Ena Gregory (1907-1993)- the WAMPAS baby star from Manly

Above: Ena Gregory as the Queen, In the Palace of the King, 1923. Author’s Collection.

The 5 second version
Ena Jessie Gregory was born in the Sydney suburb of Manly on 16 April 1907. She died at Laguna Beach, California, USA on 13 June 1993. She was active in Hollywood after moving there in 1920 with her mother. Her films included comedy shorts for the Hal Roach studio, and numerous Westerns. She also appeared in the Hollywood film The Bushranger in 1928. She adopted the stage name Marian Douglas in 1927. She retired in 1931 after a few sound films and became a Realtor.

Ena Jessie Gregory was born in Sydney on 16 April, 1907 to Arthur Gregory and Jessie nee Prior (see Note 1 for Birth Certificate). Arthur was described at the time as a “tobacconist” but in later years was listed as an importer of manufactured goods (presumably tobacco products) and Sydney’s Sands directory shows he had a large office on the 6th floor of 204 Clarence Street. As Ena grew up, the family lived in a house (that has since been demolished) at 48 Sydney Rd Manly, very close to the famous Manly beach. Arthur and Jessie had married in 1901 – Ena was the only child of the union.

Ena’s name is found in the cast of a few Sydney wartime fund raising shows, and performing in 1918 as a child in Eyes of Youth – with other child actors like Esma Cannon. However, the best evidence of a passion for acting is her appearance in student performances run by Sydney actor-elocutionist Harry Thomas, in December 1919. His students recited selections from Shakespeare, Tennyson and Longfellow at an annual concert.


1920- Moving to the US

Ena and her mother arrived in the US on the SS Ventura on 2 February 1920, listing their intended stay as “indefinite.” Given her very young age and relative inexperience, Ena’s success soon after is remarkable and one wonders whether her father and mother used some connections to help set her up. Arthur had travelled on business to the US a number of times during the First World War.

Both Variety and the San Francisco Chronicle carried articles about Ena soon after her arrival. Amongst the overblown claims about her experience in Australia, the Chronicle also quoted Ethel as saying she wanted Ena to learn the art of acting in the US, a comment that has a ring of truth. Most likely, the state of the Gregory’s marriage also had something to do with it, as the couple appear not to have lived together again after 1920. Ethel and Arthur finally divorced in 1928. However, moving to a new country with a teenager was still an unusual occurrence. Jessie had a large and well established family back home in Australia, but she and Ena were choosing to leave them all behind.


A Career begins

Camera 1922
Regrettably, over time, Ena’s US film career has been inextricably muddled up with another actress with a very similar name – Canadian born brunette Edna Gregory. Even during their lifetimes, their names were continually mixed up. Tracking down Ena’s early Hollywood appearances is therefore difficult – and made doubly so because many of her films have not survived. One of her first films was a supporting role to Gladys Watson in Universal’s Short Skirts  – but this film has also disappeared.

In January 1922, Ena’s press agent Don Hix illustrated just how much hot air was generated on behalf of up and coming actors, even during Hollywood’s silent era. Ena was, according to Hix, “adept at boxing, fencing, golfing, tennis, baseball, football and even wrestling”… She had been a “footlight favourite for six years in Australia.”

Above: Ena in Camera! Magazine April 1921-April 1922 aged 15. Note the accompanying text reminding readers this is Ena, not Edna. Via Lantern and the Internet Archive.

Comedies and Westerns

Ena’s early films included comedy shorts for the Hal Roach studio, some of which do survive today. On reviewing these, it appears her function was generally to play a straight role to the slapstick antics of the likes of Stan Laurel, Charlie Chase or Earl Mohan. Several of the surviving Stan Laurel films also include Mae Laurel (Mae Dahlberg), an experienced Australian vaudevillian and Laurel’s partner at the time.

Short Kilts 1924 Wide Open Spaces1 Wide Open Spaces Stan and Mae

Above left to right: Stan Laurel and Ena Gregory in Short Kilts (1924), Laurel and Gregory in Wide Open Spaces (1924), and at right Laurel and Mae Dahlberg in the same film. Source of screen grabs: Youtube.

Jefferies Jr with Charlie Chase 1924 Rupert of Hee Haw 1 Postage Due 1924

Above left to right: Gregory and Charlie Chase in Jefferies Jr. (1924), Dahlberg, Laurel and Gregory in Rupert of Hee Haw (1924) and Gregory in Postage Due (1924) . Source of screen grabs: Youtube

A WAMPAS Baby Star

In early 1925, Ena was announced as one of the new WAMPAS “Baby Stars”.  The Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers annually created a promotional campaign, profiling a dozen young women who were (possibly) on the threshold of stardom and providing them with publicity. At 18 years of age Ena was amongst the youngest, and the only foreign-born winner that year.

