Virginia Barton in 1937, from University of Washington’s J.Willis Sayre Collection. J. Willis Sayre Collection of Theatrical Photographs, JWS17981, University of Washington Special Collections
The Five second version
Born in Western Australia in 1911, part of Finis Barton’s story was not unusual. She was one of a string of young Australian women from middle class backgrounds, who made their way to the new world of international theatre and film production, armed with serious training in elocution and the dramatic arts. She arrived in the US in late 1928, and performed on stage in Canada and in the US, before appearing in her first credited film role in 1932. Following more stage and radio performances in the US and wartime service as an entertainer, she returned to Australia in the late 1940s to perform on tour and to see her father and sister.
Finis notably avoided the publicity usually associated with actors of the era, despite her long career on the US stage and having appeared in (at least) a dozen Hollywood films. She disappeared completely from public life soon after her return to the US from Australia. She died in New York in February 1979, aged 68.
Born in Western Australia in January 1911, Finis Ernestine Barton was the second daughter of Ernest William Barton, a ship’s officer working for the Melbourne Steamship Company, and Minnie Mary Barton nee Leitch.Western Australia, Department of Justice, Birth Certificate Finis Ernestine Barton 1911/21. The actual place of her birth was the wheat belt town of Beverley Some time during the First World War, the family moved across the Australian continent to Sydney.The Sydney Morning Herald 16 Oct, 1946, P6 via National Library of Australia’s Trove At least some of Finis’ activities as a teenager are recorded by contemporary documents, including that the family lived in McMahon’s Point on Sydney’s north shore, and that she attended North Sydney Girls’ High School.Years later, alumnus Catherine Martin would win four Academy Awards for work in film production and costume design. Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts also attended this school By late 1923, she was also featuring as a star student at Grace Stafford’s school of elocution and dramatic arts in Sydney.The Daily Telegraph (Syd) 14 Nov 1923,P7, The Daily Telegraph (Syd) 19 May 1924, P3 via National Library of Australia’s Trove Reportedly, she was also a capable horse rider.
As Desley Deacon has written, in the early part of the twentieth century, elocution in Australia was not “just a private accomplishment for girls and young women. Instead it legitimized public performance and encouraged ambition…it inculcated discipline and taught colonial girls marketable skills.”Desley Deacon (2013) Enid Bennett, Judith Anderson, Sylvia Bremer and Dorothy Cumming had all arrived in the US during the First World War with well honed elocution skills thanks to a thriving tutoring industry in Australia.Desley Deacon (2013) To this list could be added others, like Marcia Ralston, who had also gained training in Australian radio in the mid 1920s. Radio experience was also the case with Finis Barton, who had appeared on Sydney radio station 2BL with the very popular children’s host, “Uncle” George Saunders.The Sydney Morning Herald 16 Oct, 1946, P6 and The Wireless Weekly Vol. 6 No. 26 (23 October 1925) P19, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
There was however, a sudden and unexplained change to Finis’ circumstances when her mother Minnie packed up and left for San Francisco, in September 1927. About a year later, in November 1928, 17 year old Finis sailed to San Francisco on the SS Makura to visit her, on a temporary visa “for pleasure.”but also giving her occupation as “Theatrical,” at a time when most young women travelling did not give an occupation Not surprisingly, Finis stayed on in Los Angeles with her mother, who was a tall, blue eyed Australian with a scar over her left eye, and who by 1929 had become assistant manager at the newly built Chalfonte Apartment Hotel at 720 South Normandie.Minnie’s own story was unusual for the era – to this writer’s knowledge, no other Australian mothers preceded their children in a move to the US. Minnie’s naturalisation … Continue reading
The 1930 US census listed Finis as a “dancer in movies.” What these movies were is now unknown – presumably she was appearing in film chorus-lines, as her IMDB entry states. However, in 1931 she made a breakthrough – first in performances with the “Hollywood Playmakers” in Los Angeles, and then professionally with the British Theatre Guild in Vancouver – performing in comedies based on works by the likes of PG Wodehouse and AA Milne.The Vancouver Sun, 26 Sept 1931, P17 via newspapers.com With her in this company for a time was fellow West Australian Marjorie Bennett. By May 1932, Finis was back in Hollywood having been cast in a supporting role in the Tom Mix film My Pal, the King. Universal Studio’s publicity department went into the usual overdrive with creative stories – reporting she “was a find,”Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 25 June 1932, P9, via newspapers.com had been elected a “Miss Australia” in 1931,The Los Angeles Times, 18 May 1932, P11 via newspapers.com and Hollywood Filmograph, 29 May 1932, P171 via Internet Archive and they almost certainly arranged for popular artist Willy Pogany to paint her portrait at the same time.Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, 12 Oct 1932, P7 via newspapers.com The “Australian Motion Picture Guild” reportedly welcomed her at one of their monthly meetings at the Biltmore hotel.I can find no further information at all about this group and wonder if it too, was a studio story. Los Angeles Evening Citizen News 5 Oct 1932, P10 via newspapers.com
By mid 1932 and with the advent of sound films, Finis was noted for her “captivating voice and manner”Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, 5 Jul 1932, P7 via newspapers.com and she was now usually introduced to newspaper and magazine readers as a “beautiful new ingenue.”The Vancouver Sun, 26 Sept, 1931, P17 via newspapers.com This flattering label was regularly applied to young women who had just arrived in Hollywood, amongst them other Australians like Jocelyn Howarth (aka Constance Worth) and Mary Maguire. One could argue the films she made over the next four years were a typical underwhelming mix of secondary and uncredited roles in B (secondary film) productions, that were so often the lot of these young women. There is a sense, however, that Finis was selective with her work. Most notably, she kept up appearances on stage during the period 1932-1936, at the same time she appeared in films. The plays she appeared in during the 1930s reflect the typical popular fare of the era – farces and comedies, like Ian Hay’s The Middle Watch, performed at the Music Box (now Fonda) Theatre in May 1934. But there were also roles in dramas, like Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, performed in March 1933, also at the Music Box.
Finis moved to Vancouver again for the first five months of 1934, appearing for the “International Players,” in a string of light comedies such as Scrambled Wives and Believe Me Xantippe. Doubtless also thanks to her speech training, she began to appear on radio in the mid 1930s. She had married William J Ryan in Hollywood in June 1933,California County Marriages June 1933, 1153/236, via familysearch.com but in 1934 in Canada she met actor Blair Davies, who became her second husband in mid 1936.Los Angeles Evening Citizen, 22 July 1936, P18 via newspapers.com
Typical of her film roles of this era is Sensation Hunters (1933). In this, Finis played the very minor role of sister to the cad Hal Grayson, who briefly takes an interest in the leading character, Dale Jordan. The Grayson family would have been quickly recognised by cinema audiences as self absorbed snobs – suitable foils for the down-to-earth, hard working Dale, who triumphs in the end.
Above: Finis (as Miss Grayson) teases her brother Hal while dancing with him in Sensation Hunters – in the scene shown at right above. Source, copy of the film at the Internet Archive
Finis’s last films were made in 1936, two of these being with Australian born J.P McGowan. McGowan had already been in the US for thirty years and had enjoyed a long career as an actor and director. But Australian readers should avoid the temptation of thinking the experienced McGowan might have been lending the 25 year old Finis “a helping hand” in getting leading roles. There is really no evidence this happened at all during Hollywood’s golden years – and it only occasionally happens in the 21st century.
Above: Finis (as Dale) tricks the wicked Matt Stevens (J.P McGowan) in Stampede (1936) in the scene shown at right above. Source, copy of the film at the Internet Archive
The two films with McGowan were her last. Her loss of interest in film work may have been because she was disappointed in some of the reviews she received. For example, in 1936 Variety recorded that she made “no impression” as the heroine of Secret Patrol. Variety, 24 June, 1936. P45. Via Internet Archive However, this writer tends to the view that after giving it a try, she probably made a conscious effort not to pursue film work in Hollywood – because it was famously so frustrating and ultimately unrewarding. Janet Johnson, Margaret Vyner, Carol Coombe and Gwen Munro had all walked away from Hollywood in the mid 1930s for this reason. But there was no public commentary about this – as with so much of her life, we are forced to rely on a handful of official documents and newspaper accounts.
Finis now threw herself back into stage and radio work. The featured photo at the top of this article dates from 1937, when she became a featured star of the Columbia radio workshop. The Evening News (Harrisburg, PA) Apr 21, 1937, P14 via newspapers.com
It is also from this time that Finis began to use the stage name Virginia Barton. Yet again, the change was accompanied by none of the awkward publicity that might be expected. No explanation was provided, she just started appearing under her new stage name – touring the US east coast and Canada in popular comedies like Bachelor Born, Mr and Mrs North and Meet the Wife, sometimes in the company of Blair Davies. The 1940 US census recorded the couple living at the King Edward Hotel in Manhattan. However, in October 1944 US newspapers reported she was to be part of a USO troupe taking comedies to US forces overseas.In company with Peggy Wood, Clair Luce and New Zealand born Doreen Lang The United Service Organisation provided a huge program of entertainment for US forces in World War Two, and still exists today.
Virginia Barton was one of a number of actors enticed back home to take leading roles on stage tours in post-war Australia. As with Mercia Swinburne, Molly Fisher and Fred Conyngham, the return home meant a chance to see family as well as enjoy as an attractive contract. On her return to Australia in late 1946 to perform in the comedy Life with Father, the enthusiasm of local press was such that she was finally forced to provide greater details of her life. She spoke with great modesty about her performances with the USO that had taken her to entertain US forces around the world – England, Europe, Africa and South America. The thought of any actor performing Blithe Spirit and Bachelor Born on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic in wartime is extraordinary, and yet it appears she did this too.The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 October 1946, P6, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
A starstruck Australian journalist for The Australian Women’s Weekly could not help but comment on her beauty, her voice and her endearing personality: “Virginia Barton, a honey-blonde… has a delicate, winning grace and charmingly modulated voice that should make her an ideal… always triumphant mother of Life With Father. You could tell, that first day, that the children of the cast are going to adore her. She pays them the compliment of talking to them as adults, is gentle and kind in helping them follow stage directions. And she’s very, very pretty. During her… absence from the land of her birth Virginia Barton has forgotten quite a lot of things,[but] has acquired a gentle, only just noticeable American accent.The Australian Women’s Weekly, 9 Nov 1946, P9 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
Virginia Barton returned to New York in August 1947. She married again, in Connecticut in June 1951, to Ferdinand Wolf, a New York attorney.Connecticut Vital Records, Index of Marriages Now aged 40, she appears to have decided to leave acting behind for good. Of her later life sadly we know little – although there is evidence of regular travel to the Caribbean. Records seem to suggest that as late as 1960 she was still not a US citizen, travelling with Australian travel documents.
She died in New York on 17 February 1979.New York Times obituaries, 21 Feb 1979, via New York Times
- 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.
- Joy Damousi (2010) Colonial Voices: A Cultural History of English in Australia, 1840-1940. Cambridge University Press
- Richard Lane (1994) The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama 1923-1960. Melbourne University Press
- John J McGowan (2016)(Second Edition) Hollywood’s First Australian. The Adventurous Life of J. P. McGowan. Display Vision Productions, South Australia.
- Our Betters (1933) @ Internet Archive
- Sensation Hunters (1933) @ Internet Archive
- Get That Man (1935) @Internet Archive
- Becky Sharp (1935) @Internet Archive
- Secret Patrol (1936) @ Youtube
- The Lion Man (1936) @Youtube
- Stampede (1936) @Internet Archive
Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University
- Jan Brazier, ‘Saunders, Ambrose George Thomas (1895–1953)’, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 12 March 2023.
|↑1||J. Willis Sayre Collection of Theatrical Photographs, JWS17981, University of Washington Special Collections|
|↑2||The Vancouver Sun, 15 Oct 1931, P15 via newspapers.com|
|↑3||Western Australia, Department of Justice, Birth Certificate Finis Ernestine Barton 1911/21. The actual place of her birth was the wheat belt town of Beverley|
|↑4, ↑36||The Sydney Morning Herald 16 Oct, 1946, P6 via National Library of Australia’s Trove|
|↑5||Years later, alumnus Catherine Martin would win four Academy Awards for work in film production and costume design. Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts also attended this school|
|↑6||The Daily Telegraph (Syd) 14 Nov 1923,P7, The Daily Telegraph (Syd) 19 May 1924, P3 via National Library of Australia’s Trove|
|↑7, ↑8||Desley Deacon (2013)|
|↑9||The Sydney Morning Herald 16 Oct, 1946, P6 and The Wireless Weekly Vol. 6 No. 26 (23 October 1925) P19, via National Library of Australia’s Trove|
|↑10||The Theatre Magazine, 1 March 1913, P 25, via State Library of Victoria|
|↑11||but also giving her occupation as “Theatrical,” at a time when most young women travelling did not give an occupation|
|↑12||Minnie’s own story was unusual for the era – to this writer’s knowledge, no other Australian mothers preceded their children in a move to the US. Minnie’s naturalisation papers, US census records and various shipping manifests provide this detail. US National Archives via Ancestry.com|
|↑13||The Vancouver Sun (Vancouver, BC) 22 Aug 1931, P7, via newspapers.com|
|↑14||The Vancouver Sun, 26 Sept 1931, P17 via newspapers.com|
|↑15||Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 25 June 1932, P9, via newspapers.com|
|↑16||The Los Angeles Times, 18 May 1932, P11 via newspapers.com and Hollywood Filmograph, 29 May 1932, P171 via Internet Archive|
|↑17||Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, 12 Oct 1932, P7 via newspapers.com|
|↑18||I can find no further information at all about this group and wonder if it too, was a studio story. Los Angeles Evening Citizen News 5 Oct 1932, P10 via newspapers.com|
|↑19||The Los Angeles Times 30 Apr 1933, P30 via newspapers.com|
|↑20||Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, 5 Jul 1932, P7 via newspapers.com|
|↑21||The Vancouver Sun, 26 Sept, 1931, P17 via newspapers.com|
|↑22||California County Marriages June 1933, 1153/236, via familysearch.com|
|↑23||Los Angeles Evening Citizen, 22 July 1936, P18 via newspapers.com|
|↑24||Screengrabs from copy at the Internet Archive|
|↑25, ↑26, ↑27||Source, copy of the film at the Internet Archive|
|↑28||Variety, 24 June, 1936. P45. Via Internet Archive|
|↑29||The Evening News (Harrisburg, PA) Apr 21, 1937, P14 via newspapers.com|
|↑30||The Cincinnati Post, May 7, 1937, P 28 via newspapers.com|
|↑31||In company with Peggy Wood, Clair Luce and New Zealand born Doreen Lang|
|↑32||The Evening Star (Washington DC) 20 Jan 1939 via Library of Congress|
|↑33||The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 October 1946, P6, via National Library of Australia’s Trove|
|↑34||The Australian Women’s Weekly, 9 Nov 1946, P9 via National Library of Australia’s Trove|
|↑35||Transcript Telegram,(Mass) 6 March 1943, P6 via newspapers.com|
|↑37||Connecticut Vital Records, Index of Marriages|
|↑38||New York Times obituaries, 21 Feb 1979, via New York Times|