Allan Cuthbertson (1920-1988) – from Romeo to Fawlty Towers

Above: A very young Allan Cuthbertson. The Wireless Weekly 22 Nov 1941, Page 4. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove. Almost all the existing high quality photos of Cuthbertson as a British actor are firmly held by commercial photo archives. The reader will thus have to forgive the grainy quality of photos used here, mostly sourced from digitised Australian newspapers.

The 5 second version
Western Australian born Allan Cuthbertson forged a hugely successful career on screen and stage in Britain – often playing a stereotypical, frosty, British military type – film historian Brian McFarlane described him as “a superb conveyor of icy distain.” However early in his career he played a variety of roles and in later life was more than capable of sending up the military stereotype he was known for (think Colonel Hall in Fawlty Towers). He is hardly a forgotten Australian but still warrants a place on this site because his Australian acting experience usually only merits a one line mention in biographies, and the context of his interest in acting is never explained. He died in London in 1988, with numerous stage, radio, TV and film performances to his credit. His brother Henry was also an actor and director of note, while another brother William, was killed while serving with the RAF in 1944.

Allan Cuthbertson told Australian theatre historian Hal Porter that one of his earliest memories was of being backstage at Perth’s His Majesty’s Theatre, watching his spot-lit father on stage. There is not much doubt that in his case, the passions of his father and older brothers played a part in fostering his interest in acting and his later decision to try his luck in London. Once established there, he remained a great advocate for Australians making the move overseas. “Don’t despair if you can’t land a job as soon as you land in London. Do anything. Wash up in a hotel… but keep on trying the agents.”

Above: Screen-grab of Allan Cuthbertson, 35 years after leaving Australia, playing the Australian Ambassador in the German TV mini-series Der Schwarze Bumerang  (The Black Boomerang) (1982). It is unclear why he relented his rule on not playing Australians for this one performance.

The Cuthbertson family of Perth

Born in Perth, Western Australia, in 1920, Allan Darling Cuthbertson was the youngest of three sons of Isabel nee Darling from Adelaide and Ernest Cuthbertson, a Scottish born partner in Hodd, Cuthbertson and North, a large firm of auctioneers and real estate agents in Perth, Western Australia. Amongst his other interests, Ernest was also an enthusiastic amateur performer, and for many years a leading figure in the Western Australia Society of Concert Artists.

A talented baritone, he was well known in Perth for directing performances for the stage. The grainy photo at left was printed when he was arranging a tableau entitled The Founding of Perth, part of the city’s celebrations in 1929. He was active almost up to the time of his early death, aged only 52, in 1936.

Above: Ernest Cuthbertson, The West Australian, 9 August 1929, P26. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Ernest and Isabel’s three sons William (1914-1944), Henry (1917-1988) and Allan all attended Perth’s prestigious Hale School, Australia’s oldest private Boys’ school. William (Bill) had a spectacular academic career – he was twice Dux of his school and went on to complete a Bachelor of Science and then Masters of Science at University of Western Australia. Following in their father’s footsteps, all three boys took a keen interest in theatre while still at school and in time both Henry and Allan joined Perth’s Repertory Club Players.

Henry first appeared in radio drama in 1936, while 18 year old Allan directed his first play in 1938, and also wrote some plays. Then, in March 1938, the two oldest boys – Bill and Henry (or “Bruzz” to his friends) embarked on the SS Moreton Bay for England – Bill to complete a Phd as a Chemist, Henry to pursue his career as an actor. Allan almost certainly had dreams of joining his older brothers, but it would be another 9 years before he too travelled to London. Eric Porter notes Allan went into a Bank on leaving school.

Above: Allan and Henry Cuthbertson. Left: Allan as he appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on October 28, 1947. But the photo appears to have been taken some years earlier, before he grew his moustache. Right: Henry Cuthbertson in the ABC Weekly, 26 June 1954. Both photos via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Older Brothers in Britain 1938-1944

Henry Cuthbertson found work in Britain as a radio announcer for the English company Radio Normandie and apparently appeared in three films made in late 1938 as an extra, including They Drive by Night and Goodbye Mr Chips. He then joined several repertory companies touring Britain in 1939-40, and was singled out for some positive reviews in regional papers. Isobel Cuthbertson passed on reports of her son’s successes on stage to West Australian newspapers with understandable pride“Henry was quite unknown when he went to London” she reported, “and had obtained all his work on his own initiative.” But in July 1940 he decided to return to Australia, arriving home on the ship Orcades in August. Less than two years later a U-boat sank the Orcades off the coast of South Africa, an awful reminder of how dangerous passenger travel in wartime was.

After completing his PhD at Leeds University, Bill Cuthbertson worked as a research scientist. When war broke out, he joined the Royal Air Force. After the lengthy training required for navigators, he joined 101 Squadron, flying operations over Germany and occupied Europe in Lancaster bombers. On 1 July 1944 his bomber was shot down and Bill and the rest of the crew – a typical Bomber Command mix of young Britons, Canadians and Australians, were all killed. Tragically, Bill had been married only a few months. St George’s College, his University of Western Australia alma mater, have a photo of him on their website (here) and there is a very moving tribute to him (here).

Allan & Henry join the RAAF 1941-1946

Back in Australia, Henry Cuthbertson joined the Royal Australian Air Force in June 1941. Allan joined up in December 1941, the day before Japan launched its assault in the Pacific. They served in separate sections – Allan ended the war as a Flight Lieutenant, flying Catalinas for 111 Air Sea Rescue Flight, while Henry was a Sergeant in RAAF Command, serving at RAAF hospitals. Discharged as medically unfit in 1944, Henry returned to radio in Perth, becoming an announcer for 6PR, and performed in radio versions of plays, including as Henry Higgins in Pygmalion.

After discharge from the RAAF, Allan also threw himself back into acting – on radio, and in theatre with the George Edwards Company in Sydney. He would later state, “Thank God for my experience in Sydney radio and with George Edwards, because it was there that I learned something about getting the most out of a script at sight or after only a preliminary reading.”

Above: Allan Cuthbertson rehearsing Murder Without Crime in 1946 with, from left Ross Buchanan, Madge Ryan and (in his arms) Thelma Grigg, and Stage Manager Delemere Usher. Both Ryan and Grigg also travelled to London to try their luck. Sydney Morning Herald, 12 June 1946. P7, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Allan Cuthbertson in Britain 1947 +

In March 1947 Allan Cuthbertson sailed for Britain on the Rangitiki. “There is so much to learn in London now with the great theatrical revival” he told one Australian journalist in April 1947. “Even by seeing dozens of plays, one can learn a great deal.” Also on board was a young Gertrude Willner, whom Allan would marry in London in late July 1949. (see Note 1 below)

Above: Allan Cuthbertson, The Daily News (Perth), 13 Sept 1947, P18. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Compared to so many other actors who arrived in London at this time, Allan was extremely fortunate with his career. Within a few months of arriving he had played with some repertory companies and then won the leading part of Romeo in a revival of Romeo and Juliet, although a reviewer for The Stage felt Allan and costar Isabel Dean were not experienced enough for the roles. But only a matter of weeks later, Allan was appearing in Noël Coward’s Point Valaine at the Embassy, in its first ever London outing. It ran for a very modest 34 performances, with, again, very modest reviews. However, by mid 1948 The Stage was able to report enthusiastically on Allan’s “vigorous interpretation” of Laertes, in Hamlet, at St James Theatre.

