Review of Gabriel Miller's "William Wyler"

tags: books, reviews, Hollywood, William Wyler

Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of The Politics of Baseball: Essays on the Pastime and Power at Home and Abroad.

William Wyler: The Life and Films of Hollywood's Most Celebrated Director
by Gabriel Miller
The University Press of Kentucky, 2013

It is surprising that Hollywood filmmaker William Wyler is not better known today. In a career that stretched from the 1920s to 1970, Wyler directed such critically acclaimed and commercially successful films as Jezebel (1939), The Little Foxes (1941), Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Detective Story (1951), Friendly Persuasion (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), and Funny Girl (1968). Wyler won three Academy Awards for Best Director with twelve nominations, while his actors earned thirteen Oscars. Yet, Wyler’s name is not nearly as recognizable today as Alfred Hitchcock, “the master of suspense,” or John Ford, who directed such Westerns as The Searchers (1956). Gabriel Miller, professor of English at Rutgers University and the author of several books on American cinema, argues that Wyler’s lack of recognition is due to the eclectic nature of his film subjects which ranged from Westerns to historical epics to filmed versions of Broadway plays and musicals. Thus, Miller laments that film critics have failed to consider Wyler as an auteur as his body of work failed to revisit or expand upon a set of abiding themes.

In his examination of Wyler’s life and films, Millers begs to differ with these critics and presents a strong case for Wyler as one of Hollywood’s greatest auteurs. While Orson Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland are often credited with introducing the concept of deep focus, in which both the foreground and background are in clear focus, with Citizen Kane (1941), Miller argues that the cinematic technique was already prominently displayed in the cinema of Wyler, who carefully positioned his actors “to indicate the complexity of their emotional and psychological relationships” (6). In exploring repressed emotions, Wyler often employed narrow, cramped interior spaces and used staircases to demonstrate the power or authoritative position of characters. In addition, the director preferred properties such as popular plays, which guaranteed an audience and a dose of melodrama so that he could introduce his manipulation of space. Realism and story construction allowed Wyler to get excellent performances from his actors. Nevertheless, Miller observes that Wyler’s demands for perfection and multiple takes proved taxing for many stars. Nevertheless, Bette Davis proclaimed that the final product was well worth the stress of working with Wyler. Miller also finds a thematic consistency in the diverse film projects pursued by Wyler. Arguing that Wyler was a liberal with a strong interest in politics and social issues, Miller concludes, “From the early 1930s, Wyler was either planning or directing films that tackled such issues as capitalism, class struggle, war and pacifism, and repressive politics, notably the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)” (13).

Drawing upon a close reading of the film texts as well as the papers of Wyler located at the Young Research Library, UCLA, and the Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Pictures Art and Sciences in Los Angeles, Miller focuses upon the films of Wyler and his career as a director; writing in a clear fashion accessible to the general reader. This is no “kiss and tell” Hollywood biography, for such topics as Wyler’s affair with leading lady Bette Davis are only mentioned in passing. Miller consistently maintains his concentration on documenting his case for Wyler as a Hollywood auteur.

Of Jewish ancestry, Wyler was born July 1, 1902 in the disputed territory of Alsace-Lorraine on the border between France and Germany. After World War I, he migrated from Europe to California, where Wyler went to work for his uncle Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Studios. The young immigrant was soon directing his own films. Miller devotes little space to Wyler’s silent features, many of which were Westerns, with Universal, beginning his detailed analysis with Hell’s Heroes (1930), a picture which was later remade by John Ford as Three Godfathers (1946).

In 1935, Wyler left Universal to begin a lucrative relationship with producer Samuel Goldwyn. Their first project was a film adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour, which Wyler called These Three (1936). As the Hollywood production code would not allow treatment of lesbianism as a subject, Wyler made the larger topic of intolerance the focus of the film. Wyler also collaborated with Hellman in the adaptation of her play The Little Foxes, which suggested the greed and corruption brought about by unbridled capitalism. Miller notes that Hellman and Wyler were life-long friends opposed to the post-World War II Red Scare and the Hollywood blacklist, but he fails to elaborate upon whether the association with Hellman, who was labeled a Stalinist by her critics, brought political repercussions for Wyler.

