Wyler’s films have won twice as many Oscars as those of his nearest rival and he himself received three Oscars but few people would name him if they were asked to describe Hollywood’s greatest directors. Famous for demanding endless takes, his perfectionism produced beautiful films like Mrs. Miniver, Roman Holiday and Ben Hur. His reluctance to repeat himself drove him to make as wide a range of films as possible, which makes it hard to classify him.
William Wyler was born to a Jewish family on July 1, 1902, in Mulhouse, part of the province Alsace-Lorraine in Germany. As a child, he watched his town repeatedly change hands between Germany and France during the first month of the war, but it remained German for the rest of World War I. Although the front was only a few miles away, he was young enough to find the war exciting, not terrifying. When Alsace-Lorraine was returned to France after the war, his parents realized that a German accent would prove a liability, so Wyler was sent to study in Lausanne, in French-speaking Switzerland. However, his youthful exuberance led to clashes with the headmaster and he was kicked out after ten months. Back in Mulhouse, he spent the winter of 1920 working in his father’s haberdashery shop. Afterwards, he was apprenticed to a haberdashery in Paris, but Wyler hated the drudgery and eventually quit.
In desperation his mother introduced him to her cousin Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal Pictures, who offered him a job in America with the price of his transatlantic fare deducted from his salary. The job proved to be gofer with a salary that enabled him to live slightly above poverty level in New York, until he began translating Universal publicity releases into French for publication in France. A press pass to the local movie theaters enabled him to improve his English and immerse himself in movies.
Wyler became fascinated with Hollywood and persuaded Uncle Carl to send him west, where he became an assistant to the assistant directors, while his salary was once again deducted to pay for the train fare. Driven by a youthful craving for excitement, he bought a motorcycle instead of focusing on his work and trying to move up, but his habit of gambling away his paycheck during craps games meant that he could not pay his huge pile of speeding tickets, so he was sentenced to three days at a prison farm. While the experience did not teach him how to save money, he did start to take his career more seriously.
Working as a second assistant director on Universal’s more lavish productions made him want to become a director and he graduated to first assistant director on two-reel Westerns in early 1925. Arthur Rossen’s sudden departure to Paramount gave him the opportunity to finish directing a two-reeler, and he became a full director at age twenty-three, calling himself William instead of Willy to sound older. While it sounds impressive, almost anyone with a bit of drive could get a job directing two-reelers. In fact, the cameraman was paid more. On the plus side, he started to get a lot more dates. He made six two-reelers in six months, which was rigorous but invaluable training. Unfortunately, he lost his job as part of a massive layoff in September when the Universal management decided to cut costs.
However, Wyler quickly found work when every available assistant director in Hollywood was called in to control the crowd scenes during the filming of MGM’s Ben-Hur (1925). When the Western shooting season started again in January, he was rehired and given a five-reeler Blue Streak to direct, which was quite a big step since their budgets were ten times larger than the two-reeler Mustangs he had usually directed. He alternated between five-reelers and two reelers, so he had directed a total of twenty-one Mustangs and seven Blue Streak Westerns by 1927. His well-crafted five-reelers won praise from critics and studio executives but he was afraid of becoming typecast as a director of Westerns. Wyler signed a five-year-long contract as a director in May 1927 and four months later he started filming his first non-Western.
This proved to be excellent timing because when the Jazz Singer (1927) changed everything, he was one of the few directors who was not intimidated by sound. Refusing to accept the tyranny of dialogue coaches imported from New York stages, he instructed his actors to speak naturally. That same year, he became an American citizen, eight years after his arrival in America. The bleak, uncompromising Hell’s Heroes (1930) showed that Wyler had abandoned the traditional desire to ensure that everything looked perfect on the screen in favor of a more realistic perspective.
Hell’s Heroes was a hit, and after making one more movie, he took his savings and blew it all on three months of high living in Europe, where he had a brief but passionate affair with his cousin, coming back only when he was broke. Much of this time was spent in Berlin, which was both exhilarating and sobering, but once he was back in the United States he was surprised by the lack of interest in his warnings about the rise of Fascism.
Wyler returned to Universal, where he received an even better contract in 1931 despite the fall in ticket sales caused by the Depression. Although his contract was regularly renewed every six months, production executives were repeatedly irritated that his preference for many takes caused the films to fall behind schedule. Wyler continued to make decent movies, but none of the projects stretched his talent and his record remained average. Despite the success of Universal’s horror films, the studio was unable to compete with its competitors’ big budget films. Frustrated by the poor quality of scripts and repeated clashes with Carl Laemmle, Jr., Wyler left Universal in January 1933 but was back a month later after he had failed to find work with any of the other studios.
