Judy Kelly – From the outback to Elstree Studios

Above: It seems every film star once smoked like a chimney. Judy Kelly in a publicity photo of the early 1940s – and a long way from Narrabri, New South Wales. Author’s collection.

Judy Kelly made a name for herself performing on the stage and on screen in England between 1932 and 1949. She is unusual in some respects because her pathway to becoming a recognised actor seems – at first glance – to have been achieved with remarkable ease, when compared to the trials and tribulations of others. She had no professional acting experience in her native Australia and yet by 1949 she had almost fifty film credits behind her and she had emerged as a competent actor.

She was born Julie Aileen Kelly at Narrabri, an inland town of New South Wales, about 500 kilometres north west of Sydney, in 1913. An older brother Owen Arthur had been born in 1911. Judy’s mother Blanche Esse nee Davis belonged to a well connected farming family, from the more prosperous southern area of the state.

At the time of his marriage to Blanche in 1911, Eugene Gerald Kelly, had been appointed a teacher at a one teacher school. Mogil Mogil was remote – a town with a tiny population but supporting two pubs and a butcher, with uncertain school enrolments , uncertain rainfall and a reputation for hitting 114 degrees fahrenheit in the shade in summer (45.5 degrees C). Perhaps the reason they had moved to the relative comfort of Narrabri in 1913 was because remote life was so hard. But by 1916 Blanche had moved again, taking the children with her to the pastoral property of her brother, H. M. Davis, near Robertson, in the green rolling hills of the southern highlands. Here, another daughter, Betty, was born in 1917. Eugene joined the Australian Army in 1916, in the great enlistment surge after Gallipoli, being posted overseas soon after.

Judy and her siblings spent much of their childhood growing up on another Davis family farm at Lockhart, in the Riverina district. Of Judy’s childhood we know little, except that she had adopted the name “Judy” well before she travelled to England, and she may have dabbled in some amateur theatricals while at Wagga Grammar School. Blanche and Eugene were finally divorced – acrimoniously and publicly – in 1923.  (Note 1)

Blanche and Judy leave AustraliaIn April 1932, 19 year old Judy won a “Talkie Quest,” a drawn out competition run by the short-lived Sydney newspaper “The World” in collaboration with the Capital Cinema and British International Pictures (BIP).

Reportedly, 1,200 young women entered the competition, whose judges included director Ken Hall and actor Bert Bailey. The prize was very attractive – it included three months training at Elstree in England and a try-out in films. Judy was described as a teacher by several newspapers, but if that was so she  must have been unqualified, given her age. But most later accounts stated she was a cinema usher.

Above:  Blanche and Judy departing for London. The Home, An Australian Quarterly. Vol. 13 No. 8. August 1, 1932. Via National Library of Australia Trove.

After extraordinary publicity and many farewells, Judy and her mother departed for England on the P&O ship Cathage, arriving on 29 July, 1932. She was set to work for BIP almost immediately and the transition to British film actor all went remarkably well. But not surprisingly, in the British Pathe newsreel made soon after she arrived, she still looked very young and uncomfortable in front of the camera. She acknowledged how hard it was at first, when she told a journalist I have only made one friend. Molly Lamont — fellow Colonials they call us, since she is South African. There is a terribly impersonal atmosphere about a studio. Directors look right through you and murmur: ‘What are we going to call this young woman?'”

Judy claimed her first experience of film was with Molly Lamont, as an extra in Lord Camber’s Ladies (other sources state it was Sleepless Nights), but her first credited role in a film for BIP was in Money Talks. This was a 70 minute BIP quickie comedy, a vehicle for popular vaudeville and radio comedian Julian Rose and produced by the prolific Walter C Mycroft.  Judy had a small role as the daughter of Abe Pilstein (played by Rose). Thereafter, she appeared in a string of mostly program fillers – or B-films, often mysteries and crime dramas such as Crime on the Hill (1933), The Four Masked Men and The Black Abbot (1934). But at the same time, she can also be seen in a few supporting and un-credited roles in quality films, such as Alexander Korda‘s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934).

Judy Kelly British!May 1933
Above Left and centre: An early cigarette card photo of  a very young Judy Kelly. The short bio on the card may confuse the casual reader today – reflecting the reality that many people considered Australians of the time to be “British born”. Author’s collection.
At right: A still of Judy from Everyone’s Magazine, May 10, 1933. It is reportedly from the BIF film Their Night Out. In later years she explained she took every role offered to her. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Judy developed a reputation for working hard. She judged competitions, appeared at openings, modeled clothes and sought out every acting opportunity she could. (Click here for a British Pathe newsreel of Judy judging some laundry sports in 1937). Doubtless this also had something to do with advice from her agent – the well known Herbert de Leon, who also represented Margaret Lockwood, Greer Garson, John Wood and numerous others.

Back in Australia, sometime in March 1933, Judy’s sister Betty managed to accidentally shoot herself in the arm. She was trying to shoot a sting-ray, she said, and the injury , although minor, might delay her plans to travel to England to become an actor like her sister. About a year later, she and older brother Owen finally arrived in England on the SS Barrabool. All three Kelly children settled into life with Blanche in an apartment in London’s Paddington. None of them ever returned to Australia. The contrast between a quiet life in rural New South Wales, and London, the bustling capital of the Empire, must have been stark.

Judy and Betty Kelly
On 21 April, 1934, The Australian Women’s Weekly compared Judy (left), who had now lost a great deal of weight, with a photo of her sister Betty (right), photographed while en-route to England.  Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove. 

It was no wonder Betty thought she, too might become an actor. Judy Kelly was now well established (and was much more at ease in front of the camera) as the following British Pathe newsreels suggest.

But as the 1930s wore on, some of Judy Kelly’s feature films continued to be like her first. British films of the 1930s were often made on a limited budget, sometimes produced to fulfil the exhibitor’s obligations under the Cinematograph Films Act (1927) – which was to show a certain proportion of British films in their programs. But this era of filmmaking doesn’t necessarily deserve the bad reputation it has sometimes been given – the films were a “mixed bag” that included great successes amongst the forgettable and underwhelming. Judy’s repertoire reflected this diverse range of films. It included light romantic comedies, mysteries and even a few jaunty musicals, including Charing Cross Road (1935) with John Mills and Over She Goes (1937) with Sydney-born actor John Wood

Judy Kelly and John Wood Over She Goes
Above: a screen grab of Judy Kelly as Anne Mayhew, with fellow Australian John Wood (1909-1965) as the eligible Lord Harry in the musical Over She Goes. She plays Harry’s gold-digging former fiancee. This rarely screened film can be purchased from networkonair.com. Author’s collection. 

It was Margaret Lockwood who said“The British star who waits for the ideal role… will do a lot of waiting” and one can’t help but feel Judy Kelly might have sometimes felt the same way. Perhaps this explains why from the late 1930s, she was also found performing on the stage, with some success. In 1937, she went on a tour of South Africa, performing in Barre Lyndon‘s crime drama The Amazing Doctor Clitterhouse. The play had been a hit in London, and like so many new plays of the 1930s it was quickly made into a film – by Hollywood in this case. Judy also appeared on stage in light comedies and musicals such as (Australian writer) Eric Coppel‘s Believe it or Not in 1940, Stanley Lupino‘s musical Lady Behave in 1941, Vernon Sylvaine‘s farce Women Aren’t Angels in 1941 and his comedy-thriller Warn that Man in 1943.

Two of Judy Kelly’s stage appearances. Lady Behave was a musical, Warn That Man a thriller. Author’s collection.

One striking feature of Judy Kelly’s story is her consciousness of being an Australian at work in England. She wrote a few articles for popular Australian paper “Smith’s Weekly” that expressed that awareness – including an unusually frank comment about England’s class system; “The English are a curious people—so curious, indeed, that I, an Australian, sometimes feel a foreigner among them…To anyone reared in the Australian democratic tradition, (the) alignment of social forces is inexplicable.”  It was doubtless coincidental, but she appeared in a number of films with fellow Australians busy working in England – amongst them Coral Browne (Charing Cross Road in 1935) Betty Stockfeld and Edward Ashley (Under Proof in 1936), Frank Leighton ( The Last Chance in 1937),  John Wood (Over She Goes in 1937 and Luck of the Navy in 1938), Ian Fleming (The Butler’s Dilemma in 1943) and John Warwick (Dancing with Crime in 1947). She reported that at times she bought her friends Australian presents and sometimes she mixed with other Australians – including Patti Morgan, whose 1949 wedding she attended.

