The real Mona Barrie

Mona Barrie (formerly Mona Barlee) in MGM’s “Cairo”. It’s hard to accept Mona as a wicked Nazi spy while she wears this extraordinary hat! This is a convoluted 1942 spy film with music, comedy and drama, featuring robot bombers and doors in pyramids that open with the sound of a “high C”. But she was firmly established as a screen actor and had been at work in Hollywood for eight years, and before that for eleven years in Australia. Photo – probably from MGM. Author’s Collection.

Like most other Australians wanting to work in the US at the time, Mona Barrie (then Barlee) arrived in California on the Matson liner Monterey in June 1933, to pursue her dream. Her career took off remarkably quickly and for the next fifteen years she was busy in Hollywood, in more than 40 films, of varying quality. For various reasons she developed nothing like the profile of her contemporaries Mary Maguire or Constance Worth and yet, her movie career was, by any measure, much more successful. She even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Mona 6

Mona Barrie in Hollywood. Over time she developed a reputation for glamorous and fashionable attire. This Fox Films photo was taken in 1935. Author’s collection.

The oft-repeated story that soon after arriving in the US she went to New York to stay with a friend appears to be true. Mona had enjoyed a successful career on stage in Australia and had met US performer Florrie Le Vere and her songwriter husband Lou Handman during their 1928 tour. The two women had struck up a friendship. Mona had traveled to stay with them at their apartment on Riverside Drive, New York.

It was claimed she got her film start “by accident.” The Adelaide News wrote “She was on her way to London and passed through Hollywood. Three talent scouts saw her and begged her to have a screen test. She accepted, had a test, and signed a contract.” This was the usual “rags to riches” fame story then so popular. A report by Melbourne’s Table Talk, in November 1933, told a similar story. It claimed she had been offered a screen test by a Fox Film scout, “Mr Solomon Pinkus” having been spotted on a New York bus. She had been on her way to London. This story would be more believable if it wasn’t very similar to the one Constance Worth and Mary Maguire would wheel out as well. But, perhaps it was they who were copying Mona’s experience.

Whatever the truth, on September 2, 1933, Fox Films announced that they had offered a contract to Mona Barrie, one of “Australia’s leading actresses”. (The change of stage name was so typical of the time) It was all remarkably quick. She was put to work on the crime drama B film “Sleepers East,” and then the more substantial historical romance “Carolina.”

Mona Centre

Mona, centre, as one of “nine pretty girls who adorn the production (of The Merry Widow) at Her Majesty’s.” This appears to be Mona’s first outing on the stage. Table Talk, 12 October 1922. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Born in Tooting, England, a southern suburb of London, in 1906, Mona Barlee Smith and her three siblings and mother Jessie Barlee, had arrived in Australia in 1914. Her father Phil Smith had arrived courtesy a J.C. Williamson’s contract a year before. 

Unfortunately, like the stories of her start in film, Mona’s Australian story is badly muddled in online accounts – these are not only confused about her date of birth but also her date of arrival in Australia. Perhaps she contributed to this confusion herself in later years. But there’s not much doubt around her real date of birth. Although often claimed to have been born in 1909, we can confidently say she was born in 1906. She was 5 years old during the 1911 English census, and 8 in April 1914 when she arrived in Melbourne. Not only that, we can find the index entry for her British birth – it also states 1906.

Click to enlarge.
Left: 1911 English census, when the family lived at 37 Malvern Rd, Surbiton, Surrey, lists 5-year-old Mona. Right: The Australian passenger list for SS Miltiades, arriving 18 April 1914 lists 8-year-old Mona. (This image has been modified to fit). Via the 
British National Archives and Public Records Office, Victoria, via Ancestry.com.

Her parents Phil Smith, a comedian, and Jessie Barlee, a comedian and singer, both had successful careers of their own, sometimes working together on the stage in England, and then for 9 months in Australia. Unfortunately, their professional and personal relationship ended in mid 1915, and a very public divorce followed in 1917-18. In addition, Jessie, still supporting Irene (16), Mona (12), Roland (6) and Joan (5), took Phil to court for child support. Phil Smith disputed this claim, because Jessie and Irene were now on stage and earning money themselves – he claimed.

Left: Phil Smith and Jessie Barlee performing at Melbourne’s Bijou Theatre, The Herald 29 April 1915. Centre: Phil Smith, The Sydney Mirror, 25 October 1918. Right: Irene (later Rene) Barlee, Western Mail 22 Feb, 1923. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

It’s actually Mona’s older sister, Irene Barlee Smith, stage name Rene Barlee, who first earned a name for herself on stage. In 1920 she was described as one of  “J. C. Williamson’s latest finds in soubrettes.” She appeared in various touring shows – such as The Midnight Frolics, and in popular pantomimes including Little Red Riding Hood and The Forty Thieves. In language typical of the time, newspapers generally described her as a good “little singer”, a “clever little dancer”,  a “pretty”, “dainty” performer.  She consistently received good reviews – yet for all her success, Rene decided to leave the stage in 1927 after marrying Murray Church, a Shell Oil Company executive who lived in Western Australia. We are fortunate in that Frank van Straten interviewed Rene in the 1970s. A short extract appears in Van Straten’s sumptuous book, Tivoli.

Mona 1926Mona Barlee first appeared on stage at the age of 16, in 1922, in the chorus of “The Merry Widow” at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre. (As theatre historian Clay Djubal notes, this is another reason for believing her birth was in 1906. Had she been born in 1909, she would have been performing at the unlikely age of 13). Within a few years Mona was appearing as a featured supporting player. In late 1925, she took the lead role in Jerome Kern, P.G Wodehouse and Guy Martin’s musical “Leave it to Jane” – for J.C. Williamson’s, and although the first Melbourne reviewer in Table Talk felt she was rather “too lightweight”, after six months touring, the Adelaide Mail was able to comment on her “delightful soprano voice and a personality which impresses the audience.” She went on to perform in the Australian run of George and Ira Gershwin, Desmond Carter and B. G. De Sylva’s brand new musical “Tell Me More”.

Above: Mona Barlee and Freddy Mackay in “Tell Me More”. The Australasian 31 July 1926. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Mona married Charles Harold “Bob” Rayson in Melbourne, in August 1928. She did not retire from the stage as some accounts claimed,  but the marriage was short-lived and less than three years later a divorce was granted.

Adelaide Theatre Royal 1931

Mona Barrie on stage in Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever” at Adelaide’s Theatre Royal in 1931 – in company with other well known Australians; amongst them some familiar names – Cecil Kellaway, Mary MacGregor , Coral Brown and John Wood. The News (Adelaide) 21 August, 1931. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In 1932, Mona had a small part in her first film – “His Royal Highness,” a musical comedy made in Melbourne by F.W. Thring and written by and starring popular comedian George Wallace. Film historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper describe some of the scenes as “heavy handed”, being influenced by Wallace’s experiences as a stage performer. Eventually the film was sold for distribution in England under the modified title “His Loyal Highness.” This writer regrets to admit that on viewing the film, Mona Barlee’s bit part is so minor, he was not certain he could confidently recognise her.

By 1933, reviews of Mona’s stage performances were generally very positive. Eight years after that first ambivalent review, the Melbourne Herald was effusive in its praise for her in “While Parents Sleep“, a new comedy by Anthony Kimmins. Under the heading “Mona Barlee has a future”, the reviewer wrote “Her performance was largely responsible for the play’s success… She has fine talents as a player of sophisticated parts, and this performance should leave no doubt about her future, either here or abroad.” The Western Mail in Perth was even more effusive, writing; “She has worked hard, and, backed by brains, ability, and personal attractiveness, she will undoubtedly be added to the list of Australians who have won world fame.” Indeed, Mona was apparently thinking along similar lines. Years later, when she met Australian portrait artist Stanley Parker again, he recalled they used to “drink cocoa in her little flat in Collins Street [in central Melbourne] and talk about coming to London”. In the height of the Great Depression, that had hit Australia so hard, perhaps the idea of moving country had an even greater attraction. By February 1933 she had her passport and at the end of May she wrapped up her Sydney season of “While Parent’s Sleep”, and boarded the Monterey. She never came back.

