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WILLIAM A. WELLMAN (A DOSSIER)


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! ! EDITED!BY! DAVID%PHELPS!&%GINA%TELAROLI%

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LA!FURIA!UMANA! OCTOBER%2012% %


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TABLE%OF%CONTENTS% % The!Great!Wellman’s!Ladies:! Preliminary!Findings! Gina%Telaroli! West!of!Eden:! L’Amérique!amère!de!William!Wellman! William!Wellman’s!Bitter!America! Michael%Henry%Wilson% % The!Situationist! Daniel%Kasman% % William!Wellman,!King!of!Ephemera! Miye%Bromberg% % United!We!Sit! David%Phelps% % William!A.!Wellman:! Survival!and!Persistence% Sudarshan%Rameni%

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TABLE%OF%CONTENTS% ! Notes!sur!William!Wellman! Bertrand%Tavernier% % Young!Eagles!(1930)!—"Scraps"of"Wellman"#1! % Public!Enemy!(1931):! The!Film!That!Didn’t!Stop!for!Death! Maximilian%Le%Cain% % Night!Nurse%(1931)% David%Phelps% % Heroes!for!Sale!(1933)% Kent%Jones% % Central!Airport!(1933):! The!Sky!Is!Yours! C.%Mason%Wells% ! Stingaree!(1934)!—"Scraps"of"Wellman"#2! % Men!With!Wings!(1938)%—%Scraps"of"Wellman"#3" % Lady!of!Burlesque!(1943):! Wellman’s!Post^Pre^Code!Pre^Code! Ted%Fendt% % The!Ox^Bow!Incident!(1943)% Toshi%Fujiwara% % Yellow!Sky!(1948):! Hommes^Chevaux!(Devenir!Humain)% MarieSPierre%Duhamel%

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STABLE%OF%CONTENTS% % Yellow!Sky!(1948):! Outros!Céus! Felipe%Medeiros% % The!Next!Voice!You!Hear!(1950):! From!God’s!Mouth!to!Your!Ear! J.%Hoberman% % The!Happy!Years!(1950)!—%Scraps"of"Wellman"#4% % Track!of!the!Cat!(1954):! Physis,!nomos,!e!logos! Toni%D’Angela% % Good^Bye,!My!Lady!(1956)! Gina%Telaroli%

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The Great Wellman’s Ladies: Preliminary Findings or Plowing Fields and Fielding Advances or Shaking Rears and Rearing Children or Mending Socks and Socking Jerks or Some Notes on Limbs and Labor


“We jump off from Independence. Across the Big Blue River, the Little Blue, the Platte, the Sweetwater. South pass over the Rockies down to the big Salt Lake, then the desert.

It’s a long hard grind with no let-up. Rain, hail as big as eggs, breakdowns, prairie fires, sand storms. Dust storms, alkali water--no water. Cholera, Indians, drowning, stampedes, stupid accidents. You’ll pass graves everywhere. Milestones along the way. One out of every three of you will be dead before you get to his California Valley. So if you’re smart you’ll leave by that door. That’s my best advice. Follow it, now.

All right. You asked for it, you’ll get it.” -Buck Wyatt in Westward the Women


William Wellman was a director known for his obsession with the sky, but, as if to show why, his films would obsess equally on the ground and feet that stand there. From the leg up, the bodies he captured were bodies in motion, bodies at work. For Wellman, labor was never just a byproduct of a story–it was the story, and his characters lived and died by it. And though he often showcased men–crossing the battlefield, building airplanes, and trudging through the wilderness–he gave women the same rough and tumble love, would let them play like the men, their arms and legs their instruments. With each shot, women’s limbs become more than mere appendages in Wellman: they became the tools of labor, of women in particular laboring physically and mentally, and confronting the fact of that labor. Their bodies used equally as vehicles of empowerment and imprisonment. Wellman’s early 30s pre-code tales of contemporary women fighting against poverty through the Depression (The Purchase Price, So Big!, Midnight Mary, Night Nurse, Frisco Jenny) would morph in the 40s and 50s into more epic tales of women coming into their own on the American frontier (Westward the Women, The Great Man’s Lady, Yellow Sky, Lady of Burlesque). A split? The pre-code women bartering with the only thing they owned—their bodies—and the frontier women using their bodies as a means of achieving a life of their own choosing. But in each and every decade Wellman touched there were always women forging their way with hands that washed, milked, pulled, shot, stitched, typed, embraced, cooked, carried, and caressed. And legs that trudged, tapped, ran, plowed, kicked, danced, trekked, and, when money was really tight, spread.


Stills are from the following William A. Wellman films: So Big! (1932) Westward the Women (1951) The Great Man’s Lady (1942) Midnight Mary (1933) The Purchase Price (1932) Lady of Burlesque (1943) Yellow Sky (1948) Night Nurse (1931) Frisco Jenny (1932)

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*** Telaroli | May/September, 2012


WEST!OF!EDEN: L'AMÉRIQUE!AMÈRE!DE!WILLIAM!WELLMAN! Michael!Henry!Wilson!

Across&the&Wide&Missouri!(1951)

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Les& Ailes! seraitIil! l’arbre! qui! cache! la! forêt?! Le! film! remporta! le! premier! Oscar! jamais! décerné,! et! c’est! resté! celui! auquel! les! historiens! associent! William! Wellman.! Sa! longue! carrière! repose! sur! cette! œuvre! de! jeunesse! (1927)! qu’il! a! à! plusieurs! reprises! tenté! de! réadapter! ou! réacclimater,! sans! pourtant! en! retrouver! le! charme! naïf! et! l’enthousiasme! juvénile.! Il! faut! se! rendre! à! l’évidence! :!Les& Ailes! n’a! pas! le! souffle! épique! de!La& Grande& parade,!et!les!films!qui!suivirent!sur!les!pionniers!de!l’aviation!(Les&Hommes&volants,&Gallant& Journey),! les! pilotes! de! chasse! (Young& Eagles,& Thunderbirds,& This& Man’s& Navy)! ou! les! aviateurs! civils! (Aventure& dans& le& Grand& Nord,& Ecrit& dans& le& ciel)! ne! sortent! guère! des! conventions.! Même! quand! ils! puisent! dans! les! souvenirs! et! expériences! de! “Wild! Bill”,! ils! sont!étrangement!impersonnels.!Prisonnier!de!la!légende!qu’il!a!façonnée!dans!Les&Ailes,!le! cinéaste!se!complaît!trop!souvent!dans!l’imagerie!d’Epinal.!Si!Central&Airport!nous!intéresse! davantage,! c’est! que! les! exploits! érotiques! des! casseIcou! prennent! le! pas! sur! leurs! 23! !


acrobaties! aériennes.! Mais! il! faut! attendre! son! 77e! et! dernier! film,!Lafayette& Escadrille,! l’histoire! peu! édifiante! d’un! voyou,! déserteur! et! rabatteur! de! maisonIclose,! pour! que! le! réalisateur! exerce! sa! verve! iconoclastique! et! nous! donne! une! contreIépopée! digne! de! sa! folle!jeunesse.! Les& Ailes! permet! de! recenser! tout! ce! que! le! Wellman! de! la! maturité! va! jeter! parIdessus! bord.! A! la! romance! fleur! bleue! va! faire! place! une! sexualité! explicite.! Aux! bulles! de! champagne,! la! bière! panachée! de! sang! des! bootleggers.! Aux! raids! glorieux,! les! combats! douteux! et! les! amères! victoires.! Dès!Les& Mendiants& de& la& vie,! Wellman! nous! entraîne! dans! ces!basIfonds!de!l’Amérique!où!il!sera!toujours!à!l’aise!:!la!camaraderie!chevaleresque!n’a! plus!cours!;!la!loi!de!la!jungle!prévaut!chez!des!parias!échappés!d’un!roman!de!Jack!London.! En! sacrifiant! la! pose! héroïque! au! naturalisme! le! plus! franc,! il! tord! le! cou! aux! bons! sentiments!;!il!prend!le!lyrisme!à!rebours!ou!à!contreIvoie!;!il!invente!un!romantisme!inédit! à!Hollywood,!celui!des!crèveIcœur!et!des!causes!perdues.!Plus!la!réalité!est!rude,!rugueuse,! rébarbative,!plus!Wellman!est!dans!son!élément.!Il!n’émeut!jamais!autant!que!quand!il!pose! sa!caméra!à!ras!de!terre!et!surprend!ses!“mendiants!de!la!vie”!blottis!dans!une!meule!de! foin!ou!courant!le!long!des!rails!pour!attraper!au!vol!un!train!de!marchandises.!C’est!ce!que! vérifie! encore!Aventure& dans& le& Grand& Nord! :! les! pilotes! nous! passionnent! hors! de! leur! carlingue,!après!leur!atterrissage!forcé,!quand!la!lutte!pour!la!survie!leur!fait!retrouver!les! réflexes!des!trappeurs!de!L’Appel&de&la&forêt.! Un!lyrisme!à!contre/voie! Le! dépouillement! du! constat,! tel! est! le! registre,! âpre,! sévère,! où! Wellman! excelle.! Témoin!Wild& Boys& of& the& Road,& Buffalo& Bill,& AuGdelà& du& Missouri,& Lafayette& Escadrille! I! tous! films! qui! furent! amputés,! mutilés! ou! défigurés! par! un! happy! end! ridicule,! mais! dont! les! images! sont! assez! fortes! pour! avoir! résisté! aux! compromis! des! producteurs! comme! aux! ciseaux! des! censeurs.! Si! fortes! qu’elles! ont! parfois! une! saveur! documentaire.! C’est! le! cas! de!L’Etrange&incident!et!de!The&Story&of&G.I.&Joe!(Les&Forçats&de&la&gloire),!pourtant!tournés! en! studio.! Ce! sont! ses! œuvres! les! plus! représentatives,! celles! où! le! refus! du! glamour! hollywoodien! est! radical! :! un! lynchage! y! est! traité! comme! un! faitsIdivers,! une! campagne! militaire! comme! un! rapport! de! correspondant! de! guerre.! Wellman! a! l’idée! admirable,! dans!G.I.& Joe,! d’inscrire! au! cœur! de! sa! chronique! la! figure! d’Ernie! Pyle,! ce! narrateur! délibérément!prosaïque!mais!touché!de!compassion.!On!est!à!mille!lieux!des!chevaliers!du! ciel!trop!idéalisés.!C’est!Pyle,!du!reste,!qui!compare!le!confort!des!aviateurs!à!la!misère!des! fantassins.!Ni!gloire!ni!pathos!pour!ces!biffins!qui!vivent!et!meurent!dans!la!boue.!Bastogne! et!Les& Commandos& passent& à& l’attaqueconfirment! le! paradoxe! de!G.I.& Joe! :! l’armée! de! terre! aura!mieux!réussi!que!l’aviation!à!l’as!du!Black!Cat.!

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Wellman!n’était!ni!un!conteurIné!comme!Ford,!ni!un!“artiste”!comme!Sternberg!;!il!n’a!pas! eu! Shakespeare! pour! inspiration! comme! Walsh! ou! le!! Cantique& des& cantiques! comme! Borzage.!Ce!frondeur!n’est!pas!toujours!sorti!vainqueur!de!ses!duels,!mais!on!peut!compter! sur! lui! pour! décaper! les! mythes! créés! ou! entretenus! par! ses! pairs! dans! des! productions! plus! prestigieuses.! Une! âme! de! rebelle,! un! tempérament! de! casseIcou,! et! surtout! une! irrévérence! foncière! lui! interdisent! de! se! complaire! dans! l‘iconographie! en! cours.! Non! seulement!il!rue!dans!les!bracards,!exècre!les!producteurs,!injurie!les!nababs,!mais!il!aime!à! prendre! le! contrepied! des! genres! et! formules! consacrés.! Ses! rares! comédies! (Love& is& a& Racket,&Roxie&Hart,&La&Joyeuse&suicidée)!sont!des!satires!stridentes!sur!les!abus!de!la!presse! et!des!médias.!Nulle!joie!de!vivre,!nulle!sophistication!dans!ces!mélodrames!détournés!en! farce!macabres,!où!s’agite!une!foule!de!margoulins!et!de!charlatans!habiles!à!exploiter!les! tares! du! système.! Wellman! projette! une! lumière! singulièrement! crue! sur! les! impostures,! celles! des! hommes! comme! celles! des! institutions.! Ce! francItireur! ne! joue! pas! sur! du! velours.!Il!n’épargne!ni!l’usine!à!rêves!(Une&étoile&est&née),!ni!même!le!monde!du!sport,!alors! sacroIsaint.!College& Coachsurprend! par! l’audace! avec! laquelle! est! démythifié! le! football! universitaire,!envisagé!comme!un!racket!par!un!entraîneur!sans!scrupule.!Le!trait!n’est!pas! aussi! acéré! dans!Maybe& It’s& Love! et!The& Man& I& Love,! mais! footballeurs! et! boxeurs! y! sont! campés! comme! des! demeurés.! Le! comble! est! atteint! dans!La& Joyeuse& suicidée& quand! un! match!de!catch,!bien!sûr!truqué,!est!interrompu!par!une!minute!de!silence!en!hommage!à! Carole!Lombard,!qui!simule!une!maladie!mortelle!pour!le!compte!d’une!feuille!à!sensation.! Avant! de! rencontrer! et! d’épouser! l’inconnu! qu’elle! a! courtisé! par! correspondance,! Jan! Sterling,! la! prostituée! d’! Ecrit& dans& le& ciel,! se! démaquille! rageusement! car! elle! a! fini! par! opter! pour! l’honnêteté! et! décidé! de! se! révéler! telle! qu’elle! est.! Au! physique! comme! au! moral.! Son! geste! pourrait! définir! l’art! poétique! de! Wellman,! le! forcené! qui! terrifiait! ses! comédiennes,!les!poussait!à!bout!et!exigeait!même!qu’elles!renonçassent!au!maquillage.!Jan! Sterling! est! imitée! par! une! autre! passagère,! Claire! Trevor! qui! choisit! la! simplicité! quand! elle!se!dépouille!de!son!manteau!de!vison!afin!que!John!Wayne!puisse!délester!l’appareil!en! perdition.! Robert! Mitchum,! lui,! brûlera! un! recueil! de! Keats! pour! allumer! son! dernier! feu! dans!Track&of&the&Cat.!L’apologue!de!La&Lumière&qui&s’éteint,!où!le!peintre!Ronald!Colman!est! forcé! de! tempérer! ses! croquis! soudanais! car! leur! extrême! réalisme! choquerait! le! public! victorien,!pourrait!également!s’appliquer!à!Wellman.!Plus!que!tout!autre!réalisateur!de!sa! génération,!il!a!été!bridé!par!la!pudibonderie!et!la!pusillanimité!hollywoodiennes.!Colman! est!son!alter!ego!lorsqu’il!pousse!son!modèle!hors!de!ses!gonds,!la!forçant!à!rire,!pleurer,! écumer!de!rage,!pour!qu’elle!dévoile!son!âme!et!puisse!ainsi!exprimer!toute!la!douleur!du! monde.!(Le!tableau!a!pour!titre!“La!Mélancolie”.)!Les!larmes!d’Ida!Lupino!sont!aussi!belles,! dans!leur!provocante!incongruité,!que!le!visage!luisant!de!crème!grasse!de!Jan!Sterling.! Wellman!a!le!don!d’émouvoir!en!refusant!l’émotion.!Il!demande!à!ses!acteurs!de!tourner!le! dos!à!la!caméra!aux!moments!cruciaux!:!coup!de!foudre!(!Dangerous&Paradise),!de!chagrin! 25! !


(Mon& grand)! ou! même! de! désespoir! (Woman& Trap).! Il! lui! arrive! de! filmer! une! séquence! entière!en!cadrant!seulement!la!façade!ou!l’entrée!du!décor!à!l’intérieur!duquel!se!déroule! l’action! (audible,! mais! non! visible)! :! ainsi! de! la! brasserie! de! Chicago! où! James! Cagney! se! livre! à! un! carnage! (L’Ennemi& public)! ou! du! saloon! du! Nevada! où! Gregory! Peck! affronte! Richard! Widmark! (La& Ville& abandonnée).! La! litote! et! l’ellipse! sont! les! figures! de! style! favorites! du! conteur.! VoyezG.I.& Joe,! le! film! qui! illustre! le! mieux! sa! poétique.! La! mort! ne! saurait!être!plus!ordinaire,!l’horreur!plus!banale.!Pas!de!sermons,!seulement!les!gestes!et! visages!d’hommes!en!sursis.!Le!drame!est!auIdelà!de!l’objectif!autant!que!devant.!Wellman! nous!prive!du!contrechamp!:!quand!la!première!victime!de!la!compagnie!tombe,!au!cours! d’un!bombardement!aérien,!il!ne!montre!que!la!réaction!de!ses!camarades.!C’est!vrai!aussi! pour!la!dernière!victime!(Robert!Mitchum),!tuée!horsIchamp!et!dont!on!voit!seulement!le! corps!ramené!à!dos!d’âne.! Le!champ!“masqué’’!lui!est!aussi!propice!que!le!horsIchamp!:!quand!deux!soldats!se!lèvent!à! la! fin! d’une! séquence! de! dialogue,! on! découvre! qu’un! de! leurs! compagnons! gisait! mort! derrière! eux.! Un! G.I.! italoIaméricain! et! une! paysanne! italienne! sont! si! pressés! de! s’aimer! qu’ils!roulent!par!terre,!au!milieu!des!ruines,!hors!de!notre!vue,!sans!que!la!caméra!tente!de! les!recadrer.!Souvent,!le!son!supplée!l’image!:!au!lieu!de!visualiser!les!assauts!successifs!et! infructueux!contre!le!monastère!de!Monte!Cassino,!Wellman!utilise!la!cloche!qui!sonne!le! glas!à!chaque!retour!des!survivants.!L’enjeu!de!la!campagne!n’est!évoqué!qu’indirectement,! à! travers! la! propagande! allemande! à! la! radio.! Dans!! Bastogne,! le! producteur! Dore! Schary! imposa! le! discours! antifasciste! de! l’aumônier,! une! sorte! de! “Pourquoi! nous! combattons”,! mais! ici! les! images! parlent! d’ellesImêmes.! Comme! dans!La& Bataille& de& San& Pietro,! le! documentaire! tourné! sur! place! par! John! Huston! et! auquel!G.I& Joe! emprunte! un! certain! nombre! de! plans.! Libre! à! chacun! de! déceler! ou! non! une! charge! symbolique! lorsque! nous! pénétrons!dans!l’église!éventrée!:!la!chute!d’un!tireur!embusqué!fait!sonner!le!tocsin!;!une! statue!angélique!se!détache!et!se!fracasse!dans!les!gravats!;!on!entrevoit!l’autel!épargné!par! les!bombes...!l’autel!où!sont!sacrifiés!les!jeunes!combattants!de!l’Amérique.! Les!films!de!Wellman!s’ouvrent!parfois!sur!une!vision!de!l’Eden,!mais!les!protagonistes!en! sont!aussitôt!expulsés.!Le!prologue!bucolique!de!!Robin&des&bois&d’Eldorado!est!un!leurre!:! dans! la! Californie! de! 1848,! les! Mexicains! sont! honteusement! spoliés! par! les! prospecteurs! venus!de!l’Est.!A!cause!de!leurs!provocations,!le!paisible!laboureur!Murietta!est!exclu!de!la! communauté!féodale.!Son!épouse!est!violée,!son!frère!lynché.!L’éden!perdu!de!Buffalo&Bill,! c’est!la!Prairie!que!découvre!le!premier!plan,!un!lent!panoramique!sur!la!verdoyante!terre! promise!que!Bill!Cody!partageait!avec!les!Cheyennes!avant!la!colonisation.!“Révisionniste”! avant!la!lettre!(les!Indiens!y!parlent!même!leur!dialecte),!le!film!retrace!alors!les!ravages!de! la!“civilisation”,!c’est!à!dire!les!étapes!du!génocide!indien!:!l’alcool,!le!massacre!des!bisons,! les! exactions! des! tuniques! bleues,! les! traités! rompus...! Avec! la! même! précision! sont! répertoriées! toutes! les! formes! d’intolérance,! du! racisme! à! fleur! de! peau! des! colons! 26! !


(Maureen!O’Hara)!au!racisme!institutionnel!(armée,!gouvernement)!ou!économique!(le!big& business).!Buffalo!Bill!est!présenté!comme!une!figure!tragique,!qui!contribue!au!viol!de!la! Prairie! et! détruit! ainsi! le! rêve! qu’il! symbolisera! pour! les! générations! futures.! On! le! voit! s’enfoncer!dans!la!mauvaise!conscience!et,!lui!aussi,!l’imposture.!Ne!doitIil!pas!sa!célébrité! aux!Indiens!qu’il!a!tués,!ceux!dont!il!disait!après!la!bataille!de!War!Bonnet!Gorge!:!“C’étaient! tous! mes! amis”! ?! Son! discours! contre! les! infamies! de! l’Est! se! termine! par! cette! condamnation! sans! appel! :! ”Le! seul! Indien! que! vous! connaissez! est! celui! qui! orne! vos!pennies.”! L’expérience!des!pionniers!dans!!Les&Conquérants,&L’Inspiratrice&ou!Convoi&de&femmes!n’est! pas! moins! amère! :! en! regard! de! leurs! souffrances,! l’aventure! ne! paraît! pas! en! valoir! la! chandelle.!L’Ouest!n’est!pas!une!terre!d’abondance.!La!nature!est!le!plus!souvent!hostile!ou! ingrate!;!les!paysages!peu!avenants!:!déserts!et!glaciers,!ciels!jaunes!et!forêts!noires,!morne! plaines! où! les! éléments! sont! toujours! sans! pitié.! A! la! violence! de! la! nature! répond! la! violence! des! individus! :! la! Frontière! déforme! les! caractères! plutôt! qu’elle! ne! les! forme.! Dans!Les&Conquérants,!les!bandits!qui!attaquent!les!“honnêtes!gens”!sont!lynchés!avec!une! égale! sauvagerie! par! les! milices! d’autodéfense.! Les! trois! étrangers! qui! ont! le! malheur! de! passer! par! Bridger’s! Wells! au! Nevada! sont! pendus! pour! un! vol! de! bétail! qu’ils! n’ont! pas! commis! (L’Etrange& incident).! Et! Wellman! ose! faire! donner! le! coup! de! cravache! fatal! par! Jane!Darwell,!la!généreuse!matrone!fordienne!des!Raisins&de&la&colère.!Quinze!ans!avant!les! westerns!de!Sergio!Leone!et!Sam!Peckinpah,!le!convoyeur!et!“héros!“!de!Convoi&de&femmes! abat!de!sang!froid!un!homme!qui!n’a!pas!dégaîné,!tandis!que!les!voyageuses!témoignent!au! cours! de! leurs! épreuves! d’une! pugnacité! encore! jamais! vue! à! l’écran! (sinon! chez! l’Anne! Baxter!de!La&Ville&abandonnée).!Parfois,!mais!rarement,!la!nature!a!le!sens!de!l’humour!(ou! de!la!justice!“poétique”)!:!les!bandits!de!L’Appel&de&la&forêt,!alourdis!par!les!sacs!d’or!volé,!se! noient!lorsque!leur!canoë!verse!dans!les!rapides.! Vagabonds!du!rail!et!mendiants!de!la!vie! Le! monde! rural! n’est! guère! plus! idyllique! :! les! fermes! maussades! de!Mon& grand& (une! communauté!hollandaise!de!l’Illinois),!de!The&Purchase&Price!(Elk’s!Crossing!dans!le!Dakota! du! Nord)! ou! de!Track& of& the& Cat! (dans! les! neiges! du! Nevada)! ne! relèvent! pas! du! genre! pastoral.! L’accent! est! mis! sur! les! rigueurs! d’une! vie! sans! joie,! les! réveils! à! l’aube,! la! grossièreté! débilitante! des! esprits,! le! vieillissement! prématuré! des! femmes.! Ces! paysans! puritains!sont!des!rustres!bornés!;!leur!passions!sont!primitives.!Le!point!de!vue!adopté!par! le!récit!est!celui!du!personnage!“décalé”,!la!citadine!qui!est!hors!de!son!élément!(Barbara! Stanwyck)!ou!le!fils!cadet!qui!veut!voler!de!ses!propres!ailes!(Tab!Hunter).!(Inversement,! les!provinciaux!de!The&Man&I&Love!ou!de!Small&Town&Girl!sont!déplacés!et!humiliés!au!sein! de!la!grande!ville.)!Quand!Barbara!Stanwyck!admire!les!champs!de!chouxIfleurs!dans!Mon& grand,!elle!déclenche!l’hilarité!des!autochtones.!Elle!trouve!davantage!de!chaleur!humaine! 27! !


chez! les! racoleuses! qui! tapinent! aux! halles! de! Chicago.! Le! Deep! South! ne! vaut! pas! mieux! que!le!Middle!West!ou!les!solitudes!glacées!du!Grand!Nord.!Après!avoir!dû!rendre!le!chien! qui!était!son!seul!compagnon,!l’orphelin!de!Goodbye&My&Lady!se!voit!offrir!une!tasse!de!café! noir!:!ce!sacrifice!et!la!détresse!qu’il!implique!sont!censés!en!avoir!fait!“un!homme”.! L’Amérique! de! Wellman! n’est! pas! un! pays! où! il! fait! bon! vivre.! Si! les! drames! urbains! sont! dominés! par! le! gangstérisme! (! Woman& Trap,& L’Ennemi& public,& L’Ange& blanc,& The& Star& Witness),!les!scènes!de!la!vie!de!province!sont!plus!noires!encore.!Il!ne!faut!pas!attendre!du! cinéaste!les!nostalgies!de!l’Americana!telles!que!les!ont!cultivées!John!Ford!ou!Henry!King.! Ses! récits! d’apprentissage! (The& Happy& Years,& Goodbye& My& Lady)! surprennent! par! leur! amertume,!voire!leur!cruauté.!Dans!La&Petite&provinciale,!Wellman!hérite!de!Carvel,!dans!le! Connecticut,! le! hautIlieu! de! la! série! Andy! Hardy! (MGM! oblige),! mais! il! nous! présente! une! bourgade!qui!sue!la!médiocrité,!et!l’on!comprend!que!Janet!Gaynor!se!marie!sur!un!coup!de! tête.!Pour!échapper!à!Buffalo!et!son!milieu!petitIbourgeois,!Lilly&Turner!épouse!elle!aussi!le! premier! venu,! un! acteur! qui! l’entraîne! dans! ses! tournées,! mais! au! lieu! d’une! chronique! picaresque,! le! film! nous! offre! un! tableau! cafardeux,! sinon! cauchemardesque! :! routes! boueuses,!bourgs!anonymes,!hôtels!miteux,!fêtes!foraines!dérisoires...!On!y!patauge!dans!la! poisse! et! la! désespérance.! C’est! vrai! encore! du! bled! perdu! d’Other& Men’s& Women! avec! sa! gare! de! triage! et! ses! rails! qui! sont! une! invitation! à! fuir! à! l’autre! bout! du! monde.! Cette! inhospitalité! appelle! à! l’occasion! une! satire! au! vitriol! comme! dans!La& Joyeuse& suicidée! :! débarquant! à! Warshaw,! dans! le! Vermont,! Fredric! March! ne! rencontre! qu’une! série! d’indigènes! cupides! et! finit! même! par! être! attaqué! et! mordu! au! mollet! par! un! marmot! enragé!!! Au!motif!de!l’embourbement!s’oppose!celui!de!la!fuite!en!avant.!Depuis!!Les&Mendiants&de&la&vie,! l’image! récurrente,! souvent! nocturne,! du! clandestin! sautant! en! marche! dans! un! train! de! marchandises!hante!les!films!de!Wellman.!Ce!sera!tour!à!tour!un!voyou!fuyant!la!police!après! un! holdIup! (Woman& Trap),! un! dément! qui! s’échappe! d’un! asile! (Lilly& Turner),! un! couple! désargenté! qui! passe! sa! nuit! de! noces! dans! un! wagon! pour! chevaux! (The& Man& I& Love)! ou! les!Wild& Boys& of& the& Road! qui! ne! veulent! plus! être! à! la! charge! de! parents! frappés! par! le! chômage.! Le! voyage! clandestin! marque! un! point! de! nonIretour,! le! moment! où! l’adolescent! devient!un!rebelle,!ou!le!rebelle!un!horsIlaIloi.!Sous!d’autres!cieux,!la!rupture!prend!des!formes! différentes,! mais! somme! toute! voisines.! Lasse! de! souffrir! sous! la! férule! de! sa! marâtre,! l’orpheline! de!Stingaree! se! laisse! enlever! à! cheval! par! son! Robin! des! bois,! tandis! que! la! Cendrillon! de!La& Petite& provinciale! est! kidnappée! en! voiture! par! un! playIboy.! Florence! Vidor! brûle!tous!ses!vaisseaux!en!quittant!le!confort!des!beaux!quartiers!pour!les!basIfonds!des!Nuits& deChinatown.! La! tête! brûlée! de!Lafayette& Escadrille,! renié! par! sa! famille,! s’engage! dans! l’aviation! de! chasse,! puis! se! révolte! contre! la! discipline! militaire! et! choisit! à! nouveau! l’insoumission!en!désertant.!Au!siècle!dernier,!la!Légion!était!le!dernier!refuge!des!risqueItout! 28! !


(Beau&Geste).!Dans!Les&Commandos&passent&à&l’attaque,!le!baroud!n’attire!pas!les!patriotes!bon! teint,!mais!des!misfits!de!tout!poil,!candidats!tout!trouvés!pour!des!missions!suicides.! Ces!héros!en!rupture!de!ban!sont!souvent!orphelins,!et!s’ils!ne!le!sont!pas,!ils!n’ont!qu’une! hâte!:!trancher!le!cordon!ombilical.!La!famille!n’est!jamais!affectée!d’un!signe!positif.!Elle! est!plus!souvent!un!carcan!qu’un!havre.!Dans!!The&Star&Witness,!l’enfant!n’est!pas!sauvé!par! ses!parents,!mais!par!la!bête!noire!de!la!famille,!le!grandIpère!“indigne”!qui!embarrassait! les! siens.! Même! dans! le! milieu! conformiste! deLa& Voix& que& vous& allez& entendre,! on! voit! l’enfant! remettre! son! père! en! question.! Dans!Magic& Town,! les! jeunes! font! honte! à! leurs! parents! en! réclamant! la! construction! d’un! lycée.! DansWoman& Trap,! le! laxisme! et! le! rigorisme! sont! renvoyés! dos! à! dos,! rendus! également! responsables! de! la! délinquance! juvénile.! La! sympathie! du! cinéaste! va! à! Chester! Morris,! le! mauvais! garçon.! Elle! va! aux! révoltés,! jamais! aux! institutions! ou! aux! communautés,! presque! toujours! aveugles! ou! corrompues.! Il! préfère! Oklahoma! Red! (Wallace! Beery),! la! magnifique! canaille! des!Mendiants& de& la& vie,! aux! représentants! de! l’ordre.! Il! applaudit!Stingaree,! le! Robin! des! bois! australien! qui! ridiculise! la! police.! Il! est! de! tout! cœur! avec! ses!Wild& Boys! quand! un! clochard! leur! révèle! leur! force! (“Vous! êtes! une! armée,! non?”)! et! qu’ils! contreIattaquent,! affrontant!les!milices!privées!au!cours!de!véritables!batailles!rangées.! Famille,!armée,!police...!aucune!des!institutions!chères!au!cinéma!américain!ne!trouve!grâce! à!ses!yeux.!Même!pas!les!boyIscouts!(!College&Coach).!Dans!Les&Conquérants,!plutôt!que!de! célébrer!en!la!banque!l’épine!dorsale!du!pays!(comme!le!fait!Capra!dans!La&Ruée),!il!égrène! les! crises! qui! ont! secoué! l’Amérique! de! 1873! à! 1929.! Les! banquiers! n’ont! le! beau! rôle! ni! dans!Héros&à&vendre!ni!dans!Le&Président&fantôme.!Dans!ce!dernier!film,!ils!font!partie!des! “vautours”! :! politiciens,! lobbyistes,! marchands! de! canons,! qui! font! pression! sur! la! Maison! Blanche.! Par! un! tour! de! passeIpasse,! les! forces! démocratiques! l’emportent,! mais! le! populisme!d’un!Capra!est!étranger!à!Wellman,!pour!lequel!il!n’y!a!pas!de!sursaut!à!espérer! du!pays!profond.!Magic&Town,!qui!est!un!succédané!de!La&Vie&est&merveilleuse,!aurait!dû!être! réalisé! par! Capra! précisément.! La! fable! n’est! pas! un! genre! qui! sied! à! Wellman,! trop! pessimiste! pour! faire! passer! le! “message”! de! Robert! Riskin.! Il! est! beaucoup! plus! convaincant! quand! il! décrit! les! bavures! du! système,! la! répression! policière,! le! “vigilantisme”,! les! menaces! totalitaires,! qu’elles! soient! fascistes! (les! Grey! Shirts! dans!Le& Président& fantôme)! ou! communistes! (le! militant! sournois! de!Héros& à& vendre).! Ou! lorsqu’il! nous!montre!comment!l’injustice!suscite!la!révolte!:!les!vagabonds!des!Mendiants&de&la&vie! sont! en! butte! à! la! fois! à! la! haine! des! fermiers! et! aux! raids! des! forces! de! l’ordre.! Les! adolescents!de!Wild&Boys!sont!attaqués!à!coups!de!matraque!;!leur!bidonville!évacué!au!jet! de! lances! à! incendie.! Comme! le! Murietta! de!Robin& des& bois& d’Eldorado,! le! Richard! Barthelmess!de!Héros&à&vendre,!qui!voit!sa!femme!tuée!au!cours!d’une!manifestation,!paraît! avoir!hérité!de!tous!les!malheurs!du!pays.! 29! !


Les!“hommes!oubliés”!invoqués!par!Roosevelt!peuplent!les!films!du!républicain!Wellman.! Un! ingénieur! doit! faire! le! chauffeur! de! taxi! (! Lilly& Turner),! un! pilote! chevronné! se! morfondre! comme! caissier! de! banque! (Central& Airport).! Non! seulement! Wellman! nous! présente! l’ordre! social! du! point! de! vue! de! ceux! qui! en! sont! exclus! (chômeurs,! déshérités,! délinquants,! prostituées),! mais! il! évoque! en! images! fulgurantes! le! sort! peu! enviable! des! minorités.!Les!faux!coupables!de!L’Etrange&incident!sont!lynchés!parce!qu’ils!ont!le!malheur! d’être!des!étrangers!I!doublement!dans!le!cas!du!Mexicain!interprété!par!Anthony!Quinn.! Les!“Red!Squads”!s’en!prennent!à!la!fois!aux!chômeurs!et!aux!immigrés!italiens!dans!Héros& à& vendre.! Le! racisme! est! partout! :! quand! Murietta! découvre! une! brochette! d’oreilles! humaines! pendues! à! un! fil,! son!compadre,! ThreeIFinger! Jack,! lui! explique! :! “J’adore! les! Chinetoques! !’! (Robin& des& bois& d’Eldorado).! La! cohabitation! entre! races! ne! peut! être! harmonieuse! qu’au! niveau! individuel,! comme! dans!AuGdelà& du& Missouri.! Inspirée! par! les! recherches!de!l’historien!de!l’Ouest!Bernard!DeVoto,!cette!odyssée!à!travers!un!continent! encore! vierge! (1820)! est! remarquable! à! la! fois! pour! son! réalisme! linguistique! et! pour! l’itinéraire! de! Clark! Gable,! le! trappeur! qui! apprend! à! respecter! la! race! qu’il! haïssait! en! épousant!une!princesse!Blackfoot.!Il!lui!appartient!de!recueillir!l’héritage!indien!et!de!jeter! entre!les!deux!cultures!le!pont!dont!rêvait!Buffalo!Bill.! Le! brassage! ethnique! et! racial! de! Wellman! ne! cesse! de! surprendre.! Il! ne! doit! pas! grand! chose!aux!poncifs!rassurants!du!!melting&pot.!Gable!offre!une!armure!écossaise!au!chef!des! Nez! Percés.! Un! Irlandais! (Wallace! Beery)! se! révèle! être! le! chef! d’une!tong! (Nuits& de& Chinatown).! Une! jeune! Chinoise! tente! (en! vain)! de! s’émanciper! en! adoptant! le! style! des!flappers(The& Hatchet& Man).! Dans! le! bidonville! de! Cleveland,! deux! jeunes! noirs,! apparemment! acceptés,! partagent! la! pitance! desWild& Boys.! Une! réprouvée! comme!Frisco& Jenny!est!associée!à!la!fois!à!Chinatown,!où!elle!a!mis!son!fils!en!nourrice,!et,!fugitivement,!à! un!groupe!de!noirs!sans!abri!qui!chantent!le!blues!autour!d’un!brasero.!My&Man&and&I!donne! en! exemple! Chu! Chu! Ramirez! (Ricardo! Montalban),! l’ouvrier! agricole! fraîchement! naturalisé! qui! s’est! tatoué! son! numéro! de! sécurité! sociale! sur! le! poignet.! Exploité! par! un! fermier!raciste,!il!veut!croire!en!la!justice!démocratique!:!“Un!homme!I!un!vote!!!Lincoln,! Washington,! Ramirez! !”! Comme! d’habitude! (Bastogne,& La& Voix& que& vous& allez& entendre),! la! mise!en!scène!de!Wellman!dément!le!message!et!le!happy!end!optimistes!de!Dore!Schary.! Ce!qu’elle!impose,!c’est!la!tristesse!d’une!Californie!aussi!sordide!que!celle!de!Fat&City,!un! tiersImonde! désolé,! voué! à! l’alcoolisme! et! à! la! prostitution,! où! les! journaliers! mexicains,! entassés! dans! une! piaule,! dilapident! au! jeu! leurs! maigres! gains! quand! ils! ne! s’arnaquent! pas!les!uns!les!autres.! “C’est!la!guerre”! En! matière! de! sexualité,! Wellman! attaque! de! front.! Il! fait! fi! des! fadaises! romantiques.! Son! réalisme!trivial!contredit!aussi!bien!l’angélisme!borzagien!que!la!perversité!sternbergienne.! 30! !


La! truculence! walshienne! lui! est! également! étrangère.! On! n’a! pas! oublié! la! rencontre! du! pamplemousse!et!du!visage!de!Mae!Clark!à!une!table!de!petitIdéjeuner!(L’Ennemi&public).! Mais! ce! n’est! pas! l’image! la! plus! saugrenue! qu’ait! concoctée! Wellman.! Quand! le! couple! de!The& Man& I& Love! roule! sur! le! plancher! d’un! wagon,! la! caméra! recadre! le! canasson! qui! dodeline!de!la!tête!auIdessus!d’eux,!tandis!que!le!disque!tournant!à!vide!sur!le!Victrola!ne! laisse!aucun!doute!sur!la!nature!de!leurs!ébats.!Dans!L’Appel&de&la&forêt,!hommes!et!bêtes! sont!si!bien!associés!que!Clark!Gable!et!Loretta!Young!se!reniflent!comme!le!font!le!saintI bernard! et! sa! louve.! “Vous! sentez! mauvais”,! dit! Anne! Baxter! à! Gregory! Peck! en! lui! tirant! une!balle!à!la!hauteur!de!la!tempe!(La&Ville&abandonnée).!Dans!Central&Airport,!Sally!Eilers! reste! pendue! à! un! arbre! par! son! parachute,! le! fond! de! son! pantalon! craque! et! Richard! Barthelmess!en!profite!pour!se!rincer!l’œil.!Plus!tard,!elle!est!pourchassée!par!le!frère!cadet! jusque!dans!la!ladies’&room!de!l’hôtel.!Même!dans!les!films!de!guerre,!les!touches!cocasses! ou! bizarres! abondent! :! une! fermière! aux! formes! plantureuses! manque! de! se! couper! les! nichons!avec!son!couteau!à!pain!(Bastogne)!;!les!jeunes!Napolitaines!doivent!relever!jupes! et! corsages! pour! être! désinfectées! par! leurs! libérateurs! (Les& Commandos& passent& à& l’attaque)!;!un!jeune!couple!fait!l’envie!de!la!compagnie!qui!les!voit!se!préparer!à!leur!nuit! de! noces! sous! la! bâche! d’une! ambulance,! mais! le! soldat! épuisé! s’endort! avant! de! pouvoir! satisfaire!sa!compagne!(G.I.&Joe).! L’héroïne! fait! rarement! l’objet! d’une! cour! romantique.! Le! plus! souvent,! elle! subit! la! concupiscence,!le!voyeurisme,!les!avances!brutales!des!hommes.!Dans!!Les&Mendiants&de&la& vie,!Louise!Brooks!tue!son!père!adoptif!qui!allait!la!violer.!Elle!doit!ensuite!se!déguiser!en! garçon.! Dans!Wild& Boys,! Dorothy! Coonan! en! fait! autant! pour! traverser! le! pays.! Son! amie,! restée! seule! dans! un! wagon,! est! surprise! en! soutienIgorge! et! violée! par! le! serreIfrein.! Sa! tante! paraît! mieux! lotie,! mais! c’est! parce! qu’elle! se! livre! à! la! prostitution.! C’est! le! cas! également,!entre!beaucoup!d’autres,!de!Jean!Harlow!(L’Ennemi&public),!ou!de!Loretta!Young! dans!Rose& de& minuit! (“criminelle! depuis! l’âge! de! 14! ans”)! et!The& Hatchet& Man! (où! elle! est! vendue!à!une!“maison!de!thé”).!La!chair!n’est!pas!moins!triste!sous!les!tropiques.!Les!îles! exotiques! de! Wellman! sont! de! sinistres! lupanars,! à! mille! lieux! de! la!Sadie& Thompson! de! Walsh.! La! Nancy! Carroll! de!Dangerous& Paradise! se! plaint! des! “pattes! gluantes”! de! ses! clients,!plus!ignobles!les!uns!que!les!autres!:!le!caf’conc’!de!Sourabaya!est!en!fait!un!bordel,! et! la! caméra! révèle! le! manège! furtif! des! filles! en! petite! tenue! dans! les! piaules! du! dessus.! Dans!Safe&in&Hell,!Dorothy!Mackaill,!seule!femme!blanche!sur!l’île!de!Tortuga,!est!convoitée! par! tous! les! mâles,! y! compris! par! le! juge! devant! lequel! elle! comparaît! pour! avoir! tué! son! proxénète.! Chez! Wellman,! la! femme! déchue! n‘est! pas! l’apanage! de! la! Dépression.! A! preuve! Shelley! Winters! (! My& Man& and& I),! Jan! Sterling! (Ecrit& dans& le& ciel),! Etchika! Choureau! (Lafayette& Escadrille).!Le!sexe!et!l’argent!vont!de!pair!pour!la!provinciale!de!Small&Town&Girl!comme! pour! les! stripIteaseuses! deL’Etrangleur,! pour! les! pionnières! de!Convoi& de& femmes! (dans! 31! !


l’Ouest,!une!épouse!est!avant!tout!“un!bon!placement”)!comme!pour!Lilly&Turner,!réduite!au! rôle! de! phénomène! de! foire! (elle! danse! du! ventre! pour! faire! la! promotion! de! recettes! de! santé!bidon).!Les!héroïnes!de!Wellman!n’hésitent!pas!à!utiliser!leur!sexualité.!C’est!souvent! leur! seule! arme.! Clara! Bow! tente! d’aguicher! Charles! Rodgers! en! troquant! son! uniforme! d’infirmière!contre!une!robe!affriolante!(Les&Ailes).!L’espionne!Jean!Arthur!couche!avec!l’as! allemand! pour! lui! arracher! des! confidences! sur! l’oriller! (Young& Eagles).! Frances! Dee! n’a! qu’à!s’alanguir!sur!un!sofa!pour!mener!Douglas!Fairbanks!Jr!par!le!bout!du!nez!(Love&is&a& Racket).! Pendant! son! procès,! Ginger! Rogers! prend! soin! de! découvrir! ses! genoux! pour! s’attirer!les!faveurs!des!jurés,!tous!mâles!(Roxie&Hart).!Joe!E.!Brown!contemple!la!silhouette! de!Joan!Bennett!(caressée!par!un!panoramique!lascif)!et!lui!suggère!une!stratégie!indécente! pour!sauver!la!présidence!de!son!père!:!séduire!et!débaucher!les!onze!joueurs!de!football! nécessaires!à!une!équipe!de!choc.!Elle!trouve!l’idée!épatante!et!se!transforme!en!vamp!pour! accomplir! sa! mission! (Maybe& It’s& Love).! Ruth! Chatteron! se! donne! à! un! pianiste! de!honkyG tonkpour! tomber! enceinte! et! forcer! ainsi! la! main! de! son! père,! opposé! à! leur! union.! Plus! tard,! pour! survivre,! elle! s’adonne! au! proxénétisme! et! crée! un! réseau! de! callIgirls! (Frisco& Jenny).! Parfois,! Wellman! va! plus! loin! encore! et! s’aventure! dans! les! terrae& incognitae! de! la! libido! féminine.! L’Eros! s’y! exprime! sans! les! détours! pudiques! qui! étaient! alors! de! rigueur.! Au! comble!de!la!frustration,!Nancy!Carroll!trahit!l’intensité!de!son!désir!pour!Richard!Arlen!en! lui!criant!sa!haine!(Dangerous&Paradise).!Barbara!Stanwyck,!privée!de!tout!rapport!sexuel! par! son! mari,! se! met! à! hurler! sous! la! neige! jusqu’à! ce! qu’il! la! prenne! dans! ses! bras! (The& Purchase& Price).! Dans!Lilly& Turner,! Ruth! Chatteron! demande! à! George! Brent! de! lui! faire! l’amour!en!expliquant!que!son!union!avec!Frank!McHugh!est!restée!platonique.!Sally!Eilers! mène!le!marivaudage!érotique!en!verrouillant!ou!déverrouillant!la!porte!de!ses!chambres! d’hôtel! (Central& Airport).! Elle! s’accommoderait! d’un! ménage! à! trois,! comme! Mary! Astor! dans!Other& Men’s& Women! ou! Barbara! Stanwyck! dansL’Inspiratrice.! A! l’occasion,! Wellman! sonde! les! mystères! du! fétichisme! féminin! :! Baclanova,! la! vamp! de!The& Man& I& Love,! est! émoustillée!par!le!sang!et!la!sueur!des!rings,!comme!l’est!Jean!Harlow!par!la!compagnie!des! bootleggers! (L’Ennemi& public)! et! Florence! Vidor! par! la! virilité! brutale! d’un! chef! de! gang! (Nuits&de!Chinatown).! Wellman!n’a!pas!attendu!!Convoi&de&femmes!pour!privilégier!ses!héroïnes.!Chez!ce!prétendu! misogyne,!l’homme!est!rarement!digne!de!sa!compagne.!Femmes!de!caractère!et!de!vision,! Barbara!Stanwyck!et!Bette!Davis!sont!infiniment!supérieures!à!leur!époux!ou!fiancé!(Mon& grand).!C’est!encore!Stanwyck,!la!citadine,!qui!sauve!la!ferme!hypothéquée!de!George!Brent! (The&Purchase&Price).!C’est!Ann!Harding!qui!suggère!le!départ!vers!l’Ouest,!puis!la!fondation! d’une!banque,!et!c’est!elle!encore!qui!négocie!le!passage!du!chemin!de!fer!à!Fort!Allen!(Les& Conquérants).! La! dynamique! est! la! même! dans!L’Inspiratrice! :! sans! son! épouse,! le! “grand! homme”! n’aurait! rien! accompli.! Gene! Tierney! prend! conscience! avant! son! mari! de! 32! !


