Above: Constance Worth (Jocelyn Howarth) manages a smile while being made up during shooting of the utterly abysmal “The Wages of Sin”, her first film after the Brent divorce. Author’s collection. Photographer unknown.
Enid Joyce Howarth was born in Sydney on 19 July, 1911. She was one of Australian director Ken G Hall’s “finds,” making a great impression under her stage name, Jocelyn Howarth, in The Squatter’s Daughter (1933) and The Silence of Dean Maitland (1934) before moving to Hollywood in 1936, where she was known as Constance Worth.
But her story was not a happy one. Indeed, her US film career would end up being one of frustration and continual disappointment. She spent much of her Hollywood career chasing film roles that either did not eventuate or failed to live up to expectations.
To family and friends she was known all her life as Joy. The youngest of three daughters born to wealthy Sydney importer Moffat Howarth and his wife Maryellen, her childhood was privileged but the family had its moments of unhappiness – and her parents finally divorced very publicly and acrimoniously in 1921. After leaving Ascham College, she involved herself in amateur theatre, appearing in a production of Cynara. In 1933, Ken Hall tested her for The Squatter’s Daughter, his entertaining film of Australian pastoral life. Hall made much of her ability and composure during the film’s spectacular scenes – especially the bush fire scene. Publicity from production company Cinesound helped establish her reputation as “Australia’s bravest girl”. Cinesound ensured she appeared at screenings of the film around Australia and she certainly impressed reviewers. In late 1933, a reviewer from the Melbourne Argus wrote; “She is a most winning and attractive figure, who both looks and acts her part. She will establish a reputation for her work in this film.” She certainly looked the part of the glamourous film star, but her answers to the press as she traveled Australia were well considered and also revealed a mature and thoughtful mind. In May 1934 The Silence of Dean Maitland was released with Joy in a supporting role and again, she enjoyed good reviews. According to Ken Hall, she had wanted the leading role in this film.
Below: A very young Jocelyn Howarth on an Allen’s lolly card. C.1935. Author’s collection.
Through 1934 and 1935, Joy waited for more parts in film. She performed on stage in Ten Minute Alibi and The Wind and the Rain and in several radio plays. 5’5, Blonde, blue eyed, and widely admired for her willingness to throw herself with gusto into her roles, Joy was a talented and seemingly confident young Australian about to go places. She attracted great attention, and appears to have been briefly engaged to “Digger Comedian” Johnnie Marks. But unfortunately the problem for all of Australia’s enthusiastic young actors was that there were few feature films being made. In April 1936, aged 25, Joy sailed for California on the Matson liner Monterey, determined to try her luck in Hollywood.
Journalists reported Joy and a travelling companion mixing cocktails for well-wishers in their cabin on the eve of departure. Although she publicly claimed to be “loaded with introductions to people in Hollywood,” she was cautious enough to add “it seems to me going to Hollywood in search of a career is like taking a ticket in the lottery …” And so it was. Despite travelling on the Monterey with actor and director Miles Mander, and enjoying welcome dinners with the likes of expat Australian director John Farrow and actress Maureen O’Sullivan, by August 1936, Joy had received no film offers. In an angry despair she apparently made a half-hearted attempt to take her own life. She was saved by the timely intervention of struggling young actor friend, Tyrone Power, whom she telephoned for help. Unfortunately, Joy found herself dogged by this event for the rest of her Hollywood career, and the explanation of what had happened with the gas in her flat changed and therefore became less believable (a gas leak, a pot boiling over, a new type of stove, a heater) over time. Years later, she would publicly acknowledge how hard her early years in Hollywood had been. “I really was in an emotional state in those days… I had little faith in myself and still less money.”
Constance Worth in her first Hollywood movie, playing the leading female role in the exotic 1937 RKO thriller “China Passage”. The film was possibly influenced by the success of MGM’s “China Seas,” made a few years before. Photo is an enlargement from an RKO film publicity photo. Author’s Collection.
Joy’s luck changed soon after this incident and she finally secured a contract with RKO. She took the lead in two adventure films, China Passage and Windjammer, both released in 1937. On China Passage she was to co-star with Vinton Haworth, so at the suggestion or perhaps insistence of RKO she changed her stage name to Constance Worth. In the midst of this excitement, she met another actor, a friend of Tyrone’s, and began an intense relationship. Unfortunately the object of her affection was serial Hollywood womaniser, George Brent, who already had two failed marriages and numerous relationships behind him. Under intense pressure from Brent, they married, secretly, in Mexico in May, 1937. It was a disaster and within months the entire saga was played out in the press in agonising detail. After a week of marriage, Brent had become morose, withdrawn and uncommunicative, later to suggest he realised he had made a terrible mistake. Within a few days he had left Joy. Brent attempted to have the marriage annulled on the grounds that having been conducted in Mexico it wasn’t a legal marriage, but before the end of the year it ended up as a full-blown stoush in a US divorce court.
