Snub Pollard (1889 – 1962) of North Melbourne

Above: Harold Fraser, aka “Snub Pollard” photographed without makeup about the time he returned to Australia to see his parents, c 1922. Press photographer unknown. Damaged photo in the author’s collection.

The 5 second version
Born Harold Hopetown Fraser in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 9 November 1889. Died Los Angeles, California, USA, 19 January, 1962. Joined Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company in 1904 and went on two long tours of northern Australia, the “far east” and North America in 1905-7 and 1907-9. After 1910 worked on stage in the US, then appeared in many Hollywood films 1917-1924. Continued in often un-credited roles in film and on TV until his death. The origin of his stage name “Snub” is unknown.

“Snub Pollard” was born Harold Hopetown Fraser in North Melbourne on November 9, 1889. According to the Internet Movie Database he has a staggering 600 US movie and TV credits to his name, although his most active years were the 1910s and 1920s when he appeared in numerous comedy “shorts”. Even if his later roles were little more than walk-ons, it is an impressive record for a working class boy from the inner suburb of North Melbourne. (Also see Note 3 below)

Snub_Pollard_-_Jan_1923_ETR

Above: “Snub Pollard” in the mid 1920s, in his usual Hollywood make-up, including characteristic “walrus” moustache. This persona was developed in Hollywood but may have some origins in his on-stage experiences. Source – unidentified film from an advertisement for Pathé Exchange films , January 6, 1923 Exhibitors Trade Review. Photo via Internet archive and wikipedia commons.

Harold’s father, George Gunn Fraser, was a horse-drawn (hansom) cab driver. Museum Victoria reminds us there were over 200 registered hansom cabs in Melbourne in 1899. His mother, Isabella (nee Elliot) had already had three children when Harold was born in their modest terrace home at 59 Courtney Street, North Melbourne. Another daughter, May Evelyn Fraser, was born in 1892.

59 courtney 1

Above: Snub Pollard’s birthplace – 59 Courtney Street, North Melbourne in 2019. The house (centre left) was almost certainly too small for the family and may not have suited George’s cab driving needs. Author’s collection.

71 leveson 2 snub pollard c 1901-5

Above left: By 1905, the Fraser family lived at 71 Leveson Street, North Melbourne. The cobbled lane (Jones Lane) beside the house may have provided better access for a cab driver. George’s horse and cab would have been kept nearby – perhaps in stables off the lane. In the distance is the North Melbourne Town Hall spire. Author’s collection.
At right – Photographed around 1905, Harold Fraser, with Alf Goulding as part of Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company in Vancouver. A clear photo of the entire group can be found on the Vancouver As It Was website here. Photo used with their permission.

Of his childhood and schooling we know little, but this is partly because in mid 1904, at the age of about fifteen, he and his younger sister May joined Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company in time for another of their marathon performance tours – first to Queensland, then the “far east” (performance stops in Hong Kong and Japan) and finally North America. Years later, he was to suggest he had been picked out of a church choir by one of the Pollards.

a gaiety girl

Above: The Pollard’s program for performance of the popular musical “A Gaiety Girl” in Montreal, 29 November 1905. It features May and Harold Fraser in addition to Daphne Pollard, Alf Goulding and other well known Pollard performers. The ages of performers were deliberately under-stated. Program in the author’s collection.

The Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company tour Harold and May joined was organised by Charles Pollard and his sister Nellie Chester, who had managed several previous tours of North America. It is hard to believe, but this writer can find no evidence that this troupe returned home before February 1907 – apparently a performance tour outside Australia of two years. Even if the performers were not as young as claimed (Harold was 16, not 12, while Daphne Pollard was 14, not 10), it was an extraordinary undertaking for children at the time. Their tour of North America took them up and down the US East coast several times, and across most of Canada. The SS Moana brought most of them home in late February 1907.

