Film Series / Events

Search All Film Series (1999-present)
Browse All Film Series

October 27 – November 26

The Legends of William Wellman

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” famously declared the enlightened journalist at the end of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Like Valance, Ford’s contemporary William Wellman (1896 - 1975) has been etched into Hollywood lore as a mythic figure, a boisterous, bravura maverick and bold woodblock of a quintessentially 20th century American artist quickly recognized but little known. Remembered principally today as a director of popular action epics and crime films such as Wings and The Public Enemy, Wellman is only rarely accorded auteur status and more typically categorized as a talented studio journeyman, despite clear evidence to the contrary. The larger-than-life personality and colorful offscreen exploits of the two-fisted, tempestuous “Wild Bill” Wellman cemented his reputation as a director’s director and vital pioneer from Hollywood’s frontier days, a member of the rough-riding fraternity that included Raoul Walsh, Allan Dwan, Merian C. Cooper and Ford. Wellman’s improbable life story certainly seemed written for the silver screen: a juvenile delinquent and teenage hockey star who went from failed actor to daring aviator and WWI pilot before quickly working his way up the studio ladder from messenger boy to director of Wings, one of the most popular films of 1927 and one of the last great epics of the silent era. Yet a subtler and less-considered side of Wellman is openly revealed in his other box office smash, A Star is Born, a penetrating study of the Hollywood dream factory that frankly acknowledges the cutthroat careerism, cruel gossip-mongering and pound-of-flesh deals fueling movie stardom and success. In truth, many of Wellman’s less-acknowledged great films are colored by similar introspective, even self-reflective, qualities that complicate his image as a rowdy, untamed buccaneer. Consider, for example, the series of hard-hitting yet startlingly intimate social problem films he directed during the early thirties, including neglected classics such as Wild Boys of the Road and Heroes For Sale. Or the frank portraits of working-class struggles in labor and love offered by unheralded gems such as Other Men’s Women and Midnight Mary that inhabit worlds equally ruled by headstrong women as by men. A further corrective can be found in Wellman’s ruminative late Westerns, Yellow Sky, Westward the Women and, especially, Track of the Cat, with its psychosexually fraught portrait of strained masculinity. This retrospective gathers together a series of Wellman’s lesser-known films, balanced by his recognized classics, to sketch a composite portrait of a studio filmmaker equally adept at bold action-driven narrative and a kind of subtler, understated emotion and meaning. – Haden Guest

Special thanks: Todd Wiener, Steven Hill—UCLA Film and Television Archive; Lynanne Schweighofer— Library of Congress.

Film descriptions by Brittany Gravely, Haden Guest and David Pendleton, unless otherwise noted.

Friday October 27 at 7pm

Beggars of Life

Directed by William Wellman. With Wallace Beery, Louise Brooks, Richard Arlen
US 1928, DCP, b/w, silent with music track, 91 min

A gruesome discovery followed by a sordid tale of sexual abuse—recounted through an ingenious double-exposed montage sequence—introduces Richard Arlen’s hungry tramp to Louise Brooks’ fugitive disguised as a boy. From that dramatic opener, the couple steals off into a blue-tinted night and reluctantly joins a band of vagabonds. Immediately, the presence of a woman in the midst of a group of desperate men adds an unsettling disturbance to the film and to their tenuous coalition. Wellman steadily maintains this air of horror and humor as the motley, volatile crew travels from land to train with the lord of the hoboes, Wallace Beery’s unpredictable Oklahoma Red, who revels in intimidation as a means of entertainment—even holding an absurdly elaborate “kangaroo court” to decide the fate of the interlopers. In this hardscrabble atmosphere, the appearance of love is so unusual that it acts as a kind of deus ex machina, stunning the plot and sending it off and away down Wellman’s mysterious, dark tracks. Print courtesy Kino Lorber.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Friday October 27 at 9pm

Night Nurse

Directed by William Wellman. With Barbara Stanwyck, Ben Lyon, Joan Blondell
US 1931, 35mm, b/w, 72 min

