William Wyler’s grandmother was the first cousin of Carl Laemmle, known as Uncle, the boss of Universal, and Willi’s grandfather had seen Carl off to America thirty-six years before Willi himself left Europe for the US. This was important because Laemmle was famous for giving jobs to relatives and elevated nepotism into an art form. As the New Yorker’s resident wit Ogden Nash put it,
Uncle Carl Laemmle
Has a very large faemmle.
In 1921, in Zurich, Switzerland, Uncle, on one of his annual visits to Europe, offered Willi (he was named Willi by his parents; the William, and familiar Willy, came later, in the US) a job. “How would you like to come to America?” Uncle asked the nineteen-year-old. Willi replied that’d he like that just fine – he was rather a wild young man, had not had a successful scholastic career and had no interest in his father’s haberdashery business. America was a dream to him. “Okay, I’ll give you a job,” Laemmle said. “After that, you’re on your own.”
We’d have to say that wild or not, Willy Wyler made good.
After a series of menial jobs, Wyler fetched up in Hollywood, working on a swing gang at Universal, sweeping up too, but eventually getting picked as a second assistant editor, though much of his time was spent gambling, womanizing and racing his motorcycle round Los Angeles (he once drove it off the diving board into the swimming pool at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club). However, once he managed to become a third assistant director, then assistant director (on Universal’s big The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and finally the youngest director on the Universal lot, in 1925, he was deadly serious about it. Many actors remarked on his dedication, determination and thoughtfulness in direction. He was no dilettante.
Wyler was especially known, all his career, for repeated takes until something was just right. He often wouldn’t guide actors or tell them what he didn’t like, which caused frustration. He’d just say, “Do it again” or “You can do it better.” Walter Pidgeon called him Hundred-and-Two-Take Wyler. Jeffrey Meyers, in his enjoyable biography of Gary Cooper, calls Wyler “a laborious plodder with an inflated reputation” but in my view this is quite wrong. He was a perfectionist, sure, ready to go on working till a scene was just so, but that doesn’t make him a plodder. He had a real eye, and real talent for staging.
His first picture at the helm was a Western, The Crook Buster, and indeed all his first 29 pictures were oaters. Universal specialized in them as product for the less ritzy theater chains. The first ones Wyler directed were silent two-reelers, lasting twenty to twenty-four minutes and marketed as Mustang pictures. They starred Jack Mower, described by Jan Herman in his biography of Wyler A Talent for Trouble as “a third-rank cowboy actor who never became a star”. A couple had Fred Humes as lead and were shot up at Lone Pine. Sadly, these pictures have not survived and we don’t know how good (or bad) they were. But quickly Wyler was promoted to Blue Streak Westerns, which were five-reelers. They were still minimal-budget affairs but they starred former rodeo star Art Acord, who had quite a following in the sticks as a (very large) white-hat and was a daring rider. He wasn’t much of an actor and was also an alcoholic, and he never made the transition to talkies, but Wyler liked him, saying “he had a kind of sincerity.”
Fay Wray was the leading lady on one of these pictures (this was before she found fame) and she noted the care and attention Wyler took over her scenes, even in a cheap Western programmer. “That was not normal. It made me understand why he became one of the greats.”
According to the Los Angeles Times obituary of Wyler, the director “said the now forgotten low-budget westerns he started with taught him the basic elements of a good motion picture.”
Uncle Carl gave him his first big gig at the helm of his first non-Western as director, the comedy Anyone Here Seen Kelly? which, though an inconsequential and lightweight affair, was popular, and successful. Wyler had ambitions to move out of programmer oaters and go on to bigger and better things. But there was one more Western first.
Although Carl Laemmle was suitably avuncular and supportive, he was increasingly hands-off as his son, Carl Laemmle Junior, was made general manager of Universal as a twenty-first birthday present and did not take the same shine to Wyler as his pater did. In fact the new studio boss thought he was useless. Wyler had a reciprocally low opinion of Junior’s abilities, both artistic and commercial.
Despite this antipathy, Junior (grudgingly) gave the job of directing Universal’s first sound Western, and the first Universal all-sound picture to be shot outdoors (on location in the Mojave Desert), the big-budget Hell’s Heroes of 1929, to Wyler. It was a breakthrough moment. We have recently reviewed Hell’s Heroes, so click here to know more about that picture. But it made Wyler’s name.