Three other plays particularly stand out in Allan Cuthbertson’s early career – the first being a part in very long run of The Beaux’ Stratagem at the Lyric, followed by a leading role in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, that ran for most of 1951. The Sketch reported “Allan Cuthbertson… does remarkably well in the exacting part of Octavius” displaying great “sincerity of manner.” Even newspapers at home enthusiastically reported on his increasing successes on the London stage.

Above: A reminder of the wide variety of roles Allan Cuthbertson played. With Kay Hammond in Man and Superman. The Sketch, 14 March 1951, P219. Copyright held by by The Illustrated London News Group. Via The British Library Newspaper Archive.

In 1953 Allan played an important role in Carrington VC. Written by former Royal Artillery officer Campbell Christie in collaboration with his wife Dorothy, it is the tale of a military Court martial, with Allan in the supporting role of the thoroughly unsympathetic Lt-Colonel Henniker. The play was a great success in London, and Allan was asked to reprise the role of Henniker for Anthony Asquith‘s film, made the following year.

Above left: Program cover for the play Carrington VC, which opened in London in July 1953. Author’s Collection. Above right, a scene from the film, with Allan reprising his role as Colonel Henniker, opposite Noelle Middleton playing Captain Alison Graham. Australian Women’s Weekly, 8 June 1955, P53. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Not surprisingly, this role as an authoritarian and unsympathetic military officer became his signature role. Not only did he repeat the part of Colonel Henniker again for TV and for radio, he played a variation of it in at least another two dozen film and TV appearances – like Major Baker in The Guns of Navarone (1961). It is true that later appearances of this character were sometimes in comedies – by the 1970s the military martinet had often become an object of humour (including Colonel Hall in Fawlty Towers and Major Daintry in Ripping Yarns). Allan acknowledged this typecasting himself in a 1963 interview during a return visit to Australia: “I used to enjoy playing Charley’s Aunt(a farce)… “but since ‘Carrington’ its been villains.” Tongue in cheek he added “I can’t think why!” About the same time he told Eric Porter that he had “settled down as a film character actor…a sort of symbol of the sneering Englishman.” Here, he was almost certainly thinking of his supporting role as the awful, domineering husband in Room at the Top (1959).

By 1963 he had 70 film and TV roles under his belt and in an interview with Patricia Rolfe for The Bulletin he acknowledged that although he took almost all film work offered to him, often in preference to the stage, he had always avoided playing Australian roles, apparently for fear this would limit his work. (Australian then meaning a broad-accented role). He told Rolfe he had turned down the role of the Australian character “Digger” in The Hasty Heart. Melbourne-born actor John Sherman took the part in the 1949 film version and it certainly did his UK career little good – once typecast in such a role, it was difficult to find others.

Above: Routine TV work. A screen grab of Allan Cuthbertson (playing a wicked nobleman) and Alan Wheatley (as the Sheriff of Nottingham) in a 1957 episode of The Adventures of Robin Hood. The series is now in the public domain and can be watched here at the Internet Archive.

After a long career in film and television – if not playing officers and nasty husbands he often played lords, lawyers or detectives, he did return to the stage. He notably appeared in Charley’s Aunt, at the Adelphi, in 1979 and in the mid 1980s he appeared in a revival of Emlyn Williams’ The Corn is Green at the Old Vic. And later in his career he also appeared as a straight-man with a number of British television comedians, including Dick Emery, Tommy Cooper and Morecombe and Wise.

And he finally relented about playing an Australian. In the 1982 German mini-series Der Schwarze Bumerang  (The Black Boomerang) he had a small part as the Australian Ambassador. However, as his character is dubbed into German, perhaps he felt it didn’t matter. His natural accent almost certainly approximated the one we hear in his films – a cultivated accent being the product of his education at one of Australia’s most prestigious schools, and years of radio and theatre work in Australia – before he even arrived in Britain, aged 27. Australian actor John Wood, with whom Allan performed in Carrington VC, spoke with a similar cultivated Australian accent.

Allan Cuthbertson’s conservative preferences in theatre were well known – he described his tastes as “Edwardian”. Contemporary avant-garde theatre he was not enthusiastic about and he once said he felt Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot had the effect of “keeping people out of the theatre”.

Allan Cuthbertson died in England on 8 February 1988. Obituaries appeared in Australia and Britain, although the irony that a quintessential stage and screen Englishman was actually an Australian was not mentioned. In private life he was a collector of art and caricatures (Rowlandson, Cruikshank and the like) and much of his collection is now held by the Cartoon Art Trust in London.


Henry Cuthbertson in Australia 1946 – 1988

Henry Cuthbertson enjoyed a very long association with the theatre in Australia. The Australian Live Performance Database lists his last performance, of many on stage, as occurring in 1979, although he also appeared in some Australian TV programs as a supporting actor as late as the early 1980s and apparently also in a film called Backstage in 1988 (unseen by this writer). However, it is through his reputation as Head of Drama for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) that he was most well known – regularly directing radio and television for the national broadcaster. He had married in 1946 and died in Melbourne in April 1988, only a few months after his brother.

At Left: Henry Cuthbertson in 1954, having just become Head of Drama for the ABC. ABC Weekly, 24 July, 1954, P8 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Note 1
In his interview with Patricia Rolfe for The Bulletin in 1963, Allan Cuthbertson explained part of Gertrude Willner’s story. Feminist, writer and philanthropist Lady Jessie Street had met Gertrude in Europe in 1938, and exercised some influence in the difficult task of getting the 27 year old refugee into Australia. She arrived in June 1939 on the Strathallen. For a time she lived with Street, and went on to study Arts at the University of Sydney (she graduated in 1944). She probably met Allan in Sydney after his RAAF service, but they are also both listed (separately) on the Rangitki’s 1947 list of passengers travelling to England, and may have met then. Allan and Gertrude had one child.

Nick Murphy

20 March 2021


References

  • Text
    • Brian McFarlane (Ed) (2003) The Encyclopedia of British Film. BFI-Methuen
    • Eric Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby Ltd
    • J.P. Wearing (2014) The London stage 1950-1959 : a calendar of productions, performers, and personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
  • Newspapers.com
    • The Guardian 15 Feb 1988, P35
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The West Australian Fri 9 Aug 1929, P26
    • Sunday Times (WA) 1 July 1934, P1
    • The Daily News (WA) 11 April 1936 P9
    • Sunday Times (WA) 10 July 1938 P13
    • The Daily News (WA) 21 Feb 1939 P1
    • The Wireless Weekly 22 Nov 1941, P4
    • Sydney Morning Herald 12 June 1946, P7
    • Mount Barker Record (WA) Aug 5, 1946 )4
    • The Australian Women’s Weekly 19 Ap 1947 P17
    • The Daily News (WA) 13 Sept 1947
    • Sydney Morning Herald 28 Oct 1947 P11
    • The Daily News (WA) 16 July 1949, P22
    • ABC Weekly 26 June 1954
    • ABC Weekly 24 July 1954
    • Australian Women’s Weekly 8 June 1955, P53
    • The Bulletin 8 June 1963, P22
    • Australian Women’s Weekly 12 June 1963, P10

  • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • Reading Mercury 29 April 1939 P24
    • The Stage 14 August 1947
    • The Stage 11 Sept 1947
    • The Sketch 9 June 1948
    • The Stage 24 Feb 1949
    • The Sketch 14 March 1951
    • West London Observer 7 Jan 1955, P4
    • The Stage 30 May 1985
    • The Stage 8 Feb 1988


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

Australian Accents from Cinema’s Golden Age

Above: Warner Bros photo credited to Schuyler Grail. Feb 1938, NBC radio announcer Buddy Twist interviewing Australian actress Mary Maguire. Author’s collection (Enlargement).

Above: In the lower section of the same photo, one can see Maguire’s fingers are heavily bandaged – presumably she had just caught them in a car door or similar. No matter how cultivated she might have sounded in this radio interview, one can assume a stream of Australian invective issued forth when the accident happened. Author’s collection.

It is generally accepted that the origins of the Australian accent are from southern Britain, and the conventional wisdom today is that there are three main variations to it:

Of course, accents don’t really fall into such easy categories. Those labels might be better thought of as markers on a continuum, with any one accent sitting somewhere along it. Also, unlike the variations in British and US accents – that are sometimes regional, variations in Australian accents are usually attributed to social class. Parenting and education, as well as other social factors are believed to have a strong impact on how Australians speak. (Of course, physical features such as the tongue and jaw also impacts how people speak too). 

In a very good survey of Australian accents for the ABC, John Hajeck (University of Melbourne) and Lauren Gawne (La Trobe University) note that Australians also often accommodate other accents with ease. Perhaps this explains Adelaide actor Damon Herriman‘s great success in adopting Dewey Crowe’s US accent in the TV series Justified, or Melbourne singer Kylie Minogue’s great ease in shifting from a contemporary British accent to a general Australian one.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, elocution lessons, (sometimes a part of a private school education but also available from private tutors) were designed to remove all vestiges of a colonial accent, be it from Australia, South Africa or somewhere else. In a short article on actor Judith Anderson, and others, Desley Deacon of ANU has pointed out how common elocution lessons were, and how important these were in opening up a performance career. The resulting accent, found all over the British Empire and beyond, dovetailed nicely with the “transatlantic accent” preferred in US 1930s sound films.


1. Australian accents – tending to broad.

The broader Australian accent still often appears in Australian-made films, continuing as part of a well established comedy tradition that has long worked on stage. It’s also used in contemporary advertising, and much loved by contemporary politicians, alongside acceptable slang words like “mate” and “g’day”. Yet, today, that’s not how most Australians speak – indeed it would take a conscious effort to speak like that all the time.

Broad accents from the 1930s can be heard in Australian made films such as Frank Thring‘s His Loyal Highness (Aust:1932) and Ken Hall’s On Our Selection (Aust:1932).

The broad accent rarely appeared in pre-war US and British films. Even in the late 1950s, John Meredyth Lucas commented that a distinctive Australian accent made casting very difficult for the TV series Whiplash. It was unattractive, he felt and by implication might have made sales of the series difficult. In a similar vein, when the US trade paper Harrison’s Reports reviewed Smiley (Aust:1956) they felt it was unlikely to be well received in US because of the Australian accents. But when Jocelyn Howarth was being introduced to US audiences (as Constance Worth) in 1937, Photoplay magazine assured readers she was free of the “caricatured Australian accent.” The distinctive broad Australian accent still had a few outings – such as in MGM’s very self conscious The Man from Down Under (1943). It also occasionally slipped into other films – here are two examples:

  • Brian Norman (1908-1995) in Search for Beauty (US: 1934)


    WB Molloy
    Here Sydney-born Brian Norman, in his one and only film outing, forces some con-men to start morning exercises at the health farm. His broad Australian accent is unmistakable. He became a lawyer after returning from Hollywood. 
    Audio from copy of film in author’s collection. Photo – William Brian Molloy or “Brian Norman” in the Sydney Sun, 1 April 1934. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.


  • Lotus Thompson‘s (1904-1963) one line as a random person at a ball, in Anthony Adverse (US: 1936).


    Lotus3Lotus Thompson from Queensland was briefly a silent star of some standing in Australia and the US, but her career was all but over by 1930. She appeared in some uncredited extra parts in the 1930s. Her few words as an extra here – “Please talk about them” seem to have an noticeable Australian twang.
    Audio from copy of film in the author’s collection. Available through Warner Brothers Archive. Photo-author’s collection c.1924.


2. The accents of former Australian vaudevillians 

Although none of the following actors appear to have had elocution lessons and each had only limited formal educations, all arrived in Hollywood after very long careers on stage in Australia, the US and the UK – enough experience and time to give them an accent that might have come from anywhere.


  • Snub Pollard (1889-1962) also from Melbourne in Just My Luck (US: 1935).


    Snub Pollard Exhibitor's Trade Review Dec. 1922 - Feb. 1923
    The prolific Snub Pollard also had a long career with Pollard Lilliputian’s before moving into Hollywood films in 1915. In this clip Mr Smith (Pollard) and Homer Crow (Charles Ray) discover they have lost their money, whilst eating at a cheap diner famous for beating up any non-paying customers. With the coming of sound Snub Pollard could only find work as an extra – but worked to the end of his life. Audio from copy of film in the author’s collection. Film is still widely available. Photo – Exhibitor’s Trade Review (Dec. 1922 – Feb. 1923) via Lantern Digital Media Project.


  • Paul Scardon (1875-1954) from Melbourne and Western Australia in Gentleman Joe Palooka (US: 1946).


    early scardon
    Scardon had an Australian stage career before moving to the US in late 1905, appearing in US films from about 1911. Here, later in life, he plays an uncredited role as a clerk whose records are being stolen by Knobby Walsh, played by Sydneysider Leon Errol (1881-1951) Copy of film in the author’s collection. The Joe Palooka films are widely available. Photo – Picture Play Weekly. April-Oct 1915. Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

3. Cultivated Australian accents and the importance of elocution

Wealthy Australians living on the continent’s coastal fringe often sent their children to private schools. These schools still put resources into a young person’s rounded personal development – now less commonly through “Speech” (elocution) classes, but still through public speaking, debating and by encouraging the performance arts.


