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Canned Borscht and Nurses’ Underwear: William Wellman at the Ritrovato

William Wellman


‘What does she think you’re doing in here: training for the Russian ballet?’ This snappy comeback is fired off by Harry Green’s (dialect-)comedic boxing coach Curly Bloom to Richard Arlen’s naive ‘pug’ (for pugilist) in William Wellman’s The Man I Love (1931), the director’s first full talkie that’s part of the retrospective dedicated to Wild Bill’s ‘oeuvre’ here at the Cinema Ritrovato. Wellman is the perfect ‘American Master’ for this year’s Ritrovato, given the World War I centenary and the fact that ‘Will Bill’ earned his nickname from flying as a volunteer with the Lafayette Corps. But perhaps more than being the man for the occasion, Wellman is up for rediscovery.

Best known for The Public Enemy and the two films he made for David Selznick, Nothing Sacred and A Star is Born, all equal parts vinegar and roguish charm, as Peter von Bagh points out, ‘the scarcity of silent Wellman prints is a sad fact.’ The Ritrovatoseries features two (the recently restored Wings played in the 2012 edition as part of the program celebrating ‘One Hundred Years of Paramount’): the part-talkie Beggars of Life (1928), Louise Brooks’ best American film, and You Never Know Women (1926), one in a confusing series of generically titled stories about men and women, leading up to The Man I Love. Von Bagh promises that ‘the series will be a revelation.’ Having seen Other Men’s Women (1931) (another one!) this afternoon, I can testify to that fact.

The Man I Love, however, is less a revelation than a programmer typical of the period: dead, static and stagey in the dialogue scenes, and giddily alive in those few in-between moments when perfect sync seems less important than proving that the vogue for wacky camera movement and cherché framings borrowed from the German and French avant-gardes was not just a fad. There’s a wonderful tracking shot in which Curly follows Dum Dum to his dressing room: the camera stays outside and we watch heads bobbing in and out of an interior framing in steady alteration. When the camera tracks to follow as they reemerge and walk into the arena and finally the ring, it’s as if that famous steadicam shot from Raging Bull is being conceived right before our eyes.

The line about the Russian ballet refers to Dum Dum trying to hide from the sweet and proper music shop girl he’s in punchdrunk love with (Mary Brian) that he’s a prize fighter, and although camera movement at times seriously livens things up – like the rough handheld traveling shot that perfectly captures the heart-racing excitement of young love as the newlyweds race to catch their train – the movie finally gives up on being inventive and settles for a fairly run-of-the-mill dénouement in which Brian finally accepts Dum Dum’s pugilism, carousing and constant mugging after which they can settle down and raise rugrats (on the condition that junior learns to use his killer left for piano lessons). As in many early talkies, sound itself is thematized  in a storyline that nods to both the record industry and (live) radio.

Florence Vidor in ‘You Never Know Women’ (William Wellman, 1926)

For auteurists looking for the Wellman touch, it’s mainly visible in brief grace notes, like the decision to pause for longer than a beat on the clueless expression of a horse while the romantic leads cavort between the haystacks of a New York bound freighter. It’s moments like this that show the movies could still be eloquent without words.  For more things Wellmannesque in this programmer – and it is incredible to see how a director who had steered Wings (1927) to Oscar glory only four years before, was required to turn out this kind of ‘dese-dem-dose’ pictures, as James Cagney used to call them – breathe in the hazy atmosphere of the ring and the gym, with Henry W. Gerrard ’s Weege-esque photography anticipating both Raging Bull and James Wong Howe’s work on Body and Soul. Wellman’s good at finding rough poetry in stale dialogue but most of all in environment , a talent that’s also on display in the elaborate opening scene of You Never Know Women (1926), in which Florence Vidor’s Russian vaudevillian is almost hit by a falling beam in the kind of late-night New York setting surrounded by the rumble of the El straight out of Ashcan painting and Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street.

But there’s something else that stirred our interest here, other than Victor Milner’s pre-Sunrise lab work with superimposition and a flashlight chase in an abandoned theatre that looks ahead to both Metropolis and Lady from Shanghai. It’s a penetrating Russian flavor in late twenties Hollywood, ‘Canned Borscht’ if you will. You Never Know Women is part of a trend involving the depiction of the vaudeville stock company milieu that peaked, arguably, with John Ford’s recently rediscovered Upstream (1927) and Russian émigré Rouben Mamoulian’s Applause (1929). The hold of the vaudeville aesthetic over the late silents and, especially, the early sound era, also accounts for the presence of El Brendel as a Russian clown with a goose act straight out of Ford. But it’s not because El Brendel was familiar to American audiences for his ‘Swede’ act and Clive Brent’s enigmatic magician seems based on Houdini that we should forget about the Russian provenance of the variety show to which Wellman devotes the first half hour of his film.

