Before the Museum of Modern Art’s 1975 retrospective of his work, Raoul Walsh’s world seemed to many to be almost exclusively masculine. His best-known films were the rugged action vehicles he made at Warner Brothers in the forties with James Cagney (The Roaring Twenties, White Heat), Humphrey Bogart (They Drive by Night, High Sierra), and Errol Flynn (Gentleman Jim, Objective Burma). The MoMA series made clear that Walsh had just as often concerned himself with the lives of women.
Especially pertinent to The Yellow Ticket are a number of films made in the course of the director’s fifty year career that deal with the semi-mythic figure that has fascinated artists throughout history, the “bad girl.” Theda Bara in Carmen (1915), Dolores del Río in The Loves of Carmen (1927), Gloria Swanson in Sadie Thompson (1928), Janet Gaynor in The Man Who Came Back (1931), Mae West in Klondike Annie (1936), Marlene Dietrich in Manpower (1941), and Jane Russell in The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956) all played women who were not by their contemporary standards “nice.”
The situation is more complex in The Yellow Ticket, since it is clearly established that the heroine played by Elissa Landi is a virgin, even though she carries the notorious passport issued by the tsarist police to Russian prostitutes. Her reasons for obtaining the ticket (it was the only means by which a Jewish woman could travel within Russia) and how she finally rids herself of its burden betray the script’s theatrical origin, but these are not Walsh’s primary concerns.
Unlike the 1918 version of The Yellow Ticket (with Fannie Ward, Warner Oland, and Milton Sills), Walsh’s film devotes more than half of its running time and nearly all of its imaginative mise-èn-scene to the ticket itself and the stigma it represents. By the strength and detail of these scenes (the bordello, the women’s prison, the railway coach, et al.), Walsh gives the ticket a significance that transcends its melodramatic plot function. The heroine’s possession of the yellow ticket is taken by men of all classes (excepting the hero who is, after all, English) as a passport to her body, an official notice to all that she is “no better than she ought to be.” Raoul Walsh’s The Yellow Ticket is not so much about tsarist oppression of Jews as it is about masculine oppression of women. —Robert Regan (MoMA, 1976)
Raoul Walsh’s 52-year directorial career made him a Hollywood legend, and the slam-band nature of his best films means that he is still remembered while the memory of Allan Dwan, a director with an equally long career, has practically faded from public consciousness. Walsh was also an actor: He appeared in the first version of W. Somerset Maugham’s Rain renamed Sadie Thompson (1928) opposite Gloria Swanson in the title role. He would have played the Cisco Kid in his own film In Old Arizona (1928) if an errant jackrabbit hadn’t cost him his right eye by leaping through the windshield of his automobile. Warner Baxter filled the role and won an Oscar. Before John Ford and Nicholas Ray, it was Raoul Walsh who made the eye-patch almost as synonymous with a Hollywood director as Cecil B. DeMille’s jodhpurs.
He interned with the best, serving as assistant director and editor on D.W. Griffith’s racist masterpiece, The Clansman, better known as read more