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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Featuring:
J.P. McGowan

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1930 J.P. McGowan BAT Tobacco Card1930 J.P. McGowan BAT Tobacco CardWhat do we think of when we think of America? The mythic land of opportunity, where ideas can flourish, where everything can be done 110 per cent. This is where Hollywood was “invented” in a virtual desert to become the heart of the movie kingdom. It’s no wonder, then, that so many up-and-coming stars – whether actors or directors or producers – left their home countries to establish their careers. This happened rather famously with the émigré directors from Germany before and during World War II: Douglas Sirk and Fritz Lang, just to name a couple. Earlier than that, however, we had Mack Sennett and Mary Pickford achieving superstardom outside their home country of Canada (as a Canadian, I could go on and on about the myriad talent from the US’s closest neighbor, but that’s not the point here!).

Another such émigré star is J.P. McGowan, whom I had the good fortune of discovering through an e-mail I received from a South Australian researching that country’s contribution to Hollywood. His e-mail reminded me that superstars are often not celebrated in their home countries nearly as much as they should be, or could be. So, on behalf of one devoted chronicler of his country’s cinematic history, and in the hopes that we all learn to take pride in our national treasures, I present the prolific and talented Mr. McGowan, who will be honored in Australia in February 2005 on the 125th anniversary of his birth.

Born John Paterson McGowan on February 24, 1880 in Terowie, South Australia, J.P. would grow into a real renaissance man in the movie industry, and at no better time. Studios were forming and folding and finding their niches, and people were still trying to figure out what kind of genres and acting styles audiences would enjoy on the big screen. To be able to act and direct, let alone write, was to really see – and create – the vision that would materialize as the most lush and glamorized business in the world.

When J.P. arrived in Hollywood, his first vocation was as an actor. He went to now legendary site of the Kalem studio, located at 1725-1735 Fleming Street (Hoover Street) Hollywood, California. Now called Monogram Studio, this property once belonged to the Lubin Company, the Essanay Company, the Hampton Company, Charles Ray Productions (who constructed the first sound stage on the property), and Monogram Pictures, to name a few. The site changed as the industry changed; and in 1971, it was purchased by a public broadcasting station.

But back in the Kalem days, Westerns were becoming all the rage. When J.P. arrived at Kalem, the studio operating the property just before (Lubin) had finished making about 20 one-reeler Western films. When Kalem took over, they moved in the direction of the serial film. JP made several action films, becoming known as the “Railroad Man” because of the films he made in which railroads also made key appearances. 

When Kalem conceived the Hazards of Helen serial, J.P. came on board to direct. He also met and fell in love with Helen Holmes, the actress playing the eponymous title role. JP is in fact credited with being the first to create the screen image of the terrorized beautiful woman caught to a railroad track as the train is about to arrive. Together, J.P. and Helen were quite a team. Hazards of Helen ultimately had 119 chapters or installments, including episodes like Leap from the Water Tower (Episode 9), The Pay Train (Episode 33) and In Danger’s Path (Episode 63).

These were not large-budget productions, and JP was able to churn out about 30 installments one after another, with ease and flare. He acted in many of them as well, often playing the bad guy. Kalem was the place that gave JP his first taste of success and popularity, but J.P. and Helen decided to venture out on their own, hoping to continue doing what they were doing but without the studio watching over them. Or perhaps it was a purely economic, or ego-nomic decision. In any case, and now married, the McGowans left Kalem to make their own railroad movies under the auspices of Signal. Kalem, meanwhile, left the Hoover Street location in 1917.

At around the same time, Mutual, who was distributing J.P.’s films, was going into decline, and could no longer afford to distribute the films as effectively as they did previously. In 1919 the company folded, and production had to stop. This is 1916 Helen Holmes Water Color Co. Premiumwhere, as legend has it, J.P. and Helen’s 1917 Helen Holmes Kromo Gravure Trading Cardcareers and personal lives took a turn for the worse. But J.P., who hadn’t really stopped working in years, hired himself out and did just about everything, mostly the low-budget way.

In the 1920s, he produced, directed and acted in independent films, now famed for their production values and professionalism, especially given that he working at a fraction of the budget of a big studio. His specialty was the action melodrama, and one of his tricks of the trade was to use a lot of found/stock footage that would enable him to use lushly-shot images for free.

By the 1930s – and with the dawn of sound – J.P. was recognized in the industry for his sheer tenacity, perseverance and talent, and he began appearing in larger, studio productions. As director, some of his films include The Lost Express (1926), Manhattan Cowboy (1928), Code of the West (1929), The Hurricane Express (a 12 chapter series culminating in a film by the same name starring John Wayne, 1932), Deadwood Pass (1933) and Rough Riding Rhythm (1937). He acted in such films as Evelyn Prentice (1934), In Old Chicago (1937), and the Western classic Stagecoach (1939).

 It is perhaps fitting that his final one was in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) – not only was this a Western, but the one that launched a whole new era of adoration for the genre. J.P.’s career began as the Western was giving way to the action serial film, and now the Western was back. And today? The Western has been revived now and then, but we can’t deny that the action film has been here to stay for some time. What better time to turn back the clock and remember one of the most passionate advocates of filmmaking of this kind?

J.P. died on March 26, 1952 in Hollywood. Well-used to working on his own in an ever-growing industry, he also fought hard as an motion picture industry advocate, and in this was instrumental in the shaping of the industry as it evolved. This biography is really just a collection of little fragments I was able to find on this fascinating man, who worked in Hollywood for 30 years and was involved in no less than 600 productions in various capacities. The enigmas are many: how did he succeed in an industry dominated by titan studios that locked almost all their talent into prohibitive contracts? How did he, independently, churn out so many films that actually reached a public? To read a much more extensive and previously-unavailable account of J.P.’s life, look for the forthcoming J.P. McGowan: Biography of a Hollywood Pioneer, by writer and director John J. McGowan.
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Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in each issue of The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.  Tammy invites you to write her at tammystone444@yahoo.ca with any questions or comments on her column.