Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Films of Allan Dwan at MoMA Part 3

We enter the 1940s and 1950s with this continuing Allan Dwan retrospective, as Dwan reached a relative high before plummeting to the lowest point of his creativity.

Based on a popular play from the WWI era, Friendly Enemies (1942) was reportedly shot in 9 days, according to Dwan, but in fact took 21 days to produce (nice lie, there, Dwan). Shot on a set on loan from Paramount to independent producer Edward Small, for whom Dwan made five films, this patriotic propaganda piece, while still set in 1918, was timed perfectly to coincide with WWII and the need for national support of the war effort. Character actor darlings Charles Winninger and Charles Ruggles are Karl and Heinrich, two lifelong friends who emigrated to the U.S. from Germany and have made good in their plans for a better life. However, where Heinrich (who insists on being called Henry) has adopted the U.S. as his new home, Karl still feels allegiance to the heimat, so much so that he donates money to a propaganda machine claiming to be pro-Germany during the world war conflict. Karl's son, engaged to Heinrich's daughter, has secretly enlisted in the army to fight for America, much to his father's chagrin, though dear old dad feels much worse when he learns the money he donated went towards a German spy ring's bomb attack on the ship sending his son over to Europe. The film never really escapes its stage-bound origins, and other than Winninger and Ruggles, only fellow character actor great Otto Kruger makes an impression as the slimy villain Anton Miller. Nancy Kelly and James Craig are atrocious as the young couple (Dwan rarely, if ever, delivered on building believable romances in his films), though Craig is a stunningly handsome figure, and one referenced by Gore Vidal regularly in his camp classic "Myra Breckinridge". The narrative gains momentum near the end, though Karl's complete reversal in his national allegiance is overwrought and ridiculous, throwing out his German newspapers and replacing his framed portrait of the Kaiser with President Wilson. Ultimately Friendly Enemies is goofy pro-America propaganda, but is an interesting time capsule piece demonstrating how Hollywood worked hand-in-hand with the government to sell the war to the American public.

Reuniting Dwan with the marvelous Gail Patrick in what would be her last film, The Inside Story (1948) is a deliberately paced comedy of errors set in a small Vermont town in 1933 during the Depression. While the story is slight (an envelope of $1000 is accidentally dispersed among a group of townspeople, all of whom desperately need it), it is enlivened by the marvelous cast of familiar faces and delightful characters. When you went to work for Republic Studios during this period, it was pretty clear, depending on your previous star status, that your career was either not going in the right direction or you were being afforded better work than most majors were offering. In the case of Inside Story, it was mostly the latter. Gathered together here is a confident class of talented character actors and actresses, each given the opportunity to shine as unique characters. Patrick in particular, rarely given a leading role during her tenure at major studios in the 1930s and 1940s, shines as a devoted wife forced to support her household when her sad sack husband can't find employment as an attorney. She is much warmer here than many viewers can believe, based on her best-known roles. Top-billed is Marsha Hunt, soon to become a victim of the McCarthy blacklist, but here simply superb as a feisty small town girl forced to work at her father's hotel while waiting for her artist boyfriend to sell one of his paintings. Notice a pattern here? The women in the film are the movers and shakers, surrounded by men forced into stagnation by the Depression. Even the richest person in town is a woman, Geraldine Atherton, the wise-cracking owner of a once lucrative mill, played to perfection by divine character actress Florence Bates. Gene Lockhart (as Hunt's father, the blustery innkeeper), ever-charming Charlie Winniger (as Uncle Ed, the bumbling hotel clerk and narrator of the story), the hilarious Roscoe Karns (as the insurance agent whose money vanishes into the town's population), and crotchy Will Wright (as the money-grubbing banker) are all at the peak of their form in the world of Hollywood character acting. Tough guy Allen Jenkins and gangly Tom Fadden also show up as a New York gangster and a farmer, respectively. All of this gushing over the cast does not, however, excuse the almost far too light pacing of the story. It takes 45 minutes for the big plot development to take place, but once that happens, the narrative action never lets up, and truth be told, it's more involving because we've spent so much time with the characters and have grown to love them. One could almost call this film a low-rent Capra picture, by way of Dwan, and that is meant as a compliment.

