Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Films of Allan Dwan at MoMA Part 2

Continuing on with the Allan Dwan series, thankfully each successive film revealed a far better portrait of the director and his work than the first week of screenings had indicated. While I am still not convinced Dwan is an auteur worthy of plentiful accolades, I do think that his work is far more important in discussing the B-movie units in the Hollywood studio era. As his career in sound films continued, Dwan's knack for finishing films quickly made him ideal for cranking out programmers for all of his contracted studios, including Fox Films/20th Century-Fox, United Artists, and Republic, not to mention his other studio work in-between. If anything, Dwan was perfectly capable of delivering solid small features with slight hints of finesse and enough entertainment value to warrant scholarly attention to the classic B-movie-making process.

Produced near the start of his long association with Fox Films, and subsequently 20th Century-Fox, Wicked (1931) has some interesting elements going for it: it's pre-Code, features women-in-prison scenes, and even has a little gangster violence. But in its brief 55 minutes, Dwan sets up a lot of potential that is rarely fulfilled. Margot Rande is imprisoned for accidentally shooting a policeman as they attempt to arrest her bank robber husband, giving birth to a daughter and forced to relinquish her to a children's home while completing her sentence. Upon her early release, she learns her raison d'ĂȘtre has been adopted by a wealthy childless couple, and stops at nothing to get her daughter back. Some superb camerawork excepted, this is a disappointment, made all the more unfortunate because there is so much potential here. The ending is in particular sloppily resolved, as if the studio was going to shut down production so a quick conclusion was shot so the film could be released on the bottom half of a double bill. The primary fault with the execution is, as with many Dwan films, in the casting. He proves time and time again that he was not at all an actor's director, and leading lady Elissa Landi, a pale imitation Ann Harding, is never reigned in from her over-the-top theatrics that sink any possible dramatic weight in her character's plight. One wonders what another actress could have done with this role, like Ann Dvorak or Loretta Young (who did play a similar role in 1934's Born to Be Bad). Landi is hopelessly inadequate, and Victor McLaglen as her knight in shining armor is little better. The proceedings are enlivened by Una Merkel, the bubbly Southern comic character actress who was always a welcome addition to many a low-budget studio film in the 1930s, as Margot's post-prison living companion. Merkel is second only to Joan Blondell in the comic blonde casting pool of the decade.

While Paris Sleeps (1932) is a prime pre-Code programmer, and perhaps the strongest Dwan title in the series thus far. It also should be noted that seeing this, Call Her Savage (1932), Hullabaloo (1933), and Wild Girl (1932) at recent MoMA screenings provides overwhelming evidence that the Fox Films library (before the merger with 20th Century) is one ripe for reappraisal. Their pre-Code titles are so different from Warner Brothers' gritty films of the same era, but no less surprising and entertaining. The film reunites Dwan with his Zaza (1923) child actress, Helen Mack, blossomed into a lovely twenty-something and delivering a quite compelling performance as Manon, a young French orphan whose mother has recently died and whose father died a war hero, or so she was told. However, the truth is less admirable: while he is a war hero, he accidentally killed a man in a bar fight, sentenced to a life imprisonment. Dwan opens the film with his escape from prison, and follows his journey through the back streets of Paris in search of his daughter, and when he finds her working in a dance hall frequented by "women without virtue" (pre-Code for prostitutes), he makes it his mission to do her one good deed to compensate for his absence in her life. In a swift 61 minutes, Dwan weaves a believable tale of patriarchal duty and self-sacrifice, with gripping suspense during the film's final race against time. In stark contrast to his earlier talkies (reviewed elsewhere), While Paris Sleeps has astonishing cinematography, and the set design, transforming a studio sound stage into the foggy alleys of Paris, seems to be the same used in Frank Borzage's 7th Heaven (1927). In a nice touch, all written dialogue is shown in French first, then fades into English. There is an organized crime subplot that allows for a rather horrific scene of a police informant thrown into a flaming furnace, kicking and screaming throughout. This gang also makes plans for Manon, namely shipping her to Brazil as part of the white slave trade. Yes, you heard that right, white slavery, one of many topics soon to be dispelled from Hollywood films after the Code. As in all Dwan films, the romance is stale and unconvincing, but Mack tries her darndest. She must surely be one of the most under-appreciated ingenues of the era. Victor McLaglen, three years before his Oscar win for a similar performance in John Ford's The Informer (1935), is a blustery likable presence, far better here than his previous work in Dwan's Wicked, and it's fun to see another Zaza co-star, Lucille La Verne, as the dance hall madam. One can only hope that 20th Century-Fox will start releasing the films of the original Fox Studio at some point as part of its movie-on-demand collection. There are bound to be more jewels like this one in the library.