  • Nancy O’Neil (1907-1995) from Sydney in a clip from Something always Happens (UK:1934).
    Nancy on a Lux soap card 1933-4

    O’Neil had attended Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School before travelling to London to study at RADA in 1928. She appeared in film and on stage in England in the 1930s and like most of the other young Australian women in British films of the time, she sounds as English as everyone else.

    Obituaries for these women often claim they “came to England to lose their accent”. But they actually had little accent to lose.
    Audio from copy of the film in the author’s collection. The film is available through Loving the Classics. Photo – Lux Soap Famous Film Stars card, c1933-4. Author’s Collection


  • Shirley Ann Richards (1917-2006) from Sydney as an Australian nurse in Dr Gillespie’s New Assistant (US: 1942), with US actor Richard Quine as an Australian doctor from Woolloomooloo (the Sydney suburb’s name is a source of great humour in the film).


    Richards
    Richards had a private school education at Ascham and The Garden School in Sydney and had the benefit of a mother who was an active member of the English Speaking Union. Later in life she also recalled the importance of the educated women who were close friends of the family. Although she is “laying it on with a trowel” in this clip, this is close to how she really spoke, even after 40 years in California. Audio from copy of film in the author’s collection. TCM currently have a collection of the Dr Gillespie films for sale. Photo – author’s collection.


4. Australian accents – tending more general

The decline of the cultivated Australian accent in the last 50 years is one marker of change in the way Australian English is spoken. At the same time, the general Australian accent seems to have appeared more often in the post war period. However, as the first example demonstrates, the general Australian accent was well and truly in established use before the Second World War.

  • Jocelyn Howarth (as Constance Worth) (1911-1963) from Sydney in the excruciatingly awful The Wages of Sin (US:1936) .


    Howarth on the way to Hollywood
    Here Howarth makes no attempt to disguise her accent, which sounds bizarre alongside the broad American accents of her “family members,” who are lazy and won’t get little Tommy his milk. Audio from copy in the author’s collection. This film is still available from specialist DVD outlets. Photo of Jocelyn Howarth on her way to the US, 13 April 1936. Honolulu Star, via Newspapers.com.


  • Joy Nichols (1925-1992) from Sydney in a Rinso soap commercial made with Bill Kerr (1922-2014), for release in cinemas in 1946.

    Nichols, a butcher’s daughter from inner Sydney, began her long radio and stage career in Australia in wartime. This brought her in close contact with other well known Australian performers, and visiting Americans (she was even briefly married to one). 
    Joy Nichols Turf

Nichols was a skilled singer, comedian and radio performer. Here she is again with fellow Australian Dick Bentley (1907-1995) and Briton Jimmy Edwards at the British Daily Mail radio awards in 1950 – representing the popular radio show Take It From Here. (Click to follow link to youtube – from 5:30)
Photo – Turf cigarette collectable card, c 1950. Author’s collection.


  • Patti Morgan (1928-2001) from Sydney in Booby Trap (UK: 1957). In one of her few film roles, Patti Morgan’s voice seems firmly from Sydney.  

Patti Morgan Cover of Pix 1945

Patti Morgan appeared in only a few British films, but continued her modelling and TV career with success. Audio from copy of film in author’s collection. The film is still available from Loving the Classics and Renown pictures. Photo of Patti on the cover of Pix, 6 Oct, 1945. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.


5. Some other Australians speak

Further Reading on Australian accents

Nick Murphy
December 2020

Joy Nichols (1925-1992) – from the Tivoli to the West End

Joy Nichols at the height of her success in the British radio show Take It From Here, c1950. Fan card in the Author’s collection

The Five Second version
Born in Sydney on 17 February 1925, singer, impressionist and comedian Joy Nichols became a favourite on stage and radio in wartime Australia from a very young age. She made the transition to performing in postwar Britain with apparent ease, and is most often associated with the BBC’s long running radio show, Take It From Here. She seemed destined for stardom, but her 1953 Australian return show was a disaster. She scored some later success with the London season of The Pajama Game and in supporting roles on Broadway, but her later career was fitful and she might really be a case of an actor who reached her peak too early. She died in New York on 23 June 1992. She had appeared in several Australian and British films.

Looking back on her career in 1965, Joy Nichols admitted that she was “too young” to realise what was happening when she became such a quick success in England. She told Australia’s Bulletin magazine that in 1948 she “rather took if for granted and didn’t think much of what was going to happen in the years ahead.” It was remarkably candid, as she was acknowledging a 25 year career that seemed disjointed and ultimately may not have been very rewarding.

She was born Joy Eileen Nichols in Sydney on 17 February 1925, the youngest of four children of Cecil William “Bill” Nichols, a wholesale butcher, and Freda nee Cooke. Her brother George Nichols also pursued a career on the Australian stage with some success, but two older brothers had no such interest, and following their father’s footsteps became meat inspectors in New South Wales.

George and Joy Nichols photographed while performing on the Tivoli circuit, c 1945. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Tivoli Theatre Collection. PXA 808, IE1050864.

On the basis of her early academic efforts, Joy was awarded a scholarship to Fort Street Girls High School in 1937 and while she apparently went on to excel academically, her appearances on radio and stage started at about the same time. Her name is found as a singer in various eisteddfods and as a comedian in charity concerts as early as 1935. Later accounts would claim she was encouraged in her interest in music and comedy by her mother and was performing from the age of 8. Her breakthrough seems to have been when she gained a regular place on the Macquarie radio network’s “Youth Show” in 1940. She was heralded as the program’s “outstanding radio discovery.”

15 year old Joy contributing to the war effort in 1940. Left – The Sun (Sydney) 2 June 1940. Right – Daily News (Sydney) 9 March 1940. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In a world war where newspapers and radio were the only source of news and patriotic performances were vital to maintaining morale, Joy Nichols was soon in great demand. She was an entertaining and very accomplished singer. Her young age – she was only 15 years old, did not seem to effect her popularity or qualify in any way the language of journalists who enthused about her. In September 1941, the Brisbane Truth reported on her part in a show called Ballyhoo, running at the Cremorne Theatre: “When pretty Joy Nichols gets done up in khaki and sings her ‘Victory Vee’ number, we think any recruiting sergeant would get quite a few inquiries from enthusiastic males in Cremorne’s ‘Ballyhoo’ audiences.” Perhaps she hoped her first film role in Alf Goulding‘s A Yank in Australia (1942) would be received the same way. Unfortunately the film was never given a release and while it still exists today, is impossible to find outside the vaults of Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive.

Her wartime career brought her in close contact with other well known Australian performers. Evidence of this includes a surviving Rinso soap commercial made with Bill Kerr, for release in cinemas.


