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William Wyler

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William Wyler

The Life and Films of Hollywood's Most Celebrated Director

GABRIEL MILLER

Copyright © 2013 by The University Press of Kentucky

Scholarly publisher for the Commonwealth,
serving Bellarmine University, Berea College, Centre College of Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky University, The Filson Historical Society, Georgetown College, Kentucky Historical Society, Kentucky State University, Morehead State University, Murray State University, Northern Kentucky University, Transylvania University, University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, and Western Kentucky University.
All rights reserved.

Editorial and Sales Offices:
The University Press of Kentucky
663 South Limestone Street, Lexington, Kentucky 40508-4008
www.kentuckypress.com

All photos courtesy Jerry Ohlinger's Movie Material Store.

17 16 15 14 13      5 4 3 2 1

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Miller, Gabriel, 1948-

William Wyler : the life and films of Hollywood's most celebrated director / Gabriel Miller.

     pages cm

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-8131-4209-8 (hardcover : alk. paper) —

ISBN 978-0-8131-4210-4 (epub) — ISBN 978-0-8131-4211-1 (pdf)

1. Wyler, William, 1902-1981. 2. Motion picture producers and directors—United States—Biography. I. Title.

PN1998.3.W95M55 2013

791.43'0233'092—dc23

[B]

2013010135

This book is printed on acid-free paper meeting the requirements of the American National Standard for Permanence in Paper for Printed Library Materials.

Manufactured in the United States of America.

Member of the Association of
American University Presses

In memory of my father, Harold Miller, and Kathy's mother, Patricia Fraser

Contents

Introduction

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

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

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

4. The Wyler Touch:
Dodsworth
(1936)

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

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

7. Gone with the Plague:
Jezebel
(1938)

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

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

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

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

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

13. The American Scene II:
Carrie
(1952)

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

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

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

Acknowledgments

Filmography

Notes

Selected Bibliography

Index

Introduction

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 of
la politique des auteurs
, which defined directors as the primary auteurs of motion pictures—authors who “wrote with the camera.” Believing that cinema and photography, unlike the traditional arts, are inherently realistic, Bazin maintained that film could probe for a deeper psychological complexity and that no other art form could examine life's ambiguities as effectively. He championed those directors who manipulated the medium the least, allowing all of life's mysteries and intricacies to remain intact on the screen.

In two articles published in
La Revue du Cinema
(1948), Bazin expresses admiration for Wyler's ability to extend and enhance film's predilection for realism, linking him with the Italian neorealists in his reverence for reality. According to Bazin, by utilizing depth-of-field cinematography, which brings all the planes of the image—foreground, background, and middle ground—into sharp focus and enables the director to cover a scene in a single take without resorting to editing, Wyler provides a vast array of information that allows spectators to formulate their own interpretations of what they see. Furthermore, Bazin finds the democratic equivalent of the spirit of the American spectator not only in Wyler's technique but also in the films' characters. He compares Wyler's mise-en-scène to the literary styles of André Gide and Roger Martin du Gard, which he categorizes as neutral and transparent, without any literary shadings or flourishes coming between the reader and the story.

Bazin's enthusiasm was matched in an article published the same year by Roger Leenhardt, who argues that after 1940 the tradition of classical Hollywood cinema—represented most purely by the films of John Ford—was replaced by a new tendency, heralded by Wyler, that prioritized “scene over image, decoupage over montage, story over drama, equilibrium over pace, character over symbol, modulation over effect.”
1
For Leenhardt, as for Bazin, this aesthetic shift was heralded by similar stylistic changes in the novel.

When Bazin was preparing a collection of his essays for publication in book form in 1958, he revised his opinion of Wyler in a postscript, tempering his original enthusiasm because he felt that Wyler's films of the 1950s had not lived up to his earlier work. He maintained, however, that it was still possible to prefer the unique style of Wyler to the more spectacular cinema of Ford. Even in his early essays, however, Bazin may have inadvertently laid the groundwork for Wyler's future detractors. In discussing Wyler's body of work, Bazin notes that each film is different—that the form of
The Best Years of Our Lives
, for example, bears little resemblance to that of
The Letter.
Thereafter, because the auteurists felt that a director's worth was measured in consistent visual styles and personal preoccupations and themes, Wyler was dismissed because of his fondness for adapting the work of others and for tailoring his visual style to the needs of the screenplay. Unlike a John Ford or a René Clair, Wyler did not pursue a set of abiding themes that he revisited or expanded on, and this apparent lack of focus was anathema to the orthodox auteurists, who never forgave Wyler for the diversity of his films.

