Joy Nichols (1925-1992) – from the Tivoli to the West End

Joy Nichols at the height of her success in the British radio show Take It From Here, c1950. Fan card in the Author’s collection

The Five Second version
Born in Sydney on 17 February 1925, singer, impressionist and comedian Joy Nichols became a favourite on stage and radio in wartime Australia from a very young age. She made the transition to performing in postwar Britain with apparent ease, and is most often associated with the BBC’s long running radio show, Take It From Here. She seemed destined for stardom, but her 1953 Australian return show was a disaster. She scored some later success with the London season of The Pajama Game and in supporting roles on Broadway, but her later career was fitful and she might really be a case of an actor who reached her peak too early. She died in New York on 23 June 1992. She had appeared in several Australian and British films.

Looking back on her career in 1965, Joy Nichols admitted that she was “too young” to realise what was happening when she became such a quick success in England. She told Australia’s Bulletin magazine that in 1948 she “rather took if for granted and didn’t think much of what was going to happen in the years ahead.” It was remarkably candid, as she was acknowledging a 25 year career that seemed disjointed and ultimately may not have been very rewarding.

She was born Joy Eileen Nichols in Sydney on 17 February 1925, the youngest of four children of Cecil William “Bill” Nichols, a wholesale butcher, and Freda nee Cooke. Her brother George Nichols also pursued a career on the Australian stage with some success, but two older brothers had no such interest, and following their father’s footsteps became meat inspectors in New South Wales.

George and Joy Nichols photographed while performing on the Tivoli circuit, c 1945. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Tivoli Theatre Collection. PXA 808, IE1050864.

On the basis of her early academic efforts, Joy was awarded a scholarship to Fort Street Girls High School in 1937 and while she apparently went on to excel academically, her appearances on radio and stage started at about the same time. Her name is found as a singer in various eisteddfods and as a comedian in charity concerts as early as 1935. Later accounts would claim she was encouraged in her interest in music and comedy by her mother and was performing from the age of 8. Her breakthrough seems to have been when she gained a regular place on the Macquarie radio network’s “Youth Show” in 1940. She was heralded as the program’s “outstanding radio discovery.”

15 year old Joy contributing to the war effort in 1940. Left – The Sun (Sydney) 2 June 1940. Right – Daily News (Sydney) 9 March 1940. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In a world war where newspapers and radio were the only source of news and patriotic performances were vital to maintaining morale, Joy Nichols was soon in great demand. She was an entertaining and very accomplished singer. Her young age – she was only 15 years old, did not seem to effect her popularity or qualify in any way the language of journalists who enthused about her. In September 1941, the Brisbane Truth reported on her part in a show called Ballyhoo, running at the Cremorne Theatre: “When pretty Joy Nichols gets done up in khaki and sings her ‘Victory Vee’ number, we think any recruiting sergeant would get quite a few inquiries from enthusiastic males in Cremorne’s ‘Ballyhoo’ audiences.” Perhaps she hoped her first film role in Alf Goulding‘s A Yank in Australia (1942) would be received the same way. Unfortunately the film was never given a release and while it still exists today, is impossible to find outside the vaults of Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive.

Her wartime career brought her in close contact with other well known Australian performers. Evidence of this includes a surviving Rinso soap commercial made with Bill Kerr, for release in cinemas.


In early 1941, she appeared for the first time with 33 year old Dick Bentley, in an Australian Broadcasting Commission community concert. Bentley, a talented musician and comedian, had returned to Australia with several years of British radio experience under his belt. Eight years later, Joy would be teamed with him in Britain, in the very successful radio program, Take it from Here.

In 1943, Joy gained further positive publicity when she sang Jack O’Hagen‘s new song about a wartime romance between a US serviceman and an Australian girl – When a boy from Alabama meets a Girl from Gundagai.

In the midst of many stage and radio performances, she also promptly did just that herself – in late 1944 after a whirlwind courtship, she married Lieutenant Harry Dickel, a US serviceman then in Australia, who had some connection to the theatre. Like a number of such wartime romances, the relationship did not last.

In early 1946, Cinesound director Ken G Hall cast Joy in a supporting roll as Kay Sutton, an American girl, in Smithy (aka Pacific Adventure), his bio-pic about aviator Charles Kingsford-Smith. As the sound clips on this page suggest, a vaguely North American accent was something Joy had already been working on. One of her specialities was impressions of movie stars, and she was, she said, a great admirer of Bing Crosby. The film completed, Joy and brother George joined the great wave of Australian actors determined to try their luck overseas after the war. They arrived in England on the ship Dominion Monarch on 30 October, 1946.

George and Joy soon appeared successfully as a double act on tour together in the UK, but George found the going tough. By April 1949 he was back home in Australia. “The BBC’s audition list is very long” he said, by way of advice to aspiring Australian actors. For Joy, there seem to have been nothing but more work on offer. Bob Hope reportedly chose her for a lightning tour of US bases in Europe in 1947, while back in England there were roles in pantomimes, and touring shows like Follow The Girls.

Above: Joy Nichols in the stage revue Take it from Here, based on the radio program, at the Winter Gardens Pavilion, Blackpool 1950. Photos from a George Black Ltd brochure, author’s collection.

Theatre Historian Eric Midwinter has provided the most succinct account of the origins of the BBC radio show Take It from Here. It emerged in 1948 – partly born of previous radio programs and combining Joy and Dick Bentley (now back in Britain) with popular British comedian Jimmy Edwards, and with Wallas Eaton in a supporting role. Producer Charles Maxwell brought in writers Frank Muir and Denis Norden – and a success was born. As surviving broadcasts show, the 30 minute program had a three part format, musical numbers (sung very well by Joy and Dick and reasonably well by Jimmy) separating the three main comedy sketches, that were often built around current events. The program was remarkable in that while topical for British listeners, it was equally popular when broadcast in countries like Australia. This was in part thanks to Muir and Norden’s writing, which went on to influence a new generation of British comedy.

Joy can be heard in the following clip with Dick Bentley, playing the very silly Miss Arundel, whose deep giggle and references to boyfriend Gilbert were a regular feature. After Joy left the show in April 1952 (to have her first child) she was replaced by June Whitfield. Whitfield played “Eth” in The Glums, an ongoing sketch in the show by 1953 (the character often mistaken for one of Joy’s).

Joy as Miss Arundel, giggling and telling Detective Dick Bentley about her boyfriend Gilbert. Via the Internet Archive. Joy also gives this trademark throaty giggle here in a 1950 Radio awards ceremony – at 6.15 (click to follow link)
The cast of Take it from Here appeared in a live review at the London Adelphi in 1950-51. The show ran for 570 performances. Program in the author’s collection

Frank Muir’s entertaining autobiography, A Kentish Lad, recalls an anecdote from Take It From Here, that gives some insight into her sense of humour and the wicked Australian banter that went on behind the scenes. He describes Joy chatting before one show with Jimmy Edwards, Dick Bentley and Wallas Eaton, and turning to a recent gynecological exam she had endured, describing the event to the others in such “candid detail,” that bachelor Wallas Eaton began to “turn green.” Dick Bentley then threw in “you poor thing. And my (dog’s) got diarrhoea …”

In 1949, Joy married US actor-singer Wally Peterson, one of the principals of the London cast of Oklahoma! and later South Pacific. At the same time, her professional life remained very busy, it included a live theatre spin-off of Take It From Here, appearances at Royal Command Variety Performances and a Max Bygraves revue, all the while appearing on radio. But, in the midst of all this success, she, Wally and their 16 month old daughter packed up and left England for Australia. She was engaged to appear in her own show on the Tivoli circuit in September 1953, but the trip seems primarily to have been to see her family. The story that Wally wanted to leave England because he could not get work is wrong – like Joy he was a well established broadcaster, actor and singer and was regularly in demand – he was also a popular recording artist for the Decca and Parlophone labels.

Photos of Joy relaxing and in rehearsal in Australia appeared in the Australian Women’s Weekly, 14 October 1953. But by the time these were published she had already withdrawn from the show. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Unfortunately, although the anticipation created by Joy’s return to Sydney was great and the initial reviews were positive, the 1953 Tivoli show entitled Take It From Me turned out to be a disaster. She managed a few performances, but then suffered a nervous breakdown. Her mother Freda wanted to reassure audiences, and told the Sydney Sun that Joy was just “overwhelmed by the wonderful reception” Australians had given her. In language so typical of the era, she added; “Joy is a very highly strung girl and a good sleep will soon fix her up.” But it didn’t. She spent two weeks in hospital, and rested for another three months before departing by air for the US, in December 1953, to spend time with Wally’s family in Boston.

