Raoul Walsh, the director in an eye patch long before John Ford or Nicholas Ray, had a long career in films spanning the pioneering years of D. W. Griffith in the silents to wide screen Technicolor epics of the mid-‘60’s. He specialized in action pictures—gritty crime dramas, westerns, war movies. Meaty parts for women—with a few notable exceptions—were rare and his friend Jack Pickford (elder brother of Mary) told him that “Your idea of light comedy is to burn down a whorehouse.” In the process he made some of the most memorable films in Hollywood history never to win Oscars.
Walsh was born on March 11, 1887 in New York City to a comfortably middle class lace curtain Irish family with connections to show business. Young John Barrymore was a childhood friend. He got a good education in public high schools and at Seton Hall College before dropping out to join his brother George on the stage in 1909.
Darkly handsome, he found work on the stage, but was quickly drawn to the infant motion picture industry. In 1914 he signed on to be second unit director on The Life of General Villa, shot on location in revolutionary Mexico with Pancho Villa himself in the lead. The film contained actual battle scenes as well as realistic re-constructions. On Villa’s orders Walsh was even ordered to film the firing squad executions of prisoners—footage that was edited out of the finished film. Walsh also got time in front of the camera playing Villa as a young man. The film was a sensation, but prints have been lost although unedited footage of some of the battle scenes have been preserved. The entire episode itself inspired a movie in 2003, And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself with Kyle Chandler playing the young Walsh.
On his return from Mexico Walsh was hired as an assistant to Griffith and quickly put to work on his Birth of a Nation. Besides behind the camera duties, he appeared in the film as Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth. It would be his last acting job for more than a decade as he developed as a film maker. Griffith became a mentor, roll model, and father figure to Walsh.
In addition to his continuing work with Griffith, in 1915 Walsh made 15 films, most of theme one or two real shorts. But he also made his first feature film as a director and screenwriter. Regeneration staring Anna Q. Nilsson as a social worker out to reform a young gang leader was shot on location in the Bowery and Hell’s Kitchen featuring a cast made up largely of actual street toughs and prostitutes. It is famous for its street scenes and is considered by many the first gangster movie. For the next decade Walsh was a busy director making sometimes a dozen films a year. Many have been lost. Most were programmers but by the mid ‘20’s was getting some plum A list assignments notably The Thief of Baghdad with Douglas Fairbanks in 1924 and Sadie Tomkins, a version of W. Somerset Maugham’s Rain with Gloria Swanson in 1928. In that film Walsh returned to acting for the first time since Birth of a Nation as the young soldier who falls in love with the prostitute and offers her one last, tantalizing chance at redemption.
Later the same year Fox tagged him to direct In Old Arizona based on a story by O. Henry in which he was also supposed to play the Cisco Kid. In one of the strangest accident in film history, while on location in Arizona a frightened jackrabbit jumped up and smashed through the window of the roadster Walsh was driving. Glass shards cost him the use of his right eye. He wore an eye patch ever after and never acted again. He continued as director of the film with Warner Baxter replacing him in the lead. Baxter won an Academy Award for his efforts.
It was one of Walsh’s remarkably few brushes with Academy glory despite having been one of 36 founding members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in 1927.
In 1930 Fox handed Walsh his biggest assignment yet—an epic western with a literal cast of thousands about an early wagon train on the Oregon Trail. The Big Trail was shot simultaneously in a new, experimental 70 mm wide screen process and standard 35mm plus versions in French, Spanish, and German with alternative casts. When Paramount pictures would not release Gary Cooper to play the lead of the young guide, Walsh picked a USC football player named Marion Morrison who he spotted unloading prop trucks on the lot to play the lead. Fox objected to Morrison’s name and Walsh, who happened to be reading a biography of Revolutionary War hero Mad Anthony Wayne, came up with a new moniker—John Wayne. Despite stunning action sequences, the movie cost a fortune to make, and could not re-coup its cost in Depression era theaters. Despite his photogenic good looks, Wayne’s wooden acting didn’t help either. The careers of both the star and director were set back. Wayne had to toil for years in cheap poverty row two-reelers before John Ford would make him a real star in 1939’s Stagecoach.
1933’s The Bowery lovingly recreated the title neighborhood in the 1890’s and told the highly fictionalized tale of Steve Brodie, they guy who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge. The film starred George Raft as Brodie, Wallace Beery, and Fay Wray.
Walsh made a few films at MGM and then was under contract to Paramount. Both studios misused him on B list pictures including musicals and comedies for which he was manifestly unsuited. He considered the nadir of his career an assignment to direct Klondike Annie, a late, post Production Code Mae West vehicle. Mae notoriously was used to essentially directing herself and calling all of the shots on her films. The two of them clashed on the set and Mae, with studio backing, usually won unless it was a censorship issue. The film was a flop.
When his Paramount contract expired, Walsh gleefully jumped to Warner Bros.—a studio perfectly tailored to his talents as a film maker. Beginning in 1939 working consistently with the studio’s three biggest male stars—James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Errol Flynn he made a slew of classic films that would cement his reputation as one of the greatest Hollywood directors of all time.
His association with Warner started off with a bang, literally, in 1939. The Roaring Twenties with Cagney and Bogart as a rising bootlegger and his brutal right hand man is on everyone’s short list of essential gangster films.
Walsh was then lent out to Republic for one of their few annual "A" pictures where he was re-united with John Wayne for Dark Command. Wayne uncovers the evil plot of school teacher William Cantrell played by Walter Pidgeon to turn Kansas bloody. Costarring Claire Trevor and a young Roy Rogers, the film was thrilling romp and box office smash.
Back at Warner, Walsh helmed the truck driving melodrama They Drive By Night with Raft and Bogie, in his last film as a supporting player, as two brothers. Good girl Ann Sheridan and scheming temptress Ida Lupino rounded out the solid cast.
The next year, 1940, Walsh was re-teamed with Bogart and Lupino. Now Bogart, after making the Maltese Falcon with John Huston, was a name-above the title star. But in this unusual crime drama he plays a tired, aging gangster on the run who meets and wins the affection of an innocent small town girl. The taught final thirty minutes of the film as Bogart his trapped and tracked into the title mountains as the distraught Lupino watches in horror as he brought down, is one of the greatest extended sequences in film.
In his next film, he finally put Jack Pickford’s old jibe to rest. The Strawberry Blonde was a sweet, gentle, nostalgic comedy starring Cagney against type as the naïve cat’s paw of a conniving buddy. Cagney enjoyed himself immensely, as he did when he was able to convince Warner to let him stray from typecasting, and it showed. Jack Carter played the pal who was a rival for the neighborhood hottie, Rita Hayworth as the title redhead, and who uses and betrays Cagney. Olivia de Havilland was the sweet girl who was right for Cagney all along. Hayworth was at her best, and a refutation of the idea that Walsh could not get great performances out of women.
Next came a string of movies with Warner’s biggest male star, the swashbuckling Errol Flynn usually with de Havilland as his love interest. Flynn so admired Walsh’s work that he became his virtual personal director in film classics including the fanciful Custer bio-pic They Died With their Boots On; Dangerous Journey, the first of several World War II flicks; Gentleman Jim, a bio-pic of boxer Gentleman Jim Corbet that returned Walsh to one of his favorite periods, the Gay 90’s and was an Irish-American hymn with Ward Bond as John L. Sullivan; and Objective: Burma the last of five war themed films he made with Flynn.
The two had a falling out after that and Walsh was relegated to a string of undistinguished films, mostly westerns, with second tier casts, but also including an astoundingly awful fantasy comedy The Horn Blows at Midnight with Jack Benny and even a musical re-make of The Strawberry Blonde, One Sunday Afternoon with a lack-luster Dennis Morgan subbing for Cagney. Pictures like that were evidence that Walsh was being punished.
In 1949 Walsh got the call to do Cagney’s long awaited return to the gangster film as the psychopathic momma’s boy in White Heat. He showed he had lost nothing. The movie is a terrifying classic best remembered for the climax on top of a blazing oil refinery.
Walsh would finish his years at Warner with two more outstanding films, Captain Horatio Hornblower with Gregory Peck—a film that would open the door to more sea yarns—and a fine, taught western, Along the Great Divide with Kirk Douglas.
After his contract with Warner’s lapsed, Walsh became a free agent and worked at all of the major studios. And he was in demand. The early ‘50’s saw him directing more sea yarns—Blackbeard the Pirate with Robert Newton, The World in His Arms again with Peck, and Sea Devils with Rock Hudson.
Cagney tapped Walsh for A Lion Is in the Streets from his own production company and distribution by Warner. Cagney played a scrappy Louisiana peddler who rises in the world as a populist politician in a film loosely based on Huey Long and often compared to Broderick Crawford’s Oscar winning turn In All the King’s Men. Less well remembered than the other film, it stands on its own as a gripping morality play about a man un-done by his own ambition.
Then came a strong trio of films with Clark Gable. In one of his best westerns, Gable was paired with Robert Ryan for The Tall Men also starring Jane Russell. The King and Four Queens was a comedy western with Gable juggling the widows of four outlaws and the outlaw queen mother of the dead boys to discover a fortune in hidden gold with Eleanor Parker as the eventual object of Gable’s affection. But A Band of Angels—a bitter and controversial portrait of a Louisiana slave trader turned plantation owner, the woman passing for white who he loves—Yvonne De Carlo, and Sydney Poitier as the boy orphaned in a slaving raid who he raises as a virtual son and goes on to hunt him down as a Union soldier was the masterpiece of the trio.
Sandwiching the Gable films were two movies based on important novels about World War II. 1955’s Battle Cry was based on Leon Uris’s novel of young Marines and the women who loved them set against the war in the Pacific. Starring Aldo Rey, Van Heflin, James Whitmore, Tab Hunter, Anne Francis, Dorothy Malone, Raymond Massey, and Mona Freeman the film had epic sweep and outstanding on location cinematography. It was also a big hit and one of the most admired films of that year.
The second film, The Naked and the Dead, based on Norman Mailer’s much darker novel, did not fare so well. After the box office failure of the quirky Night of the Hunter directed by Charles Lawton and starring Robert Mitchum failing RKO Studios, pulled them from the project. Mailer personally sought out and recruited Walsh to take over. In his memoirs Mailer claimed that Walsh was “on his death bed but rallied to make the film. Not quite, now 70 years old Walsh was frail and not in good health but still an active filmmaker. The cast included Aldo Rey and Massey from Battle Cry, this time as a crusty, mission driven Sergeant and a vainglorious martinet General respectively. Cliff Robinson was cast as the idealistic young officer used and abused by both as his men were sacrificed. Despite high expectations, the film was a failure and marked the beginning of the end of Walsh’s career behind the camera.
He had to go to England for The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw a comedy Western starring Kenneth Moore and Jayne Mansfield and largely filmed in Spain to find work. 1960’s A Private Affair was a low rent service comedy with then teen heart throbs Sal Mineo and Gary Crosby going through the motions. The same year he went to Italy and co-directed a minor sand and sandal Biblical epic, Esther and the King with Mario Brava. Sultry Joan Collins played the Jewish heroine and Richard Egan led with his cleft chin as the King. In a year of really big epics, it did not make much splash in the US, although it performed well in Europe, which was probably the intended audience anyway.
1961 brought another service comedy, Marines, Let’s Go with then relatively unknowns Tom Tryon and David Hedison in the leads. This time Walsh also got screenwriting credit. It sank without leaving a ripple.
It took three years to get behind the cameras for what turned out to be his swan song. A Distant Trumpet was just the kind of cavalry western that had been Walsh’s forte. But this time instead of Errol Flynn, the young officer sent on a dangerous mission into Mexico, was Troy Donahue. Despite trademark action scenes and location cinematography, no film could recover from that.
Walsh hung up his spurs, or at least he director’s megaphone. He spent his final years in retirement in declining health, but was often visited in his Simi Valley home by old fiends from the business who affectionately called him Uncle. Peter Bogdonovich interviewed him for his book Who Made It: Conversations With…the great directors of Hollywood’s golden age. Film of those interviews can be seen in documentary footage shown on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) which frequently show cases many of his films.
When he died on December 31, 1980 at the age of 93 Walsh was remembered for a long and legendary body of work.