As his career progressed, Wyler enjoyed pursuing women but he had little desire for a playboy reputation, so his conquests were kept private. However, he married movie star Margaret Sullavan in 1934 while directing her in The Good Fairy, and living in the shadow of her fame made him aware that his career was moving slowly. Despite his $1,000-a-week salary, he was tired of not getting good projects at Universal. Aware that Universal was falling apart in a succession battle, he persuaded the head office to tear up his contract. He and his wife then honeymooned in Europe. When they returned to the US, he was almost broke because he had insisted on paying for the entire honeymoon and they were fighting, partly due to the great difference in salary between them but mainly because of incompatible personalities. They would eventually divorce on March 13, 1936 after a stormy, tempestuous marriage.
After one free-lance film for Jesse Lansky, he accepted a three-year-long contract with Sam Goldwyn, who gave him large budgets and the time needed to produce quality films. Working for Goldwyn proved liberating, and Wyler commenced an extremely fruitful partnership with cinematographer Gregg Toland. His career began to take off as he filmed hits such as These Three (1936) and Dodsworth (1936). Goldwyn hit his peak during 1936-1941, and Wyler was his top director during that time. However, Goldwyn did not hesitate to suspend Wyler whenever he refused to direct a film, so Wyler’s three-year-long contract took almost five years to complete. Not that Wyler appeared to mind, viewing the suspensions as unplanned vacations.
When he was loaned out to Warner Bros in 1934 to direct Jezebel, he had an affair with the then-married Bette Davis, although the affair did not survive the filming, partially because her focus on her career reminded him too much of his ex-wife.
Wyler married twenty-four-year-old starlet Margeret Taillichet in 1938, even though they had only known each other for five weeks, but they were still together when he died. Basically, he married a nice, inexperienced, pretty girl who would not be a threat. He even bought out her contract without telling her, although she soon became bored with acting anyway. A very non-religious Jew, he and his gentile wife agreed to take the children to the respective church and temple as an introduction, and then let them decide for themselves. He also developed an intensely intimate friendship with his frequent screenwriting collaborator, Lillian Hellman.
His career was thriving. In June 1939, he signed a two-year-long contract with Goldwyn that paid him $150,000 a year and gave him 10% of net profits. He continued to produce hits, including The Westerner (1940) and The Little Foxes (1941).
Mrs. Miniver (1942) was one of the many films that dealt with WWII while the United States was still playing the role of spectator. Although Hollywood studios were trying to produce films that offended neither side, Wyler still managed to make a film that was unabashed propaganda. Growing up in Europe, Wyler was much more affected by the fall of France, so he wanted to help swing public opinion to support Britain. Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, had to be forced to allow Germans to be shown in an unfavorable light, until Pearl Harbor, at which point Wyler was able to do what he wanted. The film was a huge financial success, beaten only by Gone With the Wind as the most successful film of the decade, and when it swept the Oscars Wyler received his first Oscar for best director. In fact, President Franklin Roosevelt was so impressed by the movie that he had the vicar’s sermon from the final scene translated into several languages and dropped as leaflets over German-occupied territory.
As soon as the film was completed Wyler enlisted even though he was thirty-nine-years-old and Talli was pregnant with their second child, either of which would have won him an exemption from the draft. He joined Frank Capra’s film unit because the Army Signal Corps refused to accept any directors and chose The Negro Soldier as his first project, so he and a black writer went to Alabama to see the Tuskagee Airmen. When he learned that the black writer could not stay in the same hotel room or railway car, he concluded that it was ridiculous to make a documentary that encouraged blacks to fight in the war while ignoring rampant racism in the South and dropped the project.
Instead, Wyler decided to make a documentary on the Memphis Belle but no one could go on a bomber unless he could qualify as an emergency gunner, so Wyler had to learn how to take apart a machine gun and study aircraft recognition. General Spaatz, head of the 8th Air Force, arranged for him to given the rank of major, and he went on raids where a fifth of the bombers were shot down. His crew of cameramen was parceled out to other planes, and when one of them was shot down on a bombing raid over France, Wyler had the painful burden of writing his family. When flying on the Memphis Belle, Wyler was frustrated that he kept missing good shots of the flak even though he was standing on the open catwalk of the bomb bay, but Captain Morgan understandably refused his request to get closer to the flak. Actually, Wyler’s last several missions were illegal since he had been ordered not to fly because he was Jewish and the director of Mrs. Miniver, so it was feared that he would be mistreated if captured. He flew a total of five missions which qualified him for the Air Medal.
