Note: The humble program note has a long and noble history. Sometimes anonymous, sometimes not, cheered as often as they were reviled, these brief, ephemeral, often illuminating handouts, likely destined for the dustbin the same night they appeared, offer “wisdom in a nutshell,” as one of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s characters aptly put it. This article is the second in Bright Lights’ series of vintage program notes from those heady days of the 1970s when unstoppable auteurists started their own cine clubs and commandeered movie theaters to bring their idea of cine-culture to audiences. Our late friend Roger McNiven continues the series with fascinating write-ups of two more works on the subject of “women larger than life,” in this case Allan Dwan’s Slightly Scarlet and The Woman They Almost Lynched, screened at the legendary Thalia Theatre in New York City on Tuesday, December 4, 1979. We have added images but not edited the text, deferring to the time and spirit in which it was written.
Between 1911 and 1961, Allan Dwan directed 113 feature films (one hour plus) as well as approximately 330 films of less than six reels in length. Not only did he direct more films than anyone else whose career spans five decades in Hollywood, but today at a healthy 94 years of age he is very likely to outlive all his contemporaries. Dwan’s heyday of success was the 1920s and early ‘30s, when he made numerous pictures with stars like Gloria Swanson and Douglas Fairbanks — mostly comedies, costume dramas, and society melodramas with comic elements. In the post-WWII years, Dwan’s career consists of 14 films for Republic Studios (through 1954), plus another 14 films, mostly for producer Benedict Bogeaus, released by RKO. On these 28 movies, Dwan worked with considerably lower budgets than in all his previous years with the big studios. However, it can be argued that this last period is artistically his most fertile. If one reads Peter Bogdanovich’s interview book with Dwan (Allan Dwan: The Last Pioneer, 1971), one sees Dwan put down this later period in favor of earlier, more glamorous times. But that’s because of Bogdanovich’s preferences and prejudices. If one reads the French magazine interviews of the 1960s, one finds Dwan to be very enthusiastic about films like Silver Lode, Tennessee’s Partner, The River’s Edge, Driftwood, Escape to Burma, Angel in Exile, Cattle Queen of Montana, Sands of Iwo Jima, and the two films showing today.
Most of the later Dwan films belong to one of the action film genres: the western, film noir/gangster film, war film, adventure movie. These genres were in general more central to the decade of the 1950s than to any other decade. Interestingly, almost all the important directors of action films in the 1950s were either newcomers like Ray, Aldrich, Fuller, and Siegel; or vintage silent-days directors like Cukor, Preminger, Minnelli, and Sirk. The reason is that in the 1930s and early ‘40s, action films were mostly considered B-feature material that was necessarily locked into rigid conventions and formulas. In the 1950s, opportunities arose for imaginative and often wildly outlandish variations on standard genre plots. Some of the most original of these were only possible in moderate to low-budget situations in which producers did not bother to supervise shooting. This is a fact borne out generally in Hollywood by such innovators as Edgar G. Ulmer, Joseph H. Lewis, early Anthony Mann and Boetticher, etc.
Woman They Almost Lynched predates Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar by six months. Since the latter — also made for Herbert Yates at Republic — bears many close and obvious parallels to the former, it is interesting to note that Dwan’s film paved the way, to some extent. Most of us would agree that Johnny Guitar is the more accomplished film, but at least some of the originality attributed to it rightly belongs to the Dwan film. As of 1953, deviations from genre norms as radical as these two films were unheard of. Presumably, Woman They Almost Lynched, as a Republic property, started out as a relatively conventional, average western about a Civil War intrigue: the Confederate spy was the hero; in between his dealings with Quantrill, the neutral border town, and the Union Army, he had an affair with a nice girl who may or may not have been a saloon hussy; and Quantrill’s wife, if she rode along at all, just tagged along. There is every reason (including Dwan’s remarks on the film) to assume that Dwan was largely responsible for the enlargement of the two female roles to the main protagonists of the movie, and for the idea of making the town officials women, as a kind of chorus to the central pair.
