Everyone can picture James Cagney mashing a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face in 1931’s The Public Enemy. But who knows the name of the director who devised that image of startling brutality? Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick, The Life and Times of William A. Wellman, a documentary by writer-director Todd Robinson, argues that Wellman, who died in 1975, was one of Hollywood’s most versatile and proficient auteurs.
An impressive array of stars (including Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, and Sidney Poitier), directors (the ubiquitous Martin Scorsese, among others), and family members rhapsodize about the WWI ace flier and pugnacious, hard-drinking director, who made 76 movies during a 35-year career. Film clips reveal a terse style, a preference for strong female characters, and an ease with a range of genres: war films (Wings, the first Best Picture Oscar winner), Westerns (The Yellow Sky), and social dramas (The Ox-Bow Incident). Wellman may not measure up to Hawks or Ford as an artist; he lacks their consistent clarity of vision. But in this affectionate portrait the man himself comes across as a refreshingly principled member of a cutthroat industry.
For those unfamiliar with Wellman’s work, Kino is rereleasing two of his best movies as companions to the documentary. A Star is Born, which won Wellman an Oscar for best original story, is sparer, scrappier, and less extravagantly masochistic than the 1954 remake with Judy Garland. Janet Gaynor makes a vibrant Vicki Lester, and Fredric March is riveting as the doomed Norman Maine.
March also stars in the director’s screwball comedy Nothing Sacred, playing a newspaperman who’s duped (along with all of Manhattan) by Carole Lombard as a woman who fakes radium poisoning. Ben Hecht supplied the cynically amusing script, but the brilliant Lombard makes it fly — wringing laughs from an arsenal of loopy gestures and cacophonous outbursts. With the right material and performers, Wellman could do very well indeed. B+