Dedicated to the Study and Appreciation
of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Wyler's Legacy (reprinted)

July 1 will mark the 110th anniversary of the birth of
William Wyler (1902-81), peerless movie director
par excellence. The occasion is being observed
by a blogathon hosted by The Movie Projector 
June 24 - 29, in which many of my fellow
members in the Classic Movie Blog
Association (CMBA) will be holding forth on
their favorite Wyler pictures. Go here for a
list of blogathon participants and links to
their individual posts as they go up.

For my part, in conjunction with The Movie
Projector's blogathon, I've been republishing,
one a day, a series of five posts I did on Wyler
in 2010, and this is the last one, a summation
of the previous four. The blogathon runs one
more day, so be sure to check it out. Meanwhile,
Happy Birthday, Willy, and thanks for the memories!

 *                    *                    *

When I mentioned to a friend that I was planning a
post on William Wyler (which has now turned into
several), he said, "Good. I'll be interested to see
what you consider his..." -- he searched for the
right word -- "...apotheosis."

To tell the truth, at that point I hadn't given much
thought to apotheosizing the man, though I guess
that's what I've done. The dictionary gives two
definitions of apotheosis: (1) the elevation of
someone to the status of a god; and (2) the epitome
or quintessence. So since my friend brought it up,
what is, or was, the apotheosis of William Wyler?
Now that I've elevated him to somewhere in the
vicinity of godhood, what should we consider the
epitome and quintessence of his work?

To answer that, we might as well start by taking a look at Wyler's three Oscar-winning best pictures. Ben-Hur is the easiest to dismiss; in fact, it's the hardest one not to. Check out this poster from 1959: The Entertainment Experience of a Lifetime. At the time, despite the exclamation point, that seemed a simple statement of fact, and it's hard at this remove to explain the impact of Ben-Hur to anyone who wasn't there. Star Wars wasn't a patch on it, though its mystique has outlasted Ben-Hur's. Star Wars was the movie of the year in 1977, the way Titanic was in 1997. But in 1959 and '60, Ben-Hur was a movie for all time; the few dissenting voices were swamped in the ballyhoo.

Check out Wyler's billing on the poster, too -- bigger than anything but the title. Certainly bigger than author Lew Wallace way up there in the fine print, but bigger too than even the stars or producer Sam Zimbalist (whom the stress of the project sent to an early grave). There's an apotheosis for you.

By the time the Oscars rolled around Ben-Hur was a juggernaut that would not be denied. It seemed a waste of time even to bother finding four other nominees; the thankless mantle of designated also-ran was eventually conferred on Anatomy of a Murder, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Nun's Story and Room at the Top. Nobody would have blamed those hapless producers if they had just stayed home on award night, so foregone was the conclusion. But what a change a half-century makes; all four of the sacrificial nominees have aged more gracefully than the winner. For that matter, the silent 1925 Ben-Hur holds up better after 85 years than Wyler's does after 50 -- especially now on video, with its proper running speed and Technicolor sequences restored, and spruced up with a stirring Carl Davis score; only the 1959 chariot race surpasses the original (even that, not by much), and Wyler had to leave the race to second-unit men Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt.

Mrs. Miniver was also a juggernaut in 1942, but that
time the momentum was fueled by patriotism instead
of studio hype. In this poster the exclamation point
is appended to the claim "Voted the Greatest Movie
Ever Made." Whose votes were counted is left
obscure, but there's no denying that Miniver
was beloved in its day, and its Oscar was
similarly assured.

The picture began as unabashed pro-British
propaganda in their war against Germany;
it changed to pro-Allied propaganda when Pearl
Harbor was attacked midway through production.
Miniver's morale value was a real boon to the war
effort, and it deserves points for fervent sincerity,
but alas, it's a museum piece today, with the same
Hollywooden imitation-Englishness that besets
MGM's 1938 A Christmas Carol. (In Miniver's
case, British audiences seemed not to mind,
no doubt taking the intention for the deed.)
Among its fellow best picture nominees, even
the rampant flag-waving of Wake Island, The
Pied Piper and Yankee Doodle Dandy wears
better today. Add in The Invaders, Kings Row,
The Pride of the Yankees, The Talk of the
Town  and The Magnificent Ambersons --
and the case for Mrs. Miniver grows weaker
with each title. Potent blow for righteousness
that it was in its day, Miniver no longer has
the ring of truth it had in 1942.

 I use that phrase deliberately, because it brings to mind the first time I saw The Best Years of Our Lives, in the early '70s when Sam Goldwyn had finally released at least some of his films to television. I watched Best Years one night with a friend, a conscientious objector then in the midst of grappling with his draft board at the height of the Vietnam War. As we watched the movie unfold, Wyler's (and writers MacKinlay Kantor and Robert Sherwood's, and producer Sam Goldwyn's) story of three World War II vets struggling to readjust to civilian life, my pacifist-conscientious-objector-draft-dodger pal turned to me and said, "This still has the ring of truth, doesn't it?"

It was true when he said it during Vietnam, and it would still be true if he said it again today. Of Wyler's three best pictures, The Best Years of Our Lives is the one that holds up with the fewest allowances made. True, it's overshadowed today by another 1946 picture, one that it beat in nearly every Oscar category: Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Well, I suppose that's natural; Christmas comes back again every year and World War II only ended once. If the voting for best picture of '46 got a do-over, Wonderful Life might well take the prize (I'd probably vote for it myself). Olivier's Henry V would certainly be a strong candidate. Even The Razor's Edge and The Yearling  might have their cheering sections.

Still, none of this negates the award having gone to Best Years. Wyler's movie is one of those rare ones that tackled a current issue foremost in the minds of nearly everyone who saw it, dealt with the issue head-on and unflinching, and had (yes) the ring of truth to the very audience least likely to tolerate any Hollywood phoniness about it. Not only in America, and not only among the Allies. The movie was a smash hit from Stockholm to Sydney, winning best picture awards (Jan Herman tells us) "from Tokyo to Paris." When we look at the Oscars for 1946, we don't have to scratch our heads and wonder what people were thinking back then; The Best Years of Our Lives tells us.

So much for those three. But it's a truism that people seldom win Oscars for their best work, and nobody illustrates the point better than William Wyler. To find his best work -- his (ahem) apotheosis -- I do think you have to look further than even the best of those three.

