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Robert Wise’s Vision Still Lives.

By Jarrod Sarafin     April 08, 2007


Rob Wise
© N/A

In our last week’s column, I alluded to how passion for the arts molds that star to be elevated to a whole other echelon of achievement inside Hollywood’s history books. Certain actors find such passion with every word they utter in the glare of the camera’s lights. They find their own inner strength inside and circulate that force of will into every memorized word like water churning down a funnel. From the script pages, they bring the director’s imagination to life and they give us all an exciting imaginative outlet. We’re the passengers on the train and those directors artistic styles are the conductors. If they’re successful at what they do, we’ll reach that far distant locale of make believe and forget our own worries for just a few short hours.  

I posed the question your way last week on which individuals influenced you into becoming a fan of the movie industry to the point where you enjoy discussing film & industry as you certainly do. Which legends of Cinematic History are deserving of a Star Spotlight column in your eyes. Who deserves to have a column shaped after their accomplishments, their influence inside the industry, and the cinematic history they imprinted on us all.  

Needless to say, I received some wonderful suggestions from you all. From Dario Argento to Mario Bava to the influence of Asian Cinema inside Hollywood to John Williams. All great ideas on what to cover because the fact is sometimes people forget figureheads which influenced our own heroes inside the industry. Sometimes, people (myself included) find themselves at times forgetting the people who influenced our own personal heroes. After all, John Carpenter and George Romero would have never fallen in love with the idea of filmmaking if they themselves didn’t grow up watching and adoring another style of directing decades before Halloween or Night of the Living Dead was even a blip on the ever changing maps of their brains.  

When you’re sitting there with your coke and a bag of buttery flavored popcorn watching a great movie you’ve seen a billion times from one of your own personal favorites, you sometimes wonder which legends influenced that director to the point where they gave you an opportunity to enjoy this new legend’s directorial feats.  Somebody whom was a legend before you were even born gave the world and cinema something which influenced your own favorite directors to do what they do best.  

This week’s edition of Star Spotlight will discuss one such cinematic icon. A man whom influenced so many individuals inside the industry scene, it’s hard to imagine what would have happened had he never chosen to go into filmmaking. This weekend’s column is dedicated solely to one very important industry icon named Robert Wise.  

I can’t even state the odds of whether you have seen something created, contributed, or influenced by Mr. Robert Wise of Winchester, Indiana. In fact, there are no odds in this cinematic equation. You have seen a movie by him or you have seen something from someone influenced by him. Whether you know it or not, there is something on your DVD library which wouldn’t have been created without a legend like Wise existing in our world. There is a favorite classic horror movie of yours which got its imaginative strength from a work of art from him. There is an action piece you love which was based on something he developed in his own career long before you were even a thought in your parents’ brains, let alone born.  

Without Wise, I have to wonder what Hollywood would be like and which directors whom were influenced by him would have never even thought of going into Hollywood with their own artistic force of wills. I started our Star Spotlight column with a first edition last month discussing & dissecting how George Lucas was a Godfather of Modern Cinema. Well, George Lucas may be that of Modern Cinema in my eyes but someone like Robert Wise transcends past that descriptive point straight to a Godfather of Cinematic History as a whole.  

Imagine this, dear reader. 

Would Star Wars ever have been created and loved by us all if legend Akira Kurosawa never existed or if his film Kakushi-toride no san-akunin aka “The Hidden Fortress” (1958) was ever created? Would George Lucas have ever inspired his thoughts into a space opera of epic proportions without a legend before him which inspired him? 

Now, would John Carpenter or George Romero or any number of great cinema directors of our generations have ever expanded the world of horror that we love without Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher (1945), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), or The Haunting (1963)?? 

His influence is far and wide but I can’t get ahead of myself here, reader. Before bringing up his wonderful works of artistic influence, I’ll fill you all in on his roots. His youth and his own influence which propelled him into our industry minded history books. I’ll tell you of what he went through and how he became the man that he was. His loves. His piece of mind. His life. 
 

Robert Earl Wise was born in Winchester, Indiana on September 10, 1914, the youngest of 3 brothers. He grew up in the small town of Connersville which is located halfway between Indianapolis and Cincinnati and it was here where his roots began.  There were three movie theaters in town, and Wise used to go as often as he could with every new piece that came onto the screen. Wise was a big fan of Douglas Fairbanks Sr., the young Wise loved the movies not just because they entertained him, but because they enabled him to get outside of himself and "travel" to far away lands and "experience" different situations and circumstances.  

In other words, he fell in love for the same reason a lot of us do. It was a way for him to channel his imagination and take him to a new and unique world of make believe.  
 
One summer, Wise won a contest whose prize was a free pass to all the movies for the whole summer. This was a catalyst into the future. Although he said of the experience, "I was in heaven," he never could have known how his own future lie down the same path as those films he watched that summer for free.
 