l’oppression!stalinienne!;!elle!est!la!première!à!parler!de!défection!à!l’Ouest!(Le&Rideau&de& fer).! L’idéalisme! est! du! côté! de! Jane! Wyman,! qui! représente! la! conscience! civique! et! la! rectitude! morale,! face! à! l’imposteur! James! Stewart! (Magic& Town).! Ces! inspiratrices! font! preuve!du!courage,!de!l’endurance,!de!l’esprit!d’entreprise!attendus!de!leur!compagnon.!Et! pourtant,! trop! souvent,! leur! destin! est! sacrifié! à! celuiIci! :! de!Mon& grand! à!Frisco& Jenny,! de!The& Man& I& Love! à!L’Inspiratrice,! Wellman! nous! les! révèle! esseulées,! abandonnées,! condamnées!à!classer!les!coupures!de!presse!qui!retracent!la!carrière!de!leur!mari!ou!de! leur! progéniture.! Parfois! (Safe& in& Hell,& Frisco& Jenny),! elles! n’ont! d’autre! choix! que! la! mort! pour!conserver!leur!intégrité!:!elles!mettent!en!scène!leur!suicide!avec!la!même!élégance! délibérée! que! Fredric! March! dans!Une& étoile& est& née.! Le! stoïcisme! et! la! crânerie,! les! deux! vertus!cardinales!chez!Wellman,!ne!sont!pas!le!monopole!du!sexe!dit!fort.! Wellaman! avait! une! expression! favorite! (! Les& Ailes,& Young& Eagles,& Lafayette& Escadrille)! :! “C’est!la!guerre”!(toujours!en!français!dans!le!texte).!Elle!s’appliquerait!à!la!plupart!de!ses! films! car! elle! elle! résume! bien! la! condition! humaine! :! il! faut! toujours! s’attendre! au! pire! ;! l’homme! est! un! loup! pour! l’homme! ;! le! destin! ne! fait! jamais! de! cadeaux.! Ou! encore! :! le! plaisir! est! indissociable! de! la! souffrance! ;! il! n’est! pas! de! réussite! qui! ne! soit! bâtie! sur! les! privations!;!le!bonheur!ou!le!succès!viennent!toujours!trop!tard!pour!qu’on!puisse!en!jouir.! La!mort!d’Ann!Harding!coïncide!avec!le!défilé!de!l’Armistice!(Les&Conquérants).!L’élevation! d’Esther! Blodgett! entraîne! fatalement! la! chute! de! Norman! Maine! (Une& étoile& est& née).! Comme!le!dit!Adolphe!Menjou!à!Janet!Gaynor!:!“Il!faut!payer!de!soiImême.!Il!faut!payer!de! tout!son!cœur.”!En!sachant!que!ces!sacrifices!resteront!ignorés,!y!compris!des!proches.!Et! qu’au!terme!des!épreuves,!nulle!épiphanie,!nulle!transcendance!n’est!à!espérer.!Le!chemin! de!croix!ne!débouche,!sembleItIil!que!sur!un!ciel!vide.!Les!cantiques!de!l’Armée!du!salut!ne! peuvent! nourrir! un! enfant! (Frisco& Jenny),! et! les! prières! d’un! missionnaire! ne! sauraient! restaurer!la!justice!déniée!au!Robin&des&bois&d’Eldorado.! A! leur! arrivée! au! front,! les! fantassins! de! Bastogne! passent! devant! un! calvaire,! et! les! passagers! d’Ecrit& dans& le& ciel! voient! les! lumières! de! la! piste! dessiner! une! croix,! mais! les! crucifix! de! Wellman! ne! sont! que! des! talismans,! aussi! dérisoires! que! l’ours! en! peluche! des!Ailes,!le!disque!injouable!de!G.I.&Joe!ou!les!boucles!d’oreille!de!Lafayette&Escadrille.!“C’est! la!guerre”!et!son!rituel!est!immuable!:!les!nouvelles!recrues!montent!au!casseIpipes,!tandis! que!les!vétérans!redescendent!vers!l’arrière.!Il!ne!reste!aux!survivants!qu’à!compter!leurs! pertes! en! attendant! le! prochain! assaut.! La! caméra! reste! sur! le! corps! gelé! de! Robert! Mitchum,!abandonné!en!travers!du!chemin,!alors!que!se!profile!sur!l’horizon!une!forêt!de! croix! blanches.! L’hommage! du! correspondant! Ernie! Pyle! au! gisant! tient! en! deux! mots! :! “Thanks,&pal”!(“Merci,!mon!pote”).!Tout!Wellman!est!dans!ce!laconisme!verbal!et!visuel.!Sur! le!cœur!brisé!de!son!blason,!aux!côtés!des!ailes!tant!aimées,!il!faudrait!dessiner!une!de!ces! croix!de!bois!:!elle!figurerait!celles!qu’il!a!dressées!au!fil!des!ans!pour!tous!les!G.I.s!Joe,!pour! tous!les!destins!sacrifiés!de!l’Amérique.! 33! !


! The&Hatchet&Man!(1932)! ***! Note!de!l'éditeur:!La&Furia&Umana&est!heureux!d'avoir!l'opportunité!de!republier!l'article!de! Michael!Henry!Wilson!«!West!of!Eden:!L'Amérique!amère!de!William!Wellman!»,!publié! originellement!dans!le!numéro!396!de!la!revue!Positif!(février!1994).!Nous!tenons!à! remercier!Michael!Henry!Wilson!pour!nous!avoir!donné&l'autorisation&de&réGimprimer&son& texte&en&ces&pages.&Tous&droits&réservés.! Editor's&Note&—&La&Furia&Umana&is&extremely&grateful&for&the&opportunity&to&republish& Michael&Henry&Wilson's&"West&of&Eden:&L'Amérique&amère&de&William&Wellman,"&originally& published&in&Positif,&no.&396&(February,&1994);&our&very&special&thanks&to&Michael&Henry& Wilson&for&allowing&it&to&be&reprinted&here.&All&rights&the&author's&own.&

34! !


WEST!OF!EDEN: WILLIAM!WELLMAN’S!BITTER!AMERICA! Michael!Henry!Wilson! Translated!by!Ted!Fendt!

The&High&and&the&Mighty!(1954)! Could!Wings!be!the!tree!hiding!the!forest?!The!film!received!the!first!Oscar!ever!awarded! and! it’s! still! the! one! with! which! historians! associate! William! Wellman.! Wellman’s! long! career!rests!on!this!work!of!youth,!which!he!attempted!to!reIadapt!or!update!several!times! without! ever! again! finding! its! naive! charm! and! juvenile! enthusiasm.! Let’s! turn! to! the! evidence:!Wings!does!not!have!the!epic!spirit!of!The&Big&Parade,!and!the!films!that!follow!on! the! pioneers! of! aviation! (Men& With& Wings,! Gallant& Journey),! fighter! pilots! (Young& Eagles,! Thunder& Birds,! This& Man’s& Navy)! or! civilian! pilots! (Island& in& the& Sky,! The& High& and& the& Mighty)! are! sometimes! mired! in! clichés.! Even! when! they! draw! on! “Wild! Bill’s”! memories! and! experiences,! they! are! strangely! impersonal.! A! prisoner! of! the! legend! he! created! in! Wings,! the! filmmaker! seemed! often! reluctant! to! challenge! conventional! imagery.! Central& Airport! is! more! interesting! because! the! erotic! exploits! of! the! daredevils! take! precedence! over! their! aerial! acrobatics.! But! one! must! wait! until! his! 76th! and! final! opus,! Lafayette& Escadrille! –! the! not! very! edifying! story! of! a! hoodlum,! deserter! and! brothel! bouncer! –! for! 35! !


Wellman! to! exercise! his! iconoclastic! verve! and! give! us! an! antiIepic! worthy! of! his! wild! youth.! Wings!provides!a!list!of!everything!the!mature!Wellman!will!throw!overboard.!In!place!of! innocent!romance!will!be!a!very!raw!sexuality.!In!place!of!champagne!bubbles,!beer!mixed! with!the!blood!of!bootleggers.!In!place!of!glorious!air!raids,!ambiguous!combat!and!bitter! victories.!As!early!as!Beggars&of&Life,!Wellman!brings!us!into!America’s!lower!depths,!where! he!always!feels!at!ease:!chivalric!camaraderie!is!no!longer!acceptable,!the!law!of!the!jungle! prevails! for! these! outcasts! who! could! have! escaped! from! one! of! Jack! London’s! novels.! By! sacrificing!the!romantic!pose!to!frank!naturalism,!he!wrings!the!films!of!all!nice!feelings;!he! inverts! lyricism! or! goes! against! it;! he! invents! a! new! romanticism! in! Hollywood,! one! of! heartbreak!and!lost!causes.!The!rougher,!tougher,!and!meaner!reality!is,!the!more!Wellman! is!inspired.!He!is!never!as!moving!as!when!he!puts!his!camera!on!the!ground!and!captures! the!beggars!of!life!huddling!in!a!haystack!or!running!along!railroad!tracks!to!hop!a!freight! train.! Island& in& the& Sky! verifies! this! again:! the! pilots’! adventure! becomes! exciting! outside! their! cabin,! after! their! forced! landing,! when! the! struggle! for! survival! makes! them! rediscover!the!reflexes!of!the!trappers!in!The&Call&of&the&Wild.! Lyricism!subverted! Harsh,!actual,!unadorned!reports!are!what!Wellman!excels!at.!Take!Wild&Boys&of&the&Road,! Buffalo& Bill,! Across& the& Wide& Missouri,! Lafayette& Escadrille! –! all! films! that! were! cut,! mutilated,!or!disfigured!by!a!ridiculous!happy!ending,!but!whose!images!are!strong!enough! to!have!survived!the!producers’!compromises!and!the!censors’!scissors.!So!strong!that!they! sometimes! have! an! almost! documentary! quality.! Such! is! the! case! of! The& OxGBow& Incident! and!The&Story&of&GI&Joe,!even!though!they!were!filmed!on!a!sound!stage!or!on!the!back!lot.! These!are!his!most!representative!films,!those!in!which!the!refusal!of!Hollywood!glamour!is! radical:! a! lynching! is! treated! like! a! news! item,! a! military! campaign! like! a! war! correspondent’s!dispatch.!Wellman!had!the!admirable!idea,!in!Story&of&GI&Joe,!of!inserting!in! a! corner! of! his! chronicle! the! figure! of! Ernie! Pyle,! the! deliberately! prosaic,! but! compassionate,! narrator.! We! are! far! from! the! overIidealized! knights! of! the! sky.! It’s! Pyle,! moreover,!who!compares!the!comfort!of!aviators!to!the!misery!of!infantrymen.!No!glory!or! pathos! for! these! foot! soldiers! who! live! and! die! in! the! mud.! Battleground! (Infantry)! and! Darby’s& Rangers! (commandos)! confirm! the! paradox! of! The& Story& of& GI& Joe:! creatively! speaking,!the!ace!of!the!Black!Cat!was!more!stimulated!by!ground!forces!than!by!his!fellow! aviators.! Wellman! was! neither! a! born! storyteller! like! Ford! nor! an! “artist”! like! Sternberg;! he! didn’t! have! Shakespeare! as! an! inspiration! like! Walsh! or! the! Song& of& Songs! like! Borzage.! As! an! artisan,!he!didn’t!win!all!his!battles!with!the!front!office,!but!he!can!always!be!counted!on!to! 36! !


decapitate!the!myths!created!or!upheld!by!his!colleagues!in!more!prestigious!productions.! A! rebellious! spirit,! a! daredevil’s! temperament! and,! above! all,! a! fundamental! irreverence! forbid!him!from!indulging!in!popular!iconography.!He!not!only!rebelled,!loathed!producers,! and! insulted! moguls,! but! also! tended! to! go! against! defined! genres! and! formulas.! His! rare! comedies!(Love&is&a&Racket,!Roxie&Heart,!Nothing&Sacred)!are!piercing!satires!on!the!abuses! of! the! press! and! media.! No! joie& de& vivre,! no! sophistication! in! these! melodramas! turnedI macabreIfarces!where!a!swarm!of!able!con!men!and!charlatans!act!to!exploit!the!defects!of! the!system.!Wellman!projects!a!singularly!harsh!light!on!frauds,!those!of!men!and!those!of! institutions.! A! true! maverick,! he! didn’t! play! safe.! He! spared! neither! the! dream! factory! (A& Star&is&Born)!nor!the!then!sacrosanct!world!of!sports.!College&Coach!is!surprising!due!to!the! audacity! with! which! university! football! is! deImythologized,! viewed! as! a! racket! run! by! an! unscrupulous!coach.!This!irony!isn’t!quiet!as!sharp!in!Maybe&It’s&Love!and!The&Man&I&Love,! but! still! their! football! players! and! boxers! are! depicted! as! simpletons.! The! pinnacle! is! reached!in!Nothing&Sacred!when!a!thoroughly!rigged!wrestling!match!is!interrupted!for!a! minute!of!silence!in!homage!to!Carole!Lombard,!faking!a!mortal!illness!for!a!tabloid!rag.! Before!meeting!and!marrying!the!stranger!she’s!courted!through!the!mail,!Jan!Sterling,!the! prostitute! in! The& High& and& the& Mighty,! furiously! takes! off! her! makeIup! because! she’s! decided!to!opt!for!honesty!and!to!show!herself!as!she!really!is!–!physically!and!morally.!Her! gesture! could! define! Wellman’s! poetic! art,! that! of! a! maniac! who! terrified! his! actresses,! pushed!them!to!the!edge,!and!even!demanded!they!forego!makeIup.!She!is!later!imitated!by! Claire!Trevor,!who,!in!turn,!chooses!simplicity!when!she!casts!off!her!mink!coat!so!that!John! Wayne!can!take!weight!off!the!falling!plane.!Robert!Mitchum!resorts!to!burning!a!volume!of! Keats’!poems!to!light!his!last!fire!in!Track&of&the&Cat.!The!apologue!of!The&Light&that&Failed,! in! which! the! painter! Ronald! Colman! is! forced! to! temper! his! Sudanese! sketches! because! their! extreme! realism! could! shock! the! Victorian! public,! could! equally! apply! to! Wellman:! more! than! any! other! director! of! his! generation,! he! was! curbed! by! the! prudishness! and! spinelessness! of! Hollywood.! Colman! is! his! alter! ego! when! he! pushes! his! model! over! the! edge,!forcing!her!to!laugh,!cry,!and!boil!with!rage!so!that!she!reveals!her!soul!and!expresses! all!the!sorrows!of!the!world.!(The!painting’s!title!is!“Melancholy.”)!Ida!Lupino’s!tears!are!as! beautiful,!in!their!provocative!incongruity,!as!Jan!Sterling’s!face!shining!with!oily!cream.! Wellman!has!a!gift!for!creating!emotion!while!refusing!it.!He!asks!his!actors!to!turn!their! backs!to!the!camera!during!crucial!moments:!as!they!fall!in!love!(Dangerous&Paradise),!are! struck!by!grief!(So&Big!),!or!sink!into!despair!(Woman&Trap).!He!sometimes!films!an!entire! sequence!by!only!framing!the!front!or!the!door!of!the!location!where!the!action!is!unfolding! —! audibly! but! not! visibly.! Such! is! the! case! with! the! bar! in! Chicago! where! James! Cagney! commits! a! massacre! (The& Public& Enemy)! or! the! saloon! in! Nevada! where! Gregory! Peck! confronts! Richard! Widmark! (Yellow& Sky).! The! storyteller’s! favorite! stylistic! figures! are! understatement! and! ellipse.! See,! for! example,! The& Story& of& GI& Joe,! the! film! that! best! 37! !


illustrates! his! poetics.! Death! couldn’t! be! more! ordinary,! horror! more! banal.! No! sermons,! just!the!gestures!and!faces!of!men!living!on!borrowed!time.!The!drama!is!as!much!beyond! the!lens!as!it!is!in!front!of!it.!We!are!deprived!of!reverse!shots:!when!the!company’s!first! victim!falls!–!the!target!of!an!aerial!attack!–!we!only!witness!the!soldiers’!reactions;!this!is! also! true! for! the! final! victim! (Robert! Mitchum),! killed! outside! the! frame,! whose! body! is! revealed!as!it’s!carried!on!a!donkey’s!back.! Wellman!favors!“masked”!frames!just!as!much!as!offIscreen!space:!when!two!soldiers!stand! up!at!the!end!of!a!dialogue!sequence,!we!discover!that!one!of!their!companions!has!been! lying! dead! behind! them;! an! ItalianIAmerican! GI! and! an! Italian! peasant! girl! are! in! such! a! hurry!to!make!love!that!they!roll!on!the!ground,!out!of!our!sight,!without!the!camera!trying! to! reframe! them.! Sound! may! replace! images:! instead! of! visualizing! the! successive! and! fruitless! assaults! on! the! Monte! Cassino! monastery,! Wellman! uses! the! church! bell! that! strikes! with! each! return! of! the! survivors.! The! stakes! of! the! campaign! are! only! evoked! indirectly,!through!German!propaganda!on!the!radio.!In!Battleground,!Dore!Schary!imposed! the! priest’s! antifascist! speech,! a! sort! of! Why& We& Fight,! but! here! the! images! speak! for! themselves,! as! in! The& Battle& of& San& Pietro,! the! documentary! which! John! Huston! shot! on! location! and! which! provided! Wellman! with! some! stock! footage.! It’s! up! to! the! viewer! whether!or!not!to!detect!a!symbolic!charge!when!the!platoon!moves!into!the!gutted!church:! the!fall!of!a!sharpshooter!lying!in!ambush!sounds!the!tocsin;!an!angelic!statue!comes!flying! and! crashes! in! the! rubble;! we! catch! a! glimpse! of! an! alter! spared! by! the! bombs…the! alter! where!young!American!combatants!are!sacrificed.! Wellman’s! films! sometimes! open! with! a! vision! of! Eden,! but! the! protagonists! are! quickly! banished! from! it.! The! bucolic! prologue! to! Robin& Hood& of& El& Dorado! is! a! mirage:! in! the! California! of! 1848,! the! Mexicans! are! shamefully! despoiled! by! prospectors! from! the! East.! Because! of! their! constant! provocations,! the! peaceful! laborer! Murietta! is! exiled! from! the! feudal!community.!His!wife!is!raped,!his!brother!lynched.!The!lost!Eden!in!Buffalo&Bill!is!the! Prairie!that!is!revealed!in!the!first!shot,!a!slow!pan!on!the!green!“promised!land”!that!Bill! Cody!shared!with!the!Cheyenne!before!colonization.!“Revisionist”!before!the!term!had!been! coined! (the! Indians! even! speak! their! own! dialect),! the! film! retraces! the! ravages! of! “civilization,”! meaning! the! stages! of! the! Indian! genocide:! alcohol,! the! massacre! of! the! buffalo,! the! army’s! atrocities,! the! broken! treaties…! All! the! forms! of! bigotry! –! from! the! colonists’! visceral! racism! (Maureen! O’Hara)! to! institutionalized! (army,! government)! and! economic! (big! business)! racism! –! are! indexed! with! the! same! precision.! Buffalo! Bill! is! portrayed!as!a!tragic!figure!that!contributes!to!the!rape!of!the!Prairie,!destroying!the!dream! that! he! symbolized! for! future! generations.! We! see! him! sink! into! a! guilty! conscience! and! deception:!he!owes!his!fame!to!the!Indians!he!killed,!those!of!whom!he!said!after!the!Battle! of! War! Bonnet! Gorge:! “They! were! all! my! friends.”! His! speech! against! the! infamies! of! the! 38! !


East! ends! with! a! final! condemnation:! “The! only! Indian! you! know! is! the! one! on! your! pennies.”! The!experience!of!the!pioneers!in!The&Conquerors,!The&Great&Man’s&Lady,!and!Westward&the& Women! is! no! less! bitter:! in! light! of! their! suffering,! the! adventure! does! not! seem! worth! the! trouble.!The!West!is!not!a!land!of!abundance.!Nature!is!most!often!hostile!or!unwelcoming,! the! landscape! hardly! pleasant:! deserts! and! glaciers,! yellow! skies! and! black! forests,! dreary! plains!where!the!elements!are!always!merciless.!The!violence!of!nature!is!met!by!the!violence! of!individuals:!the!Frontier!deforms!characters!more!than!it!forms!them.!In!The&Conquerors,! the! bandits! who! attack! the! “honest! folks”! are! lynched! with! an! equal! savagery! by! the! vigilantes.! Three! strangers! who! have! the! misfortune! of! passing! through! Bridger’s! Wells,! Nevada,!are!hung!for!a!cattle!theft!they!didn’t!commit!(The&OxGBow&Incident).!Wellman!dares! to!give!the!fatal!crack!of!the!whip!to!Jane!Darwell,!the!bigIhearted!Fordian!matron!from!The& Grapes&of&Wrath.!Fifteen!years!before!the!westerns!of!Sergio!Leone!and!Sam!Peckinpah,!the! “hero”! of! Westward& the& Women! slaughters! in! cold! blood! a! man! who! didn’t! draw! his! gun,! while! the! women,! throughout! their! ordeals,! display! a! pugnacity! never! before! seen! on! the! screen!(except!for!Anne!Baxter!in!Yellow&Sky).!Sometimes,!but!rarely,!nature!has!a!sense!of! humor!(or!poetic!justice):!the!brigands!in!The&Call&of&the&Wild,!weighed!down!by!their!sack!of! stolen!gold,!drown!when!their!canoe!overturns!in!the!rapids.! Railroad!Vagabonds!and!Beggars!of!Life! The! rural! world! is! hardly! more! idyllic:! the! bleak! farms! in! So& Big!! (a! Dutch! community! in! Illinois),!The&Purchase&Price!(Elk’s!Crossing,!North!Dakota)!and!Track&of&the&Cat!(the!snowI covered! Nevada! sierra)! do! not! belong! to! the! pastoral! genre.! The! accent! is! placed! on! the! rigors! of! a! joyless! life:! waking! up! at! dawn,! the! men’s! crude! manners,! the! women’s! premature! aging.! These! puritanical! peasants! are! narrowIminded! folk! and! their! passions! are! primitive.! The! point! of! view! adopted! by! the! story! is! that! of! the! outsider,! the! city! girl! who!is!out!of!her!element!(Barbara!Stanwyck)!or!the!youngest!son!who!wants!to!fly!off!the! coop! (Tab! Hunter).! (Conversely,! the! provincial! characters! in! The& Man& I& Love! and! Small& Town& Girl! are! displaced! and! humiliated! in! the! heart! of! the! big! city).! When! Barbara! Stanwyck!admires!the!cauliflower!fields!in!So&Big!,!she!sets!off!the!country!folks’!laughter.! She! finds! more! human! warmth! in! the! prostitutes! who! work! the! streets! in! Chicago.! The! Deep! South! is! no! better! than! the! Midwest! or! the! cold! solitude! of! Northern! Canada.! After! having!had!to!return!the!dog!who!was!his!only!companion,!the!orphan!in!Goodbye&My&Lady! is!offered!a!cup!of!black!coffee:!this!sacrifice!and!the!distress!that!it!implies!will!supposedly! make!a!man!out!of!him.! Wellman’s! America! is! not! a! hospitable! country.! If! his! urban! dramas! are! dominated! by! gangsters! (Woman& Trap,! The& Public& Enemy,! Night& Nurse,! The& Star& Witness),! his! scenes! of! 39! !


country!life!may!be!even!darker!still.!The!nostalgic!Americana!cultivated!by!Ford!or!King! can’t!be!expected!from!Wellman.!When!he!deals!with!a!youth’s!sentimental!education!(The& Happy&Years,!Goodbye&My&Lady),!his!chronicles!are!surprising!for!their!bitterness,!indeed!for! their! cruelty.! In! Small& Town& Girl,! Wellman! inherits! Carvel,! Connecticut,! the! capital! of! the! Andy! Hardy! series! (MGM! obliges),! but! he! presents! us! with! a! small! town! that! exudes! mediocrity,! and! we! quickly! understand! why! Janet! Gaynor! would! marry! on! a! sudden! impulse.!To!escape!Buffalo!and!its!petitIbourgeois!milieu,!Lilly!Turner!also!marries!the!first! comer,! an! actor! who! takes! her! on! tour! with! him,! but! instead! of! a! picaresque! chronicle,! Wellman! offers! us! a! gloomy,! even! nightmarish,! canvas:! muddy! roads,! anonymous! towns,! seedy! hotels,! pathetic! side! shows…! The! characters! flounder! in! rotten! luck! and! hopelessness.! This! is! also! true! of! the! forgotten! hole! in! Other& Men’s& Women! with! its! marshaling!yard!and!railroad!tracks!that!are!like!an!invitation!to!flee!to!the!other!end!of!the! world.!These!uncongenial!surroundings!sometimes!call!for!a!vitriolic!satire,!as!in!Nothing& Sacred:! when! he! lands! at! Warshaw,! Vermont,! Fredric! March! only! meets! a! succession! of! greedy!locals!and!even!ends!up!being!attacked!and!bitten!in!the!leg!by!an!enraged!toddler.! This! motif! of! the! entrapment! is! offset! by! that! of! a! headlong! flight.! From! Beggars& of& Life! forward,! the! recurring,! often! nocturnal,! image! of! a! hobo! jumping! a! freight! train! haunts! Wellman’s!films.!This!will!be,!in!turn,!a!hoodlum!running!away!from!the!police!after!a!holdI up! (Woman& Trap),! an! inmate! escaping! from! a! mental! hospital! (Lilly& Turner),! a! penniless! couple! spending! the! night! on! a! boxcar! for! horses! (The& Man& I& Love)! or! the! adolescents! of! Wild& Boys& of& the& Road! who! no! longer! want! to! be! a! burden! to! parents! struck! by! unemployment.! The! clandestine! trip! marks! a! point! of! no! return,! the! moment! when! a! teenager!becomes!a!rebel!—!or!a!rebel!an!outlaw.!Outside!of!the!heartland,!the!rupture!may! take!on!different!forms,!but!it!comes!from!the!same!impulse.!Tired!of!suffering!under!the! iron!rule!of!her!cruel!stepmother,!the!orphan!in!Stingaree!allows!herself!to!be!carried!off!on! horseback! by! her! Robin! Hood,! while! the! Cinderella! of! Small& Town& Girl! is! kidnapped! by! a! playboy!with!a!car.!Florence!Vidor!burns!all!her!bridges!leaving!the!comforts!of!her!fancy! Uptown!neighborhood!for!the!lower!depths!of!Chinatown&Nights.!The!hothead!of!Lafayette& Escadrille,! disowned! by! his! family,! becomes! a! fighter! pilot,! then! rebels! against! military! discipline! and! again! chooses! insubordination! by! deserting.! A! century! ago,! the! French! Foreign!Legion!remains!the!last!refuge!of!daredevils!(Beau&Geste).!In!Darby’s&Rangers,!the! rangers! don’t! attract! dyedIinIthe! wool! patriots,! but! rebels! and! misfits! of! all! kinds,! readyI made!candidates!for!suicide!missions.! These!disenfranchised!heroes!are!often!orphans,!and!if!they!aren’t,!their!most!urgent!desire! is!to!cut!their!family!ties.!The!family!is!never!presented!in!a!positive!light;!it!is!more!often!a! straitjacket!than!a!haven.!In!The&Star&Witness,!the!child!is!not!saved!by!his!parents!but!by! the!black!sheep!of!the!family:!the!“unworthy”!grandfather!who!embarrasses!them.!Even!in! the!conformist!milieu!of!The&Next&Voice&You&Hear…,!we!see!the!kid!challenging!his!father.!In! 40! !


Magic& Town,! the! teenagers! shame! their! parents! when! they! demand! the! construction! of! a! high! school.! In! Woman& Trap,! laxity! and! rigorousness! are! made! equally! responsible! for! juvenile! delinquency.! The! filmmaker’s! sympathies! lay! with! Chester! Morris,! the! bad! boy.! They!lay!with!those!who!revolt.!Never!with!institutions!or!communities,!which!are!almost! always!blind!or!corrupt.!He!prefers!Oklahoma!Red!(Wallace!Beery),!the!magnificent!rascal! in! Beggars& of& Life,! to! the! representatives! of! order.! He! applauds! Stingaree,! the! Australian! Robin! Hood,! who! ridicules! the! police.! His! heart! goes! to! his!Wild& Boys& of& the& Road& when! a! tramp! reveals! their! power! to! them! (“You! are! an! army,! no?”)! and! they! counterattack,! confronting!a!private!militia!during!pitch!battles.! Family,! Army,! Police…! none! of! the! institutions! dear! to! American! cinema! find! grace! in! Wellman’s! eyes.! Not! even! the! boy! scouts! (College& Coach).! In! The& Conquerors,! rather! than! celebrating!the!bank!as!the!spine!of!the!country!(as!Capra!does!in!American&Madness),!he! strings! out! the! crises! that! shook! America! from! 1873! to! 1929.! Bankers! come! off! as! banksters!in!Heroes&for&Sale!or!The&President&Vanishes.!In!this!latter!film,!they!are!part!of!the! “vultures”:!politicians,!lobbyists,!and!arms!dealers!who!put!pressure!on!the!White!House.! Through!some!sleight!of!hand,!the!democratic!forces!overcome!them,!but!the!populism!of!a! Capra!is!foreign!to!Wellman,!for!whom!there!is!no!revival!to!expect!from!Middle!America.! As! a! matter! of! fact,! Magic& Town,! a! kind! of! standIin! for! It’s& A& Wonderful& Life,! should! have! been!directed!by!Capra:!the!fable!is!not!a!genre!that!suits!Wellman,!too!much!of!a!pessimist! to! get! across! Robert! Riskin’s! “message.”! He! is! far! more! convincing! when! he! depicts! the! system’s!flaws:!police!repression,!vigilantism,!totalitarian!threats!–!be!they!fascist!(the!Grey! Shirts!in!The&President&Vanishes)!or!communist!(the!sly!militant!in!Heroes&for&Sale).!Or!when! he! shows! us! how! injustice! sparks! off! revolt:! the! vagabonds! in! Beggars& of& Life! come! up! against!both!the!farmers’!hatred!and!the!police’s!brutality.!The!teenagers!in!Wild&Boys!are! attacked! with! truncheons,! their! shantytown! cleared! by! fire! hoses.! Like! Murietta! in! Robin& Hood& of& El& Dorado,! the! Richard! Barthelmess! of! Heroes& for& Sale,! who! sees! his! wife! killed! during!a!riot,!seems!to!have!inherited!all!the!misfortunes!of!the!country.! FDR’s! “forgotten! men”! populate! the! films! of! the! Republican! Wellman.! An! engineer! has! to! become!a!taxi!driver!(Lilly&Turner);!an!experienced!pilot!languishes!as!a!bank!clerk!(Central& Airport).!Wellman!not!only!presents!to!us!the!social!order!from!the!point!of!view!of!those! excluded!from!it!(the!jobless,!the!disadvantaged,!delinquents,!prostitutes),!but!evokes!the! unenviable!fate!of!minorities!in!fiery!images.!The!innocent!victims!in!The&OxGBow&Incident! are!lynched!because!they!have!the!misfortune!of!being!outsiders!—!twiceIover!in!the!case! of!the!Mexican!played!by!Anthony!Quinn.!The!“Red!Squads”!strike!at!both!the!unemployed! and!Italian!immigrants!in!Heroes&for&Sale.!Racism!is!everywhere:!when!Murietta!discovers!a! skewer!of!human!ears!hanging!from!a!string,!his!compadre,!Three!Finger!Jack,!jokes,!“I!love! Chinks!”!(Robin&Hood&of&El&Dorado).!Cohabitation!between!races!can!only!be!harmonious!on! an! individual! level,! as! in! Across& the& Wide& Missouri,! which! was! inspired! by! the! research! of! 41! !


Bernard!DeVoto,!a!historian!of!the!West.!This!odyssey!across!a!still!virgin!continent!(1820)! is! remarkable,! as! much! for! its! linguistic! realism! as! for! the! itinerary! of! Clark! Gable,! the! trapper! who! learns! to! respect! the! race! he! despised! by! marrying! a! Blackfoot! princess.! It! moves!him!to!protect!the!Indian!heritage!and!form!a!bridge!between!the!two!cultures!—! that!will!also!be!Buffalo!Bill’s!dream.! The!ethnic!and!racial!intermingling!in!Wellman!doesn’t!cease!to!surprise.!It!owes!little!to! reassuring!“melting!pot”!bromides.!Gable!offers!Scottish!armor!to!the!Nez!Perce!chief.!An! Irishman!(Wallace!Beery)!turns!out!to!be!a!Tong!chief!(Chinatown&Nights).!A!young!Chinese! woman!tries!(in!vain)!to!free!herself!by!adopting!the!lifestyle!of!the!flappers!(The&Hatchet& Man).! In! a! Cleveland! shantytown,! two! young! black! men! share! the! Wild& Boys’! fare,! apparently! accepted! by! them.! An! outcast! like! Frisco& Jenny! is! associated! both! with! Chinatown,! where! her! son! has! been! placed! in! foster! care,! and,! fleetingly,! with! a! group! of! black!men!who!sing!the!blues!around!a!fire!pit.!My&Man&and&I!holds!up!as!an!example!Chu! Chu! Ramirez! (Ricardo! Montalban),! the! recently! naturalized! field! hand! who! tattooed! his! Social! Security! number! on! his! fist.! Exploited! by! a! racist! farmer,! he! wants! to! believe! in! democratic! justice:! “One! man! –! one! vote:! Lincoln,! Washington,! Ramirez!”! As! usual! (Battleground,! The& Next& Voice& You& Hear…),! Wellman’s! direction! contradicts! Dore! Schary’s! optimistic!message!and!happy!ending!(“Wonderful!system!”).!What!it!brings!to!the!fore!is! the!sadness!of!a!California!as!sordid!as!the!one!in!Fat&City,!a!desolate!Third!World,!doomed! to!alcoholism!and!prostitution,!where!Mexican!laborers,!piled!in!a!room,!gamble!away!their! meager!earnings!hustling!one!other.! “C’est!la!guerre”! Wellman! tackles! matters! of! sexuality! headIon.! He! treats! romantic! nonsense! with! disdain.! His!crude!realism!refutes!Borzage’s!spiritualism!as!well!as!Sternberg’s!perversity.!Walsh’s! joyful!raciness!is!equally!foreign!to!him.!It’s!impossible!to!forget!the!unsavory!meeting!of! the!grapefruit!and!Mae!Clark’s!face!at!the!breakfast!table!(The&Public&Enemy),!but!it!isn’t!the! oddest!image!Wellman!concocted.!When!the!couple!in!The&Man&I&Love!rolls!on!the!floor!of! the! boxcar,! the! camera! leaves! them! to! reframe! the! horse! that! is! nodding! its! head! above! them,!while!the!skipping!record!on!the!Victrola!leaves!no!doubts!about!what’s!going!on.!In! The&Call&of&the&Wild,!man!and!beast!are!so!closely!connected!that!Clark!Gable!and!Loretta! Young! sniff! each! other! like! the! Saint! Bernard! and! the! wolf.! “You! smell! bad,”! Anne! Baxter! tells!Gregory!Peck!while!shooting!a!bullet!past!his!temple!(Yellow&Sky).!In!Central&Airport,! when!Sally!Eilers!is!stuck!in!her!parachute!hanging!from!a!tree,!her!pants!rip!and!Richard! Barthelmess! is! more! than! happy! to! take! a! look.! Later,! she! is! pursued! by! the! younger! brother!all!the!way!into!the!hotel’s!ladies!room.!Even!in!his!war!films,!bizarre!and!comical! touches! abound:! a! wellIendowed! farmer! almost! cuts! her! breasts! with! a! bread! knife! (Battleground);! young! Neapolitans! must! lift! their! skirts! and! corsages! to! be! disinfected! by! 42! !


their!liberators!(Darby’s&Rangers);!a!young!couple!is!envied!by!the!regiment!who!watches! them! preparing! for! their! wedding! night! under! an! ambulance’s! tarp,! but! the! exhausted! soldier!ends!up!falling!asleep!before!being!able!to!satisfy!his!wife!(Story&of&GI&Joe).! The! heroine! is! rarely! the! object! a! romantic! courting.! Most! often,! she! is! subjected! to! lust,! voyeurism,! and! the! brutal! advances! of! men.! In! Beggars& of& Life,! Louise! Brooks! kills! her! adoptive!father!when!he!tries!to!rape!her;!she!then!has!to!disguise!herself!as!a!boy.!In!Wild& Boys,! Dorothy! Coonan! uses! that! same! disguise! to! get! across! the! country.! Her! friend,! left! alone!in!a!boxcar,!is!surprised!in!her!bra!and!raped!by!the!brakeman.!Her!aunt!seems!better! off,! but! it’s! because! she! occasionally! takes! to! prostitution.! Such! is! also! the! case,! among! many!others,!of!Jean!Harlow!(The&Public&Enemy)!and!of!Loretta!Young!in!Midnight&Mary!(“a! criminal!since!the!age!of!14”)!and!The&Hatchet&Man!(where!she!is!sold!to!a!“tea!house”).!The! flesh!is!no!less!sad!in!the!tropics.!Wellman’s!exotic!islands!are!sinister!brothels,!a!thousand! miles! from! Walsh’s! Sadie& Thompson.! Nancy! Carroll! complains! about! her! clients’! “sticky! paws,”! each! one! more! vile! than! the! other:! the! cafeIconcert! of! Sourabaya! is,! in! fact,! a! whorehouse! and! the! camera! reveals! the! furtive! activities! of! lingerieIclad! girls! in! the! upstairs!digs!(Dangerous&Paradise).!Dorothy!Mackaill,!the!only!white!woman!on!the!island! of! Tortuga,! is! coveted! by! every! male,! including! the! judge! before! whom! she! appears! for! having!killed!her!pimp!(Safe&in&Hell).! In!Wellman’s!work,!the!fallen!woman!is!not!necessarily!a!creature!of!the!Depression,!as!is! testified! by! Shelley! Winters! (My& Man& and& I),! Jan! Sterling! (The& High& and& the& Mighty)! or! Etchika!Choureau!(Lafayette&Escadrille).!Sex!and!money!go!hand!in!hand!for!the!Small&Town& Girl,!as!they!do!for!the!strippers!in!Lady&of&Burlesque,!the!pioneers!in!Westward&the&Women! (a!wife!in!the!West!is,!above!all,!“a!good!investment”)!and!Lilly&Turner,!who’s!reduced!to!the! role!of!a!sideshow!attraction!(she!belly!dances!to!promote!snake!oil).!Wellman’s!heroines! don’t!hesitate!to!use!their!sexuality;!it’s!often!their!only!weapon.!Clara!Bow!tries!to!tease! Charles!Rodgers!by!trading!her!nurse’s!uniform!for!an!alluring!dress!(Wings).!As!a!spy,!Jean! Arthur!sleeps!with!the!German!ace!to!steal!secrets!in!bed!(Young&Eagles).!Frances!Dee!only! needs! to! recline! on! a! sofa! to! lead! Douglas! Fairbanks,! Jr.! by! the! nose! (Love& is& a& Racket).! During!her!trial,!Ginger!Rogers!makes!sure!her!knees!are!exposed!in!order!to!get!the!allI male!jury’s!favor!(Roxie&Hart).!Joe!E.!Brown!contemplates!Joan!Bennett’s!profile!(stroked!by! a! lascivious! pan)! and! suggests! an! indecent! strategy! for! saving! her! father’s! chairmanship:! seduce!and!entice!away!the!eleven!football!players!necessary!for!a!powerhouse!team.!She! finds!the!idea!marvelous!and!turns!herself!into!a!vamp!to!accomplish!her!mission!(Maybe& It’s&Love).!Ruth!Chatterton!gives!herself!to!the!piano!player!at!a!honkyItonk!bar!in!order!to! become!pregnant!and!force!the!hand!of!her!father,!who!is!opposed!to!their!marriage.!Later,! to! survive,! she! becomes! a! procuress! and! creates! a! network! of! call! girls! (Frisco& Jenny).! ! ! 43! !


Sometimes,!Wellman!goes!even!further!still!and!ventures!into!the!terrae&incognitae!of!the! feminine! libido.! Eros! expresses! itself! in! his! films! without! the! prudish! detours! that! then! were! de! rigueur.! At! the! height! of! frustration,! Nancy! Carroll! betrays! the! intensity! of! her! desire! for! Richard! Arlen! by! screaming! how! much! she! hates! him! (Dangerous& Paradise).! Barbara! Stanwyck,! deprived! of! any! sexual! relationship! by! her! husband,! begins! howling! outside!in!a!snowstorm!until!he!takes!her!in!his!arms!(The&Purchase&Price).!In!Lilly&Turner,! Ruth!Chatterton!asks!George!Brent!to!make!love!to!her,!explaining!that!her!marriage!with! Frank! McHugh! was! not! consummated.! Sally! Eilers! carries! out! her! erotic! maneuvers! by! locking!and!unlocking!the!door!of!her!hotel!bedrooms!(Central&Airport):!she!can!handle!a! ménage& à& trois,! as! can! Mary! Astor! in! Other& Men’s& Women! and! Barbara! Stanwyck! in! The& Great&Man’s&Lady.!On!some!occasions,!Wellman!hints!at!the!mysteries!of!feminine!fetishism:! Baclanova,!the!vamp!in!The&Man&I&Love,!is!titillated!by!the!blood!and!sweat!of!boxing!rings,! Jean! Harlow! by! the! company! of! bootleggers! (The& Public& Enemy),! Florence! Vidor! by! the! brutal!virility!of!a!gang!leader!(Chinatown&Nights).! Wellman! didn’t! wait! for! Westward& the& Women! to! favor! his! heroines.! In! the! films! of! this! alleged! misogynist,! men! are! rarely! worth! their! companions.! Women! of! character! and! vision,! Barbara! Stanwyck! and! Bette! Davis! are! infinitely! superior! to! their! husbands! or! fiancés! (So& Big!).! It! is! Stanwyck! again,! the! city! girl,! who! saves! George! Brent’s! mortgaged! farm!(The&Purchase&Price).!It!is!Ann!Harding!who!suggests!setting!out!West,!then!starting!a! bank,! and! it’s! her! again! who! negotiates! successfully! the! railway’s! passage! through! Fort! Allen!(The&Conquerors).!The!dynamic!is!similar!in!The&Great&Man’s&Lady:!without!his!wife,! the! “great! man”! would! have! accomplished! nothing.! Gene! Tierney! becomes! aware! of! Stalinian!oppression!before!her!husband;!she’s!the!first!to!talk!about!defecting!to!the!West! (The& Iron& Curtain).! Jane! Wyman! is! the! idealist,! representing! civic! conscience! and! moral! rectitude! in! the! face! of! the! imposter,! James! Stewart! (Magic& Town).! These! inspiring! ladies! display! the! courage,! endurance,! and! enterprising! spirit! that! we! expected! of! their! companions.! And! yet,! too! often,! the! woman’s! destiny! is! sacrificed! for! the! man’s:! from! So& Big!! to! Frisco& Jenny,! from! The& Man& I& Love! to! The& Great& Man’s& Lady,! Wellman! shows! the! woman!forlorn,!abandoned,!and!resigned!to!cutting!out!press!clippings!tracing!the!career!of! her! husband! or! their! children.! Sometimes! (Safe& in& Hell,! Frisco& Jenny),! they! have! no! other! choice! than! death! to! preserve! their! integrity:! their! suicide! is! carried! out! with! the! same! deliberate!elegance!as!Fredric!March’s!in!A&Star&is&Born.!Stoicism!and!grit,!the!two!cardinal! virtues!in!Wellman’s!films,!are!no!monopoly!of!the!soIcalled!stronger!sex.! Wellman! had! a! favorite! expression! (Wings,! Young& Eagles,! Lafayette& Escadrille):! “C’est& la& guerre”!(in!French).!It!applies!to!most!of!his!films!because!it!sums!up!the!human!condition! neatly:! one! must! expect! the! worst;! man! is! a! wolf! to! his! fellow! man;! destiny! offers! no! rewards.! In! other! words:! there! is! no! pleasure! without! suffering;! no! success! without! hardships;! prosperity! and! happiness! always! come! too! late! to! be! enjoyed.! Ann! Harding’s! 44! !


death!coincides!with!the!Armistice!parade!(The&Conquerors).!Esther!Blodgett’s!rise!can!only! trigger!Norman!Maine’s!downfall!(A&Star&is&Born).!As!Adolphe!Menjou!says!to!Janet!Gaynor,! “You!have!to!pay!dearly.!You!have!to!pay!with!all!your!heart,”!knowing!that!these!sacrifices! will!remain!ignored,!even!by!loved!ones,!and!that!at!the!end!of!these!ordeals,!no!epiphany,! no!transcendence!is!to!be!hoped!for.!The!via&dolorosa!leads!to!an!empty!sky,!it!seems.!The! hymns! of! the! Salvation! Army! can’t! feed! a! child! (Frisco& Jenny)! and! the! prayers! of! a! missionary!are!unable!to!restore!the!justice!denied!to!Robin!Hood!of!El!Dorado.! Upon! their! arrival! at! the! front,! the! soldiers! in! Battleground! pass! by! a! calvary! while! the! survivors!in!The&High&and&the&Mighty!see!the!lights!of!the!landing!strip!form!the!shape!of!a! cross,!but!Wellman’s!crucifixes!are!only!talismans,!as!pathetic!as!the!teddy!bear!in!Wings,! the!unplayable!record!in!The&Story&of&GI&Joe,!or!the!earrings!in!Lafayette&Escadrille.!“C’est&la& guerre,”!and!its!ritual!is!always!the!same:!new!recruits!trudge!along!toward!the!front,!while! the! exhausted! veterans! head! back! toward! the! rear.! The! survivors! can! only! count! their! losses! while! waiting! for! the! next! assault.! The! camera! stays! on! Robert! Mitchum’s! frozen! body,! abandoned! in! the! middle! of! the! road,! while! a! forest! of! white! crosses! is! seen! silhouetted! on! the! horizon.! Ernie! Pyle’s! homage! to! the! body! is! expressed! in! two! words:! “Thanks,!pal.”!All!of!Wellman!is!contained!in!this!verbal!and!visual!brevity.!On!the!broken! heart!of!his!coat!of!arms,!next!to!the!wings!he!loved!so!much,!one!of!these!wooden!crosses! should!be!drawn.!He!has!raised!so!many!of!them,!year!after!year,!in!honor!of!the!GI!Joes!and! all!of!America’s!sacrificed!destinies.! ! ***! Editor's!Note!—!La&Furia&Umana!is!extremely!grateful!for!the!opportunity!to!republish! Michael!Henry!Wilson's!"West!of!Eden:!L'Amérique!amère!de!William!Wellman,"!originally! published!in!Positif,!no.!396!(February,!1994),!in!an!original!translation!from!the!French!by! Ted!Fendt;!our!very!special!thanks!to!both!Ted!Fendt!and!Michael!Henry!Wilson!for! allowing!it!to!be!reprinted!here.!All!rights!the!author's!own.!

