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.
Where previous Howard Hawks films about the First World War focused on pilots, this one goes into the trenches. Warner Baxter, Fredric March and Lionel Barrymore star as beleaguered French soldiers struggling to cope with the ceaseless death and destruction all around them on the Western Front. A contemporary review in the New York Times criticised The Road to Glory for its mix of grimness and romanticism, and failure to draw any conclusions about the “ultimate value of [the soldiers’] sacrifice”. Yet, to a modern audience, the bleakness is the thing which resonates – the feeling of individuals caught up in events which they can’t control and don’t understand. While it isn’t as well-known as some Hawks movies, this film is now available on DVD in both region 1 and UK/region 2.
The drama centres on two melodramatic tales of human relationships, a love triangle between two soldiers and a nurse, and a father and son coming together on the frontline. However, the most powerful and memorable elements of the film, beyond these stories, are the portrayals of the war itself. There is some very stark photography of the men advancing through a ruined landscape full of darkness and shadows. Much of this footage was taken from a great French film, Raymond Bernard’s Les Croix de Bois, after Twentieth Century Fox bought up the rights. But this movie has its own story.
Just editing this posting to say that the Summer Under the Stars blogathon is currently running all through August, and today (August 23) is Gene Kelly’s special day. Please visit to read lots of great postings on his films.
Judy Garland and Gene Kelly starred together in three movies. The best-known is undoubtedly The Pirate, a lavish Technicolor production which I’ll admit leaves me cold. For Me and My Gal, made by Arthur Freed’s famous production unit at MGM, is in black and white and on a much smaller scale altogether, despite having Berkeley as director. Its tightly-constructed musical numbers bear little resemblance to those in his breathtaking pre-Code extravaganzas. The film as a whole is a strange mixture between musical comedy, melodrama and wartime flag-waver, with an intriguing flawed hero. It is set during the First World War, but clearly the scriptwriters were thinking of the Second, and there are scenes urging characters to buy war bonds, echoed in the final frame with an appeal to moviegoers. The fashions also look contemporary for the 1940s. I saw the film on TCM in the UK (it is also due for a showing on the US TCM at 6am (ET) on August 23, 2012), but it is available on DVD in both regions 1 and 2.
Even if it doesn’t always completely hang together and is occasionally corny, I found the film riveting to watch and enjoyed the chemistry between Garland and Kelly, as well as the array of great songs – highlights include the title song and the song-and-dance dance number Ballin’ the Jack – many of which date from the First World War or earlier. It’s just a pity that, in a film with Berkeley as director and starring Kelly, there is relatively little dancing overall – co-star George Murphy, in particular, gets very few scenes where he is able to show his tap-dancing prowess. According to TCM’s article on the movie, 40-year-old Murphy was originally intended as the male lead, but the part was instead given to Kelly, who was 10 years younger and making his movie debut fresh from his success in Pal Joey on Broadway. A disappointed Murphy was demoted to a support role. Another change was that originally the film was supposed to have two leading ladies, a singer and a dancer – but both these roles were combined to give Garland, who was only 19, her first fully grown-up role, with her name as the only one above the title. Looking at the posters for the film, Garland’s name and image dominate and it was clearly seen as her movie all the way. However, Kelly certainly shows his power and charm as both dancer and actor, in a role which made him a film star – while Murphy is also impressive in the few scenes he does get.
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.
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!
William Wellman and Dorothy Coonan on the set of 'Wild Boys of the Road '
It’s been a while since I did any full reviews of William A Wellman movies here, but I have been watching more of his work in the meantime and have updated my Wellman page with brief details of all the films of his I’ve seen so far (40-plus.) I do also have a couple more of his films which I haven’t got round to watching yet, and there are a few more available which I haven’t bought yet, so I will carry on updating, and hopefully review some more of them too.
Anyway, I’m delighted to say that my page is already getting out of date, because Warner Archive has just announced that it is releasing three more of his titles on DVD. I’m especially excited at the release of his great pre-Code Safe In Hell (1931), starring Dorothy Mackaill in a brilliant performance as an ex-prostitute who runs away to a Caribbean island after killing an ex-boyfriend.