Judy kelly 2

Judy Kelly in a publicity photo c 1945 and looking every bit the movie star. Author’s collection 

Judy Kelly in Tomorrow we Live 1942Like many of the actors profiled on this website, Judy Kelly also made her contribution to British propaganda in several films – including Luck of the Navy (1938) and Tomorrow We Live (1943). This genre of British films is also interesting for the liberal use of refugee actors from Nazi- Europe,  in the case of the latter film – this includes Herbert Lom, Karel Štěpánek and Fritz Wendhausen.

Above: This is a screen grab from Tomorrow We Live, re-titled At Dawn We Die for the US market. Judy plays Germaine from the bar. She looks a little sad because the man she is keen on – Jean Baptiste – has just said “goodnight little cabbage” before dismissing her. Author’s collection.

Her final films are perhaps her most notable. In 1945 she appeared in a small role in the well received British horror film Dead of Night. But it was in John Paddy Carstairs’ film-noir crime thriller Dancing With Crime (1947) that she most demonstrated her ability. Set in a perpetually wet and dark post-war London, she played Toni, a hard drinking dance hostess for a dodgy Dance Hall, really a front for black market operations. Richard Attenborough plays Ted Peters – a salt of the earth taxi driver, while Joy, played by Sheila Sim, is his perpetually worried girlfriend. It’s the sort of film where the characters say cheerful things like “Don’t worry about me Ducks” and “I’m off to see a man about a fortune” between fighting or shooting at each other. In the end, Toni cooperates with the Police Inspector, played by Australian John Warwick, while Ted and Joy are sent off home to enjoy the rest of their lives.

Judy Kelly in Dancing w crime

Here is Judy Kelly as Toni, giving her boss (one of the gangsters, played by Barry K. Barnes) a piece of her mind, in Dancing with Crime (1947). Author’s collection.

In 1949 Judy appeared in Warning to Wantons, where she plays the mother of the insufferable Renee (Anne Vernon), a sixteen year old who is determined to use her feminine guile to manipulate the dopey eligible Count Max (David Tomlinson) on the eve of his wedding, plus any other men she meets. It’s well acted but the plot is so unpalatable it makes tiresome viewing today. It is worth noting that Kelly was only 36 while playing a mother in this, her final film. It was based on a novel with the same title by Australian novelist Mary Mitchell . (Note 2)

  Eric Summer ILN Sept 17 1966   Judy Kelly Birmingham Gazette May 31 1952

Above Left: Eric Summer photographed in 1966. Illustrated London News, 17 September 1966. Copyright ILN Group.
Above Right: Judy Kelly and her baby in 1952. Birmingham Gazette, 31 May 1952. Via British Newspaper Archive.

In April 1946 Judy married Eric Summer, a businessman, lawyer and former British Army colonel. Amongst Summer’s later accomplishments was his Chairmanship of Royston Industries, makers of the first Black box flight recorders. A son was born of the union in 1952.

Betty Kelly did not develop an acting career. But from 1938-1949 she was married to popular English comedian Michael Howard. Judy’s older brother Owen Arthur Kelly served in the British Army in World War II. He married Vera Felix (Kempner) in 1941.

Judy Kelly retired from acting in 1949 and lived much of her later life in the Surrey countryside. Unfortunately this talented actor left no further commentaries about her work or life. She died in London in 1991, aged 77.

 


 

Note 1
Judy’s father, Eugene Gerald Kelly was never mentioned in her biographies. At best, it was inferred her father had been a pastoralist, occasionally it was stated he was dead.  The reason for his disappearance from the family story is hinted at by examination of his colourful wartime military record in the 45th Battalion, Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) – available online in the Australian National Archives. In addition, a clumsy attempt by Eugene to pretend to be dead in 1920, apparently in an effort to avoid paying Blanche child support, was reported by “Truth” newspaper. Clearly Eugene’s relationship with his wife and children fractured irrevocably. It is a testimony to their fortitude that they successfully rebuilt their lives in Britain without further contact.

