Enlargement of a photo of Sylvia Bremer, from Witzel Studios, Los Angeles. c 1918. Author’s Collection.
Of course, Sylvia Bremer is not a forgotten Australian at all, I just wanted an excuse to include this photo from my collection! Ralph Marsden’s biography Who was Sylvia? was published in 2016 – making use of hitherto unseen private photos of Bremer – and including a great deal of painstaking new research. Copies are available from bookshops – also Amazon and ebay.
Bremer was born into a comfortable family home in Double Bay, a harbour-side suburb of Sydney, in June 1897. As with some of the other women documented here, she was a student at Ascham College, which is possibly where she developed her interest in theatre. Following several years of stage work in Australia, in October 1916 she travelled to the US with her first husband, 48 year old actor-director Willett Morrison in the SS Ventura. And there she stayed – her first film for Thomas H. Ince was The Pinch Hitter, released in 1917. But as Ralph Marsden recounts, her story was not a happy one at all. Her career in film did not last – it was over well before the coming of sound in 1927 (she made over 40 films in just ten years). She was active on stage from 1926 -1930, her performances with the Bainbridge Players in Minneapolis in late 1930 appear to be her last, except for a small role in the 1936 talkie Too Many Parents, a Paramount kid picture with Billy Lee and Frances Farmer. Possibly her widely published criticisms of the shallowness of work and life in Hollywood had not endeared her to key figures in the industry – including the powerful film producers who otherwise might have employed her.
Here is part of Sylvia Breamer’s only scene in “Too Many Parents”(1936), as the mother of the insufferable Billy Miller (Billy Lee). Twenty years after arriving in the US, her accent is an English one. Copyright held by Universal films.
She married three times, but each relationship ended acrimoniously or abruptly. There were no children from any of the marriages.
Below: A postcard of Bremer, produced about 1920. Ironically, it appears to have been printed in Germany. Author’s Collection
In an interview with Julian Johnson for Photoplay magazine in 1918, she tied herself in knots to emphasize (or exaggerate) her British naval connections. Her father was not a battle-ship captain as she claimed, but a hard working public servant in the Lands Department, who had died when she was only 13. She was obviously sensitive to accusations of German ancestry, as only a year before, she had changed the spelling of her surname from Bremer to Breamer, apparently to make her sound less German in the midst of war.
She died in New York aged only 45, in 1943. Perhaps one of the most moving photos in Marsden’s book is a grainy photo of Sylvia and her sister on the streets of New York, taken shortly before she died. Her passing appears to have gone unnoticed in Australia. Her mother, step-father, sister and brother all moved to the US. For a time, her brother Jack worked as a cinematographer.
Marsden’s book is recommended for anyone interested in Breamer’s career and those of the other early Australian women pioneers in Hollywood with whom she was acquainted – including Enid Bennett, Marjorie Bennett and Louise Lovely.
Nick Murphy, December 2018
- Ralph L. Marsden (2016) Who was Sylvia? : a biography of Sylvia Breamer. With an introduction by Kevin Brownlow. Screencrafts Publications, Melbourne.
Desley Deacon. Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies. Vol 18, No 1 (2013)
From Victorian Accomplishment to Modern Profession: Elocution Takes Judith Anderson, Sylvia Bremer and Dorothy Cumming to Hollywood, 1912-1918