William Wellman: The Films of Wild Bill

A few jottings in in tribute to Leap Year baby William Wellman (1896-1976).

Wellman has a reputation for being among the most macho of classic Hollywood film directors, equalling or exceeding the likes of Howard Hawks and John Huston. He’d been a decorated World War One fighting ace, flying for the French Foreign Legion (his nickname was “Wild Bill”, and then played professional ice hockey, where he was spotted by Douglas Fairbanks, who cast him in his film The Knickerbocker Buckaroo (1919). Following this he appeared in Raoul Walsh’s adaptation of Longfellow’s Evangeline (1919). But Wellman hated acting, and he famously hated actors, whom he took (correctly) to be vain, preening, and self-involved. He devoted himself to learning the mechanics of film-making itself, becoming A.D. on about a half dozen films before working his way up to director on the western The Man Who Won (1923) with Dustin Farnum. As a director he was known for working quickly in a no-nonsense fashion. He was not the type to indulge the shenanigans of prima donnas. Interestingly, his was the type of personality and method that went well with B movies or (later) television, but Wellman was an A list director, responsible for many award-winning classics and masterpieces. It’s just part of the mystery of Hollywood. Ya never know.

The first of Wellman’s legendary films is Wings (1927), which was set in the World War One aviation milieu he knew so well. The film’s technical challenges necessitated his devising innovative ways of shooting and devising and special camera mounts that were fixed to the planes, as well as motorized cameras that didn’t need to be hand-cranked. The all star film about a wartime love triangle featured Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers, Richard Arlen, Jobyna Ralston, El Brendel, Henry B. Walthall, Roscoe Karns, and a young Gary Cooper. Yowsa! A cast like that better pack a punch! The film won the very first Academy Award for Best Picture.

Of his dozen or so silent pix, one I’d like to cite for special attention is his slapstick comedy The Boob (1926), which starred Gertrude Olmstead, a young Joan Crawford, George K, Arthur, Charles Murray, Hank Mann, and Babe London. 

Classics of the sound era included The Public Enemy (1931), Night Nurse (1931), So Big! (1932), Call of the Wild (1935), the original version of A Star is Born (1937), Beau Geste (1939), Roxie Hart (1942), and Lady of Burlesque (1943). Note that three of those starred Barbara Stanwyck, one of the most no-nonsense actresses in Hollywood. Some western classics include The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Buffalo Bill (1944), Yellow Sky (1948), Across the Wide Missouri (1951), and Westward the Women (1951). His last film, Lafayette Escadrille (1958) was a return to his WWI aviation themes, a labor of love. He reportedly quit the film business due to studio interference with him realizing his vision for this picture.

His five wives included actress Helen Chandler, Ziegfeld showgirl Margery Chapin, and former Busby Berkley dancer Dorothy Coonan. 

For more on silent and classic film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.