Quotes

On Midnight‘s Screenplay

“There’s an old story, borne out by production records, about [producer] Arthur Hornblow Jr. deciding to exert his power by handing [Billy] Wilder and [Charles] Brackett’s fully polished draft [of the screenplay for 1939’s Midnight] to a staff writer named Ken Englund. (Like many producers, then and now, Hornblow just wanted to put some more thumbprints on it.) Englund asked Hornblow what he was supposed to do with the script, since it looked good enough to him. “Rewrite it,” said Hornblow. Englund did as he was told and returned to Hornblow’s office with a new draft whereupon the producer told him precisely what the trouble was: it didn’t sound like Brackett and Wilder anymore. “You’ve lost the flavor of the original!” Hornblow declared. Englund then pointed out that Brackett and Wilder themselves were currently in their office doing nothing, so Hornblow turned the script back to them for further work. Charlie and Billy spent a few days playing cribbage and then handed in their original manuscript, retyped and doctored with a few minor changes. Hornblow loved it, and the film went into production.”

– Ed Sikov, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder

On German-speaking Billy Wilder Learning English

“For the refugees, a harsh accent was the least of their troubles. The precise cases, endless portmanteaus, and complex syntactical structure of the German language made their transition to English a strain. It required a thorough rearrangement of thought. In German, the verb usually comes at the end of the sentence; in English, it appears everywhere but. In German, conversation as well as written discourse, like a well-ordered stream through a series of civilized farms, flows. In English, such constructions are stilted. We like to get to the point and get there fast. For a displaced screenwriter – an adaptable one, anyway – American English lend itself to the kind of direct, immediate, constantly unfolding expressivity that German tended to thwart. Linguistically at least, American emotions are more straightforward. The violinist Yehudi Menuhin puts it this way: ‘When you start a sentence in German, you have to know at the beginning what the end will be. In English, you live the sentence through to the end. Emotion and thought go together. In German, they’re divorced. Everything is abstract.’

For a flexible storyteller like Billie Wilder – or Joseph Conrad or Vladimir Nabokov, for that matter – the new mix of languages was wondrous, pregnant with sounds and bursting with meaning. Wilder’s ear picked up our slang as well as our pragmatic syntax, and his inventive, hard-edged mind found twentieth-century poetry in them. Puns, jokes, verbal color, even the modern-sounding American tones and resonances one could make in the mouth – all were deeply engaging to the young writer-ranconteur. It was exciting for him to get laughs in a new language.”

– Ed Sikov, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder

The Night Circus on Stories, Pt 2

“It is important,” the man in the grey suit interrupts. “Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There’s magic in that. It’s in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they never can predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift. Your sister may be able to see the future, but you yourself can shape it, boy. Do not forget that.” He takes another sip of his wine. “There are many kinds of magic, after all.”

– Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus

The Night Circus on Stories, Pt 1

“Stories have changed, my dear boy,” the man in the grey suit says, his voice almost imperceptibly sad. “There are no more battles between good and evil, no monsters to slay, no maidens in need of rescue. Most maidens are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves in my experience, at least the ones worth something, in any case. There are no longer simple tales with quests and beasts and happy endings. The quests lack clarity of goal or path. The beasts take different forms and are difficult to recognize for what they are. And there are never really endings, happy or otherwise. Things keep going on, they overlap and blur, your story is part of your sister’s story is part of many other stories, and there is no telling where any of them may lead. Good and evil are a great deal more complex than a princess and a dragon, or a wolf and a scarlet-clad girl. And is not the dragon the hero of his own story? Is not the wolf simply acting as a wolf should act? Though perhaps it is a singular wolf who goes to such lengths as to dress as a grandmother to toy with his prey.”

– Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus

Charlie Chaplin, the Lone Adventurer

“In the meantime, it may be that his present series of pictures – The Kid, The Pilgrim and The Gold Rush – with their gags and their overtones of tragedy, their adventures half-absurd, half-realistic, their mythical hero, now a figure of poetry, now a type out of the comic strips, represents the height of Chaplin’s achievement. He could scarcely, in any field, surpass the best moments of these pictures. The opening of The Gold Rush is such a moment. Charlie is a lone adventurer, straggling along after a party of prospectors among the frozen hills: he twirls his cane a little to keep his spirits up. On his way through a narrow mountain pass, a bear emerges and follows him. Any ordinary movie comedian, given the opportunity of using a bear, would, of course, have had it chasing him about for as long as he could work up gags for it. But Charlie does not know that the bear is there: he keeps on, twirling his cane. Presently the beast withdraws, and only then does Charlie think he hears something: he turns around, but there is nothing there. And he sets off again, still fearless, toward the dreadful ordeals that await him.”

– Edmund Wilson, 1924 (excerpted in American Movie Critics)