Over the decades, certain famous titles by director William “Wild Bill” Wellman have thrown a veil over another part of his work. Praised were the very real qualities of Wings (1927), Battleground (1949) and Public Enemy (1931), as was the audacity of The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), the extraordinary force of Westward the Women (1951), and the somewhat dated ambitions of Story of G.I. Joe (1945). And largely ignored were more modest works like Island in the Sky (1953) and Good-bye My Lady (1956). Who knew that Across the Wide Missouri (1951) had been as mutilated by MGM as was Huston’s Red Badge of Courage? Above all, there is the extraordinary body of films Wellman made for Warner Bros. between 1931 and 1934, which are, for the most part, narcotics of energy, vitality and dynamism. Those were qualities specific to that studio but which Wellman, who feared nothing, carried to the point of incandescence. In these films, six of which are newly released on DVD, he seems truly inspired, carried by the audacity of certain subjects.
His social films rank among the most radical and violent of the genre. Producer Hal Wallis cut several scenes from Wild Boys of the Road (1933), which he judged unsuitable for the public but which, for Wellman, corresponded to the reality of the Depression. The images of bands of children running around trains, spectacular and poignant, outclass those of the film that inspired them: Road to Life (1931) by Nikolai Ekk. In a stroke of supreme audacity, one hears the word communism spoken. Admittedly, in the magnificent Heroes for Sale (1933), the Marxist character is reclaimed by the “System,” as Richard Barthelmess’ morphine-addicted World War I vet tries to oppose a workers strike. But in addition to showing us this savage repression, Wellman casts a very critical eye on the police militia that hunts for the Reds. To my knowledge, it is one of the only films that alludes to this. The ending refuses to make concessions, and the last shot is admirable.
Night Nurse (1931), released in an earlier DVD set, and Safe in Hell (1931), conspicuously absent here, are also remarkable works, typical of the period, when one could still circumvent — even trample — the prohibitions of the Production Code, which Wild Bill and his screenwriters routinely did. In Safe in Hell, a police story is transformed little by little into a grinding, sarcastic fable. The heroine, obviously a prostitute, thinks she has committed a murder (the frankness, the invention, the rate/rhythm of the first sequences remain still amazing today). Running from the gangsters who want to eliminate her, she takes refuge on an island, where she faces a gallery of characters, all of whom represent a delinquent aspect of society. Watching this film, one is reminded of the Jean Genet of The Balcony. In his book pre-Code Hollywood, Thomas Doherty writes that Sinclair Lewis found the character of the cabaret singer, played by Clarence Muse, one of only two exceptions (the other being in his own Arrowsmith) to the period’s scorning treatment of blacks.
In Other Men’s Women (1931) — another triumph — the confounding vitality, the editing that integrates real exteriors, and the bits of daily life worked into the turns of the screenplay all trample rules and conventions, making for a tone, a style close to Renoir. The first sequence, a marivaudage in a bar, is set entirely to the rhythm of a passing train, the engine driver counting the coaches while chatting up a girl and drinking his coffee before jumping on the last baggage car. Still more impressive, an argument on a railway track is filmed in a single shot; when the young girl walks away, Wellman remains on the man, who continues to shout, louder and louder, his fiancée answering him from offscreen. James Cagney is once again brilliant here; his first appearance in the film is like a lightning bolt.
So here are four essential titles that can finally be rediscovered, in addition to which I was delighted to see for the first time Midnight Mary (1933) whose first 15 minutes display a tremendous energy (there is an idea in each shot) more typical of Warner than MGM (where it was made), which makes up for a much more contrived, unbelievable and plotty second half. But Loretta Young (whose accused murderess reads the life of Madame Recamier!) is exquisite in some of her dresses, especially one that reveals “the most tasty back” as Franchot Tone’s playboy desecribes it. There is also The Purchase Price (1932) with Barbara Stanwyck, a brilliant actress who seems completely at ease during this period and whom Wellman renders at once sexy, tender and strong — as strong, in any case, as all of her male co-stars. This third Forbidden Hollywood collection, which comes after two equally remarkable volumes, repairs an injustice and allows us to better appreciate this major period.
TCM ARCHIVES: FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD COLLECTION VOLUME THREE: WILLIAM WELLMAN AT WARNER BROS. | Warner Home Video | $49.92