Uneven ‘Wild Bill Wellman’ revisits director’s fiery life

Jun 3, 2015, 10:30 AM

“Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel” (Pantheon), by William Wellman Jr.

The silver biplane that had performed a few stunts over actor Douglas Fairbanks’ polo party taxied to a stop at the far end of the field. Its pilot, wearing a military uniform with medals from the Great War, walked up to the movie star.

“Remember me, Mr. Fairbanks?” asked William A. Wellman. “You said if I ever came to Hollywood, to look you up.”

Even in 1919, when he turned 23, Wellman was hard to forget. Fairbanks gave the young veteran a role in his latest movie, “The Knickerbocker Buckaroo.” On the set, Wellman quickly realized that the director gave the orders, not the actors. And “Wild Bill” wasn’t much for taking orders.

Wellman became one of Hollywood’s better directors and one of its more colorful characters. Easy to anger, he stormed around various studios for nearly 40 years as he directed more than 70 films. A handful — among them “Wings” (1927), “A Star is Born” (1937) and “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943) — have emerged as classics.

“Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel” is his oldest son’s uneven if earnest retelling of the Wellman legend. Readers willing to plow through a thick tangle of unnecessary tangents and details will find a portrait of a headstrong man who liked making movies.

Wellman (1896-1975) was a rebel from the start. Growing up in the Boston area, he played sports when he wasn’t fighting other boys. A stink bomb cost him a high school diploma. A lark in a stolen car put him on probation. A stint at semiprofessional hockey brought him attention and, at the rink one day, Fairbanks’ admiration.

Flying caught Wellman’s attention just as World War I broke out. He was among those Americans who flew for France before the U.S. entered the fight. Wellman earned honors for bravery — and a broken back in a near-fatal crash, his sixth. Sent home in a brace, he became a flight instructor in San Diego, close enough to merit a trip to see Douglas Fairbanks.

Wellman worked his way up from messenger boy to director at Fox Studios in just three years. After overseeing seven Westerns, he asked William Fox for a raise and was fired on the spot. Before walking out Wellman spit in the mogul’s face.

Luck remained with Wellman. Producer B.P. Schulberg hired him just as Paramount Pictures was preparing the biggest movie yet, a drama about American fliers in the war. Assigned to direct “Wings” because of his wartime experience, he turned out a huge hit.

Eventually soured by his treatment at Paramount, Wellman slipped into Schulberg’s office and shoveled horse manure on his desk. Atop the pile he planted a note: “Here’s what I think of your lousy script!”

Writes William Wellman Jr., “Even though he had acquired the reputation of ‘tough to control,’ his ability to make all kinds of films on schedule and within budget made him appealing to other studios and producers — especially if they left him alone.”

At Warner Bros. he helped make James Cagney a star in the gangster movie “The Public Enemy” (1931). Working for producer David O. Selznick, he won a screenwriting Oscar for “A Star is Born.” Moved emotionally by the anti-lynching tale “The Ox-Bow Incident,” he persuaded 20th Century-Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck to make a Western they both knew would lose money.

Along the way were plenty of angry words, even an occasional fistfight — with Spencer Tracy in the early days and later with Anthony Quinn. Wellman seemed to mellow once he found happiness with his fifth wife and their seven children. The battle to make movies his way didn’t end until he quit the business altogether over the way Warner Bros. edited “Lafayette Escadrille” (1958), a highly personal project about Americans who flew for France. To the studio, it was just another celluloid widget.

Wellman Jr. brings to his book an adoring son’s perspective, for better and for worse. His access to his father’s writings provides depth, as do his own memories. Yet he seldom questions his father’s behavior — the cavalier treatment of the earlier wives, for instance — and almost always sides with his father in a dispute.

Early in his life William A. Wellman arrived at a general truth: “Do the work and the luck will come.” He believed in hard work — in luck, too, and for good reason.

___

Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks” (University of Wisconsin Press).

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Uneven ‘Wild Bill Wellman’ revisits director’s fiery life