Thursday, February 8, 2007

Billy Wilder: How Lubitsch Did It

JSL: You have a gold-framed legend on the wall across from your desk. "How would Lubitsch do it?" That confronts you every day. Is it a question you often asked yourself?

Billy Wilder: When I would write a romantic comedy along the Lubitschian line, stopped in the middle of a scene, I'd think, "How would Lubitsch do it?"

JSL: Well, how did he do it?

Wilder: One example I can give you of Lubitsch's thinking was in Ninotchka, a romantic comedy which Brackett and I wrote for him. Ninotchka was to be a really straight Leninist, a strong and immovable Russian commisar, and we were wondering how could we dramatize that, without wanting to, she was falling in love. How could we do it? My partner, Charles Brackett and I wrote twenty pages, thirty pages, forty pages! All very laboriously.
Lubitsch didn't like what we'd done, didn't like it all. So he called us in to have another conference at his house. We talked about it, but of course we were still, well... blocked. In any case, Lubitsch excused himself to go to the bathroom and when he came back into the living room he announced, "Boys, I've got it."
It's funny, but we noticed that whenever he'd come up with an idea, I mean a really great idea, it was after he came out of the can. I started to suspect that he had a little ghostwriter in the bowl of the toilet there.
"I've got the answer," he said. "It's the hat."
"The hat? No, what do you mean the hat?"
He explained that when Ninotchka arrives in Paris the porter carries her things from the train. She asks, "Why would you want to do this? Why would you want to carry this?" He says, "Money."
She says, "You should be ashamed. It's undignified for a man to carry someone else things. I'll carry them myself."
At the Ritz Hotel where the three other commissars are staying, there's a long corridor of vitrines with windows showing various objects. Just windows, no store. She passes one window with three crazy hats. She stops in front of it and says, "That is ludicrous. How can a civilization that puts things like that on their head survive?" Later she plans to see the sights of Paris - the Louvre, the Alexander III bridge, the Place de la Concorde. Instead she'll visit the electricity works, the shops with practical things they can put to use back in Moscow. On the way out of the hotel she passes that window again with the three crazy hats.
Now the story starts to develop between Ninotchka, or Garbo, and Melvin Douglas, all sorts of little things which add up, but we haven't seen the change yet. She opens the window of her hotel room, overlooking the Place Vendome. It's beautiful, and she smiles. The three commissars come to her room. They're finally prepared to get down to work. But she says, "No, no, no, it's too beautiful to work. We have the rules, but they have the weather. Why don't you go to the races. It's Sunday. It's beautiful in Longchamps," and she gives them money to gamble.
As they leave for the track at Longchamps, she locks the door to the suite, then the door to the room. She goes back into the bedroom, opens a drawer, and out of the drawer she takes the craziest of the hats! She picks it up, puts it on, looks at herself in the mirror. That's it. Not a word. Nothing. But she has fallen into the trap of capitalism, and we know where we're going from there. . . all from a half page of description and one line of dialogue. "Beautiful weather. Why don't you go have yourselves a wonderful day?"

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