Saturday, February 29, 2020

THE LEAP YEAR BLOGATHON: Wild Bill Wellman and Midnight Mary, 1933

Rebecca Deniston is hosting The Leap Year Blogathon at her site Taking Up Room. The contributions to this clever idea can be found HERE.

"Most motion picture directors are a little screwy. I know that fliers are, and I have been both, so draw your own conclusions."
- William Wellman

Leap year baby "Wild Bill" Wellman (February 29, 1896 - December 9, 1975) was on tour promoting his memoir in 1974 when he stopped in Toronto. My late dad and I attended the evening and were enthralled by the curmudgeonly legend with a lot to say and a lot of love to extend to his wife, Dorothy Coonan who was by his side during so much, including this visit among his admirers.

It wasn't enough to be a WWI flying ace or the director of Wings, the first movie awarded the Oscar for Best Picture. Wellman wanted to try his hand at every type of movie, and from Wild Boys of the Road to A Star is Born to The Ox-Bow Incident to Battleground to Track of the Cat to Goodbye My Lady, and much more, the work of this remarkable man is worth exploring for its creativity and audacity.

"I've been fired from every major studio in Hollywood except Disney. They never hired me!"
- William Wellman

Midnight Mary seemed to me to be the proper title to explores this leap year of 2020. Originally conceived as a project for Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, it was turned down by those stars. The story is by Anita Loos (Red-Headed Woman), based on magazine articles about female delinquents with the screenplay by Gene Markey (Baby Face) and Kathryn Scola (Female).

Loretta Young, Una Merkel

Born in 1910, Mary and her friend Bunny lead a hardscrabble life with Mary losing her Mother early. The girls have to raise themselves in a hostile world and Mary, although innocent, is sent to a reformatory for shoplifting.

Loretta Young, Una Merkel

If it weren't for bad luck, they'd have no luck at all. The girls hook up with a gang of crooks. Bunny is in it for the long term with Angelo played by Warren Hymer. Mary becomes more than just a passing phase for Leo Darcy played by Ricardo Cortez, the brains of the outfit.

Una Merkel, Loretta Young, Ricardo Cortez

Mary is young, and in a spot, but she has finer ideas. She attempts to leave Leo and the gang, seeking an honest job. Honest jobs are not easy to come by and she is driven by hunger and privation back to her old life. We observe through the years that Mary keeps herself above her surroundings and companions. She hires her own butler played by Halliwell Hobbes, she reads and is interested in art. Nonetheless, Mary is still a crook and good at her job.

Ricardo Cortez, Loretta Young, Franchot Tone

One of those jobs that should have gone like clockwork went haywire due to the human element. What should have been easy takings at a gambling hall erupted into gunplay where Mary prevented the shooting by Leo of Thomas Mannering played by Franchot Tone. Mannering had flirted with the pretty stranger and now owed his life to her quick thinking. Grateful, and looking for excitement, Mannering spirited Mary out of the danger zone and to his family mansion. There Mary saw real art for the first time and grabbed an opportunity to escape her sordid life.

Loretta Young, Franchot Tone

Mannering is obviously besotted with Mary and eager to help her turn her life around. He puts her through secretarial school and sees that she is hired at his law firm. When the couple is about to make things official, Mary is spotted by the cop who was on duty the night of the robbery. To spare the man she loves, Mary breaks his heart and surrenders to the police and the inevitable jail term.

Loretta Young, Ricardo Cortez

Life after prison proves no bed of roses. Jobs have not suddenly become easier to come by, and Thomas Mannering Jr. has married a socialite. Leo comes back into Mary's life and offers her the only stability she has ever known. When their paths cross with Mannering once more, Leo's jealousy and Thomas's love for Mary both reach a boiling point. To save her beloved's life, Mary has no choice but to kill Leo. A jury finds her guilty of murder, and it will take an 11th-hour effort to save our Midnight Mary.

