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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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In Old California (1942)

in-old-california-1942I tend to think of John Wayne as a man of action, either in war movies or westerns. A somewhat rugged man, a man who is better at socking the bad guy than making a speech. In Old California is certainly a western, but Wayne plays a slightly different kind of character than usual. He is a pharmacist. An educated, gentlemanly man from Boston who takes on the rough and tumble men from Sacramento. Though he can also bend a coin with his thumb and is a remarkably good shot…which makes one wonder what he was doing in Boston when he wasn’t learning to be a druggist.

John Wayne is Tom Craig, a druggist looking to open a pharmacy in Sacramento. On his way there, he incurs the animus of Britt Dawson (Albert Dekker), the local bully/would-be-land-owner who is bullying his way into wealth with a gun and a posse. Britt does have one redeeming feature, however. He is completely and sincerely nuts about saloon singer Lacey Miller (Binnie Barnes). She is engaged to Britt, but is much taken with the more refined strength of Tom Craig.

When Dawson warns the inhabitants of Sacramento not to rent a building to Craig to set up shop, Lacey rents Craig her shack, with the promise of 50% of the profits. She then falls completely in love, though it takes Craig a while to realize it.

There are a number of subplots and plot twists in the film. There is the triangle between Britt, Lacey, and Craig. Another triangle between Craig, Lacey, and the pretty (but spoiled) debutante from San Francisco who catches Craig’s eye. There is Craig’s sidekick, Kegs McKeever (Edgar Kennedy), who becomes Craig’s sidekick after Craig uses some of his fancy pain killer to ease a raging toothache. Kegs himself has a (sort of) romance with Lacey’s gun-toting, sharpshooting maid (Patsy Kelly). And then there is Craig’s power struggle with Britt and his brother Joe Dawson (Dick Purcell).

There is even a gold strike, a fever epidemic, a gunfight on the plains of California, a barroom brawl, a murder by poison, several moments of slapstick comedy, and an attempted lynching. I was also pleased to note that Binnie Barnes’ slightly common saloon singer was able to rout her ingenue competition with aplomb. Very satisfying

Everyone is taken aback by John Wayne with a bag full of drugs

Everyone is taken aback by John Wayne with his bag full of drugs

I think I would describe this film as broadly comic and agreeable. At times it made me think of Destry Rides Again. The local bully engaged in a land grab, his saloon singer girlfriend, the outsider who is more gentlemanly, but still tough. But there is far more comedy than drama in In Old California and it has an easy-going, unpretentious charm. The cast is good (I am always happy to see Binnie Barnes in a film), but part of the fun is watching John Wayne in a different kind of role.

Apparently, John Wayne’s father really was a pharmacist and in the movie Wayne seems to be having a lot of fun with the role. He is quite believable as the educated, well-spoken and polite pharmacist. He never takes offense, he never overreacts, he’s never threatened when people assume he is not as tough as they are (he seems to have an inner assurance that he is, in fact, much tougher).

I confess I was not initially much of a John Wayne fan, but the more I see his films over the years, the more impressive he becomes. I guess I never appreciated how he was able to draw all the attention to himself without even trying. He sort of inhabits a scene, without having to come across as aggressive or in-your-face. Even in In Old California, he is distinctly non-aggressive compared to Dawson, but your eye still watches him.

It’s interesting, because earlier this year I watched a movie called The Life of Jimmy Dolan, made in 1933 with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.. John Wayne makes a brief appearance in the film and he’s so young and callow and had none of the effortless presence he developed later. I guess he just needed time. My sister and I sometimes joke that an actor (or actress) doesn’t truly become interesting until they’re 30.

Not exactly one of John Wayne’s best films, but there is something winning about In Old California. It has a unique charm, as does John Wayne.

Thanks so much to Hamlette’s Soliloquy and The Midnite Drive-In for hosting The John Wayne Blogathon! For all the other posts, click here.

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Posted by on December 10, 2016 in Movies

 

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Some Thoughts on D. W. Griffith…and His Cavalry Charges

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Joseph Schildkraut and Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm

I’ve been watching a lot of D.W. Griffith recently – both his short films and feature length films – and it’s been bringing me to a greater appreciation of his artistry, if also a greater appreciation of his deep-seated racism.

The curious thing is that in many ways, D.W. Griffith is a humanitarian. He preaches healing between North and South in The Birth of a Nation (1915), bemoans the senseless death of war, expresses pity for both the poor persecuted by the rich and the aristocrats executed by the mobs in Orphans of the Storm (1921) and even manages to give the Native Americans in some of his short westerns – The Massacre and The Battle of Elderbush Gulch – genuine human emotions motivations for fighting the white settlers. His movies express a deep hatred of intolerance (one of his favorite themes) and a genuine desire for peace, all the while celebrating human endurance and heroism.

The trouble is that there is a very sharp and scary drop-off to that humanitarian sensibility. It does not extend to African Americans and his portrayal of Native Americans remains extremely stereotyped. And the reason is very simple. He does not regard African Americans as fully human in the same way as white Americans, which means there is not an inconsistency in his beliefs so much as there is a gaping hole in his conception of humanity.

This made watching Birth of a Nation a challenge. I knew it was going to be racist, but it was far more racist than I was expecting. I hadn’t realized how saturated the film would be in his vision of separation between African Americans and white Americans and the dangers of mixing.

