[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
WILLIAM WYLER: The Authorized Biography. By Axel Madsen. Thomas Y. Crowell Company. 456 pages. $9.95.
CECIL B. DeMILLE. By Charles Higham. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 280 pages. $10.
LIGHT YOUR TORCHES AND PULL UP YOUR TIGHTS. By Tay Garnett, with Fredda Dudley Balling. Foreword by Frank Capra. Arlington House. 347 pages. $9.95.
A SHORT TIME FOR INSANITY: An Autobiography. By William A. Wellman. Foreword by Richard Schickel. Hawthorn Books, Inc. 276 pages. $10.
Books on directors’ oeuvres are nothing new, and neither are interviews with film directors, booklength and otherwise. But it’s only recently that directors’ lives have struck publishers as likely material. Undoubtedly the popularity of Frank Capra’s The Name above the Title has been the most persuasive argument. Recently I’ve read four new additions to the genre, two biographies—one living subject, one deceased—one as-told-to autobiography, and one of the real McCoy, a personal document that in its idiosyncratic way is as valuable an addition to film literature as Capra’s. The order is that of the above titles, and I’ll talk about them in the same sequence.
The virtues of Axel Madsen’s William Wyler tend to become more evident after one has read Charles Higham’s Cecil B. DeMille. Both seem to be job books. Madsen gets off to a limp start condensing the erratic history of Mulhouse, the Alsace town where Willy Wyler was born in 1902, and dreaming up trite images like Leopold the father “sitting on the veranda and watching his blue cigar smoke disappear into the night” shortly before World War I became a neighborhood reality. As soon as his subject is of an age to store up his own memories for recounting five decades later, the narrative improves. Mulhouse (then Mülhausen) changing hands—and switching from German to French time—four times during August 1914; Willy following his elder brother Robert (later his producer, and a director in France) to school in Lausanne, and Robert following him to Paris; experiences with haberdashery and whores; and finally, an offer of employment from cousin Carl Lämmle—in America, Laemmle—head of the Universal Film Manufacturing Company. His film career began in New York, toting interoffice memos and cans of film, but he and fellow expatriate Paul Kohner soon established Universal’s foreign-language publicity service translating into German and French publicity stories written in the Hollywood offices and, when necessary, making up their own.
Heading west at last, Wyler became an assistant to the assistants to the director of the Lon Chaney Hunchback of Notre Dame (Tay Garnett was also in the vicinity, as will be seen shortly), and also the wage-earning support of a household of other expatriates trying to scrounge stunt work and have a roistering good time in the budding movie capital. The next step was first assistant on some of the more than 200 two-reel westerns Universal ground out each year. He was getting closer to what he wanted to do.
“I never felt I could act or write…. Directing seemed glamorous and it was something I felt I could do. I had a certain eye for the camera. I’d watch the director, see where he put the camera, and figure out why. Occasionally, I’d come up with a suggestion and be told to get lost.”
The assistant director was busy shooting pool one day when his services were desired, so Uncle Carl’s Universal decided it could get along without him. Drifting into work as one of numerous assistants on Metro’s production of Ben-Hur, he managed to be conspicuous enough in his task to get rehired at Universal immediately. He directed his own first film, one of those two-reelers, in 1925. It was to be a feature-length western, the 1929 Hell’s Heroes (from the same story that gave rise to John Ford’s Marked Men in 1919 and The 3 Godfathers in 1948), that won him his earliest critical attention. Here his penchant for realism first became conspicuous: “Despite the cameraman’s objections that skies without clouds looked flat and unending and pancake landscapes were horrible, he forced [DP George] Robinson not to prettify the photography. ‘I want it to look horrible,’ he shot back at the cameraman, squinting into furnace vistas.”
