WILLIAM WELLMAN: A WHAM-BAM-THANK YOU-MA’AM! OF A DIRECTOR

by Wendy T. Merckel          posted ~ December 9th, 2017

The man who directed The Ox-Bow Incident never won an Academy Award for Best Director.


               February 29, 1896  ~  December 9, 1975

I like to think William Wellman didn’t have the time to care, since he worked on at least one motion picture a year from 1923 to 1958 and his direction of seven films in 1933 alone is closer to his average.

Wellman did win an Oscar for Best Screenplay in 1937, for A Star is Born, a tragedy masquerading as a woman’s picture. He shared credit with writer Robert Carson (one of the many writers who had a hand in that script and the story behind it is a whole other long, involved blog post, but for another time). Perhaps Wellman’s winning the award for writing instead of directing is as it should be. Wellman worked closely with writers throughout his long career, but his genius, to my way of thinking, is the dialogue he didn’t write, or that he cut out in favor of action and visuals. No one was as terse as Wellman. His films are about those quick perceptions… what we see and what others see when they look at us. A glance can tell more in a Wellman film than all the words in Shakespeare.

The majority of his films run under 90 minutes and he had a way of getting the maximum amount of information in a minimum number of shots. He was a master of movie shorthand (see Midnight Mary, listed below), so the things his characters DON’T say are more important than what they do say. Each of Wellman’s characters is on an internal journey that no one else can live (except for us, the audience). Many of the characters we empathize with in his films are women, minorities or outsiders. Their endurance and strength is Wellman’s meat and potatoes, and he never backs away from a rough subject. His characters are flesh and blood, and their problems ring true, even over the span of 75 years. He’s incredibly modern.

According to J. Hoberman, New York film critic, Wellman’s films constitute a sort of ‘folk cinema’ of American life. This is as apt a description of Wellman’s body of work as any I’ve read. His films give us glimpses of towns, cities, prairie life, deserts, uptown and downtown, country shacks and slums….and all types and races of people. Most importantly, Wellman marks the agonizing but necessary travel to get out of one spot and to another. It really doesn’t matter which direction you are going, as long as freedom is at the end of the road. But freedom has its cost, especially for women.

For Wellman, the journey is key, and the harder it is, the better. In planes, trains, boats, automobiles, horses or covered wagons, Wellman reveals American toughness and resilience. Journeying is the way we learn, which is not only cathartic for the characters, but for the audience too.

When Theresa asked me what my favorite Wellman films were, I realized that this man’s man of a director was truly superb at depicting real American women in all their complex glory, on their journeys of self-discovery through terrible hardship. Amazingly, he does it without relying on tropes or cliché. Wellman’s Americans, especially his women, are a new breed, not seen before. Hard workers. Tough. They are the REAL representation of what we are, what we can be. I think our country is only now catching up to what William Wellman knew and portrayed in his films three quarters of a century ago.

MY FAVORITE WELLMAN FILMS

“WESTWARD THE WOMEN” (1951)  

I’ve said this before, but my favorite thing about Wellman is his deliberate setting up of stereotypes, just to knock the hell out of them. This is a truly tough, incredibly elevating Western Woman’s Film that addresses injustice, death, rape, power, and stereotypes – how women are seen and how they see themselves. The schoolmarm is pregnant, the prostitute wants to go straight, and all the women step up and do men’s work without question.

Wellman’s trademark searing, high contrast black and white cinematography is wonderful – sand and sky, canyon and flatlands, sun and shadow, night and day, women and men. Henry Nakamura gets the final scene, as he is the film’s heart and soul, and he’s brilliant. Great performances by all. A shattering film in some ways, but so fulfilling to watch as a woman. Wellman knew way back in the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s that women could do anything. We haven’t caught up to him yet.

 

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“SAFE IN HELL” (1931)

Terrifying, gritty, tough – even for Wellman. Dorothy Mackaill’s performance is magnificent. I love how Wellman lets us see Dorothy and the derelicts as real people. It’s one of his greatest strengths that he can show people changing over time as they get to know others outside their comfort zone. Nina Mae McKinney and Clarence Muse play real people…no shuffling, no “yas sirs”, which is INCREDIBLE for 1931. This one has Wellman’s most powerful ending…. and yes, I’m even including “The Ox-Bow Incident” in that evaluation.

 

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“BEGGARS OF LIFE” (1928) 

Another film about a woman facing the worst with strength and perseverance. Louise Brooks is phenomenal as a girl escaping from an abusive foster home, jumping from the frying pan into the fire – life on the road. Richard Arlen and Wallace Beery lead us into the world of the hobo jungle, where a woman is no more than a piece of meat. The journey and their proximity smooths the rough edges off, transforms them, making them better people, willing to sacrifice for others.

One of the few unabashedly romantic Wellman films, despite the setting. Jim Tully the vagabond writer worked on the film, and Wellman hired real hoboes for authenticity. There is some great camera work, especially at the start, with a flashback occurring superimposed over a close-up of Brooks. An earthy realistic film with a story of redemption. I’ve always been a sucker for good bad men.

