Figure 1.--A family portrait shows Billy at about 2 years of age was probbly taken in 1908. He is still unbreeched, standing on a table with his parents and older brother in Sucha, Poland, where he was born. Note the close-cropped hair.
Billy Wilder is the famed Hollywood screen writer, film director, and producer. He was born as Samuel Wilder on June 22, 1906 in Sucha, Poland (then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire). His nickname, "Billie," was supposedly given him because of his childhood fascination with the American William Cody, "Buffalo Bill." Wilder was the son of a Jewish businessman. He went to school in Vienna, but baulked at the notion of pursuing a career in law and dropped out university without a degree, settling in Berlin where he associated himself with the German film industry as early as 1929. He worked as a screen writer. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Wilder realized that his Jewish ancestry would cause him problems. In fact Jews in the media industry were an early rarget for NAZI persecution. Wilder fled first to Paris and then in 1934 to America and headed for Hollywood.
Billie was the son of Max Wilder, a Jewish businessman. He operated cafes and hotels. He was not especially successful and between jobs. The family had financial problems. Billy had some connections with America as his mother, Eugenia, lived several years in the United States.
Billy was born as Samuel Wilder on June 22, 1906 in Sucha, Poland (then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire). His nickname, "Billie," was supposedly given him by his mother because of his childhood fascination with the American William Cody, "Buffalo Bill." As a boy Billy enjoyed playing billiards. He was fascinated by the varied hotel and cafe patrons that came and went. He became a keen observer of people. He also developed a interest in movies, an entirely new phenomenon that appeared as he was growing up.
Nationality was a somewhat complicated matter in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I am not sure what language was spoken in the family. It may have been German. Wilder appears to have identified more with Austria and Germany than Poland. I think the family moved to Vienna when Billy was still a small boy, but do not have the exact date about this.
A family portrait shows Billy at about 2 years of age was probbly taken in 1908. He is still unbreeched, standing on a table with his parents and older brother in Sucha, Poland, where he was born. Another photo shows Wilder as a teenager of about 15 with his gymnasium schoolmates in Vienna. He is the seated boy, second from the right, with his arms crossed. He wears an open-necked jacket, short almost knee-length trousers, and dark long stockings. The other gymnasium students wear a variety of styles. One boy wears short pants with knee socks, another wears breeches with leather puttees, and still another
wears a long trousers suit. The ages seem to vary between about 14 and 18. One of the teachers apparently sits in the center of the photograph while another teacher stands at the left rear.
Mother appears to have cut her two sons hair very closely. This was common in Poland, Aystria, aznd Germany, but we generally see this with somewhat older children. As best we can tell, boys not yet breeched did not commonly have such close cropped hair as seen here (figure 1).
Wilder went to school in Vienna, but baulked at the notion of pursuing a career in law and dropped out university without a degree.
Wilder got a job as a newspaper reporter in Vienna. With this experience he was able to land a job with Berlin's most important tabloid. His boyhood interest in movies continued and Wilder began to get work as a screen writer (1929). Here he achieved some success and wrote seceral screenplays for German films..
When Hitler came to power in 1933, Wilder realized that his Jewish ancestry would cause him problems. In fact Jews in the media industry were an early rarget for NAZI persecution. Wilder fled first to Paris and then in 1934 to America and headed for Hollywood.
After the NAZI takeover, considerable resources were given to cinema and other media. Lavish resources were provided the ndustry. Making money was no longer the primary goal For the NAZIs, the primary purpose of the movies was to manipulate popular thought. Technically the movies continued at a high level, but the propoganda element stifiled creativity, There were some powerful films, like "Triumph of the Will". Another important production was "Hitler Youth Quex". The overall quality of the films declined during the NAZI period. They were still often high quality productions technically. The originality and creativity so imprtant in films was lacking in the NAZI films.
Wilder was one of several refugees from Hitler's Europe that came to Hollywood. The same is true of many other areas of American life including art, literature, and science. The most notable example during World War II is of course the Manhattan Project. It is one of the great ironies of history that the people who the NAZIs saw as corupting German life and consigned to destruction in gas chambers played a major role in strenthening America and envigorating Americal cultural life.
I am not sure what happened to Wilder's family in Europe.
Wilder came to be one of Hollywood's most famed screen writer, film director, and producer. His body of work includes 50 films, including some of Hollywood's most legendary movies. They are some of the most whitty and sophisticated films produced by Hollywood. Incredibly given his subsequent success, Wilder did not speak English when he arrived in America. He learned English rapidly. Becoming an actor in a foreign country is one thing, but becoming a Oscar winning screenwriter in a foreign langiage is an incredible achievement. Wilder was helped to break into Hollywood by some fellow refugees like Peter Lorre (they shared an apartment). He began working with Charles Brackett on screenplays (1938). Some of his earliest American films were "Ninotchka" and "Ball of Fire". They began working as a producer-director team (1942). He collaborated on various screenplays with Charles Brackett for movies starring Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper, Melvyn Douglas and Greta Garbo. During the 1940s he directed such films as "Double Indemnity" (1944) and "The Lost Weekend" (1945). He had a brief stint with the U.S. Army in Germany after World War II. Perhaps the film he is most known for is "Sunset Boulevard" (1950). The film made him world-famous, although Louis B. Mayer at MGM hated it, but recognized it as a masterpiece. After this success Wilder and Brackett went seperate ways. Wilder's humor became edgier. In 1953 he produced and co-wrote "Stalag 17" (1953) and distinguished comedy with Marilyn Monroe, "Some Like It Hot" (1959). Another major film was "The Apartment" (1960). As a young man I remember laughing at Irma la Douce (1963). The Wilder films are for the most part not films that we have covered in HBC because they generally do not have boy characters and our site focuses on children's clothing and childhood. They are films, however, that are acclaimed by film crigtics and movie historians. Many Wilder films are still popular with the public and his films are seen as classics by film historians.
Wilder as a still struggling refugee married Judith Coppicus (1936). They had two children, but divorced (1946). The now very successful Hollywood screenwriter married Audrey Young (1949).
Wilder retired professionally in 1981. He tended the impressive art collection that he acquired. Wilder died March 27, 2002 in Los Angeles.
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