Andrew Sarris, the father of American auteurism, even utilized Bazin (mistakenly calling him a “French director”) in his attack on Wyler by citing the title of Bazin's second article, “The Style without a Style,” as a derogatory description. Writing that Wyler's career is “a cipher as far as personal direction is concerned,” Sarris banished him to the purgatorial realm of “less than meets the eye” in his ranking of American directors.
2
Since Sarris's
The American Cinema
was published, others in that category—including Wyler's close friends John Huston and Billy Wilder—have seen their achievements reevaluated, while Wyler's reputation has remained in limbo. Nonetheless, writing for
Show
magazine in 1970, Sarris profiled Wyler as his “Director of the Month,” complimenting Wyler's “high polish professionalism” and referring to him as “the compleat angler of the most gripping camera angles.” Sarris had praised
The Collector
when it was released in 1965, and the occasion for this laudatory piece was the release of what turned out to be Wyler's final film,
The Liberation of L. B. Jones
, which Sarris called “the most provocative brief for Black Power ever to come out of a Hollywood studio.”
3

If Sarris's negative judgments seem too extreme, Bazin's praise of Wyler's realism is also excessive. Deep focus does not really democratize the frame, nor does it extend our understanding and appreciation of the world any more than other cinematic styles do. Instead, in its own way, it too manipulates the spectator, though more subtly than montage does. Wyler's mise-en-scène is in no way neutral—he does not merely present material to the spectator to contemplate, assimilate, and then arrive at his or her own conclusion. Wyler's pictorial arrangements are often complex, but the director's purposes are always evident, and his compositions in depth clearly communicate his feelings and ideas.

One of the examples Bazin repeatedly cites in lauding Wyler's technique is the death scene of Horace Giddens in
The Little Foxes
, where the stricken man tries to climb the stairs to get his medicine while his estranged wife sits by, making no attempt to help him. Bazin considered Wyler's decision not to move the camera or cut to the dying husband stumbling up the stairs much more powerful than any technique to make the action more cinematic. Wyler does indeed keep his camera focused on Regina's face, but the viewer also sees Horace climbing the stairs in the background, although his ascent remains out of focus, which limits both the “realism” and the open-ended quality of the deep-focus technique. Wyler, in fact, had extensive conversations with Gregg Toland, his cinematographer, on how to best shoot the scene, but the truth is that his effective camera decision was already set out in Lillian Hellman's stage directions: “Regina has not moved during his climb up the stairs.”

Also, as Wyler told his daughter, he had another, very practical reason for his decision:

Now there was another thing about this scene that nobody knows, aside from what we're talking about deep focus. Herbert Marshall, who played the man, has a wooden leg and cannot go up the stairs like he was supposed to. This is a kind of secret, a professional secret which I'm giving away here. If you ever see the picture again, he walks out of the scene and a double comes in the background and he starts going up the stairs, but he's so far in the background that you can't tell who he is. He starts going up the stairs and collapses in the middle. That's when she comes to him.
4

Wyler, it seems, was trying less to penetrate the inner secrets of the real world than to provide cover for an actor with a disability. The scene, though still dramatically compelling, was more “reel” than real.

Bazin's other often-cited example is the “Chopsticks” scene from Wyler's masterpiece,
The Best Years of Our Lives
. Al Stephenson has asked Fred Derry to meet him at Butch's Bar, where he intends to tell the married Fred to break off his relationship with Al's daughter Peggy. Wyler shoots that scene in a traditional way, utilizing two-shots and shot–reverse shots to emphasize the tension between the two men. Agreeing that his relationship with Peggy might turn out badly for both of them, Fred goes to the front of the bar to call her and end it. Then Homer Parrish (whose hands were destroyed by an explosion and replaced with hooks) enters, greets Fred and Al, and moves over to the piano to play “Chopsticks” with his uncle, the bar's owner. As Homer and Butch play, Wyler shows us his three protagonists in one deep-focus shot: Homer sits in the front of the frame, happily showing off his dexterity; Fred is in the back, framed inside a phone booth as he breaks up with Peggy; and Al is in the center, feigning interest in Homer while thinking about Fred's call.

