William Wyler, strangely for an acclaimed, Oscar-winning, AFI-certified master director (albeit one with shaky standing among highbrow cinephiles), suffers from a peculiar neglect of his early work. he cut his teeth doing tiny westerns, like Ford, but while Ford’s shorts are at least the object of some cinephile interest, and ripples of excitement are felt whenever one is rediscovered, Wyler’s juvenilia seems to inspire little curiosity and in any case there is no way to slake any if you have some.
“I used to lie awake at night trying to think of new ways to photograph a man getting off a horse,” recalled Wyler, who had been known as Worthless Willie, a Laemmle relative who had been handed a studio job based on genetics rather than merit, and made little splash apart from when he drove his motorbike off a friend’s diving board as a lark. His brother Robert was considered the promising one.
Somewhere in between starting out on his sagebrush hackwork and making 1929’s THE SHAKEDOWN, the only pure silent of his I’ve been able to see, Wyler got good. The same year he made part-talkies THE LOVE TRAP and HELL’S HEROES, which are very good, once you get over the whole part-talkie thing. So the whole “learning his craft” part of the Wyler oeuvre is MIA. It might be very interesting, or totally uninteresting, but we don’t know until we see it, or at least until some reliable person sees it and reports back in detail.
So I was chuffed to obtain THE STOLEN RANCH from 1926 — and then surprised to find it’s not a two-reel western but a fairly substantial piece of work, opening as it does in WWI — not a WINGS-scale super-epic version, admittedly, but a comparatively modest evocation of trench warfare with a few shell-bursts and squibs. We meet leading man Fred Humes (me neither) and his buddy, who has a breakdown under the strain, and then we flash forward to an unspecified postwar world, roughly contemporaneous…
A train passes and Fred covers his friend’s ears so he won’t be startled by the whistle — he still has shell-shock, we surmise. And Fred’s tenderness is touching. I’m immediately gripped. I want to know what happens to these fellows. I’ll let you know.