One night, in the autumn of 1929, Raoul Walsh was driving along a desolate highway in the Utah desert, scouting locations for his next movie. Suddenly, a jackrabbit skittered across the road. Hurtled into the air by the force of the speeding jeep, the rabbit crashed through the windshield, spraying Walsh’s face with glass. When doctors told him they would have to remove his right eye, he acquiesced; what else, after all, could he do? But when they suggested he be fitted for a glass replacement, however, Walsh adamantly refused. “Why”, he said. “I’d have to take it out every time I got in a fight.”
And there you have him: tough, resolute, yet always prepared to hit misfortune on the chin with a good quip. Whether or not the tale is true is, by now, nearly impossible to ascertain, for when it came to the spinning of the Walsh legend, the director was his own best promoter. His autobiography, published in 1974, is a tangled web of tall tales and larger-than-life characters, all wound, not too surprisingly, around Walsh(1). Among his delightful array of inventions are these: that he visited Mark Twain on his deathbed, that Buffalo Bill Cody, Edwin Booth, and John L. Sullivan were frequent guests at his parents’ home in New York, that he once personally told Bugsy Siegel to take a hike, and that he had no idea who Enrico Caruso was until his sister Elizabeth sang a duet with the famous tenor in their living room. (He never had a sister named Elizabeth.) Not that his life needed embellishing. He came from that generation of film titans – Howard Hawks, John Huston, and John Ford were others – who seemed every bit as large as the pictures they brought to the screen. He chased women, got into fistfights, and gambled away more money than most directors make in a lifetime. “Lets get the hell out of here!” he’d bellow at his crew rather than “cut” (p. 5). By the time of World War II, the pinnacle of his six-decade career, Walsh was one of the most respected directors in Hollywood, producing, in a mad dash of creativity, such screen classics as The Roaring Twenties (1939), They Drive by Night (1940), High Sierra (1941), Gentleman Jim (1942), Objective, Burma! (1945), and White Heat (1949), the iconic closing lines of which could have been a credo for Walsh himself: “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” Yet for all those today who remember James Cagney’s fiery demise in that film, few could certainly summon the name of the director who brought it to the screen. By some curious oversight of history, Walsh’s work has remained obstinately half-known, as has his life, which is unfortunate, not only because his films are worth remembering (they certainly are) but because the stories that have crept out about the man himself leave you craving more. The important thing about the glass eye quip is that it has the distinct flavour of Walsh, the harsh reality washed down with a slug of dry wit.
Marilyn Ann Moss, in her new biography of Walsh, the first to appear on the director since his own in the 1970s, astutely singles out the wreck in the Utah desert as a defining moment in his life. Another man might have been crushed by the event, for the accident could not have come at a more inopportune time for Walsh. The stock market had just crashed, his first marriage had recently ended in a nasty divorce, and, like everyone else in Hollywood, he was struggling to make the conversion to sound, a transition long and rightly feared by the established film community, many of whom would not weather the storm. Walsh, however, took the handicap and turned it to his advantage. His vision reduced and flattened, he took hold of the new medium lock, stock and barrel, directing his most ambitious project to date, The Big Trail (1930). Common knowledge at the time stated that westerns, with their vast landscapes and laconic characters, would not translate as talkies. Yet Walsh discovered whole new vistas in sound: horses’ hooves pounding, whips cracking, dogs barking, owls hooting, the scuffle of men as they fought, and, of course, the thunderous crash of gunshots.
Some directors you can sum up in a single word, so inimitable is their signature upon the screen. With Alfred Hitchcock that word is “suspense”; with Bernardo Bertolucci, obviously, it is “sex”; with Ingmar Bergman “desolation”. In Walsh’s case, the word is “adventure”. If you think dashing Persian heroes were invented in the climate-controlled confines of the Disney studio, try The Thief of Bagdad, Walsh’s luminous 1924 film starring Douglas Fairbanks, a star who proves that sheer athleticism can still outdo anything created by CGI. In Gun Fury (1953), he took a narrow conceit – a single stagecoach robbery – and spun it into a tightly wound tale of kidnapping and revenge. Then there’s They Drive by Night, one of the earliest road movies on the map and a precursor to such classic buddy vehicles as The Silver Streak (Arthur Hiller, 1976) and Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991). You may never have imagined that truck drivers led exciting lives but after seeing George Raft and Humphrey Bogart behind the wheel you’ll think there was nothing more thrilling. The duo play brothers Joe and Paul Fabrini, wildcatters who roam the highways of California trying to strike it rich. Along the way, they battle greedy distributors, loan collectors, and the elements, with enough time in between to exchange wisecracks with fast-talking dames in roadside diners. Even the love talk has an edge that could crumple your fender. “It’s a classy chassis”, Raft says, looking Ann Sheridan up and down. But she’s not having any: “You couldn’t even afford the headlights.”
Walsh made his name in the west, and he tried to claim its rugged landscapes as his birthplace – sometimes he said Montana, sometimes Texas – but his actual origins were much more effete. He was born Albert Edward Walsh on 11 March 1887, the son of a wealthy New York clothing manufacturer. (His father, Thomas, supplied the uniforms Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders wore when they charged San Juan Hill.) When Walsh was 15, however, his mother died, a tragedy that would mark him for life. “I was quite unprepared for the sudden blow that left me motherless at fifteen”, he wrote, over 70 years later. “The terrible thing was that she was gone and I was only half a person.” (p. 1) That is a startling admission, especially from a man who so frequently veiled his feelings behind a mask of stoicism, though fans of White Heat shouldn’t be too surprised. His father’s reaction was to send the boy packing, which sounds abominably callous and cruel, like something straight out of Dickens. In fact, it was just what Walsh wanted most: escape. He sailed to Havana with his uncle, and thence to Vera Cruz, where he learned to ride and rope from a horse trader named Ramirez. He joined a cattle drive and made his way north to Texas, finding work as a horse breaker, a gravedigger, an anesthetist, and a cowhand.
His leap into drama was purely accidental, occurring one day in San Antonio when a local theatre production needed a cowboy to ride a horse onstage. Small as the part was, the acting bug had got him. Before long he was in Los Angeles, appearing in westerns for D. W. Griffith, where his athletic build and talent on horseback made him a natural stuntman. He took falls, leapt onto horses, and jumped through saloon windows. Griffith took an instant liking to Walsh, seeing in the handsome young cowboy potential he didn’t even see himself. “Someday I’ll make you a director”, he told him. “I don’t know why he said that”, Walsh admitted later. “Maybe because he thought I was a lousy actor.” (p. 29) But Griffith was as good as his word. When he struck a deal with Pancho Villa to film the story of his life, he sent Walsh down to Mexico on a dual assignment: to play the young Villa and to capture footage of the actual Revolution as it took place. Apparently, the ethical dilemma of what they were doing, both glorifying a murderous bandit and helping him with his finances, didn’t cross their minds:
I used to get him [Villa] to put off his executions. He used to have them at four or five in the morning, when there was no light. I got him to put them off until seven or eight. I’d line the cameramen up, and they’d put these fellows against the wall and then they’d shoot them. Fellows on this side with rocks in their hands would run in, open the guys’ mouths, and knock the gold teeth out. (p. 37)
The film is lost to us today, but the results couldn’t have been too shabby because a year later when Griffith needed help shooting the battle scenes in The Birth of a Nation (1915), he asked Walsh to lend him a hand. You can see him in the film as John Wilkes Booth, glowering behind a fake mustache, and lunging to the stage after shooting Lincoln. Walsh, for his part, studied Griffith assiduously, even going so far as to buy the same white roadster with his initials engraved on the door. It was from Griffith that he picked up the habit of memorising a script before every shoot and his peculiar practice of walking away from a scene while it was still being shot. He also learned the importance of the dramatic crescendo to build tension in a story, that ratcheting up of suspense that characterises so much of his work, and how to meld grandeur and intimacy so seamlessly.
