Billy Wilder on Assignment

Before Billy Wilder was Billy Wilder of Hollywood, feted director of Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot and The Lost Weekend, he was a jobbing journalist in Germany and Austria. He filed copy on entertainment, celebrity gossip and popular culture, all the while honing his keen humour and sharpening his critical eye.  

Born Shmuel Vildr (Samuel Wilder) in 1906 in Poland, Wilder’s family was in the hospitality trade. During the Great War, the family moved to Vienna. Circulating in the demimonde of Vienna, as a teen, Wilder frequented bars, cafés and cinemas. He hustled at pool, attended boxing matches and people watched. At hotels where prostitutes took client, Wilder daydreamed about the life stories of the clientele. His family’s unclear national status in a fragmented inter-war Europe meant that Wilder relied on his wits rather than (as a non-citizen resident of Austria) entering a prestigious career that required qualifications. He fell in with journalists socially and his familiarity with the worlds of theatre and cinema put him an ideal situation to take work as a freelance journalist and critic.

Inter-war Vienna and Weimar-era Berlin were exciting tumultuous places, pulsating with creativity and risk. Modernism in the arts, the expansion of cinema and the movement of artists, writers and musicians across Europe made the artistic fertility palpable. Art Deco, jazz and the rise of the New Woman (economically and sexually liberated) declared a rapid and seemingly irreversible change in city life. Political violence – including street violence and assassination – was common and added heightened intensity to daily life.

Starting in September 1925, Wilder wrote for Die Stunde, Berliner Börsen Courier, Berliner Zeitung am Mittag, Der Querschnitt, Die Bühne and other publications. In 1926 he got an assignment to cover an American big band (roughly, the rock bands of that era) touring Germany and Austria, which took him to Berlin. He would stay in Berlin until 1933. The young journalist quickly realised that the key to his craft was treating his reporting as stories, “classically organized in three acts […] never boring for the reader”. Editor Noah Isenberg describes Wilder’s feuilletons (cultural essays). “Wilder’s feuilletons often took the form of jaunty, mordant, self-stylized personal essays; on occasion they read a bit more like the pointed writing we find on today’s op-ed pages.”

Billy Wilder on Assignment (adroitly edited by Noah Isenberg and vividly translated by Shelley Frisch) covers Wilder’s six years as a journalist/critic and is organised thematically. It includes theatre reviews and social commentary. One piece describes the nascent commercial flights industry.  He covered musical performances and tours of pop celebrities such as the Tiller Girls dance troupe. His opening line was “This morning, thirty-four of the most enticing legs emerged from the Berlin express train when it arrived at the Westbahnhof station.”

“Waiter, a Dancer, Please!” is a description of Wilder’s stint as a paid ballroom dancer. The author’s sardonic attitude shines through the terse prose. “In the ballroom. Packed, Cigarette haze. Perfume and brilliantine. Preened ladies from twenty to fifty. Bald heads. Mamas with prepubescent daughters. Young men with garish neckties and brightly colored spats. Whole families. The jazz band on the upper level is slouching over their instruments and bobbing to the rhythm. Aside from the banjo player, who is looking down, bored and mouth agape, at the couples as they jump, grind, chuff, and hop.” Paid dancers act as companions to strangers, drinking and dancing for hours on end in a blur of boredom, exertion and alcohol. “I dance with young and old; with the very short and those who are two heads taller than I […] with ladies who send the waiter to get me and savor the tango with eyes closed in rapture […] with ladies who are there every day and no one knows where they’re from and where they’re going.”

His interviews are of the famous and humble: actors, musicians, tycoons, statesmen and the oldest woman in Berlin. He interviewed Grock, the Swiss clown, and a self-proclaimed witch who was hired to perform spells to promote commercial products and reassured Wilder that (in relation to her curses) “criminal charges would never stick”.

Wilder flew to Venice in an early commercial flight in winter 1927. “Americans are bent over newspapers as big as bedsheets, a newlywed couple is eating whipped cream with a spoon, young Venetians with wavy hair are playing Briscola, two others are playing Italian billiards.” He is underwhelmed by the shabby Genovese birthplace of Christopher Columbus. Wilder also experienced the innovation of a night-time passenger flight on a three-engine aeroplane at a time when zeppelins were offering my sedate and expensive journeys.

Wilder’s gift of the humorous insight sparkles in these short texts. He writes of a dry cleaner “embalming” his coat. He laments the eradication of a coffeehouse’s history when a woman decides to redecorate. “Women, with their horribly deficient sense of history, which manifests itself in such a blessedly disastrous manner as a love of tidiness and cleanliness.” He notes how the French buy books because they are cheap but “Germans buy a book with the same seriousness used to buy something like a shirt. Durability is the key.”

