Allan Dwan: From “Flying A” to the Atomic Age


Today is the birthday of pioneering movie director Allan Dwan (Joseph Aloysius Dwan, 1885-1981). Much like Frank Capra, Dwan had trained to be an engineer, but found himself much intrigued by the fledgling movie business. He cut his teeth as a screenwriter at Essanay Studios, before being hired to run La Mesa, California based Flying A Studios in 1911. His relationship to the fledgling studio was much like D.W. Griffith’s at Biograph — he was simultaneously the studio chief and directed most of their films. Such things were possible in the early days. The great majority of these films were westerns and they were in great demand with the public. After a year, Dwan ceased to be in charge of the studio but he continued to direct for them for several months and also jobbed at other studios for a few years.

He was one of the directors assigned to Douglas Fairbanks during the early comedy phase of his career at Triangle, directing such pictures as The Habit of Happiness (1916), The Good Bad Man (1916), The Half Breed (1916), Manhattan Madness (1916), A Modern Musketeer (1917), and Mr. Fix-It (1918). He also directed one of Fairbanks’ first swashbuckling films for United Artists, Robin Hood (1922) and the semi-talkie The Iron Mask (1929). Other major stars he worked with during the silent period included Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, and Marion Davies.

Throughout the sound period he continued to direct westerns, comedies and action pictures, including two Shirley Temple features (Heidi, 1937 and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, 1938), The Three Musketeers with the Ritz Brothers and Don Ameche (1939), the all-star spook comedy The Gorilla (1939), the seminal Randolph Scott western Frontier Marshall (1939, later remade by John Ford as My Darling Clementine), the umpteenth remake of Brewster’s Millions (1945), and the Stephen Foster bio-pic I Dream of Jeanie (1952). Much of his work in his last couple of decades was on the schlocky side. His last film, Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961), about a mobster who acquires atomic powers, was typical. By that point he was 76 years old, and though his output had never slowed, he gracefully retired to make way for a new generation. I can’t help noticing he cut it off right at the 50 year mark — I guess that was his “finish line”!

For more on early film history don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc




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