It's the Pictures That Got Small: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood's Golden Age
(Columbia University Press)
US: Dec 2014
Titled after an iconic line from an iconic movie, It’s the Pictures That Got Small (2015) chronicles the Golden Age of Hollywood with the intimacy and honesty that only a diary can offer. This particular diary belongs to Charles Brackett, the screenwriter best known as the writing partner of legendary director Billy Wilder. Together Brackett and Wilder wrote the Academy Award winning screenplay for Sunset Boulevard (1950) from which this book took its title, but they also collaborated on the screenplays of memorable films like Ninotchka (1939), Hold Back the Dawn (1941), Ball of Fire (1941), The Major and the Minor (1942), Five Graves to Cairo (1943), and the undeniable masterpiece, The Lost Weekend (1945).
It’s the Pictures That Got Small obviously wasn’t written with any publishing intent. The prose, for a writer of Brackett’s statue, is bland and repetitive. But it nevertheless offers a fascinating look into the Golden Age of Hollywood from an insider’s personal, unbiased point of view. In his first entry, dated 7 June 1932, he writes, “Impelled to write a diary by my pleasures in reading the diaries kept by my Great Uncle William Corliss.” And this humble approach of Brackett’s is maintained until his last entry on 31 December 1949 when he writes, “We played bridge until 11:30, tried setting the grandfather clock to the point of absolute accuracy. Got Tig down and all of us jumped into 1950 — champagne and some strange doughnut things afterwards.”
He also stays consistent in the form and content of his diaries over the years. There are a handful of lengthy entires, but the majority are made-up of no more than three sentences. These sentences generally tell of how much writing he accomplished in the morning, who he had lunch with in the afternoon, and what he thought of the writing he got done and/or the individuals he lunched with. I called his prose bland and repetitive, but this blandness and repetitiveness admittedly has a soothing rhythm that keeps you reading from one entry to the next. The only real change that takes place over the course of these diaries is that Brackett evolves from a naïve writer full of self-doubt to a Hollywood veteran brimming with confidence.
In 1932, when he was first invited to leave his New York stomping grounds where he was a praised playwright for the gloss and glamour of southern California’s movie industry, he writes “...excursions into the cinema are departures from my regular career and probably a mistake.” But the money, in the end, was too good to turn down and, like much of the ‘30s literati, he traveled westward.
In Hollywood his initial apprehension turns to self-doubt. In fact, when he learns that RKO wasn’t particularly fond of him and that they were only going to keep him on the payroll if his work on Little Women (1933) was fantastic, he writes, “I now find myself deeply depressed by it and by my lack of ability to ‘sell’ myself…” Then, a month later on 25 November he writes the following: “I am just about passing into my 40th year, and I am as discouraged about my career as one can be who is cursed with a foolishly sanguine disposition. I have an interesting, scattered life, and I have gotten nowhere and I am getting nowhere. I wish I knew the answer.”
But Brackett’s lack of confidence in his ability to write for the big screen seems to dissipate as soon as Wilder comes into his life. His first mention of Wilder is in his 7 March 1936 entry. He writes about how he went with Dorothy Parker and her husband to a bookseller’s place to buy a Picasso. Wilder was there and, because he was supposedly a friend of the great painter, he quoted him on the subject of one of his many ex wives: “When I beat her even her screams were artificial.” To quote Wilder quoting Picasso, Brackett must have been impressed by the young director.
In fact, about six months later on August 17, he learns that he is working on the screenplay of Ernst Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eight Wife (1938) with Wilder and writes, “I am to be teamed with Billy Wilder, a young Austrian I’ve seen about for a year or two and like very much.” The next day their work begins, and Brackett writes, “Worked with Billy Wilder, who paces constantly, has over-extravagant ideas, but is stimulating… He has humor — a kind of humor that sparks with mine.”
From this point forward, It’s the Pictures That Got Small focuses on the writing relationship between the two. Although it’s clear that Brackett was grateful for the partnership and proud of the work they produced together, it’s also clear that the partnership had its hardships. Like most geniuses, Wilder was a difficult man to work with. The following are just some of the entries in which Brackett complains about Wilder:
7 September 1936: “He is a hard, conscientious worker, without a very sensitive ear for dialogue, but a beautiful constructionist. He has the passion for the official joke of a second-rate dialogist. He’s extremely stubborn which makes for trying work sessions, but they’re stimulating.”
11 September 1936: “Almost driven mad by his niggling passion for changing words without changing meaning.”
7 November 1936: “Billy a little constipated as to ideas. As I know ideas I suggest will be rejected with violence, I rarely put forth any.”