45! !


THE!SITUATIONIST! Daniel!Kasman!

! Darby’s&Rangers!(1958)! “Before! takeoff,! a! professional! pilot! is! keen,! anxious! —! but! lest! someone! read! his! true! feelings,! he! is! elaborately! casual.! The! reason! for! this! is! that! he! is! about! to! enter! a! new,! though! familiar,! world.! The! process! of! entrance! begins! a! short! time! before! he! leaves! the! ground!and!is!completed!the!instant!he!is!in!the!air.!In!the!world!aloft!the!factors!of!life!and! death! assume! their! proper! value.! The! profession! pilots! are,! of! necessity,! uncomplicated,! simple!men;!their!thinking!must!remain!straightforward!or!they!die!—!violently.”! —Island&in&the&Sky&(1953)! ! “It’s!just!a!place.!A!place!can!be!crossed.”! —Yellow&Sky&(1948)! ***! The! films! of! William! A.! Wellman! may! be! suffused! with,! live,! and! breath! aviation! —! the! director!being!an!aviator!himself!—!but!the!transport!they!most!resemble!isn’t!the!airplane! but! the! boxcar.! Those! railway! cars,! like! the! city! apartments! named! after! their! spatial! arrangement,!are!constructed!like!Wellman!makes!movies:!a!chain!of!discreet!segments.!In! 46! !


Wellman’s!cinema,!each!single!scene!is!a!car!in!each!trainIlength!feature,!and!it's!even!quite! possible! that! each! car! could! be! rearranged! and! rigged! to! connect! to! whatever! follows! it.! This!stolid!journeyman!director!of!dozens!of!films!is!known!for!a!few!of!them,!but!generally! overlooked! due! to! a! lack! of! the! overt! stylistic/thematic! consistency! that! help! unite! a! filmmaker's! body! of! work! in! the! minds! of! history,! its! participants,! and! its! audiences.! Nevertheless,! Wellman! indeed! exhibited! a! "signature"! of! sorts! at! New! York's! large! but! understandably!incomplete!retrospective!of!his!work!in!the!winter!of!2012:!the!situation.! While! some! commentary! picks! up! on! Wellman's! speed! and! concision! —! including! the! filmmaker's!own!words:!“Tempo!is!the!word,!tempo.!My!pictures!didn't!lag!very!much.!If! they! were! bad,! they! got! over! very! quickly,! I'll! tell! you! that.”! —! his! technique! is! not! mere! editing! tidiness! and! narrative! fleetness.! The! principle! at! work,! as! fine! as! anything! in! the! pictures,!is!to!find!something!interesting,!work!at!it!until!its!interest!is!over,!and!move!on.! This!exploration!of!a!cinematic!situation!of!some!certain!character!or!quality!is!not!about! plumbing!the!depths!of!an!idea,!or!a!GodardIlike!attack!of!a!situation,!wresting!and!shaking! it! for! all! its! angles.! Wellman! has! a! more! genial! and! laissez& faire& attitude! once! he’s! landed! upon!an!idea.!It!plays!out,!and!then!we!move!on!to!the!next!one.!This!tone!carries!across!his! films!and!absolutely!invests!his!narratives.!Wellman!is!not!a!filmmaker!whose!protagonists! have!goals!which!drive!them!through!a!story.!He!is!a!conceptual!filmmaker!who!organizes! his! films! around! ideas! and,! within! those! general! concepts,! breaks! them! down! into! independent! sequences,! each,! in! general,! driven! by! their! own! situation.! The! individual! ideas,!each!centering!a!scene!or!sequence,!are!often,!if!not!always,!simple!at!their!core:!“a! drunk! doctor! in! a! Western! town”! (The& Conquerors),! “a! Japanese! cowboy”! (Westward& the& Women),!“the!awkward,!empty!dead!time!of!a!party”!(The&Man&I&Love,!Young&Eagles),!“mud”! (The& Story& of& G.I.& Joe),! “fly! a! glider! in! a! field”! (Men& with& Wings,! Gallant& Journey).! Nevertheless,! they! still! elicit! incredible! textures! from! the! movies! because! what! would! normally!be!colorful!marginalia!in!another!production!becomes!the!focus!of!the!scene!in!a! Wellman!picture.! These! should! not! seem! mere! details! irrelevant! in! the! largeness! of! a! movie,! for! Wellman! works! on! the! granular,! single! boxcar! level.! He! tends! to! latch! onto! a! cinematic! idea! or! a! concept! in! a! given! scene! and! organize! his! direction! around! this! core.! The! idea! is! usually! visually!or!aurally!based!—!cinematic!texture!is!the!order!of!the!day!over!the!theatrically! dramatic.!The!idea!can!be!a!single!element!of!mise!en!scène!—!like!the!child!who!hides!in!a! suit!of!armor!in!Beau&Geste,!an!idea!later!used!with!variation!with!an!Indian!in!Across&the& Wide& Missouri& —! around! which! a! series! of! jokes! and! dramatic! events! hinge.! It! can! be! an! audacious! visual! element,! like! Barbara! Stanwyck's! old! age! makeup! at! the! opening! of! The& Great&Man's&Lady!or!the!bombing!of!a!real!town!in!an!action!sequence!in!Wings.!Or!drama! taken! to! artificially! conceptual! lengths,! like! the! midIdesert,! coveredIwagon! birth! scene! in! Westward&the&Women,!or!the!kangaroo!hobo!court!in!a!train!car!in!Beggars&of&Life.!Entire! 47! !


scenes! and! sequences! are! dedicated! to! clearly! and! vividly! expositing! such! singleIunit,! granular!concepts.! This!sceneIbyIscene!focalization!is!often!extended!to!justify!more!ambitious!aims!that!help! connect! disparate! scenes! to! one! another! across! a! Wellman! film! by! using! repeated! conceptual! motifs.! Strap! cameras! to! the! engines! of! biIplanes! in! Wings& and! Young& Eagles;! use! extensive! Cantonese! language! dialog! in! one! his! first! talkies,! 1929’s! Chinatown& Nights! (foreign! languages! in! general! being! some! of! the! most! powerful! lubricants! to! Wellman’s! awkward! narratives);! shoot! half! of! Yellow& Sky! in! darkly! calligraphic! dayIforInight;! make! Edward! G.! Robinson! and! Loretta! Young! play! Chinese! in! The& Hatchet& Man.! Occasionally,! a! film! will! be! entirely! dedicated! to! such! novel! concepts! carried! to! feature! lengths,! such! as! Battleground’s!stagnation!in!the!studioIbound!forests!of!Bastogne,!Westward&the&Women’s! movement!of!a!wagon!train!of!women!across!America,!and!many!Wellman!films’!adherence! to! deep! flashbacks! in! time.! These! ideas! can! be! carried! out! in! their! respective! pictures! across! several! scenes! or! entire! films! as! a! kind! of! conceptual! glue! to! hold! together! the! sometimes!haphazard!arrangement!of!situations!that!make!up!a!feature!length!“story.”! With! so! many! ideas,! these! films! must! always! be! changing,! because! this! cinematic! organization!implies!that!once!a!scene’s!given!worth!has!been!depleted!(or!a!film’s!—how! many!of!Wellman’s!films!are!under!80!minutes?),!we!move!on.!And!where!we!move!hardly! has!to!be!connected!to!place!we!just!were,!the!idea!that!was!pursued!—!thus!Wellman’s!is!a! cinema!of!ellipses,!protoIjump!cuts,!a!cinema!of!theIendIofItheIscene,!of!the!fade!out,!of!the! nextIreel.!For!better!or!for!worse,!you!are!never!sure!where!the!next!scene!may!take!you.! The!situations!are!strung!along,!each!populated!by!ideas,!and!our!Hollywood!stars,!as!well! as! overarching! visual/aural! concepts,! are! kept! around! to! retain! continuity! between! such! radical! shifts.! The! supposed! goals! characters! have! in! classical! Hollywood! narratives! are! stymied!and!thwarted!by!this!technique.!! A!friend!characterized!the!way!such!shifts!are!told!as!Wellman's!“tone!deafness,”!a!quality!I! would! rephrase! to! call! tonal! uniformity.! It! casts! a! dullness! across! much! of! the! director’s! filmography,!as!each!scene!or!sequence!in!a!movie!is!approached!as!a!separate!entity,!yet! nearly!leveled!by!a!constant!tone!—!where!the!humorous!and!the!mournful!exist!perhaps! so!concordantly!that!they!practically!cancel!each!other!out!—!so!as!to!fit!with!the!rest!of!the! segments.! His! films! are! unevenly! constructed,! yet,! bizarrely,! tonally! coherent! and! consistent.! And! it’s! this! consistency! of! tone! across! disparate! situations! that! helps! explain! the! general! absence! of! suspense! in! Wellman’s! filmography,! a! product! of! its! almost! blasé! sense! of! casualness! or! relaxedness,! as! if! someone! were! taking! a! tour! of! situations! and! decided!that!for!a!bit!he’d!stop!right!here!until!what!there!was!to!see!was!seen.!

48! !


I!have!the!feeling!that!these!films!must!have!played!very!well!into!filmIgoing!practices!of! Wellman’s! time,! of! audiences! showing! up! in! the! middle! of! pictures,! as! this! boxcarIlike! segmentation! means! that! each! fade! out! may! lead! to! an! entirely! different! film! than! one! expects,!if!one!can!expect!anything!from!a!Wellman!situation!at!all.!Beau&Geste's!first!reel!is! a!Foreign!Legion!ghost!story!in!an!African!desert;!its!next!reel!is!of!children!playing!on!the! greens! of! an! upper! class! British! estate.! Stanwyck,! an! American! cabaret! singer! in! The& Purchase& Price,! glances! at! a! paper! that! says! "Montreal"! and! the! next! cut! reveals! she! has! moved! been! living! there! for! months;! one! reel! later,! she! up! and! goes! to! North! Dakota,! to! marry! a! farmer! she's! never! met.! A! similar! cut! features! in! The& Conquerors:! Richard! Dix,! broke!and!pacing!in!front!of!a!map!of!America,!wonders!out!loud!what!he!should!do,!and!his! love!interest!remarks!he’s!doing!it!right!now,!that!they!should!travel!to!the!West!!Followed! by!a!shot!of!these!two!urbanites!on!a!barge!floating!down!a!river!in!the!wilderness.!Central& Airport!has!a!single!line!of!dialog!tell!us!that!lead!Richard!Barthelmess,!offIscreen!for!a!few! minutes,! is! no! longer! the! Southwestern! twoIbit! circus! flier! we! last! saw! him! as,! but! has! become!a!"Chinese!general"!leading!airIrebels!against!Japan;!one!scene!later!he!is!reported! to!have!fled!from!commendations!by!the!Chilean!president!for!fighting!revolutionaries.!The! examples!could!go!on,!as!they!are!encountered!in!every!Wellman!film.!The!preICode!classic! Night&Nurse,!functioning!like!Rivette's!Celine&and&Julie&Go&Boating,!starts!with!two!nurses!in! training!at!a!hospital!(one!is!Stanwyck!again)!and!then!promptly!inserts!them!into!an!inI progress!Manhattan!upperIclass!kidnapping!plot.!It!is!as!if,!upon!setting!up!its!heroes,!the! film!immediately!admits!that!it!could!put!them!anywhere,!into!any!kind!of!situation.! This! flexibility,! which! could! seem! metaphysical! if! the! films! were! not! so! relaxed! and! workmanlike,! especially! flourishes! when! the! story! conceptually! segments! the! narrative! into! discrete! episodes.! The& Great& Man’s& Lady& goes! backwards! in! time! through! a! woman's! life,! which! allows! for! tremendous! ellipses! —! Stanwyck! at! 100,! at! 16,! married,! pregnant,! abandoned,! etc.! —! rendering! each! story! its! own! element.! This! structure! is! not! rare! to! Wellman,! who! uses! it! just! as! grandly! in! The& Conquerors& —! covering! thirty! years! of! an! American! history! of! recession,! death,! and! seemingly! happenstance! perseverance! —! and! less!grandly!in!a!gutterIrubber!like!Midnight&Mary,!which!“merely”!traces!the!twenty!years! that! Loretta! Young! has! skirted! total! moral! depravity,! an! arc! covered! similarly! by! Frisco& Jenny,!albeit!in!the!present!tense.!Indeed,!it!is!usually!impossible!to!tell!where!a!Wellman! film!might!go!—!or!if!it!will!“go”!at!all.!As!another!friend!said!of!Beggars&of&Life,!which,!after! a! domestic! melodrama,! takes! two! bums! to! the! road! and! lands! them! in! a! boxcar! full! of! wouldIbeIrapist! hobos! for! seemingly! the! next! few! reels! —! with! Wellman! one! is! never! unsure!if!the!scene!you!are!currently!watching!will!be!the!rest!of!the!movie.!As!in:!both!the! clear! observation! that! "Here! is! a! situation! the! film! so! clearly! enjoys! that! it! feels! quite! possible! we'll! spend! the! rest! of! the! film's! runtime! right! here,! doing! this"! as! well! as! the! mystery!of!"Where!the!hell!is!this!film!going,!what!could!possibly!happen!next?"! 49! !


Not! surprisingly,! the! director! made! several! films! wherein! the! conceptual! potential! of! a! single! setting! negates! the! need! for! a! “fully! developed”! story,! and! thus! Wellman! becomes! one!of!the!foremost!poets!of!people!standing!around!doing!very!little.!Think!of!Safe&in&Hell,! which& does! a! typically! Wellman! detour! postIopening! by! steamIshipping! its! heroine! from! the!city!to!a!small!tropical!island!populated!by!criminals;!the!rest!of!the!film!is!basically!the! whole!group!waiting!around!in!much!malaise,!squalid!laziness,!and!genialIthug!humor!for! the!movie!to!end.!Yellow&Sky&similarly!begins!on!the!run,!before!a!stickup!gang!hits!a!town! full!of!gold!and!Anne!Baxter!and!the!film!hunkers!down!to!see!what!happens.!Add!The&Story& of&G.I.&Joe&and!Battleground,!two!of!the!greatest!cinematic!studies!in!atmospheric!stasis,!to! this! good! sized! collection! of! Wellman! films! that! tend! to! abruptly! stop! moving! as! their! characters! (or! stories)! seem! to! hit! a! wall,! but! that! wall! being! an! idea! that! the! film! can! pursue!to!its!ending.!The&OxGBow&Incident&and!The&Lady&of&Burlesque!simply!stay!put!after! the! core! plot! situation! is! set! up;! the! late! flier! The& High& and& the& Mighty,! one! of! Wellman’s! longest!films,!takes!place!almost!entirely!on!board!a!single!airplane!while!it!traverses!the! Pacific!Ocean.! Sometimes!I!feel!like!all!the!flying!and!aviation!in!Wellman’s!films!—!and!there!sure!is!a!lot! of!it!—!is!what!the!brighter!people!are!drawn!to!as!an!opposing!response!to!all!the!standing! around! that! makes! up! life! down! here.! Which! may! be! why! so! many! of! the! director’s! films! contain!shots!of!feet!walking!—!who!can!have!a!greater!respect!for!what!happens!on!the! ground!than!an!aviator?!Maybe!after!so!much!flying!any!activity!on!the!ground!has!a!kind!of! stoppedIinItheItracks!feeling!—!a!tone!common!to!many!a!scene!in!a!Wellman!picture.!! With!all!this!talk!of!the!movement!of!the!filmmaker,!one!might!wonder!what’s!left!for!his! characters! to! do.! Yet! many! of! the! abrupt! changes! made! by! the! films! are! acceptable! not! because! of! the! speed! of! the! films! or! the! vigor! of! Wellman’s! pursuit! inside! a! scene,! but! rather! due! to! the! strength! of! his! protagonists’! resolve,! the! sureness! of! their! spurIofItheI moment! but! undoubtedly! earnest! decision! making.! Go! to! China;! flee! to! the! country;! get! married;! forget! your! dead! husband;! take! to! the! skies;! let! your! adulterous! wife! go—all! decisions!Wellman!heroes!and!heroines!make!quickly,!assuredly,!simply!and!truly.!They!all! have!a!borderlineInaive!determination!which!gives!them!remarkable!resilience,!and!maybe! even! cinematic! powers.! It! is! not! the! same! as! passion! —! many! Wellman! heroes! are! passionate! about! things,! usually! about! flying,! but! more! often! than! not,! even! in! the! aerial! pictures,!one!senses!not!passion!but!plucky,!almost!ineffable!determination!to!go!onward,! forward.!These!films!feature!a!precise!type!of!determination!to!see!life!through!that!gives! their!characters!the!power!to!take!in!stride!such!extreme,!unlikely!and!unexpected!changes! in! the! film! world.! The! quintessential! Wellman! film! Wellman! never! made! might! be! a! time! travel!film,!where!a!single!hero!pops!up!randomly!at!different!times!in!history!and!is!simply! able!to!deal!with!this!sudden!manifestation!of!a!new!place!and!situation.!! 50! !


It! is! hard! to! tell,! then,! if! the! world! changes! for! Wellman’s! heroes! or! if! his! characters! are! heroes!for!surviving!—!and!going!forward!—!in!an!endlessly!changing!world.!More!than!a! few!of!his!films!are!dedicated!to!the!fast!evolution!of!air!technology!seen!in!his!lifetime,!and! his!filmography!too!is!evidence!of!changing!times,!from!silent!cinema!to!sound,!black!and! white!to!color,!squareIish!aspect!ratios!to!widescreens.!It!may!sound!simple!but!I!get!the! feeling! Wellman’s! cinema! is! simply! that! of! someone! who’s! seen! a! heckofalot,! who! knows! the! multitude! of! places,! people,! languages,! deadspots,! challenges! —! situations! —! life! can! throw! at! you.! And! he! has! built! his! films! from! this! experience,! this! knowledge,! piece! by! piece,!stringing!interesting!ones!along!until!there!are!just!enough!to!make!a!film,!and!when! that!film’s!over,!well,!then!it’s!time!to!go!about!gathering!some!more.!

51! !


WILLIAM!WELLMAN:! KING!OF!EPHEMERA! Miye!Bromberg!

! The&Purchase&Price!(1932)! MITCH:!We’re!real!people.!You’re!real!people,!I’m!real!people.! DAME:!And!Josie’s!real!people,!ain’tcha,!Josie?! JOE!(slurring):!.!.!.real!people,!ain’tcha,!Josie?! DAME!(to!JOE):!You!know,!if!this!is!the!end!of!the!world,!I!wouldn’t!want!to!spend!it!with!a! nicer!fella.! JOE:!Oh,!you’re!my!best!friend,!sweetie.!You’re!the!best!friend!I!ever!had.!Outside!of!ol’! Mitchie.! ! —!!The&Next&Voice&You&Hear!(1950)! ! 52! !


***! William!Wellman!was!no!heroIworshipper.!Quite!the!opposite;!as!Bertrand!Tavernier!has! written,!Wellman’s!work!constitutes!a!remarkable!“rejection!of!individualism.”!Wellman!is! significant!in!that!he!systematically!suppresses!all!impulses!toward!the!vaunting!of!any!one! character;!there!are!no!heroes!in!his!work,!least!of!all!him.!This!is!most!obvious!in!his!war! films! The& Story& of& G.I.& Joe! (1945)! and! Battleground! (1949),! in! which! the! men! who! march! into!the!picture!don’t!always!march!out.!Each!man!stakes!out!a!little!area!of!our!attention,! but!can!just!as!quickly!disappear.!“With!a!slight!shift!of!time!and!scene,”!James!Agee!wrote! in!his!review!of!G.I.&Joe,!“men!whose!faces!have!become!familiar!simply!aren’t!around!any! more.!The!fact!is!not!commented!on!or!in!any!way!pointed;!their!absence!merely!creates!its! gradual! vacuum! and! realization! in! the! pit! of! the! stomach.”!! The! result! is! an! curious,! sometimes! amorphic! form! of! storyItelling,! in! which! events! unfold! slowly,! often! without! apparent!direction,!forcing!viewers!to!field!as!much!fog!as!the!men!of!Battleground’s!101st! Airborne!division,!never!certain!of!exact!position!and!only!ever!able!to!move!forward!one! step! at! a! time.! Characters! come! and! go,! often! without! ceremony;! there! is! little! grandeur! afforded!any!one!man!or!woman.!Wellman!prefers!a!twoIshot!to!a!closeIup!—!and!a!group! shot! is! better! yet.! Both! screenIspace! and! screenItime! are! carefully! rationed! out! to! characters,!and!candidates!for!conventional!heroism!often!fade!and!reappear!in!the!larger! cast! of! the! film,! confounding! viewers! who! like! to! have! a! clear! protagonist! to! lead! them! through!the!narrative.! When!stronger!protagonists!do!appear!in!Wellman!films,!they’re!still!routinely!relegated!to! the! rear.! In! Gallant& Journey& (1946),! a! look! at! the! life! of! aviation! pioneer! John! Joseph! Montgomery,! the! focus! is! almost! vexingly! kept! off! of! the! man! himself.! This! is! no! psychological! exploration! of! the! deeper! drives! of! some! American! genius,! but! rather! a! portrait! of! a! simple! life,! through! which! drift! family,! friends,! assistants,! and! Jesuits.! The! spotlight!is!continually!diverted!off!of!Montgomery!himself!(Glenn!Ford)!and!reflected!onto! the!men!and!women!around!him,!particularly!his!wife!(Janet!Blair).!Montgomery!is,!in!fact,! physically! unable! to! ascend! to! the! heroic! heights! that! this! story! requires:! stricken! with! vertigo,!he!is!unable!to!!perform!the!test!runs!on!his!glider!plane.!Instead,!his!wife!recruits! daredevil!balloonist!Dan!Mahoney!(Jimmy!Lloyd),!the!“Man!Who!Laughs!At!Death,”!to!stand! in!for!him.!As!Dan!flies!through!the!air,!Montgomery!must!stay!landIborne,!content!only!to! look!up.!Just!as!quickly!as!Dan!triumphs,!though,!so!does!he!disappear,!his!first!successful! test!flight!a!distant!memory!as!a!very!short!sequence!later,!we!watch!from!afar!as!his!plane! comes!crashing!into!a!field.! Thus! always! to! the! obliging! Icarus.! Whenever! possible,! Wellman! tried! to! ground! the! presumed!heroes!who!populated!his!films,!clipping!their!wings!and!chiseling!away!at!their! haloes.! Originally! conceived! as! a! revisionist! history! of! the! great! showman,! Wellman’s! 53! !


Buffalo& Bill& (1944)! retains! a! quality! of! doubt! and! uncertainty! unusual! to! biopics! of! the! period,!despite!its!laughable!studioIimposed!ending.!The!opening!narration!describes!what! Buffalo!Bill!is!not!—!!“a!great!general,!a!great!statesman,!or!a!great!scientist”!but!declines!to! define! what! he! is.! Like! many! of! Wellman’s! characters,! Joel! McCrea’s! Bill! is! a! man! alone,! always! by! himself,! even! in! a! crowded! room,! unable! to! make! and! maintain! real! human! connections.! His! wife! eventually! leaves! him,! and! he! voluntarily! renounces! his! friendship! with!childhood!pal,!the!Cheyenne!brave!Yellow!Hand,!in!exchange!for!the!life!of!his!wife’s! father,!a!man!he!doesn’t!even!like.!His!valiance!is!largely!unportrayed;!the!only!time!we!see! him!perform!any!real!acts!of!western!derringIdo!is!when!he!takes!on!Yellow!Hand!in!a!duel! to!the!death.!And!then!again!we!don’t!actually!see!it,!as!Wellman!characteristically!stages! the! battle! so! that! the! important! violence! is! largely! obscured;! it! takes! place! in! a! stream,! behind!the!cover!of!some!strategically!placed!boulders!and!dead!trees!—!the!camera!pans! across!the!space!where!the!action!seems!to!be!occurring,!but!all!that!we!get!are!splashes! and! the! errant! fist.! After! he! travels! East,! the! film’s! pace! becomes! more! brisk! and! its! punishments!more!brutal:!just!as!he’s!set!to!receive!his!Congressional!Medal!of!Honor,!Bill’s! deprived!of!both!his!beloved!son!and,!soon!after,!his!newlyIacquired!reputation.!A!stranger! in!a!strange!land,!he’s!forced!to!wander!the!streets,!using!his!Medal!as!collateral!to!hustle! jeering! suckers! in! twoIbit! carnivals! for! a! meal.! The! film’s! hollow! coda! —! Bill! leading! his! own!elaborate!show!to!fame!and!fortune!—!says!less!about!Buffalo!Bill,!legend,!and!more! about!Buffalo!Bill,!lost!boy.! Indeed,!lost!men!are!Wellman’s!stock!in!trade;!where!other!directors!find!heroes,!Wellman! puts!forth!rumpled!men!at!odds!with!the!world,!conflicted!folks!whose!meager!authority!is! constantly!under!siege:!Gregory!Peck’s!Stretch!can’t!keep!control!over!his!restless!gang!in! Yellow& Sky! (1948),! Norman! Maine! (Frederic! March)! is! the! selfIdestructive! vortex! at! the! center! of! A& Star& is& Born! (1937).! There! are! plenty! of! actual! “lost! women,”! too! —! misunderstood! ladies! of! ill! repute! whose! best! recourse! is! to! take! the! honorable! way! out! (Ruth! Chatterton! in! Frisco& Jenny! (1932),! Dorothy! Mackaill! in& Safe& in& Hell! (1931)).! Sometimes! the! lost! men! will! take! a! stand! —! Wellman! also! deals! in! desperate! men,! characters! who! fight! back,! hoping! to! claim! a! small! piece! of! the! pie! —! as! with! Cagney’s! ambitious! gangster! Tom! Powers! in! Public& Enemy;! James! Stewart’s! frustrated! pollster! in! Magic&Town!(1947),!or!the!opportunistic!hoofer!Roxie!Hart!(Ginger!Rogers),!who!claims!to! have!committed!murder!for!a!little!publicity!(Roxie&Hart,!1942).!These!people!generally!do! not!meet!with!lasting!success;!Wellman's!characters!are!almost!designed!to!fail.! Most! likely! the! source! of! Wellman’s! antiIindividualism! was! constitutional;! he! despised! narcissists!and!bemoaned!the!fact!that!as!a!director!he!was!forced!to!work!with!so!many!of! them.! But! he! always! got! his! revenge.! Wellman! liked! nothing! better! than! to! dole! out! comeuppance! to! his! characters,! deriding! every! pretense! and! affectation.! Punishment! for! arrogance! was! swift,! and! physical.! Get! cocky! in! a! Wellman! film! and! you’re! liable! to! be! 54! !


socked,!bitten,!or!pushed!deep!into!a!shallow!puddle.!Pontificate,!and!your!audience!will!be! drunk! and! disinterested! at! best! (as! is! Frederic! Marsh’s! benighted! newshound! in! the! opening! scenes! of! Nothing& Sacred& (1937))! and! drunk! and! violent! at! worst! (as! is! the! lynching!party!in!The!OxIBow!Incident!(1943).! Nobody!is!spared!Wellman’s!relentless!disdain!for!windbaggery.!Even!G.I.!Joe’s!kind,!plainI spoken! war! correspondent! Ernie! Pyle! (Burgess! Meredith)! is! greeted! with! snores! from! Robert! Mitchum’s! Captain! Walker! once! he! starts! to! lay! into! the! larger! existential! significance!of!the!war.!It’s!Christmas,!and!Walker!has!just!eaten!a!turkey!leg,!drunk!some! grappa,! and! dispatched! some! weighty! text! himself,! writing! letters! to! the! families! of! the! three! men! in! his! company! who! have! just! died.! He! doesn’t! have! to! listen! to! anybody.! Big! words! mean! little! in! Wellmanland,! and! a! raucous! snore! is! the! best! response,! a! sort! of! payment!in!kind!for!verbal!flatus.[1]! Punishment! is! also! dealt! out! to! those! who! don’t! seem! to! deserve! it.! Wellman! is! a! great! equalizer.!In!a!world!that!admits!no!heroes,!to!level!the!playing!field,!all!participants!must! be! cut! down! to! the! same! size.! Young! trainIhopper! Tommy! (Edwin! Phillips)! loses! his! leg! when!he’s!too!slow!getting!off!the!tracks!in! Wild&Boys&of&the&Road!(1933).!Train!engineer! Jack!(Regis!Toomey)!loses!his!sight!in!a!fight!with!his!best!friend!Bill!(Grant!Withers)!over! his! pretty! wife! (Mary! Astor)! in! Other& Men’s& Women! (1931).! Private! Spudler! (Jerome! Courtland)!gets!killed!when!he!leaves!his!boots!outside!his!foxhole!and!can’t!get!them!on! fast!enough!under!fire!in!Battleground.! Punishment!wasn’t!only!physical.!Determined!to!show!the!world!in!all!its!arbitrary!cruelty,! Wellman!consistently!found!new!ways!to!abase!his!characters.!The!most!extreme!example! is! probably! Richard! Barthelmess’s! Thomas! Holmes,! who! allows! his! cowardly! comrade! to! take!the!credit!for!his!own!daring!capture!of!a!German!officer!in!Heroes&For&Sale&(1933).!His! generosity! is! repaid! in! acid,! as! the! act! initiates! a! downward! spiral! of! nightmarish! proportions.!His!morphine!addiction,!a!relic!from!his!days!as!an!injured!POW,!causes!him!to! lose!his!job!at!the!bank;!he!recovers!and!revolutionizes!the!laundry!business!he!works!at,! only!to!incur!the!wrath!of!the!workers!whose!jobs!he’s!made!obsolete;!his!wife!is!killed!in! an!ensuing!riot;!and!his!attempts!to!make!amends!for!his!disservice!to!the!workers!causes! him! to! be! branded! as! a! Communist.! Chased! from! his! home! by! the! police,! he! finally! takes! refuge!under!a!bridge,!only!to!find!his!former!comrade!crouching!there,!too:!“Funny,!isn’t!it.! You!started!way!up!high,!and!I!started!pretty!low,!and!we!end!up!in!the!rain,!together.”! Despite!his!troubles,!Holmes!isn’t!bitter,!as!his!former!oppressor!is;!he!blames!nobody,!and! believes!things!will!get!better,!not!out!of!optimism,!but!“common!horse!sense.”!As!with!all! Wellman’s!nonIheroes,!Holmes!sees!that!he’s!part!of!something!larger!than!himself.!When! his!comrade!bemoans!the!state!of!the!world,!Holmes!is!philosophical:!“It!may!be!the!end!of! 55! !


us,!but!it’s!not!the!end!of!America.!In!a!few!years,!it’ll!go!on,!bigger!and!stronger!than!ever.”! Life! is! unfair;! at! one! point! or! another,! everyone! in! Wellmanland! will! find! themselves! cowering! in! the! rain! without! an! umbrella.! But! misery! always! has! company! in! Wellman’s! films;!if!Wellman!seems!intent!on!kicking!all!his!characters!into!the!mud,!it’s!at!least!in!part! because!he!enjoys!seeing!them!find!fellowship!as!they!wallow!together.! For!if!at!times!Wellman!seems!overly!sensitive!at!times!to!human!frailty,!it’s!only!because! he!was!also!alive!to!the!potential!for!human!generosity.!The!eye!that!caught!bad!habits!and! casual!violence!observed!with!equal!relish!people’s!endearing!quirks!and!tender!gestures! —! the! squint! and! giggle! of! his! future! wife! Dorothy! Coonan! in! Wild& Boys& of& the& Road,! the! companionable! “AIha”s! exchanged! by! Ito! the! cook! and! Buck! the! wagon! train! leader! in! Westward&the&Women,!the!playfulness!with!which!Lily!cuts!Bill’s!hair!in!the!garden!in!Other& Men’s&Women.!Wellman!may!have!rejected!individualism,!but!he!embraced!the!individuals.! His!films!resist!universality,!iconography,!and!superficial!symbolism;!rather,!they!revel!in! the! ordinary,! particular! acts! of! ordinary,! particular! people.! Having! dispelled! the! phony! notion!of!heroism!and!driven!it!from!his!world,!Wellman!is!free!to!distribute!his!attention! equally! to! all! the! people! contained! in! his! frame.! Wellman’s! movies! —! from! the! gangster! films!to!the!screwball!comedies!—!are!never!about!one!man!or!one!woman.!They’re!always! about! people.! Not! that! Wellman! was! some! kind! of! communitarian;! Wellman! was! as! immune! to! the! pious! fumes! of! easy! populism! as! he! was! to! the! high! perfume! of! selfI importance.!Instead,!Wellman’s!approach!to!humans!is!democratic.!Everybody!gets!to!be!in! his!pictures!—!he!wants!them!there!—!and!nobody!is!more!important!than!anybody!else.! The!result!is!unlike!anything!produced!in!Hollywood!in!his!time:!a!richly!detailed!world!in! which! seemingly! minor! characters! and! background! actors! are! acknowledged! as! proper! citizens! and! given! personality,! lines,! and! agency.! Recovering! from! a! frothIflecked! scrap! with! hapless! journalist! Wally! Cook! (March),! newspaper! editor! Oliver! Stone! (Walter! Connolly)!suddenly!turns!to!the!goon!from!Circulation!who’s!been!asked!to!keep!an!eye!on! Cook!and!has!been!lingering!in!the!background:!“What’s!your!name?”!he!asks.!!—!!“Max!”!“I! want!quiet!in!this!office,!Max!”!Max!sniffles,!flouting!him.!“Quiet!!So!I!can!think!”!Soon!Stone! receives!a!phone!call!from!Max's!brother,!who!have!been!dispatched!to!the!hotel!to!bring! Carole!Lombard’s!lighthearted!fraud!to!justice.!Stone!is!unable!to!understand!what!Max’s! brother!is!saying,!so!Max!(real!life!boxer!Max!Levinsky)!convinces!him!to!turn!the!phone! over! to! him! to! get! the! results:! “He’s! a! dumb! cluck,! Mr.! Stone.! You’d! better! let! me! talk! to! him.”!Max!exploits!his!new!authority,!taking!his!time!on!the!phone,!teasing!out!details!from! his! “slow”! brother,! and! enjoying! every! moment! of! their! casual! conversation,! much! to! the! dismay!of!Stone,!who!is!frantic!to!get!the!update.!It’s!an!almost!frivolous!exchange,!added!to! provide!a!little!vernacular!color!(“All!I!want!to!know!is!the!noyse![nurse]!there?!Nooo,!not!a! noise.!A!noyse,!like!a!tootsie!”)!—!but!it’s!hard!to!imagine!anybody!else!giving!a!bit!like!this! extended!play.! 56! !


There’s!a!striking!specificity!to!these!passing!characters,!a!sense!that!they!have!back!stories! and! depth! of! their! own,! though! our! encounters! with! them! might! be! brief.! Flawed,! benighted,!foolish,!playful,!and!frank,!Wellman’s!characters!are!always!just!themselves!—! they! can! be! no! other! way.! Depositing! the! nowIblind! Mrs.! Malone! in! her! home! in! Woman& Trap! (1929),! the! day! nurse! (Virginia! Bruce)! makes! room! for! herself! at! the! dining! room! table!and!prattles!on,!completely!oblivious!to!the!agitation!of!Dan!Malone!(Ray!Skelly),!the! guiltIridden! son:! “Well,! I! gave! her! something! to! make! her! sleep.! You! gonna! have! a! night! nurse?!I!gotta!be!back!at!the!hospital!at!six.!Say,!is!there!a!movie!around!here?!Do!you!have! to!tramp!like!that?!Well,!gee,!I!was!up!with!some!copper’s!appendix!‘til!five!this!mornin.’”!In! another!man’s!movie,!the!nurse!would!have!guided!Mrs.!Malone!to!her!bed,!kept!her!trap! shut,!and!exited!the!frame!as!quickly!as!she!entered!it;!in!Wellman’s!film,!even!the!help’s! got!needs!and!wants.!If!the!camera!lingers!a!little!too!long!over!her!after!Dan!leaves,!and!if! she!sighs!a!little!too!emphatically!before!the!scene!fades!out!and!we!never!see!her!again!—! it!will!have!to!be!forgiven.! Indeed,! sometimes! Wellman’s! impulse! to! contain! multitudes! is! expressed! clumsily;! he! frequently! calls! attention! to! extras! and! side! characters! with! the! broadest! of! gags! or! caricatures.! Wellman! could! be! especially! unkind! to! middleIaged! women:! the! stuttering! landlady! in! Other& Men’s& Women,! the! selfIcentered! aging! opera! singer! played! by! Mary! Boland!in!Stingaree!(1934),!or!the!old!biddy!in!The&Next&Voice&You&Hear!(1950)!who!sees! reluctant!paperboy!James!Whitmore!fumbling!for!the!newspapers!in!her!shrubbery!and!has! the! temerity! to! think! he’s! after! her,! shrieking! to! her! husband,! “Byron!! Oh! Byron!! It’s! a! prowler!”!The!little!black!boys!chucking!watermelons!at!the!police!in!Wild&Boys&of&the&Road! make!us!cringe!today,!but!they!also!get!one!of!the!best!laugh!lines:!opening!a!laundry!in!the! boys’! “republic,”! one! of! them! inspects! a! particularly! large! and! threadbare! pair! of! men’s! underdrawers!and!says!with!obvious!admiration,!“Mm!—!mm!!Now!there’s!a!guy!that!can! really!sit!”! Still,! if! you! had! to! play! a! maid,! a! bartender,! or! a! secretary! in! 1936! —! particularly! if! you! were! a! person! of! color! —! you’d! prefer! to! do! it! under! Wellman.! His! blueIcollar! workers! consort!with!the!main!characters!as!nearIequals;!there’s!always!a!sense!that!the!positions! could!soon!be!reversed.!In!The&Purchase&Price!(1933),!Barbara!Stanwyck’s!nightclub!singer! actually!does!switch!places!with!her!maid!Emily!(Leila!Bennett),!who!has!signed!up!to!be!a! mail! order! bride! in! North! Dakota.! Emily! doesn’t! just! “yes,! ma’am”! and! melt! into! the! background;!she!has!a!heartItoIheart!with!Stanwyck’s!Joan!and!proves!herself!to!be!a!sly! young!lady!with!striped!stockings!and!a!nervous!titter,!a!girl!who!hopes,!with!the!money! Joan’s!given!her,!to!“have!a!chance!to!try!the!goods!before![she]!bought!it!”!Different!rules! may! apply! to! denizens! of! the! underworld,! but! Cagney’s! Tom! (Public& Enemy)! is! as! comfortable! in! his! favorite! black! and! tan! as! he! is! in! the! local! pub,! and! is! greeted! by! the! maitre!d’!(Sam!McDaniel)!as!an!old!friend!and!coIconspirator.!McDaniel’s!character!doesn’t! 57! !


bow!or!scrape,!and!is!allowed!to!speak!without!lapsing!into!the!expected!dialect.!Moreover,! when! he! goes! to! kick! out! the! two! lugs! who! have! fallen! asleep! at! Mae! Clarke’s! table,! the! goons!he!summons!to!do!the!kicking!are!white.! This! is! not! to! attach! to! Wellman! any! subscription! to! radical! or! even! progressive! politics.! For!every!Sam!McDaniel!and!Nina!Mae!McKinney!(a!selfIassured!Caribbean!hotel!owner!in! Safe& in& Hell,! 1931),! there’s! a! Hattie! McDaniel! (who! appears! in!Nothing& Sacred! as! a! brassy! Mammy!figure,!rushing!in!to!expose!her!shoeshine!husband!as!a!phoney!potentate)!or!an! Anita! Ekberg! in! yellowface! (Blood& Alley,! 1955).!! What’s! clear,! however,! is! Wellman’s! democratic!commitment!to!depicting!a!wider!world!than!was!typically!seen!in!Hollywood! during! his! time! there.! Despite! their! flaws,! Wellman’s! films! are! stubbornly! inclusive;! they! insist! on! acknowledging! the! existence! of! a! diverse! body! of! people,! folks! who! don’t! necessarily! look! or! sound! like! your! own! neighbors,! but! were! generally! good! eggs! all! the! same.! Probably! nobody! allowed! as! many! actors! to! speak! their! native! tongues! on! screen! as! extensively!as!did!Wellman.!From!early!on,!patrons!of!Wellman!films!could!expect!to!hear! significant!passages!of!uninterrupted!Italian!(Public&Enemy,&Westward&the&Women,&GI&Joe),! Spanish! (OxGBow& Incident,& Battleground,& My& Man& and& I! (1952)),! French! (Battleground,& Westward& the& Women),! Japanese! (Westward& the& Women! again),! and! Blackfeet! (Across& the& Wide& Missouri! (1951)).! These! speeches! never! fail! to! draw! a! cranky! retort! from! their! EnglishIspeaking!cohorts!—!!Robert!Taylor’s!in!Westward!the!Women!—!“Don’t!talk!to!me! in!that!lingo!!I!don’t!know!what!you’re!talking!about!and!I!don’t!want!to!”!—!is!fairly!typical.! Despite! their! protests,! though,! the! Americans! almost! invariably! grow! to! like! and! respect! their! multilingual! counterparts,! thanks! in! part! to! these! extravagant! demonstrations! of! verbal!fluency,!which!gave!their!speakers!a!dignity!and!a!suggestion!of!personal!depth!that! their! stilted! speeches! in! pidgin! English! would! never! impart.! Ever! determined! to! confer! value!to!the!unappreciated,!Wellman!had!a!particular!soft!spot!for!his!foreigners,!and!took! care! to! underline! these! characters’! fundamental! integrity,! often! in! contrast! to! their! delinquent! American! counterparts.! Thus! Ito! the! Japanese! cook! (Henry! Nakamura)! in! Westward&the&Women!can’t!speak!good!English,!but!he!can!write!his!own!name!in!it!(which! his!fellow!trailhands!can’t),!and!he!stays!with!the!wagon!train!when!all!other!men!have!left! it,! though! he! has! no! ulterior! motive! for! doing! so.! Buffalo! Bill! can’t! write! a! letter! without! assistance! from! the! local! schoolteacher,! who! just! happens! to! be! Cheyenne.! And! wrongly! accused!of!murder,!Anthony!Quinn’s!Juan!Martínez!first!pretends!he!speaks!no!English!at! all! in! The& OxGBow& Incident,! but! asked! where! he! got! Larry! Kincaid’s! gun,! Juan! finally! responds!in!perfectly!unaccented!English:!“If!somebody!will!take!this!bullet!out!of!my!leg,! I’ll! tell! you!”! “Ah!”! cries! the! female! representative! of! the! lynching! party,! another! of! Wellman’s! feral! harridans,! “So! he! speaks! American!”! “And! ten! other! languages,! my! dear,”! Juan!sneers!back,!“but!I!don't!tell!anything!I!don't!want!to!in!any!of!them.”!When!the!time! 58! !


comes!for!hanging,!the!two!white!men!drop!to!their!knees!to!pray,!but!it!is!only!when!Juan! begins! to! pray! out! loud! in! Spanish! that! the! members! of! the! posse! take! off! their! hats! and! bow!their!heads.!They!know!substance!when!they!hear!it.! For! language! is! no! impediment! to! empathy.! Echoing! similar! comments! made! by! Joel! McCrea!in!Buffalo&Bill,!the!wizened!prospector!in!Yellow!Sky!remarks!of!the!Apaches!with! whom! his! granddaughter! was! raised! —! !“Fine! people! if! you! understand! ‘em.”! Nothing! compares,! however,!! to! Private! Dondaro’s! encounter! with! a! hot! dame! in! an! Italian! ruin! during!a!gunfight!in!G.I.!Joe.!After!words!are!exchanged!in!Italian!(Dondaro!reveals!himself! to!be!from!“Brookalino”),!Dondaro!looks!her!straight!in!the!eye!and!says,!in!English,!“Listen,! rainbow,!even!if!I!was!dumb!I’d!speak!your!language.”! Wellman’s!use!of!languages!is!born!out!of!his!fundamental!desire!to!naturalize!the!things! that! seem! foreign! or! unfamiliar,! and! to! include! them! in! his! world.! His! films! embrace! the! undesirables! and! the! disenfranchised! —! members! of! the! underworld! and! underclass,! including,!for!example,!a!wide!variety!of!cripples,!amputees,!and!disabled!folks!(the!legless! Tommy! in! Wild& Boys& of& the& World,! or! PegILeg,! the! stumpIlegged! neighbor! in! Other& Men’s& Women.! Wellman! makes! these! untouchables! worthy! members! of! society.! Towards! the! hourImark! in! The& Next& Voice& You& Hear,! Joe! takes! a! walk! through! his! bustling! California! neighborhood.!He!passes!children!on!scooters,!an!ice!cream!truck,!men!washing!cars!and! watering! lawns,! boys! tossing! a! baseball! around.! And! then! he! comes! to! a! man! pushing! a! baby!carriage!with!one!hand,!the!empty!sleeve!of!his!jacket!pinned!up!on!his!other!side!!—! he! must! be! an! amputee! from! the! last! war.! We’ll! never! know! for! sure,! because! he’s! presented! without! annotation.! The! two! men! have! a! brief,! amiable! exchange! without! breaking! stride! —! “Hiya! Benny!”! “Hiya! Joe!”! “How’s! the! kid?”! “Oh,! he’s! growing! like! a! weed!”!The!encounter!lasts!all!of!four!seconds,!maybe,!before!both!men!go!on!their!merry! way,!absorbed!back!into!this!suburban!idyll.!Nothing!to!see!here,!move!along.! These!small!moments!—!instant!snapshots!of!people!you!may!never!see!again!—!are!too! numerous!to!count!and!so!fleeting!that!it!takes!more!time!to!describe!them!than!it!does!to! experience! them,! belying! their! effortlessness.! At! first! glance,! they! might! seem! like! superfluous! ornamentation,! selfIindulgent! flourishes! unnecessary! to! the! advancement! of! the! plot! —! amateurish,! inefficient,! hokey.! Sometimes! Wellman! stretches! these! moments! into!lengthier!digressions,!diverting!attention!away!from!the!main!event,!as!in!the!marriage! scene!in!The&Purchase&Price,!where!the!ceremony!takes!secondary!importance!as!the!film! cuts! between! the! awkward! couple,! the! judge! sucking! on! his! teeth,! his! wife! stirring! her! sponge!cake!batter,!and!the!idiot!boy!pressing!his!nose!flat!up!against!the!window!so!he!can! better!follow!the!dogIfight!outside.[2]!Or!in!Magic&Town,!where!the!camera!cuts!away!from! Jane!Wyman!and!James!Stewart’s!battle!in!the!schoolhouse,!each!trying!to!shout!the!other! down! with! their! own! stirring! rendition! of! an! epic! poem! ("The! Song! of! Hiawatha"! and! 59! !


