Mavis Villiers (1909 – 1976) from Katoomba to the West End

Above: Screen grab of a very young Mavis Villiers in The Bum’s Rush (1927), a Snub Pollard comedy released by the Weiss Brothers. Via Cult Cinema Classics Channel (follow this link to watch the film).

 
Mavis on stage in Frankie and Johnnie 1950The 5 second version
Australian born Mavis Villiers became an actor of increasing stature on the British stage and screen after World War 2. She was often described as ‘American-born’ in later years – as she had moved there in 1921 and spent 12 years in Hollywood before moving on to Britain in 1933. Her legacy today remains in much admired and easily accessible films such as Suddenly Last Summer (1959), Victim (1961), The Boys (1962) and No Sex Please – We’re British (1973). She also performed on stage, radio, and played numerous guest roles on TV in the 50s and 60s. Film historian Brian McFarlane has described her speciality as “enjoyably blousy blondes” – the cockney in the bar, American women (often tourists in Britain), or otherwise “showy types”. She continued to be very active until her early death in 1976. 
Her brother Cecil Cooney (1906-1993) had a very long career as a camera operator and  cinematographer in the US and Britain.
Left: Mavis in a TV version of the play Frankie and Johnny in 1950. She was injured when her dress caught fire during this production. The Sketch, 2 August 1950. P30. Copyright held by the Illustrated London News Group. Via the British Library’s Newspaper Archive.

The Cooney family in Australia

In April 1921, John and Clara Cooney packed up and left Australia for Los Angeles, taking their two young children Cecil (Aged 14) and Mavis (aged 11) with them. While most Australians embarking on an acting career overseas tended to leave with the idea of returning home as a distinct possibility, and only occasionally did an entire family emigrate, the Cooney’s move was apparently intended as a permanent one from the very start. There was no “testing the waters” first as Mary Maguire‘s family did in the 1930s. The Cooney family’s migration seems to have been inspired by Mavis’s success as a budding actress and a belief that the very young girl could go places.

Mavis had been born in Sydney in 1909, (see Note 1 regarding her birth) but by 1915 the family were settled in the Blue Mountains town of Katoomba. During his life John Cooney turned his hand to many things, but at the time of Mavis’ birth was listed in directories as a “Milk vendor”, or dairy owner, while Clara managed a Katoomba retail outlet, akin to an modern Australian “Milk Bar”, as shown at left below:


While the Cooneys established their Katoomba businesses, they also encouraged their daughter as a performer. Eight year old Mavis can be found in contemporary Australian newspapers performing under the tutelage of local drama teacher Richard Allen and later with well known Sydney elocutionist Lawrence Campbell. In 1921 she was reputedly a finalist in a “Brains and Beauty” competition arranged by a Sydney magazine. However we can also trace another important event in Mavis’ development as an actor. In 1919, Claude Flemming, an Australian actor and director (£500 Reward and The Lure of the Bush in 1918) ran a “Making Movies” matinee show for a week at Sydney’s Tivoli theatre. The stage was made up as a studio, and “aspirants took… different parts in The Officer’s Mess.” Flemming also introduced Little Mavis Cooney, commenting to the audience on her “perfect picture face for expressions in film work” and as part of the program she recited for the crowd. In addition to all of Mavis’ successes in eisteddfods and competitions, this experience probably had a significant impact on the Cooney seniors – conjuring up visions of fame and fortune for their daughter in the exciting new world of movies.

If The Officer’s Mess was ever filmed, assembled and shown to its participants, it does not survive today. However, film historian Graham Shirley has noted that similar movies were made by itinerant filmmakers, like The Adventures of Dot in the later 1920s. These movies used local talent, were usually filmed on the stage of a hastily converted cinema and were an occasional feature in Australian town life until the arrival of sound. They were popular enough that at least four versions of Dot survive in Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive.

Whether or not this experience was as decisive as this writer has suggested, the Cooney family departed for the USA in April 1921 on the SS Niagara and the ship’s manifest gives every indication it was intended as a one-way trip. There was no “in transit” listed, no US contacts or planned address yet, in their stated final destination, Los Angeles. Years later, Mavis told a journalist that she could still remember distinctly her last view of Australia – Sydney harbour – on the voyage to North America (Daily News 24/7/66:357).

Finding her place in California


In Los Angeles, Mavis (and possibly Cecil too) joined Frank Egan‘s dramatic school for several years. Mavis also had a major breakthrough, when Mary Pickford apparently helped her gain small parts in her films Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921) and Tess of the Storm Country (1922). However, while the public domain copies of these films are easily accessible today, it is very difficult to identify young Mavis amongst the children in either film, particularly since Pickford seems to have encouraged a number of youngsters by giving them small parts.

Between 1926 and 1933, newspapers often noted Mavis performing at the Pasadena Community Playhouse or the Beverley Hills Community Playhouse, energetic and exciting places for young actors to gain valuable experience.

Above: Left – Mavis with her trademark dimples in a 1926 competition. Los Angeles Evening Express, 13 Apr 1926, P18. Right – Mavis on stage in Hay Fever, at the Pasadena Community Playhouse in 1926. Pasedena Post, 28 Apr 1926, P2, via Newspapers.com

She was obviously keen to try her luck with the studios. Aged just 16, she was listed in a Hollywood casting directory, and in 1927 – now calling herself Mavis Villiers, she appeared in a leading female role opposite comedian Snub Pollard, in The Bum’s Rush (1927). Perhaps Pollard was giving a fellow Australian a break.

Unfortunately, as has repeatedly occurred with details from Hollywood’s booming 1920s, records of at least some of film appearances may have been lost. The additional complication in researching Mavis’s Hollywood years is that like many actors, over time she creatively edited her biography so as to maintain a positive profile – which occasionally included untruths about her age.

However, one real hitherto uncredited film for Mavis was The Dance of Life, (1929) Paramount’s adaptation of the popular play Burlesque, where she seems to briefly appear 60 minutes into the film in a dance number – although again, with the poor quality of surviving film – which was perhaps later edited down for TV – it is difficult to be certain one is looking at the right dancer. In later years, Mavis also claimed producer Jesse J Goldberg hired her for a series of Westerns in the late 20s. (Daily News 24/7/66:357) However, this writer has not be able to identify these films.

Mavis Villiers (right) with Marguerite Andrus (left) as “Hawaiian dancers” in Burlesque aka The Dance of Life,(1929). Picture Play Magazine (August 1929) P60, via Lantern, the Media History Digital Library.

Unfortunately her home life was tumultous in the later 1920s. John and Clara divorced in Los Angeles in 1929 – the strain of moving and remaking themselves in a new country must have been considerable. Living on his own by the time of the 1930 US census, the ever adaptable John Cooney was employed as a film studio technician. The same census shows Mavis living with Clara and Cecil – Cecil now established as a studio camera assistant. In the same year, Mavis appeared in one more credited supporting role in a US film – A Lady’s Morals, an early Hollywood take on the life of Jenny Lind.

In late 1933 Mavis, her mother and Cecil, and Cecil’s new wife Andree Louise, packed up and departed for Britain – and again it was intended as a permanent move. The type of roles Mavis was finding in Hollywood and her career prospects must have been a part of the motivation to move. There are several newspaper references to Mavis working as an extra and standing-in for Wynne Gibson in the early 1930s, which would not have been satisfying for the aspirational Mavis. Interviewed in 1966 by Robert Wahls of the New York Daily News, she may have revealed another, more personal reason for the move. “At 18 I didn’t eat for a month, just water and lettuce leaves. I had a nervous breakdown and we went to England” (Daily News 24/7/66:357). Her experience was so similar to that of other very young Australians working in Hollywood a few years later – including Mary Maguire and Constance Worth, both of whom were reported to have suffered breakdowns.

In England – building a career

Above: Mavis Villiers in 1941 Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 5 August 1941, P2. Via the British Library Newspaper Archive.

Mavis was 24 when she arrived in England and British voter rolls reveal that by 1934 she was living in West London, near Ealing Studios, with Clara, Cecil and Andree Louise.

Her first British film was a supporting role in the Claude Dampier – June Clyde comedy King of the Castle released in early 1936, a film that may no longer exist and is certainly no longer available, as is the case with so many British “quota quickies” of the 1930s. By 1938, she had perhaps half a dozen B-films under her belt (including the crime drama Double Alibi with fellow Australian John Warwick). By 1940, she had appeared in two films that solidly established her credentials as a wholesome young Englishwoman – but one of the masses, rather than the gentry. An Englishman’s Home (1939) was based on a stage play about an invasion of England, or more specifically the comfortable middle class home of the Brown family, by jackbooted, bucket-helmeted soldiers from some “unnamed” European power. The film also featured fellow Australian Mary Maguire as Betty Brown, Mavis playing Dolly Brown, her sister. John Wood, another Australian also appeared in the film. Made before Britain’s declaration of war with Germany, but released after it, this film appears to have been locked up ever since, although it was apparently popular enough at the time.

