Sunday, June 7, 2015

Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel

Author:  William Wellman, Jr.
Genre:  Biography
ISBN #. 9780307377708; 656 pages; Pantheon; April 7, 2015

Five Stars

The extraordinary life—the first—of the legendary, undercelebrated Hollywood director known in his day as “Wild Bill” (and he was!) Wellman, whose eighty-two movies (six of them uncredited), many of them iconic; many of them sharp, cold, brutal; others poetic, moving; all of them a lesson in close-up art, ranged from adventure and gangster pictures to comedies, aviation, romances, westerns, and searing social dramas.

Among his iconic pictures: the pioneering World War I epic Wings (winner of the first Academy Award for best picture), Public Enemy (the toughest gangster picture of them all), Nothing Sacred, the original A Star Is Born, Beggars of Life, The Call of the Wild, The Ox-Bow Incident, Battleground, The High and the Mighty...

David O. Selznick called him “one of the motion pictures’ greatest craftsmen.”

Robert Redford described him as “feisty, independent, self-taught, and self-made. He stood his ground and fought his battles for artistic integrity, never wavering, always clear in his film sense.”

Wellman directed Hollywood’s biggest stars for three decades, including Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, John Wayne, Lauren Bacall, and Clint Eastwood. It was said he directed “like a general trying to break out of a beachhead.” He made pictures with such noted producers as Darryl F. Zanuck, Nunnally Johnson, Jesse Lasky, and David O. Selznick.

Here is a revealing, boisterous portrait of the handsome, tough-talking, hard-drinking, uncompromising maverick (he called himself a “crazy bastard”)—juvenile delinquent; professional ice-hockey player as a kid; World War I flying ace at twenty-one in the Lafayette Flying Corps (the Lafayette Escadrille), crashing more than six planes (“We only had four instruments, none of which worked. And no parachutes . . . Greatest goddamn acrobatics you ever saw in your life”)—whose own life story was more adventurous and more unpredictable than anything in the movies. Wellman was a wing-walking stunt pilot in barnstorming air shows, recipient of the Croix de Guerre with two Gold Palm Leaves and five United States citations; a bad actor but good studio messenger at Goldwyn Pictures who worked his way up from assistant cutter; married to five women, among them Marjorie Crawford, aviatrix and polo player; silent picture star Helene Chadwick; and Dorothy Coonan, Busby Berkeley dancer, actress, and mother of his seven children.

Irene Mayer Selznick, daughter of Louis B. Mayer, called Wellman “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.” Yet she believed enough in Wellman’s vision and cowritten script about Hollywood to persuade her husband to produce A Star Is Born, which Wellman directed.

After he took over directing Tarzan Escapes at MGM, Wellman went to Louis B. Mayer and asked to make another Tarzan picture on his own.

“What are you talking about? It’s beneath your dignity,” said Mayer.

“To hell with that,” said Wellman, “I haven’t got any dignity.”

Now William Wellman, Jr., drawing on his father’s unpublished letters, diaries, and unfinished memoir, gives us the first full portrait of the man—boy, flyer, husband, father, director, artist. Here is a portrait of a profoundly American spirit and visionary, a man’s man who was able to put into cinematic storytelling the most subtle and fulsome of feeling, a man feared, respected, and loved.


If anyone doesn't know who Wild Bill Wellman does, I can only tell them:  You should.  He was Hollywood's original maverick director, who refused to bow not only to producers of his films, but to the studios themselves.  He did things his way, and he did them with passion, determination, vision, integrity, honesty, independence, style; and, if I chose to continue on, I could probably come up with a few more words to describe Bill Wellman.

To tell the truth, I fell in love with his movies the first time I saw Night Nurse with Barbara Stanwyck, Ben Lyon, and a very un-mustachioed Clark Gable as the heavy of the piece.  It was, in my opinion, a great movie, and made me want to learn more about the man behind the camera.

And learn I did.  This is a hefty book (656 pages) but well worth the read.  We learn about Bill's parents, his birth, his abiding love for his mother Celia, his rampant and uncontrollable childhood and youth (through no fault of his mother's, I might add), his determination to become a flyer, even as it took him to Europe and becoming a part of the elite Lafayette Escadrille.  Highly decorated, jaded in war, devastated in love, Bill returned home tired - but never broken.  He was determined to make something of himself, and that something brought him to a fateful meeting with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. that would change his life forever.

Once in Hollywood he turned his talents to acting, but decided early on that he wanted to become a director.  Given a chance to show what he could do, he gave us one of the most famous films in moviedom, and the recipient of the first Academy Award for Best Picture:  Wings.

While his troubles in Hollywood with the studio heads - and actors - continued for years, Bill stayed true to himself and created a wealth of movies that will stand the test of time.  They are some of the best classics around: The aforementioned Night Nurse, Safe in Hell, Midnight Mary, Nothing Sacred, The Light That Failed, Beau Geste; and along with Wings, two masterpieces without a doubt:  A Star is Born, and The Public Enemy with James Cagney, who, by the way, was given the role of a lifetime by Bill Wellman himself.

But please know that this book is not merely a filmology of Mr. Wellman's work.  It is also the story of his life:  Five marriages, seven children, his relationship with them and his family; his relationships with actors, crew, and the studios he worked for.

I could probably go on and on about all the wonderful things regarding this book, but I would rather leave you with the request to read it yourself, and a quote from Miss Barbara Stanwyck herself, who once told someone something regarding Bill:  "I love that man."  Well, Miss Stanwyck, so do I.  Highly recommended. 

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