WAMPAS Baby stars 1925

Above: WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1925 including the very blond 18 year old Ena Gregory, seated centre. She had been in Hollywood for five years. Picture-Play Magazine, March-August 1925. Via the Internet Archive

Through 1925 and 1926 she continued to be busy on the screen – she was also well enough established to appear in advertisements for soap and bathing suits. She had roles in numerous Westerns – popular rodeo star Jack Hoxie being a regular co-star –  in such lurid macho titles as Red Hot Leather, Rough and Ready, Grinning Guns, Men of Daring and others. At the end of 1926 she married Al Rogell, the director of many of her films.


Becoming Marian Douglas

There are numerous newspaper stories associated with Ena at this time, almost all of them impossible to verify independently. In 1927 Picture Play magazine published an extraordinary piece written by staff regular Ann Sylvester, quoting Rogell as saying to an Ena disappointed with her career;

” ‘Now listen Ena, suppose we give you a new shuffle of the cards – a fresh chance – and see what happens…’ Ena sighed and there was a slight glitter of tears in her eyes. ‘Oh I don’t know’ she said listlessly. ‘I just haven’t the heart to keep on trying… I don’t believe in myself anymore.’ Well, mused Al… ‘maybe you could believe in yourself if you were someone else… ‘ “

It’s a cleverly written piece, interspersed with photos of The Shepherd of the Hills, her latest film, also directed by Rogell. The article explains she has just had an operation to beautify her nose, and has changed her stage name to Marian Douglas in an effort to remake herself.

    Ena no Edna gets married SF Examiner 17 July 1927     Ena Marion Photoplay 1927

Above: Left: The San Francisco Examiner still muddling Edna and Ena on 17 Jul 1927. This was Edna‘s marriage and the paper had not done their homework. Ena had been married to Rogell for six months. Via Newspapers.com.
Right: Photoplay July -December 1927, covers Ena’s change of name. Via Lantern and the Internet Archive

Of course, it’s absurd to think that an intimate conversation between Ena and Rogell would really find its way into a fan magazine. And a few weeks later the Daily News of New York was suspicious enough to start their report on Ena’s change of name by commenting on the “chicanery practiced by movie press agents.” All the same, the story gained ground that had she consulted a Hollywood mystic to determine a more “lucky” name, by some accounts one that had thirteen letters, or combinations of the names of other popular stars.

However, it is worth noting that at the same time all this was happening, Ena’s father was about to arrive in the US (they seem not to have seen each other for seven years), while at the same time Ena and Edna continued to be merrily mixed up by the press, as the example above shows – another compelling reason for a name change in itself. There is almost certainly much more to this event than we now know.

Ena Douglas perhaps
Above: Ena’s signature on a fan photo, where she signs her name Ena Douglas. This possibly suggests she was giving much greater consideration to a name change than reports of the time suggested. A number of these signed photos are circulating on the net. Author’s collection.

Ena made several films using the stage name Marian Douglas, including The Bushranger with popular cowboy star Tim McCoy.  Filmed in California but set in colonial-era Australia, it followed some plot points similar to For the Term of his Natural Life, which had been made in Australia only a few years before; a wrongful conviction of the hero in England, transportation to Tasmania, adventures in the bush, romance and eventual redemption. Unfortunately, again, the film no longer exists, and we are dependent on reviews of the day for an understanding of the plot. Ena’s final film appears to have been Aloha, a romantic drama also directed by Rogell. Then, in 1931, at the ripe old age of 24, it appears her Hollywood career came to an end. There were no more films. Did the huge changes brought on by the coming of sound play a role in the demise of her career? We have no evidence, but it is quite possible. There were the inevitable “comeback” stories about Ena, yet similar stories have been a feature of Hollywood for a century, and these came to nothing. However, Ena did not disappear from the public eye altogether.

Ena 3

Above: Ena Gregory, Tim McCoy and Frank Baker in The Bushranger (1928). Photo, author’s collection.

Unseemly Language

In mid 1934, Ena’s marriage came to an end. Rogell sued for divorce, claiming Ena stayed out late at drinking parties, while he had to go to bed so he could perform his duties at the studio the next day. He claimed that Ena “was possessed of a violent temper and used vile language to him” and was “overly familiar with other men, embracing them and displaying other signs of affection”.  The entire divorce played out for six very long months in newspapers across the US with claims and counter claims being made, before a divorce was granted in 1935. And a year later, Ena testified at the divorce of her friend Helen Twelvetrees from her husband Jack Woody. Twelvetrees had filmed Thoroughbred for Ken Hall of Cinesound in Sydney in early 1936, where the marriage had first run aground. Back in Hollywood, Ena testified that she had witnessed Jack using “unseemly language” with his wife.

Ena must have discussed Sydney and Australia before Helen Twelvetrees left the US to work on Thoroughbred. We can only wonder what she might have said.

Helen Twelvetrees in Aust 2  LA Times 28 Oct 1937

Above left: Frank Leighton and Ena’s friend Helen Twelvetrees filming Thoroughbred in Sydney. State Library of New South Wales, Sam Hood Collection. In his memoirs, Director Ken Hall writes at some length regarding their relationship.
Above right: Ena Gregory and Frank Nolan discussing plans for their wedding, with Helen Twelvetrees, at left, watching on. The Los Angeles Times 28 Oct 1937, Via Newspapers.com

Ena married twice more – briefly to Dr Frank Nolan in 1937-9 and later to businessman James Thompson Talbot in 1951.

If Ena ever did really believe in lucky numbers or lucky names, she did not allow this to dominate her decisions later in life. After the Second World War she joined her mother in business and became a successful real estate agent (Realtor), specialising in the Laguna Beach area, in Orange County California. She worked happily in this profession for almost thirty years, until the mid 1970s, her company logo being Pleasing you is our Pleasure. 

Ena died on 13 June, 1993, aged 86. She had become a US citizen in 1932. She never returned to Australia.

Ena in 1974

Above: Los Angeles Times, 3 February, 1974. Via Newspapers.com

Nick Murphy
May 2020


Note 1
It’s hard to believe biographers have struggled for so long with Ena Jessie Gregory’s name, place and date of birth. In the interests of clarity, part of her New South Wales birth certificate is given here:

Ena Gregory BC left part

Col 2- April 16, 1907, 53 Union Street, North Sydney [Date and place of birth]
Col 3 – Ena Jessie Not present
Col 4 – Female
Col 5 – Arthur James Gregory, Tobacconist. 30 years. [Born] North Sydney NSW
Col 6 – April 9 1901, Burrowa, NSW, Nil [Date and place of marriage, other children]
Col 7 – Jessie Elizabeth Prior, 30 years. [Born] Bourke NSW.
Source: New South Wales Births, Deaths & Marriages.

Further Reading

Text

  • Joy Damousi (2010) Colonial Voices: A Cultural History of English in Australia, 1840-1940. Cambridge University Press.
  • Ken G Hall. (1977) Australian Film: The Inside Story. Summit Books
  • George A. Katchmer (2009) A Biographical Dictionary of Silent Film Western Actors and Actresses. McFarland.
  • Andree Wright (1986) Brilliant careers. Women in Australian Film. Pan Books.

Surviving films

  • Many of the Hal Roach short comedies with Ena are available on Youtube. However, none of her full length films could be sourced.

State Library of New South Wales

City of Sydney 

Manly City Library Local Studies Blog

Immortal Ephemera website

National Library of Australia

  • The Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 17 December 1919
  • The Sunday Times (Sydney) 3 June, 1923
  • Sydney Mail, 30 May 1928
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 Dec 1928
  • Werribee Shire Banner (Victoria), 2 May 1929
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July 1929
  • Sun (Sydney) 7 February 1930 (a wildly inaccurate interview with Jessie Gregory)
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 1948

Newspapers.com

  • Oakland Tribune, 22 January 1922
  • The Los Angeles Times, 5 December 1924,
  • The Times Herald (Michigan), 20 January 1925
  • The San Francisco Examiner ,17 July 1927
  • Daily News (New York), 2 October 1927
  • The Los Angeles Times, 24 July 1927,
  • News-Pilot (California), 11 August 1934,
  • The Los Angeles Times, 18 Aug 1934,
  • The Los Angeles Times, 28 Oct 1937,
  • The Los Angeles Times, 3 February, 1974

Lantern – Digital Media Project – Internet Archive

  • Camera! Magazine, April 1921-April 1922
  • Picture-Play Magazine, March-August 1925
  • Photoplay Magazine, July -December 1927
  • Picture-Play Magazine, Sep 1927 – Feb 1928

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