William A Wellman


William A. Wellman

I’ve decided to write a series of postings over the next few weeks about the neglected great director William A. Wellman. I’ve been interested in him since first seeing The Public Enemy (1931), and am puzzled as to why he is so much less-known than contemporaries like Hawks or Ford, when you look at his wide-ranging body of work, from tough dramas set during the Depression to comedies, Westerns and his great war films.

One of the things that appeals to me is the way he tends to sympathise with underdogs – I wrote a while ago about his early film Other Men’s Women (1931), which focuses on railway workers, a while back and was impressed by its gritty portrayal of working life, as well as its blend of humour and melodrama. (I hope to write about this one again and do it more justice, as I now have a better print of it and can actually hear the dialogue!)


Actually, the good news is that Wellman is starting to be a bit less neglected than he was, with the release this year of the Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three, which features six of his pre-Code movies, including Other Men’s Women – I got this box set for my birthday last month. But, sadly, it’s still the case that his silent masterpiece Wings (1927), starring Clara Bow, which won the very first Oscar for best film, isn’t available on an official DVD. A shame in a way it was made by Paramount, since I suspect if it had been a Warner film they would have included it in the set, silent or not! I’ve just finished watching this great movie and will be posting on it this week, but I would really like to see it fully restored, complete with the original colour washes.  I know it has actually been shown at one or two cinemas in the US , and I’d love to see it presented on the big screen.

To get some background information on Wellman, I’ve watched the two featurettes included in the set. The first of these is Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick, executive-produced by Wellman’s son, William Jr, who looks and sounds just like his father. This detailed account of his life and work at times borders on hagiography, but still gives a flavour of an awkward and  uncompromising personality. It’s suggested his legendary temper was partly a legacy of his experiences as a pilot in the First World War, which left him with serious injuries and a steel plate in his head – but, in any case, there are plenty of colourful anecdotes about outbursts on set, sandwiched in between the clips from his movies.  There are several contributions from Martin Scorsese, who also takes part in the special features on the DVD of The Public Enemy,  and he makes it clear what an important influence Wellman was on his work. A number of other famous names also take part.

After watching this film, I was just thinking that maybe Wellman wasn’t quite as difficult as his reputation suggests, since so many people seem to regard him with affection – but then I watched the second featurette included in the box set, Richard Schickel’s interview with him from the series The Men Who Made the Movies , and in this Wellman certainly does come across as determined, awkward, and refusing to back down over anything. To be fair, it seems as if you had to have those characteristics to make a film in the way you wanted under the studio system – and it also sounds as if much of the time Wellman was fighting for, rather than against, his cast and crew, to make sure the studio treated them properly.

I haven’t been able to find any books with much information about Wellman – David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film is dismissive, suggesting that both Wings and The Public Enemy are overrated and stating that another of his masterpieces, The Ox-Bow Incident, isn’t even worth watching. There is a biography by film historian Frank Thompson, but it is out of print and very expensive. What I’d really like to find is a book which looks at his work rather than just going on about the “Wild Bill” image. Anyway, I’m looking forward to watching some of Wellman’s movies in the next few weeks and hopefully writing about them.

16 thoughts on “William A Wellman

  1. Pingback: Monday Morning Diary (November 23) « Wonders in the Dark

  2. Nice post. I think Wellman is a superb director. Love alot of his work but am especially fond of the rough and tumble way he handled THE PUBLIC ENEMY. Made Cagney a star and didn’t hurt his career any either!


    • Thanks, Rupert. In one of the documentaries in the set there’s a nice clip from Wellman’s ‘This Is Your Life’ where Cagney thanks him for casting him as the lead in ‘The Public Enemy’ – as I’m a big Cagney fan, this was an added bonus for me.


  3. Looking forward to your reviews Judy. I have seen both documentaries on Wellman and he was a pretty wild dude. One story he told in “The Men Who Made the Movies” doc. was how a stunt man told him that an airplane stunt Wellman wanted him to do was too dangerous. Wellman ended up getting in the plane and did the stunt himself, coming out of it with just a few bruises. I think this was for ‘Wings’ but I am not sure. He made a lot of wonderful movies, especially pre-code stuff.


    • Yes, I was amused by this bit too – I believe you’re right that it was a stunt for ‘Wings’, John. Wellman says in the documentary there is “nothing to” flipping your plane over, hanging upside down and then letting yourself out – but the photo of him after performing this stunt shows his face covered in bruises, so maybe there was a bit more to it than he claimed!


  4. For what it’s worth, _The Ox-Bow Incident_ is a great film. Even with a white man in black face playing the group black man, and a limited repertoire of technology, it’s a powerful serious film. Anthony made his first reputation on it. I’ve screened it to young adults and they sit there in slight awe afterwards — well, the thoughtful ones do. I cannot deny the book is yet better because the ending of the film gives us our heroines going off into the western sunset with a false uplift not in the book, but until then the film comes up to the book. The film also sees the incident more narrowly: as about lynching which was not only done to blacks, but is in the American grain, as seen in one of Isabel Bird’s travel books about the Rocky Mountains. The book is about violence in US culture per se.

    The book is one of the great US classics. It’s been reprinted in the NYRB series. You couldn’t read a more important book even today.



    • Thanks very much, Ellen – I definitely want to see this film and will aim to read the book as well – I’m fascinated by your description of it and the reaction of your students, and by the extracts from it I have seen.


  5. Yep he was a macho guy too, who hated being an actor early in his life, as it was “unmasculine.” As a director he preferred to deal with the narcissism of the men than to wait for teh women to ready themselves. But you are right on by pointing to his versatility and influence in this excellent essay, one of your best by way of report. Judy, sometimes Thomson can be exasperating. His dismissal of THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, which is a powerful film based on a greatly-respected novel by Walter Van Tilberg Clark is blasphemy, and his calling PUBLIC ENEMY and WINGS overrrated no less ludicrous. But hey, Thomson didn’t care for Ford or Kubrick, so what chance did Wellman have? I haven’t seen all the pre-code stuff, but Wellman’s lasting fame will rest on:

    Public Enemy
    A Star is Born
    Nothing Sacred
    The Ox-Bow Incident
    Beau Geste

    Looking forward to the continuation of this fascinating figure.


    • Thanks very much, Sam. I get the impression Thomson writes beautifully when he’s writing about a film or star or director who catches his imagination – his entry about Hawks in his biographical dictionary is wonderful – but if he doesn’t like someone then he just dismisses them or damns them with faint praise. I do want to see a lot of the pre-code stuff but am also keen to watch the more famous movies.


  6. Those remarks by David Thomson are just plain ridiculous.
    Anyway, I hope you enjoy your Wellman viewings and I’d strongly recommend you seek out and watch Track of the Cat – a wonderful and unique film.


    • Thanks, Livius – I’ll look out for that one. I’m starting to realise that Wellman made a much larger number of interesting films than I had originally realised, so he could keep me busy for ages!


  7. Excellent article on Wlm Wellman, Judy. I’m just going to echo what Sam Juliano and Livius have already said. In addition to THE PUBLIC ENEMY, NOTHING SACRED and A STAR IS BORN are both terrific films, and both deserve better prints than what are widely available. Maybe Criterion will pick up those titles one day.

    THE OX-BOW INCIDENT is another great piece. Sam is right. To dismiss this film is blasphemy and just nonsense. It’s not an easy film to watch, at least not for me, because it deals with mob mentality, which is not uniquely American, but which is frighteningly wrong regardless of time or place. Innocence is rarely, if ever, able to survive mob insanity, as Wellman deftly shows in this film.

    BTW, wasn’t Andrew Sarris also rather dismissive of Wellman? Well, I don’t care what anyone says, I think Wellman was one of the greats. Not perfect, but certainly great.

    Looking forward to more great articles, Judy!


    • Thanks for the encouragement – must admit I don’t know what Sarris had to say about Wellman, but it sounds as if it could have me chewing the carpet! Wellman didn’t actually seem to do himself many favours in interviews, but if you look at the movies and ignore what he said about them, then I think they are often stunning. Glad to hear you also see him as a great.


  8. Judy,

    Nice piece on my favorite director. You may be interested to know that John Andrew Gallagher (a fine director in his own right) and I have just completed a book on Wellman that we intend as the final word on the subject. It’s almost insanely thorough. The book is currently being shopped around to publishers, so no word as to when it will actually be published. But when it is, you’ll probably need a friend to help you lift it.

    Stay tuned.
    Frank Thompson


    • Thank you very much for visiting and commenting, Frank – much appreciated. I’m actually just about to listen to your commentary on the ‘Wild Boys of the Road’ DVD. I certainly will stay tuned and look forward to reading the book you and John Gallagher have written when you get a publisher for it – insanely thorough sounds great.


  9. Pingback: William A Wellman, revisited « Movie classics

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