“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)