Elsie Jane Wilson (1885-1965) actor and Hollywood director

Above and below; Sydney-born actor and director Elsie Jane Wilson in a spread in Photoplay magazine in late 1917. She had been working in the US for 6 years. [1]Photoplay magazine Oct 1917-March 1918, via Lantern, Digital Library

How could a successful Australian actress, who directed her first film in Hollywood in 1917, at the age of about 32, be so quickly forgotten? Unfortunately, even in her lifetime, press accounts tended to assume Elsie Jane Wilson was, like her husband Rupert Julian, New Zealand born, or perhaps English, and since then, even homegrown accounts have overlooked her. It is only in the last few decades that Elsie has finally attracted some of the interest she deserves. Recent writers include Mark Garrett Cooper at the Women Film Pioneers Project (here), Karen Ward Mahar and Robert Catto at his specialist website devoted to Rupert Julian (here).

Directing was “man’s work” Elsie suggested to interviewer Frances Denton in the Photoplay interview. But the posed photograph used in the article presents Elsie as a woman of ability and authority.[2]Photoplay magazine Oct 1917-March 1918, via Lantern, Digital Library

One of a group of women who directed at Universal Studios in the 1910s, Elsie had enjoyed a successful Australian stage career before appearing on stage in the US and acting in 40 films. She is known to have directed at least 10 films and also wrote several screenplays – all this before 1920. Her working life after 1920 remains obscure, although there is evidence suggesting she kept working in partnership with Rupert.

The Wilson family

Elsie Jane Wilson was born in Sydney on November 7, 1885[3]NSW Births Deaths & Marriages, Birth Certificate 3700/1885 to James Wilson, a 51 year old Scottish immigrant and his 37 year old English wife Jane nee Jordan. By the time of her marriage to New Zealand actor, Percival Hayes (stage name Rupert Julian) in 1906,[4]Victoria Births Deaths & Marriages Marriage Certificate 6213/1906 Elsie was able to describe her father as “a gentleman”, which – in the language of the time – suggested a person of independent means. Records show however, that most of his life he was a bootmaker[5]or “clicker” – a skilled tradesperson who cut boot leather and the family lived for many years in Riley Street, in the inner eastern Sydney suburb of Woolloomooloo.[6]A City of Sydney Archive photo of nineteenth century houses in Riley Street can be seen here

The Wilson family and their neighbours in the 1889 Sands Sydney directory.[7]Sands 1889 Directory, City of Sydney Archives & History Resources

James and Jane Wilson were typical of immigrant couples who had arrived in Australia in the mid 19th century, attracted by the goldrushes, or by the government bounties designed to address skilled labour shortages. The couple had married in Adelaide, South Australia in 1866, but ten years later they were living in Sydney. In addition to Elsie, two other daughters – Nellie (born Catherine Eleanor Wilson in 1877) and Marie (born Marion Wilson in 1889) had stage careers. Undoubtedly encouraged by James and Jane to see the stage as a pathway to success and financial freedom (secondary schooling and university education was not usually an option for working class families), the three girls all appeared on the stage from an early age.

Success of sister Nellie Wilson

Nellie Wilson was born Catherine Eleanor (or sometimes Helen) Wilson in Sydney in 1877.[8]NSW Births Deaths & Marriages, Birth Certificate 2389/1877 She is important in this story because she enjoyed great success on the stage – and Elsie would have grown up as an observer to that success. Elsie was just seven years old when Nellie was touring Australia and New Zealand, notably with Tom Pollard’s Lilliputians, and in company with the likes of Wilmot Karkeek, Harry Quealy, Will Percy and Maud and Mae Beatty – all of whom Elsie is likely to have met, and – significantly, all of whom ended up pursuing careers overseas.[9]See Auckland Star, 28 Nov 1901, P2 Via National Library of New Zealand Papers Past

Elsie’s older sister Nellie Wilson in 1910 [10]Sunday Sun (Syd) 20 Nov 1910, P12, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Nellie continued on stage in Australia and New Zealand through the 1900s, taking only a little time off for a marriage in 1902 to George Irish, a flamboyant Melbourne motor salesman.[11]Victoria Births Deaths & Marriages Marriage certificate 3786/1902 The marriage did not stop her performing however, and she toured South Africa in 1904 and 1905. The theatrical firm of JC Williamson’s made use of her repeatedly in their Royal Comic Opera Company touring Australasia – which included consistently popular musicals like Florodora, The Belle of New York and The Mikado.

