W. Lee Wilder
SIMPP Member (1949-1958)
Born Wilhelm "Willie" Wilder in
1905 in the Polish region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1905. One year older
than his brother Samuel "Billy" Wilder (the famed director of Sunset
Boulevard, The Seven Year Itch, and Some Like It Hot).
Wilder Times by
Kevin Lally, p. 140-141:
While Billy Wilder was accepting plaudits for Double
Indemnity, another Wilder was surfacing in a more obscure corner of the
movie industry. Billy's brother, Willie, had relocated from suburban Long Island
and was now making a modest attempt to follow the path of his celebrated younger
sibling. Modest may be too kind a word. At first calling himself William Wilder,
then W. Lee Wilder to avoid confusion of their names, Willie produced one of the
earliest films by director Anthony Mann, later to win renown for his intelligent
series of westerns starring James Stewart and epics like El Cid and The
Fall of the Roman Empire. W. Lee persuaded his brother's Rommel, Erich von
Stroheim, to star in the title role of The Great Flamarion, a low-budget
melodrama about a sharpshooter who performs a vaudeville act with a married
couple. A la Double Indemnity, the film begins with a dying von Stroheim
relating how he was seduced by the wife into staging a fatal onstage
"accident" involving her husband — and then was betrayed by the
vixen. Competent but unexciting, the movie is mainly of interest today for the
performances of von Stroheim and Dan Duryea as the ill-fated husband.
In the 1950s, W. Lee would produce and direct several
more bargain-basement items: Phantom from Space, about an invisible alien
in Los Angeles; The Snow Creature, in which a Himalayan yeti wrangles
with U .S. Customs officials; and Bluebeard's Ten Honeymoons, a British
production starring George Sanders as the lethal lover. Billy Wilder has seldom
mentioned his brother or his obscure movie career, apart from calling him
"a dull son of a bitch" at a 1976 American Film Institute seminar.
On Sunset Boulevard
by Ed Sikov
Willie Wilder had grown tired of making women's
purses, so he moved to Hollywood with his wife and son and began making movies.
In August, with his brother still serving with the army, Willie announced that
he was going to be directing The Glass Alibi, a dark thriller, for
Republic Pictures. Willy told it to Louella: the film, Parsons announced, was
about "a newspaperman who marries a $6,000,000 heiress believing that she
is so ill she will die. But she fools him by recovering-so he kills her!" The
Glass Alibi would be a low-rent Double Indemnity, an acidic film noir
that had neither the need nor the money for any patina of respectability. It set
the tone for the rest of Willie Wilder's film career.
Spurred by Billy's sensational success, Willie's own
ambition to be a showman had been mounting for several years. Wm. Wilder Co.,
Inc., Original Handbags, was a successful Manhattan business, but it wasn't
enough. Neither was Willie's house in Great Neck — especially not in
comparison to what Billy had in Beverly Hills. Willie had made a few trips to
Hollywood in 1943 and 1944 — trips in which he'd talked to Paul Kohner about
representing him as a producer-director. Kohner agreed. One idea was to do a
Hollywood adaptation of Emil und die Detektive. Willie talked to Billy
about the question of rights to the property, but nothing ever happened.
Instead, Willie landed at Republic Pictures, the best and most successful of
Hollywood's smaller, cheaper studios. His first task was to produce The Great
Flamarion for director Anthony Mann. The Glass Alibi would be
Willie's second film; this time he'd direct as well as produce.
Under the professional name W. Lee Wilder, Willie kept
working in the film industry for the next twenty-three years. Although his
career remained decidedly on the low end of the industry, this worked to his
benefit. As one admiring critic explained, Willie's artistic virtue lay in the
fact that he was "one of the more extreme of the noir directors." On
the other hand, Billy himself jokingly called his brother "a dull son of a
bitch" and had nothing else to say about him in public.
Lally, Kevin. Wilder Times: The Life of
Billy Wilder. New York: Henry Holt, 1996.
Sikov, Ed. On Sunset Boulevard: The Life
and Times of Billy Wilder. New York: Hyperion, 1998.