Going Back to the Wellman

William A. Wellman was an attractive guy who happened to make a lot of movies, one of those directors who led an entire life before entering the cinema (as salesman, hockey player, soldier). For Wellman and so many other early Hollywood craftsmen, directing was, as John Ford described it, just another “job of work”. Wellman was one industrious worker, credited with 83 shorts and features from 1920 – 1958. He excelled at compact stories of blue-collar types getting sore at each other (or what Manny Farber called “hard-visaged ball bearings standing around – for no damned reason and with no indication of how long or for what reason they have been standing.”), able to create a humming rhythm out of wisecracks and violence. The studios, however, tasked him with tackling much more, leading him to clumsily apply his blunt style to melodramas and comedies (his ’37 Star is Born is especially sluggish). His career is wildly uneven but well worth looking into, especially the period in the 30s where he was cranking out saucy and speedy pre-coders like Night Nurse and Other Men’s Women (both 1931). The Warner Archive has just released a third film from his stellar ’31: Safe in Hell  (along with later Wellman efforts My Man and I (1952) and his final film Lafayette Escadrille (1958)).

Safe in Hell was shot from mid-September to October 18th of 1931, and was released December 12th. A quickie produced by First National Pictures (which had merged with Warners), it’s a seamy pre-code drama about a prostitute who believes she has committed murder, and then flees to a Caribbean island that does not have an extradition treaty with the United States. The lead role of the whore without a heart of gold was originally slated for Broadway legend Marilyn Miller, and was then assigned to rising star Barbara Stanwyck, who gave a deliciously sardonic performance in Wellman’s Night Nurse earlier that year (she ended up in Frank Capra’s Forbidden instead). The role fell to Dorothy Mackaill, who Ralph Flint of the NY Times said was, “on return from her summering at Hawaiian resorts, [and] was pressed into service.”

Mackaill was a British born actress, who cut her teeth as a dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies before forging a productive career on-screen in the silent era, notching the leading role in the 1924 The Man Who Came Back, and in Alfred Santell’s 1926 The Dancer of Paris. Work dwindled with the arrival of sound, and First National declined to extend her contract at the end of 1931. That marked the beginning of the end of her career in pictures. It’s unclear why the studio felt she wasn’t fit for sound, as her performance in Safe in Hell is impressively wild and unhinged, wrenching the underwritten part into something tangible and affecting.

She plays Gilda Karlson, an in-demand prostitute in New Orleans, who is paid an unwelcome visit by a john, the one who led her into vice. She conks him over the head with a vase, and, thinking she killed him, is frittered away to the Caribbean by her merchant marine boyfriend Carl (Donald Cook). She is ensconced in a shady hotel populated by a murderer’s row of lowlifes, each ogling her with lip-smacking impunity. Wellman catches the crew (including my favorite name and face: Gustav von Seyffertitz) in a series of leering reaction shots, before they slowly turn their chairs around and await her return trip downstairs. With Carl away on a job, the seedy patrons urge Gilda to sink back into her old ways, and the rest of the drama details this dilemma.

Wellman gets the story rolling with alacrity, establishing Gilda’s character by opening on a close-up of her gams sitting next to a phone – the two necessary implements of her job. Within a few scenes a man is presumed dead and Gilda is stowed away on a ship, heading South, her eyes visible through a slit in a box, as she quips, “I always traveled 1st class!”. The hotel in the Caribbean is run by Nina Mae McKinney, a wildly talented black actress who was shunted into supporting or “musical” roles because of the institutional racism of the period (she was later known in Europe as the “Black Garbo”). Here she sings the theme song with a smile while serving her customers. The bellboy is played by another grievously under-used black actor, Clarence Muse, who injects a patrician weariness and humor into his stock character. He tells Gilda that they serve liquor, since they are in “a civilized country”, unlike the Prohibition era U.S.

The film loses its spark in the closing third, in which sexual deviancy is replaced by an unconvincing shift to the value of constancy, robbing the starkly downbeat ending of much of its power. An uneasy mix of entertaining smarm and queasy sentimentality, Safe in Hell  is probably the least of Wellman’s great 1931 run (The Public Enemy, Other Men’s Women, Night Nurse), but it still exerts a strange fascination. I should note that the Warner Archive transfer looks soft and scratched up, most likely taken from an old TV master. It is not up to the usual standards of the company’s releases, but the fact that this rarity is available at all is reason enough to celebrate.

