“It’s the Pictures That Got Small”: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age

reviewed by Ben Rogerson


Slide, Anthony, ed. “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age. New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.


Give credit where credit is due.

In no small part, this truism motivates “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”, an edited collection of the screenwriter Charles Brackett’s diaries from the years 1932 to 1949. And it is with no little irony that Brackett has been largely forgotten—his due credit neglected—for the same reason that he should be better remembered: the creative and commercial success of his fourteen-year, fifteen-film partnership with his co-writer Billy Wilder. Before Wilder was a legend, he and Brackett wrote a pair of scripts for Ernst Lubitsch’s direction—Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) and Ninotchka (1939). The contract screenwriters eventually developed into their own production team at Paramount, with Wilder directing and Brackett producing co-written scripts for films such as Five Graves to Cairo (1943), The Lost Weekend (1945), and A Foreign Affair (1948). They parted ways after Sunset Boulevard (1950). With another long-term co-writer, Wilder would work for three more decades, directing fondly remembered hits like Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960) at United Artists; Brackett had less luck with a new deal and a new writing partner at Twentieth Century-Fox, earning his final screen credit in 1962.

With the publication of the diaries, Brackett’s grandson Jim Moore and editor Anthony Slide propose to save the screenwriter from “semi-oblivion” (1). In his foreword, Moore simply expresses relief—at long last, the diaries correct the “gray-hued collage of Charlie carelessly pinned and pasted on an indistinct canvas, forever framed by the Billy Wilder legend” (xiv). Slide plays the heavy, using the titular line—“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small”—to strike a more combative tone. Too often, he writes, this famous line is “misidentified as being from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. It is not. It is from Charles Brackett’s and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd” (1). Furthermore, it was Brackett—not Wilder—who recognized the line’s significance, rehearsing it with Gloria Swanson and insisting on retakes to perfect it. But Slide is not suggesting that Brackett should eclipse Wilder in our estimation. Instead, forays into the first fifteen years of Wilder’s career should acknowledge the “indivisible” fact of their teamwork (2).

Moore and Slide can’t be blamed for focusing on credit—as the diaries make clear, Brackett was also engrossed with this issue, in one form or another, throughout his career. Brackett’s concerns about credit are palpable in the day-to-day frustrations that he, as well as Wilder, endured as Paramount contract screenwriters, as 1940s “hyphenate” filmmakers with greater creative control, and simply as co-workers. Initially, Brackett’s concern for credit is limited to the most technical sense—simply put, he is an up-and-coming writer scrambling to receive any screen credit whatsoever. But as Brackett’s career turns successful, this question of credit increasingly takes on the less technical and more personal cast that preoccupies Moore and Slide. Take, for instance, this 1944 entry from Brackett’s diaries about Wilder:

I hear him, very patronizingly, say to congratulatory friends, ‘Oh, Charlie and I write everything together.’ … in a tone which proclaimed ‘I include good old Charlie in this, though you know it’s only generosity on my part’ has proved too much for my equanimity. (245)

Screen credits aside, now it is Wilder himself, colleagues within the wider film industry, and even the general public that must recognize Brackett’s equal creative contributions.

Besides closely detailing Brackett’s workaday relationship with Wilder, “It’s the Pictures That Got Small” will satisfy readers interested in the offscreen personalities of onscreen idols. Brackett’s wry ruminations about, say, a single dinner party appraise celebrities in terms that range from approbation (Gene Kelly is “charming, intelligent, mannerly”) to condemnation (Charles Chaplin is “as repellant a human being as I’ve ever been in the room with—a thin, reedy voice, a show-off-hog face, and hysterical protestations of liberalism”) (250). Despite the diaries’ unmistakable virtues, the volume exhibits at least one acute drawback: namely, its compilers’ failure to address how studio production processes shaped screenwriters’ preoccupation with questions of credit, especially in the more technical sense. During the earliest years of the Wilder-Brackett collaboration, Hollywood studios sought to rationalize filmmaking by adopting what is called the “producer-unit” system of production: at a given studio, “production was apportioned among a group of producers, each of whom headed a core group of talent responsible for three to six pictures a year.”[1] As this description suggests, this system consolidated power in the hands of executive producers and at the expense of directors and writers. For rank-and-file screenwriters, especially, this system held immense consequences for both work arrangements and screen credits.

Moore and Slide do not directly acknowledge this system of production, which leaves seemingly straightforward descriptions of the Brackett-Wilder collaboration to veer towards distortion. To underscore the case for equal credit, for instance, Moore describes the partnership as “a solidly professional arrangement based on each writer’s unique literary and theatrical skillsets” (xvi). “Neither man,” he is quick to assure us, “served at the will of the other.” But this collaboration was not voluntary—it was the will of Paramount executives that Wilder and Brackett form a team in the first place. In August 1936, Brackett arrived at Paramount ready to complain about a script assignment only to learn that his writing partnership with Frank Partos was over: “I am to be teamed with Billy Wilder, a young Austrian I’ve seen about for a year or two and like very much” (86).

In addition to compulsory collaborations, Brackett’s 1930s diaries chronicle any number of tactics devised by the studios to control the scriptwriting process and reinforce producer authority. Crucially, studio executives controlled not only who worked with whom, but also who received credit for what. Brackett’s diaries show (and Slide’s footnotes confirm) that he worked on dozens of scripts in various stages of development—scripts for which he received no screen credit. His inability to receive credit was by no means unusual. According to film historian Tino Balio, “writers who worked on intermediate drafts could work for years without receiving recognition” (84). And producers also weren’t above adding insult to injury: according to the screenwriter John Howard Lawson, “it was no uncommon for eight or ten writers to work on one script, with screen credit whimsically distributed among the producers’ in-laws, golf partners, or bookies.”[2] Cue Brackett’s first screen credit in 1936—he’s one of eight writers thrown together on Rose of the Rancho, a forgettable Paramount western that his diary describes as a “horror” (68).

