Signatures of Both Gloria Swanson and Director Raoul Walsh on a “Sadie Thompson” magazine advertisement from 1928. Image size is 10″ x 6″.
Gloria Swanson was born Gloria May Josephine Svensson in Chicago, Illinois. She was destined to be perhaps one of the biggest stars of the silent movie era. Her personality and antics in private definitely made her a favorite with America’s movie-going public. Gloria certainly didn’t intend on going into show business. After her formal education in the Chicago school system and elsewhere, she began work in a department store as a salesclerk. In 1915, at the age of 18, she decided to go to a Chicago movie studio with an aunt to see how motion pictures were made. She was plucked out of the crowd, because of her beauty, to be included as a bit player in the film The Fable of Elvira and Farina and the Meal Ticket (1915). In her next film, she was an extra also, when she appeared in At the End of a Perfect Day (1915). After another uncredited role, Gloria got a more substantial role in Sweedie Goes to College (1915). In 1916, she first appeared with future husband Wallace Beery. Once married, the two pulled up stakes in Chicago and moved to Los Angeles to the film colony of Hollywood. Once out west, Gloria continued her torrid pace in films. She seemed to be in hit after hit in such films as The Pullman Bride (1917), Shifting Sands (1918), and Don’t Change Your Husband (1919). By the time of the latter, Gloria had divorced Beery and was remarried, but it was not to be her last marriage, as she collected a total of six husbands. By the middle 1920s, she was the highest-paid actress in Hollywood. It has been said that Gloria made and spent over $8 million in the ’20s alone. That, along with the seven marriages she had, kept the fans spellbound with her escapades for over 60 years. They just couldn’t get enough of her. Gloria was 30 when the sound revolution hit, and there was speculation as to whether she could adapt. She did. In 1928, she received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her role of Sadie Thompson in the film of the same name but lost to Janet Gaynor for 3 different films. The following year, she again was nominated for the same award in The Trespasser (1929). This time, she lost out to Norma Shearer in The Divorcee (1930). By the 1930s, Gloria pared back her work with only four films during that time. She had taken a hiatus from film work after 1934’s Music in the Air (1934) and would not be seen again until Father Takes a Wife (1941). That was to be it until 1950, when she starred in Sunset Blvd. (1950) as Norma Desmond opposite William Holden. She played a movie actress who was all but washed up. The movie was a box office smash and earned her a third Academy Award nomination as Best Actress, but she lost to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday (1950). The film is considered one of the best in the history of film and, on June 16, 1998, was named one of the top 100 films of all time by the American Film Institute, placing 12th. After a few more films in the 1950s, Gloria more or less retired. Throughout the 1960s, she appeared mostly on television. Her last fling with the silver screen was Airport 1975 (1974), wherein she played herself. Gloria died on April 4, 1983, in New York City at the age of 84. There was never anyone like her, before or since.
Raoul Walsh’s 52-year directorial career made him a Hollywood legend. Walsh was also an actor: He appeared in the first version of W. Somerset Maugham’s “Rain” renamed Sadie Thompson (1928) opposite Gloria Swanson in the title role. He would have played the Cisco Kid in his own film In Old Arizona (1928) if an errant jackrabbit hadn’t cost him his right eye by leaping through the windshield of his automobile. Warner Baxter filled the role and won an Oscar. Before John Ford and Nicholas Ray, it was Raoul Walsh who made the eye-patch almost as synonymous with a Hollywood director as Cecil B. DeMille’s jodhpurs.
In 1915, in addition to helping out the great Griffith, Walsh directed no less than 14 films, including his first feature-length film, The Regeneration (1915), which he also wrote. The movie starred silent cinema superstar Anna Q. Nilsson as a society woman turned social worker who aids the regeneration of a Bowery gang leader. It was a melodrama, but an effective one. In his autobiography, Walsh credited D.W. Griffith with teaching him about the art of filmmaking and about production management techniques. The film is memorable for its shots of New York City, where Walsh had been born 28 years earlier on March 11, 1887.
Raoul Walsh would continue to be a top director for 40 years and would not hang up his director’s megaphone (if he still had one at that late in the game) until 1964. As a writer, his last script was made in 1970, meaning his career as a whole spanned seven decades and 58 years.
He introduced the world to John Wayne in The Big Trail (1930) in 70mm wide-screen in 1930. It would take nine more years and John Ford to make the Duke a star. In one three-year period at Warner Bros., he directed The Roaring Twenties (1939), They Drive by Night (1940), High Sierra (1941), The Strawberry Blonde (1941), Manpower (1941), They Died with Their Boots On (1941), and Gentleman Jim (1942), among other films in that time frame. He helped consolidate the stardom of Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn while directing the great James Cagney in one of his more delightful films, The Strawberry Blonde (1941). This was the same director that would elicit Cagney’s most searing performance since The Public Enemy (1931) in the crime classic White Heat (1949).
Novelist Norman Mailer says that Walsh was dragged off of his death bed to direct the underrated film adaptation of Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1958). The movie is as masculine and unsentimental as the book, an exceedingly harsh look at the power relations between men at war on the same side that includes the attempted murder of prisoners of war and the “fragging” of officers (Sergeant Croft allows his lieutenant to walk into an ambush). Walsh was at his best when directing men in war or action pictures.
Raoul Walsh seemingly recovered from Mailer’s phantasmagorical death bed, as he lived another 22 years after The Naked and the Dead (1958). He died on December 31, 1980, in Simi Valley, California, at the age of 93.