In 1918 Australian born actor, writer, producer and director J.P. (Jack) McGowan joined Universal, starting a collaboration that lasted nearly four years. It followed three highly successful years working for his production company, the Signal Film Corporation. After the financial collapse of the Mutual Film Corporation, which had financed McGowan’s serials and features, Universal hired Jack to direct Eddie Polo, the studio’s difficult star, in the 18-chapter serial The Lure of the Circus. The serial was a great success and McGowan was at the peak of his career. It was at this time that he was recognised by The Moving Picture World as “one of the best known directors of the screen”. (quoted on p. 87) Due to a combination of personal and institutional reasons, however, this was about to change, and by the late 1920s McGowan was directing low budget westerns for independent companies.
A key factor in McGowan’s fall was the 1918 breakup of his marriage to actor Helen Holmes. From 1914 to 1917 they formed one of the great creative partnerships in Hollywood, a union that elevated Holmes to stardom. During the peak period of her career she rivalled the popularity of Pearl White.1 By 1926, however, Holmes had left the industry while McGowan was about to enter a bleak 12-year period. His last film as director was Rough Riding Rhythm in 1938 starring Kermit Maynard, the year in which he was appointed Executive Secretary of the Screen Directors Guild, a position he held for 12 years. Following a bit part in The Lady and the Bandit in 1951 McGowan died the following year at the age of 72.
McGowan’s 1918 separation from Helen Holmes occurred at a transitional time in American cinema. His reputation was built on action melodramas, especially railroad serials, and McGowan, along with director George Seitz, screenwriters Frank Leon Smith and Bertram Millhauser, actors Pearl White, Helen Holmes and Ruth Roland, were key reasons why the serial was the most popular cinematic form in the United States in the period from 1914 to 1920. After the early 1920s, and the development of the studio system, the serial was eclipsed by the feature film. Attempts by McGowan and Holmes to recapture the heady days of 1914-1917 failed after they reunited in 1921, even when they returned to the railroad melodrama, the genre that established their popularity a decade earlier. After their last film together, fittingly the railroad feature Crossed Signals (1926) for independent producer Morris R. Schlank, McGowan and Holmes divorced and went their separate ways. Ford Beebe, a prolific director and producer of low budget films who worked with Jack and Helen at the Signal Film Corporation, said that Jack was a man “who seldom let his emotions run away from him. He ruled himself with a rod of iron in most things. […] But when it came to Helen, that was his weak spot. I don’t think he really recovered from their separation.” (quoted on p. 99)
McGowan’s forty-year career in Hollywood, as well as his adventures prior to joining Kalem in 1909, is expertly detailed by South Australian author John McGowan in Hollywood’s First Australian, a revised edition of his 2005 book J.P. McGowan: Biography of a Hollywood Pioneer. John McGowan, who is not completely sure if he is a distant relative of John Paterson McGowan, traces McGowan’s life from his birth in 1880 in the railroad junction town of Terowie, 130 miles north of Adelaide, to his early years in Sydney’s inner suburbs in Camperdown, where his father worked on the trains at the Eveleigh Locomotive Workshops of the New South Wales Railways. It was in this environment that Jack acquired his lifelong love of trains, a passion he incorporated into his films. In 1916 Jack, through the Signal Film Corporation, purchased a Pullman sleeper and transformed it into a multi-purpose mobile studio. This enabled McGowan and his wife Helen Hughes to film and edit while travelling to distant locations. A dull finish to the interior woodwork of the carriage was applied to prevent reflections and the carriage lighting was replaced by Winfield-Kerner studio lighting. At the same time another Pullman car was equipped as a mobile processing laboratory and editing room so that the workaholic McGowan could work on his films around the clock. McGowan also arranged for the construction of a large studio and railway siding at the rear of his Pasadena home so that he could film trains approaching from either direction. Here trains were often held up at the station so that McGowan could complete various shots.
A tall, gaunt youth, Jack left school at an early age to work as an apprentice on a ship. Later he developed his expertise as a horseman while working as a stockman. After immigrating to South Africa in the late 1890s these skills enabled him to join an elite special operations unit under the command of Raymond de Montmorency, known as Montmorency’s Scouts. While delivering a military message during the Boer War Jack was severely injured after his horse fell over a precipice. The horse died and Jack spent a year in rehabilitation. After hostilities ceased in 1902 Jack worked, without success, as a big game hunter and cattle buyer. His big break came after reading an item in the Rand Daily Mail in March 1, 1904 that invited the unemployed to participate in the Boer War Exhibition at the St Louis World’s Fair of 1904. This invitation proved to be Jack’s entry into the United States and, eventually, the film industry.
