Things are a bit lethargic around here of late, so, anyone want to talk about the films of Raoul Walsh? Here’s an off-the-top-of-my-head capsule summary of his unique career:
Walsh began his career as a stage actor in New York. He went on to work as an film actor from 1913-1915, most notably playing John Wilkes Booth in Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (he was also AD on the film, and did some of the editing as well). Walsh directed films from 1913 until 1958. He directed character-driven comedies like Me and My Gal and Sailor’s Luck in the ’30s, and his work established John Wayne (The Big Trail_, 1930) and Humphrey Bogart (_High Sierra, 1941) as stars. In addition, in his more than fifty year career as a director, he directed action films, melodramas, Westerns, war movies, and gangster films, including:
The Thief of Bagdhad (1924)
Sadie Thompson (1928)
The Big Trail (1930)
The Roaring Twenties (1939)
They Drive By Nights (1940)
High Sierra (1941)
The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
They Died With Their Boots On (1941)
Gentleman Jim (1942)
Objective, Burma! (1945)
White Heat (1949)
White Heat is, of course, a masterpiece. With The Big Trail, shot in 70mm Fox Grandeur, Walsh, as Dave Kehr put it, “effectively invents the widescreen aesthetic, all at once and all by himself.” :
“white heat”. a classic gangster movie cant get any better than this. plus one of the most iconic endings in cinema history.
Yeah, it’s bravura.
Recently I had a Cagney-Walsh double feature, with The Roaring Twenties and White Heat, and I was surprised that I preferred The Roaring Twenties. Both were great, but Cagney’s performance in TRT was so much deeper, and it was a really sad movie.
I must say a funny thing. In the end, when the police asks the woman what his profession was, she says “He used to be a big shot…”. Ok corny line but what is really funny is after she says this, he starts scribbling on his pad, like she is actually telling him info! Just a little thing that made me laugh.
I like The Roaring Twenties a lot. too. If you’re enjoying the Cagney-Walsh collaboration, you should check out The Strawberry Blonde. Cagney’s character has one of my all time favorite movie names—Biff Grimes.
I wasn’t aware they collaborated again. That’s great news! Is that all or are there other Cagney-Walsh films I didn’t know about?
That’s it, I think, unfortunately.
Walsh is one of the few silent Hollywood directors not imported from Germany who understood just what the camera was capable of. His silent films don’t just cut from master shot to close-up; the camera is used to tell the story visually. He and the unjustly neglected Fred Niblo may not have developed quite as baroque a style as F. W. Murnau or Paul Leni, but they were miles ahead of most Hollywood directors in the 1920s. His sound films find him mostly lumped in with the “tough guy” directors who mostly plied their trade at Warner Bros. But there’s an edge to his work (face it, WHITE HEAT is one nasty film for its time) and an eye for tiny, telling details such as the one noted above.
Matt, yo knew all those dates off the top of your head? That’s pretty impressive!
I loved White Heat but i’ll have to start checking TCM to catch up with the rest of his work.
Oh well Matt, three is pretty good.
Look for Regeneration from 1915, it’s available on DVD and is one of the better films of the period.
Much as I love the Roaring Twenties and White Heat (and I probably would say that they’re better films), Gentleman Jim is my personal favorite. It’s the greatest boxing film ( beats out Raging Bull and Body and Soul).
I haven’t seen any of his films post-White Heat. Any worth checking out/available?
Captain Horatio Hornblower, R.N. (1951) stands up pretty nicely in its genre.
I second RuncleS re: Captain Horatio. Also, the other Walsh/Peck collaboration, The World in His Arms (also starring Ann Blyth and Anthony Quinn) is quite good.
Manny Farber on Walsh:
“A director whose feel for small-time, scrappy wage earners possibly came from his own cooperative, energetic function in the movie industry, Walsh made a mistake when he misread his own strengths (he was insistently touted as a flexible master of swift-moving adventure epics) and abandoned stagnant, suspended scenes of truckers resting up at an all-night roadside café before tackling the next leg of the truck route, of a bedraggled dame (Gladys George) consoling a deposed rackets chief mourning his lowered status over beer after beer, of the petty, racy banter passed around with waitresses, chorus girls, and hat-checkers… Walsh, who wrote some scripts as bald copies of hit films he directed, and probably entered each new project with “Christ, it’s not bad. It reminds me of my last movie,” never fights his material, playing directly into the staleness. He is like his volatile, instinctive, not-too-smart characters, who when they are at their most genuine, are unreclaimable, terrifying loners, perhaps past their peak and going nowhere."
