Friday, June 21, 2013

The Films of Allan Dwan at MoMA Part 1

When he was interviewed by Peter Bogdanovich for a career retrospective book on his career, Bogdanovich chose the title "The Last Pioneer" to describe his place in cinema history. When he was discussed in the auteurist bible, Andrew Sarris' "The American Cinema", he was written about in glowing terms, endorsed by Sarris as "the last of the old masters" and pondering if there was "much more to be said" about his oeuvre. Over the years, his reputation continues to build into a kind of feverish cult, known as "Dwaniacs", reaching an apex with the recent MoMA series, a new book by Frederic Lombardi, and a recently published 460-page dossier containing essays by multiple academic authors shouting praises for his work. Does Allan Dwan warrant all of this attention as an unsung auteur deserving of attention from scholars and film fans alike? In a word, no. For all of his technical innovations in the silent era, and proposals of recurring themes involving family and paternity throughout his work, Dwan has a handful of good, not great, films scattered in-between thoroughly average and in some cases well below average films. As the MoMA series continued, I struggled to get excited about discovering new facets of Dwan as a filmmaker as various examples of his fragmented career with multiple studios unfolded in the grand Theater 1 of the museum. But with each new film, I became further convinced of his mediocrity. This is part one of several blog entries that will attempt to cover the series in its entirety. Who knows? Perhaps by the conclusion of the series, I will have turned over a new leaf and be shouting for the re-evaluation of Dwan from the rooftops of the city. But with the first week done and gone, I am now dragging my feet to future Dwan screenings. Frankly, in terms of B-list directors, I'd be more interested in a Lew Landers retrospective. Now there is a director in need of renewed scholarly attention.

Dwan became a director purely by accident. Trekking out to a California location for the film company he was working as a story man for and discovering the director had abandoned the production, he stepped in and basically never stopped. The earliest film in the MoMA series, The Mother of the Ranch (1911), is little more than a short entertainment with a capsule story brought to life by a seemingly non-professional cast. Dwan would shoot an incredible number of these for the company Flying A throughout the teens. In this interesting trifle, a man leaves his mother to make his fortune in the west, but finds it easier to be a cattle rustler and is killed for his trouble. She arrives out west looking for him, but is told he died a hero and then adopted by the seven cowboys who tracked him and killed him...The End. Subsequent shorts made for Flying A, including Calamity Jane's Ward, Man's Calling, and The Thief's Wife (all 1912), were also screened in the series, but I decided to bypass them. In doing so, I did miss a 45-minute incomplete version of 1917's The Fighting Odds, shot for the Goldwyn Company before it morphed with Metro Studios and Louis B. Mayer to form M-G-M. An audience member reviewed the film negatively on IMDB.

And then there was David Harum (1915), one of the dullest and most forgettable films of this early silent era, courtesy of Adolph Zukor's Famous Players, before it morphed into Paramount Pictures. It is also the only surviving film of the many Dwan made for the studio. The "famous player" here is the esteemed and lavishly billed William H. Crane, a popular stage actor lured to the movies by one of Zukor's lucrative studio contracts. He recreates his stage success of the title character, a jovial banker in a small town who is apparently the nicest guy on earth. Harum figures into the chemistry-free romance between a young man he hires as his right hand man and a young New York socialite he lures to the sticks to be a schoolteacher. There are two needlessly confusing conflicts involving stolen money (of course the Snidely Whiplash employee is to blame) and a widow's overdue mortgage, and very little else to be seen in terms of film form, style, and content. Auteurists make note of the first use of the dolly shot in cinema, but this adds mere historic value to a film that is otherwise not worth sitting through. Most of Dwan's photography is, as it would remain for most of his silent work, made up of simple camera set-ups and and long single takes, indistinguishable from the many other directors of that era. The sole point of interest is second male lead Harold Lockwood, a handsome and talented actor who died in 1918 at 31 during a nationwide flu epidemic. He so closely resembles Mark Blum, who played Rosanna Arquette's clueless husband in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), that one could swear they're related. They were both even born in Newark, NJ.

