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Saturday, 11 November 2017

Bruce Hodsdon on Star Actors and Auteurs in classical Hollywood and after (8): Raoul Walsh, a journeyman-auteur

Raoul Walsh
Raoul Walsh simply immersed himself in the craft of story telling in the movies over five decades; by the mid-twenties his distinctive creative personality began to be felt across a range of genres.

Albert Edward (“Raoul”) Walsh was born of Irish ancestry in New York City in 1887.  A dedicated painter, sometime novelist and lover of Shakespeare, even more than Ford and Hawks, Walsh loved to tell a good story, interweaving myth and fiction into accounts of his upbringing in New York, Texas and Montana and a trip to Cuba at age 15 on his uncle's schooner, times spent on a ranch in Texas, as a cowboy breaking horses, and later acting on the stage. This was part of the process according to his biographer Marilyn Moss, of “reliving adventures he either took or imagined.” He finally ended up in Hollywood in 1912 working as an actor and assistant to D W Griffith (he played John Wilkes Booth in The Birth of a Nation) directing the battle scenes when Griffith was unable to direct himself in a feature length The Life of Villa (1915) in Mexico with renegade general Pancho Villa playing himself. Walsh described him as “a camera louse” referring to Villa's behaviour such as actually executing prisoners by firing squad for the camera.

Walsh as John Wilkes Booth, The Birth of a Nation
Between 1915-28 Walsh directed more than 40 feature films. His first feature Regeneration (1915) about life on New York's Bowery set him on the career path as a director initially with variable success. He brought a straightforward problem solving sensibility to Douglas Fairbanks' sense of myth and fantasy in one of the most exhilarating of silent films, The Thief of Bagdad (1924), breaking down the vast architectural spaces of designer William Cameron Menzies' city. The successful What Price Glory? (1926) combined a story of male rivalry and loyalty in love with melodrama, anti-war sentiment and battle scenes impressively staged on a studio lot. In another major success Walsh played the male lead opposite Gloria Swanson and directed Sadie Thomson (1928) in a sexually charged relationship both on and off camera.

John Wayne, The Big Trail
In directing the first talkie to be filmed on location, In Old Arizona (1929), Walsh lost an eye in a freak car accident. In 1930 he made an epic western for William Fox, The Big Trail, filmed in both 35mm and a 70mm widescreen format and starring John Wayne in his first major role. A financial disaster, it affected both Wayne's and Walsh's careers for much of the decade. In all Walsh directed about 110 feature films between 1915-64, a figure only exceeded by Allan Dwan.

Looking to find a new screen presence at short notice to play the lead role in The Big Trail Walsh was impressed by the then 'nature boy' male beauty, grace of movement and apparent physical strength of a props assistant, Marion Morrison (renamed John – he preferred Duke - Wayne by Walsh), with whom John Ford was friendly but unlike Walsh was not convinced enough about his friend's on-screen potential to launch him into an acting career. At that time, Garry Wills suggests, Ford tended to be attracted to actors of a more muscular build like George O'Brien who played the male lead in The Iron Horse. Strongly resenting Walsh's casting of Wayne (Ford did not speak to him for three years afterwards), it was nearly a decade before Ford gave him his chance in Stagecoach (1939). Ford's jealousy was further fuelled when Walsh cast the now successfully launched Wayne in Dark Command (1940) (1). Wayne remained unimpressed by Walsh's uncharacteristically violent and vindictive attitude towards some of his crew on The Big Trail whom Walsh felt were paying undue attention to his wife-to-be (Lorraine Walker) with whom he was then having an affair. Wayne did not appear again in a Walsh film.

Ward Bond, Errol Flynn, Gentleman Jim
Errol Flynn made seven pictures with Walsh. He embodied Walsh's dreams “together they were a tough-guy version of Fred and Ginger. Walsh supplied the fantasy; Flynn supplied the charm.”  Moss suggests that Flynn “became several people symbolically collapsed into Walsh's life,” a substitute for Walsh's two sons he neglected then lost, “as well as a drinking buddy who was more of a brother.” The pretext of a biography of champion boxer Jim Corbett, Gentleman Jim (1942) (2), like Strawberry Blonde (1941), is “an escape into an idealised past” centring on family ties and close-knit friendships, “a reimagining of a lost childhood.” These nostalgic “escapes” are breaks from Walsh's image as an action director, “a conscious (perhaps unconscious) yearning for a more perfect, certainly simpler world in a stream of consciousness between genres: drama, comedy, romance and nostalgia.”

 Walsh worked with Cagney and Bogart on seven films located in a world of crime, corruption and gangsterism, the two starring together in The Roaring Twenties (1939) as gangsters challenging fate,“a view of the world in which the downtrodden tough it out, even though that does not ensure success or happiness, a theme that Walsh and (Warner Bros.) crafted well” (Moss). In They Drive By Night (1940) Bogart and Raft play small operators blocked by the big guys from bettering themselves “going from hard knocks to tragedy.” Walsh had an on going friendship with Bogart referring to the actor's penchant for complaining on the set by affectionately calling him “Bogey the Beefer.”

