Q&A with ‘Charles Brackett Diaries’ editor Anthony Slide: Billy Wilder’s screenwriter-producer partner in his own words
Six-time Academy Award winner Billy Wilder is a film legend. He is renowned for classics such as The Major and the Minor, Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd., Witness for the Prosecution, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment.
The fact that Wilder was not the sole creator of these movies is all but irrelevant to graduates from the Auteur School of Film History. Wilder directed, co-wrote, and at times produced his films. That should suffice.
For auteurists, perhaps. But not for those interested in the whole story.
That’s one key reason why the Charles Brackett diaries are such a great read. Through Brackett’s vantage point, they offer a welcome – and unique – glimpse into the collaborative efforts that resulted in some of the most memorable Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s.
Now, Charles who?
Charles Brackett: From playwright-wannabe to president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
Charles Brackett (1892–1969) just happens to be the – largely forgotten – guy who co-wrote with Billy Wilder (and, at times, with a third partner) classics such as the aforementioned The Major and the Minor and Sunset Blvd., in addition to, among others, Ninotchka, Midnight, The Lost Weekend, and A Foreign Affair.
In fact, Brackett was not only Wilder’s screenwriting partner, but in the second half of the 1940s he was also the producer of their movies. One such collaboration, the 1945 psychological drama The Lost Weekend, won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Just as important for film historians and film lovers alike, besides working as a Paramount screenwriter-producer and later as a top 20th Century Fox producer (and sometime screenwriter), Charles Brackett was also a writer-producer of his own personal diaries. For decades, they were kept by Brackett’s heirs, waiting for the chance to have them published.
Thankfully, the first half or so of the Charles Brackett diaries (1932–1949) is currently available for all to read. Edited by film historian Anthony Slide and with an introduction by Brackett’s grandson Jim Moore, earlier this year Columbia University Press released them as It’s the Pictures That Got Small: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age.
The Charles Brackett Diaries
Simply put, the Charles Brackett diaries are fascinating.
Brackett began writing them in mid-1932. The topic of the moment was the death (murder?) of torch singer Libby Holman’s husband and tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds heir Zachary Smith Reynolds.
At that time, Brackett also gets to visit Broadway playwright and producer George S. Kaufman’s house in Manhasset (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s East Egg in The Great Gatsby), where Kaufman’s wife, Beatrice Bakrow, and Edna Ferber get into a nasty to-do.
Long-lasting, fruitful ‘mistake’
And in a curious – though not at all prescient – tone, Brackett records an invitation to work in Hollywood.
“I’d enjoy the trip,” the essayist, novelist, The New Yorker drama critic, and playwright-wannabe noted on August 3, 1932. “But [I] feel that excursions into the cinema are departures from my regular career and probably a mistake.”
The “mistake” would last all the way to the 1960s. During that time, Charles Brackett would take home three Academy Awards, and would preside over both the Screen Writers Guild (1938–1939) and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (1949–1955). In 1957, he received an Honorary Oscar “for outstanding service to the Academy.”
Reactionary political views, lots of gossip
Many of the diary entries pertaining to the SWG (later the Writers Guild of America, WGA) were edited out because they were deemed too cryptic and too lengthy to be of interest. But the ones left in the book show the Republican Charles Brackett as a walking dichotomy: an elitist reactionary with, if not exactly progressive views, then at least enough sense to be leery of the major studios’ intentions toward the guild.
Brackett’s right-wing credentials become more obvious after World War II. For instance, when screenwriter John Howard Lawson (Bachelor Apartment, Blockade, Algiers) – eventually one of the Hollywood Ten – was called to testify at a House Un-American Activities hearing, Brackett remarked that Lawson “used all the communist tricks of attack rather than defense.” (Admittedly, the Hollywood diarist parenthetically added, “Well, maybe some of them were from Howard Hughes’s book.”)
Politics and social issues aside, equally engrossing are Brackett’s thoughts on numerous people with whom he worked (or wanted to work) and/or socialized.
Among them were Miriam Hopkins (who intensely disliked Mickey Rooney), Jean Arthur, Aldous Huxley, Teresa Wright, Olivia de Havilland, Gloria Swanson, Jane Wyman, Constance Bennett, Myrna Loy, Marlene Dietrich, Mary Pickford, Theda Bara, Gail Russell (woefully inexperienced during the making of The Uninvited), Greta Garbo (whom Brackett wanted for The Emperor Waltz), Joan Fontaine (who got the role in The Emperor Waltz), and John Lund (whom Brackett initially didn’t want for To Each His Own).