He continued living with his older brothers through his teen years and working alongside his father who owned a business. When the Great Depression hit North America, he was driven from Franklin College from lack of funds and he had hard choices to make. His fathers business was struggling at the time (like most businesses in the Depression) and with the urging of his family, he decided. He moved to Los Angeles where with the help of his oldest brother he got a job at RKO at the age of 19. At the time, he was brought on to help the head of the film editing department but it wasn’t long before he was noticed by higher ups. Talent always finds a way. His work as an editing assistant entailed duty in the film shipping room, carrying prints of films up to the projection room for executives, and checking prints and patch leader. It was a lucky break being hired by the editing department as the head of the props department with whom he had first interviewed didn't have an opening, and editing would be Wise's eventual entrance into the big leagues of Hollywood filmmaking. Wise thrived in the environment as people with a vision usually tend to do.  

It was at this point where the Sound Effects editor noticed young Wise and asked for him as an apprentice to learn sound effects editing and music editing. After apprenticing on the classic Of Human Bondage (1934), Wise served as (unaccredited) sound effects editor on The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935) and the multiple Oscar-winning The Informer (1935). Even in his early years as an apprentice, he was making waves and being attached to the right projects.  
 
Wise requested a transfer to the film side of the business, where he learned the trade of cutting film frames from the master film editor Billy Hamilton. Wise eventually graduated from assistant to film editor. After becoming an editor, his first two works were on Ginger Rogers works Bachelor Mother (1939) and 5th Ave. Girl (1939) which was then followed by The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).
 

You seeing a trend here, reader? This man was involved with true classics and breaks even when he was just beginning his career inside Hollywood.  

After he finished editing "My Favorite Wife" (1940), a comedy classic that starred Cary Grant and Irene Dunn, he was called by RKO editing department head Jimmy Wilkinson to come over to see him.  

Here’s where his name and reputation even at an early age propels him to a whole other level which would live on in the annals of all movie immortals throughout our cinematic history. Here’s that point which drove him to upper echelons and would launch his career.  

It seems that Welles had "pulled a fast one on the studio," according to WiIkinson.

 
"What do you mean pulled a fast one?" Wise asked.  
 
Wilkinson said, "He's got an OK from the studio to shoot three of what he said were going to be tests for this new film he wants to make."  
 
RKO had given Welles the green light to go ahead to shoot the "tests," but when the studio execs looked at the footage they realized that Welles had already begun shooting "Kane" and that instead of tests, he had shot scenes for the picture. The executives decided to green light "Kane," but they wanted a new editor to replace the old-fashioned hack they had assigned to him when they thought he was just shooting test footage.  
 
Welles wanted someone near his own age, so he interviewed Wise. Wise had to go to the RKO Pathe studio in Culver City, where Welles was shooting the beach scene where Kane as an elderly man and Susan Alexander Kane are in a tent. Wise first met Welles in his Old Man Kane makeup where he proceeded to interview Wise about the job for between five and ten minutes. By the time Wise had returned to the RKO studio, the job and his first major part in Hollywood history was his. It was his time to transcend to a whole other level inside the scene and he had no idea about any of this obviously.
 

Kane earned him an Oscar nomination for Editing (an achievement considering how early into his career this was) and Welles liked young Wise so much that he got him to edit his next film The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). It was during The Magnificent Ambersons where an issue popped up causing Wise to get a chance at directing but at the same time putting a large blunt object in between the growing friendship of Welles and Wise. Welles left his director’s chair of The Magnificent Ambersons with it unfinished to shoot his Carnivale in Brazil. Wise was asked by the studio to wrap things up in Ambersons when Welles left the project to shoot the other film. It was also demanded by RKO that Wise cut the film from 131 minutes down to 90 minutes before release.  

Not a comfortable position for his first time, right? 

The resulting picture (Wise’s finished The Magnificent Ambersons) is a masterpiece that some critics feel is superior to Kane. As I say, some critics. Welles never forgave him for finishing the picture without his input in it.

 
Wise's opinion of the tragedy of Orson Welles: That his inability to work in Hollywood is that it wasn't a case of Hollywood being against Welles but of Welles' own lack of discipline. As Welles left behind multiple unfinished projects. This much is known by even people inside Welle’s following and those whom worked with him. He’s still another legend but he was a free spirit whom left many projects without finishing them. Credence must be given to Wise's opinion on this. He would begin his career with Welles and years later upon the fading twilight of his career, he would work with Welles again after everything stabilized out.
 

The next major figure in cinema history that Wise worked for was horror maestro Val Lewton. A B-unit producer, Lewton gave Wise his first opportunity to officially direct, having him step up from editor to the director's chair on the low-budgeted Curse of the Cat People (1944).  
 
