This is my entry to the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon hosted by Kellee, Aurora and Paula from Paula's Cinema Club. To check out the other posts from the blogathon as well as other great cinema related content click here.Classic film fans – like flavours of ice-cream – are not all the same. They have different main tastes, like sweet or citrus. Prefer diverse additions, as conflicting as chocolate topping and nuts and some even have movie length preferences akin to the cone versus cup ice cream debate. Still comparing sweet treats and the film industry, if director William Wellman aka Wild Bill’s career was condensed into an ice-cream flavour it would be lemon gelato mixed with dark chocolate covered in sprinkles and dried apricots. Wild Bill, as his son William Wellman Jr later dubbed him, made films in pretty much every conceivable mainstream genre and all – except arguably his brief turn into musicals – proficiently. Looking for a great drama – think ‘Public Enemy’ (1931) or ‘A Star is Born’ (1937). An entertaining and fast-paced war film – ‘Wings’ (1927). A screwball comedy with the great Carole Lombard herself – ‘Nothing Sacred’ (1937). A western for a Sunday afternoon – ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ (1943). And even if you has a craving for a weird musical/ mystery film starring a barely clothed Barbara Stanwyck, Wellman offers ‘Lady of Burlesque’ aka ‘The G-String Murders’ (1943).
Wellman said in a 1978 interview:
“I've only had one real desire in this business: to make every kind of picture that was ever made. And I did. I made musicals, I made kid pictures, I made romantic comedies, the whole list. I'm very proud of that. Now, how many directors have done that?”
I first noticed Wellman in the old fashioned credits of some of my all time favourite Precode films, like ‘Midnight Mary’ (1933), ‘Safe in Hell’ (1931) and ‘Night Nurse’ (1931). To me he seems a genius at creating fast-paced, hard-hitting Depression-era ‘social issue’ pictures. His ability at shooting action scenes and clear love and experience with planes came to my attention in ‘Wings’ (1927) which, despite its lack of sound, I simply loved. I wasn’t surprised to read, therefore, that ‘Wings’ (1927) received the Academy Award for Best Picture in the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929.
Wellman seemed to make pictures for almost every taste and mood and exceptional pictures at that. But, looking into Wellman’s overall connection with the Oscars I was disgusted to read that Wellman never won an Academy Award for his directing achievements. He received a Best Writing Oscar for the original story for Star is Born and was otherwise nominated for Best Director for ‘The High and the Mighty’ (1954), ‘Battleground’ (1949) and ‘A Star is Born’ (1937) but lost.
Looking at his films, I couldn’t understand it. Wellman must have had a strange apathy for the system and the Academy that was then reciprocated. If you look at some of Wellman’s comments it is clear he hated the ego that went with the Hollywood system.
“I have never gotten along with actors. Oh, Joel McCrea was all right. And, like I said, Bob Taylor I was very fond of. But, you see, actors are different. Women look in a mirror all their lives to make themselves pretty and attractive and that's one of the reasons you fall in love with them. But a man looking in a mirror all the time, saying lines to himself, looking at his face to see which is the best photographic angle . . . Well, one of two things happens. Either he learns to love the son of a bitch that he's always looking at or he learns to hate him. All the actors I've known learn to love him.
“Did I like working with Wayne? Even though he's the greatest star this business has ever had, hell, no!... The problem is, he's a very set guy. Stubborn as hell. And he doesn't get along with directors, except for two. He gets along with Ford and he gets along with me. The only time we had trouble, I called him on it.”
“I am the director, not Mr. Wayne or Mr. Cagney or Mr. Colman. And they knew it. Women always used to hate working with me, because I wouldn't let them use make-up.”
“A lot of people will say, "How frightful to talk that way about the 'Art' of motion pictures." Well, whatever you want to call it, I had my own way of making a motion picture. I worked very fast; and no one ever over-acted in one of my pictures. That I couldn't stand. I had my own idea of making a picture and I made it my own way. And I got damn well paid. Certainly I wanted the money. I wanted to get to the point where I'd never have to work again if I didn't want to. When I got to that point, it wasn't as nice as I thought it would be. Now, I don't go to see many pictures because I don't want to get the fever again.”
Wellman could never be classified as egotistical, was definitely modest about his talents and generally didn’t take any crap from anyone. In Hollywood terms he probably wasn’t great at playing the game. Perhaps that is why his contemporaries at the academy did not give him the amount of critical acclaim that I believe he deserved.
Instead of focusing on his career as a whole, I have decided to highlight Wellman’s best Precode features none of which – other than Wings (1927) – received honours at the Academy Awards. Here’s my Wellman Precode top 5:
5) Safe in Hell (1931)
This film is one of the best of the Precode era. It shows off a complete disregard for the code in almost every element of production especially its choice of trailblazer Dorothy Mackaill as leading lady. Mackaill plays Gilda Karlson, a New Orleans prostitute who is never ashamed nor conscientious about her employment. She seems utterly relaxed about her life of sex, alcohol and cigarettes until she is again confronted by Piet Van Saal (Ralf Harolde) her ex-lover and man responsible for turning her into a street walker. During the fight she attempts to shoot him but fails. Van Saal escapes and everyone assumes he was murdered with Gilda the clear perpetrator. About to flee herself, her old sailor boyfriend, Carl Erickson (Donald Cook) returns and smuggles her to safety to the Caribbean island of Tortuga in order to avoid extradition. After an unofficial wedding ceremony, Erickson leaves Gilda to return to his ship. She finds herself stuck in a hotel filled with criminals and degenerates. Desperately fighting to stay faithful to Erickson, she fends of countless men trying to seduce her. But poor Gilda seems to attract trouble and she falls into a trap of blackmail, lust and sweet wine.
4) Wild Boys of the Road (1933):
‘Wild Boys of the Road’ is probably the grittiest and most confronting of all Wellman’s Precode social dramas. It examines the lives of seven young teens who without reliable families or social security to support them are forced to become hobos and live on the street. The main teens, Tommy Gordon (Edwin Phillips) and Eddie Smith (Frankie Darro) leave home with the aim of finding jobs to support their unemployed fathers and families. They hop aboard a freight train and meet other struggling teenagers along the way. They become attached to Sally (Dorothy Coonan) who is journeying to Chicago hoping that her aunt will give her a place to live. The three teens experience the harrowing facts of depression era America from police antipathy and brutality to rape, hunger, death and, for Tommy, the loss of a limb. Surprising the film manages to end on a high note with society rewarding the teens spirit, tenuousness and integrity.
3) Midnight Mary (1933)
This films is Wellman and Loretta Young at their best and, like several Warner Bros dramas, highlights the effects of poverty and lack of opportunity on the futures of young people. On trial for murder, Mary Martin (Young) relives her childhood and life leading up to the crime. Through flashback the audiences experiences her beginning as a child rummaging through garbage at the dump, her short term in juvenile detention after unjustly being convicted of stealing a pocketbook and her involvement with gangsters. With no job or family to turn to, she becomes the girlfriend of gang ring-leader Leo and lives in luxury from the proceeds of their crimes. Fashion enthusiasts will drool over her beautiful, Art Deco Adrian creations she adorns as Leo’s kept woman. Mary soon realises her lifestyle is reliant on her remaining on Leo’s very short leash and becomes dissatisfied with her choices. During a heist she meets rich, playboy Tom (Franchot Tone) who falls in love with her and acts to drag her from her life of crime and Leo’s manipulation. Her relationship with Tom, brings Mary’s innate goodness to the surface and she has to make the choice between redemption and escape.
2) Wings (1927)
This movie is definitely worthy of the word, epic, and I would consider it in the same league as North and South or Gone with the Wind. It has romance, long fight scenes, mateship, and a significant historical event to cloud the lives of the character, just not sound. In 1917, Jack Powell (Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers) is a normal young man with dreams of becoming a pilot, his best friend is his neighbour the playful, boyish and reliable Mary (Clara Bow). Poor Mary is secretly in love with Jack but he is smitten by the belle of the region the delicate and beautiful Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston) who is, unfortunately, in a ‘sort-of’ relationship with David Armstrong (Richard Arlene). Soon, the war is upon the happy community and both David and Jack enlist in the aviation corp. They begin as enemies – both rivals for the love of Sylvia – but later bond over the training and develop mutual respect for each other. They are rapidly graduated flyers and begin patrolling the area. Later, Jack and David are back at the front. Strangely, David has a premonition of his own death and warns Jack to organise his belongings. During an air battle, David steals an enemy plane and takes flight. Jack is heading back to the base when he sees the enemy plane David is driving – but he does not see him and shoots it down. Wanting a souvenir of his victory, he lands near the site and recognises the dying soldier as his friend. In that moment Jack realises he has killed David. As well as the wonderful battle scenes, this film also includes an awkward man-on-man kiss and a brief vision of Clara Bow’s breasts to entice you.
1) The Public Enemy (1931)
Probably the most well-known of Wellman’s Precode features, The Public Enemy (1931) has received a cult following in recent decades due to its examination of the quintessential depression era gangster and the iconic ‘grapefruit scene’. The plot progresses through from central character, Tom Powers’ (James Cagney) every life as a petty thief and criminal with is friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) onto his rise as the leader of a bootlegging gang to his fall and then death. Powers seems to excel and enjoy his life of crime but keeps the favour of his dotting mother (Beryl Mercer). Powers and Doyle are virtually inseparable as the move from a small gang into operating directly under gang leader Samuel ‘Nails’ Nathan (Leslie Fenton) as bootleggers. With their increasing wealth they attract girlfriends in Kitty (Mae Clarke) and Mamie (Joan Blondell) but Powers soon moves onto the attractive and gold digging Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow). With a prolonged prohibition, the bootlegging game becomes more lucrative. After the death of Nathan, a rival gang triggers an all-out war. This initiates kidnappings, gun battles and murder.