Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Call to Action: The Films of Raoul Walsh

The PFA screened a Raoul Walsh retrospective in July and August.  I saw five of the films.

The Big Trail starring John Wayne & Marguerite Churchill; (1930)
They Died with Their Boots On starring Errol Flynn & Olivia de Havilland; (1942)
What Price Glory starring Victor McLaglen, Edmund Lowe & Dolores Del Rio; silent with intertiles; live accompaniment by Judith Rosenberg; (1926)
Wild Girl starring Joan Bennett; (1932)
Pursued starring Robert Mitchum; (1947)

All the films were directed by Walsh.

Prior to Wild Girl, Michael Fox interviewed film critic Dave Kehr.  Fox programs the Mechanics' Institute CinemaLit film series.  Dave Kehr writes a weekly column for the New York Times on recent DVD releases.  Kehr was autographing his latest book, When Movies Mattered.  He drew a large audience.  Former Balboa Theater operator and current Telluride Film Festival director Gary Meyer was present.  The audience had several comments and questions for him.

The previous paragraph reminds me of two items.  I've been a member of the Mechanics' Institute for several years and have yet to attend a CinemaLit screening.  Second, the Balboa's Kickstarter campaign for a digital projector in one of its auditoriums was successful...quite impressively too.  They met their goal with at least two weeks to go.  Other Kickstarter campaigns I follow reach their goals in the last days or hours of the their funding period.

Getting back to the films in the series - I'm not a big fan of Raoul Walsh's work.  He was extremely prolific so if you like films from Hollywood's Golden Age, you can likely find a Walsh film to like.  I've always had a soft spot for Gentleman Jim (1942) with Errol Flynn about heavyweight champion James J. Corbett.  Ward Bond is particularly memorable as John L. Sullivan.

At the Berlin and Beyond Film Festival in January 2009, I attended a lecture at the Castro Theater entitled Hollywood Speaks German by Stefan Droessler.  In a nutshell, at the dawn of the talkie era of films, technology hadn't advanced to allow dubbing or subtitling.  Knowing that their silent stars had built a worldwide fanbase, Hollywood decided to have their stars speak foreign languages in their films.  A film would have both an English language version and a foreign language version(s) with the actors speaking multiple languages.

For the biggest stars (such as Laurel and Hardy), you could not get by with different actors so the audience was treated to Laurel & Hardy speaking Spanish.  The less popular actors could be substituted with native language actors.  The Big Trail was one of these films.  Five versions were simultaneously filmed in English, Italian Spanish, German & French.  Walsh co-directed the German & Spanish versions.  The principal cast was completely different in each version.

I recalled that The Big Trail was a film with multiple casts although Kehr didn't mention this in his introduction.  He highlighted another production aspect which I was unaware of - two different film formats were used simultaneously.  35 mm and 70 mm cameras were used; frequently on the same take.  Since most movie theaters in 1930 did not have 70 mm projectors (same could be said every year since then), the 35 mm print was used for most screenings.  The two edits varied considerably.  The 35 mm edit was 108 minutes while the 70 mm edit was 122 minutes.  The PFA screened the 70 mm version although it was projected from a 35 mm print.

The Big Trail, typically referred to as a Western, does not comport with my image of a Western, particularly a John Wayne Western.  Likely set in the 1840s, Wayne plays Breck Coleman, a buckskinned clad trapper who agrees to lead a wagon train from Missouri to Oregon along the Oregon Trail.  He only agrees because he suspects the murderers of his friend are part of the wagon train.  He suspects Red (Tyrone Power, Sr.) and Lopez (Charles Stevens) of the murder.  Tyrone Power (the father of the actor most associated with that name) is quite memorable as the blustery Red Flack.  There is a riverboat gambler and girl who likes Breck but can't admit it due proprieties of the era.  There a multiple attempts on Breck's life before a slightly anti-climactic showdown filmed in the Giant Sequoias of Northern California.

As mentioned, there was a 70 mm camera which Walsh used extensively for exterior shots.  There are Conestoga wagons, a cattle herd and a great variety of landscapes as one would expect between Missouri and Oregon.  In the 70 mm version, Walsh clearly wanted to show the landscapes, dangers and difficulties encountered by the settlers.  I thought that got in the way of the story.  Of course, in 1930 the images must have been impressive.  In fact, in 2013 they are still impressive because you know they are CGI but I generally don't like films that allow the background to become the foreground no matter how impressive the background is.

