William A. Wellman: 10 essential films

He directed the first ever winner of the Oscar for best picture, alongside timeless gangster movies, westerns, war films and screwball comedies. Here are 10 of the toppermost films by ‘Wild Bill’ Wellman, who was born 120 years ago.

Matthew Thrift
Updated:

William A. Wellman

William A. Wellman

Another year, another Oscar ceremony over and done with Spotlight joining the ranks of winners that began back in 1929, when aeronautical extravaganza Wings took the first statuette awarded for ‘outstanding picture’. That film’s director, William A. Wellman was born 120 years ago on 29 February 1896, and would go on to amass a CV with more than 80 pictures to his name.

Given the name ‘Wild Bill’ as a result of his reckless flying during the war, his reputation as a brawling ladies’ man ensured it stuck through his career as a filmmaker. Known for his tough, no-nonsense way with actors – Louise Brooks, who he directed in Beggars of Life (1928), had little good to say about him in her memoirs – and attraction to projects heavy on the machismo, Wellman was every bit a member of Hollywood’s golden age boy’s club as Howard Hawks or John Ford.

Yet his reputation today, as a filmmaker, is nowhere near as revered as those two titans. Instead, he’s seen as a journeyman director with a handful of impressive films to his name. Yet while there’s no escaping the crudity of much of his output, the sweeping disregard for so much of Wellman’s output bears some re-thinking.

He could be a muscular director of action, a sharply satirical and cynical social commentator, as well as a smart collaborator, especially with writers. For all the films that don’t really come together, choosing just 10 that stand as ‘essential’ proved a tough call, leaving no room for the likes of Beggars of Life (1928), The Public Enemy (1931), Frisco Jenny (1932), Midnight Mary (1933), Heroes for Sale (1933) or Beau Geste (1939) – all deserving of inclusion in one way or another.

Not all filmmakers get to be John Ford, but there are hundreds more who can only aspire to a career like Wild Bill Wellman’s.

Other Men’s Women (1931)

 Other Men's Women (1931)

Arguably Wellman’s most consistently rich period, his pre-code run of punchy 70-minute gems in the early 30s takes some beating. 1931 was a particularly good year, not only for catapulting James Cagney to superstardom as the grapefruit-wielding misogynist and ill-fated tough guy Tom Powers in The Public Enemy, but for the two corkers which open our list. Other Men’s Women is up there with Wellman’s best, a cracking melodrama that sees Cagney in a small, supporting role (his train-top entrance alone an invitation to stardom). An adulterous love-triangle sets the stage for the fall-outs and tragedies to come, with Wellman’s lack of finger-wagging as impressive as his visual orchestrations and knack with actors, exemplified in two stellar performances from Mary Astor and Joan Blondell.

Night Nurse (1931)

Night Nurse (1931)

Come for the early performances from Barbara Stanwyck and Clark Gable, stay for what turns out to be one of Wellman’s toughest, strangest cookies. Opening and closing with a nifty POV-shot from inside a speeding ambulance, Night Nurse follows new recruit Stanwyck’s on-the-job initiation. What begins with a quasi-documentary approach to hospital life, along with plenty of pre-code tawdriness (the nurses always seem to be undressing), soon takes a darker turn as Stanwyck’s night shift finds her overseeing two young girls slowly being murdered as their mother drinks herself to oblivion at an endless bacchanal in the next room. Gable sneers, Stanwyck plays it tough, as Wellman cracks his knuckles and throws a succession of mean directorial jabs.

Wild Boys of the Road (1933)

Wild Boys of the Road (1933)

Another of his early best, Wild Boys of the Road sees Wellman at his most politically engaged. Downsizing the characters of Beggars of Life to a trio of kids, forced cross-country in a bid to find work and ease the burden on their suddenly-impoverished folks, the film pulls no punches confronting the grim slide into the social gutter of the Depression. Wellman’s location filming captures a nation on its knees, while his ubiquitous cynicism adopts a bleaker register for the half-baked solutions and empty opportunities offered in the face of violence and trauma.

A Star Is Born (1937)

A Star is Born (1937)

Given how many times even the official telling of the A Star Is Born narrative has been around the block (a fourth iteration with some combination of Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper and Beyoncé attached has been mooted for a while now), Hollywood clearly holds some stock in the timelessness of its most famous parallel rise-and-fall tale. While never nearing the magnificent heights of George Cukor’s 1954 remake, it earned Wellman his first Oscar nomination for best director and won him one for his story – fitting given his seeming interest in plotting an assuredly balanced path to tragic inevitability over more inspired visual concerns.

