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April 2005 Issue
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Hollywood's first Australian celebrated in new book

 History

The little-known story of the first Australian to make a name for himself in Hollywood, J.P. McGowan, will now be told thanks to a new book by a University of Adelaide graduate.

Born in the South Australian mid-north township of Terowie, John Patterson McGowan (1880-1952) became one of the founding fathers of the Hollywood motion picture industry.

Although he was well known during the 1920s and 1930s as a prolific actor and director, his achievements seem to have been forgotten with time.

J.P. McGowan's story is being told by University of Adelaide alumnus John J. McGowan (BA History and Politics, 1974) in the book J. P. McGowan - Biography of a Hollywood Pioneer. John McGowan believes he may be a distant relative of J.P.

The book will be launched this month at the University of Adelaide's Barr Smith Library.

Given that yet another Australian, Cate Blanchett, has recently walked away with an Oscar, John McGowan said it was an opportune time to remember the first local to start the trail of Aussies to Hollywood.

"J.P. McGowan was one of the most significant expatriate achievers never to have been honoured in his native land. I hope my book will help to redress this situation," Mr McGowan said.

The book recounts the story of J.P. McGowan's amazing life, which included service in the Boer War and several years with travelling theatrical troupes in the United States before he moved
into film as an actor in 1909 at the dawn of the Silent Era.

When he retired from the screen in the late 1930s, J.P. McGowan continued to play an influential part in the development of the motion picture industry, becoming the Executive Secretary of the Hollywood Screen Directors' Guild. He held this position for 12 years and helped lay the foundations for today's motion picture industry awards.

In 1950 the Guild recognised McGowan's service with the award of Honorary Life Membership, placing him within a select group of Hollywood luminaries including Walt Disney and Charlie Chaplin. He is the only Australian to have been honoured with this award.

McGowan specialised in action-packed movies and built a reputation as one of the film industry's best directors of this genre. Many of his early productions were railroad dramas and he became known as Hollywood's "Railroad Man".

The biography is the result of many years of research in Australia and the United States by
John McGowan, a former producer-director with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Education Unit.

"Piecing together the elements of his life, and compiling details of more than 600 productions in which he had been involved, has been time consuming but fascinating," Mr McGowan said.

"Writing the book has involved a great deal of original research because my once-famous namesake had been too busy making movies to record the events of his life in diaries or letters."

J.P. McGowan - Biography of a Hollywood Pioneer is published by McFarland & Company, Inc., in the United States and is currently being distributed throughout Australia.

The University of Adelaide Alumni's Cornell chapter has arranged a book launch in conjunction with the Friends of the Barr Smith Library: 6pm Thursday, April 14 in the Ira Raymond Room, Barr Smith Library.

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J.P. McGowan in the movie Cold Steel (1921)
Photo courtesy of the State Library of South Australia

J.P. McGowan in the movie Cold Steel (1921)
Photo courtesy of the State Library of South Australia

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John J. McGowan at J.P.ís home town, Terowie

John J. McGowan at J.P.'s home town, Terowie
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