Yet for all his preternatural talent, Walsh might easily have been forgotten by history, joining the ranks of such modestly successful directors as W. S. Van Dyke and George Marshall, men whose careers were long and productive but little remembered today. With the exception of a few pinpoints of light, his career during the 1920s and 1930s was undistinguished, producing the kind of films one might now call “popcorn movies”: buddy pictures, romantic comedies, light entertainment. He even directed a musical, St. Louis Blues (1939), starring Dorothy Lamour. His career might have continued in such an unremarkable vein had not an unlikely hero come to the rescue: Jack Warner. A figure both feared and ridiculed throughout Hollywood, Warner nonetheless had a sharp eye for talent, and when Walsh’s contract with Paramount expired the mogul snapped him up. Walsh often jokingly complained about working for Warner, but in truth he was one of the few people who got along well with the studio head. Memos between the two are lighthearted and fond and filled with Walsh’s misspelled Yiddishisms, which he inserted to tease the boss. In return, Warner favored Walsh with choice projects and hefty sums of money when his horseracing debts became too much to handle.
If for nothing else, we owe Warner for his observation of Walsh: “Raoul’s idea of a tender love scene is to burn down a whorehouse”(2). It is an incisive remark, one part compliment and one part sneer, and its omission from Moss’ book is telling, for Moss displays the patience of a good detective, sifting through mountains of dusty production notes, but without the bloodhound’s nose for the kill. She acknowledges Walsh’s conservative political leanings, while entirely excising the story, proudly told by the director himself, that he once met with Adolf Hitler. A more intrepid investigator, too, might have shed further light in the bedroom, the setting for three tumultuous marriages and a string of sexual conquests that included Beatrice Lillie, Ethel Barrymore, Fifi D’Orsay and, possibly, Gloria Swanson. As for Walsh’s three stepchildren (he had no biological heirs of his own), Moss proves even more tight-lipped than the director himself: “He was no more keen on fatherhood at this time in his life than he was on marriage. He never saw his boys, and Marilynn [his stepdaughter by his second marriage] seemed to grow more fond of her stepfather than he of her.” (p. 132) Enough said about that. In 1947, Walsh wed Mary Simpson. He was 60, she was 24. Blue-eyed, blonde and vivacious, Mary, like her husband, was not immune to the attentions of the opposite sex, especially when Walsh was busy looking the other way. During the filming of Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951) on the Riviera, she was frequently spotted disappearing with French director Edmond Greville, and later, on location in Florida for Distant Drums (1951), with Gary Cooper. If any of these dalliances went beyond harmless flirtations, though, Moss doesn’t want to know anything about it. “The actor [Cooper] looks shy but smitten in photographs taken on the shoot”, she reports, quickly adding, lest we get the wrong idea, “[But] the attraction eventually played itself out” (p. 311). Maybe, but anyone familiar with Cooper will certainly have his doubts.
Not that Walsh makes for an easy subject. His paper trail is scanty, leaving few letters, no journals, and an autobiography filled with more historical inaccuracies than They Died with Their Boots On (1941). (Among other omissions, Walsh forgot to mention both of his first two wives.) His oeuvre, on the other hand, is prodigious, presenting enough material to make even Anthony Trollope gasp. With so many films to cover, Moss invariably gets left in the dust, straggling through his career picture-by-picture, for the most part leaving critical assessment to past reviewers, a process that, if anything, shortchanges Walsh. The Big Trail, after all, was a box office dud in its own day (so was Citizen Kane [Orson Welles, 1941] for that matter) but it is still a stunning picture, raucous, harrowing and brimming with life. When the camera pans down from the sky to reveal the pioneers crossing the vast empty plain, the shot prefigures not only Walsh’s own future westerns but the epic sagas of Hawks and Ford, Red River (1948) and The Searchers (1956) respectively, in which the feebleness of man is exposed by the majesty of the landscape.
If Walsh’s years at Warner Bros., the studio where he worked from 1939 to 1951, shine brighter than the rest that is because he was that rare breed of director who genuinely loved the studio system. He even said that he preferred it when the studio dropped a script off on his lawn the morning after he finished shooting the last one, a joke that didn’t stray far from the truth. Critics today often damn the studio system for being factory-like, the implication being that it replaced creativity with simple drudgery, but Walsh reminds us that some artists do their best work when they’re toiling on an assembly line. In his years at Warners, he directed, or had a hand in directing, over 30 pictures. (By comparison, in the same period, Preston Sturges, no slouch himself, helmed a measly dozen.) But what pictures! If you want to see the gangster film at its glorious peak, look no further than The Roaring Twenties, his gritty tale of Prohibition bootlegging and murder. Or, if that’s not your brand of whiskey, try Pursued (1947), his strange but delectable mixture of western and film noir. In Objective, Burma! he made a grizzled soldier out of Errol Flynn, no mean feat, and in High Sierra he made a star of Humphrey Bogart, shaping his persona for a decade to come. Walsh’s protean nature made him suitable for almost any project, and the studio, accordingly, worked him hard. Warner Bros. may have made Walsh but it was Walsh who defined Warner Bros.
Yet if his years at Warners revealed his manifold talents, so too did they reveal his limits. Like the vast majority of directors of his generation, Walsh didn’t write his own films, leaving the penning of his projects to men more suited to the vocation. At Warners, this was no handicap, for the studio in the 1940s had one of the finest stables of screenwriters in the business – Jerry Wald, John Huston, Robert Buckner, Ivan Goff, the Epstein twins, and William Faulkner, among other thoroughbreds – and the results are palpable:
Verna: I’d look good in a mink coat, honey.
Cody Jarrett: You’d look good in a shower curtain.
– White Heat
Moss, in her book, likes to point out that Walsh often retooled dialogue with his actors during production, but after his departure from the studio the quality of his scripts appreciably declined. It didn’t hurt him either that the actors at his disposal (Cagney, Bogart, Mitchum) hewed so closely to the Walshian ideal: tough, stoic, masculine, but not without a little dirt under their fingernails. His most fruitful association of the decade, of course, was with Flynn, with whom he made seven pictures. The pair got on famously, both on and off the set. Perhaps the best-known anecdote involving the two has Walsh kidnapping John Barrymore’s corpse from the morgue and propping it on a chair in Flynn’s living room to await the actor’s return. Moss neither confirms nor denies the story, but Flynn swears to it in his autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways(3). Like Walsh, he thought it was a pretty clever prank.
And so the legend lives on, which is perhaps the most fitting tribute to Walsh. We’ll never know for certain whether he and Winston Churchill actually called each other “Walshie” and “Winnie” when they met (probably not), or whether, during his periodic visits to Hearst Castle, he bedded his romantic conquests in Napoleon’s old bed. But who cares? If there’s a theme that unites both Walsh the man and Walsh the artist it is this: there is nothing so boring as the truth. His life, like the best of his films, was just another tall tale, and maybe that’s how it should remain. So think of it that way, as a thrilling ride, a rollicking adventure, a valiant charge: in other words, just another trip to the movies.
Marilyn Ann Moss, Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director, The University Press of Kentucky, 2011.
- Raoul Walsh, Each Man in His Time, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1974.
- Warner quoted in Richard Schickel, “We Shall Not See His Like Again”, The Wall Street Journal 2 July 2011: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303339904576405961417468834.html?mod=WSJ_topics_obama.
- Errol Flynn. My Wicked, Wicked Ways: The Autobiography of Errol Flynn, Cooper Square Press, New York, 2003.