John and Mona Table Talk 1933

John Wood, Agnes Doyle and Mona Barlee in “While Parents Sleep”, Table Talk, Jan 26, 1933. Wood left for England and Mona for the US soon after. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Mona’s success in the US has been documented, although again somewhat indifferently. She was not tall as has often been claimed, the very thorough US immigration documents kept for new arrivals record that she was only 5 foot 2 or 3 inches, or about 1.60 metres, an average height. Her eyes were brown, not blue, as some accounts claim. Where reviews were given of her work, they were consistently positive throughout her two decades of performing in film – and sometimes on the US stage. For example, of the B-film “Strange Fascination,” made in 1952 (it was Mona’s second last film), reviewer Helen Bower said that while the picture was not to her taste, she could forgive director Hugo Haas a great deal for casting the wonderful Mona Barrie as Mrs Fowler. She stood out “like a Cartier creation amid a heap of junk jewelry. She is authentically a lady… How’s for Hollywood giving Mona Barrie a better break?” she asked. Hollywood didn’t.

Monas last film
Above: Mona Barrie in “Strange Fascination”. The Detroit Free Press. 8 November, 1952

And her voice? This writer would argue that while it was well spoken it was an unmistakably Australian accent. Unlike so many Australians working in Hollywood, she was an established and skilled actor and was confident in her own ability. She almost certainly felt she didn’t need elocution lessons. And if pressed on her origins she could honestly claim to being English-born, after all.

Above: Mona Barrie in a short extract from the Lux Radio Theatre production of “Saturday’s Children“. October 26, 1936. Click to follow the link to the Old Time Radio Downloads Website.

Mona Barrie’s final film was in 1953, a bit role in “Plunder of the Sun”, perhaps fittingly directed by the prolific Australian-born director, John Farrow.

Of Mona’s family, we know that her mother Jessie Barlee lived to the age of 99. She died in 1979 at her apartment in Melbourne’s St. Kilda. Phil had died in 1946. Roly Barlee, Mona’s younger brother, became a radio announcer and occasional actor in Melbourne. He died in 1988. Mona died aged 58, on 27 June 1964, from unknown causes. She is buried next to her second husband Paul Bolton – they had married in Mexico on December 14, 1933. Of the family’s Australian residences we only know that in the mid 1920s Jessie and her younger children lived comfortably at 6 Faraday Avenue, Rose Bay, in Sydney. The pretty house that was home to this creative family is still there.

Further Reading

  • National Library of Australia’s Trove. (Citations are inline)
  • Ed Lowry, Charlie Foy (Paul M Levitt Ed) (1999) Joe Frisco: Comic, Jazz Dancer, and Railbird. Southern Illinois University Press.
  • Frank Van Straten (2003 ) Tivoli. Thomas C. Lothian, South Melbourne.
  • www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com
  • Clay Djubal (2015) Research notes on Mona Barrie. Australian Variety Theatre Archive.
  • Ralph Marsden (2013) History of the Bijou Theatre. Theatre Heritage Australia
  • Helen Bower, Detroit Free Press, 8 November 1952. “Mona Barrie lends movie distinction”
  • Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1981 and 1998): Australian film, 1900-1977 : a guide to feature film production. Oxford University Press
  • Hal Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby Ltd.

 

Nick Murphy
April, 2019

Robert Greig and Beatrice Holloway go to Hollywood

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

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

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

Beatrice Holloway

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

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

Otago Witness 1904.jpg

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

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

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

1912 wedding

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

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

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

                        Bob and Bea 1918  Officer 666 in 1924

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Greig memorial

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

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

Nick Murphy, December 2018

Further reading

 

Sylvia Breamer – I’m not a German!

Enlargement of a photo of Sylvia Bremer, from Witzel Studios, Los Angeles. c 1918. Author’s Collection.

Of course, Sylvia Bremer is not a forgotten Australian at all, I just wanted an excuse to include this photo from my collection!  Ralph Marsden’s biography Who was Sylvia? was published in 2016 – making use of hitherto unseen private photos of Bremer – and including a great deal of painstaking new research. Copies are available from bookshops – also Amazon and ebay.

Bremer was born into a comfortable family home in Double Bay, a harbour-side suburb of Sydney, in June 1897. Following several years of stage work in Australia, in 1916 she travelled to the US with her first husband and there she stayed – her first film for Thomas H. Ince was The Pinch Hitter, released in 1917. But as Ralph Marsden recounts, her story was not a happy one at all. Her career in film did not last – it was over well before the coming of sound in 1927 (she made over 40 films in just ten years). She was active on stage from 1926 -1930, her performances with the Bainbridge Players in Minneapolis in late 1930 appear to be her last, except for a small role in the 1936 talkie Too Many Parents, a Paramount kid picture with Billy Lee and Frances Farmer. Possibly her widely published criticisms of the shallowness of work and life in Hollywood had not endeared her to key figures in the industry – including the powerful film producers who otherwise might have employed her.

Here is part of Sylvia Breamer’s only scene in “Too Many Parents”(1936), as the mother of the insufferable Billy Miller (Billy Lee). Twenty years after arriving in the US, her accent is an English one. Copyright held by Universal films.

She married three times,  but each relationship ended acrimoniously or abruptly. There were no children from any of the marriages.   

Below: A postcard of Bremer, produced about 1920. Ironically, it appears to have been printed in Germany. Author’s Collection

Breamer 2This author can claim some small contribution to the unusually accurate Wikipedia article on her  – I found and added her interview with Julian Johnson for Photoplay magazine in 1918. In this interview she tied herself in knots to emphasize (or exaggerate) her British naval connections.  Her father was not a battle-ship captain as she claimed, but a hard working public servant. She was obviously sensitive to accusations of German ancestry, as only a year before, she had changed the spelling of her surname from Bremer to Breamer,  apparently to make her sound less German in the midst of war.

She died in New York aged only 45, in 1943. Perhaps one of the most moving photos in Marsden’s book is a grainy photo of Sylvia and her sister on the streets of New York, taken shortly before she died. Her passing appears to have gone unnoticed in Australia. Her mother, step father, sister and brother all moved to the US. For a time, her brother Jack worked as a cinematographer. 

 

Nick Murphy, December 2018

Further Reading

Mary Macgregor’s brief adventure in Hollywood

An enlargement of a publicity still. Myrna Loy (left) and Mary Macgregor of Queensland (as the maid Ellen), in “Wife Vs Secretary” (1936). Author’s Collection. Source – probably MGM.

Mary Macgregor (often confused with Mary Maguire) was born Francis Mary Macgregor on 16 August 1904, into a Queensland family with considerable social standing; her father Peter Balderston Macgregor was a highly regarded King’s Counsel and later a Judge. At a young age she earned a reputation for her prose –  and she won a prize for a patriotic poem in 1916. The first stanza reads:

Oh, soldiers of Australia, Who went to give your all
Right gallantly you did obey, the Mother Country’s call !
When Britain’s bugle-call rang out across Australia’s plains.
You left our peaceful wattle land to fight where cruel war reigns.

 

Brought up in a family that encouraged the arts, she first performed on stage at University, where she was studying literature, and then won a breakthrough role as Jill in Oscar Asche‘s Melbourne production of “The Skin Game”by John Galsworthy, in 1924.

The Skin Game

Prince and the Pauper 1930

Left: The Melbourne Argus, 26 April 1924 advertises Mary in “The Skin Game” via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Right: The Telegraph (Brisbane), 22 April 1930 praises her on her performance in “The Prince and the Pauper”, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

She spent the next ten years on stage in Australia and New Zealand – earning consistently positive reviews and becoming so popular she was never out of work. Amongst her notable stage work were roles for the Leon Gordon company. This company travelled Australia performing several of his plays, including “White Cargo”, where Mary took the role of the sultry mixed race character, Tondelayo.

