Trilby Clark (1896-1983) goes to Hollywood

Above: Trilby Clark in Franklin Barrett’s Breaking of the Drought, in 1920. Photograph from the collection of the State Library of Victoria , now in the Public Domain.

The 5 second version

Trilby Clark – such a wonderful name! Born in Adelaide, South Australia in 1896, Trilby Clark enjoyed an episodic acting career in Australia, the US and Britain and endured two short marriages on two continents. Something of a restless soul, she made the long return sea journey back to Australia five times during her life. She died in London in 1983. She had at least twenty films to her credit, plus numerous stage and radio appearances.


Born Gwendolyn Gladys Blakely Clark on 30 August 1896, she was the youngest of Edward Clark and Jane nee Long‘s nine children. Edward, the owner of the East Adelaide Brewing Company, died suddenly in 1900, when Trilby was only four. However, the family appears not to have suffered financially because of the tragedy, as her extensive travel history suggests significant on-going financial security.

Trilby Clark‘s unusual nick-name was derived from the play Trilby, popular about the time she was born. Years later, she claimed her father had chosen the pet name because she was born with six toes. Trilby attended Adelaide’s Dryburgh House School (also known as Presbyterian Ladies College) and excelled in her studies, and from her mid teens began to appear in charity performances and at dance clubs.

Following some experiences in amateur theatricals in Adelaide, from late 1917 she won a place performing professionally with the British actress Ada Reeve in Malcolm Watson‘s musical – Winnie Brooke, Widow. Reeve was hugely popular internationally, and this was one of her most famous roles – she had first performed it in London in 1904. This was a great breakthrough and a testament to her ability.

21 year old Trilby Clark about to appear with Ada Reeve. Sunday Times (Sydney) 16 December 1917.

Following this successful tour, Trilby appeared with Harry RickardsTivoli Players in the new musicals My Lady Frayle, and The Officer’s Mess, the latter produced by Robert Greig and featuring another up and coming actor in Vera Pearce. Then another breakthrough followed, in late 1919 pioneer director Franklyn Barrett cast her in a leading role in his film The Breaking of the Drought. Adapted from a stage play, extolling the virtues of an honest living made in the country as opposed to the lazy life of the city, the somewhat dated film (even for its time) seems to have been moderately well received in Australia. But the experience was more than enough to wet Trilby’s appetite for more. Soon after, she departed for England, where she said she spent six months studying voice under the Adelaide-born singer Arthur Otto (better known as Kingston Stewart).

The Breaking of the Drought (1920) The struggling Galloway family decide to find their wastrel son, who is spending the family fortune in Sydney. Nan Taylor as mother, Trilby as daughter Marjorie and Charles Beetham as father. Photograph from the collection of the State Library of Victoria.

Daily News, via Newspapers.com

Trilby arrived in New York in February 1921, and with some Australian stage experiences, and with the aid of some imaginative publicity about winning an Australian beauty competition and having modelled for wartime posters in Australia, she found a place in the cast of the Greenwich Village Follies. The show opened in August at the Shubert Theatre. She was the “most beautiful girl in Australia” according to the New York Daily News of July 31, 1921 (at left). Over time Trilby Clark proved herself a great self promoter, as so many Australians who travelled overseas at that time had to be.

She didn’t stay in New York for very long. She arrived home in late December 1921, making comment on the strenuous rehearsal schedule required for a New York performer. “Sunday brought no respite” in the schedule she complained, but otherwise the reason for her short season (it could only have been 8 weeks) remains a mystery.

She returned to see her mother in Young Street, Wayville, Adelaide, and she appeared briefly on stage for J C Williamson’s in Sydney again. Then suddenly, it was announced she was heading back to the US to pursue an interest in movies. She arrived in California on the Niagara in August 1922.

Fox Pictures signed her up in June 1923 and William Wellman directed her in Big Dan soon after, a boxing drama starring Charles “Buck” Jones, and coincidentally in company with Australian-born actors Charles Coleman and Lydia Yeamans Titus. Good looking, 5’6″ tall (167 cm) with dark brown hair and dark eyes, this was the start of a busy three year period in Hollywood for her, although she did not stay with Fox for long. Over the next few years she appeared in contemporary and historical dramas, westerns for Hunt Stromberg and even a Ben Turpin short comedy for Mack Sennett. And then in 1926 she met and fell in love with a charming Italian actor newly arrived in the US, Niccolo Quattrociocchi (stage name Lucio Flamma) – they married in November. Unfortunately Niccolo had rather old fashioned views even for 1927. He commenced divorce proceedings against Trilby after six months, US newspapers taking great delight in reporting that, amongst other things, she refused to prepare macaroni for him.

Trilby smiling (at right) in a posed Christmas photo, with Harriet Hammond and director Scott Dunlap. Exhibitors Herald, Dec 1925, via Lantern Digital Media Project.

Trilby fled the US for England, where, without too much difficulty, she resumed her film career. She appeared in ten British films, including The Devil’s Maze (1929) which was dialogued after completion as a silent film and released in both formats. In 1930 she also appeared in Edgar Wallace‘s crime drama The Squeaker, directed by Wallace and based on his own novel. Her other sound films including the early British musical Harmony Heaven (1930), which also appears to have been her last – one of the few of her films that can be seen today. With a relatively unsophisticated “Show within a Show” plot, crude management of sound and music and uneven performances by some of the principals, seen today Harmony Heaven tells us much about the challenging transition to sound films in Britain. Trilby seems to have acknowledged this herself. Several years later she told an Adelaide paper “No one understood the adjustment of the microphone properly, so that the mere putting down of a piece of paper was reproduced like a gunshot, and walking made a deafening clatter.


Calgary Herald, 21 June 1932, via Newspapers.com

Following another short sojourn in the US in 1930, where she appeared in at least one un-credited supporting role – as a secretary in Doctor’s Wives, Trilby married stockbroker Ronald Stanley Anker Simmons in London in June 1932 – a union that brought considerable Australian publicity. Simmons was fifteen years Trilby’s junior, although she was already being creative about her age and claiming a birth around 1902, a practice common amongst so many actors of the time.

Like her marriage to Niccolo, her second marriage appears to have lasted only six months – she quietly initiated divorce proceedings against her husband in 1933. In early 1935 she travelled back to Australia again, visiting family and friends, and talking to the press about her film work in Britain and Hollywood. Having previously explained that she had retired, she was encouraged to appear on stage in Melbourne in the satire So This is Hollywood, with a young Peter Finch and Gwen Munro. Trilby played a temperamental film star. The play was not a success, reviewers feeling it was poorly scripted and amateurish, although there was praise for the actors. Trilby moved to an apartment in Sydney and in April 1936 she was on hand to farewell a young, hopeful Jocelyn Howarth, who was heading to Hollywood. In August 1937 Trilby departed Australia for England again, but via the US. In March 1939, she was back in Australia yet again, “on a holiday,” via the ship Dominion Monarch. She was still living in Australia when World War II broke out.

Trilby, now based in Sydney, performed on radio and joined the cast of several plays at the Minerva Theatre – Susan and God in 1941 and Jane Eyre in 1943. (She is shown at left in ABC Weekly, 17 July, 1943. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove)

We know she returned to Britain after World War II and that she spent some time living in the south of France. Having now knocked ten years off her age, she travelled extensively, back to Australia in 1957, also to the US and Canada, but it seems she had well and truly retired from stage and screen.

She was never interviewed again about her work across three continents, and was quickly forgotten in Australia. In the last decade of the twentieth century, Matthew Sweet, a British film historian, interviewed many of the surviving actors from the early years of British cinema. But he was too late to speak to Trilby. She was living comfortably at 40 Elm Park Gardens in Chelsea, London, when she died on 11 January 1983, aged 87.


Note: Nicky Quattrociocchi ran El Borracho restaurant in New York for many years. He wrote a memoir and recipe book entitled “Love and Dishes” in 1950. After wartime service in the Royal Navy, Ronnie Anker Simmons moved to the US and pursued business interests.

Nick Murphy
July 2020


Further Reading

Films

Text

  • Matthew Sweet (2005) Shepperton Babylon, The Lost Worlds of British Cinema. Faber and Faber.
  • John Tulloch (1981) Legends of the Screen. The Narrative film in Australia 1919-1929. AFI/Currency Press.

State Library of Victoria

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Bulletin Vol. 40 No. 2043, (10 Apr 1919)
  • The Sun (Sydney) 29 Dec 1921
  • The News (Adelaide) 25 Jan 1927
  • The News (Adelaide) 11 April 1931
  • The Australian Women’s Mirror Vol 8, No 29, 14 June 1932
  • The Australian Women’s Mirror Vol 10, No 14, 27 Feb 1934
  • The News (Adelaide) 19 Sept 1935
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne) Sat 21 Sep 1935 Page 28
  • The Sydney Morning Herald 31 Aug 1942
  • Bowen Independent (Qld) Fri 5 Mar 1943

Newspapers.com

  • Boston Post, 22 Jul 1921
  • The San Francisco Examiner 19 June, 1927
  • Victoria Daily Times (Canada) 12 May, 1930
  • Edmonton Journal (Canada) 5 July 1932
  • The Age (Melbourne) 20 Mar 1939

Lantern Digital Media Project

  • Exhibitors Herald, Jun-Aug 1923
  • Motion Picture News, 7 July 1923
  • Exhibitors Herald, Sep 1923
  • Photoplay Magazine, Jan-June 1924
  • Exhibitors Herald, Dec 1925-Mar 1926
  • Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World, Apr-Jun 1929

Hollywood imagines – Australians at war

Above: Real Australians in real slouch hats. Australian engineer reinforcements disembarking from Queen Elizabeth at Port Tewfik (now Suez port) on 24 November 1941, on the way to war in the Middle East, little realizing that a few weeks later war would break out much nearer home. Photo by John Murphy. Author’s collection.

Remember the controversy when Ben Affleck’s Argo was released in 2012 ? The film was about the 6 US embassy staff who hid out in Tehran during the Iranian hostage crisis. A throwaway line – “Brits turned them away, Kiwis turned them away, Canadians took them in” caused great offence in New Zealand and Britain for its inaccuracy. Of course, Hollywood has been doing history inaccurately for a very long time. And since when is entertainment meant to be historically accurate anyway? Here are three Hollywood efforts that reference Australians at war, with varying results.


The Man from Down Under, 1943

Screengrab of Charles Laughton as Jocko Wilson and Clyde Cook as his friend Ginger Gaffney. The film is held by TCM and is available on DVD. Author’s Collection

MGM’s comedy-drama The Man from Down Under was made in Hollywood in 1943, during World War II’s darkest days. A vehicle for British actors Charles Laughton and Binnie Barnes, supported by US actors Richard Carlson and Donna Reed, it was perhaps intended to help educate US viewers about Australia as a trusted new ally in the war against Japan. Otherwise, it’s hard to understand why it was made. The film was not very well received anywhere.

The plot tells the story of two French orphans brought back to Australia at the World War I by “Jocko” Wilson, a lovable, gambling, heavy drinking, rough-tough Aussie soldier. The children grow up in Australia, “Nipper” (Carlson) becoming a champion boxer while Mary (Reed) attends a finishing school as World War II looms. There are several threads to the plot, including Nipper and Mary discovering they are not biologically brother and sister as they thought, and, in the film’s denouement, Jocko leading the successful fight against some downed Japanese airmen, who briefly take over his north Queensland hotel. It was directed by Robert Z Leonard, the director of numerous successful films, including The Divorcee (1930) and The Great Ziegfeld (1936).

Australian reviewers were unusually forceful in their criticism of the film. We can assume this relates to how a nation at war liked to imagine its contemporary heroes. Laughton, in his mid forties and overweight, was already famous for character roles in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). He did not resemble the imagined Australian “everyman” of World War II recruiting posters, who was a bronzed young male, tall and vibrant. He may even have contributed to this impression himself, as he was quoted by Australian journalist Lon Jones saying “I am just a fat ugly pig in real life. I…have to depend solely on…dramatic ability to transition on the screen…” Still, Wallace Beery, who was originally considered for the role, was even older and of a similar, solid physical type.

