Harry Allen – a long journey to Hollywood

This screen grab shows Harry Allen as the photographer in “Ella Cinders”, a 1926 Colleen Moore film. He was 47 by this time this film was made. Source – author’s collection. The film is now in the public domain.

Born in Carlton, Melbourne, in 1878, Henry “Harry” Radford Allen’s story is a familiar one. A stage actor who worked hard to establish his name, Harry found himself in the later part of his career working in Hollywood, taking on minor supporting and often un-credited roles, generally as a cockney cabman, a doorman, a butler or similar. Harry had at least 100 film credits of this type, unfortunately many of these quite forgettable. It was an experience shared by other Australian actors in Hollywood, including Charles Coleman, Robert Greig, Clyde Cook and Snub Pollard, who had also arrived there after successful careers on stage – usually in vaudeville.

THe earl of Chicago Allen and Pollard
Above: A bald Harry Allen in his small speaking scene from The Earl of Chicago (1940), with fellow Melbourne actor Snub Pollard as an extra clearly in the background. The two children may be Allan’s own. Australians Billy Bevan and Frank Baker also appeared in the film. MGM and Warner Home movies re-released this film on DVD in 2011.

Harry was born in Barkly Street in the inner Melbourne suburb of Carlton, near the busy intersection of Johnson and Nicholson Streets, on 10 July 1878. Harry’s parents were Cordelia Potter, a singer and pianist from Fitzroy, and Robert Owen Allen, from Tasmania, a sometime storeman and clerk, who may also have been a comic singer. Although many of the small cottages in this area have been demolished, those surviving give us an idea of the area in the time Harry was born.


Harry as profiled in Melbourne Punch, March 1912. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove. At right – the remaining cottage near the site of his birth place in Barkly Street, Carlton. It is possible that with house renumbering and demolitions in the area, this WAS the family home. Photo – Author’s collection. 

Harry was almost certainly encouraged onto the stage by his parents, but of his upbringing we know little except that a sister, Georgina Ethel, died in infancy in 1880.  We also cannot easily trace what happened to his parents, although it appears Cordelia may have later remarried. Nor do we know much about Harry’s career in the late 1890s and early 1900s. We do know that by his late twenties, Harry had some stage experience with J. C. Williamson’s in Australia, although curiously, unlike so many of his contemporaries, he consistently avoided publicity. In June 1910, he married a fellow actor – Marjorie Josephine Condon, at the Brisbane registry office. Here, on a remarkably inaccurate marriage certificate, he gave his age as “27” (he was 32) and his birth place as “New York”.  In March 1912, Harry managed a J. C. Williamson’s fund- raising “monster theatrical carnival,” held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. But soon after this, he abandoned Australia and Marjorie forever. In May 1913 he set off for New York via Vancouver on the SS Marama, in company with well known comic Sam Rowley, who had considerable experience working in North America. On the ship’s manifest Harry again claimed he had been born in the United States.

While Sam Rowley continued to make a name for himself as “the little man with the big voice” in Canada, Harry settled into work for prolific producer William A. Brady in New York. His breakthrough role came in early 1919, when he was cast as Bert in the new British musical comedy, The Better ‘Ole. The play was based on three popular cartoon soldier characters – Old Bill, Bert and Alf, drawn by Bruce Bairnsfather for the British weekly “The Bystander” under the title “Fragments from France.” It was such a great success that several companies performed the show across the US and Canada at the same time.


Above left: Australian performer Sam Rowley, who travelled with Harry to North America. But once they were there, they seem to have parted company. The Saskatoon Daily Star. 25 Oct 1913.
Above Right: Harry Allen in character as Bert in The Better Ole. The Buffalo Times. 19 January 1919. Via Newspapers.com 

Following this success Harry was offered a string of important roles in musicals, comedies and farces  – including June Love, For Goodness Sake and Her Temporary Husband. The path to success had been a long one – he was 40 years old, but now an established actor. At the same time, he made a decision to stay in the US for good. In 1917 he began the process of applying for citizenship – his application noting he lived with his “wife Sue” and that the small finger of his left hand was missing.

The 1915 New York census also suggests Harry had married, or at least cohabited with, a woman named Susan W.

