The short, brilliant career of Margot Rhys (1914-1996)

Above: Margot Rhys featured in The Telegraph (Sydney), 1 May 1934, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The Five Second Version.
Margot Rhys was born in Melbourne Australia in 1914. She showed a passion for performing from an early age, and was exposed to two significant influences while still young – visiting German actor-director Theo Shall in 1933, and pioneer Australian film director Charles Chauvel in 1933-1935, for whom she appeared in several films. She once assured a journalist that the only ambition she had ever known was to “be on the stage.”[1]Table Talk, 21 September 1933, P20, via National Library of Australia’s, Trove For a short time she received great publicity in Australia as an up and coming actor – the equal of her contemporary Mary Maguire, and with an expectation she too, would try her luck overseas. But in 1936 she married and moved to a Western district property – disappearing from the stage and screen completely. She died in Adelaide in 1996.
Katie Rhys-Jones in 1931[2]Table Talk 25 June 1931, P25, via Trove

Born Kathleen Margot Rhys-Jones,[3]Victorian Births Deaths and Marriages, Birth Certificate 1632/1914 (Katie to the family), in South Yarra, Melbourne, in 1914 to Philip, variously described as a manager or engineer and Nellie nee Hussey. Katie Rhys-Jones attended St Catherine’s Girl’s School in Toorak, Melbourne, at the same time as Janet Johnson and Gwen Munro, who also went on to acting careers. While still aged in her teens, Katie gained some publicity for appearing in charity fundraising performances. The photograph at left shows 17 year old Katie while performing in the play Prunella, for Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Hospital.

In Late 1931,[4]Table Talk, 29 Oct 1931, P38, Social, via National Library of Australia’s Trove after completing school, she moved to Sydney to attend Miss Jean Cheriton’s Doone finishing school – thus becoming a contemporary of Margaret Vyner.[5]The Daily Telegraph (Syd), 25 Feb 1932, P10, PARTY FOR Margaret FAIRFAX. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove At Doone, languages, dance, music, elocution and performance arts were all part of the curriculum, alongside tennis and fencing, in what Cheriton liked to characterise as a “leisurely” learning environment, for young women who were ready to take their places in society.

Doone finishing school, apparently Australia’s only such school, about the time Katie attended. Left, an advertisement for the school[6]The Home, 1 October 1930, P10. via National Library of Australia’s Trove Right, a photo from the State Library of New South Wales, Sam Hood collection, showing students in1933.[7]Online Digital Collection, Sam Hood Collection, State Library of New South Wales.

For much of 1933, Katie modelled, performed in radio dramas and on stage with the Sydney Repertory Company. But her big breakthrough came in August 1933, when she gained a role in a play with visiting German actor-director Theo Shall, when she also adopted the stage name Margot Rhys.[8]The Age, 4 Aug 1933, P9, THEO SHALL IN NEW PLAY. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Margot Rhys (Kathleen Rhys-Jones) , photographed by Athol Shmith, at the height of her fame in 1935.[9]Table Talk, May 30, 1935, cover, Via National Library of Australia

Theo Shall,[10]1896-1955, real name William Guldner, according to the German National Library had arrived in Australia in July 1932 at the invitation of JC Williamsons, the theatre company so dominant in Australia it was commonly known as “the firm.” He spent almost two years (August 1932 – June 1934) bringing “continental” theatre to Australian cities, with mixed success.[11]The Australasian 1 Oct 1932, P7. The Play Is Not The Thing. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove See Note 1 below regarding the Theo Shall tour.

Margot Rhys appearing in the play Fair Exchange with Theo Shall in Melbourne in late 1933. Maria Von Wyl (real name Von Wymental) was Shall’s wife.[12]The Argus (Melb) 12 August 1933., P28. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

A translated version of Fair Exchange [13]by Viennese writer Bruno Frank found an audience and some enthusiastic supporters when it opened in Melbourne in late August 1933. But not everyone liked it. Several newspaper reviewers found fault with the acting and felt it a poor choice of play. And Table Talk, usually so enthusiastic for new productions, thought 19 year old supporting actress Margot Rhys was too inexperienced.[14]Table Talk, 24 August 1933, P14, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove Shall followed this with the farce Baby Mine, with Margot Rhys again in a supporting role.

Theo Shall and Marie Von Wyl in Sydney in late 1932[15]The Sun (Sydney) 4 Dec 1932, P31, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

We are fortunate in that Katie, as up and coming actor Margot Rhys, left some public thoughts about the experience of working with Theo Shall. In September 1933 she commented: “He arouses and brings something out of you that has been lying dormant and of which you were scarcely aware. By his methods he awakens you to realisation of your possibilities. It is his thoroughness, and his patience, which so impresses you, and which is so wonderful.”[16]Table Talk, 21 Sep 1933, P20, The Stage and the Paint Brush It may well have been wonderful, but not long after this she left Shall’s company. In early March 1934, Margot was announced as taking the leading role of pioneer woman Jane Judd, in Charles Chauvel’s upcoming film Heritage. With her was 16 year old Peggy (later Mary) Maguire, another “find” of Chauvel’s.[17]Chauvel could also lay claim to having discovered Errol Flynn