Midnight Mary clocks in at 1 hr and 14 minutes. There is a lot of story, a lot of life to observe and Wellman does this stylishly whilst Mary awaits a jury's verdict. The years embossed on the spines of lawbooks introduce us to the passage of time, as do timely and elegant camera swipes. Much is learned of characters by a look or an attitude. The drudgery of the years in prison is represented by the marching and dragging feet of the inmates. Upon her release from prison Mary, so fashionable when she was on top is shown with torn stockings and flat shoes to indicate her change in status.

Ricardo Cortez

Most impressive is Wellman's handling of the death of Leo. He and Mary had been in their bedroom with the door locked. Leo was beating Mary and his henchman raised the volume on the radio in the living room to mask the sound. Leo puts a gun in his pocket and reached the door with the stated intention of killing Mannering.

Loretta Young

Mary, who had been knocked to the floor, raises herself and sees Leo's other gun on the bed. She calls to him and when he turns, Mary fires. Leo slumps to the floor with his back to the door, his head beating against the door in time to the pounding of his henchmen on the other side. Mary stares wide-eyed at the dying man with her head shaking along with his until she is able to bring herself to look away.

A story of love, crime and redemption that could be merely cliche, is instead a refined and memorable film under Wellman's direction.

William Wellman, Loretta Young, Franchot Tone
The break-up scene

"He (Wellman) was one of the best looking men I had ever seen. Every actress he worked with, including me, had a crush on him."
- Loretta Young

Loretta Young and William Wellman movies:

The Hatchet Man, 1932
Heroes for Sale, 1933
Midnight Mary, 1933
Call of the Wild, 1935


  1. I saw A STAR IS BORN in the mid-to-late 80s. ADOLPHE MENJOU was in it. I always remember him from POLLYANNA, which was his last movie. It came out in 1960 and his passing was three years later. (I saw Pollyanna in the 90s.) MR. MENJOU was known as one of the best-dressed men in HOLLYWOOD. He worked with SHIRLEY TEMPLE in LITTLE MISS MARKER and years later with HAYLEY MILLS in POLLYANNA where he played a hermit.

    1. A Star is Born was certainly an influential film. Wellman was an Oscar-winner for Best writing, original story with Robert Carson. He was nominated for Best Director and the winner was Leo McCarey for The Awful Truth.

      Wellman worked with Adolphe Menjou in three movies, A Star is Born, Across the Wide Missouri, and Roxie Hart, the first sound version of Chicago.

  2. What a terrific illustration of Wellman's work in those scenes you describe. I love that quality about classic films that uses simple imagery to move along the plot, or flesh out the background of a character, i.e., the torn stockings, etc. A most artistic shortcut that expects us to use our own imagination, and our humanity to get the message.

    1. I get the feeling that Wellman, like the best of directors, trusts his audience. We're a part of the creation.

  3. This sounds so good. I love Female, Red-Headed Woman, Baby Face, and Wellman! How much combined talent went into this film! Thank you for letting me know about it and for writing such a compelling review.

    1. Thank you.

      Throughout his career Wellman never stopped pushing himself. With Track of the Cat, 1954 he and cinematographer William Clothier attempted to make a black and white movie in colour.

      I know you will enjoy watching Midnight Mary.

  4. This very racy pre-code is a favorite new discovery. It crams a lot into its short run time. Loretta is gorgeous and then some. Top notch all around.

    1. I am always impressed with the amount of story a creative mind can share in a compressed time period. No "bum numbers"!

  5. I think because Wellman was so versatile a director that he's overlooked today; he could do simply everthing. I always appreciate his speed and efficiency in storytelling, and his concise use of gesture, sound, and editing, as you capture so well in your description of Mary shooting Leo. My feeling is that Wellman today would disdain the overloaded, overlong, CGI-laden movies being made now, with little sense of plot or characterization. Wild Bill KNEW how to tell a story.

    1. I can't help but agree with you. Wild Bill would have a word or two for those creators of the overblown and forgettable blockbusters. He held nothing back in his heyday and we sure could use someone with his clear eyes today.

  6. Wow, this movie looks fantastic, and it looks like a different type of part for Loretta Young--something she could really sink her teeth into. Wellman could definitely teach today's directors a thing or two about story pacing, too. Thanks again for joining the blogathon with this great review!



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