Above- Joy and George Brent, about the time of their marriage in 1937. Picture play Magazine, 1938, Via Lantern
When Joy’s mother Mary-Ellen was pressed to comment she said; “when I first met Brent I was not impressed.” But “Joy…was in love and that was all that mattered to me.” Mary-Ellen was to spend the next twenty years worrying about Joy, while Moffatt Howarth repeatedly told his daughter to come home to Sydney.
Joy’s sister Gwen Howarth visited Hollywood in 1937, to support her sister through the divorce. Her thoughtful and considered views about Hollywood appeared in The Australian Women’s Weekly, in September and October 1937. While she celebrated Australian successes, amongst them that of Mary Maguire, she didn’t balk at reporting the reality, which was often quite the opposite to the well-peddled stereotype of Hollywood success. She also told The Sydney Morning Herald of “Some of Hollywood’s Failures” in August: “Hollywood … is a city of hopes which are fulfilled for few. Its drug-stores, shops, and restaurants have as assistants and waitresses scores of beautiful girls who linger on in the hope of gaining employment in films. And most of them wait in vain.” Little did she imagine that a few years later, her sister Joy would also turn to waitressing when acting jobs dried up.
Gwen also wrote a scathing account of the way the press reported events relating to her sister in Hollywood: “I was rather amused to read in a recent paper here… ‘Miss Worth had been seen out dining alone and she would be leaving for Europe next month.’ She has not dined out alone since she has been here, and will not be leaving for Europe next month. But that is Hollywood. What they don’t know, they invent.”
Of course, there is an irony in Gwen’s “letters from Hollywood.” Despite her efforts to report to Australian readers with a high degree of reflection and honesty, the papers that carried her occasional accounts were the same ones that reported the nonsense and fed the impossible fantasy.
The Brent affair of 1937 undermined Joy’s public standing as a serious actress and RKO offered her no further roles. She was too closely associated with a messy public divorce to warrant more effort by the studio. In a 1945 interview, she acknowledged that not only had Brent’s rejection hurt her deeply, it had also hurt her career. Joy’s next film was also a starring role, but in a minor studio exploitation flick – The Wages of Sin, a story of a young woman lured into prostitution. Producer Willis Kent was notorious for his sensationalist films made outside the Hollywood production code. The young Australian was desperate for work after the Brent divorce and apparently felt she had no other option. Perhaps she convinced herself that there was something worthwhile about the film. There wasn’t, but she made a great effort with the useless script, her nicely spoken Sydney accent sounding incongruous alongside the broad US accents of her co-stars.
In this short audio clip, hard working Marjorie (Constance Worth) scolds her oafish family for not giving young Tommy milk, and her father for not working. “The Wages of Sin” is now in the public domain. From a VHS copy in the author’s collection.
The scandalous film had only limited release in the US, usually opening and closing in towns before local authorities could act, and was never released in Australia.
Not surprisingly, when Joy returned home to Australia in June 1939 she let slip her true opinions about working in the Hollywood studio system. It gave an actress “no scope” she said, and added that she “far preferred the stage.” However, after seeing family and friends, modelling the spring collection for Anthony Hordens and appearing in a play at the Minerva Theatre (under her real name), Joy gritted her teeth and returned to a career in Hollywood B pictures.
Back in Hollywood as Constance Worth again, she worked tirelessly to re-establish herself as an actress. She freelanced, taking a mixture of uncredited, minor and supporting roles while apparently also waitressing. In 1943 she landed a leading role in Republic’s fifteen part serial G-Men Versus the Black Dragon. Playing British agent Vivian Marsh, she lurches from one hair-raising scenario to the next, tied to buzz-saws and fiendish torture machines by wicked Japanese spies, regularly saved “just in time” by US agent Rex Bennett, played by Rod Cameron. Her character has some spark however, and she handles a Thompson machine gun with ease. Unfortunately, while Director William Witney admired Joy as an actress, he also remarked on the reputation the thirty-two year old Australian had developed for copious drinking. Joy’s smoky, throaty voice, extraordinary arched eyebrows and striking looks consigned her to more and more supporting roles. There was now steady work, but this was often as “the girl your mother warned you about”; the voluptuous nurse, the bar room vamp, the treacherous female spy.
