Introduction: A Wild Ride

It’s a rank understatement to say that Walsh’s personality
has never been properly identified.
—Manny Farber

When Raoul Walsh was fifteen years old he awoke one night from a dream that left him shaking. He trembled as much from dread as from a half-formed sense of excitement. In a sleep that seemed as much nightmare as fantasy, he saw that his beloved mother, Elizabeth, had suddenly died. He could make no sense of it and could no longer reach out to touch her. An overwhelming sadness took over. But at the same time he had a sense of something startling: he now stood on the brink of a fabulous journey, a great adventure that offered escape from the hole he felt had just been shot through the middle of his heart.

The dread that touched young Walsh that night was no fiction. Just two days earlier, his beautiful and much beloved mother, Elizabeth Walsh, died of cancer at the age of forty-two, leaving behind a devoted husband, three children and a household she had filled with endless storytelling and fanciful flights of imagination. For Raoul Walsh the grief was almost unbearable. As he wrote in his autobiography over seventy years later, “I was quite unprepared for the sudden blow that left me motherless at fifteen…Mother passed away in the big master bedroom into which I used to steal and beg for one of her stories about an earlier America…Where before I had loved it, the place became unbearable… The terrible thing was that she was gone and I was only half a person…”

Not only did the stories cease; so did Elizabeth and Thomas Walsh’s renowned dinner parties where the Walsh children sat at the table infatuated while listening to the ramblings of a Lionel Barrymore or a John L. Sullivan in the time it took to finish one course and move on to another.

So adrift was young Walsh that he could not understand his life now or what lay in store. His only recourse lay in creating another kind of dream that encapsulated a great adventure, one that, perhaps unknown to him then, began the moment his mother died: it would last a lifetime. He jumped so quickly into fantasy that he very likely may have even imagined the adventure that lay before him. The line between what was true and what was fantasy became blurred—but either way he embarked on a wild ride:

The fantasy came quickly. Walsh’s father, Thomas, seeing how Elizabeth’s death devastated his oldest son, encouraged the boy to travel so as to escape. Thomas’ brother, Matthew, was about to set off on the high seas for Cuba, and Thomas made certain that his son was on board when Matthew’s schooner, the Enniskillen, sailed out of Peck’s Slip in New York City in one week’s time.

In this moment Raoul Walsh created the fundamental subject of his life—and of his art to come: He knew how to escape great sadness by dreaming, then creating, an adventure of his own making—one shaped by his own design. His escape was forged from a schism in his psyche that he would come to articulate in story telling, that he would come to count on. The pervasive mourning that had left a hole in his soul responded easily to the sense of imagination and fantasy that leaped up to fill it. Adventure and fantasy offered the only viable means of escape from the grief that, ironically, he never would escape. These two—grief and adventure—locked themselves together in his mind. It would be ironic that the grief he felt at the loss of his mother gave his art great range; he escaped repeatedly because he had to. Now only “half a person,” Walsh had to fill in the other half of himself, and he would do it through adventure and romance.

Forced to make friends with sadness, Walsh, unconsciously, perhaps, took that sadness with him into stories he told himself. As he got older, his great sense of storytelling served him well when, on the cusp of his twenties, he found his way into the fledgling movie industry where storytelling could fill huge movie screens. Telling stories to others, Walsh found fictional characters persistently embarking on an adventure of some kind. His film art would depict great action that, emotionally and physically, drove his characters forward—their sense of duty more often than not triggered by a sadness, a mistake, that they leave behind. As in Walsh’s early life, sadness haunts tragic outsiders Roy Earle and his girlfriend, Marie, in High Sierra; while they make plans to evade police, their actions stem from a desperate need to save their own lives. In Walsh’s first Warner Bros. outing, The Roaring Twenties, although Jimmy Cagney’s Eddie Bartlett returns home from the war with great expectations, his life spirals downward as he makes one mistake after another in trying simply to make a legitimate living. A sense of sadness also underscores White Heat’s Oedipally deranged Cody Jarrett as he unintentionally maps out his climb to chaos, ending in his fiery demise in Walsh and Cagney’s hugely iconic 1949 outing.

