The short, brilliant career of Janet Johnson

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.

John Wood (1909-1965)- Of Hollywood, Ealing studio and Changi prison

Above – Two young Australians exchange smiles on the set of An Englishman’s Home (1939).  Mary Maguire (centre) was 20 and John Wood (right) was 30. Paul Henreid‘s suspicious stare (just visible on the left) gives him away as one of the film’s baddies. Source probably Aldwych films. Author’s collection.

Born John Frederick Woods in the central western town of Forbes in New South Wales in November 1909, John Wood briefly became an film star in the mid 1930s and would undoubtedly have stayed one, if World War Two hadn’t intervened. His resume is extraordinary all the same. Like many of the actors profiled on this website, his upbringing was the comfortable one Australians of the time aspired to. Yet Wood stands out from some of his contemporaries, with a strong sense of duty combined with a genuine and unusual modesty in discussing his achievements. And he is one of those few former wartime POWs who felt the need to visit Japan after the war. His death from heart related trouble in 1965, at the relatively young age of 56, seems almost certainly a consequence of his wartime captivity in Singapore.

John’s father, Frederick Michael Woods, was a Chemist in Forbes with property interests in the area. His mother Flora, nee Fitzsimon, had given birth to a daughter, Una, in 1897 – suggesting John may have been a surprise, late-in-life baby for her. In later press interviews, Wood revealed he had attended the prestigious Shore school (Sydney Church of England Grammar School), which means he was most likely a boarder and contemporary of Errol Flynn, who was also at the school before being expelled in 1926. Wood studied and began a career in commercial art, but soon threw this in for acting, which had probably long been a passion. By 1930 he was a good looking young man, 175 cm (5’9″) tall, with blue eyes and dark brown hair.


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

Above Left: A very young John Wood aged 20, as he appeared in the play The Family Upstairs in 1929. From The Daily Mercury 21 September 1929.  Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove. Above right: Noel Coward’s Hay Fever at Adelaide’s Theatre Royal in 1931 – John Wood in company with other well known Australians – The News (Adelaide) 21 August, 1931. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Where he trained is a mystery, although he gained some mentoring from established stage and screen actor Nan Taylor. Like so many Australian actors, his first professional stage roles were for the J.C.Williamson’s organisation (so big an organisation it was known as “the Firm”), at the age of only 20. Reviewers over the next few years consistently welcomed him as “a promising and handsome juvenile lead”,  who gave “as polished a performance as any.” His first leading role was in The Family Upstairs, a comedy about middle-class New York life written by Harry Delf in the mid 1920s. Over the next four years, Wood became part of a very talented and creative pool of performers who presented a series of “light comedies” for J.C. Williamsons, all over Australia – amongst them Cecil Kellaway, Mary MacGregor, Coral Brown(e) and Mona Barlee (Mona Barrie). There were visiting British actors to work with too, like Barry K Barnes and Margaret Rawlings – who came out to tour in The Barretts of Wimpole Street.

SMH 27 April 1933

Above: John Wood, Mona Barrie and others in While Parents Sleep in Sydney, late April 1933. The Sydney Morning Herald. April 27, 1933 via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

By about 1930 the Woods family had moved from Forbes to a comfortable home in Wycombe Rd, at Neutral Bay on Sydney’s north shore. And at about the same time, Wood dropped the “s” from his surname. His final play before leaving Australia was Anthony Kimmins’ farce, While Parents Sleep.

Sun 12 DEcember 1933In the early 1930s it was obvious to aspiring actors that Australia simply wasn’t big enough to sustain an acting career. Although there was steady work on stage in Australia (a few had even found work in the occasional Australian film) many of these leading players packed up and set off to try their luck overseas. Mary MacGregor had left in early 1933, Mona Barrie in June, and Coral Browne was to leave in May 1934. John Wood departed for London on a Norwegian passenger/cargo ship, the Troja, in October 1933.

Only a few weeks after his arrival in London he was offered a role in Charley’s Aunt at the Gaiety Theatre. It then toured English towns. Wood’s transition to acting in England had been remarkably smooth.

Above: News of Wood’s success in England reported in The (Sydney) Sun, 12 December 1933. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Later in 1934 he landed a substantial role in British Lion’s The Case of Gabriel Perry (aka Wild Justice), directed by Albert de Courville. Although this film seems impossible to source now, Wood’s performance must have impressed. In December 1934, RKO offered Wood a test, based on reports from a talent scout working in England, and he arrived in the US on the Olympic in January 1935, and rushed to Hollywood. He had a frustrating wait for work until May, when he gained the important role of Flavius (as an adult) in The Last Days of Pompeii, being made by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper (of King Kong fame). Studio publicity followed – writing in The San Francisco Examiner Louella Parsons suggested that Wood was known as the “Clark Gable of England.” By October, the completed film had been released in the US, with generally positive reviews for the great spectacle and praise for Wood and Basil Rathbone. But there were some variable performances from other actors and distracting historical errors (the most obvious being that an adolescent Flavius who met Jesus in say, AD30 could not have been aged still in his 20s at Pompeii in AD79). The film was slow to return a profit.

pompeii2  pompeii3

Above: Screen grabs from RKO‘s The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) Left: Wood (Flavius) with Preston Foster (Marcus). Right: Wood and Dorothy Wilson (Claudia or Clodia). The film is still widely available. Author’s collection.

