John Francis “Jack” Dillon: Actor and Auteur

John Francis Dillon (1884-1934), sometimes billed as Jack Dillon, or J. Francis Dillon, was both an actor and a director, and successful in both fields. An Irish Catholic stage actor from New York, he broke into films in D.W. Griffith’s The Chief’s Daughter (1911). His screen acting career properly launched into gear in 1914, and his directing in 1915.

Interestingly, one of the first films John Francis Dillon appeared in The Man in the Crowd (1914, opposite Fay Tincher and Tod Browning), was directed by Edward Dillon. It’s tempting to conclude that they were related, but apparently they were not, nor was he related to vaudeville entertainers and Tin Pan Alley songwriters the Dillon Brothers. Jack was, however, the older brother of Robert Dillon (1889-1944), a screenwriter and director, who started out on some of Jack’s films. And Edward’s younger brother was actor John T. Dillon (1876-1937), not to be out at Biograph, resulting in many a mix-up over the past century, I’ll warrant.

Through 1917 John Francis or “Jack” Dillon acted far more than he directed, appearing in melodramas and comedy shorts for Kalem, Nestor, Lubin, Keystone, Universal and others. In comedies he worked with the likes of Ford Sterling, Billie Rhodes, Billie Ritchie, Eddie Lyons and Lee Moran, Neal Burns, Gale Henry, and directors like Al Christie. After 1917, he curtailed his activity as an actor considerably; only a dozen of his 72 films as an actor were made during his final decade before the cameras. By then he was focused mostly on directing, and took the occasional supporting role in features, sometimes his own. There is no evidence on IMDB that “he began his career at Keystone in comedy shorts in 1913”, as is commonly given out. As we’ve said, he began at Biograph and then worked for a wide variety of studios, and most of his earliest films in 1914 were melodramas.

Dillon has 131 credits as a director. Some of his early ones, such as Green-Eyed Johnny (1919), starred himself, but he gradually resigned himself to life behind the camera. Some of his better known films are The Follies Girl (1919) with Olive Thomas, Suds (1920) with Mary Pickford and Albert Austin, Flaming Youth (1923) and The Perfect Flapper (1924) with Colleen Moore, Lillies of the Field (1923) with Corinne Griffith, The Noose (1928), Sally (1929) with Marilyn Miller, The Girl of the Golden West (1930), Kismet (1930), Millie (1931) with Helen Twelvetrees, and The Cohens and Kellys in Hollywood (1932). His last film was The Big Shakedown (1934) with Charles Farrell, Bette Davis, Ricardo Cortez, Glenda Farrell, and Allen Jenkins. He was not yet 50 when he died of a heart attack that year.

In 1921, Dillon married former Follies girl Edith Hallor, then embroiled in an ugly custody battle with her husband. So many of Dillon’s movies of the ’20s and ’30s have Broadway or chorus girls and flappers at their center. They were clearly a good match.

Meanwhile, his younger brother Robert Dillon, who’d become a prolific writer of B movies and westerns, soldiered on another few years after Jack’s passing. His last credit was the exploitation film Slaves in Bondage (1937), starring Lona Andre. 

For more on classic comedy film, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.