Mary Maguire – the darling of Hollywood – for oh so brief a time, beams as she squeezes the hand of the man she had just married, Captain Robert Gordon Canning, in London in August 1939. The marriage was a disaster.
Photo from the author’s collection. (Originally widely distributed in the UK by the “Makers of Wayfarer Tailored Clothes”)
Mary Maguire of Melbourne always loved the movies. According to an unsourced account in her school’s history, she would sometimes skip school to see the latest releases. Born in Melbourne on February 22, 1919, she was the second of five daughters parented by publicans Michael (Mick) and Mary Jane “Bina” Maguire. Mary’s acting career was to be unbelievably short. She appeared in her first film in Australia in 1933, aged 14, and in her final film in the United Kingdom in 1942 when she was just 23 years old. In all, a total of only fourteen films. She died, aged 55, completely forgotten, in Long Beach California. Yet for a little while, in 1937 and 1938, she was the talk of Hollywood.
Mick and Bina’s own upbringing is central to the story of their film star daughter, and their other daughters too. Mick was born and bred in the working class suburb of Richmond. His very modest family home in Kent Street has long since been demolished, but similar small cottages still stand nearby. His mother and father were aspirational, but not wealthy. Like his brothers, Mick went to school at Parade College, a Catholic boys school, and excelled at sports – becoming a very young player for Richmond Football Club at the age of 16, and dabbling in amateur boxing with mixed success. In later life, Mick was to claim he was the Australian football code’s youngest ever player, and still later, that he was Welterweight boxing champion of Australia. Neither claim was true.
Mary Jane Carroll met Mick when he was playing football. Five years older than Mick, she had been born into a struggling farming family in the Wimmera region of Victoria. Her Irish mother and father gave up the herculean task of trying to make a farm pay and took up work with the Victorian Railways. In time, Bina (the origins of her nickname now being forgotten) would suggest she was also of Irish birth – perhaps she felt it preferable to admitting to her new, swell, friends in London that she had lived a childhood in the Australian bush. In the early twentieth century almost all of her extended family had become hoteliers, as did she and Mick – an assured way to make money in the difficult times between the two wars.
Mick and Bina held the licences to a series of major Melbourne hotels by the early 1920s – The Bull and Mouth, then The Hotel Melbourne and finally the Hotel Metropole, all in bustling central Bourke Street. They were an ambitious couple, intent on making good and determined that the girls would succeed. Running a hotel was one sure way of achieving this. Mick and Bina were also great self – promoters; as a few who knew them recalled in later life. On Bina’s passing in 1963, one old friend told The Courier Mail “she was a great contact woman and admitted quite frankly that she cultivated the ‘right’ people because that was the thing most likely to advance her daughters interests.”
Above: One of the many Carroll family hotels – the now de-licenced Bay View Hotel in Kensington. Run by Mary Maguire’s auntie Alice, it was also where her maternal grandparents retired to. Mary visited them here before heading off to Hollywood in 1936. Photo – author’s collection.
Below: Peggy (Mary) in about 1934. Photo – John Oxley Library Collection, State Library of Queensland.
Mary’s name at birth was Helene Teresa Maguire. Her “pet name” was Peggy – used by all the family.
She appeared in her first film in 1933. This was a small bit part in Pat Hanna’s “Diggers in Blighty”, filmed in Melbourne. It was a largely pointless non-speaking role as a clerk, where she giggles at the soldier antics of Hanna, Joe Valli and George Moon. How did she get the role? It’s almost certain that the ever affable Mick Maguire used his connections to get his daughter a break doing something she loved. He arranged a similar introduction again in mid-1934, when pioneering filmmaker Charles Chauvel chose her for a role. The Maguires were now living in Queensland and running Brisbane’s premier hotel – The Bellevue. Based largely on her looks and ability to do an Irish accent of sorts – apparently her party piece – Chauvel cast Peggy as Biddy O’Shea, an Irish immigrant girl, in his panorama of Australian history “Heritage”.
Watch a clip with Peggy’s first scene from Heritage here (The Australian Screen – National Film and Sound Archive)
James Morrison (a rather effete Teamster who spies Biddy as she steps off the ship): Excuse me miss, may I carry your bundle?
Biddy O’Shea: You will not, I’ll carry me own bundle.
James (insisting and grabbing her bag): I’ll carry it miss!
Biddy: Give me my bundle! (Hitting him and stamping on his hat) … That’ll teach you to play tricks on an Irish girl!
Thus began Peggy Maguire’s acting career in film.
