Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Westerns of William A Wellman


My principal sources for this article were the 2015 biography Wild Bill Wellman, Hollywood Rebel by Wellman’s son, William Wellman Jr, and the 1995 Turner documentary Wild Bill, Hollywood Maverick, written and directed by Todd Robinson. But the opinions of Wellman’s films expressed are, unless stated otherwise, my own. Titles with livelinks will take you to our reviews of the movies.



Wild Bill



We’ve looked on this blog at the Westerns made some of the great directors (see under Directors in the index). William A Wellman, known by the appropriately Western nickname Wild Bill (though he got the soubriquet as an airman in the First World War, not in Hollywood) deserves to be among them because he directed some superb Westerns. He wasn’t perhaps the Western ‘specialist’ that John Ford was, nor did he devote himself almost exclusively to the genre in one decade in the way that Anthony Mann did (and that decade happened to be the high water mark of the genre). Wellman was famously versatile, making every kind of picture, especially war films, great movies like Wings and The Story of GI Joe. But he did also make enough oaters to be up there with the gods on the sacred Mount Parnassus (the Colorado one, naturally) or some other Olympian height. Three of his Westerns would alone have qualified him: The Ox-Bow Incident, Yellow Sky and Westward the Women.  But he was involved with many.


I greatly enjoyed the biography, I must say, and the TV documentary – not only for the Western bits but also for his life in general, his World War I service, the making of Wings and many other aspects of his career. He was certainly always a rebel who had difficulty with any kind of authority (even as a young boy he was close to a juvenile delinquent) and he had a notably stormy relationship with producers and studio bosses. He resented any kind of control or tinkering with ‘his’ pictures. He tried producing himself but didn’t like the money side of the business. He just wanted studios to finance his work and promote it afterwards but otherwise keep well clear during the filming. And woe betide them if they didn’t. He was not above threatening to punch studio big-shots. Or indeed punching them.



He never won a Best Director Oscar, despite three nominations. Perhaps he had offended too many of the powers that be. But he deserved to.


But I’m obviously going to talk about the Westerns today. You’ll have to read the book or watch the docu if you want to know about the rest.


Early Westerns


Wellman’s first Western was in fact as an actor. In 1919, as a flight instructor in California, decorated fighter ace Lt W Wellman boldly landed his plane on the polo field of Douglas Fairbanks.



He had met Fairbanks back east, when the famous actor had been impressed by Wellman’s hockey-playing skills. Wellman walked over to the star and said, “Remember me, Mr Fairbanks? You said if I ever came to Hollywood to look you up.” Fairbanks was charmed and asked if he could ride a horse? Wellman said no but he reckoned he could ride anything, and Fairbanks gave him a part, quite a big part actually, in his current project, the Western The Knickerbocker Buckaroo. And it was a big picture – six months in production, seven reels and a budget or $264,000. Sadly, this picture is now lost, like most of Wellman’s early work, so we don’t know how good it was, or Wellman was, but he himself detested it when he saw the finished product, and though he was offered another role, in a Raoul Walsh film, he swore never to act again. He wanted to direct.


It wasn’t for him


He went from being a $400-a-week actor to a messenger boy at $22 a week. He had the good luck to be befriended by the great Will Rogers, who got the messenger boy a job in the props department. In 1920 he became head property man. He got a further boost when General Pershing visited Hollywood. Studio boss Samuel Goldwyn ordered all ex-serviceman employees to wear uniform. Wellman had met Pershing before. In fact he had stolen the general’s pants in a Paris whorehouse. That’s not really something one forgets, I suppose. At any rate Pershing now asked what he could do for Wellman and Wellman asked for Pershing to take him aside and talk to him for a bit, to make him look important. It worked. Goldwyn made him an assistant director.


Assistant director


He would work at Fox on at least twenty-two pictures, mostly Westerns. Of all the directors he assisted, Bernard Durning was a favorite, and Wellman learned most from him. He called his two years with Durning “the greatest school a director ever had.” The director worked particularly with Western stars Dustin Farnum and Buck Jones. Durning was an alcoholic who usually managed to stay sober on the set but when on (non-Western) The Eleventh Hour in 1923 he went on a binge, he was totally incapacitated and said, “It’s all yours, Willie.” William Wellman was a director.


