Harry Allen – a long journey to Hollywood

This screen grab shows Harry Allen as the photographer in “Ella Cinders”, a 1926 Colleen Moore film. He was 47 by this time this film was made. Source – author’s collection. The film is now in the public domain.

Born in Carlton, Melbourne, in 1878, Henry “Harry” Radford Allen’s story is a familiar one. A stage actor who worked hard to establish his name, Harry found himself in the later part of his career working in Hollywood, taking on minor supporting and often un-credited roles, generally as a cockney cabman, a doorman, a butler or similar. Harry had at least 100 film credits of this type, unfortunately many of these quite forgettable. It was an experience shared by other Australian actors in Hollywood, including Charles Coleman, Robert Greig, Clyde Cook and Snub Pollard, who had also arrived there after successful careers on stage – usually in vaudeville.

THe earl of Chicago Allen and Pollard
Above: A bald Harry Allen in his small speaking scene from The Earl of Chicago (1940), with fellow Melbourne actor Snub Pollard as an extra clearly in the background. The two children may be Allan’s own. Australians Billy Bevan and Frank Baker also appeared in the film. MGM and Warner Home movies re-released this film on DVD in 2011.

Harry was born in Barkly Street in the inner Melbourne suburb of Carlton, near the busy intersection of Johnson and Nicholson Streets, on 10 July 1878. Harry’s parents were Cordelia Potter, a singer and pianist from Fitzroy, and Robert Owen Allen, from Tasmania, a sometime storeman and clerk, who may also have been a comic singer. Although many of the small cottages in this area have been demolished, those surviving give us an idea of the area in the time Harry was born.


Harry as profiled in Melbourne Punch, March 1912. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove. At right – the remaining cottage near the site of his birth place in Barkly Street, Carlton. It is possible that with house renumbering and demolitions in the area, this WAS the family home. Photo – Author’s collection. 

Harry was almost certainly encouraged onto the stage by his parents, but of his upbringing we know little except that a sister, Georgina Ethel, died in infancy in 1880.  We also cannot easily trace what happened to his parents, although it appears Cordelia may have later remarried. Nor do we know much about Harry’s career in the late 1890s and early 1900s. We do know that by his late twenties, Harry had some stage experience with J. C. Williamson’s in Australia, although curiously, unlike so many of his contemporaries, he consistently avoided publicity. In June 1910, he married a fellow actor – Marjorie Josephine Condon, at the Brisbane registry office. Here, on a remarkably inaccurate marriage certificate, he gave his age as “27” (he was 32) and his birth place as “New York”.  In March 1912, Harry managed a J. C. Williamson’s fund- raising “monster theatrical carnival,” held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. But soon after this, he abandoned Australia and Marjorie forever. In May 1913 he set off for New York via Vancouver on the SS Marama, in company with well known comic Sam Rowley, who had considerable experience working in North America. On the ship’s manifest Harry again claimed he had been born in the United States.

While Sam Rowley continued to make a name for himself as “the little man with the big voice” in Canada, Harry settled into work for prolific producer William A. Brady in New York. His breakthrough role came in early 1919, when he was cast as Bert in the new British musical comedy, The Better ‘Ole. The play was based on three popular cartoon soldier characters – Old Bill, Bert and Alf, drawn by Bruce Bairnsfather for the British weekly “The Bystander” under the title “Fragments from France.” It was such a great success that several companies performed the show across the US and Canada at the same time.


Above left: Australian performer Sam Rowley, who travelled with Harry to North America. But once they were there, they seem to have parted company. The Saskatoon Daily Star. 25 Oct 1913.
Above Right: Harry Allen in character as Bert in The Better Ole. The Buffalo Times. 19 January 1919. Via Newspapers.com 

Following this success Harry was offered a string of important roles in musicals, comedies and farces  – including June Love, For Goodness Sake and Her Temporary Husband. The path to success had been a long one – he was 40 years old, but now an established actor. At the same time, he made a decision to stay in the US for good. In 1917 he began the process of applying for citizenship – his application noting he lived with his “wife Sue” and that the small finger of his left hand was missing.

The 1915 New York census also suggests Harry had married, or at least cohabited with, a woman named Susan W.

Harry Radford Allen

Harry Radford Allen’s Application for US citizenship, April 1917 (enlargement) Note the annotation “my wife name Sue she lives with me”. Via US National Archives, via Ancestry.com

Sometime in April 1920, Susanne Westford Allen (1865-1944) of New York, the youngest sister of the famous actress and political activist Lillian Russell (1860-1922), announced publicly that vaudeville actor Harry R Allen was “no longer regarded as a member of my family”. The problems were his straying affections and also a matter of money borrowed and not repaid. Susanne (also known as Susan or Suzie and sometimes using the surnames Leonard or Russell) was performing at the time in the play Clarence at the Hudson Theatre. This writer has not found a marriage certificate for Susanne and Harry R Allen, but The Daily News of New York suggested at the time they were married and the matter was going to court. Today it’s easy to dismiss this as a mixed-up newspaper story.


