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Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick (DVD Review)

15 Jul, 2013 By: Mike Clark

Kino Lorber
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.

Though William A. Wellman directed his share of clunkers for a filmmaker occasionally and, well, erroneously mentioned in the same breath with titans John Ford or Howard Hawks, you have to credit him not only for surviving four active decades in the business. What’s more — and this is really impressive — he also having delivered choice examples of his best work in each of them: the ’20s through the ’50s. Wellman’s World War I aviation staple Wings got the first best picture Oscar in the late 1920s, and a quarter-century later, he got a well-deserved 1954 nomination for acing the claustrophobically challenging logistics of 2½-hour The High and the Mighty — which, despite sometimes unbridled histrionics, is to me the strongest direction of his career, particularly in its film’s final third, which deals with getting the crippled airliner on the ground.  

Directed by son William Jr., this 1995 documentary hasn’t been seen enough, but I think it’s as good as the widely praised portrait that George Stevens Jr. did on his own father: 1984’s A Filmmaker’s Journey. Because Wellman worked for so many years and didn’t get tied down at any one studio (partly because he perpetually defied authority), it almost seems as if he worked with everybody. One doesn’t expect the director of Wings to have also worked with Clint Eastwood, Sidney Poitier, James Garner, Tab Hunter and Tom Laughlin (Billy Jack), but he did — also Gregory Peck, Nancy Reagan, Richard Widmark and Robert Mitchum, and all nine are interviewed on camera along with many others Wellman directed over the long haul. Even Robert Redford is here (and extremely affecting) because he was a baseball buddy of Bill Jr. and thus a friend of the family.

Wellman straddled a lot of genres but had a special affinity for aviation films, dating back to his World War I days with the Lafayette Flying Corps seeing his buddies get killed in combat — which had a way of making future studio execs seem like relative gnats. He was also identified with grunt-infantry dramas (The Story of G.I. Joe, Battleground); social muckrakers (Wild Boys of the Road; Heroes for Sale); screwball comedies (Nothing Sacred; Roxie Hart); boyhood rites-of-passage (The Happy Years; Goodbye, My Lady); and even one standout Foreign Legion rouser (the popular Gary Cooper version of Beau Geste). Because his career was all over the place — and because he didn’t have as strong a screen personality as Ford or Hawks — his films were less personal than a true auteur’s but more impassioned and distinctive than a journeyman’s, which put him in kind of a critical limbo.

There isn’t much question about Wellman having had a strong personality off screen, and there’s a great anecdote here from Hunter about the fit Wellman threw when the studio tried to cut back on the quality of crew coffee on the set of Lafayette Escadrille — also one told on Hunter by Eastwood from the same picture when Hunter was grousing in a manner he came to regret about having to march (he was playing a military subordinate, after all). That picture, the director’s swan song, was a dream project that became a bitter experience when Warner Bros. kowtowed to teen taste (as imbecilic then as it is now) and wouldn’t let idol-of-the-day Tab get killed on screen. The anecdote Wellman Jr. tells of his father’s physical threat to Jack L. Warner (hey, Jack, better wear a cup) is one of the documentary’s high points, though it is sad as well.

Even John Wayne and James Cagney show up via kinescope (courtesy of Wellman’s appearance on TV’s “This Is Your Life”), and the film clips are as crisply chosen as the interview segments. When Wild Bill was originally released, the last 20 minutes carried even more kick because they included clips from two movies that hadn’t been seen in decades because they were tied up in the Wayne-Batjac estate: The High and the Mighty and Track of the Cat (it a strange stylistic experiment I’ve always liked despite its costly failure at the box office). But even now, after those films’ subsequent release to DVD, this is a model of its kind. And I never get tired of watching Wayne’s slap-around of Bob Stack in the cockpit, one of the maybe seminal scenes of my formative movie childhood (neither I, nor my buds, were particularly Disney kind of kids).

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