Above: 18 year old Isabel Mahon as she appears in Beaumont Smith’s final film Splendid Fellows, in 1934. This is a screen grab from the NFSA’s website Australian Screen, which contains several short clips from the film. (Click to follow the link).
The Five Second Version
Isabel Mahon (1916-1993) was not the only Australian actress to be dubbed “Australia’s Mary Pickford.” The term was regularly applied to other Australian women, including Josie Melville, Jean Duncan, Mary Maguire and Lucille Lisle. As an adult Isabel stood only about 1.5 metres (5 feet) tall,She appears to have exaggerated her shortness but on stage was a vibrant and attractive performer. Born in inner city Fitzroy, she first appeared on stage at the very young age of about 8 years. By the early 1930s she had her first JC Williamson’s contract, and in 1934 she appeared in Beaumont Smith’s film Splendid Fellows. She married visiting vaudevillian Ward Gray in late 1936 and departed with him for the US to try her luck. She spent five years on the US stage, usually as a dancer. She returned to Australia with her second husband Earl Woodbury in April 1959, and spent three and a half years living there as an ordinary citizen. She died in Florida in 1993.
As historian Andrée Wright has noted, between the wars there came to be a popular narrative regarding Australia’s young actresses. These women were usually presented as sporty, good looking, capable, and more than competent on stage and screen – in fact – able to achieve anything – just by nature of being Australian. In the 1930s, newspapers delighted in listing their successes and made pious predictions about future successes overseas. “At the time, [these film success] stories convinced readers that ‘with very few exceptions, every Australian who ha[d] ever gone to America ha[d] succeeded beyond expectations.‘”Andrée Wright (1986) Pps18-19. The inserted quote is from Picture Show, 2 August 1919 One such actress, briefly, was Isabel Mahon.
Growing up in Fitzroy
Isabel Mahon was born in a small terrace house in Fitzroy, an inner suburb of Melbourne, in December 1916.Victoria Birth Certificate, 29538/1916, Isabel Irene Mahon, born 6 December 1916 Her father Edward was former coal miner, listed in later records as a horse dealer or a labourer, her mother was Ethel nee Dennison, a Fitzroy girl who had experienced a severely disadvantaged upbringing in the suburb. Isabel was the youngest of a large family, and from a early age she showed talent and interest in performing. Like some other children of the working class inner city suburbs – notably those who joined the Pollards Lilliputian Opera company in the early 1900s – a life on stage was an exciting alternative to an apprenticeship or learning a trade.
For most of her childhood, Isabelalso spelled Isabelle and Isobel lived at Number 48 Little Gore Street, a laneway that appears to have originally serviced stables and provided rear access to the larger homes of Gore Street. At the time of her birth in 1916, Fitzroy, one of the city’s oldest suburbs, was developing a unenviable reputation as a “slum” suburb. Its narrow terrace housing and the proximity of factories made it undesirable to the city’s aspirational families. Accounts of working class suburbs increasingly emphasized the “rough and ready” life the citizens lived – and tended to amplify crime and coarseness. A Truth newspaper account from 1914 reported a case where Ethel Mahon had thrown a brick at a passing deliveryman whose horse and cart had just run over her cat in Little Gore St. The “lurid language” used at the time was alluded to, but the paper left spaces for titillated readers to imagine the words actually used in Fitzroy’s back streets.Truth (Melb) 8 August 1914, P3
Isabel’s first professional appearances on stage, “as a clever child artist,” seems to have been when she was aged only 8, in February 1924, performing as part of a variety lineup called The Midnight Frolics.Clay Djubal dates her earliest performance as the 1924 panto Cinderella
Little actress lost
Over much of the next two years Isabel performed with O’Donnell and Ray’s Panto company on tour around Australia. We know this because, rather spectacularly, in late 1925, Ethel reported her daughter as missing to Police. After nine months away she had started to worry about Isabel but had been unable to contact the troupe – as they were moving rapidly from town to town and were often remote. Isabel and the company were finally found and in October 1926 she returned to her mother.The Herald (Melb) 12 Oct 1926 P5 She had performed all over Australia, and in Java and Singapore.Even today, tracking the company’s movements and performances is difficult
Less than twenty years earlier, working class parents in this part of Melbourne had signed their children to perform on extended performance tours through Asia and North America with the Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company. They were away for up to two years. A few – Alf Goulding, Daphne Pollard, Snub Pollard and Ted McNamara, went on to make names for themselves. The parents contracted their children via a type of indenture and were paid through a trust. We must assume a similar scheme was applied to Isabel’s employment, although by the 1920s this arrangement was unusual. This is because the Victorian Education Act of 1872 required her to be at school, while the Australian Emigration Act of 1910 written after the disastrous Pollards tour of India in 1909 prohibited any child being taken out of Australia to perform “theatrical, operatic or other work.”How seriously these laws were applied is not clear. In 1985, performer Irene Goulding recalled her favourite teacher’s severe disapproval of her decision to leave on a performance tour with the … Continue reading
In spite of these laws, Isabel may have returned to touring,the O’Donnell and Ray Panto Company still had a player called “Little Isobel” in 1927 – see for example a review of Babes in the Wood in the Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay … Continue reading however in the later 1920s, she also came under the tutelage of Melbourne’s well known dance teacher Jennie Brennan (1877-1964). Brennan had a close association with JC Williamson, the theatrical company so dominant in Australasia it was called “the firm.” It is not surprising that Isabel then appeared in a small role in When London Sleeps, at Melbourne’s King’s Theatre in August 1928.The Herald (Melb) 13 Aug 1928, P19
Her big break-through came in January 1934, when JC Williamson’s promoted her to a leading role in Gay Divorce, after Dulcie Davenport(1913-2011) departed to pursue a career in England. Isabel was still 18 and her mother signed the JC Williamson’s contract.She was still keen to exaggerate her youth – she told the Melbourne Herald she was 15. See 25 Jan 1934, P35 Immediately after that, she went into a run of The Girlfriend, followed by an Australian tour of Gay Divorce. Her contract still survives in the Australian Performing Arts Collection in Melbourne, and it reveals a continuous run of performances, back to back, in pantos and musicals for JC Williamson.The contract file suggests a degree of tension over her employment and payments made And then came another exciting break-though – during the later part of 1934, pioneer director Beaumont Smith (1885-1950) cast her for his film Splendid Fellows (1934).
With her role in an Australian film confirmed, Isabel Mahon’s story of acting success was celebrated in the manner now so familiar in newspapers:
“Seventeen years old… Miss Mahon has won her name on the stage at such an early age. Small parts in J. C. Williamson have grown until she is now playing the lead in “Gay Divorce,” at Sydney Theatre Royal... Isabel Mahon was out to win through early. She appeared in pantomime at eight, and in nine juvenile years she has capped her kicking big boots in “Cinderella” by feminine leads on stage . . . and now on the screen. And so they come forward, confirming the opinion of London papers that there is plenty of acting ability in Australia.“Author’s emphasis. Examiner (Tas) 10 Aug 1934, P9
Even more grandly, in one of many articles headlined “Australia’s Mary Pickford,” one Australian paper predicted “Isabel…. is made in Australia. Soon the world will know her.” Author’s emphasis. Groper (WA) 5 May 1934, P1
Pike and Cooper Pike and Cooper(1980) P223 note that Splendid Fellows was made on the very modest budget of £5000. It featured Eric Colman (the non-acting brother of Hollywood’s Ronald Colman) and included a cameo by aviator Charles Kingsford Smith. The theme of an air race made it topical, but ultimately the film was not a success and it was to be Smith’s last. NFSA curator Paul Byrnes has noted that Smith “had a tendency to require his actors to shout as if they were working to the back stalls of a noisy theatre. His staging was similarly minimal…” Clips from the film can be seen here at the NFSA site.
Beyond the excited puff-pieces about newcomer Isabel, at least one contemporary review acknowledged the problem with her voice, so obvious to the modern listener. “Isabelle Mahon, delightful in action, but —Good [heavens] —when she talks! On the stage her voice may have quite a different timbre; but through recording and reproduction equipment it comes with the harsh metallic ring that characterised the speech of the Hollywood girls when talkies first arrived. The Americans overcame their troubles, and if Miss Mahon can do the same she should be able to pick up some nice money in productions of the near future.“Everyone’s 21 Nov 1934, P29 Almost certainly, what we hear in the film was Isabel’s attempt to mitigate her working class accent and an education limited by touring from a young age.Some Australian actors pursed elocution to make their voices acceptable for a stage or screen career
Off to the US with Ward Gray
Following what would be her one and only film and perhaps coinciding with disagreements with JC Williamson over pay, Isabel signed up to appear in variety on the Tivoli circuit. In their pantos – like Cinderella and revues such as Let’s Go Gay, Flying High and The Spice of Paris, she usually took featured or leading roles and was noted in reviews for singing sweetly and “dancing divinely.”Table Talk (Melb)14 Nov 1935, P19 With exposure to the Tivoli’s numerous local and visiting artists, perhaps Isabel’s appetite for greener pastures had been whetted.
During her 1936 run at the Sydney Tivoli, Isabel met Canadian born vaudevillian Ward (Worden) Gray, one part of the visiting “comedy acrobatic dancing trio” Ward, Pinkie and Terry. The trio had arrived in July, performing for the Tivoli and then at breakneck speed through Australian venues. Despite a 12 year age difference, Isabel and Ward married in Sydney on November 3, 1936, and a week later they were on the SS Monterey, bound for San Francisco.NSW Births Deaths & Marriages Marriage Certificate 17015/1936
Ward’s act performed on tour across the US in 1937, with Isabel being introduced to US audiences as an “Australian movie comedienne.” Australians who launched onto the variety circuits of the US found the work hard and the movement continual. Today, their professional footprints are faint and the advance publicity that found its way into the press rarely provided considered reviews and sometimes did not list performers.See Leon Errol’s comments on being a touring player in vaudeville Troupes also continually broke up and regrouped – for example, after about 12 months, Ward and Isabel joined another touring troupe – the Kit Kat Club Revue, Isabel being billed as a “comedy dancer.” By late 1939 Ward and Isabel’s act had ended its run, and apparently, so had their marriage.
Touring and marriage to Earl Woodbury
Isabel’s movements from 1940 are even more difficult to verify. However, reports from later in her life state she headlined a Vaudeville road show called The Gems of 1941.Pensacola News Journal (Florida) 7 Jan 1977, P35-6 The troupe included Earl ‘Woody’ Woodbury, one of the “Rhythm Ramblers”, a screwball comedy group of musicians in the style of the Ritz Brothers, whose act was dubbed “screwball swing.”The Sunday Star News, Wilmington (NC) Oct 13, 1940, P15 Isabel married Earl while the troupe was in St Louis, Missouri in July 1941.
Unfortunately, the surviving contemporary accounts of the troupe make no mention of an Isabel Mahon or Gray or Woodbury, suggesting she was probably using a stage name at the time. Yvette Geray, the troupe’s leading dancer noted for her “daring, alluring” performance, bears a similarity to Isabel in the few surviving, grainy photos.Yvette Geray, supposedly from France, does not appear in records of US performances before or after The Gems of 1941, or any other records, which also suggests it was a stage name But equally, Isabel might have been one part of Rover & Mahan, a “diminutive pair of funsters,” who also had an act in the show.Richmond Times-Dispatch (Virginia) 4 Oct 1940, P25
Whatever the exact nature of her performances, it had all come to an end by mid 1941, when war loomed for the US and Earl Woodbury joined the Navy.Pensacola News Journal (Florida) 7 Jan 1977, P35-6
Post-war, the couple settled in Milton, Florida. However, for the three and a half years 1959-1962 they returned to Australia to live in Melbourne – making Isabel unusual amongst expat Australian performers of her era. In Australia, Earl worked for advertising agency Berry Curry.Pensacola News Journal (Florida) 7 Apr 1963, P52
In late 1962, Isabel returned to Florida with Earl. Earl seems to have turned his hand to numerous jobs – in time he became a realtor and property developer. Isabel, or “Issie,” sometimes performed in local amateur theatre in Florida, but it seems her professional career had come to an end.
It is intriguing that although she saw her family in Australia, Isabel sought no publicity at all during her time in Melbourne, and Australians seemed unaware she was home. She had become a US citizen in the 1950s and lived in Florida until her death in 1993.
- Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper (1980) Australian Film 1900-1977. Oxford University Press/AFI
- Andrée Wright (1986) Brilliant Careers, Women in Australian Cinema. Pan Australia
- Frank Van Straten (2003) Tivoli Thomas C Lothian
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre, Melbourne
- JC Williamson’s Collection – Contracts for Isabel Mahon
National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA)
Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University
- Janet McCalman, ‘Brenan, Jennie Frances (1877–1964)’ published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 19 October 2023.
