Marcia Ralston – finding her place in Hollywood

Above: Marcia Ralston in a Warner Brothers publicity pose, about the time she appeared in Sh! The Octopus in 1937. Her resemblance to Merle Oberon was noted at the time. Author’s Collection.

The 5 second version
Marie Mascotte Ralston
Born Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 19 September 1906, died Rancho Mirage, California USA, 23 November 1988. Active on the Australian stage 1923-1927. Moved to the US with first husband Phil Harris. She re-booted her career several times in the mid 1930s but only made a few films. From the late 1960s she appeared semi-regularly in the Marcus Welby M.D. TV series.

 

Above: Marcia Ralston and Mona Barrie (right foreground), in Busby Berkeley’s romantic comedy Men are such Fools made by Warner Bros in 1938. Also in these screen grabs are Humphrey Bogart and Wayne Morris. The two Australian girls have supporting roles to Bogart, Morris, Priscilla Lane and Hugh Herbert. The film is still available for purchase through TCM. Author’s Collection.

Marcia Ralston was born Marie Mascotte Ralston to popular Australian stage performer John Ralston and his wife, former performer Rose nee Everson in 1906. Unfortunately she suffered through a disjointed acting career, circumstances requiring her to restart it several times over. One might imagine that having well-connected show-business parents and, after 1927, a husband who was a well-known band leader, would make for easy success in the US. It was not so. As with so many Australian women who went to Hollywood during its “golden age”, it appears her US career was not without frustrations.

Below: Ralston as Schubert in Lilac Time.”The Australasian,” Jan 30, 1926. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

John Ralston as SchubertJohn Ralston, better known to friends as Jack, was a popular singer and comedian who travelled the length and breadth of Australia, often performing for J.C. Williamsons, or “the Firm” as it was known and even appearing in one of their patriotic wartime films. He counted performers like Clyde Cook amongst his friends – apparently staying with him during a visit to California in 1923 and possibly performing as an extra in one of his films. Ralston apparently had no interest in staying there, his observation was that “America …is not a country for a home-loving man.”  He died suddenly in April 1933, at the age of 51, in Perth Western Australia, while on tour. The obituaries were effusive.

Despite newspaper accounts that John Ralston was not keen for his daughters to go on stage and this was the reason he sent his girls to be educated at Bethlehem Convent in Sydney, both Mascotte (her preferred name being inspired by the Opéra comique “La Mascotte”) and Edna went on stage as soon as they could. Pauline also appears to have worked later for J.C. Williamson.

Marcia Table Talk June 8 1933  Edna Sydney Sun 1924  Pauline May 9 1936 Melbourne Herald

Above: The three daughters of John Ralston. Left to right – Mascotte later Marcia (born 1906), Edna (born 1904) and Pauline (born 1914).  “Table Talk,” 8 June 1933, The Sun”, 28 Sep 1924, The Herald”, 9 May 1936. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In the few biographies about her, Mascotte Ralston’s list of attributes is long, and for once these accounts appear to be true. In 1927, Australia’s “Wireless Weekly” magazine reported that the young actress, then appearing on radio, was “lavishly gifted in a dozen different ways” – these included swimming, singing, dancing, acting and apparently even playing the ukelele.

Amongst Mascotte’s first credited outings on stage were several J.C.Williamson’s productions with Gladys Moncrieff and also featuring her father –  The Street Singer and The Maid of the Mountains in 1925-26. She and her sister appear to have been working solidly with the help of their father’s patronage.

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Above: Second from right, Mascotte Ralston and right, Edna Ralston in the J.C. Williamson production of Whirled into Happiness, 1924. From the Lady Viola Tate Collection – via the National Library of Australia‘s Trove.

Not only was she talented, she was also beautiful – in early 1926 she came second in the Melbourne Sun Pictorial‘s “Beauty” competition, and in June she placed third in a “Miss Australia” competition.

