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July 29, 2007

Raoul Walsh heads for the hills

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Esther and the King
Raoul Walsh - 1960
Diamond Entertainment Region 1 DVD

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The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw
Raoul Walsh - 1958
Twentieth Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

In The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, Jayne Mansfield sings "If the Hills of San Francisco could only talk". Judging from the actresses featured in a couple of Raoul Walsh's last films, the veteran filmmaker was more interested in the geography of human body, especially the twin peaks of Mansfield and Daniela Rocca. This should be no surprise to those who recall a Walsh gag where a female character is refered to as the lay of the land. If that wasn't enough, one could imagine Walsh yelling bring on the dancing girls.

1960 was a banner year for Jewish biblical stories on film. My grandparents took me to see The Story of Ruth. I missed out on the theatrical run of Esther and the King though. My parents probably read Bosley Crowther's New York Times review which began, "The beautiful Bible story of Esther has been thumped into a crude costume charade . . ." The film is hardly vintage Walsh, but it does deserve better than the crummy pan and scan DVD release currently available. Made during the peak of Bible inspired films as well as the Italian peplums, Esther and the King is loaded with cheesecake and beefcake.

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The beefcake doesn't get much beefier than Richard Egan. Between this film and The Three Hundred Spartans, I've seen more of Richard Egan's massive chest, legs and even his teeth than I ever wanted. Much of the cheesecake is provided by the plush Daniella Rocca who does a striptease ending with a display of her voluptuous chest. Physically, Rocca and Egan are a better match than Egan with Joan Collins. Compared to the many well endowed women in Esther and the King, Collins looks like a veritable waif, albeit one with an abundance of eye shadow. And although Walsh, who co-wrote the film, liked to boast about his way with the women in his autobiography, there is a discomfitting scene of a nearly nude Egan wrestling with his equally beefy soldiers.

Even though the film is based on a bible story, Walsh may have gotten it in his mind to create a post World War II allegory. When characters talk about the fate of the Jews using such key words as scapegoat, annihilation and holocaust, it suggests that Walsh was trying to give the film some deeper meaning. There is also a scene where the chief bad guy prays to a statue that looks unmistakably devilish. Esther and the King is best when it can not be taken seriously, especially in the anachronistically modern musical scenes. Some of choreography was re-used for "Walk Like an Egyptian".

Tim Lucas was gracious enough to email a response to my inquiry about how much of Esther and the King was actually directed by cinematographer Mario Bava. In his forthcoming book on Bava, Lucas has devoted an entire chapter on the making of Esther and the King. What I will say is that there are a couple of scenes that visually resemble some of Bava's future work as director, based on the use of color and lighting, especially one brief scene of a whipping, with both man bathed in red light.

The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw is more or less about the end of the West and the triumph of capitalism and industrialisation. What may be of greater significance is that according to IMDb, this was the first westerns to be shot in Spain, making Walsh the unwitting godfather of the spaghetti western. The comic peak is early in the opening scenes with Robert Morley. Walsh may have had a hand in the casting of older actors like Henry Hull and Bruce Cabot, both of whom worked with Walsh previously. It is an easily forgettable film that might have been nominally better had the film starred Jane Russell instead of Jayne Mansfield. Attending the Raoul Walsh retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art almost thirty years ago, I have not forgotten the image of Russell in The Revolt of Mamie Stover. Russell took on everybody, even Richard Egan. Walsh has a shot of Russell overlooking Hawaii, standing defiantly as if she was John Wayne surveying the west. Jayne Mansfield saves Fractured Jaw and Kenneth More, while Joan Collins saves Persia and Richard Egan. In examining Raoul Walsh's filmography, it seems like that iconic image of Russell on top of the peak was Walsh's visual acknowledgment that after The Revolt of Mamie Stover his long career would soon be entering a steep decline.

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Posted by peter at July 29, 2007 07:47 PM