This is a work in progress! I thought I’d do a page to bring together details of all the William A Wellman films I’ve seen (and am hoping/planning to see), with details of DVD availability in regions 1 and 2. (All the Warner region 1 releases which I have play fine on region 2 DVD players, though I can’t confirm whether the same applies the other way round.) Where I’ve reviewed any film here at Movie Classics, I’m putting in a link to the review. I’ll keep updating as I see more films of his in the future – and as more are hopefully released on DVD. I’m not including details of the films of his thought to be lost or ones I haven’t seen and which aren’t available as far as I know - for a full list of all Wellman’s films see the imdb. If anyone knows of more which are available, please do let me know so I can expand the list!
The Boob (1926):Available in region 1 in a Warner Archive release. Not available in region 2. A farcical silent comedy Western starring Gertrude Olmstead, George K Arthur and Charles Murray, but mainly known for Joan Crawford’s minor role as an agent tracking down bootleggers. I found this far more enjoyable than I had expected, although it wasn’t a success at the box office and Wellman claimed it nearly ruined his career! As with other Warner Archive releases, the picture quality is good although it isn’t a full restoration, and there are no special features.
You Never Know Women (1926):I haven’t seen this Wellman silent, but I’m including it here, with a link to my posting about it, because it has been restored in the last few years and is occasionally shown at silent film festivals. For many years it was believed to be a lost film, until a print was discovered in the Library of Congress archives. It isn’t available on DVD in either region 1 or region 2. Florence Vidor, Clive Brook and Lowell Sherman star in the tale of a romantic triangle involving members of an acrobatic troupe, which is said to range from comedy to melodrama. If anyone visiting my blog is lucky enough to see this film, please let me know what you think!
Wings (1927): This silent masterpiece was one of the first Wellman films I watched and is still one of my favourites – a film which grows on me every time I see it. Clara Bow, Richard Arlen and Charles “Buddy” Rogers are all brilliant, in this epic aviation movie made less than ten years after the end of the First World War. It was the first winner of the Oscar for best picture, though Wellman didn’t get a best director Oscar. The great news is that it has now been released by Paramount, fully restored complete with tints, in region 1 on both Blu-ray and DVD. I intend to buy this but haven’t as yet been able to find out whether either of the releases will play in region 2 – I do have an all-region DVD player but the picture quality isn’t as good as on my main player. Both releases include extras. The Blu-ray version includes the making-of documentary Wings: Grandeur in the Sky, and two more featurettes, Dogfight, and Restoring the Power and Beauty of Wings. The DVD has only the first of these.
Beggars of Life (1928):This is another silent masterpiece, a haunting tale of of tramps wandering through a shadowy underworld, starring Louise Brooks, Richard Arlen and Wallace Beery. It is occasionally shown at festivals, and I was lucky enough to see a superb print at the BFI in London. There is no fully-restored DVD release, but it is now available as a region 1 release from Classic Video Streams, issued in December 2009 under the title The Actors: Rare Films of Louise Brooks Volume 3. The DVD also includes a brief excerpt from an interview from Kevin Brownlow’s TV series. According to a review at www.examiner.com, the quality of this print is poor, as with the previous Grapevine Video DVD release, also region 1. If you’ve seen the newer release, let me know what you think. It is not available in region 2.
Chinatown Nights (1929): A hard film to track down. This romantic gangster melodrama, starring Wallace Beery, Florence Vidor and Warner Oland, isn’t a great movie - though I saw it on an extremely grainy unofficial DVD, and I’m sure it would look much better in a restored print on the big screen. I know it has been shown at one or two festivals so presumably there must be a better print available. Wellman started off making it as a silent, but I’ve read that when it was a third completed Paramount and associate producer David O Selznick decided to turn it into a talkie. Filming was completed and then the synchronised dialogue was added afterwards, together with music and sound effects.
Dangerous Paradise (1930) This is a very obscure film – it isn’t on DVD, is never shown on TV, and the copy I got hold of has a dodgy picture and a lot of soundtrack noise. Nevertheless, I really like it. Nancy Carroll and Richard Arlen star in this 58-minute melodrama, loosely based on some incidents from Joseph Conrad’s novel Victory, which in some ways resembles the much greater movie Safe In Hell, made the following year. Both are the stories of women forced to be tough by circumstances, who find themselves on remote tropical islands besieged by an assortment of threatening males.
