Dwan Six Times: The Rise and Decline of a Director

I consider myself fortunate to have been able to see six films as a part of the Museum of Modern Art’s recent Allan Dwan retrospective, “Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios”. Naturally, in retrospect I wish I had seen more, but given I was initially not planning on seeing any of the films I’m glad I got to see any at all. It was, in fact, a visiting friend of mine who convinced me to see one, the 1927 silent drama East Side, West Side, and I enjoyed it so much – so much! – that I stayed for the second Dwan feature that evening. I’d intended to see more, like Tennessee’s Partner, The Woman They Almost LynchedThe River’s Edge, and Sands of Iwo Jima, but various things got in the way.

Considering the six films that I did manage to catch, it actually appears to be quite a fair representation of his career. Of course, given he made over 400 films (and you think Woody Allen is prolific), six rather a pitiful number, but when the Canadian director who was nearly 100 when he died in 1981 is seemingly never mentioned by anybody anywhere, I think six is probably more than most people can claim. Well, except the MoMA regulars who I often heard boasting of having seen them all. I got to see some of his vibrant and visually arresting silents, his attempts at Hollywood epic, a decidedly B-grade attempt at the popular western genre, and the two oddball final films that provide an almost sad coda to his career as someone who Hollywood appeared to have given up on. I’ve got a perspective on the man and with his name now on my radar I can only hope that I get to see more of his work.

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The first and the best was East Side, West Side, a 1927 silent drama that Dwan also wrote based off of a novel by Felix Reisenberg. It’s curious that this film isn’t cited for often as a definitive “New York movie”. Not only does it so beautifully capture the city – the MoMA notes even hail his “excellent use of New York locations” – but it tells a rags-to-riches tale that is so indicative of the NYC spirit. The city in the 1920s is spectacularly rendered (although certain dramatic events suggest it may in fact be set in 1912) on screen by Dwan and cinematographers Teddy Pahle and George Webber, helped by what I think was actual real location work, that I was captivated from the get go. Its first ten minutes set along the Manhattan waterfront are truly some of the most visually arresting images I’ve yet seen projected. That they feature the exceptionally handsome George O’Brien (better known for Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans) certainly helps, but the images of a sleeping New York as a barge makes its way down the foggy East River under the stars of a skyscraper skyline would be enthralling anyway.

O’Brien’s immense physical presence certainly makes the ensuing drama understandable. Once washing up onto the shore and attempting to avoid getting embroiled in a street fight, O’Brien’s John Breen himself in the company of a lower class family of the Lower East Side and later becoming the surprising protégée of a wealthy west side architect. The nondescript nature of his name, John, means it fits into both; the working class and the upper class and his likeable persona certainly means he finds friends fast. He begins working in the tailoring and suit shop of his east side adopted family and eventually puts his hulking frame to use as a boxer. He’s soon enough swept up in the lifestyle of a man who believes himself to be John’s father and begins to get involved with the man’s daughter (which, yes, implies incest that the film curiously doesn’t broach the top of). Extra note: you wouldn’t want to fall asleep during this movie, especially as the film takes a very strange detour in recreating the sinking of the Titanic at the start of the third act. One could find themselves very confused. The (shall we say fabulous) German (below) and Spanish marketing campaigns even went so far as to retitle the film as Titanic even though that focus boat is never actually mentioned by name and the sequence comes maybe an hour into a story that previously completely sidestepped the Titanic. The more you know!

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I adored the film from a visual stand point, with its breathtaking images and smart use of framing. Where Dwan’s film really surprised me was in the very modern vibe of the picture. None of the actors are guilty of hammy over-dramatised stylisation that silent films can sometimes suffer from – everybody here feels very natural, which helps it connect more emotionally than as just a visual pleasure. The use of real locations also keeps it grounded, and connected to a world that very much still exists today. The hurried rush of the LES is still very much alive and thriving albeit as a more gentrified entity, as is the more luxurious qualities of the Upper West Side. East Side, West Side is very much a movie about, as the poster states, “New York today with its loves, passions and hates.” I suspect many people who feel they can’t engage with silent pictures would certainly appreciate this one. If little else, they can certainly admire the scenery.

The scenery in Stage Struck is the one and only Gloria Swanson. A film of delicate humour that had be frequently laughing out loud, but which never descends into outright slapstick. Again, for a film made in 1925, Stage Struck feels decidedly modern. It’s paced exactly right and its cast have keen timing. Dwan isn’t a particularly fussy director and nowhere is that more suited that here. The material does all the work necessary and many contemporary directors of comedy could take a lesson or two from the way works a joke and then moves along to the next one rather than hovering around like a vulture. Fun fact: Stage Struck was at least partly filmed at the Kaufman Studios in Astoria, NY, which is literally about five blocks from my apartment.

With Stage Struck I saw that Dwan was a perfectly fine director, but figured maybe it’s the projects with bigger scopes that see him bring out the directorial bells and whistles like what I’d seen in the sprawling character study of East Side, West Side. These two faces of Dwan were on display, I felt, with the next two features of his that I watched. The 1938 African-set epic Suez and the 1954 western Silver Lode.

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The former tells the story of the building of the Suez Canal with Tyrone Power as Ferdinand de Lesseps. All the hallmarks of Hollywood epic are there – the love triangle, the exotic locale, the dramatic setpieces, the grand history of it all – and when given the chance to do so shows Dwan as a very strong director. Nominated for three Academy Awards – I’m not sure of many Dwan films that can claim that – Suez is rich and grand, with a centrepiece sequence involving a highly destructive sandstorm making a great impression. He’s unafraid to shun sentimentality for the all too real circumstances of death, especially involving one character whose exit is unexpected and emotionally quite affecting.

