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The Greatest Hollywood Director You May Never Have Heard Of

Posted: 07/11/2011 5:37 pm

To feed my all-consuming, ongoing obsession with great movies, I asked myself the following question: which Hollywood director actually made the most great movies?

It's astonishing to me that my answer will likely have lots of people scratching their heads.

In the Alsace area of Germany, on the first of this month early in the last century, future director William Wyler was born.

That name may sound familiar to some of us, but today it's less recognized than (certainly) John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, and perhaps even Howard Hawks and George Cukor. Both Wyler's quiet, unobtrusive style and our own inability to associate him with any single film genre or style likely contribute.

Still, when you review Wyler's filmography, it's evident he made just as many great movies as any of the above titans; in fact, he may have made more.

Notably, Wyler holds the record for directing the most actors in roles that won them Oscars -- 31 of them if you can believe it. And he also holds the record for most number of Academy Award nominations for a director, with a whopping twelve!

"Willi" (as he was universally known) first made it to Hollywood in the twenties, thanks to an important family connection: he was a cousin of Carl Laemmle, then-head of Universal Pictures. But young Wyler proved his own mettle quickly, working on silent classics like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and the original Ben-Hur(1925), the remake of which he'd direct over thirty years later.

In the mid-twenties, he was also given the chance to direct, mostly "B" westerns. This seemingly routine work proved an ideal training ground, as steadily, he learned, absorbed, and shaped his own approach to filmmaking.

What follows is a sampling of his best movies covering three full decades. (Note: more Wyler titles can also be found on our website).

The Good Fairy
(1935)- Hand-picked from an orphanage to become an usherette at a big Budapest theater, naïve lass Luisa (Margaret Sullavan) has one desire: to become a vehicle of good fortune. So when randy old tycoon Konrad (Frank Morgan) professes a willingness to do anything for a date with her, she picks a random name from the phone book and asks the rich cad to outfit her new "husband" with anything he might need. The only problem is, impoverished attorney Max Sporum (Herbert Marshall) believes it was his virtue that earned him a leg up. Penned by the peerless Preston Sturges (Sullivan's Travels), Wyler's Good Fairy is the kind of brassy, urbane, romantic lark that Ernst Lubitsch was perfecting in the early '30s. Sporting an irresistible good-girl charm, Sullavan never shone brighter than here, cleverly fending off Morgan's priggish, overheated Konrad and gently falling for Marshall's gallant, bewhiskered barrister. (Even Wyler was smitten -- he married his "Fairy" as soon as the shoot ended!) Alan Hale, Reginald Owen, Eric Blore, and Cesar Romero target the funny bone in hilarious side roles, chewing up Sturges's saucy, snappy dialogue. And so will you.

Dodsworth (1936)- Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston), a business tycoon, decides to retire and take an extended trip to Europe with wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton). Unfortunately, Sam's financial success has only increased Fran's latent vanity and social-climbing tendencies. No longer distracted by his work, Sam sees his wife's weaknesses for the first time, as she openly flirts and cavorts with European aristocracy (including an oily Paul Lukas, and young David Niven in a breakthrough role). Sam must confront the crisis in his marriage, then find a way to regain some happiness for himself. Wyler and screenwriter Sydney Howard here craft an adult, understated, perceptive romantic drama, and the film is beautifully played. Wyler wisely minimizes the soapiness inherent in the premise, leaving an honest and surprisingly moving film about love lost and re-discovered. The Oscar-nominated Huston is note-perfect, as is Chatterton and a radiant Mary Astor as the woman who enters Sam's life at just the right moment.

Jezebel (1938)- Julie Marsden (Bette Davis) is a willful New Orleans belle engaged to banker Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda) in the antebellum South. Needy and manipulative, soon enough Julie manages to drive Pres away. He later returns with a wife, which foils Julie's plans for a reconciliation. After finding new ways to cause mischief among the men folk, Julie seizes one final chance to redeem herself. "Jezebel" was often considered Davis's consolation prize for not landing the part of Scarlett O'Hara. Inevitably compared to "GWTW", this romantic drama stands on its own, thanks to Wyler's expert hand and his camera's loving attention to Warners' biggest female star. Davis, who nabbed her second Best Actress Oscar for this, is on fire and looks glorious, while Fonda is suitably restrained as Pres. Don't miss that famous scene at the ball.

