Born Hugh Ryan Conway of Irish ancestry, Jack Conway was one of a team of MGM contract directors (others included Sam Wood and Robert Z. Leonard), who forsook any pretense to a specific individual style in favor of working within the strictures set forth by studio management–as embodied by Irving Thalberg and his production supervisors. The overall MGM strategy was to streamline efficiency and achieve tighter fiscal control by curbing the power of the director. Deeply suspicious of creative, individualistic filmmakers who would jeopardize the “studio look”, Thalberg and MGM chief Louis B. Mayer hoped to prevent such budgetary excesses as had been perpetrated by directors like Erich von Stroheim during the 1920s. Conway contented himself with working under these guidelines. A thoroughly competent craftsman, he delivered commercially successful entertainments on time and within budget.
Conway had started out in the industry as an actor, joining a repertory theatre group straight out of high school. He segued into film acting in 1909. Two years later he became a member of D.W. Griffith’s stock company, appearing primarily as a leading man in westerns. In 1913 he made his mark as a director and gained valuable experience at Universal (1916-17, 1921-23) before moving on to MGM in 1925. He directed the studio’s first sound picture, Alias Jimmy Valentine (1928). He remained under contract until 1948, often in charge of prestige assignments featuring the studio’s top male star, Clark Gable: Boom Town (1940), Honky Tonk (1941), The Hucksters (1947)–all solid box-office gold. For his most famous film, A Tale of Two Cities (1935), Conway utilized 17,000 extras in the Paris mob scenes alone. This spectacular adaptation of the classic novel by Charles Dickens is still regarded by many as the definitive screen version.
Another popular hit was the sophisticated all-star comedy Libeled Lady (1936), the “New York Times” reviewer commenting on Conway’s “agile direction” (Oct. 31, 1936). The journeyman director may not have achieved fame as a creative genius, yet the majority of his films remain eminently entertaining to this day. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Vine Street.