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William Wellman

Silents Please! – ‘Beggars of Life’ with Louise Brooks, ‘Varieté’ from Germany, and more

Catching up on some of the silent films released to Blu-ray and DVD in the past months…

Beggars of Life (Kino Lorber)

Kino Lorber

William Wellman was one of the most versatile directors of his day, making everything from comedies and musicals to gritty dramas and war movies, and his World War I epic Wings (1927) won the first Academy Award for Best Film, but in the late 1920s and 1930s he directed some of the most interesting films about struggles before and during the depression. Beggars of Life(1928) was made before the stock market crash but released in the aftermath, so while it’s not technically a response to the Depression, its portrait of hoboes riding the rails and forming a kind of outsider society was in tune with the times. Today, however, it is best known for Louise Brooks, the petit dancer turned actress who never became a star in America in her lifetime but starred in two great German silent films, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, and became a cult figure in retirement.

Brooks is Nancy, a young woman who kills her violent stepfather in self-defense (presented as a flashback, it’s a startling and powerful scene which Brooks underplays with haunting pain), and Richard Arlen is Jim, a boyish beggar who stumbles across the body and helps her escape. He dresses her in men’s clothes and teachers her how to ride the rails with the rest of the tramps on the road, landing in a rough hobo camp where Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery) rules through intimidation. Figuring out that this delicate “boy” is actually a girl (and seriously, who was she fooling?), he claims Nancy as his property and puts the couple through a kangaroo court, a great scene that straddles comedy and horror. Beery delivers a big, blustery performance as he transforms from predator to protector, the handsome Arlen at times he reminded me of a young Paul Newman, and Brooks is incandescent in her best role in an American films (she immediately left for Europe to make the movies that made her reputation).

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Channeling Movies: Sex and Sin on Pre-Code Fridays on Turner Classic Movies

‘Red Dust’

Turner Classic Movies is turning all the Fridays in September over to films from that brief period in the early thirties when the studios thumbed their collective noses at the toothless Production Code and pushed the boundaries of sex, violence, and bad behavior without judgment or consequences in film after film. The iron boot of censorship came down in 1934 and stomped out all that deliciously salacious content, but for a few years Hollywood acknowledged and even flaunted sex between consenting adults (married or not). The films from this era were branded “Forbidden Hollywood” when they were rediscovered and revived for audiences in the 1990s, but today they are better known as Pre-Code. Turner Classic Movies has four full Fridays full of forbidden Pre-Code delights.

While there are gems aplenty throughout the month, I’ll spotlight a few of the most interesting and audacious rarities and lesser-known glories, including two from the coming Friday line-up.

Set those DVRs now!

Friday, September 5:

Safe in Hell (1931) – Think of this as a kind of B-movie riff on Sadie Thompson (the original bad girl in the tropics melodrama) directed with a merciless brutality by William Wellman. It stars the largely forgotten Dorothy Mackaill as a scuffed-up, street-smart answer to Miriam Hopkins and she is amazing as the hooker who is whisked off to a Caribbean island to flee a murder charge. The film’s title is no exaggeration; imagine Casablanca as a lice-infested backwater run by mercenary opportunists and filled with the sleaziest criminals to escape a manhunt. They all take their shot at seducing Mackaill, the sole white woman in this island prison, and she shoots them all down with the brash directness of an experienced urban doll who has spent her life fending off passes. Yet somehow the film manages to give them all a shot at redemption when she is tried for murder (it’s a different murder, and yet the same one, in the crazy logic of the melodrama contrivances) and they line up in her defense. Wellman it snappy and sassy as he winds the story from the cynical to the sentimental to the spiritual with equal commitment.

Dorothy Mackaill is hardly ‘Safe in Hell’

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Blu-ray: ‘Call of the Wild’

Jack London’s 1903 novel The Call of the Wild is about the odyssey of Buck, a domesticated St. Bernard-Scotch Collie, from his San Francisco home to the rigors of the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush. The 1935 screen adaptation Call of the Wild, the first sound version of the adventure, makes Buck a supporting character in the human story of Jack Thornton, a brash, cheerful miner who begins the film by gambling his entire fortune away in a saloon and sets out with an old buddy to start again, this time with a map to an unclaimed mine that may or may not be reliable.

That’s the way Hollywood tends to tackle these kinds of stories, of course, and when you’ve got Clark Gable and Loretta Young in all their mid-1930s glamor tramping through the wilds of the great white north (Washington State interior standing in for Northern Canada), that’s a forgivable compromise. Gable’s Jack Thornton and Young’s Claire Blake, who Jack finds fending off a ravenous pack of wolves in the middle of the wilderness, spar and spat almost immediately after Jack saves her. She’s a married woman who is surely widowed by the time she’s rescued (her husband slogged out into the drifts days before to get help) but that doesn’t stop the spirited instant antagonism that practically defines screen romance in 1930s Hollywood movies. Jack Oakie is the buddy-turned-third wheel ‘Shorty’ Hoolihan, providing comic relief as the soon-to-be-lovers tangle on the trail, and Sidney Toler is the film’s villain Joe Groggins, an arrogant miner with a crooked streak who wants to shoot Buck dead for daring to growl at him.

