Molly Fisher & Fred Conyngham try their luck in London

Above: Fred Conyngham with Lu Ann Meredith,(looking suspiciously like Fred and Ginger from Hollywood) in the 1936 British musical With Pleasure, Madame, (aka Ball at Savoy). Sydney Mail, 8 April 1936, P12. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The 5 second version
Born in Sydney in 1908, Fred Conyngham had a successful career as a dancer and comedian in JC Williamson’s productions in Australia in the ’20s. Travelling to London in late 1928, he established himself on stage and also appeared in a series of mostly forgettable British films. Molly Fisher was born in Hobart Tasmania in 1908. She first performed on the Australian stage in the early ’20s before moving to England in 1930. Like Fred she appeared on stage and in a mix of films. The couple married in 1932. After World War II they returned to Australia to perform together in a show (that flopped). In 1950 they moved to Sydney and left acting behind for good
Fred moved into insurance.

Above – Left: Molly Fisher about the time she and Fred married in London, on a signed fan card, c1932, Author’s Collection. Right – Fred Conyngham in Film Star Who’s Who on the Screen 1939 magazine (UK). Author’s Collection

Fred establishes himself as an actor

Frederick Ronald Talbot Conyngham (pronounced “Cunningham”) was born in Sydney in June 1908, to George Michael Conyngham and Edith nee Goggins. In time George, a tobacconist, became an actor, director and stage manager of some standing with JC Williamson’s, and their Royal Comic Opera Co, and was later was involved with tours by Dion Boucicault Jr. From a young age he coached his two sons, Fred and Russell (born 1904), as singers and performers. Fred and Russell also had training from Guido Cacialli, a well regarded member of the Gonsalez Opera Company, who had been stranded in Australia by the war.

Above left: George M Conyngham in costume for the musical comedy Whoopee!, playing at Melbourne’s King’s Theatre. The Herald (Melb) 28 Sept 1929, P20.  Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Fred (sometimes called Freddy) Conyngham was first recorded as appearing on the Australian stage in May 1926, on a J C Williamson’s Australasian tour of the popular farce The Last of Mrs Chaney. As a juvenile, he had a minor role as a butler, but one that was noted positively by reviewers. He must also have pleased Williamsons, as he was busy with “the firm” for the next three years. He appeared in a leading role in the play Cradle Snatchers, then in Good News in 1928 and finally the new US musical comedy Whoopee! in 1929. In the latter three plays he was on stage with young Tasmanian actor, Molly Fisher. When their relationship began is now impossible to verify, but it seems likely they were at least very fond of one another before Fred departed for England on the Esperance Bay in late 1928. Perhaps they had an agreement that Fred would establish himself first in London, to pave the way.

Above left: Advertisment for Good News playing at St James Theatre in December 1928, and including Fred and Molly in the cast. Truth (Syd), 30 December 1928. At right: Chorus lineup from Whoopee! J C Williamson’s kept the spectacular and amusing shows running throughout Australia, in spite of the Great Depression. The Sun (Syd), 10 July 1929. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Molly on stage aged 13

Molly (Molly Irene Selina) Fisher was born in Hobart in December 1908. There was no family dynasty of performers in her family, both her father and brother Vernon were both motor engineers. But unlike Fred, who throughout his career seems to have avoided the press, Molly was quite adept at speaking to journalists to help create a public persona. Speaking in 1930 to a journalist from the Melbourne paper Table Talk of her leading role in Turned Up, she said “It is an ingenue part, and I am not fond of playing the nice girl with pretty pretty ways, but prefer something in the comedy line, or with some acting possibilities.” Aged only 21, she already felt she was well experienced – her mother had brought her to Melbourne in 1916 to learn to dance (some of the time under the tutelage of well known Melbourne dance teacher Jenny Brennan) and she had been on stage since that time. Her name had first appeared in J C Williamson’s pantomimes as early as 1921, when she was only 13 years old.

Above left: Molly Fisher (left) with Nellie Barnes hamming it up for the camera, while appearing in the pantomime, The Babes in the Wood, Table Talk (Melb) 2 Feb, 1922. Above right: Molly Fisher in a leading role in Turned Up, Table Talk (Melb) 26 Dec, 1929.  Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Molly’s departure from Australia was well publicised by newspapers – “Another Australian Girl for London” reported Sydney’s Daily Pictorial, with a mixture of pride and mock dismay. Molly had been quite open about her plans to leave for England for some time – she felt it was “the only way to see the best artists and watch their work…(and) even to tour in a provincial company means experience.” Following another leading role in the musical Follow Through, she left for England in April 1930, on the P&O steamer Balranald.

Fred Conyngham’s appearances in England

Fred’s first appearance in London was in the musical The Love Race, written by Stanley Lupino and performed at the Gaiety Theatre in June 1930. It ran for over 230 performances with good reviews – Lupino knew the sort of light entertainment audiences liked. Years later Australian actor John Wood would claim Lupino preferred to avoid casting actors with refined English Oxford accents, which explained his “employment of Australians whenever possible.” It is difficult to verify this claim, although a number of Australians did appear in The Love Race. But when British International Pictures (BIP) made a film of the play later that year, it had been reconstructed for the screen, much of the music had been dropped and many of the stage actors, including Fred, did not appear, probably due to scheduling commitments.

Above: Australians in the cast of The Love Race featured in The Home magazine, 2 January 1931. Left to right – Esme Tosh, Harry Wotton, Madge Elliot and Fred Conyngham. All were born in or had grown up in Australia, as was Cyril Ritchard, who was also in the play. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove

After a tour of South Africa in 1931, Fred appeared in a healthy run of the musical The Cat and Fiddle at London’s Palace Theatre. His stage performances kept him busy for much of the next decade and established his reputation as a capable performer – these included Wild Violets at the Drury Lane in 1932, She Shall Have Music at the Savoy in 1934 and The Flying Trapeze in 1935. It is evident from reviews of Fred’s performances that his singing, dancing and comic timing were regarded as “first class”, “clever” and that he projected “a pleasant personality” on stage. However, this reputation was largely built on consistently good performances in fairly lightweight material – shows that were an entertaining distraction. but often not much more.

In 1932 he appeared in his first film – a 63 minute musical for BIP called The Indiscretions of Eve (it was also the first film for Steffi Duna and Jessica Tandy). In his book on British musical films, Cheer Up! Adrian Wright counts about 320 musicals made in Britain in the first 15 years of sound film. Unfortunately, because of the patchiness of the genre, many are difficult to find today, including this one. However, David Quinlan has described it as “bright and amusing mini musical comedy about an earl [Fred Conyngham] who falls in love with a girl [Steffi Duna] who models in a wax factory…” Most of Fred’s 1930s films comprised musicals – notably Ball at Savoy (1936), Rose of Tralee (1937) and The Minstrel Boy (1937), plus several dramas, comedies, and a thriller, The Crouching Beast (1935).

Above: Fred Conyngham and Peggy Cochrane in Radio Parade of 1935. (1934). This scene is a highlight of the film. The film is still available from Networkonair.com

Radio Parade of 1935, one of only a few of Fred’s films currently available for purchase, was typical of many British musicals of the era. The film has a weak plot – it is essentially a series of musical acts held together by a superficial narrative about a radio station needing to update its programming. Fred had a brief appearance, playing himself, performing There’s no excusing Susan with Peggy Cochrane. Their colour scene together was a highlight at the end of the film.

In December 1938 Motion Picture Herald magazine listed Britain’s top stars – by popularity at the box office. It is a long list starting with actors still recalled today – George Formby, Gracie Fields, Jessie Matthews, Anna Neagle etc. Fred Conyngham was amongst the others listed, his popularity coming off the back of three musical films he made in 1937. But contemporary film historians Denis Gifford and Adrian Wright have also characterised Fred as “Britain’s B-picture Fred Astaire,” which seems to accurately reflect the problem many British actors faced at the time – the film material (plot, direction, photography and effects) was often mediocre.

Early in 1931 the rest of the Conyngham family arrived in London – 25 year old brother Russell, George M and his second wife Gladys and their 4 year old son. His parents stayed for two years, George M being keen to see Russell establish himself.

