For Reel


The Next Voice You Hear… (1950)
August 9, 2016, 5:22 pm
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Director: William A. Wellman
4 Stars
The Next Voice You Hear...The Next Voice You Hear… is a nicely condensed transitional film in the popular depictions of American domesticity. The bulk of the film involves a typical struggling family that one might see in a post-war drama—the father (James Whitmore) is intimidating to both wife (Nancy Davis) and son (Gary Gray), the wife is loving but beaten-down and disenchanted by her marriage, and the son struggles to navigate the waters of a crumbling household. Director William A. Wellman, responsible for some of the grittiest pictures of the 1930s in particular, is keen on representing the realism of the details—in one scene, a son mimics his dad’s anger issues to the bemusement of the mother. When the family’s routine is shocked by a voice announcing itself as God appearing on the radio, they spend days in denial before sinking into self-loathing, shame, and fear. If this is the end of the days, they think, what do we have to show for it? And how can we justify the ways that we live? If the film’s ultimate statement of purpose is a hugely moralizing sermon about loving thy neighbor, the picture is redeemed by its messiness—only in the very final moments does the film begin to wear its message thickly, instead favoring the confusion of the phenomenon throughout. Ending with the family reunited and all problems put aside, the picture seems to welcome in the classic image of Americana that would be reinforced in the coming decade through the increasing prevalence of television, the popularity of domestic the sitcoms, and the advertising industry. And yet, as false as this image seems and as eager as the film is to perpetrate it, The Next Voice You Hear… involves the sly satire that the only thing out of the slump of an unhappy household is divine intervention.



Nothing Sacred (1937)
June 8, 2015, 12:22 am
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Director: William A. Wellman
4.5 Stars
Nothing SacredThe public’s obsession with both celebrities and with sob stories is the subject matter of Nothing Sacred, Carole Lombard’s only film in color and her second collaboration with screenwriter Ben Hecht after her star-making turn in Twentieth Century. Director William A. Wellman was not a likely match for a screwball picture, but his crude style does work well with Hecht’s cynical screenplay. A telling line occurs at a professional wrestling match in which Fredrich March rants, “They’re a symbol of the whole town. Pretending to fight, love, weep, and laugh all the time, and they’re phonies, all of them!” The bitter reporter is a familiar archetype, but this is a film in which everyone is a liar and only out for themselves. Whereas many screwball comedies allow audiences to laugh at the antics of the couple from a distance, Nothing Sacred is rather nonpartisan in that it suggests an inherent selfishness in all of us. Wellman’s crudity includes a fairly distracting game played in the blocking of the picture in which key scenes are partially obscured–whether that be by a tree, a shipping crate, and so forth. It’s almost worth it when a conversation is rendered nearly impossible by an extravagant floral centerpiece, poking fun at the film’s compulsion with having flower arrangements in the foreground.



Night Nurse (1931)
January 14, 2015, 3:11 pm
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Director: William A. Wellman
4.5 Stars
Night NurseIn recent years, Night Nurse has been rediscovered as one of the great artifacts of the pre-Code era, an inimitable melodrama defined by its flagrant sexuality and bitter cynicism. Barbara Stanwyck is well cast as an aspiring nurse who lucks her way into a position at a hospital. She’s got a big heart and means well, but she doesn’t quite seem cut out for it–her friend, a veteran nurse (Joan Blondell), only manages to get through her thankless days with her acerbic tongue. Stanwyck and Blondell’s friendship is an unexpected treat, never descending into pettiness or rivalry, as is so often the case with female friendships on screen. It’s Stanwyck’s film, though, and one of her best performances from the early 1930s. Her petite, harmless look is capitalized on–she seems like no match for the institution she’s up against, but she makes up for her size with volume and conviction, with Stanwyck making the absurd melodramatics of the screenplay utterly irresistible. The picture was also quite before its time in its dealings with class. While many films of the era tried to keep the spirit of the Jazz Age alive even as the depression was changing American values, Night Nurse glorifies the working class while creating the most despicable villains out of the carefree, boozy socialites.