In early 1941, she appeared for the first time with 33 year old Dick Bentley, in an Australian Broadcasting Commission community concert. Bentley, a talented musician and comedian, had returned to Australia with several years of British radio experience under his belt. Eight years later, Joy would be teamed with him in Britain, in the very successful radio program, Take it from Here.

In 1943, Joy gained further positive publicity when she sang Jack O’Hagen‘s new song about a wartime romance between a US serviceman and an Australian girl – When a boy from Alabama meets a Girl from Gundagai.

In the midst of many stage and radio performances, she also promptly did just that herself – in late 1944 after a whirlwind courtship, she married Lieutenant Harry Dickel, a US serviceman then in Australia, who had some connection to the theatre. Like a number of such wartime romances, the relationship did not last.

In early 1946, Cinesound director Ken G Hall cast Joy in a supporting roll as Kay Sutton, an American girl, in Smithy (aka Pacific Adventure), his bio-pic about aviator Charles Kingsford-Smith. As the sound clips on this page suggest, a vaguely North American accent was something Joy had already been working on. One of her specialities was impressions of movie stars, and she was, she said, a great admirer of Bing Crosby. The film completed, Joy and brother George joined the great wave of Australian actors determined to try their luck overseas after the war. They arrived in England on the ship Dominion Monarch on 30 October, 1946.

George and Joy soon appeared successfully as a double act on tour together in the UK, but George found the going tough. By April 1949 he was back home in Australia. “The BBC’s audition list is very long” he said, by way of advice to aspiring Australian actors. For Joy, there seem to have been nothing but more work on offer. Bob Hope reportedly chose her for a lightning tour of US bases in Europe in 1947, while back in England there were roles in pantomimes, and touring shows like Follow The Girls.

Above: Joy Nichols in the stage revue Take it from Here, based on the radio program, at the Winter Gardens Pavilion, Blackpool 1950. Photos from a George Black Ltd brochure, author’s collection.

Theatre Historian Eric Midwinter has provided the most succinct account of the origins of the BBC radio show Take It from Here. It emerged in 1948 – partly born of previous radio programs and combining Joy and Dick Bentley (now back in Britain) with popular British comedian Jimmy Edwards, and with Wallas Eaton in a supporting role. Producer Charles Maxwell brought in writers Frank Muir and Denis Norden – and a success was born. As surviving broadcasts show, the 30 minute program had a three part format, musical numbers (sung very well by Joy and Dick and reasonably well by Jimmy) separating the three main comedy sketches, that were often built around current events. The program was remarkable in that while topical for British listeners, it was equally popular when broadcast in countries like Australia. This was in part thanks to Muir and Norden’s writing, which went on to influence a new generation of British comedy.

Joy can be heard in the following clip with Dick Bentley, playing the very silly Miss Arundel, whose deep giggle and references to boyfriend Gilbert were a regular feature. After Joy left the show in mid 1953 she was replaced by June Whitfield. Whitfield played “Eth” in The Glums, an ongoing sketch in the show by late 1953 (the character often mistaken for one of Joy’s).

Joy as Miss Arundel, giggling and telling Detective Dick Bentley about her boyfriend Gilbert. Via the Internet Archive. Joy also gives this trademark throaty giggle here in a 1950 Radio awards ceremony – at 6.15 (click to follow link)
The cast of Take it from Here appeared in a live review at the London Adelphi in 1950-51. The show ran for 570 performances. Program in the author’s collection

Frank Muir’s entertaining autobiography, A Kentish Lad, recalls an anecdote from Take It From Here, that gives some insight into her sense of humour and the wicked Australian banter that went on behind the scenes. He describes Joy chatting before one show with Jimmy Edwards, Dick Bentley and Wallas Eaton, and turning to a recent gynecological exam she had endured, describing the event to the others in such “candid detail,” that bachelor Wallas Eaton began to “turn green.” Dick Bentley then threw in “you poor thing. And my (dog’s) got diarrhoea …”

In 1949, Joy married US actor-singer Wally Peterson, one of the principals of the London cast of Oklahoma! and later South Pacific. At the same time, her professional life remained very busy, it included a live theatre spin-off of Take It From Here, appearances at Royal Command Variety Performances and a Max Bygraves revue, all the while appearing on radio. But, in the midst of all this success, she, Wally and their 16 month old daughter packed up and left England for Australia. She was engaged to appear in her own show on the Tivoli circuit in September 1953, but the trip seems primarily to have been to see her family. The story that Wally wanted to leave England because he could not get work is wrong – like Joy he was a well established broadcaster, actor and singer and was regularly in demand – he was also a popular recording artist for the Decca and Parlophone labels.

Photos of Joy relaxing and in rehearsal in Australia appeared in the Australian Women’s Weekly, 14 October 1953. But by the time these were published she had already withdrawn from the show. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Unfortunately, although the anticipation created by Joy’s return to Sydney was great and the initial reviews were positive, the 1953 Tivoli show entitled Take It From Me turned out to be a disaster. She managed a few performances, but then suffered a nervous breakdown. Her mother Freda wanted to reassure audiences, and told the Sydney Sun that Joy was just “overwhelmed by the wonderful reception” Australians had given her. In language so typical of the era, she added; “Joy is a very highly strung girl and a good sleep will soon fix her up.” But it didn’t. She spent two weeks in hospital, and rested for another three months before departing by air for the US, in December 1953, to spend time with Wally’s family in Boston.

One of Joy’s greatest successes came in London again, in 1955, when she took a role in The Pajama Game. Comparing it to the often modest British musicals, The Guardian newspaper described the play as the latest “clumping great Broadway musical”. Most reviewers welcomed Joy’s return to the West End, and The Stage reported she played the part of Babe Williams with “humanity and real charm.” It hit a spot with London audiences, running for 580 performances. She also appeared in a few films at this time – most notably a cameo role, singing, in Charlie Chaplin’s A King in New York (1957). After she and Wally had finally settled in New York in the late 1950s, she also appeared in a few roles on Broadway, most notably in the musical Fiorello!


Joy in Not So Dusty (1956) – a British B film about two dustmen (garbage collectors) featuring Bill Owen and Leslie Dwyer. This screen grab from a clip on Youtube.

In 1965 she returned to Australia again, to show off her 3 year old twins to the family and perform in the musical, Instant Marriage at the Tivoli. This time, there was much less publicity – although Joy did her best to stir up interest. “I want to make people laugh like I do” she said. But variety theatre like the Tivoli had struggled to maintain audiences against the challenge of television, and this play, “about a girl trying to find a marriage bureau and mistakenly getting involved with a strip joint,” was hardly sophisticated fare, even with the imported addition of Wallas Eaton in the cast. The show flopped. Theatre historian Frank Van Straten describes it as “a frantic, unfunny farce without a single singable song.”

