#25 in my ranking of Billy Wilder’s filmography.
This bothered absolutely no one but me, but back when I did the run through of Billy Wilder’s movies I missed his first film, Mauvaise Graine, also known as Bad Seed. It’s a minor work, made in the brief period he lived in France after he fled Germany with Hitler’s rise to power and before he settled in Los Angeles to start his career as a screenwriter and, eventually, celebrated director. I didn’t skip it because it’s minor, though. I skipped it because I simply couldn’t find a copy. I wanted to watch it, but I just couldn’t locate anything anywhere. It’s mostly skipped over in takes on Wilder’s career, anyway.
So, I’m currently reading Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge by Joseph McBride, and I got to the point in his discourse of Wilder’s life where he described the production and film itself. It just got me curious, and I looked again, finding that copies had gone online within the past year within about five minutes of searching. I’m quite happy that I’ve found the copy so that my unhappy sense of incompleteness that no one cared about is now addressed.
Anyway, the film holds a lot of Wilder’s motifs, themes, and familiar character archetypes, albeit in very undeveloped forms. I remember being somewhat amazed at the polish brought to his first Hollywood feature, The Major and the Minor, and this feels much more like one would expect of a first film. Of course, in the interim between 1934, when he made Mauvaise Graine, and 1942 when The Major and the Minor was release, Wilder had a major education in storytelling, writing dozens of scripts alone and with his first major writing partner Charles Brackett, including the script for Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire and Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka in the still powerful studio system. That lack of polish is part of the charm of his first directorial effort, though.
The story is of a young man, Henri (Pierre Mingand), whose father (Paul Escoffier) takes away his car in an effort to get him to grow up and take responsibility in his life. Henri, having made a date with an attractive young woman where his car was a selling point, steals another Buick like his own and picks her up, also picking up a tail of three men. After a chase around Paris, they stop him, take the car and Henri, and head towards a garage run by the Chief (Michel Duran) where he offers Henri a job stealing cars. Henri quickly befriends the youngest member of the gang, Jean (Raymond Galle) and falls in love with his sister Jeanette (Danielle Darrieux) who also works with the gang, distracting wealthy men and giving Jean time to steal the car.
Henri takes to the work, and Jeannette takes to Henri. However, Henri’s increasing popularity within the gang and his ability to stand up to the Chief in front of everyone threatens the Chief’s power. He sends Henri off on a suicide mission with a car carrying a bad axle designed to break with too much stress. Henri brings Jeannette along, and on the road to Marseille, they end up in a chase with the police. There isn’t a whole lot more story after this (the movie is only 73 minutes long), but it ends on a combination of sweet and sad that Wilder would more commandingly deliver in later films like The Apartment.
So, you have a transient young character who gets into some kind of seedy life in order to survive who ends up in love and deciding that love will conquer all, all while the subtext of the film is satirical in nature, providing comedy and dramatic pathos along the way. Yup, sounds exactly like a Billy Wilder movie to me.
The problem is that Wilder’s writing (alongside Jan Lustig, Max Colpet, and Claude-Andre Puget) ends up thinner than necessary. Henri has none of the interesting depth of someone like Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd., Jean’s obsession with ties is amusing but doesn’t really mean much, and Jeannette is little more than a pretty face (though Darrieux would use it as the starting point for a very long career in French film). There are fun quips of dialogue here and there, like when one of the other gang members, trapped by the police, tries to get his way out by wondering what kind of reward he’ll get for turning in the stolen bus he’s sitting in and the police respond by saying two to five years, but it’s not at the same level as the nearly nonstop fun as in Some Like it Hot. Speaking of that gang member, I imagine a longer version of this film (twenty minutes or so), giving him more character than someone who can’t steal cars right.
Made on an extremely tight budget where Wilder was essentially just the one who volunteered to direct in a period of transition from Wilder’s life in the Berlin film industry to when he would find a home at Paramount a year or so later, Mauvaise Graine is an amusing trifle of a film from a young man who wasn’t even sure if he wanted to direct movies. Unsure of where he belonged in the world, it’s easy to feel his confusion even here in the unrefined form. The light tone through most of the film carries it a lot, and the ending holds a surprisingly firm grasp of competing emotions. Wilder still had a lot to learn, but he wasn’t starting from nothing when he directed his first film. He’d definitely learned something writing at Ufa.