The short, brilliant career of Janet Johnson

Janet Johnson as she appeared on a cigarette card, London c 1938. She stood about 1.62 metres (5’4″) tall and had dark brown hair and grey eyes. (We owe this otherwise lost personal information to the very thorough US immigration records kept in the 1930s and 40s) Author’s collection.

Janet Johnson had a brief career in film and on stage in Australia and Britain. For a very short time, she made a name for herself as another of the talented and attractive Australian exports of the 1930s. Her career choices remain intriguing however – particularly the fact that she consciously declined a career in Hollywood and not long after, left acting behind altogether.

Janet Ramsay Johnson was born in Adelaide, South Australia in November 1914, to Arthur George Johnson and Jean Lea (Jeannie) nee Ramsay. She had an older sister – Margaret. Arthur was a manager with Pyrox, an Australian manufacturer of spark plugs and car radios. In the early 1920s the family had settled in the comfortable Melbourne suburb of Toorak and the girls attended St. Catherine’s school in nearby Heyington Place, almost next door to their home. It is notable that a number of her contemporaries at St Catherine’s also appeared on stage and in films, including Gwen Munro and her sister Mignon and Kathleen Rhys-Jones (known professionally as Margot Rhys).

Like many of those featured on this site, Janet Johnson’s family enjoyed a very comfortable middle class experience that seems to have enabled them to sail through the Great Depression. But it would be wrong to simply ascribe her success to a privileged background. She was a talented actor and her reputation completely deserved. However it is clear that socio-economic advantage made pursuit of an acting career much easier in the 1930s.

Left:  Janet Johnson (standing fourth from the left) and other society girls performing the “Sea Nymph Soiree,” a fund raiser for a hospital in 1933. Table Talk, 23 November 1933 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Right: Johnson featured in her coming out dress, in a page devoted to “society folk in attractive garb” Table Talk, 24 March 1932. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Johnson’s three years of stage experience in Australia was important in her development as an actor, as it exposed her to “serious” theatre, or what might be called theatre of “social conscience,” as opposed to the escapism of musicals and light comedies. She first appeared on the Australian stage under the direction of Gregan McMahon in a supporting role in Galsworthy’s The Pigeon in September 1932. McMahon notably mentored a number of young actors, including Coral Browne, Jocelyn Howarth, Thelma Scott, Elaine Hamill and Lloyd Lamble. The CBE awarded a few years before his death in 1941 was a very late recognition of years of effort.

Johnson also performed under McMahon’s direction in Children in Uniform, an English adaption of Christa Winsloe‘s boarding school drama Mädchen in Uniform, with Coral Browne in a leading role. It is difficult to know to what extent the play’s original lesbian theme survived translation and performance in Australia, as reviews made much of the depiction of the cruelty of a strict “Prussian” education.

From late 1934, Johnson appeared regularly in plays under the J.C. Williamson’s banner including the dramas The Shining Hour (August 1935) and Aimée and Phillip Stuart‘s Sixteen (October 1935) – concerning a heroine who has to work to support her fatherless family. In the latter play she received very positive reviews for her supporting role. The Argus newspaper felt she was “one of the most promising of the younger school of local actresses.”

Her first outings in film occurred in 1935. Early in the year Charles Chauvel made his panorama of Australian history – Heritage. According to some accounts, Johnson appeared as an extra in the “wife ship” scene – where Mary (then called Peggy) Maguire was playing an Irish immigrant girl. The scene can be viewed here at the Australian Screen/NFSA website. Unfortunately,  this writer cannot identify Janet Johnson with any confidence. Maguire and Johnson reportedly became friends at the time.Johnson 1935.jpg

Above: Janet Johnson at the height of her Australian stage successes, Table Talk, 24 October 1935. From the National Library of Australia’s Trove

Harry Southwell‘s The Burgomeister (also known as Flames of Conscience) was made in Sydney in the later half of 1935 and Johnson was cast in one of the leading roles. Based on a well known stage melodrama it was briefly screened in September but the film struggled to find a distributor. Film historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper suggest this was because it was not very good. Just how bad it was we will never know, because the film is now lost, except for one short sequence. Then, in January 1936, visiting English Actor/Director Miles Mander cast the final roles in The Flying Doctor, a Gaumont British/National Pictures co-production being made in Sydney. He tested both Mary Maguire and Janet Johnson for the leading role. Although 22 year old Johnson had significantly more acting experience, Mander cast 17 year old Maguire in the role. Within a few weeks, Johnson determined to try her luck overseas and accompanied by her mother, departed for England on the SS Largs Bay.

lady of la paz030

Above: Program from The Lady of La Paz at the Criterion Theatre, June 1936. Australian John Wood was also in the cast. Author’s collection.

She fell into acting in London with remarkable ease. Soon after arrival she had a role in The Lady of La Paz, a stage play at the Criterion Theatre, which brought her in contact with established actor Lillian Braithwaite, rising star Nova Pilbeam and fellow Australian John Wood.  And shortly afterwards, she gained a supporting role in her first UK film, Everybody Dance, with Cicely Courtneidge. An even more exciting development occurred when she was offered work in Hollywood by none other than Joe Schenck, chairman of Twentieth Century Fox, who had seen her perform. She and her mother arrived in the US in mid-November.

Mail Adelaide 3 april 1937
Above: Together in Hollywood. Mary Maguire with Miles Mander and Janet Johnson. The Mail (Adelaide), 3 April 1937. Mander encouraged a number of young Australian actors to try their luck overseas. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove. A clearer copy of this photo is printed in this Daily Mail review of Michael Adam’s book on Mary Maguire.

But like John Wood and Margaret Vyner, Johnson came to the conclusion Hollywood was not for her. Although she met other industry people and must have been on a Fox retainer, she left the US in May 1937, having not made a film at all. Was she offered something she didn’t want or was she simply bored waiting around for work? Unfortunately,  we don’t know. “Hollywood made me feel such a fish out of water” she famously said of the experience. She told The Daily Mirror newspaper in January 1938 that she still had nightmares about the place. “If a girl wants to become a good actress the last place to go to is Hollywood” she said. There was one bonus to her visit to Hollywood however – she had met Charles Birkin, a young British writer, then working in the US. (Their attraction was definitely mutual, as he packed up and returned to Britain a week after Janet).

JAnet 1939

Above: Janet Johnson in a publicity photo for her London agent, Christopher Mann c.1939. Author’s collection

The next three years in England were Janet Johnson’s busiest and her reputation as a fine actor was consolidated. She featured in at least three British “quota quickies” – films made on a small budget and fairly quickly so as to fulfill studio obligations to the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927. The most interesting of these was Mrs Pym of Scotland Yard, a film about a female detective, and based on a character created by novelist Nigel Morland. However, Johnson’s major interest at this time was performing on stage, not in film.

Her first play back in England was in Diana Morgan‘s “slight comedy” Bats in the Belfry at the Ambassadors Theatre, working again with Lillian Braithwaite and taking over from Vivian Leigh in the supporting role of Jessica Moreton. She then appeared in a string of light comedies including Australian writer Max Murray’s The Admiral’s Chair, Robert E Sherwood‘s anti-war play Idiot’s Delight and Leslie Storm‘s Tony Draws a Horse. Her final play was Diana Morgan’s A House in the Square, again with Lillian Braithwaite.

In the late summer of 1937 Johnson also appeared in a series of Shakespeare performances for the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park  – including The Tempest and Comedy of Errors.

Above Left: Margaret Rawlings, Lillian Braithwaite and Janet Johnson in A House in the Square. The Bystander, 10 April 1940. The British Newspaper Archive/British Library. Copyright Illustrated London News Group. Above Centre: Johnson with cast members of The Tempest. The Sphere, 4 Sept, 1937. The British Newspaper Archive/British Library. Copyright Illustrated London News Group. Above Right. Janet and Charles Birkin. 18 July, 1940. The Herald, 18 July 1940. National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Her final film, The Proud Valley, released shortly before her marriage, was certainly her finest. A vehicle for African-American singer and actor, Paul Robeson, it was produced by Michael Balcon. Writing for the Melbourne Herald, Margaret Giruth reported: “This is a strong, beautifully directed film about a life that is stark and difficult and poverty-ridden. Paul Robeson sings and acts magnificently. So does Rachel Thomas as the mother. And magnificent is (also) the word for Janet Johnson’s acting…”

Seen today, the film might be said to be predictable and a little sentimental. But that it touched audiences at the time seems without question. Former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George was moved to write to Michael Balcon and congratulate him. The film “throbs with genuine human emotion and the acting is superb” he wrote.

Above: Screen grabs of Janet Johnson in her last and finest film  – The Proud Valley, 1940. The film is available on DVD through Amazon, the BFI and the Criterion Collection. Copy in the author’s collection.

Janet Johnson and Charles Birkin married in July 1940, and a few years later Birkin inherited a baronetcy from his father. Both Charles and Janet served during World War Two – Janet is reported to have driven ambulances and Charles was reported as wounded during the June 1944 landings at Normandy. Johnson did not appear on stage or in film again after the marriage, and there is no evidence she tried.

Two daughters and a son John, were born of the union. John Birkin has developed a long career directing for television and specializing in British comedy – amongst those he has worked with include Harry Enfield, Rowan Atkinson and French and Saunders.

Janet Johnson returned at least once to Australia, in 1962, to see her parents and friends again. Her sister Margaret worked in London for Vogue magazine for many years.

johnson in 1962

Above: Lady Janet Birkin in 1962, on a return to Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 August, 1962. Via newspapers.com

Lady Janet Birkin lived much of her later life on the Isle of Man and died in 1983 in London – she was only in her late 60s at the time. Sadly she had left no reflections on her career in Australia and Britain. The Australian press did not notice her passing.


Nick Murphy
December 2019.

 


Further Reading

Film clips online

Text

  • Michael Adams (2019) Australia’s Sweetheart. Hachette.
  • Rose Collis. (2007) Coral Browne, This Effing Lady. Oberon Books, London
  • M. Danischewsky (Ed) (1947) Michael Balcon’s 25 Years in Film. World Film Publications, London
  • Maggie Gale (1996) West End Women: Women and the London Stage 1918 – 1962
    Routledge. London
  • Hal Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby Limited, Adelaide.
  • Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1980) Australian Film 1900-1977. A Guide to Feature Production. Oxford Uni Press/AFI
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1930-1939: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1940-1949: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
  • Andree Wright (1986) Brilliant Careers, women in Australian Cinema. Pan Books

Web
Australian Dictionary of Biography online.