The first of five films Wellman made with Barbara Stanwyck, Night Nurse wastes little time unmasking the darkness behind the hospital’s saviors in white. Already wise to violence, alcoholism, drug addiction and ongoing sexual harassment, Stanwyck and Joan Blondell’s tough, hardworking nurses uncover a shady scheme at the mansion where they care for two ailing children. In addition to a lot of Stanwyck’s skin, Wellman exposes the grey areas in each individual’s malleable “code of ethics.” With most of the characters spending the film inebriated or otherwise morally compromised, Nurse Hart’s cries and protests are to no avail; the police never even make an appearance. In the era of Prohibition and the Depression, it is a bootlegger whose illegal actions provide some of the most helpful counters to the mansion’s evil mastermind—and chauffeur—unpredictably portrayed by a menacing Clark Gable. Print courtesy Warner Bros.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Sunday October 29 at 5pm

The Public Enemy

Directed by William Wellman. With James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods
US 1931, 35mm, b/w, 83 min

Even more than Little Caesar or Howard Hawks' Scarface, this searing example of the pre-Code gangster film helped make the genre one of the mainstays of world cinema to this day. Its violent telling of the rise and fall of a Chicago bootlegger had profound effects on the Hollywood of its time. For one thing, it cemented Wellman’s reputation as a director of violent films, and it definitively established James Cagney’s star image as that of a tough guy, despite his background in musical theater. The film’s success also pushed Warner Brothers to produce more hard-hitting realist fare and, finally, its lack of a clear moral center nudged Hollywood toward the Production Code. Print courtesy Warner Bros.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Monday October 30 at 7pm

The Ox-Bow Incident

Directed by William Wellman. With Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Mary Beth Hughes
US 1943, 35mm, b/w, 75 min

A Western precursor to 12 Angry Men, also starring Henry Fonda, who takes a more decentralized and observational role here, The Ox-Bow Incident became another passionate crusade for Wellman as soon as he read the Walter Van Tilburg Clark novel. The film eloquently and starkly details the results of “frontier justice,” as three men accused of murder and theft are rounded up by a riled-up, sheriffless town posse. Made during World War II, the film’s message is urgent, but one nobody wanted to hear. Wellman’s somber, shocking labor of love was a tough sell to studios and the public; even the film’s remnant of a love story is a virtual red herring, teasing audiences with the kind of escapist confectionery they expected but that Wellman adamantly withheld. His low-budget Wild West resists complacency or reassurance. In stark black-and-white, it is dialogue, not action, that dominates and fuels the tension, and the sole female in the group—who is not the strangely top-billed Mary Beth Hughes—is a rough-and-tumble bloodthirsty rancher. Wellman gingerly doles out some of the characters’ personal stories, making the cowboys more complex and present while harshly demonstrating how emotional wounds color judgment in this lawless court.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Sunday November 5 at 5pm
Friday November 17 at 7pm

Nothing Sacred

Directed by William Wellman. With Carole Lombard, Fredric March, Charles Winninger
US 1937, 35mm, color, 77 min

Shortly after excoriating Hollywood in his stirring melodrama A Star Is Born, Wellman moved on to the American press, but this time with a comedy navigated by the incomparably airy luminescence of Carole Lombard. Her Hazel Flagg essentially pretends to be dying of radium poisoning to escape an airless Vermont town, and Fredric March’s enterprising reporter Wallace is only too happy to believe the story in order to sell papers and foster a feeding frenzy around her tragic tale. Along with the epic glamour of New York and the charms of Wally, Hazel must endure a constant stream of inanity—as everyone falls over one another to exploit the exploiter during her supposed last days in the fickle spotlight. Wellman keeps his screwball—apparently the first in Technicolor—lodged happily in a cynical, satiric, irreverent corner, where no one is innocent and the central love affair—born of deception and self-interest—is consummated by a spirited tussle during which each knocks the other out. Print courtesy Disney.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Sunday November 5 at 7pm

Beau Geste

Directed by William Wellman. With Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Robert Preston
US 1939, 35mm, b/w, 120 min

Wellman’s Beau Geste is the remake of a wildly popular 1926 silent film adapted from the novel of the same name. This colonialist adventure is the story of three brothers who join the French Foreign Legion, battling to save each other, their family honor and their beleaguered north African outpost, although the film’s largely faceless Arab hordes take a second place in villainy to the sadistic sergeant to whom the brothers report. While the critics of the day professed to prefer the silent version, Wellman’s film has become one of the classics that made 1939 Hollywood’s annus mirabilis, thanks in no small part to the remarkable star power of its cast. Print courtesy Universal Pictures.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Friday November 10 at 7pm

Wings

Directed by William Wellman. With Clara Bow, Charles Rogers, Richard Arlen
US 1927, DCP, b/w, silent with soundtrack, 136 min

