Albert Edward (“Raoul”) Walsh was born of Irish ancestry in New York City in 1887. A dedicated painter, sometime novelist and lover of Shakespeare, even more than Ford and Hawks, Walsh loved to tell a good story, interweaving myth and fiction into accounts of his upbringing in New York, Texas and Montana and a trip to Cuba at age 15 on his uncle's schooner, times spent on a ranch in Texas, as a cowboy breaking horses, and later acting on the stage. This was part of the process according to his biographer Marilyn Moss, of “reliving adventures he either took or imagined.” He finally ended up in Hollywood in 1912 working as an actor and assistant to D W Griffith (he played John Wilkes Booth in The Birth of a Nation) directing the battle scenes when Griffith was unable to direct himself in a feature length The Life of Villa (1915) in Mexico with renegade general Pancho Villa playing himself. Walsh described him as “a camera louse” referring to Villa's behaviour such as actually executing prisoners by firing squad for the camera.
|Walsh as John Wilkes Booth, The Birth of a Nation|
|John Wayne, The Big Trail|
Looking to find a new screen presence at short notice to play the lead role in The Big Trail Walsh was impressed by the then 'nature boy' male beauty, grace of movement and apparent physical strength of a props assistant, Marion Morrison (renamed John – he preferred Duke - Wayne by Walsh), with whom John Ford was friendly but unlike Walsh was not convinced enough about his friend's on-screen potential to launch him into an acting career. At that time, Garry Wills suggests, Ford tended to be attracted to actors of a more muscular build like George O'Brien who played the male lead in The Iron Horse. Strongly resenting Walsh's casting of Wayne (Ford did not speak to him for three years afterwards), it was nearly a decade before Ford gave him his chance in Stagecoach (1939). Ford's jealousy was further fuelled when Walsh cast the now successfully launched Wayne in Dark Command (1940) (1). Wayne remained unimpressed by Walsh's uncharacteristically violent and vindictive attitude towards some of his crew on The Big Trail whom Walsh felt were paying undue attention to his wife-to-be (Lorraine Walker) with whom he was then having an affair. Wayne did not appear again in a Walsh film.
|Ward Bond, Errol Flynn, Gentleman Jim|
Walsh worked with Cagney and Bogart on seven films located in a world of crime, corruption and gangsterism, the two starring together in The Roaring Twenties (1939) as gangsters challenging fate,“a view of the world in which the downtrodden tough it out, even though that does not ensure success or happiness, a theme that Walsh and (Warner Bros.) crafted well” (Moss). In They Drive By Night (1940) Bogart and Raft play small operators blocked by the big guys from bettering themselves “going from hard knocks to tragedy.” Walsh had an on going friendship with Bogart referring to the actor's penchant for complaining on the set by affectionately calling him “Bogey the Beefer.”
|Bogart, Cagney, The Roaring Twenties|
|Virginia Mayo, Cagney, White Heat|
Ida Lupino was one of Walsh's favourite actresses although initially she was not his first choice but that of the producer, Mark Hellinger, for the role of Lana in They Drive By Night the first of four films he made with her. Walsh got on well with her and they followed up with High Sierra (1941). The havoc released by the the madness of the Lupino character in Drive was tacked on to the main theme and won Lupino a seven year contract with Warner Bros. Moss suggests that the role in the film “bore an uncanny resemblance to (the havoc) brought on by the first Mrs Walsh” which may have been an ironic coincidence since Lupino's character also resembles a psychotic wife played by Bette Davis in a 1935 Warners film Bordertown.
|Ida Lupino, Robert Alda, The Man I Love|
|Clark Gable, The Tall Men|
|Jayne Russell, The Revolt of Mamie Stover|
Marilyn Moss sees the relationship between the characters played by Bogart and Lupino in High Sierra as “the personification of Walsh's own vulnerability at the centre of the most crucial Walshian narrative: the love between a man and a woman.” What might be more to the point is how such a near universal theme transmutes into something more specifically Walshian. This might have be found in what was his aversion to psychological complexity with his characters nonetheless entrapped in a romantic undercurrent he liked to hide beneath the surface tempo of the action. Walsh believed that he could handle almost any genre, Moss suggests, “since he was confident that he could supply the emotional and physical action to keep the story moving and make it entertaining.”
