How much did you know about Hollywood’s famed director?
Did you know that Warner Bros. hired William Wyler in the mid Thirties — at $3,500 per week — specifically to reign in and creatively cope with the studio’s biggest female star, Bette Davis (being directed by our man in the photos above).
Fed up with the roles she was getting, Davis rebelled, jumped her contract and fled Hollywood altogether. Studio boss Jack Warner frantically interceded, took his star to court and won. But contrite, he pledged to cover court her legal costs and, moreover, better pictures.
The first of the Davis-Wyler combinations was 1938’s Jezebel, a steamy pre-Civil War melodrama with Bette playing a forthright Southern belle who weathers one way or another a yellow fever epidemic (we could use her now). Wyler succeeded in drawing a a stunning performance from Davis, controlling her mannerisms letting her powerful talent rip.
Davis dominated the picture and was justly awarded a best actress Oscar for her performance. Although they creatively locked horns often, Davis gave Wyler his due. It was all Wyler, she wrote in her 1962 autobiography. I will always be grateful to him for his toughness and his genius.
She and Wyler collaborated on two other pictures: 1941’s The Little Foxes and 1940’s The Letter. The first one can be skipped but DO NOT MISS the second, a Wyler classic if there ever was one. Now, on to the answers to our William Wyler Quiz:
1) Question: One of Wyler’s pictures was much admired by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Which one? a) The Best Years of Our Lives; b) Mrs. Miniver; c) Jezebel; or d) Wuthering Heights.
Answer: b) No matter that Mrs. Miniver, costarring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon as heads of an English middle class family almost skating through the rigors of the second World War, is hopelessly (and effectively) sentimental. The picture proved to be excellent wartime propaganda. That drew the envious attention of Goebbels
2) Question: Bette Davis was the most famous of the leading ladies that more than occasionally clashed with Wyler. Did she bear a grudge against him after working with him on two picture? a) Yes; b) No.
Answer: As discussed above (b).
3) Question: Wyler was a notorious perfectionist, insisting that actors take many multiple takes of individual scenes. Which one of his stars exploded in frustration with: For God’s sakes, man, what do you want? a) Charlton Heston; b) Humphrey Bogart; c) Laurence Olivier; or d) Walter Huston.
Answer: c) Olivier, during the shooting of 1939’s Wuthering Heights. Wyler’s response was for “please” one more take. It was the 21st.
4) Question: Wyler became know as a “class director”. Which type of picture did he specialize early on at Universal Pictures? a) Cheapo westerns shot in a week; b) Costume dramas; c) Melodramas with weepy female stars; or d) none of the above.
Answer: a) Wyler first worked on Universal’s line of two-reel Mustang westerns made on budgets of $2,000 in less than a week. By Saturday, it was time to cast the next picture.
5) Question: In his first picture with Bogart, Wyler surrounded him with an all-star cast. a) Trued; or b) False.
Answer: A) True. Check out the one-sheet above. Nice company.