Wedding photo from Table Talk.In 1927, Mascotte had a leading role in Arnold Ridley‘s new comedy thriller, The Ghost Train, playing successfully around cities in Australia. However, in early September 1927 Mascotte withdrew from the play when she married Phil Harris, a visiting US band leader. Soon after, the couple boarded the Matson liner SS Sonoma bound for the United States. Mascotte never returned.

Above: Phil Harris and Mascotte Ralston as they appeared in the “Adelaide News”, 7 September 1927. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Mascotte disappeared from the public record for five years, although the travels of the Phil Harris orchestra can be traced across North America in newspaper reports. Then, in 1933 it was announced that Mascotte had signed up to act with MGM. We know her sister Edna had arrived in Hollywood at about the same time – she was probably checking out her chances too.  And from now on,  Mascotte would be Marcia Ralston. Phil reportedly said that “Marcia was very understanding” of his busy career as a band leader. She was, he joked, “willing to live a life of solitude.”

Despite the usual studio publicity, not much happened at MGM, and Marcia only appeared in un-credited roles in a few films. In this, Marcia was not alone. Other actors experienced a great deal of waiting around for roles, including Gwen Munro and John Wood. It was also stated to be the reason Janet Johnston and Margaret Vyner didn’t stay in the US. It must have been thoroughly demoralising, because all this happened about the time John Ralston suddenly died back in Australia.

Marcia Ralston reappeared in late 1936, now “under contract” to Warner Brothers and with another burst of publicity, that made scant reference to her work three years before with MGM. She now seemed to have more luck finding work, and over the next two years she appeared in twelve films – many of these are still widely available today. Sh! The Octopus, a B comedy thriller film made in 1937 is amongst the best known – mostly for the amazing transformation made to Elspeth Dudgeon using makeup and lighting effects. Not withstanding this, it’s a film with a ridiculous plot, as was often a feature of the B film, a program filler. Marcia spends much of this film screaming and fainting.

marcia from australia
Above: Marcia Ralston as featured in “Hollywood” magazine, Jan-Dec 1938. Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

In 1937, 18 year old Australian Mary Maguire was also working for Warner’s. Maguire made three underwhelming B films and had a small part in an a major film with Kay Francis. With high expectations of a booming career and both her parents on hand to advise her, Maguire bravely declined a role in a B comedy thriller called Mystery House, in early 1938. She was immediately laid off, and appeared in only one more Hollywood film. Marcia Ralston was turning 31 at the same time. Talented and experienced though she may have been, Marcia Ralston’s experience in Hollywood’s golden age might be viewed in the same context. The studios had dozens of aspiring young actors to use, and she was a just another commodity.

Marcia and Phil Junior 1940In 1940, Marcia and Phil adopted a child, to be named Phil Junior, known in the family as “Tookie”. Unfortunately, this did not normalise the marriage – it failed soon after. In divorce, Marcia complained that he stayed out too late and that they spent too little time together – those matters he had joked about some years before had become the issues that undermined the marriage.

Above Marcia Ralston with Phil Junior,Sydney Morning Herald,” 27 Feb 1940. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

She continued to work, but the roles were less and less significant, perhaps W.C.Fields’ Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is the most intriguing today. She also had extended work in the 1941 Universal spy serial Sea Raiders. Two years later Constance Worth waded through the very similar plot of G-Men versus the Black Dragon for Republic Pictures. These did nothing for either women’s careers.

Above: Screen grabs from her last films: In a minor role as an Air Stewardess in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) with W.C. Fields, in fleeting roles in Paris Calling, (1941) and in Out of the Blue (1947). These films are still commercially available today. Author’s Collection.

Marcia in 1954

Her last film role appears to have been a small part in the screwball comedy Out of the Blue, in 1947, which newspapers claimed, she had come out of retirement to make.

It is reassuring to this writer to find that at least some of the Australians who travelled to act on screen in the US before the Second World War eventually found some normalcy in their lives. Marcia Ralston appears to have done so.

In 1954, Marcia married John “Bud” Henderson, who was an executive with the Santa Fe Railroad. By this time, she had also established herself as an instructor for Arthur Murray Dance studios, pursuing a passion she had enjoyed since her youth. The grainy photo at left from the California “Desert News”, 8 Feb 1954, shows her with dance partner Claud Sims, with a beaming smile and still looking every inch the movie star.

Good fortune had also connected Marcia to actor Robert Young, who had married John Henderson’s sister Betty, in 1933. This connection led to a small occasional role in the very popular Marcus Welby M.D, a TV series that ran for six years.

Marcia Ralston died at Rancho Mirage, an area of southern California, in 1988. She had no family left in Australia, both Australian sisters having pre-deceased her. She was fondly remembered by those who knew her in the US. Reportedly, her ashes were scattered at sea.

 

Nick Murphy
January 2020

 

Further Reading

Online

Text

  • Frank Van Straten (2003 ) Tivoli. Thomas C. Lothian, South Melbourne.
  • Terry Rowan (2016) Motion Pictures From the Fabulous 1940’s. Terry Rowan
  • Scott Wilson (2016) Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons.  Third Edition. McFarland and Co.

A list of ships and their actor passengers

Above: The Matson liner SS Monterey, which carried many hopeful Australian actors to the US. State Library of Victoria, Allan Green Collection. Allan C Green 1878-1954 photographer. ca. 1932-ca. 1952.

These are the first departure dates of some twentieth century Australian actors. Of course, many travelled to the US or UK under other names, but for ease of reading their best known stage name is used.

Marc McDermott
Sailed to North America in July 1902 on the RMS Miowera

Oliver Peters (O.P) Heggie
Sailed to the UK in 1906 on the SS Grosser Kurfürst

Louise Lovely
Sailed to the US in December 1914 on the SS Sonoma

Matson lineEnid Bennett
Sailed to the US in March 1915 on SS Ventura

Dorothy Cumming
Sailed to the US in July 1916 on SS Makura

Sylvia Bremer
Sailed to the US in October 1916 on SS Ventura

Marjorie Bennett
Sailed to the US in December 1916 on SS Ventura

Judith Anderson
Sailed to the US in January 1918 on SS Sonoma

Ena Gregory
Sailed to the US in January 1920, on the SS Ventura

Lotus Thompson lotusabouttodepart
Sailed to the US in March 1924, on SS Ventura.

Robert Grieg and Isabelle Holloway
Sailed to the US via the UK in 1925

Marcia Ralston
Sailed to the US in October 1927, on SS Sonoma.

Fred Stone
Sailed to the UK in May 1929

Click to enlarge: This is the menu from the MV Warwick Castle, in 1936.  Clearly aspiring actors had to be careful what they ate from this huge menu! The Union Castle ships ran from South Africa to England, but it is probably typical of ship board food of the time. Author’s collection.

Judy Kelly
Sailed to the UK in June 1932, on the RMS CathageBlanche and Judy leave Australia

Mary MacGregor
Sailed to the UK in February 1933, on the SS Mongolia

Mona Barrie
Sailed to the US in June 1933, on the SS Monterey.

Gwen Munro
Sailed to the US in September 1933, on the SS Monterey.Gwen on the way home

John Wood
Sailed to the UK in October 1933, on the MV Troja.

Margaret Vyner
Sailed to Europe in late April 1934, on the RMS Orsova.

Margaret Johnston
Sailed to the UK in March 1935, on the SS Mongolia

Janet Johnson
Sailed to the UK in March 1936, on the SS Largs Bay.

Constance Worth
Sailed to the US in April 1936, on the SS Montereyconstance worth returning home by Sam Hood

Mary Maguire
Sailed to the US in August 1936, on the SS Mariposa

Joan Winfield
Sailed to the UK in late 1936, then to the US in 1939

Shirley Ann Richards
Sailed to the US in late 1941 on the SS Mariposa.

Patti Morgan
Sailed to the UK in March 1947, on the MV Selandia

Allan Cuthbertson
Sailed to the UK in March 1947, on the RMS Rangitiki

Victoria Shaw
Flew to the US via Hawaii in July 1955

Photos – from the top
1. Screen grab of Lotus Thompson saying farewell in Sydney in 1924 before departing on the SS Ventura.Source Australasian Gazette newsreel via youtube.
2. Judy Kelly and her mother departing for England on the RMS Cathage. Source: The Home, An Australian Quarterly. Vol. 13 No. 8. August 1, 1932. Via National Library of Australia Trove.
3. Gwen Munro returning from the US on the SS Mariposa on 26 August 1934. Source uncredited. Photo in the author’s collection.
4. Jocelyn Howarth (Constance worth) on her return from the US in June 1939 on the SS Monterey.  Via State Library of New South Wales.
Above: Menu from the SS Orion in April 1947. The austerity of the post war world is still obvious. Author’s collection

Gwen Munro and the great Hollywood beauty contest

Featured
Above: Gwen Munro and Brian Norman, the Australian winners in Paramount’s Search for Beauty competition. Screen grab from the truly excruciating film of the same name (1934) – one of just four she made. Video in the author’s collection.

“Film star” competitions were a feature of the early 1930s. Perhaps inspired by the rise of the studio system and the huge breakthrough that came with sound, newspapers, cinemas and sometimes studios combined to find suitable film “types,” the prizes often being a film test and a subsidized trip to a studio. New South Wales girl Judy Kelly was a recipient of such a prize in 1932 and went on to a successful career in British films. However, by far the grandest competition, with the widest publicity in Australia, was Paramount Studio’s Search for Beauty contest in 1933 and young aspiring actor Gwen Munro was one of the Australian winners.

Gwen Munro was born Gwendolyn Mina Munro in 1914. Her father Horace Bonar Munro (1878-1950) had married Vera Doris nee Tanner in 1912. Horace was the youngest son of a wealthy Queensland family with significant pastoral and pearling industry interests – he was a partner with older brothers in Munro Outridge & Co.  The Munro family were also very well connected, Gwen’s aunt Wilhelmina had married Sir Robert Philp, former Queensland Premier and one of the founders of Burns Philp & Co, in 1898. But Horace and Vera appear to have separated sometime in the 1920s – Vera had packed the girls up and taken them to Melbourne by 1928.


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Despite the separation, Horace apparently continued to generously support his wife and daughters, although he disappeared from the family story. Both Gwen and younger sister Mignon Millicent attended St Catherine’s school in Toorak, thus she was a contemporary of Janet Johnson. It also appears the girls attended a finishing school at Sainte Croix, Switzerland around 1930-32.

Above: H.B.Munro in 1912, the year he married Vera.From the John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Photo now in the public domain. Original title; H. B. Munro on the passenger ferry S.S. Koopa, Bribie Island

Table Talk, a Melbourne weekly newspaper that chronicled the doings of those “in society” even through the grimmest years of the Great Depression, regularly reported on the doings of Mrs Horace Munro and her daughters Gwen and Mignon. The following double page spread appeared not long after they had returned from England (a trip, or perhaps the girls were returning from the finishing school) in January 1932.

Table Talk March 10 1932 p24-25

Above: Table Talk 10 March 1932. Gwen Munro – upper row, second from left, Mignon – lower row, second from right. National Library of Australia’s Trove

On their return, Gwen and Mignon almost immediately threw themselves into amateur theatricals with the Melbourne Little Theatre (now St Martin’s Theatre), with some positive reviews. The every doings of the Munro girls were extremely well publicized over the next few years, almost certainly their cultural capital helped. But more than many of their contemporaries, the Munro girls showed a willingness to be sketched photographed and interviewed.

It was in early May 1933 that the Search for Beauty competition was announced and it consumed the Australian press like never before. The Sydney Sun explained the competition thus: “A man and a woman are to be chosen from Australian aspirants, and they will, be sent to Hollywood to appear in the picture with the other winners…The Australian winners will receive: A contract to appear In “The Search for Beauty.” Transportation to and from Hollywood: A salary of 50 dollars… a week for a minimum of five weeks…” Gwen signed up.

It was never quite clear how the judging was done, but it involved film tests and heats in some US states and most of the British Empire (but not anywhere in Asia, South America or Europe – it was for white, English speaking countries only).

1933 being filmed

Above: Table Talk helpfully showed its readers Gwen Munro being tested for the competition – in front of an enormous camera operated by Efftee films chief camera operator, Mr A.E.Higgins. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The winners were finally announced at the end of August, 1933, and Gwen and Brian Norman from Sydney were selected. Were Paramount Pictures trawling for possible actors or was this all just publicity for a film? This writer is inclined to the view that it may have been both, given the very precarious financial situation Paramount was in during the depression.

In mid September, Gwen and her mother packed up and sailed for California on the SS Monterey, first stop being Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel. The filming was to take five weeks.

Today it requires serious effort to sit through to the end of the film, and even more effort to accept the premise of the silly plot. Buster Crabbe and Ida Lupino, play two sporty editors of a health magazine, which we discover is also a front for some sleazy con-men. They hold an international competition (which is where Brian, Gwen and the other real competitors appear, as per the screen grab below) and perform in a type of fascist-rally inspired “body beautiful” parade. The con-men and their friends are discovered and made to exercise at a health farm. Being a pre-Hayes code film (Hollywood’s self imposed censorship code introduced later in 1934), there is some gratuitous suggestive dialogue and a couple of mildly racy scenes, including one set in a change room where men flick each other on the bottoms with wet towels.

Above: Screen grabs from the film. From left – the irrepressible Buster Crabbe, the big parade of beauty, Buster and Colin Tapley of New Zealand. Tapley really did make a career in Hollywood after this film. Author’s collection.

This writer is unable to identify Gwen Munro with confidence in scenes other than the flag scene shown at the top of the page, although Brian Norman is more easily identified, including in this one:

Here Brian Norman forces some of the con-men to start morning exercises at the health farm. His broad Australian accent is unmistakable. Copy of film in author’s collection.

WB MolloyBrian Norman was amongst the first to leave Hollywood after filming wrapped. His first cautious public comments on the experience appeared in early February 1934,  when he explained that “Hollywood was the world’s most selfish city, where there is more intrigue, more unfounded gossip. and more beauty shops to the square mile than anywhere else.” His otherwise frank accounts disguised the fact that his distinctive Australian accent probably made him less bankable as star material. And he had a few secrets of his own – his real name was William Brian Molloy and he was 25, and a law graduate. Soon after returning he was admitted to the bar in New South Wales. (see Note 1 below)

Above: William Brian Molloy, “Brian Norman” in the Sydney Sun, 1 April 1934. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Gwen stayed on almost a year in Hollywood, during which time not a lot seems to have happened. Apart from performing in a play at the Pasandena Playhouse, or if some accounts are to be believed, seven plays, there were no further film roles. Perhaps her old school friend Janet Johnson accurately summed up the problem with Hollywood  – “you do nothing but hang about while everybody promises you’ll be in the next picture they are doing.” Gwen stated that she needed more acting experience before trying again.

Gwen on the way home

Above: Naturally always conscious of their appearance, actors usually go to some effort to pose and makeup for the camera. This unusual candid photo was taken on the SS Mariposa on 26 August 1934, on Gwen’s departure for Australia. Author’s collection.

Gwen did get further stage experience. On her return to Australia she went back to J.C. Williamson’s and appeared in Ten Minute Alibi and The Wind and the Rain  under the direction of Gregan McMahon and in company with Jocelyn Howarth, another enthusiastic young Australian who would try her luck in Hollywood herself a few years later. Finally, in late 1934, Gwen admitted to the Brisbane Telegraph what today’s viewer of the Search for Beauty might assume. Of course we all hated the picture…When it was finished there was enough for about three films, and the consequent cutting made it most disjointed.”

