A cin­e­matic ace

UCLA’s Well­man se­ries zooms in on orig­i­nal Hol­ly­wood rebel

Los Angeles Times - - AT THE MOVIES - KEN­NETH TU­RAN FILM CRITIC ken­neth.tu­ran@la­times.com

In the lex­i­con of clas­sic Hol­ly­wood, the let­ter W looms es­pe­cially large. But of all the di­rec­tors in that dis­tin­guished group, in­clud­ing Raoul Walsh, Billy Wilder, Or­son Welles and Wil­liam Wyler, no one is harder to de­fine than Wil­liam Well­man, a film­maker who went his own way.

Of­ten ne­glected and some­times ma­ligned (critic An­drew Sar­ris listed him as “Less Than Meets the Eye” in his land­mark “The Amer­i­can Cinema”), Well­man is start­ing to get his due. The UCLA Film & Tele­vi­sion Ar­chive be­gins a se­ries called “Wil­liam A. Well­man, Hol­ly­wood Rebel” on Fri­day night at the Ham­mer Mu­seum’s Billy Wilder Theater in West­wood with a dou­ble bill of two of his best-known films, the Ca­role Lom­bard screw­ball com­edy “Noth­ing Sa­cred” and the 1937 ver­sion of “A Star Is Born.”

The 21 films in the se­ries were des­ig­nated by the direc­tor’s son, Wil­liam Well­man Jr. (au­thor of a new bi­og­ra­phy of his fa­ther called “Wild Bill Well­man”) as the film­maker’s fa­vorites. Looked at as a group, th­ese works re­veal some­one who over the course of a long ca­reer was con­sis­tent by his own lights.

Though Well­man’s name may have faded a bit, his ac­com­plish­ments have not. It was Well­man who di­rected 1927’s “Wings,” the first film to win the best pic­ture Academy Award. It was Well­man who di­rected the cel­e­brated scene in “The Public En­emy” where James Cag­ney squashed a half­grape­fruit in Mae Clarke’s face.

It was Well­man who was in­stru­men­tal in the ca­reers not only of Cag­ney but also Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Robert Mitchum and all the way up to Clint East­wood. And it was Well­man who used to land his air­craft on Dou­glas Fair­banks’ polo field for week­end vis­its.

That fly­ing wasn’t a stunt. Well­man had been a dec­o­rated Amer­i­can flier for the Lafayette Es­cadrille in World War I, and that ex­pe­ri­ence added a mar­velous au­then­tic­ity to the dog­fights (shot in the skies above San An­to­nio) that made “Wings” an Os­car-win­ning suc­cess.

The ca­ma­raderie of that film, the plea­sures of men be­ing in the com­pany of men, fre­quently char­ac­ter­ized Well­man’s films. His crisp 1939 “Beau Geste,” star­ring Gary Cooper as one of three sib­lings who en­list in the French For­eign Le­gion, be­gins with a pu­ta­tive Arab proverb that says it all: “The love of brother for brother is as stead­fast as the stars....”

Also a con­stant in many of Well­man’s films was a pas­sion for Amer­ica, which led him to sym­pa­thize with the un­der­dog be­cause he wanted this coun­try to be all that it could be.

One re­sult was 1943’s Henry Fonda-star­ring “The Ox-Bow In­ci­dent,” an anti-lynch­ing epic con­sid­ered so strong in its day that one con­tem­po­rary critic called it “shock­ing in its rev­e­la­tion of hu­man base­ness.”

Two years later, Well­man did one of his best-re­garded films, “The Story of G.I. Joe,” based on the work of cel­e­brated war cor­re­spon­dent Ernie Pyle (who died in com­bat be­fore he could see the fin­ished film). It gave Robert Mitchum his only Os­car nom­i­na­tion, as a la­conic of­fi­cer, and its em­pa­thy for or­di­nary sol­diers caused critic James Agee, no pushover for Hol­ly­wood, to call it “an act of hero­ism.”

While not all of Well­man’s films are fated to com­pel au­di­ences to­day, the ones that re­main the strong­est tend to be the ear­lier ones, start­ing with 1928’s rarely seen si­lent, “Beg­gars of Life.”

