December 10, 2013


Staring disconsolately at a blank wall as the Buffalo Bills are eliminated from playoff contention is one of my longest held traditions. It’s been fourteen years since that benighted franchise has played in the second season, and any damp flickerings of hope this go ’round were quashed after consecutive demolitions by league doormats (Falcons and Buccaneers). To avoid reflecting on these latest humiliations, I escape into pigskin fantasies of the silver screen. Luckily, TCM is airing a whole day of football flicks tomorrow, from 6:45 AM to 8PM. For heartsick fans of other downtrodden teams, may I suggest William Wellman’s College Coach (1933) and Jacques Tourneur’s Easy Living (1949)? The first is a speedy campus comedy with Pat O’Neil in short pants and a crooning Dick Powell, while the latter is a downbeat relationship drama with declining QB Victor Mature and his glory-hogging wife Lizbeth Scott. Neither will rescue your franchise from irrelevance, but they will pass the time until the indignities of next football Sunday.


College Coach was the sixth and final movie that William Wellman directed in 1933, right after his Great Depression youth-in-revolt classic Wild Boys of the Road . College Coach looks like a slice of reassuring Americana in comparison, but his portrait of an opportunistic college football coach makes corruption look as American as apple pie. Pat O’Brien plays Coach Gore, a fast talking operator who wins at all costs (and it often costs him a pretty penny). He stacks his rosters through bribes that would make the 1990s University of Miami blush. The money-starved Calvert College is seeking ways to boost revenue after investing heavily in their chemistry department, so they lure Gore away to lead their moribund team. Swiftly importing a trio of jacked up goons to add to their one bonafide star (Dick Powell), Calvert suddenly has a powerhouse franchise, a marketable gimmick, “The Four Aces”, and bursting box office coffers (also keep an eye out for cameos by Ward Bond and John Wayne).

Pat O’Neil has a ball as the con-man coach, massaging his players past academic requirements and ordering game-time hits on the competition’s star player. Reminiscent of Gregg Williams’ bounty scandal when with the New Orleans Saints (players would win prizes for knocking out opponents), in College Coach such an order leads to a player’s death. When confronted, Gore icily responds, “40-50 die every year…that’s football.”  Perfectly encapsulating the attitude that led to concussion research getting swept under the table, as detailed in the Frontline documentary “League of Denial”, Gore sees football as a warzone in which the ends justify the means. What’s remarkable is that Gore somehow remains the hero of the tale, his illegal activities the actions of an engaging roue rather than a hardened criminal. Like so much of Warner Brothers’ pre-code output, criminality is no sin when the whole economic system had collapsed. It was simply common sense.


Made for a reported $245,000, Wellman gooses things along with some snappy montage. Gore’s hiring at the start of the football season is heralded with close-ups from students to janitors that exclaim, “They hired Gore!”. It’s like he had just watched Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932) and wanted to experiment with musical dialogue of his own. His other visual flourish is to express characters’ state of mind through the feet . Gore’s much ignored wife (played with verve by Ann Dvorak) is introduced from the shins down, cutting holes in the rug with her nervous walking. Later, Wellman will stage a fight between Powell and a loud-mouthed Lyle Talbot and focus entirely on the ground, their dancing feet telling the tale of the bout. Talbot is keen on wooing Dvorak, so this bit of visual rhyming displays that they might have a future.


