Shadows of Disorder

Dwan

(versão em português aqui)

Article originally published in the online book Allan Dwan: a dossier (2013), edited by Gina Telaroli and David Phelps, whom I will always thank for both the invitation and trust (as well as cleaning up my translation).  The complete book remains available at the Spanish magazine Lumiere and it is still the most complete critical study published on the American cinema pioneer. This is mostly on 1939’s Frontier Marshal, but tries to place it through larger tendencies of Dwan’s filmmaking.

Allan Dwan never hid his taste for comedy. It’s not unjust to say that, something like Howard Hawks, he is a filmmaker who express himself in a manner that is essentially comic. We need, however, to understand that comedy according to Dwan is not a matter of jokes or lighter treatment of minor subjects (as Peter Bogdanovich suggests when dealing with the 50s films in his The Last Pioneer), but the formation of a certain perspective. It is a style that reaches its peak in the pre-code days (ironically, one of the filmmaker’s least productive phases), a style which Dwan was one of the few to continue employing later.  A good example of can be seen in his most famous postwar film, Silver Lode, whose script might at first suggest a B movie High Noon knock-off. Dwan’s own point of view, however, skews things in another direction. The series of misfortunes, often exacerbated by bad timing, piling up over an wrongly accused man (John Payne), making even his most plausible explanations seem suspicious, suggest something much closer to a screwball comedy like Bringing Up Baby, which, after all, is also basically about a man whose perfect life is systematically destroyed by another person’s will.

This comic perspective is very important to the way in which Frontier Marshal, even in just its name, delves into one of Dwan’s recurring obsessions: the spatial boundary lines between civilization and disorder. As an adaptation of the legend of Wyatt Earp and the Gunfight at OK Corral, it is an adaptation entirely à la Dwan, divested of the mythical weight so many subsequent versions would insist on. Here, the issue is not the foundation of a civilized community, as in My Darling Clementine (to name the other great version of this story). Far from it—the image we take with us from the movie is not of Earp dancing with Clementine as in Ford, but of Tombstone’s streets—just another studio western town like many others—and the certainty that more dangers are always lurking in its shadows. Frontier Marshal suggests less the myth of civilizing the wilds than an anarchic comedy about the inevitable chaos of living in the frontier. In this sense the Brazilian title is even better than the original: The Law of the Frontier. It is this law that Randolph Scott’s Wyatt Earp needs to sustain. Not the letter of the law, but the much muddier law of the frontier; it’s a film about how to negotiate disorder.

Frontier Marshal‘s Tombstone is one of the many symbolic, slippery spaces, a social no man’s land, that Dwan’s Westerns tend to focus in on. In one of his best incursions into the genre, The Woman They Almost Lynched, the main city is even called Bordertown and is indeed suspended in the middle—the geographical middle—of the civil war, neither part of the South nor the North. The same state of suspension underlies the action of repeated Dwan Westerns, from the final act of A Modern Musketeer (1917) to the city controlled by crime in The Restless Breed (1957). In those spaces, man is guided simply by his capacity to rapidly distinguish between right and wrong and to take a stand at every situation. It is a space in which man is tempted all the time—probably exemplified best by the main street of The Restless Breed and the way its comings and goings hasten the difficult decisions faced by its vengeful hero—a space in which one must always resist the easy way out. Part of the frontier’s appeal to Dwan is clearly that it is an empty space that needs to be filled out. It’s left to man to decide what’s to be done with it. One of the most tarnished frontiers of Dwan’s cinema, the Tombstone of Frontier Marshal seems far from the open locations of his other westerns; here, we have a studio town overtaken by shadows and a space permeated by a sense of risk that violent gunmen that might attack Wyatt Earp at any time. No truce will be possible in Tombstone—evil might appear at any given moment.

In Frontier Marshal, Doc Holiday is less the tragic figure familiar from other versions of the story than an extension of Earp who often loses himself in this very space. It’s curious to observe how the relationship between Earp and Doc here reverberates years later in Tennessee’s Partner, only there with the roles exchanged: the old player (John Payne) recognizing in the young gunfighter (Ronald Reagan) the man he once was as he tries to protect him. The first meeting between Doc and Earp is one of Dwan’s great scenes, covering ample dramatic terrain, from Doc’s heavily theatrical entrance, Randolph Scott’s simple turn of the neck in recognition, the moment the two men watch each other eye-to­eye until a simple movement—Earp extending out his arm to stop another player from taking advantage of Doc’s moment of distraction—establishes a relationship of equality that will guide them for the remaining of the film. A familiar genre situation, but the ponderous atmosphere is undercut by a few select gestures that offer this relationship its nobility, amidst the chaos that will determine the acts of these two men’s acts from that point on. If Frontier Marshal seems notable as one of the director’s heavier films, it’s largely thanks to Cesar Romero’s Holiday, whose presence is an eternal reminder of what might happen to those who fall to the temptations of the frontier.

Randolph Scott’s Earp is one of the rare figures of law at the center of a Dwan western. For a filmmaker with relative little control over his material, it is remarkable how his incursions into the frontier seem invariably centered around criminals (Angels in Exile), gamblers (Tennessee’s Partner), wrongly accused men (Silver Lode), vigilantes (Passion), women of ill repute (Cattle Queen of Montana)—always figures under suspicion.  As their counterpart, Earp, the great sheriff of the American west, here becomes an agent-agitator. Thanks to Budd Boetticher’s films, we are used to considering Randolph Scott as laconic figure negotiating a series of dramatic situations, but in Frontier Marshal he shows himself to be unusually, even energetically animated. There is a self-destructive streak to Scott’s presence that suggests how easily this man might turn into another Doc Holiday. Dwan’s Earp has a Hawksian competence, but this is not enough for him: his acts always come accompanied by a self-awareness that betrays his excessive confidence. Scott, far from projecting a man who bears a long history behind him, as in Boetticher’s films, always seems ready to parlay his heroic acts into a show—as in the moment when he carries the drunk Indian, just after being appointed sheriff for the first time. His entrances bring to mind Dwan’s old hero Douglas Farbainks, but it is almost as if Earp were aware of Fairbanks and knew how a hero from a silent film should introduce himself to the audience. His interactions with Ben Carter’s interminable gunfighters betray this same tone of provocation, as if he were incapable of pausing in his constant search for the next piece of action. He seems less an agent of the law than a man constantly being tested by the shadows presiding over Tombstone.

Dwan, however, endows Frontier Marshal with a levity that keeps the film far from any unnecessary fatalism. The manner in which multiple desires (of Earp, Doc, Jerry the hooker, etc.) keep colliding into one other complicates the action in a way that anticipates the structure of his marriage farces from a few years later. There is, especially, a lightness to the actors’ gestures, and even a brute action like Earp’s carrying the hooker out from the saloon gains, in the hands of Binnie Barnes and Scott, a screwball quality that doesn’t so much undermine the weight of the action as reorient it: one more gesture in the great diorama of frontier anarchy. Romero’s Doc, especially, occasionally recalls Edmond Lowe’s player from Black Sheep, at first glance a much more elegant comedy about another kind of civility frontier (its suspended Transatlantic space not so far away from Tombstone).

In his interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Dwan makes two useful observations about Frontier Marshal: that the original idea did not involve the figure of Wyatt Earp, and that he was satisfied with Tombstone’s backlot set. Both claims point to how the film works the whole time to move away from the period’s mythology and towards a much more practical point of view about the decisions that frontier morality imposes on its characters. Move away from mythology—but not, we might note from history, as the film opens by placing Tombstone in the context of the gold rush that in a way elucidates every action that happens afterwards. There are more references to mining in Dwan’s westerns than in the work of any other director of the genre, and there is no other economic activity that exposes the nebulous position of Western towns in quite such a way. Mining is,  essentially, a predatory activity: the richness of the soil from one location redirected to another far away. From the moment that Frontier Marshal begins, establishing that Tombstone was founded in mining, it is clear that we are looking at a colony rather than some genuine part of the union—a provisory space that is there simply to be drained of its riches. Everything here operates to scale the figures from this larger story to a more minor one in which everyone has to negotiate the best way to live at the frontier. Dwan’s Earp could never be Wyatt Earp as he would be to Ford, Sturges or Kasdan (if the film resembles any other version of the character it is Jacques Tourneur’s Wichita (1955)), but only another frontier marshal.

It is Tombstone and not Earp that Frontier Marshal deals with, and if at first it seems strange that Dwan shows so much pride in such an ordinary studio town, it is in such banality that the film places so much of its power. There is an easiness to how the simple and the unadorned resonate beyond themselves in Dwan, and if his Tombstone is interchangeable with many other frontier towns, all for better: this notion only reinforces another that we are dealing with a standard site at the limits of order, and that the choices traced here echo those of so many other similar locations. If there is a film that Frontier Marshal most often brings to mind, it is not another of Dwan’s westerns, but Howard Hawks’ underrated last film, Rio Lobo (1970). Like Frontier Marshal, it is a film in which the good humor of the situations and the gestures don’t quite undercut the weightier tone, and in which the filmmaker’s gaze frames a frontier city taken over by evil. Both films suggest the same feeling of constant danger, the same sense of enticement at every turn. Unlike its compatriots Rio Bravo and El Dorado, in Rio Lobo, John Wayne’s motives are petty and he seems all the more touching for feeling vulnerable, unlike most Hawksian heroes, to the amorality around him.

As in Rio Lobo, one of the central visual motifs of Frontier Marshal is of its hero crossing the main street through an air of potential violence. One of the great virtues of Dwan’s cinema is that, along with all these comings and goings, he explores his location so well that by the time the famous shootout is declared, it can be understood through Earp’s knowledge of the space. The law of frontier becomes a question of geometry: the O.K. Corral is only recognizable by the name Earp and a plaque identifying the place; the myth from history is emptied out by this almost complete austerity. What is left of the faceoff is only the certainty that we are wrapped in shadows far from the metropolis.

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