- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2007

William Wyler directed Academy Award-winning movies — “Mrs. Miniver” and “The Best Years of Our Lives” — right before and immediately after his World War II service as a documentary filmmaker commissioned with the Army Air Corps. “Best Years” ended a long association with producer Samuel Goldwyn but had no immediate successor, in part because of an ill-conceived postwar business partnership with Frank Capra and George Stevens.

Their start-up independent company, Liberty Films, quickly became a drain on the limited resources of the talent. A bailout deal from Paramount was accepted, perhaps most gratefully by Mr. Wyler, who also became the only partner who fulfilled the original terms of the agreement by completing five features for the studio — “The Heiress,” “Carrie,” “Detective Story,” “Roman Holiday” and “The Desperate Hours.”

Mr. Capra didn’t get beyond two vehicles with Bing Crosby, “Riding High” and “Here Comes the Groom.” Mr. Stevens scarcely shortchanged Paramount, since “A Place in the Sun” and “Shane” were two of his three pictures. But Mr. Wyler equaled their combined output not only at Paramount but for the remainder of their careers, completing 13 films while Mr. Capra settled for five and Mr. Stevens had time for eight.

Olivia de Havilland prompted the first of the Wyler projects at Paramount by urging him to see “The Heiress,” a Broadway adaptation of the Henry James novella, “Washington Square.” She was keen on playing the heroine, Catherine Sloper, the shy and cruelly manipulated daughter of a prominent, widowed New York physician of the mid-19th century.

Undervalued by her snobbish father, Catherine is then deceived by an engaging young fortune hunter, Morris Townsend, whose greed prevents him from going through with an elopement that might cost him access to part of the girl’s inheritance. A tidy sum is safely within his grasp, but Townsend sabotages himself and betrays Catherine’s trust by holding out for more.

William Wyler had directed several prestige adaptations of plays between 1933 and 1941: “Counsellor-at-Law,” “The Good Fairy,” “These Three,” “Dodsworth,” “Dead End,” “Jezebel,” “The Letter,” “The Little Foxes.” Indeed, he had made theatrical immediacy and refinement stylistic specialties, manipulating composition and performance in ways that seemed to place you in the middle of enhanced theater experiences. Improving on a front-row-center perspective, he provided moviegoers with invisible onstage proximity.

“The Heiress” was the work of a conjugal playwriting team, Ruth and Augustus Goetz. The association paid off only modestly at the box office but handsomely in prestige: The film won four Academy Awards, including best actress for the enterprising Miss de Havilland and musical score for Aaron Copland. Mr. Wyler was a directing nominee again, but the Goetzes were overlooked by Hollywood writers.

A truly historic bet was missed when Ralph Richardson, a veteran of the London cast, failed to win as supporting actor for his peerlessly snobbish Dr. Sloper. (The winner, Dean Jagger in “12 O’Clock High,” was playing the nicer guy, hands down.)

The movie’s second best casting stroke was Montgomery Clift as the attractive but faithless Townsend. Fresh from his triumphant debut year in “The Search” and “Red River,” Mr. Clift played his first rotter and moral weakling in “The Heiress.” Perhaps that was too disillusioning for popular audiences at the time, but it remains a superbly perverse performance: Despite repeated viewings, you want Townsend to be less of a cad than he is.

Mr. Wyler returned to an American literary classic for his next movie, “Carrie,” an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s first great social novel, “Sister Carrie.” Reluctantly published in 1900, it was destined to become a landmark of literary naturalism and — for a generation or more — a pariah. The Goetzes did the screenplay and provided an intelligent condensation of a sprawling source, but the results never had prestige value for Paramount — or the public they halfheartedly solicited.

“Carrie” was kept on ice for a year and then tardily released in 1952. By that time Mr. Wyler had completed a third picture, “Detective Story,” a success, and was in Rome shooting the big hit of his Paramount tenure, “Roman Holiday.”

This might be a propitious season to rediscover the merits of the Wyler-Goetz “Carrie” because it preserves one of Laurence Olivier’s most haunting performances — as George Hurstwood, the Chicago restaurant manager who ruins his life by running away with the ingenue Carrie Meeber. A country girl, she is destined to prosper on the New York stage while her mentor slips into disgrace and hopelessness.

The centennial of Mr. Olivier’s birth rolls around in May, and Hurstwood is one of the non-Shakespearean roles that adds gravitas to his filmography. His tragic Hurstwood in “Carrie” and a dashing Macheath in “The Beggar’s Opera” — fascinating performances sandwiched between his 1948 “Hamlet” and 1955 “Richard III” — were both commercial flops, but they make a persuasive case for the actor’s range and versatility in the early 1950s, when the stage was monopolizing his time.

Theodore Dreiser wanted to see John Barrymore play Hurstwood. In 1939, a year before the book was finally sold to a studio, he wrote the actor, “I have, for so long, thought of you treading … his sorrowful way.”

The sorrowful way was eloquently but thanklessly trod by Mr. Wyler and Mr. Olivier some years later, with Jennifer Jones as a more debatable Sister Carrie. Her very presence had become neurotic to a fault by 1950 or so, but she does embody some of the character’s mixture of coyness and opportunism.

In retrospect, two supporting actors loom large — Eddie Albert as Carrie’s first protector, the genial drummer Charles Drouet, and Ray Teal as the cynical collection agent, Allen, who catches up with Hurstwood in New York. In fact, the Teal performance illustrates cult classic prowess. He appears in only one sequence but dominates it so cleverly and enjoyably that he seems to expand the movie’s frame of reference. It’s fine to sympathize with the weaknesses of Hurstwood, but that sympathy needs to be subjected to the mockery of an Allen, who can’t afford to be a softie.

TITLE: “The Heiress”

RATING: No MPAA rating (released in 1949, years before the advent of the rating system; adult subject matter)

CREDITS: Produced and directed by William Wyler. Screenplay by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz, based on their play, adapted from Henry James’ novel “Washington Square.” Cinematography by Leo Tover. Production design by Harry Horner. Costume design by Edith Head. Music by Aaron Copland

RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes

DVD EDITION: Universal Cinema Classics

WEB SITE: www.universalstudioshomeentertainment.com

TITLE: “Carrie”

RATING: No MPAA rating (released in 1952; adult subject matter)

CREDITS: Produced and directed by William Wyler. Screenplay by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, based on the novel “Sister Carrie” by Theodore Dreiser. Cinematography by Victor Milner. Costume design by Edith Head. Music by David Raksin

RUNNING TIME: 121 minutes

DVD EDITION: Paramount Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.paramount.com/homeentertainment

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