To my mind Walsh’s strengths are in his love of humanity in its unwashed nakedness and in capturing the ways people move en masse. Like Shohei Imamura, he seems to not be concerned with value judgments but with trying to show the diversity of actions and motivations that people act upon. At times this can seem heartless or insensitive, but it also frees the viewer from the more manipulative methods of being told how to feel about the interactions of the characters they are watching. There is a better balance of faults and strengths in his characters than is found in almost any other Hollywood director, and, if one takes into account the conventions of Hollywood films from the time, more than most directors from other parts of the world as well.
In White Heat our sympathies can be with both Cody Jarrett and Vic Pardo depending on the specific actions that are occuring. In Gentleman Jim we can see Jim Corbett is a bit of a heel and a boor and can thus understand the wealthy club denizens wanting to take him down a peg, but we can also see his exuberance and charm and root for him to triumph. The fight with John L. Sullivan captures this well. We are both rooting for Corbett to prove his mettle by defeating Sullivan, but we have also seen enough of Sullivan to feel a sense of loss if he would be defeated. In They Died With Their Boots On he even pulls the strange trick of having us root for both George Custer and the indians! This tendency even holds true in films like College Swing and The Strawberry Blonde, our sympathies or interests shift depending on who is being focused on at the moment. It suggests a world view that is less determined by some innate sense of character, by which I mean some notion that there are good and bad or evil people, and more on a sense of individual actions causing better or worse outcomes.
As for the way he handles crowds or extras, just watch the amazing fight scene at the pier in Gentleman Jim to see how a mass of people behave. He really is without many peers in his understanding of crowd dynamics and the variety of ways people respond to situations. Even as far back as Regeneration he was much better at capturing the diversity of response than most directors I have encountered. And, echoing Farber, his ability to capture the lives of the poor without caricature is almost unmatched.
Granted, this is only based on having watched, perhaps, a dozen of his films, and some not recently, but Walsh’s films aren’t as readily available as they should be for someone as talented as he was. I hope to watch as many of his films as can get my hands on to see if my viewpoint will change over time.
Andrew Sarris on Walsh:
“If the heroes of Ford are sustained by tradition, and the heroes of Hawks professionalism, the heroes of Walsh are sustained by nothing more than a feeling for adventure. The Fordian hero knows why he is doing something even if he doesn’t know how. The Hawksian hero knows how to do what he is doing even if he doesn’t know why. The Walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than the what. He is always plunging into the unknown, and he is never too sure what he will find there. There is a pathos and vunerability in Walsh’s characters lacking in the more self-contained Ford and Hawks counterparts. Where Ford shifts from the immediacy of the slightly depressed heroic angle to the horizon line of history, and Hawks remains at eye level, Walsh often moves to the slightly elevated angle of the lost child in the big world . . . his best films are genuinely exciting, though neither profound nor pretentious. If there is no place in the cinema for the virtues and limitations of Raoul Walsh, there is even less place for an honestly pluralistic criticism.”
“As for the way he handles crowds or extras, just watch the amazing fight scene at the pier in Gentleman Jim to see how a mass of people behave. He really is without many peers in his understanding of crowd dynamics and the variety of ways people respond to situations. Even as far back as Regeneration he was much better at capturing the diversity of response than most directors I have encountered. And, echoing Farber, his ability to capture the lives of the poor without caricature is almost unmatched.”
Yes, Walsh was very good with what Sarris calls “the big world,” whether it be a fight crowd or the expansive of The Big Trail.
Also, I much prefer his Thief of Bagdad to the Powell.
Matt Parks, what a cool idea.
Maybe I can get some folks to take a look at HIGH SIERRA,
(one of those films that Warner Bros. kept making and remaking), and WHITE HEAT.
Here’s my take.
Boasting an engaging screenplay by John Huston and sterling cinematography by Tony Gaudio,
HIGH SIERRA required a perfect performance from the star.
Walsh was a bit worried about that, because his “colorful” past had put him in touch, up close,
with the kind of character this story details.
Fortunately, after Warner Bros. stalwarts Paul Muni and George Raft declined,
Humphrey Bogart was third in line.
(As far as I can tell from Warner documents, there was never any question about who would direct.)
toward the high end of the Sierra Madre mountain range.
(Walsh was adept at staging moments in which a character’s true nature is manifested through a single act).
Anyway, Roy Earl is looking to “crash out,” as he puts it,
and everything he’s said and done up to this point make the movie’s climax entirely unsurprising.
The world, in Earl’s view, “is just a little ball turning through the night, with us trying to hang on to it.”
Maybe he’s onto something, because he’s been swirling in a vortex of bad luck and bad timing;
the kind of stuff that would practically define the noir universe later.
Earl falls in love with a crippled girl just to lose her to another man,
watches his only trustworthy gangster colleague die, and then gets ratted-out by his new heist partner.
Everything he encounters reinforces Earl’s “me-against-the-world” ethos,
but something about his nature makes us pull for him anyway.
