Snub Pollard, the jobbing extra, writes to his family

Above: Snub Pollard in 1937. He made over 600 film and TV appearances between 1915 and 1962. Many of those made after the coming of sound were as an uncredited player. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne.

Snub Pollard with two unnamed female friends in San Francisco, 1937. He sent this photo to his nephew in Australia. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne.

Snub Pollard, born Harold Fraser in North Melbourne, Australia, in 1889, enjoyed a very long career on stage and in the US cinema.(See more about his professional life here) At the height of his success as a film comedian, he returned to Australia on a two month visit in 1923. He was well established at the Hal Roach studio, and told an Australian newspaper that he had a contract with Roach until 1927. Everything seemed to be going well. He was newly married, financially secure – to such an extent he could spend £2000 on a new house in Carlton for his mother.[1]He also paid for her to visit California the following year

Most of his letters home, surviving at the Australian Performing Arts Collection in Melbourne, are addressed to his brother George or to his nephew, also named Harold, who lived in Portarlington, a pretty seaside town south of Melbourne. The collection of letters mostly date from after this visit home, from the 1930s -1950s, by which time he was appearing in supporting or uncredited roles. His letters give no hints about his change in fortunes – the transition from being a major silent screen comedian of the early 1920s to jobbing extra [2]an actor who is taking any work to maintain their career is never mentioned. The correspondence is too late to cover the mid 1920s when Snub left Roach and set up his own production company, which then failed. However, there are other insights to be had from reading his correspondence.

Snub Pollard returns to Australia. At left is Snub and his new wife meeting the head of Amalgamated Pictures in Melbourne. At right, Snub greeted on arrival by his large extended family.[3]Table Talk, 22 March 1923, via State Library of Victoria

This writer has often wondered how strongly expat Australians working in Hollywood and Britain identified with their new cultural contexts and whether they maintained any sort of Australian identity. The evidence in the correspondence is that although Snub became a US citizen, he still regarded himself as an Australian and Australia as “home”. When he watched US newsreel footage showing the catastrophic 1939 bushfires near Melbourne, he said he felt homesick,[4]Australian Performing Arts Collection, Pollard collection, Letter 24 March 1939 when he went swimming or enjoyed the hot weather [5]APAC, Letter 25 May 1939 he thought it was because he was Australian. He said he read Australian newspapers at the RKO studios to keep up with the news.[6]APAC, Letter 25 May 1939

Snub’s trip home in 1923 remained a powerful memory. The very joyful time spent with brother George and his family at Portarlington seems to stayed with him for the rest of his life.“…Portarlington has a warm spot in my heart” he wrote.[7]APAC, Letter 18 September 1939 Even as late as 1949, he expressed his desire to visit again, “then we will all go swimming together” [8]APAC, Letter 17 February 1949 but soon after he complained that there were now no longer direct ships between California and Australia, “so that’s that” – meaning it was too much effort to travel to Vancouver to catch one.[9]APAC, Letter 14 March 1949

Snub posted a number of film publicity photos home to his nephew, including this one showing him in drag and without his trademark mustache. Unfortunately there is no notation as to what this film is. Australian Performing Arts Collection.

As might be expected, the topics covered in his letters include the mundane, like the weather in Los Angeles and how the seasons in California are the opposite to Australia’s, the opening of the baseball season, and comments about horse racing – a shared family interest that went back to Snub’s father. He also loved receiving family photos and regularly asked for more. He often listed the other family members he had just written to – it’s clear he took his family correspondence seriously.

Only sometimes does professional news feature in Snub’s letters, but several observations can be made from what he wrote. Westerns seem to have given him greatest pleasure; he mentions appearing in films with cowboy stars like Bob Steele and Tex Ritter and occasionally he mentioned the film titles by name. However, he worried that these Westerns might not be shown in Australian cinemas and therefore his family may not see them. Although he did not say so, these Westerns were second features, made quickly and on small budgets, usually with a running time of 60 minutes.

A photo sent home to Snub’s nephew in Australia. Tex Ritter with sometime sidekick Snub aka Peewee Pollard, cowboy stars of the late 1930s. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne.

Interviewed in 1973, Tex Ritter seemed to suggest he had a role in Snub’s appearance as his sidekick in a dozen of his westerns made between 1936 and 1938. “I had seen Snub in his own little comedies when I was a kid. He was always one of my favourite comedians when I was growing up…I convinced them to put the old mustache back on him because a lot of people my age would remember him.”[10]John Booker (2017) The Happiest Trails. P142-3. Ent Books. The interview was conducted by Grant Lockhart during Tex Ritter’s last UK tour in May 1973

The film Snub mentioned most often in letters sent during the period 1943-44 is the Pete Smith film Self Defence, one of a string of 10 minute comedy shorts made at MGM.[11]APAC postcards, 12 June 1943, 26 May 1944, 21 June 1944, 4 Nov 1944 Unfortunately, it appears to be lost, although other Smith shorts have survived. Snub makes the point in one letter that as an extra, he didn’t really know how good his part would be until he started work on the picture.[12]APAC Letter 14 March 1949 This may explain why he appears to have little awareness of the significance of some of the films he appeared in – such as the now classic sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still, in 1951 or the musical Singin’ in the Rain in 1952. In May 1948, he wrote of working on a Bing Crosby film for two weeks in San Francisco, although what this was seems difficult to identify now – possibly it was A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. [13]APAC Letter 15 May 1948

Snub Pollard without makeup. c1940s. Australian Performing Arts Collection

One of the most significant matters alluded to by Snub was his involvement in the Screen Extras Guild, an association he joined in the later 1940s. [14]APAC Letter 23 March 1949 He was on the board of directors of the Guild by March 1949 and remained so for at least ten years, in company with another Australian actor, perennial Hollywood butler William H O’Brien.[15]Valley Times (CA) 14 Jul 1952, P4 via While there is no evidence his politics were as radical as those of another famous Australian-born unionist in the US, Harry Bridges of the International Longshoremen’s Association, the activities of the SEG were designed to protect the rights of worker members who might otherwise easily be exploited. SEG’s efforts included demanding health and welfare benefits for extras [16]Los Angeles Times, 1 June 1955, P16. via and refusing compromising conditions to employment.[17]The Fresno Bee (CA) 24 March 1949 via Snub’s first travel in a commercial aircraft was on SEG business in 1949. He wrote about the experience at some length and posted the United Airlines information packet home to his nephew.

The technology Snub often wrote about in the later 1940s was television – as he was beginning to be employed in TV shows and started to see his old comedies replayed. He seemed to have lived in hope that the new medium might see him making comedies again in his old makeup, and he wrote that he had some good proposals. Television in Australia was still being planned when he wrote to his nephew to explain how the exciting new medium worked: “you sure will like it. After dinner you go in your front room, turn on the television set and see all the pictures you want to, even Snub Pollard comedies.” [18]APAC letter 4 Jan, 1952 “Yes television over here is great I see a lot of my old comedies…”[19]APAC Letter 15 (possibly) July 1952 Television began in Australia in late 1956, when to fill screen time, Australian TV stations no doubt turned to the readily available work of silent comedians like Snub.

A photo sent to Australia in the early 1950s. On the back Snub wrote “this is… from a television picture I was in recently. What do you think of the girl?” What the TV program was, remains unknown. Australian Performing Arts Collection.

Of Snub’s personal life, the surviving letters tell us only a little. After the Second World War he lodged with old friends, including a director of some of his old comedies.[20]But he does not say who the ex director was. APAC Letter 13 May 1949 He spent Christmas and festive occasions with friends and still received fan mail. He had married three times, but by 1944 could assure his family he was no longer married and by 1946 had apparently decided he wanted to stay single.[21]APAC Postcards 30 Sept 1944 and 30 April 1946

Occasionally Snub sent small gifts home in a parcel – combs and pens. He also sometimes posted the comic sections of US newspapers to his nephew, and forwarded on postcards he had been sent by fans, that tickled his fancy. Several of these were fairly risqué for the time, and might tell us something about Snub’s own sense of humour.

A 1948 postcard that had been sent to Snub by a US fan with the annotation “Im wondering about your trip here last year” and sent on to his Australian nephew. “Sure is a funny one” Snub added. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne.

Snub Pollard did not return again to see his family, but stayed in California.[22]Several Australian newspapers announced he had returned for a performance tour in 1931, however, there is no other evidence of this Although he never stated it directly, there is a sense of regret about this in his letters. However, he had spent most of his life at a remove from his family – first travelling the world with the Pollard child performers, then with older ex-pollard players, and then in Hollywood, which had more than a sprinkling of former Australian vaudevillians amongst them. Snub worked almost to the time of his death in 1962.

Snub Pollard on a holiday, late in life. c1950s. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne


The collection consist of postcards, photos, Christmas cards and letters, the majority are dated between 1939 and 1953. Correspondence from the war years are all postcards. The recipient of most is Harold Fraser, the son of Snub’s older brother George. The Australian Performing Arts Collection purchased this collection in the early 1990s. As noted, Snub wrote to all his family, and we must assume this is only a partial record.


  • Claudia Funder, Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne, who convinced me to leaf through their Snub Pollard Collection.
  • Kevin Summers and Geoffrey Wright, whose patient persistence demonstrated that I was wrong and Snub Pollard did indeed appear as a taxi driver in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Further Reading

  • John Booker (2017) The Happiest Trails. P142-3. Ent Books.
  • Kevin Brownlow (1968) The Parade’s Gone By… University of California Press.
  • Ted Holland (1989) B western actors encyclopedia; Facts, photos and filmographies for more than 250 familiar faces. McFarland & Co
  • Kalton C Lahue and Sam Gill (1970) Clown princes and court jesters. Some great comics of the silent screen. A S Barnes
  • Brent Walker (2013) “Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory: A History and Filmography of his Studio and His Keystone and Mack Sennett Comedies, with Biographies of Players and Personnel” McFarland & Co
  • Matthew Ross. Lost Laugh Magazine, Number 13.

