Raoul Walsh’s film career spanned more than half a century, encompassing acting, writing scenarios and directing. He began as an actor in 1909 in westerns made by the Pathe brothers. He signed with D.W. Griffith in 1912, appearing as the young Pancho Villa in Christy Cabanne’s “The Life of General Villa” (1912) and as John Wilkes Booth in “Birth of a Nation” (1915). “Villa” also marked Walsh’s first directing experience; he shot the Mexican documentary sequence for the film, persuading Villa himself to re-stage the battle of Durango. From there, it was on to one- and two-reelers and then features, most of them under contract to Fox between 1916 and 1928. Many of these films were minor efforts, but several are among his better accomplishments: “Evangeline” (1919); “The Thief of Bagdad,” with Douglas Fairbanks (1924); the WWI classic “What Price Glory?” (1926); “Sadie Thompson,” with Gloria Swanson (1928); and “Me, Gangster” (1928).
The 1930s were a variable period for Walsh as he spent some time at Paramount making, among other films, genial but rather bland musicals which lacked his distinctive grit and clearly interested him little. This period, though, does include the likably rowdy comedies “Me and My Gal” (1932) and “Sailor’s Luck” (1933), the lusty brawling of “The Bowery” (1933) and “Under Pressure” (1935) and the offbeat semi-Western “Wild Girl” (1932). A recognizable style and recurrent thematic interests were beginning to emerge in Walsh’s work.
Walsh’s career took a dramatic turn in 1939 when he assumed direction of “The Roaring Twenties” for Warner Bros. It began a fruitful 15-year association with that studio, in whose productive and creative environment Walsh flourished. At Warners, Walsh associated with first-rate talent at all levels. From these collaborations emerged a body of films that demonstrated Walsh’s remarkable talent for different genres.
Walsh directed four first-rate examples of film noir and/or romantic melodrama: “They Drive By Night” (1940), “High Sierra” (1941), “The Man I Love” (1946) and “White Heat” (1949). “High Sierra” and “White Heat,” among the very best gangster films, demonstrate Walsh’s mastery of action; his style is wonderfully straightforward and unpretentious but not without flair and bravura. “They Drive By Night” and “The Man I Love” focus more on relationships than on action. Ida Lupino’s role in the latter, an unusually feisty entry in the “women’s film” genre, film calls attention to Walsh’s continued interest in, and sympathy with, strong women characters.
Most of Walsh’s westerns are skillfully made if traditional action-oriented films such as “They Died With Their Boots On” (1941). However, “Pursued” (1947), with its strong Freudian undertones, introduced the psychological western and belies the notion that Walsh’s style and technique were always simple and direct. “Colorado Territory” (1949) is an affecting and effective reworking of “High Sierra.”
“Objective Burma!” (1945) is one of the outstanding war films of the 1940s and amply showcases Walsh’s talents. Critic Jean-Pierre Couroson has observed of this film: “Seen purely in terms of direction…Walsh’s control over pace and space, narrative and detail, performance and logistics, is total.”
After his contract with Warners expired in 1953, Walsh continued working for another 11 years, but his successes were limited. Among his better films from this later period were the Western “The Tall Men” (1955) and the story of a canny, land-buying club “hostess” (a prostitute in the source novel), “The Revolt of Mamie Stover” (1956). Still, Walsh’s long and productive career surely mark him for consideration among the best craftsman working in the heyday of the Hollywood studio system.
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