William Wyler: Constant Chameleon and The People’s Auteur

MRS. MINIVER

To view the films available with the “Directed by William Wyler” theme, click here.

In reflecting on the history of Hollywood filmmaking, William Wyler undoubtedly remains one of the greatest and most influential directors of his time. Twelve Academy Award nominations for Best Director (the record for most nominations of a director), winning three times for Mrs. Miniver (1946), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Ben-Hur (1959). He directed some of Hollywood’s finest talent, including a three-film collaboration with Bette Davis, in arguably her best work, earning her Academy Award nominations each time and a win for her performance in 1938’s Jezebel. Out of her working relationship with Wyler, Davis believed that she learned to become a better actress with him behind the camera. Her thoughts on working under Wyler’s direction were not unique; most of the actors who were fortunate enough to collaborate with him, especially those who did so multiple times, recalled the director as tough and professional, drawing the absolute best performances out of his cast. To achieve his idea of perfection, Wyler demanded multiple takes, which many of the actors, at least in the moment, felt excessive and borderline obsessive. But when the final cut was on the screen, they knew exactly why their director wanted more.

In the early 1920s, William Wyler emigrated to the United States from Europe and got his start working for his mother’s cousin, Carl Laemmle, who was then head of Universal. Wyler worked a variety of odd jobs at the studio’s New York location, eventually relocated to Los Angeles, was promoted to assistant editor and assistant director and worked on Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925), starring Ramon Novarro. Under contract to Universal, Wyler continued directing silent short films, eventually working his way to feature-length pieces, including Hell’s Heroes in 1929, the excellent A House Divided (1931) and Counsellor-at-Law in 1933, starring John Barrymore. On the set of A House Divided, Wyler met John Huston, the son of the film’s star, Walter Huston. Wyler hired the younger Huston to help contribute to the script, in what was one of his very first assignments in Hollywood. It’s out of this first collaboration that Wyler and Huston became close friends, with Huston often considering Wyler his professional mentor.

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, director William Wyler, cinematographer Gregg Toland on set, 1946

After fulfilling his obligation to Universal, Wyler began working for producer Samuel Goldwyn in a legendary partnership that lasted a decade. This partnership with Goldwyn also brought together Wyler and the great cinematographer Gregg Toland for six collaborations. Together, Wyler and Toland created visual storytelling that inspired countless movies and later generations of filmmakers. This period is often considered to be Wyler’s most prolific and more importantly, when he established himself as the greatest director in Hollywood, with the exception of his directorial peer, the great John Ford. Ford, who also experienced an incredible creative output during this same time frame, is often given the slight advantage when it comes to historical importance over Wyler by film critics and historians. Over the course of ten years, and not including uncredited and co-directed projects, Wyler made seven films for Samuel Goldwyn, in addition to a handful of projects for Warner Bros. and MGM (including Jezebel, The Letter [1940] and Mrs. Miniver). As part of their ongoing “Directed by” series, Filmstruck has made all seven Goldwyn-produced Wyler films available to stream. The titles include the following: These Three (1936); Dodsworth (1936); Dead End (1937); Wuthering Heights (1939); The Westerner (1940); The Little Foxes (1941); and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Having all of these films available together in one place is exciting for many of us classic film lovers, as several of these films are difficult to find. And with the exception of a couple of them, these films are also out-of-print on home video.

