Eating (and Drinking and Sleeping) Raoul

“Your idea of light comedy is to burn down a whorehouse.”
– Jack Pickford to Raoul Walsh

Does any major director from Hollywood’s studio system era remain as unjustly neglected as Raoul Walsh? In spite of the fact that I’ve loved a few of his movies forever (The Roaring Twenties, High Sierra, White Heat), the lack of critical writing about Walsh in comparison to some of his contemporaries, as well as the difficulty of seeing a lot of his best work, has tended to make him something of an admirable but shadowy figure for me. Until recently. Following a rare 35mm screening of Walsh’s excellent pre-Code comedy Sailor’s Luck in Chicago last year, I have made it a priority to see as many of his films as possible. The journey I have undertaken to get a fuller picture of Walsh’s career has led me to rent VHS tapes, purchase DVD-Rs from Warner Archives’ “burn on demand” program, watch entire movies on YouTube and even do a little illegal downloading. The result of my findings is that I have no qualms about calling Walsh one of the all-time great Hollywood directors — right up there with the likes of John Ford, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock.

Like all American directors who started in the silent era and whose careers lasted into the latter half of the twentieth century, Walsh was a prolific director who worked for many different studios (though his best loved work was done for Warner Brothers). He also had to adapt to many technological changes in the industry including the coming of sound, widescreen, color and even 3-D. Nonetheless, there are many stylistic and thematic consistencies across his vast body of work. Some of these I will attempt to outline here.

1. His movies are filled with a singularly wild energy.

Raoul Walsh is most often described as a “master of action,” yet precious few critics and scholars have taken the time to elaborate on exactly what this means. Perhaps Andrew Sarris came the closest when he wrote in The American Cinema: “The Walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than in the what. He is always plunging ahead into the unknown and he is never too sure what he will find there.” This is a concise description of the propulsive, action-oriented heroes of Walsh’s best known work, many of whom have dangerous jobs: John Wayne’s western explorer in The Big Trail, Douglas Fairbanks’ title character in The Thief of Bagdad, Cagney’s gangsters in The Roaring Twenties and White Heat, the long-haul truck drivers played by Humphrey Bogart and George Raft in They Drive By Night. What most impresses about Walsh though is his untamed sense of control in capturing the action: the violent movements of his heroes, which tend to occur in spasmodic, occasionally explosive bursts, are perfectly complemented by Walsh’s crisp editing and swift camera movements. This is true not only of action-based genres like the aforementioned gangster and western movies but of Walsh’s comedies and melodramas as well. In a savagely funny scene from Sailor’s Luck, James Dunn tears apart lingerie, newly purchased for his girlfriend, with his bare hands. In the anarchic comedy The Bowery, a bunch of old women destroy a bar with umbrellas. In the serio-comic The Strawberry Blonde, James Cagney resembles a pit bull in his attempts to launch himself over a fence to engage his college-student neighbors in a brawl. In the musical melodrama The Man I Love, Ida Lupino repeatedly slaps a male character in the face in a desperate attempt to talk him out of committing murder. The kineticism to be found in these and many other scenes, the feeling that anything could happen at any given moment, arises primarily from the intersection between the choreography of Walsh’s performers and the choreography of his camera, and renders his films 100% purely cinematic.

2. His characters tended to be beautiful losers.

The Walshian hero, “the lost child in the big world” in Sarris’ indelible phrase, tends to be a sympathetic loser. His most memorable characters are ordinary men and women — the blue collar, the downtrodden, the quietly desperate, the past-their-prime and the habitually passed-over: Cagney’s low-rent dentist Biff Grimes, always playing second fiddle to his best friend in The Strawberry Blonde, the ex-prisoners played by Joel McCrea and Humphrey Bogart, trying to make one last score, in Colorado Territory and High Sierra respectively, Gladys George’s aging, sad-eyed bootlegger in The Roaring Twenties, Robert Mitchum as a rancher who is the target of assassination attempts and he doesn’t know why in Pursued, and the hard-luck dames ferociously incarnated by Ida Lupino in They Drive By Night, High Sierra and The Man I Love. Manny Farber sensed Walsh’s identification with his characters when he called the director someone “whose feel for small-time, scrappy wage earners possibly came from his own cooperative, energetic function in the movie industry . . . Walsh, who wrote some scripts as bald copies of hit films he directed, and probably entered each new project with ‘Christ, it’s not bad. It reminds me of my last movie,’ never fights his material, playing directly into the staleness. He is like his volatile, instinctive, not-too-smart characters, who when they are at their most genuine, are unreclaimable, terrifying loners, perhaps past their peak and going nowhere.”

3. His use of depth-staging was unparalleled.

In 1930, Raoul Walsh directed the cowboy epic The Big Trail in 70mm. In doing so, he achieved the landmarks of having cast John Wayne in his first leading role and, as Dave Kehr has noted, effectively inventing “the widescreen aesthetic, all at once and all by himself.” The film’s commercial failure meant that it would be another 20+ years before audiences would be able to enjoy widescreen movies again but The Big Trail, as Fox’s new blu-ray attests, remains breathtaking for its incredible panoramic compositions of the American West. Perhaps more importantly, he took the lessons that he learned from staging in deep focus and then immediately applied them to the Fox comedies he soon made after in the standard “academy ratio” (Sailor’s Luck, The Bowery, Me and My Gal). In particular, check out the swimming pool scene and the climactic dance hall fight in Sailor’s Luck to see how Walsh always has something interesting happening in the background as well as the foreground of the frame. Kehr has said that Walsh gives the impression that if he had moved his camera closer to the background extras, there would be a whole new and just as interesting movie going on. The use of depth-staging continued throughout Walsh’s career and is perhaps most brilliantly realized in the cosmic long shots of the title location that serve as the climax of his masterpiece Colorado Territory.

4. He had a terrific understanding of women.

It is well known that Walsh directed many iconic male movie stars in some of their most memorable, star-making or persona-defining roles (especially Fairbanks, Cagney, Bogart and Wayne for the performances already cited above). What’s too-little commented on is that Walsh “the man’s man” likewise directed many of the best Hollywood actresses in important roles. My god, just look at this list: Anna Q. Nilsson in Regeneration, Theda Bara in Carmen, Mary Pickford in Rosita, Anna Mae Wong in The Thief of Bagdad, Pola Negri in East of Suez, Dolores del Rio in What Price Glory?, Gloria Swanson in Sadie Thompson, Janet Gaynor in The Man Who Came Back, Joan Bennett in Me and My Gal, Fay Wray in The Bowery, Mae West in Klondike Annie, Claire Trevor in Dark Command, Marlene Dietrich in Manpower, Rita Hayworth in The Strawberry Blonde, Olivia de Havilland in They Died with Their Boots On, Dorothy Malone in Colorado Territory, Virginia Mayo in White Heat and Jane Russell in The Revolt of Mamie Stover. And Ida Lupino? Raoul Walsh was Ida Lupino. This is a far more impressive roster of female talent than what Howard Hawks or John Ford worked with in careers spanning roughly the same time frame. I once read a quote by Ford where he said he thought Walsh was a bit like him, only “more appealing to women.” At first I thought he meant that Walsh’s movies were more appealing to women because they focused more on romance (which is typically marketed more towards women). But I’ve come to realize that what Ford meant was that Walsh was more interested in exploring the feelings of his female characters. Unlike the Hawksian woman, who proves her worth by acting just like a man (only with breasts — but not too big) and the women of Ford, who tend to be desexualized mother-figures, Walsh was interested in women as women. See again the remarkable The Roaring Twenties, which is a Cagney vehicle that achieves its genuinely tragic quality primarily because of the poignant performances of Priscilla Lane and Gladys George – as the women who are too good for Cagney and not good enough for him, respectively. As is often the case with Walsh, the women make the film.

And now, for my edification as well as yours, dear reader, here is a countdown of my top 20 personal favorite Raoul Walsh movies in order of preference:

20. They Died with Their Boots On (1941)
19. Regeneration (1915)
18. The Enforcer (1951)
17. What Price Glory? (1926)
16. Sadie Thompson (1928)
15. The Big Trail (Grandeur Version, 1930)
14. They Drive By Night (1940)
13. The Bowery (1933)
12. The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956)
11. Me and My Gal (1932)
10. Pursued (1947)
9. Sailor’s Luck (1933)
8. The Man I Love (1947)
7. The Thief of Bagdad (1925)
6. High Sierra (1941)
5. Gentleman Jim (1942)
4. The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
3. White Heat (1949)
2. Colorado Territory (1949)
1. The Roaring Twenties (1939)

About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

36 responses to “Eating (and Drinking and Sleeping) Raoul

  • Marilyn Ferdinand

    Nice essay, Michael. My favorite Walsh-directed film is The Strawberry Blonde, which feels absolutely perfect to me. I think Walsh’s interest in women as women gets its embodiment in his work as the sweetheart of Gloria Swanson in Sadie Thompson. The way he looks at her, looks past her tawdry past and chippie style, and really sees what a vulnerable, loving woman she is. That’s more than a character – that’s Walsh.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Well said, Marilyn. I too was struck by how the compassion with which Walsh’s character treats Sadie mirrors Walsh’s compassion as director. I was also blown away by The Revolt of Mamie Stover, which in many ways is a remake of Sadie Thompson. The key difference is that no male characters in that film are capable of loving Mamie for who she really is and yet Walsh’s compassionate point-of-view still shines through.

  • Fredrik Gustafsson

    This is an excellent post! For the last two years I’ve been re-watching all the Walsh films I’ve already seen and I’m constantly looking out for all those that I’ve missed so far. At the moment I’m reading Marilyn Ann Moss’s study of him, for the purpose of writing a review.

    The point you make about Walsh use of depth is particularly important I feel, because there is a key to his artistry there. I’ve always felt that there was a journalistic side to Walsh, that he always wanted to put his characters in the real world, in this world, and was going to great lengths to show what was happening in the back or on the far ends of the frame. Even when we are in-doors we can always see what is going on outside, through the windows. This is true from his early work in the 1910s, right up until the very last films.

    In the beginning of They Drive By Night (1940) Raft and Bogart makes a stop at a diner. In a shot we see some truck drivers very close to the camera. in the middle we see the counter where Ann Sheridan is taking orders, and in the far back we see an opening to the kitchen, where the chef is going about his business. There is absolutely no need for us to see that chef, and many might not even notice him, since our attention is with the people in the foreground. Yet he’s still there, and Walsh wanted him to be there, and his presence enlarges the film and the story, showing that there is a world outside the particular story that the film happens to tell.

    Even though Bazin wrote mainly about Wyler, Welles and Renoir, I think a case can be made that Walsh was more Bazinian then either of them…

    I wouldn’t put Walsh up there with the very greatest of American filmmakers, he’s behind Ford, Hawks, Welles, Lubitsch and a few others, but he’s definitely on the far side of paradise.

    you had a great list there. Two I would add to my own list would be Objective Burma! and Dark Command.

  • michaelgloversmith

    Thanks for the detailed response, Fredrik. You make a good point about Walsh’s “journalistic” side. I think this comes through especially strongly in period films like The Bowery, The Strawberry Blonde and Gentleman Jim. The period details are so lovingly done, especially because of what’s happening in the background.

    While I wouldn’t rate Walsh quite as highly as Ford, Hitchcock or Welles, I actually would rank him above Hawks. I love Hawks but Walsh is more of a visual poet and therefore his style speaks to me more.

