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WHO BLEW UP MARY PICKFORD’S BOOZE CELLAR? BAD BOY RAOUL WALSH DID!

Mary Pickford, John Gilbert, Wallace Reid, D. W. Griffith, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery--Raoul Walsh worked and played with them all. And I’m happy to say the 90-year-old director remembered them vividly when I interviewed him in 1977 for my New York Times piece celebrating the 50th anniversary of the talkies. --GUY FLATLEY

 

Raoul Walsh, a cowboy who became an actor in one-and two-reelers in 1911, went west with D. W. Griffith, and became a director of such silents as "The Thief of Bagdad" and "What Price Glory" and such talkies as "They Drive by Night" and "White Heat," is totally blind today, but his mind is crowded with vivid images from the past.

"When I came out to California to work for Mr. Griffith," he says, sipping orange juice at his valley ranch in Southern California, "they had just built an outdoor stage, quite some distance from town. We'd be doing a roughhouse drama, and another company would be doing a love scene nearby, with the violins playing so the man and woman could get in the mood. We only worked when the sun was out; when it went down, we got drunk. Our biggest problem was that we couldn't get any living quarters, because people just didn't want any part of the actors. The studio had only one car, and they sent it for the girls. We walked.

"Mr. Griffith brought two directors with him from New York. One was from a stock company and he simply couldn't take the rough life, so he started hitting the bottle heavy. Mr. Griffith said, 'Give Mr. Walsh a script and let him shoot it,' and that's how I became his assistant, watching every move he made. So, you see, I had good schooling. Those old films we made are all gone. They were thrown into a vault somewhere and they just fell apart.

"Maybe the reason that director got drunk was that he had read the script, which was based on an Ibsen play. I remember that Wallace Reid was in it. Wally was the Errol Flynn of his day. The director would say, 'O.K., you've had enough' at the end of a love scene, and Wally would go to the door, turn around, and come right back and start kissing the girl again. He and I were living at the same apartment, and he would get all dolled up and go out to some nightclub. Then he wanted to play his trombone when he came back. They kicked us out of the apartment for playing it at 2 A.M. Later, I tried to get Wally off cocaine, but I couldn't. There were fields and fields of marijuana on the back lot in those days, but just a few Mexicans smoked it.

"Mary Pickford and I are the only ones left from the old Biograph days. Mary used to call me her big brother. Whenever she was going out of town, she'd say to me, 'Take care of Jack.' Jack was her real brother, Jack Pickford. Well, I took care of Jack until we blew up the booze cellar, as well as the safe and a few other things. Mary and Old Lady Pickford were in San Diego making a movie, and Jack came to me and said, 'I'm going to give a party and I can't get any booze, because my mother has it locked in the cellar.' We went to a man named Garibaldi, got some dynamite and damned near blew the house down. When Old Lady Pickford came home, she asked the housekeeper who had been there when the explosion took place. 'That old Irishman and Jack,' she said. By that time Jack and I had hightailed it down to Santa Barbara, and when we got back, the old dame looked us in the eyes and said, 'It's a good thing you guys weren't here. You would have been killed.'

"My own favorite of all my silent movies was 'What Price Glory.' Those marines were using all the four-letter words in the world. At 60 cents a ticket, it broke every record during its opening week at the Roxy. Fox played it all day and all night. Finally, we got complaints from deaf mutes who, naturally, could read lips. Then, once that became known, the people who weren't deaf went back to read the lips. So Fox had two audiences.

"I liked working with Gloria Swanson in 'Sadie Thompson,' too. Gloria and I spoke the same language and cussed the same way. I directed the movie and also played a marine in it. According to the play, I was supposed to call Lionel Barrymore a psalm-singing sonofabitch, but I added a lot to it. We were kind of a roustabout crowd in Hollywood then. We never had to waste time studying lines. We were a wild lot, all right, like prospectors, like the 49'ers that came to dig gold.

"I knew we'd have problems when the actors had to learn lines. They had drama coaches, of course. I don't know if they had conducted classes in a subway before they came west, or what, but I do know they were terrible. One of the actors who had a hard time was Wally Beery. He got the dialogue all backwards, so he just started ad-libbing. Some of what he said turned out good, but some had to be cut out. And poor John Gilbert - 'John,' I said, 'Come on, get in the car.' I took him back into the woods and said, 'Start yelling your lungs out until you get your voice down to a low pitch.' He began yelling and yelling, and the only thing that happened was that we got arrested for disturbing the peace. But I talked the cops out of it on the way back to town.

"I directed the first outdoor talkie, 'In Old Arizona,' though I had to share credit with Irving Cummings, who finished the film. On the to way to catch a train in Cedar City, with a drunken cowboy at the wheel, a big jack rabbit jumped in front of our window, broke the glass and cut out my eye. Now this eye has given out. I'm 90 now, but I still get around. Led around . . . you know. I got rid of all my horses and cattle; it was depressing, because I couldn't see them. But we still have coyotes in the back. They come down from the hills at night and sing me to sleep."

 

 

To read Guy Flatley's "The Sound That Shook Hollywood" in its entirety--including interviews with Frank Capra, Myrna Loy, Clarence Brown, Allan Dwan, Anita Loos, King Vidor and Buddy Rogers--click here.