Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on July 2, 2013
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.
Allan 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.
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.
Before Dwan began his ten film run with Douglas Fairbanks in 1916 with The Habit of Haoppiness (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.
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.
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.
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