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With a film career spanning more than half a century, director Raoul Walsh was a highly prolific filmmaker capable of helming quality motion pictures in a wide array of genres that demonstrated a simple but straightforward style. Starting his career as an actor during the silent era - which he continued sporadically thereafter - Walsh struggled to find his footing as a director until helming "The Roaring Twenties" (1939) for Warner Bros., which commenced a fruitful 15-year career that saw his best work come to light. Walsh worked often with some of Hollywood's top talent - Errol Flynn, James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Humphrey Bogart and Rita Hayworth - on films like "High Sierra" (1941), "Gentlemen Jim" (1942), "Objective, Burma!" (1945) and "Colorado Territory" (1949). He made the archetypal gangster film, "White Heat" (1949) with Cagney, which served as an influence on countless heist movies made years later. But Walsh's fertile period came to an end when his contract at Warner Bros. was up in 1953. He went on to direct notable films like "The Tall Men" (1955) and "Band of Angels" (1957), but nothing that matched his heyday of the previous decades. Despite the 1950s drop off, Walsh's long and productive career marked him for consideration among the best craftsman at work during Hollywood's golden era.
Born on March 11, 1887 in New York City, Walsh was raised by his father, Albert, a clothing designer, and his mother, Elizabeth. A childhood friend of Virginia O'Hanlon and John Barrymore, Walsh attended Seton Hall University in New Jersey, and made his stage debut in 1909. Soon after he made the transition to film by appearing in Westerns made by the Pathe brothers, he signed with D.W. Griffith in 1912 and appeared as a young Pancho Villa in Christy Cabanne's "The Life of General Villa" (1912). Following turns in dramas like "The Great Leap" (1914), "The Availing Prayer" (1914) and "Sands of Fate" (1914), Wash portrayed John Wilkes Booth in Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" (1915). Meanwhile, "Villa" marked his first foray into directing; he shot the Mexican documentary sequence for the film and persuaded Villa himself to re-stage the battle of Durango. From there, Walsh directed a number of one- and two-reelers before moving on to features, most of them under contract to 20th Century Fox between 1916-1928.
Many of the films Walsh made in the beginning were minor efforts, like "The Innocent Sinner" (1917), "Evangeline" (1919), "The Deep Purple" (1920) and "Serenade" (1921). He made his most significant silent-era film with "The Thief of Bagdad" (1924), an extraordinary fantasy epic starring Douglas Fairbanks at his charismatic best. Aside from great performances by Fairbanks and co-star Anna May Wong, "Thief of Bagdad" featured top-notch special effects that Walsh used to great effect in the famed magic carpet sequence. Walsh followed up with "What Price Glory?" (1926), an anti-war movie about two rival Marines vying for the love of an innkeeper's daughter, that proved to be his most successful film of the silent era. He next directed Gloria Swanson in "Sadie Thompson" (1928), in which she played a disgraced woman who travels to Pago Pago in order to start anew, only to battle with a zealous missionary (Lionel Barrymore) intent on sending her back home. Turning an eye toward the criminal world, he directed "Me, Gangster" (1928), widely considered to be a blueprint for his better-known crime dramas, and followed that with "The Cock-Eyed World" (1929), a musical sequel to "What Price Glory?" Meanwhile, he co-directed "In Old Arizona" (1929) with Irving Cummings, a film notable for a pre-production car accident while scouting locations that left Walsh without his right eye. He would famously wear a black eye patch to cover the injury for the remainder of his life.
As the silent era drew to a close, Walsh entered a bit of a lull that, with few exceptions, lasted for the entirety of the 1930s. After guiding John Wayne in his first starring role with "The Big Trail" (1930), he directed a string of rather forgettable movies like "Me and My Gal" (1932) starring Spencer Tracy and "The Bowery" (1933) with Wallace Beery. After "Sailor's Luck" (1933), Walsh directed Marion Davies and Bing Crosby in the enjoyable comedy "Going Hollywood" (1933), and went on to helm more mediocre motion pictures such as "Under Pressure" (1935), "Baby Face Harrington" (1935) and "Klondike Annie" (1936), starring Mae West. Walsh's career took a dramatic turn when he assumed direction of "The Roaring Twenties" (1939) for Warner Bros., which marked a fruitful 15-year association with the studio in whose productive and creative environment Walsh flourished. The film starred James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Jeffrey Lynn as three World War I buddies who return home to become bootleggers, leading to rivalry, division and death. The crime drama was a real breakthrough for Walsh, who went on to flourish in the following decade.