When chosen to direct Wings—in part due to his experience at the front—Wellman was still relatively unknown, yet undaunted and unrestrained in executing his bold vision: from recreating French battlefields and villages in San Antonio, to enlisting the military and the most skilled aerial stuntmen, to color tinting every burst of fire on the film prints. Wings tells the story of romantic rivals Jack and David, who enlist in the Army Air Corps when World War I breaks out. Added into the wartime mix is the film’s one superstar, "It Girl" Clara Bow, as the ambulance-driving Mary, who is secretly in love with Jack. The war alters their relationships as drama unfolds both on the ground and—most spectacularly—in the air. Wellman created unbelievably realistic and daring aerial battle scenes, insisting upon attaching cameras to the planes and actors actually piloting them. Premiering three months after Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, Wings won the first Best Picture Oscar and inaugurated the entire airplane movie genre. The HFA will be screening the 2012 restoration with the reconstructed original score, including sound effects. Print courtesy Swank.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Sunday November 12 at 5pm

Other Men’s Women

Directed by William Wellman. With Grant Withers, Mary Astor, Regis Toomey
US 1931, 35mm, b/w, 71 min

Barreling through the stark landscape, the train takes on a life of its own in Wellman’s romantic and comic tragedy. The characters’ lives are structured around its regularity and impassive power, while remaining less predictable and more vulnerable. Assisted by the early appearances of an electric James Cagney and snappy Joan Blondell, Grant Withers’ Bill, an engineer and irresponsible playboy, is generously taken in by his best friend Jack, who has a little country home and a very charming wife, played by a good-natured Mary Astor. With his special brand of eccentric naturalism, Wellman luxuriates in both the gritty train yard and the country oasis, detailing his characters’ flaws and their concealment as they take carefree pleasure in camaraderie and everyday tasks. Once a forbidden love switches the plot’s gears, the cruelties of life begin to mount one on top of another until one of the friends makes a dramatic sacrifice to recover some kind of happy homeostasis. Preserved by the Library of Congress.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Special $5 Saturday Matinee Admission
Saturday November 18 at 3pm

Good-bye, My Lady

Directed by William Wellman. With Walter Brennan, Brandon de Wilde, Sidney Poitier
US 1956, 16mm, b/w, 95 min

[My Lady] is a Basenji dog (sometimes said to be able to “laugh and cry, but not bark”), one of the most memorable canine performers in the history of film. The title relates to the touching and real relationship between the young orphan boy and the dog… It’s the kind of relationship that most films miss or fake; here everything is concrete, emotions as well as the vision of nature, the swamp, the forest.

The film, one of the finest in Wellman’s oeuvre and the kind of pastoral masterpiece that every great American director was due to sign at some time or other, is about an old man and a boy, both excellent as played by Walter Brennan (one of the greatest roles of that actor so dear to all of us) and Brandon de Wilde, in a relationship where both change as human beings. That is the film’s beautifully-conveyed leitmotif.

It’s Americana at the root level, as basic as the purest Hemingway short stories or moments that Flaherty captured on film. Like the more famous The Yearling (Clarence Brown) but with all the Hollywood characteristics wiped away, running underneath it all is a sense of sad tenderness, the knowledge that every age, and becoming an adult and being accepted as a true member of a community, requires something and sometimes almost too much. – Peter von Bagh

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Sunday November 19 at 5pm

Safe in Hell

Directed by William Wellman. With Dorothy Mackaill, Donald Cook, Ralf Harolde
US 1931, 35mm, b/w, 65 min

Safe in Hell is a shockingly lurid pre-Code cautionary tale that follows a fallen woman’s dark journey as she escapes from a murder charge in New Orleans, smuggled by her sailor boyfriend to a remote tropical island ominously named Tortuga. Left alone on the sweltering isle by the sailor, the woman finds herself encircled by a menacing gang of lecherous fugitives and lowlifes. Despite the long distance from New Orleans, the woman’s criminal past follows to deliver a fate that led exhibitors to label Safe in Hell with the rarely used “Not for Children” warning. Wellman’s imperiled heroine is given resolve and dignity by the comely Dorothy Mackaill, a popular actress of the silent era largely forgotten today. Print courtesy the Library of Congress.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Sunday November 19 at 7pm

Heroes for Sale

Directed by William Wellman. With Richard Barthelmess, Aline MacMahon, Loretta Young
US 1933, 35mm, b/w, 73 min

