Hollywood flyover

Richard Schickel is a film critic for Time and the author of many books, including "Elia Kazan: A Biography."

THE pay was lousy, as little as 3.5 cents a day. The rank was nothing much: corporal's stripes. The chow and the living conditions were mostly execrable, and the life expectancy was brutally short. None of that mattered to Bill Wellman. What mattered to him was that he was flying. And shooting his fair share of the Boches out of the skies over the World War I trenches. Not occasionally he crashed his Spad or his Nieuport. One such misadventure left him with a dashing limp, most useful when he was invalided out of the Lafayette Flying Corps and sent home, where he taught young officers to fly. The limp impressed the ladies, who in those days were "Wild Bill" Wellman's other grand passion.

I came to know him many years later when I made a TV program about his stirring career as a movie director. He had by then retired from directing, but he continued to revel in his reputation for crankiness, which was largely a sham. He claimed to despise producers and to be extremely wary of actors, though he often revealed affection for both, as long as the former were neither parsimonious nor interfering and the latter did not succumb to egomania. Wellman was always hiding his essential good nature under a gruff manner, and he was an anecdotist of hilarious skill. Of the 19 filmmakers I've made documentaries about, he was in his way the most lovable, and I became his friend for the last six years of his life. He doted on his seven children and his fifth, passionately beloved wife, Dottie; he spent some of his time writing memoirs, only one of which -- "A Short Time for Insanity" (I wrote the foreword) -- was published.

His son Bill Jr. has drawn effectively on the unpublished work for his book, which focuses on the making of "Wings," his father's first major movie and the winner of the first best-picture Oscar. Better still, he has unearthed a number of letters his father wrote to his family from France, which give a fresh, fierce picture of what it was like to engage in an unprecedented form of warfare. Wellman's tone in these letters is always offhand and reassuring. To hear him tell it, his largest problem was a shortage of money, and he was always grateful for his family's modest checks. But underneath his good cheer there is a sense of how cold those skies could be, how claustrophobic it could be when you were strapped into one of those primitive flying machines, how quickly the beauty of the skies on a dawn patrol could turn to menace when the enemy suddenly emerged out of a cloud bank -- and of just how lonely it was for a young American posted to a French squadron, where he might have, at most, only a couple of his countrymen to talk to. Trying to salve his isolation, Wellman married a young Frenchwoman during this period. She died in an air raid within weeks.

Douglas Fairbanks, who had befriended him before the war, promised him a job after he was mustered out and fulfilled the promise by trying to make him an actor. Wellman literally threw up when he saw on the screen and told Fairbanks that what he really wanted to do was direct. Fairbanks then got him a job as a studio messenger, and by 1923 Wellman was directing Buck Jones westerns. In 1927, Paramount reluctantly entrusted its epic aviation drama, "Wings," to him, thinking that he at least knew something about combat flying (to prove it, Wellman himself ground-looped a plane when a stunt flier couldn't manage the trick) and about the psychology of the pioneering airmen -- that curious blend of boyish insouciance, gallantry and fatalism that made them, in their day, such glamorous (and slightly mysterious) figures.

Wellman would go on making aviation pictures until the end (his last movie was "Lafayette Escadrille," in 1958), but he also held the conscious goal of making movies in every genre. This meant that he did a lot of pretty routine work, and his reputation among cineastes has suffered as a result. To them, he was just another Hollywood roughneck. Of his relatively few critical admirers, Manny Farber came closest to getting him right, offering scattered references to Wellman's interest in the "mean, brassy, clawlike soul of the lone American wolf" and his taste for "Hopper-type" scenery. I wish that Farber had written about him at length instead of in flashes; he might have connected what the young, isolated flier learned with the best of what he did in the movies, which were full of restless, heedless and often doomed types -- appraising life from its margins, refusing to acknowledge their radical disaffection and blowing off their pent-up feelings in (sometimes murderous) brawls.

A lot of Wellman's best work is today unnoticed. People know "The Public Enemy," still the best of the classic early '30s gangster cycle, thanks to James Cagney's dynamite performance and the notorious grapefruit-in-the-face. But "Heroes for Sale," for instance -- the greatest of his loner dramas, about a man fated to lose everything in Depression America -- is almost lost. It is, typically for Wellman, without subtext or weepy distractions; it just keeps driving home its desperate theme with concentrated fury (it covers 15 years in 73 minutes and never feels hurried). His comedies, such as "Nothing Sacred," were more sardonic than chucklesome; his melodramas -- like "Roxie Hart," progenitor of "Chicago," lest we forget -- more tough than tender; his war movies ("The Story of G.I. Joe") more stoic than heroic. He could sometimes manage a little hasty sentiment and even a little liberal-mindedness, as he did in 1943's "The Ox-Bow Incident," an anti-lynching movie he cared deeply about but which has not worn too well.

He was aware of his soft side but kept a choke collar on it. He had a gift for striking imagery, often involving rampaging bad weather, but he tended to toss that off too, as if he were afraid someone might call him an aesthete. There's a scene in "Ox-Bow" in which a posthumous letter is being read, and all he shows us are the beautifully lit hats of the reader and his prime listener, instead of their faces -- a breathtaking choice and not untypical of him.

Maybe I'm reading too much into his son's book, which is simply, even occasionally awkwardly, written. But that just adds to its authenticity, and it becomes finally an affecting portrait of a young man learning to "shoulder the sky" and using that experience to shoulder a career that was more intense and interesting than those most of us know. Bill Wellman was of a generation that came to the movies not from film school but from life and always knew they could go back where they came from without regret. It made them bolder, braver -- and, God knows, less pretentious filmmakers than those who came after them. And bolder, braver, less pretentious men as well.

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