Missing Wellman silents – and talkies

Now that I’ve seen two great William Wellman silent films, Wings and Beggars of Life, I’d love to see the rest. Sadly, I can’t, and I won’t be able to see all his early talkies either. Some of his early movies have been lost (along with an estimated 90 per cent of all silent movies), while, perhaps more infuriating still, others do exist but aren’t available to see.

The lost film of his I’m saddest not to see is The Legion of the Condemned (1928), which starred Gary Cooper and Fay Wray and was another aviation melodrama based on a story by John Monk Saunders, also writer of Wings and The Dawn Patrol.  It was based on the fliers who signed up for the Lafayette Escadrille, a French squadron largely made up of Americans, in the First World War – a subject which had personal resonance for Wellman, as he served with the French himself, and which he was to return to in his last film. This movie apparently showed its heroes as motivated by a death wish, with various reasons for wanting to die in battle. Cooper, who had just a small part in Wings but made a strong impression, here played a daring pilot, with Wray as the spy he had to take over enemy lines. I found a review from the New York Times which is patronising and makes fun of the apparently far-fetched plot, but still to me gives a feeling that this must have been a powerful movie. It would be great if a print did turn up one day.

Fay Wray and Gary Cooper in 'Legion of the Condemned'

I’d also like to see Ladies of the Mob (1928),  which featured two more Wings stars, Clara Bow and Richard Arlen, who also starred in Beggars of Life. By the sound of it, this lost film was a romantic gangster melodrama. The brief plot summary at the imdb reads: “A dead criminal’s daughter falls in love with a small-time crook and tries to get him to reform before he winds up like her father.” With such a great cast, surely this too could have been something special. A brief review in Time magazine praised the power of Bow’s acting.

Clara Bow and Richard Arlen in 'Ladies of the Mob'

A scene from 'Young Eagles' (1930)

Several of Wellman’s more elusive early talkies have been rated by a handful of people at the imdb, so, assuming they aren’t all lying, or remembering seeing them as children in the 1920s, they must exist somewhere – but I’m not counting on getting to see them.  The one I’d most like to see is another First World War aviation movie, Young Eagles (1930), starring Charles “Buddy” Rogers, who gives such a great performance in Wings, Jean Arthur and Paul Lukas.   This isn’t actually a lost film, but it sounds as if it soon could be – a “trivia” item at the imdb says: “A nitrate print of this film survives in the UCLA Film and Television Archives, and is not listed for preservation.” Does anyone know who decides what is listed for preservation? I’m sure it must cost a lot of money to restore a film and so it can’t be done for everything, but it does seem a shame if this one is left to disintegrate, given its great director and cast. The New York Times reviewer Mordaunt Hall didn’t like this much either, but I’m starting to wonder if their reviewers at this time liked anything much.

Just to add that there is one Wellman silent which is out on DVD, the slapstick comedy The Boob (1926) – but this is only available in the Warner Archive series, which isn’t available in Europe, and so would cost me about 40 dollars, plus international postage, if I decided to buy it! From the trailer at the Warner site it looks pretty bad, and I believe Wellman himself said it was his worst film and nearly ruined his career, so  I’ll save my money for now! A funny old world when this is available on DVD and Wings isn’t.

I promise to concentrate on movies I have actually seen in future – but thought it was worth lamenting a few of those we have lost.

8 thoughts on “Missing Wellman silents – and talkies

  1. Pingback: Monday Morning Diary (December 14) « Wonders in the Dark

  2. The loss of so many silent films is sad, surely there had to be some gems among them. Unfortunately, the thought process at the time was once the films were exhibited they were no longer of any use and generally were ignored by the studios. There was no afterlife, no reportory theatersm no TV and no home video.

    I have not seen “The Boob” but you are correct that Warner’s has that available yet “Wings” is not.

    Interesting article, thanks!!!


    • Thanks, John! I suppose I can understand that so many films have been lost – I hadn’t thought about there being no afterlife, but your comments on this make a lot of sense – but what upsets me is that some which still exist are being left to deteriorate further – although I know that restoring them would take a lot of money. It’s a shame ‘Wings’ wasn’t a Warner film as I’m sure they would have issued it – Paramount films seem to be more elusive on DVD.


    • Paramount has been bad about releaseing their old catalog. It is possible Paramount does not even own the film (I don’t know). Some studios have sold parts of their catalogs over the years. There is also the possiblity, though I don’t think so in this case, that the film is owned by someone, like Chaplin owned his later works and Harold Lloyd too. John Wayne’s company in the 50’s and 50’s owned some of his films like “Island in the Sky” (directed by Wellman as you probably know) which was only released on DVD a few years ago. Ownership of films, restoration and releasing of films to DVD is a convoluted maze. In the end who suffers are film lovers like us do not have access to works like “Wings” and even worse the many works that have disappeared due to neglect.


  3. Judy, I am not sure what happened to my previous comment to this thread, which I submitted yesterday, but I’ll just say that I have ordered Warner Archives’ THE BOOB, which I hope to receive before the holidays with any luck.


    • Thanks, Sam, hope you get the movie soon! It looks very different from ‘Wings’ or ‘Beggars of Life’, but still of interest as an early Wellman movie.


  4. Thanks to John for the further thoughts on lost and unavailable silent movies – I can see from your comments that ownership of these rare titles is a complicated issue. It does seem a shame that titles like ‘Young Eagles’ are being left to rot away to nothing.


    • Replying to my own comment here to say the good news is that ‘Young Eagles’ does indeed exist in watchable form, as it was shown at the Wellman Festival at the Film Forum in New York – so maybe I will get to see that one some day if a print is shown in the UK, or if it eventually gets a DVD release.


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