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Film Appreciation Night: September Is Billy Wilder Month

Film Appreciation Night: September Is Billy Wilder Month

Film Appreciation Night (FAN) at Epiphany Space is a time to relax, review and discuss a movie we love. As our resident script analyst, I do some research, bring insights (potentially) to the discussion, and at the very least, everyone enjoys an evening talking about a subject we all like: movies!

September is Billy Wilder Month! If we appreciated his movies on all days ending in “y” we would have enough to fill the month, but since we have only Sunday nights, we had be selective.

Stalag 17

For 9/3, we reviewed Stalag 17, Wilder’s WWII drama/comedy set in a German prisoner of war camp. The film, which became the basis for the TV show Hogan’s Heroes, earned William Holden an Oscar for best actor, 1954.Film Appreciation Night - Stalag 17

Holden plays Sefton, an acerbic scrounger whose introduction sets the tone: he bets his barracks 2 packs of cigarettes that the two men trying to escape won’t make it through the forest.  Turns out Sefton is right, and the barracks suspect that he’s colluding with their Nazi occupiers.

Our group loved how Wilder mixed silly comedy and serious drama together. The story really holds up over time.

We also discussed the dangers of having an unlikable protagonist. Today, Hollywood is obsessed with overly likeable heroes, or at least empathetic heroes – ones we can relate to – but not so with Sefton. He’s no hero. His view is dog-eat-dog. His strategy is to milk as much from the other prisoners as possible so he can trade with the guards for better food and access to the Russian women’s barracks.

The strategy that Wilder uses to put the audience on Sefton’s side is to put him on defense. We suspect he’s not colluding, and that sense of unfairness makes us root for him. Plus, he’s active. He’s not complaining (much) but owning his persona while he runs mice races, sells alcohol from potato peels, and eventually, hunts down the real mole.

In addition, it’s a group story. We want the barracks to come together and show up their occupiers. There IS a mole in Stalag 17, and we need them to find him.  This task keeps us watching.

Some Like It Hot

9/10, we reviewed what AFI considers the greatest comedy America has ever produced, Some Like It Hot. The movie was almost part of our Thriller/Comedy series.Film Appreciation Night - Some Like it Hot

Billy Wilder offers us hapless musicians, Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon), narrowly escaping their speakeasy job and losing their coats at the dog track, who then witness the St. Valentine’s Day massacre and have to disguise themselves as women in a FL hotel to avoid being killed.

The film really stands up over time, still as funny as it’s opening night in 1959, with great leads, including (a pregnant) Marilyn Monroe, great one-liners and callbacks (“Type -O”, “Zowie”, “I’m a girl… I’m a boy!”) and a brisk pace.

It was too bad Billy Wilder didn’t maintain the mobster threat through act two, but we were having so much fun falling in love that we didn’t care.

The one question that got us really discussing was: why are man-to-woman cross-dressing stories so funny (other examples include Tootsie, Bosom Buddies, Bugs Bunny)?  That is, women dressed as men (Albert Nobbs) don’t usually get the laughs.

One potential theory is that men – usually in a superior position in society – are taken down a peg by being forced to take the woman’s role. Since comedy is about “dropping” a character for comic effect, it makes sense that the higher fall is funnier.

That said, I think it may have more to do with the dramatic tension. In The Major and the Minor (also by Wilder!), a woman pretends to be an underage girl in save on train fare. In Two Mules for Sister Sarah, a prostitute pretends to be a nun.  In both, the woman deception is for an advantage, and much like Viola in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, once on, she finds it hard to stop. But she must in order to get what she really wants.

This, however, doesn’t explain why Some Like it Hot is so funny.  It just is. Hilarious.

Still to Come

9/17: Ace In the Hole

9/24: The Apartment

October FAN: Stay tuned!

The FAN series is ongoing! Join us Sunday nights at 7 and commune with like-minded story nerds.


Bren Smith story analyst in Los Angeles Bren Smith is a story analyst and screenwriter in Hollywood. To share his story obsession, Bren taught workshops through the Haven in New York, the Act One Program in Los Angeles, and right here at Epiphany Space. Together with Peter Bishai, Bren co-wrote the award-winning comic adventure, The Dueling Accountant, and Rapid Eye Movement (now in post-production). To hire Bren as a script consultant, visit Bren.us


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