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Let's Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

February 25, 1996

For years the assumption was that William Wyler directed the famous "Ben Hur" chariot race, and now we have an attempt to set the record straight by giving Yakima Canutt the credit (in Steven Bach's review of Jan Herman's "A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood's Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler," Jan. 7). While it is true that Canutt worked with the actors and stuntmen, it is not fair to name him as director of the chariot race.

The name on the slate as director was "Marton," and it was Andrew "Bundy" Marton who dramatized the race, designing the many, many shots in such a way as to get them to work as a seamless tour de force. He and Canutt worked well together, but Marton performed the work we normally attribute to the director.

The studio felt Canutt could direct the race, but producer Sam Zimbalist specifically sought out Marton to give the race a spiritual quality and assured him a sole directing credit for the chariot race. Zimbalist died during the last week of production, and there had been no written agreement to give this special credit since he and Marton were long-standing friends. The credit was determined by the studio and appears as "Second Unit Directors--Andrew Marton, Yakima Canutt."

Marton gives his detailed account of directing the chariot race in my interview with him conducted for the Directors Guild oral history program and published in the book "Andrew Marton."



Steven Bach's review of Jan Herman's "A Talent for Trouble" (Book Review, Jan. 7) was excellent. I smiled when I read: "But Herman wants it both ways. He leans heavily on the auteurist papa Andrea Bazin's admiring remark that Wyler had an 'invisible style.' What is that exactly? Apart from 'impersonal,' which is what American auteurists like Andrew Sarris hate about him."

I recalled walking along the beach on St. Thomas with Wyler in the early '70s. We were both attending a film festival. I asked him what he thought of the auteur theory. He stopped suddenly, pulled back, and almost snorted. "It's a crock. . . ," he said.

He went on to say, "If you want to know what my best pictures were, they were the ones in which I had the best producer--particularly Sam Goldwyn. Sure, we fought like hell, but that rubbing off process--the thing you get with a good producer--that fighting always makes for a better film."

What idiot would want to quarrel with this, for as Bach states--"but Wyler soon proved his worth to Sam Goldwyn, for whom he made some of his best and best-remembered pictures."



Gratified as I am by Steven Bach's favorable review of my William Wyler biography (Book Review, Jan. 7), I must correct an error for the record.

Bach suggests that career, not art, "may have been [Wyler's] true calling." To make the case, he quotes from a memo that he maintains Wyler wrote: "To hell with artistry--we want action and box office."

In fact, the memo was not written by Wyler but by Universal studio chief Carl Laemmle Jr.--as I point out in the body of the text and in a source note: "CLJr memo to H. Henigson, 6/3/32." Laemmle was talking about a picture Wyler and John Huston were trying to put together, called "Laughing Boy."

Doubly ironic, Wyler, who chafed for years under Laemmle Jr.'s to-hell-with-art memos, wanted to make the picture for aesthetic reasons and to address certain interracial issues, despite what he thought were poor box-office prospects. As I wrote, "Wyler believed he could make a beautiful picture and a great love story. But he always doubted its commercial value." Hence Laemmle Jr.'s memo to Wyler's producer.

I stand corrected in the mistakes Bach caught and I appreciate his kindness in saying "these are niggles." But pride of authorship also obliges me to say that I did not--as Bach states further--get the ending of "The Heiress" wrong.

He does not specify exactly what that error was. Since he calls it a "whopper," however, I was more than puzzled--especially because I never get into a discussion of the ending.

Bach must have mistaken my description of Olivia De Havilland's climactic "staircase scene' near the end of the picture" for the odd notion that I believe the picture ended that way, which, of course, it did not. Perhaps it was neglectful of me not to have told the entire plot of the movie.


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