Donna Reed as Mary and Charles Laughton as Jocko Wilson. Screenland Magazine, May 1943-October 1944, P64. Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

The Australian complaints published were generally focused on the film’s “inaccuracies,” which were apparently many, despite Lon Jones acting as the film’s advisor. The Sydney Morning Herald described the film as “a comedy of errors”. The Sydney Tribune described it as “absurd,” while the Daily Telegraph took great offence, describing it as “Hollywood tripe…Australians are not all rustics and mental deficients” (sic). The paper even reported the views of servicemen who had seen the film, under the heading “Illiterate film dialogue resented. But it was a review by the US Motion Picture Daily that most accurately summarized the film’s problems- “It is (the)…listless development of the story…which cause (the film) to bog down.” Not even Laughton seems to be able to inject either dramatic interest or enough humour into his character.

Servicemen complain. Daily Telegraph, 27 June 1944, P5, via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Tim Tovell shows how he smuggled Henri on board a troopship in 1919. Australian War Memorial Collection.

History records that an Australian serviceman really did bring a French orphan (just one, not two) back to Australia at the end of World War I. In late 1918, little Henri Hermene attached himself to Tim Tovell and his brother at the base of 4 squadron, Australian Flying Corps. They struck up a friendship and the Tovells decided to smuggle the little boy back home to Queensland, Australia. And they did, and adopted him, with some official assistance – in the shape of the Queensland Premier. He was smuggled first to England and then Australia, on troopships, some of the time in an oat bag, as the Hollywood film also shows. It is such a good story it really could make a great movie, despite Henri’s untimely death in 1928.


The Desert Rats, 1953

Australian actor Charles Tingwell had great memories of working on Robert Wise’s The Desert Rats for Twentieth Century Fox. Tingwell – still working to establish himself, was impressed by Wise’s eye for authenticity, professionalism and commitment to thorough rehearsal. And he liked the fact that rubbing shoulders with distinguished British actors (Richard Burton, James Mason and Robert Newton) were a few Australians other than himself; “Chips” Rafferty, and briefly – Michael Pate, Frank Baker and John O’Malley.

At right Captain “Tammy” MacRoberts (Burton) and second from right Sgt Blue (Rafferty) on the Tobruk front line. Source: Danish film program in author’s collection

This 1953 war film is based on the defence of the port and township of Tobruk, in Libya in 1941. Between April and November allied soldiers, mostly from the Australian 9th Division and for much of the time under the command of Australian General Leslie Morshead, defended the position successfully against German and Italian forces. Filmed in California but with a careful eye to capture what Richard Keenan describes as “the authentic feel of wartime newsreels,” it is a fairly formulaic but entertaining war drama. Burton plays a tough young British officer, whose Australian soldiers come to respect him. The New York Times reviewer reported it was “a conventional reshuffling of reminiscent characters, incidents and… heroics,” and added that the play between Burton and Newton as his cowardly alcoholic former teacher, often killed the film’s pace.

The film’s plot also took some liberties with the truth; such as the unnamed Australian General’s accurate guess about where the German tank attack would occur, or in using the title “Desert Rats” (the real nickname for the British 7th Armoured Division) rather than the more accurate “Rats of Tobruk”, but there was enough that was authentic that complaints were muted. The Tobruk garrison’s aggressive patrolling, effective use of artillery and willingness to close for combat was generously acknowledged.

In Tobruk’s HQ. From left – extra, Richard Burton, extra, Robert Douglas as the Australian General, extra, extra, Torin Thatcher as Artillery Commander Barney White. Danish film program in author’s collection
James Mason as a very grumpy Rommel, frustrated by Tobruk’s stubborn Australian defenders. Danish film program in author’s collection

Needless to say, any half-good film of an Australian military victory is likely to gain approval with Australian audiences. The proof of this film’s popular acceptance is that The Desert Rats continues to be played on Australian TV, 70 years after it was made, particularly on days of military remembrance. The only major annoyance for this modern viewer is the endless inclusion of “Waltzing Matilda” on the musical soundtrack, which is as tired a cliche as the kookaburra laugh that appears in every single Hollywood jungle film.


The Rat Patrol, 1966-1968

United Artists TV produced The Rat Patrol in 1966-8. It really has nothing to do with any combat experiences by Australians, or anyone else for that matter, except that the leading character – US Army Sergeant Sam Troy (Christopher George) wears an iconic Australian Army slouch hat with the Australian Army’s rising sun badge – through all 58 x 30 minute episodes. It is never explained to the viewer why Troy wears it, or why only one of his four-man team wears a sensible US Army M1 steel helmet.

It was quite easy to think Sgt Sam Troy of the Rat Patrol was an Australian. He wore a slouch hat and dressed in an anonymous khaki uniform. From The Tribune (Seymour, Indiana) 11 Feb 1967, Via Newspapers.com

If you haven’t seen any episodes, the plots usually involve the four Rats in jeeps mounted with heavy machine guns causing mayhem amongst lumbering German desert convoys.

While the series was popular in the US, it caused much consternation in Britain – the BBC pulled it after showing only a few episodes. British ex-service groups were incensed that while apparently based on the adventures of the British 8th Army and its Long Range Desert Group, it made scant reference to them and gave the impression the Desert war was largely a US affair (although one member of the Rat Patrol is English). In Australia, there was a similar reaction from the Returned Services League, but instead of pulling it, TV network ATV-O added an apologetic preamble every time the show screened. This reminded viewers the series was fictional, “although based on… the exploits of Australian and other Commonwealth units.” The slouch hat was, it explained, “a prized souvenir among the allied troops.” Yes, really.

George with guest star Claudine Longet. From The Age 20 July 1967, Via Newspapers.com

Pressed to comment at the time, Christopher George claimed he wore a slouch hat because he was of Greek ancestry, and wanted to acknowledge Australians who had fought in Greece. Maybe. But he had previously complained no one recognized him on a visit to New York because he wasn’t wearing that “crazy ANZAC hat,” suggesting The Rat Patrol‘s array of non-regulation hats was actually a production decision.

In Australia the series was quickly relegated to the 5.30 or 6.00 pm weekday time-slot on TV, wedged after shows like I Love Lucy and My Three Sons, but before the Evening News; the time of evening when teenage boys needed something on the TV to keep them occupied. The series is still widely available on DVD and a few episodes are on social media.

If you are interested in other fleeting but humorous Hollywood representations of the Australian military from the mid 1960s, try McHale’s Navy (the 1964 movie). But the Royal Australian Navy’s fight scene in Donovan’s Reef (1963) is probably the most amusing, as well as being veteran actor Clyde Cook‘s final film.


Nick Murphy
July 2020


Further Reading

Text

Web

  • The Australian War Memorial – Collections materials relating to Henri and Tim Tovell, The Rats of Tobruk and the 9th AIF division etc.
  • Lantern the Digital Media Project
    • Harrison’s Reports, August 7, 1943, Page 127.
    • Motion Picture Daily, Wed August 4 1943, Page 4
    • Modern Screen, Jan – Nov 1944, Page 12
    • Screenland, May 43 – Oct 44, Page 64
  • Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The Argus (Melb) Thu 28 May 1942 Page 3 “The Man from Down Under”
    • Sydney Morning Herald Sat 12 June 1943, Page 7 “Charles Laughton Scared, Nervous of Anzac role”
    • Sydney Morning Herald Mon 26 June 1944 Page 4. “New Films. The Man from Down Under”
    • Sydney Morning Herald Sat 17 July 1943 Page 7. “When Stars have fallen”
    • Singleton Argus (NSW) Frid 2 March 1945 Page 1. “Boosting Immigration, Films advocated by Senator”
    • The Tribune (Syd) Thurs 29 June 1944, Page 5.
    • The Daily Telegraph (Syd) Mon 11 Sept 1944.
    • The Daily Telegraph (Syd) Tues 27 June 1944 Page 5
    • The Daily Telegraph (Syd) Mon 23 Mar 1953, Page 7 ‘Rats film may be inaccurate’
    • Sydney Morning Herald Mon 27 Apr 1953, Page 3 “London Critics Praise The Desert Rats”
    • The Herald (Melb) Sat 22 Aug 1953, Page 4 “Tribute to Diggers”
    • Weekly Times (Melb) Wed 26 Aug 1953, Page 56 “Australian soldiers stars of film”
  • Via Newspapers.com
    • The Brooklyn Daily Eagle 3 May 1943, Page 7
    • Daily News (New York) 26 Sept 1943, Page 39C
    • Detroit Free Press, 25 Jun 1966, Page 14
    • Fort Lauderdale News 23 Sept 23 1966
    • Lancaster New Era, 21 Oct 1966, Page 11
    • The Observer (London, England) , 8 Jan 1967, Page 23
    • The Observer (London,England) 15 Jan 1967, Page 23
    • The Tribune (Indiana) · 11 Feb 1967, Sat Page 11
    • The Age. (Aust) 25 Jul 1967, Page 4
    • Sydney Morning Herald 20 Oct 1967, Page 10
  • New York Times Archive
    • New York Times, May 9, 1953. Film Review The Desert Rats with Richard Burton and Robert Newton.

Bushrangers in slouch hats – Hollywood imagines Australia

Above: Tim McCoy and Ena Gregory in MGM’s The Bushranger (1928)

Three more Hollywood films that deal with Australian Bushrangers, but all made in California.


The Bushranger, 1928

Directed by Chester (Chet) Withey. Script by Madeleine Ruthven, George C Hull, Paul Perez. Starring Tim McCoy, Ena Gregory (Marian Douglas), Frank Baker, Dale Austen. Produced by MGM. Silent.


MGM’s silent film The Bushranger was made in 1928. Completed as cinemas were rapidly being fitted out for sound, there was probably never much likely-hood it would be re-reun or survive for very long. From written accounts it appears to be very much like any other Tim McCoy Western, 60 minutes in length but set in Australia, apparently to add some variety to his usual cowboy fare.

Above: Ena Gregory with Tim McCoy as “Captain Hazard” but looking suspiciously like the cowboy he usually played. The Policeman at right may be Frank Baker. A still from MGM’s The Bushranger. (1928) Author’s collection. Note Ena’s shoes.

The film’s plot seems to contain elements of the familiar “convict story”- wrongful conviction in England – transportation as a convict, eventual redemption, very much in the style of For the Term of His Natural Life, which had been filmed in Australia only a year before. Sydney’s Sunday Times left us with this description;
” McCoy plays the role of a young English soldier who suffers transportation to Van Dieman’s land for his brother’s crime. He escapes from the settlement, and… embraces the life led by Starlight, Thunderbolt, the Kelly Gang etc. He appears on the highway leading to Ballarat… and by robbery under arms has a high price set on his head by the police. By a clever turn in the story, his father is appointed a Commissioner to inquire into the ineffective administration of the colony’s Police Department, and…is journeying by coach to Ballarat when ‘Captain Hazard’ holds up the coach — and thus father and son meet again!”


Not surprisingly, McCoy’s “Aussie hat” attracted derision in Australia. Worn by Australian soldiers in World War I with increasing pride – the slouch hat was and remains an Australian icon. McCoy’s over-sized version was described as “a movie absurdity” and a “ridiculous travesty” by the Sydney Sun. Only ten years after the War’s end, Australian audiences would have be acutely aware that McCoy’s hat was “wrong”.

Ena Gregory (using the name Marian Douglas) played Lucy, the bushranger’s love interest and Dale Austen her best friend. Austen, a former New Zealand beauty contest winner, made this one film in Hollywood before returning home. Ena Gregory, (an Australian who had been active in Hollywood since 1920) appeared in a few more films, then pursued other interests. Tim McCoy continued acting until the mid 1960s. The Bushranger appears to have been Chester Withey’s final film as a director.


A Final Reckoning, 1929

Directed by Ray Taylor. Based on an 1887 novel by George Henry. Script by George Morgan and Basil Dickey. Starring Jay Wilsey (aka Buffalo Bill Junior), Louise Lorraine, Newton House. Produced by Universal. Silent. 10 twenty minute episodes.


This is another lost serial. We are dependent on studio PR and a few reviews for an understanding of the plot. Fortunately, a short trailer for the series also survives. (See it here) . The film starred Jay Wilsey, a cowboy favourite, as Sergeant Wilson. Wilsey preferred to be known as Buffalo Bill Junior, although he was not related to the real William Cody. The plot concerned the map to an Australian gold mine, sent to the Whitney children in England by their father. (The children were played by Louise Lorraine and Newton House). The children travel to Australia, discover their father has been murdered by bushranger “Black Jack” but make friends with Sergeant Wilson. Each episode seems have revolved around Black Jack’s schemes to get the map.


Surviving photos and footage emphasizes that this was an action serial that moved along at a cracking pace. People are thrown over balconies, out of coaches and off roofs. (The IMDB has somehow found 50 stills from the serial that can be viewed here). Unfortunately, this serial also made the slouch hat mistake again, or even worse – for the Police characters were all in World War I Australian Army uniforms, their hats adorned with the Army’s Rising Sun badge. (It’s the equivalent of dressing nineteenth century Texas Rangers in US World War I doughboy uniforms)

That’s what a real “slouch hat” looks like with its “rising sun” or General Service badge. The badge reads “Australian Commonwealth Military Forces”
Sgt Wilson and the Whitneys, tied up in Black Jack’s lair. He is still wearing his slouch hat. Universal Weekly, April 6, 1929. Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

A Final Reckoning was shown as a supporting item for sound films – as sound systems were installed across the world’s cinemas. There is no evidence this serial was shown after late 1930 in the US and its final showing in Australia seems to be in early 1931. In the example, at left, from an Australian town, the first two listed items were sound films. The other three films were silent – there to bulk up the program. (From the Casino and Kyogle Courier and North Coast Advertiser Wed 4 Mar 1931, via National Library of Australia’s Trove)

Newton House and Louise Lorraine all struggled to find work in the sound era.


Captain Fury, 1939

Directed by Hal Roach. Script by Grover Jones, Jack Jevne, William C. deMille. Starring Brian Aherne, Victor McLaglen, Paul Lukas, June Lang. United Artists.


Why would Hal Roach decide Captain Fury was a suitable film to make in 1939? As Roach Studio biographer Richard Lewis West explains, in May 1938 Roach had ended his relationship with MGM and signed on with United Artists. This film was one of several action-adventures, made in financially precarious times for the studio, and directed by Roach himself. It was reported that Roach originally wanted to film Rolf Boldewood‘s Robbery Under Arms, but it appears he could not obtain the rights. What he hoped to make was a “rugged, romantic saga of Australian colonisation.”


Against a stirring musical prelude, the film commences with a map of Australia, then a wordy introduction tells us “The ink that records a nation’s progress comes from the life-blood of its pioneers.” The film is an anthem to a now dated concept of pioneer life – and it might just as easily be set in the US. Escaped convict Captain Michael Fury (Brian Aherne) rouses small settlers to defend themselves against the wicked big land owner, Arnold Trist (George Zucco). Like the experienced filmmaker he was, Roach used all the techniques he knew to ensure we are on the side of the small farmers and Michael Fury. In the end, compassionate British justice prevails, Fury is pardoned and order is restored.

Hal Roach, centre, in hat, on the set of Captain Fury. Silver Screen July 1939. Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

Former vaudevillian Billy Bevan and former boxer Frank Hagney were two Australians in the cast, in roles small enough to miss. Frank Baker advised on the film.

How did the film go down? The Los Angeles Times described the film as an exciting “Robin Hood” style of adventure. Not surprisingly, with its cowboy clothing, unfamiliar buildings and landscape, the film was treated with some amusement in Australia. Brisbane’s Courier-Mail quoted Frank Baker as saying “Australian audiences will probably get a lot of fun out of those bushrangers’ clothes, but they must realise that the picture is intended for the world market, and that the rest of the world won’t see anything wrong. If we had stuck to the real thing we would have had a drab picture.”

“ENOUGH to make Ned Kelly go out and stick up another bank – just to save his reputation.” Cartoonist unknown. Courier-Mail, Thursday 30 March 1939, page 10. Via National Library of Australia.

In his 1969 biography, leading player Brian Aherne suggested that Roach improvised much of the dialogue as the film went on. “He would point to us in turn, ‘Now you say this, you say that, and’ – pause for thought – ‘What could you say then?’ Aherne thought Captain Fury was “a farrago of nonsense” but was delighted by its success at the box office. Years later, he recalled being followed through the streets of Naples by crowds of small boys, crying “Capitano Furio!”

A teen-aged Briton called Richard Burton very much enjoyed the film. He recorded in his diary for May 28, 1940;” It was a jolly good show. Illustrating the liberation of the settlers in Australia by Captain Fury who was a convict…” Thirteen years later, and by then an up and coming actor, he starred with some real Australians in another “jolly good show” produced by Hollywood called The Desert Rats.

Not Banned!
Despite the controversy around Bushranging films, and the fear they would have “an injurious effect upon youthful minds”, all three of these films were released in New South Wales, which was infamous for banning the 1934 version of Stingaree. The Bushranger (1928) and Captain Fury (1939) were distributed throughout Australia, apparently without trouble. It seems the ban was applied remarkably inconsistently across Australia, and perhaps mostly to home grown films.


Further Reading

  • Text
    * Brian Aherne (1969) A Proper Job. Houghton Mifflin
    * Richard Burton (2012) Chris Williams (Ed) The Richard Burton Diaries. Yale University Press.
    * Richard Lewis West (2006) A History of the Hal Roach Studios. Southern Illinois University Press
  • Lantern Digital Media Project.
    * The Moving Picture World, May 12,1917
    * The Moving Picture World. June 30, 1917
    * The Moving Picture World. July 28, 1917.
    * Universal Weekly, 6 April 1929 A Final Reckoning
    * Silver Screen, July 1939.
    * Independent Film Exhibitors Bulletin, 1939.

Nick Murphy
June 2020

Bushranging with Stingaree – Hollywood imagines Australia

For some time this writer has been intrigued by the handful of films made about Australia, but NOT made in Australia, before World War II. They all borrow some familiar Australian icons, yet not surprisingly, they were usually directed, scripted and acted by people who had no direct experience of Australia at all. A handful of bushranging films were made in Hollywood’s Golden Age – three used E.W. Hornung’s character Stingaree. Here they are:


Stingaree 1915 and The Further Adventures of Stingaree 1917

Stingaree, 12 part silent Serial, 1915, directed by James W. Horne. The Further Adventures of Stingaree, 15 (or 12) part silent Serial 1917, directed by Paul Hurst. Based on stories by E. W. Hornung. Starring True Boardman, Paul Hurst. Kalem Pictures. (Both serials are considered lost)


English writer E.W. Hornung‘s fictional character Raffles is well remembered. Less well known is Stingaree, his gentleman bushranger. Hornung had spent several years (1883-6) in Australia and this character first appeared in his 1896 novel Irralie’s Bushranger, and in 1905 in a collection of short stories. In 1915, the Kalem Company took the character on and filmed it, entirely in California.

E.W. Hornung’s “Stingaree The Dandy Bushranger”, in The Sacremento Bee, 23 December 1905. Via Newspapers.com

The inspiration for the character was supposedly, the Ned Kelly gang. The Kellys “were as gallant…as Stingaree” stated a report in “The Moving Picture World. It went on to claim “…the Kelly brothers were unusually chivalrous… Frequently they aided the woman in distress.” Well, possibly. Even today, Australians struggle to agree on the culpability of the gang.

Still from the Australian film The Story of the Kelly Gang, 1906. Via Wikimedia Commons.

About ten years before this serial was made in the US, the first Australian made feature-length film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, was released. It chronicled some of the highlights of the Kelly gang’s exploits. Made less than 30 years after the real gang’s final shoot-out with Police and Ned’s capture and execution, the film heralded the start of a very long tradition of Australian pictures set on similar turf – and Kelly, who quickly became a national figure, has been revisited on the screen many times since. You can watch the remnant of the 1906 film here.

Stingaree, Hornung’s university educated, violin-playing, monocle-wearing gentleman, was nothing like Ned Kelly or any other Australian bushranger, on screen or off.

In January 1916 Stingaree was being welcomed as an upcoming cinema feature by Sydney papers. The 12 part serial (each Chapter or weekly episode was about 20-30 minutes in length) was popular enough to warrant a sequel with the same stars in 1917 – The Further Adventures of Stingaree.

Sadly, no episodes of either serial are known to survive today, but a few photos, episode titles and descriptions do. A typical episode – “The Black hole of Glenranald” involved Stingaree avoiding a secret trap door covering a deep hole set into the floor of the Glenranald Bank. There are some ensuing double crosses and a short battle with the Mounted Police, before Stingaree and his sidekick Howie escape again. Designed as stand-alone stories, these “Chapters” would form part of a cinema’s weekly program, and the intention was, of course, to entice the audience back.

True Boardman, a popular Californian-born star of stage and screen, died a year after completing the second serial, during the Spanish flu pandemic.


Stingaree 1934

Directed by William Wellman. Based on the story by E.W. Hornung. Screenplay – Becky Gardiner, Lynn Riggs, Leonard Spigelgass. Starring: Irene Dunne, Richard Dix, Mary Boland. RKO Studios.


Stingaree was revisited by RKO in 1934, with a screenplay written by one of Hollywood’s few female writers of the time – Becky Gardiner. Possibly the studio felt the subject of bushrangers was still fertile ground. There had been a Tim McCoy bushranger film in 1928, and a Universal bushranger serial in 1929. However, the finished product might best be described as a musical western or musical melodrama, as Irene Dunne sings several songs.

Irene Dunne and Richard Dix in Stingaree. Silver Screen Magazine, May-Oct 1934. Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

Richard Dix (Stingaree) and Irene Dunne (Hilda Bouverie) were both popular stars who had already appeared together in the very successful Cimarron in 1931. RKO hoped they could repeat the success. The film’s title suggests it is about Stingaree, but it is really the story of Hilda Bouverie’s rise as a singer, a sort of Nellie Melba journey. Hilda is the maid of Mrs Clarkson (Mary Boland) until she is discovered. Mrs Clarkson is a humorous figure – she too has hopes of a musical career, but none of her servant’s talent. Andy Devine as Stingaree’s sidekick, is also there for laughs.

Partly filmed on a Californian golf-course, Stingaree‘s scenery gives a passable impression of South Eastern Australia. A few Australians are also included in the cast, although it’s not clear why – as they have nothing to do. These include Snub Pollard as a sleepy shepherd, Billy Bevan as a Scotsman and Robert Greig as a barman. However, the key performances are firmly in the hands of RKOs bankable stars.

Australian audiences probably baulked at the appearance of 1870s policemen wearing contemporary policemen’s summer-helmets and the film’s lapses in plot – which included Stingaree galloping off with Hilda in his arms (not once but twice) and the unlikely impersonation of the Governor by Stingaree. But Australian reviews were forgiving, Table Talk reporting it was a “good old meaty melodrama”. The Melbourne Herald felt that it was “a pleasant trifle.” US reviews were less enthusiastic – “a preposterous tale”, “a thin picture”, “an elegant horse opera.” It was not a success at the box office.

Banned!
It is notable that one Australian state government chose to ban the 1934 version of Stingaree. The Chief Secretary of New South Wales stated that “No cinematograph pictures shall be exhibited… which represent… successful crime, such as bushranging… or other acts of lawlessness… which might be considered as having an injurious effect upon youthful minds.”

The Chief Secretary was ridiculed by Smith’s Weekly for the decision and despite the ban, the film was shown in Broken Hill, in Western New South Wales. Interestingly, the 1915 serial had been shown in New South Wales. The fate of the 1917 serial seems unclear. It seems the ban on bushranger films was remarkably inconsistent.

Stingaree poster. Silver Screen Magazine May-Oct 1934. Via Lantern Digital Media Project

William Wellman, Andy Devine and Irene Dunne enjoyed long careers. Sadly Richard Dix’s battle with alcohol came to an end with his early death in the 1940s. Of the pioneering Becky Gardiner’s later career, this writer can find no information at all. She seems to have entirely disappeared after Stingaree. The film is available through TCM.


Further Reading

Text

* Peter Rowland, E.W. Hornung (2016) Stingaree Rides Again. Nekta Publications
* Richard B. Jewell (1982) The RKO Story. Octopus Books
* Kalton C. Lahue (1968) Bound and Gagged, The Story of Silent Serials. Castle Books.
* Ken Wlaschin (2009) Silent Mystery and Detective Movies: A Comprehensive Filmography. McFarland

Online

Turner Classic Movie
* Stingaree (also has some clips from the 1934 film)

Lantern, Digital Media Project

National Library of Australia’s Trove

Newspapers.com

  • The Sacremento Bee, 23 December 1905

Nick Murphy
June 2020

Australia imagined – by the Third Reich

Zarah Leander as Gloria Vane. Cover photo from Swedish sheet music printed in Stockholm 1938. Still from the film Zu Neuen Ufern (1937). Via Wikimedia Commons.


For some time this writer has been intrigued by the handful of films made about Australia, but NOT made in Australia, before World War II. They all borrow some familiar Australian icons, yet not surprisingly, they were usually directed, scripted and acted by people who had no direct experience of Australia at all. Here are two German films produced in the late 1930s that feature Australia:


Zu Neuen Ufern (To New Shores) 1937

Directed by Detlef Sierck (Douglas Sirk). Script by Lovis Hans Loren (novel), Kurt Heuser. Starring Zarah Leander, Willy Birgel, Edwin Jürgensen, Viktor Staal. Produced by UFA and filmed at Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam.


Zu Neuen Ufern (To New Shores) was a musical-drama made by UFA in 1937 and directed by Detlef Sierck (Douglas Sirk). The film helped establish Swedish-born singer and actress Zarah Leander as a German star and was a popular success. It was made at Studio Babelsberg and spoken entirely in German, although it is set largely in colonial Australia. It was not completely dismissed by Australian reviewers at the time – writing for the Melbourne Argus, Zelda Reed thought it was technically magnificent as a film, although she concluded it was “not about Australia.” Today’s audiences will probably find its wildly unfamiliar landscapes, misspelling of names and the use of African extras to portray Indigenous Australians reasons enough to dismiss it. The film was not commercially released in the English-speaking world.

Lovis Hans Loren, a German journalist and author had written the novel that forms the basis of the film in 1936, and Sirk and Kurt Heuser wrote the script. The film is not however, simply a crude propaganda vehicle for the Nazi regime. As Tom Ryan points out in his recent book on Douglas Sirk’s films, it is a romantic melodrama, “a love affair gone wrong in a world where the patriarchy rules and social division is rampant.” Albert Finsbury (Willy Birgel) is an English artistocrat, whose selfishness causes his lover, popular singer Gloria Vane (Leander) to be transported to Australia. The plot is a familiar one; a convict story featuring wrongful conviction in England, imprisonment in Australia, harsh treatment in a class-ridden society but eventual redemption. There are therefore some similarities to For the Term of His Natural Life, Marcus Clarke‘s popular 1874 novel that had been filmed on location in Australia in 1927.

This writer likes to think Sirk’s prison scenes (with its numbered female prisoners, constant threat of punishment and trappings of slave labour) are his comment on the authoritarian Germany he was about to flee for the safety of Hollywood. Interviewed by Jon Halliday in the 1960s, Sirk acknowledged that he had been hired by Warner Bros to re-make Zu Neuen Ufern and he even rewrote a script. However, the remake did not eventuate. Sirk went on to a long and successful career in Hollywood, but the later experiences of many of the performers was very mixed, and most struggled to re-establish themselves in Germany after the war.

Nazi German cinema returned to another Australian story – Das Gewehr über (see below) in 1939.


Das Gewehr über (Shoulder Arms) 1939

Directed by Jürgen von Alten. Script by Wolfgang Marken and Kurt Walter. Starring F.W Schroder-Schrom, Rolf Moebius, Rudi Godden and Carsta Löck. Produced by Germania-Film.

This is a second Australian outing by Nazi cinema, although it might be better understood simply as a straight forward propaganda exercise to encourage young men to undertake army training for the Third Reich. It was released in Germany in December 1939, after war with Britain (and Australia) had been declared. Directed by Jürgen von Alten, it concerns two young Australian-German men – Paul Hartwig (Rolf Moebius) and his friend Charlie (Rudi Godden), who return to Germany to do Army service. Paul’s crusty, upright German father, a successful farmer (one assumes?) in Australia is keen for the boys to learn to be good Germans again. German is spoken in his house, he explains to Lotte (Carsta Löck), Paul’s flighty Australian girl-friend. A very rapid sea journey follows, with the boys welcomed home to a joyful Germany. But there are lots of lessons to be learned before they can become serious young soldiers in the Wehrmacht.

Lotte complains to her father (wearing a bush hat) that Paul will be away for 6 months. This dialogue is in English with German subtitles.

There are no establishing shots in the film, and the “Australian scenes” are mostly interiors. Thus the Australian setting of the film is largely immaterial to the story. One bizarre sequence will stand out to modern audiences – the mock Kangaroo fight in the German night club, which the spectators find hilarious. Some of Paul and Lotte’s dialogue is spoken in English, presumably to emphasize the non-German experience of living in Australia. In the best propaganda tradition, the film ends with lengthy scenes of German military might.

After wartime service, Rolf Moebius enjoyed a long post-war career. Not so his co-star Rudi Godden, who died in early 1941. Carsta Löck’s career continued until the 1970s.


Under Joseph Goebbels, German cinema went on to other films with increasingly strident propaganda, sometimes borrowing real events such as the Titanic sinking as the basis of the narrative. Goebbels was determined to create his own Hollywood in Germany, and thus in the hundreds of films Nazi Germany produced, two minor films set in Australia perhaps isn’t all that surprising.


Films

Das Gewehr über is now in the public domain, and a copy without subtitles can be viewed on the Internet Archive here.
Zu Neuen Ufern is often mounted on free social media platforms, and Leander’s songs, such as “Yes Sir” are also widely available.

Further Reading

  • Jon Halliday (1971) Sirk on Sirk. Secker and Warburg
  • Cinzia Romani (1992) Tainted Goddesses. Female Film Stars of the Third Reich. Sarpedon.
  • Tom Ryan (2019) The Films of Douglas Sirk: Exquisite Ironies and Magnificent Obsessions. University Press of Mississippi
  • Rolf Giesen (2003) Nazi Propaganda Films: A History and Filmography. McFarland

Nick Murphy
June 2020

Nina Speight (1890-1965) of Hollywood, catarrh and colds

Above: 27 year old Melbourne girl Nina Speight on the cover of Lone Hand in October 1917. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Nina Speight arrived in California with her husband Rhodes Speight in April 1916. Within a year she was appearing in the supporting cast of Hal Roach comedies, especially those featuring Harold Lloyd, Bebe Daniels and usually in company with Snub Pollard, and sometimes at the direction of Alf Goulding.

Accurately tracing her films for the Roach studio is difficult, and the list provided by the IMDB today seems strangely incomplete and difficult to verify. In several of the films attributed to her, this writer was unable to identify anyone who resembled her. Several photos currently circulating on the net claiming to show Nina with Harold Lloyd may match known images of her, but by far the most reliable list of her work has been produced here by Jean Brisson, on the very comprehensive website run by Dave Lord Heath. It seems her most active years at the Roach studio were 1917 and 1918.

When Clubs are trump 19172 When Clubs are trump 1917

Above: Screen grabs of Nina Speight with unidentified actors in Hal Roach’s When Clubs are Trump, 1917. Both these are from low res Youtube versions of the film.

The flirt 1917 Hey There! 1918

Above: Screen grabs of Nina Speight  – a fleeting appearance in The Flirt (1917) and at right in a longer part as Bebe Daniel’s maid, poking out her tongue at her mistress, in Hey There (1918), both taken from Youtube versions of the films.

Growing up in Australia

Below: Nina Speight on the cover of The Lone Hand, March 1916. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove. The photo is attributed to Kenelm Stump. Readers interested in the challenge of identifying her in the Roach films are recommended to follow the link to the full scale photo.

Nina 1916Nina was born Simelia Präger in Fergie Street, North Fitzroy, Melbourne on 18 January, 1890. Her father, 39 year old Henry Präger, was a maker of waterproof clothing, describing himself on her birth certificate as a “mackintosh manufacturer.” Born in Prague in what was then part of the Kingdom of Austria-Hungary, he had migrated to Australia and in 1889 married 19 year old Isabella Nathan of Melbourne. In view of her age, Isabella’s father Samuel had to give permission for the marriage.

Although two other children were born of the union (Leslie in 1894 and Ruth in 1898), the marriage was not a happy one. In 1898 and now in Sydney, Isabella instituted proceedings against Henry because she feared he might abandon her and the children, and flee the colony. She had already been dragged from “colony to colony” at his whim – Victoria, South Australia, New Zealand and New South Wales. Her brother Isidore Nathan supported the family after finding Isabella and the three children destitute. None of this indicates a very happy or stable childhood for “Minnie” as Simelia now called herself (Minnie was also her grandmother’s name).


On to stage and screen

In 1910 in Sydney, New South Wales, Minnie married Reginald Rhodes Speight. Exactly how she drifted onto the stage we do not know, but from a young age she had been an artist’s model (Datillo Rubbio, Evelyn Chapman and Julian Ashton were mentioned as using her) and a vaudeville performer. The decorator for Brisbane’s Daniel Hotel reportedly based some of their murals on her. It is also likely that Minnie appeared in at least one early Australian film, Gaston Mervale‘s The Wreck of the Dunbar” with Louise Lovely (then Louise Carbasse) in 1912, but little is known of this lost film and the claim is impossible to verify.

Rhodes Speight was also an aspiring actor and elocutionist, with a high opinion of himself and dreams of establishing his own actors school. He was also an investor, and involved with films made by the Australian Life Biograph company in 1911-12. He apparently produced and starred in another lost Australian film entitled “Saved by a Snake,” which he took on tour to provincial theatres in 1913, providing a narration with each screening. In 1915 he took the bushranger film Thunderbolt” through northern Queensland, again providing audiences with an accompanying lecture. The concept of a live narration to a movie may boggle the mind today, but it was not uncommon practice in the early years of silent film.

Equally active in the partnership, Minnie Rhodes, as Nina then called herself, appeared in vaudeville troupes travelling through regional New South Wales, singing, dancing and acting as a foil for male comedians. By 1915 she had become Nina Speight and was performing on stage in Brisbane, Queensland. Both Rhodes and Nina were firm believers in the concept of re-inventing oneself, including by change of name, whenever necessary.

Nina in 1915

Above: Nina Speight appearing in Brisbane in July 1915. The Brisbane Courier, 3 Jul 1915.  Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Nina and colds 1915

Above: Well before arriving in the US, Nina had a high enough Australian profile to advertise a cold cure in the Brisbane Daily Standard Fri 24 September 1915 . Her achievements as a model were also listed. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

There is no conclusive evidence that Nina Speight was close to Louise Lovely , although they must have known each other through the Australian Life Biograph company. In December 1914 Louise Lovely and her husband Wilton Welch had sailed to the US and by early 1916 she was established in Hollywood, and her first film Stronger than Death, had been released. It was the start of a very successful career for Louise. It is very likely that this success, and that of other Australians working in the US like Enid Bennett and Arthur Shirley, played a part in what happened next. Nina and Rhodes packed up and left Australia for good in 1916.

The Vampire Dance

Above: Nina’s “Vampire Dance” as reported in The Lone Hand. Vol. 5 No. 6 (1 May 1916),  Yet there is no evidence she performed this popular dance anywhere on stage in Australia before she departed for the US. It is likely this was a posed photo-shoot for publicity. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Nina wrote home soon after, with all the good news from the US. She was modelling for artists again, and working with San Francisco’s Sarsi Studio. She expected work with a Movie studio soon. A further report on her career appeared in the June 1917 edition of “The Moving Picture World,” alongside profiles of five other aspiring stars. By this time, she had been signed to work with the Hal Roach studio, being possessed of much “beauty and charm” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Moving Picture World June 1917
Above: Nina introduces herself to fans via The Moving Picture World. June 1917. Here, she claimed to have been born in Austria, while the typsetter had misspelled her name. Via Lantern, the Digital Media Project.

Trying something else

In mid-1918, after appearing in, perhaps, 18 films for Roach, where she generally took secondary soubrette roles, Nina joined Arthur Morse Moon‘s company onstage in The Wrong Bird, commencing a tour that started in Salt Lake City. Sadly Moon died of pneumonia only a few months later, and the tour was suddenly over. Returning to acting for the screen under yet another name – Nina Rhodes, she appeared in two films starring Eddie Boland. And then, no more. Her marriage to Rhodes Speight founded soon after, although she may have found some solace in the fact her mother had moved to the US, as had her sister Ruth, who married a US sailor. Her brother Leslie also briefly lived with her in Los Angeles, before moving to Europe and raising a large family in Belgium, a country he had seen when in Australian army service during the war. Rhodes Speight changed his name again, and pursued other interests.

We know little of Nina’s later life. Sometime in the 1920s she partnered with Louis Wagner, a studio carpenter, and bore him two children, both of whom died prematurely. Strangely, she was not completely forgotten in her native country. For almost twenty years she was one of the many celebrity faces advertising medicinal products in Australian newspapers. The last of these advertisments – for Hean’s Tonic Nerve Nuts, appeared in 1934, more than ten years after she appeared in her last Hollywood film, and long after she had left it all behind.

The Bulletin 1917 Nina in The Sun 1932

Above – Nina endorsing Hean’s “Tonic Nerve Nuts” in Australia. Left: The Bulletin. 18 Oct 1917.
Right: The Sun 21 December 1932. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove. You can read more about Hean’s products in an extensive article at the Australian Variety Theatre Archive.

She died in California in March 1965, as Nina Wagner.


Nick Murphy

May 2020


Further Reading

Text

  • Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1980) Australian Film 1900-1977. Oxford University Press/AFI
  • Andree Wright (1986) Brilliant Careers, Women in Australian Cinema. Pan Books

Web

Lantern, the Digital Media Project

National Library of Australia’s Trove

Newspapers.com

  • San Francisco Chronicle, · Thu, Mar 29, 1917 · Page 6
  • Los Angeles Times, APril 1, 1917 Page 31
  • Los Angeles Times, Dec 20, 1917 Page 15
  • The Salt Lake Tribune, · 12 Jun 1918, Wed · Page 9

US National Archives

  • Passenger arrival lists, applications for citizenship and US census returns via Family Search and Ancestry.com.

Births Deaths and Marriages Victoria.

Paul Scardon (1875-1954) – pioneer actor & director

Above: Paul Scardon, aged about 45, photograph used in Charles Fox and Milton Silver’s (eds)(1920) Who’s who on the screen, Ross Publishing, New York. Via the Internet Archive.

The 5 second version
William James Raper was born in South Melbourne Australia on 6 May 1875. He died in Fontana, California, USA, on 17 January 1954. He was on stage in Australia from about 1900, when he changed his name to Paul Scardon, finding increasing success. He travelled with the Nance O’Neill company to the US in 1905. Following a busy 6 years on stage in the US, he appeared in his first film in 1911. He began directing for Vitagraph in 1915. After his Australian born wife died in the Spanish flu epidemic, he married actress Betty Blythe. He retired from directing in 1924, but stayed active in community theatre. From 1939 he returned to films as an extra.

Sometime in 1900, William Raper, a 25 year old telegraph operator in the booming Western Australian goldfield town of Boulder, decided to throw in his safe job working for the Government and pursue his dream of being an actor. An active member of the Boulder Dramatic Society, he returned to Australia’s east coast, adopted a new name – Paul Scardon – and found roles in J.C.Williamson productions. Smart, athletic and good looking, the world was at his feet.

early scardonWilliam James Raper was born in Melbourne in 1875, at his parent’s modest cottage in Bank Street, South Melbourne (then called Emerald Hill). His mother Eleanor (nee Sawyer) and father Edward were both English born but they had lived in Melbourne for some time, having married in the city in 1867. Melbourne was still a distant outpost of the British empire, but it was also a booming city after the great gold rushes of the 1850s. It continued to attract hopeful immigrants through the later half of the nineteenth century. Sadly Will’s father, who described himself as a coachman and groom, died in 1881 when Will was only 6. In about 1896 Will, relocated to Western Australia. Eleanor and Will’s surviving sister Ada most likely moved at the same time. (See Note 1 Birth Certificate)

Above: An early photo of Scardon probably taken about the time he arrived in New York in 1906. Picture Play Weekly. April-Oct 1915. Via Lantern and the Internet Archive. See also University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections JWS13991 for a photo taken at the same sitting, but incorrectly dated 1924.

Building a career
Writing about important contemporary filmmakers in 1920, Carolyn Lowrey included Paul Scardon in her survey of the “first one hundred men and women of the screen”. She claimed Scardon had spent some time in vaudeville and performed as a contortionist from the age of 15. Although these claims cannot be verified now, Paul’s career as a professional actor in Australia can.

Sherlock Holmes in Aust 1902 minne043

Above left; Scardon earning his stripes with JC Williamsons and in company with Canadian born actor Cuyler Hastings. The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) 4 October 1902. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove. Above right: The very popular Minnie Tittel Brune, about the time Paul Scardon worked with her. Postcard in the author’s collection.

By mid 1902 he was a regular in the J.C. Williamson’s Dramatic Company, that travelled the length and breadth of Australia performing popular plays imported from London and New York. These included both comedies and dramas such as William Gillette’s play Sherlock Holmes, and J.M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton. Although he seems to have often been cast in supporting roles, what one writer described as the “heavy butler” type of role, it was more than enough to establish himself. From mid 1904 he performed with a troupe led by the popular Minnie Tittel Brune (and including Roy Redgrave) – developing his skills and earning increasing recognition for his roles in L’Aiglon and Romeo and Juliet. Then, after a year with Minnie, Paul left Australia to perform with Nance O’Neill and her troupe in the US. He arrived in the San Francisco on the SS Sonoma, on 4 December 1905, the troupe also included actors Mario and George Majeroni. (See Note 2)

Through early 1906 the company travelled across the US providing dramas which gave O’Neill the headline roles. But by June he had joined Australian actor Nellie Stewart in Chicago in the supporting cast for her perennial favourite Sweet Nell of Old Drury. By the end of the year he was appearing with British actor Kyrle Bellew in New York.

In December 1906, a Melbourne Punch correspondent reported a long letter from Paul, now in New York. It should be read in its entirety because, unusually, it reports on the doings of many Australian performers, like Marc McDermott and Nellie Stewart. It confirms that while Australians working in the US may not have all been friends, they knew each other and closely followed each other’s successes:

“There was quite a bunch of us here during the summer, chasing ‘the nimble engagement’, but they’re considerably scattered now. George Majeroni and myself being the only two in town at this moment—balance being out on the road.” (read the Punch article here)

Motion Picture Story mag Feb - July 1911  Scardon in the 1920s

Above: Two Australians who often represented a very similar “type” in pioneer films – the suave leading man. Left; Marc McDermott in 1911, Source; Motion Picture Story Feb-July 1911. Right Paul Scardon, in Moving Picture World Jul-Aug 1924. By  1924 Scardon was directing. Via Lantern Media History Project.

Elizabeth Hamilton and Paul Scardon
On 29 May 1907 Paul Scardon married Australian woman Elizabeth “Bessie” Hamilton in New York. Bessie and her younger sister Kate, or “Tottie,” had arrived in Vancouver in April, and headed more or less directly for New York where Paul was now based. These circumstances strongly suggest Paul knew Bessie already from Australia, and that the couple had decided to marry and live in the US. The 1910 US census shows Paul, Bessie (and Tottie) living together in New York. A daughter – Joan, was born of the union in April 1913. (See Note 3)

Scardon in 1918Bessie and Tottie were daughters of William Campbell Hamilton (1834-1882), a wealthy pastoralist (Australians would call him a squatter) from the Broadford-Kilmore area north of Melbourne. Tragically, both sisters died within a week of each other during the New York Spanish flu pandemic, in the last week of 1918 and first week of 1919. The inscription on their headstone at the Hackensack Cemetery in New Jersey ends “erected by those who loved them in far away Australia”.

Above: A rather serious looking Paul Scardon in about 1917.  Motion Picture and Studio Directory and Trade Annual, Jan 1918. Via Lantern and the Internet Archive.

Based in New York, Paul was active on the US stage, appearing with E.H. Sothern and Mrs Minnie Fiske, until sometime in 1911, when he moved into acting in films for the Majestic studio. There are lists of his films in existence, but it is impossible to verify these, as many have long since been lost. At the time, Scardon was held in some esteem for his character portrayals and his clever use of makeup.

Scardon in Tha Atom 1915 Scardon unidentified film

Above: Left – Paul Scardon in The Mighty Atom (1915) and right (centre) as an officer in an unidentified film.  From a Picture-Play Weekly article on his use of makeup. Via Lantern and the Internet Archive.

In 1915, at the invitation of Vitagraph’s producer Albert E Smith, he began directing – The Island of Surprise and The Hero of Submarine D-2 amongst his early efforts. Plot summaries of many of his Vitagraph films survive, and indicate a mix of mysteries and romances was the preference, the scripts usually based on popular plays and characters lifted from novels – presumably these could be churned into films quickly and cheaply. The Alibi, a story of embezzlement and false imprisonment, was based on a recent short story. Arsène Lupin, based on a popular literary character from a series of novels, concerned a master criminal who is redeemed by love. The Green God was also based on a novel, George Majeroni playing the unfortunate victim whose accidental death is revealed at the end. (The green idol in the story has nothing to do with it). Similarly, The Maelstrom, a story of gangs, fog and trap doors, was based on a recent novel. Perhaps he found this repetitive work not particularly enjoyable. In 1920 he left Vitagraph, working for the Goldwyn Company for his remaining active years.

Paul Scardon married actor Betty Blythe (Elizabeth Blythe Slaughter) on 18 April 1920, 16 months after Bessie’s death. Born in California in 1893, Betty Blythe was given one of her first featured roles by Paul, in mid 1918 in A Game with Fate. Betty was a forceful personality and famous for her witty comments. She is reputed to have said “A director is the only man besides your husband who can tell you how much of your clothes to take off.” Betty’s reputation today rests on her exotic film roles and the flimsy costumes she wore in films made after her work with Scardon –The Queen of Sheba (1921), Chu Chin Chow (1923) and She (1925).

The IMDB repeats the oft-made claim Paul Scardon directed 50 films with Betty. The truth was he could arguably be said to have discovered her, and was director on eleven of her films, all made at Vitagraph between mid 1918 and mid 1919. But Paul directed as many films with old Melbourne friend George Majeroni as he did with Blythe, while his most frequently used star was Vitagraph’s very popular Harry T. Morey, who resembled Paul somewhat, except he had a healthier head of hair. Morey was the leading man in all of Paul’s 1918 and 1919 films. Paul went on to direct films starring Blanche Sweet and Miss Patty Dupont before retiring from directing in 1924.

filmdailyyearboo00wids_0094

Above: Scardon and Blythe, profiled together in 1925. However he had retired by this date.Film Daily Year Book, via Lantern and the Internet Archive.

Scardonppt 1923   Betty Blythe 1923 ppt

Above: Paul Scardon and Betty Blythe on their 1923 US passport application. He was 49 years old, she was 30. He became a US citizen in 1922. These well known photos are found in US Archives, available via Family Search. Passport photos, then as now, provide a refreshing alternative to posed studio photos.

Life after Hollywood

Aged fifty, Paul Scardon devoted his later life to running a citrus farm in Fontana, California and directing plays for community theatre in San Bernardino – well into the 1940s, reminding us that for many actors, the “legitimacy” of theatre is preferable to cinema. Paul did return to acting on the screen in the late 1930s however, but now appeared without a toupee and usually in uncredited roles. He died suddenly in 1954.

Scardon in Mark Twain 1944 Today I Hang 1942

Above left: Screen grab of Paul Scardon playing Rudyard Kipling in Warner Bros The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944). It is his one scene. Above right: Screen grab of Scardon as Hobbs from Today I Hang (1942). Australian Mona Barrie saves the film from being a complete bore. Author’s Collection.

Above: Leon Errol from Sydney as the fast talking Knobby Walsh, a regular character in the Joe Palooka films, and Paul Scardon as the doddery file clark being offered cigars while his files are stolen. This is a short audio clip from Gentleman Joe Palooka (1946). Leon Errol was 65 years old, Scardon 71. Source – Youtube. Paul Scardon was an extra in three of the Palooka films.

Betty Blythe also continued to act almost to the end of her life -she died in 1972. Her final film role was apparently as an extra in My Fair Lady in 1964. Before she died she gave film historian Kevin Brownlow a long account of working with director J. Gordon Edwards on The Queen of Sheba. Interviewed while sitting beneath a portrait of Scardon, she said Edwards was like her husband, a similiar “gentlemanly sort of person.”

