An impressive lineup of co-workers and admirers pay belated tribute to one of Hollywood’s most distinguished journeymen helmers in “Will Bill: Hollywood Maverick,” a persuasive docu about the long-underrated talent of the late William A. Wellman (1896-1975), exec produced by his namesake son. Portrait of the hard-nosed, exec-slugging professional will be relished by buffs but also has more general appeal as a portrait of a real character in his own right, marking this for healthy tube sales as well as further fest exposure.
Structure is standard for works of this kind, tracing Wellman’s life from his birth in Brookline, Mass., in U.S. cinema’s centennial year and when Buffalo Bill was still alive, through his distinguished World War I career as a flier (which later got him the job of directing the classic silent “Wings”), his start as a mailboy at Goldwyn Studios, his rise to director in the ’20s, his five marriages and stormy career through the ’30s to late ’50s, totaling 76 pics. Sole blip in the production is a flowery narration spoken in gravel-voiced tones by Alec Baldwin.
Dominant themes are Wellman’s “lifesize distaste for authority” and abhorrence of kiss-ass attitudes in a compliant company town, and his often forgotten talent as a technical innovator. The former is constantly (and a tad repetitiously) referred to by interviewees and forms the substance of many of their anecdotes, from threatening to beat up Jack Warner if he ever met him in a men’s room to one day taking on longtime colleague Darryl F. Zanuck.
Wellman the technician emerges persuasively in many of the well-chosen clips from a total 28 movies, from his powerful use of sound (Cagney’s rain-drenched shootout in “The Public Enemy”) and regular device of shooting through foreground objects, through his easy adaptation to widescreen in the ’50s (“The High and the Mighty”), to the virtual monochrome look achieved in the Technicolor “Track of the Cat.”
Writer-director Todd Robinson also makes the point that, like Howard Hawks, with whom he shared many qualities, Wellman was a fine director of women, giving actresses Anne Baxter (“Yellow Sky”), Barbara Stanwyck (“Lady of Burlesque”), Carole Lombard (“Nothing Sacred”) and Janet Gaynor (“A Star Is Born”) some of their juiciest roles, not to mention a slew of no-names in “Westward the Women.”
A pleasing amount of time also is spent highlighting Wellman’s more social-humanist pics, like the Depression-era street-kids drama “Wild Boys of the Road,” mob justice Western “The Ox-Bow Incident” and men-in-war study “Battleground.”
Docu rightly never tries to construct any convoluted auteurist theory to put Wellman’s broadoeuvre into contempo critical perspective. Through family home movies and copious testimonies, it settles for a straight-arrow portrait of a gifted maverick who was tolerated and finally spat out by the system in which he worked, but had a hell of a time along the way.