July 16, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 the townspeople 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.