William Wellman

The Wild Man of Hollywood

by Sean McCloy


During his life, William Wellman was better known for his larger than life personality than his prolific career as a film director. A Wellman film set was more often than not witness to fistfights, wild parties and daring stunts (all of which ususally involved the director himself). Many actors disliked his method of bullying a performance out of them. Wellman even dared to argue with John Wayne during the making of The High And The Mighty (1954). It's not surprising that much of the Hollywood establishment didn't like him. Irene Selznick (first wife to David Selznick, daughter to Louis B. Mayer) referred to him as "a terror, a shoot-up-the-town fellow, trying to be a great big masculine I-don't-know-what. David had a real weakness for him. I didn't share it." Wellman was born in Brookline, Massachusetts on the leap year date of 29 February,1896. Like many of his contemporaries (and unlike today's fim-makers) he got his education not from college or film school but from living life to the full. His last taste of the education system came with him being kicked out of school for delinquency. In 1914, Wellman began to earn a living as a professional ice hockey star but he yearned to become a pilot. However, as his father "didn't have enough money for me to become a flier in the regular way...I went into a war to become a flier." In 1917, he left the U.S.A. to join the French Foreign Legion where he indeed learned to fly. When America entered World War One, Wellman signed up as a fighter pilot with the famous Lafayette Flying Corps. It was in France, renowned for his devil-may-care flying antics, that he was given the nickname 'Wild Bill', the name that would stick with him the rest of his life. Wild Bill's war would come to an end however when he was shot down just as the conflict itself was about to cease. Shipped home, Wellman discovered that exaggerating his limp was an excellent way to impress women. Also impressed by this dashing war hero was Douglas Fairbanks. Fairbanks had previously introduced himself to Wellman after watching him on the hockey rink, convinced that he had the good looks to be an actor. Wellman now decided to take Fairbanks up on his offer, flying down to Hollywood and landing in his and Mary Pickford's back yard. After initial acting roles in the silent film Knickerbocker Buckaroo (1919) and being fired from the Raoul Walsh movie Evangeline (for slapping an hysterical lead actress, who unfortunately turned out to be Walsh's wife), Wellman decided to turn his attention to being a director. A "purely financial" decision as he remembered. Apprenticeship came as a messenger for Goldwyn Pictures in 1920, also the year of his directorial debut, The Twins of Suffering Creek. As Wellman continued to learn the ropes, he led a varied early career as a director. Hired by the Fox Studio to direct The Man Who Won (1923), he was subsequently fired when he asked for a raise. He also directed a few B-westerns, taking over the reins when the original director had too massive a hangover to function properly. However, it was when he heard that Paramount was planning a large scale WW1 flying epic that Wellman knew his big break could be around the corner.

