The Directors: William Wellman & Cecil B. DeMille

Another installment in the film directors series.  Two heavyweights of the Golden Days of Hollywood.

William Wellman had a long and successful career in Hollywood after being a12WELLMAN1-articleLarge decorated flyer in World War I.  He tried acting, which he hated and became a director instead, with his first directing credit in 1923.  He directed Wings (1927), that was awarded the first Best Picture Oscar.

Wellman gravitated toward action films, although he directed a variety of films in his career.  As a flyer, he felt comfortable directing action sequences including aerial action. Noted as a director who valued economy in his direction, meaning he did not utilize endless takes, or detailed instructions to his actors.  He also produced many of his films so efficiency and preparedness were important to him on a film set.

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Some of his notable films:

The Public Enemy (1931) – James Cagney starred in this violent gangster film that was one of the reasons for creation of the Production Code, which defined subject matter guidelines for films over the next couple of decades.

A Star Is Born (also Story) (1937) – The first version of this story, which Wellman also received credit for writing.  A fourth version of this story is currently in production.

Nothing Sacred (1937) – A classic screwball comedy starring Carole Lombard.  Comedies were not the usual fare for Wellman but he hit a homerun with this one.

Beau Geste (1939) – An action film starring Gary Cooper, about the French Foreign Legion. Action, fighting and love.  No wonder it was a big success at the box office.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) – A Western classic starring Henry Fonda.  Often listed as one of the best films of the decade, the story depicts what happens when the mob rules and results in a lynching.  Not very uplifting but a powerful cinematic experience.

The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) – A tough, uncompromising war film starring Robert Mitchum.

Magic Town (1947) – A Frank Capra-type film starring James Stewart about a pollster who finds a small town that mirrors the national demographics he needs for his polls.  Romance and drama ensues.  A large box office bomb.

Battleground (1949) – From the eyes of the American soldiers, a gritty story of the Battle of the Bulge.

Island in the Sky (1953) – Starring John Wayne.  An airplane crashes in a remote area.  John Wayne heads an ensemble cast who must survive while rescuers search.

The High and the Mighty (1954)  – Another John Wayne vehicle, a terror in the sky airline film as whatever can go wrong does.

Blood Alley (1955) – Also starring and produced by John Wayne.  A Cold War theme as the captain of a merchant vessel is seized and imprisoned.  Eventually he escapes and the film focuses on his getaway.

Darby’s Rangers (1958) – World War II film starring James Garner.  A lesser effort by Wellman, a bit formula, but good entertainment if you aren’t looking for a classic.

Cecil B. DeMille was not a studio owner but he did as much as any of them in building the Hollywood film industry.  His name on a film was huge.  There were other film directors who had starpower but his star was like an LED compared to an incandescent lamp.1302551536548.cached

Today, many people associate the name with those big, long, Technicolor biblical epics. He was that, but a lot more.  The factory that produces films, television programs and even video games is built on the foundation he poured.  You might be saying, he didn’t have anything to do with television and video.  True, but the infrastructure of filmmaking as an industry, providing the pipeline of product to the viewers, and creating the large-scale film experience – DeMille deserves credit for helping build.

Television and video games are product. As a filmmaker, DeMille kept raising the bar and he took audiences to experiences they had not seen before.  He made these experiences available inexpensively and convenient, just a ticket at the local theater.  If TV and computer devices had been invented then, he would have been at the forefront of content providers.

Let me say upfront, I’m not a big fan of DeMille’s later films but some of his earlier work is quite engaging.  What I respect is that he was a skilled filmmaker and a visionary.  He wielded tremendous power over the industry and had accumulated considerable wealth from the success of his films.  If there is a Mount Rushmore of filmmakers his face would be there.

Most of his films were made prior to 1930, in fact, he had 74 credits between 1914 and 1930.  In 1914, when films were short and silent, he directed 14 films.  Moving into the 1920s, he directed or produced a minimum of two films per year.  His output was legendary.  After 1940, he name only appeared on 10 films, but they were mostly big production films.

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Let’s look a several of his films.

The Ten Commandments (1956) – Everything you’ve heard and more.  A big spectacle, even by DeMille standards.  Rich color and special effects.  The biggest grossing film of the year.  Moses parts the Red Sea, a big time special effect, reportedly taking six months to film.

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) – Set against the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus, a big Technicolor production, with various intersecting lives.  Winner of Best Picture and Story Academy Awards.   Notable for some of the actors learning their circus roles.  Biggest film earner of the year.

Sampson and Delilah (1949) – The story of strongman Samson, and his love for Delilah, the woman who seduces him and betrays him.  A huge moneymaker and garnered several Academy Awards.

Reap the Wind (1942) – Another swashbuckling tale set in the 1840s along the Florida coast, focusing on shipwreck salvagers.  Starring Ray Milland and John Wayne, in a very non-traditional role for Wayne.

North West Mounted Police (1940) – Starring Gary Cooper, a Texas Ranger joins up with the Mounted Police to help put down a rebellion, while he is searching for an outlaw.  DeMille’s first Technicolor film.  The studio’s highest grossing film of the year.

Union Pacific (1939) – The story of linking America by railroad.  A big scale Western, large production values, which you’d naturally expect from DeMille.  Very entertaining film starring g Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea, and a talented cast of supporting players.

The Buccaneer (1938) – Swords and pirates, set during the War of 1812.  A lot of fighting, seafaring action around Louisiana, and the nation’s capitol.  Fredric March stars as the flamboyant Captain Jean Lafitte.

The Plainsman (1936) – A Hollywood imagined story of Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Buffalo Bill Cody, and General George Custer.  Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur star.  While it is far from a history lesson, the creativity is to be commended.

The Crusades (1935) – Another big costume drama, starring Loretta Young, featuring lush production as usual, but not a huge hit.  A bit of a disappointment after Cleopatra, but DeMille has bigger spectacles to come.

Cleopatra (1934) – Starring Claudette Colbert, a lushly produced story of Cleopatra of Egypt.  One of Paramount’s biggest films of the year.

Wellman and DeMille are two of the giants of Hollywood.  They were a big part of the transition from silent to sound, and the boom years of the major studios.


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