Margot Rhys, photographed when her role in Heritage was announced.[18]Truth (Sydney) 18 Mar, 1934, P23. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Charles Chauvel deserves his reputation as an Australian filmmaking pioneer, however most modern viewers will find Heritage heavy weather. Paul Byrnes at the NFSA suggests “even in 1935, Chauvel’s tendency to preach and berate, rather than dramatise, made the film seem like a tiresome lecture. It was not a success.[19]Australian Screen, National Film and Sound Archive website. Heritage, Curator’s notes. Paul Byrnes In their account of the film, Film historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper report that shooting commenced in April 1934 and took almost six months – an extraordinary length of time for an Australian film of the era. However, with its themes of pioneer struggles and nation building, the film struck a chord with political leaders, and won first prize of £2,500 in the Commonwealth Government’s Film competition.[20]Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper (1980) Australian film 1900-1977, P224-226. Oxford University Press/AFI And clearly Chauvel was happy with Margot as an actor, as he cast her again in his next film, Uncivilised.

Franklyn Bennett and Margot Rhys as a pioneer couple in Heritage (1935). Screengrab from a copy in the author’s collection.

Filming of Uncivilised began in late 1935, with English actor Dennis Hoey brought out to play a leading role opposite Margaret.[21]The Age, 10 Oct 1935, P7, AMUSEMENTS. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove Mary Maguire had signed up to appear in National Production’s The Flying Doctor, so despite suggestions she would work for Chauvel again, she was not available.

Margot and Mary Maguire – rising stars popular enough to be advertising. At left – for makeup. [22]in The Hebrew Standard of Australasia, 24 Jan, 1936, P1. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove At right – Margot Rhys announced as Vacuum Oil’s Miss Ethyl.[23]The Daily Examiner, Nov 14, 1935, P14, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Sadly, Uncivilised has aged even less successfully than Heritage. Paul Byrnes aptly describes it as an Australian version of a Hollywood Tarzan movie. This writer’s view is that Chauvel seems to have wheeled out almost every imaginable jungle film stereotype – including Mara, the white ruler of an indigenous tribe (Hoey); a shifty “half cast” in the best traditions of Tondelayo from White Cargo; drug smuggling; fabulous rubies; and a wicked Afghan. The best that can be said of it, is that it is “of its time.” Margot Rhys is competent in the leading role of Beatrice Lynn, an author, who goes, inexplicably, on her own, in search of Mara.

Screengrabs of Margot Rhys as Beatrice in Uncivilised (1936). The skinny-dipping scene at right was cut for the export edition. Clearly a stand-in was used in some shots – such as this one. Author’s collection.

The film was completed by April 1936, and Hoey went home, after making the usual complements about the wonderful experience of filming-making in Australia, that seem to have become a established tradition for visiting actors even in the mid 1930s.[24]Also see for example, visiting British director Miles Mander, who felt that “the average Australian is 25% better developed than the Englishman”, or his screenwriter JOC Orton, who said … Continue reading The film gained some further fame when Australia’s chief censor banned it for export.[25]This meant it could be shown in Australia uncut, but not exported! See The Courier-Mail (Bris) 22 Sep, 1936, P13, BAN ON AUSTRALIAN FILM. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove The cuts required were scenes of Margot Rhys skinny-dipping and a scene from the final fight, where an Indigenous man is strangled.

A grainy photo of Margot’s 21st birthday on the set of Uncivilised. Charles Chauvel is in the centre of this posed shot, toasting Margot at left. [26]See the original here – Telegraph (Bris), Monday 30 March 1936, P6. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

In early April, as the film wrapped, another announcement was made. Margot Rhys, now aged 21, would soon marry Dalzell Mein, a grazier. Charles Chauvel said he hoped she would not retire as an actor, but she did. The couple honeymooned in Hawaii, and then returned to run “Toolang,” a large property near Coleraine, in Victoria’s western district.[27]Several newspapers implied the trip to Hawaii might be the start of a US film career Three years later she was more than happy to describe herself “as a complete country bumpkin and proud of it.[28]The Sun (Syd) 21 Jun 1939, P13, via National Library of Australia’s Trove Of course, she was never a country bumpkin and her occasional return visits to Melbourne were still noted with interest in society pages of newspapers.

A very happy Dal Mein and Katie on their wedding day in 1936, from the society page of Table Talk.[29]Table Talk, May 26, 1936, PIV. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

If Katie Mein ever regretted giving up her career, she never said so. A number of her contemporaries kept working after marriage – Mary Maguire and Margaret Vyner for example. But we cannot assume that the experience of working with Shall and Chauvel was such a thoroughly enjoyable one, it was preferable to life on the land. Perhaps it wasn’t.

Katie Mein died of cancer in Adelaide in June 1996. She was survived by a daughter.[30]SA Geneology – Kathleen Mary (Katie) MEIN (Newspaper Death Notices) 21 Jun 1996 To this writer’s knowledge, she was never interviewed or asked to record her experiences of her three years performing and being continually in the public eye.

