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Mapping Raoul Walsh

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Mapping Raoul Walsh

In a recent column for The New York Times, Dave Kehr wrote about a new DVD set of war films starring Errol Flynn, four of them directed by Raoul Walsh, whose filmography stretches from the teens to the 1960s. As Kehr pointed out in his piece, there has been surprisingly little critical coverage of Walsh, at least in English (there are several books on him in French), and his reputation remains in flux even among dedicated cinephiles; a big part of the problem is the sheer length of Walsh’s career and the unavailability of so many of his films. A tragic number of his silent movies are lost, but three of the survivors are impressive: Regeneration (1915), a dockside drama with a gritty documentary feeling, The Thief of Bagdad (1924), one of Douglas Fairbanks’s most extravagant adventures, and Sadie Thompson (1928), a version of Rain for Gloria Swanson, with Walsh himself playing Sergeant O’Hara. In his youth, Walsh was a magnetically good-looking man with a threat of danger about him (D. W. Griffith cast him as John Wilkes Booth in The Birth of a Nation {1915}), and in his delectably racy autobiography, Each Man in His Time, Walsh revealed his stellar track record with women without ever seeming insecure or boastful; he expressed his delight in great sex with beautiful actresses with a healthy, roguish sort of vigor similar in tone to his most famous 1940s films at Warner Brothers.

“Walsh’s idea of a tender love scene is to burn down a whorehouse!” joked studio chief Jack Warner, but this amusing remark (sometimes attributed to Jack Pickford), doesn’t take into account the romantic melancholy always running underneath the surface of Walsh’s rough-and-ready films, which sometimes came out into the open as his career progressed. Bagdad and Sadie Thompson are excellent movies, but they mainly function as star vehicles; only Regeneration can let us see what a typical Walsh silent film might have been like. He lost an eye during the shooting of In Old Arizona (1929), which effectively ended his acting career, but this setback only seems to have made him more ambitious as a director; the following year, he made a widescreen epic in 70mm, The Big Trail (1930), which starred a young John Wayne. Audiences of the time weren’t ready for the epic landscape vistas of that movie, so Walsh returned to more intimate dramas for Fox, including Me and My Gal (1932), which has had many fans, including Manny Farber, but has remained hard to see. Catching it recently for the first time on Fox Movie Channel, I was thunderstruck by its energy; it’s easy to see why Farber went nuts over it.

Me and My Gal

Spencer Tracy plays a hardboiled, horny dockside cop who continually banters with Joan Bennett’s gum-chewing, hard-as-nails waitress; Walsh shamelessly and lovingly focuses his camera on her ass, puts his leads through a hilarious parody of O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, and generally does whatever the hell he wants, with miraculously fresh results. It’s all done in scrappy little vignettes, and there’s very little narrative; a gangster subplot is wrapped up as quickly as possible. The effect is not unlike the cheerfully experimental movies Jean Renoir was making in France at the same time; like those Renoir films, Me and My Gal seems like a first movie, or the first movie ever made, or the first movie you’ve ever seen, and it’s as exciting an experience as I’ve ever had watching a film, so much so that I began to realize that I needed to seek out Walsh movies I hadn’t seen and re-view the ones that I had. I can dimly recall that Walsh’s The Bowery (1934) is done in a similar style to Me and My Gal, but that movie is lost in Fox limbo, and there’s no Kim’s Video on St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan left to refresh my memory.

There seems to be some consensus that the films Walsh made between 1935 and 1939, the year he signed his Warner Brothers contract, represent a low or uncertain period for the director, and the titles, plots and players from this period don’t sound too promising; there might be worthy movies in there somewhere, but in general this stretch of time looks like aimless clutter, the kind of thing that no director needs. The films Walsh made at Warners from 1939 to 1949, book-ended by two famous James Cagney pictures, represent a remarkably sustained run of creativity; unlike his lost silents and still-obscure early talkies, the movies he made at Warners are always being shown on television, and they have been enjoyed that way for decades now, but that doesn’t mean that they have been fully understood, or adequately contextualized within Walsh’s larger career. In all honesty, I’m sometimes not sure what to make of them myself, even though (or especially because?) I’m so familiar with them.

“He used…to be…a big shot,” says whiskey-voiced Gladys George at the end of Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939), as she cradles a slain Cagney in her arms, and it’s easy to dismiss a moment like this as merely corny, something from “the movies” in their old, classical sense. You would never mistake the events of They Died With Their Boots On (1941) for the real life of George Armstrong Custer, but the farewell scene in that movie between Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland is one of the most wrenching ever filmed because Walsh doesn’t linger over it but keeps it moving in his typically “straight-ahead” style. Everything about High Sierra (1941), which made a star of Humphrey Bogart, should feel dated; its narrative of a criminal on the lam has been so often recycled that it shouldn’t stand a chance of working now. But it remains fresh, for stylistic reasons and for reasons of temperament that are difficult to analyze unless we can relate it back to the “first movie” feeling of Me and My Gal. Walsh was not a sophisticated man, and his lack of self-consciousness about “themes” and such, coupled with his hot-blooded intelligence and already vast movie-making experience, makes High Sierra into a primal kind of movie source that has the self-destructive glamor of Nicholas Ray without the showy neuroticism, the action force of King Vidor without the slight strain of intellectual pretension.