High on my short list -- and right at the top, probably -- would be the two pictures Wyler made on loan to Warner Bros. with Bette Davis. I've told the story of Jezebel and the 48 takes with the riding crop. Later on that same picture, when executive producer Hal Wallis made noises about firing Wyler for (what else?) wasting film and ordering too many takes, Davis went to bat for her director and saved his job, offering to work overtime if it would help (and only if they'd keep Wyler on).

True, she was having an affair with Wyler at the time, but she was a hard-nosed career woman who (if you'll pardon the expression) never let the little head do the thinking for the big head. Whatever was going on during off-hours, she knew he was getting the performance of her life (so far) out of her, and was doing almost as much for others in the cast -- George Brent and (of all people) Richard Cromwell were seldom as good, and never better.

He did almost as much on The Letter in 1940, two years later, and with a much better script (from the story by W. Somerset Maugham). Davis didn't get the Oscar for this one, but she's nearly as good as she was in Jezebel, showing the feral fang-and-claw passions roiling under a studied veneer of respectability. (The Wyler-Davis magic failed only on their third and final movie together, 1941's The Little Foxes, and then only because the headstrong Davis wouldn't listen to him. He wanted a more textured performance, but she insisted on going deep into Wicked Witch territory. Her two-dimensional approach wasn't enough to sink the movie -- Davis was always worth watching, no matter what -- but it did allow the all-but-unthinkable:  not one but two other performers, Charles Dingle and Patricia Collinge, stole the picture from her.)

 Other pictures should make the list. Wuthering Heights, no doubt, and These Three and Dodsworth. Hell's Heroes, despite its early-sound primitivism -- or maybe because of it -- was a real eye-opener for me, showing a grittier, closer-to-the-bone Wyler than I'd ever seen. And Roman Holiday is a delight from beginning to end; all those heavy-prestige years with Sam Goldwyn, followed by weighty dramas like The Heiress and Detective Story, hadn't sapped Wyler's sense of fun, nor his ability to whip up a scrumptious feather-light souffle even in the broiling heat of an Italian summer. The famous Mouth of Truth scene, improvised by Wyler and Gregory Peck on the spot and sprung on an unsuspecting Audrey Hepburn, is a little gem of wicked fun, one of the great moments in Wyler's career -- and Peck's, for that matter, and Hepburn's. For that and other reasons, Roman Holiday makes my short list too.

Maybe not on the short list but deserving to be remembered (at least more than it seems to have been since it was the hot one to see back in 1965) is The Collector, essentially a two-characters-on-one-set drama of a timid kidnapper and his beautiful captive in which Wyler got brilliant performances from Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar. Coming after the turgid Ben-Hur and the miscarried The Children's Hour, here was reason to believe Wyler hadn't lost it, and it gained him his final Oscar nomination. But maybe "it", whatever it was, was slipping through his fingers at that; Wyler's hearing and his lungs were deteriorating, and some of the excitement had surely gone out of the game. His next picture, Funny Girl, was a hit, but it strikes me as essentially Ben-Hur with songs, and Barbra Streisand instead of a chariot race to provide excitement (and Wyler's final acting Oscar). His next and last, The Liberation of L.B. Jones, was a physical ordeal, and critically savaged, barely released, hardly seen. He was proud of the picture, but he knew the grind would kill him if he tried to keep it up, so he got out, having nothing more to prove.

So I guess my friend's curiosity will have to remain unsatisfied, at least by me. I can't name a single "apotheosis" for William Wyler, and even now I've probably left somebody's favorite out; at least half a dozen other titles spring to mind without even trying. For me, there's no single "elevation" of the man and his work; there are just too many peaks, like the Himalayas with a dozen Everests.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Wyler and "Goldwynitis" (reprinted)

July 1 will mark the 110th anniversary of the birth of
William Wyler (1902-81), peerless movie director
par excellence. The occasion is being observed
by a blogathon hosted by The Movie Projector 
June 24 - 29, in which many of my fellow
members in the Classic Movie Blog
Association (CMBA) will be holding forth on
their favorite Wyler pictures. Go here for a
list of blogathon participants and links to
their individual posts as they go up.

For my part, in conjunction with The
Movie Projector's blogathon, I'm
republishing a series of five posts I
did on Wyler in 2010, one a day for
five of the six days of the blogathon.
Happy Birthday, Willy, and thanks 
for the memories!

 *                    *                    *

Joel McCrea's little ploy turned out to be a pretty momentous backfire. In 1935 he was under contract to Samuel Goldwyn, the irascible producer who had gone independent, largely because no other mogul in the picture business could stand to work with him.

McCrea knew that the boss was looking for an actress to add to his small stable of stars -- a Bette Davis, a Katharine Hepburn, somebody with "that little something extra" -- and McCrea thought he had just the woman for him: his wife, Frances Dee. She had already appeard in over thirty pictures, including RKO's Little Women (playing Meg) and Of Human Bondage, and McCrea had been pitching her to Goldwyn for months without success. Now he took the bull by the horns: he showed up at the studio with a print of Dee's latest picture for Fox, a Cinderella story called The Gay Deception, and screened it for Goldwyn.

Goldwyn loved the picture, but for the wrong reason as far as McCrea was concerned; when the lights came up, he was no more interested in Frances Dee than he had been the day before. Instead, he turned to McCrea. "Who directed this?"

"A funny little guy named Wyler."

What was it about The Gay Deception -- a frothy comedy about a small-town secretary who uses a $5,000 sweepstakes prize to pose as an heiress at the Waldorf, where she meets a prince incognito as a bellboy -- that convinced Goldwyn he'd found the director he was looking for? Jan Herman doesn't say in A Talent for Trouble, nor does A. Scott Berg in his magisterial Goldwyn -- and Berg had unrestricted access to Goldwyn's archives, so maybe Goldwyn never said either. That kind of question is just what makes Sam Goldwyn such an enigma. How do we figure this guy out?

If Goldwyn was nothing more than a crass and ill-tempered parvenu who threw money around in an effort to buy a reputation as a class act, all the time raging and bullying and mangling the English language, how do we explain this mind-boggling flash of insight that changed his life, and Wyler's -- and left no small ripple in Hollywood history? For whatever reason, he decided the director of this lighthearted romantic comedy was just the man he wanted to direct a searing drama about two schoolteachers accused of lesbianism.

When the two men met later that summer of 1935, Wyler said Goldwyn "couldn't have been more charming, but I thought he'd lost his mind. He wanted to film The Children's Hour." Lillian Hellman's play was a scandalous success on Broadway, and the Hays Office had tried to warn Goldwyn off bringing it to the screen. But Hellman maintained that the play was about the power of a lie, not lesbianism; Goldwyn was going to give her the chance to prove it by hiring her to write the screenplay, and he wanted Wyler at the helm.

