrible floor show at a birthday party.
Brackett emerges from his own pages as a sort of platonic ideal of WASPishness: observant, hyperliterate, reserved, snobbish, fiercely loyal. And on almost every page is Wilder, Wilder, Wilder, Brackett’s collaborator, rival, friend, and opponent. His day-by-day account of their work together gives a fascinating portrait of their partnership, at least from Brackett’s perspective, and one of the most detailed accounts of any artistic partnership ever. Wilder once told biographer Charlotte Chandler that “a good writing collaboration is more difficult to achieve than a good marriage. And it’s more intimate.” Brackett’s diaries reveal just how apt that comparison was. Over the years the two men worked together, they came to know each other better than anyone else ever would. And when the end came for Brackett and Wilder, it came with guilt and recrimination, jealousy and betrayal.
If their collaboration was a marriage, though, it’s important to remember that it was an arranged one; they were paired together by Paramount Pictures. Modern-day screenwriting teams self-select; they can be high-school classmates, college roommates, or brothers, but they generally come from the same milieu. For Wilder, as he explained to Chandler, this type of teamwork was:
…like pulling on one end of a rope. If you are going to collaborate with yourself, you don’t have a collaborator… You need to have that rope stretched as tautly as you can get it. Out of the friction comes the spark and the sparkle…
In that sense, they were perfectly matched, because Brackett and Wilder may as well have grown up on different planets.
Charles William Brackett was born in 1892—literally in the Victorian era—to Mary and Edgar Truman Brackett of Saratoga Springs, New York. Charles’s father was a state senator who could trace his family’s arrival in the New World all the way back to 1629. Billy Wilder’s parents were Max and Eugenia Wilder, a peripatetic Jewish couple who were in Sucha, a backwater of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when their son was born in 1906. Max, a former headwaiter who was running a chain of railway cafés at the time of Billy’s birth, embarked on a variety of careers over the years—hotelier, trout farmer, watch-importer—but never found lasting success.
Wilder was educated in the billiard room of his father’s hotel, and by his own account, at the worst high school in Vienna. Brackett’s résumé was straight from Jazz Age Central Casting: Williams College 1915, Harvard Law 1920, with a brief intermezzo in the American Expeditionary Force that netted him the French Medal of Honor. Wilder’s war—his family had moved to Vienna by then—didn’t come with medals. As a child, he was drafted into duty as a street cleaner and garbage collector as the Central Powers collapsed. After the war, Brackett married Elizabeth Barrows Fletcher, whom he met at a Williams prom. Her WASP lineage was even more impeccable than his, going back not only to the Mayflower, but to the shipwreck said to have inspired The Tempest. Wilder’s stories about his own early romantic life varied depending on whom he was talking to, but they involved considerably more squalor and prostitution.
After Harvard, Brackett worked at his father’s law firm, but spent whatever free time he had writing. Over the first half of the 1920s, as Wilder finished high school, Brackett published a string of short stories in The Saturday Evening Post. Wilder’s parents wanted him to study law, too, but despite telling people otherwise later in life, he doesn’t seem to have ever attended a single class.
1925 was a banner year for both men. Brackett began the year with his first brush with Hollywood: His short story “Interlocutory” was turned into a film called Tomorrow’s Love, starring Agnes Ayres and Pat O’Malley. Wilder, only 18, got his first job as a writer, freelancing as a crime and sports reporter for Die Bühne, a disreputable weekly tabloid, and Die Stunde, an equally disreputable daily. That year, Brackett and his wife summered in Cap d’Antibes as part of the social circle around Gerald and Sara Murphy. Wilder’s summer was less glamorous but possibly more enjoyable: Much later, he told a biographer about “those hot nights in Vienna when I was screwing girls standing up in doorways—and sometimes, alas, no girls, just doorways.” In the fall, Brackett published his second novel, Week-End, which was enough of a sensation that The New Yorker profiled him in a “Talk Of The Town” piece:
He is said by his intimates to be just like his book, which means that he is slim, sophisticated, young, and sensible to aesthetics, both healthy and faintly off color.
No one celebrated Wilder’s youth or sophistication in print, but he did have one brush with the kind of intellectual aristocracy Brackett aspired to: He showed up unannounced at Berggasse 19 hoping for an interview, and was asked to leave by Freud himself.