"Charge!of!the!Light!Brigade,"!respectively)!—!to!find!the!school’s!janitor,!who!rolls!his!eyes! and! contributes! his! own! witty! aside! on! the! situation! —! the! monologue! from! the! balcony! scene!in!Romeo&and&Juliet.! In!part,!these!diversions!serve!the!same!purpose!as!the!visual!obstructions!Wellman!likes! to! put! in! front! of! the! camera:! they! keep! the! audience! craning! their! necks! to! locate! the! action,!seeding!impatience,!focusing!attention,!and!heightening!the!natural!absurdity!of!the! situation.!They!also!work!to!keep!the!narrative!or!the!main!characters!from!becoming!too! strong!—!a!critical!check!by!a!man!who!was!careful!never!to!take!anything!too!seriously.!As! a! consequence,! Wellman’s! films! all! have! a! certain! diffuseness! to! them,! a! lack! of! conventional!focus.!In!his!essay!“Underground!Films,”!Manny!Farber!would!say!that!it!was! precisely!these!“bits!of!congestion”!that!elevated!films!like!Wellman’s!from!their!hackneyed! origins,! their! “fanciful! grace! notes”! that! which! made! the! action! richer! and! more! credible.! Yet!he!failed!to!connect!these!“bits!of!congestion”!with!Wellman’s!predilection!for!showing,! as! he! put! it,! “a! group! of! hardIvisaged! ball! bearings! standing! around! —! for! no! damned! reason!and!with!no!indication!of!how!long!or!what!reason!they!have!been!standing.”!Farber! saw! this! standing! around! as! a! tedious! delay! to! the! hardInosed! action! sequences! he! preferred.! Far! from! detracting! from! the! film,! however,! these! periods! of! inertia,! like! the! digressions! Farber! enjoyed,! serve! a! larger! program:! to! recreate! a! world! in! its! entirety,! warts,! pauses,! and! all.! Call! it! realism! if! you! like.! But! Wellman’s! static! moments! and! diversions!are!the!very!heart!of!his!work!and!an!end!unto!themselves.!They!offer!intimacy! in!an!unforgiving!world,!allowing!the!viewer!to!luxuriate!in!the!humanity!of!their!subjects,! if!only!for!a!second!or!two.! For!Wellman’s!films!are!those!of!a!man!who!has!been!to!the!abyss!and!back,!and!learned!to! appreciate! the! little! things! on! the! way.! After! a! tough! day! and! three! men! lost,! one! of! the! soldiers!in&G.I.&Joe!sits!in!his!bunker!and!remarks,!“You!know,!it!sounds!pretty!silly!when! you!say!it,!but!sometimes!resting!like!this!I!get!a!kick!out!of!just!breathing.”!The!sentiment! is! echoed! in! The& Next& Voice& You& Hear! by! Joe! Smith,! who,! having! survived! the! threat! of! apocalypse,!finds!renewed!interest!in!life:! Well,! let's! take! a! look! at! the! things! that! God! told! us! to! look! at.! Let's! just! see! how! great!his!miracles!really!are.!There's!the!moon.!The!stars.!It's!the!air!we!breathe.!The! earth!we!walk!on.!It's!the!trees.!It's!the!hills.!And!it's!things!like!loving!each!other.! The! way! I! love! you! and! the! way! Mom! loves! us.! It's! all! those! wonderful! things,! Johnny.!The!way!I!love!you!and!you!love!me,!we!got!nothing!to!worry!about.!Nothing! to!be!afraid!of…!We're!living,!Johnny.!You!and!Mom!and!me.!Mr.!Brannan.!All!of!us.! We're!living.!So!let's!make!it!count.!

60! !


Acutely!sensitive!to!the!precariousness!of!existence,!Wellman!takes!pleasure!where!he!can! find!it!—!in!real!people!and!the!moments!of!communion!that!they!share.!Happiness!may!be! an! unattainable! state,! but! one! can! still! find! flashes! of! true! bliss:! the! crowds! of! people! jumping! in! the! air! and! surging! toward! the! plane! as! Mahoney! touches! down! on! the! first! successful!test!flight!in!Gallant&Journey,!the!spontaneous!song!as!Lily,!Bill,!and!Peg!Leg!plant! sweet!peas!in!Other&Men’s&Women,!the!ecstatic!relief!when!the!sun!cuts!through!the!fog!in! Battleground!and!the!men!know!they’ll!be!saved.!Wellman’s!films!are!memorials!made!of! arrested! ephemera,! laying! testament! to! people! and! experiences! time! would! likely! forget.! Revitalized! by! adversity,! Wellman! captures! the! world! in! all! its! silly,! petty,! tawdry,! exuberant!glory!—!and!accepts!it!for!what!it!is.! & & ***! [1]!Wellman!would!employ!other!means!to!censor!errant!tongues,!too.!One!of!his!favorite!

gags,!particularly!early!on,!was!to!drown!out!an!inappropriate!word!or!phrase!with!a!timely! blast!of!a!steamwhistle!(Other&Men’s&Women,!1931)!or!shell!fire!(G.I.&Joe).!Occasionally,!he’d! substitute!a!visual!for!an!aural!obstruction,!as!in!Westward&the&Women!(1951):!in!one! scene,!a!woman!rolls!a!boulder!in!the!direction!of!another,!who!yells!back,!“You’re!sorry! you!missed!me,!you!sonofa!—!”!her!words!cut!off!as!the!wagon!train!leader,!Buck,!rolls!into! the!foreground!of!the!frame!before!she!can!finish,!obscuring!our!vision!and!somehow!also! our!hearing.! [2]!We!never!see!the!judge!or!his!wife!again,!but!the!idiot!boy!makes!a!cameo!later!on,!

howling!lecherously!as!Barbara!Stanwyck’s!character!enters!the!town!saloon.!

61! !


UNITED!WE!SIT!

OR:!HARD!KNOCKS!AND!HARDER!KNOCKERS! David!Phelps!

! Buffalo&Bill!(1944)& Wayne! voice/over:! You! gotta! think! of! everything.!! There's! about! 30! gallons! left! in! the! tanks,!maybe!a!little!more,!that's!wonderful,!you'll!have!a!generator!power!for!the!radio.!! You!can!send!a!position!from!nowhere!to!somewhere.!!If!you!can!get!an!engine!started!in! this! cold.!! And! now! the! food:! 3! tins! of! salmon,! 8! chocolate! bars,! some! sea! rations,! two! marmalade!sandwiches!left!over!from!last!night,!one!with!a!bite!out!of!it.!!You!gotta!spread! those!out!somehow.!!Make!'em!last!5!men!for!maybe!6!days,!but!you!gotta!be!careful,!awful! careful...!So!find!food,!that's!number!1.!!Find!out!where!nowhere!is,!that's!number!2,!then! you!can!help!the!others!find!nowhere.!!Stanish,!Mullen,!!Stutz,!J.H.!Handy,!and!Willy!Moon,! they'll!come,!just!like!you!told!the!others!they'd!come.!!They!won't!leave!you!alone,!waitin'! on! a! pinpoint! of! nowhere,! they'll! come! if! it! takes! all! winter.! But! you've! only! got! 6! days.! Wayne! out/loud:! Our! father! who! art! in! heaven,! hallowed! be! thy! name.! Thy! kingdom! come...! —!Island&in&the&Sky ! “All! of! us! holy! Joes! are! switch! hitters…! my! sermons! depend! on! the! situation! and! the! terrain.”! —!Battleground *** Only!freed!from!a!code!as!filmmakers!would!critics!who!minted!auteurism!buck!the!term.! Because!there’s!at!least!one!strand!of!auteurism,!maybe!American!auteurism!in!particular,! that!seems!to!redeem!a!standard!of!art!out!of!a!commercial!code!not!only!by!staking!that! standard! on! “the! personal,”! the! tight! reigns! of! a! single! artist’s! intentionality,! but! on! the! premise! that! the! Hollywood! artist! is! a! subliminal! presence,! the! ghost! in! the! machine! 62! !


warping!a!lexicon!of!fables!and!techniques,!all!pliant!to!the!touch,!to!convey!a!stable!set!of! meanings,! ideals,! concerns.! Which! is,! of! course,! a! legitimization! of! the! critic! who! has! to! parse! out! this! ineffable! presence! in! encyclopedic! terms,! but! a! problem! if! the! filmmaker! seems! to! be! tackling! something! less! tractable! than! studio! stagings.! What’s! the! guy! expressing,!who,!like!Rohmer,!Rivette,!or!Godard,!wants!to!let!the!things!onIscreen!express! themselves?! Ford,! Hawks,! even! Walsh,! will! always! be! admirable! for! their! expression! of! ideals! that! even! when! questioned! provide! only! one,! tenable! moral! axis! for! behavior! onI screen.!Wellman!won’t.! An!eternal!preIcode!director,!Wellman!never!seems!to!have!any!interest!in!the!coherency!of! codes! that! would! be! a! screen! image! for! big,! thematic! concerns.! Where! in! Walsh! —! that! other!director!whose!social!history!lays!a!bed!for!action!—!a!material!record!of!everything! from!the!invention!of!American!Spaghetti!to!Broadway!fads!for!lumberjack!races!is!still!just! the!setting!of!terms!for!the!individual’s!quest!to!determine!his!life!and!pathway!forward,!in! Wellman! no! ideal! but! survival! ever! seems! possible.! Where! in! Walsh! history! is! at! best! a! great!adventure!to!be!taken!by!two!lovers!handIinIhand,!at!worst!travails!to!conquer!over,! in! Wellman! the! life! is! already! historically! determined.! Which! is! not! to! say! that! the! characters! don’t! have! ideals,! don’t! think! themselves! players! in! Hollywood! romances! and! genre! fictions,! but! that,! a! kind! of! Balzac! straddling! pulp! and! naturalism,! Wellman! constructs!a!career!out!of!targeting!these!ideals!and!idealists!as!the!levers!and!cogs!of!social! process.!This!is!not!anything!so!meaningful!as!a!theme.! Even! within! individual! preIcoders,! Wellman! will! obligingly! recycle! his! favorite! story,! usually! already! told! by! the! film,! and! tell! it! again! in! another! permutation:! the! amenable! prospector,! often! some! sort! of! laborer! looking! for! work! (Night& Nurse,! A& Star& is& Born,! Reaching&for&the&Sun,!My&Man&and&I)!enters!a!selfIcontained!world!of!slaughter,!starvation,! and!rape!—!racism!and!economic!exploitation!—!basically!a!war!zone!that!makes!one!giddy! for! the! possibilities! of! whatever,! nearIuseless! object! is! at! hand! (Van! Johnson! driven! by! dreams!of!scrambling!eggs!in!his!steel!helmet!in!Battleground;!Joel!McCrea!by!his!dreams! for!clams!in!Reaching&for&the&Sun;!Buddy!Rogers!for!his!pants!in!Young&Eagles,!and!so!on).! When,!occasionally,!the!scenario!is!reversed!—!racketeer!enters!cocoon!of!haloed!cornballs! (Magic& Town,! Nothing& Sacred)! —! the! suburban! Eden! is! thrust! into! the! terrible,! contemporary! condition! of! selfIconsciousness! and! shame! at! being! exposed! to! the! wider! public.! But! what’s! strange! about! Wellman’s! allegorical! setups! is! not! only! that! Wellman! always! seems!ready!to!play!the!derided!journalist!(until!G.I.&Joe’s!Ernie!Pyle),!and!mostly!chronicle! the!quotidian!shtick!and!sawtooth!details!at!the!margins!of!the!scene!(the!boors!sitting!in! the! dumb,! pious! rapture! to! softcore! paintings! in! The& Ox& Boy& Incident! and! Yellow& Sky,! a! turkey! in! My& Man& and& I,! somehow! suggesting! both! inertial! boredom! and! the! heaviest! 63! !


thinking! they’ve! done! in! their! life;! the! horses’! bonnets! changing! color! each! week! outside! The&Happy&Years’!church),!but!that!there!is!no!allegory.!Where!Capra!and!Wilder!play!the! polar!masters!of!this!favorite,!Wellman!framework,!the!confrontation!of!the!cynic!and!the! naïve,! each! feeds! off! the! same,! readymade! metaphysics,! the! soul’s! natural! innocence! against! social! experience,! that! can! invalidate! any! blatant! distinctions:! Capra! gets! pessimistic! about! the! state! of! affairs! the! same! way! Wilder! gets! sentimental! over! love.! Wellman,!somehow,!becomes!neither;!the!films!have!no!metaphysics!but!physics.! The!most!sentimental!moments!of!Wellman’s!career!would!probably!amount!to!Norman’s! suicide! in! A& Star& is& Born,! the! lovers! falling! for! one! other! while! performing! beach! brain! surgery!in!Small&Town&Girl,!and!a!kid!by!the!river!waxing!about!life’s!lessons,!the!ways!to! beat!a!snake’s!brains!out,!in!Goodbye,&My&Lady.!There’s!nothing!innocent!about!the!boys!of! Goodbye,&My&Lady&or!The&Happy&Years!or!even!Wild&Boys&of&the&Road,!all!determined!to!work! the!world!they!live!in!to!get!what!they!need;!idealism!and!naïveté,!from!Heroes&For&Sale!to! Track&of&the&Cat,!are!not!natural!qualities,!but,!quite!the!opposite,!conditions!fabricated!by!a! false,!moral!system!(capitalism!in!the!first;!family!in!the!second)!that!propagates!clichés!of! idealism!the!better!to!exploit!its!subjects.!History!becomes!less!a!forwardIdriven!force!than! the!modes!of!exploitation.!There!is!no!such!thing!as!a!natural!environment!for!Wellman,!no! matter!how!constant!the!hormones!and!bloodlust;!there!are!only!miniature!societies!with! their!own!rituals!of!violence!and!ceremonies!of!survival.!In!that!sense,!Wellman!might!be! closer!to!Wiseman!than!Walsh;!his!brand!of!filmmaking!is!almost!always!a!sort!of!corrosive,! soldierIandIshowgirl!ethnography,!historical!records!of!a!constant!attempt!to!stay!cheery! in!worlds!of!systematic!sex!and!death.!

& Westward&the&Women!(1951)&/&Night&Nurse!(1931)! Thus!Wellman’s!films,!usually!stuck!somewhere!for!the!running!time,!can!go!nowhere!in!all! sorts! of! ways! —!meandering,! unresolved! meetings! in! Island& In& the& Sky;! the! constant! deadtime!of!Walter!Brennan!waiting!to!fall!asleep!and!falling!asleep!in!Goodbye,&My&Lady;! 64! !


the! stories! set! on! infinite! loop! throughout! the! generations! in! So& Big,! Heroes& for& Sale,! The& Conquerors,&The&Great&Man's&Lady.!The!only!lessons!to!learn!are!physical,!situational;!when! Wellman’s!characters!think!or!pray,!however!dumbly,!they!think!and!pray!as!bodies!with! specific!appetites!in!mind,!never!—!as!in!so!many!other!Hollywood!war!films!and!Westerns! —!as!icons.!And!yet,!structuring!his!films!as!passion!plays,!Wellman!gives!over!the!bulk!of! them!to!these!pockets!in!time!and!space!watching!these!bodies!stake!out!their!place,!learn! to! become! instruments! of! the! scene! to! their! own! advantage.! Wellman! strips! Barbara! Stanwyck!to!a!bra!and!panties!for!most!of!the!running!time!of!Lady&of&Burlesque,!not!only!to! treat! her! as! a! gawking! object! for! a! presumably! horny,! warItorn! country! —!the! way! she! plays!her!own!body!onIstage,!curls!around!her!calves!like!a!petal!—!but,!counterposing!this! stripper! masquerade,! also! to! let! her! signal! every! gesture! of! hunched! shoulders,! splayed! legs,!and!battedIaround!arms!as!a!sort!of!sex!cat!machismo.!Her!body!becomes!a!feral!tool! of!force!for!her!to!command,!and!Wellman’s!women!tend!to!be!less!the!boyish!dynamos!of! Hawks,! still! seductive! across! the! gender! gap,! than! manly! renegades! ready! to! beat! up! anyone! that! gets! in! their! way,! to! take! men! on! equal! terms! of! manliness.! Westward& the& Women,!Battleground’s!female!counterpart,!basically!catalogues!all!the!ways!a!woman!with! a! rifle,! pony,! and! man,! might! use! her! body:! riding,! shooting,! singing,! bathing,! trudging,! slugging,! caressing,! fucking,! and! giving! birth.! These! actions! have! nothing! to! do! with! selfI determination!—!rape!and!death!are!conscious!risks,!both!realized!—!!but!simply!the!ways! a!person!can!use!their!body!like!any!other!tool!in!life’s!proverbial!backpack.! So!throughout!Wellman,!every!motion!becomes!an!excess!of!action!in!a!void,!each!gesture!an! overplayed!courting!ritual,!as!a!boxer!enjoys!Wellman’s!first!use!of!sound!in!The&Man&I&Love! by!thrashing!rhythmically!on!a!punching!bag!for!his!ladylove’s!attention,!an!engineer!in!Other& Men’s&Women’s!counts!train!cars!with!handIstomps!to!mark!the!beat!for!his!hooey!recitatif,! the!Lieutenant’s!flying!buddies!improvise!multiple!anthems!about!his!missing!pants!in!Young& Eagles,!and!a!dick!takes!longIleaps!down!sidewalk!cracks!in!Woman&Trap:!“Aw,!can’t!you!see! I’m!playing!a!game?”!This!somehow!fitting!mix!of!deadweight!bodies!but!overIembellished,! slowImotion!body!movement!links!Wellman,!supposedly!the!sloppy!social!realist,!with!one! more! contemporary,! Josef! von! Sternberg,! another! exuberant! fatalist.! As! in! Sternberg,! Wellman’s! performers! throw! their! bodies! around! as! if! to! recover! some! physicality! and! presence!from!the!director’s!own!most!baroque,!aestheticized!miseIenIscène,!and!the!kind!of! sleazy! kabuki! that! both! Wellman! and! Sternberg! get! out! of! actors! operating! in! this! mock,! earlyIsilentIfilm! pantomime,! seems! workable! mainly! as! a! condensation! of! all! the! energy! displaced!to!the!soundtrack!away!from!the!lurching,!onIscreen!heroes.&

65! !


!

& Battleground!(1949)&/&Goodbye,&My&Lady!(1956)! In! Dangerous& Paradise,! for! example,! a! protoIMizoguchian! tracking! shot! through! a! South! Seas!bungalow!follows!a!sweaty,!mustachioed!hero,!his!fan!imprinted!with!a!picture!of!his! own!face,!as!he!staggers!down!a!hallway,!slowly!stalking!the!sounds!of!night!enchantments! behind!each!door:!steel!guitars,!a!mousy!lover’s!encomium,!and!the!lullaby!of!an!abandoned! waif.!Tilting!up!the!blinds!on!the!doors’!windows,!he!peaks!in!to!see!each!sound!and!scene! suddenly! embodied! on! display.! So! the! movie! is! with! him,! hearing! what! he! hears,! seeing! what! he! sees,! staging! a! kind! of! liveIaction! Fleischer! Bros.! iconography! as! if! it! were! stumbledIonto!documentary,!without!ever!purposing!its!ostensible!hero!as!anything!other! than! a! physical! conceit! and! conduit! for! its! own! interests.! Whenever! he! can,! as! in! a! fewI minutes! take! of! the! central! love! scene! in! This& Man’s& Navy,! shot! from! behind! a! couch,! Wellman!will!film!his!characters!from!the!back.! The! sonic! disjunctions! in! an! apocalyptic! scene! of! Lady& of& Burlesque! offers! a! different,! central!Wellman!caseIstudy:!Barbara!Stanwyck!and!comics!of!a!shoestring!revue!perform!a! slapdash!rendition!of!their!only!jazz!standard,!“Take!it!Off!the!E!String,”!to!cover!over!the! meltdown!of!a!screeching!offIscreen!couple,!the!man!coldIclocking!the!woman,!the!woman! leveling!props!at!the!man’s!heads,!the!two!of!them!incarnating!an!offIscreen!melodrama!far! more! theatrical! than! Wellman’s! doting! record! onIstage! of! mediocre! talents! at! work.! As! always! in! Wellman,! corniness! is! a! battle! tactic,! a! moment! for! a! moment’s! sake! and! an! attempt! to! preserve! inertia! through! social! custom! against! what! sounds! like! impending! doom.!Burlesque’s!offIscreen!feud!can!become!the!gunshots!of!the!war!films!or!God!Himself! in!The&Next&Voice&You&Hear,!but!their!only!real!signal!to!the!characters!is!how!much!more! gussiedIup!the!dull,!quotidian!life!onIscreen!might!be!staged.!Probably!only!Wellman!could! accept! the! theory! of! Next& Voice,! a! poverty! row! Ordet,! that! God’s! existence! could! hinge! on! the! miraculous! emanation! of! brake! fluid! in! the! morning! commute.! An! entire! essay! on! soundIimage!pairing,!as!well!as!the!whole!trajectory!of!the!movie,!is!contained!in!the!closeI ups! of! boots! throughout! Battleground,! each! a! small! synecdoche! of! the! situation:! 66! !


successively!tapping!to!offIscreen!humming,!marching!in!step!to!offIscreen!drills,!standing! as!nothing!more!than!swaths!of!towel!in!the!snow,!planted!empty!outside!a!foxhole!while! its! owner’s! hand! spends! its! last! moments! trying! to! reach! it! to! the! sound! of! gunIfire.! As! always!in!Wellman,!the!shots!tend!to!be!telegraphic!even!as!ornamentation,!strippedIdown! essentializations! of! mostly! superfluous! moments.! In! all! these! cases,! Wellman! fixes! his! camera!and!characters!so!firmly!to!a!point!that!the!objects!and!bodies!onIscreen!can!seem! installed!there!as!instruments!sounding!off!in!the!scene’s!operational!rhythm.! In!Battleground,!a!soldier!buffs!his!shoe!as!percussion!to!another!one’s!singing,!and!a!third,! in!bed!with!back!to!the!camera,!impersonates!a!conversation!with!a!general!counterpointed! by!his!own!hand!signals,!a!kind!of!baton!to!orchestrate!his!verbal!dada!(“A!crack!division?...! Awfully!nice!of!you!old!boy,!awfully!nice!”).!Wellman!cuts!as!if!he!had!filmed!a!big!band,!the! riffs! of! the! soliloquists! bouncing! between! grim! prognoses! and! selfIdirected! pep! talks,! all! building! to! some! collective! dynamic! of! these! staccato! outbursts! playing! off! each! other! in! wideIshot.! The! turned! back! and! shots! of! feet! become! the! simplest! loophole! out! of! psychology:!there!are!only!bodies!pantomiming!the!sounds!heard!on!the!soundtrack.!A!cut! from!Rodin’s!Thinker!to!Joe!E.!Brown!posed!in!its!desperate!image!gives!one!of!Wellman’s! favorite!jokes,!the!idea!that!his!dumb!mugs!will!one!day!have!to!think!without!a!clue!how!to! do!it.!Buffalo!Bill!learning!to!read!from!an!Indian!headmistress!or!the!expectant!fathers!at! school! desks! studying! coddling! protocol! in! Reaching& for& the& Sun! are! of! course! gags! for! a! director! whose! whole! career,! however! pedagogical,! pits! the! lessons! of! lived! experience! firmly! against! theories! of! how! to! live.! None! are! sufficient,! and! yet! it’s! the! continual! predicament! of! the! unthinking! Wellman! hero! that! he’s! suddenly! forced! to! make! sense! of! the!world!around!him:!three!tins!of!salmon!and!eight!chocolate!bars!become!talismans!of! survival,!the!deepest!thoughts!any!man!could!have.! Such! particularities,! chocolate! and! salmon,! become! the! closest! thing! Wellman! has! to! an! ideal!and!a!theme.!The!means!of!survival!can!be!a!missing!axle,!pair!of!legs,!or,!most!often,!a! dollar!bill.!“Letter!from!president!like!stock,”!says!Jack!Elam’s!Mexican!migrant!worker!in! My& Man& and& I,! speaking! in! a! systematically! broken! English! of! the! only! item! of! value! possessed! by! his! friends.! “Buy! for! 20,! sell! for! 40.! Wonderful! system!”! “Three! more! crops! and! you’re! mine,! like! installment! washing! machine!”! enthuses! Ricardo! Montalbán! earlier.! “Wonderful! system.”! A! favorite! of! Ozu! and! Yamanaka! for! his! preIcode! portraits,! entire! social! annotations! of,! among! other! things,! the! everyday! accounting! that! could! occupy! consciousness! at! least! as! much! as! love! —!the! ways! boys! might! sneak! free! into! a! 15! cent! high! school! dance! (Wild& Boys);! how! a! woman! counting! her! cash! register! might! see! how! drunk! her! husband’s! got! with! their! earnings! (The& Conquerors)! —!Wellman! would! pursue! these!exactitudes!of!custom!at!a!place!and!time!even!against!the!abstraction!of!genre!into! iconography! through! the! 50s.! Baroque! melodrama! and! social! document,! Wellman! enthusiasms,! are! still! symbiotic! in! the! restaged! hells! of! Wings,! Heroes& for& Sale,! G.I.& Joe,! 67! !


Westward! —!the! stunts! of! historical! characters! and! modern! performers! are! the! same! — !but! by! the! point! of! Darby’s& Rangers! and! Lafayette& Escadrille,! these! have! enervated! to! purposeful,!structural!principles,!each!rupturing!the!other:!against!the!procedural!details!of! Americans! hosing! Italian! locals! with! immunization! gas,! of! how! to! roll! under! and! past! an! onrushing! tank! as! not! to! be! seen,! Darby’s! leverages! the! broadest! commedia! dell’arte! of! American! bumpkins! grinning! their! way! into! the! good! graces! of! continental! skeptics,! adulteresses!and!aristocrats!alike.! Wellman’s!contradictions!are!the!tensions!his!films!exploit:!how!could!the!director!of!Next& Voice& and! Iron& Curtain! who! called! his! wife! ‘mom’! and! claimed! he! cried! at! American! flags! have! been! the! guy,! from! 1930I1933,! who! dismantled! every! cornerstone! of! American! idealism?! But! there! aren’t! great! differences! here:! to! keep! on! keepin’! on! means! a! fundamental! inertia! as! much! as! a! pious! devotion,! a! Jonathan! Edwards! sense! of! doom! justified! as! easily! by! the! socialist! years! of! the! depression! as! by! the! Cold! War! fears! of! an! aerial! apocalypse! (Gallant& Journey)! or! panoramic! ambush! (Yellow& Sky,! one! of! the! first! Korean!war!fortress!films).!When!the!characters,!on!rare!occasions,!are!given!objects!of!a! quest! that! might! let! them! determine! their! plot,! these! objects! are! only! facilitators! of! whatever!social!mechanism,!typically!the!instruments!of!inertia:!the!jiggers!of!Happy&Years,! handIcranked!radio!transmitter!of!Island&in&the&Sky,!offIboard!motor!of!Reaching&for&the&Sky.! In! the! rare! Wellman! film,! past! Beggars& of& Life,! which! does! document! a! journey! through! a! landscape!—!Battleground! and! Westward& the& Women,! my! own! two! favorites!—!the! trip! is! never! like! the! transformative! catalyst! of! Ford! or! Walsh! that! forces! the! characters! to! confront! the! lives! they’ve! staked! out! for! themselves,! but! simply,! like! all! of! Wellman’s! movies,!an!endless!obstacle!course,!no!footprint!leading!to!horrible!mews,!that!leaves!one! battered,! depleted,! limping! forward! by! the! movie’s! end.! And! yet! Wellman’s! apocalyptic! sense! is! a! century! away! from! the! usurpation! of! physical! reality,! in! modern! Hollywood’s! imagination! and! favorite! allegory! for! its! prowess,! by! a! virtual! one! in! which! anything! can! happen.! !What! can! happen! in! Wellman! is! only! what! resources! permit! —!and! this! is! alternately! an! attack! on! and! celebration! of! American! privation.! So! over! time,! the! movies! refine!a!kind!of!miserabilist!pep,!as!they!coast!through!standstill!scenes,!following!history! forward!to!nowhere.!

68! !


WILLIAM!A.!WELLMAN:!! SURVIVAL!AND!PERSISTENCE! Sudarshan!Ramani! Perhaps! the! biggest! problem! with! understanding! the! distinct! qualities! of! William! A.! Wellman!is!that!the!ground!covered!in!his!movies,!at!first!glance,!seems!to!be!the!same!as! that!of!the!more!wellIknown!and!celebrated!American!masters!of!his!generation.!His!films! at! times! reflect! the! boisterous! spirit! of! certain! characters! in! Howard! Hawks’! films,! Cary! Grant! in! Only& Angels& Have& Wings! for! instance,! and! on! other! occasion! the! vitality! of! Raoul! Walsh’s!masculine!melodramas.!Yet!Wellman’s!films,!as!noted!by!Scott!Eyman,!are!driven! by! a! “common! sense”! approach! to! adventure,! his! characters! are! troubled! and! cope! with! great! trauma! but! are! essentially! normal! people! hoping! to! survive! circumstances! outside! their! control,! who! moreover! define! themselves! to! a! great! extent! by! the! ties! of! society,! family! and! loyalty! to! their! friends! and! companions.! [1]! To! be! an! outcast! or! an! outlaw! in! Wellman’s!films!is!to!face!real!consequences,!as!discovered!by!the!titular!characters!of!Wild& Boys& of& the& Road,! Heroes& for& Sale! and,! The& Hatchet& Man! whose! world! is! shattered! and! uprooted!for!his!belated!refusal!to!follow!his!familial!code.!Wellman’s!films!are!often!driven! by!a!fascination!for!process,!for!the!basics!of!trying!to!survive!I!one!of!the!reasons!why!The& Story&of&G.&I.&Joe!(1945)!is!one!of!the!more!unique!war!films!of!its!period,!its!focus!on!the! nutsIandIbolts! of! soldiering.! Elements! like! these! makes! Wellman! at! times,! less! like! the! macho!director!in!the!tradition!of!the!FordIHawksIWalsh!trinity,!and!more!like!a!precursor! to!the!generation!of!the!40s!and!50s!I!the!films!of!Robert!Aldrich,!Nicholas!Ray!and!Samuel! Fuller.!His!heroes,!scrappers!and!strugglers,!pursue!a!course!for!survival!and!success,!with! all! their! strength! and! mettle,! their! enemy! usually! being! a! society! whose! governing! logic! doesn’t!take!them!into!account!at!all.!! Wellman’s!vision!of!American!life!is!essentially!bleak.!Successes!when!it!comes!tends!to!be! carefully!qualified!and!in!many!cases!the!success!rings!hollow!and!it’s!a!fact!that!William! Wellman’s!“happy!endings”!are!among!the!most!fake!and!empty!for!the!period!and!genres! he!tackled.!These!facile!conclusions!are!poor!compensations!for!the!torment!his!characters! are! put! through.! To! unrelenting! universal! indifference,! Wellman! proposes! constant! persistence!as!the!only!strategy!for!survival.!Persistence!which!in!Track&of&the&Cat!devolves! into! selfIdestructive! obsession! but! which! also! inspires! the! soldiers! of! C.! Company,! 18th! Infantry! in! The& Story& of& G.& I.& Joe! to! fight! against! constant! exhaustion,! to! maintain! their! bodies! to! last! until! the! day! the! war! ends.! As! a! director! whose! aesthetic! priorities! were! attuned! to! the! nutsIandIbolts! of! survival! and! endurance! and! to! the! psychological! and! physical! costs! of! the! same,! Wellman! was! especially! attuned! to! the! zeitgeist! of! the! early! 69! !


Depression,! where! he! would! make! 17! features! in! the! period! of! 1931I1933,! with! seven! released!in!1933!itself.! The! cycle! starts! strong! with! Other& Men’s& Women,& Night& Nurse,& Safe& in& Hell& and! The& Public& Enemy! released! in! 1931! alone.! Wellman! finds! his! mark! early! with! Other& Men’s& Women,! which!led!Bertrand!Tavernier!to!remark!on!the!film’s!“confounding!vitality”,!its!integration! of!“real!exteriors,!and!the!bits!of!daily!life”!which!creates!a!naturalistic!atmosphere,!“a!style! close!to!Renoir.”[2]!Safe&in&Hell!is!a!dark!fable!about!sex!and!virtue,!notorious!as!one!of!the! more!weird!PreICode!movies.!Dorothy!McKail!accidentally!murders!her!pimp!and!tearfully! tells!the!truth!to!her!forgiving!boyfriend,!a!merchant!sailor!who!leaves!her!stranded!on!a! Caribbean! island! where! she! cannot! be! extradited! to! America;! making! her! the! only! white! woman!in!a!place!full!of!sexIstarved!criminals!and!vagabonds.!The!film!is!an!early!attempt! by! Wellman! to! portray! a! community! of! islander! who! are! lorded! over! by! a! dictatorial! warden,!Bruno!(Morgan!Wallace)!who!notes!the!runaways!on!the!islands,!fleeing!the!law! and!authority,!are!merely!“safe!in!hell”,!making!him!the!devil!with!Dorothy!McKail’s!Gilda!is! the!angel!who!furthers!torment!by!bringing!hope!and!desire!to!the!islanders.!Her!innocent! friendship!with!the!AfricanIAmerican!singer!at!the!inn!(Clarence!Muse),!which!enrages!one! of! her! white! pursuers,! while! others! are! moved! by! the! sincerity! of! her! fidelity! to! her! boyfriend!and!fiancé,!who!is!nonetheless!of!little!use!and!succor!to!her.!Much!of!Wellman’s! preIcode! films,! despite! the! director’s! stated! aversion! for! actresses! [3],! are! attuned! to! the! life!of!women!on!the!margins!of!society,!subject!to!exploitation!by!men!of!authority,!both! benign!and!malign.!! Night&Nurse’s!more!benign!setting!and!profession,!a!hospital!and!nurse!respectively,!allows! for! a! more! sober! approach! to! the! same! issue,! in! that! the! moral! rectitude! of! Lora! Hart! (Barbara! Stanwyck)! still! leaves! her! dependent! on! men! of! power,! a! senior! doctor! and! a! gangster! (Ben! Lyon)! respectively.! Befitting! a! cherished! favorite! of! Manny! Farber,! Night& Nurse! is! attentive! to! class! and! sexual! politics! and! the! basics! of! work! and! workspace.! The! strongest!and!most!focused!of!the!film’s!two!sections!transpires!in!the!hospital!and!focuses! on! Lora! Hart! learning! the! ropes! of! nursing.! She! gets! the! job! solely! out! of! her! capacity! to! charm!and!attract!Dr.!Arthur!Bell!(Charles!Winninger)!but!proves!to!be!capable!at!nursing! and! attentive! to! the! professional! wisdom! of! her! calling.! Her! fellow! nurse,! Maloney! (Joan! Blondell,! who! had! earlier! appeared! alongside! Cagney! in! Other& Men’s& Women)! offers! her! valuable!commonIsense!advice!on!relationships!at!work,!“If!you’re!going!to!fall!in!love,!fall! for!a!patient,!not!for!a!doctor!and!not!an!intern”!and!Lora!likewise!falls!for!a!patient,!Mortie! (Ben!Lyon),!transparently!a!bootlegger!and!a!crook!but!amiable!enough!to!pull!off!his!Robin! Hood! act! of! regular! gifts! of! liquor(during! Prohibition)! and! flowers.! Wary! of! their! friendship,! she! nonetheless! calls! in! her! favor! when! legal! authorities! fail! her! in! the! film’s! second! section,! where! she! attempts! to! protect! her! charges,! children! of! a! debauched! 70! !


patrician!family,!from!being!killed!by!forced!starvation!at!the!hands!of!“Nick!the!chauffeur”! (Clark!Gable).!! The!film’s!focus!on!medical!care!and!taking!care!of!charges!naturally!makes!it!the!first!of! Wellman’s! to! grapple! with! death,! which! is! a! concern! throughout! his! work.! The! operation! sequence,! done! in! a! kind! of! amphitheatre! to! allow! space! for! medical! students! to! observe! surgery,! is! the! final! test! for! Stanwyck’s! nurse,! she! stands! by! and! watches! the! operation,! carefully! handing! the! tools! when! gestured! by! the! surgeon’s! waiting! hands,! her! feeling! of! intensity! supported! by! Joan! Blondell! who! grapples! her! tense! hands.! And! despite! everything,!the!patient!dies!on!the!operating!table,!which!is!confirmed!only!by!the!shocked! look!in!the!doctor’s!eyes!and!the!careful!finish!of!the!ritual,!including!the!one!so!familiar,! but! given! special! emphasis! in! Night& Nurse,! the! covering! of! the! patient’s! face! with! a! white! sheet.! Such! intensity! of! focus! in! death! scenes! is! a! powerful! feature! of! Wellman’s! films.! Bodies! fall! haplessly,! easily,! like! a! victim! of! machine! gun! fire! in! The& Public& Enemy,! first! prefigured! by! a! sound! of! coals! raking! on! a! truck! nearby! and! then! unleashed! without! warning! only! for! a! body! to! be! riddled! with! bullets! and! fall! on! the! sidewalk! like! garbage.! Tom!Powers!(James!Cagney)!take!revenge!but!we!don’t!see!that,!what!we!see!is!his!body! staggering!out!and!falling!on!the!gutter.!The!final!insult!is!the!presentation!of!his!corpse!to! his!family!home!as!a!grotesque!tribal!ornament,!a!scene!that!apparently!shocked!some!thin! skinned!producers!at!a!preview!screening.![4]!! Equally! grotesque! is! the! gradual! exhibition! of! the! villain’s! fate! in! The& Hatchet& Man,! made! the!following!year.!A!hatchet!ceremonially!thrown!into!a!wall!in!a!Shanghai!brothel!is!the! final!gesture!of!the!retiring!Hatchet!Man!of!the!SanIFrancisco!Tong!(Edward!G.!Robinson).! Wellman’s!cutting!carefully!shows!the!deadly!nature!of!this!throw,!a!grotesque!punchIline! that! follows! the! exit! of! Edward! G.! Robinson! and! Loretta! Young! (improbably! cast! as! ChineseIAmericans,! but! who! perform! as! well! as! possible),! their! defiance! of! Madame! SiISi! (Blance!Frederici),!her!careful!search!for!the!man!who!pimped!the!hatchet!man’s!wife!who! she! finds! waiting! behind! the! same! partition! that! Wellman! establishes! as! the! trajectory! of! the!hatchet!throw.!He!stands,!seemingly!alive,!his!face!frozen!only!for!the!madam!to!scream! in! shock! as! he! falls! down,! his! death! rendering! him! an! immobile! frozen! fixture,! a! wall! ornament.!His!death!is!accidental!but!with!a!logic!established!in!Wellman’s!miseIenIscène,! the!inescapable!architecture!of!the!building.!More!sudden!and!less!logical!is!the!shocking! death!of!Loretta!Young!in!Heroes&for&Sale&indifferently!felled!by!a!simple!club!to!her!head!by! a!police!truncheon,!when!she!searches!for!her!husband!in!the!middle!of!a!riot.!Years!later,! Wellman!would!cite!the!war!journalist!Ernie!Pyle’s!maxim,!“a!man!only!falls!dead!once.”[5]! He!would!make!The&Story&of&G.&I.&Joe,!his!film!on!Pyle’s!wartime!reporting!in!1946,!but!his! films!accepted!that!maxim!long!before.!Violence!in!Wellman’s!films!has!a!reality!and!candor! rare!for!the!American!films.!Though!nominally!raised!as!an!Episcopalian,!Wellman’s!films! 71! !


