Author: Marilyn Ann Moss
Raoul Walsh is a film director almost forgotten today (he died in 1980) and is often overlooked. Yet in the 1940s he made some of the most exciting films of that decade. His career spans from the birth of Hollywood and he made the last of his some 100 films in 1964. He began his film career by working for D.W. Griffith directing a film with Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa in 1914 among other films for the pioneering Griffiths, went on to play Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth in Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation (1915) before moving on to work for William Fox (founder of 20th Century Fox), Samuel Goldwyn, Paramount, MGM and later most famously for Warner Brothers. It was here that he carved out his career defining movies despite having already been a director for over 25 years. His films were known for their fast pace (this was also the way he liked to film) and made action stars out of Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Errol Flynn. But most surprisingly and contrary to popular opinion he also discovered John Wayne, who was not discovered by John Ford as popularly believed. Walsh cast Wayne in an early sound location western called The Big Trail (1930) but the film was not a success despite its big scale and epic production values and Wayne had to contend being in B westerns for the next 10 years.
A biography on Roaul Walsh in English has been long overdue and author Marilyn Ann Moss begins her biography of Walsh by stating that he was often known to stretch the truth somewhat; on many occasions he made claims that he left home at a young age and became a horse wrangler shipping horses from Texas to Montana. Very little of this is true or indeed many other claims or statements by the director either in his autobiography or interviews making a biography of him doubly hard. What it does demonstrate, however, is what a fertile imagination Walsh had. Walsh was a storyteller. This new biography in the series of books on film directors by Kentucky Press follows the story of the golden age of cinema from Walsh’s early apprenticeship with Griffith through to the end of his film career. We are given some insight into the man as a storyteller as well as his amours and his long drawn out litigation battle over alimony with his first of three wives, actress Miriam Cooper. What is hard to establish is what is truth and what is fiction and I would guess as in most cases the truth comes somewhere in the middle. What this well researched and by and large well written biography does highlight is how little has been written on the director and as with most neglected directors it is France that has led the way in championing him in the many more books and articles written on him there than in his native America or indeed in the UK.
Walsh will also be remembered as the director with an eye patch (which he lost while driving through Arizona while filming the first location western with sound, In Old Arizona in 1929 when he ran over a rabbit which came hurtling through the windscreen of his jeep), a snazzy wardrobe and a shock of curly hair and a moustache not too dissimilar from his friend and star of no fewer than seven of his films, Errol Flynn. He was amongst the social glitterati of classic Hollywood and was often seen at the races as he had an equal passion in breeding race horses and gambling on horses. This too adds to some of Walsh’s reputation as a devil-may-care action man and adds to Walsh’s charisma of which he seems to have a lot of.
Anyone familiar with Walsh’s work will know him best for the many films he made with Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Errol Flynn. But this biography reminds us that he also had a long and established career in silent cinema, his best known work being his collaborative effort with Douglas Fairbanks Senior on The Thief of Bagdad in 1924. But it is the enduring films that he made for Warner Brothers from The Roaring Twenties in 1939 and for almost the next 20 years that Walsh will be best remembered for and this is where Moss’s book is at its most fascinating drawing on many anecdotes from the likes of his long time friend and collaborator Errol Flynn and his fascinating respectful and sparring relationship with studio head Jack Warner as well as the fractious relationship with sometime gangster actor George Raft. As with many books of the caliber it is the process of the studios in the creation of the golden age of cinema that is the most fascinating aspect of the book as well as some of the tittle-tattle, but Moss should be applauded as a well researched and first rate biography.