National Library of Australia – Trove

  • Table Talk Thursday 24 Mar 1932 Society Folk in Attractive Garb
  • Table Talk Thursday 23 Nov 1933, Table Talk of the Week
  • The Sydney Morning Herald Tue 21 May 1940 HORSES AND BUGGIES IN MAYFAIR
  • The Herald, 18 July 1940.

Newspapers.com

  • The Age 18 August 1962 Flew from London
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 August, 1962

British Library/British Newspaper Archive

  • The Bystander, 10 April 1940. (Illustrated London News Group)
  • The Sphere, 4 Sept, 1937. (Illustrated London News Group)
  • The Daily Mirror, 27 January 1938.

John Wood – Of Hollywood, Ealing studio and Changi prison

Above – Two young Australians exchange smiles on the set of An Englishman’s Home (1939).  Mary Maguire (centre) was 20 and John Wood (right) was 30. Paul Henreid‘s suspicious stare (just visible on the left) gives him away as one of the film’s baddies. Source probably Aldwych films. Author’s collection.

Born John Frederick Woods in the central western town of Forbes in New South Wales in November 1909, John Wood briefly became an film star in the mid 1930s and would undoubtedly have stayed one, if World War Two hadn’t intervened. His resume is extraordinary all the same. Like many of the actors profiled on this website, his upbringing was the comfortable one Australians of the time aspired to. Yet Wood stands out from some of his contemporaries, with a strong sense of duty combined with a genuine and unusual modesty in discussing his achievements. And he is one of those few former wartime POWs who felt the need to visit Japan after the war. His death from heart related trouble in 1965, at the relatively young age of 56, seems almost certainly a consequence of his wartime captivity in Singapore.

John’s father, Frederick Michael Woods, was a Chemist in Forbes with property interests in the area. His mother Flora, nee Fitzsimon, had given birth to a daughter, Una, in 1897 – suggesting John may have been a surprise, late-in-life baby for her. In later press interviews, Wood revealed he had attended the prestigious Shore school (Sydney Church of England Grammar School), which means he was most likely a boarder and contemporary of Errol Flynn, who was also at the school before being expelled in 1926. Wood studied and began a career in commercial art, but soon threw this in for acting, which had probably long been a passion. By 1930 he was a good looking young man, 175 cm (5’9″) tall, with blue eyes and dark brown hair.


Above Left: A very young John Wood aged 20, as he appeared in the play The Family Upstairs in 1929. From The Daily Mercury 21 September 1929.  Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove. Above right: Noel Coward’s Hay Fever at Adelaide’s Theatre Royal in 1931 – John Wood in company with other well known Australians – The News (Adelaide) 21 August, 1931. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Where he trained is a mystery, although he gained some mentoring from established stage and screen actor Nan Taylor. Like so many Australian actors, his first professional stage roles were for the J.C.Williamson’s organisation (so big an organisation it was known as “the Firm”), at the age of only 20. Reviewers over the next few years consistently welcomed him as “a promising and handsome juvenile lead”,  who gave “as polished a performance as any.” His first leading role was in The Family Upstairs, a comedy about middle-class New York life written by Harry Delf in the mid 1920s. Over the next four years, Wood became part of a very talented and creative pool of performers who presented a series of “light comedies” for J.C. Williamsons, all over Australia – amongst them Cecil Kellaway, Mary MacGregor, Coral Brown(e) and Mona Barlee (Mona Barrie). There were visiting British actors to work with too, like Barry K Barnes and Margaret Rawlings – who came out to tour in The Barretts of Wimpole Street.

SMH 27 April 1933

Above: John Wood, Mona Barrie and others in While Parents Sleep in Sydney, late April 1933. The Sydney Morning Herald. April 27, 1933 via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

By about 1930 the Woods family had moved from Forbes to a comfortable home in Wycombe Rd, at Neutral Bay on Sydney’s north shore. And at about the same time, Wood dropped the “s” from his surname. His final play before leaving Australia was Anthony Kimmins’ farce, While Parents Sleep.

Sun 12 DEcember 1933In the early 1930s it was obvious to aspiring actors that Australia simply wasn’t big enough to sustain an acting career. Although there was steady work on stage in Australia (a few had even found work in the occasional Australian film) many of these leading players packed up and set off to try their luck overseas. Mary MacGregor had left in early 1933, Mona Barrie in June, and Coral Browne was to leave in May 1934. John Wood departed for London on a Norwegian passenger/cargo ship, the Troja, in October 1933.

Only a few weeks after his arrival in London he was offered a role in Charley’s Aunt at the Gaiety Theatre. It then toured English towns. Wood’s transition to acting in England had been remarkably smooth.

Above: News of Wood’s success in England reported in The (Sydney) Sun, 12 December 1933. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Later in 1934 he landed a substantial role in British Lion’s The Case of Gabriel Perry (aka Wild Justice), directed by Albert de Courville. Although this film seems impossible to source now, Wood’s performance must have impressed. In December 1934, RKO offered Wood a test, based on reports from a talent scout working in England, and he arrived in the US on the Olympic in January 1935, and rushed to Hollywood. He had a frustrating wait for work until May, when he gained the important role of Flavius (as an adult) in The Last Days of Pompeii, being made by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper (of King Kong fame). Studio publicity followed – writing in The San Francisco Examiner Louella Parsons suggested that Wood was known as the “Clark Gable of England.” By October, the completed film had been released in the US, with generally positive reviews for the great spectacle and praise for Wood and Basil Rathbone. But there were some variable performances from other actors and distracting historical errors (the most obvious being that an adolescent Flavius who met Jesus in say, AD30 could not have been aged still in his 20s at Pompeii in AD79). The film was slow to return a profit.

Above: Screen grabs from RKO‘s The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) Left: Wood (Flavius) with Preston Foster (Marcus). Right: Wood and Dorothy Wilson (Claudia or Clodia). The film is still available for purchase. Author’s copy.

More mysteriously, John Wood made no further films in the US. He appeared in the press for a few months – his good looks, interest in landscape painting and attentiveness to newly arrived friend Mary MacGregor was noted by US gossip columnists, and he is known to have tried out unsuccessfully for a role in George Cukor‘s Romeo and Juliet. But that was it, and by June 1936 he was back in London preparing to appear in the play Lady of La Paz at the Criterion Theatre, with fellow Australian Janet Johnson. Wood once said that although he enjoyed film work, he had never had a role he really liked. Perhaps he shared Margaret Vyner‘s view that Hollywood film work was too insecure.

Above: Wood and Claire Luce in a love scene from Over She Goes (1937)

However, Wood had a great breakthrough in England in 1937. He took a leading role in Stanley Lupino‘s film version of his own very popular musical Over She Goes. Although top billing went to Lupino, Laddie Cliff, Sally Gray and Claire Luce, John Wood was now established as a notable star. (Laddie Cliff’s  sudden death at the end of 1937 cast a shadow over publicity for the film)

Above: Screen grabs from Over She Goes (1938). Left; Stanley Lupino, John Wood and Laddie Cliff sing and dance in “Side by Side”.
Right: John Wood, Syd Walker and Claire Luce. (In the bed in the background is Judy Kelly, the naughty gold digger.) Networkonair currently sell this title as part of their “British Musicals of the 1930s – Volume 1”. Author’s collection.

In this production Wood sings and dances with impressive skill and timing. Memorable musical numbers from the film can be seen online, including

The years 1937-1939 were his busiest and most successful in London. He had a nice apartment in Eccleston Mews in Belgravia and was continuously employed on stage and in a string of film roles. These included another musical with Lupino and two films with Mary MaguireBlack Eyes and An Englishman’s Home. Then, on 17 August 1939 he boarded the Rimutaka for the six week journey home to Sydney.  Half-way home passengers heard that Australia had followed Britain’s lead and declared war on Germany. But his reason for returning to Australia was unrelated to the rising tensions in Europe – his mother Flora was ill and he was returning to see her. Sadly she died on 10 September, 1939 about a week before the ship reached Sydney.

john wood

Above: John Wood, at the height of his success in England, sometime between 1936-9. The photo was used by Herbert de Leon, his London agent. Author’s collection.

Now in Sydney again, he gave talks and a few interviews, and appeared at Sydney’s Minerva Theatre and in Melbourne  in several productions. Like many Australians anxious about the war, he also joined the Militia. Wood was aware of how his friends in London were faring during the Battle of Britain – the war became more serious each day. Like many young Australians, he transferred across from the Militia to the regular Army in late 1940. He was disembarked at Singapore in March 1941, now a Signalman of the 8th Division. In December 1941 the Japanese launched their offensive in South East Asia and the Pacific. The Malaya Campaign to repel the Japanese was a disaster and the forces under British commander General Percival fell back to Singapore.

3798756

Above: Painting of Wood by Murray Griffin. From the collection of the Australian War Memorial. (Click to follow link) Item now in the public domain. Dated 1943, but more likely to have been painted in 1941. The War Memorial also holds other sketches of Wood, listed in further readings below.

On 15 -16 February 1942 the British surrendered at Singapore, and about 80,000 British, Australian and Indian soldiers went into captivity. Wood was not the only performer to be incarcerated in Changi Prison – indeed he was amongst many well-known prisoners – however his work for the Australian Concert Party is very well referenced by those who were there. Fellow POW Russell Braddon described him “the greatest source of stage anecdotes and comic songs that Changi knew.”

Other accounts of the Australian Concert Party appear in the collection of reminiscences called The Changi Book, written by an author now unknown. “30… members of the party produced a new show every fortnight, with new music, and new scenery…and without a break, for almost three years.” And John Wood, who developed great skills as a female impersonator – “on some occasions as a hair-raising blonde, on others as a hot blooded senorita,” apparently deserved special acknowledgement. “Enough credit can never be paid him for the fact that by his superb acting, he educated Australian audiences…from an attitude of ribald hilarity to one of grateful appreciation of feminine charms whenever he played a female role. It will never be forgotten by 10,000 faded, starved, half dead POWs that John Wood… gave a performance of Judith in Hay Fever…as worthy of any of the great actresses who ever played Coward.” 

