William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights (’39)

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Following the success of Dead End (written about here) in 1937, director William Wyler headed over to Warner Bros. to direct Jezebel (1938), a romantic drama set in the antebellum South, starring Bette Davis and Henry Fonda. The film was a critical and commercial success, and earned Davis her second Academy Award for Best Actress. Jezebel marked the first time that Wyler had tackled a period drama; one that is often held up against the more popular Gone with the Wind (1939), with many considering Jezebel the superior film—myself included. Thanks to Jezebel, Wyler proved that he could hold his own as a director outside the control of producer Samuel Goldwyn.

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The Swashbuckling Lover: Bardelys the Magnificent (1926)

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By 1926 director King Vidor and star John Gilbert were one of MGM’s most bankable duos, thanks to the massive success of their WWI drama The Big Parade (1925). They were immediately thrust into the similarly high-minded period piece La Bohème (1926), and were cast in The Glory Diggers, about the construction of the Panama Canal. But MGM had to drop the latter project, and to keep them working swiftly re-assigned both of them to Bardelys the Magnificent (1926) instead, a tongue-in-cheek romantic adventure in the Douglas Fairbanks mold. It was a departure for the duo, but they proved to have the appropriately light touch, and Gilbert flies across the screen as if sprung from a trampoline. Gilbert pokes fun at his “Great Lover” persona, here pushed into a seducer caricature of Casanovian proportions. Once thought lost, an incomplete print was discovered in France in 2006 and restored by Lobster Films. The third reel is missing, with that section filled in with inter-titles and stills. It is this version that is on DVD from Flicker Alley and is now streaming on FilmStruck.

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The Bleak Reality of William Wyler’s Dead End (1937)

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Following the success of These Three and the film adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth (written about here and here), both released in 1936, William Wyler brought another popular Broadway play to the screen: Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End. Kingsley’s play tells the story of a group of young boys growing up in poverty in the slums of New York. With no clear-cut path to a decent life, the boys have nothing better to do but to find trouble, resorting to a life of petty theft, gambling and bullying. After seeing the play in its original run, both Wyler and producer Samuel Goldwyn were interested in adapting Kingsley’s work to the screen. The characters’ struggles were relatable for a Depression-era audience, and while it was risky to make a realistic film for an audience desperate for escapism, Wyler had proven that he could make a film that was both serious and entertaining. Goldwyn purchased the film rights and immediately began production. Starring Sylvia Sidney, Joel McCrea and Humphrey Bogart, Dead End (1937) was a relatively faithful adaptation of Kingsley’s play. When casting the gang of young boys, Samuel Goldwyn wasn’t having much luck, so he decided to bring several of the boys from the original stage production, including Billy Halop and Leo Gorcy, to Hollywood, offering them a contract. This marked the beginning of the famed “Dead End Kids.”

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Eternal Recurrence: Revenge (1989)

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Revenge (1989) concerns a vengeance that cannot be contained by time. It floats through the centuries, traveling from 17th century Korea to 20th century Sakhalin Island, a much fought over spit of land squabbled over by Russia and Japan. A free-form mass of condensed hate emerges during this period, one which causes the death of a little girl and the mission of her doomed half-brother, who is conceived and raised only to avenge her murder. A major work of what became known as the Kazakh New Wave, Revenge is elusive and incantatory due in part to the script by the Korean-Russian poet Anatoli Kim that does not provide as much of a narrative as it does a striking collage of decay. Add to this the fact that director Ermek Shinarbaev was born in Soviet controlled Kazakhstan, but after Revenge was filmed the Soviet system collapsed and Kazakhstan became a sovereign state. The film reflects the rootlessness, uncertainty and bitterness of no longer having a place to call home. Restored in 2010 thanks to the efforts of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, it is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion (in Volume 2 of their World Cinema Project series), and is now streaming on FilmStruck.

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From Stage to Screen: William Wyler’s These Three (1936)

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In 1934, Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour debuted on Broadway. Starring Anne Revere, Katherine Emery and Robert Keith, the production was a huge critical and commercial success, running for almost two years. But Hellman’s story almost didn’t make it to the stage because of its then-controversial subject matter. Based on a true story in Scotland in the early 1800s (which had been suggested to Hellman by her partner Dashiell Hammett), The Children’s Hour recounts the struggles of two young teachers, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, as they try to open a small boarding school for girls. With a successful opening and their young students very eager to learn, the two teachers are proud of their accomplishments and what lies ahead for them and their students. But one of the students, the granddaughter of a wealthy, influential figure in the community, spreads a lie: Ms. Dobie and Ms. Wright are romantically involved with one another and flaunting their relationship in front of the students. While the rumors of the lesbian affair are false, Ms. Dobie reveals in confidence to Ms. Wright that she has developed feelings for her. Ms. Wright, who is in a relationship with local doctor Joseph Cardin, doesn’t take Ms. Dobie seriously. Wracked by guilt over her unrequited feelings for Ms. Wright and devastated by their school’s untimely closing and subsequent ouster from the community, Ms. Dobie commits suicide.

