ALLAN DWAN (A DOSSIER)
ENGLISH LANGUAGE VERSION
EDITED BY DAVID PHELPS & GINA TELAROLI
TABLE OF CONTENTS Allan Dwan's Moral Tales — The Art of Metamorphosis (The Silent Period) — Angels in Exile (The Sound Period) Michael Henry Wilson The Griffith Tradition John Dorr The Cliff and the Flume Bill Krohn The American Pastoral Jean-‐Loup Bourget Ten That Make A Work Chris Fujiwara Lessons For Architects José Neves The Uncertainty Principle David Phelps Inspection des Dwan Serge Bozon
8 18 31 38 45 51 57 68 98
Manhattan Madness (1916): A Note on the Inter-titles Noah Teichner A Modern Musketeer (1917): Adventures in Fairbanks-Sitting R. Emmet Sweeney He Comes Up Smiling (1918): “A Full-Steamed Comic Opera” Daniel Fairfax and Louis Delluc Manhandled (1924) Farran Nehme Stage Struck (1925): Laws of Hospitality Maxime Renaudin The Iron Mask (1929): Gone The Silent Faces Sabrina Marques Separate But Equal #1: Tide of Empire (1929) / GT Man to Man (1930): Oscillations Ted Fendt Separate But Equal #2: Chances (1931) / GT Separate But Equal #3: Black Sheep (1935) / GT High Tension (1936): Laws of Attraction Maxime Renaudin
130 133 138 145 150 155
One Mile From Heaven (1937): Two Dwans in One Ted Fendt Allan Dwan & Shirley Temple: The Man and The Machine Mathieu Macheret Separate But Equal #4: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938) / GT Josette (1938): Awkward and Proud of It: Joan Davis Michael Lieberman Frontier Marshal (1939): Shadows of Disorder Filipe Furtado Sailor's Lady (1940) Cullen Gallagher Young People (1940): Welfare State Zach Campbell Trail of the Vigilantes (1940): Horse Sense Maximilian Le Cain Separate But Equal #5: Rise and Shine (1941) / GT Up in Mabel’s Room (1944) / Getting Gertie’s Garter (1945): Vector Mobiles Daniel Kasman Brewster’s Millions (1945) / Driftwood (1947): On Excess Carlos Losilla
182 186 189 196 200 205
Rendezvous with Annie (1946): The Home Front C. Mason Wells Calendar Girl (1947): Outsider Visions: Dwan with a Movie Camera Christopher Small Calendar Girl (1947) / I Dream of Jeannie (1952): Classic / Anti-Classic Daniel Kasman Separate But Equal #6: The Inside Story (1948) / GT Sands of Iwo Jima (1949): As long as you won’t be forgotten Marie-‐Pierre Duhamel Surrender (1950) Cullen Gallagher Montana Belle (1952) Fernando F. Croce Sweethearts on Parade (1953) Dave Kehr Woman They Almost Lynched (1953): Welcome to Poverty Row Alfonso Crespo Silver Lode (1954): L’axiome à affirmer en fait de ballet Andy Rector and Bill Krohn Passion (1954): Notes on Form and Space in the American West Graham Swindoll
229 252 257 274 278 280
Cattle Queen of Montana (1954): Seeing Daylight Gina Telaroli Escape to Burma (1955): Escape To See Arnau Vilaró Pearl of the South Pacific (1955): In The Beginning Was The Beginning Pablo García Canga Tennessee’s Partner (1955): I Didn't Even Know His Name Santiago Gallego Slightly Scarlet (1956): Observations Joe McElhaney Hold Back the Night (1956) Cullen Gallagher The River’s Edge (1957): To Deserve a Few Tears Matthew Flanagan Enchanted Island (1958) (Or The Taboola Rasa) David Phelps Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961): Kiss Me Deadly Christoph Huber The Flamethrower and the Flame Daisuke Akasaka
ALLAN DWAN'S MORAL TALES
Michael Henry Wilson Translated by Ted Fendt
I The Art of Metamorphosis (The Silent Period)
The Half-Breed (1916) “It takes great audacity to dare to be oneself.” —Eugène Delacroix, Journal, January 15, 1860 A sleeping vagabond dreams he is a hero in the Far West, saving damsels in distress, pulling them free from runaway wagons and burning ranches, while meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, some street urchins are playing with matches and setting his clothes on fire. This anti-‐ hero who aspires to heroic exploits is the protagonist of A Western Dreamer (1911). In this tragi-‐comic western, Allan Dwan’s first or second short film, one can already recognize the filmmaker’s taste for parody, impersonation, mixing genres, surprise twists—and most of all, masked games. Private or proclaimed, the dream of most of his adventurers will be to change their identity. Whether of leather or satin, iron or velvet, the mask has an intoxicating quality: it brings together pleasure and danger, it joins drama and comedy together.
An Irish—hence romantic—storyteller, Dwan loves characters that boldly move forward on the chessboard of life. His sympathies go out to orphans or rootless individuals endowed only with their imaginations, to dreamers who tend to mistake their desires for reality. More often than not they have to cheat, and sometimes end up getting burned. But their fertile imagination is also what spurs them to be enterprising, to change their world if not the world itself. What is important is not to let oneself get stuck in the role one's been born into, but to reinvent oneself, to try on all the masks, to give expression to all the possibilities contained within. These many identities are the dreamer’s privilege, the reason he stands out in the crowd. And the filmmaker is always ready to celebrate his exploits, however prickly or poignant, comic or dramatic. In the Sargasso Sea The genre that best lends itself to masked games is probably the comedy of manners—as exemplified by Dwan’s collaborations with Gloria Swanson, his favorite actress. The main inspiration here is in deception—or rather, more specifically, in the schemes of a modest employee whose naivety exposes her to a series of disappointments. In Manhandled (1924), Tessie, a sales clerk in Manhattan, thinks she can escape her position by posing for a sculptor, then by modeling. She trades the sales rack of a department store basement for a highfaluting fashion boutique where her boss makes her pretend to be a Russian countess. In Stage Struck (1925), Jennie, a waitress in a diner in Virginia, fancies herself as the next Sarah Bernhardt. She secretly pursues acting courses by mail and tries to imitate a popular actress by walking with her nose in the air. Her first show turns out to be a disaster: she has to put on a hood and boxing gloves in order to be... the comic foil to her rival. In both films, the indignities undergone by the heroine culminate in Chaplinesque humiliation when she loses her pants during a reception or onstage. Play the diva and you'll end up the clown! In a comedy of errors the costume plays a crucial role. More than an accessory, it is a disguise. It denotes a posture, a pretense, a misrepresentation. The bravura sequences are the ones in which the poser gets tangled in her artifice, the masks stop fooling anyone, and mirrors begin to reflect the truth: Jennie is left to rehearse a tear-‐jerking melodrama in front of a funhouse mirror that makes her look even more ridiculous. Swanson's posers act like princesses, but betray their origins by chewing gum at a straight-‐laced party and ordering pancakes at a princely banquet. It is up to her male partner to put an end to these put-‐ons, to remove the make-‐up—literally—with a rag. In the end, the suitor’s entrepreneurial spirit prevails: Jennie and her love, a cook, open a small business...a pancake stand, which will be off limit to actresses! In Manhandled, Tessie is brought down to earth by her fiancée, a self-‐ made Irishman who is about to reap a fortune from a patent sold to the auto industry. 9
Dwan’s egalitarianism goes hand in hand with his sense of self-‐determination, a deep-‐ seated faith in willpower. In his first feature film, David Harum (1915), the protagonist is already imbued with a variety of seemingly contradictory identities: he is at once a horse trader and philanthropist, a public figure and nonconformist, a banker and a local angel of mercy. A shape-‐shifting, unpredictable figure, he is more than just a good neighbor: he exhibits genuine humanity and compassion towards those who were born on the wrong side of the tracks. A flashback reveals that his altruism goes back to his childhood: left to fend for himself after running away from home, he built his fortune on the penny given to him by a generous carnie. Ever since, we find out, he has spent his time improving the lot of all those around him, down to the destitute old black man whom he regales with a cigar in the epilogue. The strongest sequence comes as he prevents the lynching of an innocent man. We see the square fill with people talking about taking justice into their own hands. The community is on the verge of turning into a mob. Harum succeeds, cunningly, in defusing the violence, but tensions of that nature might still seem surprising in the context of such jovial Americana. We’re not too far from the witch-‐hunt of Silver Lode (1954). If there is a “plural” hero, one who can manage multiple incarnations, it’s no doubt Douglas Fairbanks, with whom Dwan shot some eleven films. From the start, the filmmaker seems to have been on the same wavelength as the actor—who was also author and master of their joint projects. As Dwan explained to Peter Bogdanovich, “Stunts per se were of no interest to him or to me. The only thing that could possibly interest either of us was a swift, graceful move—the thing a kid visualizes in his hero.“1 In sum, it was a matter of combining panache and humor, comedy and adventure—and so they designed a character for whom life would be one big game. Every role suits him, on the condition that he gets to play the lead. Nothing can stop him. Mobility—professional, social, cultural—is an integral part of his personality, as is his appetite for life. He can wear overalls or a smoking jacket, a loincloth or suit of armor, because any persona might mutate into another: the employee becomes a prince; the bandit a do-‐gooder; the young country boy a modern musketeer...and even, if necessary, a harem beauty! The fable can be contemporary or medieval, can take the form of a western or a swashbuckler, but its moral remains the same: faith will move mountains. In He Comes Up Smiling (1918), Jerry first appears to us as at his bank teller's counter, a prisoner of his job. The striking visual metaphor, worthy of The Incredible Shrinking Man (Jack Arnold, 1957), reduces Fairbanks to the size of a doll. He balances on his trapeze like a canary in a giant cage. Fittingly, it’s by chasing his boss’s canary that he frees himself, leaves his “cage” and becomes a vagabond. The tramp's wanderings represent a return to natural life and the joy of living: look at him dancing like a fawn while mimicking Tarzan’s acrobatics. The metamorphoses continue: chance leads him to borrow the clothes, and hence identity, of a
financial mogul. In no time at all, our American dreamer is transformed into a wolf of Wall Street and destined to staggering success. In The Habit of Happiness (1916), Fairbanks is the link between two socially antithetical groups. Sunny, a daddy’s boy, decides to dive into the “Sargasso Sea of humanity,” or, to put it more simply, to share in the lives of the less fortunate. Finding them depressed, he decides to boost their morale through a regime of "feel-‐good" gymnastics and juicy steaks. After turning the flophouse into a gentlemen’s club, he returns home to try to cheer up his father and his entourage— “pampered idlers” just as burdened by their wealth as the poor were by their destitution. It doesn't take long for his recipe— ragtime—to transform the bourgeois household into a palace of good humor. His sunny optimism is so contagious that it resolves all the conflicts: all that is needed to reconcile two Irish clans—or to seal the alliance of a boss and his workers against a gang of racketeers—is a funny story. In Manhattan Madness (1916), the contradictory roles given to Fairbanks play on a geographical divide. Two extremes collide: East against West, the city jungle against the wide-‐open country. O’Dare, a cowboy from Nevada, goes to New York where his friends put him to the test by making him confront a masked gang. Only after proving that he is cut from the same fabric as a Nick Carter, does O’Dare discover that his adversaries were actors hired to fool him. His response is to turn the hoax against its perpetrators: he puts a scarf over his face, proclaims himself Black Burke, the worst desperado in the Rockies, and kidnaps the beautiful girl with apposite flair. The man of the Far West has the last word, the last laugh, which is only right given his good old Irish blood. Right off the bat, the prologue for A Modern Musketeer (1917) justifies its title, presenting Ned as the reincarnation of d’Artagnan. Instead of sword-‐fighting in a tavern, he exchanges blows in a speakeasy, beating up one thug after another as if they were Richelieu’s henchmen. And for good reason: he acquired his taste for the musketeers’ exploits while in the womb, his mother having spent her pregnancy reading Alexandre Dumas. Born during a tornado, Ned can only be a human cyclone. Suffocating in his native Kansas, he leaves his parents as soon as he can, mounts his steed (a Ford F), and heads off in search of wrongs to right. Don't all errant knights have d’Artagnan as their model and patron saint? Dwan confirms as much in While Paris Sleeps (1932), where the good boy, naturally named Gascon, hangs a picture of the musketeer in his bedroom. Appropriately, his last film with Fairbanks, The Iron Mask (1929), is a beautiful, nostalgic homage to Dumas’ heroes. We again find the theme of double identities in Robin Hood (1922). Before roaming Sherwood Forest, the beloved bandit is King Richard’s vassal, and therefore forced to abide 11
by all feudal customs. His banishment seems to delight him: he is much more at ease in the skin of an outlaw, happy to trade the castle's constraints, its fratricidal intrigues and complicated courtly love, for a primordial life with his Merry Men. No longer must he wear a helmet—a nuisance when you sport a handlebar moustache—nor risk being chased by a throng of hysterical damsels, those cheerleaders of medieval tournaments. Fairbanks is not afraid to change both his appearance and personality midway through the film. The heavy-‐ hearted knight turns into a malicious Peter Pan, an elusive Ariel whose facetious adventures inspire Dwan more than the hazards of the Crusades or the vileness of arch-‐ villains (who always make the mistake of taking themselves too seriously). It’s better to laugh than to cry: this is a golden rule for our storyteller, always happy to soften the sting of melodrama and enjoy a hearty guffaw. Yet the irony of contradictory identities can also lend itself to drama. The duality is sometimes embedded in the title itself, like The Good Bad Man (1916), an oxymoron that might apply to a good number of Dwan’s later protagonists, from the female prisoner in Wicked (1931) to the professional gambler in Tennessee’s Partner (1955). Fairbanks' Passing Through in The Good Bad Man could be a descendent of Robin Hood. But this outlaw who defends widows and orphans—or rather, teenage mothers and illegitimate children who remind him of his own destiny—views his wanderings as a curse: “There’s no place for me on this earth. I have had no father.” Thus he has remained a child, hoarding only his pilfered, petty treasures: a firecracker, a whistle, a magician’s scarf… Fairbanks’ companion can only be someone equally ill-‐fated: Bessie Love, who lost her innocence too soon like one of Griffith’s broken blossoms. The two victims of society can only free each other and escape together towards a distant horizon. “I have had no father.” This cry might have been uttered by the mixed-‐race character in The Half-Breed (1916), a drama of intolerance. A drama, because this time the hero has no hope of overcoming the handicap of his birth. Raised by a white natural scientist after his mother’s death, dressed as a trapper when he isn’t fishing naked in the river, Sleeping Water is an outcast in every sense of the world. His domain is the deep forest; his home the hollow trunk of a sequoia. Civilization can only teach him “the bitterness of betrayal.” The sheriff pursues him with unrelenting racist hatred, without suspecting that he is persecuting his own son. The pastor puts him in his place with the condolence that, “after all, you’re only an Indian.” Integration is out of the question—even in the Excelsior saloon, a melting pot of whites, blacks, and Chinese. The only Indians allowed to enter are the circus workers, a trio debauched by alcohol, whose grotesque jig is interrupted by Sleeping Water as he entreats them to recover their pride. The link between sexuality and racism is established with unexpected audacity. The woman who ignites the flame, the story’s Lilith, is Nellie, the pastor’s daughter, a coquette 12
in whom the half-‐breed inspires both desire and repulsion. She provokes him, even initiates a kiss, and sends him back to the forest. Accused of touching a white woman, Sleeping Water is exposed to public condemnation. Nellie exonerates herself by pretending that she only wanted to teach religion to the pagan. Nature is all that remains to the noble savage, where another untouchable joins him, a prostitute (and Hispanic to boot): Teresa, a modern Marie Magdalene, the kind loved by Borzage and Griffith (who supervised the film). Their life together in the Carquinez Woods has, at times, the mischievous lyricism of one of Borzage’s romances. Believing that the half-‐breed will abuse her the same way the whites have, she is resigned to unlacing her bodice, but he reassures her, and they go to sleep under the stars. When he brings her back a dress that he stole from the flirt in the city, he has these astonishing words: “Here’s something to disguise yourself with.” Nellie’s dress is no longer associated with desire, but with duplicity. From Sequoias to Skyscrapers The Half-Breed anticipates Tennessee’s Partner, inspired by the same author, poet and novelist Bret Harte. In many ways, however, it is also a Walshian film avant la lettre, as it sketches out the universe of The Big Trail (1930) and Wild Girl (1932, also adapted from Harte): the forest of sequoias as sanctuary, the nobility of men on the outskirts of society, the communion of outcasts, the intolerance of Puritan colonists, the sanctimoniousness of the pastor, and even, at the end, the departure of the couple towards the unknown. As in Walsh, each shot of nature tells us that it belongs to the pure of heart and will always be their ultimate refuge. Witness the suicide of the Indian Silver Fawn, the half-‐breed’s mother, who throws herself off a promontory overlooking an immense expanse of forests and prairies. In a beautiful internal rhyme, we see Fairbanks’s profile in the same composition as his mother when it is his turn to be banished. Dwan shares this gift for topography with his friend Raoul. Observe, for instance, how he sets up a gunfight on either side of a gigantic tree trunk that vertically divides the screen, as Walsh will do in the finale of The Big Trail. Long before Walsh, Dwan was inscribing his heroes in expressive landscapes, exploiting irregularities in the landscape to dramatic ends, and intercutting high and low-‐angle shots in the climactic moments of his action sequences. As early as The Poisoned Flume (1911), he was stylishly choreographing a lengthy shoot-‐out around a wooden aqueduct that would serve as the criminal's hideout and finally tomb. And in The Power of Love (1912), a cliff forms the boundary line between the cowboys and the fishermen, determining all the twists and turns of a murderous vendetta. The natural settings are magnificently highlighted in A Modern Musketeer, for which Dwan again collaborated with Victor Fleming, his director of photography on The Good Bad Man. The Grand Canyon’s geography, in particular, dictates beautiful changes of scale: by alternating close ups and long shots, the silhouettes—sometimes tiny, sometimes giant—stand out or melt into the cyclopean panorama. The sight of an Indian burial ground hollowed out in 13
the rock high above the valley floor precedes the one in Walsh’s Colorado Territory (1949). Elsewhere, Dwan rivals the Walsh of The Thief of Bagdad (1924) or even the Griffith of Intolerance (1916). In Robin Hood and The Iron Mask, for example, frail human figures move at the foot or on top of colossal castles that sometimes reduce them to the size of ants. Princes and yokels, nobles and commoners are, quite democratically, all in the same boat. Nevertheless, thanks to the depth of field, one can follow the gestures of the actors and the extras moving on several planes (ramparts, crenels, walkways) at once. The space is only waiting to be invaded and conquered. As massive as it is, there is no set that the hero cannot climb, no natural obstacle he cannot overcome. Robin demonstrates as much when he climbs from one level to another during the attack on the fortress, all on his own, from the drawbridge to the balcony of the tower where Marion must be rescued. For Dwan, who deals with such acrobatics with the elated precision of a choreographer, the direction of a film becomes the direction of space. It's here that one finds the secret of his dramaturgy and perhaps even of his poetics. One can see it, a contrario, in the Swanson comedies, in which the heroine’s misfortunes are linked to confinement. Jennie is stuck between the counter and the stove (Stage Struck), while Tessie escapes the claustrophobia of her basement only to be packed like a sardine in an overcrowded subway (Manhandled). By contrast, in Fairbanks’ adventures, the hero’s intrepidness suggests a prodigious agility that defies gravity itself. His control over space inspires, among other marvelous stunts, the long continuous shot in which the musketeer of Kansas climbs, in one bound, to the top of a church steeple to mimic a human weathervane; Robin Hood’s graceful slide down the huge curtain that covers the castle's wall; or the episode where d’Artagnan takes advantage of a spiral staircase to dispose of a horde of cut-‐throats. Here, freedom of movement becomes a matter of life and death. When his companions are pinned in an underground passage, Porthos sacrifices himself, blowing everything up with a barrel of gunpowder. The convict Costaud will do the same to save his daughter at the end of While Paris Sleeps. Dwan's romantic voluntarism reaches its apogee with East Side, West Side (1927). George O’Brien plays John Breen, a bargeman and illegitimate child who raises himself up by the sweat of his brow. He appears, in turn, as a ragamuffin, a boxer, a foreman, an engineer, and a builder. Imagine Gentleman Jim deciding to become architect Howard Roark from The Fountainhead (1949). His model? Charles Lindbergh. John’s rise is played out on several fronts, from East to West of course, but also from the earth to the sky. It begins in the murky waters of the East River, continues through the digging of the subway tunnels (his first construction site), and culminates on the penthouse of a futuristic skyscraper. The brick, which represents his dream and possibly his very character, is the picture's 14
recurrent motif. It is introduced early on, when John picks one up on the barge and sees it, with the help of a superimposition, transformed into a skyscraper in the palm of his hand, as if, in an instant, he could subjugate reality to his will. For Dwan, the city is a gigantic foundry. Far from crushing people, it spurs and repays their ambitions. But it is a place where you may have to first lose yourself in order to find yourself. Was that not, at its heart, the lesson of Manhandled? John barely survives the barge’s sinking after a giant cargo ship hits it, but finds himself miraculously reborn on the East Side where even more extravagant adventures await him. Having lost everything, John becomes an Everyman, able to traverse all milieus and classes. As a matter of fact, our young Irishman is taken in by a tailor who offers him a bath, fits him for an Oxford suit and re-‐baptizes him “John Lipvitch.” It is among the immigrants of a Jewish ghetto that he will undergo both his social apprenticeship and his sentimental education. Ironically, this Moses saved from the waters is called upon to become the mythic Samson when he holds up on his shoulders the beams of a mine shaft threatening to collapse. Paternal absence again plays a decisive role. Like the “Half-‐Breed” and the “Good Bad Man,” John seethes with rage at never having known his father, a West Side blue blood whose entourage prevented him from marrying the servant he impregnated. And yet, this father whom he swore he'd kill will eventually try to help him succeed. Incognito, the millionaire rescues him from the world of boxing and enables him to pursue his dreams of brick and steel. John won’t have to kill him: poetic justice will take care of things. Just as the mother drowns herself in the East River when the barge is going down, the father passes away when his ocean liner hits an iceberg and sinks like the Titanic. At the end of the story, the bastard son has become his father’s equal, a member of the elite who are building the city of the future, one of the masters of the new Metropolis. When it comes to lovers' trysts, Dwan might even match Walsh. In Dwan's films too it is often the woman, ardent and sharp, who takes the initiative (see, as early as 1912, the western gallantries of Cupid Through Padlocks), even when she pays a hefty price, as in Maiden and Men (1912), a dry and cruel fable reminiscent of Maupassant. Three provocative scenes stand out in East Side, West Side, beginning with the one where the tailor’s daughter Becka (Virginia Valli) takes her time drying and hanging her undergarments in the bathroom where John is waiting to get undressed. He will need to lock the door to protect his modesty. Later, she exposes herself by climbing a ladder. (There’s even an indiscreet mirror positioned in the background to duplicate the spectacle.) When she comes down, she lets John grab hold of her and in a bold move – perhaps borrowed from Charmaine, the young French girl in What Price Glory? (1926) – feels his biceps: “Gee, you’re strong!” Just as transparent is the metonymy of the small
folding bed she prepares for him with loving care, but whose slightly comical narrowness is certain to make the desired frolic uncomfortable, to say the least. Becka’s antagonist is Josephine (June Collyer), a young snob who carries herself with just as much audacity. An internal rhyme links the two rivals: when Josephine seduces John, we notice a big four-‐post bed behind them that is the aristocratic counterpart to the proletarian folding bed. In both sequences, the kiss gives way to the de rigeur ellipse, but the bed’s presence in the frame leaves no doubt about the happy outcome of the flirtation. In fine, the bar girl wins out over the pampered swell. Sacrificing herself so she won’t hinder John’s career, she turns out to be his worthy companion, whereas the poser discredits herself by her selfishness. That was the conclusion of The Half-Breed, where the wild girl turned out to have more dignity than the pastor’s daughter. Thirty years later, it will also be the conclusion of Silver Lode and Tennessee’s Partner, Dwan's paradoxical moral tales where female outcasts prove to be the salt of the earth. Social fresco? Picaresque comedy? Melodrama? East Side, West Side is all of these, entirely in keeping with the style of its self-‐made man and his curious destiny. The changes in tone are legion and just as unforeseeable. This goes for the drama of the Titanic—recreated in a handful of dreamlike and extremely concise shots—through to the reverse tracking shot that follows the errant path of a half-‐dazed man for no other reason than his priceless mug. Throughout the film, Dwan attests that the effect of “subjective vision” can be equal parts comic and dramatic: a KO’d boxer imagines the hilarious après-midi d'un faune, whereas John sees Becka's face in a mannequin wearing a wedding dress in a store window. As in Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), the desire is soon fulfilled, its object magically materializing. And as often in Dwan's movies, clothing lends itself to a variety of gags, from George O’Brien’s embarrassment while trying on pants to J. Farrell McDonald’s clowning around while cross-‐ dressing as a charwoman. No wonder these shifting identities make the hero dizzy. The city that he set out to conquer is also the capital of betrayal and deceit. Instead of building, shouldn't he be destroying everything? John’s confusion inspires the quasi-‐surrealist excesses of the final act. In a moment of disarray, he decides to sabotage his career: he will make these New Yorkers pay dearly for their duplicity by committing the most spectacular suicide. He dresses up as a “gentleman,” (disguises himself, The Half-Breed would say), and returns to where his saga began, determined to unleash violence and chaos across the entire East Side. We see him, in the low-‐key lighting of an Apache bar, get wasted while looking at his reflection—fascinated by this alter-‐ego in a smoking jacket whom he barely recognizes— then run from one dive to the next while fighting scoundrels of all stripes with a methodical ferocity, worthy of a d’Artagnan! John ends up, more dead than alive, at the door of Becka’s speakeasy, just in time to sober up and save her from rape. It is a 16
grandiose rescue, a fitting climax to an unclassifiable work that is as enchanting and breathtaking as a rollercoaster. Our Gentleman John paves the way for Gentleman Jim. His multiple identities are bound to disorient him, but nothing slows him down. From one role to the next his boldness grows as he finds in himself the audacity to realize his wildest dreams. We never doubt for an instant that the world belongs to him; that he is capable of crossing the Sargasso Sea and reaching the heights he’s set for himself. If East Side, West Side has a message, it is simple and applies, undoubtedly, to most of Dwan’s films: it is left to each individual to create himself, by fist or by sword, brick by brick or in one fell swoop, without fear or false modesty, amidst bursts of anger and roars of laughter. Every man can forge his destiny and become a hero if he doesn’t allow himself to be defeated by adversity. Hadn't this already been, in 1911, the noble aspiration of the Western Dreamer? 1 Peter Bogdanovich, The Last Pioneer (New York: Praeger, 1971), 42.
II Angels in Exile (The Sound Period) “I have a heart and I intend to do what it tells me.” —Arlene Dahl, Slightly Scarlet Feelings are to convention what the heart is to reason: they always find a way of ignoring, bypassing, or turning it upside down. Such is the credo of Allan Dwan, a romantic smuggler who brings beauty to light in the most unlikely places and situations. The famous “detour” in Tennessee's Partner may define his poetic art: two escapees (John Payne, Ronald Reagan), pursued by a group of furious rabble, are about to be lynched, but forgetting their instinct for self-‐preservation, return to give a farewell kiss to the “Duchess,” their guardian angel (Rhonda Fleming). Far from the traditional ingénue, the latter is a high-‐class adventuress whose gambling saloon shelters a brothel known euphemistically as “The Marriage Market.” Could the “Duchess” be a good fairy? Undoubtedly. Is not her fiefdom an enchanted palace? With his customary simplicity, the filmmaker suggests this by decorating the set with an abundance of magnificent scarlet flowers. Unexpected in a desert gold-‐town, these bouquets are endowed with the same mysterious grace as our three chivalrous outsiders: more beauty than you would ever expect in the primitive West of the prospectors. Who other than Dwan would dream of using roses and gladioli to link the fate of his protagonists and invite them to listen only to the dictates of the heart? Romantic Paradoxes Dwan is above all a storyteller. In this he is close to Walsh, by whom he has long been overshadowed (just as La Cava was by Capra). In addition to great generosity, they share that taste for romantic paradoxes which seems natural to Griffith's progeny. Both worked within a production line system, but their strategies were as different as their temperaments. Whereas Walsh galloped at breakneck speed towards the ever-‐receding horizon, Dwan hardly left the paddock, content to trace circles within a narrowly circumscribed perimeter. If the first was bent on “setting cinemas on fire,” overturning genres, violating censorship codes, capturing the sound and the fury of the century, the second, ever subtle, always smiling, continued on his good-‐natured way, making the best of whatever constraints he encountered, be they narrative, technical or financial. This meant staying as far as possible from the upheavals of his time. Whenever he could, Dwan nudged his projects towards the fable, apologue or parable, even when he portrayed historical figures (Ferdinand de Lesseps in Suez, Wyatt Earp in Frontier Marshal). His oeuvre is thus detached from any contemporary reality -‐ seemingly impervious to the zeitgeist.
This is clearly apparent in the postwar period, Dwan's period of maturity. Flight Nurse and Hold Back the Night feature the Korean War as backdrop, but these are symbolic stories, centered on a talisman or a fetishlike object (a tube of lipstick, a bottle of Scotch), which could be set in other places or conflicts. In Silver Lode, he smuggles in an allusion to the witch-‐hunts, but in the guise of a western where the hero's nemesis is an impostor by the name of... McCarty (sic). And the film's dramatic crescendo is orchestrated by crosscutting between the forces of good and evil that is pure Griffithiana. Although Most Dangerous Man Alive evokes the nuclear threat, it is within the framework of an apologue that harkens back to the biblical burning bush rather than to the Cold War. Most of the films directed by Dwan during the fifties are somehow timeless: they could have been conceived of in the pioneering era when he assisted “Mr. Griffith” on Intolerance, worked for the Triangle Company, and collaborated with Douglas Fairbanks and Gloria Swanson. (Is this why they've aged so well?) Sometimes, Dwan's films mirror one another across several decades, such as The Half- Breed (1916) and Tennessee's Partner (1955), both inspired by Bret Harte stories. Edmund Lowe in Black Sheep (1935), for which Dwan wrote the story, is the prototype of those big-‐ hearted professional gamblers who appear in so many of his later works, and in particular in Tennessee's Partner, whose script he co-‐authored. Heidi (1937) and Driftwood (1947) echo each other, both fairy tales where the adults have more to learn from the children than vice-‐versa. The iconography of “paradise lost,” of a precious garden devastated by the iniquity of men, links Tide of Empire (1929) and Cattle Queen of Montana (1954), among others. In Silver Lode (1954), John Payne is saved from a lynching by a fake telegram, but the same dramatic device (along with the notion that the end sometimes justifies the means) had already appeared in Man to Man (1930) in which Grant Mitchell is saved from prison by fake evidence given by his friends. Victor McLaglen, the convict in While Paris Sleeps (1932), is modeled after Les Misérables’ Jean Valjean, while Walter Brennan, the sheriff in Surrender (1950), is identified with Javert and Dennis O'Keefe, the pastor in It's Always Sunday (1955), recalls the evangelical figure of Mgr. Myriel. The title of a 1916 picture with Douglas Fairbanks, The Good Bad Man, could be applied to many of Dwan's films: the ambiguous character, slightly off-‐balance, torn between grace and sin, is always more interesting than the pure hero or the straightforward villain. The rogue who mends his ways, the arrogant man who shows humility, the criminal who wants to redeem himself, these are the figures that are likely to inspire our romantic. From his first period (see in particular David Harum, 1915) dates Dwan’s predilection for small town life, the remote province, the micro-‐communities which formed the traditional framework of “Americana”: the backwaters of the West or New England, dilapidated ghost towns or corrupt border towns, Californian or Mexican ranches, and sometimes even an 19
enclave in the heart of the big city (like the Greenwich Village of Calendar Girl, an artists' paradise). The location might be a mythical place (Tombstone in Frontier Marshal) or purely allegorical (Mission in The Restless Breed), but what excites Dwan is the intermingling of men and experiences, the wealth of diverse emotions in a compact space. The small town on the studio back-‐lot is probably nothing more than a gambling hall, a hotel, two street corners, maybe a church, but it's a little theater where all the actors of the human comedy intermix. Their comings and goings, their constant interaction, enliven a frame that Dwan prefers full, dense, even packed. A skilled master of the art of trompe-l'oeil, he can count only on his ingenuity to choreograph such a rowdy, colorful bunch. The production is short of money? No problem. The more limited the budget, the more he uses extras in his crowd scenes—and bouquets of roses in his intimate ones. (No wonder Dwan detested CinemaScope, a format that made such sleight of hand more costly and even more complicated.) One should expect from Dwan neither the populist mythology of a Capra, nor Vidor's lyrical celebration of the land and its virtues. With him, the picture is convivial in appearance only. The provinces call for satire: from its humus spring the weeds of meanness, hypocrisy, and narrow-‐minded conservatism (Young People, Rendezvous with Annie, Driftwood, The Inside Story). You certainly don't want to live there once the veneer of civility flakes off. Tennessee's Partner pillories the well-‐to-‐do bourgeois and the prospectors possessed by gold fever. In Silver Lode, to celebrate Independence Day, a jubilant community displays the Star-‐Spangled Banner everywhere, pontificates about the Constitution's fine principles, but in rejecting one of their own, whom it presumes guilty, reverts in the space of a few hours to the primitive savagery of the lawless West. For the smalltime town is no oasis of tranquility. It's more like a crazed chorus; or a microcosm in a state of effervescence, where one can evaluate each individual's vested interests, passions and resentments. For Dwan, the ideal story is an ensemble piece, one where he can give a voice to every citizen, from the humblest to the most powerful. Better still, the chorus illustrates our mutual interdependence -‐ as with the chain of debts that link all the characters in The Inside Story. Here is a world where each has a role to play, even the con man, even the bootlegger; and it is understood that this role should never be seen as immutable. The casting of roles seems settled once and for all? Don't trust appearances! Observe, rather, the remarkable contiguity of good and evil, vice and virtue. All it takes to call everything into question is to thrust a stranger into the microcosm, be he innocent (Driftwood) or ambiguous (The Restless Breed), a force for good (Tennessee's Partner) or for evil (Silver Lode): the righteous reveal themselves to be hypocrites; decent folks turn into a lynch pack; the sheriff and the outlaw make friends; the just discover they need outcasts; and the pariahs find in themselves an unsuspected grace. This dynamic can be seen sketched out in Frontier Marshal (1939), where the star couple's romance is gradually overshadowed by the torments of the two “marked” characters who are haunted by their past. Dwan's sympathy 20
lies with the splenetic Doc Holliday (Cesar Romero) and Jerry the bar hostess (Binnie Barnes), both far more romantic than the inflexible Wyatt Earp (Randolph Scott) and his fiancée Sarah (Nancy Kelly). And the strange bond of brotherhood between Earp and Holliday -‐ love at first sight between two strangers who discover they share a common loneliness -‐ foreshadows that of Tennessee and Cowpoke in Tennessee's Partner, which will be formed even more simply, on a simple bench and in one long static shot. After the war, when he went to work at Republic Pictures, our craftsman was sixty years old, with forty sound feature films to his credit. He’d knocked around all the Hollywood sound stages, but it was the meager resources of Poverty Row that awaited him at Republic (fifteen films), followed by a stint with Benedict Bogeaus' independent productions (ten films). He had only limited control over his raw materials, cast and script. If one believes his interviews with Simon Mizrahi (in Présence du Cinéma, fall 1966) and Peter Bogdanovich (Allan Dwan – The Last Pioneer, 1971), his personal inclination was towards comedies. But these were about to disappear from his repertoire. He made his farewell to the genre with Rendezvous with Annie, a bittersweet fable that was as indebted to It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra) as to The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (Preston Sturges). Indeed, it was the period when character studies took precedence over plot mechanics. Laughter gave way to emotion, which was henceforth to be his only and abiding concern. Dwan's creatures were tossed around like puppets in his farces of the forties; now they were to blossom into human beings. To reveal their hidden nobility or their peculiar dignity was the ambition of this otherwise accommodating moralist. He handled his storylines as he did his sets, which most often were “borrowed” from more opulent productions. Unable to create his stories from scratch, he could at least endow them with a new freshness and vigor -‐ express a secret beauty that had been too often obscured by clichés and stereotypes. There's a fine example of this alchemy in Sands of Iwo Jima, a war film that might have been insipid if Dwan didn't focus on the hero's torments rather than on his acts of heroism. No generic archetypes are avoided, but one after another they are undermined by the gradual revelation that John Wayne is much more vulnerable than the GIs in his charge. The drill sergeant's harshness can't mask the sadness of his personal life. They are in fact inseparable: Sergeant Stryker exerts on his young recruits the paternal authority he has never, as a civilian, been able to assume with his own son. Every time he steps out of his role as instructor, Dwan shows him in an entirely different light, like a wounded animal, numbed by alcohol, haunted by his personal weaknesses. In the most astonishing episode, our veteran meets a bar hostess, as lost as himself, who turns out to have the same name as his ex-‐wife. She takes him back to her place, where he discovers she is bringing up a child by herself. Cut to the quick, the centurion behaves like a gentleman. No question now of indulging in the soldier's traditional recreation. John Wayne slips away after the girl, surprised by this delicacy of feeling, has promised to “pray” for him. A life sacrificed calls 21
for a sad, senseless death: Stryker falls near Mount Suribachi just as the victory flag is being unfurled. His last words: “I've been a failure in many ways.” The tone of Dwan's films is not defined by their adherence to any one particular genre. During the thirties, he combined two or three opposite genres in the same film, particularly comedy and melodrama (Black Sheep, One Mile from Heaven). Later, he tried, less successfully, to parody formulas that had worn threadbare (The Three Musketeers, Trail of the Vigilantes). At Republic, sometimes he'd serve up a crazy cocktail, such as mixing Russian operetta with the western (Northwest Outpost). Dwan, unlike his peers Ford, Walsh, or Wellman, wasn't concerned with exploring, stretching or opening out Hollywood genres. He wasn't, for instance, part of the postwar trend to revitalize traditional film genres with an increased realism. He went, rather, in the opposite direction, traveling the high roads of melodrama which, like Providence, work in mysterious ways. It was the heartbreaking twists of fate that stimulated his imagination. This surfaced in the Kafka-‐like tragicomedy Rendezvous with Annie (an involuntary deserter pays nightmarish consequences for a night of love with his wife), as well as in the musical biography I Dream of Jeanie (musician Stephen Foster discovers the blues when he picks up an injured black child). It pervaded the romantic effusions of such pseudo westerns as Surrender and Belle le Grand. It was at work in a piece of “Americana” like Driftwood (the tribulations of the orphan Natalie Wood), a gangster film like Slightly Scarlet (the traumas of nymphomaniac Arlene Dahl), war chronicles such as Sands of Iwo Jima and The Wild Blue Yonder (the pathos of the anti-‐hero redeemed by the ultimate sacrifice), and even Most Dangerous Man Alive, where Dwan discarded the science-‐fiction plot in favor of a Christly metaphor (the man exposed to nuclear radiation expiates his sins as well as mankind's). The Grace of the Outcasts Because emotion, like beauty, is best represented by a woman's face, Dwan is, with Walsh, one of the first to feminize the adventure film. He highlights his heroines in traditionally masculine genres, from the western to the crime film. She is the one designated by the very title in Driftwood and Angel in Exile, Belle le Grand and Montana Belle, Pearl of the South Pacific and Cattle Queen of Montana. No field of action is barred to her: she thrives as a cattle-‐breeder or as a colonial plantation owner, as a lady of leisure or as a barkeeper, in military service or in the boudoir, at the gambling table or in the cabin of a bomber plane. Both outlaw (Belle Starr) and honky-‐tonk queen (“the Gilded Lily”), Jane Russell wins out on all counts (Montana Belle). This is also the case with Vera Ralston, who pursues a thousand intrigues, speculates on the stock exchange and sows scandal by using all the weapons at her disposal, starting with sex (Surrender, Belle le Grand). Their excesses are forgiven... as long as they don't lose their femininity. A routine film on the surface, Flight Nurse is quite original in showing war from the point of view of a nurse who is as comely as 22
she is generous. Far from hiding her charms under the uniform, she shows them off to assert the right to life and beauty. Dwan thus makes a kind of erotic ritual of her applying make-‐up, particularly lipstick: Joan Leslie, in empathy with her wounded patients, knows that her sex appeal provides far more comfort to them than her medical attentions. In desiring her, they commune with their wives or girlfriends. When it comes to healing, desire is granted the same power as prayer. From Frontier Marshal on, we find that compassion and sensuality go hand in hand in Dwan's work. When she's not fighting at his side, it is the heroine who rescues her man in dire straits. Doc Holliday, between life and death, is watched over by both his lawful wife and his mistress. John Carroll in Belle le Grand benefits from the same treatment. In Silver Lode, John Payne can rely only on his wife (Lizabeth Scott) and his former mistress (Dolores Moran), who join forces in a most unusual alliance. This tender solicitude is fully reciprocated by the male characters: Anthony Quinn reconciles with Debra Paget, his unfaithful wife, to save her from gangrene (The River's Edge), while Robert Ryan abandons all resistance when he realizes that Barbara Stanwyck has been wounded in the fighting (Escape to Burma). In his final films, we see Dwan defy the censors and celebrate the boldest gestures, all the finer for being spontaneous. The heroine who listens only to her heart shows amazing daring, like Stanwyck taking the fugitive who emerges from the jungle into her home (Escape to Burma), Jane Powell undoing her sarong to use it as a sail (Enchanted Island), Anne Bancroft running to join Scott Brady in his hotel room in defiance of all propriety (The Restless Breed), or an almost naked Elaine Stewart transmitting her vital warmth to Ron Randell, who has been exposed to atomic radiation, by lying over him (Most Dangerous Man Alive)... It is almost always female desire that calls the tune. Dwan's romantic intrigues are structured around two privileged figures, the angelic woman and the femme fatale. They are symmetrical figures, and strangely related, since they are more often than not two sisters. Like those in Belle le Grand: the pure and innocent singer (Muriel Lawrence) as against the adventuress with a murky past (Vera Ralston). In I Dream of Jeanie, roles are inverted: the altruistic ingénue (Eileen Christy) as against the egotistical prima donna (Muriel Lawrence). In Surrender and Slightly Scarlet, the patience of the well-‐balanced sister (Maria Palmer, Rhonda Fleming) is matched by the provocations of the neurotic one who keeps playing with fire (Vera Ralston, Arlene Dahl). In Most Dangerous Man Alive, the contrast between the two women, between lust and love, is established through their erotic behavior: Debra Paget provokes Ron Randell by exposing first one leg, then the other, to incite him to remove the rest of her finery, whereas Elaine Stewart gently curls up against him to assure him that he's still human -‐ that he can still feel and stir emotion. The demarcation line between the “fatal” and the “angelic” becomes slightly blurred in Woman They Almost Lynched: here we see the frail Joan Leslie, a delicate flower from the East Coast, 23
turn into a saloon girl to survive in the West, while Audrey Totter, the cruel muse of the Quantrill gang, becomes civilized and humanized after being spared by her rival. Discovering they stand united in the face of men's violence and concupiscence, the two women outdo each other in acts of nobility and eventually help each other out. Dwan wasn't the kind of filmmaker to openly subvert the stories he was given. It's enough for him to illuminate an antithesis here or an internal rime there, to make the drama yield a rich morality or, even better, a moral beauty. When properly distilled and refined, a routine script can take on the form of a fable. And the black and white certainty that was de rigueur in assembly-‐line production is roundly trounced. In Dwan’s films of the fifties, the dividing line between the good and the bad is not self-‐evident; it is susceptible to unexpected combinations or delightful permutations. Better than any discourse, fiction's twists and turns come to illustrate the inanity of convention, the arbitrariness of prejudice, the relativity of the judgments we pass on our fellow men. They remind us that evaluating people's actions is risky, that it requires patience, humility, and honesty. Dwan sometimes delegates a secondary character to fulfill this very purpose. Hence the presence of the young Jesse James in Woman They Almost Lynched: the figure of a soon-‐to-‐be-‐legendary bandit is sufficiently engaging to deserve a long dialogue sequence in the stagecoach, although it serves no narrative function. (One may also see it as a nod to the first of the “good bad men,” Dwan's beloved Robin Hood.) What we recognize here is the companion to Griffith, the veteran of Intolerance, who found more nobility amongst outcasts than amongst upright citizens that have never deviated from the straight and narrow. The lost sheep, the last-‐minute helpers intrigue him more than the righteous. Look at them, con men, outlaws, troublemakers, high rollers, adventurers secretly tortured by their lost innocence. The cynicism they flaunt melts as soon as a loved one is in distress or a friend needs help. Then they are capable of rising to the ultimate sacrifice. Such turnarounds confer an aura of mystery, if not a soul, to actors who otherwise seem short on charisma. See his “vehicles” for John Carroll and Vera Ralston, Republic's “house” stars. They surprise, sometimes delight us, because the emphasis is on the protagonists' ambivalence: they never do what we expect them to. A hardened criminal risks all to pry his best friend away from the clutches of an adventuress; he will end up dying for a crime he hasn't committed (Surrender). A wheeler-‐dealer who appeared to be utterly ruthless risks his life going down a burning mine to save victims that have been given up for dead (Belle le Grand). Finer still, the itinerary of the thief who, coming to collect his booty in a poor pueblo, is taken for a “miracle man;” thanks to this saintly halo, he comes to behave as a spiritual healer and decides to give the gold away to his flock (Angel in Exile). What does the ever-‐optimistic priest in It's Always Sunday tell us? To disarm the brigand who's planning further mischief, lend him your car, send him on your errands, trust him, 24
and you will reap what you have sown. This evangelical charity accounts for the dramatic arc of so many of Dwan's pictures. Almost nobody is beyond redemption. Consider the “good bad girl,” a female counterpart to the “good bad man.” When “Montana Belle” goes off for a picnic with her fond banker, she forgets to rob him and abandons herself with insouciance to the delights of a garden swing in front of a painted backdrop! Admire how the “Pearl of the South Pacific,” a prostitute who passes herself off as a missionary, reveals her true nature, such as her repressed maternal longings, when she sings “Ten Little Indians” for the island children. Virginia Mayo's accordion is matched by Dolores Moran's music box in Silver Lode: there's nothing like a familiar melody to suggest the beneficent role reserved for a particular character. (Notice also how Dwan associates Bill Shirley with the flute in I Dream of Jeanie or Ronald Reagan with the harmonica in Tennessee's Partner.) For him, there is no such thing as a “lost” woman. Everyone is worthy of love. And sometimes even shown to be an example to others. In Woman They Almost Lynched, Joan Leslie doesn't believe she's demeaning herself in learning to run a house of ill repute; her concern is to educate and protect her girls as the “Duchess” in Tennessee's Partner does so well. A den of iniquity can thus become a sanctuary, an islet of delicacy in the midst of an ocean of hypocrisy. Dwan refrains from challenging institutions, but never hesitates to brand the sanctimoniousness of do-‐gooders or deplore the cupidity of the rich. He follows in the best anti-‐puritan tradition, that of Griffith and Borzage, Walsh and Wellman. Consider how the bar hostess who scoffs at convention can teach the “decent” woman a thing or two. Having nothing to lose, she has the courage to oppose injustice. Recall, in Frontier Marshal, that Wyatt Earp was saved at the OK Corral by the intervention of Jerry the tramp. In Silver Lode, Dolly accepts Dan Ballard, the accused, as he is; she'd support him even if she knew he was guilty, “even,” she says, “if you had killed my father!” She isn't afraid to confront hypocrites of all kinds, interrupting the reading of a patriotic speech, heckling a hysterical matron: “Respectable? Looking at you, I'm jolly happy not to be respectable!” She will be the good angel who saves Ballard by cajoling the telegraph operator into writing a fake telegram. In the epilogue, it is Dolly, the most despised parishioner, and yet the most worthy of admiration, who sings a vibrant “hallelujah” through the empty streets. True morality, like true beauty, is that of the heart. It is certainly not that of the bourgeois and notables, the self-‐righteous and other God fearing types, who condemn Ballard right from the outset. Bigots are the least likely to practice charity. Venomous shrews cast Joan Leslie in the camp of so-‐called undesirables (Woman They Almost Lynched). Barbara Stanwyck is treated as a pariah for sympathizing with an Indian chief (Cattle Queen of Montana). Even the little girl in Driftwood comes up against the intolerance of the privileged rich. Deceit, hatred, rapaciousness are present in Dwan's stories, but he gives them no more space than they deserve: they're seen as 25
irrational behavior, weaknesses of character, faulty judgment rather than as natural or innate tendencies. Evil is not a curse, but an aberration – a distraction, the heart or spirit being led astray. One notable exception: the last film, Most Dangerous Man Alive, where the contaminated fugitive is rejected as a “monster.” He is hunted down by three groups -‐ gangsters, police, soldiers -‐ with all the cruelty of their respective technologies, to wit: electric shocks, teargas, and finally flame-‐throwers. “I've got to rip that rotten world apart to the winds,” shouts Ron Randell on his Golgotha above the town. A shattering paradox concludes his ordeal: embracing him for the last time, his girlfriend discovers that the man of steel is losing blood. The monster the flame-‐throwers are about to burn alive is no longer a danger to the public, but simply a man... At the end of this “passion,” Dwan's darkest work, a superimposition dissolves the fugitive's mortal remains and the camera remains fixed on the wind that sweeps away the ashes across the quarry. This return of the body to dust reminds us of the death of Sergeant Stryker, face down against the soil on Mount Suribachi (Iwo Jima), or of the freshly dug grave of Cowpoke at the end of Tennessee's Partner. The tellurian lyricism of such sequences may remind us of Vidor (Duel in the Sun) and Walsh (Colorado Territory), but Dwan is averse to irreparable conflicts, irreversible situations. Far from being possessed, deprived of their free will, his characters are fallible beings, confronted with choices, thus responsible for their fate. And their brief existence must comprise both a morality and a sense of hope. The gates of paradise rarely remain closed as they do at the end of Surrender, where the sheriff's judgment comes down like a bolt of lightning: “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” The camera expresses this visually by moving back to rise above the two sinners (Vera Ralston, John Carroll), fallen angels who lie next to each other, as if petrified or fossilized in the canyon rock. (Dwan had such little taste for tragedy that he disowned this splendid “unhappy end” in his interview with Bogdanovich.) Morality Plays Although he doesn't always take the plotting of his tales seriously, Dwan never loses sight of the essential: the salutary nature of the ordeal, the transformation of the afflicted, and the development of their consciousness. Even in a film as badly “stitched together” as Pearl of the South Pacific, Virginia Mayo's journey is clearly signposted: the parable of the blind man and the Pharisee is there to signify that she too will be able to find the path to regeneration. Quite often, the names of places and characters speak for themselves. In Passion, the refuge in which Cornel Wilde renounces his quest for vengeance is called “the Good Samaritan;” even the title of the film should be taken in the religious sense. In “Mission,” the frontier town of The Restless Breed where Scott Brady has come to avenge his father, the children take him for an “archangel;” the young woman he falls in love with is called Angelita. In Most Dangerous Man Alive, the soul mate is called Carla Angelo; the 26
villain, Damon. Conversely, deceptive names such as Violet and Daisy may conceal a poisonous flower such as Vera Ralston in Surrender and Belle le Grand. The bad boy in Slightly Scarlet goes by the name of Grace, and he will in fact receive an opportunity to redeem himself by standing up to his associates. The innocent cowboy in Tennessee's Partner is caught in the toils of the aptly named tart, Goldie. He himself goes by the generic name of Cowpoke: he is the archetype of the original Westerner, a ”vanishing American” doomed to disappear along with the Prairie. “I never even knew his name,” laments Tennessee at the grave of the friend who sacrificed his life for him. In the stunning prologue to Driftwood, which anticipates the puritan expressionism of The Night of the Hunter, Dwan adopts the viewpoint of a wild child, raised in a mission out in the sierras, who knows only the Old Testament: an airplane in flames becomes “Belzebuth,” a small Nevada town “Sodom and Gomorrah,” an animal laboratory “Noah's Ark”... Everywhere, young Jenny sees the hand of Providence. And Dwan doesn't fail to prove her right. Similarly, in Angel in Exile, a contemporary “mystery,” the ingénue is an “angel,” the bandits are “serpents,” and everything works towards the salvation of the good scoundrel, an imposter who is believed to be protected by the village's patron saint, the “Blue Lady.” The irony is that he is protected. So is the child of Cornel Wilde, spared because his mother hid him in an oratory dedicated to the Virgin (Passion). So are the fugitives in Escape to Burma, who find safety in a pagoda at the foot of a Buddha. And then there's John Payne in Silver Lode: when everyone abandons him and he runs towards the church, his final refuge, a fantastic lateral tracking shot follows his headlong course, as though the camera, whose movements have hitherto been almost imperceptible, is now guiding the fugitive towards the sanctuary. It appears that his fate no longer depends on humankind. An almost vertical high-‐angle shot from the roof confirms it, framing the sheriff's coffin as it makes its way through the lynch mob. (A similar “God's point of view” shot reappears near the climax of Tennessee's Partner when the two friends gallop towards the fateful mine.) Providence's decisive intervention takes place when the disarmed Ballard is at the mercy of McCarty in the bell tower. The moment of the most profound dereliction also becomes that of judgment. It is McCarty's turn to reap what he sowed: his bullet ricochets off the bronze bell and hits him straight in the heart. Tourneur's disenchantment may be foreign to Dwan, but as with the former, adventure is experienced as a burden: it is endured, in no way sought after, as it is with Vidor or Walsh. It is mostly an ordeal as the hero sees what is dearest to him taken away. And it is imposed upon him at the very moment he finds the haven he has sought for so long. Jim Brecan, weary of wandering, has hardly discovered his dream plantation when he is driven out and hunted down in the Burmese jungle. At the moment when the four strange horsemen enter Silver Lode, Dan Ballard is just about to marry the county's most coveted heiress; in the space of a few moments, he is ostracized from society and pursued like a dangerous beast. 27
The cattle queen believes she's reached the Promised Land, but in one night loses her father, her herd and her beautiful Montana valley. When, after a long absence, cattle breeder Juan Obregon comes to join his family, they are almost immediately killed in the arson fire that devastates his ranch (Passion). The finest sequences of Dwan's exotic tales are without doubt those in which he reveals, and makes us desire, this threatened paradise, lost as soon as it is caught sight of: the stroll in the pueblo of Angel in Exile, the bivouac in Cattle Queen of Montana, the couple's reunion in Passion, the first evening at the plantation in Escape to Burma, the newlyweds' canoe journey to the Enchanted Island... For a brief moment, time seems to suspend its course to allow the protagonists to dream aloud. It's a paradise they sometimes recognize too late -‐ or that they threaten with their very presence. Haven't they come to desecrate nature? Plunder its treasures? On their way they often come across a baleful underground site that serves as a new Pandora's box. A gold mine (Tennessee's Partner) or a silver mine (Belle le Grand), a well where booty's been hidden (Angel in Exile), a lagoon full of black pearls (Pearl of the South Pacific), a quarry where the steel man will die (Most Dangerous Man Alive)... In Escape to Burma, Jim Brecan's real crime is his obsession with extracting rubies. This transgression provokes the prince's death from the plague and turns the white hunter into the prey. The parable is conveyed solely through the mise en scène. When Robert Ryan takes out his precious stones to contemplate them in the palm of his hand, the close-‐up of their glowing red brilliance and the reverse-‐angle shot of the assassin who's watching the scene behind the window impart the idea that evil has invaded this place of peace and harmony. From then on, the “curse” seems to follow Ryan wherever he goes: a ravaged plantation, a pagoda in ruins, a ghost village that the natives have abandoned to the “spirits”... He can only free himself by returning the rubies to the Burmese people, like John Carroll abandoning his gold to the villagers (Angel in Exile) or siding with the miners rather than the shareholders (Belle le Grand). The original transgression is often related to a past that precedes the narrative, like the childhood theft of a maternal bracelet that has since turned Arlene Dahl into a kleptomaniac (Slightly Scarlet). From Belle le Grand to The River's Edge, the protagonists' pathology is linked to the return of the repressed. This “sin” they must expiate is to have coveted only material wealth, to have wasted their lives in the pursuit of illusory goods, to have sacrificed at the altar of Mammon. Think again of Ballard, the wrongly accused hero in Silver Lode. What has marked him out for the wrath of heaven? Two years earlier, when he was a mere gunslinger, he killed his adversary, McCarty's brother, during a poker game. With his winnings, he was able to settle down, carve himself a place in the sun. This success is what brought McCarty back onto his trail: the villain intends not only to avenge himself but also, above all, to reclaim the money. Ballard is thus a false innocent: he pays the toll of a brazen prosperity that has aroused too much envy. And when hunted down, he becomes once again the gunslinger of his past, as John Payne's tense performance intimates so well. 28
Likewise with Most Dangerous Man Alive: the victim of a frame-‐up, Ron Randell is nonetheless guilty of making a pact with the devil. Guilty too of escaping only to take revenge and letting “hatred” overcome him. Those who want to pursue their own justice do nothing but spread more evil. The whole of Silver Lode is put to the fire and the sword because Ballard fights with the same weapons as his enemies, leaving a pile of corpses in his wake. When he comes down from the bell tower and the villagers acknowledge he was right, his is a bitter victory: “You forced me to kill to defend myself!” In Passion as in The Restless Breed, the denial of justice has the same effect, as it pushes the desperate man to retreat from the community, to place himself outside the law, until he is no different from those who wronged him. The irony of Passion is as striking as that of Silver Lode: the avenger cannot harm the criminal; he must spare him so that the hideous crime can be confessed to the authorities. Just before the killer's confession, Dwan slips in a cutaway shot to the crucifix to which Juan Obregon addresses a silent petition. His prayer is swiftly granted. The afflicted has been tested enough for his Creator to untie the tragic knot and restore him his humanity. Scott Brady in The Restless Breed is one of these “strangers in paradise” who haunt Dwan's final films. He could be brother to the prospector in Escape to Burma, the deserting sailor in Enchanted Island, the unsavory trio in Pearl of the South Pacific. Far from being an archangel, he is the tempter, the corrupter. (Could Clint Eastwood have had The Restless Breed on his mind when making High Plains Drifter?) Totally caught up in vengeance, he avoids mass; he expects nothing from the parson apart from the hand of his daughter, Angelita, “half-‐angel, half-‐woman.” Repeated inserts of glowing clouds accompany the wild ride of the killers galloping to confront him. It is a purely poetic piece of punctuation that seems to call heaven as a witness, reminding us that each individual will have to account for his actions. As it should be in an Allan Dwan drama, Providence keeps watch, diverting the hero away from vigilantism, preventing him from following through on his hubris: at the death of the sheriff, he inherits the badge which legitimizes the final gunfight. But it is only in the last shot that he is delivered from his obsession, leaving his colt and gun belt in the dust as he embraces Angelita. (John Payne, in Slightly Scarlet, frees himself from corruption by throwing away his weapon and letting himself be riddled by Ted De Corsia's bullets like a modern Saint Sebastian.) Of all these morality plays, the most eloquent is The River's Edge. And among our “strangers in paradise,” Ray Milland is surely the most incongruous. With his white suit, his salmon-‐ pink Thunderbird, and his aluminum briefcase stuffed with bank notes, Nardo is the diabolical tempter that is going to drag the couple Ben and Meg Cameron (Anthony Quinn, Debra Paget) away from their land. Meg, who was formerly his mistress and accomplice, sees Nardo emerge out of the past just after having found a neatly symbolic scorpion in her 29
bra. In a few moments, Ben will lose everything: the ranch, his wife, his self-‐respect... The biblical simplicity of the tale might have inspired Edgar Ulmer, that other smuggler in redemption. It unfolds appropriately in a papier-mâché cave, the most basic, primordial setting. There, as in Ulmer’s The Naked Dawn, a rattlesnake appears amidst the three protagonists. In killing it, Meg severs the perverse pact that tied her to Nardo. The couple can knit themselves together again, and the humiliated husband can lie down at his wife's side to bring her back to life. Salvation comes, once again, through renunciation: Ben lights a fire with the stolen dollars to boil water and disinfect Meg's wound. It is a bank note in the beak of a vulture that indicates the death of Nardo. “He deserves a few tears,” says Ben by way of funeral oration, discovering that his nemesis had uncharacteristically gone off to seek help. The first good action of his life has killed him! As for the couple, they must have learned something from their trial as they choose not to go and pick up the money that litters the landscape, polluting nature. Although it is always threatened, there is nothing absurd about man’s existence. Adversity just makes it all the more valuable, as it forces each individual to reexamine his or her priorities. Which is to say that adventure has a raison d'être. That suffering and wandering are not unproductive. That at the end of the journey, the protagonist should be stripped of the false riches he believed indispensable to his happiness, or divested of the weapons that dragged him down into a maelstrom of violence. This is a salutary deprivation, which brings him a new dignity and, perhaps, a degree of tranquility. He is left with the only treasures worth cherishing: the warmth of friendship, the sweetness of companionship, the harmony of a couple... Dwan's world belongs to those who endeavor to make it better -‐ those who are content with the essential and are intent on making the garden bear fruits. As the monk and theologian Thomas Merton said: “If you yourself are at peace, then there is at least some peace in the world.” If not? The garden would become a hell, like the quarry of ashes and dust where the Most Dangerous Man Alive is crucified.
