TRUE ROMANCE: HIGH TENSION (1936)

February 3, 2015

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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!”

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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.HighTension00031HighTension00032

COWGIRL DIPLOMACY: WOMAN THEY ALMOST LYNCHED (1953)

January 27, 2015

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Woman They Almost Lynched  is a funhouse Western, exaggerating and undermining the genre’s familiar tropes. Its Civil War border town is named Border City, with the line between North and South cut down the middle of the town bar. Every male character is an outsized historical personage (Jesse James, Paul Quantrill and Cole Younger all make appearances), but the plot shunts them aside to focus on the women – who shoot straighter and punch stiffer than their male counterparts. Even the iron-fisted mayor is a woman.  The film inhabits its inverted world so convincingly that by the end it seems normal, almost sincere, and its broad, swaggering characters gain some measure of pathos. It is the only Hollywood film I can think of that builds a sympathetic portrait of a matriarchal society (at least until John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars). Only Allan Dwan could have made it. A prolific worker since the silent era, Dwan had fun where he could, and playfully subverted all manner of genres. He had already taken the Western down a peg in in his 1916 parody Manhattan Madness , made with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Woman They Almost Lynched further displays his natural inclination towards play, and it is now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films, so future generations can now puzzle over its beautiful excesses for decades to come.

Allan Dwan signed with Republic Pictures in 1945, “set to receive $1,000 a week for 52 weeks per year, plus five percent of the net profits of all his pictures” (Frederic Lombardi, Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios). In 1935 Herbert Yates merged six Poverty Row studios under the umbrella of Republic Pictures, who quickly became known for their adventure serials and B-Westerns starring John Wayne. They were built for quick turnarounds and quicker profits. Though their bread was buttered in programmers, they had four categories of productions, as described in Republic Studios: Between Poverty Row and the Majors:  Jubilee (“Westerns with a seven day schedule and $30,000 budget (later $50,000)”), Anniversary (“Westerns, action/adventure and musicals with a two-week schedule and budgets up to $120,000 (later $200,000)”), Deluxe (varied subjects with 22 day schedules and $300,000 budgets (later 500,000)), and Premiere (one month shooting schedules and million-dollar budgets). Dwan worked in all of these categories, in every genre. His first project for Republic was the wartime screwball comedy Rendezvous with Annie (1945), and went on to do musicals (Calendar Girl), “frontier operettas” (Northwest Outpost), lyrical children’s films (Driftwood), and Depression-era comic fables (The Inside Story). His received his largest budget for the “Premiere” production of Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), but would never get that level of investment again.

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Woman They Almost Lynched was probably an “Anniversary” production, clocking in at 90 minutes though having few sets – the whole film takes place on one Western backlot street. The film was based on a short story of the same name by Michael Fessier, first published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1951. Steve Fisher adapted the story into a screenplay, though Dwan didn’t remember him fondly. When Peter Bogdanovich asked Dwan if the writer understood that the film would be played as a parody, he responded, “I don’t think he’d know now that it wasn’t serious. If the actors said the words, it was OK with him.” The words tell the story of Border City, which straddles the Missouri-Arkansas border during the Civil War. Mayor Delilah Courtney (Nina Varela) has declared that the town is neutral, and executes by hanging anyone that stirred up Union or Confederate sentiment. When the mercenary band of Quantrill’s Raiders roll into town, the Mayor puts them on notice that they have to leave in 24 hours. Arriving at the same time as William Quantrill (Brian Donlevy) is Sally Maris (Joan Leslie), a city girl traveling to meet her saloon owner brother. When her brother gets shot and killed, Sally is burdened by his debts, and has to run the saloon herself instead of being thrown into debtors’ prison. Sally falls for a dashing Confederate spy named Lance Horton (John Lund), who wants to keep the renegade Quantrill from accessing the town’s lead mines. All the while Quantrill’s cantankerous wife Kate (Audrey Totter) has an obsession with knocking off Sally. Kate was once the fiance to Sally’s brother, and Kate now wishes to wipe that history off the face of the Earth. Dwan deftly balances these overlapping narratives in a film that hurtles along with no wasted motions.2117193ejzrm4v46ptdn.th

The heart of the film lies in the relationship that forges between Kate, Sally and the saloon girls (one of whom is played by Ann Savage of Detour, her last screen role for 30+ years). Each has learned how to live in the world of men, adapted to it and suffered for it. In Woman They Almost Lynched, Sally represents the promise of an independent, distinctly feminine future. Both Mayor Courtney and Kate have carved out their islands of independence by acting more masculine, by constantly indulging their capacities for violence. The Mayor lynches people with little provocation, and littler evidence. Coded as a “spinster”, she uses violence as sexual release by other means. Kate is a fount of uncontrollable rage, who gets her joy by rendering William Quantrill powerless. When she starts on one of her hate binges, all Quantrill can do is stand back and shrug his shoulders. In a remarkable transmutation, Kate is even able to turn the nightclub song into an act of violence, attacking Sally’s brothers with one of their old favorite tunes. Audrey Totter is a force of nature, an open nerve ready to lash out at everyone around her. She is explosive, abusive, and hilarious. Joan Leslie said that, “Audrey later told me she played the whole thing for farce, while I was doing it straight.” This dynamic is evident in their famous bar brawl, in which Totter badgers her into a scrap. Leslie is earnest, the fear and regret rippling across her face, while Totter’s expression is locked into a snarl. Leslie again:  “I had a terrible time with it. I was supposed to hit Audrey, and I just couldn’t. Not hit her on the face! Director Allan Dwan tried to explain, and Audrey told me to go on and do it. Somehow it did get done, but it was a very difficult thing to do.” This is a perfect pairing for Dwan – Leslie playing it straight and sincere while Totter is the clown, destabilizing things from within.

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Jeanine Basinger described their relationship as “fighting over the issue of what it means to be a woman. In fact, the whole movie is structured on this very issue.” After Sally bests Kate in a quickdraw in the middle of the street, she yells, “Why don’t you try acting like a woman? You were born a woman but look at you. A bloodthirsty female. A disgrace to all women.” Instead of being content with being as good as a man, Sally insists on the integrity of being a woman – and urges Kate to live up to that standard. And the feminine code of the film is not one of sensitivity and lace, but of assertiveness and principle. Leslie has the grace and goodness of Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine. In the most moving moment of the film, Kate gives a monologue about her years of violent marriage: “At first I fought him. I tried every way I knew to try and escape. And later on I…I became just like him. Passion for vengeance and hatred. No trust in anybody, suspicious of everything. And all the time, all the time it was Quantrill I really hated for what he had done to me. So I took my rage out on the world. All hail the awakening of the ex-Kitty McCoy, cafe singer. Two years too late. Two centuries and a dead heart too late. Why don’t human beings ever learn?”

THE ENTERTAINER: ALLAN DWAN (PART 2)

July 16, 2013

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This is Part 2 of a series on director Allan Dwan. Part 1 focused on his silent films.

Dwan was ready for the transition to sound. He had experimented with the new technology as early as 1925, when he made a satirical sound short that screened at the private Lambs’ Club. There was a failed effort at the men’s only institution to allow women to join, or at least perform at their “gambols”. So Dwan directed a sketch in which Gloria Swanson audibly crashed their proceedings, as reported by Frederic Lombardi in his Dwan biography. In 1927 he made a sound newsreel for Movietone News (“The Military Academy at West Point”), and shot a sound prologue for The Iron Mask (1929). So when his career fully transferred to talkies later in ’29 with Frozen Justice, he already had a feel for how he could bend the technology to serve his roving camera. In her introduction for Slightly Scarlet at the Museum of Modern Art, filmmaker and critic Gina Telaroli remarked that the concept of “circulation” is the key to Dwan’s art, referring to his circling plots as well as the perambulations of his camera and actors. His mastery of the tracking shot, which he developed as early as 1915 in David Harum, continued unabated into the sound era, even with the restrictions of onerous recording equipment. Even when the camera is static, his films percolate with a choreography of micro-movements inside the frame, as his anxious characters push forward into the unknown.

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The earliest sound feature I saw at MoMA’s Dwan retrospective was Man to Man (1930), another of Dwan’s absent parent dramas. It’s an experiment in sound production, testing if audiences would accept varying volume levels in a scene. Dwan used synchronous sound in his tracking shots, affixing a mic to the camera boom and pushing it down the small town set’s Main Street. Because some characters are further away from the mic, the volume fluctuates, more accurately capturing how our ears work than the usual emphasis on clarity above all. He would abandon this technique by Chances (1931), a WWI drama with battle scenes as harrowing as All Along the Western Front (1930) on a much smaller budget. Like Man to Man, it was made for First National (a subsidiary of WB), and concerns two enlisted brothers (Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Anthony Bushell) who are in love with the same woman (Rose Hobart). Dwan told Peter Bogdanovich that, “Everything I did was triangles with me. If I constructed a story and had four characters in it, I’d put them down as dots and if they didn’t hook up into triangles, if any of them were left dangling out there without a sufficient relationship to any of the rest, I knew I’d have to discard them because they’d be a distraction. And you’re only related to people through triangles or lines.” His movies are constantly in motion making these connections, and one more mathematically minded than I could probably make graphs tracking his character relationships (especially for the comedies he made for Edward Small in the ’40s). In Chances it is a straightforward love triangle, with the dashing Fairbanks and aw shucks Bushell both enraptured with the rambunctious and gorgeous Hobart, whom they’ve known since childhood. As the trio’s relationship fissures so does the plot, severed into home and war fronts. A feminist even if he would never admit it, Dwan elevates Hobart from a prize being fought over into a fighter of her own, giving her a “sufficient relationship” to the boys. She does not spend the film pining in her boudoir, but in the muck driving ambulances to the front. She has seen the ravages of war as much as the brothers, which Dwan dramatizes in sludge level tracking shots of soot filled trenches. Each character battles their death drive until Bushell cracks, staggering into the mist.

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Dwan moved to Fox to make another smoke-filled drama, While Paris Sleeps (1932). F.W. Murnau was under contract to Fox from 1927 – 1930, and his presence influenced everyone at the studio from John Ford (see: Four Sons) to Dwan. Like Man to Man, the story is about an imprisoned father returning to his child, only this time he has to break out of prison, and tries to aid his offspring without their knowledge. Victor McLaglen stars as roughneck Jacques, doing life in jail for killing a dirtbag at a bar. When he receives word that his wife is ailing, leaving his teenage daughter adrift, he engineers a breakout. Plashing through fog-choked swamps reminiscent of Sunrise (1927), Jacques finds his way to the city to engineer his redemption, swinging his ham-fists to clear the way for his daughter Manon (Helen Mack) and busking beau Paul to live free of their past.

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A tireless worker, he would also crank out charming programmers for Fox in this period, including the slam-bang melodrama Wicked (1931), a women-in-prison/kidnapping thriller/courtroom drama that cycles through more genres than Tarantino’s wet dreams. What lingers in the mind are the class tensions – old society biddies judging Elissa Landi as she languishes in the clink, waddles wagging, and the dried up rich couple who adopt Landi’s baby without her knowledge. Only a chivalrous deus ex machina Aussie (Victor McLaglen again) can save her from the pits of poverty. 15 Maiden Lane (1936) is also concerned with the circulation of capital, this time in a snappy jewel thieving comedy. Another hour-long Fox quickie, it stars Claire Trevor as a jeweler’s niece who goes undercover to uncover who is running the black market gem trade in town. She gloms onto light-fingered Cesar Romero, who absconds with a diamond in the screwball opener, and slinks her way into his crew, widening her circle of underworld contacts until she meets the main man. As with Wicked, Dwan displays his dexterity with tone, flipping from insouciant comedy to tough-minded gangster flick with the flick of a gun’s hammer.

While the Fox programmers derive their energy from a pile-on of plots, Dwan’s 40′s comedies depend on the slow burn – from anxiety to total destruction. In Dwan’s telling Trail of the Vigilantes (1940) was intended as a straightforward Western for Universal, but he was so dissatisfied with the script he turned it into a parody. The casting of Franchot Tone and Broderick Crawford certainly backs Dwan’s contention, but they attack the subject with glee. Stuck with a mildewed scenario of an evil land grabber harassing homesteaders, Dwan turned it into a slapstick desecration of the Western. The frontier is an exaggerated Tombstone, with gunfights and brawls pimpling every surface of town. Every shot contains at least one man in leathers tumbling to the ground. The film is a playground for performance, and the characters try out and shed a series of identities during its run time. Tone is an investigator acting as a cowboy, while Mischa Auer is a quick-change artist, going from Native American to a trick horse riding gaucho.

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This was ideal practice for the farces he would make for producer Edward Small: Up in Mabel’s Room (1944), Brewster’s Millions (1945) and Getting Gertie’s Garter (1945). Both Mabel and Gertie were adapted from plays by Wilson Collison, who popularized French farce in the U.S. Mabel was a Broadway hit in 1919, and Small and Dwan both thought it would be appealing light entertainment during wartime. The Collison adaptations use essentially the same plot. In both Dennis O’Keefe plays a neurotic obsessed with retrieving an engraved undergarment from a former beau, for fear his wife will discover his former indiscretion. His clumsy attempts at cloak and dagger lead to outrageous speculation and escalating jealousies. Couples invent baroque scenarios of betrayal, set to the rhythm of slamming doors. Dwan’s camera movement is restrained in these films, nearly static, allowing the tension to arise from the fidgety comings and goings inside of the frame, a stop-start pace that mimics their frazzled mindset. Brewster’s Millions is also about performance, as one-time skinflint Brewster (O’Keefe again) must spend a million dollars in a month to inherit his uncle’s fortune. Not allowed to tell his friends and family of the will, he has to embody a self-destructive capitalist and risk alienating his pals forever. One indelible schizophrenic image finds his team gathered around the TV, cheering on the nag he just splurged on during its inaugural race. O’Keefe is in the background, pulling his hair out as his million to one long shot hits, pushing his ledger back into the black.

While Brewster is sending money to die, The Inside Story (1948) tells of $1000 that circulated through a small town during the Depression, improving everyone’s lot. Made with no stars for Republic, it is the purest distillation of Dwan’s cinema, an organism that thrives on motion. A collection agency arrives to a struggling Vermont town with a payment for a local farmer. Due to a mixup, the hotel owner believes it to be his, and pays off his landlady. Then she uses it to retain a struggling lawyer, and the circle continues on as the stolen cash infuses the whole town with hope. It incorporates many of his favorite motifs, including playacting (the hotel manager’s daughter vamps to distract the collector), circulation (the cash) and strong women (one major subplot is women getting jobs to support their out-of-work husbands). While not providing the visceral impact of Silver Lode or the pure pleasure of Up in Mabel’s Room, it is essential to understanding his work as a whole.

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In the 1950s Allan Dwan began one of the great director-producer runs with Benedict Bogeaus, for whom he made 10 films. Their bargain basement budgets hearken back to his Fox programmer days, but they are some of his most ravishingly beautiful, as he used color as another dramatic tool in his kit, like his ironic use of red, white and blue bunting in Silver Lode (1954). Dan Ballard (Dwan axiom John Payne) is about to be married on the 4th of July when McCarty (Dan Duryea) smirks his way into town and places him under arrest for murder. The town initially rallies behind Ballard, but as evidence mounts they turn on him, forcing him to shoot his way out before being lynched. In one of Dwan’s monumental tracking shots, the camera follows Ballard as he flips over Independence Day festooned picnic tables as the citizens rally against him. His railroading is a clear allegory of the blacklist, although that is likely a contribution from screenwriter Karen Dewolf, who was a victim of it soon afterward (she would never write another feature, but did find work in television). Dwan is more interested in the machinations that lead to mob violence, the gradual re-configuring of a town’s moral code. It’s the tragic version of the Edward Small comedies (Getting Gertie’s Garter was co-written by Dewolf), and world-weary saloon gal Dolly (Dolores Moran) even makes the crack, “What do you think this is, a French farce?”, to a deputy peeking under her bed. Both Bannister and McCarty are the Dennis O’Keefe characters, playacting (as a proper gentleman and marshal) to get what they want. But it turns out thtownspeople were the true thespians, as their civilized facade was a performance, vengeful violence their reality. Instead of building up to the pratfalls of a Small comedy, here it’s gunshots.

Tennessee’s Partner (1955) is Silver Lode’s gentle counterpart, another tale of a town’s greed and corruption, but with the focus shifted to two lonely drifters, played with easy charm by John Payne and Ronald Reagan. There is one moment in the film that moves me deeply every time I see it. After the requisite circlings of the Dwan storyline, Payne and Reagan reach a détente. Forgiveness is proffered and accepted, and Payne places his hand on Reagan’s shoulder. I don’t know why this gesture affects me so – perhaps because it is a rare pause in the whirl of the Dwan universe, a moment of beneficent calm before Dwan’s irresistible entertainment machine cranks back up again to take them away.

THE ENTERTAINER: ALLAN DWAN (PART 1)

July 2, 2013

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“Directing movies — I’d do it for free, I like it that well.” -Allan Dwan to Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By…

The 400 or so films that Allan Dwan directed are playgrounds for their actors, sandboxes of freewheeling experiment. Trained as an electrical engineer, Dwan was a technical innovator, but his flourishes were always in service to the specific talents of his performers.  In his self-effacing style, elaborate tracking and dolly shots never call attention to themselves, but only to the characters on-screen. Whether its suave Franchot Tone swinging off a saloon chandelier in Trail of the Vigilantes (1940) or glamour queen Gloria Swanson fighting through a packed subway car in Manhandled (1924), Dwan found hidden reserves of athleticism and wit in his stars. They would need it to motor through the  scenarios of borders, doublings and makeshift families that Dwan was assigned, which he treated as complex logic problems that are always solved, from institutional separation (political or geographic) into personal bonds (lovers, friends). He oils these Hollywood mechanics through his attention to character detail and penchant for parody, able to pack pathos and the madcap into his unstable, gleefully entertaining concoctions.

Dwan has never had the name recognition of some of his classical Hollywood contemporaries, and aside from Peter Bogdanovich’s essential interview book The Last Pioneer (1971), has had precious little written about his inexhaustible career. Some of this has to do print scarcity, as much of his silent one-reelers are lost, and his Republic Pictures films might as well have been due to rights limbo. That has all changed this year, with two major retrospectives (at MoMA in NYC and Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna), and a flood of writing, from Frederic Lombardi’s critical biography Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios to the massive (free) dossier published by Gina Telaroli and David Phelps, a labor of love with contributors from around the world (including yours truly). After viewing twenty-some of his films over the past month, I’m about to add more to the pile.

220px-AllanDwanAllan Dwan was born in Toronto on April 3rd, 1885 as Joseph Aloysius Dwan. He told Brownlow the name change was caused by teasing at school, “they used to say Aloysius to be a girl”. After graduating from Notre Dame with a degree in electrical engineering, he caught the eye of George Spoor of Essanay Studios, as he was working on a mercury vapor arc lamp, which was easier on actors’ eyes.  Dwan supervised their use on set, and eventually submitted stories to the studio when he discovered they paid $25. Lombardi sketches the exaggerated variants of Dwan’s origin story over the years. In 1920 he said he was merely inspecting the installed lights when Spoor met him, but in the 1960s he claimed to have developed the arc lamp himself.

In any case he was subsumed into the movie business, and stumbled into directing a few weeks into his job as a writer at the American Film Manufacturing Company. One of their film crews had gone AWOL, and Dwan was sent out to investigate why. He discovered that the alcoholic director had skipped town on a binge, and was given the job on the spot. He told Brownlow, “I just let the actors tell me what to do and I get along very well. I’ve been doing it now for fifty-five years — and they haven’t caught me yet!” He was an actor’s director from the beginning.

One of his early stars was Pauline Bush, whom he claims to have directed in over 50 Westerns for the American Film Manufacturing Company (or the “Flying A”) from 1911 – 1913 and 20 films at Universal Pictures between 1913 – 1915. In Charles Foster’s history of Canadians in Hollywood, Stardust and Shadows, Dwan says “she just came in off the street and told me she wanted to become an actress.” Born in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1886, she had lit out for Los Angeles and was performing amateur theater before he discovered her. With Dwan she had risen to a modicum of fame, and used it to advance feminist causes. In a Feb. 1913 issue of the Chicago tabloid “The Day Book”,  a profile of her is headlined: “The Western Girl You Love in the Movies Is A Sure-Enough Suffraget [sic]“. She is described as an “ardent suffraget [sic], believing woman can and should do just anything a man can do. That is, she thinks a woman’s brain and ability ranks right alongside, not a few feet behind a man’s.” Dwan married her in 1915.

Dwan’s films are filled with assertive female characters, from the Gloria Swanson silents through Natalie Wood’s tiny truth-teller in Driftwood (1947) to the veritable matriarchy of Woman They Almost Lynched (1953). His ease with female power would seem to spring from this early relationship with Bush, which despite ending in divorce in 1921, remained friendly throughout the rest of their lives. Dwan sent her birthday and Christmas cards every year after their parting. Foster spoke with Bush in 1963, and she still valued Dwan’s directorial flexibility, saying, “He gave us a great deal of freedom in our actions and movement…we were all relaxed and he got the results he wanted.”

This freedom is evident in the earliest film I viewed in the MoMA series, his Flying A production The Mother of the Ranch (1911). Dwan’s films are filled with absent parents, and how the kids fill that gap, but this one regards a mother whose son is absent. He heads west to be a cowboy, but tires of the hard work and turns to cattle rustling instead. Undercutting the East’s romanticization of the cowboy lifestyle, it anticipates the comic Dwan-Fairbanks feature Manhattan Madness, in which city-boy Fairbanks brags about cowpunching skills and gets pranked by his friends. In Mother of the Ranch, the Easterner’s laziness gets him killed, and the mom arrives looking for her n’er do well offspring in vain. But in typical Dwan fashion, he doesn’t stoop to sentimental gloop, but installs her as a kind of Snow White to the remaining ranch hands, who lie to her about her son’s virtue, and take her on as their own mother. The image of Louise Lester perched atop a mound of beaming cowboys in the final shot encapsulates one of Dwan’s recurring themes, you take family where you can get it.

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David Harum (1915) is a more straight-forward bit of rural Americana, embracing the virtues of small town life. Based as it was on a popular 1899 novel, that was then a hit 1900 play, Dwan was probably instructed to play it straight. The stage star William H. Crane reprises his role as the kindly banker David Harum, who attempts to nurse a fatherless cashier towards adulthood. Crane is a warm presence in constant rotund motion, and Dwan employs one of the earliest tracking shots on record to capture him. He placed a camera on a truck to capture his waddle down Main Street, looking down at him from a high angle, watching as the town comes to greet and ignore him in equal measure.

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Before Dwan began his ten film run with Douglas Fairbanks in 1916 with The Habit of Happiness (Triangle Picture Co.), he had worked on female-centered films with Mary Pickford (A Girl of Yesterday, 1915) and with both Lillian (An Innocent Magdalene, 1916) and Dorothy (Betty of Greystone, 1916) Gish. It was the Fairbanks films that became blockbusters, though, irresistible entertainments that poked fun at popular genres. While Manhattan Madness parodies the Western, A Modern Musketeer (1917) does the same for the swashbuckler, with a D’Artagnan-adoring Fairbanks attempting to bring the chivalric code into the modern day, and running into the suffragette movement. Dwan remarked to Bogdanovich that he and Fairbanks tried to create, “plenty of suspense, but from the humorous side.” Audiences ate up these exuberant and lightly subversive takes on old favorites, which highlighed Fairbanks’ easy athleticism, in which which his legs seem spring loaded. Dwan would cut down the height of tables and barriers to make every Fairbanks leap look as easy as breathing. Even when Fairbanks actually played D’Artagnan in The Iron Mask (’29, their final collaboration), it was still light as a feather. When he leaps into heaven in the final reel, it seems like the most natural thing in the world.

