Friday, September 12

The Directors: Robert Wise

To movie fans, he is probably best-known as the Academy Award-winning director of two of the most famous musicals of all time, The Sound of Music and West Side Story.  Within the industry he was known as a master craftsman, enormously respected by his peers, with his use of carefully composed images, tight editing and fast pace.  He also made some incredibly successful films.

He found acclaim with his versatility in numerous genres...  film noir, horror, war, westerns, science fiction, biographies, period adventure, romance and musicals.  It might be noted that most directors have not helmed a musical.  Perhaps on the downside of this versatility is that he never became famous for a certain type of film, never developed a thematic sort of library but so much of his work is just so good that this seems a bit nit-picky.



Robert Wise was born in Indiana in 1914, the youngest of three sons.  As a child he loved movies and was happiest when sitting in a dark theater, often staying to see a film more than once.  In high school he developed an interest in writing and thought he would pursue a career in journalism.  He obtained a scholarship to a small liberal arts college but after the first year, he had to drop out.  Money was tight... it was The Great Depression.

His older brother worked in Hollywood at RKO and Wise high-tailed it there in hopes of finding some work.  His brother got him on at RKO in the shipping department.  It wasn't what he wanted and in fact he didn't know specifically want he wanted, but it was a job and it was in the movies.

After a series of flunky positions, he drifted into film editing at the studio.  He edited a goodly number of films but one of his most famous assignments (actually two) involved Orson Welles... Orson the Talented, Orson the Terrible, Orson the Control Freak, Orson the Undisciplined.  If you hold Citizen Kane (1941) in high esteem, Wise's tight editing is one of the reasons why.  There was trouble, however, on their next outing, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).  Welles pissed off the studio and they took him off the project before it was finished.  Wise tidied up some directing and all of the editing, something Welles would have shared in under happier circumstances.  He had some big scissors and slashed away at the film and Welles was so angry at the end result that he didn't speak to Wise for some 40 years afterwards.

That taste of directing was all Wise needed and editing became a thing of the past.  In the future, however, he would often add producer to his list of handles.

















In 1944 he directed his first film, The Curse of the Cat People, with Simone Simon and it was a delicious horror film.  When I first saw it years later, I nearly jumped out of my skin.  I was still a young kid... what was my mother thinking?  In 1947 he steered Born to Kill, a stunning piece of film noir and probably the film that started my love affair with the genre.  B movie man, Lawrence Tierney, had his best role ever as a sadistic killer who determines to marry his way to the top.  Co-starring one of the great noir actresses, Claire Trevor, the film was surprisingly brutal for its time.  Two years later he made The Set-Up with Robert Ryan and Audrey Totter, one of the best boxing films ever made and giving those actors one of their finest movies.

It's funny considering how I love westerns and respected Wise that I never particularly cared for the three westerns he did.  The most noteworthy of the bunch, however, was 1948s Blood on the Moon, actually a noir western, with Robert Mitchum and Robert Preston stalking one another.  The 1950 cavalry tale, Two Flags West, didn't impress despite a cast that included Joseph Cotten, Linda Darnell, Cornel Wilde and Jeff Chandler.  Tribute to a Bad Man (1956) was a flop on all levels.  The original star, Spencer Tracy, I could have bought in the role, (remember 1954's Broken Lance), but James Cagney wasn't quite right as the iron-fisted rancher.

As soap operas go, he made a lovely one in 1950, Three Secrets.  It was also a suspenseful one in that three women wait at a plane crash site to see which one's child is the lone survivor.  It didn't hurt that the three women were Eleanor Parker, Patricia Neal and Ruth Roman.

The following year Neal joined Wise again for The Day the Earth Stood Still.  It was an alien-comes-to-earth story that was more cerebral than action-oriented but it certainly captured the public's imagination.  I loved his remake of the sentimental, generational So Big (1953), based on a popular Edna Ferber novel.  Jane Wyman was an inspired choice for the lead of a mother who sacrifices for her beloved son. 

The following year came Executive Suite, a serious black and white look at a corporation's power struggle when its leader dies unexpectedly.  This film is on the tube all the time and if you haven't seen it, you should.  It is wonderfully well-written by a favorite of Wise's, Ernest Lehman, with a cast that includes William Holden, June Allyson, Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March, Walter Pidgeon, Paul Douglas, Louis Calhern, Shelley Winters, Dean Jagger and Nina Foch.

Wise would then work with two of my favorites, Paul Newman and Jean Simmons.  He first worked with Newman in the gritty biography of boxer, Rocky Graziano, in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956).  The director did a rare comedy as did his star, Simmons, in the under-rated This Could Be the Night, about a straight-laced teacher moonlighting as a bookkeeper at a gangster's supper club.  That was in 1957 as was Until They Sail, with Simmons and Newman, about four sisters (Joan Fontaine, Piper Laurie and Sandra Dee are the other three) and their loves in WWII New Zealand.  Wise sure had a talent for assembling impressive casts.

The sisters of Until They Sail














Susan Hayward refused to die before she won an Oscar and from Wise she got one for 1958s I Want to Live, a controversial, documentary-style film of real-life murderer (or was she?), Barbara Graham.  Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) was another harrowing film, this time about a black bank robber and his white, racist cohort.  Wonderful performances from Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan elevated this film above the usual bank robbery movies.

Then came West Side Story (1961).  And four years later The Sound of Music... both, of course, colossal successes.  That Wise won Oscars for both of them always rather amused me.  (He also won another one for producing West Side Story.)  It seems worth noting that his work on these films are tempered with the facts that on the former Wise was a co-director with choreographer Jerome Robbins and on the latter he got the assignment after the esteemed William Wyler took a pass.  More interesting to me is that both projects came to him as ready-made successes and in some respects there wasn't so much for him to do.  Nonetheless, he is to be complimented for steering such huge works.  Both, of course, would win Oscars for best picture.

In 1966 he had his last real success with The Sand Pebbles.  Steve McQueen would receive his only Oscar nomination as a sailor on an American gunboat in 1926 revolution-torn China.  It was an ambitious film and a long one at three hours plus, but it was quite possibly too ambitious and too long.  Nonetheless, it received an Oscar nomination for best picture and Wise received a nom as well.  I quite liked it.

Years later with his The Sound of Music stars














Another ambitious, three-hour film was 1968s Star!, the fictionalized biography of stage star, Gertrude Lawrence, and played by Julie Andrews.  It was a resounding flop.  A few years after its initial release, it was served to the public again, shortened and with a new title, and it still flopped.  I loved it, frankly, and I think any good gay boy would have but it was too long and Lawrence was not well-known in 1968 nor did many accept the antiseptic Andrews as a bitch.  Oh, but I hush the naysayers... I thought it was one of her best roles. 

The sci-fi thriller, The Andromeda Stain (1971), the disaster film, The Hindenburg (1975), and horror film, Audrey Rose (1977) made some noise but none were praised in quite the way as his earlier work. 

Robert Wise was a very honored man.  In addition to his producing Oscar and his directing Oscars, he was awarded an honorary one, the prestigious Irving G. Thalberg award.  He was honored by the Directors Guild numerous times, the AFI Lifetime Achievement award and so many more.

I've always considered him a very fine director.

He was married twice, the first time ending in her death and the second ending in his.  He died of a heart attack in Los Angeles in 2005.



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