Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Series: German-Hollywood Connection, part 2: William Wyler

William Wyler was born as Wilhelm Weiller into a well-to-do Jewish family in Mulhouse, when it was still part of the German Empire. Unsure as to what to do with his life, William nevertheless had no inclination to work in the family business. Consequently, after some bumming around, his mother had a word with one of her relatives, Carl Laemmle - the founder of Universal Pictures, who was born in Laupheim in Southern Germany - who promised to take William under his wing.

With another of Laemmle's recent recruits, Paul Kohner, William was put in Universal's New York office, learning the trade from the bottom up. Kohner and Wyler hit it off immediately and struck up a friendship that would last until Wyler's death in 1981. And later, when Kohner decided to leave the film business to become an agent, Wyler became one of his first clients. William worked in various departments of Universal - production, writing, etc. - but eventually realised that directing was what suited and interested him most. Once he was transferred from New York to Los Angeles, Wyler became one of Universal's most prolific and reliable director or 'programmers' - Westerns shot quickly and inexpensively. After leaving Universal in the mid-1930s, Wyler signed with Samuel Goldwyn, for whom he made some of his most successful pictures. His first film for Goldwyn was an immediate critical and commercial hit. These Three, based on Lillian Hellman's play of the same name, revolves around female homosexuality, which then was still punishable by US law. Wyler would remake the film 25 years later under the title, The Children's Hour, however, unlike his earlier version, this one was rejected by critics and audiences alike.

After Dodsworth (USA 1937), based on Sinclair Lewis' novel, which earned Wyler the first of 12 Academy Award nominations, Wyler began his collaboration with Bette Davis, which yielded three films, all of which became critical and commercial successes (Jezebel, USA 1938; The Letter, USA 1940; The Little Foxes, USA 1941) and certainly are among Davis' and Wyler's best films. Although kept a secret by both, Davis and Wyler, embarked on a stormy affair during the filming of Jezebel. Wyler, who was then dating Margaret Tallichet, ended the affair and married Tallichet, staying with her until his death in 1981. After Wyler's death, however, Davis publicly acknowledged that Wyler was the one true love of her life.

After having been nominated for Academy Award several times, Wyler received his first for the war drama Mrs. Miniver (USA 1942). On loan-out to MGM, Wyler was instructed by Louis B. Mayer to tone down the anti-German sentiment, regardless of the fact that German bombs were then raining down on London, but Mayer was anxious not to compromise foreign sales, a concern, however, which soon proved unnecessary, when Nazi Germany banned all Hollywood productions from its screens. Wyler became one of the most generous donors of the European Film Fund, an aid organisation founded in 1938 by his pal Paul Kohner with the aim to grant financial as well as moral help to refugees from Nazi Germany and German occupied territory. Unlike Kohner and Wyler, who by the time the refugee crisis came to a head were both in possession of a US passport, many of their fellow countrymen were stranded penniless in some European port - Marseilles, Lisbon - waiting for their affidavits, visas, or job contracts, in order to legally enter US territory.

Wyler continued his immensely successful Hollywood career with films such as The Best Years Of Our Lives (USA 1946), for which he would receive his second Academy Award, The Heiress (USA 1949), Carrie (USA 1952) and Roman Holiday (USA 1953). Wyler may be best known today for his remake of Ben Hur, on which he worked as an assistant director when Niblo first filmed it in 1925. Ben Hur received a total of 11 Academy Awards, among which Wyler's third for Best Direction. Wyler made his last film in 1970, The Liberation of L.B. Jones (USA 1970), but by then his style, like that of most of his colleagues from the Old Hollywood, was considered old-fashioned, and the film was only a moderate success.

William Wyler died from a heart attack on July 27, 1981.