Archive for William Wyler

The Sunday Intertitle: Apocrypha and Marginalia

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2015 by dcairns


Fiona and I thoroughly enjoyed our Easter viewing of the silent BEN-HUR (subtitled A TALE OF THE CHRIST) directed by Fred Niblo, though I suspect some good bits are by Charles Brabin, before he was removed. Brabin also did the best bits of RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS and again didn’t get a credit. Not a good politician, it seems, but a very good filmmaker.

All through this I was comparing it to the Wyler version and generally thinking “This isn’t obviously inferior in any way.” Radically different from Charlton Heston in every way, Ramon Novarro is still a good lead. There are a lot of spectacular sets and miniatures and matte paintings. There’s even a tracking shot with a foreground miniature in the build-up to the chariot race. The race itself is very exciting, but I get the impression they massacred horses to make it, whereas Wyler and Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt looked after their horses well — the one injured steed was nursed back to health over a period of months and was able to rejoin the race before the finish, so long was the shoot on that one sequence.


The bit of the silent film that’s clearly superior is the battle at sea, with full-scale galley ships in a real sea with lots of real extras who pretended they could swim to get the job, and then found themselves bailing out of a burning vessel with every prospect of a watery death. Supposedly nobody perished, but the production was hauled back from Italy to Hollywood and Brabin was removed. Still, the scale and conviction of the scene is hugely impressive, and it benefits from not relying on miniatures and a studio tank. The good stuff in the Wyler is all basically real, as I think it should be in an epic.

But Wyler’s ending (not sure which of the various credited and uncredited screenwriters came up with it — it’s not in the novel) beats the Niblo, hands down. It’s all about how the films weave their narratives in and out of the New Testament. In the silent film, Jesus cures Ben-Hur’s mother and sister of leprosy while on his way to Golgotha, AND resurrects a baby to boot. “How can they crucify him after that?” asked Fiona. In the remake, the film’s recurring motif of water comes into play again, as rain falling on the bloody body of the crucified Christ flows to the lepers and heals them, which is an almost science-fictional speculation on how miraculous Christ actually was, but in keeping with the Catholic church’s bizarre, idolatrous fetish for holy relics (pieces of the cross, saints’ bones, etc). It’s cheeky, but it works — it allows for a stronger all-is-lost moment when the crucifixion occurs before “Cheston,” as Fiona calls him, can obtain a miracle cure for his family.


The silent movie accompanies the crucifixion with some impressive but slightly irrelevant disaster-movie special effects, which we enjoyed. The effects team use the expanding cloud of dust to softly wipe between the slow-motion miniature and the full-scale crowd. It works even better than the flooding in the silent NOAH’S ARK.

Right after watching it, we re-watched the 1959 version of the chariot race, then I told Fiona that Stephen Boyd has the most agonizing death scene in film history, so of course she wanted to see that. It really is fantastic — very smartly written and played to the hilt by Boyd, always a very enthusiastic actor. It’s a shame THE OSCAR is so damned enjoyable because one should really remember Boyd (he of the Klingon forehead) for his many extremely good movie moments, not for his unconscious foray into campy trash.

Cold Readings

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 13, 2014 by dcairns


Another thing about THE HEIRESS — Montgomery Clift’s first lines, spoken before we see him, are delivered in a shockingly blue-collar fifties New York tone. Very mookish. particularly the words, “How ya do, Miss Sloper?” I wondered why. It could be that director William Wyler, being of Alsatian origins (in the sense of being from Alsace, not a son-of-a-bitch) wasn’t sensitive enough to nuances of accent and let the line slip by. But it may be that he thought, Clift is obviously going to stick out next to Olivia and Ralph and Miriam, better let the audience get over their discomfort as soon as possible — shock them into accepting it. Let’s make sure they notice it on Line 1, so they’re not wondering all through the scene, Is there something funny about his delivery? And his hair?


(Incidentally, this is the first time I saw the film and read Monty’s character as a fortune-hunter from the off, which he clearly is. On previous viewings, partly because I like Monty and partly because I’m dumb as Olivia, I always found him quite sincere — that uncertain smile! [Which really signals: Do you believe me so far?] Of course, I knew after the first time that he was after her loot, but I never could read it that way. This time at last I came to my senses, the scales fell from my eyes — he feeds her a line about always feeling he could say the right thing when he’s alone in his room, but in public the words desert him — which they clearly DON’T. It’s a classic fake psychic’s cold reading, a line that everyone can relate to and say is true of them, and it’s not even that cold because he’s had a chance to observe her and see how tongue-tied she is. Also, though, I do think Monty likes her a little, or at any rate doesn’t find her as unbearable as the guy who’s forced to dance with her earlier, whose eyes roll clean up into his head as if pumped full of helium after a few minutes of her conversation.)

The other great ludicrous first speech is Mark Hammill’s famous “But I was going into Tosche station to pick up some power converters,” in STAR WARS. Knowing the importance of setting up your “Hero With a Thousand Faces” right away, George Lucas worked hard to establish Luke Skywalker as a hysterical, adenoidal homosexual caricature with his very first line. The dialogue itself was not sufficiently evocative of these qualities, but dialogue was never Lucas’s strong suit. Finally, the correct effect was achieved by getting Hammill to loop the line while jumping blindfolded off a high diving board, his arms making little circular flailing movements as he plummeted helplessly towards the unheated water below. After the third take, it was perfect.

The Heiress [DVD]
The Heiress (Universal Cinema Classics)

England Expects

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , on October 11, 2014 by dcairns


“But father, I thought you wanted to see England?” says Olivia de Havilland in THE HEIRESS.

“I’ve seen England,” replies Ralph Richardson, with finality (and accuracy).

Theory: nobody ever sees England in William Wyler’s films. In DODSWORTH, Mr and Mrs D are all set to see England on their transatlantic cruise, and looking forward to it mightily, when Mrs D. (Ruth Chatterton) has a dangerous liaison with David Niven on the boat and is simply too embarrassed to see England afterwards. All those English people, acting superior and telling one another of her shame, and sniggering behind their hands! So they just give England the heave-ho.

This motif of not seeing England had becomes such a central part of Wyler’s style that when forced to film in England during the war, Wyler insisted that his cast become fliers and thus spend as much of their time off England as possible. The result was MEMPHIS BELLE, and it was a documentary so that was alright. MRS. MINIVER and THE COLLECTOR presented a bigger problem, since they were not documentaries and there was no way to rewrite them so that Greer Garson spent most of her time hovering or Terence Stamp abducted Samantha Eggar and imprisoned her in the cellar of his Boeing B17F Flying Fortress. Wyler did consider that, but author John Fowles protested, and bombers don’t have cellars anyway. The solution came from filming at the Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood, California, which already looked a bit like England due to all the dirt deposited over the years from Basil Rathbone’s boots.

Wyler’s aversion to filming on British soil (unless it was on the floor of a sound stage in Hollywood) had resulted in numerous script changes over the years. The original draft of THE LETTER took place on a rubber plantation in Wiltshire, while ROMAN HOLIDAY was at first called COCKNEY KNEES-UP and BEN-HUR had a deleted scene where Judah traveled North to Manchester with Joseph of Arimathea and started a record label. Sam Goldwyn only got Wyler to make WUTHERING HEIGHTS by pretending that Yorkshire was in South America, although it has also been suggested that Goldwyn really believed this.


We watched THE LETTER and THE HEIRESS on my birthday but I don’t have anything serious to say just now.


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