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William Wellman – Action and Story

It has recently come to my attention that the ability to tell a story is not necessarily highly prized in the world of Art. I’ve been reading a book on the history of crime fiction and many author’s extraordinary ability to spin a yarn is frequently dismissed while any work that can “engage” with society or psychology is praised. The idea seems to be that “character” should not be imprisoned by plot. Style and psychology, the author suggests, are the necessary ingredients for literature. It’s been mentioned in other books I’ve read, too, and a similar principle is at work in film criticism. Which is why, I think, I never did find the actual plot of an Orson Welles film all that engaging.

The result is that directors without a distinct style or more workmanlike approach to film making tend to be dismissed. but I have to admit that I’ve always admired directors (or artists in general) who have the ability to tell a story…concisely. No dross, no self-indulgence, no excess sentiment or filler. A taut, exciting, engaging story. That is why I admired the original Terminator so much when I saw it this year (I liked it even more than Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which didn’t feel as focused). The ability to pare one’s story down to the essentials can leave an intensely punchy, focused, and vivid effect on a viewer.

William A. Wellman, for me, epidermises this ability as a story teller. If one looks at the lengths of many of his films, they are not that long (Wings is an exception). Rarely over two hours, especially early in his career where they are often less than 90 minutes. His Ox-Bow Incident is only 73 minutes.

Action. He tells his story through action. We remember the action. The grapefruit in Public Enemy, Barbara Stanwyck socking it to a drunken, neglectful mother in Night Nurse, the women trying to get their wagons over a hill in Westward the Women, the hanging in The Ox-Bow Incident, the kid getting his leg run over by a train in Wild Boys of the Road, James Cagney acting out a boxing match on the top of a moving train in Other Men’s Women, the image of Charles “Buddy” Rogers flying (and he really was flying) and fighting in Wings, Anne Baxter shooting a part in Gregory Peck’s hair in Yellow Sky, Fredric March socking Carole Lombard on the jaw (his films can be quite physical) in Nothing Sacred, even the moment when Janet Gaynor proclaims herself Mrs. Norman Maine at the end of A Star is Born. These are the sorts of things I remember about his films.

The Ox-Bow Incident

What Wellman also provides is a certain authenticity. He really was a daredevil (he was called “Wild Bill”) and was a pilot during WWI and his films about pilots ring true. The fact that his actors in Wings really flew their planes, that he was the stuntman for a plane he wanted crashed just so in the film, a certain kind of wildness that he possessed and made its way into his stories, all contribute. Just as King Kong, despite being a fantasy, also possesses the genuine spirit of adventure that directors and producers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack really demonstrated in their own lives.

Wellman also valued comradeship in his films (and in life) and although this is often manifested as being male comradeship, he also provides a splendid example of female comradeship in the wonderful Westward the Women. The story is simple. Robert Taylor is leading a large wagon train of woman across the America continent to be wed to men who live in California. When the men desert them, Taylor must teach the women how to drive and shoot. They drive their wagons, comfort each other when they lose someone, help a baby to be born, battle the elements together. It’s almost an epic film.

I’m not sure Wellman’s plots are ever especially complicated. They derive their power from their simplicity. The rise and fall of a gangster in The Public Enemy. The rise of one star and the fall of another in A Star is Born. His films are easy to summarize. Human endeavor and human support. What makes the stories go is the action as we become invested in the characters and their journey.

That leaves the question: can there be just as much truth in action and story as in character and style? I don’t think anyone will ever make the case that The Ox-Bow Incident is a greater film than Citizen Kane. Wellman didn’t change the face of cinema or create films that one will analyze intellectually in essays, but there is a truth to be found in story and action, a reality and it has value. I will never forget my first time watching The Ox-Bow Incident. I was stunned. The power derived from his inexorable storytelling, the inexorable feel of men riled up and determined to lynch a man. It begs the question – is it even possible to stop incidents like that once they get going?

This post is my contribution to “The Favorite Director Blogathon,” hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies  and The Midnite Drive-In. Be sure to check out all the other posts!

 
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Posted by on May 26, 2017 in Movies

 

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The Passionate Friends (1949)

The Passionate Friends was directed by David Lean during a period when he made three films with his lover and then wife, Ann Todd: The Passionate FriendsMadeleine, and The Sound Barrier. These films, however, tend to fall through the cracks between his early films such as Brief Encounter and his two Charles Dickens films and his later epics such as Lawrence of ArabiaThe Passionate Friends, however, just might be my favorite David Lean film that I’ve seen so far.

The story is based on a novel by, of all people, H.G. Wells. It is a romantic triangle, about a woman married to an older man, but she loves another, though the film does not develop as one expects.

The film unfolds through various flashbacks. Mary Justin (Ann Todd) is married to the wealthy banker, Howard Justin (Claude Rains). When she was younger, she was passionately in love with Stephen Stratton (Trevor Howard), a poetry-quoting young biologist. But she said she could not bear to belong to anyone; she wanted to belong to herself. Stephen maintained that if two people love each other, they want to belong to each other, but she said she did not like the clutching and grasping and instead chose to wed Howard, who understood that she did not love him, but felt that they could make a good marriage based on affection and a shared enjoyment of wealth and power.

But when Mary and Stephen unexpectedly meet years later, the powerful spark of attraction is still there and they begin a passionate affair, with Stephen convincing Mary to leave Howard. Before she can, however, Howard returns. He’s furious and he convinces her that she would not be happy with Stephen and she agrees with Howard, leaving Stephen flat. Nine more years pass and she and Stephen meet at a mountain resort in Switzerland. The spark of uncontrollable passion is gone, but Howard does not believe it and starts divorce proceedings, which threaten to ruin Stephen’s job, his reputation, and his marriage.

Mary and Stephen

(Spoilers are Rife) The way Lean begins the film is fascinating, because it is set up to make you think that Mary is trapped in a sterile relationship. She bumps into Stephen in a crowd of people. They are at a New Year’s costume party. She then joins Howard, who is sitting in a box high above the rest of the crowd, watching the crowd uninhibitedly kiss and dance and sing while Howard observes them from a detached perspective, even commenting that they look like puppets on a string. In our first sight of Howard, he turns around to face the camera looking rather like Mephistopheles. Stephen, on the other hand, is imbued with romanticism and their encounters are accompanied with romantic words and music. It makes one to expect Anna Karenina (or at least how Anna sees her story).

The brilliance of the film, though, is how by the end of the film, everything is reversed. “Do you know, Stephen, that we are practically strangers.” Mary says, when they meet again in Switzerland. Stephen has found more lasting, tangible love with another woman and has two children. Mary sees that he is happy. Not passionately happy, but contented and at peace with his life…perhaps a more lasting kind of happiness than their delirious love affair.

And it is clear that Mary’s marriage to Howard has not been as flat as it initially appeared. She considers it a success, they like the same things, clearly discuss politics and his work and seem to be a team with genuine affection for each other. She is highly self-aware, so that although she is carried away by romance, knows that romance is not enough. But the real irony is what happens to Howard.

Howard and Mary

Claude Rains as Howard Justin is absolutely magnificent. Ann Todd and Trevor Howard are good, but it is Claude Rains who really leaves an impression on the viewer. He plays a man coldly rational, a man who sees himself as a manipulator of events, such as when he contrives to let Mary know that he knows about her affair with Stephen. His rationality is repeatedly contrasted with the romanticism of Stephen. And yet in the end, he emerges as the genuinely romantic one while Stephen fades into staid gentility.

It’s an amazing transition that happens subtly. What has happened is that Howard has fallen in love with his wife, though he did not know it. He’s found unexpected depths of passion and initially reacts with furious jealousy. It’s shown subtly. In the beginning of the film, he seems complacent about his relationship with Ann. By the end, before he discovers that Mary and Stephen saw each other in Switzerland, he is almost boyishly excited to see his wife again. When he thinks he’s discovered that she’s been unfaithful to him again, his hurt is palpable rather than the mere anger he experienced the first time. He even cruelly tells her to get out and that he doesn’t want her anymore, which crushes her.

And he perhaps has some reason for feeling jealous. Because although nothing happened between Stephen and Mary – it served more as a lovely meeting that brought closure to their relationship – it seems that Mary does love Stephen in a new way. Less emotional, more mature, deeper. A love that seems to think about him rather than herself. When Howard sues for divorce and names Stephen, she is concerned about Stephen and how it will ruin him and his family, not herself, and even resolves on an Anna Karenina-like suicide in order to prevent the divorce from going forward.

Contemplating dying a la Anna Karenina

Howard, however, is the one who gets to rescue her. After dismissing Stephen’s love “as the kind that makes big demands,” of “nearness” and “belonging” and prone to “romantic hysteria,” he ends up loving a woman who does not love him and never will. A love that, essentially, makes no demands. The look of wonderment she gives him after he stops her from killing herself and asks her to come home is rather beautiful.

This post was written as part of the “Underseen and Underrated”, the CMBA Spring Blogathon. Click here for more posts!

 
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Posted by on May 16, 2017 in Movies

 

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Announcing “En Pointe: The Ballet Blogathon”

I’ve always been in awe of ballet dancers. The commitment, the grace, the appearance of effortlessness and weightlessness, the total control of every muscle that is moved, the power and yet the beauty. I’ve always thought of ballet dancers as occupying a position at the peak of physical prowess and dance.

In that spirit, I am delighted to announce – in conjunction with Love Letters to Old Hollywood – “En Point: The Ballet Blogathon!” And I am so grateful to Michaela for co-hosting with me!

The blogathon is devoted to all-things ballet related on film. Anything balletic at all. A film that features a ballet, a film about ballet dancers, filmed-versions of actual ballets. Any movie from any period at all, as long as it contains something about ballet.

We are also making an exception and allowing reviews of Esther Williams and Ice-skating. We only ask that you emphasize the ballet side of those films.

When:  August 4th & 5th, 2017

Rules: Because of the diversity of ballet films and topics available, we are only allowing two people to write about any given film.

To sign-up, simply leave us your blog name, blog address, and the film or topic you wish to cover in the comments section below. On either of the two days of the blogathon, all you have to do is provide either Michaela or me a link to your post and we will add it to our completed list of posts. Also, please feel free to grab one of the banner found below (created by my good friend Andrea from Into the Writer Lea) and help us advertise the event.

If you have any other questions, feel free to contact me or Love Letters to Old Hollywood. I will be so excited to read everyone’s contributions. I always come away from a blogathon with my horizons expanded…as well as my to-watch list.

Participants 

Love Letters to Old Hollywod – Shall We Dance (1937) and Ten Favorite Water Ballets from Esther Williams

Christina Wehner – A Winter’s Tale (Royal Ballet, 2015)

Into the Writer Lea – The Glass Slipper (1955)

Caftan Woman – The Mad Genius (1931)

Thoughts All Sorts – Ballerina (aka Leap) (2016)

Cinematic Scribblings – The Red Shoes (1948)

Blogferatu – The Black Swan (2010)

Reelweegiemidget Reviews – The Black Swan (2010)

Life’s Daily Lessons Blog –  Song of Scheherazade (1947)

Cary Grant Won’t Eat You – Center Stage (2000)

Taking Up Room –  Save the Last Dance (2001) and An American in Paris (1951)

 Critica Retro – Never Let Me Go (1953)

An Ode to Dust – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood – On the Town (1949)

The Movie Rat – Dreams in Suspiria (1977), George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker (1993) and Billy Elliot (2000)

Pure Entertainment Preservation Society – Hans Christian Andersen (1952)

Screen Life – The Turning Point (1977)

The Midnite Drive-In – White Nights (1985)

Silver Scenes – The Unfinished Dance (1947) and Russian Ballet Films of the 1940s-1960s

Charlene’s (Mostly) Classic Movie Reviews – Limelight (1952)

 
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Posted by on May 10, 2017 in Movies

 

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