Outtakes from an Interview with Dwan, December 1980
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Fairbanks, Shirley Temple, Ronald Reagan, all the “pansies and poseurs of Hollywood” – no one was safe from the cruel barbs of the Great Auteur!
In the late 1970s, a few years before his death, I was lucky enough to know the great pioneer director Allan Dwan. My pal Howard Mandelbaum and I interviewed him several times for an earlier (print) incarnation of Bright Lights (issue 8), and both of us were totally smitten by this contemporary (and occasional cohort) of Griffith’s who started directing in 1911 and made his last film, The Most Dangerous Man Alive, in 1961 at the age of 76. (He was planning a film called Marine! for Warner Bros. when Jack Warner sold the studio in 1967.) He was 95 at the time of this interview.
Dwan was one of the most important silent directors, working at Paramount with Gloria Swanson and Douglas Fairbanks on that studio’s most prestigious films. In the sound era, he worked on major projects with major stars, directing Shirley Temple’s two best films, Heidi and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm; Tyrone Power and Loretta Young in Suez; Natalie Wood in her first film Driftwood; and John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima. But from the mid-1930s he mostly worked for B studios like Republic and RKO, adding his distinctive touch – “parody and pathos” as critic Roger McNiven called it – to a wide variety of genre films from musicals to westerns to film noirs.
Dwan’s fall from A to B productions has been the source of some speculation, but his intransigent, sometimes hostile attitude toward studio heads, censors, and other fools was surely a factor. The notes that follow include some of the “outtakes” from the previously published interview. They show his venomous wit and charm undiminished in spite of his advanced age and compromised living situation (once the owner of a Beverly Hills mansion, he was living with his housekeeper, Bonita, in her modest home in the San Fernando Valley). Dwan was born on April 3, 1885 and died Dec. 2, 1981 at the age of 96.
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Dwan is 95 years old. He had broken his back a few months prior to my visit, but was sufficiently recovered to come to the door (after numerous knocks) and usher me in, with the aid of a cane.
He complains about back problems but says a chiropractor (whom he also recommended to Peter Bogdanovich) was working wonders. He hates hospitals and doesn’t like the “drug treatments” and overnight stays they were trying to force on him. He shows me what he calls “tiny cancers” near his eyes that would have to be attended to.
On Ronald Reagan, whom he directed in Cattle Queen of Montana and Tennessee’s Partner, becoming president: “Why not? He’s played everything else!”
Dwan says he never shot a lot of coverage. “If the take’s satisfactory, print it.” He startles me by saying, “I often shoot with scissors in my eyes.” He prefers studio settings to the great outdoors: “more private. . . you can control the noises and people.” He says directors must be prepared to abandon a script because “some things have to be played off the paper.”
Dwan got a real female convict to advise him on one of the earliest women-in-prison dramas, Wicked. When I mention the “brutal, realistic” scenes of Elissa Landi’s little boy crying, Dwan demonstrates sticking pins in the kid.
I bring up Technicolor, which Dwan used often in his career. “Natalie Kalmus was a bitch,” he says, then recalls that people complained about color at first. “It hurts my eyes” was the common objection.
I show him a 1911 photo of the American Film Company in Santa Barbara, his first employer in the film business. He remembers the scene and identifies the people in it, a camera and actors sitting around a brook on the outskirts of town. He calls actress Pauline Bush “a good horseface,” and mentions that J. Warren Kerrigan, a stage actor transplanted to Hollywood, was “quite a lady himself.” He says there were many such “pansies and poseurs” because “Hollywood sucked them all in.”
Dwan says D. W. Griffith was “number one.” I bring up Manhattan Madness, which I had just seen. Dwan says he made it in Yonkers, New York, while Griffith, who took producer credit, was in California. Dwan says he and Griffith disagreed on “story sense.” Also, Griffith featured women while Dwan featured men. Griffith apparently didn’t like Dwan’s star Douglas Fairbanks.
