By William Wellman Jr.
What do you know about Wild Bill?
Me? I think of airplane pictures and tough guy actors that populated his films. Titles like Wings and The High and the Mighty. Film stars like Duke, Mitchum and Gable. Reading this book allowed me to identify many more titles I hadn’t really thought about and get a front row seat to Wild Bill’s harrowing WW1 adventures in the Lafayette Escadrille.
Because of films like Wings and the ill fated Lafayette Escadrille, I knew that Bill had flown in the first world war but didn’t quite realize the life and death dog fights he engaged in and the amount of friends he lost in the aerial battles. Sadly, he even lost a French girl he had made his wife and kept their union a secret for the next fifty years. When the war ended, he returned home a hero and thanks to Douglas Fairbanks, found a place in the silent film industry. Starting at the bottom of the ladder, Wild Bill began his journey upwards through the ranks of the Hollywood circus.
Wings was the first film to win the Oscar for Best Picture in the newly created Academy Award celebrations which all but guaranteed Wellman a spot in the history of film. The pages dedicated to it’s production are a window to the past telling how Bill fought to make the film his way even if it cost him his career. Following the enormous success of Wings, he made numerous films in the final years of the silent film and plenty of early pre-code talkies starring strong women like Barbara Stanwyck. Sadly many of his early films have been lost including his follow up to Wings, The Legion of the Condemned featuring a young Gary Cooper and Fay Wray.
After a few wrong choices at the altar, Wellman found the perfect mate in Dottie, a former Busby Berkeley dancer and part time actress that Wellman occasionally put in front of the screen.
The book details the many productions Wellman took on including classics such asBeau Geste, The Ox Bow Incident, Yellow Sky, The Public Enemy and the 1937 version of A Star Is Born. For the 1937 Star Is Born, Wellman would win the Oscar for Best Original Story.
Like many of the celebrated directors from yesteryear, Wellman was his own man and lived by his own code. He frequently went to war with the studio heads like Mayer, Schary and O’Selznick.
The book is written by his own son and namesake Wellman Jr. who does a good job at painting the picture of his father’s career. While I love reading about Hollywood history, I must admit that the war time adventures covered in the first hundred or so pages are full of adventure following the path of this young hell raiser who runs off to the war in Europe, returning a hero.
I’ve seen about a quarter of Wild Bill’s films. The majority of them from the latter part of his career sprinkled with a few of his early efforts like Night Nurse and Wings. Time to play catch up on some of the movies featured within the book that I have in my collection but haven’t gotten around to just yet. Midnight Mary, Lady of Burlesque and The Hatchet Man to name a few.
I got a good chuckle while reading the final few pages when one of my favorite character actors turns up for a brief real life heroic appearance to help save the family home from a wild fire. None other than Richard Jaeckel. Just like his film career, never the star but always making an impression in support.
A good effort here by Jr. to tell his father’s story and keep it interesting for us students of film history.