are! secular! and! lack! any! sense! of! a! belief! in! an! afterlife,! and! little! favor! for! death! as! anything!other!than!a!sudden!finality.![6]!! Wellman’s! films! of! the! early! Depression! has! a! quality! similar! to! the! “Living! Newspaper”! theatre!works!of!the!WPA!Theatre!Project!of!the!midI30s,!the!films!are!highly!topical!and! cover!much!of!the!tension!and!feelings!that!are!in!the!pages!at!the!time.!Or!as!the!publicity! campaigns! put! it,! “rippedIfromItheIheadlines”.! The& Conquerors! is! a! sound! example.! It’s! a! DepressionIera!saga!that!has!a!fairly!sophisticated!conceit!(produced!by!David!O.!Selznick! who!liked!such!things)!of!dealing!with!contemporary!economic!anxieties!through!the!prism! of!“financial!crises!through!the!ages”!each!crisis!introduced!by!tacky!montages!courtesy!of! Slavko! Vorkapich,! booms! are! shown! with! old! investors! (old,! beard! Teddy! Roosevelt! lookalikes)! superimposed! over! coins! piling! higher! and! higher,! bags! bourgeoning! to! metronomic! rhythm! and! a! graph! rising! alongside! an! uphill! side! of! the! mountain! only! to! eventually! reach! the! peak! and! become! a! bust,! a! literal! landslide! as! the! stock! market! crashes;!each!crash!a!surprise!despite!Karl!Marx’s!prediction!of!“periodic!crises”!being!an! inescapable!feature!of!the!system.!The!film!starts!in!1873!and!charts!the!rise!of!a!banking! family! in! the! Midwest! up! to! the! present! day.! Each! period! marker! set! during! alternative! “booms”!and!“busts”!but!through!it!all!the!Bank!endures!and!becomes!a!great!corporation,! being!in!every!sense!“too!big!to!fail”.!As!such,!The&Conquerors!is!one!of!the!most!perceptive! films! about! American! capitalism.! Much! of! the! editing! and! charge! through! the! ages! of! The& Conquerors! gives! it! a! sense! of! the! epicIasInewsreel! and! Wellman! makes! the! connection! explicit!in!that!the!periodImarker!for!the!turn!of!the!century,!the!grandson!of!the!Standish! view!a!Méliès!film!in!a!theatre.! Its!hero,!Roger!Standish!(Richard!Dix)!is!an!ideal!boss!and!a!hard!worker!(much!like!King! Vidor’s! steel! pioneer! in! An& American& Romance)! who! is! moreover! separated! from! the! real! consequences! of! his! actions,! especially! when! they! benefit! him.! He! and! his! wife,! Caroline! Ogden!(Ann!Standing)!move!west!after!her!wealthy!father’s!death!and!the!subsequent!loss! of! her! inheritance! amidst! the! Panic! of! 1873.! This! first! section! is! essentially! a! Western,! albeit!one!that!puts!common!civilians!at!the!forefront!rather!than!the!cowboys!and!bandits! who! assail! them.! The! town! he! arrives! at! is! lawless! and! assailed! by! thieves! who! rob! the! couple!on!a!boat!and!gravely!injure!him.!During!his!recovery,!he!grows!vengeful!and!fires! up!a!posse!to!hunt!the!bandits.!His!injury!halts!him!from!going!further!in!his!charge!and!he! stays! back! while! the! townsfolk! hunt! the! bandits! and! summarily! hangs! them,! an! ironic! precedent!to!the!antiIlynching!theme!of!The&OxGBow&Incident!made!nearly!ten!years!later,! only! here! the! guilt! of! the! captives! is! not! up! for! question! and! their! violated! rights! are! unmourned.! Standish! who! instigated! this! riot! hangs! back! and! profits! clearly! in! the! aftermath,!establishing!the!first!banking!institution!in!the!town!and!becoming!a!hegemonic! force! in! the! period! of! its! development.! In! another! section! of! the! film,! after! a! period! of! prosperity,! the! Standish! family! faces! another! economic! bust,! leading! to! the! patriarch! to! 72! !


confront!his!sonIinIlaw!over!malpractice!on!the!day!of!his!grandson’s!birth.!The!unspoken! disdain!for!the!weakest!in!the!family,!who!does!not!maintain!and!expand!on!the!business,! has! only! one! solution! –! death! and! replacement.! Wellman! is! perfectly! economical! in! his! staging! of! the! denouement! in! a! single! medium! shot.! The! family! patriarch! walks! up! the! stairs,!on!the!left!side!of!the!door!is!the!sound!of!a!gunshot!and!through!the!other!door!is! the!cry!of!his!grandson,!the!one!who!takes!charge!of!the!family!business!in!the!early!20th! Century.!! Persistence! and! survival! are! exigencies! from! which! Wellman’s! heroes! derive! their! ethics! and! this! includes! opportunism! and! intolerance! in! equal! measures,! with! family! and! friendship!and!basic!human!compassion!readily!sacrificed!when!needed.!Heroes&for&Sale!is! another!Depression!epic,!the!reverse!image!of!Wellman’s!paean!to!big!capital.!In!this!film,! his!focus!shifts!to!the!topical!issue!of!outIofIwork!oppressed!WW1!veterans,!inspired!by!the! contemporary! resonance! of! the! 1932! veterans! march! to! Washington! D.! C.,! which! also! inspired!Busby!Berkeley’s!“Remember!My!Forgotten!Man”!from!Gold&Diggers&of&1933&(and! on!the!set!of!which,!Wellman!met!Dorothy!Coonan,!who!played!the!female!lead!in!Wild&Boys& of& the& Road! and! who! he! would! later! marry).! Like! Tom! Joad! after! him,! Thomas! Holmes! (Richard! Barthelmess)! endures! the! trauma! of! the! American! experience! during! the! Depression,!a!landscape!which!is!urban,!violent!and!dark,!full!of!breadlines,!broken!families! and! senseless! deaths.! Much! of! the! film’s! action! is! shot! at! night,! like! a! gangster! film! albeit! with!the!real!public!enemies!I!the!unemployed,!the!workers!on!strike!and!suspected!“reds”.! The! sense! of! persecution! stops! short! of! descending! into! the! paranoia! of! postIwar! Films! Noir!which!this!film!anticipates!in!many!ways.!! Wellman’s!heroes!are!rarely!actors!and!choosers!of!their!own!destiny!and!circumstances,! they!are!tragic!only!when!they!accept!and!face!their!situation,!like!Buster!Keaton’s!heroes.! Holmes!is!in!many!ways!his!most!powerless!figure,!his!actions!are!entirely!determined!by! the!actions!of!fate!and!society!to!which!his!only!resistance!is!mere!survival!and!care!for!his! family.! This! separates! him! from! the! Wild& Boys& of& the& Road,! sons! and! daughters! of! unemployed!parents!who!illegally!cross!state!lines!by!stowing!away!on!trains,!risking!and! at! times! losing! life,! limb! and! personal! dignity! (in! the! case! of! a! girl! who! is! raped! by! a! brakeman,! played! by! an! uncredited! Ward! Bond).! This! film,! rare! for! casting! actual! ageI appropriate! teenagers,! presents! the! migration! of! young! people! to! the! cities! in! search! of! work!to!fund!their!parents!back!home,!only!for!them!to!form!a!critique!of!the!very!values!of! society! and! community! that! define! their! quest.! The! commune! of! slums! they! form! outside! their!cities!is!threatened!by!thugIlike!truncheon!wielding!cops!and!they!are!aided!only!by!a! few!sympathetic!adults.!When!Nicholas!Ray!made!Rebel&Without&A&Cause!he!explicitly!said! that! it! wasn’t! the! problems! of! the! poor! teenagers! that! he! was! interested! in,! identifying! a! deeper! unease! for! juvenile! reprobates! than! Wellman! depicts! in! this! film,! alternatively! 73! !


romantic! to! the! idea! of! youth! community! and! yet! painfully! aware! of! the! pitfalls! and! problems!of!“lifeIonItheIedge”.!! Wild& Boys& of& the& Road! marks! the! end! of! Wellman’s! golden! age;! the! period! of! censorship! which! lasted! for! twenty! five! years! crippled! much! of! the! instinctive! fervor! of! Wellman’s! films! I! the! glimpse! of! American! society! from! below,! the! unfettered! violence! of! urban! life! and!a!passionate!engagement!with!the!zeitgeist.!Wellman!would!find!a!level!of!freedom!in!a! series!of!Westerns–!The&OxGBow&Incident,&Yellow&Sky,&Westward&the&Women,&Track&of&the&Cat,! and! some! war! films! –! The& Story& of& G.& I.& Joe& (which! Wellman! considered! his! “best”! film),! Battleground,&Island&in&the&Sky.!Within!these!films,!one!finds!qualities!of!Wellman’s!preIcode! films,!namely!a!miseIenIscène!attuned!to!hostile!circumstances!and!its!effect!darkly!hostile! world! which! his! characters! have! to! survive! and! persist! in,! against! the! absurdity! of! their! situation! and! their! own! inevitable! human! failings.! The& OxGBow& Incident,! Wellman’s! most! celebrated! work,! is! one! of! the! most! powerful! socially! conscious! films! ever! made! in! Hollywood!and!a!return!to!the!spirit!that!animated!his!best!preIcode!films.!And!yet!the!film! is!harsher!than!the!compulsory!optimism!of!the!preIcode!period!would!allow,!lacking!the! assurance!and!promise!of!heroic!figures!to!rescue!the!downtrodden.!! The! town! in! which! the! action! takes! place! is! a! realistic! Western! town! of! Bridger! Wells,! Nevada,! whose! economy! has! stagnated.! Produced! by! Zanuck! at! Fox,! the! film! benefits! greatly! from! a! cast! composed! of! several! John! Ford! stock! players,! including! in! addition! to! Henry! Fonda,! Jane! Darwell! (Ma! Joad! from! The& Grapes& of& Wrath),! Francis! Ford! (offering! a! less! comical! variation! of! his! usual! role! in! his! brother’s! films),! and! screenwriter! Lamar! Trotti!and!D.!P.!Arthur!C.!Miller.!Much!of!the!film’s!portrayal!of!community!reads!like!a!dark! parody! of! John! Ford! where! Judge! Priests! and! enlightened! lawmen! would! quell! mob! violence! and! channel! resentment! to! peaceful! endeavour.! Wellman’s! film! offers! wellI meaning!but!powerless!dissidents!as!righteous!people!to!identify!with,!they!are!powerless! to!halt!the!trial!and!prevent!the!lynching!of!three!innocent!men.!This!lynch!mob!is!in!fact! overseen! by! a! Confederate! “Judge”! who! with! another! functionary! insists! on! a! protocol! of! authority!and!a!kind!of!trial!as!a!dark!community!ritual!and!a!cold!torture!of!their!victims.! Wellman’s! bleak! temper! portrays! the! persecutors! as! mostly! dimIwits! and! falsely! comic,! who!even!mime!boastfully!about!their!atrocity!to!the!sheriff!before!being!reminded!of!the! injustice! they! had! participated! in.! The! Judge! who! presides! on! this! case! is! allowed! an! honorable!suicide!which!the!other!townsfolk!can’t,!leaving!them!to!listen!to!Henry!Fonda’s! reading! of! Donald! Martin’s! letter,! which! they! try! to! ignore! by! drinking! in! the! bar,! while! Fonda! and! Harry! Morgan! leave! the! town.! The! bar! of! the! film! has! a! cheap! painting! of! a! woman!in!a!stage!of!undress,!a!setIpiece!Wellman!revisits!for!the!opening!of!Yellow&Sky.!! The! title! refers! to! a! Western! town! that! might! have! been! like! Bridger’s! Wells! after! its! economy! collapsed! and! the! majority! of! the! inhabitants! had! left,! leaving! only! an! old! man! 74! !


(James! Barton)! and! his! grandIdaughter! Constance! Mae,! called! “Mike”! (Anne! Baxter).! The! town! is! visited! by! a! gang! of! outlaws,! led! by! James! Dawson! (Gregory! Peck)! who! in! flight! from! the! law,! tread! over! a! barren! landscape,! deteriorating! from! the! heat,! thirst! and! starvation.!Few!sequences!bring!out!the!physical!force!of!the!Western!landscape!than!the! scene!of!the!chase!of!pack,!all!of!them!hard!men!who!barely!hold!on!to!their!wits!until!their! chance! arrival! at! Yellow! Sky.! Wellman’s! composition! anticipates! the! kind! seen! in! Kurosawa’s! films,! with! the! riders! made! into! silhouettes! against! the! harsh! landscape,! especially!the!one!powerful!image!of!the!seven!riders!striating!as!they!charge!forward!like! a!hallucinatory!stretched!band.!The!miseIenIscéne!of!Yellow&Sky&is!surprising!throughout,! precise! in! outlining! the! tensions! of! the! group! who! intend! to! rob! their! benefactors! over! Dawson’s! objections,! who! says! that! he! doesn’t! believe! in! voting! and! tries! to! maintain! his! authority,!all!of!the!crooks!are!former!Civil!War!soldiers,!placing!the!film!in!the!tradition!of! postIwar! Westerns! such! as! Pursued,& Fort& Apache,& Winchester& ’73! that! located! postIWW2! trauma!in!the!wild!west.! Wellman’s! westerns! are! unique! and! singular! in! that! it! deals! with! the! West! not! as! a! mythological! landscape! but! as! a! real! landscape,! where! the! communities! and! people! who! reside! in! this! world! particular! to! that! of! the! milieu,! so! Bridger’s! Wells! in! The& OxGBow& Incident,! shot! on! sound! stages! to! heighten! the! focus! of! its! classically! unified! action,! while! Yellow& Sky! makes! use! of! actual! locations,! including! Death! Valley,! California,! to! create! a! primordial!world!of!heat,!sand!and!charred!rock.!Across&the&Wide&Missouri,!drastically!cut! by! the! studios,! tells! the! story! of! the! fur! trapping! industry,! and! makes! use! of! the! Rocky! Mountains,!shooting!at!high!altitudes.!However,!the!weirdest!and!most!unusual!of!them!all! is!Track&of&the&Cat.!! Track&of&the&Cat!is!a!“White!Western”!the!cycle!of!films!which!sets!the!action!on!the!frontier! in! snowy! plains,! near! mountains,! during! winter.! A! cycle! of! films! that! includes! The& Far& Country,& Day& of& the& Outlaw,& McCabe& && Mrs.& Miller,! all! of! them! bleak! and! desolate,! the! environment!denying!any!of!the!mythic!grandeur!of!the!more!common!“Red!Westerns”!set! in! deserts.! Track& of& the& Cat! is! barely! a! western,! following! a! rhythm! that! upends! several! genre! conventions,! which! Jonathan! Rosenbaum! has! likened! to! Ordet.! The! film’s! unusual! visual!style!famously!constructs!blackIandIwhite!colour!tones!in!colour,!the!result!looking! in! certain! scenes! to! resemble! charcoal! sketches.! The! only! patches! of! colour! is! Mitchum’s! red!winterIcoat!and!Diana!Lynn’s!yellow!dress.!! Track& of& the& Cat! breaks! new! formal! ground! while! its! content! in! many! ways! brings! many! threads! in! Wellman’s! earlier! films! to! a! close.! The! elemental! vision! of! nature! and! environment!finds!it!most!extreme!vision!as!Robert!Mitchum’s!Curt!Bridges,!a!headstrong,! Machiavellian! vitalist,! who! attempts! to! track! the! panther! (pronounced! “painter”)! that’s! attacked!the!ranch’s!livestock.!The!real!tension!of!the!film,!is!the!family!home!located!in!a! 75! !


barren! valley! during! winter,! the! debate! resolving! on! brothers! who! ask! for! a! share! in! the! family!produce,!of!which!Curt!regards!as!the!chief!earner!and!beneficiary.!The!nature!we! see!in!this!film!is!beautiful!and!primordial!while!the!civilization,!as!typified!by!the!nuclear! family! is! savage! and! vicious,! the! spirit! of! which! is! incarnated! by! Beulah! Bondi! in! a! surprising! performance.! If! Jane! Darwell’s! casting! in! The& OxGBow& Incident! parodies! the! performance!of!Ma!Joad!in!The&Grapes&of&Wrath,!than!Bondi’s!presence!in!the!film!is!a!dark! commentary! on! the! mother! figures! of! It’s& A& Wonderful& Life! and! Make& Way& for& Tomorrow,! devolving!into!a!cruel!manipulator!of!her!youngest!son,!Harold!(Tab!Hunter).!! While!Curt!foolishly!marches!illIprepared!to!hunt!a!panther!and!tries!to!stall!himself!from! encroaching! hypothermia,! dark! family! rituals! of! burying! a! dead! brother! is! shown! to! be! another! attempt! at! mainting! power,! used! moreover! to! castrate! Harold! (Tab! Hunter),! the! most! vulnerable! of! the! three! brothers! and! the! one! who! harbors! dreams! of! escape.! The! Bridges!family!embodies!the!protestant!ethic!gone!to!seed,!every!member!of!the!family!is! defined! by! their! capacity! to! earn! and! in! the! absence! of! a! strong! patriarch,! is! ruled! by! a! dictatorial! mother,! whose! hand! is! always! near! the! Bible.! The! film’s! great! blasphemous! moment! comes! when! Teresa! Wright’s! Grace! Bridges! attacks! her! and! “her! wicked,! ugly,! selfish! God”.! This! misotheistic! worldview! is! brought! home! even! further! at! the! end! of! the! film! when! Joe! Sam! (Carl! Switzer)! a! Piute! chief! notes! that! “It’s! the! devil”! which! Harold! thinks! refers! to! the! panther! but! he! replies,! “no! the! world”.! The! world! is! the! devil! and! people!are!led!to!worship!evil!gods,!that!is!the!dark!note!at!the!end!of!Wellman’s!final!major! film,! the! harsh! reality! against! which! any! endeavour! to! survive! and! endure! is! to! be! measured,! and! humanity! in! enduring! it! risks! madness! and! compromise,! an! essential! perspective!on!American!life.! 1.!"WILD!BILL":!WILLIAM!A.!WELLMAN.!Interview!by!Scott!Eyman.!Originally!published!in! Focus&on&Film&#29.!http://filmlinccom.siteprotect.net/fcm/online/wellmanextra.htm! 2.!Wild!Bill!Wellman,!Back!in!the!Saddle.!Bertrand!Tavernier.!L.&A.&Weekly,&April&2009.! http://www.laweekly.com/2009I04I30/filmItv/wildIbillIbackIinItheIsaddle/! 3.!"WILD!BILL":!WILLIAM!A.!WELLMAN.!Interview!by!Scott!Eyman.!Originally!published!in! Focus&on&Film&#29!http://filmlinccom.siteprotect.net/fcm/online/wellmanextra.htm! 4.!The&Men&Who&Made&the&Movies!:!William&A.&Wellman.!Directed!by!Richard!Schickel.!! 5.!Ibid! 6.!"WILD!BILL":!WILLIAM!A.!WELLMAN.!Interview!by!Scott!Eyman.!Originally!published!in! Focus&on&Film&#29!http://filmlinccom.siteprotect.net/fcm/online/wellmanextra.htm! Are&you&scared&of&dying?&& I!hate!to!think!about!it.!Certainly!I!am.!I!don't!want!to!die!now!and!I!didn't!want!to!then.!I! just!didn't!think!about!it!as!much!then!as!I!do!now.!I'm!funny!that!way;!I'm!an!Episcopalian,! supposedly.!I'm!!supposed!to!think!there's!a!God.!I!say!my!prayers!every!night!because!my! mother!always!taught!me!to.! 76! !


NOTES!SUR!WILLIAM!WELLMAN! Bertrand!Tavernier!

& Battleground&(1949)! L’hommage! à! William! Wellman! organisé! dans! le! cadre! du! Festival! du! Grand! Lyon,! fut! un! choc! extraordinaire! pour! beaucoup! de! spectateurs! qui! n’avaient! jamais! vu! une! grande! partie!de!ces!films!ou!les!avaient!seulement!entr’aperçus!à!la!télévision!Ou!bien!vus!dans! des!copies!médiocres,!contretypées,!des!16mm!pourries,!comme!ce!fut!le!cas!pour!moi!avec! Story&of&GI&Joe.!J’étais!alors!passé!à!côté!du!film,!qui!ne!ressemblait!en!rien!à!celui!que!j’ai! découvert!à!Lyon!dans!la!copie!magnifiquement!restaurée!par!Wild!Side.!J’ai!enfin!compris! l’admiration! qu’éprouvait! Samuel! Fuller! qui! le! tenait! pour! le! meilleur! de! guerre,! avec!All& Quiet&on&the&Western&Front.!Durant!la!projection,!je!me!suis!même!dit!que!GI&Joe!dépassait! Fuller!dont!plusieurs!titres!sont!pourtant!épatants,!The&Steel&Helmet,!par!exemple,!grâce!à! un! ton! plus! ouvert,! moins! dogmatique,! des! principes! dramatiques! moins! théâtralisés! 77! !


(j’aime! bien! le! mot! anglais! editorialized).! Et! je! pensais! à! cette! phrase! de! Chesterton! sur! Dickens,!dans!son!admirable!essai!sur!l’auteur!d’Oliver&Twist,!qui!s’applique!tellement!bien! à! GI& Joe! et! aussi! à! de! nombreux! autres! films! de! Wellman!:! «!Il& nous& serait& impossible& d’imaginer&Dickens&dans&une&autre&atmosphère&que&celle&d’un&optimisme&démocratique,&c’est&à& dire& une& confiance& absolue& dans& l’homme& du& commun.!»! C’est! l’héroïsme! quotidien! de! l’homme! du! commun! qui! imprègne! chaque! plan! de! l’admirable! Story& of& GI& Joe.! Cette! chronique! guerrière! ou! les! batailles! sont! gommées! comme! souvent! chez! Wellman.! (il! fait! carrément!l’impasse!sur!la!prise!de!Monte!Cassino,!préférant!se!concentrer!sur!l’attente).!Il! y!a!juste!un!combat!singulier!contre!des!snipers!dans!une!église!en!ruine!(«!drôle!de!lieu! pour!se!tuer!»).!Sinon,!on!lutte!contre!le!froid,!la!pluie!(les!scènes!de!pluie!sont!formidables! chez!Wellman),!cette!mort!qui!rode,!ce!chien!qu’on!héberge.!Mitchum!est!tout!bonnement! admirable,! se! fondant! dans! la! masse! de! ses! soldats,! n’émergeant! du! groupe,! de! la! collectivité!que!pour!parler!du!sentiment!qu’il!a!d’être!un!meurtrier.!Burgess!Meredith!est! inoubliable! en! Ernie! Pyle,! inoubliable! d’humanité,! de! vulnérabilité.! Signalons! qu’on! peut! trouver!ses!chroniques!sur!Amazon!et!j’ai!même!acheté!GI!JOE,!recueil!publié!en!français,! avant!la!chute!de!l’Allemagne!comme!le!mentionne!la!couverture!qui!parle!encore!des!pays! de!l’Axe.! Et! si! le! lien! entre! ces! deux! immenses! cinéastes! à! qui! Lyon! et! l’Institut! Lumière! rendaient! hommage,! Jacques! Becker! et! William! Wellman,! consistait! dans! l’importance,! le! poids! que! prend!chez!eux!«!la!décence!commune!»!(common!decency),!cette!notion!chère!à!Orwell!(!! la!décence!commune!c’est!le!«!sentiment!intuitif!des!choses!qui!ne!doivent!pas!se!faire,!non! seulement! si! l'on! veut! rester! digne! de! sa! propre! humanité,! mais! surtout! si! l'on! cherche! à! maintenir!les!conditions!d'une!existence!quotidienne!véritablement!commune!».)!qui!veut! qu’on!donne!sans!vouloir!obligatoirement!recevoir,!qu’on!prenne!en!compte!la!collectivité,! que!la!notion!de!responsabilité!soit!prise!au!sérieux.!Voilà!deux!cinéastes!intègrent!toutes! ces!notions!(revoyez!Le&Trou,!Antoine&et&Antoinette,!Casques&d'or,!Heroes&For&Sale,!Westward& The& Women,! The& Ox& Bow& Incident,! Island& In& The& Sky)! qui! savent! s’attarder! sur! les! conséquences!d’un!acte,!d’une!action!et!pas!seulement!dramatiser!cette!action.! Durant!le!festival!on!a!pu!voir!ou!revoir!the!Beggars&of&Life,!un!titre!mythique!sur!le!quel!on! a!tous!rêvé,!introuvable!en!DVD,!sinon!dans!des!versions!abrégées!et!fort!mauvaises.!!Et!à! l’arrivée,! une! vraie! déception,! après! une! séquence! d’ouverture! forte! et! prometteuse!:! un! vagabond!(Richard!Arlen)!pénètre!dans!une!maison!pour!trouver!de!la!nourriture!et!tombe! sur!un!cadavre!et!sur!une!jeune!femme!(Louise!Brooks)!qui!l’a!tué.!Ce!point!de!départ,!tiré! d’un!roman!de!Julian!Johnson,!est!malheureusement!développé!de!manière!de!plus!en!plus! conventionnelle! au! fur! et! à! mesure! que! l’histoire! !progresse! avec! l’irruption! d’un! autre! vagabond!que!joue!Wallace!Beery.!Il!y!a!quelques!beaux!plans!de!trains!mais!le!!film!semble! dépourvu! de! vitalité,! d’énergie! réelle! surtout! par! rapport! aux! Wellman! ultérieurs! qui! traitent!des!mêmes!milieux!et!abordent!les!mêmes!sujets!:!Other&Men's&Women!ou!Wild&Boys& 78! !


of&the&Road!par!exemple.!Entretemps,!il!est!vrai,!il!y!a!eu!le!Krach!de!1929,!la!Dépression.!Et! on!sait!que!Wellman!se!sentit!étouffé,!bridé!à!la!Paramount!même!après!le!succès!de!Wings.! On!le!sent!plus!libre!à!la!Warner.!Louise!Brooks,!pas!très!bien!filmée!ni!utilisée!(elle!garda! un!mauvais!souvenir!du!tournage)!se!révèle!moins!convaincante!que!Dorothy!Coonan!dans! Wild!Boys.!Et!le!dernier!tiers!du!scénario!est!vraiment!conventionnel.! Wings! en! revanche,! est! l’un! de! ces! rares! classiques! où! tout! ce! qui! l’a! rendu! célèbre! à! l’époque,! lui! permettant! de! remporter! le! premier! Oscar! comme! Meilleur! film! (sans! être! nommé! à! la! réalisation)! paraît! aujourd’hui! aussi! excitant,! vivant!:! toutes! les! scènes! de! guerre,! y! compris! les! plans! sur! les! tranchées,! l’infanterie! et! surtout! les! combats! aériens! bien! sur,! qui! n’ont! guère! été! égalés.! On! comprend! les! différentes! tactiques,! les! ruses,! les! pièges.! On! partage! les! angoisses,! l’exaltation! des! pilotes! sans! que! cela! brouille! le! sens! du! film.!Wellman!(que!l’on!voit!brièvement!en!fantassin,!dans!le!dernier!combat!où!il!est!tué!en! lançant! que! ces& vautours& sont& assez& bons)! veut! montrer! simultanément! l’excitation! et! l’horreur,!le!côté!épique!et!la!brutalité!et!sa!conclusion!est!sans!ambiguïté.!Ce!message!anti! guerre! est! bien! dans! l’air! du! temps! et! s’accorde! avec! la! montée! de! l’isolationnisme.! Ces! séquences!étaient!souvent!bruitées!par!les!exploitants!de!cinéma!qui!les!projetaient.!Toute! aussi! mythique! est! l’irruption! de! Gary! Cooper! qui! devient! une! star! en! quelques! plans.! Visuellement!le!film!reste!!splendide!avec!une!impressionnante!photo!de!Harry!Perry.!Il!y!a! notamment! une! scène! avec! Richard! Arlen! et! la! charmante! Jobyna! Ralston! dans! un! de! ses! rares! rôles! sans! Harold! Lloyd.! En! train! de! se! balancer.! La!! caméra! est! attachée! à! la! balançoire.!On!voit!Buddy!Rogers!arriver!dans!le!lointain.!La!balançoire!s’arrête!et!la!jeune! femme!court!vers!le!nouvel!arrivant!tandis!que!la!caméra!reste!en!gros!plan!sur!Arlen.!Il!y!a! plusieurs!moments!aussi!forts!dans!cette!partie!sentimentale!qui!a!été!un!peu!injustement! décriée.! La! fin! est! tout! à! fait! émouvante! jusque! dans! la! manière! dont! le! survivant! réalise! que!le!bonheur!était!à!portée!de!main.!Et!Clara!Bow!est!excellente,!vive!et!nuancée.! Les!films!sociaux!de!Wellman!comptent!parmi!les!plus!radicaux,!les!plus!lyriques,!les!plus! violents! du! genre.! Hal! Wallis! fit! couper! plusieurs! plans! de! Wild& Boys& of& The& Road! qu'il! jugeait! insupportables! pour! le! public! et! qui! pour! Wellman! traduisaient! la! réalité! de! la! Dépression.! Les! courses! des! bandes! d'enfants! autour! des! trains,! spectaculaires! et! poignantes,! la! manière! dont! un! des! trois! héros! perd! sa! jambe! (les! plans! sont! impressionnants)!surclassent!l'œuvre!dont!les!auteurs!se!sont!inspirés!:!le&chemin&de&la&vie! de!Nikolas!Ekk.!La!fin!que!Wellman!trouvait!mièvre!passe!remarquablement!bien,!grIace!au! naturel! des! comédiens! et! même! le! discours! de! la! fin! évite! le! sentimentalisme! Et! même,! audace! suprême,! on! entend! prononcer! le! mot! communisme.! Certes,! dans! le! magnifique! Heroes& for& Sale,! le! personnage! du! marxiste! est! récupéré! par! le! Système! et! Richard! Barhelmess!tente!de!s'opposer!à!la!grève.!Mais!Wellman!nous!montre,!outre!une!répression! sauvage! durant! laquelle! Loretta! Young! trouve! la! mort! (superbe! mouvement! de! caméra! à! travers!la!foule,!très!moderne),!les!milices!policières!qui!font!la!chasse!aux!rouges!et!cela!de! 79! !


manière!très!critique.!À!ma!connaissance,!c'est!l'un!des!seuls!films!qui!y!fassent!allusion.!Le! dénouement!refuse!toute!concession.! Dans!Other&Men's&Women,!autre!remarquable!réussite!à!l'énergie,!la!vitalité!confondante,!le! découpage! intègre! les! extérieurs! réels,! les! éléments! de! la! vie! quotidienne! aux! péripéties! scénaristiques,! piétine! règles! et! conventions,! ce! qui! nous! vaut! un! ton,! un! style! proche! de! Renoir.!La!première!séquence,!un!marivaudage!dans!un!bar,!est!entièrement!rythmée!par!le! passage!réel!d'un!train!qui!lui!donne!sa!durée,!le!mécanicien!comptant!les!wagons!tout!en! baratinant!la!fille!et!en!buvant!son!café!avant!de!sauter!sur!le!dernier!fourgon.!Encore!plus! remarquable,!une!dispute!sur!une!voie!ferrée!est!filmée!en!un!seul!plan.!Lorsque!la!jeune! fille!s'éloigne!et!sort!du!champ,!Wellman!reste!sur!l'homme!qui!continue!à!crier,!de!plus!en! plus!fort,!sa!fiancée!lui!répondant!off.!James!Cagney!y!est!une!fois!encore!génial.!Son!entrée! dans! le! film! est! foudroyante.! L’inondation! finale! intègre! avec! brio! maquettes! et! décors! réels,!le!suicide!de!l’un!des!personnages!devient!un!grand!moment!tragique.! Et!j’ai!enfin!pu!voir!Midnight&Mary!dont!la!première!partie!est!brillante.!Wellman!accumule! les!idées,!dynamise!une!narration!plus!conventionnelle!(c’est!un!film!MGM!et!non!Warner)! même!s’il!abuse!comme!toujours!des!gags!un!peu!lourds!Loretta!Young!est!exquise.!On!la! voit! lire! «!la! vie! de! Madame! Récamier!»! et! elle! porte! une! robe! dont! le! décolleté! révèle,! comme!le!dit!Franchot!Tone,!«!!the!most!tasty!back!in!town!».! Westerns! Au& delà& du& Missouri! est! vraiment! un! film! très! original! et! personnel,! qui! reste! largement! méconnu! !à! la! fois! imparfait! et! impressionnant,! Dans! son! utilisation! de! paysages,! des! extérieurs,! somptueux! et! magnifiquement! filmé.! Dans! ses! partis! pris,! notamment!! la! volonté!de!faire!parler!tous!les!indiens!dans!leur!langue!des!décennies!avant!Danse&avec&les& loups.!Et!!en!augmentant!la!difficulté!parce!que!Wellman!ajoute!le!français!que!parlent!les! trappeurs!canadiens.!Adolphe!Menjou,!qui!joue!Pierre,!passe!plus!de!la!moitié!de!son!rôle! soit! à! parler! français! soit! à! traduire! ce! que! disent! les! indiens! dans! l’une! ou! l’autre! des! langues.!Il!est!en!effet!le!traducteur!de!Gable,!lequel!ne!peut!communiquer!sans!lui!ou!sans! un!autre!interprète!avec!les!chefs!indiens!ou!sa!future!épouse.!Autres!détails!pittoresques,! John!Hodiak,!un!trappeur!censé!connaître!plusieurs!dialectes,!a!de!nombreuses!tirades!en! «!pied!noir!»!et!tout!le!monde!chante!Alouette,&gentille&alouette!en!français!(quand!vient!le! tour! de! Gable,! il! a! un! accent! énorme,! mais! qui! est!! justifié)! On! imagine! la! perplexité! des! dirigeants! du! studio! devant! ces! échanges!! qui! nécessitent! tous! des! sousItitres.! On! sent! d’ailleurs! que! le! film! a! été! remonté! et! coupé! (il! ne! dure! que! 76! minutes)! et! affublé! d’un! commentaire!hyper!insistant!qui!ne!colle!pas!avec!le!style!dépouillé,!elliptique!(sauf!dans! les!séquences!comiques)!de!Wellman.!Je!suis!sûr!que!cette!voixIoff!a!été!conçue!au!montage! et! elle! est! souvent! pléonastique,! soulignant! des! détails! qu’on! a! compris.! Comme! dans! 80! !


Convoi&de&femmes,!Wellman!laisse!de!côté!certains!moments!qui!se!déroulent!en!partie!hors! champ!ou!sont!brusquement!coupés!ou!traités!en!quelques!secondes,!ce!qui!provoque!une! incompréhension! chez! certains! internautes! qui! regrettent! le! morceau! de! bravoure! traditionnel!auquel!ils!s’attendaient.!Je!ne!crois!pas!que!ce!soit!dans!ces!moments!là!que!le! film!a!été!mutilé!car!ils!semblent!en!symbiose!avec!d’autres!scènes!dans!de!nombreux!films! du! cinéaste! mais! plutôt! dans! sa! construction! et! on! aimerait! bien! qu’une! institution! quelconque!se!mette!à!la!recherche!du!montage!original.!Gable!est!remarquable!et!souvent! touchant.!Je!voudrais!bien!savoir!ce!qui!s’est!vraiment!passé!au!montage.!J’ai!lu!que!le!film! avait!été!autant!mutilé!que!Red&Badge&of&Courage!de!Huston.!Il!reste!néanmoins!un!grand! nombre! de! plans! superbes.! Le! combat! final! entre! Gable! et! Ricardo! Montalban! est! impressionnant!et!l’intrusion!de!la!violence!souvent!surprenante.!

! Au&delà&du&Missouri/Across&the&Wide&Missouri!(1951)! Quel! plaisir! !de! revoir! un! film! qu’on! a! adoré! à! 18! ans! et! de! constater! qu’il! est! encore! meilleur!que!dans!votre!souvenir.!C’est!le!cas!de!Westward&The&Women&(Convoi&de&femmes).! Il!s’agit!d’un!des!chefs!d’œuvres!de!Wellman!et!!du!western.!Il!prend!le!contreIpied!d’une! des!audaces!d’OxGBow&Incident.!À!la!quasiIabsence!de!femmes,!il!substitue!au!contraire!une! pléthore!de!personnages!féminins!décrits!avec!le!minimum!de!sentimentalisme,!réduit!de! manière! drastique! le! rôle! des! hommes,! à! l’exception! de! John! McIntire,! excellent,! du! 81! !


savoureux!personnage!du!cuisinier!japonais!et!de!Robert!Taylor.!Ce!dernier!est!!utilisé!ici! de! manière! très! convaincante! (ses! plans! de! réaction! quand! il! découvre! les! femmes! sont! cadrés! avec! une! grande! intelligence).! On! retrouve! magnifiées,! toutes! les! qualités! de! Wellman! –! ton! dépouillé,!direction! d’acteurs! et! d’actrices! extrêmement! sobre! (Denise! Darcel,! très! sensuelle,! est! excellente! tout! comme! la! gigantesque! Hope! Emerson),! travail! impressionnant!sur!les!paysages!–!toutes!les!figures!stylistiques!ou!narratives!qui!portent! sa! marque! :! longs! travellings! qui! suivent! deux! cavaliers! de! dos,! plongées! spectaculaires.! J’avais! gardé! depuis! la! première! vision! au! California,! un! souvenir! vivace! des! plus! beaux! plans!et!de!certaines!séquences!!:!les!survivantes!lançant!les!noms!des!femmes!qui!ont!péri,! noms!que!l’écho!reprend,!la!mort!d’un!enfant,!filmé!de!façon!foudroyante.!J’ai!redécouvert! des! moments! comme! cet! accouchement! dans! un! chariot! que! les! femmes! soutiennent.! Séquence! ultra! wellmanienne! montrant! que! l’individu! doit! se! fondre! dans! la! collectivité.! L’action!est!souvent!traitée!hors!champ!:!une!bagarre!très!importante!est!!aux!trois!quarts! occultée! derrière! des! chariots,! des! obstacles! divers!;! l’attaque! des! Indiens! qu’on! attend! depuis! le! début! se! déroule! hors! champ.! Robert! Taylor! et! Denise! Darcel! l’entendent,! mais! arrivent!trop!tard.!Wellman!privilégie,!ici!comme!ailleurs,!les!conséquences!d’une!action!:! ces! panoramiques! qui! recadrent! les! femmes! qui! ont! été! tuées.! Et,! cerise! sur! le! gâteau,! ce! western!bénéficie!d’une!absence!quasi!totale!de!musique,!décision!évidente!de!metteur!en! scène.! ! Le!nom!de!Wellman!apparaît!au!dessus!du!titre!dans!Island&in&the&Sky!et!The&High&and&the& Mighty.!Le!premier!est!un!projet!très!personnel,!qu’il!initia.!C’est!lui!qui!alla!donner!le!livre! à! Wayne! et! le! convainquit! de! faire! le! film! qui! est! d’ailleurs! très! wellmanien! dans! sa! sobriété,! sa! nudité! dramatique,! vraiment! efficace! et! intéressante! (l’atterrissage! forcé! de! l’avion! est! ellipsé,! Wellman! ne! filmant! que! les! visages! de! Wayne! et! de! l’équipage),! cet! hérïsme!quotidien.!La!description!du!petit!groupe!qui!les!recherche!nous!vaut!certaines!des! meilleures! scènes! du! film.! Andy! Devine! notamment! est! assez! épatant! et! inhabituellement! sobre.! La! manière! très! neutre! dont! il! balance! ses! répliques,! sans! aucune! expression,! est! originale!et!souvent!cocasse.!Toutes!les!séquences!de!groupes!évitent!le!préchi!prêcha!et!on! ressent!fortement!la!camaraderie!qui!unit!ces!hommes.!Comme!le!dit!bien!Leonard!Maltin,! le! film! frappe! par! son! absence! de! cynisme,! de! calcul,! d’astuces.! Wayne! est! très! bon! et! se! fond!dans!la!collectivité!(il!est!excellent!aussi!dans!The&High&and&the&Mighty!malgré!le!script! démodé).! ! Le! film! pèche! curieusement! par! ses! extérieurs! (sauf! les! magnifiques! plans! aériens! photographiés!par!William!Clothier,!le!reste!du!film!est!dû!à!Archie!Stout!comme!High)!et! certaines!scènes!avec!la!neige,!tout!comme!Track&of&the&Cat&(1954)!manquent!de!force.!!The& High&and&the&Mighty!annonce!tous!les!films!catastrophe!avec!un!avion!qui!prend!feu!où!se! trouvent!autant!de!cas!sociaux!que!de!personnages!et!on!peut!trouver!cet!échantillonnage! 82! !


kitsch! ou! accablant.! Détail! curieux! :! on! demande! l’âge! de! chaque! passager! avant! de! l’enregistrer,!je!me!demande!bien!pourquoi.! The&Iron&Curtain!se!révèle!une!relative!bonne!surprise!qui!échappe!à!beaucoup!de!ridicules! inhérents!aux!films!de!propagande!anti!rouges.!Détail!intéressant!et!original,!il!n'y!a!aucun! Américain! dans! ce! film,! l'histoire! se! passant! au! Canada.! !Les! personnages,! bien! que! très! typés,! échappent! relativement! à! la! caricature!! et! ce! qu'ils! disent! paraît! logique,! plausible,! certains!comme!cet!officier!!que!joue!pas!mal!Eduard!Franz,!est!filmé!avec!sympathie!et!se! révèle!assez!touchant!(il!est!vrai!qu'il!est!en!train!de!renier!l'idéologie!marxiste,!effrayé!par! les!effets!dévastateurs!de!la!bombe).!La!photographie!est!soignée!et!privilégie!adroitement! les! contre! jours.! !Surprise! relative! parce! que! le! récit! repose! lourdement! sur! la! sempiternelle!voix!off!qui!souligne!tous!les!rebondissements!et,!à!la!fin,!clame!les!bienfaits! de! la! démocratie.! La! première! moitié! du! film,! qui! traite! de! la! défection! d'Igor! Gouzenko,! manque! de! tension,! le! suspense! étant! sacrifié! à! un! ton! pseudo! objectif.! Une! notation! amusante!pourtant!:!le!personnage!qui!garde!l'endroit!où!travaille!Dana!Andrews!doit!sans! cesse! jouer! de! la! musique! classique,! ce! qu'il! déteste! (on! entend! des! extraits! de! tous! les! compositeurs! russes! de! l'époque! ce! qui! donna! lieu! à! un! procès! retentissant,! les! droits! n’ayant!pas!été!payés).!Dans!la!deuxième!partie,!les!choses!s'améliorent,!notamment!quand! Dana!Andrews,!ayant!décidé!de!passer!à!l'Ouest,!tente!vainement!d'intéresser,!voire!même! de! rencontrer! le! ministre! de! la! Justice,! des! fonctionnaires,! des! journalistes.! On! le! prend! pour! un! fou! ou! un! affabulateur.! On! frôle! là! un! sujet! passionnant! qui! n'est! pas! malheureusement!pas!!développé!à!sa!juste!valeur.!La!mise!en!scène!de!Wellman!est!plus! incisive! et! utilise! adroitement! certains! décors! :! les! rues,! les! escaliers! qui! unissent! deux! immeubles.! Le! couple! Gene! Tierney/Dana! Andrews! (ce! dernier! peu! vraisemblable! en! Russe)!est!ici!assez!terne.!Subdued!comme!disent!les!laudateurs!du!film.!

83! !


SCRAPS!OF!WELLMAN!#1! Haphazard!notes,!or!an!attempt!to!remember!some!of!the!details,!from!a!screening!of! Young&Eagles!(1930)!on!35mm!at!Film!Forum!on!2/27/12!

84! !


PUBLIC!ENEMY!(1931):!! THE!FILM!THAT!DIDN'T!STOP!FOR!DEATH!! Maximilian!Le!Cain! The&Public&Enemy’s!famously!terse,!understatedly!blunt!style!culminates!in!a!truly!chilling! flourish,!with!the!delivery!of!gangster!Tom!Power’s!(James!Cagney)!murdered!corpse!to!his! family! home.! Power’s! nonIcriminal! brother! Mike! (Donald! Cook)! has! been! informed! by! anonymous!phonecall!that!Tom,!kidnapped!while!in!hospital!with!gunshot!wounds,!will!be! returned! to! the! family.! Having! just! sent! his! mother! (Beryl! Mercer)! upstairs! to! prepare! Tom’s!bed,!the!agitated!Mike!walks!rapidly!towards!the!camera,!framed!wide!with!the!front! door!in!the!background!directly!behind!him.!As!he!has!almost!reached!the!camera,!there!is! a!knock!on!the!door.!He!turns!around!and!walks!eagerly!away!from!the!camera!to!open!it.! Already,!this!is!a!very!strangely!designed!scene.!Rather!than!the!lateral!pacing!movement! one!might!conventionally!expect!from!the!anxious!brother!as!part!of!a!traditional!buildIup! of!suspense,!Wellman!has!the!knock!come!too!soon,!interrupting!the!brother’s!determined,! yet!apparently!unmotivated!forward!passage.!The!scene!keeps!well!ahead!of!expectation.! Mike!opens!the!door!and,!without!warning,!the!atmosphere!and!imagery!become!those!of!a! horror!film.!Tom’s!body,!bandaged,!blanketed,!trussed,!mummyIlike,!falls!forward!heavily! and! fast,! unceremoniously! flat! on! his! face,! just! like! that,! in! a! couple! of! low! angles.! It! falls! from! the! featureless! black! void! outside! through! the! front! door! into! the! cozy! home.! Becoming! the! register! of! our! shock,! Mike! kneels! by! Tom.! Then! he! looks! up! towards! the! stairs,!towards!Tom’s!room!where!his!mother!is!making!Tom’s!bed,!struck!by!the!terrible! effect! this! death! will! no! doubt! have! on! her.! A! straightforward! enough! behavioral! progression.! But! the! timing! is! anything! but! what! we! might! expect.! Instead! of! being! given! the!space!to!brood!over!his!dead!brother,!the!thought!of!his!mother!hits!him!like!a!shock,! interrupting! the! conventional! reverie! just! as! the! knock! on! the! door! interrupted! and! curtailed!the!expected!wait!for!Tom’s!arrival.!! The!next!shot!is!of!the!mother!upstairs,!singing!to!herself!as!she!makes!Tom’s!bed,!happy!in! the! expectation! of! his! imminent! arrival.! Again,! a! commonplace! progression! in! the! visual! narrative!with!the!audience!painfully!aware!of!the!happy!woman’s!loss,!which!she!has!yet! to!discover.!But!Wellman’s!staging!and!pacing!again!throw!us.!Nothing!in!the!framing!hints! of!a!moment!out!of!the!ordinary.!The!shot!is!brief!for!its!emotional!context,!and!is!basically! a!simple!depiction!of!a!woman!engaged!in!a!mundane!task.!And,!most!strikingly,!she!keeps! moving!throughout.!! ! 85! !