Peggy’s breakthrough role came on the heels of “Heritage”. Miles Mander, a British actor and director was hired by an Australian syndicate to make a movie, based loosely, very loosely, on the 1934 novel “The Flying Doctor”, by Robert Waldron. Peggy won the part of Jenny Rutherford, with Hollywood actor Charles Farrell imported for the lead. In January she announced she was now calling herself Mary – a name more suited to a sophisticated film star. Today, the rarely seen finished product looks unconvincing and old-fashioned. Even in 1936 it attracted mixed reviews – The Sydney Morning Herald’s reviewer complained about the film’s endless scenes of “local colour… what amounts to tourist propaganda.” The cameo appearance of Don Bradman delighted and annoyed reviewers in equal numbers.
Photos and posters from The Flying Doctor can be found here (The Ozmovie site)
The Maguire family welcome Mary home after filming The Flying Doctor; from left – Lupe, Mary, Mick, Joan, Bina, British screen writer JOC Orton, Patsy and Carmel, April 1936 . Director Miles Mander had left hurriedly for the US a few days before, following a court case for speeding.
Photo from Queensland Newspapers – John Oxley Library Collection, State Library of Queensland.
Whatever the reviewers said, the Maguires were immensely satisfied and the decision was made to pursue Mary’s acting career. Miles Mander had also been very encouraging – and assured them Hollywood was the place to go. Mick was to accompany Mary to the US as her personal manager, intent on bulldozing a path through any obstacles and clearly confident that he could make things happen as successfully as he had in Melbourne and Brisbane. There were discussions about the rest of the family following soon after, especially if, as expected, Mary made a go of it in Hollywood. It was all very exciting – but also very daunting. As it turned out, she was never to see Australia again.
Mary (or more correctly her father, as she was underage) signed a contract with Warner Brothers soon after arriving in the US, and over 1936-37 she appeared in four films for the company. Only one was a main feature film, “Confession”, a vehicle for leading star Kay Francis. Her three other films were cinema program fillers, all produced by Brian Foy’s “B-film” unit, all running to less that 60 minutes, and all constructed around scripts that were regularly recycled and filmed quickly.
Left: Mary and Mick’s signatures on a contract in 1937. Mary’s handwriting remained the same throughout her life. Source Warner Brothers Archives, School of Cinematic Studies, University of Southern California.
Right: Doris Weston, Thais Dickerson and Mary Maguire, photographed in October 1936, having just had their contracts approved in Court. All three started with Warner Bros. at the same time, on wildly different salaries. Mary outlived both these women. Weston made her last film in 1939 and died in 1960. Dickerson, as Gloria Dickson, died in a house fire in 1945. Source: Syndicated Press Photo. Author’s collection.
Even in 1937, these Warner Brothers B-films; “That Man’s Here Again”, “Alcatraz Island”and “Sergeant Murphy”, were underwhelming. Her roles were limited and perhaps, as a few unkind reviewers noted, she just wasn’t as good as some of the others chasing acting careers at the time. Warner Brothers out-take compilations, which include very short clips from some of these films, can be found here in Breakdowns of 1937 (see Mary briefly at 4:05) and Breakdowns of 1938 (see 4.10). The film she made with Ronald Reagan, “Sergeant Murphy”, is perhaps the easiest of her B-films to find in specialist collections. (Not withstanding the claims made since; there is not a shred of contemporary evidence she had an affair with Reagan during the making of the film)
Despite the lack of big-picture experiences, with the public relations assistance of Mick as well as Warner Brothers, Mary’s star seemed to be on the rise and she was enjoying extraordinary publicity. In letters home to Queensland, Bina dutifully passed on everything she said and did to the Australian press, with a helpful smattering of commentary. And at age 18, Mary was meeting all the people she had read about or watched on the screen, only a few years before. Some were extremely powerful figures – including millionaire racehorse owner Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt II, newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst and his girlfriend Marion Davies, and the head of Twentieth Century Fox, Joe Schenck. Despite all this exciting socialising, her closest real friend seems to have been fellow Warner’s actress Jane Bryan, also being groomed for ingénue parts.
Above – Mary as she appeared in PicturePlay magazine in an article entitled “Ladies of Leisure”, in 1937. This is typical of articles designed to profile up and coming starlets. Source probably Warner Bros. Pictureplay Magazine, 1937, via Lantern
Self-publicity was also an important part of the Hollywood experience then as it is today. Australians who tried their luck in Hollywood, including Jocelyn Howarth, Mona Barrie and Mary Maguire, tended to wheel out the same story about the start to their US careers. This was that they had been offered work during a casual visit to a studio, while they were on their way somewhere else, like New York. It was nonsense of course.
Here is Mary Maguire spinning this line to US journalist Harrison Carroll, in early 1938. CBS’s “Forecasting 1938.” Audio recording. Author’s collection. Recording can also be found at Library of Congress. 2 sound discs. (48 min., 51 sec.) : analog, 33 1/3 rpm, mono. ; 16 in. https://lccn.loc.gov/00584434. Copyright CBS.