This site has been selected for preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive


1 He also paid for her to visit California the following year
2 an actor who is taking any work to maintain their career
3 Table Talk, 22 March 1923, via State Library of Victoria
4 Australian Performing Arts Collection, Pollard collection, Letter 24 March 1939
5, 6 APAC, Letter 25 May 1939
7 APAC, Letter 18 September 1939
8 APAC, Letter 17 February 1949
9 APAC, Letter 14 March 1949
10 John Booker (2017) The Happiest Trails. P142-3. Ent Books. The interview was conducted by Grant Lockhart during Tex Ritter’s last UK tour in May 1973
11 APAC postcards, 12 June 1943, 26 May 1944, 21 June 1944, 4 Nov 1944
12 APAC Letter 14 March 1949
13 APAC Letter 15 May 1948
14 APAC Letter 23 March 1949
15 Valley Times (CA) 14 Jul 1952, P4 via
16 Los Angeles Times, 1 June 1955, P16. via
17 The Fresno Bee (CA) 24 March 1949 via
18 APAC letter 4 Jan, 1952
19 APAC Letter 15 (possibly) July 1952
20 But he does not say who the ex director was. APAC Letter 13 May 1949
21 APAC Postcards 30 Sept 1944 and 30 April 1946
22 Several Australian newspapers announced he had returned for a performance tour in 1931, however, there is no other evidence of this

Paul Scardon (1875-1954) – pioneer actor & director

Above: Paul Scardon, aged about 45, photograph used in Charles Fox and Milton Silver’s (eds)(1920) Who’s who on the screen, Ross Publishing, New York. Via the Internet Archive.

The 5 second version
William James Raper was born in South Melbourne Australia on 6 May 1875. He died in Fontana, California, USA, on 17 January 1954. He was on stage in Australia from about 1900, when he changed his name to Paul Scardon, finding increasing success. He travelled with the Nance O’Neill company to the US in 1905. Following a busy 6 years on stage in the US, he appeared in his first film in 1911. He began directing for Vitagraph in 1915. After his Australian born wife died in the Spanish flu epidemic, he married actress Betty Blythe. He retired from directing in 1924, but stayed active in community theatre. From 1939 he returned to films as an extra
Scardon was reported to have been a contortionist in his youth. This unbelievably uncomfortable image from Photoplay (Sept 1919, P69 via Lantern), appears to show him in his teens, but the Australian context is unknown.

Sometime in 1900, William Raper, a 25 year old telegraph operator in the booming Western Australian goldfield town of Boulder, decided to throw in his safe job working for the Government and pursue his dream of being an actor. An active member of the Boulder Dramatic Society, he returned to Australia’s east coast, adopted a new name – Paul Scardon – and found roles in J.C.Williamson productions. Smart, athletic and good looking, the world was at his feet.

early scardon

Above: An early photo of Scardon probably taken about the time he arrived in New York in 1906. Picture Play Weekly. April-Oct 1915. Via Lantern and the Internet Archive. See also University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections JWS13991 for a photo taken at the same sitting, but incorrectly dated 1924.

William James Raper was born in Melbourne in 1875, at his parent’s modest cottage in Bank Street, South Melbourne (then called Emerald Hill). His mother Eleanor (nee Sawyer) and father Edward were both English born but they had lived in Melbourne for some time, having married in the city in 1867. Melbourne was still a distant outpost of the British empire, but it was also a booming city after the great gold rushes of the 1850s. It continued to attract hopeful immigrants through the later half of the nineteenth century. Sadly Will’s father, who described himself as a coachman and groom, died in 1881 when Will was only 6. In about 1896 Will, relocated to Western Australia. Eleanor and Will’s surviving sister Ada most likely moved at the same time. (See Note 1 Birth Certificate)

Building a career
Writing about important contemporary filmmakers in 1920, Carolyn Lowrey included Paul Scardon in her survey of the “first one hundred men and women of the screen”. She claimed Scardon had spent some time in vaudeville and performed as a contortionist from the age of 15. Although these claims cannot be verified now, Paul’s career as a professional actor in Australia can.

Sherlock Holmes in Aust 1902 minne043

Above left; Scardon earning his stripes with JC Williamsons and in company with Canadian born actor Cuyler Hastings. The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) 4 October 1902. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove. Above right: The very popular Minnie Tittel Brune, about the time Paul Scardon worked with her. Postcard in the author’s collection.

By mid 1902 he was a regular in the J.C. Williamson’s Dramatic Company, that travelled the length and breadth of Australia performing popular plays imported from London and New York. These included both comedies and dramas such as William Gillette’s play Sherlock Holmes, and J.M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton. Although he seems to have often been cast in supporting roles, what one writer described as the “heavy butler” type of role, it was more than enough to establish himself. From mid 1904 he performed with a troupe led by the popular Minnie Tittel Brune (and including Roy Redgrave) – developing his skills and earning increasing recognition for his roles in L’Aiglon and Romeo and Juliet. Then, after a year with Minnie, Paul left Australia to perform with Nance O’Neill and her troupe in the US. He arrived in the San Francisco on the SS Sonoma, on 4 December 1905, the troupe also included actors Mario and George Majeroni. (See Note 2)

Through early 1906 the company travelled across the US providing dramas which gave O’Neill the headline roles. But by June he had joined Australian actor Nellie Stewart in Chicago in the supporting cast for her perennial favourite Sweet Nell of Old Drury. By the end of the year he was appearing with British actor Kyrle Bellew in New York.

In December 1906, a Melbourne Punch correspondent reported a long letter from Paul, now in New York. It should be read in its entirety because, unusually, it reports on the doings of many Australian performers, like Marc McDermott and Nellie Stewart. It confirms that while Australians working in the US may not have all been friends, they knew each other and closely followed each other’s successes:

“There was quite a bunch of us here during the summer, chasing ‘the nimble engagement’, but they’re considerably scattered now. George Majeroni and myself being the only two in town at this moment—balance being out on the road.” (read the Punch article here)

Motion Picture Story mag Feb - July 1911  Scardon in the 1920s

Above: Two Australians who often represented a very similar “type” in pioneer films – the suave leading man. Left; Marc McDermott in 1911, Source; Motion Picture Story Feb-July 1911. Right Paul Scardon, in Moving Picture World Jul-Aug 1924. By  1924 Scardon was directing. Via Lantern Media History Project.

Elizabeth Hamilton and Paul Scardon
On 29 May 1907 Paul Scardon married Australian woman Elizabeth “Bessie” Hamilton in New York. Bessie and her younger sister Kate, or “Tottie,” had arrived in Vancouver in April, and headed more or less directly for New York where Paul was now based. These circumstances strongly suggest Paul knew Bessie already from Australia, and that the couple had decided to marry and live in the US. The 1910 US census shows Paul, Bessie (and Tottie) living together in New York. A daughter – Joan, was born of the union in April 1913. (See Note 3)

Scardon in 1918

Above: A rather serious looking Paul Scardon in about 1917.  Motion Picture and Studio Directory and Trade Annual, Jan 1918. Via Lantern and the Internet Archive.

Bessie and Tottie were daughters of William Campbell Hamilton (1834-1882), a wealthy pastoralist (Australians would call him a squatter) from the Broadford-Kilmore area north of Melbourne. Tragically, both sisters died within a week of each other during the New York Spanish flu pandemic, in the last week of 1918 and first week of 1919. The inscription on their headstone at the Hackensack Cemetery in New Jersey ends “erected by those who loved them in far away Australia”.

Based in New York, Paul was active on the US stage, appearing with E.H. Sothern and Mrs Minnie Fiske, until sometime in 1911, when he moved into acting in films for the Majestic studio. There are lists of his films in existence, but it is impossible to verify these, as many have long since been lost. At the time, Scardon was held in some esteem for his character portrayals and his clever use of makeup.

Scardon in Tha Atom 1915 Scardon unidentified film

Above: Left – Paul Scardon in The Mighty Atom (1915) and right (centre) as an officer in an unidentified film.  From a Picture-Play Weekly article on his use of makeup. Via Lantern and the Internet Archive.

In 1915, at the invitation of Vitagraph’s producer Albert E Smith, he began directing – The Island of Surprise and The Hero of Submarine D-2 amongst his early efforts. Plot summaries of many of his Vitagraph films survive, and indicate a mix of mysteries and romances was the preference, the scripts usually based on popular plays and characters lifted from novels – presumably these could be churned into films quickly and cheaply. The Alibi, a story of embezzlement and false imprisonment, was based on a recent short story. Arsène Lupin, based on a popular literary character from a series of novels, concerned a master criminal who is redeemed by love. The Green God was also based on a novel, George Majeroni playing the unfortunate victim whose accidental death is revealed at the end. (The green idol in the story has nothing to do with it). Similarly, The Maelstrom, a story of gangs, fog and trap doors, was based on a recent novel. Perhaps he found this repetitive work not particularly enjoyable. In 1920 he left Vitagraph, working for the Goldwyn Company for his remaining active years.

Paul Scardon married actor Betty Blythe (Elizabeth Blythe Slaughter) on 18 April 1920, 16 months after Bessie’s death. Born in California in 1893, Betty Blythe was given one of her first featured roles by Paul, in mid 1918 in A Game with Fate. Betty was a forceful personality and famous for her witty comments. She is reputed to have said “A director is the only man besides your husband who can tell you how much of your clothes to take off.” Betty’s reputation today rests on her exotic film roles and the flimsy costumes she wore in films made after her work with Scardon –The Queen of Sheba (1921), Chu Chin Chow (1923) and She (1925).

The IMDB repeats the oft-made claim Paul Scardon directed 50 films with Betty. The truth was he could arguably be said to have discovered her, and was director on eleven of her films, all made at Vitagraph between mid 1918 and mid 1919. But Paul directed as many films with old Melbourne friend George Majeroni as he did with Blythe, while his most frequently used star was Vitagraph’s very popular Harry T. Morey, who resembled Paul somewhat, except he had a healthier head of hair. Morey was the leading man in all of Paul’s 1918 and 1919 films. Paul went on to direct films starring Blanche Sweet and Miss Patty Dupont before retiring from directing in 1924.


Above: Scardon and Blythe, profiled together in 1925. However he had retired by this date.Film Daily Year Book, via Lantern and the Internet Archive.

Scardonppt 1923   Betty Blythe 1923 ppt

Above: Paul Scardon and Betty Blythe on their 1923 US passport application. He was 49 years old, she was 30. He became a US citizen in 1922. These well known photos are found in US Archives, available via Family Search. Passport photos, then as now, provide a refreshing alternative to posed studio photos.

Life after Hollywood

Aged fifty, Paul Scardon devoted his later life to running a citrus farm in Fontana, California and directing plays for community theatre in San Bernardino – well into the 1940s, reminding us that for many actors, the “legitimacy” of theatre is preferable to cinema. Paul did return to acting on the screen in the late 1930s however, but now appeared without a toupee and usually in uncredited roles. He died suddenly in 1954.

Scardon in Mark Twain 1944 Today I Hang 1942

Above left: Screen grab of Paul Scardon playing Rudyard Kipling in Warner Bros The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944). It is his one scene. Above right: Screen grab of Scardon as Hobbs from Today I Hang (1942). Australian Mona Barrie saves the film from being a complete bore. Author’s Collection.

Above: Leon Errol from Sydney as the fast talking Knobby Walsh, a regular character in the Joe Palooka films, and Paul Scardon as the doddery file clark being offered cigars while his files are stolen. This is a short audio clip from Gentleman Joe Palooka (1946). Leon Errol was 65 years old, Scardon 71. Source – Youtube. Paul Scardon was an extra in three of the Palooka films.

Betty Blythe also continued to act almost to the end of her life -she died in 1972. Her final film role was apparently as an extra in My Fair Lady in 1964. Before she died she gave film historian Kevin Brownlow a long account of working with director J. Gordon Edwards on The Queen of Sheba. Interviewed while sitting beneath a portrait of Scardon, she said Edwards was like her husband, a similiar “gentlemanly sort of person.”

Betty and Paul’s citrus orchard in Fortuna has long since been taken over for housing, however the modest little cottage in which Paul Scardon was born still stands in Bank Street, South Melbourne. 

Note 1
Paul Scardon’s date of birth was 6 May 1875, as per his birth certificate

Scardon BC

and his US naturalisation papers. Source above; Victoria, Births, Deaths and Marriages, Below; US Archives, via Unlike so many actors working in Hollywood, he apparently never felt any need to lie about his age.

Scardon naturalisation enlarged

Note 2
Mario Majeroni (born Italy, 1870) and Giorgio (George) Majeroni (born Melbourne, Australia 11 Jan 1877) arrived in the United States as part of the Nance O’Neill troupe with Scardon. Paul appears to have maintained a cordial relationship with the Majeroni brothers – he directed 3 films with Mario and 11 with George while at Vitograph. Unfortunately the Majeroni family’s significant contribution to theatre in Australia is not well documented, nor is their later work on stage and screen in the US.

Majeroni family

Above: Signora Majeroni with her sons Mario and George in Melbourne. Talma Photographer, David Syme and Co. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Note 3
Paul and Bessie’s daughter Joan Scardon lived in Australia for some time in the 1930s, and gained acclaim for her costume designs for theatre. She married violinist and conductor Mishel Piastro in 1941. She died in 2003. Her descendants now all live in the US.

Nick Murphy
May 2020

Further Reading


  • Kevin Brownlow (1968) The Parade’s Gone By… University of California Press.
  • Charles Fox and Milton Silver (eds)(1920) Who’s Who on the screen, Ross Publishing, New York.
  • Carolyn Lowrey (1920) The First One Hundred Noted Men and Women of the Screen. Moffat Yard & Co
  • J.O. Randell (1982) Pastoral Settlement in Northern Victoria. Vol II The Campaspe District. Chandos
  •  Ken Wlaschin (2009 )Silent Mystery and Detective Movies: A Comprehensive Filmography. McFarland.

Heritage Council of Victoria, Database.

National Library of Australia’s Trove.

  • Punch (Melb) 14 Dec 1905 Page 38 Greenroom Gossip
  • Punch (Melb) 20 Dec 1906 Page 38 Greenroom Gossip.
  • Kilmore Free Press 23 Jan 1919 Page 2 Obituary
  • The Argus (Melb) 16 Jan 1919 Page 1 Family Notices
  • Everyone’s. Vol.2 No.86 ( 26 October 1921)
  • Leader (Melb) 9 Feb 1935 Page 36 Rhapsodies of 1935

US National Archives
Via Family Search and

  • Los Angeles Times 20 April 1920
  • The Age (Melbourne) · 3 Jun 1935, Mon · Page 14
  • The San Bernardino County Sun, 24 Sep 1939, Sun Page 12
  • Pittsburgh Post-Gazette· 20 Jan 1954, Wed · Page 6

Lantern Digital Media Project

Films in the Public Domain

Leah Leichner (1890 – 1957) & Pollard’s last tour of India

Above: 13 year old Leah Leichner (centre) and unidentified girls, and a US soldier, while on the 1903-4 Pollard tour. This photo is enlarged from a group photo taken in Manila in 1903, held in the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

The 5 second version
Born in Melbourne Australia, Leah Leichner became a leading actor with Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, a juvenile troupe that performed light opera through South East Asia, India and North America in the first decade of the twentieth century. Her story isn’t simply one of a child performer, but is also the tale of an adventurous and unusually confident woman for her era, who determined her own destiny, and overcame significant obstacles. And she appears to be the only Pollards performer to return and make her home in Asia.

She is also significant because in March 1910, reports of the mistreatment of children (and in particular, her) reached Australia, and legislation banning child performers being taken out of the country followed soon after. Thirty years later, Leah was serving as a nurse when Japanese forces overran Hong Kong in late 1941 and she endured more than three and a half years of internment. She died there in 1957.

Her step-sister Belle Leichner also appeared on stage in Australia, India and China.

Left: Leah Constance Johnstone in 1915, aged 25. [1]Enlargement of photo from Johnstone divorce papers. Museum of History, NSW, Formerly NSW Archives

Leah’s birth and childhood

Leah Caroline Cohen was born on 9 July 1890 in the inner Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, and her profile closely resembles that of other children enlisted in Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company.[2]Victoria, Births Deaths & Marriages Leah Cohen birth certificate, 9 July 1900, 22895 / 1890 Her mother was Minnie nee Grant, from a rural family in Mount Gambier, South Australia, while her father was English-born tailor Samuel Harris Cohen.

Only a few years after her birth her parents separated, and in December 1900 Minnie married Isaac Leichner, a Rumanian born fruiterer based at Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market. The marriage was performed by the well known and slightly unorthodox Reverend Albert Abbott,[3]See Gerry Brody (24 May 2021) Shonky celebrants and wonky marriages ….. Holt’s matrimonial agency and the Free Christian Church at the State Library of Victoria Blog at the Free Christian Church in Queen Street, with James and Annie Holt from Holt’s Matrimonial Agency as witnesses.[4]Victoria, Births Deaths & Marriages Leichner and Grant Marriage certificate, 22 December 1900, 8251 / 1900 Together they settled down in nearby Little Lonsdale Street and Leah took her step-father’s surname for her own.

A few weeks after the marriage a daughter, Bella, was born.[5]Victoria, Births Deaths & Marriages Bella Leichner birth certificate, 9 January 1901, 5176 / 1901 In time, Bella or Belle, would also end up on the stage.

Perhaps they were friends:14 year old Leah (centre right) on her second Pollard’s tour with Irene Finlay (centre left) University of Washington, Special Collections, JWS21402 (Enlargement)

Of Leah’s childhood we know little. Like most Australian children she learned to read and write, but at the beginning of the twentieth century, secondary education was only available for those who could afford a private education – a very small portion of the population.[6]Robert Murray (2020) The Confident Years, Australia in the 1920s. P16. Australian Scholarly Publishing For Leah, and the other working class children who joined Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, fame, fortune and the chance to travel must have made life as a performer a very attractive alternative to inner Melbourne factory work or an apprenticeship.

Left: Leah was born in Victoria St, Fitzroy, in a now demolished building at Number 73. Right: It is likely she attended the school in nearby Bell Street, Fitzroy, as did other Pollard performers. Author’s collection.

Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company

It is worth pausing and looking past the nationalist sentiment we might attach to these pioneer Australian performers today, to recognize that this was really a form of genteel child exploitation. Talented they may have been, but almost all of the Pollard’s child performers were underage and some were even under 10 when they travelled overseas for two years or more. Signing their child’s guardianship to Charles Pollard and Nellie Chester, or in 1909 to Arthur Pollard, meant parents received payment for their child’s performances, sometimes in advance.

Pollard’s advertises for new child performers at Ford’s Hall, 130 Brunswick St, Fitzroy, in February 1907. [7]The Age, 16 Feb, 1907. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove

Not everyone approved of the Pollard’s performance model. Fellow performer Irene Goulding recalled that her teacher at Bell Street Primary School in Fitzroy thought it was awful that children would go overseas on a performance tour.[8]Irene Smith nee Goulding interview. Interviewed by Sally Dawes in 1985. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne But her father Frank Goulding, a widowed ex-performer and now bootmaker, signed Irene up with Pollards, together with her brothers Alf and Frank.[9]Even after Frank’s death from smallpox while on tour in Calcutta in 1897, Alf and Irene Goulding kept performing with Pollards

Pollards in Manilla poss 1905 full screen
University of Washington, Special Collections, JWS24555This photo of the Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company was taken in the Philippines sometime in late 1904. Leah stands at the front, on the left. Close examination of the original (here) suggests the children are posing with chained prisoners. Reproduced with permission.

Leah on tour, 1903-1904, 1904-1907

In late 1902, at the age of 12, Leah auditioned for a Pollard’s tour, managed by Nellie Chester and her brother Charles Pollard. Shipping manifests show she joined the troupe and in January 1903 departed on SS Changsa,, bound for the “far east” – Manila, Hong Kong and Shanghai and then on to North America. She was in company with other familiar names, including Daphne Pollard (Trott) and her sister Ivy TrottTeddie McNamaraAlf Goulding and his sister Irene Loftus (Goulding)Willie Thomas and Irene Finlay. They were back in Australia 15 months later, in April 1904.

Three months after their return, in July 1904, Leah joined a second Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company tour, first travelling to Queensland, where they tested out their repertoire of musical comedies. In September 1904 the company departed Australia to again travel through ports in South East Asia and China before arriving in the USA in March 1905. This group of child performers stayed away from Australia for an extraordinary two and a half years – not returning until late February, 1907. Leah can be traced through some of the positive publicity given by the Canadian and US press, but the Pollards also made sure particular performers were profiled, most notably Daphne Pollard.