The other two are later titles, which I haven’t seen as yet. One is My Man and I (1953), starring Shelley Winters as an alcoholic bar girl befriended by Mexican farmhand Ricardo Montalban. The other is Wellman’s very last film, Lafayette Escadrille (1958), starring Tab Hunter and David Janssen, and with a small part for Clint Eastwood. This returns to the theme of the director’s first big success, Wings, by focusing on First World War flyers. I have seen an interview with Wellman where he talks about this film and about how upset he was by the studio changing his ending and also imposing a title – he had already had a lot of interference with many other films, but you get the impression this one broke his heart. (He himself didn’t fly with the Lafayette Escadrille, as usually stated, but with the Lafayette Flying Corps.) Anyway, this film is already available on a French DVD from Warner, but this is said to be a remastered edition, so I’m not sure which would be the better buy. The French DVD is probably a pressed one rather than a DVR, but maybe this is a better print?
It’s also good to hear that classic screwball comedy Nothing Sacred (1937), starring Carole Lombard and Fredric March, is being released by Kino on both DVD and Blu-ray on December 20 in a new “authorised edition from the estate of David O Selznick and the collection of George Eastman House). Should be much better than all the faded public domain copies on the market!
After seeing Borzage’s Depression drama Man’s Castle, I was keen to see more of his pre-Code work – and, having now seen A Farewell to Arms twice, must say I think it is a masterpiece. I’ll admit that I don’t remember Hemingway’s novel very well and am not sure how much resemblance the film bears to the book (not much, according to Hemingway himself, who was unimpressed). But, if you don’t worry about comparisons with the printed page, the film itself is powerful – with great performances from both Gary Cooper and top-billed Helen Hayes, Oscar-winning cinematography by Charles Lang, and a blend of wild romance and dark, unsentimental depictions of war and suffering.
When seeking out this film, it pays to be careful which version you watch. There are a lot of public domain DVDs around containing a censored version from a later cinema release, cutting out 10 minutes of footage, including two sexual encounters which are vital to the plot. I ended up watching the film in this mutilated form to start with, and was confused by how much it jumped around in the early scenes – and also by the fact that some conversations made no sense. However, when I looked up some information about the movie, all became clear. I realised that it was in fact 89 minutes long, and what I had seen was a 79-minute version cut to remove the pre-Code content.
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.
It is amazing to me to realise that this haunting and dazzling silent epic was so nearly lost forever, despite being winner of the first Oscar for best film. It had been thought that no copies of William Wellman’s early masterpiece still existed, until a print was discovered in the Cinémathèque Française archive in Paris and quickly restored. Watching it and seeing how powerful the imagery and acting are, with great performances by Clara Bow, Richard Arlen and Charles “Buddy” Rogers, plus a memorable cameo by Gary Cooper, it makes me wonder how many other great movies have indeed been lost to us.
Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Clara Bow and Richard Arlen
Although this film does survive against all the odds, and has been shown in a few cinemas with an organ accompaniment, it hasn’t as yet been released on DVD, except as a video transfer on the “grey market” and on a Chinese DVD, which I believe has subtitles that can’t be removed. After watching it twice in a good unofficial copy, I’d love to see it fully restored. According to the article on it at Wikipedia, which includes a good clear plot summary, the original release was colour-tinted and had some scenes in an early widescreen format, as well as some prints having synchronised sound effects. A special edition DVD could try to re-create all this, and have a commentary from a film historian – I’d rush out to buy it! However, even a DVD without all those bells and whistles would be very welcome.
I’ve watched quite a few 1930s and 40s films giving down-to-earth portraits of men’s working lives, including a number about the armed services – but haven’t come across all that many older movies about women at work, or at war.
However, thanks to the UK TV station Film 4, now I’ve seen this British wartime propaganda film about the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service), directed and narrated by Leslie Howard, which was quite an eye-opener to me. It isn’t a masterpiece, but I think it has worn pretty well, despite the patronising title and an occasionally heavy-handed commentary from Howard, for instance, quoting lines from poems about women’s traditional role as they are seen carrying out military tasks. He is only briefly glimpsed from the rear – in what sadly turned out to be his last film appearance before his own death in the war.
After Howard opens the film by picking out seven women in a crowd at a railway station to be his heroines, the rest of the movie gives what looks to be a realistic portrayal of life for these characters, all from different backgrounds. I was impressed that there is no attempt to make any of them look particularly glamorous, and the real hard work is not glossed over. The meals and dormitories seem very realistic.