That may be because he spends most of his ill-gotten money on an operation for the crippled girl,
or because he follows a personal code of fairness and decency (even if that code is often enforced with a .45 automatic).
Like crime-spree loners John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd,
Earl represents a vanishing species that is being absorbed or replaced by the less definable force known as organized crime.
These attributes make Mad Dog Earl a complex figure in a genre film, and Raoul Walsh never allows
the furious energy of this picture to overwhelm the complexity of his character,
or to diminish the impact of the many tender moments in this tale.
(Walsh rivaled John Ford in his knack for revealing gentle nuances in ostensibly rough-and-ready or hardboiled characters).
In any event, Bogart’s world-weary visage was ideal for this role,
which prefigured the jaded, desperate characters of the later film-noir cycle.
Indeed, while Bogart’s sense of humor and detached coolness in The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and Casablanca made him a cinema legend,
the dark fatalism he displays in High Sierra provided a template for a new breed of antiheroes.
WHITE HEAT is aptly titled, since nearly every scene is ablaze with insane energy,
but that title has other connotations.
Cagney’s Jarrett is a kind of hoodlum Tasmanian devil, and in that legendary fiery finale, in which he delivers one of the trademark lines of his career, Cagney appears to have entered his natural element.
In some ways, he was merely RE-ENTERING it,
and that notion is the subtext to what would be Walsh’s last great film.
Dillinger types were subsequently replaced in the ‘40s by underworld syndicates,
so that loners, relegated to an angst-ridden netherworld called film noir,
were generally private detectives or wrongly accused fatalists.
These ambiguous antiheroes dwelled in a cold, dark universe of paranoia and doubt.
Gone was the “white heat” generated by the take-charge gangsters of the Edward G. Robinson/James Cagney machine-gun era.
However, Raoul Walsh apparently recognized that some of that heat still simmered in the 1949-model Jimmy Cagney, and thus he found the ideal screen persona for going out in a blaze of glory.
To some extent, Walsh single-handedly brought the crime genre around full circle with this entry, and that’s no parlor trick, as elements of this madly violent masterpiece have been reworked in crime thrillers such as The Getaway, Blue Velvet, Reservoir Dogs, and Heat.
Excellent post, Dr. L. Thanks!
Bumping up over all the threads that got trolled last night.
Two images from The Big Trail :
One from The Roaring Twenties :
>>I much prefer his Thief of Bagdad to the Powell<<
Well, I wouldn’t go that far … but it is one of the better Hollywood silents. I think they’re about equal in strengths and weaknesses.
Perhaps—it’s tough to objectively compare silents with sound films—but Powell’s bored the hell out of me. William Cameron Menzies’s set for Walsh are magnificent:
I saw THE BIG TRAIL only about six years ago.
Absolutely blown away by both Walsh’s stunning aesthetic choices and his crew’s technical proficiency.
Such scale! Animals, people, and wagons all over the damn place; no CGI here.
Afterwards I had to rework my personal database on motion picture history, metaphorically speaking.
In fact, I think I will have to slide that picture into a special category, i.e., required viewing and a prerequisite
to fully appreciating American cinema’s origins.
Menzies also worked on the Korda production (really more accurate than calling it a Powell film, as he was only one of a number of directors who passed through the film’s revolving door).
My problem with the silent film is an aversion to Doug Fairbanks, Sr’s overbearing jocularity & showoff athleticism. The man is just so full of himself I want to slap him repeatedly.
The sound film boasts one of film’s great actors, Conrad Veidt, in a silkily nasty performance.
Perhaps we can both agree that each of these is better tha the Steve Reeves/Arthur Lubin version …?
“Perhaps we can both agree that each of these is better tha the Steve Reeves/Arthur Lubin version”
Absolutely. And I also agree with you about Veidt.
Heh heh. I have the same Fairbanks problem myself, but still slightly prefer the silent version’s scope to the Powell, but it’s only a matter of a slight degree so not something I would spend much time defending since the performances pretty much made up for it.
I did like Fairbanks more in Reaching for the Moon where his excesses are used against him to some degree. Unfortunately it didn’t stick its ending at the melancholic moment that sensible and would have summed up so well the move from the roaring twenties to the depression era, but tacks on an ugly misdirected coda that takes away from the best parts of the film. I also have some hopes for The Private Life of Don Juan since it also seems to play off his legend and image.
I got a copy of Walsh’s “Me and My Gal” from 1932 not that long ago. Still haven’t watched it . . . Really liked Thief of Bagdad, thought High Sierra was decent but not great (I still don’t get what was up with Pard the Death Omen Dog, what a strange idea to put in that movie), but White Heat as many people have posted above, that’s just awesome.