Eleven Men and a Girl (1930): I haven’t seen this comedy-drama, aka Maybe It’s Love, as yet, but the good news is that it has been released by Warner Archive. Joe E Brown stars with Joan Bennett and James Hall. The story involves American college football and, according to Warner, features members of the 1929 All-American Football team.
Other Men’s Women (1931):I have a special affection for this rail melodrama laced with comedy, starring Grant Withers and Regis Toomey, with brief but telling appearances by James Cagney and Joan Blondell. I originally owned this on a terrible bootleg copy, but it is now available on DVD in region 1 as part of the Forbidden Hollywood Collection volume 3, which features six Wellman movies in all. Not available in region 2. All the titles in the set are superbly restored, with special features such as trailers and commentaries (though there isn’t a commentary on this film, sadly, as it is one of my favourites!)
The Public Enemy (1931):One of Wellman’s very greatest films – and also one of the greatest starring my favourite actor, James Cagney. This masterpiece is available in region 1, both separately and included within the Warner Gangsters Collection 1. It is also available in region 2, again separately or as part of various Cagney box sets, with the latest being The James Cagney Collection. The DVD extras include a commentary by film historian Robert Sklar and a featurette, Beer and Blood: Enemies of the Public. For anybody who just wants to get a taste of Wellman or Cagney on film, this is the place to start, in my opinion!
Night Nurse (1931): The first of several films Wellman made with Barbara Stanwyck, who stars alongside Joan Blondell and a pre-stardom Clark Gable. This is really a film of two halves, starting with Stanwyck’s character training as a nurse, then moving into a melodrama – and it has a lot of daring pre-Code content along the way. Probably one of Wellman’s most popular pre-Codes, and a must for all fans of Stanwyck, Gable and Blondell. It’s available in region 1 as part of the Forbidden Hollywood Collection volume 2, complete with a commentary by film historians Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta. Not available in region 2.
The Star Witness (1931): This is one of many Wellman pre-Codes which are not available on DVD in either region 1 or 2, but occasionally shown on TCM in the US and available via the ”grey market”. There must be good hope that some of these titles will turn up on Warner Archive in the future. This one is an uneasy blend of comedy and melodrama starring Walter Huston and Charles “Chic” Sale. I’d say it isn’t a great film in its own right, but very interesting for fans of The Public Enemy as the material is closely linked – a gangster tale seen from the perspective of the victims this time.
Safe In Hell (1931): This is one of Wellman’s strongest pre-Codes, with a compelling performance by Dorothy Mackaill as Gilda, a woman struggling to leave behind her life as a New Orleans prostitute. The good news is that it is now out on DVD in region 1 from Warner Archive, and I also believe it sometimes turns up on TCM in the US. Much of the action is set in the claustrophobic world of an hotel on a Caribbean island, and Donald Cook and Nina Mae McKinney also star.
The Hatchet Man (1932): A gangster film made only the year after The Public Enemy, starring Edward G Robinson and Loretta Young. It isn’t a masterpiece but still has its moments, especially a truly shocking ending – and some great acting from Robinson. This is a tale supposedly set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, although all the actors are Caucasian. Until recently this was another one not on DVD, but it is now getting a release in region 1 from Warner Archive as part of the Forbidden Hollywood Collection volume 7.
So Big! (1932):Not on DVD, but this one seems to be shown on TCM in the US quite a lot, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it is soon released on Warner Archive, especially as it stars Barbara Stanwyck and has a small part for Bette Davis. Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Edna Ferber, this is an even bleaker portrayal of rural life than the one given in Wellman’s comedy-drama The Purchase Price, portraying a back-breaking existence. Despite being only 81 minutes, it has an epic sweep to it, with Stanwyck as one of the self-sacrificing mothers who feature in so many films of the period. I like this film but feel it gets rather rushed towards the end.