THE GRIFFITH TRADITION1
Vera Ralston in Belle Le Grand (1951) The first strain of the American filmmaking tradition grew directly from the all-‐perverse influence of the early work of D.W. Griffith. This essentially nationalistic tradition of dramatic narrative was rooted in the simple, direct montage principles that Griffith evolved in his Biograph one-‐ and two reelers. In 1915, The Birth of a Nation became the official lexicon of these principles. The Griffith Tradition was the dominant style of the silent American film and was evolved to a classical perfection by the mid-‐Twenties. Later, emasculated by the transition to sound, this tradition became a recessive approach to direction best suited for keeping track of uncomplicated narratives over which a performer’s personality could easily dominate. It is doubtless because the Griffith Tradition lingered well into the Thirties that the star system came to prevail over the art approach of the director. When in the late Thirties, a second
approach to filmmaking (the Murnau Tradition) began to unify the potential of the sound medium, the legacy of the Griffith Tradition became the history of the B-‐picture—until its transfer to television in the Fifties. Even today, when a director wants to analyze simply and quickly the dramatic content of a straightforward narrative, he will fall back upon these principles, now referred to as “television style.” The glory and the limitation of the Griffith Tradition, as explained by Griffith himself, was that “Ideas are alright for stage people, but pictures prefer simple straight stories of fact.” In the montage tradition, each shot becomes a fact whose meaning is determined by its juxtaposition to another fact. Since the first goal of this tradition was effective storytelling, it was a virtue that each shot retain its singularity of meaning. The evolution of these montage principles was this a product of necessity. The camera came to be placed at varying distances from the action for purely utilitarian purposes— namely comprehensible narration. The resulting method of dramatic analysis was an economical, rational, and above all unambiguous response to the challenge of telling a story with a movie camera. America at this time was not a particularly sophisticated country. Mass communication was limited to the printed word, and storytelling was the folk art most accessible to a nation of immigrants in need of a new heritage on which to rebuild their self-‐identity. The qualities inherent in the Griffith Tradition embraced such basic American virtues as simplicity, practicality, rationality, straightforwardness, and nonverbalism. The silence of the silent film was not the problem, but a virtue, because it was universally comprehensible. It was thus that the cinema became the rallying medium of a distinctly American mythological heritage. As an indigenous American folk art, the cinema provided a form and set of conventions perfectly suited to the expression of American themes, folklore, and landscape. Griffith had fused the traditions of American literature to those of American painting. With the addition of parallel-‐action cutting and the resultant techniques of suspense (added to the basic analytics vocabulary of the long shot, medium shot, and close-‐ up), the cinema was fully equipped to evoke the fundamental emotions of the melodramatic and action-‐adventure genres. The Griffith tradition became the medium of the genres—ideal for narrative based on rather strict conventions and animated with mythologies of the American heritage and American dream. These narratives became rituals leading through physical confrontations and complications to the obligatory cathartic endings. The montage tradition was a moralist tradition and the ready instrument of cultural propaganda—in that certain ways of life were portrayed as virtuous or fallen women. The classical stability of this medium 32
must have been a sustaining influence implying order in the cultural chaos that followed the First World War. For it was the decade of 1918 to 1928 that was the Golden Era of the Griffith Tradition. In regarding the silent film as a folk art (as contrasted with personal art), we acknowledge the existence of certain beauties inherent in the medium itself, common to the expression of all those artists who worked in this medium, and dominant over the personal idiosyncrasies of these otherwise diverse artisans. As in the classical period of Greek art, there existed in this classical period of silent filmmaking a formal ideal (a clarity of narrative) toward which all of the works strove. Also, like classical Greek art, the artisans of the Griffith tradition valued order, balance, graceful proportions, symmetry—ideals of structure and geometry. There were a limited number of elements (types of shots) with which to build a narrative. Thus it was in the graceful ordering of these elements that the skill of a master director was evidenced. Perhaps because many of the early cameramen had their origins in pictorialist still-‐ photography, a tendency toward pictorialism was added to the rudiments of this montage structure. The High Griffith Tradition movie became a series of largely frontal, largely static, shots, each classically well composed and balanced. The overall movie had a formal grace that distanced the viewer from the characters and the action, mythologizing the narrative. Like the sonnet, the High Griffith Tradition was a rigid form; but it was the form itself that lent beauty and dignity to the work of those who adopted it. It has been well documented elsewhere that almost all American directors who began their careers previous to 1920 either worked directly under Griffith’s personal supervision or openly or openly acknowledged their formal debt to him. Among those who personally apprenticed with Griffith were John Ford, Raoul Walsh, Erich von Stroheim, Allan Dwan, Sidney Franklin, and Donald Crisp, while certainly less influenced were King Vidor and Cecil B. De Mille. In the early work of these directors can be detected not only the Griffith form, but many of the Griffith mannerisms dutifully copied from the master’s example. It was through the work of these (and many, many other) directors, and not through Griffith himself, that the Griffith Tradition flourished and evolved into its classical form. It is interesting to note that during their silent careers, Ford and Walsh, in particular, were known more as competent genre directors (i.e., folk artists) than as innovative personal directors. And when Buster Keaton wanted to tie his gags into coherent feature narratives, he would hire a graduate of the Griffith school as co-‐director to supply this dramatic unity. There was a single, accepted approach to dramatic narrative, and this was the Griffith Tradition. Because the Griffith Tradition was appropriate to the expression of a vision suited to the needs of a mass American audience (i.e. because these films made reliable money), 33
Hollywood, as the film industry, undertook the institutionalization of that tradition. This process of institutionalizing forced the crystallization of the form, at once eliminating error and stifling experimentation. By the mid-‐Twenties, the only exploratory art of the Griffith Tradition was to be found in the refinement of the studio-‐bound techniques. In these mid-‐Twenties, a second strain of the American narrative cinema began to exert its presence. This was the Murnau Tradition, which rallied around the rather advanced expressions of F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (imported in 1925) and Sunrise (1927), it would not be inappropriate to call this strain the Murnau Tradition. This is the tradition ostensibly of the moving camera, but more broadly (as defined by Andrew Sarris) the aesthetic which “implies the continuousness of a visual field outside of the frame of the camera.” Whereas the Griffith Tradition constructs an emotion, the Murnau Tradition records it; and whereas the Griffith analyzes drama, the Murnau synthesizes. By way of clarification, it should be pointed out that the Griffith Tradition is a specific development of the more general category of the montage aesthetic. For example, Eisenstein’s use of montage, while not unrelated, would not be described as part of the Griffith Tradition, which was specifically a development of the American cinema. On the other hand, in the context of the history of the American cinema, the Griffith Tradition has been roughly synonymous with the montage aesthetic as variously expressed over the years. (See Andrew Bazin’s “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema.”) After the Thirties (except in B-‐pictures, where the Griffith Tradition remained relatively pure), it becomes increasingly difficult to isolate the montage aesthetic from the moving-‐ camera aesthetic ; both coexisted in the collaborative-‐adaptive tradition that predominated in Hollywood’s production from the late Thirties through the Sixties. Also, in defining the Murnau Tradition as representative of the moving-‐camera aesthetic in the evolution of the American narrative form, we refer more to a point of view (a way of seeing) than to any specific set of directorial techniques. Two directors might make use of the same techniques with polar aesthetic implications. Thus, though we might polarize the two traditions as the battle of the cut versus the shot, we wouldn’t attribute absolute meanings to either the cut or the shot. A spiritualist director like Frank Borzage cuts frequently, but so imperceptively as to imply continuity instead of disjunction. Borzage’s cuts within a scene will involve only slight changes of camera angle or distance from subject, such as to avoid these large emotions implied by the usual Griffith Tradition vocabulary of long shot, medium shot, close-‐up. On the other hand, a formalist like Fritz Lang will make extensive use of the moving camera, yet not lose that sense of an isolating destiny that predominates the montage ethic. Instead of following his characters, Lang’s camera pursues them. 34
Young directors entering the cinema in the mid-‐Twenties looked to Murnau, and not to Griffith, as the model on whom to build their visual style. For instance, Howard Hawks, in his third film, The Cradle Snatchers (1926), seems completely oblivious to the Griffith Tradition vocabulary. Hawks is clearly a sound director making a silent film. The titles are not descriptive, but transcripts of dialogue. The pace is fast; but the speed is in the physical action, as recorded in full shots, pans, and dollies, not in the speed of cutting. The technological development of synchronized sound fulfilled the Murnau Tradition, but was superfluous to the Griffith Tradition. The ever-‐multiplying complexity of modern life could be captured (in a poetic sense) with ease through the Murnau Tradition, whereas the frantic pacing of those wonderful special montage sequences of the late Twenties and the Thirties demonstrated the ever-‐increasing difficulty of dramatic analysis to deal with complexity. By the late Thirties, screenwriters had learned that a single well-‐chosen line of dialogue could quickly and less obtrusively express a passage of time than these montages. The Griffith Tradition was a noble tradition when the dramatic analysis implied order in the universe. The acceleration of montage (Eisenstein notwithstanding) was an ever less satisfying attempt to find a pattern of order in a complexity of events that were evolving faster than man could keep up with. As montage practices broke away from the stability of the Griffith Tradition, the frantic energy of the cutting reflected man’s initial inability to cope with the complexities of modern life. This essentially neurotic use of montage reappeared in the Sixties as an expression of man’s violent despair at his inability to construct meaning in his environment. Fragmenting montages isolated diverse elements that refused to unify, refused to offer any hope of order. The rational tools of analysis were not adequate in explaining the phenomena observed. Carried to its logical extreme in such films as Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) and The Seven Minutes (1971), the lingering presence of the Griffith Tradition has been viewed as reactionary and simplistic; and yet the lesson of the futility of this extreme analytic violence does aptly and artfully pinpoint the logical crisis of an unbendingly rational approach to modern life.
Allan Dwan Of all the directors of the Griffith Tradition who maintained careers well into the sound period, Allan Dwan was the least affected by the emergence of the Murnau Tradition— perhaps because his theme of temporal resignation was so unassailable by either social or cultural evolutions. Dwan’s visual style was the purest expression of the Griffith Tradition; and it was certainly the purity of this style (and its thematic implications) that sustained Dwan’s creative energy throughout a long B-‐movie career. In Dwan’s later work the mathematical perfection of his visual style best illustrates the primal power inherent in the Griffith Tradition. It is precisely these films, burdened with the most hopeless scripts and populated by the most crippled performers (projects in which “personal involvement” seemed out of the question) that Dwan relied most exclusively and abstractly on the beauties of the filmmaking tradition itself, and proved himself the master craftsman of the Griffith Tradition. Such films as Belle Le Grand (1951), I Dream of Jeanie (1952), and Enchanted Island (1958) become textbook exercises in the American montage tradition. These films are realized with a cinematic precision as intuitively perfect as Eisenstein’s montages were calculatedly accurate. Dwan’s images are beautiful not so much as formal entities unto themselves, as in their existence as cinematic units. The world captured in the frame is never as important as the relationship of one shot to the next. In ordering these units, Dwan is concerned with those qualities central to the montage tradition rather than that deceptive pictorialist prettification of individual shots that become fashionable in the late silent era. If the craft of directing can be compared to that of writing, then Dwan is the master of cinematic syntax. Economy, simplicity, and directness characterize the Dwan approach. Each image is selected as a utilitarian response to a narrative challenge. Compared with Dwan’s straightforward decisions, the cinema of Howard Hawks looks mannered and expressionistic. Thematically and visually, Dwan is one of the least neurotic of all filmmakers—even in his visualization of such a totally neurotic subject as Slightly Scarlet (1956). To understand the current nostalgic response to Hollywood B-‐pictures—and to the dubious personalities who acted out the rituals of these films—one must understand those properties of the Griffith Tradition as brought out in the purity of Dwan’s use of these practices. The performers in B-‐pictures were rather unextraordinary people in bigger-‐ than-‐life roles, unable to summon up emotions as mythic as those suggested by the characters they played. But the conventions of the Griffith Tradition (and the conventional responses evoked by these clichés) were oblivious to the incompetence of these performers. A cut-‐in to a large close-‐up, or a cut-‐back to a long shot, in the primal power of 36
the change in image size alone, suggests a nobility of emotion that is direct and effective. Furthermore, the sympathetic incompetence of the B-‐performer suggests the essential innocence of the human condition. Vera Ralston’s close-‐ups in Belle Le Grand are among the most moving images in the American cinema, and yet, simultaneously are a mockery of the traditional process of mimesis we call acting. The innocence of Allan Dwan’s response to such blatant incompetence—his total acceptance of inane situations and performers—transcends our conventional evaluations of theme and character. Dwan’s style is characterized by a benign grace that allows his camera to observe and analyze without passing judgment. Because he introduces no element of tension by trying to evoke performances of which his actors are incapable, or to insert deeper meaning into scripts that were not structured to sustain much meaning at all, Dwan avoids the sense of artificiality that can hover over the ambitious aspirations of talented directors contending with incompetent collaborators. As folk art, Dwan’s best films are his most dramatically purpose-‐less. They become objects of mediation. 1 Excerpted from Dorr's "The Griffith Tradition," Film Comment, 10.2 (1974): 48-‐54. Public Domain.
THE CLIFF AND THE FLUME
Here We Go Again (1942) Dedicated to the memory Of Sol Wurtzel, Edward Small, Herbert J. Yates and Benedict Bogeaus Who supplied the frame In his elegy for Allan Dwan (Cahiers du cinéma 332) Jean-‐Claude Biette called him “a great storyteller” and “a great poet of space.” An anecdote Dwan told Peter Bogdanovich about his early days shows how these compliments are linked: scouting for ideas with his cast and crew near Lakeside, California, the young director saw a cliff and filmed a fight that ended with the hero throwing the villain over it. Still in search of a story, he then saw a flume “like a great bridge” which carried water from one ranch to another. Result: a two-‐ reel melodrama in which the villain poisons the flume to kill his neighbor’s cattle and is punished by being thrown off the cliff at the end of the film.
The story has an archetypal quality. On the one hand, the setting (the cliff) inspires the action that takes place in it (without determining it: other actions could easily have been envisioned); on the other hand, a division of space (the two ranches) and the passageway which links them (the flume) generate a story to justify the action (The Poisoned Flume ). These narrative paradigms can also be used separately, as we can see from the plots of two other lost Dwans: The Love Route (1914): “A new railroad line disrupts a girl’s ranch”; Cheating Cheaters (1919): “Living side by side, two groups of crooks impersonate rich people, each planning to rob the other.” Adjoining spaces are the most common spatial paradigm for Dwan’s plots: a bank and a barber shop (Man to Man ), two airfields (Look Who’s Laughing ), two hotels (Here We Go Again ), neighboring farms (Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm ), buildings that look out onto the same courtyard (Calendar Girl ), a house and a stable (I Dream of Jeannie ), two silver mines (Belle Le Grande), two ranches (Cattle Queen of Montana ), two savage tribes (Enchanted Island ). Less frequently, the story can arise from a connection between two places, notably in Rendezvous with Annie(1946) where a soldier on an Army base in England secretly goes AWOL and impregnates his wife in New Jersey, then has to convince the world that he is the father of her child. Dwan the engineer was naturally attracted to stories about building bridges between places separated by geography: the Holland Tunnel in High Air (1955) the B-‐29 long-‐range bomber in The Wild Blue Yonder(1951) and the Suez Canal in Suez (1938) whose hero is told by a fortune teller that his destiny is to “dig ditches.” Those words turn out to be both an ironic prophecy of the hero’s role as architect of the canal and a metaphor for the often dubious political machinations that will make it possible. At first Louis Napoleon refuses to finance the project for fear that it will cause the Red Sea to flood the Mediterranean, inundating the port cities of the Mediterranean basin, and that is just what happens when the misguided hero seeks to make peace between the National Assembly and Louis, who seizes the opportunity to arrest his opponents and proclaim himself Emperor, after which he agrees to finance the canal. On the other hand, Dwan was not particularly inspired by the paradigm of the voyage (Around the World, Escape to Burma ), unless it was joined to a second paradigm: the border that has to be crossed in The River’s Edge (1957) or the two-‐pronged retreat in Hold Back the Night (1956), which looks on a map like the high-‐angle shot of a pursuit along forking trails in Tennessee’s Partner (1955). In Black Sheep (1935), a story he concocted to restart his directing career in the early ’30s, the characters travel from Cherbourg to New York on a ship with separate levels for first and second-‐class passengers, two paradigms which combine with a third—a stolen necklace whose possessor can only 39
leave the ship by passing through customs —to produce a delightful comedy-‐drama of crisscrossing destinies that come together and resolve themselves on the docks of New York. (It’s too bad Dwan wasn’t able to make his film of Thornton Wilder’s Bridge of San Luis Rey.) Not all of Dwan’s films grow out of spatial paradigms, but it could be argued that the best ones do. Someone was trying to sketch in a spatial situation at the beginning of Northwest Outpost (1947) for example, but not much came of it. Perhaps that is why the mad stew of elements failed to cohere, whereas the equally outre Woman They Almost Lynched (1953) is one of Dwan’s best films, in part because of its spatial premise: During the Civil War, a town bisected by the border between North and South is kept neutral by a wealthy matron whose control of the region’s lead mines give her power over the warring sides and the town, where she imposes an iron law of non-‐violence, enforced by frequent lynchings. What starts off as a parody of Ford becomes increasingly perverse: The repression of violence creates a second division, perpendicular to the first, between the domain of men (a saloon) and the domain of women (the mining company, where the matron holds sway). Then this bizarre variation on the standard Hollywood displacement from politics to sex is given an even more perverse twist when the saloon is inherited by a woman, leading to the famous showdown between female gunslingers and the heroine’s near-‐lynching. Dwan’s spatial imagination sometimes took him to strange places: In Sailor’s Lady (1940) an enlisted man comes home to get married, only to discover that his wife has adopted a baby and bought a house in a neighborhood inhabited solely by the families of naval officers. When her fiancé’s rowdy friends sabotage a party with the brass in attendance, the young woman retaliates by planting the baby on their battleship as it sails off to engage in maritime war games. Even more dizzying variations are played on the disjunction between “container” and “contained” during the first ten minutes of One Mile from Heaven (1937). Sent on a wild goose chase by her competitors, a blond girl reporter finds herself in an all-‐black neighborhood, where her attention is attracted by the dazzling skills of a tap-‐dancer who is playing Pied Piper to the neighborhood children. One of the children is white and very blond, too, even though her mother is black. (This enigma supplies the basis for the plot.) She happens to be carrying a birdcage with a cat in it. (Nothing is ever said about this.) A final surprise: When the tap dancer puts on his coat, he turns out to be a very impressive-‐ looking policeman. Chinese box construction, a more traditional uses of the container/contained paradigm, sets the stage for The Inside Story (1948) which is told in flashback inside a bank vault, inside a small town which was almost destroyed by the Great Depression, inside a 40
devastated country that we see in nightmarish visions superimposed over a close-‐up of the storyteller. During those dark days, we learn, 1000 dollars came to town and was placed in a safe, only to escape and circulate from character to character, after which it left as it had come, like the hero of a western, having put the town on the road to recovery. Turning to the “cliff” part of Dwan’s method, his use of settings: Biette’s description of him as a poet of space harks back, I believe, to Eric Rohmer’s 1948 article “Le cinema, un art de l’espace” (reprinted in Le gout de la beauté), which distinguishes Chaplin’s use of cinema to express psychological states from Keaton’s use of it for, literally, the beauty of the gesture, inscribed within “a completely-‐filled rectangular space occupying a relatively restricted portion of the visual field.” Among the examples of films “revealing a sense of space that many avant-‐garde films might envy” Rohmer cites “the films of Douglas Fairbanks," with whom Dwan collaborated five times during the silent era. But the fact that Dwan and Fairbanks were making a different kind of film than Chaplin (cf the anecdote about Chaplin’s joke on the set of Robin Hood ) doesn’t mean that they like the decadent sculptor in Manhandled (1924) sought an art of “pure plasticity.” During the first half of Robin Hood, where gestures are stripped of psychological significance by immense spaces that dwarf the human figure, Fairbanks is weighed down by armor and ritual. In the second half, when he takes refuge in the forest with his outlaws, he liberates the castle from its usurping master with the kind of extravagant acrobatics that made The Mark of Zorro (Fred Niblo, 1920) a joy from start to finish. But in The Iron Mask (1929), Fairbanks’ swan-‐song, Nature is absent, and the shadowy maze of lavish sets in which d’Artagnan and his comrades battle a usurper impart a hollow ring to the title card announcing that one character after another has died “for the glory of France.” Dwan remade Robin Hood in the sound era with Shirley Temple: The heroine of Heidi (1937) is taken from the mountaintop where she lives with her grandfather and imprisoned in a great house in the midst of a great city, where she heals a crippled child despite the intrigues of yet another evil usurper, Fraulein Rottenmeier. (Outside the walls of the “castle”, three blasts on a coachman’s horn, which Heidi mistakes for the horn of Peter the Goat Boy, recall the signal Alan-‐a-‐Dale blows before Fairbanks is rescued at the end of Robin Hood.) An organ-‐grinder’s monkey performs Flairbanks’ acrobatics, and Heidi herself repeats his famous slide down an immense tapestry when she slides down the banister of the great house to make her getaway. The poles of this story were reversed in Temple’s swan-‐song at Fox, the delightful Young People (1940), where a family of vaudevillians from the big city who have retired to a Maine village are treated horribly by the villagers, until they finally succeed in imposing their optimistic perspective on these rural reactionaries. Besides giving Temple her only 41
chance to play herself, Young People prepared the way for Driftwood (1947) a beautiful film Dwan made at Republic with Natalie Wood as a saintly orphan named Jenny. After the death of her preacher grandfather, Jenny leaves Bullfrog Springs, the ghost town where she grew up, for Panbucket, a conservative village which she calls “Sodom and Gomorrah” until her uncompromising truthfulness transforms it into “Heaven.” It seems that Dwan was not the Rousseauist he is sometimes mistaken for—it would certainly be hard to hang that label on Pearl of the South Pacific (1955), where the script’s paean to Man in the state of Nature is constantly undercut by the garish artifice of John Alton’s colors and Van Nest Polglase’s sets. Just before the end Dwan turned that turkey on its head in Enchanted Island, which comes as close as anyone dared in 1958 to retelling Herman Melville’s Typee: A refugee from civilization living among Tahitian savages discovers that the savages have killed his best friend, that he is their prisoner, and that they are cannibals (only hinted at in the film). Made on location in Mexico—like his last film, The Most Dangerous Man Alive (1962), for which there was no money to build sets—Enchanted Island returned Dwan to the conditions in which he made his first two-‐reelers, which spawned an art where themes like Nature and Civilization were less important than the plastic invention that playing variations on them made possible. Given Dwan’s formal concerns, it is at first surprising to see how often maps in his films – scale models of the narrative terrain—play the role of the “bad object” (Gertie’s garter, Mabel’s slip, the Queen’s necklace in The Three Musketeers  the pearl necklace in Black Sheep), one whose mere possession stigmatises the possessor: The woman with the map in Woman They Almost Lynched, for example, is presumed to be a traitor, while the man with the map in Tennessee’s Partner is a murderer. Moreover, maps do not always clarify the action—the one used to plan the first hold-‐up in Montana Belle(1952) is noticeably inaccurate. We never see the aerial map consulted by Edgar Bergen in Look Who’s Laughing—only a view of the terrain below that is as unintelligible as the aerial views in The Wild Blue Yonder. (Those extreme high angles turn out to be as useless to the B-‐29 crews as they are to us—bombing from 25,000 feet up, our heroes are missing more targets than they hit.) Escape from Burma opens with a map, but before we can read it, the camera moves in on a drawing of the palace of Sakar, then dissolves to show us the throne room, just as the perplexing aerial view of Wistful Vista in Look Who’s Laughing dissolves to give us our first look at the inside of Fibber McGee’s house. Instead of a map, Belle Le Grande opens with a very wide-‐angle shot of a courtroom seen from the jury box that turns out on close inspection to be a painting. Seconds later, a long, gorgeously composed dolly shot follows the devastated heroine, just out of jail, as she 42
slowly makes her way along a street that leads to a friend’s home. Transitions like these that endow a flat image with depth enact the struggle at the very heart of this cinema, which is filled with settings whose topography we know intimately (the house in The Gorilla, the tennis court in Suez ), where windows and doors always open on a busy world beyond. The town in Frontier Marshall (1939) is all one set, and at the end of the film, when Dwan dollies in on Doc Halliday’s tombstone, he takes care to put a tiny wagon train heading west in the background of the shot. Maps are “bad objects” because they threaten the illusion of depth, as in Hold Back the Night, one of the few films where a map actually works—the whole first part is played against undisguised back projections, so that the long march of the retreating Marines is also a difficult journey back to three-‐dimensional space. Similarly, in Getting Gertie’s Garter (1945) the actors are grouped in two-‐dimensional compositions until night falls, when modeling with light and shadow (Dwan’s preferred palette) begins to create dramatic perspectives symbolizing the growing complexity of the action. The shift is marked by one of those 180-‐degree cuts Dwan frequently uses to show the image’s backside, like the photograph in Look Who’s Laughing that shows its subjects’ backs when you turn it around. Dwan nonetheless flirted with the temptation to transform the image into a map in Friendly Enemies (1942) a jingoistic World War I drama he was offered while waiting to make Brewster’s Millions (1945). When he filmed (in nine days!) this story of two German immigrants, one of whom sides with America, the other with Germany, he replicated the form of their quarrels, always shown in two-‐shots, by grouping all his characters in symmetrical compositions until the third act, when the loyal German learns that his son has joined the American Army. After that the groupings become unbalanced, until an explosion of war images restores in the last shot the harmony that reigned initially despite conflicting loyalties. He subsequently adapted this formal invention in Brewster’s Millions to portray the ironic fate of a man who has two months to spend a million dollars. Here the balance between asymmetrical compositions (the desired state) and symmetrical ones (the state to be avoided) is ever shifting, as the hero’s attempts to practice what Georges Bataille calls the general economy (improductive expenditure) are repeatedly brought into line with the restrained economy (a return on one’s investment) which his fiancé and friends consider normal. Brewster’s Millions is a film that aspires to the void: Its first shot (a black servant visually erased by the soap he has applied to a window) gives way to an image that gradually fills up with proliferating bodies, until they are all eliminated in the last shot: another empty frame.
Watching a minimalist experiment like Friendly Enemies sensitizes us to the spatial art Dwan puts to subtler uses in films like Brewster’s Millions or the anti-‐McCarthy western Silver Lode (1954) where an image that moves in and out of two-‐dimensionality is used to graph shifting allegiances and lines of flight in a small town whose leading citizen has been accused of murder by a self-‐styled marshal from a town 200 miles away. (The townspeople have no way of knowing the truth because the telegraph line connecting the towns has been cut.) Dwan had 50 years of unequalled productivity to explore the properties of an art which he helped invent, and he was aware of all its paradoxes. Unlike a stage, the rectangle of the screen can create the illusion of a world that exists in depth and continues beyond the edges of the frame. In Heidi a cut takes us from the household singing “Silent Night” to the bustling street outside, where everyone seems to be singing the same song – a lovely example of the kind of sidelong glance that earned Dwan his reputation as a contemplative filmmaker. But violence can also be disclosed by a pan – through the wall of a house, for example, where a woman is singing to her baby, and into the crowded street outside, which is suddenly thrown into tumult by an eruption of gunfire (Frontier Marshal). Even more disconcerting, a sudden pan in Abroad with Two Yanks (1944) reveals a mirror in the off-‐ space that reflects our two heroes (already in drag) as grotesquely distorted anamorphic images (a device Dwan first exploited in Stage Struck  with Gloria Swanson). The dangers lurking just beyond the frame that menace the magic rectangle (which Louis Seguin has explored in L’espace du cinéma) are summed up in a very late and very weird western, The Restless Breed. It begins with an exposition scene that makes considerable use of the most useless map in all of Dwan’s cinema. “Our investigators’ report has given us a very graphic picture,” says the character who is handling the exposition, pointing emphatically at three spots on the map that have nothing to do with anything. His confident assertion is then undermined by a series of flashbacks which introduce us to the setting of the film, a little town consisting mostly of windows, gates and doors that is held together only by the gazes of the characters. They will spend an inordinate amount of time spying on one another, but to no avail—the town never escapes from the quagmire of spatial incoherence into which it has been plunged by that first “graphic” account. The Restless Breed (1957) is the cinematic equivalent of Mallarmé’s “Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira l'hasard…,” where the text is dismembered by the spaces between the words, and yet Dwan, like Mallarmé—having finished, in both senses of the word, the work of 50 years with this astonishing film—might also say, looking back, that “nothing will have taken place except [the] place.”
Jean-‐Loup Bourget Translated by Bill Krohn
Suez (1938) The Canadian Allan Dwan, who came to the USA as a child and stayed for almost his entire career, belongs in the company of directors such as Griffith, Walsh and Ford rather than that of Curtiz, Dieterle, or Lang. His name is often associated with the genre known as "Americana", nostalgic accounts of a rural and traditional America (from Ford's Judge Priest (1934) to Altman's Cookie's Fortune (1999)), and several of his films' heroes are historical figures or American legends, such as the sheriff Wyatt Earp in Frontier Marshal (1939) or the musician Stephen Foster (I Dream of Jeannie (1952)). Even some of the most rightly famous titles, like the period films Robin Hood (1922) or Suez (1938), take us away from America in appearance only, since they place great emphasis on the pastoral. 45
The imaginary world of the pastoral sees in the New World a rediscovered garden of Eden, where not only wild beasts and domesticated animals, but also colonists and Indians, live peacefully together, fulfilling Isaiah's vision of the Peaceable Kingdom. Dwan's films abound in scenes of this kind, which usually feature water and vegetation. Unlike that of Curtiz, Dwan's Robin Hood takes the form of a diptych. The first part is an impressive medieval reconstruction, whose sets and costumes were designed, respectively, by Wilfred Buckland and Mitchell Leisen, DeMille's regular collaborators, and whose hieratic style prefigures Lang's Die Nibelungen (1924). In the second part, Robin and his men, freed from their heavy armor, prance through the woods, and live in an environment featuring forest, waterfalls and grottoes. The Old World of the Middle Ages is succeeded by the natural New World, which is also an archetypal world, much older than what preceded it. In Chances (1931), the loving couple escapes the disasters of war by exchanging rings and talisman-‐portraits, marrying on a beach that could be in the South Seas. In Suez, following a historical prologue set in Paris in 1850, Egypt appears by contrast as a land both immemorial and new, a desert and an oasis, an Eden and, in the American sense, a Frontier. The hero (Tyrone Power) meets the ravishing wild child (Annabella) when she's bathing naked in a little lake; she will be his inspiration and is set in opposition to the woman he loves, the beautiful but over-‐civilized Countess Eugénie de Montijo (Loretta Young), who lets herself be seduced by Louis Napoléon. In a charming reversal of type-‐casting, it is the American actress (Loretta Young) who embodies the false values of European culture, whilst the French actress (Annabella) plays a "tomboy' whose masculine attire and casual manner, and her association with water, clearly link her to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. This observation holds for the "wild child" characters played by Shirley Temple in Heidi (1937) and Natalie Wood in Driftwood (1947). Temple endows Heidi with characteristics which are, so to speak, American, and which the second film was to make explicit. Like Hetty in Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer, Jenny (Natalie Wood) is that American character par excellence, the Christianized wild child, who has an answer for everything thanks to the Bible verses taught her by the great-‐grandfather-‐pastor who raised her. The linking of the pastoral with the sexual is ambivalent. In Chances and Suez, the natural setting and the presence of water are propitious for amorous encounters. Similarly in Enchanted Island (1958), when the Yankee sailor Abner makes his declaration to Fayaway, the Polynesian Eve, amidst waterfalls and greenery, comparing the young woman's behavior to "water which runs in a little New England stream," which confirms the profound similarity between the two pastorals, the American and the exotic. Elsewhere, however, the pastoral conjures up, like Marvell's garden, a green and child-‐like world from which women are excluded. Robin Hood dives into the castle moat to escape the crazy women who are after him in a farcical scene which prefigures Keaton (Seven Chances was made in 1925). A similar hullabaloo appears in The Iron Mask (1929), in which the women inflict a bruising defeat on the musketeers, and in Enchanted Island, when the Tahitian women drag Abner off to bathe him forcibly. 46
"Americana" lends itself equally well to satire as to the parable. Young People (1940) offers an example of two-‐way cultural satire. One target is that of vaudeville, in the American sense of "music-‐hall": a culture of rootlessness, exuberance and the gift of the gab, over-‐ confident and naively idealizing the paradoxical rural values of New England. Laconic, inhospitable and hypocritical, the puritan country folk deceive the townsfolk who've come to live amongst them. The satire is no less conventional than the dénouement: a natural catastrophe enables the strolling players to prove their courage and overcome the suspicion of the native inhabitants; each learns to recognize and respect the other in his otherness. The good humor is infectious, thanks to the energy and the dynamism of the trio played by Jack Oakie, Charlotte Greenwood and Shirley Temple. As an example of parable, consider Driftwood and Angel in Exile (1948) in particular. These films illustrate Jefferson's declaration that going West amounted to going back in time. The exotic is shown as all the more strange for being close to us, a kind of Brigadoon where the fossilized past of America survives. When he comes out of prison, the bandit in Angel in Exile wants to collect the gold he hid in an abandoned mine. He comes across another buried mine, but this time of a spiritual nature, a Mexican mission which still lives in the Colonial past, with its naive faith, Christian bestiary (donkey and sheep), but also with its poisoned well. To get the gold out of the mine, he must make out he's just found it there, thus appearing to be a miracle worker, before actually becoming one, when, miraculously, he stops a typhoid epidemic. The action unfolds in Arizona, on the California borders, in 1939, and one can see it as an allegory of president Roosevelt and his New Deal policy. The Montana setting which opens Driftwood is that of a ghost town dating back to the Gold Rush. The West, America's past, is peopled with archetypal characters (played notably by H. B. Warner, who was Christ in King of Kings, Margaret Hamilton, the witch in The Wizard of Oz, and Francis Ford, John's elder brother, who often played drunkard roles) who get on wonderfully with young Jenny (Natalie Wood). Once again, the West appears as a world immemorial, very young and very old, resisting modernity. But should we for all that regard Dwan as "the most Rousseauist of American filmmakers," as Bertrand Tavernier put it? I wouldn't be so sure. Dwan's pastoralism adapts very well to decorative overload, the picturesque, disguise. Primitivism and exoticism, usually combined, belong to American mass culture. Inspired by Walter Scott, Robin Hood is part of a flourishing medievalist tradition (remember that Mark Twain, only half joking, made the Scottish novelist responsible for the Civil War, for filling Confederate minds with all those images and chivalrous ideas). Another exoticism is orientalism, which in the USA tends readily to self-‐parodic humor, associating a penchant for disguise and revelry with erotic fantasy. Just as it inspired Walsh's The Thief of Bagdad, this orientalism inspired a good 47
part of Suez, with the character of the wild child Toni (wearing baggy pants and a fez), and the lazy and obese crown prince Said, a pantomime figure. These exoticisms are largely interchangeable: the author of the orientalist fantasy Kismet, Edward Knoblock, was "advisor" on the Thief of Bagdad (1924) and "literary advisor" on Robin Hood. A third mode, Polynesian exoticism, combines the erotic fantasy of available Tahitian women with the threat of cannibalism. Enchanted Island obviously springs to mind, as does Gloria Swanson playing the ukulele in Manhandled (1924): the Hawaiian instrument indicates the "popular", hence sincere, nature of the heroine's culture, in opposition to the "high", hence affected, culture of her sexual predators. Another example of syncretic exoticism is Abner and Fayaway's marriage in Enchanted Island: covered in garlands, the couple set off in a canoe, across a lagoon full of water-‐lilies, and the scene suddenly seems to move from the story's Marquesas Islands to the more familiar, closer-‐to-‐home exoticism of Xochimilco (near Mexico) where the film was shot. Similarly, in Tennessee's Partner (1955) elements of Southern folklore (paddle boats at dawn), are worked into the western context, and the South is also implicitly evoked by the protagonist's name. The lexicon may not be American, but the syntax always is, effortlessly integrating classical motifs: for instance, when Maid Marian in Robin Hood, drawing the profile of her beloved on the wall by which to remember him when he goes on the Crusade, recreates the gesture of the young Corinthian, Butades's daughter. No less revealing is the commingling of genres. In The Iron Mask, d'Artagnan's saving and kidnapping Richelieu is a pure western scene (the attack on the stagecoach). In Chances, a strongly anglophile war melodrama, the most spectacular action sequence has the mounted artillery galloping to the front line, which could come from a Remington painting or a film on the Civil War, and reminds us (as do several equally "Western" sequences in Suez) that the epic dimension is in no way absent from Dwan's oeuvre. Conversely, in Slightly Scarlet, a 1956 film noir, characters and situations replicate those of The Iron Mask: Cardinal Richelieu and Father Joseph echo the mayor Jansen and his advisor Marlowe; the traitor Rochefort is mirrored by the gangster Caspar (Ted De Corsia); the alluring sisters reprise the respective roles of Constance Bonacieux (Rhonda Fleming, erotic but chaste) and Milady (Arlene Dahl, a compulsive criminal). Ben Grace (John Payne) plays a corrupt d'Artagnan, devoid of Fairbanks' innocence. There is thus a reciprocal blending of national traits: the musketeers embody the Frontier's energy and democracy, whilst the San Francisco gangsters recreate the political organization and murderous methods of the Ancien Régime. Dwan's films have close ties to American literature, but are unconcerned with faithful transposition. Enchanted Island is a free and uneven adaptation of Typee, the autobiographical account which made Melville famous, and the title of the film misleadingly echoes "Encantadas" by the same writer, a set of essays on the inhuman and "bewitched" 48
Galapagos islands, with nothing "enchanted" about them. Alongside numerous weaknesses and some incoherence, Enchanted Island offers beautiful images borrowed from Murnau and Flaherty's Taboo: the conch-‐blower, Mehevi, sitting in profile in the Egyptian manner, the Tahitian women bathing. Another adaptation, Tennessee's Partner fleshes out the brief short story by Bret Harte, an author of westerns who was very successful in the 19th century. Dwan retained only the Gold Rush setting, changed characters as well as situations, and entirely invented "Duchess", the flamboyantly sexy brothel keeper (Rhonda Fleming). On the other hand, in theme and tone Angel in Exile evokes various tales by Hawthorne and Melville. The complex arrangements to recycle the stolen gold, which revitalizes the village whilst polluting it, the explicit but ambiguous irony and symbolism recall Hawthorne's parables ("Rappaccini's Daughter") and the Melville diptych "The Paradise of Bachelors" and "The Tartarus of Maids," whilst the mutual fascination between the bandit and the young Mexican woman recalls the atmosphere of "The Veranda", a Melville story which plays on the ambiguity of perception (real or imagined) and of literary convention (realist or fantastic). In conclusion, consider the question of the relationship between ideology and aesthetics. With DeMille, aesthetic conservatism goes hand in hand with conservatism plain and simple. This was not the case with Dwan. As was noted by John Alton (who shot the superb Technicolor of Tennessee's Partner and Slightly Scarlet), the filmmaker's style remained unchanged from the twenties to the fifties, and the shadows cast by the gangsters in Slightly Scarlet faithfully reproduce the Caravaggio-‐like shadows of The Iron Mask. But Dwan's progressive stance is no less constant. Young People refers explicitly to the New Deal and enjoins on the New England community and its parody of democracy the need for rejuvenation implied by the title and embodied by Shirley Temple and George Montgomery. The moral of Driftwood is more complex. A progressive researcher, Dr. Steve (Dean Jagger) opposes the tyrannical and conservative town mayor, until the utopian compromise which, by giving him the means to pursue his research, removes his desire to conduct it: abandoning his planned departure for San Francisco, he decides to remain a country doctor. The lesson is worthy of Emerson or Thoreau: one must save, not humanity, but the community to which one belongs. The same ambiguity occurs in Suez, which clearly sympathizes with the Republicans against Louis Napoléon, but always shows them constrained, for various different reasons, by the will of the tyrannical (or simply Machiavellian?) Prince. The construction of the "progressive" canal is carried out by slave labor at the expense of great suffering and numerous human lives which recalls The Ten Commandments. It is difficult not to think of the major works undertaken by the Roosevelt administration (Tennessee Valley Authority); Dwan here posits a dilemma which was to be at the heart of Kazan's Wild River (1960). 49
Then there is Silver Lode (1954), whose anti-‐McCarthy symbolism is obvious. "Four strange horsemen," to quote the French title of the film, reincarnating those of the Apocalypse, enter the peaceful community of Silver Lode on the national 4th of July holiday, when the town is festooned with tricolored emblems and fifes and drums play in celebration of the anniversary of Independence. They introduce not only violence and massacre to this miniature America, but also dissimulation (since they usurp the identity of Federal police officers) and fake evidence against the innocent. The latter (John Payne) finds refuge in the church, whilst the gang's leader (Dan Duryea = "Ned McCarty") is killed when his own bullet ricochets from the church-‐bell, a holy object, but also a national symbol of liberty and independence. Lukács argued persuasively that in Balzac, the novelistic dynamic contradicts the writer's political conservatism; Dwan in a way exemplifies a parallel, but ideologically opposite, case, that of a confirmed liberalism, which, far from being modernist and technological, draws on a nostalgic, tradition-‐based vision of pastoral America.
TEN THAT MAKE A WORK
Ray Milland in The River’s Edge (1957) The difficulty of talking about Dwan usually starts with these questions: is Dwan an author? Do his 400-‐plus films, then, constitute a work, a single work? If so, what makes them a work? Let us cut to the chase. The answers are: yes; yes; and the following: 1) The mastery of a certain rhetoric in the presentation of characters that enables Dwan to overcome both the deficiencies and the successes of his casts. In the touching and charming Young People (1940), it takes no effort for the viewer to believe that Jack Oakie and Charlotte Greenwood are exactly who they purport to be; on the other hand, in Belle Le Grand (1951) and Pearl of the South Pacific (1955), questionable casting puts Dwan at no disadvantage: he is able to surmount it simply by ignoring it. Young People may be “better acted” than Belle Le Grand, but neither film is hurt (or significantly elevated) by its acting: the actors in both films, and the characters they play, are no better or worse than what they are. 2) Straightforwardness, refusal of exaggeration. Examples: the confrontation between the sisters in Belle Le Grand; Forrest Tucker and Scott Brady going to their deaths in Montana Belle (1952). It is enough for Dwan to show: there is no need to distort anything for the sake of setting up an effect. So many great moments in Dwan films seem to be handled in
the simplest way possible: Ray Milland taking the other road at the end of The River’s Edge (1957); Dana Andrews jumping off the ship to save Jane Powell at the end of Enchanted Island (1958). But “the simplest way possible” is an inadequate expression. We have to try to define and characterize this way. What does Dwan do? What does he refrain from doing? 3) Dwan shows morality and conscience in terms of the most mundane and the most absolute physical reality, framed absolutely—i.e., given existence—by the film frame. The shot of the signpost near the end of The River’s Edge is the ideal illustration of this method. Dwan’s cinema is in a blissful state of semiotic equilibrium, all meanings present and accounted-‐for and every expression commensurate to its meaning. 4) Watching certain Dwan films one gets the impression that every shot is merely adequate and no more; also no less: this is why one thinks of the word “simplest.” But it is not true that Dwan does nothing more than the minimum necessary—and anyway, how could we know this?. Or that Dwan’s point of view is the basic, the merely necessary one—and again the same question, how to know this? (Despite Raoul Walsh’s assertion that there is only one way to show a man walking through a door). Dwan often puts a pronounced emphasis on framing—cf. the staging through windows in numerous films, Montana Belle and Silver Lode (1954) to name just two, the insistent eavesdropping structures in such films as The Restless Breed (1957). Again and again, Dwan stages and positions action in relation to a closer-‐to-‐foreground interior frame. Since it’s clear that this strategy is in no way “merely necessary” for showing the action, it’s incorrect to describe Dwan’s shots as “just the right perspective” or “the best perspective,” as if he had some mystical knack of finding the natural link between any action and the way of showing it. With Dwan, what’s crucial is not just angle, perspective, or distance of subject to camera, but a framing strategy that structures the action, builds a home for it; or better, that the scaffolding is left there after the composition has been built; it’s this, too, the making, the structuring, that Dwan wants to show, not just the action itself. The very familiarity of the situations and characters in Dwan’s scripts is transformed, under his direction, into a structuring tool. A coincidence in Tennessee’s Partner (1955), when Anthony Caruso peers in through a window at just the right moment to catch sight of John Payne concealing a map, strikes with all the inevitability of melodrama, so that it is the inevitability that registers (this is something that had to happen) more than the banality of the script’s contrivance. The beautiful gesture of Ronald Reagan’s Cowpoke, after beating Payne, gently touching the latter’s shoulder in the same film creates neither surprise nor the effect of something that might not have happened; and yet it is a kind of miracle. 52
5) In Dwan, nothing is hidden. All faces, gestures, places are nothing more than performances of themselves. Dwan’s theatricality has two sides: one, that everything presents itself; two, that everything presents itself precisely as it is represented in the film. This means that everything appears not only in the space, but also at the time, that belongs to it. If nothing is hidden in space, nothing is delayed in time; everything delivers itself, if “by coincidence” (as in the aforementioned scene in Tennessee’s Partner), at the right moment. This exactly timed self-‐presentation of people and things demands an art of framing and composition that is essentially appreciative. The fundamental gesture in Dwan’s work is the bestowing of value. Thus the moral redemption of the main characters in Angel in Exile (1948) and Pearl of the South Pacific has an aesthetic, as well as ethical, significance. Contemplating his flawed protagonists, Dwan wants them to become ideal versions of themselves—a desire that corresponds with their own impulses and the progression of the plots. 6) The difficulty of discussing Dwan’s work in thematic terms is obvious. Still, it can be attempted, with the proviso that what characterizes Dwan is not a set of themes but a certain attitude toward his themes, and the further proviso that the terms in which this attitude has most often been described—terms such as serenity and buoyancy—are problematic, full of assumptions that need to be analyzed. Anyway, what interests me most are not the themes, or even this attitude, whatever it is, but the moral pattern of Dwan’s films. Suez (1938), Angel in Exile, Belle Le Grand, Silver Lode, Pearl of the South Pacific, Enchanted Island are all films about giving up (a false identity, corrupt values, a destructive course of action). Always greed destroys some, while others free themselves from it. And always there is a central character—Jane Russell’s Belle Starr (Montana Belle), Vera Ralston’s Belle Le Grand, John Carroll as the Angel in Exile, Virginia Mayo in Pearl of the South Pacific, Dana Andrews in Enchanted Island, John Payne in Slightly Scarlet (1956) and Silver Lode—who passes back and forth between two worlds (criminality/the law, civilization/the primitive). The crucial gesture is that which permits the outsider to enter the community: Belle Starr being accepted by, on the one hand, the criminal gang, and on the other, law-‐abiding society; the chiefs in Pearl of the South Pacific and Enchanted Island accepting, respectively, the Virginia Mayo and Dana Andrews characters; Thomas Gomez accepting Carroll in Angel in Exile; the community finally accepting the Oakie/Greenwood/Shirley Temple family in Young People; Anthony Quinn forgiving Debra Paget in The River’s Edge. 7) Although the elements that make up this pattern are undoubtedly personal to Dwan, they are also shared to some extent by many other directors, and in a very general sense belong to the basic grammar not just of Hollywood cinema but of all melodrama. What
distinguishes Dwan and sets him apart from the very norms that he appears to represent perfectly is something that has to do with the peculiar circumstances of his career. Dwan’s Republic films in particular seem to stand apart as failed Hollywood films: neither B films nor major films, but “bad” imitations of major films, fake major films, a somewhat neglected category in film history. (John Carroll and Vera Ralston: the poor man’s Clark Gable and Hedy Lamarr.) Driftwood (1947), The Inside Story (1948), Angel in Exile, Belle Le Grand, Surrender (1950), I Dream of Jeanie (1952) all occupy this strange middle range. These films borrow the codes of the Hollywood A film but don’t work as A-‐level classics: there is always something that breaks down, structurally, in the screenplay, in realization because of budget limitations, or in casting and performance, and this failure is the point at which the film diverges from the Hollywood norm and becomes something else, does something else, something different. This something else can be defined as a certain way of approaching the material so that the fundamental implications of the material become evident—implications that are hidden (and protected from having to justify themselves) in “better realized” versions of similar stories. Dwan’s Westerns featuring women in strong roles—Belle Le Grand, Montana Belle, Woman They Almost Lynched (1953), and Cattle Queen of Montana (1954)—function clearly in this manner because the gender of the protagonist becomes an element that disrupts, perturbs, renders visible and therefore questionable, the assumptions about morality that underlie the traditional Western film. 8) The Benedict Bogeaus-‐produced films are different from the Republic ones: again obviously not A films, they declare themselves without apology as works of escapism and exoticism, totally isolated from the serious concerns of postwar Hollywood, with the exception that the first of the series, Silver Lode, appears influenced by High Noon and can be taken as an allegory about McCarthyism (not that, needless to say, either of these elements represents what is most interesting about this great triumph of Dwanian energy and formal invention). Except for the last one, the Bogeaus-‐Dwan films are also in color and cut even the minimal ties to realism that black and white still offered in the Republic films (e.g., Angel in Exile, with its highlighting of poverty and underdevelopment). If Dwan, then, directs a “film noir” in the Bogeaus period, it must be a “film noir in color” (Slightly Scarlet), set in a world no less exoticized and sealed-‐off than that of Escape to Burma (1955). In all periods, Dwan’s films stand apart from the Hollywood norm and from their own ostensible class and become uncategorizable, occasionally embarrassing (most of the Republic films, the mildly risqué ’44-‐’46 comedies, the Ritz Brothers movies), while embodying their own separate truth—down to the strangeness of Dwan’s final two projects, Enchanted Island and Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961), which reach a kind of hermeticism in their down-‐and-‐out commercialism, as if it were possible for a film to be so reduced and threadbare a genre piece as to become an art film (and it is, of course, more 54
than possible). Both Enchanted Island and Most Dangerous Man Alive had lawsuits threatened in connection with their production, as if a film now had to feed on and destroy itself, there being nothing left outside itself—no studio, no film culture, no audience. (The nihilism of Most Dangerous Man Alive—Ron Randell’s radioactive Eddie Candell threatening to “rip the world apart”—is certainly shocking, but the film makes plain that there’s almost no world left for him to challenge.) The starkness of Most Dangerous Man Alive is sustained by a complete lack of unnecessary shots, even when they would appear necessary (thus the film pushes toward a new definition—by intention? anyway, by invention—of cinematic form). This horror film (more than sci-‐fi) is built on the encounter with the zero degree of humanity: the border between humanity and inhumanity experienced within a single being. Again in a Dwan film there is the inevitability of the return to the law (here doubled into two figures, one destructive, one compassionate), the theme of the impossible situation of the exile, everything in a terrible state of suspension for as long as the hero is neither man nor fully not-‐man. Can the commonplaces about Dwan’s serenity, his evenness of tone, his harmony, still be applied to this strained and brutal film? (Or even to its bleak and tortured predecessors, the sublime Slightly Scarlet and Dwan’s 1956 TV masterwork High Air?) 9) If The River’s Edge stands apart from Dwan’s late films (but all through his career there are exceptions: his could be called a cinema of exceptions) for a number of reasons (CinemaScope, the stature of the two male stars, the rigor of the script), it is also a film situated at the heart of Dwan’s cinema, with its themes of forgiveness and redemption, its scenic nudity (within which Dwan still manages to find ways to invent his beloved gateway compositions, even if the gate is only a couple of rocks on either side of a road), Mexico as idyll (as in Angel in Exile). It is a film structured entirely on the triangle, Dwan contriving to keep his three main characters in the same shot (the brilliant sequence in the cave) or to underline the connectedness of the three with cutaways (in the cave sequence, the cutaways to Ray Milland set up and make comprehensible—poetically if not psychologically—his final decision to help Anthony Quinn). The law must finally be faced (Quinn and Debra Paget at the end). The golden rule of Hollywood under the Production Code, the recognition of the law, is a privileged theme in Dwan’s cinema, as such works as Angel in Exile, Montana Belle, and Passion (1954) testify. In The River’s Edge, the law is warded off and disappears for the length of a journey, but then becomes internalized, so that the protagonists end up desiring it and returning to it. Dwan’s cinema is populated by outcasts and rebels, self-‐made heroes and heroines (of whom Fairbanks and Swanson, Dwan’s great silent stars, are the prototypes) who try for a while to live by their own rules outside the law only to end up experiencing a nostalgia for the law. 55
10) The Bogeaus films through The River’s Edge bring Dwan’s career full circle. (The two final films work differently, Enchanted Island ending in the water between two worlds, and Most Dangerous Man Alive ending with annihilation.) The main movement of Dwan’s work, which constitutes a perpetual-‐motion memorial to the origins of Hollywood as a cinema of outsiders, is the outside coming inside. It’s the fatality but also the hope and the chance of the outsider to come in, somewhere, under the custody of the law, of some law. Dwan’s serenity comes from his sense of the imminence of this return as logically completing the course of the outsider. So his is not a cinema of revolt (though this is obvious, it is not as obvious as it might at first appear), but a cinema of the return of the exile and the acceptance an embrace of home.
