Saturday, January 30, 2021

WISE UP - A look at the Best Director you've forgotten & the book "ROBERT WISE: THE MOTION PICTURES"

Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures (Revised Edition) by J. R. Jordan - 2020
The Pause That Refreshes.
Director Robert Wise hoists a Coca-Cola on the set of West Side Story with the film's star Natalie Wood. Wise co-directed West Side Story with choreographer Jerome Robbins, their twin 1963 Oscar win for Best Director was the first time the directing award had ever been shared. (Photo not featured in book.)

By rights, the director of the movie that single-handedly saved 20th Century Fox from bankruptcy should be as well-known as John Ford or Howard Hawks. And if that same fellow received his first of seven career Academy Award nominations (four wins) for editing one of the most highly-acclaimed motion pictures in American cinema, you'd think he'd be at least as talked and written about as William Wyler or George Cukor.  Now, what if this guy was also responsible for two of the most iconic movie musicals of all time...films that made a fortune for the studios, garnered Best Picture Oscar wins for both, and influenced the way movie musicals were made for years after...surely this director must be as famous as Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock. Right? 
Answer: Well, not so much.
The Sound of Music
Even die-hard devotees of the film have a hard time remembering who directed it.

Of course, the person I’m referring to is the late director-producer Robert Wise (1914 – 2005). It was Wise’s adaptation of the Broadway musical The Sound of Music (1965) that rescued 20th Century Fox from the threat of Cleopatra (1963)-induced bankruptcy. It was Wise who, at the ripe old age of 26, edited the Orson Welles masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941) and received his first Oscar nomination. (Wise was also the person controversially tasked with whittling/butchering Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) down to 88 minutes from its original 148-minute running time.) And in 1962 and 1966, it was Robert Wise who each year took home Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director in recognition for his work on West Side Story and The Sound of Music respectively.

West Side Story
According to the Jerome Robbins biography Somewhere, Robert Wise was "quite reluctant" when asked to co-direct with the Tony Award-winning choreographer/director of the original 1957 Broadway production. An agreement was struck granting Robbins control of the musical sequences, Wise the book scenes. Even with this, the producers fired Robbins some 45 days into the film's 7-month shooting schedule, citing his over-meticulousness as the cause for the film being severely and expensively behind schedule. 

Having directed some 40 motion pictures throughout his six-decade career—several now regarded as contemporary classics—Wise is hardly an unknown in film circles. Similarly, given the many positions of honor he held in his lifetime (president of both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and The Director’s Guild) and the number of industry trophies bestowed upon him (the aforementioned four Academy Awards, The Irving G Thalberg Memorial Award, The Director’s Guild D.W. Griffith Award, and The AFI Life Achievement Award), Wise isn’t even a filmmaker about whom it can be said had a career that went unrewarded.

Two for the Seesaw
Wise uses space to dramatize the isolation of characters played by Shirley MacLaine & Robert Mitchum

The boon and bane of Robert Wise’s career has always been his versatility and disinterest in imposing a defining “A film by Robert Wise” signature on his movie. 

“Some of the more esoteric critics claim there is no Robert Wise style or stamp. My answer to that is that I’ve tried to approach each genre in a cinematic style that I think is right for that genre.” - Robert Wise  The Los Angeles Times 1998 

The range of genres Wise worked in is staggering. Film-Noir: Born to Kill (1947) / Western: Blood on the Moon (1948) / Sports: The Set-up (1949) / Comedy: Something for the Birds (1952) / War: Destination Gobi (1953) / Bio: I Want to Live (1958) / Crime: Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) / Romance: Two for the Seesaw (1962) / Adventure: The Sand Pebbles (1966) / Musical: - Star! (1968) / Horror: The Haunting (1963) / and Sci-Fi: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). 
The Hindenburg
Suspicious-looking onlooker Roy Thinnes skulks behind Colonel George C. Scott and Countess Anne Bancroft, whose opium addiction has her airborne long before the dirigible ever leaves the ground. 

And while Robert Wise may not have been the most hands-on director, his films led many a performer to Oscar wins and nominations (Steve McQueen received his only Oscar nomination for The Sand Pebbles). 

