With pretentious films all the rage today—pictures told backward, jumbled chronology, jittery camera, rapid-fire editing throughout, confusing story-lines, tons of special effects—I often find myself saying (out loud sometimes), “Where the hell is Raoul Walsh when we need him!?” Because Walsh (1887-1980) was the epitome of good, solid, craftsmanlike, unobtrusive, vigorous and forthright picturemaking. In the best American tradition. To say that I miss this is an understatement.
The man I knew was a lot like his movies too—unpretentious, adventurous, funny, tough, warm—he called me “Pedro,” and when he went blind toward the end of his long life and I’d ask him how it was going, all he ever said was, “Pretty tough, Pedro,” and left it at that. There was no bullshit in his pictures either.
Raoul started out in the movies as an actor: first, because he could ride a horse well, and second, because he was a damn good actor and the camera liked him. His most infamous role was as Abe Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth in D.W. Griffith’s epoch-making The Birth of A Nation in 1915. His last appearance as an actor was in his own Sadie Thompson in 1928, a year before the terrible freak accident that took him out of acting for good. While starring in and directing In Old Arizona (1929), he was driving through the desert at night when a jackrabbit jumped into his windshield and put out Raoul’s right eye.
Because he was an actor, however, he was able to help his players throughout the rest of a lengthy career. The brilliant James Cagney, whom Walsh directed in five pictures, told me once that Raoul was his idea of a real director. Which was what? I asked. Cagney answered, “A real director is a guy who, if I don’t know what the hell to do, can get up and show me!” (For more on Walsh, see the chapter on him in my interview book, Who the Devil Made It; and more on Cagney in the chapter on him in my Who the Hell’s In It.)
We’re going to go through all the movies I saw 1952-1970 which Walsh had anything to do with, 72 in all, listed in the order they were seen. The ratings and comments are from the card-file I kept through those years. Most of these films are available on DVD.
GLORY ALLEY (1952; d: Raoul Walsh).
1952: (Elaborately produced, but muddled and confused little melodrama about a boxer who quits the ring — with some interesting New Orleans locations and atmosphere.)
Added 1965: Fair* (The script is pretty stupid, both in motivations and in dialogue, but Walsh’s personality and his vigorous, adventurous spirit invests the picture with a fast pace and a believable mood and density which would be conspicuously lacking without him.)
HIGH SIERRA (1941; d: Raoul Walsh).
1952: (Very well acted and directed fugitive-on-the-run melodrama; fast and exciting.)
Added 1961: Exceptional (The last in the 1930’s-style Warner gangster films and the one that made Bogart a star: in the role of a disillusioned, aging gangster the world has passed by. Beautiful in its classic simplicity and epic conception, brilliantly played, superbly directed.)
Added 1962: (Certainly one of Walsh’s masterpieces, a deeply moving tragedy; Bogart’s performance of the doomed man is a masterpiece in itself. One of the great American films.)
BATTLE CRY (1955; d: Raoul Walsh).
1955: Fair- (Elaborately produced, long and generally typical war-glorification with the usual emphasis on romance rather than battle; some good acting, some horrible; slickly, competently directed.)
Added 1963: Good* (Not one of Walsh’s finest, but typically vigorous, rousing, gaudy, and effective.)
THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915; d: D.W. Griffith).
See the introduction above for Walsh’s connection to this controversial yet enormously influential classic. I saw the film four times between 1957 and 1965, and didn’t mention Raoul once: his part is pretty short, and he was already directing.
THE SHERIFF OF FRACTURED JAW (1958; d: Raoul Walsh).
1958: Poor (Except for Mr. [Kenneth] More’s delightful British manner and excellent comic sense, this awkward, self-conscious, tedious, over-long attempt at spoofing westerns makes a resounding, hollow dud. In contrast to the wonderful days of silent comedies that piled joke-upon-joke in a never-ending avalanche, milking, redoing, timing, this repetitious nonsense about an Englishman in the Wild West tells the same gag for nearly two hours. After the first ten minutes, it’s pretty old!)
THE WORLD IN HIS ARMS (1952; d: Raoul Walsh).
1959: (Exciting, fast moving and colorful 1850’s action saga centering around seal hunting, and the buying of Alaska from the Russians; very well directed and photographed in Walsh’s typically masculine, boisterous style.)
Added 1966: Good (The kind of thing [Clark] Gable would have been better suited to than [Gregory] Peck, and Ann Blyth and her plot are extremely disadvantageous. The supporting characters —- like Anthony Quinn — have more of the Walsh gusto; but it is an extremely likeable movie, with the director’s personality all over it, though not one of his most successful projects because of cast and script weaknesses.)
A PRIVATE’S AFFAIR (1959; d: Raoul Walsh).
1959: Fair (Lively, pleasant little service comedy, filled with Walsh’s personal flair, though in no way a memorable work.)
THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924; d: Raoul Walsh).
1959: Good- (The huge sets are fantastic, overwhelming; the effects work very well, and Douglas Fairbanks exudes warmth, good-humor, optimism and tremendous physical prowess. When romancing, of which there is too much in this picture, he is not at his most accomplished. But despite its adverse length (130 minutes), the thin plot, the static spots, the film is continually engrossing, often delightful, and the photographic tricks and sets, influenced by the German filmmakers, are most impressive.)
Added 1964: (Fairbanks belongs in the Walsh tradition of adventurers purified by love, and although this is not Walsh at his surest or best, it is a good deal of fun, particularly in the last hour when the story starts moving.)
THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939; d: Raoul Walsh).
1960: Excellent* (Masterful, eloquent, brilliantly directed and acted gangster picture, centering on the bootleg racket and one man’s rise and fall as a gangland-boss. Tragic, with an epic conception, Walsh’s technique is sharp and tough, and Cagney gives one of his best performances. Along with High Sierra and White Heat, this is one of Walsh’s major triumphs and an excellent piece of work from any angle.)
Added 1961: (One of my favorite pictures really, and certainly one of the best in this genre; Bogart is good in a supporting role until he has to register obvious fear, something he was truly incapable of, all the more wonderful because of it.)
WHITE HEAT (1949; d: Raoul Walsh).
1961: Exceptional (Walsh’s superb direction makes this the most vigorous, surely the most brutal, of modern gangster films. Having made, eight years before, the last and finest of the 30’s gangster movies, High Sierra, Walsh returns to the genre, throwing new light on the changing times: in the first picture, the aging, honorable outlaw is tracked down by men, but here the amoral, psychopathic killer is brought down through inhuman, scientific and somewhat repugnant methods. Cagney’s stunning performance is the brilliantly controlled center of an altogether memorable work. His flamboyant death atop a huge gas-storage tank that bursts into flame as he screams happily to heaven, “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” is among the most striking moments in movie history.)
Added 1970: (A tremendously exciting work, with a driving force and movement that is unrelenting; Walsh’s direction has all the control and mastery of the best of the silent directors. A memorable picture, and among Walsh’s best.)