Walsh at War

The American home video industry remains unaccountably resistant to directors — I mean, Ma and Pa Kettle have a box set, while Douglas Sirk gets bupkus? — but once in a while something slips through the cracks, like the William Wellman set that Warners released last year under the cover of a “Forbidden Hollywood” pre-Code collection. Now, far more significantly, someone at Warners has smuggled out all four of Raoul Walsh’s imposing World War II propaganda films with Errol Flynn (plus, if only for the sake of contrast, Lewis Milestone’s conventionally preachy “Edge of Darkness”) in a beautifully mastered set they’re calling “Errol Flynn Adventures.” The films evolve in tone from boyish adventure (“Desperate Journey,” 1942) to a blunt, almost anti-heroic realism (“Objective, Burma!”, 1945) as the war deepens, all centered around the development of the Flynn character from a typical devil-may-care Walsh protagonist to a responsible, introspective leader. It’s a magnificent collection of movies which, augmented by “They Died with Their Boots On” (1941) and “Gentleman Jim” (1942), Walsh’s other two wartime Flynn films, and “Background to Danger,” a 1943 George Raft spy thriller recently released through the Warner Archive Collection in a nicely remastered edition, that amounts to one of the richest runs of creativity in Walsh’s sterling career. (I’m afraid we’ll have to wait a while for its nearest rival, a “Walsh at Fox” box that would cover “What Price Glory” through “The Bowery.”) My New York Times review is here.

In some other good news, James MacDowell writes to inform us of the revival of “Movie,” one of the most distinguished names in film criticism, as a web-based journal that’s being organized as joint project among the Universities of Warwick, Reading and Oxford. The editorial board includes veterans of the original publication — among them Charles Barr, V.F. Perkins and Michael Walker — as well as some more recently minted British scholars, and the pieces in the first issue (online here) are refreshingly free of post-modernist cant, reflecting instead the “Movie” tradition of close-reading and ethical engagement. MacDowell’s own piece on the notion of “quirkiness” in contemporary American independent film strikes me as exactly what’s been missing in so much current scholarly criticism: it’s deeply and seriously engaged with the films in question, drawing meaning from them rather than imposing a pre-ordained ideological stance.

Here’s wishing the new “Movie” a long and happy future.

143 comments to Walsh at War

  • Barry Putterman

    Jaime, as I’ve said before here, in my view, the auteurist canon is far too well established already. I know that the question I am about to ask can be taken as a condescending slight, but I assure you that I’m asking it in completely innocent curiousity. That is, do you really feel that people of your age or younger will only accept the auteurist canon if it is presented by one of their contemporaries?

    That said, do my eyes deceive me or is SAILOR’S LUCK missing from your list?

  • @ Barry: no slight taken! The answer is – no. I could be as old as Manoel de Oliveira, and running a website that attempts to gather the magnificent film canon in one place, in an ongoing, congenitally flawed, and organic project, and I think I would still have received the same amount of traffic as I have thus far. I’m not under the illusion that young men and women are attracted to my site because they’re looking at me and saying, “Hey, this guy is one of us! I will listen to what he has to say because I identify with him.”

    But if not me, who? My site isn’t for everyone – it’s not for every cinephile, in fact – but in speaking to my objectives, there’s no legitimate alternative.

    I’ve received a predominately positive response from cinephiles – mostly my age or younger, it’s true – for creating a directory of must-see films with an auteurist bent. The 2nd tier on each page, “Essential Viewing,” is designed to encourage people to see films that they may not have heard of, or haven’t heard mentioned in the context of being worthwhile as a time investment. My objectives are all but totally independent of market forces, which operate on the principles of remaining of-the-moment or of-the-upcoming-weekend and exist solely to drive revenue, not foster the experience of good or great works of art. This weekend, for example, we are told me “must see” THE EXPENDABLES, SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD, or, failing that, EAT PRAY LOVE. You can’t reasonably expect to have one or more of the media conglomerates point out the fact that ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLONDE-HAIRED GIRL is playing at Anthology tonight. But it’s been listed as an essential film on my site for several months. If one person bought a ticket because of that, I did my job.

    Also, your eyes do not deceive you – that is why I asked for board regulars to assist in making me aware of my omissions. And a highlighted omission is, thus, a corrected omission. Thank you!

    @ Dave: “Actually, Jaime, I think “all of them” is a perfectly legitimate response”

    Indeed. I only meant to anticipate the response, not preclude it as a legitimate response. Thanks for letting me know about those early Walshes, I’d love to make my way up to Rochester one of these days.

  • dan

    Seeing the love that THE REVOLT OF MAMIE STOVER gets in here is a really great sight. I also like another seemingly underrated Walsh film of that same year – THE KING AND FOUR QUEENS. Together with BAND OF ANGELS those are probably my favorites of Walsh late career masterpieces.

  • Fredrik, my web-book on Walsh is at:
    http://mikegrost.com/walsh.htm

    It discusses 47 of his roughly 90 surviving films. It opens with a big checklist of his themes and techniques.

    Jaime, fun Walsh includes Artists and Models, College Swing and Cheyenne. Esther and the King also seems really good.
    That’s a great list!

  • I had no idea Raoul Walsh plays John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated American president Abraham Lincoln, in D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation”. A still from the film is his screenshot on the wikepedia page. This reminded me that D. W. Griffith himself started out as an actor in the 1908 film “Rescued from an Eagles Nest”. It seems like a trend in the early 20th century for young talent to go to Hollywood and show their competency in one domain – whether it is acting, editing, set design – and then to use their experience and relationships to slowly move upwards to directing and producing. Some other people that come to mind include Wiliam Cameron Menzies and Donald Siegel.

    Mike Grost’s Settings checklist makes me want to check out Raoul Walsh’s Canada films, “Northern Pursuit” and “Saskatchewan”. Are they out on video? Any general comments on them?

  • David – NORTHERN PURSUIT is part of the Walsh/Flynn package that Dave K. wrote about in the Times.

    SASKATCHEWAN is on Netflix Instant but it was given to Netflix in their contract with Starz Play, which is notorious for presenting ‘Scope films in pan & scan. (One noteworthy casualty is Tourneur’s WITCHITA.) I just checked the instant stream on Netflix and it appears to be pan & scan as well.

    Regarding SASKATCHEWAN and the widescreen question, the IMDb lists it with an aspect ratio of 2:1. What process is that?

    @ Mike – Thanks to you as well. Continuing to enjoy your site!

  • Tom Brueggemann

    I don’t see any aspect ratio listed at IMDb.

    I recently rewatched my copy of this; it seemed fine at 1.33×1, which is likely how it was shot. It is possible that with the rush to wider presentation in 1954, this was one of those films that was presented in some theatres in an ersatz ratio that was not intended when shot.

  • Barry Putterman

    Jaime, I know that you are devoted to streaming in place of DVD owenership. But, just so you should know, WITCHITA is available in scope via Warner Archive.

  • Peter Henne

    Tom, I agree with you about SASKATCHEWAN’s ratio. The opening credits support putting it either in the soft-matted or Academy category.

  • Thanks Mike! That was an impressive collection. I’ll read up on it over the weekend.

    I’ve had a look around on the DVD market in Sweden, where I’m spending my summer, and no film by Walsh is available to rent on DVD, and hardly any for sale either. I’ve seen more of Walsh’s films with French subtitles than with Swedish. That’ll give you an idea of what life was like as a struggling cinephile in this country.

    Some here has written about Walsh’s use of depth of field. I remember being much impressed with the diner scene in the beginning of THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, where all the action takes place in the foreground, but far back we see a guy working in the kitchen. It gives the whole scene added depth, on many more levels than the strictly visual.

    Tonight I’m watching SILVER RIVER. Comments will follow! But now I need to go back to the more mundane task of researching the visual style of Alf Sjöberg’s theatre productions.

  • @ Barry – Just for space-saving reasons! (Which I recently betrayed in unspeakable ways, curse you Barnes & Noble Criterion Collection 50% sale…) And I suspect that streaming video will improve by octaves in the next few years, although it might be a seriously bumpy road we have to take to get there. But that is good to know, I missed an opportunity to see WITCHITA in 35mm a few years back and have been looking to make amends somehow…

    @ Tom – This page (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0047449/technical) suggests either the false-matte job you mention, or one of those early, mongrel ratios that were scrambled together in ‘Scope’s wake. Like that retrofitting Howard Hughes on some of RKO’s stuff. I might have my history wrong, trying to type and put my shoes on. (Not recommended.)

  • Alex Hicks

    Just when I’m thinking that Curtiz-swahbuckler-perfect Errol Flynn is too lightweigtht for his 40′s films with Walsh (though he’s convinced me in Gentleman Jim), I see that he looks a lot like the amazing Brit-German double agent Eddie Chapman (of “Agent Zigzag” fame).

    Not that Walsh’s Flynn films are all that that much more heavyweight than Curtiz’s. Sure, Walsh’s are more hard boiled than swashbucker, but they more W. R. Burnett or William McGivern level “serious” than Hemingwayesque.

    I don’t really think Walsh is up there with Ford or Hawkes, except maybe in WHITE HEAT. Elsewhere he can’t both combine the gravity and delicacy of THE SEARCHER (or CLEMENTINE), RED RIVER (or ONLY ANGELS) –though HIGH SIERRA is tough as nails and STRAWBERRY BLOND does trip the lights fantastic.

  • jbryant

    Purely anecdotal, but when I was a budding cinephile in the 70s, it just seemed that Walsh’s rep didn’t match that of contemporaries such as Ford and Hawks. It was probably a combination of lack of availability and, as was suggested upthread, scholarship. He was never nominated for an Oscar, or even a Golden Globe, and many of his films got middling ratings in the usual reference books (Maltin, et al). Not saying that matters–just saying a young cinephile in small town Kentucky at that time (pre-Internet, unable to read French, no access to repertory theaters) would have few other ways to find praise for Walsh’s films, other than the dozen or so that “everyone” knew because they featured Cagney or Flynn or whoever. WHITE HEAT has been one of my top ten faves forever, but I would routinely pass up TV viewings of many Walsh titles during those years because no one had made them sound like “must” viewing (and, of course, there was never any shortage of other auteur efforts to catch up with). I regret this, of course, even though it does mean I now have a huge, major filmography to discover–if I can ever find the time.

    I second Mike’s reco of CHEYENNE, a highly enjoyable Western that I’ve seen twice now thanks to TCM. Also big on THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, THE BOWERY, THE ROARING TWENTIES, THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE, HIGH SIERRA, the sublime GENTLEMAN JIM and a couple others–but oh so much left to see!