A few more names: Ray Milland, Claudette Colbert, Simone Simon (who made life hell for all involved while testing for the female lead in Five Graves to Cairo), Anne Baxter (who got the role in Five Graves to Cairo), Ginger Rogers (whom Brackett and Wilder wanted for Ball of Fire), Barbara Stanwyck (who got the role in Ball of Fire), George Cukor, Howard Hawks, Dorothy Parker, Monty Woolley (who comes across as an obnoxious bully), Alexander Woollcott (a fictionalized version of whom Woolley brought to life in The Man Who Came to Dinner), Samuel Goldwyn, Arthur Hornblow, and many, many more.
Most of Charles Brackett’s comments are negative – Ernst Lubitsch, whom Brackett admired, was a glaring exception to this particular rule. In fact, the diarist doesn’t come across as a very happy person. He certainly wasn’t too happy with partner Billy Wilder, with whom Brackett enjoyed/endured a dozen-year-plus love-hate professional relationship, as can be attested by a series of revealing remarks found in his diary entries.
Libby Holman makes a comeback
This edition of the Charles Brackett diaries comes to a close at the end of 1949. Hopefully, Brackett’s 1950–1962 entries, which mostly covers his stint as a 20th Century Fox producer-screenwriter, will be published in the near future.
I should add that Libby Holman, long past her torch singing days, makes a comeback of sorts near the end of the diary entries, now as the older companion of rising star Montgomery Clift – who turns down the male lead in Sunset Blvd. William Holden ultimately played minor screenwriter Joe Gillis, the employee-companion of the older, former silent screen star Norma Desmond.
Diaries’ editor and film historian Anthony Slide
Those who generally skip book introductions should make an exception in the case of the Charles Brackett diaries. Regarding Norma Desmond’s classic line in Sunset Blvd., “It’s the pictures that got small,” Anthony Slide writes:
Yet, while it is so iconic, it is often misidentified as being from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. It is not. It is from Charles Brackett’s and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. The authorship of the line was a collaborative effort and, even though Wilder may have directed the film … It was Brackett who went over that and other lines with [Gloria] Swanson, and it was Brackett who insisted on retakes of that specific line, delivered by Swanson to William Holden.
Tony – he opened lots of doors for me while I was working on the Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise – goes on to dismiss the widely disseminated stories about Charles Brackett being not only gay but also the lover of his troubled son-in-law, James Larmore Jr.
If any evidence is ever uncovered showing that Brackett was indeed a deeply closeted gay man, then any similarity to these stories will be a mere coincidence.
Tony has kindly agreed to answer (via email) a few questions about the Charles Brackett diaries for Alt Film Guide. Here’s the link: “Charles Brackett Diaries: Q&A with Anthony Slide.”
And for the record, previous Q&As I’ve conducted with Tony include the following:
- Hollywood Unknowns: A History of Extras, Bit Players, and Stand-Ins. From the Noah’s Ark on-set disaster and the downfall of Mae Clarke (The Public Enemy, Frankenstein) to Uggie’s stand-in Dash.
- D.W. Griffith Interviews, which is focused on the Father of American Cinema and director of The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, and Broken Blossoms.
- The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville. From Gracie Allen and George Burns to Rudy Vallee and female impersonator Bert Savoy.
- Incorrect Entertainment or Trash from the Past: A history of political incorrectness and bad taste in American popular culture of the 20th century.
- Now Playing, featuring hand-painted poster art from the 1910s through the 1950s.
- Frank Lloyd: Master of Screen Melodrama, about the Oscar-winning director of The Divine Lady and Cavalcade, in addition to Berkeley Square, The Sea Hawk, Mutiny on the Bounty, and If I Were King.
Second half of Charles Brackett diaries needs ‘translation’
 The author of sprawling, “great American novels” such as So Big, Show Boat, Cimarron, and Giant, Edna Ferber also collaborated with George S. Kaufman on The Royal Family (adapted as The Royal Family of Broadway for the big screen), Dinner at Eight, and Stage Door.
Somewhat ironically, James Cameron’s Titanic, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, was nominated for 14 Academy Awards – but its widely ridiculed screenplay was bypassed.
 First, however, the Charles Brackett diaries need to be “translated.” According to Anthony Slide, Brackett’s secretary, who transcribed the first half of the diaries, was the only person able to read his scrawls.
See also: Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett screenwriting credits, in addition to Brackett’s solo credits as a producer.
Charles Brackett publicity photo: Paramount Pictures.
The Charles Brackett diaries / It’s the Pictures That Got Small: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age book cover: Columbia University Press.
William Holden and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. trailer: Paramount Pictures.
Ray Milland and Ginger Rogers in The Major and the Minor: Paramount Pictures.