Forbidden Hollywood’s William Wellman: The Forgotten Man

“The American cinema is a classical art, but why not then admire in it what is most admirable, i.e., not only the talent of this or that filmmaker, but the genius of the system” — André Bazin, “De la Politique des Auteurs”

In 1930 1,352 US banks collapsed, pulverizing over 853 million dollars worth of people’s savings into bitter memories scrawled into their now discarded checkbooks. The following year saw another 2,294 banks crumble, eliminating with them 1.6 billion dollars in deposits. Employment climbed from eight to 12 million, with more than one-quarter of the entire US workforce seeking jobs.

By 1933 almost a third of US movie theaters had shut their doors. Four of the eight major studios were either in bankruptcy or receivership. Hollywood could no longer delude itself into thinking that the Depression was some mere temporary economic hiccup that would have negligible effects upon its profits. The 1933 Film Daily Year Book somberly assessed the carnage of the prior year:

1932 was a trying year and its close found the fortunes of the business at their lowest ebb. The year marked the end of the so-called era of extravagance … It was the start of a movement of disintegration culminating in the receivership of Paramount and RKO … Unless the general economic situation takes a decided change for the better, the industry can hope for little in the way of progress and genuine prosperity.

Although the cliché of 1930s Hollywood still persists as nothing more than a “dream factory” conjuring hallucinatory celluloid visions in order to deflect viewers’ attention away from the socio-economic wreckage that lined their streets and impacted their daily lives, a descent into the films themselves and the archival records of the period reveal a very different world. Repeatedly, the Depression lurks just beneath the cinematic narrative, slightly out of frame, only to unexpectedly burst forth like a flash of lighting, illuminating the misery, the fear, the sheer devastating unpredictability that all economic downturns contain, before rumbling back beneath the narrative and visual surface. This era of films did not ignore the Depression; they painfully negotiated it. Even the “We’re in the Money” musical sequence from Gold Diggers of 1933 results in the repossession of the costumes of the female dancers who perform the number.

The need to implement the 1934 Production Code suggests the ways in which some Catholics and Protestants at the time considered too much reality seeping through mainstream screens. Although the Code’s puritanical stance towards sexuality is often highlighted by contemporary historians, one should also recall that it held extremely reactionary political mandates that forbade filmic representations of conflicts between capital versus labor.

The Forbidden Hollywood Collection has provided an invaluable service in restoring the historical record to show viewers the audacity that many of the pre-Code films contained. The first collection emerged in 2006, miraculously containing the uncensored version of Baby Face (1933) where Barbara Stanwyck sleeps her way to the top and essentially shanghais an organized crime syndicate.

In 2007 the second collection held classics like Female (1933), starring Ruth Chatterton playing a business tycoon who sexually harasses her male underlings, and Three on a Match (1932), which stars Joan Blondell, Bette Davis, and Ann Dvorak. The most recent collection focuses on the nearly forgotten director William Wellman.

Wild Boys of the Road

The collection makes a hard sell on anointing Wellman a genuine auteur through its two documentaries, Will Bill: Hollywood Maverick and The Man Who Made the Movies. The first is a typically vapid account that all-too-often accompanies DVDs as sycophants cash in on their favorite recycled clichés and legend clearly trumps historical accuracy; the second is more honest and entertaining in that it is one long interview with Wellman who vaingloriously recounts his boozing, filming, and flying days. In the end, the case for Wellman’s auteurism is not very convincing, which is not to say that he isn’t a talented director.

But instead of exhibiting the mercurial brilliance, singularity, and megalomaniacal control of his product of someone like Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, or Fritz Lang, Wellman is among the ranks of the talented and efficient contract directors like Michael Curtiz, Clarence Brown, and W.S. VanDyke. In order to understand the success of Wellman’s films, one must understand, as André Bazin rightfully insists, “the genius of the system”, the way in which Wellman’s best work results not only from genres that transubstantiate his vision to the screen, but also from the company of quality actors, screenwriters, and directors of photography that catalyze each production.

