Cap Returns as a Movie Critic

Aug 19, 2012

This is the most frequent question I have received for the past 12 months.  If you haven’t retired yet, be prepared with your own answer when your golden age arrives. Well…….one of the things I have been doing is looking into old movies.  I especially like black and white movies of the 30’s and 40’s. One of my favorite things to do is to make “connections”, especially when I can connect things to Notre Dame or to me.

My latest project has been to look at the film work of the legendary, Canadian-born (Toronto) Director Allan Dwan.  Why him?  He studied engineering at Notre Dame, around the turn of the 19th Century.  He directed more than 400 films, in all genres, spanning the time from two-reeler silents, through the talkies, and on to the big color extravaganzas we are familiar with today.  When he first began, he sold 15 stories he had written while he was a student at Notre Dame.  He later estimated that he had some kind of role in the production of more than 1,000 movies.

His engineering background was helpful to him.  He got his movie start with his work in lighting direction.  He is credited with inventing “the dolly shot”, mounting a camera on a car, and using the first “crane shot”.  He also developed some of the early innovations in sound recording. 

Dwan directed more than 200 “shorts” in 1911 and 1912.  Several of them featured actress Pauline Bush who was billed as “The Madonna of the Movies”.  They were married from 1915-21.

During 1913 and 1914, Dwan directed Lon Chaney, Sr. in at least seven films, including “The Honor of the Mounted” and “Remember Mary Magdalane”.  The former featured the famous police agency from Dwan’s native Canada and the latter a Biblical figure whose life may have been introduced to him in a Religion Class at Notre Dame (a strained connection, I admit). 

One of Chaney’s most famous non-Dwan roles was as the star of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (tangential “connection”).  Chaney’s life story was told in the movie “The Man of a Thousand Faces”.  One of the supporting actors in the film was Jim Backus (more famous as Mr. McGoo and Thurston B. Howell, of the “Gilligan’s Island” TV series).  Backus went to Kentucky Military Institute, where one of his close friends was future Hollywood Star Victor Mature.  My first job after graduating from Notre Dame was as English Teacher and Baseball Coach at KMI (a connection). 

In 1922, Dwan directed “Robin Hood”, the first motion picture whose premiere was held at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, where famous footprints and autographs are memorialized in concrete.  Some consider this movie Dwan’s finest.  The swashbuckler starred Douglas Fairbanks, who he directed in several of the earliest Hollywood films.  Dwan directed many of the biggest stars in Hollywood, including Gloria Swanson in “Zaza” (1923).

He also directed Fairbanks’ final silent film, 1929’s “The Iron Mask”.  This was a part-talkie based upon the Alexander Dumas story The Man in the Iron Mask. United Artists handled the production and distribution of the film.  The “united artists” were Fairbanks himself; his wife Mary Pickford; Charles Chaplin; and D.W. Griffith.

The versatile Dwan directed the 1936 film “15 Maiden Lane”, a crime film, starring Claire Trevor, Cesar Romero, and Lloyd Nolan.

Dwan directed “Heidi”, starring Shirley Temple, in 1937.  This success of the movie enabled Shirley Temple to be the #1 Box Office Draw for the third year in a row.  Temple’s “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm”, in 1938, was also a Dwan film.  Black dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson had a big part with Temple.  “Suez” was another 1938 Dwan film, starring Tyrone Power and Loretta Young.  It was nominated for three Academy Awards.

The following year, “The Three Musketeers” was a Dwan musical-comedy.

Also out in 1939 was Dwan’s western film “Frontier Marshal”, starring Randolph Scott as Wyatt Earp.  How many people know that Earp is buried in a Jewish Cemetery in California?  There were a lot of other fascinating stars in this movie.  Cesar Romero played Doc Holliday.  When I worked as the Chief of Staff for the Sheriff of Los Angeles County during the 1980’s, I was at several events with Romero, who was usually the “escort” of Sybil Brand, the wealthy lady who was close friends with the Sheriff.  Her husband, Harry Brand, was the most famous “Hollywood Press Agent” in his heyday.  The L.A. County Women’s Jail was named for Mrs. Brand because of her political leadership to get it funded.  Character Actor Lon Chaney, Jr. was in “Frontier Marshal” so Dwan completed that father-son connection.  Ward Bond was in the movie.  Bond was a football star at a well-known private college in Southern California.  A lesser-skilled football teammate of his was Marion Morrison.  Both went on to fine careers and a long friendship in Hollywood.  Morrison adopted the more manly-sounding name of John “Duke” Wayne.  Wyatt Earp served as a technical advisor on some Hollywood westerns, meeting Wayne and Bond.  John Carradine was in the film.  He was a versatile character actor, who had three actor sons.