After training horses for the Boer War Exhibition he remained in the United States working horses in Texas until a chance job instructing actors in soldierly procedures resulted in employment in the legitimate theatre and small acting roles. In 1909 he secured a position with the Kalem Company and his film career was underway. Kalem gave Jack a great education in working in remote locations with scarce resources, skills that proved invaluable throughout his career. He was mentored by actress and writer Gene Gauntier and, as part of a Kalem troupe, he filmed a series of films in Ireland where they gave themselves the name the “O’ Kalems”. They also filmed in the United Kingdom and throughout the Middle East. The troupe’s most successful film, and one of Kalem’s greatest successes, was the five-reel Biblical epic From the Manger to the Cross (1912). Filmed in Jerusalem, it was described by Jack as the first American-made feature film. (p. 26) Its financial success, however, was not enjoyed by the cast and crew, including director Sidney Olcott, as Kalem refused to list their names in the credits or in any publicity for the film.
In 1913 Helen Holmes, an aspiring young actress, joined Kalem and worked on one and two-reel railroad dramas and westerns, mostly directed by Jack. Both were tireless, fearless and multi-talented workers who achieved great success the following year in the long running series of films titled The Hazards of Helen. The series eventually stretched to 119 short films between November 1914 and March 1917 with Helen starring in 48 films and Jack directing and acting in more than 50 films. The first film, “Helen’s Sacrifice” was released on November 14 and it established the prototype for the remaining films when Helen, as a senior railway controller stationed in a remote area, is called upon to prevent an impending disaster. In the ninth instalment (titled The Leap from the Water Tower and released January 9, 1915), a disgruntled railway employee (played by McGowan) dismantles the brakes between cars three and four on engine number 3001. This action provides the pretext for Helen to display her athleticism by riding across the countryside to a water tower so that she can leap from the tower onto a moving train and warn the engineer, unaware that the brakes have been cut, to stop the train.
During this period Holmes and McGowan formed a prolific, creative, partnership. They were married in 1914 and when Jack was injured filming an instalment in The Hazards of Helen series in December that year Helen took over the production and worked in close relationship with her husband from his hospital bed. After leaving Kalem in 1915 Jack and Helen formed their own production company, the Signal Film Corporation, to make action melodramas with the financial support of the Mutual Film Corporation who would distribute the films. From 1915 to 1917, the couple embarked on a punishing production schedule of 60 two-reel serial chapters, a two-reeler, and four feature films with Holmes starring and McGowan directing (and acting). Scripting and other production duties were often shared between the couple.
Jack could not stop working and relax. After six months of non-stop production the couple decided in May 1916 to take a vacation, but McGowan even managed to film a five-reeler, The Diamond Runners (1916), aboard their ship heading for Hawaii. In a 1916 interview in Photoplay he said that while “I am lolling around aboard ship resting […] I might as well make a picture.” (quoted on p. 83) His relentless work ethic was articulated in a 1916 magazine interview where he said that he had no time for “clock watchers.” He wanted no people on his production team that had “time-clock souls” whereupon “I want no man who comes to spend a specified number of hours at the studio. I want the men who come because they are interested.” (quoted on p. 10) Co-worker Ford Beebe said that McGowan was the toughest man he ever came across. McGowan, according to Beebe, wrote his own scripts, directed and acted in his films then, after everybody left for the day, edited his films until 2 or 3am before falling asleep on the floor until the janitor woke him up. He would then go home for breakfast and return to the set or the location before anybody else arrived.
Whispering Smith, a ten-reel feature film was released in 1916 as two five-reel films with the second part titled Medicine Bend. It starred McGowan as the railroad detective Whispering Smith and Holmes as Marion Slade. However, the profits from feature films such as Whispering Smith were dwarfed by the success of their four Signal serials: The Girl and the Game (1915), A Lass of the Lumberlands (1916), The Railroad Raiders (1917) and The Lost Express (1917). Each earned an estimated gross of more than $2 million per serial (p. 85), a staggering figure for the period. However, after the Mutual Film Corporation encountered financial difficulties in 1917, the Signal Film Corporation was forced to cease production. This was a turning point for not only the careers of Jack and Helen but also their marital relationship. Jack’s relentless, obsessive, work ethic, twhich often required Helen to perform dangerous stunts in remote locations, took its toll on their marriage and the couple separated in 1918, an event that was reported on the front page of the Los Angeles Sunday Times. The story was accompanied by a large photo of Jack and Helen standing, appropriately, by a locomotive on location.
