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Alan Dwan – The Noble Primitive

Posted by keith1942 on August 27, 2013

Alan Dwan directing in the 1920s

Alan Dwan directing in the 1920s

The title is the description given to this long-serving Hollywood director for a retrospective at the 2013 Il Cinema Ritrovato. Dwan worked as a film director in Hollywood from 1911 to 1961 where he worked on hundreds of features. As was often the case in Silent Cinema Dwan progressed to direction partly by accident. Working as a scenario writer in Chicago for the American Film Manufacturing Company he was sent o the newly founded and developing colony of Hollywood. He found a production crew but no director. So began his career.

The retrospective started with four very early one-reel westerns [all 1912], together with a fragment. Presumably they all involved a regular team for production. Certainly Dwan had a stock company of actors – J. Warren Kerrigan, Pauline Bush, and Jack Richardson in the leads with supporting actors. The plots are simple and easily recognisable in the genre. And they mainly rely on title cards that explain the characters and actions depicted on screen.

What strikes one are the women characters: ‘with Bush as the first representative of Dwan’s distinctively self-reliant women, whose unshakeable confidence in matters erotic and romantic is played in contrast to convoluted, inter-generational conflicts among male characters.’

Thus in both The Ranch Girl and Maiden and Men we have ranches run by women.

It should be noted though that these strong female characters are presented within the contemporary social limitations for women. The Maiden and Men has a sort of Madame Bovary style story where a young girl is cured of the influence of romantic literature. The film avoids the bleak ending of the French novel. And in the longest film in this programme, The Thief’s Wife is ‘saved’ from her criminal husband by the town Sherriff.

The ‘intergenerational’ conflicts are notable and effect both men and women. So in the Maiden and Men the central characters are a father and daughter. In Man’s Calling it is a father and son. The latter film has an intriguing use of religion, personified by Friars, presumably Franciscans.

The other striking feature of these early westerns is the style. Dwan has a great liking for framing shots: doorways, windows, barns and so forth. Several people at the Festival suggested that both his style and plotting had some influence on the early John Ford. There is certainly one shot which is prescient of the great closing frame in The Searchers. In The Thief’s Wife, as well as the framing, there is notable use of deep staging. At one point the wife and the sheriff stand by a door in the foreground, whilst in deep background we see the Posse and the pursued husband.

Dwan continued as a master of style and of the western in his later career. The festival also screened the only surviving reel, the opening, of Frozen Justice (1929). Set in the gold rush town of Nome in Alaska the film opened with an impressive tracking shot along a side walk, passing but also pausing before saloons, storefronts and alleys: finally entering a saloon and finishing with dolly shots as the girl singer starts to serenade customers.

Dwan’s silent and sound output included more westerns and the impressive swashbucklers starring Douglas Fairbanks Senior. Late in his career he directed Silver lode for Pinecrest Productions. Starring John Payne this is not only a fine western but also a fairly clear parable on the ongoing McCarthyism of HUAC, from which Hollywood in particular suffered.  The Catalogue quoted Peter Bogdanovich on this filmmaker, commenting ‘The films are about the lives of simple people and their innocence, ordinary and dignified lives reflected with a “profound sense of the essential indomitability and deathlessness of the human spirit.”

Quotations from Il Cinema Ritrovato Catalogue – programme notes by Dave Kehr and Peter von Bach. Stills courtesy of the Festival.

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