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What's the deal with William Wyler?

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tobias
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What's the deal with William Wyler?

#1

Post by tobias »

Currently for whatever reason The Petrified Forest (1936) is on my mind again - I love the film and I think Howard and Davis are fantastic in it (so good that one entirely forgets Bogart). I kinda would like to see some more films with Davis, particularly some of the earlier ones but it turns out a lot of the major ones are made by Wyler who I'm not really mad about. However his back-catalouge is so huge that I can't help but wonder if there is anything I'm missing. I've seen Best Years of Our Lives, Ben-Hur, Roman Holiday and The Heiress. I think all of them get bogged down by their really safe and quite distancing approach to narrative. For Ben-Hur it kind of works because it serves as a nice show-off for the films gigantic budget (still far from amazing). But in general I think it feels very slow and stagey and not like Wyler is ever really trying a lot. It kinda feels by the numbers most of the time.

Is there anything I'm missing? I was hoping that The Heirress would be different back when I watched it but I actually wound up liking it less than the other 3. Haven't really tried anything else since.

Note: Not that I massively dislike Wyler, I just don't find him very special. Oh and I would also welcome other recommendations for 30's/40's Hollywood films, also noirs.
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OldAle1
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#2

Post by OldAle1 »

I can't say he's a director I've followed at all, or read up on, so hopefully someone else will come along with more to say about his "directorial personality". I can see what you're saying and might agree with it overall, though I've come to like his work more as time has gone on. He's a jack-of-all-genres, and he's much like one of my favorites, Richard Fleischer, in that he didn't write or originate projects and isn't what we think of as a really "personal" director, but one that could do just about anything and do it the way the studio bosses wanted. Michael Curtiz is another example, maybe the ultimate example. If I can see something in Wyler in particular it's that his films tend to mostly be dramas, often historically-based, and don't tend to focus too much on things like crime, violence or anything particularly outré or fantastic; his two entries in the noir cycle in the 50s, Detective Story and The Desperate Hours, are the two weakest films I've seen from him, and just don't have the juice that the best thrillers or noir have. He was best off doing the epic or dramatic or sometimes melodramatic, the "prestige" pictures - which is probably a big part of why his films got so many Oscar nominations and wins. And probably why I overall prefer Curtiz and Fleischer, not to mention Howard Hawks.

I do love The Best Years of Our Lives, his best film IMO, but it wasn't until a second viewing that it really worked for me, and I think that in my case, being particularly interested both in American films and the overall American culture of the postwar period - and being American myself - probably helps. It really does strike me as a keenly felt portrait of a "well, that's over, what do we do now?" moment in history. After that I'd pick Dodsworth and The Westerner as his next-best films, and those three are really the only ones I've seen that I'd say are great or nearly so. I like The Big Country though it's not really one of my favorite westerns, particularly in that very rich decade of the 50s, and I like Ben-Hur a fair bit - probably the second best Biblical epic of the period after The Egyptian, directed by guess who, Michael Curtiz. The Children's Hour is pretty good though of course compromised by not being able to really be at all explicit about it's subject; and I have Jezebel and The Heiress fairly highly rated but don't really remember either much anymore. Roman Holiday is one I've been meaning to re-watch before long. I've seen several more but either they're not that great, or I've largely forgotten them.
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#3

Post by zuma »

The Collector (1965) is excellent
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#4

Post by RolandKirkSunglasses »

Such is his output I've seen 9 of his films without trying to explore more of his work. He was known as a perfectionist demanding multiple takes from actors until they got it right, with all those Oscar wins for his movies he must've done something right. I'd say "Dodsworth" is one of his best films, "Wuthering Heights" one of the better adaptations of Emily Bronte's novel. I love the opening of "The Letter" even if the rest of the film can't match it.

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#5

Post by blocho »

I don't know a ton about Wyler, but I feel like his reputation is as one of the premier "A" picture directors of the Hollywood golden age. His pictures are known for technical perfection and he was credited with getting great performances out of actors.
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#6

Post by St. Gloede »

William Wyler was (arguably) the key studio director of Golden Age Hollywood, and the holder of the world record of most Academy Award Nominations (12!), and tied with Capra for second place - both with 3 wins (John Ford won 4 times). As Blocho mentioned above, his craft was impeccable - undoubtedly one of the most skilled - I cannot recommend The Letter enough - and he was able to get absolutely incredible performances out of his actors.
He has the distinction of having directed more actors to Oscar-nominated performances than any other director in history: thirty-six. Out of these nominees, fourteen went on to win Oscars, also a record.
Wyler, like all the studio directors, worked in most genres, and he did some comedies that can easily rival Hawks back in the 30s, but, unlike most of his contemporaries, he made his name primarily in dramas rather than westerns, comedies and epics. I know that might be odd to think of today given the popularity of Ben-Hur, but that is an extreme outlier.

