Over the years, Allan Dwan told dozens of different stories about how he got into the picture business. Most involved some combination of a youthful stint as an actor, a gig helping to install mercury-vapor arc lights at Essanay Studios in Chicago, and his instant success selling original stories to Essanay, which soon hired him as a scenario editor. He told historian Kevin Brownlow that his first experience behind the camera came when he was ordered to step in for a director who had disappeared on a bender, and pragmatically asked the actors to show him what to do. While the facts remain murky, all these variants peg Dwan as an inspired storyteller and problem-solving technician who didn’t take himself too seriously. “Dwan is a sane director,” Photoplay proclaimed in 1921, hinting that this set him apart from the rest.
Auteurists have struggled to pin down Dwan, who worked in every conceivable genre over the course of a prolific fifty-year career that began with silent one-reelers and ended with wide-screen Technicolor features. He may also be underrated precisely because of his sanity, the directness and unadorned classicism of his style. But Dwan’s strong opinions about cinema run through his work like a sturdy spine. “Any story worth a damn must be intimate. It must be close to you,” he told Brownlow. With an optimism that has, alas, hardly been borne out by contemporary Hollywood, he believed audiences would easily tire of spectacle, and what was needed to hold their interest was above all “good scenes between two people.”
Padlocked was Dwan’s penultimate film at Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount), where he had worked since 1923, most notably directing a trio of smart, effervescent comedies with Gloria Swanson. He had enjoyed the autonomy of working at the studio’s East Coast branch in Astoria, and his departure was hastened by his distaste for producer B.P. Schulberg, a proponent of strict control and factory-style efficiency who insisted he shoot Padlocked in Hollywood despite its New York setting. The studio had reportedly paid a whopping $90,000 for a story by Rex Beach, serialized in Hearst’s Cosmopolitan magazine. Best known for his novel The Spoilers (1906), which was filmed five times, Beach was an unsuccessful prospector who hit pay dirt writing stories in a Jack London mode based on his experiences in Alaska. Padlocked was in a very different vein, an urbane drama skewering the cruelty and hypocrisy of moral reformers. Noah Beery plays Henry Gilbert, a wealthy do-gooder and domestic tyrant whose puritanism destroys the lives of his wife and daughter. His myopia about human character proves his undoing: he sees evil in innocent amusements, but is easily taken in by a gold-digging con artist.
Gilbert’s ill-fated first wife is played by the magnificent Florence Turner, gone from the movie too soon. Originally known as “The Vitagraph Girl,” she was one of the world’s first movie stars (not to be confused with Florence Lawrence, “The Biograph Girl”), and few since have matched her vibrant, natural expressiveness. Watching Turner on screen is like gazing at a flame as it reacts to the tiniest changes in air currents. She has absolute control over every muscle of her face, and her expressions are as pithy as aphorisms, but also charged with luminous feeling. She can turn on a dime from elegant beauty to goofball or gargoyle, then back just as fast to dignified decorum. In 1912, American audiences voted Turner the most popular woman in the movies. A year later she left for England where she formed her own production company, wrote and directed some of her films, and in 1914 was voted Britain’s most popular female film star. By the mid-1920s that star was fast waning, though in 1928 she made what is now her most widely seen appearance, a brief and inspired turn as Buster Keaton’s mother in College.
In Padlocked, Mrs. Gilbert throws a seventeenth- birthday party for her daughter with a “kiddie” theme—a Jazz Age fad (Marion Davies hosted a famous one) that gave grown-ups license to dress in rompers and frilly pinafores, play nursery-school games, and generally cut up like toddlers. To be honest, there is something a touch grotesque about the spectacle, though Gilbert wildly overreacts to the sinfulness of girls sliding down a banister with bare knees. His brutality drives his daughter Edith (Lois Moran) to flee the house and become a feather-bedecked cabaret dancer. Moran had studied singing and dancing in Paris, and here she performs a fetching Isadora Duncan-esque “Aesthetic” dance in a Grecian tunic. She went on to perform in Broadway musicals but may be best remembered for her affair with F. Scott Fitzgerald, who used her as the model for the dewy young film star Rosemary Hoyt in Tender Is the Night.
Edith suffers equally from the forces of puritanism and vice, caught between a greedy stepmother who sends her to a reformatory to get her out of the way and a predatory millionaire who employs a female friend to assist his sleazy pursuit of young girls. Louise Dresser is superb in this morally conflicted Ghislaine Maxwell-like role; her eventual change of heart is heartening, and the theme of female solidarity runs like a bright thread through the story. Indeed, women come out on top all around: Gilbert gets his comeuppance at the hands of his second wife, who blows his money on haute couture and fills his house with her low-life family—a tippling mother, jazz-baby sister, and uke-strumming, spoon-swiping wastrel brother, played with raffish charm by the young Douglas Fairbanks Jr. It is satisfying to see the moralizing patriarch taken to the cleaners by a tough woman who sees through him, but Dwan’s films are rarely punitive; they are buoyed by a belief in change, reconciliation, and redemption. Dwan’s is, as critic Chris Fujiwara writes, “a cinema of the return of the exile and the acceptance and embrace of home.”
Here, a happy ending that could feel formulaic is elevated by a breathtaking setting on a terrace high above the ocean, with mountains sloping gently down to a curving coastline, flowers spilling from urns, and the whole scene swept by billows of sun and wind. This image, held like a resonant final chord, counterbalances the film’s opening shot, which is tightly framed and drably lit, showing Gilbert at his desk hard at work on the reform of fallen women. From the cramped gloom of self-righteousness he has reached the boundless open spaces of tolerance. The ravishing panorama is also a calling card for cinematographer James Wong Howe, early in a career that made him one of Hollywood’s most revered directors of photography, culminating in Oscars for The Rose Tattoo (1955) and Hud (1963).
Wong Howe was known for his slow, painstaking perfectionism and his expressive use of natural light, and from early on he was popular with actresses for the care with which he filmed them. He was equally known for the tenacity with which he confronted the racist bullying he faced as a Chinese American in an era of intense anti-Asian bigotry. He literally broke into the industry in 1917 when he climbed over a wall at the Famous Players-Lasky studio, having been turned away by a guard, and scored a job carrying camera equipment. Cecil B. DeMille gave him his first chance to sub in for an assistant cameraman on 1919’s Male and Female, and he diligently practiced his cranking technique on a manual coffee grinder. His painterly style is always in service of the narrative. Here, he turns the reformatory where Edith and other wayward girls are mortified in gingham smocks into a stark gothic tomb webbed with shadows, and the gardens of the Long Island mansion where she loses and finds love into a bower of glistening leaves dappled with silver light. Not merely grace notes, these images illustrate the pioneer generation’s faith in cinema’s ability to speak without words.