William Wellman
William Wellman

Kino Lorber’s upcoming DVD release of “Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick,” about the life of director William Wellman, is welcome for a couple of reasons. One: In the Great Filmography of American cinema, Wellman, much like Howard Hawks, is a bit like Zelig. He’s everywhere. He made perhaps THE archetypal gangster picture, “Public Enemy” (1931), which not only introduced James Cagney to the screen but planted the concept of the anti-hero in a war- and Depression-weary American psyche. 

He made the ur-screwball comedy “Nothing Sacred” (1937) with Carole Lombard and Frederic March; he made the highly idealistic Foreign Legion adventure “Beau Geste” (1939 version). He twisted the western into politically volatile morality play with “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943). He directed Barbara Stanwyck five times including in “Lady in Burlesque” (1943) and he made what many consider the definitive World War II film, “The Story of G.I. Joe.” Oh yeah: He won a screenplay Oscar for writing the original “A Star Is Born” (1937, and no, not the one with Judy Garland). Aaaand, BTW, he won the first Best Picture Oscar for “Wings” (1927) during a ceremony to which he was not invited by his studio.

Why? Well he wasn’t an easy guy, but that’s the other reason “Wild Bill” is so refreshing. Like Hawks, Raoul Walsh and a handful of others, Wellman was a director who had a life before the movies. He didn’t graduate from film school and then travel via pneumatic tube into the warm embrace of a three-picture deal. Among other thing, he was in the Lafayette Escadrille, the foreign flyers who fought for France in the early days of World War I, was shot down and suffered injuries that left him with a permanent limp. 

"The Public Enemy"
"The Public Enemy"
He became a director of war pictures who knew what war was. The experiences and the bonds he formed with other men would inform his entire body of work (the kiss between male characters in “Wings” seems rather extraordinary now, especially when one considers it was shot in 1927). He would only take so much crap from studio bosses. He once threatened to set fire to Jack Warner’s office.

All of this is covered in “Wild Bill,” which was made back in 1996 (Wellman’s centenary, and cinema’s) and directed by Todd Robinson. William Wellman Jr., who just finished a second book on his father, was executive producer of the documentary and has gotten plenty of mileage out of a project that includes appearances by a number of dearly departed Wellman collaborators – including Robert Mitchum, Jane Wyman, Burgess Meredith, Buddy Rodgers, James Whitmore and Richard Widmark – and narration by Alec Baldwin.

“At some point I realized that my father was being pretty well forgotten,” said William Wellman Jr. “His last film was in ’58 [“Lafayette Escadrille”] when my acting career was just getting started, and I realized he was being forgotten along with a lot of others. Filmmakers of his era didn’t really get revived until the ‘70s and ‘80s; Richard Schickel did “The Men Who Made the Movies” and that kind of revived my father’s legacy. And of course I was trying to shine a light because I always thought his body of work was underappreciated.”

The Wellman “brand” was never the same as a Hitchcock or Ford because “you never knew what you were going to get,” Wellman Jr. said. “Part of that had to do with his impatience, not wanting to wait around. If a script wasn’t quite right he could still infuse a certain energy into it. He liked to do that. Also, the moguls, even though he fought with them, they knew he could make a good story and be on time and under budget.” In other words, why give him the good projects, when he could turn second rate material into first-rate movies?

One of the lesser-known Wellman films that “Wild Bill” explores is “Track of the Cat,” which his son describes as “kind of Eugene O’Neill in the Old West” and which was a highly experimental movie for its time, a black-and-white film with color. Only certain details have color – Mitchum’s red mackinaw, for instance, or Diana Lynn’s yellow blouse. The effect is stunning, and a bold move, especially for a film shot in 1954 (and to the apparent delight of DP William H. Clothier).

The son’s favorite of his father’s pictures? “A Star Is Born.”

“I have no second favorite, there are too many,” he said. “Whatever, for lots of reason I guess, that film always gets me emotionally. I never get tired of it.”

“Wild Bill, Hollywood Maverick: The Life and Times of William A. Wellman” will be released on DVD June 25.