Who was William Wellman? A classic film fan would immediately recognize this man’s name. For those who have no idea, and might think it a question found on Jeopardy!, he was an American film director. On a Top Ten List of Great American Movie Directors, he’d be on that list. On a Top Five, he’d be on that list, too. Just a few of his famous films: A Star is Born(the original one, made in 1937, not the one starring Barbra Streisand), The Ox-Bow Incident, Battleground, The Public Enemy(where James Cagney famously shoved a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face). Wellman won the first ever Best Picture Academy Award for the silent film, Wings, 1929-that film is a must-see, the aerial shots of WWI pilots is excellent, no cgi, and the actors had to really fly their planes!! When I learned that classic movie fan and blogger Now Voyaging would be hosting this great blogathon to look at Wellman and his body of work, I had to participate. Be sure to visit Now Voyaging to read other bloggers’ excellent pieces on Wellman and his movies.
I chose Wellman’s WWII picture, The Story of G.I. Joe, made in 1945, and featuring Robert Mitchum in his first major movie role. Mitchum would be nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his efforts.
The Story of G.I. Joe is sort of a biopic, as it is about Pulitzer-Prize winning American journalist Ernie Pyle(ably and warmly played by Burgess Meredith-my kids mainly know this classic movie actor as Rocky’s coach, Mickey!) as he travels with a group of American G.I.s, writing reports about their battles as they march across the Tunisian desert and finally arrive in Italy, fighting the Nazis.
This group of infantrymen are with C Company, 18th Infantry, U. S. Army, and many are untested soldiers. Pyle writes about a few of these men and they are, of course, the characters in the film that we get to know. There is Lt. Walker(Robert Mitchum), promoted later to Captain, who is in charge of this group of soldiers. Sgt. Warnicki(Freddie Steele), who is bothered by the fact that he has yet to meet his baby boy. Private Dondaro(Wally Cassell), the Italian-American from Brooklyn who always has women on his mind. Private Robert “Wingless” Murphy(John R. Reilly), who was too tall for the Army Air Corps and earned his nickname. Private Mew(William Murphy) the orphan from Brownsville, TX who finds a real family with the men in Company C and leaves them as his beneficiaries in his life insurance policy. Director Wellman’s wife, Dorothy Coonan Wellman, plays an uncredited role as Army Nurse Elizabeth, who falls in love with Wingless, and weds him during a lull in the battles.
What I appreciate about this film is that it is a gritty, unflinching look at a group of soldiers, slogging away at their job for the country that they love. They all wish the fighting would be over and done with soon as they are eager to return to the U.S. Pyle sees all of their longings, their disappointments, the deaths, and the costs of survival that are too high for a few of these men. He writes about all that he sees, in honest prose, and the men appreciate his being there amongst them. He’s not a journalist flitting in for a bit then flying away to a safer spot to stay in a hotel with running water, indoor plumbing, a real bed, and decent food.
The making of this film was the idea of producer Lester Cowan. He wanted to make a film to showcase the Army as well as the 1943 film Air Force had done for the Army Air Corps. After he secured the funds from United Artists, and gave them the distribution rights, he came up with the film’s outline, basing it on Ernie Pyle’s columns, compiled in the book, Here is Your War. Cowan contacted the Army about his film idea and they gave their approval in November of 1943. Ironically,Cowan did have a lot of trouble convincing Wellman to direct this movie. Wellman, himself a veteran, having served as a pilot during WWI, disliked the Army due to negative encounters with soldiers during WWI, and when Wellman directed his award winning movie, Wings, the Army sent over an Infantry Commander who so irritated Wellman, that the thought of making another movie to benefit the Army just caused Wellman to keep insisting he would not direct Cowan’s film! Finally, a personal phone call from Ernie Pyle himself, with an invitation for Wellman to visit him at his home in NM to discuss the film, finally changed Wellman’s mind and I am so very glad that Pyle’s efforts worked!
Wellman had his cast train with U. S. Army veterans of the Italian Campaigns, setting up a camp for this training in CA. He also insisted his cast grow beards(except for his wife, of course!) and that the actors speak in GI lingo as much as possible. He let it be known that if any of the actors objected to the training, that they would be dropped from the film and replaced.
The Story of G.I. Joe will air on Turner Classic Movies Nov. 3rd, at 10:30 am est/9:30 am cst. Set that dvr and don’t miss this film!! It’s available for purchase at Amazon in various dvds, with various prices. There are a 7 video clips of the film here, courtesy of TCM.
A collaborative effort, a thorough, thoughtful film, exploring the life of the infantrymen in the U.S. Army. I am indeed glad that journalist Ernie Pyle convinced William Wellman to direct this film!