The low budget, independently-produced Mauvaise graine (1934) is an outlier in Billy Wilder’s career. Although it characteristically illustrates the value and practice of collaboration – it was co-directed by the more experienced Alexander Esway and co-written by four screenwriters1 – it is also the only film Wilder made during his brief sojourn in Paris in 1933. It alternates between largely static though often teeming interiors and freewheeling location work habitually captured from within or behind the wheel of a fast-moving car. In many ways, it is a movie in thrall to modernity and speed and is unusual in Wilder’s filmography in that it relies more on action than dialogue, and favours a dynamic and unsystematised visual style (full of varied camera placements, superimpositions, dissolves and tracking shots) over a more contained, even theatrical rendering of character, space and place.
Mauvaise graine is also something of a false start. On the few occasions he was asked, Wilder dismissed it as an immature effort that suffered from a severe lack of resources like a proper studio to film it in and the capacity to deploy emerging technical processes such as rear projection to assist and control its car-chase sequences. He also argued that he was forced into directing it due to a lack of other choices and financial restrictions. This sits in contrast to his later claims about why he decided to become a writer-director in Hollywood, declaring that the damage done to his celebrated scripts by filmmakers like Mitchell Leisen forced him to take control of his own projects.2 It is indeed a long way from the sketchy characters and intermittent pleasures of Mauvaise graine to Wilder’s first Hollywood feature, the audacious The Major and the Minor (1942), made over eight years later. But there are hints of Wilder’s later work in this earlier film’s focus on the depths of male friendship, a “good-bad girl” female character (played by Danielle Darrieux) who is “the prototype for many Wilder heroines to come,”3 and particular moments or scenes that betray the writer-director’s facility with gesture, distinctive characterisation and the mechanics of classical narrative. For example, the first meeting between the romantic couple is suggestively managed across a doorway that connects the two characters as they are separately preparing for bed. It performs a neat “meet cute” that finds its close cousin in the famous “pyjama-top/pyjama-bottom” department store encounter between the characters played by Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert in the Wilder-scripted Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (Ernst Lubitsch, 1938). There are also a range of pleasing comic touches – including a character called Le zèbra who drives a colourful array of stolen vehicles into the criminal gang’s secret garage, and a kleptomaniac (the delightfully named Jean-la-cravate) who has purloined 315 ties including one named “Marceline”, stolen from Marcel Pagnol – that betray Wilder’s influence, cheekiness and emerging sensibility.
Despite its protean and formative nature, Mauvaise graine remains a fascinating work that points towards Wilder’s later preoccupations as a writer and director but also suggests other possibilities or roads not taken. As Ed Sikov has argued, “As much as Wilder himself claimed to have detested the overwhelming responsibilities of directing it, Mauvaise Graine is the work of a visual stylist, not a wordsmith”.4 It is this “visual style” – also incorporating a shift from the fast-paced early scenes to the more languid and melancholy movements concluding the movie – that is the most commented upon aspect of the film. Although a number of writers such as Cameron Crowe5 and Jeremy Carr have suggested Mauvaise graine “foreshadows the free-spirited features of the French New Wave”6 – exploring small-time criminality, the everyday streets of Paris, popular culture (the male protagonist performs “impersonations” of Maurice Chevalier and Josephine Baker, for instance) and a varied array of film techniques – it has greater allegiances with aspects of 1920s French Impressionism, the location-crazy films of early ’30s Berlin cinema like the Wilder-scripted Emil und die Detektive (Emil and the Detectives, Gerhard Lamprecht, 1931), nascent poetic realism, and even some Warner Bros. movies of the time.
But it’s also important not to overstate Mauvaise graine’s significance or its positive or pleasing qualities. It is definitely a tentative first work that suffers from uneven performances and an unresolved tension between its sometimes-ill-fitting tones and moods. The story itself is of little real interest, and it is mostly in the intimate details of mise en scène, the intermittently dynamic camerawork, Franz Waxman and Allan Gray’s playful score, and the stand-out performance of Danielle Darrieux that the key pleasures and achievements of the film lie. Darrieux was only 16 at the time of filming but had already appeared in a number of other movies. Although she does not always fully engage with the camera or her surroundings – she has certainly not yet found and doesn’t here require the poise, subtlety and emotional range of her films with Max Ophüls – Wilder is plainly aware of her potential. Her introduction is managed in an extended tracking shot that allows us to take in her physical presence as well as the way she takes command of the scene. It is in several moments focusing on her character that Mauvaise graine most resembles the star-driven vehicles Wilder would go on to make in Hollywood.