In the ensuing years, Brackett and Wilder’s fortunes continued to diverge. Harold Ross liked Brackett’s novel well enough to hire him as the drama critic for The New Yorker, and Brackett spent the rest of the 1920s in Manhattan reviewing theater, writing novels, and watching Hollywood adapt several more of his short stories into films. Wilder wasn’t as lucky; he followed Paul Whiteman’s jazz band to Berlin for a story and ended up, in the words of biographer Ed Sikov, “homeless, friendless, and unemployed.” Brackett published his first review for The New Yorker in September 1927, about a month before Billy Wilder, down and out, took a job as a taxi dancer, shuffling women around the ballroom for money at the misleadingly named Hotel Eden.
Eventually, though, things started to turn around for Wilder. A series of stories about his work at the Eden became his first big success in Berlin. Within a few years, he managed to co-write his first film: People On Sunday, a proto-neorealist film director Robert Siodmak scraped together on Sundays, since the cast and crew all had day jobs. The film was a surprise hit, and Wilder was able to brazen his way into a job at UFA. There, he wrote 12 screenplays, most famously Emil Und Die Detektive, and finally seemed to be carving out some measure of financial security for himself.
Then Hitler was appointed Chancellor. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, Wilder liquidated his assets and fled Berlin for Paris, where, with no work permit, he landed in the Ansonia Hotel, home to a sort of Algonquin Round Table of Jewish refugees, including Franz Waxman and Peter Lorre. (Brackett’s social circle by this point was the actual Algonquin Round Table, which he wrote about in his novel Entirely Surrounded.) While in Paris, Wilder co-directed his first film with Alexander Esway: Mauvaise Graine, a French-language crime drama about a playboy who becomes a car thief.
Brackett and Wilder had exactly one experience in common before they became screenwriting partners: They both failed at their first attempts to work in Hollywood. Brackett’s experience was straight out of Barton Fink: RKO sent for him in 1933 and David O. Selznick assigned him, basically at random, to adapt an article by Adela Rogers-St. Johns. Brackett made it to the first story conference, blew it, and was sent back to New York. Wilder at least had an approved story: Columbia bought Pam-Pam, one of several screenplays Wilder had sent to his former UFA coworker Joe May. The only flaw in Wilder’s plan to write an American screenplay was that at the time he spoke only German and French. Columbia kept him on salary at $125 a week for the six weeks of his contract, accepted a draft of Pam-Pam (Wilder worked with a translator), then let him go. It wasn’t as simple as going back to Manhattan had been for Brackett, though—with no job, Wilder’s visa was worthless. He had to leave the United States and travel to Mexicali to get his residency permit. When Wilder received the Academy’s Thalberg Award in 1988, he thanked the immigration official who let him back into the country for saving his life.
By 1936, both men had found their way back to Hollywood and were under contract to Paramount. Wilder was making $250 a week (about $4,300 in 2014 dollars); Brackett’s contract was for four times as much, plus “first class travel (including Pullman).” Working as a contract writer under the studio system was not much like modern Hollywood. At Paramount, writers were assigned to projects and expected to hand in new material on a weekly basis. If there wasn’t work for a writer at the studio at a particular moment, he might be loaned out elsewhere, for which Paramount would be paid the writer’s salary plus a percentage. It wasn’t up to the writers where they worked, or who they worked with.
Brackett, having been burned on his first trip to Hollywood, was nervous, even at $1,000 a week. There’d been weeks when Paramount didn’t assign him to anything; he’d spent the spring on loan to MGM, then to B.P. Schulberg, working with his then-partner Frank Partos on forgettable projects. (After Schulberg fired him, Brackett wrote, “Despite my sustained loathing of the assignment, I find myself offended at being canned.”) Wilder, for his part, seems to have gotten the Paramount staff job as a sort of consolation prize when money he’d been promised for a script called Vienna Hall didn’t materialize. (Vienna Hall was taken away from Wilder and co-writer Hy Kraft, rewritten, and eventually released as Champagne Waltz.) So neither man was particularly secure in their position at Paramount when Manny Wolfe, head of the story department, suggested they work together. Wilder biographies consistently date this as July 17, 1936, but Brackett’s diaries have Brackett and Partos working on a doomed project called Tightwad during July. It wasn’t until August 17 that Brackett wrote, “I am to be teamed with Billy Wilder, a young Austrian I’ve seen for about a year or two and like very much. I accepted the job joyfully.”
