Mavis Villiers (1909 – 1976) from Katoomba to the West End

Above: Screen grab of a very young Mavis Villiers in The Bum’s Rush (1927), a Snub Pollard comedy released by the Weiss Brothers. Via Cult Cinema Classics Channel (follow this link to watch the film).

 
Mavis on stage in Frankie and Johnnie 1950The 5 second version
Australian born Mavis Villiers became an actor of increasing stature on the British stage and screen after World War 2. She was often described as ‘American-born’ in later years – as she had moved there in 1921 and spent 12 years in Hollywood before moving on to Britain in 1933. Her legacy today remains in much admired and easily accessible films such as Suddenly Last Summer (1959), Victim (1961), The Boys (1962) and No Sex Please – We’re British (1973). She also performed on stage, radio, and played numerous guest roles on TV in the 50s and 60s. Film historian Brian McFarlane has described her speciality as “enjoyably blousy blondes” – the cockney in the bar, American women (often tourists in Britain), or otherwise “showy types”. She continued to be very active until her early death in 1976. 
Her brother Cecil Cooney (1906-1993) had a very long career as a camera operator and  cinematographer in the US and Britain.
Left: Mavis in a TV version of the play Frankie and Johnny in 1950. She was injured when her dress caught fire during this production. The Sketch, 2 August 1950. P30. Copyright held by the Illustrated London News Group. Via the British Library’s Newspaper Archive.

The Cooney family in Australia

In April 1921, John and Clara Cooney packed up and left Australia for Los Angeles, taking their two young children Cecil (Aged 14) and Mavis (aged 11) with them. While most Australians embarking on an acting career overseas tended to leave with the idea of returning home as a distinct possibility, and only occasionally did an entire family emigrate, the Cooney’s move was apparently intended as a permanent one from the very start. There was no “testing the waters” first as Mary Maguire‘s family did in the 1930s. The Cooney family’s migration seems to have been inspired by Mavis’s success as a budding actress and a belief that the very young girl could go places.

Mavis had been born in Sydney in 1909, (see Note 1 regarding her birth) but by 1915 the family were settled in the Blue Mountains town of Katoomba. During his life John Cooney turned his hand to many things, but at the time of Mavis’ birth was listed in directories as a “Milk vendor”, or dairy owner, while Clara managed a Katoomba retail outlet, akin to an modern Australian “Milk Bar”, as shown at left below:


While the Cooneys established their Katoomba businesses, they also encouraged their daughter as a performer. Eight year old Mavis can be found in contemporary Australian newspapers performing under the tutelage of local drama teacher Richard Allen and later with well known Sydney elocutionist Lawrence Campbell. In 1921 she was reputedly a finalist in a “Brains and Beauty” competition arranged by a Sydney magazine. However we can also trace another important event in Mavis’ development as an actor. In 1919, Claude Flemming, an Australian actor and director (£500 Reward and The Lure of the Bush in 1918) ran a “Making Movies” matinee show for a week at Sydney’s Tivoli theatre. The stage was made up as a studio, and “aspirants took… different parts in The Officer’s Mess.” Flemming also introduced Little Mavis Cooney, commenting to the audience on her “perfect picture face for expressions in film work” and as part of the program she recited for the crowd. In addition to all of Mavis’ successes in eisteddfods and competitions, this experience probably had a significant impact on the Cooney seniors – conjuring up visions of fame and fortune for their daughter in the exciting new world of movies.

If The Officer’s Mess was ever filmed, assembled and shown to its participants, it does not survive today. However, film historian Graham Shirley has noted that similar movies were made by itinerant filmmakers, like The Adventures of Dot in the later 1920s. These movies used local talent, were usually filmed on the stage of a hastily converted cinema and were an occasional feature in Australian town life until the arrival of sound. They were popular enough that at least four versions of Dot survive in Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive.

Whether or not this experience was as decisive as this writer has suggested, the Cooney family departed for the USA in April 1921 on the SS Niagara and the ship’s manifest gives every indication it was intended as a one-way trip. There was no “in transit” listed, no US contacts or planned address yet, in their stated final destination, Los Angeles. Years later, Mavis told a journalist that she could still remember distinctly her last view of Australia – Sydney harbour – on the voyage to North America (Daily News 24/7/66:357).

Finding her place in California


In Los Angeles, Mavis (and possibly Cecil too) joined Frank Egan‘s dramatic school for several years. Mavis also had a major breakthrough, when Mary Pickford apparently helped her gain small parts in her films Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921) and Tess of the Storm Country (1922). However, while the public domain copies of these films are easily accessible today, it is very difficult to identify young Mavis amongst the children in either film, particularly since Pickford seems to have encouraged a number of youngsters by giving them small parts.

Between 1926 and 1933, newspapers often noted Mavis performing at the Pasadena Community Playhouse or the Beverley Hills Community Playhouse, energetic and exciting places for young actors to gain valuable experience.

Above: Left – Mavis with her trademark dimples in a 1926 competition. Los Angeles Evening Express, 13 Apr 1926, P18. Right – Mavis on stage in Hay Fever, at the Pasadena Community Playhouse in 1926. Pasedena Post, 28 Apr 1926, P2, via Newspapers.com

She was obviously keen to try her luck with the studios. Aged just 16, she was listed in a Hollywood casting directory, and in 1927 – now calling herself Mavis Villiers, she appeared in a leading female role opposite comedian Snub Pollard, in The Bum’s Rush (1927). Perhaps Pollard was giving a fellow Australian a break.

Unfortunately, as has repeatedly occurred with details from Hollywood’s booming 1920s, records of at least some of film appearances may have been lost. The additional complication in researching Mavis’s Hollywood years is that like many actors, over time she creatively edited her biography so as to maintain a positive profile – which occasionally included untruths about her age.

However, one real hitherto uncredited film for Mavis was The Dance of Life, (1929) Paramount’s adaptation of the popular play Burlesque, where she seems to briefly appear 60 minutes into the film in a dance number – although again, with the poor quality of surviving film – which was perhaps later edited down for TV – it is difficult to be certain one is looking at the right dancer. In later years, Mavis also claimed producer Jesse J Goldberg hired her for a series of Westerns in the late 20s. (Daily News 24/7/66:357) However, this writer has not be able to identify these films.

Mavis Villiers (right) with Marguerite Andrus (left) as “Hawaiian dancers” in Burlesque aka The Dance of Life,(1929). Picture Play Magazine (August 1929) P60, via Lantern, the Media History Digital Library.

Unfortunately her home life was tumultous in the later 1920s. John and Clara divorced in Los Angeles in 1929 – the strain of moving and remaking themselves in a new country must have been considerable. Living on his own by the time of the 1930 US census, the ever adaptable John Cooney was employed as a film studio technician. The same census shows Mavis living with Clara and Cecil – Cecil now established as a studio camera assistant. In the same year, Mavis appeared in one more credited supporting role in a US film – A Lady’s Morals, an early Hollywood take on the life of Jenny Lind.

In late 1933 Mavis, her mother and Cecil, and Cecil’s new wife Andree Louise, packed up and departed for Britain – and again it was intended as a permanent move. The type of roles Mavis was finding in Hollywood and her career prospects must have been a part of the motivation to move. There are several newspaper references to Mavis working as an extra and standing-in for Wynne Gibson in the early 1930s, which would not have been satisfying for the aspirational Mavis. Interviewed in 1966 by Robert Wahls of the New York Daily News, she may have revealed another, more personal reason for the move. “At 18 I didn’t eat for a month, just water and lettuce leaves. I had a nervous breakdown and we went to England” (Daily News 24/7/66:357). Her experience was so similar to that of other very young Australians working in Hollywood a few years later – including Mary Maguire and Constance Worth, both of whom were reported to have suffered breakdowns.

In England – building a career

Above: Mavis Villiers in 1941 Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 5 August 1941, P2. Via the British Library Newspaper Archive.

Mavis was 24 when she arrived in England and British voter rolls reveal that by 1934 she was living in West London, near Ealing Studios, with Clara, Cecil and Andree Louise.

Her first British film was a supporting role in the Claude Dampier – June Clyde comedy King of the Castle released in early 1936, a film that may no longer exist and is certainly no longer available, as is the case with so many British “quota quickies” of the 1930s. By 1938, she had perhaps half a dozen B-films under her belt (including the crime drama Double Alibi with fellow Australian John Warwick). By 1940, she had appeared in two films that solidly established her credentials as a wholesome young Englishwoman – but one of the masses, rather than the gentry. An Englishman’s Home (1939) was based on a stage play about an invasion of England, or more specifically the comfortable middle class home of the Brown family, by jackbooted, bucket-helmeted soldiers from some “unnamed” European power. The film also featured fellow Australian Mary Maguire as Betty Brown, Mavis playing Dolly Brown, her sister. John Wood, another Australian also appeared in the film. Made before Britain’s declaration of war with Germany, but released after it, this film appears to have been locked up ever since, although it was apparently popular enough at the time.

Above: Left – Invading soldiers looking suspiciously like Germans, but not so named, in An Englishman’s Home. Right – Mavis sitting opposite fellow Australian Mary Maguire at the dinner table. These stills from the film appeared in The Sketch, 4 October 1939. Copyright Illustrated London News Group. Via British Library’s Newspaper Archive.

Saloon Bar, made at Ealing Studios in 1940, heralded her first appearance – of many – as a cockney woman drinking or serving in a bar. Also based on a stage play, the comedy-thriller was directed by Walter Forde for Michael Balcon. It is an implausible but entertaining plot where a crime is solved by pub regulars just before an innocent man is executed – the film is well shot, the dialogue is well written and the interplay of characters entertaining in the best Ealing style.

Above left and right: Mavis in Saloon Bar (1940) This film is now in the public domain and can be watched here at The Internet Archive.

In addition to uncredited roles in wartime morale-boosting films, she featured in colourful glamour roles in productions with Britain’s leading players, including George Formby in South American George (1941) and Vera Lynn in One Exciting Night (1944). But tellingly, she also developed an interest in the legitimate stage – for example performing on a successful tour around England in Noel Coward’s Private Lives during the war.

The war years brought triumphs and tragedies for Mavis, as it did for so many. She claimed that she spent much of the Second World War living in her London apartment, overlooking Hyde Park. Her home miraculously escaped damage during the intensive bombing of London. In June 1945 she married 27 year old Lieutenant Donald Everett Miller, a US officer she had met several years before when he served with an RAF Eagle Squadron (he was later with the USAAF). Miller had been shot down and had became a POW – so he was only very recently released when they married. Clara and Cecil were the witnesses, confirming again what a close family they were. Tragically Miller was critically injured in a car accident in the US in late March 1946. Mavis, working in England, flew to the US as quickly as she could, but he had died before she arrived.

Above: Mavis at her most glamorous wartime best. Left – backlit and wearing a diaphanous nightdress, with George Formby in South American George (1941) and right – in One Exciting Night, while watching star Vera Lynn, off camera (1944). Screengrabs from copies in the author’s collection

Mavis rarely commented on her career, and particularly not on the challenge of finding the balance between taking the limited roles for women on the post-war British screen – accepting character roles, and taking the more complex roles sometimes found on stage. Her Australian contemporaries Betty McDowall and Glen Alyn also found this a challenge – in 1965 McDowall recalled that finding work in London was “tough as hell.”

Other actors in the post war period also went on the record about the increasing lack of quality roles for women in British films. In her survey of British cinema of the fifties (2000), Christine Geraghty quotes actor Glynis Johns, who complained that “actresses take second place to actors, ships and machines” (Picturegoer 19 March 1955) – a comment on the narrow scope of British films as well as the limited roles for women. Yet, there were character roles for women. And as Brian McFarlane has noted, Mavis was “at her most vivid as the pub habitué in the suspense film Victim” (1961). In fact, the role of the woman in the pub became one of her very familiar character “types” on the screen.

Above: Screengrabs of Mavis in the 1950s. Left – Mavis in an uncredited role but an extraordinary bar room closeup in Basil Dearden’s Pool of London (1951). Centre – As Gladys the bar maid in Don Chaffey’s Time is My Enemy (1953). Right – As Madge in Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961). Screengrabs in the author’s collection.

In the late 1930s, Mavis was well enough established to be chosen to broaden the appeal of the early TV series In Your Garden, with the popular gardening expert Cecil Middleton, although sadly no footage of this seems to survive. We can conclude that when she could, she sought out work that was interesting and challenging. For example, with other actors of note like Hattie Jacques, she appeared in episodes of Walter and Connie Reporting – quirky English language short films made for TV by the BBC/British Council in the mid 1960s – a rare episode (without Mavis) can be seen here.

Even in 1954, newspapers were able to acknowledge the narrowness of roles for women on the screen. Writing of an episode of BBC Sunday Night Theatre, this paper reported that Mavis had “another dumb-blonde” role:

Above: Evening Standard, 8 May 1954, P8, Via Newspapers.com

Surviving examples of her commercial TV appearances are also hard to find although she appeared as a guest in numerous programs in the 1950s and 60s. Unfortunately most either no longer exist or are stored away in vaults. However a few rare examples are currently available. She can be seen here in a guest role in an episode of the 1963 US sitcom Harry’s Girls, the comic adventures of three female performers and their manager, travelling around Europe. Mavis can also be seen in an few episodes of the 1970 British TV sitcom From a Bird’s Eye View – an effort to appeal to US and UK TV audiences simultaneously, with a series about two female airline stewards – one British and one American. Mavis played Peggy, the airline’s hairdresser, in an episode which can be seen here.

In addition to appearances in the booming TV industry, Mavis’s postwar career included regular performances on radio, although these are even harder to trace than her screen work. In 1945 she was playing on radio beside Richard Green, in The Way of Thoroughbreds. Several years later she appeared with comedians Naughton Wayne and Basil Radford, and fellow Australian Judy Kelly, in the radio program Traveller’s Joy. An example of her radio work survives from 1959, when she appeared in an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour with Tony Hancock, Sid James and fellow Australian Bill Kerr. The episode – “Sid’s Mystery Tours” can be heard here – Mavis playing an American tourist and demonstrating her considerable ability as a comedienne.

Above: Mavis rehearsing Of Mice and Men for radio in 1956, with Alan Tilvern and Robert Beatty. Coventry Evening Telegraph, 2 November 1956. Via British Library Newspaper Archive.

While her supporting roles on screen are a surviving legacy (the IMDB lists about 80 known screen appearances) and several later films are highly regarded, it was Mavis’s stage performances in the 1950s and 60s that were often picked out for lengthy praise. As well as appearing in large scale stage productions, her experiences included niche theatre – such as Nuts in May, in 1949, at the tiny 98 seat Torch Theatre off Knightsbridge and Uncertain Joy in 1953, at the modest 480 seat Q Theatre (near Kew Bridge).

Mavis also appeared in popular musical comedies at the same time. In 1957, she was in the long London run of Damn Yankees at the Coliseum. In 1966, she joined a production of Irish playwright Brien Fiels’ Philadelphia Here I come! that ran for almost a year in New York. She played the comic role of Auntie Lizzie Sweeny to great acclaim, and revisited the role several times, including in a film version made shortly before her death.

Above: The American Dream, running at the Royal Court Theatre in late 1961 with Mavis (as Mommy, at right) again playing a middle aged American woman. Left to right – Jeanne Watts (as Mrs Barker), Robert Ayres (as Daddy). The Sphere, Nov 4, 1961, P199. Copyright Illustrated London News Group. Via British Library’s Newspaper Archive.

Reviewing the London opening of Horton Foote‘s, The Trip to the Bountiful in 1956, London’s The Stage newspaper gave Mavis Villiers a rave review for “a performance of outstanding realism, integrity and power” (The Stage 2/8/56:8). The reviewer hoped she would win some type of award for best British performance of the year. In 1961, The Stage again enthused about her performance in Noël Coward‘s final musical Sail Away, at the Savoy. Mavis’s characterisation and timing as a possessive American mother Mrs Van Mier was reportedly brilliant, endowing the role with “life and humanity,” making it a performance to be remembered (The Stage 28/6/62:13). In her middle age by the time of these reviews, Mavis Villiers must have been pleased with the reception.

After Don Miller’s death she did not remarry. Her mother Clara lived with her until her death in 1967. Sadly a degree of unhappiness is suggested by Mavis’s early death at her home in Paddington, London, in February 1976. Alcoholism had made her more vulnerable to the pneumonia that caused her death, aged only in her late 60s.

Cecil’s later career

Howard Maxwell’s 2019 survey of Hammer films provides one of the most comprehensive snapshots of Cecil Cooney’s career, which started in the US in 1926, working as an assistant camera operator on the Lon Chaney vehicle Tell it to the Marines. His fifty-four year career as a camera operator and later cinematographer in the UK began with the rather silly film The Secret of the Loch in 1934, which starred another Australian, Nancy O’Neil. He progressed to work on numerous feature films, shorts and TV programs – many of these are undocumented, such as his involvement in Circle of Deception (1960) shown below. He retired in 1980, and died in England in 1993.

Above: Cecil Cooney (left) behind the camera and partly obscured, with Producer Tom Morahan, Director of Photography Gordon Dines, Editor Gordon Pilkington and Assistant Director David Tringham – on the set of Circle of Deception (1960). Kinematograph Weekly, 7 July 1960, P17. Via the British Library Newspaper Archive

Note 1 Mavis Cooney’s date of birth.

While there is a unequivocal Queensland birth certificate for her brother Randolph Cecil Cooney, there is some uncertainty around Mavis’ Sydney birth. This has arisen because, unusually, she appears to have been unnamed on her NSW birth certificate (8502/1910), which gives a birthdate of 10 December 1909. The same document correctly identifies her parents and her older brother. The date used on other documents relating to Mavis’s birth is also 10 December (but on her death certificate the year 1911 is incorrectly listed).


Nick Murphy
December 2021


References

Special Thanks

  • John Cooney, Mavis’s cousin, for his comments.

Text

  • Cyrus Andrews (Ed)(1947) Radio’s Who’s Who. Pendulum Publications, London
  • Anon. (1929) Picture Play Magazine. August 1929, P60. Street & Smith, New York.
  • Anon. Standard Casting Directory (Feb-Jul 1925), Vol 3, Standard Casting, New York & Hollywood
  • Christine Geraghty (2000) British Cinema in the Fifties. Gender, Genre and the ‘New Look’. Routledge
  • Howard Maxford (2019) Hammer Complete: The Films, the Personnel, the Company. McFarland Publishers
  • Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film. BFI/Methuen
  • Scott Palmer (1988) A who’s who of Australian and New Zealand film actors. Scarecrow Press
  • Graham Shirley (2019),“Home Talent: Australia’s Itinerant Filmmakers” in History, December 2019, No 142. Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society
  • Frank Van Straten (2003) Tivoli. Thomas Lothian
  • J P Wearing (2014) The London Stage, 1950-1959. A Calendar of Plays and Players. Rowman and Littlefield.

Films

New South Wales Births Deaths & Marriages

  • Birth certificate for unnamed female born 10 December 1909, to John Cooney and Clara nee Smythe. Document 8502/1910

HM Passport Office, General Register Office (UK)

  • Death Certificate for Mavis Clare Miller died 23 Feb 1976.

Websites

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Blue Mountain Echo (NSW), 24 December 1915, P6.
  • The Sun (Syd), 7 Sept 1919, P22
  • Sunday Times (Syd) 14 Sept 1919, P11
  • The Blue Mountain Echo (NSW) 19 Sept 1919, P3
  • The Blue Mountain Echo (NSW)10 Oct 1919, P3
  • Warwick Daily News (Qld) 24 Jan 1923, P6
  • The Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate (NSW) 5 Jan 1932, P1
  • The Sun (Syd) 11 Oct 1945, P9
  • The Canberra Times 24 Apr 1965 P9

Newspapers.com

  • Los Angeles Evening Express, 13 April 1926, P18
  • Los Angeles Evening Citizen News (Hollywood) 16 Dec 1926, P5
  • The Indianapolis Star, 23 Oct 1932, P43
  • Dixon Evening News (Illinois) 7 Sept 1945, P3
  • The San Francisco Examiner 6 April 1946 P9
  • The Brooklyn Daily Eagle 7 April 1946, P3

British Newspaper Archive

  • Fleetwood Chronicle 21 Aug 1936, P7
  • Diss Express 11 Feb 1938, P5
  • Kinematograph Weekly 15 Sept 1938, P34
  • Hendon & Finchley Times 4 August 1939, P5
  • Dundee Evening Telegraph 24 June 1939 P3
  • The Sketch, 4 October 1939 P25
  • Blyth News 19 Dec 1940, P6
  • Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail 5 August 1941, P2
  • Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail 15 August 1941 P5
  • Kinematograph Weekly – Thursday 28 August 1941, P18
  • The Stage 16 August 1945
  • The Stage 16 December 1948, P7
  • The Sketch, 2 Aug 1950, P30
  • Evening Standard, 8 May 1954, P8
  • The Stage 2 August 1956, P8
  • Coventry Evening Telegraph, 2 Nov 1956
  • The Sphere, 4 Nov 1961, P199
  • The Stage 28 June 1962, P13
  • Kinematograph Weekly 7 July 1960, P17
  • The Stage 14 October 1974, P28
  • The Stage 11 March 1976, P25

Lantern, The Digital Media Project

  • Anon. Standard Casting Directory (Feb-Jul 1925)
  • Picture Play Magazine (August 1929) P60.
  • Hollywood Filmograph (Jan-Dec 1933)
  • Radio Who’s Who, 1947

Ancestry and Family Search

  • US census returns and passenger manifests
  • UK census returns and Electoral rolls

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Charles Bennett (1891-1943) – From Pollards to ‘Citizen Kane’

Above: Charles Bennett in his uncredited role as the song and dance man, in Citizen Kane (1941). An RKO Radio Pictures, publicity still, photographer Alexander Kahle. Via Wikimedia Commons. [The scene in question is about 40 minutes into the film]

Charles as a tenor 1916
The 5 second version
There are few actors whose lives and careers are as muddled up in online accounts as Charles Bennett (1891-1943). He is regularly confused with others of the same name (see Note 1 below).
Charles Bennett was born in New Zealand, his wife Dottie Brown (1890-1981) in Australia and their son Mickey Bennett (1915-1950) in Canada. This thoroughly imperial family owed their presence in North America to Pollard’s Opera Company, an Australian theatrical institution of young touring actors. Like many of the Pollards performers, Charles and Dottie had stayed on in the US. Dottie retired from the stage in the 1920s. Charles Bennett continued to appear in light opera, vaudeville and then early sound films, although in the latter he was usually consigned to minor and uncredited roles. Dottie and Charles’ son Mickey became a child star of note in the 1920s and 30s. Charles’s brother Norman Bennett (1903-1984) also worked in the US film industry. 
At left: 25 year old Charles Bennett while performing with “The Bostonians” at the Saskatoon Empire Theatre, The Star-Phoenix (Saskatchewan, Canada) 22 Nov 1916, P5, via newspapers.com

Above: The USA was one of the first nations to introduce detailed recordkeeping and the use of photographs for entry and naturalisation. These photos are taken from separate US naturalisation applications for Charles Bennett (1933), his brother Norman (1939), and son Mickey Bennett (1937- by then an adult) The corresponding photo for Dottie Brown seems to be missing. Via US National Archives, via ancestry.com and Family Search.

Charles Joseph Bennett was born in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1891, to Charles Bennett a jeweller- watchmaker, and his wife Louisa nee Potter. In 1892, the Bennetts and their three children relocated to Melbourne. A few years later they settled down at 69 Elm Street Northcote, then a suburb on Melbourne’s northern fringe. The family lived there for thirty years and three more children were born in Melbourne. There is evidence that the Bennett family fostered musical interests amongst their children, and in time, Charles came to prominence as a singer, elocutionist and comic while touring with several concert companies in eastern Australia in 1911-12. In the 1920s, Charles’ youngest brother Norman also developed a reputation as a singer.

With the Pollards

In mid 1912, Charles signed up with Nellie Chester for what would be the final Pollards Juvenile Opera performance tour of North America. Following the Pollards disastrous tour of India in 1909, Australian labour laws now restricted children from performing overseas and thus most of the performers were in their late teens or early twenties (and therefore could no longer called “Lilliputians”). Some in the company were well established Pollard performers who had travelled to North America before – including Ted and Nellie McNamara, Ethel Naylor and “Dottie” Brown.

Dottie Brown had been born Ellen (or Eileen) Brown in Melbourne in 1890, and had performed with Pollards and other juvenile groups for almost ten years, first travelling with the company on one of their lengthy tours in 1903. Compared to Charles, her profile is more typical of the young people from working class inner Melbourne who joined the company. Parents of Pollard performers were usually in unskilled jobs, and were apparently more accepting of their child’s lengthy absence on extended overseas tours. Dottie’s father was a cab driver, but in later years a painter and decorator.

Above: “Spokane Chronicle”. 23 December 1913. Some of the performers in Nellie Chester’s final Pollard’s troupe. . Via Newspapers.com.

In the grainy photo above, Nellie Chester, dressed in black, stands at the centre rear, while standing beside her is the troupe’s leading comic performer Ted McNamara. Charles Bennett may be the hatted man, at rear on the right. Unfortunately Dottie cannot be identified with confidence. She was sometimes credited as the troupe’s “Dance Mistress” although records show she also performed. Following Pollards established practices, the troupe travelling across towns and cities in Canada and the US, their repertoire including popular musicals – The MikadoThe Belle of New York, Sergeant Brue, The Toy Maker and La Belle Butterfly. Welcomed by local press who already knew the Pollards as a “first class road company”, they were a success everywhere they went.

A number of the Pollard performers on this tour married – including Dottie and Charles in late 1914. At about the same time, the couple left Pollards. This was not unusual, and the Pollards Juvenile troupe continually changed composition as it toured North America through to its eventual demise in 1919. However in February 1915 Charles took Pollards to court over two weeks wages – reported to be $40, and the cost of the fare back to Australia – $105.00, as allowed in his original Australian contract. The matter was settled, and Charles was forced to admit he didn’t want to return to Australia.

Above; While Charles and Dottie were performing in North America during World War One, these were the family homes in Australia – left: The Brown home at No 96 Carlton Street, Carlton, overlooking Carlton Gardens and right, the Bennett family home at No 69 Elm Street, Northcote – where the Bennetts lived for about thirty years.

Charles and Dottie after Pollards

It was while living in Victoria, British Columbia in 1915 that a son, Charles John Berkley (Mickey) Bennett was born. Charles had joined Victoria’s Allen Players at the time. In late 1916, Charles, Dottie and Ethel Naylor, another ex-Pollard performer, joined The Bostonians, another well established touring company specialising in musical comedies, like The Rose of Honolulu. Their move was again greeted with enthusiastic publicity – doubtless generated by the company itself. Newspapers reported that Charles was the only leading male in the company and “a tenor of rare ability”. Dottie had once been the “premier danseuse” of Australia it was (incorrectly) claimed.

Above: Charles Bennett with Iva Mitchell appearing for the Bostonians. Independent-Observer (Montana) 24 May 1917, P8. Via newspapers.com

On and off between 1918 and 1923 – Charles Bennett featured with Earl Christie in the vaudeville turn Two Boys from Virginia, also known as Two Southern Gentlemen in some US states. He can be found performing in vaudeville, with less and less frequency, through to the late 1920s. Of note also, was his reputation as a singer on radio. Unfortunately Dottie Brown’s later career is much more difficult to trace. She may have performed on tour in the US as late as the mid 1920s, although there were more than a few dancers called Dottie Brown or Dottie Bennett at work in variety at the time. (See Note 2 regarding Charles Bennett on Broadway)

Above: Charles Bennett working with Earl Christie in Two Boys from Virginia in a Decatur, Illinois vaudeville lineup in 1918. Herald and Review (Illinois) 21 Jan 1918, P10 via Newspapers.com

Mickey the child star

We know that Charles and Dottie decided to include their young son in their theatre life at a young age, as “Mickey” (as he was already nicknamed), was included in a stage performance of Chu Chin Chow in Victoria BC, in late 1920. He was 5 years old at the time. It has also been suggested that he appeared soon after in a small role in the film Cappy Ricks (1921), but as only part of this has survived, it is impossible to verify.

The great critical and financial success of Charlie Chaplin‘s The Kid (1921), which also featured 7 year old Jackie Coogan, inspired other studios to make films featuring real child actors, as opposed to adults (like Mary Pickford) pretending to be children. Mickey was one of a number of child stars who emerged in the 1920s, in films that featured them as scamps, vagabonds and members of cheeky children’s gangs. The following puff-piece illustrates the efforts studios were going to in the wake of Chaplin’s success with The Kid. Here, a Photoplay article inferred that Mickey, a featured player in Paramount’s Big Brother (1923), really was a tough street kid, who wouldn’t “work with them sissies.” Readers were also assured he was “entirely different from Jackie Coogan”. Allan Dwan was reported to have said Mickey was the “most remarkably quick and responsive child actor he has ever worked with.”


Above: Screen grabs of Mickey Bennett in two comedies; left – No Father to Guide Him, with Charley Chase (1925), right – It’s the Old Army Game with WC Fields (1926). Via copies on youtube.

The problem for child stars, even for the very successful Jackie Coogan, is that they soon ceased to be children. Mickey Bennett featured in several memorable roles as he grew into his early teens, appearing in the musical Swing High (1930) and the James Cagney reform-school drama The Mayor of Hell (1933), his last role of substance. He was 18 years old by this time.

However, by 1935 he was usually consigned to very minor roles and as his IMDB credit list shows, there were an increasing number of uncredited “bellhop” parts. He had well and truly lost his currency.

In 1936 he turned to directing, working successfully for Universal as a Second Unit and Assistant Director – on films including Max Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman (1947) and the Audie Murphy western Sierra (1950), directed by Alfred E Green. Unfortunately, only some of this work is documented.

Charles’ screen career

There is also difficulty in documenting accurately the film parts played by Charles Bennett, except in his case, this is also because his name was shared with several other people in the entertainment industry. (See note 1 below).

The only solution to this today is to watch all of the available films credited to actors called Charles Bennett and to compare their appearance, an inexact activity at best. Doing this suggests Charles’ first noticeable roles in film were in the early 1930s, although it is likely that there are other films we do not know of. Overwhelmingly, his appearances were passing roles – sometimes as a featured extra, often playing a cockney type, as so many Australians found themselves doing during Hollywood’s golden age. By far the clearest footage of Charles Bennett in any of his films found thus far, is his appearance as the telegraph officer in Gunga Din (1939). Charles appears in closeup, and his expression freezes as he realises why the morse code message has stopped.

Above: Screen grab of Charles Bennett as the shocked telegraph operator in Gunga Din (1939). Author’s collection. The film is widely available on DVD.
Above: Screen grab of Charles Bennett as a singer in the pub, in Mysterious Mr Moto (1938). In addition to leading actor Mary Maguire, a number of other Australian-born extras appeared in this film – Billy Bevan, Frank Hagney, Harry Allen, Jack Deery, Sam Harris, Dick Rush and Clyde Cook, and New Zealand-born actor May Beatty, all of them playing cockneys. Via copy on youtube.

This audio clip from the scene above in Mysterious Mr Moto (1938) is the only example the author could find of Charles Bennett singing, on this occasion in his best cockney accent. Via copy on youtube

There appear to have been at least two dozen films in which Charles Bennett was an extra. Sadly, another reason for the poor documentation of the careers of Charles Bennett and his son Mickey is that they both died unexpectedly in mid-career. Charles Bennett died suddenly in early 1943, as a result of a stroke, working almost to the very end. Mickey also died very suddenly as a result of a heart attack – in September 1950. He left a wife and young daughter – he was only 35 years old.

Norman Bennett goes to Hollywood

In October 1928, 25 year old Norman Bennett – the youngest of the Bennett family, decided to leave the comfort of the home at 69 Elm Street, Northcote, to pursue his musical interests in the United States. A well known tenor in Australia, his departure was publicly acknowledged by farewell concerts. Percy Grainger had apparently agreed to watch over his career and Norman’s stated intention was to study in Chicago. Within a few years he was appearing regularly on radio in the US. But Norman soon ended up in California and by 1938 Australian newspapers reported that he was music director at RKO, and he is credited with arranging and composing music for films well into the 1950s. Norman also appears to have had a small part in RKOs Flying Down to Rio (1933). A online commercial image archive holds a photo that shows Norman, credited as a music advisor, with Orson Wells on the set of Citizen Kane.

Above: Mickey Bennett meeting his Australian uncle Norman. The Herald (Melb) 6 June 1929, P35. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

After a long career in California, Norman returned to Australia, retiring to Sandringham, a southern suburb of Melbourne, where he died in 1984. Dottie had stayed on in California, and died there in March 1981.


Note 1 – All those other actors called Charles Bennett

Many online accounts of Charles Bennett merrily jumble up the careers of the following individuals.

  • Charles Bennett (1899-1995), a British actor, director and screenwriter, well remembered for his work with Alfred Hitchcock.
  • Charles R Bennett, a New York musician or agent and possibly actor, who allegedly married US actress Patricia “Boots” Mallory in New York on 15 August 1928. The couple divorced in 1933 – Boots insisted they had never legally married.
  • And there was another Charles Bennett, very active on the stage in the late C19th and in the early years of US film. In his 2010 book Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory, Brent E Walker warns against confusing this actor, whose date and details of birth remain elusive, with the Charles Bennett born in New Zealand. (See Walker, P488). Unfortunately, that is exactly what has happened, as the current page on the IMBD shows.
Above left: Screen grab of Charles Bennett the stage actor (at right) as the returned Uncle in Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914), with Charlie Chaplin (foreground) and Marie Dressler. Above Right: Screen grab of Charles Bennett the stage actor (at right) as a sailor at the bar in The Face on the Barroom Floor (1914) also with Charlie Chaplin.

Note 2 -Charles Bennett and Of Thee I Sing on Broadway

The George S Kaufman, George and Ira Gershwin musical Of Thee I Sing ran on Broadway from late 1931 to Jan 1933 – some 441 performances according to the IBDB. A Charles Bennett is listed as a performer, but to date, this writer has not been able to confirm it is the same person.


Nick Murphy
November 2021


References

Text

  • Kevin Brownlow (1968) The Parade’s Gone By... University of California Press
  • Lucy Fisher (Ed) (2009) American Cinema of the 1920s; Themes and Variations. Rutgers University Press
  • Clifford McCarty (2000) Film Composers in America: A Filmography, 1911-1970. Oxford University Press
  • Brent E. Walker (2013) Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory: A History and Filmography of His Studio and His Keystone and Mack Sennett Comedies. McFarland Incorporated

Victoria (Aust) Births Deaths and Marriages

  • Ellen Brown birth certificate. 4 May 1890
  • Charles Bennett (father) death certificate, 13 Aug 1937
  • Norman Wills Bennett death certificate, 14 Sept 1984

New Zealand Births Deaths and Marriages

  • Charles Joseph Bennett birth certificate, 13 April 1891

Websites

Ancestry.com and family search

  • US census, Shipping manifests and naturalisation applications
  • Charles Joseph Bennett death certificate, California, 15 Feb 1943
  • Charles Joseph Bennett and Eileen Brown marriage certificate, British Columbia 9 Oct 1914
  • Victoria, Australia, voting rolls.

State Library of Victoria

  • Sands and McDougall Directories, Melbourne, 1900 and 1910

Newspapers.com

  • The San Francisco Call, May 4, 1908 P16
  • The Province (Vancouver, BC) 10 Aug 1912, P17
  • The Alaska Daily Empire, 8 Oct 1913, Wed · P3
  • Spokane Chronicle, 23 Dec 1913, P1
  • The Victoria Daily Times (Victoria BC) 13 Feb 1915, P13
  • The Victoria Daily Times (Victoria, BC) 15 Feb 1915, P10
  • Saskatoon Daily Star (Saskatchewan) 18 Nov 1916, P21
  • Star-Phoenix (Saskatchewan) 21 Nov 1916, P5
  • Star-Phoenix (Saskatchewan) 22 Nov 1916, P5
  • The Billings Gazette (Montana), 4 Apr 1917, P5
  • Independent-Observer (Montana) 24 May 1917, P8
  • Herald and Review (Illinois) 21 Jan 1918, P10
  • The Victoria Daily Times (Victoria, BC), 10 Nov 1920
  • Palladium Item (Ind) 17 May 1924. P17
  • Anaconda Standard (Mont) 25 Nov 1926, P16
  • Chicago Tribune, 27 March 1927, P44
  • The Pasadena Post (Cal) 19 Jun 1929, P20
  • Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, 17 Feb 1943, P2
  • The Los Angeles Times, 8 Sep 1950, P48

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • Townsville Daily Bulletin 14 Aug 1907, P7
  • Advertiser (Adel) 3 Feb 1911, P11
  • Referee (Syd) 8 Jan 1913, P15
  • Herald (Melb) 12 June 1924, P22
  • Herald (Melb) 27 Aug 1925, P23
  • Herald (Melb) 23 Aug 1928, P6
  • Herald (Melb) 6 June 1929, P35
  • Herald (Melb), 3 February 1938, P30

Papers Past (New Zealand)

  • Evening Post, 13 June 1924, P5

Lantern, Digital Media Project

  • Moving Picture World, 3 July 1915
  • Photoplay, Jan-June 1924

This site has been selected for archiving and preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive

Vera White (1893-1956) Life in Hollywood’s golden age


The Call and WA Sportsman 1919
The Five Second version
Born in Melbourne Australia in 1893, Vera White had a career in vaudeville “low comedy” and then in Hollywood. Like her Australian-born contemporaries Nina Speight and Mae Dahlberg, Vera arrived in the US with a theatrical husband. Joe Everett was an acrobat comedian with whom she developed and refined an act, touring the US, Australia and New Zealand. She was picked up by the Hal Roach studio in late 1920. She appeared in numerous films in the silent era, mostly uncredited roles in comedies. She married three times and died in California in 1956.
Above: Vera White in a glamour shot during the return tour of Australia in 1919. The Weekly Judge, (Perth WA) 4 July 1919, P2. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In early August 1928, Australian – born film extra Vera White was injured in a car crash when she drove into a truck after an arduous day’s filming near Palm Springs, California. She explained to the press that she and the two other occupants of the car, Fred Howell and Charles Berger, also extras, were tired after a long day’s work and didn’t see the truck until they struck it. The car was a write-off and Vera spent time in Los Angeles’ Good Samaritan Hospital. (San Pedro News Pilot, 2 August 1928)

Vera’s 1928 car accident is a reminder of the lot of under-paid and over-looked extras in the golden age of Hollywood. When the accident happened Vera had been working in Hollywood for eight long years.The most thorough analysis of her filmwork suggests she probably had made more than 40 film appearances by 1928. But she was still an unknown to the public and remained so for her entire career – another of the huge group of former vaudevillians now struggling to be noticed on the screen.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, on 20 August 1893, Harriet Vera Gertrude White was not from a theatrical family and her four sisters and brother did not join her on stage. Her father Hubert (sometimes Herbert but usually known as “Bert”) Fairchild White was a railway engineer, her mother was Amelia nee Williams. Perhaps tenacity runs in families – Bert made numerous attempts to join the Australian Army in World War One, and was rejected each time because of his age. In January 1913, Vera, by then working as a cinema cashier in Sydney, had married Joseph Thomas Everett (professional name Joe Vincetti), a US-based but English-born acrobat-comedian, who was touring Australia.

