Allan Dwan

Confirmed Years:   1910-13

Allan Dwan, born in Ontario, Canada in 1885, was a prominent and innovative director during the silent and sound film eras. His most recognizable films include Robin Hood (1922) and Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). He is also known for his creation of the combined crane and dolly shot in the D.W. Griffith's film, Intolerance (1916). Although he is mainly applauded for his work during the sound era, he was a prominent and well-rounded director during the silent-film era. Although, he claims to have directed and contributed to nearly 1,500 films during his lifetime, most of his silent-films are presumed lost.

Dwan attended the University of Notre Dame and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering . He made a name for himself as a star football player for the Fighting Irish as well as a writer for the campus literary magazine. After graduation he moved to Chicago where he acquired an assistant engineering job with General Electric. In 1910, he was working on a predecessor of the neon light called the “ mercury vapor,” and would ultimately meet George Spoor, part-owner of the Essanay studios. Spoor asked him to supervise the use of the “ mercury vapor” lights in a motion picture that they were producing. As he was supervising the lights, Dwan discovered that Essanay was buying stories to use in their pictures. Dwan had written a lot of short stories for the literary campus magazine at Notre Dame, and sold over a dozen of them to Essanay. Shortly after, Dwan began working for Essanay as a scenario writer. In late September, he was offered a job as a scenario editor by the newly formed American Film Manufacturing Company. American offered to double Dwan’s a salary, a tactic they frequently used to lure away employees from other companies.

In 1910, Dwan was sent to Tuscon, Arizona as the scenario writer for the American’s western unit. However, just as the production team was becoming situated, in what Dwan called, “ the perfect place to make Westerns,” the Chicago headquarters sent word that the outfit was to be disbanded. Later that year he was re-hired by American, and he appeared in San Juan Capistrano, California as the director of the Western troupe. (Note: The reconstitution of the western unit is still being researched but somehow a transition from Arizona to California took place though many of the original company were no longer involved.)

Dwan recalls, “ When I was sent out to California to find this company, I found them down in San Juan Capistrano without a director, he was a drunk. So I wired back to the office,` ‘recommend you disband the company. You have no director.' They wired back: `You direct.' So I called the actors together, and I said, `You're out of work, or I'm a director.' And they thought awhile and said, `You're the best damn director I ever saw.'”

Dwan directed his first film, Rattlesnakes and Gunpowder (1911), in San Juan Capistrano. The unit would produce other split and one-reel westerns before Dwan moved the production team inland to Lakeside, California and stayed there until a second move to La Mesa. After using up all the scenery in La Mesa, Dwan began to look for a new location for the home of his Western troupe. Santa Barbara was selected.

In July 1912, Dwan and the production team finally made Santa Barbara their permanent home, and built a temporary studio on the site of an abandoned ostrich farm. A total of thirty-five people and twenty horses made their journey from La Mesa to Santa Barbara during a five-week process.

By this time Allan Dwan had made a name for himself as one of the most prolific directors of his time. He was the director and manager of the Flying A’s premiere unit and considered himself autonomous. The company expanded to include a second shooting unit and by 1913 virtually all of American’s films were being produced in Santa Barbara. The president of American, Samuel Hutchinson, came out to California in early April of 1913 on one of his numerous inspection tours but friction was soon apparent. Dwan argued with Hutchinson demanding that things would be done his way or he would leave the company. A few days later Hutchinson fired Dwan.

Shortly after being fired by American, Dwan was hired by Universal. Three years after joining Universal Dwan moved to Triangle to work with D.W. Griffith. It was here where he developed the famous crane and dolly shot for Griffith's Intolerance, (1916). He continued with indisputable success and made lasting impression on the film world. Although he gives most of the silent-film era innovation credit to D.W. Griffith, as most of the silent-film era directors do, Dwan was by far more than just an average director. He was one of the more favored directors in Hollywood by producers and actors/actresses alike, outliving most of the directors during his time, and out-directing all of the directors of his generation. He made his final film, The Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961), fifty-two years after entering the business. He passed away in 1981, at the age of 96, as one of the most influential innovators in the motion picture world.

Byron Bame

Film and Media Studies 181

March 24, 2008


Bogdanovich, Peter. Who the Devil Made It. First. Toronto, Canada: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1997.

Driskel, Dana. Allan Dwan Oral History Interview, Dana Driskel, Van Nuys, California, 1978

Lyon, Timothy. The Silent Partner: The History of the American Film Manufacturing Company 1910- 1921. First. Anne Arbor, MI: University Microfilms Int., 1972.

Confirmed American Credits:




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Margarita Fischer

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