The job in question was Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, a romantic comedy to be directed by Ernst Lubitsch. From the beginning, their collaboration was characterized by the combination of respect and rivalry that would define it from then on. Even on the first day, Brackett knew they’d work well together:
Billy Wilder, who paces constantly, has over-extravagant ideas, but is stimulating. He has the blasé quality I have missed sadly in dear Frank Partos. He has humor—a kind of humor that sparks with mine.
The two men quickly got a sense of each other’s strengths and weaknesses and split their approach along lines that are common to many screenwriting partnerships. Wilder had a better sense of structure, while Brackett—for whom English was a first language—concentrated on dialogue. In September, Brackett offered the following assessment of his partner:
He is 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. He’s extremely stubborn, which makes for trying work sessions, but they’re stimulating.
The real power in their relationship didn’t belong to either of them: It was Lubitsch’s, and both men knew it. Lubitsch had recently been head of production at Paramount—one of the only examples of a filmmaker running a studio—and still had enough power to make or break either of them. They were jealous of his affection. Wilder picked a fight after Lubitsch seemed to favor Brackett, shouting, “You and he will be making a baby together before the picture is through!” And Brackett was conscious of the fact that Lubitsch and Wilder shared a culture and language. One day at Lubitsch’s house, Brackett noticed the two men were even wearing the same outfit, grey trousers and maroon sweatshirts:
The two figures, identical in color, but one square and short, the other tall and slim, paced all over the room. One would have disappeared around the partition while the other was in a near corner. It was a very dreamlike effect.
The work went well, but this wasn’t a situation where two kindred spirits recognized each other despite their disparate backgrounds: Brackett and Wilder had nothing in common, culturally, politically, socially, or temperamentally. Brackett had faith in organizations: the Screen Writers Guild, the Anti-Nazi League, an anti-Race Riot group, and eventually the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where he served as president. Wilder, who’d seen the Nazis use organizations to do horrible things, wasn’t much of a joiner. Brackett was, in Wilder’s words, “a rabid Republican” (he voted for Alf Landon) who took the New Deal as a personal affront; Wilder’s sympathies were with the left. Brackett’s manners were impeccable and diplomatic; Wilder was volatile enough to tell Louis B. Mayer to go fuck himself after a screening. Wilder was a legendary womanizer (Brackett, allusive as always, called him “the compleat amorist”); Brackett avoided scandal, and after the death of his first wife, married someone exactly as well-bred: his wife’s sister. Wilder collected modern art and at one point dreamed of commissioning a home built by the Eameses; Brackett recorded his hatred of modern art in his diaries and for most of his life maintained a house in Rhode Island he inherited from his wife’s family, where he told one interviewer he planned to die. Most of all, Brackett had an aristocrat’s sense that he was part of a dying breed—watching his children playing in a pool one evening, he mused, “How lovely it is to have a tiny remaining part of a sort of life that is supposedly scheduled for extinction.” Wilder had exactly as much patience with that attitude as expected from a man who’d never been anybody’s idea of an aristocrat.
But the work went well. Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife wasn’t a great movie, but it made money, and more importantly, Lubitsch was happy with their work. They weren’t entirely committed to working as a duo at this point, however: Brackett was loaned out on his own to Schulberg and MGM, and when they did reunite, for That Certain Age, they were both happy to have had their names taken off it (though Brackett recorded his satisfaction at reading a Hollywood Reporter review praising screenwriter Bruce Manning for one of their lines). In September of 1938, Brackett discovered that Wilder was going to be working alone on a script—seemingly unproduced—called Man About Town, and wrote that he was “delighted at a respite from Billy and will work hard to see, if I’m a good boy, if it can’t be made permanent.”
But neither man was as good on their own, and Paramount reunited them for Midnight, another screwball comedy, this time for Mitchell Leisen. Producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. took their script away and gave it to Ken Englund for rewrites; on seeing the Englund draft, he declared that it had lost the Brackett and Wilder feeling of the original. It took Englund to suggest that perhaps the writers best capable of preserving the Brackett and Wilder feeling were Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, currently cooling their heels in the writers’ building. The two men reverted the script to a slightly revised version of their original draft and handed it back in. Midnight was a hit, and Brackett and Wilder’s stars continued to rise. They used their new pull at Paramount to hire Helen Hernandez as their personal secretary and make What A Life, a forgettable but successful comedy.
