Robert Wise, the multiple-Oscar-winning producer and director renowned during his lifetime as a master craftsman as both editor and director, was born in Winchester, Indiana on September 10, 1914. The youngest of three brothers, he grew up in the small town of Connersville, located halfway between Indianapolis and Cincinnati, Ohio.
There were three movie theaters in town, and Wise used to go almost as often as the bills changed. 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.
One summer, Wise won a contest whose prize was a free pass to all the movies for the whole summer. Although he said of the experience, “I was in heaven,” at the time, he had no idea that his career would in film-making.
He had to drop out of college in 1933 due to the Great Depression. After attending Franklin College, a small college near Indianapolis, on scholarship for a year, he had no money to go back for his sophomore year. His father’s business was financially troubled, so at his family’s urging, Wise decided to move to Los Angeles as his older older
brother worked at RKO Studios. Through his brother’s connections, he got a job at RKO, where he was hired by the head of the film editing department.
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 entrée into the big leagues of Hollywood filmmaking. Wise thrived in the environment.
The sound effects editor noticed 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 (uncredited) sound effects editor on “The Gay Divorcee” (1934), “Top Hat” (1935) and the multiple Oscar-winning “The Informer” (1935).
Wise requested a transfer to the film side of the business, where he learned the trade of cutting from the old-time master film editor Billy Hamilton. Wise eventually graduated from assistant to film editor.
As an apprentice, Wise edited the prestige, A-list picture “Winterset” (1936) before being promoted to cutter with two Ginger Rogers pictures, “Bachelor Mother” (1939) and “5th Ave. Girl” (1939), followed by “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1939).
Even if Wise had never gone on to become an Oscar-winning director and producer (with two Best Director, one Best Picture, and an Irving Thalberg Award to his credit), his name would live on in the annals of movie immortals as the editor of Orson Welles’ first two films, “Citizen Kane” (1941) and “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942). Wise was asked by Orson Welles to edit “Citizen Kane.” He received his first of seven Academy Award nominations (one for editing, three for producing and three for directing) for that picture, widely considered the greatest of all time.
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 Wilkinsonto come over to see him. 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 somebody nearer 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, in which he proceeded to interview Wise about the job for between five and ten minutes. By the time Wise had returned to the studio, the job – and his first major part in Hollywood history – was his.
Later, Wise would be called on to step up from his job as editor and take over “The Magnificent Ambersons,” a classic in its own right, after Welles left the picture unfinished to go to Brazil to shoot footage of Carnivale. While some members of the Welles’ cult excoriate Wise for “mutilating” an unfinished picture (as RKO demanded that the 131-minute preview print be massively cut down to under 90 minutes for release), as the resulting picture is a masterpiece that some critics feel is superior to “Kane,” it was hardly a work of sabotage. Nonetheless, Welles never forgave him for finishing the picture without his input, even though Wise likely was the one and only person who could have kept Welles vision in tact under such daunting circumstances.
Wise’s opinion of the tragedy of Orson Welles, that is, 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, credence must be given to Wise’s opinion; after all, he worked with the man at the beginning and end of his Hollywood career (a very brief transit in the Tinseltown firmament) during the full flower of his genius.
One of the reason that some may feel an animus towards Wise vice Welles is that he, unlike the Great Orson, actually thrived in Hollywood, under both the studio system and the later, freer producer-director driven system of the ’60s. Wise was able to make large-budget albeit personal-seeming film such as “The Sand Pebbles” (1966 Best Picture nominee) with its veiled criticism of the intervention in Vietnam whereas Welles’ career as of 1966, essentially was over. After his last masterpiece, “Chimes at Midnight” (1965), Welles never released a commercial feature film again.
Unlike Welles, Wise was nurtured by and grew up under the studio system. We hear negative things about the studio system, but for Wise, “I had very, very good experiences,” he said of his time as an editor and director at RKO.
“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.”
The next major figure in cinema history that Wise worked for, who was also a bit of an underground character like Welles, was horror maestro Val Lewton. A B-unit producer, Lewton gave Wise his first opportunity to 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 in the allotted ten days and RKO signed him to a seven-year contract.
Wise, just 30 years old, idolized filmmakers John Ford (his “Informer” director), Howard Hawks and William Wyler, though he never feel they overtly influenced him. (Wise did cite Orson Welles, the enfant terrible who was his own age, as “a big influence” on him as a director.)
Among his early films was “The Body Snatcher” (1945) with Boris Karloff. Wise believes that the success of his early films was not due to his experience as a cutter but simply because he and the crew strove to “make it real and believable and accomplish what we needed to do.”
In an interview late in his life, Wise said 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 its 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.”
Wise made many films of liberal sentiments but avoided 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.”
Originally, Wise had wanted to be a journalist; as a director, he often acted like one, his movies evincing a great deal of research, striving towards “…reporting the truth and the actuality of it,” in his own words.
“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 boxing picture] ‘The Set-Up’ I did just 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.”
When asked if there was a “Robert Wise style,” in essence, whether he was an auteur, the director responded that “‘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.”
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.”
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 which tackled important sociological subjects.
Of his movie “I Want to Live!” (which brought him his first Best Director Oscar nomination and Susan Hayward an Academy Award for Best Actress), the story of a B-girl who was convicted and executed for a murder she may or may not have committed, Wise said, “I think many of my films have an importance to them in what they say about man and his condition in the world around him, how he faces it and overcomes it. I always want my films to have a comment to make; however, the comment should be made by the story itself, the development of the plot and the interplay of the characters without having the actors just say it in so many words.”
In his career as a director, he became known as an empathetic “boss” on the set who solicited input from his creative team. Wise believed that a director must use everything to tell the story and translate it into cinematic terms, including music. In “I Want to Live!” Wise translated the dissolution of the protagonist’s marriage by holding his camera on a shot of a fallen house of cards while the background music went from sweet to discordant. It was likely this inventiveness, this ability to marshal all the resources of a film crew to tell a story, that led producers to offer a director of boxing films, science fiction and gritty noir to helm two of the most successful musicals ever made, “West Side Story” (1961) and “The Sound of Music” (1965) Wise won Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for both. A humongous hit, “Music” was the first motion picture in a quarter-century to trump “Gone With the Wind” as all-time box office champ.
It might not seem so incongruous for Wise to master this new genre for him when one realizes that both musicals had a distinct social milieu as a background that touched on important political and social issues, racism with “West Side Story” and fascism with “The Sound of Music.” “West Side Story,” for which he and co-director/choreographer Jerome Robbins won the Academy Award for Best Director, had a certain grittiness at its core.
Wise’s biggest challenge with “West Side Story” was, in his own words, “To make it acceptable for kids to be dancing in the streets. That’s not a normal activity and, as a matter of fact, I was the one who insisted that we open in New York. I said that all the daytime stuff has to be done in New York. I can’t fake that out here on a stage. Once you get past the daytime stuff, you’re either into sunset, which you can do stage lighting for, or night and then a city street is a city street at night. So they finally agreed. I knew I had to deliver New York some way and I didn’t want to do that same old thing across the river, the bridge, the skyline. And I started to wonder what the city would look like from a helicopter just straight down. That’s how we got the opening. It was New York, and a real New York, it was a New York that even New Yorkers hadn’t seen from that angle. And I think, because it was kind of an abstract, I think it put the audience in the frame of mind to accept the kids dancing in the street”
Of “The Sound of Music,” Wise said, “I inherited that movie.” After finishing “The Haunting” (1963), a return to occult subjects, Wise was preparing “The Sand Pebbles” as his next picture but had run into logistical difficulties. William Wyler had walked off “Music” to make “The Collector” in England, and 20th Century-Fox asked Wise to take over. He did, on the condition that Fox would finance “The Sand Pebbles” (which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture of 1966; at the 1966 Oscar awards, Wise was received the Irving Thalberg Award, the highest accolade for Hollywood producers).
The “Sound of Music” motion picture, the success of which propelled star Julie Andrews to the top of the box office ranks where she bested the in-Bondage Sean Connery for the top laurel, was his second directing Oscar. Wise also took home his second Best Picture Oscar for producing the most successful musical in Hollywood history and the all-time, non-inflation-adjusted box office champ until “The Godfather” (1972) snatched those laurels away nearly a decade later.
The mighty success of “Sound” caused the Hollywood studios, always in search of easy profits based on second-hand ideas, to pouring tens of millions of dollars into the production of musicals, which killed the studio system once and fall all when musicals began to tank with the audience in the late ’60s. Wise’s own second contribution to the genre, reunited with “Sound” diva Julie Andrews for “Star!” (1968), was a monumental fop which, combined with the big budget bust that was “Darling Lili” (1979) K.O.ed Andrews screen career (she made only two other movies during the 1970s). Wise fared better than Andrews.
Although Wise remained a respected A-list director, except for “The Andromeda Strain” (1970), a return to the sci-fi genre, he did not have any more hits in the remainder of his career. He ended the decade like he began it, helming an important sci-fi picture, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979), which was a big grosser but had gone way over budget. It established the Star Trek franchise for Paramount that still is in full flower a generation later.
After “Star Trek,” Robert Wise essentially retired from filmmaking; he directed only one more theatrical film, “Rooftops” (1989), and one TV movie, his first, “A Storm in Summer” (2000) when he was 86 years old. (“Storm” won a Daytime Emmy Award as Outstanding Children’s Special.) Wise settled into a role as one of the wise men of Hollywood, focusing on his duties at the Directors Guild of America, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and the American Film Institute, where he took his role of passing on film’s history and culture seriously. Wise served as president of the Directors Guild of American from 1971 to 1975 and as the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1985 to 1988.
The well-respected Wise was the recipient of well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Awards from the DGA in 1988 and from the AFI in 1998.
Wise’s oeuvre shows that he believed that movies have a didactic function and can be a tool for public education. His movies addressed a wide variety of sociological themes, including nuclear proliferation, capital punishment, and racism. Wise believed that film could help the viewer understand other peoples due its role as “a great educator.”
The teacher Wise believed that to have a successful career as a director, one must have the three Ps: passion, patience, perseverance.
“You have to to do this if you’ve got to be a filmmaker. You have to have passion if you’re going to deal with this subject. Patience, because it’s going to take a long time to get there. And perseverance: keep at it, keep at it. Down the line, put your foot in the door of any organization to get in, and then you can find out how you can work your way up within the organization to achieve what you want to achieve.”
Wise did a lot of work at AFI, teaching young filmmakers. He believed that film school could give an aspiring a leg-up in the business, as he had himself by apprenticing in the business and working his was way up, learning a lot of differing crafts along the way.
“I learned on the job. I didn’t go to any film schools; as a matter of fact, they weren’t even going at the time I got into film. But I believe in film schools. I believe that kids who are young enough and have the means, because it’s not inexpensive to go to film school, are going to be that much ahead of somebody coming in off the streets because they will have worked in all aspects of filmmaking, they will have made their own films, they understand all that. So they’re going to be ahead of anybody just coming in off the streets as I did. So I think if they’re young enough and have the means, the money, it’s worth going to a good film school.”
Robert Wise was married to actress Patricia Doyle from 1942 until her death in 1975. Wise, the grand old man of Hollywood, died on September 14, 2005, four days after his 91st birthday.