The result was These Three; the Hays Office allowed Goldwyn to proceed only if he removed any suggestion of "sex perversion" and didn't make any reference to Hellman's original title on screen or in any of the picture's publicity. Hellman proved her point by changing the schoolgirl's lie to a more conventional accusation of illicit heterosexuality. And Wyler proved it again 26 years later, by default: he remade the movie under its original title and -- the Production Code having loosened up in the meantime -- with its original lesbian theme intact. That time, Hellman wasn't available to do the script, and she hated the final film. Wyler himself wished he had never made The Children's Hour.

Not so These Three, which even in 1962 outshone its remake, and in 1936 was exactly the succes d'estime Goldwyn was looking for, and a box-office hit to boot. Their next picture together, Dodsworth, from Sinclair Lewis's novel and Sidney Howard's play, brought Goldwyn within striking distance of his Holy Grail: the Academy Award for best picture. It was nominated for that and six others (including Wyler for best director), although only Richard Day's art direction won. But Goldwyn had found the director who could give him the prestige pictures he wanted sent out under his name. Wyler, for his part, found a producer entirely unlike Junior Laemmle back at Universal, one willing to spend the money to support the style that in time would dub him "90-Take Wyler."

It was a professional marriage made in heaven -- with plenty of hell along the way. There was a reason Goldwyn was called Hollywood's lone wolf: he fought with everybody -- with Edgar Selwyn, his first partner in movies; with United Artists, the distributor of his pictures; with A.H. Giannini, UA's banker; with his stars, directors, lawyers. Everybody.

He fought with Wyler, too. By the time of their last picture together, The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946, Wyler would speak of having "occasional attacks of 'Goldwynitis.'" After one run-in with Goldwyn he came late to the set, fuming: "This goddamned picture! Goldwyn wants it Produced by Sam Goldwyn. Directed by Sam Goldwyn. Acted by Sam Goldwyn. Written by Sam Goldwyn. Seen by Sam Goldwyn."

For his part, Goldwyn complained that Wyler shot as if he owned stock in a film company. Part of the reason for all this is the fact that they were so much alike. They were both inarticulate, though each handled it in different ways. Goldwyn blustered and railed, shaking his fist at the top of his voice. Wyler didn't; he just quietly ordered another take, saying little. Neither man could tell people exactly what he wanted, but each knew it when he finally saw it. In Goldwyn A. Scott Berg quotes Ben Hecht on the producer:
Ben Hecht wrote that Goldwyn as a collaborator was inarticulate but stimulating, that he "filled the room with wonderful panic and beat at your mind like a man in front of a slot machine, shaking it for a jackpot."
"Inarticulate but stimulating" describes Wyler as well as it does Goldwyn. If Goldwyn filled a room with wonderful panic, Wyler filled it with equally wonderful desperation. Staying with Hecht's metaphor, if Goldwyn shook that slot machine for a jackpot, Wyler stood there dropping coin after coin into it, figuring that sooner or later the lemons and cherries and bananas would line up the way he liked them. And during the years from 1936 to 1946, when Wyler made the pictures that would secure his reputation as a man who couldn't make a flop, most of the coins he used belonged to Sam Goldwyn.

One of Wyler's jackpots, and Goldwyn's, was also Hecht's -- his and Charles MacArthur's. The two had written an adaption of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights while on vacation in 1936, just on spec. They sold it to Walter Wanger for Wanger's star Sylvia Sidney. But those two got into a screaming match over another picture, and when Wanger grumbled that the script needed "laughs," the writers asked Goldwyn to buy the property from him.

Goldwyn wasn't interested; the atmosphere was too grim and the flashback structure confused him. But when Wyler -- stretching the truth a bit -- told him Jack Warner was considering buying Wuthering Heights for Bette Davis, Goldwyn couldn't resist the idea of stealing it out from under him. By the time the picture premiered in April 1939, the movie Goldwyn hadn't been all that interested in making had been transformed in his mind into the one he thought he'd be remembered for (although he never did get the title right; he always called it "Withering Heights"). He'd been practically conned into making the picture, but whenever anyone mentioned "William Wyler's Wuthering Heights," he'd correct them: "I made Withering Heights. Wyler only directed it."

"Only." That's how petty Goldwyn could be; he was willing to pay to get the best, but he never shrank from grabbing credit for how things turned out. But as Wyler rhetorically asked an interviewer in 1980: "Tell me, which pictures have 'the Goldwyn touch' that I didn't direct?"

Well, there was The Pride of the Yankees (Sam Wood did that one), and Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks), and The Hurricane (John Ford). But Wyler's point is well-taken. No other director worked as many times for Goldwyn -- seven -- and of the seven times Goldwyn was in the running for a best picture Oscar, only two were directed by anyone else (Yankees and The Bishop's Wife). Without movies like These Three, Dodsworth, Wuthering Heights, Dead End and The Little Foxes, the vaunted "Goldwyn touch" could well boil down to those Eddie Cantor musicals, Danny Kaye's 1940s comedies, and Guys and Dolls.

Take this picture, for example. If there's one movie besides Wuthering Heights for which Goldwyn is remembered now, it's The Best Years of Our Lives. It's the movie that finally got Goldwyn into the winner's circle on Oscar night, and it was Wyler's picture one hundred percent.

Goldwyn tried to talk him out of making it. Goldwyn had commissioned the story from writer MacKinlay Kantor as World War II was finally inching to its end; he said he wanted something about returning soldiers, and he gave Kantor carte blanche as to the story; but when Kantor came out with Glory for Me, a 288-page novel in blank verse, Goldwyn lost interest and wrote the investment off as money down the hole.

In October 1945 William Wyler was himself a veteran back from the war, and he connected with Glory for Me as Goldwyn never could. He still owed Goldwyn one more picture under the contract that had been in abeyance for the duration, and this was the one he wanted to make. Goldwyn demurred. Wyler insisted. He got his way, and he and Goldwyn (among others) got their Oscars.

But service in World War II taught William Wyler one lesson that didn't make its way into The Best Years of Our Lives: he learned that life is too short to deal with people like Samuel Goldwyn. When Goldwyn denied him the "A William Wyler Production" credit he'd promised, snubbed him at the after-Oscar party, then turned out to have cooked the books to shortchange him on his profit participation, Wyler washed his hands.