Note 2
The IMDB lists Judy as appearing in a British film Adam’s Apple/Honeymoon Abroad  in 1928 and in the US in the Jack Benny TV show in 1954. These are different people. There is no record of her travelling to the UK at the age of 15 to play a “Vamp” and the woman in the Jack Benny show was a well known US-born dancer, who had also worked with Bob Hope.

 

Nick Murphy
September 2019

 

Further reading

Texts

  • Kurt Gänzl (1986) British Musical Theatre Vol. 2. Oxford University Press.
  • Brian McFarlane (1997) An Autobiography of British Cinema. Methuen
    (Produced too late to interview Judy Kelly, this wonderful book contains interviews with many of her contemporaries)
  • Robert Murphy (2009) The British Cinema Book. BFI Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Vincent Porter (Ed) (2006) Walter Mycroft: The Time of My Life. The Scarecrow Press.
  • Jeffery Richards (Ed) (1998) The Unknown 1930s. An Alternative History of the British Cinema, 1929-1939. I.B.Taurus
  • J.P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1940-1949: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman & Littlefield.

Online

  • Ancestry.com

NSW Police Gazettes 1919-1923
UK Shipping records
UK Census records

  • National Library of Australia – Trove

GOSSIP FOR WOMEN. The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld.)  28 Jan 1911  P.10

FAKED OBITUARY. Truth (Brisbane, Qld.) 29 April 1923: P.13.

LONELIEST GIRL IN ENGLAND, The Daily News, (Perth, WA)19 September, 1932. P. 2.

WILL I SUCCEED? JUDY KELLY’S IMPRESSIONS Everyone’s. 23 November 1932.

JUDY KELLY TELLS HOW IT FEELS TO CRASH TALKIES. Everyone’s. 30 November 1932.

THE PICTURE PARADE. Everyone’s. 10 May 1933.

ANOTHER FILM KELLY. Western Mail (Perth, WA) 5 April 1934 P.33

PARIS PRESENTS NEW IDEAS IN FURNISHINGSmith’s Weekly (Sydney, NSW), 4 January,  1936. p.16.

MISS AUSTRALIA, 1937 Daily Advertiser (Wagga Wagga, NSW) 10 Mar 1937 P.4

YOUNG AUSTRALIANS IMPORTANT IN ELSTREE STUDIO News (Adelaide, SA) 8 Jul 1937 :  P. 12

Eugene Gerald Kelly #2263, Service record, 4/45 Battalion, AIF.

The real Mona Barrie

Mona Barrie (formerly Mona Barlee) in MGM’s “Cairo”. It’s hard to accept Mona as a wicked Nazi spy while she wears this extraordinary hat! This is a convoluted 1942 spy film with music, comedy and drama, featuring robot bombers and doors in pyramids that open with the sound of a “high C”. But she was firmly established as a screen actor and had been at work in Hollywood for eight years, and before that for eleven years in Australia. Photo – probably from MGM. Author’s Collection.

Like most other Australians wanting to work in the US at the time, Mona Barrie (then Barlee) arrived in California on the Matson liner Monterey in June 1933, to pursue her dream. Her career took off remarkably quickly and for the next fifteen years she was busy in Hollywood, in more than 40 films, of varying quality. For various reasons she developed nothing like the profile of her contemporaries Mary Maguire or Constance Worth and yet, her movie career was, by any measure, much more successful. She even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Mona 6

Mona Barrie in Hollywood. Over time she developed a reputation for glamorous and fashionable attire. This Fox Films photo was taken in 1935. Author’s collection.

The oft-repeated story that soon after arriving in the US she went to New York to stay with a friend appears to be true. Mona had enjoyed a successful career on stage in Australia and had met US performer Florrie Le Vere and her songwriter husband Lou Handman during their 1928 tour. The two women had struck up a friendship. Mona had traveled to stay with them at their apartment on Riverside Drive, New York.

It was claimed she got her film start “by accident.” The Adelaide News wrote “She was on her way to London and passed through Hollywood. Three talent scouts saw her and begged her to have a screen test. She accepted, had a test, and signed a contract.” This was the usual “rags to riches” fame story then so popular. A report by Melbourne’s Table Talk, in November 1933, told a similar story. It claimed she had been offered a screen test by a Fox Film scout, “Mr Solomon Pinkus” having been spotted on a New York bus. She had been on her way to London. This story would be more believable if it wasn’t very similar to the one Constance Worth and Mary Maguire would wheel out as well. But, perhaps it was they who were copying Mona’s experience.