Above: Vera White at about the time of the car accident – with Oliver Hardy in We Faw Down (1928). Screen grab from a copy mounted on youtube.

Building a stage career 1913+

In December 1913, Joe and Vera appeared on stage together in Australia as “eccentric” and “popular” comedians, even though Vera had no prior experience. Joe had been performing in an acrobat comedy troupe – Henchy, Vincetti and Bush, part of the ill-fated Bud Atkinson touring circus which collapsed financially in April 1913. Now, working with Vera, the couple appeared under their real names – Joe Everett and Vera White. A few months later however, they had adopted the title “The Two Vincettis”, apparently refining their act before boarding the SS Niagara in April 1914. They travelled to the US under their stage names – Joe and Vera Vincetti – a practice which appears to have been not uncommon before World War One.

Above: The Two Vincettis while touring the US, San Bernardino News (California), 30 Sep 1915, P14. Joe is wearing clown makeup – see also below. Via Newspapers.com

We are fortunate in that evidence of their act survives. After several years touring as the Two Vincettis, acrobatic comedians, in April 1917 they re-presented themselves as Joe and Vera White and their act was now called Vaudeville Chop Suey. In October 1917, the trade paper Variety reviewed this new act with its characteristic frankness: “When confining their efforts to their style, Joe and Vera White present an enjoyable acrobatic specialty, but through striving continually for comedy with considerable kidding and using numerous aged gags, they hinder themselves. The girl has a comedy vein she employs to advantage, but suffers from lack of material. She also does well a Chaplin impersonation around the opening. While it is passe, she accomplishes it so well its retention should prove beneficial. The man occasionally tries to handle some comedy, but is a much better ground tumbler, and should confine himself to that alone. They work fast, and when rearranged should find sufficient bookings.

The act was about 15 minutes of fast action and with patter that today might sound very lame ;
“Suppose you take a bath in the bath tub?”
“Where do you take yours – in the sink?”
“You’ve been looking in my window”
(Variety, 26 October 1917)

Above: This crude illustration of the Two Vincettis act appeared for the forthcoming Carter County Free Fair, in The Daily Ardmoreite (Oklahoma) 1 Sep 1918, P6. But by 1918 they almost always appeared simply as Joe and Vera White. Via newspapers.com

In early 1919, Joe and Vera were engaged to play their Vaudeville Chop Suey act for the Fuller circuit in Australia – which meant they toured extensively across Australia and New Zealand, now with Texas, a “prarie dog” as part of the act. (Whether Texas really was a prairie dog imported into Australia is not recorded, and most Australians were unlikely to know, of course. The poor creature was accidentally killed in February 1920, just before Joe and Vera’s return to the US). It was also while they were in Australia that Joe claimed he had played “the big ape” in Tarzan of the Apes (1918) while Vera said she had appeared in the ballroom scene in its sequel The Romance of Tarzan (1918). It is easy to dismiss these stories, as one does with the fanicful claims that Vera’s uncle was Field Marshal Allenby (Long Beach Telegram 27 June 1921) or her grandfather was “the first white man to settle in Australia.“(Long Beach Telegram 7 Oct 1921). However, an earlier Variety report indicates Joe and Vera had indeed started in films for First National in 1918 (Variety 18 Oct 1918). Unfortunately, of the two films, only Tarzan of the Apes has survived, and naturally whoever is dressed as an ape is unrecognisable.

Above: Vera and Joe, while performing Vaudeville Chop Suey in Australia in 1919. It is only one photo, but Joe’s idiosyncratic attire may show the influence of contemporary Hollywood film comedians, like Harold Lloyd, Snub Pollard and Stan Laurel. The Sun (Syd) 16 March, 1919, P18. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Starting a Hollywood career 1920

Steve Massa’s Slapstick Divas, a comprehensive survey of women in slapstick films, aptly describes Vera as “the woman of a thousand faces”. Her stock in trade performance seems to have been the outraged bystander or shocked innocent party, although she sometimes played the key comic protagonist’s wife or a poo-faced society lady. In every case, her exaggerated facial expression became part of the comedy. While touring in 1919, a New Zealand paper had described her “grotesque facial contortions” as particularly amusing. (The Sun, Christchurch, 19 Nov 1919)

Above: Another scene from The Cobbler (1923) showing Vera with one of her characteristic poses. The cobbler was played by Welsh-born actor Richard Daniels, the father of Our Gang member Mickey Daniels.

Vera’s first identifiable appearances in Hal Roach comedies seem to have occurred in late 1920, soon after she and Joe returned to the US on the SS Sonoma in August. Newspaper reports show the couple still sometimes performed on stage, but their efforts had largely turned to cinema. Vera can be found in the cast of Cash Customers (1920), featuring fellow Melbourne vaudevillian Snub Pollard, and directed by another – Alf Goulding.

It is extremely likely she also appeared in other films that are no longer recorded – after all, this was the era of uncredited supporting players working on films that were churned out by studios at rapid speed. Park Your Car (1920) – another Goulding directed, Snub Pollard comedy from the Hal Roach studio was made at almost the same time as Cash Customers, and it also appears to briefly feature Vera White as an outraged homemaker.

Above: Outraged homeowner in Alf Goulding’s Park Your Car (1920), likely to be Vera White. Snub Pollard has just driven through her house. Via the Eye Film Museum, Netherlands.

One must wonder whether Vera got her start with Hal Roach through some connection or an appeal for a break to the two fellow Australian vaudevillians. Even if that is wistful speculation by this writer, as Massa points out, Hal Roach and leading players like Stan Laurel were quite aware of Vera’s abilities, and used her repeatedly despite her lack of public profile.

Above: Screen grabs of Vera White in two of her early films, demonstrating her skills in facial expressions. These are currently widely available. Left – Now Or Never (1921), Right – (at rear) in Among Those Present (1921).

In early 1922, Vera and Joe’s marriage came to an end. They stopped touring together, and in April, Vera took Joe to court seeking a divorce and alleging cruelty – and The Los Angeles Times outlined her allegations of serious physical violence in some detail. (4 Aug 1922) However, in June 1922 Joe told Everyone’s Magazine that the action was a result of Vera’s “swelled head”, a result of meeting with “a little success in pictures.” Joe had also appeared in several Hal Roach comedies in 1921.

Above: Joe White in The Pickaninny (1921) one of his few credited roles. The film is now in the public domain and can be see here at the Internet Archive.

Finding Vera’s later career

Vera did indeed have success in pictures. She had written to Everyone’s Magazine only a few months before the divorce, encouraging Australian readers to watch “all Harold Lloyd and Snub Pollard pictures [as] I play in every one of them”. (24 August 1921). To date, David Lord Heath’s Another Nice Mess website has identified about forty films Vera White appeared in for the Hal Roach studio, by methodically going through the process of watching each film to confirm the cast. Steve Massa has identified several more. But despite this sterling effort, a definitive list of her appearances may still ellude us.

Unfortunately a number of other freely-editable websites (including wikipedia) still muddle up Clara Guiol with Vera White, and these errors tend to be replicated across the internet. Guiol was born in 1906 or 1908 and thus was at least 13 years Vera’s junior, and her career took off later than Vera White’s. Although the two did slightly resemble each other, cursory observation shows they were two different people. An example of this is Stage Fright (1923), another of the Our Gang series, where the role played by Vera White is often incorrectly attributed to Guiol.

Above: Vera as Miss Ochletree, the director of the disastrous play, in Stage Fright 1923. The film is now in the public domain and can be watched here at the Internet Archive.

Reporting of the Weiss brothers 1928 comedy The Cockeyed Family, highlights another problem. It featured Ben Turpin as Amos Gillig and Vera White as his wife. However, the IMDB entry for the film currently does not acknowledge a character called Mrs Gillig at all, although it is a leading role opposite Turpin. Of course, the challenge of identifying actors of this era is made all the more difficult because some films are now lost, titles of cast and crew on surviving films were at best brief and sometimes non-existant, and other supporting records are sparse.

Above: Vera White as Mrs Gillig in The Cockeyed Family (1928). The joke, very much of its time, is that both Amos and his wife are cross-eyed, and the children are predictably continually getting into trouble.

The sound era saw numerous actors fall by the wayside and Vera White appears to have been another one of them. Of her later career, we know little. Jack Gavin, an Australian actor resident for much of the 1920s in Hollywood and a friend of Vera and Joe’s, regularly included them in his reports for Everyone’s magazine until about 1924, when he lost contact.

Vera remarried in 1924 – to Nicholas Richard Block, who was a studio property manager. A year after Block’s death in September 1936, she married Raymond F McCarthy, who like Vera listed his occupation on the marriage certificate as motion picture actor, persumably also an extra.

Vera died aged 63 in 1956, by now living very modestly in a bungalow at 6624 Ajax Avenue, Bell Gardens, Los Angeles. Her death certificate lists her usual occupation as an actress in motion pictures, but how much work she was doing by then we do not know. Intriguingly, an Australian born woman by the name of Vera McCarthy was reported as being in Lincoln Heights Jail during the 1940 US census, which, if her, may suggest a much less happy experience in later life.

Joe White stayed on in the US. Although there were reports he became a driver, he can still be found in live performances as a comedy acrobat – with his second wife Irma Button in 1923, and as late as 1929 in touring circus groups.


Nick Murphy
5 November 2021


References

Acknowledgement

  • Special thanks to Jean Ritsema in Jackson, Michigan, USA, who assisted with many of Vera’s US documents, including her US marriage and death certificates.

Films online

NSW Births Deaths & Marriages

  • Marriage Certificate Joseph Thomas Everett & Harriet Vera Gertrude White Jan 19, 1913

Vic Births Deaths & Marriages

  • Birth Certificate Harriet Vera Gertrude White 20 August 1893

Ancestry.com and Familysearch

  • US census returns, US shipping manifests

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

Websites

Text

  • Steve Massa (2017) Slapstick Divas. The Women of Silent Comedy. Bear Manor Media.
  • Steve Massa (2013) Lame Brains and Lunatics. The Good, The Bad and The Forgotten of Silent Comedy. Bear Manor Media.
  • Brent Walker (2010) Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory. McFarland & Co.

National Library of New Zealand – Papers Past

  • New Zealand Herald 3 Sept 1919, P14
  • The Sun (Christchurch) 19 Nov 1919, P9

National Library of Australia – Trove

  • The Herald (Vic) 6 Dec 1913, P8
  • The Sun (NSW) 16 March 1919, P18
  • Table Talk 17 April 1919, P19
  • The Weekly Judge, (Perth WA) 4 July 1919, P2.
  • Newcastle Sun (NSW), 1 March 1920, P3
  • The Mail (SA) 24 Jan 1920 P6
  • Everyones Magazine 25 May 1921
  • Everyones Magazine 24 Aug 1921
  • Everyones Magazine 21 Dec 1921
  • Everyones Magazine 14 June 1922
  • Everyones Magazine 7 Oct, 1925
  • Everyones Magazine 30 June 1937

Lantern, The Digital Media Project

  • Variety, 26 Oct 1917
  • Variety 18 Oct 1918
  • New York Clipper 7 Jan 1920
  • The Billboard 15 April 1922

Newspapers.com

  • Austin American-Statesman (TX) 16 Jul 1915, P8
  • Long Beach Telegram and The Long Beach Daily News (CA) 28 Sep 1915, P9
  • San Bernardino News (CA) 30 Sept 1915, P14
  • The Deming Headlight (NM) 23 June 1916, P9
  • Springfield Leader and Press (MI) 22 May 1917, P8
  • The Daily Ardmoreite (OK) 1 Sept 1918, P6
  • Long Beach Telegram and The Long Beach Daily News 27 June 1921
  • Long Beach Telegram and The Long Beach Daily News 7 Oct 1921
  • Los Angeles Times 4 Aug 1922
  • Los Angeles Evening Post-Record 20 July 1923, P8
  • The Californian 18 Mar 1925, P 5
  • Los Angeles Times 1 Aug 1926, P12
  • The Ventura County Star and the Ventura Daily Post 16 Feb 1929, P10
  • The Hanford Sentinel (CA) 29 May 1939, P1

California Digital Newspaper Collection

  • Los Angeles Herald 10 Aug 1918
  • Los Angeles Herald 13 Aug 1918
  • San Diego Union & Daily Bee 19 Nov 1918
  • San Pedro News 2 August 1928

This site has been selected for archiving and preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive

The accomplished Mercia Swinburne (1900-1993)


The 5 second version
Did Mercia Swinburne ever really think of herself as Australian? The answer is – probably not. She lived most of her life in London, becoming a leading figure on the British stage. For many of her era, being Australian born was simply a variation on being British anyway. Born in Sydney in 1900, Mercia was almost continuously at work in the UK between 1920 and 1950, and also performed on stage in the US, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. She married British actor George Relph (1888-1960) in 1924, with whom she sometimes appeared. Her older brother Jack Swinburne (1892-1974) was also an actor and later a film production manager. Mercia died in England in 1993. She appeared in three films during her career.
At left, Mercia in a Pond’s cream advertisment, The Sketch, August 15, 1928. Via British Library Newspaper Archive. Ponds still produces beauty products.

When British actor Mercia Swinburne returned to Australia with Laurence Olivier’s triumphant Old Vic tour in 1948, she was inclined to dismiss her Australian birth almost as an accident of history – she had left the country “as a tiny child”, she said. This was true, although it didn’t really give a very accurate picture of her upbringing and rather undersold her own remarkable achievements. Swinburne’s career spanned almost 40 years.

We can hardly blame her for a degree of caution in discussing the Australian period of her childhood. As was often the case in the 19th and 20th centuries, the preferred way of managing an unhappy or tumultous period in one’s life, particularly events that carried a “social stain” such as a divorce, was simply to pretend it had never happened.


Childhood – Australia, South America and Britain

Mercia Swinbourne was born in Sydney to Leah Liardet nee Conway in 1900. At the time of her birth, her mother was going through a painful divorce from Cavendish Liardet – it had been an unhappy marriage for some time. Leah and Cavendish already had one child – John Evelyn Liardet or Jack, born in 1892. However, Mercia’s biological father was apparently Charles Richard Swinbourne, a local alderman, wool broker and exporter, and a partner in Swinbourne and Stephen, a large wool scouring firm based on Botany Bay. Charles Swinbourne was named as co-respondent in the 1899 divorce papers lodged by Cavendish Liardet, a few weeks before Mercia’s birth. A divorce was granted to Cavendish soon after. (See Note 1 below)

In March 1903, Charles Swinbourne, Leah (sometimes known as “Lily”), Jack and Mercia departed for England on the P&O liner Suevic, with the children listed with the surname Swinbourne. Two years later, Leah and Mercia travelled from England to join Charles in Buenos Aires, where he seems to have followed business interests for several years, perhaps in the booming Argentinian wool industry. But the 1911 UK census shows Leah, a woman of “private means”, and Mercia, a schoolgirl, were again back in England, living near the seaside at Brighton, Sussex.

1911 also saw Mercia on stage for the first time. She appeared in a supporting role in one of a series of “dramatic episodes” (short plays) – called Only a Woman, at London’s Court theatre on 16 June. In later years Mercia said she had studied with Kate Rorke, a well known London actress and teacher of elocution – and perhaps it was her influence that found the very young Mercia her first role on stage. Jack’s success as an 18 year old actor might also have had some part in influencing her choices – he was on stage in The Captain of the School, “an intensely amusing story of public school life” at The Gaiety in late 1910.


There was another dramatic change in Mercia’s life in January 1912, when she and her mother arrived back in Sydney. Only a few days after they arrived, Charles Richard Swinbourne finally married Leah Conway at Bondi’s Methodist Church.

Leah and Mercia stayed on in Sydney for two years. Mercia sometimes appeared in society events, including an instance when she presented a posy of pansies to the wife of visiting actor-director William Devereux. She was “a pretty young English girl” newspapers reported. But in April 1914, Leah and Mercia were on their way to England again, without Charles, and that seems to have been the end of their relationship.

Mercia’s stage career

From the age of about 15, Mercia Swinburne (her surname now spelled without an “o”) appeared in small or chorus parts in a string of successful London productions. These notably included several wartime musicals produced by George Grossmith Junior – Tonight’s the Night in 1915, Theodore & Co in 1916-17 and Yes Uncle! in 1917. Popular with the war-weary English public who craved some escape and distraction, they all enjoyed long runs and for Mercia surely affirmed her decision to act, in addition to these being being useful experiences in building a career. All the same, her success was remarkable, given her youth.


Theatre historian J P Wearing lists more than forty London stage appearances by Mercia in the 1920 and ’30s – an extraordinary output and for much of the time these were back to back performances. Notably, she also appeared with a list of significant performers, including some still well remembered today – like British actors Basil Rathbone and Charles Hawtrey and visiting Canadian actor Raymond Massey. While performing in The Way of an Eagle in 1923 she met George Relph. She toured South Africa with him in 1924, and they married in 1925.

Of note to even casual readers today was the bubbling enthusiasm for her work. Writing for The Sphere on 14 November 1931, reviewer Phillip Page commented “Miss Mercia Swinburne is so devastatingly lovely to look upon, has such a neat sense of humour and is such an accomplished actress that I marvel that dramatists do not come to her on bended knees with their plays. Perhaps they do, and the plays are not good enough.” The play was the comedy Make Up Your Mind.

There is not much doubt that on account of her reputation as an up and coming actor, and her good looks, she also became a darling of the society press in London. In the 1920s and 30s she was often photographed for the pages of Tatler, The Bystander, The Sketch and The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. She also became a regular in the advertising pages – where she endorsed the likes of Ciro pearls, Odol toothpaste, Ponds cream, Phosferine tonic and De Reszke cigarettes.

Above: Mercia and George advertising De Reszke cigarettes in The Daily Mirror, Jan 28, 1938. The notion that the couple enjoyed a sophisticated smoke over a “quiet game of chess” before performing is definitely “of its time”. Via British LIbrary’s Newspaper Archive.

Amongst her many and varied performances were the crime and murder-mysteries so popular between the wars in Britain. These included Australian born writer Dion Titheradge’s The Crooked Billet which ran for 168 performances at The Royalty in 1927, and Edgar Wallace’s The Squeaker A Scotland Yard Drama which began a long run at The Apollo in May 1928. In this play, George Relph took the lead role of Sutton, aka “the Squeaker,” a car dealer and fence, in a complicated plot that is solved by a journalist. Mercia played the “distracted heroine” Beryl, ward of “a respectable but once notorious criminal.”(Punch 6 June 1928). However, many of Mercia’s stage appearances were in short runs of plays – including some pioneering productions with social comentary. The Love Game, which ran for 60 performances at the Prince of Wales Theatre in 1931 dealt with what The Times called a “painfully real discussion of infidelity.” (The Times cited in Wearing, 1930-39, P131)


Early in January 1936, Mercia broke her leg in a car accident. Returning home on New Year’s Day, Mercia and George were passengers in a car driven by a friend, writer/director Anthony Kimmins. The accident was serious enough that she did not perform at all in 1936. (Kimmins is remembered for writing and directing the successful British – Australian film Smiley in 1956, and its sequel.) However, by early 1937 she was back on stage and in August she and George reprised their roles in another run of The Squeaker.

Mercia and George continued to appear on stage during World War 2. Like many actors who wanted to contribute to the war effort, both appeared for the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) and the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA – the forerunner of the British Arts Council). Mercia’s engagements again included a wide range of plays – from Mrs Darling in the familiar and popular panto Peter Pan to tours of comedies such as Merton Hodge’s The Wind and the Rain.

The Old Vic Tour of 1948

The famous 1948 “Old Vic Tour” of Australia and New Zealand that included Mercia and George has been very well documented. Led by their friends Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, it was a resounding success. Part of the success was undoubtedly generated by the star-glamour Olivier and Leigh carried with them, but it was also a clever program of performances delivered by a large group of experienced and up-and-coming British actors. Performing a repetoire of Shakespeare’s Richard III, Sheridan’s The School for Scandal and Thornton Wilder’s contemporary comedy-drama The Skin of our Teeth, they spent 7 months touring all the major capitals of Australia and New Zealand. On their departure for New Zealand in September 1948, a newspaper report politely indicated the company had made a net profit of £200,000 in Australia (over $AU12 million in 2020 value), and also set an Australian record for seats sold.

Above: Mercia and Vivien Leigh. But all eyes are on Vivien. The Chronicle (South Australia), 8 April 1948. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Above: Some of the company taking a curtain call for The School for Scandal in Sydney. Australian Women’s Weekly, 10 July 1948. Mercia had first performed with Olivier in Queen of Scots, in 1934. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

After the war, Mercia and George lived comfortably at the Argyll Mansions on the King’s Rd in London’s Chelsea. They travelled to perform once again in 1950 – to appear in supporting roles to Basil Rathbone and Valerie Taylor in a season of Aldous Huxley’s melodrama The Gioconda Smile, at New York’s Lyceum Theatre. The actors were praised but reviews of the play itself were mixed. And with that, Mercia appears to have made a decision to leave acting for good. George continued to act, almost to the time of his death in 1960.

Unfortunately, while the many biographers of Olivier and Leigh used Mercia as a source, this writer has been unable to find any interviews with her regarding her own work, and as is often the case, there appear to have been no obituaries written when she died in 1993.

Mercia’s three films

The stage was clearly a preference for many actors of Mercia’s generation, despite the press hype surrounding actors in the cinema. Unfortunately, both of Mercia’s films from the 1930s are now considered lost. Alibi (1931) was based on the Agatha Christie story The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and a subsequent stage play. Mercia was given a leading role in this Hercule Poirot thriller – and surviving reviews seem positive. Not so memorable or well recieved was The Compulsory Wife (1937), a “quota quickie” made to fulfil a studio’s obligations under the Cinematograph Films Act (1927). Picturegoer magazine dismissed it in a few lines and concluded the “direction and production are very weak.” (Picturegoer 7 Aug 1937)

She appeared in a supporting role in one more film – in 1948 – Basil Dearden’s Saraband for Dead Lovers, starring Stewart Grainger and Joan Greenwood. Based on a historical romance by Australian born author Helen de Guerry Simpson, this was generally well received by reviewers, but was not especially successful at the box-office. It was Ealing Studios first colour film.

Above: Mercia Swinburne in Australia. Daily Telegraph (Syd), 4 July 1948, P28. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Jack Swinburne’s career

Jack Swinburne joined the Royal Flying Corps during World War One, returning to the stage after the war. He toured South Africa in an acting troupe in 1920. Following his return to Britain he moved into management – first in theatre, then radio, and by the late 1940s he was regularly a production manager for British films. He returned to Australia at least once, in 1928, with his English wife, comedienne Mamie Soutter, who appeared for a short time at the Empire Theatre in the musical Take the Air. He ended his career as production manager on most of the later Carry On films and died in 1974. A shutterstock photo from his Radio Olympia days c1937 can be seen here. The World Radio History website has a copy of a 1939 Radio Pictorial here, featuring Jack and Mamie.


Note 1

That the Liardet marriage was unhappy is born out by a NSW Police Gazette report of Leah Liardet being “missing from her lodgings” in August 1898. The report was made out by Cavendish, and gave a very detailed description of Leah, including her “green straw hat” “very white teeth” and “aquiline nose”. 16 months later, Mercia’s birth certificate (2 February 1900) did not list a father, but the surname Swinbourne was used for the child. In the divorce commenced in late November 1899, the grounds for divorce was Leah’s adultery with Swinbourne. The impending birth of a child – Mercia – wasnt mentioned.


Nick Murphy
October 2021

References

  • New South Wales Births Deaths & Marriages
    • Birth Certificate Mercia Swinbourne, 2 Feb 1900, 14087/1900
    • Marriage Certificate Charles Richard Swinbourne and Leah Conway, 10 Jan 1912, #3751/1912
  • Victoria, Births Deaths & Marriages
    • Marriage Certificate Cavendish Dawson Evelyn Liardet and Leah Conway, 22 Jan 1889. #1715/1889
  • NSW State Archives
    • Divorce papers – Cavendish Dawson Evelyn Liardet – Leah Liardet, Charles Robert (sic) Swinbourne. NRS-13495-29-[13/12535]-3457.
  • Ancestry.com & Familysearch.org
    • Shipping Manifests, Census lists, Voter registration roles and City Directories
  • Text
    • Clive Barker and Maggie B Gale (Eds)(2000) British Theatre between the Wars 1918-1939. Cambridge University Press.
    • Geoffrey Milne (2004) Theatre Australia Un Limited: Australian Theatre Since the 1950s. [Australian Playwrights Mongraph 10. Veronica Kelly (Ed)] Editions Rodolpi
    • John Parker (Ed) (1952) Who’s Who in the Theatre. Isaac Pitman & sons. 11th Edition.
    • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1910-1919 : A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel . Second edition. Lanham : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
    • 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
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • The Graphic, 31 Dec1910 P25
    • The Stage 20 July 1911, P22
    • The Sketch 10 Oct 1917, P40
    • The Sketch, 5 Nov 1919, P1
    • The Stage, 15 Jan 1920, P23
    • Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News, 28 August 1920, P1
    • The Tatler, 26 Oct 1921 P119
    • The Daily Mirror 14 March 1925
    • Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News, 21 March 1925 P668
    • The Sketch, 6 Oct 1926, P39
    • The Sketch, 2 Nov 1927 P249
    • The Sketch 20 June 1928
    • The Sketch 15 August, 1928
    • Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News, 24 August 1929, P445
    • The Bioscope 11 March 1931, P1
    • Illustrated London News 18 July 1931, P37
    • The Sphere, 14 Nov 1931, P27
    • Illustrated London News 12 March 1932, P35
    • The Stage 14 June 1934, P10
    • Daily News 18 Feb 1937, P9
    • The Era, 15 April 1937 P14
    • The Daily Mirror, Jan 28, 1938
    • Marylebone Mercury, 7 December 1956 P2
  • Internet Archive
    • Punch 6 June 1928
    • Punch 15 Feb 1933
    • Picturegoer Weekly, 26 Feb 1938, P31
    • International Motion Picture Almanac, 1951
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • NSW Police Gazette, 24 August 1898 – Page 282
    • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 July 1898 P8
    • Evening News (Syd) 23 March 1900, P4
    • Everyones. Vol 9 No 421, 28 March 1928
    • The Chronicle (Sth Aust), 8 April 1948
    • Daily Telegraph (Syd) 4 July 1948, P28
    • Australian Women’s Weekly, 10 July 1948
  • Newspapers.com
    • Daily News (New York) · 9 Oct 1950, P540

This site has been selected for archiving and preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive

Carol Coombe (1908-1966), who “bluffed her way to stardom”

Above: Gwen (now calling herself Carol) Coombe soon after arrival in London, photo credited to Hughes of London. Universal Filmlexikon, Berlin, 1932. Via Lantern, The Digital Media Project. Carol herself made the comment used as the byline above. (See also below)

carol-daily-mirror-11-oct-1935-1
The Five Second Version
Born Gwendoline Coombe in Perth, Western Australia in 1908, she arrived in London in 1930 to pursue an acting career, inspired perhaps, by her mother’s previous career in Australia, her Sydney school and her father’s business interests in theatre. For someone with little previous acting experience she had a remarkably successful start on stage in 1931, and took a speaking part in the film The Ghost Train (1931). She had a brief and unsuccessful outing in Hollywood in 1934, after which she returned to England. She retired on marrying lawyer Ronald Armstrong-Jones in 1936, but returned to the stage about ten years later. She died as a result of a car accident in Italy in 1966. (See Note 1 below for links to her reminiscences of being Antony Armstrong-Jones’ step-mother) 
Photo – Daily Mirror, 11 October 1935. Via the British Library’s Newspaper Archive

Writing for The Era in April 1934, London based journalist Leslie Rees listed Carol Coombe as one of the “Antipo-Deities”, meaning Australian girls who had “captured the British stage and screen.” The group also included others who have been featured on this website – including Nancy O’Neil, Judy Kelly and Lucille Lisle. But Carol Coombe was particularly notable – because as Rees commented, she was someone “without any stage or film training of any sort,” yet she arrived, succeeded and enjoyed an impressive burst of activity and publicity.

Growing up in Australia

Born in Perth, Western Australia, in 1908, Gwendeline Akhurst Coombe was the third of three daughters of Sir Thomas Coombe and Alice nee Senior. Her older sisters were Vera (born 1900) and Lorna (born 1902, who usually went by the name Judy). A brother, Hastings, was born in 1912.

Alice Senior had been a performer in Australia in the 1890s, retiring from the stage when she married Thomas Coombe at Christ Church in North Sydney in 1900. Thomas Coombe was an importer of sporting goods until he became involved in film distribution, then progressing to building and operating cinemas. He was Manager for the Union Theatre chain by 1913, and then President of the Theatrical Managers’ Association. He was knighted in June 1924, “in recognition of public service,” his ADB entry suggesting this might also be by virtue of his political donations. By the 1920s, Sir Thomas was a wealthy man, who had a reputation as a generous philanthropist, a keen sportsman and was the owner of several properties in Perth’s desirable Mount Street. For a time, his daughters attended Miss Parnell’s school in Claremount, Perth. From the early 1920s Lady Coombe and the children went to live in Sydney, at Darling Point. Unfortunately, by 1932, this 3200 kilometre separation had become the grounds for their divorce, Sir Thomas arguing that Lady Coombe refused to live with him in the west.

Gwen attended Sydney’s Ascham school from 1920-1926, where records show she became an outstanding athlete, talented tennis player and competent dancer. By the late 1920s, society pages of newspapers often photographed the women of the Coombe family and Gwen, as “one of Sydney’s leading debutantes,” was even advertising the benefits of “Kit Kat Powder for the complexion”, in the pages of The Australian Women’s Mirror.

Above: Photos of the three Coombe girls taken by society photographer Bernice Agar. Left – Vera, and centre – Judy, from The Home, 1 June 1928. Right – Gwen, from The Home, 2 July 1928. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Trying her luck in London

In June 1930 Gwen departed Sydney on the SS Moldavia, determined to try her luck on the British stage or screen. In later years she said her “creeping ambition” to be an actress started at school, but she also acknowledged the influence of her mother in the choice. And like some of her Australian contemporaries, she had the confidence and resources to try this. The newspaper accounts of her life to 1930 (and there are many) emphasize her life of social and charity events, glamour and immaculate fashion. Despite being the height of the Depression, her father had agreed to support her for a year while she established herself as an actor.

Gwen’s move to England might also be understood in a broader context. Angela Woollacott’s To Try Her Fortune in London (2001) analyses the phenomenon of Australian women travelling to London between the 1870s and 1940s, and finds that the journey “home” was a way for them “to compete for success, fame and…financial rewards” in a much larger arena – the capitol of the Empire – and achieve independence away from Australia’s “stridently masculinist culture”. (Woollacott p3-7).

Gwen was not alone in deciding to leave Australia for an acting career nor was she completely new to London, she had travelled there with her mother several years before, and her sister Vera was already settled there. Friends who pursued an acting career at about the same time included Pearl Appleton (as Phyllis Edgar – in the US) and her sister Bonita in Australia.

Gwen, now calling herself Carol, was armed with a handful of helpful introductions provided by her father. She soon signed up with Connies Ltd, a new “go ahead casting agency” run by Miss Constance Spark in Regent St (Ray Milland also used Connies – see P 150-1 of his autobiography). She quickly found work as an uncredited extra, although most of her early films do not survive today. They were reported to include comedies like P.C.Josser (1931) and Michael Powell’s murder mystery The Rasp (1931). She was also an extra in the Gracie Fields film Sally in Our Alley (1931) – which does survive, although it is difficult to identify her. However, it was a filmed version of Arnold Ridley’s play The Ghost Train, that saw her in her first featured and speaking part. Part of the film was found and restored by the BFI in the early 1990s, and although some of soundtrack is lost, the last twenty minutes has survived.

Above: Screengrabs of Carol in The Ghost Train (1931) with Allan Jeayes and Cicely Courtneidge. It can be viewed on Youtube here. For reference, the 1941 version is available here.

However, without a doubt, Carol’s major breakthrough came in January 1933 when, as an understudy, she took over Jessica Tandy’s leading part in Children in Uniform at the Duchess Theatre. Adapted from a play written by Christa Winsloe, it was a dramatic story of a schoolgirl’s love for her school mistress. Theatre Historian J P Wearing notes that the play was well reviewed and popular, The Times giving it “a rave review.” Carol appeared in several more British “quota quickies” before another piece of dramatic news was announced – she had a contract and was going to Hollywood.

Above: Straight from the Heart is one of three Hollywood films Carol appeared in. But her roles were inconsequential. Picturegoer Weekly 9 January, 1935, P7, covered Lady Coombe meeting her daughter in the US. Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

An outing in Hollywood & success in London

Of course, the reports of a generous 7 year contract were misleading. The reality was that studio contracts were not generous, and at least one British correspondent correctly identified such a move for any young actors as “a huge gamble… To go to Hollywood as a prospective star is to ask for the indignities which have been shown to Sydney Howard, Jane Baxter, Carol Coombe, and Antoinette Cellier, to name a few.” (The Era 24 Oct, 1934). In December 1934 she returned to England. She politely said the contract was “unsuitable”, but the reality was, she had been given just a few days work in the four months she was there (The Era, 19 Dec 1934). The IMDB lists her with roles in three Hollywood films – two of which were uncredited – and none of which are easily accessed today. Her widely reported decision to leave Hollywood was not unusual. Sixteen months later, Australian actors Janet Johnson and Margaret Vyner both (seperately) declined studio contracts, and travelled on to England rather than pursue Hollywood careers. Vyner said  “I‘d hate to feel I had to spend my life there …  never quite sure of good parts. So I turned (the contract) down and felt even more pleased with myself for being able to resist it.” 

Above: Carol in the leading role in Lady Precious Stream. The Daily Mirror, 9 Nov 1935, P17, Via British Library Newspaper Archive. Also in the cast was fellow Australian Lucille Lisle.

Ironically, Carol’s greatest success followed soon after her return to London. She was cast in a leading role in the play Lady Precious Stream, which ran for much of 1935 at London’s Little Theatre. The play’s Chinese author, Hsiung Shi-I (Xiong Shiyi) wrote the play in English while living in London, but based it on a traditional Chinese opera. Hsiung co-directed the play with actor Nancy Price, and the 1935 cast consistedly entirely of Europeans dressed-up and made-up to look vaguely Chinese. But the play was popular with audiences and reviews of Carol’s performance were consistently positive.

Marriage to Ronnie Armstrong-Jones

In 1934 Carol met Ronald “Ronnie” Armstrong-Jones, a London lawyer who was divorcing his first wife. In June 1936 the couple married, and Carol became a step-mother to his two children, Antony (later Lord Snowdon) and Susan. Also, in spite of her great success with Lady Precious Stream, she retired from the stage – she later said this was at Ronnie’s request. Lord Snowdon’s biographer Anne de Courcy suggests that in marked contrast to Ronnie’s cool, impeccably styled first wife – Carol was “breezy” and “vivacious”. Ronnie delighted in Carol’s pretty Australian girlfriends and impromptu parties.

Above: Ronnie and Carol. Undated photo that appeared in Carol’s story on Antony Armstong-Jones, produced in the The Australian Women’s Weekly, 5 Apr 1961 P19. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

For those interested in Carol’s memories of being step-mother to Antony Armstrong-Jones, (who took the title Lord Snowdon after he married Princess Margaret in 1960), links to her account are given in Note 1 below. Carol claimed that they became close as he grew up, more like friends, and that she sometimes called him “Tone” (derived from a still common Australian habit of abbreviating everyone’s first name to form a nick-name). Antony was only 6 years old when they met, and in his late twenties when Ronnie and Carol decided to divorce in the late 1950s, so it was an important parent-child association as Antony grew up between two households. Anne de Courcy suggests the relationship was complex, partly because Ronnie’s relationship with his first wife remained acrimonious. De Courcy has also written that in time, Tony sometimes found Carol “brash and even vulgar’.

Later life and career 1945-66

After almost ten years away, Carol returned to the stage at the end of World War II and was now represented by agent Rita Cave. Although her screen appearances seem to have largely come to an end, her work on the stage over the next fifteen years must have been professionally rewarding. 1945 saw her touring with Claire Luce in It Happened in New York and in early 1946 she appeared in a successful run of the comedy – thriller, Mr Bowling buys a Newspaper, which toured and then played at London’s Embassy.

Her roles over the post war period were increasingly with repertory theatre companies, in supporting roles and in a wide range of familiar pieces – School For Scandal (1947) and Henry V as well as contemporary theatre – The Snow was Black (1953), new comedies such as Widows are Wonderful (1958). There were a mixture of successes and flops but generally good reviews of her performances. The Eastbourne Gazette reported that Carol was “delightful and vivacious” in the lead role in the comedy To Christobel! (7 April 1954) while The Stage complimented her on “a smooth performance of feminine guile, without a touch of conscience” in Angelina Pantaloon (24 June 1954).

Unfortunately Carol’s marriage to Ronnie came to an end in April 1959, but she remained close to her step-children and attended Antony Armstrong-Jones’ marriage to Princess Margaret in May 1960. Her reminscences of being a step-mother to Antony, by then Lord Snowdon, was syndicated worldwide soon after, entitled He Called me Carol (See Note 1 below). And in July 1959 Carol married Italian lawyer Guiseppe Lopez.

A six month run in The Big Killing at the (Princes) Shaftesbury Theatre from late 1961 was a highlight of her later career. The Stage described it as “a good specimen of the traditional British murder play” – while The Tatler reported it was “gin, tonic and murder”. Here she appeared opposite Leslie Phillips, playing a thoroughly unpleasant wife, who is killed off at the end of the first act. It was entertaining enough for Queen Elizabeth to bring Earl Mountbatten to a performance in March 1962.

Above: Carol about the time she attended the marriage of Princess Margaret and Antony Armstong-Jones on 6 May 1960. The Australian Women’s Weekly, 29 March 1961 P4. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In the early 1960s there were reports of plans for Carol to go into production of advertising films, which seems not to have come to fruition, and there is also some evidence that the couple struggled with the question of where to live – Rome or London. Carol complained that Guiseppe found it difficult to work in England, and allowed herself to be quoted (with what might be characteristic Australian frankness) saying “the best jobs in England go to the English… People over here are so narrow minded, they think that an Italian is either a janitor or a waiter” (Daily Mirror, 12 July 1960).

Sadly, Carol and Guiseppe’s lives came to a tragic and sudden end only a few years after their marriage. They were involved in a catastrophic head-on car accident in Italy on 4 October 1966 and Carol, Guiseppe, and a London friend died. The shocking news was carried in the British, US, Canadian and Australian press.

Carol Coombe described herself as an actor who “bluffed her way to stardom.” It’s a witty comment, but it seems unlikely that she got as far as she did without some meaningful study of elocution or the dramatic arts. Yet she was quite unique in many ways – straddling dramatically different contexts in life with ease and maintaining a strong sense of self throughout. Perhaps it was true.


Note 1

Carol Coombe’s reminscences of Lord Snowdon, “He Called me Carol” was syndicated worldwide by Beaverbrook Newspapers soon after Antony Armstrong-Jones’ marriage to Princess Margaret in May 1960. In Australia, the Australian Women’s Weekly carried the account in four instalments, which can be read here at the National Library of Australia’s Trove:


Note 2

In Australia, Carol’s sister Judy had married pastoralist Jim White in 1926 and raised a family at Belltrees, a very large property in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales. The magnificent 50 + room federation-era homestead still stands and is still in the hands of the family. In time, Carol’s other siblings, Vera and Hastings, also returned to Australia.


Nick Murphy
October 2021


References

  • Special Thanks
    • To Ms Marguerite Gillezeau, Archivist at Ascham School, for her assistance on Gwen Coombe’s schooling.
  • Films
    • The Ghost Train (1931) Fragment. Uploaded by Youtube user/Channel Spondonman
  • Australian Women’s Register, The University of Melbourne & The National Foundation for Australian Women (NFAW)
  • Text
    • Helen Cathcart (1968) Lord Snowdon. W H Allen
    • Anne de Courcy (2012) Snowdon, The Biography. Orion
    • Gale Research (1978) Who was Who in the Theatre, 1912-1976. Gale
    • Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film. Methuen, BFI
    • Ray Milland (1974) Wide-Eyed in Babylon. William Morrow & Co
    • J P Wearing (1990) The London stage, 1930-1939 : a calendar of plays and players Scarecrow Press.
    • Angela Woollacott (2001) To Try her fortune in London. Australian Women, Colonialism and Modernity. Oxford University Press
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The Sun (Syd) 28 Jan, 1923
    • The Home, 1 Dec 1924, P22
    • The Home, 1 Sept 1926
    • The Western Mail (Perth) 23 Feb, 1928
    • The Home, 1 June 1928, P39
    • The Home, 2 July 1928, P27
    • The Australian Woman’s Mirror, 24 Dec, 1929, P29
    • The Daily Telegraph (NSW) 20 May, 1929, P21
    • Daily News (Perth), 23 June 1930, P 3
    • The Home, 1 Aug, 1930
    • The Home, 2 Jan 1931
    • Everyone’s, 14 Dec 1932
    • The Home, 1 Feb 1933
    • The Home,1 Dec 1933, P41
    • The Australian Woman’s Mirror, 27 Feb 1934, P11
    • West Australian, 26 March 1935, P3
    • Table Talk, 19 April 1934, P11
    • The Sun (Syd), 12 Dec 1935, P44
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Mar 1936, P13
    • The Sun (Syd), 9 Nov, 1938, P13
    • The Canberra Times, 6 Oct 1966, P 25
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • The Stage, 23 Nov 1933, P12
    • Reynold’s Newspaper, 2 Sept 1934, P18
    • The Era, 4 April, 1934, P3
    • The Bystander, 31 July, 1934, P7
    • The Era, 19 Dec, 1934, P1
    • The Era, 20 Feb 1935 P12
    • The Bystander, 27 March 1935.
    • Daily Mirror, 11 Oct 1935
    • Daily Mirror, 9 Nov 1935, P17
    • News Chronicle, 9 Nov, 1935, P5
    • The Stage, 31 Jan 1946, P4
    • The Stage, 2 April, 1953, P9
    • Eastbourne Gazette, 7 April, 1954, P16
    • Daily Mirror, 12 July, 1960, P2
  • Newspapers.com
    • Evening Standard (UK), 4 Oct, 1966, P1, P32
    • The Age (Melb, Aust), 6 Oct 1966, P5
  • Lantern, Digital Media Project
    • Universal Filmlexikon, Berlin, 1932, P472
    • Picturegoer Weekly, 9 January, 1935, P7

This site has been selected for archiving and preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive

Joan Wetmore -The flashing brunette with the charming voice

Above: Joan Wetmore photographed c1943. Newspapers reported that her hair had been done in this new style at Elizabeth Arden’s New York salon. J. Willis Sayre Collection of Theatrical Photographs, University of Washington Special Collections.

joan-c1940The Five Second Version
Joan Wetmore was a busy actor on Broadway and in the early days of live TV in the United States. Born in Sydney Australia, on 29 August 1911 as Joan Deery she moved with her family to New York in 1917. It might be a stretch to describe her as a forgotten Australian, as almost all of her life was lived in the US, where she also had her start on stage. Yet throughout her life she was described as Australian and even after living in the US for twenty five years, she had to go through the process of becoming naturalised. She died in New York in 1989. It was Australian journalist Allan Dawes who described her as a “flashing brunette with (a) charming voice and unidentifiable accent.”


At left: Joan Wetmore in The Daily News (New York) 15 Apr 1941, P75, via Newspapers.com

Theatre in the family

Both Joan’s parents were Australian born. Her mother Agnes “Aggie” Thorn was an acclaimed soubrette for JC Williamson’s Royal Comic Opera Company, very active between 1904 and late 1906. After schooling at Presentation Convent in Melbourne, Aggie studied music at the University of Melbourne and also studied privately with Charlotte Hemming, a well known elocutionist. Aggie appeared in a burst of performances around Australia and New Zealand until she married Arthur Deery and left the stage. Arthur Deery was an up and coming Sydney lawyer whose cases were regular material for newspaper reports. In 1913, the young family lived at what must have been a comfortable home at 92 St George’s Crescent in Drummoyne, a spot that even today has spectacular views of central Sydney across the water.

Above: Left – Aggie Thorn on a postcard. David Elliott Theatrical Postcard Collection, c 1905. Right – Arthur Deery in The Sunday Sun (Syd) 27 May 1906. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Unfortunately, family life soon became less enjoyable. Following a court case in March 1915, Arthur was struck off as a solicitor and several months later, he boarded the SS Niagara for the US. He settled in New York, soon managing an engineering business. A divorce followed, Aggie claimed he had been unfaithful and had failed to support her. The divorce was granted. For a time, Aggie lived in Melbourne and attempted to start a business, with Joan and her older sister Kathleen attending Presentation Convent as their mother had. And yet, in June 1917, Aggie packed up the girls and left for the US on the SS Makura. The US census return shows that by 1920, the family was living together again, in Manhattan. Aggie and Arthur stayed together for the rest of their lives and were buried side by side at Mount Hope Cemetery in New York’s Westchester county. Whatever their differences, they had successfully reconciled. According to Joan, while in the US Aggie still pursued her passion for singing.

Joan’s US career

Interviewed in late 1944 by Allan Dawes, an Australian journalist based in North America, Joan gave an account of her life in United States that was unusually accurate, and avoided so much of the creative narrative favoured by established actors of the time. After arrival in New York, she had attended the Horace Mann School in the Bronx, and the George Washington High School.

One thing she did not mention to Dawes was that in 1930 she had eloped with William “Bill” Wetmore, whom she had met on an European break. Aggie told some newspapers she did not even know about the impending marriage. Joan was only 19 years old and William, a Harvard hockey and football star, was 23. He was the son of architect Charles Delaven Wetmore, of the well known New York firm Warren & Wetmore. Bill and Joan became a well known society couple in New York, and Joan also developed a reputation as a model. Photos taken of her in 1933 for Vogue magazine by well known photographer Edward Steichen, still circulate today. A son, William, was born of the union in November 1930. But sadly their marriage was reported to have failed by 1936.

Above: Left – William Wetmore, Oshkosh Northwestern (Wisconsin) 5 April 1930, P15. Right – Joan about the time the couple divorced. New York Daily News, 16 Dec 1939, P309. Via Newspapers.com

In the early 1930s Joan studied under Benno Schneider, a drama teacher who had once been a member of Stanislavski’s Art Theatre in Moscow, and now ran his own school in New York. (In time he was the Columbia Studio drama coach, and his many pupils included Kim Novak, Gene Tierney, Vincent Price and James Garner). In the 1944 interview, Joan did not explain to Allan Dawes exactly what had fed her “stage ambitions”, but her mother’s influence on her life was acknowledged (although Aggie had died in 1932). But the path to the stage had been hard, she admitted to Dawes. “Lots of girls have come to me for advice about a stage career…and I warn them all how deeply you must pay for your ambition and experience.”

Above: 29 year old Joan listed in the 1940 revival of Kind Lady with Grace George in the lead. Working with Grace George would have been an profound experience. She had been appearing on Broadway for 40 years. Author’s Collection.

Joan Wetmore became an active and successful actor and it seems that she was busy almost continuously until the early 1970s – an impressive career of over thirty years.

Joan’s earliest performance on Broadway was in the operetta The Two Bouquets at the Windsor Theatre in June and July 1938. In late 1940 she appeared with Grace George in a 3 month revival of an old favourite, the melodrama Kind Lady at the Playhouse Theatre. By this time Joan had divorced Bill Wetmore, and in February 1941 she married W Palmer Dixon, a New York broker. With the outbreak of war she volunteered as a nurse’s aide at New York’s Bellevue hospital, while Dixon joined up as an officer in the US air force. Despite reports she would leave the stage, she did not, nor did she change her established stage name.

It is hardly surprising that her career reflected the changes taking place in US society and the theatre world. She clearly chose the New York and east coast stage in preference to Hollywood and her choice of role suggests she had a great interest in trends in theatre. For example, during the war years she appeared in several plays written and directed by Elmer Rice – including A New Life (1943). The latter play gained some notoriety for its harrowing on-stage birthing scene, and a first for the US stage. Both were produced by the Playwright’s Company, established in 1938 to give leading US playwrights better exposure.

In November 1942 she began a most successful run in a leading role in Elmer Rice‘s Counsellor at Law, with Paul Muni reprising the leading role (he had first played the role ten years before). While New York’s Daily News complemented Joan for her excellent portrayal of the cold socialite wife (26 Nov 1942), Billboard gave her a thorough pasting – Joan’s was an “unbelievably bad performance” the paper reported (5 Dec 1942). However, obviously not everyone felt this way, as the play ran for eight months – more than 250 performances. Home on leave from the war, Colonel Palmer Dixon reportedly enjoyed it immensely and apparently any doubts about his wife continuing a career on stage vanished.

Above: Franchot Tone with Joan Wetmore in the play Hope for the Best. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pennsylvania), 13 Jan 1945, P12. Her wartime appearances also brought her into the company of many performers of note – Jane Wyatt, Vera Allen and Betty Field among others. Via Newspapers.com

With the benefit of hindsight, her roles often seemed consigned to beautiful but aloof women. In Counsellor at Law (1942-3) she played the hero’s unsympathetic society wife. In Hope for the Best (1945) she played a liberal columnist’s “snobbish fiancée” who discourages Michael Jordan (Franchot Tone) from writing about controversial social topics. In The Great Indoors (1966), a play about racial prejudice, she played a “boozy heiress.” Yet perhaps this says much about the range of roles being written for women.

Above: Left – Joan on tour – with Fay Bainter and Arthur Storch in Put Them All Together (1955), The Boston Globe, 2 Jan 1955. Right – Joan with Don Ameche in The Pleasure of His Company (1966) Fort Lauderdale News, 3 Aug 1966, P24. Via Newspapers.com

After the war, as television rapidly became dominant as a source of entertainment, audiences for theatre generally contracted. Broadway survived but declined in influence – while alternatives appeared in new theatre companies, and new performance venues sprang up outside New York. New plays reflected the social changes in US society. Post-war, Joan sometimes appeared off Broadway, for example in the Equity Library Theater productions of Leonid Andreyev’s The Sabine Women (1947) and Margaret Curtis’s A Highland Fling (1949).

Short of program material, post-war television networks increasingly used stage actors in adaptions of well known plays, filmed live to air. But in a report on the Philco Television Playhouse version of Counsellor at Law in 1948, one reviewer was frank in acknowledging the challenges: “Technically the film was none too smooth but action was good on the small set required for the play. Paul Muni was good…although he was guilty of too much mugging [over-acting] in his video debut. The cameras were far from kind to Joan Wetmore…”(Dayton Daily News 1 Nov 1948). Technicians and actors persevered – some surviving examples of early television programs that include Joan are listed below.

Joan’s mid-Atlantic accent was undoubtedly a product of parenting, schooling and elocution. This is highlighted in a short clip from And Adam Begot, a 1951 episode of the NBC supernatural series Lights Out. She appears here with Phillip Bourneuf and Kent Smith. The full episode can be seen here.

Joan Wetmore remained active on the stage and small screen well into the 1970s. She had a recurring role in the CBS TV series The Nurses, but much of her later creative effort went into short runs of popular comedies performed in theatres up and down the US east coast. These included Cornelia Otis Skinner‘s The Pleasure of His Company and Paul Osborn‘s The Vinegar Tree.

Joan died of cancer at her New York home in early 1989. Her numerous US obituaries noted her long career on stage and that she specialised in playing “elegant women”. Palmer Dixon had died in 1968 and her son by Palmer had died in a tragic shooting accident in 1960, aged only 14. She was survived by her son to Bill Wetmore, William Thomson Wetmore Junior, a journalist and successful author, and her older sister Kathleen, who lived much of her life in Venezuela.

Above: Joan in 1963. The Miami News. 17 Nov, 1963

Note 1

Joan was not tested for Gone With the Wind. This appears to have been a PR or sub-editors story. The names of those tested for the part of Scarlett O’Hara are quite well documented.


References

Early TV & Radio
[Examples of early live TV programs are hard to find. A few examples – featuring Joan Wetmore – can be seen here]

New York Public Library Digital Collection

University of Washington Special Collections

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

Text

  • Gerald Bordman (1996) American Theatre; A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama. Oxford University Press
  • Louis Botto (2002) At this Theatre, 100 years of Broadway Shows Stories and Stars. Playbill/Applause
  • Edward Bronner (1980) The Encyclopedia of the American theatre. A S Barnes
  • John Langeloth Loeb (1996) All in a lifetime; a personal memoir. John L Loeb
  • Felicia Hardison Londré & Daniel Watermeier (1998) The History of North American Theater : the United States, Canada, and Mexico : from pre-Columbian times to the present. Continuum
  • Anthony F R Palmieri (1980) Elmer Rice, a Playwright’s vision of America. Associated university Presses
  • Walter Rigdon (Ed)(1966) The biographical encyclopaedia & who’s who of the American theatre. J H Heineman
  • Toby Gordon Ryan (1985) Stage left : Canadian Workers Theatre, 1929-1940. Simon and Pierre

National Library of Australia

  • Melbourne Punch, 21 April 1898, P9
  • Australian Town and Country Journal (Syd), 29 Nov 1905, P34
  • The Gadfly, 14 March 1906 P11
  • Critic (Adel) 9 Jan 1907, P22
  • Daily Telegraph (Syd) 3 March 1915 P12
  • Sun (Syd) 20 Nov 1916, P3
  • Truth (Melb) 2 Dec 1916, P4
  • Herald (Melb) 9 Dec 1944, P9
  • Mercury (Hob) 8 Jan 1945 P3

Internet Archive

  • Billboard 5 Dec 1942
  • Newsweek, 19 Feb 1945
  • Billboard, 19 April 1947

Newspapers.com

  • Daily News (New York) 1 Apr 1930, P16
  • Oshkosh Northwestern (Wisconsin) 5 April 1930, P15
  • Harrisburg Telegraph (Pennsylvania) 7 Apr 1930, P5
  • The Plain Speaker (Pennsylvania) 29 Sep 1939, P6
  • Daily News (New York), 16 Dec 1939, P309
  • The News Journal (Delaware) 12 Apr 1941, P17
  • Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 13 Jan 1945, P12
  • The Winona Daily News (Minnesota) 5 Dec 1953, P4
  • The Boston Globe (Massachusetts) 2 Jan 1955, P110
  • Newsday (Nassau New York) 25 Jun 1960, P5
  • St. Louis Globe-Democrat (Missouri) 27 Jul 1962, P56
  • The Bridgeport Post (Connecticut) 11 Aug 1963, P52
  • The Miami News, 17 Nov 1963, P78
  • Fort Lauderdale News, 3 Aug 1966, P24
  • Daily News (New York) 10 Oct 1967, P402

Nick Murphy
September 2021

This site has been selected for archiving and preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive

Murray Matheson (1912-1985), the busy actor from Casterton

Above: Murray Matheson on a signed fan photo, Undated. Author’s Collection.

Murray enlargementThe 5 second version
Born near Casterton in Victoria, Australia in 1912, Sidney Murray Matheson established himself on stage in the 1930s. He moved to the UK in 1937. His first British film was a small part as an Australian in the RAF, (which he really was) in The Way to the Stars in 1945. In the early 1950s he had moved to the US where he built an extraordinarily successful career playing character roles – often eccentric authority figures – in films and on TV. On his passing, obituaries noted the extraordinary breadth of his screen work, but also acknowledged his lifelong passion for the stage, which is less well known. He died in Los Angeles in 1985. (This article only lists some of his many screen and stage performances)

Growing Up in Australia

Sidney Murray Matheson was born at “Maryville,” a sheep station (ranch) at Sandford, near Casterton, Victoria, Australia on 1 July, 1912. He had four older sisters – Mavis, Joan, Roma and Beryl, and a brother who had died in infancy. While sheep grazing in Victoria’s “Western District” was very lucrative, it was not for the faint hearted. His parents, Kenneth Murray Matheson and Ethel Sunderland nee Barrett had both been born in country Victoria and were prepared to make the effort on the land. But when Murray was twelve his mother Ethel died – as a result of an awful mix of diabetes, rheumatic fever and heart failure. When Kenneth remarried in 1926, his new wife spent half an hour on the property before leaving for the city again, flatly refusing to live on the land. The second marriage did not survive.

Above: Murray’s older sister Mavis posing on a reaper and binder at Sandford in about 1915. In the 1990s, Museums Victoria collected a large archive of photos from rural Victoria, including this one and several others from the Sandford area. Via Museums Victoria Collections

Years later, Murray said one of his earliest memories was droving (herding) sheep – riding along behind his father. “I can still see him, his back completely black, covered with flies, the scourge of Australia” (Ogden Standard 16 June 1973). For part of his schooling Murray attended Geelong Grammar, a famous Australian independent boarding school, long favoured by wealthy Western District pastoral families and modelled on the English boarding school model, that is well known for educating Charles, Prince of Wales, in 1966.