The repertoire included such popular musicals as A Runaway Girl, The Belle of New York, The Lady Slavey and HMS Pinafore, usually regularly rotated during a week of performances.

University of Washington, Special Collections, JWS24603. Daphne Pollard and Leah Leichner re-creating a scene from The Geisha. The photo is credited to Ying Cheong, a photographer and painter in Canton Road Shanghai. It was taken in either 1903 or 1904, on Leah’s first or second tour. Reproduced with permission.

Fibs by Pollards Montreal 1905
Above: This is the cast from A Gaiety Girl being performed in Montreal, Canada, in November 1905. The ages in this  program are all incorrect despite the Pollard company assurances. For example, Daphne Pollard was 14, Leah Leichner 15.[10]Extracts from a program in the author’s collection.

Today we might wonder about the impact of this enterprise on a young person, so far from family and for so long, in these formative years. It should also be noted that the Pollards performers were playing adult roles on stage, a fact that even some contemporary commentators found confronting, given the adult content of the musicals they performed. One correspondent for the Hong Kong Daily Press on December 27, 1907 reminded readers “Pollard’s Lilliputians are children, but their performance is anything but childish… That shrimp of a maiden …who portrays a woman many times divorced, how are we to regard her?” And as Gillian Arrighi notes in her 2017 article, “the authors of these musical comedies never intended them for performance by children.”[11]Gillian Arrighi, The Controversial “Case of the Opera Children in the East”: Political conflict between popular demand for child actors and modernizing cultural policy on the … Continue reading

Audiences on the US east coast never got to see Pollard’s perform during Leah’s tours, or at any other time. The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (the “Gerry Society”) were particularly active over the issue of child performance on stage and they appear to have kept Pollard’s Lilliputians away from the big cities on the US east coast, where the society was most active.[12]This was reported in North America at the time – see for example The Chicago Tribune, 19 May 1902, P12 (a highly fanciful account but one that acknowledges the concept of child performers to be … Continue reading But there was enough interest in other towns and cities of North America to keep the Pollard’s troupes going. They returned home on the SS Moama in early 1907.

Above; Company managers Charles Pollard, Nellie Chester (nee Pollard) and Arthur Hayden Pollard in about 1902 (See a 1910 image of Arthur here). These enlargements are from a Pollards group photo via Vancouver As It Was: A Photo-Historical Journey and is used with their kind permission.

Leah on stage in Australia 1907-1908

The next Pollard tour to North America departed in June 1907, but Leah did not join it. Instead, in 1907 and early 1908 she appeared with troupes in eastern Australia. Perhaps she decided it was time to try out on her own – or maybe she was thought to look too mature. She spent much of her time performing at the Adelaide Tivoli Theatre. According to some reviewers she was “dainty”, “sang well”, and was “the brightest item on the bill.” But she did not appeal to all Australians – whose taste in theatre could still be conservative. According to Adelaide’s Gadfly, she made the mistake of appearing on stage in trousers as a “soldier boy”, as she had previously looked “much better in skirts”.[13]The Gadfly (SA), 27 Nov 1907, P8, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

SMH 17 OCT 1908
An advertisement for the Tivoli Theatre in 1908. Leah appears in company with May Dalberg ( the same Mae Dahlberg who was later associated with Stan Laurel) Soon after this, Leah disappeared from the stage. [14]Sydney Morning Herald , 17 October, 1908 Via

Leah and her secret, 1908

Then in late 1908 Leah discovered she was pregnant and soon after, she ceased appearing on stage. We know nothing of the context of her pregnancy and the birth certificate for her son Claude, born in May 1909, is rather sad and stark. The baby was born at the family home in Little Lonsdale Street, with Leah’s mother Minnie assisting at the birth.[15]Victoria, Births Deaths & Marriages Claude Leichner birth certificate, 18 May 1909, 12829 /1909 No father is named, the responsibility for parenting an illegitimate child then rested entirely with the mother, who also faced extraordinary social stigma. But it is now clear that Minnie took over the parenting of grandson Claude, and 6 weeks later, Leah joined the next Pollard’s tour – that might take her away for an extended period of time.

Leah and the 1909 – 1910 Pollard tour of India

The Arthur Pollard troupe together, with children dressed for a performance. The date or location is unknown but this photo appeared in an Australian newspaper in May 1910, by which time they were home.[16]Leader (Vic) 21 May 1910, P24, via State Library of Victoria

In April 1909 Charles Pollard announced he was retiring from running the Pollard’s tours.[17]The Telegraph (Qld.) 17 Apr 1909, P8, via National Library of Australia’s Trove The youngest member of the Pollard family, Arthur, would take over as manager. (Nellie Chester chose not to join him). The next troupe was partly made up of new faces, but there were some former Pollard players, including Leah Leichner, Irene Finlay, Willie Howard, and the twins Johnnie and Freddie Heintz. Perhaps Arthur Pollard wanted some experienced players in the group and approached seasoned performers such as these to join. (He knew these performers well – he had been on all of the previous Charles Pollard-Nellie Chester tours). About thirty young people and various adults departed on 3 July 1909 on the SS Gracchus, bound for Java and Singapore.[18]The Daily Telegraph (Syd) 7 July 1909, P12, via National Library of Australia’s Trove At 19 years of age, Leah was the oldest performer in the troupe.

Arthur Pollard’s assault on Leah apparently took place in Malaya. Australian newspapers reported that Leah had been beaten with a heavy stick, “inflicting a severe wound over the eye, because she went out with a man in a motor car, which was against the rules[19]The West Australian (WA) 21 Apr 1910, P3, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove Leah was then reportedly sent home to Australia from Calcutta in mid December 1909, because she was “unruly.” Other child performers had reportedly been roughly treated, or confined to bread and water, or had their hair cut, or were punished in other ways. But later reports confirm that the problems on the tour started very early on – and demonstrate that Arthur Pollard clearly had a temperament completely unsuited to managing children.

Although legally guardian of the children, Pollard had also started an intimate relationship with 18 year old Irene Finlay while on the trip, or possibly before. He attempted to defend himself in a letter to The Madras Times but this only seems to have made things worse, as he denied mistreating the children, but then admitted he had. Pollard also brought “charges” against an unspecified girl in the troupe, which newspapers refused to publicise. [20]The Daily News (WA) 9 Mar 1910, P7, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove This writer feels it was the news of Leah’s baby at home – her secret had got out somehow. Pollard claimed that several of the main complainants “are telling falsehoods and so is Fred Heintz. I have boxed Fred’s ears, and I smacked him on the proper place several times, but never without good cause…Yes it has been a rule in this company to cut a girl’s hair off…” He also said that he had done the right thing by paying salaries to some parents in advance and he had also paid for some of the children’s clothes.

But the Pollard tour was already collapsing by that time, and within a matter of weeks almost all the performers announced they wanted to go home, and more dramatically still, members of the Madras Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children had become involved and had removed the children from Pollard’s care.[21]The Daily News (WA) 9 March, 1910, P7, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Above: The company, without Leah, Arthur Pollard or Irene Finlay, on Sunday 26 February 1910, two days after breaking up, photographed on the estate of Mr Scovell, near Bangalore. [22]The Leader, 20 April, 1910. Via the State Library of Victoria

By April 1910, Australian newspapers were regularly reporting all of the claims and counter claims that had been made in the Madras High Court.[23]The West Australian (WA) 21 Apr 1910, P3, via National Library of Australia’s Trove The Melbourne Herald cited a letter from Alice Cartlege to her mother which gave a 12 year old’s simple but indignant perspective: “Dearest Mother, A few lines to tell you everything at last… The company is broken up. Mr Pollard and — (a member of the company) are getting away to America. Pollard has been a pig to us…”[24]The Herald (Vic) 23 Mar 1910, P6, via National Library of Australia’s Trove It seems Arthur Pollard, unwilling to face a court outcome, then made a run for French Pondicherry, taking with him the proceeds of the performances to date, and Irene Finlay, but abandoning the rest of his charges in the process.[25]Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW), 29 Apr 1910, P2, via National Library of Australia’s Trove A few months later, in May 1910, the child performers were returned home to Melbourne on the SS Scharnhorst and the French steamer SS CaledonianThe disastrous Pollard tour of 1909 was over.[26]The Herald (Vic.) 17 May 1910, P5, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

There was a consequence at the highest level. The Australian Emigration Act of 1910, written and passed by Federal parliament within 10 months of the tour, prohibited any child being taken out of Australia to perform “theatrical, operatic or other work.” The bad publicity brought the days of Pollard’s extended overseas tours for child actors to an end. But while the Pollard’s popular reputation had been damaged, it was not so badly that Nellie Chester could not run a final North American tour in 1912, this time with older players.

Leah after Pollards

Leah Leichner appeared again on the Australian stage in early March 1910. She made one short public comment to correct details of events of the tour – the motor car incident. It had been a group of Pollard performers in the car going for a picnic, not just her. And it was she and her family who had arranged her return to Australia, not Pollard. In fact, her stepfather had sought advice from the well known Melbourne lawyer and former state premier, Sir George Turner, about her situation, and it was with his encouragement that she was returned home.[27]The Age (Vic) 25 Apr 1910, P9 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Leah continued performing in Australia until she married actor-turned electrician Frederick Johnstone, in 1914.[28]Victoria, Births Deaths & Marriages Leah Leichner and Frederick Johnstone Marriage certificate, 22 August 1914, 8536 /1914 Johnstone joined the Army in late 1915, in the great surge of enlistments following the Australian landings at Gallipoli. Leah appears to have taken over parenting Claude by this time – and her mother Minnie and step-father Isaac both died in 1916.

