British Universities Film & Video Council

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John Benjamin McDowell ("Mac")

Profile

Born
1878
Death
7 November 1954
Dates
1898-1922
Role
Producer, Cameraman
Newsreels / Cinemagazines
Topical Budget; War Office Official Topical Budget
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Career

'Mac’ McDowell was born in Woolwich in London, where his father was employed at the Royal Arsenal. He was christened Benjamin John, but always called himself John Benjamin McDowell. In 1893 he became an engineering apprentice at Woolwich Arsenal, where he was employed on the manufacture of munitions and was involved with ‘the proving of guns and ammunition.' Until his death McDowell continued to describe himself as an engineer rather than a cinematographer. In 1898 he joined the British Mutoscope and Biograph Syndicate, for whom he worked as a cameraman, although in April 1900 he also acted as their projectionist at the Palace Theatre in London, showing Biograph films from the Boer War. In 1906 McDowell left the British Mutoscope and Biograph Syndicate to become chief cameraman for Will Barker [qv], who was then general manager of the Warwick Trading Company. At Warwick McDowell seems to have specialised in newsfilm, and ‘operated in the field,' although Barker later recalled him as ‘partly an electrician.'

In September 1907 McDowell transferred to the Walturdaw Company as chief cameraman. He continued to specialise in news filming, but does not seem to have been happy in the job, for he left Walturdaw after only a few months and announced that he was ‘open to engagement as a kinephotographer.' Early in 1908 Albert Bloomfield [qv], who had been head of the darkroom at Walturdaw, also left to found his own British and Colonial Kinematograph Company, and he persuaded McDowell to join him to strengthen the firm’s news and documentary production. B & C at first operated from a rented basement in central London, using a single camera and developing the negatives in McDowell’s house. Bloomfield and McDowell produced ‘small topicals and locals,' and McDowell also directed the comedy ‘A Breach of Promise Case’ (150ft.: June 1908). However, after eight months Bloomfield and McDowell rented a workshop and three rooms, and began production in earnest, McDowell directing the short comedies ‘The Cheekiest Man on Earth’ (275ft.: August 1908), ‘Baby’s Revenge’ (220 ft.: Jan. 1909), and ‘Domestic Rivals’ (175ft.: June 1909). B & C also won a valuable commission to take publicity films for the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Newfoundland Development Company, and the government of Newfoundland. McDowell completed the project in less than seven weeks, and returned to London in time to superintend B & C’s filming of Edward VII’s funeral in May 1910. He personally filmed the procession from a position in the station yard at Windsor, and obtained some impressive close-ups.

In March 1911 B & C was floated as a limited company, and at about the same time B & C moved its head offices and factory to larger premises and took a five-year lease on ‘a large house and grounds’ in London. McDowell and Bloomfield erected a daylight studio measuring 50 ft. by 30 ft., and began producing longer dramas. However, B & C continued to produce newsfilm, and in June 1911 it was one of at least fifteen companies to film the Coronation of King George V. In March 1912, as a member of the Topical Committee of the Kinematograph Manufacturers’ Association, the company obtained one of the four official permits to film the Football Association Cup Final, and in June 1912 McDowell filmed the Derby for B & C, along with Bloomfield and three other cameramen. Bloomfield ceased to be a director of B & C in May 1913, but McDowell pressed ahead with the production of a spectacular film of the battle of Waterloo, telling his friends that he was ‘going nap on Napoleon.' The project employed thousands of extras and cost £163;1,800, most of which McDowell raised by remortgaging the company. ‘The Battle of Waterloo’ (4,500 ft.) was produced by McDowell, directed by Charles Weston, and released in July 1913. The cameramen included Roseman [qv]. McDowell sold the British rights for £163;5,000, and raised even more from the American, Colonial, and Continental rights. As he later recalled, ‘everyone - producers, renters, and exhibitors - made money on it and went home happy.'

In October 1913 McDowell leased a redundant London skating rink, and began converting it into a film studio. This building, known as ‘The Rink,' was 150 ft. long and 60 ft. wide, and in addition to its glass roof McDowell installed twenty powerful arc lights to permit film production all year round. B & C was able to transfer its most ambitious productions to ‘The Rink,' whilst continuing to use the daylight studio for smaller productions and for exterior shots. February 1914 saw the release of ‘The Life of Shakespeare’ (c.5,000 ft.), which was co-directed by McDowell. B & C became famous for filming on location, sending its actors and cameramen to Derbyshire and North Wales, as well as to Devon, Cornwall, ‘and various places on the South Coast’ to find suitable scenery for their films. Other film companies followed their example, and so, according to one account, McDowell ‘sent a whole company, operators, cameras, and a motor-car over to Jamaica, where some fine pictures were obtained.' Other films were taken for B & C in the Alps. Newsfilm production continued, however, and in March 1914 B & C again succeeded in getting an official permit to film the Football Association Cup Final, through its membership of the Topical Committee.

