[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]
Interviewer: One critic, Andrew Sarris, has said, “The Walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than in the what. He is always plunging into the unknown, and he is never too sure what he will find there.” Do you feel that’s too precious a criticism, or that it’s on the nail?
Raoul Walsh: I guess it’s so. Everyone has his own impression of things. Maybe the guy was drunk.
In Manpower, a movie about powerline repairmen, there’s a funny scene at a diner. Various workmen are ordering their meals. The counterman shouts each order back to the cook, but—in the time-honored tradition of the American greasy spoon—he translates each request into the surrealistic lingo of short-order chefs. A cup of coffee with cream is “a blackout, and blitz it!” A hamburger to go is a “cow and convoy”; a bowl of chili “with plenty of peppers”—”one Mexican heartburn.” A cut of beef, “juicy and with no fat” = “one impossible”; hash is “take a chance”; and a bowl of cherries, “one George Washington!” Some comedy involving a slot machine intervenes, but the camera returns to the counter where the head lineman, thinking of his wife, makes a request of his own: “Gimme a nice little bottle of wine—and giftwrap it.” The counterman turns toward the kitchen and, facing the camera in closeup, shouts, “The grapes of wrath—in a sport jacket!” End of scene.
The sequence is not exactly “typical” of Raoul Walsh, a director whose career has too much variety and too much insouciance to permit the critical generalizations that apply to more determinedly personal Hollywood directors like Ford, Hawks, and Hitchcock. But it is nevertheless the kind of sequence which touches on a number of qualities that are particularly noticeable in the liveliest and most impressive of Walsh’s movies. This sequence has to do with food and the funny ways people say things, and—like many such moments in Walsh—it deals with physical pleasure and sensation in a direct, unintellectualized way. Much of the scene is treated in standard terms: the actors perform with vigor, and the director and his camera act as interested but unobtrusive observers. But the final wisecrack shouted directly into the camera, a device Walsh uses to good effect in several films, suggests an unexpected bit of the daring stylist beneath the vigorous efficiency of Walsh’s direction. The homely boisterousness of the men in the scene is felt in many Walsh films. And there is also a somewhat characteristic undercurrent of pathos: the giftwrapped wine is for an ill-chosen wife whose imminent visit will provoke a fatal climax. Walsh’s heroes are often less bright and more fallible than the supposed Hollywood archetypes, and “the grapes of wrath” wisecrack, which has literary and historical associations that undercut its playful wit, echoes the ironies and incongruities of the main character.
The remarks that follow deal with more than a dozen Walsh films made over nearly a quarter of a century. Hopefully they throw some light on what is best and most enduring in the Walsh movies made from the late Twenties to the end of the Forties. But it is a sign of the sheer enormity of Walsh’s body of work that while this piece deals with more than a dozen films worthy of serious discussion, it still touches only a fraction of his total output. The films examined here reflect my preferences in this segment of Walsh’s career (particularly with the Forties films, though a couple of gaps remain there too), but the fact remains that there may be much more to Raoul Walsh than we can show here. His directorial career extends from the era of The Birth of a Nation (in which he played John Wilkes Booth) to that of L’avventura and Last Year at Marienbad (his last film was a 1964 western, A Distant Trumpet). His silent period remains largely an unknown territory, with only a handful of his many silents enjoying any kind of current visibility. His work from the beginning of sound up through his move to Warner Brothers in 1939 has become increasingly available—especially after the films began reappearing from the Fox vaults—but many titles from that period also remain rare or inaccessible. The final decade or so of Walsh’s career presents another problem: many of his last films are in CinemaScope, but are generally available only in scanned TV prints. (I especially like The Tall Men, for example, but have been able to see it only on television and so it goes undiscussed here.)
The ensuing remarks are intended to make at least a beginning toward serious discussion of an extraordinary moviemaker about whom English-language film critics and historians have had strangely little to say. Surely the whole question of what (as well as who) is an auteur complicates the problem and accounts in part for the want of commentary. Because it seems very much in tune with some of the director’s successes at Warner Brothers, the 1945 Salty O’Rourke is an especially interesting case with respect to Walsh’s status as auteur. Despite three or four roguish characters and a story about gamblers, horseracing and unexpected romance, the film has a distinct Paramount gloss to it, and much of what might have seemed very “Walshian” in a Warner Brothers film ends up getting softened and sweetened by that Paramount ambience. One senses that Walsh has his uniqueness, but that he was also the right man in the right place at the right time—with Fox and United Artists in the late Twenties and early Thirties, and at Warners, 1939–1949. All directors/auteurs are dependent on having the right collaborators in the right place at the right time, but it may be that very few have embraced more of the territory between personal vision and studio drudgery than Walsh has. It is no mean tribute to suggest that the movies examined below reveal a moviemaker who is probably not a great auteur, but one who consistently brought to the movies a feeling for American life that few of his contemporaries in Hollywood could match. His best films’ robust spirit catches the quintessence of one aspect of American culture at the same time that it jovially challenges or ignores the official moralities. Walsh usually stayed within the boundaries of conventional Hollywood narrative, but his films frequently play off against the conventions of a society suffering from Puritan hangover.
