Warner Baxter

As well as writing about films on this blog, I’ve been meaning to write a few postings about the actors and actresses I  especially like. While some of the top stars of the 1930s, like Gary Cooper and Cary Grant, are still (and deservedly so) household names, others, who were equally popular at the time, have been all but forgotten. One of these is Warner Baxter (1889-1951). He starred in almost 100 films, both silent and talkies, and was said to be possibly the highest-paid actor in Hollywood in his peak year,1936. He was also the very first male star to win the Oscar for best actor, in 1929. But today many film fans have never heard of him at all – and those who have probably only know him for a handful of his films, mainly for 42nd Street and his role as Doctor Samuel Mudd in John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island.

So what is it that I like about him? In all honesty, it is partly his looks – but I’m also attracted by his screen personality, in the handful of films of his that I’ve managed to see so far, anyway, and by the demanding roles he took on. Below is a link to a tribute to him on Youtube, which gives a feeling of the range of roles he played, many in films which have now disappeared. He was the original screen Gatsby in a silent film made only a year after the novel was published, but that film is now lost, along with many of his other silents and early talkies.

Here is a brief run-down of the films of Baxter’s that I’ve seen so far, which are only a few. I’d be interested to hear recommendations of others to look for. I know the Crime Doctor films which he made in later life, after suffering a nervous breakdown and other health problems, are said to be worth seeing, but I haven’t had an opportunity to do so as yet. I have found an article which appeared under Baxter’s byline in a German movie magazine which is interesting and I will hope to translate it back into English as a follow-up to this posting – sadly I haven’t managed to find the English original of this piece!

The first film I saw Baxter in was 42nd Street (1933), and I was immediately impressed by his portrayal of driven, tortured producer Julian Marsh, who is suffering from some unspecified illness (it seems to be to do with his nerves), and slumps down outside the theatre at the end after his musical production has triumphed. The film is of course best-known for its astonishing Busby Berkeley production numbers, and for performances by musical stars like Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell and Ginger Rogers. Nevertheless, Baxter gets top billing and he also speaks the most memorable line: “You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” In some ways this seems to be a typical role for him in his talkies – lonely, on the edge, tired, and still so  handsome, but with the feeling that those looks could be about to fade any minute.

The other films of his I’ve seen to date are:

Broadway Bill (1934, Frank Capra): For many years this comedy-drama was thought to be a lost film until rediscovered in the 1990s. Baxter plays the son-in-law of a domineering businessman, who breaks away from his life in the family paper business and stakes everything on training a racehorse, supported by his sister-in-law, Myrna Loy. This was actually made in the very early days of the Hays Code, but still feels like a pre-Code, as the in-laws inevitably fall in love while training the horse. Baxter is on the edge at the start of the film, but gradually mellows and is able to have more fun in this than in 42nd Street.

The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936, John Ford): This may be Baxter’s best-known role. He plays a doctor who innocently treats Lincoln’s injured assassin, and is therefore regarded as an accomplice and sent off to a nightmare island prison ridden with Yellow Fever. The film is said to be highly historically inaccurate, but it makes gripping viewing and Baxter gives one of his most powerful performances as the exhausted, despairing and yet dedicated doctor. R.D. Finch has just written a full review of this film at his blog.

The Robin Hood of El Dorado (1936, William A Wellman): Baxter plays a character 20 years younger than he really was in the early sections of this politically conscious Western, and he is also saddled with a cod Spanish accent as he plays a Mexican bandit. (He also played a Mexican bandit in the film he won his Oscar for, In Old Arizona (1928), which I haven’t seen as yet, and reprised that role, as The Cisco Kid, in some follow-up movies.) This little-known film shows the way forward to later Wellman films like The Ox Bow Incident in its powerful indictment of lynch law and prejudice. I’ve previously written a long review of this film on my blog.

The Road to Glory (1936, Howard Hawks): This is a little-known Hawks film, and not on DVD, but I really like it and have been meaning to write a full review of this one, though I will need to watch it again first. It has a lot in common with Hawks’ earlier The Dawn Patrol, focusing on a group of soldiers, here a French regiment in the First World War, with the mood becoming increasingly sombre as replacements turn up and are killed in turn. Baxter plays the stressed-out captain, who is caught up in a love triangle with Fredric March and the woman they both fall for. However, the most touching relationship is between Baxter and his father, played by Lionel Barrymore, who lies about his age and turns up at the front to serve under his son.

Wellman’s ‘Wings’ on DVD – and Blu-ray!

Clara Bow in 'Wings'

Wow! I’ve just written a posting about all the Wellman goodies coming out on DVD – and now comes the news from the wonderful Classicflix blog that his silent masterpiece Wings (1927) (winner of the first Oscar for best film) is coming out on DVD and Blu-ray from Paramount in January. They have now updated their site to say that it will have one bonus feature on the standard release and three on the Blu-ray, one of which is about the restoration of the film.

The artwork looks great although sadly it doesn’t include Wellman’s name.  Anyway, I’m very excited about this. I don’t know whether or not the release will be for all regions, but it sounds great.  Let’s hope there is even more to follow!

The Sea Beast (Millard Webb, 1926)

Since reading Moby Dick a few years ago, I’ve been  interested in seeing different film and stage versions of it. I was especially intrigued to see John Barrymore playing Ahab, as sadly only one of his full Shakespearean roles survives on film (Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet). It is often said that Ahab is very near to Shakespeare’s tragic heroes in his monomania. Barrymore actually played the role in both the first two adaptations, this silent epic and a talkie made in 1930, directed by Lloyd Bacon, which I haven’t seen as yet. (I’m hoping this may turn up on Warner Archive before too long – I believe it is occasionally shown on TCM in the US, so there should be a reasonable print around).

