This Day in Jewish History

1981: The Most Famous Director You Never Heard of Dies

William Wyler didn't want to constrain actors with 'directions,' yet Ben Hur and Funny Lady came out great.

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On July 27, 1981, William Wyler, one of Hollywood’s most successful, acclaimed and respected – and least remembered -- directors, died, at the age of 79. A listing of just a few of his movies – “Ben-Hur,” “Mrs. Miniver,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Funny Girl,” “Roman Holiday” – gives a sense of not only the quality of his work, but also the variety of genres he mastered.

That range may be one clue to Wyler’s relative anonymity today, compared to other cinematic masters with more-characteristic themes and styles.

Willi Wyler was born on July 1, 1902, in the town of Muelhausen, Germany (today part of French Alsace). He was the second of the two sons of the former Melanie Auerbach and her husband Leopold Wyler. The Swiss-born Leopold was a traveling salesman who had opened a successful men’s clothing store in Muelhausen.

Willi was a mediocre student who was frequently in trouble in school. After World War I, and his expulsion from high school, he was put to work, first at his father’s shop and then at another haberdashery, in Paris.

Wyler was not interested in the business, however. When her cousin Carl Laemmle made his annual visit to Europe, in 1921, his mother asked if he could give her son a job.

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'It stinks. Do it again'

Laemmle was the German-born founder of Universal Pictures, and he was used to employing relations (when he was forced to sell a bankrupt Universal, in 1935, the studio had some 70 family members on the payroll). He invited Willi to return with him to New York, where the young man was given a job as a messenger boy, and had to pay back the cost of his voyage from Europe.

By 1923, Wyler had got himself transferred to Universal’s Hollywood studios. There, he began working as an assistant to assistant directors, before getting the opportunity, in 1925, to direct a silent, Western two-reeler (24 minutes in length). This was not prestige work: He went on to turn out 21 such pictures between 1925 and 1927.

His first feature-length sound film was “Hell’s Heroes” (1930), also a Western, which turned out to be a hit. Wyler quickly became a valued director for Universal, even though he developed a reputation for going over schedule and budget because of his tendency to shoot so many takes of a scene. Part of the reason for this was his practice of trying to include an entire scene in a single take, rather than relying on editing to splice together the best shots from multiple takes. This required shooting a scene over and over until he was satisfied with it.

At the same time, Wyler was notorious for not giving actors much in the way of guidance, other than telling them, as he did Henry Fonda after he finished a scene during the shooting of “Jezebel” (1938), “It stinks. Do it again.”

According to Jon C. Hopwood, author of the IMDB’s mini-biography of Wyler, the director was intentionally vague in order to irritate actors, as he felt that only when they were angry would they “shed their preconceived ideas about acting in general and the part in particular.” 

In 1935, Wyler left Universal for Samuel Goldwyn, where he made such classics as “The Letter” (1940), “The Little Foxes” (1941), “Mrs. Miniver” (1942) and “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946) –all of which garnered him Best Director nominations, with the latter two winning the Oscar itself. 

During World War II, Wyler enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force, giving him the opportunity to risk his life shooting “The Memphis Belle” (1944), a documentary about a B-17 bomber and its final mission over Germany. Another film, “Thunderbolt” (1947), depicted the Allied air war in Italy, and cost Wyler his hearing in one ear. (It also cost him a Distinguished Service Medal, which was denied him after he hit a European hotel employee when he referred to a G.I. as a “goddamn Jew.”)

Wyler kept making movies until 1970, when poor health forced his retirement. But he maintained his reputation for quality, thoughtfulness and variety through to the very end.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen