Raoul Walsh (1897-1980)

Raoul Walsh
Raoul Walsh

Raoul Walsh was an American actor who became one of the top film directors of Hollywood's Golden Age, creating such classic movies as 'The Big Trail' in 1930, 'High Sierra' in 1941 and 'White Heat' in 1949. His long career of over 50 years completely spanned the early history of film. He started in silent movies as a cowboy actor, and became a director, moving, seemingly effortlessly from silent features to talkies and from black and white to Technicolor and onwards into the television era.

He was adept at a variety of genres, but he became famous as a maker of Westerns and adventure films with exciting action sequences and classic storytelling of the lone, offbeat hero defining his own moral code and winning against all odds

. He was one of the original 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, although, surprisingly, he never won an Oscar, nor was he recognised by the Academy with a lifetime achievement award. For this reason he must be seen as one of the most neglected major figures in the development of Hollywood cinema.


Raoul Walsh was born Albert Edward Walsh on March 11, 1887, in New York City, into a comfortably-off Irish immigrant family. He attended Seton Hall College, New Jersey, but in 1903, after his mother died, he left home and sailed to Cuba on a trading ship belonging to his uncle.

He drifted for several years through southern USA, Cuba and Mexico, taking a variety of jobs including cowboy, undertaker and surgeon's assistant, eventually, as he could ride a horse, becoming a cowboy actor for Pathé Studio in New Jersey.

After several movies playing bit roles, he attracted the attention of director Christy Cabanne, who found him a series of small parts in good pictures at Biograph with established performers such as Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore, and Lillian Gish. He did well and Cabanne then introduced him to D.W. Griffith, the emerging star of early cinema, who took him to the new movie hotspot of Hollywood and secured him some directing jobs, effectively as Griffiths's assistant.

Early Filmmaking

In 1913 Walsh changed his name, at the suggestion of playwright friend Paul Armstrong, from the prosaic Albert Edward to the more exotic Raoul. His first full length feature was 'The Life of General Villa' in 1914, which included film of actual battles and with Villa playing himself. He continued to act and appeared as John Wilkes Booth in Griffiths's epic movie 'The Birth of a Nation' in 1915.

1915 was a busy year for Walsh and he worked on a total of fifteen movies in that year alone, including his first full length feature 'Regeneration' for which he also wrote the screenplay. For the next decade Walsh continued to direct several films each year and by the mid 1920's had developed a straightforward, no-frills style which was particularly suited to adventure films.

His biggest film of the period was 'The Thief of Bagdad' in 1924, starring the great swashbuckler, Douglas Fairbanks, and whilst many of his silent movies are lost, one of his most enduring was 'What Price Glory?' in 1926, a comedy about war. Walsh continued to act as well as direct until 1929 when he lost his right eye in an automobile accident. Thereafter his eye patch made him one of the most instantly recognisable men in Hollywood.

After directing John Wayne in his first leading role in 'The Big Trail' in 1930, Walsh made few noteworthy films during the 1930's, the exceptions being 'Me and My Gal' in 1932, and 'The Bowery' the following year. He moved from genre to genre, seemingly seeking his metier.

Career Success

His period with Paramount Pictures from 1935 did not improve his output but when he changed studios to Warner Brothers in 1939 he began to make some extremely popular films including 'The Roaring Twenties' in 1939, 'They Drive By Night' the following year and 'High Sierra' in 1941, which gave meaty roles to James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in tough crime melodramas. Walsh really came into his own at this time with 'The Strawberry Blonde', 'Manpower', and 'They Died with Their Boots On', all in 1941, and 'Gentleman Jim' in 1942, all of which were major box-office hits.

Later in his career came three magnificent Westerns: 'Pursued' in 1947 with Robert Mitchum, 'Colorado Territory' in 1949 and 'The Tall Men' in 1955, starring Clark Gable. They are among the best in the genre, marked by exciting action sequences and moments of psychological insight. He became firmly established as director of top-flight action films and the gangster masterpiece 'White Heat' which he directed in 1949, showed James Cagney at his brilliant best as a psychotic criminal.

Later Career

After his contract with Warners ended in 1953 he began to wind down his output but made two further well received films with Gable: 'The King and Four Queens' in 1956, and 'Band of Angels' in 1957. His last film before retiring was the cavalry Western 'A Distant Trumpet' in 1964. Walsh was a ladies man and had many extramarital affairs. He was married three times, firstly from 1916 to 1926 to silent movie actress Miriam Cooper. In his autobiography he admitted that he ended up disliking her intensely and referred to her as the "mercenary witch". Then from 1926 to 1947 he was married to one of Cooper's friends, actress, Lorraine Miller and finally from 1947 to his death to Mary Simpson. He and Miriam Cooper adopted two sons.

Raoul Walsh died from a heart attack on December 31, 1980, in Simi Valley, California. He was 93 and was blind for the last years of his life. He is buried at the Assumption Catholic Cemetery in Simi Valley, California.

Raoul Walsh Filmography

The Pseudo Prodigal (short)
The Bowery
The Life of General Villa
The Double Knot (short)
The Mystery of the Hindu Image (short)
Out of the Deputy's Hands (short)
Who Shot Bud Walton? (short)
Peer Gynt
A Bad Man and Others (short)
The Celestial Code (short)
11:30 P.M. (short)
The Smuggler (short)
The Comeback (short)
A Man for All That (short)
The Fencing Master (short)
The Greaser (short)
His Return (short)
The Fatal Black Bean (short)
The Death Dice (short)
Home from the Sea (short)
Siren of Hell
The Buried Hand
The Lone Cowboy (short)
Fires of Hate
Blue Blood and Red
Pillars of Society
The Honor System
The Silent Lie
The Innocent Sinner
The Conqueror
This Is the Life
The Pride of New York
The Woman and the Law
On the Jump
The Prussian Cur
Every Mother's Son
I'll Say So
Should a Husband Forgive?
The Strongest
The Deep Purple
From Now On
The Oath
Kindred of the Dust
Lost and Found on a South Sea Island
Rosita (uncredited)
The Thief of Bagdad
East of Suez
Spanish Love
The Wanderer
The Lucky Lady
The Lady of the Harem
What Price Glory
The Monkey Talks
The Loves of Carmen
Sadie Thompson
The Red Dancer of Moscow
Me, Gangster
The Cock-Eyed World
Hot for Paris
The Man Who Came Back
La gran jornada
Die grosse Fahrt
Women of All Nations
The Yellow Passport
Salomy Jane
Me and My Gal
Sailor's Luck
Clipped Wings
The Bowery
Going Hollywood
Under Pressure
Baby Face Harrington
Every Night at Eight
Klondike Annie
Big Brown Eyes
Jump for Glory
Artists & Models
Hitting a New High
Swing, Teacher, Swing
St. Louis Blues
The Roaring Twenties