I cannot overlook one of the director's finest works, 1939's Wuthering Heights, just because -- incomprehensibly -- it is currently unavailable on DVD. Wyler's adaptation of Emily Bronte's novel remains one our great tear-jerkers, and made a star (in America) out of Laurence Olivier, whose then wife, Vivien Leigh, was simultaneously shooting a little feature called Gone With The Wind. David Niven, who had third billing behind Olivier and the stunning Merle Oberon (as Cathy), relates in his memoir, The Moon's a Balloon, why the director was known as "Once More Wyler": He would habitually insist on endless re-takes, often while reading a newspaper, which drove actors mad. On Heights, Olivier finally complained he'd tried a certain scene a hundred different ways, and needed more direction on how to play it. From behind the paper came the quiet but steady reply: "Just do it... better."

The Little Foxes (1941)- Married to wealthy husband Horace (the gentlemanly, long-suffering Herbert Marshall), Regina Giddens (Davis again) and her leech-like brothers steal from him to invest in a cotton mill while the poor man recuperates from heart problems. When Horace returns and discovers the theft, Regina must cover her tracks, and inevitably becomes the victim of her own consuming greed. Adapted from Lillian Hellman's Broadway smash (which starred Tallulah Bankhead), this third and final collaboration between Wyler and Davis, again playing a viper in petticoats, is a caustic, chilling mood piece set in the turn-of-the-century South. Davis was never so wicked, playing Regina to the icy hilt. A fabulous cast and authentic 1900s detail bring Hellman's loathsome characters to vivid life. (Is this what they mean by Southern hospitality?)

Mrs. Miniver (1942)- As war buffets Britain, the upper-middle-class Miniver family, headed by lovely Kay (Greer Garson) and husband Clem (Walter Pidgeon), strive to maintain a normal life, even planning for a local flower competition. Meanwhile, their eldest son, Vin (Richard Ney), romances village beauty Carol (Teresa Wright), despite less-than-ideal circumstances. Even though the air war takes a toll on their village and home, nothing dampens the spirit of this dignified family. Distinguished by superb acting from the leads and Wright (who won an Oscar), Wyler's glossy, multiple-Oscar-winning homage to the nobility and fortitude of average Britons still feels like a robust, if occasionally over-sentimental, rallying cry. Point is, the film was right for the times. In fact, it was such an exemplary morale booster that Churchill declared it worth six armored divisions. Though his point is now moot, "Miniver" does lavish us with glorious set pieces, like Garson's kitchen confrontation with a downed German paratrooper, and Henry Wilcoxon's patriotic speech from a church pulpit, all of it is gorgeously photographed by another Oscar winner, Joseph Ruttenberg. When it comes to grace under fire, there's nothing like Mrs. Miniver.

The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)- The great Sam Goldwyn (to whom Wyler had been under contract for ten years) produced this first, most ambitious movie about the plight of returning servicemen at the end of the Second War. The film follows the readjustments to civilian life faced by three veterans: Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), an officer coming back to a dead-end job, Al Stephenson (Fredric March), an older soldier returning to family and a stable career, and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a sailor who lost both his hands in combat. Each character is subtly drawn under Wyler's expert hand, evoking the complex challenges that confront veterans of all ranks. Even with its requisite dose of romance, the film never strays far from its central premise that no matter what you return to in a time of peace, war changes you forever. Best Years won Oscars for Picture, Actor (March) and Supporting Actor (Russell, an amputee veteran).

