It’s been more than half a century since he last made a movie, and still we keep coming back to Allan Dwan. Fifty years was also the span of his working life, from 1911–1961, and it’s in Dwan’s epochal directing career that we find a unlikely connecting hub for Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, Shirley Temple, and John Wayne, among many others. Any given batch of Dwan films affords the invigorating if decidedly nostalgic privilege of seeing how the movie medium invented itself. To signify the scope of his endurance, MOMA’s monthlong retrospective derives its title from a new book by Frederic Lombardi, Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios.
A purveyor of generally unpretentious entertainments, Dwan never really had name recognition. “Dwan is essentially a director without a masterpiece,” Lombardi writes. “One cannot chart his career as moving toward that one towering opus that guarantees immortality.” That means Dwan can seem diminutive in relation to better-known directors: not quite the screwball-virtuoso Preston Sturges, not quite the cornball-populist Frank Capra, not quite the western-lapidarist John Ford. But what range it took to remind us of those three all at once.
Longevity must correlate to flexibility, and Dwan was nothing if not a good sport. “With genres,” Lombardi writes, “he seemed to operate like a whirling dervish.” He’d studied engineering, and his knack for it extended to script analysis; sometimes that meant retrofitting ostensible dramas for comedy, or at least for self-spoofing melodrama. Yes, he gave us the spectacle of Fairbanks clambering up a church steeple in A Modern Musketeer (1917) and sliding down a 40-foot drape in Robin Hood (1922), but it’s also thanks to Dwan that swashbuckling could transcend genre and become a state of mind: There’s something positively acrobatic, for instance, about the spending of money in his Brewster’s Millions, from 1945.
Dwan knew the difference between actors and stars, and selected for the latter. Even the minor players in the minor pictures have magnetism enough to always seem worth looking at. Which goes to show that the enduring movie priorities aren’t necessarily technical. A key sequence in 1930’s Man to Man, with a father fresh from prison and trying to spot his son in a crowd, stirs us not just for using a long take but for displaying the fragile expectancy in Grant Mitchell’s face. Similarly, it’s easy to be dazzled by the set-smashing tempest Dwan uncorked for 1938’s Suez (not to mention his exuberant Suez Canal engineering geekery), but what lingers from that film are small, interpersonal details, like the sexy swimming-hole meet-cute between Tyrone Power and Annabella.
The other thing, and maybe the main thing: Dwan was ridiculously prolific, to the extent that part of Lombardi’s project is purely numerical. No, he didn’t make 1,000 movies; the proper number, in this author’s more circumspect estimation, is “probably somewhere around 500.” Well, OK. We might say contribution itself was Dwan’s lasting contribution. Maybe the whole career is the masterpiece.