In March 1939, as Midnight opened, Lubitsch brought the duo over to MGM to rework Walter Reisch’s draft of Ninotchka, a project that had languished in development since 1937. Written in just over a month, this was their first masterpiece, though both Reisch and Lubitsch had a lot to do with it. The film was a smash, and in those pre-auteur-theory days, a great deal of the credit went to the screenwriters. Iris Barry requested a copy of the script for the fledgling film library at the Museum Of Modern Art that November, writing, “I am absolutely certain that it must be one of the most dazzling scripts conceivable.” Wilder and Brackett received their first Academy Award nominations (shared with Reisch), but lost to Sidney Howard for Gone With The Wind. From that moment on, they were cemented in the Hollywood’s imagination as “Brackettandwilder,” a single entity.
It’s possible, from contemporary press accounts and Brackett’s diaries, to piece together their day-to-day working life at this time. Wilder paced around the office with a riding crop as the two men fought and argued their way through their film’s plots. Brackett handled the actual writing, scribbling their scripts on yellow legal pads for Hernandez to type. They lunched at the studio commissary when deep in work and at Lucey’s when socializing with other Paramount employees. When entertaining friends from his literary circles, Brackett favored Perino’s, without Wilder. (He and Lillian Hellman dined there often.) Regrettably, Brackett almost never recorded what he ate, except when it was Welsh rarebit, which seems to have been his favorite. Those lunches at Perino’s reflect the fact that the two men didn’t enjoy socializing together—Brackett found Wilder’s tendency to show off around women distasteful to the point of being intolerable: “a horrible mauley, hand-kissing quality which is really nauseating.” But they relied on each other in their personal lives: When Wilder was on the outs with his wife Judith in 1941, he stayed at Brackett’s house and asked him for advice. Brackett, however reluctantly, helped negotiate a truce. (Billy and Judith divorced in 1946.) Working together over the years, they developed the kind of passive-aggressive techniques common to many artistic partnerships: Brackett’s trick was to propose an idea, let Wilder reject it outright, then wait for it to appear as Wilder’s idea in the next day or so. Wilder found it difficult to concentrate on work after being praised, so they scheduled meetings with executives for the afternoon. And both men developed a technique of writing everything as late as possible, to prevent rewriting by directors or other screenwriters. In this fashion, they wrote Arise, My Love, Hold Back The Dawn, and Ball Of Fire, sharing Academy Award nominations for the latter two films.
But by spring 1941, Brackett began to get the sense that Wilder was contributing more to their partnership than he was; on viewing a rough cut of Hold Back The Dawn, he was convinced that his was “the minor contribution.” Both Wilder and Brackett were unhappy with changes Mitchell Leisen had made when directing the film, particularly throwing out a scene that star Charles Boyer hadn’t liked. Wilder’s solution was to direct their next picture himself, a prospect Brackett viewed with dread. They wrote the script that fall, deciding on November 24 to title it The Major And The Minor. Wilder consciously chose a project with a commercial concept that wouldn’t allow him to do anything too arty: The film would star Ginger Rogers as a woman who disguises herself as a 12-year-old to qualify for a child’s fare on a train.
Preproduction on Wilder’s Hollywood directorial debut wasn’t the most important thing happening toward the end of 1941. On the morning of December 7, Wilder called Brackett to say he would be unable to work on the screenplay that day; he’d been up until 6 in the morning. Brackett finished breakfast and happily worked on a solo project until Wilder called back to tell him that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Brackett’s diaries record the opening of World War II basically as an interruption of their writing—an entire day’s work was lost when newly commissioned Captain Sy Bartlett “strode into the office, full of the confidence of a uniform, and began to try to get Billy to go to Washington on a Signal Corps job.” Another day was lost in training meetings for Brackett’s new job as Fourth Floor Air Warden. Attacks on Los Angeles were seen as a serious possibility; that winter was marked with blackouts and traffic stops. Nevertheless, on February 2, Billy Wilder began his career as an American director. Brackett noted with amusement editor Doane Harrison’s report that, “When he first called ‘action,’ his voice was a clear soprano.”
