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William Wellman’s Night Nurse (1931)

Friday, February 19th, 2016

Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck in William Wellman’s brutal Pre-Code drama Night Nurse.

I have a new essay out on this remarkable film in Senses of Cinema, which notes in part that “there are precious few ‘ethics’ on display in William Wellman’s brief and brutal film Night Nurse, a bluntly titled and efficiently directed Pre-Code film from Warner Bros., a studio that specialized in hard boiled melodramas with a social message in the early 1930s. Wellman and star Barbara Stanwyck would make five films together, and in this, their first outing, it’s clear that Stanwyck’s innate toughness as a performer, coupled with her unrelenting work ethic, found favor with Wellman, who was a very tough customer himself.

Known for carrying a loaded gun on the set, and occasionally threatening actors with it if he felt they were sloughing off on the job (as he did with Ronald Colman in his 1939 film The Light That Failed, when Colman deliberately fluffed his lines during a key scene due to a disagreement with Wellman over casting), Wellman knew exactly what he wanted when he walked on the set each morning, and usually got the results in one or two takes.

This was just fine with Stanwyck, who was known as a ‘one take wonder,’ capable of memorizing pages of dialogue at the last minute, and then delivering the results in one flawless take after another, and delighted Wellman. He was almost as much of a speed demon on the set as MGM’s W.S. Van Dyke, another rough and ready director who famously shot the hit film The Thin Man in a mere 12 days.

For above everything else, Warner’s in the early 1930s was a factory, pumping out films at the rate of one a week to keep pace with the insatiable demand of Depression era audiences for something – anything – to take their minds off the crushing burden of the nationwide financial collapse.

Films such as Wellman’s Public Enemy (1931), Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1930), Roy Del Ruth’s Blonde Crazy (1931), and Alfred E. Green’s Smart Money (1931) set the tone and pace for a series of films that moved with breakneck speed in their narrative thrust, and dealt matter of factly with Prohibition (and the complete failure of that ‘great experiment’), murder, rape, drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution and a host of other social ills, pulling no punches in the process.”

You can read the rest of the essay by clicking here, or on the image above; this is a real gem.

Andrew V. McLaglen

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

Andrew V. McLaglen and Yvette Mimieux on the set of Monkeys, Go Home! (1967), which McLaglen directed solely to work with Maurice Chevalier, in one of his last films.

As I wrote in Senses of Cinema 50, Andrew V. McLaglen is one of the last of the Hollywood professions, and as this interview makes clear, despite his long association with the Western, he has no particular affection for the genre, which is surprising, given that the bulk of his work falls into this category.

As I noted in my introduction to the interview, “Andrew V. McLaglen (he is quite insistent on retaining the “V” in his name, as part of his authorial signature) is without a doubt one of the last of the classical Hollywood filmmakers who worked during the Golden Age of the studio system. Coming of age when his father, the gifted actor Victor McLaglen, won an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in John Ford’s The Informer (1935; Ford himself also won as Best Director that year, as did Max Steiner for his music score, and Dudley Nichols for the screenplay), young Andrew worked and lived with the cream of Hollywood’s most original and idiosyncratic artists.

In addition to John Ford, he knew and/or worked with John “Duke” Wayne, William Wellman, Budd Boetticher and Cary Grant, and later carved out a career for himself as a director in the Western genre that few can equal. Even now, he is still going strong, directing stage productions of such classics as Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman, and keeps an interested eye on the business.”

You can read the entire interview here.

Classic Cinema: The Public Enemy

Monday, August 1st, 2011

The Public Enemy (1931), directed by William (“Wild Bill”) Wellman, is not only a classic Depression-era American gangster film; it is also the film that propelled James Cagney to overnight stardom. The Public Enemy chronicles the rise of a street tough and hired gun to the top of the mob, and then dispassionately depicts his inevitable downfall and death. It does so in a brutal, unflinching manner, typical of Wellman, who often carried a loaded gun on the set, and thought nothing of using live ammunition in some scenes where it would give added realism to the film.

Tom Powers (Cagney) and his brother Mike (Donald Cook) come from a poor but honest family; in fact, their father is a policeman, who pounds his beat each day with dogged dedication. The film follows Tom and Mike from childhood; Mike is an eager, bookish sort who will obviously make something out of himself, but Tom and his pal Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) begin lives of petty thievery and robbery that culminate in their rise to the top of the underworld. At first they throw in with the double-crossing Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell), who sets Tom and Matt up in their first real job; a fur heist that goes horribly wrong, and leaves them on the run, wanted by the law.

When the heat dies down, Tom and Matt find work with crime boss Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O’Connor), a tough bootlegger who takes advantage of Prohibition to sell cheap beer to a strong of speakeasies. Tom and Matt are the “enforcers” who strong-arm the reluctant owners of the illicit taverns to take Paddy’s beer, or else. But rival mobs are soon trying to muscle in on Paddy’s racket, and Tom is kidnapped by Paddy’s competition. In the film’s justly famous final sequence, Paddy negotiates Tom’s “release” and his return home; not alive, however, but as a bloodied corpse, falling over the family doorstep like a package of day old meat, as his mother makes his bed upstairs.

Cagney almost didn’t get the part that made him a star. Filming started with Donald Cook in the role of Tom, and Cagney as the straight-arrow Mike, but within days, Wellman realized that the small, tough Cagney was much better suited to the role, and reshot the scenes to make the switch. In one scene, in which Tom is nearly killed in a machine gun ambush by members of a rival mob, Wellman did in fact use a sharp shooter with a real Tommy gun to shoot bullets at a brick wall, just second after Cagney dodged around the corner. That wall still stands on the Warner Bros. back lot to this day, bullet holes and all.

Shot quickly on a tight budget of roughly $150,000, The Public Enemy defined the gangster film for a rough, violent era in American society, and clicked resoundingly with audiences of the era, who saw the film as a modern morality tale, once again proving that in the end, “crime does not pay.”

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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