More mysteriously, John Wood made no further films in the US. He appeared in the press for a few months – his good looks, interest in landscape painting and attentiveness to newly arrived friend Mary MacGregor was noted by US gossip columnists, and he is known to have tried out unsuccessfully for a role in George Cukor‘s Romeo and Juliet. But that was it, and by June 1936 he was back in London preparing to appear in the play Lady of La Paz at the Criterion Theatre, with fellow Australian Janet Johnson. Wood once said that although he enjoyed film work, he had never had a role he really liked. Perhaps he shared Margaret Vyner‘s view that Hollywood film work was too insecure.

Above: Wood and Claire Luce in a love scene from Over She Goes (1937)

However, Wood had a great breakthrough in England in 1937. He took a leading role in Stanley Lupino‘s film version of his own very popular musical Over She Goes. Although top billing went to Lupino, Laddie Cliff, Sally Gray and Claire Luce, John Wood was now established as a notable star. (Laddie Cliff’s  sudden death at the end of 1937 cast a shadow over publicity for the film)

Over She Goes 2  Over she goes 1

Above: Screen grabs from Over She Goes (1938). Left; Stanley Lupino, John Wood and Laddie Cliff sing and dance in “Side by Side”.
Right: John Wood, Syd Walker and Claire Luce. (In the bed in the background is Judy Kelly, the naughty gold digger.) Networkonair currently sell this title as part of their “British Musicals of the 1930s – Volume 1”. Author’s collection.

In this production Wood sings and dances with impressive skill and timing. Memorable musical numbers from the film can be seen online, including


The years 1937-1939 were his busiest and most successful in London. He had a nice apartment in Eccleston Mews in Belgravia and was continuously employed on stage and in a string of film roles. These included another musical with Lupino and two films with Mary MaguireBlack Eyes and An Englishman’s Home. Then, on 17 August 1939 he boarded the Rimutaka for the six week journey home to Sydney.  Half-way home passengers heard that Australia had followed Britain’s lead and declared war on Germany. But his reason for returning to Australia was unrelated to the rising tensions in Europe – his mother Flora was ill and he was returning to see her. Sadly she died on 10 September, 1939 about a week before the ship reached Sydney.

john wood

Above: John Wood, at the height of his success in England, sometime between 1936-9. The photo was used by Herbert de Leon, his London agent. Author’s collection.

Now in Sydney again, he gave talks and a few interviews, and appeared at Sydney’s Minerva Theatre and in Melbourne  in several productions. Like many Australians anxious about the war, he also joined the Militia. Wood was aware of how his friends in London were faring during the Battle of Britain – the war became more serious each day. Like many young Australians, he transferred across from the Militia to the regular Army in late 1940. He was disembarked at Singapore in March 1941, now a Signalman of the 8th Division. In December 1941 the Japanese launched their offensive in South East Asia and the Pacific. The Malaya Campaign to repel the Japanese was a disaster and the forces under British commander General Percival fell back to Singapore.

3798756

Above: Painting of Wood by Murray Griffin. From the collection of the Australian War Memorial. (Click to follow link) Item now in the public domain. Dated 1943, but more likely to have been painted in 1941. The War Memorial also holds other sketches of Wood, listed in further readings below.

On 15 -16 February 1942 the British surrendered at Singapore, and about 80,000 British, Australian and Indian soldiers went into captivity. Wood was not the only performer to be incarcerated in Changi Prison – indeed he was amongst many well-known prisoners – however his work for the Australian Concert Party is very well referenced by those who were there. Fellow POW Russell Braddon described him “the greatest source of stage anecdotes and comic songs that Changi knew.”

Other accounts of the Australian Concert Party appear in the collection of reminiscences called The Changi Book, written by an author now unknown. “30… members of the party produced a new show every fortnight, with new music, and new scenery…and without a break, for almost three years.” And John Wood, who developed great skills as a female impersonator – “on some occasions as a hair-raising blonde, on others as a hot blooded senorita,” apparently deserved special acknowledgement. “Enough credit can never be paid him for the fact that by his superb acting, he educated Australian audiences…from an attitude of ribald hilarity to one of grateful appreciation of feminine charms whenever he played a female role. It will never be forgotten by 10,000 faded, starved, half dead POWs that John Wood… gave a performance of Judith in Hay Fever…as worthy of any of the great actresses who ever played Coward.” 

The impact of years of internment took their toll on many of the former POWs and coloured an entire generation of Australian attitudes to Asia, and Japan in particular. Repatriated before the end of 1945, John Wood threw himself back into performing as did other actors from Changi – Slim De Grey and Doug McKenzie. Russell Braddon suffered a severe breakdown but turned to writing to appease himself. Wood also volunteered to join a group of performers planning to appear for the British Occupation Forces in Japan, with While the Sun Shines and The Hasty Heart. Perhaps this was Wood’s effort to come to terms with the awful experience of the recent past. While there in 1947, he reportedly sought out and met one of the Japanese Army interpreters, “a decent Jap” from Changi, whom he called Jesuki Terai.

John Wood The Hasty Heart 1946.jpg

Above: Gwenda Wilson (Left), John Wood (centre) and others in J.C. Williamson’s production of The Hasty Heart – being performed in Australia before the Japan Tour. Source: National Library of Australia

In 1946, John was joined in Australia by Phyllis Buchanan, a British actress he had met before the war. She had spent her war years driving ambulances, and apparently waited patiently for John for almost 7 years. Newspapers represented that they had  “quietly married” in Melbourne, but there seems no corroborating evidence of this.

Phyl buchanan the graphic 1926     The Herald 21 june 1946

Above left: Phil (Phyllis May) Buchanan in her early English career, The Graphic , 16 January 1926. Above Right; John and Phil lighting up in Melbourne in 1946. The Herald 16 June 1946. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Phil and John departed Sydney for London on the rather creaky pre-war ship Moreton Bay, in late September 1948. Wood found roles on stage again, including a long run in His Excellency with Eric Portman at the Princes then Picadilly Theatres. Wood tried to raise interest in a London production of Sumner Locke Elliot‘s Rusty Bugles, without success.

He made one last British film in 1952. Stolen Face was made by Hammer films in London, directed by Terence Fisher. Paul Henreid, struggling to find work after being “semi-blacklisted” (his words) in Hollywood, found some work in France and England, including this film. It is the story of a plastic surgeon (Henreid) who remakes the face of a criminal to resemble his lost love (Lizabeth Scott plays a double role). Wood played Henreid’s assisting doctor. The trailer can be viewed here.

Stolen face2  Stolen face1

John Wood and Paul Henreid in Stolen Face (1952). Screen grabs from a copy in the author’s collection.

In the mid 1950s Wood suffered some serious but unspecified heart trouble. His old battalion newsletter noted that he and Phil had moved to the Spanish island of Mallorca – breeding dogs, painting the scenery and enjoying the sun. John Wood made two return trips to Australia by air, alone, in 1963 and 1964. After the second trip home he did not return to Mallorca again. He died alone at his apartment at 25 Waruda Street Kirribilli, some time around 1 March 1965. There were no public notices – sadly he was completely forgotten, even in his homeland. His sister had died in 1963.


Note 1.
The IMDB incorrectly claims Wood was involved in court case arising from a practical joke on the set of Laurel and Hardy’s March of the Wooden Soldiers/Babes in Toyland (1934). But he wasn’t. He had not arrived in the US when that film was made. This was clearly an actor named John D Wood, and the matter went to court in June 1936, by which time this John Wood had returned to England. See The Los Angeles Times, 10 June, 1936.

 

Nick Murphy
November 2019

 

Further Reading

  • Russell Braddon (1955) The Naked Island. Pan Books.
  • William Bryden Flynn (1981), Errol Leslie (1909–1959) Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, Melbourne University Press. (also online)
  • Midge Gillies (2011) The Barbed-Wire University. The real lives of Prisoners of War in the Second World War. Arum Press.
  • Lachlan Grant (Ed) (2015) The Changi Book. New South/Australian War Memorial.
  • Unknown. (1937)  RKO Players Biographies @ Internet Archive
  • Makan 2/30 Battalion Home Page The Battalion newsletter contains several references to Wood in later life.

Australian War Memorial art

Sergeant John Wood –  painting by Murray Griffin.
Men of AIF Concert party  – sketches by Murray Griffin
Men of AIF Concert party (2nd set) – sketches by Murray Griffin
Pantomime Production Changi – sketch by Murray Griffin
AIF Theatre Changi – sketch by Murray Griffin

National Library of Australia’s Trove

J.C. Williamson’s Collection of Photographs.

Newspapers:
The Daily Mercury 21 September 1929.
The News (Adelaide) 21 August, 1931
The Sydney Morning Herald  27 April, 1933
The Sun (Sydney) 12 December 1933
The Sun (Sydney) 16 Sep 1945
The Herald (Melbourne) 16 June 1946
The Sun (Sydney) 6 Nov 1946
The Sun (Sydney)  21 Jan 1948 

National Archives of Australia

Service Record, Signalman John Wood, NX65819.
Incoming Passenger records.

British Newspaper Archive.

The Graphic , 16 January 1926
Daily Mirror, 12 December 1961

Newspapers.com

The San Francisco Examiner 15 June 1935
The Los Angeles Times, 10 June, 1936.

 

Judy Kelly (1913-1991)- 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 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, via Newspapers.com

Mona Barrie made fifty films in the US between 1934 and 1953, a mix of feature and B-films. Notably however, almost all were credited roles.

Mona and Marcia1

Above: A screen grab from Never Give a Sucker An Even Break, a 1941 W.C.Fields film. Mona Barrie is in the foreground. In the background is Wayne Morris and another Australian, Marcia Ralston. Author’s Collection.

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 (not to be 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

 

Note:
The IMDB credits her with some roles on TV in the late 1970s. Obviously this is a different person with a similar name.

 

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