It is rare for an actor to pose with their entire family for the press. But on 21 July 1965, during Joy’s final visit to Australia, The Australian Women’s Weekly ran this photo of the entire Nichols family together. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Joy continued to appear in occasional supporting roles on the New York stage, but fate and circumstance seemed against her. In 1969 it was announced she would appear in an expensive new London musical, Two Cities. But she didn’t – only a few weeks before opening night she walked out on rehearsals, reportedly after disagreements with leading actor Edward Woodward. She was replaced by Nicolette Roeg.

Above: Joy advertised as appearing in the musical Two Cities. But soon after this advertisement appeared in The Observer on 2 Feb 1969, she was replaced by Nicolette Roeg. Via Newspapers.com.

Joy’s marriage to Wally came to an end in 1977, and she subsequently moved back to England again. She took out a large advertisement in The Stage in March 1979 to announce that she was back and looking for work. But sadly, there wasn’t very much work for her. She was in her mid-50s, and had well and truly lost her currency. She finally turned to fairly mundane retail work, being spotted working in a Mothercare store in Oxford St. This sort of riches to rags story, as always, attracted some media attention – but Joy simply said she needed the money.

Joy succumbed to cancer, aged only 66 in 1992. In a lifetime of moving around, she had moved back to New York at the end. Her obituaries reminded readers of the great pleasure Joy had brought listeners in post-war Britain, then a time of austerity and recovery.

Only a year after Joy’s 1965 visit, Jimmy Edwards came to Australia to feature in the Tivoli circuit’s final shows in Sydney and Melbourne. His shows brought large-scale variety theatre to a close in Australia.

Wallas Eaton, who had turned green when hearing Joy’s gynecological story, moved to Australia in 1975, where he continued acting. He died in Sydney in 1995. Dick Bentley died in England the same year.

Joy at the height of her fame on a British “Turf” cigarette box. c1950 Author’s collection.

Nick Murphy
September 2020


Further Reading

Audio

Film

Text

  • Eric Midwinter (undated) Take It From Here. Britishmusichallsociety.com
  • Frank Muir (1997) A Kentish Lad. The Autobiography of Frank Muir. Bantam Press.
  • Frank Van Straten (2003 ) Tivoli. Thomas C. Lothian
  • J.P Wearing (2014) The London Stage, 1950-1959, A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

British Newspaper Archive

  • The Stage, 10 July 1947
  • The Stage, 4 Dec 1947
  • The Scotsman, 24 Dec 1947
  • The Daily Mirror, 30 Dec 1947
  • Manchester evening News 16 March 1948
  • The Stage, October 20, 1955
  • Illustrated London News, 29 October 1955
  • Daily Herald, 1 June 1962
  • The Stage, 19 August 1965
  • The Stage, 29 March 1979
  • The Stage, 15 October 1992

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 22 June 1940
  • Mudgee Guardian & North Western Representative, 15 July 1940
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 20 July 1940
  • The Argus (Melb), 25 Oct 1943
  • The Age (Melb), 2 Sept 1949
  • The Age (Melb), 29 July 1953
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Sept 1953
  • Sun (Syd), 11 Sept 1953
  • Daily Telegraph (Syd), 17 Sept, 1953
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 14 Oct 1953
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 14 Sept, 1960
  • The Bulletin, 17 July 1965, Vol 87, No 4455
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 21 July 1965
  • The Bulletin, 14 Aug 1965, Vol 87 No 4459

Newspapers.com

  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 31 Aug 1954
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Nov 1965
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Jan 1969
  • The Observer, 2 Feb 1969
  • The Age (Melb), 2 July 1992
  • The Guardian, 3 July 1992

The Independent

  • June Averill, Joy Nichols Obituary 7 July 1992

Variety

  • Wally Peterson Obituary, April 3, 2011

The Times

  • Joy Nichols Obituary 29 June 1992

Shirley Ann Richards (1917-2006) – “This is not a laughing matter and don’t call me girlie!”

 Above: A screen grab of twenty year old Shirley Ann Richards in Tall Timbers (1937),  her second Australian film for Director Ken Hall. The by-line is from Dad and Dave come to Town (1938) and part of it is used as the title for a documentary made by Andree Wright in 1985. Source: Loving the Classics. Author’s Collection

The 5 second version
Born as Shirley Ann Delaforce Richards in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 20 December 1917, died California, United States, 25 August 2006. Known in the US as Ann Richards. After a short stint with amateur theatricals in Sydney, she moved to acting with Cinesound. There she appeared in six films directed by Ken Hall before moving to Hollywood. Between 1942 and 1952 she performed in a dozen films, including one directed by Edmund Angelo, her husband.
She pursued writing and philanthropic interests after 1952 and returned several times to Australia.
.

Growing up in Australia

Shirley Ann Delaforce Richards hardly qualifies as a “forgotten Australian” actor. Alone amongst Australians who went overseas to pursue an acting career in the 1930s, she returned to Australia later in life to discuss the experience and celebrate a new wave of Australian film making.

Her New Jersey-born father Mortimer Richards was the Australian manager of the successful US – owned S. F. Bowser Company, while her mother Marion nee Dive was a 24 year old from New Plymouth in New Zealand. Shirley Ann and her younger brother Roderick grew up in comfortable surroundings – first at Killara on Sydney’s north shore, then in Double Bay.

Mortimer regularly appeared in newspaper reports of the doings of Sydney’s small US community, sometimes addressing business groups about Australia’s great un-tapped potential (a favourite topic of the 1920s), while Marion was active in the newly established English Speaking Union.

Shirley Ann attended Ascham School in Edgecliff from 1925-1928, but left after the sudden death of her father in August 1928. She completed her Leaving Certificate at the Garden School, run by the Theosophical Education Trust in Mosman. Like Ascham, the school was educationally progressive, with a focus on the performing arts, literature and elocution.  These interests stayed with Shirley Ann all her life, together with a strong sense of social conscience and public duty. Later in life she reflected that her upbringing and education (and the untimely death of her father) had also exposed her to an amazing group of independent and opinionated women – her mother, teachers (Lily Arnold and Jessie MacDonald at the Garden School) and family acquaintances like social reformer and politician Millicent Preston-Stanley. Her first publicly reported appearance on stage appears to have been in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at the Savoy Theatre in October 1933.


A Cinesound Career

After leaving school and whilst working for the Russell Roberts Studio in 1936, she threw herself into amateur theatricals with the Sydney Players Club. While there she came to the attention of Ken G Hall, an Australian Producer-Director of enormous energy and capacity, with whom she maintained a lifelong friendship.

Truth Feb 1936By 1936, Table Talk was able to introduce her to readers, commenting on her  “lovely complexion and teeth…”  They also reported that she was an “excellent fencer and swimmer.” She was “very well read, being extremely fond of poetry… completely unpolluted; doesn’t drink or smoke; has splendid self-possession, but is always completely natural.” Some of these comments were true, even if they were all courtesy PR from Ken Hall’s Cinesound Studios, who had put Shirley Ann under long term contract as quickly as they could. Film historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper credit Cinesound’s “Talent School” for refining her skills.