Wyler could have said, "I made The Best Years of Our Lives. Sam Goldwyn only produced it." But he never did, because William Wyler was a gentleman. With all he and Goldwyn had in common, and after all they had helped each other to accomplish, that was the one big difference between them.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

"The Best of Us", Part 2 (reprinted)

July 1 will mark the 110th anniversary of the birth of
William Wyler (1902-81), peerless movie director
par excellence. The occasion is being observed
by a blogathon hosted by The Movie Projector 
June 24 - 29, in which many of my fellow
members in the Classic Movie Blog
Association (CMBA) will be holding forth on
their favorite Wyler pictures. Go here for a
list of blogathon participants and links to
their individual posts as they go up.

For my part, in conjunction with The
Movie Projector's blogathon, I'm
republishing a series of five posts I
did on Wyler in 2010, one a day for
five of the six days of the blogathon.
Happy Birthday, Willy, and thanks 
for the memories!

 *                    *                    *

Thalberg called him "Worthless Willy." This surely makes William Wyler the only recipient of the Academy's Irving G. Thalberg Award to have been publicly disparaged by the man the award was named for.

Thalberg did have his reasons. Only three years older than Wyler, he was far beyond him in stature at Universal when Wyler started there as an errand boy in 1921. According to Wyler's biographer Jan Herman, the only time Universal's youthful production chief deigned to notice the 19-year-old Wyler, it didn't go well for the future director. "You read German, don't you?" Thalberg asked. Wyler, fairly fresh from Europe and still honing the command of English he'd begun developing there, said he did. Thalberg handed him a German novel, a property the studio was considering buying for director Erich von Stroheim. "Bring me a synopsis in English on Monday."

This was on Friday, and Wyler didn't make the deadline; he didn't even finish the book. Monday came, then Tuesday and Wednesday before he could even tell Thalberg what the book was about; he appears never to have done a written synopsis. It also appears that Thalberg was administering a test -- and Wyler flunked. In any case, Wyler -- young and unfocused -- never got another personal assignment, however trivial, from Thalberg. The "Worthless" moniker came along later, when Thalberg got wind of the teenager's arrests for reckless driving; Thalberg must have decided the kid would never amount to much.

If so, then Thalberg, who died at 37, lived just long enough to get an inkling of how wrong he was. Even by the time Thalberg left Universal in 1924 for the new-minted super-studio MGM, Worthless Willy had already amounted to an assistant director -- of sorts. On The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Thalberg's pet project at Universal, Wyler was still just an errand boy, but now he was running errands for assistant directors Jack Sullivan and Jimmy Dugan, wrangling the picture's thousands of extras and getting his first chance to wield the coveted megaphone.

The anecdote of the German novel is a telling one. Wyler may have been a slow starter at Universal, and may have struck higher-ups -- and in those days nearly everybody at Universal was higher up than he was -- as a bad bet, but he was already showing a trait that would follow him all through his career: Willy Wyler didn't like to be hurried. In time, the "Worthless Willy" nickname would give way to another: "90-Take Wyler."

Bette Davis told a story about working with Wyler on Jezebel in the fall of 1937. Her first scene called for her to stride into her plantation home after dismounting from her horse and saucily slinging the long train of her riding outfit over her shoulder on her riding crop. At Wyler's request, Davis had practiced long with the crop and felt ready to nail the scene in one take. In fact, she thought she did, but Wyler disagreed. He ordered another take, and another, and another. After a dozen takes, Davis, who had rarely required more than two takes in her entire career so far, was exasperated. "What do you want me to do differently?"

"I'll know it when I see it."

Whatever it was, Wyler saw it on the forty-eighth take. "Okay, that's fine." And he called a wrap for the day.

Davis was furious, and demanded to see the rushes of the day's work. Wyler obliged. Davis no doubt was primed to fly into a self-righteous tirade: "What was wrong with that take...or that one...or that one?" But she never did. She walked into the screening room believing that she'd done the action exactly the same every single time, but now she saw that she hadn't. Each take was different, and the forty-eighth was the best.

That's how 90-Take Wyler operated, and in a way it wasn't all that different from Worthless Willy. He knew what he wanted, but he wasn't one of those directors -- not always, anyway -- who could get it from an actor with a few well-placed words. There's a famous story about how Wyler's friend John Huston, directing The African Queen, saved Katharine Hepburn from playing her character as a sour, prissy old-maid missionary (and probably saved the whole picture) by a simple, seemingly offhand remark comparing the character to Eleanor Roosevelt. Wyler didn't work that way. There are countless stories of Wyler ordering another take, saying things like "It stinks." "Do it again. Better."

Charlton Heston on Ben-Hur, for example. One night, he said, Wyler came to him in his dressing room. "Chuck, you gotta be better in this picture."

Nonplussed, Heston said, "Okay. What can I do?"

"I don't know. I wish I did. If I knew, I'd tell you, and you'd do it, and that would be fine. But I don't know."

"That was very tough," Heston recalled. "I spent a long time with a glass of scotch in my hand after that."

Wyler, it seems, didn't always issue instructions like a recipe to his actors. But he knew what he wanted. And he knew that "I'll know it when I see it."

These anecdotes conjure an image of a director passively waiting for lightning to strike, and willing to spend any amount of time and his producer's money while he waited. What they don't suggest is the process his refusal to accept the merely adequate sparked in his actors and writers. On their first picture together, The Big Country, Heston took exception to some minor piece of Wyler's direction and wanted to discuss it. He didn't have his script handy, so he asked to borrow Wyler's.

Wyler always carried his script in a leather binder, with the titles of his movies engraved in gold inside the front cover; when he finished a picture, he'd take the script out, engrave that one's title on the cover and move on to the next. As Heston took Wyler's script, it flipped open to the inside cover and he saw the titles engraved there: Dodsworth, Dead End, Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, The Letter, The Westerner, The Little Foxes, Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Heiress, Detective Story, Roman Holiday...

As Heston stared, Wyler grew impatient. "What is it, Chuck? What's on your mind?"

Heston closed the script and handed it back. "Never mind, Willy. It's not important."