With a receding hairline and a double chin, it's tough to imagine Douglas Fairbanks as box office dynamite in the teens and into the 1920s. He bears an uncanny resemblance to Al Jolson, and that is not terribly flattering. But what he lacks in matinee idol looks, he makes up for with admirable athleticism, performing his own stunts with much derring-do. It is for this reason Fairbanks is still fondly remembered today; a number of MoMA audience members applauded wildly when his name and face appeared on-screen. He made 11 films with Dwan, and four of them were included in the series.

Two of the earliest were paired in a double-feature. The print screened at MoMA of The Half-Breed (1916) was roughly 25 minutes long, missing many important scenes of exposition and the entire final reel (possibly the last two). In such poor condition, it is perhaps tough to judge the film as a whole, but what remains here is nothing to get excited about. The story of a half-breed named Lo caught between two women, a white preacher's daughter and a traveling gypsy performer, and pursued by a sheriff who is actually his father isn't particularly interesting. Ohher than a surprising practically nude introductory scene of Fairbanks and beautiful outdoor scenery, there just isn't enough surviving movie here to warrant any interest. A later Dwan-Fairbanks collaboration, A Modern Musketeer (1917), plays like a Buster Keaton film with an extra boost of adrenaline, and is a noted improvement on their previous work. Fairbanks (far too old for the part) plays Ned Thacker, a proposed reincarnation of D'Artagnan, the wildest Musketeer of Dumas' classic story. Half-Breed, Dwan captures the picturesque outdoor locations with an eye for wide vistas and vivid depth of field, but unlike that film, this one is a lot of fun, mixing comedy and action in ways that only Jackie Chan would convincingly do in the decades to come. One moment of surprising brilliance appears when Chin-de-dah is asked to reveal his bride to be; the villain shows Elsie a reflection of herself in his Bowie knife. It's a shining jewel of creativity in a worthwhile and entertaining affair, with decent stunt work by Fairbanks and some humorous moments that still wouldn't give Keaton any sleepless nights. Look fast for Zasu Pitts as a Kansas neighbor gal enamored of our reckless hero. The print in MoMA's collection was restored by the Danish Film Institute and looks spectacular. It is still missing some exposition about Forrest Vandeteer and his alter ego, Forrest Barris, but it's not hard to follow what remains here. We are treated to a raucous opening sequence of D'Artagnan destroying a tavern and defeating all of its male inhabitants in battle simply to return a damsel's handkerchief. Flashing forward to contemporary Kansas, Ned seeks new adventure on the open road, and happens upon Elsie Dodge, her mother, and grifter Forrest Vandeteer, who is courting Elsie with a cross-country road trip. The quartet make their way to the Grand Canyon, where local Indian chief Chin-de-dah sets his sights on Elsie with the intention of forcing her to marry him. Naturally Fairbanks doesn't intend to take this laying down.

After his split with Fairbanks and moving back to the east coast, where he felt more comfortable working, Dwan teamed for the first time with Gloria Swanson, an actress he would make eight films with (only four survive today). Their debut collaboration, Zaza (1923), is based on both a novel and play of the same name. Classic film fans may acknowledge the 1938 version starring Claudette Colbert, which might be an improvement over this one. The title character, a thoroughly unpleasant and vain showgirl in a popular cabaret, performs on-stage by dangling over the audience on a giant swing, throwing flowers onto the men sitting underneath her. That is the extent of her act, but she aspires to sing on the Paris stage. She competes for audience approval with Florianne (Mary Thurman, who practically steals the movie), who seeks vengeance for Zaza's catty backstage violence by cutting the rope on her swing, leading to an accident that puts our "heroine" out of commission for a spell. During that time, she falls in love with a Parisian businessman (the far too old H.B. Warner) who hides a secret that threatens to tear them apart forever. Dwan's photography is far more assured and versatile here after years of trial and error; his mobile camera on Zaza's swing is quite a sight. But the narrative of the film is the problem here. Zaza is such a nasty character that we don't much care for her happiness. She is always a sight to behold, in outrageous costumes and plentiful jewelry in the shape of the letter "Z". Swanson always had a hard veneer to her on-screen persona, projecting something cold and unapproachable in almost every character she played. Her performance here is also in stark contrast to the women around her, all of whom emote in styles that still seem contemporary and not at all dated. Thurman in particular is wonderful as Florianne, the frienemy who becomes a very important figure as the story progresses, and the tragic Yvonne Hughes (strangled at age 50), as Zaza's maid, comic character actress Lucille La Verne, as Zaza's elderly female caretaker, and the barely-billed actress who plays the other woman (credited in a title card in the film, but apparently nowhere else in print) make more of a vivid impression than the film's star. Over time, Swanson's acting would improve. By the sound era, particularly in 1933's Perfect Understanding, she was miles ahead of her work here. The screening was blessed with a glorious live accompaniment by Ben Model.

