Raoul Walsh

Forthcoming from University Press of Kentucky:
Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director
By Marilyn Ann Moss

Excerpt from Chapter One: Introduction

There they stood, face to face, locked in a tinseltown showdown. Who would back out first? Raoul Walsh, famous Hollywood director, or Bugsy Siegel, mafia kingpin extraordinaire? Bugsy wanted Raoul to take a suitcase full of money and buy off pal William Randolph Hearst, who threatened to scotch Bugsy’s plans to open a dog track in Culver City. Fast on his feet, thoughts moving full throttle, Walsh wouldn’t budge. “Hey, I’m the guy who told John Barrymore not to get drunk,” he reminded himself. “I’m the mug who put the bullets in Cagney’s gun and a horse under Errol Flynn. I won’t pander to this guy.” “Nothing doing, Bugsy,” he quipped. “I don’t take orders from you.” Out he stalked, leaving Bugsy stranded poolside in the pink of his Beverly Hills mansion, an eye on Walsh as he walked. A few years later Bugsy and that eye would part company as well.

This is not a scene from a Hollywood gangster movie, but a real event in the real big life of Raoul Walsh, the Hollywood movie director whose time has come to be the subject of a full-length biography. Adventurous and iconoclastic, director Raoul Walsh gave Hollywood some of its greatest action-adventure yarns. His life and movies are the stuff that dreams are made of, with a career spanning over half a century, from the era of one- and two-reel silents to the tumultuous 1960s, from such classic gangster films as White Heat and The Roaring Twenties, action-adventures as They Died With Their Boots On and Objective Burma!, to Westerns, romances and Civil War epics.

Walsh helped to transform the Hollywood studio yarn into a breathless art form. He belongs to that generation of filmmakers who learned to make movies on a dime in a fledgling industry at the start of the Twentieth century and invented a Hollywood that made movies bigger than life itself.

Off the screen, Walsh also knew an adventure or two. Friend to Pancho Villa and Wyatt Earp, Jack London and William Randolph Hearst, Walsh traveled the South Seas and Mexico as a young man, and then became an actor and ace cameraman for D.W. Griffith before he became a master film director. Walsh directed the first American gangster epic, Regeneration, in 1915 and in 1930 changed Marion Morrison’s name to John Wayne and put him in his first Western, The Big Trail. Walsh directed Gloria Swanson in the classic silent Sadie Thompson and out grossed Cecil B. DeMille’s epic Carmen by putting Theda Bara in his own spectacular version. He gave Hollywood its first silent mega-hits before he put the light and magic into Douglas Fairbanks’ swashbuckling 1924 The Thief of Bagdad.

Walsh moved easily from silents to talkies. At Warner Bros. in the 1940s he made history. He pitted James Cagney against Humphrey Bogart in the classic The Roaring Twenties before he took Bogey up the California mountains in High Sierra and sent Cagney to the “top of the world” in the gangster classic White Heat. One of Hollywood’s great “He-man” directors alongside John Ford, Howard Hawks and John Huston, Walsh’s one hundred and forty films created a classic cinema of adventure, romance and American hard knocks both vigorous and tenderhearted. His films moved to the rhythm of bullets and came at audiences with style and energy.

Walsh’s life off the set was as brash as the world he put up on the screen. Called the one-eyed bandit by close friend Errol Flynn, Walsh sported an eye patch, the result of a freak jeep accident during production of 1929’s In Old Arizona that cost him his right eye. The patch gave Walsh a romantic demeanor that suited his lifestyle. Always open to excitement, the rugged Walsh was just as happy cowpunching or herding steer as cranking a movie camera. He would go anywhere to make a film if he thought the story would entertain audiences, and he saw his films and his life as one big adventure, a story with punch. “Action, action, action,” he said, “let the screen be filled ceaselessly with events.” His movies reveal the essence of the American character and spirit and helped to shape Hollywood’s dominance over an art form that conquered audiences in Europe and the world over.

Despite his standing as one of the most successful directors in Hollywood history, Raoul Walsh as yet has no biography; he is perhaps the last legendary American director to need a full-fledged, in-depth look at his life. My biography fills this need and aims to correct a glaring oversight in what is now the popular genre of Hollywood history-biography. Walsh’s life story is as compelling as the movies he made, from his youth in New York City – where his parents regularly entertained dinner guests Edwin Booth (brother of John Wilkes Booth), Buffalo Bill, Frederick Remington and Teddy Roosevelt – to his apprenticeship as an assistant director to D.W. Griffith, where, for instance, Walsh himself convinced the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa that his life (and the execution of his enemies) should be made into a movie. Walsh was an imposing figure in Hollywood, contributing movies that were as energetic as his own lifestyle. He loved to recount how he stood up to mobster Bugsy Siegel’s attempt to win his friendship, he was a committed drinking buddy of Bogart and Flynn and an upstanding figure in the Hollywood Irish mafia that included Cagney and O’Brien and a host of Irish directors and actors.

The details of Walsh’s amazing life shape up into a fascinating story that he himself would have liked to direct. In my book I find the human side of a man whose movies are loved in Hollywood and around the world. My biography of Walsh will be required reading for anyone who wants to know the brash workings of early Hollywood and the politics and production of the classic studio days, both of which Walsh participated in with great panache and boxoffice strength.

Look for this first book-length biography of one of Hollywood true founding fathers. Forthcoming from University Press of Kentucky from biographer and film historian Marilyn Ann Moss.

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