Love is a Racket (1932): This isn’t on DVD, but is sometimes shown on TCM in the US. Gossip columnist Douglas Fairbanks Jr isn’t exactly a fearless reporter. When he hears about a juicy story involving New York mobsters fixing the price of milk, he can’t get to the phone fast enough… to keep it out of the paper! But he does decide to take on a gangster who threatens his girlfriend. This fast-moving pre-Code has Warner’s gritty style, but is also stamped with the director’s personality, as it lurches from witty dialogue to black humour, practical jokes and slapstick. Also, about half the film seems to take place in torrential rain, Wellman’s favourite type of weather. There’s a great cast, with Lee Tracy, the original stage star of The Front Page, as Fairbanks’ best buddy and newspaper colleague, Frances Dee as our hero’s on-off girlfriend, and Ann Dvorak, one of my favourite 1930s actresses, in a sadly small role as his pal who wants to be something more.
The Purchase Price (1932): This is available on DVD in region 1 in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 3. As with Night Nurse and So Big!, it has another strong role for Barbara Stanwyck, this time as a torch singer who decides to get away from it all by taking a friend’s place as a mail order bride. George Brent is cast against type as the struggling young farmer she marries. The film is much lighter than some of Wellman’s others from this period, with a lot of romantic comedy, but also some melodrama worked in. Great fun to watch.
The Conquerors (1932):One of the latest Wellman titles to be released on DVD in region 1, in the Warner Archive series. This pre-Code Western epic stars Ann Harding and Richard Dix as a young couple who travel out to Nebraska and build a banking dynasty. Both stars have demanding roles, taking them from youth to old age, and Dix even plays his character’s own grandson for good measure! The film covers everything from the coming of the railways to the early days of silent cinema. I don’t think it is one of Wellman’s very best, but still thoroughly enjoyable.
Frisco Jenny (1932): Another of the six early Wellman films included in the region 1 Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 3 box set. Ruth Chatterton takes the title role, playing another self-sacrificing mother and wearing a succession of flamboyant outfits as her character rises to the top of the Barbary Coast underworld. Donald Cook stars as the son she has to give up for adoption, who later faces her in a dramatic court case. Wild melodrama, so you need to be in the right mood for this one!
Central Airport (1933): A recent release in the Warner Archive series. Richard Barthelmess plays a stunt pilot who falls for parachutist Sally Eilers, but when Jim tells her that pilots have no business marrying because of the dangers of their job, she decides there is no future in the relationship, and gets involved with his brother, Neil (Tom Brown). A blend of melodrama and stunt aviation which I found irresistible.
Lilly Turner (1933): This isn’t available on DVD as yet, only on the grey market and occasionally seen on TCM in the US. I found it hugely enjoyable. Ruth Chatterton stars as Lilly, a woman working in a succession of travelling carnivals, with George Brent and Frank McHugh as the men in her life, plus some great Warner character actors to add to the mix. Wellman clearly enjoys creating the sleazy, down-at-heel circus atmosphere. The whole film feels varied and lively and, packing a lot of plot, dialogue, melodrama and black humour into just 65 minutes, moves at a breathless speed.
Heroes For Sale (1933): On DVD in region 1 in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 3. Richard Barthelmess gives a powerful performance as a drug-addicted veteran of the First World War. This film, one of a number which Wellman made focusing on the Great Depression, follows Barthelmess’ character, Tom Holmes, from the trenches of France through to a peacetime battle in America, a march by the “forgotten men”, war veterans desperately seeking work.
Midnight Mary (1933): Another of the titles included in the region 1 Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 3 box set. Made at MGM, it blends that studio’s sexy glamour with Warner-style grit and is very fast-moving – one of the best of the bunch. Astonishingly, Loretta Young was still only 19 when she made this film, one of her best pre-Code roles - she plays a gangster’s moll on trial for murder, with her story unfolding in flashback. This is very much a film about the Depression, with some powerful and haunting scenes.
Wild Boys of the Road (1933): All six of the movies included in the region 1 Forbidden Hollywood Volume 3 set are well worth watching, but I think this is probably the best of them all. It’s a powerful, fast-moving melodrama, turning the spotlight on the vast army of teenagers who really were living on the streets of America at that time. Frankie Darro and Wellman’s wife-to-be, Dorothy Coonan, both give great performances. If you are interested in Wellman’s pre-Code work at all, this is absolutely unmissable.
College Coach (1933): This satirical American football comedy-drama has just been made available on Warner Archive in region 1, and is also sometimes shown on TCM in the US. Dick Powell was given top billing in this movie, presumably because his star was riding high after three smash hit Busby Berkeley musicals – but his role is in fact fairly minor. Pat O’Brien, Ann Dvorak and a scene-stealing Lyle Talbot are the real stars, with a 23-second appearance from John Wayne in his days as an extra. I enjoyed this one despite not understanding American football!