Wyler began directing on two- and five-reel westerns at Universal, where they didn't want it good, they wanted it Thursday afternoon. The formulas were simple and unsubtle, and the movies had to move. Wyler showed, in now-forgotten titles like Ridin' for Love, Gun Justice and Straight Shootin', that he could turn it in Thursday afternoon and good. As the importance of his assignments increased, he drew on his bosses' memory of how right he had gotten things before -- under the gun, with the front office relentlessly beancounting -- to take more time and money to get it exactly right this time. And as his reputation grew (and stayed with him nearly to the end) as a man who couldn't make a flop, the people who worked with him tended more and more to take his word, like Heston on The Big Country and Ben-Hur. If Willy thinks I can do better, he must be right, and it's up to me to figure out how.

When a director insists on take after take, saying nothing but "again" and "it stinks," an actor's response is usually to think (or say), "This guy's giving me nothing, and he's a tyrant to boot." And some did. Jean Simmons worked for Wyler on The Big Country (1958), and even thirty years later she declined to discuss the experience with Jan Herman. Not so Sylvia Sidney, who dripped venom talking about doing Dead End fifty years after the fact. Ruth Chatterton didn't wait that long; she was every inch the affronted diva on Dodsworth even as Wyler and producer Sam Goldwyn were trying to jumpstart her fading career ("Would you like me to leave the studio, Miss Chatterton?" "I would indeed, but unfortunately I'm afraid it can't be arranged.").

Whatever the truth of these situations, the point is what conspicuous exceptions Simmons, Sidney and Chatterton are among the legions of actors who worked with Wyler. The tales of his calling take after take are recounted with affection, not exasperation -- not only by the Oscar winners, and not only years after wounded feelings have healed (Bette Davis got over her snit instantly). Wyler apparently never uttered the words "I know what I'm doing; trust me," but that seems to be the effect he had on people. Combined with a powerful personal charm, he exuded an atmosphere of serene confidence on the set that made people want to please him, even as they struggled through twenty, thirty takes or more trying to figure out what the hell he wanted them to do. Wyler's attitude was that they could do better; their response was to work all the harder to prove him right.

This is the intangible ingredient in Wyler's pictures, along with the ones we can identify and point to: the bravura or simply spot-on-genuine performances, the incisive writing, the striking cinematography (Wyler worked seven times with the great Gregg Toland, and they brought out the best in each other), the handsome production designs. If you want to find the "personal element" in Wyler's pictures, there it is: He had the confidence to take his time. In remarkably short order, thanks to luck as well as talent, he established a track record that allowed him to insist on it.

Gregory Peck nailed it exactly: "He was not one to talk a thing to death...What worked worked, and he knew how to recognize it...[N]ot all directors know how to do that. They pick the wrong take, or they're not open to what can happen on the spur of the moment. Willy had a special sensitivity to that. He sensed the interplay between actors...This was 'the Wyler touch.' It's why so many actors won Oscars with Willy, because he recognized the moments that brought them alive on the screen."

I haven't even gotten around to talking about Sam Goldwyn, have I? Next time, then; that testy, fruitful relationship deserves a post all to itself.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

"The Best of Us", Part 1 (reprinted)

July 1 will mark the 110th anniversary of the birth of
William Wyler (1902-81), peerless movie director
par excellence. The occasion is being observed
by a blogathon hosted by The Movie Projector 
June 24 - 29, in which many of my fellow
members in the Classic Movie Blog
Association (CMBA) will be holding forth on
their favorite Wyler pictures. Go here for a
list of blogathon participants and links to
their individual posts as they go up.

For my part, in conjunction with The
Movie Projector's blogathon, I'm
republishing a series of five posts I
did on Wyler in 2010, one a day for
five of the six days of the blogathon.
Happy Birthday, Willy, and thanks 
for the memories!

 *                    *                    *

When William Wyler died in 1981, writer-director Philip Dunne delivered a euolgy at a memorial service in a packed auditorium at the Directors Guild of America. "Talent," he said, "doesn't care whom it happens to. Sometimes it happens to rather dreadful people. In Willy's case, it happened to the best of us."

Everybody called him Willy. Naturally enough -- it was his name. He was born Willi Wyler, actually, in Alsace on July 1, 1902. When he began directing two-reel westerns for Universal in 1925, they Anglicized -- and, to their minds, dignified -- his given name to William, and he went along, but he never changed it legally, and to his friends and family he was Willy to the end.

He looks more like a Willy here, on the left holding the megaphone, playing a Hitchcockian cameo as the assisstant director of the movie-within-the-movie in Daze of the West, his last two-reeler for Universal; he had already begun directing five-reel westerns and would soon graduate to more prestigious (for Universal, anyhow) features. He's 25 in this picture and has already been directing for two years, the youngest on the Universal lot and probably the youngest in Hollywood. (A few years later, he took mild umbrage at seeing Mervyn LeRoy over at Warners touted as Hollywood's youngest -- "He had press agents and I didn't." -- even though LeRoy was two years older and began directing two years later. Much later on, coincidentally, both would work for producer Sam Zimbalist on the two huge Roman epics that bookended the 1950s at MGM: LeRoy on Quo Vadis and Wyler on Ben-Hur.)

In between the one-week shoot on Daze of the West and the eight months on Ben-Hur, Wyler had one helluva run. In the end it may have been Ben-Hur that proved the undoing of his reputation, at least among "serious" film students. Wyler certainly thought so: "Cahiers du Cinema never forgave me for the picture. I was completely written off as a serious director by the avant-garde, which had considered me a favorite for years. I had prostituted myself."

Well, it certainly didn't seem that way at the time. At least among the hoi polloi and mainstream movie reviewers, Ben-Hur looked like Wyler's masterpiece; his Oscar for directing it was only one of the eleven it won, a record that stood for 37 years. In 1959 and '60, Ben-Hur wasn't simply a great movie, it was a touchstone in the march of human culture. It was everywhere; you couldn't catch a cold without blowing your nose on Ben-Hur kleenex, and everybody who even wanted to be anybody simply had to see it.

In time cooler heads prevailed, and it became clear that as great movies and cultural touchstones go, Ben-Hur was neither. But by then the damage was done; the avant-garde (whoever they are) had abandoned Wyler for -- oh, pick a name: Howard Hawks? Vincente Minnelli? John Cassavetes, Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller? Andrew Sarris's American Cinema relegated Wyler to four tiers below the Pantheon, in a section headed "Less Than Meets the Eye". David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film dismissed him as "Hollywood's idea of an outstanding director."

True, it's hard to believe that the director of the bloated, lumbering Ben-Hur is the same man, 20-plus years on, who turned out the spare, gritty Hell's Heroes or the trifling, light-hearted confection The Good Fairy with Margaret Sullavan (who became, for a scant sixteen months, his first wife), never mind anything in between. Wyler's career doesn't have to stand on Ben-Hur, nor does it deserve to fall on it. 

