Australian Accents from Cinema’s Golden Age

Above: Warner Bros photo credited to Schuyler Grail. Feb 1938, NBC radio announcer Buddy Twist interviewing Australian actress Mary Maguire. Author’s collection (Enlargement).

Above: In the lower section of the same photo, one can see Maguire’s fingers are heavily bandaged – presumably she had just caught them in a car door or similar. No matter how cultivated she might have sounded in this radio interview, one can assume a stream of Australian invective issued forth when the accident happened. Author’s collection.

It is generally accepted that the origins of the Australian accent are from southern Britain, and the conventional wisdom today is that there are three main variations to it:

Of course, accents don’t really fall into such easy categories. Those labels might be better thought of as markers on a continuum, with any one accent sitting somewhere along it. Also, unlike the variations in British and US accents – that are sometimes regional, variations in Australian accents are usually attributed to social class. Parenting and education, as well as other social factors are believed to have a strong impact on how Australians speak. (Of course, physical features such as the tongue and jaw also impacts how people speak too). 

In a very good survey of Australian accents for the ABC, John Hajeck (University of Melbourne) and Lauren Gawne (La Trobe University) note that Australians also often accommodate other accents with ease. Perhaps this explains Adelaide actor Damon Herriman‘s great success in adopting Dewey Crowe’s US accent in the TV series Justified, or Melbourne singer Kylie Minogue’s great ease in shifting from a contemporary British accent to a general Australian one.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, elocution lessons, (sometimes a part of a private school education but also available from private tutors) were designed to remove all vestiges of a colonial accent, be it from Australia, South Africa or somewhere else. In a short article on actor Judith Anderson, and others, Desley Deacon of ANU has pointed out how common elocution lessons were, and how important these were in opening up a performance career. The resulting accent, found all over the British Empire and beyond, dovetailed nicely with the “transatlantic accent” preferred in US 1930s sound films.


1. Australian accents – tending to broad.

The broader Australian accent still often appears in Australian-made films, continuing as part of a well established comedy tradition that has long worked on stage. It’s also used in contemporary advertising, and much loved by contemporary politicians, alongside acceptable slang words like “mate” and “g’day”. Yet, today, that’s not how most Australians speak – indeed it would take a conscious effort to speak like that all the time.

Broad accents from the 1930s can be heard in Australian made films such as Frank Thring‘s His Loyal Highness (Aust:1932) and Ken Hall’s On Our Selection (Aust:1932).

The broad accent rarely appeared in pre-war US and British films. Even in the late 1950s, John Meredyth Lucas commented that a distinctive Australian accent made casting very difficult for the TV series Whiplash. It was unattractive, he felt and by implication might have made sales of the series difficult. In a similar vein, when the US trade paper Harrison’s Reports reviewed Smiley (Aust:1956) they felt it was unlikely to be well received in US because of the Australian accents. But when Jocelyn Howarth was being introduced to US audiences (as Constance Worth) in 1937, Photoplay magazine assured readers she was free of the “caricatured Australian accent.” The distinctive broad Australian accent still had a few outings – such as in MGM’s very self conscious The Man from Down Under (1943). It also occasionally slipped into other films – here are two examples:

  • Brian Norman (1908-1995) in Search for Beauty (US: 1934)


    WB Molloy
    Here Sydney-born Brian Norman, in his one and only film outing, forces some con-men to start morning exercises at the health farm. His broad Australian accent is unmistakable. He became a lawyer after returning from Hollywood. 
    Audio from copy of film in author’s collection. Photo – William Brian Molloy or “Brian Norman” in the Sydney Sun, 1 April 1934. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.


  • Lotus Thompson‘s (1904-1963) one line as a random person at a ball, in Anthony Adverse (US: 1936).


    Lotus3Lotus Thompson from Queensland was briefly a silent star of some standing in Australia and the US, but her career was all but over by 1930. She appeared in some uncredited extra parts in the 1930s. Her few words as an extra here – “Please talk about them” seem to have an noticeable Australian twang.
    Audio from copy of film in the author’s collection. Available through Warner Brothers Archive. Photo-author’s collection c.1924.


2. The accents of former Australian vaudevillians 

Although none of the following actors appear to have had elocution lessons and each had only limited formal educations, all arrived in Hollywood after very long careers on stage in Australia, the US and the UK – enough experience and time to give them an accent that might have come from anywhere.


  • Snub Pollard (1889-1962) also from Melbourne in Just My Luck (US: 1935).