The brief notices of theatre performances and films that appear in this collection show the future director scrutinising and judging a field he would later master. Pointed criticism indicate that Wilder was already imagining how to solve technical deficiencies. Sadly, most of subjects are too obscure for the non-specialist reader to evaluate his critiques from first-hand knowledge. He describes early developments in talking pictures.

In 1929 Wilder co-wrote the film Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday), a silent film shot in Berlin. “We worked on our film for nine months. It was a rotten time. It was a lovely time.” Made on a low budget with first-time actors and one camera, it was based on Wilder’s observations of Berlin life. It captures the brief window of Weimar Germany, with all its modernity and romantic hedonism, including many passages of documentary footage of street scenes and working life. Back in 1927 he had written of being camera shy and disliking his appearance on film. (“My legs seemed somewhat overly crooked – most likely a problem with the lens.”)

Menschen am Sonntag proved to be Wilder’s ticket out of journalism. He started writing and directing films and abandoned journalism in 1930. With the ascension of Hitler in 1933, Wilder departed Germany, first for Paris and then for Hollywood, already with numerous cinematic credits to his name. The editor notes how some of Wilder’s written assignments made tangential appearances in his later films. Readers will have fun picking out elements, traits and incidents in these lively witty texts and attempting to match them with Wilder’s later cinematic masterpieces.

Billy Wilder, Noah Isenberg (ed.), Shelley Frisch (trans.), Billy Wilder on Assignment: Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna, Princeton University Press, 1 June 2021, cloth hardback, 212pp, £20, ISBN 978 0 691 1 94943

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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AA public speech: 27-9 August, Midlands, UK

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I shall be speaking at the event Where Do We Go From Here? The Paths to Liberty and Heritage, 27-9 August 2021 at a venue in the Midlands. The topic of my talk will be about preserving traditions and heritage in a time when academia, heritage and culture organisations, elected politicians and the press support the increasing politicisation of the arts. I will be presenting some alternative ways of thinking and ways to form networks and systems that will encourage greater intellectual and artistic independence from the state. The text will be entirely new; there are no plans to publish it or to record the talk. A limited number of copies of my books “Culture War” and “Iconoclasm” will be available for purchase at the event and I can sign copies. I’m happy to meet and talk with attendees.

Find details, general information and booking details here.

UPDATE: There will be a publication of papers presented at the event (estimated for September). My paper on the future of arts independent of the state, will be included. This is the only way of reading the paper. The book costs £50 and will be available through the website, regardless of whether they attend the talk.

Ivan Morozov, Russian Art Collector

Ivan Morozov (1871-1921) was a wealthy Russian textile merchant who is best remembered today for his collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modernist art. In this biography, Russian art historian Natalyam Semenova seeks to resurrect the man who made the collection. Morozov is often spoken of in conjunction with his famous compatriot, businessman and supporter of the French avant-garde Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936). In many ways, their fates were intertwined. Both were Muscovites who made their income from manufacturing and trading, both visited Paris and met avant-garde artists personally and bought their art at the start of their careers. Both had their collections and properties confiscated by the Soviet government upon the 1917 Revolution without compensation. Both men died in exile in Paris.

Shchukin has been honoured and understood better (not least with a big exhibition of his collection 2016-7 at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris), now this biography fleshes out the elusive figure of Morozov. (Semenova previously wrote a biography of Shchukin.) Evidence is that Morozov was deliberately reticent about his private life, giving only a single interview towards the end of his life. (It is reprinted in full here.) He seemed camera shy and averse to publicity. This biography coincides with an exhibition of the Morozov collection at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris (22 September 2021-22 February 2022).

The Morozovs were descended from an Old Believer family of serfs who had made their fortune making and selling fabric over the course of the Nineteenth Century. Ivan’s mother was Varvara Khludova (1848-1917) of another wealthy cloth manufacturing family, the Khludovs. She married Abram Morozov (1839-1882) in 1869. Ivan was born in 1871. The marriage was cut short by Abram’s death through tertiary syphilis, a painful, humiliating and untreatable death. With a considerable legacy, the widow Morozov immersed herself in charity and philanthropy, especially for educational causes and treatment of the insane. Semenova paints the life of immense wealth, Russian Orthodox observance and civic duty in late Tsarist Russia, using quotes from the memoirs, diaries and letters of the participants. The benefits of wealth were attended by the duties of arts patronage and social fixtures.

Mikhail Morozov, Ivan’s older brother, was a noted biographer and critic. He was also an enthusiastic collector of new Russian painting and the first prominent supporter of Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910), a Symbolist who made paintings on historical, literary and religious subjects. A voracious glutton and drinker – as well as an impetuous collector – Mikhail Morozov died in 1903, but his legacy as a collector was taken up by his brother Ivan.  The third brother Arseny, died in 1908 following a drunken shooting accident.

