John Weld was a journalist, screenwriter, novelist and Ford dealership owner whose life is lightly skimmed over in “The Remarkable Life of John Weld,” a documentary based almost entirely on recreations of all the famous people he met, befriended, loved and cuckolded.
It’s a picaresque “Pilgrim’s Progress” of a biography that passes Weld off as a sort of writing equivalent of Forrest Gump or Woody Allen’s “Zelig.”
Weld was an Alabama boy who hied it to Hollywood at the peak of the silent film era, relying on his general fearlessness to tackle a job as a stunt man for the likes of Chaplin, Barrymore and cowboy star Tom Mix.
He was pals with Clark Gable, chased Walter Huston’s fiance and then became Huston’s lifelong friend and eventually came back as a screenwriter and novelist whose works Hollywood optioned. No films ever came from his writings there — not that made it to the Internet Movie Database, in any event.
A meeting at a party with gossip reporter Louella Parsons landed him a start in newspapering, learning the trade and writing in New York, chasing Lindbergh to Paris where he interviewed then-Governor Franklin Roosevelt and befriended the writer James Joyce. He eventually founded a small (rich) town newspaper in Laguna Beach.
The famed aviatrix Pancho Barnes was a drinking buddy. You might remember her as a “character” in “The Right Stuff.”
He wasn’t so much a colorful character and somebody who knew colorful characters. None of his books are touchstone titles — a Donner Party novel, “Don’t You Cry for Me” that was a 1940 best seller, and his “Memoirs of a Hollywood Stunt Man” captures the danger and DIY nature of early film stunt work.
He and his last wife filmed travelogues, but again, no record of them shows that they turned up in theaters or on TV.
And while the esteemed actor and go-to PBS narrator Peter Coyote narrates the recreations as Weld, reading from his memoirs, the experts interviewed here include a godson, a stunt coordinator, a couple of nieces, a film historian and Laguna Beach historian and an “Entertainment Life Coach.” Not exactly an assemblage that would past “American Masters” or “The American Experience” muster on PBS.
The relatives and fans interviewed here refer to Weld as “a man of honor,” even though he took up with other men’s wives and his Wikipedia entry leaves out half his marriages.
Director Gabe Torres samples a couple of Weld’s more difficult early Hollywood stunts — cliff diving, plunging in a raging river doubling for starlet Zasu Pitts — but neither of them deign to identify the movies.
And by the time we get to the resolution of the mystery that frames this life story — a ship sinking, with Weld and wife number four aboard it — in Yokohama Harbor in 1961 — the viewer can be excused for noting “Well, yes, this was a colorful enough life. But remarkable?”
The larger point here might be that this is an example of the sort of life lived when The Lost Generation was in Paris, when Hollywood was still new, when the world was smaller and people who made connections and got a foothold in publishing or New York newspapers or cinema could move relatively easily between those worlds.
As Coyote narrates Weld’s near-drowning “I wanted to take with me as many memories and images as I could conjure,” you can bet Weld wasn’t mentioning, in that memory, the bulk of his life — writing press releases for Boeing and Ford, owning a couple of small California Ford dealerships.
The viewer? It’s not just envy of a comfortable life well-lived that could make you blurt out, “Yes, and?”
MPAA Rating: TV-PG
Cast: Nic Tag, Claire Adams, Emily Kincaid, narrated by Peter Coyote
Credits: Directed by Gabe Torres, script by Rob Lihani. A Multicom Entertainment release.
Running time: 1:16