February 3, 2015
I don’t know if Allan Dwan ever read the Futurist Manifesto, but High Tension is an exemplar of what Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was celebrating in his incendiary 1909 statement in praise of the industrial age: “We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.” And boy does Dwan like to go fast in High Tension (1936), which packs a screwball comedy and a deep sea adventure into its 63 minutes. Of his films from this period, Dwan said, “I’d eliminate stuff that was extraneous and speed up stuff that was written slowly. A writer stretches a story out, and you’ve got to fix it up. Make it move.” High Tension’s narrative moves through telephone wires and underground cables, bringing together the exploits of the swashbuckling cable layer Steve Reardon (Brian Donlevy) and the dime store writer Edith MacNeil (Glenda Farrell) who turns his feats into fiction. The electricity that makes their jobs possible seems to jitter their bodies as they continually break up and smack back into each other across the country. It’s an action-packed ode to wired communication, and is now available for viewing in a very nice looking MOD DVD from Fox Cinema Archives.
High Tension was the third of four movies that Allan Dwan directed for Fox in 1936, but it was a fortuitous assignment. Dwan studied electrical engineering at Notre Dame, and was named president of their “Electrical Society”. His interest the speed of communication afforded by expanding technology is established in the opening montage, which uses rapid fire dissolves to connect a web of phone calls: from irate cablegram customers, to a bank of operators, to the cablegram offices in which overwhelmed officials panic over a line break under the Pacific. This necessitates more communication, from the offices, to an isolated frigate, and using miniatures, Dwan follows a wire all the way down to a diving bell at the bottom of the ocean, in which Steve Reardon is reading about his fictionalized exploits in True Action Stories. This week’s issue is written by his sometime girlfriend Edith MacNeil, or “Mac”, who exaggerates true stories into bestsellers. “She’s got everything”, Steve says, including “hair, makes you wanna dry your face.” His clunky love sonnets are interrupted by a buzz from his boss, desperate for him to fix the sliced cable. He agrees, on the condition he gets two weeks off and a thousand dollars so he can marry Mac.
A whirligig of a man, he bursts into the cable offices riding on a messenger bike, craving speed even when traveling from desk to desk. His live wire can only get doused by booze, and he is four hours late to his long-awaited date with Mac when he passes out on his desk after a celebratory quaff or ten. Thus begins a pitched battle between Steve and Mac, an equally matched couple who seem to love each other more with each humiliation (“The further away he gets from me, the better I like it”, says Mac). To get back at his lateness and brutishness, (“I’ll fix that big stuffed moose!’) Mac slathers her face in cream and nuzzles him for a kiss, smearing the goo all over his stunned kisser. This is their first major crack up, but the film is wired for them to explode every ten minutes, and it seems like their relationship is one sustained donnybrook. When not brawling with Mac, Steve is almost drunk rolled by Ward Bond at a local dive, uses a grand piano as a weapon against a prizefighter, and dives to save a pal lodged in coral. Even when Steve ditches Mac to mentor an electrical engineer friend of his (Norman Foster) in Hawaii, their relationship carnage trails behind them. As Dwan biographer Frederic Lombardi points out, the film is suffused with the rapidity of both communication and travel. People can express themselves instantaneously, from whatever location, but also physically appear sooner than later. When Mac shows up in Hawaii, she explains that she took the China Clipper, “which took her just 14 hours”.
The initial story treatment was written by J. Robert Bren and Norman Houston, and titled “Here Comes Trouble”. The trouble is breathlessly constant, and the actors work such bubbling energy it’s as if they’re trying to compete with the speed of electricity. In its own low-budget way, High Tension is something of a capitalist Man With a Movie Camera, except here the camera is held by Hollywood technicians, and the man-machines they are celebrating are cowboy free-enterprise types. As soon as Steve is out of her sight, Mac signs up to write the life stories of boxer Terry Madden (Joseph Sawyer), under the alluring umbrella title, “Ladies Love Champions”. Steve comes home with a ring, hoping to pop the question – instead he flips out with jealousy and gets popped in the mouth by Madden. This sequence is Looney Tunes in its cartoon exaggerations, from the jousting with a grand piano to the papier mache way in which solid wooden doors splinter when Steve goes crashing through them. It’s a very violent battle that only ends when Steve’s favorite statue/liquor container topples onto Madden’s head. Steve is an all-action no-thinking avatar of Marinetti’s future: “Let us leave good sense behind like a hideous husk and let us hurl ourselves, like fruit spiced with pride, into the immense mouth and breast of the world! Let us feed the unknown, not from despair, but simply to enrich the unfathomable reservoirs of the Absurd!”
Steve would endorse all of the above, if wasn’t busy living it. High Tension is not as absurdly macho as the Futurists, and allows a place for women in its world of techno wonders. The film ends with a detente between Steve and Mac, allowing their love to grow in intimacy, though they can only express it with barely suppressed violence. The last shot has Mac push Steve into a chair and perch herself on top of him. She informs him she will be joining him on one of his sea adventures to get more material for her stories. Incredulous, Donlevy cocks his head forward twice like a rooster, and flaps his hand as if hoping to wave away reality. Mac mockingly purrs, “Yes, darling.” She leans in, grasps her hands around his neck, and squeezes. They both smile.