Gwen Gaze (1915-2010) The girl in the Westerns from Melbourne

Screen grab of 26 year old Gwen Gaze, with her trademark smile and blonded hair for the film Underground Rustlers (1941). The film can be watched here at the Internet Archive. Note – photos of Gwen Gaze are uncommon, so most of the photos used here are screen grabs or from contemporary newspapers.

Gwen best
The Five Second Version
Gwen Gaze was an Australian born actor who appeared in about a dozen Hollywood films in the late 1930s, mostly Westerns. Born in Melbourne in 1915, her father – singer and actor Leslie Gaze (1880-1957) –  had brought the family to Los Angeles in the early 1920s. She studied for two years at RADA in London before her first role in a B film with John Wayne in 1937. In 1944 she married and mostly retired from films, although she maintained an interest in performing all her life. She became a US citizen in 1940. Her uncle was highly regarded illustrator Harold Gaze (1884-1963)

In 1939, 24 year old actor Gwen Gaze told a journalist in Hollywood that she was eager to return to the land of her birth to appear in an Australian film. “If they would pay my expenses… I would work for buttons” she reportedly said.[1]The Sun (Sydney) 11 June 1939, P12, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove It was a very witty comment, but she did not return to Australia. She had left Australia at the age of 7 with her parents, and grew up in Pasadena in California. Like so many other young women in Hollywood’s golden age, Gwen Gazes film output ended up being very modest – between 1937 and 1949 she had roles in perhaps a dozen or so movies.

25 year old Gwen in her 1940 US naturalisation document. Via Ancestry.com

Alta Gwendolen Gaze was born in Brighton, a southern suburb of Melbourne Australia, in 1915. [2]Births Deaths and Marriages, Victoria, Certificate 18975/1915 Her Adelaide born father, Leslie Gaze (1880-1957) was an actor and singer,[3]The Advertiser (Adelaide) 29 Mar 1912 P8 “THROUGH ADVERSITY.” Via National Library of Australia’s Trove[4]Referee (Sydney) 17 Mar 1915, P15 “THE IDEALS OF LESLIE GAZE” Via National Library of Australia’s Trove her mother Alta May nee Tomlinson (1885-1948) was “a brilliant pianist,”[5]The Bulletin. Vol. 54 No. 2771, 22 Mar 1933. P18 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove born in Chicago.

Leslie Gaze c1918[6]Graphic of Australia (Melb)14 Nov 1918  P10, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Judging by Leslie Gaze’s movements and his public comments over time, it seems settling down in the one spot with a consistent career was never a priority. He had lived and performed in Britain, the US and then returned to appear in the operetta The Chocolate Soldier in Australia and New Zealand in 1911. Reviews consistently commented on his good looks, impressive stage presence and beautiful voice.[7]Punch (Melbourne)17 Aug 1911, P16 MR. LESLIE GAZE Via National Library of Australia’s Trove Perhaps Leslie was a restless personality – he stayed in Australia for a decade, sometimes appearing on stage, but also turned to farming squabs (pigeons) in Victoria. In about 1920 the family moved to Sydney where another daughter was born, and Leslie took up teaching singing.[8]Pamela Wentworth Gaze, The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Mar 1921, P 8 Family Notices. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove Then in late 1922, the whole family departed for the US, via New Zealand, for reasons that were never publicly explained. By April 1923, they were in Los Angeles, where Leslie re-established himself as a real estate agent, while also singing and entertaining Californians with tall stories from Australia.[9]Such as his claim to have escaped a Grey Nurse Shark. Press-Telegram(Long Beach) 1 Jun 1923, P24 Via Newspapers.com[10]Shark attacks DO happen in Australian waters, but are rare. Glen Alyn also claimed she escaped a shark. It’s likely other Australian actors have also made this claim. The family settled in Pasadena, where Leslie again turned to teaching before finally becoming an insurance broker.

Left – Pamela Gaze in the play the Family Upstairs.[11]Pasadena Post 28 April 1932. Via Newspapers.com Right – Gwen Gaze in a Woodrow Wilson Junior High School production.[12]Pasadena Post, 27 Jan 1932. Via Newspapers.com

Gwen – back in the US and ready for films[13]Pasadena Post 17 May 1936. P13 Via Newspapers.com

It is hardly surprising that Gwen and her younger sister Pamela flourished in this family – where the creative arts – singing, acting and music were actively encouraged. By the early 1930s, both girls were appearing on stage in amateur productions, with Gwen spending some time studying at Pasadena College. Then, in September 1934, Gwen travelled to London on her own, to begin study at RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. The experience was clearly worthwhile – in March 1936 Gwen Gaze was noted by The Stage performing with other graduates in a presentation program at London’s Haymarket Theatre. Gwen had a part in selected scenes from J B Priestley’s The Good Performers.[14]The Stage 5 March 1936, P11. Via British Library Newspaper Archive She returned to the US in April 1936, and a few months later RADA listed her as one of their Certificate of Merit winners.[15]The Stage 22 October 1936, P10. Via British Library Newspaper Archive She was, as the supportive staff at The Pasedena Post reported, now “ready for films.”

Soon after this she landed her first film role, perhaps after being seen in Pasadena Little Theatre by a Universal Studios scout.[16]The Los Angeles Times, 12 Apr 1937, P34 via Newspapers.com In I Cover the War! she played a British officer’s niece, the romantic interest for John Wayne, playing tough-guy newsreel cameraman Bob Adams – on assignment in North Africa. As Film reviewer Stephen Vagg notes, director Arthur Lubin was extremely capable, but these “B movies” usually only took a few weeks to film and were churned out to cinemas hungry for product.[17]Stephen Vagg, Diabolique Magazine (Sept 14, 2019) “The Cinema of Arthur Lubin

The film was released in late July 1937 and at a little over 60 minutes it was clearly intended as a second feature. Yet it lived on, to be endlessly replayed years later on TV, as John Wayne’s popularity grew.

An intimate posed scene from I Cover the War! [18]Chattanooga Daily Times 10 Oct 1937, P30. Via Newspapers.com

Interviewed by her family almost 70 years later, Gwen could not recall John Wayne fondly – she thought he was completely preoccupied with his own career. One gains the impression she may have had more to say about Wayne, but probably thought better of it.[19]Gwen’s interview in 2006 can be seen here: Gwen Gaze: Her Life in Her Words@Vimeo

Director Arthur Lubin with Glen, soon after she signed her contract with Universal Studios. [20]The Pasadena Post 14 April, 1937, P5 via Newspapers.com

It should be noted that her experience in Hollywood B films was similar to that of her Melbourne contemporary Mary Maguire. At the same time Gwen was breaking into films, Maguire signed an exciting contract with Warner Bros. with some fanfare, and took ingénue roles in B films with leading players like Ronald Reagan, until so dissatisfied with the experience, she finally declined another such role.[21]And was promptly suspended without pay by the studio Gwen may have found some satisfaction in the slightly more sophisticated female roles she took in the Hopalong Cassidy (William Boyd) Westerns – Partners of the Plains (1938) and Bar 20 Justice (1938), both directed by Leslie Selander for Paramount. In both films she played an outsider new to the West, who Hopalong takes under his wing. There is romance in the air, but of course, being a Hopalong Cassidy film, nothing happens.

At the end of both films, Gwen’s characters leave for the big city life again. The west is apparently no place for a woman!

Screen grabs from Partners of the Plains. In this film Gwen played stuffy Englishwoman Lorna Drake, who has inherited a ranch. She not only learns to love the West but after a lot of banter, takes a shine to Hoppy. Source – Film Detective Channel on youtube.

Here Gwen sings “Moonlight on the Sunset Trail” for Partners of the Plains. It seems this was the only time she sang in a film.[22]The entire film can be seen here on the Film Detective Channel on youtube

Screen grabs from Bar 20 Justice. Gwen plays Ann Dennis, whose goldmine is at risk. In this film Gwen also showed she could competently ride a horse. Source – Video Rider Channel on youtube.

William Boyd starred in more than sixty Hopalong films and later made his fortune by negotiating the use of these by TV stations in the 1950s. Gwen only appeared in these two Hopalong Cassidy films. Her other major film undertaking in 1938 was The Secret of Treasure Island, a 15 part mystery serial made for Columbia – based closely on a story by L Ron Hubbard.

Gwen as Toni Morell, reacting to something scary, in Columbia’s thriller serial The Secret of Treasure Island. These screen grabs are from the TelaclassicTV version on youtube. [23]Episode 1 of the serial can be seen here.

While each twenty minute episode can be watched online and film historian Geoff Mayer has provided a helpful synopsis [24]Geoff Mayer (2017) Encyclopedia of American Film Serials. P253-254. McFarland, the serial is very much of its era, and the plot-holes can be distracting for the modern viewer. Each episode of these cliff-hanger serials was updated weekly at the cinema and human memory being what it is, viewers then were probably inclined to forget or at least be less distracted by the inconsistencies.

Gwen returned to the Western genre for Monogram pictures after 1940, and appeared in four of the “Range Busters” films – which usually featured Ray “Crash” Corrigan, John “Dusty” King and with comic relief provided by Max Terhune and his dummy Elmer (thus a ventriloquist cowboy – a comic device of its time). There were at least 24 Range Busters films made between 1940 and 1943, and a long list of (usually) brunettes who took the leading female roles, all of whom seem to somewhat resemble each other, and resemble Gwen – including Luana Walters, Lita Conway, Dorothy Short and real life horse women Evelyn Finley and Julie Duncan. The films were formulaic and predictable, but apparently popular enough with audiences. Many of these are available today – Underground Rustlers (1941) can be watched at the Internet Archive here.

Left – Gwen, with her characteristic smile in Underground Rustlers and with Crash Corrigan (in hat). Screengrabs via Internet Archive

There is some evidence Gwen sometimes appeared on stage in the 1940s. There is, for example, a reference to her performing in Nancy’s Private Affair in 1943 at the Mayan theatre in Los Angeles,[25]Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, 15 Jul 1943, P15 Via Newspapers.com but, in April 1944, Gwen married businessman Martin Straith and settled in Vancouver, British Columbia. Straith was apparently keen for her to retire.[26]Gwen Gaze: Her Life in Her Words@Vimeo Two children were born of the union in the next few years, but tragically, Straith died in 1948. Gwen was reported to be active on radio in Vancouver at this time, and she was also referred to as a performer with Vancouver Little Theatre, although exactly what roles she took is currently unknown. Her final film appearance – as an extra – was in Universal’s crime drama Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949), which had some scenes filmed in Vancouver.[27]The Province (Vancouver, BC) 9 Mar 1949, P6 Via Newspapers.com Perhaps there were others.

Gwen married twice more – in December 1950, to grain broker Chester Fellowes Burdic and in March 1966 to architect Arden C Steinhard. She died in 2010 in Seattle, Washington, aged 95. Although the 2006 family interview is only short, we gain some sense of what Hollywood’s golden age was like from her comments. However, there is really no evidence that she ever thought of herself or presented herself as “Australian” – in the way Mary Maguire, Constance Worth and others did. Her blended Australian-US family, two years of study in the UK and long period of residence on the US and Canadian west coast contributed to the interesting transatlantic accent heard in most of her films. When interviewed she spoke of having to moderate her accent for film work.

Note 1 Harold Gaze (1884-1963)

Harold Gaze as featured in a 1934 newspaper report [28]The Pasadena Post, 6 May 1934, P13, via Newspapers.com

Gwen recalled being close to her very creative New Zealand born uncle Harold Gaze, a renowned illustrator.

Some the children’s books he wrote and copyrighted while living in Melbourne c1920 are able to be viewed online at the National Archives of Australia, including
* The Wicked Winkapong
* Coppertop
* The Simple Jaggajay
* The Chewg-um-blewg-um
* The Billabonga Bird

Harold Gaze appears to have moved to California in the 1920s, at about the same time as Leslie and his family. Gwen could recall her uncle very fondly, reading to her as a child, and occasionally correcting her English. A few of his works have since been reprinted and many of his illustrations are for sale, although his life story is only partly documented. He lived in California for many years, but late in life he moved to England, living near Gwen’s sister Pamela, who had become a music teacher. He died in 1963.[29]See Independent Star-News (Pasadena) 29 Jul 1962, P42 and Pasadena Independent 12 Nov 1963, P15. Via Newspapers.com


Films


Nick Murphy
February 2022

This site has been selected for archiving and preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 The Sun (Sydney) 11 June 1939, P12, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
2 Births Deaths and Marriages, Victoria, Certificate 18975/1915
3 The Advertiser (Adelaide) 29 Mar 1912 P8 “THROUGH ADVERSITY.” Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
4 Referee (Sydney) 17 Mar 1915, P15 “THE IDEALS OF LESLIE GAZE” Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
5 The Bulletin. Vol. 54 No. 2771, 22 Mar 1933. P18 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
6 Graphic of Australia (Melb)14 Nov 1918  P10, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
7 Punch (Melbourne)17 Aug 1911, P16 MR. LESLIE GAZE Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
8 Pamela Wentworth Gaze, The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Mar 1921, P 8 Family Notices. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
9 Such as his claim to have escaped a Grey Nurse Shark. Press-Telegram(Long Beach) 1 Jun 1923, P24 Via Newspapers.com
10 Shark attacks DO happen in Australian waters, but are rare. Glen Alyn also claimed she escaped a shark. It’s likely other Australian actors have also made this claim.
11 Pasadena Post 28 April 1932. Via Newspapers.com
12 Pasadena Post, 27 Jan 1932. Via Newspapers.com
13 Pasadena Post 17 May 1936. P13 Via Newspapers.com
14 The Stage 5 March 1936, P11. Via British Library Newspaper Archive
15 The Stage 22 October 1936, P10. Via British Library Newspaper Archive
16 The Los Angeles Times, 12 Apr 1937, P34 via Newspapers.com
17 Stephen Vagg, Diabolique Magazine (Sept 14, 2019) “The Cinema of Arthur Lubin
18 Chattanooga Daily Times 10 Oct 1937, P30. Via Newspapers.com
19 Gwen’s interview in 2006 can be seen here: Gwen Gaze: Her Life in Her Words@Vimeo
20 The Pasadena Post 14 April, 1937, P5 via Newspapers.com
21 And was promptly suspended without pay by the studio
22 The entire film can be seen here on the Film Detective Channel on youtube
23 Episode 1 of the serial can be seen here.
24 Geoff Mayer (2017) Encyclopedia of American Film Serials. P253-254. McFarland
25 Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, 15 Jul 1943, P15 Via Newspapers.com
26 Gwen Gaze: Her Life in Her Words@Vimeo
27 The Province (Vancouver, BC) 9 Mar 1949, P6 Via Newspapers.com
28 The Pasadena Post, 6 May 1934, P13, via Newspapers.com
29 See Independent Star-News (Pasadena) 29 Jul 1962, P42 and Pasadena Independent 12 Nov 1963, P15. Via Newspapers.com

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