Walsh was half-Irish, and fond of introducing rowdy drinking humor into his films; this humor is always bracing and often directed straight at the camera. Me and My Gal ends with a man’s face filling the screen and howling at us, “Have another drink!” Whereas John Ford’s Irish humor is usually based in a beer-drinking kind of cuteness, Walsh’s hard liquor talk is as lusty and disarming as his love of sex. In Gentleman Jim (1942), he could even make boxing look like a clean “why not?” kind of sport, with Flynn in tights as an aesthetic object of real beauty in the ring. Given a story of mature romantic disillusionment, Walsh was capable of making something like The Strawberry Blonde (1941), which in my memory stands as a masterpiece about growing up, beautifully played by Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, Rita Hayworth and Jack Carson; as Walsh himself must have known by this point, the outwardly demure brunette (de Havilland) is usually the real firecracker in bed, not the high-maintenance redhead sexpot (Hayworth). After World War II, and the Flynn war movies covered in Kehr’s DVD review, Walsh wholeheartedly adopted the noir style for his brooding western Pursued (1947) and remade High Sierra as Colorado Territory (1949) with Joel McCrea, which is just as good as the original and even improves on it for a last shot that stands as the ultimate in male/female romantic solidarity.

White Heat (1949) is deservedly Walsh’s most famous movie, and a lot of that has to do with Cagney’s career performance as gangster Cody Jarrett, but Walsh was the one who staged Jarrett’s debilitating headaches and his retreat to his mother’s lap, the scene where he blows some bullet holes through a car trunk so a man can get some air, and the slightly wall-eyed ripeness of Virginia Mayo being toppled from a chair onto a couch (so much more balletic and graceful a takedown than the grapefruit to the face in Wellman’s The Public Enemy {1931}). Supremely, Walsh filmed the discreet, even awed scene of Jarrett’s breakdown in prison after he learns of his beloved mother’s death, and the “top of the world!” finish, Jarrett’s explosive end of the line. Have another drink!

Band of AngelsWalsh made a lot of movies after White Heat, but none has a big reputation, and they remain nearly as obscure as the films from his early periods. I’d like to try and change that for one of them, Band of Angels (1957), which I recently saw on Netflix instant; this seems to me one of the best movies about race ever made in this country. When I was finished watching it, I couldn’t believe that it wasn’t better known; it got poor notices and did badly at the box office, mainly because it was set during the Civil War and starred Clark Gable, so it was unfavorably, and unfairly, compared to Gone with the Wind (1939). It’s based on a novel by Robert Penn Warren, and some of the best and boldest writing in it must come from the original story, but it is Walsh who orchestrated it, in his effortless way, and it’s as good as Me and My Gal, in a totally different, more formal late-film style.

1853, Kentucky. Two runaway slaves are brought back to their white master, who fancies himself a kindly slave-keeper. Band of Angels takes on this, “But we were good to our slaves!” attitude in all its full rottenness; the narrative is a twisting, surprising and always penetrating analysis of the insanity of American racial relations. The master’s pampered daughter grows up to be Yvonne De Carlo, who goes to finishing school and befriends an abolitionist preacher who condemns slavery and her father’s attitude toward his slaves. When she goes back to the plantation, De Carlo learns that her father has died; all the slaves are going to be sold. And then comes the kicker: she is told that she’s half-black, and so this daughter of white privilege soon finds herself being dragged by her hoopskirts to be sold herself (it’s as if Scarlett O’Hara found out that Mammy was her real mother).

The slave seller is a fearfully low guy; he tries to rape De Carlo, who then tries to kill herself. Lying prostrate in bed, De Carlo shares an impressive scene with fellow slave Juanita Moore, the mother from Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959). Moore councils this confused girl that she might get to like the sex she’ll be forced to endure; when you’re old, Moore tells her, it won’t matter anyway, and they won’t be able to take the pleasure you had away from you. With Moore’s expert help, Walsh makes this moment between the women into something deeply felt, a small-scale manifesto in favor of hedonism and memory.

Twenty-six minutes in, Gable makes his big entrance, saving De Carlo from being sold to dirty-minded white men and buying her for five thousand dollars. He installs her in his palatial New Orleans house, and in the subsequent scenes, Walsh makes it clear that even though De Carlo has been literally auctioned off on a slave block, she still clings tenaciously to the white power she was brought up with, and the film helplessly examines the long and hopeless process of this woman riding up and down the social ladder depending on who knows her racial secret. In several powerful scenes, movie king Gable, who still commands the screen with little more than his famed squint, admits to his slave trading past, and he pulls no punches in the harrowing descriptions of what he did for money.

The abolitionist preacher of the first scenes reappears to make an awful distinction for De Carlo; he’s working to free the slaves, he says, but not “taking them into your home,” the kind of maddening hypocrisy that fueled the civil rights struggles for blacks in the ’50s and ’60s. This context is made very specific; Gable even says at one point that black people will probably have to wait another hundred years for justice, and those hundred years had passed at the time this film was made. Best of all, a young Sidney Poitier actually gets to express rage at white men’s “kindness,” coiled sexuality and even some violent retaliation; he punches a white man who is attacking De Carlo, and even whacks De Carlo herself when she still refuses to see the point of her travails, and this is far more hard-hitting than the dignified slaps he dealt ten years later to a white bigot in In the Heat of the Night (1967).

If Walsh had only made Me and My Gal and Band of Angels, I’d be prepared to call him a great director. Kehr in his Times review wrote that Walsh often made “map” movies, with his characters moving from one place to another. Remembering his best work at Warners in the 1940s, and also discovering these two less-heralded movies from the ’30s and the ’50s, I’m very excited to map out more of Walsh’s lesser known work. I have a feeling that there’s hidden treasure all over the place in his filmography.

Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Senses of Cinema and the L Magazine, among other publications.