Betty and Paul’s citrus orchard in Fortuna has long since been taken over for housing, however the modest little cottage in which Paul Scardon was born still stands in Bank Street, South Melbourne. 

 


Note 1
Paul Scardon’s date of birth was 6 May 1875, as per his birth certificate

Scardon BC

and his US naturalisation papers. Source above; Victoria, Births, Deaths and Marriages, Below; US Archives, via Ancestry.com. Unlike so many actors working in Hollywood, he apparently never felt any need to lie about his age.

Scardon naturalisation enlarged

Note 2
Mario Majeroni (born Italy, 1870) and Giorgio (George) Majeroni (born Melbourne, Australia 11 Jan 1877) arrived in the United States as part of the Nance O’Neill troupe with Scardon. Paul appears to have maintained a cordial relationship with the Majeroni brothers – he directed 3 films with Mario and 11 with George while at Vitograph. Unfortunately the Majeroni family’s significant contribution to theatre in Australia is not well documented, nor is their later work on stage and screen in the US.

Majeroni family

Above: Signora Majeroni with her sons Mario and George in Melbourne. Talma Photographer, David Syme and Co. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Note 3
Paul and Bessie’s daughter Joan Scardon lived in Australia for some time in the 1930s, and gained acclaim for her costume designs for theatre. She married violinist and conductor Mishel Piastro in 1941. She died in 2003. Her descendants now all live in the US.

 

Nick Murphy
May 2020

 


Further Reading

Text

  • Kevin Brownlow (1968) The Parade’s Gone By… University of California Press.
  • Charles Fox and Milton Silver (eds)(1920) Who’s Who on the screen, Ross Publishing, New York.
  • Carolyn Lowrey (1920) The First One Hundred Noted Men and Women of the Screen. Moffat Yard & Co
  • J.O. Randell (1982) Pastoral Settlement in Northern Victoria. Vol II The Campaspe District. Chandos
  •  Ken Wlaschin (2009 )Silent Mystery and Detective Movies: A Comprehensive Filmography. McFarland.

Heritage Council of Victoria, Database.

National Library of Australia’s Trove.

  • Punch (Melb) 14 Dec 1905 Page 38 Greenroom Gossip
  • Punch (Melb) 20 Dec 1906 Page 38 Greenroom Gossip.
  • Kilmore Free Press 23 Jan 1919 Page 2 Obituary
  • The Argus (Melb) 16 Jan 1919 Page 1 Family Notices
  • Everyone’s. Vol.2 No.86 ( 26 October 1921)
  • Leader (Melb) 9 Feb 1935 Page 36 Rhapsodies of 1935

US National Archives
Via Family Search and Ancestry.com


Newspapers.com

  • Los Angeles Times 20 April 1920
  • The Age (Melbourne) · 3 Jun 1935, Mon · Page 14
  • The San Bernardino County Sun, 24 Sep 1939, Sun Page 12
  • Pittsburgh Post-Gazette· 20 Jan 1954, Wed · Page 6

Lantern Digital Media Project

Films in the Public Domain

Ena Gregory (1907-1993)- the WAMPAS baby star from Manly

Above: Ena Gregory as the Queen, In the Palace of the King, 1923. Author’s Collection.

The 5 second version
Ena Jessie Gregory was born in the Sydney suburb of Manly on 16 April 1907. She died at Laguna Beach, California, USA on 13 June 1993. She was active in Hollywood after moving there in 1920 with her mother. Her films included comedy shorts for the Hal Roach studio, and numerous Westerns. She also appeared in the Hollywood film The Bushranger in 1928. She adopted the stage name Marian Douglas in 1927. She retired in 1931 after a few sound films and became a Realtor.

Ena Jessie Gregory was born in Sydney on 16 April, 1907 to Arthur Gregory and Jessie nee Prior (see Note 1 for Birth Certificate). Arthur was described at the time as a “tobacconist” but in later years was listed as an importer of manufactured goods (presumably tobacco products) and Sydney’s Sands directory shows he had a large office on the 6th floor of 204 Clarence Street. As Ena grew up, the family lived in a house (that has since been demolished) at 48 Sydney Rd Manly, very close to the famous Manly beach. Arthur and Jessie had married in 1901 – Ena was the only child of the union.

Ena’s name is found in the cast of a few Sydney wartime fund raising shows, and performing in 1918 as a child in Eyes of Youth – with other child actors like Esma Cannon. However, the best evidence of a passion for acting is her appearance in student performances run by Sydney actor-elocutionist Harry Thomas, in December 1919. His students recited selections from Shakespeare, Tennyson and Longfellow at an annual concert.


1920- Moving to the US

Ena and her mother arrived in the US on the SS Ventura on 2 February 1920, listing their intended stay as “indefinite.” Given her very young age and relative inexperience, Ena’s success soon after is remarkable and one wonders whether her father and mother used some connections to help set her up. Arthur had travelled on business to the US a number of times during the First World War.

Both Variety and the San Francisco Chronicle carried articles about Ena soon after her arrival. Amongst the overblown claims about her experience in Australia, the Chronicle also quoted Ethel as saying she wanted Ena to learn the art of acting in the US, a comment that has a ring of truth. Most likely, the state of the Gregory’s marriage also had something to do with it, as the couple appear not to have lived together again after 1920. Ethel and Arthur finally divorced in 1928. However, moving to a new country with a teenager was still an unusual occurrence. Jessie had a large and well established family back home in Australia, but she and Ena were choosing to leave them all behind.


A Career begins

Camera 1922
Regrettably, over time, Ena’s US film career has been inextricably muddled up with another actress with a very similar name – Canadian born brunette Edna Gregory. Even during their lifetimes, their names were continually mixed up. Tracking down Ena’s early Hollywood appearances is therefore difficult – and made doubly so because many of her films have not survived. One of her first films was a supporting role to Gladys Watson in Universal’s Short Skirts  – but this film has also disappeared.

In January 1922, Ena’s press agent Don Hix illustrated just how much hot air was generated on behalf of up and coming actors, even during Hollywood’s silent era. Ena was, according to Hix, “adept at boxing, fencing, golfing, tennis, baseball, football and even wrestling”… She had been a “footlight favourite for six years in Australia.”

Above: Ena in Camera! Magazine April 1921-April 1922 aged 15. Note the accompanying text reminding readers this is Ena, not Edna. Via Lantern and the Internet Archive.

Comedies and Westerns

Ena’s early films included comedy shorts for the Hal Roach studio, some of which do survive today. On reviewing these, it appears her function was generally to play a straight role to the slapstick antics of the likes of Stan Laurel, Charlie Chase or Earl Mohan. Several of the surviving Stan Laurel films also include Mae Laurel (Mae Dahlberg), an experienced Australian vaudevillian and Laurel’s partner at the time.

Short Kilts 1924 Wide Open Spaces1 Wide Open Spaces Stan and Mae

Above left to right: Stan Laurel and Ena Gregory in Short Kilts (1924), Laurel and Gregory in Wide Open Spaces (1924), and at right Laurel and Mae Dahlberg in the same film. Source of screen grabs: Youtube.

Jefferies Jr with Charlie Chase 1924 Rupert of Hee Haw 1 Postage Due 1924

Above left to right: Gregory and Charlie Chase in Jefferies Jr. (1924), Dahlberg, Laurel and Gregory in Rupert of Hee Haw (1924) and Gregory in Postage Due (1924) . Source of screen grabs: Youtube

A WAMPAS Baby Star

In early 1925, Ena was announced as one of the new WAMPAS “Baby Stars”.  The Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers annually created a promotional campaign, profiling a dozen young women who were (possibly) on the threshold of stardom and providing them with publicity. At 18 years of age Ena was amongst the youngest, and the only foreign-born winner that year.

WAMPAS Baby stars 1925

Above: WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1925 including the very blond 18 year old Ena Gregory, seated centre. She had been in Hollywood for five years. Picture-Play Magazine, March-August 1925. Via the Internet Archive

Through 1925 and 1926 she continued to be busy on the screen – she was also well enough established to appear in advertisements for soap and bathing suits. She had roles in numerous Westerns – popular rodeo star Jack Hoxie being a regular co-star –  in such lurid macho titles as Red Hot Leather, Rough and Ready, Grinning Guns, Men of Daring and others. At the end of 1926 she married Al Rogell, the director of many of her films.


Becoming Marian Douglas

There are numerous newspaper stories associated with Ena at this time, almost all of them impossible to verify independently. In 1927 Picture Play magazine published an extraordinary piece written by staff regular Ann Sylvester, quoting Rogell as saying to an Ena disappointed with her career;

” ‘Now listen Ena, suppose we give you a new shuffle of the cards – a fresh chance – and see what happens…’ Ena sighed and there was a slight glitter of tears in her eyes. ‘Oh I don’t know’ she said listlessly. ‘I just haven’t the heart to keep on trying… I don’t believe in myself anymore.’ Well, mused Al… ‘maybe you could believe in yourself if you were someone else… ‘ “

It’s a cleverly written piece, interspersed with photos of The Shepherd of the Hills, her latest film, also directed by Rogell. The article explains she has just had an operation to beautify her nose, and has changed her stage name to Marian Douglas in an effort to remake herself.

    Ena no Edna gets married SF Examiner 17 July 1927     Ena Marion Photoplay 1927

Above: Left: The San Francisco Examiner still muddling Edna and Ena on 17 Jul 1927. This was Edna‘s marriage and the paper had not done their homework. Ena had been married to Rogell for six months. Via Newspapers.com.
Right: Photoplay July -December 1927, covers Ena’s change of name. Via Lantern and the Internet Archive

Of course, it’s absurd to think that an intimate conversation between Ena and Rogell would really find its way into a fan magazine. And a few weeks later the Daily News of New York was suspicious enough to start their report on Ena’s change of name by commenting on the “chicanery practiced by movie press agents.” All the same, the story gained ground that had she consulted a Hollywood mystic to determine a more “lucky” name, by some accounts one that had thirteen letters, or combinations of the names of other popular stars.

However, it is worth noting that at the same time all this was happening, Ena’s father was about to arrive in the US (they seem not to have seen each other for seven years), while at the same time Ena and Edna continued to be merrily mixed up by the press, as the example above shows – another compelling reason for a name change in itself. There is almost certainly much more to this event than we now know.

Ena Douglas perhaps
Above: Ena’s signature on a fan photo, where she signs her name Ena Douglas. This possibly suggests she was giving much greater consideration to a name change than reports of the time suggested. A number of these signed photos are circulating on the net. Author’s collection.

Ena made several films using the stage name Marian Douglas, including The Bushranger with popular cowboy star Tim McCoy.  Filmed in California but set in colonial-era Australia, it followed some plot points similar to For the Term of his Natural Life, which had been made in Australia only a few years before; a wrongful conviction of the hero in England, transportation to Tasmania, adventures in the bush, romance and eventual redemption. Unfortunately, again, the film no longer exists, and we are dependent on reviews of the day for an understanding of the plot. Ena’s final film appears to have been Aloha, a romantic drama also directed by Rogell. Then, in 1931, at the ripe old age of 24, it appears her Hollywood career came to an end. There were no more films. Did the huge changes brought on by the coming of sound play a role in the demise of her career? We have no evidence, but it is quite possible. There were the inevitable “comeback” stories about Ena, yet similar stories have been a feature of Hollywood for a century, and these came to nothing. However, Ena did not disappear from the public eye altogether.

Ena 3

Above: Ena Gregory, Tim McCoy and Frank Baker in The Bushranger (1928). Photo, author’s collection.

Unseemly Language

In mid 1934, Ena’s marriage came to an end. Rogell sued for divorce, claiming Ena stayed out late at drinking parties, while he had to go to bed so he could perform his duties at the studio the next day. He claimed that Ena “was possessed of a violent temper and used vile language to him” and was “overly familiar with other men, embracing them and displaying other signs of affection”.  The entire divorce played out for six very long months in newspapers across the US with claims and counter claims being made, before a divorce was granted in 1935. And a year later, Ena testified at the divorce of her friend Helen Twelvetrees from her husband Jack Woody. Twelvetrees had filmed Thoroughbred for Ken Hall of Cinesound in Sydney in early 1936, where the marriage had first run aground. Back in Hollywood, Ena testified that she had witnessed Jack using “unseemly language” with his wife.

