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.HighTension00031HighTension00032


January 27, 2015


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.


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

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.


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?”