Lucille Lisle (1908 – 2004)

Above: 11 year old Lucille Hunter Jonas advertising Rexona soap in Australia’s national magazine, The Bulletin, 11 Sept 1919. She was already well established on the stage. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove

The five second version
Lucille Lisle was born Lucille Hunter Jonas in Melbourne, Australia on 16 May 1908. She first appeared on stage in Australia at the age of about 11. From 1930-32 she performed on Broadway and in 1932 moved to Britain. She appeared in two Australian and about ten British films, but the stage remained her preference and the West End was where she experienced her greatest successes. She worked in radio in the 1940s before retiring. She died in Kent, England on 23 September 2004.

Lucille Lisle in 1938, at the height of her British stage and screen career. The Age (Melbourne) 16 July 1938. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove..

The oft repeated story that 21 year old Australian actress Lucille Lisle had to abandon ship at night and then help bail out a leaky lifeboat was actually true. It is one of those rare occasions when an entertaining story about an actor has a solid basis in fact. Lucille was one of 18 performers in Wyrley Birch‘s American Comedy Company, travelling on the 4500 ton ship Manuka en-route from Melbourne to Dunedin, New Zealand. In thick fog on the night of 16 December 1929, the ship ran into a reef near Long Point, and became a total wreck. All 250 passengers and crew were saved but their personal belongings and the cargo, (including the company’s scenery and costumes) were lost. But new scenery was rushed to New Zealand from Sydney, and in the best antipodean tradition, the people of Dunedin donated clothes. The show must go on.

She was born Lucille Hunter Jonas in Richmond, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia on 16 May, 1908, the only child of David Henry Jonas and Caroline nee Hunter. From an early age, the family lived in Sydney where her father was a company manager. Caroline, or Cissie Hunter, was an actor herself, well known from her time touring in the 1900s with the John F Sheridan company. Lucille attended Sydney’s Sacred Heart Convent, Kincoppal, although for how long seems unclear. From a very early age, she was also appearing on the stage, with the consistent encouragement and support of her mother Caroline. For at least some time in the early 1920s Lucille was also a pupil of Miss Mary MacNichol, a Sydney elocutionist and drama teacher. At the same time she was appearing in pantomimes and charity events, in company with the likes of Ena Gregory and Esma Cannon.

“Give your children Heenzo” Lucille’s mother was responsible for her appearance in this advertisment for a cold and flu preparation, and she also provided a testimonial. Sunday Times (Sydney) 9 May 1920. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In 1924 Lucille, now using the stage name Lucille Lisle, was lucky enough to be cast by filmmaker Beaumont Smith for a part in Hullo Marmaduke, a (now lost) “funny pommy in Australia” film, starring established English comedian Claude Dampier. She was also in a role in F. Stuart-Whyte‘s Painted Daughters, a sophisticated and successful film described by Ross Pike and Andrew Cooper as “a romantic melodrama about high society and the flapper generation” – segments of this film still exist. Aged only 16, Lucille Lisle was developing an impressive acting career.

Above: Lucille (left) as a Tivoli chorus girl. Table Talk. 5 November 1925. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Although there were no more films for her in Australia, for the next five years Lucille was never out of stage work and her public profile in Australia steadily rose. Her second lead role in J.C. Williamson’s pantomime Aladdin was followed by a supporting role in the popular new American farce Cradle Snatchers. She also earned praise for having taken on a role in the play Old English with very little notice, in October 1926. Enthusiastic Australian journalists called her “Australia’s Mary Pickford,” although the same description was regularly applied to other young women, including Mary Maguire. She was in enough demand to gain work alongside a wide variety of actors, including contemporary song and dance man Fred Conyngham and visiting US actor Noel (Nat) Madison. Ten years later she would appear in the British film The Melody Maker with Fred.

At the same time, as Theatre historian Frank Van Straten notes, the arrival of talkies in Australia in Christmas 1928 had a dramatic impact on live theatre – it would never be the same again. So Lucille’s place with the popular Wyrley Birch company, touring Australia and New Zealand (with a repertoire of new plays) in early 1929 was probably her own response to the uncertainty of working in theatre in the Great Depression. But then, in May 1930, despite the trauma of the adventure on the Manuka, Lucille and her mother departed for the US on the SS Sonoma.

