Billy Wilder on Barbara Stanwyck’s ‘Double Indemnity’ wig, her wonderful brain, casting Fred MacMurray

 This post is part of the For the Love of Film (Noir) Preservation Blogathon, a fundraiser hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren to benefit the non-profit Film Noir Foundation; their event last year raised $30,000. I hope you will consider making a donation. If you give, you help save a film: 1950’s “The Sound of Fury” starring Lloyd Bridges and directed by Cy Endfield.

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A Babs Stanwyck moment for FNB

Looking through some photos the other day, I noticed that back in the late 90s, I often lost the fight with my fine, curly hair and just let it go wild (left). Not every day can be a good hair day. If I ever need assurance that every femme fatale has a styling glitch from time to time, I just look at Barbara Stanwyck’s awful wig in “Double Indemnity,” a quintessential noir from 1944, directed by Billy Wilder. 

Paramount production head Buddy DeSylva said of the stiff blonde ‘do, “We hired Barbara Stanwyck and here we get George Washington.”

It also reminded me that it had been ages since I’d looked at my copy of “Conversations with Wilder” by Cameron Crowe, published in 1999. The jacket states: “Here, in a Q&A format — a nod to Truffaut’s unforgettable Hitchcock — Billy Wilder, Hollywood’s legendary writer-director, talks to Cameron Crowe, one of today’s best-known writer-directors, about screenwriting and camera work, set design and the stars, his peers and their movies, the old studio system and filmmaking today.

Of course, I flipped right to Wilder’s answer to Crowe’s question about the direction given to Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity” for the silent shot on her face while the murder is occurring. 

Said Wilder: Sure, that was a highly intelligent actress, Miss Stanwyck. I questioned the wig, but it was proper, because it was a phony wig. It was an obviously phony wig. And the anklet — the equipment of a woman, you know, that is married to this kind of man. They scream for murder.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray star in "Double Indemnity" from 1944. Both played against type.

Yeah, naturally we rehearsed this thing. But I rehearsed it with her once or twice, that’s the maximum, and it was not that much different from the way she would have done it. She was just an extraordinary woman. She took the script, loved it, right from the word go, didn’t have the agent come and say, “Look, she’s to play a murderess, she must get more money, because she’s never going to work again.”

With Stanwyck, I had absolutely no difficulties at all. And she knew the script, everybody‘s lines. You could wake her up in the middle of the night and she’d know the scene. Never a fault, never a mistake — just a wonderful brain she had.

Crowe asked if the part had been written for Stanwyck. Wilder said: Yeah. And then there there was an actor by the name of Fred MacMurray at Paramount, and he played comedies. Small dramatic parts, big parts in comedies. I let him read it, and he said, “I can’t do that.” And I said, “Why can’t you?” He said, “It requires acting!” [Laughs.] I said, “Look, you have now arrived in comedy, you’re at a certain point where you either have to stop, or you have to jump over the river and start something new.” He said, “Will you tell me when I’m no good?” [He nods: a partnership is born.] And he was wonderful because it’s odd casting.

Paramount image of “Double Indemnity”

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