***

My Man and I (1952) is a showcase for Ricardo Montalban, who plays Chu Chu Ramirez, an itinerant Mexican farmer who gains his citizenship, but is unable to escape racist attitudes. This earnestly melodramatic film was co-written by novelist John Fante, who (according to Doug Bonner) modeled the love story between Montalban and Shelley Winters on the romance from his most famous novel, Ask the Dust. Chu Chu, an almost idiotically optimistic character, immediately believes he can save Nancy (Winters) from her alcoholism through sheer force of will. Wellman militates against the ridiculous goody-two-shoes nature of Chu Chu’s character by placing him in cramped, dense frames, with looming faces present in the foreground (one of them belonging to Jack Elam, playing the cynical Celestino), used especially in Chu Chu’s flophouse. This sense of visual claustrophobia runs counter to Chu Chu’s continually stated belief in the American melting pot, which he proves by constantly wielding his citizenship letter from the President. In his scenes with Nancy, Wellman uses low-light, throwing dramatic shadows against the wall, visualizing the dark pit of despair that Nancy cannot escape from. Despite his best efforts, Wellman cannot entirely free the film from the hackneyed script, which transitions into a traditional courtroom drama, with all of its moralizing banalities. The ultimate saving grace, though, is the presence of Claire Trevor as an unsatisfied housewife whose husband hires the buff (and often shirtless) Montalban to clear a field, and whose withering putdowns and shivering carnality electrify every scene she appears in.

***

Wellman often said that Lafayette Escadrille was the worst movie he ever made, and I won’t argue the point. The story of American soldiers who sign up to fight in the French Air Force in WW1 was a personal one, as Wellman had served in the unit. He even cast his son, William Wellman, Jr., in one of the supporting roles. But Warner Bros. forced him to add a happy ending, and cast the handsome teen idol mannequin Tab Hunter in the lead role. The idea was to bring in a younger audience, but all it did was dilute Wellman’s vision more. What was intended as a melancholic homage to the American dead of WWI was turned into a raucous boys-on-the-town movie, and it’s a mainly joyless affair. There are some nicely shot flying scenes, and a very young Clint Eastwood picking lice out of his hair, but otherwise it is a lost cause. This is a shame, because one of his previous passion projects, the monochromatic Track of the Cat (1954), is one of his greatest visual accomplishments. Escadrille was his last film, but no matter, he got the job done more often than not.

28 Responses Going Back to the Wellman
Posted By Kingrat : November 22, 2011 1:49 pm

Emmet, thanks for writing about Wellman, a director I have trouble getting my mind around. SAFE IN HELL is a new favorite, thanks to TCM, and so is Dorothy Mackaill. If you’re following filmlover’s 1939 day by day blog, Hedda Hopper had a column mentioning various actors people had asked her about, wanting to see them again, and one was Dorothy Mackaill.

Wellman also opens with feet in BATTLEGROUND. Some of his films use this kind of synecdoche (part for the whole), like PUBLIC ENEMY or the scene with the teenagers necking in the convertible in WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD. WESTWARD THE WOMEN, another of his best films, is not shot like that. I’m glad to see some discussion of Wellman’s work.

Posted By Kingrat : November 22, 2011 1:49 pm

Emmet, thanks for writing about Wellman, a director I have trouble getting my mind around. SAFE IN HELL is a new favorite, thanks to TCM, and so is Dorothy Mackaill. If you’re following filmlover’s 1939 day by day blog, Hedda Hopper had a column mentioning various actors people had asked her about, wanting to see them again, and one was Dorothy Mackaill.

Wellman also opens with feet in BATTLEGROUND. Some of his films use this kind of synecdoche (part for the whole), like PUBLIC ENEMY or the scene with the teenagers necking in the convertible in WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD. WESTWARD THE WOMEN, another of his best films, is not shot like that. I’m glad to see some discussion of Wellman’s work.

Posted By Emgee : November 22, 2011 4:31 pm

Love his pre-code movies, but for me his masterpiece is the relentlessly grim Ox-Bow Incident. It really took guts to make such a downbeat movie in the Forties, but Wellman had plenty of those. A resounding box office flop at the time, but what a knockout!

Posted By Emgee : November 22, 2011 4:31 pm

Love his pre-code movies, but for me his masterpiece is the relentlessly grim Ox-Bow Incident. It really took guts to make such a downbeat movie in the Forties, but Wellman had plenty of those. A resounding box office flop at the time, but what a knockout!

Posted By DBenson : November 22, 2011 8:14 pm

You have to work in a mention of the documentary MEMPHIS BELLE somewhere. Yet to catch the whole thing, but still haunted by footage of another bomber going down as the crew counts the parachutes until the pilot orders silence.