On the stage

Murray had no intention of following tradition and staying on the land, much to his father’s disappointment. By 1934 he was living in leafy East Melbourne, whilst working as a bank clerk. In later years he recounted that his inspiration for becoming an actor was seeing the musical Sally. Probably starting off as an amateur, in the early 1930s he began to be associated with the Melbourne Little Theatre, where British actress Ada Reeve gave tuition in “Musical Comedy, Drama, Monologue, Film and Broadcasting”. He always claimed to have appeared in the musical Roberta with Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott in early 1935, perhaps in the chorus of this JC Williamson production. By early 1936, he was definitely a professional, on the road performing at small country towns through rural New South Wales and Queensland with George Sorlie‘s “tent company” (that is, they put up a tent for performances at each stop). Sorlie rather grandly called this the “English Comedy Company” and advertised his tour with the slogan “always a good show at Sorlie’s,” but it was really all designed to coincide with country agricultural shows. Their repertoire included While Parent’s Sleep, Wandering Wives and Ten Minute Alibi, and amongst the performers was a young Peter Finch, who in time became a good friend. For years, Murray’s experiences on this tour became the subject of endless witty stories about performing in remote Australia. Newspapers also reported Murray was engaged to the company ingénue, Leslie Crane. In June 1936, he took a leading role in a season of the musical Billie at Melbourne’s Apollo Theatre. Almost certainly encouraged to try his luck in London by actor friends like Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott, Murray boarded the SS Orsova for England in August.

Above: A youthful Murray Matheson, looking very like his friend Cyril Ritchard, who became a friend in the mid 1930s. The Telegraph (Brisbane) 11 Jul 1936 P12 Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Not long after arriving, Murray found work with the Bournemouth Repertory Theatre company. In 1937 he was reported by a reviewer as demonstrating “adaptability and poise” in plays like If Four Walls Told and London Wall. (Bournemouth Graphic 19 Feb 1937). A year later he was performing with Edward Stirling’s English Players Company on an extended European tour, taking him to Paris, Vienna, Berlin and Warsaw, whilst performing Inferno and The End of the Beginning. He was “a find,” reported The Birmingham Mail (23 Oct 1940). However, with the outbreak of war he joined the war effort, as did so many other young Australians living in Britain. By 1941 he was in the Royal Air Force (RAF). Leslie Crane, who had followed him to England in 1938 also left her repertory theatre company and joined the Women’s Land Army. But the couple did not marry. Years later, he claimed he had been briefly married, but did not say to whom or when (Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Feb 1968). He said he “did not like it.”

By 1939 Murray had been joined in London by his sister Roma, a restaurateur, and together they lived in Old Church St, Chelsea.

Above: Murray Matheson in his Royal Air Force uniform, c1941. Source; Cyril Ritchard album of theatrical performance and personal photographs, 1939-1944. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The RAF and Murray’s early films

Many sources list Murray as a RAF Intelligence Officer, a title which might suggest many things – but what exactly, is today unclear. He was acting again by late 1944, or at least for some of the time. His early films date from this time – set in the RAF and written by Terence Rattigan. The first was a small supporting role in Anthony Asquith‘s The Way to the Stars – which featured John Mills and Michael Redgrave. Unfortunately the print currently in circulation appears to have been cut down for US release (under the title Johnny in the Clouds), and his role as Lawson, an Australian officer in the RAF, has all but disappeared – which is a pity, as contemporary reviews singled it out. Not so his role as Pete, the Australian radio operator in Journey Together, a tale of bomber command, directed by John and Roy Boulting, featuring Richard Attenborough.

There were also more real-life adventures before he was demobilised. He was reportedly in Moscow on some unspecified Admiralty mission at the end of the war, during which he broke his leg skating, or skiing. But it cannot have been all that bad an injury, as within a few months he was onstage at London’s Garrick Theatre in Better Late, with Beatrice Lillie.

Above: Screen grab of supporting players Hamish McNichol as Angus and Murray Matheson as Pete (the Lancaster bomber’s radio operator) in the final scene of Journey Together. The bomber’s crew are on a raft and have just been seen by a rescue aircraft because of the efforts of their excellent navigator (Richard Attenborough). Author’s collection. Following this he had a very small part in another war drama – Peter Ustinov’s Secret Flight, a story of the development of radar.

In 1948, the British Ministry of Information made a 25 minute docu-drama about the work of Dr George M’Gonigle, Chief Medical Officer in the 1920s and 30s for the northern English town of Stockton-on-Tees. Murray Matheson was cast to play M’Gonigle – one newspaper claimed he “was chosen for his sympathetic face and because, like Dr. M’Gonigle he has limp.” (Daily Herald, 10 Nov 1948, 3). McGonigle is hardly remembered in the 21st century, but he should be. A social pioneer – his reports on poverty and malnutrition impacted British social planning for years. For Murray, this role gave him valuable and lasting exposure as a capable performer, able to carry a successful film in a leading role.

Above: Screengrab of Murray in the lead role in One Man’s Story, a docu-drama made by the British Ministry of Information in 1948. Now in the public domain, it can be viewed online.

Move to North America

Sometime in late 1948 he travelled to Canada to appear for Brian Doherty – in The Drunkard, or the Fallen Saved an old temperance play, presented as “a stylised revue” now with music and played for comic effect. Although it was not to everyone’s taste, it appears to have been a reasonable success, and the play toured much of Canada before wrapping up in Chicago in March 1949. Murray must have enjoyed it because he was back in Canada doing another revue – There Goes Yesterday later that year.

Above: John Pratt, Charmion King and Murray in There Goes Yesterday. The Province (Vancouver), 17 March 1950, P6, via Newspapers.com.

Following this, in 1950 Murray appeared on tour in the US with old friends Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliot in the 17th century comedy The Relapse, or Virtue in Danger. The play had recently been directed by Anthony Quayle at London’s Phoenix Theatre, before being brought to Broadway by Ritchard.

By the early 1950s, the US and soon California had become his home. But Murray’s connection to Australia remained surprisingly strong. Although he never returned to Australia (he said more than once that he would), Murray remained an active correspondent with his two surviving sisters and the Australian journalists he knew, more so than many other expat Australians.


A snapshot of a prolific US career

Murray’s letters home from the UK and later North America documented what must have been an exciting time in his career. His early US work was notable as a mix of “legitimate” stage, televised theatre (a common device used by TV networks in the early 1950s when they did not have enough material) and film. The film roles were at first a mix of menacing or alternatively affable authority figures – consider – the Communist brainwasher in The Bamboo Prison (1953) and Major MacAllister in King of Khyber Rifles (1953). He can also be found playing police inspectors, doctors, and even vicar roles, including a convicted reverend in Paramount’s formulaic 1952 colonial drama, Botany Bay, directed by Australian John Farrow, but mostly featuring British players.

Above: Leading players of Botany Bay (1952), James Mason, Patricia Medina and behind the frightened Koala (which briefly appears in the film) is Murray Matheson. The Times (Shreveport, Louisiana) 3 Feb 1952, P23, Via Newspapers.com

Baby-boomers would recall Murray fondly as a guest in many popular TV series of the time. The very long list of appearances includes The Man from UNCLE (1965), Get Smart (1966), The Invaders (1967), McMillan and Wife (1973), McCloud (1970), Hawaii Five-0 (1973) and Battlestar Galactica (1978). On many occasions, he reappeared – in a different episode and as a different character. Not so his regular role as Felix Mulholland in Banacek (1972-4), a detective series with George Peppard as private investigator Thomas Banacek. Here Murray played an extremely well read bookseller – a fellow wit like Banacek, whose encyclopedic knowledge assists in solving cases.

It was while working on Banacek that Murray told reporters he had appeared in all of Noel Coward’s stage productions, which, given his passion for the stage, may well be true. On his passing in 1985, it was claimed he had appeared on stage almost 500 times.

Above Left; Murray in Visit to a Small Planet, The Greenville News, 6 June 1962, P6. Centre; Murray with Jane Powell in Peter Pan, The Los Angeles Times, 19 Dec 1965, P93. Right, Murray with Pat Galloway in Lock Up Your Daughters, The Los Angeles Times, 2 Oct 1967, P47. Via Newspapers.com

It is beyond the scope of this article to document all of Murray’s many appearances on the US stage, but a glance at US newspapers shows an impressively wide variety of roles played across the country. Reviews of his stage work were consistently positive, explaining why he was in such demand. In the musical Damn Yankees in 1965 he sang and danced skilfully as the Devil, “with a dry diabolical charm.” (San Francisco Examiner 5 Aug 1965, 30). When he appeared in Peter Pan later that year and again in 1968 he was “downright humorous and sometimes awesome” in the dual roles of the children’s father and Captain Hook (Independent, Long Beach, 21 Dec 1965, 8). He carried the leading role in Sleuth at the Little Theatre in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1972 with great skill – “an excellent portrayal of the snobbish, selfish but somehow likeable author…” (The Greenville News, South Carolina, 2 Feb 1975, 30). The stage clearly remained a passion and probably his preference.

Of Murray the man, his contemporaries had universally good things to say. Canadian born actor Beatrice “Bea” Lillie was a great friend in London – they had appeared together in revues like Better Late at the Garrick Theatre in 1946. In Hollywood, he was a close friend of Agnes Moorehead, sometimes escorting her to social events – as well as appearing with her in one episode of Bewitched.

In 1978 Murray was interviewed for Trader Faulkner‘s upcoming biography of Peter Finch. Murray recalled his occasional catch-ups with old friend “Finchie”, during which they would reminisce about George Sorlie’s tent shows in outback Australia. He said they would “both become terribly common, and Peter, despite the fact he was English, would become absolutely Australian and talk in ‘Strine’.* He was often more Australian in his outlook than I ever was.”

Murray Matheson died on 25 April 1985, following a stroke. He was only 72 and had been working almost to the end. His final film was a small role in Steven Spielberg‘s The Twilight Zone (1983).

However, for this writer, a favourite was his role as the Captain of the Queen Mary in Assault on a Queen.(1967). As a teenager, this writer made a decision to always be as urbane and cordial as the dapper and tanned Murray Matheson – playing the ship’s Captain, with officer’s cap just slightly askew, in the best ex-service tradition. You can watch the relevant clip at Turner Classic Movies here.

Above: Murray Matheson at the height of his TV activity, with his tanned face and distinguished white hair. Photo taken in about 1975. The Greenville News (South Carolina) 27 Jan 1975, P26. Via Newspapers.com.

*Strine – meaning a broad Australian accent, usually also interspersed with plenty of local and incomprehensible slang.


Nick Murphy
September 2021


References

  • Text
    • Amalgamated Press (1942) Picture Show Annual 1942
    • Lotta Dempsey (1976) No Life for a Lady. Musson Books
    • Trader Faulkner (1979) Peter Finch, a biography. Taplinger Pub. Co.
    • Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British film. BFI – Methuen
    • Alex Nissan (2017) Agnes Moorehead on Radio, Stage and Television McFarland.
    • J.P. Wearing (Ed)(2014) The London Stage 1930-1939 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
  • State of Victoria: Births, Death and Marriages
    • Sidney Murray Matheson, Birth certificate 1912. Doc 24110/1912
    • Ethel Matheson, Death certificate, 1924. Doc 4749/1924
  • Public Records Office, Victoria.
    • Divorce Case Files, 1860-1940. VPRS 283. Kenneth Murray Matheson v Hannah Margaret Matheson, 1933/387
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The Maitland Daily Mercury (NSW) 15 Feb 1936, P6
    • The Scone Advocate (NSW) 18 Feb 1936, P1
    • The Warwick Daily News (Qld) 11 Mar 1936, P2
    • Telegraph (Qld) 11 July 1936, P12
    • The Herald (Melb) 8 Aug 1936, P21
    • Table Talk (Melb) 8 Oct 1936, P18
    • Telegraph (Qld) 27 March 1937, P14
    • Telegraph (Qld) 12 June 1937, P14
    • The Herald (Melb) 7 May 1940, P15
    • The Home (Aust) Vol 22, No 1, 1 Jan 1941, P18
    • The Herald (Melb) 10 Mar 1949, P19
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • Bournemouth Graphic 29 Jan 1937, P10
    • Bournemouth Graphic 19 Feb 1937, P12
    • The Stage 16 June 1938, P9
    • Blyth News 12 Nov 1945 P3
    • The Sketch, 15 May 1946
    • Daily Herald, 10 November 1948 P3
  • Newspapers.com
    • The Age (Melb) 8 June 1934, P10
    • The Province (Vancouver) 17 March, 1950 P6
    • The Times (Louisiana) 3 Feb 1952, P23
    • The Greenville News (South Carolina) 6 June 1962, P6
    • The San Francisco Examiner, 5 Aug 1965 P30
    • The Los Angeles Times 19 Dec 1965, P93
    • The Los Angeles Times 2 Oct 1967, P47
    • The Sydney Morning Herald (Syd) 4 Feb 1968, P40
    • The Ogden Standard-Examiner (Utah) 16 June 1973, P23
    • The Greenville Times (South Carolina) 27 Jan 1975, P26
    • The Los Angeles Times, 26 April 1985, P30

This site has been selected for archiving and preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive

Blanche Satchel – the Australian Ziegfeld girl

Above: Blanche Satchel, in a photo probably aboard the SS George Washington when she first arrived in the US, in September 1925. Bain News Service photograph collection, Library of Congress. (Enlargement)

The 5 Second version
Born in Sydney in 1906 as Blanche Schachtel, she had a long experience as a juvenile stage performer in Australia, encouraged by her mother. She travelled to London in 1925 but soon after went to the US to appear as a showgirl for Florenz Ziegfeld in his revues, including his Follies. Her final performance was in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931 – a US career of only 7 years. She died in New York in 2004. She appears to have been the only Australian born Ziegfeld Girl.

Growing up in Australia

She was born at the family home (and business) in Liverpool Street, Sydney Australia on 30 September 1906, as Blanch Sybil Schachtel, to Montague Schachtel and Doris nee Polack. Montague ran a pawnbrokers for many years at 92-94 Liverpool Street, but he is sometimes also listed in documents as an importer and auctioneer. In her earlier days, Doris had appeared on stage in Australia and New Zealand as Dorrie Melrose, a member of the Princess Comic Opera Company. By 1924, the family were living in a comfortable house at 24 Watson Street Bondi, not far from the famous beach, while Blanche finished school at Sydney Church of England Girls’ Grammar School. It is quite possible that accounts told later in life are true – these suggest she grew up the sporty, outdoors – loving, Australian girl, in the established traditions of Annette Kellerman and Beatrice Kerr.

Above left: Blanche – a photo showing her as a youngster. The Sunday Times (Syd) 6 December 1925, P12. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove. Above right: An unmade-up Blanche, soon after arrival in England. Daily Mirror, 25 August 1925, P1. Copyright held by Reach PLC. Via the British Library’s Newspaper Archive.

Doris was to be an important force in her daughter’s success – and there is strong evidence she fostered her Blanche’s interests in a stage career from an early age. Blanche learnt dancing with Minnie Everett, one of Sydney’s well known ballet mistresses, and in early 1916, she was on stage in Sydney with Douglas Ancelon and Stella Chapman‘s College of Dramatic Arts, one of the best known Australian elocution and drama schools. As Desley Deacon has noted in her article on Judith Anderson, Sylvia Bremer and Dorothy Cumming, in the early twentieth century, elocution schools served a much broader purpose than just knocking off vestiges of an Australian girl’s colonial accent. It also taught girls marketable skills and instilled discipline.

Two years later, Blanche was on stage with Miss Ruby Davies’ Bondi-Waverley Players, appearing in the popular comedy-drama Little Lord Fauntleroy in the title role of Cedric. On one occasion the state’s Governor even watched a performance. Over the next few years, and now using the surname Satchel, Blanche also appeared in Davies’ pantomimes, including Snow White and Aladdin. She may also have performed in the chorus for Hugh Ward professional productions in the early 1920s. At some point, Blanche and her mother decided that she should try her luck as a performer in England. They arrived in London on the Orient line ship Ormuz in late May, 1925.

Launching an international career

Blanche’s quick success in London was remarkable. Soon after arriving she had a place in the chorus at the Prince’s nightclub cabaret, reportedly on £6 per week. However, by late August 1925, she had a new offer from none other than visiting US theatre impresario Florenz Ziegfeld (1867-1932), to join his spectacular follies in New York. His trademark show was the annual Ziegfeld Follies, with its lavish numbers and hugely spectacular synchronized pageantry, performed with dozens of glamourous showgirls.

The story of their meeting and his offer to her got longer and more complex with each telling. This writer is inclined to the view that the earliest accounts were the most accurate, including this one which directly quoted Blanche; “My mother must really get the credit for this, as it was she who saw in the newspapers Mr Ziegfeld’s request for six girls, and brought me to him… Mr Ziegfeld thought I was a little too short at first and I waited in an agony of suspense until he finally said ‘All Right – you’ll do!’ “ (Daily Mirror, 25 Aug 1925). Of course she was not short at all – the very comprehensive US passenger manifest for the SS George Washington recorded that she stood a completely average height of 167 cm, or 5’6″. But she was good looking.

Above: Blanche, at her glamourous best and now a established Ziegfeld girl, in a US newspaper photospread. The Baltimore Sun (Maryland) May 27, 1928, P97, via newspapers.com

Described during his lifetime with a mix of gushing admiration – “his work of the last year is the work of genius” (Daily News 20 Mar 1928) and mock indignation “the acknowledged master of skin opera” (Austin American 18 Jan 1928), “Flo” Ziegfeld has been the subject of many biographies. Understandably, our appreciation of his work has changed over time. He might be best thought of today as a “man of his time.” In a 1994 article for The American Scholar, Michael Lasser has written “how strange it must seem to those under forty [today] that a theatrical producer could have become one of the most celebrated….figures of his day for his success at the public display of women…” Amongst the most recent biographies is Cynthia and Sara Brideson’s 2015 Ziegfeld and his Follies, which aptly introduces him as “a man of triple and quadruple personalities” (using his second wife Billie Burke’s words) and provides a masterful account of his life, including his reputation as the “Glorifier of the American girl.”

Above: Don Draper from the TV series Mad Men did not invent the Lucky Strike slogan “It’s toasted”, it has been around for many years. Here Florenz Ziegfeld appears with the slogan in 1928. Motion Picture Classic Jul-Dec 1928. Via the Lantern Digital Media Project.

Blanche was just one of many young women Flo chose as a performer and feted as a showgirl, not some special case. Lasser estimates there were more than three thousand girls selected up to the time of Flo’s death in 1932. Cynthia and Sara Brideson also cite Eddie Cantor’s view that “glorifying the American Girl… was an actual process invented by Zieggy”. Well-planted publicity stories made many of his girls stars off stage and the stereotype that all Ziegfeld girls married millionaires was well established. However, in Blanche’s case, there was also a real controversy accompanying her arrival in the US. Her London employers were not at all keen to let her go, and threatened legal action – claiming she was abandoning a contract. Today we can see why she left – the opportunities working in the US were much more attractive and it all came with a salary four times higher than she was receiving in London. Estimates are that the showgirls were paid the equivalent of $75 per week (approximately $1500 in 2021 money). Newspapers lapped the story up and it gave Blanche some much needed publicity, although there is no sign the dispute ever worried Flo Ziegfeld. Blanche was soon performing in a Ziegfeld chorus – in fabulous extravagant costumes.

Above: Blanche in costume and an unwieldy headdress from an unspecified show. The Journal (Connecticut)19 Feb 1929, P10. Via newspapers.com

In the interests of good publicity, from about 1916 Flo arranged for Alfred Cheney Johnston to photograph (the Bridesons suggest “glorify”) his showgirls – in time this included Blanche – usually the girls being in a state of genteel undress, occasionally nude. Most of the suggestive but less scandalous photos would appear in theatre programs – these were subtle and classical enough that Blanche’s mother could say she approved, as she did of a portrait painted by Howard Chandler Christy. However, these photos of the Ziegfeld girls remind us that no matter how kind Flo was as an employer, the girls were commodities, being employed for their looks, sex appeal and only sometimes their stage craft. Blanche Satchel was no different.

Above: Charcoal drawing of a painting of Blanche by Howard Chandler Christy, in The Oakland Tribune, 24 March 1929, P68. Via Newspapers.com. The Getty archive image here shows Christy posing with Blanche in front of the original painting.

The glamour publicity associated with the Ziegfeld girls extended to various alleged romances, often created for publicity purposes. In Blanche’s case, in October 1928 Time magazine associated her romantically with aviator Charles Lindbergh. There is no evidence this was the case, it appears the couple never met. But it is likely that in the early 1930s she had a short romance with “Cuba’s most eligible bachelor” – a certain Paul Mendoza.

In August 1928 Blanche took up a role with Flo’s competitor Earl Carroll, for his revue – Vanities. Carroll publicized Blanche in his program with more fanfare that usual, but by July 1929 she was back with Ziegfeld again – in the chorus of his new musical Show Girl. Blanche’s other performances for Ziegfeld included Simple Simon, Smiles, and the last Follies show before Ziegfeld’s death in 1932. For Blanche it was busy work, although like most of the girls, she was never singled out in reviews. If she appeared in Paramount’s Glorifying the American Girl – a 1929 film that romanticized Ziegfeld’s shows – it was merely as an extra. But in early 1933, newspapers reported she was about to take a film test in Hollywood.

Above: Made under the “personal supervision” of Florenz Ziegfeld, Glorifying the American Girl was made by Paramount Pictures in 1929. However, the film had spent several years in development. Here, it is announced as a forthcoming 1926 production by the Motion Picture News (April 1926), via the Internet Archive. The 1929 film, directed by Millard Webb, can be watched here. It is unclear if Blanche had a role in it.
Above: Blanche’s final performance for Ziegfeld was in 1931. She was not a featured player, however the layout of the program reveals the style and format of the show had not changed much. Author’s collection.

Life after her career

The film test never eventuated. Instead Blanche married stockbroker Max Bamberger in June 1933, the ceremony taking place at the very quaint Pickwick Arms Hotel in Greenwich Connecticut, about an hour from New York. Blanche and Max then headed off for a holiday in Canada, and then spent some time in Bermuda. She had well and truly retired from the stage, aged only 26. About the same time, Blanche’s father Montague arrived in New York. He had been bankrolling some of his wife and daughter’s overseas lifestyle, and now, finally, he was permanently joining them. He and Doris set about becoming US citizens.

Above: Blanche, now a celebrity because she was a “former Ziegfeld Follies actress,” promises she won’t remarry. But two months later, she did. The Dayton Herald (Ohio), 1 Aug 1938, P10, via Newspapers.com.

Unfortunately Blanche and Max’s marriage was short-lived. In July 1938 she went to Reno, Nevada to initiate a “friendly divorce” on the grounds of incompatibility – she said she preferred living in the city while Max preferred the country. Only a few months after the divorce, Blanche married William B Yeager, an executive in the US government’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and soon after this, she became a US citizen. But this second marriage also failed sometime in the late 1940s.

Blanche lived in Beverley Hills for a time in early 1960s. She may have married a third time in later life, possibly living until the early years of the 21st century, as a person matching her profile died in March 2004 and was buried in the same cemetery as her parents in Westchester County, New York. This would make Blanche amongst the last of the Ziegfeld girls, although unfortunately she was never interviewed about her experiences. Doris Eaton Travis, who lived to 2010, is accepted as the last, and she left commentaries and appeared in several interviews.

In Sydney’s Bondi, the pretty house where Blanche grew up still stands, apparently little has changed.

Above: The beautiful Blanche – a photo that was regularly used through the 1930s, although she no longer performed. Daily News (New York) 4 Sep 1938, P128. Via newspapers.com

Blanche’s beauty competition?

Blanche was not a “Miss Australia” and did not enter any such competition – which did not start until the 1950s. The basis of the story appears to be this – in 1904 her mother Doris entered an “Australian types of Beauty” competition run by Sydney’s Lorne Photographic Studios. The photo she took, or arranged, or was in, won her the first prize – a piano. What the photo was or showed is now lost. It had nothing to do with Blanche, as she wasn’t born for another two years.


Nick Murphy
August 2021


References

  • Special thanks to – Prue Heath, Archivist, SCEGGS Darlinghurst.
  • News South Wales Births Deaths & Marriages
    • Blanch Sybil Schachtel Birth Certificate. #31083/1906
  • Lantern Digital Media Project @ Internet Archive
    • Motion Picture News April 1926
    • Motion Picture Classic 1927
  • Internet Archive
    • Time Magazine 1928, 10-15. P10
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The Sydney Morning Herald 11 Jan 1904, P5
    • The Sydney Morning Herald 13 May 1904, P2
    • The Sydney Morning Herald 27 March 1916, P5
    • The Sydney Morning Herald 2 August 1918, P10
    • Newcastle Morning Herald (NSW) 28 July 1924
    • The Sydney Morning Herald 15 April 1925, P9
    • Kalgoorlie Miner (WA) 26 August 1925, P5
    • The Sun (Sydney) 26 August 1925, P20
    • News (SA) 27 August1925, P4
    • The Examiner (Tas) 6 March 1928, P7
  • Newpapers.com
    • Daily News (New York) Sept 4, 1925, P54
    • Daily News (New York) Apr 8, 1928 P116
    • The Baltimore Sun (Maryland) May 27, 1928 P97
    • The Journal (Connecticut)19 Feb 1929, P10
    • The Oakland Tribune (California) 24 March 1929, P68
    • The Pomona Progress Bulletin (California) Jul 14 1931, P7
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • Daily Mirror 25 August 1925

This site has been selected for archiving and preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive

Glen Alyn – the actress who was chased by a shark

Glen Alyn (1913-1984) in Picture Show Annual, 1942, P117, via the Internet Archive. The cropped article in the background, that reported the shark attack, is from the London Evening Standard, Nov 19, 1940, P8, via the British Library Newspaper Archive.

The Five Second Version
Born Glenore Pointing in Sydney in 1913, she developed a career on the English stage and in mostly supporting film roles after 1930. She said she hated her first film experience in The Outsider in 1931, but she took a Warner Bros (UK) contract for two years in the late 30s. She continued to perform on stage until the 1960s. Late in life she retired to Australia, where she died in 1984.
Audrey Pointing, born 1910, also appeared on the English stage in the 1930s, and briefly on Broadway. She married and became Lady Doverdale in 1933, retiring from the stage. She died in Monte Carlo in 1970. 

Was a young Glen Alyn really chased by a shark, as the London Evening Standard reported in November 1940? Well, probably not. Although this does occasionally happen in Australia, it was almost certainly a tall story developed for publicity purposes, – like Lotus Thompson’s “acid on the legs” story or Errol Flynn’s “Irish birth”. Glen left a clue to the reason for this story when speaking to the same newspaper years later. By 1954, she could honestly report that her career had been “a persistent plodding on,” and she had never really had an outstanding success. Other Australian actors reported similar experiences – ten years later Australian born actor Betty McDowall, complained that working in London was “tough as hell”. But why would we expect it to have been anything other than hard work.

Left: “Vivacious Glen Alyn” photographed while the drama The Ware Case was being filmed, The Daily Mirror, 26 Sept, 1938. At no point in the film did Glen pose like this, it is apparently a “glamour shot”. Via the British Library Newspaper Archive.

The Pointing family of Sydney

Glenore Joan Pointing was born in Sydney on 30 September 1913, to Arthur Pointing (1883-1944) and his wife Elsie nee Davis (1888-1956).

Arthur Pointing owned several butcher’s shops in Sydney which had a reputation for high quality and modern cleanliness. But Arthur also had other interests and he didn’t work in the shops himself. These other interests included harness racing and some unspecified but obviously very lucrative investments. Arthur’s father, Albert, had been a City of Paddington alderman for many years, and was Mayor in 1900 and 1911-12.

Arthur and Elsie’s family lived in Woollahra for most of the 1910s and early 1920s, in a large beach front home they had built themselves, on Beach Road in Darling Point.

Above: One of Arthur Pointing’s chain of butcher’s shops, as shown in The Sun (NSW) 6 Sept 1913. Customers were greeted with attractive displays of choice cuts of meat amongst the palm fronds, served by smartly dressed butchers. A very different experience to many butcher’s shops of the era. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Glenore attended Ascham School in 1918 and 1919 (where she was known as “Glennie”) and her older sister Audrey (born 1910) was also a student at the school. The girls were very young boarders for a time in 1919, while Arthur and Elsie took a trip to the US. It seems the parents enjoyed the tour so much they decided to take the girls to the US, departing on the SS Ventura in January 1921. Some accounts claimed Glen was a keen dancer and suggest that while on this trip aged only 7 years, she determined to go on stage. In later years, the story was that the Australian comedian Clyde Cooke, then working in Hollywood, had shown the two girls around a studio. This might be so, and we know Cooke directed her in his British film Trouble in Store, in 1934, about the time the story gained currency. However, as with so many aspects of Glen’s early career in the UK, details that might confirm this story are sketchy.

Audrey steps on stage

It was actually Glen’s older sister Audrey who was first on stage and who proved to be the passionate dancer. Audrey was a “star pupil” of well known Sydney dance teacher Minnie Hooper. In late 1923 and early 1924, 14 year old Audrey appeared on stage at the Grand Opera House in Castlereagh Street, Sydney, for Hugh Ward‘s “revusical” panto The Rockets, and in March 1924 in Tons of Money. Ward had been managing director for J C Williamson’s for ten years and had resigned in 1923. These were productions he mounted in a new collaboration with John Fuller.

Possibly enthused with what they had seen of the world on their trip several years before, the Pointings packed up and departed on the Ormonde for England, arriving there in June 1924. Advancing opportunities for Audrey and Glen almost certainly was at the heart of this permanent move, although Arthur was to return every few years to “attend to his affairs.” The Pointing’s Beach Road home was finally sold up in October 1925, including all its contents. The family had relocated to an apartment near Hyde Park, in London’s west end.

Above: Audrey Pointing – while appearing in Out of the Bottle at the Hippodrome, London Daily Mirror, 8 June 1932 P7. A year later she was Lady Doverdale. Via British Library Newspaper Archive.

Audrey Pointing can be found in the chorus lineup for several shows from the late 1920s – such as the musical Peggy Ann, that ran at Daly’s Theatre for four months in 1927. By the early 1930s Audrey had made a name for herself on the British stage, especially for her well received work in some new Noel Coward productions. These included the London and New York versions of the revue This Year of Grace, the operetta Bitter Sweet and the comedy Private Lives. However, in May 1933 she suddenly married Edward Alexander Partington, 3rd Baron Doverdale, and soon after, retired from the stage for good.

Glen starts her career

Unfortunately there is no reliable information telling us what Glen did between the time of the family’s arrival in London and her first recorded performances in 1931, aged about 18. Film biographies of the 1930s claimed she spent six years training as a dancer and indeed, like Audrey she first appeared on stage in the chorus for musicals in the early 30s. Her first credited role in film was a supporting one in the 1931 British medical drama, The Outsider, based on a popular British stage play. (The better known 1939 movie version starred Australian starlet Mary Maguire). It was followed by another supporting role, in Michael Powell’s Born Lucky, a 1932 “B film” or program filler, in this case based on a novel. She also took the love interest role in Clyde Cooke’s 1934 Trouble in Store, another British B film (sometimes called a “quota quickie”) – a vehicle for comedian James Finlayson who was more usually associated with Laurel and Hardy films in Hollywood.

For newspaper reviewers, Glen’s roles were big enough to be noted in passing, but not significant enough to be seriously critiqued. All the Kinematograph Weekly could report of her role in Trouble in Store was that she “spoke well.” (18 Jan, 1934, P22) When she appeared opposite Hugh Williams in The Perfect Crime (1938), another journalist would characterise her only as “glamorous”.

Above: Glen Alyn in early 1937, about the time her Warner Brothers contract was announced. The Leeds Mercury 5 Jan 1937 P3. Via British Library Newspaper Archive.

On the stage, Glen was listed as a dancer in He Wanted Adventure, a musical which ran at the Saville Theatre for five months in 1933. In late 1933 she adopted the stage name Glen Alyn, at about the same time she took a credited role in the Stanley Lupino musical That’s a Pretty Thing, which ran at Daly’s Theatre for four months.

The Warners contract

Following several good reviews for her part in the 1936 film Grand Finale, Glen signed a contract with Warner Bros (UK). Much less exciting in reality than it sounded at the time, studios expected actors to appear in all the films thrown their way, and the contract was not designed to develop a actor’s career or serve any interests other than that of the studio. While under contract to Warners over the period 1937-38, Glen appeared in at least 13 films – a very mixed bag, but many of them requiring her to perform what she later described as “other woman” roles. Many of these Warner Brothers films are lost or inaccessible today.

Above: George Saunders and Australian born actress Margaret Vyner arrive at a 1938 cocktail party at Glen’s London flat. Unusually, even for the time, the article also listed Glen’s address in Grafton Street, Mayfair. The Newcastle Sun, 6 April 1938, P14. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

We can gain a little insight into Glen’s work in the late 1930s from her surviving films. In Ealing’s The Ware Case (1938) she took a supporting role in several short scenes as Clare, a girlfriend to the playboy Hubert Ware (Clive Brook). One can see how this might once have worked as a stage play – heavy on dialogue, Hubert is presented as a strangely appealing but caddish dandy. Law and Disorder (1940), a film with a stronger cast – including Alistair Sim, Barry K Barnes and Diana Churchill – was probably slightly more enjoyable to make. It was a spy drama with Glen appearing in several scenes as an overdressed foreign (German) spy, pretending to be a reporter.

Above – screen grabs from several of Glen’s pre-war films. Left: Glen with Clive Brook in a casino scene from The Ware Case (1938). Right: Diana Churchill, Barry K Barnes and Glen in Law and Disorder (1940). Here Glen plays the enemy spy, in one of her few scenes. Both films are still available from specialist DVD providers. Author’s collection

Above – a publicity photo of a very blonde Glen with Michael Redgrave. This was another very brief film appearance – a bar scene in Lady in Distress (1939). The Evening Sun (Maryland), 9 April 1942, P26, via Newspapers.com.

Above: Many British actors did their best to support the war effort. Here Glen poses with US tennis player Don Budge, in a photo widely syndicated through the US. The article noted she was an ambulance driver – her steel helmet hangs behind her. The San Francisco Examiner, 13 August, 1939, P19. Via Newspapers.com

Plodding on

Glen did not pursue film work after the outbreak of war – instead she was widely reported as having volunteered to drive ambulances. She found time to appear in a cabaret at the Cafe De Paris, a Coventry Street night club that in December 1940 advertised itself as the “safest” in London because it was 20 feet below the ground. (Six months later the restaurant was bombed out and 34 people were killed, with scores injured – Glen was not there at the time). Glen’s sister Audrey provided at least one public letter from London when the girls were living together in the height of the London Blitz, reminding us how hard life was for Londoners in early 1941.

In 1943, Glen toured provincial England in the popular musical Chu Chin Chow.

Sometime in the mid 1940s, Glen met Stanley Grove Spiro, a London financier. Spiro had fled England in early 1937, after arrest warrants alleging significant financial fraud were issued, but he returned and surrendered himself in early 1938. He was found guilty and imprisoned for eight years, however he was released early, reportedly in exchange for providing helpful information to the authorities. A lesser known side to Spiro was that he was an avid theatre enthusiast, and he had backed the popular musical Balalaika in 1936 – perhaps this was how the couple met. Glen and Stanley (who dropped the surname Spiro in 1944) married very quietly in England in early 1947. Sadly for Glen, he died of heart failure barely a year and a half later, in October 1948.

Glen returned to acting full time after the war – she must have achieved some satisfaction from her role in the musical (or more accurately “comedy with music”) Under The Counter, with Cicely Courtneidge. The show enjoyed a long run on the West End but it closed after three weeks at New York’s Shubert Theatre in October 1947 – its theme of wartime black marketeering did not resonate in the US. All the same, she impressed US critic George Jean Nathan, who picked the “Australian siren” out for praise in what was otherwise, a vehicle for Courtneidge. Courtneidge subsequently decided to bring the play on to more enthusiastic audiences in Australia, but Glen and most of the original cast turned the trip down and returned to England.

Above: Glen’s signature. Undated, in the author’s collection.

Glen continued to appear on the British stage for the next twenty years – and comments she made suggest the stage had become her preference. Her work was a mix of comedy and drama in new and established work, and was often well received. For example, in reviewing the 1950 play The Non-Resident, Hubert Griffiths singled Glen out as an “actress of considerable talent and force,” but he qualified this with the comment that Glen’s was “a name new to me”. As she observed herself to the Evening Standard in 1954, this was her challenge – Glen had not had a major success to establish her name.

Amongst Glen’s last screen appearances was a leading role in the BBC’s 1954 historical drama The Gentle Falcon, a seven part children’s television serial based on Hilda Lewis’ historical novel. Unfortunately, like so much early television, this series has been lost.

Glen returned to Sydney, permanently, in January 1972. Her mother Elsie had died in England in 1956, and sister Audrey, Lady Doverdale, had died in Monte Carlo in 1970. Glen noted on her Australian entry form that she had not been in the country for 40 years. This was a mistake – she had lived in England for almost fifty years. The form also noted she was an actress, although she made no effort to resume her career in Australia. Glen lived her remaining life in modest apartments in Double Bay and then Bondi, near the famous sunny beach. She died there in October 1984, Australians completely oblivious to her presence. Perhaps this was what she wanted.


