Tuesday 28 February 2017

Retrieving the unfashionable - Barrie Pattison ponders the career of William Wyler

William Wyler
I thought I was done with William Wyler when he died. Unlike my French contemporaries I’d been bowled over by his best work - running up multiple viewings of Dead End (1937) particularly, Jezebel (1938) and The Big Country (1958) and I admired his steady run of  prestige entertainments, These Three (1936) , The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), The Heiress (1949), Roman Holiday (1953), Detective Story (1951), The Desperate Hours (1955), Friendly Persuasion (1956) or even Ben Hur (1959) which seemed to have drained his creative reserves. I can even forgive him for the Merle Oberon Wuthering Heights (1939).  I’d jammed in the intriguing Counsellor at Law (1933) which had put him on the map, and a couple of his two reel silents.

Once I’d even managed to hit the great man with an audience question.

However YouTube has opened up a whole category -  films my heroes did before anyone took notes. To Sam Wood, Frank Borzage and Lewis Milestone we can now add Big Willy Wyler.

Wyler’s first work in sound with its two reel talkie finale, 1929’s The Love Trap, is mainly a museum piece. It offers a lively performance by Laura La Plante (a prized cigarette card that one) as a chorus cutie hired to be a party girl and rescued from her eviction by Neil Hamilton who is both rich and a rom-com hero. Things don’t run smoothly when his uncle, judge Norman Trevor (the Major in the Colman, 1926, Beau Geste) remembers Laura from the party. The sound material is stiff but the piece is still passable entertainment.

A restoration also made 1929’s The Shakedown surface, an agreeable programmer with James Murray from Vidor’s 1928 The Crowd involved in a scam where he pretends to be going into the ring to punch out the heavy who has besmirched a lady’s honour, while getting his cut from the audience take. Things get stickier with Murray mentoring the orphan kid and sparking diner lady Barbara Kent. Wyler (who appears holding up the numbered boxing round placards) comes out of it well enough with nicely chosen angles. The timber-building and oil fields atmosphere gives it some appeal. The track for that one is lost

By the time we get to 1931’s A House Divided we can see Wyler trying to pull away from the pack.

The opening goes for scenics and atmosphere with the boat landing a black coffin (why?) through the heavy surf and widower Walter Huston taking the load that young pall bearer son Kent Douglass can’t handle. On the way back Huston says “In here” and gets the kid drinking (“all of it”) in Gibson Gowland’s saloon where the father provokes a comic fight

A House Divided is a rip off of Sidney Howard’s play "They Knew What They Wanted" (1924), filmed a year before by Victor Seastrom no less as A Lady to Love.

When the over-worked housekeeper quits, Walter has Kent write the matrimonial newspaper a sensitive letter to which we never get to hear. Instead of the sturdy woman in the advt., unjustly forgotten young Helen Chandler shows up. “Ada’s already married.” Helen’s home was “Six children, all of us girls and no use in the wheat fields.” Walter doesn’t think she’ll be up to salting the fish and helping with the nets.

Douglass Montgomery (billed as Kent Douglass), Helen Chandler
A House Divided
It is at this point that things take off, with Chandler, in possibly her best role, impeccably doing the vulnerable but strong character that anchors the film.

Walter has second thoughts, seeing Helen as a source of a less wimpy son, and calls in Preacher Charles Middleton to conduct the ceremony asking where’s the ring they don’t have, with the neighbours gathering at bonfires, Huston staving the rum barrel and singing “Whiskey for My Johnny” as they let off rockets which the camera follows into the sky.

Helen realises the mistake she’s made. “Please let me go Mr. Law.” Douglas intervenes and in the fight Walter falls down the stairs - good scene. Dr. Lloyd Ingraham advises “You may never be the same as you was.” Now crippled and leaving the fishing (we never actually see any fish) to Douglass, Walter goes ballistic when he finds the young people together. “I can’t fight you paw - like you are!” Helen runs off to the boat and is carried towards the rocks with Huston roped into the row boat with Douglass heading out to the rescue -  marred by bath tub effects shots.

This one isn’t equal to its ambitions but it’s full of attention getting ideas and comes with three set pieces - brawl, wedding and storm of which the nuptials are the pick.  That wooden dock looks like the one the Universal serials kept on using and prefigures the fifties version the studio built for Bend of the River. Eugene O’Neill actor Huston is in his element doing his rugged patriarch act which we’ll see even in his last film, Anthony Mann’s splendid The Furies.

To be continued.

Editor’s note: This is the first of two pieces by Barrie on the early career of William Wyler. The second part will be posted shortly.

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