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William Wyler

William Wyler: The Life and Films of Hollywood's Most Celebrated Director

Series: Screen Classics
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 520
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    William Wyler
    Book Description:

    During his forty-five-year career, William Wyler (1902--1981) pushed the boundaries of filmmaking with his gripping storylines and innovative depth-of-field cinematography. With a body of work that includes such memorable classics as Jezebel (1938), Mrs. Miniver (1942), Ben-Hur (1959), and Funny Girl (1968), Wyler is the most nominated director in the history of the Academy Awards and bears the distinction of having won an Oscar for Best Director on three occasions. Both Bette Davis and Lillian Hellman considered him America's finest director, and Sir Laurence Olivier said he learned more about film acting from Wyler than from anyone else.

    In William Wyler, Gabriel Miller explores the career of one of Hollywood's most unique and influential directors, examining the evolution of his cinematic style. Wyler's films feature nuanced shots and multifaceted narratives that reflect his preoccupation with realism and story construction. The director's later works were deeply influenced by his time in the army air force during World War II, and the disconnect between the idealized version of the postwar experience and reality became a central theme of Wyler's masterpiece, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

    None of Wyler's contemporaries approached his scope: he made successful and seminal films in practically every genre, including social drama, melodrama, and comedy. Yet, despite overwhelming critical acclaim and popularity, Wyler's work has never been extensively studied. This long-overdue book offers a comprehensive assessment of the director, his work, and his films' influence.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4211-1
    Subjects: Performing Arts, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-26)

    William Wyler liked to quip, “I could hardly call myself an auteur—although I’m one of the few American directors who can pronounce the word correctly.” While he invariably said this in jest, the slight of being denied auteur status clearly rankled. Wyler saw his friends John Ford, Frank Capra, George Stevens, Billy Wilder, and John Huston celebrated by film scholars and historians as artists whose work exhibited distinctive styles and explored complex themes, while his was dismissed as mere craftsmanship, not worthy of extended scholarly attention.

    Nonetheless, Wyler was celebrated early in his career by André Bazin, the father...

  4. 1 Discovering a Vocation and a Style: The Shakedown (1929), The Love Trap (1929), Hell’s Heroes (1930), A House Divided (1931)
    (pp. 27-44)

    William Wyler grew up with the movies. He came to America from Mulhouse (Mulhausen), Alsace-Lorraine, in 1920 at the invitation of his mother’s first cousin, Carl Laemmle, who was the founder and head of Universal Studios. Laemmle’s young cousin would soon eclipse his fame in the industry that would come to dominate American culture.

    Laemmle himself had arrived in his adopted country in 1884, joining his older brother in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where he became a branch manager for a successful midwestern clothier. When he was thirty-nine, Laemmle moved to Chicago, seeking to become his own boss. A chance stroll past...

  5. 2 Coming into His Own: Counsellor-at-Law (1933)
    (pp. 45-62)

    The experience of directingA House Dividedwhetted Wyler’s appetite for more serious projects. That desire was also fueled by John Huston, with whom Wyler formed a lifelong friendship. (Huston once commented that he considered Wyler his best friend in the industry.) Huston, who had lived among the poor in Mexico, convinced Wyler to try a socially conscious film. Hoping to develop a story about the millions of Americans who had been dispossessed and left jobless by the Depression, the two men decided to live among the poor and the homeless to find material for their film. “To know what...

  6. 3 First-Class Pictures: These Three (1936)
    (pp. 63-82)

    Wyler’s last film for Universal, the studio that had nurtured him for fifteen years, wasThe Good Fairy, released in 1935. That same year, after returning from his honeymoon with Margaret Sullavan, he made his first freelance film for producer Jesse Lasky at Twentieth Century–Fox. That film,The Gay Deception, starring Francis Lederer and Frances Dee, was the first Wyler film to earn an Oscar nomination (for Best Original Story). More significant than the nomination, however, was that the film brought Wyler to the attention of Samuel Goldwyn.

    In 1935, Goldwyn’s fortunes were waning. Of his recent films, only...