Wilder found himself in Paris in 1933 alongside a wide array of other refugees from the German film industry, including his co-writers on Mauvaise graine: Jan Lustig and Max Kolpé. Holed up in the Hotel Ansonia with other emigres soon to make their journey to Hollywood or elsewhere, like Franz Waxman, Friedrich Hollaender and Peter Lorre, Wilder spent a year making ends meet, pursuing possible contracts elsewhere, directing Mauvaise graine, and socialising and collaborating with the rich subculture (Fritz Lang also directed his sole French film, Liliom , at this time) that emerged. Although Wilder’s first effort does have the outward appearance of a relatively well and carefully put together movie, it also betrays the piecemeal nature of its production. For example, its numerous car chases are both extremely well shot and suffer from a lack of urgency caused by the precariousness of location shooting.
Mauvaise graine needs to be placed alongside the wide array of films made by German and Eastern European émigrés working throughout Western Europe in the 1930s – this list would include Douglas Sirk’s Dutch film, Boefje (1939), Max Ophuls’ work in Italy and pre-war France, amongst many others – that betray and reflect the transnational nature of their production. By the time that Mauvaise graine premiered to limited interest in mid-1934 Wilder had already departed for the United States, staying briefly with his brother in Long Island before venturing west to take up a short-term contract with Columbia Pictures. Wilder took time to build up his reputation in Hollywood as well as his command of English, only really beginning to make a mark when he teamed with Charles Brackett for Lubitsch and Leisen at the end of the 1930s. Mauvaise graine is undoubtedly a minor entry in Wilder’s filmography, but it is also a fascinating “first step” that reveals much about the great writer-director’s journey across mid 20th century cinema.
Mauvaise graine (1934 France 77 mins)
Prod Co: La Compagnie Nouvelle Commerciale Prod: Georges Bernier Dir: Billie (Billy) Wilder Scr: Billie (Billy) Wilder, Jan Lustig, Max Kolpé, Claude-André Puget Phot: Paul Cotteret, Maurice Delattre Ed: Therese Sautereau Mus: Franz Waxman, Allan Gray
Cast: Danielle Darrieux, Pierre Mingand, Raymond Galle, Paul Escoffier, Michel Duran, Jean Wall
- Esway was a Hungarian-born writer and director who had already co-directed a couple of movies in France before Mauvaise graine. Most accounts (such as that by Danielle Darrieux) suggest that his contribution to the 1934 film was minimal and mainly consisted of assisting Wilder in some technical areas. ↩
- This move was also made possible by the emergence of several other significant and celebrated writer-directors in Hollywood at this time like Orson Welles and Preston Sturges. Wilder’s studio, Paramount, also seemed to be particularly fertile ground for such a move. Despite this, Sturges and Wilder’s ill-founded claims about Leisen’s limitations as a director are highly contestable. For example, both Midnight (1939) and Remember the Night (1940), co-written by Wilder and Sturges respectively, are enriched by the emphasis Leisen gives to creating an enchanted, sustained atmosphere as well as the expression of delicate emotion. ↩
- Cameron Crowe, Conversations with Wilder (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), p. 334. ↩
- Ed Sikov, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder (New York: Hyperion, 1998), p. 95. ↩
- Crowe, p. 245. Crowe even playfully and fancifully suggests Mauvaise graine is something like Wilder’s Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992), insisting that it is “both personal and intoxicatingly funny” (334) – it’s not really either. In this interview, Wilder claims to have never seen the film again after early 1934 and goes on to insist he “didn’t want to bring it up, because it’s shit” (245) – it isn’t that either. ↩
- Jeremy Carr, “Mauvaise graine: Billy Wilder’s Swift and Satisfying Directorial Debut”, MUBI Notebook (20 August 2016): 6. ↩