—From the book Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures by J.R. Jordan—
RenĂ© Auberjonois on working with Wise on The Hindenburg (1975): “But I have very little recollection of Robert directing me as an actor. And that is unique, really. I didn’t have much of an actor-director relationship with him.”   
Janette Scott on working with Wise on Helen of Troy (1956): “From our perspective, he didn’t really direct. He would place us and say things like, ‘Let's try it.’

The Day the Earth Stood Still
Michael Rennie (left) no doubt feeling ill.

Historically speaking, if Wise suffers from anything, it's from a lack of legacy. He's a director with no visibility (there aren't any Alfred Hitchcock-like walk-ons in a Robert Wise movie); no public persona (he didn't make the talk-show circuit like Otto Preminger); no mystique (there are no juicy anecdotes detailing displays artistic temperament); and impossible to "type" (versatility resists branding). When film enthusiasts and scholars talk about the directors of the studio system era, the name Robert Wise is conspicuous in its absence. Underrated and overlooked in comparison to his peers, Robert Wise is the Jan Brady of film directors. The Rodney Dangerfield of Cinema. 

Photo: Los Angeles Times
Robert Wise's reputation as a director worthy of scholarly evaluation took a serious blow in 1968 when influential film critic and Auteur Theory advocate Andrew Sarris summarily dismissed the versatile director as a "technician without a strong personality," and claims that Wise's stylistic signature was "indistinct to the point of invisibility."

Hoping to rectify this is the book— Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures by J.R. Jordan, originally published in 2017 and now available in a revised and updated edition. Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures is a well-researched, sizable volume (506 pages) that takes a comprehensive, chronological look at the full body of Robert Wise's career output as a director. All 40 of Wise’s feature films are highlighted, including his last, a TV-movie filmed when the director was 85-years-old. 

The book is divided into five sections, each representing a significant period in Wise’s career (section titles are the author’s, the descriptors my own):
RKO Pictures – B-movies under the tutelage of horror master Val Lewton.
The Fifties – His most prolific period.
Primetime – The ‘60s, his most successful decade.  
The Science and Surrealism of the Seventies – Big budgets & modest returns.
Twilight – His brief return to filmmaking following a 10-year absence. 
The Haunting
My favorite Robert Wise film is also one of the most effective haunted house films I've ever seen

An entire chapter is devoted to each of Wise’s films. The chapters comprise a thematic quote; plot description; details about the making of the movie; trivia and behind-the-scenes-info; pertinent screen dialogue; and in some instances, interviews with actors and other individuals involved in the production. More than 20 interviews were conducted for the book, among those contributing their thoughts on working with Wise are Marsha Mason (Audrey Rose), George Chakiris (West Side Story), Lindsay Wagner (Two People), RenĂ© Auberjonois (The Hindenburg), Earl Holliman (Destination Gobi), Billy Gray (The Day the Earth Stood Still), and Janette Scott (Helen of Troy). For me, these interviews are an entertaining and informative highlight. 
Featuring an index, bibliography, and where necessary, citation footnotes, it’s a book that can be read cover to cover (as I did) or used for reference. 
When it came to Wise's return to the musical genre, three failed to be the charm. The expensive, tuneful, and colorful musical biography of Gertrude Lawrence was as big a flop as The Sound of Music was a hit.

Because so many of Robert Wise’s movies are so well-known and popular, yet Wise remains a director about whom little has been written, it’s natural to approach this sizable volume with a great deal of expectation. (In my case, over-expectation. I’m a big fan of Robert Wise, but the last book I read about him was back in 2007…Richard C. Keenan’s The Films of Robert Wise.) So, at this point, I need to emphasize that one's enjoyment of Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures will be significantly enhanced by understanding clearly what the book is and what it isn’t. 
Odds Against Tomorrow
Produced by Harry Belafonte and credited as the first film-noir to star a Black actor

Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures is not an academic work of film scholarship and doesn’t present itself as such. More an appreciation and career tribute to Wise, Jordan approaches his subject with a film-buff’s enthusiasm and a well-informed informality. Biographical information about Wise, personal or professional, is minimal, the emphasis being on letting the films speak for themselves, letting actors and industry professionals share their thoughts on working with Wise, and highlighting each film’s production and content. As per the latter, perhaps an overabundance of riches. Unaccountably detailed plot descriptions dominate the book, it not being unusual for 5 pages of a 9-page chapter to be devoted to the recounting of a film’s storyline alone.
Audrey Rose
Marsha Mason and John Beck wonder if the reincarnated can reverse charges

