Allan Dwan

Active - 1911 - 1961  |   Born - Apr 3, 1885   |   Died - Dec 21, 1981   |   Genres - Drama, Comedy, Romance, Western, Crime

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Allan Dwan was a filmmaker whose career almost outlasted his reputation. To many in the industry, his very best years were from the late teens to the mid-/late '20s, yet he was still making movies in the '50s. He managed to make important movies in each of the five decades in which he worked, including swashbucklers, Westerns, war dramas, and even one science fiction, all the while being regarded as an expert at comedy above all else. Dwan also lived long enough to see his career become the inspiration for a major feature film of the '70s, and he had the satisfaction of becoming an object of inquiry and even wonder for film scholars and historians in some instances whose parents hadn't even been born when he started in movies. Born Joseph Aloysius Dwan in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in 1885, he emigrated to the United States with his family in 1896. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame with an engineering degree and went to work for a lighting company. One of his employer's biggest clients was Essanay Films in Chicago, and while visiting them in 1909, he took a job there as a writer -- he did a little bit of everything (including acting) in the years that followed, and by 1911 he'd moved into the director's chair. By Dwan's own estimate, he contributed in some capacity -- as a writer, actor, producer, assistant director, director etc. -- to 1500 movies; other estimates are that he directed approximately 400 movies, although even this is uncertain because many of the movies he made during his first decade in the business are lost. (Production was very fast and record-keeping was imprecise -- and records are long gone.) In 1914 alone, among the movies that we do know about, some 15 films directed by or written and directed by Allan Dwan went into release. It would surprise those who only know him for his extraordinary longevity that, in those days, Dwan was a major innovator. For a man who was trained neither as a graphic artist nor as a dramatist, he was amazingly adept at achieving visually striking, dramatically effective shots that made their full impact easily on the audience. His training as an engineer served him extremely well; in a time when relatively few directors knew a lot about shooting scenes effectively, much less innovatively, Dwan had a special ability to frame a shot or scene in his mind and then devise a fresh and practical means of realizing the shot quickly and inexpensively. He was, by most accounts, responsible for the first use of a crane shot in a Hollywood movie, and also for the first dolly shot, achieving both of those milestones in the same year, 1915. He was not a visionary producer/director like D.W. Griffith, mapping out films set across vast canvases of space and time, or enacting pivotal moments in history, but he was a director solving problems in how to make movies better and developed approaches and techniques that became standard practice; Dwan occupied a rung only a step or two below Griffith in importance at a time when the film industry was reaching past adolescence. In some ways, his career anticipated the work of Mark Sandrich -- another engineering major-turned-director, who went on to make some of the best musicals and war movies of the '30s and early '40s -- by more than a decade. By 1916, Dwan was at the top of his profession, and over the next 15 years he was among the most favored directors in Hollywood, enjoying the special admiration of both Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Sr., who were the movies' top "power couple" of the period. Much of Dwan's reputation as a major filmmaker rested upon his directing of Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922) and The Iron Mask (1929). Dwan's career faltered at around the time of the coming of sound, although he seemed to have adjusted to talking-picture production better than most of his fellow silent-era directors. He got very few major assignments in the years immediately after the advent of the talkies, and this seems principally a result of Dwan's flinty personality. He was much too talented to be left unemployed, but apparently he was also not a get-along, go-along type, or prone to hide his feelings about colleagues or superiors, and as a result, for the first eight years of the sound era, Dwan was kept fully employed but apparently wasn't considered for or offered any high-profile films. Hollywood Party (1934), on which he was one of several directors, is the only one of his films from the early '30s that is still shown even occasionally today. He made a comeback in 1937 when he directed Shirley Temple in Heidi, which was a huge success, and followed it up a year later with Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Over the next few years Dwan helmed several of 20th Century Fox's biggest productions, including Suez (1938), starring Tyrone Power and Annabella, and Frontier Marshal (1939), starring Randolph Scott. His real specialty dating from the silent era was perceived as comedy, however, and that same year he did the spoof The Three Musketeers, starring Don Ameche and the Ritz Brothers (whom he also directed in The Gorilla). His pace of work slackened at the start of the '40s -- his biggest picture was the all-star radio showcase Here We Go Again! (1942). Starting in 1944, Dwan began working for independent producer Edward Small on a string of comedies based on long-established titles, including Up in Mabel's Room, Getting Gertie's Garter, and Brewster's Millions. In 1949, he made the biggest -- and most enduring -- movie of his career, The Sands of Iwo Jima, starring John Wayne; among the most popular of all of Wayne's war movies, it struck a perfect balance between drama, narrative momentum, and action, and became the star's first Oscar-nominated performance, as well as one of the prizes of the entire Republic Pictures library. Dwan kept busy in the '50s working for Republic and later for producer Benedict Bogeaus in a multitude of genres including Westerns and war movies, and some of the former were very offbeat -- The Woman They Almost Lynched and Cattle Queen of Montana, the latter starring Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan, were two of the best of them. He was still showing inventiveness and a good sense of pacing with Slightly Scarlet in 1956, 45 years into his career, and he closed out his directorial efforts in 1958 with The Most Dangerous Man Alive, a surprisingly fine science thriller that was released in 1961. Dwan spent the next two decades in retirement and, though an elder member of the Hollywood community, was hardly ever an elder "statesman." In interviews, he was an outspoken, often salty-tongued critic of many of the people he'd known and worked with, scornful of those he regarded as fools and candidly recalling the faults, personal and professional, of figures such as Fairbanks. Dwan and his career, and his account of it, was one of the major sources of inspiration for the Peter Bogdanovich Hollywood homage Nickelodeon, the release of which in 1976 revived some interest in and memory of Dwan's work. Allan Dwan worked in movies longer than any other director of his generation, 49 years. And he saw the release of his final film 52 years after he'd started in the business, outliving virtually all of his contemporaries in the process -- he was, thus, a vital source of information about many figures in the film business who had passed into history before anyone ever thought it important enough to write any of its history.

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