The Cinema of William A. Wellman: A Film Primer

Westward the Women William A. WellmanThe die, in hindsight, may have been cast in 1968, when iconic American film critic Andrew Sarris, published his iconic book “The American Cinema.” In it, he included William A. Wellman in his chapter called “Less Than Meets the Eye.” Wellman was in good company, lumped in with Billy Wilder and William Wyler among others. Perhaps Sarris had a thing about the letter “W.”

But Sarris was hardly alone in his undervaluing of the director. A more recent critic, David Thomson, who generally recognises many of Wellman’s talents, managed to write a thousand words on Nothing Scared in his magnificent compendium “Have You Seen…?” without ever once mentioning the director. He found room to mention the costume designer, but not the man behind the camera.

Wellman may not have cared. He never seemed to be big on publicity. He may have settled things with Sarris or Thomson with his fists – for he was big on fisticuffs – and then moved on to a new picture. But film fans should care, at least enough to take a new look at William A. Wellman’s eclectic and storied career. It is well worth the time.

Fortunately, we have a new tool for reappraising Wellman. His son, William Wellman Jr., an actor, writer and producer in his own right, has published a new book, “Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel.” It is mostly a loving biography, but it includes analysis and evaluation as well. And it includes stories galore – too many to count – for film fans to revel in. Even before you get to the Hollywood section of the book, which accounts for a good ¾ of the story, you get the remarkable life of young Bill Wellman, World War I flying ace. Flying would play a key role in many of Wellman’s films. But there was more. So much more.

How many really good movies does a director need on his resume before you begin considering him truly great? Here are 13 Wellmans, ranging from the very good to the great, showing a range that no other Hollywood director (with the exception of Howard Hawks) can match.

Wings (1927)

Wellman had already made a dozen silent films when he took on his greatest challenge to date. This story of WWI flying aces – their friendships, their loves, and their battles – was among his most personal stories. Almost 90 years later, the flying scenes are still thrilling, and the story of camaraderie still resonates. Look for a brief appearance by Gary Cooper, early in his career, but already carrying himself like a star. This movie shared the first Best Picture Oscar with F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. Wings was designated as the best “technical” production, while Sunrise was recognised for it “artistic” qualities. The Academy would eliminate this distinction in future awards, but it’s actually not a bad idea.

The Public Enemy (1931)

There’s no doubt that this picture owes a great deal to its star, James Cagney. But Wellman was crucial, giving the proceedings a sense of playful danger that would be the hallmark of many a great gangster picture. One of Sarris’ chief complaints about Wellman is that a movie like The Public Enemy pales in comparison to Howard Hawks’ 1932 gangster film Scarface. I am not here to argue that The Public Enemy is better than Scarface. It isn’t. But it doesn’t trail by as much as Sarris suggests. And the real flaw in Sarris’ evaluation is that he doesn’t recognise that without Wellman’s picture breaking new ground, Hawks’ movie may have been very different. This is the movie in which Cagney’s piss & vinegar young thug Tom Powers shoves a grapefruit into girlfriend Mae Clarke’s face, still a revolutionary moment in American film.

Midnight Mary (1933)

Another of Sarris’ complaints about Wellman is the number of “bad” movies he made. One of the things to keep in mind when assessing this is that in the decade after Wings, Wellman directed 37 feature films. That’s right – he cranked out about 3.5 movies per year for a decade. Many were cheap and quick, and they certainly were not all brilliant. But a lot of them were good. And a lot of them were far more interesting than the work being produced by other studio directors. Midnight Mary was one of a number of salacious pre-code movies Wellman made before 1934. It is my favourite, but Night Nurse, an early Barbara Stanwyck picture, and Frisco Jenny, with the underrated Ruth Chatterton, are right next to it. Midnight Mary is noir before there was noir, with Loretta Young bouncing back and forth between the seamy world of gangsters and the noble world of lawyers. The great thing about Wellman’s movie is that the two worlds are barely distinguishable from each other.