Posted By DBenson : November 22, 2011 8:14 pm

You have to work in a mention of the documentary MEMPHIS BELLE somewhere. Yet to catch the whole thing, but still haunted by footage of another bomber going down as the crew counts the parachutes until the pilot orders silence.

Posted By Grand Old Movies : November 22, 2011 9:53 pm

What I love about Wellman is that there’s no excess in his style; his slam-bang energy cuts right to the bone. He also had an unsentimental fondness for lowlifes that’s refreshing. Besides his pre-Code films, I have a particular liking for his 40s comedies like ROXIE HART and LADY OF BURLESQUE; he gets the bitchy tone just right. It’s too bad that WB didn’t get a better print of SAFE IN HELL, but at least we now have it out on DVD. Enjoyed your terrific post!

Posted By Grand Old Movies : November 22, 2011 9:53 pm

What I love about Wellman is that there’s no excess in his style; his slam-bang energy cuts right to the bone. He also had an unsentimental fondness for lowlifes that’s refreshing. Besides his pre-Code films, I have a particular liking for his 40s comedies like ROXIE HART and LADY OF BURLESQUE; he gets the bitchy tone just right. It’s too bad that WB didn’t get a better print of SAFE IN HELL, but at least we now have it out on DVD. Enjoyed your terrific post!

Posted By Judy : November 23, 2011 6:05 am

Glad to see Wellman getting some recognition, though I think he was greater and more versatile than you suggest in your comment about clumsiness, Emmet. I do agree with you that he was great at the blue-collar movies, and ‘Looking for Trouble’ with Spencer Tracy and Jack Oakie as telephone engineers is a very entertaining example, sadly not on DVD. It’s a pity so many of his silents have been lost – ‘Wings’ and ‘Beggars of Life’ are both excellent, with the second of these perfectly showing his feeling for the outcasts of society. (I know there is another silent of his which has been restored and is shown at festivals, ‘You Never Know Women’, but I’ve had no opportunity to see that one.)

I’ve been trying to watch (and review at my blog) all of Wellman’s pre-Codes over the last couple of years, and have managed to see most of them despite being in the UK – ‘Safe in Hell’ has to be one of the greatest of those not yet on DVD, so I’m excited to see it getting a release at last, though it’s a pity the print doesn’t sound all that good. The film has quite a lot in common with his ‘Dangerous Paradise’, made the previous year, with Nancy Carroll also marooned on an island – that one is a lesser offering, but does have some memorable visual moments, like a candle flickering in a mirror and going out as a murder is committed off-camera. I agree with Grand Old Movies that there is no excess in his style, and he could pack an amazing amount into a very short space, as he did with ‘The Public Enemy’ and many years later ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’.

Posted By Judy : November 23, 2011 6:05 am

Glad to see Wellman getting some recognition, though I think he was greater and more versatile than you suggest in your comment about clumsiness, Emmet. I do agree with you that he was great at the blue-collar movies, and ‘Looking for Trouble’ with Spencer Tracy and Jack Oakie as telephone engineers is a very entertaining example, sadly not on DVD. It’s a pity so many of his silents have been lost – ‘Wings’ and ‘Beggars of Life’ are both excellent, with the second of these perfectly showing his feeling for the outcasts of society. (I know there is another silent of his which has been restored and is shown at festivals, ‘You Never Know Women’, but I’ve had no opportunity to see that one.)

I’ve been trying to watch (and review at my blog) all of Wellman’s pre-Codes over the last couple of years, and have managed to see most of them despite being in the UK – ‘Safe in Hell’ has to be one of the greatest of those not yet on DVD, so I’m excited to see it getting a release at last, though it’s a pity the print doesn’t sound all that good. The film has quite a lot in common with his ‘Dangerous Paradise’, made the previous year, with Nancy Carroll also marooned on an island – that one is a lesser offering, but does have some memorable visual moments, like a candle flickering in a mirror and going out as a murder is committed off-camera. I agree with Grand Old Movies that there is no excess in his style, and he could pack an amazing amount into a very short space, as he did with ‘The Public Enemy’ and many years later ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’.

Posted By suzidoll : November 23, 2011 1:23 pm

I have always had a soft spot for William Wellman, largely because of ROXY HART. Of course who doesn’t like PUBLIC ENEMY or NIGHT NURSE, but another of my personal favorites is WESTWARD THE WOMEN. Oddly enough, when someone asks me about my favorite Golden Age directors, I never mention him. Maybe I take him for granted because of his straightforward style. I am definitely going to track down SAFE IN HELL.

