Allan Dwan

Dedicated to the memory
Of Sol Wurtzel, Edward Small, Herbert J. Yates and Benedict Bogeaus

Who supplied the frame

In his elegy for Allan Dwan (Cahiers du cinéma 332) Jean-Claude Biette called him “a great storyteller” and “a great poet of space”. An anecdote Dwan told Peter Bogdanovich about his early days shows how these compliments are linked: scouting for ideas with his cast and crew near Lakeside, California, the young director saw a cliff and filmed a fight that ended with the hero throwing the villain over it. Still in search of a story, he then saw a flume “like a great bridge” which carried water from one ranch to another. Result: a two-reel melodrama in which the villain poisons the flume to kill his neighbour’s cattle and is punished by being thrown off the cliff at the end of the film.

The story has an archetypal quality. On the one hand, the setting (the cliff) inspires the action that takes place in it (without determining it: other actions could easily have been envisioned); on the other hand, a division of space (the two ranches) and the passageway which links them (the flume) generate a story to justify the action (The Poisoned Flume [1911]). These narrative paradigms can also be used separately, as we can see from the plots of two other lost Dwans: The Love Route (1914): “A new railroad line disrupts a girl’s ranch”; Cheating Cheaters (1919): “Living side by side, two groups of crooks impersonate rich people, each planning to rob the other”.

Adjoining spaces are the most common spatial paradigm for Dwan’s plots: a bank and a barber shop (Man to Man [1930]), two airfields (Look Who’s Laughing [1941]), two hotels (Here We Go Again [1942]), neighbouring farms (Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm [1938]), buildings that look out onto the same courtyard (Calendar Girl [1947]), a house and a stable (I Dream of Jeannie [1952]), two silver mines (Belle Le Grande [1951]), two ranches (Cattle Queen of Montana [1954]), two savage tribes (Enchanted Island [1958]). Less frequently, the story can arise from a connection between two places, notably in Rendezvous with Annie (1946) where a soldier on an Army base in England secretly goes AWOL and impregnates his wife in New Jersey, then has to convince the world that he is the father of her child.

Dwan the engineer was naturally attracted to stories about building bridges between places separated by geography: the Holland Tunnel in High Air (1955) the B-29 long-range bomber in The Wild Blue Yonder (1951) and the Suez Canal in Suez (1938) whose hero is told by a fortune teller that his destiny is to “dig ditches”. Those words turn out to be both an ironic prophecy of the hero’s role as architect of the canal and a metaphor for the often dubious political machinations that will make it possible. At first Louis Napoleon refuses to finance the project for fear that it will cause the Red Sea to flood the Mediterranean, inundating the port cities of the Mediterranean basin, and that is just what happens when the misguided hero seeks to make peace between the National Assembly and Louis, who seizes the opportunity to arrest his opponents and proclaim himself Emperor, after which he agrees to finance the canal.

On the other hand, Dwan was not particularly inspired by the paradigm of the voyage (Around the World [1943], Escape to Burma [1955]), unless it was joined to a second paradigm: the border that has to be crossed in The River’s Edge (1957) or the two-pronged retreat in Hold Back the Night (1956), which looks on a map like the high-angle shot of a pursuit along forking trails in Tennessee’s Partner (1955). In Black Sheep (1935), a story he concocted to restart his directing career in the early ’30s, the characters travel from Cherbourg to New York on a ship with separate levels for first and second-class passengers, two paradigms which combine with a third – a stolen necklace whose possessor can only leave the ship by passing through customs – to produce a delightful comedy-drama of crisscrossing destinies that come together and resolve themselves on the docks of New York. (It’s too bad Dwan wasn’t able to make his film of Thornton Wilder’s Bridge of San Luis Rey.)

Not all of Dwan’s films grow out of spatial paradigms, but it could be argued that the best ones do. Someone was trying to sketch in a spatial situation at the beginning of Northwest Outpost (1947) for example, but not much came of it. Perhaps that is why the mad stew of elements failed to cohere, whereas the equally outre Woman They Almost Lynched (1953) is one of Dwan’s best films, in part because of its spatial premise: During the Civil War, a town bisected by the border between North and South is kept neutral by a wealthy matron whose control of the region’s lead mines give her power over the warring sides and the town, where she imposes an iron law of non-violence, enforced by frequent lynchings.

