1906: Filmmaker Extraordinaire Billy Wilder Is Born

The director behind blockbuster hits like 'Some Like It Hot' and 'Sunset Boulevard' was born on this day in 1906 in modern-day Poland.

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Oscar winning filmmaker Billy Wilder is shown in this April 30, 1979, file photo in his Beverly Hills office.
Oscar winning filmmaker Billy Wilder is shown in this April 30, 1979, file photo in his Beverly Hills office.Credit: AP

On this day in the year 1906, the movie director Billy Wilder was born, for which the world can be eternally grateful following blockbuster hits like "Some Like It Hot," starring the eternal Marilyn Monroe, and "Stalag 17." Less well known is that through his illustrious career, Wilder also spent time working as a journalist and artist.

Samuel "Billy" Wilder was born on June 22, 1906 in Sucha Beskidzka, a town lying in a basin between mountains in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today it is part of Poland. His parents, Max and Eugenia, owned a cake shop in the town train station. They had thought their son would assume the business upon his adulthood, but he didn't want to and in any case the family moved to Vienna. Meanwhile, his nickname was awarded to him by his mother.

The young Wilder attended the University of Vienna, studying law, but he didn't complete the program. After some months he instead moved to Berlin to pursue a career in journalism, which was his first real brush with the world of media.

Reportedly, while building a career in reporting in Germany, Wilder also worked as a taxi dancer at a hotel. Possibly he took a casual attitude towards employment from his father, who didn't serve as an example of job security.
As for Wilder the younger, he covered crime and sports on a freelance basis for local papers in Berlin, then got a regular writing job at a newspaper.

It was at about the same time that he began writing scripts, on which he did not cavil at collaborating with other newcomers. His first effort was the screenplay for the 1931 film adaptation of the Erich Kastner book, Emil and the Detectives.

But Wilder was not fated to stay in Berlin: With the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism, he decamped for Paris, where he directed his first movie – which he co-scripted with others - Mauvaise Graine, in 1934. The drama, about a rich playboy (played by Pierre Mingland) who falls in with thieves, debuted in Paris after Wilder had already left for Hollywood.

After the rise of Adolf Hitler, Wilder fled to Paris, where he made his directorial debut with the 1934 film Mauvaise Graine. He relocated to Hollywood prior to its release. It would be eight years before he directed again.

Meanwhile, his mother, grandmother and stepfather died in the Holocaust. His mother, who had remarried, was murdered in Plaszow, her husband Bernard "Berl" Siedlisker, was killed at Belzec and his grandmother, Balbina Baldinger, died in 1943 in the Nowy Targ.

Despite the tragedy in his life, Wilder devoted himself to side-splitters, and became one of just five people to win Academy Awards as producer, director and writer for the same film: in his case - The Apartment. But that would come later. His first Hollywood movie was 1939's Ninotchka, a comedy starring the usually-tragic Greta Garbo. The film became quite the smash hit, earning him his first Academy Award nomination.

Wilder ventured far beyond comedy, however, taking up noir with his epic "Double Indemnity," as usual co-written – this time with renowned noir novelist Raymond Chandler. He also investigated the horrors of alcoholism in his film "The Lost Weekend," and co-wrote and directed the blockbuster movie "Sunset Boulevard" in 1950, another film noir that ripped the masks off Hollywood and garnered an astonishing 11 Academy Award nominations – winning three of them.

A great crowd-pleaser to this day is the 1959 movie "Some Like it Hot," starring Monroe as (hold on to your hats) a blonde bombshell, with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as cross-dressing hoods. Some had been concerned that bloodshed and organized crime aren't inherently thigh-slappers, yet in 1999, the American Film Institute named "Some Like It Hot" as the funniest American film ever made.

Wilder's star faded somewhat from the 1960s on, but he kept working. He directed his last movie, the coldly-received "Buddy, Buddy," in 1981. All in all, the AFI named no less than four of his movies among its top-100 of all time. Billy Wilder died at age 95 on March 27, 2002 in his adopted hometown of Beverly Hills, leaving behind his wife of 53 years, the singer Audrey Young. She passed on in 2012.

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