One has to admit that not all of these six pictures directed by William Wellman are masterpieces. But it is nevertheless fascinating that "Wild Bill" was able to turn a mediocre script within a limited time schedule and budget to good, vivid, fast-moving entertainment. And one should honour TCM to have made these six pre-code B-pictures available in good quality and with English subtitles. Therefore, I will rate the entire collection five stars, even if not any of the movies deserves this highest score. Note that three of the six pictures are accompanied by an audio commentary and that the fourth DVD contains two Wellman-documentaries (60 and 90 minutes long) which are both worth watching. I will now give some indications about the six movies:
"Wild Boys Of The Road" (1933) is one of two films in this collection dealing with the not-so-great depression. It gives a deep and realistic insight in the mass phenomenon of juveniles roaming through the country, trying to escape poverty and founding their own half-legal colonies, sometimes battling with the representatives of the public order. It is valuable that Wellman is far from any MGM- or Paramount-polishing and that he has the courage to cast only unknown teenage actors who behave as good or bad as adults do - but who are also more progressive than their predecessors (and than other movies of the time). Note that under precarious circumstances, the kids cannot afford to cultivate their parents' prejudice and that they have, at last, equality of races and equality of sex (one tough and courageous girl is first taken for a boy and wins a fistfight against a boy). It is clear that Wellman sympathizes with the teenagers - but this also weakens the film considerably. Especially in the final scene, the old, wise judge who has only to look at a picture of his well-dressed and very fat own child in order to understand that the juvenile delinquent has to be given his second chance, is pure stereotype and cliché and almost unwatchable. As a bad ending may ruin a whole picture, I'd rate it only three stars, although most parts of it are very good.
"Heroes For Sale" (1933) is the much better "depression movie" which shows the problems of a Word War I-veteran to re-integrate in civil society. The war action scenes are much more dynamic than those in Raoul Walshs "The Roaring Twenties" (1939), the characters are less stereotype than in "Wild Boys Of The Road", and you have not only (as it was often the case in a Warner picture of the period) a fascinating overview of American History and its impact on the masses and the working class, but also great performances of Richard Barthelmess, Aline MacMahon and Loretta Young. Five stars without any hesitation.
While Loretta Young is only a supporting actress in "Heroes For Sale", she is the star in the title role of "Midnight Mary" (1933), which is the only MGM picture of the collection. But don't expect the usual MGM polishing! Maybe the look is a little different from the Warner Brothers' social dramas, but this does not dilute the hard-boiled character Wellman was able to impose on the film even under MGM conditions. In an interesting flashback structure, Mary (who is to be trialed in court for murder) lets her life pass by, from the age of nine until today, at the age of 23 (note that the 19-year-old Loretta Young plays Mary in ALL scenes, which, believe it or not, is totally convincing). One may realize that an MGM production, even a B-picture like this one, was done very attentively, with much care for all aspects of filmmaking like acting, camerawork, lighting, props etc. These aspects heightened, "Midnight Mary" is better in the details than a typical Warner Picture shot in only a few weeks. But Wellman has managed the sharp social realism not to be washed out! The young Loretta Young is already a very fine actress with a smile you hardly can resist... and she can be the charming and the down-to-earth tough girl at the same time. Wellman has imposed a fast-moving editing on this picture, renouncing on the usual fade-out/fade-in-structure, but passing from scene to scene by fast pan shots without apparent cutting which gives the film a more realistic and less artificial tone. It moves from scene to scene as Young passes continuously from lot to lot, from the guts to the big shots and to the guts again. Young has some remarkable scenes, such as her reaction on another job refused, where she first seems to laugh at a concurrent, but than her laughter gets a somehow lunatic attitude and turns into a strange sort of sobbing. This is far from the full frontal devotion to the obvious in a Warner Picture! It seems that Wellman and MGM knew quite well what a fine young actress they had, because in a scene, every ad Mary sees on the street turns for her into a "no jobs"-announcement. And when she walks by a cinema, even the announcement of a new JOAN CRAWFORD vehicle (one of the MGMs A-stars at that time) does the same, maybe suggesting that compared to Loretta Young, Crawford could get out of work... Young indeed reminds a little of a very young and less harsh Crawford. Not only because of her, this B-picture is to be highly acclaimed and clearly deserves five stars.