Harry Radford Allen

Harry Radford Allen’s Application for US citizenship, April 1917 (enlargement) Note the annotation “my wife name Sue she lives with me”. Via US National Archives, via Ancestry.com

Sometime in April 1920, Susanne Westford Allen (1865-1944) of New York, the youngest sister of the famous actress and political activist Lillian Russell (1860-1922), announced publicly that vaudeville actor Harry R Allen was “no longer regarded as a member of my family”. The problems were his straying affections and also a matter of money borrowed and not repaid. Susanne (also known as Susan or Suzie and sometimes using the surnames Leonard or Russell) was performing at the time in the play Clarence at the Hudson Theatre. This writer has not found a marriage certificate for Susanne and Harry R Allen, but The Daily News of New York suggested at the time they were married and the matter was going to court. Today it’s easy to dismiss this as a mixed-up newspaper story.


Left: Lillian Russell in The Evening Statesman. Washington, 20 May 1907.Via Newspapers.com
Centre: Susanne Westford in The Daily News. New York, 19 April, 1920. Via Newspapers.com.
Right: Owen Westford and Susanne Leonard (Westford) performing together in Washington in 1902. Note the heading –
“Polite Vaudeville.” IS there such a thing!?  The Washington Times, 21 December 1902. Via Newspapers.com

And yet… there was, apparently, a real connection. Susanne Westford had been married to actor Robert Owen Westford (1858 – 1908), a native of Tasmania, from the mid 1880s until his sudden death in Washington in February 1908. Regularly praised for his versatility as an actor, Westford sometimes added Allen to his surname and had performed often as a comic singer with Susanne and Lillian Russell. He seems to have first appeared as an actor in Australia in 1880, and thus, obviously closely resembles the description of Harry’s own father.

Furthermore, when Harry died in 1951, his death certificate clearly listed an Owen Westford as his father. The reader will thus be wondering – did Harry really marry or cohabit with his step-mother? Or was this just all an arrangement to smooth his transition into the US that went horribly wrong? Unfortunately, we do not know the answer. Nor can we tell what impact this might have had on his career, as Harry remained characteristically silent.

Saskatoon Daily Star 18 March 1922

The Saskatoon Daily Star advertises Harry’s first film. 18 March, 1922. Via newspapers.com

Harry’s first film role was for Ralph Ince in After Midnight, made in 1921 – reviewers describing it as “finely staged, and highly acted, and …a thrilling story”, apparently set in New York’s Chinatown. Being quite well known he was listed as one of the film’s “popular players.” At the same time, he was still active in theatre – appearing in a string of light comedies and musicals.

In 1923 he married another actor, Dorothea Hyde, and in 1925 they moved to the Van Nuys area of Los Angeles in California. There, he began to appear regularly in entertaining character roles in a series of silent films. Two children were born of the union in the late 1920s.


 

Left to right: Harry as the photographer in Ella Cinders (1926), as Riggs the butler in The Enchanted Cottage (1924), and as Dad Mason, in The Adorable Cheat (1928). These films are widely available on the net and now in the public domain. (Click to enlarge)

As the 1920s came to an end, and as sound films arrived, the roles he found were more perfunctory.  This was hardly surprising – given his age and the fact that Hollywood was changing again. The impact of the depression and the rise of the Hollywood studio system saw thousands of small producers and independent theatres go under and fledgling national cinemas (like Australia’s) crippled. In this environment, film making became more formulaic and the opportunities for the old vaudevillians like Harry, were fewer. Thus many of his later roles hardly register on the screen. In 1943’s massive patriotic effort by Britons in Hollywood, Forever and a Day, when he plays an air raid watcher, or in 1945’s Hangover Square, his presence is so fleeting he is hard to notice.

The Internet Movie Database notes that Harry appeared in several Best Picture Academy Award winners and nominees in the 30s and early 40s. However, because he didn’t ever comment on his choice of role – we can’t assume this was anything more than good luck. Yet again – many of these roles are entirely unnoticeable. In Of Human Bondage (1934) for example, he apparently plays the taxi driver at the very end of the film – but its definitely a case of “blink and you would miss it.”

In 1951, Harry’s Melbourne contemporary Snub Pollard provided some perspective on the work he was now doing as an extra. “I have no…regrets, not a one. I get plenty of work and I live comfortably and sensibly. I am in good health and have lots of friends. The fact that I am not on top now does not bother me. Most people never get there at all.” Hopefully Harry Radford Allen shared this view.

