The Life and Films of Hollywood's Most Celebrated Director
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
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William Wyler liked to quip, “i could hardly call myself an auteur—al-though 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 Cap-ra, George Stevens, billy Wilder, and John Huston celebrated by film schol-...
1. Discovering a Vocation and a Style
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William Wyler grew up with the movies. He came to america from Mul-house (Mulhausen), alsace-Lorraine, in 1920 at the invitation of his moth-er’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 indus-Laemmle himself had arrived in his adopted country in 1884, join-...
2. Coming into His Own
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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.) Huston, who had lived among the poor in Mexico, convinced Wyler to try a socially conscious ...
3. First-Class Pictures
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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 return-ing from his honeymoon with Margaret Sullavan, he made his first free-lance film for producer Jesse Lasky at Twentieth Century–Fox. That film, The Gay Deception, starring Francis Lederer and Frances Dee, was the first ...
4. The Wyler Touch
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...in Counsellor-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’s The 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 ...
5. A Concoction
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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 re-turn 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 ...
6. The Street Where They Live
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...after Come and Get It, Goldwyn decided to assign his star director to an-other 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. Once Goldwyn had purchased the rights, Wyler would see it for a second ...
7. Gone with the Plague
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...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 Jezebel was bette Davis’s consolation prize for missing out on the plum ...
8. Home on the Moors and the Range
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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. indeed, the New York ...
9. Betty Davis and the South Redux
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Goldwyn’s studio was virtually shut down by the summer of 1940 as a re-sult 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.” He had purchased the rights to the hit play in 1939, despite ...
10. War Films
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...in 1941, MGM, the biggest and most glamorous studio in Hollywood, bor-rowed 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 orig-inally appeared in the London Times and were later published as a book ...
11. The Way Home
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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 wait-ing for their return without learning about people and how they function ...
12. The American Scene I
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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 ...
13, The American Scene II
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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. Carrie is daz-...
14. The House Un-American Activities Committee
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...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 ap-pear before the committee. There were two groups of witnesses. One—...
15. The Pacifist Dilemma
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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 prom-ised. Paramount pressed to keep him, offering profit participation, but Wy-ler decided, while still shooting The Desperate Hours, to move to allied ...
16. Final Projects
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...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, inti-mate 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. as discussed earlier, that film was not successful, but its ...
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First, i must thank the rutgers research Council, which awarded me sever-al 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 exper-tise of the staff at the Margaret Herrick Library of the academy of Motion Picture arts and Sciences; in particular, very special thanks to Kristine ...
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Page Count: 512
Publication Year: 2013
Series Title: Screen Classics