He was considered one of the best directors of the Golden Era. He made only top notch, “important” pictures. But how much do you know about the man?
Born to a cultured, prosperous Jewish family in the Alsace region of France in 1902, William Wyler (ne “Willy) was a troublesome early pupil — more than once expelled from schools for bad behavior — before righting himself and being sent off to to higher schooling in Switzerland, his father’s native country, during World War I.
A later stint in Paris trying to get a foothold in the haberdashery business (his father’s profession) proved frustrating and boring. Wyler’s mother fortunately introduced her young son to a visiting cousin — Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Studio — who invited him a job in the company’s New York office at $25 per week. By 1921, Wyler landed with Universal in Hollywood taking on all manner of jobs including office boy to casting director, prop man and sweeper-upper.
One of his most notable tasks was organizing some 2,000 extras for Universal then BIG movie, 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Lon Chaney. By 1925 Wyler directed his first film and never looked back. By 1933 he was earning $1,000 per week at Universal, this during the Great Depression. (He is pictured above with, perhaps, his most successful star, Bette Davis.)
Throughout a long and largely prosperous career, Wyler worked for pretty much all of Hollywood’s major studios right up until the 70-year-old veteran bowed out during pre-production of 1973’s Forty Carats, a romantic comedy produced by Columbia Pictures. Making a picture was just too much goddam much work … It take a helleva lot out of me. I did it for over 40 years, he said. (Wyler died of a heart attack in the summer of 1981, at the age of 79.)
Consider Wyler’s legacy including: The Children’s Hour, These Three, Dodsworth, Dead End, Jezebel (teamed with Davis), Wuthering Heights, The Little Foxes, Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Live, The Heiress, Roman Holiday, Ben Hur — not to mention our favorite with Davis, the incomparable The Letter.
Ok, let’s see how much you know about this superb director. As usual, questions today and answers tomorrow.
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.
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.
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.
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.
5) Question: In his first picture with Bogart, Wyler surrounded him with an all-star cast. a) Trued; or b) False.