As Marlene Dietrich said of Orson Welles in Touch of Evil, Victor Mature’s future is all used up in Easy Living (1949), Jacques Tourneur’s melancholy football melodrama. Mature plays the star QB of the New York Chiefs, Pete Wilson, whose image adorns the banner outside the stadium (although he still takes the subway to work). Nicknamed “King Football”, he may have to hang up his spikes after being diagnosed with a serious heart condition. Having bankrolled his wife’s interior decorating company, and aware of her eagerness to climb the social ladder, Wilson is reluctant to give up the mantle of fame. The story is very punishing towards female ambition, and includes a tacked on ending of casual misogyny. For Tourneur it was a job he was not enthusiastic to take. He had just completed Berlin Express for RKO, and turned down the opportunity to make A Woman’s Secret, which would end up as the second film by Nicholas Ray. Not wanting to push the limits of his power, he accepted the next script offered to him, which was originally titled Inteference. He accepted what would become Easy Living even though he had never seen a football game before. As he is quoted in Chris Fujiwara’s The Cinema of Nigthfall, Tourneur admitted, “I’m not interested in any sports.” This is evident in Mature’s awkward throwing motion in practice, a short arm heave with no follow-through (although Philip Rivers has made a similar motion work in the pros).

With little interest in the game on the field, Tourneur focuses on the business of the game, as outlined in Charles Schnee’s script. Early on a long-time Chiefs player is cut loose, with no pension or health care to see him through the rest of his days. The team secretary, played with world-weary resignation by Lucille Ball, says the ex-player only has himself to blame. Ball is spectacular in one of her final pre-I Love Lucy roles. Having once been an RKO contract lead player, she was now relegated to supporting status. She could probably relate to the also-ran status of her character, she is widowed by by a deadbeat and now carries an unrequited torch for Wilson. Ball displays her whip-smart timing in acid exchanges with Wilson, as she nurses his hangovers and hurt feelings. She is a mitigating force against the screenplay’s sexism, which focuses its ire on Wilson’s wife Liza (Lizbeth Scott). She is the gold-digging harpy of misogynist fantasy, holding back her husband’s masculine birthright to be the sole breadwinner. Scott does what she can in a thankless role, but it is Ball who walks away with the picture.


Tourneur creates a cramped atmosphere in the locker room, pushing his camera into packed frames of jock straps and high socks. In the city scenes he positions his actors in positions of non-communication, backs turned and looking at cross-purposes. Some of the compositions look like they’re straight out of Antonioni, including one striking image of a magnate’s mistress sitting disconsolately in the foreground, separated from her lover by Liza’s figure in the middle. Later Victor Mature will be separated from Lucille Ball in a similar fashion, this time by an analog boxing arcade game. As hackneyed as the script can get, these are striking images of alienation, and Mature gives a withdrawn, grieving performance as Wilson, as if death would be a release. The egregious Hollywood ending prevents such a peek into the void, but it’s something that Tourneur leads us there. He said of Easy Living that, “This is a very bad film for a reason that I must keep secret.” I would say it is these unspoken secrets that make it worth watching.


April 17, 2012

Screen Shot 2020-02-03 at 4.23.54 PM

I had a similar reaction to Mr. Stewart when I watched Kim Novak purr her way through Bell Book and Candle, just released by Twilight Time on a gorgeous blu-ray.  He also might have been agog at Westward the Women (1951), the William Wellman femme-Western released in a well-appointed DVD from the Warner Archive, which includes an audio commentary from film historian Scott Eyman. They are two films that focus on female desire, a rare occurrence in the generally leering male gazes of post-code Hollywood (pre-code films were replete with sexually independent women – check out Baby Face (1933) for a bracing example). Bell Book and Candle is set in motion because of Novak’s uncontrollable lust for Stewart, and Westward the Women kicks off because of hundreds of ladies’ self-sacrificing desire for a better life out in California, a gender bending variation on Horace Greeley’s advice to, “Go west, young man”.

Originally, Bell Book and Candle was a stage play written by John Van Druten and produced by Irene Mayer Selznick in 1950. Although her divorce to David O. Selznick had been finalized in ’49, she sold the rights to him in 1953. He intended to cast his next wife, Jennifer Jones, in the lead, but the project never got off the ground, and the rights were eventually purchased by Columbia. After initially considering Rex Harrison for the lead, the studio and producer Julian Blaustein decided to re-team Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart, who had both wrapped shooting on Paramount’s Vertigo in January of 1958. Since Columbia had lent Novak for that project, Paramount returned the favor in allowing Stewart to film the supernatural romantic comedy, which started shooting on February 3rd. The exuberantly talented Richard Quine (My Sister EileenIt Happened To Jane) was slated to direct, and the legendary James Wong Howe handled the indecently saturated Technicolor cinematography.

