John Wood – Of Hollywood, Ealing studio and Changi prison

Above – Two young Australians exchange smiles on the set of An Englishman’s Home (1939).  Mary Maguire (centre) was 20 and John Wood (right) was 30. Paul Henreid‘s suspicious stare (just visible on the left) gives him away as one of the film’s baddies. Source probably Aldwych films. Author’s collection.

Born John Frederick Woods in the central western town of Forbes in New South Wales in November 1909, John Wood briefly became an film star in the mid 1930s and would undoubtedly have stayed one, if World War Two hadn’t intervened. His resume is extraordinary all the same. Like many of the actors profiled on this website, his upbringing was the comfortable one Australians of the time aspired to. Yet Wood stands out from some of his contemporaries, with a strong sense of duty combined with a genuine and unusual modesty in discussing his achievements. And he is one of those few former wartime POWs who felt the need to visit Japan after the war. His death from heart related trouble in 1965, at the relatively young age of 56, seems almost certainly a consequence of his wartime captivity in Singapore.

John’s father, Frederick Michael Woods, was a Chemist in Forbes with property interests in the area. His mother Flora, nee Fitzsimon, had given birth to a daughter, Una, in 1897 – suggesting John may have been a surprise, late-in-life baby for her. In later press interviews, Wood revealed he had attended the prestigious Shore school (Sydney Church of England Grammar School), which means he was most likely a boarder and contemporary of Errol Flynn, who was also at the school before being expelled in 1926. Wood studied and began a career in commercial art, but soon threw this in for acting, which had probably long been a passion. By 1930 he was a good looking young man, 175 cm (5’9″) tall, with blue eyes and dark brown hair.


Above Left: A very young John Wood aged 20, as he appeared in the play The Family Upstairs in 1929. From The Daily Mercury 21 September 1929.  Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove. Above right: Noel Coward’s Hay Fever at Adelaide’s Theatre Royal in 1931 – John Wood in company with other well known Australians – The News (Adelaide) 21 August, 1931. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Where he trained is a mystery, although he gained some mentoring from established stage and screen actor Nan Taylor. Like so many Australian actors, his first professional stage roles were for the J.C.Williamson’s organisation (so big an organisation it was known as “the Firm”), at the age of only 20. Reviewers over the next few years consistently welcomed him as “a promising and handsome juvenile lead”,  who gave “as polished a performance as any.” His first leading role was in The Family Upstairs, a comedy about middle-class New York life written by Harry Delf in the mid 1920s. Over the next four years, Wood became part of a very talented and creative pool of performers who presented a series of “light comedies” for J.C. Williamsons, all over Australia – amongst them Cecil Kellaway, Mary MacGregor, Coral Brown(e) and Mona Barlee (Mona Barrie). There were visiting British actors to work with too, like Barry K Barnes and Margaret Rawlings – who came out to tour in The Barretts of Wimpole Street.

SMH 27 April 1933

Above: John Wood, Mona Barrie and others in While Parents Sleep in Sydney, late April 1933. The Sydney Morning Herald. April 27, 1933 via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

By about 1930 the Woods family had moved from Forbes to a comfortable home in Wycombe Rd, at Neutral Bay on Sydney’s north shore. And at about the same time, Wood dropped the “s” from his surname. His final play before leaving Australia was Anthony Kimmins’ farce, While Parents Sleep.

Sun 12 DEcember 1933In the early 1930s it was obvious to aspiring actors that Australia simply wasn’t big enough to sustain an acting career. Although there was steady work on stage in Australia (a few had even found work in the occasional Australian film) many of these leading players packed up and set off to try their luck overseas. Mary MacGregor had left in early 1933, Mona Barrie in June, and Coral Browne was to leave in May 1934. John Wood departed for London on a Norwegian passenger/cargo ship, the Troja, in October 1933.

Only a few weeks after his arrival in London he was offered a role in Charley’s Aunt at the Gaiety Theatre. It then toured English towns. Wood’s transition to acting in England had been remarkably smooth.

Above: News of Wood’s success in England reported in The (Sydney) Sun, 12 December 1933. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Later in 1934 he landed a substantial role in British Lion’s The Case of Gabriel Perry (aka Wild Justice), directed by Albert de Courville. Although this film seems impossible to source now, Wood’s performance must have impressed. In December 1934, RKO offered Wood a test, based on reports from a talent scout working in England, and he arrived in the US on the Olympic in January 1935, and rushed to Hollywood. He had a frustrating wait for work until May, when he gained the important role of Flavius (as an adult) in The Last Days of Pompeii, being made by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper (of King Kong fame). Studio publicity followed – writing in The San Francisco Examiner Louella Parsons suggested that Wood was known as the “Clark Gable of England.” By October, the completed film had been released in the US, with generally positive reviews for the great spectacle and praise for Wood and Basil Rathbone. But there were some variable performances from other actors and distracting historical errors (the most obvious being that an adolescent Flavius who met Jesus in say, AD30 could not have been aged still in his 20s at Pompeii in AD79). The film was slow to return a profit.

