Friday, April 28, 2006



“A Star is Born is a socko candidate for anyone’s must see list, scoring on all counts as fine entertainment…It is among the top musicals that have come from the Hollywood stages…It is a big picture…The tremendous outlay of money…is fully justified…it is to the great credit of Jack Warner that he kept his mind and purse strings open and thus kept the project going despite…the insurmountable stumbling blocks.” – Variety 1954

The durable backstage saga, a maudlin melodrama about fading stardom in the ruthless wilds of cultured Hollywood, has been endlessly recycled - three times under its own title: A Star Is Born. But it is director George Cukor’s masterful 1954 reworking of that same material as a musical that continues to so poignantly capture the tragic essence of lost opportunities in the land of make believe. In truth, the film could just as easily have been re-titled ‘A Star Is Re-Born,’ for Judy Garland had not appeared on the screen for nearly three years.

During this time, Garland had undergone a much publicized crash treatment for her addiction to prescription sedatives and several suicide attempts. She had also gone from A-list musical megastar status to near-forgotten has been since her disastrous dismissal from MGM’s Annie Get Your Gun (1950). In later years, as a delicious raconteur, Garland mused, “I think there’s something peculiar about me, that I haven’t died. It doesn’t make sense but I refuse to die.” Divorced from second husband, director Vincente Minnelli and newly hitched to maverick producer Sid Luft, Garland was effectively floating in the ether until studio mogul Jack L. Warner - a gambling man, liked the idea of remaking ‘Star’ so much that he imported 20th Century-Fox’s newly christened Cinemascope widescreen process for the occasion.

Fox had been the first to patent the anamorphic process invented by Henri Chrétien. In reality, there was nothing new about Cinemascope other than its hearty debut. Since the New York World’s Fair of 1939 various anamorphic processes had been tested and had failed to catch the public’s fascination as anything except a novelty. But in early 1950s, television had cut theater attendance by nearly half and studios were desperate to capitalize on the old adage that ‘bigger is better.’ For his part, director George Cukor, who had never worked in either widescreen or color, though he quickly proved his adeptness under pressure, generating a visual style that few novices to the format achieved. Cukor’s meticulous staging of each scene created a distinct foreground, middle ground and background that filled the expansive 2:35:1 aspect ratio screen, even when only one or two characters appeared in a single frame.

From the onset the project was plagued by setbacks. Initially, Warner had done everything to discourage Sid Luft from casting his wife in the film. The mogul’s apprehensions were indeed well founded. Judy’s absenteeism and tardiness at MGM had resulted in her later films going over budget. However, what was undeniably about Garland as a saleable entity was her overwhelming popularity at the box office and her innate ability to instinctively connect with her audience on an emotional level.

“I try to bring the audience’s own drama – tears and laughter they know about to them.”

A minor snafu with producer David O. Selznick – who still owned the legal rights to the story which his studio had first made in 1937 was sorted out after considerable consternation. However, more problematic for all involved on the project was the fact that no working script from the 1937 film existed from which screenwriter Moss Hart could base his revision. After screening the original film several times, Hart made several key changes to the overall structure of his treatment that greatly improved and updated the material for the postwar generation.

Gone was the idealism of a young girl’s aspirations for stardom exemplified by Janet Gaynor’s central performance in the original. Instead, the 54’ incarnation of Esther Blogget/Vicki Lester (Judy Garland) was already a seasoned performer, acclimated to personal hardship and strife by the time she met movie star on the way down, Norman Maine. Hart also jettisoned the whole pre-Hollywood sequence of the original in which Vicki defies her family to pursue her dreams of stardom. Hart also altered the chemistry of the tragic character of Norman Maine (Frederic March in 1937/James Mason in 1954).

In 1937 Norman is merely a pathetic incarnation – a man living on the edge of his own oblivion. But 1954’s Norman is much more self destructive, self pitying and therefore that much more piteous, emotionally lost and utterly tragic. Yet, perhaps Hart’s biggest alteration to the story was in his depiction of the movie fan (short for ‘fanatic’). In 1937, the adulation of the masses is seen as one collective outpouring of sympathy and admiration for their favorite celebrities. But in 1954, the audience is unflatteringly perceived – perhaps more closely to the truth – as a ravenous pack of vicious gawkers who are fickle and stalk their celebrity like prey for souvenirs while accosting them at the lowest moments of their lives.

Initially production began on A Star Is Born (1954) in the standard Academy aspect ratio of 1:33:1. But the introduction of Cinemascope – and its overwhelming pubic response with The Robe and How To Marry A Millionaire - prompted Jack Warner to shut down ‘Star’, scrap the footage already shot and pursue the idea of making the film in the widescreen process. Two things troubled the old mogul. First, that Cinemascope had eluded the Warner shield mostly due to his own apprehensions, and second, that his one time production assistant/now Fox President Darryl F. Zanuck was demanding a $25,000 fee per production to lease Cinemascope to rival studios.

Warner’s initial response to Cinemascope was ‘Warnerscope’ a pitiable attempt at re-cropping films already shot in 1:33:1 through the use of a rectangular mask and wide angle lens affixed to the projector. This shoddy attempt was quickly followed by another to capitalize on the movies supremacy over television: 3-D. Briefly, Warner had toyed with the idea of shooting A Star is Born in 3-D: a process director George Cukor absolutely abhorred. Cukor was also not particularly keen about shooting ‘Star’ in either Warner or Cinemascope – though on this account Cukor would eventually relent to Jack Warner’s request and lens the film (along with British born cameraman Harry Stradling) in the latter process. The reason for Star ultimately being shot in Cinemascope rather than Warner’s patented ‘Warnerscope’ was in the latter’s inability to properly photograph anything beyond a medium shot without all subjects and setting appearing to be slightly squashed horizontally. Shot on Eastman based film stock, the elongated images were further distorted by film grain and muddy color processing.

Director George Cukor was renown throughout the film community as a women’s director. His skills, though formidable and expansive, could effectively be distilled into managing temperamental beauties. However, on A Star Is Born, Cukor’s adeptness at managing Judy Garland proved trying. Studio sanctioned Benzedrine, uppers and weight loss drugs at MGM had made Judy Garland a substance abuser while in her early teens. Though she had made valiant and frequent attempts to rid herself of this dependency, once pushed by MGM to perform, Garland found solace in her old nemeses. However, the erratic behavior spawned by this addiction ultimately led to her dismissal from MGM.

But Garland was also acutely aware that in her three year absence from the movie screen the world at large and Hollywood in particular had changed. Gone were the cloistered carefree days of the studio system. The film making community was in a sense of utter and complete chaos – struggling to turn a profit and desperate to capitalize on the next big gimmick.

