J. Searle Dawley Poster


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Overview (3)

Born in Del Norte, Colorado, USA
Died in Hollywood, California, USA  (undisclosed)
Birth NameJames Searle Dawley

Mini Bio (1)

J. Searle Dawley, the man who considered himself "the first motion picture director", was born James Searle Dawley on 5/13/1877 in Del Norte, CO. He was educated in Denver, and after graduating in 1895 became an actor with Louis Morrison's stock theatrical company. The tour he was hired for was canceled, however, and he returned to Denver. In 1897 he rejoined Morrison's company, where he plied his trade as a thespian and stage manager for three years. He left to enter the vaudeville circuit as a performer and writer, then in 1902 joined the Spooner Stock Company as an actor, stage manager and writer. In May 1907 he was hired by Edison Co. director Edwin S. Porter specifically to direct The Nine Lives of a Cat (1907), so arguably he WAS the first professional movie director in the US. Dawley based his claim on the assertion that until he was hired by Porter, "The cameraman was in full charge." Dawley oversaw acting and dramatic continuity rather than just supervising action sequences shot by the cameraman.

At Edison he directed D.W. Griffith in his film acting debut in Rescued from an Eagle's Nest (1908), as a woodsman who saves his child from the clutches of an eagle. The film features some of the earliest special effects, as the eagle is a stuffed bird with movable wings (the creature seems to puzzle rather than scare his captive, the child who will be wrestled away from the clutches of this taxidermist's nightmare by the man who would soon achieve fame as the father of the narrative film). While primitive, the special effect proved potent with nickelodeon audiences. In 1910 Dawley moved to California to establish a West Coast presence for the Edison Co. On the way West, he took a camera and photographed Canada as he made his trip to California via train. In southern Caliiforni, he established a studio in Long Beach, attracted by the cheap land and sunny seaside climate. Building a facility downtown at the corner of what is now Sixth St. and Alamitos Ave., he named it Balboa Studio after Spanish conquistador and explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa. Dawley's new studio employed Henry King and William Desmond Taylor as directors. Eventually, Balboa's facilities consisted of 20 buildings on eight acres, plus an outdoor shooting area of 11 acres in Signal Hill, a separate town within the Long Beach city limits. Reportedly he directed over 200 one-reel films at the Edison company. Among the more notable of these include the first adaptations of Frankenstein (1910) and The Charge of the Light Brigade (1912).

When Porter signed on with Adolph Zukor's Famous Players in 1912, he again hired Dawley. Starting with Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1913) Dawley directed 14 pictures for Famous Players, then he left to start his own company, Dyreda, in 1913. Dyreda was bought out by Metro Pictures after being in existence for slightly more than a year. Dawley's Always in the Way (1915), starring "Sweet Young Thing" specialist Mary Miles Minter (who would one day be implicated in the scandal surrounding the murder of director William Desmond Taylor), was released by Metro. Dawley then returned to Famous Players-Lasky (which increasingly became known by the name of its distribution arm, Paramount Pictures Corp.). He directed the first full-length (six reels) live-action version of Snow White (1916) for Famous Players-Lasky (Paramount Pictures Corp.), starring Marguerite Clark as Snow White. As a boy, Walt Disney would see and be influenced by the film. Dawley also directed a version of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1918).

He left Paramount in 1918 to get married and freelanced for several years before joining Fox Films in 1921. The last feature he directed was Broadway Broke (1923), which was released by Lewis J. Selznick's Selznick Distributing Corp. His final work commanding from behind the camera were two sound shorts for Lee De Forest, Abraham Lincoln (1924) and Love's Old Sweet Song (1923), which were released in 1924.