18 year old Shirley Ann reported as interested in amateur theatricals, by Truth 23 Feb, 1936. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Her first film with Hall was It Isn’t Done,  a rags to riches comedy (or “bush to baronetcy”) with a script by Cecil Kellaway. The film was a great success, establishing Shirley Ann as a popular favourite with Australian audiences (and incidentally also providing Kellaway with a pathway to work in the US). Shirley Ann recalled that the established actors in this film, including British actors Frank Harvey and Harvey Adams, realizing the 18 year old was new to film, “spoiled her” on the set.

Shirley Ann Richards 1936 via Mitchell Library

Above: Shirley Ann Richards at the opening of Tall Timbers at the Sydney State Theatre in 1937. She toured much of Australia for Cinesound. Source: Hood Collection, via the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

TT on stage

Above: Shirley Ann Richards appears live on stage as a part of Cinesound publicity.  The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Oct 1937 via National Library of Australia’s Trove 

She appeared in a total of five feature films for Cinesound over the very busy period 1936-39. These were It Isn’t Done, Tall Timbers, Lovers and Luggers, Dad and Dave Come to Town, and Come Up Smiling. She also appeared in the surprisingly entertaining 100,000 Cobbers, a propaganda recruitment short made for the Australian Government by Cinesound after the outbreak of War. A 1984 audio interview, mostly focusing on her Cinesound years can be heard here.

L&L1   L&L2

Above: Screengrabs of Shirley Ann with Lloyd Hughes in Lovers and Luggers (1938). Unfortunately Hall’s Cinesound films have never been released on home video in Australia, they are only available via US specialist providers, often made from shortened and/or low-quality prints. Author’s Collection.

In addition to working with established Australians, the Cinesound films brought her into contact with a number of visiting British and US actors – including Cecil Kellaway, John Longden, Will Mahoney, Lloyd Hughes and James Raglan. Doubtless they talked of their experiences and the opportunities to be had working internationally. However the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 and the closure of feature production at Cinesound Studios hastened her decision to try her luck in the US. She continued with some work on the Australian stage in the meantime, having toured in Charley’s Aunt through Australia and New Zealand.


Film career in the US

Shirley Ann often recounted the story of being on the last passenger ship after Pearl Harbour. It was true. She had booked to leave Australia on 13 December 1941, on the Matson liner Mariposa. She did not cancel her travel after the sudden Japanese attacks in the Pacific and South East Asia. Shirley Ann’s name appears on the passenger manifest along with other US citizens anxious to get home from Australia, and from Hawaii where the ship had a brief stop. The ship docked in San Francisco on 31 December. She arrived with “the equivalent of $75, a weighty scrapbook…  film clips and introductions” courtesy Ken Hall. (The film clips were promptly lost somewhere in Hollywood, unfortunately).

And the risk she took?  The Mariposa had no defences, but it could manage over 20 knots, while Japanese submarines of the time might manage less than 7 knots when submerged. And a slight comforting factor also existed for Shirley Ann – both her parents were US citizens, and her own birth had been registered with the US embassy in Australia. Her father’s surviving sister Grace lived in the US –  although far from Hollywood California.

Years later Shirley Ann recalled that MGM signed her up quickly – they respected her Australian experience, but to avoid being confused with Anne Shirley, her screen name was shortened to Ann Richards. A small part in a short – to test her – followed, then MGM gave her a very, very small role in Random Harvest with Ronald Colman and Greer Garson – so small a role she doesn’t have any lines. Shirley Ann said later that most of her part ended up on the cutting room floor. But in Dr Gillespie’s New Assistant, another in the popular Dr Kildare series and also made in 1942, she played an Australian nurse working in US. This was also a small role, but at least she had a few lines and some close-ups. Richard Quine‘s “Australian-isms” are excruciating and Dr Gillespie’s (Lionel Barrymore‘s) every second comment unbelievably inappropriate for today’s viewers, but Shirley Ann manages her role with the characteristic class and good manners that she was to give all her roles.

Dr Gillespie 1  Dr Gillespie 2

Above: Screen grabs of Richard Quine as the Australian doctor and Shirley Ann Richards as the Australian nurse in Dr Gillespie’s New Assistant. TCM currently have a collection of the Dr Gillespie films for sale. 

Richard Quine and Shirley Ann in a short piece of dialogue. Quine, a US actor, tried hard to sound convincing as a young Australian doctor from Wooloomooloo, Sydney.

King Vidor‘s film An American Romance – a story of an emigrant who makes good in the US steel industry – could have been a breakthrough film for her, but it was expensive to make and at two and a half hours in length, way over-long. It was in technicolor, but it still met with a mixed reception. Australian reviewer Lon Jones felta trifle disappointed, for…(Ann Richards) is forced to compete with auto assembly lines and steel plants. The story is essentially one of men and machines and the camera is continually focused on them to the disadvantage of Miss Richards.”

Ann Richards postcard006

Above: Shirley Ann at the height of her Hollywood popularity. Her resemblance to Greer Garson was often noted. Post card in the Author’s Collection.

Despite claims that Shirley Ann was very busy in Hollywood, it seems that over the seven years 1942-48 she appeared in only eleven films – a modest output. While she was as selective as she could be with her roles, she later acknowledged that she also spent a lot of time waiting around for offers to come her way. However, it should be noted that compared to her Australian contemporaries, Mary Maguire and Constance Worth, the films she appeared in were quality films and she had credited roles in most. She worked with some of Hollywood’s leading players at this time, although Tom Vallance, her obituarist for “The Independent,” is correct in suggesting she was often consigned to “best friend” roles.

Unhappy with working for MGM, she negotiated a contract release. She then appeared in three films for independent Producer Hal WallisLove Letters (1945), The Searching Wind (1946) and Sorry Wrong Number (1948). Biographer Bernard Dick may be accurate when he suggests Wallis never intended to make a star of Shirley Ann, rather his need was for a talented actress with a faintly British accent who could also pass for an upper-class American. And although not paid at the same rate as Barbara Stanwyke or Burt Lancaster, she was still paid $US 1750 per week for her work on Sorry, Wrong Number according to Dick, the equivalent of $US 20,000 today.

Sorry wrong number
Above: Blonded-up for Hollywood,  Shirley Ann as Sally Hunt in the 1948 thriller Sorry, Wrong Number. Screen grab from the trailer, via Youtube. The film is still widely available.

In June 1946, Shirley Ann flew home to Australia for a visit to see her mother, and possibly also to convince her to move to the US. She was given a rousing welcome on arrival in Australia. The joy of her return disguised the fact that Shirley Ann and her mother had suffered some shocking news in late 1945. Her brother Roderick, who had been a Medic in the Australian 8th Division, had died as a prisoner of the Japanese in early 1945.

In early 1949 Shirley Ann married Edmund Angelo, a 36 year old theatre director and producer. In the same year, Angelo published a small book of his lectures on theatre-craft. He dedicated it to Shirley Ann, “whose brilliant artistry exemplifies what I have endeavored to express in this book.” However, the foreword by Shirley Ann makes it clear that the essays included were selected by her.