Similar convictions were to make him an ideal director of stage adaptations. His first important picture was one of these, the 1933 film of Elmer Rice’s Counsellor–at–Law, with John Barrymore: “Wyler … realized almost instinctively that the transition from stage to screen was first of all a matter of physics, of dramatic space. Instead of ‘opening up’ Counsellor at Law by sending his characters all over New York, he added to the stage decor in the wings, so to speak. To [the] attorney’s office, he added back room, front office, inner office, secretary’s area, etc., and by staging the action in and out of these rooms, created pace and fluidity. He was to repeat this with deft effectiveness in The Little Foxes  and Detective Story  and make it part of the ‘styleless style’ with which he was to treat compact and intense drama.”
Wyler eventually left Uncle Carl’s place and tried freelancing, soon ending up under the sleekly feathered wing of Samuel Goldwyn. More than any other studio in the history of Hollywood, Goldwyn’s operation stood for impeccable production values; indeed, “the Goldwyn touch” tended to override the distinctive presences of some of the gifted directors who worked for Goldwyn now and again; Howard Hawks’s Goldwyn pictures, for instance, are among his least-quoted works. Perhaps because of this, perhaps because his own personality and intellect would have dictated it anyway, Wyler evolved into less a personal film artist (all right, an auteur) than a tasteful, manifestly accomplished, but rather impersonal craftsman.
Madsen never tries to sell any other account. He documents Wyler’s successes and the nature of those successes. He discusses his working methods and inspires a profound respect—as do most of the films I’ve seen—for the director as a sensitive interpreter of the properties given into his hands. In connection with The Best Years of Our Lives, for which Wyler won the second of his three directorial Oscars (in 1946—the first was for Mrs. Miniver, 1942; the third, for Wyler’s own Ben-Hur, 1959), he invokes the scholarly passion of André Bazin and Roger Leenhardt for Wyler’s “democratic” deep-focus mise-en-scène that implied a new, anti-montage, self-contained system of film grammar (though I for one would have delved far more deeply into the influence of Wyler’s best and most “Wylerian” cameraman, Gregg Toland—who employed similar techniques when working with Ford, Welles, Hawks…). The book is above all intended as a biography, and Madsen goes a long way toward making it a kind of informed biography of Hollywood as well, adroitly supplementing Wyler’s own story with brief but telling mini-biographies of some of the producers, writers, players, and other film folk the director collaborated with. One wishes for a bit more analysis and assessment: what, for instance, differentiates Wyler from George Cukor, another, superb director of actors and another very respectful interpreter of preexisting properties—which is to say, why is Cukor an auteur and Wyler not? Madsen obviously decided not to write that sort of book, though, and the book he did choose to write is careful and thorough enough as biography that one can scarcely accuse him of leaving gaps unfilled.
If Madsen’s Wyler book is a good job, Charles Higham’s Cecil B. DeMille comes off as just one more job by a man who, sadly, doesn’t seem to lack for them despite the fact that he hasn’t done a single one well. What sort of writer has to announce several times in as many pages that Gloria Grahame played “the elephant girl” in The Greatest Show on Earth or leaves unrevised a line like “The film was expertly photographed by [Alvin] Wyckoff, who made exhaustive experiments with experimental lighting for the production”? (More to the point, what sort of editor lets it pass?) On the same page Cook Forest becomes Clark Forest (it’s Cook—I’ve been there) and the word “shooting” appears on the page where “showing” is almost certainly what the context calls for. Is this slop really necessary?
