Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios, by Frederic Lombardi (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013, 370pp, $49.95 from the publisher’s website)
Allan Dwan (1885-1981) was one of cinema’s trailblazers, a key player practically at the birth of movies (his first credit dates from 1911) and enduring as a creative film artist through the early 1960s. But for many years, Dwan’s story was elusive. There were scattered journal articles from the always reliable French and American auteurists, but English-speaking fans of the director had to be content mainly with an interview and references to his silent work in Kevin Brownlow’s book The Parade’s Gone By; Peter Bogdanovich’s short monograph Allan Dwan: The Last Pioneer (1971); and, again citing Bogdanovich, a lengthy interview with Dwan in that author’s indispensable anthology Who the Devil Made It. (I haven’t seen the Locarno Film Festival book of essays on Dwan published in 2002.) TV packages kept his films floating in the cultural consciousness from the 1950s on, but Dwan wasn’t enough of a “name above the title” director for most people to notice. There were bona fide classics – Shirley Temple’s beloved Heidi and John Wayne’s Sands of Iwo Jima, for example – but again the director was overshadowed, in these cases by the star. Andrew Sarris’s seminal book American Cinema: Directors and Directions (1968), the first serious attempt to create a taxonomy of filmmakers, praised Dwan but not enough to inspire even many auteurists to plumb his career. Anyone lucky enough to live in New York City in the 1970s and ’80s could have seen quite a few Dwan films in 35mm and in proper ratio at a 1971 Museum of Modern Art retrospective or at Howard Mandelbaum’s legendary cine club The Thousand Eyes.
While the auteurist juggernaut of the 1960s and ’70s carried Dwan’s peers and friends like Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh into the wider culture, Dwan remained somewhat obscure. Arguably, he bore part of the responsibility for this, famously telling The New York Times in 1950, “If you get your head up above the mob, they try to knock it off. If you stay down, you last forever.” That apparent desire to keep a low profile may have been a well-phrased cover for a situation out of Dwan’s control, a defensive position he adopted after his legendary fall from being a top director of prestige films in the 1920s to a marginal figure toiling in the backwaters of B-films for major studios like Fox in the 1930s and making programmers for Republic and other second-string companies in the 1940s and ’50s. Prior to the talkies, after all, he had been one of the most celebrated directors, lauded as a pioneer, a technical whiz who invented the dolly and crane shots, a maker of opulent, costly, and massively successful films like Robin Hood (1922) and The Iron Mask (1928), subject of profiles in publications from The New York Times to Photoplay, discoverer and director of major stars including Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Lon Chaney, and on and on.
Fans of Dwan have long wondered what caused his downfall – if it can be viewed as such – as well as how he could have lost a fortune during his silent-era heyday and end up living in a modest tract house in the San Fernando Valley owned by his supposed housekeeper Bonita after he retired from movies. The mysteries of Dwan encompassed other things as well – did he really discover all those future stars, including Lon Chaney, Ida Lupino, and Natalie Wood? And while it was easy to imagine that Dwan, as an engineer, could have used his technical savvy to invent the mercury vapor arc light, the dolly shot, and the crane shot (for Intolerance), did he actually do these things? Dwan also had verbal gifts (he started in film as a writer), and his mythmaking was as robust and sweeping as his filmography, which encompassed 400 or so films as writer, producer, or director (his own claim to making more than twice that number not having stood the test of time), and the myths changed periodically.
Frederic Lombardi’s book on the director and his work, Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios, does much – indeed, as much as could be imagined – to both trace the director’s history and career and explicate the myths. Along the way, as the name implies, we get a fascinating look at the studio system from its Wild West days at the beginning through Hollywood’s golden age and postwar era, and what it was like to be at the center, initially, of American commercial cinema and then working at the margins to create film art. The book is a masterful achievement in cinematic archaeology.
When I first heard about this project a few years ago, I was skeptical, assuming the amount and difficulty of research required would be insurmountable or that the author might default to the Bogdanovich approach of slighting Dwan’s sound-era films in favor of the silents. But Lombardi is eminently fair-minded, giving equal attention to Dwan’s entire career, and the book is a study in turning the raw data of everything from early movie magazines, newspapers, and archival material from the studios to scripts and interviews into a cohesive, compelling narrative that never loses the reader. The man director Andrew McLaglen called a “tough old bird” was also a tough nut to crack, but Lombardi cracks it.