Ivan Morozov studied chemistry at Zurich University (1892-4) and painted landscapes to relax. He took classes from Konstantin Korozov (1861-1939), Impressionist landscapist. Ivan worked in the family’s mill (Tver Textile Mill Company) but art collecting became his overriding passion and pastime. Following his brother’s example, Ivan started buying paintings in 1900. It seems Morozov was influenced in his collecting by connoisseur of modern painting, Sergei Vinogradov, a landscape painter. Unlike Shchukin, Morozov purchased art by Russians. These included famed Russian Modernists such as Larionov, Goncharova and Chagall, who need no introduction to Western art lovers but other figures are less familiar, some of whom belonged to the Wanderers Group (Peredvizhniki). Isaac Levitan (1860-1900), whose landscape paintings can best be described as tonalist in character, died young. Valentin Serov (1865-1911) was one of Russia’s great realists, capable of painting truthfully and with panache. He was a famed portraitist who developed a bravura manner, inflected by realism. His portrait of Morozov is on the book cover. Vrubel was also another artist Morozov collected.

However, it is for his collection of Ecole de Paris that Morozov is best remembered. He bought art by Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Van Gogh (Night Café (1888)), Renoir, Cézanne, Maillol, the Independants (Post-Impressionists) and the Fauves. Morozov bought La Grenouillère (1869) by Renoir, an outstanding early Impressionist painting. He paid a very hefty 200,000 francs for a total of six Renoirs. He developed a passion for Gauguin paintings of Tahiti. He even progressed (cautiously) to freshly made and aesthetically challenging paintings by Vuillard, Bonnard, Picasso (the Rose-period Young Acrobat on Ball (1906)) and Matisse (still-lifes and Moroccan scenes). Profits from manufacturing uniforms for the catastrophic Russo-Japanese War of 1905 gave Morozov vast wealth to spend.

In total, Morozov bought 486 paintings and 30 sculptures. The sculptures included ones by Rodin, Maillol and Matisse. However, not all his collecting was of the highest discernment. His (early) taste for bar scenes of the demi-monde led to the acquisition of a large number of scenes by forgotten non-entities of voguish Cosmopolitan Realism (Guignet, Lempereur, Lissac, Morrice). To house this collection, he built a mansion in Moscow and commissioned Maurice Denis to paint mural panels. Denis travelled to Moscow to install the work, which proved a disappointment as the artist had not properly assessed the setting. Shchukin weekly opened his home to art lovers, allowing them a glimpse of the most advanced paintings that Paris had to offer. These experiences would help form the outlook of the Russian avant-garde. Morozov, in contrast, kept his mansion closed and his personal life secret.

“Can we see Shchukin and Morozov as competitors? Hardly. There were no instances of one poaching a painting from the other, although in respect of some artists their tastes coincided almost entirely. The main difference was in their approach to collecting. Morozov preferred to ‘wait, rather than rush in and make mistakes’, as Boris Ternovets put it. He was incredibly discriminating and thorough, carefully considering which work of each artist he would choose as representative, where exactly he would hang the canvas, and how it would fit in with the others. Sergei Shchukin gave not a moment’s thought to such matters.”

The Great War led to disruption to Morozov’s business and the general society. Travelling to Paris was out of the question. Come the 1917 revolution, Morozov’s mansion was occupied and his art confiscated by the state. Not that the state was sure what to make of the non-realist art – partly a daring strike against convention and partly bourgeois degeneracy. But it was property that had, at least, monetary value. Gangs of Communists and Anarchists stole, defaced and destroyed valuable art, books and furniture, ostentatiously demeaning the property of their former social superiors. Morozov initially stayed on, attempting to protect the collection which was no longer his. For whatever reason, he fled the USSR in 1919, travelling with his wife and daughter. He died in 1921, his (unwilling) contribution to Russian (and Soviet) culture went unrecognised.

Semenova narrates the crude and capricious treatment of the collection in the Soviet era. Morozov’s mansion was turned into a museum, with one floor converted into flats. The collection was later split up and moved. The Tretyakov Gallery got the best of Morozov and Shchukin’s collections. In 1933 a number of paintings were sold to provide valuable foreign currency, leading to the sale of Van Gogh’s Night Café, eventually to join the collection of Yale University – a matter of recent litigation.

The book includes an index, family tree and endnotes. The book is well illustrated with period photographs and a colour-plate section shows some of the masterpieces of Morozov’s collection. This book is a tribute to the commitment of a patron of the arts and a timely warning about the arbitrary power of the state to destroy and mishandle material that would have been better protected by a private owner.  

Natalya Semenova, Arch Tait (trans.), Morozov: The Story of a Family and a Lost Collection, Yale University Press, 17 November 2020, hardback, 288pp, 29 col./27 mono illus., $32.50/£25, ISBN 9780300249828

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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