Above: Joy (Constance Worth) and John Beal on the set of “Let’s Have Fun” in 1943. Hollywood Jan-Dec 1942 via Lantern
In 1943’s Crime Doctor, the first of a long running series of crime films, she plays a nurse who is in the ward just before the hero, Ordway, awakes (He has amnesia and doesn’t recall that he was a gangster). Joy’s lines, as Nurse Betty, include this banter with another nurse as they fuss about Ordway. Here was Constance Worth – well and truly typecast.
“Nurse Betty: From where I sit he promises to be good looking
Nurse 2: I wonder if he’s married…
Nurse Betty: If he appeals to me, he’s married!
Nurse 2 (laughing): Well you can’t do anything with an unconscious guy!
Nurse Betty: You should know some of the men I’ve been out with!”
And later when Nurse Betty asks a doctor whether there is any news as to the patient’s identity:
“Doctor: Apparently no one misses him
Nurse Betty: (aloud, but almost to herself) I would, if he were mine!”
In 1946, Joy was in the news again in connection with another court case, but this time she was named as co-respondent. The wife of Bill Pierce, a Hollywood scriptwriter, had found her husband in Joy’s flat. Joy was apparently semi-naked when private detectives burst in, but Joy insisted there was nothing illicit in their relationship. They were just friends. She claimed Pierce had too much to drink “and decided to spend the night on the apartment couch, while she used the bedroom.” However, a year after the Pierce divorce, Bill and Joy were living together. She kept on working and in total, had appeared in 35 Hollywood films in the thirteen years between 1937 and 1949. Unfortunately, the increasingly meaningless roles in underwhelming films became the norm for her.
Her final film was in the B-western film, Western Renegades, in 1949. With light entertainment offered by the plump and ever good-humoured Johnny Mack Brown, lots of western stereotypes and “comedy relief” provided by aging ventriloquist Max Terhune and his dummy Elmer, the audience for this film was clearly the emerging post-war generation of young American boys, about to be exposed to the onslaught of TV westerns. Taking another minor supporting role and looking thinner than ever, Joy played a flashy “actress” hired to impersonate a missing mother, Ann Gordon. In her final scene, she is strangled or bashed-up, it’s not clear which, at the foot of the stairs of the Gordonville hotel by the angry daughter of the real Ann Gordon.
Older but in classic film star makeup and pose – the cover of Australasian, 25 August, 1945. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
According to her extended family, it was reported in the late 1940s that she was pregnant. If this was true, she did not carry the child to full term successfully as there were no children from Bill and Joy’s relationship. There were also no more film roles after 1949, despite several reports that she was about to re-boot her career. Joy Howarth died at age 52, on 18th October 1963, of complications arising from cirrhosis of the liver. Bill was by her side. It was a thoroughly dismal end to what had started out as a brilliant career for a genuinely capable actress. With the benefit of hindsight, it would seem Joy’s greatest pleasure came from performing on screen and stage at home, where to Australians, she was always a star.
Joy Howarth was never completely happy with her stage name. She complained on one occasion that it brought her bad luck. Her signature here, for a 1940s fan, looks like it was scribbled under sufferance. Author’s collection.
- Her DOB is often incorrectly cited as 1913.
- Many of her US films now appear to be in the public domain and can be found online. These include Windjammer (1937), Angels over Broadway (1940), Borrowed Hero (1941) , Criminals Within (1941), The Dawn Express (1942), City without Men (1943), The Kid Sister (1945) , Sensation Hunters (1945)
Nick Murphy, May 2018
Ken G. Hall (1977) Directed by Ken G. Hall, autobiography of an Australian film maker. Lansdowne Press.
Charles Higham & Roy Moseley (1990) Cary Grant. The Lonely heart. Avon Books
Scott O’Brien (2014) George Brent: Ireland’s Gift to Hollywood and Its Leading Ladies. Bear Manor Media
Eric Schaeffer (1999) “Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!” A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959. Duke University Press.
William Witney (1996) In a Door, into a Fight, Out a Door, into a Chase: Moviemaking Remembered by the Guy at the Door. McFarland & Co.
Andree Wright (1987) Brilliant Careers: Women in Australian Cinema. MacMillan
Further reading from National Library of Australia, Trove,
Digitised Newspaper Collection