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I have known Raoul Walsh longer than any of the other directorsincluded here. He was, in fact, among the first of the older generation ofdirectors I met. I had asked to interview him when I was doing researchon D. W. Griffith. He invited me out to his ranch in the Simi Valley.His house was a comfortable, rambling affair, nestled beneath a ridge,with a small orange grove surrounding the swimming pool. In a pasturenearby, horses and beef cattle grazed (Raoul was raising quarter horsesfor fun and profit, but he has since sold most of them). He greeted meon his front lawn, dressed in jeans, western shirt, a Levi jacket and thecowboy boots I have since learned he always wears, no matter what therest of his costume.
He was leaner than he is now, and still riding his spread regularly,though he was over eighty. In the last couple of years he has lost mostof the sight in the one eye that remained to him after an accident in 1930cost him his right eye. This has slowed him down physically and, fromtime to time, makes him feel quite depressed. A few years ago, however,his vigor was astonishing. He conducted me through the house to poolsidechairs, plucked some oranges from his trees and had his wife, Mary,convert them into the best orange juice I've ever tasted. He talkedacutely of Griffith, and amusingly about the life around Griffith's studioin the period before, during and just after the making of The Birth of aNation. Then we drifted into more general reminiscences and he askedme to stay to lunch, which I did. I lingered too long, and thatforcedme to undertake a lunatic race across the valley and most of Los Angelesin order to catch a plane for New York. But I scarcely noticed the drive,so strangely moved was I by our conversation, which had followedsimilar talks with John Ford and Allan Dwan, who also had worked forGriffith.
What they had to say about the early history of the movies was interesting,but what fascinated me was that Raoul and his contemporarieshad so obviously lived—in the richest sense—before they came to themovies. I believe they would have lived adventurous lives, even if themovies had not been invented and they had been forced to employ theirtoughness, energy and humor elsewhere. Raoul, for instance, might wellhave been a full-time rancher instead of a director—and no loss to him orto the annals of anecdote, since I can't imagine Raoul not turning anyexperience into a yarn of some sort. Moreover, the fact that Raoul andhis contemporaries had done something other than movie-making, hadlived hand-to-mouth doing rather humble work, gave them an edge intheir work. For one thing, it was impossible for a mogul to frightenthem. Since they had survived and apparently even relished living onthe margins of society, they could always turn away from the big doughand the glamorous life of Hollywood and go back to the life they hadknown before. More important, they had a direct connection with theway of life that formed the content of many of their pictures. Raoul,who was raised on a ranch and worked as a cowboy and came into themovies because he was an expert rider, knew something about the Westthat a later generation of directors could not know. That authenticitydistinguishes his films, just as it did those of John Ford, who had alsodone his first movie work as a rider. In Raoul's case, there is a specialfeeling for lower-class Irish life (The Bowery, The Strawberry Blonde,Gentleman Jim) that is a product of the drifting days of his youth, whenhe gravitated toward this group. The rough humor and sentimentality,the sheer vitality of it, he was able to translate to the screen with a vigorand liveliness that I find more engaging most of the time than Ford'streatment of the same material, which is often softer, verging occasionallyon the bathetic.
If Raoul had any hopes for his movies, they were that each film wouldtell a good story briskly and would entertain the largest possible audience.He did not make them in order to define himself. He already knewwho he was. Maybe he hoped that he could, with his enormous technicalskill and his amazing working speed, help the writers and actors to definemore clearly whatever it was that they thought they were doing.But that was the end of the matter.
In the seminar that we photographed for our documentary, one of thestudents asked, "Mr. Walsh, where did you get most of your ideas?""From the script," he replied briefly, and he wasn't being funny orevasive. Raoul never found it necessary to inquir what he was doing orwhy he was doing it. He did whatever came naturally to him, and it wassufficient for him that his actors do the same. He says in this interviewthat he didn't like actresses who came in and "posed" for the camera.Robert Mitchum remembers Raoul directing him in a picture neither ofthem much cared for. Raoul set up the camera for one scene, said "Turn'em" and walked away, listening to the dialogue but not watching it.When the scene was finished, he yelled, "Cut" and then inquired ofMitchum how it had gone. "Well, I knocked over the lamp," the actorsaid, trying to get a rise out of him. "You pick it up? Did it look natural?Fine. Print it."
Two years ago Raoul came to a seminar in film history that I wasconducting at Yale. As usual, he told long, hilarious stories about thegood old days. Toward the end, one of the girls said, "Mr. Walsh, you'vetold us a lot about the details of making movies, but I was wondering,did you love movies?" There was a long, puzzled pause. "What's thatagain, sweetheart?" he asked.
That question I believe he did think was stupid. And I don't thinkhe'd ever asked himself anything so abstract. Obviously, he'd loved doingwhat he did. If he hadn't, he would have quit and done something different,because that's the kind of man he's always been.
The material which follows differs somewhat from the rest of thisvolume because less of it was gathered in a single interview. Raoulwas the guest of honor at the U.S.A. film festival, held at SouthernMethodist University in the spring of 1973, and we decided to shootmost of our footage on him at the festival. Therefore the remarks thatfollow were made in a variety of contexts—as he responded to questionsafter a screening of one of his films, as he participated in a seminar withSMU students, even as he engaged in a dialogue with a local televisioninterviewer. This material was supplemented by a more formal interviewconducted at his ranch. A brief illness forced Raoul to cancel an interviewI had scheduled with him, and a tight budget prevented my remainingon the coast until he was well or making a separate later trip. Thisinterview was done by Robert Bookman, a mutual friend, whose contributionboth to the program and to this book I herewith gratefully acknowledge.Because Raoul's words were drawn from diverse occasions,I have arranged them here in an order that seems to me coherent; I havenot wished to impede the flow of the text by indicating in preciselywhich context he took up the many themes he dealt with while we werefilming.
"THOSE WERE THE DAYS ..."
(Raoul Walsh was born in New York City, but as a young man besailed for Cuba as a hand on a ship captained by his uncle. From therehe went to Mexico, then worked his way to Texas. He began hisreminiscences for us there.)
Things were pretty rough in those days. We had a low, ramblingranch house, weatherbeaten, roof leaked. We had a couple of housesoutside for the cowboys, corrals for the horses and cattle, no hot or coldrunning water. And it was a rough life compared to where I am now,[but] I'd like to go back. Men were men in those days. [When I wasa young man,] I drifted up into Montana, a place called Butte. That wasa wild town. There was plenty of shootings, plenty of hangings. I wentto work for a doctor up there, Dr. Raoul Ansenell. He was a Frenchman.He had lung trouble. He thought the nice clear air up in Montana wouldkind of cure him up. I used to drive him out to the mines when there'dbe shootings out there, explosions, people were hurt. And then finally Iused to work with him in his office. I remember one time he was operatingon a fellow there and he kept telling me to give him more chloroform.He'd say "Encore, Monsieur Raoul, encore." I'd pour the chloroforminto the cone. He'd start working and say, "Encore, Monsieur Raoul, encore,encore." This happened three or four times and then he stoppedand looked at me and said, "Monsieur Raoul, you have killed him." Isaid, "Killed him, hell! You told me `Encore, encore, encore!" "Shhhh!He had no chance anyhow."
DISCOVERING THE MOVIES
So I went with a theatrical company, The Clansmen. I joined them inSan Antonio. They had a scene of a man on a horse being taken acrossstage on a treadmill. He had disappeared and they needed somebody, andI was sitting on the porch there. I had my knee badly damaged and thisfellow said, "Cowboy, do you want a job?" I said, "I sure do." And hesays, "Come down to the theater at seven o'clock." So I went down tothe theater at seven o'clock and he said, "You'll have to get on a horseand you'll get on that treadmill and they'll pull you across." And he saidthe pay is $30 a week. I said, "Sign me up." So I watched the first actthat night. I heard the musicians and stuff and the applause and the hissingand the people emoting. I said, "Oh, gee, this is great. This is great.No more cowboys for me."
[In time] this fellow asked me to go to New York and he introducedme to some agents. One agent by the name of Bill Gregory wasn't therethat day, but his secretary said, "Mr. Walsh, do you ride a horse?" Isaid, "That's the only thing I can do." But this fellow who was with me,he said, "This is an actor of no mean ability. This fellow played such-and-sucha part in The Clansmen"—and he named all the parts that Iplayed and I never played any of them. Girl was there with her eyesopen, and she kind of looked at me and then she said, "Would you objectto working in moving pictures?" I said, "No, I'd love it. Where arethey?" See, the Broadway actors didn't want to go into motion picturesat all. So she sent me across on the ferry to Pathe Brothers in UnionCity, New Jersey.
I met the two Pathe brothers, and they had an interpreter, and thefirst thing they say, "You ride the horse?" I said, "Yes, I ride the horse."And the two of them started talking in French. "Come, we find a horse."All right. We walked up to a livery stable. The brothers wanted to seeif I could ride because in those days nobody could ride. Well, I rode thehorse down to these two brothers, spun him around, got off and thenmade a flying mount and took him off again. "Ah, bravo, bravo, bravo... magnifique ... magnifique ... Come sign the contract, threepictures."
Well, the first picture they gave me a call and I went down there andI didn't see any horses. Saw this stage and stuff. So they gave me a partto read—"This is what you do, you come in here ..." It was a thingcalled The Banker's Daughter and I was a young clerk in the bank andI was in love with the banker's daughter, big ex-burlesque dame; and thebanker, who was a big guy, he was loaded all the time, acting. We hada big scene in the bank. The police come. The girl protests my innocence.The banker said, "He's a crook." All that kind of stuff. All kindsof titles on the damned thing, you know. And I stood there like awooden Indian. I figure, What the hell, this is the end of my actingcareer 'cause he's throwing things and acting all over, you know what Imean. And finally the end—the French director [said], "Dolly, run overthere, kiss, kiss, kiss ... good kiss for the man." Girl came tearing over,threw her arms around me and put her tongue down my throat about amile. I said, "Jesus, this is acting technique."
The second one, I was a prisoner in jail, waiting for a horse. I was inthere I don't know for how long. But I finally dug my way out and thecops chased me. And a peculiar thing happened. They were taking ascene at the big meadow in Fort Lee and the Frenchman told me, "Yourun across that field like a devil after you. And then these fellows comeup there, the guards will shoot. When you hear the shoot, you fall." Allright. So I got up there in the fields, up in the woods there, and ranacross this big field and guards came running after me and shot and Ifell down. All of a sudden, somebody was turning me over and sayingprayers. It was a priest. He was sitting on his church steps and he thoughtit was real. I didn't remember that [there was anything like that in] thescene, you know, this guy talking. The Frenchman came tearing. "It'smagnifique—Father, you stay there, we take shot of you." So I remindthem. I said, "Give the guy some money." He gave him five dollars.
Then came the big opportunity. "Tomorrow you ride the horse. Wehave story for you ... great story ... you will play great, famousAmerican jockey, Paul Revere." I never knew Paul Revere was ajockey. So they dressed me up as Paul Revere. I picked a good horse thatcould jump and stuff. They ran me over hill and dale, up and downroads, past old houses, past old cannons that were used in the early days,over stone walls. I took them over picket fences and then, finally, he says,"We have good shot for last scene in picture." There was a big cemeterythere and he says, "You will come from over there and jump overevery stone, jump over every stone fast as you go. We take." All right.I went up there with the horse, through the cemetery, over the stones.And we were arrested. It cost them $25 to restore some of the stones andthis, that and the other thing, you know.
But some of Griffith's people were up there and they saw me ride thehorse and I got the job with Griffith. I played in about five or six orseven one- and two-reelers they were making at Biograph. I played intwo with Mary Pickford. And talking about stage actors not wantingto work in movies, I remember Lionel Barrymore coming down thealley to the studio and coming in the back way. He didn't want anybodyto see him. Then Mr. Griffith decided to make his move to Californiaand he left Biograph, and he had a habit of calling people by their lastname. "Mr. Walsh, would you like to go to California?" I said, "Whendo we start?" So he took me to California with him.
We came to Hollywood at its birth. We had a rough time getting anyfellows that could ride in those days. The fellows that applied for jobswere mostly drugstore cowboys. They'd fall off horses and get hurt,and finally Mr. Griffith said, "Mr. Walsh, you've had experience withcowboys. Would you try and find some for me?" About the only placeto go would be the stockyards. There were lots of cattle being shipped infrom Arizona and New Mexico and Utah, and the cowboys that wouldbring them in would loll around for a day or two and get drunk andstuff. Then I'd round them up, got them in, gave them a speech aboutgetting into motion pictures and finally got them all settled at a placecalled Edendale. They all lived in a big barn there. That's how we gotthe good riders into the motion-picture business then.
WORKING WITH GRIFFITH
Mr. Griffith was a fine man to work for. I learned all my trade from him.He was a great master of pantomime; he was a gentle man, a kind man,but he was a lonesome man. Mr. Griffith would like to play a pantomimescene and then cut to something with some action, keep it moving, keepthe picture moving. In most of his pictures he used the run to the rescue,which was very, very commercial in those days—and still is today. Thatwas his technique and I followed it. Griffith very seldom used notes. Heknew what the story was and he would invent things on the set andsometimes he would have a little rehearsal the day before he was goingto shoot. And he would watch the people and just tell them what to doand how to look and little pieces of business. Very quiet, calm man.
(In California, Raoul virtually ceased acting and served as an assistantdirector almost exclusively. Some years ago he told me that among otherduties he had to round up the cowboys in Edendale at two or three in themorning after a night of revelry, and somehow get them atop their horsesand heading over the mountains into the San Fernando Valley, whereGriffith shot most of his action sequences. Of a Sunday, he recalled, Griffith,who never learned to drive, would ask Raoul to chauffeur himaround Los Angeles, looking for new and interesting faces which hemight be able to use in his films. Finally, in 1914, when his generally acknowledgedposition as the nation's great director was challenged by thearrival of feature-length spectacles from abroad, Griffith turned to thehuge project he had been nurturing for some time, the adaptation ofThe Clansmen, released the following year as The Birth of a Nation.Raoul was among the several assistant directors who worked with Griffithon it—but he also had a more public role to play.)