Elsie Wilson – the “promising Australian actress”

Elsie Wilson[12]not yet using her middle name appeared on the Australian stage – with the John F Sheridan touring company in 1904 – performing in the familiar repertoire of musical comedies that Australians liked – Naughty Nancy, The Lady Slavey, The Earl and the Girl and The Mikado, [13]The Newsletter: an Australian Paper for Australian People (Syd) 21 Jan 1905, P7 via National Library of Australia’s Trove later joining Julius Knight’s company. It was while performing in Melbourne in 1906 that she married fellow company member Rupert Julian.

Elsie Wilson, in costume, “one of the most promising of Australian actresses” on the cover of Adelaide’s Gadfly, in October 1907.[14]The Gadfly, 30 October 1907, Cover, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

For the next five years, the couple worked in the same company and developed their stagecraft. A glance at contemporary newspaper advertisements suggests an exhausting schedule of touring regional and sometimes remote Australia and New Zealand. But the reviews of Elsie’s work became increasingly enthusiastic – by late 1907, Adelaide’s The Gadfly could profile Elsie on their front page and express great confidence in her future as an up and coming actor. The paper reported that it had “arrived at the opinion that the lady is a much finer artist than people think she is, for the obvious reason that most critics have ignored her.”[15]The Gadfly (Adel) 9 Oct 1907, P8 via National Library of Australia’s Trove In early 1909, her excellent voice and spirited dancing were being celebrated in Sydney[16]Sunday Times (Syd) 21 Mar 1909, P6 via National Library of Australia’s Trove while only a few months later, on the other side of Australia, Kalgoorlie’s Sun predicted she had all the makings of “a star emotional actress.”[17]The Sun(WA) 6 June 1909, P7 via National Library of Australia’s Trove

In 1908, JC Williamson’s offered her a salary of £8 per week,[18]about $AU 1,100 today. Her contract survives in the Australian Performing Arts Collection a modest salary when compared to Julius Knight’s £50 per week, but acceptable for a 23 year old whose husband was also earning. The very successful Julius Knight tours included a repertoire of costume dramas such as The Scarlet Pimpernel, A Royal Divorce, The Prisoner of Zenda and The Sign of the Cross, and plays by George Bernard Shaw.[19]See Veronica Kelly (2003) “Julius Knight, Australian Matinee Idol: Costume Drama as Historical Re-presentation” in Australasian Victorian Studies Journal, Vol 9, No 1, 2003

Above Left: Elsie’s husband Rupert Julian in costume, c1917.[20]Motion Picture Magazine, April 1917, P18 via Lantern Digital Library Right: One of Elsie’s mentors, Julius Knight, in costume as Napoleon, c1900 [21]Enlarged from a Talma Photo, State Library of Victoria collections

Elsie Jane Wilson appears in the US

Elsie in Everywoman in 1913.[22]Marysville Appeal(CA), 22 Jul 1913, P3 via Newspapers.com

There was no publicity accompanying Elsie and Rupert’s decision to leave Australia or their departure – rather, it was all done on the quiet – a not uncommon strategy by Australian actors in case things did not go to plan and they had to come home. The couple arrived in Vancouver on 26 July 1911, on the SS Zealandia. Officials recorded her height as 5’7″ (170 cms), almost the same as her husband. Elsie now launched herself in the US using her full and more distinctive name, although at various times she also called herself Elsie Hayes or Elsie Julian. The couple made their way to New York, and they both found work – but not together. Elsie was on stage touring in A Fool There Was in 1912, followed by Everywoman in California. She progressed to Little Theatre performances, but by the end of 1913 had joined Rupert Julian and immersed herself in the booming film industry. Attracted by Elsie’s success in the US, older sister Nellie joined them in California in mid 1913. See Note 1 below.

