Raoul Walsh's Wild Girl blazes into Evanston on Friday | Bleader

Raoul Walsh's Wild Girl blazes into Evanston on Friday

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Joan Bennett (left) with a pack of backwoods ragamuffins
  • Joan Bennett (left) with a pack of backwoods ragamuffins
On Friday at 7 PM, Block Cinema at Northwestern University will screen Wild Girl, a recently restored comic western directed by Raoul Walsh. Released in 1932, the film comes from a fascinating period of Hollywood cinema—the years following the introduction of sound and prior to the implementation of the Hays Code, the system of self-censorship that would govern mainstream movies for another three decades. It also comes from a prolific time in Walsh's career, a three-year period wherein he signed eight feature films and did uncredited reshoots for a few others. As evidenced by two of his 1933 efforts Sailor's Luck and The Bowery (both of which screened in Chicago in the past few years), these years saw the director at his most carefree and vulgar. Luck and Bowery come on like a loudmouthed stranger buying a round for everyone in the bar; they're brash, unsubtle, and eager to please. And based on the half-hour I saw on Monday (before an unexpected fire drill ended the press screening early), Wild Girl seems just as high-spirited as those two films, if not necessarily as coarse.

The film tells follows a rough-and-tumble young woman (Joan Bennett) from the northern California backwoods who gets involved with a runaway convict (Charles Farrell) and some local gamblers (among them a top-hat-wearing mustache twirler played by Ralph Bellamy) in the mid-1800s. Light on plot, Wild Girl is nonetheless rich in behavior—courtesy of Bennett, Bellamy, and the great Eugene Pallette as a stagecoach driver who likes to imitate horses—and the Sequoia National Park locations where the movie was shot. It's the sort of lively pre-Code entertainment that may look better now than it did at the time of its release, since it conveys an uninhibited bawdiness that wouldn't last for much longer in Hollywood films.

In her biography Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood's Legendary Director, Marilyn Ann Moss writes that the director didn't think very highly of Wild Girl—or much of his early-30s output, for that matter. Walsh started the decade with The Big Trail, an epic western shot in a process called Grandeur, a predecessor to the 70-millimeter format. It was one of his most ambitious and self-consciously artful films, though it turned out to be a commercial flop that nearly brought Fox to bankruptcy. (A major contribution to this failure, Moss writes, was that only two theaters in the U.S. were equipped to present The Big Trail in the Grandeur format; for most viewers, the lavish photography existed only in theory.) He rebounded by directing several fast and cheap projects in hopes of bringing some money back to the studio. Walsh considered these impersonal jobs, yet it's hard to watch them today without sensing his brusque, big-talking persona behind the camera.

It was around this time, Moss notes, that Walsh began to rely on a practice that he'd maintain for the remainder of his career. "[A]fter he put in place a particular camera setup, he walked away instead of looking in the camera . . . But he had good reason: he preferred to hear how a scene sounded; he already knew it by heart." The approach might account for the unique tone of Walsh's entertainments, which feel laid-back in their overall pacing and abuzz in their moment-to-moment characterization.

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