As Wilder’s career as a director began, he and Brackett tried to find ways to maintain parity in their partnership. The deal for The Major And The Minor was structured so Wilder, who had always been paid less as a writer, was paid exactly the same amount as Brackett for both writing and directing. (According to Wilder, this meant he was directing for free.) This wasn’t sustainable, and Paramount suggested that perhaps Brackett could start producing their films. Brackett, quite rightly, saw this as makework:
…I find myself fretting at the prospect of becoming Billy’s stooge producer—a prospect I detest. To be a Hollywood producer has never been an ambition of mine, and to be an imitation of one I find peculiarly repellant.
Nevertheless, Brackett took an associate producer’s credit on their next film, Five Graves To Cairo, a thriller set during the North Africa campaign, and was very involved with the casting and preproduction. Many accounts of Brackett and Wilder’s collaboration, including Wilder’s, credit Double Indemnity as the first real blow to their relationship, but it seems to have come earlier. By fall of 1942, Brackett had apparently decided that if he was going to be a producer, he’d better be a real one, and that October, he began work producing The Uninvited, a project to be written by Dodie Smith and Brackett’s old collaborator, Frank Partos. In January 1943, as Five Graves To Cairo was shooting, the Hollywood Reporter mistakenly reported that Wilder would direct; Brackett temporarily fired his press agent over this.
Wilder also began to look for projects he could do without Brackett. Most accounts of Double Indemnity say that Brackett found the subject distasteful and refused to write it. This may be true, but he wrote the first treatment together with Wilder, and whether or not he wanted to continue writing, he does seem to have planned to produce it. On March 16, 1943, Wilder gave him the impression that he wanted Joe Sistrom to produce in his stead; Brackett wrote, “I got the hint…so I told him to go ahead with Joe.”
At this point, years of suppressed bitterness began to boil over. Brackett was called in to many story meetings with Wilder’s new collaborator, Raymond Chandler, and Wilder met with Brackett about The Uninvited, but things were sour, and both men were re-evaluating what they got from the partnership. Brackett, in particular, was left feeling inadequate:
In Billy’s manner there is a carefully groomed suggestion of the brush off. And why the hell shouldn’t he brush me off. He’s done the major part of our work for the last three years, and the fact that I made considerable effort and financial sacrifice to get him his director’s job has been amply repaid. Also I am happy in the belief that, while not as good without Billy, I’m pretty good—and more self-respecting.
Both men took a certain amount of satisfaction in expecting the other to fail. After a preview of The Uninvited that August, Wilder needled his partner, telling him after a test screening, “You will find that Beethoven wrote his great works, but he did little ones too—no one blames him for them.” The next day, however, when it became clear that The Uninvited had been well-received, Wilder offered backhanded praise: “You cheated on me! I expected you to come back with a social disease—instead, you come back with a baby!”
Brackett wasn’t above this sort of pettiness, either. In December, seeing an early cut of Double Indemnity, he wrote, “The direction is uneven and some of the writing extremely poor, and my black heart sung like a bird.” This was a rough cut, though; he found the final version “an absolute knockout,” and let go of his bitterness: ”I am glad to report in myself a kind of rejoicing that it was such a superb thing.” Still, he was depressed with the thought that this would end their collaboration; had the picture been mediocre, he thought they might work together again. When it finally opened, he mourned, “Double Indemnity got the best reviews ever in both papers and I guess that’ll teach me.”
Fortunately for Brackett, Wilder and Chandler came to loathe each other, and for the next film Wilder wanted to make, an adaptation of Charles Jackson’s novel The Lost Weekend, Brackett was the ideal collaborator. Brackett’s family had a history of alcoholism, and one aspect of the Algonquin Round Table and the Murphys’ Villa America was being surrounded by drunks. His wife, daughter, and son-in-law were also alcoholics, and Wilder biographer Maurice Zolotow reports that by 1944, Charles and Elizabeth “rarely went out together because she got plastered.” The two men reunited and began work that spring. Both Wilder and Brackett wanted to make a movie that treated alcoholism seriously, in contrast to Hollywood’s usual stock character of the comical drunk.