Elsie’s pathway from the stage to film was likely identical to her husband’s. In a 1916 interview, Rupert Julian claimed he had been “induced… against his will to try… the screen… (and) contrary to his expectation… found it fascinating.”[23]Moving Picture Weekly, 11 Nov 1916 via Lantern Digital Library The IMDB lists Elsie’s first film acting role in The Imp Abroad released in January 1914, followed by The Triumph of Mind, directed by pioneer female film director Lois Weber (1879-1939). The film also featured Rupert.

Elsie in 1914 [24]Motion Picture News, July-Oct 1914, P85. Via Lantern Digital Library

We do not know whether Elsie and Rupert became friends with Lois Weber and her husband Phillips Smalley (1875-1939) – or whether the newly arrived antipodeans were simply another of the professionals Weber famously mentored.[25]Perhaps the couple intrigued Lois Weber. Elsie and Rupert hailed from budding democracies – Australia and New Zealand – where Caucasian women could vote, in fact Elsie would already have … Continue reading Rupert Julian appeared in all of Lois Weber’s films in 1913 and it seems likely his “fascination” extended to developing his own skills as a director. Elsie also acted in several Lois Weber films in 1914, but throughout 1915 and 1916 she became a regular in films directed by Rupert – many of these being “shorts,” part of Universal’s policy of producing a “balanced program” of shorts and occasional features – Westerns, comedies and dramas.[26]Jeannette Delamoir “Louise Lovely, Bluebird Photoplays and the Star System.” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists. Vol. 4, No. 2 (Fall 2004), pp. … Continue reading Unfortunately, most of these films are lost.

Creative partnerships between husband and wife, collaborating together in actor-writer/director/producer roles, were a feature of filmmaking in the 1910s. Apart from Elsie Jane Wilson & Rupert Julian and Lois Weber & Phillips Smalley, other collaborative partnerships included JP McGowan & Helen Holmes, Ida May Park & Joseph de Grasse, and Ruth Stonehouse & Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson. These partnerships sometimes saw scripts and scenarios formulated that the couple then performed in or directed. Elsie contributed to at least two scripts that were filmed, one – The Human Cactus(1915) – being directed by Rupert. In this case, the couple also acted together in it.

A Pygmalian-type story by Elsie Jane Wilson formed the basis of The Human Cactus. Elsie played Evangeline, the slum girl who is “cultivated”. [27]The Moving Picture Weekly, June 24, 1915, P31 via Lantern Digital Library

Elsie Jane Wilson acting. Left: Elsie with Rupert Julian in The Evil Women Do (1916) also directed by Julian.[28]Motion Picture News, Sept 23, 1916, via Lantern Digital Library Right: As Nancy in the Jesse Lasky version of Oliver Twist (1916), directed by James Young.[29]Photoplay, February 1917, via Lantern Digital Library

Elsie as a Director

Elsie’s first directing experience was as an uncredited assistant to Rupert Julian on The Circus of Life, another film she also starred in, released in mid 1917.[30]The Moving Picture Weekly Nov 3, 1917, P28 Via Lantern Digital Library Her first credited solo directing assignments were on four feature films featuring child star Zoe Rae (1910-2006), released in later 1917.

Advertisements for two of Elsie’s films featuring Zoe Rae.[31]Motion Picture News Aug 25, 1917, P1297 and The Moving Picture World Dec 8, 1917 P1410 via Lantern Digital Library

Regrettably, only one of her films has survived and is freely available today, making analysis of her work extremely difficult. The Dream Lady (1918) has been beautifully restored by the French Centre National de la Cinématographie – it can be seen (here). For an understanding of her other films, we are dependent on synopsises in trade journals and a few reviews – not enough for this writer to attempt any commentary. She acted in several serials in 1917-18, but again unfortunately these have not survived. Her last acting role is reported to have been in an Eddie Lyons comedy short, in 1920.