Reversing the polarity of obsession from Vertigo, in Bell Book and Candle it is Novak who is the stalker, Stewart the stalked. Novak plays Gillian Holroyd, a stir-crazy witch in the West Village of NYC who deals in African and Oceanic art as a lucrative front. Stewart is the endearingly uptight Shepherd Henderson, the editor-in-chief at an upscale publisher who lives above her storefront. Bored with her hep wiccan lifestyle spent at the Zodiac nightclub (where warlock Jack Lemmon plays the bongos), she yearns for something different. So indeed she indulges in some hoodoo and wraps Shep in her spell. When he finds out his attraction is not entirely natural, Gillian has some explaining to do.

Novak gives a smoldering performance, shooting looks at Stewart of devouring lust as she slowly pours herself onto the couch to accentuate each curve in her body. She even modulates her voice into a low purr, emulating the vocal rhythms of her beloved pet cat. Costume designer Jean Louis puts her in inflammatory red, from a bohemian-chic smock to a scoop-necked sweater, a siren intent on snagging her prey. The colors in James Wong Howe’s cinematography veritably pop off the screen, from those gleaming reds to the sharp pinks of Gillian’s mother Queenie (Elsa Lanchester) and the rich creams and grays of Shep’s sharply lined attire. Richard Quine, always a sharp caricaturist, lets Lanchester and Lemmon loose as the impish do-badders, providing islands of comedy amidst the torrents of Gillian’s pheromones, which course through this intoxicating Technicolor dream.

Where Bell is fantastical, Westward the Women (1951) is elemental. Based on a story by Frank Capra, it tracks the travails of hundreds of women traveling from Chicago to California, lured by the promise of hard-working husbands and the open air. According to Capra’s biography, he intended to direct the film with Gary Cooper to star, but eventually had to table it, and ended up selling the rights to his neighbor, William Wellman, who had recently finished his Clark Gable western, Across the Wide Missouri (also 1951).

Ostensibly the lead is Robert Taylor as trail master Buck Wyatt, but the film spends most of its time dutifully tracking the intense labor of the women on the drive, as early on most of the cowboys cut loose, unwilling to drive further into unforgiving territory. But the women endure, as Wellman depicts them in extended montages of work, seemingly inspired by the major drive in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1931), and perhaps an influence on Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2011), other Westerns obsessed with process. These processes are inevitably group efforts, lending these sequences a bit of communal proto-feminism, together doing the jobs of men with little fuss and unspoken teamwork. The gritty heart of the film is Patience (Hope Emerson), the Ward Bond of the movie, whose brute physicality inspires the rest of the ladies to self-abnegation and ultimate triumph, but who secrets a sensitive soul behind all the bluster. She is joined by a cross-section of personalities, from the sharpshooting farm girl Maggie, the still-mourning Italian widow Mrs. Maroni, and the two ex-prostitutes Fifi and Laurie, eager for some vision of country life.

Many women suffer and die, but the rest endure, the vast middle section is a grim kind of survival horror movie, as carriages crash and hostile Native Americans chase them down. Pared to the bone of back-story, the film operates by the familiar Wellman method (although only intermittently witnessed in his post-30s work), of showing character through action. All of the women in the film gain a personality through the attention Wellman pays to their faces, instead of lugubrious scenes of exposition.These roll calls of expressions (similar to the montage of faces before the cattle drive in Red River), intimate more in images of their lined brows than any speech could convey.