At Warner Bros., Walsh associated with first-rate talent at all levels, and from these collaborations emerged a body of films that demonstrated his remarkable talent for different genres. He directed the excellent melodrama "The Drive By Night" (1940), which starred Bogart and George Raft as two owners of a scrappy trucking company who battle rivals and criminals, only to suffer a surprising tragedy. After directing John Wayne in the high-end Western "The Dark Command" (1940), Walsh teamed up with Bogart again for "High Sierra" (1941), a gangster flick in which Bogie played a recently paroled convict who spearheads a major heist at a California hotel. He next directed Cagney and Rita Hayworth in the charming comedy "The Strawberry Blonde" (1941), before casting Errol Flynn as a dashing General George Custer, who goes down fighting in the less-than-historically accurate Western "They Died With Their Boots On" (1941). The following year, Walsh directed Flynn in "Gentleman Jim" (1942), a biopic about the 19th century boxer Jim Corbett, and partnered with the actor again with the wartime propaganda film, "Desperate Journey" (1942), co-starring Ronald Reagan.
Walsh remained a highly prolific director during the war years, teaming with Flynn yet again on the espionage thriller, "Northern Pursuit" (1943), which benefited from the actor's high-profile trial and acquittal for rape. He next directed Flynn in the Oscar-nominated war drama, "Objective, Burma!" (1945), which depicted a unit of U.S. paratroopers trying to destroy a Japanese radar station. After the noirish drama "The Man I Love" (1946) starring Ida Lupino, Walsh directed the dark psychological Western "Pursued" (1947), which featured Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright as a married couple on the run from a band of men. In 1948, he oscillated easily between genres, directing Flynn in the Western "Silver River," Dennis Morgan and Dorothy Malone in the musical comedy "One Sunday Afternoon," and Robert Stack in the wartime adventure "Fighter Squadron." Walsh was on top of the world with his next film, "White Heat" (1949), one of the most influential gangster movies of all time. James Cagney delivered his best bad-guy performance, playing a ruthless criminal mastermind who suffers from chronic headaches and is under the Freudian influence of his mother (Margaret Wycherly). A hit with both critics and audiences, "White Heat" went on to influence later heist pictures by John Huston, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese.
Walsh went back to familiar ground with "Colorado Territory" (1949), an affecting but ultimately inferior Western remake of "High Sierra" starring Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo. He next directed Gregory Peck and Mayo in "Captain Horatio Hornblower" (1951), a swashbuckling adventure on the high seas set at the turn of the 19th century, and went on to helm a string of average films like "Distant Drums" (1951), "Blackbeard the Pirate" (1952) and "The World in His Arms" (1953). After directing Cagney in the political drama "A Lion is in the Streets" (1953), Walsh's contract with Warner Bros. expired. Though he continued working for over a decade, his success was limited. Among his better films from this later period were the Western "The Tall Men" (1955) with Clark Gable and Jane Russell, and "The Revolt of Mamie Stover" (1956), also with Russell. Perhaps his final triumph was "Band of Angels" (1957), a powerful and somewhat controversial Southern melodrama about a dashing, but mysterious landowner (Gable) who buys the daughter (Yvonne DeCarlo) of a deceased plantation owner who is surprised to learn she has African-American blood.
Despite his long career up to this point, Walsh showed no signs of slowing down, though the quality of his films began to drop. He traveled to Spain to direct the comedic Western "The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw" (1958) and had to tone down the language for his rather disappointing adaptation of Norman Mailer's best-selling novel "The Naked and the Dead" (1958), starring Cliff Robertson. He moved on to direct Joan Collins in the biblical epic, "Esther and the King" (1960), and helmed the forgettable military comedy "Marines, Let's Go" (1961). Struggling to find his old footing, Walsh resorted to directing a B-movie Western on the Warner Bros. backlot - the studio for whom he had many triumphs - with "A Distant Trumpet" (1964), a mundane film that marked an end to his distinguished career. Walsh settled into retirement following this final film, due in part to diminishing eye sight in his left eye. Sixteen years later, on Dec. 31, 1980, Walsh died in Simi Valley, CA at 93 years old, leaving behind a legacy as one of classic Hollywood's greatest and most prolific directors, despite never receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Director.
By Shawn Dwyer
Director (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Production Companies (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Stage acting debut
Film acting debut
Assistant director to D.W. Griffith
Film co-directing debut (with Christy Cabanne), "The Life of General Villa"
Played John Wilkes Booth in "The Birth of a Nation"
Began wearing eye patch after losing an eye during the shooting of Hollywood's first outdoor sound film, "In Old Arizona"
Retired after losing sight in other eye