- Reviewed by
The restoration and re-release of Getting Mary Married—a comedic Cinderella story about an orphan (Marion Davies) imprisoned by a wealthy Bostonian family—coincides with a wave of renewed interest in the work of Allan Dwan (1885-1981). Dwan was a Canadian-born Hollywood director whose career began in 1911 and concluded some four hundred films and five decades later in 1961. This summer, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City hosted a month-long, fifty-film retrospective dedicated to Dwan. The event took its title from Frederic Lombardi's recently published monograph, Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios (2013). In June, the Lumière journal published an enormous Dwan anthology, edited by David Phelps and Gina Telaroli. This collection gathers together nearly five hundred pages of essays and interviews in five different languages, all devoted to just one figure in film history.
In taking Dwan as their organizing principle, these diverse projects mimic the unwieldy size and shape that defined his prolific career. They likewise share in the same auteurist commitments that guided film criticism in the mid-twentieth century. Contributors to the French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma—among them, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Éric Rohmer, and François Truffaut—spent the 1950s recuperating a handful of Hollywood directors from the [End Page 804] anonymity of industrial film production. For this constellation of critics (and soon-to-be avant-garde auteurs), there were artists hiding in the heap of studio cinema. The Cahiers collective read visual and narrative patterns as signs of those rare cinematic stylists who managed to transform the automatic image into an autographic art. Dwan was one of their chosen few directors; his signature stretched from silence to sound, across multiple genres and hundreds of films.
Getting Mary Married demonstrates Dwan's tendency to experiment with space and mise-en-scène, perhaps more than any other aspect of his cinematic style.1 His camera drifts to the ground, beneath tables, and behind furniture, defamiliarizing domestic interiors and drawing our attention to the mechanics of cinematic spectatorship. Like his contemporary John Ford, Dwan uses the structures of windows and thresholds to emphasize social enclosures and the rigidity of an upper-class family. He plays with mirrors in several scenes, a technique that confuses the boundary between on-screen and off-screen space, but also stages a decidedly cinematic encounter between reality and its double. And in one of the most visually complex shots, Dwan anticipates the deep focus and perspectival compositions that define the work of Orson Welles. He positions three characters in a backlit mise-en-scène: two in the background, each framed by a window, and one in the foreground, framed by the two still silhouettes in the distance.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
One might equally detect traces of Dwan's precise, architectural style in the film's efficient editing and compact narrative structure. In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich in 1971, Dwan claims, "I was working economically . . . in terms of engineering or mathematics—the elimination of extraneous matter."2 Indeed, Getting Mary Married manages to move its titular character from orphan to newlywed in just over an hour. The film excludes many of the visual forms that [End Page 805] appeared in the transitional era, slowing the frenetic pace of early cinema: close-ups, inserts, cutaways, establishing shots, etc. In this film, each shot operates in the service of narrative progression and the cut becomes a vast container for "extraneous" narrative matter (for example, the death of Mary's stepfather, her move from New York to Boston, her months-long courtship with the "most desirable bachelor"). Parallel editing likewise produces a rhythmic play between opposing characters. This device emphasizes a rigorous narrative balance, whereby each action or actor is paired with its narrative counterpoint. It also ensures that the film keeps a quick, constant tempo as it...