Whatever the truth, on September 2, 1933, Fox Films announced that they had offered a contract to Mona Barrie, one of “Australia’s leading actresses”. (The change of stage name was so typical of the time) It was all remarkably quick. She was put to work on the crime drama B film “Sleepers East,” and then the more substantial historical romance “Carolina.”

Mona Centre

Mona, centre, as one of “nine pretty girls who adorn the production (of The Merry Widow) at Her Majesty’s.” This appears to be Mona’s first outing on the stage. Table Talk, 12 October 1922. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Born in Tooting, England, a southern suburb of London, in 1906, Mona Barlee Smith and her three siblings and mother Jessie Barlee, had arrived in Australia in 1914. Her father Phil Smith had arrived courtesy a J.C. Williamson’s contract a year before. 

Unfortunately, like the stories of her start in film, Mona’s Australian story is badly muddled in online accounts – these are not only confused about her date of birth but also her date of arrival in Australia. Perhaps she contributed to this confusion herself in later years. But there’s not much doubt around her real date of birth. Although often claimed to have been born in 1909, we can confidently say she was born at the end of 1905 or early in 1906. She was 5 years old during the 1911 English census, and 8 in April 1914 when she arrived in Melbourne. Not only that, we can find the index entry for her British birth – it also notes her birth registered in 1906.

Click to enlarge.
Left: 1911 English census, when the family lived at 37 Malvern Rd, Surbiton, Surrey, lists 5-year-old Mona. Right: The Australian passenger list for SS Miltiades, arriving 18 April 1914 lists 8-year-old Mona. (This image has been modified to fit). Via the 
British National Archives and Public Records Office, Victoria, via Ancestry.com.

Her parents Phil Smith, a comedian, and Jessie Barlee, a comedian and singer, both had successful careers of their own, sometimes working together on the stage in England, and then for 9 months in Australia. Unfortunately, their professional and personal relationship ended in mid 1915, and a very public divorce followed in 1917-18. In addition, Jessie, still supporting Irene (16), Mona (12), Roland (6) and Joan (5), took Phil to court for child support. Phil Smith disputed this claim, because Jessie and Irene were now on stage and earning money themselves – he claimed.

Left: Phil Smith and Jessie Barlee performing at Melbourne’s Bijou Theatre, The Herald 29 April 1915. Centre: Phil Smith, The Sydney Mirror, 25 October 1918. Right: Irene (later Rene) Barlee, Western Mail 22 Feb, 1923. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

It’s actually Mona’s older sister, Irene Barlee Smith, stage name Rene Barlee, who first earned a name for herself on stage. In 1920 she was described as one of  “J. C. Williamson’s latest finds in soubrettes.” She appeared in various touring shows – such as The Midnight Frolics, and in popular pantomimes including Little Red Riding Hood and The Forty Thieves. In language typical of the time, newspapers generally described her as a good “little singer”, a “clever little dancer”,  a “pretty”, “dainty” performer.  She consistently received good reviews – yet for all her success, Rene decided to leave the stage in 1927 after marrying Murray Church, a Shell Oil Company executive who lived in Western Australia. We are fortunate in that Frank van Straten interviewed Rene in the 1970s. A short extract appears in Van Straten’s sumptuous book, Tivoli.

Mona 1926Mona Barlee first appeared on stage at the age of 16, in 1922, in the chorus of “The Merry Widow” at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre. (As theatre historian Clay Djubal notes, this is another reason for believing her birth was in 1906. Had she been born in 1909, she would have been performing at the unlikely age of 13). Within a few years Mona was appearing as a featured supporting player. In late 1925, she took the lead role in Jerome Kern, P.G Wodehouse and Guy Martin’s musical “Leave it to Jane” – for J.C. Williamson’s, and although the first Melbourne reviewer in Table Talk felt she was rather “too lightweight”, after six months touring, the Adelaide Mail was able to comment on her “delightful soprano voice and a personality which impresses the audience.” She went on to perform in the Australian run of George and Ira Gershwin, Desmond Carter and B. G. De Sylva’s brand new musical “Tell Me More”.

Above: Mona Barlee and Freddy Mackay in “Tell Me More”. The Australasian 31 July 1926. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Mona married Charles Harold “Bob” Rayson in Melbourne, in August 1928. She did not retire from the stage as some accounts claimed,  but the marriage was short-lived and less than three years later a divorce was granted.

Adelaide Theatre Royal 1931

Mona Barrie on stage in Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever” at Adelaide’s Theatre Royal in 1931 – in company with other well known Australians; amongst them some familiar names – Cecil Kellaway, Mary MacGregor , Coral Brown and John Wood. The News (Adelaide) 21 August, 1931. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In 1932, Mona had a small part in her first film – “His Royal Highness,” a musical comedy made in Melbourne by F.W. Thring and written by and starring popular comedian George Wallace. Film historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper describe some of the scenes as “heavy handed”, being influenced by Wallace’s experiences as a stage performer. Eventually the film was sold for distribution in England under the modified title “His Loyal Highness.” This writer regrets to admit that on viewing the film, Mona Barlee’s bit part is so minor, he was not certain he could confidently recognise her.

By 1933, reviews of Mona’s stage performances were generally very positive. Eight years after that first ambivalent review, the Melbourne Herald was effusive in its praise for her in “While Parents Sleep“, a new comedy by Anthony Kimmins. Under the heading “Mona Barlee has a future”, the reviewer wrote “Her performance was largely responsible for the play’s success… She has fine talents as a player of sophisticated parts, and this performance should leave no doubt about her future, either here or abroad.” The Western Mail in Perth was even more effusive, writing; “She has worked hard, and, backed by brains, ability, and personal attractiveness, she will undoubtedly be added to the list of Australians who have won world fame.” Indeed, Mona was apparently thinking along similar lines. Years later, when she met Australian portrait artist Stanley Parker again, he recalled they used to “drink cocoa in her little flat in Collins Street [in central Melbourne] and talk about coming to London”. In the height of the Great Depression, that had hit Australia so hard, perhaps the idea of moving country had an even greater attraction. By February 1933 she had her passport and at the end of May she wrapped up her Sydney season of “While Parent’s Sleep”, and boarded the Monterey. She never came back.

John and Mona Table Talk 1933

John Wood, Agnes Doyle and Mona Barlee in “While Parents Sleep”, Table Talk, Jan 26, 1933. Wood left for England and Mona for the US soon after. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Mona’s success in the US has been documented, although again somewhat indifferently. She was not tall as has often been claimed, the very thorough US immigration documents kept for new arrivals record that she was only 5 foot 2 or 3 inches, or about 1.60 metres, an average height. Her eyes were brown, not blue, as some accounts claim. Where reviews were given of her work, they were consistently positive throughout her two decades of performing in film – and sometimes on the US stage. For example, of the B-film “Strange Fascination,” made in 1952 (it was Mona’s second last film), reviewer Helen Bower said that while the picture was not to her taste, she could forgive director Hugo Haas a great deal for casting the wonderful Mona Barrie as Mrs Fowler. She stood out “like a Cartier creation amid a heap of junk jewelry. She is authentically a lady… How’s for Hollywood giving Mona Barrie a better break?” she asked. Hollywood didn’t.

Monas last film
Above: Mona Barrie in “Strange Fascination”. The Detroit Free Press. 8 November, 1952

And her voice? This writer would argue that while it was well spoken it was an unmistakably Australian accent. Unlike so many Australians working in Hollywood, she was an established and skilled actor and was confident in her own ability. She almost certainly felt she didn’t need elocution lessons. And if pressed on her origins she could honestly claim to being English-born, after all.

Above: Mona Barrie in a short extract from the Lux Radio Theatre production of “Saturday’s Children“. October 26, 1936. Click to follow the link to the Old Time Radio Downloads Website.

Mona Barrie’s final film was in 1953, a bit role in “Plunder of the Sun”, perhaps fittingly directed by the prolific Australian-born director, John Farrow.