The impact of years of internment took their toll on many of the former POWs and coloured an entire generation of Australian attitudes to Asia, and Japan in particular. Repatriated before the end of 1945, John Wood threw himself back into performing as did other actors from Changi – Slim De Grey and Doug McKenzie. Russell Braddon suffered a severe breakdown but turned to writing to appease himself. Wood also volunteered to join a group of performers planning to appear for the British Occupation Forces in Japan, with While the Sun Shines and The Hasty Heart. Perhaps this was Wood’s effort to come to terms with the awful experience of the recent past. While there in 1947, he reportedly sought out and met one of the Japanese Army interpreters, “a decent Jap” from Changi, whom he called Jesuki Terai.

John Wood The Hasty Heart 1946.jpg

Above: Gwenda Wilson (Left), John Wood (centre) and others in J.C. Williamson’s production of The Hasty Heart – being performed in Australia before the Japan Tour. Source: National Library of Australia

In 1946, John was joined in Australia by Phyllis Buchanan, a British actress he had met before the war. She had spent her war years driving ambulances, and apparently waited patiently for John for almost 7 years. Newspapers represented that they had  “quietly married” in Melbourne, but there seems no corroborating evidence of this.

Above left: Phil (Phyllis May) Buchanan in her early English career, The Graphic , 16 January 1926. Above Right; John and Phil lighting up in Melbourne in 1946. The Herald 16 June 1946. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Phil and John departed Sydney for London on the rather creaky pre-war ship Moreton Bay, in late September 1948. Wood found roles on stage again, including a long run in His Excellency with Eric Portman at the Princes then Picadilly Theatres. Wood tried to raise interest in a London production of Sumner Locke Elliot‘s Rusty Bugles, without success.

He made one last British film in 1952. Stolen Face was made by Hammer films in London, directed by Terence Fisher. Paul Henreid, struggling to find work after being “semi-blacklisted” (his words) in Hollywood, found some work in France and England, including this film. It is the story of a plastic surgeon (Henreid) who remakes the face of a criminal to resemble his lost love (Lizabeth Scott plays a double role). Wood played Henreid’s assisting doctor. The trailer can be viewed here.

John Wood and Paul Henreid in Stolen Face (1952). Screen grabs from a copy in the author’s collection.

In the mid 1950s Wood suffered some serious but unspecified heart trouble. His old battalion newsletter noted that he and Phil had moved to the Spanish island of Mallorca – breeding dogs, painting the scenery and enjoying the sun. John Wood made two return trips to Australia by air, alone, in 1963 and 1964. After the second trip home he did not return to Mallorca again. He died alone at his apartment at 25 Waruda Street Kirribilli, some time around 1 March 1965. There were no public notices – sadly he was completely forgotten, even in his homeland. His sister had died in 1963.

 

Note 1.
The IMDB incorrectly claims Wood was involved in court case arising from a practical joke on the set of Laurel and Hardy’s March of the Wooden Soldiers/Babes in Toyland (1934). But he wasn’t. He had not arrived in the US when that film was made. This was clearly an actor named John D Wood, and the matter went to court in June 1936, by which time this John Wood had returned to England. See The Los Angeles Times, 10 June, 1936.

 

Nick Murphy
November 2019

 

Further Reading

  • Russell Braddon (1955) The Naked Island. Pan Books.
  • William Bryden Flynn (1981), Errol Leslie (1909–1959) Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, Melbourne University Press. (also online)
  • Midge Gillies (2011) The Barbed-Wire University. The real lives of Prisoners of War in the Second World War. Arum Press.
  • Lachlan Grant (Ed) (2015) The Changi Book. New South/Australian War Memorial.
  • Unknown. (1937)  RKO Players Biographies @ Internet Archive
  • Makan 2/30 Battalion Home Page The Battalion newsletter contains several references to Wood in later life.

Australian War Memorial art

Sergeant John Wood –  painting by Murray Griffin.
Men of AIF Concert party  – sketches by Murray Griffin
Men of AIF Concert party (2nd set) – sketches by Murray Griffin
Pantomime Production Changi – sketch by Murray Griffin
AIF Theatre Changi – sketch by Murray Griffin

National Library of Australia’s Trove

J.C. Williamson’s Collection of Photographs.

Newspapers:
The Daily Mercury 21 September 1929.
The News (Adelaide) 21 August, 1931
The Sydney Morning Herald  27 April, 1933
The Sun (Sydney) 12 December 1933
The Sun (Sydney) 16 Sep 1945
The Herald (Melbourne) 16 June 1946
The Sun (Sydney) 6 Nov 1946
The Sun (Sydney)  21 Jan 1948 

National Archives of Australia

Service Record, Signalman John Wood, NX65819.
Incoming Passenger records.

British Newspaper Archive.

The Graphic , 16 January 1926
Daily Mirror, 12 December 1961

Newspapers.com

The San Francisco Examiner 15 June 1935
The Los Angeles Times, 10 June, 1936.

 

Marc McDermott – the Sydney hairdresser who went to Hollywood

Above: The dashing Marc McDermott, with particularly well kept hair, in about 1916. From Motography magazine, April-June 1916, p 1146. via Lantern Media History project. 

In an acting career lasting the thirty years 1899-1929, Australian-born Marc McDermott appeared on stage in numerous productions and in over 200 US films, becoming an extremely well recognised and popular performer in the early years of cinema. In the occasional discussions about who was “the first Australian” to succeed in Hollywood, or “which Australian actor has made the most films”, Marc McDermott should rank highly. But apparently, to emphasize his serious acting credentials, he was keen to disassociate himself from his colonial upbringing as quickly as possible. So keen in fact he contributed to or approved of, a variety of preposterous stories about his origins – that have coloured his biographies to this day.

An example of this is the 1916 Motography magazine account that accompanies the photo above. This romantic story claims he was born in the affluent London suburb of Knightsbridge, and was a descendant of an ancient Irish King of Munster. He was “taken to Australia” by his parents at the age of four, it was claimed. But as the article also celebrates his move to the Vitagraph studio after 6 years at the Edison studio, it has all the hallmarks of a made-up publicity story. Twenty years later, Errol Flynn‘s life story was given almost identical studio PR treatment, he too, being “born in Ireland”, rather than far off and unfamiliar Tasmania. And in the absence of any meaningful later-in-life interviews (McDermott died in 1929) these studio stories have had a mighty influence on the modern and wildly inaccurate accounts of his life.

Motion Picture Story mag Feb - July 1911Marcus Patrick McDermott was born in the regional town of Goulburn, in southern New South Wales, in July 1871. His parents were Patrick James McDermott and Annie Massy nee O’Shaughnessy. The Irish born couple had met in Australia and married in Sydney in early 1870. A sister, May (or Mary), was born in 1881. Patrick, occasionally described as a “senior civil servant” was in fact a Prison Warder – first at Goulburn Gaol, and later promoted to Senior Prison Warder at Bathurst Gaol. It appears young Marc boarded at Saint Ignatius School, Riverview, on Sydney’s lower north shore. (see Note 1 below)

Above: Forty year old Marc McDermott in 1911, Motion Picture Story Magazine Feb-July 1911. Via Lantern Media History Project

Evening News 11 Oct 1897   Sunday Times 20 Feb 1898

Marc McDermott’s first experience performing was through organised amateur theatricals provided by the Sydney Idlers Club, as these newspaper reports indicate. Left – Evening News Oct 8 1897 and right – The Sunday Times, Feb 20, 1898. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

If later biographies are to be believed, Marc’s father did not approve of his childhood interest in acting, and on one occasion burnt his toy theatre. Marc persisted and by his mid-twenties was actively involved in amateur theatricals, through membership of the Sydney Idlers Musical and Dramatic Club,  while during the day he was a city hairdresser in Elizabeth Street running a salon near the corner of King Street. Not only is this surprising fact borne out by newspaper references, it is also shown in several years of Sands Directory entries for Sydney, in 1896-98.

Macdermott in the Sands Directory 1898

Above – left column: Marc McDermott, hairdresser, operating at 77 Elizabeth Street, in the 1898 Sands Directory of Sydney.

In 1926, former amateur Sydney performer Jack Glover provided some reminiscences of Marc McDermott, by then very well established in Hollywood. Recalling the late 1890s, Glover told Everyone’s Magazine “I often smile and wonder whilst watching him on the screen if he ever thinks of the little barber’s shop in Elizabeth Street in which he used to lather and shave whilst we discussed the drama, for he (McDermott) was always ambitious to go on the stage.”  McDermott’s imitations of popular actors were apparently his specialty.

Others remembered him too – Harry P. Stewart, who had brought a theatrical version of Around the World in Eighty Days to Sydney in early 1899, recalled giving McDermott a part. And there is evidence of McDermott trying out humorous songs in vaudeville in a company travelling through New South Wales.

McDermott 1898

Above: Marc McDermott in Elsie Lander’s ( Charlotte Hazlewood Hannam’s) vaudeville company. This advertisement is from a Parramatta (NSW) newspaper in April 1898. Via National library of Australia’s Trove

But his great breakthrough was to be employed in George Rignold‘s company, sometime in 1899, and embarking on an Australia-wide performance tour.

Zeehan Gaiety 1900  445px-George_Rignold_Henry_5_1877

Above left: At 29, Marc McDermott was finally performing professionally. Here is evidence he was in George Rignold’s travelling company, in a featured role. The location was the Gaiety Theatre in  the Tasmanian mining town of Zeehan, and it still stands today. The Zeehan and Dundas Herald, 25 December 1900, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Above right: George Rignold as Henry V, via Wikipedia commons and State Library of New South Wales.

By mid 1901, the Rignold company tour of Australia had wrapped up, and Rignold returned to Sydney to care for his ailing wife. Following some further acting and at least one experience directing a Sydney play himself, in late July 1902 Marc McDermott sailed for Vancouver, Canada, on the RMS Miowera. By 19 August 1902 he was at the Grand Union Hotel in New York, explaining to a New York Tribune reporter that some Australians with convict ancestry now had significant wealth, and telling witty stories about Australian children in drought ravaged districts – who had so far grown up without seeing rain. “Oh mummy what’s rain? Is it like the circus?” And this seems to have been his last public commentary about Australia.

Only a few months later, he joined British actress Mrs Patrick Campbell‘s productions of Magda, The Joy of Living and The Second Mrs Tanqueray in New York. For the next nine months he was on tour with Campbell through the larger cities of the United States and from mid 1903 he performed with her company in the United Kingdom. In just five years he had made an extraordinary journey from barber shop to the international stage.

Mcdermott drawn by Harry furniss 1913

Above: Actor, writer and director Harry Furness drew this caricature of McDermott in 1913 for The Bioscope, 25 December 1913. Via The British Library Newspaper Archive.