Nothing Sacred (1937)

Nothing Sacred (1937)

Wellman’s is hardly a name one thinks of as synonymous with screwball, and perhaps that’s the reason Nothing Sacred tends to get over-looked when discussing the higher echelons of the genre canon. For a film as magnificently subversive and brazenly cynical – not to mention hilarious – it’s a major oversight, especially given a performance from Carole Lombard to rank among her best. Keeping the minor detail of misdiagnosis to herself, Lombard jets off to NYC from her small-town home, high-society falling at her feet, convinced she’s dying of radiation poisoning and has days to live. Fredric March is in tow, a journo needing her life-affirming story to save his job. Ben Hecht brings the words, Wellman the pace, Lombard the anxiety-driven lols – a fight with March to wear her out and synthesise a fever proves a slapstick battle for the ages.

Roxie Hart (1942)

Roxie Hart (1942)

Whatever goods were added by Bob Fosse and Kander & Ebb – or subtracted by Rob Marshall – William Wellman’s Roxie Hart remains the sharpest (and certainly the most cynical) adaptation of Maurine Watkins’ Chicago. Nunnally Johnson and an uncredited Ben Hecht were on screenwriting duties, dedicating the film to “All the beautiful women in the world who have shot their men full of holes out of pique.” A brassier spiritual twin to Nothing Sacred, it features Ginger Rogers in arguably her strongest turn as Roxie – “The prettiest woman ever charged with murder in the history of Chicago” – while Adolphe Menjou leads the pack of supporting players delirious with professional and moral bankruptcy.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

Wellman’s first adaptation of Walter Van Tilburg Clark (he’d return to the author’s work for Track of the Cat in 1954) is a model of allegorical economy. An unlawfully deputised posse forms in pursuit of three men accused of killing a cattle-rancher and stealing his herd, stringing up nooses to dispense frontier justice by mob-rule. Henry Fonda is the impotent moral centre, his anti-heroism ultimately serving as the film’s killer blow. Wellman strips back all but Arthur Miller’s stark lighting schemes – nooses bearing the weight of expectation; the off-screen lynching itself – as the sound-stage artifice heightens a sense of a morality play universal in its troublingly bleak pertinence.

Yellow Sky (1948)

Yellow Sky (1948)

Were it not for some alarmingly dodgy sexual politics – from Gregory Peck’s assault on Anne Baxter to her final acquiescence (via a bonnet) to his idea of feminine norms – Yellow Sky might rank among Wellman’s best. It certainly hits the ground running, as a band of bank-robbing ne’er-do-wells are abandoned to an unforgiving expanse of Death Valley wasteland by pursuing cavalrymen. Barely making it to the derelict shell of an old mining town – populated only by Baxter and her grizzled pops – the gold in them there hills leads to a The Treasure of the Sierra Madre-esque series of pacts, double-crosses and stand-offs led by a no-good Richard Widmark. Wellman’s interest in socio-political effect on action and circumstance – in this case the American civil war – remains acute, even in pursuit of some of his sharpest genre licks.

Battleground (1949)

Battleground (1949)

Fifty years before Steven Spielberg made a bid for verisimilitude in the depiction of frontline fighting with Saving Private Ryan (1998), Wellman delivered a pair of war films that remain undimmed in their visceral power. Story of G.I. Joe (1945) cast actual troops en route to the Pacific, many of whom died without seeing it, with the film bearing out the lived-in details of experience. It’s an approach that extends to the terrific Battleground – whose screenwriter, Robert Pirosh served as an infantryman in the Battle of the Bulge. Wellman follows the “Battered Bastards of Bastogne” with an acute sensitivity to the nuances of character and a documentarian’s eye for the grim realities of war. 

Track of the Cat (1954)

Track of the Cat (1954)

It’s incredible to think that Wellman’s deliciously strange Track of the Cat was released in 1954, let alone that it bears a producer credit for John Wayne (in gratitude for the success of the same year’s The High and the Mighty). Its familial tensions and embedded resentments have drawn comparisons to O’Neill, but it’s critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s citation of Dreyer’s Ordet (1955) that feels most apposite, not least in Wellman’s formal reductions – draining all colour from the puritanical Bridges family’s embittered existence, bar the vivid red slash of Robert Mitchum’s jacket against a snow-blasted landscape. Metaphorical and starkly existential, it’s no surprise the film did little business on release, with even its director describing it as “a flop artistically, financially and Wellmanly”. Studio chief Jack Warner didn’t like it either; Wellman told him to “go shit in a hat”.

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