Thunder Birds (William A. Wellman, 1942)

This is my contribution to the William A. Wellman Blogathon, hosted by the Now Voyaging blog.  Please do visit and read the other postings.

Thunder Birds 4Drawing on his own memories of his days as a pilot, William A. Wellman made aviation films right through his career, from silent masterpiece Wings right through to his deeply personal final film, Lafayette Escadrille.  The Second World War film Thunder Birds: Soldiers of the Air is one of his lesser-known movies on this theme. This is really a slice of propaganda, looking at the training of young pilots and the close working together of the US and British forces.  However, aside from a long voice-over intro and another voice-over at the end, where the Chinese pilots training at the field are also spotlighted, most of the movie is focused on a buddy story which turns into a love triangle, bringing back memories of Wings.

This film is admittedly far from being one of Wellman’s greatest – but, in purely visual terms, it might just be the most gorgeous spectacle that he ever made. The Technicolor is truly glorious, showing off the locations around Thunderbird Field in Glendale, Arizona, where Allied pilots gained their wings before going to war. Cinematographer Ernest Palmer’s colour footage of aircraft spiralling through a vivid blue sky in a series of daring stunt flights is the film’s most striking element, while  the sweeping shots of desert scenery would grace any Western. Costume designer Dolly Tree also clearly decided to make the most of the opportunities presented by Technicolor. Leading lady Gene Tierney – who gets top billing despite fairly limited screen time – wears a succession of  dazzlingly colourful outfits.

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William A. Wellman films I’ve reviewed so far…

William A. Wellman

William A. Wellman

How exciting that the William A. Wellman blogathon starts today! I’ll be contributing a posting about one of his lesser-known films, the Second World War propaganda drama Thunder Birds – the reason I’ve chosen that one is that I’ve been trying to review his films in vaguely chronological order and that is the one I’ve got up to (though there are still a few earlier rarities I haven’t caught up with as yet).  My main love is his pre-Code work but I do want to get back into writing about his later films too.

Here’s a list of all those I’ve reviewed here so far in this intermittent project, with links:

I also reviewed a later film, his great Western Track of the Cat (1954) for the Western countdown at the Wonders in the Dark website, and I recently contributed a piece about Wild Boys of the Road to the childhood films countdown there (not the same as my piece on this blog).

If anyone wants more, my Wellman page (which I haven’t kept up very well, sorry) also has mini-reviews of  The Great Man’s Lady (1942), Lady of Burlesque (1943), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Buffalo Bill (1944), The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), Magic Town (1947), Yellow Sky (1948), Battleground (1949), The Happy Years (1950), Across the Wide Missouri (1951), Westward the Women (1951), Island in the Sky (1953), The High and the Mighty (1954), Blood Alley (1955) and Darby’s Rangers (1958). 

Not that I’m obsessed, or anything…

Anyway, I hope to have my posting for the blogathon up soon, and am looking forward to reading everyone’s postings!

A Couple of Items About William A Wellman

Aside

Just to say that I’ve written a new review of William A Wellman’s great pre-Code drama Wild Boys of the Road for Wonders in the Dark, as part of the site’s Greatest Childhood/Adolescent Films Countdown. It’s a film I’ve already written about here in the past, but it was fun to watch and write about it again and there was lots more to say!

Still on the subject of Wellman, who is one of my favourite directors, I was excited to hear that a blogathon is being organised about his work, from September 10 to 13. Now Voyaging is hosting The William Wellman Blogathon, and has had the honour of receiving a comment from Wellman’s son and biographer, William Wellman Jr.  I will be taking part and contributing a piece about his Second World War aviation drama Thunder Birds.

Men with Wings (William A Wellman, 1938)

I’m going to take a break from posting about Wellman after this one and turn to other directors for a while… but first just wanted to say something about his movie focusing on aviation pioneers, Men with Wings, which stars Fred MacMurray, Ray Milland and Louise Campbell.  Sadly this is another one of his that hardly anybody gets the chance to see, though it is hard to know quite why it has fallen into such obscurity. Made the year after A Star Is Born and Nothing Sacred, it was another lavish early Technicolor production – but, where both of those famous films are available on a host of public domain DVDs and now also in properly restored prints on Blu-ray and DVD, Men with Wings has almost disappeared. I know it was recently shown during the Wellman festival at the Film Forum in New York, but  I believe it is rarely if ever shown on TV, and it is only available to buy on bootleg DVDs, possibly of varying quality – the one I bought is fairly ropey, with badly washed out colour and a lot of noise on the soundtrack, but someone has posted the first 20 minutes or so on Youtube in a much more watchable print, where you can get a sense of what the colour should be like. Maybe the problem with its availability is that it was made by Paramount rather than Selznick’s company.

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Roxie Hart (William A Wellman, 1942)

This will just be a fairly quick posting, as I don’t seem to have much time at the moment, but want to keep my blog alive! One reason I have picked William A Wellman to write about so much is that I tend to find his films are enjoyable to watch time and again. This is certainly true of Roxie Hart, which was actually the second of three movie versions of the Chicago story, based on the stage play by Maurine Dallas Watkins. Fans of the smash hit musical should be interested to see this earlier version of the same story, starring Ginger Rogers as showgirl turned celebrity criminal Roxie Hart. Interestingly it already feels like a musical, with a great scene where Rogers and the press corps tap dance around the prison.

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The Light That Failed (William A Wellman, 1939)

Made the same year as Wellman’s great Beau Geste, this lesser-known drama, sadly not on DVD as yet, is another wildly noble and compelling period melodrama adapted from a novel by an imperialist author, Kipling.  There was clearly a demand for such films in 1939, in the early days of the Second World War. Once again, the story ranges between England and wars in deserts, in this case the Sudan. However, in this film much of the drama takes place within the four walls of an 1880s London flat, framed by battle sequences at the start and end.

Anybody watching in search of war scenes might be surprised by just how much of the film is made up of Ronald Colman fighting his own private battle behind closed doors. Colman stars as Dick Heldar, an artist tormented by unrequited love for a fellow-painter, and struggling to hold on to his failing sight long enough to complete his masterpiece, a portrait of poor Cockney girl Bessie Broke (Ida Lupino).  I don’t think the film stands up as well as Beau Geste, but it does have powerful performances by both Colman and Ida Lupino, as well as atmospheric, shadowy black-and-white cinematography by Theodor Sparkuhl, with the pictures flickering in and out of focus as Heldar’s sight fades.

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‘A Star Is Born’ (1937) comes to Blu-ray

Even more good news on Wellman DVD/Blu-ray releases. Kino Classics recently announced it would be releasing a restored print of  Nothing Sacred (1937) this month, and it is now doing the same for another great  Wellman film from the same year, A Star Is Born, starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, which will be released in February. The artwork for this one looks great, and, as with Nothing Sacred, it is being advertised as an “authorized edition from the estate of David O Selznick from the collection of  George Eastman House”. Both these films were previously only available in a whole variety of cheap DVDs with badly faded Technicolor, so it will be great to see them restored to their full glory. There won’t be any special features apart from the trailer, though, and there seems to be no definite information on whether these are just region 1 releases or whether they will play in other regions’  DVD/Blu-ray players .

The President Vanishes (William A Wellman, 1934)

In the interests of obsessive completism, I thought I’d mention that I’ve just watched another rare 1930s William Wellman film. Sadly, however, if I’m honest, on this occasion the thrill of anticipation was greater than the pleasure of seeing the movie, The President Vanishes, which I think is by far the weakest offering I’ve seen from this director. I can’t really review it properly as I’ve only seen it once in a dire print, but will just make a few brief comments and post a few pictures.

I’d hoped for a lot from this film, which was made in late 1934, a few months after the enforcement of the Hays code, and released at the start of 1935. It has a good cast, headed by Edward Arnold, with a small part for a very young Rosalind Russell. It also has a plot which sounds intriguing on the face of it, adapted from a novel by Rex Stout. It’s about industrialists and businessmen trying to get America involved in a European war in order to boost the economy and the arms trade. The businessmen bankroll a shady Fascist organisation, known as the Grey Shirts, in order to stoke up public opinion, but, when the peace-loving President (Arthur Byron) is apparently abducted, the pro-war bandwagon is abruptly derailed. You don’t exactly have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out very early on in the 80-minute movie that the President engineered his own abduction.

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Love is a Racket (William A Wellman, 1932)

Frances Dee and Douglas Fairbanks Jr

Countless movies from the 1930s feature fast-talking, fast-living  journalists, armed with battered old typewriters, phones and bottles of whiskey. Some of these reporters are fearlessly determined to expose corruption at any cost. Others, however, are quite the opposite, and the (anti)hero of Wellman’s quirky romantic comedy-melodrama Love Is a Racket is a case in point. Gossip columnist Jimmy Russell, played by a very young and handsome Douglas Fairbanks Jr, isn’t interested in putting his neck on the line. When he hears about a juicy story involving New York mobsters fixing the price of milk, he can’t get to the phone fast enough…  to keep it out of the paper!

This is one of six movies made by Wellman in 1932, during his amazingly prolific pre-Code days. Made under contract at Warner, it has the studio’s gritty style, but is also stamped with the director’s personality, as it lurches from witty dialogue to  black humour, practical jokes and slapstick. Also, about half the film seems to take place in torrential rain, Wellman’s favourite type of weather. There’s a great cast, with Lee Tracy, the original stage star of  The Front Page, as Fairbanks’ best buddy and newspaper colleague, Frances Dee as our hero’s on-off girlfriend, and Ann Dvorak, one of my favourite 1930s actresses, in a sadly small role as his pal who wants to be something more. Even with all this going for it, this film isn’t on DVD as yet and is one of the director’s more obscure early works. But it has recently been shown on TCM in the US, so there must be  a chance it will soon get released on Warner Archive.

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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!