One of Joy’s greatest successes came in London again, in 1955, when she took a role in The Pajama Game. Comparing it to the often modest British musicals, The Guardian newspaper described the play as the latest “clumping great Broadway musical”. Most reviewers welcomed Joy’s return to the West End, and The Stage reported she played the part of Babe Williams with “humanity and real charm.” It hit a spot with London audiences, running for 580 performances. She also appeared in a few films at this time – most notably a cameo role, singing, in Charlie Chaplin’s A King in New York (1957). After she and Wally had finally settled in New York in the late 1950s, she also appeared in a few roles on Broadway, most notably in the musical Fiorello!


Joy in Not So Dusty (1956) – a British B film about two dustmen (garbage collectors) featuring Bill Owen and Leslie Dwyer. This screen grab from a clip on Youtube.

In 1965 she returned to Australia again, to show off her 3 year old twins to the family and perform in the musical, Instant Marriage at the Tivoli. This time, there was much less publicity – although Joy did her best to stir up interest. “I want to make people laugh like I do” she said. But variety theatre like the Tivoli had struggled to maintain audiences against the challenge of television, and this play, “about a girl trying to find a marriage bureau and mistakenly getting involved with a strip joint,” was hardly sophisticated fare, even with the imported addition of Wallas Eaton in the cast. The show flopped. Theatre historian Frank Van Straten describes it as “a frantic, unfunny farce without a single singable song.”

It is rare for an actor to pose with their entire family for the press. But on 21 July 1965, during Joy’s final visit to Australia, The Australian Women’s Weekly ran this photo of the entire Nichols family together. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Joy continued to appear in occasional supporting roles on the New York stage, but fate and circumstance seemed against her. In 1969 it was announced she would appear in an expensive new London musical, Two Cities. But she didn’t – only a few weeks before opening night she walked out on rehearsals, reportedly after disagreements with leading actor Edward Woodward. She was replaced by Nicolette Roeg.

Above: Joy advertised as appearing in the musical Two Cities. But soon after this advertisement appeared in The Observer on 2 Feb 1969, she was replaced by Nicolette Roeg. Via Newspapers.com.

Joy’s marriage to Wally came to an end in 1977, and she subsequently moved back to England again. She took out a large advertisement in The Stage in March 1979 to announce that she was back and looking for work. But sadly, there wasn’t very much work for her. She was in her mid-50s, and had well and truly lost her currency. She finally turned to fairly mundane retail work, being spotted working in a Mothercare store in Oxford St. This sort of riches to rags story, as always, attracted some media attention – but Joy simply said she needed the money.

Joy succumbed to cancer, aged only 66 in 1992. In a lifetime of moving around, she had moved back to New York at the end. Her obituaries reminded readers of the great pleasure Joy had brought listeners in post-war Britain, then a time of austerity and recovery.

Only a year after Joy’s 1965 visit, Jimmy Edwards came to Australia to feature in the Tivoli circuit’s final shows in Sydney and Melbourne. His shows brought large-scale variety theatre to a close in Australia.

Wallas Eaton, who had turned green when hearing Joy’s gynecological story, moved to Australia in 1975, where he continued acting. He died in Sydney in 1995. Dick Bentley died in England the same year.

Joy at the height of her fame on a British “Turf” cigarette box. c1950 Author’s collection.

Nick Murphy
September 2020


Further Reading

Audio

Film

Text

  • Eric Midwinter (undated) Take It From Here. Britishmusichallsociety.com
  • Frank Muir (1997) A Kentish Lad. The Autobiography of Frank Muir. Bantam Press.
  • Frank Van Straten (2003 ) Tivoli. Thomas C. Lothian
  • J.P Wearing (2014) The London Stage, 1950-1959, A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

British Newspaper Archive

  • The Stage, 10 July 1947
  • The Stage, 4 Dec 1947
  • The Scotsman, 24 Dec 1947
  • The Daily Mirror, 30 Dec 1947
  • Manchester evening News 16 March 1948
  • The Stage, October 20, 1955
  • Illustrated London News, 29 October 1955
  • Daily Herald, 1 June 1962
  • The Stage, 19 August 1965
  • The Stage, 29 March 1979
  • The Stage, 15 October 1992

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 22 June 1940
  • Mudgee Guardian & North Western Representative, 15 July 1940
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 20 July 1940
  • The Argus (Melb), 25 Oct 1943
  • The Age (Melb), 2 Sept 1949
  • The Age (Melb), 29 July 1953
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Sept 1953
  • Sun (Syd), 11 Sept 1953
  • Daily Telegraph (Syd), 17 Sept, 1953
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 14 Oct 1953
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 14 Sept, 1960
  • The Bulletin, 17 July 1965, Vol 87, No 4455
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 21 July 1965
  • The Bulletin, 14 Aug 1965, Vol 87 No 4459

Newspapers.com

  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 31 Aug 1954
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Nov 1965
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Jan 1969
  • The Observer, 2 Feb 1969
  • The Age (Melb), 2 July 1992
  • The Guardian, 3 July 1992

The Independent

  • June Averill, Joy Nichols Obituary 7 July 1992

Variety

  • Wally Peterson Obituary, April 3, 2011

The Times

  • Joy Nichols Obituary 29 June 1992

Anona Winn (1904-1994) Who did it all without trying.

Anona Winn on an Ardath cigarette card c 1932. The postcard in the background shows the Sydney Post Office in Pitt Street, about the time she was born. Author’s collection.

The five second version
Born in Sydney, New South Wales, on 5 January 1904, Anona Winn moved to the UK in 1926 after establishing herself on the stage in Australia. In her long British career she appeared on stage, wrote and recorded popular songs, and enjoyed a very successful career on British radio, until aged well into her 70s. Scottish comedian Renée Houston once said Anona “does it all without trying.” Clever, creative, popular with her colleagues and loyal to her many supporters, she was awarded an MBE for charity work in 1954. She died in Bournemouth in February 1994.

What was it like to be a young woman fronting up for an audition in the 1920s, grappling with parental expectations and the pressure to perform? We know Anona Winn’s view, because she left a short humorous account in April 1925, about a year before she departed Australia for England. While it is a fictional account, it is safe to assume the short story “The Voice Trial” is at least partly based on her own experiences as an emerging singer. “Jennie develops a few high notes, and the family a still higher opinion of Jennie’s vocal abilities. Jennie shall go on the stage! She shall become one of the galaxy of gleaming stars whose manner of living has been so severely censured by father every Sunday after dinner…” Of course, Jennie does not succeed at her audition. (See Note 1 regarding her short stories)

Born in 1904 in Sydney, New South Wales, Anona was the only child of Lillian Barron nee Woodgate. Lillian endured an unhappy marriage to book keeper Andrew Balfour Barron, that ended in divorce in San Francisco in late 1907. Anona took Wilkins as a surname after her mother remarried in 1909. (See Note 2 below)

Despite claims the name Anona is a native American one, it actually has Latin origins – it was the name of the Roman goddess of the Harvest. As an adult, we know Anona was short and slight. She stood 155 centimetres (5 foot, 1 inch). She had fair hair and brown eyes – we know all this thanks to the very thorough details collected by US customs when she went to New York in 1939.

19 years old but looking even younger, Anona Wilkins posing with a baby from St Margaret’s Maternity Hospital, for The Sun (Sydney) 17 August 1923, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

The Wilkins family had located themselves in Young Street, Cremorne on Sydney’s north shore by 1915, and Anona attended nearby Redlands School, then under the inspired Principalship of Mrs G.A. Roseby. It appears Anona thrived in this creative school environment and quickly made a name for herself as a capable academic student, a gifted pianist and singer. She joined the school’s debating team, won academic prizes and gave solo singing performances. Years later it was claimed she could sight-read music from the age of about 8, which in the light of events, may well have been true.

Anona Wilkins (Winn) at Redlands. She is seated far left in the white dress, with her hands in her lap, kneeling between the first and second rows. Redlands Senior School, 1916, Cecily Tyson Collection. Reproduced with permission by Redlands School Archive

Having also won a number of public music competitions through her teenage years, on leaving school she was accepted into the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in 1920. Her teachers included Madam Goosens-Viceroy and Nathalie Rosenwax, with her developing ability demonstrated at Sydney concerts in late 1921. We can also see evidence she was in Melbourne and performing there in 1922. Did she sing for Nellie Melba, as is claimed? It is quite possible, and Melba was famous for encouraging talented young singers. But not every singer was attracted to a classical career or won over by the encouragement. Nellie McNamara (or Nellie Mond in 1910-12) explained to Everyone’s magazine that she also had been taken to meet Madame Melba, who had advised her to “get rid of that accent” and in doing so “nearly scared me out of my wits.” By early 1923, Anona Wilkins also seems to have decided against a purely classical singing career, although the training was of immense value. In February 1923 she was in the chorus of the new Jerome Kern musical Sally and by July 1923, a featured player in visiting US performer Lee White‘s new show Back Again, at Sydney’s Theatre Royal.

Popular enough to be advertising. The Sun (Sydney), 27 May 1923 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Touring Western Australia in 1925, Anona now chose Wynne as a new surname. She also appeared on Western Australian radio 6WF, then in its infancy. And after three years of performances in musicals, reviews and pantomimes around Australia with the likes of George Storey and Ada Reeve, she finally decided it was time to try her luck overseas. There were friends who had already done this and undoubtedly plenty of encouraging words from experienced performers like Clay Smith and Lee White. “London needs the fresh youth and talent which Australia can give,” said Smith before departing with Anona’s contemporary Billy Lockwood.

On her way to London in 1926, Anona stopped off in India, with a touring company performing some well known musical comedies, including Maid of the Mountains and Rose-Marie. The details of this tour are scant, but Australian papers reported her performances as a “personal triumph.” By December 1926 she was in England, appearing as “a charming Iris” in the musical comedy A Greek Slave, touring the United Kingdom for twelve weeks with José  Collins. She then toured the UK with a Daly’s Theatre company production of The Blue Mazurka.

Anona Winn with José  Collins in A Greek Slave. Nottingham Evening Post 12 Feb 1927. Copyright of this image is held by Reach Plc, via British Library Newspaper Archive.

Despite stories that she struggled to be noticed at first in London’s competitive theatre scene (it was claimed she threw her book of press cuttings into the Thames in frustration), Anona was later to confirm that being able to sight-read music and sing well was a great advantage in auditions. Her first credited part in a London show was as “Looloo Martin” in the US musical Hit the Deck at the Hippodrome in late 1927, after another player took ill. Her career never looked back.

As with much of Anona’s life, the precise timing of her achievements have become a little hazy over time and in some cases, details have changed in the telling. However, it is clear that in addition to continuing to appear on stage, Anona also appeared on British radio from about 1928 – her first performance being in a program called Fancy Meeting You! She was heard as a regular radio performer from early 1930, presenting You Ought to Go on the Wireless for the BBC followed by a string of other radio shows. The Bungalow Club of 1938 was Anona’s own concept – a mock riverside club, with cabaret turns, comedy and Anona as hostess. At the same time, as well as recording popular works (at one stage with her own dance band –Anona Winn and her Winners), she also wrote original songs – her records being well received in the UK and Australia. Her repertoire was broad; Theatre Historian Peter Pinne notes that in the early 1930s Anona performed works by composer and fellow Australian Dudley Glass, inspired by several children’s books, for the BBC Children’s Hour. In 1935 “The Guardian” commented that she never seemed content with just one style of broadcast. There was always some attractive variety, frequently a novelty- perhaps an impression of a “popular type” or someone else. At the same time, “her pleasantly informed microphone manner (was) a distinct asset in…light…entertainment”.

Anona Winn on the cover of the Radio Times Television Supplement (UK), April 16, 1937, via http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/historyofthebbc.

In 1933, in the early days of experimental TV broadcasting, she was in at least one TV show called Looking In, that apparently still survives. And six months after the BBC began regular TV broadcasting in 1936 she was there again, performing in another revue. In 1934 she had her first and only part in a feature film – a supporting role in British Lion’s On the Air. “Variety” magazine found little to say about it, other than describing it as essentially a revue of “acts of well known and popular artists… surrounded by a modicum of story,” a not uncommon plot device in sound films of this time.

Anona Winn 1938 anona-1940-

Above: Anona continued to appear on stage well into the 1940s. Left; The Radio Pictorial 23 September 1938, via Lantern Digital Media Project. Right on stage with fellow Australian Florrie Forde in Portsmouth. Portsmouth Evening Herald 24 Feb 1940 via British Library Newspaper Archive, Johnston Press PLC.

In January 1947 the BBC announced their new quiz Twenty Questions, based on an old parlour game with a radio format purchased from the US. It was a runaway success and Anona was on the panel for most of its 29 year run, demonstrating an uncanny ability to regularly guess the show’s “mystery object.” In 1965 she hosted another radio program of her own devising, entitled Petticoat Lane. A chat show featuring a panel of well-known women discussing issues raised by listeners, it was also very successful and despite appealing to an older and declining radio demographic, lasted until the late 1970s.

Her creative contributions beyond stage and radio were many, and unfortunately not all seem to be accurately recorded. In the mid 1930s she worked on a film script with Australian Marjorie Jacobson Strelitz, and it is also claimed she “voiced” actors who couldn’t sing for film, and to have composed for film. In an obituary, Peter Cotes noted that in later life she also had an interest in the dress-design firm Bernice and Partners. And she counted the likes of pioneer British producer-director Wendy Toye amongst her friends.

Above: Anona – fan photo c 1950. Author’s collection.

The early 1950s were an exciting time to be an Australian actor in London, and there were plenty working there to benefit from being part of the greater British Commonwealth – close enough to the home country to be part of it, but also confident and at enough of a remove to be able to stand back and gently send it all up, from time to time. Australians could celebrate this period (a final coming of age perhaps) not just through the shared confidence brought about by victory in the recent war, but also with the excitement of the 1956 Olympics, and the many benefits brought on by a booming economy at home. A seasoned performer like Anona shared in the enthusiasm and was often invited to speak publicly of her perspective of Britain, as an Australian. “Be proud of Britain,” she urged one audience. But like many, she worried about some of the changes she saw in 1960s Britain – the increasingly poor use of language, and dramatic changes in fashion – “what with our kinky boots and tights, and such short, short, skirts…”

She returned to Australia at least once, in March 1957, where she appeared on Australia’s fledgling ABC TV, in a quiz show called Find the Link, did other things that went unreported, then flew home to Britain on QANTAS, a true child of the Commonwealth.

Anona married Fred Lamport, a theatrical agent, at the Marylebone Registry office in July 1933. Sadly, the marriage was very short-lived. Both Fred and Anona were suffering pneumonia in early 1935. Anona recovered, but Fred did not – he died on 1 February 1935. She never remarried. Anona’s mother Lillian had joined her in London in the late 1920s, and lived with her and acted as her secretary and dresser for many years. Having lived much of her adult London life in a mock-Tudor apartment in Maida Vale, in the late 1980s she moved to Bournemouth where she died in 1994.

Her British obituaries were heartfelt, a voice that had been with Britain for so long, had gone.


Note 1 – Her Writing.
Between late 1924 and mid 1925 Anona Wilkins wrote a few very witty short stories for Australian newspapers, including the Sydney Evening News. These can be read online at Trove. Only two deal directly with the stage – The Voice Trial and 25 Years After. They are worth reading as a testimony to her sophisticated skills as a writer. These seem to have given rise to the idea she was a journalist, but there is no doubt she stayed on stage at the same time.

Note 2 – The enigma of her Birth.
English-born Lillian May Woodgate had married Scottish-born bookkeeper Andrew Balfour Barron in Sydney on 5 April 1902. Soon after this, Andrew Barron travelled to the United States to become head book keeper for Buckingham and Hecht, a large San Francisco shoe-manufacturer. In August 1907 he was charged with embezzling and his affair with a typist was uncovered during court proceedings. By this time Lillian was also in the US and she stood by him until his infidelity was revealed. The San Francisco Call of 22 August 1907 noted that she was accompanied in court by “2 year old daughter Anona.” Barron was sentenced to three years in San Quentin Prison and Lillian sued for divorce, returning to Australia soon after.