They succeeded. The Lost Weekend was their greatest critical success, leading to seven Academy Award nominations and four wins. They shared the Best Screenplay award, but each took home statues of their own: Wilder’s for Best Director and Brackett’s for Best Picture. But their partnership was even shakier. In the time between finishing The Lost Weekend and its release in fall 1945, Wilder had gone to Germany to edit Die Todesmühlen, a U.S. Department Of War production about the Holocaust; much of his family had died in concentration camps. It would have been perfectly understandable for Wilder to renounce his Austrian heritage entirely. Instead, the next project Brackett and Wilder wrote together was The Emperor Waltz, a Technicolor operetta set in fin de siècle Vienna, starring Bing Crosby.
The resulting film, shot in summer 1946, went way over budget and wasn’t much good. Brackett seems to have made the picture on Wilder’s say-so—years later, he explained it charmingly to Garson Kanin, saying, “I don’t suppose I ever understood it very well. I was sure Billy would know. After all, Vienna.” Paramount delayed its release for more than a year. In the spring of 1947, Brackett and Wilder again returned to Germany, writing A Foreign Affair, a cynical comedy set in occupied Berlin. It finished production in February 1948. Both pictures opened within a few months of each other (and nearly three years after The Lost Weekend): The Emperor Waltz on May 26, A Foreign Affair on August 20.
But Brackett didn’t get to enjoy the long-delayed theatrical return of Bracketandwilder. His wife Elizabeth had fallen seriously ill, and although there was still some hope of recovery in May, on June 7, she died at home, her husband holding her hand. Brackett mourned her with the austere consolations of a classical education, scribbling a few lines from Matthew Arnold in his diary.
It’s not surprising that Brackett’s relationship with Wilder was especially strained that summer. At the end of July, he made the mistake of seeing Wilder socially and called him “the worst guest in the world.” By August, they were working on their next movie, a Hollywood project with the tentative title A Can Of Beans. (Wilder later said this was a fake title meant to throw off the Paramount front office; Brackett seems to have thought it was real.) The writing went horribly, and both men fought more violently than ever. The gentle ribbing Wilder had given Brackett on seeing The Uninvited was in the past; after a screening of another Brackett solo production, Miss Tatlock’s Millions, Wilder told his partner bluntly, “It’s the worst picture you ever had your name on. Ever.” And their new script dragged on, going nowhere.
By October, Paramount was suggesting to Brackett a new contract structure that would gradually move him out to pasture. Brackett felt outmaneuvered by Paramount and had the impression the studio wanted him out of the way so it could deal directly with Wilder. And he didn’t like the cynical tone Wilder wanted for their Hollywood movie Sunset Boulevard. He met with Doane Harrison to see if there was anything to be done about Wilder’s “declared war with the American audience.”
There’s no account in the diaries of the argument both Brackett and Wilder would later say ended their collaboration. Perhaps it happened in 1950, or perhaps Brackett didn’t write about it; the publication of the diaries should shed some light on that. There’s some indication that Brackett still thought they might work together again as late as 1949, when the diary transcripts end. But it’s clear that Brackett initially got the news on November 5, 1948, when Herman Citron gave Brackett the impending press release about their renewed contracts, containing the bombshell that after their current film, Wilder would work solo. Not telling him personally was insult to injury, and Brackett didn’t take it well:
I gather that his near future will be dedicated to showing how much better his pictures will be than mine, and they may well be—but Paramount will be the loser, not I, and I’ll be pretty busy making the best pictures I can also…
It wasn’t until after 2:00 that I got home, to an empty house, feeling very deserted indeed by the associate of some dozen years and realizing that I am not a pitiable figure.
It really did play out like the end of a marriage—Brackett noted that he spent time rehearsing imagined speeches to Wilder, “pretty eloquent ones,” and, as in a divorce, they had to divide up their possessions. (Wilder got the office, but Helen Hernandez went to work for Brackett.) Brackett made sure that Wilder would see him working with his new collaborator, Walter Reisch, and took some pleasure in imagining it was causing Wilder discomfort. But before things could end, Brackett and Wilder had to finish Sunset Boulevard.