After Helen and Jack divorced in 1926, McGowan entered into partnership with another woman who was to play a key, albeit brief, role in his career. Between February 1928 and November 1930, McGowan directed 49 films as well as acting in number of films for other directors. During this period Sally Winters wrote 31 films for McGowan. As well as scripting she also acted in The Law of the Mounted (1929), a Royal Canadian Mounted Police adventure starring Bob Custer with Jack as lead villain. Variety praised the film and Jack’s performance, a positive response of an industry trade paper to a low budget western. (p. 103) During this period Jack made a costly mistake when he decided to invest his own money and form J.P. McGowan Productions just prior to the October 29, 1929 stock market crash. The decision to self-finance his films could not have come at a worse time with the onset of the Great Depression and the demand for sound films, as McGowan’s productions were silent films. He was eventually forced to add a soundtrack to three of his nine productions.
McGowan survived throughout the 1930s thanks, in part, to friends in the industry such as John Ford who cast him in minor roles in large budget films such as The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936). He also secured supporting roles in westerns such as Stampede (1936), Guns and Guitars (1936) and The Three Mesquiteers (1936). And, because he always brought his films on time and on budget, he continued to direct low budget westerns for independent producers such as W. Ray Johnston and Trem Carr, who distributed their films through companies such as Rayart, Syndicate and Monogram. Nate Levine, another independent producer who distributed his films through his own studio (Mascot), hired Jack to co-direct the 12-chapter serial The Hurricane Express (1932) starring John Wayne. It was McGowan’s final railroad film.
Aside from the tireless work of South Australians David Donaldson and John McGowan, a 2011 documentary titled Stunt Love that was screened on the ABC, and my own work on J.P. McGowan and Helen Holmes in the recently published Encyclopedia of American Serials,2 McGowan’s contribution to the cinema remains largely unknown. Yet his role was substantial and his surviving silent films, especially The Hazards of Helen series and serials such as The Lure of the Circus, demonstrate the work of a true film professional who exhibited excellent formal skills in terms of composition and editing.
The McGowan/Holmes partnership between 1914 and 1917 also played a key role in the dominance of the serial queens, a fascinating moment in the American film industry where women had a rare chance to excel in action films and not be constrained by an emphasis on romance and domesticity. The cultural significance of these films and the serial queens is articulated by Ben Singer in his excellent study, Melodrama and Modernity. Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts.3 Serials such as The Girl and the Game and A Lass of the Lumberlands, as well as The Hazards of Helen series, dramatised the actions of courageous, assertive women in a “masculine world” while retaining traditional narrative tropes adopted from the sensational stage melodramas of the late 19th century involving female imperilment.
There is much work to be done on McGowan’s contribution to the cinema. John McGowan’s book is an excellent start and the revised edition includes a new section on The Gilmour Collection, an extensive array of images and memorabilia belonging to Jack McGowan’s mother, Marion Paterson McGowan, and his youngest sister Dorothy Margaret Ailsa McGowan (Gilmour) that John unearthed in Queensland. The book also includes a valuable filmography of the literally hundreds of films that Jack worked on. Hopefully there will be more discoveries and more material on this fascinating Australian, the first Aussie to make it big in the American film industry.
John J. McGowan, Hollywood’s First Australian: The Adventurous Life of J.P. McGowan, the Movie Pioneer They Called ‘The Railroad Man’ (Adelaide: South Australia Display Vision Productions, 2016)
- In 1916, Pearl White was voted the most popular film star in the United States in a poll conducted by the Motion Picture Magazine. See Ben Singer, Melodrama and Modernity. Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts (New York, Columbia University Press, 2001), p. 216. ↩
- See Geoff Mayer, Encyclopedia of American Film Serials (Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland & Company, 2017), especially pp. 3, 14, 149-151 and 196-197. ↩
- See Ben Singer, Melodrama and Modernity. Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts (New York, Columbia University Press, 2001). ↩