J. P. McGowan

John Paterson McGowan (February 24, 1880 – March 26, 1952) was a pioneering Hollywood actor and director and occasionally a screenwriter and producer. J. P. McGowan, as he was usually known, remains the only Australian to have been made a life member of the Screen Directors Guild (now Directors Guild of America).

J. P. McGowan
Cover of McGowan biography by
John J. McGowan, 2005
John Paterson McGowan

(1880-02-24)February 24, 1880
DiedMarch 26, 1952(1952-03-26) (aged 72)
Hollywood, California, United States
Years active1910–1938


Born in the then-bustling railway centre of Terowie in South Australia, McGowan grew up in Adelaide (Islington) and Sydney (Eveleigh, Newtown). He was a capable horseman and served in the Second Boer War with Montmorency's Scouts as a special dispatch rider.

From South Africa McGowan was recruited to take part in a Boer War exhibit in the US at the 1904 World's Fair. He then began working in live theatre, and in 1910 joined Kalem Studios in New York City. That year McGowan made his first film appearance in A Lad from Old Ireland as part of the crew that traveled to Ireland to do the first American film shot on location outside of the United States. His horseback riding ability enabled him to do many of Kalem's riding stunts.

McGowan directed and often acted in the first 33 episodes of Kalem's 1914 adventure film series, The Hazards of Helen, which eventually ran to 54 episodes, some still with McGowan's participation. With other contributors, the series ran on to 119 episodes in all. While filming he began a relationship with Helen Holmes, the film's star, and the two married. They left Kalem to set up their own production company, Signal Films, which successfully made mainly railroad melodrama serials and features but lost out when their distributor (Mutual) failed. The collaboration ended when they divorced in 1925. There was an adopted daughter, Kaye.

McGowan successfully made the transition from silent film to talkies. While never a major star, in a busy career that spanned four decades he is credited with acting in 232 films—mostly strong roles like sheriff or villain—writing 26 screenplays and directing 242 productions. In 1932 he directed a young John Wayne in the 12-episode rail vs airplane serial The Hurricane Express for the independent Mascot Pictures. From 1938 to 1951, as Executive Secretary of the Screen Directors Guild, he fought to secure recognition for the director within the studio systems of the film and emerging television industry.

J.P. McGowan died in 1952 in Hollywood and was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. His life story was told in the 2005 McFarland book, J. P. McGowan: Biography of a Hollywood Pioneer by John J. McGowan (ISBN 0-7864-1994-6). An expanded edition with The Gilmour Collection of photographs was published in February 2016.

McGowan's career was celebrated in the town of his birth with the Terowie Days of Rail and Screen 2002-2010. The adventurous, stunt-filled partnership with Helen Holmes has been celebrated in the inventive bio-tribute, 'Stunt Love', which was presented at the Adelaide Film Festival in February 2011 and at Museum of Modern Art, New York, in April 2011.

Selected filmography


    Further reading

    • McGowan, John J. J. P. McGowan: Biography of a Hollywood Pioneer. McFarland, 2005.
    • McGowan, John J. "Hollywood's First Australian". Digital Print Australia, 2016.
    • Lahue, Kalton C, "Bound and Gagged, the story of the silent serials". Castle Books, New York, 1968.
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