Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick
1995, NR, 93 min. Directed by Todd Robinson.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 12, 1996
Granted, this documentary about the life and career of filmmaker William A. Wellman may be tough to sell to anyone apart from film buffs. But, come to think of it, Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick is probably going to be a tough sale even to that crowd because Wellman is one of the Hollywood pioneers and an American original who, for numerous reasons, has never received his just due and, as a consequence, has fallen into such ignominious obscurity that even most respected film scholars know little about his work. We're talking here about a director who made more than 75 movies over the course of 35 years, a talent who blazed a creative path from the film silents into the talkies, a double-fisted rebel who brooked no intimidation from studio honchos or marquee stars. Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick goes a long way toward rectifying Wellman's stature for the sake of the historical record, yet on a broader level, the documentary contains an abundance of information about the development of Hollywood -- as a business, an art form, and a state of mind. Within this biography, there are fascinating points of entry for anyone with an interest in the growth of the American film industry. Nearly 30 Hollywood players were interviewed and their recollections and commentaries are pieced together in a seamless fashion. Whether it's Robert Redford remembering the Wellman home where he played with Bill Wellman, Jr., or Nancy Reagan (or should we say Nancy Davis?) commenting on how Wellman never did the Hollywood social scene, or the various “tough guys” such as Clint Eastwood and the Roberts Stack and Mitchum relating legendary rows that occurred on the sets, the information is always relevant and illuminating. As a WWI fighter pilot in the Lafayette Flying Corps, Wellman originally earned the nickname “Wild Bill” (as well as the steel plate he carried around in his head for the rest of his life). His experience made him the natural choice to direct 1927's Wings, a landmark film whose realistic aerial footage and on-location filming in Texas helped it win the first Academy Award ever. Other familiar Wellman movies include James Cagney's searing portrait of a gangster in Public Enemy, the screwball comedy Nothing Sacred with Carole Lombard and Frederic March, The Ox-Box Incident's high-minded indictment of mob violence, and the original version of the Hollywood cautionary tale A Star Is Born. In between there were some minor gems, such as his penetrating Depression-era social drama Wild Boys of the Road. By the end of Wild Bill ,we have not only a vivid picture of a larger-than-life character that time seems to have forgotten, but also a much deeper knowledge of the caged beast we call Hollywood.