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The Great Wellman's Ladies - Preliminary Findings

The Great Wellman's Ladies - Preliminary Findings

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Published by: grtela on Sep 26, 2012
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The Great Wellman’s Ladies: Preliminary Findings

or Plowing Fields and Fielding Advances or Shaking Rears and Rearing Children or Mending Socks and Socking Jerks or Some Notes on Limbs and Labor

“We jump off from Independence. Across the Big Blue River, the Little Blue, the Platte, the Sweetwater. South pass over the Rockies down to the big Salt Lake, then the desert.

It’s a long hard grind with no let-up. Rain, hail as big as eggs, breakdowns, prairie fires, sand storms. Dust storms, alkali water--no water. Cholera, Indians, drowning, stampedes, stupid accidents. You’ll pass graves everywhere. Milestones along the way. One out of every three of you will be dead before you get to his California Valley. So if you’re smart you’ll leave by that door. That’s my best advice. Follow it, now.

All right. You asked for it, you’ll get it.” -Buck Wyatt in Westward the Women

William Wellman was a director known for his obsession with the sky, but, as if to show why, his films would obsess equally on the ground and feet that stand there. From the leg up, the bodies he captured were bodies in motion, bodies at work. For Wellman, labor was never just a byproduct of a story–it was the story, and his characters lived and died by it. And though he often showcased men–crossing the battlefield, building airplanes, and trudging through the wilderness–he gave women the same rough and tumble love, would let them play like the men, their arms and legs their instruments. With each shot, women’s limbs become more than mere appendages in Wellman: they became the tools of labor, of women in particular laboring physically and mentally, and confronting the fact of that labor. Their bodies used equally as vehicles of empowerment and imprisonment. Wellman’s early 30s pre-code tales of contemporary women fighting against poverty through the Depression (The Purchase Price, So Big!, Midnight Mary, Night Nurse, Frisco Jenny) would morph in the 40s and 50s into more epic tales of women coming into their own on the American frontier (Westward the Women, The Great Man’s Lady, Yellow Sky, Lady of Burlesque). A split? The pre-code women bartering with the only thing they owned—their bodies—and the frontier women using their bodies as a means of achieving a life of their own choosing. But in each and every decade Wellman touched there were always women forging their way with hands that washed, milked, pulled, shot, stitched, typed, embraced, cooked, carried, and caressed. And legs that trudged, tapped, ran, plowed, kicked, danced, trekked, and, when money was really tight, spread.

Stills are from the following William A. Wellman films:
So Big! (1932) Westward the Women (1951) The Great Man’s Lady (1942) Midnight Mary (1933) The Purchase Price (1932) Lady of Burlesque (1943) Yellow Sky (1948) Night Nurse (1931) Frisco Jenny (1932)


Telaroli | May/September, 2012

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