In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • John Farrow: Hollywood’s Man in the Shadows by Claude Gonzalez and Frans Vandenburg
  • Geoff Mayer
John Farrow: Hollywood’s Man in the Shadows, 2020
Claude Gonzalez and Frans Vandenburg

The 2020 documentary on Australian-born filmmaker John Farrow by Claude Gonzalez and Frans Vandenburg is aptly titled “Hollywood’s Man in the Shadows.” Farrow was, and still is, largely unknown in his native country. In 1999, when I wrote an entry on him for The Oxford Companion to Australian Film, there was little information aside from Scott Murray’s invaluable 1990 article in Cinema Papers. The Gonzalez and Vandenburg documentary addresses this lack of study, although it raises as many questions as it answers. Farrow was a man of intense contradictions. While he was a dedicated Catholic scholar and regular churchgoer with a seven-foot altar in his house for worship by his seven children, he was also a prolific womanizer, fathering multiple children outside his marriage to actress Maureen O’Sullivan. Although he directed 50 films for various Hollywood studios, wrote poetry, Catholic history, screenplays, and plays, and served in the Canadian Navy during the Second World War, his death in 1963 at 58 almost went unnoticed. It has been left to daughter Mia and grandson Ronan to keep the surname Farrow in the public mind.

The documentary outlines Farrow’s early life with the assistance of relatives such as cousin Jim Farrow. After a family scandal involving young Farrow, who presented himself as a fake doctor, he left Australia aged 15 on a New Zealand merchant ship. Later claims that he participated in revolutions in Nicaragua and Guam seem dubious, but he traveled extensively throughout the Pacific, visiting Hawaii, Fiji, Guam, and other islands before jumping ship in San Francisco in the early 1920s. His life in San Francisco is not well known, although he did marry Felice Patricia Farrow in 1924. The marriage ended in divorce three years later after the birth of his daughter.

Due to his maritime experience, Farrow worked in Hollywood as a technical adviser, script consultant, and title writer. In 1927, he worked on the Cecil B. DeMille production of White Gold, and he followed this with the script for The Wreck of the Hesperus (1927), directed by Elmer Clifton. After more low-budget films for Warners, Farrow joined RKO. His first effort was the excellent The Saint Strikes Back (1939), with George Sanders debuting as Leslie Charteris’s popular gentleman detective. Slightly better budgets and longer shooting schedules enabled Farrow to demonstrate his visual expertise, especially in the film’s stylish opening sequence involving a murder at a New Year’s Eve celebration. After another B film, Sorority House (1939), based on a script by Dalton Trumbo, his next film, Five Came Back (1939), proved to be his breakthrough film. It was instrumental in Farrow subsequently securing a contract with Paramount. Initially, RKO had high expectations for Five Came Back as the intended cast included Victor McLaglen, Charles Coburn, and Ann Sothern. However, when the budget was cut back to $225,000, contract players such as Lucille Ball and character actors such as John Carradine replaced the more expensive players. Farrow, realizing he had a strong script by Jerry Cady, Dalton Trumbo, and Nathanael West, fought hard to elevate the film from its B-level status and insisted on importing additional foliage to bolster the indoor exterior jungle sets. It proved to be a critical and financial success.

The documentary includes an excerpt from China to represent Farrow’s signature visual trait - the lengthy but unobtrusive tracking shot - in this case, showing William Bendix moving amidst the carnage of a war-torn studio set. This excerpt is accompanied by Australian director Bruce Beresford’s admiration for this sequence while admitting he would not have had the courage to attempt such a complex shot. I remember more than 30 years ago my similar reaction to a seven-and-a-half minute sequence in the Farrow directed 1950 film noir Where Danger Lives. It occurs in the film’s climactic scene, set in a seedy room on the American/Mexican border. Robert Mitchum, suffering the effects of a severe [End...