Worse, musicals in general had fallen out of fashion with the public’s tastes. Save imported Broadway shows translated to the big screen – the intimate ‘little’ musical that had been Garland’s forte at MGM had become a thing of the past. Determined to make good on A Star Is Born, Judy Garland’s commitment on the project began in solid earnestness. But after pre-recording all of her songs and beginning principle photography, Garland’s careworn personal demons once again began to emerge.

Cukor, a patient man by most accounts was pushed to the brink of distraction by Garland’s increasing tardiness on the set, though he understood her backstage struggles. Jack Warner however, was not quite so forgiving. In fact, he contemplated shutting the production down on more than one occasion. But Warner was also a gambling man. His maverick ways had managed to maintain his post as CEO of the studio he had co-founded longer than most of his contemporaries and, in the process he and the studio had made some very solid films. A Star Is Born would therefore rank amongst his finest achievements.

What was so damn exasperating about Garland’s growing inability to commit to all but a few short scenes per day is that as a performer Judy herself did not want to be a nuisance. If she was miserable one moment she could be winsome and charming the next – working diligently with cast and crew until the appropriate mood and tone of performance had been met. But it was during those other times – when gripped by fear and self-loathing and withdrawal from her medication that she increasingly managed to alienate her allegiances with nearly everyone who worked on the film at one point or another.

After assembling a rough cut of the footage, Jack Warner was unenthused. He failed to see that what Cukor’s meticulous plotting had achieved was a sumptuous melodrama with music added in, rather than the sort of glossy musical he (Warner) had been expecting. As a result, Warner demanded that the film be recut. At the objection of Cukor and considerable cost, Warner concocted the lavish and somewhat garish, gargantuan ‘Born in a Trunk’ medley.

Inserted into the film at its half way mark of one and a half hours, the sequence was actually a musical recap of the entire story thus far. Though it featured a brilliant performance by Garland, it also tended to slow the film’s pacing. To compensate for this insertion, Warner ordered Cukor to cut nearly 40 minutes of his melodrama. Warner also scrapped the idea to road show ‘Star’ with an intermission – something that the Born in A Trunk medley had originally been allotted for.

Throughout these post production frustrations, Cukor worked tirelessly on making the necessary trims. Eventually Warner and Cukor concurred on a final cut that premiered at the Pantages Theatre at 132 minutes to glowing and near unanimous critical and public praise. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times proclaimed, “It is something to see, this Star is Born!”, while Look declared that Judy Garland “puts on the greatest one woman show on earth.” Despite these accolades Jack Warner continued to have his misgivings. Prodded by theater exhibitors, who urged that at 132 minutes A Star is Born could not be effectively shown during the peak hours of theater attendance, Warner quietly had the film pulled and recut once more – haplessly removing footage and entire scenes and sequences without Cukor’s consent. The cuts were damaging – not only artistically but to the opinion of the film’s critical staying power.

Jack Warner’s truncated version of A Star Is Born, though complimentary to the needs of exhibitors, infuriated critics and audiences alike, particularly those who had seen the film in its entirety. Though many called for, and some demanded, the excised footage to be reinstated – after the first two weeks of the film’s premiere only the edited version continued to play in theaters. Sadly, Warner saw no reason in keeping the footage he had taken out. Presumably, much of what was cut has been lost for all time.

The disdain of one irate patron’s objections, published as an editorial in Variety seem to suffice in encapsulating the overall outrage that followed these cuts. “The Victoria is now showing the abbreviated version…without…however…a price cut…This action is highly objectionable…nor can it be excused on artistic grounds. I would defy any of the critics who complained of the…length to suggest that any improvement has been made in the film’s quality by the trimming. On the contrary, the film suffers noticeably by the fadeouts where it is obvious a musical number has been dropped, to say nothing of dialogue which is now meaningless because it refers to earlier scenes which have been indiscriminately scissored. It seems to this writer that the New York showcase for such a long awaited attraction has acted most unwisely in the matter with contemptuous disregard of the public interest!”

What ought to have been Judy Garland’s grand comeback to motion pictures proved an abysmal disappointment. In latter years, Warner attempted to besmirch both Garland and Luft’s involvement on the project and blame them for the demise of A Star Is Born. Oscar-nominated for her poignant, affecting and tragic performance, Garland was overlooked by Academy voters in favor of Grace Kelly’s rather languid turn in The Country Girl. It was the first, last and only time that Judy Garland - star would earn a Best Actress nomination. Sinking deeper into her chronic addiction to prescription pills, Garland starred in only two more movies, appearing briefly and to good effect as Irene Hoffman in Stanley Kramer’s Judgment At Nuremberg. At the age of 46, Judy Garland’s demons got the better of her and she died of an apparent overdose.

Nearly three decades would pass, until film historian Ron Haver set out to do the impossible – restore A Star Is Born to its original length. Thanks to Haver all of the cut musical footage was eventually rediscovered and reassembled into the film from a variety of source materials, as well as the complete 132 minute audio track.

But the poignant melodrama – the scenes which so effectively established and forever cemented the enduring romance between Esther and Norman remained missing. With the complicity of AMPAS, Warner Brothers and a crew of historians, Haver reconstructed ‘Star,’ using still photographs to supplement the scenes that no longer existed.

Haver’s fondest wish had always been to do justice to the one film that director George Cukor considered his butchered masterpiece. In the final analysis, none of it seemed to matter. For Cukor, who had always considered the alterations a personal slight on his artistic palette, had died the night before.

Even so, the re-release of A Star Is Born (restored) at Radio City Music Hall on July 7, 1983 proved so overwhelmingly successful that it prompted David Denby of New York magazine to classify it as “…the most stirring event of the summer movie season…what made the evening extraordinary, apart from the movie itself, which in any version is devastating, was the all round film savvy and fervor of the audience. Walking around the sold out hall, one felt gratified by the presence of a true film community. These were not people merely latching onto a glamorous occasion; they were people still capable of being moved by the emotional qualities of a favorite movie…six thousand adults concentrated on a thirty-year-old film that meant something to them emotionally.”

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

GEORGE STEVENS - 'his place in the sun'

“You know…we’ll have a better idea what kind of picture this is in 20 years.”
– George Stevens after winning his Best Director Oscar for A Place in the Sun (1951).

Among his many formidable attributes, director George Stevens was a humanist; a “ten plus” so described by actress Jane Withers, and above all else, a compassionate storyteller. For although he could frequently adopt the immoveable persona of a block of granite – primarily about elements in the film-making process that he felt most passionate – in life, Stevens was a witty, literate and comical presence; a director who could be tough on crew, but emphatically appreciated and admired the craftsmanship of actors.

At the core of his meticulous planning was a solid commitment to the structure and visual design of a film. He was often prone to improvisation on the set and emphatically resisted the urge to pre-conceive anything beyond the general framework of any film which he had given considerable thought to. Yet George Stevens' editorial comment on life was always bigger and nobler than life itself, placing human aspirations, dilemmas and the courage to solve them at the forefront of his narrative design.

“A motion picture should be respected as being more than a tool for selling soap, toothpaste, deodorant, used cars, beer and the whole gamut of products advertised on television.”

George Stevens once confided, that given the option of having to sacrifice his authority over one of the three primary principles in film making (1): preproduction, (2): directing, (3): postproduction that he would give up the directing every time. “If the script is good, the actors are good I can get in the editing room and make it work.” Despite such a claim, it seems unlikely that Stevens would have ever contemplated surrendering any part of the creative process to lesser hands – for he was a man unfamiliar with compromise, particularly in the realms of personal integrity.

He was born George Cooper Stevens in Oakland California on December 18, 1904 and raised in San Francisco. His modest hobby of photography translated into a small business and, at age 17, a chance to be an assistant camera man at Hal Roach Studios on “Rex: The King of Wild Horses” an early serialized western adventure yarn. “There were no unions,” Stevens later explained, “so it was possible to become an assistant cameraman if you happened to find out just when they were starting a picture.”

Honing his craft as a cinematographer over the next few years, Stevens photographed most of the early Laurel and Hardy comedies, turning some of his attention to ‘gag’ (comedy) writing. Colleague and friend, Joseph L. Mankiwiecz commented that “He was remarkably funny, but with a sarcasm that I wouldn’t have liked to have been on the other end of.”

Of his own fallibility, Stevens once said, “I see myself capable of arrogance and brutality...That's a fierce thing, to discover within yourself that which you despise the most in others.” Yet, those cast and crew who knew him best were perhaps unaware of either that ‘arrogance’ or ‘brutality’. Instead, what they experienced was a man’s unerring belief in his own talents and his great passion for living.

At the age of 23, George Stevens began his directorial career at RKO with Alice Adams (1935) a poignantly introspective melodrama about a wallflower desperate to be accepted in café society. His tenure progressed along side his tastes in genres running the gamut from dizzy screwball comedies (Vivacious Lady 1938), to light-hearted musicals (Swing Time 1936) and the enthralling action/adventure, Gunga Din 1939.

Despite these critical and financial successes, Stevens was under constant scrutiny from RKO to pare down his dedication to shooting a lot of film. What is perhaps most remarkable about Steven’s place within the studio system is that he was one of a few individuals who stood firm against artistic encroachment without suffering any sort of repercussions. Lacking any sense of economy and, with the ingrained perception that the artistic achievement inherent in any film is primarily the domain of its director, Stevens generally ignored such ‘suggestions’ from his bosses, especially since they did not bode well with his own frame of reference.

Departing RKO, Steven’s freelanced at MGM with the first memorable teaming of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year (1942). A move to Columbia Pictures did little to alter his solid chemistry at the box office. He directed back to back comedy classics; The More The Merrier (1942) and the Oscar nominated, The Talk of the Town (1943). But his greatest passion of the period was his blind faith in the newly created Director’s Guild.

His light-hearted approach to film making was forever altered after screening Triumph of the Will – Leni Riefenstahl’s potent Nazi propaganda film. Reportedly, Stevens enlisted in the Armed Forces the very next day, receiving a commission from General Eisenhower as a Major for a film unit affectionately nicknamed ‘The Stevens Irregulars.’ Documenting D-Day at Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge and the crossing of the Rein, it was the liberation of Nazi prisoners from Dakow that most affected his later film work. From thereon, his projects increasingly took on the flavoring of an impassive and pervasive sadness.

George Stevens return to civilian life also led to a change of venue. No long content to be at the whim of impatient studio executives whom he felt neither understood nor accepted his meticulous and methodical pacing on the set, or his extravagance in coverage of each particular scene, Stevens launched the independent production company Liberty Films together with directors William Wyler and Frank Capra. Beginning with 1948s I Remember Mama, the tone of Stevens’ films became darker and more serious. Yet, if the comedic panache that exemplified his earlier works had been jettisoned, Stevens retained his compassionate embrace of human ideals that had always made his stories so compelling.

He topped out his Hollywood tenure in the 1950s with four quintessentially dramatic and emblematic films of the period that have since acquired a longevity and poignancy apart from their vintage; the intimately brooding and tragic, A Place in the Sun (1951); the revisionist take on manly heroism in the old west in Shane (1953); the resplendent and sprawling redux on culture and clash of sensibilities in Giant (1956); and the profoundly personal approach to one of WWII’s great personal losses in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959).

Stevens would make only two more films before his death from a heart attack on March 8 1975; The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and The Only Game in Town (1970). Although in retrospect neither seems to entirely fit the bill of his enduring legacy – each is blessed with Stevens’ uncompromising compassion for the human spirit. It is that quality primarily that has made so many of Stevens’ contributions to the tapestry of American film art an impressive and ever renewing wellspring of inspiration for audiences and film makers alike.

“If you could put a man into three words,” director and friend Rouben Mamoulian reasoned, “Honor, talent, courtesy. Those three were the outstanding ingredients of George. He was a stylist. His films are biographical. You see it from a more poetic point of view. It’s life elevated a step up…making the invisible visible.”

@ Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).

Monday, April 24, 2006

GIANT - backstage driving ambitions

“Life can't ever really defeat a writer who is in love with writing, for life itself is a writer's lover until death-fascinating, cruel, lavish, warm, cold, treacherous, constant.” – Edna Ferber

Upon its premiere, George Stevens’ Giant (1956) was greeted with a resplendent old time Hollywood gala at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. By then, the bitter skepticism that had plagued Edna Ferber’s novel four years earlier had significantly cooled; the premise of the book elevated from minor brutal critique and exploitation of the Texas stereotype to an intimate familial melodrama offset by epic production values and a tempering of the ‘unflattering’ depiction of Texas as a state of big-spending racist blowhards.

To be certain, Ferber’s primary indulgence in the book had been the stripping away of bigotry under the loose disguise of a romance novel. She had based the central character of Jett Rink loosely on Glenn McCarthy; an impoverished rancher who became an overnight millionaire after striking oil. McCarthy’s building of the Shamrock Hotel – a $21 million Houston paradise typified for Ferber the gusty garishness of the entire state. However, upon publication in 1952, the book Giant also ruffled more than a few armadillos west of the Pecos, especially from those Texans whom Ferber had befriended on her travels while writing the novel and who felt bitterly betrayed by her frank exposure.