Over the next 18 months, Search for Beauty was endlessly peddled around Australian cinemas, trading off the publicity the competition had generated. It was generally shown as a supporting feature, no amount of PR could make it better than it was. In September 1935, Gwen appeared in the play So this is Hollywood, a satire starring a number of Australians with film experience,  including Trilby Clarke, Lou Vernon and Thelma Scott.

Gwen Munro as seen by artists. Left: Stanley Parker sketch in Table Talk. 31 August 1933. Centre: Unknown artist, The Newcastle Sun. 28 August 1936. Right Sydney Mail, 10 June 1936. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In 1936, Gwen was cast in a role in Ken Hall’s Orphan of the Wilderness. Gwen’s work was praised by Hall in his memoirs, but he also acknowledged the film was only ever conceived as a “second feature.” Based in part on a story by Dorothy Cottrell, it concerns the adventures of a Kangaroo named Chut, who appears as a boxing kangaroo in a circus act. Gwen played a circus rider and took the ingenue role. It became a popular release in early 1937, and was sold overseas, although its scenes of mistreatment of Chut seems to have delayed its release in Britain. Table Talk’s reviewers were a little more critical than some – they wrote “Gwen Munro and Brian Abbot put on quite a good show as the young lovers of the film, but they struggled hopelessly in the morass of a vague and completely unconvincing story which gave them no scope.”

In 1937 she performed in a small role in Noel Monkman’s Typhoon Treasure and in 1938 another Ken Hall film- Let George Do it. Of Typhoon Treasure we know little – film historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper record that it sank after a few limited outings in Australian cinemas in the later part of 1938.

Let George do it

Above: Gwen and George Wallace in Let George Do It.The Australian Women’s Weekly” 28 May 1938. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Australian comedian George Wallace was already well established and had appeared in several successful films – with plots strongly connected to his popular stage performances. Let George Do It was another such vehicle for him. Some critics, including the reviewer at Table Talk, felt Gwen was wasted again in this film. If she felt that she didn’t say – she determined to keep working, and during 1938 appeared in several radio plays – Trilby, Little Women and others.

In 1937-38 Gwen Munro repeatedly stated an intention to travel to try her luck in the UK. But rather suddenly, in early 1939, she announced her engagement to businessman and keen yachtsman Hubert “Togo” Middows of Sydney.

Unfortunately Gwen and Togo’s marriage was not a success and it ended in divorce a few years later. At about the same time, Gwen met a US Navy 7th Fleet officer, Commander Dorr Chandler Ralph. As a physicist, his responsibility was overseeing the reduction of the magnetic fields of US navy ships, a process called degaussing. She travelled to North America in October 1946 and the couple married in Montreal Canada, in April 1947. In 1951 they moved to Baton Rouge, where Dorr took up a position on the faculty at Louisiana State University. Two daughters were born of the union.

Aged only 56, Gwen died at Baton Rouge in 1970. It may be hard to believe this well known Australian made only four films and disappeared so quickly, because her star was as bright as her contemporaries Mary Maguire and Jocelyn Howarth. The outbreak of war had much to do with it, for it ended the efforts of many Australian filmmakers. Cinesound closed feature production in 1940, and director Ken Hall turned to documentaries. Producer-Director at Efftee Studios, Frank Thing, had died in July 1936.

Melbourne Age 1 April 1970

Above: The Melbourne Age, 1 April 1970. Someone, possibly Gwen’s sister, placed a death notice for the benefit of old Melbourne friends. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

 

Nick Murphy
December 2019

 

Note 1:
After his one outing as an actor, William Brian Molloy practised law in Port Moresby, before joining the Australian Army in January 1942 and serving in Papua New Guinea. He worked in Sydney after World War Two and retired to a comfortable home in Turramurra, a suburb of Sydney’s upper north shore. Molloy died in 1995. His reviews of working in Hollywood are from the Adelaide News and are available at the National Library of Australia’s Trove:

Hollywood as seen from the inside 30 April 1934
Hollywood as seen from the inside 2 May 1934
Hollywood as seen from the inside 3 May 1934
Hollywood as seen from the inside 4 May 1934
Hollywood as seen from the inside 8 May 1934
Hollywood as seen from the inside 9 May 1934

Note 2:
Brian Abbot, Gwen’s co-star in Orphans of the Wilderness, disappeared at sea after filming Mystery Island, in October 1936. A full account is given here by historian Nicole Cama.

