Saturday, May 9, 2020

Riding the Rails: “Hollywood’s First Australian” a look at early Hollywood director J. P. McGowan

“Hollywood’s First Australian: The Adventurous Life of J. P. McGowan, The Movie Pioneer They Called ‘The Railroad Man’”. By John J. McGowan. Display Vision Productions, Norwood, South Australia. Reprint: 2016. 220 pages. 

Aged 32. From Motion Picture Story
, February 1912
The early years of Hollywood had its share of noteworthy directors memorable in American popular culture: Charlie Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch, D. W. Griffith, and Cecil B. DeMille. But one name all too often overlooked in this esteemed group is John Paterson “J. P.” McGowan, who was not only a silent film director and actor but also an innovator in the use of a motion picture camera for high-level action-adventure silent films. Written by John J. McGowan (not a known relation to J. P., or Jack as he was often called on the set), “Hollywood’s First Australian: The Adventurous Life of J. P. McGowan, The Movie Pioneer They Called ‘The Railroad Man’” documents the life and career of a Hollywood director who became famous through plenty of sweat and blood – sometimes more of the latter, due to injuries experienced by cast members performing stunts on the set. Like Jack’s life and career, the book is written like an adventure, gripping for the reader, the creation of much research conducted both in Australia where he was born, as well as Hollywood, primarily at Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, and Hollywood Museum Collection. John J. McGowan also shares rare photos of Jack and his family from The Gilmour Collection, begun by his mother Marion and younger sister Dorothy. While Jack became an American citizen shortly after coming to the United States in 1904 to re-enact a performance of the Boer War at the St. Louis World Fair, he never turned his back on his Australian roots; if anything, he strongly drew upon these roots to establish himself as one of early Hollywood’s directors. Likewise, Jack’s experience as a horseman came from his being a dispatch rider for Montmorency's Scouts during the Boer War in South Africa. Saving many rare documents and photos about his career, Jack sent these home to his family in Australia for safe keeping.

John J. McGowan traces Jack McGowan’s early life back to Terowie, South Australia, a town with a population of 5,000 when the railway was built in 1880. This is most certainly a significant year for Jack, being born on February 24 that year to Thomas Kennedy McGowan and Marion Paterson McGowan, who immigrated to Australia from Plymouth, England only two years earlier. It was the exposure to the railway Jack’s father worked on, and later Jack himself, which led him to gain enough experience to create exciting action-adventure silent films with the rail as the focus of the plot. These films expanded Hollywood’s offerings to the viewing public in addition to the many romance stories and comedies that frequently played across the country. Westerns with stars like William S. Hart  provided some degree of action, but nothing could compare to the fast-moving trains and daring stunts performed by Jack and his wife Helen Holmes in “The Hazards of Helen”, a film series (versus a film serial, which relies upon a set of chapters each ending with a cliffhanger) which lasted for 119 episodes, each 12-minute single reel story complete unto itself but utilizing the same set of characters. Some of the other stuntmen in “The Hazards of Helen” episodes include the future western star Leo D. Maloney, and comic Harold Lloyd. It is worth noting that Jack McGowan’s use of trains and stunts predates that of Buster Keaton in “One Week” (1920), “The General” (1926) and “Speak Easily” (1932). Buster performed dangerous stunts on a train in the style of Jack McGowan in “The General”, which may as well be a paean to McGowan’s innovative use of trains, stunt work, and the movie camera.

From The Moving Picture World, September 15, 1917
Jack McGowan’s film career began in 1909 with Kalem Company in New York City, where he first got his feet wet acting in one-reel films like “The Lad from Old Ireland” (1910) and “Far from Erin’s Isle”(1911). Sidney Olcott directed the bulk of these films, but it was not long before Jack started directing himself in 1911, his debut being “A Prisoner of Mexico”.  Kalem soon became known for shooting on location in countries like Ireland, and more exotic places like Bethlehem, Egypt and Jerusalem, as it did for “From the Manger to the Cross”, a life of Jesus, in 1912. Jack McGowan portrayed the apostle Andrew; a publicity sheet was distributed to cinemas with his likeness on it, set in what appears to be a genuine Biblical era. It was Jack’s rugged good looks, combined with his physical size (over 6 feet tall), muscular build, dark hair and large, dark brown eyes that made him perfect for silent film and the strenuous demands of the rail films he made.

A poster for "Stormy Seas" 1923
Nicknamed “Let’s Go McGowan” for his penchant for yelling “Let’s Go!” to cast and crew in making a film, Jack’s love of making exciting action-adventure films was infectious, and to say he and his crew had fun doing what they did is an understatement. It was not just Jack’s work ethic but his sense of daring, his approach to performing some incredibly dangerous stunts which on more than one occasion ended up with an extensive hospital stay. Combine the hard work and adventurous element, Jack was like a modern teenage boy looking for fun and having it. He owned two different production companies, Signal Films, then later, J. P. McGowan productions, creating an output that remains unrivaled during the 1910’s and 1920’s. In 1913, Jack directed 31 films; in 1925, 36 films; and in 1929, 22 films. One of the reasons Jack was still making silent films as late as 1930 for his own production company was cost. While sound film, or “talkies”, was possible then due to technology, it was also expensive, not something a small production company could afford for every movie, especially with an average of 20 plus movies being made per year. Jack often acted in the films he directed during the late 1920’s, and by the time silent film was being phased out and sound films were being made, he lost his Australian accent. His voice proved to be perfect for sound films, a mellifluous baritone reaching villainous depths which suited many of the roles he played.