In July 1906 he travelled back to the United States and settled in New York. He then appeared with Richard Mansfield‘s company on their final tour of North America with Peer Gynt (Mansfield died later in 1907). Also in 1907, his mother Annie and sister May joined him in New York. Sadly Marc’s father Patrick, a victim of serious ill-health, had taken his own life in Sydney in August 1904 .

In so far as we can tell, his first films were for the Thomas Edison studio in New York, in 1909. And there, began a long and successful career on the screen.

motionpicturesto07moti_ FEb-Mar 1914

Above: The Thomas Edison Studio lineup from Motion Picture Magazine, Feb-March 1914. The 43 year old Marc McDermott is at top left. Via the Lantern Media History Project 

The reader today may wonder about his great success, particularly when so many others struggled for so long to establish themselves. In part – the answer must be the great names he was associated with from the early days of his acting career – Rignold, Campbell and Mansfield. But there is no doubt he was also a skilled and very versatile actor – who could play sleazy villains and romantic leads as easily as a bent and wizened Ebenzeer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (1910).

When she was about 16

Above: Marc McDermott (left) in character as the old farmer, in a screen grab from When She Was About Sixteen (1912) with Bessie Learn and Margery Bonney Eskine. The entire Edison film – and several others featuring McDermott – can be watched online at Amsterdam’s Eye Channel on YouTube.
Above left: Marc McDermott as the nasty Baron – a screen grab from MGMs He Who gets Slapped, 1924. Via the Internet Archive. Above right: A screen grab showing Marc McDermott as Sir John Killigrew (centre) and fellow Australian Enid Bennett as Lady Rosamund (right) in The Sea Hawk, 1924. The Silent Hall of Fame channel on YouTube currently shows the entire film.

Fellow actor Harry Furness, who knew McDermott well, wrote an unusually long piece on him for The Bioscope in December 1913. While acknowledging his versatility, Furness also thought he was “at heart, an intense actor” with the benefit of being “tall, handsome, fascinating, quiet, well dressed…in fact he is in reality a well-bred Briton.”

Well-bred Briton or not, McDermott’s film output at Edison’s New York studio was impressive. In 1910 he appeared in twenty titles, in 1911 – thirty, and by the time he left Edison in late 1916 he had completed almost 130 titles. While each of Edison’s films were only 15-20 minutes long, it must have been an exhausting work load. Not surprisingly, by 1917 his output had slowed. However over the next ten years he performed in numerous full length feature films beside some of the best known actors of the day – Greta Garbo, Dolores Costello, John Gilbert, Ramon Novarro, Tim McCoy, Dolores Del Rio, Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore, Ronald Colman, Norma Talmadge as well as fellow Australians Enid Bennett and Alf Goulding. His Directors included Alexander Korda, Fred Niblo, Raoul Walsh and John Ford.

McDermott’s other contributions to the cinema are worthy of note. Apparently a competent make-up artist himself, he was credited by some correspondents with pioneering the use of yellow grease paint to reduce lighting inconsistencies on the face in (black and white) films. In 1912 he appeared in the lead in the first US serial – What Happened to Mary, made in twelve parts by the Edison studio. He also appeared in the sequel, and at least one other serial. Although these did not end with the stereotypical “cliffhanger” of later serials, they were still designed to lure audiences back to the theatre again and again.

What_Happened_to_Mary_(1912)

Above:  Miriam Nesbitt, Mary Fuller, and Marc McDermott in Edison’s What Happened to Mary (1912). Via Wikipedia Commons

McDermott married fellow Edison actor and regular screen partner Miriam Nesbitt in April 1916 but by 1922 she had taken him to court, seeking a divorce. Miriam’s list of complaints included his “wildly ungovernable temper” and his wandering affections. She also claimed that his annual income had been as high as $35,000. Following the divorce, he briefly took to the stage again and then settled in Hollywood. Several of his later films – The Whip and Glorious Betsy had sound effects added in the rush by studios to respond to the challenge of sound. Had McDermott lived a little longer, we might be able to source an example of his voice.

Marc_McDermott 2

Above: McDermott about the time he appeared in MGM’s The Temptress (1926) with Greta Garbo and Antonio Moreno. He was in his mid fifties at the time.  Photo via Wikipedia Commons

But sadly his career came to an end in 1928. US Newspapers of the time reported the sudden decline in his health in October, his hospitalization in December and his death in January 1929, a result of cirrhosis of the liver. His mother Annie was reportedly with him when he died. Australian newspapers, probably by now thoroughly confused about his identity, generally overlooked his death. He was remarkably quickly forgotten – but through no fault of his own. His silent films were simply thrown out, or at best shelved, in the exciting new era of sound.

 

Nick Murphy
October 2019

 

Note 1
Very little that has been written about Marc McDermott’s early years is accurate. The most constant error is his date of birth. There is no doubt McDermott was born in 1871, not 1881. His official birth record at the New South Wales Births Deaths and Marriages, his sister’s birth certificate and his early US immigration records are all easily searchable and all confirm this. At least one US newspaper – The Detroit Free Press, reported a more accurate age at the time of his death.

McDermott birth certificate

Above: Part of Marc McDermott’s 1871 birth certificate, via New South Wales Births Deaths and Marriages. His parents provided slightly different ages for themselves on his sister’s birth certificate. The wedding date is consistent however.
Key
Column 2 Date and place of birth of child

Column 3 Name 
Column 4 Sex
Column 5 Father’s name, occupation, age and birthplace
Column 6 Date and place of marriage, any previous issue
Column 7 Mother’s name and maiden surname, age and birthplace

Note 2
McDermott or MacDermott? Both spellings were used in his lifetime. This random spelling of surnames can also be found elsewhere in the late nineteenth and early twentieth – for example Mary Maguire’s uncle Andy used the spelling McGuire. There was also a popular but mistaken belief that Mac designated Scottish ancestry while Mc indicated Irish.

 

Further Reading

Text

  • Kevin Brownlow (1968) The Parade’s Gone By… University of California Press.
  • Leonhard Gmür (2013) Rex Ingram: Hollywood’s Rebel of the Silver Screen. epubli GmbH
  • Kalton C Lahue (1968) Bound and Gagged: The Story of the Silent Serials. Castle Books/A.S.Barnes
  • John T. Soister, Henry Nicolella, Steve Joyce (2012 )American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913-1929. McFarland & Co

ADB Online

LA Daily Mirror

Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • Evening News (Sydney) 8 October, 1897.
  • The Sunday Times, 20 February, 1898.
  • The Zeehan and Dundas Herald, 25 December 1900.
  • The Australian Star, 27 August, 1904.
  • The Bulletin, 13 September, 1921.
  • Everyone’s, 12 May, 1926.
  • Everyone’s, 2 June 1926.
  • The Sun (Sydney), 13 August 1947.

Via Newspapers.com

  • New York Tribune, 19 August, 1902.
  • Arizona Daily Star, 18 August 1922.
  • The Los Angeles Times 17 February 1923.
  • Detroit Free Press, 6 January, 1929.
  • The Los Angeles Times, 6 January 1929.
  • The Los Angeles Times, 17 August 1932. (Death of McDemott’s mother Annie)

Via British Library Newspaper Archive

  • The Bioscope 25 December, 1913

City of Sydney Sands Directories on-line See 1896 – Part 9; 1897 – Part 11; 1898 – Part 1.

Via Lantern History Digital Library

Internet Archive

Wikipedia Commons holds a large collection of public domain photos of Marc McDermott. 

YouTube Channels. A number of his films are in the public domain.

 

 

Margaret Vyner – a very modern Australian woman

Above: Margaret Vyner C 1940. Photo enlarged from a very small Gaumont British card, possibly a cigarette card, otherwise unmarked. From the author’s collection.

Margaret Leila Vyner was born in the large northern New South Wales town of Armidale, in 1914, to Robert Vyner and Ruby nee Nicholson. In the 1930s, Margaret Vyner would develop a reputation for stylish fashion and glamour, in addition to appearing in films and on stage. She remained a perennial favourite with the Australian press for many years. As an adult she was above average height, standing about 172 cms (or 5’8″), and had blue eyes and fair hair. She was well-read, witty and beautiful.

Her father, Robert Vyner, was manager on a pastoral station near Armidale, the oldest son of Robert Thomas Vyner (1858-1930), who had built a successful pastoral dynasty after moving to the area in the 1890s. Margaret was the only child of the union and it would seem the small family had moved to inner Sydney by the early 1920s after Robert Vyner ran into financial difficulties. Margaret attended Ascham School, a private girls’ school that pioneered and still follows an innovative teaching approach known as the Dalton Plan. She then attended Miss Jean Cheriton‘s very well known finishing school “Doone” at Edgecliffe. In later years she acknowledged how much she owed Miss Cheriton. By 1930 she was performing in amateur theatricals at Doone, while newspapers presented her as an eligible young woman, doing interesting things about town, as well as modelling clothes and often with something witty to say to journalists.

Vyner1 Vyrner2

Above: Margaret Vyner appeared regularly in Sydney newspapers in the early 1930s  – for example – left;The Sydney Daily Pictorial, 25 October 1930,right;The Sydney Sun 21 Sept, 1930. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

By the end of 1930 she had made a remarkably easy transition into some chorus work for J.C. Williamson’s in Sydney – performing in When Knights were Bold, followed by a part as one of the chorus of “English girls” in a re-run of the popular musical Florodora – and then in Blue Roses, Hold My Hand and Our Miss Gibbs – all being performed up and down the eastern Australian coastShe was “beautiful”, “decorative”, “charming” and “vivacious” reported reviewers. Although not yet 18, she was also doing well enough to be offered advertising work for “Charmousan” powders and creams. By early 1934, on the back of all this local success, she had made the decision to travel to London and she departed at the end of March. Her biographer Kate Dunn states she left the Orsova in Naples and then made her way overland to Paris, where she was picked up as a mannequin very quickly by French fashion designer Jean Patou. Hal Porter suggested she worked her way up from “general dog’s body” for Patou whilst learning French and dressmaking at night. Perhaps both accounts are true. It was the Australian paper Smith’s Weekly that carried many of the reports of her work as a mannequin in 1934-35, Margaret being the author of many of these accounts herself. Did she really pioneer Australian women not wearing a hat to formal events? It seems possible!