I have an idea for a book, and I may yet do it: The Movie Directors' Hall of Fame. The idea is this: create a scoring system for directors, compiling statistics the way they do for professional athletes. Award so many points for winning an Oscar, so many for directing an Oscar-winning best picture, for directing an Oscar-winning or nominated performance, for directing one of the top box-office movies of the year, for winning the DGA or other directing awards, and so on. Total up the points and see how things shake out.

Now clearly, a scoring system where, for example, Kevin Costner beats out Orson Welles isn't going to be definitive. But let's take it as a premise, just for the sake of argument -- something at least a bit more objective than asking an assortment of critics and "film industry professionals" what they think are the greatest movies of all time. The stats pretty much speak for themselves: William Wyler is the Babe Ruth, the Wilt Chamberlain, the Muhammad Ali of movie directors. There isn't even a close second.

Wyler won three Academy Awards for best director. Only one director (Frank Capra) has won as many, and only one other (John Ford) has won more. Perhaps more important, all three of Wyler's movies also won best picture; one of Capra's didn't, and only one of Ford's did.

Wyler was nominated for best director a total of twelve times; his nearest competitor is Billy Wilder, with eight. Wilder's nominations spanned 17 years, from 1944 to 1960, which could indicate a hot streak, while Wyler's ran 30 years, '36 to '65, which you could read as a sustained career. Fred Zinnemann has seven nominations, several have six, and quite a few have five. But a full dozen? Only Wyler, and it's all but inconceivable that any director will ever top his total (or Wilder's, for that matter).

But where Wyler's directorial touch really shows is in the number of actors and actresses who won or were nominated for his films: 14 wins (or 131/2, if you insist; one, Walter Brennan's supporting win for Come and Get It, was for a film where Wyler shared director credit, taking over after producer Sam Goldwyn fired Howard Hawks) and a whopping 36 nominations. His closest runner-up here is Elia Kazan, with nine wins and 24 nominations. It's particularly telling to note the unusual number of times that two performers won for the same Wyler picture: Jezebel, Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives, Ben-Hur. Multiple nominations, too: two for Dodsworth, Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, The Letter and others; three for The Little Foxes, and five for Mrs. Miniver.

Surely this record will stand for as long as Oscars continue to be handed out. Today the only director working with anything like the prolificacy of Golden Age Hollywood is Woody Allen -- 41 features in 43 years -- and he's only racked up six acting wins and 16 nominations (including his own). How long would it take Steven Spielberg or James Cameron -- or even Martin Scorsese (five wins, 20 nominations) -- to equal Wyler's tally? In a Hollywood where directors devote two, three, four years to one picture, it can't be done.

In Part 2, I'll look a little closer at some of these pictures, at Wyler's productive partnership with Samuel Goldwyn, and the working style with which Wyler often drove his actors nuts, even as he shepherded so many of them to the podium on Oscar night.

To be continued...

Wyler Catches Fire: Hell's Heroes (reprinted)

July 1 will mark the 110th anniversary of the birth of
William Wyler (1902-81), peerless movie director
par excellence. The occasion is being observed
by a blogathon hosted by The Movie Projector 
over the next six days, in which many of my
fellow members in the Classic Movie Blog
Association (CMBA) will be holding forth on
their favorite Wyler pictures. Go here for a
list of blogathon participants and links to
their individual posts as they go up.

For my part, in conjunction with The
Movie Projector's blogathon, I'm
republishing a series of five posts I
did on Wyler in 2010, one a day for
five of the six days of the blogathon.
Happy Birthday, Willy, and thanks 
for the memories!

 *                    *                    *

In his biography of William Wyler, A Talent for Trouble, author Jan Herman makes the kind of statement movie buffs love to see become obsolete: "There are no extant prints of the sound version of Hell's Heroes." Herman then goes on to discuss Wyler's first talkie in terms of its silent version (like many early sound pictures, Hell's Heroes was released silent as well, for theaters that had not yet been wired for sound).

A Talent for Trouble was published seventeen years ago, and I'm sure Herman himself is pleased to know that his pronouncement is no longer operative. Fortunately for us, Hell's Heroes was remade by MGM in 1936 under author Peter B. Kyne's original title Three Godfathers (and again in 1948 as 3 Godfathers, that time directed by John Ford and starring Duke Wayne), so ownership of this Universal picture devolved upon Metro.

In those days, when Metro remade a movie, it was studio practice to buy up and suppress (some say destroy) any earlier versions. If those originals were in fact earmarked for the incinerator, we probably have a fumbling studio bureaucracy to thank for the fact that we can still see Paramount's 1932 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Universal's 1936 Show Boat, the British Gaslight of 1940, even MGM's own silent Ben-Hur, and other movies that the suits at the Tiffany Studio took it into their heads to remount over the years.

We can certainly thank MGM's acquisitiveness for the fact that these titles from other studios ended up in the MGM library and are now owned by Warner Home Video. The Warner Archive offers a double-feature package of Hell's Heroes with MGM's 1936 remake, and it affords us an opportunity to appreciate this landmark in William Wyler's career that wasn't available to Jan Herman in 1995.

Peter B. Kyne's short novel The Three Godfathers was published in 1913 in The Saturday Evening Post, and was his first great success in a writing career that would carry him through 1940 as a popular and well-read author. The story has a mythic resonance: three outlaws on the run from their latest crime come across a dying woman in childbirth in the desert. Before the doomed mother dies she extracts a promise from the three desperadoes to take her baby to safety, and the helpless child awakens the latent humanity of the three unregenerate bad men.

By the time Carl Laemmle Jr. decided to make The Three Godfathers the basis of Universal's first outdoor all-talkie, the studio had already gotten more than its money's worth out of it. There was a screen version in 1916 starring Harry Carey, and another in 1919 titled Marked Men, again with Carey and this time directed by John Ford. Both pictures had been good moneymakers for Universal. (There was another Ford western in 1921, Action, which the IMDb claims was based on Kyne's story, while Clive Hirschhorn's The Universal Story gives an entirely different and unrelated plot. Alas, this is one of Ford's many westerns presumed lost, so we may never resolve the discrepancy.)