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When Gloria Swanson is on-screen it is impossible to ignore her, and Dwan elicits two of her greatest performances in Manhandled (1925) and Stage Struck (1926) (out of the eight films they made together, four survive). In both Dwan draws out her rambunctious comedienne, pushing her down the social ladder, from costume drama clotheshorse to working class striver. Dwan called the glamorous diva, “a clown if there ever was one”, and lets her loose as a destructive force upon the city. Swanson would later call Dwan her favorite director because of it. Manhandled opens with a tour-de-force of physical comedy, as her daily commute turns into a gauntlet of male girth. She is tenderized by the oceans of businessman in the subway car, squeezed up to the roof and shunted down to the ground. She manages to deflect serious injury through a kind of bruising ballet, wriggling through until she spots light at the end of the tunnel. For Swanson, surviving in a man’s world will take all she’s got. She plays a snappy store clerk whose beauty attracts rich suitors, and she is bemused by fantasies of wealth. She leads a double life, attending high-class parties and netting modeling gigs, while returning home to her tenement flophouse.

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In Stage Struck Swanson is a meeker animal, cowed by her man crush grill cook Orme, for whom she does laundry and pines wistfully at the window. The film is a story of her self-actualization as a lustful woman, enacted in a series of close-up inserts of a home-made makeover. She takes a scissor to her floppy hat and leather shoes to look the part of a flapper, and tears up at every eyebrow pluck, a thoroughly de-glamorized vision of glamor. Her sexual will-to-power eventually throws off these outward signs of beauty and opts for pure aggression, as the next group of close-ups will be at a fairground boxing match, where Swanson lays down a beating while still having time to spout verse. It is both absurdly funny and a character’s statement of purpose – her willingness to look absurd a proof of love. Pathos and pratfalls, together forever in Dwan’s effortlessly entertaining art.

In two weeks, Part 2 of this article will attempt to discuss Dwan’s sound features.

LUCILLE BALL AT RKO

August 16, 2011

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To celebrate Lucille Ball’s 100th birthday on August 6th, Warner Archive released three films from her time as “Queen of the Bs” at RKO. She appeared in 21 films for the studio between 1938 and 1942, nabbing seven credits in ’38 alone. Made quickly and forgotten even faster, these occasionally flat farces are enlivened by Ball’s bracingly physical performances and the brisk pacing instilled by a trio of talented studio directors.  The Lucille Ball RKO Comedy Collection, Vol. 1,  includes Go Chase Yourself  (1938), Next Time I Marry (1938) and Look Who’s Laughing (1941).

After being let go from Columbia after a string of bit parts, Ball was brought to RKO upon the recommendation of producer Pandro S. Berman, who gave her supporting roles in the Astaire-Rogers musicals Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935) and Follow the Fleet (1936). She continued in small roles in “A” pictures, memorably in Stage Door (1937), but with her salary bumped to $2,000 a week, RKO ramped up her schedule to include B productions in between her prestige jobs. The first of these was Go Chase Yourself(1938), a Joe Penner vehicle directed by veteran Edward F. Cline, who had started out with Mack Sennett and Buster Keaton.

Penner was a Hungarian-born comic who hit it big on the radio in the early ’30s. In Radio’s Forgotten Years Elizabeth Mcleod described his work as, “utter slapstick foolishness, delivered in an endearingly simpering style that’s the closest thing the 1930s had to Pee-wee Herman.” By 1938 his popularity had faded, and he would die of heart failure three years later at the age of 36.

His shtick does not translate well in Go Chase Yourself, in which he plays a gullible bank clerk who unknowingly gets mixed up in a robbery. He has a slow, mewling delivery that is out of step with the manic tempo, with scenes flitting by before he can land a punchline. And with his shy, shuffling gait he seems to recede into the frame. He is not helped by director Cline’s disinterest, composing everything in flat frontal shots.

Somehow Penner’s foundling has a wife, and Lucille Ball invigorates the drab proceedings with her lightbulb flashing eyes and brassy insouciance. Her character has had enough of the Penner character’s idiocies, understandably, and rails at him with superova-strength nags. It’s a small, thinly sketched role, but Ball enlarges her henpecking wife into somebody more righteous and destructive, an inkling of the chaos Lucy would later unleash.

She gets more room to stretch out in the charming It Happened One Night (1934) knockoff, Next Time I Marry (1938). In this class-jumping marriage comedy, Ball gets her first starring credit as Nancy Crocker Fleming, a dizzy heiress who has to marry an American to earn her inheritance. Her fiancee is the mincingly European Count Georgi (Lee Bowman), so Nancy looks for an All-American doofus to get the cash.

The eye-opening opener finds Nancy cruising by a WPA ditch-digging project in New Jersey, asking each worker if they’re married. She hits her jackpot with Anthony (James Ellison), a philosophical bum (he quotes Omar Khayyam) curious to see where this adventurous dame will lead him. He is friskier than she had expected, brandishing their marriage license and forcing her to go on an RV trip across the Southwest, with Count Georgi and the press corps on their tail.

Packed with incident and surprisingly rich characterizations, it’s a worthy imitator of the Frank Capra classic. The NY Times agreed, saying, “No student of the motion picture in its more thoughtfully budgeted branches can afford to miss it.”  Ball is given a juicy screwball character and she runs with it, flipping from an impudently immature socialite into a lovestruck klutz with aplomb. Both run on nervous energy, they just flow in different directions. James Ellison’s rough-hewn masculinity is a good foil for Ball’s machinations, the calm before her storm. Next Time I Marry was Garson Kanin’s second film as a director (he would be best remembered for his screenwriting career with his wife Ruth Gordon, which produced Adam’s Rib), and his work is swiftly paced and sensitive to his performers’ talents. In her biography Lucille, Kathleen Brady interviewed Kanin about the film:

She [Lucille Ball] was extremely inventive to the point I was surprised she didn’t want to write. Like most good actresses, she did not like to be directed. She did not need to be. She was her own self.

This self isn’t very evident in Look Who’s Laughing (1941), a radio star corralling exercise for ace director Allan Dwan. Ball is shunted into an admiring girlfriend role here, as Edgar Bergen and “Fibber McGee and Molly” take up most of the screen time. Here is Dwan in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich:

“M.C.A. wanted to get their people into motion pictures – they were beginning to build into this giant outfit they eventually became. And they did it by making packages. Instead of just representing people, they put people together. They had Edgar Bergen and ‘Fibber McGee and Molly’ – big radio stars – and they bought me away from my agent so I’d be one of their clients and part of a package. And so when they went to RKO, they supplied the whole works – stars, director and everything.”

After the studios were divested of their movie theaters in the 1948 Paramount Decision, this became the normal way of doing business, and remains so today. The agency delivered RKO a package, and the studio agreed to fund it. Look Who’s Laughing is an excuse for viewers to see these still wildly popular radio personalities in the flesh, so the plot conceives a way for Bergen (playing himself) and his dummy Charlie McCarthy to crash the world of Fibber McGee and Molly in Wistful Vista, somewhere in the Midwest.

After wrapping up another season on the radio, with Lucille Ball as his loving assistant Julie, Bergen and McCarthy fly out on vacation, but crash land in Wistful Vista. Fibber McGee is scheming to get an airplane manufacturer into the town, and Bergen’s business contacts could be the deciding factor. But of course there are some backdoor shenanigans by the theatrically villainous Gildersleeve (Harold Peary), and it takes a bit of deceptive seduction from Julie to right the wrongs.

The leads were radio stars for a reason. The Charlie McCarthy doll has more screen presence than the mono-tonal Bergen (and says the best line, “What fools we morons be”, to a soda jerk), while  Fibber McGee and Molly’s gentle bickering couple routine is anodyne and forgettable, the template for so many of today’s sitcoms in which a incompetent husband is indulged by a wise woman (they are the real life husband and wife Jim and Marian Jordan). I have no doubt their work is stronger over the airwaves.

Lucille Ball, while given little to do except look alluring in a nurse’s outfit and yearn after Bergen’s dead-eyed stare, pushes against the boundaries in her character. As with the other titles in the box set, she was assigned a type and invigorated it, this time injecting a frank sexuality and clumsiness to the stock “His Girl Friday” character. Lucille said, “I started as a model because I looked like a model, and ‘the other woman’ or ‘the career girl’ because I have a deep aggressive voice that has no softness or romance to it.” She took the talent at her disposal, sharpened them, and then tripped over them for a laugh.

MORE TO BE SAID: ALLAN DWAN

April 19, 2011

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“It is too early to establish any coherent pattern to Dwan’s career as a whole, but it may very well be that Dwan will turn out to be the last of the old masters. …there may be much more to be said…” -Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema

My weakness was that I’d take anything. If it was a challenge to me, I’d take a bad story and try to make it good.” -Allan Dwan to Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It

Allan Dwan has one of the more intimidating IMDB pageswith 405 directorial credits listed, spanning the years 1911 -1961. As with my on-going infatuation with Raoul Walsh, my haphazard path to Allan Dwan began with a random repertory screening, this time at Anthology Film Archives. The French filmmaker and critic Serge Bozon (La France), programmed an evening of idiosyncratic Westerns that handle male friendship in starkly different terms: Dwan’s Tennessee’s Partner (1955) and Jacques Tourneur’s Canyon Passage (1946). The former is a tender and forthright charmer, while the latter is an opaque and elliptical mystery. As I’ve been frequently enraptured by Tourneur recently (see here), I was surprised to find I found myself more wrapped up in the laconic rhythms of the Dwan film (although both are equally worthy). I then quickly queued up his two other 1955 features, Pearl of the South Pacific and Escape to Burma – and so I begin another auteurist binge.

Tennessee’s Partner (’55) was part of a string of low-budget action films that producer Benedict Bogeaus was packaging together for RKO. Jacques Tourneur had already pitched in with Appointment in Honduras (1953), while Don Siegel kicked off the remarkable string with Count the Hours that same year. Dwan would direct ten of these cheapies (three in ’55 alone), almost all of which used the same proficient crew of old pros, including cinematographer John Alton, art director Van Nest Polglase, editor James Leicester and composer Louis Forbes. In his study of Tourneur, The Cinema of Nightfall, Chris Fujiwara notes that “According to Dwan, Bogeaus’ budgets were never more than around $800,000 to $850,000, and the schedules were about fifteen days.” As Dwan told Bogdanovich:

Ben Bogeaus had lost his shirt on a bunch of pictures that he produced, and for a long time he did nothing. But he had been friendly with a fellow who became the general manager for RKO studios under Howard Hughes, and when they decided to encourage independent producers to come in and make pictures, they also loet Bogeaus in because of the previous relationship with the studio manager. The president of the company was…my old friend Jim Grainger. Now Bogeaus was notoriously extravagant in the early days, and they weren’t too confident that he could safely handle the kind of budget he’d have to use, so to give himself some security, Grainger reached out for someone with experience to go in and work with Bogeaus.

The mandate was to finish under budget and on time, and Bogeaus, no longer extravagant, became rather notorious for cutting corners. On Dwan’s last film, Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961), Bogeaus hired the crew on the lower wages of a two-part television pilot, even though it was intended as a theatrical feature all along.

This cheapness extends to the aspect ratio, for instead of paying for the CinemaScope process, RKO introduced the cut-rate SuperScope process, which essentially crops a 4×3 frame into 16×9. Glenn Kenny broke it down at MUBI:

Howard Hughes hired brothers Irving and Joseph S. Tushinsky to concoct a process. It is possibly one of the most ass-backward you will ever encounter. (My information derives from Robert E. Carr and R.M. Hayes’ invaluable book, Wide Screen Movies.) In SuperScope, the film is shot using standard 35mm cameras, lenses, film. Filmmakers were instructed that all action be framed “into a 2:1 aspect ratio with equal cropping from the top and bottom of the frame.” “The film was then cropped to 2:1; a 2:1 anamorphic squeeze was added, and the film was printed by Technicolor in ‘scope format with .715′ height and .715′ width. A narrow black strip appeared on the right side of release print frames to fill in the difference in the .715′ SuperScope width and the .839′ width of CinemaScope.”

Borne out of necessity as well as inclination, these films are sparse and economical, allowing the well-worn genre codes to fill in the blanks in the scripts and the open spaces in the sets. Escape to Burma and Pearl of the South Pacific are minor but diverting efforts, with characteristically impressive work by John Alton. Burma is the stronger of the two, introducing the latticework facade of Barbara Stanwyck’s Burma outpost in the opening, letting Alton’s shadows seep through it in the middle, and then ending with gun muzzles intruding into its intricate grille work. Pearl has some stunning location footage matched with awkwardly cheap studio shots, but still manages to wring dense, fully figured characters out of its pulp cut-outs.

Not much happens in Tennessee’s Partner, with most of the action taking place inside the emotions of John Payne and Ronald Reaganthe two eminently likable leads. Payne is Tennessee, the slick house cardsharp in a high-class brothel, or “Marriage Market”, run by Duchess (Rhonda Fleming). Duchess takes 10% of his winnings after he cleans out the rubes, but she’d like it more if he kissed her with passion. Instead, she gets the sloppy macho tongue slapping of a narcissist only after his own pleasure. Then Cowpoke (Ronald Reagan) totters into town, a mild mannered romantic who arrives to get married. Everyone is an archetype, identified only by a nickname. Howard Hawks certainly saw this movie before making Rio Bravo, another pared down Western heavy on nicknames and the vagaries of male friendship. It’s unnecessary to dwell on narrative-halting backstory when entire lives are present in a name. Whether Cowpoke or Tennessee, or Colorado, Feathers and Dude in Rio Bravo, you have a sense of these characters as soon as they step on-screen and introduce themselves. This allows Dwan and Hawks to focus on the inter-personal present.

One of Tennessee’s cleaned out poker mates tries to knock him off, and Cowpoke, just entering town, guns down the attacker instead. Tennessee and Cowpoke end up in jail on suspicion of murder. Instead of plotting escape, they sit in a tight two shot and talk, in a restful pace, about their lonely lives. Cowpoke laments his solitary life on the road, and Tennessee the constant pressure of having to maintain his perch, with young gunslingers always trying to take him down. It’s lonely at the top and the bottom, and the two men slowly bask in their mutual alienation.

The film progresses in this inverted manner – its heart on its sleeve and its story shunted to the background. Dwan said, “I’ve always preferred stories of intimacy. Spectacle is only useful commercially.” Tennesee’s Partner is a sweet distillation of this inclination. It’s a lovely, lulling experience to watch John Payne as his features soften the more he gets to know his pal. The cynical devil-may-care dash is replaced with nervous concern – as Cowpoke’s fiance turns out to be a gold-digger Tennessee knew back in San Francisco. The story moves on his inability to communicate his concernreflecting also his mulish refusal to admit his love of Duchess. It’s a movie about accepting and validating male emotionality. There is a moment when Payne lays his hand on Reagan’s shoulder, affirming their bond and their love, that stuns in its simplicity and grace.