George Agnew Chamberlain

Born - Mar 15, 1878   |   Died - Mar 1, 1966   |   Genres - Mystery, Thriller, Drama, Romance, Adventure

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Biography by Bruce Eder

George Agnew Chamberlain authored some 36 books in a career lasting from the 1910s through the 1950s, of which a handful were turned into movies. He was born in Brazil in 1879 to a missionary couple who came from Cumberland County, NJ. He was brought back to the state for his education, which included attending the renowned Lawrenceville Preparatory School and Princeton University, from which he graduated in 1901 with majors in English Literature and Romance Languages. Chamberlain was appointed deputy American consul in Rio de Janeiro in 1904. Later in the decade, he toured the world at some length before returning to New Jersey, where he took up residence in Salem County, in the southwest corner of the state.

During the 1910s, Chamberlain began writing professionally, authoring articles and books on the fate of Mexico (then a newly independent nation) and other subjects concerning Latin America, Africa, and other then-remote parts of the world, as well as serialized stories, many of which were subsequently published as free-standing novels. He saw some of his early work translated to the screen in 1919 with the comedies Taxi and Upside Down, and in 1924 with the adventure tale White Man, the latter featuring a young Clark Gable in its cast. His work, steeped in rich detail and character development (and, in many cases, set in rural southern New Jersey), became extremely popular, and by the mid-'20s Chamberlain was earning an excellent living from his writing. His novel The Phantom Filly became the basis for the first talkie adapted from his work, filmed in 1944 by 20th Century Fox under the title Home in Indiana, starring Walter Brennan and Lon McCallister. The movie proved popular at the time, with its innocent point-of-view and story (about the son and daughter of contending farm families who fall in love in spite of their families), and has endured through the decades as a particularly affecting glimpse of a bygone brand of romance.

Two years later, his dark psychological chiller The Red House came to the screen under producer Sol Lesser, with Edward G. Robinson giving an excellent performance as a lonely farmer tormented by personal guilt, doomed by his unbalanced mind and almost destroying the people around him (including one played by McCallister). Two years later, 20th Century Fox filmed Chamberlain's Scudda Hoo, Scudda Hay, a more lyrical story about a young man (McCallister, yet again) and his attempt to make good in life with a pair of mules. The movie achieved a strange kind of immortality as a footnote in larger cinema histories for the presence of a very young Marilyn Monroe as a bit player (thought most of her footage ended up on the cutting room floor). As with Chamberlain's books, however, these movie adaptations all captured very vividly their rural southern New Jersey setting, that part of the Garden State (especially in those days) much more resembling the Southern and border states that it adjoins than the urban northern counties (and cities like Newark and Jersey City) that most people tend to identify with New Jersey. Phantom Filly was remade in 1957 as April Love, starring Pat Boone.

During the 1960s, Chamberlain's popularity faded, and the movie industry lost interest in his work after the Boone film. He died in 1966 at the age of 86. Ironically, for all of his popularity in the early and middle part of the 20th century, he is largely forgotten today except for the film adaptations of his work, eclipsed by such creative personalities as Bruce Springsteen (whose Jersey shore origins are a world and two generations away from Chamberlain's milieu) and not even mentioned on the Salem County website. Still, anyone who has read The Red House or seen Delmer Daves' 1946 screen adaptation of it, can attest to the power of his writing and imagery, more than a half-century later.