Never an emotional director, Westward the Women is nonetheless an unexpectedly moving film. When the women finally meet their prospective husbands in California, it’s a scene that could easily become droopingly sentimental, but instead is reticent and ambiguous, a skittish embrace of an uncertain future, one in which the freedoms of their drive West will likely disappear in their return to male dominated society. It is this melancholy undertone that makes Westward the Women a fascinating object, as the seams and contradictions in Hollywood’s depictions of womanhood poke through thanks to Wellman’s distanced, unvarnished approach. In a similar way, Novak’s voracious sexual appetite, that the movie never indexes as negative, undercuts the usual Madonna-Whore complex of romantic comedy that persists today (see, if you must, the dire What’s Your Number for a current example). Both these films are remarkable in that they show women who can fuck and fight with with the best of them, with no apologies.


November 22, 2011

safe in hell

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.


April 28, 2009

battleground dvd review van johnson PDVD_013

Brick and mortar retail chains keep going bankrupt, so much so that there’s nowhere to buy DVDs near my cozy home or slightly less cozy workplace. That twitchy urge to buy movies on the day of their release will have to be repressed, and Lord only knows how this will effect my already questionably sane psyche. Tower Records buckled in 2006, Circuit City tanked last year, and now the Virgin Megastores are liquidating their inventory before disappearing into the great big box store in the sky. There’s still a few scattered Best Buys, with their limited Hollywood selection, and some Barnes and Nobles, with their inflated prices, but none near me, not that they’d salve my pain anyway. Kim’s Video, that venerable NYC outlet, is attempting to survive as a retail-only store after selling their rental archive to Sicily, but it’s only at one location, far from my prying eyes.

Gone are the days of idly browsing down aisles of glimmering plastic, killing time before an illicit rendez-vous (one hopes) or anticipated screening (more likely). How am I supposed to judge the taste of complete strangers if I can only shop online? It’s a blow to the old ego. I remember racing to the Tower Records near Lincoln Center to grab the newly pressed To Have and Have Not release in 2006, blissful in the thought that this beloved Hawks was mine, instantly! And everyone could see what a cultured and important person I was. Look! Look at what I’m buying! (this glorious aspect of conspicuous consumption also has me gaze a leery eye at the Kindle).

Anyway. It’s a shame, and from now on I’ll have to wait three days for shipping, or three hours for downloads farther down the line. But for now, I’ll have to settle for gonzo savings. Everything must go! The two Virgin Megastores in NYC are closing up shop, the Times Square version is already toast, with the Union Square iteration shuttering at the end of May. Everything is discounted, and near the closing date everything is 50% off. My finest piece of vulturing so far has been picking up the Warner double feature of Battleground (1949, see above image from DVD Beaver) and Battle Cry (1955).

This is another desperation move by the studios, packing multiple titles onto one discounted package. I’ve seen four combined features priced for 12 bucks (these were Steven Seagal movies, but still). These panic super-bargains can’t be good for business, but we consumers have to pounce when we can, right? Let’s celebrate in the ruins – and that’s just what I’m doing with this William Wellman and Raoul Walsh (and Tex Avery!) package.

Before Battleground was released in 1949 the received wisdom was that the public was tired of war movies, and did not want to be reminded of the devastation of that conflict. Producer Dore Schary disagreed, andpushed hard for the project while head of production at RKO in 1947. Schary is quoted as saying that, “it was imperative to do a film about World War II that would say the war was worth fighting despite the terrible losses….” He chose to tell the story of the “Battered Bastards of the Bastogne”, a group of 101st Airborne troops surrounded by Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. A hard sell after the horrible human toll of the war, skittish executives strongly objected to the project. Schary soldiered on anyway, hiring ex-grunt Robert Pirosh to write to script, under the title “Prelude to Love”, in order to dupe the higher-ups ready to quash it.