From Motion Picture News, March 3, 1917
What is striking, perhaps not so surprisingly, about “Hollywood’s First Australian”  is why Jack McGowan is considered to be one of the most important men from Holllywood’s earliest days. In this manner, he can be compared to Ernie Kovacs and his use of the television camera during the late 1940’s to 1950’s, exploiting its use to maximum capability, while Jack McGowan used every trick he knew in the implementation of a motion picture camera onto moving trains, cars,  and motorcycles. In other words, if an object moved and entered within range of the camera lenses, it was considered to be usable, offering substance to the completed film.  John J McGowan also takes note of Jack’s use of a camera mounted at the front of the car (nowadays the hood) to film the inside of the car through the windshield plus the rear window – a method still used today by motion picture directors.

Jack McGowan’s most meaningful contribution to Hollywood after his many years of filming was as Executive Secretary for the Screen Directors Guild (now known as Directors Guild of America), which began in 1936. When the Motion Picture Producers Association (now known as Motion Picture Association of America) was formed in 1922, the organization’s intent was to prevent the existence of unions among actors and film writers but eventually failed. With this new union for movie directors coming into play, the MPPA wasted no time in trying to vanquish the guild. Jack’s people skills came strongly into play once again, fighting for the creative rights and salaries of directors who on more than one occasion had to butt heads with the studio owners. John J McGowan stresses that while Jack certainly kept company with the best of the A-list directors like John Ford and D. W. Griffith which helped keep him in the business until at least 1939, Jack never joined that esteemed list, although not doing so certainly did not diminish his contributions to Hollywood in any way.

"Stormy Seas" 1923
Originally titled “J. P. McGowan: Biography of a Hollywood Pioneer” (McFarland and Company, 2005), the main reason for this reprint is The Gilmour Collection, as mentioned by John J McGowan in the Preface to the Second Edition. The Gilmour Collection is presented into several small chapters documenting the different periods of Jack’s life. John J. also includes an extensive filmography which spans 77 pages, starting with Jack’s film career in New York back in 1909 and ending in 1939. The filmography contains notes regarding unconfirmed film appearances like John Ford’s “Stagecoach” (1930) as well as some but not all extant film prints and commercial availability. Nevertheless, the filmography is worth glancing through, just to get a grasp of Jack McGowan’s energetic level of film making. Sadly, much of his earliest work is lost, particularly many of the episodes of “The Hazards of Helen”.


Tom Tyler first worked with Jack McGowan in 1929, soon after Tom’s contract with FBO expired that year. It is possible this was not the first time Tom became familiar with the name J. P. McGowan, as Jack directed a number of movies for Robertson-Cole Productions, the distributor for FBO’s films. Even though Tom and Jack were different in personality, they both came from working class backgrounds and loved their work. Tom Tyler’s introvert was a perfect complement to Jack’s extrovert, people-person personality. In a way Tom’s work ethic helped fuel Jack’s new production company under his own name, affording him the ability to crank out just as many movies in 1929 as he did back during the 1910’s.

J. P. McGowan in "Deadwood Pass", 1933
“The Man from Nevada” was the first of eight silent films Tom starred in for Jack McGowan, released in August 29, followed by “Law of the Plains”, “The Phantom Rider”, “The Lone Horseman”, “Pioneers of the West” and “’Neath Western Skies”. In 1930, “Canyon of Missing Men” and “Call of the Desert” were the last two silent films Tom made for J. P. McGowan productions, but this was hardly the last time the two men would work with each other.  With Jack now directing for the recently-formed Monogram Pictures, he got the chance to work with Tom again, this time in “The Man from New Mexico” (1931). Jack then directed Tom for three Monarch Productions westerns: “When a Man Rides Alone” (1932), “Deadwood Pass” (1933), and “War of the Range” (1933). Unlike his own productions where Jack often appeared in the movie, he only had one role than can best be described as a cameo role in “Deadwood Pass” where he plays a character called “The Chief” - a nickname sometimes attributed to the director of a movie. As “The Chief” though, Jack gets shot by one of the henchmen in the gang Tom infiltrated. The last time Tom Tyler and J. P. McGowan worked together in major roles would be “Fighting Hero” (1934), a western which pays tribute to Tom Tyler’s silent film years – and also pays tribute to Jack McGowan’s late silent film years as playing the villain Morales. Sadly, J. P. McGowan died two years before Tom Tyler did at the age of 72 on March 26, 1952, from heart failure.

To purchase a copy of “Hollywood’s First Australian”, click here.

No comments:

Post a Comment