For me, Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures succeeds as an introduction and primer for those unfamiliar with the director, and as a solid reference book supplement to the already existing books about Robert Wise (I’m only aware of their being 5 total). I would think this book would prove very useful in this age of streaming sites and online movie accessibility, its chapter-by-chapter highlighting of each film serving as a guide for the unfamiliar, a recap to the initiated. 
Should there be a 2nd revised edition of Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures, I hope the opportunity presents itself for a strong editor to tighten up the prose a bit. There's so much worthwhile in Jordan's book, yet I suspect its form as is might keep well-read cinema enthusiasts away. It's great to have a book dedicated to the entire body of Robert Wise's directing career, even better to encounter such a sincere tribute to a man who, by all accounts, was an unusually kind, principled, and self-effacing director whose movies continue to touch many lives.
The Andromeda Strain
You know it's science fiction when Paula Kelly and James Olson battle an uncontrolled
outbreak of a deadly virus and there's no one around bitching about having to wear a mask.

Indeed, the major through-line of each and every interview conducted in the book can be found in this quote by a pre-The Bionic Woman Lindsay Wagner, whom Wise directed in her first film Two People (1973): 

“Robert (Wise) to this day remains one of the nicest, most gracious film directors I’ve ever encountered. Consequently, my indoctrination to the business was that power, success, and kindness can all coexist. Because to me, those are the characteristics that defined Robert Wise.”

 The author provided a review copy of the book.

All screencaps are from Robert Wise movies in my personal DVD collection.

Simone Simon and Ann Carter in The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
Taking over the reins from original director Gunther von Fritsch, this RKO film
produced by Val Lewton marks Robert Wise's debut as a film director.

Copyright © Ken Anderson     2009 - 2021


  1. Lotta great movies there, but I'm still stuck on The Magnificent Ambersons. When I think of downward spiral movies, there's Requiem for a Dream, Babe: Pig in the City, and The Magnificent Ambersons. Watching it, we played the game of "Where did Welles' movie end, and the reshoots attempting to paste on a happy ending begin?"

    1. I think I need to give "The Magnificent Ambersons" another viewing. I saw it only once, back in the 90s, I believe, and just found the lead character so irredeemably unlikeable that the entire film was a slog for me. I've never even read up much on what the content of the purported "better" Welles version involved.
      I find downward spiral movies compelling as a rule, so perhaps one day I'll crack open that DVD case again... .

  2. I tend to sub-categorize films by director, so I'm certainly familiar with Wise's works. But, it's true, he never had an "auteur trademark" to his movies; instead he was a good professional craftsman - and that's not a bad thing at all. His credentials are impressive and he made numerous top-rate films.

    I would count as personal favorites The Curse of the Cat People (a strangely poetic "horror" film), The Set-Up (a quite brutal boxing noir), The House on Telegraph Hill, Executive Suite, The Andromeda Strain, Audrey Rose (silly story, but Wise makes it engrossing), and my very favorite The Sand Pebbles - which is one of those what I call "whirlpool" tales; in which, despite all of the characters' efforts, an inescapable tragic fate awaits all.

    And, of course, West Side Story and The Sound of Music - two grand musicals I've watched ever since early childhood. (Note how both begin with several vertiginous shots of their respective settings, Manhattan and Austria, before we crane down to meet our respective first characters, the Jets and Maria the novice. I guess we have a little director's trademark after all!)

    Re: The Haunting - sorry, Ken, there are a lot of good things about that movie, but Julie Harris' endless inner narration drives me up the wall! Maybe I'll give that film another shot and just steel myself to that aspect!

    I would still like to see Wise's Helen of Troy, Star!, Two People, Odds Against Tomorrow, Two for the Seesaw, and even Rooftops!

