Gwen Munro and the great Hollywood beauty contest

Above: Gwen Munro and Brian Norman, the Australian winners in Paramount’s Search for Beauty competition. Screen grab from the truly excruciating film of the same name (1934) – one of just four she made. Video in the author’s collection.

“Film star” competitions were a feature of the early 1930s. Perhaps inspired by the rise of the studio system and the huge breakthrough that came with sound, newspapers, cinemas and sometimes studios combined to find suitable film “types,” the prizes often being a film test and a subsidized trip to a studio. New South Wales girl Judy Kelly was a recipient of such a prize in 1932 and went on to a successful career in British films. However, by far the grandest competition, with the widest publicity in Australia, was Paramount Studio’s Search for Beauty contest in 1933 and young aspiring actor Gwen Munro was one of the Australian winners.

Gwen Munro was born Gwendolyn Mina Munro in 1914. Her father Horace Bonar Munro (1878-1950) had married Vera Doris nee Tanner in 1912. Horace was the youngest son of a wealthy Queensland family with significant pastoral and pearling industry interests – he was a partner with older brothers in Munro Outridge & Co.  The Munro family were also very well connected, Gwen’s aunt Wilhelmina had married Sir Robert Philp, former Queensland Premier and one of the founders of Burns Philp & Co, in 1898. But Horace and Vera appear to have separated sometime in the 1920s – Vera had packed the girls up and taken them to Melbourne by 1928.


hb-munro.jpg

Despite the separation, Horace apparently continued to generously support his wife and daughters, although he disappeared from the family story. Both Gwen and younger sister Mignon Millicent attended St Catherine’s school in Toorak, thus she was a contemporary of Janet Johnson. It also appears the girls attended a finishing school at Sainte Croix, Switzerland around 1930-32.

Above: H.B.Munro in 1912, the year he married Vera.From the John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Photo now in the public domain. Original title; H. B. Munro on the passenger ferry S.S. Koopa, Bribie Island

Table Talk, a Melbourne weekly newspaper that chronicled the doings of those “in society” even through the grimmest years of the Great Depression, regularly reported on the doings of Mrs Horace Munro and her daughters Gwen and Mignon. The following double page spread appeared not long after they had returned from England (a trip, or perhaps the girls were returning from the finishing school) in January 1932.

Table Talk March 10 1932 p24-25

Above: Table Talk 10 March 1932. Gwen Munro – upper row, second from left, Mignon – lower row, second from right. National Library of Australia’s Trove

On their return, Gwen and Mignon almost immediately threw themselves into amateur theatricals with the Melbourne Little Theatre (now St Martin’s Theatre), with some positive reviews. The every doings of the Munro girls were extremely well publicized over the next few years, almost certainly their cultural capital helped. But more than many of their contemporaries, the Munro girls showed a willingness to be sketched photographed and interviewed.

It was in early May 1933 that the Search for Beauty competition was announced and it consumed the Australian press like never before. The Sydney Sun explained the competition thus: “A man and a woman are to be chosen from Australian aspirants, and they will, be sent to Hollywood to appear in the picture with the other winners…The Australian winners will receive: A contract to appear In “The Search for Beauty.” Transportation to and from Hollywood: A salary of 50 dollars… a week for a minimum of five weeks…” Gwen signed up.

It was never quite clear how the judging was done, but it involved film tests and heats in some US states and most of the British Empire (but not anywhere in Asia, South America or Europe – it was for white, English speaking countries only).

1933 being filmed

Above: Table Talk helpfully showed its readers Gwen Munro being tested for the competition – in front of an enormous camera operated by Efftee films chief camera operator, Mr A.E.Higgins. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The winners were finally announced at the end of August, 1933, and Gwen and Brian Norman from Sydney were selected. Were Paramount Pictures trawling for possible actors or was this all just publicity for a film? This writer is inclined to the view that it may have been both, given the very precarious financial situation Paramount was in during the depression.

In mid September, Gwen and her mother packed up and sailed for California on the SS Monterey, first stop being Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel. The filming was to take five weeks.

Today it requires serious effort to sit through to the end of the film, and even more effort to accept the premise of the silly plot. Buster Crabbe and Ida Lupino, play two sporty editors of a health magazine, which we discover is also a front for some sleazy con-men. They hold an international competition (which is where Brian, Gwen and the other real competitors appear, as per the screen grab below) and perform in a type of fascist-rally inspired “body beautiful” parade. The con-men and their friends are discovered and made to exercise at a health farm. Being a pre-Hayes code film (Hollywood’s self imposed censorship code introduced later in 1934), there is some gratuitous suggestive dialogue and a couple of mildly racy scenes, including one set in a change room where men flick each other on the bottoms with wet towels.

Above: Screen grabs from the film. From left – the irrepressible Buster Crabbe, the big parade of beauty, Buster and Colin Tapley of New Zealand. Tapley really did make a career in Hollywood after this film. Author’s collection.

This writer is unable to identify Gwen Munro with confidence in scenes other than the flag scene shown at the top of the page, although Brian Norman is more easily identified, including in this one:

Here Brian Norman forces some of the con-men to start morning exercises at the health farm. His broad Australian accent is unmistakable. Copy of film in author’s collection.

WB MolloyBrian Norman was amongst the first to leave Hollywood after filming wrapped. His first cautious public comments on the experience appeared in early February 1934,  when he explained that “Hollywood was the world’s most selfish city, where there is more intrigue, more unfounded gossip. and more beauty shops to the square mile than anywhere else.” His otherwise frank accounts disguised the fact that his distinctive Australian accent probably made him less bankable as star material. And he had a few secrets of his own – his real name was William Brian Molloy and he was 25, and a law graduate. Soon after returning he was admitted to the bar in New South Wales. (see Note 1 below)

Above: William Brian Molloy, “Brian Norman” in the Sydney Sun, 1 April 1934. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Gwen stayed on almost a year in Hollywood, during which time not a lot seems to have happened. Apart from performing in a play at the Pasandena Playhouse, or if some accounts are to be believed, seven plays, there were no further film roles. Perhaps her old school friend Janet Johnson accurately summed up the problem with Hollywood  – “you do nothing but hang about while everybody promises you’ll be in the next picture they are doing.” Gwen stated that she needed more acting experience before trying again.

Gwen on the way home

Above: Naturally always conscious of their appearance, actors usually go to some effort to pose and makeup for the camera. This unusual candid photo was taken on the SS Mariposa on 26 August 1934, on Gwen’s departure for Australia. Author’s collection.

Gwen did get further stage experience. On her return to Australia she went back to J.C. Williamson’s and appeared in Ten Minute Alibi and The Wind and the Rain  under the direction of Gregan McMahon and in company with Jocelyn Howarth, another enthusiastic young Australian who would try her luck in Hollywood herself a few years later. Finally, in late 1934, Gwen admitted to the Brisbane Telegraph what today’s viewer of the Search for Beauty might assume. Of course we all hated the picture…When it was finished there was enough for about three films, and the consequent cutting made it most disjointed.”

Over the next 18 months, Search for Beauty was endlessly peddled around Australian cinemas, trading off the publicity the competition had generated. It was generally shown as a supporting feature, no amount of PR could make it better than it was. In September 1935, Gwen appeared in the play So this is Hollywood, a satire starring a number of Australians with film experience,  including Trilby Clarke, Lou Vernon and Thelma Scott.

Gwen Munro as seen by artists. Left: Stanley Parker sketch in Table Talk. 31 August 1933. Centre: Unknown artist, The Newcastle Sun. 28 August 1936. Right Sydney Mail, 10 June 1936. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In 1936, Gwen was cast in a role in Ken Hall’s Orphan of the Wilderness. Gwen’s work was praised by Hall in his memoirs, but he also acknowledged the film was only ever conceived as a “second feature.” Based in part on a story by Dorothy Cottrell, it concerns the adventures of a Kangaroo named Chut, who appears as a boxing kangaroo in a circus act. Gwen played a circus rider and took the ingenue role. It became a popular release in early 1937, and was sold overseas, although its scenes of mistreatment of Chut seems to have delayed its release in Britain. Table Talk’s reviewers were a little more critical than some – they wrote “Gwen Munro and Brian Abbot put on quite a good show as the young lovers of the film, but they struggled hopelessly in the morass of a vague and completely unconvincing story which gave them no scope.”

