Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #87
“Tarzan and the Golden Lion” (1927) was helmed by J.P.
McGowan, an experienced and prolific action director whose adventurous
life influenced his artistic efforts.
John Paterson McGowan was born February 24, 1880 in
Terowie, South Australia to a railroading family, and left school at 17
to work as a sailor and, later, cowpuncher. An experienced horseman, he
traveled to South Africa seeking his fortune in mining; there he served
in the Boer war as a dispatch rider with the British unit Montmorency’s
Scouts, and was severely injured when his horse went over a precipice,
killing the horse and hospitalizing McGowan for a year with a concussion,
smashed ribs, and both legs and arms broken.
Following his recuperation, he unsuccessfully sought
work as an explorer and big game hunter, emigrating to the U.S. for the
St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 as part of a riding exhibition. He helped
establish the Paterson, New Jersey mounted police unit and worked as a
cowboy in Texas before taking a job with Shakespearean actor Robert Mantell
training actors to play soldiers, soon joining their ranks on stage.
McGowan began working with Kalem Motion Picture Company
as a bit player in 1909, and travelled the world with the company, acting
and directing films in Florida, Alabama, Ireland, London, Germany, Egypt,
Palestine, and Syria. Following his return from his overseas journey to
film the groundbreaking five-reel story of Jesus Christ, “From the Manger
to the Cross,” McGowan advanced in the company when several key personnel
quit, incensed at being shut out of sharing in the film’s profits.
He moved to California in 1912, directing weekly episodes
of the “Hazards of Helen” serial, marrying lead Helen Holmes and founding
Signal Films with her. He also continued to appear on-camera as a villain
in Westerns. Upon retirement from directing and acting, he served as the
Executive Secretary of the Screen Directors Guild (later renamed the Directors
Guild of America) from 1939-51, and was awarded a lifetime membership.
McGowan died in his sleep at his West Hollywood home
on March 26, 1952, survived by his adopted daughter Dorothy and third wife
Kaye. He is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
In 2005, McFarland Books released “J.P. McGowan: Biography of a Hollywood
Pioneer,” penned by John J. McGowan, a relative.