Ena must have discussed Sydney and Australia before Helen Twelvetrees left the US to work on Thoroughbred. We can only wonder what she might have said.

Helen Twelvetrees in Aust 2  LA Times 28 Oct 1937

Above left: Frank Leighton and Ena’s friend Helen Twelvetrees filming Thoroughbred in Sydney. State Library of New South Wales, Sam Hood Collection. In his memoirs, Director Ken Hall writes at some length regarding their relationship.
Above right: Ena Gregory and Frank Nolan discussing plans for their wedding, with Helen Twelvetrees, at left, watching on. The Los Angeles Times 28 Oct 1937, Via Newspapers.com

Ena married twice more – briefly to Dr Frank Nolan in 1937-9 and later to businessman James Thompson Talbot in 1951.

If Ena ever did really believe in lucky numbers or lucky names, she did not allow this to dominate her decisions later in life. After the Second World War she joined her mother in business and became a successful real estate agent (Realtor), specialising in the Laguna Beach area, in Orange County California. She worked happily in this profession for almost thirty years, until the mid 1970s, her company logo being Pleasing you is our Pleasure. 

Ena died on 13 June, 1993, aged 86. She had become a US citizen in 1932. She never returned to Australia.

Ena in 1974

Above: Los Angeles Times, 3 February, 1974. Via Newspapers.com

Nick Murphy
May 2020


Note 1
It’s hard to believe biographers have struggled for so long with Ena Jessie Gregory’s name, place and date of birth. In the interests of clarity, part of her New South Wales birth certificate is given here:

Ena Gregory BC left part

Col 2- April 16, 1907, 53 Union Street, North Sydney [Date and place of birth]
Col 3 – Ena Jessie Not present
Col 4 – Female
Col 5 – Arthur James Gregory, Tobacconist. 30 years. [Born] North Sydney NSW
Col 6 – April 9 1901, Burrowa, NSW, Nil [Date and place of marriage, other children]
Col 7 – Jessie Elizabeth Prior, 30 years. [Born] Bourke NSW.
Source: New South Wales Births, Deaths & Marriages.

Further Reading

Text

  • Joy Damousi (2010) Colonial Voices: A Cultural History of English in Australia, 1840-1940. Cambridge University Press.
  • Ken G Hall. (1977) Australian Film: The Inside Story. Summit Books
  • George A. Katchmer (2009) A Biographical Dictionary of Silent Film Western Actors and Actresses. McFarland.
  • Andree Wright (1986) Brilliant careers. Women in Australian Film. Pan Books.

Surviving films

  • Many of the Hal Roach short comedies with Ena are available on Youtube. However, none of her full length films could be sourced.

State Library of New South Wales

City of Sydney 

Manly City Library Local Studies Blog

Immortal Ephemera website

National Library of Australia

  • The Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 17 December 1919
  • The Sunday Times (Sydney) 3 June, 1923
  • Sydney Mail, 30 May 1928
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 Dec 1928
  • Werribee Shire Banner (Victoria), 2 May 1929
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July 1929
  • Sun (Sydney) 7 February 1930 (a wildly inaccurate interview with Jessie Gregory)
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 1948

Newspapers.com

  • Oakland Tribune, 22 January 1922
  • The Los Angeles Times, 5 December 1924,
  • The Times Herald (Michigan), 20 January 1925
  • The San Francisco Examiner ,17 July 1927
  • Daily News (New York), 2 October 1927
  • The Los Angeles Times, 24 July 1927,
  • News-Pilot (California), 11 August 1934,
  • The Los Angeles Times, 18 Aug 1934,
  • The Los Angeles Times, 28 Oct 1937,
  • The Los Angeles Times, 3 February, 1974

Lantern – Digital Media Project – Internet Archive

  • Camera! Magazine, April 1921-April 1922
  • Picture-Play Magazine, March-August 1925
  • Photoplay Magazine, July -December 1927
  • Picture-Play Magazine, Sep 1927 – Feb 1928

Lotus Thompson (1904-1963) & her troublesome legs

Above: Young Australian Lotus Thompson, photographed in early 1923. Enlargement of a photo in author’s collection.

The 5 second version
Born Lotus May Thompson in Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia on 26 August 1904, she died in Los Angeles, California, USA, 24 May 1963. She was on stage in Australia from 1915, then appeared in five Australian films 1921-24. She moved to California in 1924 where she found some minor roles. She is mostly remembered today for a stunt in 1925, when she claimed to have splashed acid on her legs. She was then active in US films for four or five years, but after an unhappy marriage and with the coming of sound films she found only uncredited roles. This writer suggests her voice was regarded as unsuitable.

Lotus Thompson is remembered today largely because of a well-publicised incident in February 1925, when she supposedly poured nitric acid on her herself, frustrated with Hollywood producers only offering her parts where she showed off her attractive legs. ”I’ll go mad if they don’t stop it!” she had wailed to her mother. “I know I can play parts, but they won’t give me a chance. It’s legs-always legs! I hate them!” US Newspapers widely reported the event. Film Weekly produced a sensational half-page sketch showing the scantily clad but distressed actress dribbling the acid on her legs. The journal suggested theatre owners might use the event to promote her latest film, The Yellow Back. At the same time, a more sober account in The Los Angeles Times included a photograph of Lotus posed on a bed, “burnt legs” bandaged up, looking miserable. A month later the story was still running, as on March 8, The Detroit Free Press listed the four things that drove Lotus Thompson to “disfigure herself for life” – which included “displaying her bare limbs in an endless series of frivolous bathing pictures” some of which the paper helpfully reprinted. It’s such a preposterous story it is hard to believe it still has currency today.

Lotus's legs SF Examiner March 8 1925

Lotus, posed with heavily retouched “bandaged legs”, a month after the alleged event –  from The San Francisco Examiner. “Deliberately spoiled her too beautiful legs” the paper reported on March 8, 1925. Via Newspapers.com

Lotus May Thompson, was born in Charters Towers, Queensland on 26th August 1904. She first performed on the Sydney stage in juvenile theatre in 1915, and thereafter appeared in concerts, fancy dress balls and carnivals.

Lotus as a child

Above: Lotus Thompson at the age of about 12 or 13, about the time she first appeared on stage. Photograph courtesy of Melissa Anderson

By 1921 she had featured in her first Australian film for Franklyn Barrett, Know Thy Child,  the film and her performance gaining some good reviews. The Daily News of Western Australia suggested Lotus played her part with “admirable fidelity.”

Vera James and Lotus Thompson

Vera James (as the sickly “fallen woman” Sadie) and Lotus Thompson (as Eileen, her vibrant daughter with a rosy future) in “Know Thy Child” – Via Wikipedia commons. Find a beautiful photo of Vera James during her brief stint at Universal Studios here at the NFSA website.

She appeared in four more films in 1922-3;  The Dinkum Bloke for Lottie Lyell & Raymond Longford and several Hayseed family comedies for Beaumont Smith. Sadly, none of these are known to survive today.


lotus3 Lotus 1923s

By 1923 Lotus was well established as an up and coming Australian movie actress. There was endless positive publicity which largely focused on her physical appearance – as can be seen in these examples.
Via National Library of Australia’s Trove; The Sunday Times, 28 January 1923, and The Sun Monday 24 April 1923

Determined to pursue a career in film, on 5th March 1924 she sailed for California on the Matson liner Ventura, with her mother Sarah. A newsreel camera was on hand to capture the scene. (click here to follow link)

lotusabouttodepart

This newsreel footage of Thompson surrounded by well-wishers on the eve of departure for the US is unusual – and a testimony to her popularity in 1924.Source of screen grab Australasian Gazette newsreel via youtube.

She settled in Hollywood and a few bit parts followed, but she obviously found the going tough. The “acid” incident occurred on 1st February 1925 – she had been in Hollywood for ten months. Many fan magazines and newspapers in the US and Australia dredged the story out for the next few years, although not all papers accepted the story as fact. Everyones magazine seems to have identified it as nonsense in a May 1925 report.   Motion Picture Magazine also suspected it was probably a hoax, and announced (tongue in cheek) that as the “acid” had caused no lasting disfigurement to her legs she would have to use scissors to cut them off next time.

Smith Weekly Aug 19,1933

Above: Smiths Weekly, August 19, 1933, via National Library of Australia Trove

Eight years later, on a return to Australia, she told the truth. It was entirely a publicity stunt, she confirmed. She told Smith’s Weekly, the whole thing had been arranged by five men – ‘”publicity go-getters.’ She was told that the subtle hint that the directors couldn’t keep their eyes off her legs would provide a spicy and sensational story, and she would be overwhelmed with big film offers… The promise of fame lured her into agreeing to it… ” She added I was not much more than a kid at the time, or I would never have entertained the proposition.'”

Lotus and Olive1

Above: US actress Olive Borden (left) and Australian actress Lotus Thompson (right). The source of this postcard, very widely available on the net, is unknown, as is the exact date it was taken. It is reputed to have been the mid twenties, when Borden was at the height of her Hollywood popularity and Thompson was just beginning to make her way. Author’s Collection.

All the same, the event achieved the publicity she wanted and kick-started her career. And by October 1926 she was under contract to Paramount Studios – she was posed prominently in a photo lineup of major Paramount stars in late 1926. (See Daniel Blum’s Pictorial History of the Silent Movies, page 294 here). Over the next five years a string of movies followed, some of them Westerns, a few of them directed by Australian-born director J. P. McGowan.

Unfortunately it is often difficult to review the work of silent era actors – so many of their films have been lost. Even the ten episodes of Universal’s 1930 serial Terry of the ‘Times’ – which saw Lotus with a starring role, has disappeared. However, we know Lotus Thompson was noted for her work as a comedienne and her Westerns were well received in Australia. In the late 1920s there was speculation that she could soon become a leading star.

Paramount serials 1930

Above: Terry of the Times advertised as a talking serial. It wasn’t really – but it did include music and sound effects. Motion Picture News, April-July 1929 Via the Internet Archive.
               The Picture Show 1928    Motion Picture Mag 1927
Left: Lotus as Bessie Lang with Ranger the dog, in Flashing Fangs (1926). The Picture Show Annual 1928 , via the Internet Archive. Right – Lotus at right, as a Floradora Girl, in  Casey at the Bat (1927). Motion Picture Magazine Feb – July 1927, via the Internet Archive.

January 1929 saw another change in Lotus’ life when she married Edward Wilder Churchill in Manhattan. The 1930 US census showed the young couple settling down to live with E Wilder Churchill Senior and his wife Alice on the family estate in California’s Napa Valley. This year was also her busiest for acting, and then in 1930, she appeared in her last credited roll, as Eve in Cecil B. DeMille‘s saucy pre-code musical fantasy, Madam Satan.

Lotus in Madam Satan
Above: A screen grab of Lotus in the kissing competition scene of Cecil B DeMille’s Madam Satan (1930). The film is available through the Warner Archive Collection. Author’s Collection.

For the next three years she did not appear in any films. Then without much warning, in August 1933, she was suddenly home in Australia again, supposedly forced to leave the US because she had overstayed her 6 months visa by some 9 years!

lotussanfrancisoexaminer29april1936It was during this visit home that she owned up to the acid on the legs stunt. Yet she was not being entirely honest when she spoke of being thrown out of the US as an illegal immigrant, because it seems the return home to see her mother was more to do with the state of her marriage than her visa. She went back to the US in March 1934, but she followed this trip almost immediately with another to the UK, apparently to see if she could drum up any work. She returned to acting in the US, but the roles she was given were now un-credited – she had well and truly lost her currency in the new sound-era Hollywood. Her marriage to Churchill formally came to an end in 1936, and she remarried on April 18 1937, to Stanley Robinson at Tijuana, Mexico. Finally in 1939, she applied to become a naturalised US citizen. According to the Internet Movie Database, the last of her film roles was in 1949, although there is evidence she appeared in some films that are not recorded.

