Gwen Munro (1913-1970) & the great Hollywood beauty contest

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

The 5 Second version
Born Gwendolyn Mina Munro, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia on 30 November 1913,
Died Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA, 6 April 1970. Involved in amateur theatricals in Melbourne. Won a part in the Search for Beauty competition and Paramount film of the same name. No more films were offered in Hollywood but she reputedly appeared on stage. Returned to Australia, appeared on stage and in Ken Hall’s Orphan of the Wilderness and Let George Do It. Moved to the US in 1947 when she remarried.

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

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


hb-munro.jpg

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

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

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

Table Talk March 10 1932 p24-25

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

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

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

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

1933 being filmed

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

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

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

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

Above: Screen grabs from the film. From left – the irrepressible Buster Crabbe, the big parade of beauty, Buster and Colin Tapley of New Zealand. Tapley really did make a career in Hollywood after this film and can also be found in Sylvia Breamer’s final film, Too Many Parents. Author’s collection.

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

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

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

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

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

Gwen on the way home

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let George do it

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

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

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

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

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

Melbourne Age 1 April 1970

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

 

Nick Murphy
December 2019

 

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

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

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

 

Further Reading

Newspapers.com

British Newspaper Archive

    • Daily Mirror, 27 Jan 1938.

National Library of Australia – Trove

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

Web

Text

    • Ken G. Hall (1980) Australia Film the Inside Story. Summit Books
    • Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper (1980) Australian Film 1900-1977. AFI/Oxford.
    • Eric Reade (1979) History and Heartburn. Harper and Row
    • John Stewart (1984) An Encyclopaedia of Australian Film. Reed Books
    • Andree Wright (1986) Brilliant Careers, Women in Australian Cinema. Pan Books.

The short, brilliant career of Janet Johnson (1914-1983)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lady of la paz030

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

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

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

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

JAnet 1939

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

johnson in 1962

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

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


Nick Murphy
December 2019.

 


Further Reading

Film clips online

Text

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

Web
Australian Dictionary of Biography online.


National Library of Australia – Trove

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

Newspapers.com

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

British Library/British Newspaper Archive

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