Wyler and Wilder Times

Article excerpt

Wylerand Wilder Times Jan Herman. A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood's Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler. New York: Putnam's 1996.

Kevin Lally. Wilder Times: The Life of Billy Wilder. New York: Holt, 1996.

Once, when Billy Wilder was traveling abroad, he encountered a Russian array officer who warmly congratulated him for having directed Mrs. Miniver. The Russian, of course, had confused Wilder with William Wyler, another European Jewish filmmaker, who had immigrated to Hollywood. Each of them was forever being complimented for a film which the other had made; and they finally agreed that they would accept any compliments offered them, even when the film in question was not their own. Now, given the fact that a major critical biography about each director has been published, movie fans will at last be able to tell them apart.

As Jan Herman tells us in A Talent for Trouble, William Wyler was brought to Hollywood in 1920 from his native Alsace-Lorraine by Carl Laemmle, the president of Universal Studios, who was also his mother's cousin. But nepotism had little to do with Wyler's rise in the picture business. After earning his spurs by making several silent films, mostly Westerns, Wyler came in to his own in the sound era by directing important early talkies like Counsellor-at-Law (1933), in which he evoked from John Barrymore the last impressive performance the actor ever gave. Legend has it that Wyler filmed forty takes of one scene because Barrymore could not remember his lines. The director's reputation as "FortyTake Wyler," which was associated with his insistence on reshooting a scene until he was fully satisfied with it, most likely originated on that occasion.

Wyler went on to work in a wide variety of film genres, from comedies to social dramas and detective stories. But his versatility did not preclude his being an auteur, who did in fact leave his personal signature on his films. Some critics have disputed Wyler's status as an auteur, in part because Wyler worked for independent producer Samuel Goldwyn, from 1936 to 1946. One might suspect that a strong-willed producer like Goldwyn would have cramped Wyler's directorial style; but such was not the case. Goldwyn usually granted Wyler considerable freedom in casting, in modifying a screenplay, and in final cut. Moreover, the films which Wyler directed under the Goldwyn banner, including Wuthering Heights (1939) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), are largely responsible for Goldwyn's reputation as a prestige producer.

Yet Wyler was not satisfied with even his best films unless they made a good showing at the box office. As a matter of fact, many of his films were Mg box office, most especially Ben Hw (1959). This film-besides winning a record-breaking eleven Academy Awardswas one of MGM's biggest commercial successes. All of this data and more we learn from Herman's thoughtful biography of Wyler. Although Herman never interviewed Wyler, he did obtain transcripts of several interviews which the director gave before his death in 1981. Consequently, the text of A Talent for Trouble often speaks in Wyler's voice.

Like Wyler, Billy Wilder immigrated to Hollywood as an aspiring filmmaker. But, as we shall shortly see, he was not imported by a relative. …