"The genius of the system" is a contradiction in terms, but it seems to have stuck as an alternative to the auteur theory in explaining how the Hollywood studio system made so many good films. Yet René Clair, specialist in comic-romantic soufflés, reported that he was offered a project developed for Fritz Lang, and where was the sense (or genius?) in that?
Still, the system was maintained by men possessed, if not of genius, then of horse sense: when someone proposed that Raoul Walsh direct, as a change of pace, a tender love story, Darryl F. Zanuck of Twentieth Century Fox swatted the idea down, saying, "Raoul Walsh's idea of a tender love story is to set fire to a whorehouse."
This month, the Museum of Modern Art in New York is offering another great season of films from Fox
(before it merged with Twentieth Century), including five from Walsh that display a good part of his range, which did
include the quieter emotions... but it usually helped if there could be some rambunctious action, farce, mayhem, and wild tonal shifts. The silent and pre-Code era offered the cyclopean maestro more license to express his worldview, which tended to smile upon all manner of bad behavior with carnivaleque glee.
Two of the Walshes share a Tsarist Russian setting—and also some footage, since The Yellow Ticket (1931) recycles some of its plot and a few of its epic shots (above) from the earlier The Red Dance (1928). Both films are intended, on the surface, as melodramatic attacks on the cruelty of the Tsarist regime, but Walsh was a bit of a cossack at heart (or a pirate: the eye-patch was for real), and it's at least partly a celebration of the vice it purports to condemn. Walsh's drinking/whoring buddy Lionel Barrymore plays a fiendish, mustache-blackguard in a satin smock (doesn't suit him) who has a whole display case full of weapons used in assassination attempts. A fun guy.
Screenwriter Jules Furthman had a taste for the morbid and grotesque, supplying those elements raw to Josef von Sternberg and in a more rarified form to Hawks: his reputedly creepy personality seeps through, as he spends most of the film devising torments for nice Jewish schoolteacher Marya (played by nice English-Italian actress Elissa Landi). Coming to her defense is a very young, skinny, and charming Laurence Olivier: seeing him with Barrymore is a thrill, as it must have been for Larry.
I don't know how to account for Olivier's transformation, thespic rather than physical: the beefier swain of later films is a much bigger actor in all respects, frequently requiring William Wyler to sit on his head to prevent embarrassing excesses. ("I don't suppose this anemic medium can contain truly great acting!" he sneered on set once, and was loudly razzed by the whole crew. But that's a story he told against himself, later.) The naturalistic and scrawny figure here is a surprise and delight, but there were many naturalistic actors extant, and it's understandable that Olivier would eventually aim to be something much rarer.
The whole farrago looks amazing, with a highly mobile camera and lambent cinematography courtesy of James Wong Howe, and with that unique style of art direction Fox pictures had: I don't know how to define it, except it often puts me in mind of charcoal sketches. Something about the combination of smoky light and distressed surfaces.
If it's not prime Walsh, it's probably because he was more interested in the rapacious villains than the virtuous heroes. A telling moment: poor Landi arrives at a hellish prison to collect her sick father. The guards tell her where she can find him, but not that he's just died. Their laughter, as she departs, is not the sinister cackling of movie sadists: it's just two work colleagues sharing a joke. Chilling.
And, for Walsh, the way of the world.
"William Fox Presents More Restorations and Rediscoveries from the Fox Film Corporation" runs March 10 - 26, 2019 at New York's Museum of Modern Art.