John Weld was a colorful individual, at least on paper. A 1920s film stuntman turned journalist, Weld became friendly with author James Joyce and actors Clark Gable and Walter Huston, then authored eleven books.
But the awe that these escapades should inspire gets lost in the documentary The Remarkable Life of John Weld. Now available on streaming services, cable, and DVD, the film is a combination of talking-head interviews and reenactments, which keeps Weld’s exploits at a level of removal.
Director Gabe Torres (TV’s Fight to Survive and Border Battles) and writer Rob Lihani (TV’s America: Facts vs. Fiction) sparingly use footage and photos of the real Weld. Instead, Nick Tag (Brothers in Arms) plays Weld in reenactments, with Claire Adams (TV’s The Fur Is Gone) as the love of his life, actress Gigi Parrish, aka Katy Weld. Peter Coyote (TV’s The Disappearance) narrates portions of Weld’s memoirs, which fail to reveal his inner drive.
The film curiously focuses on parts of Weld’s life that don’t reflect his lust for adventure. We see his youth as a newspaper boy and his first poem in print (about a nasty dog on his delivery route). There’s also a lot of attention on his impetuous earlier marriages and romantic dalliances, including with Huston’s future wife.
Still, The Remarkable Life of John Weld amusingly relates how Weld lucked into different situations. Born in 1905, Weld auditioned in Hollywood as a teenager, becoming cast because he could swim and breaking into stunt work with a cliff dive for extra money. In one scene after a rock strikes his head during a cliff dive, he takes two shots of bourbon to calm his nerves.
Weld doubled for film stars Charlie Chaplin, John Barrymore, Tom Mix, and even Zasu Pitts, jumping from cliffs, cars, and the tops of trains. There wasn’t a lot of training or regard for the safety of stunt performers in those days, notes stunt veteran Lee Whittaker (X-Men: Apocalypse). “The guy had a lot of gumption, man.”
According to this film, Weld hung around with a pre-Gone with the Wind Clark Gable and told the future Rhett Butler that he’d never become a movie star. Gossip doyenne Louella Parsons had a hand in getting Weld a journalism job, where his stunt background proved valuable in climbing fire escapes to procure photos from crime victims’ apartments. (Weld’s fencing prowess as a stuntman also impressed the husband of a married friend who challenged him to a duel.)
Weld covered aviator Charles Lindbergh in Paris, interviewed then-Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, socialized with female stunt pilot Pancho Barnes, and wrote a book in the 1940s about the infamous Donner Party. That certainly makes for an interesting life, but beyond Whittaker, the interviews (including with an entertainment life coach) and presentation don’t elevate Weld as truly remarkable. Instead, he comes across more like Forrest Gump, a man in famous places with famous people, with little insight into what made him tick.