Mentor Durning


A director now


His first full assignment was The Man Who Won, a Western starring Dusty Farnum. Farnum’s character was named Wild Bill, and it seems that Wellman was writer, director and producer as well. It had the (already well-worn) plot about Wild Bill sacrificing himself to save twin children.



The six following oaters, between August 1923 and May 1924, starred the great Buck Jones. Only Big Dan (1923) has survived. The Czech Film Archive discovered a complete print and UCLA has three reels. All the others are gone. Even Big Dan might just as well be lost, though, to us mere mortals anyway, for it isn’t available to view and I haven’t seen it. It wasn’t really a Western, in the true sense. Big Dan (Jones) returns from the war, and finding that his wife has left him, turns his home into a boys’ camp and teaches them to box.



Wellman loved Jones and later wrote, “He was very popular and a wonderful guy. My whole experience directing Buck was … one of the happiest hours of picture making I ever had. He was an ace.”


Wellman’s pictures were favorably reviewed and did well at the box-office. He was still on $185 a week, though, and he nagged William Fox for a raise. The only response was, “You’re fired.” Wellman grabbed and twisted the mogul’s necktie and then decided to spit in his face. Wellman was now unemployed – and blackballed.


Fox’s two-word reply: “You’re fired.”


Finally, towards the end of 1925, Wellman got hired by the infamous Harry Cohn at Columbia to make a feature, When Husbands Flirt, in three-and-a-half days. He got $750 but had to do preproduction, writing, producing, directing and editing. It was work, but it didn’t lead to anything, and Wellman had to take a step back: he signed on as an assistant director at MGM. He finally got a ‘repair job’ directing a comedy-romance, The Boob, but Variety declared it “a terrible picture, the worst made by Metro since its merger with Goldwyn and Mayer”, and Wellman was fired again.


His career wasn’t going too well.




But When Husbands Flirt was released afterwards, and, amazingly, it was a success. Cohn wanted Wellman back. But BP Schulberg had recently become VP at Paramount and he outbid Cohn by a princely $25 a week. Wellman was glad to be working again.


It went well with BP. For a while.


His first assignment was a sex comedy, The Cat’s Pajamas. “It was indescribably atrocious,” said Wellman. Would he be fired again? Fortunately, his next picture, another romance, was a critical and commercial success.


I know what you’re saying. This is all very well but what about the Westerns? I know. It was a Western desert. Still, these silly comedies cemented his place at Paramount, and that led to the great aviation picture Wings in 1927, which made Wellman a star director. At last.


He was waiting for clouds


But he had not made himself popular at Paramount (Wings finally cost an astronomical $2m) and afterwards he was handed B-pictures and experiments, and became increasingly dissatisfied. Finally, his canny agent Myron Selznick (son of Lewis, brother of David O) got him in with Darryl Zanuck at Warners, they hit it off and things got better. There was more money and Zanuck said Wellman could bring his own projects. There were major successes, like The Public Enemy – but still no Westerns.


RKO’s Cimarron follow-up


In 1934 David Selznick, who had left Paramount for RKO, borrowed Wellman to direct The Conquerors. It was to be a sort of sequel to the studio’s Oscar-winning Cimarron, also starring Richard Dix, and like Cimarron it would be – partially – a Western. Dix played double roles as a Western pioneer and his grandson in World War I (coincidentally he becomes a fighter pilot in the Lafayette Flying Corps). It was a lavish production, called by the New York Daily Mirror “a dignified and stately film”. Stingaree the same year “combined an Australian Western with an opera-style musical,” according to William Wellman Jr. Sounds gripping. Maybe.



Also that year, Wellman apparently directed some scenes on MGM’s big Viva Villa! However, which scenes and how many are not known. Jack Conway was credited as director. Howard Hawks also directed some scenes but it is said that much of his footage was lost in a plane crash and he was let go after the scandal when one of the actors was expelled from the country and Hawks stood by him.



