WILLIAM WELLMAN Double Bill.

Can you imagine a double bill of The Ox-Bow Incident and Lady Of Burlesque ?   Probably not, because the juxtaposition of the stark drama of Ox-Bow Incident and the light humour of Lady Of Burlesque just wouldn’t work.
Especially if you  saw them in the order they were made – Ox-Bow in 1942 and the Barbara Stanwyck starrer in 1943.

You couldn’t switch off from  the  injustice of the western , and be prepared for the lighthearted company  of Barbara and co.  in the  latter film.

William Wellman  directed The Ox-Bow Incident  in 1942, and his very next film was Lady Of Burlesque in 1943. Two films which could not be  more different.

One I can watch anytime and know I’ll be smiling all the way through- that’s Lady Of Burlesque . But when it comes to The Ox-Bow Incident, this is serious  cinema and harrowing,  as three men are hanged for a murder that, not only they didn’t commit , but which  didn’t happen .

 

 

Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn, Henry Fonda.

 

Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan drift into a small town and get entangled with the townsfolk who form a posse when they are told a well liked local rancher has been killed and his cattle stolen.

Frank Conroy, Marc Lawrence.

I just realised that Frank Conroy played important roles in both films – Spoiler alert! – he was ‘Stacchi’ , the unlikely killer in Lady Of Burlesque, and the ruthless Colonel who leads the posse  in The Ox-Bow Incident.

 

Anthony Quinn, Francis Ford,  Dana Andrews, Henry Fonda, Frank Conroy, Jane Darwell.

The three accused are Anthony Quinn, Dana Andrews, Francis Ford. Innocent men in the wrong place at the wrong time.

(The title reference – the three men are found in Ox-Bow Canyon.)

Quite a change for  Jane Darwell  from her “ Grapes of Wrath” character – she reminded me of the wrathful Mercedes McCambridge in “ Johnny Guitar”.

 

.

There’s a convenient tree. Why wait for a trial. There’s circumstantial evidence – the three men have the dead man’s cattle without a bill of sale, and the Quinn character has the dead man’s gun. Certainly enough reason to bring them back to town.
But as they find when they get back to town, the rancher they thought was murdered is in fact alive.

 

As the posse/lynch mob ride away, all we see is the shadows of the three hanged men. All that is needed to convey the horror.

 

Henry Fonda, Harry Morgan.

That perfectly framed shot as Fonda reads the letter Dana  Andrews wrote to his wife, which the two men will now deliver.

FATAL DAWN

There was a TV version in 1955, made for the The Twentieth Century Fox Hour, with Robert Wagner and Cameron Mitchell.

 

 

Based on Gypsy Rose Lee’s, “G String Murders”, Lady Of Burlesque is set in the Old Opera House which is now a burlesque theatre, with Barbara Stanwyck as ‘Dixie Daisy’,  the star attraction.
Her pal is ‘Gee Gee’, (Iris Adrian), and in his first film role, Michael O’Shea is  comic ‘Biff Brannigan’ who’d like to be more than friends with Dixie.

Someone has a grudge against the burlesque troupe and before long, a couple of the dancers turn up dead, murdered with their own G String.

 

 

A great supporting cast includes Iris Adrian, J. Edward Bromberg, Pinky Lee, Janis Carter, Lou Lubin ( pictured above). Plus Marion Martin, Gerald Mohr, Charles Dingle, Stephanie Batchelor.

 

Marion Martin and Iris Adrian , so funny .

 

Frank Conroy

 

Barbara bumps and grinds and does the splits! And jitterbugs with Pinky Lee.

It’s sanitised burlesque but Barbara seems to be having a great time as she talk/sings Sammy Kahn’s lyrics:

“Brother I’m making’ my eggs and bacon, Earning my pay, just by  shaking this way , Four  shows a day….”

As Dixie says, “It isn’t my beautiful diction that gets me by in burlesque.”

Such a pity Lady of Burlesque has not been restored and copyright was not maintained.
Barbara had played  a similar role two years earlier in Ball Of Fire, and she had worked several times with William Wellman – Night Nurse, So Big, The Purchase Price, The Great Man’s Lady.

By coincidence, both films were released in May 1943, The Ox-Bow Incident  having been held back. The look of  both films suggest they were  made on a tight budget – probably the Fonda and Stanwyck salaries were the big money costs.

 

Director William A. Wellman (1896- 1975) had a life which would make an exciting motion picture. He was an ice hockey player , a World War One fighter pilot in France , and his film Wings won the very first Best Picture Oscar.
When Wellman returned from the war, he remembered a meeting with Douglas Fairbanks who had seen Wellman playing ice  hockey and offered to help him in the future .

Fairbanks gave Wellman a part in one of his films, but Wellman decided he’d rather be behind the camera. He was a mail boy at Goldwyn studios and Sam Goldwyn made him an assistant director. He then directed 11 silents between 1923 and 1926, Buck Jones features.

It’s William Wellman who directed that famous scene in Public Enemy when Mae Clarke gets the grapefruit in the face from James Cagney.

Other famous Wellman films are The Public Enemy, A Star Is Born, Nothing Sacred, Beau Geste.

His film, WINGS won the very first Best Picture Oscar in 1927. Wellman was only 29 when he directed this $2 million film.

Mae Clarke, James Cagney.THE PUBLIC ENEMY

James Cagney said he’d always be grateful to William Wellman for his first break.

 

 

A young Gary Cooper in Wings. The public loved him.

Wellman didn’t get along with studios executives, he left Paramount in 1930 and worked at Warner Bros. for a while.

One of his films for Warners was Wild Boys  Of The Road(1933) in which he cast his soon to be 4th wife, Dorothy Coonan (1913-2009) who was a dancer in Busby Berkeley musicals. (She was in Forty Second  Street, Whoopee, Gold Diggers of 1933).

 

The film depicted three teenagers during the Depression, leaving home to find work by hopping freight trains with other kids.

Dorothy Coonan Wellman

 

Dorothy Coonan, Frankie Darro.

Dorothy and William married in 1934 and she retired from the screen, raising 7 children ( one of whom I hope to interview!). Dorothy was interviewed in an excellent 1995 documentary about her husband. ( “Wild Bill, Hollywood Maverick” can be seen on You Tube and lots of stars are interviewed.)

 

Irene Dunne, Richard Dix. STINGAREE.

Rather an oddity, STINGAREE (1934) starred Richard Dix as an Australian music loving outlaw,’Stingaree’ who helps the career of singer Irene Dunne. Re-uniting Dunne and Dix from Cimarron, the script was poor and did neither star any favours.

 

Working with David O. Selznick, Wellman was at the helm of one of the best screwball comedies of the 1930s, Nothing Sacred, and he co-wrote and directed A Star Is Born ( which he won his only Oscar for, but for writing, not directing.)
Again, two back to back films which were completely different.

Regarding the Oscars, it seems strange that “WINGS” should win Best Film but had no other nominations.

Wellman, like Hitchcock, couldn’t take Selznick’s constant interference and they never worked together again.

 

Charles Winninger, Fredric March, Carole Lombard, William Wellman.

 

 

 

Robert Mitchum, Burgess Meredith.THE STORY OF G.I. JOE.

One of the realistic war films Wellman made, The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) told the story of real life war correspondent, Ernie Pyle (played by Burgess Meredith). Pyle joins an infantry unit in Italy, with Robert Mitchum as the unit’s leader. (This was Mitchum’s only Oscar nomination.)

 

Anne Baxter, Gregory Peck. YELLOW SKY.

One of my favorite westerns, YELLOW SKY  starred Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter and Richard Widmark. Gritty black and white.

 

 

Another excellent Wellman film, Beau Geste .

 

With similarities to Wellman’s Nothing Sacred and Lady of Burlesque, Roxie Hart (1942) provides the blueprint for the musical  CHICAGO, but  it doesn’t match the zaniness or speed of Nothing Sacred , or  the ensemble work of Lady Of Burlesque.
A star vehicle for Ginger Rogers who worked very hard, but was almost overshadowed by Adolphe  Menjou  as the lawyer ‘Billy Flynn’ who will defend anyone if they can pay him $5,000.

Maybe I just missed  the Kander  & Ebb songs.
Ginger does two good dance numbers, a mean black bottom and a Bill Robinson style tap dance on a staircase.

 

Adolph Menjou, Ginger Rogers. ROXIE HART.

 

 

A young Iris Adrian as ‘Two Gun Gertie’ who takes Roxie’s place in the news headlines. Unfortunately,Iris is only in one scene .

Phil Silvers was also wasted as a newshound cameraman. And almost a walk-on for Nigel Bruce. 

Leading man George Montgomery had zero chemistry with  Ginger.

So I guess I’m saying it was a disappointment and I couldn’t see any Wellman touches.

 

Great to see the saintly Sara Allgood as ‘Mama Morton’ who runs the woman’s jail. When Roxie gets in a brawl with another prisoner, Mama bangs their heads together, then goes on reading her magazine!

 

 

William Wellman, Van Johnson. BATTLEGROUND.

Wellman was back to wartime  with MGM’s Battleground (1949). Top billed were Van Johnson,John  Hodiak, Ricardo Montalban, James Whitmore, Leon Ames, Douglas Fowley.

Set during WW2, the story follows a an army unit during the Battle of the Bulge. Wellman brings to life an excellent script by Robert A. Pirosh ( for which Pirosh won an Oscar.)

A realistic look at the horrors of war, the winter  scenes in the forests of Bastogne made me wonder of the makers of the excellent Band of Brothers had seen this film.

 

In the 1950s, the director had an alliance with  John Wayne and writer Ernest Gann.

Wayne starred in two of the five films they worked on, The High and the Mighty and Island in the Sky.

John Wayne, Jan Sterling.

In his 60s, Wellman quit films and retired to family life.