Posted By suzidoll : November 23, 2011 1:23 pm

I have always had a soft spot for William Wellman, largely because of ROXY HART. Of course who doesn’t like PUBLIC ENEMY or NIGHT NURSE, but another of my personal favorites is WESTWARD THE WOMEN. Oddly enough, when someone asks me about my favorite Golden Age directors, I never mention him. Maybe I take him for granted because of his straightforward style. I am definitely going to track down SAFE IN HELL.

Posted By Kingrat : November 23, 2011 1:59 pm

I want to second Grand Old Movies’ recommendation of LADY OF BURLESQUE. A most enjoyable comedy, with Stanwyck doing some remarkable hoofing in addition to her other talents.

Posted By Kingrat : November 23, 2011 1:59 pm

I want to second Grand Old Movies’ recommendation of LADY OF BURLESQUE. A most enjoyable comedy, with Stanwyck doing some remarkable hoofing in addition to her other talents.

Posted By Cool Bev : November 25, 2011 10:08 am

For all of its charms, including Stanwyck’s fine musical turn, LADY OF BURLESQUE does not convince me that she has any affinity to burlyque, fandancing, hootchy-koo, or any other form of striptease. She looks less like a stripper in this movie than Demi Moore in STRIPTEASE.

Posted By Cool Bev : November 25, 2011 10:08 am

For all of its charms, including Stanwyck’s fine musical turn, LADY OF BURLESQUE does not convince me that she has any affinity to burlyque, fandancing, hootchy-koo, or any other form of striptease. She looks less like a stripper in this movie than Demi Moore in STRIPTEASE.

Posted By Peter Nellhaus : November 25, 2011 11:24 am

The big problem with Lafayette Escadrille is that Jack Warner butchered Wellman’s labor of love, the film he was allowed to make in exchange for having to direct Darby’s Rangers. Wellman fared best under the protection of John Wayne, so that his last truly good film, for me, is Good-bye, My Lady, a film much deeper that the “boy and his dog” premise might suggest.

Posted By Peter Nellhaus : November 25, 2011 11:24 am

The big problem with Lafayette Escadrille is that Jack Warner butchered Wellman’s labor of love, the film he was allowed to make in exchange for having to direct Darby’s Rangers. Wellman fared best under the protection of John Wayne, so that his last truly good film, for me, is Good-bye, My Lady, a film much deeper that the “boy and his dog” premise might suggest.

Posted By jbryant : November 26, 2011 2:11 pm

DBenson: MEMPHIS BELLE was made by William Wyler, not Wellman.

Among his pre-Codes not yet mentioned, I’d single out MIDNIGHT MARY and HEROES FOR SALE.

YELLOW SKY is a fine western, and ISLAND IN THE SKY is a great aviation drama/survival story, with one of John Wayne’s best performances.

Posted By jbryant : November 26, 2011 2:11 pm

DBenson: MEMPHIS BELLE was made by William Wyler, not Wellman.

Among his pre-Codes not yet mentioned, I’d single out MIDNIGHT MARY and HEROES FOR SALE.

YELLOW SKY is a fine western, and ISLAND IN THE SKY is a great aviation drama/survival story, with one of John Wayne’s best performances.

Posted By Al Lowe : November 28, 2011 4:47 pm

It should be conceded that Wellman had a lot of fights with prominent members of the Hollywood community over the years. He threatened Ronald Colman, a man everyone loved. He battled with Robert Mitchum and got him canned from Blood Alley. There was his altercation with Spencer Tracy in a nightclub in the 30s. I think he fought with all of the studio heads and that is why he worked everywhere – for Warners, MGM, Fox, Paramount and Selznick.
Oddly enough, when the PBS series MEN WHO MADE THE MOVIES came out, he was considered the most polished and PR-savy of the directors interviewed.
For the most part, he disliked actors. He thought they spent too much time practicing their lines in the mirror.
However, he gave them fine opportunities. Mitchum made the big leagues when he appeared in STORY OF G.I. JOE and was nominated for an Academy Award.
During the commentatry for the DVD HIGH AND THE MIGHTY, they told of Wellman using his own young son for the part of the small boy who sleeps during the flight of the troubled plane. “He came to work and went to sleep. He was the best actor I ever had,” Wellman was quoted as saying.
And how can you knock a director who made the following movies: PUBLIC ENEMY, WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD, A STAR IS BORN, NOTHING SACRED, ROXIE HART, LADY OF BURLESQUE, THE OX BOW INCIDENT, STORY OF G.I. JOE, YELLOW SKY, BATTLEGROUND, WESTWARD THE WOMEN, ISLAND IN THE SKY and THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY.