A year before working with her again in One Mile from Heaven (see Dwan part 1), Dwan and Claire Trevor created slightly sophisticated diamond thieving fun in 15 Maiden Lane (1936). The duo would make 6 films together, and this is one of the best. Another brisk 20th Century-Fox quickie, this actually has enough charm and intrigue to pass for a studio A-picture, if it weren't for the 64 minute running time and the rather pat conclusion. The title is the address of the most lucrative jewelry retail building in New York, where an expensive diamond has gone missing. The prime suspects are Frank Peyton (suave Cesar Romero, who never looked better) and Jane Martin (Trevor), revealed to be professional jewel thieves who decide to work together fleecing the city's wealthy of their jewels. The twist is that Jane is actually the niece of an insurance agent, deciding to do some inside detective work of her own and trace the recent series of jewel thefts all the way to the top. Admittedly, some of the mystery becomes a tad convoluted, but it all comes together by the third act, taking some violent turns along the way. Trevor, resembling at times an earthier Lana Turner, never became a major leading lady, one of the great mysteries of classic Hollywood. She was never less than excellent in everything, coming to the larger attention of the public and the industry in William Wyler's Dead End (1937, for which she received an Oscar nod) and John Ford's Stagecoach (1939). But even those proposed star-making roles didn't make her hot box office. A new book, "Claire Trevor: Queen of the B's and Hollywood Film Noire" by Carolyn McGivern, will be released in July of this year, and about time, too. In Maiden Lane, she is sexy, smart, resourceful, and completely endearing. You will want to see everything she's ever done, a noble and worthwhile quest. Romero, remembered today mostly for his work on "Batman" and other late-period career moments, was at one point a reliable romantic lead in B-pictures, a fact vividly supported by his work here. What a delight to know now that he was batting for the man lovers' team. Marvelous support comes from slick Douglas Fowley as a devious P.I., Lloyd Nolan as the no-nonsense detective on the case, and Robert McWade as Jane's increasingly aggravated uncle. Another widely unavailable film worth tracking down.

Hiding behind the generic B-western title of Trail of the Vigilantes (1940) is one of the finest comic westerns Hollywood has ever made, as Dwan takes a tired story (cattle rustlers and a town's leader-turned-villain against outsider hero and comic relief assistants, with pretty girl love interest) and infuses it with inventive sight gags, snappy dialogue, and some of the best stunt work of the low-budget genre. According to Dwan, the film was written as a straight action picture, but he saw the cast he was handed and decided to have fun with it. Everyone in front of and behind the camera seems to be having a blast, and that sense of frivolity and creative excitement is vividly felt by the audience. Franchot Tone, the former Mr. Joan Crawford, is maybe the best he ever was as an investigative reporter who ventures to Peaceful Valley, a Western town with very little peace due to a rise in cattle rustling. Burly Broderick Crawford (always unconventionally sexy to these eyes) and irritating comic relief Andy Devine (afforded few good lines here) become his chums and bring him, as well as master of disguise Mischa Auer, to work on a local ranch. When Tone isn't fending off the advances of underage farmer's daughter Peggy Moran, he discovers the man in charge of protecting local farms from rustlers has a sinister past and may be the culprit behind the recent crime spree. Of course, he is played by reliable cad Warren William, so you know he's up to no good from his introduction. The final knock-down drag-out saloon brawl, followed by a roof-top chase and a violent fall to the death, is a stunner, and the clever comic elements enliven what would otherwise be a dull Saturday matinee western. This Universal programmer comes highly recommended, if you can find it anywhere.

Rendezvous with Annie (1946) was made as Dwan was funneling his way downwards in Hollywood studio prestige. Republic, a low-budget outfit best-known for its B-movie westerns, was apparently a place where Dwan felt comfortable and happy, as studio brass rarely interfered in his production process, and his films for the studio are among his most entertaining. The best way to describe Rendezvous is a mentally challenged Preston Sturges film, as it attempts to combine elements of Hail the Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (both 1944) but with none of the sly wit and attention to character that make Sturges' films classics. Here, Eddie Albert is a poor replacement for Eddie Bracken, as an American soldier stationed in London who goes AWOL on a three-day pass and secretly flies home to his small New Jersey hometown to surprise his wife (Faye Marlowe, in a strictly amateur hour performance) for their second anniversary. Nine months later, he returns home after being discharged and discovers his wife has given birth to a son...that the entire town thinks was fathered by another man. In order to gain an inheritance from his wacky uncle, Albert has to prove that he is the true father of his baby by tracking down anyone who can confirm his visit. The only problem: it was such a covert operation that turning up witnesses proves difficult. Considerably longer than Dwan's usual quickies, this is a painless comic misadventure helped by a very good supporting cast, including C. Aubrey Smith as a British aristocrat, Raymond Walburn as a slimy banker, William Frawley ("I Love Lucy") as a general who collects the autographs of every person he encounters, Phillip Reed and James Millican as Albert's fast-talking, quick-thinking Army buddies (a movie about them would have been better), and vivacious Joyce Compton (unforgettable as Dixie Belle Lee in 1937's The Awful Truth) as a nightclub photographer. A real casting coup appears in the form of Gail Patrick, sigh, Gail Patrick... 10 years previously, Patrick made her well-known mark as the devious sister to Carole Lombard in La Cava's My Man Godfrey (1936); the director cast her again the following year in another classics, Stage Door (1937). While her star never soared during her Hollywood career, her striking features and, sigh, that smooth, silky voice ensured her consistent work. She is a scene-stealer here as a nightclub singer aiding Albert in his mission, and has one heck of an introductory scene. Patrick would retire two years later, after working with Dwan again on The Inside Story (1948, to be covered later). The restricted budget shows most during scenes in Albert's hometown: Woodville looks nothing like a small contemporary town in New Jersey, or anywhere else for that matter, as it's obviously shot on the studio backlot so often used for Republic's quickie westerns.

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