“America - rather, the United States - seems to me to be the Jew among the nations,” Ferber commented, “It is resourceful, adaptable, maligned, envied, feared, imposed upon.

It is warm-hearted, over-friendly; quick-witted, lavish, colorful; given to extravagant speech and gestures; its people are travelers and wanderers by nature, moving, shifting, restless; swarming in Fords, in ocean liners; craving entertainment; volatile; the chuckle among the nations of the world.”

Caustic, witty, utterly defiant and oddly charming, Edna Ferber was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan on August 15, 1885. Her talents as a writer on a high school newspaper, the Ryan Clarion so impressed the editor of the Appleton Daily Crescent in Wisconsin that she was put on salary immediately following graduation for the lordly sum of three dollars per week. Anemia sidetracked her ambitions as a newspaper woman, but it also afforded her the time to pen her first short story, The Homely Heroine (published in 1910), and her first novel Dawn O’Hara (1911).

Decidedly not a beauty, Ferber often dressed in more manly attire to mask the fact that she did not possess feminine charms. Indeed, when adroit playwright and wit Noel Coward encountered Ferber wearing a tailored suit he aptly commented, “You look almost like a man,” to which the undaunted and frank Ms. Ferber replied, “So do you.”

A prolific and celebrated novelist, Ferber won the Pulitzer Prize in 1924 for So Big, the first of her novels to incorporate a young woman’s aspirations for a better life. “I think that in order to write really well and convincingly, one must be somewhat poisoned by emotion,” Ferber later wrote in the first of her two autobiographies, “Dislike, displeasure, resentment, faultfinding, imagination, passionate remonstrance, a sense of injustice -- they all make fine fuel.”

Driven by her great moral conscience, such qualities as aforementioned had enticed George Stevens to Ferber’s Giant in the first place. A director of personal conviction, compassion and overall relentless drive to make the sort of films he wanted to, Stevens and Warner Brothers launched Giant on a grand a scale – determined to translate Ferber’s epic saga into an equally thunderous and thoughtful motion picture. At the project’s inception much of the excitement generated by the announcement that Warner Brothers was sending its cast and crew to Marfa Texas for location shooting, chiefly centered on the casting of the film.

Initially Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly had been considered for the role of Leslie Lynnton Benedict. Briefly, William Holden was proposed as Bick Benedict. However, Elizabeth Taylor had already starred for George Stevens in A Place in the Sun (1951) a performance that illustrated for the director how sufficiently she had grown up from MGM child star into an actress of considerable charm and substance.

On the eve before production commenced inside the Warner soundstages at Burbank, Elizabeth Taylor graciously invited co-star Rock Hudson and his fiancée for dinner at her, and then husband Michael Wilding’s, home – to get better acquainted. Unfortunately for all concerned, the evening was amply plied with liquor – the net result being that for their first scene together the following morning (Bick and Leslie’s silent falling in love) both actors were considerably hung over.

Remarkable for the time, director George Stevens chose to populate his cast with relative newcomers to the screen and rising stars who were much too young for their parts by the standards set in the novel. Elizabeth Taylor, for example was 23, the same age as James Dean. Rock Hudson was 29. In the film, all would have to credibly age into their early sixties.
The usual transition during this period in film making, for actors involved in generational storytelling, had almost without exception been to take a more mature star and reverse the aging process for scenes in which youth was required.

Of the three principle leads in Giant, James Dean was initially the most ill at ease with the reversal of this time honored tradition. Unaccustomed to Stevens' improvisation on the set, Dean was equally and chronically dissatisfied by his own singular lack of grasp in playing the aged Jett Rink.

To buttress his insecurities about the part, during a sequence in which Jett slumps off drunk and defiant, Dean turned to Stevens after the scene had already been shot and asked that his performance be removed or edited down as much as possible.

Gradually, the brooding young zeitgeist who had taken Hollywood by storm with electrified performances in East of Eden (1955) and Rebel Without A Cause (1955) came to appreciate both Stevens’ work ethic and his costars – particularly Elizabeth Taylor, whose chic and haughty presence, Dean equated in awe to the glamorous days of ‘old Hollywood’ which he had not been a part of. However, Dean fostered a quiet and unreciprocated resentment toward Rock Hudson throughout the shoot – developing a passive rivalry for Taylor’s affections that ultimately bode well with his character’s looming fascination over Leslie Benedict.

James Dean’s all too brief tenure in Hollywood had begun only a few years prior to Giant with bit parts in Sailor Beware(1952), Fixed Bayonets! (1951) and Has Anybody Seen My Gal?(1952) also starring Rock Hudson. It was director Elia Kazan who chose to gamble on the newcomer’s presence in his production of John Steinbeck's East of Eden (1955). As the wicked and repressed Caleb, Dean captivated and commanded the screen. His image as a dangerous bad boy was further cemented that same year in the role of Jim Stark for Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause(1955).

Once installed in the remote dessert location of Marfa Texas, Dean generally kept to himself. Save actress Jane Withers – with whom Dean eventually developed a poignant if awkward friendship, and occasional tête-à-têtes with Elizabeth Taylor – accomplished more for the effect of ‘stealing’ Taylor away from the frequent party atmosphere and, more to the point, costar Rock Hudson - Dean immersed himself in the local cattle rancher’s culture to enhance his own performance, even going so far as to learn rope tricks from resident cowboy Monte Hale. Around Marfa, Dean affectionately became accepted as one of the ‘good ol’ boys’ and a resident heartthrob for the local ladies.

In the meantime, the Warner entourage including some thirty trucks of props and prefabricated scenery arrived on the Worth Evans dessert farm that was to serve as the company’s primary location. These props included the towering three-sided façade that effectively became the Benedict ranch house – Riata. An imposing Victorian structure, Riata dominated the barren Marfa landscape.

Daily, cast and crew were besought by two to three hundred spectators on the set, providing an interesting blend of Hollywood dazzle and Texan hospitality. In the evenings, costar Jane Withers offered her own diversions after long intensive days of shooting. Throwing nightly parties that included playing cards and monopoly marathons, these quaint ritual meetings inside the tiny home that George Stevens had rented for the actress provided lighthearted diversionary entertainment that perfectly captured the homespun camaraderie shared by almost all on the set.

Withers’ rental also became the location of a surprise visit. One evening, after everyone else had gone home, Withers was startled to find James Dean reclining on the open sill of her bedroom window. When asked to explain himself, Dean modestly replied that he merely wanted the actress’s attention all for himself. “You come by the front door from now on or you don’t come at all” the actress reportedly told Dean, nailing the window shut to prove her point.


