Raoul Walsh’s biographer Marilyn Ann Moss produces documentary

In various ways, Raoul Walsh helped in shaping what we nowadays call a “movie”. Those who just seek entertainment will find it in his films. Those who prefer great performances and a good script, will not be disappointed either. And those who admire that rare quality in cinema, the sensation of life taking place in front of our eyes, will be surprised. Raoul Walsh symbolizes this and much more. After she separated fact from fiction in her biography, Marilyn Ann Moss is currently producing the first documentary about the filmmaker: The True Adventures of Raoul Walsh.

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Walsh was “one of the pillars of Old Hollywood”, as Samuel Fuller said, easily adapting himself to the talkies, after the silent movies. In a career that lasted over 50 years, he directed 140 motion pictures, many of them regarded as masterpieces today. He worked with big screen legends like Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Errol Flynn, Robert Mitchum, Marlene Dietrich, Edward G. Robinson, John Wayne, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Gloria Swanson, Olivia de Havilland among many others.

He created works like The Thief of Bagdad in 1924, starring Douglas Fairbanks. It was Raoul Walsh who consolidated Bogart’s stature, for instance, giving him the first leading role in the classic High Sierra (1941).

Gloria Swanson and Raoul Walsh in Sadie Thompson (1928).
Gloria Swanson and Raoul Walsh in Sadie Thompson (1928).

They Died with Their Boots On, from the same year, joined the talents of Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. When we mention classic cinema, Walsh’s name is unavoidable. The Roaring Twenties with Cagney and Bogart, Objective, Burma! starring the legendary Errol Flynn, or White Heat (1949), with the fantastic performance of James Cagney, were his. This film conquered 4th place in a list of the 10 best gangster movies ever, by the American Film Institute, in 2008. Walsh was also one of the 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences.

Virginia Mayo and James Cagney in White Heat (1949).
Virginia Mayo and James Cagney in White Heat (1949).

Along with Howard Hawks, John Huston, John Ford, Nicholas Ray or Cecil B. DeMille, Walsh established, in an original way, the blueprints and formulas of much of the cinema that would came after, directing films on every genre, while he created a persona that would become mythical.

raoul walsh marilyn ann moss (1)At 15, his mother’s death affected Walsh deeply. In his autobiography, he would describe that, from then on, he felt as if he was “half a person”. Escaping pain, he found his refuge in stories, in creativity, becoming an actor and, later, a director.

On October 4, 1928, in Utah, Walsh suffered a serious accident. While driving his Jeep, he hit a rabbit which hurled up through the windshield, hitting Walsh with glass splinters which caused severe injuries in his face. His right eye had to be extracted. “I caught a glimpse of the rising moon with my left eye, but when I shut it I was blind”, he’d write in his autobiography. This wound could have ended his career. Instead, Walsh pushed forward with determination, continuously defying himself and his talent.

Off-screen, he also loved to tell stories, and became friends with Wyatt Earp, Pancho Villa, Jack London and William Randolph Hearst. Walsh’s life was an adventure. Last year, Marilyn Ann Moss published this tale, separating facts from fiction, in the book Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director, the result of five years researching. Her work got rave reviews on The Wall Street Journal or the The Washington Post. However, Marilyn Moss didn’t call it quits, and is now gathering funds publicly so that she can produce the first documentary about the filmmaker: The True Adventures of Raoul Walsh.

Marilyn Ann Moss.
Marilyn Ann Moss.

Marilyn Ann Moss had already written the biography of director George Stevens (also acclaimed) and is also working on a new book on Raoul Walsh, focused on his films. The author is a Cinema historian, specialized in teaching Biography, Literary Memoirs and the History of Cinema. She’s also a PhD on American Literature and was a TV critic in The Hollywood Reporter since 1995.

However, the global crisis affected Hollywood also. The documentary genre isn’t profitable, and the companies that could be presumably interested, didn’t care to finance it. But Marilyn Ann Moss, in the style of the director she admires so much, doesn’t give up. Wand’rin’ Star talked exclusively with Walsh’s biographer, in order to know a little more about this project, and also to know some more about Raoul Walsh, one of the most creative and influential directors in Hollywood History.

Your biography of Raoul Walsh is so well researched that it’s almost Homeric. Obviously, you only go to such lengths if you’re really interested on the subject. How did you become so interested in Walsh’s work and life?

I became interested in Walsh over the years the more of his films I watched. One afternoon I was watching White Heat and was so fascinated by the film’s fast, even masculine rhythm that I decided then and there I would write something on Walsh. When I discovered that he had no biography, I decided to write it. My background in academe (a PhD in American literature) trained me well… I knew that I had to research Walsh’s life in great detail in order to get a true picture of the man.

After you completed your work, you wrote, “I surely miss that man!” like all the others who knew him said to you. How did his life and work influence you?