Woman They Almost Lynched

What starts off as a parody of Ford becomes increasingly perverse: The repression of violence creates a second division, perpendicular to the first, between the domain of men (a saloon) and the domain of women (the mining company, where the matron holds sway). Then this bizarre variation on the standard Hollywood displacement from politics to sex is given an even more perverse twist when the saloon is inherited by a woman, leading to the famous showdown between female gunslingers and the heroine’s near-lynching.

Dwan’s spatial imagination sometimes took him to strange places: In Sailor’s Lady (1940) an enlisted man comes home to get married, only to discover that his wife has adopted a baby and bought a house in a neighbourhood inhabited solely by the families of naval officers. When her fiancé’s rowdy friends sabotage a party with the brass in attendance, the young woman retaliates by planting the baby on their battleship as it sails off to engage in maritime war games.

Even more dizzying variations are played on the disjunction between “container” and “contained” during the first ten minutes of One Mile from Heaven (1937). Sent on a wild goose chase by her competitors, a blond girl reporter finds herself in an all-black neighbourhood, where her attention is attracted by the dazzling skills of a tap-dancer who is playing Pied Piper to the neighbourhood children. One of the children is white and very blond, too, even though her mother is black. (This enigma supplies the basis for the plot.) She happens to be carrying a birdcage with a cat in it. (Nothing is ever said about this.) A final surprise: When the tap dancer puts on his coat, he turns out to be a very impressive-looking policeman.

Chinese box construction, a more traditional uses of the container/contained paradigm, sets the stage for The Inside Story (1948) which is told in flashback inside a bank vault, inside a small town which was almost destroyed by the Great Depression, inside a devastated country that we see in nightmarish visions superimposed over a close-up of the storyteller. During those dark days, we learn, 1000 dollars came to town and was placed in a safe, only to escape and circulate from character to character, after which it left as it had come, like the hero of a western, having put the town on the road to recovery.

Turning to the “cliff” part of Dwan’s method, his use of settings: Biette’s description of him as a poet of space harks back, I believe, to Eric Rohmer’s 1948 article “Le cinema, un art de l’espace” (reprinted in Le gout de la beaute), which distinguishes Chaplin’s use of cinema to express psychological states from Keaton’s use of it for, literally, the beauty of the gesture, inscribed within “a completely-filled rectangular space occupying a relatively restricted portion of the visual field”. Among the examples of films “revealing a sense of space that many avant-garde films might envy” Rohmer cites “the films of Douglas Fairbanks”, with whom Dwan collaborated five times during the silent era.

But the fact that Dwan and Fairbanks were making a different kind of film than Chaplin (cf the anecdote about Chaplin’s joke on the set of Robin Hood [1922]) doesn’t mean that they like the decadent sculptor in Manhandled (1924) sought an art of “pure plasticity”. During the first half of Robin Hood, where gestures are stripped of psychological significance by immense spaces that dwarf the human figure, Fairbanks is weighed down by armour and ritual. In the second half, when he takes refuge in the forest with his outlaws, he liberates the castle from its usurping master with the kind of extravagant acrobatics that made The Mark of Zorro (Fred Niblo, 1920) a joy from start to finish. But in The Iron Mask (1929), Fairbanks’ swan-song, Nature is absent, and the shadowy maze of lavish sets in which d’Artagnan and his comrades battle a usurper impart a hollow ring to the title card announcing that one character after another has died “for the glory of France”.


Dwan remade Robin Hood in the sound era with Shirley Temple: The heroine of Heidi (1937) is taken from the mountaintop where she lives with her grandfather and imprisoned in a great house in the midst of a great city, where she heals a crippled child despite the intrigues of yet another evil usurper, Fraulein Rottenmeier. (Outside the walls of the “castle”, three blasts on a coachman’s horn, which Heidi mistakes for the horn of Peter the Goat Boy, recall the signal Alan-a-Dale blows before Fairbanks is rescued at the end of Robin Hood.) An organ-grinder’s monkey performs Flairbanks’ acrobatics, and Heidi herself repeats his famous slide down an immense tapestry when she slides down the banister of the great house to make her getaway.