Above: Left – Invading soldiers looking suspiciously like Germans, but not so named, in An Englishman’s Home. Right – Mavis sitting opposite fellow Australian Mary Maguire at the dinner table. These stills from the film appeared in The Sketch, 4 October 1939. Copyright Illustrated London News Group. Via British Library’s Newspaper Archive.

Saloon Bar, made at Ealing Studios in 1940, heralded her first appearance – of many – as a cockney woman drinking or serving in a bar. Also based on a stage play, the comedy-thriller was directed by Walter Forde for Michael Balcon. It is an implausible but entertaining plot where a crime is solved by pub regulars just before an innocent man is executed – the film is well shot, the dialogue is well written and the interplay of characters entertaining in the best Ealing style.

Above left and right: Mavis in Saloon Bar (1940) This film is now in the public domain and can be watched here at The Internet Archive.

In addition to uncredited roles in wartime morale-boosting films, she featured in colourful glamour roles in productions with Britain’s leading players, including George Formby in South American George (1941) and Vera Lynn in One Exciting Night (1944). But tellingly, she also developed an interest in the legitimate stage – for example performing on a successful tour around England in Noel Coward’s Private Lives during the war.

The war years brought triumphs and tragedies for Mavis, as it did for so many. She claimed that she spent much of the Second World War living in her London apartment, overlooking Hyde Park. Her home miraculously escaped damage during the intensive bombing of London. In June 1945 she married 27 year old Lieutenant Donald Everett Miller, a US officer she had met several years before when he served with an RAF Eagle Squadron (he was later with the USAAF). Miller had been shot down and had became a POW – so he was only very recently released when they married. Clara and Cecil were the witnesses, confirming again what a close family they were. Tragically Miller was critically injured in a car accident in the US in late March 1946. Mavis, working in England, flew to the US as quickly as she could, but he had died before she arrived.

Above: Mavis at her most glamorous wartime best. Left – backlit and wearing a diaphanous nightdress, with George Formby in South American George (1941) and right – in One Exciting Night, while watching star Vera Lynn, off camera (1944). Screengrabs from copies in the author’s collection

Mavis rarely commented on her career, and particularly not on the challenge of finding the balance between taking the limited roles for women on the post-war British screen – accepting character roles, and taking the more complex roles sometimes found on stage. Her Australian contemporaries Betty McDowall and Glen Alyn also found this a challenge – in 1965 McDowall recalled that finding work in London was “tough as hell.”

Other actors in the post war period also went on the record about the increasing lack of quality roles for women in British films. In her survey of British cinema of the fifties (2000), Christine Geraghty quotes actor Glynis Johns, who complained that “actresses take second place to actors, ships and machines” (Picturegoer 19 March 1955) – a comment on the narrow scope of British films as well as the limited roles for women. Yet, there were character roles for women. And as Brian McFarlane has noted, Mavis was “at her most vivid as the pub habitué in the suspense film Victim” (1961). In fact, the role of the woman in the pub became one of her very familiar character “types” on the screen.

Above: Screengrabs of Mavis in the 1950s. Left – Mavis in an uncredited role but an extraordinary bar room closeup in Basil Dearden’s Pool of London (1951). Centre – As Gladys the bar maid in Don Chaffey’s Time is My Enemy (1953). Right – As Madge in Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961). Screengrabs in the author’s collection.

In the late 1930s, Mavis was well enough established to be chosen to broaden the appeal of the early TV series In Your Garden, with the popular gardening expert Cecil Middleton, although sadly no footage of this seems to survive. We can conclude that when she could, she sought out work that was interesting and challenging. For example, with other actors of note like Hattie Jacques, she appeared in episodes of Walter and Connie Reporting – quirky English language short films made for TV by the BBC/British Council in the mid 1960s – a rare episode (without Mavis) can be seen here.

