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Austin Chronicle Video Reviews

By Jerry Renshaw

FEBRUARY 14, 2000: 

The Public Enemy
D: William Wellman (1931); with James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Joan Blondell, Edward Woods, Donald Cook, Mae Clarke.

Nothing Sacred
D: William Wellman (1937); with Carole Lombard, Fredric March, Charles Winninger, Walter Connolly.

Battleground
D: William Wellman (1949); with James Whitmore, Van Johnson, Richard Jaeckel, Ricardo Montalban, John Hodiak.

Director William A. Wellman was a truly larger-than-life character of the old Hollywood. Wellman joined the French Foreign Legion in WWI, later serving in the Lafayette Escadrille after the United States joined the war. A plane crash left him with a broken back and a silver plate in his head, as well as the Croix de Guerre and five American medals. Upon returning to the United States, Wellman became a stunt man in a barnstorming air show before drifting into the movie business, climbing the ladder from messenger boy and prop wrangler to assistant director, and, eventually, director. Wellman made his name as a director with 1927's classic Wings, an aviation melodrama that still remains impressive today. He survived the transition from silent pictures to sound very well, going on to produce such classic fare as The Story of G.I. Joe, The Ox-Bow Incident, and Beau Geste. Owing little to his European contemporaries, he helped define a purely American style of storytelling and filmmaking. Despite his brash, tough-talking, hard-drinking image, "Wild Bill" Wellman was a Hollywood archetype who couldn't resist putting a strong humanistic element into many of his pictures.

Public Enemy opens in 1909, finding young Tom Powers (Cagney) involved in running beer and pulling off whatever petty larcenies he can get his sticky hands into. Some 10 years later, Tom and his pal Matt (Woods) have been hooked into a fur heist by neighborhood fence Putty Nose. The heist goes bad, however, and Powers kills a cop in the process; when they return to the hideout, Putty Nose has taken off and left them in the cold. The duo then go to work for crime boss Paddy, swearing revenge on the double-crossing Putty Nose. As Prohibition rolls around in 1920, the crime business picks up and the two quickly move from being beer truck drivers to "distributors," muscle for the bootleg racket. Meanwhile, Tom's straight-arrow brother Mike has returned from the Marines with a case of shell shock and a foot locker full of resentment toward his brother's crooked ways. Nonetheless, the expensive cars, tailored clothes, and easy money continue to seduce Tom, until he gets in over his head. The irony of Public Enemy is that, like Little Caesar and Scarface, it professes to be a "social consciousness" picture, but at the same time is an entertaining, fast-moving action movie that borders on what we would now consider exploitation fare. While ostensibly dealing with the social issues of the day, the gangster films of the Thirties also sated the Depression-era audiences' appetite for escapism and (in this case) outright violence. Even more ironic is Cagney in his career-defining role as the cocky, headstrong Tom Powers; he's a sociopathic thug (i.e., the famous scene in which he mashes a grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face), yet at the same time there's a distinct strain of the charming rogue in his makeup. Wellman's technical proficiency was already evident in this early sound film, with several long shots of dialogue in open cars driving down the street and a shot with a car driving over a camera recessed into the ground. The director refused to use the static shots that early sound movies often tended toward and insisted on a boom mike and fluid camera movement. With machine-gun-paced dialogue and an ending that is still a shocker today, Public Enemy stands as one of the Thirties' definitive gangster films.

In Nothing Sacred, Wallace Cook (March) is a New York reporter in trouble. His story of a "sultan" in the Big Apple's midst is debunked when the man is exposed as a local shoeshine specialist, and the hapless reporter is consigned to the obituary desk. His boss decides to give him one more chance, though, and dispatches him to the wilds of Warsaw, Vermont, to investigate young Hazel Flagg, a beautiful girl dying of radium poisoning. Cook's reception by the taciturn Yankees is one of the most hilarious parts of the movie; a toddler even runs out of a yard and bites him on the leg as he goes down the sidewalk! The guard-dog tot notwithstanding, Cook soon finds Flagg and her MD (Winninger). Though she has just been told that the doctor has misdiagnosed her condition, Hazel accepts a trip to New York City anyway. There, she's presented with the key to the city, fêted, and generally made a fuss over as New Yorkers pour out their hearts to the brave young girl staring death in the face. Filmed in early three-strip Technicolor, Nothing Sacred is a classic screwball comedy but not without a definite bite. Ben Hecht's acerbic screenplay paints everyone as a fraud, from Cook to Flagg to Flagg's doctor to Cook's boss (Connolly, whose character's name is, oddly, Oliver Stone). Hecht's script has a lot to say about the way that the media was seen in the Thirties, in all its manipulative/exploitative/tabloid guises. Lombard's flair for comedy is wonderfully natural and unforced, and March even shows a knack for comic timing that doesn't fit with much of the rest of his film career. Character actor Walter Connolly is a scene-stealer, though, as Cook's apoplectic boss, flapping his hands and spluttering over the "lying, scheming witch with the soul of an eel and the brain of a tarantula." It's not quite as arch and sexy as It Happened One Night or as manic as The Front Page, but Nothing Sacred is still a stinging, aptly titled screwball comedy landmark.

During the Battle of the Bulge in WWII, the Germans surrounded the town of Bastogne. The Americans there were freezing, cut off from supply lines, encircled by Nazi troops, and running low on fuel, food, and ammunition. The 101st Airborne was constantly besieged by German artillery, leaflets urging their surrender, and German spies in American uniforms. To make matters worse, the area was shrouded in fog for much of the battle, leaving no window for air support or supply drops. Wellman's Battleground traces the story of one squad of the 101st during that bitter, hellish winter. Drawing on his own battle experiences, the director made a film that broke with the flag-waving patriotism of earlier WWII pictures and concentrated more on characters than action. The weary, miserable soldiers want nothing more than to see the war over so they can go home, but the only way for that to happen is for them to prevail. MGM was convinced that the 1949 public didn't want to see another WWII picture and were tepid about Battleground; however, the film brought home awards for best director, best picture, best supporting actor, best cinematography, and best screenplay, among others. With its camaraderie and humor, it eloquently made the point that in battle, men fight to save themselves and each other, rather than for some greater cause. Battleground, while not subversive, definitely has anti-war overtones, ones that can only be realized by a man who was there himself and who could bring his own experiences to bear. While it may seem a little sanitized to today's audiences, it still drives home the suffocating fear and horror of war, in much the same way as J'Accuse or All Quiet On the Western Front did years before. Wellman could have relied on the star power of Montalban or Van Johnson but instead directed the men on an equal footing in this buddy drama. If it all seems familiar today, it's because Battleground provided a template for other wartime ensemble dramas, from Sam Fuller's films to Don Siegel's Hell Is for Heroes to Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket to Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan.


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