- Graham Shirley, ‘Smith, Frank Beaumont (Beau) (1885–1950)’, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 1 November 2023.
Australian Variety Theatre Archive
- Clay Djubal & Others (2011) O’Donnell & Ray Panto Company
State Library of Victoria, blog
- Gerry Brody: (2021) Shonky celebrants and wonky marriages ….. Holt’s matrimonial agency and the Free Christian Church
- National Archives of Australia
- National Library of Australia, Trove
- National Library of New Zealand, Paperspast
- State Library of Victoria
- Victoria, Births Deaths & Marriages
- New South Wales, Births Deaths & Marriages
- Lantern Digital Media Library@ the Internet Archive
|↑1||She appears to have exaggerated her shortness|
|↑2||Copyright National Archives of Australia – Isabel Irene Woodbury visa 1959|
|↑3||Andrée Wright (1986) Pps18-19. The inserted quote is from Picture Show, 2 August 1919|
|↑4||Sunday Times (WA) 22 Apr 1934 P11|
|↑5||Victoria Birth Certificate, 29538/1916, Isabel Irene Mahon, born 6 December 1916|
|↑6||The Bulletin 14 Jan 1931, P36,|
|↑7||also spelled Isabelle and Isobel|
|↑8||Truth (Melb) 8 August 1914, P3|
|↑9||Clay Djubal dates her earliest performance as the 1924 panto Cinderella|
|↑10||The Prahran Telegraph (Vic) 22 Feb 1924, P3|
|↑11||The Herald (Melb) 12 Oct 1926 P5|
|↑12||Even today, tracking the company’s movements and performances is difficult|
|↑13||The Herald (Melb)12 Oct 1926 P5|
|↑14||written after the disastrous Pollards tour of India in 1909|
|↑15||How seriously these laws were applied is not clear. In 1985, performer Irene Goulding recalled her favourite teacher’s severe disapproval of her decision to leave on a performance tour with the Pollards. Irene did it anyway|
|↑16||the O’Donnell and Ray Panto Company still had a player called “Little Isobel” in 1927 – see for example a review of Babes in the Wood in the Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser (Qld) 8 Apr 1927, P4|
|↑17||The Herald (Melb) 13 Aug 1928, P19|
|↑18||Australian Women’s Weekly, 4 Aug 1934, P20|
|↑19||She was still keen to exaggerate her youth – she told the Melbourne Herald she was 15. See 25 Jan 1934, P35|
|↑20||The contract file suggests a degree of tension over her employment and payments made|
|↑21||Author’s emphasis. Examiner (Tas) 10 Aug 1934, P9|
|↑22||Author’s emphasis. Groper (WA) 5 May 1934, P1|
|↑23||Everyone’s 5 Sept 1934, P40.|
|↑24||Pike and Cooper(1980) P223|
|↑25||Everyone’s 21 Nov 1934, P29|
|↑26||Some Australian actors pursed elocution to make their voices acceptable for a stage or screen career|
|↑27||New Zealand Herald, 1 Dec 1934, P12|
|↑28||Table Talk (Melb)14 Nov 1935, P19|
|↑29||NSW Births Deaths & Marriages Marriage Certificate 17015/1936|
|↑30||Sydney Morning Herald 15 Oct 1936, P2|
|↑31||See Leon Errol’s comments on being a touring player in vaudeville|
|↑32||The Birmingham Post 31 March 1938, P6|
|↑33, ↑38||Pensacola News Journal (Florida) 7 Jan 1977, P35-6|
|↑34||The Sunday Star News, Wilmington (NC) Oct 13, 1940, P15|
|↑35||Ledger-Star (Virginia) 9 Oct 1940, P12|
|↑36||Yvette Geray, supposedly from France, does not appear in records of US performances before or after The Gems of 1941, or any other records, which also suggests it was a stage name|
|↑37||Richmond Times-Dispatch (Virginia) 4 Oct 1940, P25|
|↑39||Pensacola News Journal (Florida) 7 Apr 1963, P52|
|↑40||Copyright National Archives of Australia – Isabel Irene & Earl Woodbury visa 1959|