November 22, 2011
William A. Wellman was an attractive guy who happened to make a lot of movies, one of those directors who led an entire life before entering the cinema (as salesman, hockey player, soldier). For Wellman and so many other early Hollywood craftsmen, directing was, as John Ford described it, just another “job of work”. Wellman was one industrious worker, credited with 83 shorts and features from 1920 – 1958. He excelled at compact stories of blue-collar types getting sore at each other (or what Manny Farber called “hard-visaged ball bearings standing around – for no damned reason and with no indication of how long or for what reason they have been standing.”), able to create a humming rhythm out of wisecracks and violence. The studios, however, tasked him with tackling much more, leading him to clumsily apply his blunt style to melodramas and comedies (his ’37 Star is Born is especially sluggish). His career is wildly uneven but well worth looking into, especially the period in the 30s where he was cranking out saucy and speedy pre-coders like Night Nurse and Other Men’s Women (both 1931). The Warner Archive has just released a third film from his stellar ’31: Safe in Hell (along with later Wellman efforts My Man and I (1952) and his final film Lafayette Escadrille (1958)).
Safe in Hell was shot from mid-September to October 18th of 1931, and was released December 12th. A quickie produced by First National Pictures (which had merged with Warners), it’s a seamy pre-code drama about a prostitute who believes she has committed murder, and then flees to a Caribbean island that does not have an extradition treaty with the United States. The lead role of the whore without a heart of gold was originally slated for Broadway legend Marilyn Miller, and was then assigned to rising star Barbara Stanwyck, who gave a deliciously sardonic performance in Wellman’s Night Nurse earlier that year (she ended up in Frank Capra’s Forbidden instead). The role fell to Dorothy Mackaill, who Ralph Flint of the NY Times said was, “on return from her summering at Hawaiian resorts, [and] was pressed into service.”
Mackaill was a British born actress, who cut her teeth as a dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies before forging a productive career on-screen in the silent era, notching the leading role in the 1924 The Man Who Came Back, and in Alfred Santell’s 1926 The Dancer of Paris. Work dwindled with the arrival of sound, and First National declined to extend her contract at the end of 1931. That marked the beginning of the end of her career in pictures. It’s unclear why the studio felt she wasn’t fit for sound, as her performance in Safe in Hell is impressively wild and unhinged, wrenching the underwritten part into something tangible and affecting.
She plays Gilda Karlson, an in-demand prostitute in New Orleans, who is paid an unwelcome visit by a john, the one who led her into vice. She conks him over the head with a vase, and, thinking she killed him, is frittered away to the Caribbean by her merchant marine boyfriend Carl (Donald Cook). She is ensconced in a shady hotel populated by a murderer’s row of lowlifes, each ogling her with lip-smacking impunity. Wellman catches the crew (including my favorite name and face: Gustav von Seyffertitz) in a series of leering reaction shots, before they slowly turn their chairs around and await her return trip downstairs. With Carl away on a job, the seedy patrons urge Gilda to sink back into her old ways, and the rest of the drama details this dilemma.
Wellman gets the story rolling with alacrity, establishing Gilda’s character by opening on a close-up of her gams sitting next to a phone – the two necessary implements of her job. Within a few scenes a man is presumed dead and Gilda is stowed away on a ship, heading South, her eyes visible through a slit in a box, as she quips, “I always traveled 1st class!”. The hotel in the Caribbean is run by Nina Mae McKinney, a wildly talented black actress who was shunted into supporting or “musical” roles because of the institutional racism of the period (she was later known in Europe as the “Black Garbo”). Here she sings the theme song with a smile while serving her customers. The bellboy is played by another grievously under-used black actor, Clarence Muse, who injects a patrician weariness and humor into his stock character. He tells Gilda that they serve liquor, since they are in “a civilized country”, unlike the Prohibition era U.S.
The film loses its spark in the closing third, in which sexual deviancy is replaced by an unconvincing shift to the value of constancy, robbing the starkly downbeat ending of much of its power. An uneasy mix of entertaining smarm and queasy sentimentality, Safe in Hell is probably the least of Wellman’s great 1931 run (The Public Enemy, Other Men’s Women, Night Nurse), but it still exerts a strange fascination. I should note that the Warner Archive transfer looks soft and scratched up, most likely taken from an old TV master. It is not up to the usual standards of the company’s releases, but the fact that this rarity is available at all is reason enough to celebrate.
My Man and I (1952) is a showcase for Ricardo Montalban, who plays Chu Chu Ramirez, an itinerant Mexican farmer who gains his citizenship, but is unable to escape racist attitudes. This earnestly melodramatic film was co-written by novelist John Fante, who (according to Doug Bonner) modeled the love story between Montalban and Shelley Winters on the romance from his most famous novel, Ask the Dust. Chu Chu, an almost idiotically optimistic character, immediately believes he can save Nancy (Winters) from her alcoholism through sheer force of will. Wellman militates against the ridiculous goody-two-shoes nature of Chu Chu’s character by placing him in cramped, dense frames, with looming faces present in the foreground (one of them belonging to Jack Elam, playing the cynical Celestino), used especially in Chu Chu’s flophouse. This sense of visual claustrophobia runs counter to Chu Chu’s continually stated belief in the American melting pot, which he proves by constantly wielding his citizenship letter from the President. In his scenes with Nancy, Wellman uses low-light, throwing dramatic shadows against the wall, visualizing the dark pit of despair that Nancy cannot escape from. Despite his best efforts, Wellman cannot entirely free the film from the hackneyed script, which transitions into a traditional courtroom drama, with all of its moralizing banalities. The ultimate saving grace, though, is the presence of Claire Trevor as an unsatisfied housewife whose husband hires the buff (and often shirtless) Montalban to clear a field, and whose withering putdowns and shivering carnality electrify every scene she appears in.
Wellman often said that Lafayette Escadrille was the worst movie he ever made, and I won’t argue the point. The story of American soldiers who sign up to fight in the French Air Force in WW1 was a personal one, as Wellman had served in the unit. He even cast his son, William Wellman, Jr., in one of the supporting roles. But Warner Bros. forced him to add a happy ending, and cast the handsome teen idol mannequin Tab Hunter in the lead role. The idea was to bring in a younger audience, but all it did was dilute Wellman’s vision more. What was intended as a melancholic homage to the American dead of WWI was turned into a raucous boys-on-the-town movie, and it’s a mainly joyless affair. There are some nicely shot flying scenes, and a very young Clint Eastwood picking lice out of his hair, but otherwise it is a lost cause. This is a shame, because one of his previous passion projects, the monochromatic Track of the Cat (1954), is one of his greatest visual accomplishments. Escadrille was his last film, but no matter, he got the job done more often than not.