William Augustus Wellman (February 29, 1896 – December 9, 1975) was an American film director notable for his work in crime, adventure and action genre films, often focusing on aviation themes, a particular passion. He also directed several well-regarded satirical comedies. Beginning his film career as an actor, he went on to direct over 80 films, at times co-credited as producer and consultant. In 1927, Wellman directed Wings, which became the first film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture at the 1st Academy Awards ceremony.
Wellman's father, Arthur Gouverneur Wellman, was a New England Brahmin of English-Welsh-Scottish and Irish descent. William was a five times great-grandson of Puritan Thomas Wellman, who immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony about 1640. William was a great-great-great grandson of Francis Lewis of New York, one of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence. His much beloved mother was an Irish immigrant named Cecilia McCarthy.
Wellman was expelled from Newton High School in Newtonville, Massachusetts, for dropping a stink bomb on the principal's head. Ironically, his mother was a probation officer who was asked to address Congress on the subject of juvenile delinquency. Wellman worked as a salesman and then at a lumber yard, before ending up playing professional ice hockey, which is where he was first seen by Douglas Fairbanks, who suggested that with Wellman's good looks he could become a film actor.
In World War I Wellman enlisted in the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps as an ambulance driver. While in Paris, Wellman joined the French Foreign Legion and was assigned on December 3, 1917 as a fighter pilot and the first American to join N.87 escadrille in the Lafayette Flying Corps (not the sub-unit Lafayette Escadrille as usually stated), where he earned himself the nickname "Wild Bill" and received the Croix de Guerre with two palms. N.87, les Chats Noir (Black Cat Group) was stationed at Lunéville in the Alsace-Lorraine sector and was equipped with Nieuport 17 and later Nieuport 24 "pursuit" aircraft. Wellman's combat experience culminated in three recorded "kills", along with five probables, although he was ultimately shot down by German anti-aircraft fire on March 21, 1918. Wellman survived the crash but he walked with a pronounced limp for the rest of his life.
Maréchal des Logis (Sergeant) Wellman received a medical discharge from the Foreign Legion and returned to the United States a few weeks later. He spoke at War Savings Stamp rallies in his French uniform. In September 1918 his book about French flight school and his eventful four months at the front, "Go Get 'Em!" (written by Wellman with the help of Eliot Harlow Robinson) was published. He joined the United States Army Air Service but too late to fly for America in the war. Stationed at Rockwell Field, San Diego, he taught combat tactics to new pilots.
While in San Diego, Wellman would fly to Hollywood for the weekends in his Spad fighter, using Fairbanks' polo field in Bel Air as a landing strip. Fairbanks was fascinated with the true-life adventures of "Wild Bill" and promised to recommend him for a job in the movie business; he was responsible for Wellman being cast in the juvenile lead of The Knickerbocker Buckaroo (1919). Wellman was hired for the role of a young officer in Evangeline (1919), but was fired for slapping the leading lady, the actress Miriam Cooper, who happened to be the wife of director Raoul Walsh.
Wellman hated being an actor, thinking it an "unmanly" profession, and was miserable watching himself on screen while learning the craft. He soon switched to working behind the camera, aiming to be a director, and progressed up the line as "a messenger boy, as an assistant cutter, an assistant property man, a property man, an assistant director, second unit director and eventually... director." His first assignment as an assistant director for Bernie Durning provided him with a work ethic that he adopted for future film work. One strict rule that Durning enforced was no fraternization with screen femme fatales, which almost immediately Wellman broke, leading to a confrontation and a thrashing from the director. Despite his transgression, both men became lifelong friends, and Wellman steadily progressed to more difficult first unit assignments.
Wellman made his uncredited directorial debut in 1920 at Fox with The Twins of Suffering Creek. The first films he was credited with directing were The Man Who Won and Second Hand Love, released on the same day in 1923. After directing a dozen low-budget 'horse opera' films (some of which he would rather forget), Wellman was hired by Paramount in 1927 to direct Wings, a major war drama dealing with fighter pilots during World War I that was highlighted by air combat and flight sequences. The film culminates with the epic Battle of Saint-Mihiel. In the 1st Academy Awards it was one of two films to win Best Picture (the other was Sunrise), although, due to tensions within the studio regarding time and budget overages, Wellman wasn't invited to the event.