Anona’s original Australian birth certificate for January 1904 does not list any father, nor refer to Lillian and Andrew’s marriage. Did Lillian return to Australia to have the child? Did she have Anona by someone else? In 1919, Anona’s step-father William Wilkins made a declaration listing himself as Anona’s foster-father. The document also incorrectly suggested Lillian May Woodgate/Barron/Wilkins was Anona’s foster-mother. The ambiguities of these documents hint at turmoil and great personal unhappiness across two continents, and help explain why Anona was characteristically vague about her birth.

Fortunately, Lily and William’s marriage (1909) appears to have been a happy one, until his sudden death in October 1924.

Relevant Birth, Deaths and Marriages NSW – certificates

  • Lillian Woodgate and Andrew Barron, NSW Marriage Certificate, 5 April 1902, #2732/1902
  • Anona Barron, NSW birth certificate, 5 January 1904, #153/1904
  • Lillian Barron and William Wilkins Marriage Certificate, 21 April 1909 #3392/1909
  • Registered declaration regarding Anona Wilkins birth, 5 May 1919, #1687/1919

Nick Murphy
September 2020


References

Thanks

Special thanks to Ms Marguerite Gillezeau, Archivist at Redlands school for her assistance.

Websites

Film clips

Radio clips

Music clips
There are a number of Winn’s songs to be found on social media. Here are a few:

Text

  • Simon Elmes (2009) And Now on Radio 4: A Celebration of the World’s Best Radio …Arrow Books.
  • John Hetherington (1967) Melba. F.W.Cheshire
  • David Hendy (2008) Life on Air. A History of Radio 4. Oxford University Press
  • Barbara MacKenzie & Findlay MacKenzie (1967) Singers of Australia, From Melba to Sutherland. Lansdowne Press
  • Seán Street (2009) The A to Z of British Radio. The Scarecrow Press
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1920-1929 : A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel . Second edition. Lanham : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1930-1939 : A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Second edition. Lanham : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

The Independent (UK) Obituaries

  • June Averill, Anona Winn Obituary, The Independent, 18 Feb 1994
  • Peter Cotes, Anona Winn Obituary, The Independent, 14 March 1994

Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University

Lantern – Digital Media Project

  • Variety, Tues 13 Feb 1934

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Mail (SA) 4 August, 1923.
  • The Sun (Sydney) Sat 1 Sept, 1923
  • The Daily News (WA) 18 Sep 1925
  • Everyones. Vol. 5 No.330, 30 June 1926
  • The Bulletin.Vol. 57 No. 2920, 29 Jan 1936
  • The Wireless Weekly, 29 May 1938
  • ABC Weekly Vol. 2 No. 42, 19 October 1940
  • ABC Weekly, 6 April, 1957

Newspapers.com

  • The San Francisco Call, 22 Aug 1907.
  • The San Francisco Examiner, 7 Nov 1907
  • The Guardian, (UK) 8 June 1935.
  • Sydney Morning Herald, (Syd) 28 July 1938.
  • The Guardian, (UK) 8 Feb 1994.

British Library Newspaper Archive

  • The Stage, 25 Nov 1926
  • Nottingham Evening Post, 12 Feb 1927
  • The Stage, 31 March 1927
  • Daily Herald (London), 2 Feb 1935
  • Sheffield Independent, 22 April 1938
  • North Wales Weekly, 28 Jan 1960
  • Liverpool Echo 1 Nov 1962
  • Coventry Evening Telegraph 17 Mar 1966
  • Coventry Evening Telegraph 18 Mar 1966
  • The Stage, 24 Feb 1994

 

Suzanne Bennett (1893-1974); From Walhalla to Broadway

Suzanne Bennett as she appeared in the New York Daily News, 18 May, 1928. Via Newspapers.com. The colour photo of Walhalla was taken by dsidwell (David Sidwell) in 2004-6, via Wikimedia Commons.

Suzanne Bennett is amongst the successful Australians who sought a career on stage in New York in the early twentieth century. She was born Susannah Catherine Evans in Walhalla, Victoria, Australia in January 1893, the second of five children of John Evans, variously described as a miner or mine engine driver, and Alice nee Whitlow, a local Walhalla girl.

Above: Suzanne Bennett soon after her arrival in the US. Chicago Tribune, 22 July 1923. Via newspapers.com

At the time of her birth, Walhalla was a bustling gold-mining town of 3000 people, set in a narrow valley in mountainous country. The town was remote and access was difficult. Even when the narrow gauge railway finally arrived in Walhalla in 1910, it still took 3 hours of slow train travel up steep gradients and around sharp corners to cover the 50 kilometres to Moe, the nearest mainline station. The surrounding eucalyptus forests were so dense that when a USAAF fighter crashed near Walhalla in March 1942, the wreckage was not found for seven years. Mains electricity finally arrived in the town at the end of the twentieth century. But in other respects the town was fortunate. When the last local mine closed in 1917, an extraordinary 55 tonnes of gold had been recovered from Cohen’s reef, that ran under the valley.

Brass band and procession in Walhalla, about 1905. Susannah Evans may have been in the crowd. Photo by William Harrison Lee. State Library of Victoria

Suzanne’s mother Alice died of pneumonia in Walhalla in 1901, four months after the birth of her youngest child, Arthur. Sometime around 1913 the Evans family began to move to Melbourne. In February 1913, Suzanne’s oldest sister Edith married Bert Guy, a Walhalla butcher and the couple relocated to Melbourne. John Evans, whose health had almost certainly been weakened by years of mining work, also moved to Melbourne in 1913. He succumbed to chronic pneumonia in August, aged only 48.

Suzanne’s own early experiences in Walhalla and Melbourne are lost to us today, but it is certain she and her siblings attended Walhalla Primary School No 957. On the other hand, it is difficult to verify that Madame Melba heard her sing as a child in Walhalla, or that she later attended Melbourne University, as has been claimed. However it is known that in 1915 she married Sergeant Oscar Bennett, who had just joined the Australian army and was about to be sent overseas. (She had adopted the spelling Suzanne by this time). It was a whirlwind romance and marriage – she was later to say she had only known Bennett a few weeks before he left for the Great War. Like so many Australian soldiers, he was not to return home until mid-1919. Suzanne lived through the war in a very grand looking boarding house at 20 Burnett Street, St Kilda – a building that still stands today. To support herself she sometimes worked as a typist, while appearing on stage at night – reportedly with the Rigo Grand Opera Company, later for Hugh D.McIntosh in the chorus for Tivoli shows. She also pursued her passion, a career as a singer.

A grainy image showing some of the Sydney Tivoli’s performers in May 1922. In this photo montage, Suzanne Bennett is standing in the powder box above “Irish” (really English) entertainer Talbot O’Farrell. Belle Leichner, sister of Leah, is at right. Sunday Times (Sydney), 7 May 1922, via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Unfortunately, Suzanne’s marriage was much less successful than her developing stage career. In October 1920 Suzanne attempted to divorce Oscar, on the grounds he had repeatedly “left her without support. At the time, this claim was apparently stronger grounds for action than his alleged adultery, and violence towards her when drunk. Her action failed, Oscar’s insistence that she “give up the stage” and “live a proper life” apparently found approval in the St Kilda court. Two years later however, Oscar was named as co-respondent in another suit and a divorce was finally granted. She had not given up the stage in the meantime, but it had obviously been a difficult seven years. One can only admire her stoicism in keeping on. She kept Suzanne Bennett as her name, in spite of all.

For a time a pupil of music teacher Grace Miller Ward (who had discovered soprano Gladys Moncrieff), it seems Suzanne had her heart set on a career as a singer. With Ward’s encouragement, she planned a future in the US, or Europe, and had saved enough to travel. She departed Sydney for California on the SS Niagara in October 1922. Also on board was Australian soprano Nellie Leach, with whom she “teamed up” for a while.


On arrival in California, Suzanne enjoyed a rush of publicity, apparently based on her part in the Melbourne Herald newspaper’s “Beauty Quest” competition. A woman from North Carlton called Betty Tyrrell had won it, Suzanne didn’t even place in the final six. On 22 November, the San Francisco Examiner told its readers the pretty Australian woman (accompanied by a large photo) had won the competition from a field of 500. A day later, the San Francisco Chronicle claimed she had won from a field of 1000. By July 1923, the Chicago Tribune was reporting that she had won numerous beauty contests. It was all extraordinary publicity for a 29 year old, although throughout her life she proved adept at handling the press. Another clue to her success might be found in the Niagara’s manifest. Here Suzanne listed Victoria White (Mrs Hyman White), formerly of Melbourne, as her contact in New York. Some of Victoria White’s extended family were immersed in show-business, and included writer/producer Bert Levy, now based in Hollywood, and actor Albert Whelan, working in Britain.