After the outbreak of war in August 1914 McDowell joined the Volunteer Training Corps. In March 1915 the Topical Committee again met to decide which company should film the Cup Final, and, after discussing the government’s tight control of newsreel filming, it also decided to negotiate for the rights to film the war. In September 1915 McDowell was reported to be filming on location in Derbyshire for B & C, but in October 1915 he was the signatory for B & C in the final agreement between the Topical Committee and the War Office, becoming one of the principal members of the new British Topical Committee for War Films. In November 1915 the committee sent Malins [qv] and Tong [qv] to GHQ as the first British official cameramen. In June 1916 McDowell volunteered to go to France as a replacement for Tong, who had been invalided home, and within days he was working alongside Malins at the front. The officer in charge of the cameramen noted that during the filming ‘Mr Macdowell [sic] ran considerable risks’: ‘I have seen Mr. Macdowell have very narrow escapes, notably from machine-gun bullets on July 1st when trying to cross ‘no man’s land’ behind the advancing infantry, and several times from shells, including one shrapnel recently at Guillemont. He has also been gassed (shell gas).' The footage was released in August 1916 as ‘Battle of the Somme’ (5,090ft.). McDowell also provided material for ‘The Battle Of The Ancre And The Advance Of The Tanks’ (1917) and ‘The German Retreat And The Battle Of Arras’ (1917). From April 1918 onwards he was in charge of the movements of all cameramen on the Western Front. In July 1918 McDowell was commissioned as a Lieutenant, and appears to have remained at GHQ with scarcely a break until virtually the end of the war. Much of his work was released through the official newsreel, including such stories as ‘THE END OF RICHTHOFEN’ for Pictorial News (Official) No.349-2 of May 1918, ‘THE GREAT ALLIED VICTORY’ for No.364-2 of August 1918, and ‘THE BATTLE SOUTH OF ARRAS’ for No.366-2 of September 1918. His wartime colleagues recalled McDowell as a man of ‘great enterprise and daring,' who ‘had plenty of guts,' and in June 1918 he was awarded both the medal of the OBE and the Military Medal.

After the war McDowell worked as a freelance cameraman, supplying film for ‘CZECHO-SLOVAKS FESTIVAL’ in Topical Budget No. 462-1 of July 1920, and ‘CZECHO-SLOVAK THEATRE’ in Topical Budget No. 469-2 of August 1920. McDowell was also in the Topical Budget camera team that covered the wedding of Princess Mary for No. 549-1 of March 1922. He also founded McDowell’s Commercial Films, which dealt in topical and actuality films from abroad. February 1924 saw the release of the thriller ‘Lieutenant Daring R.N. and the Water Rats’ (5,400 ft.), which McDowell produced for his own company J. B. McDowell. In 1926 McDowell joined the cinema film department of Agfa. In 1936 he left Agfa, and was said to be ‘dealing with the American negative stock handled by Mr N.H. Stubbs of Welwyn Garden City.' In 1949 the trade press reported that McDowell ‘has retired from films,' but that he was apparently ‘making a second fortune in engineering.'

Sources

Kinematograph Weekly, 19/9/1907, p.325, ‘Topical Pars’; 10/10/1907, p.383, ‘Review of Latest Productions’; 2/4/1908, p.359, ‘Topical Pars’; 26/5/1910, p.140; 29/6/1911, pp.340-2; 21/9/1911, p.1137, ‘The Advancement of ‘B. & C.''; 13/1/1916, p.117; 13/7/1916, p.11, Right in the Thick of it’; 27/6/1918, p.58: Public Record Office, BT31/19897/114483, ‘British and Colonial Kinematograph Company, Ltd.' File: Northcliffe papers, British Library Add. Ms. 62211, f.61, V. Smith to Lord Northcliffe, 31/3/1910: Bioscope, 11/4/1912, p.93; 13/6/1912, p.811; 16/1/1913, p.195; 26/3/1914, pp.1356, 1400; 4/11/1915, pp.520F-G: Cinema, 8/1/1914, p.81, ‘Mr. J. B. McDowell’; 10/9/1914, p.xiv, ‘The B. and C.'; 9/9/1915, p.16; 4/11/1915, p.19: Pictures and the Picturegoer, 27/6/1914, p.426, ‘Birthplaces of British Films: No.3 - The British and Colonial Film Company’; 4/7/1914, p.444, ‘My Thrilling Experiences at Finchley’: Sessional Papers 1914, Number 374, ‘Reports...LCC (General Powers) Bill’ (21/7/1914), p.352/Q.3951: Science Museum, Urban Papers URB 4/2, ‘Agreement’ of 25/10/1915: N. Lytton ‘The Press and the General Staff’ (London, 1920), p.119: Cine Technician, December 1936/ January 1937, p.119; July-August 1949, p.10: Kinematograph Year Book 1937 (London, 1937), p.322, ‘J. B. McDowell’: R. Humfrey ‘Careers in the Films’ (London, 1938), pp.31-33: Public Record Office; INF 4/2, T/S chapter by J. Brooke Wilkinson, p.298: B. Honri ‘British Film Studios 1900-1920: A Technical Survey,' in R. Low ‘The History of the British Film: Vol. 3, 1914-1918’ (London, 1948), p.251: Public Archives of Canada, Acc.1927-27, interview with W. Rider-Rider, 18 May 1971: NFTVA, Luke McKernan’s biographical index of Topical Budget staff.

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