A script was completed in January 1948, right when Howard Hughes snapped up RKO, and he promptly told Schary to drop the project from the schedule. Schary resigned, bought the rights, and nabbed a gig as head of production at MGM. Unwilling to rock the boat with the new head, MGM allowed Schary to see the project through at his new studio. Internally the project was called “Schary’s folly”. As it turns out, it was a box office smash, and it is widely credited with rekindling the war film genre in the 50s.

This is definitely Schary’s film more than director William Wellman’s, who much prefers his earlier WWII picture, The Story of G.I. Joe, which doesn’t have Schary’s patriotic propaganda bucking it up. The film is still a pleasure though, its well-worn archetypes filled out with appealing performances from James Whitmore as a the tobacco spit fountain Kinnie, Van Johnson as the ebullient and conflicted Holly, Ricardo Montalban as the romantic ethnic Roderiguez, and George Murphy as the aging father figure, Pop Stazak. Filmed mostly on a soundstage, aside from the stirring opening and closing shots, the film is notable for its lack of action. Wellman told Schary that he’d “make a film about a very tired group of guys.” It focuses mainly on the moments in between skirmishes, the long wait for fateful orders, the insults traded to buck up spirits, and various bits of slapstick (clattering false teeth, Holly’s ill-fated egg obsession) undertaken to kill time. This episodic, character driven portrait of exhaustion went on to win Oscars for Pirosh’s screenplay and Paul Vogel’s fog-choked cinematography.

I’ve yet to crack open Battle Cry, but there is a wonderful Tex Avery cartoon slapped on as a bonus feature on Battleground. It’s Little Rural Red Riding Hood (1949),  a delightfully cracked tale that turns the classic story into a treatise on deranged male sexuality. The moustachioed, upturned nose city wolf falls for the uncouth lankiness of the backwoods Riding Hood, while the slackjawed yokel country wolf goes all googly eyed for the local city siren. Their ids are uncontrollable and misdirected – each going after the lady from an unattainable social class.

Source: Suid, Lawrence. Guts & Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film. University Press of Kentucky: 2002.


March 31, 2009


Last Monday night, TCM aired all six films from Warner Bros. new box set of early William Wellman talkies, Forbidden Hollywood, vol. 3. I’m still picking my way through, but 1931′s Other Men’s Women is an obvious highlight. Possessing speed and clarity in equal measure, and blessed by energetic supporting turns by James Cagney and Joan Blondell, it’s overflowing with minor pleasures. With the railroad as its working class milieu (the original title, “The Steel Highway”, was changed shortly before it’s premiere), the film builds its rhythm from the steady hum of the locomotive, it’s whistle cooing over the lead credits. In the opening sequence, Bill White (Grant Withers) slinks into a hash shop, his wise-ass cracks clearly impressing the brassy counter girl. In between his razzes he counts out a rhythm on the table top, keeping track of some internal beat in his head. After shoveling in his eggs and coffee and telling the gal to “have a little chew on me”,  he sprints off to catch the last train that had been rumbling by in the background the whole sequence – he had been counting off its cars. Tempo is emphasized straight off, and neither Wellman nor his collaborators apply the brakes for the duration of its 70 minutes.

Maude Fulton adapted her own story for the screen, and William K. Wells is credited with  the dialogue. Fulton, unknown today, had established herself as a vaudevillian and playwright before she started contributing to film. In a fascinating 1917 profile in the NY Times, written after the success of her play, “The Brat” (which John Ford brought to the screen in 1931), her circuitous path to Broadway is outlined. Raised in the Kansas newspaper biz by her Dad, the editor of the local daily, she wrote a novel by the age of 15, “whose theme was ‘The Curse of Rum’”.  She bounced from job to job, including singing pop songs at a department store, until she learned stenography and was hired by a railway office, where she likely soaked in the bravado of the train engineers that suffuses Other Men’s Women. Bored with office work, she soon lit out for the stage in NYC. She was performing in Mam’zelle Champagne on the roof of Madison Square Garden in 1906, when the millionaire Henry K. Thaw shot and killed architect Stanford White for fooling around with his young wife, Evelyn Nesbit (who was also romanced by John Barrymore). Thaw’s trial was the first to be dubbed “The Trial of the Century.”

