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.


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

Further Reading on Australian accents

Nick Murphy
December 2020

 

Patti Morgan (1928-2001) – from Bondi beach to Beirut

Patti Morgan on the cover of Sydney’s Sunday Sun, 19 May, 1946. She was almost 18, and the world was at her feet. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove. Photographer unknown.

The 5 second version
Patricia Joan Morgan
She was born in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, on 7 September 1928.  A singer, dancer and model in Australia from 1944-47, she then moved to the UK where she made a few films. She also continued her highly successful modelling career and appeared on British TV’s “Dancing Club” with her first husband Victor Sylvester Jnr. She lived in Lebanon from 1958-80 while married to Dany Chamoun. She died in London, England, on 2 February 2001.

Patti Morgan was born Patricia Joan Morgan in Sydney in 1928. Her mother was Irene, her father James was a company manager, and the family lived in the comfortable eastern suburb of Vaucluse, Sydney. Their old home has long since been demolished but looking around the suburb today one can still imagine what a sunny life was had by Patti and her younger brother Jim, at 99 Kings Rd, even in the dark days of the early 1940s. Patti attended Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School, a private girls school that still operates in inner Sydney today.

Throughout her life, Patti’s modelling and acting was well documented by an enthusiastic Australian press. Patti’s appearance – she was 172 centimetres or 5′ 8″ tall, blonde and trim, epitomized the stereotypical sporty outdoors Australian girl. In the end Patti did relatively little acting, although she did become a well known model and TV hostess in England.


Below: A very young Patti Morgan, from the Daily Telegraph, 4 May 1944. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Patti in 1944She first popped up in publicity in 1944, when she was 16. She was a young singer and dancer with ability and some connections, and she gained a small role in a Red Cross show for US Forces in Australia, singing and taking on the role of cartoon character “Windy City Kitty”. (Kitty was a similar character to Norman Pett‘s “Jane” who appeared in the London Daily Mirror during WWII). Despite the publicity, she did not particularly resemble Jack Crowe‘s character, drawn for Yank Down Under magazine, nor the many Kittys who were usually drawn  on the noses of USAAF aircraft. Never the less, appearing to enthusiastic service audiences was a great opportunity for a patriotic young woman who had her heart set on a career as a performer, and she seems to have reveled in it.

In May 1945 she entered the Miss Australia contest with the support of the New South Wales Police Boys Clubs. The preliminaries for the contest dragged on for months and in the end she didn’t win, but it didn’t matter – the fund raising events, parades and modelling assignments put Patti firmly in the public eye. Patti’s appearances as a “pin-up” photo model also dates from this time. She gained such popularity that one RAF Lancaster squadron allegedly wrote to her asking her “permission” to paint her image on one of their aircraft. Writer Madeleine Hamilton’s survey of Australian women who became pin-ups at this time includes Australasian Post’s account and Patti’s response. The Australian War Memorial also holds the accompanying photo.

AWM Photo   Sunday Telegraph April 1946

Above left: Patti Morgan (Undated but probably 1945-46) from the Australian War Memorial collection. The record accompanying states Patti’s portrait was painted on one of the Lancaster bombers of 50 Squadron RAAF. (But 50 squadron was a RAF squadron)
Above right: Patti with Sub Lieutenant Geoffrey Ross Downer of HMS Venerable, shortly after their engagement was announced in April 1946. She broke off the engagement in October 1947. The Sunday Telegraph, April 1946, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In April 1946 her engagement to a Royal Navy officer from the British Pacific Fleet (then based in Sydney) was announced. She continued modelling and took up acting classes. In October, newspapers picked up the story that she had been offered a 7 year contract with the Rank film organisation. It was wrong, of course. Rank had offered her an audition if she made her way to London. Somehow, Australians and their journalists remained convinced a film contract could be offered to an untested but beautiful antipodean. Very similar accounts of Mary Maguire and Jocelyn Howarth being offered overseas film work had appeared ten years before.