 

Further Reading

Newspapers.com

British Newspaper Archive

    • Daily Mirror, 27 Jan 1938.

National Library of Australia – Trove

    • Table Talk, 20 July, 1933.
    • The Mail (Adelaide), 26 August, 1933. “Competition winners”
    • Table Talk, 11 January 1934, “One Can Wear anything in Hollywood”
    • Examiner (Launceston)  3 June 1936, “HOLLYWOOD INFLUENCE ON GWEN MUNRO”
    • The West Australian (Perth)  5 June 1936, “AUSTRALIAN PICTURES”
    • The Newcastle Sun (NSW) 11 February 1938,  “Screen Fare”

Web

Text

    • Ken G. Hall (1980) Australia Film the Inside Story. Summit Books
    • Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper (1980) Australian Film 1900-1977. AFI/Oxford.
    • Eric Reade (1979) History and Heartburn. Harper and Row
    • John Stewart (1984) An Encyclopaedia of Australian Film. Reed Books

The short, brilliant career of Janet Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lady of la paz030

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

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

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

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

JAnet 1939

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

johnson in 1962

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

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


Nick Murphy
December 2019.

 


Further Reading

Film clips online

Text

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

Web
Australian Dictionary of Biography online.


National Library of Australia – Trove

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

Newspapers.com

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

British Library/British Newspaper Archive

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

John Wood – Of Hollywood, Ealing studio and Changi prison

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

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

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


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

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

SMH 27 April 1933

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

john wood

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

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

3798756

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

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

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

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

John Wood The Hasty Heart 1946.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Nick Murphy
November 2019

 

Further Reading

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

Australian War Memorial art

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

National Library of Australia’s Trove

J.C. Williamson’s Collection of Photographs.

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

National Archives of Australia

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

British Newspaper Archive.

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

Newspapers.com

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

 

Marc McDermott – the Sydney hairdresser who went to Hollywood

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

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

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

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

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

Evening News 11 Oct 1897   Sunday Times 20 Feb 1898

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

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

Macdermott in the Sands Directory 1898

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

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

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

McDermott 1898

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

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

Zeehan Gaiety 1900  445px-George_Rignold_Henry_5_1877

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

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

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

Mcdermott drawn by Harry furniss 1913

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

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

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

motionpicturesto07moti_ FEb-Mar 1914

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

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

When she was about 16

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

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

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

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

What_Happened_to_Mary_(1912)

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

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

Marc_McDermott 2

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

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

 

Nick Murphy
October 2019

 

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

McDermott birth certificate

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

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

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

 

Further Reading

Text

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

ADB Online

LA Daily Mirror

Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

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

Via Newspapers.com

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

Via British Library Newspaper Archive

  • The Bioscope 25 December, 1913

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

Via Lantern History Digital Library

Internet Archive

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

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

 

 

Margaret Vyner – a very modern Australian woman

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

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

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

Vyner1 Vyrner2

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

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

 

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

Smiths Weekly 1935

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

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

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

Flying Dr 1936 screen grab

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

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

The Age 3 Oct 1936

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

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

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

Vyner in Home mag 2 Aug 1937

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

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

Sensation

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

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

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

The_Montreal Gazette_Fri__Apr_14__1939_

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Margaret Vyner 1940

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

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

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

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

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

Vyner035

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

 

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

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

 

 

Nick Murphy
September 2019

 

Further Reading

Online footage

Texts

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

Digital resources