WHAT: I haven't seen this pre-code romance starring Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett, but none less than Manny Farber called it Walsh's best film. Here's an excerpt on the film from his 1971 article on the director:
It is only fleetingly a gangster film, not quite outrightly comic: it is really a portrait of a neighborhood, the feeling of human bonds in a guileless community, a lyrical approximation of Lower East Side and its uneducated, spirited stevedore-clerk-shopkeeper cast. There is psychological rightness in the scale relationships of actors to locale, and this, coupled by liberated acting, make an exhilarating poetry about a brash-cocky-exuberant provincial. Walsh, in this lunatically original, festive dance, is nothing less than a poet of the American immigrant.WHERE/WHEN: 8:40 tonight only at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.
WHY: Every July I feel a significant amount of envy for friends fortunate enough to find themselves in Bologna Italy for the Il Cinema Ritrovato, probably the archival, film historian, and cinephile-critical communities' most essential screening event of the year. Right now Meredith Brody is filing dispatches for Indiewire that are turning me rather green. I'm consoled that the festival will end tomorrow, and that some portion of the restorations and retrospectives premiering there this year will turn up next year at the Pacific Film Archive.
Every edition of the Bologna festival features big retrospectives of the early works of major Hollywood auteurs whose careers began in the silent era; in 2007 it was Chaplin, for instance. Following this it was Von Sternberg, then Capra, Ford, and Hawks in 2011. Each of these directors (except, for some reason, Ford) was then given a sizeable series at the PFA within six or seven months. Last year it was Raoul Walsh's turn in Bologna, and though it's taken a bit longer for it to come around this time, it's with much rejoicing that the PFA is bringing a fourteen-film set of Walsh films starting tonight with a pair of pre-codes, Sailor's Luck and Me and My Gal.
Though the fourteen films chosen represent just a fraction of the nearly one hundred films made by the director who began as as assistant to D.W. Griffith, it's evenly divided between two phases of his career. Seven films (including tonight's two) are silents or early talkies that for the most part are not frequently shown in cinemas, on television, or in home-mediatheques. Of these seven I believe only the silent gangster saga Regeneration and the terrific early-widescreen Western starring John Wayne The Big Trail have been put out on commercial DVDs in this country. I'm most excited to see the silent war movie What Price Glory, which was a huge sensation in 1926, in part thanks to the salty dialogue mouthed by actors Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe. Audiences who hadn't been avid lip-readers before, started paying more attention, and so did the Hays office, which soon issued an edict against profanity in movies "by either title or lip" as a response.
The other seven films in the program come from the 1940s and early fifties, and represent most of Walsh's most famous films: Objective Burma, They Died With Their Boots On, High Sierra, They Drive By Night, White Heat... But believe it or not I haven't seen a one of these I just mentioned. There was a time when Errol Flynn, Jimmy Cagney, and especially Humphrey Bogart retrospectives were staples of repertory programming at places like the Castro, but none of these pictures have gotten much theatrical play in the 21st Century. So I'm excited to fill some crucial gaps. I have seen Pursued at the Castro as part of a James Wong Howe series, and will be pleased to get a chance for a 35mm re-viewing on August 3rd, when it screens after another Western, The Lawless Breed; the latter film will be introduced by esteemed critic Dave Kehr, who will also be on hand for the August 1st showing of Wild Girl, a pre-code remake of the 1914 Marin-shot Bret Harte adaptation Salomy Jane.
Westerns and war pictures are not the most fashionable classic genres for modern Frisco Bay moviegoers, so I hope that not only the pre-codes and contemporary crime pictures are well-attended. Both as an endorsement of Walsh, and a vote to keep these Italian-tributed auteur retros coming to the PFA. This year Bologna focuses on Allan Dwan, another, even-more-prolific director who began in the silent era (he directed eleven Douglas Fairbanks films to Walsh's one) and whose filmography I've barely scratched the surface of. We'll be able to scratch a little more in a couple weeks when the San Francisco Silent Film Festival debuts its restoration of The Half-Breed, which we get the privilege of seeing before audiences in Bologna or New York (whose MOMA is winding down an even-larger Dwan series than the one in Italy). I'm crossing my fingers that we'll soon get a chance to see more- especially after the recent publication of a tantalizing and free dossier on the director.
HOW: 35mm vault print.