Looking for Trouble (1934): Looking for Trouble must be one of William Wellman’s most obscure pre-Codes – not officially available on DVD and never shown on TV. Yet it’s a highly entertaining, fast-moving comedy-drama, with a great cast, headed by Spencer Tracy, and some spectacular earthquake footage. Tracy plays a telephone company troubleshooter (hence the title), Joe Graham, with Jack Oakie as his best buddy and workmate, Casey. Constance Cummings also stars as telephone operator Ethel, who is Joe’s on-off sweetheart. The film features the cutting edge of phone technology throughout, even showing how telephone records are used to solve a crime – something which I believe only became common practice decades later.
Stingaree (1934): Despite being a very obscure title, this film is available on DVD in region 1 as one of the six films included in the RKO Lost and Found Collection via the TCM website – though this is an expensive set and the DVDs are DVD-Rs rather than pressings. The Movies Unlimited website also offers Stingaree as a single DVD. This semi-musical starring Irene Dunne and Richard Dix has to be the oddest of Wellman’s 1930s movies I’ve managed to see yet. It’s a strange cross between an operetta in the Nelson Eddy/Jeanette MacDonald vein and a 19th-century outlaw drama set in the Australian bush. Not really my cup of tea, but interesting!
The President Vanishes (1934): Sadly, I think this not-on-DVD drama is by far the weakest offering I’ve seen from this director, though,to be fair, I’ve only seen it once in a dire print. I’d hoped for a lot from this film, which has a good cast, headed by Edward Arnold, with a small part for a very young Rosalind Russell. It also has a plot which sounds intriguing on the face of it, adapted from a novel by Rex Stout. It’s about industrialists and businessmen trying to get America involved in a European war in order to boost the economy and the arms trade. The businessmen bankroll a shady Fascist organisation, known as the Grey Shirts, in order to stoke up public opinion, but, when the peace-loving President (Arthur Byron) is apparently abducted, the pro-war bandwagon is abruptly derailed. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work as a drama – the plot is unbelievable and so are the characters. One for completists only, I’d say.
The Call of the Wild (1935): This 1935 drama, very loosely adapted from Jack London’s classic novel, has been released on DVD, but only as part of a region 1 box set, the Clark Gable Collection Vol 1. Wellman’s film adaptation does feature a dog , but the animal story is very much in second place to that of the human characters, with a romance between Clark Gable and Loretta Young dominating the drama. This means some Jack London fans are rather dismayed by this version, but, if you don’t worry about the book, I think the film stands up well on its own. Jack Oakie has a great support role.
The Robin Hood of El Dorado (1936): This MGM Western is not available on DVD as yet, sadly, but only on the grey market. In a story based on real life, Warner Baxter stars as Joaquin Murrieta, a Mexican farmer who becomes a bandit fighting the Americans in 1840s California after a series of tragic events. This movie took a while to grow on me but I now find it a powerful work and think it is a shame it is so obscure – I hope it will get a release before too long. Ann Loring, Margo, Bruce Cabot and J. Carrol Naish also star.
Small Town Girl (1936): Sadly, this is yet another one not on DVD. The basic plot of this MGM comedy-drama sounds very cliched, about a couple of strangers who get married in haste on a drunken night out and then have time to repent at leisure – but end up falling in love instead. However, the movie itself is far quirkier, funnier and more bitter-sweet than this plot description might suggest. Janet Gaynor has a role looking forward to A Star Is Born, as a girl desperate to get away from a stifling small-town existence, with Robert Taylor as the young doctor she impulsively marries, and a small part for James Stewart as her childhood sweetheart.
A Star Is Born (1937): This famous, Oscar-winning classic is available on a host of region 1 and 2 DVDs, but until recently they were all public domain with faded Technicolor. However, as with Nothing Sacred, Kino has now released an authorised region 1 edition “from the estate of David O Selznick from the collection of George Eastman House”, on both Blu-ray and DVD. Janet Gaynor plays small-town girl Esther Blodgett, who longs to make it in Hollywood. While working as a waitress at a party, she catches the eye of Hollywood leading man Norman Maine (March) – whose “work is starting to get in the way of his drinking”, to quote one of the film’s many famous lines. He gets her a screen test and she is soon renamed Vicki Lester – but Norman’s career slides as Vicki’s soars.