Nick Murphy
August 2021


References

  • Special Thanks
    To Marguerite Gillezeau, Archivist at Ascham School.
  • Text
    • Amalgamated Press (1942) Picture Show Annual 1942
    • Harrison’s Reports Inc (1933) Harrison’s Reports
    • Douglas Jerrold (Ed)(1950) The English Review Magazine
    • Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British film. Methuen, BFI – Methuen
    • George Jean Nathan (1948) The theatre Book of the Year 1947-1948
    • J.P. Wearing (Ed)(2014) The London Stage 1920-1929 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
    • J.P. Wearing (Ed)(2014) The London Stage 1930-1939 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
  • National Archives of Australia
    • Passenger Card, Glenore Jean Grove, 10 Jan 1972.
  • Clay Djubal, et al (2012) Australian Variety Theatre Archive
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The Sun (Syd) 6 Sept 1913
    • Sydney Sportsman, 14 Nov 1923, P7
    • Truth (Syd) 6 Jan 1924, P5
    • Sunday Times, (NSW) 27 April 1924, P20
    • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 April 1920, P16
    • Sydney Morning Herald, July 31 1933
    • Newcastle Sun (NSW) 6 April 1938, P14
    • Daily Telegraph (NSW) 1 Oct 1938, P2
    • Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton Qld) 14 Oct 1938, P7
    • Sydney Morning Herald 4 March 1941, P2
    • The Sun (Syd) 29 May 1944, P2
    • Truth (Syd) 4 Feb 1945, P14
    • The Sun (Syd) 30 Nov 1952, P49
  • Newspapers.com
    • The Guardian, 13 April 1925, P1
    • The San Francisco Examiner, 13 Aug 1939, P19
    • The Evening Standard (UK) 19 November 1940, P8
    • The Evening Sun (Baltimore, MA), 9 Apr 1942, P26
    • Daily News (New York) 4 Oct 1947, P131
    • The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 4 Oct 1947, P12
    • Latrobe Bulletin (Latrobe, PA) 16 Oct 1947, P4
    • The Evening Standard (UK) 29 Feb, 1954, P8
    • Sydney Morning Herald 9 Oct 1984, P21
  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • Bournemouth Graphic 10 July 1931, P3
    • Kinematograph Weekly 15 Dec 1932, P7
    • Daily Mirror, 8 June 1932. P7
    • The Bystander, 16 Oct 1935, P97
    • Leeds Mercury, 5 Jan 1937, P3
    • Derry Journal, 11 Oct 1937, P6
    • Daily Mirror, 26 Sept 1938, P6
    • Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 7 Jan 1939, P3
    • The Tatler and Bystander, 15 Jan 1941, P89
    • The Stage, 27 Jan 1955, P9
    • The Sphere, 16 April 1955 P33
    • The Stage, 19 Feb 1970 P16

This site has been selected for archiving and preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive

Irene Finlay (1891-1962)-the longest serving Lilliputian

Above centre – Irene Finlay, then aged about 10, with other performers, enlarged from a group photo of the Pollard troupe c1902-3, (outside the Badminton Hotel, Vancouver). Source Vancouver As It Was, A Photo Historical Journey, used with their kind permission – it remains one of few high quality and well photographed images of the Pollard children.

In early 1910, 18 year old performer Irene Finlay (1891-1962) eloped with 37 year old Arthur Hayden Pollard (1873-1940), the manager of the Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company tour to India and the Far East, and the junior member of the famous Pollard family. Arthur Pollard had been accused of mistreating the children in his care on the tour, and the news of this had slowly filtered back to Australia. His relationship with Irene Finlay was also a central feature of the scandal. The collapse of the tour has been well documented by Gillian Arrighi (2017) and in a creative retelling by Kirsty Murray (2010).

After the protracted and embarrassing legal proceedings in Madras and the subsequent press attention, Irene and Arthur disappeared. Reports suggested they had gone to Pondicherry, or maybe Saigon, or perhaps North America. In the wake of the tour, Australia’s Federal Parliament passed new laws to restrict children leaving the country as performers.

Above: Despite its grainyness, this photo shows Arthur Hayden Pollard (seated, centre) with the performers in his 1909-1910 troupe. Most of the children are in makeup and are therefore difficult to identify. The Leader (Melb) 21 May, 1910. National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Nine years before, in September 1901, Charles Pollard and his sister Nellie Chester brought their troupe of 30 young Australian child performers to Honolulu, en route to Canada and the US for a 13 month tour. Interviewed by journalists, Charles Pollard had a well prepared story, possibly anticipating the company would face with some child labour laws – especially in the eastern states of the US. The child performers varied in age, but were mostly in their early teens.

Charles Pollard told the Honolulu Advertiser: “Every one of our children hails from Melbourne, and most of them from the five mile radius… that includes Collingwood, Fitzroy and Carlton. They come from all classes, some from respectable parents, some from the street with no parents.” (The Honolulu Advertiser 14 Sept, 1901, P10). But they didn’t really come from “all classes” – they were instead usually from working class families. They were predominantly girls, indentured to the supervising Pollard adults in a way we would find unthinkable today, and were away on overseas tours for lengthy periods – up to 24 months or more in several cases. At first glance, Irene Finlay appears to match this profile of a typical Pollard performer. 

In early 1910, Arthur Hayden Pollard, used even starker language for the press – he described the parents of the children in his care as “people in very humble positions who could not afford to keep them.” (The Madras Times cited by Arrighi 2017, 168). All this fitted well with a narrative that child performers were being taken overseas as some type of public service. The fact that it was also an extremely lucrative business for the supervising Pollards was not mentioned.


The Finlay family

Irene was born in Brisbane in August 1891, to Amelia “Millie” Robins. No father was listed on Irene’s birth certificate – in fact, in the space for father’s name it was specifically stated that Millie was “not married”. The document acknowledged Irene’s living older sisters Nellie (born 1885) and Nattie or Nathalie (born 1889), whose own birth certificates have proved elusive. In 1893, Millie married widower and former pastoralist George Charles Finlay. While living in New South Wales, two children were born of this union – Myra (born 1893) and Nigel (born 1895). George Finlay had already fathered a large family with his first wife, but they all appear to have stayed in North Queensland. In the late 1890s, the newly combined family moved to Melbourne, to a very modest cottage in Napoleon Street, Collingwood.

Above: Napoleon St, Collingwood, today. The Finlay home was at number 11, to the right of the silver car. Today, Irene might recognise the cottages in the left distance, but other buildings are testament to the suburb’s many stages of development – on the left; factories of the post WW1 period, in the distance residential tower blocks of the 1960s, and at right apartment living of the 21st century.

It was while living at No 11 Napoleon Street that 9 year old Irene joined her first Pollard tour – in 1900. She then appears to have dutifully attended every single one of Charles Pollard‘s extended overseas tours thereafter – making six in all. In the eight and a half calendar years between July 1900 and February 1909, she was touring for over seven years. It was a childhood spent in the company of a small group of Australian juvenile performers and the supervising Pollard adults – and she knew Arthur Hayden Pollard well, even as a child. Of the quality of Irene’s performances for Pollards we have limited information. Reviewers of Pollard performances were encouraged to write about the troupe’s leading players – Daphne Pollard, Teddie McNamara and the like. Irene Finlay “acquitted herself well” was a familiar comment made by North American papers, although her success in male roles seems to have been particularly well received.

Above: There are few photos of Pollard performers in costume who can be identified with absolute confidence. However, here is Irene Finlay playing a boy’s part while on Pollard’s lengthy 32 month North American tour (July 1904-Feb 1907). Sacramento Daily Union, 14 May, 1906, via Newspapers.com

The Finlay’s home life was to prove tragic – step father George Finlay died of tuberculosis in 1902, and mother Millie died of liver failure in 1907. For Irene, perhaps her relationships with other Pollard performers was what sustained her as she grew up. Yet while photos such as the one below might suggest normal childhood friendships, we have no other corroborating evidence of this. (Although at least one enduring friendship from Pollards has been noted elsewhere – between Daphne Pollard and Alf Goulding).

Irene and Leah
Above: Irene Finlay and a smiling Leah Leichner sitting side by side in about 1905, possibly on the SS Empress of India. Five years later, Irene eloped with Arthur Pollard, and Leah had been struck by him for “misbehaviour” and sent home early. Enlarged from a photo in the collections of the University of Washington, Special Collections JWS21402

Nellie Finlay takes charge of the family 1907+

In 1900, it was not Irene but her 15 year old sister Nellie Finlay who the Pollards were most keen to employ. She had been appearing on stage from a very young age – in 1897 Nellie was listed in pantomimes in Sydney and in 1898 she performed as part of the lineup at Harry Cogill’s Gaiety Theatre in Bourke Street, Melbourne. But in late 1899, entrepreneur Harry Hall contracted Nellie and Nattie to appear in his “Australian Juvenile Theatrical Company” for a performance tour of South Africa. Charles Pollard promptly issued a writ against the Finlays with the intention of stopping Nellie and Nettie, arguing they had made a prior agreement. The Pollards sometimes threatened legal action against the parents of their performers, and their writs still exist in public records collections in Victoria. Unusually for the time, Minnie Finlay vigorously defended her girls and the Pollard’s case did not hold up in court. Within a year, the two older Finlay girls were in South Africa, performing with Hall, while Irene was appearing with Charles Pollard’s troupe. No hard feelings apparently!

Above left; Nellie Finlay as Dicky, the crossing sweeper, in Bluebell in Fairyland, with Tom Pollard’s troupe. The Critic, 23 Dec, 1908, P7. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Nellie Finlay married fellow vaudevillian Harry Quealy in early 1904, while they were performing in Perth, Western Australia. Quealy had a nation-wide reputation as a regular comic performer and by 1904, the couple were both with Tom Pollard’s “Comic Opera Company.” Reviews of Nellie’s work on stage for Tom Pollard were equally positive. She was, observed The Truth in 1908, a favourite with audiences and her performance as Dicky in the musical panto Bluebell in Fairyland was greeted with great enthusiasm. By 1916, and after 3 years working side by side with Harry on the Fuller circuit, The Sunday Times reported on her “good voice… good [stage] presence..[showing] all the essentials for success in the rapid-fire sketches she and her husband present.”

When Minnie Finlay died in 1907, Nellie Quealy became the family matriarch – she was listed as the contact for Irene when she travelled, and even as late as 1915, for her step-brother Nigel when he joined the Australian Army.


The Disaster in India 1909-1910

When Arthur Pollard arranged his 1909 tour, Harry Quealy was signed up as stage manager, with Nellie also attending as one of the supervising adults, (some reports claim she was Ballet mistress), in addition to Irene and younger sister Myra as performers. Thus Irene had two sisters and a brother in law on the tour with her.

What is often not mentioned in accounts of the scandals that overwhelmed the tour is that Arthur Pollard had plenty of experience with juvenile troupes already – he had helped his older siblings Charles and Nellie (Chester) manage at least five extended tours successfully over the previous ten years. He also knew many of the children very well from previous tours – Freddie and Johnnie Heintz, the three McGorlick sisters, Willie Howard as well as Irene Finlay. He therefore knew exactly what was involved in a performance tour and one is left with the conclusion that he was simply unsuited to managing young people. His very indiscrete relationship with Irene began while on the ship from Australia, or according to Arrighi, in Australia before leaving. It was later reported that when the relationship was noticed, adults on the tour spoke to Harry and Nellie Quealy about it, presumably hoping they could help bring it to an end. They couldn’t.

Much of what Australians knew of the problems with the India tour was reported with a delay of several weeks. Arthur Pollard did attempt a defence at first, and it was given some publicity, but it was to little avail. Calcutta’s weekly The Englishman, reported Arthur Pollard’s court evidence in early April. Pollard told the court “he had always behaved properly and fairly towards the children”… “It was not true he had ruined a girl”… “It was not his intention to divorce his wife” (The Englishman, April 14, 1910, P7). Four days later, the Madras court found Pollard was “not a fit a proper person to be in charge of children” and soon after, he and Irene were gone.

On his return to Australia in mid April 1910, Harry Quealy went out of his way to give his version of events to the Australian press. Pollard’s relationship with Irene was never mentioned in his reports, which at first focussed on ensuring Tom Pollard (still active as an entrepreneur in Australia) and Arthur Hayden Pollard weren’t confused with each other. His story became more dramatic over the next two weeks, particularly after accounts of Pollard hitting children gained currency. By early May, Quealy’s account included suggestions he and Nellie had tried to intervene when Pollard hit some of the children. “Here cut that game, Pollard” he claimed he said. 

The child performers had all returned home by early May 1910 – the further careers of some of them has been covered elsewhere.

Above: Melbourne’s Leader was keen to cover the 1909-10 Pollard tour of India. This photo of the troupe was reportedly taken on 26 Feb 1910 near Bangalore, two days after they broke up. The Leader, 20 April, 1910. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove. Harry Quealy stands at rear, 13th adult from the left. His wife Nellie is not in the photo, neither is Irene Finlay, who had thrown her lot in with Arthur Pollard. Also missing was Leah Leichner, who had already been sent home to Australia. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Harry and Nellie working together 1910 +

Whatever Harry and Nellie experienced on the India tour, or thought of Irene or Arthur Pollard, they did not allow it to hold them back. By July they were back on stage for Harry Rickards at the Sydney Tivoli and by the end of 1910, they had developed their own musical comedy turn, Fun in the Kitchen. They regularly performed together, including four years on the Fuller circuit around Australia, until September 1916, when they departed for a performance tour of South Africa.

Above; Nellie performing in Sydney. The Sun (Syd) 9 July 1916, P18. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The Quealys moved on to the US in 1917, where they worked up touring vaudeville acts with some success. An effective self-promoter, Harry attracted publicity by all means necessary and with some success. By 1920 Harry, Nellie and their children were living and working in New York.

Top; Nellie and Harry performing together in Indiana on a touring vaudeville program in 1920. Logansport Pharos-Tribune (Indiana) 14 December 1920. Below; the diminutive Harry Quealy as an English sailor in Rain, which ran for 600 performances in New York. Daily News (New York) 9 Jan 1923, P20. Via Newspapers.com.

Irene and Arthur’s later life 1910+

Arthur Pollard was 37 years old when he eloped with Irene in India, taking the company profits with him. Probably using aliases to travel, the couple quickly made their way to England, where they settled in the east Sussex area. Arthur had left behind his wife Mary and their two children, in Charters Towers, Queensland. In spite of his abandoning them, his wife and children stoically carried on and made a success of their lives.

Above: Irene Finlay in 1909, about the time of the last Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company tour. The Leader, 21 May 1910. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove

The very thorough 1911 United Kingdom census reveals the couple living as man and wife in Hastings, Irene now calling herself Irene Olga Pollard. Although provincial England was probably a good place for Australians on the run to live; as local cinema operators, they could not entirely avoid attention. The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly covered the couple’s work in East Sussex several times during World War One – they ran cinemas at Rye, Tenterden and Hastings. Arthur appears to have been happy to comment on matters of public entertainment, being an opinionated person from an established theatrical family. When their 200 seat “Electric Palace” theatre in Hastings caught fire in January 1915, Arthur publicly committed to rebuild. (Although he and Irene lived on the buildings’ upper floors, the rebuild does not seem to have happened). At the end of the war, Arthur and Irene seem to have divested themselves of their remaining cinemas.

Above: The Kinomatograph Weekly, 25 July, 1918, P115. Via British Library Newspaper Archive.

On 27 February 1925, Irene and Arthur married in New Zealand. What had happened in the intervening seven years seems unclear. On the wedding certificate, Arthur claimed that he was a widower – although he wasn’t, his wife Mary was still alive in Queensland. He was recorded as a “retired Theatrical Manager” while Irene was described as a “Theatrical artiste”. The couple lived comfortably in the suburb of Ponsonby, overlooking Auckland Harbour, until Arthur’s death in 1940.

It is worth noting that in October 1940, Irene Pollard needed to publicly acknowledge the many “expressions of sympathy,… letters, cards, telegrams and floral” tributes she had received when Arthur died. (Auckland Star, 11 Oct, 1940, P1). The few contemporary writers about the Pollard 1909-10 tour were understandably often torn between admiration for the Pollard family as pioneer Australian and New Zealand theatre entrepreneurs, and having to acknowledge that some of Arthur Pollard’s behaviour was reprehensible, even by the permissive standards and lax child labour laws of the time.

Above centre – Arthur Pollard, enlarged from a group photo of the Pollard troupe of 1902-3, (outside the Badminton Hotel, Vancouver). Source Vancouver As It Was, A Photo Historical Journey, used with their kind permission.

Harry Quealy returned to Australia in 1925, after he suffered a stroke during the production of Rain. He died in Australia in 1927. Nellie stayed on in the US, and died at Saranac Lake in New York in 1936, an actress to the end. Irene died in New Zealand in 1962 – there were no children by her marriage to Arthur. Myra left the stage and married an engineer in 1916. She ended up living in Peru. Nathalie also left the stage and appears to have ended her days working at the Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne as a domestic.

To the best of this writer’s knowledge, none of the Finlay girls were ever interviewed about their work on stage, with the Pollards or about the ill-fated India tour.


Nick Murphy
July 2021


References

  • 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 69, (2017) Johns Hopkins University Press.
    • Peter Downes ( 2002) The Pollards. Steele Roberts.
    • Kirsty Murray (2010) India Dark. Allen and Unwin
      [Note: While written as a novel for teenagers, this beautiful novel is closely based on the events of the Arthur Pollard troupe in India and is highly recommended]
    • Frank Van Straten (2003) Tivoli. Thomas Lothian
  • Australian Performing Arts Collection,
    • Pollard Opera Companies Collection
  • State of Victoria: Births, Death and Marriages
    • 2 March 1902. Death Certificate. George Charles Finlay
    • 24 April 1907. Death Certificate. Amelia Finlay
    • 27 Sept 1917. Marriage Certificate Oliver Oates and Nathlie Finlay
  • State of Queensland: Births, Deaths and Marriages
    • 16 August 1891. Birth Certificate. Irene Robins
    • 21 March 1914. Marriage Certificate. Theodore Evans and Myra Finlay
    • 14 June 1945. Death Certificate. Mary Pollard
  • New Zealand Births Deaths and Marriages
    • 27 Feb 1905. Marriage Certificate. Arthur Haydon Pollard and Irene Olga Finlay
  • Public Record Office, Victoria
    • Civil Case Files Supreme Court of Victoria
      • VPRS 267/ P7  1900/200
        Charles Pollard Nellie Chester Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company v Millie Finlay
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Quiz and the Lantern (SA) 28 Jan 1897, P15
    • The Age (Melb) 13 June 1898, P8
    • The Herald (Melb) 12 Mar 1900, P4
    • The Referee (Syd) 17 July 1901, P10
    • Maitland Weekly Mercury (NSW) 8 Feb 1902, P13
    • The Age (Melb) 4 Mar 1902, P1
    • The Argus (Melb) 26 Mar 1903, P4
    • Evening News (Syd) 25 Feb 1904, P6
    • North Coolgardie Herald (WA) 25 Mar 1905, P2
    • Barrier Miner (NSW) 27 Nov 1905, P2
    • Maitland Daily Mercury (NSW) 15 July 1908, P4
    • The Critic (SA) 23 Dec 1908, P6, P7
    • Daily News (WA) 9 Mar 1910, P7
    • The Register (SA) 30 March, 1910 P7
    • Leader (VIC) 2 Apr 1910 P23
    • Barrier Miner (NSW) 22 April 1910, P2
    • Truth (WA) 23 April 1910, P2
    • The Register (SA) 25 April 1910 P8
    • Advertiser (SA) 28 April 1910 P9
    • Barrier Miner (NSW) 29 April 1910, P2
    • Leader (VIC) 30 April 1910, P34
    • Evening Star (WA), 11 May 1910, P 3
    • The Herald (VIC) 17 May 1910
    • Leader (VIC) 21 May 1910 P24
    • The Telegraph (Bris), 12 Mar 1925, P5
    • Sunday Times (WA) 21 Aug 1927, P14
  • The British Library Newspaper Archive
    • The Times of India, 6 Jan 1910 P5
    • The Times of India 31 March 1910, P9
    • The Englishman’s Overland Mail (Calcutta) 31 Mar 1910 P7
    • The Times of India, 13 April 1910, P7
    • The Englishman’s Overland Mail (Calcutta) 14 April, 1910
    • The Englishman’s Overland Mail (Calcutta) 12 May, 1910, P6
    • The Bioscope, 1 June 1911, P37
    • The Kinomatograph Weekly, 11 Feb 1915, P37
    • The Kinomatograph Weekly, 25 July, 1918, P115
  • Newspapers.com
    • The Honolulu Advertiser, 14 Sept 1901, P10
    • Woodland Daily Democrat (CA), 20 May 1908, P4
    • The Boston Globe, 7 Oct 1917, P52
  • National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Papers Past
    • Auckland Star, Oct 11 1940, P1

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