The Heiress (1949)- Socially awkward, plain-looking heiress Catherine Sloper (Olivia De Havilland) wants to marry dashing, penniless suitor Morris Townshend (Montgomery Clift), but her tyrannical widower father (Ralph Richardson), smells a gold-digging rat, and threatens to cut off Catherine's inheritance if she elopes. Is Dr. Sloper ruining his daughter's only chance for happiness, or protecting her from a scheming, disingenuous lover? Widely hailed as a masterpiece, and boasting an Oscar-winning performance from De Havilland, Wyler's powerful and haunting drama was adapted from Henry James's novel, "Washington Square." Catherine's transformation from dutiful and docile daughter into a grown-up who thinks for herself is one of the film's sublime rewards. Richardson shines, too, as an overbearing man who nevertheless feels conflicted about blocking Catherine's right to decide her own future. With a splendid score by Aaron Copland, majestic costumes by Edith Head, and Wyler's mastery of psychological tension, The Heiress endures as a Hollywood treasure.

Detective Story (1951)- Over an eventful day in New York's 21st Precinct, Detective James McLeod (Kirk Douglas), a man of unwavering principle, works over various thugs and thieves with the swaggering confidence of a veteran cop. But his attempts to put away a shady doctor (George Macready) lead him to discover a corrosively painful truth about his wife, Mary (Eleanor Parker). Before Homicide or Hill Street Blues came this gritty, hard-hitting cop drama based on Sidney Kingsley's play. Slightly stage-bound but still honed to tense perfection by Wyler, the film is a showcase for fine, colorful ensemble acting by William Bendix (as the no-nonsense lieutenant), a young Lee Grant (reprising her stage role as a mousy shoplifter), Bert Freed (as McLeod's sensitive partner), and a pre-"Dr. No" Joseph Wiseman (as a hilariously "innocent" Italian burglar). But it's Douglas's fierce, tragic performance as a modern lawman who still sees the world in black and white terms that provides the gut-twisting dramatic ironies. Absorbing and devastating, this "Story" gets under your skin and stays there.

Roman Holiday
(1953)- In her first prominent film role, Audrey Hepburn plays young Princess Anne, who is visiting Rome, scheduled to the hilt, and tired of being cooped up. So she resolves to sneak off and take an anonymous stroll around the streets of Rome. Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) is the reporter who takes her in for the world's biggest scoop, and inevitably falls for her. Eddie Albert is his photographer friend, who shares Peck's explosive secret. Off-screen, Peck was so convinced Hepburn would win an Oscar that he insisted she share top billing with him, a rare gesture of professional generosity. Of course, the film indeed made Hepburn an overnight star and netted her that Oscar. Not only could she act, but the camera positively loved her. Peck and Albert are in top form, and Wyler's on-location shooting is flavorful and evocative. This "Holiday" is definitely worth taking -- and repeating.

Ben-Hur (1959)- In the first century A.D., as Jesus roams Palestine spreading radical new teachings, Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and his family live comfortably in Judea. But when Ben-Hur refuses to assist childhood friend Massala (Stephen Boyd), now an ambitious Roman politician, in rounding up imperial dissidents, Massala frames him for murder. Enslaved on a galley ship, Ben-Hur embarks on a lifelong odyssey of vengeance against his malefactor. One of MGM's finest widescreen spectacles, involving thousands of extras, over 300 sets (including a life-size replica of a Roman hippodrome) and a cadre of stunt coordinators, this massive production nearly bankrupted its studio. But the payoff was equally grand: Heston's Oscar-winning performance and a hefty box-office gross validated the costs of operating on a vast canvas. This is epic filmmaking at its finest, featuring a mesmerizing escape at sea and the most thrilling, authentic chariot race ever seen on film -- at 20 minutes, no less! Majestic in scale, yet sensitive in portraying a vengeful man touched by his encounters with Christ, Ben-Hur is monumental entertainment, directed with faultless taste.

Wyler continued to work throughout the sixties, then retired to travel with second wife Margaret. He died as quietly as he had lived, in 1981.

But what a rich and plentiful store of movie gems he left us.

To find the best films on DVD, visit www.bestmoviesbyfarr.com

To see John's videos for WNET-Channel 13, go to www.reel13.org

 

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