  7. 4 The Wyler Touch: Dodsworth (1936)
    (pp. 83-104)

    InCounsellor-at-Law, Wyler deals with the cultural divide in Depression-era America while touching on the need for community and a concern for what constitutes a meaningful life. In adapting Lillian Hellman’sThe Children’s Hour, he focuses on Hellman’s thematic study of how evil can unmoor and destroy a group, especially when individuals lack the moral backbone to stand up to it. InDodsworth, Wyler translates another important literary property: Sidney Howard’s successful dramatic adaptation of Nobel Prize–winning novelist Sinclair Lewis’s work of the same name. While that novel deals, in part, with the Jamesian motifs of the American abroad...

  8. 5 A Concoction: Come and Get It (1936)
    (pp. 105-118)

    While Wyler was shootingDodsworth, Howard Hawks was filmingCome and Get Itfor Goldwyn one sound stage away. Meanwhile, the studio head himself was recovering from intestinal surgery in New York. Upon his return to Hollywood, and against doctor’s orders, Goldwyn demanded to see the footage of both films. He was upset by all the excess footage Wyler had shot forDodsworthbut delighted by the quality of the film. Hawks’s work, however, nearly sent him back to the hospital. He wrote to Edna Ferber, author of the novel on which the film was based, “After I saw what...

  9. 6 The Street Where They Live: Dead End (1937)
    (pp. 119-136)

    AfterCome and Get It, Goldwyn decided to assign his star director to another prestige property,Dead End.Wyler and Goldwyn had seen the play together in March 1936 (it had opened in October of the previous year), when Wyler was working with Sidney Howard on theDodsworthscript. Once Goldwyn had purchased the rights, Wyler would see it for a second time in September with noted playwright Clifford Odets, who was apparently being considered to write the screenplay. After the show, Wyler sent his boss a telegram: “Odets and I saw Dead End for second time tonight both feel...

  10. 7 Gone with the Plague: Jezebel (1938)
    (pp. 137-156)

    In the summer of 1937, Hal Wallis, production head at Warner Brothers, decided that he wanted Wyler to directJezebel, an antebellum story set in New Orleans. The film would capitalize on the craze generated by David O. Selznick’s national search for an actress to play Scarlett O’Hara inGone with the Wind.

    Jezebelwas Bette Davis’s consolation prize for missing out on the plum role of Scarlett. Jack Warner had held the first option on Margaret Mitchell’s best seller, but he passed on it because of his legal battles with Davis. She had left the studio in a dispute...

  11. 8 Home on the Moors and the Range: Wuthering Heights (1939), The Westerner (1940), The Letter (1940)
    (pp. 157-186)

    Wyler’s next important film about America wasThe Westerner, which was completed in 1939 but, due to a variety of postproduction problems, not released until September 1940. Before taking on that project, however, he made another film for Goldwyn—Wuthering Heights—that turned out to be one of his most honored and well-known works. Indeed, the New York Film Critics named it the best film of 1939 overGone with the Wind, and it received eight Oscar nominations, including one for Wyler’s direction. Stylistically and thematically,Wuthering Heightsis an important film, as it reflects Wyler’s deepening exploration of expressionist...

  12. 9 Bette Davis and the South Redux: The Little Foxes (1941)
    (pp. 187-208)

    Goldwyn’s studio was virtually shut down by the summer of 1940 as a result of a lawsuit over distribution rights with United Artists. The only film he had in development was an adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s playThe Little Foxes, which he would refer to for most of his life as “The Three Little Foxes.” He had purchased the rights to the hit play in 1939, despite warnings from one employee that it “deals with terribly greedy unpleasant people.”¹ His story editor, Edwin Knopf, reiterated that judgment and added that the story was “too caustic for films.”² Goldwyn reportedly snapped...

  13. 10 War Films: Mrs. Miniver (1942), Memphis Belle (1944), Thunderbolt (1945)
    (pp. 209-238)

    In 1941, MGM, the biggest and most glamorous studio in Hollywood, borrowed Wyler to work with producer Sidney Franklin—and, by extension, Louis B. Mayer—on an adaptation ofMrs. Miniver.The film would be based on a series of loosely connected stories by Jan Struther that had originally appeared in theLondon Timesand were later published as a book in 1939. The stories present an idealized portrait of an upper-class, though not aristocratic, English family enjoying the communal world and family life to which their affluence entitles them. The Miniver stories gain drama and some poignancy from allusions...

  14. 11 The Way Home: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
    (pp. 239-260)

    When Wyler returned from Europe after the war, his feelings about his life and profession had changed. He told Hermine Isaacs, “No one could go through that experience and come out the same. You couldn’t live among war-torn civilians, among airmen flying missions and ground crews waiting for their return without learning about people and how they function as individuals.”¹ Twenty years later, he elaborated, “The war had been an escape into reality. In the war it didn’t matter how much money you earned. The only thing that mattered were human relationships. . . . Only relationships with people who...

  15. 12 The American Scene I: The Heiress (1949)
    (pp. 261-278)

    One of Wyler’s postwar ventures was an ambitious partnership with Frank Capra and Samuel Briskin (a former vice president in charge of production at RKO and Columbia) to run Liberty Films, an independent film company that would allow him to be his own boss. Capra announced the formation of the company in January 1945 and incorporated Liberty Films on April 10, with himself as president and major stockholder. Wyler joined the company in July.

    Early on, Capra had asked Leo McCarey to participate in this venture, but McCarey, whose filmGoing My Wayhad won an Oscar in 1944, declined....

  16. 13 The American Scene II: Carrie (1952)
    (pp. 279-296)

    Carrie, Wyler’s film of Theodore Dreiser’s 1900 novelSister Carrie, is in theme and outlook a logical successor toThe Heiress.There is a moment early in Dreiser’s novel when eighteen-year-old Carrie Meeber, a poor girl from a small town, is escorted to a posh Chicago restaurant by Charles Drouet, a salesman and “masher” she has met on the train. Carrie is dazzled by the selection of food, the clothing of the patrons, and the décor—much as Morris Townsend is overwhelmed by the Slopers’ richly appointed Washington Square home. “She felt a little out of place but the great...

  17. 14 The House Un-American Activities Committee: Detective Story (1951), Roman Holiday (1953), The Desperate Hours (1955), The Children’s Hour (1961)
    (pp. 297-334)

    In September 1947, J. Parnell Thomas, a Republican congressman from New Jersey, reconvened the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to investigate “alleged subversive influence on motion pictures.” More than forty people from the film industry received subpoenas to appear before the committee. There were two groups of witnesses. One—termed “friendly” by the committee—was made up of individuals willing to name fellow workers whom they thought to be members of the Communist Party and to identify moments in films that contained communist propaganda. The second group—labeled “unfriendly”—consisted of nineteen actors, writers, producers, and directors who became, in...

  18. 15 The Pacifist Dilemma: Friendly Persuasion (1956), The Big Country (1958), Ben-Hur (1959)
    (pp. 335-366)

    Wyler was ready to leave Paramount after his five-picture deal ended in 1955. The studio had retained veto power over many of his decisions, and Wyler felt that he was never allowed the artistic control he had been promised. Paramount pressed to keep him, offering profit participation, but Wyler decided, while still shootingThe Desperate Hours, to move to Allied Artists. He had been courted for some time by Allied’s vice president Harold Mirisch, whom he had met in 1952.

    Originally part of Monogram Pictures, a B-picture unit that releasedThunderboltafter the war, Allied had been restructured in 1953...

  19. 16 Final Projects: The Collector (1965), How to Steal a Million (1966), Funny Girl (1968), The Liberation of L. B. Jones (1970)
    (pp. 367-396)

    After the enormous success ofBen-Hur, Wyler wanted to move away from big, expensive pictures and return to his roots by making a smaller, intimate drama featuring mostly interior sets. Choosing to return to the black-and-white format as well, he first took a second try at Lillian Hellman’sThe Children’s Hour.As discussed earlier, that film was not successful, but its failure did not damage Wyler’s reputation. He was by then one of the industry’s giants and an elder statesman.

    Darryl Zanuck, who was about to become president of Twentieth Century–Fox, wanted him on the board of directors, but...

  20. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 397-398)
  21. Filmography
    (pp. 399-426)
  22. Notes
    (pp. 427-452)
  23. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 453-460)
  24. Index
    (pp. 461-484)
  25. Back Matter
    (pp. 485-486)
  26. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)