Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood's Legendary Director
(University Press of Kentucky, 528 pages, $40)
By Marilyn Ann Moss
decades we’ve lacked a comprehensive biography of one of Hollywood’s great polymaths, adventurers, and philanderers, but finally, now we have it. Raoul Walsh, as much as any figure in early Hollywood, grew up with the emergent movie business and helped shape its destiny, first as an actor, apprentice, and collaborator with D.W. Griffith, then, along with Michael Curtiz, as one of the developers of the punchy and energetic 1930s Warner Bros. house-style—where he also helped define the screen personae of WB leads Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Errol Flynn.
The problem, however, with such pioneering figures who did most of their great work in the first half of the 20th century, is that there is scarcely a living witness left on the battlefield to disentangle the skeins of fact and mythmaking that underpinned their eventful lives. Walsh published his own autobiography, Each Man in His Time, in 1974 and, characteristically for a man who never let the facts get in the way of a good story, it was, as Marilyn Ann Moss demonstrates, packed with exaggeration, self-serving anecdotes, and boastfulness (it’s also a damn good read).
The real life, as excavated by Moss to the degree that it is possible, was scarcely less exciting and impressive, though. The upper-middle-class son of New York theatrical parents, Walsh, whose adventurous, nay tempestuous nature saw him fetch up in Hollywood just in time to observe Griffith invent the American Cinema with The Birth of a Nation, in which Walsh played John Wilkes Booth. Walsh teamed up with Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution, paying him $500 for the right to film his exploits, and later lost his eye to a shattered windshield (he refused a glass replacement, saying he’d have to tug it out before every fistfight). He spotted John Wayne a decade before John Ford and cast him in The Big Trail in 1930, while his mature WB movies—The Roaring Twenties, White Heat, High Sierra are some of the most crowded, exciting, and fast-paced of the period. Moss brings Walsh to life expertly, mining his many contradictions as she separates mythic chaff from factual wheat to give us the fullest portrait of Walsh we are ever likely to get.
Review by John Patterson