I’m still hot on the trail of William A Wellman’s pre-Code movies, and have been lucky enough to get hold of another couple - starting off with this Western epic. This wasn’t on DVD when I wrote this posting but I’m just editing to say that it is now out on Warner Archive. I don’t think this is one of Wellman’s very best, but I do like it and wish it was more widely-known – and it is definitely a Depression movie, despite largely being set in earlier eras. The film covers everything from the coming of the railways to the early days of silent cinema, and even has a prediction of what is to come for the future near the end, where a character says: “We will have television – and we’ll be able to fly across the whole continent in a couple of hours!” It also includes quite a lot of autobiographical material, with a character who joins the Lafayette Escadrille and becomes a celebrated First World War pilot, just as Wellman himself did.
Ann Harding and Richard Dix star 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! I like Dix in this (for me he is more convincing as a young banker than as a swashbuckling Australian outlaw in Wellman’s Stingaree) but find Harding a bit insipid compared to other heroines in Wellman pre-Codes, such as Barbara Stanwyck or Ruth Chatterton.
Most of the early William A Wellman movies I’ve written about here are little-known – and the same goes for a lot of the James Cagney movies I’ve written about up to now. I often find it’s easier to find things to say about films which haven’t already been discussed endlessly. By contrast, The Public Enemy is one of the most celebrated of 1930s films – Wellman’s gangster masterpiece, and the film which made Cagney a star. It’s also the film which got me interested in both its star and director. Since I first saw this movie, I’ve watched it repeatedly and also gone on to see almost all of Cagney’s other movies, plus as many of Wellman’s silent and pre-Code films as I can get my hands on.
I hoped that after doing all this I would have something new to say about this film, yet I am still daunted, and can really only come up with some rambling comments rather than a full review. Anyway, I agree with everybody else that it is a masterpiece, and a film where you can find something new every time you watch it. In case anybody reading this hasn’t seen the movie, I will be talking about the whole film, including the famous ending.
It seems to me as if 1931 was a great year for William Wellman. He made five films that year, four of which I have now seen and loved – including his masterpiece The Public Enemy. (I hope to write about that one in due course, but am slightly daunted by its fame and the amount which has been written, so thought I’d watch and write about a lot of his other 1930s movies first to see if they give me any different perspective on the film.)
The others I’ve seen from that year are Other Men’s Women, Night Nurse and now the melodrama Safe In Hell, starring Dorothy Mackaill and Donald Cook, which is one of the best yet. It’s a pity Warner didn’t find room for it in their Forbidden Hollywood 3 set, but I suppose the fact that it doesn’t have a big-name star worked against it. Perhaps it will turn up in their Archive series. At present it is only available via the “grey market” and by downloading, though I gather it is sometimes shown on TCM in the US.
For a director with a macho reputation, William Wellman made a lot of movies featuring strong female characters. Admittedly, it wasn’t always his choice to make these films – for instance, I have read that Wings was originally supposed to be an all, or mainly, male film before the studio told him to cast Clara Bow, who ended up getting top billing. According to the TCM account of the making of Frisco Jenny, Warner producer Darryl Zanuck ordered Wellman to make this movie and also cast Ruth Chatterton in the lead – originally Wellman was none too thrilled at this and the director and star weren’t even on speaking terms.
However, just as Wellman worked so well with Bow in Wings, the same thing happened with Chatterton, and in the end they got on very well and went on to work together again. Frisco Jenny is one of the six early Wellman films included in the great Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three box set, and I found it very enjoyable to watch – at times rather like a female version of the male gangster films of the era, as Jenny wears a succession of flamboyant outfits and rises to the top of the Barbary Coast underworld.
If you ask around among James Cagney fans about which of his movies they’d most like to see get a DVD release, this pre-code film will be near the top of the list. It was a huge box office success at the time, and is memorable in his career for several reasons.
It’s the film where Cagney has his first extended dance scene (there is a brief dance scene in the earlier Other Men’s Women, but you see more of his footwork here) – and the film with his first, and longest , scene speaking Yiddish. Most famously, it’s also the movie where he (almost) says “You dirty rat” – though the actual wording is “Come out and take it, you dirty yellow-bellied rat.”
The movie also features another major star, Loretta Young, who is at her luminous pre-code best here. It’s full of the trademark Warner grittiness, and packs a breathtaking amount of comedy, quickfire dialogue, action and melodrama into just under 70 minutes. Yet this movie has never been released on VHS, let alone DVD – and in the UK it is never even shown on TCM. Surely Warner Brothers should come up with a lovely remastered print soon in one of their box sets!