  • Peter Henne

    “I don’t really think Walsh is up there with Ford or Hawkes”

    Alex, I don’t really think so, either. I liked GENTLEMAN JIM very much but can’t put it on a level with what those two and Borzage are doing at the same time, roughly 1938-1941/2. But I’m walking in my baby shoes with Walsh, having seen only half of what others have here, and a third of a Walsh expert I know (Jaime, we may be talking about the same person). Walsh does seem like the kind of artist who does not disclose his unique sensibility so easily, and at least in my experience, many of his style traits are discovered by seeing relatively big groupings of his films, instead of how a person might come to latch onto Welles in an evening with a double bill of CITIZEN KANE/TOUCH OF EVIL.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Pedantic note – it’s Wichita (as in Kansas); Witchita sounds like a sister city to Salem, Massachusetts.

    The key for me with Walsh has been how, unlike Ford and Hawks, he has seemed to be a bit more a product of the studios with which he was alligned than the other two (or, perhaps, compare Ford’s lengthy tenure with Fox and the range of his work there with perhaps a bit less broad range of Walsh’s at WB.

    I keep going back to Walsh, and have fortunate enough to have seen 73 of his films (including except for Hot for Paris all his sound output). Maybe like jbryant I have been too influenced by his lesser overall standing (though still high) and need to resee more on an ongoing basis. I would say that among sound native-born American directors, I’m inclined to rank Borzage, Welles, Fuller, perhaps Ray and some others a bit higher; for me Walsh ranks with Allan Dwan, which for me is saying he first-rate and major.

    Anyway, it’s a good excuse to revisit him even more. Now if only Universal would let Salty O’Rourke loose again (a Paramount film I doubt I’ve seen since the 70s), particularly as a comparison to the excellence of his WB work during this period.

  • Brian Dauth

    THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT was the film that played a major role in unlocking Walsh’s work for me. Specifically, it was a scene at a lunch counter (which may well be the scene Fredrik is referring to). But I still struggle with his films: viewing other Walsh movies after this “breakthrough” has produced uneven results.

    Fassbinder sometimes took an editing credit under the name “Franz Walsch”, and listed THE NAKED AND THE DEAD as his second favorite film behind Visconti’s THE DAMNED.

  • Johan Andreasson

    THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT is one of the relatively few Walsh films that I have seen. I don’t remember the scene at the lunch counter (could it be the one that Fredrik mentions?), but one thing that did register with me was the realistic and believable way that Walsh portrayed the very harsh working conditions of the truck drivers. There was also good use of locations, fine performances by the actors and snappy, hardboiled dialogue.

    But then, as Mike Grost points out on his site, the story switches gears entirely, and becomes virtually a second (to me much less interesting) movie. Likewise I’m sure viewers who are mostly interested in the crime melodrama will find the first part of the movie much too long and filled with unnecessary details about working conditions.

    Someone earlier in the thread described Walsh’s movies as episodic, and that’s what this one felt like to me: full of good scenes but not really working as a whole.

    Of course in his next film, HIGH SIERRA, with some of the same themes, actors and locations, everything worked beautifully.

  • Roaring 20s made me a believer. Still my favorite Walsh film so far (but still have zillions to see).

  • Barry Putterman

    Johan, THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT is an interesting example of how the studio system in general, and Warner Brothers in particular, worked in those days. The second half of the film is an almost literal remake of the second half of a 1935 Warners film called BORDERTOWN in which Paul Muni, Bette Davis and Eugene Paulette played the triangle you saw George Raft, Ida Lupino and Alan Hale play. I saw both films both films when I was a child on New York’s “Million Dollar Movie” about a year or so apart and in the wrong chronological order. It was very educational.

    But that’s how it was in those days. As Walsh said, they’d throw the script on your front lawn on Saturday and you began filming on Monday. So he wound up having to remake his sublime STRAWBERRY BLONDE with James Cagney as the unbearable musical ONE SUNDAY AFTERNOON with Dennis Morgan.

  • Thanks for the Walsh list Jaime, which shows how much more I have to explore. For now, my favorite is ME AND MY GAL, which just bursts with swagger and vitality.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Walsh is indeed an interesting test case about auteurism, since it seems, unlike Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock and other masters, he rarely ventured into producing his own films (whether with the title or de facto) or initiated them.

    One of the great jjoys of auteurism is discovering authorship even in directors who, indeed, like Walsh were handed scripts as assignments with little preparation and less initiation. But it does take a lot more work and in particular focusing on visual and other directorial aspects that are not script/story related. (In other words, one needs to delve a lot deeper than the surface).

    I guess this is another way of saying unlike some of the others, though I have seen the bulk of Walsh’s films, perhaps I have yet to reach the level of understanding Dave and perhaps others have reached.

  • David Boxwell

    Walsh, Ray, Ford, Lang: the Eyepatch Gang. Tantalizing mystery: what’s under there, auteur?

  • Alex Hicks

    I’ve never though of Allen Dwan as a great directors, but I see he did a LOT of silents, some quite early. If his ROBIN HOOD is half as good as Fred Niblo’s enthralling THREE MUSKATEERS (or twice as good, as auteur theory might suggest), it might make for a great double feature with Walsh’s THIEF OF BAGHDAD.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    DeToth also was blind in one eye as well; Walsh and DeToth both directed 3D films.

  • Alex Hicks

    Walsh, Ray, Ford, Lang, DeToth –the Eyepatch Gang? The academic truism that peoples specialize in their areas of early incompetence. This saw goes way back; Thomas Mann once quipped that he became a writer becaus he was, as young, a poor writer.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Not sure about when DeToth lost sight in his eye, but but the others had long before established mastery of film before they went partially blind (or in Walsh’s case, lost his eye in an accident).