Patti Morgan as movie stars, Pix, July 1946 / photographed by N.  Patti Morgan as movie stars, Pix, July 1946 / photographed by N.  Patti Morgan as movie stars, Pix, July 1946 / photographed by N.

Patti in July 1946, photographed by Norm Herfort. Source Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and Courtesy ACP Magazines Ltd. This is part of a large folio of photos of Patti. (Note that some of the library’s collection are still in copyright)

In mid March 1947, Patti and her mother headed off for England aboard the MV SelandiaThe (Sydney) Daily Telegraph reported that she took a wardrobe that “included 20 evening gowns, 35 dresses, 15 suits, three dozen pairs of shoes, and a dozen hats.” On arrival in London she may have been tested by Rank, but within a few weeks she announced that she had a contract with Premier Productions, a new company under the leadership of Maurice Ostrer. Ostrer had left a successful career at Gainsborough films after a serious disagreement with J Arthur Rank, regarding the artificial and “lurid tone” of films he believed the public liked. Rank did not approve.

Patti had good reason to be confident about her first film, Idol of Paris. Apart from Ostrer’s involvement, the director was Leslie Arliss who had directed The Wicked Lady and the cast included well known actors Michael Rennie, Margaretta Scott and Miles Malleson. Unfortunately, the completed film, meant to be in the “Gainsborough style,” was a complete critical and popular disaster. The film is impossible to find today, but we know that on release the reviews were universally negative and the box office did not ignite. C. A. Lejeune, the London Observer’s film reviewer, even felt it could be the worst film of 1948, were it not for the fact it made him laugh and laugh it was so silly. “Such stupendous imbecility in a film… (with) such excruciating dialogue, demands a sort of recognition…” he wrote in his 7 March review. Variety’s review dismissed the script as “ill-written and corny” and the film not worthy of export to the US. The film stalled the careers of a number of young actors, including Beryl Baxter and Patti, while it ended Maurice Ostrer’s efforts at independent film production altogether.

Beryl Baxter Leslie Arliss and Patti on set Pix 10-4-1947    Patti Morgan 1947021

Left: Beryl Baxter, Director Leslie Arliss and Patti on the set of “Idol of Paris.” From Pix Magazine, 4 October, 1947. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove  
Right: Patti in a random English publicity shot in 1947 when she was under contract to Premier Productions. Author’s Collection. 
Patti was able to develop a profile through work as a model however, and a new opportunity also beckoned in Britain’s fledgling TV industry. In 1949 she met and married Victor Silvester (Junior) and at the same time, joined Victor Silvester (Senior)‘s very popular television show Dancing Club, as the regular hostess.

PAtti and Victor May 1948  Northern Whig 1949 Wedding Photo  Patti and Jim Morgan in 1953

Left: Victor Silvester Junior with Patti. The Melbourne Herald, July 29, 1949. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove
Middle: Patti on her wedding day – in a dress made by mother Irene. The Northern Whig and Belfast Post, July 29, 1949 via British Library Newspaper Archive Project.
Right: Patti met younger brother Jim again, when HMAS Sydney visited Britain for the Coronation. Here she stokes Jim’s naval beard. The Argus, May 15, 1953. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove

Although Patti did not find more than a few roles as an extra in British films and the odd role on stage in a production for charity, she was very active throughout the fifties as a mannequin for designers like Norman Hartnell and with her television work. British Pathe newsreels regularly featured Patti, now one of the UK’s leading models, the following being some examples:

Bunty Magazine

Above: D.C.Thomson & Co’s Bunty magazine, a girls’ comic book, sometimes featured a character modelled on Patti Morgan. This example is dated 1979, and testimony to Patti’s high public profile. The magazine ceased publication in 2001, but copyright is still held by the company. Author’s collection.

In 1957 Patti finally did take a leading role in a film. Booby Trap was a rather silly suspense/crime film that at 70 minutes in length was almost certainly intended as a cinema program filler – a second feature. Here Patti finally did demonstrate her ability as an actress – and she performs well given the limitations of the role as Jackie. Even after ten years in the UK, her voice sometimes still sounds as though it’s straight from Sydney, as in this example.

