William Wyler-Film Maker Extraordinaire

Watching Dodsworth and The Good Fairy last night, I was sure I was watching Billy Wilder films. Early Billy Wilder films, perhaps, but they had the same spark. Even the director's name, William Wyler, didn't put me off. The names are close enough in content to be a younger man's start up name and an older man's handle. But as a matter of fact, William Wyler and Billy Wilder are too different people.

The similiarities begin, first, with the humor. Dodsworth is a serious film about a truly horrible wife who gets more and more horrible as the film continues (and yet manages, through a well-written script, excellent acting and great directing to avoid becoming villanious; her horribleness is the real horribleness of real people, not the cliched horribleness of film) but even Dodsworth is threaded through with darting amusement, and The Good Fairy is pure, lovely comedy. It is possibly the funniest film I've ever seen, and I highly recommend it (I highly recommend both, but I had a hard time enjoying Dodsworth, I hated the wife so much). As with Billy Wilder, the comedy of The Good Fairy gets better and better as it continues from the great line (from the waiter to the heroine about a plate of hor d'oevures), "Here, have some leftovers" to the Lothario's line, "When I'm full of Dutch courage, I behave very Frenchly," not to mention the pencil sharpener and the "Foxine."

The other Billy Wilder similarity is the underlying current of bittersweet pathos. When, in The Good Fairy, Herbert Marshall rushes to stop Margaret Sullivan, he reaches her and slumps against the door. In that one movement, the romantic rush becomes more human, almost forlorn, and touchingly uncertain. It's a Billy Wilder touch (although presumably now, it's also a William Wyler touch).

I do think that William Wyler is more of a romantic than Billy Wilder. With Billy Wilder, one is never sure of his perspective. He distances himself from his lovers; subsequently, the underlying pathos can veer towards cynicism (where it just skirts the edge). Wyler, on the other hand, cares deeply whether or not his lovers find resolution. I was invested in both his films. (You know a movie has you when you start yelling, "Oh, just leave her already" at the screen.)

Now, I'm not one to believe that older films are automatically better (You've Got Mail is high on my list of excellent modern comedies) but it's hard to imagine The Good Fairy being reworked. The thing that makes it so fine is that it winds a cliff-edged path between broad comedy, sexual innuendo and human drama, all accompanied by perfect dialog. However, in this current day and age of snappy scripts (Gilmore Girls, House, MD, Joss Whedon), perhaps the days are coming when that subtle but difficult path could be tread again. In the meantime, who needs the color version when you've got the black & white?



Joe said...

Perhaps William Wyler's greatest film is "Best Years of our Lives" (Gregg Tolands incredible cinematography very much helped) which still holds up pretty well. He also directed Roman Holiday, which I found kind of slow, and Ben-Hur, which I didn't like.

One remarkable thing about Wyler is that in WWII, he made propoganda films. What's amazing is that to make "The Memphis Belle", he actually flew a bombing mission aboard the plane.

Billy Wilder was a more populist directory than Wyler. Oddly, I like more of his movies than of Wyler's, though I think Wyler the far better director. Of note is "Stalag 17", "Witness for the Prosecution", both of which I liked, and "Some Like It Hot", which I detested, "Sunset Blvd.", which I found overrated and "Double Indemnity", which is just plain fun.

This past weekend, watched "Sabrina" again. It still doesn't quite work. Bogart was too old and mean, Holden also too old and not carefree enough. Hepburn too whiny. And the father part made no sense--this guy made millions? Sure. Ultimately, it doesn't feel like everyone is making the same movie. (The problems with this movie seem to me to be a hallmark of Wilder, though I can't quite put my finger on them.)

In the updated version, Ford has a heart that Bogart lacked and Kinnear is just great. Ormond is no Hepburn, but she plays the part better. One big difference; for all his faults as a director, Sydney Pollack has a much better sense of story. I think he also understands people better. (One annoyance with Wilder, is that he tends to put people in truly unbelievable positions. In Sabrina, for example, the father simply isn't believable and how Hepburn would fall for Bogart, let alone why Bogart--the man who married Lauren Bacall--would fall for the whiny little brat is a complete mystery.)

(To be fair, I didn't like Roman Holiday for the same reason. There's something about Audrey Hepburn's acting-the-innocent that irritates me--she usually just comes off as a whiny, irritating ditz. She is one of those actors who I liked at first, but the more of their movies I see, the less I like them. Cary Grant is a kind of opposite, though I've always like him. Just off the top of my head, Donald Sutherland is one of those actors I've always liked, but now am willing to watch just about anything he's in.)

Kate Woodbury said...

Yeah, I don't really get Sabrina either. I like Humphrey Bogart and I think he is actually a pretty good comedic actor (I love the scene where he jumps up and down on the plastic sheet), but it seems so odd to pair him with Audrey Hepburn. Every time, I watch the movie, I enjoy it, but I'm never sure I really believe he's going to go to the boat in the end. Come to think of it, one of the few Audrey Hepburn pairings I do like is Hepburn and Cooper in Love in the Afternoon. And with Cary Grant in Charade.

I agree that Cary Grant is fun in just about anything. That Touch of Mink with Doris Day is a great Cary Grant film where he does that elegant, laid back, raised brow stuff like nobody's business. Also in the movie, he's got this analyst working for him who keeps insisting that he (the analyst) was a mountain of integrity as a professor at some Ivy League college until Grant's character came along and corrupted him by offering him a great salary in private industry. It's hilarious stuff. (Ah, the days when it was okay to mock pretentious anti-capitalists!)