Curtain - You're On! cover

Above: Curtain – You’re On! by Edmund Angelo, with his portrait. It was dedicated to Shirley Ann, while she wrote the foreword. Author’s Collection.

She made one final film after this, with Angelo as director – a crime drama based on the boxing themed play “The Samson Slasher” – wisely re-titled Breakdown for the cinema. Angelo claimed it was made in just 11 days, on “a shoe-string budget,” and it ended up being shown as a B (supporting) feature. There was talk of further films being planned and more stage work, but the couple seem to have left Hollywood film-making behind soon after that.


After Hollywood

Following Breakdown, Angelo threw his efforts into engineering and the US aerospace effort. It could be forgotten today just how exciting this period of development and space exploration was – starting in the late 1950s and culminating in the moon landing of July 1969. Shirley Ann spoke with some pride about his work as early as 1956.

Shirley Ann turned her attention to raising her three children and pursuing some of the other interests she had always had. From the early 1950s she was active in Zeta Phi Eta, an organisation of female leaders in the arts, communication and science fields, that still describes itself today as “a friendly society of service”. Much of her work appears to have revolved around fund-raising activities for social justice causes, particularly for disadvantaged children and those with speech difficulties. Meanwhile, the family lived comfortably at W.C.Fields’ former home at 2015 De Mille Drive in Los Angeles. One of Shirley Ann’s best known (of many) anecdotes was of meeting Fields whilst peeking at the property some years before. (see Los Angeles Times, 3 December 1972)

Shirley Ann 1956
Above: Shirley Ann with her two sons Chris and Mark, photographed for the Australian Women’s Weekly 11 July 1956. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove

She also continued to write poetry – her first collection – The Grieving Senses and Other Poems, was published in 1971. The US journal Poet Lore reported that her poetry “reflected a rare sensitivity to the things around her…”


Rebirth”

Bind her close with roots of flowers
And leave her dreaming in the gloom
Where the light autumnal showers
Kiss the clover into bloom


Later life and visits to Australia

Shirley Ann returned to Australia in 1977, in part to appear in an episode of This is Your Life with Ken G Hall. It was her first visit since 1946 and again she was given a joyful welcome home, as she had been thirty years before. Her place as a living connection back to Australia’s fledgling film industry of the 1930s and to Hollywood’s Golden Age was well understood. She was interviewed at length and yet again on another visit in 1981. In 1986 she appeared in Andree Wright and Stewart Young’s documentary film about women in the Australian Cinema. Its title, Don’t Call Me Girlie, is part of the line she has in the film Dad and Dave Come to Town.

Following Edmond’s death in 1983, she remarried. She continued pushing personal boundaries until very late in life, writing poetry and lecturing on travel – for example being amongst the first Western wave of tourists into China and Tibet in the 1980s. We use the hyphenated term “Australian-American” often today, to describe Australian actors working in the US, probably because we cannot think of a more apt descriptor. In Shirley Ann’s case, she really did straddle two cultural environments with complete ease.

Much admired and always fondly remembered in Australia, she died in 2006, long after most of her Australian and Hollywood contemporaries.

Nick Murphy
March 2020 Updated September 2020


Note 1: The IMDB currently conflates Shirley Ann Richards with US-born actress Sally Ann Richards (1947-2005) – in doing so muddling up some of their appearances.

Note 2: The claim that Shirley Ann Richards “often appeared on TV” in the ’50s and ’60s appears to be another case of mistaken identity. The person referred to is almost certainly US-born Jazz Singer Ann Richards (1935-1982).


Special Thanks
To Ms Marguerite Gillezeau, Archivist at Ascham School, for her assistance on Shirley Ann’s schooling, and alerting me to her first credited public performance in October 1933.


Further Reading

Documentary films

  • Don’t Call Me Girlie (1986) Directed by Andree Wright and Stewart Young. Available from Ronin Films
  • History of Australian Film 1896-1940, Part 3 “Now You’re Talking” (1979) Directed by Keith Gow. Film Australia

Film Clips @ Australian Screen, an NFSA website

Youtube

Audio Interviews

Hollywood Forever Family Memorial Site

Text

  • Edmund Angelo (1949) Curtain-You’re On! Murray & Gee Inc.
  • Bernard F Dick (2004) Hal Wallis, Producer to the Stars. The University Press of Kentucky.
  • Ken G Hall (1980) Australian Film, The Inside Story. Summit Books
  • Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1980) Australian Films 1900-1977: A Guide to Feature production. Oxford University Press/ AFI.
  • Ann Richards (1971) The Grieving Senses and Other Poems. Branden Press.
  • Andree Wright (1986) Brilliant careers. Women in Australian Film. Pan Books.

Australian Dictionary of Biography

National Library of Australia, Trove

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 October, 1933, Cast of Children.
  • Smith’s Weekly, 10 Apr 1937; The Rise of Shirley Ann Richards.
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Mar 1937; Amateurs carry on stage traditions.
  • Table Talk, 28 Oct 1937; Cinesound School for Talent.
  • Truth (Sydney), 23 Feb 1936; The Jottings of a Lady
  • Evening News, 14 Aug 1919; Young Australia. Needs Virus of Self Reliance.
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Sep 1944; Romance and Steel. Ann Richards’s role.
  • The Age, 4 July 1946. Advice to would be film stars.
  • The Canberra Times, 1 Jul 1977; An Australian star remembers

Newspapers.com

  • The Monrovia News-Post. 1 July 1988: Actress to speak of China and Tibet.

The Independent

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. However, there are several special reasons for including her on this website.

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, 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

Did she retire? Well, not exactly. 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. She died in May 1969.

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 newspapers.com

In case you don’t know who she was !

Below: 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. 

enid bennet about 1910She 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 (born 1891) and a younger sister Marjorie Esme (born 1896). 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 (born 1901) 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. 

Below left: Enid Bennett as featured in a US comedy she performed with Niblo, Excuse Me.  From “The Lone Hand”, 1 August 1913. Centre Fred Niblo and right Josephine Cohan. Prompt Scrapbook, Vol 10- 1. via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Lone Hand 1913FRed Niblo Prompt scrapbook   Josephine Cohan


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. 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.

A princess of the dark

Above: Thomas Ince marketing his latest star in March 1916. “El Paso Times”, 2 March 1916. Some commentaries incorrectly date this to a release in 1917. Via Newspapers.com

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

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 excitment 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 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, Nellie and Enid’s two step-siblings packed up and departed for the US on the SS Ventura.

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).

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.

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.

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).

Nick Murphy
February 2020

Further Reading

Online

  • Film – Robin Hood 1922 – on Youtube and Internet Archive
  • Film clip –Officer 666 National Film and Sound Archive
  • 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
  • Newspapers.com
    • 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

Text

  • 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.