Unsung Aussie Actors – Ron Randell: A Top Twenty

August 10, 2019
We shine a light on the career of this (relatively) little known actor who still carved out a sixty year career, by looking at twenty of his most notable performances.

We hear a lot about Aussie stars who’ve made it in Hollywood. Actors plucked from our shores and given roles in big studio films who go on to fame and fortune – Mel Gibson, Chris Hemsworth, Margot Robbie, etc, etc. We don’t hear as often about Aussie actors who got a big overseas break… but didn’t make it. Shooting comets who were going to be the Next Big Thing but weren’t. Ron Randell was a case in point.

1) South West Pacific (1943)

Ron Randell was no overnight sensation. Born in 1918, he broke into showbusiness as a child, appearing on a radio show for kids and becoming an established performer in that medium. By the late thirties he was a busy stage actor too. He was a tall good looking guy, so in a way it’s odd that film producers didn’t use him until South West Pacific (1943), a propaganda short from Cinesound Productions. Randell has a short scene playing an American soldier cut off behind Japanese lines alongside an Aussie soldier (played by Grant Taylor) – a concept so strong they could have made a feature on that alone. South West Pacific proved unexpectedly controversial when opposition politicians criticised it as being too supportive of the government during an election year, and critics complained about its quality, saying it was cringe-y and shouldn’t be exported.

See for yourself – a copy of the film is here – https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/F01453/

2) A Son is Born (1946)

Randell was invalided out of the army due to illness and travelled to the US during the war for treatment. While there he did a few screen tests, but to little avail. (He writes about it here – https://archive.org/details/Cavalcade_v04n01_1946-06/page/n14)

He returned to Australia and resumed his busy career on radio and stage. His first role in a feature came when Eric Porter cast him in this melodrama as the spoilt son of a wronged woman (Muriel Steinbeck). Randell’s n’er-do-well father was played by Peter Finch, even then known as the best actor in the country, and very good in the movie… but, surprise surprise, Randell wipes the floor with him. Charismatic, vicious, cruel, it’s a great performance and established Randell as a force to watch. It makes it frustrating when you consider that Randell went on to play so few villains in his subsequent career – he had a real gift for them, and wasted his talent far too often in bland leading man roles.

(Information on A Son is Born is here https://www.ozmovies.com.au/movie/son-is-born#details)

Release of the film was delayed to take advantage of publicity from Randell’s next film, which really made his career…

3) Smithy (1946)

This biopic of Charles Kingsford Smith was, along with The Overlanders, the big Australian movie of 1946, and competition was hot over who would play the lead role. Director Ken G Hall said it came down to two actors, Finch and Randell – and Randell was chosen due to his superior romantic appeal. While Finch was the better actor, I feel it was the right decision – Randell suited the more conventional, romantic approach Hall wanted to take with the material. It’s a good performance, too, particularly in the second half of the film, which turned out to be a big box office success.

The movie was financed by Columbia Studios, who were so impressed with Randell they offered him a long-term contract. It was a massive break and he accepted.

4) Bulldog Drummond at Bay (1947)

Randell’s American career got off to a solid start when their B picture division were looking for a new face who could “talk British” for a revamp of the Bulldog Drummond series, an adaptation of adventure stories by Sapper (only with the fascism drained out of them). So, basically, he went straight into leading roles. This was an okay film, a little creaky – Randell wasn’t quite comfortable in the lead. He only played Drummond twice before the series was cancelled.

5) The Loves of Carmen (1948)

In addition to starring in “B”s, Columbia built up Randell as a star by giving him support roles in “A”s – It Had to Be You (1947) with Ginger Rogers, The Mating of Millie (1948) with Glenn Ford, The Sign of the Ram (1948) with Susan Peters. Most notably he was in the studio’s biggest film of 1948, The Loves of Carmen (1948) with its two biggest stars, Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth. Randell was billed third. Columbia, it seemed, loved him and a brilliant future awaited.

6) Make Believe Ballroom (1949)

Then it all stopped. Or at least cooled down.

Columbia cancelled the Bulldog Drummond series. They tried Randell in a revival of the Lone Wolf series but that only lasted one film before that franchise was cancelled as well. They put him in a support role in a “B”, Make Believe Ballroom (1949), and seemed to lose interest. He would appear in some Columbia “B” films but never an “A” movie again. The studio started promoting other young leading men – John Derek, Aldo Ray. Randell was left behind.

What the hell happened? What had gone wrong?

It seems Columbia fell out of love with Randell. Maybe he was difficult on set. Maybe responses to his performances were not what they hoped – this might have been at an executive level, but it could have been with the public. None of his movies had been big hits.

Whatever happened, the tide had turned. Randell was no longer the Next Big Thing.

7) Omoo Omoo the Shark God (1949)

Randell was still a good looking leading man and was offered the lead in a quickie adventure movie, Omoo Omoo the Shark God, based on a novel by Herman Melville. It was cheap and silly, the sort of thing you don’t want to appear in if you’re on the way up, but is actually quite fun and if Randell wasn’t a great star he was a perfectly acceptable lead. He went on to appear in a series of low budget adventure stories along this line, such as Tyrant of the Sea (1950), Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard (1950), China Corsair (1951), Lorna Doone (1951) and The Brigand (1952). Many of these were made for Columbia who over time started to shift Randell down the last list, even in “B” movies. Still, he was working.

A copy of the film is here – https://archive.org/details/Omoo-OmootheSharkGod.

