Hollywood Directors in the Golden Era: 3 Autobiographies

 

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.

 

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There are 47 comments.

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  1. Arahant Member

    Gary McVey: it’s sobering to be reminded that there was a generation for whom “prewar” referred to the Civil War.

    Really, Gary, we prefer the term antebellum.

    • #1
    • September 22, 2019, at 4:57 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  2. MichaelKennedy Coolidge

    Nice post. I am a fan of movies from the classic era. I read “Who the Devil Made it” and both Robert Wagner’s and Douglas Fairbanks Jr’s memoirs with great pleasure. Wagner’s is special because he includes a lot of early Los Angeles history. He caddied for Clark Gable, Robert Stack and Fred Astaire at Bel Air Country Club.

    I have read “Niv” the biography of David Niven by his friends. I have a collection on DVD of classic movies. I see one movie a year, at most, in theaters.

    • #2
    • September 22, 2019, at 5:05 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  3. Patrick McClure Member

    Gary, your movie posts are always welcome. Thanks for opening a window into a fascinating era.

    • #3
    • September 22, 2019, at 5:23 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  4. Arahant Member

    This does seem like the thing that @jameslileks would choose as his post of the week.

    • #4
    • September 22, 2019, at 5:25 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  5. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Arahant (View Comment):

    This does seem like the thing that @jameslileks would choose as his post of the week.

    Aw, c’mon. You know I’ll lose out to your “Autumn Colors: Verses of Vermillion”. 

    • #5
    • September 22, 2019, at 5:29 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  6. Arahant Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    Aw, c’mon. You know I’ll lose out to your “Autumn Colors: Verses of Vermillion”.

    If you lose out, it will only be because he chose your post a few weeks ago.

    • #6
    • September 22, 2019, at 5:30 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  7. RightAngles Member

    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,

    We used to watch those old movies on TV on Saturday mornings. When I was little, I thought my mom had grown up in black & white. I remember asking her when I was about 5, how old she was when her life became in color haha

    • #7
    • September 22, 2019, at 5:30 PM PDT
    • 13 likes
  8. Boss Mongo Member

    Gary McVey: has an affair with Pola Negri and about, oh, 500 other women,

    Yeah, never heard of her before; internetted her and she seems a wee bit…black-widowish to me. Though, the few images in which she was smiling made her seem nicer…than a psychokiller.

    Gary McVey: 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’d hang out with that guy. Pretty sure, though, that the lovely and talented Mrs. Mongo would give me a curfew.

    Gary McVey: I have been chagrined the past few years to realize just how many people I’ve forgotten.

    Just means you’ve had a full life, full of memorable people, so many that they can’t all be held in your mind’s palm. Good for you, brother.

    • #8
    • September 22, 2019, at 5:38 PM PDT
    • 12 likes
  9. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: has an affair with Pola Negri and about, oh, 500 other women,

    Yeah, never heard of her before; internetted her and she seems a wee bit…black-widowish to me. Though, the few images in which she was smiling made her seem nicer…than a psychokiller.

    Gary McVey: 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’d hang out with that guy. Pretty sure, though, that the lovely and talented Mrs. Mongo would give me a curfew.

    Gary McVey: I have been chagrined the past few years to realize just how many people I’ve forgotten.

    Just means you’ve had a full life, full of memorable people, so many that they can’t all be held in your mind’s palm. Good for you, brother.

    Damn, this man Mongo is a soldier and a diplomat…

    • #9
    • September 22, 2019, at 5:52 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  10. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    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,

    We used to watch those old movies on TV on Saturday mornings. When I was little, I thought my mom had grown up in black & white. I remember asking her when I was about 5, how old she was when her life became in color haha

    In the Nineties I saw a German documentary about, you guessed it, Topic N, that did something clever; they began with modern day black and white footage of city locations in Munich, Nuremburg and Berlin, and then cut to meticulously restored rare color footage of the same streets bedecked in flags and banners in the 1930s. It visually reinforced the idea, this was once real, as real as today is to us. 

    • #10
    • September 22, 2019, at 6:04 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  11. RightAngles Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    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,

    We used to watch those old movies on TV on Saturday mornings. When I was little, I thought my mom had grown up in black & white. I remember asking her when I was about 5, how old she was when her life became in color haha

    In the Nineties I saw a German documentary about, you guessed it, Topic N, that did something clever; they began with modern day black and white footage of city locations in Munich, Nuremburg and Berlin, and then cut to meticulously restored rare color footage of the same streets bedecked in flags and banners in the 1930s. It visually reinforced the idea, this was once real, as real as today is to us.

    It really is amazing how much more relatable an old photo from WWI is when it’s colorized. Suddenly the soldiers look like actual people we might know.

    • #11
    • September 22, 2019, at 6:25 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  12. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: it’s sobering to be reminded that there was a generation for whom “prewar” referred to the Civil War.

    Really, Gary, we prefer the term antebellum.

    And not “Be-fo-ah the wo-ah?” ;-)

    • #12
    • September 22, 2019, at 6:34 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  13. Arahant Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: it’s sobering to be reminded that there was a generation for whom “prewar” referred to the Civil War.

    Really, Gary, we prefer the term antebellum.

    And not “Be-fo-ah the wo-ah?” ;-)

    Wayell. That, too, I reckon.

    • #13
    • September 22, 2019, at 7:04 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  14. Percival Thatcher

    MichaelKennedy (View Comment):

    Nice post. I am a fan of movies from the classic era. I read “Who the Devil Made it” and both Robert Wagner’s and Douglas Fairbanks Jr’s memoirs with great pleasure. Wagner’s is special because he includes a lot of early Los Angeles history. He caddied for Clark Gable, Robert Stack and Fred Astaire at Bel Air Country Club.

    I have read “Niv” the biography of David Niven by his friends. I have a collection on DVD of classic movies. I see one movie a year, at most, in theaters.

    Niven himself wrote Bring on the Empty Horses (a memoir basically of the Golden Age) and The Moon’s a Balloon (a more personal memoir). Both of them are excellent. I particularly liked when he described requesting his first post after graduating Sandhurst. His first choice, being a Scot, was the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. His second choice was the Royal Highlanders (otherwise known as the Black Watch). Being a joker, for his third choice he wrote “anything but the Highlander Light Regiment.” The HLR was the only highlander regiment that wore trousers instead of kilts for their dress uniforms. So, of course, off to the Highlander Light Regiment he was dispatched.

    • #14
    • September 22, 2019, at 7:19 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  15. Percival Thatcher

    It is next to impossible to get younger folks to watch a black and white movie. You have to use guile. 

    Younger relative: What are you watching? A black and white movie?

    Me: Yes. It’s called To Have and Have Not. Ever seen it?

    YR: Nope. I don’t watch black and white movies.

    Me: There’s a story behind this one. The director was Howard Hawks. He bet his friend Ernest Hemingway that he could take Hemingway’s worst novel and make a great movie out of it.

    YR: Did he?

    Me: Watch it and see.

    • #15
    • September 22, 2019, at 7:30 PM PDT
    • 11 likes
  16. Arahant Member

    Percival (View Comment):
    Being a joker, for his third choice he wrote “anything but the Highlander Light Regiment.” The HLR was the only highlander regiment that wore trousers instead of kilts for their dress uniforms. So, of course, off to the Highlander Light Regiment he was dispatched.

    And that didn’t teach him that jokers in the military do not go terribly far.

    • #16
    • September 22, 2019, at 7:39 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  17. MichaelKennedy Coolidge

    Percival (View Comment):
    Niven himself wrote Bring on the Empty Horses (a memoir basically of the Golden Age) and The Moon’s a Balloon (a more personal memoir). Both of them are excellent

    His friends have mentioned that his recollections were often “adjusted” by his later life. If you like them, you should definitely read “Niv.”

    • #17
    • September 22, 2019, at 7:43 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  18. Judge Mental Member

    Gary McVey:

    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.

     

    Somewhere around 2004, I mentioned watching Slapshot (1974) over the weekend, referring to it as an ‘old movie’ . The girl I was talking to laughed at the idea of calling that an old movie, even though it was 30 years old. When I was a kid, watching old movies in the 60s and early 70s, the ‘old movies’ were mostly from the 50s and early 60s. So, a 30 year old movie seemed to qualify.

    Particularly given that the movie was older than the girl.

    • #18
    • September 22, 2019, at 7:49 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  19. Richard Easton Member

    That was another great post. My father said that the 2000 census taker was amazed that Dad’s grandfather fought in the Civil War (my Mom’s grandfather was Custer’s bugler during the war). Thus, I have two great grandfathers who were in the Army of the Potomac. The distant past still seems close to the present to me.

    • #19
    • September 22, 2019, at 8:11 PM PDT
    • 12 likes
  20. Arahant Member

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    That was another great post. My father said that the 2000 census taker was amazed that Dad’s grandfather fought in the Civil War (my Mom’s grandfather was Custer’s bugler during the war). Thus, I have two great grandfathers who were in the Army of the Potomac. The distant past still seems close to the present to me.

    Imagine how the Tyler Brothers feel, since their grandfather was born in 1790.

    • #20
    • September 22, 2019, at 8:18 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  21. Boss Mongo Member

    Richard Easton (View Comment):
    my Mom’s grandfather was Custer’s bugler during the war

    Did he follow Custer after the war? I.e., was he at Little Bighorn?

    • #21
    • September 22, 2019, at 8:21 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  22. Jon1979 Lincoln

    Gary McVey:

    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.

     

    Honestly, thanks to social media’s ability to make people famous for amassing a certain number of clicks or just from the act of being infamous (Hello! Kardiahsian clan…), I’m not really all that sad about contemplating the idea that most of the early 21st Century ‘celebrities’ are going to be mere footnotes 50-75 years from now. Fame is fleeting, and sometimes, that’s not a bad thing.

    • #22
    • September 22, 2019, at 8:36 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  23. Richard Easton Member

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Richard Easton (View Comment):
    my Mom’s grandfather was Custer’s bugler during the war

    Did he follow Custer after the war? I.e., was he at Little Bighorn?

    Nope (fortunately). One of my Mom’s relatives has the bugle. “Come on you Wolverines.”

    • #23
    • September 22, 2019, at 8:45 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  24. Percival Thatcher

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    That was another great post. My father said that the 2000 census taker was amazed that Dad’s grandfather fought in the Civil War (my Mom’s grandfather was Custer’s bugler during the war). Thus, I have two great grandfathers who were in the Army of the Potomac. The distant past still seems close to the present to me.

    My great uncle Sam was a veteran of the Spanish-American War. His commanding officer at the Battle of Guasimas was General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Wheeler, who had been a cavalry general for the Confederacy. At one point in the battle, old Joe got excited and supposedly said “Let’s go, boys! We’ve got the damn Yankees on the run again!”

    • #24
    • September 22, 2019, at 9:02 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  25. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    That was another great post. My father said that the 2000 census taker was amazed that Dad’s grandfather fought in the Civil War (my Mom’s grandfather was Custer’s bugler during the war). Thus, I have two great grandfathers who were in the Army of the Potomac. The distant past still seems close to the present to me.

    Chauncey Depew was a New York Republican (1834-1928) who was just barely in time to be filmed with a sound newsreel camera at age 94, scant months after The Jazz Singer. I know the clip is out there–I’ve seen it–but I haven’t found it yet. It’s always special when you see and hear someone who saw Abraham Lincoln, but here’s someone who was a young lawyer who actually worked for him at the White House and lived long enough to tell it to the talkies. 

    • #25
    • September 22, 2019, at 9:28 PM PDT
    • 13 likes
  26. RightAngles Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    That was another great post. My father said that the 2000 census taker was amazed that Dad’s grandfather fought in the Civil War (my Mom’s grandfather was Custer’s bugler during the war). Thus, I have two great grandfathers who were in the Army of the Potomac. The distant past still seems close to the present to me.

    Chauncey Depew was a New York Republican (1834-1928) who was just barely in time to be filmed with a sound newsreel camera at age 94, scant months after The Jazz Singer. I know the clip is out there–I’ve seen it–but I haven’t found it yet. It’s always special when you see and hear someone who saw Abraham Lincoln, but here’s someone who was a young lawyer who actually worked for him at the White House and lived long enough to tell it to the talkies.

    I once came across a very old film of actual Confederate vets doing the actual Rebel Yell. They were all really old men in their 80s and 90s.

    • #26
    • September 22, 2019, at 9:31 PM PDT
    • 10 likes
  27. Richard Easton Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    That was another great post. My father said that the 2000 census taker was amazed that Dad’s grandfather fought in the Civil War (my Mom’s grandfather was Custer’s bugler during the war). Thus, I have two great grandfathers who were in the Army of the Potomac. The distant past still seems close to the present to me.

    Chauncey Depew was a New York Republican (1834-1928) who was just barely in time to be filmed with a sound newsreel camera at age 94, scant months after The Jazz Singer. I know the clip is out there–I’ve seen it–but I haven’t found it yet. It’s always special when you see and hear someone who saw Abraham Lincoln, but here’s someone who was a young lawyer who actually worked for him at the White House and lived long enough to tell it to the talkies.

    Here’s the last eyewitness of Lincoln’s assassination. https://youtu.be/1RPoymt3Jx4

    • #27
    • September 22, 2019, at 9:36 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  28. Judge Mental Member

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    I once came across a very old film of actual Confederate vets doing the actual Rebel Yell. They were all really old men in their 80s and 90s.

    This one maybe:

     

    • #28
    • September 22, 2019, at 9:42 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  29. Arahant Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    Chauncey Depew was a New York Republican (1834-1928) who was just barely in time to be filmed with a sound newsreel camera at age 94, scant months after The Jazz Singer. I know the clip is out there–I’ve seen it–but I haven’t found it yet. It’s always special when you see and hear someone who saw Abraham Lincoln, but here’s someone who was a young lawyer who actually worked for him at the White House and lived long enough to tell it to the talkies. 

    Not the one you’re talking about, but…

    • #29
    • September 22, 2019, at 9:42 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  30. RightAngles Member

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    I once came across a very old film of actual Confederate vets doing the actual Rebel Yell. They were all really old men in their 80s and 90s.

    This one maybe:

     

    That’s the exact one!

    • #30
    • September 22, 2019, at 9:47 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
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