I mention these managerial practices because they perhaps mitigate what Moore calls Wilder’s “mean-spirited maneuvers” (xvi). Consider this pair of entries from November 1936:

Worked hard and quarrelsomely with Billy all day, he very disagreeable about my past credits. I’m afraid I mentioned Music in the Air with some relish. If I do more on a script than he expects, he becomes very difficult.

Worked at the studio. Billy a little constipated as to ideas. As I know ideas I suggest will be rejected with violence, I rarely put forth any. … (This was before I learned the routine with this temperamental partner. The thing to do was to suggest an idea, have it torn apart and despised. In a few days it would be apt to turn up, slightly changed, as Wilder’s idea. Once I got adjusted to that way of working, our lives were simpler.) (92)

It is tempting to simply chalk these anecdotes up to Wilder’s pettiness. But professional jealousy and underhandedness about credit were another calculated effect of the producer-unit system. So long as the producers controlled the allocation of credits, and so long as writers’ lost sight of that fact, writers were left to battle each other, not producers.

But Brackett’s diaries confirm that he wasn’t satisfied to only battle with Wilder. His deep involvement in the Screen Writers Guild (SWG), including his service as its elected president in 1938, demonstrates that he was aware of the relationship between credit and labor politics within the studios. Founded in 1933 to fight studio salary cuts, the SWG engaged in a protracted struggle with producers to secure greater professional autonomy, including control over the allocation of screen credits for scripts and stories. Apparently, Brackett’s unedited diaries extensively cover Guild meetings. Yet Slide admits, in spite of his own concern for credit, that he has “deliberately excised much of this” (9). In these omitted entries, Slide claims that “it is generally difficult to comprehend what is going on, and even with foreknowledge, the meetings are long, filled with political fights between the left and right factions, and, more importantly, dull and boring” (9). The entries that do appear in “It’s the Pictures That Got Small” offer glimpses of Brackett’s participation in the guild’s struggle for status and credit: for instance, “the Big Amalgamation,” or the approved 1936 proposal to gain leverage against the studios by merging the SWG with the Authors League of America and the Dramatists Guild (75); the intrigues of the Screen Playwrights, a company union fronted by high-salaried MGM writers and with orders to incite a “Guild mess” (74-6); the temporary success of these saboteurs, as well as the temporary dissolution of the SWG (84); and the persistent “threats of a blacklist” in reaction to writer unrest (80). In 1941, the SWG finally reached an agreement with producers that included credit allocation.[3]

Editorial ironies and oversights aside, Brackett’s diaries suggest the complex allegiances traversing Hollywood labor politics in the 1930s and early 1940s. Bypassing a left-liberal politics of exploitation, Brackett chronicles labor problems in Hollywood as less a consequence of intractable class conflicts than a failure of manners. Indeed, the former East Coast playwright presses the screenwriters’ case for credit and status through what we might call a patrician politics of recognition. Because this politics values civility and mutual respect, Brackett frets over screenwriter Dudley Nichol’s ongoing sleights directed towards the producer-backed Academy:

…sitting at a very prominent table where we made an extremely bad showing for the Guild which also seemed to lend a churlish note through Dudley’s failure to accept his Informer reward. Had to bow as the representative of the Guild and felt inadequate. (112)

Other entries express this politics of recognition—or what Brackett regards as its unfortunate failure—through the language of maturation. By proposing “foolish,” unrealistic demands, Brackett’s fellow writers belie the guild’s claims to equal standing (75). SWG meetings risk devolving into juvenile theatricality: “getting together with the other kids behind the barn to get up a secret club” (70). By 1946, the SWG has, of course, resolved its disagreements with the studios, and Brackett has climbed to the more rarefied position of writer-producer. Labor politics at Paramount now bespeak the cordiality of communal relations. An impromptu “mass meeting” of studio carpenters and painters, upset over the dismissal of older workers, exhibits no radical, “smouldering [sic] dangerous quality” but was instead “more like a New England town meeting” (281). Likewise, a 1949 entry praises the treatment of an elderly, long-time stand-in: “the attitude of Paramount to him, the protectiveness, gentleness and affection everyone shows him” (372). It’s less a workplace than a family, and one that recognizes its duties to its members. Of course, less than one year later, Brackett resigns from Paramount following a series of disagreements with an executive (7).

Fortunately, scholars can further explore Brackett’s labor politics, as Moore has donated the diaries, in their entirety, to the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And, thankfully, Moore is working on his grandfather’s biography. Here’s just hoping Moore gives appropriate space to the SWG—which is to say, that he gives credit where credit’s due.


Ben Rogerson is an adjunct professor of Cinema Studies at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His work has also appeared in Arizona Quarterly and the Journal of Modern Literature. His current research project concerns New Hollywood cinema as a self-reflexive endeavor to reconstruct the social legitimacy of filmmaking as a profession.


[1] Tino Balio, Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 75.

[2] Qtd. in Pat Sierchio, “The War For the Guild,” Writers Guild of America. November 1, 2007. Accessed March 15, 2015.

[3] Thomas Schatz, Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 41.