Nothing Sacred (1937): Another very famous movie, which has a lot in common with A Star Is Born, though this one has the accent on comedy rather than tragedy. Up to now, as with A Star Is Born, this has been available on a host of faded Technicolor public domain DVDs in region 1 and 2 – however, the exciting news is that Kino has now released an authorised region 1 edition “from the estate of David O Selznick from the collection of George Eastman House”, on both Blu-ray and DVD. It should be a revelation! From seeing the faded versions, I don’t feel this movie has worn quite as well as A Star Is Born, but it is definitely worth seeing, especially for Carole Lombard fans as she gives a sparkling performance. Fredric March stars again, and originally he was going to be re-teamed with Janet Gaynor – but then Lombard was cast instead, playing another small-town girl desperate to get away to the big city. Her character, Hazel Flagg, is wrongly diagnosed as dying from radium poisoning, and brought to the big city by newspaper reporter Wally Cook (March) for a final fling. But how long can a final fling last?
Beau Geste (1939):A return to atmospheric black and white for this great melodramatic adventure, starring Gary Cooper in the title role, with Ray Milland and Robert Preston as his two brothers. The three all run away from their English home to join the French foreign legion after the mysterious theft of a rare jewel, and end up in the Sahara, commanded by a sadistic sergeant (Brian Donlevy). Based on a bestselling novel by now largely forgotten writer PC Wren, the story unfolds in flashback after a breathtaking opening sequence. It is available as a region 1 DVD in the Universal Backlot series, and also a region 2 Spanish DVD. There is also a region 1 box set which includes it, the Gary Cooper Collection. I don’t know what the quality of any of these DVD releases is like, as I saw the movie on the Sky Classics satellite TV station in the UK, which showed a beautiful, sharp print.
The Light That Failed (1939): Made the same year as Beau Geste, this is another wildly noble and compelling period melodrama adapted from a novel by an imperialist author, Kipling. Once again, the drama ranges between England and wars in deserts, in this case the Sudan. Ronald Colman stars as an artist tormented by unrequited love for a fellow-artist, and struggling to hold on to his failing sight long enough to complete his masterpiece, a portrait of poor Cockney girl Bessie Broke (Ida Lupino). Both Colman and Lupino are great. I haven’t heard anything about an official DVD release of this, although Amazon.com does currently have a DVD listed, via third parties, with very few details.
Roxie Hart (1942): Fans of smash hit musical Chicago should be interested to see this earlier version of the same story, starring Ginger Rogers as showgirl turned celebrity criminal Roxie Hart. There is some softening of the story because of the production code – in this version, Roxie is innocent. However, the film is still full of satirical hits at celebrity culture, newspapers etc, and, interestingly it already feels like a musical, with a great scene where Rogers and the press corps tap dance around the prison. This is available on DVD in region 1 from Twentieth Century Fox, very cheaply – a basic release but with a high-quality print. You can also get it in region 1 in a box set together with Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz – I don’t know much about this set, but according to Amazon.com it does have an extra feature, Musical Moments.
Thunder Birds (Soldiers of the Air) 1942: This is really a propaganda movie, looking at the training of young pilots at an American base and the close working together of the US and British forces. However, aside from a long voiceover intro and another voiceover at the end, most of the movie is focused on a buddy story which turns into a love triangle, bringing back memories of Wings. Preston Foster plays Steve, a veteran American pilot who refuses to give up on young British doctor turned pilot Peter (John Sutton), even though the younger man is troubled by vertigo. However, things get complicated when both fall in love with the same girl, played by Gene Tierney. This movie is available as a standalone on DVD in region 1, in a stunningly beautiful Technicolor print. The only extras are a trailer and some newsreel footage. I’ve just realised it is also available in the UK on region 2 DVD as part of the Gene Tierney Studio Stars Collection from Twentieth-Century Fox.
The Great Man’s Lady (1942): Barbara Stanwyck ages from her teens to 100-plus in this sweeping Western saga, which is in many ways a throwback to earlier Wellman films like So Big! and The Conquerors, as it traces the story of an indomitable pioneer woman. The title is ironic, since the film makes it very clear that this “lady” is far greater than the “great man” , played by Joel McCrea. The story unfolds in flashback. I saw this melodrama in a rare TV showing, but it is available on DVD as part of the region 1 Barbara Stanwyck Collection, and has also been released in region 2 (Spain only), with removable subtitles, though copies of the region 2 DVD are very expensive via Amazon.co.uk.