By July 1907, the company, featuring Harold Fraser and many of the familiar Pollard performers, were back in Queensland performing and testing the usual favourite shows. Then the company departed again for the “far east,” Canada and the west coast of the USA. In early 1909, at the end of another very long tour, Charles Pollard announced his retirement and some of the older performers, including Harold Fraser and Alf Goulding, decided to form their own “adult” Pollard’s group. They seem to have stayed together for a year or so, then drifted apart – although the evidence suggests they remained on good terms.

pollards in 1910Snub_Pollard_&_Ernie_Morrison_-_Rolin_Comedies_Ad_1920.jpg
Above left: In 1910, Harold Fraser performed with some of the former Pollard’s Lilliputians, now adults, and now just calling themselves “the Pollards” in the US. Alfred Pollard may be Alf Goulding. Source; The Bakersfield Californian, November 1910. Via Newspapers.com. Confusing for readers today, another adult Pollard troupe arrived in the US from Australia in late 1912 – but not including Snub or Alf Goulding.
Above right: Ten years later. An ad for Rolin Comedies with Snub Pollard and Ernie Morrison (“Pickaninny Sammy”). The ad from the Exhibitors Herald (Aug 7, 1920) shows a still from “Insulting the Sultan” (1920) which starred Pollard, Ernie Morrison, and Marie Mosquini, and was directed by old friend Alf Goulding. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The accounts of his entry into Hollywood’s emerging film industry vary considerably. Known in his early years as “Harry Pollard” (an unfortunate choice because actor-director Harry A. Pollard was already well established), film fans today delight in identifying him as an extra in some of the early films of Ben Turpin and Charlie Chaplin. However, the most plausible account of his entry into film-making was also the most simple, an explanation he gave to Table Talk in 1923, on a return visit to Melbourne rings true; “I just naturally drifted into them…I don’t exactly know how.” Harold’s background in vaudeville and his friendships with emerging filmmakers like Alf Goulding almost certainly helped. But the “Lonesome Luke” films made for Hal Roach between 1915 and 1917, where he played second fiddle to Harold Lloyd, helped establish him as a bankable and recognizable star. Although he had used the stage name “Snub” as early as 1915, it is from about 1917 that he adopted it consistently. This also coincides with his most prolific years – 1917 to 1924. The classic short “It’s A Gift” (watch it here) was made in 1923. His work output had already declined by the time talkies arrived, but he was still able to find supporting character and extra parts, generally of increasing insignificance. He remained busy almost until his death in 1962.

During this final phase of his career – Harold displayed the skills of an unusually effective self-promoter, clearly intending to maintain his personal profile no matter what. However, its difficult to see his later film roles as professionally very rewarding. Even his cameo performance made no difference to the underwhelming 1934 Bushranger musical, “Stingaree”, (also featuring fellow Australians Billy Bevan and Robert Greig).


Left: Snub complains about Hollywood humour. Corsicana Daily Sun 14 May, 1957. Via Newspapers.com.
Right: Snub with others discusses plans to combat communism. Los Angeles Times, 24 Sept, 1950. Via Newspapers.com

Harold Fraser remains much of an enigma to the student of cinema today. As an adult and without makeup he was average in every way – he weighed about 150 pounds, stood an average height of 167 centimeters (5 foot 6 inches), had receding brown hair and brown eyes. Interestingly, he had a tattoo on his right upper arm – although what it was or said is now unknown. It was noticeable enough to be listed on his citizenship documents. In his public commentary he did not assist any real understanding of himself, his comments were designed to promote “Snub Pollard” the star rather than reveal much about the man behind.

Above: Snub Pollard’s voice. From “Just My Luck” (1935). Here Mr Smith (Snub Pollard/Harold Fraser) 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.  He appears to be channelling Stan Laurel. Video in the author’s collection.

Yet unlike many Australian performers of the time, Harold Fraser undertook the long sea voyage home to see his family, and he did it at the height of his popularity. In March and April 1923 he visited Melbourne, whilst on his honeymoon with Elizabeth, his second wife. He visited his parents – his father still driving a cab. He travelled to Portarlington to see his older brother George, a blacksmith. In the early 1920s, Harold also paid for his mother to travel to California to see him.

palmerston street       snub pollard wout makeup

Above left: About the time of Harold’s return visit in 1923, his parents moved into this house at 83 Palmerston Street, Carlton. It is interesting to speculate whether Harold purchased it for them. The ornamental parapet on this 1880s cottage is highly unusual and appears to be a later addition – perhaps dating to a renovation in the 1920s. This writer cannot think of another inner Melbourne terrace decorated this way. Is it the “Spanish style” more often found in Hollywood? Author’s Collection.
Above right: Harold Fraser aka “Snub” Pollard, at the time of his visit home to Melbourne. Author’s Collection.

Harold married three times – each ended unhappily. He married 17-year-old Myrtle Webb in April 1917 – he claimed to be 23 – but he was in fact 28. Within a matter of months the relationship had ended. He married Elizabeth Bowen in March 1922, claiming to be 30 – when he was now 33. This marriage also broke down and ended in divorce in 1927. In 1935 he married again, this time to Ruth Bridges aka Gibson. He was 46 by this time, but registered his age as 38. This relationship was also over by 1940. One error in age on a marriage certificate seems understandable. But the same error existing in all three marriage certificates perhaps points to other problems of identity and sense of self. Or, is it just a case of “everyone does it”?

snub and marie

Above: Snub Pollard on set with Hal Roach Studio co-star Marie Mosquini. In March 1922 it was reported they were engaged. They weren’t.

Perhaps the most famous late-life interview with Harold Fraser is the one syndicated in Australian papers in May 1951 under the headline – “Snub Pollard, Melbourne born silent day star looks back” Now consigned to extra and mostly non-speaking roles, he made the rather wistful statement;“The fact that I am not on top now does not bother me. Most people never get there at all.”

THe earl of Chicago Allen and Pollard

Above: screen grab showing Snub Pollard (right) as an extra in the background of “The Earl of Chicago” (1940), with fellow Melbourne actor Harry Allen . Allen had a small speaking scene and fellow Australians Billy Bevan and Frank Baker also appeared in the film. MGM and Warner Home movies re-released this film on DVD in 2011.

The stories about Snub became more inaccurate after his death from cancer in 1962. Brother of Daphne? An original Keystone Kop? No. But some newspapers reported so.

Harold’s mother died in Carlton in 1930, his father (a cabman to the end of his days) died  ten years later. Harold’s sister May did not stay on stage. She returned to the family home in Leveson Street and became a dressmaker. In 1920 she married Claude Hill and moved to a comfortable house in Merton Street, South Melbourne. She died there in 1966.


 

Notes:

1. An original Keystone Kop?
Mack Sennett repeated the gag of 6 or 7 incompetent policemen in numerous short comedies, through to the early 1920s. We know the names of these performers, and Harold Fraser wasn’t one of them. The confusion almost certainly came about because in 1939’s “Hollywood Cavalcade”  C20th Fox’s film about silent film-making, Harold did act as a Keystone Kop. He also appeared as a policeman in several early comedies. On his death, several of the real surviving Kops gently attempted to correct the record and pointed out that in the early days, Harold had worked for Hal Roach, not Mack Sennett. (see Los Angeles Times, 24 Jan 1962). But the story has persisted anyway.

2. Origins of the stage name Snub?
While we know why he chose Pollard as a stage name, the significance of Snub and the later, lesser used “Peewee,” as stage names is unclear.

3. Birth certificate, showing his father’s profession
Snub Pollard was inclined to suggest his father was a racehorse owner. (See for example Pantomime Magazine Jan 7, 1922 “…father owns racehorses that have won many cups”)

When George and Isabella married in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1881, they gave their professions as jockey and barmaid respectively. Eight years later, George Gunn Fraser’s occupation is listed on young Harold’s 1889 birth certificate as a cab driver. Australian electoral rolls to the late 1920s also list him variously as a cab driver, cab proprietor and wagonette proprietor. Of course, he may still have been a racehorse owner as well.

Snub's birth cert

Above: Harold Fraser’s birth certificate, 1889.Via Births, Deaths & Marriages, Victoria
Transcription of Birth Certificate;
Columns
2 –  November 9th 1889. Courtney St. Town Hotham, County of Bourke
3 – Harold Hopetown. Not present
4 – Male
5 – George Gunn Fraser. Cab Driver. 34 years. Victoria [Father’s name, age, place of birth]
6 – June 10, 1880, New Zealand [Date of marriage].  – Violet 8, George 5, Ralph 2, Georgina dead [Names and ages of other children]
7 – Isabella Fraser formerly Elliot, 30 years. Richmond Victoria. [Mother’s name, maiden name, age, place of birth]
8 – Isabella Fraser, mother, 59 Courtney St, Hotham. [informant]

