Saturday, May 13, 2017

Born Today May 13: J. Searle Dawley


The man who considered himself the very first real motion picture director, who the world came to know as J. Searle Dawley, was born James Searle Dawley on this date in Del Norte, Colorado.  I would say that it's more accurate to say that he could be considered the very first director of purely narrative films; but the honor of very first director really should go to the man who hired Dawley at the Edison Co., and that would be Edwin S. Porter.  Dawley at first wanted to break into the acting circuit, securing a position in the acting house run by Louis Morrison; however the tour that he was hired to work on was canceled and his was obliged to return home to Colorado.  This was in 1895 and came just after his high school graduation.  He rejoined the group in 1897, and worked both as a actor and a stage manager for 3 years.  He then left for the vaudeville circuit, with ambitions to become a writer.  He worked there both as a writer and actor, before joining the Spooner company, where he plied all of his talent accrued to date: acting, writing and stage managing.  Having gained attention of the Edison Co. and of Porter, he was hired in 1907 specifically to direct.  This was indeed a first.  He was hired to direct a short film that already had a scenario attached to it:  The Nine Lives Of A Cat became his directorial debut in 1907.  Though D. W. Griffith was two years older than Dawley, he wouldn't make his directorial debut until 1908.  In fact, Dawley would direct Griffith in a film that survives to this day; Rescued From An Eagle's Nest was filmed in 1908, before Griffith made his debut later in the year.  It is a remarkable film, because it contains some of the earliest complicated special effects--films had formally moved on from good old fashioned trick photography.  Some of Dawley's early work in Fort Lee for Edison available on disc include:  A Little Girl Who Didn't Believe In Santa Claus  1907, A Suburbanite's Ingenious Alarm 1908, Fireside Remembrances 1908 (all up to this point co-directed with Porter), and  Cupid's Pranks 1908.  Dawley made the move to California in 1910, earlier than most directors--though he still worked for Edison Manufacturing.  He began to focus of films on works of literature.  He brought works by Twain, the Brothers Grimm, Dickens, Dumas,  and Stevenson amongst others, to the moving picture.  But it would be one work of literature by a female author that Dawley would forever be known for.  In 1910 he made the first ever filmed adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  The film, though a short, features extremely sophisticated special effects--cutting edge for it's time.  

It was released on March 18th and starred Augustus Phillips (in his first film appearance) as Frankenstein and Charles Ogle as his monster.  Being the person chosen to set up Edison in a new studio in the Hollywood area, he also brought in new directors that would go on to have a big impact on silent cinema.  The first non-Edison film that he directed was for Solax (Alice Guy's studio).  The film was Between Two Fires (1912), this was quite a long time before he severed work for Edison.   In 1912 and 1913, he began filming outdoor documentaries, most in Yellowstone National Park, but at least one film was produced in Yosemite as well (Dawley had developed a penchant for photographing and filming in the locations as he made his way from the east coast to the west coast--many of these films were actually filmed during the his time of travel and released later).  In 1913, he made his first film for Zukor's Famous Players, a adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Tess Of The D'Urbervilles.  Though known as a famous silent film director, it should not be forgotten that one of his first skills in the theater was writing, and though he was adept and literary adaptation, he also wrote original scenarios for films as well.  The first of these came in 1909 with The Legend Of Sterling Keep.  In all, he has 40 writing credits to his name.  And though he would never make a film in the sound era, his films were not all silent, in fact, the one credit that he has for cinematographer comes in a De Forest Phononfilm demonstration entitled Adolph Zukor Introduces Phonofilm, a film that has Zukor explaining the Phonofilm sound on film system, it dates from 1923.  In fact, his last 3 films used the De Forest Phonofilm system and were full sound movies:  Abraham Lincoln dates from 1924 and Roger Wolfe Kahn Musical Number dates from 1925.  Dawley's last film came out in 1926:  Brooke Johns and Goodee Montgomery, it is a formally lost and now restored film.  After this, Dawley decided to retire from the movie industry; he eventually made his way over to radio, where he worked successfully through the 1930's.  Dawley would also go on to be one of the founders of an organization to would eventually turn into the Screen Director's Guild.  He certainly influenced a whole host of other directors, both contemporary with him and a younger generation coming into their own when he decided to retire.  Walt Disney mentioned several times how influential Dawley had been for him on multiple levels.  Dawley passed away in Hollywood at the age of 71 on the 30th of March 1949.  Strangely there is no information about a funeral service of any sort.  

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