Friday, October 5, 2012

The Films of William A. Wellman at Film Forum, February 2012 (unfinished)

This is not an attempt at a comprehensive William Wellman career retrospective. The man directed 76 films, not including uncredited work; the Film Forum retrospective in February 2012 only selected 42 of those (not to mention that two of the scheduled films, Woman Trap (1929) and Magic Town (1947), ended up not being screened due to print issues), of which I only saw 16. One thing I took away from the series is that Wellman is not an auteur of any kind, nor did he aspire to be. He personally wished to make films of all kinds, in every genre, and he succeeded, as will be seen below.

Early Sound:

After directing one of the two first Best Picture Academy Award winners Wings (1927) (the other being Murnau's Sunrise), William Wellman established himself as one of the most promising filmmakers in Hollywood. Many of his silent features are lost, but his remaining works post-Wings demonstrate a director developing an ease with actors and a derring-do in capturing thrilling action sequences. One of the most curious films from this early period of Wellman's career is Chinatown Nights (1929), an unusual Frankenstein monster hybrid of silent and sound that is, unfortunately, difficult to see today. The film was partially completed as a silent film, but in an interesting development akin to the fate that befell the Amero Brothers' Bacchanale (1970) during the bridge between softcore and hardcore in the exploitation film market, silent films became box office poison practically overnight. The film resumed photography as a sound feature, some scenes re-shot with live sound. Full sound scenes brush shoulders with scenes clearly shot silent but poorly overdubbed in post-production. It's unlike anything I've ever seen, but frankly it works in an unusual way.

Wallace Beery, surprisingly slender compared to his later years, stars as Chuck Riley, the white leader of a Chinese Tong mob intent on starting a turf war with big boss Boston Charley (Swedish Warner Oland before his Asian drag kicked into high gear with the Charlie Chan films). Ignore the fact that both characters, in fact, have the same name (d'oh!). Chuck meets his match in a spoiled rich girl who he rescues from the dangerous streets one night, but keeps coming back for more Chuck lovin'. Of course she attempts to reform him, but it takes two tragedies, one involving a hero-worshiping street urchin played with gusto by underrated child actor Jack McHugh, for Chuck to finally see the error of his ways.

Troublesome racial politics aside (how did this white guy finagle his way into taking charge of a Chinese gang?), this is a fine, pulpy crime drama whose bizarre production history only adds to a unique viewing experience. The opening scenes, of a Chinatown tour taking high society thrill-seekers into the dangerous neighborhood to see how the "othered Orientals" live, are exciting and quite funny, especially when it is revealed that Chinese store owners indulge in perceived stereotypes for the benefit of the audience and a cut of the tour earnings. The hammy theatrical performance of Florence Vidor, as the romantic interest, has aged badly. Not surprisingly her career did not survive the transition from silent to sound. In fact, she didn't even stick around for the change herself. Her dubbed dialogue was looped by actress Nella Walker instead. The ex-wife of legendary director King Vidor never performed again. Jack Oakie as a stuttering reporter is thankfully underused.

Wellman's first full-sound feature, The Man I Love (1929), is an unfortunate disaster. He reunites with Wings star Richard Arlen for a firmly predictable tale of boxer Dum-Dum Brooks who marries a prim and proper sheet music salesgirl/pianist and is tempted by New York socialite Olga Baclanova (several years before her legendary role as the deceitful trapeze artist in 1932's Freaks). Considering Wellman's pedigree in directing action, the boxing scenes are tepid and the melodrama turgid and dull. There is virtually nothing to recommend about the film save Baclanova's sultry performance, best seen as a precursor to her definitive performance in Browning's film.

Young Eagles (1930) is another poor quality early Wellman sound feature with little of interest to distinguish itself from other films of the era. It reunites Wellman with his other male Wings star, Buddy Rogers, as one of the titular "Young Eagles" involved in an uneventful plot surrounding German air pilot Von Baden (Paul Lukas) and his capture by Rogers. There are ridiculous twists in the story that defy logic, surprising considering Wellman based this film, as well as his other WWI features, on his experiences as a fighter pilot in the first Great War. In an interesting throwback to the silent movie days (and the days of Wings), Wellman superimposes descriptive title cards over the flying sequences, several of which are merely recycled from his 1927 Best Picture winner. In addition to Rogers and Lukas, the cast includes Jean Arthur as Rogers' romantic interest, who is revealed to have a dubious side in an unexpected Mata Hari-esque turn of events. Sadly, Arthur is a chunk of wood here, displaying none of the charm and talent she would later demonstrate in classics like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and The Talk of the Town (1942). And as a reminder that this was pre-Code, Rogers appears fully nude, though strategically framed, in a shower scene.

