Elegance Is Bliss

Old Hollywood's Mr. Practicality

The most uncomplicated of classic Hollywood directors, Allan Dwan was also the most prolific. No one knows exactly how many films he made during his astonishing half-century career, but a fair guess would be about 450. An electrical engineer, he entered the film industry in 1909 as a lighting man, moved quickly up the ladder, and between 1911 and 1930 shot more than 250 films, most of them westerns. Dwan was heavily influenced by D.W. Griffith, and long remained the great upholder of the Griffith tradition—a clean, spare visual style in which technique is totally at the service of the dramatic material. He was nicknamed "Practicality Dwan"—whatever the problem, he'd solve it. When Griffith wanted a soaring view over Intolerance's huge Babylonian set, it was Dwan who devised the proto-crane contraption that made this unforgettable shot possible. Still, Dwan is hardly a subject for auteur analysis. He loved making movies, and would often shoot whatever came along. But he did his job with such economy and narrative flair that the most banal material could be transformed into something personal.

Dwan was closely associated with Gloria Swanson and Douglas Fairbanks. He helmed Fairbanks's two best swashbucklers, Robin Hood (1922) and The Iron Mask (1929). The latter, a sequel to the actor's The Three Musketeers (the then 45-year-old screen idol's last silent feature) now seems the most poignant of all swashbucklers—the musketeers grow old, are all killed in action, and march off together in the sky to the "greatest adventure beyond."

The revelation of the Reade's Dwan retro is another superb silent, East Side, West Side (1927). This rags-to-riches, Manhattan-set story features lustrous location cinematography and superhunk George O'Brien's charismatic lead performance. (This rugged ex-college athlete had the best-proportioned, buffest body of any star of the period, and it's clearly the main focus of the boxing scenes.)

The pugilist at rest: Holmes Herbert and George O'Brien in East Side, West Side
photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center
The pugilist at rest: Holmes Herbert and George O'Brien in East Side, West Side

Details

The Last of The Pioneers: Allan Dwan
February 19 through March 6, at the Walter Reade

Dwan's transition to talkies seems to have been painless. He worked mostly at Fox during the 1930s, where, in addition to a score of forgettable programmers, he made While Paris Sleeps (1932), a handsome and moody melodrama; Heidi (1937), the first and best of his three films with the studio's cash-cow moppet, Shirley Temple; and Suez (1938), an elaborate epic in which Tyrone Power builds the Suez Canal. Dwan's '40s output included some popular farces based on vintage stage hits. These are best represented by Up in Mabel's Room (1944) and Getting Gertie's Garter (1945)—both have near identically creaky plots but are redeemed by the whirlwind pacing and the accomplished B-picture performers.

In the 1950s, Dwan's last working decade, he made a series of excellent low-budget westerns, all shot by John Alton. Never epic, Dwan's oaters are clearly linked to Griffith—elegant and tender, seldom dominated by violence or action. In Cattle Queen of Montana (1954), Barbara Stanwyck plays Sierra Nevada Jones, a tigress who holds her own in a man's world (opposite her: a wan Ronald Reagan). Passion (1954) is a tale of a vaquero's vengeance; Cornel Wilde pursues the killers of his wife with the help of her twin sister (both frontier ladies played by Yvonne de Carlo with one expression). In Silver Lode (1954), best of the batch, a ballsy allegory about the McCarthy witch-hunts, John Payne is falsely accused of murder on his wedding day, the Fourth of July; the heavy (Dan Duryea) is actually named McCarthy.

Although far from skimpy, the Reade's retro does seem a tad skewed. Gloria Swanson is not on the menu. Even more surprising is the omission of Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), the biggest success of Dwan's sound career and, no mere flag-waver, a film that shows war as unpredictable and dehumanizing. Its absence leaves a hole in the center of this otherwise most welcome retro.

 
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