Unfortunately, Fred Johnstone launched divorce proceedings against Leah in 1918. In a detailed divorce case, he complained she had been living with another man, while he was away in Europe, pretending he had been killed at Gallipoli. After his discharge as medically unfit in early 1918, he made strenuous attempts to tail Leah and find the co-respondent – unusual steps even for the time. Leah refused to take Johnstone’s complaint seriously or to defend herself in court, and a divorce was finally granted in 1920. Reading the divorce documents today one gains the impression she was determined not to be intimidated by the process.[29]Museums of History, NSW, NRS-13495-13-[13/12942]-628/1918 | Divorce papers Frederick Alexander Johnstone – Leah Constance Johnstone, Maurice Costello

Above: Leah and Fred Johnstone in 1915, at the time he joined the AIF. [30]Johnstone divorce papers, Museum of History, NSW. (Formerly NSW Archives)

Leah’s movements after the divorce are less clear, but there is compelling evidence that in the early 1920s she took Claude and moved to Calcutta, India. What her circumstances were, is still not clear.

Belle Leichner c 1920
“Bella Lichner”, Leah’s step sister is known to have performed at the Tivoli in Adelaide in the early 1920s. [31]Via the National Library of Australia. Prompt Collection Scrapbook

In the post-war period her sister Bella also appeared as a performer in Australia. In 1925, Bella was performing with Anona Winn in the London Musical Comedy Company in Calcutta.[32]The Times of India, 25 Nov, 1925, P7, ProQuest Historical Newspapers The company’s repertoire included the ever familiar and popular light operas that Pollards had once performed. By 1928, Bella was entertaining expats in a revue at Shanghai’s Little Club, situated just near the Nanjing Road.[33]The China Press, 5 June, 1928, P3, ProQuest Historical Newspapers It was while in Shanghai that Bella married Joseph Vella, an engineer.

Leah Constance Hawkett in Hong Kong

There is no evidence Leah returned to the stage at any time, but by the 1930s she had found a home in Hong Kong, and married James Henry Hawkett, a Royal Navy port official.[34]His formal title was Pier Master. In February 1940 James was awarded a Humane Society medal for saving three Chinese from drowning off Stonecutter’s Island, Hong Kong Leah was now known to all as “Connie,” a nickname apparently based on her adopted middle name of Constance.[35]Her middle name at birth had been Caroline

Left – James Hawkett in 1939. Right Leah, now known to all as “Connie” Hawkett late in life. Other surviving photos from this era show her broad smile. Private Collection.

Despite a significant age difference with James – she was 14 years his senior – the couple enjoyed a happy and lasting relationship.

Unfortunately, their happy life was interrupted for three years and eight months, following the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in December 1941. Leah’s friend Mabel Redwood (1895-1975) wrote her memoirs of internment in Hong Kong under Japanese occupation, and her book It Was Like This opens with a joke made by ‘Connie,’ “an irrepressible Australian.” The women were both in the Auxiliary Nursing Service (ANS), working in a casualty clearing station set up in the Hong Kong Jockey Club. On Christmas Eve 1941, Mabel recounted that as the 24 British nurses crawled into their cold camp beds, ‘Connie’ joked “Whose going to hang up their stockings tonight?Connie’s joke helped, for we felt the situation could hardly have been grimmer.” [36]Mabel Winifred Redwood (2003) It was like this, P1, ISIS Books Both Leah and James survived Japanese internment.

Leah Constance Hawkett died in Hong Kong in May 1957. Her well constructed and cared for grave in Hong Kong cemetery speaks of great affection from James Hawkett, who also arranged for a photo of a smiling Leah to be placed on the headstone. It has faded in the Hong Kong climate, but can still be seen at her Find a Grave entry, here. James Hawkett remarried and raised three children. He died in England in 1999, but a family member has told this writer that James regularly visited her grave whilst living in Hong Kong.

What happened to everyone else

  • Arthur Pollard was 37 when he eloped with 18 year old Irene, abandoning the Pollard troupe, and his wife Mary and two children in Charters Towers, Queensland. He and Irene ran cinemas and lived as man and wife in southern England before moving to New Zealand in the early 1920s. He married Irene in 1925. More on their professional and personal lives can be found here. He died in New Zealand in 1940. Irene Pollard died in 1962.
  • Some of the children continued performing after the Arthur Pollard tour. Florrie Allen, the youngest of Arthur Pollard’s tour, continued performing on stage in Australia and then turned to running her own dancing school. Elsie Morris had some success with a male impersonation act, while Freddie Heintz moved to the US and attempted a stage career – without much success, probably because his brother Johnnie had given up the stage and become a baker. Like Johnnie, most of the young Pollard’s performers disappeared from the historical record.

NOTE 1 – The participants on Arthur Pollard’s Tour

  • While making their way home in April 1910, Truth newspaper listed some of the members of this company. It is reproduced here to give some idea of the group’s strong inner suburban Melbourne profile. However, the list is missing some names, including Leah Leichner’s and Irene Finlay’s, and the author has corrected some spellings.[37] Truth (WA) 2 Apr 1910, P8, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • Alma Young, 12 years, 28 Fitzroy Street, Fitzroy;
    • Ruby Ford, 17 years, 368 Cardigan Street. Carlton;
      [Note – Officially, Ruby was the troupe’s teacher.
      Leah’s maternal grandmother Sarah Grant lived a few doors away at 324 Cardigan St]
    • Florrie Allen, 8 years, 437 Cardigan Street, Carlton;
    • Rita Bennett, 12 years, 58 Osborne Street, South Yarra:
    • Dora Isaacs, 16 years, 280 Lygon Street, Carlton;
    • Millie 17 years, Rose 15 years, Clara 12 years, McGorlick, 81 Rokeby Street, Collingwood;
    • Lottie Parry, 9 years, 74 Rupert Street, Collingwood;
    • Violet Jones, 15 years, “Waratah,” 26 Moore Street, South Yarra;
    • Ella 13 years, Pat 12 years, Nugent, 95 Rowena Parade, Richmond;
    • Elsie Morris, 13 years, 5 Greeves Street, Fitzroy;
    • Ethel 14 years, Nellie 18 years, Naylor, c/o Lucas’s Cafe, Swanston Street, Melbourne;
    • Ivy Ferguson, 12 years, 104 Grey Street, East Melbourne;
    • Alice Cartlege, 15 years, 322 Lygon Street, Carlton;
    • Willie Howard, 11 years, 46 King William Street, Fitzroy;
    • Mary [Myra] Finlay, 16 years, Sydney;
      [Note – Not listed here but also on tour was Myra’s older sister Nellie Quealy as well as Irene]
    • Fred and John Heintz, 14 years, 84 Kerr Street Fitzroy
    • Charlie, 13 years, LeslieDonaghey, 14 years, Sydney,
    • Arthur Austin [no address]
    • Walter Byrne [no address]
Florrie Allen performing after the tour.[38]Table Talk (Melb) 24 Nov, 1910 via State Library of Victoria She had complained that Arthur Pollard had pushed her under a seat on a train to avoid having to pay for her ticket. [39]The Bendigo Independent (Vic)18 May 1910
P6 via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Nick Murphy
Revised January 2023


  • To John and Joan Grant of Brisbane, for their kind assistance.
    John, who is Leah’s grandson, was able to confirm many details.
  • University of Washington Special Collections, for permission to use their photos from the J Willis Sayre Collection of Theatrical Photos.
  • Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne. Their collection – donated by Irene Goulding in the 1980s, is invaluable, and to Claudia Funder, Research Service Coordinator,  Arts Centre Melbourne
  • To Jean Ritsema, my friend in Michigan, for her ongoing research efforts in North America..

Further Reading

Museums of History, New South Wales.

  • NSW State Archives, Johnstone Divorce papers

Gwulo Old Hong Kong History Site


Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University

Federal Register of Legislation (Australia)

Vancouver As It Was: A Photo-Historical Journey

This site has been selected for archiving and preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive


1 Enlargement of photo from Johnstone divorce papers. Museum of History, NSW, Formerly NSW Archives
2 Victoria, Births Deaths & Marriages Leah Cohen birth certificate, 9 July 1900, 22895 / 1890
3 See Gerry Brody (24 May 2021) Shonky celebrants and wonky marriages ….. Holt’s matrimonial agency and the Free Christian Church at the State Library of Victoria Blog
4 Victoria, Births Deaths & Marriages Leichner and Grant Marriage certificate, 22 December 1900, 8251 / 1900
5 Victoria, Births Deaths & Marriages Bella Leichner birth certificate, 9 January 1901, 5176 / 1901
6 Robert Murray (2020) The Confident Years, Australia in the 1920s. P16. Australian Scholarly Publishing
7 The Age, 16 Feb, 1907. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove
8 Irene Smith nee Goulding interview. Interviewed by Sally Dawes in 1985. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne
9 Even after Frank’s death from smallpox while on tour in Calcutta in 1897, Alf and Irene Goulding kept performing with Pollards
10 Extracts from a program in the author’s collection.
11 Gillian Arrighi, The Controversial “Case of the Opera Children in the East”: Political conflict between popular demand for child actors and modernizing cultural policy on the child”. Theatre Journal 69, (2017) John Hopkins University Press
12 This was reported in North America at the time – see for example The Chicago Tribune, 19 May 1902, P12 (a highly fanciful account but one that acknowledges the concept of child performers to be repugnant to Americans) and The Montreal Star, 2 Sept 1905, P1
13 The Gadfly (SA), 27 Nov 1907, P8, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
14 Sydney Morning Herald , 17 October, 1908 Via
15 Victoria, Births Deaths & Marriages Claude Leichner birth certificate, 18 May 1909, 12829 /1909
16 Leader (Vic) 21 May 1910, P24, via State Library of Victoria
17 The Telegraph (Qld.) 17 Apr 1909, P8, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
18 The Daily Telegraph (Syd) 7 July 1909, P12, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
19 The West Australian (WA) 21 Apr 1910, P3, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
20 The Daily News (WA) 9 Mar 1910, P7, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
21 The Daily News (WA) 9 March, 1910, P7, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
22 The Leader, 20 April, 1910. Via the State Library of Victoria
23 The West Australian (WA) 21 Apr 1910, P3, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
24 The Herald (Vic) 23 Mar 1910, P6, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
25 Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW), 29 Apr 1910, P2, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
26 The Herald (Vic.) 17 May 1910, P5, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
27 The Age (Vic) 25 Apr 1910, P9 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
28 Victoria, Births Deaths & Marriages Leah Leichner and Frederick Johnstone Marriage certificate, 22 August 1914, 8536 /1914
29 Museums of History, NSW, NRS-13495-13-[13/12942]-628/1918 | Divorce papers Frederick Alexander Johnstone – Leah Constance Johnstone, Maurice Costello
30 Johnstone divorce papers, Museum of History, NSW. (Formerly NSW Archives)
31 Via the National Library of Australia. Prompt Collection Scrapbook
32 The Times of India, 25 Nov, 1925, P7, ProQuest Historical Newspapers
33 The China Press, 5 June, 1928, P3, ProQuest Historical Newspapers
34 His formal title was Pier Master. In February 1940 James was awarded a Humane Society medal for saving three Chinese from drowning off Stonecutter’s Island, Hong Kong
35 Her middle name at birth had been Caroline
36 Mabel Winifred Redwood (2003) It was like this, P1, ISIS Books
37 Truth (WA) 2 Apr 1910, P8, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
38 Table Talk (Melb) 24 Nov, 1910 via State Library of Victoria
39 The Bendigo Independent (Vic)18 May 1910
P6 via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Enid Bennett (1893-1969) – The Australian who kept her accent

Above: Enid Bennett in Fred Niblo’s Strangers of the Night (1923). She was at the height of her Hollywood popularity. Sadly it is a lost film. Via Wikipedia Commons. See below for full length photo.