 

Nick Murphy
February 2019

 

Further Reading

  • 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. John Hopkins University Press.
  • Peter Downes (2002) The Pollards, a family and its child and adult opera companies in New Zealand and Australia, 1880-1910. Steele Roberts, New Zealand.
  • Kirsty Murray (2010) “India Dark.” Allen & Unwin Australia.
    See also https://insideadog.com.au/blog/incredible-india (India Dark is a fictional retelling of the disastrous Pollard tour of India in 1909 – but none of the Trott children performed in this)
  • Brent Walker (2013) “Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory: A History and Filmography of his Studio and His Keystone and Mack Sennett Comedies, with Biographies of Players and Personnel” McFarland & Co
  • Trav S.D (Donald Travis Stewart), (2006) No Applause – Just throw Money. The book that made Vaudeville Famous. Faber and Faber, New York
  • Kevin Brownlow (1968) The Parade’s Gone By… University of California Press.

Websites

National Library of Australia – Trove Newspaper Collection

Newspapers.com

Ancestry.com (lists some shipping manifests and citizenship applications)

Familysearch.com  (lists some shipping manifests and citizenship applications)

 

Daphne Pollard (1891-1978) – I had to know 36 operas!

Daphne Pollard, an experienced performer yet aged only in her late twenties, on a British postcard, c1920. Author’s collection.

The 5 second version
Born Daphne Trott in Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia, 19 October 1891. Died Los Angeles, California, USA. 22 February 1978. A child performer with the Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company from 1897 to 1907, she travelled through South East Asia, Canada and the United States on at least four extended tours, the longest lasting two years. Then became a very popular comedy performer on stage in the US and Britain. In films in Hollywood 1927-36. Most of her family moved to the US with her in 1908.

The talented actress Daphne Pollard was born Daphne Trott at 56 Kerr Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne, in October 1891 to Walter Trott and Annie (nee Daniels). She was one of those rare gifts to the stage – she could sing and dance and became an expert in slapstick – the physical comedy so popular at the start of the twentieth century. Standing less than 1.40 metres tall (or 4 foot eight inches as she claimed) as an adult, she was on stage from the age of six. She was a good-looking child performer, with great confidence for her age. She was to become the star attraction of the Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company, an Australian troupe (or more accurately – series of troupes) featuring talented children usually from the inner Melbourne suburbs of Fitzroy and Collingwood, who took on the adult roles in musical comedies. However, Gillian Arrighi and other researchers have also reminded us that the musical comedies performed by Pollard’s, such as their perennial favourite, “A Gaiety Girl,” were suggestive, with plots preoccupied with sexual relationships – or “playful gambolling on the verge of indecency” as Edwardian theatre critic William Archer wrote (see Arrighi p.154).

Daphne photographed in Shanghai Daphne_Pollard_and_Leah_Lirchner_in__The_Geisha__(SAYRE_13291)

Two photos attributed to Ying Cheong, a photographer and painter in Canton Road Shanghai,
Left – Daphne Pollard Source -National library of Australia.
Right –
Daphne Pollard and Leah Leichner re-creating a scene from The Geisha. Courtesy University of Washington, Special Collections, JWS24603. Used with permission.

“Lovers are silly young things you know
and I am as silly as any.
I’ve worn two engagement rings you know,
but two, you’ll agree are not many”


From “The Lady Slavey”. Song – Baby Baby. Written by Hugh Martin and Gustave Kerker

It is interesting to reflect on the impact of a childhood spent growing up “on stage” – as Daphne and some of the Pollard’s children experienced. There is little evidence to help us – although Willie Thomas’ and Leah Leichner’s stories may contain some clues. Daphne spoke briefly about the experience shortly after she married in 1911, when she told the Los Angeles Herald  “I’m off for good now; no more acting for me. I’ve had enough. Twelve years on the stage is really long enough, and It’s not my fault that I had all that twelve years before I was 20 years of age. I used to like it, of course, and when I was a kiddie and we traveled about a lot and had nice times with the other children. It was lots of fun, but for two years now I have known that this glamour was gone and I have wanted to leave.” In spite of these sentiments she did not leave the stage.

