Happy Birthday William Wellman

blogopenerDirector William Wellman was born on this day, February 29, in 1896. That would make today his 120th birthday, or his 30th, depending on your feelings regarding leap year. Nicknamed Wild Bill because of his adventurous days as a pilot for the Lafayette Flying Corps during WWI, Wellman led one of those audacious lives that makes for good storytellers. Wellman’s medium of choice for telling stories was the Hollywood film. Movie fans can celebrate Wild Bill’s birthday this week on TCM by watching three of his best-known films: Battleground (March 1, 10:00am, EST), Wild Boys of the Road (March 3, 5:00am, EST), and The Public Enemy (March 3, 8:30am, EST).

Though infamous for browbeating his actors and intimidating his actresses, Wellman is justly famous for his male-dominated action movies (The Public Enemy), adventures about men in adversity (Wings), or stories about the interaction of men within a group (The Ox-Bow Incident, The Story of G.I. Joe, Battleground). However, I prefer Wellman’s early melodramas featuring female protagonists who are down on their luck, down and out, or just down on love. Usually, these melodramas are not discussed as part of Wellman’s body of work; they are most often considered and assessed as pre-Code films.

WELLMAN AND DOROTHY COONAN ON THE SET OF 'WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD.' WELLMAN AND COONAN WERE WED IN 1934.

WELLMAN AND DOROTHY COONAN ON THE SET OF ‘WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD.’ WELLMAN AND COONAN WERE WED IN 1934.

During the pre-Code era, Wellman directed for Warner Bros., which specialized in topical subjects that might “be a headline on the front page of any successful metropolitan daily,” as Darryl Zanuck once explained. During the Depression, WB’s films crammed violent crime, sex, illegal alcohol, drugs, adultery, prostitution, white slavery, and other unsavory topics into fast-paced, gritty street dramas. Wellman was one of the studio’s fastest-working directors, and he reveled in material that was tough and violent, so he cranked out more than his share of pre-Code gems.

I AM INTRIGUED BY DOROTHY MACKAILL OF 'SAFE IN HELL.'

I AM INTRIGUED BY DOROTHY MACKAILL OF ‘SAFE IN HELL.’

My three favorites are Safe in Hell (1931), Frisco Jenny (1933), and The Purchase Price (1932). In Safe in Hell, Dorothy Mackaill stars as Gilda, a New Orleans prostitute who thinks she murdered her ex-lover. She escapes to a Caribbean island, where she falls in love with a sailor. When he sets sail, he leaves her behind as the only female resident in their tropical hotel. The male residents leer, ogle, and stare as she fends off their advances. The dialogue drips with double entendre. When Gilda fetches water from the community cistern, she is appalled that the water has worms in it. The corrupt sheriff tells her that the worms are necessary to consume the bacteria that can cause sickness, but he begins the conversation by asking her if she is offended by “slimy wigglers.” Gilda lives in a world of moral anarchy, and it no surprise that she is morally compromised. Yet, we are sympathetic to her plight.

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GEORGE BRENT AND BARBARA STANWYCK IN AN INTIMATE MOMENT IN 'THE PURCHASE PRICE.'

GEORGE BRENT AND BARBARA STANWYCK IN AN INTIMATE MOMENT IN ‘THE PURCHASE PRICE.’

There is a pre-Code subgenre in which the female protagonist loses her virginity to an immature, cowardly, irresponsible, or cruel man and then ends up pregnant and alone. In order to survive, and to do what is best for her child, she gives up her bundle of joy. As fate—and melodrama—would have it, the mother crosses paths with her child when he/she matures into adulthood. Ruth Chatterton stars as the title character in Frisco Jenny, who has a child out of wedlock and opens a brothel to support him. A brothel is no place for a child, so she gives him up for adoption. Years later, Jenny discovers her son is a crusading lawyer determined to clean up San Francisco from establishments like hers. This type of storyline reveals a wide range of bad male behavior—lying beaus, irresponsible sweet-talkers, wealthy playboys who seduce working class girls, and cowards who can’t stand up to their families to marry the girl they love. As with Gilda in Safe in Hell, audiences sympathize with Jenny, and her choices are presented as understandable. Aside from the pre-Code content, Frisco Jenny is a must-see because of Chatterton, a stage actress with a brusque elegance who played determined, assertive women.

In The Purchase Price (airing on TCM March 15, 8am, EST), quintessential pre-Code star Barbara Stanwyck plays Joan Gordon, a singer with a checkered past. To escape her gangster boyfriend, she travels to Montreal, where she changes places with a hotel maid who is about to become the mail-order bride of a frontier farmer. Joan and the farmer get off to a rocky start when she rejects his clumsy attempts on their wedding night. As the two get to know each other, they fall in love, but they keep their distance for fear of disappointment. It is the struggle to save the farm that unites them via his hard work and her sacrifice.

IN 'NIGHT NURSE' STARS STANWYCK AND JOAN BLONDELL SPEND A LOT OF TIME UNDRESSING.

IN ‘NIGHT NURSE’ STARS STANWYCK AND JOAN BLONDELL SPEND A LOT OF TIME UNDRESSING.

Wellman admired the actresses who brought energy and charisma to the leading roles in these three films. Early in her career, Mackaill had struggled to transform herself from chorus girl to movie actress. She brought that same determination to Safe in Hell, because she wanted to transition from silent films to talkies. Wellman respected her hard work. He admired Stanwyck because she was tough, strong, straightforward, and professional. She also displayed some of Wellman’s daring and nerve. During the wheat-burning sequence in The Purchase Price, she did not like the way her stand-in was handling the scene, because it wasn’t good enough. She stepped in and did the stunts herself, burning her legs in the process. Wellman did not think he was going to like Ruth Chatterton when he was assigned to Frisco Jenny. Already a star, the high-strung Chatterton had a reputation for being difficult with directors. During preproduction, the two did not interact. On the first day of shooting, she arrived on set on time and nailed a difficult scene in one take. Wellman praised her, Chatterton was appreciative, and the two became fast friends.