The 5 second version

Born Enid Eulalie Bennett, York, Western Australia, Australia, 15 July 1893,
Died Malibu, California, USA 14 May, 1969. Busy on stage in Australia 1910-1915. Also appeared in Fred Niblo’s two Australian films before working in the US. Most active in Hollywood between 1917-1927, during which time she gained great attention. Some later minor roles in sound films and worked until her death for the Christian Science Church. Married to Fred Niblo 1918-48.

Enid Bennett, a young Australian who arrived in the US with Fred Niblo and Josephine Cohan in June 1915, hardly qualifies as “a forgotten Australian actor.” She received widespread publicity in the early 1920s and was, at the time, one of Hollywood’s premier stars. Many of her films still exist and she has been the subject of numerous biographies since her death in 1969.

In Australia 

enid bennet about 1910

Above: Enid Bennett photographed by May and Mina Moore, C 1910, about the time she began to develop a reputation in Australia.  State Library of Victoria, via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

She was born Enid Eulalie Bennett to Francis Bennett and Nellie nee Walker at York, Western Australia in 1893. She had an older brother  – Francis Reginald (1891-1917) and a younger sister Marjorie Esme (1896-1982), and two step siblings. Having attempted to open his own school in the inland town of York, about 100 kms east of Perth , Western Australia, her father Francis Bennett became the founding Principal of Guildford Grammar School in 1896. It wasn’t for very long unfortunately. He apparently took his own life in 1898 while suffering the increasingly debilitating effects of locomotor ataxia. Nellie, who seems to have been the school matron, then married the school’s new Principal Alexander D Gillespie in 1898. Two children were born of this union – Catherine Fanny (1901-1978) and Alexander David (born 1903). But Gillespie also died only a few years later.

Enid Bennett’s career can be traced through early performances first in Western Australia and then under the tutelage of Julius Knight. In 1910 visiting US performer Katherine Gray had also encouraged her to pursue a career on stage. In the eastern states she performed in Everywoman with British actress Hilda Spong and another up and coming Australian, Dorothy Cumming, in 1911. However, her major breakthrough was to find work with Fred Niblo and his wife Josephine Cohan, on their extended tour of Australia. About the same time Nellie moved the family back to Sydney, where she had been born, eventually settling down in Rose Bay. 

Above: L-R Enid, Fred and Josephine. Such was the fame of the Niblo-Cohan troupe during their three years in Australia, that they regularly featured in Australian papers, and interest continued even after they departed in 1915. These are covers of Sydney’s The Theatre Magazine. Left: January 1920, Centre: November 1912, Right: March 1914.  Via State Library of Victoria

Moving to the US

Niblo was effusive about the Australian performers in his company, and young Enid Bennett in particular. In early 1915 he told Perth’s Sunday Times; Miss Enid Bennett is a splendid actress, and the Perth people will watch her career with interest and pride,” noting how well she had filled in for Josephine Cohan when she was (often) indisposed. The Niblo-Cohan troupe traveled Australia for three years, despite Josephine’s declining health. In June 1915 Niblo, Cohan and 22 year old Enid packed up and headed for the US on the Matson liner Ventura.

Above: Enid and Fred Niblo performing together in the comedy The Travelling Salesman in Sydney, in March 1915. Theatre Magazine, 1 March 1915. Via State Library of Victoria.

Before they departed, Niblo quickly made two filmed versions of popular plays for J.C.Williamson’s – Get Rich Quick Wallingford and Officer 666.  According to film historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, the surviving reels of Officer 666 “reveal a crude production doggedly faithful to the stage.” These were Niblo’s first efforts as a director – he was to significantly refine his skills in Hollywood. Watch a clip from Officer 666 here

Soon after arriving in the US, Enid Bennett appeared in a supporting role in Henry Arthur Jones‘ comedy Cock O’ The Walk, a vehicle for popular comedian Otis Skinner being performed in east coast US cities, including New York. At about the same time she also appeared in her first film, A Princess of the Dark for Thomas H. Ince and Triangle Studios.

Enid Bennett first play in US

Above: Enid Bennett in her first US play, Cock O’ the Walk, with Janet Dunbar and Rita Otway, in early 1916. Author’s Collection

A princess of the dark

Above: Thomas Ince marketing his latest star in March 1917. “El Paso Times”, 2 March 1917. Via

Enid’s sister Marjorie was to claim that the family pressured her to join Enid in the US, to keep her company.  But the early years in Hollywood appear to have a degree of excitement about them even if the transition to work in the US was tough. Sylvia Bremer‘s biographer Ralph Marsden reproduces one photo showing a happy Bremer, Enid and Marjorie Bennett swimming together at California’s Arrowhead Springs, in 1917. According to Theatre historian Desley Deacon, the success of these young Australian women inspired others, including Judith Anderson.

In Australia in late 1917 Nellie, Catherine and Alexander received some catastrophic news. The family’s oldest son, Frank Reginald, had been killed in fighting at Passchendaele, Belgium on 9 October 1917, not long after being promoted to Lieutenant. Nellie’s few letters held in Frank’s Australian military file reflect the deep grief the family must have felt. Soon after, Enid’s two step-siblings packed up and departed for the US on the SS Ventura.

Above: Enid Bennett in The Theatre Magazine, 2 April, 1917. Via State Library of Victoria

Enid and Fred Niblo married in late February 1918 – his first wife Josephine Cohan had died in July 1916. The impending wedding was almost certainly the main reason for the Bennett family’s arrival in the US a few months before. But there the family stayed, all building careers for themselves in the US. For a few years in the early 1920s, Catherine enjoyed a career in comedy films, often with Monty Banks. Alexander Bennett is reported to have become an accountant. Marjorie, the reluctant actress, would eventually build a remarkable career in Hollywood character roles from the late 1940s, after a long career on stage, including two years performing back in Australia (1921-23).

The Niblo-Bennett wedding in 1918. All of the family were in attendance. The Green Room, 1 June 1918, P23. Via State Library of New South Wales.

Catherine and Enid Bennett, c 1924. Photoplay magazine, July-Dec 1924, P57. Via Lantern, Media History Digital Library.

Fred Niblo’s first US directing experience was The Marriage Ring, with Enid in a leading role, in 1918. He had learned a lot since the days of his Australian film experience; he went on to direct until the early 1930s and the first years of sound film. Kevin Brownlow has documented Niblo’s work on one of his most famous films – Ben Hur, a Tale of the Christ made in 1925. Like Enid, he also took on small acting roles in sound films later in life. He died in 1948.

Enid Bennett was busy – her most prolific period was the ten years between 1917-1927. There were some stand-out roles in films that still survive. These included Robin Hood in 1922 with Douglas Fairbanks, The Sea Hawk with fellow Australian Mark McDermott, and The Red Lily with Ramon Novarro, both in 1924, the latter also being directed by Niblo.

1923 comedy silence of the night

Above – The author’s favourite photo of Enid Bennett as  she appeared in Fred Niblo’s Strangers of the Night (1923). Via Wikipedia Commons  (which has more than 50 public domain images of her).

Enid later in Life

Did she retire? Well, not exactly. As noted below, Enid continued to act until the early 1940s. A great Hollywood hostess, she earned a reputation for entertaining, and sometimes newspapers published her favourite recipes. In addition, she had another and more significant interest. By 1930, Enid Bennett was an active Christian Scientist, in company with many Hollywood actors – including Mary Pickford, Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers and Dick Powell.

She remained so to the end of her life, and there is plenty of evidence she devoted much of her time and expertise in front of the camera and microphone in the cause of the church, particularly after the death of her first husband Fred Niblo, in 1948. She regularly appeared on radio and TV, sometimes credited as Enid Bennett Niblo, hosting short Christian Science programs on healing, including Light of Faith and How Christian Science heals.

Melbourne Age Aug 18 1956
Above: The Melbourne Age, 18 August 1956, reporting on Enid’s work as a Christian Scientist but already seriously muddled up about her connection to Australia. (If she ever lived in St Kilda, Melbourne it wasn’t for very long.) Via

Enid and Fred had three children in the 1920s – Loris, Peter and Judith. They also parented Niblo’s son Fred Junior, from his marriage with Josephine. Late in life, Enid married family friend and former film director Sidney Franklin. But Enid Bennett’s ashes were interned next to Fred Niblo’s after her sudden death in May 1969.

Marjorie Bennett outlived all her siblings. She died in Hollywood in 1982, working almost to the end of her life.

Enid Bennett’s accent

Although most famous as a silent star, what interests this writer is her accent, as evidenced by her voice in the talkies she appeared in between 1931 and 1941. It is not the very broad and theatrical accent often heard when an “Australian voice” is used in Hollywood films, or a faux-British one, but the authentic accent of many middle-class Australians living on the coastal fringe.

Why accents evolve and vary as they do is well beyond the scope of this article, but it is safe to note that Bennett’s accent is a feature of her ethnicity, social standing and education. Desley Deacon has also established that middle-class girls like Bennett often attended schools of acting and elocution as a first step on the path to acting on stage and screen. Her accent and vocabulary is clearly one of middle Australia, perhaps tending a little to the broad accent on pronunciation of certain words  – See more on accents here.