Higham makes a great deal of the fact that he was privileged to research his subject with the complete sanction of DeMille’s heirs, and goes beyond implying that his is the account of DeMille’s life and career that ought to be accepted. But much of the book smacks of first draft, or even of unassimilated notes randomly hung round his writing desk to be noticed occasionally as he worked. We are told, for instance, that C.B. was a bit of a foot fetishist, but this is rung in occasionally more in a spirit of affectionate gossip than illumination. Likewise, Higham reminds us periodically that this or that indispensable coworker, especially Jeanie MacPherson or Gladys Rosson, also served the master in ways not directly related to the cinematic process; but there is no sense of any progression in these relationships, so that more often than not we are told of the liaison and almost simultaneously advised that the principals had moved beyond that and returned to business as usual. Higham at once tantalizes with these tidbits and plays it insufferably coy. And, like so many research-processors who write to produce volumes rather than explore subjects and issues of personal concern to them, he gets himself into stylistic absurdities: most of his prose is hurried and colorless, but occasionally he goes off a Victorian deep end within his own tawdry consciousness, so that we are unable to be sure whether he’s trying to be ironical at the expense of his subject or is letting his own selfcongratulatory salaciousness hang out: “Jeanie was, of course, in constant attendance, although she, too, had proved recklessly spendthrift, causing him constant heartache with her requests for cash. She had grown hard and dry with the years; it is doubtful whether, after the collapse of their sexual relationship in the late teens of the century, any other man had entered her boudoir. She burned a sacred flame which was never extinguished until her death.”
Higham burns a sacred flame of his own. Too many writers about this or that filmmaker feel obliged to defend their taking the time and trouble to study him; often this takes the form of grandiosely inflating the filmmaker’s importance. Early in the book and again at the end, Higham insists that DeMille was a serious artist at the beginning of his movie career, but that at last he abandoned such ambitions and opted for crafting expert entertainment that would assure his financial security and viability as a producer. Quite apart from what the reader may think of that (few of us have had the opportunity to see any pre-Thirties DeMille), there is absolutely nothing in Higham’s account of DeMille’s films and working methods to suggest wherein the distinction lies. It’s just something he announces, the same way that here and, notably, in his Hollywood in the Fifties collaboration with Joel Greenberg he tends to strew adjectives like “great” around as a means of establishing that less-than-first-rank artists are … well, great.
This is unnecessary. Cecil B. DeMille looms on the Hollywood horizon as an archetypal showman. It’s certainly permissible to be interested in him in that light; it seems to me downright silly to be interested in him in any other, although I’d be eager to read an informed defense of him as the serious artist Higham tries to name into existence—but that defense isn’t to be found in this book.
There is interesting material here: a brief but informative summary of DeMille’s theatrical career as actor and playwright; colorful anecdotes of film production in the Teens, with DeMille sleeping in his makeshift studio, revolver at hand, to protect the negative of the first version of The Squaw Man against pilferage or sabotage; shooting Swiss Alps location material on Mt. Rainier; putting his casts and crews through no little hell in Hawaii (for the Malayan jungle of Four Frightened People) or Sarasota, Florida (for The Greatest Show on Earth). A memorable personality emerges: a driven, egocentric, compulsively flamboyant man who would have his entire office redone in the decor of whatever film he was planning, who took daily nude swims and kept his body rock-hard to the end of his life, holding himself fit for a total dedication to any project he might choose to undertake, and requiring nothing less than similarly complete dedication from his employees. For less-than-heroic male beauties like Victor Mature and Cornel Wilde he had nothing but very public contempt (there is a bloodcurdling scene in which he tells Mature, his screen Samson, that he is “100% yellow”—before the company of Samson and Delilah), as for the tirelessly self-sacrificing Betty Hutton (Greatest Show) he expressed boundless admiration.
The problem with making a case for DeMille is that so much of his best work was done by other people. The sweep and majesty of some of his action scenes is undeniable—but it is a matter of record that second-unit directors Arthur Rosson and James Hogan had more to do with such sequences than DeMille himself. The towering vulgarity of his set-pieces is towering—but from the late Teens through the early Thirties he had Mitchell Leisen to conceive and execute those aspects of his films. The suggestion is strong—in the facts, not in Higham’s book—to believe that DeMille’s greatest power was as a producer, a dynamic figure who by his box-office record, by his very presence, compelled front-office respect and a policy of non-interference. His sense of narrative was resolutely one-dimensional, his ear for dialogue impossible, his notion of acting on a fumetti level. Any defense of DeMille as a directorial artist must not only take these factors into account but, probably, spring directly from them. Higham never comes near acknowledging this.