Bogart, Cagney, The Roaring Twenties
The Roaring Twenties was the first of Walsh's four film association with James Cagney three of which are peaks in the director's career (3). It started with what both agreed was a bad script. According to Moss the studio files show that Walsh worked after hours with Bogart, Cagney and Frank McHugh (who plays Danny in the film) on revisions in what seems like something of a precursor to the writers' workshop in long form tv. Moss elaborates that “Walsh and Cagney developed a style of working: no matter what the script said, they thought to go one better and set about revising and moulding Cagney's character as they saw fit.” This 'meddling' scored few points from the front office. Cagney spoke in interviews of how, when uncertainties arose, Walsh would “show him how to do it.”

Virginia Mayo, Cagney, White Heat
Walsh more than once stated his “love for women” in interviews. If the male adventurer-hero is at the centre of his films, his relationship with a woman on equal terms became increasingly admitted into the trajectory of Walsh's films. Virginia Mayo, for example, had four of her strongest roles under Walsh's direction ranging from brassy two-timing gangster's moll in White Heat (1949), to outlasting her man as an active participant against the enemy in a final shoot-out in Colorado Territory (1949), as Lady Wellesley in Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951) winning over both Gregory Peck on screen, and the potentially negative English media in pre-production interviews, and the female lead opposite Kirk Douglas in Along the Great Divide (1951).

Ida Lupino was one of Walsh's favourite actresses although initially she was not his first choice but that of the producer, Mark Hellinger, for the role of Lana in They Drive By Night the first of four films he made with her. Walsh got on well with her and they followed up with High Sierra (1941). The havoc released by the the madness of the Lupino character in Drive was tacked on to the main theme and won Lupino a seven year contract with Warner Bros. Moss suggests that the role in the film “bore an uncanny resemblance to (the havoc) brought on by the first Mrs Walsh” which may have been an ironic coincidence since Lupino's character also resembles a psychotic wife played by Bette Davis in a 1935 Warners film Bordertown.

Ida Lupino, Robert Alda, The Man I Love
Assigned to Walsh by Jack Warner, The Man I Love (1947) is one of the only cases where Walsh directed a woman's picture – the story of an independent but self-sacrificing woman, a nightclub singer in New York who devotes herself to her family's emotional problems. An account by Moss of its making offers a guide to Walsh's style across genres. On this film he did a lot of rewriting off the cuff on the script on which he and the screenwriter Catherine Turney had a free hand. Although this put the film behind schedule the assistant director, Ridgeway Callow, said Walsh worked at a “very fast” pace - that he was great on camera set-ups but did not give much direction to the cast. Ida Lupino playing the lead role, Callow reported, would ask questions in “earthy language” and Raoul would reply in kind “like the back and forth in a tennis match... the same as on any of Raoul's films.” Callow said that Walsh would come in the the morning saying in relation to the day's work: “What the hell happens in this sequence? You had to go into detail and tell him. But he didn't take him any time at all to pick a set-up...where to put the camera...probably faster than anyone I've seen.” Moss comments that Walsh's “no nonsense direction”adds bite, in The Man I Love, to Lupino's cynical world view, toning down the melodrama.

Clark Gable, The Tall Men
In The Tall Men (1955), what is representative of Walsh's 'realism' is the merging of the role of Ben with the persona of Clark Gable to the point, Moss suggests, that the director, in romanticising the bond between them (Walsh hunted with Gable during the making of the film as he did on other occasions) is unable to see a difference between the actor and the character he plays. Yet The Tall Men also presents what Moss chooses to call, in the context of the fifties films, “a new kind of woman” played by Jane Russell with a combination of toughness and femininity. She is strong enough to travel on equal terms, capable of problematising the journey of “Walsh's more mature male traveller,” so placing the love between a man and a woman at the centre of his world.

Jayne Russell, The Revolt of Mamie Stover
Feminist critics Pam Cook and Claire Johnston, in an essay written for the Edinburgh Film Festival Walsh retrospective in 1974, shifted their focus to other fifties Walsh films such as The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956) in which a woman (also played by Jane Russell) who is central to the narrative, tries unsuccessfully to buck the system and acquire wealth within patriarchy. “The Walshian texts (play) a subtle game of duplicity,” Cook and Johnston suggest, the positive woman figure is “a projection of male sexual anxieties.”

Marilyn Moss sees the relationship between the characters played by Bogart and Lupino in High Sierra as “the personification of Walsh's own vulnerability at the centre of the most crucial Walshian narrative: the love between a man and a woman.” What might be more to the point is how such a near universal theme transmutes into something more specifically Walshian. This might have be found in what was his aversion to psychological complexity with his characters nonetheless entrapped in a romantic undercurrent he liked to hide beneath the surface tempo of the action. Walsh believed that he could handle almost any genre, Moss suggests, “since he was confident that he could supply the emotional and physical action to keep the story moving and make it entertaining.”

