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HE KNEW HOLLYWOOD BEFORE IT WAS HOLLYWOOD

Like the movies he directed--from "Robin Hood" in 1922 to "Getting Gertie's Garter" in 1945 to "Tennessee's Partner" in 1955--Allan Dwan was unpretentious, entertaining and mischievous. And, at 93, he was one of the most lucid and enjoyable moviemakers I interviewed for “The Sound That Shook Hollywood,” a 1977 New York Times Magazine article celebrating the 50th anniversary of the talkies. --GUY FLATLEY

 

Allan Dwan directed his first movie, "Rattlesnake and Gunpowder," in 1909, graduated to Douglas Fairbanks and Gloria Swanson vehicles during the heyday of the silents, and steered Shirley Temple and lesser stars through heaps of program features of the 40's and 50's. These days, he sits in a neat bungalow near the Ventura freeway and demonstrates more genuine pep than is to be found in a dozen car-crash movies of the 70's.

"You can wash a lot of linen in 93 years, and I'll never regret having gotten into movies. When I came out here, there wasn't even a studio. I used the depot down at Capistrano. When that wasn't big enough, I went up to La Mesa. At that time, there was a battle going on between independent motion picture companies and the patent companies. Biograph and Vitagraph organized and said they would stop independents from operating by declaring that they had a patent on the loop.

“So we had to make pictures undercover to keep away from the goons they'd send out to destroy the cameras. They'd shoot holes through them. We took to wearing side arms and we'd post our cowboys out at the pass. One goon came up to me and told me his job was to put me out of business. To impress me, he pulled out his gun, threw up a tin can, shot at it and missed. I pulled my gun out--God had me by the hand--and I shot the can, twice. Then, on his way out, down at the depot, he saw three of my men--the Marcus brothers--with Winchesters, so I guess he thought we were pretty tough, and he let us go.

“After a while we left La Mesa and went to Santa Barbara and drove out the ostriches. I guess we looked like bandits, because the law took our guns away and told us if we had to carry them, to at least put blanks in them. We had to change our style, to stop being cowboys and start behaving like ladies and gentlemen.

"At Santa Barbara, I used to look at Griffith making a movie and come right back and make the same thing with a different cast. That's when I hooked into Doug Fairbanks. Griffith said he didn't like him, because he didn't like jump-around actors. Without doubt, the two greatest talents I came into contact with were Doug and Gloria Swanson. Once, I was making a picture with Doug--a big picture that cost over a million--and I was getting worried. It was just about the last silent movie made, and all around us sound was drifting in. I advised Doug that our movie should be made with a speaking prologue and epilogue. He agreed, but to my horror, Doug--who had a good voice--came up sounding like a tinhorn tenor. The soundmen hadn't checked for decibels, so another man, with a deeper voice, read the prologue and epilogue, and the audiences accepted it as Doug.

"Gloria Swanson [shown here having a bad subway day in Dwan's 1924 film, "Manhandled"] was an amazing personality, a versatile actress and a very vital person. She's a great-great grandmother, and yet she looks like a blushing bride. She kills me. She's my outstanding star of stars. Gloria, Raoul Walsh and I had a reunion not long ago right here in this living room. I said, 'Come on, tell the truth now. What kind of affair did you two have?' They didn't confess a thing, but their faces were rosy red.

"Raoul and I talk for hours on the phone. We don't stop to think about what the phone bills will be like. I've known Raoul as long as I've known myself. We were here when there was nothing but a sand lot, and I worked beside him for 20 years at Fox. He was a real mick, always in trouble. I remember the night they brought him home after the rabbit jumped on the hood of that car. He's totally blind now, and all he has are his memories. I go to see him when I can. And, as I say, we talk and talk on the phone. I tell him about a new story I'm working on, and we swear that we'll shoot it together, making use of whatever we retain as picturemakers.

“'You figure out the gags,' I tell him, 'and I'll shoot it and let you see the rushes.'

“'See it?' he says. 'How can I see it?'

“'Don't worry,' I say. 'I have a new device that will make it possible. If there's a barroom brawl, some guy will hit you in the nose, and you'll feel it.'

“‘Raoul pauses. Then he says, 'Oh! O.K., that sounds fine.'"


To read Guy Flatley's "The Sound That Shook Hollywood" in its entirety--including interviews with Myrna Loy, Raoul Walsh, Clarence Brown, Frank Capra, Anita Loos, King Vidor and Buddy Rogers--click here.