James Cagney once told me he had worked with eighty directors in his career, “But there’s only five I’d call a real director.” Which was what? “A real director is a guy who, if I don’t know what the hell to do, can get up and show me!” Pioneer Raoul Walsh, with whom Cagney did four memorable pictures, was definitely one of those five. The best example of his acting abilities (most famously he was John Wilkes Booth in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of A Nation) can be seen in Walsh’s own vigorous adaptation of the classic Somerset Maugham short story and stage play of South Seas sex and repression, Rain, starring the immortal Gloria Swanson as that notorious lady of easy virtue, SADIE THOMPSON (available on DVD). The film is another of the glories of 1928, that last extraordinary year of silent pictures, which I wrote about at length in my Special Comments blog of January 30, 2011.
Swanson owned the picture (Joseph Kennedy was funding her company and having an affair with her), and hired Walsh to direct, and superb Lionel Barrymore as the hypocritical Puritan minister, then asked Walsh to make tests for the other lead role of the Marine sergeant. Walsh told me he “must have taken twenty tests of all good-looking fellas. I’d rehearse them and show them what to do. Gloria would be down on the set sometimes. We were falling behind on the start date, so [studio head] Joe Schenck sent for me one day and said, ‘Raoul, we’re never going to start this picture unless you play the part. I know this gal and I know what she wants.’ And sure enough, he was right.” Walsh has an understated, strangely innocent charm in the role, his last completed one; later that same year, he was starring in and directing In Old Arizona when a freak nighttime car accident—a jack rabbit crashed through his windshield-—cost him an eye and ended the acting part of his career.
Swanson was nominated for a best actress Oscar for Sadie Thompson and then, over two decades later, nominated again for her performance as the has-been movie queen in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., during which she has a line in defiant praise of silent films: “We didn’t need words-—we had faces then!” Indeed, her work in Sadie Thompson proves this more than accurate: What she could do with those extraordinary eyes! What amazingly complex emotions you could read on her radiant face. Seeing this performance, it isn’t difficult to understand why she was such a popular star, one equally adept at comedy and drama.
For the morning-after scene, following Barrymore’s betrayal and suicide, Walsh told me, Swanson “on her own...stayed up all that night so she’d look haggard. And boy, she did look haggard-—from the beautiful girl she was. And then came out of that door-—you knew something had happened to her.”
The Maugham story was remade as a talkie four years later under its original title, Rain, with Joan Crawford and Walter Huston, and twenty years after that as Miss Sadie Thompson with Rita Hayworth and Jose Ferrer, but neither of these worked nearly as well as the original. Walsh said that Crawford had come up to him once in a nightclub and apologized for even attempting it.
Despite the loss of his eye, Walsh went on to a long and adventurous directing career in the sound era. For the record, the four Cagney-Walsh pictures are: the nostalgic period comedy-drama, The Strawberry Blonde (1940), the explosive psychopath study White Heat (1949), the riveting 1939 Prohibition saga, The Roaring Twenties, and the somewhat less successful political drama, A Lion is in the Streets (1953). Often as devil-may-care as many of his characters, Walsh came to pictures with an odd mixture of New York savvy and some wild cowboying experiences, evidently a better way to develop a personal viewpoint than by taking film school courses. No wonder movies used to be more interesting. (For more on Raoul Walsh, see the interview with him in my Who the Devil Made It, and the blog on his unforgettable Humphrey Bogart classic, High Sierra, posted to Picture of the Week, 8/31/10.)