Pre-Code Classics:

For my money, Wellman's most prolific and interesting period was in the 1930's, when the director cranked out movie after movie at First National, the little studio that could, and its soon-to-be mother company, Warner Brothers. His work at both studios tends to flow together, as their production values and working-class aesthetics were similar. Before the Production Code began being firmly enforced in mid-1934, Wellman delivered some of the most daring and memorable films of this now highly-revered production period. Not all of them are bonafide winners, but each one offers at least a few striking moments of surprising violence, sexuality, or other taboo subjects soon to be rendered mum in Hollywood film production.

Safe in Hell (1931) is a sweaty, beastly animal of a movie. It ranks with Baby Face (1933), Three on a Match (1932), and Beast of the City (1932) in the upper tier of shocking pre-Code features that I would heartily recommend to anyone interested in seeing just how deliciously lurid Hollywood could be before Joseph Breen and his decades-long stranglehold on the industry. Forgotten 30s temptress Dorothy Mackaill plays a prostitute who burns down a hotel room where a particularly disagreeable client (an ex-boyfriend) was knocked out cold. Her current beau, a sailor, whisks her off to the Caribbean island of Tortuga, where society's ne'er do wells reside in a sleazy hotel run by Leonie (Nina Mae McKinney, one of the most noteworthy and talented black actresses of the 20s and 30s). The film follows her acceptance into the world of sweaty criminals, and her eventual undoing when the man she is accused of killing back in the States turns up alive, well, and running from the law himself on Tortuga. You will never see another movie like this, and that is a crying shame.

Opening credits and scene from SAFE IN HELL. I dare you to watch and not want to see the rest.

Barbara Stanwyck: Night Nurse (1931), The Purchase Price (1932)
Barbara Stanwyck, despite her far right leanings off-screen, is among my favorite actresses of the golden age of Hollywood, if not my very favorite. Versatile, beautiful, and strikingly contemporary (her performances have aged amazingly well), one of her earliest performances, in Wellman's Night Nurse, is one of her very best. She plays a young woman eager to become a nurse and help people, working in a hospital with best friend and comic relief Joan Blondell (always radiant and winning) before being assigned a plum position as the caretaker for two sick children in a wealthy home. One of the children is played by Marcia Mae Jones, soon to become one of the most talented and underrated child actresses of the 1930s; see her work in These Three (1936) and as both good and bad girls in two Shirley Temple films, Heidi (1937) and The Little Princess (1939) respectively. Her crippled girl walking scene in Heidi is a tearjerker. But I digress. Stanwyck discovers that the children are being slowly poisoned and not treated properly by the family doctor, and when her cries of malpractice are ignored by hospital personnel, the tough and dedicated woman makes it her mission to save her charges. It doesn't help that their mother is an alcoholic mess who has endless parties at her house. The surprise hero is Stanwyck's beau, a bootlegger with connections. The ending is unexpected and still packs a wallop! Much is made in contemporary reviews of the film of Clark Gable, in another early role, as the devious chauffeur anxious to get rid of the children to collect their inheritance money. He is appropriately seedy, even socking Stanwyck in the face and knocking her out cold when she threatens to call the police.

Theatrical trailer for NIGHT NURSE, which sells the film pretty well. Stanwyck is dynamite!

Where Night Nurse is practically perfect entertainment, Purchase Price is, for the most part, a dreadful disappointment. With Stanwyck in the lead, you honestly can't go that wrong. Seriously, the woman was never bad in anything. But Wellman is handed a potentially interesting premise and characters and simply doesn't know where to go with them. George Brent, early in a career of debonaire romantic leads, is the mild-mannered farmer who purchases Stanwyck as a mail order bride, as she attempts to run from her wild life in the big city. Lyle Talbot (almost forgotten today, but a reliable pre-Code regular before his Ed Wood days in the 50s) is the ex-boyfriend who tracks her down and tries to force her back to the city. Stanwyck can do no wrong, but the movie missing something... The final 10-15 minutes, where the couple really bands together to make their farm a success, are the highlight of the film.