  • silver price

    Walsh films regularly include models: not women modeling clothes, but scale models. Artists and Models has one of the best: a huge scale model of an Art Deco skyscraper complex. The skyscraper is incredibly futuristic looking. In fact, it looks like the buildings comic book artist Carmine Infantino would later draw for the planet Rann in Adam Strange (1959-1964). The skyscraper has many circular and rounded features. A spiral light seems to rotate in one of the towers. Judy Canova and Ben Blue have a big duet in a flowered arbor, making Canova one of many Walsh heroines associated with flowers. A similar arbor will have love scenes in College Swing. Towards the end, Blue climbs the arbor, then back down. It is a charming scene involving that Walsh favorite, heights.

  • david

    Wonderful essay,this is exactly what I need from a director I know nothing about before reading this. I need to return to it over and over again after I started watching his films.

  • chrisfilm

    Nice writeup. Glad to see Colorado Territory towards the top of your list. That’s been the only Walsh I’ve liked so far, but I’m eager to try more after reading this.

  • Grand Old Moviesg

    Great post on an overseen director. One of my favorite Walsh films is ‘Objective Burma,’ with a fluid use of both action and space, and also stillness – probably a quality we don’t associate with Walsh, but he could create tension in a frame by holding the camera still for long moments, only to have action erupt – I think of near the ending of ‘Objective Burma,’ when the tanks come roaring over the hill, almost seemingly out of nowhere. Walsh could also get this same quality from his actors; note how he uses both Lupino and Bogart in ‘They Drive By Night’ I(which they made before ‘High Sierra’). Lupino’s performance is often commented on in this film as her star-making moment (especially her courtroom scene), but also note how suddenly explosive Bogey can be in his scenes. Walsh seemed to like to work with more instinctual actors (such as Lupino or Cagney), probably because he could get such moments from them.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Thanks for the reply. I really like your comments on the “explosive” qualities of Walsh’s “instinctual” performers. I recently read Marilyn Moss’ Walsh bio and was not surprised to learn that Walsh frequently allowed his actors to improvise (the most famous example of which is probably Cagney’s prison cafeteria freak-out in White Heat). I think this is often what gives Walsh’s movies their distinctive energy. You might be interested to know that I’m writing another post soon comparing Walsh and Kathryn Bigelow.

      I also like Objective Burma but not as much as the other Flynns on the list.

  • Jake Cole

    Fantastic post. I’ve only seen a handful of Walsh pictures, but I’d rate all of them as fantastic. And though I completely agree that he has a definable style not often championed, part of what drew me to him was that old Hollywood workman quality; I didn’t even realize that so many classic movies that I loved were all by the same person until I started actually looking into Walsh’s filmography and realized I’d already seen some and not realized it. I want to get that recent Marilyn Ann Moss book on Walsh. I’ve heard good things.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Thanks for stopping by, Jake. I too used to think of Walsh as someone who had an “invisible” style in the best Hollywood tradition. However, the more I looked at his films, the more I started to discern a highly distinctive style. Believe it or not, it was the comedies (especially Sailor’s Luck, The Bowery and Me and My Gal) that really made me feel like I understood what Walsh was all about. I highly recommend the Moss book.

  • mercadeo en linea

    Walsh films regularly include models: not women modeling clothes, but scale models. Artists and Models has one of the best: a huge scale model of an Art Deco skyscraper complex. The skyscraper is incredibly futuristic looking. In fact, it looks like the buildings comic book artist Carmine Infantino would later draw for the planet Rann in Adam Strange (1959-1964). The skyscraper has many circular and rounded features. A spiral light seems to rotate in one of the towers. Judy Canova and Ben Blue have a big duet in a flowered arbor, making Canova one of many Walsh heroines associated with flowers. A similar arbor will have love scenes in College Swing. Towards the end, Blue climbs the arbor, then back down. It is a charming scene involving that Walsh favorite, heights.

  • Lindy Oates

    I think what I’ve liked best about both of the films we’ve watched in class is how much his female characters remind me of those in F. Scott Fitzgeralds writing, especially The Strawberry Blonde. If you haven’t already read it, I recommend reading his short story Winter Dreams. The female love interest in this book is a beautiful wispy woman, Judy, who is in love with a man for a period of time until another one comes along very much in the way Virginia is. She trails along the protagonist, Dexter, in very much the same way Virginia does Biff, a strategic kiss her and longing look there, and it works. One of my favorite quotes from that story (good lord there are so many…that man could write) is “When she had assured him that she had not kissed the other man he knew she was lying–yet he was glad that she had taken the trouble to lie to him.” This reminds me so much of Cagney’s I love her speech when she stands him up in the park. But in the end Judy she ends up married to someone just like her and Dexter is doing fine. Eddie’s heartbreaker from the Roaring Twenties reminds me of a little bit more self assured Daisy from The Great Gastby.

    What Raoul Walsh and F. Scott Fitzgerald have in common is that they give female characters humanity and personality while still letting them be a traditional female character. The outline of these characters is something you could find in other movies from this era, Arsenic and Old Lace for example. Mortimer’s wife, Elaine, is a nice girl who can be a little cheeky at times but other than that she’s fairly two dimensional. She’s cute and whine’s “Mortimer” really well. (No hard feelings toward Capra, that movie in wonderful.) In a Raoul Walsh film no female lead is left in the 2nd dimension. Right off the bat when we see Amy and Virginia on the bench we are shown their unique full personalities, which just keep growing the more we see them. Not only do they have personalities, they have dynamic ones that show a progression of change because of time and circumstance. For me, this is Raoul Walsh’s distinguishing feature. I have a hard time noticing (maybe because its my first watch) the foreground vs background action, the insane energy, and the wonderful losers being used in by him in particular, but his understanding of women and his portrayal of them on film is only paralleled by another master on a different medium.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Thanks for the detailed response, Lindy. I’ve never read “Winter Dreams” but will definitely check it out. I’m a big fan of GATSBY and some of Fitzgerald’s other stories. I also really like your distinction of having a female character with a full “humanity and personality” that can still be a “traditional female character.” One of the tragedies of contemporary Hollywood is that screenwriters seem to believe that having female characters behave just like men will somehow make their movies feminist!

