Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hollywood's Most Prolific Director Was A Canadian



Allan Dwan was born in Toronto in 1885, the son of a snake oil salesman who fled the city in 1893, taking his family to Chicago where he went into politics. According to Dwan, "It was just the natural progression".

The elder Dwan prospered in his new line of work for as Allan would also later say, "All politicians prospered in Chicago".

As a result, Allan soon found himself able to attend Notre Dame University where he became a star football player, member of the Drama club and top of his class electrical engineer.

After graduating, he landed a job with a company developing mercury vapor lamps. These became his entree into show business when he was tasked with installing the new lights in several Chicago theatres.

One night, George Spoor, one of the owners of the Essanay-Spoor-Anderson Film Company saw the lights in action and asked Dwan if they might be of use to the film industry.

Dwan didn't have a clue, but he rigged up Spoor's studio for a test which turned out to be a magnificent success.

As Dwan hung around the studio tweaking the lighting set-up, he noticed that writers were constantly dropping by to deliver story ideas for the company's films. Mostly, he noticed that Spoor paid $25 cash for each one he used.

Having had several stories printed in the Notre Dame student newspaper, and sensing he had much better stories than the ones he saw being shot, Dwan went home and gathered up 20 of his best. Spoor not only bought all 20, he hired Dwan on the spot to be his "script editor" -- for $300/week.

A couple of months later, another local outfit, The American Film Company, noticed an uptick in the quality of Essanay-Spoor-Anderson titles and offered Dwan double his current salary to work for them.

Dwan's first assignment for American was to join a crew of actors and technicians being dispatched to Arizona to shoot Westerns.

dwan cowboy

The distant location was less about achieving cinematic authenticity than finding somewhere nobody might look for a movie company.

Y'see, the year was 1910 and several film companies including the major players, Biograph and Vitagraph, had teamed as "The Patent Company" so named because they owned all the camera patents necessary to prevent smaller companies from making movies.

And they didn't put those companies out of business by hiring lawyers. They hired thugs to attack the sets, beat up the cast and crew and smash the cameras. And there were a lot of thugs for hire in Chicago.

On their first shoot day in Arizona, Dwan discovered the director had disappeared on what was a semi-regular bender. Nobody knew when, or if, he'd ever return. So Allan wired Chicago, asking them to send a new director. The return telegram was short and to the point. "You are now Director. Salary doubled. Deliver a minimum 3 films a week."

The Westerns the company was shooting were known as one-reelers, literally one reel of film or ten minutes in length. Still -- a tall order for somebody fluent in the cinematic arts and Dwan had never directed a frame of film.

But he gave it a shot, evolving what became his trademark, simple, straightforward story telling with no aspirations to "Art" or "Significance". Allan Dwan just made sure each film, each scene, each shot had a beginning, a middle and an end.

He also became adept at shooting on the fly, taking advantage of anything in front of his camera. One morning, he found an impressive cliff and improvised a fight with one of his cowboys getting tossed over it. Later in the day, he came across a desert aqueduct and concocted a story of one rancher poisoning the water that flowed to his neighbor, thereby leading to the fight on the cliff edge.

The company churned out several films over several months and then word came that Patent Company thugs had discovered their location.

Dwan was shooting a cowboys vs Indians film when he was alerted that a posse of Patent thugs were headed to the set. Thinking quickly, he had his actors change over to real ammunition and real arrows and attack the posse when it arrived. The intruders were quickly driven off -- with Dwan rolling film on the action.

Dwan wrote a story to go with the "cowboys and Indians on the same side" climax and the resulting film was a sensation when it was released.

By that time, the company had escaped to California, but avoided Hollywood, setting up shop in La Mesa, CA.

Over the next 15 months, Dwan produced and directed 200 one-reel films while writing over half of them. His output not only included Westerns, but melodramas and comedies as well. On days when he couldn't come up with an idea, he took his crew out and shot a documentary.

By this time, he was considered one of the top directors in America and Hollywood finally came looking for him. Dwan signed with Universal for another salary increase on the understanding that from then on, he would only write and direct features.

He was already attracting top talent like Wallace Reid, Norma Talmage and Donald Crisp (who would win an Oscar in 1941 for "How Green Was My Valley"). But he was discovering stars as well, including Gloria Swanson, Lon Chaney, who started as his props man, and Erich Von Stroheim, his AD.

Swanson and Von Stroheim would eventually be teamed in Billy Wilder's 1950 film "Sunset Boulevard" and if you look closely, Allan Dwan is one of the photographers in the movie's chilling final sequence.

Dwan's simple approach to shooting made him a darling of both studios and stars. Audiences also flocked to his films. In addition to writing and directing such silent classics as "Robin Hood", he helmed one of the first color films, "Stage Struck" starring Gloria Swanson in 1925.


In 1928, Fox put him in charge of all their sound films. They let him out of his contract to direct Douglas Fairbanks' first sound film "The Iron Mask" in 1929. It was also to be the last of the great swashbucklers of the era.

Dwan stayed with Fox until 1941, churning out several films a year, including classics like Shirley Temple's "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" and "Heidi". In 1933, he made a star out of Ida Lupino in "Her First Affair" and discovered Rita Hayworth (Human Cargo, 1936).

passion dwan

In 1936, he also made a potboiler called "High Tension" that featured black actress Hattie McDaniel. McDaniel would become the first African American actress to win an Oscar in 1939 for "Gone With The Wind". But she credited much of her success to Dwan, saying he was the first director to treat her like a lady. She also treasured their first day on the set, when Dwan took her to lunch in the Fox Commissary. "For the first time, I was an equal member of the company."

Dwan's simple story telling style made him the go-to guy for almost any kind of film. Westerns, thrillers, horror, comedy, drama -- even historical spectaculars. No matter the genre, the budget or the stars, Dwan's work always found an audience. Yet he remained nowhere near as well known as John Ford, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, George Stevens or William Wyler -- despite the fact that his credit would end up on more films than all of them put together.


One afternoon, UCLA called asking if he could lecture their film students on his craft. In his usual, no-BS way, Dwan stated that he didn't really know anything about craft. He just placed the actors, pointed the camera and trusted everybody else knew what they were doing. Then he rolled film and had a sandwich. He later swore that one of the students popped up to ask, "What kind of sandwich?"

In 1949, Dwan directed the film he knew would be the one he'd be remembered for, "The Sands of Iwo Jima" with John Wayne. The film was Republic studio's biggest success.

sands of

Having been in the film business for more than 40 years and beyond wealthy, he could have easily rested on his laurels but that wasn't Dwan's style. He began making independent features and in 1955 tried live television.

In 1958, at the age of 73, he directed his final feature, "Enchanted Island". By then his resume included 444 feature films, many of which he also wrote. Add to that more than 600 one and two reelers.

The most prolific director Hollywood would ever know kept writing scripts until he was 82 and in 1976, at the age of 91, accepted the LA Film Critics "Career Achievement Award". It was the first time he'd received any recognition for his work beyond the offer of another job.

Allan Dwan died in 1981, aged 96, leaving the UCLA Medical School his vast fortune and his body for research. Simple, straightforward -- and Canadian -- to the end.

Peter Bogdanovitch penned a biography of Dwan in 1970 entitled "The Last Pioneer" and many of his experiences shooting one reel Westerns formed the basis of Bogdanovitch's 1976 film "Nickelodeon". A full roster of Allan Dwan's films (some streaming in their entirety) can be found here.


Lea said...

What a great post--both funny and informative! Thank you for bringing some of CDN film's forgotten heroes back to light!

macdonaldhugh1 said...

liked scarlet street.and john payne