Even in 1954, newspapers were able to acknowledge the narrowness of roles for women on the screen. Writing of an episode of BBC Sunday Night Theatre, this paper reported that Mavis had “another dumb-blonde” role:

Above: Evening Standard, 8 May 1954, P8, Via Newspapers.com

Surviving examples of her commercial TV appearances are also hard to find although she appeared as a guest in numerous programs in the 1950s and 60s. Unfortunately most either no longer exist or are stored away in vaults. However a few rare examples are currently available. She can be seen here in a guest role in an episode of the 1963 US sitcom Harry’s Girls, the comic adventures of three female performers and their manager, travelling around Europe. Mavis can also be seen in an few episodes of the 1970 British TV sitcom From a Bird’s Eye View – an effort to appeal to US and UK TV audiences simultaneously, with a series about two female airline stewards – one British and one American. Mavis played Peggy, the airline’s hairdresser, in an episode which can be seen here.

In addition to appearances in the booming TV industry, Mavis’s postwar career included regular performances on radio, although these are even harder to trace than her screen work. In 1945 she was playing on radio beside Richard Green, in The Way of Thoroughbreds. Several years later she appeared with comedians Naughton Wayne and Basil Radford, and fellow Australian Judy Kelly, in the radio program Traveller’s Joy. An example of her radio work survives from 1959, when she appeared in an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour with Tony Hancock, Sid James and fellow Australian Bill Kerr. The episode – “Sid’s Mystery Tours” can be heard here – Mavis playing an American tourist and demonstrating her considerable ability as a comedienne.

Above: Mavis rehearsing Of Mice and Men for radio in 1956, with Alan Tilvern and Robert Beatty. Coventry Evening Telegraph, 2 November 1956. Via British Library Newspaper Archive.

While her supporting roles on screen are a surviving legacy (the IMDB lists about 80 known screen appearances) and several later films are highly regarded, it was Mavis’s stage performances in the 1950s and 60s that were often picked out for lengthy praise. As well as appearing in large scale stage productions, her experiences included niche theatre – such as Nuts in May, in 1949, at the tiny 98 seat Torch Theatre off Knightsbridge and Uncertain Joy in 1953, at the modest 480 seat Q Theatre (near Kew Bridge).

Mavis also appeared in popular musical comedies at the same time. In 1957, she was in the long London run of Damn Yankees at the Coliseum. In 1966, she joined a production of Irish playwright Brien Fiels’ Philadelphia Here I come! that ran for almost a year in New York. She played the comic role of Auntie Lizzie Sweeny to great acclaim, and revisited the role several times, including in a film version made shortly before her death.

Above: The American Dream, running at the Royal Court Theatre in late 1961 with Mavis (as Mommy, at right) again playing a middle aged American woman. Left to right – Jeanne Watts (as Mrs Barker), Robert Ayres (as Daddy). The Sphere, Nov 4, 1961, P199. Copyright Illustrated London News Group. Via British Library’s Newspaper Archive.

Reviewing the London opening of Horton Foote‘s, The Trip to the Bountiful in 1956, London’s The Stage newspaper gave Mavis Villiers a rave review for “a performance of outstanding realism, integrity and power” (The Stage 2/8/56:8). The reviewer hoped she would win some type of award for best British performance of the year. In 1961, The Stage again enthused about her performance in Noël Coward‘s final musical Sail Away, at the Savoy. Mavis’s characterisation and timing as a possessive American mother Mrs Van Mier was reportedly brilliant, endowing the role with “life and humanity,” making it a performance to be remembered (The Stage 28/6/62:13). In her middle age by the time of these reviews, Mavis Villiers must have been pleased with the reception.

After Don Miller’s death she did not remarry. Her mother Clara lived with her until her death in 1967. Sadly a degree of unhappiness is suggested by Mavis’s early death at her home in Paddington, London, in February 1976. Alcoholism had made her more vulnerable to the pneumonia that caused her death, aged only in her late 60s.

Cecil’s later career

Howard Maxwell’s 2019 survey of Hammer films provides one of the most comprehensive snapshots of Cecil Cooney’s career, which started in the US in 1926, working as an assistant camera operator on the Lon Chaney vehicle Tell it to the Marines. His fifty-four year career as a camera operator and later cinematographer in the UK began with the rather silly film The Secret of the Loch in 1934, which starred another Australian, Nancy O’Neil. He progressed to work on numerous feature films, shorts and TV programs – many of these are undocumented, such as his involvement in Circle of Deception (1960) shown below. He retired in 1980, and died in England in 1993.

Above: Cecil Cooney (left) behind the camera and partly obscured, with Producer Tom Morahan, Director of Photography Gordon Dines, Editor Gordon Pilkington and Assistant Director David Tringham – on the set of Circle of Deception (1960). Kinematograph Weekly, 7 July 1960, P17. Via the British Library Newspaper Archive

Note 1 Mavis Cooney’s date of birth.