    Snub Pollard Exhibitor's Trade Review Dec. 1922 - Feb. 1923
    The prolific Snub Pollard also had a long career with Pollard Lilliputian’s before moving into Hollywood films in 1915. In this clip Mr Smith (Pollard) and Homer Crow (Charles Ray) discover they have lost their money, whilst eating at a cheap diner famous for beating up any non-paying customers. With the coming of sound Snub Pollard could only find work as an extra – but worked to the end of his life. Audio from copy of film in the author’s collection. Film is still widely available. Photo – Exhibitor’s Trade Review (Dec. 1922 – Feb. 1923) via Lantern Digital Media Project.


  • Paul Scardon (1875-1954) from Melbourne and Western Australia in Gentleman Joe Palooka (US: 1946).


    early scardon
    Scardon had an Australian stage career before moving to the US in late 1905, appearing in US films from about 1911. Here, later in life, he plays an uncredited role as a clerk whose records are being stolen by Knobby Walsh, played by Sydneysider Leon Errol (1881-1951) Copy of film in the author’s collection. The Joe Palooka films are widely available. Photo – Picture Play Weekly. April-Oct 1915. Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

3. Cultivated Australian accents and the importance of elocution

Wealthy Australians living on the continent’s coastal fringe often sent their children to private schools. These schools still put resources into a young person’s rounded personal development – now less commonly through “Speech” (elocution) classes, but still through public speaking, debating and by encouraging the performance arts.


  • Nancy O’Neil (1907-1995) from Sydney in a clip from Something always Happens (UK:1934).
    Nancy on a Lux soap card 1933-4

    O’Neil had attended Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School before travelling to London to study at RADA in 1928. She appeared in film and on stage in England in the 1930s and like most of the other young Australian women in British films of the time, she sounds as English as everyone else.

    Obituaries for these women often claim they “came to England to lose their accent”. But they actually had little accent to lose.
    Audio from copy of the film in the author’s collection. The film is available through Loving the Classics. Photo – Lux Soap Famous Film Stars card, c1933-4. Author’s Collection


  • Shirley Ann Richards (1917-2006) from Sydney as an Australian nurse in Dr Gillespie’s New Assistant (US: 1942), with US actor Richard Quine as an Australian doctor from Woolloomooloo (the Sydney suburb’s name is a source of great humour in the film).


    Richards
    Richards had a private school education at Ascham and The Garden School in Sydney and had the benefit of a mother who was an active member of the English Speaking Union. Later in life she also recalled the importance of the educated women who were close friends of the family. Although she is “laying it on with a trowel” in this clip, this is close to how she really spoke, even after 40 years in California. Audio from copy of film in the author’s collection. TCM currently have a collection of the Dr Gillespie films for sale. Photo – author’s collection.


4. Australian accents – tending more general

The decline of the cultivated Australian accent in the last 50 years is one marker of change in the way Australian English is spoken. At the same time, the general Australian accent seems to have appeared more often in the post war period. However, as the first example demonstrates, the general Australian accent was well and truly in established use before the Second World War.

  • Jocelyn Howarth (as Constance Worth) (1911-1963) from Sydney in the excruciatingly awful The Wages of Sin (US:1936) .


    Howarth on the way to Hollywood
    Here Howarth makes no attempt to disguise her accent, which sounds bizarre alongside the broad American accents of her “family members,” who are lazy and won’t get little Tommy his milk. Audio from copy in the author’s collection. This film is still available from specialist DVD outlets. Photo of Jocelyn Howarth on her way to the US, 13 April 1936. Honolulu Star, via Newspapers.com.


  • Joy Nichols (1925-1992) from Sydney in a Rinso soap commercial made with Bill Kerr (1922-2014), for release in cinemas in 1946.

    Nichols, a butcher’s daughter from inner Sydney, began her long radio and stage career in Australia in wartime. This brought her in close contact with other well known Australian performers, and visiting Americans (she was even briefly married to one). 
    Joy Nichols Turf

Nichols was a skilled singer, comedian and radio performer. Here she is again with fellow Australian Dick Bentley (1907-1995) and Briton Jimmy Edwards at the British Daily Mail radio awards in 1950 – representing the popular radio show Take It From Here. (Click to follow link to youtube – from 5:30)
Photo – Turf cigarette collectable card, c 1950. Author’s collection.


  • Patti Morgan (1928-2001) from Sydney in Booby Trap (UK: 1957). In one of her few film roles, Patti Morgan’s voice seems firmly from Sydney.  

Patti Morgan Cover of Pix 1945

Patti Morgan appeared in only a few British films, but continued her modelling and TV career with success. Audio from copy of film in author’s collection. The film is still available from Loving the Classics and Renown pictures. Photo of Patti on the cover of Pix, 6 Oct, 1945. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.


5. Some other Australians speak

Further Reading on Australian accents

Nick Murphy
December 2020

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