Similarly, the original conception of Slightly Scarlet no doubt focused on the confrontation between the gang leader trying to take over the city and the pal he double-crosses, while the two sisters were fairly marginal. Dwan’s interest in spunky women can be traced back through his career. In his action movies, he usually strove to involve the heroine in the actual action rather than having her merely stand by with bandages and moral support. In this respect, he contrasts, for example, with Hawks, who is known for his emancipated heroines in action environments: Hawks’ women can hold their own with men, but only off the field of battle.
The action genres in the 1950s had inherited certain conventions, especially of female roles, whose origins lie in very Victorian notions found in the silent cinema. Among these are two kinds of “fallen woman”: the saloon whore and the gangster’s moll. These two types are behind the pairs of female leads in, respectively, Woman They Almost Lynched and Slightly Scarlet. All such stereotypes had, by the ’50s, evolved to the point where, for instance, a saloon girl would not be censured by the “respectable” elements of the community, especially if she had a “heart of gold.” Dwan, however, loved to retain the Victorian mores of his communities. Some of his schoolmarm types look as if they’ve stepped right out of a D. W. Griffith movie, e.g., the lady mayor’s hangers-on in Woman, who do censure newly arrived schoolteacher Joan Leslie for becoming a saloon girl. In this way, Dwan could all the more relish the defiance of morality by his female rebels. However much the ’50s versions of vintage stereotypes have been updated, certain limitations remain, such as that of heroine equals moral support to action hero. Dwan, it seems, could see the way more clearly toward a really radical female rebel than younger directors who saw only the contemporary genre norms.
The Victorian heritage of Hollywood in the ’50s carried with it a certain moral consciousness inherent in the basic melodramatic form shared by all the action genres. Westerns, for example, were no less often conceived as morality plays (with new ethics) in the 1950s than they were in the 1920s. Dwan, however, seems to have always presented a very anti-Victorian, anti-moral consciousness kind of view. His is a baroque temperament rather than a neo-Victorian one. His characters triumph over evil not because of moral forces but because of Dwan’s belief in humanity. Rather than have the heroes and heroines kill off all the villains, Dwan would always prefer to climax his action films with scenes of transformation of the villains. Like a classical god (rather than a Christian god), Dwan would rescue his mortals out of the grip of despair and corruption with some deus ex machine or other that instills in all the characters a sense of human collectiveness. Thus the ultra-classical virtues of gallantry, chivalry, love for beauty’s sake, and other moral-neutrals replace such concepts as redemption, repentance, and spiritual love. Within the confines of the action genres, Dwan is, like Jean Renoir, a classical humanist.
The debunking of conventions built on morality leads readily to absurdity, but not, for Dwan, the kind of absurdity that precludes an ultimately ennobled vision of his characters. In the later stages of Woman, Kate Quantrill’s (Audrey Totter) assimilation into Joan Leslie’s group of girls is quite touching. It is touching, even as it continues the absurdities of Kate’s former persona, by having her flirt with a Union officer. The reason Kate’s “transformation” is affecting is not because we are now invited to take seriously (as a complex human being) someone who has been developed as a caricature. Rather, it is because the benign world view of the film’s creator intercedes. There is no inherent limitation in characterizing central figures as caricatures, cf. Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It, for example. It is perhaps more daring in a genre film and more difficult without collapsing the film into a mere spoof.
Arlene Dahl in Slightly Scarlet is, like Audrey Totter’s Kate Quantrill, a caricature (or almost) in an otherwise “serious” film. She differs from Kate in that her “transformation” is more limited; Dwan’s dual attitudes of parody and pathos are developed here in counterpoint. In both films, the extremes of these two women are justified partly by their antagonistic counterparts Joan Leslie and Rhonda Fleming. Totter and Dahl are “absurdist” exaggerations of the western whore and the gangster-film moll. Leslie and Fleming are “nice girls” who become, respectively, a saloon “whore” and a gangster’s “moll,” of sorts. Hence they provide a balancing extreme with respect to the “fallen woman” models. There is the further justification that each pair of women is surrounded by a Breugellian bevy of colorful characters who bridge the extremes of “evil” and “virtue.” Finally, any distinction between what is “serious” and what is “arch” or “camp” in these films is arbitrary.
I have not said anything directly about Dwan’s highly estimable visual style. I leave these two superb prints being shown to speak themselves for the films.