LESSONS FOR ARCHITECTS, BY ALLAN DWAN
José Neves Translated by David Phelps
“I’m sorry sweetheart. You got to play it the way the cards fall.” —Nardo Denning1 “There’s nothing more beautiful than mathematical perfection—as in architecture.” —Allan Dwan2 *** One day, I met a fellow architect who was preparing a film series on architecture. He showed me the list of films that he had programmed and that seemed appropriate to me, but I asked him: "Why don't you only show the films of Allan Dwan?" From the beginning of cinema, there have been many who have addressed the relationship between film and architecture, but the affinity seems especially pronounced in Dwan’s work. And at every step through his life's work we find the most valuable lessons that might serve and stimulate the work done by architects. Some of these lessons might immediately be found in the way that Dwan, shooting continuously from 1908 to 1961, would trace his path forward. Here are some. Accepting commissions of all kinds, Dwan would work with all types of stories, technicians, actors, budgets, conventions, codes, and restrictions—or "handcuffs,"3 as he 57
called them. But he would spurn none of these in order to get the most out of them in his films. He would film within the given possibilities just as an architect does. For the more incongruous the functional requirements, the more banal the site, the tighter the budget, and the more absurd the so-‐called "regulations," nevertheless for an architect, the constraints must not be impediments (or exculpations) but givens with which to work. Dwan's films—and their heroes—full of audacity and serenity alike, tell us the same thing about his work as Frank Lloyd Wright used to say about his own: "Limitations are an architect's best friend." Similarly, through successive upheavals in cinematic technology—sound, color, aspect ratios—Dwan would figure out how to accommodate all such novelties (today, obviously, he would work with digital), while staying absolutely faithful to a mode of working as old as the craft that he himself had helped invent. Like an architect who knows that the words of Mies van der Rohe—"Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space"4—and the words of Robert Bresson—"Novelty is neither originality nor modernity"5—may be one and the same. "One of the problems with directors is that they make a big picture—which might be a hit—and then they try to top it. And they ususally fall flat on their faces. So I try to make it as a rule: if I make a big picture which is a hit I do a cheap picture next."6 It is John Ford who thus refuses, in 1936, a certain idea of "growth," and so anticipates the famous story that Buñuel would later recount, horrified, about a meeting in which Nicholas Ray would admit to his anguish at not being able to stop making movies that were increasingly expensive, 7 a story later retold by Jean-‐Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet in a film by Pedro Costa.8 Dwan would make some of the most expensive and famous films of his time as well as some of the cheapest, most quickly-‐made, and most obscure. Like an architect who knows how decisive it is to design a hut after having designed a cathedral. The great differences that exist between Dwan's works (a "cinema of exceptions," according to Chris Fujiwara9) can only be due to the freedom offered by the mastery of a craft and the pleasure of exercising it. But the clearest lessons we architects can look for in the films of Dwan—whom Jean-‐ Claude Biette aptly labeled a "great poet of space"10—might be found in the architecture within their films. The goal of these brief notes, taking up The River's Edge (1957)—one of the last four films that Allan Dwan would make and the last work of architect and set designer Van Nest Polglase—is to call attention to two or three very important and forgotten things, in both architecture and cinema, which Dwan's films persistently recall.
Movement and Settlement The notion, articulated by Lewis Mumford, that "Human life swings between two poles: movement and settlement"11 gives one of the simplest and most precise declarations to illuminate the ways we occupy the world—of which cities are the clearest expression. In The River's Edge, the trajectory—the adventure—of Debra Paget (Margaret), Anthony Quinn (Ben), and Ray Milland (Nardo) practically avoids the city altogether, while traversing a vast territory, almost entirely without human constructions. Their escape, which takes up nearly the entire film, from Quinn and Paget's ranch to the Mexican-‐ American border (an invisible human mark onto the ground), passes through hills and valleys, that is, through all the fundamental types of topography of any territory which are before, that is below, the cities: the plains (covered by cornfields, crisscrossed by long straight roads, and where Quinn has settled his small ranch), the mountain ridges (where the characters walk and rule the landscape, like hunters) and the water routes (the river's edge of the very title of the film, shown in the credits at the start and the place where everyone rests by the end—living or dead). In every place configured by these terrains, things happen. And everything happens because these types of topography allow or demand it. Let's consider the ravines in the film. There are three ravines that organize the itinerary of the three characters ("Everything I did was triangles with me... You’re only related to people through triangles or lines,"12 Dwan explained to Peter Bogdanovich) and that determine the transformations and relationships between them that they will undergo throughout the film: 1.
The first, the bluff over which the van and trailer that undertook the first part of the journey are tossed, marks the starting point of the journey on foot—now unprotected from nature's violence and free from the hierarchies and distinctions that man-‐made space will always determine or deny. Until now, Anthony Quinn has driven his car with his back turned away from the small trailer where Ray Milland and Debra Paget have been lying, separated from him. From now on, on foot, the path will depend only on their mutual affinities and aversions, which will oscillate among them, depending on each one's relative strength, itself determined by their possession of a knife or gun. 59
The second, the cliff that Ray Milland tries painstakingly to climb, while attached to a rope hoisted by Anthony Quinn, offers the means by which the suitcase opens for the first time, and the million dollars' worth of bills first go fluttering to the wind. As a result, Ray Milland kills the old prospector, Debra Paget turns away from him, and Quinn's desire for revenge grows immeasurably. 3.
The third, finally, is the ravine where the silver suitcase will open and the money drop once again, this time to be forever lost, as it joins the fallen body of Ray Milland. If in Silver Lode (1954), (a great example of the relationship, in cinema, between bodies and the space of a city) the ordered movement of the crowd pursuing John Payne, one moment a saint and the next a devil, operates as a procession between the houses of the two women who, because they are in love, see and perceive everything, and the buildings of the municipal institutions—the court, the town hall, the prison, the church, the telegraph office, the saloon, the stable, all festooned for the holiday—the movement in The River's Edge is like a pilgrimage taken by these three people who have refuge only in clearings, caves, and the bed of a stream. In the city as in the wilderness, both manmade constructions as well as natural sites that have been made human by acts of choice (as Ray Milland says, when surprised by Quinn and Paget embracing inside the cave: "Maybe I should have knocked ..."), are the anchors within reach of these bodies that, stationary or adrift, working collectively or alone, casually or ritualistically, are constantly at risk.
Space and use In The River's Edge, nature, free of any human traces, seems to have been conceived to accommodate the three characters, i.e., their gestures, looks, and words. The first image we are given—the site where Paget, Milland and Quinn choose to rest the first night without even a roof—is the image of a kind of stage. The background is a jumble of rocks loosely opening onto a path that will only be seen clearly later on, when Anthony Quinn takes it to go walking—"I'll have a look around." The floor is made of dirt and stones that have mixed together to shield a small fire, which divides the shot firmly into two sides: on one, Ray Milland and Debra Paget, and on the other, a bit remote, Quinn; behind each of their bodies, each seen in its entirety, there is a trunk of a tree on which the position and movements of each one of them rely.
When Quinn, alone on a nearby rock, sees the other two as they kiss, not only have the trees changed position, but the tree on which Quinn was leaning has disappeared altogether from where it was planted before. The fire has also changed position in order to continue occupying the middle of the shot and to serve now as the center of the fixed circle of light which demarcates the space of the clearing. (Later, the only tree on the bank of the river where the film ends seems to be there to safeguard the surviving couple).
In Dwan's films, we can see clearly that actions are not detached from spaces and things. The action takes place, in cinema as in life, and it is the shape of these places that, in large part, provide their nexus. But at no point do the sets of Dwan's films, often quite vivid, speak too loudly or overshadow the bodies acting on them. The "extreme simplicity" and the "economy of the line,"13 in Dwan's own words, which guide all aspects of his art, also determine how locations serve the action, or rather, how the locations, passing by unnoticed (as much by us watching the film as the characters within it), unite with the action. In life as well there exists a certain, strange abstractedness, like that of facing the reality of the spaces around us that allows us to live in them. And if these spaces, at best, seem to have been there forever, like that clearing and the trees in The River's Edge, the configuration of these spaces, the things that populate these places, and the elements by which they are constituted transform themselves as well and change or seem to change location with the use we offer them—most of all through our memories and our dreams. Circumstance and Context Rarely can works of architecture be moved (let's not confuse them with their images, which circulate widely). Works of architecture have roots, are built in places that existed before them and that are transformed by their presence. In The River's Edge, there are not only the images of the landscapes, of the places and the spaces that occupy the screen, but also of other things that, either belonging to this context or clashing with it, become associated with each gesture: a half a dozen small objects—the small circular mirror hanging over Quinn and Paget's beds, which are arranged like an "L"; the small oven that explodes; the iron for branding cattle and the knife for killing turkeys; guns and bullets; the metal suitcase and, inside it, the ten thousand bills of one hundred dollars each that will be swapped for a rope, a firebrand or a dead cow, and that will be sent flying through the air twice, that will be used to kindle bonfires, and that will end up crumpled in the beaks of birds and floating in the waters of a brook. Plus three animals. In three different scenes, Debra Paget will face these three animals, each distinct from the others: the ox that breaks the fence of the corral ranch; the scorpion that attempts to occupy the inside of one of her lace slippers; and the snake inside the cave that threatens the two fighting men, and which she kills.
A large part of the concrete conditions facing a work of architecture emerge on site. These conditions are always variable, from place to place, and often fleeting; and so, the proper attention to them and the ability to respond to them appropriately are the duties of a job that does not lend itself to universal solutions. In some cases, what matters in these places occurs as naturally as the vermin of The River's Edge seem to spring up with surprising ease (the threat arising from a specific site that one never realizes is there); in other cases, the encounters that result are something like what happens between the desert and Nardo's pink Ford Thunderbird that traverses it (a collision that seems to clarify everything). Matter and directions Architecture is not executed—and never was—for the sense of sight alone. More than ever, it is important to repeat this obvious truth: all the senses, if they are more or less awakened in us, are at play when it comes to inhabiting the reality of a space; and, in the case of vision, one of its aspects that counts the most is the capacity of peripheral vision, without which we would not be able to feel as though we were inside a space. Such are the own, wonderful limitations of the art of cinema—perception of a film is limited to two of the five senses: vision (two-‐dimensional) and hearing (sound would take over twenty years to emerge after Dwan had made his first film)—that at every moment in The River's Edge we are made aware of our other senses. When Debra Paget, dressed 63
formally, goes down the stairs of the hotel to meet Ray Milland, the monochromatic textures of the walls, the stairs, the doors, and her dress (the auburn and ocher of the dirt, the wood, and even the water of the first part of the film, reemerge here, barely saturated) leave us feeling, like Goethe, that "the hands want to see, the eyes want to caress." 14
How many movies are made that stand up to patient and attentive looking and listening? How many rooms, how many buildings and cities are built for the affect and intelligence of the senses? Continuity John Dorr has noted that in Dwan's work, "the world captured in the frame is never as important as the relationship of one shot to the next."15 To understand this better, let us return to the scene where Paget shoots the snake while Quinn and Ray Milland are struggling with one another, so that we can recall the darkened cavity, always visible, at the side of the cave's lighted entrance, but which we only notice after the cobra rises up inside; or of the two men's strange, static embrace; or of Paget's folded, indifferent body, sick, while life and death play out before her. In a work of architecture as well, the elements constituting it are never as important, in of themselves, as the relationship between them. And this can be verified, not only by the very nature of architecture—taking part, above all, in the structure of manmade constructions, it's the space between things that counts more than the things themselves—but moreover, for two other reasons as well: on the one hand, in a work of architecture any element is in fact only comprehensible when corresponding to the other elements with which it forms a whole; on the other hand, the limits of a work of architecture are never the limits of its intended design, or rather, a work truly exists only in relation to that which, one way or another, is close to it and with which, again, inevitably, in one way or another, it forms continuities.16 64
But it is not only this notion of continuity—a notion referring to the shape and structure of the works themselves—which is found in Dwan's movies. His films partake as well in another principle of continuity that Jean-‐Luc Godard has spoken of, when stating that "a film is not a work in and of itself. It is, at the same time, a part of a whole. What one starts off searching in one film ends up being found in other films." Dwan's work also makes it clear that this search doesn't have to begin and end in the work of a single author. What someone starts off searching for in a work ends up being found in the work of others. The entirely ambitious modesty that such a process supposes—and that belongs as much to scientists as to poets—is the pride of a craftsmen. It was Giancarlo de Carlo who said of his former, fellow treatise-‐writers, Alberti and Francesco di Giorgio: "They would speak of the simple techniques they had learned from the masons. So they were necessarily modest. Because if you begin to dig up the roots of the culture that is all around us, it is clear that you are safe from this attitude of remoteness, arrogance, contempt of fact, that is the basis of immodesty, which is to believe yourself to be in another sphere, another level (...) "17 When there are fewer and fewer alternatives between the standardized products of the supermarkets and the more or less exotic delicacies of gourmet shops, it is left to us to start anew, as Brecht said, with the "bad new things" and not the "good old ones" in order to reinvent the small, neighborhood shops. Perhaps this is the best of all possible ways that we have today to reiterate the most important thing that any manmade work might recall: "Now we are alive." 66
1 Allan Dwan, The River’s Edge, 1957 2 Allan Dwan, Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Allan Dwan: The Last Pioneer (London:
Studio Vista, 1971), 25.
3 Ibid. 163. 4 Philip Johnson, Mies van der Rohe (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1947), 189. 5 Robert Bresson, Notes sur le cinématographe, 1975. (Paris: Gallimard, 1988), 123. 6 John Ford, Interview by Philip Jenkinson, 1936, in Gerald Peary (ed.), John Ford: Interviews
(University Press of Mississipi, 2001) 139-‐140. 7 Luís Buñuel, Mon dernier soupir (Paris: Editions Robert Laffont, 1982) 234-‐235. 8 Pedro Costa, Onde Jaz o Teu Sorriso (Lisboa: Assírio & Alvim, 2004). 9 Chris Fujiwara, "Ten That Make A Work," in David Phelps and Gina Telaroli (ed.), Allan
Dwan: A Dossier (Lumière, 2013) 44.
10 Jean Claude Biette, “Un inventeur sans recompense: Allan Dwan ou le cinema nature”,
Cahiers du cinéma 332 (février 1982).
11 Lewis Mumford, The City in History: its origins, its transformations, and its prospects, 1961
(Middlesex: Penguin, 1984) 13.
12 Bogdanovich, op. cit., 26. 13 Ibid., 32. 14 Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin (West Sussex: Wiley Academy, 2005) 14. 15 John Dorr, “The Griffith Tradition”, Film Comment (March/April 1974) 51. 16 Cf. Fernando Távora, Da Organização do Espaço, 1962 (Porto: Publicações FAUP, 2008). 17 Giancarlo de Carlo, Interview with Bruno Queysanne and René Borruey, “Entretien avec
Giancarlo de Carlo”, in René Borruey et al., Architecture et modestie: Actes de la rencontre tenue au Couvent de la Tourette, Centre Thomas More, les 8 et 9 juin 1996, (Lecques: Théétète Éd., 1999) 39.
THE UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE Or Adventures in Exchange Symmetries
Above: A Modern Musketeer (1917) Stage Struck (1925), Montana Belle (1948/1952), Flight Nurse (1953)
"All for one and two for five!" —The Three Musketeers (1939) "Why don't you pretend that I'm Kate Quantrill?... Maybe I can take her place." — Kate Quantrill, Woman They Almost Lynched (1953) *** Self-‐fashioned only in their dreams, Douglas Fairbanks and Gloria Swanson raise quixotism to a kind of all-‐round American credo. The fantasies that preface A Modern Musketeer (1917) and Stage Struck (1925)—Fairbanks’ Ned Thacker figuring himself as a movie hero D’Artagnan; Swanson’s small-‐town waitress, Jennie Hagen, recasting herself as an actress acclaimed for her Salome—both seem to treat Continental Prestige as an entirely American Dream, though the joke comes retroactively: as Paris dissolves to Kansas, the World’s Stage to West Virginia, the movies turn out only to be parodies of their own genre conceits, their own, extra-‐accentuated craft as swashbucklers. Nevertheless, as platforms for fantasy, these drabber realities are in a way the greater construct, weird places where both Fairbanks and Swanson are ridiculed for their most improbable quality, their normalcy; in Dwan's reality, in which almost everyone might turn out to be an actor playing a variable role, Ned Thacker seems to dream of becoming nobody other than Douglas Fairbanks, and Jennie Hagen of becoming nobody other than Gloria Swanson. The fabular structure of both films—characters navigating their dull lives as genre-‐pieces that they will finally enact in the end—are, in a way, simply stories of the stars becoming themselves. “I found it was a good idea to let the actors have a lot of free play… A director’s job shouldn’t be to teach acting,” Dwan would say. “Children are great actors because they’re always making-‐believe.”1 Found objects of a sort, Fairbanks and Swanson become, like Dwan’s first locations, motivating parameters—the raison d’être of a film’s plot, the rules of its game. As Bill Krohn notes how Dwan's spatial axioms become narrative paradigms,2 The Poisoned Flume (1911) would be constructed around a flume Dwan had spotted; Oil On Trouble Waters (1913) around the oil wells off Summerland; Stage Struck around the entrance of a riverboat into the town where Dwan was shooting. Even late, Tennessee's Partner (1955) will seem to be assembled out of little more than the title and first two lines of Bret Harte's story, as if Dwan and screenwriters had gotten no further than this accumulation of 1) character (Tennessee and his Partner), 2) dialogue ("I do not think we ever knew his real name," turned into the film's final line), and 3) location (Sandy Bar, CA), and had decided simply to redeploy some variant of the plot of Angel in Exile in order to put the pieces together.3 Dwan's whole narrative-‐aesthetic approach might be summed up as some form of connect-‐the-‐dots: similarly, the Fairbanks films seem physically constructed around their star's abilities and limitations alike in jumping between spaces, as the platforms of the set are positioned by the exact distance Fairbanks could leap between them easily enough to suggest that there were no gap at all. A mechanics of fantasy: it takes
an exact distance to make it seem as though Fairbanks could have vaulted as far as he wished; for Dwan, there is even a science of defying gravity. Dwan: "But everything I did was triangles with me. If I constructed a story and I 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 had to discard them because they'd be a distraction. And you're only related to people through triangles or lines. If I'm related to a third person and you're not, there's something wrong in our relationship together. One of us is dangling. So I say, ''How do I tie that person to you? How do I complete that line?' And I have to work the story so I can complete that line. In other words, create a relationship, an incident, something that will bring us into the eternal triangle. That was the weakness of von Stroheim, for instance. With all his strength, that was his great weakness. He would get fascinated by some extraneous character and go off on a tangent, develop a story all around that other character, and the story would be disjointed."4 Long after Biograph and Triangle, Dwan's films still seem to ask the question at the start of the film of just how many ways a set series of people and locations may be related—and then generate geometric storylines to assure the relation of each entity to each other. A model for an industry still improvising its product in California forests and New Jersey bars in the early 1910s, Dwan would channel the tension between impromptu, on-‐location shoots and his beloved, diagrammatic parables into open narrative problems to be resolved by the story itself—some years still before the stratification of pre-‐scriptive "fiction" and extemporaneous "documentary" into independent ontologies of cinema and/or ploys of marketing. Community symphonies of a sort, films from Manhattan Madness (1916) and East Side, West Side (1927) to Sweethearts on Parade (1953), and even Slightly Scarlet (1956) employ reconciliation plots as a way of scheming diagrammatic couples into contact with their communities and one another; the most generic romance becomes a tool for Dwan to catalogue all strata of a world. But it's Fairbanks whose physical expertise at crossing boundaries and borders in a single leap becomes a sort of temperamental template for all Dwan's heroes, as the ultimate tool for linking all the spaces of a town:
He Comes Up Smiling (1918), Tide of Empire (1929) 70
Already, in the Fairbanks movies, there is the suggestion that community is simply the circulation of characters among a few set pieces, each determining their roles. A principle at work as early as Almost a Friar (aka Man's Calling, 1912): a man knows his life can be determined by the découpage of moving right (into the shot of a loving woman), left (into the shot of a riverbed for contemplation), or into the background (where there awaits the monastery of his intended profession, but soon to be wedding site in one of Dwan's first 180 degree spatial-‐role shifts). As in so many later Dwans, the initial principle of "realism" in Musketeer or Madness, that the characters must assume the roles befitting their locales, and may even have to swap identities at each scene change, transmutes into a principle of fantastical mock-‐heroism by the end: it's precisely by assuming and swapping roles that the characters can at last determine their scene instead of vice-‐versa. It's a discovery that will later be made by Shirley Temple in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938) and Jane Russell in Montana Belle (1948/1952) with winking assurance that these girls' performances are enough to restore their universes to collective choruses on an open stage. Everyone becomes part of the show. "This outside-‐in structure allows Dwan and Fairbanks to parody genre codes while also fulfilling their basic necessities," says R. Emmett Sweeney about Musketeer.5 The characters revel in their world as a genre construct as much as Dwan: Musketeer ends with Fairbanks becoming the action hero of his dreams; Madness with Fairbanks tricked by a theater troupe into thinking he is one. Stage Struck even suggests the Dwan-‐Fairbanks action film as a genre to be parodied by the paltrier reality created in its image: barely able walk upright around a room, Gloria Swanson hatches a plan to win her love by performing in a boxing match that will rally the town together. Her logic, surely, is Dwanian—once he too is complicit in her performance, as everyone in the Fairbanks films becomes complicit in his stagecraft by the end, she can tear off her mask and let the power of her performance transcend the social binds of poverty and schlemiel motor skills that have constrained her for far too long. But of course her mask disguises the world from her as much as it disguises her from the world, and she bumbles around the ring, Chaplin-‐like, brawling at the empty air. In contrast to Fairbank's death-‐defying ease, his inability to fall in the face of any hurdle, her heroic attempts not to topple over as she's walking become doomed, beautifully, here and in Manhandled (1924), by her own overburdened optimism. Like Chaplin, her pathos seems to have been fabricated acrobatically in a total grace of gracelessness. Marion Davies, struggling to preserve her self-‐image against a world that has other roles for her to play, is offered a similar poignancy in Getting Mary Married (1919), but there's probably not much parallel for it after the sound era: the tragic comedy of a girl desperately trying to be anyone but herself gives way to a dispositional blankness, in the last films, of characters who swap entire personalities at every costume-‐change, who can only act as the character they've fitted themselves to play. The binaries of reality and fantasy become replaced by binaries of something like fantasy and fantasy, the positive and negative solutions for Dwan's character variables.
*** By the sound era, the role is not so much a form of self-‐expression, as in, say, the similarly private-‐public performances of Cukor; where Cukor obligates his actors to evade the accusations of each other's stares by coiling towards his pushing-‐pulling camera, the only outlet into which they might articulate their feelings, characters in Dwan look squarely at each other from either end of the screen. Where in Cukor the emotional revelations are self-‐cultivated privately in response to an inescapable, outer social world, in Dwan the roles are simply genre molds to be employed for their cinematic and social functions. Any Ford-‐like, Homeric diagnosis of the hero's self-‐abrogation in tying himself to the tasks of domesticity or myth are equally absent in Dwan; Walsh's slack distinction between "big dreamers" and "little dreamers" on a sliding scale of self-‐determined lives vanishes from Dwan after the silent social epics of East Side, West Side and Tide of Empire (1929), both films tracking workers through the worlds of empire they've constructed with their bare hands. Roles become simply a social currency to be passed around. The relationship between characters seems to lie less in their gazes than in their gestures, touching one other: the gestures of anybody who might play this role. What is so physically im-‐mediate in Dwans, so sensual, is also what might seem so anonymous. As in late Lang, nobody is what they appear to be nor presented as anything other than their appearance. But unlike Lang's iconographic personalities, each a self-‐fitted mask, Dwan's characters, even in the midst of deceit, seem to conceal nothing; the constant conceit that nothing is hidden, everything visible, will root his 40s comedies as much as his 50s policiers in entirely public worlds, adjoining spaces where privacy is only an illusion belied by wide windows and constant eavesdropping. In their shift from vaudeville show-‐ and-‐tell to stoned-‐faced paranoia—the wartime comedies somehow expressions of both— Dwan's movies only shift from the buoyancy of a world conjoined harmoniously in performance, as characters play the roles of their dreams through I Dream of Jeanie (1952) and Sweethearts on Parade, to the woodenness of a world where the performance of duty conceives of no counterpart in a private self or even private fantasy. Such privacy, even the privacy of thought, is not even an option for these storylines in which disguises are treated openly as such, and characters are unable to hide a thing from each other, whether a garter or an identity. In Dwan's conception of social theater, a platform for characters to swap roles, teach each other roles, and finally perform them together, actors only become agents of their act in constant motion over time. The movies draw so close to drawing-‐room comedy in their externalization of everything psychological that they reach a kind of ground zero of modern cinema: each character is nothing more nor less than a moving image. *** And yet what's weirdest about the 40s comedies is that while each attempt of Dwan's ad-‐ libbing heroes to evade detection becomes legible in their overdetermined stammers, double takes, and verbal lurches, still nobody else on-‐screen gives much sign of
perturbation that anything is amiss. Don't the women see Dennis O'Keefe's hopeless, epileptic endeavors to control his twitching with more twitching in film after film, his way of keeping his secrets silent as clamorously as possible? Doesn't anyone realize that the narcoleptic star of college football team in Rise and Shine (1941), Jack Oakie, is 37 years old—or think to mention, just once, that Charlie McCarthy, the boy darling of Look Who's Laughing (1941) and Here We Go Again (1942) with Charlie Bergen's hands shoved up his pants, is a wood puppet? Instead, Dwan's comedies seem to deduce conventions from a manic age of Spike Jones, Tex Avery, and Hellzapoppin', an era of stress sublimated into joy. Primary among these postulates in this universe of deception: anything is real that claims to be so. But this Dwanian principle could be defined as a few others: • First—some form of dramatic irony: the audience can only see performance where characters inside the movie only see a reality. That this reality obeys the exigencies of dramaturgical contrivances might seem to suggest an update of enlightenment comedy: the fictions of the characters determine the plot until the moment that their designs are unmasked, and the Truth is at long last revealed. But unlike in, say, Molière—or Dwan's upscale counterpart in the 40s, Preston Sturges—the truth behind the performances is elusive in Dwan's comedies, as the films, resolutely refusing to acknowledge their own conceits, uphold these incongruous performances as the only reality of their universes. It's as though the films aren't in on their own jokes. Or rather, that the joke has shifted from drawing room comedy's sham disguises and hammy artifice, all the more preposterous for obeying logical motivations and dramatic codes, to something metageneric, closer to the Zucker brothers than Sturges: sham disguises and hammy artifice whose joke is precisely their near-‐inexplicability, their very implausibility and illogical motivation, if not lack of motivation altogether. For example, when the characters truly aren't in on the joke of the film in Brewster's Millions (1945) or Rendezvous with Annie (1946)—either a community is systematically unable to read the hero's behavior, or the hero is systematically unable to read the community's own—the movies initially seem to operate by that classical logic of concealment, that succession of fictional masks to allow the unveiling of reality at the end. Likewise, Up in Mabel's Room (1944) and Getting Gertie's Garter (1945) weave the most imbecilic gestures from almost arbitrary narrative rationales, as though their own dopiness must be legitimized by logic at every step. A single, underlying motivation is affixed to the architectonic permutations of characters' attempts to hide an object, a slip/garter that might symbolize sexual histories and polyamorous desire to impeaching eyes; the fugal structure, familiar to so many Dwans, simply loops the characters' competing quests over and over to hide these could-‐be-‐symbols of sex in and from the films' chirpily domestic households. The inanity of the content is the happy product of the form's sequential rigor, oblivious to common sense: the action follows something like a
Bach-‐like series of harmonic progressions, a Baroque ideal of a single gesture intensified to total ponderousness through repetition, as the obligatory resolution is continually deferred. Finally, long after the film has become its own challenge to keep going, the meaning—of the objects themselves, of the characters' actions—will have to be clarified in order finally to be refuted. In perfect enlightenment form, the representation of people and things will finally be shown to be false before the presentation of Truth. And yet, very far from Baroque, there's little logic for the films to keep going, to scale obstacles so openly contrived. The denial of satisfaction in these comedies of frustration becomes its own pursuit; above all, the one joke of all these movies is the metageneric gag that the film itself as an object refuses to resolve the narrative terms it's established. Insufferable acts must be insufferably unresolved. The notion that the characters can't read each other's expressions, can't conceive of each other beyond their functions in predetermined narratives, here becomes the comic premise itself: Brewster's community is constitutionally incapable of even asking why Brewster is shelling out thousands of dollars; despite whole sequences of askew glares, Rendezvous' Eddie Albert will never be able to notice that his community doubts his marriage until explicitly told so, just as his community can never even suspect his innocence until it is finally proven; the communities of Room/Garter will always trust that Dennis O'Keefe is acting normally by its standards, without secret intentions, in the absence of any articulated reason to believe otherwise. The joke is how long the joke is held. A single moment of explanation could end these films an hour earlier, but that explanation must be withheld for false assumptions to proliferate, despite their lack of conviction even as lies. By the time The Truth arrives in the end, it appears as a wheezy deux ex machina that should have come scenes earlier; dealt only at the moment that the films have exhausted their structural possibilities, it seems like a greater contrivance than any of the characters' fabrications throughout the film. Like so many Dwan characters, the cross-‐dressing, mock-‐ schitzophrenic marines of Abroad With Two Yanks (1944) wear costumes not so much to hide, replace, or reveal their "true" personalities, but to counterpoint their initial identities until the true personality—of military men—seems like only one more costume. So threadbare are the dramatic prerogatives of these films that the characters only appear as willed permutations of themselves. In Look Who's Laughing, it's the film itself that tests the limits of its own reality by methodically recasting the role of the wooden puppet as such within its universe: first seen on-‐stage, Charlie McCarthy is presented as plausible conceit of a vaudeville routine recorded by the film; seen at an after-‐party, he becomes a conceit of an Edgar Bergen party trick, as though Bergen has entered the film's reality as himself but Charlie is still his fiction; seen on Bergen's lap within the drama, he takes his place within the film's reality, which seems to have now become a direct adaptation of Bergen's routine without the mediating stage; seen apart from Bergen altogether, he becomes a cinematic conceit entirely irreconcilable with theater,
as if the film has not simply adapted Bergen's routine but the entire universe in which it pretends to take place. •
Second, then—a cinema of presence: in these films in which every character and object seems to operate as a false representation of itself, personalities become functions of their presentation and agents of their wardrobe. The only truth is situational; nobody can think or act outside their appearance in the moment; little role is allotted in Dwan's films to memory, evidently a psychological affair superfluous to the craft of motion pictures. But in Dwan's comedies, it's his own cinema of presence that seems to be the butt of the joke that there is no future or past here, only the present's recurring agonies and actions. In these comedies' feature-‐length adaptations of single gags, the characters' lives play like broken records unable to move forward or back past a single moment of trauma. In a way, it's Dwan's own cinema, in which the characters can't think outside of their movement and moment, which is treated as a genre to be broken down to its constituent elements. This inability to think outside the present becomes foundational to the narrative as well as extraneous to it altogether: the characters are merely the sum of their reactions, which however superfluous to their objectives, are obligated by the endless game of counter-‐ploys and -‐plays they're compelled to enact. In a way, Rendezvous With Annie could be counted as an oblique variation on the Phantom Lady prototype that dominated so many postwar films in the wake of Rebecca (1940) and Laura (1944): films, by Brahm, Cukor, Lang, Lewis, Mann, Minnelli, Ophuls, Siodmak, Ulmer, and so on, in which an absent lady, often present only as a maniacal husband's painting, seems to condemn a modest young maid to reenact her role as a pale imitation until the trauma is replayed, the maniacs condemned and the innocents freed from their part. In Dwan's comedy, a jaunty, small town couple is condemned by another kind of phantom past concocted by the husband: one in which he didn't desert the army, one night in the mid-‐40s, for evening with his wife that could help explain the bouncing bundle of joy 9 months later. As in some of the phantom lady movies—or certain Schnitzler novellas—the second half of the film tracks the protagonist's failed attempts to uncover the truth he covered up so perfectly in the first; as in most of them, his own certainty about reality appears as a delusion to a new reality that is delusional itself. There is no such past, he is warned: life has continued on exactly as it was, and exactly as he would have hoped. As in the Freudian Phantom Lady films, a moment of trauma must be resurrected, relived—recalled to be recalled. The comedy is only that it is not murder or the war that small-‐town gentility represses, but—as in Dwan's other comedies—the same act of sex that fuels its relations. And the difference is that the husband's memory is not of the most traumatic moment of his life: instead, in Dwan, this amorous interlude is presented as the loveliest. Doomed to recover a past in a present that has little sense of it, Eddie Albert finds himself in search of the same reprieves during the war as after: sex with his wife, and in brief pauses in a bomb shelter while London is shelled overhead, a slice of chocolate cake that will prove the happy ending. 75
Third—Which is not to say that there is no time frame in these films, as paths are tracked over time in closed set, but that each action must be measured against concurrent actions within this space: a principle of simultaneity/synchronicity. The action of Mabel and Gertie is only the structural extension of two dramatic principles. First, narratival: the action must be reiterated in escalating embellishments (the closer the Object gets to the hapless hero, the greater his frustration, as well as the audience's, must grow). Second, spatial: each character's quests to conceal and reveal themselves and the Object are nothing more than a coordinated mapping of each other's constant trajectories. Each movement through the house becomes a Pac-‐Man-‐like endeavor forward, back, and side to side, in closets and under beds, to connive and sidestep intersections. Per Daniel Kasman,6 the characters, even psychologically, live only as criss-‐crossing vectors; the first-‐half round-‐robbins of Black Sheep (1932) and Frontier Marshal (1939), in which the action is relayed from one character to the next across contiguous spaces and an ostensible real-‐time—a formal stratagem to convene all social classes together, democratically, on-‐screen—are here turned into feature-‐length conceits. The films seem like some sort of apotheosis of Griffith's promise in True Heart Susie (1919) of an architectural cinema of delimited times and spaces: films as places, spatial systems in which the viewer will know exactly where all the characters are in relation to one another, what they're doing, how fast they're moving and in what direction, merely by watching one character in one room within the film's cardinal coordinates. The film's sole task becomes such synchronized coordination—or desynchronization in the case of The Gorilla (1939), in which impossible spatial maneuvers (sudden disappearances and simultaneous appearances in multiple locations) become the meat of the comedy, with the joke, once again in Dwan, that within a grounded, Euclidean geometry, nothing here is feasible. Dwan's geometric principles abstract everyone to qualities and types: and yet, no quality nor type seems more absurd than a penchant for acting by mathematical principles. Fourth—Or rather by the Principle of the Placeholder. The function of an actor to assume a role inevitably becomes the subject of so many Dwan films in which characters are defined by the parts they must play at a given moment, as if they merely had to don a mask to be believed as whatever part they play. Choice, free will, plays little part: self-‐determination would presume a self that seems to dwindle progressively out of Dwan's films, and even the quests that prompt the action of Cattle Queen of Montana (1954), Passion (1954) or The Restless Breed (1957) are treated as though the objective were already a foregone concession of the genre, so that the films might linger in its shifting spaces and allegiances, each generating narratives of its own. In Up in Mabel’s Room and Getting Gertie’s Garter, Dwan’s cinema reaches a kind of breaking point: the long-‐sought-‐after slip and garter provoking all emotional machinations between the characters are not merely the lynchpin of the plots but incidental to it; the joke of both films is that these objects, meaningful only as they're construed and misconstrued by the characters’ projected torments and desires, are inconsequential 76
except as a screenwriter’s device. For the bulk of both films, weirdly, the obligatory comedy of errors is nearly eschewed: nobody really seems to misconstrue the significance of the objects until some point near the end, though the protagonists orbit each other fearing such possible misinterpretations (as in Resnais' structurally similar comedies years later). Likewise the girl in Two Yanks never seems to believe the marines are the multiple personalities whom they've misconceived themselves to be: like Danny in Sailor's Lady (1940), they seem to be paranoiac hams courting erroneous readings, desperate to outwit their reputation as morons by appearing even more gleefully, deceptively dumb. And yet, when the Yanks cross-‐dress, the police go chasing after two broads, as if appearances can be trusted. Just as everyone believes the wooden puppet's a boy because he claims he is, the marines are women because they claim they are. Although neither Sally in Sailor's Lady nor Joyce in Two Yanks seem so stupid to believe a word their love interests say, the codes of willful belief and willful disbelief are basically the same. The character is merely filler for the role, and so the issue isn't of belief at all, but of glad-‐handedly obtaining the audience's complicity to perform this role whose validity would presume a deeper truth about the character that isn't there. The Placeholder Principle means a treatment of genre as a series of variables under examination, the better to grasp the form; so Dwan particularly relishes putting the most ill-‐suited suckers into the role of Heroic Vessel with the joke that in the world of genre, nobody seems to notice the overtaxed panache with which the hero enacts his part. The primary comic conceit of The Three Musketeers (1939) is simply that the Ritz Brothers would play the braying title characters, would express themselves through a shtick of distended legs and coiled lips, in an otherwise robust, romantic swashbuckler oblivious to the fact that these three tavern boys aren't the musketeers they claim to be. The joke that as narrative markers, they're nothing more than the roles they play, works doubly—both within the movie's universe, that the Brothers would be mistaken for musketeers as they don the disguises, as well as some meta-‐joke that these Jewish Vaudevillians seem to have descended into a movie universe without a clue of the filmic or social codes to follow. Like Charlie McCarthy's puppet and Jack Oakie's collegiate footballer—or, maybe better, Celine and Julie, and Chicken-‐Boo years later—they're warmly welcomed into the movie machine as placeholders of a part that must be played. The plot point is literalized in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), in which Shirley Temple must climb out the small town world of one house and into her neighbor's home, where a radio studio imported from New York awaits in the dead of night for her to enact its show. So Dwan's characters, grinning knowingly, indulge the contortions of the plot as if they were both enacting a spectacle of nonsense even while watching it be performed (as they do in the open vaudeville revue of Around the World (1943)). Implausibility again becomes its own incentive. The basic joy of role-‐playing a genre movie, the seed for
Dwan's late, absurdist Westerns, seems the tenuous rationale for Trail of Vigilantes (1940), a sort of extension of the Modern Musketeer parody to feature form: amidst a traffic jam of Main Street gunfights in a town where vigilantes disguise themselves as the law and the law as vigilantes, brainy East (Franchot Tome) and burly West (Broderick Crawford) will meet, each soon to assume the tasks of the other. As a parody of actors themselves, the obligatory sidekick for these two synecdoches of the nation, Mischa Auer, plays a new ethnicity every scene. *** In a way, so much of Dwan's silent comedy operates according to a kind of ideogrammatic Placeholder Principle, as Noah Teichner suggests:7 images neatly take the place of words, as if the reality of the film were little more than a visual code of archetypical concepts. That is, within the free exchange between image and word of descriptions, depictions, dialogue, and thoughts, word and image can each serve as the other's placeholder in a sort of narratival show-‐and-‐tell. The images can even become something like syntactical extensions (as in Keaton) of the intertitles' phrasing; presaging Trail, Manhattan Madness (1916) is the clearest example—
—and Getting Mary Married (1919) perhaps the most dexterous—
—of this notion that all levels of discursive imagery and language can be interwoven, as if each were only a variable phrasing of the other. Or rather, an illustration, as if the image were only the mathematical proof of a comic premise. The joke in both Manhattan Madness and Getting Mary Married is just how legible reality is in confirming verbal postulates and conforming to linguistic codes. So part of the comedy, then, is that things could ever be typified so comprehensibly as they would be in Griffith. An intertitle in The Habits of Happiness (1916), as Fairbanks reconciles two fighters, not only parodies Griffith's pompous notes of accuracy, but even the notion of such values:
If one is truly to value believability, unfortunately, the written word cannot substitute for the reality of the image at all—says the intertitle conceding its own ontological failure to do its job of matching Fairbanks' charm. Neither word nor character will substitute for being there with the guy himself, and really, it's only a director as formulaic as Griffith, with his prototypic stock of dowager snoops stroking their eyepieces, who would ever think that characters could be mere placeholders for the intertitles, more variables to be filled in. But that director, of course, is Dwan, happy to work in—or rather, work out—Griffith's algorithms—
—that can only be treated as such in parody. And yet Dwan's technique is exactly the sort of Being-‐With the actors that Habits eschews as impossible within its codes. A question arises of how the filmmaker who not only systematically slots actors into archetypical roles but who makes such formulaic charades the plot devices of so many of his movies—as if willfully oblivious to any reality but that of the script—is also the filmmaker who designs entire films so attentively around the temperament and build of his stars, from Fairbanks and Swanson to Shirley Temple and John Payne, all of whom seem to be playing nobody but themselves. But the mystery's its own solution. The Placeholder Principle provides its own undoing: actors are placed in so many disparate modes of dress-‐up that they come to seem like nothing more than models, simply the people themselves—Fairbanks, Swanson, Temple, Payne—as bodies in action and disguise. Acting the part is a matter of maneuvering into the position; the entire idea of character is one of operation. The movie seems to have little interest in revealing or disguising them as anything other than performers: there is no more a notion of some deeper, psychological "truth" about their characters than there is acceptance of their pretenses except as such. As in Tourneur—or Dwan's contemporary heirs, like Pedro Costa—this Being-‐With ethos means that movie's relationship to its actors is simply one of coexistence; as if, on a public stage where the only truth is presentational, the closest way
for the wholly-‐functional movie to get to its wholly-‐functional performers were through a patient, engineered distance that presents them at 90 degree variations, frontally, backwards, and side-‐by-‐side. Dwan's sense of intimacy as a function of reservedness, a way of giving characters space to perform their lives for the camera, means accompanying them step by step as they enact the role, often from behind; the performance tends to be merely a directive of their dress. Again, as Kasman says, they are vectors: motives in motion. Unlike most his peers, Dwan never stops moving his camera through the 50s, though the treasured single take of John Payne on the run through the town-‐set of Silver Lode is only one variation on his beloved tracking shot, a device Dwan supposedly invented in David Harum (1915), refined in the double-‐axis track of the camera in Intolerance (1916), and would deploy regularly in lieu of wide shots to establish and punctuate scenes by taking the viewer in and out of them: Joy Girl's (1927) opening track through chairs of Palm Beach day trippers, Surrender's (1950) entry into a ranch house through a window and past a guitarist providing live accompaniment, or the three-‐or-‐four minute dolly from Frozen Justice (1929), in which the camera, laterally surveying an entire arctic town, only pauses to catch dances, romances, and brawls inside every window. Dwan on the supposed sound version :"A girl would be singing in one saloon and you'd hear a portion of her song and pull away and she'd gradually die off as we'd go into another one where a dance was going on to guitars and so on through four or five of them before I stopped at a more remote spot to pick up some dialogue."8 More often the tracks move in sync with the performers: a man, clobbered in the head by a brick, stumbling through a dead end overrun by brawling tramps in East Side, West Side; its reverse, two men chatting as they (and the camera) proceed steadily through charging cattlemen and chariots shooting from left and right, Old West traffic at the start of Trail of Vigilantes; Claire Trevor's 30-‐second saunter through a Harlem street of milling men and women as the sound shifts through conversations and babies' cries in One Mile from Heaven (1937); Helen Mack chasing the camera into her doorway and slamming the door on her pursuant in While Paris Sleeps (1932); Grant Mitchell's craby-‐dollying march through a town of friends he hasn't seen in 18 years, as fluctuating sound marks his relative distance to the camera in Man to Man (1930); Jane Russell stalking the camera down in Montana Belle's song-‐and-‐dance sequence; Abroad with Two Yanks' dance circle. All of the core Dwanian principles—the 180° forward-‐backward presentation; the linked spaces and boundary-‐crossing; the distillation of characters to gestures and motions suggested by the space—are present(ed) in these shots, and no Dwan film is complete without the stroll, a sequence of almost all his sound and late silent films, in which two characters, moving aimlessly, though aimlessly at a set speed and direction, are finally reconciled. Dwan's signature gesture of companionship, as if his camera were only one more partner accompanying the action, treats this reconcilement above all as matter of synchronized movement, step-‐by-‐step: whatever their personalities, they are united by their motion and defined, for the moment, by little else. In Getting Gertie's Garter, the trajectory of the characters are precipitated at points by that of the back-‐and-‐forth camera as it continues
one character's line of movement, even after the character has left the screen, to a point where a second enters and retracks the path of the first. Positions/dispositions: just as each role is a variable to be filled in by the varying temperaments of different actors, characters within the films swap places, the better to see their masks as such, until each can substitute in for the other's narrative function. As in Dwan's earliest extant films, plot becomes a kind of McGuyver’s guide to the infinite roles that people, places, and objects might play within a limited system. But only two roles need be incarnated to suggest an infinity more, as in Buñuel—another wryly disengaged, Placeholder filmmaker following preposterous schemas to their logical end. And another filmmaker who makes an entire art out of slotting ill-‐suited actors into generic character roles, or slotting ill-‐suited characters into generic narrative situations, the better to see how the movies themselves work like miniature social mechanisms assigning everyone a place within a story—
Jane Russell with a balding, bellying George Brent in Montana Belle So from A Modern Musketeer to its more coarsened remake, The River's Edge (1957), Dwan's neat charting of relations only offers the markers to see how the characters methodically re-‐chart these relationships themselves, until all allegiances, however narratively justified, may seem like only one possibility for what might have been. Probably only Dwan would color-‐coordinate the breakdown of moral schemas so schematically in Surrender (1950) and Slightly Scarlet (1956). In both, the ostensible good girl and bad girl flip-‐flop black-‐and-‐white, then color, then white-‐and-‐black dresses throughout the film—in Slightly Scarlet, Rhonda Fleming's moral center cheats on her mayor boyfriend, bargains with gangsters, and lobbies to win her sister an extrajudicial release from hands of the law—until such mathematical reversals only show the characters, once more, as variables of narrative functions. So by the end of Silver Lode, the would-‐be wife (white wedding gown) and prostitute (purple and pink) each have near-‐matching checkered dresses. This beloved Dwanian duality of the Madonna and the Whore, the Girl Next Door and the Femme Fatale, is subjected to systematic inversions throughout Dwan's 50s films, as the winsome heroines, much like Fleming, turn cheerily to prostitution and gambling in Belle
Le Grand (1951) and Woman They Almost Lynched (1953), or as Debra Paget's criminal devotee in The River's Edge, again like Fleming, turns out to be the film's secret source of conscience. This playing two ends against the middle, as Slightly Scarlet puts it, reaches a consummate geometry in Tennessee's Partner, in which the good girl turns out to be a gold-‐ digger, a self-‐prostituting seductress in disguise, while the film's acknowledged prostitute (Fleming again) becomes not only the romantic lead, but, better than a Whore With a Heart of Gold, the movie's resident proprietress: a favorite Dwan character and surrogate engineer whose self-‐designated job is, like the director's, to coordinate relationships between characters in town.
Start and Finish in perpetual loop: Slightly Scarlet The question of how many of Dwan's cowgirls turn into chanteuses might be the simplest way of charting his own career. "Dwan’s films are frequently built upon twinned or linked phenomena that will typically open up to ironic parallels or triangular relations, relations that concern not only characters but spaces and events as well," writes Joe McElhaney about Slightly Scarlet.9 These doubles that, it's inevitable to note, proliferate throughout Dwan—double heroes, double enemies, double lovers, double parents, as well as the
double spaces of adjacent buildings, bordering towns, and counterpoised regions of a city or a country, all in addition to his many twins and bifurcated stories—are both what structure the films so tightly in algorithmic dramatics, while upending any dramatic progress forward, as the characters are free simply to trade places within basic genre lattices. Spatially: in the double locations of Rebecca of Sunnybrook—one house's provincial tea adjacent to another's radio studio, a fantasy of celebrity—the reality of the places themselves is cheerily disregarded except for their Euclidean values. For Dwan, the sites serve the double purpose of overturning all notion of a natural, outside world, while establishing clear physical landmarks of an internal topography by which the characters can be tracked in continual movements back-‐and-‐forth between positions. Theatrically: the double heroes of Abroad with Two Yanks, trading places throughout as audience and performer, start by substituting for each other to win a girl's affection, but are soon reciting each other's lines, then their own lines, then doubling their own roles by shamming schitzophrenia, and finally cross-‐dressing to hide from the police, as Dwan stages this circulation of identities perfectly, half-‐way through, as a roundelay of the characters swapping partners in long, circular pans that return to the camerawork of Black Sheep following vectors of motion, rather than individual subjects. In Woman They Almost Lynched (1953), the doubles double again as the placeholder principle is extended ad infinitum. Here, within the strict spatial and temporal limits of a single saloon and day, the kindhearted ingénue (Joan Leslie) and hotheaded saloon-‐keeper (Audrey Totter) don't simply switch places with one other, but play systematic variations of the rough-‐riding gunslinger and showgirl seductress until they can become alter-‐egos even of themselves in the preposterous costume-‐changes of a cut: a rapid dissolve is all that's needed, as in Stage Struck and A Modern Musketeer years before, for Leslie to transform from moralistic good girl to barmaid coquette. As usual in Dwan's playhouse-‐like universe, personality is no more than wardrobe, exchangeable in an instant, but Woman continues to double the doubles, as if adapting its Wild West melodrama by way of a tree diagram: not only must the women pantomime gender binaries, but they must do so while playing one role in the guise of another, as Leslie gets into a bar brawl in her showgirl dress, and Totter sings siren songs to local cowboys in her ranchero get-‐up. As generic signs, they are primarily signs of their own lack of any true personality beyond their position as narrative markers, but like so many other Dwan movies, the real story is how these surrogate storytellers deploy themselves as such markers within this genre universe. Dwan's own systematic, visual inversions—long takes in which departing characters are replaced by entering characters on-‐screen; symmetrical blocking as actors trade places within a shot; mirrored images across the film of the characters flip-‐flopping outfits in identical poses; matching shots of the heroines between identical companions as they parallel one other's trajectory—avows their place as so consistently replaceable, the static roles as so fluidly interchangeable in this twining fabulation, that the heroines seem like both the operators and operation itself of the Placeholder Principle as a craft—
The absurdist structural principle that the characters can only alternate between these two antipodes becomes an axiomatic instability: the films hew so tightly to mathematical reversals, conventions, and formulas, that within the rigorous logic of the characters performing their own theater, absolutely anything can happen, anybody fall in love with anybody else, kill anybody else, etc. When the upstanding girlfriends and enterprising coquettes don't so openly switch parts, a recurring Dwan propensity is to skew the love triangle so far from the "proper" girl to show a whole other narrative that the man could have just as easily pursued—and sometimes does—in Her First Affaire (1932), Suez (1938), Up in Mabel's Room, Getting Gertie's Garter, Passion (1954), Silver Lode, and Pearl of the South Pacific (1955). Yvonne De Carlo's double role in Passion collapses to Jane Russell's single character in Montana Belle donning the outfits of each, her "underlying" character nothing more than Jane Russell herself playing these two parts. Either man seems to be equally worthy of the woman in Chances (1931), High Tension (1936), and Josette (for most of its running time, anyway; 1938) just as the natural mother and lifelong custodian in both Wicked (1931) and One Mile From Heaven seem to have equal claim on keeping their child. These last two films offer maybe the ultimate stress tests of Dwan's application of fairy tale frameworks to real-‐life dramas, managed so harmoniously in the teens but here brought to its breaking point; so skillful is Dwan at interweaving messy realities into structural symmetries that the films are carried to the point they can't be adequately resolved. As the title of Woman They Almost Lynched gives away its non-‐ending, its somehow inevitable irresolution, the film will end with a Confederate soldier's wholly Dwanian proposition that the civil war has ended not in Griffithian hellfire, but simply because "nobody won—we just quit fighting": a typical Dwan solution to problems that can't solved, and nice gloss on the heroines' own abdication from their self-‐perpetuating drama. Of course the joke, as usual in Dwan, is its own implausibility—as if historical reality might ever be resolved as a fairy tale. Again it's the point of Dwan's self-‐perpetuating, double helix structures that they can only conclude, at the exhaustion of permutational possibilities, without any resolution at all.
Above: Her First Affaire (1932), Sweethearts on Parade (1953)
Where the film's social histories demand that one side claim victory in blood, the permutations simply upend sides altogether: the claim that no side won is simply a form of winsome narrative resistance to humanity's ho-‐hum barbarism. Similarly the restoration of racial hierarchies at the end of One Mile from Heaven, the story of a white girl claimed by her white mother who never knew her and the black mother who's taken her in, finds a narrative, formal satisfaction that only points to the irresolvable social dissatisfactions the film has spent its running time probing. Chief among these: the urban colonialism of a wise-‐ cracking girl journalist whose plucky determination to get a scoop in Harlem scandals incite the whole mess her story is expected to clear up. Typically, the film parlays her double role as the film's klutzy divinity, both starting and solving troubles, into the double genre work, screwball comedy and social melodrama, in another of Dwan's hyphenate works. But like her, the movie only raises issues by attempting to settle them. As much as any of his other films, One Mile From Heaven might point to Dwan's own double politics. On the one side, a committed progressivism: anti-‐corporate (Fighting Odds (1917) and Getting Mary Married (1919), in which women of corporate families uncovering company scandals), anti-‐conservative (particularly in the Fox years: High Tension makes sure to note its enemy lout votes Republican), and anti-‐McCarthy (Silver Lode's flagrant allegory). In the election year of 1940, Young People not only synthesizes Dwan's two favorite tales of outsiders reconciled into new surroundings—1) the orphan adopted by a parent, and 2) the exiled acting troupe welcomed into a community—but literalizes the political code of each, that if roles are social currency, everyone must partake equally of each other's aids and assets—mainly affection. As Shirley Temple joins the vaudeville team of Jack Oakie and Charlotte Greenwood, this makeshift trio seems to become, through the sheer power of performance, the same theatrical family it's played on-‐stage. But it's one form of performance (improvised collaboration) that will square off against another (scripted roles) as the family joins a small, Vermont town populated by Griffith-‐like puritans, all tagged here as anti-‐New Deal Republicans who deliver ritualized harangues in the town hall every week. Like all of Dwan's community films, the action is structured as an amble through the town's public spaces: here, the town hall, school auditorium, and malt shop. Black Sheep and to some degree Frontier Marshal, rotating from character to character each rotating from space to space, suggest even in their democratic structure that public spaces, rather than money, are the only true mediums of exchange: shared spaces mean the films sharing their running times among each of the characters, and the characters sharing their own time, stories, and experiences with one another despite the social hierarchies. For its part, Young People insists on a communal-‐community politic, a New Deal welfare system that, as an institution, must be rooted in the personal links and relations of its members. So the progressivism Dwan's films advocate seems to stem from nothing more than the ability of people to relate to one another, again to exchange with one another freely. But, on the other side, it's the full exchanging of roles that also undoes proactive politics altogether: nobody wins—they just quit fighting. Like those of Ford, Mann, Kafka and whoever else, Dwan's Westerns ask what legitimacy a tin star or written warrant holds
except as a collectively authorized performance; as the Law is nothing more than what it says it is, to assert its name is to wield it as a self-‐legitimizing force. But unlike so many other Westerns, Dwan's rarely retreat to an objective ethical code that could validate the badge by restoring it to moral decency in the end. For no possibility of deeper validation is offered in a world where everyone is merely who they say they are, where every role is no more than a collectively authorized performance: in the border town of Woman They Almost Lynched, the Law is a lynch mob, the evil-‐doer is an ex-‐Confederate, the persecutors are Union soldiers, the taunting bad girl is the evil-‐doer's enemy, and the guileless good girl turns to gambling and prostitution as the only refuge from outside social forces; in Montana Belle, one gang impersonates another before play-‐acting clients of the saloon they robbed and will soon will partner with in business, while the Law provides the only steady clamp on all these saloon-‐bound, identity-‐swapping, ultra-‐Dwanian posers performing their way to new lives. Likewise, in Silver Lode's comedy of errors, the hero's fate rides on the Name of the Law, though the law turns out to be a masquerade, created by those who have named themselves its agent: to prove that Dan Duryea's sheriff is a criminal imposter who has forged his credentials, John Payne must criminally forge more credentials to do so. In this loose, Western rehash of Mabel/Gertie, a decade away from the 40s comedies, un-‐ believability—nothing they do is to be believed—is still the plot's determinant trope. The film that is most explicit about the point—one side is as good as the other—is the one, per usual with Dwan, that asks it to be taken least seriously. "Before the turn of the century, death and violence rode the western range. Law and order could not keep pace with men who turned wilderness into profit," Trail of the Vigilante's opening intertitle declaims over a protracted montage of lynchers and gunmen marauding over the horizon. "Then came the Vigilantes! Night riders! -‐ -‐ -‐ Carried away by their own power, the Vigilantes became as desperate and bloody as their enemies." Here, Franchot Tone's lawman good guy enters a town where the law is a puppet kingdom for vigilantes who have driven out rustlers they hired as a pretext to seize local power; thus, to uphold the law against the law, the good guy lawmen must become vigilantes against the evil vigilantes who claimed themselves as lawmen, while the fickle town, as in Silver Lode, is prostrate simply to the better performance. The groundlessness of claims leaves the characters suspended yet again from any possibility of authentic representation, legal, narrative, or otherwise. What is left is the joy of the charade, the play within it, as the characters splash water and sit under the shadows of moonlit thickets as if, playing all these parts, they were simply actors being filmed as they fool around in character. The more self-‐mocking, openly staged Dwan's films get, the closer they move towards something like documentary:
*** As plot and its object/objectives become little more than catalysts to mobilize the characters into relationships/reactions, the role of the object-‐subject undergarments of Garter and Mabel's Room become literalized in The Inside Story (1948): the issue of social currency, bartered and exchanged as if without foundation through almost all of Dwan's movies, finally becomes one of financial currency, the arbitrary foundation itself, here, of the community's social roles, divisions, and relations. In retrospect, money seems a frequent prime mover of Dwan's accounting. The Bildungsroman, rags-‐to-‐riches and riches-‐to-‐rags arcs of Fighting Odds, Getting Mary Married, Tide of Empire, and East Side, West Side, in which the protagonists find their Edenic lives of luxury to be rooted in corporatist rot, turn to the idiocy of Brewster's Millions, which vaguely recaps the plot of Mary without any particular moral awakening. So the vertically formulated story of East Side, West Side—son and father connect from opposite sides of a social-‐spatial divide between both opposite sides of town (as usual in Dwan), as well as between the low-‐class, low-‐down mines of New York City, and the high-‐class, high-‐rise cocktail parties on skyscrapers the laborers have erected—becomes enervated through its reiterations in High Tension and High Air (1956). By the latter, a 25-‐minute TV special for which Dwan supposedly chose his own story, only two interiors are needed to suggest a social microcosm of the white-‐collar son and his blue-‐collar father learning simply to work, physically, in order to relate. The social network has been distilled to just the gestures of the bodies on-‐screen—it's the lesson of Dwan's short—that alternately epitomize and transcend Dwan's beloved boundaries. Against the waning faith of the town, the great talk of money in Silver Lode, in which cash no longer flows but has been abstracted into a talismanic object for which hero and villain alike are ready to die, just proves the point of Dan Duryea's arch-‐nemesis that social respectability can only be upheld by the riches for which its a blinding euphemism. Bling of the old West. In The Inside Story, the circulation of $1000 through a debt-‐ridden town during the banking crisis of 1933 becomes almost invisibly channeled into the circulation of bodies through a closed set of locations and recurring shots, most predominantly a pension-‐house stairway climbed slowly by almost every character's anonymous feet. In contrast to Dwan's early films, tracking the intersecting vectors of characters' movements through closed spaces and continuous times, The Inside Story will propose an opposite procedure for the late films, at its culmination in Cattle Queen of Montana (1954), that the films now revolve around single sites in recurring sequences of static shots, capturing the variations of setting and light at different times of day. In a way, it's as if Dwan's perpetual scaling-‐down of Griffith had shifted from the cycling spaces of True Heart Susie to the cycling times of Intolerance, with the History of Man replaced instead by the history of a couple farmhouses and a field in Cattle Queen,10 or a couple local businesses in The Inside Story. But the paralleling of a money economy with a spatial economy is not so much a pat, engineered analogy as a more practical equation: the characters have to continue orbiting the same
spaces and tracks in order to pass the money on. It's merely a representation of the circulation and trade of money in its most primitive form: physical interaction. And in of itself, this unmediated exchange of money should belie any notion that the film is quite the ad for a free market its somewhat contradictory double mantras—that money must flow like blood; that money must be entrusted to the banks—seems to suggest. The solution to a series of debts—that the $1000 mistakenly appropriated by a local proprietor pays off the debts of each character to the next till it returns to the claim agent, never having belonged to any of them—can only be sustained by a number of fairy-‐tale suspension of any capitalist logic. A functioning economy, The Inside Story suggests, will depend on the total absence of interest (thus the $1000 owed is the same at each exchange, and occasionally rounded down), of personal savings (all money earned during this banking holiday is immediately spent to prevent accumulation that would necessitate inequalities and inflation), and of a speculative market (the banking holiday not only prevents runs but any dealings in cash alternatives—each dollar is accounted for). In other words, it depends on the neatly anti-‐capitalist but altogether democratic logic of a community sharing its resources evenly, even while the inability of anyone to accumulate money is one cause of the whole mess in the first place. Without this democratic love to back the system, it is clear what inequalities and funnel effects must result, as they already have within the film. The principle set in motion, a Jeffersonian idea of an economy—which is to say altogether Dwanian society—is grounded in material rather than virtual relations with one another, through a limited resource of hard cash rather than an imaginary stock of speculative capital derived from loans, never mind Wall Street. Jefferson: "The question will be asked and ought to be looked at, what is to be the resource if loans cannot be obtained? There is but one, "Carthago delenda est." Bank paper must be suppressed, and the circulating medium must be restored to the nation to whom it belongs. It is the only fund on which they can rely for loans; it is the only resource which can never fail them, and it is an abundant one for every necessary purpose. Treasury bills, bottomed on taxes, bearing or not bearing interest, as may be found necessary, thrown into circulation will take the place of so much gold and silver, which last, when crowded, will find an efflux into other countries, and thus keep the quantum of medium at its salutary level."11 To the question of what happens when a loan cannot be obtained, The Inside Story responds with an algebraically ludicrous solution: as credit is the origination of fictional capital, the conception of money that doesn't belong to the debtor who must substantiate it, indeed it will be money that doesn't belong to the debtors of this town that will magically pay off their debts. Fictional debts must be underwritten by—fictions. A parallel that is perfectly neat: nobody actually owes each other money (everyone is in the same place by the end of
the film as at the start), though they think they do. To undo credit, they merely need to convince themselves they don't owe it at all. Getting Community Credit: So the claim agency unwittingly loans $1000 to one townsman and waits a half-‐a-‐day for it to come back having solved—resolved, absolved, dissolved— the town's financial difficulties. Nevertheless, it takes a purchase for the final holder of the money, the single character who isn't in debt, to continue its circulation back to its source, and so someone finally buys a painting for $1000 from the painter, the town's resident layabout. Though the intended recipient of the agency's $1000 is a farmer, it's not an agricultural economy that sustains the town but, preposterously, an artist's. The irony is neat: the most useful, necessary gesture to clear the residents out from the shadow of Big Business is the most useless, superfluous of all: a local work of art. This vision of utopia— nothing but a place where nobody owes anybody anything, where the roles of debtor/creditor and buyer/seller are swapped so continuously and fluidly as to lose all the value until relations are magically nothing more than a matter of personal feeling—will become most pronounced in the shadow of 1) loans, 2) art purchases, and 3) the utility of useless performances through the artist's trilogy of Calendar Girl, I Dream of Jeanie, and Sweethearts on Parade. As the artists' communities in each of these films become bound by the swapping of art and romantic partners, by the basic attempt to evade financial yokes from just outside these utopias, Calendar Girl's moral economy is founded in an exchange of talents, and Jeanie's mostly concerned with the perils of copyright law. "In 1849, a young man wrote a song," sings a black soloist on a floating raft in Jeanie's opening shot, the lyrics quite possibly by Dwan himself: "The song, it made no sense at all / But it moved the world along." An altogether useless nostrum has value, performatively, Bill Shirley's quack doctor confirms in Sweethearts, if only the people can convince themselves to believe it. *** Where the Western seems like the secret genre of Dwan's films through the 40s—the story, of exiles reformulating the internal relations of the communities (towns, households) into which they're slowly initiated, most crystalline in the Shirley Temple films and Driftwood (1947)—Dwan's dystopic last films seem to extend from a rediscovered interest, after 1949's Sands of Iwo Jima, in a genre he had last favored in about 1913: the war movie. The explicit war films that follow—Wild Blue Yonder (1951), Flight Nurse (1953), and Hold Back the Night (1956)—set some kind of protocol for this late revisionism. No longer is the outsider ushered into a stratified system of friendships, loves, and rivalries, a musical-‐chairs social code in which everyone finds their places by alternating them throughout the film. Instead, the heroes find themselves stranded in some barren zone where their makeshift community, nothing more than a wisecracking camp against the wilderness, hopes only to survive the onslaught of some anonymous, off-‐screen terror. Where just about every other major Hollywood director had darkened his vision in the 40s, more often confronting the war—through mirages of ghost stories, hallucinations, uncanny doublings, and self-‐inflicted torments—as a tenor than a subject,
Dwan would skip such psychological studies for physical comedy. But by the era of the Cold War and Korea, Dwan takes on the genre just at the point it has become duly abstracted from anything like subjectivity or moral comprehension. In a way, Sands, fondly remembered as self-‐aware agitprop for the Greatest Generation, helps launch the Korean war film (and fortress film) as a genre, even before the Korean War: gone are even the geographical distinctions of Objective Burma (1945) or Battleground (1949) in this vast, boundless netherworld the GIs stake out against an army of shadow-‐men that can't be engaged in any way—converted, explained, deceived, or even really seen. Such enemies can only be shot at blindly, a good way for the soldiers to bond. So in Dwan's subsequent Westerns and exotica—Surrender, Silver Lode, Passion, Cattle Queen of Montana, Escape to Burma, Tennessee's Partner, and Slightly Scarlet—the formerly hokey communities will similarly turn to shadow-‐men, church-‐goers and goons alike, vague cheerleaders of vigilante justice whom the heroes merely try to survive. Previously able to surmount their own puritanism as though it were nothing more than an American hazing ritual, a trial of tough love, the choruses of community members now become little more than the agents of Dwan's comic logic, happy to trust first appearances as fact. Even Dwan's usual inversions of moral order are inverted: where a stand-‐up hero or heroine might have had to choose between two lovers, two families, two places, two lives, commensurately valid as solutions, the John Payne heroes, here, no longer provide a stable moral axis by which moral distinctions of good and bad can be systematically upended. No proof of Payne's innocence ever arrives in Silver Lode—only a proof of Duryea's guilt—and while the genre codes key viewers to his presumed integrity, his life turns out to be exactly the façade Duryea describes: like that of so many late Dwan protagonists, a simulacra of small-‐town richesse fabricated from the winnings of a lucky poker game. As the sanctimonious townsmen refuse to believe it, the façade crumbles into blankness, as it will once more in Tennessee's Partner, in which Payne again loses the support of a pious town of hypocrites who brand him as the lout he's always been. What is left, after the film's modal variations on faithlessness of characters whose self-‐made images and words are all lies, is simply the faith these two men have in each other— though one has no underlying identity behind his false name, "Cowpoke," and the other, Payne, saves his friend through a patronizing lie that makes him the cuckold of the town. By Slightly Scarlet, Payne, the ostensible hero caught between two girls, has simply adopted the methods of the criminals he despises to usurp their place as gang-‐lord. The film is structured scene-‐by-‐scene as a series of face-‐offs, in which the hero is simply the one opposing the other, worse evil. Likewise, the protagonists of The River's Edge find redemption simply by being slightly better than Ray Milland's stock villain, in an unfriendly but picturesque world where moral distinctions, conceived on-‐screen by the three leads, are relative to nothing other than each other. Dwan's doubling-‐compulsion no longer seems like just a question of narratival balance, a constant connecting-‐and-‐redrawing the dots, as in earlier stories of lead characters caught between two poles. Instead, in Surrender (a pair of pairs with two girls and two guys) and
its own pair of offshoots, Tennessee's Partner (two guys) and Slightly Scarlet (two girls), the doubles themselves emerge as the leads without a lone character to serve as a steady surrogate for the audience between them. John Payne and Debra Paget, caught between two lovers, may be the fulcrums around which Slightly Scarlet and The River's Edge both turn, but the journeys of these not-‐particularly sympathetic characters—towards corruption in one and redemption in the other—are not quite the films'. In late Dwan, the idea of offering the audience any sort of vantage point from within the film seems dissolved into a more Sophoclean sense of plotting: the motives and paths of the characters from point A to point B (hate to love, innocence to corruption, renown to degradation) operate with such fixed focus, that little chance is offered to weigh the choices and trade-‐offs the narrative might have to offer. Sealed off from any psychological relatability, the characters become comprehensible only as agents of a continuous course whose culmination, whether in hellfire or salvation, can be anticipated in every act. The film becomes something like a piece of architecture, Baroque once again, being both assembled and disassembled piece by piece, until the characters by the end have only become inversions of themselves. Neither fate nor self-‐determination, then, seem to play much of a part in these inevitable trajectories: as in the Swanson and Fairbanks films, the characters only create new roles for themselves to play in this world of appearances. Unlike the Fairbanks and Swanson films, however, the characters no longer play such roles to transcend the social bonds of humdrum community life, but to assimilate themselves into communities that have systematically rejected every role they have ever tried to play before. It's logical that almost every Dwan character in his 50s Westerns ends up seeking refuge either in jail or a casino-‐bordello, the only social spheres where the populaces are honest enough to admit their lives are no more than performing shells. "I'm Abby Dean," one courtesan in Tennessee's Partner introduces herself, as if this recitation of a probable stage name, perhaps her only line in the film, corresponds to anything other than her own sense of presentation. But this superfluous gesture is somehow crucial to Dwan's sense of democratic representation. "I'm Priscilla Forbes," says the next. "I'm Jenny Lee." "I'm Susan Green. "I'm Bee Haver." And "I'm Carbie Ash." So Dwan's doubling forces the characters to be considered only as opposing roles, each so perfectly counterbalanced by the other as to become abstracted into archetypes. Though frustrated archetypes: as one or both switch roles, the symmetry is preserved even while being overturned. Alternating with the dollying camera, now, are steady, static shots that open onto empty, proscenium spaces and wait for the characters—like the courtesans—to present themselves to the camera one-‐by-‐one, each taking the place of the other before leaving the shot altogether.
By The Restless Breed, Dwan's career-‐long mechanism of extended spatial/temporal continuity has broken down. Where Dwan's cinema had always pivoted around doorways and windows, Restless Breed's cutting makes systematic false matches out of discontiguous spaces, connected only by an old Dwan device of one character listening in on another. Above all, the device had surely once been practical: when, as in Griffith, each room is a self-‐ contained scene of its own, such domestic spying fluidly establishes the geography of each room's relation to the next, so that the characters will eventually switch places in a perfectly defined, performative public realm. As a favorite kind of establishing shot, windows throughout Dwan become visual frames, neatly delimiting a space on a coordinate plane (drama transpires in His First Affaire as a girl passes from one pane to the other where her lover awaits), that double as narrative frames paneling each scene and narrative thread side-‐ by-‐side. Abroad with Two Yanks use one window to revive teens-‐style silent comedy as the characters can be seen but not heard; only a live orchestra offers accompaniment from the background. In Silver Lode, Dwan redeploys a favorite strategem of Getting Gertie's Garter: as in his comedies, windows serve as transitional points for the narrative to shift from one trajectory to another, the protagonists intersecting each other without meeting on either side of the frame. Both Brewster's Millions and Calendar Girl will open with windows—or rather, open with windows opening—as passages into the film's universe, while Calendar Girl has its string of lovers meeting, singing, and dancing through windows across a courtyard, each of their scenes harmonizing with one another through Dwan's use of windows as a montage device; Tennessee's Partner utilizes a yokel named "Grubstake" for its unwitting master of ceremonies wandering from door to door, window to window, each time the film needs to transition to a new space and scene. But in Restless Breed, the scenes will no longer seem to be linked by much more than the editing process itself. 94
As McElhaney points out, the breakdown of Dwan's cartography—his positioning of landmarks by which the characters can be tracked moving fluidly from one point to another in real-‐time—has already begun by Slightly Scarlet. By The Restless Breed, assembled almost entirely out of matching shots between adjoining spaces that have openly been shot under different lighting schemes, at different times of days, in different sets altogether, even this simulation of Euclidean reality has become an open fabrication. Enchanted Island (1958) will end in media res, just short of a closing reconciliation, apparently at the point when the film ran out of money, with the ending signaled clearly enough anyhow, while Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961) treats its own gangster-‐sci-‐fi alloy-‐genre as a kind of object for investigation whose most peripheral features—dancing molls, movieland newspapers—become magnified into the subject of the film. More significant plot points and set-‐ups, however, are elided, as if Dwan had entered his own genre universe and filmed only what had interested him, Rose Hobart-‐like, while discarding the rest. In a movie where the characters turn to projector-‐light by the end, one mob boss talks to the camera for so long without any indication of his surrounding scene or listeners that it's clear he speaks only as a performer, sitting in space that may be devoid of anything other than a camera crew, no more connected to subsequent shots of his henchmen than he is to the flashback scene he narrates. The doubling nearly disappears by Dwan's very last films, and what is left, throughout this late period, is no longer the play of grinning actors within generic plots and archetypical roles, but the reduction of these roles and plots to the successive poses of the performers, whose most basic gestures become at once theatrical clichés from the 1910s and nothing more than the actors' own bodies touching on-‐screen. The plot could be reduced to the most carnal gesture of Dwan's increasingly carnal woman, Paget biting her lover's back to try to prove to him he's flesh and blood: where the comically mortal Fairbanks and Swanson dreamt of becoming stars, icons of their time, Ron Randell's damned superhero-‐ gangster wants only to be human. In Most Dangerous Man, the non-‐budget brings the film full circle: as in Hollywood's earliest, set-‐bound films, entire locations are signified synecdochically only by their wallpaper, a patterned screen against which the actors perform. Early on, scientists watch a film of the hero trying to escape a nuclear test site as he pounds at its limits, which are evidently the lens of the camera, the screen of the film they're watching, as if the entire site were inscribed not by walls but cameras. Far from Fairbanks and Swanson, his desperate exertions to escape this manufactured science-‐ fiction hell, we're told, are simply an attempt to claw his way out of the movie.
1 Peter Bogdanovich, The Last Pioneer (New York: Praeger, 1971), 17, 30. 2 Bill Krohn, "The Cliff and the Flume," in David Phelps and Gina Telaroli (ed.), Allan Dwan: A Dossier (Lumière, 2013) 3 Bret Harte, "Tennessee's Partner," http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-‐
etexts/bharte/bl-‐bharte-‐tenpar.htm. 4 Bogdanovich, 26. 5 R. Emmet Sweeney, "A Modern Musketeer: Adventures in Fairbanks-‐Sitting," in David
Phelps and Gina Telaroli (ed.), Allan Dwan: A Dossier (Lumière, 2013). 6 Daniel Kasman, "Up in Mabel's Room/Getting Gertie's Garter: Vector Mobiles," in David Phelps and Gina Telaroli (ed.), Allan Dwan: A Dossier (Lumière, 2013). 7 Noah Teichner, "Manhattan Madness: A Note on the Inter-‐titles," in David Phelps and Gina Telaroli (ed.), Allan Dwan: A Dossier (Lumière, 2013). 8 Ibid., 88. 9 Joe McElhaney, "Slightly Scarlet: Observations," in David Phelps and Gina Telaroli (ed.),
Allan Dwan: A Dossier (Lumière, 2013). 10 Cf. Gina Telaroli's piece, which both argues—and argues against—the point. Gina Telaroli, "Cattle Queen of Montana: Seeing Daylight," in David Phelps and Gina Telaroli (ed.), Allan Dwan: A Dossier (Lumière, 2013). 11 Thomas Jefferson, "Letter to John W. Eppes, September 11, 1813," http://www.yamaguchy.com/library/jefferson/eppes1.html
INSPECTION DES DWAN1
Serge Bozon Translated by Ted Fendt
Escape to Burma (1955) Godard noted that people sometimes go to see “an old Lubitsch,” but never to read “an old Céline.” Though contemporaneous to each other, film history lays closer to us than literary history. Yet there is a body of work that seems to come from very far away: we don’t go to see “an old Dwan.” The filmmaker is so forgotten in the history of Hollywood that he makes this history seem even farther away than might be expected. This forgetfulness might be understood historically—85% of his films are lost. Or as a strategy—before the sad fate imposed by the studios on the most glorious of his colleagues from his youth (Griffith, Stroheim), the filmmaker decided at the beginning of the 1930s to work in secret. His credo: to not garner laurels, never to stop shooting, even if it meant accepting any script, cast, or budget. The films from the end of his career, maybe his most beautiful, were shot on average in less than fifteen days, for less than $300,000, at a rate of three a year.
The historic and strategic reasons for his being forgotten are only, however, the symptom of a secret lying within the films themselves. If Tourneur is the filmmaker of secrets by night, when disquiet rules, Dwan is their filmmaker by day, when serenity keeps watch.2 How can secrets of day and night be distinguished from one another? And, first, how to distinguish the secret of these films and that of our own lives? If I tell a secret to a friend, there are at least two people for whom the secret is not one at all—the friend and me. And even if I never tell the secret, there is at least one person for whom it is not one—me. In life, every secret is impure. In life, every secret has at least one agent for whom the secret is not a secret. Not in a Dwan or Tourneur film because no character is its agent. The secret is given straight from the film to the viewer. How? The Mac-‐Mahonians (particularly Jacques Lourcelles), who discovered Tourneur and Dwan, had one answer: through the mise en scène. Mise en scène is a way of spatially organizing a story written on paper. Let’s begin with the paper. The storylines are not what they seem to be: the dark western, the adventure film, the film noir all are transformed into fables by an excess of concision (cf. Angel in Exile (1948), Silver Lode (1954), The River’s Edge (1957)). Characters are not who they seem to be: the thief in Escape to Burma (1955) is not a thief, the mercenary in Cattle Queen of Montana (1954) is not a mercenary, etc. The characters’ secret is revealed by the end to be of a nobility that is as incredible as it is unexpected. Unexpected not because these characters ever give the illusion of baseness, but because they had things—dark and dangerous—to take care of, and they couldn’t take care of them without a fake identity. What remains for them to live out afterwards, now that they're themselves? Everything, because this adventure—undesired and executed under a false identity—also allowed them to find something else. A woman: not to be conquered, but who conquers the hero by showing him how to live in peace. How, and above all where: a site that will serve as a second soul mate; hence the secret of these landscapes consistently in accord with what we won't find out 'til the end—the nobility of the heroes. Dwan films these—these landscapes like familiar soul mates—with a fullness that is so minute, almost Japanese, that the viewer painfully spurs on the possible irruption of danger, namely that their happiness will be shattered by whatever is immediately off-‐screen (cf. the shots preceding the Indian attack at the beginning of Cattle Queen of Montana). I’m again returning to Jacques Lourcelles. Secret of the bodies: the muscled inexpressiveness of the Mac-‐Mahonian actors (Tom Tryon, Dana Andrews, Ronald Reagan, Randolph Scott…) allows the nobility of the characters to remain anonymous. It is enough to imagine Clark Gable in Tennessee’s Partner—which seems written for him—and the ending will lose its sense of naked tragedy 99
because Gable has less of a need for friends than John Payne. Why? Gable’s flamboyance needs nobody because it radiates all on its own, as old as the actor is. Payne’s flamboyance needs someone else, a good fella as honest and forthright as Payne is crooked or adventurous, because his flamboyance is almost “passé,” or in any case dull. The same goes for the graceless and aggressive eroticism of the actresses (Barbara Stanwyck, Virginia Mayo, Rhonda Fleming…). The mystery is that the film’s secret is not obtained by adding up the secret of the story, of the landscapes, and of the actors. It resides, instead, in those moments of abstract serenity that just momentarily escape the story, the landscapes, and the actors. An example: in the middle of Escape to Burma, a child coming out of nowhere tries to give a letter to the heroine. Sent out by a maid who takes him for a beggar, the child sits down on a bench and goes to sleep. The shot is sublime. At the end of the film, this letter saves everything. At the moment the child falls asleep, we don’t know it. It’s a secret. 1 This title is of a book Jean-‐Claude Biette was planning to write. 2 Is it an accident if Tennessee’s Partner (Dwan, 1955) and Canyon Passage (Tourneur, 1946) are the two most beautiful westerns about male friendship?
A NOTE ON THE INTER-‐TITLES IN MANHATTAN MADNESS (1916)
An Eastern Westerner Released in October of 1916, Manhattan Madness is one of Allan Dwan’s earliest surviving films. It is a short feature1 that was made during the formative years of American cinema, a vibrant period that saw not only a large-‐scale migration to Hollywood, but also the rise of the feature film and the growing dominance of the star system. This last detail is of considerable importance in the case of Manhattan Madness, as it is Dwan’s second in a series of collaborations with Douglas Fairbanks, then on his way to becoming one of America’s most prominent leading men. One particularity of the picture is the role played by the written word, which also happens to be a largely forgotten facet of Fairbanks’ screen persona. Manhattan Madness offers a fascinating case study of this issue due to the diversity of its hybrid form: it is comprised of a largely expository and inter-‐title heavy first half that builds up to an action-‐oriented finale that reflects a playful, self-‐conscious approach to film narrative.
This two-‐part structure of Manhattan Madness mirrors its story, which is built on one of those heavy contrasts that silent cinema could pull off with ease. Just as the first Dwan/Fairbanks film, The Habit of Happiness (1916), is structured around the dichotomy between rich and poor, Manhattan Madness plots life in the open West against the up-‐tight East—or as the opening inter-‐title succinctly sets up: “The argument of this story contrasts the East with the West in respect to their joy yielding qualities.” This is followed by two more inter-‐titles (“When we say ‘The East’ this is what we think of—“ and “When we say ‘The West’ we picture this—”) that both lead to a visual definition of each region. Not surprisingly, the all-‐American Fairbanks is posited as the representative of the open country of the Wild West. In an introductory scene that seems to exist solely to demonstrate his love of sport, Fairbanks’ character Steve O’Dare is presented running across the top of a stationary train in extreme long-‐shot before climbing off and effortlessly leaping over a fence to catch a taxi for the Big City. This leaves him just enough time to briefly frame himself up in a mid-‐shot to share a wink of complicity with the audience— setting a tone that will inform the remainder of the film.
A brief summary of the film’s narrative will prove useful for the analysis that follows, which is a task that can largely be achieved by simply quoting the inter-‐titles. Just before the first sequence we are informed that Steve has come to Manhattan to sell a “load of War horses […] to a certain Count Winkie, representing a foreign government”—a plot point that is summarily put aside for the remainder of the film’s first half. Instead, we follow Steve as he “makes a break to his college club” where we see that despite his country ways, he is anything but a hick. This leads to a lengthy scene at a high-‐class country club in which Steve sings the praises of Nevada over the “superficial, un-‐American, overcrowded” New York. He does however find one thing he seems to like in Manhattan—an attractive girl seated across the room that he shares a series of flirtatious shot/reverse shots with. Steve’s friends remain steadfast in their defense of Manhattan, going so far as to propose a bet for five thousand dollars that Steve will “get a thrill all right” if he stays in the city for another week. Steve then continues to Count Winkie’s “mysterious old mansion on the fringe of Manhattan,” where, in a convoluted turn of events, he not only discovers that the count is trying to cheat him out of his money, but also that he just so happens to be forcefully detaining the girl from the country club. This builds up to a lengthy action scene in which Steve defends his newfound love from Count Winkie’s minions, whom he proceeds to fight off singlehandedly. Then, suddenly finding the mansion deserted, he breaks through a wood panel to discover his prior foes and their victim…sitting cheerfully around the dinner table! The bet that Steve will get a “thrill“ in New York resurfaces as Fairbanks (and the audience) realize that it was all a charade, put on by the “ladies and gentleman of the theater.” But Steve, who had already called in his cowhands for backup, poses as the western outlaw Black Burke and ‘kidnaps’ the girl (with her consent, of course) and they steal away on horseback. We soon join them again on the deck of an ocean liner, now man and wife. This leaves just enough room for a cutesy epilogue with a kiss through one of the ship’s port-‐holes and a final inter-‐title (responding explicitly the one that opened the picture) that takes on the form of a moral: “After all—it isn’t where you are that counts, it’s whom you’re with.” Hallucinatory Narrative Manhattan Madness is a film that begins and ends under the sign of the inter-‐title. From the opening “argument” to the moral at its end, a parallel text is weaved throughout the film in a way that and organizes and conditions our reading of the images that follow. While watching the film, it is hard to go along with the well-‐worn cliché that inter-‐titles are somehow peripheral to the ‘purely visual world’ of silent film rather than an intrinsic part of both its visual and narrative fabric, richly exemplified by “the East vs. West” discussion at the country club. The scene itself is preceded by a jokey inter-‐title that introduces an 103
ellipsis that is of key importante to what follows, as it will be filled in through flashbacks in the subsequent scene: “We won’t follow Steve and his ‘chum’ around Manhattan—our innocence forbids. They missed nothing but the Tombs—and it took political pull to miss that. One day at the country club…”
This scene at the country club is made up of a whole series of brief vignettes comparing their recent New York adventures to the fun that could have been had back in Nevada (streetcar vs. stagecoach ride, bar-‐room brawl vs. gunfight, etc.). From a structural point of view, the scene itself is comprised of four main elements: (1) Steve and his friends arguing around the table, (2) a series of one-‐shot mini-‐flashbacks to their Big City adventures, (3) comparative visual illustrations of life in Nevada, and (4) the inter-‐titles that link together the different layers. The interactions between these various components result in a particularly dynamic rendering of a scene which is in reality is nothing more than a few people arguing around a table. It is also a concise, not to mention amusing, way to establish the film’s broader thematic concerns. As for the various cutaways, these shots play a curious role in the overall construction of the scene: they at once offer a visual translation of the implicit conversation between the characters, while also providing an ‘illustration’ of the inter-‐titles, which in turn selectively transcribe portions of what is being said.2 This type of ‘story-‐within-‐a-‐story’ construction, typically introduced by means of the inter-‐titles, was quite common in silent film, as François Jost has notably pointed out. He refers to this narrative strategy as an instance of “hallucinatory narrative,” in which a “strict equivalence” is created between the story being told by the “intra-‐diegetic narrator” and its visual translation on screen for the spectator, resulting in an idealized harmony between word and image.3 Jost applies this concept to the framing device used in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), but the term “hallucinatory” is also particularly apt here. While the shots of New York clearly function as flashbacks shared by both Steve and his friends, those of Nevada play a more ambiguous role: rather than referring to specific events that Steve has witnessed, they appear to present a broader, more generic, image of the West. The country club scene in Manhattan Madness uses the narrative strategy described by Jost on a smaller scale, albeit in a manner that is even more complex, featuring multiple “intra-‐diegetic” narrators and a particularly rich interplay between text and image. While this entire scene is structured around these “hallucinatory” images, two examples of what could be characterized as Steve’s mental visions provide a useful illustration of this concept. The first of these hallucinations occurs just after Steve notices the girl in the country club, which prompts him to exclaim, ”Oh ho! So there is something different in Manhattan!” He then returns to his subject (“Oh rot! I tell you we have everything in Nevada—“) that prompts a banal shot of an empty plain that ironically counterpoints the text. Returning to Steve, he looks once more at the girl, shown as their gazes meet in a brief match cut, then continues his train of thought, “—that is—nearly everything.” The second of these mental visions occurs a few minutes later, when we find Steve in a pensive mood, staring off into the distance. We then iris in and out of a close-‐up of the 105
girl, whom he has clearly fallen for. An inter-‐title appears, giving us access to his thoughts: “I wonder if I’d rather stay here and look for her smile, or go back home to the stick of the cactus and the swing of my brone?” This title is followed by a picturesque shot showing of Steve in silhouette on horseback, then another as a solitary figure in the open country, before we cut back to him at the country club, still in pensive mode. These two examples of mental images in the scene demonstrate the ambiguity of the narrative voice present in both the inter-‐titles and the overall structure of Manhattan Madness. On one hand, there is a traditional third-‐person narrator, capable of making general assertions that introduce the characters and set up the overall plot. But at the same time, the very form of the film itself often latches on to Fairbanks’ subjectivity; not only in the way that his thoughts call forth mental images which are represented on the film strip, but also because we share his point of view throughout the entire film, so much so that we are fooled alongside with him at the end. This ambiguity is by no means a structural weakness of the film—it is hardly noticed on first viewing—but rather represents the significant flexibility of silent film narrative and the ease with which it could fluidly shift between temporal registers and points of view. With the coming of sound, the spatially unifying force of the soundtrack would render this type of exercise significantly more complex. Verbal and Visual Storytelling Beyond any considerations of narrative efficiency, the inter-‐titles in Manhattan Madness serve something larger than the simple storytelling mechanics—they also testify to a real verbal exuberance, full of period flavor that often manifests itself in near paragraph-‐long titles. As film historian William K. Everson points out, Fairbanks was known for his titles, “which were long and deliberately overloaded with a kind of small talk,” and that would save the "informational part“ for the last minute, “at the foot of a title which had been jollying the audience into a state of receptivity.” Even when the titles “utilized a small type face, they often covered every square inch of the frame, so that they were quite often difficult to read,” with the inter-‐titles often occupying “as much screen time as many individual scenes.”4 Indeed, we can see how inter-‐titles not only played a significant role in the growing complexity of film narrative, but also how they contributed to the then nascent star-‐system, deepening character psychology and forging a complicity between the audience and the larger-‐than-‐life personality projected on screen.
The style of title-‐writing seen in Manhattan Madness was the trademark of screenwriter Anita Loos, who worked with Fairbanks on several occasions, although not for this particular film, for which the writing credit goes to the brothers Charles T. and Frank Dazey. Nonetheless, it was Loos who argued that “certain genres—especially comedy— could motivate highly self-‐conscious narration,”5 a quality which is clearly on display in the Dwan and Fairbanks collaborations.6 This approach to storytelling is reflected in the film’s overall plot: the contrivance of Fairbanks finding his love interest locked away in Count Winkie’s mansion is just that—a ruse carried out by professional actors. What at first seem to be the familiar conventions of silent film prove to be playful reworking of them; the role-‐ playing is only furthered when Steve, assuming the identity of Black Burke, fools his friends into believing that he is the western outlaw. Manhattan Madness closes of course with the conventional happy ending, but it’s not difficult to see this epilogue tinged with a hint of sarcasm after witnessing the antics that preceded it. Given the importance of language in Fairbanks’ screen persona, it is perhaps ironic that his career would fizz out with the coming of sound, as if his pictures relied on this unique conjunction of text and image rather than spoken dialogue. The same cannot be said for Allan Dwan; this filmmaker who played an integral role in the development of Hollywood would stand his ground for the next four decades, still there in the 50s to watch the studio system falter while he continued toiling away at B pictures. While the main focus here has been on the film’s inter-‐titles, there nonetheless remains much to be said about Dwan’s visual artistry and the early mastery of space on display in Manhattan Madness—be it the way he visually rhymes two dazzling mobile shots (one from the roof of a streetcar, the second from atop a stagecoach), or the geometrical precision with which he stages a chase
scene across the roof of the Victorian-‐era mansion, to cite just two examples among many. We can, however, link this early work to the rest of Dwan’s incredibly diverse career through its unique blend of western and comedy—two genres that he would return to incessantly, and that in many ways define him as a filmmaker. A broader attempt to contextualize these visual and narrative strategies on hand in Manhattan Madness with those seen in the rest of Allan Dwan’s oeuvre—be it the comedies of the 40s or the famous series of westerns produced by Benedict Bogeaus in the 1950s—would doubtlessly be an equally worthy endeavor, likely to reveal a number of resonances with his inexhaustible body of work.
1 There has been some question as to whether the version of Manhattan Madness currently in existence corresponds to the one seen by audiences in 1916, rather than a re-‐edited version (potentially fitted with a new set of inter-‐titles) from a later date. In his essay in Allan Dwan, La Légende de l’homme aux mille films, published by Cahiers du Cinéma and the Locarno Film Festival, Kevin Brownlow claims to believe that it is indeed the original version, something that a glimpse at the Triangle Films archive held at the Cinématheque Française along with an overview of the trade reviews of the time seems to confirm. It is worth noting that the DVD version of the film put out Grapevine Video, clocking in at just under 30 minutes, appears to run too fast. If shown at the correct frame-‐rate, the film would be somewhere around its original length of five reels. 2 Michel Chion has referred to this phenomenon as “elastic speech,” which he characterizes as follows: “it can make characters speak a great deal within the story and summarize their utterances with a few written words, and it can pass from direct to indirect discourse.” -‐ Michel Chion, Film, a sound art, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 11. 3 François Jost, “Les Mots pour le voir” In Scrittura e immagine: la didascalia nel cinema muto, ed. Francesco Pitassio and Leonardo Quaresima (Udine: Forum, 1998), 35-‐36. (My translation) 4 William K. Everson, Silent Film (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998), 131. 5 David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film
Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (London: Routledge, 1988), 278. 6 Both The Habit of Happiness (1916) and A Modern Musketeer (1917) go so far as to include notes at the foot of certain inter-‐titles (asking the spectators to “pardon the pun” in the latter film for example), something that can also seen as an early parody of Griffith’s use of footnotes in films like Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916).
ADVENTURES IN FAIRBANKS-‐SITTING: A MODERN MUSKETEER (1917)
R. Emmet Sweeney
Everyone in A Modern Musketeer looks like they’re having far too much fun, as if they were getting away with something. In this comedic update of The Three Musketeers, Douglas Fairbanks nimbly swashbuckles through the modern Midwest wearing a thoroughly shit-‐ eating grin. The films that Allan Dwan made with Fairbanks are effortless genre parodies, letting the air out of gaseous Victorian melodramatics, but this one is especially freewheeling, likely because the movie is mainly an excuse for Fairbanks to avoid the threats of a husband he had cuckolded. Fairbanks had been seriously pitching woo to Mary Pickford while she was still married to actor Owen Moore, who had gotten wise and was making noise around town. Hatching the idea for A Modern Musketeer with Dwan, he would leave Los Angeles (and Moore) behind to 109
film it out by the Grand Canyon. His D’Artagnan is a Kansas kid with his nose stuck in Dumas, but his attempt to revive the chivalric code of 17th century usually ends in slaps to the face. Fairbanks could relate. The story is loosely based on a story published in Everybody’s Magazine called “D’Artagnan of Kansas,” by Eugene P. Lyle, Jr., but Dwan and Fairbanks would do so much tweaking of the material on the set that only the outline of the story remains. As hastily arranged by the duo during a train ride from Salina, Kansas to New York City, the plot concerns Ned Thacker, eager to bust out of his small town and lead the adventurous life of a Musketeer. He makes it out West to the Grand Canyon, where he has to rescue a girl from kidnappers, and in doing so, can finally justify his interest in those heroic figures of old. The story is similar to a tale they had shot the previous year, Manhattan Madness (1916), in which a New Yorker falls for life as a cowboy. In both, Fairbanks is a regular guy who enters a fantasy world idealized in literature and film. This outside-‐in structure allows Dwan and Fairbanks to parody genre codes while also fulfilling their basic necessities. Dwan told Peter Bogdanovich that he and Fairbanks tried to create “plenty of suspense, but we were playing from the humorous side.”1
The opening two sequences succinctly illustrate this approach. The first begins with a scene from Ned Thacker’s dreams—D’Artagnan sword-‐fighting in a rural French bar. Fairbanks shows off his smoothly unfurling athleticism, as he leaps from rafters and tumbles through attackers as if in one graceful motion; he can even grab a tippler’s goatee with one hand while dueling with the other. The excuse for the brawl is that a drunken boor has stepped on a handkerchief that a pretty young girl had dropped—and so the entire edifice is decimated. Inspired by this heroic fictional feat, Ned Thacker jumps to the aid of another distressed damsel, one whose boyfriend slaps her around. Sliding down an electrical pole from his second floor window, he destroys the denizens of the watering hole, though with fists, feet and glass bottles rather than a saber. But instead of the coy thanks D’Artagnan received, this Fairbanks is given a sharp series of smacks by a lady. As an inter-‐title states, women want equal rights, and no longer desire to be rescued. As he laughs off his rejection, Thacker pulls down the blinds to reveal he works at the “Society For the Prevention of Cruelty to Women.”
Fantasy and reality do not square up in Dwan’s Fairbanks pictures. Reality is too complicated and motivations too obscure for the moral certainties of romantic-‐heroic fiction. The duo pokes fun at this gap, which Ned Thacker lives inside of. Even though his birth has been presaged by a cyclone and he is able to climb tall buildings in a few bounds, he is still stymied by the mysteries of human behavior. Fairbanks’ enduring macho-‐ vulnerable allure comes to the fore when he leaps into a handstand at the edge of the Grand Canyon as a desperate ploy to impress a lady. Dwan’s ability to interrogate genre while also fulfilling it allows his actors to play around with their personas: as Fairbanks is at his most vulnerable with Dwan, so the normally stiff Ronald Reagan is at his laid back best in the low-‐budget western Tennessee’s Partner (1955). The sections in which Dwan fulfills the genre requirements of A Modern Musketeer are the dullest—showing the girl captured and rescued, then held by a renegade Navajo (Frank Campeau). Even in these rote sections, however, his subversive spirit still flickers, whether in Fairbanks’ headstand at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or the fluid manner in which Fairbanks leaps across rooftops in pursuit of his beau. Booton Herndon, in his dual biography Mary Pickford & Douglas Fairbanks: The Most Popular Couple the World Has Ever Known, gets at Dwan’s particular genius, able to calm a stressed-‐out Fairbanks into one of his most ebullient performances: “It was Dwan who convinced Doug to accent the ease and grace of his screen actions by doing less than he was capable of, eliminating any appearance of strain in favor of smooth, flowing, effortless movement." Throughout his career, Dwan could always do more with less. 1 Bogdanovich, Allan Dwan: the Last Pioneer (New York: Praeger, 1971), 46.
“A FULL-‐STEAMED COMIC OPERA”: HE COMES UP SMILING (1918)
Daniel Fairfax and Louis Delluc Translated by Daniel Fairfax
— Douglas Fairbanks is trapped in a birdcage. He leaps from his perch and clambers onto its bars. Bouncing from side to side, he seeks a way out. Finally, such yearning for liberty gives him the strength to pry open the bars and make his escape. Doug is free. But the image ushering in He Comes Up Smiling is only an allegory for the film to come. Fairbanks is Jerry Martin (but how could he be anything but Doug!), an employee of a small-‐town bank, and he is still, alas, behind bars—those of the bank’s teller counter. And yet, as he toys with the checkbook of an exasperated customer, he sports an irrepressible boyish grin. Such a jovial disposition can not even be dampened by the demeaning task his boss, the glabrous bank director Jonathan Perkins, assigns him: tending to his beloved pet canary Agamemnon. Agamemnon is allowed out of his cage, but is still imprisoned within the larger cage of the bank. Doug does everything to entertain the bird, but his efforts do
not stymie its impulse for emancipation. With Doug momentarily distracted by a customer, the canary flies across the street and into the window of a nearby apartment. Doug gives chase, and there begins a delirious sequence vividly demonstrating, in equal measure, the acrobatic verve of Fairbanks’ talents as a performer and the adroit geometric rigour of Dwan’s mise en scène. Propelling himself onto a storefront canopy, Doug vaults himself through the apartment window—and over an elderly woman, taking a bath, who hysterically reacts to the intruder. Doug finds the bird nesting in the beard of her husband, who calmly reads a book in the apartment’s drawing room, but Agamemnon continues his odyssey. In hot pursuit, Doug breathlessly leaps from one apartment building to another, shinnies up gutter pipes, tightrope-‐walks across a wire holding a campaign banner urging the townsfolk to “Vote for Dugan”, swings into the bedroom of a dozing burgher, and ricochets on a ladder from one building to another, before hitching a ride on a passing horse buggy to a remote bucolic locale, where he finally catches the bird. Watching the scene, however, a hobo-‐philosopher convinces Doug to let the canary fly away, and to give up his city-‐bound existence for an idyllic life amidst a community of tramps. The bird is free. Doug is free. The story up to this point may be banal, infantile even. But it is immaterial, a mere pretext for Douglas Fairbanks’ anarchic gyrations. All, in this wild sequence, is dynamism, intensity, exuberance. Like great poetry, it is imbued with both absolute abandon and the utmost control and precision. This sequence is the cinema, art of movement, of bodies in motion, engaged in an unabating dance with the camera. The rest of He Comes Up Smiling may or may not live up to the promise of its dizzying opening moments, but, alas, modern audiences will never know. We briefly see Doug’s life as a vagrant: chased by a swarm of bees, he swings from a vine and dives into a river. But it is here that Dwan’s film is abruptly cut short. The first reel is intact, but the remaining four reels, as with so much of the silent cinema, have vanished. In fact, we owe a rare stroke of good fortune to even being able to see this much of the film: He Comes Up Smiling was long considered an irretrievably lost work, but its opening reel was recently rediscovered by Serge Bromberg, a precious gem which, he writes, was “accidentally found in a box amidst films without any significance.”1 As I watched a digitised version of the fragment on my laptop, a sense of pure exhilaration welling in my veins at the spectacle unfolding in front of me, my mind soon leapt to what you, Louis Delluc (mon semblable, mon frère!), would have made of such a film, viewing it in the decidedly different surrounds of a cramped working-‐class movie-‐theatre in an insalubrious Parisian faubourg, and enchanted, no doubt, not only by the film itself, but by the excited reactions of the proletarian public amassed before the screen—a far more 114
reliable barometer of l’art muet than the cultured bourgeoisie you detested. Your love for Fairbanks, for the liberating force and energetic vigour of his performance, was incontestable, to the extent that you even planned to write a book on the actor, a mooted follow-‐up to your monograph on Chaplin. — Douglas Fairbanks has always given me great joy. His films oxygenate us. Our arteries seem to function better after an hour spent in his madcap, wholesome company. This algebraic Harlequin, this musketeer whose optimism and smile can be matched by no weapon, unsettles us by dint of his strength. With so much candor, so much lucid allure, he is a mystery. For a long time, we didn’t know whether or not we needed to excuse ourselves for our excessive love for Chaplin, for how could we acknowledge that his naïveté, at once humane and learned, left us so perturbed? Then one day we understood, and we could concur that he was a “mastermind”. Of Fairbanks, too, I will say: he is a mastermind. He is a man. He is man. He is a perfect, complete animal, who takes care of his lungs, his muscles and every pore of his skin, because one loses the use of one’s soul when the body is not in good shape. His body is in good shape. That’s why he can produce moments of such rich and pure expressivity that they outdo the long, premeditated scenes mimed by the so-called psychological actors. Long live Douglas Fairbanks and his impassioned comedy, which hits us front-on, uplifts us and rouses us! He is an entire storyline of his own, which always attains its culminating moment—and is never finished. — Along with Chaplin and Sessue Hayakawa, Fairbanks represented, in your view, the new breed of actor—an actor capable of marshalling the specific powers of the cinema, rather than the stage. What’s more, you perceived the remarkably edifying effects his films had on the enchanted audiences who submitted to his irresistible spell. — I respect the approval of the crowd. When the last scenes of a Fairbanks film appear on the screen, a new atmosphere envelops the spectators. A new soul—yes indeed—enthuses them, galvanises them, makes them giddy. It is their very own soul, but it has just been revealed to them. The spectacle of this man who can do anything, and does it with the simplicity hated by our theatre, is a form of physical therapy. — Although Fairbanks, in your view, is a “force of nature”, an “extraordinary rhythm” more closely related to an aeroplane or a torpedo than to Sacha Guitry or Sarah Bernhardt, you also bridled against those who saw him as a mere acrobatic performer, little better than a trained seal. 115
— There are many actors, in many countries, who are jealous of Douglas’ success, and, I feel, jealous of Douglas himself. Their envy, their rage, are always expressed in the following terms: “He’s an acrobat. He’s just an acrobat.” He’s not just an acrobat—there’s no need to insist on this—but he is indeed an acrobat. And what an acrobat! He has studied and applied just about everything that can be done with the suppleness of the body, the strength of muscles and the precise audacity of a glance. The day we saw him bounding like a cat onto the wagons of Manhattan Madness, there was no longer any question of arguing about his whimsical psychology, as the athletic juggler doubles the mirror of our sentiments. — It was precisely with 1916’s Manhattan Madness that you contracted such a feverish admiration for Fairbanks. It was, in fact, his fourth work under the direction of Allan Dwan, but it was the first of his films to make an impact in Paris, and it was the first of their films to truly combine the complementary skills of actor and filmmaker to such an intoxicating effect. — Have you seen Manhattan Madness? The influence of this film will be considerable, and the arrival in Paris of the talent, the technique and the mastery of Douglas Fairbanks, in such perfect conditions, is important for the fate of French cinema, as were, in their own time, the screenings of Chaplin’s films, The Cheat, and the work of Thomas Ince. For there is more here than just a good film. In its execution, Manhattan Madness exceeds the masterpieces of the screen which gave us an impression of profound and, so to speak, sufficient beauty. All these works had the same style, a style in which the verve, the contours and the modern truth of the new American school of the cinema seemed to be crystallised and affirmed. This is better. This is new. Observation, violence, sentimentality, buffoonery: everything can be linked, everything can be explained, as in life itself, with an infinite poetry, with all these extreme baroques which are occasionally nothing but the same object lit a little differently. Manhattan Madness is the new force of modern poetry, the true poetry, that which, when walking down the street, you see everywhere and incessantly—on a face, a sign, a colour— and which a director expressly isolates. Landscapes, horses, dogs, furniture, glasses, a stairwell, a lamp, a hand, a ring, everything takes on a fantastic character. And a true character! True, but you would not have seen it, almost nobody knows how to see the beauty of things. Sometimes the cinema obliges us to see it. And here we have an example. 116
I declare that there is a new change in the air, one which has been sketched out over the last few months. We have Fairbanks to thank for this decision and the results which have ensued. The film resembles him. Not one detail, in its conception or realisation, is even the slightest bit out of place. — Fairbanks’ presence in his films was so overpowering that you readily accorded “this ace of the silent art” the status of “cinéaste”, a term of your coinage to describe the animating force behind a film, and which in your own view could be applied just as much to great actors as to great filmmakers. But what, in your mind, was the contribution of Dwan to these works? — Allan Dwan’s direction frames Fairbanks’ verve with a beauty and a photogenic virtuosity rarely seen on the screen. — Your high opinion of his work would even lead you to compare the unassuming Dwan favourably to the bombast of Abel Gance, the indisputable titan of French cinema in the early 1920s. — Cinéastes like Allan Dwan, possibly more gifted than Abel Gance in terms of their flair for photographic expression, are superior to him by dint of adhering to the very material of their art, and thus of not distracting us. Gance, stripped bare of his vain, pseudo-poetic chattering, would be a remarkable worker of world filmmaking. — It was perhaps with regards to Headin’ South, which you considered “the most rigorous flame” in the flurry of Fairbanks films hitting French screens, that your appreciation for Dwan’s directing was most palpably expressed. — The effect of this movie is comparable to that of a bottle of Rhenish wine, or Rhône wine, on someone who has only ever drunk water all their life. In all truthfulness, I wonder whether I watched or drank this adventure, whether it was a film or a dry wine. Don’t take it the wrong way. I know that this slightly enthusiastic tone is totally out of fashion, but understand, if you will, that this is a film, a true film, and that I have not encountered a true film for quite a long time. — The irony, however, is that the film was actually directed by Arthur Rosson. Nonetheless, while Dwan “merely” fulfilled the role of “supervisor-‐writer”, the subtle stamp of his authorship could evidently be felt in this film, too. You were little aware of Dwan’s biographical background, of his education as an engineer, and of his own views on shot composition, where he stated that, “for me, it’s mathematics. There’s nothing more beautiful than mathematical perfection,” and that “the inevitable laws of mathematics [...] 117
apply to drama and to life.”2 And yet you intuited the profoundly mathematical nature of his film technique, decades before other film critics cottoned on to it. — Intelligence, reflection and the art of mathematics have cast themselves onto the cinema and are making it more fertile. We are not at the theatre. There is no play to be recounted. Headin’ South is a canvas, or a poem, or a turbulent capriccio. It is cinema. — He Comes Up Smiling was the last of Dwan’s seven Fairbanks vehicles made in the heady period of 1916-‐1918, an era of the American cinema which you relished for the “irresistible musicality of its photogénie” and its simplicity, sobriety and candor. Such qualities, you felt, were only rediscovered when Dwan’s collaboration with Fairbanks would be reprised in 1922 with Robin Hood. With He Comes Up Smiling, meanwhile, which you viewed upon its release in France in March 1920 (with Bound in Morocco and A Modern Musketeer following later in the year), you forestalled potential criticism of their work as having become routine and repetitive. — “Same old, same old!” say people who suffer from a gastric illness or acute jealousy. It’s true, Doug is always Doug and every one of his films is a full-steamed comic opera. Here, once again, Douglas is a young man who finds life difficult. But he has such radiant teeth that he can’t stop himself from smiling, let alone eating and—at a trot, at a gallop, at a bunny-hop, en route to the conquest of anything whatsoever—gliding past his obstacles, drunk on health and gymnastic prowess. There is a young girl at the end of the tale, and it’s all over. And it will start over again. — And yet, in your view, this film was not an apotheosis of their work together. Your response to it was rather more sanguine than the raptures with which you greeted Manhattan Madness. — This sporting vaudeville is far from being up to the level of the admirable Manhattan Madness, which is the equal of any film, and which the Mogador Palace should put back on the screen for another week. Wild and Woolly, The Man from the Painted Post and Say, Young Fellow were also fine examples of virtuosic mania. He Comes Up Smiling possesses less originality, except in a marvellously conceived passage where we see what happens in eight different tumultuous apartments. — Nonetheless, He Comes Up Smiling shared the qualities of all of Fairbanks’ work, and takes a rightful place in the canon of films featuring this “musketeer of the cinema”. — American Aristocracy, The Half-‐Breed, The Americano, Wild and Woolly, The Man from the Painted Post, Reaching for the Moon, Bound in Morocco, He Comes Up Smiling and 118
twenty other films live, swarm about, get restless and jolt us awake. Just look at these splendid bursts of fresh air, which have shaken up a good number of little pencil pushers on this vast planet of ours. — What, then, is there left to say about this modest, unprepossessing film, made without any artistic pretentions, but purely to instill the audience with a dose of cinematic exultation? — It’s charming. 1 Serge Bromberg, “He Comes Up Smiling”, http://www.lobsterfilms.com/retour_de_flamme.6.htm 2 Allan Dwan, “Galloping Tintypes”, interview with Peter Bogdanovich. In: Bogdanovich, Allan Dwan: the Last Pioneer (New York: Praeger, 1971), pp. 25-‐26.
Notes: Delluc’s contributions to this “dialogue” are taken, with slight modifications, from the following texts: Louis Delluc, “Mack Sennett”, in: Idem. Les Cinéastes (unpublished, 1923). Repr. in: Pierre Lherminier (ed.), Louis Delluc: Écrits Cinématographiques vol. I (Paris: Cinémathèque française, 1985), pp. 136-‐138. –––, “Douglas, mousquetaire du Film”, in: Les Cinéastes. Repr. in: Louis Delluc vol. I, pp. 140-‐ 142. –––, “Abel Gance”, in: Les Cinéastes. Repr. in: Louis Delluc vol. I, pp. 165-‐166. –––, “Présentation de Douglas Fairbanks” (unpublished, 1923). Repr. in: Louis Delluc vol. I, pp. 197-‐204. –––, “Douglas Fairbanks”, Paris-Midi, June 1, 1918. Repr. in: Louis Delluc vol. II/1, pp. 81-‐83. –––, “Œuvres et Chefs-‐d’œuvre”, Le Film no. 78, September 10, 1917. Repr. in: Louis Delluc vol. II/1, pp. 146-‐150. –––, “Douglas for ever” Cinéa no. 9, July 1, 1921. Repr. in: Louis Delluc vol. II/1, pp. 315-‐316. –––, “Le Sauveur du ranch”, Paris-Midi, March 12, 1919. Repr. in: Louis Delluc vol. II/2, pp. 41-‐42. –––, “Douglas Fairbanks dans L’Île du Salut”, Paris-Midi, April 17, 1919. Repr. in: Louis Delluc vol. II/2, pp. 56-‐57. –––, “Douglas a le sourire”, Paris-Midi, April 1, 1920. Repr. in: Louis Delluc vol. II/2, p. 168.
Farran Smith Nehme
The Hays Code, that how-‐to guide for Hollywood morality, was already in place in 1924 when Paramount was deciding on a follow-‐up to Zaza for Gloria Swanson and her new favorite director, Allan Dwan. An enterprising promotional executive who was using the Code for what it was actually good for—pointers on what might titillate an audience into attendance—found that the act of "manhandling" was forbidden. The executive noted, however, that there was no injunction against titling something "Manhandled." According to Swanson in her autobiography, Dwan asked Frank Tuttle for a story that could live up to the title. Tuttle suggested they flesh out a short story about a gum-‐snapping salesgirl whose good looks cause a series of rich bounders to lure her with promised riches, even as she tries to stay true to her poor-‐but-‐loving inventor boyfriend. Swanson, then looking for things that would take her away from her couture-‐draped image of suffering, agreed.
And so the movie begins with Swanson getting manhandled in a big way by that mauler supreme, the New York City subway system. Before she descends into the maw, Swanson's salesgirl, Tessie, gets splashed by passing cars, but that's only prologue. Swanson was one of the most petite stars in Hollywood history—4 foot 11 inches. Many other movies use tricks to de-‐emphasize her height, but Dwan seems to relish Swanson's shortness. Once Tessie is shoved onto the subway car by a uniformed platform worker (New York rush hour could still use this job), she's stuck between two men at an eye level just below their armpits. Swaying with them against her will, Tessie does the dance of the New Yorker trying to avoid too much body contact, no matter how cramped the quarters. She drops her purse, and the men who are bookending her stoop to help her retrieve its contents. But when they reach back up for the straps, she's still got her arms looped through theirs, and for a moment she's suspended in air. Once she's back on her feet and smacking away at her gum, the movement of the car and the crowd dislodges Tessie's impossible hat, an overlarge squashy cloche adorned with what look like marbles—although they're probably supposed to be grapes—swinging from one side like the tassel on a fez. The hat falls to the ground, she does a deep-‐knee bend to retrieve it, and when she finally comes back up, the hat has lost its grapes. And, for one marvelously subtle half-‐minute, the mood shifts. Tessie's face crumples as she looks at that hat, bereft of its ridiculous ornament. It’s clear, instantly, that the fruit was her favorite part, probably the reason she bought it, just as surely as Swanson’s expression shows that she can't afford to replace it. Then her face regains its old hardness, she pulls the denuded hat back over her hopelessly mussed bob, and the hellish ride continues, complete with a masher all but licking his lips at her from his seat. When she tries to get off at her station, Dwan switches to an overhead shot. Poor tiny Tessie tries to disembark and gets pushed back into the car, over and over. She can't manage to leave walking upright; she eventually has to bend over and scurry under a railing. Small as Tessie is, the subway—meaning of course New York itself—has all but brought her to her knees. Dwan made six films with Swanson. "I like them all," he told Peter Bogdanovich. "But I think I might have liked Manhandled best for some reason—I can't remember why."1 Watching the subway sequence will certainly make it clear for anyone else. It's perfect—as a record of New York subways at rush hour in the 1920s, as a monument to Swanson's flair for slapstick, as a remarkably explicit commentary on the roughness, indifference and humiliations a woman may encounter from men any day of her life.
