Farrow was born in Sydney, Australia, the son of Lucy Villiers (née Savage; 1881-1907), a dressmaker, and Joseph Farrow (1880-1925), a tailor's trimmer. He was of English descent. Farrow was educated at Newtown Public School and Fort Street Boys' High School, then passed the exams to get into the Australian Naval College at aged 12. Farrow claims the Navy was downsizing and demobbing so he decided to join the Merchant Service as a cadet instead. He traveled throughout the Pacific, including New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii and Canada. He studied at St Ignatius College of the University of San Francisco in 1923 for one month, and resumed his travels.
Farrow started writing while working as a sailor and became interested in screenwriting after meeting Robert J. Flaherty. In 1927 it was reported he was working on a story called The Blue Danube, set in Austria.
Farrow returned to the US in 1927 and began working in Hollywood as a technical adviser on ship-related movies. He soon established himself as a notable screenwriter. He worked for DeMille Productions, Paramount Pictures Inc. and RKO Radio Pictures Inc. He also compiled an English-French-Tahitian dictionary and wrote a novel, Laughter Ends (1933), In 1932 he went to England where he worked as a writer and assistant director on a film of Don Quixote, and briefly visited Tahiti again.
Farrow returned to Hollywood and re-established himself as a screenwriter. On 27 January 1933 he was arrested while dancing at the Cocoanut Grove[disambiguation needed] nightclub for breach of his visa. This was part of a general crackdown against illegal immigrants in the film industry. Farrow was charged with making a false statement while entering the US, claiming he was Romanian. Although threatened with deportation in the end he was only given five years probation, before being acquitted in 1934.
Farrow received a plum appointment to work on Tarzan Escapes (1936) but the film wound up being rewritten and reshot.
In 1930, it was announced that Farrow would direct his own story First Love but this did not eventuate. He signed to Warner Bros in 1936 looking to direct and was linked with a number of projects, including a foreign legion story and an adaptation of The Pit and the Pendulum. Farrow finally made his directorial debut in 1937 with Men in Exile. Following this, he accompanied his wife to Europe, where she was making A Yank at Oxford (1938), lecturing on Father Damien, about whom Farrow had written a book, and receiving a Papal knighthood.
On his return to Hollywood, Farrow resumed working as a director for Warners. He made several movies with Kay Francis and discovered a young Peggy Ann Garner. Farrow left his contract for a number of months, ostensibly to finish a book he was writing on the history of the papacy, and also due to disputes over the script of Kay Francis's Women in the Wind. However he soon re-emerged as a contract director for RKO. While there he made a number of highly successful B movies, notably The Saint Strikes Back (1939) and Five Came Back (1939).
Despite his flourishing career and recently having become a father for the first time, Farrow was keen to be involved in World War II. He went to Vancouver in November 1939 and enlisted in the Canadian Navy. Farrow was appointed lieutenant in March 1940 and assigned to Naval History and the Controller of Information Unit. He worked on anti-submarine patrols and in April 1941 was loaned to the Royal Navy and appointed to HMS Goshawk naval base in Trinidad, and served as assistant to the Senior British Naval Officer, Curaçao. He contracted typhus fever and returned to Naval Headquarters, Ottawa, in late 1941. It was announced he would direct a Canadian war film starring his wife Maureen O'Sullivan while on leave, but this did not eventuate.
Farrow was invalided out of the Canadian Navy in January 1942 at the rank of Commander but remained in the naval reserve. In July 1943 he served as technical consultant for the proposed Royal Canadian Navy show. In May 1945 he was briefly recalled to active duty, travelling to Britain for work in connection with the Director of Special Services.
Return to directing
Farrow resumed his directing career with Paramount for whom he made Wake Island (1942), which earned him an Oscar nomination. The success of this saw him make a series of war pictures including China. He went on to become one of the leading filmmakers for Paramount Pictures, working several times with Alan Ladd.
Farrow became an American citizen in July 1947.
Farrow's films became less distinguished towards the end of the 1950s. He received an offer from Samuel Bronston to make two films, a biography of John Paul Jones and a story of the life of Jesus Christ, which Farrow had been trying to make for years. He only made the first one and was replaced as director on the second – which became King of Kings (1961) – by Nicholas Ray.
Farrow was a notorious playboy in his youth, being linked to Dolores del Río and Diana Churchill among others. In 1934 he became engaged to actress Maureen O'Sullivan and they married on 12 September 1936. Farrow and O'Sullivan had four daughters: actresses Mia, Prudence, Stephanie, Tisa; and three sons: Michael Damien (1939–1958), Patrick Joseph (1942–2009), and John Charles (born 1946). Maureen O'Sullivan was his second wife, after he converted to Catholicism and he received an annulment of his first marriage.
As one of the few high-profile Australians in Hollywood during the 1930s, Farrow's activities were well covered by the Australian media. He accepted the Oscar won by the Australian documentary Kokoda Front Line (1943), met Australian Senator Richard Keane, the Minister for Trade and Customs, when he visited Hollywood during the war and offered to assist in the establishment of an Australian information service in the US. He also often expressed a desire to make a film back in Australia and later made two films with Australian connections, Botany Bay (1953) and The Sea Chase (1955), despite having ceased to be an Australian citizen in 1947.
^SCREEN NEWS HERE AND IN HOLLYWOOD: Edward Small Plans to Make 'The Maginot Line'--Louis Hayward Will Be Star IF I WERE KING' TO OPEN Premiere at Paramount Today to Feature Ronald Colman and Basil Rathbone Jack London Story for Screen Of Local Origin Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES.. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 28 Sep 1938: 29.