I picked Raoul Walsh’s “Each Man in His Time” (1974) off the shelves. I very seldom look at it; it’s one of the least re-read of my film books, scoring maybe one and a half re-reads in forty-five years. Walsh, born in 1887, worked as a young man for D.W. Griffith and his career as a director was already fifteen years on when sound came in. Amazingly, his work would span all the way from “Birth of a Nation” to the end of the Fifties. Walsh credibly manages to equate the end of his directing career with the end of classic Hollywood altogether, and ties in the deaths of Humphrey Bogart (1957), Errol Flynn (1959), Clark Gable and Gary Cooper (1961) as being the last of the major stars of the classic period.
Like many autobiographies, we can guess that some of these detailed memories were written years before Walsh turned 87, and I have no doubt that some or even a lot of it is exaggerated. But this is one of those books where you have to say “If even a third of this is true…” as Raoul Walsh stands on the set of “Intolerance”, rides with Pancho Villa, directs Fox’s first sound film, discovers John Wayne, has an affair with Pola Negri and about, oh, 500 other women, goes to the racetrack with Winston Churchill, becomes a regular guest at San Simeon, and takes Jimmy Cagney to the “Top of the world, Ma!” Quite a life.
Walsh’s book came out in what I now think of as “the first AFI era”, the George Stevens Jr. years of the American Film Institute (1967-’80), when for the first time, massive scholarship and publishing resources were devoted to “serious” motion picture histories. The Institute made its first major steps by interviewing and cataloging, by preserving a past that seemed even then to be long, long ago, but in the retrospect of age, really wasn’t. When this book came out, “White Heat” was only 25 years old.
Even the early sound pictures that were the height of Walsh’s career were, in 1974, only 40+ years old, no older than (gasp!) 1974 is now. Yet even by the time my generation were children, let alone when we were young adults, those black and white films with funny looking cars and clothes and hats, where people spoke either in comically cultured tones or in a nasal gangster’s snarl, were in another world, seemingly behind a barrier of prewar versus postwar, and other vast cultural changes.
Walsh is not just sexist, but exuberantly happy to tell you about how many showgirls and stewardesses and band singers were his weekend companions in Palm Springs or Malibu. His self-cultivated image as “a man’s man” is touted repeatedly as one of the things that helped him out over the years, as he managed to work with or convince other men based on their shared passion for horses, guns, liquor or whoring. I doubt he’s completely wrong about the positive effect on his male bonding, as we’d call it today, but it is typical of times it was published. In 1955, he would have left it out. Today, his editors would probably have helped shape him into a less blatantly offensive “type”, maybe a fearless early pioneer of sexual freedom but with a half-admitted dark edge, or some such recasting of the neutral truth into something ever slightly more appealing.
I compare this autobio to Frank Capra’s “The Name Above the Title” (1973) and John Huston’s “An Open Book” (1980). They came out around the same period and cover similar ground. Capra, much more of a happy family man than the other two, tells you less about his personal life and more about what happened face-to-face with stars on sound stages or in studio boss Harry Cohn’s office. Capra loves film openings, good reviews, and money-making opening weekends. Capra was once as famous as Steven Spielberg is now, but his book declares (confesses might be a better term) that the famous Democrat has turned somewhat conservative, an old time Truman liberal repelled by the excesses of the Sixties. Walsh talks a little about how he directs, but not as much as Capra, and rarely mentions the release of his films unless they make him enough money to buy a brace of Harleys and go roaring off to a brothel in Tijuana.
John Huston’s book is closer in style to Walsh’s, being rich in detail about his own off-screen pursuit of thoroughbreds, country houses, and the ladies. Like Huston himself, his book is a little drier, a little cagier and wiser than Walsh’s hey-I-got-laid-and-met-some-big-shots memoir. But like Walsh’s “Each Man in His Time”, “An Open Book” is less the detailed technical story of a film artist’s career than the story of a colorful life, “A Rake’s Progress” to put it in 18th century terms. Like “Barry Lyndon”, there’s an air of mortality and regret to Huston, even though unlike the other two men, and unlike almost all the other filmmakers of his generation, his career managed to make it through the cultural changes of the “Sixties barrier” and Huston continued to make big films right until his death in 1987.
It should be noted that he was nineteen years younger than Walsh, whose first silent two-reeler was directed in 1913, and ten years younger than Capra, whose directing career started in 1926, fifteen years before Huston’s first film, “The Maltese Falcon” in 1941.
It’s funny; as in every past time, perspective flattens out. To me (at 67 and after a lifetime of learning film history, I could justifiably say “even to me”) all three directors seem like part of the same old classic Hollywood scene. You could pick a time, maybe just before or after the war, when you might run into all three, holding court at their usual tables at Dave Chasen’s or Musso and Franks. But to them, they were truly of different times, even the ones who are “only” ten years apart.
Walsh’s father was a minor New York City political hack who had worked for older men who’d worked for Abraham Lincoln; it’s sobering to be reminded that there was a generation for whom “prewar” referred to the Civil War. Like the rest of the world, in everyday life I’ve mostly forgotten about the giants of the prewar guys, at least in anything like lifelike detail, remembering them now in the same reasonable, well-meaning Turner Classic Movies categories everyone else does: “the camera of John ‘North Light’ Seitz”, the ‘Men in Groups’ dramatic dynamic of Howard Hawks, that kind of thing.
Speaking of fading memories: Near the very end of the book, Walsh graciously names and thanks various festival and museum curators who’d screened his old films and revived his reputation for a younger generation. As an old festival hack myself, I can tell you that kind of thanks is (too) damned rare. One of them is Pierre Rissient, who Walsh forgivably misspells. Like someone in a dream, suddenly remembering a detail from waking real life, I realized that I knew that man. I have been chagrined the past few years to realize just how many people I’ve forgotten.
One poignant thing is Walsh’s assumption that now that the memories of his generation, of his vanished Hollywood world have been rescued by Sixties and Seventies writers, they’re in the history books forever. He’s not entirely wrong, of course; the fact that I’m writing about his book, forty-five years later, proves it. But public interest fades, and understanding of a period in time fades with the lifetimes of the people (and to some degree, the children of the people) who actually lived it.