The impending split seems to have liberated the duo in both good ways and bad. Their fights got worse; ashtrays and telephone books were thrown. Production assistant William Schorr remembered that after viewing dailies of Norma Desmond’s beauty treatments, which Brackett had written simply and Wilder extended into something grotesque and necrotic, the two men came to blows in the screening room. But besides being a masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard is also the purest combination of the best things both men brought to their partnership: Wilder’s cynicism, wit, and nastiness; Brackett’s doomed romanticism and sense that an older way of life was under assault by modernity. It’s hard not to see something of their relationship’s anxieties, watching Joe Gillis’ talent slowly throttled as he’s forced to collaborate with Norma Desmond. The script came together that winter; Brackett, in one of his most crucial acts as Wilder’s producer, talked Gloria Swanson into appearing in the film, and over the spring and summer of 1949, Brackett and Wilder made their last movie. There were reshoots in January 1950, the film opened in August, and Brackett and Wilder’s career ended with another Academy Award, shared with D.M. Marshman Jr., for Best Writing, Story And Screenplay. Wilder and Marshman entered from one side of the stage, Brackett from the other (as Academy president, he may have been backstage), and Brackett and Wilder were finished.
In their later years, both men were diplomatic about the split. Brackett loathed Wilder’s next project, Ace In The Hole, telling Garson Kanin:
Billy used to say he thought it failed because it was too tough. I don’t think he’s right about that. Tough is all right. I admire toughness. I don’t admire hardness. That picture wasn’t tough. It was hard. But then, Billy’s hard, isn’t he?
But that conversation was years later, as Brackett languished after the stroke that eventually killed him. At the time, he had nothing bad to say about his former partner. When The Quarterly Of Film, Television, And Radio ran an essay by Herbert G. Luft lambasting the film, Brackett wrote a lengthy response that ran in the same issue. Brackett shredded Luft (“Mr. Luft not only doesn't like a joke, he detests a joke.”) and defended Ace In The Hole: (“It was in the vein of American self-criticism which has been a major current in our national literature since the days of The Octopus and The Pit and The Jungle.”) And when Brackett was in a contract dispute with Fox, Wilder held a press conference to publicly excoriate them. They had each other’s backs professionally, if not personally.
And neither man’s career ended with Sunset Boulevard. Wilder’s, we all know about—though it’s worth noting that his next long-time collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond, was kept at more of a distance. As he told Crowe:
We never talked about personal things. That was the beauty of it…
It was not a collaboration like with Brackett, where he told me who his dentist is, kind of things that don’t belong, you know.
Brackett also carried on, continuing to serve as president of the Academy until 1955. Fittingly enough for a man who saw himself as the last representative of a vanishing aristocracy, he won another Academy Award for writing a film about the Titanic. But the wounds of 1948 had never entirely healed, and in his last conversation with Kanin, they reopened:
…it was such a blow, such an unexpected blow, I thought I’d never recover from it. And, in fact, I don’t think I ever have… Don’t you think it was odd? What he did?
But it isn’t fair to lay Brackett’s hurt feelings at Wilder’s door. Their collaboration may have been like a marriage, but it wasn’t a marriage—at times, it wasn’t even a friendship. What mattered was what ended up on the screen. Sunset Boulevard, their great masterpiece, depended on both men believing they no longer had anything to lose with each other. By the time they made the film, Wilder had outgrown Brackett—Hernandez described him as “a clinging vine”—and he did what he had to do to move forward. It’s true that he wasn’t polite about it. But even if Wilder had all of Brackett’s finely taught courtesies, nothing would have masked the simple fact that they were no longer equals. It’s unforgivable to cause pain for art’s sake. But in this case, the pain was a given. Brackett and Wilder’s final days of writing together show that both men understood art’s power to transmute that pain into something immortal.
On the night of June 15, 1949, when everything was nearly over, Charles Brackett had dinner at home and then drove over to Billy Wilder’s:
Billy had the excellent idea that the last speech be a kind of happy madness, touching the sort of emotion we once had in the de Mille scene. We wrote it… I took the stuff to the studio, just for the pleasure of that familiar ride, made easy by the night emptiness of the roads.
The next day, Brackett went to the crumbling mansion where Wilder was shooting the final scene and watched him direct as Norma Desmond made the promise they’d written the night before: “I’ll never desert you again, because after Salome, we’ll make another picture, and another and another. You see, this is my life. It always will be.”
Our Movie Of The Week discussion of Ace In The Hole ends here. Don’t miss Tuesday’s Keynote looking at Wilder’s thoughts on his big flop, and Wednesday’s staff forum on the film’s cynical view of human nature, journalism, and everything else. Next week, surely you’ll join us for our discussion of one of the most popular comedies of all time, Airplane!