BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Mar 18th, 2009 •

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They say William Wellman was a man’s director, and a man’s man. I don’t dispute this, but the new collection seems to. The films are equally divided as far as featuring women and men in leading roles, and though the femmes are perhaps forced to act tougher than usual – bearing up under the malaise of the great depression, dealing with the aftermath of earthquakes, etc. – they nonetheless give equally good performances as their male counterparts. So I don’t know about the strict perimeters of his rep, at least in these six presentations.

THE PURCHASE PRICE is a delightful morsel about a tough girl (Barbara Stanwyck) who’s dying to escape the hardened life she’s led among gangsters, in gin joints, etc., and seizes the opportunity when the hotel maid confesses that she has substituted Stanwyck’s picture for her own in order to look better in a marriage arrangement with a farmer in the Midwest who she’s never met. Stanwyck pays the maid a hundred bucks to take her place, and skidaddles out into the desolate plains area, uncertain of her willingness to face the hardships, or to marry a man she doesn’t know but assumes to be a foolish hick.

What ensues is a surprisingly lovely portrait of rural types, equal to anything John Ford has given us, and lacking only Ford’s visual style, which Wellman never seemed equal to. But the local flavor is just terrific. Stanwyck is appealing and intelligent in the role, and George Brent as the sniffling bumpkin who earns her affection is also effective. Standout in a small role is Leila Bennett as the maid – a Fanny Brice type, who appeared in a ton of stuff until 1936 (including MARK OF THE VAMPIRE) and then evaporated from the film scene, passing away in 1965. Lyle Talbot as Eddie, Stanwyck’s gangster boyfriend, gives a rather unique performance, ranging from dangerous and jealous to adolescent and frat-boyish. The film ended abruptly for me, but up until that point was thoroughly entertaining, so I’m complaining, just mentioning.

The first act of FRISCO JENNY is a valuable demonstration of one of film’s important measures of success – the accumulation of detail. Shot by shot we gather vital information and useful insights, most of it visual. And then comes the San Francisco quake, which had to be a metaphor for the recent financial collapse. Everyone watching the film in ’32must have easily identified with the plight of a sweet-hearted woman’s sudden descent into venal pursuits when she is left without her fiancée, her son, and even the world in general as she once knew it.

Ruth Chatterton never quite makes the Jekyll/Hyde personality change believable enough to power this story, nor does her makeup adequately age her over the twenty-three year course of the film (whereas Louis Calhern, as her corrupt lawyer friend, does show the effect of time). But the inherent drama carries her along to the denouement.

The film opens with grainy optical shots introducing the cast members, then bursts into a pristine, redolent print that literally looks as if it were filmed this year. Amazing, what is still sitting in those studio vaults, and what today’s technology can do with it.

MIDNIGHT MARY finds Wellman loaned out to MGM. And for whatever reason, this film has some real signs of wear –fluctuating patterns in the image, for example, indicative of negative deterioration.

I wasn’t as crazy about this film as I was with a few of the others. It had the usual Wellman dedication to the performances, and a neat stylistic flourish of wiping one scene away with the next. However, the dramatic flow of the film keeps being interrupted by Andy Devine’s terribly goofy comic relief, and good guy protagonist Franchot Tone looks so much like Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat that I was disconcerted each time he appeared. (Those I viewed it with, I should mention, did not share my disconcertion.) Loretta Young, however, is beautiful and keeps steering the film back on course.

It’s surprising to see the debonair male lead (Tone) bluntly bring up the topic of sex, and to see Ms. Young not only take it in stride, but fire back a rejoinder. It’s especially wild coming from Ms. Young who, in later years on the TV show she hosted, her skin thin and alabaster, her face a portrait of placid beauty, seemed as if she were still virginal. Of course, as things go in Hollywood – illusion vs. reality – she may have been one of the toughest, hottest numbers on the lot.

There’s a flashback of Ms. Young as a 9-year-old child. I absolutely believed it (well, maybe not as nine, but easily eleven). How often attempts like that fail, but this time it was so convincing that at first I honestly thought they’d found a child look-alike.

HEROES FOR SALE was the best of the batch. Profound and practically unmitigated social realism, only tainted a smidgeon by a silly socialist thrown in for creepy comic rhythm. But Zanuck’s and Wellman’s chemistry guaranteed this film its dramatic purity.

It was special to see Richard Barthelmess in a talkie, not that you can’t find him in others if you search, such as Howard Hawks’ version of THE DAWN PATROL [’30] and Hawks’ ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS [’39]. But he’s nearly absent from the torrent of vault items flooding the market, and he’s so good. Don’t feel too badly for him, however: after the second World War he settled in Long Island, NY, and lived comfortably off his canny investments in real estate.

In HEROES, Barthelmess plays an honest, moral man who gets dealt every bad card in the deck, starting in the trenches of WWI, continuing with his medical treatment leading to addiction, family tragedy, and mis-interpreted political motives. The very ending – a breath of warmth in an otherwise deeply cynical film – was added at the insistence of the studio. Remarkably, it serves its purpose without diluting the dark currents of the narrative.

Apparently Zanuck was particularly pleased by the way Wellman handled a protest-gone-violent sequence. I wonder if he noticed the exasperated horse that sat on one of the stunt people during the melee?

These depression-era entrees feel mighty topical today. Some of the same terms are even used, to my surprise. Unemployment reached 24% back then, and its effects were painfully visible on the streets of our country. Not so visible now…yet. Most interesting in a pre-code mode are this film’s depictions of drug addiction and red-baiting police officials.

John Gallagher does a fine job with the HEROES FOR SALE commentary track, his voice a compelling mix of rasp and honey, relaxed, smooth, and measured. His love for Wellman is apparent, as he reads quotes from both letters he received and interviews he conducted, numbering among them Doug Fairbanks Jr., Henry Fonda, Lloyd Nolan, Maureen O’Sullivan, and Mike Mazurki,.

Separate from the commentary, Gallagher shared with me an insight into the Wellman Collection and his twenty other pre-code films: “When Andrew Sarris put together his film culture article in ’67, which became the book ‘The American Cinema’, these films were inaccessible. They had not been granted re-release seals by the MPAA and were in limbo, not seen till the late 60s when the University of Wisconsin was given the WB 16mm library. Therefore one of the most important periods of Wellman’s career was unavailable to Sarris, and as a result he undervalued the director, putting him in the ‘Less Than Meets the Eye’ category.. He has since gone on record admitting that he underestimated him.”

The most hard-hitting moment in WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD comes at the very end, in its narrative of omission – the eponymous characters are not reunited with the parents they’ve had to abandon for economic reasons. Somewhere in the back of a viewer’s mind, if the film is to end at all optimistically, the parents (depicted as decent, loving people) would at least be contacted, or mentioned in a conciliatory manner. But it never happens.

5’3″ Frankie Darro stars in this slice of social realism, which he undermines by getting weepy every now and then, essential to the story, but not among his thespian strengths. He’s more effective when angrily organizing the displaced children of the road to strike back against predators, police, and railroad reps. Darrow had a varied career, playing the voice of Lampwick in Disney’s PINOCCHIO, and, because of his size, a jockey in the Marx Bros. A DAY AT THE RACES. Later the parts got meager. He was a slave in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, Robby the Robot in FORBIDDEN PLANET, a delivery boy in TV’s “The Addams Family”, and uncredited in several Jerry Lewis films such as HOOK, LINE AND SINKER, LIVING IT UP, and THE DISORDERLY ORDERLY.

Wellman’s wife-to-be, a Busby Berkeley chorus girl named Dorothy Coonan, plays Sally, the hobo girl who pals around with the two leads. She gives Darro a bloody nose, and acquits herself with oodles of freckled, tom-boyish charm. She married the director after the film wrapped.

Like the tone of Warner Bros’ I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG, it leaves the plight of the displaced youth in bleak straits. The fact that our three leads get help is clearly a drop in the bucket. It may not be as grim as Bunuel’s LOS OLVIDADOS, but it’s still admirably unflinching in its depiction of the times.

WILD BOYS’ elements are in good shape, but truth be told, the documentary style works against them having to be. Gritty and pseudo-naturalistic, this is one film that would work as well if the elements were in mediocre shape as it does with them being well-preserved.

A commentary track from historian Frank Thompson and William Wellman Jr. bolsters the film into even more of an achievement. Thompson acknowledges that “the studio consistently confronted the Depression head-on.” That statement is made abundantly clear, even from viewing the other selections contained in this HIGHLY RECOMMENDED collection.

And then there are the supplements. A feature-length doc on Wellman (WILD BILL: HOLLYWOOD MAVERICK) is one of the most passionate, carefully researched docs on a filmmaker’s career I’ve come across. When James Cagney appeared, about thirty minutes in, as part of a “This is Your Life” tribute to Wellman, explaining that the director’s decision to switch the actor from a lesser role to the key role in PUBLIC ENEMY made his career, my jaw dropped. I’d never heard that story before, and I was flabbergasted to see Cagney actually recount it. The doc is filled with such terrific archeological material, seemingly leaving no stone unturned. Yet another reason to own this special collection, one of the best DVD releases of the new year.

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