Harry’s two children, Radford and Paula, made brief appearances in several of Harry’s later films but they did not pursue acting as a career. Harry died in Los Angeles in December, 1951 at the age of 73. He worked almost until the end of his life. As was often the case, his passing was reported in US newspapers, but in Australia it went completely unnoticed.

Note 1: Harry’s date of birth was 10 July 1878. The confusion on various websites may relate to freely existing documents that are not accurate and like many performers at the time, Harry may have contributed to this. There are various claims he was born in 1876 (citing his 1917 US naturalization application) and 1883 (citing his WWII registration card). However, his Victorian birth certificate is quite clear.

Harry Radford Allen birth cert July 10 1878

Above: Part of Harry Allen’s birth certificate, 10 July 1878. Via Births, Deaths and Marriages, Victoria. NB: The clerk’s handwriting makes the “8” look variously like “7” and “6” however the record appears on a sheet headed 1878 and between other entries listed 1878.

 

Nick Murphy
July 2019

 

Further Reading

Texts

  • Gerald Martin Bordman (1978) American Musical Theater: A Chronicle. Oxford University Press.
  • George Kemp Ward (1910) reprinted 2017. Andrew Warde and his descendants, 1597-1910. Forgotten Books.
  • Mark Evan Swartz (2000) Oz before the Rainbow. L. Frank Baum’s the Wonderful Wizard of Oz on Stage. John Hopkins University Press.
  • J.P. Wearing (2013) The London Stage 1890-1899: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Scarecrow Press.

Newspapers.com
National Library of Australia – Trove

Australian Variety Theatre Archive – Clay Djubal

Internet Archive

  • The Argonaut, Vol 84, January 1919. Review of The Better ‘Ole.
  • The Billboard, 24 June 1944. Susanne Westford obituary.

Robert Greig and Beatrice Holloway go to Hollywood

Above: Years before he became well known as a Hollywood character actor, Robert Greig is shown here with fellow actor and wife Beatrice Holloway. They remained a devoted couple until his death in 1958, although the move to the US meant the end of her career. Source; Table Talk, Thursday 29 June 1922. Via National Library of Australia Trove 

Robert Greig was the quintessential movie butler of Hollywood’s golden age. He first appeared in the Marx Brothers “Animal Crackers” in 1930, playing the role of Hives the butler, followed by another twenty years of related roles – more butlers, doormen, stuffy judges and remote English lords. Various online biographies generally make no reference to the first fifty years of his life, or the significance of Beatrice Denver Holloway, his wife and on-stage collaborator for many years, who moved with him to the US in the late 1920s.

Beatrice Denver Holloway was born in Richmond, Melbourne Australia in 1884. The daughter of actor-manager Charles Holloway and actress Alice Doerwyn, she learned her stagecraft with her parents and the Holloway Dramatic company, travelling Australian cities and towns. Her earliest appearance was at the age of 10, as the child Anne, in “The World Against Her,” a drama on the “question of marriage.”

Beatrice Holloway

Beatrice Holloway c.1900-1910. The Royal Studios, Brisbane. Via The National Library of Australia

She later had notable success in a popular, sentimental story of two homeless boys – “Two Little Vagabonds” by George R. Sim and Arthur Shirley. This production was toured throughout Australia and New Zealand in 1903, with Beatrice playing Dick and Sophie Lashmore as the consumptive Wally. While it is a style of production that audiences would now find very dated, it found enthusiastic audiences in 1903. The following typical lines are spoken by Wally as he departs this world;
“I won’t be a thief never no more, lady, never so more so long as I live. And I shall see my muvver, my real muvver in Heaven. Good-bye, my old pal Dick.”

Otago Witness 1904.jpg

Source: Otago Witness, 30 March 1904. Via National Library of New Zealand, Papers Past

Robert Greig was born in Toorak, Melbourne, Australia in December 1879. At birth, he was named Arthur Alfred Bede Greig. However, Robert Greig was his stage name and in life he was known as Bob or Bobbie to all who knew him well. After an education at Xavier College and some mundane experience working at Dunlop Tyres and as a commercial traveller, he became increasingly interested in amateur theatricals, and then, nearing the age of 30, made the transition to professional performer. He was offered a contract with the Hugh Ward Comedy Company, in 1909. He toured with them for a season, performing comedy roles in “The Man from Mexico” and “Mr Hopkins”.