Wild Boys of the Road (1933)

All right, I’ll stop going after Sarris. Except to say this – Sarris doesn’t give any credit to Wellman for making one the best and most interesting American films of the first half of the 1930s. This is one of the few movies that dealt with the Great Depression head on, following the travails of the young, broke, and homeless. If it sounds depressing, it isn’t. For even though terrible things happen, Wellman’s young stars – Frankie Darro, Edwin Phillips, Dorothy Coonan, and my personal favourite, Sterling Holloway – inject so much energy and humour into the proceedings, that you can’t help but be caught up in their struggles. Taken together with another 1933 release, the eviscerating depiction of heroism, Heroes For Sale – this is ample evidence that Wellman was far more than a simple craftsman. He took on big issues with a steely and unblinking gaze.

A Star is Born (1937)

It has been made three times now, and if the rumours are true, Bradley Cooper will direct Beyonce in a 4th version in the near future. This is the original and it earned Wellman his only Oscar, for the story. He had done masculine adventure, but this is the picture where he showed he could do melodrama with the best of them. It was restrained, as personified in the dignified lead performance of Fredric March. March is Norman Maine, drunk and fading film star who falls for the up & coming Esther Blodgett, played by Janet Gaynor. As her star rises, his plummets, and there is a brutal honesty about Hollywood and stardom that Wellman, now 40 years old and with more than 40 films to his name, understood as well as anyone. Gaynor is good, though perhaps too old to play Esther. But the delightful veteran May Robson, in the small role as Esther’s no-nonsense grandmother, practically steals the show. Wellman, as would become clearer and clearer through his later films, liked his women to be as tough as his men.

Nothing Sacred (1937)

And then there was comedy. This is among the wildest and best of the screwball comedies, and if it feels a little more reckless and a little less polished than the very best of Howard Hawks or Ernst Lubitsch, the sheer comic vibrancy of March and the glorious Carole Lombard makes up for any perceived lack. Lombard is Hazel Flagg, small town girl who is dying of “radium poisoning.” March is Wally Cook, disgraced newspaperman who sees a shot at redemption in Hazel’s tragedy. Only Hazel isn’t dying, and there’s going to be surrealism, suicide, and of course, a knock-down drag-out fight between the two lovers before it all wraps up. Comedy would not be high on the Wellman hit list, but when you have a movie like Nothing Sacred on your resume, you don’t need many more to prove anything.

Beau Geste (1939)

It begins with one of the best openings in the world of adventure films. A regiment of French soldiers have come to support an embattled fort in the desert. But when they arrive, all is still. Soldiers appear to be manning their stations atop the fort, but on closer inspection, they turn out to be corpses who have been propped up in order to fool the enemy. A bugler is sent in to investigate, and he promptly vanishes. What is going on in this macabre setting? Beau Geste will tell that story with ample thrills and humour. It has a prototypical brute in Brian Donley, who despite his thuggishness, is also recognised by the hero as the best soldier he has ever seen. That is one of the keys to Wellman’s craft. Characters are rarely black and white. I’ll freely admit that I do not especially like Gary Cooper in the lead role, but I love the movie in spite of that.

Roxie Hart (1942)

This is taken from the same source material that would eventually be turned into the Oscar winning movie Chicago. This is a straight comedy, lean in narrative but broad in humour. Perhaps a little too broad, and not the equal of Nothing Sacred. And yet, there are charms here that merit attention. A great ensemble cast headed by Ginger Rogers in the title role, a brutal satire on law, journalism, and celebrity, and more inventive comic business than you can absorb in one viewing. Roxie’s jailhouse dance for eager reporters and guards alike, choreographed by Hermes Pan and letting Rogers cut loose from any partner, makes you wish Wellman had done a full-fledged musical. And the Phil Silvers-led interruptions of Roxie’s murder trial so that the photographer could grab pictures whenever some bombshell testimony landed, remains one of the great take-downs of the American legal system. The judge even poses.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