Dwan is famous for the widely varying subjects of his movies. He did Westerns, noirs, comedies, adventures, historicals. Manhandled is a romantic comedy—the drama over Tessie's honor is largely sidelined—but more than anything, it's a star vehicle. They got along, Swanson and Dwan; she said that even at their first dinner meeting, she saw he was a genius. Still, Dwan must have known his main job on this film, and that was to get one of the biggest movie names in the world square in the frame and looking good. He knew precisely how to handle Swanson's comic presence and timing, which were delicious. And Swanson was a beauty and a clotheshorse, with a keen sense of how to make herself look luscious on screen; Dwan would know exactly how to use that and keep it comic, too. Swanson seems to be in every shot, although it's probably more like 3/4ths, and Dwan has a consistent pattern for all of them. In a funny moment, the actress is usually full-‐face or three-‐quarters to the camera; even the broad way she moves her mouth when she's talking suggests a patented Noo Yawk honk. You often have the fun of discovering her most humorous bits at the edge of the frame, like Tessie's hand stowing her chewing gum under a dressing table at a posh apartment. When it's an emotional moment—she's with Tom Moore as her boyfriend, or pondering her love for him—Dwan usually shoots his star in profile. Swanson had a tricky profile; "ski-‐ slope," they said, when she was starting out. As filmed by Dwan, it's always ravishing. A profile shot half-‐obscures Swanson's most celebrated asset, her eyes. Instead Dwan focuses on the purity of the skin, the curve of the cheekbones as, at the end of the movie, Tessie begs her angry man to say he still loves her. Almost as wonderful as the subway scenes are the shots of Tessie at the window of her boarding-‐house room. She loves her inventor, but she's afraid of marriage. She looks out the window at the airshaft, and Dwan films her almost with her back to the camera, her face reflected in the glass. Another overhead shot shows a woman (possibly pregnant) washing dishes at the sink; another woman is walking a crying baby while her stocky, shirtless and exhausted husband sprawls in a chair. That's early in the film; it's recreated at the end, when Tessie thinks she's lost Jim for good. It's night, and it's harder to see her expression reflected in the glass, but the view out the window has changed: the maybe-‐ pregnant woman is being embraced by her husband; the mother and father are in a chair, playing with their baby while their other children sleep in a shabby bed nearby. These are the things that give texture and poignance to the comedy. In 1924, it was a given that sentiment embellished a film, rather than diminished it. But Manhandled is, above all, a very funny movie. Dwan pulls in a little closer for a view of Tessie, on a sales floor that's almost as crowded as the subway, impatiently blowing off the supervisor who's giving her
a lengthy summary of what's she's doing wrong. The supervisor is almost completely turned away from the camera; Tessie's being oppressed by a bald spot and a chin. Later, Tessie will briefly become a sculptor's model, until, with burning eyes and flaring nostrils, the artist (Ian Keith) suddenly goes after her as if she were Agnes Ayres in "The Sheikh." An impression that Tessie does of a Russian countess at a party gains her a job doing the same thing for Frank Morgan's oily couturier; one of the funniest things in the movie occurs when an actual Russian accosts Tessie at the atelier and speaks to her in the mother tongue. Swanson panics for an instant, then dissolves into tears; Dwan shoots his star's entire body as she droops across her interrogator, too moved by the evocation of her supposed homeland to speak. Almost as brilliant is Dwan's handling of a potentially not-‐funny scene where Tessie is in a limo. We see only the driver and Tessie, richly gowned in the back, looking bored as hell and apprehensive too. Then the head of the rich kid she's stuck with suddenly lurches into the frame beside her, as we suddenly understand her mood. After an exchange of words in the back seat, Dwan cuts back to the shot of the driver and Tessie, and then the rich kid intrudes into the frame again, and she slams out of the car. Swanson had great natural comedic talent, but many years before the Method became common currency, Dwan wanted his privileged star to have a taste of the real in her performance. He told Bogdanovich that he made Swanson ride the Times Square-‐Grand Central shuttle at rush hour, resulting in the Manhattan hordes tearing glamorous Gloria's clothes and almost her body, too. (He said she spent many years trying to get even with him via various practical jokes.) Dwan also urged her to spend a couple of days in disguise working at a department store, because she'd never been near a bargain counter even as a customer. Swanson powdered over her world-‐famous beauty mark, put on a blonde wig and stuck cotton in her nose; the result, she said, was that she talked "like a duck." She managed the deception for about a day and a half before being found out. But in both cases, when the time came to film, Dwan said Swanson told him, "Don't tell me—I know what it's like." "We practically had no scripts," he told Bogdanovich, "we used to manufacture things as we went." Swanson agreed; "Allan used a script like a blueprint," she said. "The best things we made up as we went along." When she was making Zaza, Swanson said she understood that "I had been getting stale in Hollywood and I hadn't realized it." Dwan made her fresh, and she was never fresher than in Manhandled. 1 Peter Bogdanovich, Allan Dwan: the Last Pioneer (New York: Praeger, 1971), 70. 124
ADDENDUM: WHY IS MANHANDLED MUTILATED? Dwan, in Bogdanovich's interview in Who the Devil Made It?, and Swanson in Swanson on Swanson, talk about the scene in Manhandled where Tessie does impersonations at a posh party. They both said that this was the first time Swanson did her version of Charlie Chaplin on screen. It would be re-‐created 25 years later in Swanson's most famous role, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. But in the Grapevine Video DVD, which I bought and watched, as well as a Youtube video that appears to be from the DVD, the Chaplin bit isn't there. Tessie's countess act is the only imitation on view. Assiduous Googling turned up some complaints that it's missing from those versions, but not a word about why, or when was the last time anybody saw this part of the movie. I contacted a number of people, including Grapevine and some people involved with film preservation, trying to figure out what had become of the scene. I never heard from Grapevine, and the archivists were as puzzled as I. Finally, however, I got an answer of sorts, at random, when re-‐reading John Horbal’s interview with Gloria Swanson in the collection People Will Talk. She said: ...When we came to doing the impersonation in Sunset Boulevard, they wanted me to do someone like Douglas Fairbanks, and I said, “Why don’t I do the Chaplin thing I did in Manhandled?” Mr. Wilder said, “Can you do that?” And I said yes, and that’s how it happened. Now, my impersonation of Chaplin in Manhandled, which I must say they cut out and now they can’t find it [emphasis mine] came about because someone had left a derby hat around the set and in between scenes I put it on my head and started wobbling around like Chaplin, picked up a stick and twirled it, and it amused Allan Dwan so much that he said, “We have got to put it in the picture because you are doing impersonation s of a Russian countess in the party scene, so why don’t you just go from that into the Chaplin?” and I said, “Fine,” and that’s when I first did the impersonation...which I might add, was far better than the one in Sunset Boulevard because I looked more like Chaplin, my face was rounder and in those days I had puppy fat. It wasn’t an elongated face as it is now. I showed a photograph of my impersonation to Chaplin once at a dinner party, and he thought it was himself! He said, “Who is that man with me?”... Horbal’s interview with Swanson, I note with sadness, took place in 1964. Evidently it has been a long, long while since anyone saw Swanson’s first Chaplin impersonation, and it may never be seen again. Like so many artists, Dwan has suffered from having his silent films disappear, or survive in a mangled form. As appreciation for him grows, so should the efforts to preserve his work. 125
LAWS OF HOSPITALITY: STAGE STRUCK (1925) Maxime Renaudin
Translated by Bill Krohn
Filming of Stage Struck (1925) “Allan and I worked together like Mutt and Jeff one day, like Maggie and Jiggs the next, but we loved every second of it. If anything we needed didn't exist, Allan invented it. He was a tinkerer, a fixer, a doer.” — Gloria Swanson1 “We did a lot for Paramount from Manhattan to New Martinsville, in black-‐and-‐white and color. Let's drink to us, Gloria.” — Allan Dwan2 ***
Gloria Swanson’s own words about the filming of Stage Struck may give an idea of the feelings radiating from this little human comedy. We therefore have to think about the people of New Martinsville meeting with their shining and eccentric visitors through a long impromptu joke, a wild party where the Marquis de la Falaise is talking dirty French, Ford Sterling is barking over the kids on the wharf, and Gloria Swanson is engaged in a three-‐ legged race with Margie Evans.3 A casual, enchanted picnic where nothing has to be shown but the pleasure of simply being together. That’s what Stage Struck is all about, plain feelings straightforwardly offered and received, in an innocent gesture where costumes are no concealment and lightness is an art of living. I cannot be anything but wildly ecstatic when enjoying the dynamics of the Fairbanks series,4 but I shall admit here that I would give any and all Fairbanks for Stage Struck or Manhandled (1924). Beyond the obvious and unequaled ability to design a space where the geometry of the movements is at one with the thoughts, the Swanson series5 sheds light on a more crucial aspect of Dwan's cinema: his quiet quest for intimacy, through these rare instants when the conduct of the drama seems to be interrupted and the screen may give a sense of the pulse of the world. In his later works Dwan will have to fight hard against the odds of worthless screenplays, performers or producers to find a way to these priceless, peaceful moments, as when—to choose only one among dozens, but one which I cherish above all—Elaine Stewart curls herself around Ron Randell to warm up his dead body in Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961). In making Stage Struck, Dwan, free as a shooting-‐bird, would offer up a serene and harmonious flow with no intention but to frame the ordinary joys of an ordinary girl.
The whole scene where Jenny and Orme end up shelling peas together thrills me. The comings and goings between the kitchen and the dining room are elaborated in the most efficient and simple way (though the striking close-‐up of Swanson's face peeping through the serving hatch is arguably an unfortunate choice that disrupts the balance of the scene)
as if for the sole purpose of introducing the subsequent non-event, when the whirl of half-‐ lies vanishes into the knowing tenderness of a blissful moment. Orme’s gentle gesture when he takes a seat to join Jenny in the shelling party is striking for its surprising freshness and spontaneity. The lovely minute that follows is disarmingly simple, fading out in a murmur of awkward smiles and artless confidences without any superfluous coda. No room here to build up an effect—it’s as if Dwan imprinted his signature through the absence of any commentary over what is shown. And it's not a piece of Americana, nor a cheap domestic satire; it's just Orme and Jenny being there together, with no before or after. We did not have to wait for the Nouvelle Vague to film a young couple talking about love and death in a kitchen as if they were in their home.
The refusal of spectacle does not lie only in the choice of the subject matter (as in this kitchen scene); it is embedded in a particular way of seeing – and showing. As an example, if Dwan planned the shooting schedule to coincide with the Water Queen’s arrival in town, it’s remarkable to see how he ignored the photogenic potential of such a production value beyond its dramatic function. Mostly seen in the background—as in the irresistible six-‐ legged walk along the bank (“Among actresses, two is good morning—but three is good night!”), where it marvelously fills the frame behind the trees—the boat is never shown off or played like an ace in the hole. Dwan digested it, as he digests them all. While the people of New Martinsville may have thought that they were welcoming this all-‐star cast in their small river town, there was obviously only one host for the film-‐party, Allan Dwan. Looking after everything—from the water-‐boat to Gloria Swanson—he conscientiously avoids any magnifying or distorting effect that would pervert the purity of the flow. When Swanson claims that “Allan had found some mysterious way of unleashing her,” she marks the difference between capture/rapture and rape. Dwan knew how to put everything in front of his camera in a receptive mood, through shared availability in a territory of trust, with Dwan as Hospitaller-‐in-‐Chief. The precision and the economy of the representation would aim to reproduce the simplest gestures while illuminating their universal significance.
Among all Dwan films, Stage Struck is one of those that marry in the most delicate way the functional paradigm (the grammar of film) and the cosmic one (when a tear may echo the whole universe). If Stage Struck is one the most exciting silents ever made, if Dwan may be the greatest among the classic filmmakers, that’s because he has always known—from the very beginning—that he was nothing compared to the machine he had helped invent, and the world he used it to recreate. His major virtues as a filmmaker are his modesty and his generosity. The recompense for such rare virtues had to be enjoyed in the relative anonymity of a genius who did not bear the stigmata of his own self-‐satisfaction. 1 Gloria Swanson, Swanson on Swanson (Feltham: Hamlyn, 1981), 274-‐276. 2 Ibid. 3 As reported at that time by the local newspaper. Wetzel Democrat, August 20/27 1925,
West Virginia Archives and History (www.wvculture.org/history/entertainment/stagestruck01.html). 4 Ten films with Dwan from The Good Bad Man (1916) to The Iron Mask (1929) 5 Height films with Dwan from Zaza (1923) to What a Widow! (1930)
THE IRON MASK (1929): GONE THE SILENT FACES
Translated by David Phelps
"Once upon a time, and that time was not so very long ago, when little boys dreamed of grand heroes who dared and dueled, who fought and won, who leaped and flew through the air, and who always, but always, carried the day, their dreams came true in the form of Douglas Fairbanks." — Jeanine Basinger1 The Iron Mask still carries the force of a deeply-‐felt farewell: it is through Douglas Fairbanks, the great silent star, that the film waves off an era. Hero of heroes, himself an axiom of all the hypnotic energy, the action-‐packed adventures, of the golden days of the silent film. It's 1929, the year of the crash, but also, as it's been said, the first year in Hollywood history in which the production of sound films would surpass that of silents. A year in which a film like The Iron Mask could, then, arise as a feigned construction of nostalgia. For the first time, Fairbanks can be heard here, in a protracted monologue that's delivered in place of the prologue's usual intertitles. For the first time, a hero played by a star will die at the end—joining his trio of companions in the greater adventures beyond. And for the first time, instead of "THE END," we are offered "THE BEGINNING," in The Iron Mask's final shot.
Few actors were like Fairbanks, the kind of figure to whom mise-‐en-‐scène had to be subordinated. Dwan knew this, knew that the man who was Zorro, who was Robin Hood, who was The Thief of Baghdad, the Black Pirate, and in his youth a modern-‐day D'Artagnan (Dwan's A Modern Musketeer, 1917), could assume a superior presence; knew the expressive power of his body through to his fingertips; and knew that he couldn't be burdened with speaking out-‐loud, a challenge for another exercise than this one. Silent film would be a corollary to pantomime as much in its development as in its demise. The accentuated expressions of bodies and faces might be read in an instant, while the face becomes a topography of endless events. The hero's face, ever-‐shifting under the power of the close-‐up, offers an introduction—the most empathetic connection to the audience, as well as the key for the actor to become a star. So the emergence of the Star System would usher in an era rich in holy auras and newly-‐appointed Gods. The extraordinary new invention would offer entertainment, but still be serious enough that it wouldn't lack art; would be a form of business, but one affecting enough to recall what extraordinary circumstances it takes to produce a legend. With and without artistry, the golden years would transpire under the triumph of spectacle. Dwan's constant knack is to emphasize storytelling, to memorialize larger than life odysseys carried out by perfect heroes, to dazzle the collective imagination with tales of adventure and romance that could only happen in a movie theater (and whose corresponding genres today are something else altogether). Throughout the long decades of this Dwanian cinema, ever-‐grounded in archetypal structures, the heroic films offer the most repeated highlights of his style. Literary adaptations of popular picturesque novels; stagings in accordance with the standards of another era; clichés that proliferate according to narrative convention (Boy Meets Girl/Happy Endings); the comic styling of characters and exaggerated, slapstick gestures generate together the most baroque of comedies; all made the more complex by symbolic elements (like the Queen's badge in The Three Musketeers or the medallion split in two in The Iron Mask) to enhance the narrative. And yet, if Douglas Fairbanks’ salient athleticism is what makes him so immediately suitable for the part of the hero, what keeps Dwan’s, ever in the service of the star-‐system, from the merest rejoinder to the adolescent impulses of an audience ravenous for idols ? In recognizing the nature of his stories, Dwan liberates them. Well-‐worn stories become pliant, primary material for creating new structures, structures novel and precise, working at a voracious speed of innovation to plot out new forms for old figures—all perpetuated by this newest medium of cinema. Take The Iron Mask, in which, through D’Artagnan’s death, Fairbanks bids farewell both to his art and that of a dying era. A very deliberate parallel, since in the end of the Musketeer trilogy, the compulsory donning of the mask implies the dissolution of both the identity and power of Louis XIV (the self-‐proclaimed Sun King by 131
divine right) when he is kidnapped and replaced on the throne by his twin brother. Likewise, attenuating the emphasis on the face in the sound era would allow greater opportunity for the power of vocal expression. The opening speech aside, The Iron Mask is a silent film although, in 1952, there would come an updated version of the film that, besides presenting a different montage, would replace the intertitles by Fairbanks Jr.’s narration. And ultimately, what one hears in his voice is less an epilogue than an epitaph: "And so passed a brave and glorious man—in honor. Only think, and we live again. We live forever! For with us, now as ever, it's all for one, and one for all!" Dumas’ story would be adapted by Dwan at least five times: Richelieu (1914), A Modern Musketeer (1917), The Iron Mask (1929), While Paris Sleeps (1932), and The Three Musketeers (1939). And if, among these films, the first is considered lost, the last, now in sound and without Fairbanks, would turn out to be a disastrous exercise of excess, a case study in the instantaneous overdose of sound and music generated by the talkies. The figure of Fairbanks can be seen as an emblem of those first decades of adventure films, that intimately physical genre made to glorify the exploits of the hero, always a man. The dominance of the masculine ideal, superior in physical prowess and capabilities, courageously confronting the most amazing battles and adventures, makes for the most fetishistic genre of its era: no other shows bodies in quite the same way. In this fantastical, compartmentalized genre, fixated on overly-‐masculine features (that after its era would probably please only the MacMahonians), the same clichés are endlessly evoked: it is the hero who wins, the villain who gets what he deserves, and are women who are placed in secondary positions, in which their love tends to be the reward for the exertions of the hero’s quest. Stereotypes copy stereotypes, and if there is an undoubtedly conservative spirit haunting these repetitive motions of the genre, should we affirm Dwan as a conservative filmmaker? By no means. We are in the presence of a cinema of collisions, capable of accommodating all sorts of particularities that movies like The Iron Mask and The Three Musketeers can admit. Almost as a series of exceptions. Dwan's art— everything that is to be recalled for a just appraisal of his legacy both today and tomorrow—can be seen to great distinction in other of his films. Films that highlight feminine force, in stories presided over by women or female characters memorable of unparalleled cunning: films like Josette (1939), but above all in the precursory examples of Woman They Almost Lynched (1953) and Slightly Scarlet (1956). With his massive body of pioneering work (around 400 titles), with Dwan one both asks and answers the question of what cinema should be. 1 Jeanine Basinger, Silent Stars (Wesleyan UP: Hanover, 2000), 99.
Separate But Equal #1: Tide of Empire (1929) Initial Impressions from an Unsung Allan Dwan Picture
OSCILLATIONS: MAN TO MAN (1930)
Ted Fendt Aside from the prologue to The Iron Mask (1929) and a lost sound short that was never publicly released, Man to Man (1930) is Allan Dwan’s earliest foray into the sound era. It is fascinating to see a filmmaker whose late silent works sometimes feel like sound pictures— especially parts of The Iron Mask—adapt to the new technology. In many ways this adaptation is not an adaptation at all. That is, he shoots many scenes from fairly wide angles and even cuts between rooms in a manner reminiscent of the editing in silent films. Dwan seems to immediately have been aware of the tendency sound has—especially location sound—to concretize the images. I’m tempted to use admittedly loaded words like “realism” and “documentary” to describe much of Man to Man: the tracking shots through town and at the train station; the casual banter between two black characters in a bank; or the evocative details of small town life in the south, especially the picnic scene with its band playing “Dixie” and girls getting their feet wet in a shallow pond—and yet what I find most interesting about this film are the ways it undercuts and explodes the sense of “realist” or “documentary” qualities we may find in it, disrupting our perception and assumptions about what we are seeing on screen. The film constantly shifts back and forth between these two tendencies, a “realist” aesthetic on the one hand, and a complete recognition and unveiling of the artifices of cinema on the other. This effect is epitomized for me in the opening sequence. Images of a college track and field event lead into runners jumping over hurdles. A tall blond boy is in the lead. He crosses the finish line first and wins, the crowd roars. Suddenly, the film cuts to a visibly softer, slightly out of focus shot. As we might begin to wonder if this is a technical mistake, the camera begins to track backwards. Not the camera that recorded the images we have been watching, but another camera that reveals the images on screen to be images within the film—creating an image within the image. The track and field event is not, in fact, ‘the movie,’ but 16mm newsreel footage a roomful of frat boys are watching in their frat house. The camera continues tracking back to reveal the screen onto which the images are being projected and the people watching. Someone calls for the lights to be turned on and the demasking of the illusion is complete. Within the space of one shot, we move from fiction to nonfiction to fiction, or is it all fiction? Or nonfiction? Any sense of comfortable certainty we had at the beginning of the film has been called into question. We’re watching a movie and Allan Dwan doesn’t want us to forget it.
The play with our sense of what we are seeing occurs throughout the film and does not only involve ambiguous perspective. Later at a train station, in the middle of a shot that seems straight out of a documentary, even a Luière film, two blond girls in white dresses skip arm in arm through the frame. They are not characters in the film and their presence only serves to call attention to the fact that what we are watching has been staged.
From his early silent works to his late period (his last film, Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961), contains a sequence oddly similar to the opening of Man to Man), Allan Dwan explored the formal properties of cinema. For this engineer-‐filmmaker, each new development—tracking shots (some claim his invention), sound, color, location shooting— presented new possibilities, new problems to solve and new ways to explore one of his favorite properties: cinematic perspective. This is a filmmaker who understands and intimately knows the codes of the cinema—he helped invent them—and who willingly transgresses them time and again throughout his films. 144
Separate But Equal #2: Chances (1931) Initial Impressions from an Unsung Allan Dwan Picture
Separate But Equal #3: Black Sheep (1935) Initial Impressions from an Unsung Allan Dwan Picture
LAWS OF ATTRACTION: HIGH TENSION (1936)
Maxime Renaudin Translated by Bill Krohn
“Well, they were assigned to me, but I still worked on the scripts—always with two things in mind—budget and speed, tempo. I'd eliminate stuff that was extraneous and speed up stuff that was written slowly. A writer stretches a story out, and you've got to fix it up. Make it move. Take a scene of two people sitting in a room and try to figure out how you can get them walking down the street and maybe bumping into a person now and then or getting separated as people go between them—anything to break it up. Give it a sense of motion. That's what you do with any script you get ahold of. Because we write with the camera, not with a pencil or pen and we've got to remember that and not get trapped by the fellow who writes with words.” — Allan Dwan1 *** Between 1935 and 1937, Allan Dwan directed nine movies at Fox with Sol Wurtzel as producer. Unpretentious programmers with low budgets and low-‐key performers, those anonymous scripts—cheap melodramas or light comedies—had no other purpose than to be easy-‐packed entertainers. And that’s what they are, since Dwan was not the kind of director to make his way by subverting an assignment. But they all demonstrate his ability 155
to transform the most common material in a superb directorial manifesto through a complete control of the space. As Myron Meisel has written (about Human Cargo), “this impressive lesson in the craft of effective storytelling in 66 minutes of total directorial control would be an exemplary object of study in any filmmaking class.”2 High Tension may be, along with Human Cargo, one of the finest examples of such effort, where each directorial gesture seems to be inspired by and enacted through the Newton's laws of motion. First law: An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. Why on earth is Steve Rearden (Brian Donlevy) entering his home base office in San Francisco on a bicycle? It doesn't matter; he just does it. The motion isn't exactly uniform here (other laws than the 1st one are also operating), but it doesn't matter either; what matters is the motion. Dwan's camera catches Donlevy in motion and won't let him stop until there is nowhere to go. Using the fastest way to get from the entrance to the desk, Dwan obviously brings some tempo to the script, and gives us an idea of the spirit of his main character—more effectively than any page of the serial adventures of The Son of Neptune, for which his character serves as inspiration... Donlevy will never get any rest until the end credits. Godard would remember the principle when filming Jean-‐Claude Brialy cycling around the living-‐room while talking with Anna Karina.
Second law: The acceleration of a body is parallel and directly proportional to the net force acting on the body, is in the direction of the net force, and is inversely proportional to the mass of the body. Here comes the free-‐for-‐all fight. But, whatever his debt to slapstick art, Dwan doesn’t spend much time on the fat man/skinny man routine and is not particularly at ease with barrack-‐style comedy; so he wraps up the confrontation with Ward Bond in the bar and prefers to dwell on the song at the piano. But the morning-‐after scene, where Steve Rearden and Eddy Mitchell (Norman Foster) actually meet in the latter’s apartment for the first time, exemplifies Dwan’s intention to seize any opportunity to give a sense of 156
motion. For about five minutes, the two guys won't stay unoccupied for long: getting dressed, preparing a wakeup cocktail, making the bed, filling the bathtub, making coffee... Dwan keeps them constantly busy talking and moving around the small flat, from the bathroom to the kitchen. Moreover, the talking is not exactly about petty things, and the gap between the level of the discourse and the simplicity of the ordinary gestures intensifies the overall effect. The same approach is used in the Honolulu office when Donlevy joins the local team. In passing, Dwan felt the need to show a map where is traced the way from San Francisco to the Honolulu base—outside any logical narrative need, and as he does frequently3 as if to mark his permanent topographic obsession, even beyond the geometries of single frames or scenes.
Third law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Donlevy and Joe Sawyer (as usual, the mug here) know the score when they chase each other around the piano and suddenly have the same bright idea to use it as a buffer-‐weapon. This gag, without any prelude or ending, is as incongruous as it is spontaneous, and brings a rectilinear formal energy into the square room, the two men faced off as if in a boxing ring, with a couple of very effective shots along the diagonal that virtually marks the corners through the two opposite doors into the hallway and the bedroom. “For me, it's mathematics. There is nothing more beautiful than mathematical perfection”, Dwan told Bogdanovich, and there isn't much to add to that. 1 Peter Bogdanovich, The Last Pioneer (New York: Praeger, 1971), 102. 2 Myron Meisel, “Allan Dwan,” American Directors, Volume 1, ed. Jean-‐Pierre Coursodon and Pierre Sauvage (New York: McGraw-‐Hill, 1983), 112 3 See Bill Krohn, "The Cliff and the Flume," Senses of Cinema 28 (2003), http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/feature-‐articles/cliff_and_flume/. 157
TWO DWANS IN ONE: ONE MILE FROM HEAVEN (1937)
Ted Fendt Through its two connected but separate stories, One Mile from Heaven explores Dwan’s oft-‐ studied theme of doubles and his strategy of reconciling/collapsing different points of view, intricately and expertly weaving these together within the film’s narrative and formal structure. Lucy Walker (Claire Trevor), known to her friends as “Tex,” an up-‐and-‐coming reporter, replaces her male predecessor in the pressroom at the town courthouse. After beating her three male colleagues in poker and taking all their money, one of them sends her uptown on a false lead to get back at her. In an all black neighborhood—something of a slightly more suburban Harlem named “Maple Heights”—she comes across—amidst a group of children tap dancing under the guidance of Bill Robinson—little, lone white girl, Sonny Jackson. Quickly discovering that the girl is being raised by a black woman, Flora Jackson (Fredi Washington), who claims to be the girl’s mother, Lucy has her first big story and suddenly the press (as represented by the men she beat at poker) is reporting on and intruding upon these people’s lives. Soon, a white woman, Barbara, steps forward to claim Sonny as her own. The film consists of two main stories being recounted simultaneously—Lucy and Flora’s— but a triple frame: the framework of the principle story of the child, Flora/Sonny/Barbara’s; Lucy’s perspective, as she looks in on Flora/Sonny/Barbara’s story, and eventually intrudes into it; and, finally, Dwan and the film’s own frame onto the action, as he looks onto Lucy looking onto Flora and the others. There is even a parallel between Dwan and Lucy insofar as her job involves her telling other people’s stories for money. By stressing her status as an outsider within the black community, Dwan highlights his own position as a filmmaker, providing some critical distance to consider not just Lucy but himself as well. Flora’s intimate, private world is not to intended to be shared or made public, yet it is, anyway, through the mass media, for the sake of Lucy’s career and her paper’s profit motive, just as it is for the studio, 20th Century Fox. It is the kind of sensational, lurid subject matter many a pre-‐code was based around. One can imagine how, in the hands of another filmmaker, the scandalous nature of Flora’s scandalous claim that she’s Sonny’s mother might be played up for this inherently sensational value. Dwan, instead, emphasizes Lucy’s perspective as an outsider-‐looking-‐in in such a way as to distance himself from the material and and its potentially sensationalistic qualities. Rather than being a film about a black woman raising a white girl, the film is about a reporter who finds a great, but intrusive, story and the problems that can cause the involved parties. By the film’s end, having seen the emotional duress Flora, Barbara and Sonny have had to go 158
through, Lucy loses her taste for the kind of sensational journalism that sells papers and quits to go write a gossip column for the Cattleman’s Weekly Bugle. A decision, incidentally, not unlike Dwan’s own preference for fable-‐esque tales (Robin Hood (1922), The Iron Mask (1929)) or stories distanced from contemporary reality (Sweethearts on Parade (1953), Calendar Girl (1947), Frontier Marshall (1939), Tennessee’s Partner (1955)). Even one of his World War II films, Abroad with Two Yanks (1944), is set in the faraway, action-‐less theater of Australia. Dwan’s major theme of doubles—explored in the Flora Jackson story—emerges clearly in the first scene in Maple Heights with Bill Robinson’s character. He is introduced with brilliant panache: a lateral tracking shot of a pair of feet tap dancing down the street, surrounded by the feet of neighborhood kids who are first presented in a series of dynamic cutaways. The tracking camera stops in front of an ice cream sign and pulls back as the man whose feet we’ve been watching tells the kids to go get ice cream. This is the character of Officer Joe, dressed in plainclothes.
Soon, an angry parent is breaking up the kids and Officer Joe’s fun. While the man complains, the ice cream man begins handing Joe articles of clothing that Joe puts on in front of us—and that transform him into a uniformed officer right before our eyes. Officer Joe is both a man of law and order—though frequently occupied with Flora Jackson and her daughter, he mixes romance with professional duty—as well as tap-‐dancing entertainer (the plot even comes to a halt for several minutes towards the end to show his entire performance at a policemen’s ball) who teaches the kids how to dance to the ire of some parents.
Officer Joe’s plainclothes/uniformed sides and the onscreen change of costume has the additional effect of stressing his nature as a film character, providing an added layer of distance from the material. While this is a story set in the present and even about the dangers of recounting stories too close to the present, Dwan nonetheless, stresses its story- ness. Whether set in the past or present, his films are stories. A Modern Musketeer is set in the contemporary present of 1917 but Douglas Fairbanks’ fantastical character can still literally climb to the top of a church steeple and perform other unbelievable feats. Similarly, Officer Joe can mesmerize an entire neighborhood of kids and get them all dancing as in a musical only to, seconds later, put on a coat and hat in order to become an officer of the law.
It is only after this flashy introduction of a doubled personality that Dwan introduces Flora and Barbara: the two mothers who together provide the crux of the film’s main problem. Implicit in the press and public’s disbelief is the fact that the difference in skin color means that Flora cannot possibly be the child’s mother. Maternity is strictly biological in the world of this film. But Dwan, as he often is (see The Half-Breed (1916) or Sailor’s Lady (1940)), is more forward-‐thinking than his époque and the dilemma will be resolved, after intervention from the court, when Barbara invites Flora to move in with her and her husband to raise the daughter jointly. Resolution, then, takes place the moment when the two characters mutually recognize and accept their doubled nature, when they recognize each other as both being legitimate mothers. The resolution of the film is, then, very complex on a formal level, for resolution occurs not only when the points of view are collapsed—Lucy gains empathy for Flora, sees the wrong of her way, leaves the paper to give up that kind of writing—but also when the mothers recognize each other—which is to say their own doubled role—and accept that they can both be Sonny’s mother. Dwan takes all of this in and unites a community with one of his finest camera movements: a simple pan, much like one he will later execute in Calendar Girl to similar effect. Sonny asks Officer Joe to dance for them and prior to cutting to the final shot of Officer Joe, Dwan places his camera to assume Officer Joe’s perspective, in order to fill the screen with what feels like a candid portrait of the party, with all the actors looking directly at the camera/Officer Joe, from left to right, reminding us that this, once again, (just) a story:
ALLAN DWAN & SHIRLEY TEMPLE: THE MAN AND THE MACHINE
Heidi (1937) Between 1937 and 1940, Allan Dwan made three kids films with little Shirley Temple— then at the peak of international glory—that should be shown in every film school as much for their exemplary classicism as for the inimitable way in which, with remarkable ingenuity and humility, they accommodate themselves to a fairly poor script or situation in order to put them in the service of the purity and fluidity of the story. Shirley Temple, the first Hollywood child star, born in 1938, had just turned ten and had already spent most of her life in showbusiness. She had behind her, from her screen debut, close to forty films. Her success in the United States and abroad was considerable. If Daryl Zanuck, the major producer at 20th Century Fox, was looking to put her in Heidi, it was because he was very aware that the actress, a veritable godsend for the studio, was at a turning point in her career: continuing to have her take on baby roles was becoming problematic; henceforth her image in movies to had to accompany her physical growth. Zanuck was dreaming of a more historical and narrative environment for her and Johanna
Spyri’s very famous Swiss-‐German novel offered him the ideal foundation. To manage this delicate turning point whose outcome was uncertain, he called upon director Dwan, an ex-‐ lighting engineer who had filmed the biggest silent stars but had found himself stuck shooting B pictures since the coming of the talkies. Dwan seized this opportunity to finally move up to a bigger production, even if Shirley Temple, in her autobiography, remembers a director initially bored with the idea of making a movie with a child. Two showbiz professionals, two kinds of animals (the discreet dinosaur and the loud little monkey) found themselves on either side of the camera and, from there, didn’t know who was going to lead the other. Watching the films, there appears a clear difference in the nature of what is told to us— distracting but insignificant little yarns that disappear after the screening—and what is shown to us—very dizzying and exciting material. By putting his humble artisan’s talent in the service of Shirley Temple, a pure product of the Hollywood spectacle, Dwan ends up addressing nothing more than the star system itself and the off-‐centering, the disequilibrium that is its root. The filmmaker places his camera at a child’s height and organizes his entire story around a knee-‐high kid with dimpled cheeks who acts, sings and dances with a confusing naturalness. She literally lives at the center of a world in which adults are relegated to the periphery. What, then, do these three films recount? Roughly the same thing. In Heidi (1937), a little orphan in the city is conducted by her aunt to her grandfather’s, in the heights of an idyllic Alpine village in the southern Black Forest. Heidi commits herself to the coy little cottage and her good humor brings the joy of life back to the crabby and asocial old man, who returns to be among the villagers after a twenty year long solitude. But the corrupt aunt returns to steal the child in order to put her in a bourgeois house in the city next to a little, invalid girl and under the watch of a mean-‐tempered old lady. The grandfather goes off in search of her and only finds her at the end of the film. In Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), Temple again plays an orphan that a somewhat crooked uncle, her guardian, has trained in singing and acting. He enters her in a radio competition hosted by a cereal brand that is looking for the voice of a little Miss America. She causes sparks to fly but a mistake leads to her leaving the building before the people in charge can get their hands on her. Her uncle, disappointed, gets rid of her at the home of her aunt, a stiff-‐collared matron who lives on a farm outside the city. Now, the aunt’s neighbor happens to be the young publicist who recognizes the new arrival’s voice to have been the best voice in the contest. He sets up a recording studio in his house in order to get the child to sing without the knowledge of her aunt, who ends up recognizing her talent.
Finally, in Young People (1940), a comedian couple takes in an abandoned baby and raises her in the world of music halls. A few years later, wishing to give her a “good” and stable home, they retire to a New England farm. But the local population, stuck in their ways, frowns upon this family of artists and soon their league of decency (under the direction a vile patroness) manages with relentless determination to chase them from their land. A storm balances out the situation: the acrobat father saves a group of children surprised by the storm and wins the locals’ trust. The three films are sprinkled with musical numbers that are inserted naturally into the last two but pass through the first one by way of dreams. Each time, the films stage the departure of a little girl outside of the city and her arrival in a big “doll’s house” (a cottage or farm), a life-‐size playground wound in a space outside of time (the Alpine village, the countryside). These idyllic sets, little bubbles of peace sheltered from the modern world, are based on a fairytale (or refuge) aesthetic where the child, a nomad without attachments, disembarks as if in a fantastical world she chooses as her home—stable, fixed in eternity—that was only waiting for her eyes to reveal its enchanting forms and many amusements. Each time, the Temple-‐creature's transformation into spectacle is opposed by grotesque and archaic types of people (the old ladies and other old bags) and her accomplishment delayed by the twists and turns of an often poorly written story (with the exception of Young People, whose extraordinary and particularly twisting story demystifies the do-‐goodism of earthly paradises). But show business happens to be the essence of this skilled little being built for the stage; it’s her beating heart, whose rhythm marries the jazz that rings out during her musical hall numbers. And what her opposition to the matrons and old ladies, those paragons of virtue, says is that this little kid’s body—which already pokes fun at the adults—is secretly the carrier, in dance, in her exhibition to people’s eyes, in the desire for herself she arouses by appearing onstage, of a truly scandalous (because sensual) seduction that comes from an adhesion to the philosophy of show business. Still more troubling, it should be mentioned, is that in all three of these roles, Shirley Temple’s character has no ancestors. Her parents don’t exist; she is born of no adult who lives before our eyes on the screen. She always lands in a foster home and falls, as if from the stork’s beak, into the hands of adoptive parents. In this way the spectator is easily moved—what is more naturally moving than an orphan?—but this constant tells us something about the nature of a not entirely human character. If her talent is without genealogy it is because it is a manifestation of show business itself, of the spirit of showbiz, a cross between music hall and carnival show. Yes, Shirley Temple is a monster on display. And it is, first of all, her body that is the show, a body that we can’t put in any of the categories of Hollywood heroism, or even the categories studio films usually stick children. 166
A very small body, plunged in the middle of adult bodies but just as capable as them, and often even better. This tiny creature shaken by the staccato of the song In Our Little Wooden Shoes in Heidi has to be seen: she has never looked so much like a robot. The ease with which, in the following two films, Temple does tap numbers ("Fifth Avenue" in Young People), indicates a supernatural form of automatism. The systematic return of her frank laughter, her smiles that seem to light up her face on command, her dimples that appear and disappear in a flash, her suddenly gushing tears, push the impression even further: what if Temple was a trained little animal or, even more disturbing, a machine made to touch the spectator? Shirley Temple, a cyborg? It’s a theory. One scene in Heidi proves particularly illuminating. While the heroine finds herself at her sick friend’s side, in the big bourgeois abode of Mayenfeld, an acrobat goes down the street with a barrel organ in his hands and a monkey on his shoulder. The monkey sneaks into the house and up next to the girls and brings chaos to the room, exchanging dance moves with little Heidi. At one moment, he is face to face with her, on a chair, and their two faces, during a shot-‐reverse shot, exchange a whole series of mirrored grimaces. There is something very explicitly specular in this scene, relating Shirley Temple’s moves to the monkeying of a circus animal. It is logical, then, that Shirley Temple—a force of nature, a mutant with powers of enchantment—occupies the center of Dwan’s mise en scène, as he tries hard to present as best as possible—meaning, clearly—the actress’s moves, to give them the necessary frame in a forest of pretexts the filmmaker skillfully passes off as necessities. Thus, these three films invite us very simply to admire the animal on stage that is Shirley Temple, but to admire her as the stakeholder in a story that must be told as best as possible, lucidly. If only one could be chosen, it would have to Young People, the most surprising: integrating explicit references to New Deal politics, it subtly confronts nomadism with sedentariness, and the morality of artists with that of brave people. The film denounces the archaic mores of shortsighted, insular communities, opposing them with the new blood of a youth impatient to take the reins, Temple being its purest incarnation. This all concludes with the sublime storm that stripes the black and white image with torrential rain and bends the magnificent sets under the wind’s assault. To conclude, if we had to locate a “force” in Dwan’s discreet art, it is perhaps in these three films that we should look: in fulfilling a command without the least bit of ceremony— showcase the star Shirley Temple in a new register of dramatic films—he also reveals, through the clarity of his pragmatism, what lies behind the command—the spectacular machine’s control over the body of its youngest representatives—thanks to that famous virtue of transparency that allowed the major classical filmmakers to film everything as if through a sheet of plated glass. 167
Separate But Equal #4: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938) Initial Impressions from an Unsung Allan Dwan Picture
AWKWARD AND PROUD OF IT: JOAN DAVIS IN JOSETTE (1938)
Michael Lieberman As a glistening object in the post-‐code hangover, Josette (1938) is something of an oddity, briskly moving along as a sharp comedy of errors, though set off balance by the rather unusual way the relationships between men and women are defined so boldly by money. For Brassard family patriarch David Sr. (William Collier Sr.), sons David Jr. (Don Ameche) and Pierre (Robert Young)—inheritors to a fish cannery dynasty in New Orleans—as well as every other man in JOSETTE, women are canvases on which to project their capitalist desires. When David Sr., demoted to retirement on a slender allowance, announces his engagement to Havana lounge singer Josette (Tala Birell), the junior Brassards, going as far as to willfully jeopardize their business, push their father to New York on false pretenses to mend fences with a solid business account, but make the mistake of assuming his soon-‐to-‐ be bride will remain in New Orleans. Instead, Josette departs with him, substituted by a layabout, wispy tobacco-‐clerk-‐turned-‐chanteuse (Simone Simon), who is convinced by nightclub owner Barney (Bert Lahr) to take on "Josette" as a brand name—Barney just can’t imagine the capital he would lose she were to perform under any other name. The only entry point in Josette to counter the continual possessiveness of women through lavish promises of a moneyed future and window-‐dressings of champagne and furs is May Morris (Joan Davis), a thankless assistant and witness to the velvet-‐gloved barbarism of the Brassards. She exists outside of their masculine economics not only because she's an awkward forethought, but also because she doesn't share any other characters' manager-‐ speak; often times talks to herself, as if she were existing in another film or era. When both Brassard brothers lose the attention of Josette, Pierre plays a practical joke on her, making her balance two champagne glasses on her hands, in the film's wittiest sight gag; "All things make me do the opposite" she states. When she asks for help from a helpless janitor, he replies "I can't touch the glasses, ma'am, I don't belong to the waiter's union."
May provides most of the film's anarchic moments, her energy complicating the champagne buzz and distorting the whimsy of the soft-‐focused musical numbers. Which is not to say that she's in control of her destiny: she's the least free character in the film, at the mercy of the hearts of men hardwired to their bank accounts, and dragged along as the collateral damage of their messy adventures. Her behavior, however, suggests a primal rejection, rather than complicity or celebration, of her environment: it suggests a desire to detach herself and move elsewhere, while still living in the shadows of women slightly more feminine and coddled.
About halfway through Josette, David Sr. states: "I'm a fool and most men in our family have been fools, about one thing in particular: women"—after, of course, he’s been swindled out of a large sum of money by his bride-‐to-‐be. For men in the cinema of the 30s, women can often be the instruments of the swindle, though in films like William Dieterle's rapturous Jewel Robbery (1932), their swindles are validated by the oppressively few choices they might make. There are no such fantasies in Josette, in which women can easily snake their way to the top of a narrative (i.e. economic) totem pole, at the cost of only tiny conventional breaks or slips of the masculine heart. The realism of Dwan's films, often times suggesting utopian possibilities around the edges of the frame, provides an anchor for a stories that, in other films, are all too often made fantastical; Dwan’s films accept the lumps of the present, but refusing to stop there, which is to say that Davis’ delightful May Morris is the epitome of the Allan Dwan conscience.
FRONTIER MARSHAL (1939): SHADOWS OF DISORDER
Frontier Marshall (1939) Allan Dwan never hid his taste for comedy. It’s not unjust to say that, something like Howard Hawks, he is a filmmaker who express himself in a manner that is essentially comic. We need, however, to understand that comedy according to Dwan is not a matter of jokes or lighter treatment of minor subjects (as Peter Bogdanovich suggests when dealing with the 50s films in his The Last Pioneer), but the formation of a certain perspective. It is a style that reaches its peak in the pre-‐code days (ironically, one of the filmmaker's least productive phases), a style which Dwan was one of the few to continue employing later. A good example of can be seen in his most famous postwar film, Silver Lode, whose script might at first suggest a B movie High Noon knock-‐off. Dwan's own point of view, however, skews things in another direction. The series of misfortunes, often exacerbated by bad timing, piling up over an wrongly accused man (John Payne), making even his most plausible explanations seem suspicious, suggest something much closer to a screwball comedy like Bringing Up Baby, which, after all, is also basically about a man whose perfect life is systematically destroyed by another person’s will. This comic perspective is very important to the way in which Frontier Marshal, even in just its name, delves into one of Dwan's recurring obsessions: the spatial boundary lines between civilization and disorder. As an adaptation of the legend of Wyatt Earp and the 182
Gunfight at OK Corral, it is an adaptation entirely à la Dwan, divested of the mythical weight so many subsequent versions would insist on. Here, the issue is not the foundation of a civilized community, as in My Darling Clementine (to name the other great version of this story). Far from it—the image we take with us from the movie is not of Earp dancing with Clementine, as in Ford, but of Tombstone’s streets—just another studio western town like many others—and the certainty that more dangers are always lurking in its shadows. Frontier Marshal suggests less the myth of civilizing the wilds than an anarchic comedy about the inevitable chaos of living in the frontier. In this sense, the Brazilian title is even better than the original: The Law of the Frontier. It is this law that Randolph Scott’s Wyatt Earp needs to sustain. Not the letter of the law, but the much muddier law of the frontier; it's a film about how to negotiate disorder. Frontier Marshal‘s Tombstone is one of the many symbolic, slippery spaces, a social no-‐ man's land, that Dwan's Westerns tend to focus in on. In one of his best incursions into the genre, The Woman They Almost Lynched, the main city is even called Bordertown and is indeed suspended in the middle—the geographical middle—of the civil war, neither part of the South nor the North. The same state of suspension underlies the action of repeated Dwan Westerns, from the final act of A Modern Musketeer (1917) to the city controlled by crime in The Restless Breed (1957). In those spaces, man is guided simply by his capacity to rapidly distinguish between right and wrong and to take a stand at every situation. It is a space in which man is tempted all the time—probably exemplified best by the main street of The Restless Breed and the way its comings and goings hasten the difficult decisions faced by its vengeful hero—a space in which one must always resist the easy way out. Part of the frontier’s appeal to Dwan is clearly that it is an empty space that needs to be filled out. It's left to man to decide what's to be done with it. One of the most tarnished frontiers of Dwan's cinema, the Tombstone of Frontier Marshal seems far from the open locations of his other westerns; here, we have a studio town overtaken by shadows and a space permeated by a sense of risk that violent gunmen that might attack Wyatt Earp at any time. No truce will be possible in Tombstone—evil might appear at any given moment. In Frontier Marshal, Doc Holiday is less the tragic figure familiar from other versions of the story than an extension of Earp who often loses himself in this very space. It’s curious to observe how the relationship between Earp and Doc here reverberates years later in Tennessee’s Partner, only there with the roles exchanged: the old player (John Payne) recognizing in the young gunfighter (Ronald Reagan) the man he once was as he tries to protect him. The first meeting between Doc and Earp is one of Dwan’s great scenes, covering ample dramatic terrain, from Doc’s heavily theatrical entrance, Randolph Scott’s simple turn of the neck in recognition, the moment the two men watch each other eye-‐to-‐ eye until a simple movement—Earp extending out his arm to stop another player from taking advantage of Doc’s moment of distraction—establishes a relationship of equality that will guide them for the remaining of the film. A familiar genre situation, but the 183
ponderous atmosphere is undercut by a few select gestures that offer this relationship its nobility, amidst the chaos that will determine the acts of these two men's acts from that point on. If Frontier Marshal seems notable as one of the director’s heavier films, it's largely thanks to Cesar Romero’s Holiday, whose presence is an eternal reminder of what might happen to those who fall to the temptations of the frontier. Randolph Scott's Earp is one of the rare figures of law at the center of a Dwan western. For a filmmaker with relative little control over his material, it is remarkable how his incursions into the frontier seem invariably centered around criminals (Angels in Exile), gamblers (Tennessee’s Partner), wrongly accused men (Silver Lode), vigilantes (Passion), women of ill repute (Cattle Queen of Montana)—always figures under suspicion. As their counterpart, Earp, the great sheriff of the American west, here becomes an agent-‐agitator. Thanks to Budd Boetticher’s films, we are used to considering Randolph Scott as laconic figure negotiating a series of dramatic situations, but in Frontier Marshal he shows himself to be unusually, even energetically animated. There is a self-‐destructive streak to Scott’s presence that suggests how easily this man might turn into another Doc Holiday. Dwan’s Earp has a Hawksian competence, but this is not enough for him: his acts always come accompanied by a self-‐awareness that betrays his excessive confidence. Scott, far from projecting a man who bears a long history behind him, as in Boetticher’s films, always seems ready to parlay his heroic acts into a show—as in the moment when he carries the drunk Indian, just after being appointed sheriff for the first time. His entrances bring to mind Dwan’s old hero Douglas Farbainks, but it is almost as if Earp were aware of Fairbanks and knew how a hero from a silent film should introduce himself to the audience. His interactions with Ben Carter’s interminable gunfighters betray this same tone of provocation, as if he were incapable of pausing in his constant search for the next piece of action. He seems less an agent of the law than a man constantly being tested by the shadows presiding over Tombstone. Dwan, however, endows Frontier Marshal with a levity that keeps the film far from any unnecessary fatalism. The manner in which multiple desires (of Earp, Doc, Jerry the hooker, etc.) keep colliding into one other complicates the action in a way that anticipates the structure of his marriage farces from a few years later. There is, especially, a lightness to the actors' gestures, and even a brute action like Earp's carrying the hooker out from the saloon gains, in the hands of Binnie Barnes and Scott, a screwball quality that doesn't so much undermine the weight of the action as reorient it: one more gesture in the great diorama of frontier anarchy. Romero’s Doc, especially, occasionally recalls Edmond Lowe’s player from Black Sheep, at first glance a much more elegant comedy about another kind of civility frontier (its suspended, Transatlantic space not so far away from Tombstone). In his interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Dwan makes two useful observations about Frontier Marshal: that the original idea did not involve the figure of Wyatt Earp, and that he 184
was satisfied with Tombstone's backlot set. Both claims point to how the film works the whole time to move away from the period’s mythology and towards a much more practical point of view about the decisions that frontier morality imposes on its characters. Move away from mythology—but not, we might note, from history, as the film opens by placing Tombstone in the context of the gold rush that in a way elucidates every action that happens afterwards. There are more references to mining in Dwan’s westerns than in the work of any other director of the genre, and there is no other economic activity that exposes the nebulous position of Western towns in quite such a way. Mining is, essentially, a predatory activity: the richness of the soil from one location redirected to another far away. From the moment that Frontier Marshal begins, establishing that Tombstone was founded in mining, it is clear that we are looking at a colony rather than some genuine part of the union—a provisory space that is there simply to be drained of its riches. Everything here operates to scale the figures from this larger story to a more minor one in which everyone has to negotiate the best way to live at the frontier. Dwan’s Earp could never be Wyatt Earp as he would be to Ford, Sturges or Kasdan (if the film resembles any other version of the character it is Jacques Tourneur's Wichita (1955)), but only another frontier marshal. It is Tombstone and not Earp that Frontier Marshal deals with, and if at first it seems strange that Dwan shows so much pride in such an ordinary studio town, it is in such banality that the film places so much of its power. There is an easiness to how the simple and the unadorned resonate beyond themselves in Dwan, and if his Tombstone is interchangeable with many other frontier towns, all for better: this notion only reinforces another that we are dealing with a standard site at the limits of order, and that the choices traced here echo those of so many other similar locations. If there is a film that Frontier Marshal most often brings to mind, it is not another of Dwan’s westerns, but Howard Hawks’ underrated last film, Rio Lobo (1970). Like Frontier Marshal, it is a film in which the good humor of the situations and the gestures don't quite undercut the weightier tone, and in which the filmmaker’s gaze frames a frontier city taken over by evil. Both films suggest the same feeling of constant danger, the same sense of enticement at every turn. Unlike its compatriots Rio Bravo and El Dorado, in Rio Lobo, John Wayne’s motives are petty and he seems all the more touching for feeling vulnerable, unlike most Hawksian heroes, to the amorality around him. As in Rio Lobo, one of the central visual motifs of Frontier Marshal is of its hero crossing the main street through an air of potential violence. One of the great virtues of Dwan's cinema is that, along with all these comings and goings, he explores his location so well that by the time the famous shootout is declared, it can be understood through Earp's knowledge of the space. The law of frontier becomes a question of geometry: the O.K. Corral is only recognizable by the name Earp and a plaque identifying the place; the myth from history is emptied out by this almost complete austerity. What is left of the faceoff is only the certainty that we are wrapped in shadows far from the metropolis. 185
SAILOR’S LADY (1940)
"The Navy's got them, the Navy's all they want, all they need. Gee, there's guns and boats and buddies and the sea." —Myrtle, Sailor’s Lady “It would seem the first division has not confined its energies to target practice." —Commander John, Sailor’s Lady “Diapers! Eight bells and a shipwreck. Is this a war game or a kiddie party?” —Captain Roscoe, Sailor’s Lady *** Like Gunga Din (1939) made the year before, Sailor’s Lady (1940) concerns a trio of soldiers whose fraternity is threatened by one member’s impending marriage. In Gunga Din, Cutter (Cary Grant) and MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) are upset by Ballantine’s (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) nuptial intentions. In Sailor’s Lady, Scrappy (Dana Andrews) and Goofer (Wally Vernon) are disturbed by Danny (Jon Hall)’s affections for Sally (Nancy Kelly) and her adopted child, an infant named Skipper (an ironic name as, by the end, the baby is as much Danny’s master as is the captain of his ship). In both movies, the two un-‐hitched men conspire to get their betrothed pal off-‐the hook, away from the alter, and free from women. 186
The similarity between the two films basically ends there. Gunga Din is a laugh-‐laden actioner set in British-‐controlled India at the turn of the century, and Sailor’s Lady is largely a portside screwball comedy with only the vaguest portents of a war-‐to-‐come (as it would, one year later). The most significant difference between Gunga Din and Sailor’s Lady, however, lies in their narrative resolution, which reflects a larger gender-‐social worldview. In the end, the misadventures of Gunga Din, reinforcing the masculine bond of the trio, fulfill a firm “bros before hoes” policy as Fairbanks chooses Grant and McLaglen over the lady. Stevens’ direction further validates their unity and strength through the film’s action sequences, as well as through compositions emphasizing their teamwork, shared effort, and communal victory. Conversely, Sailor’s Lady subverts male command and congregation. Dwan undermines the trio’s seafaring unity by disassociating them from their comfortable, shared space (their hallowed ship) and placing them in alien environments (unfurnished suburban homes and backyard neighborhood parties). While Dwan’s compositions may situate the trio within the same frame (frequently an equal-‐opportunity medium shot that doesn’t privilege or side with anyone in particular), their conflicting motivations and increasingly diverging fates destabilizes their stability as a whole. Furthermore, unlike Gunga Din’s heroes, the Sailor’s Lady trio rarely coordinates their efforts collectively. The most harmonious shot of them together, in fact, is when they are changing Skipper’s diapers. How many sailors does it take to change a diaper? When the sailors in question are Danny, Scrappy, and Goofer, it certainly takes a village. Sailor’s Lady is based on an original story by aviation pioneer-‐turned-‐Academy Award-‐ nominated Hollywood screenwriter Frank “Spig” Wead, whose romanticized portrayals of military heroes often feature men reluctant to admit their own vulnerability and the futility of their own efforts. While Sailor’s Lady exhibits the classic Wead tension between work and home, military and family, adventure and domesticity—two different kinds of duty, each with their own responsibilities, dangers, and rewards—Dwan handles it with a more comical slant than most Wead-‐penned films. After Danny and his Naval buddies turn a backyard party into an all-‐out brawl, Sally decides to marry Danny’s rival—a responsible, shore-‐duty sailor named Rodney (played by B-‐western regular Buster Crabbe). In a fit of jealousy, Danny and Rodney literally and symbolically destroy her home (trashing her house and therefore jeopardizing her custody of Skipper). In order to hide the baby from the authorities—and to exact poetic justice— Sally plants Skipper on board Danny’s ship during war games. When Skipper is discovered, it not only disrupts the on-‐board male hierarchy, but causes so much confusion that it brings the maneuvers to a standstill. Afterwards, Danny owns up to his responsibilities, marries Sally, and becomes a father to Skipper. 187
The men of Sailor’s Lady, at least, treat the drama as they would the last drop of beer in a keg. The women, however, feel the desperate gravity of the situation more heavily. Sally is another of Dwan’s liberal, modern, socially progressive heroines. Assuming custody for Skipper after her parents were killed in an accident, Sally has to face society’s scrutiny as a single parent at a time when conservative values prescribed a more traditional two-‐parent household. Courting both Danny and Rodney at the same time—something that would have been more acceptable on-‐ and off-‐screen for a man, but hardly for a lady—Sally is viewed with suspicion by her neighbors and the juvenile custody courts. Scrappy and Goofer might see Sally as merely scheming for a husband, but Dwan offers a much more sympathetic interpretation of her character. She doesn’t seem so interested in pursuing romance or ensnaring a husband as she is in trying to build a home, support a child, and find a life partner (unlike Danny, who is just out to have a good time, and whose first reaction when he enters her home is shock that there is no radio). Furthermore, if home is a potential prison, Sally is the only one confronts the uncertainty head-‐on (illustrated literally when she presses her check to the bars of the baby’s crib). The final sequence of Sailor’s Lady resolves the drama with a marriage ceremony. Danny and Sally are married, and all their friends (landlubber and sailor alike) are in attendance. Sailor’s Lady culminates not a choice of married vs. sea life, but of finding an idealized balance between home and work, house and ship, land and sea, man and woman, husband and wife, adult and child. As the last line of the film states, “A wedding, well, it’s about time.” Even sailors must grow up, and overgrown boys must some day mature. After sixty-‐five minutes, it’s time for Danny, Scrappy, and Goofer to do just that. And now that Danny has tied the knot, what does the future hold in store for the films’ other lovers, Goofer and Myrtle (Joan Davis), and Scrappy and Georgine (Katharine Aldridge)? With one musketeer gone, it seems likely that the other two will also soon be putting away their swords.