I think what really spoke to me when I started watching a certain set of Wyler's films were just how darkly elegant so many of them were - they did not just have the craft but that extra punch or dark underbelly many of the other films from the era lacked. I'm thinking in particular if The Little Foxes - and of course The Letter, but also Jezebel - and The Heiress - which I know you did not quite like, but has such extremely bleak emotions and disturbed over and undertones. Seeing it, the move to something as genuinely horrifying as The Collector makes complete sense.

But then he also made the films everybody loves him for, like Roman Holiday - and the kind of happier, cheerier films can also be found throughout his career, including some great ones, like Friendly Persuadion. I think he is actually able, a bit like Capra, to conquer and refine what could have been melodrama or soap opera - but I know not everyone feels the same way. Yes, Mrs. Minver, which I love, have a lot of scenes aimed directly at cheap emotional reactions, but he plays it in such a way that it feels more deserved - or at least not as overly in your face/cheap as with others. Id really need to see the films again to assess exactly why he has this effect on me, but I think it is a combination of his technical brilliance that elevates a story, with believable performances, the right atmosphere/tone and just enough golden age magic or alternatively sinister humour (in some ceses only) to pull it off.

What I can say is that the films he made with Davis feels nothing like the ones you have seen. Tone, atmosphere, experience, acting style, almost everything is different - and they are some of her very best performances.
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#7

Post by tobias »

Thanks for the responses. It's interesting to see the relative variety of films that pop up here. I agree that this opening scene of The Letter is rather fantastic and The Collector is one I forget is by Wyler though that's admittedly one that has always intruiged me. I likewise remember that I was quite shocked when I learned that Friendly Persuasion had won the Palme D'or which I passed up on watching one time when it was on TV. It's also nice to see Dodsworth positively mentioned that was one I considered looking into sometime.

I sort of get what you're saying about the darkness Gloede - but at least in The Heiress it seemed to me like it was only played for Drama, there wasn't really anything behind it and the film didn't really hone in on it either. It had me seriously longing for some Fullerisms. I also find that other contemporaries like say Mervyn LeRoy (who I take was also a big deal in the studio system) play the darkness and the cynicism much better. It feels more like there's a world outside, a rug to be pulled underneath.

But it's still nice to hear your encouraging words about the films. I've always been curious about Mrs. Miniver, not because I necesarilly expect to like it but because it's this big war propaganda epic made during the war. Most of the time my problem is actually that I don't find him cheap enough. He feels like he stands above things and conclusively his films to me seem like they lack attitude. So I'm kinda curious if I'll feel different about the others. I'll certainly keep your recommendations in mind.
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#8

Post by St. Gloede »

tobias wrote: January 30th, 2021, 10:49 pm Thanks for the responses. It's interesting to see the relative variety of films that pop up here. I agree that this opening scene of The Letter is rather fantastic and The Collector is one I forget is by Wyler though that's admittedly one that has always intruiged me. I likewise remember that I was quite shocked when I learned that Friendly Persuasion had won the Palme D'or which I passed up on watching one time when it was on TV. It's also nice to see Dodsworth positively mentioned that was one I considered looking into sometime.

I sort of get what you're saying about the darkness Gloede - but at least in The Heiress it seemed to me like it was only played for Drama, there wasn't really anything behind it and the film didn't really hone in on it either. It had me seriously longing for some Fullerisms. I also find that other contemporaries like say Mervyn LeRoy (who I take was also a big deal in the studio system) play the darkness and the cynicism much better. It feels more like there's a world outside, a rug to be pulled underneath.

But it's still nice to hear your encouraging words about the films. I've always been curious about Mrs. Miniver, not because I necesarilly expect to like it but because it's this big war propaganda epic made during the war. Most of the time my problem is actually that I don't find him cheap enough. He feels like he stands above things and conclusively his films to me seem like they lack attitude. So I'm kinda curious if I'll feel different about the others. I'll certainly keep your recommendations in mind.
It has been a long time since I saw The Heiress - my main memory is experiencing mixed emotions regarding Montgomery Cliff's extremely heavy-handed performances, but just how unnerving and larger than life it felt - almost a little like Bunuel's restrained Mexican films - but in terms of playing it for drama: of course. What else could be lying underneath? This is not so much a Wyler "issue" as a Hollywood/Golden age Hollywood issue. They told stories, and if you enjoy narrative cinema of this kind they did it well - but that is what they did. You can find exceptions, and Fuller is a good one.