Her nicely spoken but very self-conscious English pronunciation could not be described as the “transatlantic” accent, as favoured by so many Britons and Australians in Hollywood at the time.
In July 1937, the whole of the Maguire family were finally reunited in Hollywood. The license on the Bellevue had been sold and Bina had packed up the girls for the voyage across the Pacific. It was timely, because Mary was recovering from a “nervous breakdown” – one of several she suffered in the US. Older sister Patsy commented, perhaps a little unhelpfully; “You know, I think she was just lonely. When we arrived on Saturday she was so jittery she could scarcely speak. Now she’s a different person… You see, we’ve always been together and although dad has been marvellous, I think Mary has really missed us.”
With Bina now on hand to join those guiding her, in late 1937 she declined a role in another B picture, “Mystery House”, and was promptly laid off by Warner Brothers. Her star was at its zenith by this time, and she clearly believed she could bargain her way into better roles, even if she still had little acting experience. In early April 1938 Mary obtained a new contract with Twentieth Century Fox, doubtless through her friendship with the 62-year-old Joe Schenck, with whom she was very friendly – they had attended the 10th Annual Academy awards together. Bina unhelpfully speculated to the press in Australia that a wedding might be imminent.
Above – Joe Schenck and Mary at the Santa Anita Handicap in March 1938. Motion Picture Magazine, Feb-July 1938, page 81 via Lantern.“Joe regards me as a kid” she said of the relationship.
Following a role in Fox’s “Mysterious Mr Moto”, with Peter Lorre as the Japanese detective (the absurdity of Lorre, a Jewish émigré from fascist Europe playing a Japanese detective, who often disguises himself as a person of another ethnicity, in this case a German, could not have been lost on discerning audiences, even then) she suddenly departed for Britain. Her assignment was to appear in a Fox musical called “Keep Smiling” (later changed to “Smiling Along”) with Gracie Fields in the lead. Joe Schenck travelled to London in mid July, officially for work, staying at Claridge’s hotel, not far from her apartment. We know nothing of the outcome of any meeting they had, except we do know that Fox dropped Mary’s contract in September 1938 and Schenck took no further interest in her or her career. It suggests a really serious “falling out”.
After “Smiling Along”, Mary, apparently now settled into British filmmaking, and with Bina’s supportive presence and a comfortable flat in Hayes Mews in Mayfair, started work for the Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC). This brought Mary into contact with Walter C. Mycroft, a dynamic British film producer, running the company’s Elstree Studio, and famous for churning out mostly uninspiring film fare, through the same technique Brian Foy used – scripts recycled from previous films or adapted from stage plays, rather than expensive original screenplays. Mary’s first film – “Black Eyes” was such a remake – this one of a 1935 French film. But even for the time, it was a dull story – preoccupied with notions of class and with a predictable storyline. A highlight was Sydney born actor John Wood, who played a supporting role.
Mary as she appeared in 1938-9. These collectable British photos were about half the size of those produced by US studios. Author’s Collection.
Mary’s second film for Mycroft and ABPC was “The Outsider”. For this film, Mary received top billing with leading male player George Sanders, who played the charismatic but self-absorbed medico. Audiences today would guess he is a chiropractor, although it is never really explained. Sanders’ role is Anton Ragatzy, a slightly oily foreigner of some sort, the type that inhabited British films for decades. Mary plays Lalage Sturdee, a beautiful “crippled” musician, whom he finally cures with the aid of a device he has invented, a type of stretching machine. Here Mycroft had chosen another cheap option for the company – the script had been filmed before in 1931 and 1926. By the time this film had been made, the whole family had relocated to London.
In early 1939, Mick and Bina took a lease on Villa Esterel near Cannes in the south of France, apparently oblivious to the rising political tensions in Europe. Explaining the Cannes sojourn in an interview in 1957, Bina said they had chosen it because “you simply have to meet the right people and at the right places.” As with the move from Melbourne to Brisbane, the motivation for travelling to Cannes appears to have been to advance opportunities for the girls, in this case, to find suitable husbands for them.
In one of the few publicly released photos of the Maguires in Cannes, Lupe and Carmel laze about on the Villa’s sunny front steps, while Bina, wearing sunglasses, stands ominously and proprietorially behind her girls.
Source for newspaper photo above – The Truth, 26 November 1944. Page 18 via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.
- Warner Brothers Archives, School of Cinematic Studies, University of Southern California
- National Library of Australia – Trove – Digitised Newspapers collection.
- British National Archives. See Files KV 2-877/8 , HO 283/29.
- National Film and Sound Archive of Australia
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