WELFARE STATE: YOUNG PEOPLE (1940)
Attention, ladies! Notice the young woman on the right is the only one smiling. “It takes money to retire,” Kit (Charlotte Greenwood) tells Joe (Jack Oakie), which is what the old showbiz couple tries to do: pick up with their adopted daughter Wendy (Shirley Temple) and move to the small town of Stonefield. The exchange is an instance of dialogue about personal in a film concerned with public finances. Personal-‐political encounters form the rule in Young People (1940): this trio of outsiders, the Ballantine family, shakes up the local politics of a town whose older, powerful residents are resistant to New Deal-‐style policies. Says one establishment fellow: “Seems that being progressive and spendin' other people's money amounts to the same thing.” But the Ballantines see it differently. As Joe mutters about a bridge in disrepair at one town meeting, “Cost less to repair the bridge than to build a new one.” Young people and their allies devote themselves to future 189
possibilities; those who've been around the block are hesitant to open their pocketbooks for such common endeavors. In many ways Young People is fraught with a kind of liberal paternalism which casts small town people as slightly funny and backwards. Those very townsfolk, meanwhile, do not trust such big city, “big government” perspectives. Youth and creativity entail flexible minds and openness to new ideas. So Kit, Joe, and Wendy are vaudeville veterans with young hearts. Upon arrival they first experience their hometown as quaint. Kit muses about “real, old-‐fashioned democracy” here, and he chuckles when a resident quips back: “Darn right it's old-‐fashioned; this ain't no New Deal country.” Young People binds up this division with a split in leisure tastes. For instance, when Wendy asks one older resident what people do for entertainment, he answers that they sit around and wait for someone to make a fool out of themselves. The Stonefield establishment's political backwardness mirrors its provincialism when it comes to passing the time. However, this agonism between liberal elites and provincial conservatives is not the whole story. No, there is also a subtler, fainter, but potentially more interesting logic at work. It concerns a particular logic of visualizing democracy and the commonweal. Young People stages a New Deal debate in a place we could compare with interest to the demographic dreamland of William Wellman's Magic Town (1947). The Ballantines themselves are well-‐traveled but experience cultural and geographical distinctions at a remove, i.e., through the filter of their vaudeville routines and jokey accents: performances of “south of the Mason-‐Dixon line … with my mammy,” a Hawaiian hula number, imitations of simple folks (“I'm just sayin' … mebbe”). Instead of illustrating a town's populace as the variegated assortment of ticked census boxes and opinion that Magic Town offers, Young People is a not-‐even-‐disguised attempt to reroute the affective bonds of Grandma and Grandpa in favor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's policies. Consequently the square old timers demonstrate, somewhere between portraiture and caricature, some long-‐standing right-‐wing American fears about a entertainment elite exerting a grip upon its public. This is mutation of the classical Marxist idea of a ruling class ideology, (coupled with deeper and older fears of ochlocracy) except here the “ruling class” is defined in terms of its cultural status and visibility rather than its ownership of the means of production. This is predicated upon a belief that cultural visibility translates directly into political power. It's Plato's Anti-‐Republic, run by the poets (who are all New Deal Democrats). Freethinking, free-‐spending entertainers Kit, Joe, and Wendy translate almost seamlessly into contemporary Volkish apprehensions toward an elite liberal Hollywood. And this progressive bastion threatens at any moment to turn out the “young people” (synecdoche for the populist mob) against the middle-‐class establishment.
Plaques and banners. How do you pictorialize a conquest through democracy? According to Young People it is a matter of appealing to an assembled public, like entertaining on a stage. Bad citizenship is like bad spectatorship. (“What's-‐a matter with these people? Have they got dyspepsia?”) The Debordian spectacle, and what would come to be known as the attention economy, are here presented in incipient form; 1940 seems about right. From the perspective of the town's established fogeys, there is enough to do: quaint coffee klatsches, vindictive people-‐ watching. But for the Ballantines the town presents nothing. Deciding upon what actually counts as something or nothing, when it comes to town leisure, is a cornerstone of the local political question. We might note that the Ballantines' solution is an immediated relation among people: no screens or electronic communications, really, but rather live theatre and face-‐to-‐face meetings (disruptions in the women's club or the soda shop, at town hall or in the sidewalk). Look at the performative nature of these entertainers-‐cum-‐citizens, who engage with their fellow community members as an audience. At the Ballantines' retirement performance, they entreat their audience to stand for their own applause. There is nothing disengaged about this way of inhabiting the stage. It's a matter of reaching a public and eliciting—engineering, even—a response. It's in the air and in the flesh, but not at the moving pictures. See below …
Implicit rhetoric of im-mediacy: On the screen, “nothing ever happens.” Right there, the political model at the heart of Young People's public forum attention economy, buried in a montage insert. There was also a 1933 short film (directed by Roy Mack) with the same title.
Young People piques one's curiosity—my curiosity, anyway—for the way society (or just an industry?) articulates an image of itself for itself. All the same: clear lines are drawn; so little is wasted here. From the film's opening, we have the simple economy which emblematizes Dwan's classicism. A crane shot cues us to a lot of information – a woman brings a basket through an alleyway to the back door of a vaudeville hall.
Opening crane shot .For the movie is also a bit of a backstage musical, which this opening shot telegraphs; chirpy music from the stage contrasts with the insistent desperation of the woman delivering this package (we don't know it's an infant Wendy yet). This prelude to the orphan's bequeathment to her deceased father's best friends is, in fact, staged like a microcosm of the political struggle at the film's core. There is a demand of expenditure: a woman knocks on the door, but is denied entry. Give your help, provide me access, take this baby—a question of necessity. Meanwhile meanness, in all connotations, threatens to prevent the Good. It's this gulf over which the Ballantines seek to bring Stonefield's tradition-‐oriented, unhelpful Republican constituency. They intend to do so by grabbing attention. The eponymous children's performance (“Young People”) is in fact a cheeky political protest for progress. It is also, from the perspective of Kit and Joe (who spurred the performance) patronizing. It is this patronization to which the conservative town adults respond, vocally and bodily forcing their children off the stage.
The crowd dissipates; Wendy loses a battle for attention. 193
The Ballantines are most comfortable working with attention as the means by which to convey their messages. However, it is only an example of the Ballantines' selflessness—when they attend efficiently and directly to the welfare of endangered children lost in a storm—that wins over the tiny black hearts of Stonefield's conservatives. It is not through a politics of attention but rather the recognition by the conservatives of a just, and unpublicized, act which finally forms a bond between the previously competing political factions of Stonefield. This is all implicit in Young People; it is not openly thematized. Only a bit of analysis will draw out this submerged commentary and counter-‐commentary the narrative contains about what exactly might unify an American populace around New Deal policies. (The suggestion is that spectacle alone is insufficient.) Simple, frontally framed images in Dwan often contain a fascinating amount of graphic play or thematic resonance. At the close of Young People, Dwan includes crowd reaction shots during the Ballantines' triumphal performance.
Images of a citizen audience. It's interesting that, in these brief reaction shots, resistant, unimpressed faces remain. The woman on the lower left hand of the frame in the above left; hesitant faces throughout the background. Even in the crowning moment of this bonbon political fantasy, the crowd is directed to include impressions of dissent. That is, an “image” of the democratic polity is impossible without a deep-‐seated and uncooperative dissent—even a conservative one. It's a current against the stream; it's a single thin crack in the bell. Like so much produced from America, one may interpret this as either hope or doom. 194
HORSE SENSE: TRAIL OF THE VIGILANTES (1940)
Maximilian Le Cain
“I see it, but I don’t believe it!” Cowpuncher Meadow’s (Andy Divine) reaction to the physically elastic, racially fluid town eccentric Bolo (Mischa Auer) displaying some hair-‐ raising Cossack style trick riding could double as the creative motto behind Trail of the Vigilantes. This breezy, gracefully frenetic, and altogether delicious western is a circus of shifting roles. That the plot centers on an undercover lawman going after a villain who has set himself up as a pillar of the community in order to defraud it is a standard western pitch. But the fun and energy of the film spring from the way in which every major character not disguising his or her identity either wants to be someone else, or thinks he or she is, or ends up being so in spite of themselves. Rather than an anxious state of affairs, the film celebrates this instability as liberating. Rather than being rooted in notions of forging a new identity in tandem with forging a new country and society in the west, this mutability is rooted in performance, in convincing others through sheer persistence and keenness and, perhaps to a lesser degree, skill. And rather than a star vehicle, this appealingly generous work is very much an ensemble piece that accords space for everyone to 'perform'. It is
possible the pervading sense of freedom and spontaneity owes something to the fact that a dissatisfied Dwan shut down production after a couple of days and had the initially serious script rewritten for surreal comedy. Yet, in spite of this, it is an assured film: its pacing, vigorous and decisive, breathes evenly without a hint of confusion or hesitancy. Dwan and writer Harold Shumate introduce the audience early on to the rules of the playful world they have created, when posh but capable eastern lawman Tim Mason (Franchot Tone), soon to be nicknamed 'Kansas', arrives out west. Even as his train pulls into the station, the town he pulls into is depicted as a hyperbolically violent hellhole buzzing with cartoonish chaos and gunplay that comically prefigures the excesses of the spaghetti western by twenty-‐five years. Kansas finds the town lawmen handcuffed to an assortment of posts and hitching rails and goes in search of the keys, reportedly in the possession of one Swanee (Broderick Crawford), the foreman of a nearby ranch. Swanee is set up as a formidable badman, and his bully-‐boy antics when Kansas confronts him to get the keys seem to confirm him as such. What ensues is an amusing confrontation of the 'eastern brains' with which Kansas has arrogantly promised to crack the case he is on, and western 'horse sense' and roping skill. Each side having proved their mettle, Swanee is revealed not only to be a thoroughly good guy but the film's embodiment of western moral authority. His behavior and the bedlamite conditions in the town are explained away by the simple fact that it was Swanee and his men's monthly night out and no harm done! All of our initial assumptions and expectations are neatly overturned and any faith in initial appearances thoroughly compromised. Swanee immediately talks his boss into offering Kansas a job on his ranch and a sometimes bickering friendship is formed, albeit one that involves 'eastern brains' immediately assuming the unlikely identity of an experienced cowhand. Although Swanee is evidently suspicious of Kansas' cover story, he nevertheless accepts him. The suggestion is that even if identities and cover stories are fluid in Trail of the Vigilantes, there is a fundamental integrity to good people that is recognizable beyond surface trappings. How they present themselves is a matter of choice. This idea is highlighted shortly afterwards in outlandish terms by the similar welcome accorded to Bolo, Mischa Auer's oddball character, who is also hired by Swanee's understandably dubious boss on the foreman's insistence. Bolo offers the onscreen embodiment of the film's notion of identity as voluntary and performance-‐based taken to its anarchic extreme. Most of the other main characters are either pretending or aspiring to be someone or something else; Bolo is incoherence incarnate-‐ and it's nothing if not colorful. Introduced as a Native American doing a tomahawk throwing act with a medicine show, he is fired for accidentally breaking a window during this act. When refused service at a saloon on racial grounds, he throws off his costume to reveal the trappings-‐ and skill 197
with a bullwhip-‐ of a South American gaucho with an impossibly long name. As the film progresses, it remains unclear if this is his real identity or if he is in fact a Russian horseman. He tells stories of his travels incessantly, prompting Meadows to upbraid him after a long shared journey “Now, listen, junior! I travelled through fourteen countries on the way down here with you and I’m too tuckered out to go any further!” But his most outrageous 'identity' is an overtly assumed one, a hilarious turn as a patrician Southern lawyer (from the firm of "Hayes, Hayes, Hayes ahhhnd Hayes") used later in the movie to help Kansas escape from jail. The end of the film sees him as 'Cactus Pete', a newly appointed ranch foreman attired in flamboyant singing cowboy finery. Although consistently benign, he is in every other way disconcertingly inconsistent. Even in his level of skill: he executes breathtaking feats of horsemanship and his impersonation of the lawyer is successful in getting Kansas out of his cell, but his tomahawk throwing goes awry and, during the film's climactic gun battle, he attempts an elaborate stunt that fails miserably. It is interesting to compare Dwan's elegant game of identity-‐shuffling with a more recent western in which characters evolve through explicit role playing, Django Unchained. Tarantino's film shows former slave Django (Jamie Foxx) progress through a series of costumes and postures in his journey towards becoming an icon of emancipation, not unproblematically guided throughout by the ideas of white men. The big difference in outlook is Tarantino’s reverence towards the power of the iconic; a pose struck or an item of costume paraphernalia adopted is treated as a true and significant epiphany in and of itself. Dwan's grasp of these matters is, in its way, considerably more sophisticated, that of a man who was in on the birth of Hollywood and with an extremely prolific filmmaking career behind him untouched by the sort of over-‐inflated deification accorded to Tarantino, a director whose films might well have benefitted from much less attention. In Dwan, the claptrap of showbiz presentation is grist for the mill, but hardly sacred ritual. Throughout Dwan, what matters is the energy and inventiveness of the performers behind the masks; the masks themselves are endlessly disposable. In the character of Meadows, he even cheekily proposes a character that reverses the sort of logic of Django's path to liberation, and so cocks a gentle snook at the Ruggles of Red Gap celebration of the West as a place for shucking the repressive traditions of old world society. Meadows claims to be the descendant of a family of valets, one of whom served Henry VIII; he offers tolerated, if not exactly desired, gentleman's gentleman service to both Swanee and Kansas. His ambition is to move east, become a butler and, for good measure, take up stamp collecting! The beautiful absurdity of this conceit really rests in the person of Andy Divine, by far the most believable cowhand-‐and most unlikely butler or son-‐of-‐a-‐butler on display. The liberation of one's identity, Dwan seems to suggest, is not to be earned as part of a historical process. It is self-‐generated, gained by the gusto and belief one applies to a chosen role. 198
This self-‐determination is most directly expressed in the character of Barbara, the rancher's daughter who decides she will marry an initially uninterested Kansas. Enchantingly played by Peggy Moran as a bouncy, innocent tornado of playful, childlike ardour, her tactic is to simply keep pursuing him even after some pretty roughhouse rejections that include ducking her in a water trough. It is only when a particularly smart and courageous act on her part helps Kansas in his investigation that he starts to return her affections. This trajectory could be seen to mirror that of an ambitious actress finally getting 'noticed' after repeated failed auditions. On the other hand, it reflects rather badly on 'eastern brains' Kansas, especially compared to 'horse sense' Swanee. It would imply that Kansas is able to respond only to explicit actions while remaining blind to the personal qualities of people; his sudden change of feelings towards Barbara is almost disturbing in its superficiality. This breezy beguilement contrasts strikingly with Swanee's apparent gift for discerning good character beneath even the fakest or weirdest surface. By the end of the film, roles have shifted all round. Kansas is an unlikely rancher, married to Barbara. Swanee is an even more unlikely, and not entirely convinced, 'gentleman', heading east to a new life with his happy valet, Meadows. And Bolo, in his new incarnation as 'Cactus Pete', is Kansas' most unlikely foreman who will doubtless ensure him years of fertile destabilization.
Separate But Equal #5: Rise and Shine (1941) Initial Impressions from an Unsung Allan Dwan Picture
VECTOR MOBILES: UP IN MABEL'S ROOM (1944) / GETTING GERTIE'S GARTER (1945)
"Constellation" (1944) by Alexander Calder. Photograph by Jessica Mejias.
A turn upon a turn upon a turn upon a turn. Allan Dwan adapted Wilson Collison and Otto Harbach's 1919 bedroom farce Up in Mabel's Room as a vacuum-‐packed 1944 wartime picture starring Dennis O'Keefe for producer Edward Small. Then, after two intervening Dwan-‐Small-‐O'Keefe films and but one year later, Dwan proceeded to adapt another of Wilson Collison's plays, this one co-‐written by Avery Hopwood, the near-‐identical 1921 comedy Getting Gertie's Garter. The two pictures are so similar as to be essentially interchangeable. If this near-‐instant repeat/variation weren't surreal enough a gesture from a decidedly unflappable director, Dwan's second production also bizarrely duplicated O'Keefe's presence by casting him again in the same role of a year earlier. The archetypical source from 1919 provided ample structure for Dwans' Calder-‐like mobile play—variations of motion, colorful, dynamic combinations and weight distribution—reaching repeated heights, within and between the films, of lucidly exasperated matchmaking. The balance is 205
a wonder, and its extension to such a length as a feature film gleefully dedicated; but that the director would have the quiet audacity (if not perversity—although an interview with Bogdanovich implies it was above all kindness towards a wartime audience1) to repeat his precarious, diagrammatic feat brings into relief how attuned the nonchalant Dwan was to such clever arrangements.
The core schema of both films is that of a sex farce: a vaguely absent-‐minded, newly married man (O'Keefe) is reminded by an old flame (Mabel's Mabel is Gail Patrick; Gertie's Gertie, Marie McDonald) of an intimate gift he once gave them (a slip for Mabel; Gertie’s garter). Various evolving reasons are created for the husband to want the item back and for the old flame, herself soon to marry, to keep it. Both sides approach the Object from different directions but see the same thing: proof of an amorous past, an active if not kinky sexuality amorally preceding and undergirding both O'Keefe's and his ex’s current, and presumably final, partners in life and love.
Left: Mabel’s slip, circa 1944. Right: Gertie’s garter, circa 1945. The flimsy ingenuity of these approaches is that seen from their respective angles—the O'Keefe character wants the Object in his possession so his wife won't find out about Mabel/Gertie; his ex wants it so her husband-‐to-‐be won't find out about her past with O'Keefe’s character—the duo are clearly fighting for the same goal yet seem to be fighting one another. Above all, it is a tactical scenario based on the combination of perspective (often quite literally) and the spatial topography of the battlefield. What stops both characters from burning or throwing the Object away from the get-‐go is, in its utterly transparent and arbitrary contrivance, the key to the farce's tone and flexible agility: balance, de-‐stabilization and re-‐balance for the sake of motion. These attributes are the targets for Dwan's direction, a certain irreverent humor so offhand that it shades almost
imperceptibly to satire, combined with a highly specific sense of physical movement that engages with and expresses the scripts’ tactics. Mabel's Room and Gertie's Garter are members of the object chase sub-‐genre, whose narratives track the movement of an object through the mise en scène, an object usually imbued with metaphoric, symbolist and/or metonymic meanings and powers. As such, the chases after such meaning enunciates ideologies, protagonist goals, emotional expressions, and so on. Roughly contemporaneous and varied examples include the $1000 in Dwan’s own The Inside Story (1948), the rifle in Anthony Mann's Winchester '73 (1950), and the earrings in Max Ophüls' Madame de... (1953), but while those films focus on object circulation, Dwan’s duo is about singular recovery by an individual. These items are evidence of loose morality that is wild in the world and needs to be secured. Taken further: for these highly contained and architectonic films, evidence of pastness, of a timeline that exists exterior to the rooms' and relationships’ confines, needs to be suppressed. In this sense the slip and the garter are true Surrealist objects that threaten not just the fabric of society but literally the form that expresses and contains it: their representation into cinema. The entirety of both films exist for this purpose, so that once the Object is caught and divested of its power, the movies must end—and the world right itself, stabilized. What happens in between is no doubt the conventional stuff of many a bedroom farce. But this director is naturally fitted for such antics. Dwan's interest in the spatial mapping of characters is at a frenetic peak with these movies. Bill Krohn has written on “adjoining spaces” as the “most common spatial paradigm for Dwan's plots,”2 which indeed seems true, but what makes the filmmaker special in this regard isn't simply his plotting but his cinema: the motion through spaces. Dwan is a poet of vectors, movement and directionality; his adjoining spaces not only serve to delineate the action but to link each segment of its trajectory through a continual momentum often sustained for its own sake, and sometimes even suggesting an infinity of linking vectors, as if each space were a hinge of a larger, self-‐perpetuating movement. Characters are constantly traversing one side to the other—and often back again.3 “Sides” are first and foremost spatial, but usually carry moral implications, expressed cleanly and directly in a way that is a consistent reminder that this director began his work early in the silent era when morality was often topic number one. In Dwan’s cinema, morality is transmuted into comedies and dramas of kinetic allegiances, whose side-‐swapping, costume-‐changing, and moral-‐juggling drive the kinetic to-‐ing and fro-‐ing that makes up this vector cinema.
A typical scene in Up in Mabel’s Room. The arrows—by Adrian Curry—indicate character vectors.
A typical scene in Getting Gertie’s Garter. The arrows—by Adrian Curry—indicate character vectors.
Mabel's Room and Gertie's Garter are the purest expression of this mannerism. Both stories quickly get all participants in the farce—befuddled husband, exasperated wife, coy old flame, as well as a set of prop characters to fit into the rest of the story's series of misunderstandings, including a married couple whose fighting-‐marriage is more sensitive to infidelity—isolated to a house in the country with as many adjoining second floor bedrooms as possible. The scripts strip characterizations down to their core, leaving the ostensible content of the films little more than the motion of the bedroom roundelay chase for the Object. The house's downstairs is used for group gatherings and discussions, with the upstairs, along with the roof that connects windows outside the bedrooms (and in Gertie’s Garter, an additional two-‐story barn), as the battleground terrain for elaborate feigning and sparring. For the mathematically inclined Dwan,4 this setting and plot constitutes a ripe environment for a methodical and exhaustively comprehensive tour of character combinations, cross-‐ marriage alliances, inner-‐relationship spats, temporary coalitions and individual vigilantism. A sequence in Mabel’s can be maddingly mapped, thusly: F spies A and C kissing in one room and mentions it to D, who thinks he is talking about A and E kissing in another, which he saw. Later, it turns out A was kissed by both C and E, and, upstairs, D and F realize their mistake, jumping on A, who is now fighting with B over the revelation. While Gertie’s, like this: A and C squabble in C's bedroom, but when B shows up A hides in the closet. After B and C leave, A exits the closet and D enters the room; C hears the two in her room, and they flee to A and B’s room, which they exit and re-‐enter C’s room with E. It's thrillingly tedious, the dawning realization that these movies will see their premises through to the maximum threshold until the country houses, and indeed the runtime and the films themselves, seem fit to burst with spatial-‐character contrivances and perspectival mismatches intended to hustle different people from one room to another under exhausting pretexts. This spirit of jaunty methodicalness makes it fitting that Dwan would join the clique of auto-‐remake filmmakers, those who chose to remake their own movies. (A group which notably hews closely around the classical Hollywood epoch, which such directors as Ford, Hitchcock, Hawks, Lubitsch, McCarey, Ozu, and Walsh, with some modernist outliers like Haneke and Jacobs; many of these works, though not the two Dwan films, were programmed by Anthology Film Archives in collaboration with C. Mason Wells in March, 2011 in the series “Auto-‐Remakes”.) The re-‐casting of Dennis O'Keefe, though, takes this profound meta-‐instance of the surrealism of Dwan's otherwise unobtrusive cine-‐ mathematics to another level—he's literally keeping a variable identical and then trying out the formula again. The actor’s double existence also suggests an exteriority to the individual story-‐worlds, as if O’Keefe were a trans-‐cinematic traveller continually getting stuck in (or re-‐living, re-‐dreaming) some Borgesian, Groundhog Day nightmare of chasing a 210
transmogrifying object through a mirror maze of altered house layouts, tuxedo’d rivals and blonde/brunette combinations. (A particularly perverse reading might see O’Keefe’s reincarnation as the real Object that needs to be secured and tranquilized. Even more extreme would be incorporating Abroad with Two Yanks  and Brewster’s Millions , the interceding Dwan-‐Small-‐O’Keefe films, into a shape-‐shifting kinetic tapestry of fitful wartime anxiety and stifled energy.) With a scenario that’s already about configuration and viewpoints of configurations, this subtle revision, akin to Ozu’s oblique movement from Late Spring (1949) to Late Autumn (1960) and An Autumn Afternoon (1962), suggests a very specific kind of modular, cubist style of filmmaking. Watching the Dwan films is like watching a mathematician show his work—you understand near the very beginning the solution but have to diligently make sure the director proves his solution from all sides. In the meantime, to alleviate the inherent and multitudinous possibilities of situational tedium and the sense—incorrect—of redundancy within the farce, comes the careful balancing act of lightness to the point of simultaneous frivolity and merciless social skewering. The characters are so scarcely defined except by motion—through doors, out windows, under beds, thrown about, going inside and going out—that we seem to be watching a highly volatile, yet carefully tuned machine, an abstract construction of force moving matter through spaces. (O’Keefe’s sublime jumpiness is one of the principal energizers, as it is in his other Dwan masterpiece, Brewster’s Millions.) This frothy volatility underscores the play’s insidious presumption that such good friends—let alone the married and the engaged!—would be so quick to doubt each other's fidelity and motives. For a set of films in whose drama the war raging around the world goes barely mentioned, the precariousness with which Mabel's Room and Gertie's Garter mobilize homefront relationships seems as much a joke for those stuck overseas as it does satire for those circulating in the depopulated society at home. The films are cabin fever as raucous farce, the mirthful turning on one’s own in a vacuum. The backstabbing turnabouts, treaty-‐breakers and temporary alliances all seem like stratagems of war, but war at the rationed home front—consider the years the films were made, with their paltry budget and self-‐sufficient regurgitation. Mabel’s opening titles brazenly insist and compare: “Warning! In spite of everything you may have heard to the contrary, this is a war picture! It takes great courage to bomb Berlin—to fight the Japs in the jungles of the Pacific—to push the Nazis out of Africa and off the Mountains of Italy— But, did you ever try to keep a secret from your wife? Brother, that’s war!” Who wouldn’t go mad trapped in such a house, in such a film, in such a cinema—in such a country? The inanity of such a repeat does seem to suggest some kind of filmmaking insanity, activity for the sense of activity. Or perhaps just making the most of what little one has? Dwan was, after all, quite proud of his economy of means and such things as re-‐using sets for other 211
productions. This diptych takes that industrial frugality to new lengths. The contained, recycled, refigured nature of these works lends not only a profound sense of abstraction, but also of a physics laboratory experiment.5 A beautiful place to work and test and play— but its necessary confines can become stifling. Are the characters mad because of the world they live in, or is the world mad because of the kind of people who inhabit it? Their freedom is of a movement held in check by the others around them and the spaces between which they ricochet. Eloquently factual re-‐arrangements, they are kept in isolation for fear of contaminating others—or having themselves infected. 1 Allan Dwan, “Galloping Tintypes”. Interview. In Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors, Peter Bogdanovich (New York: Ballantine Books, 1997) 111. 2 Bill Krohn, "The Cliff and the Flume," Senses of Cinema 28 (2003), accessed January 15,
2013, http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/feature-‐articles/cliff_and_flume/ 3 Krohn’s article, cited above, is filled with examples. Many of Dwan’s Westerns bring to a
forefront back and forth movement, from Frontier Marshall’s (1939) continual movement from one saloon to another across Tombstone’s central street to The Woman They Almost Lynched’s (1953) paradigmatic setting of a Civil War-‐era town literally on a border between North and South which characters travel between. But this kind of movement sticks to Dwan and transcends genre: Navy Wife’s (1935) base-‐hopping; Man to Man’s (1930) separation of the son’s job at the bank on one side of the street with his father’s barbershop on the other; Abroad with Two Yank’s oscillation between Aussie mansion and U.S. Army base; Calendar Girl’s (1947) tenement square of buildings that allow movement between one building to another via patios and walls; the paths trod between daughter’s flat, a trollope’s flat, and a nefarious cross-‐street saloon in While Paris Sleeps (1932)—a saloon which has an underground passage to the store next door, between which many people come and go. The list only expands. Other films, like Heidi (1937), Driftwood (1947), and Angel in Exile (1948) have a more fantastic approach to spatially mapped movement, with characters who travel between two places, with one place being nominally “real” (in those examples, the city, the town, the mine) and the other being nominally fantastic and otherworldly (the mountain village, the ghost town, the Mexican village). Here’s Dwan in the Bogdanovich interview: “Stories, to me, were mathematical problems—as most problems were. There’s always a mathematical solution to anything. Probably if I had a technique, it was mathematical. (...) ...I noticed I was working economically. Not in a Scotsman’s sense, but in terms of engineering or mathematics—the elimination of extraneous matter. (...) But everything I did was triangles with me. If I constructed a story and I 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 had to discard them because they’d be a distraction. And you’re only related to people through triangles or lines. If I’m related to a third person and you’re not, there’s something wrong in our relationship together. One of us is dangling. So I say, ‘How do I tied that person to you? How do I complete that line?’ And I have to work the story so I can complete that line. In other words, create a relationship, an incident, something that will bring us into the external triangle.” Dwan, “Galloping Tintypes,” 60-‐61. Again that look and feel of reverberation and oscillation in confinement. Note that Gertie’s Garter starts in a laboratory. There O’Keefe undergoes a procedure he himself discovered, one which fails and produces nothing but hallucinations. In Mabel’s Room this takes the form of a domestic dream sequence.
ON EXCESS: NOTES AROUND BREWSTER’S MILLIONS (1945) AND DRIFTWOOD (1947)
Carlos Losilla Translated by David Phelps
Brewster’s Millions (1945) / Driftwood (1947) I. Brewster’s Millions (1945) and Driftwood (1947) form two sides of the same coin. We can ignore the fact that the first forms part of a cycle of comedies executed by Allan Dwan in the mid-‐1940s, and that the second is one of the strangest projects undertaken by a Hollywood filmmaker in the same era. We can ignore the fact that, between each of them, Dwan would 214
direct other films. We can even ignore the correspondences between some of those other films and these two. For now, I don’t want anything to distract me, as what interests me is to concentrate on this pair, on their seeming opposition, since while Brewster’s Millions appears to be a sarcastic fable about capitalism, Driftwood traces it to its origins, its source. In the former film, a man of no great gifts has to learn to waste a great amount of money in a brief space of time if he is to receive an inheritance of millions. In the second, a girl raised outside of the system learns that any given community isn’t governed by the Bible, but rather by the laws of the market. The man who has everything doesn’t know how to waste it. The girl who has nothing doesn’t know how to gain a thing. There’s a question here of economy, cinematically as well, since Brewster’s Millions is a minimalist farce, told with an admirable sense of ellipsis and, at the same time, an abundance of comebacks and counter-‐ comebacks, as if the image were running against the dialogue; while vice-‐versa, Driftwood is a distilled piece of Americana, in which one can see the multiple subplots subsumed into the face of little Natalie Wood, who absorbs and proclaims them only, finally, to bring them under the command of her omnivorous gaze. We might say that Brewster’s Millions comes out of a world that’s been born anew, after World War II, only to confront an excess it can’t control. And we might say that Driftwood arises from a world that is ending, the Biblical universe of the origins of the world, in order to restore it to its form. Monty Brewster (Dennis O’Keefe) returns from the front and finds himself facing a challenge: he will inherit eight million dollars if he is capable of wasting just one million in a couple of months. Jenny Hollingsworth (Wood) starts in a state of nature, contaminated only by religious elements, and little by little comes into a civilization that at first she mistrusts: she will have to position herself at the gates of death to be reborn as another person. In some way, both films end at the same point, at a kind of threshold where they will be transported to a new life, whether one of matrimonial responsibilities or adulthood. II. The threshold is at once an image and a shot, which are two different things. Both films start with an image and end with a shot. At the beginning of Brewster’s Millions, the black manservant cleans the window of the house—the screen of the movie theater—so that we can see inside. At the end, the door closes behind the two lovers, who leave to ratify their relationship, so that we won’t be able to see anything more. At the beginning of Driftwood, the camera steadily approaches a region in ruins, out of which there rises the luminous face of Jenny, until it has reached the private moment when she sees the outside world. At the end, it’s that same face which will overtake the entire screen, shifting our attention toward something we’ll never see. A demarcation between the interior and the exterior: the face as much as the door promises images that its very shot will close off. The story continues outside of the plot in the same way so that, throughout both films, many things remain unseen. Why uselessly waste images? Dwan’s cinema seems the incarnation of such an 215
economical spirit. Brewster finds himself impelled to waste just as the images tend to multiply. Jenny passes from the state of nature to civilization just as her surroundings will suddenly become bustling, shift from their initial solitude to the communal state that is finally attained at the end. The question is how to account for this excess in some way. On the one hand, it’s the characters who will enact it. On the other hand, it’s the story itself. In Brewster’s Millions, the excess of waste must lead to the conclusion that to have nothing is to have everything. In Driftwood, the excess of events bears out that plenty starts with nothing. Brewster’s Millions transpires over two months and yet, it relays a sense of hypnotic paralysis. Driftwood takes place over barely a weekend but accrues events that seem as though they’ve taken months to live through. Dwan stretches and compresses time in such a way that the realism of his style becomes an oneiric thing. He, too, is wasteful so that he can curb himself when it’s necessary. It’s this that comprises classical cinema at the start of its crisis: never to overstep the boundaries, no matter what the temptation to do so. And it’s this tension that should be noted. III. In the case of Dwan, where does the secret lie? In Brewster’s Millions, everything happens as if inside a capsule, where the characters appear and disappear in spaces that seem to be independent from each other, but are in reality interconnected. The house is the terrain of the real, where domesticity falters. The office offers a mise en scène of its own, masking Brewster’s secret, as well as Dwan’s: not that all the world is a stage, but that it’s a kind of purgatory, a limbo between good manners and the chaos of human relations. Theater itself will appear later, when Brewster decides to invest in a play that will fail miserably on Broadway. In Driftwood, the first thing that Jenny has to learn is that “How are you?” is a social formula to which there is no need to respond at length. And here begins her initiation onto the performing stage, where she must play-‐act with a dress, voice, posture, and personality that are nothing more than a mask. The final shot is that mask, the person herself, who now announces that the social order is paradise. For this order to exist, however, its limits must be transgressed, which can result at times in danger. In one particularly disturbing scene in Brewster’s Millions, the protagonist is seen surrounded by alcohol, pills, painkillers. He remains asleep while the moon in his almanac comes to life to speak to him. This apparition of the sinister assumes the appearance of a nightmare that is also a momentary reprieve from the world, like a chasm that suddenly allows the abyss to be seen. Driftwood, for its part, moves from orphanhood to a community whose order is only a guise, easily broken, and which cracks when the uncontrollable appears, illness, the typhus that Dr. Steve Webster (Dean Jagger), Jenny’s custodian, had predicted. And when this absolute evil besets the little girl, both catastrophe and miracle will ensue. With delicate sensitivity, Dwan shows the doctor working, the pharmacist administering the life-‐ saving serum, and the priest praying. These assorted social functions are interwoven, at the 216
same time they point towards something curative. The social performance will end with Jenny’s illness just as upon Brewster’s waking, his little world will quickly be restored. IV. The stages of capitalism, rites of passage, trials that must be won, thresholds that must be crossed, various performances and mise-‐en-‐scènes, narrative rifts that shift from one state to another… In these two films of Dwan, both so representative of his style, everything is moving here-‐and-‐there, is in constant motion, but it’s only the outer appearance that we see, as if through a filter that at times brings this progression to a halt: in Brewster’s Millions, the nightmare scene is seen through the eyes of a keyhole by a considerable group of people; in Driftwood, the doctor will use a microscope to show the girl the types of bacteria responsible for the illness that later on will nearly be her demise. The metaphorical motif of resurrection that is present in both, whether in Brewster's awakening or the recovery of the little girl, requires intermediaries to contain the situation, to situate it in a manageable space. In that sense, Jenny's "return to life" is as close to Carl Th. Dreyer's Ordet (1955) as to Jacques Tourneur's Stars in My Crown (1950), films in which a more or less explicit "resurrection" also takes place—the product of the obstinacy of a filmmaker who stages a situation and draws it out to such a point that the miracle has to materialize. In Ordet, it's Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye) who turns his hope into a reality in the presence of a group of elders and of the girl who has driven him to do it. In Stars in My Crown, Parson Gray (Joel McCrea) kneels to prey with his eyes closed and, transforming the space, inspires a soft breeze to cross the room until the woman awakes. The issue is of creating the adequate conditions, of building up a performance that allows life to be seen as it's reborn, the very objective of cinema. In the two Dwans, the gaze of the others is what makes the image arise anew, life regain consciousness. This new step, now from stasis to movement, from a still life to the beauty of living, can be observed as well in other filmmakers from more or less the same era. Fritz Lang, in The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street, literally creates a woman (Joan Bennett in both) out of the gaze of the man who desires her (Edward G. Robinson, again in both), whether through an eerie painting or a fight in a deserted street on a rainy night. Alfred Hitchcock, in Notorious (1946), has Devlin (Cary Grant) return Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) to the world after rescuing her from the living death to which she had been condemned by Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains). In Laura (1944), by Otto Preminger, detective McPherson (Dana Andrews) becomes so in love with a painting of a supposedly dead woman that the situation manages to revert to the past, to return the woman to life, to the story. In Henry King's Margie (1946), an entire universe, that of a mythic or dreamy past, is invoked, at the start of the film, by a mother and a girl confined to a room that will open out through the grace of the art of memory. In John Ford's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Captain Brittles (John Wayne) talks with his dead wife with such conviction that, when the shadow of the young Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru) is 217
projected on the gravestone, it seems as though a transference has occurred: his wife as returned. All these heroes create situations apt for resurrection, in such a way that that privileged image, that image that classical cinema scours for to legitimize itself, is the result of its desire to live. V. Jean-‐Pierre Coursodon writes about Dwan: "The subject itself is irrelevant; the vision becomes all. Where a director such as Leo McCarey might conjure up emotional affinities with Jean Renoir, Dwan ultimately must be classified with a contemplative analyst such as Yasujiro Ozu or Roberto Rossellini." 1 It's a curious comparison, since despite their undeniable resemblances, Ozu and Rossellini are fundamentally opposed: the first tends to focus, to play with the variables of a space and a few given characters, on a static journey [viaje inmóvil]; the second prefers to broaden his field of vision continuously, whether in relation to the vastness of the world or to the delineated surface of a face. Of course, at times a room as much as a face can create an entire terrain, but that's not the question here. The issue of economy reemerges in each of these cases since, while Ozu saves up images, Rossellini spends them. Isn't it a matter, then, of reaching a perfect equilibrium, of spending whatever is saved, of arriving at a ground zero? In Dwan, this isn't attained in only one film, but in the space that extends between two or more films. For example, between Brewster's Millions and Driftwood. The first is like a comic version of Lang's While the City Sleeps (1955), in which only one of the characters doesn't share the objectives of the rest: the psychopath, who moves in opposition to social mores, whether he be a killer or a spendaholic. As for the rest, the same sense exists in both Dwans of these avaricious blowhards, motivated by ambition and lust for money, observed with icy sharpness, with strict concision. The latter is like a more outlandish variation on Sam Wood's Our Town (1940), populated by figures who keep the plot and images expanding and expanding as they revolve around this other sort, who doesn't share the modest pecuniary standards of his humble community: his unique obsession, as if it made him another psychopath, is the investigation, to extract from the smallest jot of his microscope something enormous scientifically. Brewster's Millions belongs to the group of five films that Edward Small produced for Dwan between 1942 and 1945. Driftwood is included in the period of his filmography that extends from 1946 to 1954, under contract with Republic. What is known as the "B movie" is Dwan's home turf for action, and especially in this period, when Small as much as Republic allow him a fixed field within which to experiment, when he is able to realize small variations without need of great means, much as in chamber music. And in contrast to the cost-‐cutting of the production, there is this outpouring of reflected life, between which there results a ground zero, that perfect point of equilibrium between accumulation and wastefulness. Bill Krohn takes up the concept of "improductive expenditure," with a debt to Georges Bataille, to characterize Brewster.2 At the end of the 218
film, Brewster's account book reaches zero, but a zero that will provide new quantities of money. In the same way, the metaphoric exposedness of Jenny (seen in tatters with only a bible and a doll), will lead the doctor to a better economic situation thanks to his experiments with typhus. Brewster's feverous waste of money might be reflected in the fever that Jenny contracts and that unmasks her life's apparent frugality. They both reach beyond themselves, beyond the classical model that B movies offer in miniature to show themselves bigger than life. Likewise, Dwan's cinema takes off from a point of outward purity (the purity of the pioneers, a notion now revised with such urgency) with the goal of unveiling it, of exposing its wrinkles, of showing the mise en scène from within the mise en scène, the resurrection or return to life as a re-‐production of that life, of returning it to production. The excess that always tends to outstrip itself in classical cinema is what, in Dwan's case, assumes the appearance of small, unimportant films. The ground zero, then, is also that confrontation between the immediate legibility of the story and the difficulty of penetrating it deep in its invisible lair. Or Brewster's antsy movements against Jenny's Socratic calm. 1 Jean-‐Pierre Coursodon y Pierre Sauvage. American Directors, vol. 1 (New York: McGraw-‐ Hill, 1983), 109. 2 Bill Krohn, "The Cliff and the Flume," Senses of Cinema 28 (2003),
THE HOME FRONT: ON RENDEZVOUS WITH ANNIE (1946)
C. Mason Wells At a retrospective of his work at New York’s Walter Reade theater in 1993, Martin Scorsese selected Allan Dwan’s Getting Gertie’s Garter (1945) for a double-‐bill with his own After Hours (1985). At the time Scorsese said, “I always wanted to make a film that had this sort of Chinese-‐box effect, in which you keep opening it up and opening it up, and finally at the end you're at the beginning.”1 But the two films share more than a structural sensibility; they’re both nightmarish farces constructed around the crippling anxiety of their specific eras. This anxious quality marks many of Dwan’s 1940s comedies, including the four farces he made for Edward Small Productions: Gertie’s, its sister film Up in Mabel’s Room (1944), Abroad with Two Yanks (1944), and Brewster’s Millions (1945); and his subsequent Republic titles Rendezvous with Annie (1946) and The Inside Story (1948). Dwan was typically modest about his ambitions for the Small films: “My main reason for doing all those farces was because I knew they’d be seen by a lot of kids at war, and in army camps -‐-‐ and they’d cheer them up. That whole series was made with them in mind. I didn’t give a damn what the people who bought tickets saw or liked. I was thinking about those kids.”2 While Dwan may have had simple diversion in mind, he couldn't help but let the realities of wartime America seep into the films. The opening scroll of Up in Mabel’s Room sardonically nudges the audience about world affairs: “Warning! In spite of anything you may have heard to the contrary, this is a war picture! It takes great courage to bomb Berlin—to fight the Japs in the jungles of the Pacific—to push the Nazis out of Africa and off the mountains of Italy—But, did you ever try to keep a secret from your wife? Brother, that’s war!” During the film’s climax, the characters are yanked outside their isolated Connecticut cabin and to a justice of the peace. Finally removed from the bubble of their self-‐involved sexual shenanigans, they encounter a tank tester, a sly reminder of the real-‐world tensions lurking just beyond the frame. Rendezvous with Annie brings these troubles front and center, focusing explicitly on the problems of a soldier. Stationed in London, Corporal Jeffrey Dolan (Eddie Albert) is, like many troops, in the strange position of having spent the majority of his marriage separated from his wife Annie (Faye Marlowe). Homesick and lovesick, he waxes poetic about the virtues of Annie’s famous chocolate cake (and thus, the comforts of domesticity) to diplomat Sir Archibald Clyde (C. Aubrey Smith). When Dolan’s given a quick three-‐day 220
leave, he wants nothing more than to visit Annie back in New Jersey for their two-‐year anniversary. His two buddies convince him to go AWOL for twelve hours of bliss, and Dolan becomes one of what critic Donald Phelps termed Dwan’s “fugitives,”3 setting forth a chain of stressful complications: he must fool a general riding on his flight, sneak past the air traffic clerk on the tarmac, and during a quick phone call home, ask Annie to lie to their maid. Before catching a midnight train so as to remain unseen, he hides out at the Bongo Club, where he ducks out of incriminating photos and ends up lying to his accountant Thorndyke (Raymond Walburn), who has spotted him. The morning after their brief encounter, Dolan insists his wife keep his little sojourn on the down-‐low, as even her letters aren’t safe from the eyes of the censors. Dwan, ever concerned with motion—of his actors, his narratives, his camera—structures the film in two mirroring movements. The second half of Rendezvous neatly flips the script, and only ups the anxiety. After the war ends, Dolan returns home to learn his wife is in labor. It’s a joyous occasion, hilariously colored by the town’s logical assumption that the baby couldn’t possibly be his. For Dolan to claim the child’s inheritance promised by his late uncle, he must prove he was indeed home nine months prior and fathered his son. He retraces his steps looking for an alibi, but his excellent work keeping his trip secret proves too excellent. Dolan spirals downward, approaching something close to madness, a kind of PTSD decades before the term was even coined. He visits Thorndyke, who spotted Dolan in the club, only to realize the accountant was stepping out on his wife and doesn’t want his transgression made public. The maid verifies what Annie told her: Dolan was calling home from England, not LaGuardia Airport. He can’t rely on his soldier friends to corroborate the story without admitting they “aided and abetted a deserter,” which would implicate them and force a court-‐martial. He visits the general with whom he shared a plane flight, demanding to be court-‐martialed for his actions; the general thinks Dolan has gone mad. He returns to the Bongo Club to try and find photographic evidence of his stop there, but turns up empty-‐handed and raises the ire of a torch singer’s (Gail Patrick) husband, and subsequently his own wife. Only when Sir Archibald comes to town does Dolan finally see a chance at irrefutable proof, but as he sneaks into Archibald’s hotel room, he’s arrested for an assassination attempt. Like the premise of Brewster’s Millions—where a man must somehow spend $8 million in order to get an inheritance—Rendezvous’s is ingenious comic subversion. (And like the set-‐ up of Brewster’s, or Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925), it posits an inextricable connection between the absurd demands of family and the possibility of financial loss.) But the film also offers something much richer: Dolan must go from making himself invisible to literally proving his existence. His plight represents nothing less than the struggle of every soldier returning home from battle: having to undergo the tough transition from an anonymous 221
cog in the giant industrial military complex to embracing life as a unique individual. How does he fit into this new society? Who is he anymore? A father? A liar? An attempted murderer? There’s a haunting moment when Dolan sorts through old photos at the Bongo Club, and finds one he believed may have captured his likeness that night. In one of the film’s only close-‐ups, we see that Dolan in fact ducked, and there’s an empty space left in the middle of the photo.
“There I am...” “It’s not a very good likeness.” “All I know is—this is a heckuva post-‐war world,” Dolan’s maid tells him upon his return home. Indeed, the effort to readjust to this new America in Rendezvous proves almost as difficult and confusing as it does in Wiliam Wyler’s harrowing drama The Best Years of our Lives (1946) or John Huston’s documentary Let There Be Light (1946). The film begins with a framing device of Dolan in jail for the supposed assassination attempt; it’s a particularly dour note, with Dolan’s shoelaces and belt confiscated by a guard for fear of a suicide attempt. These morbid overtones aren’t to suggest that Rendezvous isn’t funny—it is, and riotously so. If anything, the anxious atmosphere of late ‘40s America played perfectly into Dwan’s devilish sense of humor. As he told Peter Bogdanovich, “I don’t care what you’re doing—the most vicious drama on earth is just on the ragged edge of being very funny.”4 But Dwan uses the comedy as a springboard to get at something deeper. 222
Though the war looms large over Dwan’s ‘40s comedies, there’s a marked divide between the tenor of the wartime and post-‐WWII titles—the farces are more frantic, the Republic films more soulful. The stories for Mabel’s, Gertie’s, and Brewster’s were all based on silent comedies, while those for Rendezvous and Inside Story originated directly with Dwan and his writers Mary Loos and Richard Sale. The latter films attempt to grapple with world problems head-‐on, and not simply distract audience attention with frothy entertainment. Rendezvous distinguishes itself further with the casting of Albert as Dolan, a remarkably plain but enormously appealing character—a man defined almost exclusively by his love for his wife. Albert’s sad, slow drawl is worlds apart from Dennis O’Keefe’s itchy paranoia; it’s a case study in how an actor’s rhythm affects a director’s approach to his material. When Dwan learned Albert had singing talent, he characteristically adapted the film to incorporate the skill, adding a pair of musical scenes that bookend Dolan’s trip home. On his flight to New Jersey, Dolan joyfully sings “I’ve Been Working on a Railroad” and “Row, Row Your Boat” in the cockpit along with his fellow troops. On the return flight to England—filmed by Dwan in an identical camera set-‐up—he performs a moving solo rendition of the English folk ballad “Fare Thee Well”: “I’m going away, but I’m coming back / If I go ten thousand miles.” Dwan injects these small touches of lyricism throughout, moments the farces seem too harried to ever stop for. Look at the two delicate scenes between Dolan and Sir Archibald in the bunker England, where their discussions of Annie’s cake are interrupted by the ominous off-‐screen sounds of bombs falling nearby. Or the way Dwan film’s Dolan’s triumphant reunion with his wife: in a gorgeous, wordless single take long-‐shot, Annie waits by their car, enshrouded in shadow, as Dolan’s silhouette peers around the corner. At two ends of a diagonal, they meet in the middle of the frame, and the score softly swells. (Critic Kent Jones aptly calls it “one of the few moments of perfect happiness in movies.”5) But the subsequent scene is just as beautiful: Dolan slowly walks through the home he left behind a year-‐and-‐a-‐half prior and simply takes in the atmosphere—giddy, overwhelmed, comforted by the sight of his pipe rack and “silly old slippers.” “Everything’s exactly as you left it,” Annie tells Dolan; he picks up a mystery book he was reading, moved how Annie marked the page he was on when he shipped off overseas. (“I figured some day when the war was over you might want to find out who done it.”) The scene could easily play as treacly, but Dwan downplays the sentiment with medium shots and only a couple of camera set-‐ups. It’s the emotional cornerstone of the film, a respite from all of Dolan’s anguish as well as a moving tribute to the small pleasures of stability, a stirring reminder of the simple things we fight for. 223
Of course, Rendezvous ultimately ends happily: Thorndyke is blackmailed into admitting he and Dolan were both at the club that night (Dolan’s ducking during the photo offered proof of Thorndyke’s indiscretion). Dolan’s identity is, at long last, affirmed, and he wins financial security for his family through the inheritance. And he once again gains the pleasure of indulging in Annie’s cake. The scene returns Dolan to his living room, and the film comes full circle. (The first shot, over the film’s credits, is of the exterior of the Dolan home.) The rewards prove the struggle was worth it; it’s always a transcendent sentiment, but especially in 1946. Dwan seems to take special pleasure in setting up (often absurd) hurdles for his characters to overcome, but that sense of hard-‐won victory is something he also valued in his own life. “Obstacles are merely challenges for me to surmount,” Dwan told Cahiers du Cinema of his way of working.6 And like their creator, his characters—to borrow a phrase from After Hours’ protagonist Paul Hackett—“just want to live.” They’re unstoppable forces—worriers but also warriors—constantly barreling through one outlandish plot contrivance after another, all in the hopes of returning to the simple business of living. 1 Stephen Holden, “The Movies That Inspired Martin Scorsese,” New York Times, May 21, 1993. Accessed online: http://www.nytimes.com/1993/05/21/movies/the-‐movies-‐that-‐ inspired-‐martin-‐scorsese.html. 2 Peter Bogdanovich, Allan Dwan: The Last Pioneer (New York: Praeger Publishers, Inc.,
3 Donald Phelps, Covering Ground: Essays for Now (New York: Croton Press, 1969), 68. 4 Bogdanovich, 139. 5 Kent Jones, Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism. (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan
University Press, 2007), 154. 6 Phelps, 74.
OUTSIDER VISIONS: DWAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA
Christopher Small “I couldn’t wait to get to the door; I figured the window would be quicker.” —Andy Devine in Montana Belle (1948/1952) *** 1 In his essay “The Griffith Tradition,” John Dorr would say that “of all the directors of the Griffith Tradition who maintained careers well into the sound period, Allan Dwan was the least affected by the emergence of the Murnau tradition.” Dorr was one of the first to defend the director from critical un-‐enthusiasm, and though his arguments tend to pigeonhole the films rather than illuminate, it’s tough to contest that his essays are some of the most respectful musings on Dwan’s craft ever written: “A cut-‐in to a large close-‐up, or a cut-‐back to a long shot, in the primal power of the change in image size alone, suggests a nobility of emotion that is direct and effective.” What is most Griffithian in Dwan’s cinema is the definition of everything in binaries, though with Griffith it comes from his debt to 19th century theatre and morality—his films elaborate within these restrictions, like his radical Abraham Lincoln (1931), which dares to transform historybook Lincoln hagiography into a Wagnerian thunderstorm of artifice and emotion, or Birth of a Nation (1915), which is so offensive precisely because it offers us blackfaces as nothing but cartoon villains to antithesize a heroic, Olympian Klan. But with Dwan, binaries are a response to the world, a way to define and then hurriedly produce a show. His Janus-‐faced vision of dramatic conflict is usually the result of an enthusiastically established friction between two bordering territories. As Bill Krohn has written in “The Cliff and the Flume,”2 this is Dwan’s infinitely reliable and reusable filmmaking paradigm. He takes a situation, looks at the interior circuits connecting all the components, and sets to work. However, as Dwan’s is a cinema of the literal—of both visions outside and outsider visions, even when he is delineating what appears abstract on first glance—he falls back again and again on a device for linking worlds, scenes, and stories: the window. Windows are the great synecdoches of Dwan’s cinema. More fun, sneaky, mysterious, and cosmic than a Dwanian doorway, his window-‐ways are passages to the next world of fiction. They enable movement between inside and outside (literally) and one set of rules and another (abstractly). Like chapter-‐markers for the movies, they figure in many important scenes, and break up the more boring ones. Even in the late movies, the ever-‐ evolving Dwan was still relying on his old tactics. From the inside of the Territorial Bank at 225
the end of Montana Belle (1952), Montana, firing out of the window at lawmen, gets hit in the belly. Then, seconds later, one of the gunslingers outside on the porch steps in front of the window, and a bullet cuts through him and the glass. He staggers and collapses in the background, and Montana slumps down in the foreground. We look out through the picture window as Tom Bradford (George Brent) approaches on horseback. He calls out Montana’s name, and the shooting stops as the men all recognize him. Dwan composes laterally and in depth, here as in many of his other films. His camera is at a position of flexibility, near a window or a door, and he moves to cover what he can, often sideways, or forward. Here we have three images in one: Montana being hit, then the gunslinger dying, and then back on her as she drops to the ground. In between is the window.
Montana Belle (1952) “Dwan’s images are beautiful not so much as formal entities unto themselves, as in their existence as cinematic units.”3 This may just be my own catachrestic appropriation of Dorr’s words, but “existence as cinematic units” conceives of Dwan’s theatre as a flurry of images and moments insufficient to exist on their own, as they might in Eisenstein. But I’d argue that Dwan’s scenes do exist on their own, that they can sustain themselves, and that the direction he takes them is like that of a phoenix regenerating from the ashes. Dwan’s assiduousness with framing, camera movement, and editing gives even the most protracted and elaborate set-‐piece a remarkable sense of balance and poise. Windows in Dwan typically break apart the universe into different self-‐contained worlds, and yet in Calendar Girl (1947), everything is a whole. Peeping through curtains or falling through windows, everybody has their part in this world. Even the camera plays a role. In the opening sequence, we move as if on a cloud. Patricia O'Neill (Jane Frazee), appearing from nowhere, ducks out of two windows as, outside, the camera glides by. She runs from the first to the second, and a bluebird alights on a tree branch opposite. Following the animated calendar and the titles that are the first images in the film, the first motion is a 226
lateral one. As the calendar vanishes, his camera swings into view and doesn’t stop swinging: we will move through wall, and floor, and out onto the street. Man to Man too begins with a similar crab-‐wise motion; here it is composed with people and white racing-‐ stripes, rather than with buoyancy on the camera’s part.
Man to Man (1930) Patricia steps back from the window and, camera panning, moves across the room and into a frame composed as three. As in a Renoir film we see the big movement closest to us, the mirror projecting back at us, and the tiny figures quiet at work in the distance. One of the figures—a neighbor—calls out to the calendar girl through the window and she looks up and waves back at him. Turning, she moves to retrieve her hat from the bed. The camera follows. She adjusts her brim in the mirror, and then moves around the bed and out the door. Before reaching it, her hand gestures casually out towards the second window, whilst herself still in motion and continuing her melody. And then we are in the corridor, descending the stairs—sideways, slicing through the set. Patricia pauses and greets another neighbor leafing through post beside the telephone, before stepping outside. 227
Down the front steps, on the street, everyone’s in on the fun: children frolic by, gentlemen smile and tip their hats, old ladies sing along, wistful Patricia stumbles into two temperate parasoled ladies, and she encounters the same bluebird at the heart of this song, now on the tip of a lamppost.