DeMille moved through Hollywood, and much of the world beyond, like a demigod. His personal libertinism and dictatorial tactics contradicted his public posture of godliness (who has not sat through that appalling quarter-hour preview of the 1956 Ten Commandments in which he all but points to his scorched lapel to indicate where the Lord touched him and asked that the film be made?) and his vehement defense of the cause of freedom. Most readers and filmwatchers, I think, will take more satisfaction from the characterization of DeMille implicit in that lovely anecdote Joseph L. Mankiewicz tells about the time DeMille tried to run him out of the Directors’ Guild as a pinko. You’ll find it in MTN 26—it was the night John Ford said, “I don’t like you, C.B. And I don’t like what you’ve been saying here tonight.”
I particularly looked forward to Tay Garnett’s Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights because Garnett is one of those minor but eccentric figures who have made a lot of nothing-special movies and a few quite delightful ones, and writing about such people tends to be rare. Unfortunately, the director of Her Man, One Way Passage, China Seas, Trade Winds, Stand–In, Seven Sinners, Bataan, The Cross of Lorraine, The Valley of Decision, and The Postman Always Rings Twice hasn’t really written a book at all, least of all one that gives much of a clue as to how and why he made the good movies that he did.
As Garnett explains far too often, “Light your torches and pull up your tights” was an instruction he heard barked by an assistant director preparing some extras to do their bit in a night scene for the 1922 Hunchback of Notre Dame, and it stuck with him as a succinct index of the devil-may-care, on-with-the-show spirit of moviemaking. That’s the spirit of the book and, if we are to believe Garnett, of his life as well. It’s a life not without interest, and Garnett’s anecdotes about his flying, boozing, wenching, and almost accidental filmmaking are fun to read—up to a point. That point comes about the time one realizes that everybody Tay Garnett meets up with is going to talk and act just like Tay Garnett, and also that no real structure is ever going to emerge from or be imposed on these running anecdotes. After a while, the anecdotes don’t even have to deal with Garnett. Is Alan Ladd in the next picture Garnett makes? Does Garnett know a funny story about Alan Ladd? He thinks so, so he tells it, for a page and a half, and then he goes on to something else. This may delight the readers for whom the book seems to have been intended primarily (it’s a Nostalgia Book Club selection) but it’s frustrating to anyone with a more specific curiosity. Garnett the filmmaker has a more distinctive personality than the back-slapping ex-alcoholic who talked this autobiography to Fredda Dudley Balling: his Irish-American toughness shows in even a piece of Metro spongecake like Valley of Decision, and his Bataan conveys more awareness of ugly battlefield pain than any other fictional feature out of the Second World War; and it would be stimulating to explore the relationship between the casual, taken-for-granted anti-Communism that blatantly informs some of author Garnett’s offhand philosophizing and the People’s Front politics of the still shockingly brutal Cross of Lorraine (1943). But that will have to be someone else’s job. And probably should be.
There’s little stylistic or thematic analysis in William Wellman’s autobiography either, but in this case the life story is so well told, the personality of the author and director so invigoratingly and artfully limned in, that one never dreams of asking for more. Indeed, like his personal appearance in the installment of The Men Who Made the Movies devoted to him, Wellman’s book is such a great-hearted irascible joy that I am made to feel genuine regret that I don’t like more of his movies better!
A Short Time for Insanity was written a decade ago. Wellman had just endured a major operation on his back (which had originally been broken in a plane crash in the First World War) and found himself in thrall of the “green hornets,” a codeine-and-something-else pill with which he was doped into happyland during the long convalescence. The green hornets made his mind come all unstuck, and the life story he set out to write unreels accordingly, major incidents in the present eliding into marginal memories of the past with the author pausing occasionally to express his bafflement at the whole process. Far from offering an excuse for the sort of gratuitousness that characterizes and trivializes Garnett’s book, this framework imposes a sense of literary sophistication (rare and welcome in books dealing with film) and at the same time avoids preciosity and establishes a direct connection with the idiosyncrasies of Wellman’s mind—not, one suspects, all that sea-changed by the codeine.