Continuing his assured work at little Republic Studios, Woman They Almost Lynched (1953) is one of Dwan's most enjoyable films, and is a good example of low-budget westerns sometimes exceeding  their generic limitations. Joan Leslie, a good decade after she was the ingenue darling of Warner Brothers, is given a far better role than she was ever given at her old studio, as Sally Maris, a prim and proper young lady who takes a stagecoach to Border City, where her brother Bill owns a saloon. Another fallen star, Brian Donlevy (reportedly a pain in the ass to work with), co-stars as Quantrill, a rebel rouser who massacres the Union soldiers escorting Sally on her journey, then attempts to blackmail the foreman of Border City's lead mines into filling his pockets with the stuff. Jim Davis (before "Dallas" and, er, Dracula vs. Frankenstein) is Quantrill's right hand man, who intends to force Sally into matrimony before leaving town. Audrey Totter could never play a believable "good girl"; her eyebrows and mouth always had a perpetual sneer to them, though she gets to play both sides of the fence as Kate Quantrill, a wanton woman who was abducted by Quantrill before she could marry Sally's brother...and took the Stockholm syndrome to a whole 'nother level by marrying her kidnapper. Her feud with Sally reaches two violent climaxes with a cat-fight for the ages and a gunfight in the streets of Border City. The movie stops cold for two song numbers featuring Totter, who can at least lip synch quite well (pretty sure her vocals were dubbed by Peggy Lee). Totter is joined by her B-list film noir contemporary, Ann Savage, several years after her incredible turn as Vera in Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945), who plays the ringleader of the wisecracking trio of saloon girls. You barely recognize her because, well, she smiles a lot and wears makeup and garish costumes, a far cry from the dirty, sweaty, snarling look film fans are familiar with. She is marvelous support in her last film for 33 years. Frankly, the men are left in the dust here (in some cases literally). Even the town mayor is a brash, hard woman, Delilah Courtney, played by Nina Varela with such toughness and ferocity that Hope Emerson would cower in fear. Similarities to Johnny Guitar (1954), also produced by Republic the following year, are far too glaring to chalk up to coincidence, right down to the casting of youthful Ben Cooper in essentially the same role (though his character here has a famous name). This film does not reach the masterpiece levels of Nicholas Ray's color gender-bending western, but Dwan's woman-on-woman conflict does feature some interesting sexual politics of its own, namely when Sally advises Kate to "act like a woman". In a gender role reversal on Guitar, Kate wears pants and Sally a dress, while in Ray's film the heroine wore pants and the villainess wore a dress. Come the finale, sisters are doing it for themselves in a wholly satisfying twisting turn of events. Most wonderful of all is Leslie, stretching her acting muscles, getting physical with stunts, and still looking damn near perfect.

Nearing the end of his career, The Restless Breed (1957) is a tremendously cheap western, produced independently on ridiculously phony-looking sets and distributed by 20th Century-Fox. Shabbily directed and edited, and just as poorly acted (though leading man Scott Brady, at his beefcakiest, gives it his all), there is very little to recommend about this cliche-ridden genre entry. Brady saunters into town to seek vengeance for the murder of his lawman father, befriending the local preacher and his adorable adopted moppets, including the eldest, Angelita (Anne Bancroft). It's humiliating to watch Bancroft, five years before her first Oscar win (1962's The Miracle Worker) and ten years before her career-defining work in The Graduate (1967), in such a thankless and cliched role. It's almost too perfect that Roger Corman regular Leo Gordon shows up as the standard heavy, because this film looks and feels like a Corman film from the same period: super cheap and bringing nothing new to the table. The most irritating element of the film is the editing; Dwan cuts from action to random cutaway shots of characters in what look like alternate dimensions listening in on who the audience should really be looking at. Scott Marlowe's screen time is pretty much all in cutaway, as he chews on the edge of his hat or on a piece of rope while listening to supposedly important dialogue. He ditches town during the finale...leaving us to wonder what the hell was the point of his character and all that cutaway footage anyway? Jim Davis returns to work with Dwan in what is essentially a glorified cameo as the mysterious murderer of Brady's father, who shows up in the final 10 minutes. Perhaps the ultimate reason the movie doesn't work is because by 1957, westerns had taken over television, proving the most successful programs with viewers nationwide. Even though this film was shot in color (the print shown at MoMA was in black and white), there's nothing here you couldn't see on television for free. It's not even shot in the then-standard Fox CinemaScope, since the shoddy sets would be more obvious if photographed with any attempt at grandeur. Among the worst films of Dwan's filmography. In his interview with Bogdanovich, the two claim that he was making an intentional comedy in an attempt to save face. Unlike Woman They Almost Lynched, which has particular moments of clearly intentional camp and tongue-in-cheek humor, this film fails even on that level.

No comments:

Post a Comment