    1. Ha! I love that Julie Harris' voice-over inner monologues drive you crazy! I say that because I like it when a person sometimes has a particular resistance to a movie that is widely popular. I just watched A THOUSAND CLOWNS after being pressured to watch it for nearly 40 years. Now I want to go back in time and punch all those people in the face. Jason Robards drove me crazy even though I was aware of how remarkable Barbara Harris was.

      So I don't think you need to re-watch "The Haunting" know what you like. And it sounds like you gave it a fair chance. Besides, you'll need all you strength to make it through "Rooftops"!
      THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE is a lovely film with a misleading title. And isn't the story to AUDREY ROSE a jaw-dropper? It didn't strike me as such when I first saw it (thanks, as you not, to Wise's handling of the material), but I think a revival house screening of it today would engender a lot of laughs in the wrong places.

      I like many of Wise's films as well, but because he WAS so versatile, I've never seen any of his movies in the genres I tend to despise. Thus, I've never seen any film of his dealing with sports or war (although I did kinda see The Sand Pebbles in a theater wen I was 10, but I fell asleep and can't remember anything about it now). But I really love TWO FOR THE SEESAW and ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW.

      Though I hadn't noticed it myself, the author of this book took note of what your eagle-eyed perception picked up in regard to the opening shots of West Side Story & Sound of Music. Yes! It's as close to a Wise trademark as you'll get. I see a lot of Val Lewton and Orson Welles influence in his work. Especially When it comes to the use of ceilings and shadows.
      Of the films you mentioned that I haven't seen, I think THE SET-UP holds the most interest for me. Have you seen BORN TO KILL? That's another favorite.
      Good to hear from you, Mark! Thank you for reading this and commenting.

    2. And thank you for your always generous reply. Although a sports film, you should give The Set-Up a try. It takes place in real time over a one hour 12 minute period - and Wise's experience as an editor on earlier 1940s classics comes very much in handy here.

      Heh, although I like A Thousand Clowns (especially the always wonderful Barbara Harris - just finally saw her in Movie Movie a couple of weeks ago), I know what you're talking about: Herb Gardner's character often do all talk in that similar whimsical style!

  3. Dear Ken: Hi!

    Ah, the Auteurist Theory! In which the only directors with talent are those with a flashy visual style that can be easily explained to film students. :)

    That's a little unfair, but it does stick in my craw that film directors like Wise, George Cukor, John Cromwell, William Dieterle (who does at times have a striking visual style) who tend to put their talent at the service of the story and characters get so little respect in film circles.

    Even when it comes to cartoons, Chuck Jones is acclaimed a genius because of his artistic pretensions, while poor Friz Freleng gets no credit at all for a very definite style and world view: i.e., the bracingly cynical belief that people (or in his case, animals) don't learn and don't change, but keep making the same dumb mistakes. That worldview is clearly evident in such films as one of his masterpieces, the Tweety and Sylvester cartoon "Birds Anonymous."

    I've seen many of Wise's films but was startled to discover I only own one: "Star!", which is one of Eric's and my favorite movies. But I do discern some stylistic tendencies in Wise's films, including the use of the camera as an observer, not an unfeeling one but still with some sense of distance from people and events. I see that stylistic touch especially in his films from the mid-1950s onward ("Executive Suite," "I Want to Live!", "Star!" and most brilliantly, as you and Mark note, in the highly cinematic openings of "Sound of Music" and "West Side Story.")

    I also want to say a word about the "ruining" of "Magnificent Ambersons." It is true that the movie's revised ending strays far from Welles' dark and pessimistic tone in the rest of the film. But I read the Booth Tarkington novel on which the movie is based, and the movie's revised ending--even to some of the dialogue, I believe--is taken straight from the novel!

    Thanks again, Ken, for a great and informative read!

    P.S. You've been on something of a Paula Kelly kick lately, with her photo above and that clip of her dancing to "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" a few posts ago. I loved the latter clip--how she uses her entire body as part of the dance, including her wonderful facial expressions during the close-up.

    1. Hello, David
      That’s a hilariously succinct and on-the-nose first sentence there! And as one who grew up grateful to that theory for introducing me to a whole new way of appreciating film and its critical analysis, I don’t think you’re being all that unfair either.