In his 1947 essay “No Magic Wand,” Wyler explains his technique: “I can have action and reaction in the same shot, without having to cut back and forth from individual shots of characters. This makes for smooth continuity, an almost effortless flow of the screen, for much more interesting composition in each shot, and lets the spectator look from one to the other character at his own will, do his own cutting.”
5
Of course, Wyler is being a bit disingenuous here: although we spectators do have the freedom to look at all the characters at once and take in a great deal of information, Wyler is nonetheless intervening by subtly manipulating our gaze. He does so by lighting the phone booth, which forces us to notice what Fred is doing, despite his distance from the camera, and by centering Al, which makes us aware of the intricacies of Fredric March's performance as he imperceptibly shifts his gaze during the sequence, seemingly following Homer's performance while repeatedly glancing in the direction of the phone booth. (Having the camera pick up such small but compelling performance gestures is a central element of Wyler's direction.) Meanwhile, by showing Al's concern and love for both his friends, Wyler visually establishes the brotherly connection between the men, whose military experience has tied them in ways that almost transcend the bonds of family.

Wyler's style, so admired by Bazin, emerged early. He was experimenting with it in his first sound films,
Hell's Heroes
(1930) and A
House Divided
(1931). Out of a number of notable examples in
Hell's Heroes
, one will suffice: As the three outlaws are returning to the covered wagon where the dying woman is about to give birth, Wyler positions “Wild Bill” at the center, where he is framed by the open end of the wagon's cover, with his two partners in the background. Bill is foregrounded because he will help the woman deliver her baby, while the other men form a community that will bring the baby to New Jerusalem. Wyler uses a modified deep focus here, but more important, he frames his characters in a significant compositional arrangement that minimizes cutting and maximizes his organization of characters in space.

One can see Wyler manipulating space again in A
House Divided
. In a scene that takes place shortly after mail-order bride Ruth arrives at the home of Seth Law, she prepares a meal for his grown son, Matt (Seth is out fishing and has not yet met his prospective bride). Wyler foregrounds Ruth in the frame, with Matt behind her, seated at the table; in the distance behind both of them is a window framing the sea. Ruth, a farm girl, has already admitted to Matt in the previous scene that she loves the water, and Wyler's framing indicates that Ruth's dream of living near the water will come true by marrying Matt, with whom she has already fallen in love, rather than his father. In a later scene, Seth meets Ruth for the first time and initially rejects her as a wife because she seems too frail for hard work. As she turns to leave, Wyler again frames his three characters in a long shot in which Seth is prominent in the front of the frame, Ruth stands in the rear at the door, and Matt is in the center. Symbolically, this composition anticipates the love triangle that will soon develop as Seth and Matt fight over Ruth.

When Wyler left Universal and signed with Samuel Goldwyn in 1936, he also began his association with Gregg Toland, who had worked his way up from being George Barnes's assistant and was at the time photographing most of Eddie Cantor's films and all of Anna Sten's. From 1934 to 1940, Toland was the most famous cinematographer in Hollywood, and his name is often linked with Wyler as well as Orson Welles. He certainly collaborated with Wyler and helped him develop his signature style. Wyler told Curtis Hanson, “He [Toland] and I would discuss a picture from beginning to end.”
6

Indeed, in their first film together,
These Three
(1936), deep focus is used minimally, but considerable attention is paid to the arrangement of characters in space, yielding suggestive compositions that direct the viewer's attention to multiple levels of information at once and invite complex assessments of what is happening. In one scene, Joe arrives at Karen and Martha's home/school to see his fiancée, Karen, but finds only Martha there. After they talk for a while, Joe falls asleep on the couch, and Martha, who also loves Joe, remains in the room and watches him. Wyler foregrounds Joe in the frame, while Martha sits in a chair near the fireplace in the background. The fire, which had been burning brightly when the scene began, has now almost gone out. Martha, at this point, realizes that she has lost Joe to her best friend.

One of Wyler's most significant works for Goldwyn,
Dodsworth
(1936), was made without Toland—Rudolph Maté was the cinematographer—but it also features some masterful staging. As he did in
These Three
, Wyler carefully positions the actors in space to indicate the complexity of their emotional and psychological relationships. The staging and composition in depth also open up the play's closed world cinematically, avoiding the look of confinement while at the same time retaining a respect for the text. In the scene where Fran and Sam argue, which culminates in Sam's decision to return to America alone, Wyler alternates between the estranged couple, each occupying the background of the frame in turn, reflecting the undercurrents of their conflict. He further accentuates the scene's dramatic impact by manipulating the play of shadow and light, again minimizing cutting. As in the examples lauded by Bazin, Wyler's mise-en-scène here is part social realism and part artistic calculation.

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