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