Wellman’s pre-Code letter to a Depressed America contains critiques of both Capitalism and Communism, yet ultimately points its finger at the inhumanity within all ideologies and systems. The director looks everyone directly in the eye with an empathetic and cynical scrutiny. Remarkable for Hollywood at this time, the film fails to denounce the drug addict and even casts a compassionate eye on the human in a Nazi uniform. When Richard Barthelmess’ wartime hero Tom is left for dead on the battlefield, his heroic efforts are claimed by another man, who then forsakes him once Tom develops an addiction to the morphine he is prescribed for chronic pain. The portrait of egoless, kind perseverance, Tom finds love, success and friends—including Aline MacMahon’s steadfast Mary, who is his unglamorous female counterpart—yet cannot compete with larger forces: the desperate masses and the Machine Age. Peppered with actual hoboes and laborers, Wellman’s endeavor is as earnest and heartfelt as the causes of his protagonist. With echoes of “My Forgotten Man” in Gold Diggers of 1933, the film may end with a message direct from FDR—apparently a studio directive—but Wellman has the final, wry word. Print courtesy Warner Bros.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Monday November 20 at 7pm

Wild Boys of the Road

Directed by William Wellman. With Frankie Darro, Edwin Phillips, Rochelle Hudson
US 1933, 35mm, b/w, 66 min

Impoverished by the Depression, teenage buddies Tom and Ed take off to fend for themselves and lighten their unemployed parents' load. Far from home, the boys' romantic dreams of newfound freedom and idyllic odyssey are shattered by the brutal lessons of the dog-eat-dog nature of life on the ragged fringes of society. Wellman brings a vivid ferocity to this hard-edged road movie with clear-eyed, unflinching depictions of poverty, lawlessnessand the victimization of youth that would soon become rare in Hollywood. Print courtesy Warner Bros.

 

The Star Witness

Directed by William Wellman. With Walter Huston, Frances Starr, Grant Mitchell
US 1931, 35mm, b/w, 68 min

Wellman’s flair for unexpected, often awkwardly physical, action and comedy is showcased in The Star Witness, an unusual crime exposé and multigenerational portrait of the American family centered around an unruly paterfamilias, the outspoken Civil War veteran grandfather played by celebrated vaudevillian turned screen actor Charles “Chic” Sale. When a family witnesses a brutal gangster shooting just outside their home, they are immediately torn between the rousing entreaties of Walter Huston’s crusading district attorney and the violent threats of the underworld henchmen against their lives. Only the oldest and youngest members of the family muster the courage to fight, leading to an improbable standoff and dramatic courtroom finale. Preserved by the Library of Congress.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Friday November 24 at 7pm

A Star is Born

Directed by William Wellman. With Janet Gaynor, Fredric March, Adolphe Menjou
US 1937, 35mm, color, 111 min

Glowing in the particular hues of early Technicolor, Wellman’s gimlet-eyed melodrama about the Hollywood movie colony traces the rise of Janet Gaynor’s aspiring actress to the heights of fame and fortune, while charting the obverse trajectory of her matinée idol husband, played by Fredric March. Witnessing victims of the dream factory falling left and right around him, Wellman based his story on numerous actual incidents and cast many “real life” stars whose shine had long faded. Nominated for numerous Academy Awards—including one for Gaynor’s subtle, sympathetic lead performance when, ironically, she was at the end of her career—A Star is Born became the biggest box-office hit of the year and delivered one of the most memorable closing lines in movie history. Print courtesy UCLA Film and Television Archive.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Friday November 24 at 9:30pm

Yellow Sky

Directed by William Wellman. With Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter, Richard Widmark
US 1948, 35mm, b/w, 99 min

Wellman continues his late-1940s experiments in fusing the Western and film noir with this tale of a band of bank robbers fleeing into a forbidding desert only to take refuge in a ghost town. Tensions in the gang are exacerbated, however, by the discovery that the ruins are inhabited by an elderly gold prospector and his spirited daughter. Wellman trades the claustrophobia of The Ox-Bow Incident for wide-open vistas that he proceeds to stylize with hints of expressionist disorientation using extreme close-ups and canted camera angles.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Saturday November 25 at 7pm

Track of the Cat

Directed by William Wellman. With Robert Mitchum, Teresa Wright, Diana Lynn
US 1954, 35mm, color, 102 min

