Thursday, October 23, 2014

It's the Pictures That Got Small: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood's Golden Age

Author:  Anthony Slide
Genre:  Epistolary/Film/Culture

Four Stars
Golden Age Hollywood screenwriter Charles Brackett was an extremely observant and perceptive chronicler of the entertainment industry during its most exciting years. He is best remembered as the writing partner of director Billy Wilder, who once referred to the pair as "the happiest couple in Hollywood," collaborating on such classics as The Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset Blvd (1950).
In this annotated collection of writings taken from dozens of Brackett's unpublished diaries, leading film historian Anthony Slide clarifies Brackett's critical contribution to Wilder's films and Hollywood history while enriching our knowledge of Wilder's achievements in writing, direction, and style. Brackett's diaries re-create the initial meetings of the talent responsible for Ninotchka (1939), Hold Back the Dawn (1941), Ball of Fire (1941), The Major and the Minor (1942), Five Graves to Cairo (1943), The Lost Weekend, and Sunset Blvd, recounting the breakthrough and breakdowns that ultimately forced these collaborators to part ways. Brackett was also a producer, served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Screen Writers Guild, was a drama critic for the New Yorker, and became a member of the exclusive literary club, the Algonquin Round Table. Slide gives readers a rare, front row seat to the Golden Age dealings of Paramount, Universal, MGM, and RKO and the innovations of legendary theater and literary figures, such as Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, Edna Ferber, and Dorothy Parker. Through Brackett's witty, keen perspective, the political and creative intrigue at the heart of Hollywood's most significant films come alive, and readers will recognize their reach in the Hollywood industry today.

Loving the Golden Age of Hollywood as I do, this book was a must-read for me.  However, I don't believe it will be so for everyone.  Told in a series of diary entries by Charles Brackett, it can, at times, become tedious and uninteresting.  Thus the four stars instead of five.  What Mr. Brackett does reveal says a lot about himself.  He is putting his thoughts down on paper - thoughts about others in the entertainment history, more often than not unflattering to that person.  He doesn't come off as liking many people at all, and certainly not caring for many of the actors.  As an example, he thought Mrs. Miniver was fine, but didn't like the performances by Greer Garson nor Walter Pigeon.  You know, the performance that garnered her an Oscar? 
There are many things I could say about this book, but I am afraid that those many things would be my own opinion of movies and actors against his.  Although I will have to give Mr. Brackett the upper hand, his having known everyone personally; even though I believe that some of his original choices for films (who didn't get the part) would have, in my opinion, been completely wrong for the role.
But it was his stormy relationship with Billy Wilder that gives us an insight into his patience and enduring talent.  Having worked so closely with an "artistic temperament" of Mr. Wilder's persona, Mr. Brackett was still able to turn out some of the best known screenplays ever filmed, the greatest of these being Sunset Boulevard.   I did find it interesting that regarding the two men, Billy Wilder was much a family man, and fights with his wife disturbed him; while Charles Brackett lived much of the time away from his wife and children (one gets the impression that she lived on the East Coast and he on the West, and there were visits from time to time.)

I recommend this book for anyone who wants a personal insight into Hollywood before, during and after the war years.  But be forewarned:  Again, these are entries of Charles Brackett's personal diaries, and read as such.  This means that you are getting his personal opinions on everything and everyone he comes into contact with.  This also means that at times you will find the information uninteresting, and, unfortunately, uncomfortable to read (there were derogatory remarks about people that some might find offensive.)  Good for the student of film and those interested in the Golden Age of Hollywood.


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