[ Click here for Wendy’s full review of “Beggars Of Life.” ]

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“MIDNIGHT MARY” (1933)

  

Loretta Young as you’ve never seen her! Loretta is so tough here, it really suits her. She reads a magazine at her trial for murder! Ricardo Cortez is a sexy brute. What more could you want??? This is textbook Wellman, short and sweet, with lots of cinema shorthand speeding up the pace considerably. I love the prologue; we get all the info we need in a few shots of books in a lawyer’s office. A wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am of a movie.

 

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“LILLY TURNER” (1933)  

It’s Ruth Chatterton’s turn to play tough and she’s great as a woman dumped by her charlatan husband in a circus sideshow. Torn between duty to the alcoholic Frank McHugh, who rescued her at her lowest point, and her wish for a decent life with George Brent, Chatterton is world weary and emotionally convincing. Frank McHugh is BRILLIANT in what may be his only truly serious role. Brent is at his best here, natural and kind. Wellman gives us the world of hoochie koochie, but backs it up with broken dreams and longing.

Click photo below  to see the trailer:

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“A STAR IS BORN” (1937)

My first Wellman and a sentimental favorite. Wellman doesn’t pull punches in this story of an alcoholic (his father was one), and he puts us through the ringer while never looking down on Norman Maine. This version has a little sap, but once we get into the main (Maine?) story, Wellman is just brutally honest about Norman’s fame, his drinking and his one good moment. A real tearjerker thanks to Wellman never letting us feel too sorry for anyone.

 

 

 

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“THE OX-BOW INCIDENT” (1943) 

I don’t need to say anything about this film.

 

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“ROBIN HOOD OF EL DORADO” (1936)

A morality tale of racism set in Mexico. Written by actor Joseph Calleia (who must have known racism firsthand) and Wellman, this little-known film boasts my favorite Warner Baxter performance. Ahead of its time.

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“FRISCO JENNY” (1932)

Another Chatterton film, this is a retelling of “Madame X, but gritty and set in the 1890’s. Have I said ‘Wellman is gritty’ too many times? Here, he examines how women’s choices have been incredibly limited and the huge sacrifices women made to support their children when men would not.

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“THE LIGHT THAT FAILED” (1939)

Ronald Colman and Ida Lupino, plus great cinematography. Heartbreaking.

 

 

[   H O M E   ]

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4 thoughts on “WILLIAM WELLMAN: A WHAM-BAM-THANK YOU-MA’AM! OF A DIRECTOR

  1. Great piece, Wendy–and thanks to Theresa for giving you the platform. I’ve only seen four of the films you listed. I’ve got some Wellman catching up to do. I’m a big fan of some of his later films, e.g. BATTLEGROUND, THE HAPPY YEARS, ACROSS THE WIDE MISSOURI, BLOOD ALLEY. I did a blog post, Hollywood Looks at China: Two Films from 1955, and BLOOD ALLEY was one of them: https://briandanacamp.wordpress.com/2014/09/26/hollywood-looks-at-china-two-films-from-1955/. I have the biography of Wellman by his son, William Wellman Jr., but haven’t read it yet. A friend of mine, Ken Gordon, programs silent films at the Brooklyn Public Library and ran BEGGARS OF LIFE last month. He did tons of research on the book, the author and its path to the screen. If he would ever put his program notes on line, I bet you’d find them really informative.

    The only Wellman film I would dismiss out of hand is THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY. Except for some funny bits by Claire Trevor, I found it awful. But then I’m not a fan of the airplane disaster genre it spawned–unless it’s satirical, like AIRPLANE!

    I need to see WESTWARD THE WOMEN again; I don’t recall Henry Nakamura’s participation in it (I last saw the film some 40+ years ago). He plays a key role in BLOOD ALLEY. He had a brief but interesting career. He’s also in LAFAYETTE ESCADRILLE, Wellman’s last release.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Brian, thank you so much for reading my post! I appreciate your taking the time. I read your piece on China-by-way-of-Hollywood. I enjoyed it very much. It’s a real shame that the actors you mention in the article never seem to get enough recognition for representing that country for us. I’m sorry I haven’t seen Blood Alley. I would have liked to discuss it with you.

      As for Henry Nakamura, he completely disappeared after appearing in Lafayette Escadrille. I tried to find out what happened to him, because he made such a great impression on me in Westward the Women. Unfortunately, Nakamura is a very common name. I tracked an H. Nakamura to L.A. in the years after his career in Hollywood, but there is no way of telling if it was Henry. I like to think he led a relaxing life out of the limelight in sunny California.

      The other Wellman films you wrote about (besides The High and the Mighty, which I haven’t seen) are ones I have a great fondness for. I find Battleground quite beautiful for a war film. The Happy Years is an oddball childhood idyll, without a hint of sentimentallity or sugar in it which makes it lots of fun. And I will never understand why Across the Wide Missouri isn’t better thought of by western fans. I just love the movie and think it gave Gable one of his most charming later roles. Because it’s Wellman, there is precious little stereotyping in the film.

      Anyway, again I thank you. I hope you catch up on some of the Wellman films you missed. They are so worthwhile.

      Like

  2. Great post, Wendy! I looked up Wellman and the list of his films is truly impressive. I have only seen a few of your favourites, so will be sure to catch them if and when TCM airs them. You need to write guest posts more often!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s so sweet of you to say, Susan! I’m a lazybones, and writing does not come easily to me, so it means a lot when people enjoy what I write. Thanks for reading! and keep an eye out on TCM, because they play Wellman films often.

      Like

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