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William Wyler

The Life and Films of Hollywood's Most Celebrated Director

Gabriel Miller

Publication Year: 2013

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.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: Screen Classics

Front cover

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pp. 1-4


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pp. 5-7


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pp. vii-viii

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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, ...

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

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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. ...

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2. Coming into His Own: Counsellor-at-Law (1933)

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pp. 45-62

The experience of directing A House Divided whetted 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.) ...

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3. First-Class Pictures: These Three (1936)

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pp. 63-82

Wyler’s last film for Universal, the studio that had nurtured him for fifteen years, was The 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. ...

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4. The Wyler Touch: Dodsworth (1936)

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pp. 83-104

In Counsellor-at-Law, Wyler deals with the cultural divide in Depressionera America while touching on the need for community and a concern for what constitutes a meaningful life. In adapting Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, he focuses on Hellman’s thematic study of how evil can unmoor and destroy a group, ...

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5. A Concoction: Come and Get It (1936)

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pp. 105-118

While Wyler was shooting Dodsworth, Howard Hawks was filming Come and Get It for 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. ...

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6. The Street Where They Live: Dead End (1937)

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pp. 119-136

After Come 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 the Dodsworth script. ...

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7. Gone with the Plague: Jezebel (1938)

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pp. 137-156

In the summer of 1937, Hal Wallis, production head at Warner Brothers, decided that he wanted Wyler to direct Jezebel, 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 in Gone with the Wind. ...

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8. Home on the Moors and the Range: Wuthering Heights (1939), The Westerner (1940), The Letter (1940)

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pp. 157-186

Wyler’s next important film about America was The 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. ...

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9. Betty Davis and the South Redux: The Little Foxes (1941)

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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 play The Little Foxes, which he would refer to for most of his life as “The Three Little Foxes.” ...

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10. War Films: Mrs. Miniver (1942), Memphis Belle (1944), Thunderbolt (1945)

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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 of Mrs. Miniver. The film would be based on a series of loosely connected stories by Jan Struther that had originally appeared in the London Times and were later published as a book in 1939. ...

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11. The Way Home: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

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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 ...

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12. The American Scene I: The Heiress (1949)

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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 ...

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13, The American Scene II: Carrie (1952)

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pp. 279-296

Carrie, Wyler’s film of Theodore Dreiser’s 1900 novel Sister Carrie, is in theme and outlook a logical successor to The 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. ...

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

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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. ...

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

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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, ...

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

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pp. 367-396

After the enormous success of Ben-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’s The Children’s Hour. ...

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pp. 397-398

First, I must thank the Rutgers Research Council, which awarded me several grants that allowed me to travel to Los Angeles to study William Wyler’s papers. While in Los Angeles, I benefited from the generosity and expertise of the staff at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; ...


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pp. 399-426


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pp. 427-452

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 453-460


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pp. 461-484

Photo insert

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pp. 496-519

E-ISBN-13: 9780813142111
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813142098

Page Count: 512
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Screen Classics

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Subject Headings

  • Wyler, William, 1902-1981.
  • Motion picture producers and directors -- United States -- Biography.
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