Friday, April 4, 2014

"Walsh lost in the landscape of his own adventures" Looking at Raoul Walsh

"A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author." - G.K. Chesterton

I came to Marilyn Ann Moss' Raoul Walsh: the True Adventures of Hollywood's Legendary Director (2011) not out of a particular fascination with Walsh, but simply as an interested student of classic film. Having recently enjoyed books such as Kevin Brownlow's the Parade's Gone By and Eric Lax's Bogart, I hoped that perhaps as those books gave me a (respectively) increased interest in silent films and Bogart pictures, this might do the same for director Walsh.

Moss' biography of Walsh seems to be very intent at making some sort of point - but I'm not clear what it might be. Rather than an authoritative biography, this is instead a highly critical biography of Walsh, perhaps even a revisionist biography. The book opens by acknowledging the only real source on Walsh's upbringing is Walsh's own accounts, yet identifies Walsh as an unreliable narrator. Thus, the first chapter is a back-and-forth between this book and Walsh's autobiography where Moss' texts argues against and holds suspicions against Walsh's text. To the reader who has not read Walsh's autobiography (ie, myself), the will to keep reading plummets. I did soldier on and was glad of it, but some of my issues from the first chapter continued throughout.

Moss seems intent on shaping a particular narrative out of Walsh's life, some need to cast his life's story through the lens of the unreliable narrator and thus discard much of what doesn't support this thesis. In fact, discussion of Walsh's films often takes a backseat to armchair psychology such as this:

"As it often is, the love of telling stories emerges from a psyche that is chipped in some fundamental way, having experienced a deep sadness, a great loss, that finds expression in fiction - in the alternate world that fiction provides."

Storytellers, please forward your therapy bills c/o Marilyn Ann Moss.

Walsh is compared to Mark Twain no less than four times and there is another of the book's problems - repetition. A quote where Walsh was described as "Shakespearean" appears twice; Walter Pidgeon's martial life is described in the same manner twice; Walsh's interest in horse racing, reading racing forms and how he would look away from the set during many of the scenes he was supposed to direct are brought up again and again - important details in describing who the man was, but repeated ad nauseam.

Then there the points where the text stutters: the phrase "changed the course of his life" appears in passages set two pages apart! Or this passage about Jack Warner:

"...all of whom found themselves at one time or another in a career-defining moment involving either a contract or a script dispute with 'the Colonel,' as he liked to call himself once World War II came along. In actuality, Warner would not begin to refer to himself as 'Colonel' until the United States entered World War II a few years later."

There is such a thing as a backspace key on most keyboards - I certainly use mine often enough! Rather than screw up the explanation of Warner's nickname 'the Colonel' and offer an immediate retraction, why not tell it correctly the first time?

The book delves into many of the memos which came to or from Walsh in his Warner Bros. days, but the text aims for quantity of material rather than quality. There's a fine 300-page biography under the bloat of this (almost) 500-page tome.

All that said, this biography does at least get into Walsh's prowess as a director - there are discussions of recurring themes, his manner when directing actors, his development of stories - material some biographies just plain forget about when discussing film people. I suspect this book will be best enjoyed by people who have already done some reading on Walsh and want to learn something new or challenging about him; the highest compliment I can pay this work is that it did send me looking for some of Walsh's films I hadn't seen before.

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