1935 saw Wellman directing a bit hit for Zanuck, The Call of the Wild, made at Twentieth Century and released by United Artists, with Clark Gable (on loan from Metro) and Loretta Young. Again, we are on the outer verges of the genre here but these Jack London yarns do have something of the Western about them. It was a hit, and Wellman moved to MGM, signing a lucrative deal with Louis B Mayer. Selznick was also there and Wellman looked forward to big things. Wellman later said he thought Selznick to be the greatest producer of them all. But his continued refusal to kowtow to the arrogant studio hotshots (as he saw it) or total lack of respect from an upstart (as they saw it) didn’t augur well for any long-term relationship.


It went well with David O, too – also for a while.


Robin Hood in California


More Western, however, was MGM’s 1936 picture Robin Hood of El Dorado (review planned soon). For now I’ll just say that Wellman was excited by the project. As his son says, “Wellman never rejected his beginnings as a Western director, and throughout his long career, he continually returned to the world of the West.” The 1840s story of Joaquin Murrieta (the spelling chosen) had been around Hollywood for a long time without being taken up but the success of Viva Villa! made it more of a possible. Wellman rewrote and added punch whenever he could and presented, as the title suggests, a Murrieta as a friend to the poor who fought the wicked powers that be, after his wife is raped and murdered by a mob. The disgust with mob-violence was a continuing theme in Wellman’s pictures. Finally the wounded bandit dies on his wife’s grave (the real Murrieta was shot in the back by one of his own men, decapitated and his head placed in a jar and carted about California, but that wouldn’t really do for 1930s Hollywood).


Wellman wanted young Robert Taylor as Murrieta but was obliged to take Warner Baxter, who had been a hit as the Cisco Kid in the early talkie Western In Old Arizona in 1928, but was now aging – he was 47 to the real Murrieta’s 24 when he died, and it was made worse by the fact the actress playing his wife, Margo, was a slim 18. Baxter also had a massive drink problem. This casting led to Wellman’s usual antics, including swearing at Mayer, emptying a wastebasket over producer John Considine’s head, etc. Baxter it was, though, even if he hardly appeared in the film apart from close-ups; all the rest was done with a double.


Make-up and costume did their best


The film did well, however, both with the critics and at the box-office, as the studio execs had, grudgingly, to admit.


Some almost-Westerns


There would be a few minor pictures like A Star is Born and Beau Geste (only joking) before Wellman got back to the proper business of a film director, viz. Westerns. He was to have helmed MGM’s remake Three Godfathers but was taken off that and replaced by Richard Boleslawski, and instead assigned Small Town Girl, sigh. He did direct a few scenes of Gone With the Wind for Selznick in ’39, but uncredited. That wasn’t a Western anyway.


The nearest Wellman got to the proper West before Ox-Bow was in 1941 when back at Paramount he directed The Great Man’s Lady, billed as a Drama/Romance, which starred one of his favorite actresses, Barbara Stanwyck – in a remarkably good performance, it must be said, even if there was much of the pot-boiler about the film.


Stanwyck extraordinary


Joel McCrea, who became a good friend, took the male lead but is absent from much of the picture and the truly ‘Western’ scenes are quite limited. McCrea and Stanwyck had of course been a hit with a more Western picture, Cecil B DeMille’s Union Pacific, like The Great Man’s Lady with Brian Donlevy in support, in 1939. But The Great Man’s Lady achieved only modest box-office success. Perhaps the public were expecting a rip-roaring Western along the lines of Union Pacific and were disappointed by the slightly slushy and soapy flashback life.



But in 1942 he made his finest Western to date.




While vacationing with his (fifth but now permanent) wife, Wellman was approached by an out-of-work producer, Harold Hurley, who owned the movie rights to Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s book The Ox-Bow Incident. The dark, grim story greatly impressed Wellman, though bizarrely Hurley wanted to make it in color with Mae West. “When the posse and tired cowboys gather in the saloon,” he said, “Mae will cheer them up with song and dance.” Wellman passed.