They'd been looking for a John Wilkes Booth for a couple of weeks;casting director brought at least twenty to thirty men in for Mr. Griffithand Mr. Woods to see, but they weren't pleased with any of them.And Mr. Woods told me later on that Mr. Griffith [looked out his windowone day and] said, "We don't need to look any further. There'sJohn Wilkes Booth over there talking to those pretty girls." That's howI got the part. They built a huge replica of Ford's Theatre, a very expensiveset. And I think he filled the orchestra and the balcony withabout four hundred, five hundred extras. Then came the time for me towalk into the theater, cross over to the stairway that led to PresidentLincoln's box. And he would call—in those days there was no sound,so he'd yell at me. He said, "All right. Go up the stairs, take it slowly... All right ... Work your way up there now. Now you've cometo the door of the President. Take your derringer out ... open thedoor ... go in ... and shoot! Now jump!" And I jumped abouteighteen to twenty feet to the stage, banged my knee up pretty bad,hobbled to the center of the stage and yelled out, "Sic semper tyrannis,"and then I hobbled off the stage. Mr. Griffith came back and found outthat I had hurt my knee and he insisted that I go to the hospital to haveit taken care of. I said, "No, it's all right. Have you got to retake?" Hesaid, "No, that was perfect." So they insisted; they took me down toSt. Vincent's Hospital and they kept me there a day. I remember thatnight I was in bed there. I [had] picked up an Apache Indian calledCrazy Wolf. I let him camp out in back of my house. He was the firstone to do the fall off a horse and I brought him out to the studio and heshowed Mr. Griffith what he could do and they signed him up. He wasvery grateful to me, this Indian. So I was in the hospital bed there thatnight and all of a sudden I saw his face come up to the window there.There was a fire escape outside the old-fashioned hospital. He had a hugearmful of flowers. And I waved him in, he came in, and I said, "CrazyWolf, you didn't need to spend a lot of money on those flowers." Hesaid, "Me like, me like." I said, "All right, put them down there." Heput the flowers on the table, sat down and talked a little while, then heleft and I went to sleep. In the morning a big fat nurse came in, she sawthe flowers. She said, "Ahhh, now we know where the flowers on thelawn have gone." The Indian had picked the flowers down on the lawn.She called me to the window to look down. There were just two or threeflowers stuck around this whole lawn.
VILLA RIDES, RAOUL RIDES
(Not long after Birth was completed, Griffith offered Raoul another sortof opportunity.)
Griffith said, "Raoul, we're going to let you direct." I said, "Fairenough." So he gave me a piece of paper that was the script: Joe meetsJenny, Jenny's mother don't like 'im, the father is a drunk, you knowwhat I mean—and they gave me $75 to go out and shoot it. Go out to thepark, you know. If you needed a baby in a carriage, you saw somebodythere and you say, "Would you like to make two dollars and be in pictures?You can be a big star someday." "Yes." The woman with thebaby would see somebody else. The policeman was always glad to get afiver. And different types, you know, you'd pick up and go throughwith the thing. And you'd see a house and you'd go give somebody twodollars to use the front of their house and the side of the house.
In Mr. Griffith's company there were three units—the Majestic, theReliance and the Mutual. And most of the Reliance and Majestic pictureswere what we made at the Fine Arts studio. If the picture was good, itwas released on Majestic. If it wasn't any good, it was a Reliance, andthe Mutual was the weekly. The weekly made a deal with Pancho Villato go through his revolution and photograph the battles and photographhim—$500 a month. They sent a fellow down there and a cameramanwith the check for $500 and they never saw them again—the cameraman,the $500 or the guide. So they hired some detective agents to find outwhat the hell happened and they found out that [Villa's people wouldonly accept gold]. Griffith called me in and he said, "You've been inMexico, you understand a little bit the customs of these people, wouldyou like to go down and photograph the General?" I said, "I surewould." I took off that night, and he said, "By the way, we're going tomake a story [using your footage], so you'd better think of some storyto tell him when you get down there." I took the Southern Pacific train,got off at El Paso, the Mutual representative met me, took me to thehotel and told me the setup. And they had $500 in gold this time. Ortega,that was Villa's contact man, was there. A very nice fellow. I madegreat friends with him, Ortega.
Excerpted from THE MEN WHO MADE THE MOVIES by RICHARD SCHICKEL. Copyright © 1975 by The Educational Broadcasting Corporation. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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