In time, Daphne Trott was to become an outstanding vaudevillian in her own right. The headline photo on the top of this page shows her in 1920, at the height of her popularity on the London stage. Like Harry Fraser (Snub Pollard), she took the stage name Pollard, partly as convenience but also because many of the company performers liked to maintain the pretence of belonging to a family troupe. Later in careers it was a familiar and easy remembrance of times past.

In Melbourne, Daphne Trott’s father Walter and an uncle ran a large furniture upholstery and French polishing business, although the Melbourne depression of the 1890s hit the family’s fortunes hard. We don’t know what attracted Daphne to the stage – perhaps as a child she saw that other well-known Fitzroy girl, Florrie Forde perform at the Melbourne Opera House or the Theatre Royal. Daphne joined Pollard’s troupe in about 1897, with older sisters Ivy and Myrtle, while the family lived at 96 King William Street, Fitzroy.

King William St and Brunswick St
About the time of Daphne’s departure for the US, the Trott family business operated on the corner of King William St and Brunswick St, Fitzroy (site now occupied by the orange and white supermarket in the distance). Their shop and probably a home behind may have looked like the building on the right. Author’s Collection. 

54-56 Kerr St Fitzroy

56 Kerr St, Fitzroy, was listed as Daphne Trott’s October 1891 birthplace and the family home for most of the 1890s. It is hard to believe this very modest single story terrace house had room for a baby and five older siblings! Only 10 houses away in this street lived the Heintz family, whose twin boys Freddie and Johnnie also travelled on tour with Daphne.

In early September 1901 the Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company sailed for an extended tour of South East Asia, Canada and the United States, under the management of Charles Pollard and his sister Nellie Chester.

Daphne and Ivy Trott Nov 1901

Above: Pollard’s Lilliputians performing at the San Francisco Tivoli in November 1901. Daphne (Pollard), Myrtle Trott (Pollard) and Ivy Trott all performed. Nine years later, some of this cast would be performing on Pollard’s ill fated tour of India, but not Daphne and her sisters. Author’s Collection.

Only a few days before Daphne’s departure, the Trott’s much loved youngest child, four year old Wally, died as a result of typhoid fever. He had lingered in the Children’s Hospital for several weeks. (The story that he broke his neck doing somersaults on the bed on the eve of Daphne’s departure seems to be just that, another showbiz story). Although Wally’s headstone lies broken and forgotten at Kew cemetery, the surviving inscription reveals the depth of the family’s grief. It must have taken great strength for Daphne and her sisters to leave Australia. Twelve months later, in October 1902, the company arrived home, having won positive reviews up and down the North American west coast.

Wally Trott

“So dearly loved, so deeply mourned.”  Wally Trott’s headstone at Kew Cemetery. Author’s Collection.

Performing for the Pollard opera companies was not for the faint-hearted. Their Australasian and overseas tours involved rigorous preparatory training and took child performers away from home for months, sometimes a year or more. The Company were on a second tour between January 1903 and April 1904. In May 1904, before departing on a third extended tour, an effort by a US entrepreneur to undercut Pollard’s and entice the performers away, led to a messy court case. It also revealed some of the Company’s workings – that the parents of Pollard’s child performers would be paid via a trust fund – 10 shillings a month in the first 6 months, followed by £1 per month thereafter. Charles Pollard and Nellie Chester provided a tutor and paid for all the travel costs and accommodation. The child performers made pocket money by selling autographed souvenir photos after each show. Operating outside Australia, laws regarding education did not apply.

Pollards advertised Calgary Herald 3 Jan 1906
Pollard’s advertising-already picking out its most popular stars during its third tour of North America. The Calgary Herald, 3 January 1906 via Newspapers.com

Following a short season in July – September 1904, testing and refining their repertoire for Queensland audiences, and then performing for 5 months in “the Far East,” the Pollard Lilliputians arrived in North America in March 1905. Their stops along the way included enthusiastic colonial audiences in Hong Kong and Shanghai. One surviving photo from this tour shows the performers and supervising adults sitting on the steps of the Badminton hotel in VancouverDaphne Pollard 1905. At the front, sitting slightly apart and wearing a large hat, is young Daphne, her poise and confidence unmistakable. Her 24 year old sister Maud, who accompanied her on this tour, sits at the left, among the women at the back. Also in the back row stand three decidedly naughty looking boys, Alf Goulding, Harry Fraser and Teddy McNamara – all of whom, like Daphne, would eventually find their way to Hollywood.

Above:  Daphne Pollard in Vancouver. Enlarged from a group photo via Vancouver As It Was: A Photo-Historical Journey

Program notes from performances in Montreal, Canada in 1905 reveal a typical Pollard’s schedule, which included six different popular musical comedies delivered across a week of performances – A Runaway Girl; The Belle of New York; A Gaiety Girl; The Geisha; HMS Pinafore and The Lady Slavey. It was no leisurely tour. Years later Daphne told a reporter;
“As a child actress in the Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company… I had to know thirty six operas by heart. (In) one I played the part of an old sheriff with side-whiskers, although I was only twelve at the time. One of the side-whiskers came off before the audience, but that, of course, made it all the funnier. We were all children, but we included grand opera in our repertoire.”

filmstars041
Part of a Pollard program from Montreal during their marathon 1904-07 North American tour. The ages are obviously wrong. Author’s Collection.

In February 1907, the Pollard marathon two + year tour ended, and most of the Company returned home on the SS Moana. It must have become obvious by this time that Daphne’s future was not just performing with Pollard’s. By mid-1907, Daphne and Ivy had accepted contracts with Frank W. Healy’s San Francisco Opera Company and they began performances later that year. For the next nine years Daphne performed in vaudeville throughout the United States, more or less continuously, developing her skills and attracting widespread acclaim. (Sister Ivy married and left the stage.) In 1908, the Trott parents and all but one of Daphne’s siblings followed her to North America, settling permanently in Seattle. It was a dramatic move, one that must have taken some deliberation by the whole family. And now, aged 19, Daphne felt more confident than ever to express her views. In April 1910 she announced that she supported a woman’s right to vote – a right enjoyed by most women in her native Australia but not yet granted to women in the United States. “Votes for Women. I’m going to march in the streets and carry a banner” she told a Seattle Star journalist. Her renown and popularity was such that she was chosen as Seattle’s first ever Queen of the Golden Potlatch Festival (now known as the Seafair Festival) the following year. Soon after, in a joyful and rather theatrical elopement, she married journalist Ellington Strother Bunch.

Daphe Pollard cropped

Above: Daphne in about 1907, at the time she joined Frank Healey’s San Francisco Opera. Author’s collection.

If Daphne really did intend to retire after her 1911 marriage, she changed her mind soon after. By mid – 1916, Daphne was a seasoned enough performer to know the ways audiences in different US cities responded. She was also deeply immersed in her stagecraft and most unusually for the time, she was prepared to pause and publicly reflect on it. In a lengthy expose of the art of a typical review performance, for The Green Book Magazine, she wrote;

“The principal first out does her scene, usually not an important one so early in the evening, and exits after a song or dance number, marking the time for applause. The audience speaks then, and—believe me—there is not one of us who has not learned to judge its tone…If the applause is liberal and pretty much from all parts of the house, hopes soar high…

Next out may be the second comedian. He notches up the pace, sets the whole show a pitch higher and works like a fiend, all the time trying to gauge results and get bearings… By the time the first act is on its feet, we’ve got that audience so well sized up that each of us knows to a nicety the impression he or she will make.”


Pollard                Zig Zag France023

Above left: Program for Albert De Courville’s “Zig-Zag!” 1917. Author’s Collection.
Right: Program for De Courville’s 1917 Folies Bergere production, showing Shirley Kellogg on the cover. It also starred Daphne. The Australian war memorial holds an identical program, except with Daphne Pollard on the cover. (You can read it online) Author’s collection.

Following the success of another review The Passing Show of 1915 and at the height of the Great War, she traveled to London. There she appeared in a string of very popular revues at the Hippodrome for Albert De Courville. Zig-Zag! opened in January 1917 and was followed by Box o’ Tricks in 1918. (De Courville’s company also performed at the Folies-Bergere in Paris.) In 1919 she appeared in Joy Bells with another experienced Australian-born, US-based comedian, Leon Errol in the cast. In all, she spent almost ten years in London, taking a break for the birth of her only child – Ellington Walter Bunch in 1922 and a short return to New York to appear in the Greenwich Village Follies in late 1923. Daphne Pollard is jointly credited as composer of several of the pieces performed in these shows. Reviews of her work continued to be enthusiastic and she easily managed both US and British cultural contexts. Friend Stan Laurel recalled one of her stage acts, as a “Cockney dame” (‘Arriet ‘Emmingway from Huntershire County “Hingland”), who struggled to manage the transition to living in the US. This character was later recycled as the theme of the short films America or Bust (1930) and Help wanted, Female (1931).

Filmstars002

Above: London Sunday Pictorial. 25 February 1917. Daphne Pollard is in the centre. Author’s collection
Above: Daphne Pollard sings “The Ragtime Germ” for De Courville’s “Zig-Zag!” in 1917. She is credited with composing this with Cass Downing and John T. Murray. (Not to be confused with a 1911 song with the same name). Her voice seems typical of British musical hall performers of the time. Author’s Collection.

Below: Daphne in costume for “The Ragtime Germ”. Source – “The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News,” March 24, 1917. Via British Library Newspaper Archive Project

Rag time germ

By 1927 Daphne Pollard had been active on stage for thirty years, almost continuously, when Mack Sennett finally convinced her to appear in Hollywood films. Sennett had apparently made a few approaches to her earlier in her career. It’s quite likely that the astute Daphne Pollard also saw vaudeville and music theatre as under siege from the booming cinema industry, and jumped ship for purely practical reasons. Her surviving movies often mislead the casual reader today to think these were the sum of her working life. In fact, her 60 Hollywood films, made for Sennett and later RKO and then Universal were merely a footnote – most of them made in a period of just five years.

Sennett was a prolific producer, director and actor, who churned out over 1400 titles during his career. His fondness for slapstick and physical comedy was firmly rooted in vaudeville and of course, for him, Daphne Pollard was another actress trained in this tradition. One of Sennett’s former editors, William Hornbeck, interviewed by writer Kevin Brownlow years later, commented on how unsophisticated Sennett’s films often were, even for the time. Many of the films Daphne appeared in were made during the transition of silent to sound films, and as filmmakers like Sennett struggled to adapt to what worked in this new dimension, the humour often fell flat. And seen today, audiences may find the humour tasteless and some of the story-lines weak. The blackface ending to Two Smoked Hams (1934) and the burning building rescue in His First Flame (1935) are two obvious examples of seriously outdated humour.

DP1916Daphne Pollard’s first film for Sennett was The Girl from Everywhere (1927), a 20 minute comedy with Carole Lombard. She appeared in several more with Lombard, including Run Girl, Run and The Campus Carmen, both made in 1928. Several of these were directed by her friend and one time neighbour from inner Melbourne, and an old Pollard Lilliputian Opera associate, Alf Goulding.

Above- Daphne Pollard as an everyday adult, on a passport application, in about 1916. Via Ancestry, via US National Archives 

As a consequence of Sennett’s prolific approach, her roles over the next few years were varied and while she sometimes appeared as one of the leading players, character roles, especially the fussy mother or the English servant, had become her stock in trade. In the otherwise dull 1930 sound musical Bright Lights, Daphne and Tom Dugan provide the comic relief playing a feuding married couple. In 1931’s The Lady Refuses she plays the eccentric maid.

Only occasionally in her films do we see flashes of her skills as an extraordinarily energetic and highly experienced vaudeville performer– as when she demonstrates her admirable comic timing by snapping her teeth at Oliver Hardy in Thicker Than Water in 1935, or when she dances for the leading juveniles with such confidence and ease in Kid Dynamite made in 1943. But we can see her skills at their best when she takes the coquette role, one she had performed so often on the stage, wooing fireman “Smokey Mo” (Shemp Howard) in His First Flame, made in 1935. When she throws her handkerchief in front of him to gain his attention, and then wrestles him onto a park bench, it is a sequence straight from the vaudeville tradition. “I love you, I love you, I love you” she says aggressively, with her foot in Howard’s face.

his first flame

Above: Screen grab of Daphne Pollard and Shemp Howard in His First Flame (1935). Author’s collection. Howard’s pre-3 Stooges films are currently available to collectors on DVD.

Her well known straight role, as Oliver Hardy’s shrewish wife in the Hal Roach studio films Our Relations and Thicker than Water marked the end of her intensive Hollywood career. When she appeared in her last brief and un-credited role in Laurel and Hardy’s very silly The Dancing Masters, in 1943, she had been performing for 46 years.

She died in Los Angeles in 1978, her passing reported in the US but completely unnoticed in Australia. In time, the usual nonsense was written about her by eager fans – that she was sister of “Snub Pollard” or that her “Australian accent” got in the way of a career in sound films. Even the most perfunctory research shows neither proposition to be true.

Back home in Australia, Daphne’s older sister Hilda, having married Percy Wood, a Melbourne plumber, enjoyed a happy but childless marriage. She spent her last years living a few hundred metres from the Hoyts Merri Theatre in North Fitzroy, where presumably, she went to watch her sister’s movies. The descendants of Daphne Trott and her family now all live in the US.

Daphne Pollard the Passing ShowWhat sort of person was she? Unfortunately we only have sketchy evidence to make a conclusion. Stan Laurel’s correspondence seems to suggest she was a fiesty and forceful personality. Yet we also know that she maintained an affection for all her old friends into later life. When Teddie McNamara died of pneumonia in Hollywood in 1928, she attended his funeral with all the old Pollard Company performers. Willie Thomas, another performer from Pollard’s caught up with her in London in 1918, while he was on leave from the Australian forces on the Western Front. Meeting her backstage at the London Hippodrome was, Willie always said, a joyful reunion.

Above: Daphne with George Munroe in “The Passing Show.” The Pittsburg Press, 27 June 1915. Via Newspapers.com.

Nick Murphy,
Updated July 2020


Note 1: The origin of the story that the “Emperor of China” wanted to buy her apparently has its origins in the following story. Zhang Zhidong was a high ranking Chinese official in the Qing Dynasty. The offensive comment attributed to Daphne may be true but as the contemporary journalist noted, the entire story is likely an exaggeration.

hong kong daily press daphne pollard story 1905 05 27

Hong Kong Daily Press, May 27, 1905. Via Hong Kong Public Library Multimedia System

Further reading:
Publications

  • 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. John Hopkins University Press.
  • Peter Downes (2002) The Pollards, a family and its child and adult opera companies in New Zealand and Australia, 1880-1910. Steele Roberts, New Zealand.
  • Kirsty Murray (2010) “India Dark.” Allen & Unwin Australia.
    See also https://insideadog.com.au/blog/incredible-india (India Dark is a fictional retelling of the disastrous Pollard tour of India in 1909 – but none of the Trott children performed in this)
  • Brent Walker (2013) “Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory: A History and Filmography of his Studio and His Keystone and Mack Sennett Comedies, with Biographies of Players and Personnel” McFarland & Co
  • Various (1888) “Victoria and its Metropolis, Past and Present. The Colony and its people in 1888.” Volume 11B. McCarron Bird and Co, Melbourne. P. 621. (See Trott family)
  • Trav S.D (Donald Travis Stewart), (2006) No Applause – Just throw Money. The book that made Vaudeville Famous. Faber and Faber, New York
  • Daphne Pollard 1916.Rehearsing the Audience”, The Green Book magazine, Pages 737-740
  • Kevin Brownlow (1968) The Parade’s Gone By… University of California Press.
  • Angela Woollacott (2001) To Try her Fortune in London. Oxford University Press.

Websites

National Library of Australia – Trove Newspaper Collection

  • The World’s News, 4 Dec 1920, “Daphne Pollard”. Page 5
  • The Register, 4 July 1908, “Dramatic Notes”. Page 10

Newspapers.com

  • The Seattle star, April 29, 1910 “Marion Lowe has a heart to heart talk with tiny Daphne Pollard” Page 14.

Hong Kong Public Library Multimedia System

  • Hong Kong Daily Press, May 27, 1905. “Chang Chi-Tung and Daphne Pollard”

California Digital Newspaper Collection

  • Los Angeles Herald, Volume XXXVII, Number 310, 7 August 1911