It is also notable that Enid Bennett plays essentially the same role in all these films – usually an earnest and thoroughly decent mother figure. Here are some examples:

The Big Store (1941)

In this well known Marx Brothers comedy,  Bennett plays an unnamed store clerk in the millinery department. Nasty Miss Peggy Arden (played by Marion Martin) makes life very hard for her. (Harpo Marx then plays a clever trick on Miss Peggy – which is the point of the scene.)

The Big Store 1941
Above: Screen grab of 48 year old Enid Bennett in her final film role – the Marx Brothers film The Big Store, of 1941. The film is widely available on DVD. Author’s collection.

Strike Up the Band (1940)

Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland star in this cheerful Busby Berkeley musical. In this scene Bennett is welcoming Jimmy, although he soon learns he is not allowed to play at her daughter Barbara’s birthday.

strike up the band

Above: This is Rooney as Jimmy Connors, with Enid Bennett playing Mrs Morgan and June Preisser as her daughter Barbara Morgan. Strike Up The Band, 1940. Author’s collection.

Meet Dr Christian (1939)

This is the first of six Dr Christian films made between 1939 and 1941, starring (and partly written by) Danish actor Jean Hersholt, as the sensible small town Doctor. Enid Bennett plays the Mayor’s wife, but her role is not reprised in the later films. In this scene she is talking to her husband.

Enid Bennett in Meet Dr Christian

Above: Screen grab of Enid Bennett as Mrs Hewitt in Meet Dr Christian. This film is widely available, and apparently now  in the public domain. Author’s Collection.

Waterloo Bridge (1931)

Waterloo Bridge was based on the play of the same name by Robert Sherwood. In this scene Mrs Wetherby (Enid Bennett) welcomes her son Roy’s new girlfriend Myra (Mae Clarke) and insists she stays, not yet knowing she is really a prostitute. When Myra admits this later to Mrs Wetherby, she is unbelievably nice about it, although naturally she doesn’t think marriage is a good idea.

waterloo bridge 1931

Above: Screen grab of Enid Bennett from Waterloo Bridge (1931). The film is still available from TCM. Author’s Collection.

Skippy (1931)

Director Norman Taurig won the Academy Award for Best Director for this film. Jackie Cooper‘s character might be regarded as tiresome today, but in 1931 the film was immensely popular. Enid Bennett plays Skippy’s mother and Dr Herbert Skinner’s wife. A sequel was made with many of the actors reprising their roles, including Bennett.

This is a sound clip from the beginning of the film, where the Skinners are having breakfast while Skippy is still lying in bed upstairs pretending to get dressed.

Skippy 1931, Breakfast scene
Above: Screen grab of Willard Robertson and Enid Bennett as Skippy’s parents, in the breakfast scene that begins the film. Skippy is available from TCM. Author’s Collection


Nick Murphy
February 2020

Further Reading


  • Film – Robin Hood 1922 – on Youtube and Internet Archive
  • Film clip –Officer 666 National Film and Sound Archive
  • State Library of Victoria
  • State Library of New South Wales
  • National Library of Australia – Trove.
    • May and Mina Moore Collection
    • The Daily News, 3 Aug 1910. Page 3
    • The Lone Hand, 1 August 1913. Pages 326-7
    • The Leader, (Vic) 30 Dec 1911. Page 27
    • Sunday Times  21 Mar 1915. Page 25
    • The Catholic Paper – Freeman’s Journal, 10 Dec 1931. Page 3
    • The Age, 18 August 1956. Page 11
  • Peter Niblo (2006) –Remembering My Father, Fred Niblo  The Silents are Golden website
  • Australian Live Performance Database
    AusStage – Enid Bennett
    Austage – Majorie Bennett
    • Boston Globe. 13 July 1916. (This extraordinary newspaper article attributes Josephine Cohan’s death to “Too much dancing” rather than heart disease, which it was)
    • New York Tribune. 2 August 1915. P9
    • El Paso Times 2 March 1916 P9
    • Los Angeles Times. 30 Oct 1935. P13


  • Kevin Brownlow (1968) The Parade’s Gone By. University of California Press.
  • Desley Deacon (2008) “Cosmopolitans at Home: Judith Anderson and the American aspirations of J C Williamson’s Stock Company Members” in Robert Dixon, Veronica Kelly (Eds) Impact of the Modern: Vernacular Modernities in Australia 1870s-1960s. University of Sydney.
  • Desley Deacon (2013) Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies. Vol 18, No 1 “From Victorian Accomplishment to Modern Profession: Elocution Takes Judith Anderson, Sylvia Bremer and Dorothy Cumming to Hollywood, 1912-1918
  • Desley Deacon (2019) Judith Anderson: Australian Star, First Lady of the American Stage. Kerr Publishing.
  • Al Kemp, Tina Kemp (2002) Enid Bennett A Forgotten Star : Life of a Jazz Actress
    Pen Productions Media/Publishing. [Book could not be sourced for this narrative]
  • Ralph Marsden (2016) Who was Sylvia? An autobiography of Sylvia Breamer. Screencrafts Productions.
  • Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1980) Australian Film 1900-1977. Oxford University Press
  • Hal Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby
  • Scott Wilson (2016) Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons.  Third Edition. McFarland and Co.

This site has been selected for preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive

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

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

The 5 Second version
Born Gwendolyn Mina Munro, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia on 30 November 1913,
she died in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA, 6 April 1970. She was involved in amateur theatricals in Melbourne. In 1933, she won a part in the Paramount Search for Beauty competition and appeared in the film of the same name. No more films were offered in Hollywood but she reputedly appeared on stage in California. She returned to Australia, appeared on stage and in Ken Hall’s Orphan of the Wilderness and Let George Do It. She moved to the US in 1947 when she remarried. Brian Norman, the male prize winner of the competition, also returned to Australia and became a lawyer.

Left: Gwen in Hollywood with her (toy) Koala mascot. Table Talk, 11 Jan 1934. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

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

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


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

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

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

Table Talk March 10 1932 p24-25

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

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

Above: Who wouldn’t be interested? It all sounded so exciting. The Search for Beauty Competition advertised in Table Talk, 22 June 1933.Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Above: Male winner Brian Norman (William Brian Molloy) in Table Talk, 31 August 1934. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

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

Gwen on the way home

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let George do it

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

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

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

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

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

Melbourne Age 1 April 1970

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

Nick Murphy
December 2019

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

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

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

Further Reading

British Newspaper Archive

    • Daily Mirror, 27 Jan 1938.

National Library of Australia – Trove

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



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

This site has been selected for preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive

Margaret Vyner (1914-1993) – a very modern Australian woman

Above: Margaret Vyner C 1940. Photo enlarged from a very small Gaumont British card, possibly a cigarette card, otherwise unmarked. From the author’s collection.

Margaret Leila Vyner was born in the large northern New South Wales town of Armidale, in 1914, to Robert Vyner and Ruby nee Nicholson. In the 1930s, Margaret Vyner would develop a reputation for stylish fashion and glamour, in addition to appearing in films and on stage. She remained a perennial favourite with the Australian press for many years. As an adult she was above average height, standing about 172 cms (or 5’8″), and had blue eyes and fair hair. She was well-read, witty and beautiful.

Margaret Vyner while working in Paris for Jean Patou in 1934. Table Talk (Melb) 6 Dec 1934, via State Library of Victoria.

Her father, Robert Vyner, was manager on a pastoral station near Armidale, the oldest son of Robert Thomas Vyner (1858-1930), who had built a successful pastoral dynasty after moving to the area in the 1890s. Margaret was the only child of the union and it would seem the small family had moved to inner Sydney by the early 1920s after Robert Vyner ran into financial difficulties. Margaret attended Ascham School, a private girls’ school that pioneered and still follows an innovative teaching approach known as the Dalton Plan. She then attended Miss Jean Cheriton‘s very well known finishing school “Doone” at Edgecliffe. In later years she acknowledged how much she owed Miss Cheriton. By 1930 she was performing in amateur theatricals at Doone, while newspapers presented her as an eligible young woman, doing interesting things about town, as well as modelling clothes and often with something witty to say to journalists.

Above: Margaret Vyner appeared regularly in Sydney newspapers in the early 1930s  – for example – left;The Sydney Daily Pictorial, 25 October 1930,right;The Sydney Sun 21 Sept, 1930. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

By the end of 1930 she had made a remarkably easy transition into some chorus work for J.C. Williamson’s in Sydney – performing in When Knights were Bold, followed by a part as one of the chorus of “English girls” in a re-run of the popular musical Florodora – and then in Blue Roses, Hold My Hand and Our Miss Gibbs – all being performed up and down the eastern Australian coastShe was “beautiful”, “decorative”, “charming” and “vivacious” reported reviewers. Although not yet 18, she was also doing well enough to be offered advertising work for “Charmousan” powders and creams. By early 1934, on the back of all this local success, she had made the decision to travel to London and she departed at the end of March. Her biographer Kate Dunn states she left the Orsova in Naples and then made her way overland to Paris, where she was picked up as a mannequin very quickly by French fashion designer Jean Patou. Hal Porter suggested she worked her way up from “general dog’s body” for Patou whilst learning French and dressmaking at night. Perhaps both accounts are true. It was the Australian paper Smith’s Weekly that carried many of the reports of her work as a mannequin in 1934-35, Margaret being the author of many of these accounts herself. Did she really pioneer Australian women not wearing a hat to formal events? It seems possible!

nla.obj-157615992-1 nla.obj-157615756-1

Above: Two photographs of Margaret Vyner from the Fairfax archive of glass plate negatives held by the National Library of Australia. Full resolution can be seen here  and here  These photos appear to have been taken shortly before her departure for Europe in 1934.

Smiths Weekly 1935

Above:Smith’s Weekly article by Margaret Vyner 25 May, 1935. Presumably, the headline was added by an editor. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Margaret returned to Australia in December 1935, reportedly for a summer holiday. In early 1936 she won a small role in The Flying Doctor, being made by the fledgling Australian film company National Productions, directed by British actor/director Miles Mander and starring US import Charles Farrell. While some of the dialogue is well written, today there is the distinct impression the film was cobbled together in a great rush. Melbourne’s The Argus was amongst those not impressed, their reviewer commenting; “it is unlikely that Charles Farrell’s episodic wanderings in the Australian outback will appeal strongly to non-Australian audiences…”

Margaret Vyner’s short and forgettable role in the film is as an unhappy wife – Betty. Eric Colman, on the other hand, does a very memorable job as her nasty husband.

