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.