Of playing Tondeleyo, she remarked; “The part is, to say the least, unconventional, and different from anything I have ever played … the idea of browning myself all over and wearing the scanty attire of the coloured vamp, was hard to get accustomed to. Moreover, my mother, when I mentioned the matter to her, was most disapproving …” In the minds of many Australians, acting was still a questionable profession, and for some, only a few steps removed from prostitution.

The Age Feb 1930Tondelayo

Left; The Age, Melbourne, announces the first run of “White Cargo” in Australia. 1 Feb, 1930, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
Right; Mary Macgregor on stage at a Melbourne theatre as Tondelayo. Table Talk, 13 Feb, 1930. National Library of Australia, via Trove

Macgregor departed for England on the SS Mongolia in February 1933,  and soon after found work on stage in a season of “Cynara”and a part in John Gielgud‘s tour of “Hamlet.” Now approaching thirty, she was an experienced actress – witty, good-looking, good-humoured and extremely confident.

She went on to California in June, 1935 where she joined John Wood, another Australian stage actor she knew well from Australian performances together in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” and with whom she had already spent time in England. Wood had just starred as Flavius in the RKO film “The Last Days of Pompeii.” Mary’s account of her voyage to the US, the only passenger on board the Norwegian freighter Heranger, as it endured a heavy crossing of the Atlantic, became a story she often recounted. In February 1936, her engagement to Wood was publicly announced.

Macgregor then appeared in a small role in the film “Wife Vs Secretary” – a romantic john woodcomedy starring Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and Australian-born May Robson. Macgregor’s part was as the maid, Ellen. She then returned in some haste to Brisbane to see her ailing father. But Wood returned to London, where he was to act in a number of films, including two with Mary Maguire. Macgregor was coy when questioned about the engagement, and it was soon dropped as a topic for newspaper publicity pieces. They did not marry.

Above: John Wood about the time he was in Hollywood. The photo appears to have been used by Herbert de Leon, a London agent, soon after Wood’s return to London.  He was extremely handsome and was supposedly made offers of marriage by love-stuck viewers of “The Last Days of Pompeii”. Author’s collection.

Sounding every bit the English maid, Brisbane born Mary Macgregor as Ellen, in MGM’s “Wife Vs Secretary” (1936), her only Hollywood outing. The MGM film is widely available for purchase and held by Turner Classic Movies.

At home in Brisbane, Macgregor was treated as film-making royalty and the story of her six months in Hollywood was endlessly spun out in newspapers. In April, the Brisbane Sunday Mail reassured readers about her time in Hollywood – The Brisbane actress met many celebrities there. Macgregor was much more blasé – “Once you know two or three people in Hollywood’s film world, it is no time before you have met nearly all the others.” When the film was released in Australia in July, she was employed to appear at some screenings to introduce the film and discuss “Hollywood and noted stars.”

The Brisbane Courier Mail’s review of the film was typically effusive and very much in a Wife v secretarycelebratory style;  “In the strong glare of the stars in…Wife versus Secretary, which started a season at Cremorne Theatre yesterday, patrons might fail to recognise the talented actress who plays the role of a maid. She is Mary Macgregor, of Brisbane, who has achieved no small name as a stage actress, and whose feet are now planted on the ladder of success at the top of which glitters screen stardom.”

Above: “Wife vs Secretary” opens at the Cremorne Theatre. Mary’s role was uncredited. The Courier Mail, 23 July 1936. National Library of Australia, Trove

When Macgregor joined radio station 2GB’s BSA Players (Broadcasting Service Association Players, later the Macquarie Players) in 1937, The Australian Women’s Weekly explained that she had decided to stay in Australia – Hollywood would have to wait for this star. And in the same vein, on John Wood’s return in late 1939, he also returned to radio and the stage with great fanfare. When the play, “The Quiet Wedding” opened at the Minerva Theatre in Sydney, he was heralded in the press as “Australia’s great film and stage star, John Wood, fresh from triumphs overseas.” A few more stage roles followed, including a season of Dorothy Sayers’ “Busman’s Honeymoon” which included a rather joyful re-teaming with John Wood. But in November 1940, Wood joined the Australian Army,  being captured 14 months later at the end of the Malayan Campaign. The story of his efforts with the Australian Concert party in Changi are well documented.

By 1942 Mary had turned to war work, and she appeared less and less on radio. In February 1944 she married John Chirnside, one of the sons of John Percy Chirnside , and the couple moved to the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. Her acting career came to an end. Mary died barely ten years later in February 1954, aged only 50. Chirnside died the following year, leaving a significant estate. The couple did not have children.

Following repatriation, John Wood left Australia in 1948, joining the great exodus of Australian actors moving to England at the time. He performed on the West End for a few years, but then retired to Spain with his wife, actress Phil Buchanan. He also died young – in 1965.

Unfortunately, the group of performers who knew Mary well have also passed on – Lloyd Lamble, Peter Finch, Alan Cuthbertson, Lou Vernon – only Lamble left an as yet unpublished memoir. It’s a great pity Mary did not leave her own memoirs for us – we know that she was a great raconteur and her memoirs of the Australian stage would have been entertaining.

MMacgregor

From Table Talk 30 Jan, 1930 Via National Library of Australia – Trove

Nick Murphy
September 2018

Further Reading

  • All Australian newspapers Via National Library of Australia – Trove – Digitised Newspaper Collection
  • Daily Mirror, Dec 12, 1961 Via British Library Newspaper project

Mary Maguire – An Epilogue

The Chapel of Academy of Mary Immaculate, Nicholson Street, Fitzroy – Mary Maguire’s old school. Established in 1857, the school continues to operate on the same site and in a rare Melbourne street-scape that is almost unchanged.

One of Mary Maguire’s classmates, who lived in Collingwood with a bed-ridden mother and unemployed step-father, remembered her vividly. Jo Mostyn (nee Gardiner) was one of the Academy of Mary Immaculate girls invited to a birthday party for Peggy (she never called her Mary), a very grand affair, held in 1931 at the Maguire’s Hotel Metropole. Memories of the day; dressing up in her one and only best dress – and the highlight – a Sennitt’s ice cream cake that arrived late on a hot summer’s day, to Mick’s great annoyance, remained with Jo all her life. In contrast, Jo’s own birthday, a few weeks earlier, couldn’t be celebrated at all. Jo was a charity case at the school, and her sick mother and unemployed step-father, broken-down jockey Jimmy Gardiner, were reliant for an income on his door to door sales of hand-made rag-rugs, that they made at home at night. To the end of her life, Jo remembered Peggy Maguire’s friendly nature and endless good humour, her deep black hair and flashing brown eyes. She recalled that Peggy looked like a movie star, even when she was at school. It says much about Peggy that Jo’s impoverished situation made no difference to her being a friend. Jo took a perverse delight in the knowledge that at least she was better at “adding up” than Peggy.

Jo Mostyn 19351              Mary about 1935

School friends at the Academy of Mary Immaculate.
Left: Jo Gardiner in 1935. Author’s collection

Right: Peggy (later Mary) Maguire about 1935. State Library of Queensland, John Oxley Library.  Freda Peterson (Schofield) Scrapbook

Maguire enrolment

A school enrolment from another era! Peggy Maguire’s (spelled McGuire) enrolment record at the Academy of Mary Immaculate in 1923. Her pet name was good enough apparently, plus father’s name and his hotel in Bourke Street! How different to the 21st Century. Courtesy Academy of Mary Immaculate.

A few years before she died, in about 1972, Mary Maguire did finally make contact with a few lost school friends, including Jo Mostyn. Jo had last seen news of Mary when she married Bobbie Gordon-Canning. She had imagined Mary was still living in great style in some English castle, or a stately home somewhere, but she also worried that the invalid-chair she saw in photos meant Mary had a serious illness. It was a relief to hear from her, through the good graces of one of the nuns, who had somehow made contact. The letter came out of the blue, and Jo read it and reread it, perhaps searching for some understanding of why Mary was now in the US, whether she had children and was she still in films.

The letter, which no longer exists, was apparently only a page or so long. Written in Mary’s distinctive hand, it apparently painted a fairly superficial picture of Mary’s life in California – the sunny weather, the good food and the interesting things happening around her. She mentioned her regular church attendance and one or two friends she often saw. She mentioned Phil with some pride, touching on his success as an Engineer and his recent death; but of her career in films, her Hollywood friends and her time in England, she said nothing. As always, she ended with a promise to return to the Australia she still missed, “soon.” “I would love to ride on the Melbourne tram to the beach again” she wrote.

Jo Mostyn wrote back at Christmas time and again the following Christmas. But there was no further response from Mary. It was as though the letter Mary had written was her final effort to reach out, one last time, to old friends of the past, and a life she had long since lost.

Years later Jo would sigh as she told the author how beautiful Mary was. She would relate at some length how much everyone at the school admired Mary and her sisters. By the time she told me this, Jo was living a happy but modest life in Melbourne’s eastern suburb of Ringwood, with a husband, three grown up children and four grandchildren. Little did she know that Mary had then been dead for ten years, and her later life had not been one of film-star glamour, ease and luxury. Jo’s own childhood had been one of significant hardship and poverty in depression-era Melbourne. But in the end, she lived a life as fulfilling and rewarding as Mary’s, although she was never to know it. Jo’s fantasy that a school friend from grimy Melbourne of the 1930s had succeeded in the film world and was living in luxury and comfort, stayed with her to the end of her days.

IMG_3354 AMI2
Most of Mary Maguire’s Melbourne has been demolished. However, she would recognise this stretch of Elizabeth Street between Bourke and Collins.(left) It would have been visible from windows at the rear of the Hotel Metropole.
Her old school in Nicholson Street, Fitzroy, appears almost unchanged from this angle (right). Author’s Collection.


Nick Murphy
September 2018

A list of further readings can be found at the end of Part 1.

Mary Maguire – The filmstar and the fascist, 1939-1974

Mary Maguire – the darling of Hollywood – for oh so brief a time, beams as she sqeezes the hand of the man she had just  married, Captain Robert Gordon Canning, in London on 10th August 1939.  The marriage was a disaster.
Photo from the Herald and Weekly Times Portrait collection. State Library of Victoria, Picture Collection

Profound changes occurred in Mary Maguire’s life in 1939 and these were to colour the remainder of her life.

In May 1939 she began work on “An Englishman’s Home” for Aldwych films. It was based on a well known play by Guy du Maurier. The plot concerned an invasion of Britain (the threatening power is un-named, but clearly meant to be Germany) and starred Austrian-born Paul von Hernried, another refugee to Britain from fascism. It again featured John Wood, in what was to be his last film before returning to Australia.

Englishman's home 1939

Above – A little over two years after this photo was taken on the set of “An Englishman’s Home”, Paul Henreid (left) had simplified his name and was in Hollywood, playing Victor Laszlo in “Casablanca”. John Wood (right) however, was to find himself a prisoner of war of the Japanese at about the same time. After his return to Australia in 1939, he joined the Army and was posted to Singapore. He was captured in early 1942. He spent the next three-and-a-half years working tirelessly to maintain morale through theatre performances. Source probably Aldwych films. Author’s collection.

About the time she was filming An Englishman’s Home”, Mary became engaged to Robert Gordon Canning, a wealthy and decorated British World War One veteran. It was, she later admitted, a whirlwind romance. Known to his close friends as “Bobbie”, he was a former Captain in the 10th Hussars and had earned the Military Cross for bravery in action at Arras in 1916. They were introduced to each other by Miles Mander, during a visit to England. At almost fifty-two, Bobbie was over thirty years Mary’s senior.

bobbie GC

Enlargement of Robert Gordon Canning on the wedding day, 10th August, 1939. Photo from the Herald and Weekly Times Portrait collection. State Library of Victoria, Picture Collection

What did Mary see in this man who was older than her father? At the time, Mary said, “Bobbie conforms to my idea of the ideal man … when I met Bobbie, nothing else mattered.” There was however, another dimension to Bobbie that would have made him less attractive to some, although it did not discourage the Maguires. Bobbie was an opinionated, active and influential fascist. From 1934 until mid-1938, he was a senior figure in the British Union of Fascists (BUF) and was close to BUF leader, Oswald Mosley, although he split from the movement in 1938.

Follow this link  – photo of leading BUF members including Bobbie and Mosley, 1935. Source: The Friends of Oswald Mosley (F.O.M. London)

At the time of the engagement, Bobbie had little to say publicly about what had attracted him to Mary, but he was quoted as saying that she was the first actor he met who “didn’t talk shop.” He apparently also disliked “bridge and golf-playing women.” “I am neither,” Mary pointed out. The impending marriage was celebrated with a portrait of Mary by popular artist Vasco Lazzolo.

Mary was wise enough to publicly disassociate herself from Gordon Canning’s political extremism and virulent anti-Semitism. She told Australian Women’s Weekly journalist Mary St. Claire, “I was given my big chance in Hollywood, where there are many Jews. It would be both ungrateful and unkind of me to ally myself because of marriage with the Fascist Party… I have no fascist sympathies and do not intend to take part in my fiancee’s political life.” This unsophisticated comment reveals a certain lack of worldliness on Mary’s part – how she expected not to be part of his political life is hard to imagine. She maintained the argument that she was not involved in his political activities, or at least, was largely ignorant of them, all her life. Looking back on the marriage in late 1944, she said of fascism “I didn’t understand what it was all about.”

MM signature

Not surprisingly, Mary Maguire’s signature in 1938-39 still looked unsophisticated. She was only 20 at the time. She maintained a strong affection for Australia all her life, but never went home again. Author’s Collection.

Part of the answer to the riddle of Mary’s attraction to Bobbie lies in a disaster that befell her about the same time. In July 1939, towards the end of filming An Englishman’s Home”, Mary became ill again. What seemed to start as another cold ended up very seriously. It was Bobbie who suspected something sinister and encouraged Mary to visit a specialist to have a proper assessment. Maxwell Chance, a highly regarded Mayfair doctor, diagnosed her with acute pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) and immediately sent her to an exclusive nursing home to rest and “dry out.”  It was a shock, an embarrassment, and it put an end to her acting for the time being, as well as her social life. Of course, the family did not publicly report her condition as TB, but rather as fatigue from “overwork” or “lung trouble” from working in the cold.

The condition explains why she was carried to her wedding in an invalid chair and why she immediately returned to the nursing home after the event. Her treatment for TB included a revolutionary procedure designed to deflate and rest the infected lung, using oxygen introduced by a pneumothorax needle. Mary lay on her side to have the needle inserted between her ribs, a treatment that was repeated every few weeks. Antibiotic treatment for TB was still years away.

Only a few weeks after the wedding, Britain found itself at war again. Unfortunately, nothing had changed Bobbie’s anti-Semitic opinions or his admiration for aspects of the German model of National Socialism. As a former member of the BUF, he was already under close observation and MI5 had developed a significant file on him and all those he associated with.  As the tension of “the phony war” progressed, at least one of Bobbie’s old friendships was strained to breaking point. Bobbie and Miles Mander fell out quite spectacularly. In letters written to Mander in Hollywood in February 1940, Bobbie described the war as “a ramp” (a swindle), singling out “Jewish financiers” as the architects of the conflict, in the best fascist tradition. We know this because Mander, in a steaming fury, complained about him to the Home Office.

Mick on the Germans Daily Express April 23 1940

Mick continues to spin stories. This is part of an article headed “Screen Star’s father joins the BEF again”.  Mick had not served in the British or Australian Army in the First World War and he had not been a Welterweight Champion, as he suggests here. From The Daily Express, 23 April 1940. Via ukpressonline

Then, on Saturday 13 July, 1940, Bobbie was arrested and interned under the British government’s Emergency Powers (Defence) Act, Defence Regulation 18B. This law gave the Government power to imprison, without trial, individuals it thought had the potential to be fifth columnists.  Understandably, Mary, now at home, was shocked when police arrived at their London flat to arrest Bobbie (although she should have had some warning, as others like Mosley and his friend retired Admiral Barry Domvile had already been arrested). She was later to complain that the Police suspected her of being disloyal; with allegations made that she had “flashed signals to submarines lurking off (her home at) Sandwich.”

Mary and MichaelMary was well enough to escort Bobbie to the gates of Brixton prison, announcing that he had long since given up membership of “certain organisations.” A couple of weeks before he was interned, Mary had given Bobbie some good news. She was pregnant and was expecting early the following year. However, she was still continuing with her TB treatments. Her doctors feared the birth would be difficult, even hazardous.  On 3 February 1941, in the midst of the London Blitz, Mary gave birth to an eight-pound son. It was a difficult cesarean birth, aggravated by her weakness from the TB treatment and her petite size. Bobbie was briefly released from Brixton to attend to Mary and his new son.

Mary and her baby, named Michael Robert. The Sun (NSW) 5th June, 1941, Via National library of Australia Trove

It was Bina who passed on details of baby Michael’s birth, as she had after the wedding. The birth had cost Bobbie £2,000. She told journalists that the baby looked the image of Mick, who had joined the British Army. Bina then gave enthusiastic interviews to the press about the arrangements for the christening. “The baby will wear a christening robe made …from a beautiful old point lace robe which has been worn by his father’s mother, and has been in the Gordon Canning family for a hundred years.”

In various appeals to the British authorities, friends, politicians and doctors argued for Bobbie’s release, without any success. The following letter from Maxwell Chance, Mary’s doctor,  is now held in the British National Archive file on Bobbie. It also makes very clear how serious her condition was.

MM7

W.H.C Rollo was Bobbie’s lawyer, and also the father of Primula Rollo, the first wife of David Niven. The Committee reading this to review his detention recommended release, but it was not to be. The Home Secretary, again acting on the advice of M15, decided to keep Bobbie in detention. Source British National Archives. File KV 2-877/8

Mary was well enough by the second half of 1941 to return to work, although, as she was later to point out, it was extremely difficult to get film work with a husband in gaol on suspicion of treason. The work was a supporting role in the 70-minute “This was Paris”, made by Mary’s old studio, Warner Bros, at their Teddington studios in south–west London. The plot revolves around three or four key characters who are participants battling the activities of fifth columnists in France in 1940. Several of the players in the film, including Mary, would have been very well known to US audiences. Ben Lyon, a well known US actor, plays Butch, a perpetually drunken reporter for an Australian newspaper called “The Sidney Chronicle.” (Despite the incorrect spelling, it is clearly meant to be a newspaper in Sydney, Australia he works for). Mary plays his girlfriend with a degree of ability and confidence not seen in many of her earlier films.

Mary Maguire’s first line as Blossum Leroy in her final film “This Was Paris.” Her boyfriend, Butch, a reporter for “The Sidney Chronicle” (sic) has come home drunk, with British spy Bill Hamilton in tow. Listen to that accent! Is she meant to be Australian? It’s worth noting that by the time she was in England, her accent was noticeably refined. Audio clip from VHS copy in the author’s collection.

In wartime England, the joy of parenthood and the pleasure of working in film again was not to last for long. Over Christmas 1941 little Michael became ill. In February 1942, he succumbed to  pneumonia – an operation failed. The little boy was buried at a church at the Gordon Canning ancestral seat of Hartpury in Gloucestershire, his name listed on a monument next to adults killed in Britain’s war effort. Even Bina was unable to put a positive spin on this awful event and could find little to say. Still in prison after a year and a half, Bobbie could not console her. Mary was absolutely devastated.

With the best medical support the Maguires could find, Mary slowly regained something of her former self, although distractions were difficult to find in the very desperate days of 1942. The war was not going well for the Allies. Mary was later to say that she had very little to do during the war.

Bedtime story
A grainy photo of Mary in August 1942. From “The Courier” (Tunbridge Wells), August 7, 1942. Via The British Library Newspaper project

Finally, in the middle of 1942 she felt strong enough to take up some acting again – this time in the theatre. Sister Joan was already achieving some success on the stage in London, so it made some sense to follow in her footsteps. Mary’s play was a production of Bedtime Story”, a “light comedy in 3 acts”, touring through southern England for a month – Bradford, Hull and Tunbridge Wells. Based on the Cinderella story, it was well received by war weary audiences. Although looking thinner and wearing her black hair shorter, Mary was still a glamorous film star and the provincial English press were thrilled when she hit town. But Mary didn’t stay with the play – by the end of the year she had left and the production moved on to Glasgow. She did not return to the stage.

Mary and Patsy 1942
Any news is good news. Sydney Truth reports on the wedding of oldest Maguire daughter Patricia to Peter Aitken, youngest son of Lord Beaverbrook. Truth, Sydney, 1 November 1942. via National Library of Australia’s Trove

But there was some good news. Sometime, early in 1943, Mary met an up-and-coming US aeronautical engineer, Phillip Legarra. Four years her senior, Phil worked in England for North American Aviation on the highly successful P-51 Mustang fighter project. The Mustang was soon to become the war’s breakthrough fighter aircraft, and in its final form was undoubtedly the finest US offensive fighter of the war. At the time they met, Phil was the company’s English representative. They fell in love.

To force Bobbie’s hand and give him no choice but to agree to a divorce, Mary took the unusual step of moving in with Phil, to a comfortable flat in Kensington.  Mary said; “I am not apologising for falling in love with someone my own age. That is natural.”

Phil Legarra fro Skyline

Below: Phil Legarra: “Notes from England” Skyline Magazine, July-August 1943. North American Aviation (in-house magazine), July-August 1943. Author’s Collection.

Bobbie was amongst the internees released in August 1943. Following a post-imprisonment interview conducted at Hartpury in late August 1943, two MI5 officers wondered if Bobbie was suffering “some form of mild mental derangement.” His eccentric behaviour over the next ten years also suggests this. Bobbie blamed Jewish pressure on the Government for his internment while Barry Domvile blamed “judmas;” in his damaged mind a Jewish-Masonic conspiracy was responsible. Bobbie remained an unrepentant national socialist to his death in 1967.

Bobbie Gordon Canning can be seen here in a Movietone newsreel. This is a 1945 auction of formerly impounded German embassy items. Bobbie purchased an enormous bust of Hitler.

Bobbie and Mary divorced in 1944 – despite his determination to put his marriage “in order”. Soon after, in a courageous step, Mary decided that honesty was the best policy, and she bared all to journalists, publicly making reference to her bout of TB for the first time. Phil and Mary’s plan was to marry and return to the US, where Mary could settle down and restart her Hollywood career and Phil could return to the aviation industry. Aware that not all her relatives in Australia would approve of a divorce, she tried to pre-empt their reactions. “Apart from the shock this is going to be to my grandparents in Melbourne, and also to many other of my Australian friends, I am unashamed of what I have done … It’s distressing, but that’s the way it is. I’m sure there are lots of people who won’t forgive me, but most women would do the same in similar circumstances.”  Uncharacteristically, Mick and Bina could find nothing to say publicly about the matter. They were obviously conflicted between their Catholic faith, the embarrassment of a looming divorce and their loyalty to a daughter whose marriage they had encouraged.