Lady of Burlesque (1943): Once again starring one of Wellman’s regular leading ladies, Barbara Stanwyck, this is a murder mystery based on a novel by Gypsy Rose Lee. It is set behind the scenes of a burlesque theatre – and includes several musical numbers from Stanwyck. Michael O’Shea stars as the comic who doggedly pursues Stanwyck, despite her insistence that she has made it a rule not to get involved with comedians. The murder mystery element isn’t very interesting, I’d have to say, but the sleazy backstage atmosphere is great. This title is available on many public domain DVDs in regions 1 and 2 – on the DVD I bought, the black and white picture quality was fine, but the sound was a bit quiet and indistinct.
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943): One of Wellman’s greatest and most celebrated films – a powerful, bleak short Western with not a minute wasted, giving a devastating indictment of mob rule and lynch law. Two drifters are accused of murdering a farmer and stealing his cattle, and an angry band of townspeople vow to wreak “justice” on the spot. Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews both give great performances. The movie is available on DVD in both region 1 and region 2. I have the region 2 release, which has great picture quality but no special features. However, I see from Amazon that the region 1 DVD has a commentary by William Wellman Jr and Western scholar Dick Eulain, a documentary about Henry Fonda and information about the movie’s restoration.
Buffalo Bill (1944): Reportedly this wasn’t one of Wellman’s favourite movies, partly because of its famously cheesy ending, but there’s a lot to enjoy all the same. This fast-moving 90-minute movie gives a highly inaccurate but entertaining version of the story of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, from his days as an army scout to his later career as owner of a Wild West show. Maureen O’Hara plays his wife, with Anthony Quinn as Native American chief Yellow Hand. Linda Darnell also has a small but haunting part as a Native American woman in love with Cody. The movie is available on DVD in region 1 and region 2 – the region 2 DVD which I have has no extras, but a great picture quality.
Story of G.I. Joe (1945): Much of the time this powerful Second World War film feels almost like a documentary, as it gives an unglamorous, gritty picture of an American army unit. Burgess Meredith stars as real-life war correspondent Ernie Pyle and Robert Mitchum as the unit’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Bill Walker. Both are excellent, but really this isn’t a movie about stars – it’s about the comradeship of the often weary troops as they trudge across North Africa and later across Italy. The black-and-white cinematography by Russell Metty is often breathtaking, and the long, sweeping shots of the ruined wartime landscapes are perhaps the most memorable thing about this underrated great war film. The movie is available cheaply on region 2 DVD in the UK from Palladium – this is the edition I have and the print looks good but there are no extras. A region 1 DVD was issued some years back by Image Entertainment, which featured archive newsreel footage of the real Ernie Pyle and a stills gallery of his newspaper columns, as well as liner notes by James Tobin, author of “Ernie Pyle’s War: America’s Eyewitness to World War II”, but this is now deleted and extremely expensive secondhand.
Magic Town (1947): This quirky, satirical comedy-drama was written by Robert Riskin, who frequently worked with Frank Capra, and also stars James Stewart, so it isn’t surprising that it feels rather like a Capra film. Stewart plays an opinion poll expert who is excited when he discovers a small town which is an exact microcosm of the US, so that any poll taken there is accurate for the whole nation. Stewart moves in on the town and secretly starts to exploit its unique qualities, but comes into conflict with newspaper reporter Jane Wyman, who wants to modernise the town – which might stop it fitting the bill for his surveys. Somehow the film as a whole doesn’t quite live up to its plot, I’d say, although I should really watch it again and see if it strikes me more second time around. This is available on DVD in region 2 with a fairly good picture but rather quiet sound, and now also in region 1. Olive Films is now also releasing a new Blu-ray and DVD in region 1.