As disappointing as Purchase Price is, The Conquerors (1932) is far worse. The primary problem with the film is the combination of wooden leading man Richard Dix (more on him later) and overly theatrical leading lady Ann Harding. Neither performer makes much of an impression, and they have the film stolen out from under them by reliable character actors Edna May Oliver and Guy Kibbee. The epic story of a couple's trek out west and their family history through decades of economic and technological struggles must have been intended as a pick-me-up during the Depression, as two previous financial crises are covered (Dix's main character is a banker), but eventually one just wishes the saga would end. One memorable scene sticks in the mind: the arrival of the first train in a frontier town is the scene of a horrific car accident that takes the lives of two important characters. Wellman's talent in staging and photographing suspenseful action sequences is evident here, and the film could have used more moments like this to resuscitate the plodding narrative. Watch for little Wally Albright, better known as an "Our Gang" regular back in the early days of Spanky (he actually played Spanky's older brothers in a few shorts).

Frisco Jenny (1932) is a film with a bold female character one would expect Stanwyck to play, but instead we get Ruth Chatterton, whose reputation for a diva attitude had branded her impossible to work with by the time she wandered onto Wellman's set. Chatterton's stage-bound performances are probably the reason her star status is largely forgotten today. She was nominated for an Oscar in 1929 for her work in the original Madame X, which Jenny bears more than a passing resemblance to. Frankly, her work here is far superior to the stagey melodramatic excess of X. Wellman's eye for action makes the San Francisco earthquake sequence a hair-raising one.

Original trailer for FRISCO JENNY. Ah, Ruth Chatterton. You should be better-known...

Richard Barthelmess: Central Airport (1933), Heroes for Sale (1933)
Silent screen star Richard Barthelmess had, by 1933, enjoyed his day in the sun. He had been nominated for two Best Actor Oscars in the same year (1929, the first ceremony), but sound films, for one reason or another, didn't take to his slightly awkward acting style. His most popular film today is the early Bette Davis film The Cabin in the Cotton (1932). Surprisingly, considering his name value had waned, he seems a perfect fit for Wellman in his two films for the director, and they contain his two finest sound performances. Central Airport is the weaker of the two, but still has moments of interest. However, Heroes for Sale is one of the gems of the pre-Code era, a nihilistic view of post-Depression America.

Original trailer for HEROES FOR SALE. Seeing this movie on the big screen was a highlight of my repertory experiences in 2012.

Seemingly shot around the same time as Wellman's two Barthelmess films, Wild Boys of the Road (1933) is almost like a teenage version of Heroes as it tackles similar social issues and is just as moving in its portrayal of Americans struggling to survive in a suffocating Depression-era nation. A girl is raped by a railroad worker (character actor extraordinaire Ward Bond) and the teens seek bloody vengeance, one teen has his leg torn off after falling on the railroad tracks, and policemen do epic battle with runaway teens in their makeshift shantytown. Frankie Darro is a compelling lead, and the girl disguised as a boy who accompanies him and his buddy on the road would become the future Mrs. Wellman. In my opinion, this and Heroes are Wellman's crowning achievements! It's interesting that a few years after this film, MGM would be putting together teens similar to those seen here, but in "let's put on a show" scenarios. This goes a long way in showing just how different MGM and Warner Brothers were in what they brought to 1930s moviegoers, and frankly, in general Warners' films have aged far better.

Original trailer for WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies

Wellman's "What the Hell" Career Moment:

(1934)? More like Stinkaroo! Now that I've got that play on words out of the way, let's get to why Stingaree is the most unusual and possibly the worst film Wellman ever made. The Film Forum audience actually applauded when it was over, and it would have been great to indulge in whatever they were smoking. A bizarre mix of musical and action-adventure, the underwhelming Richard Dix stars as the title character, a "dashing" robber who connives his way into the home of a high society matron, where he woos her servant (Irene Dunne, before she began getting quality work like The Awful Truth (1937)). The film simply doesn't work, especially when it spends so much time focusing on Dunne's admittedly beautiful but ultimately tiresome opera singing. See pic above, with Wellman directing Dunne in an outdoor scene.