The evidence follows.
THE FILMS OF RAOUL WALSH
1914: The Double Knot*, The Mystery of the Hindu Image*, The Gunman”, The Final Verdict*. 1915: The Death Dice*, His Return*, The Greaser*, The Fencing Master*, A Man for All That*, Eleven-Thirty*, The Buried Hand*, The Celestial Code*, A Bad Man and Others*, The Regeneration, Carmen. 1916: Pillars of Society, The Serpent, Blue Blood and Red. 1917: The Honor System, The Conqueror, Betrayed, This Is the Life, The Pride of New York, The Silent Lie, The Innocent Sinner. 1918: The Woman and the Law, The Prussian Cur, On the Jump, Every Mother’s Son, I’ll Say So. 1919: Evangeline, The Strongest. 1920: Should a Husband Forgive?, From Now On, The Deep Purple. 1921: The Oath, Serenade.1922:Lost and Found on a South Sea Island, Kindred of the Dust. 1924: The Thief of Bagdad. 1925: East of Suez, The Spaniard, The Wanderer. 1926: The Lucky Lady, The Lady of the Harem, What Price Glory? 1927: The Monkey Talks, The Loves of Carmen. 1928: Sadie Thompson, The Red Dance, Me Gangster. 1929: Hot for Paris, In Old Arizona**, The Cock-eyed World. 1930: The Big Trail***. 1931: The Man Who Come Back, Women of All Nations, Yellow Ticket. 1932: Wild Girl, Me and My Gal. 1933: Sailor’s Luck, The Bowery, Going Hollywood. 1935: Under Pressure, Baby Face Harrington, Every Night at Eight, 1936: Klondike Annie, Big Brown Eyes, Spendthrift. 1931: O.H.M.S. (You’re in the Army Now), Jump for Glory (When Thief Meets Thief), Artists and Models, Hitting a New High. 1938: College Swing. 1939: St. Louis Blues, The Roaring Twenties. 1940: Dark Command, They Drive by Night. 1941: High Sierra, The Strawberry Blonde, Manpower, They Died with Their Boots On. 1942: Desperate Journey, Gentleman Jim. 1943: Background to Danger, Northern Pursuit. 1944: Uncertain Glory. 1945: Objective Burma!, Salty O’Rourke, The Horn Blows at Midnight, San Antonio****. 1946: The Man I Love. 1947; Pursued, Cheyenne (The Wyoming Kid), Stallion Road****. 1948: Silver River, Fighter Squadron, One Sunday Afternoon*****. 1949: Colorado Territory******, White Heat. 1951: The Enforcer****, Along the Great Divide, Captain Horatio Hornblower, Distant Drums*******. 1952: Glory Alley, The World in His Arms, The Lawless Breed, Blackbeard the Pirate. 1953: Sea Devils, A Lion Is in the Streets, Gun Fury. 1954: Saskatchewan. 1955: Battle Cry, The Tall Men. 1956: The Revolt of Mamie Stover, The King and Four Queens. 1957: Band of Angels. 1958: The Naked and the Dead, The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw. 1959: A Private’s Affair. 1960: Esther and the King. 1961: Marines Let’s Go! 1964: A Distant Trumpet.
* Films of less than feature length.
** Direction completed by and credit shared with Irving Cummings.
*** Filmed in 70mm widescreen and 35mm standard; widescreen version shown in only two theaters (and unseen again for nearly 60 years)
**** One of a number of Warners films credited to another director but reportedly done in part by Walsh
***** Musical remake of The Strawberry Blonde
****** Western remake of High Sierra
******* Quasi-Western remake of Objective Burma!
Portions of this essay were adapted and enlarged from segments of Mr. Hogue’s essay “Life with Warners,” MOVIETONE NEWS 6.
Copyright © 1975 Peter Hogue