Yellow Sky (1948): Although he isn’t primarily known as a Western director, Wellman made several fine ones, including this taut, moody black-and-white movie, which packs a great deal into its 98 minutes. Gregory Peck stars as the leader of a band of outlaws who find themselves stranded in a hostile landscape of salt flats after robbing a bank, and almost die for lack of water before landing up in the deserted town of Yellow Sky. The only inhabitants are an elderly man and his tough, gun-toting granddaughter, Anne Baxter – and distrust builds up all round when the outlaws start to suspect that the grandfather has discovered gold. Peck, Baxter and Richard Widmark, as Peck’s jealous sidekick Dude, are all excellent. This is available on DVD in both region 2 and region 1. I have the region 2 release which has a great picture and sound but no extras. The region 1 DVD is said to include a poster gallery, as well as galleries of production stills and behind-the-scenes stills.
Battleground (1949): Wellman got a best director Oscar nomination for this powerful Second World War film, looking at the Battle of the Bulge. He didn’t win, but Robert Pirosh did, for his gritty, realistic screenplay, and so did Paul C Vogel for his bleak black-and-white cinematography. The film gives a compelling portrayal of the soldiers in the 101st Airborne Division who came to be known as “the battered bastards of Bastogne”. Van Johnson, John Hodiak, Ricardo Montalban and dancer George Murphy are among the fine cast of character actors. There are DVDs available from Warner Home Video in both region 1 and region 2, including a couple of extras, the featurette Little Rural Riding Hood and a cartoon. You can also get the film on a double-sided DVD as part of the TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection – World War Two/Battlefront Europe or on a separate DVD in a War Double Feature pack with Raoul Walsh’s film Battle Cry, both in region 1.
The Happy Years (1950): This slice of Americana, set towards the end of the 19th century, isn’t one of my favourite Wellmans and strikes me as a bit cheesy at times. But it certainly has its moments, with a few hilarious comedy scenes along the way. Based on a series of stories by Owen Johnson, this is an episodic coming-of-age tale about a rebellious youngster, “Dink” Stover (Dean Stockwell), who is sent away to boarding school and gradually learns to be one of the group. Filmed in beautiful Technicolor, the film at times reminds me of Meet Me In St Louis, though it is a much slighter offering – and, indeed, it features Leon Ames in another role as a kindly father. However, the dynamics between the boys at the prep school also at times recall Wellman’s war films. The film is available on DVD in region 1 from Warner Archive.
Across the Wide Missouri (1951): This Western could possibly have been a great film to start with – it is hard to tell. Intended as an epic and filmed in lavish Technicolor, it was cut to pieces by the studio and then a voiceover was added on to hold together what was left. All the same, the scenery is beautiful and Clark Gable, who had earlier starred in Wellman’s Call of the Wild, gives another powerful performance as a trapper who cynically buys himself a Native American wife (Maria Elena Marques) but then falls in love with her. This film is worth seeing even in its incomplete and ragged state, but it is sad to think what might have been. I saw it on TV, but it is available in a region 2 UK DVD from Cornerstone Media and a region 1 MOD Warner Archive DVD, both without extras. There is also a French region 2 Warner DVD available, which one commentator at Amazon.co.uk describes as a good transfer.
Westward the Women (1951): Wellman’s previous Western might have been a slight disappointment, but this one is a triumph. Robert Taylor has the job of leading a band of 100 women from Missouri to California, to a town of settlers who are in need of wives. On the long journey, as they face untold hardships, the women prove that they are as tough and resourceful as men. This is really a female counterpart of Wellman’s male war films, as it has the same sense of community and comradeship, but, again, shows the tensions between people forced to live together under difficult circumstances. It also has all his characteristic feeling for the underdog, as Denise Darcel plays a “bad girl” who is at first resented by the respectable women, but proves her worth. Hope Emerson is also excellent as an older woman making the trek. The film is available on DVD in France in region 2, and has also been released in region 1 by Warner Archive, and, unusually, the WA DVD does include some special features, a commentary track and a featurette about the making of the film.
Island in the Sky (1953): This tense aerial adventure, starring John Wayne and produced by his Batjac company, was unseen and unavailable for many years but is now out on DVD in an excellent Special Collectors’ Edition from Paramount in both region 1 and region 2. Wayne gives a powerful and untypically emotional performance as a commercial pilot working with the Army Transport Service who has to make an emergency landing in the icy Canadian wilderness. Rescuers face a desperate battle against time to trace him and his crew and get them out of this alive. In a beautifully restored black and white print, this has a gritty feel to it, with narration from an uncredited Wellman himself. The DVDs in both regions have a host of extras including featurettes and a commentary. Unfortunately there is also an introduction by Leonard Maltin which comes up automatically – best to skip this until after seeing the movie, as it is full of edited highlights/spoilers! Island in the Sky has also been included in a couple of region 1 John Wayne box sets but I believe these are currently out of print.