Calendar Girl (1947) Dwan's movies exist in an oft-‐ignored middle quandary that’s not quite A or B for Hollywood films. The stories he deals in are shopworn and clunky, the sets unimpressive, and the actors not-‐too-‐good. But be thankful for the man who shoots with scissors in his eyes. 1 John Dorr, “The Griffith Tradition,” Film Comment (March/April 1974) 51. 2 Bill Krohn, "The Cliff and the Flume," Senses of Cinema 28 (2003),
3 Dorr 51.
CLASSIC / ANTI-‐CLASSIC Daniel Kasman
… LULU VARDEN Alright young ladies, let us begin. Now we will start with the hand position in the middle zone number one, the Palm Supine. Number two the Palm Prone. Number three the Palm Vertical. Tessie, dear, the Palm Vertical should be raised in gentle terror. Remember as you move into the move that you're with a cad. TESSIE A cad? LULU VARDEN A nefarious scoundrel whose intentions are not honorable. TESSIE I'm sure Byron's intentions are honorable, Lulu. LULU VARDEN Who? PATRICIA O’NEILL She means Byron Jones. TESSIE He's always making the Palm Vertical to me. LULU VARDEN But suppose Byron weren't out with you. TESSIE I'd just like to see him out with anyone else—we're practically engaged. GIRL Does he know it? GIRLS (laughter) LULU VARDEN Come, come, come now girls! Come let's try it again! Patricia, Patricia, how many times have I told you! You should be weak and wilting and timid, as if the very air around you were charged with peril. PATRICIA O’NEILL But that's namby-‐pamby, Lulu. I'm not afraid of anything. 231
LULU VARDEN My dear, do you wish to be a star? A great star? Or do you wish to dispute the championship with Mr. James J. Jeffries? Now that’s more like a lady. PATRICIA O’NEILL (sighing) A lady… LULU VARDEN Patricia, life is a book of etiquette and rules. You're born a girl but you have to learn to be a lady. Girls may be attractive to boys, but only ladies attract gentlemen and only gentlemen are rich. …
Calendar Girl (Allan Dwan, 1947) *** 234
… CLERK Gee that's dingy: actually in print! STEPHEN FOSTER Look at those curly-‐cues, isn't that elegant? CLERK Let's see where it says you wrote it! STEPHEN FOSTER Well, I guess it doesn't say. OTHER CLERK Did you get much for it? STEPHEN FOSTER Oh he didn't pay me anything. CLERK Didn't you even get any royalties? 238
STEPHEN FOSTER Listen! He's doing me a big favor just to print it. Didn't charge me a cent. OTHER CLERK How about that minstrel man, Christy, didn't he pay ya? STEPHEN FOSTER Certainly not! I'm proud to have him sing it. CLERK Gee, it looks like you outta get a little somethin' just for thinkin' it up. …
EDWIN P. CHRISTY How many cork operas did you put this song in? …Are you trying to make me a laughing stock? I've sung "Oh, Susanna" from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, made it the most popular song in all history, perhaps, actually my very trademark. And you, you give it to every imitator I've got. Don't you know who this song belongs to! … STEPHEN FOSTER That's how I got into trouble. DUNNING FOSTER What trouble? EDWIN P. CHRISTY That's what happens when you give away things that don't belong to you. … INEZ MCDOWELL …if you dare sound even one note of that, that thing! …I've had nothing else hammered into my head for a month. Some cheap minstrels even played it in the streets of Pittsburgh—on tin-‐based drums! If I ever find out who wrote that thing, I declare I'll shoot him on sight! …My ear happens to be trained in the classics. …
… JEANIE MCDOWELL Are you people out of your minds? EDWIN P. CHRISTY What’s the matter, honey, what’s the matter? JEANIE MCDOWELL Don’t you realize Inez is trying to give a recital? EDWIN P. CHRISTY Recital? Is that what you call that squawky caterwauling up there? JEANIE MCDOWELL My advice is that you both run for your lives. EDWIN P. CHRISTY What a way to treat an audience. Audience! Hey—I’ll show you how this stuff works. JEANIE MCDOWELL Wait a minute, does Steve know you’re taking his music? EDWIN P. CHRISTY My dear young lady, the whole world is about to know! …. 242
…. EDWIN P. CHRISTY Lend an ear, good people, lend an ear. Ladies and gentlemen, I am Edwin P. Christy. It is my privilege at this time to bring you a most welcome surprise. You could hardly have expected here the most important musical event of the year, perhaps of our times, but that is your good fortune tonight. Isn’t the discovery of genius the highest honor? And what if I tell you that the newest, brightest talent of our day is right here in this very room! Unbelievably, I’m told that only one or two of you are even aware of the identity or even the existence of this genius in your midst. Unknown, uncelebrated... … 243
… MRS. MCDOWELL Oh Steve, you shouldn’t have, that’s your salary for weeks. STEPHEN FOSTER This is my first step on my road to reform. MRS. MCDOWELL Reform, Steve? STEPHEN FOSTER I’m starting out to prove myself to Inez. From now on, I’m devoting myself to nothing but the classics. JEANIE MCDOWELL Won’t that be a little bit dull? INEZ MCDOWELL I think it’s the most encouraging thing I’ve ever heard him say. …
I Dream of Jeanie (with the Light Brown Hair) (Allan Dwan, 1952) ***
Separate But Equal #6: The Inside Story (1948) Initial Impressions from an Unsung Allan Dwan Picture
SANDS OF IWO JIMA (1949): As long as you won't be forgotten
Marie-‐Pierre Duhamel Neither the oppressive American postwar years nor the crushing presence of John Wayne or even the most cinephilically renowned films of Allen Dwan (like Silver Lode (1954)) can manage to deaden what one would have to call the “grace” in Sands of Iwo Jima. The film is regularly qualified as an exemplary “flag waving flick,” as a model of patriotic cinema, as a “patriotic vehicle” for John Wayne, as a film of “American values,” as the "quintessential Marine Corps movie". In short, a piece of propaganda manufactured by Hollywood in a classic blend of commercial opportunism and ideological alignment. The film would have been archetypal enough to have established a group of representations later recycled, adapted, and quoted. A model of narrative efficiency (of storytelling) and precision in the design of the characters, the film is echoed in other films. Let's just cite here the introductory sequences in Hall of Montezuma (Lewis Milestone, 1951—a “Marine film” on the Battle of Okinawa—or Take the High Ground (Richard Brooks, 1953), which, on a spectacular number of points, looks like a copycat (Korea replacing the Pacific). Yet the impression that emerges from common commentaries is that something (a je-ne- sais-quoi) prevents the film from being thrown in with the pile of "war films" or the pile of “films with John Wayne.” Something goes beyond the simple recognition of the narrative expertise, the actor’s efficiency, or the overall dignified production value. Beyond, as well, nostalgia for a cinema that no longer exists. Something slips just out of reach. Economy(ies) 1949. World War II is still present in the everyday lives of Americans, in their bodies and in their memories. The most successful films at the end of 1949 are war films, objects entrusted with the task of exalting American values in the best (possible) show business packaging. American cinema is in the strong ideological grip of the “third war,” the one opposing Communism and the Free World. Even more than the films produced and released during the war, these post-‐war war films are on a mission. In June 1950 the Korean War officially begins. The Containment Theory had been formulated as early as February 1946. The same year, HUAC (the House Un-‐American Activities Committee) had become a standing committee. While Dore Schary is preparing William Wellman’s Battleground (1949) for MGM and Zanuck Henry King’s Twelve O’Clock High (1949) for Fox, the producer at Republic, Edmund 257
Grainger (he has produced Wake of the Red Witch there in 1948 with John Wayne, with a script by Harry Brown, and he will produce Nicholas Ray’s Flying Leathernecks for RKO in 1951) happened to catch on the front page of a newspaper the words “Sands of Iwo Jima.” There is little time between the writing and the start of production. We know that production only lasts two months and that without the material contributions of the Marine Corps such a production would have been impossible. Despite a big budget for a “small” studio like Republic, the general economy is tight. The Marines get involved on a grand scale in a production that (beyond their own long tradition of self-‐promotion) could contribute to restoring their Semper Fidelis blazon tarnished by a lack of federal financing. They provide instructors, men/extras, equipment and locations. They also provide their propaganda films – footage shot on the front lines by cameramen attached to the Corps. Everything (project, script, means) imposes the necessity of using footage from the Corps’ combat photographers. The concept is neither new nor (by the way) typically American. War films, no doubt more so than other films about recent history mix documentary and fictional images, as an the introduction to the story or sometimes during the film: a production necessity and a guarantee of the "real," as if it were impossible to do without documentary footage in front of an audience profoundly marked by the experience and familiar with the images seen during the war.
“World War II was covered from start to finish,” the historian and co-‐screenwriter for Spielberg’s production Shooting War said even in 2000, visibly unafraid of hasty generalizations.1 He added that “the images of this war burned [the] eyes and spirits” of Americans. American spectators of the years 1941-‐1945 saw a huge amount of images of the conflict: battles, draft calls, remarkable biographies, on-‐the-‐ground footage—images organized and controlled by the military with Hollywood’s support (Hal Roach studios trained combat photographers/cameramen). Studios edit, add sound and print short films with the footage from the camera operators attached to of all the branches of the military. These men risk their lives: to document is to find the right place, to fight fear, to vary the angles in order to show more or better, to understand what is happening and where, and above all to film the “boys.” And, thus, the flag... Joe Rosenthal’s famous photo for the Associated Press2 inscribes itself in the collective American imagination as soon as it begins to circulate immediately after the event. An instantaneous emblem, an immediately iconic snapshot. The recognition is so immediate that it is still used today with more or less relevance or irony.3 The event was also filmed by the cameraman Bill Genaust in color 16mm. Genaust was killed on Iwo Jima on March 4th. His images are edited again and again into wartime short films. In Grainger’s project, the flag episode has to be the ultimate grand finale, the über conclusion to the characters’ design. The reconstruction (the first ever) of the flag scene is the ending to the story people know going in. No film about Iwo Jima can be without the "flag raising". Rosenthal's photo and the event itself have become one. Ultimate icon / episode-‐emblem. 259
The project Dwan is offered is something like an "already made and already seen" film. He is being asked to apply his long-‐tested know how and his capacity for working with modest budgets to the making of a “profitable” war spectacle in terms of ticket sales and of audience edification. But the project also branches off from an ensemble of conditions that go beyond studio logic and politico-‐military logic. If we wanted an image of the filmmaker’s position, we’d imagine him in the middle of a network of representations: the emblem-‐ image and the still fresh memory of the combat footage, and the tropes governing the war genre both in fiction and in the productions of the Armed Forces Information Films (AFIF). “The pattern of war in the Pacific”: this is how the commentary of Fury in the Pacific (released in March 1945)—a short film presented like a documentary on the Battle of Peleliu in September-‐November 1944—describes the sequence of “typical” actions of operations on the Pacific Islands. War short films have already established the script following the developments of military reality: trip towards the island, bombing, landing, push towards the interior. With the terrible exception of the murderous groping along, about which nothing is being said (from the absence of images of Pearl Harbor to the leaders’ initial mistakes and the civilian casualties in the Pacific), all the patterns are in place, those of the operations and those of the story of the operations. They are all in Sands, they cannot not be in it. Patterns: The group of Marines in Sands must reflect the American melting pot the way war films have defined it for a long time: a mix of ethnicities and social groups, a metaphor for American “diversity” coming together around the patriotic cause. The “farmer” (a young peasant who understands the values of land), the “comedian” (from Brooklyn), the “Latin” (Italian or Latino, always talky and resourceful), not to mention the “Jew” (pious and 260
discreet) and the intellectual (teacher, engineer or just reader of books). In the “Pacific film,” the latter is often in charge of the voice-‐over narration, a procedure shared by both military short documentary and fiction films. From the “Marine remembering” like in To the Shores of Iwo Jima (1945) to the journalist’s account in Guadalcanal Diary (Lewis Seiler for Fox, 1943), it is important that the text says “we” or “I.” In short, that it is clear that the story is being told by someone who is a first-‐hand witness or participant. In Sands, the "comedian" is Italian American, the narrator (Dunne) is a schoolteacher and the Jew dies while murmuring a final prayer in Hebrew that Wayne concludes with a painful “Amen.” I’ll leave it up to the reader to list the missing characters, the “minor" characters and to fill in the list of the other narrative accessories (or props). The squads commanded by John Wayne/Stryker never depart from the codes of combat fiction. The actions that punctuate the “Pacific film”—straight out of film reports—go through their "final" codification in Sands of Iwo Jima: the arrival of the recruits, boot camp, boat trip, anguished waiting not knowing the “target,” meeting around the map/model of the island, landing, pinning down by enemy fire, intervention of the Air Force and bombing, bunker that blocks the advance, push towards the interior of the islands, laborious driving out of the enemy. Around this schematic of actions (that reflect a good part of the strategic reality on the field), other models codify behaviors and “experiences”: letters to and from loved ones, chaplains and rabbis and their rites blessing the soldiers, photos in helmets, young soldiers' awkwardness (they're still children), barrack-‐room life on the boat. And a terrible discovery that the soldiers in the Pacific don’t share with those fighting in Europe: the jungle, the heat, the tropical night (humid, infested with insects, muddy and dangerous). Dwan’s tropical night—organized around the conflict between two men while a groan echoes out of frame—has a unique force: it bears a double violence. Violence of the situation, violence inside the men. The whole of this schematic is bathed in a hearty racism in the treatment of the Japanese (simply put, the “Nips” are non-‐humans) and their representation (mustache, cruel grimace and samurai sword) which is barely tempered by some references to the quality of their training. Hostile Indians, basically. Let’s briefly remark here that the army’s combat footage documents POWs (certainly rare) semi-‐nude, dazed and almost crazy with fear, while voice-‐over narrations as early as 1944 recognized the determination and military art of the Japanese troops. The fiction films came to it later. (And can't one say the same about John Wayne? Was he not already “modeled?” For example, as the perfect padre padrone of Montgomery Clift in Hawks’ Red River (1948), another father-‐son story…) Dwan is dealing with a weighty iconic and narrative system, made even heavier by the addition of the famous flag raising. Not to mention the fact that the project is not supposed 261
to "creatively depart" from the codes (far from it) but instead to re-‐establish them, to renew their value and strength, to produce "prime examples". The condition of success: bring viewers together around an overwhelming monument. The culmination, if we may call it that, of the matter: the army “procures” Dwan some of the famous survivors of the Iwo Jima event in order to (re)play their roles and, in particular, the three survivors of the famous flag raising. And the real flag.
Dwan knows all this. It’s said that he thought of other actors than Wayne for the role of Stryker. He even offered it to General Erskine. He knows that getting Wayne would be a good “added value” to his work and the film. He sends his actors to boot camp (Erskine provided his toughest drill sergeant), he gives the real officers rather long screen time in the Iwo Jima sequences and he briefly surrounds Wayne together with the three survivors. He sticks to this attention to “real life effect” and reproduction that is part of the commission. He orchestrates sets, cameras (six for the battles scenes on Iwo Jima), tanks, extras and the editing in record time. And he delivers a new American emblem to his producer: the ultimate pattern. But he has mise en scène in mind, and what, moreover, mise en scène could say. As a filmmaker who has known for a long time what telling a story means, after hundreds of films, in a studio that wasn’t a “major,” at 64 years old, Allan Dwan maybe wonders what of value—beyond its prescribed role—this patriotic object could say. What could be done with images already (re)processed by cinema, with experiences that have already been recounted, with codified narratives. How to use, beyond the building of an iconic monument, this narrative “toolbox,” where each piece is strictly defined? The filmmaker’s response is about measure and balance. Dwan, a filmmaker from the Silent Era, knew very well that since the murmur of words, dialogue, jokes, wisecracks, catchphrases and fanfare has been unleashed, some work is needed in order to make heard what had to be heard. 262
Editing Combat Footage into the Fiction The production only lasts two months and the post-‐production lasts no longer than the studio’s cruel standards. Is this what explains the fact that the editing shows no trace of research into the unused materials of combat photographers? Or is it instead a matter of never going beyond what the American spectator had already seen? The navigation, landing and battle sequences in Sands mainly draw on three short films, sometimes re-‐using a series of shots without re-‐editing them. With the Marines at Tarawa was released in March 1944, Fury in the Pacific in March 1945 and To the Shores of Iwo Jima in June 1945. With the Marines and To the Shores of Iwo Jima were printed in Technicolor for distribution. Sands makes two uses of them: as rear-‐projections to insert the actors into “real backgrounds,” and as elements of sequence construction. Contrary to Guadalcanal Diary— where the use of combat footage was mechanical and rather casually dealt with through lazy repetitions (pure “signs of real life” occasionally thrown into the story)—Dwan works with great precision. A precision in editing together fictional and combat footage with systematic match cuts, or as close to match cuts as possible (in the movement, direction, from one object or element to another), and often in shot-‐reverse shot sequences. Stryker/Wayne throws a grenade, the explosion it produces is “real,” (yet reversed to serve the match cut).
What the characters are looking at is the combat footage.
Enough to shock the adepts of orthodoxy in terms of respecting the regime and status of images? It is more interesting to note that the images from the combat footage are never “disguised.” They keep their graininess and the problems with the negative if not of the prints: low definition, stains and scratches that show, in the difference between one shot and another, their origin and status. And the documentary images are not “cleaned” of the “boys” looking into the camera. What is forbidden in classical fiction is no longer the rule: the combat footage attests that “this” happened and participates with the fiction in constructing the ultimate representation of events. War documentary films dissolve into the fiction. Dwan uses close shots and close ups of the soldiers, an audacious and risky choice, giving the already-‐seen (in Technicolor) images a new possibility, four years after Iwo Jima, to “look at” the spectator.
From one to the other and to the third: the filmic link allows the close up—fleetingly violent—to be the continuation of the document, or maybe to (re)think it. The original short films, however formatted they may be, are striking for their harshness, their exhibition of bodies and wounds, the death gestures, the disorder and the destruction, cadavers of soldiers floating in the water (at Tarawa), faces made thin by hardships or pain, lost gazes, real death on camera. Sands's task is to establish under another form in people’s memories a violence they’ve already witnessed. The Other Story Dwan accomplishes this by discreetly displacing the center of the film: the ascent towards the emblem (the flag raising) is also a voyage into the masculine psyche. And, moreover, a study of the deeper meaning of the soldier’s experience: a question about remembering it and how to remember it. Not how to go through it but what do with it. It is less about becoming a monument than living afterwards. 264
The tone is set in the film’s opening minutes. It will be less a matter of discovering “Sergeant Terror’s”4 deeper qualities—the narrative codes said it all in advance—than of exploring what torments and separates men in search of a connection, in short, it will be a film about love. Stryker is tormented by the absence of a son. Conway is tormented by the presence of a father. A son whose five years of silence have turned into a ghost and a dead father whose ghost is everywhere. Figures of the Double Sands progresses from double to double, from couple to couple, from reflection to reflection. From a script that brings together the gamut of patterns and clichés around the already familiar character of the “brutal leader with a secret” (and thus hardboiled Wayne), Dwan’s design of the sequences and of their duration—the balance of the editing and the mise en scène of the dialogue—creates an almost dizzying game of mirrors in which the characters are always more than themselves. The central father-‐son couple is manifested in doubles and commented upon by parallel pairs. Around the father-‐son couple is a choir: situations staged as variations on the main situation, that work to make what is beyond the single father–son relationship resonate and be heard. In the rigid framework of the “Pacific film,” Dwan deploys the multiple forms of a novel. A novel about feelings as they happen on the masculine side. The Stryker–Conway (father–son) relationship is constructed in two equal parts. The first part (the conflict) draws a parallel between the escalation of the verbal violence and the escalation of the physical violence. Conway’s meaner and meaner words to Stryker are responded to with an increasing intensity of the desire to kill. And each one finds himself, alternately, almost ready to kill: at Tarawa, Conway yells at Stryker to launch an assault on a bunker as if he was sending him to die and Stryker seriously threatens Conway who calls him a monster. This movement has its double: an old conflict created Thomas’ animosity towards Stryker. At Tarawa, Thomas commits a major mistake by leaving his fellow soldiers without ammunition. When Stryker finds out, the two men fight. Every relationship has physical stakes; every relationship grows until it reaches the threshold of murder in order to resolve itself. Game of mirrors: Conway confides in Dunne (the narrator) his desire to marry the young woman he has just met. This hero–confidant couple that will return later on (Conway confides in Dunne that he has a premonition of death), has a "twin": the Stryker–Bass couple, in scenes where, for the most part, Bass protects Stryker by constantly asking him to reaffirm the tie that binds them. Stryker even calls him an “old maid” and one of the soldiers calls him a “dog following his master.” 265
Conway–Dunne, Stryker–Bass: two figures of friendship, two figures of the need for connection. The network of couples involves both main and secondary characters. To the Allison– Conway couple that dances in the awe of love at first sight responds, like a grimace, Stryker’s grotesque dance with the left-‐handed soldier who is learning to use his bayonet. To the escalating physical violence between Stryker and Conway, responds in major the settling of scores between Thomas and Stryker and in minor, the constant disputes of the inseparable brothers from Philadelphia (“city of brotherly love,” the "comedian" remarks). Whatever their differences in age, in dramatic moments as in playful moments, all these men have trouble conceiving an expression and a circulation of affects between them. The main characters of Sands of Iwo Jima are creatures deprived of speech (in contrast to the talkativeness and wisecracking of the secondary characters). They must learn to speak (and to talk to each other). Conway refuses to talk to Stryker: what comes from Stryker can only be the voice of the deceased father, the humiliating words of an implacable Commandatore. Stryker concedes to Bass: “If you don’t talk to me, who will?” Thomas sinks into his guilt because he doesn’t dare talk about it. And by the way, the Italian American comedian says to him, “You haven’t spoken to me since Tarawa.” And what are we to make of the “little voice” that haunts Conway and makes him say that he won’t come back from the next battle? Midway through the film, the Conway–Stryker relationship changes dramatically: the sergeant saves the life of the soldier who, absorbed in a letter from his wife, doesn’t see a misthrown grenade land at his feet. The one burning with a desire to be a father saves a son. This son, in turn, becomes a father with a will to break the line of descent (to not conform to the oppressive Father). Parallel with this reversal, on Iwo Jima, Conway saves Stryker’s life, attacked by a Japanese sniper. And the letter Conway was reading that set all this off finds its parallel in the posthumous letter the group listens to after Stryker’s death. It is hardly certain that the Conway who concludes the film by saying Stryker’s fetishized “Saddle up” to his comrade is only an heir. He is just as much, as the story has constructed him, a man who has learned to speak. Allison, Conway’s wartime wife, is echoed by Mary, the woman Stryker meets in a bar. Stryker’s wife's absence (she is named Mary) is echoed by Allison’s absence. Stryker’s absent son is echoed by the image of Conway’s son (who he only knows through a photograph). Between these images of sons is a real child, the one belonging to the lonely woman whose quiet courage calms Stryker’s torment. A real child that Stryker mistakes for a little girl. It is (of course) a little boy. 266
These two women and this child that is at once girl and boy are in no way minor characters. Sands is a man’s film that Dwan discreetly turns into a film about men. Dwan’s subtlety does not need to “quantitatively” develop the role of women: what is staged twice (Allison/Mary) is the idea that women are the very condition for the possibility of masculine speech freed from the torments of pride and ghosts of the Father. Allison and Mary bring Conway–Stryker (two figures of a same) from one state to another. Figures of the Couple The masculine characters in Sands of Iwo Jima worry about being loved – loving worries them. They live in a world of men “longing for love” where the question of filiation becomes a question of life and death. This inner novel holds to the balance that Dwan maintains and preserves from any excesses through the epic charge of the combat or directly “mythological” episodes. The cutting and framing proceed with a grammatical rigor that reveals the film’s deep-‐seated theme without complaisance and without ever compromising its discretion. The groups of soldiers are filmed frontally in static shots while they act and speak (in a tent, on board a ship, on the battlefield). The group is almost never broken up by the découpage as long as it acts as a group (whether joking or fighting), as long as it is a matter of observing the relationships that traverse it. The couples (Stryker/Conway, Stryker/Bass, etc.) talk in medium shots (medium-‐long or medium), frontally, like they’re on stage. Several times, a lateral tracking shot “reviews” the characters, stopping on one couple and then another, until it reaches the main couple of Stryker–Conway. The couple is also the major visual figure.
And finally, the close ups, like the shot-‐reverse shot sequences in medium shots—rupturing the quasi-‐theatrical frontalit—only intercede at certain key moments in the “other story”: when the words strike. So that the words literally penetrate the image. The harder the word (or look), the more it must be materially inscribed into the faces. 267
As in the “climax” of Conway’s hate for Stryker and Stryker’s wounded love. Stryker is coming from Mary’s, the single woman with the child, comforted and with his mind made up to stop “crying for himself.” He lets Bass drag him into a bar. They see the group and Conway celebrating the birth of Conway’s son. In other words, Stryker is going from the childhood of the sons to the son who is growing up. Stryker alludes to his own son when he tells Conway (in substance), “Wait till he gets to be ten and doesn’t write and you'll want to punch him.” The group remains in the background, a discreet choir that witnesses the drama (the other term for this couple is the viewer). The frame gets closer to Conway, with Stryker on the edge. He is standing up, Stryker is sitting; an inversion of the positions of authority between the young and old. Conway has become a father. He tells Stryker that he hopes his son won't be like Stryker or Colonel Conway (either of the hated fathers) but that he will be “intelligent, attentive, cultivated and a gentleman.” Conway’s last sentence is inscribed on Stryker’s face, refusing him any right to respond: “Do we understand each other?” This sentence only gains its double meaning (Do we hear each other?/Do we understand each other?) because it is heard over a shot of Stryker’s face. The shot is short, just enough time to see a slight tic in John Wayne’s left eye. And cut. It’s over. The blow was dealt by the cutting. No complaisance. No pathos. The film returns to the medium shot of the three characters that opened the scene and Stryker chases away the soldiers. Only the Stryker–Bass couple remains, facing us.
When Stryker–Conway’s relationship shifts, the same figure is used to express their affection.
Earlier in the film, this figure had signified, in an overwhelming "shot-‐reverse shot in hiding" between Conway and Stryker, that it was impossible for these men to speak in the same shot without driving each other mad. Conway is confiding in Dunne while Stryker, lying next to Bass, listens to him. From the hero-‐confidant couples, the dialogue moves to closer shots of the two men who are not speaking to one another but who the shot-‐reverse shot brings together around a "non-‐heard". “Leave a little bit of yourself, as long as you won’t be forgotten”: it’s Stryker who hears him. But it is not to him that it is being said. Constructions in couples and in mirrored images. Doubled men.
In this economy of mise en scène which is repeated at each step of the relationship between the main characters and which gets the actors’ best performances, medium shots and close ups are never the easy solutions of the cheap commerce of predictable emotions. The faces of the characters/actors invading the screen are, quite literally, the invasion of the screen by emotion.
Silent Film: and At the End, the Flag The flag appears five times before the reproduction of the flag raising. It is given to the group’s comedian Ragazi the Italian American. Its iconic force is distributed amongst the “common people” of the characters. Before Tarawa, Ragazi learns how to fold a flag in a scene where the hardly excited last sentence (“What d’ya know”) may be redeemed by the sequence’s documentary character. At Tarawa, this same Ragazi misses the occasion to hoist his flag and tucks it (well folded) into his shirt. Then the icon becomes more precise: a match cut associates the flag waving on Tarawa with the flag wrapped around a corpse in the combat footage (see above). No need for Dwan, the enemy of complacency, to “reproduce” a burial at sea scene. The memory of the already-‐seen images suffices. This happens also because this filmmaker of balance contains any possible flooding of the moment by the “already known, already seen.” On the boat taking them to Iwo Jima, Ragazi takes out his flag and says he is determined to raise it over Tokyo. The last time that a furious Ragazi will be deprived of a chance to raise his flag will happen on Iwo Jima: the flag Stryker confides to the three survivors is another one. To retain or defuse the emotion the well-‐known object would produce in advance and to construct the icon by confiding it to a minor character: two ways to give another life to the inevitable, anticipated monument, so that no one will touch it for a long time.
It doesn’t take long to see how much Sands is the work of a silent filmmaker. The scene at the end of the flag raising is one of the most obvious signs of that. Stryker gives the flag that must be planted on Mount Suribachi to a “first squad": this is the moment of the cameo of the three survivors where we notice above all that Ira Hayes, the outsider, is looking elsewhere as if he were not there.
Last dialogue between Conway and Stryker: the “little voice” of fear has disappeared. And “I never felt so good,” Stryker says. A sniper’s bullet hits him in the back. He falls backwards. While, in the background, the combat photographers climb towards the summit, Thomas finds on Stryker’s body an unfinished letter to his son. He reads it aloud to the other soldiers as they crouch around the body. The film cuts from face to face. Conway takes the letter and says, “I’ll finish it for him.” Over the sound of a drum roll comes the first shot of the reproduction of the flag raising. Bill Genaust’s shot was not enough: too short, framed too close. It isn’t monumental enough, not as monumental as the photo. Dwan cuts together three shots of his careful reproduction, not one more: enough so that his main characters raise their eyes (one by one, in close up) and then get up while the Marines hymn begins. Final shot of the reproduction: the flag is raised. A new series of close ups on the faces to the sound of the hymn, this time not with their heads up, but as if they were watching the flag scene in front of them, against all rules of spatial continuity.
Conway lowers his eyes towards the famous shot of Stryker’s dead body, his face against the ground.
It’s in a close up that Conway raises his eyes again and exclaims, “Saddle up,” the expression Stryker shouted to get them moving. A shot of the group turning around and walking away in the smoke of an invisible bombing raid over which appear the words “The End.” This ending, as “monumental” as it may seem, is the convergence point of the two stories: an ending with an edifying moment (the letter before the flag), a heavy screenwriting artifice, where the sound could be missing, replaced by a title card that would take its pathetic color from the cutting, the editing and the non-‐continuity. Dwan’s other story, on the other hand, demands that the harshest sentences in Stryker’s letter – “I want you to be like me in some things but not like me in others – I'm a failure in many” – be heard. In Dwan’s grammar, it’s on a close up that it is heard, which must be a close up of Conway. When the flag will have been raised, it will not be at it that Conway will be looking but instead at a name and a wound on a faceless body. Conway’s final resolution undoubtedly takes on a sense that goes beyond the cliché and rhetoric of the project. The place he takes is not just the continuation of a soldier’s obligation. It is not the flag that decides the whole movement. It is a touching body, an absurd death, an unseen face. Conway’s place is in the company of men. 272
Afterwards Everything having been “told in advance,” all that was left for Dwan—a passionate storyteller of feelings—was probably only what is fundamental, what is deep. What his mise en scène make these men represent (including Commendatore Wayne) is an anthropological question: what will men do with war experience? Lived or seen (cinematic or real), the experience of war is one of the moments where relationships between people take on an intensity foreign to “everyday life.” Conway says it, at the beginning of the film: “When you get out here, you’re close to things.” To go further, to see deeper into things, to leave something for oneself, not to be forgotten: for Stryker and Conway—Dwan’s double voice—it is a matter of escaping assigned social roles and male folklore and constructing the experience of war. Neither as a repository of clichés nor as the repetition of inherited gestures. To not forget is not a matter of monuments, it is making possible the free thought of experience, outside of the ideological injunctions of the times. This will also be one of the questions in Silver Lode: how to make one’s own path through the jungle of stories—already seen and already known—of clichés and prejudices, in order to testify about the past and create a future. The only response in the secret novel of Sands is to accept the game of emotions, to love and to speak, in a human community freed of the ghosts of oppression. For Edgardo Cozarinsky, modestamente 1 Stephen E. Ambrose in Shooting War: World War II Combat Cameramen. 2 Marines raising the American flag on Mount Surabachi February 23, 1945. And don’t forget Flags of Our Fathers. 3 It’s even the basis for a famous photograph of firefighters on 9/11. 4 The French title of Take the High Ground (Sergent la terreur).
*** Surrender (1950) belongs to the same western-‐noir cycle of the late 1940’s that would include Andre de Toth’s Ramrod (1947), Raoul Walsh’s Pursued (1947) and Colorado Territory (1949), Robert Wise’s Blood on the Moon (1948), Mark Robson’s Roughshod (1949), and Anthony Mann’s The Furies (1950) and Winchester ’73 (1950). These movies share in common a visual aesthetic, character set, and lack of moral center more reminiscent of film noir than the traditional western Roots of this generic shift can be traced back to John Ford’s poetic compositions and somber undercurrents in My Darling Clementine (1946), the stark morality play surrounding a lynching in William A. Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), and even Lillian Gish’s psychic trauma and hallucinatory imaginings in Victor Sjostrom’s The Wind (1928). The story is an underworld horse opera that revolves around Crystal Palace Bar & Casino owner Greg Delaney (John Carroll), and the permutations of liaisons between himself, his best friend Johnny Hale (William Ching), and a pair of sisters, the good-‐girl Janet Barton (Maria Palmer), and her gold-‐digging, man-‐eating sister Violent (Vera Ralston), while, local Sheriff William Howard (Walter Brennan) scours out reason to lock up Delaney. Delaney, like Dwan himself, is a man who uses his hands and his mind. These ever-‐practical craftsman-‐innovators could be found throughout Dwan's filmography, from Douglas Fairbanks’ swashbucklers, manipulating the space around them, to Tyrone Power’s 274
engineer in Suez (1938), who masters space in quite a different way, to Dennis O’Keefe economic strategizing in Brewster’s Millions (1945), and especially John Payne’s sergeant in Hold Back the Night (1956), who leads his under-‐armed troops on a retreat of almost certain doom. Evident throughout, Delaney’s pragmatism is particularly noticeable in the opening scene as he eludes capture, defeats his attackers, and conspires to outwit the Sheriff; or later on, after he pays off a blackmailer and arranges for him to lose back all the money in Delaney’s own casino. Bertrand Tavernier describes Dwan as “the most Rousseauiste of American filmmakers”: since he “rarely condemns his characters, they can behave honestly.” In Surrender, the absence of someone within the narrative who can act as a clear moral anchor permits a certain freedom for the characters to make decisions that, in other films, would be weighted with more judgment. Dwan doesn’t seem to be bothered by the morality behind his characters’ decisions. It is decision and action, rather ethic and implication, that he is most interested in exploring. Surrender also is also characteristic of Dwan’s visually expressive and dynamic compositional style: from its thrilling, tenebrous opening chase, to the opulent casino sequences, to the mystical, near-‐spiritual final chase through desert mountains in the moonlight. Surrender begins at night, with the kind of clandestine cinematography and geometric redistribution of space through light and shadow suggestive of the Anthony Mann-‐like paranoia. Densely plotted with layers of deceit and pursuit, however, it is also remarkable for its Dwanian narrative concision. As henchman surprise Delaney, violence erupts, punches are thrown, shots are fired almost anonymously in the night; moments later Gale’s pursuit of Delaney to labyrinthine back alleys of wooden crates and sacks of grain, well out of view of the main street, build to the image of Delaney’s silhouette, projected against a wall, stabbing Gale with a sword.
The interplay of light and shadow is a stylized game of persecution—one that exemplifies the way that Dwan was able to dress (and re-‐dress) lackluster B-‐sets into cinematically charged and intricately detailed spaces. The rest of the film takes place primarily indoors, but here too, Dwan counters his spatial limitations through generous decorations to amplify both the quality and volume of his sets. The decorations of the Crystal Palace Bar & Casino seem more suited to a glossy MGM production than a Poverty Row oater from Republic. Chandeliers, mirrors, densely patterned wallpaper, thick curtains, and arched doorways provide depth, texture, elegance, and shimmer to what are, most likely, recycled sets from westerns past. Dwan brings the space to the camera, rather than taking the camera through the space: tight medium shots make what’s there seem to spill over. Similarly, Violet and Janet’s house, decked out in decorative wall paper, tabletop sculptures, framed pictures on crowding every wall, door frames, large windows, a stately fireplace, wall ornaments, antique lamps, candlestick holders, and even spiked bedposts resembling medieval torture weapons—offer the impression both of a personal space that is very lived-‐in, as well as a cinematic set whose budget would seem much higher than it actually was. Characteristically, Dwan marshals his resources for only the most crucial camera movements, which seem all the more expressive in the context of his traditionally static decoupage. A spectacular crane shot, more suggestive of George Cukor, Victor Fleming, or any of the other MGM lords of majesty, opens the wedding of Hale and Janet; and in Violet’s shopping excursion down Main Street, the camera moves laterally along the street to follows her from vendor to vendor. Both initiate two of the film’s only personable scenes: the wedding reception of the former, and a stroll through town in the latter. The street seems alive with pedestrians in this latter, open-‐air shot, bustling with the young and old, people coming and going from behind and in front of camera. As in Calendar Girl (1947), I Dream of Jeanie (1952), and Sweethearts on Parade (1953), we see Dwan here at his most personable: there’s a love and affection for atmosphere, for small-‐town people, and for daily life, the sort that gets overlooked in most movies. Watching this sequence, like the backstage carnival glimpses in Sweethearts on Parade, one wishes that these moments could last for more than just mere seconds, that Dwan’s camera could pass from person to person, lingering long for a more intimate encounter. Instead, the demands of a commercial narrative film limit his interaction. So, Dwan overfills the screen with more people, more activity, more detail, and more life than the screen can possible contain. It’s a marvelous sequence, one of the few examples of heart in an otherwise cold and barren noir. But Dwan saves the most visually impressive sequence for last, as Delaney attempts to outrun Sheriff Howard while ferrying Violet safely across the Mexican border. Whereas most of Surrender is composed in tight medium and medium-‐long shots, here Dwan, pulling his camera way back, composes the finale in extreme long shots that maximize the visual 276
expanse of the mountains and miniaturize the characters in flight. In a way, the epic proportion of these images recalls the desert vistas during the canal digging sequences of Dwan’s comparatively big-‐budget Suez: both episodes share an elemental spiritualism, an ominous atmosphere seemingly in awe, even afraid, of the power of earth, wind, and sand. Here, Dwan’s images draw out deep shadows that caress the folds of sand and rocky crevices, and lingers on the clouds of dust under the pounding horses’ hooves, rising like phantoms from below the earth. Harsh jagged rocks and fathomless, all-‐consuming shadows combine to form some terrifying geography, a nightmare space of ominous majesty; its imposing stature looks to diminish both the size and significance of the characters and their mortal drama. The people may be fighting for life or death, but the grandeur of the landscape overshadows the meaningless and futility of their conflict. As Elmore Leonard describes in his novel Forty Lashes One, “There was nothing out there but sky and rocks and desert growth that looked as if it would never die, but offered a man no hope of life.” Shot down by snipers, Delaney and Violet die in each other’s arms. Surrender’s final shot is a rare moment of symbolism for Dwan. As camera looks straight down upon their bodies, it slowly rises, as though their souls were leaving and ascending to heaven. As a cinematic gesture, Dwan’s camera movement offers a sweeping emotional experience for the viewer, a spiritual uplift that enriches and moves us outside the boundaries, once again, of an otherwise neatly circumscribed drama.
MONTANA BELLE (1952)
Fernando F. Croce
By the time Montana Belle (1952) was released, Allan Dwan himself couldn’t keep track of how many films he had directed. When in 1916 he had helped devise elevated tracking shots because D.W. Griffith wanted the camera to soar over his Babylonian sets, Dwan was already an experienced hand in still-‐embryonic Hollywood, and an inventive one: released that same year, Manhattan Madness bounces Douglas Fairbanks Sr. from ranch to drawing room and back, keeping cowpokes and urbanites trading places as if in a continuous game of musical chairs. Of all the pioneers who originally pieced together the Western genre for audiences, Dwan is the one most humorously aware of the dress-‐up element inherent in actors decked out in cowboy hats and guns and elaborate saloon dresses, of how easily the noble Old West outfit can become the baggy costume of farce. The straightforward sturdiness of Frontier Marshal (1939) segues into the knockabout charade of Trail of the Vigilantes (1940), and the Borgesian nightmare of Silver Lode (1954) follows the acidic cat-‐fight of The Woman They Almost Lynched (1953). The material may fluctuate, but Dwan remains unswervingly lucid as he ponders each stark/hysterical masquerade—it’s the limpid gaze of a contemplative artist making his way through poverty row, someone who’s weathered decades of studio fashions and crises and who cheerily expects to weather many more. In Montana Belle, the studio crisis was simply a millionaire’s desire and fickleness. In 1948 Howard Hughes would loan out his protégé Jane Russell to Republic Studios for a biopic of “lady bandit” Belle Starr, then buy the finished film and shelve it for four years before releasing it through RKO. Russell’s pin-‐up ampleness resembles the real Belle Starr’s sagebrush grit about as much as Faye Dunaway’s New-‐Wave chic in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) resembles the real Bonnie Parker’s boxcar pugnaciousness, and yet the actress’s petulant pout projects a deadpan acceptance of the absurd that harmonizes with the 278
filmmaker’s own serenity. Russell’s Belle is introduced as a sullen widow and ace sharpshooter, riding with the Dalton gang before starting her own bunch of outlaws. Medium-‐shots make up most of the compositions, oddly reminiscent of Jacques Tourneur’s Westerns like Canyon Passage (1946) and Great Day in the Morning (1956); the bluish tinge of the Trucolor cinematographic process gives the images a spectral quality, like a memory from Becky Sharp (1935) or Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936) or other chromatic 1930s experiments. In a period when postwar torment was manifesting itself in increasingly violent visions of the West, Dwan’s unruffled approach and abrupt flashes of silent-‐era technique—wanted posters superimposed over horse chases, a dissolve between images to evoke a character’s shock of recognition—only heighten the film’s strangeness. “Women are funny people,” Bob Dalton (Scott Brady) tells Starr late in the picture, a view shared by Dwan at least as early as Gloria Swanson’s boisterous subway ride in Manhandled (1924). Linked by genre and zeitgeist to Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious (1952) in its many betrayals and vendettas and bandit-‐chanteuse transformations, Montana Belle might also connected to Frank Tashlin’s Son of Paleface (1952) in its appreciation of the lunacy of Jane Russell masquerading in buckskin. When the heroine disguises herself as a man by hiding half her face behind a blue handkerchief with white dots, the pleasure in playing cowboy dress-‐up is fused with the drag exuberance of Annabella in Suez (1938) and Dennis O’Keefe and William Bendix in Abroad with Two Yanks (1944). A few scenes later and the snarling brunette has turned into a blonde singer working the saloon crowd, the camera panning from one dumbstruck gambler to another as Starr performs “The Gilded Lily.” Arlene Dahl and Debra Paget would showcase their most perversely erotic sides under Dwan’s direction, and yet here he views Howard Hughes’s famous object of lust primarily as a sharp-‐witted tomboy. (In another bit of pokerfaced undercutting of genre staples, Andy Devine is almost baleful as a greedy informer, miles away from his standard, scratchy Fordian buffoonery.) If much of Montana Belle harks back to Dwan’s comedies, its closing session strongly points forward to Silver Lode, arguably the best of the director’s late films. As in that subsequent Western, the characters find themselves in an ominously deserted town adorned with the celebratory reds, whites and blues of the U.S. flag. The sequence that follows—a bank robbery followed by a shootout—is at once the picture’s most brutal and most affecting passage. Making powerful use of editing, depth of field and movement, Dwan’s camera watches from inside the bank through the window as the Dalton gang members approach from the street, and then vigorously shifts angles as armed deputies aiming from balconies reveal an ambush. The foretaste of The Wild Bunch (1969) is clinched when the surrounded outlaws, exhausted and finally out of ammo, calmly settle on a suicidal pact with the line “Let’s walk out of this town.” In its unassuming stylistic virtuosity, its humor and intensity and ultimate tranquility in the face of impossible odds, the scene movingly suggests the paradoxes of Dwan’s career as a seemingly modest craftsman willing to stroll into hails of bullets. 279
SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE (1953)
Throughout his prodigiously long and productive career, Allan Dwan kept his work fresh (and himself employed) by changing genres and shifting moods every few years. The sparse Western dramas of his earliest work, in the waning days of the nickelodeon, flow into the exuberant comedy and fluid action of his Douglas Fairbanks films of the late teens, and then into the dramatically nuanced romantic comedies that characterize his 1920s work with Gloria Swanson (there is no doubt much more to this period, but so much of Dwan’s early work has been lost that even broad generalizations are difficult). The 30s find him fully engaged with the social issue films of the period, from the anti-‐war Chances (1930) to the complex treatment of race relations in One Mile from Heaven (1937); late in the decade he veers abruptly into broad comedy (The Gorilla, 1939), a vein he follows into the manic farces of the war years (Up in Mabel’s Room, 1944). The end of the war finds Dwan under contract to Republic, where the tenor of his work shifts again. The frantic pace of the wartime comedies relaxes into a lyrical mode, and elements of fantasy—improbable coincidences, seemingly miraculous events, characters who suddenly burst into song—come to characterize what I think of as the “magic realist” period in Dwan’s work: a great expansion of warmth and optimism that leads, mysteriously and inexorably, into the cool abstraction of the final decade of films, made for the independent producer Benedict Bogeaus.
And yet, at the center of this constant change, Dwan’s personal themes and stylistic approach remain remarkably consistent. The outlines of the distinctively independent, self-‐ confident, self-‐actualizing Dwan heroine are already apparent in the earliest of his one-‐reel westerns from 1911, as embodied by his leading lady Pauline Bush (an active suffragette, whom Dwan would marry in 1915). His camera, too, had acquired much of its distinctive mobility by the time of David Harum (1915), which contains one of the earliest known dolly shots in American movies. The dolly shot becomes Dwan’s primary tool of expression, central to his concept of an human-‐centered cinema, in which the performers themselves, through their constant movement, seem to carry the frame along with them, rather than being anchored as elements of a static composition. To the end of his working life in 1961, Dwan remains the champion of what might be called an anti-‐expressionist cinema, in which camera work is not used to comment on the characters or editorialize on their metaphysical condition, but to present their personal dynamics as fully and clearly to the audience as possible. When he needs to reframe the action for dramatic emphasis, Dwan will almost always prefer the invisible grace of a camera movement to the violent disruption of a cut. From this flows the wonderful, present-‐tense vitality of his films, as if the stylistic choices were being determined on the spot, in response to the spontaneous movements of the actors or the shifting emotional center of the narrative. The counterpoint to the present-‐tense freedom of Dwan’s films is the constraining sense of the past—the weight of history, tradition, social convention—which Dwan most often dramatizes as generational conflicts within a family. Romantic attractions can be, and generally are, immediate, complete and irrevocable; couples are formed with thrilling alacrity in Dwan’s movies, often at the initiation of women (Rochelle Hudson in That I May Live (1937), Annabella in Suez (1938), Peggy Moran in Trail of the Vigilantes (1940), Ruth Warrick in Driftwood (1947)) who forthrightly declare their love and defy social convention to pursue the men they have chosen. (As an instinctive feminist, Dwan often celebrates autonomous women in a way many celebrated “women’s directors,” like Cukor and Minnelli, seem barely able to conceive; as Shirley Temple, in many ways the perfect embodiment of the Dwan heroine, repeatedly declares in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), “I’m very self-‐reliant.”) But as gloriously direct as romantic relationships can be in Dwan’s work, extended family relationships are almost invariably complex and fraught with emotional conflict. It is a contrast that Dwan develops across the course of his long career, through all the shifts in genre and tone. The vast number of absent or estranged fathers in Dwan’s films has been widely noted, and some of Dwan’s most vivid work centers on absentee fathers struggling to make up for 281
their neglect of their children: Holmes Herbert in East Side, West Side (1927), Grant Mitchell in Man to Man (1930), Victor McLaglen in While Paris Sleeps (1932), Edmund Lowe in Black Sheep (1935). Significantly, it is the abandoned sons who wallow in anger and self-‐ pity (George O’Brien in East Side, West Side; Phillips Holmes in Man to Man), while the abandoned daughters, from Marion Davies in Getting Mary Married (1919) to Natalie Wood in Driftwood (1947) cock their chins and get on with their lives. When parents are present and accounted for, as they are in an equally imposing number of films, Dwan often plays the situation for comedy, with the children managing their parents’ troubled marriages or chaotic emotional lives. Dwan enjoys developing parallel plots that range across generations, as in Young People (1940), in which Shirley Temple mediates between her adoptive parents, a pair of rowdy vaudevillians (Jack Oakie and Charlotte Greenwood) and the elders of the conservative New England town to which they have retired, or Friendly Enemies (1943), in which two quarrelsome old men (Charles Winninger and Charles Ruggles) threaten to disrupt the engagement of their children (James Craig and Nancy Kelly). Equally, it’s the children who end up taking charge of widowed parents, like Jane Frazee in Calendar Girl (1947), who guides her father (Victor McLaglen) into a relationship with her dancing teacher (Irene Rich), or the brothers in the 1938’s Josette (Don Ameche and Robert Young) who try to steer their playboy father (William Collier, Sr.) away from a gold-‐digging chanteuse (Tala Birell). All of these themes come together in Sweethearts on Parade (1953), one of Dwan’s least known films, but to me, one of his most beautiful and fully realized. The last of the four musicals Dwan made at Republic, Sweethearts is a sequel of sorts to the apparently successful I Dream of Jeanie, a 1952 Republic special, produced in the studio’s thrifty but unstable Trucolor process, which featured the tenor Bill Shirley as 19th century composer Stephen Foster, the baritone Ray Middleton as Edwin P. Christy, the minstrel-‐show performer who popularized Foster’s music, and the soprano Eileen Christy as the Jeanie of the title, a fictional (but eminently Dwaninian) character who falls in love with Foster and rescues him from her manipulative sister (another favorite Dwan plot device). Only Middleton was a star, of a sort, having come directly from the four year Broadway run of Annie Get Your Gun, in which he sang opposite Ethel Merman. Shirley’s future celebrity would come with two film in which his face was not seen: providing the voice for the Prince in the 1959 Disney feature Sleeping Beauty, and Jeremy Brett’s singing voice (“On the Street Where You Live”) in Cukor’s 1964 My Fair Lady. “Introduced” in Jeanie, the pert, blonde Christy made no more films after her Republic contract expired, though her singing career continued; notably, she appeared opposite John Raitt in a 1965 revival of Carousel directed by Richard Rodgers—a piece that shares some DNA with Dwan’s Sweethearts. 282
Jeanie would largely be an excuse for Dwan and his gifted musical director, Robert Armbruster (unaccountably uncredited on the film), to assemble a number of public domain songs into a musical revue that suggested one of MGM’s (vastly) bigger budgeted songwriter musicals, like Words and Music (1948) or Three Little Words (1950). Adding a second soprano, Lucille Norman (fresh from the Warners musical flop Painting the Clouds with Sunshine (1951)) to the cast, Sweethearts on Parade seems to have begun in a similar impulse, with Foster augmented by Johann Strauss and a number of lesser known 19th century composers, none of whom would strain Republic’s coffers with royalty payments. But in Sweethearts on Parade, a far more ambitious and in many ways more personal effort than Jeanie, the depth of Dwan’s commitment is clear from the film’s first spoken words: a charming bit of doggerel that evokes Kokomo, Indiana, on “a soft June day/some eighty years ago.” The verse is Dwan’s own, as are some of the other lyrics heard in the film, and the voice belongs to James Kirkwood, a member of D.W. Griffith’s Biograph stock company whom Dwan had directed in four films in 1920 (including “The Scoffer,” which Kevin Browlow has recently rediscovered). Kokomo was not far from the University of Notre Dame, where Dwan had studied electrical engineering from 1903 to 1907, but the idyllic Midwestern town of “Sweethearts”—evoked, with amazing economy, through two interior sets and what looks to have been a brief location trip to Lake Arrowhead—has little basis in reality (Kokomo was, and remains, an industrial city). If there is an immediate connection for Dwan, it is probably in the figure of Bill Shirley’s character, Bill Gamble—a medical doctor who has given up practicing his profession in favor of performing with a traveling medicine show, just as Dwan had abandoned his engineering studies in favor of joining the scarcely more respectable early motion picture industry. Bill’s best friend and trailer-‐mate is, similarly, a lawyer who has thrown over the law to pursue his passion for poetry; played by Harry Carey, Jr., Jim Riley turns out to be James Whitcomb Riley, a historical figure who later became a popular poet. In keeping with the magical tone of the film, he frequently speaks in rhyme. Dwan, always a master of structure and pacing builds the film (from a script by Houston Branch, who early in his career had written the play that became William Wellman’s nightmarish Safe in Hell (1931)) as essentially a non-‐stop series of musical numbers, which serve less as embellishments to the plot than its basic narrative units. (The singing stops only during the melodramatic complications of the last act, as Dwan strategically holds back the emotional release that the characters find in performance until the final resolution.) The film opens with a magically professional performance of a Strauss waltz (with added lyrics by Dwan) by an orchestra of children arrayed across the porch and front lawn of Kathleen Townsend (Lucille Norman), Kokomo’s premiere music teacher and the mother of her star pupil, the singer and pianist Sylvia (Christy). A proposal from the town’s stuffy 283
doctor (Clinton Sundberg) prompts Kathleen to summon up suppressed memories of her past—of her career on the stage and her failed marriage to a promising opera star (Middleton). Dwan rarely interrupts the flow of his present-‐tense style with flashback, but when he does, his reasons are considered and expressive, and so the reason for the stylistic departure soon becomes brilliantly clear—the remembered image of Middleton’s Cam Ellerby immediately summons up the real thing, as Dwan cuts to the wagon train of Cam’s medicine show, passing at that precise moment before the house of the two women. The beautiful Sylvia, watching from the front yard, catches the eye of both Cam (singing “Roving,” again with lyrics by Dwan) and Bill, occasioning a flurry of intercut point-‐of-‐view shots, the camera panning with Sylvia’s regard as she watches the wagons pass, and moving away with Cam and Bill, as they look back at the girl who is watching them with such interest. A magnificent panning shot taken from a moving dolly captures Sylvia running back into the house to tell her mothers of the visitors—a thrilling moment of freedom, grace, and boundless energy that powerfully evokes the loose, swinging style of Dwan’s Douglas Fairbanks films. The return of the absent father (though it will take a few reels for Kathleen and Sylvia to discover Cam’s true identity) is breathtakingly conflated with the birth of the perfect love (as a thunderstruck Bill turns to watch Sylvia run into the house)—two key Dwan moments that here become one. The balance of this swift, compact film (the story covers perhaps 48 hours, the length of the Ogalla Medicine Show’s stay in Kokomo) is devoted to sorting out and resolving the powerful emotions produced by this “accidental” encounter. Bill and Sylvia confirm their bond, again through a series of carefully matched camera movements following the same right-‐to-‐left flow of the passing wagon train, in a musical number (“Young Love,” with music by Franz von Suppé and lyrics by Dwan) set on the shore of the town’s little lake. A visit to the tent show allows Dwan to examine this mobile community in detail, outlining a whole network of relationships among its citizens, while introducing Sylvia to the lure of the stage. Cam comes to life only when he sings; otherwise, he is a surly alcoholic, hiding his feelings even from the show’s female star Lolita Lamont (the Cuban singer Estelita Rodriguez, who was herself married to the alcoholic Republic contract player Grant Withers). A misunderstanding, of the sort Dwan played for comedy in his wartime farces, leads Sylvia to believe that Bill is in love with Lolita; Cam finds himself comforting the wounded Sylvia as if he were her father—which, when Kathleen comes looking for her daughter, he discovers he is. It is left to the gallant Lolita to set things right, which she does by revealing to Sylvia that Bill is in love only with her and that Cam is her long lost father, a selfless act that results in her exile from the community and from the film. 284
Dwan covers these improbable incidents with such speed and concision that they come to seem both logical and inevitable. With his engineer’s sense of structure, he uses one plot strand to reinforce and advance the other: Bill and Sylvia’s budding relationship (it is, of course, springtime, and the trees of Kokomo are in bloom) awakens Kathleen’s memories and dormant feelings; Cam’s recognition of his parental responsibility toward Sylvia rekindles his love for Kathleen, and pulls him out of his isolation and self-‐pity. And finally, it is in finding their true partners that Kathleen and Sylvia discover the freedom and self-‐ confidence that Dwan admires so much in his women. Sweethearts on Parade ends with a splendid moment of radical renunciation—as the two women abandon their home, their community, and the respectable middle class life they have built for themselves—with a jubilant rejection of material gain and social position whose parallel would be hard to find in the cinema of the 1950s, or of any other era. As the show’s wagons pass again in front of their house (this time moving from left to right, giving the film a kind of circular, symmetrical closure as well), the women barely hesitate before throwing a few belongings into carpetbags and joining their men on the buckboard of the leading vehicle. They do not look back—there is no nostalgia in this nostalgic film, only a sense of an eternally unfolding present, of a movement that will never end. Dwan leaves the exuberant last line of dialogue, with its teasing, multiple meanings, to Harry Carey’s poet: “We’re rolling!”
WELCOME TO POVERTY ROW: WOMAN THEY ALMOST LYNCHED (1953)
Alfonso Crespo Translated by David Phelps Dwan, or cinema as a dynamometer. Measuring force, verifying the torque, calibrating the centripetal and centrifugal tension: the shot, sometimes magnetic, other times allows itself be carried along on the strength of its mobility and go where it wants. What we have here is a recipe of undeniable purity, typical of the kind of pioneer Dwan was, one deeply concerned, in his earliest formulas, with the economy of the gag; with what might be called, let's say, Bazinian; and with suggestions of all that's being done and undone just off-‐screen. Woman They Almost Lynched (1953) is marked by unadulterated comedy, and this is perhaps the way in which the film can and ought to be thought of as a kind of prototype for its immediate successor Silver Lode (1954) and even for another, related title, Johnny Guitar (Ray, 1954). The key here, as in so many Dwan films, lies in the near proximity of intimate emotion to the tongue-‐in-‐cheek, as if the first were to violently burst in and seize us thanks to the second; the former resembling an irresponsible display of the latter (like what Tarantino, for example, would spend years attempting in a more ghostly key, to varying results). Traces, if we want to see it that way, of an idea of classical cinema in which it was still possible to trust in the resilience of genres (stockpiles of conventions and familiar gestures) in order to convey a message about the capacities of mankind to improve itself. That is to say that by continuing to think, as Dwan might have, that love is really a miracle, a primary force of transformation, it becomes impossible to surrender even at the outskirts of the industry. And so to survive in a brothel, as Sally Maris (Joan Leslie) must in the story, means forgetting about all complaints, squeezing oneself into a low-‐cut dress, and painting a prominent beauty mark onto strategic locations. This is why Dwan should be considered not only as a B-‐movie master—even if the almost lynched woman and the various supporting characters at her side would hardly pale before the heroes of other outstanding Westerns made in the margins of the era, like Forty Guns (Fuller, 1957) or Terror in a Texas Town (Lewis, 1958)— but a master working in B-‐movies for whom neither an impoverished budget nor means would weaken his extraordinarily subtle mise en scène or mar his ethos, that one can not refuse to love the creatures that one films.
