Upon learning my last name, many younger people have immediately assumed that I am related to Gene and wonder why I in no way resemble the comic genius with the crazy red hair and sparkling blue eyes. These same people are stunned to later learn that Gene Wilder was really born Gene Rosenberg and that Wilder is simply a stage name. But there is a forgotten Wilder very few people remember – also a filmmaker of note – who was in fact, my grandfather.
Willie Wilder was born in Sucha (now Poland) in 1904 and he and his family moved to Vienna in 1916. Billy Wilder’s older brother emigrated to the United States in the 1920s and became a very successful businessman in New York. He did not enter filmmaking until the 1940s and did so under the name of W. Lee Wilder (“Willie” was considered too close to “Billy,” who despite actually being born “Samuel,” had claimed the name since childhood). While certainly less famous than his sibling, Willie, along with many of his European-born filmmaker brethren, is currently the subject of a fantastic film noir book by UCLA media studies professor Vince Brook, entitled Driven to Darkness: Jewish Émigré Directors and the Rise of Film Noir. The reason that I am so proud of his inclusion in this beautifully written and deeply researched book is that up until now, Willie’s contributions to film have been largely ignored in the face of Billy’s astounding and celebrated accomplishments.
Billy is obviously known for directing such enduring classics as “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Apartment,” “Double Indemnity,” “Stalag 17,” “The Lost Weekend” and “Some Like it Hot,” and for his screenplays for “Ninotchka” and “Sabrina,” among many others. But Willie Wilder left a legacy of depth and breadth in the B-film world that is quite remarkable, given the fact that he was neither a writer nor a producer.
According to Driven to Darkness author Brook, “….the work of Willy (sic) Wilder – or W. Lee Wilder, the filmmaking sobriquet that Willy took on to avoid confusion with the likes of Billy Wilder, William Wyler and ‘Wild Bill’ Wellman – is of inordinate interest. To my mind, several of Willy’s films are of considerable interest both aesthetically and thematically, not only from a Jewish émigré perspective but also in their own right.”
“As for Willy’s auteurist credentials, in terms of property selection and creative control these likely surpassed those of the high-flying Billy – at least throughout the early 1950s when Billy remained contractually bound to Paramount Studios.
Left-To-Right: Anthony Mann, Erich von Stroheim, Mary Beth Hughes, Dan Duryea and Willie Wilder on the set of "The Great Flamarion" (1945).
Despite being almost completely neglected by Hollywood biographers and writers about film noir, Willie (as he spelled it) made more noir films than any other director, with the exception of Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak and Alfred Hitchcock – a total of eight. They include “The Glass Alibi” (1946), “The Pretender” (1947), “Once a Thief” (1950), “Three Steps North” (1951), “The Big Bluff” (1955) and “Bluebeard’s Ten Honeymoons” (1960). The count grows by one, if you consider the first film he produced (not directed), 1945’s “The Great Flamarion,” starring Erich von Stroheim, which Willie produced, financed himself and released through Republic Pictures.*
Sadly, my grandfather and his brother, Billy, were not close. In fact, despite my grandfather, who was already very well established in business on Long Island, NY, helping out his penniless brother when he first came to this country, Billy has always spoken very uncharitably about him. But to those who knew Billy, this was typical of the seven-time Oscar winner. Billy only cared about his famous Hollywood friends and being the center of their creative, artistic world. According to my great aunt, Audrey, Billy’s wife, “All great men are difficult,” and Billy was no exception. My grandfather, Willie, on the other hand, was a kind and considerate man who was a wonderful father to my dad, Myles, and a loving grandfather to me. Which is why I am so grateful to Vince Brook and his wonderful book that celebrates the works of both men – especially that of my grandfather, and lauds his work alongside that of other cinematic legends. Willie left an important film noir legacy and I am proud of his innovation, independence and creativity. He was an important film noir filmmaker and a terrific Grandpa. I hope you get a chance to seek out and view his work.
* Driven to Darkness: Jewish Émigré Directors and the Rise of Film Noir, by Vincent Brook. Rutgers University Press, 2009.
Kim Wilder-Lee is a third generation Hollywoodian. Her grandfather, Willie, was a film noir producer and director, her great uncle Billy is the noted Academy Award-winning writer, producer and director, and father Myles, was a respected, Emmy-nominated television writer and producer. A Journalism major at the University of Southern California, she heeded the call of her genes and spent the majority of her career in entertainment, focusing on public relations for several television studios where she handled such groundbreaking series as “The Simpsons,” “Entertainment Tonight,” and “The X-Files,” as well as publicity for celebrities including Johnny Mathis, Julie Andrews, Sidney Sheldon, David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Queen Latifah and many more. An avid polo player, Wilder-Lee has written a screenplay that remains as yet unsold, and lives in Temecula, CA with her two children and two Weimaraners.