Jobless Wanderers, Hard Fingers, and Pure Grace: Wellman 101

The following is an essay by once-a-generation film critic poet Fernando F. Croce, enormously respected writer from Mubi Notebook and Cinepassion with a bit of William A. Wellman 101. Read Fernando’s inimitable take on the director of The Story of G.I. Joe, told in his signature linguistic curlicues, the authorial equivalent of a Thanksgiving feast for a starving man. Read how Wellman set himself apart from peers John Ford, Raoul Walsh, and Fritz Lang and made a name for himself before the advent and enforcement of the production code, the censorship system imposed on Hollywood product by the notorious Will Hayes. It’s been a dream of mine to commission a piece by Fern, so please enjoy this all-too-rare occurrence.

-Scout Tafoya



Jobless Wanderers, Hard Fingers, and Pure Grace: Wellman 101

By Fernando Croce

Ford could have been an admiral and Walsh a buccaneer, imagined Godard on the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma, envisioning alternate professions for filmmakers had their medium ceased to exist. Judging from the flurries of jabbing activity that stud his distinctive spareness, William A. Wellman could have been one hell of a boxer. Pugnacity is the attitude uniting his pilots and hoodlums and soldiers and broads: Daredevils in their own private orbits even when—especially when—on the ground, under the director’s beloved sky, close to grit and grime. Fighting and falling in love have the same pugilistic drive, in A Star Is Born Janet Gaynor and Fredric March meet-cute by smashing plates in a fancy kitchen, in Nothing Sacred March and Carole Lombard know they’re meant for each other after exchanging blows. In Wild Boys of the Road, Frankie Darro is asked about happiness and replies with a series of backflips and headspins, a dashof exuberance that screeches to a halt when he meets the gaze of the pal who’s lost his leg during their travails. Physical actors for a physical director, James Cagney perhaps the most physical of all, zigzagging through The Public Enemy with a panther’s grace, doing an impromptu shuffle to celebrate a date with Jean Harlow and leaping around a corner to dodge a hail of bullets. (In Other Men’s Women, he steps out of the rain and into a ballroom to reveal a resplendent tuxedo under his wet overalls and sweeps his date onto the dance floor in a beautifully continuous movement.)

Though he first made his name with the silent epic Wings, Wellman came into his own in the early Thirties with a series of taut Warner Brothers programmers, five, six, seven of them a year, each compressing entire worlds in barely over an hour. In these assembly-line cherry-bombs, Wellman is nothing less than a pre-Code Balzac as his characters scrap to stay afloat in a national flow of penury, savagery and desire. Heroes for Sale opens in the Great War’s trenches and closes with lines of jobless wanderers, and in between paints a ruthless picture of former doughboys addicted to painkillers, worker riots squashed by police forces, and Forgotten Men who refuse to be engulfed by a mechanistic system. This agit-prop spirit pushed the director—often characterized as a macho specialist with little patience for actresses—to trenchant snapshots of feminine struggle and resilience. There’s Dorothy Mackaill in Safe in Hell, fiercely protecting her body from a slew of seamy expatriates in a lawless tropical island. There’s Ruth Chatterton in Frisco Jenny, rising from the rubble of the San Francisco Earthquake to become a powerful madam with a crusading son, in the process suggesting an American cousin to Kinuyo Tanaka in The Life of Oharu. Above all, there’s Barbara Stanwyck. A tiny tower of strength in starched whites (Night Nurse) and an urban slang-slinger fighting prairie fires (The Purchase Price) before returning the next decade as centenarian pioneer (The Great Man’s Lady) and strip-joint sleuth (Lady of Burlesque), she’s the Wellman dame par excellence.

Opposite these films (which also include the marvelous sagebrush sorority of Westward the Women) are Wellman’s Forties masculine groups, studies of, in Manny Farber’s words, “mulish toughs expressing themselves in drop-kicking heads and somber standing around.” A jeremiad on mob mentality, The Ox-Bow Incident is a harrowing miniature, its sound-stage claustrophobia and painted-backdrop artificiality pointing up its nature as something of a laboratory experiment. Cigarette flares during a nocturnal manhunt, dangling shadows to state the fruit of a makeshift execution, Henry Fonda’s eyes masked by the brim of a hat as he reads a dead man’s letter—hard-fingered imagery in a model of economical storytelling, its most daring observation, considering its wartime production, being men’s eagerness to get back into old uniforms. Combat heroics are strikingly de-dramatized in The Story of G.I. Joe, where survival is the plain goal of weary infantrymen abroad in a reportage anchored by the contrasting visages of Burgess Meredith and Robert Mitchum, closer to the Rossellini of Paisà than to the rah-rah of concurrent Hollywood productions. Jocular where G.I. Joe is grave,Battleground cracks MGM gloss with Warners’ rambunctiousness—the Battle of the Bulge setting suggests a massive canvas, but the human-sized soldiers are less concerned with striking historical poses than with scrambling eggs in their helmets. Yellow Sky substitutes the desert for Battleground’s snowy expanses to find another makeshift community in a void, a spectral western filmed on the salt flats of Stroheim’s Greed and featuring a climactic shootout staged withflashing gun blasts glimpsed from the outside of an abandoned saloon.

Like Ford or Lang, Wellman simultaneously suggests a director born at the very beginning of the movies as well as an exploratory modernist. Wild Boys of the Road anticipates Bonnie and Clyde with an abrupt screen-within-a-screen that contrasts Busby Berkeley escapism with Depression turmoil, while Robin Hood of El Dorado predicts The Wild Bunchwith its fondness for dropouts and mingling of brutality and elegy. In the Fifties, his pace became more measured, his surfaces more rigid, his idiosyncrasies more pronounced. A passion project that exists in the ruins of studio interference, Across the Wide Missouri still boasts the rich sight of J. Carrol Naish as a Nez Perce chief lumbering through a melee in a medieval suit of armor. Even stranger is Track of the Cat, a bitter abstraction of civilization at the edge of the world, adducing Dreyer severity and O’Neill disintegration to the hunt for a marauding, never-seen mountain lion. His last film, Lafayette Escadrille, is Wellman’s most autobiographical, though a better final note lies in Good-bye, My Lady, where a potentially saccharine tale of a boy and his dog is transformed into a portrait of pure grace by a director who always looked his material straight in the eye. Did Wellman simply make too many movies? If his reputation isn’t as sturdy in cinephiliac circles as those of other Old Pros, it’s because there’s so much still to discover. At his exhilarating best, “Wild Bill” endures as a prime example of that early cinema specimen, the freewheeling, combustible journeyman who might sock you in the jaw for calling him an artist.

Fernando F. Croce is a film critic.