By Emma Castleberry
At the age of 12, Frank Thompson underwent a transformative experience, though he might have not classified it as such at the time. While watching television on a Sunday afternoon, he happened upon the 1939 film Beau Geste, directed by William A. Wellman and starring Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Robert Preston and Brian Donlevy. “I was immediately captivated by it,” Frank says. “My mother came in, watched a few minutes, and said, ‘I think there’s a book about that.’” The next day, Frank found that book—an illustrated volume with stills from the film—at his school library. “I saw immediately that the stills weren’t from the film I saw, but from a 1926 silent version starring Ronald Colman,” he says. “That was the Big Bang of my life as a film historian.”
Frank spent years reading every book he could find about silent film or film history in general, spending his days immersed in the work of actors like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. “One of the first things that attracted me to films made before I was born was that they opened a window to the past,” says Frank. He has fond memories of watching Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang (more commonly known as The Little Rascals) and being fascinated with the antique phones and cars. “It was all fascinating to me, like being in a time machine. Sometimes I hear people say that they didn’t like a movie because it was ‘dated.’ I think that’s one of the main reasons you should like it. Films can capture time and place—good and bad—like no other medium. It’s almost a miracle, and definitely a privilege, to be able to step into another era, another culture, and live there for a couple of hours.”
In 1973, PBS produced a series called The Men Who Made the Movies, which included a full episode on Wellman and his work. “I watched that show specifically in hopes of seeing some scenes from Beau Geste, which I hadn’t managed to see again since that first time,” says Frank. “I learned a lot about Wellman’s career and thought he was a wonderful storyteller and a most fascinating man.” A few years later, Frank, who had never written anything before, decided to write a book about Wellman. “William A. Wellman was published in 1983, the first of what is now 44 books, almost all of them on film history topics.”
Frank’s most recent book brings his work full circle, focusing on the director yet again. Nothing Sacred: The Cinema of William Wellman was co-written by Frank and filmmaker and film historian John Andrew Gallagher. “We had been informally collaborating for nearly 35 years on this book and the result was, even if I do say so myself, spectacular,” says Frank. The book is, by almost any standard, enormous: a volume of 350,000 words and more than 1,300 full-color images. “There has never been a book like it on any American director,” says Frank.
In April, Kino Lorber released a new Blu-Ray of Beau Geste featuring audio commentary by Frank and the director’s son, William Wellman Jr. In his 64 years as an actor, writer, producer and author, Wellman has done hundreds of events and presentations about his father’s work. “When they asked me to do the audio commentary for Beau Geste, I could not work alone as I usually do,” Wellman says. “I had to include the person I feel is the greatest authority on the subject, Frank Thompson. Frank’s tireless passion for my father’s work is everlasting in my mind. His expertise is above reproach.”
Shortly after Frank moved here with his wife from L.A. in 2015, he discovered the town of Bat Cave, which has a surprisingly film-heavy history. “More films were made in and around Bat Cave from 1912 to 1924 than in any other single town or city in North Carolina,” he says. Annually, Frank does a presentation at the Esmeralda Inn, which is where the cast and crew for all of those films stayed. “I show scenes from the very few surviving films made there and show lots of slides of the films that are now gone,” he says. “It’s amazing to do that show at the very place where the filmmakers lived and worked. It’s what I love to do best—finding a knothole in the fence of time and peeking through as best I can.”
For more information on Kino Lorber’s Beau Geste Blu-Ray, visit KinoLorber.com/product/beau-geste-blu-ray. Frank hosts “Silent Sundays” once a month at the Grail Moviehouse. For more information about Frank, visit TheCommentaryTrack.com.