Dwan reunited with Fairbanks for The Iron Mask (1929), an early attempt to wade in the waters of sound filmmaking for both director and star. Fairbanks, looking younger than in many of his previous films, stars as D'Artagnan, the wild and carefree Musketeer from the pen of Dumas, and a character he had previously played in both Modern Musketeer and Fred Niblo's The Three Musketeers (1921). This version of Dumas' "The Man in the Iron Mask" is not without its charms, but looks and feels far older than it is, more in keeping with the style and storytelling of the early 1920s and not Hollywood's new sound era. That said, the film benefits from very good pacing and editing, enhancing the suspense and excitement to be found in the action sequences (including an early scene with a knife-wielding Milady de Winter). The sole sound scenes occur when Fairbanks, in character, addresses the audience directly, speaking in prose through badly matched dubbing. Believe it or not, the musketeer Aramis is played by Eugene Pallette, soon to be a familiar rotund character actor in 1930s films, most notably as Friar Tuck in Curtiz' The Adventures of Robin Hood and the beleaguered family patriarch in La Cava's My Man Godfrey (1936). Adolphe Menjou, another familiar face in sound cinema, shows no sign of his later talent in his campy, over-the-top portrayal of Louis XIII. The version screened at MoMA is incomplete at 96 minutes, but is still longer than the version on Netflix, which is a 72-minute re-release version from 1952, including Fairbanks' two sound addresses to the audience but replacing the title cards with new narration by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

As Dwan entered the sound era, he, like many of his contemporaries, struggled with the new technology and it took a few hiccups before he got back up to speed. Man to Man (1930) is one of those hiccups. Burdened with a lackluster cast, with a leading man as talented as Evie Harris in "Asteroid!", and a not quite compelling story, Dwan is on autopilot for this First National-Vitaphone quickie programmer. It wouldn't be until at least 1931-32 that First National's 60-70-minute-long wonders, distributed by Warner Brothers, would really deliver the goods, with directors like William Wellman and Mervyn LeRoy providing reliable and consistent direction. Until then, audiences were stuck with garbage like this. College campus golden boy Michael Bolton (stop that snickering!), played by deadly dull Phillips Holmes, loses his run for class president when it is discovered his father has been convicted of murdering the man who killed his brother. The one scene of potential excitement is never shown, in a classic low-budget move. Michael returns home to his small town home, where he begins working at a bank; 18 years later, dear old dad is let out for good behavior and tries to rebuild his life by opening a barber shop in town. There's a romance between Michael and saccharine blonde Lucille Powers, a juvenile mystery involving stolen money, and a half-hearted resolution between father and son. Classic film junkies may want to see Dwight Frye in an early sound role, appropriately enough as the villain of the piece, but they might also be discomforted by the black stereotype comic relief. Only Grant Mitchell, as the jailbird father returning home to make good, makes a lasting impression among the cast, with a very strong performance that kept him in character roles throughout the 1930s and 1940s. His resume is filled with noteworthy credits, including the currently-lost Convention City (1933). Silent director-turned-actor George F. Marion isn't half-bad as the bank manager, either.

