Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
In 1929 William Wyler directed a treatment of Peter B. Kyne’s “Three Godfathers,” a Western story of redemption which has been filmed several times, notably by John Ford in the 1940s. Where Ford emphasizes the spiritual aspects of the material, Wyler focuses on the external ones: his Old West is a land of dust, desperation, and rotgut criminality — the sort of place where even the local preacher is packing a six-shooter. There’s a real bleakness here, one that is matched by the blasted-granite features of head bandit Charles Bickford, and Wyler uses that to bolster his theme of decency sprouting from degeneracy. There’s nothing surprising about the final scene, and yet it feels like an epiphany, perhaps because we sense that the intentions behind it might evaporate at any moment. It’s a shame that most of Wyler’s early work in the Western genre is either lost or unavailable. “Hell’s Heroes” suggests it might be of interest.
Released in 1935, “The Gay Deception” is a pleasant, innocuous romantic comedy that plays like an inversion of Wyler’s later “Roman Holiday.” Wide-eyed working girl Frances Dee wins a $5000 prize; she then rushes to New York to spend it. (The premise looks forward to “Nothing Sacred.”) While staying at the chic Waldorf Plaza she meets Francis Lederer, a European prince hiding out as a bellhop. And as a waiter. And as an elevator operator. (His omnipresence is a joke that quickly wears thin.) Several elements are redolent of Billy Wilder’s signature cuteness; in particular, a trio of silly foreigners seem like cousins of the Soviet emissaries who squire Garbo in the 1939 “Ninotchka.” Nevertheless, Wyler does a clean, efficient job of directing, and there are a few nice bits, including some impressive moving shots through the expansive hotel lobby and a charming scene involving breadsticks in an Italian restaurant (being unable to decipher the menu, Dee orders the headwaiter). Lederer perhaps lacks the magnetism to adequately function as the male half of a romantic comedy duo; his prince is only a step above the second bananas played by Erik Rhodes in the Astaire-Rogers pictures — and he’s not nearly as amusing as the Great Beddini. (The movie could use less of Lederer’s dampness and more of the tonic cynicism that Alan Mowbray brings to his brief turn as a playboy aristocrat.) Wyler tried his hand at a few romantic comedies during this period: 1935 also saw the release of “The Good Fairy,” an impressive screwball contraption starring Margaret Sullavan, and in 1929 he helped forge the style with the very interesting “The Love Trap.” But I’ve always thought his talents ill-suited to the genre — his tendency to visually and dramatically isolate characters, and to methodically exert pressure on their fault lines, is at odds with the harmonious submission that is so often the animating force of romantic comedy. “Dodsworth” and “These Three” — two major Wyler films of this period — are more amenable to his sensibilities. Keep an eye out for some of the most distinctive character actors of the era, including bugle-voiced Al Bridge, Lionel Stander, Robert Greig, and Akim Tamiroff.
“Hell’s Heroes” is available — along with the Richard Boleslawski-directed version of “Three Godfathers” — on Warner’s Archive Collection series of burn-on-demand DVDs. Buyable here. “The Gay Deception” doesn’t seem to be readily available on video. But if you’re a degenerate with no respect for our legal institutions, you might be able to find a bootleg DVD of it online. Not saying I’ve actually looked for such things, of course.