The documentary was initially supposed to be a twenty-four-minute-long two-reeler about the Memphis Belle but Wyler felt that it would not do the crew justice, especially since they were part of an extremely popular war bonds drive. After he finished editing the forty-one-minute-long Twenty Five Missions, it proved to be a huge hit when it was commercially released. However, Wyler hit a bellhop for calling someone a Goddamn Jew while in uniform, so he did not receive the Distinguished Service Medal that he had seemed likely to get and he was lucky to not be court-martialed.
Wyler then spent several months in Italy following the slow American advance. The popular reception of the Memphis Belle documentary meant that Wyler was welcomed with open arms by generals. When Wyler and John Sturges went to the front to get reaction shots of the damage caused by fighters when he was filming Thunderbolts in Italy, the two of them almost died during an artillery barrage. Instead of returning to the United States to edit the documentary, he followed the Allied advance to Germany and then visited his home town, which had survived the war relatively intact, but he quickly stopped looking for people he knew. He had lost his hearing while standing in the waist of a plane filming background footage of Rome, and he was sent home, fearing that he would never be able to direct again. After a lengthy recuperation, hearing returned only to his left ear, so he directed from then on by plugging himself into the soundman’s microphones.
Filming realism for four years had naturally changed Wyler’s perspective on filmmaking. Furthermore, he had sat with airmen as they watched films on bed sheets and seen how the men booed any corny scenes or heroism. His war time experiences enabled him to direct The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) from a firsthand perspective, expressing emotions felt by many returning veterans. Actually, Goldwyn had little interest in what he viewed as a depressing story, but the stark nature of the story of veterans having trouble re-adjusting to society resonated with Wyler, who was experiencing the same problems. Best Years was another huge financial smash that won six Oscars, and made a great deal of money for Wyler, who had 20% of the profits, twice his usual percentage. However, Goldwyn’s refusal to pay him the full royalties ended their relationship.
Capra had been angered to come home and see Hollywood dominated by mediocre talent, so he formed Liberty Films, and Wyler joined with 25% of the stock. In 1948, theater attendance decreased, and Liberty Films was not doing that well, so it accepted limited autonomy at Paramount, and as part of the deal, Wyler agreed to make five films for Paramount for a salary of $150,000 for each film. This led to other independents like Mervyn LeRoy’s Arrowhead and Cary Grant-Hitchcock giving in as well. Wyler then took his wife on a tour of Europe, retracing his paths in the war.
When they returned to America the Red Scare was in full force. After the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings and the sentencing of the Hollywood Ten, Wyler, John Huston and Phillip Dunne formed the Committee for the First Amendment, partially in reaction to fellow immigrants like Jack Warner and Capra reinventing themselves as super patriots. During the famous showdown with Cecil B. DeMille over who would be elected president of the Director’s Guild, DeMille stated that some directors were not good Americans, and Wyler responded “if anybody doubts my loyalty to my country, I’ll punch his nose and I don’t care how old he is.”
The new uber-patriotism that had taken control of the nation greatly affected Wyler’s films. Significant cuts were made to Carrie (1952) to satisfy the censors because of the lead character’s suicide and Wyler was not even allowed to show that there were abortionists in Detective Story (1951). Still, Detective Story was groundbreaking for its realism and was a box office hit. The money he made for Paramount motivated studio executives to protect him from HUAC, which was necessary since many of his close friends, such as Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, had received subpoenas. Given such a climate, he was quite happy to sail to Italy to film Roman Holiday (1953).
The Desperate Hours (1955) completed Wyler’s Paramount contract and he felt that he had not been getting the artistic control he had been promised so he left Paramount to work with Harold Mirisch and Allied Artists. This was quite a change since Allied Artists was a small company with very limited resources, but Wyler was attracted by the promise of creative control. Unfortunately, he was disappointed once again when Allied Artists refused to back him against the Writer’s Guild during a dispute over writing credits for Friendly Persuasion (1956).
Since he had become good friends with Gregory Peck, they decided to make the Big Country (1958) together, envisioning it as an anti-macho movie. Peck already had a development deal with United Artists but Wyler was given control of the artistic aspect while Peck handled casting and all of the details related to setting up a ranch, since he was already an enthusiastic amateur cattleman. The movie proved to be such a grueling affair with constant rewrites and endless takes that Jean Simmons would not discuss it for years, except that she felt that Wyler was extremely cruel. Peck stopped talking to Wyler for three years, despite their close friendship, which apparently was due to their complex relationship where both were partners but only one was the actual director.
