“To those who add a glamour to living — to those whose beauty is more than that of other women — to those who command our laughter, our tears, our dreams — to actresses!”
— Title card from Stage Struck
Early in Stage Struck, the hero makes this toast, which could describe Gloria Swanson herself — the ultimate actress, a tiny woman whose persona was larger than life. Swanson had talent, glamour, acclaim, and power. She worked with many famous directors, from Cecil B. DeMille to Erich von Stroheim to Billy Wilder. But one of her favorites is less known to modern audiences: Allan Dwan. A film pioneer whom Swanson called “a genius,” Dwan’s career spanned over 50 years. Together, Dwan and Swanson made eight films, seven of them between 1923 and 1925. These films were among Swanson’s most popular, and often displayed her gift for comedy — a talent that had been buried in the spectacle and costumes of her DeMille films. In Stage Struck, costumes and spectacle abound, but they’re played for laughs while Swanson spoofs her own diva image.
In 1914, at the age of 15, Swanson began her film career at the Essanay Studios in her hometown of Chicago. In her 1980 autobiography, Swanson on Swanson, she recalled Essanay star Charlie Chaplin choosing her as a possible comic partner. After a frustrating morning working together, Chaplin decided she had no flair for comedy. In 1916, Swanson went to Hollywood and signed a contract with Mack Sennett at the Keystone Studio. She soon tired of the rowdy Sennett-style comedy, and left to pursue dramatic parts. Eventually, Swanson landed at Paramount, working with Cecil B. DeMille, dressed in ever-more elaborate costumes and playing in domestic melodramas. By the early 1920s, Swanson was a big star, and with her shrewd business sense she negotiated an advantageous new contract with Paramount. But she felt her career was stagnating and decided that making films in New York would give her the creative challenge she needed. Director Marshall Neilan suggested she get in touch with Allan Dwan, who was working at Astoria Studios. Neilan told her Dwan was a genius. Swanson met Dwan and agreed. Their first film together was Zaza (1923).
Allan Dwan was born in Toronto in 1885. He was educated at Indiana’s Notre Dame University, where he played football and trained as an electrical engineer. After graduating, he went to work for a lighting company in Chicago, where one of his customers was Essanay Studios. Dwan not only sold lights to the company, he also sold them stories he’d written. In 1909, he accepted an offer to become Essanay’s scenario editor. Soon after, he joined a new company formed by Essanay executives, the American Film Manufacturing Company. In 1911, Dwan was sent to California to find out what was holding up production on a film. He discovered the director was on a drinking binge, so he sent a telegram to his bosses: “I suggest you disband the company. You have no director.” They wired back: “You direct.” So began one of the most prolific careers in film history. Dwan’s filmography includes more than 400 films, most of them made during the early silent era, and most of them lost. Dwan told film historian Kevin Brownlow that he estimated he had worked on upwards of 1400 films as director, producer, or writer.
Dwan had an eye for talent. In 1914, while working at Universal, he discovered a prop man who was “fond of makeup.” According to Peter Bogdanovich’s biographical essay and interview with Dwan, the director then “turned Lon Chaney into an international star.” Dwan also discovered such behind-the-scenes talent as future directors Marshall Neilan and Victor Fleming. One of his crew members on Stage Struck was Joe Pasternak, who went on to produce musicals at MGM. Dwan also made five films with Douglas Fairbanks, including Robin Hood (1922).
Dwan’s engineering training helped him devise technical solutions for complicated shots in Robin Hood and other films. Earlier, he helped D.W, Griffith solve the problem of photographing the vast Intolerance (1915) set by suggesting mounting the camera in an elevator on a railroad track so it could move in several directions at the same time. And later, he developed several lighting and electronic devices. Dwan was a superb technician, but as Bogdanovich notes, his best work “was anything but technical — he had a real flair for human stories with humor, or funny stories with humanity.” He had gotten his start by writing stories, and the story was always of foremost importance to Dwan.
By the time Dwan and Swanson began Stage Struck in 1925, they’d already made five successful films together. Swanson had just returned from making Madame Sans Gêne (1925) in Paris and had brought back a new husband, the Marquise de la Falaise de la Coudraye. Huge crowds greeted her after a cross-country train trip. Dwan and Swanson’s new film Stage Struck was far from the reality of Swanson’s life, with the actress playing a klutzy café waitress who dreams of glamour, romance, and stardom. Shot in the Ohio River town of New Martinsville, West Virginia, Stage Struck was the first film to be shot on location in that state. Among Dwan’s innovations for the film were the color sequences he used at the beginning and the end, making this one of the first feature films to utilize the Technicolor process.
Soon after making Stage Struck, Swanson left Paramount to produce her own films for United Artists. Her problems as an independent producer only added to her legend: censorship issues with Sadie Thompson (1928), which nevertheless earned her the first of two Academy Award nominations; a disastrous production partnership and affair with financier Joseph Kennedy, which culminated in the fiasco of the unfinished Erich von Stroheim film Queen Kelly (1928); the decline of her fame; and the spectacular comeback in Sunset Boulevard (1950). As her movie career faded, Swanson turned to various business ventures, including a cosmetics firm and a clothing company, with occasional film, theater, and television appearances. More than 20 years after her death in 1983, the legend endures, and Gloria Swanson still remains the epitome of a movie queen.
After Stage Struck, Dwan went on to direct dozens of films in all genres — comedies, thrillers, musicals, westerns, film noir — for more than 30 years. And, he would continue to discover new talent, including future stars Carole Lombard, Ida Lupino, Rita Hayworth, and a six-year-old Natalie Wood. His last film was The Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961). He died in 1981, at the age of 96.
Presented at SFSFF 2005 with live music by Michael Mortilla