We know that many of Elsie and Rupert’s films were made under the Bluebird photoplay brand, one of Universal’s subsidiaries with an association for quality, as Jeannette Delamoir has explained.[32]For more on Universal Studio’s production strategy see Jeannette Delamoir “Louise Lovely, Bluebird Photoplays and the Star System.” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association … Continue reading However, Universal’s head Carl Laemmle made decisions entirely based on commercial principles – rather than any feminist sympathies. By the early 1920s, the studio system had become increasingly dominant. Anthony Slide and Karen Ward Mahar have both written of the post war changes in Hollywood and the consequences for the ten women directing for Universal, including Elsie.[33]See Karen Ward Mahar (2006) Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood. Johns Hopkins University Press and Anthony Slide (1996) Lois Weber: the director who lost her way in history. Greenwood Press

What happened to Elsie’s career?

Elsie (at right) directing action, in a 1919 Photoplay article entitled “The Women Lend a hand” by Grace Kingsley.[34]Photoplay Magazine, March 1919, P78. Via Lantern Digital Media Library

Elsie’s last credit as a director was in early 1919, on The Game’s Up. But as Mark Garrett Cooper has noted, there is a problem of attribution for female directors of the era, including Elsie Jane Wilson. For example, Cooper notes actor Ruth Clifford (1900-1998) recalled that it was Elsie Jane Wilson who directed her on The Savage (1917), yet the film is traditionally credited to Rupert Julian.[35]See Mark Garrett Cooper (2013) “Elsie Jane Wilson.” In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University … Continue reading Contemporary reports also suggested Elsie helped Rupert direct Mother O’Mine (1917) although again, the film’s credits attribute it to Rupert Julian alone.[36]Motion Picture News, August 25, 1917 via Lantern Digital Library However, it is clear that Elsie continued working after her last credited directing assignment. While formal film credits do not exist, there is a body of evidence in the contemporary press indicating that she was regularly assisting her husband in film production – and keen to seek further work as a director.

The cast of Rupert Julian’s The Honey Bee (1920) on set. Elsie Jane Wilson is in the second row. There is no information regarding why Elsie was there.[37]Motion Picture News, Feb 28 1920, P2127 via Lantern Digital Library

On several occasions after 1919, Elsie was publicly announced in trade magazines and newspapers as the director for a forthcoming production. In February 1920 she was announced as director for Opened Shutters, an upcoming Edith Roberts film.[38]The Los Angeles Times, 6 Feb 1920, P23, via Newspapers.com However, in the end it was directed by William Worthington. In late 1922 The Los Angeles Times announced she was planning to direct again,[39]The Los Angeles Times 29 Nov 1922, P15, via Newspapers.com and in March 1923, she was announced as the director of a new series of Baby Peggy films for Universal, with Rupert Julian writing scripts.[40]Baby Peggy, born Peggy-Jean Montgomery (1918-2020) was a popular Hollywood child star Elsie said she was “elated” over her return to pictures and felt certain she had some new ideas to offer. But it was not to be, although Universal did make a Baby Peggy film in 1923, directed by King Baggot.[41]See Exhibitor’s Trade Review, April 7, 1923, P947 via Lantern, Digital Library. Also see The Los Angeles Times, 17 Mar 1923, P22 via Newspapers.com

However most telling, in June 1924, Universal Weekly, the studio’s own magazine, reported that on account of her work on Rupert Julian’s Love and Glory (1924), Elsie had been given “a letter of thanks and a substantial check” by Julius Bernheim, Universal Studio’s General Manager.[42]Universal Weekly, 14 June 1924, P26, via Lantern, Digital Library The article went on to explain that “although not employed by Universal” she was an active aide to her husband as director, handling his working script and assisting him in directing. It was an unusually fulsome public acknowledgement for someone who was not on the payroll. Some months later, several reports credited her with managing Mary Philbin’s makeup and costumes for Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera (1925).[43]See for example Oakland Tribune (CA)19 Oct 1924, P64 via Newspapers.com

Whether or not Elsie’s last contribution to film was really in 1925, or perhaps after that date, we know that Rupert Julian’s final films were only 5 years later, in 1930, at the beginning of the sound era.[44]See Robert Catto’s website on Rupert Julian for a synopsis of his career He died suddenly in 1943 as a result of a stroke. Elsie lived on in Los Angeles until her death, aged about 80, in early 1965.[45]The Los Angeles Times, 19 Jan 1965, P40 via Newspapers.com Both had become US citizens and there appear to have been no trips home to see extended family in Australia or New Zealand. Elsie and Rupert had no children. I can find no evidence Elsie was ever interviewed about her screen or stage work and sadly, she was completely forgotten in her country of birth until relatively recently.


