Hello, everybody. Your classic movie guys back again with a special treat, another in our six-part series devoted to Allan Dwan.
As critic-columnist Dave Kehr of The New York Times noted in May, it’s looking to be a good year for the pioneer American filmmaker, who began directing in 1911, and worked without a break for half a century.
His extraordinary career is the subject of an exhaustively researched recent biography by Fredric Lombardi. The book is titled Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios, published by McFarland, 2013. For more information, please click here.
Or to order the book click here.
Lombardi is a friend of Classic Movie Chat, and we were most pleased that his book prompted (and was the basis of) a full-fledged retrospective Dwan’s work that was staged at New York’s Museum of Modern Art from June 5 through July 8.
Lombardi’s biography is termed by MOMA as being “definitive,” capturing Dwan’s long journey in unprecedented detail. This exhibition tried to do justice to the former’s scholarship and the latter’s artistry.
Fred has kindly agreed to adapt portions of his new book into six guest blogs for us. Here’s he is with another in our series, this one about Gloria Swanson avant Sunset Blvd.:
“In the mid-1920s, one of Famous Players’ emerging stars, Gloria Swanson, was unhappy over the projects she was assigned and the director (Sam Wood) who presided over them.
Swanson turned to her former lover, the highly talented but wildly irresponsible director Marshall Neilan, for help. Neilan suggested that she go to New York to work with his friend Allan Dwan.
Neilan observed that ‘Hollywood is nothing but sunshine and eventually that fries everybody’s brains.’
Dwan had actually found a project he thought ideal for Swanson, the French play ZAZA.
The 1923 ZAZA was a triumph with both the critics and audiences and Swanson later observed of Dwan, ‘I couldn’t wait to do another picture with him…Before ZAZA was half-finished, I knew that Allan and New York represented some kind of rebirth for me.’
For the 1924 MANHANDLED set in New York City, Dwan got Swanson to ride the subway for the first time. The experience would aid Swanson in enacting and improvising the comedy for the famous MANHANDLED subway scene.
The 1925 STAGE STRUCK was the last and arguably the best of the seven Dwan-Swanson silents.
The movie was largely shot on location in New Martinsville, West Virginia, the kind of small town where it takes the arrival of a show boat to offer opportunities for excitement and magic.
Swanson plays Jenny, a waitress who aspires to be an actress. Swanson gets to spoof her own image in Jenny’s daydream (shot in two-strip Technicolor) of being “the world’s greatest actress.”
In subsequent years, Swanson became her own producer at United Artists, but found herself falling $500,000 in debt. Dwan was indirectly responsible for introducing her to the financier Joseph P. Kennedy, who was, of course, also the father of a future president.
The prestige vehicle he envisioned for her, QUEEN KELLY, directed by Erich von Stroheim turned into a fiasco with hours of footage piled up with no end in sight.
Dwan would return to direct Swanson in the Kennedy-produced WHAT A WIDOW! (1930) but the dalliances of a wealthy widow proved of little interest to a country sinking into the Great Depression.
Kennedy left Swanson with three times the amount of debt she had originally accumulated. Her movie career was essentially over four years later.
SUNSET BLVD. (1950) would, of course, be Swanson’s great comeback.
SUNSET BLVD., as I have detailed in my book, is also full of in-jokes and references to Dwan’s work.
To cite just a few examples, the Technicolor dream sequence in STAGE STRUCK has Jenny the waitress fantasizing that she is playing the role of Salome. In SUNSET BLVD., Norma Desmond plots her comeback with her delirious script on the life of Salome.
Swanson first did her Charlie Chaplin imitation in Dwan’s MANHANDLED, a quarter of a century before the one in SUNSET BLVD. The silent footage shown in SUNSET is from QUEEN KELLY (the film Swanson unsuccessfully appealed to Dwan to salvage.
Final note: Von Stroheim himself once worked as both actor and assistant to Dwan.