AcademyAwards_AA1960_Sig_Hes_Win_Wyl

If you look at these seven films, in addition to the rest of Wyler’s impressive work, it’s clear there isn’t one consistent theme or stylistic approach. William Wyler was constantly reinventing himself, never content to remain in one particular genre or storytelling technique. Over the years, I’ve read various criticism on Wyler’s directorial work and his apparent lack of a distinct trait or style, and how that ultimately holds him back from achieving the so-called elite “auteur” status. Well, in the immortal words of veteran journalist Dan Rather, I’m calling “bullshine.” Wyler not only created some of the greatest films of all time, but his work reached far and wide, pulling in a broad audience and giving them something that was entertaining, heartfelt and genuine, all while demonstrating his artistry as a filmmaker. And most importantly, doing so without pretension. That might not fit the rigid definitions of what constitutes an auteur, but who decided that is the sole requisite for being a great artist and director? Wyler kept his actors and audiences, as well as critics, on their toes. You can never quite pin down what makes his work so incredible. It just is. And that’s why William Wyler’s vast accomplishments remain unmatched today, almost fifty years after his final movie.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be writing about all of the Wyler-Goldwyn films available on Filmstruck, with the exception of Dodsworth, which I wrote about last year. William Wyler is one of my favorite directors, and I look forward to sharing my thoughts on these wonderful films, as well as observations on the careers of many of the actors who worked with him.

Jill Blake

Comment Policy:

StreamLine welcomes an open dialogue with our readers and we encourage you to comment below, but we ask that all comments be respectful of our writers, readers, viewers, etc., otherwise we reserve the right to delete them.

21 Responses William Wyler: Constant Chameleon and The People’s Auteur
Posted By swac44 : September 30, 2017 8:12 am

The Westerner is also airing on TCM on Saturday, Oct. 7, for those of you (like me) without Filmstruck.

Posted By kingrat : September 30, 2017 12:15 pm

Wyler is one of my favorite directors, too. He has a distinctive way of shooting scenes that show someone’s back; this makes the audience frantic to see how the character will react. A couple of examples: Walter Huston in DODSWORTH when he learns that his wife is leaving him and Bette Davis in JEZEBEL when she learns that Henry Fonda is married.

Wyler’s objectivity and lack of sentimentality are always welcome to me, and I have no problem ranking him higher than John Ford. If you want to see Wyler direct like Ford, there’s always FRIENDLY PERSUASION.

COUNSELLOR-AT-LAW would get my vote as one of the half-dozen best stage-to-screen adaptations, and DETECTIVE STORY isn’t shabby in that regard, either.

Posted By Emgee : September 30, 2017 3:55 pm

A man that seemed incapable of making a bad movie; a true artist.

And yet: i bet if you ask anyone who’s not a true film buff who made Ben-Hur or Roman Holiday, i’ll bet there will be a lot of blank faces. Or is that the fate of most directors?

Posted By Jill Blake : September 30, 2017 4:25 pm

Kingrat-

It’s no question that Wyler’s collaboration with Gregg Toland made him an even better filmmaker. But even with those great deep focus shots (like the bar scene in BEST YEARS) and shots from behind, Wyler wasn’t a particularly flashy director. He told the story in a straightforward way. And that suits me just fine.

And as much as I appreciate John Ford, Wyler is number one for me, too.

Posted By Jill Blake : September 30, 2017 4:32 pm

Emgee-

That’s a great point. I really think most people aren’t bothered with knowing about the creative and crew behind a film. The movie experience is limited to the two hours spent to watch it. And that’s it. So it’s up to us movie lovers, film historians, TCM, and Filmstruck, etc., to keep legacies like Wyler’s alive.

Posted By Jill Blake : September 30, 2017 4:34 pm

Swac44–

Thanks for the airdate reminder. It’s a great film, and I hope all of you are able to catch it, either on Filmstruck or TCM.

Posted By Doug : September 30, 2017 4:51 pm

Jill said,”Over the years, I’ve read various criticism on Wyler’s directorial work and his apparent lack of a distinct trait or style…”

Perhaps actors aren’t the only ones who do not want to be ‘typecast’.

Posted By Randy : September 30, 2017 7:04 pm

I’m very excited that Filmstruck has more William Wyler movies! I had never heard of him until your blog post about Dodsworth last year. That was actually the first movie I watched on Filmstruck, and I loved it. I’m looking forward to watching more of his films.

Posted By George : September 30, 2017 7:22 pm

Most directors aren’t known to casual, occasional movie viewers (the vast majority) unless the director is a tireless self-promoter such as DeMille, Hitchcock or Tarantino. These directors turned themselves into brands, as did Spielberg.

It probably helped that DeMille hosted a radio show for years, and Hitchcock a TV show.