Of Mona’s family, we know that her mother Jessie Barlee lived to the age of 99. She died in 1979 at her apartment in Melbourne’s St. Kilda. Phil had died in 1946. Roly Barlee, Mona’s younger brother, became a radio announcer and occasional actor in Melbourne. He died in 1988. Mona died aged 58, on 27 June 1964, from unknown causes. She is buried next to her second husband Paul Bolton – they had married in Mexico on December 14, 1933. Of the family’s Australian residences we only know that in the mid 1920s Jessie and her younger children lived comfortably at 6 Faraday Avenue, Rose Bay, in Sydney. The pretty house that was home to this creative family is still there.

Nick Murphy
April, 2019

Further Reading

  • National Library of Australia’s Trove. (Citations are inline)
  • Ed Lowry, Charlie Foy (Paul M Levitt Ed) (1999) Joe Frisco: Comic, Jazz Dancer, and Railbird. Southern Illinois University Press.
  • Frank Van Straten (2003 ) Tivoli. Thomas C. Lothian, South Melbourne.
  • www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com
  • Clay Djubal (2015) Research notes on Mona Barrie. Australian Variety Theatre Archive.
  • Ralph Marsden (2013) History of the Bijou Theatre. Theatre Heritage Australia
  • Helen Bower, Detroit Free Press, 8 November 1952. “Mona Barrie lends movie distinction”
  • Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1981 and 1998): Australian film, 1900-1977 : a guide to feature film production. Oxford University Press
  • Hal Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby Ltd.

 

Mary Macgregor’s brief adventure in Hollywood

An enlargement of a publicity still. Myrna Loy (left) and Mary Macgregor of Queensland (as the maid Ellen), in “Wife Vs Secretary” (1936). Author’s Collection. Source – probably MGM.

Mary Macgregor (often confused with Mary Maguire) was born Francis Mary Macgregor on 16 August 1904, into a Queensland family with considerable social standing; her father Peter Balderston Macgregor was a highly regarded King’s Counsel and later a Judge. At a young age she earned a reputation for her prose –  and she won a prize for a patriotic poem in 1916. The first stanza reads:

Oh, soldiers of Australia, Who went to give your all
Right gallantly you did obey, the Mother Country’s call !
When Britain’s bugle-call rang out across Australia’s plains.
You left our peaceful wattle land to fight where cruel war reigns.

 

Brought up in a family that encouraged the arts, she first performed on stage at University, where she was studying literature, and then won a breakthrough role as Jill in Oscar Asche‘s Melbourne production of “The Skin Game”by John Galsworthy, in 1924.

The Skin Game

Prince and the Pauper 1930

Left: The Melbourne Argus, 26 April 1924 advertises Mary in “The Skin Game” via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Right: The Telegraph (Brisbane), 22 April 1930 praises her on her performance in “The Prince and the Pauper”, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

She spent the next ten years on stage in Australia and New Zealand – earning consistently positive reviews and becoming so popular she was never out of work. Amongst her notable stage work were roles for the Leon Gordon company. This company travelled Australia performing several of his plays, including “White Cargo”, where Mary took the role of the sultry mixed race character, Tondelayo.

Of playing Tondeleyo, she remarked; “The part is, to say the least, unconventional, and different from anything I have ever played … the idea of browning myself all over and wearing the scanty attire of the coloured vamp, was hard to get accustomed to. Moreover, my mother, when I mentioned the matter to her, was most disapproving …” In the minds of many Australians, acting was still a questionable profession, and for some, only a few steps removed from prostitution.

The Age Feb 1930Tondelayo

Left; The Age, Melbourne, announces the first run of “White Cargo” in Australia. 1 Feb, 1930, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
Right; Mary Macgregor on stage at a Melbourne theatre as Tondelayo. Table Talk, 13 Feb, 1930. National Library of Australia, via Trove

Macgregor departed for England on the SS Mongolia in February 1933,  and soon after found work on stage in a season of “Cynara”and a part in John Gielgud‘s tour of “Hamlet.” Now approaching thirty, she was an experienced actress – witty, good-looking, good-humoured and extremely confident.

She went on to California in June, 1935 where she joined John Wood, another Australian stage actor she knew well from Australian performances together in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” and with whom she had already spent time in England. Wood had just starred as Flavius in the RKO film “The Last Days of Pompeii.” Mary’s account of her voyage to the US, the only passenger on board the Norwegian freighter Heranger, as it endured a heavy crossing of the Atlantic, became a story she often recounted. In February 1936, her engagement to Wood was publicly announced.