After retiring from the movie industry, Dawley tried several lines of work before making a new career in radio from the late 1920s through the mid-1930s. One of Dawley's lasting legacies was his role in forming an organization for directors that eventually would morph into the Directors Guild of America. According to Dawley, eight Hollywood directors "met secretly one night in a mountain resort" to discuss the creation of an organization for directors to promote their interests in an industry dominated by producers and to do something about the "decadence" that already was rampant. The eight directors were interested in cleaning up the industry and putting an end to the sexual exploitation of "girls who have ambitions but [are] weak on the side of resisting flattering offers by certain executives." The directors were offended because "directors were often forced to use girls in their casts whose only qualification" was being the producer's girlfriend . . . This sort of thing had to stop, and eight directors decided to do something about it." The June 1, 1918, issue of "The Exhibitor's Trade Review" contained an article in which Charles Giblyn claimed he was at the first meeting as "nine" directors, and that the turnout was limited because of a driving rain. The meeting was held because "envy and malice" had engendered "a wave of slander" directed against the movie industry that threatened its viability, as the studios were under investigation. Considered "cesspools" and "habitats of criminals and vagrants" by the public and the Establishment, one studio already was under investigation by the Los Angeles district attorney. Apart from their moral concerns, Giblyn said the group was interested in promoting camaraderie amongst directors and removing competition between directors at rival studios. Before they came together, directors did all they could to impede the shoots of other directors, particularly by claiming rights to shooting locations. Dawley became the "Scenarist," with the job of secretary, of the fraternal organization that resulted from that meeting. The Motion Picture Directors Association (MPDA), which was neither a union or a guild, was incorporated in Los Angeles on 6/18/1915 as a nonprofit social organization to "maintain the honor and dignity of the profession of motion picture directors." Other aims of the MPDA, according to the articles of organization, were to promote the motion picture as a vehicle for uplifting the morals and "social and intellectual standing of all persons connected with the motion picture producing business," and to promote "social intercourse among its members." Like most fraternal organizations, the MPDA pledged itself to aiding and assisting "all worthy distressed members of this association, their wives, widows and orphans." In addition to Dawley, 25 other members were listed on the articles. On 11/14/1916 , a New York chapter was created for directors on the East Coast, which was still the center of motion picture production in the US. Allan Dwan was elected "Director" or president on 1/2/1917. The bylaws of the MPDA were modeled after those of the Masons, and their rising sun logo was adopted by the MPDA. Dawley wrote that both branches helped foster an atmosphere of cooperation, and during World War One the MPDA helped finance funerals for members killed during the war. In the 1/17/1917 issue of "Motography," the MPDA was described as being motivated by self-protection rather than having an aggressive stance towards producers. "Wid's Yearbook" of 1920-21 stated that the MPDA provided movie directors with a forum for new ideas and saw itself as an organization that could improve conditions and lobby for directors. As an entity that distinctly recognized directors, the MPDA promoted their profession in an era when cameramen were still considered mechanics. Ater the April 1917 declaration of war against Germany, the MPDA decided to speaking for movie directors with one voice, sending President Woodrow Wilson a telegram pledging its "loyalty and allegiance in this hour of national peril." The MPDA offered its services to help win the war effort by using the movies as a propaganda vehicle; the New York chapter voted to help the federal government with military recruiting via the medium of the movies. The MPDA's annual ball, held to raise money for disabled veterans and medical care for motion picture personnel, became THE social event of the year in Hollywood. In 1921 the MPDA made plans to build a $200,000 four-story building on Highland Ave. to serve as its lodge, but the plans were never realized. William Desmond Taylor became MPDA Director/President in 1919. Before becoming Director, he had been the MPDA's most outspoken and passionate member. He proved a dynamic leader, working hard on matters affecting directors such as censorship, runaway production and the producers' promotion of technology over meaningful content. He was also concerned with improving conditions for other members of the industry. Taylor promoted cooperation among other industry fraternal organizations, such as the Assistant Directors Association. In a letter lobbying the ADA, Taylor called for a "Central Committee of Western Motion Picture Organizations...for the purpose of protecting ourselves from all enemies and furthering our common interests." Public outcry over Hollywood's decadence and "objectionable" content in movies had led to calls for state and local censorship of motion pictures, and there was also a national movement to ban the showing of movies on the Sabbath (Boston already banned certain movies from being shown on Sunday). The MPDA was prepared to fight "legislative menaces of censorship and so-called Blue Laws." Film distributor W.W. Hodkinson, one of the founders of Paramount Pictures Corp., was invited by Taylor to address the MPDA. Appearing at an MPDA meeting on Feb. 24, 1921, Hodkinson called for self-censorship to forestall efforts to have content restrictions