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Il Cinema Ritrovato XXVII: Allen Dwan, More Primitive than Noble

Festivals
by Meredith Brody
July 5, 2013 10:09 PM
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Gloria Swanson in Allen Dwan's 'Zaza'

One of the centerpieces of this year's Bologna program is an Allen Dwan retrospective, "Noble Primitive," curated by Dave Kehr and Kevin Brownlow. So I am happily filling in some gaps -- well, actually there's almost nothing BUT gaps -- in my knowledge of the Dwan oeuvre (1885 -1981). 

At 9:15 a.m., a particularly grim, dark, cheap, and interesting film maudit, "Most Dangerous Man Alive," 1961, which also happens to be the last film that he made (of 405! -- but then, in his earliest silent days, he was shooting a couple of one-reel Westerns a week).  A gangster escapes from prison in order to punish the fellow crooks who set him up, and en route stumbles into an atomic bomb test that renders him apparently invincible.  

Allen Dwan's 'Most Dangerous Man Alive'

Peter von Bagh gleefully (and hyperbolically, and mischievously) tells me before it starts that it's "The best film in the festival!" I'm sitting with Jonathan Rosenbaum, who breathes "My favorite!" when he sees Debra Paget listed in the credits, and then "My other favorite!" when he sees Elaine Stewart's name.  It's incredibly cheaply made, the script is endearingly clunky ("scientific" dialogue about steel working its way into his molecules), the leading man, Ron Randell, is a complete unknown (IMDb tells me he's from New South Wales, Australia). Yet the film has a crude, hypnotic, even poetic power. 

I see two silent shorts by Dwan, "Man's Calling," in which a young would-be monk chooses a zaftig bread baker over religious vocation, in a nicely framed Mission setting; and "The Thief's Wife," (1912), amazingly assured, beautiful, and compelling -- a perfect little Western romance in less than 15 minutes.  There's an especially striking shot in which a row of riders across a valley are in focus behind a closeup of the thief's wife in the foreground.

They're followed by an almost-snappy Thirties comedy set in the world of jewelry thieves and insurance, starring a beautifully-dressed-and-coiffed Claire Trevor, an exquisitely tailored Cesar Romero, and a number of character actors --Kehr calls it "an overlooked gem from Dwan's most obscure period, the three years he spent with Sol Wurtzel's B unit at Fox."  It's not quite a diamond, but more than a zircon -- say, a nicely-set aquamarine or opal.  

Still boyish and charming at 75, Brownlow gives an illustrated lecture, "Searching for Allan Dwan," about his encounters with Dwan in Hollywood after his retirement. Clips from Brownlow's famed "Hollywood" series, longed-for on DVD but stuck in rights hell, feature a down-to-earth Dwan (in his modest North Stanley apartment), and a very grand Gloria Swanson, looking unrecognizable from her sexy silent days.

I dash over to see Dwan's 1923 "Zaza," starring Gloria Swanson as a Parisian singer who leaves her great love when she learns he has a wife and child, only to reject him again after she becomes a huge star.  The play had been a huge hit for Rejane, Duse, Geraldine Farrar, and Mrs. Leslie Carter. Wittily Il Cinema Ritrovato paired it with a twenty-minute excerpt from a 1913 French silent version. Dwan's seems more energetic than the chocolate-box version later made by George Cukor in 1939, starring Claudette Colbert.

I manage to wedge in a 1943 film directed by Vittorio De Sica, "I Bambini ci Guardano," (aka "The Children Are Watching Us"), a kind of "What Maisie Knew," but even more heartbreaking, starring a four-year-old wide-eyed blond boy (reminiscent of both John Howard Davies of "Oliver Twist" and Jon Whitely of "Moonfleet") damaged by his mother's infidelity. 

For dinner I meet "les trois Pierre," the beloved, irascible producer's rep and festival consultant Pierre Rissient, producer Pierre Cottrell, and Pierre Kalfon, producer of the legendary 6-part 1982 French TV series "Bonjour Monsieur Lewis," about Jerry Lewis, screening here for an hour a day, Scott Foundas of Variety, and Wan Jie, a young film curator from Singapore.  We choose the restaurant only by proximity, and I have the worst meal of my experience in Bologna: a so-called carbonara whose pasta is so undercooked as not to be al dente but al broken dente (crunchy spaghetti?), whose eggs have scrambled rather than coated the pasta, and which features onions -- unknown in any classic carbonara.

Luckily the conversation is diverting, especially that of Kalfon, who can make fifty-year-old gossip compelling.  (But I guess one of the reasons we are in Bologna is because we are all obsessed with fifty, seventy, even a hundred-year-old gossip.)

Afterwards I see "Chimes at Midnight" in the Piazza Maggiore, in a painfully beautiful black-and-white print, sharp as daggers.  It will never be as beautiful again.  Welles' baroque cutting is extraordinary to experience in that scale. I am not embarrassed to admit that I am a size queen where movies are concerned. God, how can people watch movies -- or even tv -- on their iPhones?!?   As Gloria Swanson said in another context: "I am big.  It's the pictures that got small."

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