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.