Phil and Mary married in March 1945 and left for California just as soon as they could. As newspapers of the time reported, Mary hoped to get a role in “Forever Amber”, a major “Gone With the Wind” style production based on a popular novel by Kathleen Winsor. But in Hollywood, things had changed. Her great mentor and family friend Miles Mander suffered a heart attack and died suddenly after dinner at one of Hollywood’s Brown Derby restaurants in February 1946, only a few months after she returned. Richard Monter, her former agent, died in 1947. Even Mary’s one-time friend, Marion Davies, had moved on, selling her huge seaside Ocean House at Santa Monica in 1945. Her hopes of returning to acting on the screen came to nothing.

Mary and Phil were also denied the joy of parenthood. The female reproductive system is particularly vulnerable to TB – the damage the disease can do to the fallopian tubes can be irreparable and successful conception extremely difficult. It may be this was the reason there were no children from their marriage. If so, it must have been a bitter blow.

Mary decided that a career as an extra was not for her. She could have followed Jocelyn Howarth’s example and continued to try – she might have taken uncredited roles or worked as an extra as old Melbourne friend Joan Winfield did, but she seems to have made a conscious decision not to. It says a great deal about her that she could walk away and leave it all behind. Mary and Phil must have been reassured though – the US aircraft industry, largely based in Southern California – employed hundreds of thousands of people at the war’s end, and the couple’s security and prosperity must have seemed assured by Phil’s connections and ability as an engineer.

Mick Maguire died suddenly in England in June 1950. A few years later, Bina returned to Australia for a holiday. It was at this time she made her “you simply HAVE to meet the right people and at the right places” statement to explain the girls’ successful marriages. She was also reported to have said “if you want marry money, you have to go where money is.”  When she died in 1963, there was another flurry of newspaper accounts. She was, said friends, a woman of “great personal charm and very clear purpose… a motivating force in the whole operation” said another friend.

Mary to Mick's funeral

Mary flew home to the US from Mick’s funeral in London.This airline manifest shows she was still travelling as an Australian in 1950. Mary was often to say she wanted to return to Australia, but never did. Her interest in flying dated to the 1930s. (This image has been modified from the original manifest) From National Archives, via Ancestry.com

The couple settled into a comfortable home in the trendy beachside suburban development at Surfridge, near the airport. The houses in this development faced westwards and had views of the Pacific Ocean, a suburb in the rolling sand dunes popular with former Hollywood stars and the modestly wealthy. Unfortunately the suburb was reclaimed in the 1960s for Los Angeles airport redevelopment. Today, this area is a ghost-suburb; footpaths and streets without houses and palm trees shading what were once verdant gardens and green back yards.

Mary died on 18 May, 1974 – aged only fifty-five. Phil had died in 1971 – alcohol played a part in both their deaths. In her last years Mary lived in a small apartment on Pasadena Avenue in Long Beach. Built in 1922, it still stands and is one of the older apartment blocks in the area. In appearance it could be straight out of Nathaniel West’s classic expose of life of the margins of Hollywood – Day of the Locust.

Two of Mary’s sisters returned to Australia in the 1970s, visiting relatives and being interviewed by state and local papers. Patsy said her strongest Australian memories were of life as a child in the Maguire hotels, and the interesting guests she met. Australian comedian and thirties film star George Wallace stayed in her mind particularly.

carmel lupe and joanMary’s sisters – Carmel, Lupe and Joan Maguire (and Patsy not shown) all achieved the “glittering marriages” their parents hoped for. Press Association Photo about 1938. Author’s collection 

Mary Maguire’s career in the mid-1930s also mirrored that of many other young starlets who sought an acting career in the golden years of Hollywood. She did not leave behind a significant body of film-work; indeed, most of her films are unremarkable second feature or B-films. She developed to become a competent actress, but over six years and a dozen films; she was regularly consigned to the one, almost identical role, the young love interest – the ingénue. This is hardly surprising in the context of the time, in an industry famous for stereotyping actresses. She was barely sixteen years old when she had her first speaking role in a film and twenty-three when she had her last.

Nick Murphy, September 2018

Mary Maguire, Epilogue

Further Readings appear at the end of Part One.

Mary Maguire – The filmstar and the fascist, 1919-1938

Mary Maguire – the darling of Hollywood – for oh so brief a time, beams as she squeezes the hand of the man she had just  married, Captain Robert Gordon Canning, in London in August 1939.  The marriage was a disaster.
Photo from the author’s collection. (Originally widely distributed in the UK by the “Makers of Wayfarer Tailored Clothes”) 

Mary Maguire of Melbourne always loved the movies. According to an unsourced account in her school’s history, she would sometimes skip school to see the latest releases. Born in Melbourne on February 22, 1919, she was the second of five daughters parented by publicans Michael (Mick) and Mary Jane “Bina” Maguire. Mary’s acting career was to be unbelievably short. She appeared in her first film in Australia in 1933, aged 14, and in her final film in the United Kingdom in 1942 when she was just 23 years old. In all, a total of only fourteen films. She died, aged 55, completely forgotten, in Long Beach California. Yet for a little while, in 1937 and 1938, she was the talk of Hollywood.

Mick and Bina’s own upbringing is central to the story of their film star daughter, and their other daughters too. Mick was born and bred in the working class suburb of  Richmond. His very modest family home in Kent Street has long since been demolished, but similar small cottages still stand nearby. His mother and father were aspirational, but not wealthy. Like his brothers, Mick went to school at Parade College, a Catholic boys school, and excelled at sports – becoming a very young player for Richmond Football Club at the age of 16, and dabbling in amateur boxing with mixed success. In later life, Mick was to claim he was the Australian football code’s youngest ever player, and still later, that he was Welterweight boxing champion of Australia. Neither claim was true.

Mary Jane Carroll met Mick when he was playing football. Five years older than Mick, she had been born into a struggling farming family in the Wimmera region of Victoria. Her Irish mother and father gave up the herculean task of trying to make a farm pay and took up work with the Victorian Railways. In time, Bina (the origins of her nickname now being forgotten) would suggest she was also of Irish birth – perhaps she felt it preferable to admitting to her new, swell, friends in London that she had lived a childhood in the Australian bush. In the early twentieth century almost all of her extended family had become hoteliers, as did she and Mick – an assured way to make money in the difficult times between the two wars.

Mick and Bina held the licences to a series of major Melbourne hotels by the early 1920s – The Bull and Mouth, then The Hotel Melbourne and finally the Hotel Metropole, all in bustling central Bourke Street.  They were an ambitious couple, intent on making good and determined that the girls would succeed. Running a hotel was one sure way of achieving this. Mick and Bina were also great self – promoters; as a few who knew them  recalled in later life. On Bina’s passing in 1963, one old friend told The Courier Mail “she was a great contact woman and admitted quite frankly that she cultivated the ‘right’ people because that was the thing most likely to advance her daughters interests.”

Bay View today

Above: One of the many Carroll family hotels – the now de-licenced Bay View Hotel in Kensington. Run by Mary Maguire’s auntie Alice, it was also where her maternal grandparents retired to. Mary visited them here before heading off to Hollywood in 1936. Photo – author’s collection.
Below: Peggy (Mary) in about 1934. Photo – John Oxley Library Collection, State Library of Queensland.

John Oxley Library 2Mary’s name at birth was Helene Teresa Maguire. Her “pet name” was Peggy – used by all the family.

She appeared in her first film in 1933. This was a small bit part in Pat Hanna’s Diggers in Blighty”, filmed in Melbourne. It was a largely pointless non-speaking role as a clerk, where she giggles at the soldier antics of Hanna, Joe Valli and George Moon. How did she get the role? It’s almost certain that the ever affable Mick Maguire used his connections to get his daughter a break doing something she loved. He arranged a similar introduction again in mid-1934, when pioneering filmmaker Charles Chauvel chose her for a role. The Maguires were now living in Queensland and running Brisbane’s premier hotel – The Bellevue. Based largely on her looks and ability to do an Irish accent of sorts – apparently her party piece – Chauvel cast Peggy as Biddy O’Shea, an Irish immigrant girl, in his panorama of Australian history “Heritage”.