To direct the new version of the story, Laemmle chose 27-year-old William Wyler. Wyler had begun work on the Universal City lot as an errand boy, and after a rocky start -- at one point studio chief Irving Thalberg dubbed him "Worthless Willy" -- Wyler had risen to where he was considered an asset to the studio. Hell's Heroes was to be his first talkie, but he was no stranger to westerns, having cut his directorial teeth on them from 1925 on -- first a series of nearly two dozen two-reel horse operas for Universal's so-called "Mustang" unit, then five-reel features in the "Blue Streak" series.

Wyler began shooting in California's Mojave Desert and Panamint Valley, just south of Death Valley, on August 9, 1929. Jan Herman tells us that the temperature on location rose as high as 110 degrees Fahrenheit, but those of us who know the California desert in August suspect that's probably a conservative figure -- 115 to 125 sounds more like it. In any case, one can only shudder at what the poor cameraman in his booth -- like a meat locker, but without refrigeration -- must have gone through. He must have needed five gallons of water a day just to ward off dehydration.

In the movie, the three outlaws -- Charles Bickford, Raymond Hatton and Fred Kohler -- are on the run after robbing the Bank of New Jerusalem on the edge of the desert (and killing the cashier, who we later learn was the father of the baby they rescue -- a nice detail not in Kyne's story, supplied by scenarist Tom Reed). For Wyler's company, New Jerusalem was Bodie, Calif., an erstwhile Gold Rush boomtown near the California-Nevada border.

Bodie was near the tail-end of its boom-and-bust history in the late summer of 1929. Originally founded on a nearby gold strike in 1859, it had grown by 1880 to a reported population of 10,000, home to 65 saloons and other establishments of ill repute. By 1929 the population hovered around 100. Three years after the Hell's Heroes crew left town, so the story goes, a young boy at a church social threw a tantrum when he was given Jell-O instead of ice cream. Sent home as a punishment, he set fire to his bed and burned down over 90 percent of the town. The final blow came in 1942, when War Production Board Order L-208 closed down all nonessential gold mines in the country, including Bodie's; even the U.S. Post Office closed. Today, what's left of Bodie is a California State Park and a National Historic Landmark.

Notwithstanding the efforts of that youthful
Depression-Era pyromaniac, traces of Bodie
as it appears in Hell's Heroes survive to the
present day. Here's Bodie's Methodist Church,
which figures prominently in the movie's
opening and closing scenes, as it appears today.

And here it is again, 
on the left edge of the frame, 
at the top of Bodie's -- er, that is, 
New Jerusalem's -- dusty main street.

Here's a glimpse of town
and the hills beyond
in the closing moments 
of the movie ...

... and a similar view taken more 
recently, showing what's left 
of the same street.

Hell's Heroes was a success for Universal and for Wyler personally. He'd become an asset to Universal for his westerns, but outside the studio Universal's westerns -- cranked out in days for small-time houses in neighborhoods and farm towns -- hardly deserved notice. Now people were noticing. Over at Warner Bros., Darryl F. Zanuck ordered all his producers to see "this picture by this new director."

What specifically excited Zanuck was a tracking shot that Wyler inserted as a way to sidestep a conflict with his leading man, Charles Bickford (on the right in this picture; the others are Raymond Hatton, left, and Fred Kohler). Bickford was a recent import from Broadway -- Heroes was his third picture, made and released hot on the heels of the other two -- and he evidently didn't cotton much to being directed by some Hollywood rube who didn't know anything about real acting. Herman tells us he even went out of his way to undermine Wyler with his fellow actors, an unconscionable breach of protocol then, and an actionable offense under union rules now.

Their particular conflict came over a scene late in the movie as Bickford, the last survivor of the three bandits, trudges through the desert with the baby in his arms. Wyler wanted Bickford, carrying a rifle as well as the child, to first drop the butt-end of the rifle in the dust and drag it for a distance before dropping it altogether. Bickford refused. He insisted on stopping in his tracks, looking at the rifle, then hurling it away from him into the dirt.

I almost wish this shot survived in the Universal vaults; I'd love to see it, because it sounds perfectly ridiculous -- just the kind of grandiloquent gesture you'd expect from a stage-trained ham with a lot to learn about movie acting. A man dying of thirst won't be able to summon the strength to throw a heavy rifle at all -- and besides, shooting the scene in a real desert, he'd have to throw it about a hundred yards before it looked as impressive to the camera as the actor doing it thought it did.

Wyler's solution was ingeniously simple. He filmed the scene the way Bickford wanted to play it. Then, one day when Bickford wasn't on call, he dressed a prop man in Bickford's boots, had him make tracks in the desert sand, and photographed them with a moving camera.

First we see just the bandit's footprints,
occasionally staggering and shuffling ...

... then the tracks and the divot dug by the rifle butt ...


... then the discarded rifle itself ...
... and so on through other items discarded by the bandit under the grueling desert sun. When we next see Bickford's character, he's stumbling along clutching the child, discarding the last of his burden -- the gold from his bank robbery. 

Bickford's reaction to this end run is not recorded. He no doubt didn't see it until the picture was finished. Did he recognize the tracking shot as a directorial tour de force and an improvement on his own idea? Maybe not; Bickford was always headstrong and cantankerous, and I suspect the whole thing rankled: when he next worked with Wyler -- 28 years later, on The Big Country -- they took up squabbling again as if they had never left off.

But it's not as if Wyler ruined Bickford's budding career. In fact, Hell's Heroes is probably where he first gave evidence of the actor he'd become, and it's still one of his best performances. Along with the four other movies he appeared in during 1930, this one marked him as a strong and distinctive actor who bore watching. 

It marked Wyler as someone worth watching, too. Variety's review called it "gripping and real. Unusually well cast and directed." True, the movie's director was misidentified as "Wilbur Wylans" -- but it was the last time anybody would make that mistake.

One who didn't like Hell's Heroes, it must be said, was Peter B. Kyne. Asked to provide a complimentary letter for studio publicity, he indignantly refused. "Frankly," he wrote to Tom Reed, "I think your Mr. Wyler murdered our beautiful story ... I don't care how much money the picture makes, my conscience will not let me cheer for the atrocious murder of one of the few works of art I have ever turned out ... I will not write any letter to Mr. Wyler. The young gentleman must fight his weary way through life without a helping hand from me."

My, aren't we cranky! Maybe Kyne was miffed that the movie altered the character dynamics, embellished the plot and changed the ending of his story. Whatever got him all riled up, there's no getting around the fact -- the man had rocks in his head. Hell's Heroes is a terrific picture, and in 1930 everybody but him knew it. Of the three versions of the story I've seen, it is easily my favorite, and certainly the simplest and least sentimental.