 

Above: Two photographs of Margaret Vyner from the Fairfax archive of glass plate negatives held by the National Library of Australia. Full resolution can be seen here  and here  These photos appear to have been taken shortly before her departure for Europe in 1934.

Smiths Weekly 1935

Above:Smith’s Weekly article by Margaret Vyner 25 May, 1935. Presumably, the headline was added by an editor. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Margaret returned to Australia in December 1935, reportedly for a summer holiday. In early 1936 she won a small role in The Flying Doctor, being made by the fledgling Australian film company National Productions, directed by British actor/director Miles Mander and starring US import Charles Farrell. While some of the dialogue is well written, today there is the distinct impression the film was cobbled together in a great rush. Melbourne’s The Argus was amongst those not impressed, their reviewer commenting; “it is unlikely that Charles Farrell’s episodic wanderings in the Australian outback will appeal strongly to non-Australian audiences…”

Margaret Vyner’s short and forgettable role in the film is as an unhappy wife – Betty. Eric Colman, on the other hand, does a very memorable job as her nasty husband.

Flying Dr 1936 screen grab

Above: Screen grab from The Flying Doctor (1936) , showing Eric Colman (brother of Hollywood’s Ronald Colman) Charles Farrell and Margaret Vyner. This short cricket sequence is easily found online, as it also features Don Bradman in his only film role, as himself. Source; National Film and Sound Archive. (The entire film is also held by the NFSA)

Whilst in Australia, Miles Mander went out of his way to be an affable visitor, making himself available for interviews and telling the Australian press all the things they liked to hear. These included his observation that Australian men were at least twenty-five percent “better developed” physically than Englishmen. British scriptwriter J.O.C Orton added his own tribute, commenting that there was a strong belief in England that “the most beautiful girls in the world were to be found in Australia… Mary Maguire and Margaret Vyner were splendid examples of Australian girlhood.” 

The Age 3 Oct 1936

Above: The Age 3 October 1936. Although Vyner’s part was minor, her local fame saw her headlined with the two leading players in Australian advertisements for The Flying Doctor. Source Newspapers.com

At the end of April 1936, Margaret packed up and headed overseas again, this time travelling on the Matson liner Mariposa for California. She may have been encouraged by Mander to “try her luck” in Hollywood, because he appears to have told Mary Maguire and Jocelyn Howarth the same thing and was about to move there himself. But Margaret Vyner didn’t stay there for long.  She later explained that she had been offered a test at Universal, but said; “I‘d hate to feel I had to spend my life there …  never quite sure of good parts. So I turned (the contract) down and felt even more pleased with myself for being able to resist it.” She arrived in London again in July 1936.

During 1936 she gained some attention for sometimes using Michael as a modelling name. She explained that she had done this because she didn’t want to be known in Paris as Marguerite – or some variation of Margaret. So she chose the name Michel – which became Michael. At about the same time, at least one newspaper suggested she was following the influence of Marlene Dietrich , who had famously dressed as a man in the 1930 film Morocco. In the following photos from Australia’s The Home magazine perhaps Margaret was enjoying making a statement. She almost certainly knew it was technically still illegal for women to wear trousers in France. The law was finally removed in 2013.

Vyner in Home mag 2 Aug 1937

Above: Margaret Vyner in The Home, Vol 18, No 8, 1937. The text accompanying claims she was on the way to La Touquet, a French seaside town. Source; National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Margaret always claimed she had seen future husband Hugh Williams perform in Australia in 1927 when he was on the final tour of the Dion Boucicault Company. The couple met in person some time in 1937 and in early 1938 they travelled together to the US with a British cast to perform in the Frederick Lonsdale play Once is EnoughThey were soon in a relationship; Hugh Williams’ first marriage to Gwynne Whitby having come to an end several years before. By this time, Margaret had made an appearance in British films – including Sensation with John LodgeMidnight Menace with Charles Farrell again and Carol Reed‘s Climbing High. Hugh Williams’ many films of the late 1930s included Wuthering Heights, made in Hollywood in late 1938 (with Miles Mander and pretend-Australian Merle Oberon in the cast). Margaret modelled Norman Hartnell‘s fashion collection in North America at the same time it was filmed.

Sensation

Above: Who would not fall in love with Margaret Vyner? This screen grab is from her first scene in a British film, Sensation (1936), with John Lodge. Ignore the ropey rear-projection. Author’s collection.

Margaret had a long tradition of providing witty commentary to the press. One famous example occurred in 1939, when after modelling clothes in the US, she told British journalists; “Americans are slaves to fashion. They blindly follow a lead without considering whether their clothes suit them. They are far less individualistic than English women.” But she could also make jokes – at her own expense. And in 1950 she described New York as “Gay, fantastic, but, oh, so expensive.” She had hoped to buy clothes while there, but found they were “expensive beyond belief. What makes it harder, is that the loveliest department stores stay open at night and lure me in while Hugh (Williams) is at the theatre”.

Margaret Vyner as Mary Stevens in Midnight Menace 1937. The man on the phone is right, it is dangerous! She soon gets captured by the (heavily accented) middle-european international arms dealers who are intent on starting a war. Author’s collection.

The_Montreal Gazette_Fri__Apr_14__1939_

Above: Margaret Vyner appearing in person at Henry Morgan’s in Montreal. The Montreal Gazette, 14 April 1939. Via Newspapers.com

Unfortunately, back in Australia, Margaret’s parents marriage came to a very public end in the late 1930s, and the divorce and subsequent arguments over support payments were dragged out in excruciating detail in almost every Sydney newspaper. Robert Vyner was an oil company salesman by 1938, and apparently he felt hard pressed to support ex-wife Ruby, as well as his new wife Irma. In May 1940, Ruby scraped together enough money for a fare and sailed to England on the Strathnaver, on what was the ship’s final voyage before being converted to a troopship. Like Margaret, she never returned.

Vyner and greyhounds
Above: The Australian Women’s Weekly, 18 March 1939. A stunning photo of Margaret Vyner at the height of her popularity. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Mississippi paper report of wedding dressMargaret and Hugh Williams married on 21 June 1940. Kate Dunn’s quite moving collection of wartime letters between the couple (Always and Always, Wartime Letters of Hugh and Margaret Williams) gives some idea of the depth of their devotion. Dunn’s book also reproduces a well known photo from the wedding. In it, the couple appear to glow in a burst of sunlight, having apparently just stepped out of a darkened chapel. Margaret wrote of the wedding; “It was such a desperate time for England and France but so glorious for Hugh and Margaret.” Hugh (or Tam as he was nick-named) was already in uniform and the British had just evacuated most of their army from Dunkirk. These were very dark days for Britain.

Left:  An artist’s (fairly accurate) impression of Margaret Vyner’s wedding dress, as reported by the US paper The McComb Daily Journal, Mississippi, 6 August 1940. Perhaps it got such widespread publicity because it was seen as unusual. Via Newspapers.com

 

Margaret Vyner’s and Hugh Williams’ wartime letters provide an extraordinary insight into the stress of war on a newly married couple, who were deeply in love and had much in common. Hugh Williams somewhat reluctantly joined the British Army in 1939, because he felt it was the right thing to do. For the next five years he and Margaret lived largely separate lives, as did so many wartime couples. It is a testament to Margaret Vyner’s character that she maintained a cordial relationship with Williams’ first wife Gwynne Whitby, and helped care for the two daughters of that marriage, while maintaining her own career and driving cars for the home service. In 1942 she and Hugh welcomed their own son, Hugo and in 1946, another son, Simon. A third child, Pollyanna was born in 1950.

Margaret Vyner 1940

Above: Margaret Vyner entertaining Australian soldiers, newly arrived in London in June 1940. Via State Library of Victoria

Kate Dunn, Hugh Williams’ granddaughter and editor of their wartime correspondence, comments on how difficult the postwar period was for the young family. By 1946 Hugh Williams found he had lost his currency, and he struggled to re-establish himself on the stage and screen. Margaret was also making fewer appearances. In 1950, Hugh was declared a bankrupt and to deal with the crisis, the couple decided to turn to writing their own plays. Their partnership was, fortunately, a great success with audiences. Their first play was Plaintiff in a Pretty Hat and eight more followed. Two were made into films – The Grass is Greener (1960) and The Flip Side (1967), while the musical Charlie Girl ran for over 2,000 performances at London’s Adelphi Theatre. Their success as a writing team restored their fortunes.

Journalist Lynne Bell, reporting from London for The Sydney Morning Herald in early December 1969 (and ironically, only a few days before Williams sudden death), observed that despite some criticism of their work, “…the Williams’ ingredients of love and marriage, within a safe middle-class structure, continue to draw the crowds.” Bell noted that during 1967, three of their plays were running in the West End at the same time. Hugh’s obituary in The Guardian stated that their plays “though not fashionable, angry or sordid, gave civilized pleasure and had a great deal of theatrical skill”. 

Dec 30 1959
Above: Hugh Williams and Margaret Vyner in a feature on their life and collaboration for The Australian Women’s Weekly, 30 December, 1959. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Margaret Vyner died in October 1993. Beyond their own body of work, Margaret and Hugh’s legacy has also been through a creative dynasty shared with their children and many of their grandchildren. Simon Williams is an actor, as was Polly Williams (1950-2004). Hugo Williams is a poet and writer. Grand children Tam Williams, Amy Williams and Kate Dunn, are actors and great-granddaughter Lily Dizdar is a director and writer.

Vyner035

Above: Margaret Vyner’s signature c 1939. Author’s collection.

 

Note 1
Before meeting Hugh Williams, the press associated Margaret Vyner romantically with several men. The question of a romance with Charles Farrell was the topic of gossip in 1936 after The Flying Doctor but Margaret categorically denied it and Farrell remained married to Virginia Valli until her death in 1968. There is no evidence to support the claim except that they acted together in another film.

Note 2
It’s regularly claimed that Cole Porter included a reference to Margaret Vyner in the lyrics of the song “You’re the top”, from the musical Anything Goes. However, she is not mentioned in the original lyrics. As the play was written in 1934, when she was still in Australia or Paris, the reference to Vyner could only have been added in one of the many later versions of the song, probably after 1937. Unfortunately, so far, this writer cannot find a later version of the song that includes the reference to Vyner.

