The short, brilliant career of Janet Johnson

Janet Johnson as she appeared on a cigarette card, London c 1938. She stood about 1.62 metres (5’4″) tall and had dark brown hair and grey eyes. (We owe this otherwise lost personal information to the very thorough US immigration records kept in the 1930s and 40s) Author’s collection.

Janet Johnson had a brief career in film and on stage in Australia and Britain. For a very short time, she made a name for herself as another of the talented and attractive Australian exports of the 1930s. Her career choices remain intriguing however – particularly the fact that she consciously declined a career in Hollywood and not long after, left acting behind altogether.

Janet Ramsay Johnson was born in Adelaide, South Australia in November 1914, to Arthur George Johnson and Jean Lea (Jeannie) nee Ramsay. She had an older sister – Margaret. Arthur was a manager with Pyrox, an Australian manufacturer of spark plugs and car radios. In the early 1920s the family had settled in the comfortable Melbourne suburb of Toorak and the girls attended St. Catherine’s school in nearby Heyington Place, almost next door to their home. It is notable that a number of her contemporaries at St Catherine’s also appeared on stage and in films, including Gwen Munro and her sister Mignon and Kathleen Rhys-Jones (known professionally as Margot Rhys).

Like many of those featured on this site, Janet Johnson’s family enjoyed a very comfortable middle class experience that seems to have enabled them to sail through the Great Depression. But it would be wrong to simply ascribe her success to a privileged background. She was a talented actor and her reputation completely deserved. However it is clear that socio-economic advantage made pursuit of an acting career much easier in the 1930s.

Left:  Janet Johnson (standing fourth from the left) and other society girls performing the “Sea Nymph Soiree,” a fund raiser for a hospital in 1933. Table Talk, 23 November 1933 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Right: Johnson featured in her coming out dress, in a page devoted to “society folk in attractive garb” Table Talk, 24 March 1932. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Johnson’s three years of stage experience in Australia was important in her development as an actor, as it exposed her to “serious” theatre, or what might be called theatre of “social conscience,” as opposed to the escapism of musicals and light comedies. She first appeared on the Australian stage under the direction of Gregan McMahon in a supporting role in Galsworthy’s The Pigeon in September 1932. McMahon notably mentored a number of young actors, including Coral Browne, Jocelyn Howarth, Thelma Scott, Elaine Hamill and Lloyd Lamble. The CBE awarded a few years before his death in 1941 was a very late recognition of years of effort.

Johnson also performed under McMahon’s direction in Children in Uniform, an English adaption of Christa Winsloe‘s boarding school drama Mädchen in Uniform, with Coral Browne in a leading role. It is difficult to know to what extent the play’s original lesbian theme survived translation and performance in Australia, as reviews made much of the depiction of the cruelty of a strict “Prussian” education.

From late 1934, Johnson appeared regularly in plays under the J.C. Williamson’s banner including the dramas The Shining Hour (August 1935) and Aimée and Phillip Stuart‘s Sixteen (October 1935) – concerning a heroine who has to work to support her fatherless family. In the latter play she received very positive reviews for her supporting role. The Argus newspaper felt she was “one of the most promising of the younger school of local actresses.”

Her first outings in film occurred in 1935. Early in the year Charles Chauvel made his panorama of Australian history – Heritage. According to some accounts, Johnson appeared as an extra in the “wife ship” scene – where Mary (then called Peggy) Maguire was playing an Irish immigrant girl. The scene can be viewed here at the Australian Screen/NFSA website. Unfortunately,  this writer cannot identify Janet Johnson with any confidence. Maguire and Johnson reportedly became friends at the time.Johnson 1935.jpg

Above: Janet Johnson at the height of her Australian stage successes, Table Talk, 24 October 1935. From the National Library of Australia’s Trove

Harry Southwell‘s The Burgomeister (also known as Flames of Conscience) was made in Sydney in the later half of 1935 and Johnson was cast in one of the leading roles. Based on a well known stage melodrama it was briefly screened in September but the film struggled to find a distributor. Film historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper suggest this was because it was not very good. Just how bad it was we will never know, because the film is now lost, except for one short sequence. Then, in January 1936, visiting English Actor/Director Miles Mander cast the final roles in The Flying Doctor, a Gaumont British/National Pictures co-production being made in Sydney. He tested both Mary Maguire and Janet Johnson for the leading role. Although 22 year old Johnson had significantly more acting experience, Mander cast 17 year old Maguire in the role. Within a few weeks, Johnson determined to try her luck overseas and accompanied by her mother, departed for England on the SS Largs Bay.

lady of la paz030

Above: Program from The Lady of La Paz at the Criterion Theatre, June 1936. Australian John Wood was also in the cast. Author’s collection.

She fell into acting in London with remarkable ease. Soon after arrival she had a role in The Lady of La Paz, a stage play at the Criterion Theatre, which brought her in contact with established actor Lillian Braithwaite, rising star Nova Pilbeam and fellow Australian John Wood.  And shortly afterwards, she gained a supporting role in her first UK film, Everybody Dance, with Cicely Courtneidge. An even more exciting development occurred when she was offered work in Hollywood by none other than Joe Schenck, chairman of Twentieth Century Fox, who had seen her perform. She and her mother arrived in the US in mid-November.

Mail Adelaide 3 april 1937
Above: Together in Hollywood. Mary Maguire with Miles Mander and Janet Johnson. The Mail (Adelaide), 3 April 1937. Mander encouraged a number of young Australian actors to try their luck overseas. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove. A clearer copy of this photo is printed in this Daily Mail review of Michael Adam’s book on Mary Maguire.