Fairbanks suffered an accident, Dwan recalls, while “charging upstairs” during Manhattan Madness. His eyes were injured by powder burns. He was athletic, Dwan says, but not always smart. In the elaborate Robin Hood, he used a trampoline to cross a 30-foot moat. The director had to cut when he landed on the wall instead of over it. “Fairbanks was too dazed to do anything but hang onto the wall’s vines,” he laughs.
Fairbanks was a favorite actor of Dwan’s, “but you had to keep working with him, he’d lose the character.” He liked to do ballet leaps, and whenever he affected a ballet pose, with one arm up and one arm trailing, Dwan would ask him, “What the hell was that? What’s in your other hand?”
The actor liked to play practical jokes. He’d wire a chair in his dressing room and when visitors came and sat down, they’d get an electric shock. Dwan taught him a lesson by wiring Fairbanks’s chair.
Once the actor insisted on leaping off a balcony onto a horse. “That’s insanity,” Dwan told him. Fairbanks ended up in the hospital. Usually the actor would cooperate with Dwan, but sometimes “he’d go in and try to improve on the gag. . . and regret it.”
It was Dwan’s idea to have him ruthlessly mug for the camera in Manhattan Madness, surely one of the first such happenings in a narrative film.
Dwan repeats his famous “piss and shit” story – teaching Fairbanks how to smile for the camera by gritting his teeth and saying “piss” for a half-smile and “shit” for a broad one.
Dwan mentions Joan Crawford, saying she and Fairbanks Jr., her husband, couldn’t work together on a set because he was such a ladies’ man. Fairbanks Sr. was just the opposite, “devoted to Mary [Pickford].” I tell him I’d just seen Chances and he says Fairbanks Jr. was “too fond of imitating Ronald Colman.”
Dwan didn’t think much of Helen Mack, the female star of his mood-drenched While Paris Sleeps. He says the Paris of this film was created entirely on the Fox lot.
He read Jack Oakie’s autobiography and called it “dull.” We look at the book and come across a picture of Cary Grant, Oakie, and other “types.” Dwan calls it a “stockyard. Those are real hams.”
I bring up his use of camera movement, especially tracking shots, throughout his career. “There’s always a certain amount of camera improvisation,” he says. “If a man is being pursued and the pursuers are more interesting than the pursued, I’ll track to include them. Things would occur on the set and sometimes ahead of time. They turn you loose on the set.”
He put new facings on the Heidi set, originally a New York street, to transform it into Frankfurt, Germany. “You can disguise any set with lights and shadows.”
I ask him about Daryl Zanuck. Dwan says “it was mutual hatred. Zanuck had written a terrible book that the studio bought, so he came into the movies that way . . . another poseur.” Dwan usually paid no attention to him. Zanuck was pleased with Suez. I ask about Annabella’s prominent erect nipples in her “wet shirt” scene, and Dwan says, “I wanted them to show.” The Hays people called him on this and he argued with them. “Have you ever seen a nude woman? Ever seen your wife nude? There was nothing there that wasn’t positively true to life . . . you knew she was going to be sexy . . . that’s why you picked her. The audience knows. This is my idea of giving it to them. All women are alike – they can go to the mirror and see that anytime.” Another point in his favor was that reshooting would have necessitated rebuilding the entire expensive set.
Dwan talks of constant censorship battles. “They picked on stupid things,” he says, citing Arlene Dahl’s naked leg, raised from behind a couch, in Slightly Scarlet. The censors objected to what the audience knew Ted De Corsia was looking at in that scene: “her pussy.”
I ask him about television, if he likes any of the new shows. He mentions two old favorites in syndication: The Big Valley and Bonanza. (He worked with Stanwyck in Cattle Queen of Montana and Escape to Burma.) He likes their “bravery and consistency.”
Dwan’s throat is getting dry, and he asks if I want something. “Bonita, a coke! . . . and some poison for me.”
I reluctantly tell him I have to go. He gets up and slowly escorts me to the door with the plea, “Don’t be a stranger.”