Called a maverick, William A. Wellman’s films covered every genre possible and is up there with the other Hollywood greats, Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock.

In 2015, William Wellman Jr. wrote a biography of his father and I look forward to reading it.

The cover above shows the director and his wife Dorothy on the set of Wild Boys of the Road.

 

Here’s a very special book I’d love to get hold of, Nothing Sacred, The Cinema of William Wellman. Authors Frank Thompson and John Andrew Gallagher spent many years working on it. It’s 700 pages, 12”x 9”, with 1,000 images.

And the publishing  history is like no other I’ve ever heard of. The book was on pre-order sale for three months to December 5th,2017 and then the number of books printed depended on the number ordered. And that was it. (Men with Wings Press).

If you had ordered it, the cost was $150, numbered and signed by the authors.

The following pages show the great research and detail In the book.

I saw one copy for sale at $900! I’ll keep looking.
I wonder how many copies were printed.

 

 

 

 

 

17 responses »

  1. I love your article on William Wellman, a favourite among Hollywood’s most versatile directors.

    I first saw The Ox-Bow Incident on the big screen in 1974 with Wild Bill and Dorothy in attendance as he was promoting his memoir A Short Time for Insanity. That unforgettable film is not any easier on second or third viewings. It is not one I return to often.

    The first time I shared Lady of Burlesque with the hubby he commented that it didn’t seem like a Wellman picture to him until all the lovely ladies paraded across the stage. (Giggle)

    • Thanks Patricia. How wonderful that you saw Mr. Wellman and his wife. I must try and get his autobiography.
      Dare I say I prefer Lady of Burlesque to Ball of Fire!
      I’ve got quite a few Wellman films to catch up on.

  2. Great article! Thank you so much for shining a spotlight back in dad’s work. I hope you are able to find a copy of Thompson and Gallagher’s amazing bio, Nothing Sacred. It is SO huge, 1000+ pictures, that they were unable to reproduce without the huge price tag. I am lucky to have scored one pre-sale!
    I’m looking forward to reading your back entries. I grew up when my dad had already retired, so a missed so much of the party!
    Sincerely,
    Maggie

  3. I’m a big fan of Wellman’s work, his westerns are rich, varied and always fascinating. Ox-Bow is a powerful piece of work and derived from an equally powerful novel bu Walt Van Tilburg Clark – it’s well worth reading. Wellman also filmed another of the author’s books, the ambitious and intriguing Track of the Cat.

      • I like it, but it is different. I described it as a kind of art house western and I still think of it in those terms. Do check it out if you get the chance though.

      • And I forgot to say with regard to Lady of Burlesque, the Gypsy Rose Lee novel is worth reading too,, although it’s been suggested (and I reckon it’s probably true) that the real writer was the wonderfully witty Craig Rice.

  4. Just watched Roxie Hart again and it’s great fun. I wonder if some of Iris Adrians part was cut. In an interview she said Mr Wellman created the role especially for her, but it’s so small. Don’t agree about the lack of chemistry between George and Ginger. Adolphe Menjou virtually walked off with the picture, he is just wonderful.

  5. I wonder what it would have been like with Alice Faye as Roxie. Alice had to relinquish the part through pregnancy. Loved the way the judge jumped up and posed in all the courtroom photos!

  6. Vienna, I really enjoyed your wonderful write-up of one of my favorite movie makers, director.producer/writer William A. Wellman. The first movies that I remember seeing of his were BATTLEGROUND(1949) on NBC SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES in 1965, ISLAND IN THE SKY(1953), which I think was on Channel 4 KARK-TV Little Rock, Arkansas circa…1965, and THE OX-BOW INCIDENT(1942), which was shown a lot on the Channel 3 WREC-TV Memphis, Tennessee EARLY MOVIE during the 1960’s. These movies stood out in my young mind’s eye. The realistic harshness of the cold atmosphere of BATTLEGROUND and ISLAND IN THE SKY literally chilled me sitting in front of our television set. The harsh gritty reality of THE OX-BOW INCIDENT has never left me.

    I can never for the life of me get over Dore Schary, head of production at MGM, having producer/editor Sam Zimbalist supervise the re-editing of Wellman’s ACROSS THE WIDE MISSOURI(filmed, 1950, released 1951). What was probably a great Western at 135 minutes cut to 78 minutes. Too bad the cut footage wasn’t saved by anyone, unless it is in a vault somewhere. I wonder what Maggie Wellman knows about this travesty?

    I could go on and on about the movies of William A. Wellman

    • Thanks, Walter. I haven’t seen Across The Wide Missouri but I read that Wellman disowned it after the studio re- edited it and drastically cut the running time.

  7. Vienna, ACROSS THE WIDE MISSOURI, though cut to 78 minutes, is still worth watching. It has a top notch cast and breath taking color photography of the Colorado Rocky Mountains.by William C. Mellor. The costuming by Walter Plunkett is right on for the 1829-35 West. What could have been.

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