The!return!to!Mike!is!like!a!plunge!into!German!Expressionism.!The!pallid,!longIfaced,!blackI suited!brother!crouches!next!to!the!dead!gangster,!framed!in!a!low!angle,!his!face!a!mask!of! numb! horror.! Yet,! oddly,! he! doesn’t! look! at! the! corpse.! He! looks! past! the! camera,! into! the! house.!And!then!he!gets!up!and!walks!into!the!house,!following!the!direction!he!was!taking! before!the!knock!on!the!door,!his!feet!passing!by!the!camera,!almost!stepping!over!it.!In!the! background,! his! dead! brother! is! lying! face! down! and,! behind! that,! the! door! is! open! on! the! night!like!an!open!grave.!Astonishingly,!Wellman!gives!us!no!closeIup!of!the!dead!man.!And!if,! in!this!very!stylised!shot,!Wellman!appears!to!be!at!last!giving!us!something!like!the!moment! of!suspended!contemplation!we!have!been!expecting,!he!undercuts!it!with!the!film’s!next!and! last!shot,!a!contrastingly!mundane!image!of!a!record!coming!to!an!end.!The!tune!from!this! record!player!has!underscored!the!whole!scene,!a!languid!recording!of!‘I’m!Forever!Blowing! Bubbles’.!No!other!music!is!ladled!in!to!augment!it.!! The& Public& Enemy& doesn’t! stop! for! death.! Mike! moves! to! meet! Tom,! their! mother! moves! while!making!the!bed,!then!Mike!moves!away!from!Tom,!stunned!but!having!barely!looked! on! his! brother.! In! fact,! no! more! than! Wellman’s! camera! did.! Stylised,! horror! film! compositions!alternate!seamlessly!with!the!most!calmly!observational!shots!of!dayItoIday! goings! on.! And! the! astonishing! boldness! of! this! stylistic! juxtaposition! is! collapsed! by! the! calmly! relentless! pace! of! the! shots! and! the! blandness! of! the! diegetic! music.! There! is! no! catharsis;!the!film!itself!is!in!shock,!unable!to!absorb!the!event!it!has!witnessed.!Hence!the! stylistic! flickering! between! ‘normality’! and! expressionism,! between! disbelief! and! despair.! Unlike!Walsh’s!The&Roaring&Twenties!(1939),!which!absorbs!the!Cagney!character’s!death! with! high! ceremony! (fond! words,! pseudoIreligious! imagery,! sweeping! musical! score,! transcending!high!angle),!Wellman’s!film!remains!brutally!unreconciled!with!the!event.!All! it!can!do!is!dumbly!keep!moving...!More!than!eighty!years!after!it!was!made,!it!remains!one! of!the!most!visceral!kicks!in!the!gut!cinema!has!to!offer!its!viewers.!

86! !


NIGHT!NURSE!(1931):! HELL!ON!A!MATCH! David!Phelps! !

! ! William! Wellman! was! the! Depression’s! Balzac,! sloppy,! blunt,! and! virtuosic! in! bit! assemblages!of!scene!detail!played!for!brass!refrain!—!curfews;!broken!blinds;!food!lines;! counting!train!cars;!boys!crossIdressing!into!15!cent!school!dances;!a!line!of!desertIisland! hoodlums!in!smoking!jackets,!uncrossing!legs!in!turn!as!a!blonde!descends!a!staircase!into! a! horizon! line! of! their! crotches! —! in! service! of! genre! storyIarcs,! tales! of! ingénues! hazed! into! corrupt! big! society,! and! the! overriding! idea! that! one’s! relationship! with! others! is! a! miniature! of! one’s! relationship! with! society! as! a! whole.! Where! Wellman’s! fairy! tales! theoretically! tell! of! doeIeyes! romantics! (often! city! girls! marrying! country! boys! via! the! personals! ad,! or! a! drunken! night)! confronted! with! the! harsh! realities! of! capitalist! exploitation,! Wellman,! no! more! a! realist! or! expressionist! than! Balzac! or! a! vaudeville! act,! tends!to!reItip!the!scales!by!emphasizing!the!lead’s!terrier!practicality,!ready!to!cope!with! the!scene!detail,!and!the!societyImen’s!oneItrack!sadism!and!(often)!devilish!foppishness,! like!drunken!abstractions!of!basest!instincts.!At!his!best,!most!gleeful,!Wellman!traces!the! 87! !


descents!of!broke,!gumIchewing,!altogether!relatable!characters!into!closed!circles!of!Hell:! an! isolated! farmhouse,! a! soup! kitchen! pensionIhouse,! a! tumbledown! banana! bar,! and! in!Night&Nurse,!an!art!deco!penthouse,!bound!from!daylight,!with!rickety!drunks!scattered! on! the! tiled! floor! and! making! out! to! stay! standing,! a! Fats! WallerIlike! stomp! on! perpetual! loop!in!the!background,!and!two!kids!in!a!backroom!nursery!slowly!being!murdered.! The! genre,! whatever! it! is,! is! a! form! to! sendIup! America! and! detail! the! professional! friendship! of! two! nurses,! Barbara! Stanwyck! and! Joan! Blondell,! who! spent! the! decade! off! and! on! playing! hardnosed! girls! who! had! seen! it! all! until! the! plot! of! their! new! picture.! Hawks! would! emerge! as! the! most! famous! proponent! of! the! WB! ethos! that! collaborative,! physical! labor! is! the! true! conduit! to! and! application! of! emotional! bonds,! friendships! and! affairs!—!two!people!working!through!the!conflicts!of!the!plot!as!proof!of!their!attachment! to! each! other.! But! Hawks’! emphasis! on! people! despite! the! world! is! very! different! from! Wellman’s! (and! Walsh’s)! of! people! against! the! world! —! or! of! girls,! complicit! in! the! economy,!glad!to!wring!it!for!what!it’s!worth.!Whatever!Wellman’s!appropriation!of!reality! for!the!sake!of!a!scene,!his!“realism”!is!of!people!so!cartoonishly!clearIeyed!as!to!make!of! history! whatever! it! will! offer! them,! usually! not! much:! “All! a! wife! means! to! an! intern! is! someone!to!sit!in!his!front!office!when!he!starts!practice,!and!play!nursemaid!the!rest!of!her! life!without!pay…!the!thing!to!do!is!to!land!an!appendicitis!case!—!they’ve!all!got!dough.”! “Yeah?”! ! ***! The&following&article&originally&appeared&in&The&L&Magazine,!June&10,&2010.&Our&special& thanks&to&Henry&Stewart&and&The!L!Mag.!

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HEROES!FOR!SALE!(1933)! Kent!Jones! !

!

! ! Perhaps!the!most!notable!aspect!of!Heroes&for&Sale,!one!of!the!most!exciting!films!of!an!era! in!moviemaking!that!grows!fresher!with!each!passing!minute,!is!the!simple!fact!that!it!is!a! 71Iminute! epic,! shifting! deftly! from! a! French! battlefield! to! a! German! hospital! to! a! small! Midwestern!town!to!a!Chicago!lunch!counter!to!a!prison!stretch!to!a!hobo’s!life!on!the!road.! The!terrible!progress!of!Tom!Holmes!(Richard!Barthelmess),!a!modernIday!Job,!starts!with! a! German! bullet! in! the! spine.! He’s! left! for! dead! by! his! cowardly! friend! and! commander! Roger!(Gordon!Westcott),!who!steals!credit!for!Tom’s!heroic!action.!Morphine!addiction!is! followed!by!public!exposure!and!ruin,!an!obligatory!placement!on!a!narcotics!farm!and!the! death!of!Tom’s!mother.!He!enjoys!a!brief!interval!of!happiness!in!Chicago,!where!he!meets!a! good!woman!named!Ruth!(a!genuinely!luminous!Loretta!Young)!and,!with!the!help!of!his! friend! Max! (Robert! Barratt),! an! inventor,! and! his! kindly! employer! (Grant! Mitchell),! improves! conditions! at! the! laundry! service! where! he! works;! all! of! which! is! quickly! and! violently!reversed!when!the!business!is!bought!by!a!ruthless!industrialist!(Edwin!Maxwell)! 89! !


who! fires! Tom! and! most! of! his! coIworkers! and! retrofits! Max’s! machine! for! increased! automated!efficiency,!prompting!a!riot!in!which!Ruth!is!killed!and!where!Tom!is!mistakenly! arrested!and!convicted!as!an!instigator.!The!day!he!returns!home!from!prison,!he!is!visited! by!the!Red!Squad!and!eventually!hounded!out!of!town.!He!refuses!the!small!fortune!he!has! earned!from!his!coIownership!of!the!patent!on!Max’s!invention,!and!insists!that!it!be!used! for!his!son!and!for!the!maintenance!of!a!soup!kitchen!run!by!his!beloved!friend!Mary!(Aline! MacMahon)!and!her!father!(Charley!Grapewin).!The!last!we!see!of!Tom,!he!and!his!fellow! Forgotten! Men! (now! including! Roger)! are! cleared! out! of! their! temporary! shelter! by! railroad!detectives!and!sent!back!on!the!road.!! ! The!action!is!covered!in!a!brisk!parade!of!scenes!conceived!on!the!page!in!wonderfully!visual! terms! —! for! instance,! a! blind! veteran! (played! by! The& Crowd’s& James! Murray)! asks! a! tin! battlefield!hero!to!put!his!Distinguished!Service!Cross!in!his!hand!so!he!can!“sort!of!touch!it,”! and!the!medal!is!then!accidentally!passed!by!handshake!to!Tom,!the!real!hero.!This!compact! storytelling! is! executed! by! William! Wellman! and! his! crew! in! vivid! strokes! and! a! graphic! shorthand!that!is!often!electrifying.!“The!framing!is!pure!Dick&Tracy,”!wrote!Manny!Farber!in! the!notes!for!a!1980!MoMA!lecture.!The!film!in!question!was!Night&Nurse,!a!Wellman!film!from! the!previous!year,!but!Farber’s!observation!applies!to!Heroes&and!almost!every!one!of!the!18! films! Wellman! made! between! 1931! and! 1933.! Unlike! many! preIcode! directors! (like! Walsh,! who! stops! Wild& Girl& dead! in! its! tracks! for! a! Eugene! Pallette! monologue! with! animal! impressions),!Wellman!rarely!lingers!over!beloved!“business”!or!fawns!over!such!physiological! curiosities!as!Guy!Kibbee’s!glowing!cheeks!or!Ned!Sparks’!bulging!eyes.!He!works!during!this! hairIraisingly!prolific!moment!in!his!career!with!an!astonishing!creative!decisiveness,!as!if!he! were! designing,! carpentering,! wiring! and! painting! his! own! house! in! one! fluid! gesture.! The! lunch!counter!and!its!adjoining!“Poor!Mens’!Club”!are!introduced!in!a!neat!series!of!pans!from! the!street!looking!in,!followed!by!a!succession!of!the!driest!gags!—!under!a!sign!that!reads!“No! Religious! Discussions! Allowed! Here,”! Dewey! Robinson! badgers! a! bespectacled! man! with! a! stem!pipe!about!whether!he’s!ever!seen!an!angel!or!known!anyone!who!has;!under!“Have!You! Written! Home! to! Mother?”! a! Henry! B.! Walthall! type! appears! to! be! writing! a! letter,! his! bedraggled!face!seemingly!absorbed!in!emotional!identification!—!cut!to!his!hand!drawing!a! picture! of! a! naked! showgirl! followed! by! a! return! to! his! visage,! an! offIhanded! allIAmerican! reprisal! of! the! Kuleshov! experiment.! Throughout! the! film,! each! element! in! Barthelmess’! physiognomy!I!his!creased!and!flattened!face,!his!slit!for!a!mouth!that!arcs!up!at!the!left!in!sync! with!his!right!eyebrow!at!moments!of!distress,!his!stiff!reactive!hunching!(suggesting!a!body!as! damaged! as! that! of! his! director),! his! apparently! genuine! humility! –! are! employed! with! the! greatest! economy! for! graphic! effect.! Barthlemess! was! 5”! 9’,! but! he! appeared! to! be! a! much! shorter! man,! and! many! scenes! feature! shotIcounterIshot! schemes! based! on! height! –! Barthelmess! looking! up! from! a! seated! position! as! he! speaks! to! the! German! doctor,! looking! down!at!his!trusting!mother!after!she!has!almost!walked!in!on!him!taking!morphine,!looking!up! from!a!seated!position!at!Young!and!MacMahon!and!then!down!at!them!when!he!stands.!! 90! !


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! This! preoccupation! with! height,! nothing! very! fussy! or! pointed,! is! less! a! matter! of! power! relations! than! individual! selfIesteem,! wellIbeing,! the! feeling! of! being! small,! cast! out,! and! then! lifted! up! by! good! luck! or! love,! and! it! is! a! constant! with! Wellman,! from! Barthelmess! through! Paul! Kelly’s! drunken! scientist! in! The& High& and& the& Mighty.! In! one! of! the! sharpest! passages!in!Heroes,!Barthelmess!pays!a!last!visit!to!his!parents’!graves!on!a!severely!sloping! hill,!an!image!of!poignant,!aching!aloneness.! ! If!you!stick!to!the!enshrined,!AFI!version!of!Wellman’s!career!–!Wings&to!The&Public&Enemy! to!A&Star&Is&Born&to!Nothing&Sacred!to!The&OxGBow&Incident&to!The&Story&of&G.I.&Joe&to!The&High& and&the&Mighty,!with!brief!stops!for!the!amputationIbyItrain!in!Wild&Boys&of&the&Road!and! the!color!scheme!of!Track&of&the&Cat!–!you!miss!the!man!who!gave!us!this!tough,!vivacious,! springIloaded!movie!and!its!immediate!neighbors,!the!best!of!which!(Other&Men’s&Women,& Night&Nurse,&Central&Airport,&Frisco&Jenny,&Midnight&Mary,&Wild&Boys)!are!motorized!by!the! Depression! and! its! horrors.! The! best! moments! in! cinema! are! responses! to! crises! and! upheavals! whose! effects! loom! so! large! that! they! effectively! become! coIcreators,! in! many! cases! elevating! filmmakers! by! compelling! them! to! respond! urgently,! creatively,! and! honestly.!Bob!Rafelson!in!the!precarious!and!unmoored!early!70s!is!a!master,!and!beyond! that!a!careful,!slightly!nervous!craftsman!with!an!interesting!temperament.!Alfred!E.!Green,! who! made! Smart& Money,& Union& Depot,& and! Baby& Face,! is! nowhere! outside! of! the! preIcode! pocket.! Wellman! never! stopped! making! good! movies,! but! the! extreme! conditions! of! the! Depression!years!coupled!with!the!frankness!about!sex,!repressive!power,!and!money!that! was!possible!before!the!imposition!of!the!code,!placed!him!at!a!level!and!a!pace!that!seem! justly!aligned!with!his!legendarily!“wild”!temperament.!In!those!early!30s!films,!Wellman’s! pull! toward! heroic! action! and! martyrdom! is! tempered! by! his! feeling! for! the! shock! of! violence,!whether!physical!(the!aforementioned!amputation!in!Wild&Boys,!Loretta!Young’s! genuinely!horrifying!death!in!Heroes,!and,!earlier!in!the!film,!Barthelmess!being!flipped!on! his!stomach!by!German!orderlies!who!want!to!get!a!look!at!the!shrapnel!embedded!in!his! spine)!or!emotional!(Regis!Toomey’s!hurt!when!he!realizes!that!his!wife!and!his!best!buddy! have! been! carrying! on! in! Other& Men’s& Women,! the! wrenching! exchanges! between! Barthelmess! and! Westcott).! The! domestic! universe! became! a! stronghold! of! virtue,! good! 91! !


cheer!and!mindingIyourImanners!in!postIcode!cinema,!no!matter!which!studio!or!director,! but! it! has! a! special! tang,! sass,! and! vulgar! warmth! in! Wellman’s! preIcode! movies,! Other& Men’s&Women!in!particular.!! ! The!deep!vein!of!sentiment!and!loyalty!in!Wellman!—!fierce!camaraderie!among!friends,!an! evidently! personal! revulsion! at! violations! of! trust! and! justice! —! reverberates! in! the! preI code!movies!against!the!wall!of!institutionalized!indifference,!callousness,!and!exploitation.! Charley! Grapewin,! whose! lunch! counter! owner! in! Heroes& gives! away! his! food! to! the! destitute,! becomes! a! sentimental! doIgooder! in! postIcode! movies,! encrusted! with! several! layers! of! sugar! (a! twinkle! in! his! eye,! a! smile! to! melt! the! coldest! hearts).! In! this! setting,! where! believably! hungry! faces! hover! outside! the! luncheonette! after! the! doors! are! closed,! there! is! a! powerful! sense! of! the! urgency! behind! his! generosity.! Similarly,! the! Red! Squad! plainclothesmen! are! allowed! a! menace! that! would! soon! be! disallowed! in! all! representations! of! law! and! order! and! shifted! exclusively! to! gangsters.! And! MacMahon’s! Mary,!an!old!maidIbyIprofession!in!the!postIcode!era,!is!here!allowed!a!wonderful!yearning! and!a!keen!level!of!selfIawareness!(a!quality!that!would!become!all!but!obsolete!after!the! code).! MacMahon! is! a! fascinating! figure,! a! great! theatre! artist! who! was! stuck! with! a! dispiriting!character!type:!the!spinsterItoIbe!whose!allure!is!quickly!fading.!In!Heroes,!Mary! is! first! glimpsed! through! the! lunch! counter! window! talking! up! the! newly! arrived! Barthelmess.!As!Wellman!zeroes!us!in!on!their!conversation,!we!can!feel!her!flirtatiousness! and!lifting!spirits,!the!sense!that!this!decent!guy!might!just!be!attracted!to!her.!When!she! shows!him!the!room!for!rent!upstairs,!there’s!a!funny,!exciting!moment!–!“I!paid!$15!for!the! mattress! alone,”! she! blurts! out,! and! then! demonstrates! its! resilience! by! bouncing! up! and! down,!somewhere!between!an!unwitting!parody!of!sly!suggestiveness,!a!failed!attempt!at! oblique! flirtation! and! an! awkward! comeIon.! When! Ruth! walks! in! the! room,! she! instantly! magnetizes! Tom’s! attention,! and! the! shift! in! roles! from! possible! bedmate! to! friendly! onlooker!is!instantly!and!painfully!felt.!You!are!left!with!the!sense!of!an!intelligent!woman! desperate! for! companionship! but! absolutely! realistic! about! her! prospects.! The! truly! devastating! moment! comes! later,! when! Mary,! Ruth! and! Tom,! reacting! with! friendly! solidarity! to! Max! the! hectoring! Marxist,! decide! to! go! out! for! a! night! on! the! town! as! a! threesome.!MacMahon!repairs!to!the!adjoining!room!to!change!into!a!festive!flowerIprint! dress!and!a!fancy!wideIbrimmed!hat,!and!the!camera!bears!in!as!she!opens!the!door!and! sees!Barthelmess!and!Young,!arm!in!arm,!gazing!out!the!window,!then!comes!to!a!halt!as! she!gently!closes!the!door!and!calls!to!them!to!go!on!without!her.!The!camera!then!bears!in! closer!as!she!turns!toward!us,!craning!her!neck!down!in!swanlike!sorrow!accentuated!by! the! shadow! of! the! hat! brim,! followed! by! a! quick! fade! to! black.! It’s! a! moment! of! fierce! tenderness!with!an!electric!intensity!often!reserved!for!featured!players.! ! ! & 92! !


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Heroes& for& Sale! is! credited! to! writer/studio! executive/producer! Robert! Lord! and! former! playwright,! real! estate! developer,! restauranteur,! and! con! man! extraordinaire! Wilson! Mizner,! who! would! die! two! months! before! the! film! was! released! at! the! age! of! 56.! The! exploits! of! Mizner! and! his! brother! Addison! on! Broadway,! in! Chicago,! and! up! in! the! gold! fields!of!Alaska!had!already!become!legend!by!the!time!he!was!lured!out!to!the!West!Coast.! Mizner!was!among!the!famously!disenchanted!who!proudly!waved!the!flag!of!disgust!with! Hollywood,! as! he! joyfully! minted! aphorisms! for! the! boys! back! on! Broadway! (such! as:! “Working! for! Warner! Brothers! is! like! fucking! a! porcupine:! it’s! a! hundred! pricks! against! one”).!His!contribution!to!the!screenplays!of!Heroes&for&Sale,&Hard&to&Handle,!and!The&Mind& Reader&were!reportedly!spoken!over!the!lunch!table!at!the!studio!commissary,!where!the! presumably!younger,!healthier,!and!more!enterprising!Lord!acted!as!his!amanuensis.!It’s!a! safe! bet! that! Mizner,! an! opium! addict,! suggested! and! contributed! the! storyline! about! Barthelmess’! morphine! habit! (Wellman! undoubtedly! had! his! own! experiences! with! painI killers!when!he!was!convalescing!from!his!war!wounds!—!he!had!a!steel!plate!somewhere! in!his!head!and,!according!to!his!son,!“a!lot!of!his!body!was!wired!together”).!The!deadpan! sight!gags!around!the!men’s!rest!area!might!be!his!handiwork!as!well.!More!intriguingly,!his! hardInosed! wisdom! and! withering! sarcasm! (his! most! deathless! maxim:! “Some! of! the! greatest! love! affairs! I’ve! known! involved! one! actor,! unassisted”)! seem! to! align! with! the! sardonically! engineered! character! arc! of! the! eternally! intolerant! and! impatient! Max.! Ideologues,! whether! Marxist! or! fascist,! are! usually! the! butt! of! either! sarcasm! (Leonid! Kinskey!in!Trouble&in&Paradise)!or!outright!contempt!(Robert!Douglas’!architectural!critic! in!The&Fountainhead)&in!American!movies.!Max!is!something!else!again.!He!is!as!close!as!the! movie! gets! to! straight! caricature,! with! his! tskItsking! behavioral! tag! and! broad! German! accent.! Close,! but! not! close! enough.! Barratt’s! stevedore! physique! gives! an! oddly! human! spin!to!his!ranting,!leaving!the!impression!of!an!enormous!man!behaving!like!a!puny!one! with!something!to!prove.!“If!you!think!life!is!so!awful!why!don’t!you!cut!your!throat?”!he’s! asked.! The! priceless! answer! I! “Because! I! can’t! afford! to! buy! a! knife”! –! could! have! been! coined!by!Mizner.!Max!develops!a!revolutionary!new!laundry!machine,!becomes!a!rich!man,! and!remakes!himself!as!a!German!capitalist!with!a!bowler!and!furIcollared!coat!right!out!of! Spione.!Barratt!does!the!broadest!acting!in!the!movie,!but!he!delivers!his!character’s!killer! line!perfectly.!“You!used!to!hate!the!capitalists,”!says!Tom.!“Naturally,”!answers!Max!with!a! wonderfully!innocent!bonhomie.!“That!was!before!I!had!money.”!This!shift!in!sympathies!is! not! borne! of! cultural! pressure! or! disillusionment! like! those! of! Dos! Passos! or! Edward! Anderson,!but!of!need!displaced!by!satiation:!the!material!circumstances!govern!the!man.! It’s!just!one!of!many!ironic!turnabouts!in!a!movie!built!on!them,!doubtlessly!inspired!by!the! table!talk!of!a!man!who!had!swindled!and!spent!fortunes!from!Guatemala!to!Alaska.! ! A!lot!of!the!WarnersIFirst!National!preIcode!catalogue!is!devoted!to!lightning!reversals!of! fortune!and!unjust!turns!of!fate,!from!Ann!Dvorak’s!passionate!plunge!to!oblivion!in!Three& on& a& Match& to! Warren! William’s! wildly! fluctuating! destiny! in! The& Mind& Reader! (another! 94! !


LordIMizner!collaboration)!—!see!enough!of!the!films!in!quick!succession!and!such!twists! become!refrains!as!familiar!as!the!endless!variations!on!“Girl,!I!want!you!so!bad”!in!70s!pop.! Wellman! and! his! team! keep! the! structure! dry,! neat! and! solid! —! neither! political! wish! fulfillment,!colorful!“business,”!nor!sentimental!goodbyes!impede!the!tragic!progress!of!the! narrative,!resulting!from!a!mix!of!bad!luck,!hypocrisy,!and!the!golden!rule!of!capitalism!as! enunciated!by!Max!—!“There’s!only!one!thing!important!in!the!world!—!money.!Without!it,! you!are!just!garbage.!With!it,!you!are!a!king.”!Many!potential!pitfalls!are!sidestepped,!and!in! the!case!of!the!film’s!economic!and!political!improbabilities,!their!impact!is!minimized!by! sheer!speed:!every!relevant!exchange!is!over!in!the!blink!of!an!eye.!Tom’s!sunny!progress! at!the!laundry!service!starts!with!a!whopper!—!his!sales!numbers!go!up!because!he!takes!it! upon! himself! to! buy! dollar! coupons! at! local! stores! (printed! at! their! own! expense)! with! which!he!rewards!customers!who!bring!in!new!trade.!“Why!didn’t!somebody!else!around! here! think! of! it?! Why! didn’t! I?”! exclaims! his! benevolent! boss! (Grant! Mitchell,! a! preIcode! Wellman! fixture)! with! smiling! abandon! yet! within! the! range! of! elocutionary! decorum.! “We’ll! start! a! regular! merchandise! premium! plan! —! give! away! sets! of! dishes,! vacuum! cleaners,! maybe! even! cash! bonuses! to! our! old! customers! who! get! us! new! customers.! It’s! marvelous!”! The! idea! of! a! hardIpressed! laundry! delivery! driver! spending! his! own! commission! money! to! build! up! his! sales! route! is! nothing! compared! to! the! business! plan! behind!Max’s!invention.!“I!can!increase!production!1000%!”!screams!an!excited!Max!down! at!a!seated!Tom.!“Gosh,!what!a!kick,”!muses!Tom!before!he!pours!himself!and!the!audience! a!cup!of!vintage!hokum!–!“It!means!more!leisure,!more!time!at!home!with!your!family.”!The! unbelievability!quotient!is!upped!when!he!convinces!his!coIworkers!to!finance!the!patent! with! individual! contributions! (reIpaid! before! the! royalties! start! coming! in),! and! then! quadrupled!when!he!dictates!the!terms!of!the!contract!to!his!satisfied!boss!—!Max!and!Tom! will!own!the!patent,!the!business!will!pay!them!royalties!for!the!use!of!the!machine,!and!the! machinery! will! be! used! not! to! eliminate! jobs! but! to! ease! workloads! and! shorten! hours.! “You’re!a!real!humanitarian,!Tom!—!go!ahead,!put!it!in!the!contract,”!says!the!smiling!boss,! who!at!this!point!has!blasted!off!from!earth!for!the!planet!Philanthropia.!! ! At!certain!junctures,!the!national!mood!has!all!but!demanded!a!greater!level!of!frankness!in! the! depiction! of! everyday! life;! at! other! moments,! such! frankness! has! been! inferred,! visualized!or!enacted!under!cover!of!melodrama!or!metaphor.!The!preIcode!30s!belong!to! the!former!category,!but!that!doesn’t!mean!that!the!films!are!uncomplicatedly!“leftIwing,”! even!the!ones!made!by!the!RooseveltIworshipping!Warner!Brothers.!At!certain!moments,! Heroes&for&Sale!feels!both!“antiIcapitalist”!(in!the!sense!that!it!goes!to!great!lengths!to!show! the!insensitivity!and!potential!for!corruption!of!management,!and!their!effects!on!workers)! and!“proIaltruist”!(its!hero!uses!the!money!he!has!made!from!his!partnership!with!Max!to! keep! the! lunch! counter! open! as! a! 24Ihour! soup! kitchen).! But! it! also! feels! “proIcapitalist”! and!“individualist”!(Tom!uses!his!own!initiative!and!intelligence!to!move!up!in!the!world,! and! doubles! his! salary! over! two! years).! The! film! performs! a! maneuver! that! is! fairly! 95! !


common! in! films! of! the! era! (most! famously! in! Capra’s)! by! splitting! the! conflict! between! good!and!bad!capitalists,!but!it!complicates!the!opposition!by!adding!Max,!the!opportunistic! MarxistICapitalistIIndividualist.! It! is! “populist”! in! the! 30s! sense,! embracing! initiatives! which!we!might!tend!to!identify!today!as!leftIwing!leaning!to!socialist,!but!some!of!which! might! have! been! recognized! at! the! time! as! centristIleaningItoIrightIwing.! The! semiI cooperative! breezily! proposed! by! Tom! and! eagerly! embraced! by! his! boss! is! an! ideal! rendering! of! the! kind! of! collectivization! that! Herbert! Hoover! embraced,! in! which! capital! and!labor!work!hand!in!hand!to!iron!out!their!differences,!without!a!union!in!sight.!! ! This! flux! of! tendencies,! affinities,! popular! traditions! and! sentiments! and! commercial! and! cultural!imperatives!confounded!both!contemporary!critics!as!well!as!later!commentators! on!depression!era!moviemaking,!like!Andrew!Bergman!who!in!his!1971!study!We’re&in&the& Money&quotes!the!disapproving!New!York!Post!critic!Richard!Watts,!Jr.!(“just!another!futile! essay!in!liberalism”)!before!damning!Heroes&for&Sale&as!“perhaps!the!most!confused!film!of! the! 1930s.”! Condemnation! of! a! given! film! or! filmmaker! for! lack! of! ideological! coherence! continues! to! haunt! film! criticism,! perhaps! because! it! is! such! an! appealingly! systematic! approach.! The! avowedly! leftIwing! Raymond! Durgnat! was! razorIsharp! on! “the! narrowI angle! lenses! that! film! culture! finds! so! congenial,”! both! aesthetically! and! politically! speaking,! and! his! criticism! offers! an! alternative! that! is! at! once! more! inspiring! and! more! firmly! rooted! in! reality! than! a! lot! of! the! stale! stuff! that! currently! passes! for! politically! grounded! film! criticism.! “Our! operating! aesthetic! is! that! the! most! valuable! works! of! art! allow!one!neither&just!a!pleasant!wallow!in!one’s!favorite!emotions!nor&just!an!intellectual! diagram!of!some!thematic!circuitry,”!he!writes!with!Scott!Simmon!in!their!brilliant!book!on! King!Vidor,!and!their!embrace&of!contradictory!impulses!is!a!rich!and!rewarding!intellectual! model.!Where!Heroes&for&Sale&offers!Bergman!the!occasion!for!nothing!more!than!a!quick! autopsy,! Durgnat! and! Simmon! propose! an! alternate! way! of! seeing! that! posits! all! films! as! living! organisms! rather! than! petrified! specimens,! not! items! to! be! filed! away! but! active! participants!in!an!endless!conversation.!In!this!light,!Wellman’s!film!grows!in!interest!as!a! product!of,!by!and!for!its!time.! ! The! question! posed! all! too! often! in! film! criticism! is:! how! close! does! the! film! in! question! come!to!an!uncompromised!critique!of!the!power!structure?!The!better!question!is:!does! the! film! in! question! attempt! to! stand! alongside! common! life! justly?! The! preIcode! era! at! Warner! Brothers! is! a! precious! one! in! movies,! when! working! class! iconography! —! the! barrooms! and! tiny! apartments,! the! Murphy! beds! and! coffee! urns,! the! house! dresses! and! suspenders,! the! staircases! and! front! stoops! —! was! as! front! and! center! as! digitally! fabricated! landscapes! are! today,! when! dramatic! conflicts! were! routinely! based! in! daily! realities! and! when! the! line! between! the! people! on! screen! and! those! in! the! theater! was! much!thinner!than!it!is!in!2012.!The!preIcode!films!in!general!and!Wellman’s!in!particular,! like! Val! Lewton’s! output! a! decade! later,! Godard’s! in! the! 60s,! and! Fassbinder’s! in! the! 70s,! 96! !


derive!a!lot!of!their!power!from!the!fact!that!they!were!made!in!quick!succession!and!at!a! punishing! pace,! provoking! an! artistic! response! akin! to! automatic! writing.! Where! Godard! and! Fassbinder! set! their! own! speed,! the! directors,! writers,! technicians,! and! actors! of! the! early!30s!were!factory!workers,!pure!and!simple.!This!is!not!exactly!a!revelation,!but!it!is! astonishing!to!consider!the!numbers.!Wellman!made!seven!films!in!1933!–!Central&Airport& was! released! in! April,! Lilly& Turner& in! May,! Heroes& for& Sale& on! June! 17! (one! day! after! the! enactment! of! Roosevelt’s! National! Industrial! Recovery! Act)! and! Midnight& Mary! (made! at! MGM!but!for!all!intents!and!purposes!a!Warner!Brothers!film)&on!June!30,!Wild&Boys&of&the& Road& in! September,! College& Coach& on! November! 4! and! Female& (credited! to! Curtiz)! on! November!11.!That!same!year,!Archie!Mayo!made!four!films!including!the!notorious!(and! now! lost)! Convention& City,! as! did! Alfred! E.! Green! (including! Baby& Face),! who! also! made! a! short! and! shot! sequences! for! Central& Airport.! Mervyn! LeRoy! and! Lloyd! Bacon! made! five! each! (including,! from! Bacon:! 42nd& Street,& Footlight& Parade! and! Picture& Snatcher;! and! from! LeRoy:!Hard&to&Handle&and!Gold&Diggers&of&1933);!Roy!Del!Ruth!made!six!(including!Lady& Killer,& The& Mind& Reader& and! Employee’s& Entrance)& and! so! did! Michael! Curtiz! (including! Mystery& of& the& Wax& Museum! and! The& Kennel& Murder& Case),! who! also! contributed! to! From& Headquarters& and! The& Mayor& of& Hell,! which! is! credited! to! Mayo.! Between! them,! these! directors!made!32!films!in!1933!–!one!fifth!of!the!studio’s!output!for!the!entire!year.! ! Among!the!actors,!Young!appeared!in!9!films!including!Midnight&Mary,!Employee’s&Entrance& and!Borzage’s!Man’s&Castle;&Westcott!made!10!including!Convention&City,&Footlight&Parade& and! Wellman’s! Lilly& Turner;! Grapewin! made! 12! and! Mitchell! made! 15,! both! of! them! contributing!to!the!better!part!of!Wellman’s!1933!output!(Mitchell!also!appeared!in!Dinner& at&Eight&and!Vidor’s!The&Stranger’s&Return&at!MGM,!and!Grapewin!was!in!Ford’s!Pilgrimage& at! Fox);! Barratt! appeared! in! 19! films,! many! of! them! mentioned! above;! and! Dewey! Robinson,!a!bit!player,!appeared!in!a!whopping!22!films!including!She&Done&Him&Wrong&and! Rowland! Brown’s! Blood& Money,& one! of! Darryl! Zanuck’s! first! productions! at! Fox! after! his! departure! from! Warner! Brothers.! The! DP! James! Van! Trees! shot! 9! films,! including! Baby& Face,&Blood&Money,!Midnight&Mary&and!Lilly&Turner.&Jack!Okey!was!the!art!director!on!most! of! Wellman’s! ’33! films! in! addition! to! 42nd& Street& and! Footlight& Parade.& And! Bernard! Kaun! either! composed,! orchestrated! or! arranged! music! (without! credit)! for! 30! films! in! 1933,! including! King& Kong,& Son& of& Kong,! Little& Women,& Morning& Glory& and! Flying& Down& to& Rio& at! RKO,!and!many!of!the!aboveImentioned!films!at!Warners.!! ! These! are! mindIbending! numbers,! and! it! is! safe! to! assume! that! neither! Jack! Warner! nor! Zanuck!nor!David!O.!Selznick!at!RKO!were!anyone’s!idea!of!“good!capitalists.”!Nonetheless,! the! preIcode! canon! is! marked! by! a! heady! mix! of! high! pressure,! wildly! surging! creativity,! outrageous!exploitation!and!infectious!energy.!On!the!one!hand,!these!films!are!still!riding! the! wave! of! excitement! that! began! with! the! talkies,! when! sound! in! general! and! urban! sounds!in!particular!—!the!music!of!purring!engines!and!honking!horns,!the!bustling!grind! 97! !


of!rehearsals,!the!rapidIfire!patter!of!urban!speech!—!were!driving!the!pace!and!texture!of! the! action! and! narrative! structures! and! visual! cues! were! calibrated! accordingly.! On! the! other! hand,! the! films! are! also! driven! by! the! terrifying! situation! outside! the! studio! of! a! country!in!a!state!of!national!emergency,!with!an!unemployment!rate!of!24.9%!in!1933!and! two!million!homeless!citizens,!200,000!of!them!children.!So!many!of!the!aboveImentioned! films! deal! with! defeat! and! despair,! and! in! this! sense! Heroes& for& Sale& is! emblematic.! Yet! unlike!Fassbinder’s!films,!it!is!neither!defeated!nor!despairing.!Intimations!of!official!NRA! rhetoric! and! Tom’s! dry! optimism! in! the! final! scene! aside! (Barthelmess! almost! makes! it! sound!like!the!quiet,!spontaneous!utterance!of!a!man!at!peace!with!himself),!the!film!plays! in!the!mind!as!a!series!of!vivid!episodes!driven!by!a!tremendous!camaraderie!between!the! filmmakers!and!their!imagined!audience.!! ! But!then,!we!have!to!ask:!what!was!it!really!like!for!a!filmgoer!in!1933!to!go!for!a!day!or!a! night!at!the!movies,!in!one!of!the!great!old!theaters,!sit!down!for!a!program!of!shorts!and! newsreels!and!features!and!see!this?!Did!it!stir!recognition?!Suspicion!of!being!played!to?! Did!the!turns!in!Tom’s!terrible!progress!seem!like!items!on!a!checklist!or!viable!versions!of! likely! scenarios?! What! chords! were! struck! by! Tom’s! insistence! that! his! royalty! money! be! used! to! keep! the! soup! kitchen! open?! One! can! only! infer! answers! to! these! questions! from! the!vantage!point!of!2012,!light!years!beyond!the!conditions!that!generated!the!film!itself,! when! the! very! idea! of! “PreICode”! has! been! reconfigured! according! to! our! own! desires.! “Almost! any! Warners! item! rates! well! with! today’s! prize! winners,”! wrote! Farber! in! preparation!for!the!MoMA!lecture.!“These!lean,!zesty!items,!which!move!ahead!at!a!fast!clip,! are! truly! action! films,! employing! intricate! close! quarter! choreographies! and! linear! strategies!that!unfold!with!staccato!speed.”!30!years!later,!the!Warners!preIcode!canon!and! Wellman’s! films! in! particular! seem! more! vital! than! ever,! their! apparent! solidarity! with! their! public! standing! in! direct! and! seemingly! pointed! opposition! to! the! preening,! consumerIscanning!relationship!between!movie!and!viewer!today.!Our!idealized!notions!of! the!position!they!occupied!in!the!lives!of!the!people!for!whom!they!were!made!is!probably! less!important!than!what!they!are!to!us:!projections!from!a!real!past!of!decency!trumping! avarice!and!community!superseding!selfIinterest.!

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CENTRAL!AIRPORT!(1933):! THE!SKY!IS!YOURS! C.!Mason!Wells!! William! Wellman! wasn’t! one! to! sugarcoat! life’s! brutal! realities! in! his! movies.! In! Central& Airport,! nearly! all! air! travel! ends! in! death! or! disaster:! the! first! flight,! in! a! torrential! rainstorm,! takes! down! our! hero! Jim! Blaine! (Richard! Barthelmess)! and! sends! him! to! the! hospital;!Blaine!reads!in!the!newspaper!about!an!old!flyer!friend!and!family!man!killed!in!a! crash;! a! plane! spins! out! of! control! at! a! fairgrounds! runway,! nearly! killing! a! crowd! of! spectators;! a! commercial! flight! traveling! through! fog! that’s! “pure! pea! soup,! a! mile! thick”! has! to! make! an! emergency! water! landing.! By! his! own! account,! flying! costs! Jim! “an! eye! in! Nicaragua,! a! heel! in! China,! a! couple! of! ribs! in! Chile.”! The! first! five! minutes! II! a! series! of! abrupt!tower!dispatches!and!worried!looks!surrounding!the!disappearance!of!Jim’s!plane!II! paint!an!especially!tense,!distressing!portrait:!the!community!around!a!small!airport!united! by! the! fear! of! losing! one! their! own.! Central& Airport! shows! the! danger! of! early! flight! with! such! painful! accuracy! that! the! Los! Angeles! Chamber! of! Commerce’s! aviation! board! demanded!Wellman!tone!down!the!film’s!content,!forcing!him!to!elide!the!crash!in!that!first! sequence!for!fear!of!a!negative!effect!on!the!travel!industry.! And! yet! for! “Wild! Bill”! Wellman,! a! former! pilot! for! the! Lafayette! Escadrille,! notorious! iconoclast,! and! director! of! several! aviationIthemed! movies,! the! danger! of! flying! was! inextricably!linked!to!its!allure.!(!On!the!rickety!planes!he!flew!in!WWI:!“We!only!had!four! instruments,!none!of!which!worked,!and!no!parachutes.!It!was!wonderful!”)!Jim’s!first!crash! —caused! by! his! cocksure! attitude! —! ends! his! career! and! leaves! his! arm! in! a! sling,! but! it! doesn’t!tamper!his!enthusiasm.!On!the!train!ride!back!home!to!his!parents,!Jim!eyes!a!plane! barreling!overhead!(flown,!he!later!discovers,!by!his!freshIfaced!younger!brother!Neil,!Tom! Brown).!Wellman!intercuts!between!the!plane’s!deathIdefying!zigIzags!and!Jim’s!exuberant! face,! his! wide! eyes! staring! up! like! a! child’s! at! a! movie! screen.! He’s! a! textbook! Wellman! wanderer:!stuck!to!the!ground!but!with!his!head!in!the!clouds,!he’s!constricted!to!the!train’s! straightIahead!path,!unable!to!roam!freely!through!the!skies.!(Barthelmess!was!a!star!of!the! silent!era,!and!he!brings!a!special!attention!to!the!anxious!gestures!and!facial!expressions!of! this!bottledIup!rebel.)! Wellman!rhymes!this!scene!just!moments!later:!Jim!watches!with!nearIsexual!excitement! as! fellow! daredevil! Jill! (Sally! Eilers)! parachutes! from! a! stunt! plane.! She! falls! into! a! tree,! dangling! perilously! off! the! ground,! and! they! meetIcute,! with! the! roar! of! the! offscreen! plane’s! engine! always! buzzing! beneath! their! charged! banter.! Wellman! dollies! in! on! their! conversation,!a!move!he!repeats!throughout!the!picture!(when!Neil!first!sees!Jill!and!falls! 99! !


instantly!for!her,!when!Jim!and!Jill!reunite!after!years!apart),!and!it!suggests!nothing!less! than! the! movement! of! a! plane! taking! off.! Immediately! after,! more! disaster! —! the! stunt! plane!abruptly!crashes!and!kills!Jill’s!flying!partner!brother.!Jim!steps!into!his!role,!piloting! while!she!parachutes;!as!she!floats!down,!he!circles!around!in!an!aerial!dance!of!seduction.! Their! first! onscreen! kiss! happens! midIflight,! as! they’re! nestled! next! to! each! other! in! the! cockpit,! and! the! plane! loops! in! ecstasy! as! it! sends! them! upside! down,! delirious.! (Flight! scenes!shot!like!love!scenes!and!love!scenes!shot!like!flight!scenes.)!“I!could!go!on!like!this! forever,”!Jill!says,!but!they!can’t!—!the!plane!must!eventually!come!back!to!Earth.!

!!

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!Love!on!the!ground!—!a!series!of!hotel!room!trysts!—!proves!tougher.!In!a!grubby!diner! Jim! insists! to! Jill! that,! “anybody! who! makes! a! living! in! the! air! can’t! afford! the! responsibilities!that!go!with!a!wife!and!family.”!Wellman!lays!this!noInonsense!line!neatly! over!a!closeIup!of!Jill!wistfully!sliding!a!cigar!band!onto!her!finger,!establishing!the!danger! vs.! domesticity! dynamic! in! mere! seconds;! throughout! the! picture,! he! collapses! and! streamlines! the! melodrama! with! exactly! this! kind! of! ferocious! economy.! This! compact! approach! lets! Wellman! pack! a! lot! of! movie! into! this! movie’s! 72! minutes;! Central& Airport! spans! several! years! and! large! swatches! of! terrain! (geographic! and! emotional),! but! the! action! is! always! moving! briskly,! inexorably! forward.! It’s! not! a! film! concerned! with! inI betweens! —! for! montages! of! time! passing,! Wellman! quickly! dissolves! between! takeIoffs! and!landings,!presenting!life!as!a!stretch!of!departures!and!arrivals,!literal!ups!and!downs.! Neil’s!reappearance!in!the!picture!allows!Wellman!to!toy!with!his!—!per!Manny!Farber!—! “geometric!groupings!and!uncluttered!surface!emphasizing!actors’!physicality.”[1]!The!first! time! these! three! characters! share! the! same! space,! Wellman! frames! the! brothers! together! and!Jill!separately,!then!cuts!to!all!three!in!medium!closeIup!in!a!triangle!configuration.!He! cuts!around!the!trio,!giving!each!actor!a!moment!at!the!center!of!the!frame,!privileging!the! perspective!of!each!character.!It’s!a!simple!sequence,!but!it!belies!Wellman’s!generosity!of! spirit:!none!of!these!three!will!be!the!bad!guy.! !

