December 15, 2009  |  An Auteurist History of Film
And Yet More Competition: Walsh and Tourneur
<i>The Blue Bird.</i> 1918. USA. Directed by Maurice Tourneur

The Blue Bird. 1918. USA. Directed by Maurice Tourneur

These notes accompany the program And Yet More Competition: Walsh and Tourneur on December 16, 17, and 18 in Theater 3.

The career of Raoul Walsh (1887–1980) represents the flip side of that of Mickey Neilan (see last week’s post). Both were rakish protégés of D. W. Griffith, but Walsh found the self-discipline and instinctive artfulness to manage a fifty-year directorial career. Although he worked in all genres, Regeneration speaks to his special facility with “gangster” films and the tragic destinies of their heroes. Some of his best films, including The Roaring Twenties (1939), High Sierra (1941), and White Heat (1949), fall into this category. Happy endings were not requisite, but he could still wax lyrical over the massacre of Custer in They Died with Their Boots On (1941). His auteurist personality was not always universally appealing. He occasionally had a penchant for sophomoric humor, as in his sequels to What Price Glory (his fine 1926 film adaptation of Laurence Stallings’s Broadway hit), which continued to pair Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe. Although not so important as John Ford or Howard Hawks, Walsh has an honored place in the history of Westerns. In Old Arizona (1928) is the first talkie shot largely on location, and The Big Trail (1930) is spectacularly inventive in its use of an experimental widescreen process. He worked productively with virtually everyone, from Humphrey Bogart to Mae West, and he discovered—and named—John Wayne. Walsh was an archetypal example of a studio director (Fox in the 1920s, Warner Brothers later) who accepted divergent assignments and managed to mold them into personal statements. Hollywood filmmaking would have been much poorer without him.

The Museum did a Walsh retrospective in the 1970s, and while I was not the curator, I did have the opportunity to shepherd him around a bit while he was visiting. This was kind of poignant, as he was unwilling to acknowledge that he had gone blind. Walsh was extraordinarily dapper and concerned with his appearance, sporting a trim moustache, a cowboy hat, and riding boots. There was an in-house luncheon attended by, among others, his former star (and sometime paramour) Gloria Swanson, who came equipped with a parasol and her bag of nuts and berries, determined to avoid the poisonous fare being served to the other guests. Ever gallant, Raoul made a point of complimenting Gloria on her appearance. Lest one is inclined to feel sorry for Walsh at his advanced age, his behavior at the Warwick Hotel (once owned by another of his stars, Marion Davies, a gift from William Randolph Hearst) left no doubt that he hadn’t fully succumbed to approved geriatric manners. His nurse reported that he had tried to pull her into the tub as she was giving him a bath. “Regeneration” has many meanings.

Maurice Tourneur (1876–1961) had what amounted to several careers. After apprenticing to Auguste Rodin, he became an actor, and then entered film in 1911 at an advanced age. He spent World War I working for the Éclair Company and others in New Jersey. Much of his early directorial work (like The Blue Bird) is highly stylized fantasy that was pictorially ahead of its time but indebted to Georges Méliès. He was also indebted to his gifted designer, Ben Carre, and his editor, Clarence Brown, who became one of the leading directors at M-G-M. Following a falling-out over his adaptation of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, he returned to France in 1926. His films in Europe were a bit more conventional. His last silent was Das Schiff der vorlorene Menschen (1929), which starred Marlene Dietrich, although she always insisted she made no films before Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, 1930). He continued to make films under the Vichy government, and was active in administering the film industry during that period. His Volpone, made on the eve of World War II and starring Harry Baur (who would soon die mysteriously after interrogation by the Gestapo), is the only sound film of Tourneur’s in the Museum’s collection. His son, Jacques Tourneur, came to America in the mid-1930s and became a prominent director (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, Out of the Past, and many others) in the 1940s, demonstrating that he had inherited some of his father’s flare for visual expressiveness.

There is one more chance to see Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine in our Nuts and Bolts series on December 19. This 1924 film is a major work by one of France’s leading directors of the silent period. And don’t miss Fritz Lang’s Metropolis on December 23.