If Roxie was a frolicking satire on American justice, this subsequent movie was a sobering and terrifying examination of the same subject. But there ain’t no dancing in this surrealistic western – a morality tale about mob violence and vigilantism. Its painted backdrops and creeping camera moves will stay with you long after the lights have come up. It occasionally gets criticised for being an overly simplified depiction of right and wrong, and there is merit to that complaint. But it doesn’t matter. Wellman creates simple but memorable characters and a sense of unstoppable doom that demands attention. This is a heart-breaking story, and by using the gallant Henry Fonda as its ineffectual observer, unable to prevent tragedy, it hammers home its point about how hard it is to right the ship of public opinion when emotions rev high. In the late ‘50s. Fonda would be able to save the day in 12 Angry Men. Wellman, and screenwriter Lamar Trotti, would not let him get away with that here.

Story of G.I. Joe (1945)

Wellman’s use of the camera grew more and more adventurous as his career went forward. Nowhere is that clearer than in Russell Metty’s glorious photography in this episodic war story, based on Pulitzer Prize winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle’s writings. There is rain and mud and smoke – stark high contrast faces framed against gray backgrounds. Lines are often clipped and cut off by explosions. Wellman employed army vets as extras, and the whole thing has the feel of a neo-realist epic. Though the story can lag at times, there are so many good characters and moments. Tough as nails Sergeant Freddie Steele’s reaction to hearing his son’s voice on a record is among the most poignant scenes in all of Wellman’s repertoire.

Yellow Sky (1948)

Wellman began his career in a western, and he would return to the west repeatedly over the years. Yellow Sky’s opening is almost identical to that of The Ox-Bow Incident, but then the two stories diverge. This is a tight character study about greed and redemption. It has one of the classic “Wellman women” in Anne Baxter, just 25 at the time, but already an Oscar winner who had acted for Renoir and Welles. Here, Wellman has her trade punches with Gregory Peck and John Russell while attempting to protect the gold she and her grandfather have discovered in the ghost town called Yellow Sky. Wellman was generally underrated as a visual stylist and this movie, filmed by Joe McDonald, boasts some of his most inventive work. Apart from the opening and closing credits, there is no incidental music, which highlights the stark landscape, especially during the sequence filmed in Death Valley. But despite the lack of music, sound effects play a crucial role. When preparing a documentary on his father’s life, Wellman Jr. learned that “Yellow Sky wind” – the wind that we hear constantly blowing through the ghost town – became the industry standard effect, used in perhaps 100 other movies.

Battleground (1949)

The defence of Bastogne – Christmas week, 1944. Outstanding ensemble work from all the actors. Outstanding imagery of snow and fog. Just outstanding all the way around. If you liked Brad Pitt’s intense tank movie Fury last year, then run out to see this. I can’t believe this wasn’t one of the main inspirations. My favourite moment is Ricardo Montalban’s child-like reaction to seeing snow for the first time, a moment which sets up a most poignant and ironic twist later on.

Westward the Women (1951)

Anne Baxter was the only woman in Yellow Sky. In Westward the Women, Wellman directed over 100. Along with Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), this is the western that focused most on women. But whereas Ray’s movie was intentionally transgressive, purposefully flipping gender roles, Wellman was simply setting out to tell a good story that he thought had been underreported. John McIntire hires wagon-master Robert Taylor to usher women from Chicago to his burgeoning town in California to be wives for his men. Most of the movie is made up of that journey, and the women, almost all little known actresses, come to dominate the proceedings. It has many of the standard western milestones, but all served up in fresh ways. You can easily recall May Robson’s speech from A Star is Born burying her husband and then continuing her journey west, while watching Hope Emerson take a wagon down a treacherous pass after watching another woman die while attempting the same manoeuvre. Of all the Wellman movies, this one seems most ripe for a remake, something Wellman Jr. hinted could be in the works.

That’s a dozen, and I probably left out several that Wellman fans would rank at the top of their lists. But then, I’m not claiming that these are necessarily his best, or that he was the best director from Hollywood’s Golden Age. I’m just saying these are all very good movies from a very good director, who, contrary to Andrew Sarris, offered far more than meets the eye.