  • Johan Andreasson

    Walsh in 3D – that must be GUN FURY. Usually when I watch movies made for 3D on a regular DVD I don’t miss the 3D at all (for instance I saw HONDO at about the same time, and would never had guessed it was planned for 3D if it hadn’t been pointed out to me), but with GUN FURY there were constant scenes with objects being thrown towards you as a spectator that really called out for 3D.

  • david hare

    Jaime, late to reply but I second (or third or whatever) Dave’s recommendation of the Yellow Ticket. One of the most striking depth of field shots is the sequence in which Alissa Landi finally visits a recommended bordello lit chiaroscuro style to obtain her “yellow ticket” – a powerful, beautifully shot moment. If you can’t find it anywhere give me a PM.

  • Wasn’t Fritz Lang’s monocle due to a WWI injury?

    I recently watched G. W. Pabst’s “Pandora’s Box” and it appears that monocles were pretty fashionable in the Weimar republic. Is it me, or does the scene in the Pabst film where Lulu (Louise Brook) is potentially driven to her own suicide, her husband has a gun to her stomach, recall Lang’s first wife suspicious suicide. Lisa Rosenthal apparently shot herself in the stomach with Fritz Lang’s pistol. Who commits suicide by shooting themselves in the stomach? After this event, the attitude towards Lang and his new mistress Thea von Harbou got more distant and cold from his collaborators. Karl Freund was particularly suspicious.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Monocles were either for improving vision when one eye needed help more than the other, but also for a time as a fashion affectation.

    Lang apparently said at different times he had an eye injury at the end of WWI, or was hit with exploding nitrate in the mid 1920s. Some colleagues claimed he had decent vision in the monocled eye, but used it to be imposing.

    He did by the early 1940s develop serious vision problems with his other eye, and was almost totally blind when he died.

  • Blake Lucas

    I must say, Dave, that you gave this old Walsh aficionado some things to think about and take back to this group of films with this excellent piece.

    First, though it seems obvious now that you write it, I never really thought about how the films and Flynn persona within evolve in such a clear line from the most playful (at least relatively—there is a war going here!) in DESPERATE JOURNEY to the most serious in OBJECTIVE BURMA. This seems absolutely right—and I think it might help me to deepen my appreciation of all four of the films more when I see them again. At this point, I’ll acknowledge that while I do like them all, I like them in ascending chronological order, JOURNEY least and BURMA most. But you make me keen to get back to all of them, even though I just watched UNCERTAIN GLORY again a year or two ago.

    But the claim that the Flynn cycle is one of the two best runs of Walsh’s career, along with that early Fox period, is arguable maybe, not because it isn’t great, but how is it better than some of the other periods one might name? I love Errol Flynn, especially with Walsh, but my two favorites of this period are the first two not in this set, THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON and GENTLEMAN JIM, and of the five that followed, the non-Flynn BACKGROUND TO DANGER seemed like a minor Walsh to me, though I know I shouldn’t trust one late night TV viewing and should get back to it sometime. Also, there is the propaganda aspect of these, never completely absent, even if it certainly is not the driving force of the films and is tangential to Walsh’s artistry. It seems that WWII films just can’t escape this, mostly, and so I just accept this as part of films made in that period, but though I appreciate the beauty and gravity of BURMA as I do of Hawks’ also superb AIR FORCE, neither film completely escapes demonizing the enemy. It’s OK in terms of believability for the characters to do this perhaps—so feels legitimate up to a point, but so often they seem to be doing it on the film’s behalf (interesting to note too that the flag waving script of BURMA involved the work of no less than two of the Hollywood Ten!). So I don’t think it’s unfair to be a little critical of this marginal fault, at least as a limiting factor, since Ford, in THEY WERE EXPENDABLE, managed to profoundly valorize his own characters’ experience in the film without this demonization. The Japanese are simply and objectively the enemy—and hatred is beside the point.

    This is just a very minor stricture and I want to emphasize that. Perhaps the one single thing I most feel an affinity with Dave Kehr about (along with his implicit credo that “every movie ever made should be made accessible”) is what he said at 8/10, 9:32 am as regards Ford, Hawks and Walsh as the big three of American cinema, because he said this before too, sometime ago, in another way–that someday Walsh will rightfully be considered on the same level with Ford and Hawks. For years, I’ve spoken of Ford, Hawks and Walsh as the Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides of classical American cinema—and I realize that in some ways that’s glib and inexact (though there are some real correspondences), and acknowledge that at certain times in those classical years other directors might jump out more for a time and seem more brilliant, but we’re talking about the long haul here, and if you think about it, if those three were all that was left, it would be enough for classical American cinema to deserve and presumably have the same respect as Greek Tragedy has always enjoyed. Think of how comfortably they could do everything they wanted to do while understanding and respecting that this was basically a genre-based cinema, of which their films cover the full range, while carving out thoroughly personal bodies of work. And the three also have in common that the “I’m a pro director who can make a decent movie people will enjoy but this is not an art” pose served them all so well that they were able to sustain long careers way past the point of even the remotest fashionability.

    So my comments re periods of Walsh’s career should be taken in context of the above.

    Walsh moves through a number of phases over 50 years, and in my experience, there is only one phase which is not outstanding—that’s the period in the 1930s after he left Fox (following THE BOWERY) and before he came to Warner Bros. (THE ROARING TWENTIES). I still haven’t seen all the films in this period and won’t say I don’t intermittently enjoy the ones I have seen, nor that he does not stamp them with his sensibility—but he seems relatively uninspired in them, and I wouldn’t take him for a great director based only on this group. Walsh himself seems to have felt this way—I read in an interview that he was feeling very dispirited about his career during this phase, so it’s a good thing Warners picked him up when they did (one only wonders why they didn’t do it sooner).

