When I was young, I used to stay up all hours of the night to watch They Died with Their Boots on, the Errol Flynn/General Custer biopic. While now I realize its depiction of a heroic General George Armstrong Custer was a lot of hooey, when I was a kid, I thought it to be accurate and incredibly exciting. I loved the way the film chronicled Custer’s rise from West Point cadet to American hero, and I could never get the melody of his song that becomes the U.S. 7th Cavalry’s theme (an Irish tune called “Garry Owen”) out of my head.
A few years later, I had similar affection for the James Cagney gangster movie White Heat. Here, after all, was a crime tale that wasn’t just a crime tale. Cagney’s hood Cody Jarrett is a charismatic but definitely twisted character that was rotten to the core. The film had shootouts and heists, an explosive finale, classic prison sequences and an unsettling relationship between Jarrett and his mother. While I couldn’t recognize at a young age all of the stuff on White Heat’s cinematic plate, the plate was definitely overflowing. And all of it was good.
Still later, I pieced my fondness for the two films together. To my surprise, I found both movies were directed by the same man: Raoul Walsh. So I looked into his other credits and what I found was an amazing list that ranged from early silents to the 1960s. His resume covered just about every genre, which brought him to work with many icons in Hollywood history, from Cagney and Flynn (a few times each) to Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas, Marlene Dietrich, Ida Lupino, Clark Gable, Sidney Poitier, Rock Hudson, Anthony Quinn, Alan Ladd and even Jack Benny.
During his career that spanned over a half a century, Walsh would have never been mistaken as a director of women’s movies, especially after an early stint at Fox. Most of the films he made in the prime of his career centered on tough, independent men in search of achieving a goal. While they often go through hell to get what they want, their flaws and insecurities are shown in the process. The films are often quick-paced, action-packed and ruggedly rendered.
But what made Walsh and his films tick? That question, I learned, was not simply answered, as Walsh was a spinner of tales, a storyteller whose reminisces and anecdotes were larger than life, like than the man himself. Walsh’s life and work is the subject of Marilyn Ann Moss’s new book Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director. Exhaustively researched and smartly written by Moss, a film journalist, her sizable (482 pages) effort will likely be known as the definitive book on its subject.
Walsh, whose brother George was a prominent actor in the early days of film, began directing and acting in silents made in and around his hometown of New York City. One of his earliest credits had him performing in (and directing second unit on) a biography starring the real Mexican Revolutionary leader Pancho Villa, which is now considered a lost film. (The production is chronicled in the 2003 HBO movie And Starring Pancho Villa, with Kyle Chandler playing Walsh). He also played John Wilkes Booth in D.W. Griffith’s still controversial Birth of a Nation. Walsh followed Griffith to Los Angeles, where he turned to directing full-time. After serving in World War I, Walsh directed Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in the 1924 original Thief of Bagdad and Gloria Swanson and Lionel Barrymore in Sadie Thompson. He thereafter moved to Fox, where he cast a bit player named Duke Morrison as the lead in the epic western The Big Trail, and handed him the stage moniker “John Wayne.” (He co-directed German and French versions of the film sans Wayne as well!) Another notable Fox project was the Janet Gaynor-starring The Man who Came Back. He moved to Paramount and handled musicals (Every Night at Eight with George Raft and Alice Faye), comedies (Klondike Annie with Mae West) and romances (Spendthrift), then took his act to Warner, where he spent the peak of his career.
He started at the studio with a bang and never looked back. Walsh’s first effort was 1939’s The Roaring Twenties, which he took over from Anatole Litvak. Overlooked initially in the midst of the other great films of the year, the film is now recognized as a classic crime drama. Three World War I soldiers (Cagney, Bogart and Jeffrey Lynn) return home to find tough times and get involved in criminal activities and bootlegging during the Prohibition. Walsh punches the movie forward with a documentary-like feel, newsreel footage and period music, not to mention the electric teaming of Jimmy and Bogey in their first screen appearance together.
In succession, Walsh turned out an impressive array of terrific-to-classic films for Warners: Dark Command, They Drive by Night, Manpower, High Sierra, The Strawberry Blonde, Gentleman Jim, Backdoor to Danger, Northern Pursuit, Pursued and Objective Burma! And then, of course, there was They Died With Their Boots On, which I learned from the book was originally a vehicle for Cagney (?!) with Custer painted much more ornery (and realistic) than the finished film; and White Heat, which Cagney made after an eight year absence from Warners, with a script that author Moss describes as “could have been ripped from Freud’s ‘The Interpretation of Dreams.’”
After his run at Warner Brothers, Walsh—who wore an eye-patch after losing his right eye in an accident while shooting a western in 1928—became a free agent working for other studios. In the wake of the Warner glory days, Walsh did some commendable but less consistent work. Among his better latter projects were the cattle drive saga The Tall Men for Fox with Clark Gable, Jane Russell and Robert Ryan; the adaptation of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead for RKO; and his final film, A Distant Trumpet (1964), a western with Troy Donohue and Suzanne Pleshette, which marked a return to Warner but not necessarily a return to form for the 77-year-old director.
Moss’s research lets us into the real Walsh, something that was not always easy to ascertain because of his consistent reimagining of the facts. We learn of his money woes, his love for his ponies both as an owner and a gambler, his three marriages, his fighting with the Warners brass. Moss makes a strong case that despite his prolific output and high quality of work, he is in many ways the forgotten figure, a man whose contemporaries like John Ford and Howard Hawks are synonymous with the Golden Age of Hollywood while his name is often forgotten.
Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director attempts to remedy the situation. Finally, Raoul Walsh is on the top of the world, Ma.