Note 1 – Nellie Wilson in the USA

Nellie Wilson joined Elsie in the US between 1913 and 1918. Left: Nellie as Nella in So Long Letty (1915).[46]Los Angeles Evening Express,19 Jul 1915, P7, via Newspapers.com Right: Nellie, arrived home in Australia in 1918.[47]Table Talk, 26 Dec 1918, via State Library of Victoria

Nellie Wilson arrived in the US in mid 1913.[48]Variety, 25 July 1913, P25, Via Lantern Digital Library (Her marriage to George Irish had come to an unhappy end when he was admitted to Kew Asylum in May 1912.) But despite her enviable reputation on the Australian and New Zealand stage, Nellie appears to have struggled to establish herself in the US. It was not until 1915 that she found an ongoing role on the stage – in the musical So Long Letty, having renamed herself “Nella” Wilson in the meantime.[49]The San Francisco Examiner 19 Jul 1913,P3 and The Los Angeles Times 24 Jun 1915, P26 via Newspapers.com She returned to Australia in late 1918.[50]Table Talk, 26 Dec 1918, via State Library of Victoria Nellie visited Elsie in the US again in 1931.

Nellie Wilson’s later fate is unknown. One newspaper report suggested she ran a millinery shop in Sydney.[51]Sydney Morning Herald, 7 June 1934, P9, via National Library of Australia’s Trove Marie Wilson married bank officer Phillip John Madden in Melbourne in 1914 and also retired from the stage.


Note 2: Other Elsies and different Nellies

The English Nellie Wilson in 1895.[52]Music Hall and Theatre Review, 1 February, 1895 via British Library Newspaper Archive

There were several performers called Nellie Wilson – it was not an uncommon name. English performer Nellie Wilson visited Australia in the 1890s, and she can be found on the cover of the British paper Music Hall and Theatre Review, 1 February, 1895 (at left). In addition, a long interview with her after her Australian tour can be found in the same paper, May 26 1899, P331. She resembles our Nellie Wilson in appearance and the two are sometimes confused in collections.

This photo in the collection of the State Library of Victoria appears to show our Nellie Wilson (Click here), see also Peter Downes, The Pollards, P110. Confusingly, an additional photo in the collections of the State Library of Victoria appears to show the English Nellie Wilson.

Another Elsie Wilson was active in Australia in the late 1910s. Her JC Williamson’s contract from 1917 survives in the collections of the Australian Performing Arts Collection.

Elsie Wilson was also the name of the long time companion of Gladys Moncrieff.


Nick Murphy
September 2022


References

  • Newspaper & Magazine Sources
    • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Newspapers.com
    • State Library of Victoria
    • Hathitrust digital library
    • National Library of New Zealand’s Papers Past
    • Internet Archive Library via Lantern Digital Library
  • Primary Sources
    • Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne.
    • Ancestry.com
    • Victoria, Births, Deaths and Marriages
    • New South Wales, Births, Deaths and Marriages

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

Footnotes

Footnotes
1, 2 Photoplay magazine Oct 1917-March 1918, via Lantern, Digital Library
3 NSW Births Deaths & Marriages, Birth Certificate 3700/1885
4 Victoria Births Deaths & Marriages Marriage Certificate 6213/1906
5 or “clicker” – a skilled tradesperson who cut boot leather
6 A City of Sydney Archive photo of nineteenth century houses in Riley Street can be seen here
7 Sands 1889 Directory, City of Sydney Archives & History Resources
8 NSW Births Deaths & Marriages, Birth Certificate 2389/1877
9 See Auckland Star, 28 Nov 1901, P2 Via National Library of New Zealand Papers Past
10 Sunday Sun (Syd) 20 Nov 1910, P12, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
11 Victoria Births Deaths & Marriages Marriage certificate 3786/1902
12 not yet using her middle name
13 The Newsletter: an Australian Paper for Australian People (Syd) 21 Jan 1905, P7 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
14 The Gadfly, 30 October 1907, Cover, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
15 The Gadfly (Adel) 9 Oct 1907, P8 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
16 Sunday Times (Syd) 21 Mar 1909, P6 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
17 The Sun(WA) 6 June 1909, P7 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
18 about $AU 1,100 today. Her contract survives in the Australian Performing Arts Collection
19 See Veronica Kelly (2003) “Julius Knight, Australian Matinee Idol: Costume Drama as Historical Re-presentation” in Australasian Victorian Studies Journal, Vol 9, No 1, 2003
20 Motion Picture Magazine, April 1917, P18 via Lantern Digital Library
21 Enlarged from a Talma Photo, State Library of Victoria collections
22 Marysville Appeal(CA), 22 Jul 1913, P3 via Newspapers.com
23 Moving Picture Weekly, 11 Nov 1916 via Lantern Digital Library
24 Motion Picture News, July-Oct 1914, P85. Via Lantern Digital Library
25 Perhaps the couple intrigued Lois Weber. Elsie and Rupert hailed from budding democracies – Australia and New Zealand – where Caucasian women could vote, in fact Elsie would already have done so, in the 1910 Australian Federal elections. In the US, women’s suffrage was still 6 years away
26 Jeannette Delamoir “Louise Lovely, Bluebird Photoplays and the Star System.” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists. Vol. 4, No. 2 (Fall 2004), pp. 64-85. University of Minnesota Press
27 The Moving Picture Weekly, June 24, 1915, P31 via Lantern Digital Library
28 Motion Picture News, Sept 23, 1916, via Lantern Digital Library
29 Photoplay, February 1917, via Lantern Digital Library
30 The Moving Picture Weekly Nov 3, 1917, P28 Via Lantern Digital Library
31 Motion Picture News Aug 25, 1917, P1297 and The Moving Picture World Dec 8, 1917 P1410 via Lantern Digital Library
32 For more on Universal Studio’s production strategy see Jeannette Delamoir “Louise Lovely, Bluebird Photoplays and the Star System.” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists. Vol. 4, No. 2 (Fall 2004), pp. 64-85. University of Minnesota Press
33 See Karen Ward Mahar (2006) Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood. Johns Hopkins University Press and Anthony Slide (1996) Lois Weber: the director who lost her way in history. Greenwood Press
34 Photoplay Magazine, March 1919, P78. Via Lantern Digital Media Library
35 See Mark Garrett Cooper (2013) “Elsie Jane Wilson.” In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries.
36 Motion Picture News, August 25, 1917 via Lantern Digital Library
37 Motion Picture News, Feb 28 1920, P2127 via Lantern Digital Library
38 The Los Angeles Times, 6 Feb 1920, P23, via Newspapers.com
39 The Los Angeles Times 29 Nov 1922, P15, via Newspapers.com
40 Baby Peggy, born Peggy-Jean Montgomery (1918-2020) was a popular Hollywood child star
41 See Exhibitor’s Trade Review, April 7, 1923, P947 via Lantern, Digital Library. Also see The Los Angeles Times, 17 Mar 1923, P22 via Newspapers.com
42 Universal Weekly, 14 June 1924, P26, via Lantern, Digital Library
43 See for example Oakland Tribune (CA)19 Oct 1924, P64 via Newspapers.com
44 See Robert Catto’s website on Rupert Julian for a synopsis of his career
45 The Los Angeles Times, 19 Jan 1965, P40 via Newspapers.com
46 Los Angeles Evening Express,19 Jul 1915, P7, via Newspapers.com
47, 50 Table Talk, 26 Dec 1918, via State Library of Victoria
48 Variety, 25 July 1913, P25, Via Lantern Digital Library
49 The San Francisco Examiner 19 Jul 1913,P3 and The Los Angeles Times 24 Jun 1915, P26 via Newspapers.com
51 Sydney Morning Herald, 7 June 1934, P9, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
52 Music Hall and Theatre Review, 1 February, 1895 via British Library Newspaper Archive