The Charles Brackett Diaries: Gay rumors quashed & troubled Billy Wilder partnership discussed – Q&A with film historian Anthony Slide
See previous post: “Charles Brackett Diaries: Politics and Gossip During the Studio Era.”
- First of all, how did you become involved in this Charles Brackett project? And what did your editorial job entail?
I discovered the diaries about six years ago when I was asked by Brackett’s grandson, Jim Moore, to place a financial value on them during the process of his donating them to the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
It was clear to me that these diaries had not only considerable financial worth but also, and perhaps more importantly, they were primary resources in the study of Hollywood history.
Happily, Charles Brackett’s family (who own the copyright) gave permission for me to edit the diaries, and to begin a lengthy editorial and publication process. I had to read through all the diaries and excerpt those that I considered worthy of publication, entering them onto my computer.
I was able to interest a major academic and trade publisher, Columbia University Press, in the project. But as anyone who has published with a university press knows, the publication process is a long and arduous one.
Both the proposal and the completed manuscript had to be peer-reviewed, and had to be be approved (in Columbia’s case) by two committees, an editorial board, and a board comprised of members of the Columbia faculty.
It was hard knowing what to cut. There was so much fascinating material in the diaries, but I had to consider the potential readership.
What interested or entertained me might not necessarily have the same impact on a general readership. I was also very much aware that this was primary source material for anyone researching Hollywood history, Paramount Pictures, the screenwriting process, and, of course, Brackett and Wilder.
I wanted to add voluminous footnotes, but I realize that the more I contributed, the more the diaries would have to be cut – and I didn’t want that to happen.
I needed to discuss Brackett’s life and career, but I tried to limit the footnotes to relatively obscure subjects and individuals. I don’t think readers of the diaries needed to have famous stars of the past identified to them.
- Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett were frequent collaborators from 1936 to 1949. How come Wilder remains well known, whereas Brackett has become a ‘footnote’ in film history? And how fair – or unfair – is that?
Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett were equal partners, as the diaries prove. They wrote together, contributing an equal amount of material to their various scripts.
Wilder may have directed the majority of the films that the couple wrote, but at the same time those films were produced by Brackett. So both deserve equal credit as “auteurs” (if one wishes to accept that definition).
I think it’s because the films were also directed by Wilder that they usually tend to be credited to him rather than to both Brackett and Wilder.
Also, Billy Wilder made some great films after the partnership was ended, whereas Brackett’s later films, such as Titanic and The King and I, may have been commercial successes, but they are not identified as cult classics. Unlike, for example, Wilder’s The Apartment and Some Like It Hot.
- The Charles Brackett diaries. How detailed are they? And what’s their historical significance? Are there many other such diaries – in book form – out there?
Brackett would write the diary entries late each night. They would consist of commentary on what happened at the studio during the day, some personal details, and how he had spent his evening (usually socializing or at the movies).
The only published diaries that come to mind, relating to the entertainment industry, are those of Noël Coward and Cecil Beaton. And of course, neither man is primarily associated with Hollywood.
The Charles Brackett diaries are significant in that they are the only ones providing a daily record of Hollywood life, albeit at one studio, for such a lengthy period of time. The published diaries cover the period 1932–1949, but there are additional diaries, which I hope one day to edit and publish, covering the period 1950–1962.
I might also add that it is not just Hollywood history to be found here. Brackett writes of the New York theatre scene and of major literary figures, including Alexander Woollcott and Dorothy Parker.
The diaries are filled with wonderful anecdotes, sometimes sadly on “names” who mean little today, such as poet and writer Alice Duer Miller or John C. Mosher, film critic of The New Yorker.
- Were there any major surprises in the diaries? If so, would you mind sharing one of them?
I don’t know if they can be classified as “surprising,” but what makes the diaries so enjoyable are pithy, one-sentence commentaries of films that Charles Brackett has just seen.
Or descriptive phrases, such as his description of Grace Moore as looking like an aging Parisian streetwalker. And the humor, often jokes that others, including Billy Wilder, had told him.
Two gay icons who are never generally considered in the same breath. What would one not have given to have been there that evening!
- How did Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder get along? Were they close while away from the Paramount lot?
Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder were teamed by Paramount in 1936. They did not have a say in the matter. It was simply studio policy to team writers.