In that sense, amongst the most urgent and dynamic strategems of the subgenre, we might reserve a special place for the resistant shot, filmed almost without emphasis, marked by that moving simplicity mentioned above through which cinema becomes simply a concentration and display of elemental forces. This is how, after the opening, which interweaves with some comic panache—a first echo of Buñuel, and not the only one, in a film in which Totter most resembles Silvia Pinal—cases of violence and death (the Civil War, the pillages of the heartless posses, the lynching in Border City, and the assault of Quantrill's Raiders, executed with all the diligence and detachment of the cavalry itself), Dwan finally allows us a breather to present some of the characters. Taking the point of view of Quantrill (Brian Donlevy) and his wife Kate (Audrey Totter), the shot-‐reverse-‐shots establish a hard, fixed framework, like the effect of facing a photographer on their parade to immortality: there is Sally, and there goes Cole Younger or Jesse James, entering or disappearing from an off-‐screen space that is felt as something more abstract than a realistic extension of a human gaze—and more like a metaphysical back stage. Cinema sets these fates into motion and agrees to suspend judgment 'til the end, when we will know what reasons these men and woman, now looking each other, have to lie, to drink, to start running, and to move through Dwan's shots. Such contractions, like sculptural folds in time, hold back the spatial turmoil, the tendency towards movement and masquerade, the temptation towards the carnavalesque, and it's here that Dwan's cinema becomes even more acute. Per Carmelo Bene, the only thing that can actually happen in a movie theater is for the film itself to break, and it wouldn't be wrong to understand the boutade here in this broader sense.1 The imminence of a sudden rupture, which has been played with in cinema by phenomenalogists and modernists alike, relates even to the most codified cinema, and could be thought of as one of the sensory and intellectual experiences from which "classical" derives its name. Here, in the vaudeville of all these masks and wigs, where male extras crudely impersonate actresses and the windows are revealed to be nothing more than matted rear-‐projections, Dwan, as he had been doing at least since 1916 (Manhattan Madness), and would do once again a year later in the startling twists of Silver Lode, leaves the film at a stand-‐still at the least expected and least appropriate moments. And so it's here, when the situations, the atmosphere, and the characters exhibit themselves prismatically, that they reveal themselves as formulations of a fragile present where anything can happen. Allergic to cynicism, the filmmaker looks at his characters, then, for all their possibilities, for their openness to change, and the edges of the shot takes on another connotation. This is what happens when Kate Quantrill, ruthless, cold-‐ blooded murderer, levels with Sally and the rest of the saloon girls and reclaims her old personality, her name—Kitty McCoy—and her aspiration (always the dream) to become herself again in another place. In a few seconds, camp and parody are abandoned, the shots coalesce, and the off-‐screen space is signaled on-‐screen; there are no tricks. Uninterested in storyline—the great title of the film, like one of Bresson's, has already sentenced the narrative to its end—Dwan, who was always less of a happy ending than last second rescue kind of director—Griffith's lineage—who gets to the resolution only at the tail-‐end of the last reel, extracts out his treasure, the perseverance of goodness and of the necessity of sacrifice 288
and compromise, from this world of swapping signs, in which everyone lets themselves be carried along by their impulses and drives (once again Buñuel: only in his Mexican period could a man, as here, have confused his sister with a prostitute, or a young woman pass from Puritanism to repeatedly bashing the head of her unconscious nemesis against the floor). It was Deleuze who summed up the American dream, and its cinematic corollary, in the capacity of a community to think and dream itself to be other than as it is, to be worthy of change.2 Even Woman They Almost Lynched and Silver Lode, as reflections of a paranoid climate, the fear and cowardace instilled by Macarthyism, participate in this desire. And in Dwan, such desire tends to be the domain of women. The Southern spy, the man for whom Sally comes to the point of being lynched, doesn't want to abandon her to "this bunch of renegades and drunks" (alcohol, as Deleuze will soon recall, would soon be the principle surrogate for oneiric wistfulness), but as he is wounded, everything falls to the hands of the women: as is, then, the dirty work, the lie that will reveals the truth and reconcile the individuals and the nation. As suggested above, Woman could be considered Silver Lode's prototype: a primitive version of the latter (no pejorative meaning here), its naturalist variation, particularly for all the historical detail it accrues. Both films seem to testify to what Lévi-‐Strauss would write about America in Triste Tropiques, linking it, with obvious cinematic implications, to a fount of malice: that America was a land that passed from barbarism to decadence without ever knowing civilization.3 A fairy tale partly driven by its magical dissolves, Woman They Almost Lynched is one of the most beautiful and entertaining of Dwan's pre-‐civilization parables, all of which convey the same sense of longing. When all is over, no debts are left to pay to conscience nor society, as both still appear to be under construction: neither the sadistic mayor, nor Jesse James, Younger, or Quantrill and his wife receive any sort of punishment for their villainy. Almost nobody turns out to be what we believed them to be, and everyone is granted the benefit of the tabula rasa. Kissing, whiskey... "I wish I was in Dixie." 1 In C.B. versus cinema, television interview with Sandro Veronesi, 1995. 2 Gilles Deleuze, Cine II. Los signos del movimiento y el tiempo (Buenos Aires: Cactus, 2011), 241-‐269. 3 Claude Lévi-‐Strauss, Tristes trópicos, (Barcelona: Austral, 2006), 115-‐116.
"L'AXIOME À AFFIRMER EN FAIT DE BALLET": SILVER LODE (1954)1
Andy Rector and Bill Krohn
1 Originally published as liner notes for the Versus DVD in Spain.
Reseeing the magnificent Silver Lode by Dwan, I thought that this B-movie gem functions like an hourglass, minutely regulating the flux of "what comes in" and "what goes out." Information functions as pure energy and the narrative obeys only the logic of the characters' desire. An unforgettable moment, "classical" if you will, when the cinema of series and genres, on the cusp of the 60s, accelerated and tended toward the diagrammatic. The Tiger of Eschanpur moment of cinema, the moment the “macmahonians” wanted to preserve under glass. The moment of Dwan. The moment of John Payne. -Serge Daney (“Journal de l'an passé”., Trafic no. 1, 1991).
If Silver Lode sometimes takes on the qualities of a frieze, its friezes are perpetually menaced by a third dimension. The story begins when the frontality of four strange horsemen entering town on the 4th of July collides with the frontality of a group of local kids on holiday. A struggle for power, for the will of a town, Silver Lode is a film of collisions.
Standing Together, Breaking Apart Facing front is a political gesture, as it was when Hollywood's finest stood together against HUAC. The fake marshal (Dan Duryea) who wants to kill Dan (John Payne) and take everything he has is named McCarty. To counter what they claimed were reckless attacks by HUAC, a group of Hollywood liberals led by screenwriter Philip Dunne, with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson, Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly and others, established the Committee for the First Amendment (CFA). The CFA traveled to Washington to lend its support as the eleven "unfriendly witness'" began their testimony. The committee disintegrated after the defiant testimonies of the Hollywood Ten.
If Silver Lode seems to recall these events at certain points, it's probably no accident. The film was written by Karen DeWolf: 1909-1989, a leftwing screenwriter (Appointment in Honduras) who was blacklisted in the second wave of HUAC hearings. After Silver Lode she had no further motion picture credits.
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with one another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, to separate... When in the course of... When in the course of human events... When in the course of the humanist... When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary...
-We're so fond of Dan, why, we're inclined to forget we don't know very much about him. -Yes it'd be easy to have doubts wouldn't it Prescott? Then we wouldn't have to do anything for him.
A Shot in the Back Because Silver Lode portrays a seesawing political situation where groups clash, separate and shift, it needs a forum â€” a stage â€” where these transformations can be portrayed as if on a blackboard. With its large open space the stable serves this purpose. These shots of Dan and Rose spell out the ABCs of the frieze-language, as Rules of the Game had of course already done almost 20 years earlier. In this shot from Renoir's film we see how the rules begin to be complicated by depth: a diagonal and a space opening up behind, with looks within the shot that direct ours without any need for montage that brings in outside looks: without suture. Within the solidarity of the three shots from the first stable scene a gap opens showing the background. It is plugged momentarily by Rose's father, the richest man in town, who still sides with his accused son-in-law.
A look off reintroduces the enemy camp, within which the law (the Judge and the Sheriff) are already caught, and undermined by the looks of townspeople who are already wavering about the accusation brought by McCarty, the false marshal. "Our" side, Dan's side, in which Rose's brother is the hothead (as he will be later when turns against Dan), now appears for what it is: an extra-legal form of vigilante justice. ("Let's shoot our way out," the brother urges.) Behind the trio, who are implicitly supported by the family's money, the father begins to show concern at this confrontation taking place in a kind of no man's land: a public space (the stable) that is nonetheless not an official space. (The only official space is the Judge's office.)
The Void, Dan's Horse
Serge Daney, when he wrote "Rio Lobo: Viellesse du Meme" in 1971, succeeded in bringing the tradition represented by Hawks (and more radically by Dwan) under the law of "suture" by finding "writing," "spacing," "the off-space" hidden in Hawks' cinema, which in the 60s had morphed into groupings and choreographies of sculptural masses in human form like so many Straub-Huillet films to come. A recurrent type of plan-sequence in Silver Lode does the opposite when a hole suddenly opens up in the middle or on the left side of the screen, and someone fills it. It's as if Dwan were amusing himself by displaying within his own cinema of spatial integrity the law of the film series theorized as suture: "A" stops talking and is replaced by a void of sorts -- a hole; "B" fills the hole ("sutures" it) and starts talking in turn, like a short-reverse shot mediated by the imaginary void Jean-Pierre Oudart calls the Absent One. A frieze fragment from Acropolis. Is this Dan's horse, the nominal pretext for everyone gathering at the stable? In the film, we never see it â€” another kind of "structuring absence."
A GRAIN OF SAND
“If that's the case (Daney continues), modern filmmakers tried to slow down the hourglass, to show certain grains in closeup.”
As in Dalle nube alla restistanza (Huillet-Straub, 1979), it's time to retire to the bar. This is the film's second no-man's land, its second center.
The divisions in Dan's side appeared in the stable; here the same thing happens to McCarty's side. Blocking Dan's attempt to bribe one of his men, McCarty steps into the breach, but Dan opens another gap for Johnson (whom Dolly has spotted as the weak link) to escape.
a grain of sand: Jeune femme Ă sa fenĂŞtre lisant une lettre (Jean-Claude Rousseau, 1983)
That dangerous hole in the canvas can turn into a window.
But the window of the telegraph office is a picture window, an internal double of the film image (at least in this film) that also figures the telegraph's role of connecting the town to the greater world of which it is a double, where the synecdoche opens onto infinity.
Truth and Illusion
The town turns against Ben, branded as a murderer in series of shot-reverse shots where the potential for falsehood in the procedure is painfully demonstrated (Dwan is a Bazinian director) â€” a sequence that looks back to the first stable scene and reverses it.
Invitation to the Dance
Dolly's room is a stage set, with characters entering from stage left via the window and stage right via the door, as in a Feydaux farce. "What do you think this is, French farce!?" says Dolly, and at that very moment, thanks to the music box that has been playing the whole time, the scene becomes a dance.
When Dolly ushers McCarty out at the end of the scene, we see a tableau on the wall of the corridor — one of the shallow boxes in picture frames containing cut-outs that are all over the hotel. This one contains a cutout of a dancer in black and white, probably Colombine from the commedia del'arte.
"A savoir que la danseuse n'est pas une femme qui danse, pour ces motifs juxtaposes qu'elle n'est pas une femme, mais une metaphore resumant un des aspects elementaires de notre forme, glaive, coupe, fleur, etc., et qu'elle ne danse pas, suggerant, par le prodige des raccourcis et d'elans, avec une ecriture corporelle ce qui faudrait des paragraphes en prose dialoguee autant que descriptive, pour exprimer, dans la redaction: poeme degagE de tout appareil de scribe." (Mallarmé, “Ballets”)
“The cinema is plastic first, it represents a sort of moving architecture which is in constant accord -- in the state of equilibrium dynamically pursued -- with the surroundings and landscapes where it is erected and falls to the earth again.” (Elie Faure, Art of Cineplastics, 1922)
“I believe that great architecture consists of constructing a building and in saying afterward: What are we going to do in here?” (Jean Renoir, 1966)
Silver Lode was designed and filmed to be projected in 3-D, but coming at the end of the first wave of 3-D films, it may never have been shown in that format — like Dial M for Murder, which was released "flat" and finally shown in 3-D in the early 80s, when the procedure was making a comeback. Let's hope that during the current 3-D boom this collaboration between the production designer of Citizen Kane and the last great poet of space in cinema will be unearthed and finally shown.
JEAN-CLAUDE BIETTE: “What was the art of Allan Dwan? Principally this: he always made the same cinema, as if the rest of cinema had only evolved technically and in its formulae… He was a great storyteller….He was also a great poet of space: Whether in his first silents or his later color films, one finds the same constant exaltation of space (quite close to that which animated Keaton)…. This tradition of the most exact reproduction of space is essentially American (more than Hollywoodian) and is linked to the cinema of slapstick (Mack Sennett) and the cinema of melodrama and cops-and-robbers: it is constant in Griffith, and was extended to comedies by DeMille and Lubitsch, But I believe it is Walsh and Dwan who offer the most beautiful examples.
â€œ...The ability to recreate the totality of a setting in the spectator's imagination augments the force of the storyâ€Ś. Dwan brought this art to perfection. In his late films the feeling of harmony arises from the instinctive application of the secret geometrical rules he had developed in the silent period (rules that are apparent in his 30s parodies with the Ritz Brothers and also in The Iron Mask). And he knew, thirty years before Kubrick in 2001, how to make marvelous use of the upper edge of the frame (Frontier Marshal).
“...Comme Jacques Tourneur, Dwan avait un secret de fabrication qui est au coeur du cinema et qui s'est perdu. Pas parce que le cinema aujourd'hui n'en est pas digne, mais parce qu'un secret de fabrication, c'est intransmissible. “
Bogdanovich: You never thought about posterity? Dwan: Hardly ever thought about tomorrow.
(Cahiers du cinéma, no. 332, February 1982) Allan Dwan on a 'Flying A' (American Film Company) interior set, circa 1912.
"Space is the time you need to go to someone else." (Godard, 1980)
NOTES ON FORM AND SPACE IN THE AMERICAN WEST: PASSION (1954) Graham Swindoll 1.
While often praised as one of the three-‐way collaborations between director Allan Dwan, cinematographer John Alton, and producer Benedict Bogeaus, Passion (1954) is rarely spoken of on its own terms. It is one of Dwan’s plethora of hidden, forgotten films, overshadowed in modern assessments by its more critically renowned predecessor Silver Lode (1954). It’s certainly an easy film to ignore, with an often meager revenge narrative populated by cardboard cut-‐outs of western mythology (the kindly grandfather, the evil land baron, the spicy Latina, et al.). At first glance, few would question its dismissal as a rote western; its merits are not as loud as its ragged colors. But such a dismissal would be a mistake. Passion presents an artificial world of remarkable consistency, encased within a series of formal compositions of escalating complexity. Its simple narrative trappings belie its inner intricacies; it’s a shallow film of remarkable depth.
It's a simple narrative: Juan Obreon (Cornel Wilde) rides his cattle home after a time away. He returns to the kindly Melo family, an old couple with vivacious twin daughters (Yvonne de Carlo & Yvonne de Carlo), one of whom has just birthed Obreon's son. The land they live on is owned by Don Domingo (Richard Hale) a greedy landlord who demands rent that the Melo family cannot pay. Domingo hires a group of thugs to burn down the Melo hacienda, which, in its fifteen minutes standing, is presented as a simple heaven on earth. The old woman, her husband, and and the mother of Juan's child are killed. The tougher de Carlo sister escapes and tells Obreon what has happened—triggering his quest for vengeance that drives the rest of the film forward. One by one, Obreon hunts down the perpetrators of the massacre, seeking confessions. During each encounter he is forced to kill and move on. Lackluster policemen (led by a baggy-‐bottomed Raymond Burr, secretly on Obreon's side) hunt our hero for his murderous crimes. After a bravura pursuit of the final killer into the snow capped mountains, and moments before the policemen are forced to gun Obreon down, de Carlo manages to inform him that his infant son survived the fire, and the last living killer makes a confession to the lawmen before giving up the ghost. All is saved; presumably Obreon can still marry the woman who looks exactly like his previous common-‐law wife, raise his child, and become the head of the atomic family that Domingo's henchmen cruelly stripped away from him. Indifferent nature and human brutality are overcome, and the groundwork for a future California of middle class families is laid. The average spectator expects a film to satisfy in the meaning of its story and, perhaps, in the feelings and emotions of its characters. A viewer of more discerning taste might expect beauty in the overall structure of a film, in the unity of rhythms and content across its whole. Judged on these values, Passion appears unspectacular failure. To love it you must look for the beauties of each shot and glance—not as a whole, necessarily, but in and of themselves. 322
We must always speak of two auteurs of Passion: the one who moves the bodies (Dwan) and the one who lights them (Alton). Viewed from a distance, it is almost impossible to define where the thoughts of one begin and the other end. If critics tends to push away the cinematographer as author in favor of the director, it is frequently for no other reason than convenience. The force of Alton's presence demands we consider him on equal footing.
People are always walking by in the distance, drifting by in the background, unnoticed by the stars and unaffected by the drama. An entire world hovers at the edges of the film. Not a naturalistic world, though its contents are quotidian. It is a world of murmurs and colors, figures as hollow and mythic as the protagonists that drive the narrative. Nondescript individuals carry out their daily tasks, shadows flow across walls, animals pace freely. The speech is neither realistic Spanish, nor the comfortable American English—instead, phrases are all poorly translated from the former into the latter, full of awkward rhythms and misplaced emphasis. Not a photograph, but a fresco in gaudy colors, peddled to the floods of tourists, entitled "Life in Old California." By extension of this concept, we can look at the film as a series of paintings (part classical, part kitsch).
First shot, post credits: a man on a horse; behind him a layer of cows; behind them a layer of men on horses moving from side to side; then a river, trees, a hill; the horizon. A succession of separate and independent fields. We will see different versions of this receding composition played out again and again, with Almost immediately follows the introduction of Don Dimengo, the villain, standing in silhouette smoking a cigarillo. A railing. A ledge with a clay pot. Dirt. A man on a horse, looking back. A fountain. Women doing the wash. Further back, men going about their business. Even further, an empty square, stairs, a house, a hill with trees. Passion is a flat narrative composed of many flat fields, but the result is three dimensional; like Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Passion is in essence a series of glass plates of overlapping paintings, resulting in a sensation of depth formed from a series of two dimensional layers. A later shot opens to an empty square with an arch in the distance and beyond that a trail and woods. A woman, moving away from the camera, walks calmly towards a set of stairs. Obreon rides through the arch, towards the camera, which slowly pans to follow his path, then back to its original framing. A man carrying a bundle of sticks crosses the screen from right to left, while Obreon moves from background to foreground, and the woman’s movement counters his, moving away from the lens towards the background. A man enters from the left side of the frame to take Obreon's horse as he dismounts. The woman starts her way up the stairs. The man with the sticks exits on the left. The man takes the horse and begins to walk towards the arch, while Obreon walks towards the camera. From the bottom of the frame, a dog enters, running towards Obreon. The woman approaches the top of the stairs, the man and horse continue straight back towards the arch, and Obreon and the dog exit the left side of the frame. The next shot immediately begins with no fewer than 7 separate planes. From the interior of a room, the camera looks out through a doorway towards a porch. Obreon enters on the right. Beyond him is a set of wooden stairs. Beyond the stairs, a man walks from left to right. Beyond him, a second man mirrors him, walking right to left. Past them are trees and flowers. Beyond 325
that, an empty space of dirt, a wall jutting partially into the frame from the left, and finally followed by the walls of buildings. This view last only a few seconds, until Alton pans to follow Obreon into the interior of the building.
These obsessive sequences of layers could be overlooked, but once noticed, they take hold of the film: each space appears riddled with openings, doors, windows, gates. Every wide shot becomes flooded with possibility. Slowly, but surely, the compositions transcend the narrative framework they have been placed within.
How, one asks, does the form of this film (layer upon layer, plane upon plane) add to the narrative? It doesn't. They run parallel. In Passion, form and content are not harmonious; they simply exist alongside one another for the same 80 minutes. The constant parade of windows, doorways, passages, allies and trees become a game for the eye One can almost feel Dwan/Alton, a bit bored perhaps (shooting their 2nd of 3 westerns in 1954-‐ and how many westerns had they individually worked on before these?), trying to discover a new type of space in every shot. Their multi-‐plane approach gives the external figures something to stroll through. The multitude of windows give more than a glimpse of painted backdrops; they give us a view of an entire world existing just outside the boundaries of our narrative.
Dwan is one of cinema's masters of proscenium stagecraft. His approach to movement throughout Passion is essentially theatrical: it is derived from a static frame and the tension of bodies moving in, out and around it. The angle of view is generally medium-‐wide; bodies are presented in their entirety and information is conveyed through the movement of actors bodies more than the contortions of their faces. Camera movement, montage and optical effects are not foundational. As in theater, the basis is the presence of a body in a space, and the movement of that body in relation to the spectator's eye. Much could be made of Dwan's early career working as an assistant to D.W. Griffith. In Griffith we see the cinematic essence of "bodies in space" in a primitive mode, stylistically inconsistent (following no rules, instead writing them), always serving a basic emotional utility. Dwan takes this emotive style and develops it into calculated composition. By infusing Griffith's instinctual staging with a certain self-‐consciousness, Dwan becomes the stepping stone towards the later great "theatrical" filmmakers (Rivette, Oliveira, late Dreyer, etc.). This is not to say that Dwan eschews all camera movement or montage; rather it is through theatrical composition that Dwan arrives at the core of his cinema. His approach allows his audience to look into and through each space, instead of being immersed within them. The central focus is not the bodies themselves, but the space around them. As opposed to the lyrical-‐primitive approach of Griffith, or Oliveira's modernist, hyper-‐ aware style, Dwan emerges as a classicist. He is the silent director who evolved, but never abandoned the stylistic ideals of the 1910s. The compositional paradigm remains theatrical in essence, not overtaken by the documentary elements of photography, nor the innovations of montage beyond the basic Griffith model. He follows tradition, but uses the rules to suit his distinctive tastes. Working along with Alton, a stand-‐in for Griffith's Bitzer, Dwan calmly rediscovers movement within this framework, bit by bit, one shot at a time. 328
8. The action of the narrative, like the mise-‐en-‐scene, is not psychological, but physical. The film is punctuated by a series of violent struggles, sparked by the initial violence against the Melo family. Interestingly, guns only come into play in the first and last of these scenes. Tossing the typical western shootout aside, Passion is film of knives. However, it's not a brutal work, no Rancho Notorious (1952) or The Naked Spur (1953), with their shows of man’s cruelty towards man, and the force of body against body. Instead, Passion is sorrowful. The acting, mostly disposable, is dotted with remarkable moments of pain and realization, and the violent struggles culminate in sensations of loss rather than victory. Neither the crimes themselves nor the vengeance are glorious—they are small, pathetic, misguided. This sadness is tucked away throughout the film, most elegantly in the face of the goon played by Lon Chaney, Jr., whose every glance contains a desolation at odds with the simple scumbag he portrays. After the brawl in the bar, Chaney glances up, a brief moment of reflection, an inner pain not paved over by drink and glory and evil—with the realization that he has done something wrong in taking innocent life. Such moments break the facade, push past the script, and place the spectator face to face with a humanity which seeps through the seams of otherwise flat characterizations. The sensation given, in these brief moments, is as emotionally overwhelming as any psychological realism.
The final movement—into the mountains—is largely separate from what has preceded it. The orange/tan base color is replaced by a blinding white, framed by blue and green. The background figures who move so insistently through the rest of the film disappear; the complex planes of urban areas and interiors replaced by the expanses of the endless rows of hills, trees and mountains. This empty world feels as if it were eternal; and the struggle up the mountain like the scaling of mount Olympus. The smallness of the central drama becomes apparent next to the scope of the vistas. The clouds roll in, followed by darkness, and the camera moves closer, out of the reality of location and into a series of constructed sets. I would unscientifically estimate that Passion is roughly 50 percent studio and 50 percent location. Alton's punchy, high contrast Technicolor photography unifies this potential visual disparity. His camera manages to restrain the splendor of the California landscape and elevate the artifice of the cheap sets to the same pitch. Transitions between location and set are hardly jarring; the control of color and texture is too complete. The "real" looks so fake that the manufactured feels like documentary. The final cabin echoes the interior of the Melo hacienda, and as the tragedy is washed away with sweat and snow, the camera glides past de Carlo and Wilde, towards its final resting place: a cabin window, looking out at a fake tree, with a painted backdrop of mountains and sky. The awkward murmurings of the characters drift and diffuse against the blue-‐white landscape, and in this final gesture, Dwan/Alton remind us that what is beyond the window is of equal importance to drama within the cabin.
10. What saves Passion from being the footnote that it seems is an approach that supersedes its surface content. Dwan/Alton's agenda is not in the narrative but in the environment; their ideas emerge from within the images rather than being placed on top of them. If Dwan has long lingered in the shadows of his contemporaries in Hollywood, it is because he is a formalist almost to a fault. The aspects of a film usually regarded as important are, at best, workmanlike in Passion. It is in their sense of craft and control of space, their ability to formulate a narrative film, not as a story but an object, that Dwan and Alton push us past any perceived mediocrity, through the window, and towards the sublime.
SEEING DAYLIGHT: CATTLE QUEEN OF MONTANA (1954)
Stills are from the following films:
THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN ALIVE (Dwan, 1961) YOUNG PEOPLE (Dwan, 1940) BACK TO THE FUTURE (Zemeckis, 1985) ROBIN HOOD (Dwan, 1922) TIDE OF EMPIRE (Dwan, 1929) CATTLE QUEEN OF MONTANA (Dwan, 1954) MANHATTAN MADNESS (Dwan, 1916) MANHANDLED (Dwan, 1924) SLIGHTLY SCARLET (Dwan, 1956) SUEZ (Dwan, 1938) THE WOMAN THEY ALMOST LYNCHED (Dwan, 1953) MONTANA BELLE (Dwan, 1948/1952) STAGE STRUCK (Dwan, 1925) THE IRON MASK (Dwan, 1929) WAY DOWN EAST (Griffith, 1920) INTOLERANCE (Griffith, 1916) THE GIRL WHO STAYED AT HOME (Griffith, 1919) UP IN MABEL’S ROOM (Dwan, 1944) and the following paintings:
Mary Magdalene (Jusepe de Ribera, 1641) St. Mary of Egypt (Jusepe de Ribera, 1641)
Gina Telaroli, May 2013
ESCAPE TO SEE: ESCAPE TO BURMA (1955)
Arnau Vilaró Translated by David Phelps
In the first part of Escape to Burma (1955), a not-‐at-‐all inconsequential event might pass us by unnoticed. The workers of the famous elephant breeder of Burma, Gwen Moore (Barbara Stanwyck) are convinced that the evil spirit of a tiger has killed an elephant. Nevertheless, Western reason prevails: spirits don't leave tracks, and so the only possibility remaining is that the elephant was devoured by a flesh-‐and-‐blood tiger; to which there is an additional, biological explanation: the elephant was already quite old and easy prey for any predator.
The sequence of the tiger's capture might put us in mind of the celebrated dialogue between reality and imagination that André Bazin would propose in "Forbidden Montage" ["Montage Interdit"]. When Gwen throws herself towards the tiger, the shot opens up and heightens the impression of reality—we feel as though Gwen and the tiger were slowly moving closer together, as they listen to each other from afar. In the moment of the attack, a first, affective shot of the tiger inspires the imagination; we hear Gwen scream, we see her fall, and just as quickly, Jim Brecan's (Robert Ryan) gunfire strikes its target; this single shot is presented between two shots of the cat: its leap-‐attack and its last breath, fallen to the ground. The temporal leap of each of these three shots clarifies the operation of montage and demonstrates "that the primary material of the film is authentic and that, nevertheless, 'it is cinema.'"1 The sequence exposes the limits of montage, but also its virtue: there is an absence conveyed by what we don't see during the gunshot, a possibility for imagination to meet reality, for the spirit of the tiger to become present as well. The backdrop for the action of Escape to Burma bears this dialogue from within: that is, within the woods, amongst the beasts, and in the temples where the Burmese rites take place. The setting for the film is as appropriate for staging the adventure of a character escaping something as it is for remaining in a dimension where something escapes us. The fugitive mentioned above is Jim Brecan, and his goal is very precise: to flee from those who accuse him of the death of the Burmese prince. Brecan discovers a possibility to hide himself in Gwen's house. The protagonist holds a mystery within, but the interest here is not in finding out what it is, since, on the one hand, the enemy has already announced where Jim Brecan is, from the beginning of the film, and on the other hand, it doesn't take long to intuit that the fugitive is falsely accused. The mystery itself isn't in what the character is hiding, but in that Dwan wants us to take close notice of this mysteriousness, what arises in the first moment that Brecan and Gwen exchange glances. He hides under the name of Martin and entrusts her with a few rubies without discussing his origins. She asks no questions, and he gains his safety in the refuge offered him by this unknown woman. And this is how the premise is established that will allow us to understand the relationships between the characters of the film: they need to be ignorant of each other in order to trust one another as well. Between this couple, a decisive gesture will hold them together forever: Gwen keeps the jewels in her safe while insisting that "you'll have to stay here now"; their union is conceived through what is kept secret, as the following image testifies: while they embrace, the darkness of the night creeps into the room and furtively overtakes both their bodies. We now move into their strange relationship with a third character, who has to play by the same rules. This is captain Cardigan (David Farrar), who has come to arrest Brecan. Gwen helps Brecan to escape, Cardigan follows his trail, and she doesn't delay in coming after them, not so much so that she can beg the fugitive to turn himself in, but so that she 404
can stay with him, watch him, control him. And so if Brecan embodies their secret, she is the one who is pulling the strings behind the story—let's remember that we're on her terrain—who is the motor of the fabulation—the Gwen/Dwan parallel shouldn't be ignored—and this is why she gives free reign to Cardigan, so that again the three can intersect and the action continue. Brecan is arrested, night falls, and a Buddhist temple serves as shelter; we continue in this foreign, unknown land: "where they leave offerings for the spirits," she claims. The characters' sleep is interrupted by a band of thieves, Gwen shrieks, Cardigan asks them to let her go, and when one of the strangers lifts his knife, Brecan intervenes; next, it is the captain who assists him. The enmity between the two heroes begins to fade, but Cardigan still controls Brecan's fate; yet now, to his good fortune, the situation flip-‐flops: Cardigan is tied up, he is not, and Gwen is, though rather loosely—once again, a metaphor of the fabulation she represents: she can untie Cardigan and continue interceding in the story. Brecan escapes, but luck will have them meeting again the following night under the same roof, now that of a different temple. The next morning, Gwen sounds the gong: "My people may be looking for me," she says as justification; but she is enabling the obligatory battle between the two heroes to forget that they're enemies and help each other fight against those who want Brecan's head. The trajectories of the characters are altered, their destinies transformed, each new encounter forcing them to determine once again: Who is chasing who?; What is each one looking for in relation to the next?; What is each one looking for in himself? Ortega y Gasset would write that man is a continual faciendum [un quehacer], one's own continual task of choosing one's options and making decisions at every intersection, to which Lluís Duch adds that Being can only resolve its ambiguities ambiguously. "Before the contingencies of living there offers itself the conditional "if"—"if one thing, then another"—and this is the vital presupposition that best elucidates our state of flux, of flexibility in the world."2 If the characters of Escape to Burma lack coherence it's because they yield to such fluctuation, that is, to the nature of their being, of Being. Nothing interests Dwan more than that they fully reach this point of Being—the spectacle "wouldn't work if the intimate story wasn't right," he declares in his long interview with Peter Bogdanovich3—and he takes concrete interest in this being whose condition is ambiguous. To reach the point, Dwan takes two paths. On the one hand, he delimits his adventures with clarity, without any tricks or holes, nothing cryptic; that is to say: to avoid fogginess in order to clear up any fog that's already there, to be better able to see the opaqueness of this being. On the other hand, he lays out the action, as Hawks would also know how to do, as not to ever dally at obstacles but better overleap them; or, what amounts to the same thing: by paying attention to the relationships that are established between the action and its agents, rather than concentrate on the action and its agents themselves. It's what Deleuze saw in Hitchcock. And here, we can also reformulate the question, "But who killed Harry?" in relation to the prince, because even knowing that Brecan was the assassin, we don't need to know it, and this is why Dwan makes it clear 405
who is who from the start. As in the Hitchcock, what's relevant here is not the crime, but what happens between those who commit themselves to its investigation. Hitchcock's modus operandi is well-‐known: to situate his character in the role of the spectator and creator at once, like James Stewart facing the window-‐spectacle in Rear Window (1954), or like those character-‐spectators in The Trouble with Harry (1955) (its Spanish title But who killed Harry? [¿Pero quién mató a Harry?]), who entertain a fiction that they themselves have created from behind a tree. In Dwan's film, as we've seen, the creator is an elephant breeder [la creadora es una criadora]—and the ending confirms how she must pass herself off as a spectator in order to retake control of the story.
We come back to the film where we left it, at the final battle. Gwen is wounded, the story comes to a close, and Brecan can only turn himself in. But a boy arrives in time with a letter in his hand. It turns out to be the letter that the prince wrote moments before dying, and whose contents explain why he let himself be killed by his friend Jim Brecan. Gwen listens to the new story, all that's needed to save her friend, to clinch the happy ending. But if we go back a bit, we'll recall that the boy appeared much earlier in this story, just before Gwen decided to go after Brecan following the captain's arrival. And as in the death of the tiger, this event is also signaled between two shots—which should reaffirm, for anyone in doubt, that Dwan's cinema is not at all far from ours. Gwen's decision is prefaced by her empty gaze—a strange expression for a character who is always attentive, always up for adventure—and it is not by chance that this gaze occupies the interval between the boy's yawning and then falling asleep. Once again, the montage only reveals the element which passes us by unnoticed while holding control over the film. The boy affords Gwen a suggestion of the waking-‐sleep to which Duch refers, one required to envisage the infinity which man lacks. The boy, waking-‐sleeping—always a new story—has been there all along, propelling the adventure, and he now appears in order to remind his creator of his role, so that she can again assume an outward form—in the inspiration or foundation of the story—that will never be definitive, that will always escape us, but that has to escape us in order to appear anew and so on ad infinitum. It's how Dwan, like Hitchcock, per Godard, also knew how to take control of the universe, even while it passes by unnoticed. 1 André Bazin, "Montage interdit," Qu'est-‐ce que le cinéma? (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf,
1975), 49-‐61, http://yrol.free.fr/montage%20interdit.pdf. Trans. David Phelps. 2 Albert Chillón, La condición ambigua. Diálogos con Lluís Duch (Barcelona: Herder, 2011). Trans. David Phelps. 3
Peter Bogdanovich, The Last Pioneer (New York: Praeger, 1971), 168.
IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE BEGINNING: PEARL OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC (1955)
Pablo García Canga Translated By David Phelps
There are filmmakers who are happy in the water, others in geisha houses, deserts, or cities, in daytime or nighttime, in violence or in calm, filming horses or filming cats, with long takes or rapid-‐fire montage. There are filmmakers, I suspect, who are most content in the first moments, others in the middle, and others in the endings. I get no greater joy in Brisseau's films, for example, than in the endings, the sudden, final ten minutes, in which the story has come to an end and time accelerates in the form of an epilogue. Of the Dwans that I'm familiar with, the late films, nothing is quite like those first, principle moments. Their unhurried pace especially stands out—as each shot adds to the last, as the viewer must continually readjust his/her understanding of the scene. The start of Pearl of the South Pacific is another of Dwan's perfect openings. Fast and perfect. A sailboat crossing the sea. (No, I'm lying, the sailboat doesn't cross anything, but is already there, in the sea, nothing more. Nothing crosses, nothing traverses in this film. An economy of time and spaces. We'll come back to this). Next, the ladder down to the cabin. The legs of a woman appear. They pause before we can see the torso, never mind the face; we have only the short pants, a knee lightly flexing forward, a classical pose, beauty in theory and practice. The following shot: a man stretched out on the cabin bed. Next to him a bottle. He awakens. Sits up with some difficulty. He knocks over the bottle, so that even the most inattentive viewer will take notice and, putting one and one together, the bottle and the difficulty 408
sitting up, will comprehend that this man is awakening out of a terrible, drunken stupor. Some shadows, subsequently, loom over him. The man realizes the presence of someone else in the cabin. Reverse-‐shot from his point of view: the woman finishes descending the ladder. The shot, blurry, as if seen through his hangover, comes into focus as a magnificent introductory shot of Virginia Mayo, proudly herself, vindicative. (The shot is blurry due to his hangover, of course, but also due to the filmmaker's obligation to disclose each element one by one, until he has given us at last the face that corresponds to those legs, the beauty of Virginia Mayo). In shot reverse-‐shot: dialogue. The man recognizes the woman. He wants her to leave the ship (but to leave the ship is to leave the film and this, of course, is impossible; it's already cast off, in three shots it's cast off as an unstoppable mechanism, and there is no way to correct its course, no way now to avoid the coming adventure). And once again a pair of legs descend the ladder. This time they are the legs of a man (and the pants are long). With the legs comes the face, and the camera moves back to reframe this new figure (a new piece of the puzzle) next to the woman. And then this new man announces: "Meet Miss Delane, my new fiancée." And, before the confusion of the still-‐hungover first man, the woman puts her arms around the second and offers him such improbable, likely ironic, praise that some essential element of her character is now introduced: she is lying through her teeth. And we know what those legs are capable of. And face. And all the rest. We have gone one minute, twenty seconds from the end of the opening credits. Amazing pace, Dwan's. A gradual pace. No shot is too fast, but lasts the right amount of time for us to see what we have to see. It's not the montage that speeds up, but the story. Because each shot carries a new element in relation to the last. One idea per shot, the B-‐movies would say. And this is how the rest of the film will proceed, with this slow speed or this speedy slowness. Another memorable example: the woman slaps the man, the man in turn is going to hit her, but then, once again, there is a reversal: rather than hit her, the man can't help kissing her instead. And without changing shots, the hand of a second man, whom we haven't seen come in, grabs that of the first and starts a fight. No longer one idea per shot, but two ideas per shot. With the greatest economy of means, to reverse the script and trajectory. Allan Dwan, incessant storyteller. What precedes this kiss and this fight is a scene in which a secret is revealed: the man and the woman already knew each other, had already been lovers. On paper, this sequence might seem similar to one in Johnny Guitar (Ray, 1954). Virginia Mayo even says the line 409
that, "I saw your face in every man's face I looked at." And yet the scene is radically different from Ray's. No past is evoked. The romance barely exists as it is. Mostly it is a supplementary tidbit to the story, another piece added to the puzzle. The main purpose of the love affair is to insert complications. Advancing shot by shot, Dwan attains a strange velocity, something like that of a helicopter's blades, or the spokes of a bicycle wheel when they turn too fast for human comprehension and soon seem to be staying in place, or even slowly moving backwards. But without appearances deceiving us, without us ever forgetting that it's moving at top speed and that little would be left of our hand if we ever thought to interrupt its course. The gradualness at the heart of Dwan's films is deceptive. Nothing stays in place. We are in the eye of a hurricane. We move forward without pause toward the end. Toward an ending so inevitable it is, perhaps, disappointing. Because for Dwan, for the Dwan with which I'm familiar, his principles have been set into motion, as has his constant complicating of the situation, of what's at stake, and he seems to feel less at ease when he has to bring the story to a halt, to a close. For Dwan, having to interrupt the film is like a kid having to interrupt a game to go have dinner or take a bath. It's something necessary, a superior order, of the parents or of the state, but, it follows, ultimately an order that's a nuisance. But then it's all the same: the next day there will be more games, or a new film. An ending that's perhaps disappointing, but inevitable. An ending that returns the characters to the beginning. An ending that is a moral solution. The characters of the film are always confronted with moral dilemmas: to lie or not to lie, to betray or not to betray, to abuse or not to abuse their power. Of all of them, the most important, around whom the others arrange themselves, is Virginia Mayo, who wavers between her conscience and the gold, between innocence and whatever love would have her believe. As it turns out, there's very little action in the film. An attack on the boat, a fight with the octopus that guards the taboo. Very little action and very few sets. A question of economy. This is why, we've said, nothing crosses the ocean. And why we don't see them crossing through the jungle to get to the lake of the taboo. There's no shot that doesn't work to advance the story, that doesn't work to twist it, to turn it, or overturn it, even morally. Time tight within the shots; between them, speed. A question of economy. Morality is cheaper to perform than action. Not much is required to stage morality, as Dwan well knew, as Rohmer did as well. Just a few characters, a few vacillations. (Only this little is required to generate suspense, just one character spying on another. These moments occur frequently in late Dwan, and perhaps earlier as well. Equally frequently—lies and disguises. Not much is required to create fiction and danger, the danger of being discovered or of not discovering the other. Was Dwan interested in 410
spies and disguises themselves, or was he interested in them, above all, because they were an endless source of a script's twists and turns, of the misunderstandings within the film?). And, deep down, what moral conclusion is it towards which we're inevitably led? A return to the foundations [una restauración del principio]. Pearl of the South Pacific is a story of taboos, and like all films about taboos, it's also the story of a paradise. More than Tabu (Murnau, 1931) or Tabu (Gomes, 2012), I'm thinking of Brigadoon (Minnelli, 1954) and The Village (Shyamalan, 2004). A paradise based in a denial of the outside world. A paradise that in one way or another might be mistaken for totalitarianism. The ending of the film allows us to recover the initial paradise, but only after having tasted pain, and after having integrated the outside world. As in the Ramuz novel Joie dans le ciel (1921), in which a town awakes one day to find that everything has changed, that the dead have come back to life, that the blind can see, that the lands are springing forth crops without a care, that all is happiness. They've awoken on the other side of life, in paradise. A paradise where time stands still (the opposite of Dwan; with Dwan, no paradise can last more than two mintues long). And yet, it is not full happiness, and only a flight towards the mountains and a vision of hell, of forgotten pain, makes them accept that they've attained happiness at the end, the frozen time of paradise. (Ramuz has another work with the same plot, a story entitled La Paix du ciel, in which the same storyline is reduced to a single couple and it is the memory of earthly tears that allows them to at last accept the peace of heaven). The film concludes by recovering its foundations, that initial happiness, through its twists and turns. Like a dance in which after twirling and twirling, after a few bodies have fallen to the floor, the initial form is regained. And so, just before this hasty ending, Dwan has time to give us one more detail, one more supplementary, cruel idea, since there is something cruel in submitting the characters to permanent flux. Mayo is going to be sacrificed. She is placed against a wall and, with a slow, percussive tempo, they start hurling spears at her, two by two. The spears, landing closer and closer to her each time, mark out two lines whose point of intersection will be her body. It serves little purpose at this point to recall Achilles and the tortoise. These spears will end up reaching their point of intersection, the beautiful captive, if nothing, like the swift consciousness of everything she stands to lose, the sudden recovery of the film's foundations [el súbito principio recuperado], stops their advance. But it's time to have dinner, it's time to take a bath; the spears' assault stops, and paradise is regained, until the next film, the next game.
I DIDN'T EVEN KNOW HIS NAME: TENNESSEE'S PARTNER (1955)
Translated by David Phelps
Tennessee's Partner counts among the series of ten films that Allan Dwan filmed at the end of his career with producer Benedict Bogeaus for R.K.O. Produced the year after what's probably Dwan's masterpiece, Silver Lode (1954), the shoot would reunite Bogeaus, master cinematographer John Alton, artistic director Van Nest Polglase, composer Louis Forbes, and costume designer Gwen Wakeling for a Western that its director would sometimes call the favorite of his films—a statement which has the added merit of coming from a filmmaker whose oeuvre is so extensive, if often invisible, a good part of it having been lost forever. A filmmaker accustomed to filming quickly, on shoestring budgets with little room for any vacillations or lack of professionalism—professionalism connoting a clarity of ideas, a cleanness of expression, and an economical shoot—Dwan was a master when it came to filming serial movies without seeming to do so, but also without trying to hide it either, without inflating it into a pretense of what cinema, quite wrongly, is supposed to be. The end of his career at R.K.O. weaves together such a web of ideas (his Rousseauian ideal of casting his heroes out of society, leading them to find rest in small populations and remote, untouched paradises, uncontaminated by the blind greed of the white man) with such aesthetic coherence, that it would not be absurd to compare these films to the "Ranown Cycle," which Budd Boetticher would film in the same years with Randolph Scott and producer Harry Joe Brown.
Elizabeth Farnham's premises (Rhonda Fleming), dubbed the "Marriage Market," are established as a refuge for the protagonists and the center of the story, a space demarcated apart from a city full of businessmen and gold diggers eager to do whatever it takes to win a miserable stake in a new gold mine—men that nobody should turn their back on. Farnham's business promises "Young Ladies, all able to cook, all desirous of finding decent husbands," and she earns her income from hostessing (politely termed), complemented by ten percent of the winnings of her lover, the cardshark and gunslinger played by John Payne. He calls her "The Duchess," and she reciprocates with "Tennessee." Neither do we ever come to know the real name of "Cowpoke" (Ronald Reagan), the miner who appears in town to retrieve his girlfriend Goldie Slater (Coleen Gray) for their marriage, but who after intervening on behalf of the gambler, as one of the latter's rivals targets him in the back, finds himself having to kill the assailant. Afterwards, Tennessee will spend a not insignificant sum of money to get rid of his savior's girlfriend, in reality a gold-‐digger already known to Tennessee who has been planning to ditch her naive lover after obtaining his $5000 wedding gift. After Tenneessee is accused of murdering Grubstake McNiven (Chubby Johnson) to keep possession of a gold mine that was recently discovered with his backing, the real assassin, Turner (Anthony Carusso), tries to knock off the gambler when the latter, upon the sheriff's arrival, turns around and leaves his back open to the killer— the moment that Cowkpoke intercepts the path of the fatal bullet, targeted at his friend, and offers up his life for his friend's. Tennessee's partner, the title's subject, is in reality two people, on the one hand the Madame to whom he has both business and emotional ties, and on the other hand the miner Cowpoke, who besides having saved him at the beginning of the story, becomes a presence who introduces a sense of companionship and order—and even domestic concerns—into his solitary home, where Tennessee gives the miner refuge. Robin Wood would undoubtedly rub his hands together in glee at another example of a "virile friendship" that, as usual in the absence of any sexual fruition, is cemented by a punching match that serves as a demonstration between the two friends of how much they love each other deep down (even though social and personal repression would prevent them from expressing it in any other less violent form) and culminates with the sacrifice of one for the other, in the kind of now-‐abandoned world that would feed the imagination and delirium of filmmakers like Michael (Elizabeth? Michelle?) Cimino. And although certainly the script by Krims, Beauchamp, Baker, and Sherman (taken from a public domain Bret Harte short story) offers roles for women throughout—especially just off-‐screen and in Tennessee's past—it's clear that the character of Rhonda Fleming radiates modernity and independence, the same force of character and decisiveness so dear to the Hawksian women. 413
This story of love and friendship between two men offers Dwan the chance to exhibit, here, the poetry of his dry lyricism, of his invisible style that is, nevertheless, tremendously effective at effacing any sense of interference between the camera and the actors. Dwan takes full advantage of SuperScope in shooting the first scene in the jail, a frontal medium shot filmed without a cut, in which Tennessee and Cowpoke cinch their bond through an elliptical dialogue in which they appraise their lives, while avoiding—as always in Dwan— anything superficial or incidental. It's the same quality possessed by the display of Cowpoke's corpse ("I didn't even know his name," declares Tennessee before his dead body) and his subsequent funeral, filmed in a wide shot that maintains the feeling and intimacy of this elegiac moment and affirms the quiet virtues of an filmmaker indispensable for understanding not only the craftwork of a professional, but also that a film is not its message, nor its actors, nor its production values, but its shots and how they relate to each other and the history of cinema.
OBSERVATIONS: SLIGHTLY SCARLET (1956)
From Slightly Scarlet (1956), a typical Allan Dwan shot, in which two figures are being observed by a third. The third figure in this case is Dorothy Lyons (Arlene Dahl), the kleptomaniac sister (only recently released from jail) of the woman on the right, secretary June Lyons (Rhonda Fleming). On the left is Ben Grace (John Payne), an associate of a local mob boss, Sol Caspar (Ted De Corsia). Grace is gathering evidence for Caspar against June’s employer, Frank Jensen (Kent Taylor), who is running for mayor. But Grace is also, in the words of the local police chief, “playing both ends against the middle” by simultaneously working against Caspar. In this shot, June is listening to a surreptitious audio recording Grace made in which a local newspaper editor was accidentally killed by Caspar in an attempt to intimidate the editor into ceasing his attacks on the gangster. The same year in which she made Slightly Scarlet, Fleming would appear in another low-‐ budget A film for RKO Radio, Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps. Like Slightly Scarlet, it focuses on corruption within an urban environment, as various audio and visual media become absorbed into this environment’s ambiguous ethical system. But Dwan’s methods are not Lang’s. Whereas Lang in While the City Sleeps creates (as he does in so much of his cinema) a universe of seeing too much, too little, too close, too far away—a televisual world 415
in which the point-‐of-‐view shot is repeatedly mobilized in an intense and idiosyncratic manner—Dwan’s camera maintains a consistent transparency. Both the Lang and Dwan films have crucial sequences in which characters watch television. In the Lang, a serial killer watches a TV journalist address him directly on the air. The eyeline match, the shot/reverse shots alternate from television set to killer in his bedroom until this editing pattern is gradually intensified to the point that the killer, with a shudder, begins to feel that the man on television is observing him. No such “impossible” metaphoric leaps are made by Dwan. Caspar watches the set in anger over what is being stated on-‐air, first by the editor and, later, by Jensen. But the shot/reverse shots are handled in such a way that the act of looking has no particular power: the shots of Caspar’s television set are too far away from where he is seated to qualify as “pure” points-‐of-‐view, while, at the same time, the shots of the set are too straightforward in their function to bear a relationship to Lang’s too close/too faraway unmooring of classical point-‐of-‐view principles. All the same, and as much as in Lang or (a director Dwan admired) Alfred Hitchcock, this is a cinema of looking and observing—I would even go so far as to say that this is as much a formalist cinema as a narrative one. I have trouble remembering the story details to most of Dwan’s films (and the description in the first paragraph did not come easily to me). In repeat viewings of the films I am compelled to unpack not their stories but rather how Dwan sets up a shot and moves from one shot to another, how all of this apparent simplicity in technique, seemingly geared towards elucidating a narrative, creates an effect of great spatial and formal complexity. Time and again, Dwan returns to principles of twinning or parallels: literal twins in, for example, The Iron Mask (1929), Passion (1954), or the twins born at the end of The Inside Story (1948); or, as in Slightly Scarlet, characters who are indelibly, iconically linked with one another, here the two sisters whose red hair and overtly sexualized appearance (along with the bedroom they share) conjoins them. But this is not a Romantic concern with notions of the double. Instead, Dwan’s films are frequently built upon twinned or linked phenomena that will typically open up to ironic parallels or triangular relations, relations that concern not only characters but spaces and events as well.1 (In a splendid bit of historical irony, Dwan directed for the Triangle Company between 1915 and 1917.) In relation to the former, for example, the three very different staircases that dominate the major spaces of the film: the zig-‐zagging stairs in June’s suburban home; the wide, gothic stairs at the entrance to Caspar’s home in Bay City; and the modernist stairs that dominate the first floor of his seaside retreat. In contrast to such contemporaries as John Ford and King Vidor, Dwan has minimal interest in the creation of an organic society united in a common goal. Instead, we repeatedly find a structure of relations, circulations, and exchanges that seem to close in on themselves. At the beginning of the film, Dorothy and June are color coded in conventional terms: “bad” girl Dorothy in dark blue and her sister in 416
off-‐whites and pale yellow. By the end of the film, these colors are exchanged; it is Dorothy in off-‐white, and June wearing the two colors linked throughout much of the film with her sister: green and dark blue. June’s “goodness” is, in fact, relative and she is no less caught in the structure of circulations than her sister. It is ultimately June, in the final sequence, who is responsible for shooting Caspar, first by injuring him with an arrow gun that Dorothy had in her hands in a sequence earlier in the film (but used by Dorothy in a playful manner with Grace). In the shot at top, Dorothy is seated in between Grace and June not only because she is observing them, but also because she is structurally tied to both of these figures in the foreground. “We’re two of a kind,” Dorothy later tells Grace. “Both bad.” Indeed, in a film in which observation and eavesdropping are central, this activity is almost entirely performed by Dorothy and Grace—though in slightly different ways. Throughout Slightly Scarlet, Dwan explores a number of possibilities for how one can shoot and organize a sequence in which observation from afar and eavesdropping play fundamental roles. Here are three: 1) Through principles of alternation: The opening (credit) sequence, for example, shows Dorothy being released from prison, while June is outside in a convertible waiting for her. Neither of them see Grace, sitting in another car, photographing them. But Dwan never clarifies precisely where Grace is parked in relation to the two women. Instead, the film alternates between shots of the two women singly or together, whereas Grace is always shown alone—even as this editing formation sets into play the importance of the triangle, not only among these three but among a number of other characters and phenomena as well. 2) Through staging: In two different sequences in June’s home, Dorothy briefly eavesdrops on June’s conversations, the first of these with Frank and the second with Grace. In both of these, Dorothy makes an entrance on the second landing of the house, initially unseen, and stops and listens in. Both of these are done without cutting in closer to Dorothy. Instead, we remain in medium or medium long shot. 3) Through hiding the observer for an extended period before finally revealing his presence: Grace’s status as a detective often depends upon his not being observed by others as he nonetheless observes and records what is near him. As Frank leaves in the sequence discussed above, there is a cut to an exterior shot as we suddenly see Grace seated in his car, about a block from the house, observing Frank’s departure. His most spectacular technique of hiding, though, occurs in the sequence in which he makes an audio recording of the accidental murder of the newspaper editor. At the end of the sequence, and after Caspar and his henchmen have left the room in which the violence occurs, a door
at the back of the room opens and Grace, to the spectator’s surprise, emerges and unhooks his recording device. The shot above, then, involves not only June listening to the audio surveillance of the earlier sequence but Dorothy being placed, meanwhile, in the background of the shot, out of focus. Is Dorothy eavesdropping here? Grace acknowledges her presence as soon as he arrives, and the patio door remains open throughout the conversation between Grace and June. But is Dorothy too far away to hear what they are saying? Unlike the other two sequences of Dorothy eavesdropping, Dwan cuts to closer shots of her. However, it’s not clear if she is directly responding to the conversation or whether the shots are merely intended to show her sexual attraction to Grace. Throughout the film, we are told that Dorothy is “sick,” that she needs psychiatric care. The source material for the film is a novel by James M. Cain and the film’s cinematographer is John Alton, two names indelibly linked with film noir and its shadowed world of neurosis and perversion. Most likely for this reason, Slightly Scarlet has received a bit more critical attention than most of Dwan’s other films—but not by a wide margin. The film is too “unfashionable.” Dwan observes this world of corruption and “sickness” even while his style refuses to fully participate in and be implicated by it. And yet it is this sharp-‐eyed detachment that gives Slightly Scarlet its distinction, its lucidity. Near the end of this sequence, Grace presents June with unshakable proof of his knowledge of Dorothy’s most recent time spent in jail: a black-‐and-‐white photograph that we saw him taking in the film’s opening sequence. In the photograph, Dorothy is dressed in a dark suit and carrying a bag, looking downcast, while June is in fair colors and is taking Dorothy’s face in her hand to console her. Behind them we can see a sign that reads “State Prison for Women.” This insert shot and the photograph that we see in it may be taken as emblematic of Dwan’s approach to the image throughout his career: a moment captured swiftly and economically, doing everything that an image needs to do, before moving on.
HOLD BACK THE NIGHT (1956)
“EZ Company's a good outfit. When you're good, you get the rugged duty.” —Lt. Col. Toomey (Nelson Leigh), Hold Back the Night “Well, I have to make out with what I've got.” —Captain Sam Mackenzie (John Payne), Hold Back the Night *** Hold Back the Night (1956), a Korean War movie about a Marine Captain and his lucky bottle of Scotch, was made for Allied Artists, the more prestigious reorganization of Poverty Row staple Monogram, known for producing genre products with a more ambitious bent: Wichita (1955), The Phenix City Story (1955), and several edgy, maverick thrillers from the then up-‐and-‐coming Don Siegel, Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), Crime in the Streets (1956) and Invasi