These notes accompany screenings of Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail, August 11, 12, and 13 in Theater 1.
We last crossed paths with Raoul Walsh (1887–1980) when we looked at his early gangster film, Regeneration. Walsh, like Howard Hawks, was eclectic in his choice of genres and retained some of the same aura of robust masculinity that Hawks affected. With rare exceptions, however, Walsh’s films lacked the gravitas and profundity of great art. By saying this, I don’t want to appear dismissive. He was certainly a cut above other good jack-of-all-trades directors of his generation (Allan Dwan, Tay Garnett, Michael Curtiz, Henry Hathaway), but, as Andrew Sarris suggests, Walsh’s perspective is often that of “the lost child in the big world.” For Walsh, it seems, making movies was altogether too much fun to ever fully grow up. Fortunately for him and us, fun and adventure sold tickets in his day, just as pomposity, pretension, and tedious digital effects seem to in our age of matrices and inceptions.
The Big Trail was one of a handful of Hollywood features made using the Grandeur widescreen process in 1930—a process that proved commercially untenable in an industry that was still in the midst of conversion to sound. Peter Williamson, MoMA’s film preservation officer, has gone to great lengths and considerable expense to restore The Big Trail to its widescreen majesty. Of course, the actual production, shot on location in several different western locations—was vastly more expensive. The critic Fred Camper wrote, “Walsh has given us a rare vision of nature, one that is not man-centered; his film is permeated with a powerful, mysterious sense of an always-looming, weighty, abstracted empty space…a true metaphor for trackless wilderness.” Camper also concludes that “the presence and meaning that [Walsh] gives to empty space in The Big Trail make it about as close as Hollywood has ever come to creating a genuinely abstract film.”
Camper notwithstanding, “man-centered” or not, there are actors in The Big Trail, and they are a decidedly mixed bag. El Brendel, the pseudo-Swedish “comedian” who plays Gussie, was actually Philadelphia-born Elmer Goodfellow Brendle, who had affected a phony German accent until the sinking of the Lusitania. (I’ve been after Peter Williamson for years to find a surreptitious way to excise El Brendel’s laboriously unfunny presence from the numerous early Fox talkies he contaminates. If Peter ever succeeds, well, “Yumpin’ yimminy.”) Tyrone Power, Sr. (Red Flack) was once some kind of matinee idol, but by the time of The Big Trail he was a burly, grizzly grotesque—the total antithesis of Tyrone, Jr., the somewhat callow and effete leading man whose film career began two years later. Tully Marshall (Zeke) spent thirty years playing mostly leering villains. (In his autobiography, Each Man in His Time, Walsh commented that Marshall’s false teeth “made him look like an amiable horse.”) Ward Bond (later the star of John Ford’s Wagon Master and TV’s Wagon Train series) was presciently assigned by Walsh to manage the wagons. Marguerite Churchill, the pretty—and pretty adequate—heroine, wound up marrying George O’Brien, John Ford’s favorite leading man from 1924 to 1931.
Then there is this other guy, Marion Michael Morrison, whom Walsh rechristened “John Wayne.” Morrison had been moving props for Ford while in college, and he has a few minor speaking parts in early Ford talkies. It is clear that Walsh saw something in Wayne that Ford had missed—as he put it, “a winner.” Wayne was to become the archetypal Western hero in the films of Ford and Hawks, the best films ever made in the most American of genres. If America dominated the cinema for most of its history, no actor personified this dominance—and film’s potential for creating lasting mythology—more than the Duke.
However, this was almost all lost. Wayne spent the next decade appearing in B-grade Westerns. For the edification of the matrices-and-inception generation: B Westerns were quickly made potboilers with almost identical plots and lots of horses. They first appeared in the silent years but were mass-produced in the 1930s and 1940s. I spent much of my pre-adolescence watching many hours of such films daily on Channel 13, before the advent of “educational television” deprived me of this guilty pleasure (along with Junior Frolics and weekly live wrestling from Laurel Gardens in Newark). Thus, Wayne was only one of my early heroes, but by then, the more mature actor had become an icon. Ford finally got it in 1939, and “rediscovered” Wayne in Stagecoach. Ford was outgrowing his own apprenticeship and was now on track to become the greatest of American filmmakers, helped in no small measure by a quarter-century-long collaboration with Walsh’s discovery. (There is much irony in the fact that George O’Brien, after a falling out with Ford, became a B Western regular until Ford brought him back from Purgatory to support Wayne in a few late films.) If Raoul Walsh never made any movies after The Big Trail (and fortunately for us, he made several dozen), we would still be his debt for his discovery of “a winner.”