    Going back, most of the first part of Walsh’s career in silents is lost—a loss comparable to the loss of most of the Ford/Careys to me and I’m sure to others, especially the ones with his then-wife Miriam Cooper. We know Walsh especially prized EVANGELINE—would that it could be found in a glacier somewhere! Also, we know from his first feature REGENERATION that has survived that he started off fully in command of his art. So of course, I agree about the later silents from WHAT PRICE GLORY as well as the early sound films at Fox as a great run for Walsh—though my own favorite of the period is the non-Fox silent SADIE THOMPSON, so much that I regret the loss of the last reel almost as much as I’m grateful that most of the film does exist.

    Moving on to Warner Bros, one could divide what appears to be most of a contract phase in two—the first half going through the war and including the Flynn phase Dave described, but the films before this seem to be on the whole as outstanding for me, especially THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE. Right from the start, the studio aesthetics seem to suit Walsh just as his personal style suits the studo, and those first years show him forging relationships with a number of stars he obviously loved to work with in Flynn, Cagney, Bogart, Lupino—elevating several of them beyond where they were before and doing the very best with all of them. Then after OBJECTIVE BURMA there is the 1946-1949 period which I personally might cherish even more, partly because of the major role Walsh played in shaping the post-war Western with PURSUED and COLORADO TERRITORY (and ALONG THE GREAT DIVIDE in 1951 fits in here too), and also impressively too if somewhat less, in SILVER RIVER and CHEYENNE. But also there is the indelible woman-centered melodrama THE MAN I LOVE and the still amazing WHITE HEAT.

    Yes, there are some weak Walsh films in this period but for my experience, in any of these periods, the lesser films—and as with Ford and Hawks, there are not really so many of these—can and do come along at any point in his career, along with the most outstanding ones. (Footnote: It is an interesting coincidence that Hawks and Walsh hit what seems to be their lowest point at exactly the same time in exactly the same way, remaking in 1948 as a color musical a 1941 black and white film, in Hawks’ case the excellent comedy BALL OF FIRE and in Walsh’s the sublime STRAWBERRY BLONDE, respectively as A SONG IS BORN and ONE SUNDAY AFTERNOON).

    That brings us to the last phase of Walsh’s career, which I want to say just a little more about. This is 1951-1964 and again divides about evenly into Academy ratio films (through SASKATCHEWAN, and I’m certain that is correct for that film) and then anamorphic which is all the remaining movies except BAND OF ANGELS. The three 1951 films seem to belong to the earlier Warners contract, but after that he seems to be an independent agent, seemingly always welcome back at Warners (and for me, always with good results—but maybe I’m the only BATTLE CRY fan out here) but working around at other studios also with wonderful results, in the 1951-1954 academy ratio period especially with those three beautiful Universal-International movies and in the ‘Scope period with his often magisterial ‘Scope films at Fox.

    I’ve come to believe more and more that this is the dividing line for Walsh in terms of where people rank him. Everyone seems to find a share of classics in the previous Warner Bros. period (though sometimes thinking of him as simply an exemplary studio director), and there’s plenty of respect for him for his silent work and for some of the early sound films too, but in this late maturity, these films seem so often to be dismissed as kind of routine. I find this very hard to understand, as I find him never more personal.

    Take his treatment of women, which is perhaps the best of any Hollywood director overall, not because he foregrounds them as the obvious center of the film—that happens only in a relatively small number of key films—but because more than anyone else, he makes them autonomous with their own narrative within the main story. When Dave says Walsh is the cinema of the individual, I noted he included Swanson in SADIE THOMPSON so I know he was referring to women too. Ida Lupino in THE MAN I LOVE and Jane Russell in THE REVOLT OF MAMIE STOVER are obviously in this line, but although the male protagonist in the film is equally strong, it’s no less true of Yvonne de Carlo in BAND OF ANGELS and that’s just one shining example. That’s why as well as being a cinema of the individual, Walsh’s can also be, so movingly, the great cinema of the couple, because although Hollywood is invested in couples, it usually means making one of them (the woman almost always) a passive vessel whose story simply gets attached to that of the male protagonist. But in Walsh they are equal, with equally compelling stories that finish together, and as Walsh treats them, they respect each other equally partly for this reason (and also because the woman is always unapologetic for her history, not judged by the man—and when she is, as in MAMIE STOVER, it’s felt as a flaw in the man) and one does not want to make the other subservient. Anyway, think of THE TALL MEN for the purest example of what I mean here, and maybe it’s because of my response to this aspect of Walsh that BAND OF ANGELS and COLORADO TERRITORY are at the top of my own list. In any event, I’d also like to recommend for those who can find it Jean-Pierre Coursodon’s Positif piece (April 2001) on this subject “Esclaves et Libres” (the title especially refers well to BAND OF ANGELS though he covers a number of other films too), at least to those who read French and can find it. This is definitive on this subject of women in Walsh and I don’t know why he didn’t mention it before when writing on Walsh came up.

    Just one more second point about this period because I know I probably overstayed this post a long time ago, but the subject is, after all, inexhaustible. That’s about Walsh’s style and aesthetics. He is always celebrated for energy, for dynamism, for marking off action with forceful camera movements, movements of players, sharply edited. In this last period of his career, and especially after the ‘Scope films begin, his style becomes somewhat quieter, more reflective, at times simpler though very gracefully so. Does that make this Walsh lesser than the earlier one? I personally find this style becoming, and also have observed that Walsh can still summon tremendous reserves of forcefulness—the climax of his last film A DISTANT TRUMPET being an especially moving example right at the end of his career. Great directors learn they do not need to be showy practicing their art. I happened to turn on THE REVOLT OF MAMIE STOVER on Fox Channel not long ago—didn’t watch it through because it was in the middle even though I felt quite keen to see it again. I watched one long scene between Jane Russell and Richard Egan, mostly a sustained single take in which they move around within an open space, the scene reflective of the tensions of the evolving relationship. The combination of camera distance, duration, staging, body movement and gesture and dialogue delivery, the deep-dyed understanding of everything going on and how to express it best were pure Walsh for me. That doesn’t mean anyone will ever anthologize it but even so it’s great filmmaking.

    Then, too, just one word about Walsh as a colorist. After getting a start with color in the 40s with FIGHTER SQUADRON and the hapless ONE SUNDAY AFTERNOON, Walsh began in 1951 to make almost all of his remaining films in color. I wish I had or could fully remember a FILMS AND FILMING interview where he talked about this. No painter could have had more specific ideas about it—and these ideas are fully realized in the films. Walsh said he thought a lot about using color and how different films in different genres should have different kinds of color and was very specific about what he felt it should be—so different for melodramas, comedies, war films, melodramas, Westerns and costume adventures and his ideas about each were vividly expressed. So he certainly never loses his aesthetic side.

    And that’s why while I know the period from WHAT PRICE GLORY to THE BOWERY is the best reason for the dreamed of Walsh at Fox box, I see no reason why they should leave out THE TALL MEN, THE REVOLT OF MAMIE STOVER, THE SHERIFF OF FRACTURED JAW, A PRIVATE’S AFFAIR, ESTHER AND THE KING and MARINES, LET’S GO. After all, who would have thought that Sal Mineo, Barry Coe and Gary Crosby could put over a musical number with the charm and brio of any three more famous guys you might think of—but when I saw A PRIVATE’S AFFAIR, there it was.

    I know that the ultimate stature of Walsh started being debated after I started writing this and everyone has their own take on it. But I’d caution not to underrate him because he did take a lot of scripts as they came to him and didn’t initiate that many projects of own (he definitely initiated some—and his revisions in recasting HIGH SIERRA as a Western in John Huston’s absence speak volumes about him); he always makes the films his own, and it’s as easy to see his themes and world view as it is to see his evolving personal style. I’m certain that along with Dave and myself, there are others here who’d place him in the top tier of all directors—they can speak for themselves but I’d guess Richard Jameson would say so and likely Jean-Pierre Coursodon too and a fair number of others. I’ll also say that I doubt the people I’ve named ever had any problem with his style, anymore than I did, and I got curious who Jaime was referring to when he made mention of this. Speaking of Jaime, it’s also just possible I’m the “Walsh veteran” he was referring to earlier—seeing a few absences I made a number of suggestions and most of them made his lists, though some seemed to get lost in the shuffle, understandably enough, and I know MAMIE STOVER was one of these, so glad to see that remedied now. But for “Essential Viewing” I’ll go with Dave on “All of them” as the best response, and will say Dave’s piece in his forthcoming collection will be one of those I’m most looking forward to.

  • Barry Putterman

    Welcome back Blake.

  • pat graham

    re monocles: sported primarily by sinister contintental toffs, usually of the hapsburg-area persuasion (heroes never wore them, save as pushbutton connoters in pretransformation disguises), though my database for generalizing is certainly less extensive than for most other commenters on this site * my own favorite monocular eyeware of recent vintage is in pintilie’s AN UNFORGETTABLE SUMMER, where straight-ahead character suggestion takes a distant second place to irony …

  • Richard T. Jameson

    Blake, this may add ammo to your assessment of Background to Danger as minor Walsh. Last time I looked at it, I had a strong suspicion that the whole opening several minutes of the movie, up to the time a name actor (Sydney Greenstreet) has a line, might have been done by Don Siegel in his role as montage/second-unit/inserts guy. Undoubtedly Siegel had done the detail work on the brisk and witty compressions of Corbett’s rise to stardom in Gentleman Jim, though surely in accord with the Walshian spirit of the enterprise. No reason he wouldn’t have had a freer hand in Background to Danger, which was in any event a hand-me-dowm, more like shrug-me-down property originally intended for John Huston.

  • Joseph Neff

    When Blake Lucas posts, he really brings the goodness.

    COLORADO TERRITORY is my favorite of the Walsh’s I’ve seen. I have it on tape from TCM in the closet. I still recall a moment near the end where a stressed out Virginia Mayo turns her face to the camera and shutters. It may not seem like much in words, but visually it left a lasting impression.

    THE HORNS BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT catches some flack as minor , but I dug that one, too. Not as much as WHITE HEAT or HIGH SIERRA or OBJECTIVE, BURMA!, but it was still a nice one.

  • Barry Putterman

    Joseph, you should compare notes with Johan and Fredrik. It sounds as though TCM in the closet is much better than the version they have in Sweden. I do know what you mean about the moment you describe in COLORADO TERRITORY. The emotional connections we experience at such times just can’t be conveyed in any analytical language.

    The thing about THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT is that Jack Benny used it as a running gag on his radio and television show for over a decade and its legendary status as a terrible movie counts for much more than what is on the screen now.

    Daniel Fuchs wrote a wonderful piece about landing at Warner Brothers and immediately being thrown into the rescue effort for their current disaster project. He talked about being teamed with a crafty veteran screenwriter, meeting with the film’s flamboyant director to be, and trying to work around the limited star whose main demand was that he be given as little dialogue to say as possible. No names were mentioned, but he was clearly talking about BACKGROUND TO DANGER.

  • Patrick Henry

    I remember seeing GUN FURY (in 3-D!) at the Coolidge Corner in Brookline some years ago. Aside from a striking performance by Roberta Haynes (as a hot-tempered Mexican), there’s an amusing moment when Donna Reed, as Rock Hudson’s new bride traveling with him by stagecoach to his family home, pauses to look at a landscape at sunset (or was it sunrise?) and exclaims “That’s the most beautiful thing I ever saw!”

    Rock replies, “That’s nothing. Wait till we get home!” which got a big laugh from the audience. (Probably a dirty joke intended as such by Walsh.)

    THE YELLOW TICKET is a great movie but I couldn’t help thinking Elissa Landi miscast; she seems too sweet and innocent for a woman in desperate straits posing as a prostitute.

  • I intended to write something to explain why I consider Raoul Walsh as one of my favourite american directors (alongside Ford and McCarey) but I just can’t say anything new about Walsh’s personnal (but not obvious) style after the great piece written by Blake.

    I just want to add:

    -Blake, you’re not alone to cherish BATTLE CRY. Actually, I don’t understand his bad reputation. Ok, the ending is too much. But what a good movie about war rookies! Here you have interesting woman characters too. I wrote a few lines when I saw it http://films.nonutc.fr/2009/08/19/le-cri-de-la-victoire-battle-cry-raoul-walsh-1955/

    -Jean Louis Comolli wrote a great essay about OBJECTIVE BURMA in 1964 in the Cahiers du cinéma.

    -you can read very good pieces about something like 20 Walsh’s films in the movies dictionnary written by Jacques Lourcelles.

    -Flynn’s movies directed by Michael Curtiz are just great. Especially SANTA FE TRAIL, VIRGINIA CITY and THE SEA HAWK. These are MUCH BETTER than THE GREEN LIGHT.

  • Thank you for that detailed and insightful post, Blake. It is indeed good to have you back.

    A couple of minor points: I’m not sure it’s fair to blame propaganda films for being propaganda films, and in any case “Objective, Burma!” for the most part avoids any characterization of the Japanese as anything more than “the enemy,” the exception being that quite powerful scene in which the Henry Hull character discovers the mangled bodies of some tortured prisoners and explodes into a vicious anti-Japanese rant — not a surprising reaction from the character, and alluding to events that certainly happened. Next to something like “The Purple Heart” from Milestone or “Behind the Rising Sun” from Dmytryk (both filmmakers with fine liberal records), not to mention the Bugs Bunny cartoons of the period, Walsh’s characterization seems remarkably restrained.

    I agree that “Background to Danger” is minor Walsh, though I wasn’t aware of the hand-me-down Huston connection. In their excellent entry on Walsh in “50 Ans,” Tavernier and Coursodon state that the film was largely rewritten at the insistence of George Raft, who wanted to be a secret agent rather than the ordinary Joe in the fine Eric Ambler novel the film is based on. There is probably a thesis to be written about Walsh’s relationship with Huston, in that it was Walsh who really kickstarted Huston’s career by introducing him to Bogart on “High Sierra” (the first true “Bogie” movie, IMHO) and pulled Huston’s chestnuts out of the fire by directing the final (and best) sequence in “In This Our Life” (originally to be a vehicle for Flynn and De Havilland, by the way).

    When I said that Walsh’s 25-33 Fox period and his later Flynn period represented the two most sustained runs of creativity in his career, I meant to suggest that these films share an unusually tight stylistic and thematic unity, not that they were materially superior to the post-Flynn Warners films (Walsh deserves a lot of credit there for dealing with second tier stars like Dennis Morgan and Virginia Mayo) or to the eternally underrated 50s films (dismissed even by Pierre Rissient, perhaps the most passionate Walshian I know). The great gap in our understanding of Walsh, as Blake points out, is in his 1914-1925 period, of which very few films survive. We have John Ford’s testimony that this was Walsh’s most inventive period. He told Tavernier of being particularly influenced by “The Honor System” (1917) and “The Strongest” (1920). I have a complete set of lobby cards from “Evangeline” that suggest this one must have been a stunner, too — I’ll try to scan them and put them on line one of these days.

    As one of the great masters (and chief architects) of the invisible style, Walsh is of course more difficult to appreciate than more aggressive stylists like Welles or Kubrick, or even Borzage and Fuller. But once you attune yourself to the incredible fluency of his filmic language — his mastery of tempo, character placement, narrative proportion, his co-ordination of camera movement, movement within the frame, and cutting on action — his work becomes addictive. Just watching him manipulate the medium makes even the minor Paramount films of the mid to late thirties deeply fascinating to me. If there ever was a natural-born filmmaker, it was Raoul Walsh.

  • Barry Putterman

    Dave, Virginia Mayo may have been second-tier, but she was certainly first-rate in COLORADO TERRITORY, WHITE HEAT, CAPTAIN HORATIO HORNBLOWER and ALONG THE GREAT DIVIDE. Now Dennis Morgan on the other hand….

  • Alex Hicks

    A footnote to Walsh’s “Background to Danger”: Ambler 1937 book is a great read, not the slightest bit dated, and THE great innovation in the emergence of the espionage novel as we’ve enjoyed it via Greene, Deighton and Le Carre for 7 decades (unless one allows Maugham’s “Ashenton” stories the distinctions, despite their individual brevity).

    Actually, I’m keen to see Walsh’s film, even though I cannot easily imagine any film not dragged down into mediocrity by George Raft’s leaden presence. Indeed, as David K. seems able to abstract the merits of a film’s style out from all of the film’s other elements –I’m convinced though mystified– I shall attempt to abstract Raft’s presence out of BACKGROUND in the hope that what remains is a sublime masterpiece. (Gotta be better than Herman Shumlin’s soporific adaptation of Graham Greene’s nearly landmark “Confidential Agent.”)

  • Any movie with Greenstreet and Lorre can’t be all bad. There was talk of a box set of their films but I imagine the ones that are left are destined for the Warner Archive now. Would love to own THREE STRANGERS.

  • Rick K.

    Made my inaugural dent in the new Flynn set this evening with DESPERATE JOURNEY, which retains from memory its vigor, all-ahead-full pacing, EMPHATIC Max Steiner score and, of course, its patriotic zeal quite unabashed and administered without apology of its intravenous intent. However watching it this time around also had me speculating whether perhaps Quentin Tarantino might have harbored a few memories of this film when conjuring his INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS … aside from sharing a behind-the-enemy-lines scenario and somewhat persistent Gestapo official (Massey/Waltz), one could imagine that Brad Pitt might have evolved from Flynn’s self-confident leader-of-the-pack (with Pitt replacing southern drawl insolence for Flynn’s flippant Aussie/all-American impetuousness), with Reagan’s go-getter subordinate a starting point for Eli Roth’s over-dedicated Nazi-punisher. Alan Hale is even permitted to bludgeon a couple Nazis with a shovel at one point, albeit its wince effect achieved primarily with sound, in contrast to Tarantino’s more graphic methods. Both Walsh and Tarantino have fun with language contortion between the opposing sides, though Massey, while very much looking the part of an arrogant German official, falls a bit short in nailing the characterization with dialogue. All in all, a very enjoyable evening courtesy Walsh and company, as I look forward to streamlining my way through World War II in the nights ahead.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Blake, thanks for a great post (“essay” I should say!) on Walsh, and thanks for the plug too. The title of my Walsh piece in POSITIF (ESCLAVES ET LIBRES) was intended as an allusion to the French release title of BAND OF ANGELS, which is L’ESCLAVE LIBRE. My central point in the piece was that Walsh’s heroines all yearn for independence in a context that always tends to repress their urge.

    The article was part of a Walsh “Dossier” that included five other excellent pieces, one of them about “Walsh and Errol Flynn.”

  • Dan Callahan

    Thanks for all these insightful posts on Raoul Walsh, especially Blake Lucas’ detailed rundown of his various periods. A filmography of this size is daunting, and it’s good to at least know where to begin; I had no idea, for example, that “The Yellow Ticket” had any kind of reputation. I’d love to see more of his early Fox sound work; “Me and My Gal” instantly became one of my favorite films when I finally got to see it not too long ago. I will say that Tag Gallagher’s piece on Walsh for Senses of Cinema is quite helpful, too (he even provides a list of films with rankings). And I do think Walsh’s Mae West movie, “Klondike Annie,” is worthwhile and surprisingly thoughtful.

  • Blake, let me echo the outpouring of thanks for that terrific piece.

    You are the “Walsh veteran” I was referring to – I try not to name names or cite conversations without permission, out of respect for personal privacy.

    Those who have had difficulty “getting into Walsh” I can’t really cite, either, since I subscribe to the policy that what’s said offline should remain offline. (And that goes for e-mail, too.) However, Fred Camper – an auteurist if there ever was one – wrote the following in 2006 (and Walsh is one of his favorite filmmakers), and it’s as public as the county courthouse:

    http://movies.groups.yahoo.com/group/a_film_by/message/42366

    These remarks, expressed differently of course, have been echoed by others, too. It’s no big thing – it may be that Walsh is an acquired taste for some.

  • Barry Putterman

    I remember reading an interview with Jean-Pierre Melville in which he said that Walsh made only one good movie, OBJECTIVE BURMA. So, in fact, some people never acquire it. But then again, there’s no accounting for it.

  • Mike Grost

    Jean-Pierre also has interesting comments on Walsh heroines in his AMERICAN DIRECTORS book.

    And Blake, that is a very informative essay!

  • Tom Brueggemann

    In glancing at Peter Bogdanovich’s book This Is Orson Welles last night, I noticed that Walsh was among the directors Welles mentioned as being among his favorites.

    (Also saw that he really, really disliked Antonioni’s films, and broke his rule about criticizing another filmmaker’s work).

  • Peter Henne

    Just what Jaime said, Blake–you’re a “Walsh expert,” as proven by your generous contribution to this site.

    Dave K. called Walsh a “master of the invisible style,” but I wonder if he would be open to amending that judgment in the light of Walsh’s ’50s style, with films such as THE KING AND FOUR QUEENS, THE REVOLT OF MAMIE STOVER, BAND OF ANGELS, and THE SHERIFF OF FRACTURED JAW (my #22) which bring style to the forefront as about as “aggressively” as you can make it. Also in THE BIG TRAIL, there is some modern sense of making beautiful pictures which have enough attention-grabbing power to encourage a viewer to draw back a little from the story and take notice of the frame and constructed depth. I don’t see how the viewing can be otherwise, then and now. I’m definitely not trying to say THE BIG TRAIL doesn’t have a worthy story, but it has this second dimension, too. And that makes the style not invisible, on purpose.