Trilby Clark (1896-1983) goes to Hollywood

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

The 5 second version

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Daily News, via Newspapers.com

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


Calgary Herald, 21 June 1932, via Newspapers.com

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

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

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

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

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


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

Nick Murphy
July 2020


Further Reading

Films

Text

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

State Library of Victoria

National Library of Australia’s Trove

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

Newspapers.com

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

Lantern Digital Media Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sherlock Holmes in Aust 1902 minne043

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scardon in Tha Atom 1915 Scardon unidentified film

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

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

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

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

filmdailyyearboo00wids_0094

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

Scardonppt 1923   Betty Blythe 1923 ppt

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

Life after Hollywood

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

Scardon in Mark Twain 1944 Today I Hang 1942

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

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

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

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

 


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

Scardon BC

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

Scardon naturalisation enlarged

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

Majeroni family

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

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

 

Nick Murphy
May 2020

 


Further Reading

Text

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

Heritage Council of Victoria, Database.

National Library of Australia’s Trove.

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

US National Archives
Via Family Search and Ancestry.com


Newspapers.com

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

Lantern Digital Media Project

Films in the Public Domain

Lotus Thompson (1904-1963) & her troublesome legs

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

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

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

Lotus's legs SF Examiner March 8 1925

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

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

Lotus as a child

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

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

Vera James and Lotus Thompson

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

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


lotus3 Lotus 1923s

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

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

lotusabouttodepart

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

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

Smith Weekly Aug 19,1933

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

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

Lotus and Olive1

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

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

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

Paramount serials 1930

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lotus2

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

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

Lotus as Queen

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

A voice not suited to sound?

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

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

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

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

 

Nick Murphy, Updated April 2020

 

Special Thanks

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

 


Further Reading

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

National Library of Australia, Trove

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

Newspapers.com

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

Lantern Digital Media Archive – Internet Archive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Phyllis Gibbs4  The Sun August 1926

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

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

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


Phyllis at the beach Phyllis 1927Phyllis welcomed

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

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

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

Gibbs on return

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

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

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

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

Heenzo ad 1928Hats advertising

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

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

1937 hairdressing

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

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

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

 

Nick Murphy
April 2020

 


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

 

Further Reading

Text

National Library of Australia Trove

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

Newspapers.com

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

Queenie Williams (1896-1962) & the last Pollard’s tour of America

Above: “Queenie” Ina Williams at the height of her success in the US with Pollard’s Juvenile Opera Company, c 1917. Cover for the sheet music – Kind Treatment by Tom Pitts. Author’s Collection

The 5 second version
Alfreda Ina Williams was born in Footscray, a western suburb of Melbourne, Australia on 17 November 1896. Following several years on stage in Australia as a child actor, she went on to have a significant stage career in North America. She first arrived in the US in 1912 with the last Pollard’s troupe, but separated from them in 1919, when the Pollard activities came to an end. She then worked in vaudeville, mostly in cities of the US east coast. She retired in 1932 and died in Los Angeles on 9 June 1962.

At the age of 10, “Queenie” Ina Williams was already a popular stage performer in Melbourne Australia. The oldest of four children, she was born Alfreda Ina Williams in 1896 to jockey Frank (Ferdinando) Williams and his wife Annie nee Armstrong. As she explained many years later, she was “puny” as a child, and a Melbourne specialist recommended “calisthenic” dancing as a means to building up her physical strength. She took to it readily, although as an adult was a little under 5 foot (152 cm) tall. A pupil of a well known dance school run by Mrs William Green and Miss Florrie Green in Melbourne, she gained a role in the melodrama The Fatal Wedding. In one scene she famously led a children’s “Tin Can Band,” with a kerosene tin drum. A cautious reviewer (presumably in view of her age) at Melbourne Punch”  wrote “combined with her very clever acting and singing, this child is an excellent dancer. She has been a pupil of Mrs. Green for four years, and she predicts a great future for this little artist.”  The play toured Australian cities – she was in Western Australia when her mother died in December 1906. Such were the expectations of the child performer of the time, she could not leave. She went on to appear in other touring productions, including The Little Breadwinner, with Beatrice Holloway.

Queenie Williams SLVTin Can Band022

Above Left: Queenie Ina Williams in The Fatal Wedding. State Library of Victoria Collection. At right, Queenie, centre with cast. Postcard in the Author’s Collection. She was 10 at the time, but short and and underweight as the photos show.

Sometime in mid 1912, Nellie Chester (formerly Pollard) decided it would be a good idea to take another group of young Australian performers to North America. She had worked the US-Canada route with several “lilliputian” (underage) troupes over the previous decade, in collaboration with her older brother Charles Pollard. A number of talented young Australians got their start this way and by 1912,  some were already at work in the US – Daphne Pollard, Alf Goulding and Harold Fraser (“Snub Pollard”) amongst them.

Nellie Chester brought many familiar faces back for the 1912 US Canada tour, and some new ones. Old favourites Teddy McNamara, William and May Pollard were amongst the best known performers – while newcomers included “Queenie” Williams and Billy Bevan. But the new Australian legislation that followed Arthur Hayden Pollard‘s disastrous tour of India in 1909-10 required all performers leaving Australia to be aged over 18 years of age for females or 16 for males. Six of the troupe’s girls were underage – Queenie (16), Ivy Moore (16), Patsie Hill (16), Ethel Naylor (16), Jessica Braydon (17) and Daisy Wilson (16). It is hard to believe Nellie Chester was not aware she was breaking the law.

The SS Makura arrived in Vancouver in late August 1912, and newspaper reviews show the company followed Pollard’s well-travelled performance route across Canada and up and down the US west coast. Performing familiar musicals – The Mikado and The Belle of New York, they also added Sergeant Brue, The Toy Maker and La Belle Butterfly to their repertoire. Not surprisingly, the cities the troupe visited welcomed a return of the “Pollard Juvenile Opera Company”. Nellie Chester may have hoped that Queenie could take the place of Daphne Pollard, who had last performed with Pollard’s five years earlier. On the troupe’s arrival in Honolulu, Pollard’s publicity announced Queenie was their “rising star”. Daphne had been a major draw-card until her departure in 1907 and now had a significant profile of her own. Queenie was similarly charismatic onstage, and resembled Daphne – also being short and slight .

Queenie in 1914 while in Los Angeles  Pollards in VAncouver 1913  Queenie Hanford Journal (Daily) 3 December 1915

Left: “Queenie” Ina Williams in the “Los Angeles Herald”, 17 February 1914. She was 18 years old.
Centre: Pollard’s advertisement in the “Vancouver Daily World”  23 May 1913. Eva, Willie and Teddy had all previously travelled to the US before with a Pollard troupe. Note the variation in the troupe’s name – one of many.
Right: Top to bottom – Daisy Wilson, May Pollard and Queenie Wilson. “The Hanford Sentinel” 3 December 1915. Via Newspapers.com.

Over the next eighteen months, as the troupe travelled the US and Canada, the members clearly changed, and the “brilliant chorus of 40” reduced to about 20. William “Billy” Bevan left sometime towards the end of 1913, and joined Alf Goulding and Daphne Pollard in their own stage show in California. But others joined up, including Pollard regular Freddie Heintz.