The poles of this story were reversed in Temple’s swan-song at Fox, the delightful Young People (1940), where a family of vaudevillians from the big city who have retired to a Maine village are treated horribly by the villagers, until they finally succeed in imposing their optimistic perspective on these rural reactionaries. Besides giving Temple her only chance to play herself, Young People prepared the way for Driftwood (1947) a beautiful film Dwan made at Republic with Natalie Wood as a saintly orphan named Jenny. After the death of her preacher grandfather, Jenny leaves Bullfrog Springs, the ghost town where she grew up, for Panbucket, a conservative village which she calls “Sodom and Gomorrah” until her uncompromising truthfulness transforms it into “Heaven”.

It seems that Dwan was not the Rousseauist he is sometimes mistaken for – it would certainly be hard to hang that label on Pearl of the South Pacific (1955), where the script’s paean to Man in the state of Nature is constantly undercut by the garish artifice of John Alton’s colours and Van Nest Polglase’s sets. Just before the end Dwan turned that turkey on its head in Enchanted Island, which comes as close as anyone dared in 1958 to retelling Herman Melville’s Typee: A refugee from civilisation living among Tahitian savages discovers that the savages have killed his best friend, that he is their prisoner, and that they are cannibals (only hinted at in the film). Made on location in Mexico – like his last film, The Most Dangerous Man Alive (1962), for which there was no money to build sets – Enchanted Island returned Dwan to the conditions in which he made his first two-reelers, which spawned an art where themes like Nature and Civilisation were less important than the plastic invention that playing variations on them made possible.

Given Dwan’s formal concerns, it is at first surprising to see how often maps in his films – scale models of the narrative terrain – play the role of the “bad object” (Gertie’s garter, Mabel’s slip, the Queen’s necklace in The Three Musketeers [1939] the pearl necklace in Black Sheep), one whose mere possession stigmatises the possessor: The woman with the map in Woman They Almost Lynched, for example, is presumed to be a traitor, while the man with the map in Tennessee’s Partner is a murderer.

Moreover, maps do not always clarify the action – the one used to plan the first hold-up in Montana Belle (1952) is noticeably inaccurate. We never see the aerial map consulted by Edgar Bergen in Look Who’s Laughing – only a view of the terrain below that is as unintelligible as the aerial views in The Wild Blue Yonder. (Those extreme high angles turn out to be as useless to the B-29 crews as they are to us – bombing from 25,000 feet up, our heroes are missing more targets than they hit.) Escape from Burma opens with a map, but before we can read it, the camera moves in on a drawing of the palace of Sakar, then dissolves to show us the throne room, just as the perplexing aerial view of Wistful Vista in Look Who’s Laughing dissolves to give us our first look at the inside of Fibber McGee’s house.

Instead of a map, Belle Le Grande opens with a very wide-angle shot of a courtroom seen from the jury box that turns out on close inspection to be a painting. Seconds later, a long, gorgeously composed dolly shot follows the devastated heroine, just out of jail, as she slowly makes her way along a street that leads to a friend’s home. Transitions like these that endow a flat image with depth enact the struggle at the very heart of this cinema, which is filled with settings whose topography we know intimately (the house in The Gorilla [1939], the tennis court in Suez [1938]), where windows and doors always open on a busy world beyond. The town in Frontier Marshall (1939) is all one set, and at the end of the film, when Dwan dollies in on Doc Halliday’s tombstone, he takes care to put a tiny wagon train heading west in the background of the shot.

Maps are “bad objects” because they threaten the illusion of depth, as in Hold Back the Night, one of the few films where a map actually works – the whole first part is played against undisguised back projections, so that the long march of the retreating Marines is also a difficult journey back to three-dimensional space. Similarly, in Getting Gertie’s Garter (1945) the actors are grouped in two-dimensional compositions until night falls, when modelling with light and shadow (Dwan’s preferred palette) begins to create dramatic perspectives symbolising the growing complexity of the action. The shift is marked by one of those 180-degree cuts Dwan frequently uses to show the image’s backside, like the photograph in Look Who’s Laughing that shows its subjects’ backs when you turn it around.