I meant that I had talked to so many people who admired Walsh as a human being as well as a director that I began to admire him also.

He was a good friend to people he knew and was a thoughtful man. In addition, he had a wonderful sense of humor. To me he was an example of someone who had great talent but who was a kind human being first. You don’t find that often in the annals of Hollywood. I am very touched by someone so many people loved and still miss. Also, if you’re going to spend five years working on someone’s life story, it had better be someone you like in some fundamental way… or else, it will be a difficult five years!

Marion Davies and Bing Crosby in Going Holywood (1933).
With Bing Crosby and Marion Davies in Going Holywood (1933).

Although there are other books about Raoul Walsh, your biography is the most complete one and got excellent reviews. Given Walsh’s extraordinary reputation and legacy, why did it take so long to see the light of day?

I don’t know the answer to that one. One reason might be that Walsh’s autobiography, Each Man In His Time, was so enjoyable and so colorful that perhaps no one wanted to burst the bubble of fiction created in the book. But autobiography is one of my great areas of interest and I wanted to see what the truth was behind that colorful book he wrote (a book that was quite an elaboration of the truth).

This brings us to the documentary you are producing, the first one about him. Again, it strikes me as a bit odd that, during all these years, nobody produced a documentary about Raoul Walsh. Why is this?

That is bewildering to me as well. For years people seemed satisfied with [Richard] Schickel’s segment on Walsh in The Men Who Made The Movies, produced in the 1970s. Other than that, I can’t really say. It might be that Walsh’s career is so varied (and so much the stuff of legend and myth) that it would be difficult to get to the truth behind it all. But it is a challenge that I find fascinating.

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What has been shot so far, and what do you intend to include in the documentary?

So far we have completed interviews with people who actually worked with and knew Raoul Walsh. That was our first priority. There are so few of them still with us. In addition to these interviews, we will have interviews with contemporary directors and film critics who will discuss Walsh’s films. We also have hundreds of rare photos given to us by Walsh’s family. And we will include footage from films not often seen that Walsh directed.

At this time, there’s a fund-raising campaign on the Internet to help the financing of this documentary. Is this because of artistic control issues or was it difficult finding backers in the film business, like production companies?

Today, because of the financial crisis all around the globe, fewer documentaries are being produced by the venues we would expect to back us… Turner and other venues interested in classic film. The big studios are out of the question because documentaries don’t produce as much revenue, so we’ve been told. So we decided to do this on our own because it’s a fascinating Hollywood story that needs to be told.

The Mask of Sanity, written by Hervey Cleckley, was first published in 1941. It’s considered the most influential work on psychopaths in the 20th century. In 1949, Walsh directed White Heat, with that brilliant performance of James Cagney. Was Walsh interested in those matters? I ask this because, as early as 1949, he was showing us a faithful portrait of a psychopath, and also establishing the blueprint for many films who’d come after. 

I think it’s safe to say that Walsh was interested in a topic if he thought it was dramatic enough to make a great story, to make great entertainment. He often liked stories that were about people on the edge, so to speak, because it was good story material. I would not say that he had a personal interest in psychopaths per se… unless he believed others would find it interesting.

One thing that fascinates me in many of his films is the timeless quality they have; the rhythm, the dialogues, they flow effortlessly and don’t seem dated at all, although they were made 60 or 70 years ago. How did Raoul Walsh accomplish this, in your opinion?

Walsh had a great ability to make actors look natural, to make his settings look natural, to make action look real and natural. These are qualities in his films that stand the test of time. When his characters speak, when his camera moves, it is all very natural and believable. There is nothing artificial, even where you would expect it.

There’s a popular notion that great art comes from great suffering. This applies to Raoul Walsh, I think, from reading your book. Did he try to exorcise his personal sense of loss in his films or in his real life?

I believe that Walsh liked to “live” in stories that didn’t always have that much to do with reality. Stories were the most important things in his life (other than filmmaking, horses, and those close to him). If Walsh suffered personal demons I don’t think he was particularly focused on that. His “stories” took the place of suffering. But what is interesting is that his characters so often suffer in their lives. They are almost always alone and often lonely.

raoul walsh marilyn ann moss (34)Which films in particular were personal catharses to Walsh, in your opinion? 

Walsh said many times that The Strawberry Blonde was his favorite film of all the films he directed because it took him back to the idealized time of his early childhood. That was most likely cathartic for him.

In films like High Sierra, (to give just one example), he makes us root for the bad guy. In this case, helped by the terrific performance of Humphrey Bogart. Was this just a way of appealing to audiences, or did it have a more deep rooted interest for him, showing outlaws in the midst of a society where they are also doomed outsiders? Why this empathy he clearly has for these characters?