The way you categorize Wyler is fairly spot-on. I'm not sure if it is a weakness, I rather find it a strength - it is what often (but not always) saves him from appearing overtly sentimental or melodramatic - even when the material so clearly is. I LOVE your characterisation that you don't find him cheap enough. That's another great spot (The Collector gets grittier and I think you'll like it) - and part of what he became known for. There is an element of overt class to his film, everything is refined, told to "perfection" within the cinematic rules and conventions of the time.

Interesting comment on LeRoy - I'm not sure which films you are thinking about there - maybe Chain Gang? When I say that Wyler played with darkness, it is more in taking characters with self-obsessed and nasty trairs and having a bit of fun with it - rather than anything with more relevance to society. That did change later in his career.

The Children's Hour and The Liberation of L.B. Jones dive into homophobia and racism in a very stark way - but they are tail-end films. I suppose The Best Years of Our Lives did catch the zeitgeist of post-WW2 as well - but he really was a studio craftman.
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#9

Post by tobias »

St. Gloede wrote: January 31st, 2021, 12:23 am It has been a long time since I saw The Heiress - my main memory is experiencing mixed emotions regarding Montgomery Cliff's extremely heavy-handed performances, but just how unnerving and larger than life it felt - almost a little like Bunuel's restrained Mexican films - but in terms of playing it for drama: of course. What else could be lying underneath? This is not so much a Wyler "issue" as a Hollywood/Golden age Hollywood issue. They told stories, and if you enjoy narrative cinema of this kind they did it well - but that is what they did. You can find exceptions, and Fuller is a good one.

The way you categorize Wyler is fairly spot-on. I'm not sure if it is a weakness, I rather find it a strength - it is what often (but not always) saves him from appearing overtly sentimental or melodramatic - even when the material so clearly is. I LOVE your characterisation that you don't find him cheap enough. That's another great spot (The Collector gets grittier and I think you'll like it) - and part of what he became known for. There is an element of overt class to his film, everything is refined, told to "perfection" within the cinematic rules and conventions of the time.

Interesting comment on LeRoy - I'm not sure which films you are thinking about there - maybe Chain Gang? When I say that Wyler played with darkness, it is more in taking characters with self-obsessed and nasty trairs and having a bit of fun with it - rather than anything with more relevance to society. That did change later in his career.

The Children's Hour and The Liberation of L.B. Jones dive into homophobia and racism in a very stark way - but they are tail-end films. I suppose The Best Years of Our Lives did catch the zeitgeist of post-WW2 as well - but he really was a studio craftman.
Yes, I was thinking about Chaingang in part with LeRoy but I've also just seen Gold Diggers of 1933 and for such a flashy Hollywood musical it features some intensely dark humor. The film starts (after the prolouge musical section) with 3 girls not getting out of bed because they are starving. Later on after they take the aristocrat brother for a ride he falls for a woman who he thinks is a parasitic slut and then he still wants to prohibit his brother from marrying a girl who he actually thinks is decent. There's not even the implication that any of these chracters has any shame regardless of how rich or poor they are. But then again it was made before the Hayes-Code. I also think that Random Harverst (probably my favourite LeRoy) has some surprisingly bleak and austere scenes and a feeling of genuine devastation and owerwhelming uncertainty. Even Quo Vadis feels surprisingly grounded. I actually like it better than Ben-Hur.

I pressume you're right that it's a Golden Age issue. Perhaps I've been spoiled by selectively seeing the films that do it differently like Sternberg, Tourneur, Lubitsch, Ray, Fuller, Huston, Kubrick, Welles, Ulmer, Kazan, Vidor, Sirk, etc. Admittedly for quite a few of them it gets more epxressed in the later 50's but it definitely feels like there is more at play. Even with a director like Curtiz I feel like his films are often strongly informed by his politics (which I strongly disagree with). I think what I don't like about directors like Ford or Wyler is their seeming impartiality because I don't think impartiality exists. By not saying one thing you end up saying another in a round-about fashion. Oh and then I also just like when a film slaps me in the face from time to time (like Fuller in the opening of Naked Kiss lol). I like films with some attitude is what I'm trying to say I guess.

Interestingly Ford kind of deconstructed a lot of his legacy late in his career with films like Liberty Vallance or 7 Women. So I'm curious to see if there's some of that in Wyler's late films as well.
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