Molly Fisher in England

Molly Fisher’s first English appearance was in Sons of Guns in Liverpool, which started less than a month after she arrived, a placement she arranged before she left Australia. Her salary was £40 per week, (the equivalent of about £2500 today). Her first London production was a revival of the old favourite The Belle of New York, which ran at Daly’s and then the Winter Garden in mid 1931. However, a great success followed when she took a part in the new musical The White Horse Inn, which ran for a year at London’s Coliseum. In July 1932, in the midst of their busy schedules, Molly and Fred married.

Above: Molly Fisher as Mamie with Johnny Schofield (Blinky Bill) and Norman Page (Von Pumpernick) in The Belle of New York. The Tatler, April 15, 1931, P91. The copyright for this photo is held by the Illustrated London News Group. Via The British Library Newspaper Archive

Like Fred, Molly Fisher appeared in a handful of British films. These were a mixture of thrillers and comedies, with Molly generally taking the supporting role of “best friend” to the leading actress. Unfortunately, like Fred’s films, most of these are B films and difficult to source now. Two that are still available both feature Ivor Novello in the leading role, with I Lived With You (based on Novello’s own play) standing out as a fine romantic comedy.

Above left: Screen grab of Molly (right foreground) as a telephonist with Elizabeth Allen (centre) in the thriller The Lodger (aka The Phantom Fiend) 1932. Above right: Screen grab of Molly (right) with Ursula Jeans (left) in I Lived With You, 1933. This latter film is available through Renown pictures.

Working together again

On several occasions Fred performed with familiar Australian faces. Lucille Lisle had appeared with Fred in Cradle Snatchers in Melbourne. They appeared together again in the film The Minstrel Boy, described by Adrian Wright as “a tepid attempt to establish Lisle as a romantic leading lady.” Also in 1937, Australian born director Alf Goulding used both Fred and Molly for his B-film Sam Small Leaves Town, filmed at Butlin’s famous holiday camp in Skegness (another film that now seems to have entirely disappeared). In 1939, John Warwick, his wife Molly Raynor (actually New Zealand born), Lucille Lisle and Fred all appeared on tour with A Star Comes Home.

Perhaps these are merely coincidences, but Australians still like to think they “look out” for each other. Actor Esmond Knight recalled meeting a fresh faced, newly arrived Australian actor who visited him and Fred in their dressing room during the run of Wild Violets. Fred gave the young man the names of helpful managers to contact. The young man was Robert Helpmann.

While both Molly and Fred continued to perform on tour and in London in the 1930s, as the decade came to a close they made more of an effort to work together. A daughter had been born in 1934, so there was another reason for the family to spend more time together. In 1937, Fred and Molly appeared on stage together at the Shaftesbury in Crazy Days, another Stanley Lupino production. And in early 1940, they performed together in Revue Des Allies at the Prince of Wales Theatre. Records also show that in 1940 they were appearing on BBC radio as part of a variety performance.

A volunteer fireman in 1939, Fred served in the Army during the war and this was very likely as a member of the Entertainment National Services Association (ENSA), providing entertainment to the British and Allied forces. Fred’s brother Russell was also an ENSA performer and director. (See below)

Post war return to Australia

Above: Linda Parker and Fred Conyngham in a scene from When You Come Home (1947), his last British film. This is a screen grab from a short clip on Youtube, the author had been unable to source a full copy.

Following the war, the couple had returned to the English stage and probably appeared in some now lost BBC TV programs. Before leaving England, Fred also appeared in the film When You Come Home, a Frank Randle comedy. Another film difficult to find today, it reportedly used the old familiar device of a story shaped around a music hall, providing plenty of opportunity for varied performers and sketches to hold it all together.

Sometime in late 1947, Fred and Molly were offered work in Marinka, (an operetta inspired by the 1889 murder-suicide involving the Crown Prince of Austria) and planned for a season on Australia’s Tivoli circuit by producer David N Martin.

There are any number of reasons why Fred and Molly may have wanted to come home, but Marinka (even with its shift to light romance and a change of ending) was an unfortunate choice to kick off a rebooted Australian career, if that is what they hoped for. Despite the efforts that David Martin made with the production, it received only modest reviews and was not a success at the box office. Theatre Historian Frank Van Straten suggests it was “out of place” at the Tivoli, which promptly returned to traditional vaudeville fare.