Selznick International:
Nothing Sacred (1937) & A Star is Born (1937)
These two Technicolor features, usually relegated to public domain Hell on video, resulting in dreary and over- or under-saturated transfers, looked superb projected at Film Forum, presumably from the recently restored versions. I've never been a huge fan of Nothing Sacred, much preferring Carole Lombard's utterly marvelous comic charms in My Man Godfrey (1936), but this film has its moments. However it is nothing compared to the mastery evident in A Star is Born, and this remains my favorite version of the oft-remade story of a young woman making it big in Hollywood as her former superstar husband becomes an alcoholic mess and destroys his career. Janet Gaynor, who had won the first Oscar for Best Actress in 1927, is a bit long in the tooth to play an ingenue, but she is still one of the most expressive and eye-catching actresses of the era. Fredric March is memorable as her actor husband who makes the ultimate sacrifice for his wife's career. But the film is almost stolen out from under both of them by character actors May Robson and Lionel Stander as Gaynor's supportive grandmother and her studio's grumpy press agent, respectively. Stander in particular is someone who deserves more recognition today for his comic timing and distinctive gravely voice.

Original trailer for NOTHING SACRED. You can also see the whole film on YouTube too.

Original trailer for A STAR IS BORN. And you can also see the whole film on YouTube.

Unorthodox Westerns of the 1950s:
Westward the Women (1951) & Track of the Cat (1954)
Much has been written about Track of the Cat, produced by John Wayne's production company and playing like a William Faulkner western in the snow, and its cast is quite superb, even Tab Hunter, not known for his acting. However, I was much more impressed with the obscure Westward the Women, starring Robert Taylor against type as a gruff wagon train driver assigned the task of bringing a large group of women to a remote town of men eager to marry and start families. The trek is one filled with challenges, but these women are tough and resilient, especially when all the men Taylor hired to assist with the journey leave when he insists they keep their hormones in order. They learn how to shoot, drag the wagons and cargo over a treacherous mountain terrain, make it through a flash flood, and march over the final stretch of scorching desert earth. Women and children die on the trail, some in shocking and devastating ways, but the strength of these women in their perseverance in pursuing their American dream is what makes this film such a winning surprise. One of the women is played by Hope Emerson, usually playing female heavies but here adopting the role of mother hen to marvelous effect. The finale, where women and men finally meet at an outdoor dance, is superb. This is one is finally available as part of the Warner Archive Collection. It's one of Wellman's best films, with his usual attention to action sequences as well as keen interest in doing something different within an established and predictable genre.

Original trailer for WESTWARD THE WOMEN, which gives little hint of the fascinating and slightly progressive sexual politics in the film.

An addendum to this William Wellman retrospective piece must include mention of Film Forum's ultra-rare screening of Woman Trap (1936). Wellman made a film with the same title in 1929, and in procuring a print from the vaults of Universal for their Wellman series, neither the studio or the theater checked the materials inside the cans marked "Woman Trap". Rather than the 1929 film, it was the 1936 film, a 63-minute quickie programmer that is not without considerable charms, many of them found in leading lady Gertrude Michael. I really wish this film was more widely available so I could see it again. Apparently a number of complaints flooded in from theater patrons that, in an honest mistake, the original 1929 Woman Trap was not shown, but considering the rarity of the 1936 title (never on home video or broadcast on Turner Classic Movies), it's hard for a classic movie fan like myself to be bent out of shape. Not to mention that it's a darn good little movie. As the series programmer announced after the screening, my audience was the first to see this print after it had been vaulted in the 1950s by Universal after the title's transition to Paramount in a library acquisition. It simply doesn't get any cooler than that.

Rare publicity still with George Lloyd Murphy and the delightful, underused Gertrude Michael in the 1936 WOMAN TRAP. Boy do I wish this was available somewhere!
Original theatrical poster for 1936's WOMAN TRAP. Can you tell I really loved this film?

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