There are so many aspects of the production of Wings (1927) that must have been huge gambles. Here was a major studio taking a risk on a twenty-nine year old director being paid $250 a week, responsible for the marshalling of some 3,500 army personnel, 65 pilots and 165 planes. Not to mention handling the large budget of this prestige production. There were times during the film's production when Wellman came perilously close to being fired. Bemused studio bosses looked on as the production went over budget and over schedule. This was due in part to Wellman's insistence on waiting for the right cloud formations to give the aerial sequences depth of field. Eventually, Wings would take over a year to make but it turned out to be one of the biggest hits of the silent era, running for over two years in one New York theatre. Wellman had survived the shoot without being fired, but Paramount failed to renew his contract. He wasn't even invited to the Academy Awards, where Wings was awarded the first ever Best Picture Oscar. And if today the dramatics of Wings look a little dated, the scenes of airborne combat are still just as thrilling to behold. Wings initiated a whole series of WW1 flying pictures, including Howard Hawks' The Dawn Patrol (1930), Hell's Angels (1930) and Wellman's own The Legion of the Condemned (1928). This film highlighted Wellman's knack for spotting nascent stars as it was the first leading role for Gary Cooper, the "awkward, lovable guy" who the director had previously cast in a small role in Wings. Wellman would work with another icon in the shape of Louise Brooks the same year. The film was The Beggars of Life, one of Hollywood's first sympathetic portraits of hoboes. Brooks recalled that "So intruiged was I by the quiet sadism practised by Billy behind the camera, especially in his direction of women, that I began to investigate his past life...More than a director, he resembled an actor who was uncertain in his part." Wellman always said that he preferred working with men simply because he disliked what he saw as the fuss of make-up and hairdressing that actresses would go through before each scene. He was married five times (to amongst others, a Hollywood glamour star and a Zeigfeld Follies showgirl) before he met his match - a Busby Berkely dancer named Dorothy Coonan who Wellman credited with saving him from becoming a macho parody of himself. Tellingly, the only occasion he cast Dorothy in one of his films, he masculinised her, dressing her up as a man when she played a tomboy in Wild Boys of the Road (1933). Wild Boys belongs to the series of social conscience pictures Wellman made for Warner Bros. during the 1930s. This tale of freight-hopping children forced to search for work during the Depression has a real urgency and feeling of affinity with society's outcasts that still impresses today. It stands alongside such punchy works as Heroes For Sale (1933), Star Witness (1931), Midnight Mary (1933) and Night Nurse (1931). All films crying out to be rediscovered. But they are all overshadowed by Wellman's most famous work from these years, The Public Enemy (1931). The origins of this film arose from Wellman taking the idea to producer Darryl Zanuck (a man who in Wellman's words could "take a headline in a paper and make a picture faster than anybody in the business.") and guaranteeing that he'd "make it the toughest [gangster film] of them all." This tale of Irish American hoodlum Tom Powers' rise and fall still packs a wallop and made a star out of James Cagney (who had originally been cast in the secondary role). Martin Scorsese for one has singled out Wellman's use of music in the film as an influence on Mean Streets . Other notable films of the 1930s include rugged outdoor adventures such as The Call of the Wild (1935), an entertaining misinterpretation of Jack London's great book with Clark Gable's role expanded (well, he was a bigger box office draw than any old dog the studio could cast), and a rousing version of Beau Geste (1939), worth seeing for its myterious opening scene and Brian Donlevy's terrifying performance as a sadistic officer. Elsewhere, The Light That Failed (1939) saw Wellman tacking drama and Rudyard Kipling, providing the great Ida Lupino with one of her most memorable early roles.

It was in comedy that Wellman really made his mark during these years, especially in a terrific pair of films for David O. Selznick. Nothing Sacred (1936), from a script by Ben Hecht, is a wicked satire on the media up there with the author's own His Girl Friday (1940). The story centred on Carole Lomard's smalltown girl Hazel Flagg, supposedly dying of radium poisoning and brought to New York by desperate hack journalist Wally Cook (Frederic March). The acidic satire on the American fame game would continue later in Roxie Hart (1942), where Ginger Roger's showgirl so desperately wants to advance her career she goes so far as to confess to a murder she didn't commit. Roxie Hart is apparently one of Stanley Kubrick's favourite films, but Wellman was really at his best when he made A Star Is Born (1937). Originally entitled 'It Happened In Hollywood', the inspiration for this seminal movie about the movie business can be found in a few sources. Firstly from the true story of silent film star John Bowers, who commited suicide by walking into the sea (reenacted by Frederic March's Norman Maine). As something of a boozer himself, Wellman knew what it was like to be hauled up in front of a judge for disorderly conduct (just like Maine in the film). The movie also owes something to Gerge Cukor's film of What Price Hollywood? (1932), with its story about a starlet surpassing her husband in fame and success. Out of these elements, Wellman created one of the most caustic portraits of Hollywood which like Nothing Sacred made subtle use of the early Technicolor process. The director won his only Academy Award for Best Original Story, sharing it with co-author Robert Carson, but some controversy remains about the authorship of the script. Wellman, after winning the Oscar, publicly announced that the award really belonged to Selznick and so he gave it to his producer. Selznick would later claim the film to be largely his own work, saying that it was "a concept of my own, to tell the story of a rising star and a falling star.".....

The remainder of this article can be found in Film West 34.