Above: Molly and Fred posing for a publicity shot at the time they appeared in Melbourne in Marinka. Australian Women’s Weekly, 10 July 1948. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

By 1950, Fred and Molly had decided to leave the stage behind. They moved to Sydney, and Fred went into insurance.

Regrettably, but like so many Australian actors, they were never interviewed about their years of acting and dancing. Molly died in April 1966, aged only 57. Fred’s inscription on Molly’s headstone at Sydney’s North Rocks cemetery is touching and speaks of the couple’s strong bond: “You were the one, the only one, to be linked with my restless soul…”

Fred died in 1974.

Russell Conyngham

Fred’s brother Russell did build a successful career in Britain as an actor and later a director. He appeared as a “twinkle-toed” dancer on stage in Britain, often with Iris Boyers, who he married in 1939. In September 1935 The Stage magazine announced that Russell, “the eccentric light comedian… and Iris Boyers, soubrette and leading dancer have formed a new comedy variety act”. During World War II both Russell and Iris worked for ENSA, but in December 1949 they also departed for Australia, with their children, and pursued other interests. Russell died in 1984.

Above: Russell Conyngham about 1934. Bath Weekly and Chronicle Herald, Oct 20, 1934, P19. Via the British Library Newspaper Archive

References

  • Text
    • Denis Gifford (1978) The illustrated who’s who in British Films. Batsford.
    • Esmond Knight (1943) Seeking the Bubble. National Book Association. Hutchinson.
    • Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British film. Methuen, BFI – Methuen
    • John Parker (1936) Who’s Who in the Theatre. A Biographical record of the Contemporary Stage.(Eighth Edition) Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons
    • John Parker (1939) Who’s Who in the Theatre. A Biographical record of the Contemporary Stage.(Ninth Edition) Pitman Publishing
    • David Quinlan (1984) British Sound Films: The Studio Years 1928-1959. B T Batsford
    • Jeffrey Richards (Ed) (2000)The Unknown 1930s, An Alternative History of the British Cinema. I B Tauris. esp Chapter 5, Stephen Guy; “Calling All Stars: Musical films in a Musical Decade”
    • Frank Van Straten (2003 Tivoli. Thomas Lothian
    • J.P. Wearing (Ed)(2014) The London Stage 1930-1939 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
    • Adrian Wright (2020) Cheer Up! British Musical Films 1929-1945. The Boydell Press.
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Table Talk 2 Feb 1922
    • The World’s News 14 May 1926, P6
    • Table Talk, 4 Aug 1927, P9
    • Arrow (Syd)), Friday 23 Nov 1928, P15
    • Truth 25 Nov 1928, P11
    • Sunday Times (Syd), 6 Jan 1929, P18
    • Sunday Times (Syd) 3 Feb 1929, P14
    • Table Talk 2 Jan 1930, P20
    • Daily Pictorial (Syd) 27 Mar 1930, P23
    • The Home 2 Jan 1931, P34
    • Labor Daily (Syd) 2 Ap 1936, P10
    • Sunday Mail, 8 May 1936, P12
    • Mercury (Hob) 22 March 1938, P5
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, Mon 16 Oct 1939, Page 6
    • The Sun (Syd) 11 Jan 1948, P2
    • The Herald (Melb) 21 May 1948, P6
    • The Argus (Melb) 29 May 1948 P5
    • The Australian Women’s Weekly 10 July 1948, P13
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • The Tatler, 15 April 1931, P91
    • The Sketch, 16 March 1932, P476
    • Kinematograph Weekly, 5 May 1932, P40
    • The Worthing Gazette, 9 Nov 1932, P11
    • The Stage,  21 June 1934, P15
    • Bath Weekly and Chronicle Herald, Oct 20, 1934, P19
    • The Era, 2 Sept 1934
    • The Bystander, 29 May 1935, P375
    • Clitheroe Advertiser and Times, 18 Dec 1936, P6
    • The Stage – Thursday 19 October 1939, P6
    • Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 12 Jan 1940, P60
    • Kinematograph Weekly, 19 Dec 1946
  • Lantern Digital Media Project
    • Motion Picture Herald 31 Dec 1938, P13-14

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