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When!Jim!is!sidelined!by!an!injury!and!Neil!takes!his!place!—!both!in!the!cockpit!and!the! bedroom! —! Wellman! refuses! the! easy! route! of! demonizing! Jill.! As! in!Other& Men’s& Women! or!Men&With&Wings,!a!woman!is!caught!between!her!affection!for!two!men!but!not!painted! as!a!manipulator!or!cheater;!she’s!allowed!to!have!a!complicated!and!conflicting!emotional! response.!Jim!flees,!his!heart!unable!to!sustain!the!repeated!bruises!his!body!has!endured.! Instead! of! seeing! his! thrilling! exploits! (working! as! a! general! in! China,! breaking! up! revolutions!in!Argentina,!being!decorated!by!the!president!of!Chile!—!each!of!which!could! be! its! own! separate! Wellman! movie),! we! learn! of! them! secondhand! along! with! Jill.! It’s! a! crucial!change!in!perspective:!as!Jill!enters!a!rut!in!her!stable!married!life!with!Neil!(now!a! commercial!airline!pilot),!her!thoughts!drift!back!toward!Jim!and!the!adventure!she’s!left! behind.!Despite!Wellman’s!reputation!for!macho!toughness,!for!man’s!man!characters,!he! gives! the! female! love! interest! the! same! nuance! (and! passion! for! flying)! as! his! ostensible! surrogate.! One! day! on! the! tarmac! Jill! spots! a! plane! flying! recklessly! overhead! (she! says! the! pilot’s! “flirting!with!the!undertaker,”!the!sexIandIdeath!connection!never!more!explicit)!—!it’s!Jim! returning!home.!They!end!up!in!adjacent!hotel!rooms,!as!in!their!touring!days,!but!Wellman! now!emphasizes!the!physical!wall!between!them,!not!an!open!suite!door!connecting!their! rooms.!As!they!primp!for!separate!nights!out,!Wellman!dollies!again,!this!time!in!reverse,! pulling! away! from! the! actors! to! reveal! that! their! rooms! are! just! a! set.! This! remarkable! modernist! moment,! unlike! anything! else! in! the! movie,! suggests! the! wall! between! the! characters! isn’t! real,! in! a! literal! movement! away! from! the! melodrama.! (It’s! also! as! if! Wellman!wants!to!leave!the!soundstage!behind!and!head!back!to!his!location!shooting!on! the!runway.)! A!radio!broadcast!interrupts!Jill!and!Jim’s!romantic!reunion:!Neil’s!plane!is!in!trouble.!The! climactic!sequence!explicitly!mirrors!the!opening!—!a!downed!plane!among!thunder,!heavy! fog,!and!sheets!of!rain!—!but!with!a!very!different!outcome:!Jim!concedes!a!rekindled!affair! with!Jill!to!save!his!brother’s!life.!It’s!the!kind!of!selfIsacrifice!that!recurs!time!and!again!in! Wellman’s!cinema,!and!only!complicates!his!rugged!individualism.!There’s!always!a!knotty! sense! of! responsibility! at! work,! the! pushIpull! between! the! obligation! toward! one’s! self,! one’s!loved!ones,!and!even!one’s!community.! 101! !


It’s! not! hard! to! guess! why!Central& Airport! has! been! relegated! to! footnote! status! in! Wellman’s!PreICode!period:!it!doesn’t!tackle!the!explosive!social!issues!of!Wild&Boys&of&the& Road! or!Heroes& for& Sale,! and! its! sexual! content! is! tame! compared! to! the! lurid! rumblings! of!Safe&in&Hell!or!Night&Nurse.!Even!by!Wellman’s!own!high!standards,!it!doesn’t!offer!much! in! the! way! of! his! trademark! eyeIpopping! aerial! photography! (in! this! film! about! longing,! most!of!the!flying!is!watched!from!the!ground).!It’s!instead!as!singleminded!and!stubborn! as! its! protagonist,! focused! on! capturing! the! traumas! and! transitory! lives! of! its! three! characters!without!sentiment!or!bullshit.!Wellman!invites!the!messiness!of!the!real!world! into! his! movie,! but! he! frames! the! narrative! with! dynamic! diagonal! compositions,! airtight! editing,!and!crackerjack!pacing.!It!offers!the!perfect!encapsulation!of!the!contradictions!of! Wellman! the! artist,! and! a! welcome! reminder! of! the! major! virtues! lurking! in! seemingly! minor!movies.! ! ***! [1]!Farber,!Manny,![“movies!are!worse!than!ever.”]!August!12,!1950.!Farber!on!Film.!Library! of!America,!2009,!p.334!

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SCRAPS!OF!WELLMAN!#2! Haphazard!notes,!or!an!attempt!to!remember!some!of!the!details,!from!a!screening!of! Stingaree!(1934)!on!35mm!at!Film!Forum!on!2/21/12!

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SCRAPS!OF!WELLMAN!#3! Haphazard!notes,!or!an!attempt!to!remember!some!of!the!details,!from!a!screening!of!Men& With&Wings!(1938)!on!35mm!at!Film!Forum!on!2/23/12!

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LADY!OF!BURLESQUE!(1943):! WELLMAN’S!POSTIPREICODE!PREICODE! Ted!Fendt! Made! the! same! year! as! his! Academy! AwardInominated! prestige! picture!The& OxGBow& Incident,[1]! William! Wellman’s!Lady& of& Burlesque! is! less! an! aboutIface! than! a! return! to! the! contemporary!characters!and!period!he!had!dealt!with!a!decade!prior!in!the!beginning!of! the!1930s:!his!early,!formative!years!just!at!the!coming!of!sound,!when!he!would!churn!out! six!or!seven!films!a!year,!in!every!genre,!with!all!kinds!of!actors,!for!all!kinds!of!budgets:! Hollywood’s! preIcode! era.!Lady& of& Burlesque! –! like!Frisco& Jenny,!The& Man& I& Love,!The& Purchase&Price,!The&Star&Witness,!Public&Enemy!or!Chinatown!Nights!–!is!a!film!focusing!on!a! working! class! milieu,! on! people! who! don’t! have! it! made,! who! don’t! live! glamorous! lifestyles,!and!who!are!doing!whatever!it!takes!to!get!by.!Like!Frisco&Jenny!it!depicts!a!not! particularly! respected! profession! –! burlesque! –! without! moralizing.! Wellman! loves! these! men!and!women,!the!lowIbrow!comics!and!scantilyIclad!dancers!of!the!Old!Opera!House,! and!this!is!apparent!in!every!shot!of!the!film.! The! film! opens! with! a! virtuosic! sequence! introducing! us! to! the! Old! Opera! House,! the! dancers!and!the!stage,!and!the!backstage!area!where!most!of!the!film!will!take!place.!After! an!establishing!shot!of!Times!Square!at!night!(“Along!the!great!white!way,!before!the!lights! went!out...”),!a!shot!tilting!down!the!marquee!introduces!the!main!characters!I!Dixie!Daisy,! Biff! Brannigan,! Lolita! Laverne,! Dolly! Baxter,! and! ‘50IFIFTYI50’! beautiful! girls.! Then!a! pan! from!the!box!office!outside!the!theater!introduces!S.B.!Fosse,!the!owner,!proudly!telling!one! of!his!employees!that!the!girls!are!drawing!the!huge!crowd!flowing!through!the!front!door,! moving!inside!to!a!wide!shot!from!the!back!of!the!theater,!with!the!packed!audience!in!the! foreground! and! the! stage! in! the! background.! The! girls! are! doing! an! ensemble! number,! dancing!together!in!step,!to!a!song!sung!by!Russell!Rogers,!the!theater’s!crooner.!Wellman! frames!this!sequence!in!a!series!of!wide!and!medium!shots,!his!visual!grammar!for!the!rest! of!the!film.!Each!girl!gets!her!own!medium!shot!as!she!steps!forward!for!her!solo!part.!We! are!soon!briskly!moved!backstage!with!a!tracking!shot!introducing!Biff,!a!clown,!following! him!to!the!right!as!he!runs!into!a!stage!hand!who!wants!to!get!five!dollars!Biff!owes!him.! Pausing! only! for! a! second! on! the! two! characters,! the! camera! is! suddenly! tracking! left! as! Dixie!Daisy!makes!her!entrance,!hurriedly!making!last!minute!adjustments!to!her!costume! with!the!help!of!Gee!Gee,!her!friend!from!the!MidIWest,!before!she!makes!her!big!entrance! onto!the!stage,!the!new!star!of!the!show.!A!cut!brings!us!slightly!closer!to!Dixie!as!her!friend! goes!away!and!Biff!moves!in!to!briefly!flirt!with!her.!Sweetly!pursued!by!him!throughout!

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the!film,!she!will!end!up!falling!in!love!with!him!(or!perhaps!admitting!that!she!loved!him! all!along),!their!paths!already!linked!by!Wellman!not!ten!minutes!into!the!film.!! The!opening!sequence!climaxes!with!Dixie’s!number,!the!first!of!two!performances!in!the! film!of!the!amazing!“Take!It!Off!The!E!String.”!As!with!the!earlier!sequence,!Wellman!keeps! his! camera! back,! cutting! between! very! simple! medium! and! wide! shots,! allowing! Dixie’s! singing!and!dancing!to!speak!for!itself.!No!shots!of!the!audience!interrupt!her!performance.! Dixie!is!in!her!own!world,!exuding!an!energy!and!spirit!she!hardly!exhibits!anywhere!else! in!the!film.!The!only!other!shots!in!the!sequence!are!cutIaways!to!Biff!–!either!in!a!medium! shot! from! Daisy’s! perspective! or! from! over! Biff’s! shoulder,! allowing! us! to! share! his! perspective!of!Daisy!–!watching!her!and!teasing/flirting!with!her!from!the!side.!! The! film! will! alternate! between! onstage! numbers! and! backstage! scenes,! mostly! in! the! dancers’!dressing!room,!as!they!joke!and!fight,!Wellman!deftly!sketching!out!the!rivalries! among! them!(the! film! is! one! of! many! Wellman! films! with! strong! female! characters! in! the! lead!roles,!despite!his!public!claims!to!have!hated!working!with!women).!This!is!a!murder! mystery! –! its! alternate! title! was! The& GGString& Murders! –! so! a! lot! of! plot! information,! specifically! the! rivalries! and! alliances! of! the! girls,! must! to! be! set! up! to! create! possible! motives! for! different! characters! to! have! committed! the! film’s! two! murders.! But! no! one! is! actually! killed! until! nearly! an! hour! into! the! film! and! the! two! victims! are! the! least! sympathetic!characters.!Wellman!is!more!interested!in!spending!time!watching!them!joke! and!fight!than!creating!suspense!or!tension.! Michael! Henry! Wilson! suggests! that! Wellman! “almost! systematically! goes! against!recognized!genres!and!formulas”![2]!and!this!is!certainly!the!case!here.!What!is!clearly! scripted! as! a! genre! film! becomes,! in! Wellman’s! hands,! an! unglamorous! exploration! of! the! seedy!side!of!show!business!–!a!companion!piece!to!A&Star&is&Born!in!some!ways.!The!girls! don’t!have!the!money!for!a!new!sink!so!the!men!are!going!to!chip!in!to!help!pay!for!one.!They! get!free!dinners!from!the!Chinese!restaurant!behind!the!theater.!Aside!from!Biff!and!Dixie,! the! other! characters! in! relationships! are! having! affairs,! being! cheated! on,! feeling! jealous,! fighting,!or!being!beaten!by!their!lover.! There!is!often!a!tension!in!Wellman’s!work!in!which!he!wants!to!show!either!‘how!the!other! half!lives’!or!the!reality!of!war,!but!can’t!bring!himself!to!commit!to!such!a!bleak!vision!and! so!there!is!the!reprieve!of!something!upbeat,!a!romantic!digression!or!a!joke!of!some!sort,! or! a! simple! cutIaway,! moving! the! film! along! without! looking! back!(see!! The& Conquerers! or!Darby’s& Rangers).[3]! One! mindIblowing! sequence! in! Lady& of& Burlesques! is! quite! illustrative!of!this!tension.!While!Dixie,!Biff,!and!another!comedian!are!onstage!performing! their! act,! Lolita! is! caught! talking! to! Russell! (who’s! secretly! married! to! Dolly)! by! her! boyfriend!Louie!Grindero.!She!starts!screaming,!and!he!takes!a!swing!at!her,!hitting!her!on! 106! !


the! face,! which! only! leads! to! her! screaming! louder,!interrupting!the! performance.!The! orchestra!quickly!launches!into!“Take!It!Off!The!E!String.”!Biff!and!Mandy!chime!in!for!the! chorus!and!Dixie!belts!it!out!as!loud!as!she!can,!improvising!some!dance!moves!on!the!fly.! When!the! characters!appear! onstage,! there! is! a! palpable! sense! of! how! one! feels! in! the! profession:!how!all!cares!and!worries!recede!into!the!background!when!they’re!“on.”!Dixie! feels! alive! onstage;! all! her! worries! about! surviving! and! ‘making! it’! are! gone! for! a! few! minutes.! That! she! turns! down! Biff’s! advances! backstage! while! having! to! work! with! him! harmoniously! onstage! indicates! something! incongruous! about! her! life.! When! she! allows! herself! to! love! Biff! offstage,! melding! private! and! public,! the! film! ends.!As! Dixie! and! Biff! make!their!way!out!of!the!theater!in!the!final!scene,!it’s!notable!that!they!go!into!one!of!the! comedy!routines!they!perform!onstage!in!order!to!prove!to!Dolly!that!they!really!do!love! each!other.!This!happiness!is,!of!course,!undercut!by!the!film’s!darker!elements,!highlighted! by!the!film’s!second!to!last!image:!Biff!and!Daisy!happily!leaving!the!theater!to!go!celebrate! their! engagement,! accompanied! by! Dolly,! tagging! along! in! the! wake! of! her! marriage! to! Russell!falling!apart.!Seemingly!aware!this!wasn’t!quite!the!happiest!of!endings,!someone! decided! (the! distributor?! Wellman?)! to! end! the! film! on! a! shot! of!Alice!and!Mandy! –! two! relatively! minor! characters! in! the! ensemble! –! as! they! finally! admit! their! feelings! for! one! another!–!faintly!sketched!out!once!or!twice!earlier!in!the!film!–!and!kiss.!! Wellman’s!treatment!of!the!murderImystery!part!of!the!film!goes!against!the!grain!just!as! much!as!the!rest!of!the!film.!Rather!than!being!treated!with!the!kind!of!solemnity!one!might! expect!in!another!film!dealing!with!murder,!the!interrogation!scenes!with!the!police,!staged! in! the! girls’! dressing! room,! are! played! for! laughs! (with! some! great! jokes! of! miscommunication! between! the! comedians! and! the! flustered! cops).! Someone! plants! the! murder!weapon!(a!GIstring)!on!Biff!and!Dixie!tries!to!cover!for!him!in!a!scene!that!might! have! been! written! for! Abbot! and! Costello.! Sudden,! unexpected! attention! is! given! to! relatively! minor! characters.! When! Louie! the! gangster! becomes! a! suspect,! afraid! of! going! back!to!prison,!he!goes!wild,!starts!shooting!at!the!police!and!darts!up!a!ladder!high!up!into! the! rafters! from! which! he! jumps! to! avoid! being! caught.! A! mad! sequence! coming! out! of! nowhere!–!like!the!‘runaway!airplane’!scene!in!!Central&Airport!–!filmed!with!more!panache! than! the! interrogation! scenes,! it’s! a! brief! and! messy! allusion! to! the! tough! times! of! the! thirties!Wellman’s!was!chronicling!ten!years!earlier!(if!only!Wellman!had!directed!a!prison! film!).! The! culprit,! finally! caught,! is! equally! surprising,! coming! more! or! less! out! of! nowhere,! the! hints! from! earlier! in! the! film! being! quite! slight,! even! examined! retrospectively.! Stacci! –! the!old!stagehand!who!sorts!the!mail,!and!whose!few!brief!appearances!in!the!film!involve! him!being!grumpy!about!his!treatment!at!the!hands!of!the!“burlesque!artistes”!–!is!revealed! to! have! been! Lolita’s! father! and! couldn’t! stand! the! idea! of! her! being! a! burlesque! girl.! A! 107! !


simple,! dimeIstore! motivation! that! Wellman! doesn’t! amplify! or! underline.! There! is! a! sad,! melancholic,!almost!mournful!sense!of!the!passage!of!time!in!Stacci’s!character.!! A! film! meant! to! fill! a! slot! on! a! marquee! and! then! disappear,! it’s! film! stock! recycled! to! be! used! for! similar! pictures;! a! film! made! by! a! filmmaker! comfortable! with! and! adept! at! jumping!back!and!forth!between!white!elephant!and!termite!projects!within!the!same!year;! a! postIpreIcode! preIcode.!! Lady& of& Burlesque& is! another! exploration! of! Wellman’s! ‘bitter! America,’! to! borrow! an! expression! from! Michael! Henry! Wilson,! confining! us! within! the! close!quarters!of!the!Old!Opera!House!for!most!of!its!running!time,!confronting!and!turning! away!from!the!unsavory!aspects!of!the!lives!of!these!entertainers,!elevating!their!comedy! and!song!and!dance!routines!from!cheap!entertainment!to!art.! ! ***! [1]!Unfortunately!The&OxGBow&Incident,!but!not!Lady&of&Burlesque,!was!selected!for! preservation!by!the!Library!of!Congress!in!1998.! [2]!Henry,!Michael.!“West!of!Eden:!L’Amérique!amère!de!William!Wellman.”!Positif.! February!1994.!My!translation.! [3]!I’m!indebted!to!Gina!Telaroli,!perhaps!the!greatest!Wellmanite!of!us!all,!for!this! observation,.! !

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THE!OXIBOW!INCIDENT!(1943):! Toshi!Fujiwara!

! The&OxGBow&Incident!is!a!great!story!with!an!important!message,!and!even!as!a!vehicle!for! that! message,! the! film! would! have! been! worthwhile! —! as! many! films! with! "important! messages"!end!up!being.! However,!there’s!something!more!to!The&OxGBow&Incident,!which!rightfully!became!one!of! the! most! important! westerns! in! the! history! of! American! cinema,! and! certainly! not! only! because!of!its!theme.!! The!proof:!its!beauty!endures,!after!lynching!and!mobImurders!have!ceased!to!be!a!major! social!problem!in!America,!while!it!also!speaks!to!societies!in!which!lynching!was!never!a! common!habit!(though,!metaphorically!speaking,!all!democratic!mass!societies!include!that! menace!within!themselves).!

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Instead!of!preaching,!The&OxGBow&Incident!is!played!like!music!!for!its!audience.!The!tightly! composed!75!minutes!of!film!nevertheless!is!full!of!textures!aligned!very!carefully!with!its! own!rhythm!—!allegro,!largo,!andante,!then!allegrissimo,!ending!with!profound!adagio!— !letting!scenes!take!their!time!exploring!the!depths!of!layers!of!moral!complexities,!through! broad! daylight! and! the! darkness! of! the! night.! It! has! to! be! tight! because! of! the! dramatic! escalation!of!the!moral!conflicts,!even!while!it!needs!to!take!its!time!to!raise!its!profound! moral!questions.! Its!main!portion,!the!night!scenes!of!mob!violence!and!hysteria,!were!shot!on!sound!stages.! The!general!assumption!may!translate!this!into!a!limitation!due!to!the!film’s!extremely!low! budget,! and! indeed,! the! direction! is! often! praised! for! not! making! us! feel! that! 'limitation.'! But! I! am! not! quite! sure! if! I! agree! with! such! an! assessment! (though! Arthur! Miller's! cinematography! should! rightfully! be! praised! for! the! feel! of! the! wide! open! air! grandly! simulated! on! stage).! My! own! feeling! remains! that! it! was! a! deliberate! choice,! the! gothic! claustrophobia! effective! in! depicting! the! community! entrapped! by! itself,! and! maintaining! tight! control! over! the! actions! and! the! shots,! so! that! the! feeling! that! these! people! are! doomed!by!their!own!will!becomes!stunningly!present!throughout.!!The!choice!to!film!on!a! the! sound! stage! comes! to! seem! deliberate.! It! might! also! be! said! that! the! film! couldn’t! be! remade!today,!as!nighttime!location!shooting!would!be!the!natural!choice!to!execute!these! scenes,!so!that!even!if!the!movie!were!deliberately!filmed!on!a!sound!stage,!the!artificiality! would!be!too!obvious.! Rather,!the!subtly!but!effectively!maintained!silence,!as!well!as!the!sounds!of!furies,!like!the! gun! shots! as! Anthony! Quinn! tries! to! escape,! or! Jane! Darwell's! violent! laughter! as! Dana! Andrews!tries!to!prepare!for!his!death,!writing!down!a!testament!of!his!conscience,!makes! the! soundscape! of! the! film! genuinely! rhythmical! and! complex,! textured! and! dramatic.! In! addition!to!which,!there’s!'Red!River!Valley,'!played!on!a!simple!harmonica,!and!repeated!3! times!in!the!film;!or!perhaps!the!most!ingenious!touch!of!all,!making!the!preacher!black!and! introducing!black!spiritual!songs.!

!!

!!

!

All!is!placed!where!it!should!be!in!the!film,!extremely!rigorously,!but!never!making!us!feel! that! it’s! stiff! or! artificial.! Instead,! the! movie! weaves! together! complex! facets! of! humanity,! 110! !


for!better!and!(especially)!for!the!worse.!However!evil!the!acts!committed!are,!they!are!all! measures!of!human!behavior.!Perhaps!the!reason!why!it!took!decades!for!the!film!to!obtain! its!rightful!appreciation!is!because!it!doesn't!even!brand!mobIkilling!as!'evil,'!but!shows!it! as!part!of!human!nature!—!we!may!be!as!wrong!as!they!were.! The! narrative! devices,! deliberately! limiting! the! filmmaker’s! palette! ,! and! achieving! a! calibrated!simplicity!and!purity!in!choreographing!human!emotions!and!actions,!make!'The! OxIBow!Incident'!an!allegory!of!vision!and!sound!as!well,!of!what!we!see!and!what!we!don't! see.!Actually,!that!conflict!is!even!at!the!core!of!the!story,!since!the!townspeople!have!heard! about!the!murder!of!Roger!Kincade!but!have!never!seen!it!—!and!within!the!film!we!don't! even!see!the!cattle!allegedly!wrestled,!but!only!hear!about!its!branding!(which!the!film!also! choses!not!to!show).! And!of!course,!the!culmination!of!Wellman’s!questioning!of!what!we!see!and!what!we!hear! —!hence!of!the!medium!itself!—!is!the!reading!of!the!letter,!when!we!don't!see!Fonda's! eyes.!Essentially!the!film!is!making!sure!that!we!can’t!see!'Henry!Fonda!reading!the!letter,'! but!that!we!listen!to!it!instead.!Fonda's!voice!becomes!just!a!way!to!carry!what!the!letter! tells,!and!we!listen!to!human!conscience.!

! With!The&OxGBow&Incident,!Westerns!became!a!true,!autonomous!art!form.!Perhaps!it!took!a! while!for!the!world!to!really!appreciate!what!it!is!—!a!genuine!piece!of!art.!But!today,!when! people!like!Clint!Eastwood!call!it!the!greatest!most!beautiful!western!ever!made,!finally!its! status!becames!a!justified!one,!worthy!of!the!efforts!and!genius!poured!into!it.! 111! !


And!the!fact!that!it!was!the!film!that!you!probably!wanted!to!make!the!most,!and!that!you! !made!in!the!way!you!wanted!to!(as!previously!another!producer!had!wanted!you!to!do!it!as! a!big!technicolor!film!with!May!West,!not!as!the!strippedItoItheIessence,!minimalist!film!it! became)!—!should!always!give!us!filmmakers!the!courage!not!to!give!in!when!one!has!one's! own!vision.! !Addendum:!Some!people!mistakenly!accuse!The&OxGBow&Incident!as!"Ford!imitation"!or!a! film!that!"Ford!should!have!directed,"!perhaps!because!of!the!casting!of!Henry!Fonda,!Jane! Darwell,!and!other!members!from!John!Ford!stock!company,!or!perhaps!because!of!the!use! of!'Red!River!Valley'!—!both!elements!also!featuring!in!a!Fox!film!of!the!previous!year,!The& Grapes&of&Wrath.!Of!course!Ford!might!have!made!a!fine!film!out!of!the!same!novel!as!well,! but! we! can! hereby! confirm! that! it! was! a! personal! project! for! you,! William! Wellman,! that! you!even!bought!the!rights,!and!that!you!definitely!made!all!the!right!choices!to!give!it!such! a!perfect!immaculate!form!as!cinema.! ! ! ! !

112! !


YELLOW!SKY!(1948):! HOMMESICHEVAUX:!DEVENIR!HUMAIN! MarieIPierre!Duhamel! En!guise!de!préambule! ! Un!jour,!en!revoyant!pour!la!Nième!fois!mes!westerns!préférés,!je!me!suis!mise!à!regarder! les! chevaux.! À! déplacer! le! regard! du! centre! de! la! mise! en! scène! (l’action,! les! acteurs! principaux,! le! dialogue…)! et! à! regarder,! «!dans! les! coins!»,! dans! les! espaces! secondaires! sinon!subalternes!des!plans.!!Là!où!sont!les!chevaux.! ! L’animal!est!bien!entendu!d’importance,!il!(transI)porte!physiquement!le!genre!tout!entier! et! ses! acteurs.! Il! est! parfois! un! enjeu! du! scénario.! Toujours! soumis,! enjeu! ou! pas,! aux! actions! humaines! et! réduit! en! somme! à! sa! «valeur! d’usage»! (scénaristique).! Mais! on! sait! bien!que!malgré!le!talent!des!dynasties!d’éleveurs!spécialisés!dans!le!dressage!de!chevaux! de! cinéma,! ces! derniers! restent! toujours! des! bêtes.! Des! bêtes! plutôt! timides! malgré! leur! puissance! physique,! que! les! coups! de! feu,! les! mouvements! brusques! et! les! cris! effarouchent,! que! la! présence! d’un! humain! trouble! ou! attire.! Au! cinéma! comme! «dans! la! vie»,!le!cheval!vit!une!vie!qui!échappe!à!la!nôtre,!moins!«intérieure»!qu’instinctive,!jamais! totalement!contrôlée.!Et!cela!se!voit.!!! ! La!tête,!le!col,!les!yeux,!les!oreilles,!les!mouvements!des!chevaux!de!western!sont!!comme! un! «!film! dans! le! film!»,! un! récit! parallèle,! une! autre! action,! discrète! et! libre,! que! les! humains! /! acteurs! reprennent! en! main! ! I! au! sens! propre!:! pour! repartir,! se! mettre! à! galoper,!se!cabrer,!tirer!la!carriole!ou!la!diligence,!être!attaché!à!l’entrée!du!saloon…!Rien! de! bien! spectaculaire! dans! cette! histoireIlà,! mais! quelque! chose! de! toujours! gracieux,! de! décalé,! ! de! merveilleusement! non! raccord…! ! tendre! les! oreilles! vers! le! hors! champ! du! dresseur,!au!lieu!de!«suivre»!la!bande!son,!gratifier!le!spectateur!d’exquis!regards!caméra,! renifler!le!cheval!d’à!côté.!!On!remarquera!même!quelques!manifestations!(parfois!quasiI intempestives)! de! comportements! sauvages! ! (je! revois! encore! un! dialogue! de! chevaux! entre!eux!à!la!limite!de!l’impertinence,!!littéralement!dans!le!dos!du!dialogue!Rock!HudsonI Mercedes!McCambridge!dans!Giant).! ! Cette! longue! introduction! n’a! d’autre! objet! que! d’esquisser! l’idée! de! l’animal! comme! indicateur! vivant! de! mise! en! scène.! ! Qu’il! s’agisse! d’indifférence! au! sauvage! (chevalI véhicule,! chevalImarchandise,! chevalIdécoratif,! le! lot! commun)! ou! comme! dans! Anthony! Mann,! d’inscription! de! la! fiction! dans! la! nature! (bouleversante! liberté! du! mouvement! 113! !


animal!dans!le!cadre).!Ou!qu’il!s’agisse!encore,!comme!ici,!!d’un!animal!complexe,!au!statut! changeant,!qui!indique!quelque!chose!du!destin!humain,!sans!jamais!abandonner!son!«êtreI animal».!Au!contraire.! ! Dans! Yellow& Sky,! l’affaire! se! joue! en! trois! temps! :! début! et! fin! (ce! qui! encadre! le! «plot»! principal),!épisode!de!la!traversée!du!désert!et!de!la!villeIfantôme,!et!résolution!du!conflit! (le!célèbre!guetIapens!du!saloon!raconté!«hors!champ»).! ! Tout! commence! par! des! chevauxIvéhicules,! êtres! quasi! invisibles! du! déplacement! des! acteurs.!On!notera!cependant!la!spectaculaire!frange!du!cheval!de!Gregory!Peck,!défi!lancé! aux!règles!des!écuries.! !

!

! Prophétie!

! Et!puis!survient,!avant!le!holdIup!que!commet!la!bande!dirigée!par!Gregory!Peck,!l’épisode! (retour! d’une! idée! de! Ox& Bow& Incident)! du! tableau! de! saloon,! une! version! féminine! de! Mazeppa!:!une!femme!enchaînée!au!dos!d’un!cheval.!Image!de!chevalIfemme!insistante!qui! fascine!longuement!les!regards!des!bandits.!! ! “Wonder!if!she!has!any!plans!after!she!gets!through!riding!that!horse”! “I!sure!would!like!to!know!what!she!plans!to!do!after!she’s!through!riding!that! horse”! ! Question!obsédante.! ! ! 114! !


! Le!désert!vrai!

!

! La!poursuite!des!bandits!par!les!soldats!a!la!pureté!et!la!puissance!des!chevaux!au!galop!:! tenue,!concentrée,!dynamique,!d’une!vitesse!inouïe,!!que!le!découpage!saisit!à!hauteur!de! sabots,!à!violence!de!poussière!soulevée,!à!dureté!du!mors!dans!la!bouche.! ! !

! ! ! Quand!les!soldats!abandonnent!la!poursuite!(car!le!désert!est!là!pour!«save!the!trouble!of! hanging! them»),! ! les! bandits! font! le! point!:! deux! chevaux! en! profitent! pour! renouer! une! amitié!d’écurie.!!Qui!n’est!pas!dans!le!scénario.!Dont!la!prise!est!conservée!au!montage.!Cela! vit.! !

115! !


! ! Conférence!de!bandits!:!dans!le!cadre,!les!chevaux!passent!de!pr��sences!banales!à!éléments! structurants! des! compositions.! Un! museau! droite! cadre! est! le! point! de! départ! de! la! diagonale! qui! organise! le! plan.! La! composition! a! les! chevaux! pour! bords,! et! c’est! encadré! par!le!corps!du!cheval!qu’un!jeune!bandit!doute.!FautIil!traverser!le!désert,!fautIil!!(en!fait)! passer!d’un!état&à!l’autre…! !

! ! Face! à! lui,! le! noir! d’un! pelage! se! confond! avec! celui! d’un! costume!:! Widmark! est! bien! entièrement!«noir».!D’autant!plus!qu’il!est!cadré!de!dos.!Homme!et!cheval!ne!regardent!pas! la! même! chose,! mais! ils! sont& la! même! chose.! Du! vivant,! des! passions! (des! instincts).! Ils! bougent!ensemble,!chacun!à!son!mystère.!!Une!sorte!de!substitution!est!à!l’œuvre.! !

!

! 116! !


! Silhouettes!indistinctes!dans!la!blancheur!aveuglante!d’un!désert!de!sel,!le!groupe!humain! se!dissout!dans!le!danger.!Hommes!et!montures!défilent!sur!fond!d’implacable!blancheur.!! ! Mais!le!sol!qui!cède!sous!les!sabots!fait!trébucher!les!animaux,!et!le!cœur!se!serre!à!voir!les! chevaux! peiner! vraiment& sur! le! sol! du! Owens! Lake.! ! De! plans! larges! «graphiques»! à! la! réalité!des!mouvements.! !

!

! C’est!ainsi!que!ce!désert!de!cinéma!existe!:!quand!les!chevaux!se!substituent!aux!humains! pour!rendre!la!souffrance!visible.!Ils!portent!de!tout!leur!corps!ce!que!le!spectateur!sait,!du! contrat!de!sa!croyance,!n’être!pour!les!acteurs!qu’une!feinte,!le!temps!de!la!prise.! ! Intensité! documentaire! de! l’animal,! d’autant! plus! précieuse! qu’elle! accompagne! (discrètement)!le!dessin!des!personnages.! ! Les!uns!et!les!autres!:!les!hommes,!les!chevaux,!le!lézard! ! Les!chevaux!et!les!hommes!se!distinguent!à!peine!dans!le!destinIdésert.!Les!chevaux!sont! devenus!l’expression!de!la!soif.!Car!pour!dire!que!la!soif!torture,!il!ne!sert!de!rien!de!faire! gémir!des!!acteurs.!!De!l’expressivité!:!scène!où!l’homme/acteur!soigne!l’animal!qui!ne!feint! jamais.! Humidifier! la! bouche! des! chevaux.! Basculer! la! mise! en! ! scène! du! côté! de! l’animal! pour!que!la!parole!des!hommes!!dépasse!la!mécanique!scénaristique!et!prenne!corps.!Corps! du!cheval,!corps!du!conflit.!Rien!de!ce!moment!ne!tiendrait!sans!conscience!que!l’animal!ne! joue!pas!:!compter!sur!le!cheval!documentaire!pour!que!la!fiction!soit!vraie.!Les!gestes!de! Gregory! Peck! passant! un! mouchoir! humide! sur! le! museau! du! cheval! troublent! la! convention! fictionnelle,! car! l’animal! réagit! en! animal.! On! sent! le! velours! du! museau,! on! entend!claquer!les!dents!qui!mâchonnent!l’humidité.!!Il!y!a!à!l’écran,!dans!l’image!en!noir!et! blanc!du!lointain!1948,!un!irréductible!présent.! 117! !


!

! C’est! en! étendant! au! plus! imbécile! des! complices! le! geste! du! soigneur& vrai! que! le! personnage!de!Peck!devient!plus!que!jamais!le!«!chef!»,!le!héros,!le!centre.!! ! “Kind!of!noble,!aren’t!you?”!dit!Widmark.!Peck!répond!!:!“A!horse!is!a!useful!animal,!no!use! to!let!him!suffer!just!because!it!belongs!to!a!jackass.!»!! ! Peck!du!côté!des!chevaux,!personnage!maître!du!récit.! ! Qui! est! l’imbécile!?! Qui! est! heureux! ou! malheureux!?! Qui! est! l’homme,! qui! est! la! bête!?! A! l’épreuve! du! désert,! les! consciences! vacillent.! Un! animal! de! plus! pour! montrer! que! ces! hommes!ne!savent!plus!trop!qui!ils!sont!(et!l’on!saura!plus!tard!que!la!Guerre!de!Sécession!a! brisé! leurs! identités)!:! un! lézard,! image! (en! gros! plan)! d’un! animal! plus! heureux! dans! le! désert!de!la!vie!que!l’homme!le!sera!jamais.!«That!ain’t!right».!Ce!«!bonheur!»!lui!coûte!la!vie.!!! ! Qui!sont!donc!les!«autres»,!ceux!qui!ne!sont!pas!de!la!bande,!et!qu’en!faire,!à!part!les!tuer…!! ! Avec!les!deux!habitants!de!la!ville!fantôme!(le!grandIpère!et!la!jeune!fille),!ce!sera!la!même! question.! !

!

! ! 118! !


La!lucidité!!des!chevaux! ! Au!fil!de!la!traversée!gagnent!l’épuisement,!la!soif,!le!doute,!la!tension…!! ! De!cet!abattement!les!chevaux!sont!de!plus!en!plus!les!implacables!incarnations.!Chevaux! devenus!hommes,!corps!réellement!éprouvés.!La!mort!rôde.! !

! ! La! tête! basse,! fixant! sans! ! le! voir! le! sol! désertique,! les! hommes! avancent,! au! bord! de! l’écroulement! fatal.! Quand! sera! visible! la! ville!tant! espérée,! ce! sera! le! cadre! qui! dira! leur! illusion.!! ! «!!Think!I!see!a!town!over!there.!»!!Dans!les!cadres,!les!chevaux!ne!regardent!rien.! !

! ! Le!cadre!efface!jusqu’à!!leurs!yeux!:!une!consigne!aux!acteurs!et!une!autre!au!cadreur!pour! faire! signifier! au! personnage! subalterne! du! cheval! ce! que! les! hommes! ne! savent! pas! encore!:!la!ville!est!«fantôme».! ! ! 119! !


!!

! Dans!la!ville/fantôme!:!!le!témoin!animal!et!une!femme!sans!cheval!

! Le!désespoir!mortifère!des!hommes!épuisés!!est!un!cheval!dont!le!museau!surplombe!les! corps.!! !

!

!

! Sous! le! signe! des! chevauxIveilleurs,! encore! frères! d’animalité! d’hommes! désespérés,! le! cadre!change!de!centre.!Désormais!de!plus!en!plus!dégagés!de!leur!êtreIanimal,!les!humains! vont! vivre! leurs! passions! à! eux.! ! Celles! des! consciences.! Les! passions! qui! manquent! aux! chevaux,!discrets!signes!d’un!destin!toujours!à!définir.!Qui!fait!l’ange!fait!la!bête.! ! !

120! !


! ! Un! cheval! mâchonne! son! mors! en! tirant! la! langue,! geste! intempestif! qui! fait! glisser! le! scénario! derrière! ce! qui! se! trame! à! l’image.! ! Wellman! laisse! sonner! dans! la! bandeIson! la! mâchoire,!le!mors,!le!bruit!de!la!langue.!Le!dialogue!n’a!plus!d’importance!réelle.! ! C’est!cela,!styliser.!!Compter!sur!la!vie,!laisser!jouer!son!inscription!discrète!dans!la!prise,! une!fois!que!le!cadre!a!(re)composé!le!réel!par!la!conjonction!!du!contrôle!(l’acteur)!et!de! l’incontrôlable! (l’animal).! Irruption! de! la! liberté! (un! ! museau! de! bête)! dans! l’espace! contraint!(le!starIsystem).! ! Enfin!vient!la!réponse!à!ce!que!faisait!la!femme!«after!she!was!through!riding.!»! ! Joe! McDonald,! décidément! inspiré,! ira! jusqu’à! ! la! composition! rinascimentale& & (c’est! bien& nous&que!l’œil!du!cheval!regarde),&sublimée!dans!l’illusion!optique.! &

! !!! D’un!tableau!à!l’autre,!la!femme!prend!le!relais!de!la!fiction.!Through&riding&that&horse.!! Les!chevaux!ont!accompli!pour!les!hommes!le!voyage!qui!les!mène!à!ce!qui!est!le!cœur!de!la! fiction!:!identité!et!passions,!instinct!et!conscience.!! 121! !


! Ils! ne! reviendront! pas! de! longtemps! ! dans! le! film.! Ils! ne! seront,! quand! arriveront! les! Indiens,!que!les!habituels!véhicules!du!genre!western.! ! Une! heure! de! film! sans! chevaux.! L’heure! des! hommes,! de! la! femme,! de! l’or.! L’heure! des! aveux,!des!dangers!venus!du!dehors,!des!histoires!enfin!racontées!(des!hommes!perdus!par! la!guerre),!des!vrais!noms!enfin!dits,!des!choix.!! ! Il!manque!une!résolution!à!la!violence!qui!accompagne!la!division!entre!ceux!qui!accèdent!à! une!autre!identité,!et!ceux!qui!considèrent!que!l’identité!est!une!marque!et!non!un!devenir! (Peck! vs.! Widmark).! Pour! que! cette! résolution! excède! la! littéralité! du! scénario,! il! faudra! faire! revenir! les! chevaux,! figures! de! sens! qui! emportent! la! résolution! auIdelà! du! happy& ending! et! qui! le! garde! de! mourir! de! convention.! C’est! ainsi! que! le! héros! sera! brièvement! changé! en! cheval.! Comme! si! le! mouvement! constaté! dans! le! désert! s’inversait! (chevalI homme!/!hommeIcheval)!pour!que!le!monde!retrouve!de!l’équilibre.!! En!deux!travellings.! ! Le!saloon!:!devenir!cheval! ! On!sait!le!coup!de!force!de!la!fusillade!final!:!le!spectateur!n’y!assiste!pas.!! Widmark!a!chassé!les!chevaux!de!ses!adversaires!!(«nus»!de!leurs!selles,!contrairement!au! sien,!équipé!pour!le!départ).!! !

! ! C’est!le!hennissement!de!son!cheval!qui!l’alerte!que!Peck!arrive.!La!nuit!tombe.!Ce!nocturne! de!«nuit!américaine»!porte!le!film!dans!l’espace!du!rêve,!là!où!les!frontières!entre!règnes! deviennent!poreuses.!! ! 122! !


Travelling!aller:!! ! Gregory!Peck!se!baisse!et!rampe!vers!la!porte!du!saloon!où!guettent!Widmark!et!un!autre! bandit.!C’est!un!animal,!une!bête!qui!avance!à!quatre!pattes.!Une!créature!qui!va!(doit)! changer.!Une!figure!mutante.!! ! Peck!se!redresse,!il!redevient!un!humain!:!son!ombre!sur!le!mur!en!témoigne.! ! Mais!comme!dans!la!nature!où!les!animaux!chassent,!c’est!le!son!(les!déclics!des!révolvers! armés)!qui!indiquent!les!présences,!dedans!(entre!bandits)!et!dehors!(Peck!contre!les!deux! autres).! ! Quand!Peck!s’élance!pour!entrer!dans!le!saloon,!l’ombre!qu’il!abandonne!sur!le!mur!est! celle!d’un!cheval.!Un!Doppelgänger!animal.! !

!

!

!

!

123! !


! ! ! L'homme! s'est! fait! cheval! pour! rester! dans! le! champ! de! la! fiction,! tandis! que! le! corps! humain!est!avalé!par!l'obscurité!(du!hors!vision).! ! Ce!sont!les!chevauxIombres!!qui!réagissent!au!bruit!et!à!l’éclat!des!coups!de!feu,!doubles!de! ceux!qui,!horsIchamp,!affrontent!la!mort.!! ! Travelling!retour!:! ! Dans!le!temps!du!plan,!parallèle!du!premier!travelling,!les!détonations!font!luire!et!éclater! les! fenêtres.! Les! chevaux! se! réincarnent! fugacement,! un! museau! apparaît.! On! dirait! bien! que!c’est!sur!eux!que!les!balles!sont!tirées.!! !

!

! Les!tirs!cessent.!L’ombre!des!chevaux!qui!fuient!se!dissout!sur!le!mur.!Les!animauxIfigures! peuvent!disparaître.! ! !

124! !


! ! Dans! l’épilogue,! les! chevaux! seront! redevenus! ! de! paisibles! véhicules.! L’homme! nouveau! qui!restitue!l’argent!volé!au!début!du!film!est!un!gentleman.!!La!conquête!de!cette!nouvelle! identité!(que!la!femme!sans!cheval!a!déclenchée)!a!eu!besoin&cinématographiquement!d’une! relation! à! l’animal.! ! D’une! histoire! non! scénaristique! faite! de! substitutions,! de! mutations,! d’échanges! de! places,! et! d’une! intelligence! subtile! de! l’imprévisibilité! des! bêtes.! ChevauxI documentaires! de! la! galopade,! du! désert! et! du! désespoir,! lézard! insupportable! d’opacité! bienheureuse,! chevauxIcadres! qui! donnent! aux! conflits! et! aux! désespérances! le! poids! de! leurs! présences,! chevauxIombres! qui! accomplissent! le! travail! de! mort! et! s’effacent! pour! que!le!jour!revienne.!!Et!chevauxIvoitures!de!western.!! ! Diversité!des!usages,!dans!une!mise!en!scène!qui!fait!jouer!réel,!fiction!et!peinture,!ombre! et!lumière,!règnes!et!genres,!sans!jamais!alourdir!d’une!quelconque!pesanteur!littéraire!le! délicat!travail!du!sens.! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !

125! !


YELLOW!SKY!(1948):! OUTROS!CÉUS! Felipe!Medeiros! «!O!que!faz!a!arte!em!geral,!e!a!montagem!cinematográfica!em!particular,!é!arrancar!aos! estados!dos!corpos!suas!qualidades!intensivas,!suas!potencialidades!de!acontecimento.!»! IIJacques!Rancière! Logo! no! início! de! Céu& Amarelo! um! bando! de! cowboys! fita! o! quadro! de! uma! mulher,! exposto!no!balcão!do!saloon!em!que!se!encontram.!Wellman!nos!dá!de!cara!uma!situação!a! ser!considerada:!a!modulação!dos!olhares!lançados!à!mulher!da!tela,!na!fronteira!entre!o! cansaço! e! a! libido,! insinua! uma! longa! jornada! pregressa! de! estratégias! falhas,! que! culminará! na! mudança! de! rota! rumo! ao! assalto! do! banco! local.! Em! seguida,! o! vulto! do! progressismo!americano!novamente!vai!ao!seu!encalço:!eles!vêemIse!perseguidos!por!uma! considerável!comitiva,!formada!por!homens!do!exército,!que!os!deixa!fugir!no!cessar!fogo,! acreditando!que!não!sobreviveriam!ao!deserto!pela!escassez!de!água.! Há! uma! maneira! bastante! detalhada! de! se! filmar! a! locomoção! do! bando! pelas! salinas.! O! perfil!de!cada!membro,!nesse!ínterim,!revela!o!seu!estado!psicológico!frente!à!atmosfera!de! «!fim!de!linha!»!que!norteia!e!distribui!as!arestas!do!filme!–!uma!espécie!de!antecipação!do! western!crepuscular!que!surgiria!entre!as!décadas!de!60!e!70,!onde!os!confrontos!decisivos! serão!substituídos!por!barganhas!políticas!e!a!relação!entre!os!membros!do!bando!se!dará! por!atos!bem!pouco!«!transparentes!».! Longe!de!um!tom!introdutório,!tais!cenas!fixam!as!sombras!de!um!território!moral!ao!qual! os!personagens,!seus!ecos!e!seus!passos!em!falso!estão!confinados.!Nesta!aspiração!sutil!ao! mistério!das!gradações,!das!ambigüidades!que!equacionam!toda!verdadeira!«!experiência!»! da!imagem,!está!a!investida!de!Wellman!a!partir!dos!microcosmos!do!saloon,!das!salinas!e,! sobretudo,! do! reservatório! de! água! localizado! na! cidade! de! Céu! Amarelo! (onde! o! bando! chega! após! cruzar! o! deserto),! que! virá! adensar! mais! expressivamente! os! propósitos! de! cada!personagem!a!partir!da!figura!de!Anne!Baxter.! Ao!ato!de!se!levar!às!últimas!consequências!uma!condição!Wellman!sempre!dedicou!uma! atenção! litúrgica! pela! qual& a! ação! adquire! uma! ressonância! coletiva! fundamental.! Assim! como! os! sete! homens! que! se! opunham! ao! linchamento! dos! vaqueiros! em! Consciências& Mortas& e! os! três! irmãos! aventureiros! frente! aos! desmandos! do! comandante! sádico! da! 126! !