Flying Dr 1936 screen grab

Above: Screen grab from The Flying Doctor (1936) , showing Eric Colman (brother of Hollywood’s Ronald Colman) Charles Farrell and Margaret Vyner. This short cricket sequence is easily found online, as it also features Don Bradman in his only film role, as himself. Source; National Film and Sound Archive. (The entire film is also held by the NFSA)

Whilst in Australia, Miles Mander went out of his way to be an affable visitor, making himself available for interviews and telling the Australian press all the things they liked to hear. These included his observation that Australian men were at least twenty-five percent “better developed” physically than Englishmen. British scriptwriter J.O.C Orton added his own tribute, commenting that there was a strong belief in England that “the most beautiful girls in the world were to be found in Australia… Mary Maguire and Margaret Vyner were splendid examples of Australian girlhood.” 

The Age 3 Oct 1936

Above: From The Age 3 October 1936. Although Vyner’s part was minor, her local fame saw her headlined with the two leading players in Australian advertisements for The Flying Doctor. Source

At the end of April 1936, Margaret packed up and headed overseas again, this time travelling on the Matson liner Mariposa for California. She may have been encouraged by Mander to “try her luck” in Hollywood, because he appears to have told Mary Maguire and Jocelyn Howarth the same thing and was about to move there himself. But Margaret Vyner didn’t stay there for long.  She later explained that she had been offered a test at Universal, but said; “I‘d hate to feel I had to spend my life there …  never quite sure of good parts. So I turned (the contract) down and felt even more pleased with myself for being able to resist it.” She arrived in London again in July 1936.

During 1936 she gained some attention for sometimes using Michael as a modelling name. She explained that she had done this because she didn’t want to be known in Paris as Marguerite – or some variation of Margaret. So she chose the name Michel – which became Michael. At about the same time, at least one newspaper suggested she was following the influence of Marlene Dietrich , who had famously dressed as a man in the 1930 film Morocco. In the following photos from Australia’s The Home magazine perhaps Margaret was enjoying making a statement. She almost certainly knew it was technically still illegal for women to wear trousers in France. The law was finally removed in 2013.

Vyner in Home mag 2 Aug 1937

Above: Margaret Vyner in The Home, Vol 18, No 8, 1937. The text accompanying claims she was on the way to La Touquet, a French seaside town. Source; National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Margaret always claimed she had seen future husband Hugh Williams perform in Australia in 1927 when he was on the final tour of the Dion Boucicault Company. The couple met in person some time in 1937 and in early 1938 they travelled together to the US with a British cast to perform in the Frederick Lonsdale play Once is EnoughThey were soon in a relationship; Hugh Williams’ first marriage to Gwynne Whitby having come to an end several years before. By this time, Margaret had made an appearance in British films – including Sensation with John LodgeMidnight Menace with Charles Farrell again and Carol Reed‘s Climbing High. Hugh Williams’ many films of the late 1930s included Wuthering Heights, made in Hollywood in late 1938 (with Miles Mander and pretend-Australian Merle Oberon in the cast). Margaret modelled Norman Hartnell‘s fashion collection in North America at the same time it was filmed.


Above: Who would not fall in love with Margaret Vyner? This screen grab is from her first scene in a British film, Sensation (1936), with John Lodge. Ignore the ropey rear-projection. Author’s collection.

Margaret had a long tradition of providing witty commentary to the press. One famous example occurred in 1939, when after modelling clothes in the US, she told British journalists; “Americans are slaves to fashion. They blindly follow a lead without considering whether their clothes suit them. They are far less individualistic than English women.” But she could also make jokes – at her own expense. And in 1950 she described New York as “Gay, fantastic, but, oh, so expensive.” She had hoped to buy clothes while there, but found they were “expensive beyond belief. What makes it harder, is that the loveliest department stores stay open at night and lure me in while Hugh (Williams) is at the theatre”.

Margaret Vyner as Mary Stevens in Midnight Menace 1937. The man on the phone is right, it is dangerous! She soon gets captured by the (heavily accented) middle-european international arms dealers who are intent on starting a war. Author’s collection.

The_Montreal Gazette_Fri__Apr_14__1939_

Above: Margaret Vyner appearing in person at Henry Morgan’s in Montreal. The Montreal Gazette, 14 April 1939. Via

Unfortunately, back in Australia, Margaret’s parents marriage came to a very public end in the late 1930s, and the divorce and subsequent arguments over support payments were dragged out in excruciating detail in almost every Sydney newspaper. Robert Vyner was an oil company salesman by 1938, and apparently he felt hard pressed to support ex-wife Ruby, as well as his new wife Irma. In May 1940, Ruby scraped together enough money for a fare and sailed to England on the Strathnaver, on what was the ship’s final voyage before being converted to a troopship. Like Margaret, she never returned.

Vyner and greyhounds
Above: The Australian Women’s Weekly, 18 March 1939. A stunning photo of Margaret Vyner at the height of her popularity. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Mississippi paper report of wedding dressMargaret and Hugh Williams married on 21 June 1940. Kate Dunn’s quite moving collection of wartime letters between the couple (Always and Always, Wartime Letters of Hugh and Margaret Williams) gives some idea of the depth of their devotion. Dunn’s book also reproduces a well known photo from the wedding. In it, the couple appear to glow in a burst of sunlight, having apparently just stepped out of a darkened chapel. Margaret wrote of the wedding; “It was such a desperate time for England and France but so glorious for Hugh and Margaret.” Hugh (or Tam as he was nick-named) was already in uniform and the British had just evacuated most of their army from Dunkirk. These were very dark days for Britain.

Left:  An artist’s (fairly accurate) impression of Margaret Vyner’s wedding dress, as reported by the US paper The McComb Daily Journal, Mississippi, 6 August 1940. Perhaps it got such widespread publicity because it was seen as unusual. Via

Margaret Vyner’s and Hugh Williams’ wartime letters provide an extraordinary insight into the stress of war on a newly married couple, who were deeply in love and had much in common. Hugh Williams somewhat reluctantly joined the British Army in 1939, because he felt it was the right thing to do. For the next five years he and Margaret lived largely separate lives, as did so many wartime couples. It is a testament to Margaret Vyner’s character that she maintained a cordial relationship with Williams’ first wife Gwynne Whitby, and helped care for the two daughters of that marriage, while maintaining her own career and driving cars for the home service. In 1942 she and Hugh welcomed their own son, Hugo and in 1946, another son, Simon. A third child, Pollyanna was born in 1950.

Margaret Vyner 1940

Above: Margaret Vyner entertaining Australian soldiers, newly arrived in London in June 1940. Via State Library of Victoria. 

Kate Dunn, Hugh Williams’ granddaughter and editor of their wartime correspondence, comments on how difficult the postwar period was for the young family. By 1946 Hugh Williams found he had lost his currency, and he struggled to re-establish himself on the stage and screen. Margaret was also making fewer appearances. In 1950, Hugh was declared a bankrupt and to deal with the crisis, the couple decided to turn to writing their own plays. Their partnership was, fortunately, a great success with audiences. Their first play was Plaintiff in a Pretty Hat and eight more followed. Two were made into films – The Grass is Greener (1960) and The Flip Side (1967), while the musical Charlie Girl ran for over 2,000 performances at London’s Adelphi Theatre. Their success as a writing team restored their fortunes.

Journalist Lynne Bell, reporting from London for The Sydney Morning Herald in early December 1969 (and ironically, only a few days before Williams sudden death), observed that despite some criticism of their work, “…the Williams’ ingredients of love and marriage, within a safe middle-class structure, continue to draw the crowds.” Bell noted that during 1967, three of their plays were running in the West End at the same time. Hugh’s obituary in The Guardian stated that their plays “though not fashionable, angry or sordid, gave civilized pleasure and had a great deal of theatrical skill”. 

Dec 30 1959
Above: Hugh Williams and Margaret Vyner in a feature on their life and collaboration for The Australian Women’s Weekly, 30 December, 1959. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Margaret Vyner died in October 1993. Beyond their own body of work, Margaret and Hugh’s legacy has also been through a creative dynasty shared with their children and many of their grandchildren. Simon Williams is an actor, as was Polly Williams (1950-2004). Hugo Williams is a poet and writer. Grand children Tam Williams, Amy Williams and Kate Dunn, are actors and great-granddaughter Lily Dizdar is a director and writer.


Above: Margaret Vyner’s signature c 1939. Author’s collection.

Note 1
Before meeting Hugh Williams, the press associated Margaret Vyner romantically with several men. The question of a romance with Charles Farrell was the topic of gossip in 1936 after The Flying Doctor but Margaret categorically denied it and Farrell remained married to Virginia Valli until her death in 1968. There is no evidence to support the claim except that they acted together in another film.

Note 2
It’s regularly claimed that Cole Porter included a reference to Margaret Vyner in the lyrics of the song “You’re the top”, from the musical Anything Goes. However, she is not mentioned in the original lyrics. As the play was written in 1934, when she was still in Australia or Paris, the reference to Vyner could only have been added in one of the many later versions of the song, probably after 1937. Unfortunately, so far, this writer cannot find a later version of the song that includes the reference to Vyner.

Nick Murphy
September 2019

Further Reading

Online footage


  • Kate Dunn (Ed) (1995) Always and Always; Wartime Letters of High and Margaret Williams. John Murray.
  • Brian McFarlane (2003) The Encyclopedia of British film. Methuen/BFI
  • Hal Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby
  • Hugo Williams (2010) Dock Leaves. Faber and Faber
  • Angela Woollacott (2001) To Try her fortune in London. Australian Women, Colonialism and Modernity. Oxford University Press

Digital resources

This site has been selected for archiving and preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive

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.  (See Note 1 below)

In 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 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 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) Alec 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 

Like 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.

Judy Kelly in Tomorrow we Live 1942

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



  • 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.



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.
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

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

This site has been selected for preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive