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.
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?