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MOD Movies: ‘Safe in Hell’ and other Pre-Code Pleasures

11 sassy, sexy and sometimes stiff early sound pictures with attitude from the Warner Archive.

When Hollywood was trying to find its way in the early sound era, learning to work around the sudden production constrictions imposed by sound recording and editing while struggling to find its own distinctive voice and delivery, it was also getting downright racy. It flaunted the sexual play of unmarried couples (and worse, the affairs of married characters with other partners), the flagrant boozing at the height of prohibition, and the thrill of bad behavior, which it presented without the requisite lessons learned soon to be imposed on Hollywood productions by the Production Code, reluctantly accepted by the studios (the alternative was separate censorship boards in each state, a much more demanding and expensive proposition for the film industry to deal with).

Dorothy Mackaill in 'Safe in Hell'

Not all the pre-code movies took that attitude, of course, but a couple of decades ago a handful of sauciest of these otherwise forgotten films were branded with the promise of “Forbidden Hollywood” for a retrospective that led to a line of VHS releases, followed by laserdisc and, finally, DVD. And while most of the best of these films have already been resurrected and released – I’m talking about Night Nurse, Baby Face, Heroes For Sale, Wild Boys of the Road, Murder at the Vanities, Three on a Match, not to mention Scarface and Bride of Frankenstein (this attitude is not limited to any one genre) to name just a few – there are still films to discovered and savored, in some cases for just a scene, in other for a full length appreciation.

All of which is introduction to a wealth of pre-code titles recently made available via manufacture-on-demand DVD-R from the Warner Archive. It’s a mixed collection, by which I mean there are some real discoveries here along with some misfires, and Safe in Hell (1931), a kind of B-movie riff on Sadie Thompson (the original bad girl in the tropics melodrama) directed with a brutally by William Wellman, and its star Dorothy Mackaill are the most exciting of said discoveries.

The forgotten Mackaill is a kind scuffed-up, street-smart answer to Miriam Hopkins and in this film she is perfect as the all-but-in-name prostitute who is whisked off to a Caribbean island to flee a murder charge and lands in a jungle slum that the dregs of the western world have taken refuge in. The film’s title is no exaggeration; imagine Casablanca as a lice-infested backwater run by mercenary opportunists and filled with the sleaziest criminals to escape a manhunt. They all take their shot at seducing Mackaill, the sole white woman in this island prison, and she shoots them all down with the brash directness of an experienced urban doll who has spent her life fending off passes. Yet somehow the film manages to give them all a shot at redemption when she is tried for murder (it’s a different murder, and yet the same one, in the crazy logic of the melodrama contrivances) and they line up in her defense. Wellman makes it snappy and sassy as he winds the story from the cynical to the sentimental to the almost spiritual with equal commitment.

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New on Blu-ray: Hitchcock, Huston and the First Oscar Winner

Hitchcock / Selznick: Rebecca, Notorious, Spellbound (MGM)

Hindsight is 20/20, but teaming of British perfectionist director Alfred Hitchcock and American iconoclast producer David O. Selznick was doomed to conflict. Selznick, who brought Hitchcock to Hollywood with an exclusive contract, was a director in all but name. He micromanaged his pictures down to the shot, rewriting scripts, reshooting scenes, relentlessly tinkering well into post-production. Hitchcock plotted and planned his films in detailed storyboards from the outset. He had no use for Selznick’s interference or his barrage of memos, but he needed the entry to America and relished the generous budgets and access to technology. Their partnership makes a simultaneous case for film as a collaborator’s artform, and as the domain of the auteur. Three of the four films from that strained partnership between the perfectionist British director and the micromanaging producer arrive on Blu-ray and you can see the two creative personalities battle for control throughout.

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The gloriously gothic melodrama Rebecca (1940), a handsome marriage of the literate and the visual, remains their most financially successful collaboration and Hitchcock’s most studio-like film. Laurence Olivier delivers a fine performance as the haunted de Winter, still under the shadow of his controlling first wife even after she’s died, while Joan Fontaine’s naïve little girl in the big mansion is a bit precious but effective nonetheless. It’s an elegant production, beautifully photographed and designed like a dream house shrouded in mourning, but it also favors the pictorial over the cinematic and surface over subtext. Ironically, Hitch’s only film to win a Best Picture Oscar winner, and the award went to producer Selznick; Hitch lost Best Director to John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath. Features commentary by film critic Richard Schickel, screen tests, two featurettes, three radio play adaptations, and archival audio interviews with Hitch.

The tensions (and I mean creative, not psychological tensions) are far more fraught in Spellbound (1945), an ambitious psychological thriller inspired by Selznick’s adventures in psychoanalysis and mystery as ludicrous as it is intermittently stunning. Gregory Peck is the tortured doctor with a repressed secret that psychiatrist Ingrid Bergman helps him unearth, with the help of dream therapy. The push-me, pull-you relationship can be seen in Hitch’s attempts to visualize heady concepts in bizarre dream sequences (designed by Salvador Dali) while the dialogue drags it all back to literalness. With commentary, two featurettes, a radio play adaptation and an archival audio interview with Hitch among the supplements.