Posted By Al Lowe : November 28, 2011 4:47 pm

It should be conceded that Wellman had a lot of fights with prominent members of the Hollywood community over the years. He threatened Ronald Colman, a man everyone loved. He battled with Robert Mitchum and got him canned from Blood Alley. There was his altercation with Spencer Tracy in a nightclub in the 30s. I think he fought with all of the studio heads and that is why he worked everywhere – for Warners, MGM, Fox, Paramount and Selznick.
Oddly enough, when the PBS series MEN WHO MADE THE MOVIES came out, he was considered the most polished and PR-savy of the directors interviewed.
For the most part, he disliked actors. He thought they spent too much time practicing their lines in the mirror.
However, he gave them fine opportunities. Mitchum made the big leagues when he appeared in STORY OF G.I. JOE and was nominated for an Academy Award.
During the commentatry for the DVD HIGH AND THE MIGHTY, they told of Wellman using his own young son for the part of the small boy who sleeps during the flight of the troubled plane. “He came to work and went to sleep. He was the best actor I ever had,” Wellman was quoted as saying.
And how can you knock a director who made the following movies: PUBLIC ENEMY, WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD, A STAR IS BORN, NOTHING SACRED, ROXIE HART, LADY OF BURLESQUE, THE OX BOW INCIDENT, STORY OF G.I. JOE, YELLOW SKY, BATTLEGROUND, WESTWARD THE WOMEN, ISLAND IN THE SKY and THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY.

Posted By dukeroberts : November 30, 2011 1:16 am

The Ox Bow Incident, The High and the Mighty and Island in the Sky are all great. I remember seeing his interview for Thye Men Who Made the Movies. He was rather salty. He was a tough old fella. He reminded me a bit of Barry Goldwater.

Safe in Hell sounds interesting and that Dorothy Mackaill appears to have been a looker.

Track of the Cat…..oh brother….what a boring movie. It was visually interesting, but the acting was fairly bad, the screenplay was pretty bad, Tab Hunter was in it and their pronunciation of “painter” instead of “panther” grated on my ears. I know that in certain parts of the country they used to say “painter”, or might still as far as I know, but I found it irritating, like when characters in old sci fi movies say “ro-buts”. Yeesh!

Posted By dukeroberts : November 30, 2011 1:16 am

The Ox Bow Incident, The High and the Mighty and Island in the Sky are all great. I remember seeing his interview for Thye Men Who Made the Movies. He was rather salty. He was a tough old fella. He reminded me a bit of Barry Goldwater.

Safe in Hell sounds interesting and that Dorothy Mackaill appears to have been a looker.

Track of the Cat…..oh brother….what a boring movie. It was visually interesting, but the acting was fairly bad, the screenplay was pretty bad, Tab Hunter was in it and their pronunciation of “painter” instead of “panther” grated on my ears. I know that in certain parts of the country they used to say “painter”, or might still as far as I know, but I found it irritating, like when characters in old sci fi movies say “ro-buts”. Yeesh!

Posted By Juana Maria : November 30, 2011 4:24 pm

Duke Roberts, I too have seen the movies you list. I too find the speech patterns or pronunciation of certain people to be irritating. I too have noticed on “Twilight Zone” that they say “ro-buts”. I don’t know why. I personally like most Wellman movies. Thanks for the article.

Posted By Juana Maria : November 30, 2011 4:24 pm

Duke Roberts, I too have seen the movies you list. I too find the speech patterns or pronunciation of certain people to be irritating. I too have noticed on “Twilight Zone” that they say “ro-buts”. I don’t know why. I personally like most Wellman movies. Thanks for the article.

Posted By Ned Merrill : November 30, 2011 5:09 pm

Was fortunate to catch SAFE IN HELL recently at Film Forum. The print used for that screening came from the Library of Congress and I believe those same elements went into the Warner Archive disc; this is a case of the “best available” elements…not the prettiest, but it’s all they have to work with.

Posted By Ned Merrill : November 30, 2011 5:09 pm

Was fortunate to catch SAFE IN HELL recently at Film Forum. The print used for that screening came from the Library of Congress and I believe those same elements went into the Warner Archive disc; this is a case of the “best available” elements…not the prettiest, but it’s all they have to work with.

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