“Wild Bill” Wellman many call him, and “Wild Bill” Wellman he comes off as. Here, not in his films, for the most part. His life story is the story of a neighborhood wise guy, a brawler, the biggest and toughest galoot in the lumberyard, a flying fool in the Lafayette Escadrille who dropped President Wilson’s message to Congress in the wrong trenches and landed upsidedown moments later, a much-partied, much-married Hollywood character who once lost a job because as assistant director he knew more about movies than the man he was assisting and the man knew it, too. He acted once in a Douglas Fairbanks western and won Doug’s regard by managing to make Doug his cushion when they had to take a fall off the same horse. He directed the movie that won the first Academy Award for Best Picture, Wings, and worked out the dregs of one marital agony by having Jimmy Cagney shove that grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face in Public Enemy. He directed The Ox Bow Incident, that no one but Darryl Zanuck was willing to have him make, and he directed The Story of G.I. Joe, which he didn’t want to make but came to feel he had to, and which he won’t look at today because virtually all the G.I. bit-players in it shipped out to the Pacific theater afterwards and never came back. He directed Lafayette Escadrille, an almost thoroughly lifeless account of a guy he personally knew (William Wellman Jr. plays William Wellman in it, a supporting role), and Warners wouldn’t let him tell the true story (he tells it very well—in the book), and he stopped making movies in 1958.
Reviewing Dalton Trumbo’s collection of letters Additional Dialogue, Richard Corliss opined that this byproduct of the screenwriter and novelist’s professional life might well turn our to be his most impressive artistic achievement. I’m tempted to go that far about A Short Time for Insanity, for the book has a narrative drive to match Wellman’s best film work and packs a considerably more powerful wallop as personal art. It never suffers from phony rhetoric while even the director’s finest films do. “All that saves the films,” Manny Farber once wrote, “are the little flurries of bulletlike acting that give the men an inner look of credible orneriness and somewhat stupid mulishness … [But] Wellman’s lean, elliptical talents for creating brassy cheapsters and making gloved references to death, patriotism, masturbation, suggest that he uses private runways to the truth, while more famous directors take a slow, embalming surface route.” Unfortunately—and quite customarily, given the usual habits of film criticism—Wellman has been applauded mostly for his own embalming work: the tackily symmetrical allegory of Ox Bow Incident, for instance, or the earnest anti-melodrama of G.I. Joe, which drains off much of the battle-weary authenticity of Robert Mitchum and Freddie Steele through process photography as debilitating as Ox Bow‘s artfully gnarled hanging tree, deplored by commentators as diverse as James Agee and Andrew Sarris. Too many of Wellman’s willfully original efforts end up as misfired quirkiness or just plain unadulterated artiness, like the black-and-white color film Track of the Cat or the pop-religiosity of The Next Voice You Hear. He borrows blatantly, without—unlike that other inveterate borrower Howard Hawks—bringing anything of his own to make the borrowing his own: Beau Geste from the 1926 Herbert Brenon version, Westward the Women from Hawks’s own Red River, the Indian battle in Buffalo Bill from Eisenstein’s Aleksandr Nevsky. He could devise no poetic framework adequate to the ferocity of Cagney’s Public Enemy, and the film of that title can’t bear comparison with Hawks’s Scarface, as Nothing Sacred, its contemporary critical reception notwithstanding, lags far behind the best of the screwball comedies and A Star Is Born represents only a thickening, not a richening, of Cukor’s What Price Hollywood?. In the last analysis, there is probably more direct and sympathetic Wellman art in most of those eight Warners programmers he ground out in 1933—among them the very sharp Wild Boys of the Road—than in the official big Wellman pictures.
However, even if his cinematic contributions can’t come near theirs, William A. Wellman’s A Short Time for Insanity merits a place on the autobiographical shelf alongside Capra’s The Name above the Title and Josef von Sternberg’s Fun in a Chinese Laundry. It’s splendid, and so, it would appear, is its author.
Copyright © 1974 Richard T. Jameson