But the story stayed with him and when he met Hurley again later, he offered the producer $500 more than he had paid for the story, which had been $6000. Wellman hawked the project round all the studios he had worked for but got a resounding no from everyone. It was wartime. They wanted escapist fare, not a dark film about lynching with little action and no romance. Finally, Darryl Zanuck, even though he and Wellman “weren’t talking”, after one too many ‘incidents’, also read it and was also impressed. “It won’t make a dime,” he said, “but I want my name on it.” There were conditions. There would be only a low budget, it must be shot on the Fox lot in black & white (which was in fact better) and Wellman would have to direct two sight-unseen pictures without changes afterwards. He agreed.


The casting of Henry Fonda in the lead was inspired. Nebraska-born Fonda was fourteen years old when he observed a lynching. He watched a mob from the second floor window of his father’s print shop. “It was the most horrendous sight I’d ever seen… We locked the plant, went downstairs, and drove home in silence. My hands were wet and there were tears in my eyes. All I could think of was that young black man dangling at the end of a rope.” Fonda made several films condemning the evil of lynching and questioning capital punishment in general.



Zanuck was right about not making a dime. In Wellman’s words, “It fell flat on its face.” That didn’t stop Zanuck cabling Wellman, “Congratulations on an excellent and efficient job of direction. You waded through it like a master and I have never seen better quality.” Damn right. It’s an absolutely superb Western which, these days, often finds its way onto many of those (rather absurd) ‘Best Western of All Time’ lists. If Wellman had never made another picture in the genre he would still have earned the right with Ox-Bow to be considered one of the truly great Western directors.


A classic Wellman set-up, one actor partially masked by another. Harry Morgan and Henry Fonda in the letter-reading scene.


God bless you, Buffalo Bill!


The second of the two post Ox-Bow pictures Wellman had agreed to make for Fox, after a forgettable war/romance, was a picture which was expected to be another programmer, but which turned out to be a huge money-maker for the studio.


Screenwriter Gene Fowler, who had lived near Wellman back in Boston, wrote The Call of the Wild and they became friends. He’d also written glorified goody roles for Jesse James in 1939 and Billy the Kid in ‘41. But now he came to Wellman with an idea for a debunking biography of the charlatan William F Cody. Wellman described the outline as “so far superior to any that I had made pictures of that frankly there was no comparison.”


But in the end they decided they couldn’t go through with it. 1944 was not the time to demolish one of America’s greatest heroes, who was adored and admired by children of all ages. Only a romanticized Buffalo Bill would do, as Fox was well aware. Wellman couldn’t destroy Buffalo Bill. So he destroyed the picture instead. He just made a sloppy Hollywood whitewash biopic, Buffalo Bill.


Joel McCrea was the obvious choice to be Cody (and he was magnificent). As leading lady, contract star Maureen O’Hara was certainly beautiful but slightly less welcome on the set. Wellman never warmed to prima donna types who thought the limelight ought always to be on them. O’Hara was one of the few who later refused to appear in the documentary referred to above, saying, “He didn’t want me looking my best at all times”, code for, well, you know, waiting hours while she did her make-up in her trailer.



Anthony Quinn, a success in Ox-Bow, as Yellow Hand in Buffalo Bill, was also not hit with the director. He refused to lead a charge on a skittish horse, insisting that a stunt double do it. Neither Quinn nor O’Hara did another picture with Wellman.


Quinn didn’t endear himself


Wellman absolutely hated the sentimental ending, in which during Cody’s farewell performance a Tiny Tim-like little boy on crutches calls out “And God bless you too, Buffalo Bill!” In fact he used the line for the rest of his life if he wanted to express disgust at something.


Wellman, McCrea and editor James B Clark on the set. They all look a bit bored.


Buffalo Bill is essentially an old-fashioned Western, despite its Technicolor and promotion as ‘new’ by Fox. It’s over-simplified (what they these days call simplistic) and hokey. Stilted, I would say. Still, it did really well commercially, and Zanuck was mighty pleased.


Another 4-year pause, then another corker.