 

 

Nick Murphy
September 2019

 

Further Reading

Online footage

Texts

  • Kate Dunn (Ed) (1995) Always and Always; Wartime Letters of High and Margaret Williams. John Murray.
  • Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British film. Methuen/BFI
  • Hal Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby
  • Hugo Williams (2010) Dock Leaves. Faber and Faber
  • Angela Woollacott (2001) To Try her fortune in London. Australian Women, Colonialism and Modernity. Oxford University Press

Digital resources

 

Judy Kelly – From the outback to Elstree Studios

Above: It seems every film star once smoked like a chimney. Judy Kelly in a publicity photo of the early 1940s – and a long way from Narrabri, New South Wales. Author’s collection.

Judy Kelly made a name for herself performing on the stage and on screen in England between 1932 and 1949. She is unusual in some respects because her pathway to becoming a recognised actor seems – at first glance – to have been achieved with remarkable ease, when compared to the trials and tribulations of others. She had no professional acting experience in her native Australia and yet by 1949 she had almost fifty film credits behind her and she had emerged as a competent actor.

She was born Julie Aileen Kelly at Narrabri, an inland town of New South Wales, about 500 kilometres north west of Sydney, in 1913. An older brother Owen Arthur had been born in 1911. Judy’s mother Blanche Esse nee Davis belonged to a well connected farming family, from the more prosperous southern area of the state.

At the time of his marriage to Blanche in 1911, Eugene Gerald Kelly, had been appointed a teacher at a one teacher school. Mogil Mogil was remote – a town with a tiny population but supporting two pubs and a butcher, with uncertain school enrolments , uncertain rainfall and a reputation for hitting 114 degrees fahrenheit in the shade in summer (45.5 degrees C). Perhaps the reason they had moved to the relative comfort of Narrabri in 1913 was because remote life was so hard. But by 1916 Blanche had moved again, taking the children with her to the pastoral property of her brother, H. M. Davis, near Robertson, in the green rolling hills of the southern highlands. Here, another daughter, Betty, was born in 1917. Eugene joined the Australian Army in 1916, in the great enlistment surge after Gallipoli, being posted overseas soon after.

Judy and her siblings spent much of their childhood growing up on another Davis family farm at Lockhart, in the Riverina district. Of Judy’s childhood we know little, except that she had adopted the name “Judy” well before she travelled to England, and she may have dabbled in some amateur theatricals while at Wagga Grammar School. Blanche and Eugene were finally divorced – acrimoniously and publicly – in 1923.  (Note 1)

Blanche and Judy leave AustraliaIn April 1932, 19 year old Judy won a “Talkie Quest,” a drawn out competition run by the short-lived Sydney newspaper “The World” in collaboration with the Capital Cinema and British International Pictures (BIP).

Reportedly, 1,200 young women entered the competition, whose judges included director Ken Hall and actor Bert Bailey. The prize was very attractive – it included three months training at Elstree in England and a try-out in films. Judy was described as a teacher by several newspapers, but if that was so she  must have been unqualified, given her age. But most later accounts stated she was a cinema usher.

Above:  Blanche and Judy departing for London. The Home, An Australian Quarterly. Vol. 13 No. 8. August 1, 1932. Via National Library of Australia Trove.

After extraordinary publicity and many farewells, Judy and her mother departed for England on the P&O ship Cathage, arriving on 29 July, 1932. She was set to work for BIP almost immediately and the transition to British film actor all went remarkably well. But not surprisingly, in the British Pathe newsreel made soon after she arrived, she still looked very young and uncomfortable in front of the camera. She acknowledged how hard it was at first, when she told a journalist I have only made one friend. Molly Lamont — fellow Colonials they call us, since she is South African. There is a terribly impersonal atmosphere about a studio. Directors look right through you and murmur: ‘What are we going to call this young woman?'” 

Judy claimed her first experience of film was with Molly Lamont, as an extra in Lord Camber’s Ladies (other sources state it was Sleepless Nights), but her first credited role in a film for BIP was in Money Talks. This was a 70 minute BIP quickie comedy, a vehicle for popular vaudeville and radio comedian Julian Rose and produced by the prolific Walter C Mycroft.  Judy had a small role as the daughter of Abe Pilstein (played by Rose). Thereafter, she appeared in a string of mostly program fillers – or B-films, often mysteries and crime dramas such as Crime on the Hill (1933), The Four Masked Men and The Black Abbot (1934). But at the same time, she can also be seen in a few supporting and un-credited roles in quality films, such as Alexander Korda‘s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934).

Judy Kelly British!May 1933
Above Left and centre: An early cigarette card photo of  a very young Judy Kelly. The short bio on the card may confuse the casual reader today – reflecting the reality that many people considered Australians of the time to be “British born”. Author’s collection.
At right: A still of Judy from Everyone’s Magazine, May 10, 1933. It is reportedly from the BIF film Their Night Out. In later years she explained she took every role offered to her. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Judy developed a reputation for working hard. She judged competitions, appeared at openings, modeled clothes and sought out every acting opportunity she could. (Click here for a British Pathe newsreel of Judy judging some laundry sports in 1937). Doubtless this also had something to do with advice from her agent – the well known Herbert de Leon, who also represented Margaret Lockwood, Greer Garson and numerous others.

Back in Australia, sometime in March 1933, Judy’s sister Betty managed to accidentally shoot herself in the arm. She was trying to shoot a sting-ray, she said, and the injury , although minor, might delay her plans to travel to England to become an actor like her sister. About a year later, she and older brother Owen finally arrived in England on the SS Barrabool. All three Kelly children settled into life with Blanche in an apartment in London’s Paddington. None of them ever returned to Australia. The contrast between a quiet life in rural New South Wales, and London, the bustling capital of the Empire, must have been stark.

Judy and Betty Kelly
On 21 April, 1934, The Australian Women’s Weekly compared Judy (left), who had now lost a great deal of weight, with a photo of her sister Betty (right), photographed while en-route to England.  Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove. 

It was no wonder Betty thought she, too might become an actor. Judy Kelly was now well established (and was much more at ease in front of the camera) as the following British Pathe newsreels suggest.

But as the 1930s wore on, some of Judy Kelly’s feature films continued to be like her first. British films of the 1930s were often made on a limited budget, sometimes produced to fulfil the exhibitor’s obligations under the Cinematograph Films Act (1927) – which was to show a certain proportion of British films in their programs. But this era of filmmaking doesn’t necessarily deserve the bad reputation it has sometimes been given – the films were a “mixed bag” that included great successes amongst the forgettable and underwhelming. Judy’s repertoire reflected this diverse range of films. It included light romantic comedies, mysteries and even a few jaunty musicals, including Charing Cross Road (1935) with John Mills and Over She Goes (1937) with Sydney-born actor John Wood

Judy Kelly and John Wood Over She Goes
Above: a screen grab of Judy Kelly as Anne Mayhew, with fellow Australian John Wood (1909-1965) as the eligible Lord Harry in the musical Over She Goes. She plays Harry’s gold-digging former fiancee. This rarely screened film can be purchased from networkonair.com. Author’s collection. 

It was Margaret Lockwood who said“The British star who waits for the ideal role… will do a lot of waiting” and one can’t help but feel Judy Kelly might have sometimes felt the same way. Perhaps this explains why from the late 1930s, she was also found performing on the stage, with some success. In 1937, she went on a tour of South Africa, performing in Barre Lyndon‘s crime drama The Amazing Doctor Clitterhouse. The play had been a hit in London, and like so many new plays of the 1930s it was quickly made into a film – by Hollywood in this case. Judy also appeared on stage in light comedies and musicals such as (Australian writer) Eric Coppel‘s Believe it or Not in 1940, Stanley Lupino‘s musical Lady Behave in 1941, Vernon Sylvaine‘s farce Women Aren’t Angels in 1941 and his comedy-thriller Warn that Man in 1943.

Two of Judy Kelly’s stage appearances. Lady Behave was a musical, Warn That Man a thriller. Author’s collection.

One striking feature of Judy Kelly’s story is her consciousness of being an Australian at work in England. She wrote a few articles for popular Australian paper “Smith’s Weekly” that expressed that awareness – including an unusually frank comment about England’s class system; “The English are a curious people—so curious, indeed, that I, an Australian, sometimes feel a foreigner among them…To anyone reared in the Australian democratic tradition, (the) alignment of social forces is inexplicable.”  It was doubtless coincidental, but she appeared in a number of films with fellow Australians busy working in England – amongst them Coral Browne (Charing Cross Road in 1935) Betty Stockfeld and Edward Ashley (Under Proof in 1936), Frank Leighton ( The Last Chance in 1937),  John Wood (Over She Goes in 1937 and Luck of the Navy in 1938), Ian Fleming (The Butler’s Dilemma in 1943) and John Warwick (Dancing with Crime in 1947). She reported that at times she bought her friends Australian presents and sometimes she mixed with other Australians – including Patti Morgan, whose 1949 wedding she attended.

Judy kelly 2

Judy Kelly in a publicity photo c 1945 and looking every bit the movie star. Author’s collection 

Judy Kelly in Tomorrow we Live 1942Like many of the actors profiled on this website, Judy Kelly also made her contribution to British propaganda in several films – including Luck of the Navy (1938) and Tomorrow We Live (1943). This genre of British films is also interesting for the liberal use of refugee actors from Nazi- Europe,  in the case of the latter film – this includes Herbert Lom, Karel Štěpánek and Fritz Wendhausen.

Above: This is a screen grab from Tomorrow We Live, re-titled At Dawn We Die for the US market. Judy plays Germaine from the bar. She looks a little sad because the man she is keen on – Jean Baptiste – has just said “goodnight little cabbage” before dismissing her. Author’s collection.

Her final films are perhaps her most notable. In 1945 she appeared in a small role in the well received British horror film Dead of Night. But it was in John Paddy Carstairs’ film-noir crime thriller Dancing With Crime (1947) that she most demonstrated her ability. Set in a perpetually wet and dark post-war London, she played Toni, a hard drinking dance hostess for a dodgy Dance Hall, really a front for black market operations. Richard Attenborough plays Ted Peters – a salt of the earth taxi driver, while Joy, played by Sheila Sim, is his perpetually worried girlfriend. It’s the sort of film where the characters say cheerful things like “Don’t worry about me Ducks” and “I’m off to see a man about a fortune” between fighting or shooting at each other. In the end, Toni cooperates with the Police Inspector, played by Australian John Warwick, while Ted and Joy are sent off home to enjoy the rest of their lives.

Judy Kelly in Dancing w crime

Here is Judy Kelly as Toni, giving her boss (one of the gangsters, played by Barry K. Barnes) a piece of her mind, in Dancing with Crime (1947). Author’s collection.

