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'Raoul Walsh': Book Review

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The long-awaited biography of one of the lustiest filmmakers ever promises adventure but has trouble sorting fact from fiction.

For years, when-ever I'd ask film scholars and buffs which great Hollywood director they'd most like to read a biography about who had never been the subject of one, the most common response was Raoul Walsh. Although perhaps not quite in the artistic pantheon of pioneers -- along with Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Lubitsch, Lang, Renoir and maybe one or two others who started in the silent era and blossomed in sound -- Walsh (1887-1980) unquestionably led one of the great, eventful, lusty lives of any filmmaker. An upper-middle-class New Yorker by birth, he joined with D.W. Griffith early on; directed Pancho Villa in the Mexican revolutionary's life story; played John Wilkes Booth in The Birth of a Nation; directed two of the best popular films of the 1920s, The Thief of Bagdad and What Price Glory; transformed prop man Marion Morrison into movie star John Wayne for The Big Trail; hobnobbed with William Randolph Hearst, Winston Churchill and the Hollywood elite at San Simeon; was the first president and GM of Hollywood Park race track; was, with Michael Curtiz, Jack Warner's go-to director during Warner Bros.' great '40s period; caroused, pranked and scored in the company of some of the town's great bad boys and roustabouts (John Barrymore, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn); and, in the end, directed 109 credited features over 49 years.

Those of us privileged to spend time with Walsh knew him as one of the most genial, warm-blooded and masculine of men, an incurable flirt to the end, a crafty sort allergic to intellectualization and a spinner of tall tales you were welcome to believe or not. Like many filmmakers, he was something of a mythomaniac, prone to taking credit, reshaping stories to reflect favorably on himself and inventing them out of whole cloth.

This sums the difficulty facing biographers when writing about figures who did their crucial work during the first half of the 20th century: There's basically no one left. How is one to know how Walsh got Villa and his troops to cooperate in 1914, who he "put my brand on" (as he liked to say about his conquests) in Napoleon's very own bed in his quarters at Hearst Castle, or if he really toted Barrymore's corpse to Errol Flynn's house the night after Barrymore died and propped him in a chair to scare the wits out of his closest friend?

Apart from marshaling facts and developing a cogent take on the subject, one of the paramount tasks for a Hollywood biographer is to separate an artist's accomplishments from his or her self-aggrandizement. In Walsh's case, the challenge is self-evident based on the sometimes-astonishing inventions in his anecdotally entertaining 1974 autobiography Each Man in His Own Time, in which the author went so far as to avoid mentioning the names of his first two (of three) wives. The least the present author, Marilyn Ann Moss, can do is rectify this state of affairs; by finding scraps of writings and lawsuits left behind by these woefully ignored women, she makes it clear enough that, once the thrill was gone, to be married to Raoul Walsh meant spending most of your time alone.

The biographer of another unduly neglected notable director, George Stevens, Moss knows her way around film history and relevant archives. However, not only did she lack access to key Walsh friends and collaborators (about the only ones remaining to speak with her were Jane Russell, Joan Leslie, Hugh O'Brian, Bryan Forbes and, via fax, Olivia de Havilland), but also she was faced with a subject who left no significant letters, journals or other paper trail. Despite obvious love for her subject, the result is a modestly informative but plodding book. With so many films to account for, Moss falls into a repetitive "and then he made" mode, citing records from Fox and Warner Bros. for production details, drawing on other biographies and memoirs for anecdotes, sampling reviews of the time and gingerly offering her own opinions.

While acknowledging that not everything in Walsh's autobiography can be taken at face value, Moss never takes it by the lapels and shakes it to see what fictions fall to the ground. For instance, one of the most staggering interludes in Each Man has Walsh, staying in London around 1936, being invited to Germany for mysterious reasons. He accepted and wrote of being wined and dined by top Third Reich brass and meeting Hitler. Walsh eventually was told they wanted him to persuade Hearst to part with a large portrait of a historic German general particularly admired by the failed painter-turned-dictator.

Moss doesn't mention this fabulous story or investigate it to see if her subject even set foot in Nazi Germany. She lacks the bloodhound instincts of first-rate investigative biographers such as Joseph McBride and Patrick McGilligan (the latter, ironically, is her series editor on this book). And she comes off as too timid and fastidious a scholar to open the bedroom door more than a crack when it comes to her subject's favorite sport besides horse racing. She mentions that the director, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin regularly worked out together in the 1920s at the new Hollywood Athletic Club, but reticence makes her miss the great anecdote pertaining to it: The facility had one of the first saunas in Hollywood, but it had room for only three people. Fairbanks and Chaplin decided to take some heat, but when the famously well-endowed Walsh asked if he could join them, Chaplin said, "You're welcome to come in, Raoul, but you'll have to leave your friend outside!"                 

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