Above: Suzanne Bennett features in advertising for The Dancing Girl, The Philadelphia Inquirer 16 September 1923. Via Newspapers.com

The result of her efforts was a leading role in The Dancing Girl, following the departure of English actress Gilda Leary, to whom she had been understudy. Her career was well and truly launched and for the next six years she appeared in a string of roles in plays. The Broadway Internet data base lists 9 New York performances for her between 1923 and 1929, but contemporary newspapers show there were more – including shows that were toured through cities of the eastern USA. She was well known and extremely busy.

These productions were a mix of melodramas and musical revues. It would be nice to report that the reviews of this young Australian’s performances were all wildly enthusiastic, but the truth is, they were as varied as one would realistically expect. However, the performances did bring her into regular contact with influential and well connected figures in the theatre world. For example she appeared in Port O’London, a three act London underworld play, which also featured Basil Rathbone, who remained a life-long friend. The play ran for only a month in 1926 at Daly’s 63rd Street Theatre, despite very positive reviews.

A more important event occurred in her life in mid 1928, when she met the South Australian explorer Hubert Wilkins, fresh from his groundbreaking cross-arctic flight from Point Barrow, Alaska to Norway. Wilkins had already been given a knighthood by the British Government and on arrival in New York was welcomed as a celebrity. Simon Nasht‘s insightful biography of Wilkins explains the context of their first meeting – Suzanne was asked to attend a New York event to help welcome a fellow Australian. At first, she thought him rude and arrogant, until she realized he was just painfully shy. He came to several of her shows, they danced and had dinners, and they fell in love. The couple married in Ohio in August 1929, but not before Suzanne had suffered a debilitating bout of rheumatic fever. Nasht reminds his readers just how serious the disease was before the development of antibiotics, and it seems likely it also meant the end of Suzanne’s active career on the stage. Hubert was continuously by her side during her recovery.

Suzanne with Hubert about the time of their “quiet” marriage at a registry office in Ohio. Daily News (New York) 31 August, 1929. Via Newspapers.com

Wilkins’ life is very well documented although the importance of his work is only recently being appreciated in his homeland. A short summary of his extraordinary achievements and life-long interest in world-wide meteorological study is provided by the Australian Dictionary of Biography (here). But what role was there for Suzanne Bennett in this relationship? There were endless newspaper accounts reporting the amount of time the couple spent apart – and how she coped. It made for very good copy but the truth is probably found in a comment about the marriage cited by Nasht – that she made in a public address given sometime in 1937. “There are many drawbacks…yet there is always a fascination with the work that my husband has given his whole life to create… If in some small way I can be instrumental in helping him to achieve the ultimate goals, I shall not feel my sacrifice has been in vain.” With similarly inquisitive minds, a shared sense of self reliance and adventure, they were probably more suited to each other than reporters would ever know.

While continuing to sing and sometimes to perform, Suzanne took a great interest in supporting Hubert’s work. She unsuccessfully suggested a role for herself as cook on the submarine Nautilus in 1929. She wrote to, spoke to and perhaps even sang to Hubert via radio, travelled to Norway to meet him in 1936 and joined him on the first trans-Atlantic passenger flight of the airship Hindenburg in May 1936. Suzanne returned twice to Australia, in 1938 and again in 1955. Later in life she took up portrait painting with considerable success, and continued to show a keen interest in things and people Australian. When Indigenous Australian singer Harold Blair visited New York in 1951, she was on hand to greet him.

Above: Now with blonde hair, Lady Suzanne Wilkins in The Australian Women’s Weekly, 17 September 1938. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Lady Suzanne Wilkins died in 1974, at the age of 81, at a nursing home in Anaheim, California. Hubert had died suddenly in November 1958, living just long enough to learn that a US submarine had traversed the Arctic under the ice, as he had once tried to do. In both cases, their ashes were scattered by the US Navy at the North Pole, a testimony to the high esteem with which they were held in their adopted country.

Strangely, this writer cannot find any evidence that Suzanne or her husband ever became US citizens, although Hubert worked for the US government in a variety of capacities during World War II (and Suzanne talked of US citizenship in the late 1930s). While based for much of their lives in New York, it seems telling that in 1939, when she and Hubert had purchased a farm in a secluded corner of north-east Pennsylvania, they chose to call it Walhalla.


Note 1
After they were seen dancing together in New York in October 1924, several US newspapers associated Suzanne Bennett romantically with Edward, Prince of Wales. But this seems to be just another story – there is no other evidence supporting a romantic attachment to Edward.

Nick Murphy
28 August 2020


Further Reading

Film

Text

  • Malcolm Andrews (2011) Hubert who? War hero, polar explorer, spy : the incredible life of unsung adventurer Hubert Wilkins. ABC Books.
  • Stuart E. Jenness (2004) Making of an Explorer George Hubert Wilkins and the Canadian Arctic Expedition, 1913-1916. McGill Queen’s University Press.
  • Simon Nasht (2007) The Last Explorer: Hubert Wilkins Australia’s Unknown Hero. Hachette Australia
  • Lowell Thomas (1961) Sir Hubert Wilkins, His World of Adventure. McGraw Hill.

Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University


The Ohio State University Library holds all of Hubert Wilkins papers, and some created by Suzanne. The Collection inventory, held in the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, can be consulted here.

National Portrait Gallery (UK)
holds five photos of Suzanne Wilkins that can be viewed here.

Walhalla Heritage and Development League Historic Walhalla.
[Contains a large number of resources and links on Walhalla]

National Library of Australia’s Trove
(Note- none of the Walhalla newspapers have been digitized by Trove yet and microfilm cannot currently be consulted)

  • Table Talk (Melb), 7 Oct 1915
  • The Argus (Melb), 6 Oct 1920
  • The Herald (Melb) 12 Aug 1922
  • The Herald (Melb) 19 Aug 1922
  • Newcastle Herald and Minder’s Advocate (NSW) 17 Nov 1922
  • Daily Mercury (Tas) 4 Feb 1937
  • Daily Telegraph (Syd) 4 Feb 1937
  • Sun (Syd) 5 Sept 1938
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 17 Sept 1938
  • Advocate (Tas) 4 Nov 1938
  • Daily Advertiser (Wagga) 5 Aug 1939
  • The Argus (Melb) 19 Sept 1944
  • The Argus (Melb) 1 Jan 1949
  • Daily Telegraph (Syd) 4 Oct 1954
  • The World’s News (Syd) 29 Jan 1955
  • The Argus (Melb), 21 Oct 1955
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 21 Aug 1963 [a Lady Wilkins portrait features in this article on Sumner Locke Elliot.]
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 19 Mar 1975

Newspapers.com

  • The San Francisco Examiner 22 Nov 1922
  • The San Francisco Chronicle 23 Nov 1922
  • Los Angeles Times, 17 December 1922
  • The Californian 22 Dec 1922
  • Chicago Tribune 22 July 1923
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer 16 September 1923
  • Daily News (New York) 18 May 1928
  • Times Union (New York) 31 Aug 1929
  • Dayton Daily News (Ohio) 6 Sept 1936
  • San Francisco Examiner, 11 Dec 1974

Lantern Digital Media Project

  • New York Clipper 11 July 1923 [Review]

New York Public Library FultonSearch

  • Variety, February 18, 1925.[Review]
  • The Billboard Feb 20, 1926 [Review]
  • The New York Sun 5 Aug 1926 [Review]
  • The Brooklyn Standard Union, 24 Dec 1927 [Review]

Original documents sourced from
Birth, Deaths and Marriages Victoria – Australian birth certificates
Familysearch.org – Shipping manifests
Public Records Office Victoria – divorce records


Ted McNamara (1893-1928) What Price Glory!

34 year old Ted McNamara from Australia and 26 year old Sammy Cohen from the USA seemed to be a promising comedy team, who appeared together in Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory in 1925. 3 years later this title was used as a motto on Ted’s grave. Source PicturePlay Magazine, 1927, Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

Teddy enjoying success in the cinema. Motion Picture Mag, July 8, 1927. Via Lantern Digital Media Project

Born September 19, 1893, in a small cottage in the Melbourne suburb of Prahran, Teddy or later just Ted (Edward Joseph) McNamara was the fourth child born to Patrick, a baker, and his wife Eliza nee Butler. He spent a large part of his childhood and adolescence on long overseas tours with Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, developing and refining a reputation as a skilled character comedian. Two older sisters – Alice, born in 1889 and Nellie (Ellen) born in 1891, also went on the stage with Pollard’s.