      If anything, it was a theory that had value, but was seriously overworked and never recognized its own limited scope.
      I like your list of overlooked directors is interesting, John Cromwell and William Dieterle both seriously off my radar in spite of the number of film Google revealed to me that I’ve seen.
      And how terrific is it of you to mention animators! I never think of it, but the same “star system” hierarchy applies. I guess as long as there has been advertising there has been the need to herald particular creative professionals merely to call marketable attention to them. But with the introduction of criticism, there came to be sometimes arbitrary standards of comparative value to contend with.

      I didn’t know you liked the movie STAR!
      It’s a qualified favorite of mine that I hope to write about sometime soon. I like it, yet I can wholly understand why audiences didn’t respond. But few things are as sublime as Andrews’ handling of that choreographically very difficult “Burlington Bertie” number.

      I think the time is ripe for people to discover Wise, as I can’t recall a time when so many of his movies have at last become available on so many streaming sites. Nowadays people need a forgotten director to be blessed by Scorsese or Tarantino before they’ll explore and trust their own tastes.

      As for the “Ambersons” controversy, what you make mention of --that perhaps Welles’ claims of having his masterpiece ruined are more a subjective reaction to how it went down than a fair assessment of how true to the original concept the heavily-edited version --is the only thing I came across while researching this post. I have no idea what was in that hour cut from the film (and I can’t imagine any film that’s reasonably well-told can withstand the loss of a whole hour without costing something in characterization or the like), but I have heard that the controversial “upbeat” ending was not all that different from Welles script. And your being someone who’s actually read the book helps out a great deal with clarifying what fate the source material had in mind for that terribly annoying character.

      In closing, I thank you for taking not of my Paula Kelly inclusions. You’re so perceptive! She’s a big favorite of mine whose dramatic work in several Black action films of the ‘70s I discovered over quarantine. As a singer, phenomenal dancer, and sensitive actress, I think she’s highly underrated and had a long career, but certainly not the kind her versatility and talent deserved. For that reason I like to highlight her whenever she appears in 9or connects even tangentially with) a film I’m writing about. Fitting for you to notice her in a post about underappreciated artists.
      Great you enjoyed this article, David, and thanks for adding a few directors names that might inspire some readers to explore their work.

    2. As always, Ken, thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful response. And, yes--PLEASE do a blog post on "Star!" :)

  4. Hi Ken! Great article on one of the busiest and most prolific directors in film. I agree that The Haunting is just about the best haunted house movie ever made. Also love Sound of Music as well, of course. Did not know that he directed Audrey Rose—that’s a pretty scary one too. And forgot that he directed one of the all time flops of all time, Star! I second Dave K’s motion that you feature that one here on the blog if you haven’t already!
    - Chris

    1. Hi Chris
      So nice to hear from you! Thanks for reading this and sharing your fondness for the work of Robert Wise. Since posting this I FINALLY got around to watching two of his films I've had in my collection but never watched: THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (I can see why you praise it so highly) and TWO FOR THE SEESAW (lovely film, but I really wasn't QUITE as aware of how long Shirley MacLaine had been playing versions of SWEET CHARITY before being cast in the musical).
      It's funny how Wise really is one of those directors about whom everyone can say they've seen at least one of his films if you just rattled off the titles.
      But most are in the same ballpark as you and AUDREY ROSE: we know the film but forget Wise was the man behind it. Hope all is well with you.
      And yes, I'm long overdue for covering Julie Andrews' STAR!

  5. Oh and forgot to mention that Day The Earth Stood Still is his masterpiece, in my opinion!!!

    1. “Klaatu barada nikto.” I can't believe it took me so long to see that one.
      Your mentioning this film makes me wish I had asked readers to cite their favorite Robert Wise film. Perhaps The Sound of Music would have dominated, perhaps not!
      Thanks again, Chris!

  6. One of my favorite movies of all time. Thank you for the exhaustive analysis you have carried out.


    1. Greetings, Juan!
      Is it "The Day Th Earth Stood Still" you refer to? It's become a favorite of mine, as well.
      I'm glad you enjoyed this piece, but the exhaustive research is really owed to author JR Joran. I mostly culled from what I already knew about Wise. Such a fascinating body of work from a director so overlooked!
      Nice to hear from you, Juan. Thanks for commenting!