  • Kate Malloy

    Both of Walsh’s films that we have viewed in class, “The Roaring Twenties” and “Strawberry Blond,” emphasize the vulnerable and child like ways of the lead male character, which happens to be Cagney in both films. Walsh also captures his deep understanding of women and their layered personalities in both films. This stylistic interpretation of male and female characters is in part, what makes Walsh an Auteur director.
    In “The Roaring Twenties,” Cagney’s character, Eddie returns home from WWI to find his job as a mechanic no longer available and finds himself lost, unsure what his next step might be. Eddie later teams up with Gladys George’s character, Panama, who teaches him all she knows about the bootlegging industry and makes Eddie into the temporary glorified gangster he becomes. It is Walsh’s portrayal of Panama’s complex character that is the driving force behind Eddie’s short lived success. Eddie needed Panama vs. Panama needing Eddie.
    Similarly in “Strawberry Blond,” Cagney’s character, Biff Grimes tries to establish himself as a reputable dentist in New York City after a 5 year jail stint for a crime committed while working for friend Hugo, played by Jack Carson. Biff and his friend Hugo, prior to Biff’s jail sentence, become friendly with Virginia Brush (the strawberry blond) played by Rita Hayworth and Amy Lind, played by Olivia de Havilland. Both men are after Virginia, but after Hugo and Virginia run off and get married, Biff sees the true beauty and wonderful qualities that make Amy the better fit for him. Amy becomes Biff’s driving force by keeping him out of trouble and as level headed as possible. Amy’s character develops as the film goes on from being just a girl, not looking for love or marriage, to becoming Biff’s soul mate and teaching Biff that someone’s true colors are worth investigating vs. just someone’s appearance. By the end of the film, Biff realizes he 100% made the right choice by marrying Amy, as she is the more realistic and grounded of the two women.
    Walsh allows the audience to gain a perspective of his personality by choosing male characters who are more or less losers trying to find their way in the complicated world and pairing them with complex, multi-layered women, who have a lot of good to teach these simple-minded men. Some believe Cagney was cast as Walsh’s alter ego and represents his positive qualities, By relating to his characters, Walsh’s unique style of film making, allows the audience to appreciate the relationships created between these men and women, and shapes Walsh into the recognizable filmmaker of his time.

  • Jonathan Carlson

    Although I have had the opportunity to see only 2 of Raoul Walsh’s films, The Roaring Twenties and Strawberry Blonde, I can see Walsh’s style begging to form. They are very similar in their cast type and in the plot. Both of Walsh’s movies take place in a metropolitan area and like stated above, his characters are always these “tough guys” who are hot tempered and throw themselves into situations not caring about the repercussions. Both films have the main character (James Cagney) chasing the more attractive woman who is with him for all the wrong reasons but is in both instances is let down and in a twist he ends up with girl who actually cares for him. If you take away the bootlegging and the power that Eddie had from the roaring twenties, this is practically the same movie.
    We didn’t see any incredible panoramic views as in The Big Trail. However, Walsh’s use of the camera was brilliant. He uses the wide angles a lot to capture the scene as a whole. I love how in the beginning of Strawberry Blonde when Biff is playing horse shoes in his backyard, the camera is focused on him and then begins to pan out into a larger frame and drifts into the neighbor’s yard and then focuses in on them. It was a nice smooth transition rather than just cutting away to the neighbors.

  • Isabella Wasilewski

    This is a wonderful post Mr. Smith! I enjoyed both films “The Roaring Twenties” and “The Strawberry Blonde.” Both films have the same actor, James Cagney as a man who always wants the girl he can’t have. I have noticed he always plays that part in those two films but I find it interesting. I don’t understand why he is a similar character in both films but it fits in the films perfectly.The first thing I love about Walsh is how he has a great understanding of women and that’s something I appreciate. I appreciate that because many directors don’t have much understanding of women. Someday some director had to. Am I right? The second and last thing I love about Walsh is how much wild energy he has in his films. The audience gets excited and wants more of it. I personally haven’t ever enjoyed films that had so much wild energy. Walsh has a talent and I am surprised that many people don’t know him and the films he directed. But I am happy that you had showed us his films because it makes me appreciate cinema even more.

  • Eric Gatti

    Just from the small sample size of Walsh films that I’ve seen (all 2 of them), he definitely establishes the “loveable loser” role in his main character. In regard to The Strawberry Blonde, Biff is constantly trying to better himself, but his irrational sense of pride gives way to his “… wild energy.” Quick to dive face first into a fist is one his more appealing characteristics. That coupled with his tenacious desire to attain his goals is why he appealed to me so much. I have to agree with you, Mr. Walsh definitely had a firm understanding of women. I enjoyed the fact that the two main female characters in the movie contrasted each other and that both had multiple layers as opposed to just conforming them both to fit a singular view of women in general. It’s no wonder why he had such an extensive list of famous female actresses that worked with him. Honestly, I can’t say that any scenes really stood out to me (in the 2 movies I’ve seen at least) where I felt like the background action could have taken center stage and been equally interesting. That’s not to say that I did not appreciate the background depth. I felt like there was always just enough going on to make the scenes look natural, but not enough to really stand out to me. Then again, since I’ve started taking these film classes … I feel like watching movies more than once is almost a necessity.

  • Eniko Albert

    Even though The Roaring Twenties and The Strawberry Blonde are different genres, there are so many similarities and same qualities that could lead us to assume that both are directed by the same director. Those similarities and qualities define Raoul Walsh unique style.
    First of all, the content of both movies is very similar, such as same plot: both stories took place in New York; the main character is played by the same actor, James Cagney, a character who in both movies is facing the same struggle: building his own “empire”- a career, to live a better life and besides all that, chasing the wrong women then ending up with the right one. The high energy and the heightened emotions in both movie shines throughout the characters, especially through Cagney’s both leading roles, Eddie, the bootlegger, from The Roaring Twenties and Biff, the dentist, from The Strawberry Blonde. In both scenarios he plays a role of a dynamic, stubborn, willful person who is capable of rising up from an unemployed to a successful “business man” – The Roaring Twenties and from a prisoner to a dentist in The Strawberry Blonde. Moreover, both masterpieces are field with actions and interesting twists that signify one of the main characteristics of Walsh’s unique style. The story of the “friend”, George in The Roaring Twenties and Hugo in The Strawberry Blonde, who turns out the enemy also is repeated in both movies.
    Furthermore, another main characteristic which reflects Raoul Walsh’s style is revealed by the strong, powerful female roles of Panama, played by Gladys George, Jean the successful singer, played by Priscilla Lane in The Roaring Twenties, and the two gorgeous, talented and funny characters from The Strawberry Blonde, my personal favorite Amy (Olivia De Havilland), and Virginia, role played by Rita Hayworth.
    As for the mise-en-scene in both movies Walsh mainly uses the same settings of the frame and angle of the camera; the images are mostly all the time widely framed in the center. Further similarities in both movies are the funny dialog, which is very pleasant to listen to, and lastly the beautiful musicality that follows through both of Walsh’s work.

  • Rafael Pasadyn

    I have not seen any other Raoul Walsh films besides the ones in class but he definitely has great characteristics that make him a top notch director. When I watched his films, the action pretty much took over everything for me. I am a big action film guy and even though The Roaring Twenties and The strawberry Blonde did not have a lot of action as modern day movies, I feel the way he filmed the action is what made it more interesting. Certain camera angles and cuts make a action scene go from average to spectacular. I felt that The Roaring Twenties was easy to follow and interesting to try to figure out when Eddie is going to get caught or if he will be able to get away with what he is doing. The same goes for Biff in The Strawberry Blonde. He represents a tough guy that no one seems afraid of but yet he is not afraid of anyone either.

    Another great aspect of Raoul Walsh films is the way he portrays women. He was more pro women and showing them for who they are vs. what men expect and want them to be. I feel other directors really did not open the doors as much for women to be as equal as men in films as much as Raoul Walsh did.

  • Liza A-F

    Walsh was able to do something many other filmmakers of his time weren’t able to do. He breathed life into his female characters, allowing them to go further than just an archetypal mold. Although Amy, in The Strawberry Blonde, ends up being far more conservative than the initial introduction of her suggests, her want to be seen as a feminist, progressive woman is still a far more believable and progressive concept for a women than many would see in a film made in the 1940’s. She is a working woman who seems unafraid to speak her mind. And she becomes a further progressive character when you remember the film is supposed to be set in the 1890’s. When comparing the characters Amy and Virginia in the beginning of the film, it would seem as though Virginia fit the standard expectations of a women of the time period to a T. But, even she, with time, is seen as a far more human character when she appears later in the film. The illusion she presents of the “perfect” woman is shattered in both the audience and protagonist’s eyes when you see the volatile woman she’s become. When she lights the cigarette in Biff’s living room it is a surprising moment, an action not expected of the seemingly flawless and unceasingly lady-like Virginia Brush. Panama in The Roaring 20’s is another leap from a waifish or demure female character, she being the one to corrupt James Cagney’s character instead of the other way around. Walsh made characters women could identify with. He created characters that were based in the realities of women instead of the societal expectations of women.

  • Bart Buczak

    All four of these aspects are evident in Raoul Walsh’s The Strawberry Blonde. For one, Cagney’s character, Biff Grimes, is always out to partake in an old fashioned rumble. Whether it be the next door college neighbors, defending Virgina’s honor near the Barbershop, or his own reputation at a nightclub, Grimes is out with his fists ready to square off against those he opposes. This act of aggression is not entirely even out of anger, as seen in the beginning of the film with the horseshoe incident, but out of good sport such as at the climax of the film after Biff has vented out all the anger and envy he felt throughout the years he goes on to fight the college students, with an optimistic return to his beloved Amy.
    Throughout the film as Biff is shown attempting to achieve his schooling in dentistry, but gets caught up in a risky partnership with Hugo. Not only does he lose Virginia, but is placed in prison throughout a period of his life due to Hugo’s mishaps. In the end of the film, Grimes has a revelation of how his life from all the struggles has turned out to be a happy one, sure he may lack the financial status, but from this affliction he came to be with Amy who has kept up a long lasting marriage, even when stuck behind bars. Spending time in prison may have destroyed his reputation in the outside world (lack of clientele), but this allowed for Grimes to pay all his attention to the profession he for so long wished to pursue, which kept being slowed down through distractions of his nonprofessional life outside of prison, such as his countless dates with Amy and Virginia. One in particular taking place in the park at night, which also addresses Walsh’s beautiful use of depth staging. As the main characters are present within the foreground, doing what they do, in the back you can make out other couples out on a night stroll, as well as the scenery with the street lights and the winding sidewalk going in between the trees.
    His attention to multiple personalities in his female characters shows his in depth approach towards the opposite sex. Amy, a young girl who makes a strong first impression towards men on her opposing stand towards the conventional ways of gender roles, but proves to be very sympathetic. Virginia on the other hand comes off as the traditional girl who follows the rules of the sexes, only to throw down the facade displayed in the beginning to uncover her assertive half that seems to dominate over the cowering Hugo.