Similar to Curtiz, who is best known for his films starring Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Joan Crawford, respectively The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Casablanca (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945), where the acting, writing, and camerawork all converge to elevate the directing, Wellman will always be most identified with The Public Enemy (1931) since Cagney’s acting and the source material, Beer and Blood by John Bright and Kubec Glasmon, achieve the same for Wellman.

One of the benefits of the recent Forbidden Hollywood Collection is that it provides a good cross-section of Wellman’s pre-Code sound films to observe how a contract director nonetheless develops his own thematic motifs through a variety of genres. Other Men’s Women is a love-triangle film, The Purchase Price and Midnight Mary belong to the fallen woman genre, Frisco Jenny is a maternal melodrama, Wild Boys of the Road works within the juvenile delinquent genre, and Heroes for Sale roughly teeters between the war film and rags-to-riches story. Yet despite these diverse genres, certain themes nonetheless course through them all.

One of the most pervasive themes in not only Wellman’s films, but in most ‘30s Hollywood cinema, is that of the crisis of the Patriarch. Father figures are either notably absent or ineffectual in Depression-Era films. Fathers are all absent from three of the best known films of the decade: I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Dead End (1937), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). In films such as Baby Face (1932) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940) they are all but useless appendages, draining the family of its vitality and ability to change with the times. It is no coincidence that Duck Soup (1933) flopped when released since its lead character, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx), embodied what no one needed reminding of: an out-of-control Patriarch submerging his country into chaos.

Wellman’s films are no different. Fathers are completely absent from the main protagonists’ lives in Other Men’s Women, The Purchase Price, Frisco Jenny, and Midnight Mary. Both Heroes for Sale and Wild Boys of the Road investigate how the Depression itself has undermined the Patriarch’s autonomy. Heroes painfully separates Tom (Richard Barthelmess) from his son during a Red Raid. Since Tom was wrongfully imprisoned for starting a riot that in actuality he was attempting to stop, the police have named him on a subversive list.

Reminiscent of the Red Scare of 1919-1920, the police scour the city of any Leftwing elements. Tom will never see his son again.

In Wild Boys Eddie (Frankie Dario) assures his friend Tommy (Edwin Philips) that his father will help Tommy’s mother obtain a job. But when Eddie returns home, he discovers that his father has been laid off. Fearing to be a burden on their parents, Eddie and Tommy join the scores of other juveniles who have left home in the hopes of finding work elsewhere. The film epitomizes how the Depression destroyed families by rendering the Patriarch ineffectual and jeopardizing the lives of the young in their desperate attempts to secure work.

Along related lines, the theme of displacement also runs throughout all of Wellman’s films— with characters caught between two conflicting worlds. In Other Men’s Women ladies-man and late-night carouser Jack Kulper (Regis Toomey) finds himself falling in love with his best-friend’s wife as he begins to learn the ways of domestic bliss after having moved in with the couple. Joan (Barbara Stanwyck) in The Purchase Price is a city woman attempting to adapt to country living in the hopes of reinventing herself and reforming her errant ways. Frisco Jenny is a madam who discovers that the son she has given up for adoption has now become the district attorney who wants to institute the death sentence upon her.

Heroes for Sale reveals how Tom’s own country regards him as nothing more than a junky for becoming addicted to morphine after having suffered injuries during World War I when capturing a battalion of Germans. Wild Boys of the Road follows the hordes of kids who have abandoned their childhood for a life on the rails in the attempt to not be economic burdens to their unemployed parents. And Midnight Mary explores the travails of Mary Martin (Loretta Young), a working-class girl who is caught between the poverty and corruption of everyday existence and the prison industrial complex that gradually dehumanizes her.