Legião! Estrangeira! em! Beau& Geste,! Wellman! fende! seu! ponto! de! vista! à! trajetória! do! personagem! de! Gregory! Peck! em! Céu& Amarelo,! sem! que! contudo! deixe! de! criar! perfis! bastante!ricos!nas!vicissitudes!daqueles!que!coloca!em!xeque,!descrevendo!como!em!Walsh! e!Eastwood!as!oposições,!os!antípodas!de!sua!época!adaptados!ao!contexto!particular!dos! filmes.! Portanto,! embora! nessas! obras! de! Wellman! haja! como! que! uma! sedimentação! de! certos! apegos!morais!(em!Céu&Amarelo!a!declinação!às!malhas!da!ganância!materialista;!em!Beau& Geste!a!importância!da!unidade!familiar;!em!Consciências&Mortas!o!libelo!contra!a!execução! da!pena!de!morte),!é!como!a!um!organismo!vivo!que!devíamos!nos!referir!a!esses!filmes,! uma!vez!que!estes!não!enrijecem!seus!modos!de!relato!a!questões!pessoais!ou!tentativas!de! adesão! panfletárias.! Antes! o! contrário:! Wellman! se! constitui! como! um! dos! encenadores! mais!livres!do!seu!período,!onde!também!estão!Rossellini,!McCarey!e!Renoir,!por!fazerem! existir!num!plano!a!descrição!objetiva!de!lugares!e!seres!aliada!à!exteriorização!por!gestos! e!palavras!do!que!se!passa!em!camadas!mais!subterrâneas!destes!últimos.!É!esta!arte!que,! abstrata!porém!linear,!concreta!porém!repleta!de!matizes,!eleva!seus!filmes!a!outros!céus.!!

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THE!NEXT!VOICE!YOU!HEAR!(1950):! FROM!GOD’S!MOUTH!TO!YOUR!EAR! J.!Hoberman!

! "Probably,!we!will!never!be!able!to!determine!the!psychic!havoc!of!the!concentration! camps!and!the!atom!bomb!upon!the!unconscious!mind!of!almost!everyone!alive!in!these! years."! —!Norman!Mailer,!“White!Negro”!(1957)! ! "For!collective!problems!only!collective!remedies!suffice..."! —!Jacques!Ellul,!Propaganda:&The&Formation&of&Men’s&Attitudes&(1962)! !

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***! There! are! movies! that! alter! one’s! perspective! and! movies! designed! to! do! that!very! thing.! The& Next& Voice& You& Hear,! an! MGM! film! directed! by! William! Wellman!in! 1950,! is! one! such! manufactured!revelation.!(Among!other!things,!it!inspired!this!book.)! The! transmission! reached! me! via! television! on! a! Christmas! morning,! some! twenty! years! after!its!theatrical!release!—!an!unexpected!discovery,!comparable,!in!its!way,!to!stumbling! upon!the!Taj!Mahal!or!the!Grand!Canyon.!Not!that!The!Next&Voice!is,!as!a!movie,!particularly! grandiose.! The! perfection! of! this! dowdy! blackIandIwhite! production! derives! from! its! premise!—!so!simple!as!to!be!nearly!elegant!and!so!cosmic!as!to!appear!certifiably!insane.! Can! any! movie! top! it?! Framed! by! two! biblical! citations! representing! the! Old! and! New! Testaments,!the!movie!practices!a!unique!form!of!direct!address.!For!six!consecutive!nights,! the!Creator!of!the!Universe!commandeers!the!airwaves!to!personally!talk!to!the!American! people.! ! The! implications! of! such! divine! intervention! are! vast,! but! God’s! audience! is! essentially! reduced! to! a! single! family! living! in! a! modest! home! in! suburban! Los! Angeles.! Joe! Smith! (James!Whitmore)!is!a!mechanic!in!the!Ajax!Aircraft!Plant;!his!pregnant!wife,!Mary!(Nancy! Davis),!is!a!gracious,!superI!nurturing!mother!to!their!tenIyearIold!son,!Johnny!(Gary!Gray).! Initially,! The& Next& Voice& You& Hear! appears! as! an! unfunny! situation! comedy! with! Joe! both! compliant!wage!slave!and!house!hold!tyrant:!“Don’t!do!like!I!do!—!do!like!I!tell!you!to!do,”! he! instructs! Johnny! even! as! he! chafes! under! authority! (defined! as! “everybody! telling! you! what! to! do”),! resenting! most! particularly! his! acerbic! foreman! (Art! Smith)! and! the! neighborhood!cop!who!regularly!chastises!him!for!heedlessly!backing!his!heap!out!of!the! driveway.! ! God! enters! history,! although! —! as! if! in! accordance! with! the! Old! Testament!ban! on! representation!—!only!by!hearsay.!One!night,!puzzled!Joe!tells!Mary!that!the!radio!show!to! which! he! had! been! listening! was! interrupted! by! a! selfIidentified! Voice! of! God! informing! listeners,! “I’ll! be! with! you! for! the! next! few! days.”! Charles! Schnee’s! rigorously! schematic! script! ensures! that,! on! each! of! the! six! evenings! that! God! addresses! the! public,! the! movie! audience! will! miss! the! divine! performance.! Evidently! producer! Dore! Schary! feared! that! patrons!would!react!with!laughter!—!as!well!they!might!have,!if!perhaps!a!bit!nervously.! Despite! its! bland,! earnest,! selfIcongratulatory! corn,! The& Next& Voice& You& Hear! is! a! study! in! terror;!it!acknowledges!an!actual!anxiety!and,!however!pitifully,!responds!to!a!real!sense!of! helplessness.! “You’re! not! supposed! to! worry! about! the! fate! of! the! world! until! you’re! big! enough! to! shave,”! Joe! tells! Johnny! after! God’s! second! broadcast! —! or! should! we! say,! civil! defense!warning.!If!(or!rather,!when)!there’s!another!war,!the!battlefield!will!be!everywhere.! 129! !


When!Johnny!expresses!his!apprehension,!Joe!blames!God:!“Scaring!kids!—!it’s!gone!too!far.”! Terrorizing! Johnny! is! Joe’s! job,! as! is! made! clear! when! the! boy! breaks! the! radio! plug! just! before!the!Voice’s!third!scheduled!appearance!and!Joe!predictably!flies!into!a!rage.! Truly,!The&Next&Voice&You&Hear!has!many!lessons!to!teach.!On!the!third!night,!God!goes!to!the! interpersonal,!asking!if!His!listeners!are!afraid!of!Him!and!wondering,!“Why!should!children! be!afraid!of!their!father?”!(Why!indeed,!when!He!is!omniscient!and!holds!the!power!of!life! and!death?)!A!hard!rain!begins!to!fall!as!the!broadcast!ends,!causing!normally!placid!Mary!to! scream! in! terror.! But,! as! this! is! a! movie,! there! is! nothing! that! can’t! be! resolved! —! it! was! Schary,! in! fact,! who! famously! called! America! a! “happy! ending! nation.”! Thus,! a! quick! cut:! instead!of!the!end!of!the!world,!day!four!brings!sunshine,!and,!for!once,!Joe’s!jalopy!starts!up! without!a!problem.!But!that!night,!after!the!Voice!has!taken!credit!for!certain!large!miracles! and!asked!listeners!to!reciprocate!with!their!own!small!miracles!of!love!and!kindness,!God! gives! Joe! Smith! a! test:! Mary! goes! into! false! labor! and! her! annoying! Aunt! Ethel! becomes! hysterical,!prompting!jumpy!Joe!to!further!panic!and!shake!the!silly!woman.! Day!2!five!falls!on!a!Saturday.!Mary!is!angry!with!her!husband!for!his!brutish!behavior,!so!he! storms!out!of!the!house!to!a!neighborhood!tavern.!“If!God!stays!on!the!radio,!these!joints!will! close!down!”!somebody!can!be!heard!slurring.!(If!only!!Hadn’t!movie!mogul!Samuel!Goldwyn! only!recently!maintained!that!TV!was!“little!more!than!a!gimmick!used!by!tavernI!keepers!to! induce!patrons!to!linger!over!another!drink”?)!Sure!enough,!Joe!meets!Satan!in!the!form!of!a! feckless!war!buddy!with!a!female!familiar.!Joe!is!ready!to!take!off!for!the!South!Seas,!fleeing! the! Voice! of! God! like! a! latterIday! Jonah,! until! the! buddy! and! the! barfly! make! light! of! his! family.! Suddenly,! it’s! as! if! Joe! had! sulked! off! to! a! movie! that! caused! him! to! think!! Reacquainted!with!his!responsibilities,!he!turns!lugubriously!lachrymose!and!staggers!home! (again!frightening!Johnny,!albeit!inadvertently)!to!bury!his!head!in!Mary’s!lap.!! That! night! God! tells! His! listeners! (or! so! we! are! told)! that! they! are! like! schoolchildren:! “You’ve! forgotten! your! lessons.! I! ask! you! to! do! your! homework.”! On! day! six,! it’s! Johnny’s! turn!to!run!away.!Unbeknownst!to!Joe,!the!boy!is!a!friend!to!his!nemesis,!the!curmudgeonly! foreman!at!his!factory.!Just!before!the!Voice’s!nightly!address,!Joe!discovers!Johnny!at!the! foreman’s! house,! happily! building! a! model! airplane.! (This! demonstration! of! workplace! harmony! is! not! intended! as! ironic.)! Manager! and! managed! are! reconciled;! they! exchange! first!names!and!bless!each!other.!Monday!evening!finds!the!entire!community!expectantly! gathered!in!church,!eyes!fixed!on!the!cathedralIstyle!radio!that’s!been!placed!on!the!pulpit:! “Ladies!and!gentlemen!of!the!universe,”!the!announcer!solemnly!begins,!“the!next!voice!you! hear!.!.!.”!But!the!radio!is!silent.!As!the!minister!steps!into!the!breach,!Mary!goes!into!labor.! Celestial!music!heralds!the!conclusion!of!the!movie.!Heavenly!clouds!fill!the!screen.!There!is! no!end!title,!save!perhaps!for!the!viewer’s!soft,!incredulous,!“Wow.”! 130! !


! ***! “The!heaviest!movie!Hollywood!ever!made,”!I!wrote!then!in!my!film!journal.!“SlowImotion! situation! comedy! alternates! with! accelerated! soap! opera.! The! iconography! of! American! unconscious/alienated!suffering!—!the!workers’!suburbs!—!is!as!strong!as!Crumb’s!best...! fantastically!symptomatic!of!Hollywood’s!impending!nervous!breakdown!in!the!face!of!TV.”! Here!are!some!more!recent!notes:! •! The& Next& Voice& You& Hear! appeared! at! a! moment! of! crisis! for! the! nation! as!well! as! the! movie!industry.!The!United!States!and!Hollywood!were!both!dazed,!if!not!traumatized,!by! the! loss! of! a! significant! monopoly! —! the! United! States! was! no! longer! the! world’s! sole! nuclear! power,! and! the! studios! had! been! compelled! to! divest! themselves! of! their! theater! chains.!Each!entity!was!threatened!by!an!alien!threat!(Communism,!television).! •! The& Next& Voice& You& Hear! addresses! this! crisis! in! part! by! projecting! a! situation!in! which! everyone! can! receive! the! same! divine! message.! For! Hollywood,! this! doubles! as! a! form! of! selfI! celebration.! What! is! a! movie! if! not! an! idea! —! or! a! dramatized! scenario! —! that! is! pictured!and!played!out!in!millions!of!minds?!The&Next&Voice&You&Hear!is!a!massIproduced! idea! in! praise! of! massIproduced! ideas.! (Published! shortly! before! the! movie! opened,! Hortense! Powdermaker’s! anthropological! study! Hollywood,& the& Dream& Factory! put! this! in! both! business! and! ideological! terms:! Hollywood! “tries! to! adapt! the! American! dream,! that! all!men!are!created!equal,!to!the!view!that!all!men’s!dreams!should!be!made!equal.”)!But!if! an!idea!is!pictured!by!a!million!minds!simultaneously,!it!is!called!television!—!which,!unlike! radio,!does!not!exist!in!this!particular!utopia.! •!The&Next&Voice&You&Hear!is!selfIserving!not!just!in!its!mission!but!by!its!affirmation!of!the! Hegelian!notion!that!history!is!a!rational!force!with!a!definite!goal.!The!invention!of!radio,!if! not! television,! is! part! of! an! ongoing! divine! plan! —! as! is,! at! least! implicitly,! Dore! Schary’s! ascension!to!the!MGM!front!office.!A!studio!promotional!release!articulated!the!producer’s! point!of!view:!“May!I!suggest!that,!while!you!do!not!hear!God’s!voice,!you!go!to!see!The&Next& Voice&You&Hear!accepting!the!premise!that!God!would!use!the!radio!much!as!at!an!earlier! date!He!used!the!burning!bush.”!But!why!radio!and!why!not!the!burning!bush?!The!earth! was!not!yet!denuded!of!foliage.! •! The& Next& Voice& You& Hear! maintains! that,! as! the! French! social! philosopher! Jacques! Ellul! wrote!of!propaganda!a!decade!after!the!movie’s!release,!God!cannot!exist!in!a!mass!society! without!access!to!the!mass!media.!Indeed,!the!unheard!Voice!of!God!in!The&Next&Voice&You& Hear! is! the! essence! of! what! Ellul! termed! “sociological! propaganda”! —! a! vague,! spontaneous,! allIpervasive,! yet! halfIconscious! form! of! social! bonding! and! ideological! 131! !


proselytizing! advanced! by! advertising,! newspaper! editorials,! social! ser! vice! agencies,! patriotic!speeches,!and!anything!else!that!might!use!the!phrase!“way!of!life.”!(The!concept! of!freedom!is!to!America!as!entertainment!is!to!Hollywood.)! •!The&Next&Voice&You&Hear,!which!might!be!alternately!titled!“Dore!Schary’s!Mission,”!was! intended!as!something!more!than!entertainment.!But!is!it!entertainment!as!propaganda!or! propaganda! as! entertainment?! Perhaps! we! should! think! of! it! as! an! illustration! of! an! idea! willing!itself!into!history.!The!main!thing,!Ellul!would!argue,!is!that!The&Next&Voice&You&Hear! (as! well! as! the! Next! Voice! that! is! unheard)! responds! to! actual! problems! —! a! state! of! national!insecurity!—!and!that!it!also!proposes!itself!as!a!solution!to!these!problems.! •! Thus,! The& Next& Voice& You& Hear! upholds! motherhood! and! the! family! and! asserts! that! neighborly! neighbors! and! responsible! policemen! are! necessary,! that! suburbia,! “honest”! work,!school,!and!a!vague!nondenominational!Protestantism!are!both!the!natural!order!of! things!and!the!greatest!good.!“The!original!affinity!of!business!and!amusement!is!shown!in! the! latter’s! special! significance:! to! defend! society.”! So! wrote! the! social! philosophers! +! Theodor! Adorno! and! Max! Horkheimer! from! their! war! time! refuge! in! Los! Angeles.! “To! be! pleased!means!to!say!Yes.”! •!The&Next&Voice&You&Hear!defines!the!nation!as!an!audience.!In!the!second!broadcast,!God! had!been!heard!to!complain!that!people!wanted!miracles.!According!to!Mary,!who!recounts! this!message!to!Joe!(who!missed!it,!Wednesday!being!his!bowling!night),!“the!Voice!said!He! was!going!to!think!about!that.”!(Humanity!being!His!focus!group.)!But,!of!course,!fantastic! miracles! were! precisely! what! Dore! Schary! did! not! want! in! his! movie;! he! wanted! naturalized,!everyday!miracles,!like!The&Next&Voice&You&Hear!itself.! •! The& Next& Voice& You& Hear! is! deliberately! unprepossessing! as! cinema! precisely! because! it! strives! to! locate! eternity! in! the! familiar! —! just! as! a! Renaissance! painting! of! the! Annunciation! might! be! set! in! a! fifteenthIcentury! Florentine! courtyard.! “Naturalism”! is! vouchsafed! by! offhand! references! to! the! Federal! Communications! Commission,! Nielsen! ratings,!and!Orson!Welles,!who!had!panicked!the!nation!—!or!at!least!some!members!of!the! radioI!listening!public!—!with!his!1938!Halloween!eve!broadcast,!The&War&of&the&Worlds.! Natural! skeptics,! Joe! Smith! and! his! fellow! workers! initially! theorize! that! the! alien! Voice! speaking!through!their!radio!sets!may!be!Welles!practicing!some!newfangled!form!of!“mass! suckerology.”!This!is!an!inoculation!for!the!audience!—!the!acknowledgment!of!a!historical! hoax!to!conceal!the!greater!ahistorical!hoax!that!is!this!movie.[1]! •!The&Next&Voice&You&Hear!is!of!1950!but!not!in!it:!the!Smiths!do!not!own!a!television!set! because,!like!God,!TV!cannot!be!shown!on!the!screen.!Nor!is!this!the!only!absence.!No!one! refers!to!the!atomic!bomb,!let!alone!the!recent!loss!of!America’s!nuclear!monopoly.!The!Rus! 132! !


sians!are!furtively!mentioned!(but!not!China).!The!words!“Communism”!and!“fascism”!are! never! whispered;! neither! is! the! name! “Jesus.”! Thus,! The& Next& Voice& You& Hear! is! set! in! a! fantastic!parallel!universe!that!rigorously!works!to!exclude,!conceal,!or!deny!that!which!it! might!actually!be!about.!Let’s!call!that!imaginary!world!the!Movies.! If! one! movie! is! a! manufactured! fantasy,! a! year’s! worth! of! movies! —! or! a! decade’s! —! becomes! an! instrumentalized! stream! of! consciousness! that! insinuates! itself! into! a! shared! national! narrative.! As! Thomas! Mann! wrote! in! The& Magic& Mountain,! “a! human! being! lives! out!not!only!his!personal!life!as!an!individual,!but!also,!consciously!or!subconsciously,!the! lives! of! his! epoch! and! contemporaries.”! As! suggested! by! The& Next& Voice& You& Hear,! that! second,!dream!life!is!lived!through!the!mass!media.! However!much!the!product!of!particular!forces!at!a!specific!moment,!a!mass!consumed!idea! like!The&Next&Voice!draws!on!preexistent!fantasies!and!contributes!to!an!ongoing,!collective! drama.!In!some!respects,!The&Next&Voice’s!scenario!was!fulfilled!in!1952!with!the!election!of! a! GodIfearing! yet! soothing! Christian! soldier! to! the! presidency.! (Dore! Schary! had! campaigned! for! General! Dwight! D.! Eisenhower! as! early! as! 1948.)! James! Whitmore,! the! movie’s! designated! everyman,! grew! up! to! play! two! presidents,! including! the! actual! everyman!writ!large!who!occupied!the!White!House!when!The&Next&Voice!was!made;!even! better,!his!onscreen!spouse!was!elevated!to!the!White!House!itself,!in!a!move!that!suggests! a! logic! beyond! all! logic! operating! in! the! Dream! Life:! marrying! a! fellow! movie! actor! who! would!be!elected!president!—!the!president.[2]! Schary!mobilized!the!shadows;!The&Next&Voice&You&Hear!had!assigned!itself!a!mission,!just! as!Hollywood!assumed!one!during!the!last!war.!It!was!made!to!demonstrate!that,!certain! technological! developments! notwithstanding,! movies! remained! a! powerful,! positive,! necessary!force!in!American!society.!In!this,!The&Next&Voice!may!have!been!shameless!but! hardly! unique.! Evoking! extraterrestrial! invasion,! mind! control,! national! insecurity,! and! even! Armageddon,! Schary! presents! themes! common! to! Cold! War! Hollywood,! albeit! in! a! more!comforting!sociological!propagandist!form.[3]! In!1950,!New&York&Times!film!critic!Bosley!Crowther!bracketed!The&Next&Voice!with!the!near! simultaneous! EagleILion! release! Destination& Moon! as! an! instance! of! “stimulating! movie! fantasy.”! Destination! Moon,! produced! by! George! Pal! and! directed! by! Irving! Pichel,! also! insisted!on!its!verité.!Life!magazine’s!production!story!absurdly!maintained!that!the!movie! was!so!realistic!that!it!“met!its!chief!obstacle!in!the!form!of!important!scientific!visitors!who! poked!around!the!painted!craters!just!to!get!an!idea!of!what!a!trip!to!the!moon!might!really! be!like.”!But!Destination!Moon!—!its!title!unavoidably!echoing!the!war!time!hit!Destination& Tokyo! (1943)! —! was! far! more! concerned! with! geopolitical! danger! than& extraterrestrial! exploration.! 133! !


! Crowther’s!review!cited!the!Soviet!threat!in!its!lead!paragraph,!noting!that!no!one!had!yet! reached! the! moon! unless! “the! Russians! have! pulled! a! fast! one! on! us,”& and! musing! that! it! was!“arresting!to!hear!an!eloquent!scientist!proclaim!that&the!first!nation!which!can!use!the! moon! for! launching! missiles! will! control! the& earth.”! Destination& Moon! addressed! the! very! national!security!problem!that&the!Truman!administration!had!grappled!with!for!the!past! three!years:!how!to&prepare!for!war!and!prepare!the!people!for!war!when,!as!yet,!there!was! no!war.! One!mission!stood!in!for!another.!Opening!at!the!White!Sands!military!installation,!site!of! the!original!atomic!bomb!tests!and!the!present!home!to!the!von&Braun!rocket!team!(which! had! been! largely! transplanted! from! Germany! in& 1945),! Destination& Moon! immediately! evokes! the! notion! of! top! secret! technology,& the! specter! of! enemy! sabotage,! and! the! necessity!of!a!lunar!military!base!in&no!uncertain!terms:!“There!is!no!way!to!stop!a!missile! launched!from!outer&space.!That!is!the!most!important!military!fact!of!this!century.”!This! hard! sell& echoes! the! rhetoric! of! NSCI68,! the! U.S.! National! Security! Council! report! that& advocated! massive! rearmament! in! the! aftermath! of! the! Soviet! atomic! bomb& and,! like! Destination!Moon,!was!in!production!in!early!1950.[4]! As!The&Next&Voice!imagines!God!as!the!miracle!of!television!without!TV,!Destination&Moon! conceives! of! national! security! as! a! Hollywood! superIproduction! and! assigns! the! leading! role! to! private! industry.! “If! we! want! to! stay! in! business! we! have! to! build! this! ship,”! one! visionary!plutocrat!tells!a!conclave!of!his!tuxedoIclad!peers.!(If!anything,!the!government!is! an!impediment.!The!expedition!blasts!of!in!defiance!of!a!court!order,!one!step!ahead!of!the! police!—!which!is!to!say,!reality.!Destination&Moon&anticipates!the!“space!race”!by!the!better! part!of!a!decade!and!Ronald!Reagan’s!“Star!Wars”!program!by!some!thirtyI!three!years.)!As! the! Cold! War! heated! up,! Hollywood! naturally! sought! the! divine! guidance! of! an! earlier! mission.! Underlying! the! stimulating! fantasies! of! The& Next& Voice& You& Hear! and! Destination& Moon! was! the! movie! industry’s! unprecedented! World! War! II! mobilization! and! sense! of! purpose.! The!actor!James!Whitmore!was!not!just!Joe!Smith!but,!for!the!audience!of!1950,!an!OscarI winning!supporting!actor!in!a!previous!Dore!Schary!production,!Battleground!(1949),!and! thus!an!iconic!GI!Joe.!Indeed,!for!Schary,!The&Next&Voice!was!a!sequel!to!if!not!a!remake!of! Joe& Smith,& American,! a! patriotic! morale! booster! that! helpfully! propagandized! President! Franklin! D.! Roosevelt’s! preparedness! program;! it! was! produced! by! Schary’s! old! MGM! BI movie! unit! and! released! four! months! into! World! War! II.! In! the! apocalyptic! glow! of! the! Soviet!atomic!bomb,!Schary!had!the!idea!of!letting!God,!rather!than!FDR,!speak!directly!to! Joe!Smith,!American.! 134! !


If! The& Next& Voice& You& Hear! imagined! a! cosmic! fireside! chat,! the! scenario! projected! by! Destination&Moon!seemingly!took!its!cues!from!the!novelist!Ayn!Rand,!an!influential!rightI wing! critic! of! liberal! Hollywood,! in! promoting! an! anti–New! Deal! plutocracy! to! safeguard! America.!Despite!their!ideological!differences,!both!movies!took!it!for!granted!that!fantasy! could!be!instrumentalized,!and!both!celebrated!Hollywood’s!capacity!to!change!the!world.! War!included!a!war!of!images.!Entertainment!had!a!vital!social!function:!just!as!Joe!Smith!is! instructed!by!the!radio,!so!the!industrialists!are!educated!in!the!principles!of!rocketry!by!a! specially!prepared!Woody!Woodpecker!cartoon.! The& Next& Voice& You& Hear! and! Destination& Moon! suggest! that! Hollywood’s! World!War! II! mobilization,! along! with! the! belief! that! the! people! who! made! movies! were! not! just! professional! entertainers! but! politically! aware! culture! workers,! continued! after! the! war! ended,! through! the! Truman! presidency! and! into! Eisenhower’s! first! term.! Hollywood! accepted!a!new!mission!and!assigned!itself!a!role,!albeit!a!largely!unofficial!one,!in!the!new! war!—!both!in!terms!of!movies!made!and!careers!unmade.! ! ***! Excerpt!from!An&Army&of&Phantoms!I!Copyright!©!2011!by!J.!Hoberman.!Reprinted!by! permission!of!The!New!Press.!www.thenewpress.com.!Our!very!special!thanks!to!J.! Hoberman,!as!well!as!Sharon!Swados!and!Sarah!Fan!at!The!New!Press.! [1]!Similarly,!while!The&Next&Voice!is!careful!to!note!that!everyone!in!the!world!can!hear! the!Voice!in!their!own!language,!it!is!taken!for!granted!that!the!Voice!broadcasts!when!it’s! prime!time!in!L.A.—!after!all,!that’s!where!dreams!are!born.! [2]!Whitmore!received!an!Oscar!nomination!in!1975!for!Give&’Em&Hell,&Harry!!and,!three! years!later,!played!Theodore!Roosevelt!in!the!madeIforItelevision!movie!Bully.!Nancy!Davis! married!Ronald!Reagan!in!1952.! [3]!As!the!issues!of!the!1950s!were!revived!in!the!1970s,!The&Next&Voice&You&Hear!is!a! prototype!for!Close&Encounters&of&the&Third&Kind;!despite!the!absence!of!dramatic!special! effects,!the!movie’s!reassuring!construction!of!the!spectator!as!a!child!marks!it!as!a! primitive!example!of!Spielbergism.! [4]!Released!a!month!earlier!(and!discussed!in!chapter!2),!Rocketship&XGM!was! Destination&Moon’s!“progressive”!equivalent.! !

135! !


SCRAPS!OF!WELLMAN!#4! Haphazard!notes,!or!an!attempt!to!remember!some!of!the!details,!from!a!screening!of!!!!!! The&Happy&Years&(1938)!on!35mm!at!Film!Forum!on!2/29/12!

!!

136! !


TRACK!OF!THE!CAT!(1954):! PHYSIS,!NOMOS!E!LOGOS! Toni!D’Angela! L'artigiano!infaticabile!dei!generi,!specialista!nella!diversità,!è!colui!che!ha!diretto!uno!dei! western!più!anomali!e!inquietanti!del!genere!americano!per!eccellenza:!Track&of&the&Cat!(La& belva,! 1954),! sceneggiato! da! A.I.! Bezzerides! e! fotografato! da! William! Clothier.! Il! protagonista! è! un! barbarico! e! perturbante! Robert! Mitchum! e! il! produttore,! sebbene! indirettamente,!John!Wayne.!! L'incipit! è! inscritto! nella! fine,! è! l'aprirsi! di! uno! scenario! in! cui! si! consuma! qualcosa,! mitologicamente! e! definitivamente.! Il! western! di! Wellman! importa! più! per! la! tonalità! e! l'ambientazione!che!rimandano!alla!tragedia!greca!e!a!Shakespeare,!che!non!per!la!fabula.!! Track&of&the&Cat&è!la!rappresentazione!della!fine,!il!sottrarsi!e!il!venir!meno!I!sullo!sfondo! della!neve!bianca!che!ricopre!il!paesaggio!petroso!e!primordiale!I!di!una!legge,!quella!del! nomos,! del! potere! giustificato! dalla! violenza,! basato! sulla! connessione! fra! violenza! e! giustizia,!sessualità!e!proprietà.!Un!potere!selvaggio!che!divide!e,!insieme,!unisce!l'umano!e! il! ferino:! Robert! Mitchum! è! infatti! ossessionato! dal! puma! nero! peraltro! sempre! invisibile! poiché,!in!ultima!analisi,!la!bestia!si!annida!nelle!pieghe!del!suo!cuore!di!tenebra.!La!sfida! che! segna! il! racconto! e! contrappone! il! cattle! king! e! la! fèra& è! la! soglia! di! indistinzione! fra! violenza!e!diritto.! Sia! il! cowboy! che! l'animale! sono! due! belve! feroci,! infuriate,! selvatiche! e! indomite,! che! nuocciono! agli! altri! e! marcano! il! territorio.! Indifferente! è! il! punto! in! cui! le! due! belva! si! distinguono,! le! tracce! restano! sulla! neve! solo! poco!tempo,! poiché! esse! vengono! coperte! e! ricoperte!da!altra!neve.!Dunque!la!scelta!di!questo!bianco!accecante!è!già!semantica!nella! sua!sintassi.!La!cornice!bianca!è!la!scena!primordiale!in!cui!si!gioca!l'origine!del!diritto!che! si!separa!dalla!violenza!–!fino!ad!un!certo!punto!a!dire!il!vero!–!ma!solo!a!partire!da!una! indistinzione!tendenziale!o!differenza!minima.!Sprofondati!nel!bianco!e!nella!sua!tempesta! che!ulula!è!impossibile!discriminare!perfino!sé!dagli!altri.!In!fondo!Mitchum!è!alla!caccia!di! se!stesso,!del!male!che!si!annida!in!ognuno!di!noi.!L'uomo!è!l'animale!più!terribile!e!crudele! scriveva!Sofocle!molto!tempo!fa,!poco!dopo!la!cessazione!del!regno!del!nomos.! Il!bianco!è!il!teatro!ideale!per!la!messa!in!scena!della!distruzione!di!un!antico!ordine,!quello! rappresentato!dal!rude!Curt!Bridges!(Mitchum)!e!dalla!legge!clanica!della!famiglia!chiusa!e! ostile! al! mondo! degli! altri! sempre! percepiti! come! antagonisti! e! concorrenti,! come! la! giovane!fidanzata!del!fratello!minore!di!Curt,!subito!inchiodata!dalla!vecchia!madre!come! 137! !


una!poco!di!buono!che!è!venuta!per!seminare!discordia!e!soprattutto!dividere!il!patrimonio! e,! quindi,! indebolire! la! famiglia,! significativamente! rappresentata! non! solo! come! ostile! al! mondo!ma!anche!isolata!nella!tormenta!di!neve,!priva!di!feconde!relazioni!sociali.!Del!resto! anche! l'aver! luogo! della! differenza! che! separa! il! brutale! Curt! dal! giovane,! timido! e! subordinato!fratello!è!pur!sempre!solo!uno!scarto!minimo!e!perfino!un!effetto!non!voluto.! Come!osservava!Vico:!le!origini!sono!sempre!rozze.!E!Wellman,!del!resto,!ha!saputo!mettere! in!scena!questa!indistinzione!non!solo!in!Track&of&the&Cat!ma!anche!in!The&OxGBow&Incident,! in! cui,! sospesa! fra! conflitto! familiare! tra! padre! e! figlio! e! tensione! fra! nomos& (giustizia! mediante! linciaggio)! e& logos& (giustizia! mediante! processo),! come! nel! proprio! humus,! sedimentata,! si! dischiude! una! banalità! del! male! incrostata! nella! banalità! di! base,! niente! affatto! eccezionale! e! proprio! per! questo! ancora! più! inquietante! e! perturbante.! E! che! le! origini!sono!rozze!Wellman!lo!sa!bene!al!punto!da!aver!creato!su!questa!verità!con!rosoni! arruffati! uno! dei! suoi! capolavori:! Across& the& Missouri.! Raffigurazione! vivace! di! uno! spazio! senza! confini,! caosmotico,! rimescolato,! terra! oscura! e! distesa! dell'indefinito,! attraversata! da!una!donna!verso!l'ignoto!che!per!prima!affronta!il!pericolo!di!una!coltre!di!neve!bianca! aprendo!la!strada!ai!pionieri.!Le!origini!di!una!nazione!che!nasce!nel!segno!della!rudezza!e! della! curiosità,! dell'espediente! e! del! pragmatismo,! dell'energia! e! della! gaiezza! robusta.! Tutte!forze!pulsanti!incarnati!nei!personaggi!variopinti!del!racconto!fluido!che!rappresenta! il!divenireIamericano!dell'americano!lungo!quella!frontiera!che!ancora!non!conosce!confini! e!che!è!missaggio!di!provenienze,!promiscuità!di!lingue!e!costumi,!eterogeneità!feconda!di! umori,! fibre,! sentimenti,! robustezze! e! fragilità:! espressione! di! un! nuovo! mondo! e! di! un! corpo!composto!da!più!parti!differenti!fra!loro.!! Il! nuovo! ordine,! dunque,! anche! in! Track& the& Cat,! si! distacca! necessariamente! dal! vecchio! invaginandosi! in! esso,! per! ebollizione,! la! nuova! nascita! feconda! se! stessa! nell'humus! ambiguo! dell'antico! ordine! prima! di! schiudersi! come! logos! e! infine! autorappresentarsi! come!distinto!e!contrapposto!al!nomos,!insomma!l'annuncio,!enigmatico!e!inquietante,!da! un! lato! del! crepuscolo! e! dall'altro! dell'aurora,! si! innestano! l'uno! nell'altro.! Curt! tende! a! transitare!nella!belva!e!il!fratello!più!piccolo,!per!liberarsi!ed!essere!autonomo,!attende!la! sanzione! e! l'approvazione! del! maggiore.! E,! tragicamente,! solo! con! la! morte! di! Curt! –! che! frana! a! picco! nel! burrone! abissale! –! egli! può! conquistare! la! sua! indipendenza:! “Tutte! le! vittorie! finiscono! nella! disfatta! della! morte.! Ma! anche! la! disfatta,! non! finirà! nella! vittoria! della!morte?”!(Eugene!O'Neill).!La!confusione!e!l'indistinzione!regnano!sovrane:!la!famiglia! scambia! Arthur! (William! Hopper)! per! Curt,! il! padre! alcolizzato! rivolgendosi! al! figlio! più! piccolo!lo!chiama!Curt!e!lo!stesso!Curt!vede!la!fidanzata!del!fratello!ma!pensa!che!potrebbe! e!dovrebbe!essere!la!sua!donna.

!

Sintomaticamente! a! confermare! e! ricordare! l'indissolubilità! dei! nessi! che! legano! il! susseguirsi! degli! ordini! umani! fin! dall'inizio! del! film! è! posto! lo! sciamano! indiano,! rappresentante! a! sua! volta! di! un! altro! ordine! depennato! da! quello! imposto! da! Curt! e! che! 138! !


tutto!sommato!nella!resistenza!del!puma!vede!una!rivalsa!per!la!sua!sconfitta!e!l'olocausto! della! sua! civiltà! più! vicina! alla! natura! di! quanto! non! lo! sia! quella! dell'uomo! bianco,! una! civiltà!che!rasenta!la!physis!soppiantata!dal!nomos!di!Curt.! Wellman,!finemente!e!genealogicamente,!scava!dunque!fra!i!contorni,!nella!superficie!della! differenza! minima,! nell'intricarsi! ambiguo! della! solidarietà! familistica! –! con! tutti! i! suoi! impliciti!freudiani!retroscena!rimossi!–!alla!ricerca!delle!tracce!lungo!le!cancellature!delle! medesime,! nel! fuoco! che,! liberatorio,! si! accende! e! si! innalza! sullo! spazio! bianco! e! vuoto,! come! un! sigillo,! quello! di! una! nuova! nascita,! una! nuova! famiglia,! un! nuovo! ordine,! quello! del! logos! che! nasce! come! fuoco,! quello! acceso! nel! finale! del! film,! per! illuminare! quell'oscurità! in! cui! esso! stesso! nasce.! La! nascita! è,! quindi,! un! parto! travagliato,! qualcosa! che! si! apre! nelle! asprezze! tragiche! (sia! interiori! che! esteriori)! e! nelle! sue! aperture! imprevedibili,!attraverso!le!doglie!che!costellano!anche!il!cammino!di!Donne&verso&l'ignoto,! ancora!un'esperienza!di!cambiamento!e!rinnovamento.!Le!origini!sono!promiscue!in!Cielo& giallo,!in!cui!l'orizzonte!emerge!fra!le!rovine!di!una!ghost&town,!attraversando!il!vuoto!del! deserto,!in!un!intermondo!liberato!da!pregiudizi!perché!scavato!e,!quindi,!disponibile!alla! creazione!e!alla!novità.! In!fondo!il!passaggio!da!un!ordine!all'altro!è!anche!il!tema!di!La&città&magica.!La!riflessione! storica!sull'ascesa!e!sul!declino!del!big!country!è!anzitutto!un'ontologia!di!materie,!se!non! una! geologia,! che! ha! la! sua! origine! nell'intrecciarsi! caotico! di! territori! ed! espressioni,! mutazioni! e! interattività,! una! gioiosa! emergenza! dal! caos! che,! tuttavia,! nella! patria! dello! spettacolo,! come! avviene! in! Buffalo& Bill! e! La& città& magica,! tristemente! e! parodicamente,! trasforma!e!banalizza!questa!animalità!storica!in!un!farsa!dell'addomesticamento.!! Allegoria!metafisica!fatta!di!dreams,!animals!e!girls,!pelli!e!odori!forti,!divinità!ctonie,!urla! glaciali,! questo! è! Track& of& the& Cat.& Mito! e! razionalità,! violenza! e! legge,! orrore! e! splendore! non!sono!semplicemente!separati!e!anche!il!sogno!americano!–!o!quel!che!ne!resta!nell'era! dell'incubo!atomico!–!non!è!disgiungibile!dalle!violenze!delle!origini.!

139! !


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GOODIBYE,!MY!LADY!(1956)! Gina Telaroli ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !

140! !


“I dreamed of my dog. That is, the dog of my kid days. The dog of my life. The president was then Mr. Taft, so we called the pup Taffy. Mother gave it to us both on Christmas Day. A round furred bundle of black and white. He was just about everything. A little spitz, a dash of Eskimo, and a touch of collie; with brains and guts and a love for me that was eternal.” -

William A. Wellman, “A Short Time for Insanity”


“I am going to end with the beginning, which is really a beginning and an ending.” William A. Wellman “A Short Time For Insanity”

PROLOGUE


The title of William A. Wellman’s 1956 effort, Good-Bye, My Lady, presumably takes the ending as a given: Lady will be going away. And not just Lady, but someone’s Lady. And not just going away, but leaving, and leaving — according both to the opening sequence and the 2010 DVD menu — an adorable blond boy. But Wild Bill, as they called Wellman, defied the demands of his predetermined destination. The Lady in question, a basenji, an African dog all the way from England, was to be given at the end of the shoot to Brandon de Wilde, the adorable blond boy playing the adorable blond boy. The tears of the dog, the boy, and the audience, then, all for show — or simply part of the show.


Earlier, in 1942, when Wellman was commissioned to make a movie about Buffalo Bill in return for a green-light to make his dream project, The Ox-Bow Incident, he got together with Gene Fowler, an avid researcher of “the fakiest man ever to live,” as Fowler called him. Over the period of a few months Fowler and Wellman wrote a script, but when Fowler got tanked one night, he and Wellman came to the conclusion that they couldn’t destroy a man that was a hero to so many Americans, particularly the children, and they burned the script. In other words, they decided, the myth must live on.


But outcome and plot was never the priority for Wellman. Even in his tight, actionpacked pre-code days, the packing would be done with plotless moments of leisure, labor, and other bits of business. The detailed opening of Frisco Jenny (1932), a long tracking shot through a saloon in which multiple characters and stories are introduced, is obliterated moments later by an earthquake. His mid-period movies would combine the compactness of his early work with a more expansive look at America. A result of changing times, but also of a changing man, family priorities and arthritis shifting his productivity and areas of focus. As the 1950s approached, his movies continued to expand even as the actual stories contracted to became more focused and singular.


Instead of a constant march forward, one foot in front of the other over and over again, Wellman’s movies function as one giant step stretched out over the course of the movie. And while that leg slowly moves, foot risen, knee bent forward, a woman sings, a nose itches, a band plays, someone takes a bite of a chicken leg, and a girl passes by on a bicycle.


CHAPTER 1


CHAPTER 2


CHAPTER 3


CHAPTER 4


CHAPTER 5


CHAPTER 6


CHAPTER 7


CHAPTER 8


“The swamp shook some of her leaves from her back and dressed down for the winter. And then the trees were naked and stark and waved their hard bare arms towards the river that was belly-full and swelling yellow.� narration from Good-Bye, My Lady, spoken by William A. Wellman


CHAPTER 9


C H A P T E R 10


EPILOGUE Wellman’s Heroes for Sale (1933) opens similarly to Frisco Jenny, except that instead of in a saloon, the action starts on a battlefield and, one could argue, despite a constant change of setting throughout the picture, it never leaves. The characters may quickly depart from World War I, but their search for work, shelter, food, health, and support quickly proves just as treacherous. Time and time again Richard Barthelmess’ Tom Holmes is cast out by circumstance, by the law, by society, by death — by anything and everything. It’s hard to know just where in particular Holmes will end up next, but after the first 10 minutes of the movie, it’s clear that no matter how bad things get along the way, he’ll keep moving on.

The men of 1958’s Darby’s Rangers, Wellman’s last cinematic effort, are constantly bounced back and forth between the brutal horrors of the battlefield and the pleasures of the opposite sex. A particularly charming soldier engages in lustful hijinks with the housewife whose house he has been assigned to stay at during his training period, but soon after, he meets a rather gruesome ending. Both scenes are genuine in their sentiment — sex is fun, war is hell.


Glenn Ford plays real life hero Johnny Montgomery in Wellman’s 1946, sentimental nightmare, Gallant Journey. Montgomery was the first man to put a glider in the air, but he also had a debilitating condition that would make his every attempt at flight equally an attempt at death. But for Montgomery, there was no alternative, no other life that could be. His head was in the clouds, and even as Wellman forced his feet to remain firmly on the ground, he kept determined to fly.


The frontier man that Clark Gable plays in Wellman’s 1935 Call of the Wild (and later on in 1951’s Across the Wide Missouri) operates on the fringes of society. His Jack Thornton is not unlike Tom Holmes, but the open air gives him a freedom not had by Wellman’s city men. For Thornton, survival is an adventure, a game to be played in the bitter cold between drinks with his only family: the dogs and fellow frontiersmen who help him along the way. Like many of Wellman’s heroes, love comes and goes, though here Loretta Young fares better with Gable than with Barthelmess (who wouldn’t?). Neither man gets her in the end, but the whole thing isn't really about Young anyway, nor about the woman. It’s about his dog, a loyal companion and courageous St. Bernard named Buck, who runs off to be with an old flame in the movie’s final moments. When all is said and done, Jack Thornton is left alone with only his work — and another yet-to-be-determined challenge.


Stills are from the following films: Lafayette Escadrille (Wellman, 1958) Beau Geste (Wellman, 1939) The Great Man’s Lady (Wellman, 1942) Wild Boys of the Road (Wellman, 1933) The Ox-Bow Incident (Wellman, 1943) Yellow Sky (Wellman, 1948) Other Men’s Women (Wellman, 1931) Buffalo Bill (Wellman, 1944) Thunder Birds (Wellman, 1942) Maybe It’s Love (Wellman, 1930) Track of the Cat (Wellman, 1954) Battleground (Wellman, 1949) Across the Wide Missouri (Wellman, 1951) The Story of G.I. Joe (Wellman, 1954) Good-Bye, My Lady (Wellman, 1956) Heroes For Sale (Wellman, 1933) Darby’s Rangers (Wellman, 1958) Gallant Journey (Wellman, 1946) Call of the Wild (Wellman, 1945)

*** Thanks to Bruce Goldstein and everyone at Film Forum for screening 39 of Wellman’s films on 35mm this past Winter.

*** Telaroli | October 2012


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WILLIAM A. WELLMAN (A DOSSIER)

Contact:( david.p.phelps@gmail.com( g.r.tela@gmail.com(


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1896/1975/2012


William A. Wellman: A Dossier