Wellman also directed other pre-Code movies featuring hardened female characters as protagonists. Night Nurse stars Stanwyck as a dedicated nurse who saves two children from a plot to starve them to death for their inheritance. Though interesting because of the gruesome plot, Night Nurse seems lackluster in comparison to his other work from this period.

WELLMAN DIRECTS LORETTA YOUNG AND FRANCHOT TONE IN 'MIDNIGHT MARY.'

WELLMAN DIRECTS LORETTA YOUNG AND FRANCHOT TONE IN ‘MIDNIGHT MARY.’

I have not seen Midnight Mary, which became one of Wellman’s favorites, but it sounds terrific. Loretta Young stars in the title role as a woman who has lived on the fringes of society since childhood. Struggling in poverty, she uses her beauty to survive the Depression. The male characters are presented from Young’s perspective—whether gutter gangster or wealthy playboy, they all want one thing from her. She shoots the gangster before he can kill his romantic rival, the playboy. She knows her game is up because, as she quips about her jury, “You don’t think those twelve good men are going to give me a break, do you?” Cynical, sensational, and fast-paced: That seemed to be the essence of Wellman’s style during the pre-Code era.

Wellman liked making tough films about shadowy characters who populate the underbelly of society. But, according to Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel, which was penned by the director’s son, he grew weary of what he called the fallen woman genre. He complained to the studio about the repetitive nature of some of the plots. But, by June of 1934, when the Production Code became mandatory for all Hollywood movies, his complaints didn’t matter. The Code curtailed the kind of content and characters that made Wellman’s fallen woman stories so compelling.

10 Responses Happy Birthday William Wellman
Posted By Jenni : February 29, 2016 2:56 pm

I’ve seen a lot of Wellman’s “guy/action” pics, but the only precode of his I’ve seen is Night Nurse-it was good, with Gable in it as the main baddie-weird to see him in such a role, definitely before he became more well-known. I’ll be keeping my eyes opened for Safe in Hell and Frisco Jenny. Enjoyed your post!

Posted By LD : February 29, 2016 5:00 pm

Wellman was one of three directors of a 1933 pre-code melodrama called FEMALE starring Chatterton. Wellman took over for an ill Dieterle and finished the film but Warner Bros. decided to make some changes. He was unavailable so Curtiz was hired and given sole directing credit. It is about a powerful female CEO of an auto co. who uses men sexually without commitment on her part. Despite a “happily ever after” ending, it was very daring for its time. I like this film because its a film of the past that has a relationship with the present.

*Spoiler alert* SAFE IN HELL was another film that I found to be intresting but, if I remember correctly, seemed to be devoid of hope or redemption.

Posted By Emgee : February 29, 2016 8:45 pm

Wellmann comes across as someone who admired strongness of character, be it male or female. For the times that was a pretty advanced view, however conservative he was in many other respects.

I love Safe in Hell and Night Nurse; Frisco Jenny and The Purchase Price are somewhat too melodramatic for me, saved mainly by the strong central performances by Chatterton and Stanwyck.

Midnight Mary is a very enjoyable movie, not as dramatically weighty as the other films mentioned here, but again a great female lead. Roles like this would became thin on the ground for actresses in the Production Code era; more’s the pity.

Posted By Marjorie J. Birch : February 29, 2016 9:58 pm

How about a vote for “Westward the Women?”?

Posted By Susan Doll : February 29, 2016 11:06 pm

Marjorie: I love Westward the Women.

Posted By George : February 29, 2016 11:09 pm

I recently saw FRISCO JENNY for the first time. It’s an unknown gem that shouldn’t be unknown.

Posted By kingrat : February 29, 2016 11:18 pm

William Wellman, Jr. said that his dad was never happier in his career than when he was making 18 films in 9 years at Warner Brothers. I’m also a big fan of SAFE IN HELL, liked FRISCO JENNY and MIDNIGHT MARY, and agree with you about NIGHT NURSE.

WESTWARD THE WOMEN is excellent among his later films.

Posted By George : March 1, 2016 1:42 am

Also check out OTHER MEN’S WOMEN (1931) for early looks at Cagney, Blondell and Mary Astor, pre-stardom. The movie’s real star is Grant Withers, the John Wayne crony who ruined his career (and eventually his health) with booze.

Posted By Marco : March 2, 2016 2:12 pm

My favorite Wellman film is YELLOW SKY, one of the best Westerns ever made. It is so authentic and well acted with a cast of unforgettable characters played to the hilt by Gregory Peck, Richard Widmark, John Russell, Henry Morgan, James Barton and Ann Baxter in fully realized and believable roles. YELLOW SKY has everything that makes a Wild Bill Wellman movie distinctive. His son’s biography is a great tribute to a very remarkable man. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in discovering what made Wellman’s movies so memorable.

Posted By George : August 22, 2016 1:13 am

I just watched Wellman’s first “talkie,” 1929′s CHINATOWN NIGHTS, which was actually a (mostly) silent film with dubbed speech, music and sound effects. A few scenes appear to have been shot with sound, but most of it was obviously shot silent.

It’s a historical curio of what was happening as sound overtook Hollywood. Silent films in production were hastily grafted with sound, so they could be advertised as “100% Talking.” As for CHINATOWN NIGHTS, it’s actually a pretty good movie, with one of Wallace Beery’s rare subtle performances (subtle for Beery, that is). And it makes a good companion to Wellman’s later THE HATCHET MAN.

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