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8 Classic Movies by William Wellman

Director of Action, Adventure, Westerns and Even Screwball Comedies


A former member of the French Foreign Legion and a combat pilot during World War I, William Wellman lived an adventurous life that later colored the films he made as one of classic Hollywood's greatest directors.

Wellman had a great passion for aviation, which he displayed in a number of his movies, but also had a great disdain for actors even though he guided Janet Gaynor, Fredric March and Robert Mitchum to Oscar-worthy performances.

He had a long successful career that began during the silent era and ended in the late-1950s. Though he was only nominated three times for Best Director, Wellman's best work rivaled the likes of John Huston, Howard Hawks and William Wyler.

1. ‘Wings’ – 1927

Paramount Pictures
The first movie to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture, Wellman’s silent era epic features great World War I action sequences, but little in the way of plot. Though not exactly Top Gun, Wings starred Charles Rogers and Richard Arlen as two rival combat pilots vying for the love of the same woman (Jobyna Ralston). Meanwhile, a nurse (Clara Bow) is in love with Rogers and sacrifices her career for his benefit. The high-flying adventure was a big hit for Wellman, whose love of aviation was on full display.
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2. ‘The Public Enemy’ – 1931

Warner Bros.
James Cagney delivers a star-making performance in Wellman’s seminal Pre-Code gangster film that depicts the rise and fall of Tom Powers, a Chicago gangster whose quick rise to the top during the Prohibition Era is soon followed by a tragic end. The film’s famous grapefruit scene – where Cagney smashes the fruit into the face of his mistress (Mae Clarke) – derived from Wellman himself, who harbored fantasies of doing the same to his wife whenever they fought over breakfast. The Public Enemy was derided as lowbrow entertainment by critics at the time and became one of the films that helped spawn the Production Code, but later was revered by modern audiences as a gangster classic.
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3. ‘A Star is Born’ – 1937

Genesis Home Video
Wellman was at the top of his game with A Star is Born, a behind-the-scenes Hollywood love story about Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor), a small town girl whose steely determination to make it as a star impresses alcoholic matinee idol Norman Maine (Fredric March) enough to give her a break. The two fall in love, of course, but as Esther’s star rises, Norman sees his career plummet and made worse by his increasing alcohol consumption. Expertly crafted by Wellman, who drew high quality performances from his two leads, A Star is Born was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Wellman shared the Oscar for Best Original Story with Robert Carson.
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4. ‘Nothing Sacred’ – 1937

United Artists
Working with March for the second time in 1937, Wellman directed this fine tuned screwball comedy that was also one of the first to be filmed in Technicolor. March starred as a high-flying newspaper man looking to redeem himself with his editor after writing an erroneous story. So he heads to New England to tell the story of Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), a woman allegedly dying from radiation poisoning. Naturally, her story turns out to be a fraud, but he writes it anyway and propels her into becoming a cause célèbre while the two fall in love. Scripted by razor sharp scribe Ben Hecht, Nothing Sacred was a big hit and one of the most celebrated screwball comedies of the 1930s.
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5. ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ – 1943

20th Century Fox
One of the first sound Westerns directed by Wellman, The Ox-Bow Incident was a scathing indictment of mob justice set in 1885 Nevada, where the residents of a frontier town seek vengeance for the murder of a local rancher. Henry Fonda starred as a cowboy who gets mixed up with the mob alongside his partner (Harry Morgan) and witnesses the tragic end of three transients accused of the alleged crime. The dark meditation on crime and punishment was a labor of love for both Fonda and Wellman, but failed to attract an audience looking for a morale boost during World War II. Though it was a failure upon release, The Ox-Bow Incident gained an audience in the television age and lived on as one of Wellman’s finest efforts.
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6. ‘Yellow Sky’ – 1948

20th Century Fox
Certainly not one of his best known pictures, Yellow Sky was a well-crafted Western starring Gregory Peck as an outlaw leader who takes refuge with his gang in a ghost town after robbing a bank. The town boast just two residents, an elderly man (James Barton) and his attractive granddaughter (Anne Baxter) who happen to be sitting on a pile of gold. One of Peck’s men (Richard Widmark) plots to kill the old man for his treasure, leading to deepening resentment and an eventual showdown between the two outlaws. Wellman’s direction here is solid and Peck delivers a textured performance as a criminal with a moral streak.
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7. ‘Battleground’ – 1949

MGM Home Entertainment
For only the second time in his career, Wellman earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Director with this realistic look at a group of American soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge. Wellman’s critically hailed Battleground dared to show the harsh realities of war only four years removed from the triumph of World War II and crafted a film that called into question the meaning of heroism. The film served as a precursor to other realistic war movies like Platoon (1986) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), and received six Oscar nominations while becoming a smash hit for MGM.

8. ‘The High and the Mighty’ – 1954

Warner Bros.
Wellman received his third and final Oscar nomination as Best Director for this tense airborne thriller about a passenger airline losing an engine while en route from Hawaii to California. Starring John Wayne playing against type, Robert Stack and Oscar nominee Jan Sterling, The High and the Mighty was beautifully shot in CinemaScope, which brilliantly captured the tension of being trapped on a claustrophobic airliner doomed to crash. Wellman’s film was a big commercial hit and earned seven Academy Award nominations, and influenced later terror in the skies movies like Airport and even Airplane!.
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