Charles Chauvel died in 1959. Arguably his best film was Jedda (1955), also his last, which showed that, twenty years later, he had moved on from his 1930s vision of Indigenous Australians as stock characters in films. The colour film[31]Australia’s first colour film, and made with considerable difficulty concerned a love story between an Indigenous man and woman, and was a fitting finale to his long career.[32]You can read more about Jedda here


Note 1 – The Theo Shall tour of 1932-1934

Theo Shall arrived in Australia with considerable fanfare – he had appeared on stage and screen in Germany, Britain, and had been in a US film with Greta Garbo. Despite his reputation, it was a somewhat tumultuous two years, with several plays cancelled and rescheduled and inconsistent reviews of his work. Shall’s Australian sojourn is worth an entire study of its own, but there are few references to him beyond contemporary newspapers. Writing in 1965 when some Australians could still recall meeting Shall, Eric Porter described him as “handsome but hysterical…” Porter also suggested that Shall was very difficult to work with – his “backstage tantrums outmatched Oscar Asche’s…[33]Eric Porter(1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. P218, Rigby Some evidence supporting this claim exists. In early 1933 Shall’s wife Maria Von Wyl took great umbridge and refused to perform because she was billed beside (rather than above) a young Australian actor called Coral Browne.[34]The Herald 19 Jan 1933, P1. ACTRESS WILL NOT PLAY. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Left: Maria Von Wyl in Australia in 1933.[35]Table Talk, 24 August 1933, P20. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove Right: Theo Shall in the film Olympia, in 1930.[36]Picture Play Magazine, July-Dec 1930, P582. Via Lantern, Media History Digital Library

Shall departed Australia in something of a hurry in June 1934, cancelling a scheduled performance in Adelaide.[37]The Advertiser 25 May 1934, P14, Production Of “Love’s The Best Doctor” Cancelled. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove He went back to Britain to make films, and then eventually went on to Germany. He is famous today for the wrong reason – for roles in Nazi propaganda films, such as Titanic (1943). He died in East Berlin in 1955. Maria Von Wyl’s later fate remains unknown.

Nick Murphy
March 2022


Further reading

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Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Table Talk, 21 September 1933, P20, via National Library of Australia’s, Trove
2 Table Talk 25 June 1931, P25, via Trove
3 Victorian Births Deaths and Marriages, Birth Certificate 1632/1914
4 Table Talk, 29 Oct 1931, P38, Social, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
5 The Daily Telegraph (Syd), 25 Feb 1932, P10, PARTY FOR Margaret FAIRFAX. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
6 The Home, 1 October 1930, P10. via National Library of Australia’s Trove
7 Online Digital Collection, Sam Hood Collection, State Library of New South Wales.
8 The Age, 4 Aug 1933, P9, THEO SHALL IN NEW PLAY. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
9 Table Talk, May 30, 1935, cover, Via National Library of Australia
10 1896-1955, real name William Guldner, according to the German National Library
11 The Australasian 1 Oct 1932, P7. The Play Is Not The Thing. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
12 The Argus (Melb) 12 August 1933., P28. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
13 by Viennese writer Bruno Frank
14 Table Talk, 24 August 1933, P14, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
15 The Sun (Sydney) 4 Dec 1932, P31, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
16 Table Talk, 21 Sep 1933, P20, The Stage and the Paint Brush
17 Chauvel could also lay claim to having discovered Errol Flynn
18 Truth (Sydney) 18 Mar, 1934, P23. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
19 Australian Screen, National Film and Sound Archive website. Heritage, Curator’s notes. Paul Byrnes
20 Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper (1980) Australian film 1900-1977, P224-226. Oxford University Press/AFI
21 The Age, 10 Oct 1935, P7, AMUSEMENTS. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
22 in The Hebrew Standard of Australasia, 24 Jan, 1936, P1. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
23 The Daily Examiner, Nov 14, 1935, P14, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
24 Also see for example, visiting British director Miles Mander, who felt that “the average Australian is 25% better developed than the Englishman”, or his screenwriter JOC Orton, who said that “the most beautiful girls in the world are to be found in Australia
25 This meant it could be shown in Australia uncut, but not exported! See The Courier-Mail (Bris) 22 Sep, 1936, P13, BAN ON AUSTRALIAN FILM. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
26 See the original here – Telegraph (Bris), Monday 30 March 1936, P6. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
27 Several newspapers implied the trip to Hawaii might be the start of a US film career
28 The Sun (Syd) 21 Jun 1939, P13, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
29 Table Talk, May 26, 1936, PIV. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
30 SA Geneology – Kathleen Mary (Katie) MEIN (Newspaper Death Notices) 21 Jun 1996
31 Australia’s first colour film, and made with considerable difficulty
32 You can read more about Jedda here
33 Eric Porter(1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. P218, Rigby
34 The Herald 19 Jan 1933, P1. ACTRESS WILL NOT PLAY. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
35 Table Talk, 24 August 1933, P20. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
36 Picture Play Magazine, July-Dec 1930, P582. Via Lantern, Media History Digital Library
37 The Advertiser 25 May 1934, P14, Production Of “Love’s The Best Doctor” Cancelled. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

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