However, Suez is the first of the films I saw that had Dwan actively trying to keep up. This was surely an epic for him, but it’s still a rather small picture. Dwan’s direction is impressive and he has utilised whatever budget he had well, but I can sense the almost blue collar sensibility in him at work. Whereas his silent work felt new and bold and vibrant, Suez appears to find the director working harder than ever to impress and making the type of film that was dictated by the times. He was never a director that would have had his pick of major motion pictures, but when given the chance to work on something such as this he could be guaranteed at providing a winner.

By the time Silver Lode came along, however, nearly 20 years later Dwan was into his fifth decade as a director and in very much the twilight phase of his career. One can forgive the man for perhaps going soft of the pedal and Silver Lode is a perfect example of the sort of solid entertainment, not quite A-list films that he was churning out. I’d initially not responded all that well to Silver Lode, considering it solid but unremarkable. And while I still don’t consider the film, an 81-minute western set on July 4th Independence Day, to be all the best of what I have seen from him, I’ve found myself thinking about it more than any of his other works. 

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I appreciated the film’s screenplay more than anything, to be honest. While there are lapses in logic – those townspeople, oy! – I appreciated its single day structure, the protest to McCarthyism, its surprisingly adept female roles, and the no fuss way it goes about its business. It’s lean and more than a little mean, if you catch my drift. I actually think the actors are more or less fabulous, with particular notice going to Dolores Moran and Lizabeth Scott as two very different small town women. Cinematographer John Alton had won the Academy Award some years earlier for An American in Paris, and while the film doesn’t often allow him to really do much with the frame, there’s at least one shoot-out sequence, done all in one take as Payne’s falsely accused gunman criss-crosses across down hiding behind any objects he comes across, that is superb, stunning work. It’s a moment of alchemy between the camera and the set and really highlights the film’s excellent formal work all around.

Silver Lode is like comfort cinema of a sort. It has so many ingredients that make for an entertaining film that it’s almost impossible to not get at least some enjoyment out of it. It’s lazy Sunday afternoon fare, the type that one could come across on the ABC (Australia, not USA) one day and there’s something really sweet and old-fashioned about that. I’d certainly leave it on if I ever spotted it while channel surfing.

There’s definitely a streak of paranoia running through Silver Lode, which makes it an intriguing property to look back on. What I had initially thought was a fob off from Dwan turned out to be a film very much keeping in with subjects he liked to tell. He made other westerns, including one with Ronald Reagan that I unfortunately had to bypass, but I’m not sure any of them would have such an overt reference to the McCarthy communist hunt. The villain of Silver Lode isn’t called Ned McCarty for nothin’, you know.

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This political edge would extend on through to The Most Dangerous Man in the World seven years later. What would prove to be his last film – he simply retired, having presumably exhausted himself making so many films one right after the after – this 1961 curiosity is a fairly standard B-movie about the dangers of nuclear war that is fairly typical of the era. By this time cinema had well and truly moved on and Dwan was making the type of movies that would be the el cheapo second film in a double feature. The Most Dangerous Man in the World lacks almost all the finesse and beauty of the earlier films I had seen, but at least the man still knew how to adapt. He doesn’t disguise his films as anything that they’re not. This is cheap science fiction, and there isn’t necessarily anything bad about that.

The last film I saw from the retrospective was actually the second last feature he made. From 1958, Enchanted Island is easily the weakest of the six. The only film of his that I saw that I would say is actively bad, it’s a poorly-acted desert island flick that suffers from production values that run from average to poor and performances by the likes of Dana Andrews and Jane Powell that lack charisma. The tropical locales look divine, but that’s window-dressing for a film that’s otherwise casual with its racism (a white actor portrays a tribe leader who’s obviously meant to be of Polynesian descent) and misogyny (“hahaha!” laughs Andrews’ jungle seaman as he throws a fishing net over his exotic girl-wifey, to which the woman’s father responds “He can keep what he caught!” before she gets slung over the brute’s shoulder and shipped off to the jungle). 

“He dared to love a cannibal princess!” reads the poster, which is ridiculous. The film’s cannibal subplot only ever briefly flirts with being interesting, and then is mostly discarded as a humorous misunderstanding between cultures. This is the bad kind of fluff, shamelessly glowering at a culture different from our own, but dressing it up in pretty colours to mask any off-putting sentiments that audiences may accidentally pick up on. At least Allan Dwan got to make one more film after this – curiously three years later, the biggest gap between any two Dwan features – but this was a decidedly off-colour end to my first experience with Dwan.

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I can definitely see why MoMA decided to do the retrospective. He’s a director that typifies a lot of what Hollywood was doing in its first half-a-century of existence. He is an example of somebody that perhaps never quite had the goods to go all the way to being hailed as a filmmaking legend, but who worked with what he had perhaps more than anybody else. If the initial promise of his early years (and, to be fair, even by 1925 of Stage Struck he had already made over a hundred films beginning in 1911) didn’t quite continue on through the decades, then he’d hardly be the first director to do so. A consummate professional who tried to do his best with whatever he was given even when it included shrinking budgets and an industry that was in the early stages of moving away from the types of films he was best at, and who made movies clearly because he loved cinema above all. Viewing these films was illuminating and eye-opening and I’m grateful I got to see them. I’d be willing for the retrospective to keep going more months on end just to give me the chance to see them all.

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