CinemaLit Film Series
April 2021 – Wonderful William Wyler
The Academy Awards are handed out on April 25 this year, and now seems like the right moment to pay tribute to William Wyler. With twelve nominations and three wins, he remains the most honored director in Academy history.
We are highlighting five Wyler films, each a nominee for Best Picture and for acting categories, with one capturing the Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Supporting Actor honors: the multiple Oscar winning The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Dodsworth (1936), Dead End (1937), Wuthering Heights (1939), and The Little Foxes (1941).
Born in Alsace-Lorraine in 1902, young Wyler soon proved himself unfit for the family haberdashery business. His mother arranged for her rebellious son to meet Carl Laemmle, her talent-scouting cousin and founder of Universal Pictures. Eventually, Wyler moved to Southern California and the Universal lot, where he began as a production assistant. Laemmle spotted his potential right away, and Wyler was directing by age 23. His silent film forte was Westerns, but sound liberated him artistically, and soon he flourished in dramas, comedies, and romances. From there, it was straight up for Wyler and into the pantheon of Hollywood's all-time greatest directors.
Wyler's output of classics is unmatched, and the urge to recite lists and hyperbolize is irresistible. The following are a few of his titles not featured in this month's tribute. Classic film buffs will recognize the magnitude of excellence here: These Three, Come and Get It, Jezebel, The Letter, Mrs. Miniver, The Memphis Belle, The Heiress, Detective Story, Roman Holiday, Friendly Persuasion, The Big Country, Ben-Hur, The Collector, and Funny Girl.
What made Wyler so good? The short answer is he was a perfectionist, and kept a close eye on every aspect of production. He was a subtle master, not prone to lavish directorial trickery. His gifts for storytelling, visual compositions, pacing, and dramatic conflict were superb. He knew to surround himself with the best in the business – producer Samuel Goldwyn, cinematographer Gregg Toland, and editor Daniel Mandell, among others.
Above all, Wyler was an actor's director. He directed many of the biggest stars for several decades, from Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis to Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas, Audrey Hepburn, and Barbra Streisand. He was known for multiple takes, following each with a simple, "Let's do it again." He would not readily articulate his wishes, allowing the actors to grow in their roles using their own creative powers. If his method drove them crazy ("Why don't you tell me when I'm good?" was the typical query on a Wyler set), there is no arguing the results. Wyler directed a never surpassed thirty-six Oscar nominated performances, with fourteen of them winning.
Actors spoke reverently of "Willie," grateful for the performances he drew out of them. And, like many great artists, he could be wry and plainspoken. Keep it simple, he believed. He was asked about the secret of his phenomenal success. "I have a theory," he replied. "Not to bore the audience. That's a good theory."
April 16 – Dead End (1937) – 93 minutes
The influential film Dead End began as a hit 1935 Broadway drama by Sidney Kingsley. Its stage origins are apparent, but William Wyler made sure this is no claustrophobic transfer from one medium to another. Ace art director Richard Day, fresh from winning an Oscar for Wyler's Dodsworth, designed a huge multi-storied tenement warren with docks and swimming pool standing in for New York's East River.
Against the impressive set, Wyler directed the story of desperate lives on Manhattan's East Side. There's a struggling architect (Joel McCrea), his underworld friend (a pre-major star Humphrey Bogart), a down-trodden young woman dreaming of escape (an eloquently sad faced Sylvia Sidney), and a gang of under-aged hoodlums whose crimes grow ever more dangerous and deadly.
Street argot has since changed, as have portrayals of urban criminality, but Dead End still packs a punch. The fortressed luxury high rises looming over the ghetto are ever timely. And Wyler's films were so elegantly realized, and of such pedigree, that he could often sneak objectionable material past the censors. Dead End includes a brief but memorable performance by Claire Trevor as a prostitute slowly dying of consumption. Playing Bogart's mother, Marjorie Main appears here to shatter expectations of anyone who knows her only as the comic yokel Ma Kettle.
Six of the actors who played the gang on Broadway were rehired for the film. Movie audiences were enamored, and Dead End spawned a cottage industry of young tough-talking delinquents in films such as Angels with Dirty Faces and They Made Me a Criminal. The "Dead End Kids" went on to appear in dozens of films, actors rotated out, and the gang name changed to Little Tough Guys, The East Side Kids, and The Bowery Boys. The series turned to comedy (Dig that Uranium, Bowery to Baghdad, etc.), and endured all the way to 1958. By then, a late career Wyler was readying the gargantuan Biblical epic Ben-Hur.
Matthew Kennedy, CinemaLit’s curator, has written biographies of Marie Dressler, Joan Blondell, and Edmund Goulding. His book Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s, was the basis of a film series on Turner Classic Movies.
“I don't have a favorite film,” Matthew says. "I find that my relationships to films, actors, genres, and directors change as I change over the years. Some don't hold up. Some look more profound, as though I've caught up with their artistry. I feel that way about Garbo, Cary Grant, director John Cassavetes, and others."
“Classic films have historical context, something only time can provide,” Matt observes. “They become these great cultural artifacts, so revealing of tastes, attitudes, and assumptions.”
INSTRUCTIONS FOR JOINING THE CINEMALIT SALON
First watch the selected film on Kanopy. All you will need is either a Mechanics' Institute library card, or a San Francisco Public Library card, which will give you access to Kanopy and its treasure trove of movies. Make a reservation for our CinemaLit Salon as usual via Eventbrite and watch the film on Kanopy at your leisure. You will receive a link to the Friday night CinemaLit salon on Zoom one day in advance, and then an additional reminder roughly two hours in advance. On the night of the salon click the Zoom link and join us.
If you do not receive a Zoom Link by 4:00 PM on the day of the event, contact Pam Troy at [email protected]
Mechanics’ Institute members can now sign up for FREE access to Kanopy, a wonderful film streaming service. To sign up:
1. Click on THIS LINK.
2. Click on the large orange login button that reads, “Log in to milibrary.”
3. Enter the 14-digit bar code from your MI Library card
4. Set up your account following Kanopy’s instructions, including your email and a password.
5. Kanopy will send verification to your email address.
You’ll be able to choose from a wonderful selection of films, including classics, pre-code, foreign films, and documentaries, including the films we’ve scheduled this month for CinemaLit.
If you are not a Mechanics’ Institute member, consider membership and click HERE to join online:
Or, you can check with your public library to see if they are Kanopy members. If so, you may use your public library card to set up a Kanopy account.
Register with Eventbrite below.
If the green TICKET button is not immediately visible, scroll down on the right in the Eventbrite window until it appears.
Future CinemaLit Films
Apr 23 - 6:00pm
Apr 30 - 6:00pm
May 7 - 6:00pm
May 14 - 6:00pm
May 21 - 6:00pm