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Farrow, John Villiers (1904–1963)

by Cameron Hazlehurst

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

John Villiers Farrow (1904-1963), screenwriter and film director, was born on 10 February 1904 at Marrickville, Sydney, and christened Jack, son of native-born parents Joseph Farrow, a tailor's trimmer, and his wife Lucy, née Savage (d.1907), a dressmaker. In 1908 Joseph married Ethel McEnerney who died in 1912, after giving birth to their daughter. Leaving the children with his mother and sister, Joseph served in the Australian Imperial Force in 1915-16. Jack was educated at Newtown Public School and Fort Street Boys' High School (February 1917 to June 1918), then began a career in accountancy. He claimed to have run away to sea in an American barquentine, sailed 'all over the Pacific', and fought in revolts in Nicaragua and Mexico. He gained an enduring love of yachting. Reaching the United States of America, he enrolled at the Jesuits' St Ignatius College (University of San Francisco) in 1923, but left after one month.

A chance voyage in the South Seas with the film-maker Robert Flaherty aroused Farrow's interest in writing for the screen. Re-entering the United States, allegedly by jumping ship at San Francisco, he found his way to Hollywood where from 1927 his nautical expertise brought him work as a script consultant and technical adviser. He had already earned minor recognition as a poet and writer of short stories. From DeMille Productions he moved to Paramount Pictures Inc. where he crafted easily delivered dialogue for foreign stars of silent films. For two years he wrote screen plays for Charles A. Rogers, an RKO Radio Pictures Inc. producer. During an interlude in Tahiti Farrow compiled an English-French-Tahitian dictionary and wrote a novel, Laughter Ends (New York, 1933). Passing through London, he was signed by Associated Talking Pictures to script Woman in Chains (1932). He also collaborated on the English version of G. W. Pabst's opera-film, Don Quixote (1933).

Back at Hollywood, Farrow was arrested early in 1933 in a Federal government drive against 'aliens' in the industry. He was placed on five years probation for violating immigration laws—his passport described him as a Romanian consular official and his visa had expired. Joining Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1935, he wrote and directed new scenes for a film that was eventually retitled Tarzan Escapes (1936), but was replaced as director after problems with the censors. Farrow and his wife Felice, née Lewin, had been divorced. Converted to Catholicism, he married Tarzan's Jane, the 25-year-old Irish actress Maureen Paula O'Sullivan, on 12 September 1936 at Santa Monica, after she had received a Papal dispensation to marry him. Despite Farrow's reputation as a hell-raiser, the marriage lasted until his death, fortified by seven children, and a regime of regular church-going.

A belated fruit of his Tahitian sojourn was a biography of Fr Damien, Damien the Leper (New York, 1937), which was frequently reprinted and translated into thirteen languages. An officer (1938) of the Order of St John (knight of justice 1955), Farrow was appointed a knight grand cross of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem by Pope Pius XI, and maintained an interest in Catholic educational institutions. He produced a 'frank history of the papacy', Pageant of the Popes (New York, 1942), and later wrote a biography of St Thomas More (1954).

From 1937 Farrow had made the transition to respected director. His output for several studios in the late 1930s was prolific. Notwithstanding his $75,000 a year contract with RKO, he was determined to serve in World War II. Submitting that he was 'a fairly competent seaman', he was appointed acting lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve in March 1940 and was assigned to intelligence, censorship, press liaison and archival duties as controller of naval information. He went to sea on anti-submarine patrols before he was invalided out of the service early in 1942. Retiring as an honorary commander, Farrow entertained men from R.C.N. ships visiting Los Angeles and (a citizen of the U.S.A. since 1947) was appointed honorary C.B.E. in 1953.

Having been harnessed to the war effort by major studios, Farrow won the New York Film Critics' Circle award and an American academy award nomination for Wake Island, a box-office 'smash' in 1942. The Hitler Gang (1944) was a more sophisticated documentary drama on the Nazi rise to power. He also directed the highly regarded Two Years Before the Mast (1946). Over the next five years most of his best work appeared, notably the film noir classic, The Big Clock (1947), Where Danger Lives (1950) and His Kind of Woman (1951).

A conservative Catholic, Farrow had little to fear from McCarthyism; he helped to mobilize resistance to an attempted purge of the Screen Directors' International Guild in 1950. Thereafter, working for several different studios, he made a sequence of mostly undistinguished films from which Hondo (1953) stands out for its sympathetic portrayal of the American Indian, Cochise. As co-writer of Around the World in Eighty Days, Farrow shared the Oscar for best screenplay in 1956. There were a few more disappointing films, a failed project on the life of Christ, and some television direction; but his attention turned increasingly to his family and charitable work.

Farrow died suddenly of coronary vascular disease on 27 January 1963 at his Beverly Hills home and was buried in Holy Cross cemetery; his wife and six of their children survived him. His daughter Mia had just begun her film career, against his wishes. In twenty-two years Farrow directed some forty films, making an Australian contribution to international cinema unmatched and still little known in his homeland.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Walker, The Shattered Silents (NY, 1978)
  • E. Katz, The Film Encyclopedia (NY, 1979)
  • D. Shipman, The Story of Cinema, vol 2 (Lond, 1984)
  • C. R. Koppes and G. D. Black, Hollywood Goes to War (Lond, 1988)
  • Fortian, 1962, p 15
  • Cinema Papers, 77, Jan 1990, p 32
  • Herald (Melbourne), 29 Mar 1932
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Jan, 10 Feb, 29 Mar 1933, 27 Feb 1934, 14 July 1947, 9 June 1962, 30 Jan 1963, 5, 9, 10 Sept 1994
  • New York Times, 29 Jan 1963
  • Royal Canadian Navy personnel records (copies held by ADB).

Citation details

Cameron Hazlehurst, 'Farrow, John Villiers (1904–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/farrow-john-villiers-10158/text17941, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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