Big non-Western pictures followed, such as A House Divided with Walter Huston and Counsellor at Law with John Barrymore. Wyler’s remake of The Storm in 1930, with glam Lupe Velez (then having a torrid affair with Gary Cooper) had Western tinges but was more of a drama. Wyler was offered a Tom Mix Western when Mix, now in his fifties, came to Universal to do some talkies but he didn’t like Mix and anyway he’d had enough of Westerns for a while. Furthermore, Mix had got a bit puritan and was insisting in his contract that he never be shown in a film drinking, smoking or even drawing a gun. Making a Western without the star drawing a gun wouldn’t be the easiest thing. So Willy said no to Destry Rides Again, which went to Benjamin Stoloff, and thereby said goodbye to follow-up Mix talkie oaters too, notably the charming My Pal, the King. Junior was most displeased. Actually, in both pictures Tom did draw his gun but there we are.
So there was a Western pause. Leaving Universal and working for Samuel Goldwyn, Wyler seems to have started directing Barbary Coast, the fog-on-the-waterfront melodrama set in mid-nineteenth century San Francisco, but the Herman bio doesn’t mention this at all and I don’t know the story here (please leave a comment if you do). In any case the picture (a semi-Western really) was credited to Howard Hawks. In 1938 Wyler also started The Cowboy and the Lady for Goldwyn, with Gary Cooper and Merle Oberon, but he thought it was junk and he was right – Coop’s worst picture, probably, and in any case it isn’t a proper Western so fie on it. It was finished by HC Potter and Stuart Heisler and was a flop. So Wyler wasted his time on non-Westerns, getting Oscar-nominated for the likes of Dodsworth and Wuthering Heights but if there are no six-guns what’s the point? I mean, honestly.
So the whole decade passed without Wyler doing a Western. And he’d only do two-and-a-half more.
But at the end of the 1930s the A-picture adult Western came back into vogue. All the top producers and studios were making them. Goldwyn wanted in, and in November ’39 put a rush job on a big-budget picture, assigning his No 1 director to the project. Wyler was back on Westerns.
The Westerner (click here for our review) was a superb picture, a ‘big’ Western with traditional themes (ruthless rancher vs. sturdy homesteader) but also a subtle comedy with black humor, as Walter Brennan, Oscar-winning as Judge Roy Bean, and Gary Cooper, in a surprisingly secondary role despite being top-billed, fenced verbally and finally came to a shoot-out in a theater. It was wonderfully well done by Wyler.
But once again he now deserted the genre. All the rest of the 1940s and much of the 1950s – the glory days of the Western movie – passed and Wyler worked on all sorts of other pictures, especially when war came and he was a decorated serviceman serving in England and Italy. After the war there were the likes of The Best Years of Our Lives, The Heiress and Carrie, good films no doubt but you know, not Westerns. Two Best Director Oscars and five other nominations in this period: remarkable.
Ever since he left Universal, Wyler had been seeking more autonomy and artistic control, and been promised it by a series of producers and studios, notably Goldwyn, Liberty Films (which Wyler set up with Frank Capra and George Stevens) and, when Liberty folded into Paramount, by that studio too. The latest to offer him ‘freedom’ were the Mirisch brothers, who had dreams of bringing lowly Monogram into the big time as Allied Artists. A screenplay based on novelist Jessamyn West’s 1945 collection of stories The Friendly Persuasion had been destined for Frank Capra. But that picture was never made. Wyler loved it, though, and made it his first project at Allied Artists, and his first color film (apart from wartime documentaries).
Friendly Persuasion, set in Civil War Indiana, was not really a Western, not in the true sense, more a slice of nostalgic Americana, and in my view it’s pretty cracker-barrel cheesy, but it was a critical and commercial success. One of the chief reasons for this was its star, Gary Cooper, the casting of whom also strengthened the ‘Western’ cred – a bit. Coop was absolutely brilliant. Once again, see our review here. There were more Oscar nominations.
And Wyler’s next picture would be his last Western (and it was a proper Western), The Big Country in 1958. This was a joint project with his friend Gregory Peck (they were both producers) and it was big in title and big in fact, with a large cast, 166-minute runtime, big budget (greatly exceeded) and so on. It was commercial success, though not quite such a critical one, and it sold very well, though it had cost so much that Wyler and Peck didn’t profit much. It also broke their friendship, and they didn’t speak for three years. Read more here.
On both Friendly Persuasion and The Big Country Wyler worked closely with his brother Robert, especially on writing and production, as indeed he did on many pictures.
And that, as far as Westerns went, was that. Wyler moved on to minor B-movies like Ben-Hur. Only joking. So we can’t really consider William Wyler as one of the great Western directors, in the John Ford league, say. Nevertheless, he made enough, and good enough ones, to deserve a coveted place in the Jeff Arnold’s West Hall of Fame. I would certainly say that any half-serious Westernista should see and would greatly enjoy Hell’s Heroes, The Westerner and The Big Country anyway.