August 17, 2010

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Raoul Walsh was nothing if not adaptable. As a teenager, he tagged along with his uncle on a trading mission to Cuba and Mexico. The schooner was damaged in a storm and had a long layover in Vera Cruz. It was there, Walsh claimed, that he learned roping from a man he only knew as Ramirez, whom he paid in Cuban rum. He stayed ashore when the ship returned to NYC, and was soon hired as a cowboy to drive cattle into Texas. His accidentally gained expertise landed him a horse riding gig on Broadway (in a version of THE CLANSMAN, later filmed by D.W. Griffith as THE BIRTH OF A NATION, in which Walsh played John Wilkes Booth), and later got him hired at the Pathe Film Studios, who also needed a horseman. Once he was primed to break out as a leading man in IN OLD ARIZONA, a jackrabbit flew through his windshield, and the glass shards gouged out an eye (he was replaced by Warner Baxter). Hence his eyepatch, and his practically-minded move behind the camera.

Dave Kehr commented on on his blog, relating to his NY Times piece on the Errol Flynn Adventures box set that TCM released with Warner Bros., that “for me Walsh belongs with Ford and Hawks as one of the Big Three American directors, but there has been surprisingly little of substance written about him in English or in French.”  I felt I should be as practical as the director and take this as a sign to dig further into Walsh’s work. There was further discussion of how little he’s esteemed in the under-30 crowd, of which I’m a member for the next few months. And it’s undeniably true. I’ve never had a conversation about Walsh with anyone of my own age group.  So until I hit that magic number in February, I’ll be assessing and re-assessing his work, to find my way through Walsh’s massive filmography and hopefully spark further discussion about this major figure in film history.

Kehr’s erudite readers also took up the challenge, especially Blake Lucas, who wrote an essay-long breakdown of Walsh’s career. Spring 2011 promises a flood of material, with an essay on Walsh in Kehr’s eagerly awaited collection When Movies Mattered, and a forthcoming biography, Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director(University Press of Kentucky), by Marilyn Ann Moss. I’m adding my rather undigested thoughts here, and will contribute more in the coming weeks the more I see. I watched The Big Trail  (1930), The Strawberry Blonde (1941), Battle Cry (1955), and The Tall Men (1955) in quick succession with comment below, and my bits on Me and My Gal (1932) and Colorado Territory (1949) are here and here.

Walsh’s dynamic visual sense was as equally pragmatic as his upbringing. The stills above are from films 27 years apart, but his mastery of widescreen composition remains, whether in the 70mm Fox Grandeur format of The Big Trail, or the CinemaScope of The Tall Men. He composed in depth in arcing lines, framing his images to fit the horizontals of the format, instead of the more vertically oriented Academy Ratio that preceded and followed the box office failure of The Big Trail. The vertiginous conclusions of White Heat, High Sierra and Colorado Territory attest to his expertise in the latter. But when he had wide aspect ratios to deal with, he adapted: in his ‘Scope films his people die sideways. This might seem intuitive, but the clunky framings of early Scope experiments like The Robe, made 23 years after his commandingly wide Big Trail, shows how ahead of his time, and downright experimental his creatively practical approach was. These are images of beauty but also of narrative tension. John Wayne traverses the middle ground in the top image from Trail, caught as he is between his Native American friends and the covered wagon train he’s leading to Oregon. The crowds look like massed armies, and the centered mountain provides an ominous roadblock. But Wayne’s bright beige buckskin outfit cuts a deal and a way through.

The image from The Tall Men is less dramatic, a minor aside before the big drive to Montana. The group of vaqueros that Clark Gable hired takes a moment to pray as the cattle nap in the background. If Walsh’s heroes are “sustained by nothing more than a feeling for adventure”, as Sarris claimed, or what Kehr calls “runaway individualism”, this shot displays what this recklessness and freedom has put at stake: the lives of these pious men are on the line for these indolent cows. It is a tossed off moment of nobility for these nameless workers, whom Gable leads on an impossibly dangerous journey through Oglala Sioux territory. His Civil War colonel turned stick-up artist is once again a leader of men, and it brings riches and death.

Walsh’s men are truculently free spirits, and look for women of similar combativeness. For romantic relationships are as central to Walsh’s world as reckless  individuality. The tension between the two motors most of his work, echoing a quote from Johannes Brahms: “It is my misfortune still to be unmarried, thank God!”  The Strawberry Blonde and Battle Cry are almost exclusively concerned with this dilemma. James Cagney gives another irascible fireplug performance as Biff Grimes, a dentist and perpetual black-eye wearer. Giving remarkable detail to the speech (“that’s just the kind of hairpin I am”), clothes and bearing of lower middle-class immigrant strivers in the gay ’90s (the only richer milieu Walsh created was the 30s lower East Side of Me and My Gal), Walsh presents Biff as an all-American loser, and is one of his (and Cagney’s) most beautiful creations. Biff is quick to fight and quicker to hold a grudge, a mulish sap who contains deep reserves of dignity. He loves his lusty father, but falls hard for the measurable charms of Rita Hayworth’s social climber. Roped into being a wingman for his huckster-entrepeneur friend Hugo, he’s hooked into a date with Amy (Olivia de Havilland) instead, a budding suffragette who talks women’s rights on the first date, and who prefers to get just as frisky as the men. They are both odd fits for society, two weirdos who love running their mouths, getting into scrapes, nursing, and dentistry. So the most romantic scene in the film concludes in a tooth pull without anesthetic. It’s a hilarious, vengeful moment against Hugo, but also an inadvertent revelation of his own happiness with Amy. Love is laughter and the restraint of murderous impulses. I now place it alongside Me and My Gal as my favorite Walsh film.

Battle Cry is a war film that’s almost entirely about love affairs. Walsh keep eliding battles in order to return to town where Aldo Ray and Tab Hunter get entangled with conflicted ladies in San Diego and Wellington, New Zealand. It is a very strange film, a big-budget spectacular that eschews spectacle for moments in-between the fights. There are more shots of men sitting than shooting. It’s a case study for what Jean-Pierre Coursodon has called his “basically leisurely approach to filmmaking.” He slackens the normal pace of this WWII propaganda picture, made with the support of the U.S. Marines, to dig into one-night stands and poignant love affairs. Coursodon continues in his “American Directors” essay:

“when confronted with a war picture, and therefore a predominantly male cast, Walsh uses the flimsiest pretexts to sneak in as many women as possible. Most of Battle Cry’s 149 minutes’ running time is devoted to the likes of Mona Freeman, Nancy  Olson, Dorothy Malone, and Anne Francis pleasantly cavorting with their boyfriends in blissful oblivion of whatever is meant by the film’s title.”

It’s a film about raucous canteens, maudlin bars, and the chatter that fills it up. James Whitmore’s Captain complains that he couldn’t read Hamlet, because “he reminds me of an uncle of mine in Dayton.” Then there are the mournful wives, girlfriends, mothers and one-night stands who populate their off-hours, replacing the ghosts of their sons and lovers with the lonely, eager visages of new recruits. Some live and some die, there are break-ups and weddings, and Walsh doesn’t linger on any of it.

“The great traffic cop of the movies”, as Manny Farber called him, kept things moving, as the world went ahead without them. One of the most expressive shots for me was in The Big Trail, in which a covered wagon gets ripped downstream as it tries to ford a river.  There are no close-ups or dramatic music swells or star actors, just a family losing all they own. Then there’s a cut, and our hero must move on.