Walsh was not a cold human being in any sense of the word. He had great warmth, great empathy for others. This seeps into his characters on-screen. No character who carries a Walsh film could ever be anything but sympathetic in some fundamental way. Walsh’s outsiders (and most of his characters are outsiders) suffer hardship in a way that is very human and that we can relate to very easily.

Having worked for one of the big studios like Warner Brothers, for about 30 years, did he manage to get artistic control? I find his films very personal, at a time when Hollywood emerged as a kind of factory and a powerful business.

Walsh always was proud to say that he had trouble with censorship for his entire career. But he always made sure that the way he filmed a story was so personal in what he wanted to appear on screen that even after the censors got hold of his film (or the editors at WB for example) there were enough shots in the film left that coalesced into the vision he wanted. In other words, he shot scenes in a way that survived censors. In the end the film still looked the way Walsh wanted it to look.

He started his career, as you state, in a period when movies weren’t considered works of art. But now, many Walsh’s films are rightfully regarded as masterpieces. He just called himself a “storyteller”, “but he knew there was artfulness in his work”. How did this “duality” evolved throughout his career?

Walsh always claimed publicly that after his “artful” film Evangeline failed at the boxoffice in 1919 he was finished making films and thinking of films as “art.” He would make films “for Main Street,” meaning the huge populace that went to see film as entertainment, not art. He never waivered from this approach; to him movies were scripts and stories interested him if he saw in them some good entertainment, “storytelling” components.

Although he never admitted it, I believe he knew that he was an artist. This duality is easy for me to see in him…he simply didn’t admit to himself or to others that he was an artist, that filmmaking itself was an art. This was part of the persona he created for himself, and it was shared by many filmmakers of his generations, most notably, by John Ford.

Many of his films established formulas that were to be reworked through the decades by other directors. There are also influences, many of them. You quote Goodfellas or Gangs of New York, and especially What Price Glory? which had a strong “influence” on Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, made 30 years later. I think there’s a barrier between homage and plagiarism. Do you think this happened in Raoul Walsh’s body of work or in certain films of his? 

I think there is a thin line, sometimes, between homage and plagiarism. You could never call Kubrick’s use of the tracking shots in Paths Of Glory plagiarism from Walsh’s What Price Glory. Kubrick’s film uses that tracking shot in such an organic way, as if it grows out of necessity, as if it branches out of the situation naturally. Many people think of Walsh when they see large, choreographed crowd scenes, such as the ones in Scorsese’s Gangs Of New York. I see them as the best kind of homage; they keep Walsh’s work alive in our collective memory.

His films, among other qualities, have scenes (like the one where Cagney goes berserk at the prison) where depth of field is employed in a meticulous and efficient way. Since Walsh lost his right eye at an early age – something that causes loss of depth perception – how did he overcome this handicap as a director and made it work so well?

Walsh was especially expert in his knowledge of lenses and camera set-ups. He had been directing films for about fourteen years when he lost his eye. He never forgot what he learned from Griffith; more importantly, he knew how to take chances right from the start. He never forgot. You use the right word to describe Walsh: efficient. His pace is efficient, his sets are natural and never too elaborate. His eye is economical. That is his lasting characteristic as a director.

John Wayne in The Big Trail.
John Wayne in The Big Trail.

You write that Walsh began to feel more secure on set after the accident. Why?

What I meant was, after losing his right eye, Walsh suffered briefly (at least we think it was briefly, as he never really spoke about it) a setback in his confidence on the movie set. But he handled it by pushing forward instead of letting this setback overtake him. He challenged himself with the huge project, The Big Trail, and forced himself to regain his confidence. I can’t imagine a more challenging film (traversing seven states and hundreds of cast and crew members) than a project of that magnitude, and especially at such a vulnerable time in his life, after such a shock to his field of vision.

When someone mentions Marion Morrison, perhaps not too many people know that he helped changing the actor’s name, suggesting “Anthony Wayne” or ‘Mad Wayne” which became John Wayne. Walsh also shot the first western starring Wayne, and was crucial in discovering him. How did they get along in real life?

Flynn and Walsh on the set of Objective, Burma! (1945).
Flynn and Walsh on the set of Objective, Burma! (1945).

Walsh and Wayne did not work together that much… only two major films together, The Big Trail and Dark Command, and those two films were ten years apart. They worked well together but I see no evidence that they were particularly close friends, such as I found with Walsh and Gary Cooper, Walsh and Clark Gable, and especially Walsh and Errol Flynn.

Is there something you might like to add?

I am thrilled at having the opportunity to make this documentary on Raoul Walsh. His name, and his films, continue to generate excitement among those who love film. He is a fascinating subject, especially because he loved to spin tales about himself, and to spin tales for the big screen. He is the perfect subject for biography. His life and career are the coalesce into nothing less than the story of the beginning and the development of movie-making itself! Thank you!

David Furtado

Thanks to Marilyn Ann Moss.

The author’s website: thiswritinglife.com

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