Allan Dwan: A Dossier

A new dossier on Allan Dwan, edited by Gina Telaroli and David Phelps, was published last week. Currently available for free download here is the original language version with essays in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese by the likes of Dave Kehr, Bill Krohn, Zach Campbell, Gina Telaroli, David Phelps, Daniel Kasman, Marie-Pierre Duhmal, Serge Bozon, Andy Rector, Mathieu Macheret, Carlos Losilla and many more.

An all English language version will be published soon with a number of my translations in it.

Don't know who Allan Dwan is? Here's an obituary for him written by Serge Daney. For more information check out the dossier and if you're in New York right now go see Dwan's films at MoMA.

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DEATH OF THE WORLD'S OLDEST FILMMAKER: ALLAN DWAN (1885-1981)
Serge Daney


Joseph Aloysius Dwan died last Monday. Hollywood’s “conscience,” people called him. Then its remorse. Then the oldest of the dinosaurs. But also an important, secret and underknown filmmaker.

“Who’s been able to see 2% of his films?” a film historian asked one day. Not I. Nor he. Or anyone. If it existed, Allan Dwan’s complete filmography would take up an entire page in Lib√©ration, typos included. At least. Born in 1885 in Toronto, Canada, and under the dynamic sign of Aries, Dwan encountered cinema in 1909 and never gave it up: it’s cinema that gave him up in 1961 (his last film, unreleased in France like so many others: Most Dangerous Man Alive). Then he lived for twenty more years. I don’t believe he complained or that he lost his cold blood. That wasn’t his way of doing things. His way was to film several hundred films (how many hundreds is the mystery: between 1911 and 1913 alone, more than two hundred one-reelers). At first he was known and respected, marginalized little by little and then entirely forgotten, believed dead, and became (like Gance) a kind of dinosaur.

He knew it all: bounding cape and sword films, early silents, personal westerns, comedies, opera films, historical vignettes, island adventures, everything. All kinds of monsters paraded before his camera. To begin with, the saints. Eight films with Douglas Fairbanks (including Robin Hood in 1922 and the ambitious The Iron Mask in 1929). Eight films with Gloria Swanson (including Stage Struck, in 1925, and What a Widow!, 1930). And then child stars (Shirley Temple, already seasoned in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, 1938), slapstick stars (the Ritz Brothers, hacks who tried to rival the Marx Brothers: The Three Musketeers and The Gorilla in 1939), rising celebrities (Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, a great war film, 1949), and dimming stars (Ray Milland in Enchanted Island, 1958). And, lastly, poor B movie stars (Reagan, of course, as an idealist fool, and especially the unforgettable bad guy John Payne, not to mention the more intoxicating Rhonda Fleming), including the ugliest of them (I remember, and still shiver at, the terrifying Vera Ralston, imposed by the producers of Surrender (1950), a beautiful film nonetheless). In short, he practiced his metier. He practiced it like everyone of his generation. He encountered the cinema unintentionally and never left it (this has changed a lot). He was a math and physics teacher, a mechanical engineer, and coached a football team. Then came California. Four names help map out this unmappable career: Griffith (who he met in 1911), Fairbanks, with whom he teamed up, Swanson, for whom he was at one time the director, and last but not least, Benedict Bogeaus. He’s the least known. But without this independent producer, Dwan would undoubtedly not have signed, between 1954 and 1961, his most beautiful films, the rare ones that we know a little and that we remember the most vividly. Those who recently saw or saw again Tennessee’s Partner and Slightly Scarlet on TV know that I’m not making anything up. May everyone else demand that one of these amazing films be rebroadcast.

Dwan had a strange trajectory. He descended down all the ranks of Hollywood society, from Triangle and Fox to Republic, without ever stopping, all in all, to make good films. Without ceasing to be himself when he directed Fairbanks, but he is even more himself when, forty years later, freed from the star system and Hollywood mythology, he directs the great John Payne. Something within him resisted everything, was in no way eroded.

Dwan had one motto: it’s the story that counts. He divides films into two types: on the hand, those where the star counts (so the story must be adapted to the star) and those where the story counts (so it has to be told, its pace followed, it must be respected). The small 1% of Dwan’s opus that we’ve seen authorizes us to say this: Dwan is never more alive, precise and surprising than when he is telling a story.

Take the Bogeaus period, no doubt his best. For several years, there is a common tone, favorite actors, the work of a major photographer (John Alton), and stories that have a familial air about them. It’s the period of the personal westerns. We understand that this filmmaker who often filmed violence, doesn’t really believe in it, in violence. He always considers it a madness or a misunderstanding, always a thing outside of the character. What he loves is a situation that becomes violent because there are words to not say, friends to not expose, secrets to not reveal.

For Dwan, a story is always about a secret. About friendship as a secret. The friendship of one man for another, of a woman for another (the two redheads), the friendship of a man for what surrounds him, for the landscape in which he is plunged. Casualness is rather exceptional in American films. Dwan’s heros want to live on good terms with the world. They ask for nothing more, but in this respect they will be intolerable, obsessed by the lynching in the very beautiful Silver Lode (1954).

A hypothesis: it is this talent for protecting his characters that Dwan was able to maintain all throughout his long career. To do this, he never forgot Griffith’s lesson (he worked on Intolerance). His direction is at once archaic and refined. He brings his characters into the landscape of his shots, without any decorative showiness. He takes them out and reinserts them. He remained faithful to the silent era—perhaps why he was unable to follow the cinema in its modern turns (modern cinema loves indiscretion, Dwan does not). This is also why rarely in his films is a landscape just a landscape.  Neither an idea or a set, but the familiar and indifferent presence of the surroundings. The place where the characters return when they’ve managed to free themselves (the word is Goimard’s, the historian I cited at the beginning of this article) from everything that exposed their freedom.

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