Chances (1931) is another hiccup, also shot for First National and still saddled with a disappointing cast and a strictly by-the-numbers wartime romance plot. Brothers Tom and Jack, both soldiers in the British Army during WWI, are torn apart by their love for a beautiful woman they've known since childhood. Historical value can be found in the fact that Dwan was paired with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. here, the son of his frequent leading man. Fairbanks Sr., for all of his unorthodox movie star looks, at least had charm and a gimmick to entice people into theaters in the silent era. Fairbanks, Jr., however, despite being more handsome than his father, lacked almost all of his charisma, and his movie career never really took off to the heights his legacy might have anticipated. Decades later, he is best-known as Mr. Joan Crawford from 1929-1933 (including during production of this quickie). Rose Hobart, a poor man's Norma Shearer, is a disappointing romantic interest, though dashing Brit Anthony Bushell, resembling a less smug George Sanders, does a more than capable job as the cuckolded brother. Character actor par excellence Tyrell Davis, whose pursed lips and tightly clipped mustache were a fixture in 1930s films, is memorable as a mincing family friend. The WWI battle sequences are pale imitations of those found in Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), the previous year's Best Picture Oscar winner, but Dwan shows some flair for action photography and editing, enlivening the last act of the film considerably. And the final scene of the film is surprisingly moving and downright dreary, even with its proposed "happy ending". Not a complete waste of time, but also not at all indicative of a developing auteur at work.

During his duration as a contract director for 20th Century-Fox, Dwan directed two of Shirley Temple's most noteworthy films, Heidi (1937) and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), neither of which are included in the series (for shame). In-between came One Mile from Heaven (1937), a 67-minute programmer with a B-list cast and a storyline that would feel more at home in the pre-Code era, and probably would have been better handled at a studio like Warner Brothers by a director like LeRoy. Claire Trevor, a decade before her Oscar win for Key Largo (1945), plays 'Tex', a tough-talking newspaperwoman a few years before 'Hildy Johnson' in His Girl Friday (1940). Anxious for a story, and sent on a wild goose chase by her male reporter competitors, she pursues a human interest piece after discovering a white girl, appropriately named Sunny, with a black mother, Flora, living in a predominantly black neighborhood. Quelle horreur! The publicity of the story inspires the juvenile authorities to investigate, but just when it seems the case is open and shut, a wrinkle appears in the person of an ex-con with the truth about who little Sunny is. The shining moments of the film are in the press room scenes, with Trevor holding her own surrounded by a trio of conniving numbskulls, and demonstrating that Trevor deserved to go on to the better projects ahead of her. She remains one of the studio era's most underrated actresses, and is the biggest reason to see this film. Child actress Joan Carroll, proposed by Fox as a Shirley Temple heir apparent, is nowhere near as talented or appealing as the studio's primary breadwinner, and her career was short-lived, though she must have learned a few acting tricks over the years since this film because she is superb in Gregory La Cava's Primrose Path (1940). [Now there is an auteur who needs a MoMA series!] Making an incredible entrance, tap-dancing on the city sidewalks and beckoning all the children of the black neighborhood to come running to see his moves, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson is a scene-stealer as a neighborhood cop with a love for hoofing. That said, some of his "Amos 'n Andy" dialogue is grating, and the same goes for Eddie "Rochester" Anderson as a neighborhood store owner. Fredi Washington, so artificial in the original Imitation of Life (1934), has vastly improved in her acting skills, though this would be her last film of a very brief career. Considering the racial politics seen here, and her future as a civil rights activist, it's perhaps not that surprising that she chose to exit the business after this one. And that is the biggest problem with the film, and perhaps why it's so obscure today. While it's not as offensive as other key examples of politically incorrect Hollywood cinema, the resolution to the dilemma here is an uneasy one, putting the black characters in their place (the domestic caregiver role) and championing white saviors in solving social ills. Bill Robinson's response to the final judgment in the case is particularly unsavory. I sat in stunned disbelief as the film ended, negating all of the seemingly positive steps the film was making towards some sense of equality. As a social and historical artifact, I have to recommend One Mile from Heaven (1937) as an example of how the studios addressed race issues during this time. Eagle-eyed film fans will enjoy seeing Leonard Kibrick, an Our Gang alum, as a mouthy juvenile delinquent, and Lon Chaney, Jr., a few years before he became immortalized as The Wolf Man (1941), as a helpful cop at the policeman's ball.

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