Watch a clip with Peggy’s first scene from Heritage here (The Australian Screen – National Film and Sound Archive)

James Morrison (a rather effete Teamster who spies Biddy as she steps off the ship): Excuse me miss, may I carry your bundle?
Biddy O’Shea: You will not, I’ll carry me own bundle.
James (insisting and grabbing her bag): I’ll carry it miss!
Biddy: Give me my bundle! (Hitting him and stamping on his hat) … That’ll teach you to play tricks on an Irish girl!

Thus began Peggy Maguire’s acting career in film.

Peggy’s breakthrough role came on the heels of Heritage”. Miles Mander, a British actor and director was hired by an Australian syndicate to make a movie, based loosely, very loosely, on the 1934 novel The Flying Doctor”, by Robert Waldron. Peggy won the part of Jenny Rutherford, with Hollywood actor Charles Farrell imported for the lead. In January she announced she was now calling herself Mary – a name more suited to a sophisticated film star. Today, the rarely seen finished product looks unconvincing and old-fashioned. Even in 1936 it attracted mixed reviews – The Sydney Morning Herald’s reviewer complained about the film’s endless scenes of “local colour… what amounts to tourist propaganda.” The cameo appearance of Don Bradman delighted and annoyed reviewers in equal numbers.

Photos and posters from The Flying Doctor can be found here (The Ozmovie site)

Actress Mary Maguire with family and friends welcoming her to Brisbane Queensland 1936
The Maguire family welcome Mary home after filming The Flying Doctor; from left –  Lupe, Mary, Mick, Joan, Bina, British screen writer JOC Orton, Patsy and Carmel, April 1936 . Director Miles Mander had left hurriedly for the US a few days before, following a court case for speeding.
Photo from Queensland Newspapers  – John Oxley Library Collection, State Library of Queensland.

Whatever the reviewers said, the Maguires were immensely satisfied and the decision was made to pursue Mary’s acting career. Miles Mander had also been very encouraging – and assured them Hollywood was the place to go. Mick was to accompany Mary to the US as her personal manager, intent on bulldozing a path through any obstacles and clearly confident that he could make things happen as successfully as he had in Melbourne and Brisbane. There were discussions about the rest of the family following soon after, especially if, as expected, Mary made a go of it in Hollywood. It was all very exciting – but also very daunting. As it turned out, she was never to see Australia again.

Mary (or more correctly her father, as she was underage) signed a contract with Warner Brothers soon after arriving in the US, and over 1936-37 she appeared in four films for the company. Only one was a main feature film, Confession”, a vehicle for leading star Kay Francis. Her three other films were cinema program fillers, all produced by Brian Foy’s “B-film” unit, all running to less that 60 minutes, and all constructed around scripts that were regularly recycled and filmed quickly.

mary signs up signed off

Left:  Mary and Mick’s signatures on a contract in 1937. Mary’s handwriting remained the same throughout her life. Source Warner Brothers Archives, School of Cinematic Studies, University of Southern California.
Right: Doris Weston, Thais Dickerson and Mary Maguire, photographed in October 1936, having just had their contracts approved in Court. All three started with Warner Bros. at the same time, on wildly different salaries. Mary outlived both these women. Weston made her last film in 1939 and died in 1960. Dickerson, as Gloria Dickson, died in a house fire in 1945. Source: Syndicated Press Photo. Author’s collection.

Even in 1937, these Warner Brothers B-films; “That Man’s Here Again”, “Alcatraz Island”and Sergeant Murphy”, were underwhelming. Her roles were limited and perhaps, as a few unkind reviewers noted, she just wasn’t as good as some of the others chasing acting careers at the time. Warner Brothers out-take compilations, which include very short clips from some of these films, can be found here in  Breakdowns of 1937  (see Mary briefly at 4:05) and Breakdowns of 1938  (see 4.10). The film she made with Ronald Reagan, “Sergeant Murphy”, is perhaps the easiest of her B-films to find in specialist collections. (Not withstanding the claims made since; there is not a shred of contemporary evidence she had an affair with Reagan during the making of the film)

Despite the lack of big-picture experiences, with the public relations assistance of Mick as well as Warner Brothers, Mary’s star seemed to be on the rise and she was enjoying extraordinary publicity.  In letters home to Queensland, Bina dutifully passed on everything she said and did to the Australian press, with a helpful smattering of commentary. And at age 18, Mary was meeting all the people she had read about or watched on the screen, only a few years before. Some were extremely powerful figures – including millionaire racehorse owner Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt II, newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst and his girlfriend Marion Davies, and the head of Twentieth Century Fox, Joe Schenck. Despite all this exciting socialising, her closest real friend seems to have been fellow Warner’s actress Jane Bryan, also being groomed for ingénue parts.

Picture play 1937
Above – Mary as she appeared in PicturePlay magazine in an article entitled “Ladies of Leisure”, in 1937. This is typical of articles designed to profile up and coming starlets. Source probably Warner Bros. Pictureplay Magazine, 1937, via Lantern

Self-publicity was also an important part of the Hollywood experience then as it is today. Australians who tried their luck in Hollywood, including Jocelyn Howarth, Mona Barrie and Mary Maguire, tended to wheel out the same story about the start to their US careers. This was that they had been offered work during a casual visit to a studio, while they were on their way somewhere else, like New York. It was nonsense of course.

Here is  Mary Maguire spinning this line to US journalist Harrison Carroll, in early 1938. CBS’s “Forecasting 1938.” Audio recording. Author’s collection. Recording can also be found at Library of Congress. 2 sound discs. (48 min., 51 sec.) : analog, 33 1/3 rpm, mono. ; 16 in. https://lccn.loc.gov/00584434. Copyright CBS.

Her nicely spoken but very self-conscious English pronunciation could not be described as the “transatlantic” accent, as favoured by so many Britons and Australians in Hollywood at the time.

In July 1937, the whole of the Maguire family were finally reunited in Hollywood. The license on the Bellevue had been sold and Bina had packed up the girls for the voyage across the Pacific. It was timely, because Mary was recovering from a “nervous breakdown” – one of several she suffered in the US. Older sister Patsy commented, perhaps a little unhelpfully; “You know, I think she was just lonely. When we arrived on Saturday she was so jittery she could scarcely speak. Now she’s a different person… You see, we’ve always been together and although dad has been marvellous, I think Mary has really missed us.”

Motion Picture Feb July 1938 P82With Bina now on hand to join those guiding her, in late 1937 she declined a role in another B picture, Mystery House”, and was promptly laid off by Warner Brothers. Her star was at its zenith by this time, and she clearly believed she could bargain her way into better roles, even if she still had little acting experience. In early April 1938 Mary obtained a new contract with Twentieth Century Fox, doubtless through her friendship with the 62-year-old Joe Schenck, with whom she was very friendly – they had attended the 10th Annual Academy awards together. Bina unhelpfully speculated to the press in Australia that a wedding might be imminent.

Above – Joe Schenck and Mary at the Santa Anita Handicap in March 1938. Motion Picture Magazine, Feb-July 1938, page 81 via Lantern.“Joe regards me as a kid” she said of the relationship.

Following a role in Fox’s Mysterious Mr Moto”,  with Peter Lorre as the Japanese detective (the absurdity of Lorre, a Jewish émigré from fascist Europe playing a Japanese detective, who often disguises himself as a person of another ethnicity, in this case a German, could not have been lost on discerning audiences, even then) she suddenly departed for Britain. Her assignment was to appear in a Fox musical called Keep Smiling” (later changed to Smiling Along”) with Gracie Fields in the lead. Joe Schenck travelled to London in mid July, officially for work, staying at Claridge’s hotel, not far from her apartment. We know nothing of the outcome of any meeting they had, except we do know that Fox dropped Mary’s contract in September 1938 and Schenck took no further interest in her or her career. It suggests a really serious “falling out”.