“It's terrible to realize you don't learn how to live until you're ready to die and, then it's too late,” wrote Edna Ferber in her later autobiography; a poignant epitaph that in retrospect rings eerily true for the legacy of James Dean.

Aware of Dean’s underlying restlessness between takes and his overwhelming desire to return to his first love of auto racing, George Stevens had secured a guarantee that Dean would not race or even drive his Porsche Spyder until all of his scenes had been photographed. Honoring that commitment until the last day, James Dean suited up in preparation for a race in Salinas.

In retrospect, the commercial endorsement that Dean shot days before leaving for the Marfa location – in which he urges young driver’s to obey the laws of the road – “…because the life you save might be my own”, has a foreboding and apocalyptic resonance. Yet, perhaps the most poignant and disturbing premonition (if one can believe in such spiritual foreshadowing) came days before Dean’s departure from Marfa.

Costar Earl Holliman recalled a story that Dean regaled him; about encountering a terrible wreck on the highway. A black man lay mortally wounded by the side of the road. To afford this man some shade from the sweltering heat and sun, Dean stood over him for nearly an hour until an ambulance arrived.

But there was no waiting salvation on that lonely stretch of highway outside of Cholame California on the afternoon of September 30, 1955.

While George Stevens and his company were busy reviewing dailies in their projection room, the call, that perhaps no one had expected, came through – James Dean had been killed in a highway collision. The shock and disbelief that resonated throughout the industry immediately following Dean’s untimely demise has since firmly cemented his reputation as a volatile, vital and dangerous rebel. That legacy remains to this very day - forever young in the minds of his adoring fans.

. . .

Far removed from either the dust of Marfa or glittering film premiere in Hollywood that bore at least a fraction of its fame from her enduring legacy, Giant’s author Edna Ferber died of cancer at the age of 82 on April 16, 1968 inside her fashionable Park Avenue apartment.

In a lengthy obituary the New York Times postulated that, “Her books were not profound. But they were vivid and had a sound sociological basis. She was among the best-read novelists in the nation, and critics of the 1920s and '30s did not hesitate to call her the greatest American woman novelist of her day.”

In the forty plus year interim since its debut, George Steven’s production of Giant has maintained Ferber’s earthy façade for robust Texas living. But more than that, Steven’s tender and luminous way with his stars resulted in possibly their best efforts put forth on the screen.

In effect, the film outlives Ferber’s skewed vision of Texas as a culture, a people and a state of mind – though in the final analysis all those ascribed attributes were hers from the beginning. “A closed mind is a dying mind,” Ferber used to say, seemingly oblivious of the narrow frame of reference afforded the characters in her novel.

Ironically, what has been of consequence to historians about the film most recently is mostly its back story and the events leading up to that tragic final hour in the life of James Dean – a star whose fullest potential and longevity would never be realized.

Regardless of the way one interprets the importance of either the author, the novel or the film as it remains today, one truth endures: Giant was a colossus in the making.

@2006 (all rights reserved).

Friday, April 14, 2006


more than just a pair of eyes...

Bette Davis once said that “getting old is not for sissies.” Two strokes, a cancer scare, broken hip, and, a belligerent child and she should know. In her later years, despite failing health, Davis remained the amiable raconteur. When asked how she would like to be remembered, Davis replied, “You know what I’m going to have on my gravestone? She did it the hard way.”

In her prime, Bette Davis was rather antiestablishment – at least by Hollywood standards. “They wanted me to be pretty,” she mused, “But I fought for realism.” After daughter Barbara Davis Hyman’s book My Mother’s Keeper attempted to do for Davis’ rep what Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest had done to Joan’s, Davis simply surmised, “If you’ve never been hated by your child, you’ve never been a parent.”

Yet, despite the Kim Carnes pop song from the eighties that immortalized Bette’s eyes as the key to her legendary status amongst truly great stars, as an actress Davis has always been more about ‘raw’ talent than looks…though what looks she could give.

She was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis on April 5, 1908 – a rather stoic and demanding survivor of divorced parents. Her dissatisfaction as an individual paled to her desperate need for attention. “I am doomed to an eternity of compulsive work,” she said, “No set goal achieved satisfies.” Davis was nothing if prolific, appearing in 103 films – some among the most fondly remembered in screen history. Although her talent eventually won out, Davis’ bombastic desire to dominate made her many enemies along the way. Her driven personality and obsession with greatness were hindrances to getting her foot in the door.

A rather tactless rejection from the prestigious Manhattan Civic Repertory did little to quash her determination. Instead, Davis enrolled in John Murray Anderson’s Dramatic School where she quickly became its star pupil. Her Broadway debut in 1929s Broken Dishes garnered initial interest from Carle Laemmle and Universal Studios.

Both quickly lost interest once the ink on the contract had dried. Instead Universal tried to mold Davis into a ‘dolly’ – a blond sexpot which Davis eagerly and frequently acknowledged she never was. “What a fool I was to come to Hollywood,” she told fellow actor and ardent admirer, George Arliss, “they only understand platinum blondes. Legs are more important than talent!”

Disillusioned and let go from Universal after only five pictures, Bad Sister (1931) being the best, Davis was ready to return to the stage. At the behest of Arliss, she reluctantly screen tested at Warner Bros. and to her surprise was offered a seven year contract on the spot.

THAT WARNER TOUCH...more like a slap on the face?

Her tenure at Warner Brothers was never smooth, particularly during those formative years when studio head Jack Warner attempted to mold Davis’ startling looks along the lines of a vamp or kitten. Though Davis made cordial attempts to convince the head office otherwise, she was quietly and repeatedly rejected. The powers that be knew best…or so they thought. “When a man gives his opinion he’s a man,” Davis would later muse, “When a woman gives her opinion she’s a bitch.”

Bette Davis began her Warner tenure with a stunning performance opposite Arliss in The Man Who Played God (1932). In his biography the veteran actor states, “I did not expect anything but a nice little performance... I got from her a flash that illuminated mere words and inspired them with passion and emotion.”

Evidently, the public concurred with Arliss’ fascination. Davis was an instant, palpable and growing sensation.

Perhaps in part because Jack Warner was too involved with other projects, but also because he was not accustom to having his ingénues run off with the show and recognize that they had, the mogul chose to loan out Davis for her next great role, opposite the lovelorn Leslie Howard in RKO’s Of Human Bondage (1934). The film only served to enhance her reputation as a solid actress. Still, she felt her talent was being wasted.

Though Davis took home the Best Actress Academy Award twice; for Dangerous (1935) and Jezebel (1938), intervening projects were less than what she expected and began to demand for an actress of her talents. Her polite requests of Jack Warner soon became volatile arguments. That same year Davis made an unsuccessful attempt to break her Warner contract. She departed for Europe but was prevented by a court order from making any movies abroad. The studio countered with a lawsuit of its own, citing a breach of contract. Although the whole affair was amicably settled, the rift between studio and star was instrumental in getting Davis better scripts and several key perks at the studio – including first choice of projects and director approval.

Jack Warner would never take Bette Davis lightly again. How could he? She had become his number one star. After her Oscar win in Jezebel Warner personally campaigned hard for Davis to assume the lead in David O. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind (1939). Although Selznick ultimately chose Vivien Leigh, Davis emerged victorious with a pair of consolations at her alma mater; as Queen Elizabeth in The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex, and, as haughty but fatally stricken socialite Judith Traherne in Dark Victory. While the latter performance brought Davis particular satisfaction – and her third Oscar nomination – the former proved an almost chronic source of animosity and contention.

Davis had asked Jack Warner borrow Laurence Olivier from Samuel Goldwyn as her romantic lead. But Warner was no fool. He had been grooming resident heartthrob Errol Flynn as the studio’s rising male box office draw and was determined to advance the actor’s standing by casting him opposite Davis. Warner was also conscious of the fact that his failure to secure loan outs of both Flynn and Davis for Gone With the Wind had the potential to damage both their popularity in the eyes of the public.

Regardless of Warner’s logic behind his decision to cast Flynn, Davis was unenthused. She considered Flynn a subservient performer – just a pretty boy in tights – and behaved miserably towards him for the duration of the shoot. In a scene that called for the Queen to slap the Earl of Essex, Davis hauled off with her jewel encrusted ring and struck Flynn with such force that it left a welt upon the actor’s cheek. Years later, too many, in fact, to do Flynn any good, Davis generously reviewed Flynn’s performance and confided to friend and costar Olivia de Havilland, “By God, I was wrong about him.”

Such belated retractions were rare. In fact Davis very much believed in the strength of pronounced belligerence.

“Evil people...You never forget them. And that’s the aim of any actress – never to be forgotten.”

- Bette Davis

As for Dark Victory: Warner had at first balked at Davis’ request to play the ailing Judy. “Who the hell is going to go see a picture about a dame who goes blind?” he insisted. But like most decisions Davis made during this period, her choice of project translated to box office gold. In fact, in what is now widely regarded as the greatest year in film history – 1939 – Dark Victory proved to be more successful than Jack Warner’s personally supervised production of Elizabeth and Essex; a coup that neither Davis nor Warner ever forgot.

The forties arguably belonged to Bette Davis. No other actress more consistently delivered high quality performances in equally sterling productions. Her association and fleeting romantic entanglement with director William Wyler helped to secure her meaty roles as the neurotic mantrap, Leslie Crosby in The Letter (1940), and hateful spouse, Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes (1941).

Both characterizations are relentless and unflattering and would have likely spelled artistic suicide for any other actress, though not Davis. In her competent portrayals both characters were elevated to mythical stature. Crosby is a scheming murderess. After riddling her married lover with bullets she attempts to concoct a rape scenario, even after a torrid love letter written in her hand surfaces to attest otherwise.

Regina Giddens is pure arsenic laced with a very thin veneer of courtly elegance. In the climactic scene, Davis is completely unsympathetic as she nonchalantly tells her wheelchair bound husband, Horace (Herbert Marshall) that their entire marriage has been a sham. She confesses that she has never felt anything but contempt and disdain for him. The announcement comes as a shock to Horace. Suddenly realizing that she has driven him to a heart attack, Davis as Regina calmly essays into the loveseat. Her eyes devour Horace’s every move, her head barely turns as she waits for him to expire.

Davis topped off these plum bitchy parts with one of her most genuinely sympathetic; Charlotte Vale, the spinster aunt who undergoes a Cinderella transformation with the subtle guidance of understanding psychiatrist, Dr. Jacquith (Claude Rains) in Now Voyager (1942). The role has since come to epitomize the essence of intercontinental romance. However, as the decade wore on Davis would revert to playing more unscrupulous women with a penchant for selfish, rather than selfless grand amour.

In Mr. Skeffington (1944) for example, Davis’ Fanny Trellis enters into marriage with Job Skeffington, a man she does not even pretend to love. She abuses his good nature, sadistically tramples his reputation and effectively pilfers from his estate to lead a life of playful debauchery. Diphtheria ravages her beauty, but by then Job has lost his eyesight. He returns, hoping to find Fanny reformed, and although she does indeed tearfully take him back, there is little doubt that her sympathies are inwardly turned – realizing that no other man will ever desire her company again.

Both roles reveal Davis’ maturity as an actress, her being unafraid to appear on camera as grossly unattractive – a move that most of the glamour queens of her era considered risqué to down right fatal to their careers.

In Now Voyager, Davis’ transformation from uni-browed heavy-set spinster to glamorous vixen is made all the more miraculous by her ability to play both the backward gamin and forthright woman of the world with complete conviction. In Mr. Skeffington heavy latex ages Fanny well beyond her years. She is made over to resemble a ravaged gargoyle with thinning hair, deep wrinkles and exaggerated distortions to her facial structure. Still, she is beautiful…inwardly, finding that special substance that Job has promised radiates genuine attractiveness from within.

By 1949 Davis was seemingly indestructible; her popularity, galvanic. But her movies were not performing as well as they had at the start of the decade. With the unqualified failure of Beyond the Forest, another project she had personally chosen, Davis secured her fate inside the Warner front offices. Released from her studio contract she quickly discovered that offers of employment elsewhere were scant.

FAREWELL MY FANCY - her later career

Against the strenuous objection of 2oth Century-Fox executive Darryl F. Zanuck, director and screenwriter Joseph L. Mankewicz typecast Davis as the thriving Broadway diva, Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950). The parallels between Davis and her character were scathingly on point: both were then forty and working in a business that demands they remain twenty-one forever.

Both are bitter, sullied and tired, and each desires the relative peace of a happy marriage. In an instance of life imitating art, Davis married co-star Gary Merrill, both in the film and in real life. And although All About Eve did not comment on what happened to Margo and Bill after the bans had been published, in life Davis’ need to be at the center of the universe effectively destroyed any modest chance her May/December love affair had for longevity. “A sure way to lose happiness,” she would later reflect, “I found, is to want it at the expense of everything else.”

Ever grateful to director, Mankewicz, whom she acknowledged as “resurrecting me from the dead,” in later years Davis’ plaudits for the film grew, “I can think of no project that from the onset was as rewarding from the first day to the last.”

Davis was perhaps choosing to displace the very public feud between her and costar, Ann Baxter that ultimately cost both actresses the Oscar. The award went to Judy Holiday for Born Yesterday instead. Despite the disappointing loss, Davis continued to garner leads in a series of films throughout the 1950s – though in caliber and budget they tended to pale against the best work she had done.

In retrospect, 1952’s The Star seems to be a disingenuous stab at Davis’ realization of becoming a has-been in Hollywood. Ironically, at this point in her career she was far from being washed up. Consistently working – though in substandard material, another reprieve in her professional career came in 1962 when maverick director Robert Aldrich brought Davis back to Warner Bros. for his production of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? – a ghoulish nightmare that reunited Davis with her old nemesis, Joan Crawford.

The animosity proved one-sided. In 1940 Crawford and MGM had parted company. Migrating to Warner Bros. Crawford’s professional reputation had been invigorated by the resounding success of Mildred Pierce (1945) at approximately the same time that Davis had found interest from the front office indifferent towards her own career. To Davis is must have then seemed as though Jack Warner had thrown her over for Crawford, and, in fact, he probably had. But by 1962 neither Crawford nor Davis were box office draws. Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? changed that. For both actresses the critical and financial success of the film launched them into a series of grand gulag-styled suspense films.

However, while Crawford’s tenure in the genre quickly relegated her to B-flick status, Davis continued to attract the lower strata of A-list productions. She appeared to good effect as twin sisters with ulterior agendas in the sinister revenge drama, Dead Ringer (1964), and then as the mentally disturbed middle-aged frump who may or may not have been guilty of murder in Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964). Both stories relied of Davis’ ability to generate a sympathetic underpinning that helped to offset the garish schlock.

In Dead Ringer, for example, Davis plays identical twins Edie and Margaret. Edie murders her sister as revenge for having stolen the man she would have liked to have married herself. However, when Edie (now pretending to be Margaret) realizes that her sister has, in fact, murdered her husband to be with a much younger man, she feels a sense of vindication. Edie’s boyfriend, Jim Hobbson (Karl Malden) eventually unravels the truth about Margaret, though he cannot bring himself to accept that the woman standing before him and accused of murder is actually the woman he once loved.

In Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, Davis is Charlotte Hollis, the heir to a dilapidated southern plantation slated for demolition. Never entirely recovered from the mental shock of seeing her father slaughter her lover, Charlotte believes her cousin Miriam (Olivia de Havilland) will be able to save the estate from being knocked down. But Miriam has her own agenda in mind – one that will drive Charlotte to the brink of a nervous breakdown.

By the end of the sixties Davis was relegated to character parts that largely played off of these earlier performances – reprising the role of the sycophantic, slightly deranged, and often quite mad woman whom nobody suspects of impure thoughts until it’s too late. Throughout this time Davis had been contented to live in Connecticut, far from the craziness of Hollywood. The studio system that had coddled stars of her generation was a thing of the past and many of her old colleagues were either retired or dead. But in 1977-78 Davis returned to Los Angeles to film the pilot for the television series Hotel which she nicknamed Brothel.

Dissatisfied over the show’s content she refused to commit to the series and later that same year suffered a mild stroke. It was during her convalescence that daughter B.D. Hyman wrote My Mother's Keeper – a scathing and brutal account of Davis’ later years.

Despondent and estranged from Hyman and struggling to regain her mobility, Davis appeared briefly in 1980’s The Watcher in the Woods as Mrs. Aylwood, a dowdy landlord whose daughter was abducted by ghostly apparitions. Abysmal and waffling in its structure and content, the film was a colossal failure – partly perhaps because it had been produced under the Walt Disney banner more generally thought of as family entertainment. As therapy, Davis also committed to writing several biographies, including the very frank and funny, This N That and Bette Davis: The Lonely Life.

Ironically, during this same tenure Davis discovered a renewed interest in her films and career. A welcomed guest appearance on the Phil Donahue Show paved the way for several more film projects.

Despite being disfigured by another stroke, she diligently worked on her performance in The Whales of August (1987) – a film that brought her great personal satisfaction even as she feuded with costar, Lillian Gish. However, her final film Wicked Stepmother (1989) proved to be such a travesty that Davis walked off the set – leaving director Larry Cohen with nothing but to patch together a story with the limited footage that had already been shot.

This time, seemingly retired for good, Davis departed the United States for San Sebastian, Spain where she finished penning an update to her biography that included her later film work in the 80s.

In it she wrote, “I have been uncompromising, peppery, intractable, monomaniacal, tactless, volatile, and oft times disagreeable…I suppose I'm larger than life…My passions were all gathered together like fingers that made a fist. Drive is considered aggression today; I knew it then as purpose.”

On October 6, 1989 Bette Davis passed away in France. To her fans, who only knew her as that indestructible force of nature that they had fallen in love with on the screen, the loss seemed improbably. How could such a legend die? She was ever more the survivor than the victim, always greater than her diminutive five foot three inch frame, somehow impossibly resilient and haunted by that driving determination that made her succeed against any and all odds set in her path.

While some critics have argued that Davis never acted so much as she played herself and ‘reacted’ the proof for many remains in Davis’ body of work. That she continues to be discussed, revered, researched and written about today is a testimony to her craft. Perfectionist? Definitely. Control freak…perhaps. But in the final analysis Bette Davis was and remains a singularly great tower of electricity and excitement to behold on the silver screen…and yes, she had Bette Davis’ eyes.

@ Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

BEN-HUR: Hollywood's Intimate Epic

Weighing in at a whopping $15 million dollars and clocking out at almost three and a half hours, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1959) was the most expensive motion picture ever made in Hollywood to date. A gargantuan unyielding spectacle; the movie’s response to television’s encroachment on its box office receipts, this was a project driven by the crumbling blind faith of executives desperately trying to maintain their waning autonomy in the face of slow financial decline. Actor Charlton Heston once mused, “If Ben-Hur hadn’t been a hit, that (by this, he means MGM, the studio footing the expense) would have all been a parking lot.”

In truth, by 1959 the studio system that had once seemed so secure had already given way to a new era in filmmaking. Misperceiving the monopolies once held in conjunction with national theater chains as detriments to the free market enterprise of independent film makers, the U.S. government’s Consent Decrees forced all studios to divest themselves of their talents – both in front of and behind the camera.

That MGM was the last studio to comply with this edict speaks to the studio’s reluctance to shed its communal atmosphere and close knit artistic community (all under contract until the mid-1950s). But long before Charlton Heston and company dazzled audiences in the most honored motion picture of all time (11 Oscars in totem) a very different sort of valiant hero emerged to tell the tale.

BEN-HUR – a tale of its author

General Lew Wallace’s novel represents something of a religious irony – for the tale of a Judean prince besought by tragedy and driven to revenge, culminating in his conversion to Christianity, has very little to do with the Biblically documented life and times of Jesus Christ.

In fact, Wallace - a civil war hero, lawyer, former Governor of New Mexico and Indiana State Senator - had not begun his literary career with an imbued passion or religious fervor in 1876. However, Wallace was forced to reconsider the novel’s premise when stirred by a chance meeting with ‘the great agnostic’ – Robert G. Ingersoll. It would be another 5 years before his book Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was published on Nov. 12, 1880 by Harper & Brothers, and another two years before its sales took off.

In 1882, Broadway producers Mark Klaw and Abraham Erlanger approached Wallace with an offer to transform Ben-Hur into a theatrical enterprise. They had not been the first to recognize the novel’s potential as an elegant stage spectacular.

But Wallace’s newly invested piety and his sincere commitment in not allowing the figure of Christ to be bastardized by the lowly profession of stage acting had precluded prior offers from attaining fruition. Together with Wallace, Klaw and Erlanger finally decided that Christ would only be represented on stage by a shaft of white light.

The producers thereafter set about mounting a $75,000 super production complete with moving cycloramas, motorized waves for the sea battle, live horses and no less than five racing chariots perched upon elaborate treadmills for the big finale. William Young rewrote Wallace’s words for the stage and the play eventually opened with direction by Joseph Brooks. Ben-Hur’s debut at the Broadway Theater in New York City on November 29, 1899 was an unqualified smash.

Klaw and Erlanger’s investment in the project was secured with an attendance of over 20 million and a gross of nearly $10,000,000 over the next twenty years. At the dawn of a new century – General Wallace could reflect proudly on the fact that he had created one of the most visceral, stirring and sincere literary adaptations loosely derived from Biblical texts; a novel that, to present day, has never been out of print or circulation.


At the time of his death, director William Wyler’s reputation as an American filmmaker was on par with that of veteran John Ford. Indeed, the superficial parallels between Ford and Wyler’s careers in retrospect seem uncanny. Ford was honored with four Academy Awards; Wyler – three. Ford was the first recipient of the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award; Wyler – its’ fourth. Yet, what has so often been overlooked in any critical analyses of the films of William Wyler is the director’s diversification in themes and genres. Perhaps Ben-Hur (1959) is William Wyler’s signature piece. Certainly, it remains the one most closely associated with his name to this day.

Wilhelm Weiller was born on July 1, 1902 in Mulhausen Alsace. Although accredited as an assistant director on 1925’s Ben-Hur, it would be another 33 years before the influence of that experience and resplendent themes made central in Wallace’s masterwork would envelope the director in a colossal undertaking of his own. Prior to his enlistment on 1925’s Ben-Hur, Wyler’s formative years in Hollywood were spent working as an errand boy for his mother’s cousin, Carle Lemmle Sr. at Universal Studios.

His directorial debut, the two-reel western Crook Buster (1925) was followed by five years in servitude inside Universal’s B unit. But in 1929, Wyler made the costly Hell's Heroes (1930), proving that he could handle an A-list production that was both commercially and critically success. Wyler left Universal in the mid-1930s, partly because the old Lemmle family regime had been forced to decamp the studio, but also because the product the studio was producing at that time was not up to the level of quality that Wyler sought to achieve for himself.

Making the move to Samuel Goldwyn Productions, Wyler was quickly disillusioned by ‘the Goldwyn touch’ which was tantamount to being bullied into submission, having his every decision scrutinized, and ultimately much of his own work recut before, during and after shooting, and without his input or consent. The ending of Wuthering Heights (1939) for example that depicts the ghostly deities of Heathcliff (Lawrence Olivier) and Cathy (Merle Oberon) departing for heavenly bliss was neither conceived nor shot by Wyler, but rather inserted into the film after he had already prepared his final cut.

The first of the Wyler-Goldwyn collaborations; These Three (1936), Lillian Hellman's lesbian-themed play, exercised this strain between producer and director. However, Wyler’s next venture; Sinclair Lewis’ Dodsworth (1936), the poignantly paced depiction of a sad and disintegrating marriage was both personally and professionally rewarding.

The film received Best Director and Best Picture Oscar nominations; the first of seven consecutive years in which Wyler earned these accolades, culminating with a win in each category for Mrs. Miniver in 1942.Throughout the 1930s and early forties, William Wyler’s professional reputation and stature continued to grow.

His scraps with Samuel Goldwyn, that might have otherwise terminated his chances for future employment, instead paved the way for his being loaned out to other studios. In collaboration with Gregg Toland, Wyler pioneered the use of deep-focus cinematography. He eased temperamental actress, Bette Davis through three of her most demanding assignments; including two at Warner Brothers - the Oscar-winning Jezebel (1938) and Oscar nominated, The Letter (1940). He exercised what appeared to be an effortless filmmaking prowess with equal aplomb on the gritty social melodrama, Dead End (1937) and the literary costume drama Wuthering Heights (1939).

Undeniably, Wyler’s most prolific works of this period serve as bookends to World War II: the patriotic weepy, Mrs. Miniver (1942) and bittersweet epitaph to those years of conflict: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). The interim between these two films was interrupted by Wyler’s own service record and the now classic documentary ‘The Memphis Belle.’

Mrs. Miniver proved so rousing and idyllic in its representation of a lost way of life for the English that Sir Winston Churchill sited the film as being more effective at gaining America’s commitment to the war effort that a fleet of destroyers. Yet, in retrospect it is The Best Years of Our Lives that perhaps remains Wyler’s supremely visceral war time film; a powerfully emotive and darkly brooding examination of the awkward frustrations facing returning veterans, the film effectively tapped into the anxieties, apprehensions and misshapen identities of men miscast, misplaced and in some cases forgotten in their own time.

As the years wore on, Wyler continued to expand his repertoire on a gamut; from frothy romantic comedies (Roman Holiday 1953) to pensive melodramas (The Little Foxes 1941) and from sprawling westerns (The Big Country 1958) to gritty crime thrillers (The Desperate Hours 1955).

In more recent times, such scope of personal achievement has inadvertently denied William Wyler his rightful moniker as an auteur – since the term itself represents something of a measurable standardization in greatness and a testament for conformity in art rather than its diversification.

By the end of 1950s, all of Wyler’s ambitious craftsmanship would be put to the ultimate test in one magnificent and thrilling spectacle that has since become synonymous with his name.