In October 1913 the troupe travelled to Alaska, a first for the company, and finally, in February 1915, they arrived in New York and performed there for a few months – 15 years after the city had first been mooted as a destination for a Pollard troupe. The “Gerry Society” had successfully kept previous Pollard under-age troupes away from the US east coast (See Note 1). And another event of significance occurred for Queenie. In November 1914 she married Ernest Chester, the son of Nellie Chester and one of the troupe’s managers.


Pollards Spokane Chronicle Dec 23 1913

Above: “Spokane Chronicle”. 23 December 1913. Nellie Chester is almost certainly the conservatively dressed woman in black at the centre of the rear row. Ina may be third from the right in the front row.

By 1916, the Pollard’s troupe were probably well aware that vaudeville was under siege from the booming film industry, although movie shorts were already being incorporated into vaudeville programs. Late in 1916, the company launched their own new spectacular musical “playlet” Married Via Wireless, that more than challenged available film fare, relied on a smaller cast and was apparently easily portable. For two years the production, with its impressive “behind the scenes maze of machinery… responsible for passing ships, a blinking lighthouse, (and) a murderous submarine at its work of destruction,”  toured the US and Canada. Ernest Chester was credited with the scenery design. The very slight plot related to “the romance of the wireless operator and the daughter of the ship”.

Wisconsin State Journal 30 Jan 1919

Above: The Orpheum circuit advertises Married by Wireless as a major feature of its program, in the “Wisconsin State Journal”, January 30, 1919. Note the other offerings – which included comedians, song and dance routines and short films. Via Newspapers.com.

By mid 1919, Married Via Wireless had run its course, and apparently so had Queenie and Ernest’s marriage. Queenie left Pollard’s altogether, indeed this production seems to have been the end of the troupe’s activities. Queenie now used her real name, Ina, a name more suited to a twenty-four year old. She also found new roles in vaudeville – particularly in cities of the US east coast, including Midnight Rounders with Eddie Cantor, which for a short time placed her as a supporting player alongside Madelon La Varre, the daughter of Melbourne-born dancer Saharet.

Ina made the long trip home to Australia to see her family in 1922, and expressed a desire at the time to enter the movies, but was back at work in US vaudeville by September. Now often specializing in routines with just one other comedian; Dick Keene, Hal Skelly, Johnny Dooley and Jere Delaney were amongst her vaudeville partners over the next ten years. She also appeared with fellow Australia Leon Errol. In reviewing her performance with Skelly in Vancouver, one paper described her as “the little dynamo of pep… Their droll remarks and eccentric dance steps keep (the laughter) running throughout their performance.”

Theatre magazine 1924 enlarged Daily News 1924 Leon Errol 1927 Yours Truly

Left: Ina and Johnny Dooley in Keep Kool, “Theatre Magazine” August 1924. Via Hathitrust.org. Centre: Ina explains her childhood start as a dancer. “Daily News” (New York) 28 June 1924. Via Newspapers.com. Right: Ina as a supporting actor to Leon Errol in Yours Truly “Pittsburgh Daily Post”, 9 January 1927. Via Newspapers.com

Interviewed in 1943, Ina acknowledged she knew that with the coming of sound film – the writing was on the wall for vaudeville. She retired in 1932, after twenty solid years of comedy, song and dance on the North American stage. In that year, the last of the US theatres that once hosted vaudeville programs were being converted to sound cinemas. The ever astute Daphne Pollard had made the leap across to film in 1927.

Ina in 1943

Above: Ina Williams being interviewed at home in 1943. Asbury Park Press, 24 Jan 1943. Via Newspapers.com

In July 1923, Ina married Charles Stecher, a consulting engineer, who had nothing to do with the theatre. A daughter was born of the union in 1925. Ina died in Los Angeles on 9 June 1962.

Note 1
In the late 1920s, Ina acknowledged the difficulty the “Gerry Society,” (the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children), had created for Pollard’s. She stated that they had barred her from performing in New York because they discovered she was underage, although she did not give a date for this. (See the Cincinnatti Post, 30 November 1930)

Note 2
Freddie in 1922Not all of the performers in this final “adult” Pollard troupe enjoyed the success in the US that Ina did. Arriving in the US in 1914, Freddie Heintz struggled to find an ongoing career – renaming himself Freddie Garland (doubtless dropping his German surname because of the war) and then Freddie Steele. He crossed the border to join the Canadian Army in 1918 and was briefly married in the 1920s. He ended his days working as a handyman in Freeport, New York. His twin brother Johnnie Heintz would have no more of the life of the travelling performer – he stayed at home and became a pastry chef in Adelaide. An older brother who had also once been a performer for Pollards, Oscar Heintz, moved to Portland, Oregan in about 1910 and became a manager for Neon Manufacturing.

Above: A report of Freddie visiting his brother Oscar in The Oregonian (Portland Oregan), 25 July, 1922. Via Newspapers.com

Nick Murphy
April 2020

Special Thanks
to Jean Ritsema, for sourcing so much from US archives. 


Further Reading

Text

  • Gillian Arrighi (2017) The Controversial “Case of the Opera Children in the East”: Political Conflict between Popular Demand for Child Actors and Modernizing Cultural Policy on the Child.
    “Theatre Journal” No 69, 2017. John Hopkins University Press.
  • Gillian Arrighi National Library of Australia. Child Stars of the Stage. 
  • Louis Botto (2002) Playbill. 100 Years of Broadway shows, stories and stars. Applause Theatre and Cinema Books
  • Peter Downes (2002) The Pollards, a family and its child and adult opera companies in New Zealand and Australia, 1880-1910. Steele Roberts, New Zealand.
    [Note- Downes’ book only documents the Tom Pollard branch of the family business in Australia and New Zealand]

Federal Register of Legislation (Australia)

National Library of Australia Trove.

  • Table Talk (Melb)  26 Mar 1908
  • The Herald (Melb) 26 Aug 1922
  • The Daily Mail (Bris) 3 Sep 1922

Newspapers.com

  • Honolulu Star Bulletin 23 July 1912. Pollards bring a future star
  • The Victoria Daily Times (Victoria BC), 20 Aug, 1912. Pollard Kiddies arrive from South
  • Spokane Chronicle, 11 Nov 1914. Queenie Williams marries Chester
  • Daily Arkansas Gazette, 29 March 1919.
  • Times Union (New York) 13 July 1919. Page 4. With Cantor and La Varre
  • Boston Post. Dec 29, 1920. Wears ring she bought herself.
  • Los Angeles Express. April 20, 1922. Modern Damon and Pythias role
  • Vancouver Daily World 27 March 1923. Long and Short of it coming to Orpheum
  • Daily News (New York) · 29 Jun 1924. He Ill Health to thank…
  • Asbury Park Press, 24 Jan 1943. Ina Williams, Cast as Avon housewife – she loves it.

Shirley Ann Richards (1917-2006) – “This is not a laughing matter and don’t call me girlie!”