Above: Screen grabs from RKO‘s The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) Left: Wood (Flavius) with Preston Foster (Marcus). Right: Wood and Dorothy Wilson (Claudia or Clodia). The film is still available for purchase. Author’s copy.

More mysteriously, John Wood made no further films in the US. He appeared in the press for a few months – his good looks, interest in landscape painting and attentiveness to newly arrived friend Mary MacGregor was noted by US gossip columnists, and he is known to have tried out unsuccessfully for a role in George Cukor‘s Romeo and Juliet. But that was it, and by June 1936 he was back in London preparing to appear in the play Lady of La Paz at the Criterion Theatre, with fellow Australian Janet Johnson. Wood once said that although he enjoyed film work, he had never had a role he really liked. Perhaps he shared Margaret Vyner‘s view that Hollywood film work was too insecure.

Above: Wood and Claire Luce in a love scene from Over She Goes (1937)

However, Wood had a great breakthrough in England in 1937. He took a leading role in Stanley Lupino‘s film version of his own very popular musical Over She Goes. Although top billing went to Lupino, Laddie Cliff, Sally Gray and Claire Luce, John Wood was now established as a notable star. (Laddie Cliff’s  sudden death at the end of 1937 cast a shadow over publicity for the film)

Above: Screen grabs from Over She Goes (1938). Left; Stanley Lupino, John Wood and Laddie Cliff sing and dance in “Side by Side”.
Right: John Wood, Syd Walker and Claire Luce. (In the bed in the background is Judy Kelly, the naughty gold digger.) Networkonair currently sell this title as part of their “British Musicals of the 1930s – Volume 1”. Author’s collection.

In this production Wood sings and dances with impressive skill and timing. Memorable musical numbers from the film can be seen online, including

The years 1937-1939 were his busiest and most successful in London. He had a nice apartment in Eccleston Mews in Belgravia and was continuously employed on stage and in a string of film roles. These included another musical with Lupino and two films with Mary MaguireBlack Eyes and An Englishman’s Home. Then, on 17 August 1939 he boarded the Rimutaka for the six week journey home to Sydney.  Half-way home passengers heard that Australia had followed Britain’s lead and declared war on Germany. But his reason for returning to Australia was unrelated to the rising tensions in Europe – his mother Flora was ill and he was returning to see her. Sadly she died on 10 September, 1939 about a week before the ship reached Sydney.

john wood

Above: John Wood, at the height of his success in England, sometime between 1936-9. The photo was used by Herbert de Leon, his London agent. Author’s collection.

Now in Sydney again, he gave talks and a few interviews, and appeared at Sydney’s Minerva Theatre and in Melbourne  in several productions. Like many Australians anxious about the war, he also joined the Militia. Wood was aware of how his friends in London were faring during the Battle of Britain – the war became more serious each day. Like many young Australians, he transferred across from the Militia to the regular Army in late 1940. He was disembarked at Singapore in March 1941, now a Signalman of the 8th Division. In December 1941 the Japanese launched their offensive in South East Asia and the Pacific. The Malaya Campaign to repel the Japanese was a disaster and the forces under British commander General Percival fell back to Singapore.

3798756

Above: Painting of Wood by Murray Griffin. From the collection of the Australian War Memorial. (Click to follow link) Item now in the public domain. Dated 1943, but more likely to have been painted in 1941. The War Memorial also holds other sketches of Wood, listed in further readings below.

On 15 -16 February 1942 the British surrendered at Singapore, and about 80,000 British, Australian and Indian soldiers went into captivity. Wood was not the only performer to be incarcerated in Changi Prison – indeed he was amongst many well-known prisoners – however his work for the Australian Concert Party is very well referenced by those who were there. Fellow POW Russell Braddon described him “the greatest source of stage anecdotes and comic songs that Changi knew.”

Other accounts of the Australian Concert Party appear in the collection of reminiscences called The Changi Book, written by an author now unknown. “30… members of the party produced a new show every fortnight, with new music, and new scenery…and without a break, for almost three years.” And John Wood, who developed great skills as a female impersonator – “on some occasions as a hair-raising blonde, on others as a hot blooded senorita,” apparently deserved special acknowledgement. “Enough credit can never be paid him for the fact that by his superb acting, he educated Australian audiences…from an attitude of ribald hilarity to one of grateful appreciation of feminine charms whenever he played a female role. It will never be forgotten by 10,000 faded, starved, half dead POWs that John Wood… gave a performance of Judith in Hay Fever…as worthy of any of the great actresses who ever played Coward.” 

The impact of years of internment took their toll on many of the former POWs and coloured an entire generation of Australian attitudes to Asia, and Japan in particular. Repatriated before the end of 1945, John Wood threw himself back into performing as did other actors from Changi – Slim De Grey and Doug McKenzie. Russell Braddon suffered a severe breakdown but turned to writing to appease himself. Wood also volunteered to join a group of performers planning to appear for the British Occupation Forces in Japan, with While the Sun Shines and The Hasty Heart. Perhaps this was Wood’s effort to come to terms with the awful experience of the recent past. While there in 1947, he reportedly sought out and met one of the Japanese Army interpreters, “a decent Jap” from Changi, whom he called Jesuki Terai.

John Wood The Hasty Heart 1946.jpg

Above: Gwenda Wilson (Left), John Wood (centre) and others in J.C. Williamson’s production of The Hasty Heart – being performed in Australia before the Japan Tour. Source: National Library of Australia

In 1946, John was joined in Australia by Phyllis Buchanan, a British actress he had met before the war. She had spent her war years driving ambulances, and apparently waited patiently for John for almost 7 years. Newspapers represented that they had  “quietly married” in Melbourne, but there seems no corroborating evidence of this.

Above left: Phil (Phyllis May) Buchanan in her early English career, The Graphic , 16 January 1926. Above Right; John and Phil lighting up in Melbourne in 1946. The Herald 16 June 1946. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Phil and John departed Sydney for London on the rather creaky pre-war ship Moreton Bay, in late September 1948. Wood found roles on stage again, including a long run in His Excellency with Eric Portman at the Princes then Picadilly Theatres. Wood tried to raise interest in a London production of Sumner Locke Elliot‘s Rusty Bugles, without success.

He made one last British film in 1952. Stolen Face was made by Hammer films in London, directed by Terence Fisher. Paul Henreid, struggling to find work after being “semi-blacklisted” (his words) in Hollywood, found some work in France and England, including this film. It is the story of a plastic surgeon (Henreid) who remakes the face of a criminal to resemble his lost love (Lizabeth Scott plays a double role). Wood played Henreid’s assisting doctor. The trailer can be viewed here.

John Wood and Paul Henreid in Stolen Face (1952). Screen grabs from a copy in the author’s collection.

In the mid 1950s Wood suffered some serious but unspecified heart trouble. His old battalion newsletter noted that he and Phil had moved to the Spanish island of Mallorca – breeding dogs, painting the scenery and enjoying the sun. John Wood made two return trips to Australia by air, alone, in 1963 and 1964. After the second trip home he did not return to Mallorca again. He died alone at his apartment at 25 Waruda Street Kirribilli, some time around 1 March 1965. There were no public notices – sadly he was completely forgotten, even in his homeland. His sister had died in 1963.

 

Note 1.
The IMDB incorrectly claims Wood was involved in court case arising from a practical joke on the set of Laurel and Hardy’s March of the Wooden Soldiers/Babes in Toyland (1934). But he wasn’t. He had not arrived in the US when that film was made. This was clearly an actor named John D Wood, and the matter went to court in June 1936, by which time this John Wood had returned to England. See The Los Angeles Times, 10 June, 1936.

 

Nick Murphy
November 2019

 

Further Reading

  • Russell Braddon (1955) The Naked Island. Pan Books.
  • William Bryden Flynn (1981), Errol Leslie (1909–1959) Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, Melbourne University Press. (also online)
  • Midge Gillies (2011) The Barbed-Wire University. The real lives of Prisoners of War in the Second World War. Arum Press.
  • Lachlan Grant (Ed) (2015) The Changi Book. New South/Australian War Memorial.
  • Unknown. (1937)  RKO Players Biographies @ Internet Archive
  • Makan 2/30 Battalion Home Page The Battalion newsletter contains several references to Wood in later life.

Australian War Memorial art

Sergeant John Wood –  painting by Murray Griffin.
Men of AIF Concert party  – sketches by Murray Griffin
Men of AIF Concert party (2nd set) – sketches by Murray Griffin
Pantomime Production Changi – sketch by Murray Griffin
AIF Theatre Changi – sketch by Murray Griffin

National Library of Australia’s Trove

J.C. Williamson’s Collection of Photographs.

Newspapers:
The Daily Mercury 21 September 1929.
The News (Adelaide) 21 August, 1931
The Sydney Morning Herald  27 April, 1933
The Sun (Sydney) 12 December 1933
The Sun (Sydney) 16 Sep 1945
The Herald (Melbourne) 16 June 1946
The Sun (Sydney) 6 Nov 1946
The Sun (Sydney)  21 Jan 1948 

National Archives of Australia

Service Record, Signalman John Wood, NX65819.
Incoming Passenger records.

British Newspaper Archive.

The Graphic , 16 January 1926
Daily Mirror, 12 December 1961

Newspapers.com

The San Francisco Examiner 15 June 1935
The Los Angeles Times, 10 June, 1936.

 

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