The Silent Collection
By Tammy Stone
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
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!).
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
as legend has it, J.P. and Helen’s
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
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments on her column.