After Smiling Along”, Mary, apparently now settled into British filmmaking, and with Bina’s supportive presence and a comfortable flat in Hayes Mews in Mayfair, started work for the Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC). This brought Mary into contact with Walter C. Mycroft, a dynamic British film producer, running the company’s Elstree Studio, and famous for churning out mostly uninspiring film fare, through the same technique Brian Foy used – scripts recycled from previous films or adapted from stage plays, rather than expensive original screenplays. Mary’s first film – Black Eyes” was such a remake – this one of a 1935 French film. But even for the time, it was a dull story – preoccupied with notions of class and with a predictable storyline. A highlight was Sydney born actor John Wood, who played a supporting role.

MM 1938-39   MM 1939

Mary as she appeared in 1938-9. These collectable British photos were about half the size of those produced by US studios. Author’s Collection.

Mary’s second film for Mycroft and ABPC was The Outsider”. For this film, Mary received top billing with leading male player George Sanders, who played the charismatic but self-absorbed medico. Audiences today would guess he is a chiropractor, although it is never really explained. Sanders’ role is Anton Ragatzy, a slightly oily foreigner of some sort, the type that inhabited British films for decades. Mary plays Lalage Sturdee, a beautiful “crippled” musician, whom he finally cures with the aid of a device he has invented, a type of stretching machine. Here Mycroft had chosen another cheap option for the company – the script had been filmed before in 1931 and 1926. By the time this film had been made, the whole family had relocated to London.

cannesIn early 1939, Mick and Bina took a lease on Villa Esterel near Cannes in the south of France, apparently oblivious to the rising political tensions in Europe. Explaining the Cannes sojourn in an interview in 1957, Bina said they had chosen it because “you simply have to meet the right people and at the right places.” As with the move from Melbourne to Brisbane, the motivation for travelling to Cannes appears to have been to advance opportunities for the girls, in this case, to find suitable husbands for them.

In one of the few publicly released photos of the Maguires in Cannes, Lupe and Carmel laze about on the Villa’s sunny front steps, while Bina, wearing sunglasses, stands ominously and proprietorially behind her girls.

 Source for newspaper photo above – The Truth, 26 November 1944. Page 18 via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Part Two is here

Epilogue

Nick Murphy
August 2018

Further Reading:

Archives

Digital

Documentary films

  • Don’t Call Me Girlie (1985) A film by Stewart Young and Andree Wright. Director Stewart Young, Script and Research by Andree Wright. Producer Hilary Furlong. Narrator: Penne Hackworth-Jones. Ronin Films
  • A History of Australian Film 1896-1940: Film Australia
    – The Pictures that Moved 1896-1920
    (1968) Director Alan Anderson. Writer Joan Long
    – The Passionate Industry 1920-1930 (1973) Director Joan Long. Writer Joan Long
    – Now You’re Talking 1930-1940. (1979) Director Keith Gow. Script Keith Gow.

Books

  • Michael Adams (2019) Australia’s Sweetheart: The amazing story of forgotten Hollywood star Mary Maguire. Hachette Australia.
  • Olga Abrahams, (2007). 88 Nicholson Street; The Academy of Mary Immaculate 1857 – 2007, Academy of Mary Immaculate. ISBN 978 0 9589817 1 2.
  • Christopher Andrew (2009) Defend the Realm. The Authorized History of MI5. Alfred Knopf, New York. ISBN 978 0 307 26363 6
  • John Baxter, (1986) Filmstruck – Australia at the Movies. ABC Enterprises, Sydney. ISBN 9 780642 527370.
  • Kevin Brownlow (1968)The Parade’s Gone By… reprint 1976, University of California Press, Berkeley, California. ISBN 0 520 03068 0
  • Daniel Bubbeo (2002) The Women of Warner Brothers: the lives and careers of 15 leading ladies. McFarland and Company, North Carolina. ISBN 0 7864 1137 6
  • John Roy Carlson (Avedis Derounian) From Cairo to Damascus. Alfred Knopf, New York, 1951. (http://spitfirelist.com/books/cairo-to-damascus/)
  • Charlotte Chandler (2007) The Girl Who Walked Home Alone. Bette Davis, A Personal Biography. Pocket Books, London. ISBN -13: 978-1-4165-2222-5
  • Elsa Chauvel, (1973). My Life with Charles Chauvel. Shakespeare Head Press.
  • Diane Collins, (1987). Hollywood Down under. Australians at the Movies: 1896 to the present day. Angus and Robertson, Sydney. ISBN 0 207 15267 5
  • Ronald L. Davis (1993) The Glamour Factory; Inside Hollywood’s Big Studio System. Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas. ISBN: 0 87074 358 9
  • Ray Edmondson and Andrew Pike (1982) Australia’s Lost Films. National Library of Australia. ISBN 0 642 99251 7
  • Ken Hall, (1980) Australian film: The Inside Story. Summit Books. ISBN 0 7271 0452 7
  • Julie V. Gottlieb & Thomas P. Linehan (Eds): The Culture of Fascism; Visions of the far right in Britain. I.B.Tauris
  • Clive Hirschhorn, (1980) The Warner Brothers Story. Octopus Books, London. ISBN 0 7064 0797 0
  • Thomas P. Linehan; A Dangerous Piece of Celluloid? British Fascists and the Hollywood Movie School of Arts at Brunel University
    (http://arts.brunel.ac.uk/gate/entertext/Linehan.pdf)
  • Miles Mander (1935) To My Son, In Confidence. Faber and Faber, London
  • Janet McCalman (1998) Public and Private Life in Richmond 1900-1965. Hyland House. South Melbourne ISBN 1 86447 048 8
  • Brian McFarlane, Anthony Slide, 2003. The Encyclopedia of British Film. Methuen Publishing Ltd, London. ISBN 0 413 779301 9
  • Robert Murphy (Ed) (2008) The British Cinema Book. Palgrave Macmillan for the BFI, London. ISBN 978 1 84457 275 5
  • David Nasaw. (2000) The Chief: The life of William Randolph Hearst. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York. ISBN 0 395 827590
  • Pamela Pfau and Kenneth S. Marx (Eds) (1977) Marion Davies, The Times We Had: Life With William Randolph Hearst. Ballantyne Books, Random House, New York. ISBN 978 0 345 32739 0
  • Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper (1998) Australian Film 1900–1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production, Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
  • Vincent Porter, (Ed) (2006). Walter C. Mycroft: The Time of My Life. The Memoirs of a British film Producer. Scarecrow Press, Maryland. ISBN 0 8108 5723 5.
  • Eric Reade (1979) History and Heartburn: The Saga of Australian Film 1896-1978, Harper and Row, Sydney. ISBN 0 06 312033X
  • Jeffery Richards: The Unknown 1930s: An alternative history of the British Cinema 1929-1939.B. Taurus
  • W. Brian Simpson, (2005) In the Highest Degree Odious: Detention without trial in Wartime Britain. Oxford University Press. 2005. ISBN 0-19-825949-2
  • John Stewart (1984) An Encyclopedia of Australian Film. Reed books, New South Wales. ISBN 0 7301 0059 6
  • John Wodehouse, The Fourth Earl of Kimberley, and Charles Roberts, (2001). The Whim of the Wheel: The Memoirs of the Earl of Kimberley. Merton Priory Press, Cardiff, England. ISBN 1 898937 45 1
  • Andree Wright, (1986). Brilliant Careers; Women in Australian Cinema. Pan Books, Sydney. ISBN 0 330 27065 6.
  • Angela Woollacott, (2001).To try her fortune in London. Australian women, Colonialism and Modernity. Oxford University Press, 2001. ISBN 9 780195 147193