My weekly look at my favorite directors continues with William "Wild Bill" Wellman, the best film director that not enough people have heard of. As with previous directors that I've raved about there are so many films of his that I like that creating a list of ten favorites was no problem. Aside from having to exclude a few good ones.
Wellman had an amazing run from 1931-1933 in which he directed half the films on this list. But he started making excellent films in the Silent Era and continued well into the 1950's.
While his reputation is built largely on manly Western and War films, Wellman was adept at all genres. He worked with a wide variety of great actors. James Cagney, Henry Fonda, Frederich March, Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, Carole Lombard, Loretta Young and Lauren Bacall. To name but a handful.
Wellman was no slouch before he started his film career. Despite coming from a wealthy family (he was a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence) he started working on the nickname that would stick with him all his life, Wild Bill, at an early age. Wellman and trouble were close friends. He loved sports and one of those was joy riding. Wild Bill was quick to engage in fisticuffs, a habit that endured throughout his directing career.
With the advent of World War I, Wellman wasn't going to wait around for U.S. entry to participate. Through connections he was able to join the air branch of the French Foreign Legion. Despite being shot down once, he survived the war, joining U.S. forces before it was over.
Though his friendship with Douglas Fairbanks he became involved in movies, first as an actor. But he hated acting and longed to direct. Wild Bill worked his way up though a series of jobs, making his directorial debut in 1923.
Wellman's films were concise, straightforward and unflinching. His heroes were given to action, not words. He packed a lot into his stories seemingly never wasting a shot. Wellman used exteriors and weather but never let the camera linger on them. If his camera paused at all it was on a face. An expressive one. This was a appropriate because his films so often focused on ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Whether his characters were facing enemy tanks, a lynch mob, a vengeful crook or the person they loved, the focus was on them and their response. Wellman’s movies were character driven.
Wild Bill was comfortable with gangster films (Public Enemy, Midnight Mary), comedies (Small Town Girl, Nothing Sacred), war pictures (The Story of G.I. Joe, Battleground), Westerns, (The Oxbow Incident, Westward the Women) and even directed the original A Star is Born. Here are my ten favorites:
The Public Enemy (1931). The first great gangster film ever made. Much well deserved kudos has gone to star James Cagney for his stunning performance but Wellman had a little bit to do with the film as well. It is as tough and taut a film as you'll ever see. A no holds barred look at the rise and fall of a gangster. A familiar enough story but Cagney and Wellman breathed real intensity into the story. For more see my post of last Fall.
Wild Boys of the Road (1933). You'll note a pattern in Wellman's work in that he excels at realism and his stories pull nary a punch. Wild Boys is one of the best films about the Depression Era to come out of the Depression Era. It follows a group of teens who've left their homes to relieve the burdens on their families and see if they can make a go of it on their own. The school of hard knocks awaits. See my post from earlier this Spring for more.
Heroes For Sale (1933). Thank God this film is finally available on DVD and has been shown on TCM. Now it may finally get the recognition it so richly deserves. Wellman was a very economical film maker, particularly in the early Thirties. Here was a story of bravery, cowardice, drug abuse, labor strife, poverty and more. In less than 80 minutes! It's another powerful look at the Depression that was gripping the nation when the film was released. Richard Barthelmess starred and a strong supporting cast included Aline MacMahon, Loretta Young, Grant Mitchell and Charley Grapewin.
Wings (1927). The first great aerial war picture and still one of the best. The romance at the core of this World War I flying aces story is a tad on the hokey side but that doesn't detract from the spectacle that is Wings. The photography is amazing. Clearly Wellman brought is own experiences from the war to the production. Won the first Best Picture Oscar.
Midnight Mary (1933). The delicious Loretta Young stars as Mary Martin, a woman on trial for murder. As the jury deliberates, Young recalls her life and the circumstances that brought to her a possible death sentence. Mary grew up in poverty and things went downhill from there. She took up with a group of gangsters led by Ricardo Cortez but found love in the person of a wealthy young man played by Franchot Tone. Conflict. Old habits die hard especially when the bad guys have something on you and don't want to let you go. Thoroughly entertaining.
Westward the Women (1951). Go West young woman, and find a husband. Westward the Women is one of the few Westerns to focus on women. A California farmer in the mid 19th century recruits 150 women from Chicago to take the arduous wagon train journey west to provide brides for the overwhelmingly single male population. The wagon master is Robert Taylor and in a decidedly less glamorous role than he was accustomed to, he's excellent. But the real stars of the film are the women and the at times beautiful and at times hazardous trail. See more in my post from last year.
Battleground (1949). One of the better WWII films ever made, certainly from among those made during and immediately following the war. Absent the full color spewing blood and intestines protruding from wounds audiences see today, this is one realistic film. The emphasis is on the soldiers, in this case America GI's at the battle of the bulge. there is enough of lightness, thanks to cast members such as Van Johnson and George Murphy, to make this a thoroughly watchable film. See more on Battleground from a recent post.
The Ox Bow Incident (1943). Okay, I admit it, I overuse the word "powerful" when describing films, particularly Wellman's. That being said, this is one powerful story. Two cowboys, (Henry Fonda and Henry Morgan) are home from the range. It is through them that we see a town's reaction to cattle rustlers develop into a lynch mob mentality (literally) that grips a group of vigilantes and imperils a trio of drifters. The film was ahead of its time as evidenced by this snippet from variety's review of January 1, 1943: "Hardly a gruesome detail is omitted. Where the pleading by the three innocent victims doubtlessly was exciting on the printed page, it becomes too raw-blooded for the screen. Chief fault is that the picture over-emphasizes the single hanging incident of the novel, and there's not enough other action." Great fun. It’s hardly tame stuff today, but the Variety review is over wrought.
Small Town Girl (1936). This delightful comedy proves Wellman's versatility. The sweet as candy Janet Gaynor is the title character. She "accidentally" marries a wealthy young man played by Robert Taylor. This puts him a fix as he’s a big city fellow with a big city fiance. What will they do? It's a winning romantic comedy, quite a departure from the usual Wellman fare. An aspiring young actor named Jimmy Stewart plays Gaynor's jilted lover.
Night Nurse (1931). If you're a dirty old man like me (God forbid) you'll thrill to see the scantily clad duo of Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell as a couple of nurses. You may also get a kick out of a most nasty Clark Gable, sans mustache. Stanwyck plays a street wise dame knew to the nursing profession who uncovers a plot to murder the two kids she's charged with minding. She calls upon a would be suitor, who happens to be a small time crook, to foil the heinous plot. Great fun.