Following 22 years on stage, Teddy enjoyed a prominent but very short Hollywood career. Over the three years 1925-1928 he appeared in a dozen films, mostly made by the Fox studio, and some of which survive today. His sudden death in early 1928 robbed Hollywood of a future film comedy partnership, as Fox had teamed him several times with Sammy Cohen, another comedian also emerging in Hollywood. The two comedians first appeared together in supporting roles in Raoul Walsh‘s film version of the popular play, What Price Glory in 1925.


Growing up with Pollard’s

Teddy (left) and a partner in the Pollard’s, possibly Ivy Trott, – Oregon Daily Journal 30 Jan 1904 via newspapers.com

Teddy was barely 10 years old when he joined Alice and Nellie on the SS Changsa for his first extended Pollard company tour overseas, in January 1903. Performing through Asia and then onto and across North America, this Pollard troupe did not return to Australia until April 1904. And then, after only three months at home, Teddy joined another Pollard’s tour, departing Australia in July 1904, without his sisters – who stayed in Melbourne, possibly to care for their ailing mother. This tour was away until February 1907, almost 30 months. The rotating program of musical comedies included HMS Pinafore, A Gaiety Girl, The Lady Slavey and the like. And of Teddy we know that while outwardly shy, he was also a joker, popular with his fellow performers and a favourite with the public.

It is tempting to judge this form of apprenticed child employment by 21st century standards – but it has no equivalent today in the economies of Western democracies. More importantly, we might wonder about the impact of these extended performance tours on the development of a young person.

Above: University of Washington, Special Collections. JWS21402. Taken sometime in 1905 or 1906, not all of Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company are in this shipboard photo. Used with permission

In the photograph of the 1904-7 troupe shown above, which can be enlarged at its University of Washington Library home (here), we can recognise Teddy and some of the other Pollard’s performers. Their experiences would end up being very mixed. A smiling 13 year old Teddy McNamara can be seen at the rear, right & holding the pole, behind Harold Fraser (later Hollywood’s Snub Pollard). Willie Thomas leans out to the left at rear. Within a few years Willie had left the stage and become a butcher. The Heintz twins, Johnny and Freddie sitting in the foreground, look bored and disengaged. Freddie later struggled to build a stage career, but Johnny gave it up and became a baker in Australia. Future Hollywood director Alf Goulding, looking very dapper in suit and cap, stands at right; Charles Pollard steadies Daphne Pollard at left. Both Alf and Daphne remained friends and would experience great success on stage and in film later in life. Leah Leichner beams with happiness in the centre front row. Three years later Arthur Pollard would send her home early from his Indian trip. After some more performances in Australia, she disappeared completely from the historical record.

Like many of the Pollard’s performers, Teddy saw his future in the United States and he returned again on a third Pollard’s North American tour departing Australia in July 1907. At the end of this tour, in early 1909, Charles Pollard announced his retirement as manager and came home with most of the company to Australia. But 16 year old Teddy joined a few of the older performers and stayed on in the US for a while. In 1912, Nellie Chester, Charles Pollard’s sister and one time partner, decided to establish a new company, now with adolescents (as required by the new Australian Emigration laws prohibiting children from travelling outside Australia to perform). Both Teddy and Nellie joined up again. Their mother had died in 1904. It seems sister Alice dutifully kept house for her father in Melbourne, and became a seamstress.

Above: Teddy McNamara as a featured player with Nellie Chester’s final Pollard troupe in North America. Note that the word “Lilliputian” was no longer used in the company title.


Pattie (later Patsy) Hill back in Australia. The Call, (WA) 22 July 1927. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

In 1912 there was a new repertoire of musicals to take on tour across Canada and the western USA – including Sergeant Brue, The Toymaker and later the company’s own original, Married by Wireless. The company was active touring North American cities, on and off, until about 1919, by which time the remaining performers had gone their separate ways. Not surprisingly, in the hot-house environment of a touring company, romances between these young Australian actors had blossomed. Star performer Queenie Williams married Ernest, one of company manager Nellie Chester’s sons. And in November 1913, while in Edmonton, Canada, Teddy married fellow Melbourne performer Pattie Hill (Phyllis Esther Pattie Hill). In 1914, a daughter was born of the union. Sadly, neither marriage lasted very long. Pattie and her daughter returned to Melbourne in 1915 – a divorce was granted in Australia ten years later. Pattie insisted Teddy had promised to regularly send money and follow her home when he could finish his commitments, but never did.

In the US and Canada, Teddy’s reputation as a clever comedian grew with these performance tours. A lengthy interview in The San Francisco Call of 1906 revealed Teddy as a shy and reluctant interviewee, alongside Daphne Pollard, the skilled self-promoter. But reviews of his performances were universally enthusiastic and became more effusive over the years. 19 year old Teddy had “few peers as a character comedian” reported The Vancouver Daily World in September 1912. By July 1916, The Victoria Daily Times predicted that he would “soon have his name written among the few strikingly clever comedians.” Indeed, it might really have been so.

By the early 1920s Teddy was based in New York. He was now a headline act and he continued to gain roles in variety and a range of musical comedies across the US. In private life he had a new partner, also an actor, and in 1923, a new baby daughter.

Ted McNamara headlines in “Battling Butler” on the Keith circuit. Evening Star, Washington DC, 27 December, 1925. Via Newspapers.com

To Hollywood

Ted McNamara and Sammy Cohen on the screen – in Fox’s What Price Glory, 1926. The film is still widely available on DVD. Author’s Collection.

Now known as Ted, he was cast as part of the comic relief in Raoul Walsh‘s filmed version of the popular play What Price Glory in early 1926. (His first film had been Shore Leave, a romance). What Price Glory, a First World War Army – buddy film and a vehicle for Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe, was to be Ted’s breakthrough role. Using some easily recognised ethnic stereotypes, his was a supporting role as Irish-American soldier Private Kiper, alongside Sammy Cohen playing the Jewish-American Private Lipinski. The story goes that Walsh had seen Ted on stage in New York and offered him the part. That is likely, as Ted had completed a long run of Battling Butler at the Selwyn and later Times Square Theatre in New York.

Seen today, the male stereotypes in What Price Glory appear well-worn at best, but the film was well received at the time and Ted must have been pleased with his work and the change of direction it represented. In his survey of military comedy films, Hal Erickson notes that Fox promoted the two comedians based on the film’s success, and as a response to MGM’s comedy team of Karl Dane and George K Arthur. The partnership was repeated several times, including in 1927’s The Gay Retreat, another film set against World War One, where Sammy Nosenbloom (Cohan) and Ted McHiggins (Ted) join the army to look after their employer.

Ted McNamara and Sammy Cohen in “Upstream.” Screen grabs from a copy on YouTube.

This writer’s favourite of the surviving Ted McNamara films is John Ford‘s 1927 film Upstream, a copy of which was found in New Zealand in 2009. Set in a theatrical boarding house, Ted McNamara and Sammy Cohen play Callahan and Callahan, two tap dancers, secondary comedic characters. The plot is slight and John Ford purists are unlikely to find much to enjoy in it, but it is one of those silent films that has stood the test of time – with every scene containing some sort of industry in – joke and Ford’s skill as a director already evident. Ted’s skills as a comic are also well displayed here.

Ted McNamara’s final film, Why Sailors Go Wrong, was about two rival cabbies who end up on the tropical island of Pongo-Pongo, again with Sammy Cohen as a foil. The film is a reminder of the very ordinary standard of some film comedies of the day, with its slender plot and “low comedy” situations – including sea-sickness, arranged marriages to unattractive island women, implied nudity and jokes about bird droppings. Within a few years, the Hayes office had been established to rid Hollywood of this sort of unrefined fare.

Ted died in February 1928, before the film was released. The stated cause of death was pneumonia, but as film historian Thomas Reeder notes, film gossip was that alcohol also played a part. Reeder quotes Ted’s contemporary Jimmy Starr as saying “Ted was pretty much of a drunk. Success had merely provided him with more money for booze.” Starr recalled that on a rainy night a drunken Ted had fallen into a gutter. “He just lay there.” Ted’s fondness for drink was also noted by Pattie Hill, who repeatedly mentioned his excessive drinking in her divorce petition.