It’s hard to defend the film, even from an open-minded perspective that allows for differing times.The whole point of the film is – apart from showing the tragedy of the Civil War and how it set friend against friend and lover against lover – that there is a gap between whites and blacks that should never be bridged. People often say that Griffith’s villains are interfering white do-gooders who want to raise the black man as an equal to the white man and stir up the ignorant and child-like blacks to discontentment with their natural place in life. But that’s an incomplete picture, because Griffith’s most villainous characters are actually two people who are half black and half white, people who are in-between, so to speak. In Griffith’s world, racial mixing makes for a dangerous blend of ambition and lack of true equality of mind and morals.

Even if Griffith hadn’t used actors in blackface, it still would have been a poisonous film.

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The KKK ride to the rescue…we were supposed to cheer, but it’s all a bit sickening

What makes Birth of a Nation such a bizarre film to watch today is that Griffith knows how to manipulate emotions and emotions are not always moved in conjunction with one’s mind. It is entirely possible to be emotionally moved and intellectually revolted. This is partly because Griffith imbues his film with so much genuine conviction, but also because our emotions are trained to respond to certain cues. Heroes riding down the street to rescue the damsel in distress, accompanied by stirring music? Our emotions experience a slight thrill. Our mind revolts. But there is something particularly spine-chilling about watching the KKK charge down the street, shooting black people and accompanied by “Ride of the Valkyries.” No wonder Hitler loved this film.

That ride of the cavalry to the rescue, juxtaposed with scenes of Lillian Gish and others in peril was a quintessential moment for Griffith, one I’m beginning to realize he could pull off in his sleep. I’m sure he didn’t invent the “cavalry riding to the rescue” cliche, but nobody executed it better than Griffith.

In two short films  – The Massacre (1912) and The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913) – he also employs the charge of the cavalry to the rescue of a beleaguered band of people fending off attacks from Native Americans. You can also see Griffith working out his battle sequences, which are brilliantly in evidence in Birth of a NationThe Battle of Elderbush Gulch in particular seems like a warm up for the end of Birth of a Nation. There is even the tiny shack that is shown from a distance to be entirely surrounded by enemies (Native Americans in the short film, black Americans in Birth of a Nation). He must have liked the imagery so much that he reused it.

At least in The Battle of Elderbush Gulch and The Massacre he gives the Native Americans plausible motivations for what they are doing, rather than just having been children stirred up by evil men. In The Massacre, the army preemptively attacks a Native American village and massacres everyone, including the chief’s wife and baby. In turn, he attacks a wagon train and slaughters nearly everyone…until the cavalry arrives.

the small cabin under attack

the small cabin under attack – looking very similar to scenes in Birth of a Nation

In The Battle of Elderbush Gulch, his caricature of Native Americans is rather more stereotypical, but even they are reacting to the death of the chief’s son in what seems to have been a serious misunderstanding. For a short film, The Battle of Elderbush Gulch appears like a clear precursor to Birth of a Nation. Not only the imagery of the cabin, but also much of the cast – Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry Walthall, Robert Harron. Mae Marsh is the star of the short film and I liked her quite a bit more in this one than I did in Birth of a Nation, where she seemed flighty. In The Battle of Elderbush Gulch she is brave, pro-active and and clever. If she’d been more like that in Birth of a Nation, she wouldn’t have jumped off the cliff when pursued by a black soldier who was proposing marriage.

And then of course there is the inevitable ride of the cavalry to the rescue. Seriously, these kind of nail-biting finales – imminent danger juxtaposed with the rescue on the way – is something Griffith seems to be able to pull off effortlessly at will. It’s been surprisingly to me how often he employs this method in his short films.

Griffith even manages to get horsemen riding to the rescue in Orphans of the Storm, which I did not think he was going to be able to achieve. Orphans of the Storm was far more enjoyable than either Birth of a Nation and even Intolerance. The racism isn’t a factor in the French Revolution and he doesn’t even preach as often. His history is still a mixed-bag; he’s wonderful at recreating details and the feel and look of a time-period, but less reliable at actual events and interpretation – he twists facts to fit his own particular agenda.

The film is a tremendous tour de force for Lillian Gish. She and her sister, Dorothy Gish, play adoptive sisters who venture to Paris, but their timing is terrible. Lilian Gish gets abducted by an aristocrat, rescued by an aristocrat, arrested by an aristocrat, rescued by the revolution, arrested by a revolutionary and finally rescued by a revolutionary. She gets into all sorts of trouble – as does her sister – and all she did was go to Paris.

Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm

Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm

Lillian Gish is incredible in the film, though. She’s timid and ferocious and heartbreaking…she’s one of the few actresses I’ve seen who can faint and appear vulnerable and yet still project strength and even though I knew that there was no way she would actually lose her head to the guillotine, I still felt totally invested in the rescue and in the touching reunion with her sister. That is powerful film making.

It’s impossible not to admire the scope of D.W. Griffith’s ambitions, achievements and convictions (well, some of them), just as it is impossible not to be shocked at his racism. He can be a difficult director to appreciate now – his racism, his sentimentality, his earnestness and his evident humanitarian vision (blinkered though it is) makes him confusing to us today. One is almost embarrassed to be watching films like Birth of a Nation, which is why I used to dismiss him. But the more I see his work the more I appreciate his inescapable place in film history and his consummate artistry.

 
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Posted by on July 25, 2016 in Movies

 

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