Unsung Aussie Actors – Muriel Steinbeck

August 25, 2019
For almost three decades Muriel Steinbeck was one of the most respected actors in Australia, giving acclaimed performances in radio, theatre, film and TV; she endorsed lipstick and chocolate, was a genuine box office draw on stage, and starred in both films and the first Australian TV soap. Despite that, she’s little remembered today.

1) When the Crash Comes (1933)

Steinbeck was born in Broken Hill in 1913. Her family eventually moved to Sydney, where she became involved in amateur dramatics. She was beautiful, talented and stole the notices of a play at the Sydney Players, When the Crash Comesa contemporary review can be found here. It was seen by a producer at the ABC who began casting her in radio plays – it was tricky to make a living out of acting in film in Australia in the thirties, but radio drama was about to boom. Steinbeck’s career progression was slow but steady and by the late thirties she established herself as one of Sydney’s leading theatre and radio actors.

2) South West Pacific (1943)

Steinbeck’s appeal was a little like that of Greer Garson in Hollywood – a regal, lady-like figure. That’s an over-simplification – she played all sorts of roles – but she was, overall, a classy dame. Her beauty meant that her photo often appeared in trade publications and she was particularly popular on radio soaps and at the Minerva Theatre in Sydney.

Steinbeck’s first film appearances came in propaganda shorts such as Eleventh Hour (1942) and South West Pacific (1943), where she would play concerned wives and mothers. In South West Pacific, she’s a beauty shop operator who goes and works in a munitions factory. A clip of her from the film here: Steinbeck is way too good looking for her boyfriend, but you never know what goes on in a couple, and the concept was strong enough for a feature.

3) A Son is Born (1946)

Steinbeck’s first lead in a feature came in a melodrama, A Son is Born where she plays a woman who marries an abusive no hoper (Peter Finch) who dies; she remarries her boss (John McCallum) but her son to her first husband (Ron Randell) makes life difficult. This is a perfectly fine soapie, with Steinbeck suffering and smiling through the tears. She has beauty and charisma and holds her own against three men who would all become major names.

4) Smithy (1946)

By the mid-forties, Steinbeck’s status in Australia was such that she was the first and only choice to play the widow of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith in the biopic Smithy (1946) – she appeared opposite Ron Randell, who played her son in A Son is Born. It’s a “wife” part but a decent one – she gets to flirt, and worry and fight, and the film improves immeasurably once her character becomes part of the action.

The movie was a hit and led to Columbia offering Ron Randell a Hollywood contract. Her other co-stars, Peter Finch and John McCallum, would soon go to England and find fame and fortune. Steinbeck might have considered going overseas herself – many female actors did so at the time, like Mary Maguire, Jocelyn Howarth and Shirley Ann Richards. I feel that she could have made a decent run of it in England especially. But Steinbeck elected to stay home – she had a daughter, and her marriage was breaking up, and it was probably a bad time to rock the boat. Besides, in the late forties she had plenty of work on radio and stage. Such was her profile, she even endorsed chocolate and lipstick.

5) Into the Straight (1949)

Steinbeck was never able to follow up her Smithy screen success. There were good female roles going in films – not many, but some: the female lead in Sons of Matthew (1949) played by Wendy Gibb, the wife of Peter Lalor in Eureka Stockade (1949) played by Jane Barrett, etc. But Steinbeck, while still beautiful, was now in her mid-thirties and would have been considered too old for these. She was shunted off to “mother and wife” roles starting with the horse racing melodrama Into the Straight (1949). Steinbeck was the biggest name in the cast at the time, but it isn’t much of a role… and in hindsight that was a mistake. The filmmakers would have been better off building the movie around Steinbeck – either have her play the role of her daughter instead of Nonnie Peifer, or made her character the center of the action. But then, Australian cinema has traditionally demonstrated a poor understanding how best to exploit potential stars. Another case in point was the Eileen Joyce biopic Wherever She Goes (1951) – Steinbeck should have played the title role but is wasted in the part of her mother.

Watch a clip from Into the Straight.

6) Autumn Affair (1958-59)

Steinbeck kept busy in the fifties on stage and radio, supplementing her earnings working as a compere for events. She was politically active too, campaigning against socialism (I’m guessing she was a bit of a right winger) and in favour of a quota for Australian drama.

She got a regular gig as the governor’s wife on the TV series The Adventures of Long John Silver. It wasn’t the best female role on that show – that honour went to Purity Pinker, but that part would’ve been far too knockabout for Steinbeck, and so Connie Gilchrist played it.

Steinbeck was however a natural choice to play the lead in Autumn Affair, Australia’s first regular dramatic TV series. It was played on Channel 7 at 8.45am but lasted for 156 episodes. Steinbeck played Julia Parrish, middle aged widowed mother who wrote popular novels and had a busy private life. She laughed, loved and suffered with jolly good decency – the quintessential Muriel Steinbeck part.

7) Reflection in Dark Glasses (1960)

Steinbeck’s TV appearances in the early sixties tended to be “wives” – Thunder on Sycamore Street (1960) and Stormy Petrel (1960) (where she played the wife of Captain Bligh). But she had one outstanding chance on the small screen, in the original Australian TV play Reflections in Dark Glasses (1960). She plays a wife and a mother, sure, but this time the part had some meat on its bones – her character has a breakdown convinced that her child has been stolen. Reviews were superb. Why don’t the National Film and Sound Archive make these productions easily available online?

8) Woman’s World (1963-64)

Actors have to do all sorts of things to make a crust between gigs and Steinbeck would earn coin on the side doing compering, such as on the English for New Australians series, Making Friends. The ABC got her to host a TV show, Woman’s World about “women’s issues” – indicative of her popularity with the public. If this was today, she probably would have made a fortune as a TV personality, but that was then.

9) They’re a Weird Mob (1966)

Steinbeck’s last widely seen performance was in the blockbuster (in Australia anyway) comedy They’re a Weird Mob (1966). It’s another thankless wife and mother part, the wife of Chips Rafferty and the mother of Clare Dunn, but at least it was in a hit. Steinbeck might have thought it was a good one to go out on, for she retired soon afterwards.

10) On Stage: A Practical Guide to The Actor’s Craft (1969).

In the sixties, Steinbeck gave it up to go help her husband run a quarry in Orange. She said it was a big decision, but she wanted to focus on her marriage – it was her second, with the first marriage ending in a publicised divorce. She said she was happy – I’d like to think she was, even though it must have been hard to give up acting. She did work in amateur theatricals in Orange and wrote a book, On Stage: A Practical Guide to the Actor’s Craft. But living in the country meant she missed the roles that she would surely have gotten in the seventies revival – the ones enjoyed by contemporaries like Googie Withers and Queenie Ashton. She died of cancer in 1982.

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