The High and the Mighty (1954): As with Island in the Sky, this Cinemascope aerial disaster epic starring John Wayne was unavailable for many years, but is now out on a restored print on Paramount DVDs. A two-disc special edition packed with extra features, including a featurette on Wellman, is available in both region 1 and region 2 – up to now I’ve only seen the movie on TV, but all those extras certainly look tempting. With a star-studded cast including Robert Stack and Claire Trevor, this film showed the way forward to all the Airport films which came later. Wayne gives a moving, understated performance as a veteran co-pilot haunted by past tragedy, although he is really too young for the part, originally intended for Spencer Tracy. Some of the passengers do go in for some over-acting, I’d have to say. At times there are flashes of brilliance, but the film in general is rather overblown and of course there is the problem that this type of tale has been spoofed so much, in Airplane and its sequels.
Track of the Cat (1954): This is one of Wellman’s greatest later films – a stunning, moody arthouse Western, adapted from the novel by Walter van Tilburg Clark, whose work Wellman had already adapted in The Ox-Bow Incident. Wellman decided to shoot this as a “black and white movie in colour”, using the snow and dark trees as the backcloth for a tense, haunting drama. Almost the only colours are the red of Robert Mitchum’s coat and the yellow of a blouse worn by Diana Lynn, playing the girlfriend of his character’s younger brother. Mitchum stars as the hunter obsessed with tracking down a mountain lion which has been attacking his stock – but much of the drama happens indoors, within the isolated home of his dysfunctional family, headed by bitter matriarch Beulah Bondi. Teresa Wright and Tab Hunter also give fine performances. This was made by John Wayne’s Batjac company, and produced by Wayne, and so is available on a fine Special Collector’s Edition DVD packed with extras in both region 1 and region 2, matching those for Wellman’s two previous titles starring Wayne. It again includes a featurette on Wellman. You can also get the movie included in a Mitchum box set in region 2 or a ‘ Suspense’ set of Batjac productions in region 1.
Blood Alley (1955): Wellman’s third film starring John Wayne isn’t nearly as good as the other two in my book. Wayne plays a merchant marine captain who is released from a prison camp in Communist China and responds to a plea from a village. The elders of the village urge him to commandeer a riverboat and transport the whole community to Hong Kong, under British rule. However, American Lauren Bacall wants to wait for news of her doctor father, who has disappeared after opposing the Communists. The story, based on a novel by Albert Sidney Fleischman, seems unbelievable, and the portrayal of the Chinese characters is often stereotyped. However, possibly the most annoying thing is the way that Wayne’s character, who has suffered mentally from his time in the prison camp, constantly talks to an imaginary girlfriend, Baby. He does this all the way through the film, in nearly every scene. The film does have some good scenes between Wayne and Bacall and one or two exciting action sequences, but in general it strikes me as one of Wellman’s weakest movies. I’ve seen it on TV, which was quite enough for me, but it is available on DVD in region 1, from Warner, with a couple of featurettes and some newsreels as extras, or alternatively in a double feature set with another Wayne movie, Sea Chase, or in a John Wayne box set. There are also a region 2 Dutch DVD and Spanish DVD available.
Darby’s Rangers (1958): Wellman didn’t really want to make this Second World War film, his penultimate work as director, but did so in order to get funding for his last film, Lafayette Escadrille. I’d heard Darby’s Rangers described as one of his weaker works, but, although it is patchy, I’d say it has some great sequences, including some powerful black-and-white war scenes, and there are many characteristic touches. The film gives a heavily fictionalised version of the founding of the American Rangers by Major William Darby, played by James Garner. However, a great deal of it focuses on the soldiers’ assorted love lives rather than on the battlefield. The first 45 minutes or so are rather slow and at times cheesy, following the soldiers’ training in Scotland and London, but when they travel to North Africa and Italy the mood darkens. The film is quite often shown on TV in the UK, which is where I saw it, and is available on Warner Archive DVD in region 1 and also on a region 2 French DVD which, according to Amazon, will play in English without subtitles. There’s a Spanish DVD too.