Richard Arlen & Olga Baclanova in ‘The Man I Love’ (William Wellman, 1929)

The Russian ballet first came to town in the latter half of the teens, and after the visit to New York of the Russian Art Theatre in 1922, sophisticated audiences – the kind that went to see Paramount movies – couldn’t get enough. DeMille made The Volga Boatman in 1926, while Lon Chaney and Danish émigré Benjamin Christensen teamed up for Mockery (1927). When Stanislavsky and troupe returned to Moscow, several members of his company left behind to start a career Stateside: Richard Boleslawski and Maria Ouspenskaya started acting schools, while Olga Baclanova started making movies for Paramount and later MGM. In The Man I Love she stars as the Russian countess who seduces Dum Dum to ‘study him’ and because she’s bored with her other pet, an ‘impressionist poet’ (the Russian artist as pet to the socialite middle classes would be unforgettably lampooned by another Russian émigré, Mischa Auer in My Man Godfrey). Olga Baclanova, the ‘Russian Tiger’ as she was called, was known by her surname only, like that other famous Russian thesp, Nazimova, who had come to the U.S. much earlier, in 1905, to conquer Broadway with her unforgettable naturalistic performances in Ibsen plays. Baclanova’s star was on the wane after she starred in The Man I Love and the reason is pretty obvious: although the accent works (this is, after all, the time Garbo slurred her way through O’Neil in immortal fashion), her line delivery is clumsy. After she appeared, memorably, as the cruel Cleopatra in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), her career was essentially over.

‘Canned Borscht’ peaked in the 1928 period: shortly after the Russian Tearoom opened in New York as a chique salon for Russian émigrés, John Barrymore and Camilla Horn reenacted the Russian Revolution in Tempest, Raoul Walsh cast Dolores Del Rio as a Russian dancer in The Red Dance, and Hungarian screenwriter Lajos Biro turned a story told to Ernst Lubitsch by a General in the Russian Imperial Army into the Jannings-von Sternberg vehicle The Last Command. Even Ivan Mozzhukin found work in the U.S. after Carl Laemmle had offered him Surrender (1927), another tale of the Revolution about which very few real facts had reached American shores.

Barbara Stanwyck & Joan Blondell in ‘Night Nurse’ (William Wellman, 1931)

Wellman’s productivity in this period is astounding even for a contract director. In 1931 alone he directed five films, among them The Public Enemy. The problems the latter had with the Production Code Office, which felt that it ‘glorified the hoodlum’, have been well documented by film historians. Wellman’s a crucial figure of the period between the introduction of sound and the introduction of the Production Code, especially during his stint at Warner’s, the studio that scored big with both crime films and pre-code ‘sex movies’ (like Wellman’s Safe in Hell from 1931 and Frisco Jenny from 1932). His favorite leading lady, Barbara Stanwyck, was the queen of ‘Forbidden Hollywood,’ and her tough showgirl allure is put to good use in Night Nurse (1931), a hospital melodrama that is as candid about life and death (‘Why can’t my son have a screen around his bed like that man?’ one of the hospital’s customers complains; ‘Because that man’s dying,’ Stanwyck’s nurse Lora Hart laconically retorts) as it is about nurses undressing to their negligé (let’s not forget that Wings had been one of the first A-list pictures to show nudity, allowing us a peek at Clara Bow’s breasts). Like many of the Wellman films that would follow, Night Nurse is about work and camaraderie, exploring the kind of affectionate but tough bond between professionals Stanwyck and Joan Blondell that you would expect to find in a Hawks or Walsh movie.

Or rather, that is what the first part is about. As soon as the nurses pass their training and are hired for private duty, the movie radically shifts gears, turning into a vice melodrama that would make Raymond Chandler blush: Stanwyck and Blondell are hired as private nurses to the two sick children of an alcoholic socialite (‘I’m a dipsomaniac and proud of it!’), whose chauffeur (an incredibly young black-cladded Clark Gable in the kind of hoodlum part he would later lampoon in It Happened One Night), it appears, is starving the children to death, after having killed their sister with his car, because he’s after their trust fund. The doctor who is supposed to take care of the children – a twitching and grimacing Ralf Harrolde – is a corrupt dope fiend, and after Welman has taken us through lurid scenes involving drunken parties, stomach pumping, blood transfusion and, in one unforgettable moment, Gable punching Stanwyck in the face, it turns out that the hero of the day is the bootlegger whom Lora had treated for a gunshot wound. Wellman’s politics are nothing if not confusing.

Other than a prime slice of Pre-Code ’sinsationalism’, Night Nurse is also the type of social issue film that fits the category of what Pre-Code historian Thomas Doherty has called the ‘Jazz Age Prelude’, a condemnation of the conspicuous consumption of ‘les années folles’ that led directly to the Depression. Wellman’s style has been described as ‘realistic,’ and as a style ‘realism’ certainly seems to fit the social issue picture of the period. In our next blog we shall see, however, that Wellman’s realism is really a thing in itself.