William Wellman was the Depression’s Balzac, sloppy, blunt, and virtuosic in bit assemblages of scene detail played for brass refrain—curfews; broken blinds; food lines; counting train cars; boys cross-dressing into 15 cent school dances; a line of desert-island hoodlums in smoking jackets, uncrossing legs in turn as a blonde descends a staircase into a horizon line of their crotches—in service of genre story-arcs, tales of ingenues hazed into corrupt big society, and the overriding idea that one’s relationship with others is a miniature of one’s relationship with society as a whole. Where Wellman’s fairy tales theoretically tell of doe-eyes romantics (often city girls marrying country boys via the personals ad, or a drunken night) confronted with the harsh realities of capitalist exploitation, Wellman, no more a realist or expressionist than Balzac or a vaudeville act, tends to re-tip the scales by emphasizing the lead’s terrier practicality, ready to cope with the scene detail, and the society-men’s one-track sadism and (often) devilish foppishness, like drunken abstractions of basest instincts. At his best, most gleeful, Wellman traces the descents of broke, gum-chewing, altogether relatable characters into closed circles of Hell: an isolated farmhouse, a soup kitchen pension-house, a tumbledown banana bar, and in Night Nurse, an art deco penthouse, bound from daylight, with rickety drunks scattered on the tiled floor and making out to stay standing, a Fats Waller-like stomp on perpetual loop in the background, and two kids in a backroom nursery slowly being murdered.
The genre, whatever it is, is a form to send-up America and detail the professional friendship of two nurses, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell, who spent the decade off and on playing hardnosed girls who had seen it all until the plot of their new picture. Hawks would emerge as the most famous proponent of the WB ethos that collaborative, physical labor is the true conduit to and application of emotional bonds, friendships and affairs—two people working through the conflicts of the plot as proof of their attachment to each other. But Hawks’ emphasis on people despite the world is very different from Wellman’s (and Walsh’s) of people against the world—or of girls, complicit in the economy, glad to wring it for what it’s worth. Whatever Wellman’s appropriation of reality for the sake of a scene, his “realism” is of people so cartoonishly clear-eyed as to make of history whatever it will offer them, usually not much: “All a wife means to an intern is someone to sit in his front office when he starts practice, and play nursemaid the rest of her life without pay… the thing to do is to land an appendicitis case—they’ve all got dough.” “Yeah?”