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Monday, September 11, 2017

Wellman Week at Greenbriar

A Hardbound Hollywood Epic

A Showman Shows That Sex Sells Better Than Lynch Mobs
The most ambitious book ever on a Classic Era director is at hand. Nothing Sacred: The Cinema Of William Wellman, by John Andrew Gallagher and Frank Thompson, is available for pre-order from Men With Wings Press, a reading opportunity no film enthusiast should let fly by. I've seen portions of this book, and it is awesome. Gallagher and Thompson have gone deepest-ever into production of every feature Wellman was associated with, from silent apprenticeship to 50's finish. They have been over thirty years at gathering research and data. Text is based on hundreds of interviews plus probing into studio files. There are over a thousand illustrations, many from behind scenes and never published before. Pages are beautifully laid out, with one revelation after another on classics Wellman made, including, of course, Wings, Public Enemy, A Star Is Born, Beau Geste, so many others. The trophy case of outstanding Wellmans is full and bursting. I can't wait to immerse in each chapter, so am starting engines this week by featuring three films of William Wellman here at Greenbriar. The book can be pre-ordered until December 1. There is not another coming this or any year that I would recommend higher.

Wellman Nipped By Metro Clippers

I've got a feeling that William Wellman and MGM writers went Missouri-way with noble intent to tell a truest story of mountain men who hunted beaver and pioneered frontier exploration to come. I well appreciate their disappointment over botch that Dore Schary and studio tremblers made of ambitious, if eccentric, work submitted after seven weeks running the Lion's clock at Technicolor'ed Rockies location. Yes, it cost high ($2.2 million), but not extravagant, and here's the thing, Across The Wide Missouri was a solid hit, reports of boffo and bouquets from boxoffices nationwide. Schary and staff were proved right, it seemed. They held Across in abeyance nearly a year, tinkering through that time with footage, narration added, David Raksin's score (more of latter anon). Meanwhile, Gable had done another western, Lone Star, and debate was whether to release it first. Hardly mattered, as both were clicko and forceful argue against myth that Clark Gable saw decline in latter days for MGM.

Gable Drove Himself To Distant Location For Across The Wide Missouri. Here He Is Stopping For Gas.

I watched Across The Wide Missouri again last week, a Warner Archive DVD that looked fine. Never saw it in true Tech, no print turning up during collector days despite years at quest. How simple is viewing with discs now at hand. Tip-off to Missouri mauling is players barely there in version we have, which is 78 minutes, but wait --- the 1951 pressbook indicates 81 minutes. The cast had James Whitmore, John Hodiak, Richard Anderson, recognizable others. I've a feeling each had lots more to do before shearing started. Dore Schary candidly told an exhibitor conference (Variety reported) that Across The Wide Missouri would need work before it could be shown. The Red Badge Of Courage was his other problem child. Strong directors having been involved (Wellman and Badge's John Huston), Schary was obliged to defend actions even unto memoirs he wrote in 1979. With regard Across The Wide Missouri that "sagged and stumbled," said Schary, he and surgical team applied magic to "our flagging picture," and " ...presto, the good movie popped out ..." Not so for Wellman, who disowned the film and claimed later to have never seen Schary's re-cut.

Gable and Wife Sylvia Ashley Share On-Location Chow with MGM's "Dynamic Latin Discovery" Maria Elena Marques,
Who Played An Indian Princess in Across The Wide Missouri

Breakdown and new construct of Across The Wide Missouri appear to have been fruit of one bad preview, the audience starting off pleased, then losing interest in a second half. Studio panic buttons must have had a hair-trigger in those days. Think of what happened to The Magnificent Ambersons eight years before Missouri. Tragedy of these and other second guesses during the Studio Era was discarded footage being ... well, discarded ... as in for keeps. I always wondered how much of Across The Wide Missouri was removed. And how many saw the complete version? One who did was composer David Raksin. He spent considerable time with all of Across The Wide Missouri because it was his job to score it. I made contact with Mr. Raksin in 1983. He was teaching at USC and has just done music for a TV-movie, The Day After, about a nuclear bomb's impact on rural Kansas. We talked on the phone several times and, being a fan (Raksin still my favorite of film composers), I scoured around Showtime, Cinemax, others, for broadcasts of The Bad and The BeautifulForever Amber, and Across The Wide Missouri, after Raksin told me that he had neither prints or cassettes of these titles. Over the months we were in contact, I sent out VHS copies of these to him. They looked quite nice (considering this was 1983) for being recorded from satellite stations that played them uninterrupted. Of course, none were then available on pre-recorded video. Raksin liked to talk, and had much to say about ups and downs of composing life. Among topics was Across The Wide Missouri. I wanted to know his impressions of that film after he referred to it in a letter (at right). Wanting to keep facts straight, I transcribed what he told me and sent the manuscript out for him to vet, so the following are Raksin's own words on his experience with Across The Wide Missouri:

"When I first screened Across The Wide Missouri, in the long version, I was surprised at what a disappointing film it turned out to be --- in spite of Bill Wellman, Clark Gable, and the other talent involved. Some of the scenes with Gable were good, but the picture was overlong, and there was too much 'monkey business' involving the supporting players. I scored the long version, but then Metro panicked, the film was heavily edited, and my score was partially redone by another composer. In one sequence, my music was replaced by a watered-down version using my thematic material, at the instigation of the producer, a prize klutz who thought my version was 'too powerful' for the scene. I asked him whether he was aware of what such a remark revealed about his appraisal of the scene he photographed and edited, but he seemed not to understand what I meant. It never ceases to amaze me how little producers and directors know about the way in which music works in films, and how much damage results from their misperceptions. I was never happy with Metro anyway. Everyone meddled in everything. I can't honestly say that Across The Wide Missouri was any better a picture in its initial long version than in the 78-minute version that was finally released. I always liked Gable and Wellman, but this was just not a good picture, at any length."

Gable and Support Players In One Of The Scenes Later Cut From Across The Wide Missouri

I'm guessing that what Wellman delivered was an ensemble piece, all of a large support cast getting in licks at the narrative. These may have diminished strengths the story had, as in 'monkey business' Raksin saw as distraction. Were there already doubts before the preview was had? It's not like they could return to such a distant location and reshoot. Alarm in such circumstance is understandable. We could wonder how long Across The Wide Missouri was before they cut it. Two hours? --- more? How did Clark Gable feel about ceding screen time to secondary characters? Did he suggest modifying Across The Wide Missouri to be more about him? That would certainly have been a star's prerogative, but Gable wasn't known for this sort of insistence. I'd say Wellman wanted a mosaic of personalities to show history as enacted by richly diverse participants. He was a student of America's past, like John Ford and other of great directors (Missouri co-writer Talbot Jennings was a recognized authority on Indian lore). Perhaps on-site enthusiasm got away from all involved, and the return home brought more baggage than anyone anticipated.

Across The Wide Missouri was based on a (same title) book that was well-received and popular, but fact-based rather than story driven. There was lots in its recitation of history to fire up artists inclined to recreate a colorful period, and surely the Rockies were heady atmosphere to bring pioneering to life again. Any talent might be as tempted to repaint a past, especially given Technicolor lenses and two million to capture glory of vistas. Across The Wide Missouri should be celebrated for its effort at capturing that era, and so stunningly as to visual beauty, whatever the running time. These 78 minutes aren't boring, especially if looked at on a big screen. Films Inc. had Across The Wide Missouri in their 16mm catalog. I wonder if they rented it much to schools. This would have made an ideal teaching supplement ... still would, for that matter. Too many discount Hollywood for distortions of history, too many, that is, who don't realize how valuable films like Across The Wide Missouri are toward illustrating that history.

Gable Takes An On-Location Shave For Publicity Cameras
Fall 1951 saw Across The Wide Missouri sold as comparable with biggest of Metro specials from a previous year, King Solomon's Mines and Kim both ready to bow before location splendor achieved by Wellman and company. Those were far off shot, but this was America the Techni-beautiful, and ruggedly actionful besides. Litanies of "Boff" and "Sock" rang off wicket reportage from keys. Missouri too was a biggest gross for Gable since Homecoming in 1948. Insiders and trade followers knew there'd been overhaul, but who cared so long as coin flowed? There was one exhibitor I found who did lodge complaint, however, one Dale Lee of the Wilma Theatre in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, hardly a flagship for MGM at 600 seats, but Lee's inquiry in The Motion Picture Herald's 12-8-51 "What The Picture Did For Me" column surely drew notice. Following mention of "a great cast playing bit parts," Lee asked "If anyone knows why Metro got together a cast like the one in this Technicolor picture to go out on location with a director like William Wellman, and then, when they got it all put together, whacked it to pieces, I wish they would let me know ... it sounds like a lot of good entertainment wound up in the garbage. Our local newspaper critic is also trying to find out why they did this." Not a lot of "why" questions got answered by studios in the Classic Era, even waning days of it, so specifics behind re-shape of Across The Wide Missouri remain elusive. With sixty-six years now passed since 1951 release, I wonder how many, if any, are left who saw the film as William Wellman envisioned it.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Just suffered through the beautiful Kino restoration of BEGGARS OF LIFE. Suffered because the music score undermines the grittiness of the film in every frame. Parts of it were vaguely familiar. Took me a while to remember that those selections were used on my 16mm print of BEN HUR with Ramon Novarro for the Crucifixion of Christ which further goes to show how completely out of place its use is here. This film cries out for a 1920's jazz score. Instead it is turned into a church sermon.

