William A. Wellman controlled every element of filmmaking like the player-conductor of a one-man band, but his genius lay in using his skills to make movies that still crackle with spontaneity. You may stumble on some calamities or misfires, but you won’t find an empty display of virtuosity in his entire 76-film roster, which includes the legendary World War I flying epic “Wings” (1927), the first film to win the Academy Award for best picture.
As William Wellman Jr. observes in his rambunctious biography, “My father was always searching for a different story, a different point of view, something unusual and not like the films he already made.” Wellman found them again and again in his 35-year career. He directed a string of iconoclastic early talkies that went off like Roman candles: “Other Men’s Women,” “The Public Enemy” and “Night Nurse” (all 1931). Though he confessed he never read Shakespeare, he brought the texture of “The Tempest” to the sexy, magical Western “Yellow Sky” (1948). His boy-and-dog classic “Good-bye My Lady” (1956) was so moving that even anti-sentimental Pauline Kael had to buy a Basenji like the one in the picture.
Henry James captured “felt life” in exquisite prose. Operating on guts, intuition and perception, Wellman caught “found life” in an astounding variety of dramas, melodramas, comedies, farces and adventures. He suffused them, his son writes, with “passionate personality, roguish behavior, fierce determination, driving ambition, and a trunkful of life experiences.” That’s why, when you watch them on TCM, they come right at you. His corrosive burlesques of media fame, “Nothing Sacred” (1937) and “Roxie Hart” (1942 and based on the same Roaring Twenties comedy as the musical “Chicago”), haven’t lost their carbonated sass. His original version of “A Star Is Born” (1937) balances Schadenfreude shocks of recognition with high soap-opera tears more cunningly than its rip-offs and remakes. (Just announced: A third remake, starring actor-director Bradley Cooper and, possibly, Beyoncé.)
Astonishingly, Wellman made two potent dark masterpieces during the rah-rah years of World War II: “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943), an uncompromising anti-lynch-mob Western that’s also a trenchant indictment of American rites of manhood, and “The Story of G.I. Joe” (1945), a tribute to World War II infantrymen that is all the more heartening because of its unremitting focus on loss, frustration and exhaustion. Neither has lost its relevance.
A storied veteran of World War I’s Lafayette Flying Corps , Wellman was nicknamed “Wild Bill” because of his daredevil aviation. This roughhewn, exuberant biography demonstrates that the moniker stuck for good reason. A battler and rebel from his teen years on, Wellman did more than put up his fists against matinee idols and moguls — he went on the offensive for fresh, dynamic moviemaking. He was so intransigent about getting “Wings” right, delaying shooting for days until clouds provided the perfect backdrop for his biplanes, that fed-up Paramount executives wouldn’t invite him to the Academy Awards.
Wellman Jr. conveys his father’s avid, knockabout spirit as he recounts Wild Bill’s juvenile-delinquent hell-raising in the Boston suburb of Newton, and his stirring, life-molding exploits in the Lafayette Flying Corps. The loss of fellow fliers and of his secret French wife, who died in a German bombardment, shaped his gallant, tragic view of war. The book’s energy stays sky-high as Wellman enters the movie business as an actor under the auspices of Douglas Fairbanks Sr., who befriended the lad after seeing him play in a prewar semi-pro hockey game in Boston. Wellman suffers one marital mishap after another while setting his sights on becoming an ace director. But he ends up with a marriage that sticks — No. 5 — and fathers seven children whom he adores during his even more prolific run as a top-notch picture-maker in Hollywood’s heyday.
In its attempt to contain all of Wellman’s busy life and career, this biography becomes almost too eventful. Like Wellman in the ’30s, though without his virtuoso’s timing and inventiveness, Wellman Jr. uses any means at hand — letters, excerpts from the director’s incisive script notes and evocative memoirs (published and unpublished), and all manner of hearsay — to add flesh-and-blood details to his story and deliver it with gusto, if not precision and clarity. The narrative at times becomes a patchwork quilt of unadorned straight talk, theatrical dialogues, florid quotations, comical lists and the biographical equivalent of laundry lists.
Yet this book will gladden die-hard Wellman fans and rouse new ones, both as an eyewitness account of what dreams were made of in Hollywood’s Golden Age and as a movie-savvy son’s mammoth, passionate tribute to his great director-father. As an actor, young Wellman played his dad in “Lafayette Escadrille” (1958). He co-created the slam-bang 1996 documentary “Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick” and wrote the engaging short book “The Man and His WINGS” (2006).
Wellman Jr. was the man who helped the fabled director pack up his office after the debacle of “Lafayette Escadrille,” a dream that became a shambles partly because of Warner Bros.’ insistence on a happy ending. On the way out, Wellman told Jack Warner, “I know this is your studio, but if I ever catch you in a men’s room or alone somewhere, I’m gonna put you in the hospital for six weeks.” That was Wellman — Wild Bill to the end.
Michael Sragow, West Coast editor and online critic for Film Comment and the author of “Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master,” has also edited two volumes of James Agee’s work for the Library of America.
By William Wellman Jr.
Pantheon. 640 pp. $40