Lotus in The San Francisco Examiner, 29 April 1936. Via Newspapers.com

There is another story here of course – and it’s not to do with burned legs. Even if the event was a stunt, was Lotus a victim of a publicity machine that chewed up young women like her? Or was she creatively playing the system and trying to take some initiative to manage her own destiny? Self publicity was then, as it is today, an important activity for aspiring stars.

lotus2

The San Francisco Examiner ran this article with the photo shown above. It was very easy to be stereotyped.  29 April, 1936. Via Newspapers.com

Unfortunately, we know nothing of the last years of her life, except that she lived comfortably on Laurel Canyon Drive and later in Burbank. She had no children from either marriage. She died in California in 1963, aged only 59.  Both her parents had succumbed to pneumonia in late 1934, at Cootamundra, New South Wales. Her brother Eric and father Archie both worked at the Cullinga Mine near Cootamundra, New South Wales.

Lotus as Queen

Lotus’s advice on beauty appeared in The Buffalo Times (Buffalo, New York) 5 April 1924. “Get plenty of out of door exercise” she said. Via Newspapers.com

A voice not suited to sound?

With the advent of sound film, many famous screen actors of the 1920s found themselves “washed up”, although others who had some experience with dialogue from stagework seemed to have breezed through. This writer spent six months sourcing Lotus Thompson’s few pieces of dialogue in obscure films of the early 1930s. It is only speculation by this author of course, but one wonders whether Lotus’ voice was simply not regarded as suitable for sound.

Lotus’ one line in I Found Stella Parish, a Warner Brothers film of 1935. She plays the unnamed secretary to Mr Reeves. “What shall I answer?” she asks. Available through Warner Brothers Archive.
Lotus’ one line as a random person at a ball, in Anthony Adverse, a Warner Brothers picture of 1936. These few words – “Please talk about them” seem to have an noticeable Australian twang. Available through Warner Brothers Archive.

Note 1
Errors around her details of birth abound. Her DOB is regularly and incorrectly stated across the web to be 1906 or that she was born in Sydney. Queensland birth records are quite clear however.

Note 2
There is a tendency for modern accounts to take the newspaper reports of the acid incident literally. The current manifestation of the Wikipedia article deals with the event at very great length.

 

Nick Murphy, Updated April 2020

 

Special Thanks

Sincere thanks to Melissa Anderson, one of Lotus’ Australian relatives for her kind encouragement and feedback – and for unequivocal family feedback that the leg story was indeed, a stunt.

 


Further Reading

  • Daniel Blum (1982) Pictorial History of the Silent Movies. Perigee Books
  • Liz Conor (2004) The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s. Indiana University Press
  • George A. Katchmer (2009) A Biographical Dictionary of Silent Film Western Actors and Actresses. McFarland
  • Buck Rainey (1992) Sweethearts of the sage: biographies and filmographies of 258 actresses appearing in western movies. McFarland
  • John Tulloch (1981) Legends of the Screen. The Australian Narrative Cinema 1919-1929. Currency Press.
  • Andree Wright (1987) Brilliant Careers: Women in Australian Cinema. MacMillan

National Library of Australia, Trove

  • Sunday Times (Sydney) 28 Jan 1923 “Three Girls with Claims to Perfect Figures”
  • The Sun (Sydney) 23 Apr 1923  “Eyes that mock the violet”
  • Everyones Magazine Vol.4 No.271, 13 May 1925 “Lotus and her legs”
  • Smith’s Weekly (Sydney) 19 Aug 1933 “Inside story of a stunt that hoaxed world!”

Newspapers.com

  • The Buffalo Times (Buffalo, New York) 5 April 1924.
  • The San Francisco Examiner 8 March, 1925
  • The San Francisco Examiner 29 April, 1936

Lantern Digital Media Archive – Internet Archive

  • Motion Picture Magazine Feb – July 1925.
  • The Picture Show Annual 1928
  • Motion Picture Magazine Feb – July 1927
  • Motion Picture News  April-July 1929

Phyllis Gibbs from Coogee says “No” to Cecil B DeMille.

Above: Phyllis Gibbs on the front page of Table Talk, 14 April 1927. She had just won the First National Pictures “Quest for an Australian Star” competition. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The 5 second version.
Phyllis Gibbs was born on 24 July 1908 in Sydney. She won several competitions including the 1927 “First National Film Star Quest” which took her to Hollywood, and gave her a test with Cecil B DeMille studios. She appeared in Lois Weber’s The Angel of Broadway but after 10 weeks returned to Australia. She appeared in promotions for cinemas and then in Arthur Higgin’s first film – Odds On. After this she took no further interest in film making and died in Sydney on 4 May 1943.

Phyllis Gibbs was barely out of school and working as a hairdresser in the Sydney beachside suburb of Coogee, when she began to appear in competitions. Like some of the other women profiled on this website, Phyllis’s journey to very brief fame – including an appearance in several films – owed much to the support of an eager parent. And like many, it all lasted only a very short time.

Born to Ethel Cora Wynne in 1908, her mother married insurance salesman Henry Leslie Gibbs (or sometimes Salter – Gibbs) in 1910 (See Note 1). She attended Coogee Public School, not far from the family’s flat in Havelock Avenue. Her passions were tennis and ocean swimming – Sydney’s iconic Coogee beach was within easy walking distance of the family home.

In August 1926, the Sydney Evening News reported that Phyllis had just won first prize in the “unshingled” hair competition. Unshingled meant she kept her hair long, not cut short in a bob, as was the fashion at the time. The competition was partly sponsored by the Crystal Palace Cinema in George St, Sydney and part of the prize was a £10 per week payment to appear in a live prologue performed before the popular Douglas Fairbanks film Don Q, Son of Zorro. Ethel complained about the difficulty she had faced, trying to interest her daughter in competing.”She has never gone in for anything like this before,”  she told the Evening News. She is a real home girl.”


Phyllis Gibbs4  The Sun August 1926

Above left: Phyllis Gibbs with her spectacular “unshingled” hair, in Table Talk. 12 Aug 1926.  Above right: Appearing at the Crystal Palace in August 1926. The live prologue appears to have included sword-play.  The Sun (Sydney) 6 August 1926. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Such was the power of the fantasy of a “career in the pictures” that the Sydney Evening News had little difficulty attracting widespread interest in the First National “Film Star Quest” in March 1927. There were, reportedly, 2,000 contestants across Australia. As a representative from Sydney, New South Wales, Phyllis was amongst the favourites and her beautiful hair, good looks and pleasant personality impressed reporters. She was “unspoiled, unaffected, and sincere, with a love for her home, her work, and for all things beautiful” wrote the Evening News. Her untested performance skills and lack of acting experience seemed much less important than her good looks and admirable personal qualities. Not very surprisingly, Phyllis won the finals – with the prize being a trip to Hollywood and a test with Cecil B DeMille. The Evening News covered all the good news, with prominent articles and a big Page 1 photo.

In late May 1927, Phyllis and Ethel boarded the SS Sierra, bound for California and a new career – perhaps. US newspapers happily reprinted photos of the young Australian in bathers and at the beach – photos that could have only been supplied from Australia.


Phyllis at the beach Phyllis 1927Phyllis welcomed

Above: Phyllis received plenty of  publicity in the US in 1927, and the bathing suit photos may have helped. In the US, the competition had become “Miss Australia” and there had been 12,000 contestants. Left; The Princeton Daily Clarion, 24 June 1927. Centre; The Arizona Republic, 28 June 1927, Right; The Fresno Morning Republican 11 July 1927. Via Newspapers.com

Unfortunately, Phyllis’ fans had a hard time keeping up with her activities in Hollywood because there was not much to report. At the end of July, Australians read that she had started work in her first film for DeMille Studios, The Angel of Broadway, directed by Hollywood’s leading female director, Lois Weber. Several Australian papers claimed she appeared in as many as four films for the DeMille Studio, but this seems impossible to verify now. If she ever did appear in Forbidden Woman, Main Event or The Girl in the Pullman, it is likely she was an extra. Just how much time she really spent with DeMille himself is also difficult to determine. Sadly,  the censor would not approve The Angel of Broadway for release in Australia and unfortunately is now considered a lost film.

In late August and only eight weeks after arriving, Phyllis suddenly announced she had had enough, and was coming home. The official reason was that she and her mother were “homesick”. The contract DeMille’s studio had presented to her looked wonderful to Australian eyes – with its increasing rates of pay and the chance of a new contract if all went well. But she declined it – perhaps she realized it was just a typical contract of the time. By early October she was at home in Sydney again, embracing her friends.

Gibbs on return

Above: Phyllis Gibbs on her happy return. Table Talk, 20 October 1927. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

So what happened? Not surprisingly, she was careful to find the right form of words. She assured the Evening News it had been “like a dream” and that she had had a wonderful time. She was, after all, deeply indebted to the paper that had been her staunch advocate. She was also careful to say that everyone in the industry had been so welcoming. But, she explained, the whole Hollywood “atmosphere… was an environment I could not have lived in.” She wished she could have the same opportunity in Australia. 

And she did.  Within a few months, cinematographer Arthur Higgins had signed her up to appear as the love interest in his first film as director – a horse racing drama entitled Odds On, with popular actor Arthur Tauchert. The ever loyal Evening News claimed, apparently in all seriousness, that there was “little left in Australian literature but racing themes for film work.” Film historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper note that the film was made for a modest £2000 in mid 1928. It had a release in the UK as a “quota film” which means it probably returned its money. However, it was a silent film – which is possibly another reason it has not survived. Like The Angel of Broadway, it is now considered a lost film.

During 1928, Phyllis was employed on a lecture tour of provincial Australian cinemas, where she sometimes screened the footage of her test for DeMille’s studio and talked about her Hollywood experience. She was also paid to drum up publicity for Odd’s On after its release in October 1928. Again she appeared in person at some screenings.

Heenzo ad 1928Hats advertising

Above left: Phyllis advertising for Heenzo, a cough cure, in the Sydney Morning Herald 24 May 1928. Via Newspapers.com
At right: A full page spread modelling hats in Truth, 14 April 1929. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

She continued with advertising engagements but by 1933 had returned to hairdressing in Coogee, keeping her own business going until the late 1930s. She married Charles Young, a salesman, in April 1933. A son was born of the union in 1935.

1937 hairdressing

Above: Phyllis advertising for a new hairdresser in her salon- Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 1937. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

What really happened to Phyllis in Hollywood? In the absence of meaningful interviews we can only speculate. Phyllis was not alone in rejecting a Hollywood contract – Margaret Vyner, John Wood and Janet Johnson all did this in the 1930s. This writer thinks Phyllis was probably astute enough to see how most actors ended up – in supporting roles, waiting around a lot and often far from family and friends, doing work that was nowhere near as exciting as some claimed. If that was what she thought, and she got out while she could, she is worthy of our admiration today.

Phyllis died unexpectedly in May 1943. She was 35 years old.

 

Nick Murphy
April 2020

 


Note 1
No father is listed on Phyllis’ 1908 birth certificate, and the place of birth given is 203 Albion St. Presumably this is Albion Street Surry Hills, an inner suburb of Sydney which had many boarding houses at the time. It appears likely that Ethel (a 19 year old from Ballarat in Victoria) went to a boarding house to give birth, probably one that specialized in hosting expectant women who were on their own. The 1840s cottage (with the cottage next door) is now preserved and owned by the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia.

 

Further Reading

Text

National Library of Australia Trove

  • Evening News 5 August 1926
  • Evening News 6 August 1926
  • The Sun 6 August 1926
  • Table Talk  12 August 1926
  • Evening News 13 August 1926
  • Evening News  30 March 1927
  • Evening News  31 March 1927
  • Table Talk 14 April 1927
  • Evening News 19 August 1927
  • Evening News 22 August 1927
  • The Mercury 9 September 1927
  • Evening News 7 October 1927
  • Table Talk, 20 October 1927
  • Daily News, 11 November 1927
  • Evening News, 16 December 1927
  • Forbes Advocate, 6 January 1928
  • Evening News, 24 January 1928
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 May 1928
  • Brisbane Courier 14 June 1928
  • Daily Standard  27 October 1928
  • Truth , 14 April 1929
  • The Daily Telegraph 26 July 1929
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 1937.
  • Truth, 9 May 1943

Newspapers.com

  • Intelligencer Journal, 18 June 1927
  • The Princeton Daily Clarion, 24 June 1927.
  • The Arizona Republic, 28 June 1927.
  • Lancaster New Era, 5 July 1927
  • The Fresno Morning Republican, 11 July 1927.