The Dwan who emerges here, born in Toronto in 1885, was “stage struck” – incidentally, the title of one of his later movies – at age 8, following this bent into college, where he earned plaudits as “an actor of no mean power” before moving into writing and directing films. He also studied engineering and brought his technical skills to filmmaking almost from the beginning, in 1911. One of the threads of the book is the sheer number and variety of Dwan’s innovations, from early movie merchandising (Robin Hood) and new lighting effects to tracking-shot mechanisms to in-camera dissolves and even an early experiment in sound (1925) that predates the general arrival of the new technology. Dwan also saw the need for feature-length films, which made studio managers and distributors extremely nervous. Lombardi unearths as much truth about Dwan’s inventiveness and forward thinking as possible, assigning him the creator role where it seems definitive and tempering the director’s claims as necessary.
The book is divided into two major sections, with Part 1, “The Lusty Child,” covering Dwan’s early history and his work in the silents, and Part 2, “Keep Your Head Down!,” chronicling the last years of his silent career before moving into the sound era and Dwan’s post-filmmaking life.
One of the pleasures of the first half the book is its vivid portrait of the heady days of early cinema, where location shooting could be dangerous or even fatal, Thomas Edison’s “patent thugs” were attacking film companies – though this happened less than the stories would have it, according to Lombardi – and studios frequently raided each other’s talent, sometimes scooping up entire acting companies. And even in those days, clever genre mashups were common, as in Dwan’s offbeat Western comedy The Yiddisher Cowboy (1911), “where the peddler Ikey Rosenthal shows he can outsmart the roughnecks who treat him derisively.” One of Dwan’s enduring themes, the sex-role reversal, was also evident in those early days in a series of films about tough gal Calamity Anne, as was his penchant for topical satire in a film like The Agitator, or The Cowboy Socialist (1912), or the first Douglas Fairbanks-Dwan collaboration, The Habit of Happiness (1916), a comedy with a class angle. Typical of Dwan and of the era, he recruited actual “Bowery bums” to act in The Habit of Happiness. Another instance of the director’s own derring-do that the book documents was his agreeing to “referee” a drugged-out “ether party” arranged by Evelyn Nesbit, a former chorus girl who was involved in one of cinema’s early murder scandals as “the girl in the red velvet swing.”
Dwan worked at many studios, seemingly stopping long enough to make the kinds of movies he liked and then moving on, in the process becoming a director whose publicity in the silent-era movie magazines of the time rivaled that of major stars. These included legendary outfits like Flying A, Triangle, Famous Players, Universal (none of his 30+ films from his time there are known to exist), Mayflower, Paramount, Fox, Twentieth Century-Fox, Republic, RKO, Edward Small Productions… the list goes on.
His relationship with studio heads and functionaries was often strained, but he could work with actors more successfully than many of his peers. The book documents this in his relationship with Douglas Fairbanks Sr., who usually walked all over the director; Dwan was the one exception. Fairbanks trusted him, and they were great friends, and their collaborations clearly bear Dwan’s stamp as auteur as the director helped the actor develop and refine his on-screen personality. The book gives the impression that Dwan bristled at being dependent on moguls and their minions like Darryl F. Zanuck and preferred being the one depended on, by actors. During a financial dispute with Mayflower Pictures, he simply seized the negatives of his films and held them hostage till the company paid up. This fearlessness is a recurring theme. Despite being shortish (5’7”) and pudgy, he was apparently a commanding, even intimidating presence when necessary. In a typical story, Lombardi recounts how, during a stint at Universal in the ’teens, Dwan became so annoyed with a production supervisor on the set that he picked him up and threw him “over a wall.” In a characteristically sardonic punch line, Dwan remarks that his friend and fellow director Robert Z. Leonard “threw him back!” Supervisors of any sort must have been a particular thorn in Dwan’s side; Shirley Temple recalled that he would knock the script out of the script supervisor’s hands on the set of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), as well as “pinch” and “twist” this unfortunate character’s arms. Despite his general simpatico with them, actors could also draw his ire, sometimes to the point of physicality, as in the case of gay silent star J. Warren Kerrigan or Republic leading man John Carroll, the latter, muffing his lines repeatedly, causing the much smaller Dwan to “assault” him according to a contemporary account. However, the picture of Dwan in the book is mostly genial, with collaborators before and behind the camera expressing warm regard for him and what he could draw out of them.