 Above: A screen grab of twenty year old Shirley Ann Richards in Tall Timbers (1937),  her second Australian film for Director Ken Hall. The by-line is from Dad and Dave come to Town (1938) and part of it is used as the title for a documentary made by Andree Wright in 1985. Source: Loving the Classics. Author’s Collection

The 5 second version
Born as Shirley Ann Delaforce Richards in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 20 December 1917, died California, United States, 25 August 2006. Known in the US as Ann Richards. After a short stint with amateur theatricals in Sydney, she moved to acting with Cinesound. There she appeared in six films directed by Ken Hall before moving to Hollywood. Between 1942 and 1952 she performed in a dozen films, including one directed by Edmund Angelo, her husband.
She pursued writing and philanthropic interests after 1952 and returned several times to Australia.
.

Growing up in Australia

Shirley Ann Delaforce Richards hardly qualifies as a “forgotten Australian” actor. Alone amongst Australians who went overseas to pursue an acting career in the 1930s, she returned to Australia later in life to discuss the experience and celebrate a new wave of Australian film making.

Her New Jersey-born father Mortimer Richards was the Australian manager of the successful US – owned S. F. Bowser Company, while her mother Marion nee Dive was a 24 year old from New Plymouth in New Zealand. Shirley Ann and her younger brother Roderick grew up in comfortable surroundings – first at Killara on Sydney’s north shore, then in Double Bay.

Mortimer regularly appeared in newspaper reports of the doings of Sydney’s small US community, sometimes addressing business groups about Australia’s great un-tapped potential (a favourite topic of the 1920s), while Marion was active in the newly established English Speaking Union.

Shirley Ann attended Ascham School in Edgecliff from 1925-1928, but left after the sudden death of her father in August 1928. She completed her Leaving Certificate at the Garden School, run by the Theosophical Education Trust in Mosman. Like Ascham, the school was educationally progressive, with a focus on the performing arts, literature and elocution.  These interests stayed with Shirley Ann all her life, together with a strong sense of social conscience and public duty. Later in life she reflected that her upbringing and education (and the untimely death of her father) had also exposed her to an amazing group of independent and opinionated women – her mother, teachers (Lily Arnold and Jessie MacDonald at the Garden School) and family acquaintances like social reformer and politician Millicent Preston-Stanley. Her first publicly reported appearance on stage appears to have been in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at the Savoy Theatre in October 1933.


A Cinesound Career

After leaving school and whilst working for the Russell Roberts Studio in 1936, she threw herself into amateur theatricals with the Sydney Players Club. While there she came to the attention of Ken G Hall, an Australian Producer-Director of enormous energy and capacity, with whom she maintained a lifelong friendship.

Truth Feb 1936By 1936, Table Talk was able to introduce her to readers, commenting on her  “lovely complexion and teeth…”  They also reported that she was an “excellent fencer and swimmer.” She was “very well read, being extremely fond of poetry… completely unpolluted; doesn’t drink or smoke; has splendid self-possession, but is always completely natural.” Some of these comments were true, even if they were all courtesy PR from Ken Hall’s Cinesound Studios, who had put Shirley Ann under long term contract as quickly as they could. Film historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper credit Cinesound’s “Talent School” for refining her skills.

18 year old Shirley Ann reported as interested in amateur theatricals, by Truth 23 Feb, 1936. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Her first film with Hall was It Isn’t Done,  a rags to riches comedy (or “bush to baronetcy”) with a script by Cecil Kellaway. The film was a great success, establishing Shirley Ann as a popular favourite with Australian audiences (and incidentally also providing Kellaway with a pathway to work in the US). Shirley Ann recalled that the established actors in this film, including British actors Frank Harvey and Harvey Adams, realizing the 18 year old was new to film, “spoiled her” on the set.

Shirley Ann Richards 1936 via Mitchell Library

Above: Shirley Ann Richards at the opening of Tall Timbers at the Sydney State Theatre in 1937. She toured much of Australia for Cinesound. Source: Hood Collection, via the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

TT on stage

Above: Shirley Ann Richards appears live on stage as a part of Cinesound publicity.  The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Oct 1937 via National Library of Australia’s Trove 

She appeared in a total of five feature films for Cinesound over the very busy period 1936-39. These were It Isn’t Done, Tall Timbers, Lovers and Luggers, Dad and Dave Come to Town, and Come Up Smiling. She also appeared in the surprisingly entertaining 100,000 Cobbers, a propaganda recruitment short made for the Australian Government by Cinesound after the outbreak of War. A 1984 audio interview, mostly focusing on her Cinesound years can be heard here.

L&L1   L&L2

Above: Screengrabs of Shirley Ann with Lloyd Hughes in Lovers and Luggers (1938). Unfortunately Hall’s Cinesound films have never been released on home video in Australia, they are only available via US specialist providers, often made from shortened and/or low-quality prints. Author’s Collection.

In addition to working with established Australians, the Cinesound films brought her into contact with a number of visiting British and US actors – including Cecil Kellaway, John Longden, Will Mahoney, Lloyd Hughes and James Raglan. Doubtless they talked of their experiences and the opportunities to be had working internationally. However the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 and the closure of feature production at Cinesound Studios hastened her decision to try her luck in the US. She continued with some work on the Australian stage in the meantime, having toured in Charley’s Aunt through Australia and New Zealand.


Film career in the US

Shirley Ann often recounted the story of being on the last passenger ship after Pearl Harbour. It was true. She had booked to leave Australia on 13 December 1941, on the Matson liner Mariposa. She did not cancel her travel after the sudden Japanese attacks in the Pacific and South East Asia. Shirley Ann’s name appears on the passenger manifest along with other US citizens anxious to get home from Australia, and from Hawaii where the ship had a brief stop. The ship docked in San Francisco on 31 December. She arrived with “the equivalent of $75, a weighty scrapbook…  film clips and introductions” courtesy Ken Hall. (The film clips were promptly lost somewhere in Hollywood, unfortunately).

And the risk she took?  The Mariposa had no defences, but it could manage over 20 knots, while Japanese submarines of the time might manage less than 7 knots when submerged. And a slight comforting factor also existed for Shirley Ann – both her parents were US citizens, and her own birth had been registered with the US embassy in Australia. Her father’s surviving sister Grace lived in the US –  although far from Hollywood California.

Years later Shirley Ann recalled that MGM signed her up quickly – they respected her Australian experience, but to avoid being confused with Anne Shirley, her screen name was shortened to Ann Richards. A small part in a short – to test her – followed, then MGM gave her a very, very small role in Random Harvest with Ronald Colman and Greer Garson – so small a role she doesn’t have any lines. Shirley Ann said later that most of her part ended up on the cutting room floor. But in Dr Gillespie’s New Assistant, another in the popular Dr Kildare series and also made in 1942, she played an Australian nurse working in US. This was also a small role, but at least she had a few lines and some close-ups. Richard Quine‘s “Australian-isms” are excruciating and Dr Gillespie’s (Lionel Barrymore‘s) every second comment unbelievably inappropriate for today’s viewers, but Shirley Ann manages her role with the characteristic class and good manners that she was to give all her roles.

Dr Gillespie 1  Dr Gillespie 2

Above: Screen grabs of Richard Quine as the Australian doctor and Shirley Ann Richards as the Australian nurse in Dr Gillespie’s New Assistant. TCM currently have a collection of the Dr Gillespie films for sale. 

Richard Quine and Shirley Ann in a short piece of dialogue. Quine, a US actor, tried hard to sound convincing as a young Australian doctor from Wooloomooloo, Sydney.

King Vidor‘s film An American Romance – a story of an emigrant who makes good in the US steel industry – could have been a breakthrough film for her, but it was expensive to make and at two and a half hours in length, way over-long. It was in technicolor, but it still met with a mixed reception. Australian reviewer Lon Jones felta trifle disappointed, for…(Ann Richards) is forced to compete with auto assembly lines and steel plants. The story is essentially one of men and machines and the camera is continually focused on them to the disadvantage of Miss Richards.”

Ann Richards postcard006

Above: Shirley Ann at the height of her Hollywood popularity. Her resemblance to Greer Garson was often noted. Post card in the Author’s Collection.

Despite claims that Shirley Ann was very busy in Hollywood, it seems that over the seven years 1942-48 she appeared in only eleven films – a modest output. While she was as selective as she could be with her roles, she later acknowledged that she also spent a lot of time waiting around for offers to come her way. However, it should be noted that compared to her Australian contemporaries, Mary Maguire and Constance Worth, the films she appeared in were quality films and she had credited roles in most. She worked with some of Hollywood’s leading players at this time, although Tom Vallance, her obituarist for “The Independent,” is correct in suggesting she was often consigned to “best friend” roles.

Unhappy with working for MGM, she negotiated a contract release. She then appeared in three films for independent Producer Hal WallisLove Letters (1945), The Searching Wind (1946) and Sorry Wrong Number (1948). Biographer Bernard Dick may be accurate when he suggests Wallis never intended to make a star of Shirley Ann, rather his need was for a talented actress with a faintly British accent who could also pass for an upper-class American. And although not paid at the same rate as Barbara Stanwyke or Burt Lancaster, she was still paid $US 1750 per week for her work on Sorry, Wrong Number according to Dick, the equivalent of $US 20,000 today.

Sorry wrong number
Above: Blonded-up for Hollywood,  Shirley Ann as Sally Hunt in the 1948 thriller Sorry, Wrong Number. Screen grab from the trailer, via Youtube. The film is still widely available.

In June 1946, Shirley Ann flew home to Australia for a visit to see her mother, and possibly also to convince her to move to the US. She was given a rousing welcome on arrival in Australia. The joy of her return disguised the fact that Shirley Ann and her mother had suffered some shocking news in late 1945. Her brother Roderick, who had been a Medic in the Australian 8th Division, had died as a prisoner of the Japanese in early 1945.

In early 1949 Shirley Ann married Edmund Angelo, a 36 year old theatre director and producer. In the same year, Angelo published a small book of his lectures on theatre-craft. He dedicated it to Shirley Ann, “whose brilliant artistry exemplifies what I have endeavored to express in this book.” However, the foreword by Shirley Ann makes it clear that the essays included were selected by her.

Curtain - You're On! cover

Above: Curtain – You’re On! by Edmund Angelo, with his portrait. It was dedicated to Shirley Ann, while she wrote the foreword. Author’s Collection.

She made one final film after this, with Angelo as director – a crime drama based on the boxing themed play “The Samson Slasher” – wisely re-titled Breakdown for the cinema. Angelo claimed it was made in just 11 days, on “a shoe-string budget,” and it ended up being shown as a B (supporting) feature. There was talk of further films being planned and more stage work, but the couple seem to have left Hollywood film-making behind soon after that.


After Hollywood

Following Breakdown, Angelo threw his efforts into engineering and the US aerospace effort. It could be forgotten today just how exciting this period of development and space exploration was – starting in the late 1950s and culminating in the moon landing of July 1969. Shirley Ann spoke with some pride about his work as early as 1956.

Shirley Ann turned her attention to raising her three children and pursuing some of the other interests she had always had. From the early 1950s she was active in Zeta Phi Eta, an organisation of female leaders in the arts, communication and science fields, that still describes itself today as “a friendly society of service”. Much of her work appears to have revolved around fund-raising activities for social justice causes, particularly for disadvantaged children and those with speech difficulties. Meanwhile, the family lived comfortably at W.C.Fields’ former home at 2015 De Mille Drive in Los Angeles. One of Shirley Ann’s best known (of many) anecdotes was of meeting Fields whilst peeking at the property some years before. (see Los Angeles Times, 3 December 1972)

Shirley Ann 1956
Above: Shirley Ann with her two sons Chris and Mark, photographed for the Australian Women’s Weekly 11 July 1956. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove

She also continued to write poetry – her first collection – The Grieving Senses and Other Poems, was published in 1971. The US journal Poet Lore reported that her poetry “reflected a rare sensitivity to the things around her…”


Rebirth”

Bind her close with roots of flowers
And leave her dreaming in the gloom
Where the light autumnal showers
Kiss the clover into bloom


Later life and visits to Australia

Shirley Ann returned to Australia in 1977, in part to appear in an episode of This is Your Life with Ken G Hall. It was her first visit since 1946 and again she was given a joyful welcome home, as she had been thirty years before. Her place as a living connection back to Australia’s fledgling film industry of the 1930s and to Hollywood’s Golden Age was well understood. She was interviewed at length and yet again on another visit in 1981. In 1986 she appeared in Andree Wright and Stewart Young’s documentary film about women in the Australian Cinema. Its title, Don’t Call Me Girlie, is part of the line she has in the film Dad and Dave Come to Town.

Following Edmond’s death in 1983, she remarried. She continued pushing personal boundaries until very late in life, writing poetry and lecturing on travel – for example being amongst the first Western wave of tourists into China and Tibet in the 1980s. We use the hyphenated term “Australian-American” often today, to describe Australian actors working in the US, probably because we cannot think of a more apt descriptor. In Shirley Ann’s case, she really did straddle two cultural environments with complete ease.

Much admired and always fondly remembered in Australia, she died in 2006, long after most of her Australian and Hollywood contemporaries.

Nick Murphy
March 2020 Updated September 2020


Note 1: The IMDB currently conflates Shirley Ann Richards with US-born actress Sally Ann Richards (1947-2005) – in doing so muddling up some of their appearances.

Note 2: The claim that Shirley Ann Richards “often appeared on TV” in the ’50s and ’60s appears to be another case of mistaken identity. The person referred to is almost certainly US-born Jazz Singer Ann Richards (1935-1982).


Special Thanks
To Ms Marguerite Gillezeau, Archivist at Ascham School, for her assistance on Shirley Ann’s schooling, and alerting me to her first credited public performance in October 1933.


Further Reading

Documentary films

  • Don’t Call Me Girlie (1986) Directed by Andree Wright and Stewart Young. Available from Ronin Films
  • History of Australian Film 1896-1940, Part 3 “Now You’re Talking” (1979) Directed by Keith Gow. Film Australia

Film Clips @ Australian Screen, an NFSA website

Youtube

Audio Interviews

Hollywood Forever Family Memorial Site

Text

  • Edmund Angelo (1949) Curtain-You’re On! Murray & Gee Inc.
  • Bernard F Dick (2004) Hal Wallis, Producer to the Stars. The University Press of Kentucky.
  • Ken G Hall (1980) Australian Film, The Inside Story. Summit Books
  • Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1980) Australian Films 1900-1977: A Guide to Feature production. Oxford University Press/ AFI.
  • Ann Richards (1971) The Grieving Senses and Other Poems. Branden Press.
  • Andree Wright (1986) Brilliant careers. Women in Australian Film. Pan Books.