Dwan nonetheless flirted with the temptation to transform the image into a map in Friendly Enemies (1942) a jingoistic World War I drama he was offered while waiting to make Brewster’s Millions (1945). When he filmed (in nine days!) this story of two German immigrants, one of whom sides with America, the other with Germany, he replicated the form of their quarrels, always shown in two-shots, by grouping all his characters in symmetrical compositions until the third act, when the loyal German learns that his son has joined the American Army. After that the groupings become unbalanced, until an explosion of war images restores in the last shot the harmony that reigned initially despite conflicting loyalties.

He subsequently adapted this formal invention in Brewster’s Millions to portray the ironic fate of a man who has two months to spend a million dollars. Here the balance between asymmetrical compositions (the desired state) and symmetrical ones (the state to be avoided) is ever shifting, as the hero’s attempts to practice what Georges Bataille calls the general economy (improductive expenditure) are repeatedly brought into line with the restrained economy (a return on one’s investment) which his fiancé and friends consider normal. Brewster’s Millions is a film that aspires to the void: Its first shot (a black servant visually erased by the soap he has applied to a window) gives way to an image that gradually fills up with proliferating bodies, until they are all eliminated in the last shot: another empty frame.

Watching a minimalist experiment like Friendly Enemies sensitises us to the spatial art Dwan puts to subtler uses in films like Brewster’s Millions or the anti-McCarthy western Silver Lode (1954) where an image that moves in and out of two-dimensionality is used to graph shifting allegiances and lines of flight in a small town whose leading citizen has been accused of murder by a self-styled marshal from a town 200 miles away. (The townspeople have no way of knowing the truth because the telegraph line connecting the towns has been cut.)

Abroad with Two Yanks

Dwan had 50 years of unequalled productivity to explore the properties of an art which he helped invent, and he was aware of all its paradoxes. Unlike a stage, the rectangle of the screen can create the illusion of a world that exists in depth and continues beyond the edges of the frame. In Heidi a cut takes us from the household singing “Silent Night” to the bustling street outside, where everyone seems to be singing the same song – a lovely example of the kind of sidelong glance that earned Dwan his reputation as a contemplative filmmaker. But violence can also be disclosed by a pan – through the wall of a house, for example, where a woman is singing to her baby, and into the crowded street outside, which is suddenly thrown into tumult by an eruption of gunfire (Frontier Marshal). Even more disconcerting, a sudden pan in Abroad with Two Yanks (1944) reveals a mirror in the off-space that reflects our two heroes (already in drag) as grotesquely distorted anamorphic images (a device Dwan first exploited in Stage Struck [1925] with Gloria Swanson).

The dangers lurking just beyond the frame that menace the magic rectangle (which Louis Seguin has explored in L’espace du cinéma) are summed up in a very late and very weird western, The Restless Breed. It begins with an exposition scene that makes considerable use of the most useless map in all of Dwan’s cinema. “Our investigators’ report has given us a very graphic picture”, says the character who is handling the exposition, pointing emphatically at three spots on the map that have nothing to do with anything. His confident assertion is then undermined by a series of flashbacks which introduce us to the setting of the film, a little town consisting mostly of windows, gates and doors that is held together only by the gazes of the characters. They will spend an inordinate amount of time spying on one another, but to no avail – the town never escapes from the quagmire of spatial incoherence into which it has been plunged by that first “graphic” account. The Restless Breed (1957) is the cinematic equivalent of Mallarme’s “Jamais un coup de des…”, where the text is dismembered by the spaces between the words, and yet Dwan, like Mallarme – having finished, in both senses of the word, the work of 50 years with this astonishing film – might also say, looking back, that “nothing will have taken place except [the] place”.

About The Author

Bill Krohn is the author of Hitchcock au travail (1999), available in English as Hitchcock at Work (Phaidon Press, 2000). He has also been the Hollywood correspondent for Cahiers du Cinéma since 1978.

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