But like John Wood and Margaret Vyner, Johnson came to the conclusion Hollywood was not for her. Although she met other industry people and must have been on a Fox retainer, she left the US in May 1937, having not made a film at all. Was she offered something she didn’t want or was she simply bored waiting around for work? Unfortunately,  we don’t know. “Hollywood made me feel such a fish out of water” she famously said of the experience. She told The Daily Mirror newspaper in January 1938 that she still had nightmares about the place. “If a girl wants to become a good actress the last place to go to is Hollywood” she said. There was one bonus to her visit to Hollywood however – she had met Charles Birkin, a young British writer, then working in the US. (Their attraction was definitely mutual, as he packed up and returned to Britain a week after Janet).

JAnet 1939

Above: Janet Johnson in a publicity photo for her London agent, Christopher Mann c.1939. Author’s collection

The next three years in England were Janet Johnson’s busiest and her reputation as a fine actor was consolidated. She featured in at least three British “quota quickies” – films made on a small budget and fairly quickly so as to fulfill studio obligations to the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927. The most interesting of these was Mrs Pym of Scotland Yard, a film about a female detective, and based on a character created by novelist Nigel Morland. However, Johnson’s major interest at this time was performing on stage, not in film.

Her first play back in England was in Diana Morgan‘s “slight comedy” Bats in the Belfry at the Ambassadors Theatre, working again with Lillian Braithwaite and taking over from Vivian Leigh in the supporting role of Jessica Moreton. She then appeared in a string of light comedies including Australian writer Max Murray’s The Admiral’s Chair, Robert E Sherwood‘s anti-war play Idiot’s Delight and Leslie Storm‘s Tony Draws a Horse. Her final play was Diana Morgan’s A House in the Square, again with Lillian Braithwaite.

In the late summer of 1937 Johnson also appeared in a series of Shakespeare performances for the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park  – including The Tempest and Comedy of Errors.

Above Left: Margaret Rawlings, Lillian Braithwaite and Janet Johnson in A House in the Square. The Bystander, 10 April 1940. The British Newspaper Archive/British Library. Copyright Illustrated London News Group. Above Centre: Johnson with cast members of The Tempest. The Sphere, 4 Sept, 1937. The British Newspaper Archive/British Library. Copyright Illustrated London News Group. Above Right. Janet and Charles Birkin. 18 July, 1940. The Herald, 18 July 1940. National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Her final film, The Proud Valley, released shortly before her marriage, was certainly her finest. A vehicle for African-American singer and actor, Paul Robeson, it was produced by Michael Balcon. Writing for the Melbourne Herald, Margaret Giruth reported: “This is a strong, beautifully directed film about a life that is stark and difficult and poverty-ridden. Paul Robeson sings and acts magnificently. So does Rachel Thomas as the mother. And magnificent is (also) the word for Janet Johnson’s acting…”

Seen today, the film might be said to be predictable and a little sentimental. But that it touched audiences at the time seems without question. Former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George was moved to write to Michael Balcon and congratulate him. The film “throbs with genuine human emotion and the acting is superb” he wrote.

Above: Screen grabs of Janet Johnson in her last and finest film  – The Proud Valley, 1940. The film is available on DVD through Amazon, the BFI and the Criterion Collection. Copy in the author’s collection.

Janet Johnson and Charles Birkin married in July 1940, and a few years later Birkin inherited a baronetcy from his father. Both Charles and Janet served during World War Two – Janet is reported to have driven ambulances and Charles was reported as wounded during the June 1944 landings at Normandy. Johnson did not appear on stage or in film again after the marriage, and there is no evidence she tried.

Two daughters and a son John, were born of the union. John Birkin has developed a long career directing for television and specializing in British comedy – amongst those he has worked with include Harry Enfield, Rowan Atkinson and French and Saunders.

Janet Johnson returned at least once to Australia, in 1962, to see her parents and friends again. Her sister Margaret worked in London for Vogue magazine for many years.

johnson in 1962

Above: Lady Janet Birkin in 1962, on a return to Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 August, 1962. Via newspapers.com

Lady Janet Birkin lived much of her later life on the Isle of Man and died in 1983 in London – she was only in her late 60s at the time. Sadly she had left no reflections on her career in Australia and Britain. The Australian press did not notice her passing.


Nick Murphy
December 2019.

 


Further Reading

Film clips online

Text

  • Michael Adams (2019) Australia’s Sweetheart. Hachette.
  • Rose Collis. (2007) Coral Browne, This Effing Lady. Oberon Books, London
  • M. Danischewsky (Ed) (1947) Michael Balcon’s 25 Years in Film. World Film Publications, London
  • Maggie Gale (1996) West End Women: Women and the London Stage 1918 – 1962
    Routledge. London
  • Hal Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby Limited, Adelaide.
  • Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1980) Australian Film 1900-1977. A Guide to Feature Production. Oxford Uni Press/AFI
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1930-1939: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1940-1949: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman and Littlefield
  • Andree Wright (1986) Brilliant Careers, women in Australian Cinema. Pan Books

Web
Australian Dictionary of Biography online.


National Library of Australia – Trove

  • Table Talk Thursday 24 Mar 1932 Society Folk in Attractive Garb
  • Table Talk Thursday 23 Nov 1933, Table Talk of the Week
  • The Sydney Morning Herald Tue 21 May 1940 HORSES AND BUGGIES IN MAYFAIR
  • The Herald, 18 July 1940.

Newspapers.com

  • The Age 18 August 1962 Flew from London
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 August, 1962

British Library/British Newspaper Archive

  • The Bystander, 10 April 1940. (Illustrated London News Group)
  • The Sphere, 4 Sept, 1937. (Illustrated London News Group)
  • The Daily Mirror, 27 January 1938.