Patti Morgan as Jackie and Harry Fowler as Sammy in “Booby Trap” (1957). Renown Pictures re-released this film in 2015. Author’s collection.

Patti’s marriage to Victor Silvester ended soon after she made this film. In January 1958 she married Dany Chamoun, the second son of former Lebanese President Camille Chamoun. Thereafter she spent much of her time in Beirut. Her 2001 obituary in the London Daily Telegraph, apparently written by someone who knew her well, states that she set up her own modelling agency and television production company in Beirut. She wrote several accounts for the Australian press describing the difficult life she coped with in war-torn Beirut. But her businesses and her marriage did not survive Lebanon’s catastrophic civil war – that raged from 1975 to 1990.  She moved back to London in about 1980. Dany Chamoun and his second wife were murdered in 1990.

Patti made several return visits to Australia – briefly in 1962 and for a longer visit in 1972. On the latter occasion, The Sydney Morning Herald claimed “the goddess has returned,”  and indeed she was welcomed by many old friends, spending her month in Sydney near the beach at Bondi, where she had spent so much time in the 1940s.

Patti in Australia in 1972Patti in Sydney in 1972, surrounded by admirers. Source; The Australian Women’s Weekly, August 24, 1972. Photographer unknown. National Library of Australia via Trove.

Patti died in London in 2001, aged only 72. Almost every account of Patti records her good humour, confident sense of self and her resilience. Her obituary also states that she struggled with diabetes in later life.

Patti’s daughter Tracy Dany Chamoun was born in 1960 and closely resembles her Australian-born mother in appearance. Fluent in Arabic, French and English, she has been a key voice advocating for liberal democracy and political reform in Lebanon. She served as Lebanon’s ambassador to Jordan until resigning in August 2020, following the explosion of stockpiled ammonium nitrate, stored at the Port of Beirut.

AWW 7 Ap 1976

Above: Patti Morgan with daughter Tracy Chamoun, in about 1975. The Australian Women’s Weekly, 7 April, 1976, P8. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Patti signature

Patti’s signature – c 1955. Author’s collection

 


Note 1

The IMDB incorrectly credits Patti with roles in several films made in Hollywood in 1947-8. However, this is a different person. The US Patti Morgan who signed with the Hal Roach studio in April 1946 was a US-born actress, and a brunette.

 

Nick Murphy
July 2019 updated August 2020


Further Reading

Text

  • Madeleine Hamilton (2009) Our Girls; Aussie pinups of the 40s and 50s. Arcade Publications
  • Harris M. Lentz (2002) Obituaries in the Performing Arts, 2001: Film, Television, Radio, Theatre, Dance, Music, Cartoons and Pop Culture. McFarland Books
  • Joe Moran (2013) Armchair Nation: An intimate history of Britain in front of the TV. Profile Books
  • James Nott (2015) Going to the Palais: A Social and Cultural History of Dancing and Dance Halls in Britain, 1918-1960. Oxford University Press

Online

Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) Thu 4 May 1944, Page 12, Sydney Girl Double For Cartoon
  • The Daily Telegraph (Sydney), Sun 14 Apr 1946, Page 51, Sandra’s WEEKEND DIARY
  • The Sun (Sydney) Sun 19 May 1946, Page 1, Patti Morgan
  • The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) Sun 16 Mar 1947, Page 56, SEEKS FILM JOB IN ENGLAND
  • Pix. Vol. 19 No. 40, 4 October 1947
  • The World’s News (Sydney) Sat 2 Oct 1948 Page 7, Jazz fans sneer
  • The Herald (Melbourne) Fri 29 Jul 1949
  • The Argus (Melbourne) Fri 15 May 1953, Page 5 BIG BOY NOW
  • The Australian Women’s Weekly, Wed 23 Aug 1972, Page 13 People and Fashion

British Library Newspaper Archive Project

  • The Northern Whig and Belfast Post, July 29, 1949

Australian War Memorial


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