Lon Chaney, Jr. did not achieve the fame of his dad, but did star in the 1941 film “Wolfman”.  In 1997, the U.S. Post Office issued a set of “monster stamps”, featuring Chaney Sr. in “Phantom of the Opera”; Chaney, Jr. in “Wolfman”; Boris Karloff as “Frankenstein’s Monster” and “The Mummy”, and Bela Lugosi as “Dracula”.  What’s the connection?  My home in Los Angeles, at 3714 Lankershim Boulevard, was Bela Lugosi’s final home in Los Angeles.

“The Gorilla” was another 1939 Allen Dwan film.  It was a comedy horror film, starring the Ritz Brothers and Bela Lugosi.  Also in the movie was Joseph Calleia.  He is my candidate as the greatest actor of all time that most people would recognize but can’t name.  My favorite two roles of his were in “Four Faces West” (the greatest Western EVER…..that nobody has heard of) and “Touch of Evil” (where the great Orson Wells is very fat, very ugly, and slightly evil).

“Sailor’s Lady” was a 1940 Allen Dwan film.  Two of the lesser actors in the film were Buster Crabbe, who later became Tarzan in the movies, and Jon Hall, who later became Ramar of the Jungle on Television.  Hall also played Kit Carson in a 1940 movie.  What’s the connection?  The eldest son of Army Scout/Indian Fighter Kit Carson attended Notre Dame in the late 1860’s.

During 1941 and 1942, Dwan directed two Fibber McGee and Molly movies, “Look Who’s Laughing” and “Here we Go Again”.  Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy were in these film comedies.  Who wouldn’t like any show with a character called Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve? Or Otis Cadwalader?  Ray Noble appears in “Here we Go Again”.  He was a marvelous composer and bandleader.  I like his version of “Harlem Nocturne”.

Dwan directed “Brewster’s Millions” in 1947.  For a while, the film was banned in Memphis, Tennessee, because the Negro servant, played by Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, was treated too favorably in the film.  Remember Rochester, as Jack Benny’s servant?

One of the greatest war movies of all time was 1949’s “Sands of Iwo Jima”, starring John Wayne.  This was one of the top films by Dwan.  It was nominated for four Academy Awards.  When the battle for Iwo Jima is portrayed, the actual flag raised on Mount Suribachi was used, on loan from the U.S. Marine Corps Museum.  Serving as extras in the film were the three survivors of the flag-raising (Rene Gagnon*, Ira Hayes, and John Bradley).  *No relation, but I like the “connection”.  The first movie use of the term “lock and load” was in “Sands of Iwo Jima”.  Several of the actors from this film were later connected again in the 1970 western “Chisum” (John Wayne, John Agar, Forrest Tucker, and Richard Jaeckel).

In 1952, Dwan directed “I Dream of Jeanie”, a fictional biography of Stephen Foster.  Singing Cowboy Rex Allen was in the movie.  I was friends with Buddy Ebsen during my time in Los Angeles.  He founded the volunteer Malibu Fire Patrol, under my supervision.  At one of our fund raisers, Buddy introduced me to Rex Allen.  Anyone who has ever heard the magnificent voice of Allen will never forget it.

“Cattle Queen of Montana” was a 1954 Dwan film, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Ronald Reagan, and Jack Elam.  The Reagan connection to Notre Dame, through his portrayal of George Gipp, is well known. 

“Hold Back the Night” was a 1956 Dwan film about the Korean War.  Peter Graves and Chuck Connors were two of the stars, supporting John Payne, who was doing his third movie with Dwan.  Graves later had two TV series, “Fury” and “Mission Impossible”, although he never achieved the fame of his older brother, James Arness.  Chuck Connors played Major League Baseball and NBA Basketball.  He parlayed his height and good looks into a long career in the movies and TV.  He is best known as “The Rifleman” and best forgotten for “Branded”.  In 1985, Chuck Connors and I were two of the speakers at a baseball dinner in Los Angeles.  My connection was that I was the President of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), a 7,000 member historical group.

In 1957, Dwan directed “The Restless Breed”, starring Scott Brady.  While this was not a distinguished film, it featured scads of wonderful western character actors.  Brady was a big Notre Dame Football fan.  I was introduced to Brady, by Regis Philbin, at a 1980 Notre Dame sports night, in Los Angeles.  Philbin was the M.C.  Brady had Larry Moriarty with him, a young man who he introduced to me as a future Notre Dame star.  He was right.  Moriarty attended Santa Barbara Community College while recovering from an auto accident, before transferring to Notre Dame.  Moriarty starred in the NFL after ND.  When Brady played the role of the owner of a cop-bar in the Joseph Wambaugh-inspired “Police Story” TV series, he always wore a Notre Dame Baseball Cap.

In 1958, Allen Dwan directed “Enchanted Island”, starring Dana Andrews.  That same year he directed his final film, “The Most Dangerous Man Alive”, a sci-fi film, released in 1961.

Allan Dwan had one of the most remarkable and varied directing careers, spanning nearly 50 years.


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