Q&A: Wyler’s daughter remembers ‘Best Years,’ restores ‘Memphis Belle’

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'The Cold Blue' with Catherine Wyler (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Her father directed decades of undisputed Hollywood classics, including “Wuthering Heights” (1939), “Mrs. Miniver” (1942), “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946), “Roman Holiday” (1953), “The Big Country” (1958), “Ben-Hur” (1959) and “Funny Girl” (1968).

But it was his World War II documentary “The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress” (1944) that always fascinated Catherine Wyler, daughter of three-time Oscar winner William Wyler, who filmed the footage while flying actual combat missions on B-17s during the war.

Now, Wyler has restored her father’s footage to produce the new documentary “The Cold Blue,” which premiered this summer at AFI Docs. The film was recently acquired by HBO to air in June 2019 and is screening this weekend at AFI Fest in Los Angeles, just in time for Veterans Day.

“At the time he filmed it, all of those guys flying on B-17s were statistically dead on their 16th mission,” Wyler told WTOP. “For the first time, the Air Force said you could get out of combat if you survived 25 missions. This was the first plane to do it. It’s the story of that 25th mission.”

Not only were the pilots in danger, the filmmakers also risked — and even gave — their lives.

“[He] went up on bombing missions with three cameramen, risking his life, and one of the cameramen died in the making of the film,” director Erik Nelson told WTOP. “When he was flying, it was a one-in-four chance that you’d go down. … Do you think if he was shot down and survived, an Oscar-winning Jewish director, what would have happened to Wyler?”

Thankfully, Wyler survived and brought back some amazing raw color footage, which was recently discovered in the vault of the National Archives and restored for “The Cold Blue.”

“He brought back 15 hours of footage, cut a 43-minute classic American documentary, and the remaining 14 1/2 hours of footage has been sitting in the National Archives for 25 years,” Nelson said. “The metaphor was to restore the footage and get it to fly again. …in widescreen splendor with a recreated soundtrack … by the sound designer of ‘Black Panther.’ It’s an immersive time machine to the front lines in the most harrowing period of World War II.”

The restoration converts the aspect ratio to 16:9 widescreen with an enhanced 4K resolution.

“If you know World War II or old movies, it’s in a [squarish] 4:3 ratio, like an old TV set,” Nelson said. “[Now] it’s widescreen in sharp clarity and incredible color. It hasn’t looked this good since the lab in England in 1943 when it came out of the cameras — the original prints … It’s like cleaning a filthy window. It was brown, it had degraded, and now all the color is restored.”

The restoration process allowed them to find new fascinating details in the footage.

“We found one shot of a flak-damaged nose of a B-16,” Nelson said. “We realized what the cameraman really was shooting was the entire interior of the Plexiglas nose sprayed with blood. The flak shell had vaporized the bombardier. You didn’t see that in ‘Memphis Belle,’ but you see it now. I’m sure it’s something they wouldn’t have allowed past the censors in World War II, so you’re seeing ‘The Memphis Belle’ the way Catherine’s father always intended it.”

After seeing such horrors of war, William Wyler was admittedly changed by the experience.

“There’s no question that the war had a huge effect on him,” Catherine Wyler said. “[‘Best Years’] was one film he didn’t have to do any research for, because he knew what it was like to … come back damaged from the war … He had to really fight to get into the Air Force because he was 40 with two children … He finally found a general who he convinced it would be smart to have a guy with a camera following him around … But the experience made him rather pacifist.”

The project had a similar effect on Wyler’s colleagues Frank Capra, George Stevens, John Ford and John Huston, whose World War II filming is chronicled in Netflix’s “Five Came Back” (2017).

“Steven Spielberg said in ‘Five Came Back’ that ‘The Memphis Belle’ was one of the most stunning things that he had ever seen,” Nelson said. “Spielberg saw the old degraded prints, so we’ve given him a copy and I think he’s going to be quite impressed when he sees it.”

The war experience inspired Wyler to direct “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which won seven Oscars, including Best Picture over “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). To this day, “Best Years” remains the single greatest look at veterans returning from war, particularly the scene where Myrna Loy stiffens up upon realizing her on-screen husband Fredric March has come home.

“That’s my favorite scene,” Catherine Wyler said. “My mother went to New York to meet him during the war when she hadn’t seen him in quite a long time. She was in a hotel room and opened the door, he was just getting off the elevator, so they had to run to each other down the corridor. He recreated that scene … My favorite film used to be ‘Wuthering Heights’ since that’s the character I was named after … but I think that ‘Best Years’ is absolutely his masterpiece.”

Seven years later, Wyler directed Audrey Hepburn to an Oscar with her breakthrough role in “Roman Holiday,” in which Catherine makes a cameo during the fountain scene.

“If you know just where to look, when Audrey goes to get her hair cut and Greg Peck doesn’t have a camera and Eddie Albert isn’t there, there’s a little group of schoolgirls,” Wyler said. “My sister gets the close-up as he tries to take the camera. I’m in the rear calling the teacher. I had three deathless words, ‘Hey, Miss Webber!’ That was the last of my screen attempts.”

She also remembers living in Italy one summer as her father shot the Biblical epic “Ben-Hur.”

“I remember that he was having a very fine time,” Wyler said. “In fact, when he took that job, it was because he was so excited about the chariot race. When the producer Sam Zimbalist told him, ‘No! You don’t have time for that! That’s a second unit,’ he was very disappointed.”

After “Ben-Hur” won a record 11 Oscars, he later directed Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl.”

“I remember going on the set of ‘Funny Girl’ and seeing my father and Barbra holding hands,” Wyler said. “There was a lot of press at the time about how difficult [she was] and what a hard time they were having, which was totally untrue. He was definitely a father figure for her.”

It was a long overdue musical for Wyler, who passed on “The Sound of Music” (1965) after initially developing the project, casting Julie Andrews and then handing it over to Robert Wise.

“It kept him up at night,” Catherine Wyler said. “He just couldn’t make a movie about those nice Nazis.”

Thus, World War II loomed over the rest of his career, giving new meaning to “The Cold Blue.”

“I’m thrilled that this brings my father’s footage — that he risked his life for — back onto a big screen today to show people what it was like,” Wyler said. “The fact that it’s in 4K digital now has brought out detail that you could never see before. My father would be so thrilled.”

Find more details on the film website. Hear our full chat with Catherine Wyler & Erik Nelson below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Catherine Wyler & Erik Nelson (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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