The book gives a production history for each of Dwan’s films (including most of those that are lost) – some brief, others extensive, as in the case of Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and Robin Hood – that deftly mixes archival information, contemporary reactions, on-set anecdotes, and a critical appraisal. A recurring theme from these histories is Dwan’s ability to think on his feet, reworking or even discarding a troubled script at the last minute and whipping up a new one, as in the case of Trail of the Vigilantes (1940), changed radically from a standard Western to a parody. But, typical of the book, Lombardi both airs Dwan’s claim about this and challenges it via William Everson’s opinion that budget and planning considerations would not likely have allowed this kind of switch. Less in doubt are Dwan’s avowals of appropriating existing sets to make his movies (a strategy not uncommon for other budget-constrained auteurs like Roger Corman), as in the cases of Heidi (1937) and Escape to Burma (1955); for the latter he “purloined” the sets from Howard Hughes’s John Wayne epic The Conqueror. Another of Dwan’s innovations was filming a “pilot” version of the Gloria Swanson vehicle What a Widow! (1930) – the entire movie shot in rough form (without costumes or sets) before filming the finished version, predating Jerry Lewis’s video playback invention by decades. Swanson, who made her best films with Dwan (with the exception of the much later Sunset Blvd.), is also the subject of one of the book’s numerous fascinating detours in a colorful account of Dwan’s dealings with her and her lover, the devious Joseph Kennedy, who secretly used Swanson’s trust to deplete her fortune.
Despite having experimented with sound as early as 1925, Dwan initially resisted the move to talkies, but his firing by Harry Cohn after three days of directing Faith (which became Frank Capra’s American Madness) at Columbia, followed by losses in the stock market crash and a sojourn in England, combined to make him no longer bankable in the U.S. Lombardi draws on an unpublished section of Peter Bogdanovich’s interview with Dwan to recount a bizarre instance of the normally placid Dwan losing it, hurling a ceramic elephant through mogul Harry Cohn’s window, with Cohn supposedly thinking it was a bomb and “crapping his pants” – a claim that’s hard to believe (and that Lombardi doubts) but that, even if it has a grain of truth, indicates something of the usually unflappable director’s state of mind during this tumultuous time. Following this episode, after three films in England, he returned to the U.S. and began his “descent” into B-films.
Lombardi’s immersion into Dwan’s filmography pays off throughout the book. He rejects conventional wisdom as well as correcting misreadings and mistakes, such as how John Wayne died in Sands of Iwo Jima (while also showing that Wayne’s character was not the one-dimensional “superhero” some have said) and the idea that Vera Ralston, Republic Studios’ English-challenged star, was consistently a bad actress. The book’s fairness extends to taking the director’s lesser films seriously and providing delightful portraits of Dwan’s collaborators like cinematographer John Alton, whom the director called “aristocratic” but worked well with. This is important because it shows how Dwan, despite his decline in status, was able to enlist many top stars and behind-the-camera masters like Alton and special-effects men the Lydecker brothers even in straitened circumstances. His knack for discovering stars also remained intact, evident in his recognizing Natalie Wood as a gifted child actor and featuring her to wonderful effect in Driftwood (1947).
While the most appealing aspect of Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios is the rich history of Dwan and his work at the studios, Lombardi also brings in critical commentary throughout, by others as well as himself. This makes the book doubly useful as both history and analysis, and in the case of the former aspect, surely definitive. Without pushing it too hard, the author explores a variety of recurring themes and motifs in Dwan’s work that enrich it and help build the case for the director as a true auteur, from the “lost father” trope of films like Sands of Iwo Jima to the wild sex-role reversals of The Woman They Almost Lynched to topical studies like the progressive racial drama One Mile from Heaven (1937). While the writing has an authoritative, objective quality, Lombardi is also capable of the nicely turned phrase, Of two major trends in the silent films, he says that Dwan “could embrace both the resurgence of masculine energy in the Fairbanks films and the rise of feminine power in other movies.” His description of Dwan’s final film, The Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961), as “a work of pinch-penny grandeur” is both witty and accurate.
In the last part of the book, Lombardi paints an affecting picture of Dwan as the doting godfather and loyal friend and mentor who kept up with new developments in culture and films (he was a big fan of Richard Lester’s Help!, for example, released in 1965 when he was 80) and never gave up trying to make that next “last” movie. This section also answers, to the extent possible, the question of how Dwan, after decades of a successful Hollywood career, ended up living with his housekeeper. Part of the reason had to do with an accountant who embezzled most of Dwan’s assets, but it’s what happened afterward that is most intriguing. Anyone who came to know Dwan in his last years (including myself) wondered who “Bonita” was and what her real function was in the tract house where they lived and in Dwan’s personal life. It’s an extraordinary story, with Dwan and Bonita playing a kind of masquerade, involving an unusual romance and perhaps inspired by the director’s prankster and practical sides, with a clever “plot” that might have come from one of his movies.
The Museum of Modern Art ran its second major retrospective of Dwan’s films in the summer of 2013 in conjunction with the release of this book. A screening note for the series says, “Lombardi’s book captures Dwan’s long journey in unprecedented detail,” and at 285,000 words and based on seven years of research, we have to agree. This is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand not just the life and career of a specific director but the story of the American studio system from its hardscrabble beginnings through the golden age and beyond.