Curse was scheduled for an 18-day shoot on a $200,000 budget and the director could not keep up with the demands of shooting at a quick enough pace to meet the schedule and budget. After 18 days, he'd only shot half the script. Executive producer Sid Rogell replaced the director with Wise, who was given ten days to finish film. He brought it in the allotted ten days and RKO signed him to a seven-year contract.
 

Wise thrived in the studio system and especially with his RKO bosses, here was two projects where he finished when another director left or was let go. It was by this sense of compromise and meeting expectations that his own reputation bloomed inside studio circles.  

Wise: “I didn't have any major problems or disagreements with the front offices of the various studios or people running the studios on any of my films. They didn't take any of my films away from me, or re-cut them or change them. Whatever differences we might have had over the years on different films, I was always able to work out whatever those differences were and get them resolved. So as far as the studio system, it was very good for me. I felt it was fine." 

In 1945, he ended up making a film which has influenced quite a lot of horror directors of our generation. This was one of his first in the directors chair. I’m talking of the very well received The Body Snatcher (1945). I cannot state how much this movie influenced future movie goers and future Hollywood insiders. There would be many more influential films from Wise in the coming years to boot.  

Wise would say later that he believed storytelling was the most important thing in any given film. The story as delineated by the script is vital to the success of a film, and if the filmmakers do not rid the script of weaknesses, they'll be in trouble. The selection of the script or book or play is of paramount importance. Whatever form it’s in, the story must grab the reader.  
 
"I take the place of the audience," he said about evaluating properties. "That's a first consideration, does it grab me? Does it hold my interest? Does it make me want to turn the pages and go on and on? And then second thing that is very important to me is, what does it have to say? Not getting on the soapbox, but what kind of comment? You can't tell any kind of a story without having, between the lines, some kind of comment to make about man and his world, and its problems."  
 

Day Earth Stood Still

Wise made many films with liberal sentiments of the political and worldly views encompassing the world but he wanted to avoid getting preachy. He explained, "I don't like soapbox speeches. I like the theme and what it has to say to come out of the scenes themselves, the characters, the plot and the story, without getting up and saying that this is it. The one exception to that, of course, is 'The Day the Earth Stood Still,' which in the end states the theme. That's the only exception I make to that rule. For instance, 'I Want to Live!' is quite an indictment of capital punishment, but we didn't talk about it at all, we just showed it."  

I think one of the major things a director has to do is to know his subject matter, the subject matter of his script, know the truth and the reality of it. That's very important.... When I did the picture 'The Set-Up' , I did just that night after night in a little arena down in Long Beach that had the same kind of situation we had in 'The Set-Up,' one side of the fight in one dressing room and down the hall the other side in another dressing room. I didn't know that existed. We found an old, kind of tank-town arena down in Long Beach. And I used to go down there and spend whole evenings just in the dressing rooms, watching.” 

After Lewton left RKO, Wise found himself stuck in the gilded ghetto of B-movies. His 1948 psychological Western "Blood on The Moon" and the boxing picture "The Set-Up" (1949) were the only two important pictures that Wise got to do during his last four years at the studio. After The Set-up, Wise left RKO and went to 20th Century-Fox, where he directed the anti-Bomb science fiction drama The Day the Earth Stood Still. Once again, this is another film which has influenced a lot of future writers, directors and insiders. This film impacted a lot of people.  
 
Wise formed a short-lived production company with his former RKO colleague, director Mark Robson. From the mid-'50s on, Wise's films were important A-list pictures, including Executive Suite (1954), I Want To Live! (1958), and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). All of these films tackled important sociological subjects at the time.  
 
Originally, Wise had wanted to be a journalist. As a director, he often acted like one in his own mindset or imaginative outlet. He would pour research into his projects and it would show in his eyes: "...reporting the truth and the actuality of it,”
 
 

It’s not all Sunshine and Roses. Wise had a fair share of critics from people whom didn’t perform or circulate as successful in their careers in Hollywood but you know what, every legendary director or icon has critics. Even today, I hear people bash new cinematic iconic directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, John Carpenter and George A. Romero. Nobody can escape criticism from people and nobody produces just success in their career. Everyone in the books of movie immortals has produced failures. Nobody is perfect and each flaw that is produced by a legend is targeted by the critics who are looking for ammo.  

“I've been accused by some of the more esoteric critics of not having a style, and my answer to that always is this - I've done every genre there is, and I approach each genre in the cinematic style that I think is appropriate and right for that genre. So I would no more have done 'The Sound of Music' in the thinking and approach that I did in 'I Want to Live!' for anything. So that's why I don't have a singular mark but I justify that by saying that it's just because of the number of genres I've done and the cinematic style that's proper for each one. That's in my view, of course." 

As I say, everyone has their critics. A legend will shake them off and move onward to the next steps in their cinematic futures. 

