Wilder and Film

by Susan D. Thomas

Although Wilder is known primarily for his drama and fiction, he also has made a real impact on film. Along with Alma Reville and Sally Benson, Wilder wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 classic, Shadow of a Doubt, reputedly one of Hitchcock’s favorite films. Starring Joseph Cotton as a serial killer who moves in with his sister’s small town family to escape from the police, and Teresa Wright as his niece who comes to realize that her idolized uncle is indeed the notorious “Merry Widow” killer, the screenplay is taut and terrifying, relieved only by a nosy neighbor in love with lurid stories, played memorably by Hume Cronyn. This single film, like Wilder’s long plays, is a genuine classic.

Additionally, several of Wilder’s plays and novels have also been made into movies. In 1940, Wilder himself wrote the screenplay for director Sam Wood’s film version of OurTown, starring William Holden, Martha Scott and Frank Craven, recreating their Broadway roles, and Fay Bainter. Leonard Maltin, a thoughtful and demanding critic always, describes the movie as a “sensitive adaptation” of Wilder’s timeless play, enhanced by Aaron Copland’s “splendid” score.

The Matchmaker and its musical adaptation Hello Dolly!, also have a venerable screen history. In 1958, director Joseph Anthony made a charming film version of The Matchmaker, with Shirley Booth as the resolute Dolly Levi, and Anthony Perkins, Shirley MacLaine, Paul Ford, and Robert Morse as those affected by Dolly’s infinitely various plans. The screen version of Hello Dolly!, directed by Gene Kelly in 1969, starred Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau as Dolly and the hapless Horace Vandergelder, whom Dolly is determined to land for herself.

In addition, there are two film versions of Wilder’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, one in 1929, a second in 1944, under the direction of Rowland V. Lee and starring Louis Calhern and Akim Tamiroff, among others. Wilder played no role in these films.

In 1988, Danny Huston directed a film version of Theophilus North, entitled Mr. North, scripted by Huston’s father John Huston , who died during the filming. Robert Mitchum replaced his acting role. The movie starred, among others, Anthony Edwards, as the young, intuitive North, and Mitchum,Lauren Bacall, Harry Dean Stanton, and Anjelica Huston as the various Newport socialites and servants in need of North’s ingenious and practical advice.

For a complete filmography of Wilder’s works on film, as well as an overview of his relationship to the world of Hollywood, please visit the Thornton Wilder page on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) website.