Yellow Sky


Produced and written by Ox-Bow’s Lamar Trotti, from the novel Stretch Dawson by WR Burnett (Law and Order, Dark Command, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, Arrowhead and many another Western movie besides), with wonderful black & white photography by the great Joe MacDonald of Death Valley and Lone Pine locations, with music by Alfred Newman and with a terrific cast, Yellow Sky was set fair to be a cracking good Western, and it did not disappoint. It’s definitely up there in the top Wellman oaters.



Fox slated Paulette Goddard to star, and Lauren Bacall was also considered though Warners wouldn’t loan her out. But Wellman wanted and got Anne Baxter – luckily. She was brilliant as the feisty pants-wearing rifle-wielding tomboy granddaughter in the ghost town and she was a classic Wellman woman. The lead went to Gregory Peck, and I rank this Western with The Gunfighter and The Bravados as Peck’s best. Richard Widmark was also superb as the sinister gambler Dude – in fact the whole cast was excellent.



Many people thought the picture was a Western version of The Tempest. It may have been, in the sense that perhaps Burnett knew Shakespeare, but Wellman didn’t and was mystified by the comparison.


It’s outstandingly well directed. Trotti and Wellman did a fine job of building tension. It’s not a fast-paced movie – in fact at times it’s quite slow – but it’s one of those Westerns in which the pressure grows inexorably. They also managed to delineate and develop character really well. The gang members emerge as distinct and even interesting people. Dennis Schwartz went so far as to call Yellow Sky “Probably the best film that William Wellman ever directed.”


At any rate, the picture was another moneymaker and got good reviews too. 1948 was the year of Westerns of the quality of Fort Apache, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Red River, and Yellow Sky can hold its head up in that league (and in fact Yellow Sky sold better that year than either Sierra Madre or Fort Apache, and was beaten at the box-office only by Red River).




In 1951 Wellman made up for those Westernless years by having two released. When mogul Louis B Mayer was ousted from MGM, Wellman developed a good relationship with new head honcho Dore Schary. It wouldn’t last (obviously) but it did produce a series of films, among them two Westerns, Across the Wide Missouri, released in October 1951, and Westward the Women, in December of that year.


Dore wanted to make ‘message pictures’. Wellman didn’t.


Wellman didn’t want to do the 1830s yarn Across the Wide Missouri at first. He wanted a vacation with his family and he wasn’t certain about working with Clark Gable – he hadn’t been on good terms with the star since The Call of the Wild. But Schary offered to pay for the whole family to be with Wellman on location and Gable liked the script and was ready to work with Wellman again, so the project was on.


In July 1950 shooting started near Durango, Colorado, and would last seven weeks. Gable’s health was beginning to deteriorate, largely due to his heavy drinking, and his posh wife Lady Sylvia Ashley (a Carole Lombard lookalike, says Wellman Jr) was not too popular with her wretched little Chihuahua. Nevertheless, as Wellman Jr puts it, the film, “in gorgeous Technicolor, [with] dazzling scenery, superb action, historical accuracy, colorful characters, and a first-class performance by Clark Gable”, was set to be one of Wellman’s best.


Great idea from MGM’s publicity dept. It didn’t help much though.


But the movie became “the most butchered of all Wellman’s films” as the studio did massive edits, also inserting “film footage from other pictures and stock shots from Disney movies.” The result was such a hodge-podge that they had to hire Howard Keel to narrate the picture to give some kind of continuity. The release was held back a year. Wellman was furious and said he never watched the final picture and never would. The film was not well received by the critics. It grossed $2.7m domestic but given the high production costs only made a modest profit.


Westward the Women started as a Frank Capra project, Pioneer Women. He complained to his friend Wellman that “They won’t let me do a Western but they’ll let you and I’ll give you my story. I know you’ll make a hell of a picture.” A Capra Western remains one of those fascinating might-have-beens but he was right that Wellman would make a great film. Schary was enthusiastic too, assigned a good budget and cast Metro’s big star Robert Taylor along with the success of the Schary/Wellman war film Battleground, French Denise Darcel. Wellman liked Taylor. “He was only man I ever knew who could drink scotch and sodas and eat chocolates at the same time.” A curious qualification for a Western actor.



