PRINT November 1971

Raoul Walsh: “He used to be a big shot.”

OFTEN DURING THE HEYDEY of the Zanuck-CohnMayer studio warlords, metaphorical approximations of the studio setup appeared in film after film. In the depression highlife movies—Holiday and Easy Living—the studio is a corpulent rich man’s silvery baroque mansion, the studio employees are a giddy loquacious parasitic family that chews up his wallet. In the Shane-Red River mythic westerns a cattle baron, chairbound Ryker or Tom Dumbson, functions as though he’s running a movie studio by driving men and cattle into broken-willed obedience. Half of the Capra-Sturges library is involved with family-town-legislature made up of two-faced Edward Arnold smoothies or bombastic bosses, notable in Sturges for incompetence and pudgy cheeks, who mislead a population of angling gullible eccentrics. Raoul Walsh is one of the most enigmatic directors to unconsciously play around with this metaphor about the sick compromising situation of working inside a big studio monolith. In Walsh’s world there’s no omnipotent kingpin character, but the bustling studio environment is recreated in a script that moves around a lot through rooms, cars, streets.

Unlike the evangelistic hymns or hums in which a Shane, Congressman Smith, or Matthew Garth acts as a savior figure, standing for the director, who frees the prisoners from the institutional behavior, Mad Dog Earle and his director are ostriches with their heads buried deep inside the System; they’ll never “crash out.” This director never walshes out, but stays inside a disingenuous script, accepts the inflexible requirement of at least three big stars acting out a measly story, also the stable of boisterous, bathetic, Irish Soul bit players (Frank McHugh, Hale, Bond, Arthur Shields, Joe Sawyer) who appear the same debilitating way every Walsh picture, and the all-purpose Warner’s backlot, like Nervi trying to reach the sky, with mysterious, all-white, slanted abutments, which could be a brewery, Nazi munitions factory, chemical plant, or penitentiary wall.

Reflecting the suffocating, man-under-a-toadstool relationship with Warners, he uses family institutional-industrial frameworks for his stories, emphasizes the burden of team responsibility and loyalty, tightly frames the space covered by plucky, full-bodied actors. The meat-and-potatoes of a Walsh film is the sense of a busy day at the factory, where the workers hustle this way and that as in a Walsh scene in a prison jute mill, a sweatshop place which would madden an Upton Sinclair: the frenetic, boxed-in crisscrossing of paths and the corrupt clamor, hellish Hale of prol types.

Safe, trend-conscious producers (Hal Wallis, Robert Buchner) wouldn’t dream of hiring Walsh to handle their prized Oscar-race entries, metaphysical bog-raphy (The Story of Louis Pasteurized, Juarez) starring Paul Money. Walsh, a Peter Pan perpetual boy scout, did unsophisticated, boyish, swaggering movies for six decades. Well within Walsh’s sweet-natured, high schoolish value system are the poignant, just buddies, untactile relationships (co-workers, the Strawberry Blonde dentist and his father), enduring love for a wholesome icon family, the neighborhood conceived as a family unit, lead characters played as Dandies (the Strawberry Blonde dentist loves the town beauty for her style; Gentleman Jim Corbett has a lustful admiration for the upper class elegance and style of the Olympic Club and its members; Danny Dolan has an aspiration for stylish garments, the right hats). A possible MoMA retrospective of boyish Hog Walsh: Cagney, strangely soothed and thoughtful as though he’s just read James Joyce for the first time, returning from the dark woods where he’s been quietly communing with his deceased mother: “I liked it out there. M-m (savoring the memory of it). Nice feeling out there talking to Ma.” A mad-dog killer returning to his mountain hideaway to find his two punkish assistants have had a silly spat; one is hiding sheepishly in the woods, the other is barricaded inside a cabin. Edward G. Robinson performing an aerial act amidst live electric wires, plummeting 30 feet to the ground through sparkling electrical jolts, dying in his buddy’s arms with the final comment, “I was out of line, way out of line.”

A miniaturized, shrunken version of Walsh’s “little big shot” position in the studio caste system might be any of the following handymen: Earl Morrall, Don Knotts, Howard Cosell, Hubert Humphrey. Like the dancing, caroming scrappers who populate his movies, Walsh moved around a lot, spiking any sick-slow scene the studio had, while turning out a preposterously prolific number of his own films per year. The Roaring Twenties—a young man who distinguishes himself in war trenches comes home to unemployment and a bootlegging career—follows predictable plot patterns but is acted-directed in such a feisty, snub-nosed, tight-britches fashion that it occasionally soars. High Sierra, a half-likable struggle between the dated, moralistic Burnett-Huston script and Walsh’s dry burning touch with Lupino, a cunningly aged, tired Bogart and a squashed, bedridden Donald McBride who springs Bogart from the pen for one last caper, annoyingly jumps back and forth between the gangster’s loathsome partners in crime and a white picket fence area inhabited by mawkishly played Steinbeckian Oakies. It’s somewhat like a Breughel (the overpopulated scene has some deadly stereotypes including a jinx mechanical Hugh Herbertish pooch, environmental sweep, and a slow, non-shortcut type of detailing) but Walsh’s environmental imagination is countered by the heavy moves that the script makes. White Heat is an alternation of one spectacular Cagney scene for every dud involving Ed O’Brien’s sloppy telegraphed reactions, especially for a gang infiltrator whose specialty is nerveless conning. Walsh goes to sleep when he handles Decency, the wooden lawyer who works for the DA’s office in Roaring Twenties, the four bland T-men tendrils in White Heat who possess one remarkable idiosyncrasy, a baton-like cigarette holder, the banker stiffs in Gentleman Jim, the colorless insipid blonde who jilts Cagney in Roaring Twenties, Ward Bond’s inflated chest and mustache chewing as John L. Sullivan (“I can lick any man in the world”). Gentleman Jim, a distinguished singularity in movies, is a non-pious-pedantic biography in which Errol Flynn’s mocking overconfidence is cleverly employed in the role of a shameless social climber who maddeningly maintains poise and balance through endless rowdy Irish family bashes and heavyweight bouts.

Why dig up this “great action director” whose enormous progeny includes such clunkers as Saskatchewan, Distant Trumpet, whole scenes devoted to the art of spitting and to an obscenely acted, scene-hogging drunk, whole films carbonated with ironic bawdy jokers or miserably maudlin weepers? It’s a rank understatement to say that Walsh’s personality has never been properly identified. Either he is lauded as a pure, uninhibited pagan who found formula action stories to be an ideal, uncompromising framework in which to celebrate the spirit of adventure, or else he is rudely put down as an unworthy, featureless assemblyman of invariable Warners’ pulp. Actually Walsh is at his most stale stereotyped when he handles compulsory action-adventure situations, whereas his position deep within the studio served to inspire his treatment of earthy, bread-and-butter human conditions, where the spirit as well as the body is yoked, burdened, slack, unassertive.

Walsh deserves to be re-seen through a modern looking glass, but to dissolve the studio influence from any discussion of his films leaves him a fantasy figure of this or that rating system, dated, easily read. It’s easy today to rate Sturges as a stinging satirist of American myths by ignoring the image’s desperate pushing and shoving and constrictedness. Hawks’ films can be read as moral tales of danger-defying professionals only by deleting the studio conditions which appear visually as cliquish characters enjoying a pampered security and insulation. Walsh’s stagnant, no-promotions role as a Warner’s factory hand led him inevitably to undercut purportedly Good Thoughts (pro-family, pro-working crew, pro-fidelity and trust) with homely congestion and bitter dailiness. He insists on keeping people away from the center of the event, using endless plays for separating two pals or a married couple, increasing loneliness, the feeling of doom, so that hope is sucked out of the character. Walsh’s inclusion of scenes of daily human pathetique should separate him immediately from American mooring, and especially from the action specialists, Hawks, Farrow, Curtiz, with whom he’s usually classed. A good director of homeliness, innocence, vulnerability, Walsh can be amazingly direct, forthright, clear, rhythmic, a dedicated-to-folk cousin of Renoir’s Toni, Vigo’s L’Atalante, Brassaï’s street life photographs, with more brisk jocularity than his French counterparts.

Manpower, about emergency repairmen who work on high voltage power lines in ferocious pseudo storms, is a very strange somber movie. The sadness of its triangle lovers, scenes of the most homely daily order, the amount of material on sexual ignorance, impotence, and hysteria make this a primitive movie with subtle directing. A convict’s first day out of prison is usually a number one stumble in movies (e.g., the High Sierra opening with the prissy editorializing in Huston’s script: one contrived, structured, informative fact after another about the rediscovered wonders of fresh air, sunlight, park foliage, plus a stray newspaper with the convict’s public enemy face punctured in the left nostril by a trash collector’s pedantic paper-sticker). In the feverish Manpower, the First Moment Out, acted awesomely straight by the least statuesque Marlene Dietrich, takes a surprising, abrupt right-angle turn to a little local drugstore, very quiet and sidestreet drab; the ex-girl-con says “Stop here” and she heads with a fierce resolve to the cosmetic counter, where she buys cream-lipstick mascara and defiantly paints away while Raft glowers his once-a-tramp-always-a-tramp philosophy.

Both this scene and one in Honeymoon kitchen are photographed-acted with a great chasm of tension between a man and woman. Walsh is always angling out of a familiar movie situation by doubling and tripling the environments and splitting the people apart with terrifying, unmodified Pathos. Robinson, drunk and passed out on his wedding night, wakes up and panics when his wife’s not in bed the next morning. This is a cliché image, but Walsh then travels into hopeless disparity of man and wife. He layers misery—the deepest naive optimism of a husband, a wife’s despairing realization of not hitting the Marital Jackpot in any sense—into unglamorized scenery. Robinson’s beer joint hostess wife is in the kitchen whipping biscuits from scratch. Robinson’s ecstasy is funny—pathetic: “Did you make these?” then rushing off to show his crew the biscuits, the proof of his wife’s true-blueness. (“Fay, my wife, made these, the best biscuits you’ll ever eat.”) In Roaring Twenties, Cagney takes a show biz beginner home on the last train to New Rochelle. It’s probably one of the best familiarizing locale scenes; it is so strict, clean, shrewd about positioning people and camera. The cunning—a quiet intimate first date zeroed in from the end of a train car over the head of a passed-out drunk—is in doubling the pathos and humor of a scene that is instantly stationary and enclosed.

Walsh seems inspired primarily when poeticizing a glum, unsunny, lower middle class milieu that’s miles from the graceful, dauntless life-styles pictured in expensive, expansive, dream-factory fabrications by Cukor, Wyler, or Hitchcock. Pinball machines and cigarette smog provide essential atmospheric details for an unbuttoned society with no prohibitive admission requirements—grace, wit, or effervescence—where the typical man’s outfit includes a tight fitting hat with a narrow turned-up brim and a zip-up waist-length jacket that makes the wearer look chubby or puffed. 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. His later movies tend to look like Captain Horatio Hornblower: stiff swashbuckler costumes pushing a sweeping, episodic narrative, glued together with look-alike shots of handsome vessels plowing like logs through the water.

The great traffic cop of movies, keeping things moving, hustling actors around an intersection-like screen that’s generally empty in the center, Walsh’s style is based on traveling over routes which are sometimes accomplished by bodily movement, the passage that a gaze takes, suggested or actually shown, and the movement of a line of dialogue, the route indicated by a gesture. The fact that spitting is often used in very early Walsh suggests how important Paths figure in his syntax. Birthed in films as a Griffith actor and the director of Fairbanks’ films, his no-shortcut style is steeped in the silent film necessity for excessive, frantic visual explication, taking nothing for granted.

The usual route for Walsh is to slow the development by increasing specificity. It is very cunning: by the time his gangster comes apart, is shot down, or shoots his way through an ambush, Walsh has slyly doubled and tripled every move that the gangster makes in terms of height, texture, path, angle, and sound. Cagney’s psychotic break in the penitentiary dining hall involves a messy noisy tantrum after he hears his beloved Ma has been gunned down. Every move Cagney makes has been counter-pointed and varied. His incredible frenzy literally swimming through cutlery and china down the length of a table has twice been anticipated with a slow camera dolly down the table and back, picking out each diner who gets splashed and shocked by Cagney’s tantrum crawl across the table. Cagney’s running battle through a half-dozen guards spaced at crucial spots around the hall has been anticipated by a quiet over-the-hall long shot as the prisoners file in and angle off into the various aisles. The battle itself is frenzy improvised with perfect Cagney instincts: characteristically it is a mesh of variations on pace and height, ending with Cagney being carried by the guards down the aisles and out the hall, above their heads like a frantically struggling fish on a tray.

The melancholic fact about this natural, unsophisticated humanist is that he is often alone in playing straight rather than cynical (Hawks), surrealistic (Farrow), or patronizing (Huston) with genre material. 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.

In 1931, he directed his best film, Me and My Gal, an unpredictable jauntiness built around a dubious theme: “Life is sunny, if you don’t stir it up.” A suspended moment of grace for Walsh and Tracy, when newness and budding maturity were clicking for them, Tracy banters back and forth over a beanery cash register with a Harlow-ish sass machine (Joan Bennett): “Haven’t I seen you someplace?” Packing flaunty and insolent earthiness into a challenging act, Miss Bennett’s waitress answers: “Maybe, I’ve been someplace.” This did-I-hear-right crack, early vaudeville style, is fleshed out with typical Walsh-engineered acting: mock documentary—full bodies in full space—that sifts into material that is innocent, anachronistic, quietly amoral. Despite the inevitable expectoration, truculent drunk, talentless slapstick, this primitive oh-you-kid effervescence is inspiring for its balmy innocent actors: J. Farrel McDonald, as an Irish father whose leering-winking face, in screen-filling close-ups, comes off as blunt Godard put-on commentating; Bennett, the least lockjawed and haughty version, as a slinky, don’t push me around toughie, chewing gum (“You’re a pretty tough Beezock; why don’t you park that gum?”); the youngest, most buoyant Tracy usually freeloading off someone’s table, combining outrageous swagger with a self-mocking he enjoys to the hilt. His favorite move: he pushes out his cheek with his tongue, does a pleasantly sociable leer, mouths an automatic sarcasm, “Let me see if you have a hat fit for a detective,” that hardly parts his lips.

It is only fleetingly a gangster film, not quite outrightly comic: it is really a portrait of a neighborhood, the feeling of human bonds in a guileless community, a lyrical approximation of Lower East Side and its uneducated, spirited. stevedore-clerk-shopkeeper cast. There is psychological rightness in the scale relationships of actors to locale, and this, coupled with liberated acting, make an exhilarating poetry about a brash-cocky-exuberant provincial. Walsh, in this lunatically original, festive dance, is nothing less than a poet of the American immigrant. Certain scenes—the hoods trying to trick a passionate vulnerable sister into intoxication and collusion on a bank job; a clandestine embrace in a drab narrow hallway; a fabulously arrogant bank heist that starts from an over-the-bank living room; a joyfully fresh prelim to courtship on a parlor sofa that includes Bennett’s provocative swaggering dance from sofa to victrola—are terrifying exposures for the actors. Bennett’s provocative room-crossing is that of a snake, half-falling apart, trying to ambulate a room vertically and nonchalantly.

The movie has a double nature, looking exactly like 1931 just after the invention of sound, and one that has queer passages that pop out of the story line, foreshadowing the technical effects of ’60s films. These quirky inclusions, the unconscious oddities of a director with an unquestioning belief in genre who keeps breaking out of its boundaries, seem timeless and suggest a five-cent movie with mysterious depth. A crowd of neighbors swilling unbelievable amounts of food, a big sea captain, rhino face and figure, eating whole herrings in one gulp, are less contrived versions of the expressionism in Leo the Last, The Servant, Goodbye Columbus. “That’s my son-in-law Eddy; he’s a nice lad even though he does look like a runaway horse.” This dark comedy scoff is backed up with shots of a shockingly homely, foolishly grinning simpleton, a total butt of the family’s jokes.

If hardwares sold a house paint called Gusto, the number one customer would be Walsh: six decades in film using a jabbing, forthright crispness to occasionally vitalize the crudest hack fiction.

Manny Farber