The acting is straightforward and unpretentious, and at a swift, lean 68 minutes the movie spends no time wallowing. The presentation is hard-eyed and terse, which makes the three desperados' conversion to decency and self-sacrifice all the more persuasive and moving. As the first of the bandits to die, Raymond Hatton has a line that's straight out of Kyne's story: "Don't let my godson die between two thieves." Hatton's reading of the line, and the staging of his suicide as the other outlaws plod doggedly away, are presented with a simplicity that -- in hands other than Hatton's and Wyler's -- could easily have become lachrymose and bathetic. 

There is a creative use of sound, too, that Jan Herman could not have appreciated in 1995, not having an extant print to review. Notice especially the last scene, as Bickford's character staggers into that church, the in-and-out subjective sound, so eloquently showing us the man's delirious condition. 

Seen today, too, the movie's age works for it. The primitive technology of early sound, the rugged conditions on location, the stark frontier setting and the primal power of the story all work together to make Hell's Heroes feel not like a movie but a relic, in the best sense of the word -- something rare and precious brought back by a time traveler just returned from 1880 or 1900. 

As things turned out, young Mr. Wyler fought his weary way through life rather well, with or without Peter Kyne's help, and Kyne himself lived long enough to see it. By the time Kyne died in 1957, he had seen -- or could have, if he cared to notice -- Wyler direct two of his three best picture Oscar winners, win two of his three Oscars for direction, and receive ten of his twelve Oscar nominations. 

I'll have more to say about Wyler later. This is just a respectful -- I might even say, given the subject matter, reverent -- look back at the movie that really put him on the map. If it really was lost, as Jan Herman said, in 1995, it's not anymore. Hallelujah.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Andrew Sarris, 1928-2012

I was saddened to learn of the death of movie critic Andrew Sarris, who passed away Wednesday at the age of 83. I didn't always concur with his judgments, but that sort of thing is overrated. What makes a critic valuable isn't how often you agree with him (or her), but how clearly his passion for the art and craft of movies comes through in his writing, and whether he enriches your understanding with his own perceptions and observations. On that score, Sarris was one of the best.

Sarris's great adversary Pauline Kael, in her 1963 essay "Circles and Squares", which inaugurated her and Sarris's longstanding feud, wrote: "The role of the critic is to help people see what is in the work, what is in it that shouldn't be, what is not in it that could be. He is a good critic if he helps people understand more about the work than they could see for themselves; he is a great critic, if by his understanding and feeling for the work, by his passion, he can excite people so that they want to experience more of the art that is there, waiting to be seized. He is not necessarily a bad critic if he makes errors in judgment. (Infallible taste is inconceivable; what could it be measured against?) He is a bad critic if he does not awaken the curiosity, enlarge the interests and understanding of his audience. The art of the critic is to transmit his knowledge of and enthusiasm for art to others." By this measure, both Kael and Sarris, whatever their differences, were great critics. (About their feud, Sarris once graciously said, "We made each other. We established a dialectic." I seem to recall that Kael once expressed similar sentiments about him, but I've been unable to confirm this.) (UPDATE: Oh wait, I can too: Kael biographer Brian Kellow tells us that she was "often quick to point out that she thought Sarris had a lively intelligence".)

Kael and Sarris had another thing in common: They both came of age and found their voices at a time when movies were an explosively vibrant art. I've been reviewing movies off and on since 1967, and steadily since 1989. When people ask me what is the greatest change I've seen in that time, I tell them: It's harder now. In the 1960s and '70s, even the bad movies were worth writing about; nowadays, even the good movies, there's just not all that much to say about them. Andrew Sarris, like Kael, was one of a dwindling corps who wrote often and well at a time when there was one helluva lot to be said.

Pauline Kael died in 2001. By that time, we'd already lost Otis Ferguson, Graham Greene, James Agee, Dwight Macdonald, Penelope Gilliatt, Vincent Canby -- the list goes on. Sarris's death deprives us of yet another critical voice that arose amid the ferment of those heady days, and one that uniquely championed the vigor and vitality of American movies against the "higher" forms of Cinemah coming from other countries.

Requiescat in pace.


Saturday, June 9, 2012

Please Stay Tuned

Deepest apologies to my patient readers for making them wait so long between posts. To tell the truth, my six-part series on The Magnificent Ambersons turned out to be a more exhausting effort than I thought it would be when I embarked on it, and my batteries have been slower to recharge than I expected. I do have some things in the hopper, though, to go up once they've ripened, so if you'll kindly bear with me, I'll try to make them worth the wait.

In the meantime, something else has cropped up that may delay me a little longer: Warner Home Video has finally delivered the long-promised Maverick: The Complete First Season, and I'm afraid just about everything must go on a back burner while I reacquaint myself with one of the Best. TV Series. Ever. Certainly the best western series -- pace Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel etc. Not to mention the show that made James Garner an overnight sensation. It's available here from Amazon, and I think everybody in America should buy it -- if only to make sure that Warner stays with it and brings out subsequent seasons for me to add to my collection.

If plugging Maverick seems like an almighty stretch for a blog supposedly dedicated to classic Hollywood -- it's not. Maverick hails from a time (the mid-to-late 1950s) when Warner Bros. all but dominated prime-time television, even as it breathed the last gasps of the dying studio system. Here -- as in Cheyenne, Sugarfoot, Jim Bowie, 77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye, Surfside 6 and others -- was the last flowering of the legendary Warner Bros. stock company, with Garner and co-star Jack Kelly (as Bret Maverick's brother Bart) supported by a wonderful mix of seasoned veterans (Edmund Lowe, John Litel, Jane Darwell, Esther Dale, Stanley Andrews, Buddy Ebsen, Patric Knowles, Morris Ankrum) and rising young comers (Mike Connors, Clint Eastwood, Troy Donahue, Edd "Kookie" Byrnes, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Roger Moore). The well-written stories were often recycled from Warners' B-westerns of the '30s and '40s (average running time 65 minutes, easy to trim down for an hour time slot minus commercials), and production values were enhanced by frequent trips to the Warner Bros. library of stock footage (that spectacular saloon brawl from 1939's Dodge City crops up time and time again).

Think of these episodes as B-westerns in the best sense -- economical, densely plotted, crisply directed, well-cast and -acted -- only delivered to your TV instead of to your neighborhood theater. Which, come to think of it, is where most of Golden Age Hollywood is playing these days anyway. Remember the name: Maverick. A legend of the West.

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