Wellman's other notable films include The Public Enemy (1931), the first version of A Star Is Born (1937), Nothing Sacred (1937), the 1939 version of Beau Geste starring Gary Cooper, Thunder Birds (1942), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Lady of Burlesque (1943), The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), Battleground (1949) and two films starring and co-produced by John Wayne, Island in the Sky (1953) and The High and the Mighty (1954).
While he was primarily a director, Wellman also produced ten films, one of them uncredited, all of which he also directed. His last film was Lafayette Escadrille (1958), which he produced, directed, wrote the story for and narrated. He wrote the screenplay for two other films that he directed, and one film that he did not direct, 1936's The Last Gangster. He also wrote the story for A Star Is Born and received a story credit for both remakes in 1954 and 1976.
Wellman initially worked fast, usually satisfied with a shot after one or two takes. And despite his reputation of not coddling his leading men and women, he coaxed Oscar-nominated performances from seven actors: Fredric March and Janet Gaynor (A Star Is Born), Brian Donlevy (Beau Geste), Robert Mitchum (The Story of G.I. Joe), James Whitmore (Battleground), and Jan Sterling and Claire Trevor (The High and Mighty). Regarding actors, Wellman stated in a 1952 interview, "Movie stardom isn't about acting ability - it's personality and temperament," and added, "I once directed Clara Bow. She was mad and crazy but what a personality!"
Wings led to several firsts in filmmaking including newly invented camera mounts that could be secured to plane fuselages and motor-driven cameras to shoot actors while flying as the cameramen ducked out of frame in their cockpits. Star Richard Arlen had some flying experience but co-star Buddy Rogers had to learn to fly for the film, as stunt pilots could not be used during close-up shots. Towers up to a hundred feet tall were used to shoot low-flying planes and battle action on the ground.
During the filming of Beggars of Life, a silent film starring Wallace Beery, Richard Arlen and Louise Brooks, sound was added to Beery's introductory scene at the behest of Paramount Studio. Wellman reportedly hung a microphone from a broom so Beery could walk and talk within the scene, avoiding the static shot required for early sound shoots.
Wellman won a single Academy Award, for the story of A Star Is Born. He was nominated as best director three times, for A Star Is Born, Battleground and The High and Mighty, for which he was also nominated by the Directors Guild of America as best director. In 1973, the DGA honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Wellman also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 6125 Hollywood Blvd.
Several filmmakers have examined Wellman's career. Richard Schickel devoted an episode of his PBS series The Men Who Made the Movies to Wellman in 1973, and in 1996, Todd Robinson made the feature-length documentary Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick.
The Academy Archive preserved "G.I. Joe" and the Academy Award Winning film "Wings," both by Wellman.
Wellman revealed near the end of his life that he had married a French woman named Renee during his time in The Lafayette Flying Corps. She was killed in a bombing raid during the war. He was married four times in the U.S.:
Dorothy starred in Wellman's 1933 film Wild Boys of The Road and had seven children with Wellman, including actors Michael Wellman, William Wellman Jr., Maggie Wellman, and Cissy Wellman. His daughter Kathleen "Kitty" Wellman married actor James Franciscus, although they later divorced. His first daughter is Patty Wellman, and he had a third son, Tim Wellman.
William Wellman, Jr. wrote two books about his father, The Man And His Wings: William A. Wellman and the Making of the First Best Picture (2006), and Wild Bill Wellman - Hollywood Rebel (2015). Wellman Jr. has been a guest-host on Turner Classic Movies to introduce films made by his father.
William Wellman died in 1975 of leukemia. He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered at sea. His widow, Dorothy Wellman, died on September 16, 2009, in Brentwood, California, at the age of 95.
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