Macgregor then appeared in a small role in the film “Wife Vs Secretary” – a romantic john woodcomedy starring Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and Australian-born May Robson. Macgregor’s part was as the maid, Ellen. She then returned in some haste to Brisbane to see her ailing father. But Wood returned to London, where he was to act in a number of films, including two with Mary Maguire. Macgregor was coy when questioned about the engagement, and it was soon dropped as a topic for newspaper publicity pieces. They did not marry.

Above: John Wood about the time he was in Hollywood. The photo appears to have been used by Herbert de Leon, a London agent, soon after Wood’s return to London.  He was extremely handsome and was supposedly made offers of marriage by love-stuck viewers of “The Last Days of Pompeii”. Author’s collection.
Sounding every bit the English maid, Brisbane born Mary Macgregor as Ellen, in MGM’s “Wife Vs Secretary” (1936), her only Hollywood outing. The MGM film is widely available for purchase and held by Turner Classic Movies.

At home in Brisbane, Macgregor was treated as film-making royalty and the story of her six months in Hollywood was endlessly spun out in newspapers. In April, the Brisbane Sunday Mail reassured readers about her time in Hollywood – The Brisbane actress met many celebrities there. Macgregor was much more blasé – “Once you know two or three people in Hollywood’s film world, it is no time before you have met nearly all the others.” When the film was released in Australia in July, she was employed to appear at some screenings to introduce the film and discuss “Hollywood and noted stars.”

The Brisbane Courier Mail’s review of the film was typically effusive and very much in a Wife v secretarycelebratory style;  “In the strong glare of the stars in…Wife versus Secretary, which started a season at Cremorne Theatre yesterday, patrons might fail to recognise the talented actress who plays the role of a maid. She is Mary Macgregor, of Brisbane, who has achieved no small name as a stage actress, and whose feet are now planted on the ladder of success at the top of which glitters screen stardom.”

Above: “Wife vs Secretary” opens at the Cremorne Theatre. Mary’s role was uncredited. The Courier Mail, 23 July 1936. National Library of Australia, Trove

When Macgregor joined radio station 2GB’s BSA Players (Broadcasting Service Association Players, later the Macquarie Players) in 1937, The Australian Women’s Weekly explained that she had decided to stay in Australia – Hollywood would have to wait for this star. And in the same vein, on John Wood’s return in late 1939, he also returned to radio and the stage with great fanfare. When the play, “The Quiet Wedding” opened at the Minerva Theatre in Sydney, he was heralded in the press as “Australia’s great film and stage star, John Wood, fresh from triumphs overseas.” A few more stage roles followed, including a season of Dorothy Sayers’ “Busman’s Honeymoon” which included a rather joyful re-teaming with John Wood. But in November 1940, Wood joined the Australian Army,  being captured 14 months later at the end of the Malayan Campaign. The story of his efforts with the Australian Concert party in Changi are well documented.

By 1942 Mary had turned to war work, and she appeared less and less on radio. In February 1944 she married John Chirnside, one of the sons of John Percy Chirnside , and the couple moved to the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. Her acting career came to an end. Mary died barely ten years later in February 1954, aged only 50. Chirnside died the following year, leaving a significant estate. The couple did not have children.

Following repatriation, John Wood left Australia in 1948, joining the great exodus of Australian actors moving to England at the time. He performed on the West End for a few years, but then retired to Spain with his wife, actress Phil Buchanan. He also died young – in 1965.

Unfortunately, the group of performers who knew Mary well have also passed on – Lloyd Lamble, Peter Finch, Alan Cuthbertson, Lou Vernon – only Lamble left an as yet unpublished memoir. It’s a great pity Mary did not leave her own memoirs for us – we know that she was a great raconteur and her memoirs of the Australian stage would have been entertaining.

MMacgregor

From Table Talk 30 Jan, 1930 Via National Library of Australia – Trove

Nick Murphy
September 2018

Further Reading

  • All Australian newspapers Via National Library of Australia – Trove – Digitised Newspaper Collection
  • Daily Mirror, Dec 12, 1961 Via British Library Newspaper project