According to newspaper accounts, Ted McNamara was farewelled at his funeral by many of his old Pollard’s colleagues – including Daphne Pollard, Alf Goulding and Billy Bevan, a testimony to his popularity with the company. What Price Glory was chosen as a motto for Ted’s monument at the Calvary Cemetery in California.

Sammy Cohen continued appearing in films, although he never established an effective comedy partnership again. Pattie Hill became Patsie Hill in Australia, married baritone Vernon Sellars and enjoyed a very long association with Australian theatre and radio.


Note 1
Nellie McNamara had a lengthy stage career of her own. In addition to travelling with Alice on Pollard’s tours in 1901-2 and 1903-4, Nellie also trained as a contralto and performed on the stage in Australia between 1909 and 1912, with significant acclaim, using the stage name Nellie Mond. The Victorian Premier Mr Murray heard her sing in April 1910, and declared he was quite sure that if given the chance, “she would distinguish herself and charm the public.” She did charm the public for several years, but in mid 1912 she threw it all away to join Teddy again, and Nellie Chester’s final Pollard’s tour of the US.

Years later Nellie explained to Everyone’s magazine that while a singer in Melbourne, her teacher had taken her to meet Madame Melba, who “nearly scared me out of my wits. She said ‘The voice is all right but for heaven’s sake, make her get rid of that awful Australian accent.’ ” As well as revealing a sharp wit, this anecdote appears to explain why she did not pursue a career as a classical singer. She married US vaudevillian Don Clinton and in 1920 returned to Australia to perform with him on Harry Clay’s circuit.

Unfortunately, the author has yet to find a clear photo of Nellie.


Nick Murphy
August 2020


Further Reading

Text

  • Gillian Arrighi (2017) The Controversial “Case of the Opera Children in the East”: Political Conflict between Popular Demand for Child Actors and Modernizing Cultural Policy on the Child. “Theatre Journal” No 69, 2017. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Gillian Arrighi, National Library of Australia. Child Stars of the Stage. 
  • Patricia Erens (1984) The Jew in American Cinema. Indiana University Press
  • Hal Erickson (2012) Military Comedy Films: A Critical Survey and Filmography of Hollywood Releases Since 1918. McFarland
  • Thomas Reeder (2017) Mr. Suicide: Henry Pathé Lehrman and The Birth of Silent Comedy. Bear Manor Media

Films

Federal Register of Legislation (Australia)

University of Washington, Special Collections.
Sayre (J. Willis) Collection of Theatrical Photographs.
This invaluable resource contains numerous photos of the Pollard’s Troupes.

The Australian Variety Theatre Archive: Popular Culture Archive, 1850-1930. Clay Djubal and others

Lantern Digital Media Project

  • Fox Folks, 1926.
  • Picture Play, 1927
  • Motion Picture, July 8, 1927

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Age (Melb) 19 April 1910
  • The Prahran Telegraph (Melb) 26 Oct 1912
  • The Age (Melb) 10 Jan 1914
  • The Bulletin (Aust) Vol. 41 No. 2083 (15 Jan 1920)
  • Everyone’s (Aust) 10 March, 1920
  • The Journal (SA) 8 Jan 1921
  • The Telegraph (Qld) 11 May 1926
  • The Call, (WA) 22 July 1927
  • Saturday Journal (SA) 14 Jan, 1928
  • The Daily News (WA) 23 Mar 1928

Newspapers.com

  • The Oregon Daily Journal, 30 Jan 1904.
  • The San Francisco Call, Sun, Mar 4, 1906
  • The Vancouver Daily World, 21 September 1912.
  • Vancouver Daily World,  23 May 1913
  • The Evening Times Star and Alameda Daily Argus (CA), 10 Feb 1914
  • Spokane Chronicle (WA) 18 Sept 1914
  • Marysville Daily Appeal, (CA), 27 Jan, 1916.
  • The Victoria Daily Times, 27 July 1916
  • Spokane Chronicle (WA) 27 Sept 1917
  • Star Tribune (Minneapolis) 21 May 1922
  • Daily News (New York) 15 Sept 1925
  • Evening Star, Washington DC, 27 December, 1925.

The very versatile Margaret Johnston (1914-2002)

Above: Margaret Johnston in a widely distributed publicity photo. Source probably Picture Show magazine c 1947. Photographer unknown. Author’s collection.

The 5 second version
Born in Sydney in 1914, Margaret Johnston enjoyed a long career acting on stage and screen. She appeared in a dozen films, and numerous live and televised plays in a career lasting until 1968. She then spent another thirty years running the very successful Al Parker agency, that she took over from her husband in the 1960s. Helen Mirren recalled that Maggie “approached agenting in a very motherly way. Whether you were eating healthily was as important as what role you were playing. Making money mattered less than making a career.” She died in 2002.

Margaret Annette McCrie Johnston was the second of three daughters born in Sydney, New South Wales to James McCrie Johnston and Emily nee Lothian on 10 August, 1914. The family lived comfortably on Wolseley Rd in Mosman, in a home that enjoyed spectacular views of Sydney Harbour. Scottish born James Johnston was a senior executive of the Vacuum Oil Company in Australia – having joined the company in 1908. Emily Lothian had been born in England.

Above left – Margaret Johnston as a rising British film star and at right, making a cup of tea in her London flat. c 1947. Left; Picture Show Magazine postcard. Right; Film Star Parade Magazine. Author’s Collection.

More imaginative stories seem to surround Margaret Johnston and her career than is the case with most other expatriate Australian actors. Her place and date of birth is a constant source of confusion – but records show she was born in New South Wales on August 10, 1914, spent her childhood and adolescence in Sydney, and attended North Sydney Girl’s High School. (Not born in Coolangatta, Queensland, in 1918 as is sometimes claimed)

Local opportunities for Australian actors were limited in the 1930s – there were few films being made and some venues offering serious theatre (as opposed to Variety) had closed. In an effort to keep live theatre going, in the height of the Depression Dame Doris Fitton had established the Independent Theatre in Sydney. It was here that young Margaret Johnston had her first experience on the stage, appearing in supporting roles in Peter Pan and When Half Gods Go. She also appeared in Cherrie Acres written by Australian playwright, Dorothea Tobin, in December 1934. These small roles earned her an occasional mention in reviews, but not much more. Did she study law in Sydney at the same time, as has been claimed? It seems likely. But by the 1960s, British theatre programs were inclined to claim she was a fully qualified lawyer as well as being an accomplished actor, which seems very unlikely.

Margaret was 21 in March 1935, when she and her older sister Helen arrived in London on the Mongolia. Although one newspaper later presented the move as being “to learn her craft and get rid of her accent,” it probably had as much to do with James’s retirement from Vacuum oil, because the entire family packed up and left Australia for good around this time, moving to Harpenden, north of London. The move was not surprising, as there were no family connections in Australia to keep them, and work opportunities for Margaret and her sisters were much brighter in England.

Chester Chronicle, 24 June 1939 via British Newspaper Archive

Australian writer Hal Porter‘s overview of her work notes that before landing her first London role, she studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and with Stefan Hock (1877-1947), a noted Viennese producer and director and one time associate of fellow Austrian director Max Reinhardt. Hock had arrived as a refugee in England in the mid 1930s, and regularly ran intensive drama schools and weekend programs in association with the British Drama League.

Margaret’s first role on stage was in Frank Harvey’s Saloon Bar at London’s Wyndham Theatre, opening on November 15, 1939. She played two roles in what a reviewer for The Stage described as a clever play of incidentals.“When the landlord unbolts the saloon doors of The Cap and Bells (a pub) he opens his house to a stream of humanity calculated to fire the imagination… Richard Bird … (producer) affords…(his) clever company the opportunity to draw delightfully human and varied cameos of London’s humbler sons and daughters.” It was a good start to a stage career. (When Michael Balcon made a film of the play, he used another expat Australian, Mavis Villiers in her role.)

Margaret’s first film appearance was an uncredited role in the 1941 biography of Benjamin Disraeli, called The Prime Minister, but pursuing a film career seems never to have been her priority. Brian McFarlane‘s survey of the British film industry notes that despite a string of memorable performances”, her regular returns to the stage meant that “her film career never built momentum.” It is also the case that she was selective with film roles and this she repeatedly admitted to journalists, as early as 1945 and 1946, following her success in Sidney Gilliat‘s film The Rake’s Progress with Rex Harrison and Lili Palmer. And looking back during her 1992 interview with McFarlane, she admitted again that she had always preferred the stage.