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Barbara Stanwyck at Universal and Criterion’s Southern Revivals – DVDs of the Week

The Barbara Stanwyck Collection (Universal Backlot Series) (Universal)

Barbara Stanwyck, that powerhouse actress of the sound era of Hollywood cinema, is gifted with a style and sensibility that has arguably aged more convincingly and compellingly into the 21st century than her contemporaries. While you can’t really say her performance elevates every one of her films into classic status, her presence lifts average material, drives good movies and stokes the fire of great films. She played most roles as if she fought her way up from the street to become who she is and wasn’t about to back down from any challenge to her position. “There is a not a more credible portrait in the cinema of a worldly, attractive, and independent woman in a man’s worlds than Stanwyck’s career revealed,” wrote David Thomson in his Biographical Dictionary of Film.

Barbara Stanwyck on the streets
Barbara Stanwyck on the mean streets of depression-era cinema

There’s little in common between these six films in this set of Universal films apart from Stanwyck, a tough cookie of a movie star who consistently dominated her male co-stars when it came to sheer screen presence, and the fact that they are apparently that last Stanwyck films in Universal’s catalogue that had not been released to DVD. That’s enough, I suppose, especially for a set that opens with such a revelation as Internes Can’t Take Money (1937), a snappy little depression-era crime drama based on a Max Brand story that also happens to be the film that introduced the character of Dr. Kildaire to the screen. He’s incarnated by Joel McCrea here as a passionate and dedicated young surgical intern who works in a New York hospital that is the epitome of Art Deco modernism, with elegantly spacious rooms, curving hallways, walls of glass and spotless white dividers and ceilings. (If Fred and Ginger ever made a hospital film, they could have danced their way through this set and convinced us all it was really a ballroom.) Into this gleaming utopia comes working class Stanwyck and immediately takes charge of the story. She’s a hard-luck girl with a complicated backstory, spending her meager salary to track down her daughter, a little girl lost in a system of orphans and foster kids without a bureaucracy. So she turns to the underworld of hustlers and tipsters for a lead and, wouldn’t you know, young Dr. Kildaire fits right into this world, knocking back beers as at a gangster bar and (because he favors the Hippocratic oath over hospital regulations) befriend a gambling racket boss (Lloyd Nolan) who turns out to be a right joe.

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William Wellman’s Forbidden Hollywood – DVDs for the Week

The studios are finally listening to me! Okay, maybe not, but fifteen months ago I did publish my wish list of Dream DVD Special Editions and Box Sets on GreenCine. Some of those wishes have since come true: Touch of Evil: 50th Anniversary Edition (with all three cuts of the film), The Films of Budd Boetticher (featuring all five Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott films made for Columbia), A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell) and Murnau, Borzage and Fox (a far more ambitious project than even I wished for). And one of my “Honorable Mentions” was a “Forbidden Hollywood” collection dedicated to the pre-code films of William Wellman, notably Heroes For Sale and Wild Boys of the Road. Yes, I know that these have been in works, in one form or another, since before I even started the piece, but there is still a little satisfaction in seeing my dreams come true, and this week another dream comes to life: Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three, subtitled “Six classic, provocative films directed by master filmmaker William Wellman.”

forbiddenhollywood3I’ve never been of the camp that embraced Wellman as a “master filmmaker,” though I have always appreciated him as a talented pro with good instincts and clean, no-nonsense direction. He was part of that early breed of two-fisted directors who drifted into the movies from more adventurous jobs. In Wellman’s case, he had been a member of the French Foreign Legion and the Lafayette Escadrille in World War I and was a flying instructor for the American Air Corps in San Diego when Douglas Fairbanks asked him to appear in one of his films, The Knickerbocker Buckaroo. Acting left a bad taste in his mouth but directing intrigued him and he worked his way up through the ranks, becoming a director in 1923 and jumping to the front ranks of the industry with Wings (1927), an assignment he reportedly received largely on the strength of his combat experience. They needed a war flier to helm the film and Wellman gave them the most impressive aerial spectacle the movies had seen. He made more than 80 films in every genre over the course of four decades, but he showed his most interesting directorial muscle in war films (Story of G.I. Joe) and westerns (Yellow Sky, Track of the Cat) and adventures (Beau Geste), while his distinctive snappy, hard-knuckle sensibility came out in urban crime (The Public Enemy) and showbiz pictures (A Star is Born, Roxie Hart).

But for my money, he was never more interesting than in the early sound era, where his energy and audacity powered over a dozen short, sharp, street-smart films filled with saucy sexiness and startling violence and mixed with varying measures of social commentary. Six of those films are collected on this four-disc set (Wellman’s pre-code classics The Public Enemy and Night Nurse have previously been released, the former separately and in the Warner Gangsters Collection, the latter in Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Two) and they are something else, films strewn with wild melodrama, romantic triangles, brawny action and some of the sexiest scenes of heavy petting and passionate smooching you’ve seen out of old Hollywood, with more frank sexuality more suggested than shown but there is no mistaking the suggestions.
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