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Wild Bill:
Hollywood Maverick

Savant DVD Review

Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick
Kino Classics
1996 / Color and B&W / 1:33 flat full frame / 93 min. / Street Date June 25, 2013 /
Starring William A. Wellman
Narrated by Alec Baldwin
Theodor M. Angeli, Christian Sebaldt
Film Editor Leslie Jones
Original Music David Bell
Written by
Produced by William Wellman, Jr., Kenneth A. Carlson
Written and Directed by Todd Robinson

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Great documentaries about Hollywood filmmakers aren't as numerous as one might think. Kevin Brownlow and David Gill account for the majority of fine shows on silent cinema, and special mention should be given Bridget Terry's Without Lying Down, the story of writer Frances Marion. Back in 1995, I remember an MGM memo spreading the word that a documentary was going to be shown in the big screening room, for anybody who wanted to attend. William Wellman Jr. and his partner Todd Robinson were present. Their movie Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick gives us a great look at director William A. Wellman, one of those amazing American adventurers of the early 20th century. Wellman was a spoiled, delinquent teenager who ran away to find the glory of war flying over France. Escaping with a full skin, he showed little fear of anything from that point forward. Wellman's entry into filmmaking sounds like Hollywood baloney, yet is true: he landed a plane on the legendary Beverly Hills estate called Picfair right in the middle of a weekend party. When the guests rushed outside, Wellman emerged in full uniform and asked the big star Douglas Fairbanks for a job.

Although it was co-produced by the director's son William Wellman Jr., Wild Bill avoids the traps of Hollywood stories told by relatives. Director Todd Robinson is in charge and has full access to the family's home movies and albums. Some interviews are new and others appear to be from the 1970s, perhaps conducted by Kevin Brownlow. Wellman's contemporaries paint a picture of a bright, handsome, determined guy who made people smile and tolerated no nonsense on his set. Few executives were his friends but those that admired his tough-guy approach to life became strong boosters, like Darryl F. Zanuck. Wellman was just as well known as a director of women's pictures. David O. Selznick relied on him to direct Janet Gaynor and Carole Lombard in expensive Technicolor films. Wellman also guided some of Warners' toughest Pre-code social comment pictures, and during WW2 directed the most uncompromising and non-commercial liberal classic of them all, The Ox-Bow Incident. Then he turned around and made what was considered to be the best movie about the infantry, Story of G.I. Joe. In the 1950s he was the director of choice for John Wayne, even as his un-diplomatic ways became a problem when dealing with the changing face of Hollywood. Wellman wouldn't put up with studios that expected him to follow executive instructions; one could no longer seal a movie deal on a handshake. Lafayette Escadrille was Wellman's personal project about his WW1 flying experience, dedicated to the friends he left behind forty years before. The studio changed everything around, stuck him with Tab Hunter and insisted on a happy ending. It became his last film.

"Wild Bill's" personal life is just as interesting. We hear plenty about what a Bad Boy rake he was in his early Hollywood years. When he decided to settle down, it was with a levelheaded actress who quickly brought him into line. Wellman spotted Dorothy Coonan as one of Busby Berkeley's featured dancers, but she wouldn't have anything to do with him until his pending divorce was final ... his third. Wellman cast Coonan as a tomboy drifter in Wild Boys of the Road, married her and essentially lived happily and faithfully ever after. Another family-produced docu would likely have made Mrs. Wellman a major part of the film. She instead is mostly seen in pleasant home movies of Wellman playing with his children. Just the same, we miss not seeing Dorothy's cute 'nose wiggle' in Wild Boys of the Road, which shows off the freckles that made her look so cute in the Berkeley musicals.

The docu makes room to enumerate the many actors that Wellman directed to Oscar nominations -- Janet Gaynor, Brian Donlevy, Robert Mitchum, James Whitmore, Jan Sterling, etc. Some of them appear in interviews. Wellman was also instrumental in advancing the careers of James Cagney and Robert Mitchum, among others. His silent aviation epic Wings was the first film given a Best Picture Academy Award. We're shown enough film clips to appreciate the qualities that distinguish Wellman's best work -- a love of fun, a respect for men in difficult situations, and a feeling for the absurd. The way Fredric March is tormented by the small town hicks of Nothing Sacred tosses a screwball curve at the sentimental excesses of Frank Capra pictures. A scrappy dog even goes out of its way to bite March's rear end. Director Robinson includes a montage of oddball Wellman compositions, which obscure the actors' faces in important dialogue scenes. A hat brim occludes Henry Fonda's eyes during the reading of a letter in The Ox-Bow Incident. In Nothing Sacred lovers exchange private words under the shade of a tree. During the scene's most important dialogue, a branch blots out half of their faces.

Although not a household name, Wellman directed a long list of classics: Wings, The Public Enemy, Viva Villa!, A Star Is Born, Nothing Sacred, Beau Geste, Roxie Hart, Battleground, The High and the Mighty.  1 His reputation is rising again, thanks to screenings of his older films on TCM and DVD releases in Pre-Code collections from the early 1930s. Some other big Hollywood names from the past have been neglected because an heir has sought to over-control their image, or even cash in on their legacy. The informative and entertaining Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick gives this industry great his due.

Kino Classics' DVD of Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick is a handsomely encoded rendering of a well-made documentary. Colors are fine in the new material and the older film clips look very good for what was available in 1995. This is the show's second bow on DVD. It was released on home video four years ago, as an extra on TCM Archives' The Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 3.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Subtitles: none
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 2, 2013

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.


1. And that's not counting the many unusual, and artsy mini-masterpieces that Wellman tackled: Beggars of Life, Night Nurse, Safe in Hell, The Hatchet Man, Heroes for Sale, Wild Boys of the Road, The President Vanishes, Lady of Burlesque, The Next Voice You Hear..., Westward the Women, Track of the Cat.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2013 Glenn Erickson

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