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at

14 thoughts on “The Cinema of William A. Wellman: A Film Primer

  1. Dear Jonathan, Loved your comments on my father and my book, WILD BILL WELLMAN.
    I especially enjoyed your words about Andrew Sarris, who I believe totally missed my
    father’s work. Thanks for an exceptional piece of writing.

    Bill Wellman Jr.

    • Thanks Gregory. Wellman has a number of pre-codes in circulation. They’re not all good, but some are a lot of fun. As for The Boob, I don’t know it but I’m going out on a limb and saying that this review is apocryphal.

  2. Loved this post. I didn’t know half of this. I’d heard the name, but had no idea what a great director he was. Saw Wings at a screening a long time ago. Incredible work. Loved Cagney in Public Enemy but he’ll always be “Top of the world Ma-White Heat” to me.

    • Thanks Marjorie. White Heat is a better movie across the board than Publc Enemy. But when you consider that Publc Enemy came just a few after after Hollywood rewrote all their rules for sound, you have to marvel at what Cagney and Wellman managed.

    • Thanks Goat. One thing I learned from Wellnan Jr’s book — his father directed Ruth Chatterton in a fair amount of her most famous movie, the scandalous Female, before being switched on to something else. Michael Curtiz was brought in to finish Female and became its director of record.

  3. Great list and tribute to one of my favorite directors – heck, he may be my favorite of them all! While he seems to be a little underrated in America, the French recognize him as one of the greats – director and critic Bertrand Tavernier is a vocal fan and was a friend of his. Glad to learn about the book – I have wanted to read his autobiography for years but couldn’t find an affordable copy.

  4. Hey Pete, I also watched Battleground again last week. In many ways, It defines the Wll Army pictures for me. I have often thought Wellman a superior director to many of the more touted ones, such as Hawks, Huston, Wilder, and Lubitsch. Scene for scene, there are more directorial ideas in his pictures than any other Hollywood studio director excepting Hitchcock. I appreciate this primer,and the enthusiasm it may generate among those who read it, but I found it light on any concrete discussion of his directing per se. In other words, what does Wellman do with a scene that no other director would do? What ideas does he have that make each scene stronger than it would have been n lesser hands? For instance, the use of the echo in Westward the Women’s roll call deepens the tragic dimension of the scene. Several years ago, when I first began to see the differences between Wellman’s pictures and the similar ones directed by his peers, I searched in vain for books about him, and found nothing. It is encouraging to see him finally begin to get his due.

    • Thanks Bill. I’ve seen precious little scholarship on Wellman. His son’s book doesn’t really fill that gap but it does tell a lot of great stories that may encourage more people to reconsider the career. There are shots in Yellow Sky that I find masterful. There are not unique — the image of James Barton (the grandfather) practically genuflecting over the prone body of Robert Arthur could come from Murnau in the ’20s. Shot from under the bed, with a rather harsh halo light exaggerating Barton’s wild-eyed preacher look, it raises the stakes on what is in store for Gregory Peck. This is no longer a dirty little tale of greed — it is now about a man’s very soul. Earlier, there’s a moment in which Harry Morgan has to shoot his lame horse as they cross the salt flats. A simple tilt and then a track along with Peck looking down from a rise in the sand is amazing. As he walks away in foreground, the rest his men appear from behind the sand in the background as though they grow out of the earth. Peck is clearly the dominant figure — the man who will have to rise above his greedy comrades.

      Yellow Sky is full of moments like that, as is Westward the Women, and I imagine if I went looking, a lot of the earlier movies as well.

  5. A terriffic tribute, Jon. I watched ‘Battleground’ again last week, on TV. It is still a great war film, as is ‘G.I. Joe.’ The early films are simply wonderful, with ‘Public Enemy’ still one of my favourites, and Ginger is always the Roxie that I think of first.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • Thanks Pete. I distinctly remember thinking Ginger Rogers was playing Roxie too broadly for my tastes in her first couple of scenes. But by about the midpoint, I was totally sold. She was so much fun in that role.

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