I saw The Sea Beast online, at YT, in a very poor quality print, so I can’t really review it properly but just wanted to say something about it while it is fresh in my mind. There was a DVD release in region 1 by Televista, now deleted, but I gather from comments at the imdb that the quality of the DVD is also dire, very pale and washed-out. The film could really do with being restored and released in a double set with the talkie version.

Continue reading

Wellman’s last silent/first talkie: Chinatown Nights (1929)

Florence Vidor in 'Chinatown Nights'

No time tonight to write a long posting, but I just wanted to say that I’ve seen yet another Wellman pre-Code. This one, Chinatown Nights, a romantic gangster melodrama starring Wallace Beery, Florence Vidor and Warner Oland,  isn’t a great film – though I saw it on an extremely grainy unofficial DVD, and I’m sure it would look much better in a restored print on the big screen. I know it has been shown at one or two festivals so presumably there must be a better print available. The cinematography, by Henry Gerrard, who also worked on Wellman’s classic Beggars of Life, was clearly stunning, with haunting scenes full of dramatic shadows – even though a lot of this has been lost in the print I saw.

Continue reading

Rare Wellman silent film being screened at festival

Although I’ve been posting on a few different topics recently, I’m still very interested in William A Wellman’s silents and pre-Codes. So I was excited to read that one of his rare silent films is being screened at a festival, even though it is on the wrong side of the Atlantic for me!  His film You Never Know Women, made in 1926, is being shown at Capitolfest at the Capitol Theatre in Rome, New York,  at 4.50pm on August 15. This is a movie which was thought to be lost for many years until a print was found in the Library of Congress in 2001, and I believe it has been screened at a few festivals since then. Comments on the imdb from a handful of people who have seen it are very enthusiastic.

Here are the details from the Capitolfest website:

You Never Know Women (Universal, 1926) Florence Vidor, Clive Brook, Lowell Sherman, El Brendel, and Roy Stewart; directed by William Wellman. (70 min.) SILENT
Florence Vidor and Clive Brook are two members of a Russian troupe of acrobats on tour in the U.S. whose love for one another is threatened by manipulative playboy Lowell Sherman. Along the way there is a spectacular theater fire and the comic antics of El Brendel (and his goose). Reportedly Paramount was so pleased with director William Wellman’s work that rewarded him with a $25-per-week raise and the big-budgeted Wings (1927). “In addition to being one of the nicest program pictures in many weeks, it is flawlessly acted, brilliantly directed and filled with novel situations.” -Sisk, Variety

Florence Vidor and Clive Brook

This description sounds intriguing – I’m very interested to see that there’s a circus theme here, as this crops up in Wellman’s pre-Code Lilly Turner and so  many of his early films are full of wanderers. If anybody visiting my blog gets a chance to see this film, either at this festival or another, please let me know what you thought of it! I suppose there is even a chance it may show up at the BFI in London in the future.

William A Wellman, revisited

Just a brief round-up as I take a break from obsessing over William A Wellman’s early work to catch up with writing about some other movies. I thought I’d recap on the films I’ve written about so far, and share news of a forthcoming  Wellman biography. Many thanks to all those who have read along and commented – much appreciated.

Film historian Frank Thompson, who did the commentary on the DVD of Wild Boys of the Road, kindly left a message on my first posting about Wellman, where he said: “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.”

I’m definitely looking forward to more news on this and will post on my blog when I know more! Continue reading

The 13th British Silent Film Festival

Just to say that the website for the 13th British Silent Film Festival is now up  – it will run from April 15 to 18 in Leicester, and goodies in store include the chance to see William Wellman’s silent masterpiece Beggars of Life on the big screen, as well as Tol’able David, The Bridal Party in Hardanger and more great films, all accompanied by live music. The main theme of the festival is “Exploration, Science and Nature in British Silent Film”. I’m particularly intrigued to see that there will be a focus on the race for the South Pole between Scott and Amundsen and a chance to see Ernest Shackleton’s South – I’ve just been writing about two great mini-series focusing on these explorers at my other blog, Costume Drama Reviews, so all this would be of great interest to me. Sadly I can’t see myself being able to make it to Leicester, as I will be at work and it is a long way off, but I’m hoping some of the featured films may turn up at the BFI in London in future, as that is less of a trek for me.

The Boob (1926)

The main thing I have to say about this silent movie directed by William A Wellman is that, while it’s no great classic, it isn’t nearly as bad as Wellman himself made out. It’s also very interesting to watch for fans of his great silent movie Wings, as, even though this is a slapstick comedy, several elements of this film show the way forward to his First World War masterpiece, made the  following year. The Boob has been released on DVD as part of the Warner Archive series (although it was made by MGM) and I’ve been lucky enough to see it, thanks to a kind friend.

Continue reading

Children of Divorce (1927)

Since I’ve just been starting to get into silent movies, I was pleased to have the chance to see this little-known silent melodrama at the BFI in London, where it was screened as part of their Josef von Sternberg season. I was especially attracted by this film because it stars Clara Bow and Gary Cooper, who also both feature in Wellman’s Wings, made the same year, about which I’ve been busy obsessing lately.

Clara Bow and Gary Cooper

However, this is a very different type of film, a woman’s emotion picture with a soapy flavour, centred on two friends, played by Bow and Esther Ralston, and their love lives – at times I was reminded of later films like The Old Maid or Old Acquaintance starring Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. The friendship between Kitty and Jean is central throughout and just as important as their relationships with the men in their lives. As the title suggests, the film is full of lurid warnings about the dangers of divorce and the terrible effects on the next generation – though, bizarrely, as the story centres on a desperately unhappy marriage, I’d have thought it actually works as an argument for divorce rather than against it.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading