“Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.”
Film titles with livelinks have been reviewed already on this blog and you can read more about those by clicking the links.
Though he never won a Best Director or Best Picture Oscar, Raoul Walsh was one of the great Hollywood film makers, to rank with Ford, Hawks, Wyler, Wellman and the others, and the Western was particularly close to his heart. He was versatile, like all the great directors, and was happy doing gangster pictures with Cagney like The Roaring Twenties, frothy musical comedies like The Strawberry Blonde (that one also with Cagney), fantasy adventures like The Thief of Baghdad with Douglas Fairbanks, historical dramas like Captain Horatio Hornblower RN with Gregory Peck or hard-hitting war films like Objective Burma! with Errol Flynn. But he started with Westerns, made some of the very best ones and always felt especially at home in the genre. He was known as an ‘action director’, he was what was called “a man’s man”, and his vigorous, rapid style and love for rugged landscapes made him ideally suited to the oater.
I have just read Marilyn Ann Moss’s biography, Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director (The University Press of Kentucky, 2011) and that’s prompted me to talk about Walsh’s Westerns today.
He never bored you with the truth
It’s not always easy to know exactly what happened in Walsh’s life. As Ms Moss says, “The line between what was fiction and what was fact would always be blurred in his imagination.” He wrote an autobiography late in life, Each Man in His Time, but while that was well received and is certainly entertaining, it would be inadvisable to use it as a reliable source: much of it reads closer to a novel than a bio, his ‘memory’ was extremely selective, it’s full of anecdotes of uncertain authenticity, and matters he didn’t want to dwell on (such as marriages) were simply omitted. As one ex-wife said, “He’d tell the wildest tales. He never bored you with the truth.” But Moss has managed to piece together a detailed life of Walsh that is well worth reading (and I am grateful to her for this much more piffling contribution to Walshiana).
A Western youth
Walsh’s love affair with the West began early (according to him): “I stayed on the family ranch, grew up on a ranch. Worked part of the time in Montana, then I went back to Texas and got a job with the government breaking horses.” He joined a cattle drive to the Rio Grande. He said that “… although I could fork a horse, throw a rope, roll a cigarette with one hand, and cuss with the best, I knew nothing about trail driving. Knowledge came the hard way.” He got involved with a Mexican woman and had to hightail it out of town accused of rustling. Who knows, it may have been true.
In 1907, sitting on the porch of the Lone Star Hotel in San Antonio, wearing a Stetson, Walsh was accosted by a stranger who asked, “Do you want job, cowboy?” The job turned out to be in a traveling show version of The Clansman, which despite (or perhaps because of) its virulent racism was a big hit at the time. Walsh mounted up and was handed a KKK outfit and a burning cross. It was only a ride-on part (and part of that was on a treadmill) but Walsh was bitten by the showbiz bug. Back East, he made the round of agencies and got a few acting gigs. In 1909, one agent asked if he would be ready to act in motion pictures, which many actors refused to do, considering it demeaning. He got work with the Pathé brothers. He was in the movies.
Most of the films made for Pathé were short Westerns. They haven’t survived and we don’t know what they were like – according to many, pretty bad.
In 1910 in Walsh’s account, more probably 1913, actor-turned-director Christy Cabanne, who was making a name for himself working with DW Griffith at Biograph, was impressed with Walsh’s roping and riding skills and hired him as an actor. Walsh saw some Griffith pictures and thought they were “not as God-awful as the stuff Pathé was making”. Indeed, Griffith was breaking new ground in visual storytelling and was to become a key person in the life of Walsh. Moss says, “In Walsh’s eyes, Griffith was a genius and the man who influenced him more than any other.”
Walsh started acting with the likes of Lillian Gish, Donald Crisp, Lionel Barrymore and Mary Pickford, already big names. But he only got bit parts and was unsatisfied and depressed.
However, aged 26, he was one of those who accompanied Griffith on his move to California. “Someday I’ll make you a director,” Griffith told him – Walsh later thought, “Maybe because he thought I was a lousy actor.” From the start, Walsh helped Griffith by scouting locations and rounding up suitable-looking local residents to be in Westerns.
Acting and directing
In 1914, Walsh, rooming now with Jack Pickford, appeared as an actor in two oaters, as hero Sierra Jim in Sierra Jim’s Reformation (judging by the title, a classic badman-redeemed plot) and a strong part in the Donald Crisp-directed one-reeler Sands of Fate with Dorothy Gish. But that was also the year he started directing. He both acted in and helmed two short Westerns, Out of the Deputy’s Hands and Who Shot Bud Walton? Two more followed in 1915 and the following year Walsh directed Blue Blood and Red starring his handsome brother George. At the helm, Walsh adopted Griffith’s habit of preparing thoroughly, getting through actual shooting with minimum fuss and bringing in the picture on time and on budget, habits that remained with him throughout his career.
When Mutual pulled off the coup of getting Pancho Villa to agree to be filmed, Griffith sent Walsh down to Juarez, Mexico, with $500 in gold (the first of monthly payments) to give to Villa. Cabanne was to direct The Life of General Francisco Villa, starring Villa himself, and Walsh would play the young Villa and act as assistant director – and cook up a story or plot.
Walsh said he filmed some battles but thought them unspectacular – when the crew returned to California they had to invent more action. Walsh also, he said, persuaded Villa to put off his night-time executions by firing squad to daylight hours so that the director could film them. Cabanne and Walsh managed to eke out the footage into five reels. Tragically, the film is now lost. According to Walsh (and it may be true) both Jack London and Wyatt Earp saw it and came to the studios to congratulate him.
While in Mexico, Cabanne directed The Outlaw’s Revenge, with Walsh as star, a four-reeler also featuring Mae Marsh (Walsh was keen on her too). It is tragic that so many early Westerns like this have been lost.
Walsh was now driving around LA in a flash White Steamer (he and Griffith were the only ones to have one) and Jesse Lasky made him an offer to come and direct for him, but Walsh stayed with Griffith. He went on making short Westerns, often writing the scripts, finding extras, doing the stunts himself – the profession of stuntman was yet to be invented and Walsh broke his nose more than once – and even doing such physical work as shifting heavy equipment.
The Birth of a Nation
While Walsh had been in Mexico, Griffith had been working on his major project, The Birth of a Nation, a film adaptation of The Clansman. Walsh’s experience in the traveling show version would certainly have helped get him assistant director and acting work on the picture. He played John Wilkes Booth (he said he injured his leg doing the Lincoln assassination scene, just as Booth had).
He later said, “That was a real tough job … I would have to stay up half the night, you know, one, two, three o’clock in the morning.” He had to roust cowboy extras out of the bars. “Half of them were drunk” and “a couple of them would be in jail.” Walsh directed the military charges and some of the actors angrily refused to ‘change sides’ and be filmed as both Union and Confederate soldiers.
The actress Miriam Cooper played a key role in the film and she became the first Mrs Wash, but it was a marriage that was to end in acrimony and many court cases.
The nowadays almost unwatchable The Birth of a Nation was a huge hit at the time and Walsh’s name was in the news. Just as Lasky had, so now William Fox, just starting out in the movie business, approached him, offering him a job. Griffith was paying Walsh $40 a week and, Walsh said, because he thought Fox’s was a bit of a fly-by-night outfit he asked $400, to get rid of him. Amazingly, the amount was accepted.
Walsh’s first picture for Fox was The Regeneration, the first feature-length gangster movie in American cinema. Fox was so pleased with the film that he doubled Walsh’s salary to $800 and bought him a Simplex automobile. Walsh was hyperactive, turning out picture after picture – though not Westerns, but now he persuaded Fox to build a Western town on a three-acre vacant lot. He convinced the studio that Westerns were the most popular movies around. The 50-minute comedy Blue Blood and Red (1916), starring brother George, which Walsh produced, wrote and directed, was his first Fox oater. The picture actually had something in common with the later Walsh Western The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw. It was hyped by Fox and did very well. The Portland Oregonian called it “”the first great outdoor western photoplay.” It turned George Walsh into a fully-fledged star (in 1925 MGM would offer him the role of Ben Hur, though would later renege).
Walsh was on cloud nine. The (non-Western) The Honor System in 1917, which John Ford claimed was his favorite picture after Birth of a Nation, established him as one of the leading directors. The motion picture industry was booming, now the fifth biggest business in the country (after agriculture, transportation, oil and steel), with ten million going to the movies every year. Walsh joined the select club of film makers earning $25,000 a year or more, along with the likes of Thomas Ince, Allan Dwan, Cecil B DeMille and others.
Walsh directed the already-famous Tom Mix (with a young Alan Hale) in a two-reeler, The Lone Cowboy, shooting it on Mix’s own ranch. In 1917 Walsh directed the popular William Farnum in an 80-minute biopic of Sam Houston, The Conqueror.
At the end of World War I the studios started tightening their belts and Walsh’s Evangeline, which was dear to his heart, didn’t do good business (well, it wasn’t a Western). Walsh formed his own company, Walsh Productions, to make films which would be distributed by Realart. It didn’t last long. Kindred of the Dust, released in February 1922, starred his wife Miriam – the only Walsh film of this period to survive – and it was his last independent production.
A string of hits
Through most of the 1920s, first with Samuel Goldwyn then with other companies – he signed with Lasky in 1925 – it was all comedies, dramas and romances. Westerns were forgotten – there wouldn’t be another till 1928. It was a fine time for Walsh, who had major hits such as The Thief of Baghdad (1924), East of Suez (1925), then returning to Fox with What Price Glory? (1926), The Loves of Carmen (1927) and Sadie Thompson (1928) – but he seem to have sidelined the Western.
In 1928 sound was now coming in and Walsh, unlike many directors and actors, was enthusiastic. He could see the potential and was eager to do talkies. He convinced Fox to let him make an outdoor sound feature and he asked for a newsreel truck for sound recording and a Western script. He got an adaptation by Tom Barry of O Henry’s story The Caballero’s Way and set about making In Old Arizona in Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks. Unsatisfied with potential lead actors, Walsh decided to play the Cisco Kid himself. Production started on September 9, 1928.
But on October 4, a jackrabbit hit the windshield of his jeep and shattered glass flew into right eye. The doctors couldn’t save it. Warner Baxter took over as Cisco (and won an Oscar for it) and Irving Cummings became director. The picture grew from two reels to seven and eventually cost an astonishing $2.5m. In Old Arizona premièred on Christmas Day in LA and did amazingly well, critically and commercially. Walsh still considered the picture his, and he now felt inspired to make an even bigger outdoor Western, a true epic.
The Big Trail
The Big Trail was an amazing undertaking. The two hour five minute picture was shot from April through August 1930, in a variety of far-flung locations, such as the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park in Utah, Moise, Montana, Jackson Hole, Wyoming and the Sequoia National Park in California. It had a huge cast and crew. There were 20,000 extras and 1400 horses (Western trivia: the chief wrangler was Jack Padjan, who had played Wild Bill Hickok in John Ford’s The Iron Horse).
It was really two films, being shot both in 35mm and in the ‘Grandeur’ 70mm widescreen process, with different DPs (and 22 cameramen). Indeed, it was really five films because it was shot with largely different actors in German as Die große Fahrt, in Italian as Il Grande Sentiero, for Spanish-speaking markets as La Gran Jornada and in French as La Piste des Géants, all released in 1931. The cameras were huge and heavy and extremely difficult to move around outside and the early microphones were crude and negatively affected by the slightest wind (Film Daily said, “The actors can scarcely be heard through the layers of din.”)
Alcohol was a problem with cast and crew members often the worse for wear. Walsh (who didn’t drink much) called the film The Big Drunk. There were also instances of actors and crew members getting seriously hurt.
Furthermore, it was in many ways a bizarre moment for a studio to splash out close to $3m on an epic: the Wall Street Crash had occurred in the fall of ’29 and was already having a major impact on movie-making and on the distribution chains, with studios and theaters laying off staff as fast as they could. They gambled that people would flock to the movies as an escape from the economic woes. They were wrong.
There was a persistent rumor that a script of The Oregon Trail, as The Big Trail was first known, was offered first to John Ford, who didn’t like it and passed it to Walsh. True or not, The Big Trail was certainly in many ways a talkie successor to Ford’s silent Fox epic The Iron Horse of 1924, and a monumental reply to Paramount’s The Covered Wagon of the year before that.
Gary Cooper wanted to do it but Paramount wouldn’t loan him out and the star part went to a young prop boy, Marion Morrison, renamed John Wayne. A Hollywood Filmograph writer reported, “Just how [Walsh] can expect a youth to carry such a picture is beyond my conception. If he brings in a winner with Mr Wayne he will be entitled to a Carnegie Medal.” In fact, Wayne’s very gaucheness and inexperience came across as charming and winning, and his love affair with Ruth (star Marguerite Churchill) plausible and convincing.
But after all this, the critical reception was tepid and, worse, the box-office was a serious flop. Most theaters were not equipped to show it in Grandeur – Fox had promised to enable its own movie houses to show it but never did. This must have been a blow to Walsh but he never showed it. He hardly even spoke about the film. Today, seen in the 1980 CinemaScope print made by the Museum of Modern Art, the film is spectacular, but at the time it was a major setback for Fox (which nearly went under), for Wayne (consigned to B-Westerns for most of the rest of the decade) and for Walsh. Walsh even considered giving up the movie business altogether and devoting himself full-time to his passion of racehorses.
Walsh made a sort-of Western for Fox, a contemporary story based on a Bret Harte yarn, Wild Girl, starring Charles Farrell and Joan Bennett, in 1932, and he directed Klondike Annie at Paramount in 1936, starring Mae West and Victor McLaglen, the latter a hit despite major cuts by the censors – if you call those pictures Westerns – but he largely eschewed the genre in the decade after The Big Trail. Of course, so did the studios. MGM’s Billy the Kid in 1930 had also been a flop and the majors ‘forgot’ Westerns, which, with rare exceptions, became juvenile fodder and second-feature fare for the remainder of the1930s.
In the fall of 1939, Walsh, now 42, agreed to go work for Warner Brothers, and, though he didn’t know it then, he entered on his golden period. He himself later joked, “Working for Jack Warner and working for Pancho Villa? They’re about the same. Both of them bandits.” Actually, Walsh and Warner had a long friendship and enjoyed mutual respect. And Walsh sure made some fine films for him.
Marilyn Ann Moss says, “At Warner Bros., he found the consistency he needed and the independence he craved.” She adds, “He could make pictures he considered entertaining but not necessarily great works of art.”
In 1940 Walsh wrote an article for the Hollywood Reporter, titled Leave Me Out of the Literati, in which he said, “Hollywood’s job is simply and directly to furnish entertainment. The man in the street pays his four bits at the box office and he wants a good show. To hell with sermonizing.”
Walsh always liked, as Moss says, “to get onto the set, jump into a fiction, get the job done and ‘get the hell out’”. His attitude to box office success or failure was “If the picture made money, well and good; if not, well, it was an adventure while it lasted.”
Walsh’s first pictures at Warner Brothers were indeed highly entertaining, noirish crime dramas, The Roaring Twenties and They Drive by Night, as well as the musical comedy St Louis Blues. No Westerns. Warners did jump on the bandwagon of the big-budget adult Western, but they did it with Michael Curtiz and Errol Flynn, in Dodge City, made and released before Walsh came on board. Walsh’s first oater of this period, in 1940, was in fact not at Warners, but, exercising an option he had negotiated in his contract to do occasional outside work, at Republic.
Back with Wayne
Republic studio boss Herb Yates wanted to cash in on the new big Western boom. In 1939, Jesse James, Stagecoach, Dodge City, Union Pacific and Destry Rides Again had all been big hits for the majors. Only MGM had missed the boat (or stagecoach). Republic’s Westerns up to then had been B-pictures and Yates wanted some of the big boys’ action. He put together his most expensive picture so far, Dark Command, and he hired Stagecoach stars John Wayne and Claire Trevor, with big name Walter Pidgeon on loan from MGM, to make it. And he paid Walsh $25,000 to direct it.
Walsh wanted location shooting (Placenta Ranch, Newhall and Sherwood Forest, north of LA) and he wanted action galore. He got both. He also wanted a big cast. “I put everybody in it,” he later said, “Walter Pidgeon … Marjorie Main, Roy Rogers, Gabby Hayes. I put everybody in it but my mother-in-law.” He took a liking to WR Burnett’s book The Dark Command, a very fictional rendering of Quantrill (Pidgeon’s character was Cantrell) in the Civil War. Walsh was also probably glad to make some amends to John Wayne for the post-Big Trail wilderness years of B-movie servitude. Dark Command won widespread critical acclaim, did excellently at the box office and became one of the few Republic pictures to be nominated for Academy Awards.
This is perhaps the moment to say that John Ford always had a curious relationship with Raoul Walsh. Ford claimed that it was he, not Walsh, who had ‘discovered’ John Wayne and it seems that Walsh was the kind of director Ford wanted to be. Ford wore an eye-patch like Walsh and almost wanted to be him. Ford claimed that he had ridden as one of the clansmen in The Birth of a Nation. Ford had moved to Fox in 1920, five years after Walsh, and seems to have felt he always stood in Walsh’s shadow. He didn’t speak to John Wayne for three years after Walsh starred Duke in The Big Trail. Henry Fonda told Wayne biographer Michael Munn, “Ford was just so jealous when Raoul Walsh beefed up Duke’s career after Stagecoach [in other words with Dark Command]. It was just unforgivable.” Marilyn Ann Moss says, “Ford apparently resented Walsh in no small measure.” Ford was one of the great directors, but he could be petty and spiteful.
In like Flynn
In 1941, back at Warners, Walsh directed the superb crime drama High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino, a film which would become a Western later in the decade (see below) but his next Western after Dark Command was one of his most famous. It was a picture that in many ways was classic Walsh, and one which initiated one of the most famous Hollywood collaborations, that between Walsh and Errol Flynn – in many ways the ideal Walsh actor.
They Died with Their Boots On was a blatantly mythical treatment of the Custer story and a rollicking, noisy and hugely entertaining biopic of the celebrated soldier.
The picture actually started as a possible vehicle for James Cagney, the studio’s biggest star, and it was William Randolph Hearst who recommended the book They Died with Their Boots On, by Thomas Ripley, to Jack Warner, and this was not a Custer yarn at all but a story about the Texas killer John Wesley Hardin. Powerful Warners producer Hal Wallis was unimpressed. So were James and producer brother William Cagney, and they bowed out. But Jack Warner liked the title and paid Ripley $750 for it, putting writers Æneas MacKenzie and Wally Cline on the job of cooking up a script about Custer. After a flirtation with Fred MacMurray to play Custer and Joan Fontaine to be Custer’s wife Libby, bad boy Errol Flynn got the nod for the lead with Fontaine’s sister Olivia de Havilland as Libby, her eighth and as it turned out final picture with Flynn. Michael Curtiz was set to direct. But Curtiz and Flynn were falling out big time and, no fool, Warner decided to keep his star happy and replace Curtiz with Walsh.
Walsh got on extremely well with the picture’s cinematographer Bert Glennon and the film was visually superb. The spectacular sequence of Custer’s last stand at Little Bighorn, supervised by Yakima Canutt and with Yak doubling for Flynn in long shots, was a huge crowd pleaser – though three men tragically died making it. Of course it’s historical hooey, but Walsh wasn’t interested in a documentary. He wanted supermen fighting battles, men larger than life, escapism and heroics. And as Ms Moss says, “Walsh supplied the fantasy; Flynn supplied the charm.”
They Died with Their Boots On was another smash hit. The picture grossed $1.87m in the US and $2.14m overseas. Its total receipts of $4m + were Warners’ third largest of the season and it made the studio a cool profit of $1.5m.
A later Errol Flynn Western (Flynn had been skeptical about doing the genre at all before Boots but he got the taste for them) was San Antonio. It’s fun in a 1945 kind of way. Produced by Robert Buckner, it was written by some big names: Alan Le May, of The Searchers fame, and WR Burnett, the Little Caesar and Scarface guy who contributed to some good Westerns too, such as The Westerner and Yellow Sky, and Dark Commnd of couse, whom Walsh greatly admired. The picture was nominally helmed by non-Western director David Butler, his first oater (and he wouldn’t do much special afterwards either) but Robert Florey and also Walsh are said to have worked on it, both uncredited. It has some Walsh get-up-and-go all right.
But it wasn’t till 1947 that Walsh returned properly to the oater, and that year he did two.
Walsh had been interested in the Western adventure Cheyenne for some time, since early 1945 anyway. Alan Le May originally brought the idea to Warners’ attention but the writer was Paul Wellman, of Apache and The Comancheros fame. It wasn’t so much the story that attracted Walsh, for that was frankly rather run of the mill, as the opportunity to shoot another picture in wide open Western landscapes, his favorite place to film.
Walsh thought Bogie would be ideal for the central character Jim Wylie, a smooth-talking gambler with a shady past, and he wanted a favorite, Ann Sheridan as the love interest and Flynn as the colorful villain known as the Poet (he leaves verses at the scene of his robberies, as Black Bart did). There was a lot of trouble over the script, with Walsh, Warners exec Steve Trilling, producer Robert Buckner and Jack Warner himself (he insisted on a cheerful song somewhere) all having their ten cents’ worth. And naturally the Breen office had a good deal to say, such as that there could be no use of the word outhouse and dialogue could not contain the phrase she excites me or she contents me, the sheriff was not to die at the hands of the bandits, and so on. Walsh began to lose interest.
Bogart (who, while he would be superb in the contemporary ‘Western’ The Treasure of the Sierra Madre the year after Cheyenne was never suited to ‘straight’ oaters), didn’t get the part. Flynn, Ronald Reagan and Bruce Bennett were considered for the male lead and Barbara Stanwyck, Ida Lupino and Alexis Smith for the leading lady, but in the end the roles went to Dennis Morgan and Jane Wyman. Bennett got the part of the Poet.
Walsh made the film efficiently, bringing it in, as usual, on time and on budget, but the picture wasn’t a great success, with its patchy script, and erratic mood swings between comedy, romance and adventure. Actually, despite the Breen office’s meddling, it is really quite sexually charged, with suggestive badinage and even a bath scene for Wyman. Moss says “Cheyenne is far more interesting as a sexual farce than it is as a western action story.”
I actually quite like Cheyenne and according to Warner Bros records, the picture earned $2,506,000 domestically and $797,000 foreign, so that wasn’t bad at all. You’d think Raoul wouldn’t have overlooked it in his autobio but once he was bored with something or irritated by it, he had a knack of excising it from his consciousness.
The other Western of ’47, Pursued, was a different story.
Walsh’s next Western was like Cheyenne in the sense that it placed front and center great Western landscapes but in no other respect. It was a dark, tense, complex psychological thriller, noir certainly, almost gothic. The project was pioneered by writer Niven Busch, of The Westerner and The Postman Always Rings Twice fame, working with Milton Sperling, who had married Harry Warner’s daughter and set up United States Pictures, to produce movies that Warner Bros would distribute. Busch came across a violent and Freudian story in the El Paso archives and thought it would make a Greek tragedy set in the West. It became Pursued.
Busch specifically asked for a less famous star. Montgomery Clift was tested but ruled out as too slender and looking “too silly” in a cowboy hat. McCrea was thought too old and Jack Warner didn’t like the cleft in Kirk Douglas’s chin – ironically, because the cleft-chinned Robert Mitchum, then 29, was finally cast. Mitchum had put in time on Hopalong Cassidy B-pictures and had led in a couple of light oaters when Tim Holt went off to war but he wasn’t what you would call a seasoned Western lead. Tall, dark, brooding and strong, he was just right for Walsh for the key role of Jeb. Actor and director bonded instantly and remained friends all their lives. Pursued and the Jacques Tourneur noir Out of the Past the same year made Mitchum a star. Busch’s wife Teresa Wright was leading lady and Judith Anderson and Dean Jagger were excellent in supporting parts.
The picture was shot in glowing black & white by the ultra-talented James Wong Howe in wonderful New Mexico locations and is as visually dark and brooding as the story is.
Walsh was one of the least neurotic men in Hollywood and in many ways an odd choice to direct this tale of neurosis and angst with even a hint of incest. Apparently, Walsh had Busch nearby during the shoot to tell him what the hell was going on.
The film was banned in certain cities and was strong meat – too strong for many. But it was one of the finest Westerns of the 1940s and Walsh’s best to date.
Back with Flynn
In 1948 it was back to Flynn, though he had to be pressured to do Silver River. He read the script and said it was good but he said, “I’m not going to be the Gene Autry of the future.” But Walsh was willing, Ann Sheridan was cast as leading lady and Flynn was in. Silver River is a bit of a ‘stock’ Western and it’s rather flat after some lively early action sequences but it did contain some strong, complex and interesting characterization.
It wasn’t an easy shoot as Flynn was at his worst, turning up late, not turning up at all, and if he did arrive often the worse for drink, making any filming after mid-afternoon impossible. Jack Warner read him the riot act but it didn’t help much. Nevertheless, the understanding Flynn and Walsh had was remarkable and there are moments when Flynn’s performance is breathtakingly good. The picture didn’t do well at the box office, with too little action for customers’ tastes and an occasionally plodding script, but the film has grown in stature over the years and is much appreciated by modern critics.
The following year, a time of remakes, Walsh convinced Jack Warner to let him re-do High Sierra as a Western. According to Walsh, “I remade High Sierra as Colorado Territory because Warners was stuck for a release. Everybody turned down scripts and nothing came up. I had a talk with Warner and told him, ‘Make a Western.’ He said, ‘All right. Start tomorrow.’”
Walsh considered John Wayne, then Rock Hudson for the lead. He had the young Hudson under personal contract and thought he had a future. But leading lady Virginia Mayo, in the Ida Lupino part, said that Hudson “had a rather bad attitude to commitment … He would wander onto the set about noon … and then just goof around. He was just a huge kid. Raoul would scold him but Rock would just pour on that gigantic, charming grin outline and all would be forgiven – until the next time.” So Joel McCrea got the Humphrey Bogart part – and he was superb. McCrea admired Walsh. “I’d do stuff for him that I wouldn’t have done for any other director. He was a gutsy little bastard. And funny.”
There are some quite wonderful Gallup NM and Sedona AZ locations (you can sense the orangeness through the black & white) as well as a good bit on the Durango/Silverton railroad through the gorge. Sid Hickox was behind the lens and a wonderful job he did. This was his third of five Westerns for Walsh.
As Moss says, “In a decade when film noir bleakness crept onto American movie screens, Walsh’s picture caught on.” It did indeed. It received great reviews and it did well at the box office, making $2.7m. It’s a magnificent Western, the equal of Pursued, and stands as one of Walsh’s great achievements. Actually, you could argue that the late 1940s were the high point of the Walsh Western, and it was rather downhill from there.
In 1950 Walsh helmed a few scenes on Flynn’s Western Montana but Ray Enright was the credited director and we can’t count this as a Walsh picture.
After the success of White Heat and before the hit Captain Horatio Hornblower RN premièred, Walsh returned to the Western in 1951, on a picture first called The Travelers, a psychological drama shot up at Lone Pine. Walter Doniger sold his story Along the Great Divide to Warners and went on to write a screenplay from it with Lewis Meltzer, who had worked on Columbia’s Texas in 1941 but wasn’t really a Western specialist. Warners went back to the story title and made Along the Great Divide.
Virginia Mayo came back (she’d become close friends with Walsh’s then-wife Mary) and Kirk Douglas took the lead, Jack Warner’s doubts notwithstanding. Douglas was a rising star but he hadn’t done any Westerns and in the event looked uncertain in the genre, at least in this picture. He claimed he only took part because it would get him out of his one-picture-a-year commitment to Warners. Douglas didn’t hold back on his dislike of Walsh, calling him “a brutal man” and he didn’t like Walsh’s habit of cutting pages from the script seemingly on a whim. Walsh was always keen on paring down and eliminating anything non-essential, especially dialogue.
The picture was actually stolen by Walter Brennan as Mayo’s roguish father but it was a curious film which certainly had none of the power of the earlier psycho-Western Pursued. It does, though, stress landscape again, in a Walshian way – he never liked to be cooped up in a studio, in some kind of bedroom, he would say – and he was working again with the talented DP Sid Hickox. Walsh was pleased with the look of the picture. “We had wind all right and plenty of dust [he always liked dust] and when the horses gallop off into the distance they are enveloped in clouds of dust.”
Along the Great Divide didn’t do too well commercially, MGM’s Across the Wide Missouri making the running in Westerns that year (though Walsh’s Hornblower beat that one too) and it received lukewarm praise critically but Walsh, typically, shrugged that off and moved on. It was his last picture of the Warners contract and henceforth he would work with different studios on shorter deals. His next Western, Distant Drums, was at Warners but on a one-picture arrangement.
The Pursued scriptwriter Niven Busch, again for Sperling and United States Pictures, wrote Distant Drums as an adaptation of Frank G Slaughter’s popular 1951 novel Fort Everglades, which Warners bought straight after publication. Working with Busch on the screenplay was Martin Rackin, later to co-write The Big Land for Gordon Douglas and The Horse Soldiers for John Ford. The plot had distinct similarities to Along the Great Divide, although set in swampy Florida, and even more similarities to Walsh’s war film with Flynn Objective Burma! A lone hero leads a party through difficult and dangerous terrain to safety.
The lone hero this time was Gary Cooper. Coop had been a longtime hunting and fishing buddy of Walsh’s – in his autobio Walsh said “I never met a finer man than Gary Cooper or, for that matter, a better friend” – but this was their first (and only) Western together.
Distant Drums was again visually spectacular, this time (Hickox again) in Technicolor, but sadly it was rather a clunker as a Western, certainly one of Cooper’s weakest. The dialogue was banal and the picture bogged down in the Everglades as much as the characters did. Walsh came in for some unusual lambasting from critics. Nor did it sell well – not that Walsh minded that too much.
Moss says that after leaving Warners “Walsh never lost his natural feeling for directing action and adventure films but worked with scripts much inferior to his talents.”
Walsh’s next Western, and he was uncredited producer as well as director, was at Universal in 1952 and it starred Rock Hudson as the Texas killer John Wesley Hardin. The Lawless Breed was a complete whitewash, as They Died with Their Boots On had been, though with none of that earlier film’s panache and vim. Moss again: “His love of historical truth extended no further than whether it made for a good story.” Walsh’s Hardin immediately fondly pats both a foal and a puppy in the first reel, clear Western semiotics for Goody.
Walsh also cast the young Hugh O’Brian in the film and O’Brian was impressed with Walsh – “He was absolutely a no bullshit guy” – but less so with Hudson, with whom in fact he had been at school. “Rock did the lead and Rock was not an actor. He was a good looking kid but he was not an actor’s actor.” Hudson’s part in The Lawless Breed was his first lead role in a Western and Walsh’s Gun Fury the following year was his third. Between those two Walsh oaters he was with Boetticher leading in Seminole, another Florida yarn, so we can say that Rock Hudson was now a leading man in the Western genre. Whether he was one of the great Western actors is open to debate, but at least he rode well and looked the part.
This one too was far from Raoul Walsh’s best Western. There are moments. Julie Adams is good. John McIntire is superb as both Hardin’s father and uncle. The rather preachy (and unWalshian) message that a badman can change for the better, crime doesn’t pay, etc., is supposed to be an edifying moral but just comes out weakly. The picture was quite liked though and made a bit of money.
Gun Fury in ’53, on a one picture deal with Columbia, was shot in 3D, so Walsh shared with the equally monocular André De Toth (who did House of Wax that year) the distinction of being a director who couldn’t see 3D making a 3D film. Walsh thought it was hilarious.
Scripted by Irving Wallace and Roy Huggins, based on the novel Ten Against Caesar, Gun Fury was a good-looking picture, Lester White photographing in Technicolor around Sedona, AZ, and it was energetic enough. The bad guys were good – Phil Carey as the boss villain with Leo Gordon, Neville Brand and Lee Marvin in his gang, so that was excellent. Marvin was another who warmed to Walsh. ”I don’t think he was much interested in dialogue,” Marvin later said. “He was an action director.” But few viewers got to see the picture in 3D and the film couldn’t compete in a glorious year for the genre, distinguished by the likes of Shane, Hondo and The Naked Spur. It’s OK, though.
Up to Canada
Walsh, now in his seventies, was still making one vigorous Western per year. The 1954 oater was OK too, though as I said, you could argue that Colorado Territory in 1949 was Walsh’s last really good Western. The 1950s ones were never quite as strong.
Universal handed him Gil Doud’s script for Saskatchewan in July and Walsh took cast and crew to Vancouver and into the Banff National Park for five weeks’ Technicolor shooting by DP John F Seitz. Walsh got $60,000 for it but star Alan Ladd received $100,000, though Walsh got a share of the profits. Ladd was big news after Shane and took a great liking to Westerns (he would soon set up his own company to make them) even if this one was a Mountie-always-gets-his-man yarn more than a true oater.
Hugh O’Brian was in this one too and he was amusing about the lengths they had to go to in order to make Ladd look tall. They had to dig a hole for O’Brian to stand in and a mound for Ladd. He said Mickey Rooney was short; he’d say, “I’m short, I’m short – that’s it. But you’re getting paid, so let’s do your friggin’ film.” But, O’Brian added, “Alan would kind of never admit that somebody else was standing in a hole.” If directing Ladd was challenging for Walsh, leading lady Shelley Winters was worse. O’Brian said, as tactfully as possible, “Walsh was not too thrilled with Shelley, kind of from the front” and especially when her lover Vittorio Gassman arrived on the shoot it was difficult to get her to concentrate at all. In one scene O’Brian had to use Winters as a shield and then cast her aside. Walsh told him to “throw her as far as you can”.
The script of Saskatchewan was pretty dull but thanks to Walsh the picture is lively enough and the Banff scenery is truly spectacular. It’s really a straightforward cavalry Western that just happens to be set in Canada and the soldiers have red uniforms instead of blue. Ladd isn’t very good (he never was, as a Western action man) and the part cried out for Errol Flynn but he was out of it now, slowly drinking himself to death. I suppose the female fans were happy either way.
1955’s Western was one of Walsh’s biggest. It was a 122-minute CinemaScope Color De Luxe picture starring Clark Gable and Jane Russell, and it grossed Fox $12m. Many people still admire it, though I’m not one of them.
The Tall Men was another rugged outdoor adventure, filmed this time largely in Durango, Mexico. The book it was based on, by Heck Allen under the name Clay Fisher, was really good (read our review here), and producer William Hawks bought it and took it to Darryl Zanuck; with Frank S Nugent on the screenplay and a $3.5m budget, the movie should have been better than it was. Western reviewer Bran Garfield called the finished picture “disappointingly hackneyed and mediocre, bloated far beyond its proper scale, overlong, underscripted, flabbily directed and downright silly.” That may well be a bit harsh, and, as I say, many people like The Tall Men, but overall I would definitely not put it in the category of a top Walsh Western. It’s got grandeur alright and it’s a good-looker. Robert Ryan is impressive in it, though underused (he contracted hepatitis). The pacing is unusually sluggish for Walsh and the film pretty well comes to a halt in the scene in which Gable and Russell spend a night in a snow-bound cabin, which the Breen office surprisingly let through, even though the characters were unmarried. Not that they did anything, except talk endlessly for 17 minutes’ screen time. Walsh once told Peter Bogdanovich, “In all my films, the whole story revolves around the love scene.” You wouldn’t know it from The Tall Men.
The critics weren’t kind but the picture did well at the box office. It was in some ways Gable’s first ‘proper’ Western – he had rather steered clear of them at Metro. It probably encouraged him to do another one with Walsh the following year. That was even worse, though.
Walsh had got on very well with Jane Russell on The Tall Men and she put together a production company with former Los Angeles Rams quarterback Bob Waterfield, Russ-Field Productions. This company made a deal with United Artists and the first feature was to be a Western, The King and Four Queens. Gable and Walsh came on board. Shooting began in Utah. It was in CinemaScope and Color De Luxe again, with the great Lucien Ballard doing the photography. But…
As Moss says, “The film … shines little in Walsh’s body of work.” The critics were unanimous in their dislike of the picture, and indeed it was implausible and melodramatic at a level well beyond the average oater. Walsh hated the script. He called the movie “one of my turkeys” and rarely spoke of it again.
There would only be two more Westerns.
In the late 50s the British had a protectionist but effective law that stipulated that profits from films made in England could not be exported. As a result, Fox had money tied up in the UK that it could only use making another film there and so in some (financially unlearned) execs’ eyes, a picture made there would be essentially free. Fox therefore hired a well-known British star or two, shipped over Walsh and some other actors, set up in England with British technicians, and shot a few scenes of the wide open West country.
So Jacob Hay’s 1954 short story The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw became Walsh’s next Western, after a two-year hiatus, and in the summer of ’58 off he went to England to shoot it. There would also be scenes shot in Spain, and Fox put together a prefabricated Western town and shipped it over, spaghetti ante diem, you might say.
The film was really a Jayne Mansfield vehicle and Walsh had some problems with her exaggerated baby-doll style. Opposite her was posh British actor Kenneth More, who had been noble with Scott in the Antarctic and on the Titanic, as an English purveyor of sporting guns out West who is made sheriff.
Actually, from these unpromising beginnings, the film was delightful. It’s certainly my favorite late Walsh Western. The whole movie has a George Marshall tone to it (and I mean that as a great compliment). Walsh showed that he had a deft hand with comedy Westerns too. It’s entertaining, amusing and despite all prejudiced indications to the contrary, a very good Western. It was also a hit with moviegoers and gave Walsh his last true box-office success (not that he ever cared very much about that).
The early 1960s weren’t an easy time for Walsh. His one good eye was failing. His friends were passing away (he was a pallbearer at Errol Flynn’s funeral in 1959, for example) and he had always spent more money than he earned, especially on racehorses. And it wasn’t a good time for the classic Western movie either. The genre was in decline, fewer were being made and those that were had little of the Fordian or Walshian quality about them. In fact John Ford and Raoul Walsh would both have their last Westerns released in 1964, and neither was very good, a sad come-down from the glory days.
Fittingly, Walsh would make A Distant Trumpet (and it was indeed a faint echo) for Jack Warner. It has been suggested that Warner himself posted a bond to insure Walsh on the picture because he was, at 76, considered too old. Originally, Laurence Harvey was to star and produce, with Alan Le May doing the screenplay from Paul Horgan’s popular book, but that fizzled and Walsh’s friend John Twist was brought in to finish the script.
Shooting happened in July 1963 in Flagstaff, AZ, and then Gallup, NM. Walsh wanted John Wayne to lead but Warners were clear that younger actors must be used, to attract younger audiences, and Troy Donahue, flavor of the month after Rome Adventure, was cast as ‘Lt Matt Hazard’ in an unoriginal story. Donahue’s performance was monotone and he was very casual about the whole business, partying all night and catching up on sleep in his dressing room trailer. He was very unconvincing as a tough officer (a Mexican washerwoman has to say “Que hombre macho!” as he passes just so that we know) and sub-Elizabeth Taylor starlet Suzanne Pleshette as the married lady he falls for was equally weak.
The DP was the great William Clothier, who took to Walsh immediately. ‘”He was a great guy, just a great guy.” Clothier even wondered whether in some ways Walsh might not be superior to Ford or Hawks.
A Distant Trumpet opened in May 1964 to mediocre box office and equally unenthusiastic critical reception. Rightly; it’s poor.
And that really was that. Steve Trilling at Warners thought Walsh could make a version of a new book by Jack Schaefer, Monte Walsh, with Donahue as lead. Fortunately, Donahue’s popularity was short-lived that never happened. The film would be made in 1970 by William A Fraker and starring Lee Marvin and be really quite good. Nor did anything come of Walsh’s brief interest in Rio Lobo, which eventually went to Howard Hawks and was another case of a great Western director making a dud as a final picture.
Producer Nat Holt offered Walsh a TV show set in nineteenth-century San Francisco but Walsh always disparaged television and said no.
In his old age, Walsh became the subject of great interest from Cahiers du Cinéma types and from academics on both sides of the Atlantic in the new field of ‘film studies’ but half the time he didn’t even understand their questions, let alone know the answers.
Round about 1970, Walsh wrote a novel, The Wrath of the Just Ones, which he dedicated to John Wayne, an adventure yarn set at the close of the Civil War. Three men who have fought for the Confederacy head West to seek their fortunes. It never found an American publisher – though finally appeared as La Colère des Justes in France.
And of course he wrote his own life story, which was as entertaining (and as factual) as one of his fast-moving films.
Raoul Walsh was a huge presence. He dominated his sets, knowing exactly what he wanted, and getting it. There he would be, in his stylish suits from Paris and London, though never without his cowboy boots. In 1972, a month after his 85th birthday, Walsh was a guest at Yale. The cinema professor Jeanine Basinger remembered him standing behind a curtain, to make a dramatic entrance, and when it parted, there he was in full Western garb, holster and all, and he proceeded to take out his gun and twirl it. The students went wild.
At the end, his old friend Allan Dwan called him “a sensitive man who made great motion pictures, some of the very greatest.”