Wyler’s salary of three percent of the net and an advance payment of $350,000 for Ben-Hur (1959) broke records, which seems fitting because it was the largest production in Hollywood’s history at that time. It also cost him his reputation as an artistic director. He was initially reluctant to direct Ben-Hur, saying that spectacles were not his style, but he eventually found the project challenging, and the story appealed to some part of his Jewish background, especially given the modern Jewish struggle for a homeland. He had thought that it would take six months, but it ended up taking one year. He ended up putting in sixteen-hour days, seven days a week for nine months, living with the pressure that the survival of MGM depended on him.
Following the success of Ben-Hur, he was invited to serve on the board of Twentieth Century Fox but he found the life of a corporate executive boring and he resigned after two meetings.
Wyler was a child of different nationalities, grew up in a region with divided loyalties, became a citizen of another country, and married outside his faith, so he was tired of a clear division between good and evil, which clearly influenced his direction of Friendly Persuasion and Big Country since both movies showed the hero questioning the merits of violence.
He followed the success of Ben-Hur with two small films, giving up The Sound of Music to direct the second. He had actually spent considerable time preparing for The Sound of Music but he finally gave up because he could not bear making a movie about nice Nazis.
Wyler lived long enough to receive several lifetime achievement awards, including the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, as well as to attend retrospectives of his work. However, he continued to work and in September 1966 he signed a four picture deal with Twentieth Century Fox to direct two films and produce two. When he was offered Patton as his first film, he thought of his ulcers, and the fear of living in Spain for eight months made him reject the film. Instead, he made the Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970), a powerful look at racism and black vengeance against white oppressors in the South. In fact, he wanted to make the movie so strongly that he abandoned his deal with Twentieth in exchange for a six picture contract with Columbia in order to get the movie made. His age started to catch up with him and he had to rely heavily on second-unit director Robert Swink. The film was ahead of its time and made white audiences and reviewers very uncomfortable.
When his brother died suddenly of a heart attack in January 1971, he decided to stop working and got out of his contract with Columbia. He then spent the next decade traveling with his wife. When he was not traveling or attending retrospectives, he enjoyed going to drive-in movies. Unfortunately, he also began spending more and more time in hospitals. In 1980, his daughter Catherine started making a documentary about him but it took extreme pressure from his wife to convince him to cooperate. He died a week later of a heart attack on July 27, 1981.
Starring Bette Davis and Henry Fonda
In 1850’s New Orleans, a headstrong young Southern belle loses her fiancé when he realizes that he can not handle her increasingly outrageous behavior. As she tries to win him back, yellow fever strikes the city.
The Westerner (1940)
Starring Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan
A drifter becomes friends with Judge Roy Bean, but they find themselves on opposite sides when fighting breaks out between the ranchers and homesteaders.
Mrs. Miniver (1942)
Starring Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon
The Minivers, an English middle class family, experience the early days of WWII, including Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. (full review)
The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1942)
Documentary on the Memphis Belle
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Starring Frederic March and Dana Andrews
Three American WWII veterans return to their small town and find that it is harder than expected to re-adjust to peacetime after the horrors they have seen.
Documentary on a fighter squadron
Friendly Persuasion (1956)
Starring Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire
A community of Quakers in Indiana during the Civil War struggle to remain true to their belief in non-violence when Confederate raiders under General John Hunt Morgan arrive.
The Big Country (1958)
Starring Gregory Peck and Jean Simmons
A wealthy sea-captain arrives in the vast West to meet his fiancé’s father and finds himself in the middle of a war over water rights between two rival clans.
Starring Charlton Heston and Jack Hawkins
The childhood friend of a Jewish prince returns to Jerusalem as the new Roman governor during the 1st century AD. Political differences and a freak accident result in the prince being sentenced to life as a galley slave, but he eventually arrives in Rome seeking revenge.
Further Reading:William Wyler: The Authorized Biography-Axel Madsen, New York, Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973.
It is a good biography, straightforward, but nothing controversial, since it is an authorized biography, and therefore a little dull. The author’s access to Wyler resulted in detailed explanations of how his films were put together, but a bit too much time is spent discussing the reaction of French critics, probably because Madsen used to write for Cahiers du Cinema. It is also somewhat out of date since Wyler was still alive when the book came out.
A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood’s Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler-Jan Herman, New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995.
It provides a good examination of Wyler’s life and covers much of the same ground as Madsen’s book, at least in the early stages of Wyler’s life, although since it was written after Wyler’s death, things like his affair with Bette Davis could be mentioned. Herman also recreates the atmosphere of Hollywood at the time when Wyler first arrived, showing how he would have seen it. It benefits greatly from access to the transcripts of interviews for Catherine Wyler’s documentary “Directed by William Wyler”.