Apart from the music the restoration is wonderful. Those murky dvds can now be tossed into the crapper where they belong. Of the two commentaries I much prefer the one by Wellman's son. His intimate knowledge of his father really carries weight with me.

I'm one of those who find Louise Brooks interesting no matter what she is in. Too bad only Wellman and Pabst knew how to really employ her gifts.

I look forward to the rest of the week.

7:52 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

As far as 'Kim' being "far off shot", did Errol Flynn travel farther from Hollywood than Lone Pine CA?

8:33 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

OX-BOW, a film I'm supposed to rave about but never have.

10:30 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I have to say this.. at 78 minutes I'm sure that MGM did not really cut much of the film, probably between 15 and 20 minutes of footage.

What David Raksin said was probably true. Even though I like this film, there is not really much in terms of story.

And I have been looking for images for this book, mostly from silents lifting them from non American sources.

7:50 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Mike Cline: I've always seen OXBOW as one of those "this medicine tastes horrible but it's good for you" movies. "Hey, honey, I'm in a good mood, is there anything downtown that might bring me down?" I'm curious if these feel-bad films played with the full support of a funny cartoon, a short, previews, and everything that came with a feature at the time (especially a short one). The wolf, man.

9:31 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

It's OK, kenneth. I never jumped on THE THIRD MAN or VERTIGO bandwagon either.

10:27 AM  
Blogger b piper said...

Re: David Raksin's comment that "It never ceases to amaze me how little producers and directors know about the way in which music works in films, and how much damage results from their misperceptions," I'm in no way denigrating Raksin when I say that many producers and directors would deplore how little composers know about how their music doesn't fit the movie's vision. The fact is that everyone on a movie, down to clapper/loaders and focus pullers, thinks his job is the most important one on the picture and no one else knows what he's doing. It's like the old ROMEO AND JULIET joke: "It's a play about a nurse...."

12:36 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Nonetheless, Raksin is right about music. Dead right.

5:09 AM  
Blogger b piper said...

I'm guessing you're a musician....

12:47 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I only got around to "Ox Bow" in the last year, and enjoyed it far more than expected. What it had going for it, along with the fine story and acting, was its relatively brief running time of 75 minutes. That kind of thing goes a long way with me, especially with a "message" movie.

7:13 PM  
Blogger StevensScope said...

Every time (and not very often)I've watched "THE OX-BOW INCIDENT", IT'S IMPACT OF TERROR remains fresh and new as it is --such a tragic story which was duplicated all over the West and it's a shame folks then weren't able to see this or any movie, period--! THINKING Maybe THIS FILM could have made a difference in that particular time in history here in the WEST. Wellman scored here BIG- with what has to be ONE of the most mind-wrenching tales ever thrown onto a movie screen; and` with an astonishing CAST of actors who seemed SO REAL -the characters interplaying in this scene of the darkening terror surrounding the hapless men. . Wellman certainly scored with pictures on a hit and miss basis, it seems. I reckon I"m not a Wellman fan, as it is. My favorite Wellman titles include include "TRACK OF THE CAT", (despite wanting to scream: "come on, Bill, let's SHOW THE CAT, for cry-sake!") "CALL OF THE WILD", "NOTHING SACRED", "GI JOE". ANYONE here A FAN, of the OUTSTANDING "WESTWARD THE WOMEN? AND why oh why, did he film it in BLACK AND WHITE ?! This film SCREAMED at US: "where or where is TECHNICOLOR when you need it?" Good GOD, I believe that NEVER has a BLACK AND WHITE FILM of that stature has EVER BOTHERED ME MORE and IT STILL DOES, with "WESTWARD THE WOMEN". Also check out "GOODBYE MY LADY"...A TEAR OR TWO THERE-FOR SURE.

12:28 PM  

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