Thursday, November 14, 2013

Mr. John Bowers

A friend of mine who does a lot of local history research mentioned a silent film actor she came across named John Bowers. Now, this is a name I was only slightly familiar with and I knew him for his legacy and not his film career. John is supposedly one of the inspirations for the character of Norman Maine in the film A Star is Born. He had such an interesting life, career, and legacy that he is worth looking into more, so, here we are!

John Bowers was born John Edward Bowersox on December 25, 1885 in Garrett, Indiana. He was the third child born to George, a railroad engineer, and Ida Bowersox. Older brother Bruce was born ten years earlier, but sadly passed away in 1890 at age 15 in a train crash. John also had an older sister named Gertrude, and a younger sister who was born in 1891 but died when she was still a child (I can't find her name in any records). 

While attending a business college in Indiana, John got interested in acting. He eventually joined up with an acting company and made his way to New York where he began appearing in various Broadway productions. 

The films came calling next! John made his film debut in the 1914 short, The Baited Trap, for the IMP Company. 

Corinne Griffith, John, and Hobart Bosworth

During his film career, which consisted of over 90 films in a span of 17 years, he had the privilege of sharing screen time with such stars as Lon Chaney (in three films), Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, and Mary Miles Minter. His most frequent female costars were June Elvidge, Alice Brady, and Colleen Moore.

Aside from A Star is Born, the thing John Bowers is remembered for is costarring with his future wife, Marguerite De La Motte. The two made 12 films together in a span of just four years: What a Wife Learned (1923), Desire (1923), Richard the Lion-Hearted (1923), When a Man's a Man (1924), Those Who Dare (1924), Off the Highway (1925), Daughters Who Pay (1925), The People vs. Nancy Preston (1925), Flattery (1925), Hearts and Fists (1926), Pals in Paradise (1926), and Ragtime (1927). 

It only took a few films before his star began to rise to heights of stardom. Fans enjoyed his looks as well as his dramatic acting abilities. But, then the inevitable happened, the talkies came around. John only appeared in three talkies, and like a lot of silent stars, it just wasn't working. 

He made his last film appearance in 1931's Mounted Fury, with Lina Basquette and Blanche Mehaffey. 

John Bowers passed away on November 17, 1936 in Santa Monica, California. John had sailed to Santa Catalina island, to the home of director Henry Hathaway. He heard that Hathaway was directing a new movie and he wanted to try and get a part. Hathaway told him that the film didn't require a lot of actors and that if he wanted a bigger role, he would have to contact the studio. Pissed off, John's parting words to Hathaway were, "You'll have a real life sea picture. I'm going to jump overboard!" The boat he had rented was found floating abandoned in the ocean, and his body washed up on shore the next day. 

John's suicide didn't surprise a lot of people. In fact, he was once quoted as saying that he wanted to end his life in a 'heroic matter' and 'sail away into the sunset.' Well, he did just that.

He was cremated and the location of his ashes is unknown.

As I mentioned before, John was married to actress Marguerite De La Motte. They married in 1924 and some reports state that they remained married until his death, while others state that they were separated a few years before his death. Either way, the two were the Brad and Angelina of the silent days, a famous onscreen couple that took their romance off the silver screen. 

There isn't a lot out there about what kind of person John was off the screen as far as personality. What is known is that he was an aviator and at one point wanted to open his own flying school. He loved yachting, which is kinda interesting considering he died out on the water. On the negative side, it appears that John's dark side did rear it's head in a public way in 1930. In July of that year, he was arrested for being drunk and abusive to police officers. The cops were called by neighbors complaining about gunshots and when they arrived, they found John sitting in the back of his car with a gun. He told newspaper reporters, "Those cops just got mad because I told them all police were rotten shots. I told them I could shoot better upside down than they could standing up. I don't know why that made them mad but it did and they bundled me into jail." He later went on to say that he was not drunk and that the police would not give him a sobriety test to prove it. He got into more trouble months later after he failed to appear in court for the charges. Clearly, something was going on there...

"If movie fans think a motion picture actor's life is a bed of roses, they have another 'think' coming." ~~ John Bowers to the Hartford Courant - July 22, 1923


  1. Well he had some issues and so sad that he passed away like that. I heard Eddie Foy was also an inspiration for Norman Maine. It is so neat to find they were so big in their day and it tells where 80 yrs from now where Pitt and Jolie will be in the history books.

    1. Norman Maine seems to be a composite of a lot of people. I have heard Errol Flynn was also used to develop the character. Thinking of all these different actors being combined, that makes Norman Maine seem like an even bigger star, which of course makes his downfall that much worse.

  2. Would you believe he built a $300,000 house in the 1920s, drove expensive cars, was friends with the rich and famous, and extensively sailed his own yacht? Email me if you'ld like to discuss.

    1. I found John Bowers resting place. He was cremated, and the
      ashes were buried in an unmarked, mass grave at Inglewood Park Cemetery, Inglewood, CA.

  3. I am doing a documentary on our film studio in Tacoma WA in the 1920's. I would love to talk to you about Bowers and Marguerite.