Combustible Celluloid
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With: Loretta Young, Barbara Stanwyck, Grant Withers, Regis Toomey, Mary Astor, Joan Blondell, James Cagney, Ruth Chatterton, Richard Barthelmess, Frankie Darro, Dorothy Coonan, Rochelle Hudson, Edwin Phillips, George Brent
Written by: Robert Lord, Wilson Mizner, Gene Markey, Kathryn Scola, Maude Fulton, Daniel Ahern, Earl Baldwin, Gerald Beaumont, Lillie Hayward, John Francis Larkin, Anita Loos, Arthur Stringer, William K. Wells
Directed by: William Wellman
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 573
Date: 03/18/2013

Forbidden Hollywood Collection Vol. 3 (2009)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Well, Well, Wellman

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

A handful of William Wellman's films are quite well known today, including Wings (1927), The Public Enemy (1931), A Star Is Born (1937), Nothing Sacred (1937), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) and The High and the Mighty (1954), but there is a movement afoot to make more of an auteur of him and to celebrate the rest of his large output of 70-odd films. David Thomson and Andrew Sarris have both written that Wellman was an uneven director at best, with little or no personality in his work. Manny Farber praised the quick pace and atmosphere of Wellman's films, though admitted that he was at his best when working with the most wretched of material.

The truth is that Wellman was more of a legend in person than he was behind the camera. Nicknamed "Wild Bill," he was apparently a petty crook, a war hero and a hockey player. There are stories of tantrums and foul language and battles with the stuffed suits in the main office. Some critics, in reviewing his films, merely quote some of his salty turns of phrase. Several different legends exist as to how he met Douglas Fairbanks, who brought him into the picture business. In a short time, Wellman had made the first Oscar winner for Best Picture, Wings, which was also a huge hit. It could be argued that he spent the rest of his career trying to re-create this legendary success, either directly or indirectly. Warner Home Video has now released the "Forbidden Hollywood Collection Vol. 3," with six more pre-code films, all directed by Wellman. All six films run less than 80 minutes, at a breakneck pace, and all feature at least one gut-punch of a great scene. But the films are also shamelessly preachy, self-conscious, self-righteous, and even grossly sentimental. Some of their lowest moments reminded me of some of Ed Wood's highest moments.

Wild Boys of the Road (1933) is probably the most notable of the set. Pauline Kael wrote that its amazing train-hopping sequence "has become a standard of anthology films" -- including A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies -- but also notes that the rest of the picture is not nearly as tough as that scene makes it seem. Two boys, their families burdened by the depression, hit the road to find work in the big city, but wind up living like thugs and vagabonds. One of the boys loses his leg in a train accident, and Wellman handles it with great heaviness. But that's nothing compared to the cringe-worthy dialogue in the final sequence.

For my money Barbara Stanwyck is the greatest film actress of the 20th century. Wellman worked with her five times, so they must have had some kind of kinship, but The Purchase Price (1932) is a heap of hogwash. Not even Stanwyck at her best and most beautiful can save it. She plays a nightclub singer who tires of the fast lane and longs to settle down. Fate steps in and she winds up married to a farmer in the middle of nowhere, but farm life turns out to be just as miserable as city life. It's roughly the same plot as F.W. Murnau's City Girl (1930), but whereas Murnau found beauty and poetry in his images, Wellman can't rise above the worst kind of cheap claptrap, with no emotional throughline. (He can't even bother to find anything dramatic in images of burning wheat.) He crosses highly disturbing imagery with broad, stupid slapstick, leaving a kind of sickening feeling. Only one image, with a jilted Stanwyck sitting in a window, looking at her reflection and the street beyond, has any resonance.

Heroes for Sale (1933) is just plain bizarre. It starts out as a full-fledged war film, where a heroic soldier, Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess), captures a German hostage and the cowardly Roger Winston (Gordon Westcott) gets all the credit. Back home, Tom becomes addicted to Morphine, rises to the top of a laundry business, gets caught in a killer mob, goes to jail, etc. There's a lot of plot crammed into its 71 minutes, and the constant lurching can leave your stomach turned inside out. Not to mention that almost all the sequences are trying hard to say something important about humanity: be kind, don't fight wars, don't be a coward, don't do drugs, don't succumb to mob mentality, don't trust machines, etc. Many of these themes were Wellman's favorites; the mob footage, especially, looks forward to The Ox-Bow Incident. But it's hard to argue that Wellman presented this any more forcefully than Fritz Lang did in Fury (1936).

The other films in the set include Other Men's Women (1931), with James Cagney in a supporting role, a train crash and a flood. Frisco Jenny (1932) is another heavy-handed parable that includes a raucous re-creation of the San Francisco earthquake. And Midnight Mary (1933), from a story by Anita Loos, is probably the most lurid of the set, with perfectly-groomed Loretta Young looking back on her life of crime and debauchery. Some of the films include commentary tracks, and there are trailers, cartoons and other shorts. The set also includes the 1995 feature documentary Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick, which offers little more than talking heads, clips and endless praise. Finally, there's the Wellman installment of "The Men Who Made the Movies" series.

My favorite Wellman film, Night Nurse (1931), was actually included on the last "Forbidden Hollywood" collection. It has that sure-footed toughness that Wellman's fans like to talk about, and it blasts right through any cornball sentiment or preachiness. That's the guy we should be celebrating.

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