July 1, 2002, marks the 100th birthday of William Wyler (1902–1981), whom Bette Davis called her greatest director: “It was he who helped me realize my full potential as an actress.” Laurence Olivier claimed that Wyler taught him the art of screen acting and, more than anyone, persuaded him that movies had aesthetic value. A perfectionist with a relentless drive for simplicity, Wyler crafted scenes until he achieved a desired effect, elusive psychological detail, or nuance of character. This meticulous craftsmanship earned him the nickname “90-Take Wyler,” and the exasperation of actors who were frequently puzzled by him. “What is it you WANT?” they asked after a succession of takes. “I want it to be better,” was the response. In a career that spanned four decades, he made 32 silents and 35 sound features; to the film critic James Agee, Wyler was simply “one of the great ones.”
The son of a dry goods merchant, William Wyler studied business in Switzerland and the violin at the National Music Conservatory in Paris. In 1922, he was hired by his uncle Carl Laemmle to work at Universal Pictures, where he apprenticed as prop man, grip, script clerk, cutter, and assistant director for The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), and production assistant on Ben-Hur (1925). He made his directorial debut in 1925 at the age of 23, and, in the next two years, he turned out more than 40 action-packed two-reel westerns before moving into features. Many of the stories he was assigned to direct were second-rate, but Hell’s Heroes gained Wyler a critical recognition that continued to grow over the next 40 years.
The Three Godfathers, a short novel by Peter Bernard Kyne, had already been filmed twice before by Universal, once in 1916 and again in 1920 as Marked Men, directed by John Ford. Wyler’s version, re-titled Hell’s Heroes, tells the story of three seasoned outlaws who rob a bank and attempt to escape into the desert, only to discover a woman who is dying with her newborn child in her arms. Dubbing the three desperados her infant’s godfathers, the mother extracts a promise that they will take the child safely back to its father in New Jerusalem — the town from which they have just fled. Wyler insisted on filming entirely on location in the Mojave Desert, the Panamint Valley, and the ghost town of Bodie. Though he recognized that the sweltering heat would inflict great discomfort and daunting technical challenges, he was convinced that location shooting would give the film a gritty authenticity, as well as elicit realistic performances from his three main actors, Charles Bickford, Raymond Hatton, and Fred Kohler.
Made during the chaotic transition to sound, Hell’s Heroes was released in both an all-talkie and a silent version to accommodate theaters with expensive new sound equipment and theaters that had yet to purchase it. While filming on location, microphones had to be hidden in sagebrush and cactus, and the camera was enclosed in a mobile, soundproof booth to muffle the noise of the camera motor. Desert temperatures frequently reached 110 degrees, and Wyler remembered that “one time we opened the box and the cameraman had passed out, because inside it was 150 degrees.”
Another problem Wyler faced was the obstinate attitude of his lead actor Charles Bickford, who had recently been brought to Hollywood from the Broadway stage. One scene in particular was a source of great disagreement between actor and director: while staggering across the desert and carrying the infant, Bickford slowly shed his burdens one by one; his rifle, the gold, and finally the baby. Believing himself to possess the finer dramatic instinct, Bickford refused to play the scene as instructed, insisting on an alternative that Wyler felt was ridiculous. Exasperated, Wyler filmed it Bickford’s way, but later he filmed it again by putting Bickford’s boots on a stand-in and photographing the scene in a travelling close-up, showing just the boot tracks; first the tracks are straight, then a curious line appears alongside them that eventually reveals itself to be the now-abandoned rifle, then we see the gold coins scattered in the sand, until finally we see the staggering boots themselves. Upon viewing this scene, producer Darryl Zanuck was so impressed that he ordered all the directors on the Warner Bros. lot to see “this new picture by this new director.”
Released in January 1930, the decidedly downbeat realism of the film appealed to audiences sated with musicals and drawing room melodramas, and it proved to be both a critical and a commercial success. Wyler’s interpretation of the Peter B. Kyne story holds up as the bleakest and least sentimental of all the filmed versions, including two remakes, one starring John Wayne and directed by John Ford (again!).
Wyler went on to make an incredible roster of great classics, from Wuthering Heights (1939) to The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) to Funny Girl (1968). He was a recipient of the Irving G. Thalberg Award and the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, and his films received a total of 38 Academy Awards and 127 nominations, a record that most likely will never be equaled.
Presented at SFSFF 2002 with live music by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer