Marjorie Bennett (1896-1982), from bathtubs to character roles

Above: Marjorie Bennett onstage and in the bath in Australia, in Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1922).[1]Table Talk (Melb) 3 Aug 1922, P25 Via State Library of Victoria
NEws Pilot 1924
The Five Second version
Marjorie Bennett, the younger sister of actress Enid Bennett, was born in York, Western Australia, in 1896. She travelled to the US in December 1916 to join Enid. Famous in later years for “cheerful, white haired woman” roles, by the time of her death she had over 200 film and TV appearances to her credit. (TCM and the IMDB provide lists of her screen appearances after 1946.) Much less well known is that before 1946 she had already enjoyed a long career as a stage actress, including a successful twenty-eight month performance tour back to Australia, where she  developed something of a reputation for “saucy theatre” in the process. When she died in June 1982, she was so well known that almost every notable US newspaper carried her obituary.[2]Australian papers did not report her death
Younger sister Catherine Bennett also briefly appeared in Hollywood films.  
Left: Marjorie Bennett as an ingenue, in the play The Taming of Bab, at the Royal Playhouse, California, 1924. [3]News-Pilot (San Pedro, CA)  4 Oct 1924, P5. Via Newspapers.com

The Bennett family

The Bennett girls from Western Australia – Enid (born 1893)[4]Western Australia, BDM document 1325/1893, Marjorie (born 1896)[5]Western Australia, BDM document 2741/1896 and step-sister Catherine (born 1901)[6]Western Australia, BDM document 5122/1901 all ended up living and working in California’s booming film industry. However all three women had a different experience – Enid preferred screen work, Marjorie spent twenty years on stage before returning to film, while Catherine briefly tried stage and screen and then rejected both.

Enid Bennett was the first to go the United States – in June 1915, appearing on stage in New York later that year.[7]Cock O’ the Walk opened in New York at George M Cohan’s Theatre on December 27 1915, but it appears to have opened as early as October in Scranton, Pennsylvania This followed several years performing in Australia with the Fred NibloJosephine Cohan Troupe, and appearances in two Australian films directed by Niblo. Her Australian story is told here.

Enid Bennett and Fred Niblo, about the time of Marjorie’s return from Australia. c1923. By this time the couple were married and well established in Hollywood – Enid as a popular screen player, and Fred as one of its leading directors. Author’s collection.

While Enid’s path to the stage and screen is well documented, Marjorie’s is less so. It was US film critic Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times who gleaned much information from Marjorie while she was alive.[8]See Kevin Thomas articles in The Akron Beacon Journal (Ohio) 28 Aug 1977, P49 and The Journal Herald (Ohio) 3 Jan 1978, P30, via Newspapers.com Reading these accounts today, one gains the impression she was a woman with a strong sense of self, a healthy sense of humour and held in high esteem by many in the industry. In 1977, Rick Rosner, a producer and writer for the popular TV series CHiPs told her “you are the sun on a cloudy day. When you arrive everything becomes beautiful.” A nice compliment for an 80 year old, still hard at work.[9]Kevin Thomas (Los Angeles Times) via Asbury Park Press (New Jersey), 4 Sept 1977, P52, via Newspapers.com

Enid, Marjorie and Catherine’s mother was Nellie nee Walker. After the death of her first husband Francis Bennett in 1898 and second husband Alexander Gillespie in 1903,[10]Both husbands were school principals Nellie Gillespie moved her family from Western Australia back to Sydney, to the comfortable suburb she had been born in – Woollahra, where she apparently ran a boarding house at No 20 Newcastle Street, Rose Bay.[11]Now No 34 according to the 1917 Sands Directory of Sydney In response to letters from a homesick Enid in Hollywood, Marjorie was sent to keep her older sister company. Marjorie arrived in the US in December 1916 on the SS Ventura, accompanied by just two pieces of luggage and on a tourist visa. She recalled that she didn’t want to go to the US and certainly “didn’t want to be an actress.”[12]Kevin Thomas, The Journal Herald, (Dayton Ohio), 3 Jan 1978, P30, via Newspapers.com By this time, Enid had already appeared on stage and in her first Thomas Ince film, A Princess of the Dark and her star was rising.[13]Motion Picture News, 21 October 1916, P2523, Via Lantern Media History Digital Library The sisters lived together in an apartment in Los Angeles and there is some evidence they had a jolly time of it, socialising with various celebrities and sometimes the other Australians working in Hollywood.[14]see for example a photo of the Bennetts with Sylvia Breamer in Ralph Marsden’s (2016) Who Was Sylvia? There are also reports of the Australian girls forming a “Kangaroo Club” for … Continue reading Soon after, Marjorie was also convinced to appear in a film for Ince, reportedly The Girl, Glory, where Enid had a leading role.

Marjorie and Enid reunited in late 1916. This newspaper report suggested the sisters were twins.[15]San Francisco Call, Volume 100, Number 153, 26 December 1916, via UCR California Digital Newspaper Collection

The family together in the US

Nellie Gillespie arrived in the US in January 1918, with her younger children Catherine and Alexander. Several dramatic events had impacted the family at this time. One was the tragic death of Francis or “Reg”, the oldest of the Bennett children and a Lieutenant in the Australian Army, killed in action in Belgium in October 1917[16]The location of Reg Bennett’s grave was lost soon after his burial in the field, a fact that must have caused the family great distress. See https://www.guildfordanzacs.org.au/anzac/45 The second, a happier piece of news, was the impending wedding of Enid and Fred Niblo. The couple married in February 1918.[17]Josephine M Cohan had died in July 1916 Niblo went on to become one of Hollywood’s leading directors while Enid’s fame as a star soared. By the early 1920s the couple were very well known figures in the industry – perhaps “Hollywood royalty” might be the term.[18]See for example, a very inaccurate profile piece on Enid in Picture Show Jan 8, 1921, P8. Via Lantern, Media History Digital Library

An ad for for the film Naughty Naughty in late 1918.[19]The Bulletin (Pomona, CA) 13 Oct 1918, P10. Via newspapers.com

Touring with Julian Eltinge and a return to Australia

Unlike Enid, it is difficult to find Marjorie showing any interest in acting while growing up in Australia. It appears she owed her entree to Hollywood films entirely to her sister Enid and the counsel of Fred Niblo.[20]In this 1921 report in Australia, Marjorie specifically mentioned Niblo giving career advice to her – Table Talk (Melb) 8 Sept 1921, P39, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove Marjorie appeared in three films in 1918, including Naughty Naughty with Enid. Motion Picture directories of the time listed her as a suitable ingenue type.

Marjorie or Rosemary Theby being ravished in Thomas Ince’s The Midnight Patrol (1918)[21]Advertising in The Theatre Magazine, 1 March 1921, via State Library of Victoria

And then at the end of 1918, as she recalled when interviewed by Kevin Thomas, she gave up the screen to try the stage.[22]The Journal Herald (Dayton Ohio) 3 Jan 1978, P30 via Newspapers.com In fact, for the next eight months she performed with famous female impersonator Julian Eltinge(1881-1941), touring throughout the US.

Marjorie (left) heads off on tour with Julian Eltinge in 1919 [23]The San Francisco Examiner, 10 Jan 1919, P11, The Seattle Star, 1 Feb 1919, P10, Los Angeles Evening Express, 22 Dec 1918, P37. Via newspapers.com

Eltinge was very well known in the US and had appeared successfully in vaudeville, several films and musical theatre by the time of the tour.[24]Mark Berger’s short documentary on Eltinge can be seen here, which also explains the origins of Eltinge’s act. In vaudeville, Eltinge spectacularly “revealed his male identity at … Continue reading His 1919 revue was firmly in the vaudeville tradition and included Marjorie and fellow Australian Arthur Shirley (1886-1967) in the cast. Historians Cullen, Hackman and McNeilly estimate that Eltinge may have been earning $3,500 per week before the tour, an enormous sum for a performer at the time,[25]About $65,000 per week in 2022 money which possibly indicates how lucrative working with him was for Marjorie. But given that female impersonators soon came to be regarded as thoroughly improper entertainment, it is hardly surprising that later biographies of the careers of Marjorie Bennett and Arthur Shirley don’t make mention of this lengthy tour, while the memory of Julian Eltinge has also been buried.[26]As Mark Berger indicates, Eltinge’s act was part of a long tradition that disappeared with the decline of vaudeville, and is far removed from what we might expect from a female impersonation … Continue reading

Marjorie Bennett in Nightie Night in Australia in 1921.[27]Critic (Adelaide) 2 Nov 1921, P12, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

In the later part of 1920, the Australian theatre firm JC Williamsons, enticed Marjorie back to Australia to perform with another import – Joseph Coyne (1867-1941) – in farces including Nightie Night, My Lady Friends and Wedding Bells. Clearly someone representing Williamsons, probably Hugh Ward, had seen her perform in the US and thought highly enough of her to bring her back.

The Coyne company tour of major cities in Australia and New Zealand was a success. Coyne left for England in December 1921, but Marjorie stayed on. She then performed in another string of farces and comedies – Johnny Get Your Gun, The First Year and Parlor, Bedroom and Bath, in company with other visiting actors brought in by JC Williamsons, including Louis Bennison and Phillips Tead.

Although she often spoke to reporters of her “home” now being in California, in August 1922 she told Table Talk that she didn’t want to go back to the US just yet. “All the rest of the family is in California, and mother keeps writing to ask when I am going back; but I want to make good in my native country before I leave it. I never realised how fascinating Australia is until I left it… There’s nothing like seeing other countries to make one appreciate one’s own.” The comment was the sort Australians liked to hear and was shared nationwide.[28]Table Talk (Melb) 17 Aug 1922, P17, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove Significantly, she also expressed her preference for the stage very clearly, despite Enid’s success on the screen back in Hollywood.[29]Table Talk (Melb) 8 Sept 1921, P39, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

In Australia, Marjorie felt confident enough to speak publicly occasionally about Hollywood matters – including the death of Virginia Rappe in September 1921, after news broke.[30]She claimed to know both Rappe and “Fatty” Arbuckle. This is possible – and Rappe had appeared in a Julian Eltinge film in 1920. See Newcastle Sun (NSW) 21 Sept 1921, P7 via … Continue reading Finally, in late March 1923, she boarded the SS Sonoma for California.

Trouble with Getting Gertie’s Garter

If Australian newspapers thought Parlor, Bedroom and Bath was a bit “saucy,”[31]The Daily Telegraph (Syd), 12 Jul 1922, P10, SYDNEY SHOWS, via National Library of Australia’s Trove this was not the case with Marjorie’s first play on returning to Los Angeles. While the reports surrounding the court appearance of the cast of Getting Gertie’s Garter created a blaze of publicity – and what wonderful publicity – it seems likely the play really was pulled for “indecency” several weeks after the start of its run at the Frank Egan Theatre in 1923.[32]The Los Angeles Times 6 Sep 1923, P19, via Newspapers.com Changes were apparently made to the script by order of the court.[33]The Los Angeles Evening Post Record, 27 Oct, 1923, P5, via Newspapers.com

The cast, not looking very worried about a court appearance, with Marjorie, fourth from the right. Note fellow Australian cast member Gwen Burroughs in the big hat,[34]The Los Angeles Times 7 Sep 1923, P9, via Newspapers.com

Of course, this was an era of publicity stunts and outrageously silly stories – all in the interests of self-promotion. For example, reports about Marjorie’s newly arrived Australian friend and costar Gwen Burroughs (1888-1968) made much of her reputation as a film star “vamp” (and impending divorce from Lewis Willoughby),[35]The San Francisco Examiner 10 Apr 1923, P13, via newspapers.com yet she had only appeared in one Australian film and none in the US. Consider also the very dramatic story about Lotus Thompson and the “acid” on her legs stunt, which surfaced in early 1925 and continues to dominate accounts of her life, even 100 years later.

Marjorie back on the US stage as a “scarlet woman.” [36]Los Angeles Evening Post Record, 16 Feb 1924, P16, via Newspapers.com

Only a few months later, another newspaper report suggested that Enid was concerned with a part Marjorie had taken in the play The Adding Machine, as a “scarlet woman,” and insisted she withdraw. Possibly. But the story has all the hallmarks of another publicity stunt.

Marjorie’s stage performances over the next twenty years were many – and in a variety of theatre styles, but they reflected the popular tastes of the time, such as the romantic comedy Loose Ankles, which opened at Los Angeles’ Playhouse Theatre in early 1927. In the 1930s she was also in one act plays for the Writers Club [37]Daily News (LA)16 December 1930, P20 via, radio dramas and occasionally more traditional plays – including a stage version of A Tale of Two Cities in 1933 and the drama The Shining Hour at the Beverley Hills Little Theatre in 1937. Comedies and bedroom farces prevailed however – as a quick survey of titles suggest – Wedding Night (1941), Two in a Bed (1944) and Motel Wives (1945).

Marjorie with Nancy Carroll in Loose Ankles in 1927. [38]The San Francisco Examiner, 29 Jan 1927, P11 and Los Angeles Evening Post Record, 8 Jan 1927, P9. Via Newspaper.com

Unfortunately, we have few clues regarding the reason for her steady twenty-year preference for the stage whilst living in the midst of Hollywood’s thriving film industry – or her sister Catherine’s rejection of both stage and screen as a career in 1926 (see Note 1 below). It is noteworthy that in the 1940 US census she described herself as a “motion picture actress.” By contrast, in the 1930 US census, she had stated her occupation and industry as the “legitimate stage.” Unfortunately, US journalists, even the diligent Kevin Thomas, tended to brush over Marjorie’s activities for the entire period 1924-46. Perhaps Marjorie did some very mundane extra work in films in the later 1930s and early 40s, that has yet to be discovered.

Marjorie Bennett in a brief role in Universal’s Dressed to Kill (1946). Screengrab from a copy at the Internet Archive.

200 screen characters

Marjorie Bennett’s first known later-in-life film role was an uncredited appearance as a shop assistant in Universal’s Sherlock Holmes film Dressed to Kill (1946). Here, she portrayed a cheerful white haired woman character for the first time. With her white hair usually tied in a distinctive “crown braid,” she repeated this role numerous times over the next thirty years. Why she re-embraced the screen as a career at this time is unknown, but it was a successful move and by the 1970s – with more than 200 appearances behind her, she was so familiar for US audiences that she was also being used in television commercials – for Ford cars and Kentucky Fried Chicken.[39]Kevin Thomas, The Akron Beacon Journal (Ohio) Aug 28, 1977, P49, via Newspapers.com

On her passing, Kevin Thomas wrote that she was the “classical little old lady with a mischievous gleam in her eye.[40]The Philadelphia Inquirer, 20 Jun 1982, P88. Via Newspapers.com But this writer is of the view her success was not simply because she was effective at playing a stereotyped older woman. She was also versatile – as shown by her appearance at the end of Have Rocket, Will Travel with the Three Stooges. Here, she dances cheerfully with Joe and then neatly pulls a punch thrown at Nadia Sanders. All those years learning stagecraft had paid off.

Marjorie Bennett in the 3 Stooges film Have Rocket, Will Travel (1959) with Larry Fine and Joe DeRita. In the party scene shown at right, Marjorie’s character is about to slap a tall girl, played by Nadia Sanders. Via the Internet Archive.

Marjorie also displayed versatility with her accent. In Limelight (1952), her second film with Charles Chaplin, she played landlady Mrs Alsop, sporting (what sounds like) a broad Australian accent. Set in London but filmed in Hollywood, most viewers probably heard Mrs Alsop as a working class Londoner. Yet in her many TV guest roles of the 50s and 60s, such as Lassie, The Real McCoys and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis her accent had changed to sit comfortably alongside a variety of American accents.

At left – Marjorie in The Real McCoys, Episode “Three is a Crowd”(1958). At right, as the troublesome customer in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Episode “Deck the Halls”(1959) Screengrabs from copies mounted on Youtube.

Of the examples of her screen work reviewed by this writer, the trademark of her performances seems to have been an irrepressible good humour.

According to her many obituaries, she had finally retired in 1980, aged 84, due to failing health. She died two years later in June 1982. In May 1933, in Tijuana, Mexico, she had married Bill Cady, a singer, with whom she had occasionally performed. The couple had no children of their own but seem to have enjoyed close relationships with their nephews and nieces.

Marjorie’s recollections of Hollywood in the late 1910s, 1920s and 1930s appear in the press interviews she gave in the 1970s and her obituaries. Her accounts of meeting the likes of Valentino, Mary Pickford, mentoring a young Robert Taylor, and working with Charles Chaplin are generally based on real events, even if there are some errors in detail and timing.[41]See for example Dion Thompson’s obituary in The Los Angeles Times, 21 June 1982, P28

Marjorie Bennett late in life.[42]The Philadelphia Inquirer 20 Jun 1982, P88 via Newspapers.com

Note 1: Catherine Bennett (1901-1978)

Catherine Fanny Bennett (or Gillespie) was a step sister to Enid and Marjorie Bennett. Born in Perth, Western Australia on 17 January 1901, she arrived in the US with her mother and brother Alexander in early 1918.[43]Alexander was born in 1903. Western Australia BDM document 6179/1903. Confusingly, both Catherine and Alexander variously adopted Bennett as a surname

Catherine Bennett with Stan Laurel in When Knights Were Cold (1923). Screengrabs from a clip on youtube. The film is part of a compilation available from http://www.flickeralley.com

After some extra work in Robin Hood in 1921, Catherine appeared in a leading role in a Stan Laurel short, When Knights Were Cold in 1923. But her few public comments reveal an ambivalence about a career in acting and suggests that she had little desire to try to copy Enid’s success.[44]Picture-Play Magazine Sep 1923-Feb 1924, P74. Street and Smith. via Lantern Media History Digital Library Despite showing “a great deal of dramatic talent” [45]Photoplay 1925-12, Vol 29 Issue 1, P84, via Lantern Media History Digital Library and being heralded as a new MGM ingenue, by late 1926 she had left it behind, and taken up secretarial work in a studio – in some accounts she was also described as a scenario writer.[46]Table Talk (Melb) 8 Sept 1921, P39, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove Although romantically associated with producer John Considine for a while, she did not marry. She died in 1978.

Catherine and Enid Bennett, c 1924. [47]Photoplay magazine, July-Dec 1924, P57. Via Lantern, Media History Digital Library

Enid, Marjorie and Catherine’s younger brother Alexander Gillespie (1903-1978) used the surname Bennett for much of his life and married silent actress Frances Lee (1906-2000) in 1933.[48]See his marriage certificate 1933 here via Family Search While he is often described as an Assistant Director in Hollywood, his 1931 US naturalisation papers reveal he was an auditor-accountant.


Nick Murphy
April 2022


References

Text:

  • Kevin Brownlow (1968) The Parade’s Gone By… University of California Press
  • Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper (1980) Australian film 1900-1977, P224-226. Oxford University Press/AFI
  • Eric Porter(1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby
  •  Charles Fox and Milton Silver’s (eds)(1920) Who’s who on the screen, Ross Publishing, New York. Via the Internet Archive.

Media
Some of Marjorie Bennett’s screen appearances are now in the public domain, including the following;

Newspaper & Magazine Sources

Primary Sources

  • Familysearch.com
  • Ancestry.com
  • Western Australia, Births, Deaths and Marriages

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

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Table Talk (Melb) 3 Aug 1922, P25 Via State Library of Victoria
2 Australian papers did not report her death
3 News-Pilot (San Pedro, CA)  4 Oct 1924, P5. Via Newspapers.com
4 Western Australia, BDM document 1325/1893
5 Western Australia, BDM document 2741/1896
6 Western Australia, BDM document 5122/1901
7 Cock O’ the Walk opened in New York at George M Cohan’s Theatre on December 27 1915, but it appears to have opened as early as October in Scranton, Pennsylvania
8 See Kevin Thomas articles in The Akron Beacon Journal (Ohio) 28 Aug 1977, P49 and The Journal Herald (Ohio) 3 Jan 1978, P30, via Newspapers.com
9 Kevin Thomas (Los Angeles Times) via Asbury Park Press (New Jersey), 4 Sept 1977, P52, via Newspapers.com
10 Both husbands were school principals
11 Now No 34 according to the 1917 Sands Directory of Sydney
12 Kevin Thomas, The Journal Herald, (Dayton Ohio), 3 Jan 1978, P30, via Newspapers.com
13 Motion Picture News, 21 October 1916, P2523, Via Lantern Media History Digital Library
14 see for example a photo of the Bennetts with Sylvia Breamer in Ralph Marsden’s (2016) Who Was Sylvia? There are also reports of the Australian girls forming a “Kangaroo Club” for social events in 1918
15 San Francisco Call, Volume 100, Number 153, 26 December 1916, via UCR California Digital Newspaper Collection
16 The location of Reg Bennett’s grave was lost soon after his burial in the field, a fact that must have caused the family great distress. See https://www.guildfordanzacs.org.au/anzac/45
17 Josephine M Cohan had died in July 1916
18 See for example, a very inaccurate profile piece on Enid in Picture Show Jan 8, 1921, P8. Via Lantern, Media History Digital Library
19 The Bulletin (Pomona, CA) 13 Oct 1918, P10. Via newspapers.com
20 In this 1921 report in Australia, Marjorie specifically mentioned Niblo giving career advice to her – Table Talk (Melb) 8 Sept 1921, P39, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
21 Advertising in The Theatre Magazine, 1 March 1921, via State Library of Victoria
22 The Journal Herald (Dayton Ohio) 3 Jan 1978, P30 via Newspapers.com
23 The San Francisco Examiner, 10 Jan 1919, P11, The Seattle Star, 1 Feb 1919, P10, Los Angeles Evening Express, 22 Dec 1918, P37. Via newspapers.com
24 Mark Berger’s short documentary on Eltinge can be seen here, which also explains the origins of Eltinge’s act. In vaudeville, Eltinge spectacularly “revealed his male identity at the end of his act…” while in musical comedy and his early films he generally “played a young male hero who had to assume a woman’s disguise in order to prevail or right some wrong.”(Frank Cullen, Florence Hackman and Donald McNeilly(2007) Vaudeville Old and New Vol 1. P353-355. Routledge)
25 About $65,000 per week in 2022 money
26 As Mark Berger indicates, Eltinge’s act was part of a long tradition that disappeared with the decline of vaudeville, and is far removed from what we might expect from a female impersonation act today
27 Critic (Adelaide) 2 Nov 1921, P12, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
28 Table Talk (Melb) 17 Aug 1922, P17, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
29, 46 Table Talk (Melb) 8 Sept 1921, P39, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
30 She claimed to know both Rappe and “Fatty” Arbuckle. This is possible – and Rappe had appeared in a Julian Eltinge film in 1920. See Newcastle Sun (NSW) 21 Sept 1921, P7 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
31 The Daily Telegraph (Syd), 12 Jul 1922, P10, SYDNEY SHOWS, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
32 The Los Angeles Times 6 Sep 1923, P19, via Newspapers.com
33 The Los Angeles Evening Post Record, 27 Oct, 1923, P5, via Newspapers.com
34 The Los Angeles Times 7 Sep 1923, P9, via Newspapers.com
35 The San Francisco Examiner 10 Apr 1923, P13, via newspapers.com
36 Los Angeles Evening Post Record, 16 Feb 1924, P16, via Newspapers.com
37 Daily News (LA)16 December 1930, P20 via
38 The San Francisco Examiner, 29 Jan 1927, P11 and Los Angeles Evening Post Record, 8 Jan 1927, P9. Via Newspaper.com
39 Kevin Thomas, The Akron Beacon Journal (Ohio) Aug 28, 1977, P49, via Newspapers.com
40 The Philadelphia Inquirer, 20 Jun 1982, P88. Via Newspapers.com
41 See for example Dion Thompson’s obituary in The Los Angeles Times, 21 June 1982, P28
42 The Philadelphia Inquirer 20 Jun 1982, P88 via Newspapers.com
43 Alexander was born in 1903. Western Australia BDM document 6179/1903. Confusingly, both Catherine and Alexander variously adopted Bennett as a surname
44 Picture-Play Magazine Sep 1923-Feb 1924, P74. Street and Smith. via Lantern Media History Digital Library
45 Photoplay 1925-12, Vol 29 Issue 1, P84, via Lantern Media History Digital Library
47 Photoplay magazine, July-Dec 1924, P57. Via Lantern, Media History Digital Library
48 See his marriage certificate 1933 here via Family Search

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 contemporary 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.

Jane E Southcott has written of concern amongst politicians and the efforts made in South Australian schools to improve Australian speech. She cites School Inspector Maughan reporting in 1912 that “a few minutes spent daily in the practice of pure enunciation would to much to eliminate what is known as ‘the Australian twang.'” Similar sentiments were undoubtedly felt throughout the rest of Australia.


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.

  • Bill Kerr’s (1922-2014) exaggerated Australian accent and stories featured in his popular British act, the “Man from Wagga Wagga”. Here is an example from 1951. Below, however, is an example of Kerr without the broad accent, singing with Joy Nichols.

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, the only schools that could provide a pathway to universities and better careers. Today 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. In the early twentieth century, for these middle class Australians, there was probably a self consciousness about accents, and therefore a desire to speak without any hint of a colonial upbringing. 


  • 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 of all Australians, those who had been to private schools probably already had a “drawing room accent”  – meaning they 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). One wonders whether her accent might have some American pronunciations?

    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


6. Blended US-Australian accents

Much harder to find are examples of the blended accents of North Americans who now live in Australia, but here are a few:

Further Reading on Australian accents

Nick Murphy
December 2020

 

Little Dulcie Cooper & her dad go to America

Dulcie Cooper (1903-1981), Ashley Cooper (1880-1952)

Above: Dulcie Cooper, “aged eight, in the part of Eva, St. Clair’s daughter in Uncle Tom’s’ Cabin at the Empress Theater, Vancouver, December 1912″. Enlarged from a public domain photo in the collections of the City of Vancouver Archives (Link to original photo).

The 5 second version
Dulcie Cooper was born Dulcie Mary Robinson in Sydney Australia on 3 Nov 1903. Active on the North American stage for over 50 years, she first appeared in Vancouver in 1910 with her parents Ashley and Emily. She appeared in films in the early 1920s but it was the New York stage where she was best known. She appeared in a handful of Hollywood films in the early 1920s, and one sound film. She died in New York on 3 Sept 1981.
Her father Ashley Cooper was born Cecil Augustus Robinson in Sydney Australia on 16 June 1880. A draftsman with an interest in acting, he arrived with his wife Emily and daughter Dulcie in the US in 1905. He later adopted Ashley Cooper as a name. He was appearing on the US and Canadian stage by 1910 and later in some Hollywood films. Ashley Cooper relocated to New York in 1925 and he became a regular Broadway performer and stage manager. He died in New York on 3 Jan 1952.

Was Dulcie Cooper really an Australian, as was often claimed? At first glance it seems not, as there is no record of anyone matching her name or profile being born in New South Wales at the time. And later in life, Dulcie confused her story by suggesting a birth in 1907, in San Francisco. But the answer is simple – she was born in Australia under another name. All the same, describing her as “Australian” in any way seems misleading, particularly when we consider that she left Sydney forever in 1905, at the age of only 2.

Ashley Cooper NYPL2 Dulcie NYPL

Undated photos of father and daughter, probably taken in the late 1920s. Left – Ashley Cooper, born Cecil Augustus Robinson in Australia. Right – Dulcie Cooper, born Dulcie Mary Robinson. Both photos from the Billy Rose Theater Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. (Click name to link to the original photos)

Dulcie Cooper was born Dulcie Mary Robinson in Woollahra, Sydney, to Cecil Augustus Robinson and Emily nee Curr, on 3 November 1903. Cecil was the son of Australian businessman and well known map publisher Herbert Edward Cooper Robinson. We know Cecil took an interest in theatre, as he is listed as a player for Ada Hatchwell‘s Hasluck Dramatic Club in 1901. However, on Dulcie’s birth certificate Cecil listed his profession as draftsman for Sydney’s Gas Company, a “sensible” career that, perhaps, his father had encouraged him to pursue rather than the stage.

Above – part of Dulcie Robinson’s NSW birth certificate. Via NSW BDM
Columns 2 – date and place, 3 – child’s name, 4 – child’s gender, 5 – Fathers name, profession, age and place of birth, 6 – marriage details, 7 – mother’s maiden name, age and place of birth.

In 1905 the young family decided to pack up and move to North America. Precisely what the circumstances of such a dramatic move were, we no longer know. Even today such a move would require sound financial resources and a degree of determination. Cecil, now borrowing his father’s name and calling himself Herbert Robinson, travelled first, arriving in San Francisco on the SS Ventura on 20 June 1905 – his profession still recorded on the ship’s manifest as draftsman. Emily Robinson and little Dulcie arrived a few months later.

We can partly reconstruct the family’s pathway onto the North American stage from existing records.

The Oregon Daily Journal. 20 October 1908, P14. Via Newspapers.com

Sometime in 1908 or 1909, Herbert and Emily saw an advertisement like this, or perhaps this very one. Theater reviews show they were members of the George W. Lowe touring company at about this time. Now calling himself Ashley Cooper, the 1910 US census shows him with Emily and Dulcie and the dozen or so members of Lowe’s company together in the small town of Dayton, Washington, on tour. Other up and coming actors like Bert Hadley were also travelling with their families. But life performing “on the road” was probably hard for young families and in late 1910, the Cooper family settled down in Vancouver, British Columbia. Ashley and Emily joined Walter Sanford‘s stock company based at the Vancouver Empress Theater performing popular favourites like Get Rich Quick Wallingford.

While it is a guess by this writer, it seems likely the couple owed this lucky break to the influence or reputation of Australian players from the old Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company, who were appearing for Sanford at the same time – including Teddy McNamara, Jack Pollard and Willie Pollard. These Australian-born players had stayed on in Vancouver after a Pollard tour wrapped in April 1909.

In December 1910, 7 year old Dulcie Cooper appeared on stage at the Empress Theater for the first time, as the child Jeannie, in the domestic comedy-drama The Little Church around the Corner. It was a great success and over the next two years her performances were increasingly well received. In August 1911, the Vancouver Daily World enthused “… Dulcie is a born actress and… somebody must have devoted a tremendous amount of loving care and time to her training.” At the age of 10, Dulcie took the lead role in a stage version of Oliver Twist, in May 1913. The City of Vancouver Archives photo at left dates from her success at Vancouver’s Empress Theater in the part of Eva, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, six months earlier.


In mid 1913 the family left Vancouver for the US west coast again. The “Ashley Cooper Players” (comprising all three members of the family) then appeared in Los Angeles and subsequently on tour in the Western states of the US, their “playlet” or sketch – The Newsboy’s Debt, reportedly written by Emily (using the stage name Emily Curr), with Dulcie in the lead. Dulcie was “the real life of the sketch” according to The Vancouver Sun. It allowed her “ample chance to show her ability in character work and the touching scene at the final fall of the curtain finds many eyes in the house tear dimmed.” After some prominent publicity about Dulcie being “America’s youngest player,” she suddenly disappeared from all advertising – although the play continued to tour on and off until 1917.

As in Australia and on the US East coast, the age children could appear on the stage was increasingly regulated by education and civic authorities. Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company had discovered this ten years before, when they were forced to abandon plans to tour the US east coast because of the influence of New York’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Above: Typical theater fare of the time. “Moving pictures” and vaudeville acts mixed in on the same program. Santa Ana Register. 30 October 1913. Via newspapers.com

In 1921 and by now aged 18, Dulcie appeared in half a dozen films, several with popular actress Clara Kimball Young. Young was struggling financially at this time, and appears not to have enjoyed making these films. Perhaps Dulcie didn’t either, as she soon abandoned film work for the stage again. In later years she seems to have been inclined to dismiss her outings in film, she was “at the awkward age” or “never felt at home in the movies” she variously explained. There was, again, familiar misleading publicity about Dulcie being “America’s youngest performer.” She was petite, and with her cherub like face she looked younger than her years, so it was believable.

Ashley Cooper also had some brief experiences in film in the early 1920s in supporting character roles – unfortunately most of these early films appear to be lost and details are confused. The Turner Classic Movie database provides the most accurate list – showing six credits for Ashley, while the IMDB lists only three. Norman Dawn‘s Son of the Wolf (1922) is one well documented example of a film that should be credited to Ashley Cooper rather than British actor Edward Cooper.

Ashley also continued on the stage in the mid 1920s, usually in vaudeville, while Emily Curr appears to have retired.

Ashley in PArtners of the Tide 1921  Dulcie Camera mag

Above: Ashley Cooper in Partners of the Tide (1921) Moving Picture World – Jan-Feb 1921. Right 20 year old Dulcie Cooper in 1923. Camera! April 1923-1924, Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

A glance at Dulcie’s stage work in Los Angeles at this time highlights just how intense a career on the stage was. In 1924-25 she appeared in a constantly changing, back-to-back program of light comedies and farces at the Majestic Theater, usually with Edward Everett Horton. These included The First Year (October 1924), The Darlings (December 1924), Just Married (January 1925), Outward Bound (February 1925), Cuckoo Pleases (March 1925), The Alarm Clock (March 1925) and Beggar on Horseback (April 1925). In May 1925 Dulcie left the company to have a well earned rest and to visit her parents in New York. Horton, who had made Beggar on Horseback as a film while also performing it on stage, also left at this time.

dulcie-la-times-1925 Horton and Cooper 1925

Above. Left: Dulcie in Just Married at Los Angeles’ Majestic Theater in early 1925. The Los Angeles Times, 18 Jan 1925, P131. Right: Edward Horton and Dulcie in Beggar on Horseback. The Los Angeles Times, 29 April 1925, P51. Via Newspapers.com

The reviews of these comedies were generally enthusiastic. “Clean wholesome entertainment” reported The Los Angeles Times on 23 November 1924. The paper went on to praise Dulcie’s “excellent acting and charming winsomness.” Barbara Cohen-Stratyner points out that Grace Kingsley, a journalist at the Times was an enthusiastic supporter of Dulcie. Even before Hollywood’s golden years, this support could make all the difference to a young actor’s career. Eight years later, the same journalist at the Times was announcing that Dulcie was about to sign a film contract at Paramount or MGM. She did appear in one sound film that survives, The Face on the Barroom Floor (1932) but no contract was signed.

In February 1925, Dulcie married Stafford Cherry Campbell, the stage manager at the Majestic Theater. For reasons now unknown, but perhaps just following a family tradition of changing names when it suited, Dulcie used the name Mary Robinson when she married. Within a few years the couple had divorced, Dulcie claiming, amongst other things, that Campbell ridiculed her when they rehearsed together.

At about this time, Ashley and Emily Cooper moved across to the US east coast. They owed this to Ashley’s part in the musical Topsy and Eva, which starred popular vaudeville players Rosetta and Vivian Duncan. A retelling of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ashley had a supporting role when it opened in December 1923 at the Majestic Theatre and was still in this role when it finally opened at the Sam H. Harris Theatre in New York a year later. Ashley and Emily settled in New York and he went on to develop his reputation as a reliable character actor, and sometimes a Stage Manager. He appeared in a string of plays on Broadway and in US east coast cities, including the drama Tobacco Road, a story of rural poverty in Georgia, where he played Henry Peabody as well as being stage manager for at least part of its run. It was not well received at first, the play being described by The Brooklyn Daily Eagle as “a picture of squalor… too realistic to be palatable.” However, it went on to a very long run and he was involved with it for at least the six years 1933-1939. He continued to be active on stage until well into the 1940s.

Ashley Cooper finally applied for US citizenship in 1941, having lived and worked in the US for more than 35 years. On these documents his various changes of name were revealed.

Above: Dulcie Cooper at the start of her New York career, in The Little Spitfire at the Cort Theater. Daily News (New York) · 26 Dec 1926, Page 154, via Newspapers.com

Dulcie’s 1926 breakthrough role on Broadway, as Gypsy the feisty chorus girl, in the comedy The Little Spitfire, was not easily won. As Barbara Cohen-Stratyner points out, she was the fourth and final choice for the role. But she made it a success. After its run in New York, she reprised the role for a season at the Hollywood Playhouse. The Los Angeles Times welcomed her back with generous coverage. She was in New York again in 1928, to take a leading role in Courage at the Ritz, now well and truly established as a leading player. She was active on stage into the early 1960s, her roles increasingly character parts and she also appeared occasionally on television. In July 1961, The Columbus Dispatch described her performance as the fortune teller in Blythe Spirit as a “scene stealer,” although she was performing alongside film star Zsa Zsa Gabor. Gabor took Dulcie’s hand for the curtain call, an acknowledgement of Dulcie’s skill and reputation.


Above: The Los Angeles Evening Post-Record advertises The Little Spitfire, 24 May 1927, P4. Via Newspapers.com

As previously noted, some of the commentary provided by Dulcie herself in later years only served to confuse her story, although this was not an uncommon phenomenon amongst actors of the era. Was she really in the 1934 film Men in White with Clark Gable and Myrna Loy? Dulcie also suggested she had appeared as a child star with Charles Ray in the 1910s. This claim is difficult to verify and given her known movements, seem unlikely.

Above: Dulcie Cooper still performing in 1957. The Wilmington Morning News,·(Wilmington, Delaware), 20 Jul 1957, P17. Via Newspapers.com.

Dulcie’s voice
Dulcie speaks with a nice trans-Atlantic accent here in The Face on the Barroom Floor (1932). The product of close association and performing with her parents? Perhaps elocution lessons? Another example of an acquired accent?

Source; Bill Sprague Collection – Internet Archive. This is a pre-Hollywood code film about the dangers of alcohol. The author thinks Dulcie is quite successful in this, her last film role.

Dulcie remarried in 1932. Her second husband was Elmer H Brown, an actor and director ten years her senior. Two sons were born of the union. She died in New York in 1981. Ashley Cooper kept working on stage for most of his life. He died in January 1952. Emily Curr died in New York in December 1944.


Nick Murphy
November 2020


Note 1
Cecil’s much younger sister Eileen Robinson (1896-1955) also acted, working in Australia, England and in the US. She was married to US writer, stage and screen actor Alan Brooks (born Irving Hayward) until his death in 1936.

Note 2
An Australian dancer and beauty contest winner named Dulcie Cooper was a contemporary of this Dulcie. The song “Hello Miss Aussie, What are you doing now?” by Alfred Jarvis is about Dulcie Cooper the Australian dancer.

Special Thanks
Again to Jean Ritsema in the USA, who again assisted finding sources in the US.


Further Reading

  • Original US archival documents sourced from
  • Text
    • Hal Porter. Stars of Australian Stage and Screen (1965) Rigby
  • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • The Daily Telegraph (Syd) 23 Nov, 1901, P2
    • The Sydney Mail & NSW Advertiser. 1 March 1902, P559
    • Everyones.Vol.6 No.367 (16 March 1927) P15
    • The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Jan 1933, P12
    • The Australian Women’s Weekly, 29 Jul 1944 P 12
  • Newspapers.com
    • Enterprise News Record (Oregon) 23 July 1910, P3
    • Vancouver Daily World, 8 Aug 1911, P10
    • The Vancouver Sun, 8 July 1913, P5
    • The Paducah Sun-Democrat (Paducah, Kentucky), 6 Sep 1915, P 8
    • The Los Angeles Times, 3 Aug, 1921. P36
    • The Los Angeles Times, 6 Nov 1924· P 25
    • The Los Angeles Times, 23 Nov 1924, P69
    • The Los Angeles Times, 28 Dec 1924, P52
    • Los Angeles Evening Post, 14 Mar 1925, P10
    • The Los Angeles Times, 29 Apr 1925, P51
    • The Los Angeles Times, 22 May 1925, P25
    • Daily News (New York) · 26 Dec 1926, P154
    • The Los Angeles Times, 15 May 1927, P56
    • The Los Angeles Times, 24 May 1927, P35
    • Los Angeles Evening Post-Record, 15 Jul 1930, P16
    • The Los Angeles Times, 24 May 1932, P7
    • The Brooklyn Daily Eagle 5 Dec 1933 P 24
    • The Daily News (New York) 5 Jan 1952, P23
    • The Wilmington Morning News,·(Wilmington, Delaware), 20 Jul 1957, P17

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

Ted McNamara (1893-1928) What Price Glory!

34 year old Ted McNamara from Australia and 26 year old Sammy Cohen from the USA seemed to be a promising comedy team, who appeared together in Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory in 1925. 3 years later this title was used as a motto on Ted’s grave. Source PicturePlay Magazine, 1927, Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

Teddy enjoying success in the cinema. Motion Picture Magazine, July 8, 1927. Via Lantern Digital Media Project

Born September 19, 1893, in a small cottage in the Melbourne suburb of Prahran, Teddy or later just Ted (Edward Joseph) McNamara was the fourth child born to Patrick, a baker, and his wife Eliza nee Butler. He spent a large part of his childhood and adolescence on long overseas tours with Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company, developing and refining a reputation as a skilled character comedian. Two older sisters – Alice, born in 1889 and Nellie (Ellen) born in 1891, also went on the stage with Pollards.

Following 22 years on stage, Teddy enjoyed a prominent but very short Hollywood career. Over the three years 1925-1928 he appeared in a dozen films, mostly made by the Fox studio, and some of which survive today. His sudden death in early 1928 robbed Hollywood of a future film comedy partnership, as Fox had teamed him several times with Sammy Cohen, another comedian also emerging in Hollywood. The two comedians first appeared together in supporting roles in Raoul Walsh‘s film version of the popular play, What Price Glory in 1925.


Growing up with Pollards

Above: Teddy while performing in Vancouver. Vancouver Daily World, 3 Jan 1914, P11. via newspapers.com

Teddy was barely 10 years old when he joined Alice and Nellie on the SS Changsa for his first extended Pollard company tour overseas, in January 1903. Performing through Asia and then onto and across North America, this Pollard troupe did not return to Australia until April 1904. And then, after only three months at home, Teddy joined another Pollard tour, departing Australia in July 1904, without his sisters – who stayed in Melbourne, possibly to care for their ailing mother. This tour was away until February 1907, almost 30 months. The rotating program of musical comedies included HMS Pinafore, A Gaiety Girl, The Lady Slavey and the like. And of Teddy we know that while outwardly shy, he was also a joker, popular with his fellow performers and a favourite with the public.

It is tempting to judge this form of apprenticed child employment by 21st century standards – but it has no equivalent today in the economies of Western democracies. More importantly, we might wonder about the impact of these extended performance tours on the development of a young person.

Above: University of Washington, Special Collections. JWS21402. Teddie stands at the rear, clutching the pole. Taken sometime in 1905 or 1906, not all of Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company are in this shipboard photo. Used with permission

In the photograph of the 1904-7 troupe shown above, which can be enlarged at its University of Washington Library home (here), we can recognise Teddy and some of the other Pollard performers. Their experiences would end up being very mixed. A smiling 13 year old Teddy McNamara can be seen at the rear, right & holding the pole, behind Harold Fraser (later Hollywood’s Snub Pollard). Willie Thomas leans out to the left at rear. Within a few years Willie had left the stage and become a butcher. The Heintz twins, Johnny and Freddie sitting in the foreground, look bored and disengaged. Freddie later struggled to build a stage career, but Johnny gave it up and became a baker in Australia. Future Hollywood director Alf Goulding, looking very dapper in suit and cap, stands at right; Charles Pollard steadies Daphne Pollard at left. Both Alf and Daphne remained friends and would experience great success on stage and in film later in life. Leah Leichner beams with happiness in the centre front row. Three years later Arthur Pollard would send her home early from his Indian trip. After some more performances in Australia, she disappeared completely from the historical record.

Like many of the Pollards performers, Teddy saw his future in the United States and he returned again on a third Pollards North American tour departing Australia in July 1907. At the end of this tour, in early 1909, Charles Pollard announced his retirement as manager and came home with most of the company to Australia. But 16 year old Teddy joined a few of the older performers and stayed on in North America for a while. In July 1910, Teddy was performing with some of the old Pollards players in British Columbia. In 1912, Nellie Chester, Charles Pollards sister and one time partner, decided to establish a new company, now with adolescents (as required by the new Australian Emigration laws prohibiting children from travelling outside Australia to perform). Both Teddy and Nellie joined up again. Their mother had died in 1904. It seems sister Alice dutifully kept house for her father in Melbourne, and became a seamstress.

pollards-in-vancouver-1913  Teddie and Queenie Williams in 1916



Pattie (later Patsy) Hill back in Australia. The Call, (WA) 22 July 1927. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

In 1912 there was a new repertoire of musicals to take on tour across Canada and the western USA – including Sergeant Brue, The Toymaker and later the company’s own original, Married by Wireless. The company was active touring North American cities, on and off, until about 1919, by which time the remaining performers had gone their separate ways. Not surprisingly, in the hot-house environment of a touring company, romances between these young Australian actors had blossomed. Star performer Queenie Williams married Ernest, one of company manager Nellie Chester’s sons. And in November 1913, while in Edmonton, Canada, Teddy married fellow Melbourne performer Pattie Hill (Phyllis Esther Pattie Hill). In 1914, a daughter was born of the union. Sadly, neither marriage lasted very long. Pattie and her daughter returned to Melbourne in 1915 – a divorce was granted in Australia ten years later. Pattie insisted Teddy had promised to regularly send money and follow her home when he could finish his commitments, but never did.

In the US and Canada, Teddy’s reputation as a clever comedian grew with these performance tours. A lengthy interview in The San Francisco Call of 1906 revealed Teddy as a shy and reluctant interviewee, alongside Daphne Pollard, the skilled self-promoter. But reviews of his performances were universally enthusiastic and became more effusive over the years. 19 year old Teddy had “few peers as a character comedian” reported The Vancouver Daily World in September 1912. By July 1916, The Victoria Daily Times predicted that he would “soon have his name written among the few strikingly clever comedians.” Indeed, it might really have been so.

By the early 1920s Teddy was based in New York. He was now a headline act and he continued to gain roles in variety and a range of musical comedies across the US. In private life he had a new partner, also an actor, and in 1923, a new baby daughter.

Ted McNamara headlines in Battling Butler on the Keith circuit. Evening Star, Washington DC, 27 December, 1925. Via Newspapers.com

To Hollywood

kiper-gives-the-flagg-the-bird lipinsky-denies-all-knowledge

Screen grabs of Ted McNamara and Sammy Cohen on the screen – in Fox’s What Price Glory, 1926. The film is still widely available on DVD. Author’s Collection.

Now known as Ted, he was cast as part of the comic relief in Raoul Walsh‘s filmed version of the popular play What Price Glory in early 1926. (His first film had been Shore Leave, a romance). What Price Glory, a First World War Army – buddy film and a vehicle for Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe, was to be Ted’s breakthrough role. Using some easily recognised ethnic stereotypes, his was a supporting role as Irish-American soldier Private Kiper, alongside Sammy Cohen playing the Jewish-American Private Lipinsky. The story goes that Walsh had seen Ted on stage in New York and offered him the part. That is likely, as Ted had completed a long run of Battling Butler at the Selwyn and later Times Square Theatre in New York.

Ted and Sammy Cohen in What Price Glory. Dolores del Rio plays Charmaine tending the bar. Exhibitors Herald, 27 November 1926, P24, via Lantern Digital Media Project.

Seen today, the male stereotypes in What Price Glory appear well-worn at best, but the film was well received at the time and Ted must have been pleased with his work and the change of direction it represented. In his survey of military comedy films, Hal Erickson notes that Fox promoted the two comedians based on the film’s success, and as a response to MGM’s comedy team of Karl Dane and George K Arthur. The partnership was repeated several times, including in 1927’s The Gay Retreat, another film set against World War One, where Sammy Nosenbloom (Cohan) and Ted McHiggins (Ted) join the army to look after their employer.

Ted McNamara and Sammy Cohen in Upstream. Screen grabs from a copy on YouTube.

This writer’s favourite of the surviving Ted McNamara films is John Ford‘s 1927 film Upstream, a copy of which was found in New Zealand in 2009. Set in a theatrical boarding house, Ted McNamara and Sammy Cohen play Callahan and Callahan, two tap dancers, secondary comedic characters. The plot is slight and John Ford purists are unlikely to find much to enjoy in it, but it is one of those silent films that has stood the test of time – with every scene containing some sort of industry in – joke and Ford’s skill as a director already evident. Ted’s skills as a comic are also well displayed here.

Ted McNamara’s final film, Why Sailors Go Wrong, was about two rival cabbies who end up on the tropical island of Pongo-Pongo, again with Sammy Cohen as a foil. The film is a reminder of the very ordinary standard of some film comedies of the day, with its slender plot and “low comedy” situations – including sea-sickness, arranged marriages to unattractive island women, implied nudity and jokes about bird droppings. Within a few years, the Hayes office had been established to rid Hollywood of this sort of unrefined fare.

Ted died in February 1928, before the film was released. The stated cause of death was pneumonia, but as film historian Thomas Reeder notes, film gossip was that alcohol also played a part. Reeder quotes Ted’s contemporary Jimmy Starr as saying “Ted was pretty much of a drunk. Success had merely provided him with more money for booze.” Starr recalled that on a rainy night a drunken Ted had fallen into a gutter. “He just lay there.” Ted’s fondness for drink was also noted by Pattie Hill, who repeatedly mentioned his excessive drinking in her divorce petition.

According to newspaper accounts, Ted McNamara was farewelled at his funeral by many of his old Pollard colleagues – including Daphne Pollard, Alf Goulding and Billy Bevan, a testimony to his popularity with the company. What Price Glory was chosen as a motto for Ted’s monument at the Calvary Cemetery in California.

Sammy Cohen continued appearing in films, although he never established an effective comedy partnership again. Pattie Hill became Patsie Hill in Australia, married baritone Vernon Sellars and enjoyed a very long association with Australian theatre and radio.


Note 1
Nellie McNamara had a lengthy stage career of her own. In addition to travelling with Alice on Pollard tours in 1901-2 and 1903-4, Nellie also trained as a contralto and performed on the stage in Australia between 1909 and 1912, with significant acclaim, using the stage name Nellie Mond. The Victorian Premier Mr Murray heard her sing in April 1910, and declared he was quite sure that if given the chance, “she would distinguish herself and charm the public.” She did charm the public for several years, but in mid 1912 she threw it all away to join Teddy again, and Nellie Chester’s final Pollard tour of the US.

Years later Nellie explained to Everyone’s magazine that while a singer in Melbourne, her teacher had taken her to meet Madame Melba, who “nearly scared me out of my wits. She said ‘The voice is all right but for heaven’s sake, make her get rid of that awful Australian accent.’ ” As well as revealing a sharp wit, this anecdote appears to explain why she did not pursue a career as a classical singer. She married US vaudevillian Don Clinton and in 1920 returned to Australia to perform with him on Harry Clay’s circuit.

Unfortunately, the author has yet to find a clear photo of Nellie.


Nick Murphy
August 2020


Further Reading

Text

  • Gillian Arrighi (2017) The Controversial “Case of the Opera Children in the East”: Political Conflict between Popular Demand for Child Actors and Modernizing Cultural Policy on the Child. “Theatre Journal” No 69, 2017. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Gillian Arrighi, National Library of Australia. Child Stars of the Stage. 
  • Patricia Erens (1984) The Jew in American Cinema. Indiana University Press
  • Hal Erickson (2012) Military Comedy Films: A Critical Survey and Filmography of Hollywood Releases Since 1918. McFarland
  • Thomas Reeder (2017) Mr. Suicide: Henry Pathé Lehrman and The Birth of Silent Comedy. Bear Manor Media

Films

Federal Register of Legislation (Australia)

University of Washington, Special Collections.
Sayre (J. Willis) Collection of Theatrical Photographs.
This invaluable resource contains numerous photos of the Pollard’s Troupes.

The Australian Variety Theatre Archive: Popular Culture Archive, 1850-1930. Clay Djubal and others

Lantern Digital Media Project

  • Fox Folks, 1926.
  • Picture Play, 1927
  • Motion Picture, July 8, 1927

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Age (Melb) 19 April 1910
  • The Prahran Telegraph (Melb) 26 Oct 1912
  • The Age (Melb) 10 Jan 1914
  • The Bulletin (Aust) Vol. 41 No. 2083 (15 Jan 1920)
  • Everyone’s (Aust) 10 March, 1920
  • The Journal (SA) 8 Jan 1921
  • The Telegraph (Qld) 11 May 1926
  • The Call, (WA) 22 July 1927
  • Saturday Journal (SA) 14 Jan, 1928
  • The Daily News (WA) 23 Mar 1928

Newspapers.com

  • The Oregon Daily Journal, 30 Jan 1904.
  • The San Francisco Call, Sun, Mar 4, 1906
  • The Vancouver Daily World, 21 September 1912.
  • Vancouver Daily World,  23 May 1913
  • The Evening Times Star and Alameda Daily Argus (CA), 10 Feb 1914
  • Spokane Chronicle (WA) 18 Sept 1914
  • Marysville Daily Appeal, (CA), 27 Jan, 1916.
  • The Victoria Daily Times, 27 July 1916
  • Spokane Chronicle (WA) 27 Sept 1917
  • Star Tribune (Minneapolis) 21 May 1922
  • Daily News (New York) 15 Sept 1925
  • Evening Star, Washington DC, 27 December, 1925.

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

Trilby Clark (1896-1983) goes to Hollywood

Above: Trilby Clark in Franklin Barrett’s Breaking of the Drought, in 1920. Photograph from the collection of the State Library of Victoria , now in the Public Domain.

The 5 second version
Trilby Clark – such a wonderful name! Born in Adelaide, South Australia in 1896, Trilby Clark enjoyed an episodic acting career in Australia, the US and Britain and endured two short marriages on two continents. Something of a restless soul, she made the long return sea journey back to Australia five times during her life. She died in London in 1983. She had at least twenty films to her credit, plus numerous stage and radio appearances

Born Gwendolyn Gladys Blakely Clark on 30 August 1896, she was the youngest of Edward Clark and Jane nee Long‘s nine children. Edward, the owner of the East Adelaide Brewing Company, died suddenly in 1900, when Trilby was only four. However, the family appears not to have suffered financially because of the tragedy, as her extensive travel history suggests significant on-going financial security.

Trilby Clark‘s unusual nick-name was derived from the play Trilby, popular about the time she was born. Years later, she claimed her father had chosen the pet name because she was born with six toes. Trilby attended Adelaide’s Dryburgh House School (also known as Presbyterian Ladies College) and excelled in her studies, and from her mid teens began to appear in charity performances and at dance clubs.

Following some experiences in amateur theatricals in Adelaide, from late 1917 she won a place performing professionally with the British actress Ada Reeve in Malcolm Watson‘s musical – Winnie Brooke, Widow. Reeve was hugely popular internationally, and this was one of her most famous roles – she had first performed it in London in 1904. This was a great breakthrough and a testament to her ability.

21 year old Trilby Clark about to appear with Ada Reeve. Sunday Times (Sydney) 16 December 1917. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Following this successful tour, Trilby appeared with Harry RickardsTivoli Players in the new musicals My Lady Frayle, and The Officer’s Mess, the latter produced by Robert Greig and featuring another up and coming actor in Vera Pearce. Then another breakthrough followed, in late 1919 pioneer director Franklyn Barrett cast her in a leading role in his film The Breaking of the Drought. Adapted from a stage play, extolling the virtues of an honest living made in the country as opposed to the lazy life of the city, the somewhat dated film (even for its time) seems to have been moderately well received in Australia. But the experience was more than enough to wet Trilby’s appetite for more. Soon after, she departed for England, where she said she spent six months studying voice under the Adelaide-born singer Arthur Otto (better known as Kingston Stewart).

The Breaking of the Drought (1920) The struggling Galloway family decide to find their wastrel son, who is spending the family fortune in Sydney. Nan Taylor as mother, Trilby as daughter Marjorie and Charles Beetham as father. Photograph from the collection of the State Library of Victoria.

Daily News, via Newspapers.com

Trilby arrived in New York in February 1921, and with some Australian stage experiences, and with the aid of some imaginative publicity about winning an Australian beauty competition and having modelled for wartime posters in Australia, she found a place in the cast of the Greenwich Village Follies. The show opened in August at the Shubert Theatre. She was the “most beautiful girl in Australia” according to the New York Daily News of July 31, 1921 (at left). Over time Trilby Clark proved herself a great self promoter, as so many Australians who travelled overseas at that time had to be.

She didn’t stay in New York for very long. She arrived home in late December 1921, making comment on the strenuous rehearsal schedule required for a New York performer. “Sunday brought no respite” in the schedule she complained, but otherwise the reason for her short season (it could only have been 8 weeks) remains a mystery.

She returned to see her mother in Young Street, Wayville, Adelaide, and she appeared briefly on stage for J C Williamson’s in Sydney again. Then suddenly, it was announced she was heading back to the US to pursue an interest in movies. She arrived in California on the Niagara in August 1922.

Fox Pictures signed her up in June 1923 and William Wellman directed her in Big Dan soon after, a boxing drama starring Charles “Buck” Jones, and coincidentally in company with Australian-born actors Charles Coleman and Lydia Yeamans Titus. Good looking, 5’6″ tall (167 cm) with dark brown hair and dark eyes, this was the start of a busy three year period in Hollywood for her, although she did not stay with Fox for long. Over the next few years she appeared in contemporary and historical dramas, westerns for Hunt Stromberg and even a Ben Turpin short comedy for Mack Sennett. And then in 1926 she met and fell in love with a charming Italian actor newly arrived in the US, Niccolo Quattrociocchi (stage name Lucio Flamma) – they married in November. Unfortunately Niccolo had rather old fashioned views even for 1927. He commenced divorce proceedings against Trilby after six months, US newspapers taking great delight in reporting that, amongst other things, she refused to prepare macaroni for him.

Trilby smiling (at right) in a posed Christmas photo, with Harriet Hammond and director Scott Dunlap. Exhibitors Herald, Dec 1925, via Lantern Digital Media Project.

Trilby fled the US for England, where, without too much difficulty, she resumed her film career. She appeared in ten British films, including The Devil’s Maze (1929) which was dialogued after completion as a silent film and released in both formats. In 1930 she also appeared in Edgar Wallace‘s crime drama The Squeaker, directed by Wallace and based on his own popular novel and play. Her other sound films including the early British musical Harmony Heaven (1930), which also appears to have been her last – one of the few of her films that can be seen today. With a relatively unsophisticated “Show within a Show” plot, crude management of sound and music and uneven performances by some of the principals, seen today Harmony Heaven tells us much about the challenging transition to sound films in Britain. Trilby seems to have acknowledged this herself. Several years later she told an Adelaide paper “No one understood the adjustment of the microphone properly, so that the mere putting down of a piece of paper was reproduced like a gunshot, and walking made a deafening clatter.



No sign of an Australian accent here! Trilby Clark in Harmony Heaven (1930) as Lady Violet. The film was supposedly also made in colour, although only a black and white version survives now. Available as part of the British Musicals series from Network.


Calgary Herald, 21 June 1932, via Newspapers.com

Following another short sojourn in the US in 1930, where she appeared in at least one un-credited supporting role – as a secretary in Doctor’s Wives, Trilby married stockbroker Ronald Stanley Anker Simmons in London in June 1932 – a union that brought considerable Australian publicity. Simmons was fifteen years Trilby’s junior, although she was already being creative about her age and claiming a birth around 1902, a practice common amongst so many actors of the time.

Like her marriage to Niccolo, her second marriage appears to have lasted only six months – she quietly initiated divorce proceedings against her husband in 1933. In early 1935 she travelled back to Australia again, visiting family and friends, and talking to the press about her film work in Britain and Hollywood. Having previously explained that she had retired, she was encouraged to appear on stage in Melbourne in the satire So This is Hollywood, with a young Peter Finch and Gwen Munro. Trilby played a temperamental film star. The play was not a success, reviewers feeling it was poorly scripted and amateurish, although there was praise for the actors. Trilby moved to an apartment in Sydney and in April 1936 she was on hand to farewell a young, hopeful Jocelyn Howarth, who was heading to Hollywood. In August 1937 Trilby departed Australia for England again, but via the US. In March 1939, she was back in Australia yet again, “on a holiday,” via the ship Dominion Monarch. She was still living in Australia when World War II broke out.

Trilby, now based in Sydney, performed on radio and joined the cast of several plays at the Minerva Theatre – Susan and God in 1941 and Jane Eyre in 1943. (She is shown at left in ABC Weekly, 17 July, 1943. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove)

We know she returned to Britain after World War II and that she spent some time living in the south of France. Having now knocked ten years off her age, she travelled extensively, back to Australia in 1957, also to the US and Canada, but it seems she had well and truly retired from stage and screen.

She was never interviewed again about her work across three continents, and was quickly forgotten in Australia. In the last decade of the twentieth century, Matthew Sweet, a British film historian, interviewed many of the surviving actors from the early years of British cinema. But he was too late to speak to Trilby. She was living comfortably at 40 Elm Park Gardens in Chelsea, London, when she died on 11 January 1983, aged 87.


Note: Nicky Quattrociocchi ran El Borracho restaurant in New York for many years. He wrote a memoir and recipe book entitled “Love and Dishes” in 1950. After wartime service in the Royal Navy, Ronnie Anker Simmons moved to the US and pursued business interests.


Nick Murphy
July 2020


Further Reading

Films

Text

  • Matthew Sweet (2005) Shepperton Babylon, The Lost Worlds of British Cinema. Faber and Faber.
  • John Tulloch (1981) Legends of the Screen. The Narrative film in Australia 1919-1929. AFI/Currency Press.

State Library of Victoria

Small Town Papers Archive.

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Bulletin Vol. 40 No. 2043, (10 Apr 1919)
  • The Sun (Sydney) 29 Dec 1921
  • The News (Adelaide) 25 Jan 1927
  • The News (Adelaide) 11 April 1931
  • The Australian Women’s Mirror Vol 8, No 29, 14 June 1932
  • The Australian Women’s Mirror Vol 10, No 14, 27 Feb 1934
  • The News (Adelaide) 19 Sept 1935
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne) Sat 21 Sep 1935 Page 28
  • The Sydney Morning Herald 31 Aug 1942
  • Bowen Independent (Qld) Fri 5 Mar 1943

Newspapers.com

  • Boston Post, 22 Jul 1921
  • The San Francisco Examiner 19 June, 1927
  • Victoria Daily Times (Canada) 12 May, 1930
  • Edmonton Journal (Canada) 5 July 1932
  • The Age (Melbourne) 20 Mar 1939

Lantern Digital Media Project

  • Exhibitors Herald, Jun-Aug 1923
  • Motion Picture News, 7 July 1923
  • Exhibitors Herald, Sep 1923
  • Photoplay Magazine, Jan-June 1924
  • Exhibitors Herald, Dec 1925-Mar 1926
  • Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World, Apr-Jun 1929
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This site has been selected for archiving and preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive

Nina Speight (1890-1965) of Hollywood, catarrh and colds

Above: 27 year old Melbourne girl Nina Speight on the cover of Lone Hand in October 1917. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Nina Speight arrived in California with her husband Rhodes Speight in April 1916. Within a year she was appearing in the supporting cast of Hal Roach comedies, especially those featuring Harold Lloyd, Bebe Daniels and usually in company with Snub Pollard, and sometimes at the direction of Alf Goulding.

Accurately tracing her films for the Roach studio is difficult, and the list provided by the IMDB today seems strangely incomplete and difficult to verify. In several of the films attributed to her, this writer was unable to identify anyone who resembled her. Several photos currently circulating on the net claiming to show Nina with Harold Lloyd may match known images of her, but by far the most reliable list of her work has been produced here by Jesse Brisson, on the very comprehensive website run by Dave Lord Heath. It seems her most active years at the Roach studio were 1917 and 1918.

When Clubs are trump 19172 When Clubs are trump 1917

Above: Screen grabs of Nina Speight with unidentified actors in Hal Roach’s When Clubs are Trump, 1917. Both these are from low res Youtube versions of the film.

The flirt 1917 Hey There! 1918

Above: Screen grabs of Nina Speight  – a fleeting appearance in The Flirt (1917) and at right in a longer part as Bebe Daniel’s maid, poking out her tongue at her mistress, in Hey There (1918), both taken from Youtube versions of the films.

Growing up in Australia

Below: Nina Speight on the cover of The Lone Hand, March 1916. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove. The photo is attributed to Kenelm Stump. Readers interested in the challenge of identifying her in the Roach films are recommended to follow the link to the full scale photo.

Nina 1916Nina was born Simelia Präger in Fergie Street, North Fitzroy, Melbourne on 18 January, 1890. Her father, 39 year old Henry Präger, was a maker of waterproof clothing, describing himself on her birth certificate as a “mackintosh manufacturer.” Born in Prague in what was then part of the Kingdom of Austria-Hungary, he had migrated to Australia and in 1889 married 19 year old Isabella Nathan of Melbourne. In view of her age, Isabella’s father Samuel had to give permission for the marriage.

Although two other children were born of the union (Leslie in 1894 and Ruth in 1898), the marriage was not a happy one. In 1898 and now in Sydney, Isabella instituted proceedings against Henry because she feared he might abandon her and the children, and flee the colony. She had already been dragged from “colony to colony” at his whim – Victoria, South Australia, New Zealand and New South Wales. Her brother Isidore Nathan supported the family after finding Isabella and the three children destitute. None of this indicates a very happy or stable childhood for “Minnie” as Simelia now called herself (Minnie was also her grandmother’s name).


On to stage and screen

In 1910 in Sydney, New South Wales, Minnie married Reginald Rhodes Speight. Exactly how she drifted onto the stage we do not know, but from a young age she had been an artist’s model (Datillo Rubbio, Evelyn Chapman and Julian Ashton were mentioned as using her) and a vaudeville performer. The decorator for Brisbane’s Daniel Hotel reportedly based some of their murals on her. It is also likely that Minnie appeared in at least one early Australian film, Gaston Mervale‘s The Wreck of the Dunbar” with Louise Lovely (then Louise Carbasse) in 1912, but little is known of this lost film and the claim is impossible to verify.

Rhodes Speight was also an aspiring actor and elocutionist, with a high opinion of himself and dreams of establishing his own actors school. He was also an investor, and involved with films made by the Australian Life Biograph company in 1911-12. He apparently produced and starred in another lost Australian film entitled “Saved by a Snake,” which he took on tour to provincial theatres in 1913, providing a narration with each screening. In 1915 he took the bushranger film Thunderbolt” through northern Queensland, again providing audiences with an accompanying lecture. The concept of a live narration to a movie may boggle the mind today, but it was not uncommon practice in the early years of silent film.

Equally active in the partnership, Minnie Rhodes, as Nina then called herself, appeared in vaudeville troupes travelling through regional New South Wales, singing, dancing and acting as a foil for male comedians. By 1915 she had become Nina Speight and was performing on stage in Brisbane, Queensland. Both Rhodes and Nina were firm believers in the concept of re-inventing oneself, including by change of name, whenever necessary.

Nina in 1915

Above: Nina Speight appearing in Brisbane in July 1915. The Brisbane Courier, 3 Jul 1915.  Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Nina and colds 1915

Above: Well before arriving in the US, Nina had a high enough Australian profile to advertise a cold cure in the Brisbane Daily Standard Fri 24 September 1915 . Her achievements as a model were also listed. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

There is no conclusive evidence that Nina Speight was close to Louise Lovely , although they must have known each other through the Australian Life Biograph company. In December 1914 Louise Lovely and her husband Wilton Welch had sailed to the US and by early 1916 she was established in Hollywood, and her first film Stronger than Death, had been released. It was the start of a very successful career for Louise. It is very likely that this success, and that of other Australians working in the US like Enid Bennett and Arthur Shirley, played a part in what happened next. Nina and Rhodes packed up and left Australia for good in 1916.

The Vampire Dance

Above: Nina’s “Vampire Dance” as reported in The Lone Hand. Vol. 5 No. 6 (1 May 1916),  Yet there is no evidence she performed this popular dance anywhere on stage in Australia before she departed for the US. It is likely this was a posed photo-shoot for publicity. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Nina wrote home soon after, with all the good news from the US. She was modelling for artists again, and working with San Francisco’s Sarsi Studio. She expected work with a Movie studio soon. A further report on her career appeared in the June 1917 edition of “The Moving Picture World,” alongside profiles of five other aspiring stars. By this time, she had been signed to work with the Hal Roach studio, being possessed of much “beauty and charm” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Moving Picture World June 1917
Above: Nina introduces herself to fans via The Moving Picture World. June 1917. Here, she claimed to have been born in Austria, while the typsetter had misspelled her name. Via Lantern, the Digital Media Project.

Trying something else

In mid-1918, after appearing in, perhaps, 18 films for Roach, where she generally took secondary soubrette roles, Nina joined Arthur Morse Moon‘s company onstage in The Wrong Bird, commencing a tour that started in Salt Lake City. Sadly Moon died of pneumonia only a few months later, and the tour was suddenly over. Returning to acting for the screen under yet another name – Nina Rhodes, she appeared in two films starring Eddie Boland. And then, no more. Her marriage to Rhodes Speight founded soon after, although she may have found some solace in the fact her mother had moved to the US, as had her sister Ruth, who married a US sailor. Her brother Leslie also briefly lived with her in Los Angeles, before moving to Europe and raising a large family in Belgium, a country he had seen when in Australian army service during the war. Rhodes Speight changed his name again, and pursued other interests.

We know little of Nina’s later life. Sometime in the 1920s she partnered with Louis Wagner, a studio carpenter, and bore him two children, both of whom died prematurely. Strangely, she was not completely forgotten in her native country. For almost twenty years she was one of the many celebrity faces advertising medicinal products in Australian newspapers. The last of these advertisments – for Hean’s Tonic Nerve Nuts, appeared in 1934, more than ten years after she appeared in her last Hollywood film, and long after she had left it all behind.

The Bulletin 1917 Nina in The Sun 1932

Above – Nina endorsing Hean’s “Tonic Nerve Nuts” in Australia. Left: The Bulletin. 18 Oct 1917.
Right: The Sun 21 December 1932. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove. You can read more about Hean’s products in an extensive article at the Australian Variety Theatre Archive.

She died in California in March 1965, as Nina Wagner.


Nick Murphy

May 2020


Further Reading

Text

  • Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1980) Australian Film 1900-1977. Oxford University Press/AFI
  • Andree Wright (1986) Brilliant Careers, Women in Australian Cinema. Pan Books

Web

Lantern, the Digital Media Project

National Library of Australia’s Trove

Newspapers.com

  • San Francisco Chronicle, · Thu, Mar 29, 1917 · Page 6
  • Los Angeles Times, APril 1, 1917 Page 31
  • Los Angeles Times, Dec 20, 1917 Page 15
  • The Salt Lake Tribune, · 12 Jun 1918, Wed · Page 9

US National Archives

  • Passenger arrival lists, applications for citizenship and US census returns via Family Search and Ancestry.com.

Births Deaths and Marriages Victoria.

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

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

The 5 second version
William James Raper was born in South Melbourne Australia on 6 May 1875. He died in Fontana, California, USA, on 17 January 1954. He was on stage in Australia from about 1900, when he changed his name to Paul Scardon, finding increasing success. He travelled with the Nance O’Neill company to the US in 1905. Following a busy 6 years on stage in the US, he appeared in his first film in 1911. He began directing for Vitagraph in 1915. After his Australian born wife died in the Spanish flu epidemic, he married actress Betty Blythe. He retired from directing in 1924, but stayed active in community theatre. From 1939 he returned to films as an extra.

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

early scardon

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

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

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

Sherlock Holmes in Aust 1902 minne043

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scardon in 1918

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

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

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

Scardon in Tha Atom 1915 Scardon unidentified film

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

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

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

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

filmdailyyearboo00wids_0094

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

Scardonppt 1923   Betty Blythe 1923 ppt

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

Life after Hollywood

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

Scardon in Mark Twain 1944 Today I Hang 1942

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

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

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

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


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

Scardon BC

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

Scardon naturalisation enlarged

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

Majeroni family

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

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

Nick Murphy
May 2020


Further Reading

Text

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

Heritage Council of Victoria, Database.

National Library of Australia’s Trove.

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

US National Archives
Via Family Search and Ancestry.com


Newspapers.com

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

Lantern Digital Media Project

Films in the Public Domain

Ena Gregory (1907-1993)- the WAMPAS baby star from Manly

Above: Ena Gregory as the Queen, In the Palace of the King, 1923. Author’s Collection.

The 5 second version
Ena Jessie Gregory was born in the Sydney suburb of Manly on 16 April 1907. She died at Laguna Beach, California, USA on 13 June 1993. She was active in Hollywood after moving there in 1920 with her mother. Her films included comedy shorts for the Hal Roach studio, and numerous Westerns. She also appeared in the Hollywood film The Bushranger in 1928. She adopted the stage name Marian Douglas in 1927. She retired in 1931 after a few sound films and became a Realtor.

Ena Jessie Gregory was born in Sydney on 16 April, 1907 to Arthur Gregory and Jessie nee Prior (see Note 1 for Birth Certificate). Arthur was described at the time as a “tobacconist” but in later years was listed as an importer of manufactured goods (presumably tobacco products) and Sydney’s Sands directory shows he had a large office on the 6th floor of 204 Clarence Street. As Ena grew up, the family lived in a house (that has since been demolished) at 48 Sydney Rd Manly, very close to the famous Manly beach. Arthur and Jessie had married in 1901 – Ena was the only child of the union.

Ena’s name is found in the cast of a few Sydney wartime fund raising shows, and performing in 1918 as a child in Eyes of Youth – with other child actors like Esma Cannon. However, the best evidence of a passion for acting is her appearance in student performances run by Sydney actor-elocutionist Harry Thomas, in December 1919. His students recited selections from Shakespeare, Tennyson and Longfellow at an annual concert.


1920- Moving to the US

Ena and her mother arrived in the US on the SS Ventura on 2 February 1920, listing their intended stay as “indefinite.” Given her very young age and relative inexperience, Ena’s success soon after is remarkable and one wonders whether her father and mother used some connections to help set her up. Arthur had travelled on business to the US a number of times during the First World War.

Both Variety and the San Francisco Chronicle carried articles about Ena soon after her arrival. Amongst the overblown claims about her experience in Australia, the Chronicle also quoted Ethel as saying she wanted Ena to learn the art of acting in the US, a comment that has a ring of truth. Most likely, the state of the Gregory’s marriage also had something to do with it, as the couple appear not to have lived together again after 1920. Ethel and Arthur finally divorced in 1928. However, moving to a new country with a teenager was still an unusual occurrence. Jessie had a large and well established family back home in Australia, but she and Ena were choosing to leave them all behind.


A Career begins

Camera 1922
Regrettably, over time, Ena’s US film career has been inextricably muddled up with another actress with a very similar name – Canadian born brunette Edna Gregory. Even during their lifetimes, their names were continually mixed up. Tracking down Ena’s early Hollywood appearances is therefore difficult – and made doubly so because many of her films have not survived. One of her first films was a supporting role to Gladys Watson in Universal’s Short Skirts  – but this film has also disappeared.

In January 1922, Ena’s press agent Don Hix illustrated just how much hot air was generated on behalf of up and coming actors, even during Hollywood’s silent era. Ena was, according to Hix, “adept at boxing, fencing, golfing, tennis, baseball, football and even wrestling”… She had been a “footlight favourite for six years in Australia.”

Above: Ena in Camera! Magazine April 1921-April 1922 aged 15. Note the accompanying text reminding readers this is Ena, not Edna. Via Lantern and the Internet Archive.

Comedies and Westerns

Ena’s early films included comedy shorts for the Hal Roach studio, some of which do survive today. On reviewing these, it appears her function was generally to play a straight role to the slapstick antics of the likes of Stan Laurel, Charlie Chase or Earl Mohan. Several of the surviving Stan Laurel films also include Mae Laurel (Mae Dahlberg), an experienced Australian vaudevillian and Laurel’s partner at the time.

Short Kilts 1924 Wide Open Spaces1 Wide Open Spaces Stan and Mae

Above left to right: Stan Laurel and Ena Gregory in Short Kilts (1924), Laurel and Gregory in Wide Open Spaces (1924), and at right Laurel and Mae Dahlberg in the same film. Source of screen grabs: Youtube.

Jefferies Jr with Charlie Chase 1924 Rupert of Hee Haw 1 Postage Due 1924

Above left to right: Gregory and Charlie Chase in Jefferies Jr. (1924), Dahlberg, Laurel and Gregory in Rupert of Hee Haw (1924) and Gregory in Postage Due (1924) . Source of screen grabs: Youtube

A WAMPAS Baby Star

In early 1925, Ena was announced as one of the new WAMPAS “Baby Stars”.  The Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers annually created a promotional campaign, profiling a dozen young women who were (possibly) on the threshold of stardom and providing them with publicity. At 18 years of age Ena was amongst the youngest, and the only foreign-born winner that year.

WAMPAS Baby stars 1925

Above: WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1925 including the very blond 18 year old Ena Gregory, seated centre. She had been in Hollywood for five years. Picture-Play Magazine, March-August 1925. Via the Internet Archive

Through 1925 and 1926 she continued to be busy on the screen – she was also well enough established to appear in advertisements for soap and bathing suits. She had roles in numerous Westerns – popular rodeo star Jack Hoxie being a regular co-star –  in such lurid macho titles as Red Hot Leather, Rough and Ready, Grinning Guns, Men of Daring and others. At the end of 1926 she married Al Rogell, the director of many of her films.


Becoming Marian Douglas

There are numerous newspaper stories associated with Ena at this time, almost all of them impossible to verify independently. In 1927 Picture Play magazine published an extraordinary piece written by staff regular Ann Sylvester, quoting Rogell as saying to an Ena disappointed with her career;

” ‘Now listen Ena, suppose we give you a new shuffle of the cards – a fresh chance – and see what happens…’ Ena sighed and there was a slight glitter of tears in her eyes. ‘Oh I don’t know’ she said listlessly. ‘I just haven’t the heart to keep on trying… I don’t believe in myself anymore.’ Well, mused Al… ‘maybe you could believe in yourself if you were someone else… ‘ “

It’s a cleverly written piece, interspersed with photos of The Shepherd of the Hills, her latest film, also directed by Rogell. The article explains she has just had an operation to beautify her nose, and has changed her stage name to Marian Douglas in an effort to remake herself.

    Ena no Edna gets married SF Examiner 17 July 1927     Ena Marion Photoplay 1927

Above: Left: The San Francisco Examiner still muddling Edna and Ena on 17 Jul 1927. This was Edna‘s marriage and the paper had not done their homework. Ena had been married to Rogell for six months. Via Newspapers.com.
Right: Photoplay July -December 1927, covers Ena’s change of name. Via Lantern and the Internet Archive

Of course, it’s absurd to think that an intimate conversation between Ena and Rogell would really find its way into a fan magazine. And a few weeks later the Daily News of New York was suspicious enough to start their report on Ena’s change of name by commenting on the “chicanery practiced by movie press agents.” All the same, the story gained ground that had she consulted a Hollywood mystic to determine a more “lucky” name, by some accounts one that had thirteen letters, or combinations of the names of other popular stars.

However, it is worth noting that at the same time all this was happening, Ena’s father was about to arrive in the US (they seem not to have seen each other for seven years), while at the same time Ena and Edna continued to be merrily mixed up by the press, as the example above shows – another compelling reason for a name change in itself. There is almost certainly much more to this event than we now know.

Ena Douglas perhaps
Above: Ena’s signature on a fan photo, where she signs her name Ena Douglas. This possibly suggests she was giving much greater consideration to a name change than reports of the time suggested. A number of these signed photos are circulating on the net. Author’s collection.

Ena made several films using the stage name Marian Douglas, including The Bushranger with popular cowboy star Tim McCoy.  Filmed in California but set in colonial-era Australia, it followed some plot points similar to For the Term of his Natural Life, which had been made in Australia only a few years before; a wrongful conviction of the hero in England, transportation to Tasmania, adventures in the bush, romance and eventual redemption. Unfortunately, again, the film no longer exists, and we are dependent on reviews of the day for an understanding of the plot. Ena’s final film appears to have been Aloha, a romantic drama also directed by Rogell. Then, in 1931, at the ripe old age of 24, it appears her Hollywood career came to an end. There were no more films. Did the huge changes brought on by the coming of sound play a role in the demise of her career? We have no evidence, but it is quite possible. There were the inevitable “comeback” stories about Ena, yet similar stories have been a feature of Hollywood for a century, and these came to nothing. However, Ena did not disappear from the public eye altogether.

Ena 3

Above: Ena Gregory, Tim McCoy and Frank Baker in The Bushranger (1928). Photo, author’s collection.

Unseemly Language

In mid 1934, Ena’s marriage came to an end. Rogell sued for divorce, claiming Ena stayed out late at drinking parties, while he had to go to bed so he could perform his duties at the studio the next day. He claimed that Ena “was possessed of a violent temper and used vile language to him” and was “overly familiar with other men, embracing them and displaying other signs of affection”.  The entire divorce played out for six very long months in newspapers across the US with claims and counter claims being made, before a divorce was granted in 1935. And a year later, Ena testified at the divorce of her friend Helen Twelvetrees from her husband Jack Woody. Twelvetrees had filmed Thoroughbred for Ken Hall of Cinesound in Sydney in early 1936, where the marriage had first run aground. Back in Hollywood, Ena testified that she had witnessed Jack using “unseemly language” with his wife.

Ena must have discussed Sydney and Australia before Helen Twelvetrees left the US to work on Thoroughbred. We can only wonder what she might have said.

Helen Twelvetrees in Aust 2  LA Times 28 Oct 1937

Above left: Frank Leighton and Ena’s friend Helen Twelvetrees filming Thoroughbred in Sydney. State Library of New South Wales, Sam Hood Collection. In his memoirs, Director Ken Hall writes at some length regarding their relationship.
Above right: Ena Gregory and Frank Nolan discussing plans for their wedding, with Helen Twelvetrees, at left, watching on. The Los Angeles Times 28 Oct 1937, Via Newspapers.com

Ena married twice more – briefly to Dr Frank Nolan in 1937-9 and later to businessman James Thompson Talbot in 1951.

If Ena ever did really believe in lucky numbers or lucky names, she did not allow this to dominate her decisions later in life. After the Second World War she joined her mother in business and became a successful real estate agent (Realtor), specialising in the Laguna Beach area, in Orange County California. She worked happily in this profession for almost thirty years, until the mid 1970s, her company logo being Pleasing you is our Pleasure. 

Ena died on 13 June, 1993, aged 86. She had become a US citizen in 1932. She never returned to Australia.

Ena in 1974

Above: Los Angeles Times, 3 February, 1974. Via Newspapers.com

Nick Murphy
May 2020

 

Note 1
It’s hard to believe biographers have struggled for so long with Ena Jessie Gregory’s name, place and date of birth. In the interests of clarity, part of her New South Wales birth certificate is given here:

Ena Gregory BC left part

Col 2- April 16, 1907, 53 Union Street, North Sydney [Date and place of birth]
Col 3 – Ena Jessie Not present
Col 4 – Female
Col 5 – Arthur James Gregory, Tobacconist. 30 years. [Born] North Sydney NSW
Col 6 – April 9 1901, Burrowa, NSW, Nil [Date and place of marriage, other children]
Col 7 – Jessie Elizabeth Prior, 30 years. [Born] Bourke NSW.
Source: New South Wales Births, Deaths & Marriages.

Further Reading

Text

  • Joy Damousi (2010) Colonial Voices: A Cultural History of English in Australia, 1840-1940. Cambridge University Press.
  • Ken G Hall. (1977) Australian Film: The Inside Story. Summit Books
  • George A. Katchmer (2009) A Biographical Dictionary of Silent Film Western Actors and Actresses. McFarland.
  • Andree Wright (1986) Brilliant careers. Women in Australian Film. Pan Books.

Surviving films

  • Many of the Hal Roach short comedies with Ena are available on Youtube. However, none of her full length films could be sourced.

State Library of New South Wales

City of Sydney 

Manly City Library Local Studies Blog

Immortal Ephemera website

National Library of Australia

  • The Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 17 December 1919
  • The Sunday Times (Sydney) 3 June, 1923
  • Sydney Mail, 30 May 1928
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 Dec 1928
  • Werribee Shire Banner (Victoria), 2 May 1929
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July 1929
  • Sun (Sydney) 7 February 1930 (a wildly inaccurate interview with Jessie Gregory)
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 1948

Newspapers.com

  • Oakland Tribune, 22 January 1922
  • The Los Angeles Times, 5 December 1924,
  • The Times Herald (Michigan), 20 January 1925
  • The San Francisco Examiner ,17 July 1927
  • Daily News (New York), 2 October 1927
  • The Los Angeles Times, 24 July 1927,
  • News-Pilot (California), 11 August 1934,
  • The Los Angeles Times, 18 Aug 1934,
  • The Los Angeles Times, 28 Oct 1937,
  • The Los Angeles Times, 3 February, 1974

Lantern – Digital Media Project – Internet Archive

  • Camera! Magazine, April 1921-April 1922
  • Picture-Play Magazine, March-August 1925
  • Photoplay Magazine, July -December 1927
  • Picture-Play Magazine, Sep 1927 – Feb 1928

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

Lotus Thompson (1904-1963) & her troublesome legs

Above: Young Australian Lotus Thompson, photographed in early 1923. Enlargement of a photo in author’s collection. The Theatre Magazine (Jan 1923) dates this to a Mother Goose panto, when Lotus was in the chorus.

Lotus to USA
The 5 second version
Born Lotus May Thompson in Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia on 26 August 1904, she died in Los Angeles, California, USA, 24 May 1963. She was on stage in Australia from 1915, then appeared in five Australian films 1921-24. She moved to California in 1924 where she found some minor roles. She is mostly remembered today for a stunt in 1925, when she claimed to have splashed acid on her legs. She was then active in US films for four or five years, but after an unhappy marriage and with the coming of sound films she found only uncredited roles. This writer suggests her voice was regarded as unsuitable.
Left – Lotus on her way to California. The Sun (Syd) 5 March 1924, via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Lotus Thompson is remembered today largely because of a well-publicised incident in February 1925, when she supposedly poured nitric acid on her herself, frustrated with Hollywood producers only offering her parts where she showed off her attractive legs. ”I’ll go mad if they don’t stop it!” she had wailed to her mother. “I know I can play parts, but they won’t give me a chance. It’s legs-always legs! I hate them!” US Newspapers widely reported the event. Film Weekly produced a sensational half-page sketch showing the scantily clad but distressed actress dribbling the acid on her legs. The journal suggested theatre owners might use the event to promote her latest film, The Yellow Back. At the same time, a more sober account in The Los Angeles Times included a photograph of Lotus posed on a bed, “burnt legs” bandaged up, looking miserable. A month later the story was still running, as on March 8, The Detroit Free Press listed the four things that drove Lotus Thompson to “disfigure herself for life” – which included “displaying her bare limbs in an endless series of frivolous bathing pictures” some of which the paper helpfully reprinted. It’s such a preposterous story it is hard to believe it still has currency today.

Lotus's legs SF Examiner March 8 1925

Lotus, posed with heavily retouched “bandaged legs”, a month after the alleged event –  from The San Francisco Examiner. “Deliberately spoiled her too beautiful legs” the paper reported on March 8, 1925. Via Newspapers.com

Lotus May Thompson, was born in Charters Towers, Queensland on 26th August 1904. She first performed on the Sydney stage in juvenile theatre in 1915, and thereafter appeared in concerts, fancy dress balls and carnivals.

Lotus as a child

Above: Lotus Thompson at the age of about 12 or 13, about the time she first appeared on stage. Photograph courtesy of Melissa Anderson

By 1921 she had featured in her first Australian film for Franklyn Barrett, Know Thy Child,  the film and her performance gaining some good reviews. The Daily News of Western Australia suggested Lotus played her part with “admirable fidelity.”

Vera James and Lotus Thompson

Vera James (as the sickly “fallen woman” Sadie) and Lotus Thompson (as Eileen, her vibrant daughter with a rosy future) in “Know Thy Child” – Via Wikipedia commons. Find a beautiful photo of Vera James during her brief stint at Universal Studios here at the NFSA website.

She appeared in four more films in 1922-3;  The Dinkum Bloke for Lottie Lyell & Raymond Longford and several Hayseed family comedies for Beaumont Smith. Sadly, none of these are known to survive today.


lotus3 Lotus 1923s

By 1923 Lotus was well established as an up and coming Australian movie actress. There was endless positive publicity which largely focused on her physical appearance – as can be seen in these examples.
Via National Library of Australia’s Trove; The Sunday Times, 28 January 1923, and The Sun Monday 24 April 1923

Determined to pursue a career in film, on 5th March 1924 she sailed for California on the Matson liner Ventura, with her mother Sarah. A newsreel camera was on hand to capture the scene. (click here to follow link)

lotusabouttodepart

This newsreel footage of Thompson surrounded by well-wishers on the eve of departure for the US is unusual – and a testimony to her popularity in 1924.Source of screen grab Australasian Gazette newsreel via youtube.

She settled in Hollywood and a few bit parts followed, but she obviously found the going tough. The “acid” incident occurred on 1st February 1925 – she had been in Hollywood for ten months. Many fan magazines and newspapers in the US and Australia dredged the story out for the next few years, although not all papers accepted the story as fact. Everyones magazine seems to have identified it as nonsense in a May 1925 report.   Motion Picture Magazine also suspected it was probably a hoax, and announced (tongue in cheek) that as the “acid” had caused no lasting disfigurement to her legs she would have to use scissors to cut them off next time.

Smith Weekly Aug 19,1933

Above: Smiths Weekly, August 19, 1933, via National Library of Australia Trove

Eight years later, on a return to Australia, she told the truth. It was entirely a publicity stunt, she confirmed. She told Smith’s Weekly, the whole thing had been arranged by five men – ‘”publicity go-getters.’ She was told that the subtle hint that the directors couldn’t keep their eyes off her legs would provide a spicy and sensational story, and she would be overwhelmed with big film offers… The promise of fame lured her into agreeing to it… ” She added I was not much more than a kid at the time, or I would never have entertained the proposition.'”

Lotus and Olive1

Above: US actress Olive Borden (left) and Australian actress Lotus Thompson (right). Jeffrey Weissman dates this photo to 1924. Borden was at the height of her Hollywood popularity and Thompson was just beginning to make her way. Courtesy Jeffrey Weissman collection.

All the same, the event achieved the publicity she wanted and kick-started her career. And by October 1926 she was under contract to Paramount Studios – she was posed prominently in a photo lineup of major Paramount stars in late 1926. (See Daniel Blum’s Pictorial History of the Silent Movies, page 294 here). Over the next five years a string of movies followed, some of them Westerns, a few of them directed by Australian-born director J. P. McGowan.

Unfortunately it is often difficult to review the work of silent era actors – so many of their films have been lost. Even the ten episodes of Universal’s 1930 serial Terry of the ‘Times’ – which saw Lotus with a starring role, has disappeared. However, we know Lotus Thompson was noted for her work as a comedienne and her Westerns were well received in Australia. In the late 1920s there was speculation that she could soon become a leading star.

Paramount serials 1930

Above: Terry of the Times advertised as a talking serial. It wasn’t really – but it did include music and sound effects. Motion Picture News, April-July 1929 Via the Internet Archive.
               The Picture Show 1928    Motion Picture Mag 1927
Left: Lotus as Bessie Lang with Ranger the dog, in Flashing Fangs (1926). The Picture Show Annual 1928 , via the Internet Archive. Right – Lotus at right, as a Floradora Girl, in  Casey at the Bat (1927). Motion Picture Magazine Feb – July 1927, via the Internet Archive.

January 1929 saw another change in Lotus’ life when she married Edward Wilder Churchill in Manhattan. The 1930 US census showed the young couple settling down to live with E Wilder Churchill Senior and his wife Alice on the family estate in California’s Napa Valley. This year was also her busiest for acting, and then in 1930, she appeared in her last credited roll, as Eve in Cecil B. DeMille‘s saucy pre-code musical fantasy, Madam Satan.

Lotus in Madam Satan
Above: A screen grab of Lotus in the kissing competition scene of Cecil B DeMille’s Madam Satan (1930). The film is available through the Warner Archive Collection. Author’s Collection.

For the next three years she did not appear in any films. Then without much warning, in August 1933, she was suddenly home in Australia again, supposedly forced to leave the US because she had overstayed her 6 months visa by some 9 years!

lotussanfrancisoexaminer29april1936It was during this visit home that she owned up to the acid on the legs stunt. Yet she was not being entirely honest when she spoke of being thrown out of the US as an illegal immigrant, because it seems the return home to see her mother was more to do with the state of her marriage than her visa. She went back to the US in March 1934, but she followed this trip almost immediately with another to the UK, apparently to see if she could drum up any work. She returned to acting in the US, but the roles she was given were now un-credited – she had well and truly lost her currency in the new sound-era Hollywood. Her marriage to Churchill formally came to an end in 1936, and she remarried on April 18 1937, to Stanley Robinson at Tijuana, Mexico. Finally in 1939, she applied to become a naturalised US citizen. According to the Internet Movie Database, the last of her film roles was in 1949, although there is evidence she appeared in some films that are not recorded.

Lotus in The San Francisco Examiner, 29 April 1936. Via Newspapers.com

There is another story here of course – and it’s not to do with burned legs. Even if the event was a stunt, was Lotus a victim of a publicity machine that chewed up young women like her? Or was she creatively playing the system and trying to take some initiative to manage her own destiny? Self publicity was then, as it is today, an important activity for aspiring stars.

lotus2

The San Francisco Examiner ran this article with the photo shown above. It was very easy to be stereotyped.  29 April, 1936. Via Newspapers.com

Unfortunately, we know nothing of the last years of her life, except that she lived comfortably on Laurel Canyon Drive and later in Burbank. She had no children from either marriage. She died in California in 1963, aged only 59.  Both her parents had succumbed to pneumonia in late 1934, at Cootamundra, New South Wales. Her brother Eric and father Archie both worked at the Cullinga Mine near Cootamundra, New South Wales.

Lotus as Queen

Lotus’s advice on beauty appeared in The Buffalo Times (Buffalo, New York) 5 April 1924. “Get plenty of out of door exercise” she said. Via Newspapers.com

A voice not suited to sound?

With the advent of sound film, many famous screen actors of the 1920s found themselves “washed up”, although others who had some experience with dialogue from stagework seemed to have breezed through. This writer spent six months sourcing Lotus Thompson’s few pieces of dialogue in obscure films of the early 1930s. It is only speculation by this author of course, but one wonders whether Lotus’ voice was simply not regarded as suitable for sound.

Lotus’ one line in I Found Stella Parish, a Warner Brothers film of 1935. She plays the unnamed secretary to Mr Reeves. “What shall I answer?” she asks. Available through Warner Brothers Archive.
Lotus’ one line as a random person at a ball, in Anthony Adverse, a Warner Brothers picture of 1936. These few words – “Please talk about them” seem to have an noticeable Australian twang. Available through Warner Brothers Archive.

More Acid?

Lotus Thompson was not the only Australian actor to complain about acid on her legs. In 1950, Sylvia Kellaway said that British actor Ben Wrigley had thrown acid on her legs while on tour in New Zealand. (Source – The Mercury (Tas) 5 April 1950, P5, via National Library of Australia’s Trove) What really happened we do not know, as the case was dismissed and the accusation never tested. But plenty of publicity was generated.

 

Nick Murphy, Updated April 2020

 

Special Thanks

Sincere thanks to Melissa Anderson, one of Lotus’ Australian relatives for her kind encouragement and feedback and permission to use a family photo.

Thanks also to Jeffrey Weissman for permission to use his photo and assistance with dating it.

 


Further Reading

  • Daniel Blum (1982) Pictorial History of the Silent Movies. Perigee Books
  • Liz Conor (2004) The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s. Indiana University Press
  • George A. Katchmer (2009) A Biographical Dictionary of Silent Film Western Actors and Actresses. McFarland
  • Buck Rainey (1992) Sweethearts of the sage: biographies and filmographies of 258 actresses appearing in western movies. McFarland
  • John Tulloch (1981) Legends of the Screen. The Australian Narrative Cinema 1919-1929. Currency Press.
  • Andree Wright (1987) Brilliant Careers: Women in Australian Cinema. MacMillan

National Library of Australia, Trove

  • Sunday Times (Sydney) 28 Jan 1923 “Three Girls with Claims to Perfect Figures”
  • The Sun (Sydney) 23 Apr 1923  “Eyes that mock the violet”
  • The Sun (Sydney) 5 March 1924 “Lotus Thompson”
  • Everyones Magazine Vol.4 No.271, 13 May 1925 “Lotus and her legs”
  • Smith’s Weekly (Sydney) 19 Aug 1933 “Inside story of a stunt that hoaxed world!”

Newspapers.com

  • The Buffalo Times (Buffalo, New York) 5 April 1924.
  • The San Francisco Examiner 8 March, 1925
  • The San Francisco Examiner 29 April, 1936

Lantern Digital Media Archive – Internet Archive

  • Motion Picture Magazine Feb – July 1925.
  • The Picture Show Annual 1928
  • Motion Picture Magazine Feb – July 1927
  • Motion Picture News  April-July 1929

Phyllis Gibbs from Coogee says “No” to Cecil B DeMille.

Above: Phyllis Gibbs on the front page of The Western Mail (Perth), 28 April 1927. She had just won the First National Pictures “Quest for an Australian Star” competition. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

The 5 second version.
Phyllis Gibbs was born on 24 July 1908 in Sydney. She won several competitions including the 1927 “First National Film Star Quest” which took her to Hollywood, and gave her a test with Cecil B DeMille studios. She appeared in Lois Weber’s The Angel of Broadway but after 10 weeks returned to Australia. She appeared in promotions for cinemas and then in Arthur Higgin’s first film – Odds On. After this she took no further interest in film making and died in Sydney on 4 May 1943.

Phyllis Gibbs was barely out of school and working as a hairdresser in the Sydney beachside suburb of Coogee, when she began to appear in competitions. Like some of the other women profiled on this website, Phyllis’s journey to very brief fame – including an appearance in several films – owed much to the support of an eager parent. And like many, it all lasted only a very short time.

Born to Ethel Cora Wynne in 1908, her mother married insurance salesman Henry Leslie Gibbs (or sometimes Salter – Gibbs) in 1910 (See Note 1). She attended Coogee Public School, not far from the family’s flat in Havelock Avenue. Her passions were tennis and ocean swimming – Sydney’s iconic Coogee beach was within easy walking distance of the family home.

In August 1926, the Sydney Evening News reported that Phyllis had just won first prize in the “unshingled” hair competition. Unshingled meant she kept her hair long, not cut short in a bob, as was the fashion at the time. The competition was partly sponsored by the Crystal Palace Cinema in George St, Sydney and part of the prize was a £10 per week payment to appear in a live prologue performed before the popular Douglas Fairbanks film Don Q, Son of Zorro. Ethel complained about the difficulty she had faced, trying to interest her daughter in competing.”She has never gone in for anything like this before,”  she told the Evening News. She is a real home girl.”


Phyllis Gibbs4  The Sun August 1926

Above left: Phyllis Gibbs with her spectacular “unshingled” hair, in Table Talk. 12 Aug 1926.  Above right: Appearing at the Crystal Palace in August 1926. The live prologue appears to have included sword-play.  The Sun (Sydney) 6 August 1926. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Such was the power of the fantasy of a “career in the pictures” that the Sydney Evening News had little difficulty attracting widespread interest in the First National “Film Star Quest” in March 1927. There were, reportedly, 2,000 contestants across Australia. As a representative from Sydney, New South Wales, Phyllis was amongst the favourites and her beautiful hair, good looks and pleasant personality impressed reporters. She was “unspoiled, unaffected, and sincere, with a love for her home, her work, and for all things beautiful” wrote the Evening News. Her untested performance skills and lack of acting experience seemed much less important than her good looks and admirable personal qualities. Not very surprisingly, Phyllis won the finals – with the prize being a trip to Hollywood and a test with Cecil B DeMille. The Evening News covered all the good news, with prominent articles and a big Page 1 photo.

In late May 1927, Phyllis and Ethel boarded the SS Sierra, bound for California and a new career – perhaps. US newspapers happily reprinted photos of the young Australian in bathers and at the beach – photos that could have only been supplied from Australia.


Phyllis at the beach Phyllis 1927Phyllis welcomed

Above: Phyllis received plenty of  publicity in the US in 1927, and the bathing suit photos may have helped. In the US, the competition had become “Miss Australia” and there had been 12,000 contestants. Left; The Princeton Daily Clarion, 24 June 1927. Centre; The Arizona Republic, 28 June 1927, Right; The Fresno Morning Republican 11 July 1927. Via Newspapers.com

Unfortunately, Phyllis’ fans had a hard time keeping up with her activities in Hollywood because there was not much to report. At the end of July, Australians read that she had started work in her first film for DeMille Studios, The Angel of Broadway, directed by Hollywood’s leading female director, Lois Weber. Several Australian papers claimed she appeared in as many as four films for the DeMille Studio, but this seems impossible to verify now. If she ever did appear in Forbidden Woman, Main Event or The Girl in the Pullman, it is likely she was an extra. Just how much time she really spent with DeMille himself is also difficult to determine. Sadly,  the censor would not approve The Angel of Broadway for release in Australia and unfortunately is now considered a lost film.

In late August and only eight weeks after arriving, Phyllis suddenly announced she had had enough, and was coming home. The official reason was that she and her mother were “homesick”. The contract DeMille’s studio had presented to her looked wonderful to Australian eyes – with its increasing rates of pay and the chance of a new contract if all went well. But she declined it – perhaps she realized it was just a typical contract of the time. By early October she was at home in Sydney again, embracing her friends.

Gibbs on return

Above: Phyllis Gibbs on her happy return. Table Talk, 20 October 1927. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

So what happened? Not surprisingly, she was careful to find the right form of words. She assured the Evening News it had been “like a dream” and that she had had a wonderful time. She was, after all, deeply indebted to the paper that had been her staunch advocate. She was also careful to say that everyone in the industry had been so welcoming. But, she explained, the whole Hollywood “atmosphere… was an environment I could not have lived in.” She wished she could have the same opportunity in Australia. 

And she did.  Within a few months, cinematographer Arthur Higgins had signed her up to appear as the love interest in his first film as director – a horse racing drama entitled Odds On, with popular actor Arthur Tauchert. The ever loyal Evening News claimed, apparently in all seriousness, that there was “little left in Australian literature but racing themes for film work.” Film historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper note that the film was made for a modest £2000 in mid 1928. It had a release in the UK as a “quota film” which means it probably returned its money. However, it was a silent film – which is possibly another reason it has not survived. Like The Angel of Broadway, it is now considered a lost film.

During 1928, Phyllis was employed on a lecture tour of provincial Australian cinemas, where she sometimes screened the footage of her test for DeMille’s studio and talked about her Hollywood experience. She was also paid to drum up publicity for Odd’s On after its release in October 1928. Again she appeared in person at some screenings.

Heenzo ad 1928Hats advertising

Above left: Phyllis advertising for Heenzo, a cough cure, in the Sydney Morning Herald 24 May 1928. Via Newspapers.com
At right: A full page spread modelling hats in Truth, 14 April 1929. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

She continued with advertising engagements but by 1933 had returned to hairdressing in Coogee, keeping her own business going until the late 1930s. She married Charles Young, a salesman, in April 1933. A son was born of the union in 1935.

1937 hairdressing

Above: Phyllis advertising for a new hairdresser in her salon- Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 1937. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

What really happened to Phyllis in Hollywood? In the absence of meaningful interviews we can only speculate. Phyllis was not alone in rejecting a Hollywood contract – Margaret Vyner, John Wood and Janet Johnson all did this in the 1930s. This writer thinks Phyllis was probably astute enough to see how most actors ended up – in supporting roles, waiting around a lot and often far from family and friends, doing work that was nowhere near as exciting as some claimed. If that was what she thought, and she got out while she could, she is worthy of our admiration today.

Phyllis died unexpectedly in May 1943. She was 35 years old.

Nick Murphy
April 2020

 


Note 1
No father is listed on Phyllis’ 1908 birth certificate, and the place of birth given is 203 Albion St. Presumably this is Albion Street Surry Hills, an inner suburb of Sydney which had many boarding houses at the time. It appears likely that Ethel (a 19 year old from Ballarat in Victoria) went to a boarding house to give birth, probably one that specialized in hosting expectant women who were on their own. The 1840s cottage (with the cottage next door) is now preserved and owned by the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia.

Further Reading

Text

National Library of Australia Trove

  • Evening News 5 August 1926
  • Evening News 6 August 1926
  • The Sun 6 August 1926
  • Table Talk  12 August 1926
  • Evening News 13 August 1926
  • Evening News  30 March 1927
  • Evening News  31 March 1927
  • Table Talk 14 April 1927
  • Evening News 19 August 1927
  • Evening News 22 August 1927
  • The Mercury 9 September 1927
  • Evening News 7 October 1927
  • Table Talk, 20 October 1927
  • Daily News, 11 November 1927
  • Evening News, 16 December 1927
  • Forbes Advocate, 6 January 1928
  • Evening News, 24 January 1928
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 May 1928
  • Brisbane Courier 14 June 1928
  • Daily Standard  27 October 1928
  • Truth , 14 April 1929
  • The Daily Telegraph 26 July 1929
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 1937.
  • Truth, 9 May 1943

Newspapers.com

  • Intelligencer Journal, 18 June 1927
  • The Princeton Daily Clarion, 24 June 1927.
  • The Arizona Republic, 28 June 1927.
  • Lancaster New Era, 5 July 1927
  • The Fresno Morning Republican, 11 July 1927.