Westward lays a claim to be the best ever wagon-train Western (click the link for our essay on the subject), at least along with the previous year’s John Ford picture, Wagon Master. The 1851 story tells of a group of mail-order brides going West and it was a kind of hymn to the courage and grit of frontier women. It was ideal material for Wellman. He put the cast through a training course, teaching them how to handle wagons, and he hired every stuntwoman in Hollywood, notably the great Polly Burson. Production began in April 1951 in Surprise Valley, near Kanab, Utah.


Courage and heroism


The director asked his DP, the talented William Mellor (they worked eight times together) to refrain from using filters in order to give the picture a more natural, ‘harsher’ and more parched look. The result was splendid in black & white.


The film opened to excellent reviews and did good business. “Striking outdoor settings and vigorous direction by William Wellman make it an interesting departure from the conventional Western,” opined the New York Times. Wellman counted it among his favorites, justly so.


Wellman met and liked John Wayne and together they made the successful aviation adventure pictures Island in the Sky and The High and the Mighty. Wayne wanted to do something more Western. Wellman and cinematographer William Clothier wanted to make a color picture in black & white, or more accurately maybe a black & white picture in color. They wanted to shoot a film that was largely monochrome but with occasional violent splashes of color. “Most motion picture directors are a little screwy,” said Wellman. “I know that fliers are, and I have been both, so draw your own conclusions.”




So they shot the contemporary Western or semi-Western Track of the Cat, from another Walter Van Tilburg Clark story, in snowy i.e. ultra-white Mt Rainier National Park and White Mountains, AZ locations for Wayne-Fellows after a deal with Warner Bros.


Wellman did two Van Tilburg Clark pictures


Jack Warner couldn’t believe it when he saw the result. “I’m spending five hundred thousand dollars more for color and there’s no color in the damn thing!” Wellman commented tersely and typically, “If he doesn’t like it he can go shit in his hat.”



Wellman and Clothier loved it. “Bill and I saw the first print back from the lab. We sat there together, drooling. We had it at last. It was a flower, a portrait, a vision, a dream come true.” I myself agree. I love this film. But Wellman went on, “it was a flop artistically, financially and Wellmanly.” The picture probably was overwrought, and too austere. Wellman took the decision never to show the deadly cat, thinking “the audience could use their imagination” but audiences failed to imagine. It got largely negative reviews.


In any case it was William Wellman’s last Western.


After a number of unsuccessful films in 1958 he quit. He said he wasn’t retiring, he was quitting. He had a big and happy family, he was quite well off, he was in his 60s, his arthritis was bad and he’d had enough.


But of course film making gets into the bloodstream, and every now and then there was a project that tempted him back. One of these, in 1959, was a comedy Western from the popular novelist Max Evans, The Rounders. He wanted 6’4” Fess Parker and 5’2” Mickey Rooney for the lead roles of aging and none-too-bright cowpokes. Paramount had first expressed interest but on seeing the script gave it the thumbs-down. “You can’t make fun of a Western,” they said. Well, they had a point there. You have to be careful of sacrilege. And recent attempts at light-hearted oaters hadn’t been too successful. In the coming decade, the likes of North to Alaska, McLintock! and Cat Ballou would prove that wrong (commercially speaking) but in 1959 there was no appetite for such a film. In 1965 the project was taken up again and MGM put out The Rounders starring Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda, written and directed by Burt Kennedy.


A couple of might-have-beens


John Wayne, always loyal to a fault, called and offered Wellman The Comancheros but the director read the script, saw there was nothing special there and passed. Eventually Michael Curtiz would be the (nominal, credited) director, though he was pretty well out of it and Duke did most of the helming himself.


Not retired. Quit.