In 1949 Judy appeared in Warning to Wantons, where she plays the mother of the insufferable Renee (Anne Vernon), a sixteen year old who is determined to use her feminine guile to manipulate the dopey eligible Count Max (David Tomlinson) on the eve of his wedding, plus any other men she meets. It’s well acted but the plot is so unpalatable it makes tiresome viewing today. It is worth noting that Kelly was only 36 while playing a mother in this, her final film. It was based on a novel with the same title by Australian novelist Mary Mitchell . (Note 2)

  Eric Summer ILN Sept 17 1966   Judy Kelly Birmingham Gazette May 31 1952

Above Left: Eric Summer photographed in 1966. Illustrated London News, 17 September 1966. Copyright ILN Group.
Above Right: Judy Kelly and her baby in 1952. Birmingham Gazette, 31 May 1952. Via British Newspaper Archive.

In April 1946 Judy married Eric Summer, a businessman, lawyer and former British Army colonel. Amongst Summer’s later accomplishments was his Chairmanship of Royston Industries, makers of the first Black box flight recorders. A son was born of the union in 1952.

Betty Kelly did not develop an acting career. But from 1938-1949 she was married to popular English comedian Michael Howard. Judy’s older brother Owen Arthur Kelly served in the British Army in World War II. He married Vera Felix (Kempner) in 1941.

Judy Kelly retired from acting in 1949 and lived much of her later life in the Surrey countryside. Unfortunately this talented actor left no further commentaries about her work or life. She died in London in 1991, aged 77.

 


 

Note 1
Judy’s father, Eugene Gerald Kelly was never mentioned in her biographies. At best, it was inferred her father had been a pastoralist, occasionally it was stated he was dead.  The reason for his disappearance from the family story is hinted at by examination of his colourful wartime military record in the 45th Battalion, Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) – available online in the Australian National Archives. In addition, a clumsy attempt by Eugene to pretend to be dead in 1920, apparently in an effort to avoid paying Blanche child support, was reported by “Truth” newspaper. Clearly Eugene’s relationship with his wife and children fractured irrevocably. It is a testimony to their fortitude that they successfully rebuilt their lives in Britain without further contact.

Note 2
The IMDB lists Judy as appearing in a British film Adam’s Apple/Honeymoon Abroad  in 1928 and in the US in the Jack Benny TV show in 1954. These are different people. There is no record of her travelling to the UK at the age of 15 to play a “Vamp” and the woman in the Jack Benny show was a well known US-born dancer, who had also worked with Bob Hope.

 

Nick Murphy
September 2019

 

Further reading

Texts

  • Kurt Gänzl (1986) British Musical Theatre Vol. 2. Oxford University Press.
  • Brian McFarlane (1997) An Autobiography of British Cinema. Methuen
    (Produced too late to interview Judy Kelly, this wonderful book contains interviews with many of her contemporaries)
  • Robert Murphy (2009) The British Cinema Book. BFI Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Vincent Porter (Ed) (2006) Walter Mycroft: The Time of My Life. The Scarecrow Press.
  • Jeffery Richards (Ed) (1998) The Unknown 1930s. An Alternative History of the British Cinema, 1929-1939. I.B.Taurus
  • J.P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1940-1949: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman & Littlefield.

Online

  • Ancestry.com

NSW Police Gazettes 1919-1923
UK Shipping records
UK Census records

  • National Library of Australia – Trove

GOSSIP FOR WOMEN. The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld.)  28 Jan 1911  P.10

FAKED OBITUARY. Truth (Brisbane, Qld.) 29 April 1923: P.13.

LONELIEST GIRL IN ENGLAND, The Daily News, (Perth, WA)19 September, 1932. P. 2.

WILL I SUCCEED? JUDY KELLY’S IMPRESSIONS Everyone’s. 23 November 1932.

JUDY KELLY TELLS HOW IT FEELS TO CRASH TALKIES. Everyone’s. 30 November 1932.

THE PICTURE PARADE. Everyone’s. 10 May 1933.

ANOTHER FILM KELLY. Western Mail (Perth, WA) 5 April 1934 P.33

PARIS PRESENTS NEW IDEAS IN FURNISHINGSmith’s Weekly (Sydney, NSW), 4 January,  1936. p.16.

MISS AUSTRALIA, 1937 Daily Advertiser (Wagga Wagga, NSW) 10 Mar 1937 P.4

YOUNG AUSTRALIANS IMPORTANT IN ELSTREE STUDIO News (Adelaide, SA) 8 Jul 1937 :  P. 12

Eugene Gerald Kelly #2263, Service record, 4/45 Battalion, AIF.

Thanks, links and sources

Robert Maynard provided this photo of former Pollard’s star William Thomas at his butcher shop, on Hampshire Rd, Sunshine, sometime in the 1920s. William (centre) proudly holds his daughter Emma. His years performing for Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company in North America and Asia are far behind him. 

Thanks to…

My lecturers so long ago – Tom Ryan, Arthur Cantrill and Ken Mogg.

And the following people deserve special thanks;

  • Richard Bradshaw regarding Fred Stone
  • Joyce Mostyn, Norm Archibald, John Armine Wodehouse Earl of Kimberley, Dianne Byrne and Simone Cubbin regarding Mary Maguire
  • Martin Goebel, Charles Zhang and Mark Lepp regarding Saharet
  • Melissa Anderson regarding Lotus Thompson
  • Catherine Crocker regarding Midas Martyn and the Pollard’s
  • Robert Maynard regarding Willie Thomas and the Pollard’s
  • Stephanie Welsh regarding Jocelyn Howarth
  • Writer Robert Gott , Editors Jane Cussen & Ingrid Purnell
  • Henry Rosenbloom from Scribe
  • Sandra Joy Aguilar (Director of Archives and Curator at the Warner Bros Archives at the University of Southern California)
  • Joe Henderson (National Archives in Kew, England),
  • Dan Gulino (radiowasbetter.com),
  • Jock Murphy, (former Director of Collections at the Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne),
  • Dorothy Weekes, (former Archivist at Academy of Mary Immaculate in Fitzroy),
  • Sister Helen Salter (Archivist at Loreto Convent in Brisbane)

Some other actors well-remembered (offsite)

 

Key Sources

Further reading is provided, wherever possible, at the end of each article. Hot links exist in the text to key primary and secondary sources online. The most common sources used include

Text

  • Ray Edmondson and Andrew Pike (1982) Australia’s Lost Films. National Library of Australia.
  • Hal Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby Ltd.
  • Brian McFarlane, Anthony Slide (2003): The Encyclopedia of British Film. Methuen Publishing Ltd
  • Phillipe Mora, Peter Beilby, Scott Murray (eds) and others (1974-2001): Cinema Papers (Magazine) Cinema Papers P/L, Richmond, also MTV Publishing  and Niche Media. See digitised collection at the University of Wollongong
  • Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1981 and 1998): Australian film, 1900-1977 : a guide to feature film production. Oxford University Press.
  • Graham Shirley & Brian Adams (1989): Australian Cinema: The First Eighty Years. Currency Press
  • Andrée Wright (1986) Brilliant Careers; Women in Australian Cinema. Pan Books Australia.
  • Angela Woollacott, (2001). To try her fortune in London. Australian women, Colonialism and Modernity. Oxford University Press

Digital

Lists of films and stage performances are not provided. Moderately accurate lists of films are often found on the Internet Movie Database. (IMDB). A list of Broadway performances can be found at the Internet Broadway Database (IBDB)

Fred Stone – The man who influenced Tony Hancock & “The Boy Friend”

A young Fred Stone from Sydney doing the splits in London in 1929 – an impressive skill only sometimes achieved by male dancers even today. Photo courtesy Richard Bradshaw.

At the age of 21, Fred Stone left Depression era Sydney on the P&O ship Benalla, arriving in London in May 1929. He never returned to Australia. In the United Kingdom he became a well known favourite on stage, sometimes also appearing in supporting roles in films and TV. Fred’s attitude to his country of birth was at best, ambivalent. While he stayed in regular contact with his Australian family until his mother died in 1956, he seems, by accident or design, to have often added to the confusion about who he was, and where he was from. This is probably reflected in the wildly inaccurate Internet Movie Database entry that currently states he was born in Derby, England!

He was born Frederick George Stone in a terrace house in Liverpool Street, Paddington, an inner suburb of Sydney, on 9 July 1908. His parents were Frederick Stone and Margaret Calder nee Nixon, both of whom had been stewards on ships. Fred and his older sister “Lalla” (Agnes), spent their childhood in a large airy home their father had built at 19 Balfour Rd, Kensington, perhaps as a consequence of his success as a punter. Both children attended the nearby Kensington Public School. At some point in his childhood, Fred discovered the pleasure of performing on stage, an interest his mother had encouraged. In his mid teens he worked for two years at Farmer’s Department Store, Sydney, but left to pursue his passion. In 1925, while attending the Harry Thomas School of Elocution, he came in for praise in the part of Paris, in Romeo and Juliet. Fred’s first professional roles were in the choruses of musicals.  On 1 March 1927, Fred appeared in the chorus of “Sunny,” a new musical by Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II and Otto Harbach at Sydney’s Empire Theatre. He also appeared (as Freddie Stone) in the chorus of Good News, a musical about US college life that opened at St James Theatre on 10 November 1928. A slightly sniffy reviewer for “The Sydney Morning Herald” described it as something that would be popular with those, who like  “American jazz comedy“.


 

Above: Good News program courtesy Richard Bradshaw. Click to enlarge.

 

Left: Fred and his sister Lalla (and two of her children) shortly before Fred departed for England in 1929.
Right: Fred Stone in Wellington, New Zealand, in the late 1920s while he was in the chorus of the new musical “Sunny”.  Photos courtesy Richard Bradshaw.

Fred was a good looking and talented young actor, so it is not surprising he found regular stage work soon after arriving in England. In late 1929 he had landed a role in Mr Cinders at the Prince’s Theatre, Bristol, the play being a clever inversion of the Cinderella story. He went on to appear in a number of musicals and comedies in the 1930s, including The White Horse Inn, The Flying Trapeze and Tulip Time. He now called himself Frederic Stone, probably to avoid confusion with the US cinema star of the same name.