"Other Men's Women" (1930) is not to be forgotten and/or underrated. This again is one of the typical working class Warner Brothers pictures, situated among a group of railroaders, portraying their work, their private relationships and their dreams. Although it has some unknown actors in the leads, it is more than a typical fast-moving B-picture, because the psychological relationships are very attentively elaborated and the actors are directed likewise. Besides, you will find some interesting symbolisms like a rail fork indicating the difficulties of a man in finding a suitable way of life. The action scenes are enormously vivid for a picture of 1930 - a year in which some (especially MGMs) pictures still were much related to the silent era and had a very boring and static camerawork and editing.
The lighting sometimes even reminds me of later films noirs. And Wellman is even able to direct the lead running on the wagon roofs as if he was doing his private little dance of hope and fear. Wellman only shows the man running, perhaps dancing, and slowly departing from the spectator (and his girl), becoming smaller and smaller. He fears that there won't be a reunion, but there is hope, little as it may be. Wellmans best idea was not to over-accentuate this by a cut and/or close-up. But with this minimalistic and naturalistic composition, he gets the maximum of emotion, because WE are the girl and we feel what she feels. A wonderful scene in a wonderful picture with Mary Astor in an almost leading role and James Cagney and Joan Blondell in supporting parts. Five stars!
Although Barbara Stanwyck is one of the best actresses ever, "The Purchase Price" (1932) is clearly not one of her best films. But Wellman manages quite well to get along with a mediocre script and even gets a remarkable performance by the eternal leading ladies' co-star George Brent. A nightclub singer (Stanwyck) has to flea from gangsters and therefore is glad to hear that her costumer has accepted a farmer's marriage advertisement, sending Stanwyck's photograph instead. Stanwyck accepts to be married to the farmer (Brent) and has to shift from Champaign to milk and from night life to getting up at daybreak... The storyline being somehow silly and erratic, Wellman's film is anything but coherent. But seen as a collection of single scenes, most of them are funny, vivid, well acted, witty, highly emotional and dynamic. It is worth watching how the nightclub girl and the farmer get along with each other and developing something similar to an alliance... Four stars!
Unfortunately, I would rate "Frisco Jenny" (1933) only three stars. It suffers from the same disease as "The Purchase Price": In these two pictures, Wellman is very good in giving attention to single scenes, but neglects the film as a whole, i.e. its coherence. This leads to a greater disadvantage in "Frisco Jenny". While it is clear that the outline of "The Purchase Price" is silly, "Frisco Jenny" wants to turn into a drama in the last twenty minutes, which totally fails. Jenny (Ruth Chatterton) is a typical pre-code-character and Wellman is good at providing a deep insight into a San Francisco brothel just by little hints portraying the daily work of the whores. They swallow oil not to be too disgusted (nice symbolism, because oil won't let any other ... [let's call it liquid] pass through and mix), they mark those who are already ripped off by a piece of chalk, they give their customers the keys for their rooms, but never forget to make them drunk enough to get it back in time... It is to be honored that Wellman shows these things with neither sensationalism nor bigotry, but with remarkable implicitness. Thus it appears to be a job as any other and the whores are portrayed just as ordinary people. Jenny becomes their boss after her father's death, but soon she has to leave the brothel and the film follows her "career" for 25 years. Unfortunately, Chatterton is not Stanwyck and her "scandalous" behavior is always a little too one-dimensional and obvious. Therefore the first third of the movie is its best part and it becomes weaker when the plot turns away from the group of whores and concentrates on Jenny. During these 25 years, Jenny/Chatterton never seems to get older, and finally, her decline and atonement is far too abrupt to be convincing. The story of her illegitimate son who becomes a public prosecutor and seeks the death penalty for Jenny (not knowing her being his own mother) is pure cliché and all but credible. This makes me rate it three stars, although it deserved five for the first and four for the second act.