Eleven Men and a Girl (1930)
December 1, 2014, 2:05 am
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Director: William A. Wellman
2 Stars
Eleven Men and a GirlAlthough the premise of a woman seducing eleven men seems extreme even for the pre-Code era, Eleven Men and a Girl is largely a frothy, harmless ride. Joan Bennett plays the pack rat–only twenty at the time, she had already starred alongside the likes of John Barrymore and George Arliss. She had an impressive career to follow but is largely a dud here, with her wooden deliveries and general inexpressiveness only rendered excusable by the fact that ten of her co-stars are non-actors (unfortunately her love interest in James Hall doesn’t have that excuse). Joe E. Brown plays the college football star who enlists Bennett’s help to seduce a new winning team and he delivers some humorous mugging but is ultimately sidelined for much of the picture. Director William A. Wellman was a fresh face at Warner Brothers (after a brief stint at Paramount in which he directed the first-ever Best Picture winner Wings) and would go on to make far better films for the studio in subsequent years. There are some interesting stagings and the climactic football game is effectively edited to elevate the action, but Wellman usually wasn’t involved with such limp material, especially in the decade this was released.



The Hatchet Man (1932)
June 30, 2012, 7:25 pm
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Director: William A. Wellman

Between 1930 and 1934, William A. Wellman directed a total of twenty pictures for Warner Brothers. Chief among them are gangster staple The Public Enemy, the newly recognized racy masterpiece Safe in Hell, and Night Nurse, an early Barbara Stanwyck classic. Speed was prized in the era of studio filmmaking and, as such, Wild Bill was certainly a chief asset to the studio for practicality reasons alone. His pace, however, is not to be mistaken as complacency or a lack of vision – his most prolific period is perhaps his best, and a film like The Hatchet Man marked him as one of Hollywood’s most challenging and innovative directors of the period. Viewers today will scoff at the casting of Edward G. Robinson as a Chinese hatchet man and Loretta Young, also in yellow-face, as his love interest, but neither embarrasses the characters they play through condescending accents or mannerisms. Indeed, Robinson plays things no different than his typical American gangster – he’s a tough, ruthless man with a soft side. The opening sequence, shot mostly in a single take, follows a funeral procession that slowly escalates into a Tong war. Gliding through the mayhem with an unusual grace, Wellman often interrupts the shot by cutting to the strike of a gong. The effect is irritating, unsettling – the tone is set for the bleak sequence to follow in which the eerily calm Robinson must execute his best friend.



So Big! (1932)
December 2, 2011, 8:10 am
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Director: William A. Wellman

Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Edna Farber, So Big! was considered by Barbara Stanwyck to feature one of her very best performances. While it is undoubtedly a comparatively showy part for her at this stage of her career – she often played manipulative sex pots in films like Baby Face and Ladies They Talk About in the pre-Code era – the film has not aged particularly well. The short length is perhaps the biggest detriment to the material, as Wellman doesn’t quite know how to logically progress a narrative so expansive in such a short running time. Early in the picture, for instance, Stanwyck dreams of becoming a school teacher, however her passion is soon discarded without much consideration. Nevertheless, the film has two very good supporting performances in Dickie Moore – who convincingly conveys sexual frustration in his early scenes with Stanwyck – and a young Bette Davis – who steals a memorable scene in which she is romantically pursued by Stanwyck’s son and professes, “You’re all smooth… and I like ’em bumpy!”



Safe in Hell (1931)
December 2, 2011, 8:02 am
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Director: William A. Wellman

An atmospheric proto-noir in which the Caribbean serves as a fate worse than death, Safe in Hell features a terrific performance from a largely forgotten leading actress of the 1920s and 30s, Dorothy Mackaill. She stars as a woman who is forced into prostitution after the wife of an ex-boyfriend discovers their affair and vows to deprive her the chance of living an honorable life. The film’s success has much to do with its grim setting, a place where even “clean” water is filled with worms (in order to feed on the more harmful bacteria). Occupying the hotel Mackaill stays at are a number of men who harass her endlessly, most despicably the local police chief, played by a terrifically slimy Ralf Harolde. The environment is richly detailed – consider, for instance, the courtroom sequence in which an unbathed judge alternates between pounding his gavel and swatting at flies. Mackaill was a revelation for me – the final act is one wrought with broad melodrama, but she evokes with heartbreaking realism the acceptance of her fate, bravely withholding her tears after an all-too-brief reunion with the one man who had consistently done her right.