Kino Lorber’s upcoming DVD release of “Wild Bill: Hollywood
Maverick,” about the life of director William Wellman, is welcome for a couple
of reasons. One: In the Great Filmography of American cinema, Wellman, much
like Howard Hawks, is a bit like Zelig. He’s everywhere. He made perhaps THE
archetypal gangster picture, “Public Enemy” (1931), which not only introduced
James Cagney to the screen but planted the concept of the anti-hero in a war-
and Depression-weary American psyche.
He made the ur-screwball comedy “Nothing
Sacred” (1937) with Carole Lombard and Frederic March; he made the highly
idealistic Foreign Legion adventure “Beau Geste” (1939 version). He twisted the
western into politically volatile morality play with “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943).
He directed Barbara Stanwyck five times including in “Lady in Burlesque” (1943)
and he made what many consider the definitive World War II film, “The Story of
G.I. Joe.” Oh yeah: He won a screenplay Oscar for writing the original “A Star
Is Born” (1937, and no, not the one with Judy Garland). Aaaand, BTW, he won the
first Best Picture Oscar for “Wings” (1927) during a ceremony to which he was
not invited by his studio.
Why? Well he wasn’t
an easy guy, but that’s the other reason “Wild Bill” is so refreshing. Like
Hawks, Raoul Walsh and a handful of others, Wellman was a director who had a
life before the movies. He didn’t graduate from film school and then travel via
pneumatic tube into the warm embrace of a three-picture deal. Among other
thing, he was in the Lafayette Escadrille, the foreign flyers who fought for
France in the early days of World War I, was shot down and suffered injuries
that left him with a permanent limp.
He became a director of war pictures who
knew what war was. The experiences and the bonds he formed with other men would
inform his entire body of work (the kiss between male characters in “Wings”
seems rather extraordinary now, especially when one considers it was shot in
1927). He would only take so much crap from studio bosses. He once threatened
to set fire to Jack Warner’s office.
All of this is
covered in “Wild Bill,” which was made back in 1996 (Wellman’s centenary, and
cinema’s) and directed by Todd Robinson. William Wellman Jr., who just finished
a second book on his father, was executive producer of the documentary and has
gotten plenty of mileage out of a project that includes appearances by a number
of dearly departed Wellman collaborators – including Robert Mitchum, Jane
Wyman, Burgess Meredith, Buddy Rodgers, James Whitmore and Richard Widmark –
and narration by Alec Baldwin.
“At some point I
realized that my father was being pretty well forgotten,” said William Wellman
Jr. “His last film was in ’58 [“Lafayette Escadrille”] when my acting career
was just getting started, and I realized he was being forgotten along with a lot of others.
Filmmakers of his era didn’t really get revived until the ‘70s and ‘80s;
Richard Schickel did “The Men Who Made the Movies” and that kind of revived my
father’s legacy. And of course I was trying to shine a light because I always
thought his body of work was underappreciated.”
“brand” was never the same as a Hitchcock or Ford because “you never knew what
you were going to get,” Wellman Jr. said. “Part of that had to do with his
impatience, not wanting to wait around. If a script wasn’t quite right he could
still infuse a certain energy into it. He liked to do that. Also, the moguls,
even though he fought with them, they knew he could make a good story and be on
time and under budget.” In other words, why give him the good projects, when he
could turn second rate material into first-rate movies?
One of the
lesser-known Wellman films that “Wild Bill” explores is “Track of the Cat,”
which his son describes as “kind of Eugene O’Neill in the Old West” and which
was a highly experimental movie for its time, a black-and-white film with
color. Only certain details have color – Mitchum’s red mackinaw, for instance,
or Diana Lynn’s yellow blouse. The effect is stunning, and a bold move,
especially for a film shot in 1954 (and to the apparent delight of DP William
favorite of his father’s pictures? “A Star Is Born.”
“I have no second
favorite, there are too many,” he said. “Whatever, for lots of reason I guess,
that film always gets me emotionally. I never get tired of it.”
Hollywood Maverick: The Life and Times of William A. Wellman” will be released
on DVD June 25.