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 novel. 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

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