Beatrice and Bob met and first performed together in “Beauty and the Barge” in 1911. It was the start of a long and productive partnership. They married in December, 1912. It was a novelty wedding for the time – considerable press attention was given. Melbourne Punch ran full page photos of the wedding party which included Fred Niblo and Josephine Cohan – who had arrived from the US only six months before. They had met while preparing for George M Cohan’s “Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford,” which had its Australian premiere at the Criterion Theatre in Sydney, in August 1912. Niblo gave the bride away and was a witness. 

1912 wedding

Beatrice and Bob’s wedding reception at the Oriental Hotel, Melbourne. Standing L-R; Tom Cochrane, Josephine Cohan, Fred Niblo. Seated L-R; Bertha Ballenger, Beatrice, Bob, Mrs Holloway (Constance Doerwyn) Source; Punch, 26 December, 1912  Via National Library of Australia, Trove.

During Niblo and Cohan’s three years in Australia, they often worked with Beatrice and Bob, although apparently not on Niblo’s two Australian filmed versions of “Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford and Officer 666, made for J.C.Williamson’s in 1916. Bob stated a great admiration for American plays. “They are all about natural people…there is always a big, good-natured man in anything American,” he told Adelaide’s Critic in November 1913. 

As Elisabeth Kumm has noted, Australian theatre was already undergoing change even before the outbreak of World War One. After a brief hiatus in 1914, Australians flocked back to the theatres for escapism, and US comedies and performers filled some of the headline acts once dominated by British stars, now difficult to engage. In early 1918, Bob became Associate Director for the Tivoli theatre circuit. It seems the disruption of the War and attractive local contracts kept the couple busy in Australia for more than ten years, touring Australian towns and cities. Often under the banner of the Greig- Holloway Comedy Company the couple performed new plays like “Baby Mine” and familiar favourites including “Officer 666”.

                        Bob and Bea 1918  Officer 666 in 1924

At left – Bob and Beatrice in 1918. Melbourne Punch, August 22, 1918. via National Library of Australia, Trove.
Right – Bob Greig and Beatrice Holloway – still performing ‘Officer 666’ in Adelaide in 1924, ten years after the play’s first run in Australia. The Adelaide Register, 12 July 1924. via National Library of Australia, Trove

With many friends and connections overseas, Bob and Beatrice often spoke of travelling to the United States, where both he and Beatrice felt sure they would find work. The demand in the US for Beatrice’s “style of work” was great, he once said. In fact, it was not until 1925 that they travelled to the US, and then it was Bob who appeared onstage at Philadephia’s Garrick Theatre in “A Night Out”, not Beatrice. 

Bob’s first Hollywood role was an important straight character role as Hives the Butler,  in the 1930 Marx Brothers’ film “Animal Crackers”. Bob had played the same role in the Broadway musical production a year before. But aged in his 50s and by now, very overweight, he found himself consigned to playing similar roles in Hollywood films. An Australian newspaper report appeared in 1936, stating he was feeling typecast and had tried a trip to the UK to break the cycle. If this was so it didn’t work. In a career of more than 100 films, the movie butler became his signature role.

A few years after settling in the US, Robert Greig had a refined transatlantic accent. In this short clip from Dorothy Arzner’s “Merrily We Go to Hell”(1932),  Jerry Corbett (Frederic March) complains he can’t find a baritone. Bartender Robert Greig explains that he is one. 

By the time of the 1940 US census, he and Beatrice lived comfortably in an apartment on Franklin Avenue Los Angeles, living on a modest income from his films. Robert died in 1958, Beatrice in 1964. What became of Beatrice’s career aspirations we do not know. 

Robert Greig memorial

Robert Greig’s memorial plaque at Holy Cross Cemetery in Los Angeles. A sign of the couple’s enduring affection. 

The couple did not return to Australia and soon lost touch with their Australian admirers. One hopes that the couple lived a happy life. But one can’t help feeling that the “fondest memories” Beatrice referred to on Robert’s memorial were of the years before Hollywood.

Nick Murphy, December 2018

Further reading