|Wayne, Claire Trevor, Dark Command|
Walsh's existential immersion in the process of making films in the studio system, alluded to above, seems to have reached something of an apotheosis at Warner Bros through the forties. This is apparent in his astonishingly productive run at Warner Bros, almost certainly unequalled in the history of classical Hollywood. From 1939-51 Walsh directed at least 17 out of 25 (68%) now critically valued works in established genres, including high points such as The Roaring Twenties, They Drive By Night, High Sierra, The Strawberry Blonde, Gentleman Jim, Objective Burma, Pursued, The Man I Love, Colorado Territory, White Heat and Distant Drums. For the balance of 44 features that Walsh directed from 1929-64, in a variety of production contexts, at least 12 (27%) have lasting critical value including The Big Trail, Me and My Gal, The Bowery, The World in His Arms, Battle Cry and The Tall Men.
By Hollywood standards Warners, during this period the most liberal of the studios, was a strong supporter of Roosevelt's New Deal often reflected in the relatively progressive content of the films. Walsh as a contract director had the opportunity of working with intelligently liberal producers and a range of similarly talented writers. Above all, was the special compatibility Walsh enjoyed with the Studio's contract players he was consistently able to work with in the years at Warners which were never in basic conflict with his notions of individualism.This would seem to have erased the apparent conflict between the director's ethical and political conservatism (Walsh was a staunch Republican, close friend of William Randolph Hearst and supporter of his isolationist policies in the thirties) and the centre-left politics of key personnel in the production teams (4).
Jean-Pierre Coursodon challenges some of the critical orthodoxies surrounding Walsh's career, notably that the claim that Walsh was “a master of the adventure, the archetypal action film, has not only been overworked, it has also contributed to obscure other equally important aspects of his cinema.” (Barrett Hodsdon does address the latter). I concur with Coursodon that the Warners pictures were by no means typical of those of the earlier (the thirties) or later (fifties and sixties) periods of Walsh's filmmaking. These films are generally more leisurely paced and loosely structured, at times showing signs of casualness on the part of the director which may be a sign of tension between the material assigned (particularly in the thirties) and his engagement with it.
Walsh vehemently shrugged off any notion of the artist in his filmmaking, seemingly immersing himself intuitively and at times spontaneously in living through the making of a film. Moss comments that Walsh never wanted to talk about, or be praised for creating complex characters being “more interested in talking about the mechanics of a camera setup, the aesthetics of creating a bit of action” and the film's overall production. When he was fully engaged the romanticism in his creativity found expression through his audacious sense of space and a commitment to the energy and rhythm of a linear narrative driving forward, most evident in the forties Warner's cycle. At his most engaged there is also a vulnerability evident in Walsh's sensitivity to nuance and a fondness for the hard-boiled and good-hearted in combining humour in a more hard-nosed trajectory striving for what he saw as a form of (masculine) authenticity. Barrett Hodsdon suggests that Walsh seemed to live each moment of creation “as though it were the act of breathing itself.” He lived for the shared camaraderie in working as much on preproduction as on a film set, more so on location, even if the material did not especially engage him.
1. While it's speculation, Ford's obvious jealousy likely arose from his feeling of inferiority seeing Walsh as a threat, to quote Garry Wills – “the kind of guy Ford admired - “a 'man's man', a wit and a practical joker, a heterosexual swashbuckler- who turned up on the set each day with a gorgeous blonde on his arm” as Harry Carey Jr reported Walsh did during the filming of Pursued 1947)
2. The second of two key films Walsh based on fictionalisations of historical figures, the other being General George Custer (also played by Flynn) in They Died With Their Boots On (1941).
3. The fourth film is A Lion is in the Streets (1953), produced by the star's brother William Cagney, is adapted from a novel loosely based on the life of corrupt populist southern politician and demagogue, Huey Long.
4. Walsh was a liberal in his attitude to minorities. He employed them on his films whenever possible.