28 January 1939: “...at the studio all morning but did exactly one paragraph as Billy thought he was having appendicitis and had a doctor come.”
10 February 1939: “Quarreled quietly with Billy most of the day — I being irritated because he had what I considered a light case of snuffles & he diagnosed as incipient pneumonia.”
8 May 1939: Long day at the office. Billy thought he had tumor of the brain and spent the afternoon being X-rayed.”
23 September 1939: “At the studio all morning, but no work at all from Master Wilder, who resents going to work on Saturday.”
21 August 1940: “At the office Billy very averse to work, finally said It is the punishment of God on a Jew for trying to work on Yom Kippur.“
3 January 1941: “Went to the studio thinking we would start to work. Billy had attitude all day, and we did nothing but dictating.”
21 March 1941: “At the studio working hard — but not accomplishing anything. Billy’s terrifying neurosis that everything isn’t crystal clear to the audience coming out very strongly.”
31 March 1941: “My little Manic Depressive had one of his depressing days.”
3 April 1941: “There is a fifty fifty chance that Billy will be well launched into a nervous breakdown by tomorrow.”
18 March 1943: “Gravely doubt that I can ever bring myself to work with Billy again. At the moment the idea of doing so takes all the joy out of life.”
In the Forward to It’s the Pictures That Got Small, Jim Moore, the grandson of Brackett, offers this opinion about their writing partnership: “...Brackett and Wilder loved each other, hated each other, defended each other, sold each other out, delighted in the partnership, and longed for the pairing to die.” The bottom line is that in spite of all his complaints Brackett continued to work with Wilder, and it was in fact after the above entry in which he doubted he would ever work with Wilder again that the two wrote their best screenplays: The Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Interspersed between the entires in which Brackett details this writing partnership with Wilder are occasional entires about the current affairs of the time. He listens to a Hitler speech live, attends an anti-Nazi rally, obsesses over the Mary Astor case, and writes of his impressions of the big movie of the time. But these events were of minor concern to Brackett. What he was really interested in, if we are to interpret his diaries as an extension of his interests, was the social realm of Hollywood. There’s no doubt that Brackett was a workhorse when it came to his writing, but he was also a serious socialite and many of his entires are dedicated to name-dropping and name-calling. As a result, if you have even the slightest interest in Hollywood of the Golden Age, or the literary scene at the time, I can promise you a damn good time reading It’s the Pictures That Got Small.
He writes about his time at the Algonquin Round Table and how they rolled dice to see who would foot the bill for each meal, but that was just the beginning. The social scene he enjoyed during his time in New York’s literary circles was just a warm-up for what he would find in the movie business of Los Angeles. In fact, throughout It’s the Pictures That Got Small, he writes of the meals he share and the drinks he had with everyone from Lilian Hellman, Robert Benchley, Thomas Man, S.J Perelman, and Joan Crawford to Clark Cable, George Gershwin, Aldous Huxley, John O’Hara, and Dorothy Parker. Dotty, as Brackett calls Parker, makes many appearances in the diaries, and if Brackett’s journalistic ear is reliable, she more than lives up to her reputation as a wit with an unlimited supply of one-liners, quips, and insults. Perhaps Brackett learned from Parker, because he lets loose plenty of his own.
For example, on 2 August 1934 he had dinner with Charles Laughton and wrote that he was “the most repellant human being with whom I have ever had to share a table and the most incredible self-caricatured ham.” Many years later, on 2 March 1939, he had tea with F. Scott Fitzgerald and writes that “He seemed burned out, colorless, amazing when one remembers the blaze of his youth.” On 19 July 1939 he sees Gretta Garbo and writes that he “found her a little haggard-looking.” On 18 April 1941 he runs into Bette Davis who looked “like an extraordinarily ugly bisque doll.” Then, on 11 June 1941, he talks Citizen Kane (1941) with Somerset Maugham who said it was “so curiously undramatic.” And on 21 July 1941, he writes that “A day at Howard Hawks’ is always a day of hell.” There’s a lot more where that came from, and if you enjoy reading that kind of thing, It’s the Pictures That Got Small is filled with such little gems.
In addition to the Forward by Brackett’s grandson, there’s also a lengthy Introduction by Anthony Slide, the book’s editor, that accompanies the diaries. Both writings are interesting enough, but neither is at all necessary. These particular diaries speak for themselves. The occasional footnote is enough for us to comprehend them and their context fully. It’s the Pictures That Got Small will find a permanent spot on many a film buff’s bookshelf.
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