Thus it was roles on stage that built her reputation as a skilled and versatile actor. John Gielgud directed her in The Last of Summer in 1944, based on Kate O’Brien‘s novel. She reportedly made a lasting impression with her interpretation of the young Angele, who confronts the possessive mother (Fay Compton) in the play’s tumultuous final scene. She also acquitted herself well in an otherwise disappointing revival of The Barretts of Wimpole Street at the Garrick in 1948.

Describing Johnston as a “disciplined and subtle player,” Hal Porter notes that she was often cast in roles where, “beneath… (a) restrained, refined and even diffident manner, a passionate nature dangerously simmers”. This aptly applies to her third film, A Man about the House (1947), where she plays Agnes, one of a pair of sisters who inherit a villa in Italy. Falling in love with the villa and with the resident manager Salvatore (Keiron Moore), she soon starts to feel ill. We, the viewers, realise he is poisoning her to gain control of the property. Salvatore endures a thumping from the sisters very English friend, before he throws himself off a cliff in despair.

Left; Advertisement for A Man About the House. Right; Publicity photo of Margaret Johnston c 1950. Author’s collection.

Portrait of Clare, made in 1950 and directed by Lance Comfort, is a story of a woman’s three marriages told in flashback. The film received indifferent reviews and the expected boost to Margaret’s career did not occur. Years later she recalled briefly walking off the set after a dispute with Comfort. “That’s the Australian coming out in me,” she told interviewer Brian McFarlane. But John Boulting‘s The Magic Box, made with an all star cast to celebrate The Festival of Britain in 1951, demonstrated her fine acting again.

Apparently interested and confident enough to push her boundaries further, in 1954 she learned enough French to take a part in René Clément‘s Monsieur Ripois (also known as Knave of Hearts), an entertaining change from British studio fare of the time. She learnt her lines phonetically, as she couldn’t speak French. A year later she appeared in Touch and Go, an Ealing comedy which concerned an English family considering migrating to Australia. Although, in the end, they decide not to go, for publicity purposes Johnston dutifully appeared at PR events with real British families about to emigrate to Australia.

On stage she appeared to great acclaim playing the highly strung Alma Winemiller, in Tenessee WilliamsSummer and Smoke and from the mid 1950s, in seasons of Shakespeare at Stratford.

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Now don’t be alarmed… says Jim Fletcher (Jack Hawkins), as he explains his idea to emigrate. A scene from Touch and Go. Motion Picture Herald Oct-Dec 1955. Via Lantern Digital Media Project

Margaret Johnston as Anne, shouting in English and French at André (Gérard Philipe). Johnston claimed her English accent in Knave of Hearts was an Australian one and her French very poor due to the non-Parisian tutor she had. Source – Youtube (French version) of the film.

In 1946 Margaret married Al Parker, a Brooklyn-born director 25 years her senior. Parker had directed films in Hollywood in the twenties, including the early colour film The Black Pirate with Douglas Fairbanks. By the mid 1930s he was making crime thrillers for Fox at their British studios. Parker had formidable connections and quickly established his own agency. Fellow agent Richard Gregson suggested Parker’s approach was more casual than later agents, he was a “pre-war” type of agent. In the mid 1960s, having made a few more films, Margaret took over running the agency, as Al’s health failed. (He died in August 1974.) She was known to all her clients as Maggie Parker by this time.

Al Parker Ltd advertises its client list in Variety 15 January, 1947. This is only part of the ad, which also headlined James Mason, Parker’s leading client. It can be read in full here. Via Lantern, The Digital Media Project.

Margaret Johnston finally retired from actively running the Al Parker agency in the mid 1990s. She died on June 29, 2002, aged 88. Obituaries recalled her powerful stage presence. The Guardian wrote of her “ethereal charm” while the Telegraph Group‘s obituary wrote that she could “project emotional intensity and neurotic femininity from a seemingly wraith like personality“. James Mason‘s complimentary description of her as an agent was recalled by The Stage. Before he died in 1984 he had written that she was “a formidable agent in her own right… potential employers knew that they could not expect her to lower her guard and allow them to take advantage of her clients. An infectious serenity pervades her office.”

But the last word should go to the very modest and restrained actor herself. When Brian McFarlane asked her what she thought was the highlight of her film career, she answered “I don’t think I have one, do I?”

Actress Angela Scoular (1945-2011) was Margaret’s niece.


Nick Murphy
July 2020


Further Reading

Films

Most of Margaret Johnston’s films are available on DVD. Several are currently mounted on US social media websites, such as Youtube. These include

Text

  • Brian McFarlane (1997) An Autobiography of British Cinema. Methuen
  • Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film. BFI/Methuen
  • Brian McFarlane (1999) Lance Comfort. Manchester University Press.
  • Helen Mirren (2011) In the Frame. My life in words and pictures. Simon and Schuster
  • Hal Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen . Rigby.
  • Jürgen Seul (2010) Old Shatterhand vor Gericht: Die 100 Prozesse des Schriftstellers Karl May.  Karl-May-Verlag [Old Shatterhand on trial: the 100 lawsuits of the writer Karl May]

The British Newspaper Archive

  • Chester Chronicle, 24 June 1939
  • The Stage, Thursday 23 November 1939
  • The Tatler and Bystander, 15 October 1947
  • Sunday Independent (Dublin) July 7, 2002
  • The Stage, July 11, 2002

Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.

Lantern – The Digital Media Project

  • Variety, 15 January, 1947
  • Motion Picture Herald, Oct-Dec 1955.

National Library of Australia – Trove

  • The Sydney Morning Herald, Wed 19 Dec 1928 P20 NORTH SYDNEY GIRLS’ HIGH SCHOOL.
  • Sydney Mail, Wed 12 Dec 1934 P60 Cherrie Acres
  • Barrier Miner (Broken Hill) Wed 10 Jan 1945, P4 How Sydney Girl became a film Star.
  • The Age (Melbourne) Mon 10 Dec 1945 P5 Australian Girl’s Film Success
  • Sunday Times (WA) Sun 23 Dec 1945, P4 Hollywood offers rejected
  • Sun (Sydney) 24 Feb 1946, P14 Australian Margaret Johnston back on stage.

The Guardian (UK)

  • Eric Shorter, The Guardian 7 Aug 2002 Obituary Stage and Screen actress whose hallmark was neurotic power.

Newspapers.com

  • The Guardian 9 Jun 1944, Page 6

Trilby Clark (1896-1983) goes to Hollywood

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

The 5 second version

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


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

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

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

21 year old Trilby Clark about to appear with Ada Reeve. Sunday Times (Sydney) 16 December 1917. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

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

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

Daily News, via Newspapers.com

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

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

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

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

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

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



No sign of an Australian accent here! Trilby Clark in Harmony Heaven (1930) as Lady Violet. The film was supposedly also made in colour, although only a black and white version survives now. Available as part of the British Musicals series from Network.


Calgary Herald, 21 June 1932, via Newspapers.com

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

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

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

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

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


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

Nick Murphy
July 2020


Further Reading

Films

Text

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

State Library of Victoria

National Library of Australia’s Trove

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

Newspapers.com

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

Lantern Digital Media Project

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

Hollywood imagines – Australians at war

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

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


The Man from Down Under, 1943

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Desert Rats, 1953

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Rat Patrol, 1966-1968

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nick Murphy
July 2020


Further Reading

Text

Web

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

Bushrangers in slouch hats – Hollywood imagines Australia

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

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


The Bushranger, 1928

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


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

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

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


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

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


A Final Reckoning, 1929

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


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


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

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

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

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


Captain Fury, 1939

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Further Reading

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

Nick Murphy
June 2020

Bushranging with Stingaree – Hollywood imagines Australia

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


Stingaree 1915 and The Further Adventures of Stingaree 1917

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Stingaree 1934

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Further Reading

Text

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

Online

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

Lantern, Digital Media Project

National Library of Australia’s Trove

Newspapers.com

  • The Sacremento Bee, 23 December 1905

Nick Murphy
June 2020

Australia imagined – by the Third Reich

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


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


Zu Neuen Ufern (To New Shores) 1937

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


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

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

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

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


Das Gewehr über (Shoulder Arms) 1939

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

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

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

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

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


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


Films

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

Further Reading

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

Nick Murphy
June 2020