WILLIAM A. WELLMAN
THE MAN AND HIS WINGS: WILLIAM A. WELLMAN AND THE MAKING OF THE FIRST BEST PICTURE
BY WILLIAM WELLMAN JR.
It has been said that my father, William A. Wellman, known to Hollywood as "Wild Bill," was a man who sprinted through life. Born in a leap year, he couldn't wait for the next year to arrive and the next adventure to unfold. His energy and his impatience wouldn't allow him to take just one step at a time. It was as if he wanted to spring forward, four years at a clip. His world was kaleidoscopic.
His fiery personality, roistering behavior, grim determination, and driving ambition were often on display, as was his unique ability to squint one eye while the other peered through a viewfinder and recognized a motion picture miracle.
I saw my father as a James Dean-like rebel with a cause. He was a square peg looking at round holes. He didn't fit in as a child. He didn't fit in as an adult. He preferred to exist outside the system, and yet he strove for stability in the rollercoaster life of Hollywood.
By the time he was thirty years old, he had already been a criminal on probation and expelled from school; been a professional athlete; served in the French Foreign Legion and flown in World War I as a fighter pilot in the famous Lafayette Flying Corps; married three of his five wives, including a Hollywood glamour star and a Ziegfeld Follies showgirl; and directed Wings, the first film to receive the Academy Award for Best Picture of the year.
With help from the Hollywood movie star Douglas Fairbanks, he began his film career as an actor in Fairbanks’ Knickerbocker Buckaroo (1919). Hating how he looked on the screen, he switched gears and launched a long career behind the camera. His first job was that of messenger boy at the Goldwyn Studios. For over three years, he knocked around as a property man, assistant cutter, and assistant director. When his director went on an alcoholic binge, he finished the picture that led to his first directing job at Fox Studios, The Man Who Won (1923), starring Dustin Farnum-and was promptly fired.
Dad returned to the rank of assistant until he could wangle his way back to directing a lengthy list of B westerns with Dustin Farnum and Charles "Buck" Jones. After the artistic success of You Never Know Women (1926) with Florence Vidor, he won the job of piloting the legendary Wings (1927) at Paramount Studios. In the years to follow, he made many pictures and much money for nearly every major studio in Hollywood. He later said, "And I've been fired from every studio in Hollywood except Disney-they never hired me!"
My father wanted to make every kind of film, and he did. He made tough gangster films like Public Enemy (1931) with James Cagney and Jean Harlow, and The Hatchet Man (1932) with Edward G. Robinson; fast-moving action pictures like Wild Boys of the Road (1933), Call of the Wild (1935) with Clark Gable and Loretta Young, and Beau Geste (1939) with Gary Cooper and Ray Milland. There were comedies, too - movies like Nothing Sacred (1937) with Carole Lombard and Fredric March, and Roxie Hart (1942) top lining Ginger Rogers along with hard-hitting melodramas such as Heroes for Sale (1933) and his Academy Award winning A Star Is Born (the original 1937 film) with Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, The Light That Failed (1939) starring Ronald Colman, and Star Witness (1931) with Walter Huston.
Dad even made a semi-musical, Lady of Burlesque (1943), starring Barbara Stanwyck; and westerns like Yellow Sky (1948) with Gregory Peck, Richard Widmark, and Anne Baxter, and the classic The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) starring Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews. There were war stories, such as Battleground (1949) and The Story of G. I. Joe (l945) with Robert Mitchum, a film that remains, perhaps, the greatest fictional tribute to the American soldier. No fewer than eleven films of aviation adventure streaked across the marquee, most notably The High and the Mighty (1954), starring John Wayne.
Even when my father's heroes were not airborne, he would focus on men who brought a similar grace and gallantry to other adventurous tasks. My father's movie career began in the Silent Era. He was there when films began to talk. He was part of the golden age of comedy, the fabulous musicals, the gangster era, hero westerns, the dynamic movie moguls, and the great stars of the silver screen at a time when Hollywood and its dream factories were at their most glamorous and finest hour. He was there when Hollywood's golden years began to fade. He saw those glittering empires crack and decay and wanted no part of their demise; and so, partly shunned by an industry he helped to create, and heartbroken by the treatment given his final passion project, C'est la Guerre, released under the title The Lafayette Escadrille (1958), he ended his career.
It was not until 1973 that the industry he had served so well relented and bestowed upon him the Directors Guild of America's Lifetime Achievement Award.
In his retirement, he wrote two books, A Short Time for lnsanity (1974) and Growing Old Disgracefully, unpublished. He loved and enjoyed his devoted wife and growing family for as long as he could. At least five times he battled and defeated near-death encounters, but he could not conquer the cancer that took his life two months shy of his eightieth birthday.
When my father died, I lost three people: my dad, my companion, and my best friend.
As a director for over thirty-five years, Wild Bill fought many battles - some with his fists - for the right to make his pictures his way. He lived a life more adventurous, more confrontational, and more unpredictable than anything in his movies. After all, they didn't call him "Wild Bill" for nothing. He was feared and respected and even loved. After four unsuccessful marriages, his fifth lasted forty-two years and produced seven children, twenty-two grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren to date.
Just before my father died, he told me, "Bill, God-damn it! Don't feel sorry for me. I've lived the life of a hundred men." He sure did. He left wonderful memories to those who loved him, and a treasure trove of films that bring joy and comfort to all - especially those who reach out to touch that dream in the dark.
Autographed & Personalized Book $35.00 (Regular retail price online and at bookstores is $49.95)
Autographed & Personalized Book and Photo $40.00
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William Wellman, Jr.
c/o Wild Bill Pictures
15935 Meadowcrest Road,
Sherman Oaks, CA 91403