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To Have and To Hold: Losing Ground (1982)

LOSING GROUND, Seret Scott (R), 1982. ©Milestone Films/courtesy Everett Collection

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Losing Ground (1982) is a shape-shifting drama of an imploding marriage, insinuating itself into the diverging head-spaces of a pair of quarreling intellectuals. Shot on a shoestring budget in 1982 by City College of New York professor Kathleen Collins, it was one of the first features directed by a black woman since the 1920s. Distributors didn’t know what to do with a black art film, so after a few festival screenings and an airing on public television, it disappeared from view. Thanks to the efforts of Kathleen Collins’ daughter Nina and Milestone Films, this remarkable feature was finally released into theaters in 2015, and now it’s available on a lovely DVD and Blu-ray, and is streaming on FilmStruck.

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William Wyler: Constant Chameleon and The People’s Auteur

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To view the films available with the “Directed by William Wyler” theme, click here.

In reflecting on the history of Hollywood filmmaking, William Wyler undoubtedly remains one of the greatest and most influential directors of his time. Twelve Academy Award nominations for Best Director (the record for most nominations of a director), winning three times for Mrs. Miniver (1946), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Ben-Hur (1959). He directed some of Hollywood’s finest talent, including a three-film collaboration with Bette Davis, in arguably her best work, earning her Academy Award nominations each time and a win for her performance in 1938’s Jezebel. Out of her working relationship with Wyler, Davis believed that she learned to become a better actress with him behind the camera. Her thoughts on working under Wyler’s direction were not unique; most of the actors who were fortunate enough to collaborate with him, especially those who did so multiple times, recalled the director as tough and professional, drawing the absolute best performances out of his cast. To achieve his idea of perfection, Wyler demanded multiple takes, which many of the actors, at least in the moment, felt excessive and borderline obsessive. But when the final cut was on the screen, they knew exactly why their director wanted more.

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Black Sheep: Mon Oncle (1958)

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To view Mon Oncle click here.

“That would be the ideal film. I would like people to see Hulot less and less and to see other people or characters more and more.” – Jacques Tati

With Mon Oncle (1958), Jacques Tati gets closer to making his ideal film. The character of Hulot gets pushed further and further into the background until he often disappears, letting nearly everyone else in town take center stage. Hulot’s role is to set a disastrous mechanism into motion, then stroll offscreen with charming obliviousness. He is inimical to the quickly modernizing world of the film, able to find the flaw in any advanced doohickey and reduce it to a smoking, blubbering mess in a matter of minutes. Hulot is forever putting the brakes on technological advancement, while the rest of his family is installing the latest and greatest in household tech, from a motion-sensor garage door to a fish water fountain. While his family tries to automate and smooth out their lives, Hulot prefers to live in the grit and grime, in an old rickety house covered in dust and layered with history. Tati uses set and sound design to separate Hulot from his contemporaries, going from the squeaky clean lines of his sister’s ultra-modern home to the clatteringly labyrinthine staircase of his apartment building. Hulot is a man of out of time, trying to impart his destabilizing spirit to his little nephew, the only relative susceptible to his charms.

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Making the Leap: Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Talkies

THE PRIVATE LIFE OF DON JUAN, Merle Oberon, Douglas Fairbanks, 1934

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Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. made his last movie in 1934. The Private Life of Don Juan was, quite accidentally, a fitting farewell to one of the first megastars of the movie industry. It wasn’t clear while filming it that it would be Fairbanks’ last movie but its story, one of a once vigorous and dashing romantic reduced to seeing a physician because he just doesn’t feel he has it in him anymore, fell in line with Fairbanks’s real life condition. He was only 51 but already feeling the effects of decades of chain-smoking, drinking and general living life to its fullest. He could no longer do a lot of the athletic work he had so easily mastered in his early career. Better said, he could, but it exhausted him. But he was also exhausted by the movies themselves, particularly sound movies. He never quite took to them and despite his stardom and seemingly smooth transition to sound, never quite felt at home.

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The Greatest Early Douglas Sirk: Lured (1947)

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Writer and director Douglas Sirk is mainly known today for his exquisite technicolor melodramas, such as Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956) and Imitation of Life (1959), his last feature-length film. His work throughout the 1950s, and specifically these four films, are not only seminal entries in the melodrama genre, but they also helped define a generation—or at least the “idea” of a generation. While the stories depicted in these films are certainly outrageous, often requiring audiences to suspend a bit of disbelief, there are running themes in Sirk’s films that are familiar to all of us: unrequited love, personal tragedy, social and racial inequality, guilt and unfair scrutiny from one’s peers. These themes resonated with post-World War II audiences struggling with a new way of life. But before he established himself as the preeminent director of the American melodrama, and subsequently known for his distinctive filmmaking style, Douglas Sirk made a handful of film noirs, romantic thrillers and comedies in the late 1940s and early 1950s, demonstrating his incredible range as one of our great cinematic storytellers. Four of these films are currently available on Filmstruck as part of their “Early Sirk” theme: A Scandal in Paris (1946); Shockproof (1949); Slightly French (1949); and 1947’s Lured, which is arguably the best of the four, and my personal favorite.

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