In his late career Wellman bravely pushed himself in new directions, especially with Westerns that boldly revisited the themes of family and masculine authority that were constants of his earliest films. Track of the Cat is perhaps the most extreme of these departures—a visually stark and unsettling film alternately set within a claustrophobic mountain home infested with a Freudian brand of cabin fever and the snow-blinded rugged landscape outside, where a lethal panther lurks. Warned of the panther’s return by an ancient Native American wise man—improbably played by The Little Rascals’ Alfafa, Carl Switzer, rival brothers Robert Mitchum and Tab Hunter set out to track their deadly prey, an extended hunt menaced by unspoken fratricidal threats. Mitchum delivers one of his most sinister and understated performances, exuding an absolute and frightening hate with almost casual ease. Also strong are Teresa Wright as his embittered sister staring with dishpan hands down a bottomless well of regret, and the underappreciated Tab Hunter as the emblem of Fifties youth culture thrown suddenly back into a Lewtonesque fable of fate and bad blood. The film’s strangely muted color palette is deliberate, carefully designed by Wellman and celebrated cinematographer William Clothier (Cheyenne Autumn, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), who set out to create a new kind of black-and-white, reserving bright hues only as expressionist punctuation against a stark field of whites, blacks and greys. Print courtesy the George Eastman Museum.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Saturday November 25 at 9pm

Westward the Women

Directed by William Wellman. With Beverly Dennis, Renata Vanni, John McIntire
US 1952, 35mm, b/w, 116 min

A female trek, even though it is led by Robert Taylor, more or less reenacts the story of Red River. The narrative is less deep than Hawks’ masterpiece, and in some sense it is harsher, more realistic about the difficulties and facts of loss. Another great contemporary film, Ford’s Wagon Master, is somehow romantic by comparison. Wellman was a tough guy who could create an amazing combination of tenderness and cruelty. … This is a central element of Wellman’s charm: total unpredictability. As we know, and this film verifies it fully, Wellman’s true basic element was rain, here complemented with dust, storm, thunder, images of horses stuck in the sand, or more generally everything breathing the fight to survive. But there are contrary forces at work as well. The harsh circumstances—a vision of blood, sweat, tears—could easily make the perspective of the promised land look like a hallucinatory dream, bound to vanish—but it does not. That is why he gives us a scene of a baby being born, with the art to create the feeling of a collective birth event. Maybe this is why the film is less well known than it should be: with no female stars pushed to the foreground, it is authentically about a collective. It’s about those who “died nameless but achieved immortality.” – Peter von Bagh [Print courtesy Warner Bros.]

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Sunday November 26 at 5pm

Midnight Mary

Directed by William Wellman. With Loretta Young, Ricardo Cortez, Franchot Tone
US 1933, 35mm, b/w, 76 min

One of a number of Wellman films centered on the scandalous survival tactics of a desperate woman, Midnight Mary stars Loretta Young in an unusual “bad girl” role. While waiting for the jury’s decision at her murder trial, she reviews her life through a series of flashbacks, which reveal that her “badness” is the result of a series of unfortunate and unfair circumstances. Filled with startlingly racy scenes, even for pre-Code, that detail Mary’s life in and out of crime and prison, Wellman’s tale is one of a woman whose existence becomes determined and defined by male desire. He describes the fine tightrope women walk, with one missed step spelling certain doom. Between Mary’s colorful gangster coterie and her charming courtship with Franchot Tone’s upper-class Tom, Wellman depicts a whirlwind world of funny antics, quick thrills and deep, dark sacrifices, encased in beautiful cinematography by James Van Trees—who elegantly crops and abstracts crucial moments—and the dynamic technique of scenes “sliding” into frame, like panels of a graphic novel.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Sunday November 26 at 7pm

Frisco Jenny

Directed by William Wellman. With Ruth Chatterton, Louis Calhern, Helen Jerome Eddy
US 1933, 35mm, b/w, 70 min

Ruth Chatterton offers an indelible performance as a headstrong woman who rises from the ashes of the San Francisco earthquake that killed her father before her eyes to become the madam of a successful bordello and an influential player in the underworld. Wellman injects a powerful element of Greek tragedy into his underappreciated pre-Code classic, erecting Chatterton’s Jenny as an emblem of maternal power and sacrifice. Recently rediscovered, Frisco Jenny has drawn comparisons to early Bresson and Hitchcock for its lucid vision of fate and human vulnerability. Print courtesy Warner Bros.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top
Harvard Film Archive • Carpenter Center • 24 Quincy Street • Cambridge MA 02138 • 617-495-4700