When I realized that three of my top 12 movies were made by the same person and that a fourth was in my top 25, I concluded that Robert Wise must be my favorite director. Where does Wise rank in Hollywood history?
Four-time Academy Award-winner John Ford is generally considered the Hollywood director against whom all others must be measured. Orson Welles is said to have responded to the question of who was the best director with, “John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.” William Wyler, Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, George Cukor, Vincente Minnelli, John Huston, Frank Capra, Michael Curtiz and George Stevens would be high on the list, and Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg would doubtless get votes today. But Robert Wise has one of the best averages for helming exceptional movies. In The Illustrated Who’s Who of Hollywood Directors: The Sound Era, Michael Barson observed that Wise was a chameleon because he couldn’t be pigeon-holed and thus was not accorded the respect that accrued to the auteur, the director who presumably controlled all aspects of a film’s production. Nevertheless, Barson said Wise deserved accolades for succeeding at least once in every genre he attempted.
Changing genre to type, the best of these are:
Curse of the Cat People (1944, horror)
The Body Snatcher (1945, horror)
Blood on the Moon (1948, western)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, science fiction)
Executive Suite (1954, drama)
Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956, boxing)
Tribute to a Bad Man (1956, western)
Until They Sail (1957, war drama)
Run Silent, Run Deep (1958, war)
I Want To Live! (1958, drama)
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959, crime/race)
West Side Story (1961, musical)
The Haunting (1963, horror)
The Sound of Music (1965, musical)
The Sand Pebbles (1966, historical)
The Andromeda Strain (1971, science fiction)
George Cukor was always known as an “actor’s director.” Likewise, Wise guided through their paces a distinguished group actors and actresses: Robert Mitchum (twice), Robert Ryan, James Cagney, Paul Newman (twice), Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster, Susan Hayward (won Oscar), Natalie Wood, Julie Andrews, Steve McQueen, Eleanor Parker, William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck, Julie Harris, Shirley MacLaine and Fredric March.
Wise began his Hollywood career as a sound effects editor, graduating to editor on such films as Bachelor Mother (1939), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), and My Favorite Wife (1940). Then came what in retrospect was the editing assignment of a lifetime: Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). When the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, a U.S. agency, sent Welles to South America as a goodwill ambassador, Wise was tagged to direct additional scenes for Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) after preview audiences were unimpressed with the original version. Some people attacked Wise rather than RKO for tampering with Welles’ vision. Wise himself said it was a problem film because it was made before the U.S. entry into World War II: “Audiences just didn’t have patience for this story of the Amberson family in Indianapolis, early in the century, and their problems. The changes were not a plot against Orson. We had a problem picture and he wasn’t here to help us….I think the fact that it has come down through the years as a classic in its own right means that we didn’t destroy everything that Orson did.”
Wise’s first directing assignment occurred when he replaced Gunther Von Fritsch on The Curse of the Cat People (1944). Von Fritsch was not keeping the production on time, which as Gregory Mank observed in The Very Witching Time was a cardinal sin for a B-movie. Given the task of mopping up, Wise was fast and Curse became known as a topflight horror film. The Body Snatcher (1945) followed and gained a heady reputation. Both were made for legendary producer Val Lewton, who eschewed in-your-face horror for mood, atmosphere, and the unseen. Until Raging Bull in 1980, Wise’s The Set-Up (1949) was often reckoned the best of all boxing movies. It is distinctly different, however. It is not a biopic, rather a grim noir with Robert Ryan an almost-has-been who refuses to throw a match and suffers the consequences from the local hoods.
Come 1951, two major films addressed the concern over what might be visiting us from space. The Thing from Another World featured a vicious, bloodthirsty alien. In Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still the alien was more benevolent although he did promise a scorched earth if humans spread war into the cosmos. From top to bottom, superstar to character actor, Executive Suite (1954) had perhaps the best power cast ever: William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March, Walter Pidgeon, June Allyson, Paul Douglas, Louis Calhern, Shelley Winters, Dean Jagger, Nina Foch.
Wise turned his attention to another boxing movie with 1956’s Somebody Up There Likes Me. This time around he was dealing with real-life champion Rocky Graziano as interpreted by Paul Newman. It won Academy Awards for Black & White Cinematography and Art Direction. Nineteen-fifty-eight saw the release of a topnotch submarine movie, Run Silent, Run Deep. Once again, two superstars took the helm: Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster. The same year Wise took on capital punishment in I Want To Live! After four previous nominations, Susan Hayward finally won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Barbara Graham, sent to the gas chamber for her part in a robbery and murder. In the following year’s Odds Against Tomorrow, Wise tackled the issue of race in the guise of a noir heist film with Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan, working together in crime but hating each other’s guts.
Wise was on a role and took on the film version of the Broadway smash West Side Story. He co-directed with WSTs choreographer Jerome Robbins, and they shared the directing Oscar, the movie taking Best Picture and many other Oscars. An interlude between musicals had Wise directing another Broadway-to-Hollywood item, Two for the Seesaw, with Shirley MacLaine and Robert Mitchum. That was not a success and it was back to low-key horror for 1963’s The Haunting, sometimes considered the best of all haunted house films.
Perhaps the most important of his films in the public’s estimation came next: The Sound of Music. He and male lead Christopher Plummer worked to keep it from becoming saccharine. Once again a Wise musical won Best Picture, and he heard of his second Oscar for directing while working on The Sand Pebbles in Taiwan. That epic was based on a bestselling novel about a U.S. gunboat in nineteen-twenties China. It received 8 Oscar nominations, including Wise for director and Steve McQueen for actor. It did respectable business but not what one would expect. Possibly because the large movie theaters in center city Philadelphia were booked with other reserved-seat roadshows, Sand’s initial release in the Delaware Valley was in Cheltenham, which was bound to confound suburbanites.
In 1971 Wise once more succeeded with science fiction. The Andromeda Strain was based on Michael Crichton’s bestselling novel of a plague from space. Wise finished the decade with another science fiction film. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) was aimed at the Star Wars (1977) audience in addition to Trekkies. However, it didn’t have the flash and dash and has been labeled, probably unfairly, the least of the Star Trek films.
I met the 82-year-old Wise at the FANEX convention in Baltimore in July, 1996. He signed my I Want To Live! soundtrack and responded positively when I asked how he liked working with Susan Hayward. An attendant asked me not to take Mr. Wise’s picture, but I had done so before the request.
Barson, Michael. The Illustrated Who’s Who of Hollywood Directors: The Sound Era. New York: Noonday Press, 1995.
Leeman, Sergio. Robert Wise on His Films: From Editing Room to Director’s Chair. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1995.
Mank, Gregory William. The Very Witching Time of Night: Dark Alleys of Classic Horror Cinema. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014.
Plummer, Christopher. In Spite of Myself—A Memoir. New York: Vintage, 2012.