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 Jean 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.