  • Ed Guest

    Mr. Smith,

    Nice article on Walsh, I really enjoyed it. The movie I just saw, ‘Strawberry Blonde’ hits on several of the points you mentioned in your article. While you outlined how Walsh’s characteristics are relatable to his main characters, these characteristics are actually very relatable to many of the viewers. So many of us can actually relate to Cagney’s character Biff Grimes in the movie. How many times is the average man down on his luck and has to scavenge for a few dollars? How many of us guys yearn for the pretty popular girl when we know deep down that very well may not be the right girl, both in terms of our own social stature and the fact that girl won’t make you truly happy. It also appears that Walsh has had bad experiences with people that have used and manipulated him as these types of characters are prevalent in movies such as ‘Strawberry Blonde’ and ‘Roaring 20’s’. Then again, who in real life hasn’t come across these type of people? I can honestly say after watching the two excellent movies from Walsh show in class, I will be seeking out some of his other top rated movies to watch.

  • Tony Stoyanov

    Professor Smith,
    I really enjoyed both of Walsh’s films “The Roaring Twenties” and “The Strawberry Blonde”. I couldn’t agree more with the points made in this post. In the Roaring Twenties, Cagney’s character leaps into the bootlegging business without thinking twice about the consequences. He gets outsmarted by his partners and ends up with nothing because he was blind chasing a woman to stop and see what was happening around him. The same can be said about his character in The Strawberry Blonde. Cagney is chasing Virginia, but doesn’t realize who she really is until the end. While she’s made out to be a nice girl, in reality she’s the one sleeping around, as opposed to Olivia. His protagonists, in both movies that we’ve seen, are flawed, which makes them more human and more relatable to the audience. As mentioned in point two, his protagonists almost play a supporting role to other characters in the movie. The example of Biff in the Strawberry Blonde seen above is clear to see how Cagney plays, for the most part, a wingman to his friend. These films have made me appreciate Walsh as a director and The Strawberry Blonde has become one of my favorite movies of all time.

  • Aaron Eichhorst

    What I find most interesting in this article is the fact that Walsh’s career as a director, spanned over multiple decades. “The latter half of the twentieth century,” as mentioned above. Being able to deliver these traits and characteristics constantly in a portfolio of films throughout his life is very commendable. From a technology standpoint, the jump from silent film to sound and then to color, would require adaptation and an acceptance for change. Couple this with the fact that social standards and fashion trends were also changing over these years as well. I feel he embraces these changes in his films and uses it to identify specific eras and really set the tone and plot of the films. As an auteur, Walsh shows an ability to cast interesting protagonists who are often down on their luck. He compliments this with a strong supporting female role and uses depth staging to tie it all together. Even having seen only a couple films by Walsh, it is still clear to identify similarities in his movies. I’d be interested in watching more films by this director to get a broader understanding of his style.

  • Rashad Anabtawi

    I must say Raoul Walsh’s work has taken me quite some time to fully grasp. His films indeed hold a fluid form of wild energy. I too have only seen two of Walsh’s films, Roaring Twenties and The Strawberry Blonde, and after some time I understood that wild energy, as seen from the very first moments of the Roaring Twenties to the last moments of The Strawberry Blonde. These moments are held up on no other than the talent of James Cagney, the reoccurring star in Walsh’s films, who can notoriously blend in sarcastic humor with spontaneity and aggressive spunk, reminding us that Cagney could punch someone (or get punched) any minute now. This leads perfectly into how Walsh use of the loveable character can be seen as a common enjoyable motif across his films. Cagney as aforementioned is extremely confident and capable of fitting into these roles, keeping them lively with sarcastic humor and witty dialogue. Personally I haven’t seen Walsh experiment too much with depth of field since I had only seen two of his films, but I can I say that as of now after watching the John Ford special, it was clear to me that from the firs shots of his films I could see some very distinct advanced character placement that beautifully and cinematically balanced out the shot, to the effect as you mention it is as if you could take a snapshot of it and it would look like a painting. Although it is undeniable, Raul Walsh understood the ladies, better yet he understands the frustrations and euphoria of being with one; and, of course, giving man his opportunity to humorously or tragically fumble it up. It is a refreshing surprise to see the liberty and depth that Raoul’s female leads go to in much a time where many young actresses seemed to strive for a single approach to female characters, that of the submissive and vulnerable, but upright and moral woman. In short Raoul knew not only women but the subtle enjoyments that make relationships as well. Both films address the age old topic of wanting what you can’t have, but The Strawberry Blonde went in a new direction when the extremely layered female characters began speaking out about their opinions of relationships and sex. To u the modern view it seems like a step in a very healthy young adult life, but for the time period (especially the one portrayed in The Strawberry Blonde) it was a pretty bold statement to make for film. I too hopefully will pick up some of Raoul Walsh’s films.

  • Holly Dunworth-Miller

    Unlike many of the acclaimed directors of Raoul Walsh time, Walsh had a depth to his pictures that explored the characters development regardless of their situation. Unfooled by his “tough guy” demeanor Walsh’s ability to capture women in the sense that in the two films I have seen, Walsh gives his female characters a sense of reliability and character dimension. Unlike films today like the departed and stereotypical romantic comedies, Walsh doesn’t demise the female presence. By far the strongest characters in both the Strawberry Blonde and the Roaring Twenties are the female characters; it gives a balance to the self-obsessed males that ignore the females who actually turn out to be the saving grace in the plot. More so for me, I found that Walsh’s characters complement one another in one film and then completely contrast in the next. For instance, Biff and Amy bring out the characteristics they ignore. Amy supports Biff during a time when nobody else would and Biff toughens Amy up. In contrast in the Roaring Twenties James Cagney character relies heavily on Jean who later breaks his heart. You’re wording that “ His charters are beautiful losers” perfectly sums up I feel Walsh’s true directorial desire. Although his character dimensions are to be admired. His appeal to make the background in the Strawberry Blonde feel intriguing to the audience in the sense that it could take on its own storyline and audience attention. Walsh carefully interweaves the background actors with the main characters that wraps the believability and beauty of Walsh’s direction together.