John Wayne's performance was pretty wooden and awkward.  For those who criticize the Duke's acting ability, I would only that if you compare this film vs. his films from the 1950s, you see that his acting skills improved.

The Big Trail was an extremely expensive film to make due to the multiple cameras, multiple casts and multiple locations in five different states.  Considered a financial flop, the film nearly derailed Wayne's career.  It would be nine years of B films for him between The Big Trail and Stagecoach.

There is one rumor surrounding the filming of The Big Trail which I have long heard about and wished Kehr would have touched on (or that I had the courage to ask).  It's very scandalous.  The leading lady, Marguerite Churchill, was rumored to have been raped by Tyrone Power, Sr.  In a case of frontier justice, Walsh allegedly had Power beaten for the transgression.  Power would die about a year after The Big Trail was released.

From left to right:  Gaston Glass (La Piste des géants), Theo Shall (Die Große Fahrt), John Wayne (The Big Trail), Franco Corsaro (Il grande sentiero) and Jorge Lewis (La Gran jornada).

They Died With Their Boots On is a historically dubious biopic of George Armstrong Custer with Errol Flynn, a frequent leading man in Walsh's films.  Following Custer's army career from West Point to the Civil War to The Battle of Little Big Horn, TDWTBO is entertaining enough.  If it were a baseball game, it would be a 2-1 game with a bunch of singles but most men stranded on base.  Maybe that baseball analogy is too tortured but the sentiment I am trying to express is that I was underwhelmed by the film.  The most memorable part is the repeated use of the hard to dislike Garry Owen which according to the film, Custer adopted as the 7th Cavalry's regimental song.

What Price Glory (frequently listed as What Price Glory?) follows Sgts. Quirt (Edmund Lowe) and Flagg (Victor MacLagen), two US Marines.  They have a rivalry which stretches over many years and many continents (not to mention many films).  Frequently assigned to the same unit, they lock horns repeatedly over the same women.  As I recall, Lowe is the tough Marine while Flagg is more congenial, eventually getting a commission as an officer.

In WWI France, Quirt is assigned as the senior NCO in Flagg company.  Despite their differences in rank, they resume their hostilities over the control of the company and the affections of the innkeeper's daughter (Dolores del Rio).

The film is a standard issue "rivalry" comedy although there are some impressive battle scenes for 1926.  Like They Died With Their Boots On, What Price Glory was entertaining enough but leave a lasting impression on me.  Lowe & MacLagen would reprise their roles as Quirt and Flagg three more times in film (twice more directed by Walsh).  John Ford would remake What Price Glory with James Cagney and Dan Dailey in the lead roles.

Wild Girl was my favorite of the five Walsh films I saw.  Wild Girl was the first non-silent film adaptation of Bret Harte's Salomy Jane.  I think I recognized exterior locations in the woods which were used in The Big Trail.  Joan Bennett is the titular Wild Girl, a denim pant wearing tomboy whose beauty and curves are hard to overlook.  The audience knows it is in pre-Code territory due to Bennett swimming nude in a lake.  There are a lot of guys sniffing around Jane (including Ralph Bellamy) but frankly I can't remember the plot.  Jane rides around on a stage coach with a guy prone to bragging and making animal noise.  After a distasteful encounter, Jane enlists a stranger to town to kill the offender.  He almost gets lynched for his troubles.  Wild Girl is a showcase of Bennett's talent and beauty which is enough said.

In Pursued, Jeb (Robert Mitchum) is a young man who was orphaned at young age.  His parents' murder was so traumatic that he cannot remember witnessing it.  In fact, he cannot remember his life before coming into contact with his adoptive mother or foster parent.  Jeb has two step-siblings, brother Adam and sister Thor from whom more than sisterly affection is directed.  Eventually Jeb learns the truth about his past and those nightmares which have been dogging him.  Pursued is a film noir masquerading as a western - murder extramarital affairs, vaguely incestuous relationships, hot-heated men and women, etc.  Pursued has the atmosphere and psychological underpinnings of classic noir but the plot was too muddled for me enjoy this film.


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