Midnight Mary

It is not by any means a stretch of the imagination to conjecture how Depression-Era audiences would empathize with this sense of displacement since they found themselves similarly lodged between the false promises of laissez faire capitalism of yesteryear and the grueling realities of the present failed economic system. In Wellman visualizes Mary’s entrapment between these two worlds as she exits prison. In a long distant shot, we see Mary’s outline set against the prison gate behind her. Yet before her, as she walks through an antechamber, another series of bars frame her body as if confining her movement. Within this image Wellman crystallizes Mary’s doomed trajectory and the entrapment she feels constantly closing in on her.

This is Wellman’s real strength: his ability to suddenly visualize a moment that transcends the film’s narrative and its often simplistic characterizations. These moments occur unexpectedly and tend to shock one’s sensibilities after having acclimated oneself to the rhythm of an often banal storyline. Not coincidentally, the most dramatic instances of this are when the Depression itself seems to puncture through the film’s narrative.

We get occasional glimpses of it his earlier films. The omnipresent train yard in Other Men’s Women portends the images of hobos and the displaced that will litter Wellman’s later films Heroes for Sale and Wild Boys of the Road. In Midnight Mary we watch a young Mary scavenge through a city dump for salvageable material. Although the film narrative reassures us that this is occurring in 1919, there is no doubt that Depression-Era audiences would have been disturbingly familiar with such sights.

Midnight Mary

Wellman’s ability to visualize the Depression so dramatically, so economically in many ways jolts against his films’ narratives that often want to downplay it. This is most notably present in Wild Boys of the Road. Before the cops raid the juveniles’ shanty town, their chief assures us, “Remember your orders: no clubs and don’t rough house any of them.” Then, before setting in on the kids, the chief warns them, “We are giving you a chance to leave.” This dialogue is straight out of the Hays Code that mandates, “Law and justice must not by the treatment they receive from criminals be made to seem wrong or ridiculous.”

Contrary to actuality where the cops often led unprovoked attacks against protestors and the dispossessed, racial and ethnic minorities, which can be witnessed in the working-class newsreels of the New York Film and Photo League as well as the countless testimonies of the National Guard’s attack against veterans during the Bonus March of 1932, Wild Boys insists that the juveniles provoked retaliatory violence by initiating the attack against the cops.

Yet in spite of all these narrative caveats, all these attempts to offer a sympathetic portrait of the police, once the riot itself gets started, the iconographic imagery that Wellman employs derails imagery from narrative, suddenly revealing to us what the plot itself wants to discretely usher away from view: the cops are bastards, and they are doing nothing less than attacking the very youth that their generation has abandoned and left economically destitute.

Wild Boys of the Road

The full rage of the Depression flares across the screen as fire hoses are turned on the children, destroying their make-shift shacks and covering their bodies with mud. The scene’s final image, a prosthetic leg lying in the mud provides a potent image of the dismemberment and social fragmentation that the police and the government as a whole have not only been unable to stop, but also in many instances are actually responsible for. Despite what the authorities might say, visual reality tells another story; and it is this very stance that launches Wellman’s film into nothing less than an allegory of Herbert Hoover’s failed presidency, of an authority figure who hollowly assured the population that “prosperity is around the corner” while complacently watching the nation shatter itself apart.

One of the most important services that the Forbidden Hollywood series provides is its resurrection of films by not particularly well-known directors, which ultimately provides viewers with a better sense of what the studios were producing before the Production Code was fully implemented. The most recent collection, however, is mistaken in its approach by insisting upon Wellman as some type of unacknowledged auteur for two main reasons.

One, the aesthetic reason: Wellman was a good director, talented but not outstanding, who had momentary visual flashes of brilliance, but was far from the ranks of John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and Frank Capra. Two, a more important methodological reason: by focusing too much on Wellman, we miss how “the genius of the system” provided contract directors with the opportunities to occasionally, if only momentarily, harness their full potential and illuminate the screen with images that haunt our memories long after the film itself had ended. It is only by problematizing this image of the auteur that we can begin to fully understand “the genius of the system” and its complex relations to wider socio-economic processes.