  • Brian Y Kim

    The two films The Roaring Twenties and The Strawberry Blonde are two different genres and filmed in different years by Raoul Walsh. Besides the film was placed in New York and the main character was same person by James Cagney as Eddie in The Roaring Twenties and as Biff in The Strawberry Blonde, there was not much that these films have in common. However, after watching the two films there were some similarities that gave me strong idea that it was Walsh’s movie which supports the auteur theory.
    James Cagney was main character in both films and he performed the Walsh’s wild energy very well also with being beautiful loser. Interestingly Hugo from The Strawberry Blonde and Lloyd from The roaring Twenties are James Cagney’s best friends, but they take away the girl that James Cagney wanted. Hugo and Lloyd are both taller and mostly have better advantages than Cagney, which it made Cagney to look loser compared to his friends. But Cagney has this wild energy which was shown in both films. In The Strawberry Blonde Cagney was always involving in a fight like a scrapper and in The Roaring Twenties there were many scenes he punches people at first.
    I agree that Walsh has good understanding of woman. In both films there were two women played important roles. In The Roaring Twenties there was Panama and Jean played by Gladys George and Priscilla Lane and in The Roaring Twenties there was Virginia and Amy played by Rita Hayworth and Olivia de Havilland. Jean and Virginia was the first girl that James Cagney wanted in the film, but his wish did not come true. However, there was Panama and Amy for Cagney to help recover from his struggle. Panama and Amy was huge role in the film not only as just women actress for romance, but a person who really made Eddie and Biff in the film.
    Based on two Walsh’s films that I have watched, there were some auteur theory, but to catch Walsh’s mise-en-scene and cinematography style I have to watch more Walsh’s film. With two films I have watched so far, I look forward to watch another movie by Raoul Walsh.

  • David Kolodziejski

    It isn’t very difficult to distinguish “Strawberry Blonde” as a Raoul Walsh film. Strawberry Blonde exemplifies wild bursts of energy, played by beautiful losers with great acting from female roles. Strawberry Blonde had enormous amounts of electrifying energy that kept you captivated throughout the entire film and you can also see this effect in “The Roaring Twenties”. There isn’t a moment in the film that felt dull or boring. For instance, moments throughout the film in which Biff gets into fights for almost no apparent reason. This happens quite a few times throughout the film but we are still eager to witness what will happen next.

    Raoul Walsh’s use of beautiful losers is one of his greatest strengths in cinematography. The Strawberry Blonde revolves around a gentleman by the name of Biff who always happens to get the “Worse end of the stick”. Everybody in the film tends to use him and make Biff suffer for it. Biff loses his “Ideal Woman” to the man in which promised Biff that he can have her. Later, throughout the film he ends up being thrown in Jail for 5 years. Biff always seems to be the scapegoat for everybody else’s misfortunes. In Both the Roaring Twenties and Strawberry Blonde, Raoul Walsh shows the growth within these Beautiful Losers and how they evolve to be something more. In the Roaring Twenties, Eddie goes from Crime Lord to a selfless man and in the Strawberry Blonde, a man who was once seeking vengeance and retribution for everything bad that’s happened to him now realizes how great his life is and goes on to live it.

    The influence and importance of women in both films does not only distinguish this these films as creations of Raoul Walsh but are also what make the film great. The woman in both films are individuals throughout the film and mean far more than supporting actresses in these film. The Women in these films add a different taste for the audience. For instance, when Biff is alone with Amy the first time, Amy is completely disregards the expectations of what it means to be a woman at that time. In addition, the female characters in this film are irreplaceable. What I mean by this is that without them, we wouldn’t care much for Biff or Hugo or the film for that matter. Even though we were at the edge of our seats anticipating what’s going to happen next, whether it’s with Biff or Eddie, it is the vital roles of the female characters that drives us to have high emotional attachments to the other characters throughout the film. Strawberry Blonde and The Roaring Twenties would not be a very good movie without female roles.

  • Alexis Racine

    I agree completely with the points made about Walsh’s films! I particularly agree with two points more than the others. The first one is the beautiful losers. Even having only seen The Roaring Twenties and The Strawberry Blonde, this theme was quite evident. To elaborate, we tend to develop a connection with the protagonist, who can never seem to get what they desire; they’re losers. Yet we sympathize/empathize with them and come to love them!
    The second point that I particularly agree with is the fact that Walsh has a phenomenal understanding on women. In his films, the women actually play a role and have personalities. Often times, women in films are used as props or just characters that move the plot along; and most commonly, a goal for the male protagonist. However, in Walsh’s films, the female characters have layers! Much like women in real life. It is often joked, but in a serious manner, that women are hard to understand to men. Yet Walsh exemplifies great understanding with his female characters. So much so that I feel that the women who are watching his movies can understand the female characters and the men who watch cannot.
    All in all, I really enjoyed watching his films and do intend on being intentional about seeking out more of his movies and dissecting them by looking for these characteristics!

