Sylvia Breamer (1897-1943) – I’m not a German!

Enlargement of a photo of Sylvia Bremer, possibly from the Witzel Studios, Los Angeles. c 1918. Author’s Collection.

The 5 Second version
Born Sylvia Poppy Bremer, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 9 June 1897, she died in New York City, USA, 7 June, 1943. After very successful stage work in Australia, she travelled to the US with her first and much older husband Willett Morrison. Her first film in Hollywood was for Thomas Ince, and she was active in film from 1917-1926. She could not re-establish herself after the coming of sound and an unhappy second marriage.

Sylvia Bremer is hardly a forgotten Australian at all. 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 on her career. Here are two photos of a very young Sylvia from Australian libraries – they are now out of copyright.

Above: Sylvia Bremer by May and Mina Moore. c1910-1913. State Library of Victoria. (Ralph Marsden dates this to 1916)
Above: Sylvia Bremer by May Moore, c 1912. State Library of New South Wales.

Bremer was born into a comfortable family home in Double Bay, a harbour-side suburb of Sydney, in June 1897. As with several of the other women documented on this website, she was a student at Ascham College, which is probably 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 on the SS Ventura. And there she stayed – her first film for Thomas H. Ince was The Pinch Hitterreleased in 1917.

Above; Sylvia in Motion Picture Magazine, August 1917. She had just appeared in The Narrow Trail with William S Hart. The rest of the story here reminds us how unreliable movie mags are as a source – she supposedly grew up in “the Australian bush” at “Baggadella”. Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

As Ralph Marsden recounts, Sylvia’s 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 role in the 1936 talkie Too Many Parents, a Paramount kid picture with Billy Lee and Frances Farmer. Although its not really clear why she lost her currency, her tumultuous private life and widely published criticisms of the shallowness of work and life in Hollywood probably did not endear her to key figures in the industry – including the powerful film producers who might otherwise have employed her. “Sylvia now loathes pictures and everything Hollywood means. There can be no real friendship in Hollywood-nothing but jealousy and sham,” she was reported as saying in 1930.

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.

Breamer 2
A postcard of Bremer, produced about 1920. Ironically, it appears to have been printed in Germany. Author’s Collection

Sylvia married three times,  but each relationship ended acrimoniously or abruptly. There were no children from any of the marriages.   

Her origins seem to have been a constant source of interest for the press, or embarrassment for her. 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 BennettMarjorie Bennett and Louise Lovely. 

Nick Murphy, December 2018

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