imposed by local and state governments. Hodkinson told the directors that their "influence is more potent than that of the schoolteacher" and urged them to uphold "certain standards of cleanliness and decency . . . that you want to preserve in your home and in society generally." Taylor became the vice chairman of the Affiliated Picture Interests (API), an organization that embraced members from all sectors of the industry, which intended to become a political lobby for members of the motion picture industry. API members launched a voter registration drive people to vote and lobbied the Los Angeles Cty Council to repeal censorship. The industry had faced fierce foreign competition in the early days, and as the industry became more settled, producers began moving production abroad in order to reduce their costs. Taylor was opposed to runaway production as it hurt the people who made their living in the domestic industry. In his capacity as MPDA Director, he lobbied the Senate Finance Committee to help end the practice, sending a telegram at the end of January 1922. On February 1, 1922, William Desmond Taylor was shot to death at his Los Angeles home. The MPDA arranged the funeral, which was attended by an estimated 10,000 mourners, the biggest crowd to turn out for a private citizen in Los Angeles history up until that time. Taylor was succeed as Director of the Hollywood Branch by David Hartford, who in turn was followed by Fred Niblo, Roy Clements, William Beaudine, John Ford, Reginald Barker and Henry Otto. Republican politician Will Hays, President Warren G. Harding's Postmaster General, who came from a notoriously corrupt administration but nonetheless had a reputation as a reformer, was appointed movie industry czar in 1922. As head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, the man who called directors "the key men of the industry" would become the front-man for the industry's efforts at self-censorship and governmental lobbying. On March 16, 1922, Hays addressed the MPDA's New York chapter at a dinner held at the Astor Hotel. The dinner was attended by 1,100 people, including William Randolph Hearst, Actors Equity President John Emerson (who wanted to organize movie industry actors), and Famous Players-Lasky boss Adolph Zukor. Hays reminded the movie-makers in the audience that they had a great potential to influence public morals and education, and thus their responsibility was great. By 1924 the MPDA had approximately 100 members in Hollywood and 40 in New York. It began publishing a plush monthly periodical called "The Director" that year, which was renamed "The Motion Picture Director" a year later. The lavish monthly featured book reviews, short fiction, and serialized novels, but mostly, it existed to promote a sense of unity among the MPDA membership. Articles addressed issues concerning directors, promoted networking column, and even included editorials. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer sachem Louis B. Mayer, the man who eventually would indirectly cause the MPDA's demise, published an article in the magazine called "The Importance of the Director." Directors wrote articles, such as Albert S. Rogell's denouncing producers for limiting directors to a single genre. The periodical stopped publication in 1927, as the strength of the MPDA waned. John Ford served as MPDA Director in 1927, the year that Louis B. Mayer had the idea of creating the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to serve as a company union in order to forestall unionization in the industry. AMPAS originally had five branches, including one for directors, which served as a clearinghouse for directors' concerns and served as the directors' arbiter with the studios. With much of its raison d'etre usurped by AMPAS, and lacking a dynamic William Desmond Taylor-like figure to take it in other directions such as politics, lobbying, or creating an industry-wide union, the MPDA underwent a precipitous decline. By 1930, there were few members left, and by 1931 there were no members at all in Hollywood and only a few in the New York branch. J. Searle Dawley blamed the producers for killing off the MPDA. He claimed that the directors had secured capital from a San Francisco bank to finance their own production companies. The move into independent production was opposed by the studios, and at a powwow between top producers and members of the MPDA's Hollywood branch, the directors were threatened with "being blacklisted from the industry forever should they go through with the plan." Because of the threat, Dawley wrote, "today the MPDA is dead as a doornail." While AMPAS initially gave movie directors some clout in the industry, with the coming of the Depression, the major studios used AMPAS as Louis B. Mayer had intended: a company union. AMPAS helped implement across-the-board wage cuts and layoffs, and its use by the producers to advance their interests led eventually to the screenwriters (always the most radical part of the industry) founding the first craft union, the Screen Writers Guild. The directors followed shortly thereafter, when 12 directors, including five former MPDA members, met at former MPDA member King Vidor's house to form the Screen Directors Guild on December 23, 1935, The other four MPDA members who founded the SDG were Frank Borzage, John Ford, Henry King and Rowland V. Lee. The SDG was incorporated on January 16, 1936, and the ranks of the SDG soon swelled to 40. All resigned from AMPAS. Ford later said, "All of us in that room realized the need to band together to protect the integrity of motion picture direction." It was a sentiment found in the Articles of Incorporation of the MPDA, and a sentiment shared by J. Searle Dawley, the self-described "first" professional movie director.

- IMDb Mini Biography By: Jon C. Hopwood (corrections by A. Nonymous)

Family (1)

Spouse Grace Manville Owens (14 June 1918 - ?)

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