Even earlier than these postwar films, sadness defines the society Walsh paints in his silent films Regeneration, The Honor Systerm, and What Price Glory? just as it manipulates his soldiers and renegades’ adventures in the 1950s films and wreaks havoc in the lives of his 1950s women, especially Mamie Stover and the four women held up at a ranch in A King and Four Queens. Walsh’s sadness is more often than not driven underground in his characters’ psyches. They look to be moving forward yet a tinge of world-weariness shows on their faces, the way they move, the choices they make.

Throughout the teens and 1920s, Walsh wrote and directed at a fever pitch. He took a huge chance and traveled through five states to film the achingly difficult The Big Trail, a financial gamble that did not pay off and that instead sent him into reeling for the next decade until he rebounded when he landed at Warner Bros., the studio that oversaw his golden period of storytelling. During this time of great success, Walsh never appeared to challenge the system he worked within. If anything, he looked to be its best “yes” man, taking work when, as he liked to say, the studio dropped off a script on his front lawn the morning after he had just finished shooting the previous one. He said yes because he lived in a much deeper psychological place; he lived in his filmic adventures and kept them as a great protection. While the social world around him saw tragic events envelop other directors’ art—responses to two world wars, for one, The Great Depression for another—Walsh kept moving at lightening speed, his pictures seeming unscathed by that real world and existing instead in a dream state—the state induced by making movies. He escaped that far more dangerous world and stayed inside his own fictional intentions.

This seeming doubleness—existing in one world (looking like a “yes” man) but more authentically living in another—made Walsh a maverick in the truest sense. He directed pictures that gathered audiences and momentum: they could be humorous, ribald, gutsy. But always they were technically agile and at the same time displayed a broad understanding of American types, American landscapes. His stories hinged on a swift movement and rhythm that became his signature.

Yet the need for escape never abated. On the first page of Walsh’s autobiography, Each Man in His Time, written when he was in his mid-eighties and nearing the end of his life, sadness is the first feeling Walsh recalls and wants his reader to see. He writes about his “marvelous childhood” yet begins with an image of a man grieving. “One of my earliest memories: the sadness of Edwin Booth’s face, when he came to visit my father at our brownstone house on Forty-eighth Street in New York….‘Why does Mr. Booth look so unhappy,’ I asked my mother, adding in six-year-old wonder.’ ‘Didn’t he have a good dinner?’ Mother tactfully explained that our tragic guest’s brother, John Wilkes Booth, was the man who shot President Lincoln. She shook her head. ‘Poor Edwin!’”

Walsh talks about Edwin Booth but really refers to himself and to the characters to come that live in front of his camera—people who long to be safe and long to redeem themselves, even if the longing is only half-formed in their consciousness. Walsh’s dream held within itself the seeds of adventure, mystery and romance. Yet at its core, the dream contains a kind of grief that drives Walsh’s psychology to those imaginary places. Walsh never acknowledged, and perhaps only half knew, that the actor who eventually played John Wilkes Booth, the maverick, emotionally veiled director he became, was the true subject of his own adventures.

Grief, adventure, spiritedness—all these meshed together as Walsh traversed his long career. He was a man extremely conscious of how Hollywood viewed him, and he did all he could to help shape that view. In his early career, when movie directors were seen both as gods and odd curiosities, Walsh began giving interviews to the press. He quickly gained a reputation for being wild; reporters painted him as a handsome, restless man, often times flailing his hands in the air, jumping up and downon the set to get the performance he wanted out of his actors. He had movie star good looks and a personality that strutted. Underneath that persona, though, Walsh was a serious soul, determined to get a picture wrapped on time and on budget. He never fudged on that goal in his fifty plus years in the business.

As he grew older the press saw Walsh not so much as a wild spirit but as a humorous man who life spilled out onto the public through endless anecdotes; he told crazy stories about his antics with Errol Flynn, Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. He quipped endlessly about prostitutes he had known, cowboys and bandits he ran with; about getting drunk with the legends who visited his set, with the crew he adored more than any other bunch.

But these were stories, part of the adventure, part of the fiction he learned to wrap around himself so that he would not really be seen. “Let’s get the hell out of here!,” he often yelled out on the set when a scene wrapped. Part humorous, part serious, the quip is the essential Walsh—the man half in but at the same time half way out the door, perpetually ready to bolt, to leap and walk quickly away and to disappear into the dark corners of a soundstage where no one could find him but always knew he was there just the same.

From Marilyn Ann Moss’ biography of Raoul Walsh, The True Adventures of Raoul Walsh, by Marilyn Ann Moss,  published by The University Press of Kentucky.