Lucille Lisle in 1927, while appearing in Cradle Snatchers. From Table Talk, 22 Sept, 1927. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

After visiting Noel Madison in Hollywood, Lucille and Caroline headed for New York, posting updates home along the way, for the benefit of Australian newspapers. With extraordinary good fortune, she quickly gained a role in Stepdaughters of War and she was then continuously performing on the US east coast. In early 1931 she joined G.P. Huntley Junior and Jane Cowl in the comedy Art and Mrs Bottle, for a tour of the US and Canadian east coast cities. She wrote to the Sydney Sun newspaper that she loved New York, although it was expensive. And she also cautioned interested Australian girls – they should always have “lots of money, and your fare back home, paid in advance.” But money was something Lucille and her mother didn’t seem to have to worry about, because in July 1932 she packed up and moved on to London and again, quickly found work.

It was not uncommon for Australian newspapers of the 1930s to provide readers with long lists of Australian actors now working successfully in Britain and Lucille was soon prominent amongst these. The lists were not always very accurate – as they regularly included New Zealanders, or others who had really only spent a short part of their life in Australia, or in the case of Merle Oberon, none of their life at all. It made for great reading all the same, and in an era of emerging Australian national icons (think racehorse Phar Lap and cricketer Don Bradman), these success stories resonated with audiences. And there is evidence that at least a few actors – like Judy Kelly and John Wood – felt some sense of being an Australian rather than simply a member of the greater British Empire. But much of the film work listed for this group was in underwhelming “quota films” – and this was also to be Lucille’s first acting experience in Britain.

Above; Lucille Lisle. The Australian Women’s Weekly, 4 June, 1938. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Quota films or “quota quickies” were a result of the 1927 Cinematograph Film Act – designed to protect the British film industry by forcing the big, mostly US owned distribution companies to subsidise the production of British films. Interviewed by Brian McFarlane years later, British filmmaker Freddie Francis insisted quota films were shown to the cinema cleaners in the mornings, thus easily and cynically fulfilling the legal obligations of the quota! Cheaply and quickly made, most ended up as “second” or supporting features or B films, although there is now a body of literature reappraising the era of quota films.

Lucille’s role in Fox’s After Dark, directed by Al Parker, was announced only 6 weeks after her arrival in Britain. Like so many of these films, it was adapted from a play, but at only 45 minutes in length, it did not sustain a coherent or memorable plot. It concerned a jewel theft followed by a denouement in a (very restrained) un-spooky house. Contemporary British film reviews tended to praise all local film content, but in far off Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald felt it could truthfully critique Expert’s Opinion, Lucille’s second British quota film. It was dismissed as “a quickie of very ordinary pretensions… The direction is indifferent and [the] actors…do not impress on the screen. Australian Lucille Lisle is equally uninteresting.”

There could not have been a starker contrast between the few films she appeared in and her stage work. Although she was never interviewed about her work, it is likely that Lucille realised her career would not be made in quota films. By the end of 1932 she was understudying the role of Stella Hallam in Rose Franklin‘s play Another Language, “a first rate tragi-comedy” at the Lyric Theatre. She then played the role while it toured England. By May 1933 she had a leading role in Emlyn Williams‘ satire The Late Christopher Bean, which opened at St James’s Theatre in May. This role established her as a young actor of note and ability on the London stage. The cast also included Cedric Hardwicke, Barry K Barnes and Edith Evans. The show ran for 487 performances, a record for that theatre, with Spectator magazine praising it as “a brilliant comedy”.

Above: Lucille (right) with some of the leading players of The Late Christopher Bean. The Stage 18 May 1933. Copyright The Stage Media. Via The British Library Newspaper Archive.

As one would expect, there were hits and misses on stage too. In early 1935 she appeared at the Phoenix Theatre in A Knight in Vienna, a play about a young man’s romantic adventures in Vienna, written by an Australian, Archie N. Menzies. After one performance, it was banned by the Lord Chamberlain, for reasons we can only guess today. Ole George Comes to Tea saw three performances, Sexes and Sevens also only three performances (the Times newspaper described the latter as “feeble even in its own kind” ). There was an interesting variety of topical contexts in some of her plays – Juggernaut at the Aldwyth Theatre in early 1939 dealt with Jews living in contemporary Vienna. But popular comedies were clearly preferred by pre-war British audiences. Anthony and Anna ran for over 700 performances at the Whitehall Theatre and for much of it Lucille took the leading part of Anna.

Above: Lucille Lisle in 1935, at the time she was appearing in Anthony and Anna at the Whitehall Theatre. Program in the author’s collection.

In 1942, Lucille married an officer in the Royal Navy Reserve, Lieutenant Nicholas Harris, the youngest son of Sir Percy Harris, deputy leader of the British parliamentary Liberal Party. A son was born of the union in 1943. During the war years, Lucille’s performances were confined to radio drama, in adaptations of popular works like The Ghost and Mrs Muir. Her last performances were in the early 1950s and may have included some television, but this is difficult to verify as so much early TV was not recorded. She had, by this time, been performing for almost 35 years.

In later years Nicholas and Lucille lived in Kent. Nicholas Harris was an art collector with a particular interest in traditional Chinese paintings and Lucille seems to have shared these interests. She never returned to Australia – both her parents having relocated to England to be near her. She died in Kent in 2004.

Not all Australians who tried their luck in 1930s Britain stayed on. Lucille’s contemporaries, Fred Conyngham and Molly Fisher, returned to Sydney, Australia in early 1948 and pursued non-theatrical interests. Fred became a quality-control inspector.


Nick Murphy
24 October 2020


Further Reading

Web

Text

  • Ray Edmondson and Andrew Pike (1982) Australia’s Lost Films. National Library of Australia.
  • Brian McFarlane (1997) An Autobiography of British Cinema. Methuen
  • Robert Murphy (Ed)(2009) The British Cinema Book. 3rd Edition. BFI/Palgrave Macmillian
  • Ross Pike and Andrew Cooper (1980) Australian Film 1900-1977. Oxford University Press.
  • Matthew Sweet (2006) Shepperton Babylon. Faber and Faber
  • Frank Van Straten (2003) Tivoli. Thomas Lothian
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1930-1939: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman and Littlefield.

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • Sunday Times (Syd) 6 Mar 1904
  • The Australian Star (Syd) 17 June 1905
  • Townsville Daily Bulletin, 6 July 1907
  • The Bulletin, 11 Sept 1919, Vol 40, Issue 2065
  • Sunday Times (Syd) 5 October 1919
  • Everyone’s 28 Feb 1923, Vol 3 No 156
  • Table Talk, 5 Nov 1925
  • Table Talk, 12 Nov 1925
  • Table Talk, 4 Feb 1926
  • Table Talk, 22 Sept 1927
  • Sydney Mail, 5 Oct 1927
  • Advocate (Melb) 11 Oct 1928
  • Sun (Syd) 26 Mar, 1929
  • Truth (Bris) 22 Sept 1929
  • Daily News (Perth) 4 Nov 1929
  • Sun (Syd) 27 Dec 1929
  • Table Talk, 1 May 1930
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 May 1930
  • Sun (Syd) 24 Aug, 1930
  • Sun (Syd) 12 Oct 1930
  • Sun (Syd) 28 Dec 1930
  • Smith’s Weekly 15 October 1932
  • The Herald (Melb) 27 Feb 1933
  • Examiner (Tas) 22 Sept. 1937
  • The Age (Melb), 16 Apr 1938
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 4 June 1938
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Sept 1938
  • The Daily News (Perth) 2 Nov 1938
  • Table Talk, 12 Jan, 1939
  • The Herald (Melb) 25 Mar 1942
  • The Sun (Syd) 27 June, 1942

Papers Past

  • Christchurch Cargo, 18 Dec 1929. Vol LXV, Issue 19805
  • Hawera Star, 6 Jan 1932, Vol LI
  • Nelson evening Mail, 5 Sept 1934, Vol LXVI,
  • Evening Post, 9 April 1943 Vol CXXXV, Issue 84
  • Hutt News, 28 May 1947, Vol 20, Issue 47

British Library Newspaper project

  • The Era, Wednesday 14 September 1932
  • The Stage, 18 May 1933
  • The Tatler, 31 May 1933.
  • Eastbourne Gazette, 3 Jan 1940
  • Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 2 Dec 1940
  • Eastbourne Gazette, 3 Jan 1940
  • Dundee Evening Telegraph, 28 Feb 1942
  • Dundee Evening Telegraph, 28 Feb 1942
  • The Tatler and Bystander, 1 April 1942
  • The Stage, 11 Jan 1951

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