Before this brush with infamy, she had teamed up with dancer William Rock. “Rock and Fulton” became a minor vaudeville success from 1900-1912, their 20-minute routine playing some of the better houses in town, according to the reference book Vaudeville, Old & New. By the time she was 30, Fulton began to suffer from rheumatism and had to shift into writing full time. In the Times piece, just beginning her playwriting career, Fulton displays a disarming humility:

“I know that I have no great intellectual gifts and that I have no great talents, but I will say this for myself: I am an indefagitable worker and I aim high. If this [The Brat] is not a great play – and it isn’t – remember that it is my first, and I am not through yet.”

She never equalled The Brat’s success on stage, with her follow-up, The Humming Bird (1923) failing to make much of an impression. But both were made into silent films, and her career behind the camera began. But I digress…

Fulton’s scenario for Other Men’s Women is a basic love triangle. Jack Kulper (Regis Toomey) and Bill White are best friends and railroad engineers, but both also happen to be in love with Kulper’s wife, Lily (Mary Astor). Tensions rise  and tragedies mount until a spectacular bridge collapse caps the doom-laden tale. With the train whistle’s metronome setting the pace, Wellman wastes no time in setting up the central conflict. Jack invites Bill to stay for a few days and dry out, after his stuttering landlady kicked him to the curb. The childlike idyll of the first few days, mock-fighting and chases ’round the yard, are quickly unmasked for their flirtatiousness. Wellman utilizes an audio motif to mark the shift in atmosphere. When Jack first arrives home, he whistles to announce his arrival. The second time we hear the whistle, Bill has professed his love and Jack’s world is about to collapse. This simple inversion carries a great emotional wallop, his lilting tune turned tragic in the space of ten minutes.

Wellman is adept at this kind of repetition – eliciting slightly different tones from each one. Take Grant Withers’ catch phrase, “have a little chew on me”. Used in the opening scene with a sneer and a hint of sexuality, the next time he says it, to old pal Cagney on top of a train, it’s with complete sincerity. Later, after dismissing Blondell’s marriage proposal, she cuts him off with, “if you offer me a chew of gum I’ll knock your block off.”  For each context, the phrase works differently, and the cumulative effect makes Blondell’s retort all that funnier.  It’s even flexible enough to play a pivotal role in the final, storm swept finale.

Other Men’s Women is remembered, if at all, for being the film Cagney appeared in before The Public Enemy (also directed by Wellman) which launched him to stardom. As Bill’s close friend Ed Bailey, he’s already irrepressibly physical. In one magical scene in a club’s lobby, he’s shown stripping out of work clothes, revealing a tux underneath, and soft-shoeing laterally to the dance-floor. It’s a privileged moment for a character only present in three sequences – and he nearly taps away with the picture.It was his second film with Blondell, after they both reprised their roles from the play “Penny Arcade” in Sinner’s Holiday (1930). Ms. Blondell gets a few zingers in, including her tart: “I’m A.P.O…Ain’t puttin’ out.”

Wellman pairs the train whistle from the opening to the climactic struggle, as Jack and Bill throw hay-makers in the engine room. There is a cut to a close-up as Jack’s right cross pulls down the whistle rope, their battle now syncopated to the music of their transport. Violence and disfigurement follow, as death haunts the two friends the rest of the film,with Wellman and cinematographer Barney McGill darkening the palette until the train’s final run takes place in manic silhouettes and dense fog. As emotions and steel are wrenched apart, the crux of Wellman’s directorial personality become clear. As Dave Kehr noted in the comments section of his blog (where the best auteurist criticism is appearing these days): “His was a style based on speed, fragmentation, and violent collision — he’s on the path that leads to Sam Fuller, not Howard Hawks.”