Robert Wise was one such man. He went on to make even more masterpieces of which influences are countless for people around the world, inside Hollywood and out. 

I’ll name a few movies that Wise has created. You, reader, will see how influential this man was inside the industry. 

Movies Directed by Robert Wise: 

The Magnificent Ambersons (1941)

The Body Snatcher (1945)

A Game of Death (1945)

Born to Kill (1947)

Blood on the Moon (1948)

Mystery in Mexico (1948)

The Set-Up (1949)

Two Flags West (1950)

Three Secrets (1950)

The House on Telegraph Hill (1951)

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

The Desert Rats (1953)

Destination Gobi (1953)

Helen of Troy (1956)

Tribute to a Bad Man (1956)

Until They Sail (1957)

Run Silent Run Deep (1958)

I Want to Live! (1958)

West Side Story (1961)

The Haunting (1963)

The Sound of Music (1965)

The Sand Pebbles (1966)

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

The Hindenburg (1975)

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) 

That’s just a few of the projects he’s directed himself. I could go further into his earlier projects as a sound effect assistant, as an assistant film editor, full editor, producer and more. I could try to keep listing why this man has touched so many lives with his mind and his heart. Sure, I could list how he was President of the Directors Guild of America (DGA) or President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I could mention that he’s 9 different actors in different Oscar nominated performances and 3 of those even won the award. But then, this wouldn’t be a column. This would be a book. His influence in the Hollywood scene is that ever lasting in size.  

Needless to say, this man was behind some legendary masterpieces which influenced director of our generation. You don’t need to remind me though.  

If you’re someone young whom is reading this column and you’re asking “How has Robert Wise touched me with his imagination” outside of watching the movies above, remember this reader. 

Remember to smile the next time you’re watching The Thing, Halloween, or Dawn of the Dead and know within that movies which you love today came from influences long before you were born. Remember to stop and think to yourself the next time you hear Ash on Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness utter the words… “Klattu, Barada, Nikto” (From “The Day the Earth Stood Still”) …Remember, dear young reader, that Robert Wise has indeed touched you even if you haven’t seen the movies above. You’ve still seen movies and directorial visions which were influenced by the man. He may have died in 2005 but his vision lives within us all every time we watch a movie we love for the millionth time. He was a true master craftsman in the world of Cinema. 

COMMENTS AND RESPONSES

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barsoom 4/8/2007 9:35:48 AM
This is my blog post from 2005 when I first learned of his passing; I mourn the passing of a truly great man in the film industry. From his early work as sound effects editor on Astaire and Rogers "Top Hat" to his film editing of what the AFI calls the greatest film in the English language, "Citizen Kane" and beyond, this man knew how to make films. As a film buff, I have two major passions... I like Science Fiction Movies and I like Musicals. It's no surprise then, that one of my favourite directors would be known for directing some of the best in both genres. Robert directed two of my favourite SF movies, "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "The Andromeda Strain". Both are considered classics by film historians. (He also directed "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" whose director's cut on DVD is f'ing awesome) He also directed two of my favourite musicals, "The Sound of Music" and "West Side Story". He was still directing in his late eighties. What more can I say? We'll miss you, Bob.
wessmith1966 4/8/2007 10:03:03 AM
Jarrod, thanks for the great column! It's amazing how many great movies he had a hand in bringing to the big screen.
jppintar326 4/8/2007 11:50:49 AM
I like how Robert Wise was able not to be locked in one genre. He did musicals, war pictures, and science fiction. Some of his films were classics, such as Sound of Music and The Day The Earth Stood Still. The first Star Trek is okay if you give it a chance (demerits however for those awful uniforms). To have a varied and long lasting career is the key to being a great director.
snallygaster 4/8/2007 9:51:17 PM
For those interested in Wise's sci-fi/horror movies, I'd really recommend checking out his early directing efforts under Val Lewton. Lewton was known for making a series of low-budget horror movies as an answer to Universal's monster movies, but he insisted on psychological horror rather than monsters - in other words, he was more interested in the monsters potentially within each of us rather than putting actors in makeup and fangs. Wises's two contributions to Lewton's films are two of my favorites. Curse of the Cat People was Lewton's way of flipping the bird to his own studio, who demanded a sequel to the immensely popular Cat People. Rather than rehashing formula, Lewton developed a story marginally linked to the original. The result is more of an eerie fantasy than horror, and a movie which for years was used for educating child psychologists. Wise's other Lewton movie was The Body Snatcher, based on a Robert Louis Stevenson short story with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi appearing together for the last time. This one came the closest to the Universal movies (due to the casting and gothic setting). It also features one of Karloff's finest performances as the menacing and cunning coachman who makes a few shillings on the side by procuring bodies for the local medical school. I'll always admire Wise for his versatility. He was sort of a chameleon in the way that he could seemlessly hop from genre to genre with equal skill.
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