Drawing 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.
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 .