Films such as Come and Get It (1936) and Dead End (1937) also contained criticism of American capitalism, but Wyler was an enthusiastic supporter of the World War II struggle against international fascism. Mrs. Miniver, which earned a Best Picture Oscar in addition to Academy Awards for Wyler and star Greer Garson, was acknowledged as a valuable piece of propaganda for the Allied war effort. Wyler also volunteered to join the Army Air Corps, and his Memphis Belle (1944) was one of the most acclaimed war documentaries. Following the war, Wyler recognized that the transition to peace would be difficult for most veterans, and he directed The Best Years of Our Lives—a film which most critics perceive as his masterpiece. The financially and critically successful Best Years of Our Lives, however, proved to be the end of the Wyler-Goldwyn collaboration as the director sued Goldwyn for withholding profit shares from the film.

After parting with Goldwyn, Wyler signed a deal with Paramount, but his first film for the studio seemed a strange choice. The Heiress (1949) was a successful play set in the 1890s and based upon the Henry James novel Washington Square, but Miller argues that the film was a worthy successor to The Best Years of Our Lives as “despite the differing eras and social strata portrayed, both films explore the dehumanizing effects of money on human relations” (277). In fact, Miller asserts that Wyler was quite critical of the post-World War II political environment, and this opinion was quite evident in what the author terms Wyler’s anti-HUAC films such as Detective Story, Carrie (1952), and The Desperate Hours (1955). One of the strengths of Miller’s analysis is that he often gives more detailed attention to Wyler’s less successful films such as the adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s Carrie. Wyler concluded that Carrie was a flop because it showed America in a shameful light during the McCarthy era. Wyler helped form the Committee for the First Amendment to oppose HUAC’s investigation into the film industry, but Miller observes that, similar to many Hollywood liberals, he was somewhat turned off by the vehement rhetoric of the Hollywood Ten. While Wyler was an opponent of the blacklist, Miller is somewhat critical of the director for not fighting harder for a writing credit on Friendly Persuasion for the blacklisted Michael Wilson.

In 1955, Wyler left Paramount for Allied Artists, and Miller describes Friendly Persuasion, The Big Country (1958), and Ben-Hur as a pacifist trilogy in which the director expresses that “pacifism is antithetical to human nature, or, at least, that it violates masculine codes of conduct” (362). In Ben-Hur, Miller argues that Messala’s (Stephen Boyd) efforts to recruit Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) as an informer on Jewish resistance compares America’s HUAC hearings to the behavior of the Roman Empire. But after lusting for revenge in most of the film, Judah does experience a spiritual journey which concludes the film with a theme of love and redemption.

Wyler’s final film projects, however, revealed a growing darkness of his vision. How to Steal a Million (1966) was a light caper comedy, but in Funny Girl, Franny Brice (Barbra Streisand) gains success at the price of love. The Collector (1965), based upon a John Fowles novel, is a grim tale of obsession, while in his final film, The Liberation of L. B. Jones (1970), the liberal Wyler finally turns his focus upon racism. The story is set in the contemporary South and provides little hope for racial reconciliation as the protagonist black doctor is murdered by a white policeman, while the white establishment and liberals do nothing to bring the killer to justice. Wyler later claimed that he wanted audiences to experience a sense of guilt over the nation’s racial situation, but the film bombed at the box office. Failing health and the death of his brother, nevertheless, made The Liberation of L. B. Jones Wyler’s final film, and the director died in 1981. In this detailed survey of Wyler’s work, Miller does a credible job of supporting his argument that Wyler “most certainly belongs in the company of the most accomplished and distinguished of American directors” (395).

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