Wayne, Claire Trevor, Dark Command
Walsh said that it never bothered him that he didn't have final cut on his films at Warners. Like Ford and Hawks, he used his years of experience to work around it leaving nothing for the producer to cut. While he looked forward to directing large action scenes, a highlight for him in making a film, concludes Moss, “was the personal contact he had with actors and crew, but not during the actual shooting...He never talked much on the set” speaking to others only to ask a question or for confirmation of understanding. Claire Trevor, who played a lead in Dark Command, confirmed this, describing her experience of Walsh's direction as “very impersonal and cold.” After announcing they were going to do a scene he would often just sit down saying “ 'you know what to do' and sometimes with the camera rolling, he'd turn his back and walk away... He cared, I know but it looked like he didn't care.” Other actors such as Joan Leslie in High Sierra also remembered Walsh “as not giving a lot of direction.”

Walsh's existential immersion in the process of making films in the studio system, alluded to above, seems to have reached something of an apotheosis at Warner Bros through the forties. This is apparent in his astonishingly productive run at Warner Bros, almost certainly unequalled in the history of classical Hollywood. From 1939-51 Walsh directed at least 17 out of 25 (68%) now critically valued works in established genres, including high points such as The Roaring Twenties, They Drive By Night, High Sierra, The Strawberry Blonde, Gentleman Jim, Objective Burma, Pursued, The Man I Love, Colorado Territory, White Heat and Distant Drums. For the balance of 44 features that Walsh directed from 1929-64, in a variety of production contexts, at least 12 (27%) have lasting critical value including The Big Trail, Me and My Gal, The Bowery, The World in His Arms, Battle Cry and The Tall Men.

By Hollywood standards Warners, during this period the most liberal of the studios, was a strong supporter of Roosevelt's New Deal often reflected in the relatively progressive content of the films. Walsh as a contract director had the opportunity of working with intelligently liberal producers and a range of similarly talented writers. Above all, was the special compatibility Walsh enjoyed with the Studio's contract players he was consistently able to work with in the years at Warners which were never in basic conflict with his notions of individualism.This would seem to have erased the apparent conflict between the director's ethical and political conservatism (Walsh was a staunch Republican, close friend of William Randolph Hearst and supporter of his isolationist policies in the thirties) and the centre-left politics of key personnel in the production teams (4).

Jean-Pierre Coursodon challenges some of the critical orthodoxies surrounding Walsh's career, notably that the claim that Walsh was “a master of the adventure, the archetypal action film, has not only been overworked, it has also contributed to obscure other equally important aspects of his cinema.” (Barrett Hodsdon does address the latter). I concur with Coursodon that the Warners pictures were by no means typical of those of the earlier (the thirties) or later (fifties and sixties) periods of Walsh's filmmaking. These films are generally more leisurely paced and loosely structured, at times showing signs of casualness on the part of the director which may be a sign of tension between the material assigned (particularly in the thirties) and his engagement with it.

Walsh vehemently shrugged off any notion of the artist in his filmmaking, seemingly immersing himself intuitively and at times spontaneously in living through the making of a film. Moss comments that Walsh never wanted to talk about, or be praised for creating complex characters being “more interested in talking about the mechanics of a camera setup, the aesthetics of creating a bit of action” and the film's overall production. When he was fully engaged the romanticism in his creativity found expression through his audacious sense of space and a commitment to the energy and rhythm of a linear narrative driving forward, most evident in the forties Warner's cycle. At his most engaged there is also a vulnerability evident in Walsh's sensitivity to nuance and a fondness for the hard-boiled and good-hearted in combining humour in a more hard-nosed trajectory striving for what he saw as a form of (masculine) authenticity. Barrett Hodsdon suggests that Walsh seemed to live each moment of creation “as though it were the act of breathing itself.” He lived for the shared camaraderie in working as much on preproduction as on a film set, more so on location, even if the material did not especially engage him.

1.  While it's speculation, Ford's obvious jealousy likely arose from his feeling of inferiority seeing Walsh as a threat, to quote Garry Wills – “the kind of guy Ford admired - “a 'man's man', a wit and a practical joker, a heterosexual swashbuckler- who turned up on the set each day with a gorgeous blonde on his arm” as Harry Carey Jr reported Walsh did during the filming of Pursued 1947) 
2.  The second of two key films Walsh based on fictionalisations of historical figures, the other being General George Custer (also played by Flynn) in They Died With Their Boots On (1941).
3.  The fourth film is A Lion is in the Streets (1953), produced by the star's brother William Cagney, is adapted from a novel loosely based on the life of corrupt populist southern politician and demagogue, Huey Long.
4.  Walsh was a liberal in his attitude to minorities. He employed them on his films whenever possible.


Main Sources:  Marilyn Ann Moss Raoul Walsh 2011;  Jean-Pierre Coursodon American Directors Vol 1,1983; Phil Hardy ed. Raoul Walsh 1974; Barrett Hodsdon The Elusive Auteur 2017; Garry Wills John Wayne The Politics of Celebrity 1997


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