 

Above Left: Richard Hearne, Robert Gordon and Fred Stone making up for The Flying Trapeze at the Alhambra Theatre in 1935. Courtesy Richard Bradshaw. This was a musical set in a circus, starring Jack Buchanan. Fred’s supporting role was the Ballet Master.
Above Right: A screen grab of Fred in Be Careful Mr Smith, released in 1935.

In 1935, he appeared in the film Be Careful Mr Smith as a performer who sings the old music hall favourite, “The Man who broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.” He is on screen with leading actor Bobbie Comber for a full five minutes, which makes the lack of credit for the role he played surprising, even for a “quota quickie,” as these types of movies were characterised.

The un-credited Fred Stone sings the first verse and chorus until interrupted by Mr Smith (Bobbie Comber) who insists it be sung slowly in the traditional musical hall manner. Clip from Be Careful Mr Smith courtesy Peter Charlton.

His successful stage career in the 1930s saw him perform throughout the UK and beyond – in 1937 he joined the George Clark company tour of South Africa, performing a review called Let’s Join George. On the outbreak of World War II he was appearing in a bedroom farce called Room for Two, and not long after that, another one, called High Temperature, advertised as “a play for the broad-minded.”

By early 1940, Fred, like numerous other actors, had joined the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA). By a sequence of events no longer known, in early 1942 he had ended up in the RAF and was performing in one of Ralph Reader‘s Gang Shows. With more than ten years stage experience, Sergeant Fred Stone #1223414 was leader for one Gang Show group entertaining troops in Europe. Joining him, from about 1944, was a very young Tony Hancock, who can clearly be seen in the following photos. There were at least fifteen gang show groups performing for British and Allied forces.


 

(Click to enlarge)
Above Left: Fred in drag (second from the left) for a undated Gang Show sketch. Hancock is second from the right.
Above Right: A Gang Show sketch with John Beaver as the sleepwalker at right. Hancock is fourth from the left, while Fred is fifth from the left with buck teeth. The astute reader will note that Fred marked himself in photos with a small cross, for the benefit of his mother. Courtesy Richard Bradshaw.
FS9
Above: Another Gang show with Hancock second from the left and Fred third from the left. John Fisher’s biography of Hancock may describe this sketch: “In one sketch entitled ‘Rumours’ Tony found himself in a skirt alongside John Beaver and Fred Stone…as three charladies caught up in an air-raid …until the arrival of a Duchess played by Robert Moreton”. Photos courtesy Richard Bradshaw.

The Gang Shows are famous for giving a number of British actors valuable stage experience – amongst them comedians Peter Sellers and Dick Emery. Interviewed about his Gang Show experiences in 1963, Tony Hancock had this to say;

“My first overseas posting was with Ralph Reader’s Gang Show to Africa –  not that I really knew where I was going at the time; the R.A.F didn’t really keep me very well informed… From North Africa we moved to the front line in Italy.  Well not actually to it.  We got about three miles behind it once, but that was the closest we ever did.

When our show came back to England it was great to see that it was still tightly disciplined.  And that was entirely due to Fred Stone who later appeared in ‘The Boy Friend.’ He was a very strong personality who managed to keep 11 men who were living as closely as we were in reasonable shape.  And I realise now that this was because he would have nothing wrong with the show.

No matter what he felt personally about anything, it couldn’t interfere with a performance.  I was only 20 or so at the time and it was a great example to me.”
(Tony Hancock in the TV.Times [U.K.], 11 January 1963)

In 1949-50 he reprised his 1932-33 role as Leopold the waiter in  The White Horse Inn on tour in the U.K. for theatre impresario Prince Littler.

Fred had first performed at the Players’ Theatre Club in 1939, and after World War II he returned  – appearing there (between other commitments) in their nightly show, until the 1980s, often acting as Chairman (the traditional music hall term for Master of Ceremonies) who ad-libbed with the audience and introduced sketches.  Many other well known British actors appeared at Players’ Theatre, some that today’s readers may recognise include Hattie Jacques, Peter Ustinov, Clive Dunn, Ian Carmichael and Joan Sterndale-Bennett.

In her entertaining but not always accurate autobiography, British Actress Ada Reeve recounted being taken to the Player’s Theatre for her 80th birthday in the early 1950s; “here, on the very stage where I had made my first West End appearance as a girl of fourteen, I once more had the thrill of being announced by a chairman – handsome Fred Stone, in appropriately Victorian garb.” 

In 1953, Players’ commissioned Sandy Wilson to write a 45 minute piece to end the evening show – which became the genesis of The Boy Friend. It was so well received, that after four weeks, he was asked to expand it, and this became the musical so well known today.

Fred’s contribution is noted in Sandy Wilson’s own autobiography:

“Freddy’s presence in the show turned out to be another invaluable asset, since his experience went back to the Twenties themselves and he had actually been in the chorus of the kind of show we were trying to recreate. “

Wilson also acknowledged that he based ‘The Riviera’ dance’ in The Boy Friend on the ‘Varsity Drag’ from the musical Good News. Wilson recalled “Fred Stone’s advice was again invaluable because he had been in the chorus of that show.” Producer Vida Hope also incorporated many of Fred’s experiences – he reportedly said; “She made no bones about using everything I suggested…But, being an actor, I did far too much… So Vida would cut it down. She would let me do it for about twenty-four hours, and then she said, ‘Now, darling, we’ll tidy this up.'”

Fred in The Boyfriend

Fred as Percy Browne, the millionaire father of the heroine, in The Boy Friend, with Joan Sterndale Bennett as Madame Dubonnet, sometime in 1954. Photo courtesy Richard Bradshaw. Hugh Paddick also played this role. 

 

The hugely popular musical The Boy Friend opened at the Wyndham Theatre in January 1954. This is the modest program from around that time. Author’s collection. 

Fred’s other well known role was playing various pantomime dames, in fact a contract to perform as one took him away from The Boy Friend for a short period. Fred’s 1995 obituary in “The Daily Telegraph” includes a mid 1960s photo of Fred en point in ballet shoes, with tutu and makeup, as “Madame Stonaskaya” and clearly enjoying the outrageous role.

Ever versatile, in 1959 Fred Stone finally took on the role of a villain, Captain Herbert Skinner, in a new version of a once popular Victorian melodrama The Silver King performed by The Players’.

Fred in 1959

Fred playing the villain Captain Skinner, with Madeleine Dring and 27 year old Prunella Scales, in The Silver King. The Stage, 1 January 1959 via the British Library Newspaper Archive.

Between November 1961 and June 1962, a troupe of the Players’ club regulars travelled to New York to appear at the Strollers Theatre Club, where Fred performed as Chairman. A New York “Daily News” reviewer described that “delightful Englishman Fred Stone” as “a cross between (designer/photographer) Cecil Beaton and (actor) Cyril Ritchard. The journalist was unaware apparently, that like Fred, Cyril Ritchard was Sydney born.

 

(Click to enlarge) A troupe from the Players’ club arrives in New York, as shown in two publicity photos taken for Pan Am’s in-flight magazine “Clipper,”c 1961.

In the group photos with bicycles are, left to right: Fred, Jean Rayner, Anthony Bateman, Margaret Burton, Archie Harradine, Joan Sterndale Bennett, Sheila Bernette, and Geoffrey Webb. The review was called Time, Gentlemen Please.

Fred continued to be active to the end of his life. British director Lindsay Anderson recalled meeting Fred while making a Ronson shaver commercial in May 1965. His published diary records that at the time, Fred had just finished performing in Divorce Me Darling, the sequel to The Boy Friend.  It also confirms Fred’s reputation as the consummate professional;

“Called wearily to St John’s Wood Studio at 8:30 for Ronson Shavers commercial …
Fred Stone turns out [to be] excellent casting: the (only slightly) camp father from ‘The Boy Friend’ – has just closed in Sandy’s ‘Divorce Me Darling’. A trouper, and good. On hearing me sing ‘Spread a Little Happiness*’ remarks ––”I was in that show ––Mr Anderson’!”

(*This was a song in “Mr Cinders”)

Fred’s last theatre appearance may have been with the Players’ Theatre in 1990, when a dozen of the original performers in The Boy Friend reprised their roles. A reviewer for “The Stage” reported “At the end, a roaring surge of affection rewarded this great and gallant troupe of performers for providing an occasion at once historic, enthralling and deeply touching.” Fred Stone was 81 at the time, and he had been performing for over sixty years.

Late in life, Fred lectured and provided witty after dinner speeches about the great days of music hall entertainment. He also toured community centres in London, in entertainments organised by Peter Charlton.  Always keen on physical fitness, he recovered quickly from a stroke which hit him during a performance later in life. He lived much of his life in a flat at 116 Great Titchfield Street in London, not far from the theatres of the West End. He died at Denville Hall, a retirement home for actors in Northwood, London, on 8 July, 1995. He had no partner and no strong ties to Australia. The obituaries were effusive – one spoke of a “marvellous man, full of vitality and a fabulous character…when he was up there on stage, there was nobody to touch him.”

For some years after his death, Fred was still introduced at the start of the second half at the Players’ Theatre with words to the effect “It gives me particular pleasure tonight, ladies and gentlemen, because the next artiste is none other than your own, your very own, Fred Stone!” There would then be an apology to explain he was not available tonight. Fred would have enjoyed the joke.

Special Thanks
The Australian puppeteer Richard Bradshaw (OAM), former Artistic Director of the Marionette Theatre of Australia, is a nephew of Fred Stone. The author thanks him for generously providing so much information about Fred’s life and sharing so many of the photos Fred posted home to his mother.

 

Nick Murphy
August 2019

 

Further Reading

  • John Fisher (2008) Tony Hancock: The Definitive Biography. Harper
  • Jean Anderson, Leonard Sachs (Eds) Archie Harradine (1943) Late Joys at the Players’ Theatre. Staples Press.
  • Reeve, Ada (1954). Take It for a Fact: A Record of My Seventy-Five Years on the Stage. Heinemann.
  • Paul Sheridan (1952) Late and Early Joys at the Players’ Theatre. T. V. Boardman and Co
  • Paul Sutton (2005) The Diaries – Lindsay Anderson, Methuen.
  • Sandy Wilson (1975) I could be Happy: An Autobiography. Joseph.
  • The Daily Telegraph (UK) Fred Stone Obituary. 25 July 1995

National Library of Australia – Trove
British Library – British newspaper Archive

  • The Stage (UK) The Boy Friend in Concert. 8 February 1990
  • The Stage (UK) Fred Stone Obituary 10 August 1995

Websites