While there is a unequivocal Queensland birth certificate for her brother Randolph Cecil Cooney, there is some uncertainty around Mavis’ Sydney birth. This has arisen because, unusually, she appears to have been unnamed on her NSW birth certificate (8502/1910), which gives a birthdate of 10 December 1909. The same document correctly identifies her parents and her older brother. The date used on other documents relating to Mavis’s birth is also 10 December (but on her death certificate the year 1911 is incorrectly listed).


Nick Murphy
December 2021


References

Special Thanks

  • John Cooney, Mavis’s cousin, for his comments.

Text

  • Cyrus Andrews (Ed)(1947) Radio’s Who’s Who. Pendulum Publications, London
  • Anon. (1929) Picture Play Magazine. August 1929, P60. Street & Smith, New York.
  • Anon. Standard Casting Directory (Feb-Jul 1925), Vol 3, Standard Casting, New York & Hollywood
  • Christine Geraghty (2000) British Cinema in the Fifties. Gender, Genre and the ‘New Look’. Routledge
  • Howard Maxford (2019) Hammer Complete: The Films, the Personnel, the Company. McFarland Publishers
  • Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film. BFI/Methuen
  • Scott Palmer (1988) A who’s who of Australian and New Zealand film actors. Scarecrow Press
  • Graham Shirley (2019),“Home Talent: Australia’s Itinerant Filmmakers” in History, December 2019, No 142. Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society
  • Frank Van Straten (2003) Tivoli. Thomas Lothian
  • J P Wearing (2014) The London Stage, 1950-1959. A Calendar of Plays and Players. Rowman and Littlefield.

Films

New South Wales Births Deaths & Marriages

  • Birth certificate for unnamed female born 10 December 1909, to John Cooney and Clara nee Smythe. Document 8502/1910

HM Passport Office, General Register Office (UK)

  • Death Certificate for Mavis Clare Miller died 23 Feb 1976.

Websites

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Blue Mountain Echo (NSW), 24 December 1915, P6.
  • The Sun (Syd), 7 Sept 1919, P22
  • Sunday Times (Syd) 14 Sept 1919, P11
  • The Blue Mountain Echo (NSW) 19 Sept 1919, P3
  • The Blue Mountain Echo (NSW)10 Oct 1919, P3
  • Warwick Daily News (Qld) 24 Jan 1923, P6
  • The Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate (NSW) 5 Jan 1932, P1
  • The Sun (Syd) 11 Oct 1945, P9
  • The Canberra Times 24 Apr 1965 P9

Newspapers.com

  • Los Angeles Evening Express, 13 April 1926, P18
  • Los Angeles Evening Citizen News (Hollywood) 16 Dec 1926, P5
  • The Indianapolis Star, 23 Oct 1932, P43
  • Dixon Evening News (Illinois) 7 Sept 1945, P3
  • The San Francisco Examiner 6 April 1946 P9
  • The Brooklyn Daily Eagle 7 April 1946, P3

British Newspaper Archive

  • Fleetwood Chronicle 21 Aug 1936, P7
  • Diss Express 11 Feb 1938, P5
  • Kinematograph Weekly 15 Sept 1938, P34
  • Hendon & Finchley Times 4 August 1939, P5
  • Dundee Evening Telegraph 24 June 1939 P3
  • The Sketch, 4 October 1939 P25
  • Blyth News 19 Dec 1940, P6
  • Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail 5 August 1941, P2
  • Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail 15 August 1941 P5
  • Kinematograph Weekly – Thursday 28 August 1941, P18
  • The Stage 16 August 1945
  • The Stage 16 December 1948, P7
  • The Sketch, 2 Aug 1950, P30
  • Evening Standard, 8 May 1954, P8
  • The Stage 2 August 1956, P8
  • Coventry Evening Telegraph, 2 Nov 1956
  • The Sphere, 4 Nov 1961, P199
  • The Stage 28 June 1962, P13
  • Kinematograph Weekly 7 July 1960, P17
  • The Stage 14 October 1974, P28
  • The Stage 11 March 1976, P25

Lantern, The Digital Media Project

  • Anon. Standard Casting Directory (Feb-Jul 1925)
  • Picture Play Magazine (August 1929) P60.
  • Hollywood Filmograph (Jan-Dec 1933)
  • Radio Who’s Who, 1947

Ancestry and Family Search

  • US census returns and passenger manifests
  • UK census returns and Electoral rolls

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