By 1939, it was very obvious that they were not getting along. They were just so different from each other. Perhaps that is why they turned out such great films. Who knows?
I don’t believe they socialized off the Paramount lot. The diaries indicate that Brackett’s wife did not like Wilder and did not want him invited to the house. They often did write together off the lot, usually late into the night, and always at Wilder’s home.
- How would you describe Charles Brackett’s post-Billy Wilder film output? Are these films also discussed in the diaries?
I have already noted that Brackett’s post-Wilder film output consisted of commercial successes, although that is not to say that at the time they were ill-received by the critics.
I mention the later films in my introduction, but I am afraid you and the world will have to wait until I edit the 1950–1962 diaries to find out more about those films. Let us hope we are all spared.
- Sunset Blvd. is perhaps the best-known Charles Brackett-Billy Wilder collaboration. Anything you could share with us about the making of that movie? And what was it like for Brackett and Wilder to work with another screenwriter, D.M. Marshman Jr.?
Of all the Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder films, there is none for which there is so much new information in the diaries as Sunset Blvd. One can read of Brackett and Wilder pitching the story to Mary Pickford and while doing so realizing that they don’t want her as Norma Desmond.
It was actually not unusual for Brackett and Wilder to work with a third screenwriter. Richard L. Breen worked on A Foreign Affair; he also worked with Brackett on Miss Tatlock’s Millions. Robert Harari also worked on A Foreign Affair as a “constructionist” and on additional films.
Don Marshman is perhaps the most interesting co-screenwriter because he received the Oscar, along with Brackett and Wilder, for Sunset Blvd., and yet he is totally forgotten today.
He is still alive – in his 90s – and it was a thrill to track him down and talk with him. He remembers contributing to the film the line, “As long as the lady is paying for it, why not take the Vicuna.”
If you ask nicely, perhaps I will contribute a piece about him to Alt Film Guide.
- When it comes to personal information found in the Charles Brackett diaries, what about the ‘gay rumors’ regarding Brackett’s relationship with his son-in-law, James Larmore? Any truth in that? If not, how did that rumor come into being?
There is absolutely nothing found in the diaries to substantiate the gay rumors.
Of course, Charles Brackett might have been a closeted gay man, but I personally do not believe that he was. He was certainly tolerant of gay men, but does that make him gay?
As far as I can tell, the rumor of his being gay and having a relationship with his son-in-law, James Larmore, originates with the editor of the Christopher Isherwood diaries. She mentions it, but Isherwood himself makes no reference to Brackett being gay.
Actually, I asked Don Marshman, who told me he had never heard such rumors and that, as he recalls, Brackett did not even like his son-in-law very much.
- Among his own movies, does Charles Brackett discuss in his diaries a favorite and/or least favorite?
There is no definitive comment from Charles Brackett as to the favorite of the films on which he and Billy Wilder collaborated. One can assume that it certainly was not The Lost Weekend.
In view of the amount of space devoted to it in the diaries, I would like to believe it is Sunset Blvd. [Note: Part one of the Charles Brackett diaries come to a close before the release of Sunset Blvd.]
Of course, Charles Brackett does not discuss his post-Wilder films here. He does discuss in some detail the films that he made in the 1940s without Wilder, and there is no question that his favorite is To Each His Own, with Olivia de Havilland. He liked her very much and she was very fond of him.
- What’s your personal opinion about Charles Brackett’s film career? Do you have a favorite movie? Least favorite? In fact, could one talk about a “Charles Brackett movie” the way one talks about a “Billy Wilder movie”?
I edited these diaries not simply because they are so important to the study of Hollywood film history, but also because I believe they help to give Charles Brackett a prominent place in that history. He was Billy Wilder’s collaborator, but he was an equal collaborator.
Both Brackett and Wilder made those films together. I don’t think one can talk of a Charles Brackett movie or a Billy Wilder movie. In the 1940s, they were Brackett and Wilder movies. Period.
As to my favorite… Well, I guess it is everyone’s favorite. Of course, Sunset Blvd.
Billy Wilder publicity photo: Paramount Pictures.
Image of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd.: Paramount Pictures.
Image of Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck on the Titanic 1953 DVD cover: 20th Century Fox.