Interview with Movie Director William A. Wellman (1936) 🇬🇧

November 04, 2021

You must have 'X', says director William A. Wellman

"Beauty is the hitch-hiker of motion pictures — but personality is the force that drives them", adds the famous director in an interview with Wilson D’Arne.

Beauty doesn't mean so much as a snap of the fingers in Hollywood, and if motion pictures had to depend upon beauty alone, studios would go bankrupt within six months.

"So why not stop all this horn-tooting about beauty, and concentrate more on the things that count?" asks Director William A. Wellman, who is now making 'A Star is Born', co-starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in Technicolor for David O. Selznick.

"What then, makes a star, Mr. Wellman?"

"Only two things. First and foremost, screen personality. Secondly, talent."

"And where does beauty enter the picture?"

"It's just something that comes along for the ride. It happens to be the hitch-hiker of motion pictures, not the force behind them."

Wellman was sitting in his office at Selznick International. He was in the midst of casting for the Technicolor picture, which happens to be a story of Hollywood from the inside.

We steered him back to the subject at hand, loth to believe that the Dietrichs, Gaynors and Bennetts were not beautiful. An illusion seemed to be in the process of being shattered. We demanded an explanation.

"Beautiful. Sure they are. But that isn't the thing that counts. I've seen stand-ins more beautiful than some of our ranking stars, and there you have the answer."

"Let's get back to your original answer, Mr. Wellman."

It came out in a cloud of pipe-smoke, vehemently blown.

"Next time you stand in a crowd, you will notice one or two men or women who draw your attention almost irresistibly. You don't know what it is or why. There's just something about them that sets them apart. That's a brief explanation of screen personality. The only difference is this: It must be the kind the camera can pick up. Some of our stars — I'll mention no name — have very little personality in real life, but there's something extra there which only the camera can show."

"Can you always recognise this when you see it."

"No, indeed. You yourself have heard stories of stars who were shunted about from studio to studio in their early careers, without getting a break. The public judges and records instant response. If it's there, a star is born overnight. If not, no long process will ever make a star, beauty or no."

He recounted a list of beauties launched with much beating of tom-toms and trumpeting of fanfares who failed to get across.

If you want to know which stars have the greatest quantity of that peculiar type of charm, Wellman advises watching the airports and railway stations.

"You'll read about this or that one getting mobbed. Clothes will be ripped by souvenir hunters. Those kinds have the most of it. Others will draw crowds, yes, but not cause the demonstrations. The one without any at all, doomed to slip back into oblivion, will be greeted by a lonely press agent, who probably wishes he was at the nearest bar."

That made us breathe easier for Dietrich, Harlow, Gaynor and other beauties. Our illusion remained intact.

It also made us think of the males, Freddie March, Bob Taylor, Clark Gable, and several other much-mobbed gentlemen.

Wellman agreed with us they had lots of crowd-rousing charm.

"It can't be confined to a particular type, either. There are horse-opera he-men more virile looking than Gable, but they don't get mobbed. More than brawny muscles and bulging chest is needed."

Wellman's point seems perfectly clear, from both feminine and masculine angles. You don't have to be a ravishing beauty or a dashing Romeo to be a star, but you must have that mysterious "X" the unknown yet tangible quantity.

"Hollywood producers", said Wellman, "have thrown millions away on beauty, without return. Along comes a sweet but not particularly beautiful girl. She plays in a bit. The fan mail bursts the letter-box. Presto! The public has judged. A star is born."

About this thing called talent, Wellman had little to say.

"That's something almost anyone can recognise. It can be developed provided the spark is there. We have no trouble finding it or building it. The combination of 'that something' and talent, however, is what makes the search for new stars so difficult.

"More often than not. as I say, they are not found. They just happen along."

We'd like to see Wellman display the machinations of his theory in a motion picture. In fact, we dare him to.

If we forget beauty, we asked him, what will the publicity men do?

"That's their worry. I've got a picture to think about."

William Wellman at work on his latest picture, ‘A Star is Born’.

Collection: Picturegoer Magazine, December 5, 1936