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.
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.
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.