Australian Dictionary of Biography

National Library of Australia, Trove

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 October, 1933, Cast of Children.
  • Smith’s Weekly, 10 Apr 1937; The Rise of Shirley Ann Richards.
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Mar 1937; Amateurs carry on stage traditions.
  • Table Talk, 28 Oct 1937; Cinesound School for Talent.
  • Truth (Sydney), 23 Feb 1936; The Jottings of a Lady
  • Evening News, 14 Aug 1919; Young Australia. Needs Virus of Self Reliance.
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Sep 1944; Romance and Steel. Ann Richards’s role.
  • The Age, 4 July 1946. Advice to would be film stars.
  • The Canberra Times, 1 Jul 1977; An Australian star remembers

Newspapers.com

  • The Monrovia News-Post. 1 July 1988: Actress to speak of China and Tibet.

The Independent

Wanda Radford (1896-1982) – The Australian “Wunderkind”

Above: Wanda Radford, photographed for a German postcard in about 1910. Courtesy of Jean Ritsema.

The 5 second version
She was born Blanche Wanda Radford on 22 June 1896 in Adelaide, South Australia. She died 16 September 1982 in Sydney, New South Wales. On stage from a very young age, first in Australia, then Germany and Britain, Wanda attracted considerable publicity. In 1915 she appeared in a few British films as Blanche Bryan and then another in 1918 under her own name. She returned to Australia after WWI and took up art and costume design.

For a short time in the early Twentieth Century, “Little Wanda Radford” from Adelaide was heralded as the Australian “Wunderkind” (wonder child),  an outstanding child prodigy. She was an entertaining elocutionist, reciter, singer and dancer, if we are to believe British, German and Australian newspapers of the time – and so, so young.

Blanche Wanda Radford was born in South Australia in 1896 to Randolph Radford and his London-born wife of “Polish-German” origin, Minna Henrietta nee Kuwatsch. She was an only child, an older brother having died in infancy the year before. Wanda first appeared on stage in early 1903, in a concert organised by a Sydney Temperance Lodge. In August she was appearing for Harry Musgrove singing In the Pale Moonlight at Centenary Hall. At the ripe old age of 7 she was one of Musgrove’s artists and debutantes appearing who “were free to accept engagements for the stage, concert platforms, or at homes.” In December 1903 she was on stage in Sydney for J.C. Williamson’s, performing in the pantomime Sleeping Beauty and the Beast. We know Minna managed and accompanied her, as she is repeatedly mentioned in accounts over the next few years.


Happy New Year C 1905-6    Flohm on Wanda 20 April 1907 SMH

Left: Prosit Neujahr! Happy New Year! A Georg Gerlach postcard c 1905. Courtesy Jean Ritsema.
Right: Bertram Flohm advertising himself and profiling his work with Wanda – Sydney Morning Herald 20 April 1907. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In 1904-5, Wanda trained under Bertram Flohm, a young elocutionist who had won the first ever Ballarat Royal South Street Championship for speech and drama in 1898. Flohm had quickly established himself in Sydney as a “Lecturer on Vocal Physiology and Elocution at Theological Institutions; Teacher of Elocution for Stage, Pulpit, Platform and Bar.” Clearly Wanda became one of his star pupils. By March 1905, Flohm was hosting a farewell concert for Wanda – she was about to leave with her mother to pursue a career in Europe. Indeed, she spent some months there and performed in Berlin and Vienna.

In late 1905, Oscar Klein, a jounalist for Berlin’s Bühne und Brettl wrote the following of “little Radford. She sings English, but how! … The 8-year-old girl, brunette with black fiery eyes, performs like a mature woman. Graceful in every movement, even refined in her facial expressions. I am not usually a fan of the Wunderkinder, but Angelika [another performer] and Radford, the smallest soubrettes on the world’s stages, fascinated me and delighted the audience to the highest degree.” 

Wanda also appeared at the new Apollo Theatre in Vienna in late 1905. But one could be forgiven for thinking Wanda performed on her own, as Australian newspaper reports suggested. In fact, she was part of a variety called the Liliput Circus, and was one of a number of juvenile performers appearing at the Apollo.


The Fatherland Nov 16 1905  Wanda 1906

Left: Ben Tieber’s Apollo Theatre, advertising in Das Vaterland (The Fatherland). 16 November 1905. Via Austrian National Library ANNO Newspapers.
Right: Wanda Radford in a very early postcard, c 1906. Society of Swedish Literature in Finland,
National Library of Finland, Via Europeana Collections

A correspondent from the Chicago Tribune who saw her perform in early 1906 wrote “I had an opportunity to hear the bright black-eyed little woman recite …from Romeo and Juliet, in a manner full of dramatic warmth, understanding and intelligent conception…” In May 1906 she travelled with her mother to London, and she spoke publicly of those she had met in Germany who encouraged her – including socialite Madam Kirsinger of Berlin and later, Australian soprano Nellie Melba. Late in 1906 she appeared for Beerbolm Tree in the title role of a stage version of Oliver Twist, in what British newspapers described as “a wonderfully natural and pleasing style”, “her clever acting and clear enunciation” evoking the “warmest admiration.”

Minna Radford, clearly an early believer in the concept that “all publicity is good publicity,” passed all these compliments on to the Australian press. The story that Wanda was to give Princess Victoria Louise (the Kaiser’s daughter) acting lessons, that first surfaced in Australia on 16 March 1907, and then a few days later in the London Sketch, also appears to owe itself to Minna’s efforts to write home with all the good news. It was endlessly repeated in Australia, Britain and even the US, a country which Wanda would not visit for another 20 years. (see Note 1, below)

Reporting of Wanda’s experiences shifted continually over the next few years, suggesting a degree of tension over work, study and what she could really manage as an adolescent. Her “temporary retirement” from the stage was announced several times – in May 1907 and again in March 1909. But then, she was always soon back on stage again, reciting and singing, in Germany and England and from 1910, reportedly studying at the Paris Conservatoire. Bad luck might have really dogged her career – in July 1911 Minna wrote to Australia of Wanda performing for W.S. Gilbert and his high opinion of her talent. But sadly, Gilbert had suffered a fatal heart attack in May and his active support of her career was not to be.

In 1910, a dramatic new series of photos of Wanda appeared. Gone was the little girl with carefully “ragged” (curled) hair. The photos of adolescent Wanda, looking dreamy and wearing not much more than cheesecloth, had widespread circulation. And Wanda was now being described “as unquestionably the most beautiful girl in Australasia.” (Alone amongst papers, London Tatler later corrected the misinformation about her age. She was only 14 when the photos below were taken). She was reportedly studying in Paris in 1911-12, but a breakdown in her health was announced in February 1913, and another temporary retirement from the stage occurred.


GGCo825   GGCo824    Wanda Radford in 1910

Above: Some of the photos of Wanda that appeared in 1910.  Left and Centre; Georg Gerlach postcards via Jean Ritsema. Right: This Gerlach photo appeared in many newspapers in Britain and the US. This copy is from The Goodwin Weekly, Salt lake, Utah, 31 December 1910. Via newspapers.com.

Perhaps the most unequivocal exposure of the conflicting forces in Wanda’s life appeared in 1914. In February and March, Minna wrote to South Australian friends, requesting they start a fund to support Wanda. Minna’s letter explained “I thought you might get up a little fund for Wanda. She is a South Australian and surely there are some rich people there who will not let such a talent as Wanda has, be lost for the want of funds. . . .  A lady gave me £10 to buy a new artificial foot*, but I had to spend it on Wanda: I could not see her want.” (*Minna apparently had some type of disability). The call for subscriptions appeared in Adelaide’s Register newspaper in May and June, countersigned by old family friend Mrs Caroline Dove, the wife of very well-known Anglican Archdeacon George Dove. Mrs Dove had also raised a public subscription for Wanda several years before.

Soon after, Wanda’s father Randolph, now managing the popular inner city Adam’s Tattersall’s Hotel in Pitt Street, Sydney, wrote to the paper to express “surprise and regret” that the subscription had been raised and asking it to be cancelled. “Sufficient funds” were being sent to Minna and Wanda he explained.

Sons of Satan
Above: What has happened here? Unfortunately we don’t know. Wanda playing Winifred West (left) in a scene from Sons of Satan, made in 1915. Moving Picture World Jan-March 1916. Via Lantern

In 1915, a year after the outbreak of war,  18 year old Wanda, living in England again, turned to the cinema. The London Film Company was a newly established British production company, and Wanda appeared in three of their 1915 films, using the stage name Blanche Bryan. The films were Sons of Satan,  the four-part “slum drama” The Man in the Attic and The King’s Outcast. Unfortunately, none of these films are easily found today. However, we know the “detective thriller” Sons of Satan was well received, with Wanda in the leading role as Winifred West. In the film, Winifred and her boyfriend Lord Desford manage to thwart an evil gang of villains. Wanda appeared in a final British film in 1918, using her own name.

Wanda Radford in 1926 The Home

Above: Wanda Radford in 1926. The Home. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove

But Wanda’s interests changed again – she did not pursue a career on stage or in film. In 1920, she was credited with designing some of the costumes for Gladys Unger and  K. K. Ardaschir’s musical Sunshine of the World, which played for a month at The Empire Theatre. She had become a skilled artist and dress designer, as became clear on her return to Australia in mid 1923. She soon found work as an artist and illustrator – much of her work appearing in The Home magazine, and was active in Sydney’s Society of  Artists.

wanda art for The Home 1 Jan 1927     Cover the Home Vol 6 No1 1925

Above:  Wanda’s art. Left A Wanda Radford illustration from The Home, Vol 8, No 1, 1927. The caption is “Pathetic instance of lady who has applied patent lip-shaped stamp in ignorance ( or deliberately regardless) of the author’s kindly warning”.
Right – Cover of The Home  Vol 6 No 1, 1925. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Wanda was reputedly also one a small group of “clever women” who Sydney’s Sun newspaper reported were drawing high salaries – in her case as a designer for David Jones department store.

Clearly talented in theatre and as a designer-artist, Wanda Radford left precious little of her own commentary on her life for historians, and her motivation for leaving the stage is still shrouded in mystery. But when she travelled back to the UK via the US in 1928 she made observations that leave us some clues. She said she loved the United States for its “youthfulness, where youth is given every opportunity for self-expression, as contrasted with the laggardness of European countries.” In this comment to the Boston Globe,  she was perhaps explaining why she chose to end her European stage career.

After her mother’s death in London in the mid-1930s, she returned to Sydney, where she died in 1982. She had no children and this writer has been unable to find a husband or partner. She described herself in official documents as a journalist or artist almost to the end of her life and lived comfortably in an apartment overlooking Sydney Harbour. That she was not interviewed by Australian journalists anytime in the last forty years of her life is regrettable.

Nick Murphy
February 2020


Note 1:
Regarding Wanda’s lessons for the Kaiser’s daughter in early 1907. The author has not yet found a German source that confirms this. However, any trip Wanda took from Britain to Germany to do this at the time it was reported (March 1907) must have been quite short. She was performing again in London on 1 May 1907.

Note 2:
Regarding Wanda’s escape from Germany in 1914. In September 1915, the Sydney Sun devoted space to a long account of Wanda’s escape from Germany on the outbreak of war. Unfortunately, it is also difficult to verify this, as the account does not appear in print anywhere else.

Note 3:
An actor by the name of Blanche Bryan was performing on stage in the US in the 1910s. She is unrelated to Wanda.

Special thanks to

Jean Ritsema in Jackson Michigan, who kindly prompted me to research this worthy and forgotten Australian. She also kindly translated some German documents. Thank you again Jean.

Pearl Nunn is a PhD candidate who has previously done some research on Wanda. I have never communicated with her but found her light digital footsteps through the web very helpful – thanks Pearl.

Further Reading

Text:

  • Joy Damousi (2010) Colonial Voices: A Cultural History of English in Australia, 1840-1940. Cambridge University Press.
  • Margaret Maynard (2001) Out of Line: Australian Women and Style. University of NSW Press
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1920-1929: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Newspapers.com

  • Chicago Tribune 29 April 1906
  • Boston Globe 4 June 1928
  • The Goodwin Weekly 31 December 1910

The British Newspaper Archive

  • The Era – Saturday 15 December 1906
  • The Graphic – March – June 1929 for samples of her illustrations produced in the UK

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Evening News (SA) 11 Dec 1906
  • The Evening Journal (SA) 16 July 1906 (Note: This is a reasonably accurate account of her life to July 1906)
  • Sydney Morning Herald 20 April 1907
  • The Register (SA) 8 July 1911
  • The Sun (NSW) 26 Sept 1915
  • Sydney Morning Herald 15 May 1920
  • The Sun (NSW) 20 March 1927.

The British National Portrait Gallery hold one photo of Wanda, taken by W. Walter Barnett in the early 1910s. See it here

The Dictionary of Sydney holds a photo of Wanda at the 1926 Sydney Artists Ball, (although she is mis-identified. She is almost certainly standing on the left, not the right) See it here

Europeana Collections

  • Berliner Börsenzeitung – 2 February 1908 (Berlin Stock Market Newspaper)

Austrian National Library – ANNO Austrian Newspapers online

  • Das Vaterland 16. November 1905
  • Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung: Ausgaben 1905

Lantern Media History Digital Library

  • Moving Picture World Jan-March 1916.

Hathi Trust Digital Library

Enid Bennett (1893-1969) – The Australian who kept her accent

Above: Enid Bennett in Fred Niblo’s Strangers of the Night (1923). She was at the height of her Hollywood popularity. Sadly it is a lost film. Via Wikipedia Commons. See below for full length photo.

The 5 second version

Born Enid Eulalie Bennett, York, Western Australia, Australia, 15 July 1893,
Died Malibu, California, USA 14 May, 1969. Busy on stage in Australia 1910-1915. Also appeared in Fred Niblo’s two Australian films before working in the US. Most active in Hollywood between 1917-1927, during which time she gained great attention. Some later minor roles in sound films and worked until her death for the Christian Science Church. Married to Fred Niblo 1918-48.

Enid Bennett, a young Australian who arrived in the US with Fred Niblo and Josephine Cohan in June 1915, hardly qualifies as “a forgotten Australian actor.” She received widespread publicity in the early 1920s and was, at the time, one of Hollywood’s premier stars. Many of her films still exist and she has been the subject of numerous biographies since her death in 1969. However, there are several special reasons for including her on this website.

Although most famous as a silent star, what interests this writer is her accent, as evidenced by her voice in the talkies she appeared in between 1931 and 1941. It is not the broad and theatrical accent often heard when an “Australian voice” is used in Hollywood films, but the authentic accent of many middle class Australians living on the coastal fringe.

Why accents evolve and vary as they do is well beyond the scope of this article, but it is safe to note that Bennett’s accent is a feature of her ethnicity, social standing and education. Desley Deacon has also established that middle class girls like Bennett often attended schools of acting and elocution as a first step on the path to acting on stage and screen. Yet her accent is clearly still one of middle Australia.

It is also notable that Enid Bennett plays essentially the same role in all these films – usually an earnest and thoroughly decent mother figure. Here are some examples:


The Big Store (1941)

In this well known Marx Brothers comedy,  Bennett plays an unnamed store clerk in the millinery department. Nasty Miss Peggy Arden (played by Marion Martin) makes life very hard for her. (Harpo Marx then plays a clever trick on Miss Peggy – which is the point of the scene.)

The Big Store 1941
Above: Screen grab of 48 year old Enid Bennett in her final film role – the Marx Brothers film The Big Store, of 1941. The film is widely available on DVD. Author’s collection.

Strike Up the Band (1940)

Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland star in this cheerful Busby Berkeley musical. In this scene Bennett is welcoming Jimmy, although he soon learns he is not allowed to play at her daughter Barbara’s birthday.

strike up the band

Above: This is Rooney as Jimmy Connors, with Enid Bennett playing Mrs Morgan and June Preisser as her daughter Barbara Morgan. Strike Up The Band, 1940. Author’s collection.

Meet Dr Christian (1939)

This is the first of six Dr Christian films made between 1939 and 1941, starring (and partly written by) Danish actor Jean Hersholt, as the sensible small town Doctor. Enid Bennett plays the Mayor’s wife, but her role is not reprised in the later films. In this scene she is talking to her husband.

Enid Bennett in Meet Dr Christian

Above: Screen grab of Enid Bennett as Mrs Hewitt in Meet Dr Christian. This film is widely available, and apparently now  in the public domain. Author’s Collection.

Waterloo Bridge (1931)

Waterloo Bridge was based on the play of the same name by Robert Sherwood. In this scene Mrs Wetherby (Enid Bennett) welcomes her son Roy’s new girlfriend Myra (Mae Clarke) and insists she stays, not yet knowing she is really a prostitute. When Myra admits this later to Mrs Wetherby, she is unbelievably nice about it, although naturally she doesn’t think marriage is a good idea.

waterloo bridge 1931

Above: Screen grab of Enid Bennett from Waterloo Bridge (1931). The film is still available from TCM. Author’s Collection.

Skippy (1931)

Director Norman Taurig won the Academy Award for Best Director for this film. Jackie Cooper‘s character might be regarded as tiresome today, but in 1931 the film was immensely popular. Enid Bennett plays Skippy’s mother and Dr Herbert Skinner’s wife. A sequel was made with many of the actors reprising their roles, including Bennett.

This is a sound clip from the beginning of the film, where the Skinners are having breakfast while Skippy is still lying in bed upstairs pretending to get dressed.

Skippy 1931, Breakfast scene
Above: Screen grab of Willard Robertson and Enid Bennett as Skippy’s parents, in the breakfast scene that begins the film. Skippy is available from TCM. Author’s Collection

Did she retire? Well, not exactly. By 1930, Enid Bennett was an active Christian Scientist, in company with many Hollywood actors – including Mary Pickford, Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers and Dick Powell.

She remained so to the end of her life, and there is plenty of evidence she devoted much of her time and expertise in front of the camera and microphone in the cause of the church, particularly after the death of her first husband Fred Niblo, in 1948. She regularly appeared on radio and TV, sometimes credited as Enid Bennett Niblo, hosting short Christian Science programs on healing, including Light of Faith and How Christian Science heals. She died in May 1969.

Melbourne Age Aug 18 1956
Above: The Melbourne Age, 18 August 1956, reporting on Enid’s work as a Christian Scientist but already seriously muddled up about her connection to Australia. (If she ever lived in St Kilda, Melbourne it wasn’t for very long.) Via newspapers.com

In case you don’t know who she was !

Below: Enid Bennett photographed by May and Mina Moore, C 1910, about the time she began to develop a reputation in Australia.  State Library of Victoria, via National Library of Australia’s Trove. 

enid bennet about 1910She was born Enid Eulalie Bennett to Francis Bennett and Nellie nee Walker at York, Western Australia in 1893. She had an older brother  – Francis Reginald (born 1891) and a younger sister Marjorie Esme (born 1896). Having attempted to open his own school in the inland town of York, about 100 kms east of Perth , Western Australia, her father Francis Bennett became the founding Principal of Guildford Grammar School in 1896. It wasn’t for very long unfortunately. He apparently took his own life in 1898 while suffering the increasingly debilitating effects of locomotor ataxia. Nellie, who seems to have been the school matron, then married the school’s new Principal Alexander D Gillespie in 1898. Two children were born of this union – Catherine Fanny (born 1901) and Alexander David (born 1903). But Gillespie also died only a few years later.

Enid Bennett’s career can be traced through early performances first in Western Australia and then under the tutelage of Julius Knight. In 1910 visiting US performer Katherine Gray had also encouraged her to pursue a career on stage. In the eastern states she performed in Everywoman with British actress Hilda Spong and another up and coming Australian, Dorothy Cumming, in 1911. However, her major breakthrough was to find work with Fred Niblo and his wife Josephine Cohan, on their extended tour of Australia. About the same time Nellie moved the family back to Sydney, where she had been born, eventually settling down in Rose Bay. 

Below left: Enid Bennett as featured in a US comedy she performed with Niblo, Excuse Me.  From “The Lone Hand”, 1 August 1913. Centre Fred Niblo and right Josephine Cohan. Prompt Scrapbook, Vol 10- 1. via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Lone Hand 1913FRed Niblo Prompt scrapbook   Josephine Cohan


Niblo was effusive about the Australian performers in his company, and young Enid Bennett in particular. In early 1915 he told Perth’s Sunday Times; Miss Enid Bennett is a splendid actress, and the Perth people will watch her career with interest and pride,” noting how well she had filled in for Josephine Cohan when she was (often) indisposed. The Niblo-Cohan troupe traveled Australia for three years, despite Josephine’s declining health. In June 1915 Niblo, Cohan and 22 year old Enid packed up and headed for the US on the Matson liner Ventura. Before they departed, Niblo quickly made two filmed versions of popular plays for J.C.Williamson’s – Get Rich Quick Wallingford and Officer 666.  According to film historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, the surviving reels of Officer 666 “reveal a crude production doggedly faithful to the stage.” These were Niblo’s first efforts as a director – he was to significantly refine his skills in Hollywood. Watch a clip from Officer 666 here

Soon after arriving in the US, Enid Bennett appeared in a supporting role in Henry Arthur Jones‘ comedy Cock O’ The Walk, a vehicle for popular comedian Otis Skinner being performed in east coast US cities, including New York. At about the same time she also appeared in her first film, A Princess of the Dark for Thomas H. Ince and Triangle Studios.

A princess of the dark

Above: Thomas Ince marketing his latest star in March 1916. “El Paso Times”, 2 March 1916. Some commentaries incorrectly date this to a release in 1917. Via Newspapers.com

Enid Bennett first play in US

Above: Enid Bennett in her first US play, Cock O’ the Walk, with Janet Dunbar and Rita Otway, in early 1916. Author’s Collection

Enid’s sister Marjorie was to claim that the family pressured her to join Enid in the US, to keep her company.  But the early years in Hollywood appear to have a degree of excitment about them even if the transition to work in the US was tough. Sylvia Bremer‘s biographer Ralph Marsden reproduces one photo showing a happy Bremer, Enid and Marjorie Bennett swimming at California’s Arrowhead Springs, in 1917. According to Theatre historian Desley Deacon, the success of these young Australian women inspired others, including Judith Anderson.

In Australia in late 1917 Nellie, Catherine and Alexander received some catastrophic news. The family’s oldest son, Frank Reginald, had been killed in fighting at Passchendaele, Belgium on 9 October 1917, not long after being promoted to Lieutenant. Nellie’s few letters held in Frank’s Australian military file reflect the deep grief the family must have felt. Soon after, Nellie and Enid’s two step-siblings packed up and departed for the US on the SS Ventura.

Enid and Fred Niblo married in late February 1918 – his first wife Josephine Cohan had died in July 1916. The impending wedding was almost certainly the main reason for the Bennett family’s arrival in the US a few months before. But there the family stayed, all building careers for themselves in the US. For a few years in the early 1920s, Catherine enjoyed a career in comedy films, often with Monty Banks. Alexander Bennett is reported to have become an accountant. Marjorie, the reluctant actress, would eventually build a remarkable career in Hollywood character roles from the late 1940s, after a long career on stage, including two years performing back in Australia (1921-23).

Fred Niblo’s first US directing experience was The Marriage Ring, with Enid in a leading role, in 1918. He had learned a lot since the days of his Australian film experience; he went on to direct until the early 1930s and the first years of sound film. Kevin Brownlow has documented Niblo’s work on one of his most famous films – Ben Hur, a Tale of the Christ made in 1925. Like Enid, he also took on small acting roles in sound films later in life. He died in 1948.

Enid Bennett was busy – her most prolific period was the ten years between 1917-1927. There were some stand-out roles in films that still survive. These included Robin Hood in 1922 with Douglas Fairbanks, The Sea Hawk with fellow Australian Mark McDermott, and The Red Lily with Ramon Novarro, both in 1924, the latter also being directed by Niblo.

Enid and Fred had three children in the 1920s – Loris, Peter and Judith. They also parented Niblo’s son Fred Junior, from his marriage with Josephine. Late in life, Enid married family friend and former film director Sidney Franklin. But Enid Bennett’s ashes were interned next to Fred Niblo’s after her sudden death in May 1969.

Marjorie Bennett outlived all her siblings. She died in Hollywood in 1982, working almost to the end of her life.

1923 comedy silence of the night

Above – The author’s favourite photo of Enid Bennett as  she appeared in Fred Niblo’s Strangers of the Night (1923). Via Wikipedia Commons  (which has more than 50 public domain images of her).

Nick Murphy
February 2020

Further Reading

Online

  • Film – Robin Hood 1922 – on Youtube and Internet Archive
  • Film clip –Officer 666 National Film and Sound Archive
  • National Library of Australia – Trove.
    • May and Mina Moore Collection
    • The Daily News, 3 Aug 1910. Page 3
    • The Lone Hand, 1 August 1913. Pages 326-7
    • The Leader, (Vic) 30 Dec 1911. Page 27
    • Sunday Times  21 Mar 1915. Page 25
    • The Catholic Paper – Freeman’s Journal, 10 Dec 1931. Page 3
    • The Age, 18 August 1956. Page 11
  • Peter Niblo (2006) –Remembering My Father, Fred Niblo  The Silents are Golden website
  • Australian Live Performance Database
    AusStage – Enid Bennett
    Austage – Majorie Bennett
  • Newspapers.com
    • Boston Globe. 13 July 1916. (This extraordinary newspaper article attributes Josephine Cohan’s death to “Too much dancing” rather than heart disease, which it was)
    • New York Tribune. 2 August 1915. P9
    • El Paso Times 2 March 1916 P9
    • Los Angeles Times. 30 Oct 1935. P13

Text

  • Kevin Brownlow (1968) The Parade’s Gone By. University of California Press.
  • Desley Deacon (2008) “Cosmopolitans at Home: Judith Anderson and the American aspirations of J C Williamson’s Stock Company Members” in Robert Dixon, Veronica Kelly (Eds) Impact of the Modern: Vernacular Modernities in Australia 1870s-1960s. University of Sydney.
  • Desley Deacon (2013) Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies. Vol 18, No 1 “From Victorian Accomplishment to Modern Profession: Elocution Takes Judith Anderson, Sylvia Bremer and Dorothy Cumming to Hollywood, 1912-1918
  • Desley Deacon (2019) Judith Anderson: Australian Star, First Lady of the American Stage. Kerr Publishing.
  • Al Kemp, Tina Kemp (2002) Enid Bennett A Forgotten Star : Life of a Jazz Actress
    Pen Productions Media/Publishing. [Book could not be sourced for this narrative]
  • Ralph Marsden (2016) Who was Sylvia? An autobiography of Sylvia Breamer. Screencrafts Productions.
  • Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1980) Australian Film 1900-1977. Oxford University Press
  • Hal Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby
  • 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

Paul Scardon, Mario Majeroni and Giorgio (George) Majeroni
Sailed to North America in December 1905 on SS Sonoma

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

Queenie Williams, Billy Bevan, Teddy McNamara, Ivy Moore and other Pollard performers sailed to North America in August 1912 on the SS Makura

Arthur Shirley
Sailed to the US in November 1914 on the RMS Niagara

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

Nina Speight
Sailed to the US in April 1916 on SS Great Northern

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

Trilby Clark
Sailed to the UK in July 1920 then to the US in Feb 1921.

Suzanne Bennett
Sailed to the US in October 1922 on the SS Niagara.

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

Phyllis Gibbs
Sailed to the US in June 1927 on SS Sierra

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

Fred Stone
Sailed to the UK in May 1929 on SS Benalla.

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.

Joy and George Nichols
Sailed to the UK in September 1946 on the Dominion Monarch 

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

Above: Menu from the SS Orion in April 1947. The austerity of the post war world is still obvious. Author’s collection

departing Melbourne036

The joy and excitement of overseas travel by ship is obvious on this girl’s face. Port of Melbourne, c 1937. Author’s collection.

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.

John Wood (1909-1965)- 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.


a very young john wood 1929  adelaide-theatre-royal-1931

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.

pompeii2  pompeii3

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 widely available. Author’s collection.

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)

Over She Goes 2  Over she goes 1

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.

Phyl buchanan the graphic 1926     The Herald 21 june 1946

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.

Stolen face2  Stolen face1

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.