Over the last decade, fanboys on the internet have worked overtime to promote Christopher Nolan as the Greatest Director Who Ever Lived. But I don’t know how well his name is known to people outside the film buff and comic-book geek communities.

Posted By Susan Doll : September 30, 2017 7:56 pm

Counsellor-at-Law, which I first saw at a TCM Classic Film Fest, is one of my favorite pre-Code movies. Highly recommend it to everyone.

Posted By Doug : September 30, 2017 9:06 pm

George said:
“have worked overtime to promote Christopher Nolan as the Greatest Director Who Ever Lived.”
Right with you, George. Just for giggles, watch a double feature of “The Shadow” 1994 and then “Batman Begins” 2005.
Nolan is talented, but average, standing no taller than the rest of the pack.
He does have the advantage of leading a solid production company, so his movies look good.
But would he do as well as a ‘director for hire’ signing on to someone else’s production? Don’t think so. And we may never find out, as he is his own producer.
I have a few of his films, but don’t feel the need to see all of his output…nor to watch “The Prestige” again.

Posted By Christine in GA : October 1, 2017 5:14 pm

I have a great appreciation of William Wyler. I always look forward to his films no matter how often I may have seen them. Thanks for the fine article.

Posted By George : October 3, 2017 4:12 pm

Doug: Nolan can’t be blamed for The Shadow. That was directed by Russell Mulcahy.

I agree that Nolan is a good director, but he’s far from the best. The fanboys’ slavish devotion to him (which surpasses even their worship of Tarantino) is puzzling.

Don’t get me started on all the twenty-something males (and they’re all males) who think The Boondock Saints is one of the best movies ever made.

Posted By George : October 3, 2017 4:16 pm

I’d rather not create Sarris-style hierarchies where Wyler is ranked above Ford, or vice versa. Let’s just say they directed a lot of great movies and some misfires. (Wyler’s The Children’s Hour, made in the supposedly more permissive climate of 1962, is a less interesting movie than 1936′s These Three.)

Posted By swac44 : October 3, 2017 4:51 pm

I think Doug was referring to how a lot of the mythology laid down in Batman Begins (ie. going to Tibet) was liberally borrowed from the saga of The Shadow who went to the Himalayas to learn the ancient secrets of how to cloud men’s minds.

http://www.shadowsanctum.net/interactive/tidbits_archive/shadow_batman-movie_comparisons.html

Posted By Doug : October 3, 2017 7:08 pm

Ding ding ding! swac44 has hooked the brass ring! Not just in that both Cranston and Wayne are seeking wisdom ‘from the East’ but also the fact that their arch enemy is well versed in the same stuff. And the architecture of both movies is similar.
swac44-thanks for the link-it spells things out more clearly than I did.
I like both movies.

Posted By swac44 : October 3, 2017 7:18 pm

I like both as well, although I feel a lot of Tim Curry’s subplot wound up on the cutting room floor. Also, I feel like the “Batman in Tibet” idea came from recent comics, perhaps with a nod to Deadman, but couldn’t nail that down.

And now the discussion has been completely derailed…

Posted By George : October 3, 2017 9:20 pm

Sorry I misunderstood you, Doug. I liked that Shadow movie more than a lot of people did. It wasn’t great but it wasn’t bad. (I also had a good time watching the 1996 Phantom movie.)

I liked Batman Begins, thought I’m indifferent to The Dark Knight and didn’t like The Dark Knight Rises at all.

Posted By doug : October 3, 2017 11:33 pm

It’s all right, George-the main point for me is that Nolan sure seemed to like a lot of the elements found in “The Shadow”.
I plan on re-watching a very original movie in the next few days-”A Very Long Engagement”by Jean~Pierre Jeunet. It stars Audrey Tautou and Marion Cotillard, who has worked with…Christopher Nolan. And here we are again, far away from William Wyler.

Posted By Catherine Wyler : October 4, 2017 7:26 pm

Can I get Streamline delivered to my email??

Posted By Doug : October 5, 2017 6:23 pm

No problem, George-it’s all good.

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.