Wellman was a realist. He knew he’d made some fine pictures but he also knew there were failures. “For every good picture, there were six stinkers.” Westernwise, discounting those early silent ones, which he cannot judge, we might say that there were not many true oaters. Many of his pictures, like The Conquerors, The Call of the Wild, The Great Man’s Lady and Track of the Cat, were on the outer edges of the genre. Of the ‘purer’ ones, Buffalo Bill and Across the Wide Missouri were so-so, for a number of reasons. But as I said above, any director who could make The Ox-Bow Incident, Yellow Sky and Westward the Women deserves the highest praise, and a place in pantheon of Westernistas.




11 Responses

  1. Just a few random thoughts:

    Call of The Wild was made at Fox, Clark Gable on loan from MGM. BuffaloBill is just grand up to and including the ending. Wellman was nuts. the truth is what we play with onscreen, and Americans need to feel good about themselves, not that they did not after the Second World War, despite coming in almost three years late, that’s the peace movement for you, but Wild Bill was a man not to know.

    1. Yes, Barry, you are absolutely right. Thanks for the correction. Zanuck produced THE CALL OF THE WILD at Twentieth Century and it was released by United Artists. The IMDb bio says that Gable’s career was flourishing after Irving Thalberg signed him to MGM in 1930 but at one point the actor refused a picture and was punished by being loaned out. He went back to Metro right after CALL OF THE WILD though, for the hit MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY.
      As to BUFFALO BILL, maybe I am too hard on it. As RR says in another comment, it definitely has its points. And McCrea was superb, I thought.

  2. Is it a rewriting of your previous Wellman post ?!
    Myron was the brother of David O. Selznick not his nephew. Among his clients was Vivien Leigh…

    1. I don’t recall doing a previous post on Wellman. Though with my memory these days anything is possible.
      Yes, Myron Selznick was son of Lewis and brother of David O. Wellman Jr says he was a brilliant agent but tragically died of alcoholism aged only 45.

  3. I enjoyed reading this! Wellman’s body of work always puzzled me a bit – some absolutely top-class films nestled among much forgettable mediocrity. I never found the coherence in his output that I do in some of his peers – and your overview goes a long way to explaining why he ended up with his name was on such a mixed bag.

    No-one can reasonably disagree with you that Ox-Bow, Yellow Sky (which really is stunning) and Westward the Women are the outstanding Westerns. But I’ll admit that I quite enjoyed Buffalo Bill, it’s kind of corny, yes, but not badly done, nice vivid colour and it does have a sympathetic (albeit unsurprisingly rather patronising) view of the Indians. And I find Across the Wide Missouri rather intriguing – it’s a strange mess, yes, but now and again something of what might have been Wellman’s intentions breaks through the cracks, a reverence for nature and an ambivalence about incoming ‘civilisation’. Conversely, Track of the Cat is more ‘interesting’ to me than actually enjoyable to watch. Robin Hood of El Dorado remains on my list of Westerns to see… it never crops up on TV so I might have to buy a DVD someday.

    Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks! Maybe I am a bit down on BUFFALO BILL. I’m actually not in the ‘Cody was a charlatan’ camp and take my cue on him more from the Don Russell bio (see so I’m quite pro-Bill and wouldn’t necessarily have welcomed a demolition job. And I do think Wellman’s biopic had some merits, though overall I wouldn’t rate it as a top Wellman Western (nor did Wellman).
      As for TRACK OF THE CAT, I find it weirdly watchable…

      1. That is such a great bio by Russell. I got a first edition after your recommendation. I don’t believe he was a charlatan either. Such a cynical view! Wayne Sarf’s excellent ‘God Bless you Buffalo Bill’ has an excellent breakdown chapter on Wellman’s and Altman’s films on this true American character.

  4. Excellent review of this fascinating director. I have most of his famous Westerns. I need to get ‘Westward the women’! I love ‘Ox Bow’ of course. I just picked up a DVD of his pre-code pictures that has the TNT documentary on it. Of non-Westerns he did the aerial footage in ‘Wings’ is still so stunning and I just adore his WWII pictures ‘Story of GI Joe’ (Meredith and Mitchum are just awesome in the thing) and ‘Battleground’ (an all time favorite). You are right to be fascinated by ‘Track of the Cat’.

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