William Wyler was born Willi Wyler on July 1, 1902 in Mülhausen in the Alsace-Lorraine region of what used to be Germany and is now France. He was initially not supposed to work in movies, as his apparent destiny was to inherit his father’s haberdashery business. His training included college in Paris and a job in a 100,000 Shirts store, which seemed to be the Gap of the early twentieth century. School didn’t seem to be Wyler’s thing, though, as he was expelled from school as a child for unruly behavior, but as an adult he tried hard.
However, Wyler had an artistic bent instilled in him by his mother, Melanie, who was an opera aficionado and took her son to the theater frequently. Wyler became familiar with all the ins and outs of the stage and had a lot of time to see what made effective entertainment. He also loved movies, and according to the New York Times, enjoyed imitating Charlie Chaplin. Incidentally, Melanie’s cousin was one Carl Laemmle, and in 1920 Laemmle invited Wyler to work for Universal Studios’ public relations department in New York City. Two years later, Wyler transferred to Universal’s Hollywood office, where he worked in various clerk jobs and as an assistant casting director.
Like a lot of directors, Wyler cut his teeth making shorts, his first being The Crook Buster in 1925. Ironically, that same year, he was also the assistant director on a little epic called Ben Hur. Wyler’s first feature film, however, was 1926’s Lazy Lightning, starring Art Acord, Robert Gordon, and a nineteen-year old Fay Wray, and followed the story of a vagabond and a boy in a wheelchair. Wyler would later move on to working with Samuel Goldwyn, where he really hit his stride as a director. He would also marry Margaret Sullavan, but the union would only last for two years.
The thing about William Wyler is that he was an actor’s director. He was not only famous for putting his cast and crew through dozens of takes, but he knew how to get good performances out of his actors. When Wyler made Jezebel, released in 1938, he helped Bette Davis shake a lot of the mannerisms that were characteristic of her acting style up to that point, including a rather infamous head wag and hip wiggle. Wyler went so far as to threaten Davis with hanging a chain around her neck.
The two of them went far in another way when they had a rather passionate affair as well. It didn’t last, though, as Wyler got married in 1938 to his second wife, Margaret Tallichet, with whom he would have four children.
Another memorable film of Wyler’s pre-war period was 1941’s The Little Foxes, starring Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall and Theresa Wright, and follows the story of an old-money Southern family with an abusive matron and plenty of skeletons in their expansive closets. It’s a very honest film about disfunction and looking for freedom amid a stifling home life, with crucial scenes staged in such a way that we can see the actors’ thoughts, all punctuated by deep focus.
Wyler’s last film before entering the Signal Corps in 1942 was the peerless Mrs. Miniver, a film which is sometimes seen nowadays as an idealized portrayal of the early part of the war, but it still has a poignant, determined quality to it, plus an ending speech by Henry Wilcoxon that went over so well Winston Churchill arranged to have leaflets of it dropped over occupied Europe.
While in the Signal Corps, Wyler’s main projects were filming the crews of the Memphis Belle in England and later of the P-51 squadrons in Italy, which became the documentaries, Memphis Belle and Thunderbolt, respectively. Wyler went all out, putting cameras on the wings of planes and filming from the waist gunner’s position, which just happened to be the most dangerous spot on the plane.
It paid off, though, and Wyler developed friendships with the crews he flew with, particularly that of the Memphis Belle, that would last the rest of his life. Not all of Wyler’s footage was seen by the public during the war; a third documentary, The Cold Blue, was recently shown on HBO as part of an anniversary remembrance of D-day.
Naturally, since Wyler was assigned to the European theater, he wanted to see his old home in the Alsace, and he hitched a ride with an ambulance driver, filming all the way. At first he was relieved to find his father’s old store still standing, but a lot of the people were gone. Wyler’s parents and brothers had joined him in Hollywood after he was established there years before, but a lot of familiar faces were missing in Mülhausen, and as a Jewish man Wyler would have found this especially chilling.
Wyler would return to the United States as a disabled veteran. During one of the missions he filmed he forgot to wear his headphones, and the resulting drastic change in the oxygen level caused Wyler to pass out. When he came to, Wyler was deaf. Naturally, Wyler wondered if his career as a director was over, but cinematographer Gregg Toland rigged a special amplifier for him and Wyler would eventually regain about twenty percent of his hearing.
When considering Wyler’s films before and after his wartime service, one big theme that comes through is isolation. The three veterans in 1946’s The Best Years Of Our Lives are alone in that no one who didn’t go to war knows what they feel like, and the world they used to know is now foreign to them. Catherine in The Heiress doesn’t readily fit into society but learns to operate in it on her own terms, eventually exacting comeuppance on those who presume to abuse her trust.
In Roman Holiday, Princess Ann breaks away from her very tightly regimented existence, albeit inadvertantly, to go on a madcap caper around Rome, but at least in her mind no one knew who she was and what she faced when she finally went back. Her secrecy is her isolation.
Even in Ben Hur, which was Wyler’s biggest film of his post-war era, features its own brand of isolation, as the title character, Judah is cut off from his former life and struggle with his hatred of his former friend, Messala, which, as a prince, not many can relate to, and he has to piece together a new world for himself.
This was Wyler, too. He kept making movies and enjoyed his family, but there were some things he really couldn’t share with anyone, and he had to cobble a new world for himself, too.
Per Wyler’s personality, he could do no less, and by all accounts he lived with gusto until his death of a heart attack in 1981. Wyler’s daughter, Catherine, later said about him, “He expected a lot of himself and his kids. He was full of humor and adventure, he was really fun to be with. He was also politically involved, he cared about the world and put his beliefs out there. He was madly in love with his wife. He was just a great guy.”
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Jezebel (DVD and Blu-ray), The Little Foxes (DVD and streaming), Mrs. Miniver (DVD and Blu-ray), The Memphis Belle (DVD and Blu-ray), Thunderbolt (DVD), The Best Years Of Our Lives (DVD, Blu-ray and streaming), The Heiress (DVD and Blu-ray), Roman Holiday (DVD and Blu-ray), and Ben Hur (DVD and Blu-ray) are available to own from Amazon.
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Five Came Back. Directed by Laurent Bouzereau. Narrated by Meryl Streep. Netflix, 2017.
2 thoughts on “During World War Two: William Wyler”
This was so interesting! I really didn’t know much about Wyler’s life before, but I love some of his movies a lot, especially Ben-Hur and The Best Years of Our Lives.
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Thank you so much, Rachel! I agree–he’s one of my favorite directors.