“Beg­gars” stars Louise Brooks, dis­tinc­tive hair­style and all, as a young woman who mur­ders her foster fa­ther in the film’s open­ing min­utes as he at­tempts to as­sault her. She meets a young hobo (Richard Arlen) and they take to the road in an early man­i­fes­ta­tion of Well­man’s sym­pa­thy for the dis­pos­sessed.

The direc­tor’s vis­ual vigor and en­ergy made him a nat­u­ral for pre­Code sound melo­dra­mas, and UCLA has some of the best. Th­ese in­clude 1931’s “Night Nurse,” star­ring Bar­bara Stan­wyck and fea­tur­ing Clark Gable as a clean­shaven vil­lain, and 1933’s “Mid­night Mary,” which starred Loretta Young as a young woman of whom it is said “men can’t get her out of their minds, their senses, their blood!”

Even more of a pre-Code clas­sic is the 1931 gang­ster film “The Public En­emy,” which gal­va­nized Cag­ney’s ca­reer when he played what the New York Her­ald Tri­bune called “the most ruth­less, un­sen­ti­men­tal ap­praisal of the mean­ness of a petty killer the cinema has yet de­vised.”

Well­man’s feel­ing for those whom so­ci­ety had cast off was es­pe­cially pro­nounced in a pair of so­cially con­scious films from 1933 that were re­mark­able in their day and con­tinue to be so: “He­roes for Sale” and “Wild Boys of the Road.”

“He­roes for Sale” stars sadeyed Richard Barthelmess as a World War I vet­eran who gets a mor­phine ad­dic­tion in­stead of the medals he de­serves and then ex­pe­ri­ences bread lines, la­bor un­rest and the scru­tiny of the sour-faced Red Squad. An im­pres­sively hon­est film, “He­roes for Sale” ac­tively ex­plores the idea that De­pres­sion Amer­ica was close to to­tal col­lapse.

“Wild Boys of the Road,” ad­ver­tised as deal­ing with “the aban­doned gen­er­a­tion” starred Frankie Darro and Dorothy Coo­nan (soon to marry her direc­tor) as one of a small army of young peo­ple forced to be­come vagabonds be­cause of im­pov­er­ished par­ents. Ba­si­cally good kids, they are over­whelmed by the mi­asma of job­less­ness and end up fight­ing an­ar­chic pitched bat­tles with un­feel­ing po­lice.

Also ex­hibit­ing em­pa­thy for those fight­ing long odds, in this case young peo­ple try­ing to make it in Hol­ly­wood, is the 1937 ver­sion of “A Star Is Born,” which won Well­man his only Os­car, for co-writ­ing the story. Of­ten over­shad­owed by the Judy Gar­land / James Ma­son re­make, this Janet Gaynor / Fredric March orig­i­nal, shot in del­i­cate early Technicolor, is ev­ery bit as af­fect­ing as any of its later ver­sions.

One of the best of Well­man’s post­war films was 1948’s “Yel­low Sky,” a taut and in­volv­ing “adult west­ern” star­ring a fa­tal­is­tic Gre­gory Peck that takes place in both a de­serted ghost town and the salt flats of Death Val­ley, a lo­ca­tion so hot the horses weren’t al­lowed to work more than three hours a day.

Just 30 years old when “Wings” came out, Well­man told a news­pa­per re­porter that it would only be “two or three more years of di­rect­ing for me, and then I am go­ing to travel and en­joy life.” It didn’t quite work out that way, and this fine UCLA se­ries makes us glad it didn’t.

Images from UCLA Film & Tele­vi­sion Ar­chive

WIL­LIAM WELL­MAN di­rected 1931’s “The Public En­emy,” which fea­tures a fa­mous scene be­tween Mae Clarke and James Cag­ney.

WELL­MAN CHAM­PI­ONED the un­der­dog in films like 1933’s “Wild Boys of the Road,” which dealt with young vagabonds.

1937’S “A Star Is Born” won Well­man his only Os­car.

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