8) Wicked is the Vine (1949)

Randell headed to New York in the late forties to rejuvenate his career. He appeared on Broadway in The Browning Version and also on television in Wicked is the Vine. This was a TV play by Australian Sumner Locke Elliot about Lizzie Borden, the first script by an Australian to be performed on US television. It was well received, kickstarting Elliot’s career in New York, and leading to a series of small screen offers for Randell.

9) Candida (1952)

Randell’s film career was drifting into support roles. However, he got a good opportunity on stage co-starring with Olivia de Havilland in a production of Shaw’s Candida that toured the country. By the fifties Randell had become one of those actors who could not afford to specialise in one kind of acting – he went back and forth between films, television, radio and stage.

He and de Havilland appeared together on radio in a production of My Cousin Rachel (she had just made the film version with Richard Burton). You can hear it here – https://www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com/drama/lux/lux-radio-theater-53-09-07-845-my-cousin-rachel. For all Randell’s talent he did not have a deep voice – his performance does not compare with Burton’s in the film. Maybe that is what held back Randell.

10) Kiss Me Kate (1953)

Randell made the occasional “A” film in the fifties and sixties, though always as a support player. This classic musical cast him as Cole Porter, and probably gave him his greatest exposure to audiences since Carmen. He also appeared down the cast list in “A”s such as The Mississippi Gambler (1953) and I am Camera (1955).

11) “The Kiss”

In the early fifties, Randell headed over to England to see what opportunities were there. He got work on television and stage but what really helped raise his profile was MCing a variety show on television (he was experienced doing this on Australian radio in the forties). One night, Randell blew a kiss to the audience at the end of the episode, which sent the media into a minor frenzy, helped Randell get all sort of jobs including hosting The Vise (1954-55). It wasn’t stardom but it was something.

12) The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (1955)

Randell returned to Australia in 1955 to appear in a production of Herman Wouk’s hit play, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. It wasn’t to be a triumphant homecoming though – bookings were erratic, and the cast were locked in their Sydney hotel due to a failure to pay their bill. (Read the article here – http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article91195559.) Randell soon went back to England.

13) OSS (1957-58)

Television came to the rescue when Randell received an offer to star in an espionage TV series shot in Europe. It was a minor success and sold well around the world. It led to him being offered lead roles in features again, albeit “B”s like The Strange Case of Dr Manning (1958).

14) The World of Suzie Wong (1958-60)

By the late fifties, Randell was truly an international actor, basing himself wherever the work was. He experienced Broadway success when cast in a support role in The World of Suzie Wong alongside William Shatner and Frances Nguyen. The show ran for a couple of years – although Randell’s part was only minor (and he missed out on the film role to Michael Wilding). It’s always nice to be in a hit and it helped raise his profile.

15) The Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961)

Randell’s last leading role was in this science fiction B movie which was the last feature from director Allan Dwan, a remake of a Lon Chaney Jr movie. It has a poor critical reputation but Randell gives it his all; the film has a minor cult.

16) King of Kings (1961)

Perhaps it was his Suzie Wong profile that led to Randell receiving his best film offer in ages – as the Roman centurion who arrests Jesus in Nicholas Ray’s epic King of Kings. Randell is excellent in the film’s best part – he gets good chances and takes them, reminding everyone of his talent. It seemed to rejuvenate his career slightly in the sixties – he returned to Australia for the film’s premiere here, and worked on number European films such as Gold for Caesar (1963) and Follow the Boys (1963). Producer Samuel Bronston later used Randell in Savage Pampas (1966). However, he never became a leading man again in features. It’s curious as to why when King of Kings did so well – maybe he didn’t have the hunger. Maybe he didn’t get the offers. Maybe he was too indistinct a screen personality. Still, his fine performance remains.

Randell is at the London premiere here – https://www.britishpathe.com/video/king-of-kings-premiere/query/Carroll

17)The Duplicate Man (1964)

Randell was busy as a guest star on US television through the sixties. One of his most fondly remembered performances was in “The Duplicate Man”, an episode of The Outer Limits. It says a lot for film fandom that Randell’s sci fi works – Most Dangerous Man Alive, The She Creature – are far more remembered and written about than anything else he did, even though they constitute a relatively small part of his output.

18) There’s a Girl in My Soup (1967-68)

Randell returned to Australia in the late sixties, in a touring production of There’s a Girl in My Soup (a hit on stage for Gig Young and on screen for Peter Sellers). Unlike The Caine Mutiny Court Martial this proved to be a triumph, running for months around the country. Randell was so encouraged by this response he would return to his native country several times in productions of plays. While in the country he would guest star on episodes of shows like The Rovers, The Long Arm and Delta.

Several Australian actors returned home during the revival of the seventies, such as Michael Pate, Ray Barrett and Charles Tingwell, and it’s tempting to wonder what would have happened had Randell done the same. But he elected to stay based in the US.

19) Whity (1971)

Randell was top billed in this lesser known work from German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a combination of European Western and American South Melodrama, shot in Spain. The same year Randell was in Russ Meyer’s The Seven Minutes (1971), so clearly this was a “cult filmmaker” time for him.

A clip from Whity below, it looks insane.

20) Bent (1979-80)

By the seventies Randell’s film and TV offers dried up and he mostly worked as a theatre actor (including several stints in Australia). He worked solidly on Broadway, always in support roles but in some good productions like Sherlock Holmes. His biggest success was in Bent, Martin Sherman’s play about gay men in Germany which starred a young Richard Gere, and had Randell in a support role.

Randell’s last notable performance was in a 1995 theatre revival of the classic School for Scandal starring Tony Randall. That’s a sixty year career. Maybe Randell didn’t become the massive star that Australia thought he was going to be in 1946. But to work as an actor for over five decades. That is a hell of an achievement.

Leave a Comment