Left: Lillian Russell in The Evening Statesman. Washington, 20 May 1907.Via Newspapers.com
Centre: Susanne Westford in The Daily News. New York, 19 April, 1920. Via Newspapers.com.
Right: Owen Westford and Susanne Leonard (Westford) performing together in Washington in 1902. Note the heading –
“Polite Vaudeville.” IS there such a thing!?  The Washington Times, 21 December 1902. Via Newspapers.com

And yet… there was, apparently, a real connection. Susanne Westford had been married to actor Robert Owen Westford (1858 – 1908), a native of Tasmania, from the mid 1880s until his sudden death in Washington in February 1908. Regularly praised for his versatility as an actor, Westford sometimes added Allen to his surname and had performed often as a comic singer with Susanne and Lillian Russell. He seems to have first appeared as an actor in Australia in 1880, and thus, obviously closely resembles the description of Harry’s own father.

Furthermore, when Harry died in 1951, his death certificate clearly listed an Owen Westford as his father. The reader will thus be wondering – did Harry really marry or cohabit with his step-mother? Or was this just all an arrangement to smooth his transition into the US that went horribly wrong? Unfortunately, we do not know the answer. Nor can we tell what impact this might have had on his career, as Harry remained characteristically silent.

Saskatoon Daily Star 18 March 1922

The Saskatoon Daily Star advertises Harry’s first film. 18 March, 1922. Via newspapers.com

Harry’s first film role was for Ralph Ince in After Midnight, made in 1921 – reviewers describing it as “finely staged, and highly acted, and …a thrilling story”, apparently set in New York’s Chinatown. Being quite well known he was listed as one of the film’s “popular players.” At the same time, he was still active in theatre – appearing in a string of light comedies and musicals.

In 1923 he married another actor, Dorothea Hyde, and in 1925 they moved to the Van Nuys area of Los Angeles in California. There, he began to appear regularly in entertaining character roles in a series of silent films. Two children were born of the union in the late 1920s.


 

Left to right: Harry as the photographer in Ella Cinders (1926), as Riggs the butler in The Enchanted Cottage (1924), and as Dad Mason, in The Adorable Cheat (1928). These films are widely available on the net and now in the public domain. (Click to enlarge)

As the 1920s came to an end, and as sound films arrived, the roles he found were more perfunctory.  This was hardly surprising – given his age and the fact that Hollywood was changing again. The impact of the depression and the rise of the Hollywood studio system saw thousands of small producers and independent theatres go under and fledgling national cinemas (like Australia’s) crippled. In this environment, film making became more formulaic and the opportunities for the old vaudevillians like Harry, were fewer. Thus many of his later roles hardly register on the screen. In 1943’s massive patriotic effort by Britons in Hollywood, Forever and a Day, when he plays an air raid watcher, or in 1945’s Hangover Square, his presence is so fleeting he is hard to notice.

The Internet Movie Database notes that Harry appeared in several Best Picture Academy Award winners and nominees in the 30s and early 40s. However, because he didn’t ever comment on his choice of role – we can’t assume this was anything more than good luck. Yet again – many of these roles are entirely unnoticeable. In Of Human Bondage (1934) for example, he apparently plays the taxi driver at the very end of the film – but its definitely a case of “blink and you would miss it.”

In 1951, Harry’s Melbourne contemporary Snub Pollard provided some perspective on the work he was now doing as an extra. “I have no…regrets, not a one. I get plenty of work and I live comfortably and sensibly. I am in good health and have lots of friends. The fact that I am not on top now does not bother me. Most people never get there at all.” Hopefully Harry Radford Allen shared this view.

Harry’s two children, Radford and Paula, made brief appearances in several of Harry’s later films but they did not pursue acting as a career. Harry died in Los Angeles in December, 1951 at the age of 73. He worked almost until the end of his life. As was often the case, his passing was reported in US newspapers, but in Australia it went completely unnoticed.

Note 1: Harry’s date of birth was 10 July 1878. The confusion on various websites may relate to freely existing documents that are not accurate and like many performers at the time, Harry may have contributed to this. There are various claims he was born in 1876 (citing his 1917 US naturalization application) and 1883 (citing his WWII registration card). However, his Victorian birth certificate is quite clear.

Harry Radford Allen birth cert July 10 1878

Above: Part of Harry Allen’s birth certificate, 10 July 1878. Via Births, Deaths and Marriages, Victoria. NB: The clerk’s handwriting makes the “8” look variously like “7” and “6” however the record appears on a sheet headed 1878 and between other entries listed 1878.

 

Nick Murphy
July 2019

 

Further Reading

Texts

  • Gerald Martin Bordman (1978) American Musical Theater: A Chronicle. Oxford University Press.
  • George Kemp Ward (1910) reprinted 2017. Andrew Warde and his descendants, 1597-1910. Forgotten Books.
  • Mark Evan Swartz (2000) Oz before the Rainbow. L. Frank Baum’s the Wonderful Wizard of Oz on Stage. John Hopkins University Press.
  • J.P. Wearing (2013) The London Stage 1890-1899: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Scarecrow Press.

Newspapers.com
National Library of Australia – Trove

Australian Variety Theatre Archive – Clay Djubal

Internet Archive

  • The Argonaut, Vol 84, January 1919. Review of The Better ‘Ole.
  • The Billboard, 24 June 1944. Susanne Westford obituary.

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