Review: Hollywood’s First Australian – The Picture Show

Errol Flynn, from Tasmania, was not the first Australian in Hollywood. Indeed it was South Australia’s own J.P. McGowan.

Flynn was merely born in 1909, the year that John Paterson (J.P.) McGowan (1880-1952) fetched up in Hollywood as a movie actor.  J.P. was born in Jamestown SA but lived the early years of his life in Terowie, where his dad was an engine driver. The family moved to Sydney and eventually J.P. went to the Boer War, was demobbed and joined a South African circus that took him to America where later on he landed in Hollywood as an actor.

He later became a director, specializing, thanks to his dad, in railroad films, as they came to be known.  His leading lady in the serials that J.P. produced was often Helen Holmes, who became his first wife. Tied to the rails by the villain, saved by the hero (McGowan) as the train sped towards her, this was the invention of the cliff-hanger.

When sound came to the movies, in 1930 J.P. starred the young John Wayne in A Crashing Adventure Serial, Hurricane Express, 12 Thrill Chapters, opening the way for Wayne’s long, multi-faceted career. Eight years and with about 600 films behind him, J.P. became executive secretary of the Screen Directors’ Guild, which led to an agreement over pay and working conditions that still pertains today.

J.P. McGowan and his films are brought to life in this excellent show by John McGowan, no relation (but he’s working on it), who has written an illuminating biography of his namesake, and David Donaldson, longtime film buff and director of the Terowie McGowan Festivals. They are enthusiastically assisted by pianist Richie Gun AO, retired occupational medico and sometime performer in Adelaide University Footlights revues.

The clips from the silent films tend to be hilarious for today’s audience, but the gem is a recently discovered complete opus, The Conductor’s Courtship, of 1914 (look it up on YouTube), which while intentionally humorous is also charming and a tribute to the then happy marriage of McGowan and Holmes.

This is a show for anyone interested in film, but others too — at its first showing a bevy of lovely ladies of a certain age were there to listen to pianist Richie Gun. The Hall was full so be quick and book your tickets for the last performance.

Hollywood’s First Australian – The Picture Show will perform once more on March 3 at the North Adelaide Comunnity Centre.

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