In 1937 she performed in a small role in Noel Monkman’s Typhoon Treasure and in 1938 another Ken Hall film- Let George Do it. Of Typhoon Treasure we know little – film historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper record that it sank after a few limited outings in Australian cinemas in the later part of 1938.

Let George do it

Above: Gwen and George Wallace in Let George Do It.The Australian Women’s Weekly” 28 May 1938. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Australian comedian George Wallace was already well established and had appeared in several successful films – with plots strongly connected to his popular stage performances. Let George Do It was another such vehicle for him. Some critics, including the reviewer at Table Talk, felt Gwen was wasted again in this film. If she felt that she didn’t say – she determined to keep working, and during 1938 appeared in several radio plays – Trilby, Little Women and others.

In 1937-38 Gwen Munro repeatedly stated an intention to travel to try her luck in the UK. But rather suddenly, in early 1939, she announced her engagement to businessman and keen yachtsman Hubert “Togo” Middows of Sydney.

Unfortunately Gwen and Togo’s marriage was not a success and it ended in divorce a few years later. At about the same time, Gwen met a US Navy 7th Fleet officer, Commander Dorr Chandler Ralph. As a physicist, his responsibility was overseeing the reduction of the magnetic fields of US navy ships, a process called degaussing. She travelled to North America in October 1946 and the couple married in Montreal Canada, in April 1947. In 1951 they moved to Baton Rouge, where Dorr took up a position on the faculty at Louisiana State University. Two daughters were born of the union.

Aged only 56, Gwen died at Baton Rouge in 1970. It may be hard to believe this well known Australian made only four films and disappeared so quickly, because her star was as bright as her contemporaries Mary Maguire and Jocelyn Howarth. The outbreak of war had much to do with it, for it ended the efforts of many Australian filmmakers. Cinesound closed feature production in 1940, and director Ken Hall turned to documentaries. Producer-Director at Efftee Studios, Frank Thing, had died in July 1936.

Melbourne Age 1 April 1970

Above: The Melbourne Age, 1 April 1970. Someone, possibly Gwen’s sister, placed a death notice for the benefit of old Melbourne friends. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

 

Nick Murphy
December 2019

 

Note 1:
After his one outing as an actor, William Brian Molloy practised law in Port Moresby, before joining the Australian Army in January 1942 and serving in Papua New Guinea. He worked in Sydney after World War Two and retired to a comfortable home in Turramurra, a suburb of Sydney’s upper north shore. Molloy died in 1995. His reviews of working in Hollywood are from the Adelaide News and are available at the National Library of Australia’s Trove:

Hollywood as seen from the inside 30 April 1934
Hollywood as seen from the inside 2 May 1934
Hollywood as seen from the inside 3 May 1934
Hollywood as seen from the inside 4 May 1934
Hollywood as seen from the inside 8 May 1934
Hollywood as seen from the inside 9 May 1934

Note 2:
Brian Abbot, Gwen’s co-star in Orphans of the Wilderness, disappeared at sea after filming Mystery Island, in October 1936. A full account is given here by historian Nicole Cama.

 

Further Reading

Newspapers.com

British Newspaper Archive

    • Daily Mirror, 27 Jan 1938.

National Library of Australia – Trove

    • Table Talk, 20 July, 1933.
    • The Mail (Adelaide), 26 August, 1933. “Competition winners”
    • Table Talk, 11 January 1934, “One Can Wear anything in Hollywood”
    • Examiner (Launceston)  3 June 1936, “HOLLYWOOD INFLUENCE ON GWEN MUNRO”
    • The West Australian (Perth)  5 June 1936, “AUSTRALIAN PICTURES”
    • The Newcastle Sun (NSW) 11 February 1938,  “Screen Fare”

Web

Text

    • Ken G. Hall (1980) Australia Film the Inside Story. Summit Books
    • Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper (1980) Australian Film 1900-1977. AFI/Oxford.
    • Eric Reade (1979) History and Heartburn. Harper and Row
    • John Stewart (1984) An Encyclopaedia of Australian Film. Reed Books

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