  • Danielle Lohens

    Similarly to how authors have common themes and character-types in their books, I believe directors who are true auteurs have overlapping themes and character-types in theirs films. My favorite thing about the two films I have seen by Raoul Walsh (“The Roaring Twenties” and “The Strawberry Blonde”) was how much they had in common even though they were different genres. His terrific understanding of women and the fact that his characters tend to be beautiful losers was evident in both films. “The Roaring Twenties” was one of my favorite gangster films that I have watched, mostly because of its female character dynamics. It was clear that Walsh had a firm grasp on the female perspective. Panama Smith was a great example of a beautiful loser. It would be impossible not to feel sympathy in regards to her yearning feelings for Eddie Bartlett. Likewise, it would be impossible not to feel sympathy for Biff Grimes/Amy Lind in regards to his/her yearning feelings for Virginia Brush/Biff Grimes. The female characters in “The Strawberry Blonde” and the movie as whole was a great depiction of life for woman and dating in the early 1940s in America. My favorite character in the film was Amy Lind. Her character was very easy to identify with. She was the most sympathetic character of all. Both films commented on the harsh truth that even if you love someone, it doesn’t mean that you should be with them. “Some Came Running” also illustrated this point. I loved the message at the end of “The Strawberry Blonde” that you should marry for love and not for money or looks. Lastly, Biff Grimes was another example of a beautiful loser. Even though he had negative qualities and little money, he had a great moral character (in opposition to his counterpart, Hugo Barnstead). Over all, it is evident that Raoul Walsh was a true auteur. I love his character types and the wild energy of his films. I look forward to watching more of his films and further exploring him as an auteur.

  • Daniel Lu

    After watching both The Roaring Twenties and The Strawberry Blonde, it was clear to see examples of Raoul Walsh’s style (which you so kindly wrote about in this blog). Both films had a singular wild energy, in which the characters played by James Cagney have a particular goal. In the Roaring Twenties Eddie is driven to expand his bootlegging empire, which eventually leads to his downfall. While in The Strawberry Blonde, the movie revolved around Biff’s ploy for revenge against Hugo. Another common point in both of Walsh’s films were that the characters were “beautiful losers”. In The Roaring Twenties Eddie comes to terms with losing Jean to Lloyd, after seeing them together as a family with their son. He is such a beautiful loser that he goes on to kill George (who has been threatening Lloyd), and dies in the process. In The Strawberry Blonde most of the film is a flashback depicting how Hugo has wronged Biff, and has stolen Virginia from him. When Hugo finally shows up to his appointment, Biff has a change of heart and doesn’t kill him. In both films Walsh makes great use of depth in scenes. In The Roaring Twenties made use of many wide angle camera shots, such as when Eddie was stealing booze from the warehouse. The outside shots of the warehouse gave us full view of the path leading up to the warehouse, the side of the warehouse where the guards were lying, and the front of the warehouse itself. In The Strawberry Blonde there were several scenes which showed great depth. While in the park we were always able to see other patrons in the park, or if anyone were approaching the bench. Just from viewing two of his films, it is clear to see how Raoul Walsh is a true auteur. The style of both films are undoubtedly that of Raoul Walsh.

  • Rebeka Nekolova

    Personally, my favorite aspect of Walsh’s films that’s distinct from other filmmakers is how tastefully and realistically he portrays women. Nowadays in films, female characters can be unbearable to watch either due to their lack of substance/character, their neediness/reliance to be with a man, their oversexualization or all of the above. I think that Walsh’s portrayal of women was progressive. In The Strawberry Blonde, the most seemingly dense character would be Virginia, played by Rita Hayworth. Although her character came off as ‘proper’, picky and only wanting to be with a man that could financially support her, through terrific script the viewer is able to understand that there’s more to Virginia than meets the eye. Her dialogue was very humorous, and although initially you don’t want to like Virgina, she grows on you. Amy, played by Olivia de Havilland, has not only a humorous character but very witty and confident as well. What I loved most about Amy’s character, is that in the beginning, Biff (as well as the audience) views Amy as this overwhelmingly progressive woman, who does what she wants without worrying about judgment. Then later in the film, we understand that it’s mostly just talk. Amy’s character is very layered, and not one dimensional, and we begin to see this as the movie unravels. Walsh is able to make layered female characters that are in some way smart, confident and unique; it’s easily recognizable that he understands women.
    It’s very recognizable that The Strawberry Blonde and The Roaring Twenties are made by Walsh. These are the only two films I’ve seen by him, but even just comparing these two they have similar aspects. For one, they both portray ‘the beautiful loser’ as you stated above in your article. In The Strawberry Blonde, Biff is kind of the underdog of his group of friends, and he’s not as rich, successful or conventionally good looking as his friend Hugo. In The Roaring Twenties, Eddie only had a short run of success with his bootleg, until it shut down and he went broke. From these two films, the protagonist either never reaches a high status of success in anything, or he only stays there for a short amount of time. Both films also have a similar love dynamic. Biff desperately wanted to be with Virgina, even though it was clear that he and Amy were meant for each other. And Eddie ends up wanting to be with Jean, even though Panama and him were always close to each other, and she was always there for him. Just by watching these two films and recognizing only several similar aspects, you can identify them being Walsh films.
    Lastly, even though The Strawberry Blonde came out in 1941, the screenplay is so unbelievably well written, that the exact same story can be made in modern day. The Strawberry Blonde is timeless.

  • Lynn

    I just had to see another Raoul Walsh before I comment. So after seeing a little bit of Thief of Bagdad and Dark Command, I have to agree with #2 -that “his characters tended to be beautiful losers”. There’s Eddie Bartlett who couldn’t get a job post war, Biff Grimes who studied dentistry while in jail, Abu who’s a thief and Bob Seton who became the town marshal not being able to read and spell. We’ve discussed about how the characters in the movies correlates with the directors’ own persona or how they like to perceive themselves and indeed I could see a very constant trait in the characters in his movies. They’re all notorious with their soft side and vulnerability exposed by the pursuit of women that are usually out of their leagues. His use of women characters to draw out different angles in his male characters is brilliant!

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