A to Z of Old Time Aussie Film Scandals

September 28, 2019
Reckon old Australian movies are boring? Well, to be honest, some of them are... but it didn’t mean the people who made them were dull. Here’s an A to Z of the most colourful figures of the old Australian industry.

A is for Abbot, Brian – a leading man of the 1930s with bad teeth whose best known movie was Ken Hall’s Orphan of the Wilderness (1936). He was also an enthusiastic sailor, perhaps too enthusiastic: in October 1936 he and a fellow actor, Leslie Hay-Simpson, decided to sail back to Sydney in a skiff from Lord Howe Island, where both had been making Mysterious Island (1936)… they were never seen again. (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article47500845)

B is for Berrell, Lloyd – a barrel chested New Zealand actor who always looked about twenty years older than his actual age, who played “Roo” in the original Sydney production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Was divorced from his first wife after he admitted to spanking her. Died of a heart attack en route to England while only 31 years old. (http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-1351936723)

C is for Copelin, Campbell – dashing leading man of stage and screen, most commonly cast as a scoundrel. He had a mischievous side – in March 1932 he stole an aeroplane and took it for a joyride, crashing it into Sandridge Golf Links. He survived and, after a long convalescence, resumed his career. (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article203739990)

D is for Dampier, Lily – an early star of Australian cinema who, when she was younger, had a secret marriage to a member of her father’s theatre company. They were married for twelve months without telling anyone – he kept promising Lily he would get them a house but not doing it (this was a gambit in the old days to get naive women into bed) – and eventually she sued for divorce. (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article44083927) She had a successful second marriage to Alfred Rolfe, an actor and director, but died “suddenly” in her forties in 1917. (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article163149184)

E is for E.V. Timms – an Australian novelist and screenwriter (Forty Thousand Horsemen) who spent much of World War Two guarding Italian POWs in the countryside. This wasn’t as cushy a billet as it might appear – he was called into action when Japanese POWs broke out in Cowra in 1944 and helped suppress the uprising. (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article96574427)

F is for Finch, Peter – one of Australia’s greatest actors had one of the most colourful private lives, including being the result of an adulterous liaison between his mother and her lover; living for a period of time in a Buddhist monastery and, later on, a brothel in Kings Cross (the madam was a big fan); working as a sideshow spruiker at the Sydney Royal Easter Show; seeing active service in the army in World War Two during the bombing of Darwin; and cuckolding Sir Laurence Olivier with Vivien Leigh. In 1935 he also saw one of his best friends, comic Bobby Capron, drown in front of his eyes while Capron was trying to save his dog, who had fallen in the river – Finch jumped in and saved the dog but not his friend. (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article12644720)

G is for Gavin, Agnes – one of Australia’s first screenwriters, who made a number of movies with her husband John. Agnes had a colourful private life – her first husband divorced her for adultery (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article138631382), and she was later arrested and charged for menacing her neighbour with a hammer and threatening to chop her door down with an axe. (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article113291119)

H is for Howarth, Jocelyn – leapt to stardom playing the title role in The Squatter’s Daughter (1933), she went to Hollywood and had an okay career in B movies as “Constance Worth” but received more publicity for her private life, including a disastrous marriage to George Brent and writer W. A. Pierce. She was in a car accident, had plastic surgery and died at only 52 years of age. (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article78826965)

I is for the Influenza Pandemic of 1918, which killed at least 50 million people, including C Post Mason, director of The Martydom of Nurse Cavell (1916), one of the most profitable Australian films of all time (it cost around 500 pounds and made over 25,000). He went to New York to promote the movie and fell ill and died there. (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article168488323)

J is for Jack Cannot, a vaudevillian and silent film actor who struggled to get work in the industry downturn that followed the coming of sound. Cannot killed himself by drowning in 1929 – the newspapers reprinted his suicide note, as they did in those days. (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article133501507)

K is for Kay, Sydney John – a German musician who was touring Australia with a band when World War Two broke out and was interned here, despite being Jewish. He didn’t hold it against us and stayed here after the war for over a decade, helping set up the Mercury Theatre with Peter Finch that would tour shows to factories. One of the shows was seen by Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, leading to them inviting Finch to England. (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article12644489)

L is for Leighton, Frank – Brawny Australian leading man, cast as the love interest for Hollywood star Helen Twelvetrees, brought out to Australia to star in Thoroughbred (1936) for Ken G Hall. She and Leighton began a hot affair, much to the annoyance of Twelvetrees’ husband, who had perhaps unwisely accompanied her. The husband threatened violence against Leighton, so Hall – a man who knew that the film must come first – arranged for some friendly members of the Sydney police force to put him on a boat to New Zealand for fishing. Hall wrote in his memoirs that Twelvetrees didn’t seem to notice her husband’s absence. (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article184021322)

M is for Maguire, Mary – ingenue star discovered by Charles Chauvel who put her in Heritage (1935). She went to Hollywood, appeared in a few Bs, then headed to London where she married a World War One veteran, Robert Gordon-Canning… who had fascist sympathies and was interned during World War Two. Mary gave birth to their son while her husband was in prison and the son died young. Mary’s career never recovered. (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article103809243)

N is for Nola Warren – a girl discovered on the beach by American author Zane Grey who cast her in the Australian shot film White Death (1936). Warren became a model and was involved in a scandalous divorce case where she fell pregnant to a man married to someone else. (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article75892879)

O is for O’Mahoney, Jock – American stuntman star of the Australian meat pie Western The Kangaroo Kid (1952), who later in life was revealed to be sexually abusing his stepdaughter Sally Field. (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article47806324)

P is for patriarchs of acting dynasties – silent Australian cinema featured a number of actors who later went and begat film stars: Roy Redgrave (father of Michael), Barry Lupino (uncle of Ida), Lawson Harris (father of John Derek). Redgrave died out here. (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page1238749)

Q is for queer actors… I’m guessing there were a few of them but it is hard to tell because this was not publicised at the time. Winton Welch, an actor married to film star Louise Lovely, was apparently gay – he definitely didn’t sleep with her (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article16328416) though he did flirt with other women (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article168725795). Maureen O’Hara claimed Peter Lawford was caught in a male brothel making Kangaroo (1952) but she was a notorious homophobe. The actors Thelma Scott and Gwen Plumb were lifelong partners.

R is for Richards, Shirley Ann – the charming ingenue of many Australian films of the 1930s who had a decent enough career in Hollywood in the 1940s under the name “Ann Richards”. Her brother Roderick was a soldier in World War Two, captured by the Japanese and died in POW camp in Borneo. (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article248498597)

S is for Spencer, Charles Cozens – in many ways the godfather of Australian cinema, the man who financed Australia’s first film studio and the early movies of Raymond Longford. He was forced out of the company he helped established and moved to Canada. In 1930 he had a mental breakdown and went on a shooting spree, killing one of his workers and wounding another, before drowning himself in a lake. (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article242758823)

T is for Thompson, Lotus – stunningly beautiful Australian model who played “the girl” in some silent movies, then moved to Hollywood and struggled to get parts other than “the girl”. In an attempt to revive her career in 1925 she poured acid on her legs saying she was sick of being judged for her beauty. This did lead to some more roles, but her career eventually petered out. She revealed the leg thing was all a hoax. (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article235494671)

U is for underworld figure Squizzy Taylor, who tried to make a go of it as a film star in Riding to Win (1923). (https://www.nfsa.gov.au/latest/squizzy-taylor-reel-life-gang-star) Also U is for underwater filming – which killed cameraman James Bell while shooting footage for Typhoon Treasure (1938) on Green Island. (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page1841791)

V is for Victor Upton Brown – Aussie rules coach who dabbled in filmmaking, appearing in The Kelly Gang (1920) and How MacDougall Topped the Score (1924). (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article234429274) He was one of many sports people who worked on films in the silent era, including Bob Chitty, boxer Dave Smith and the horse Desert Gold.

W is for W.J Lincoln, one of Australia’s most prominent early writer-directors, whose drinking problem got so bad he was fired off Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford (1916) and was replaced by American actor (and later top Hollywood director) Fred Niblo. Lincoln drunk himself to an early death in 1917. (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article155527204)

X is for X rating, a very loose excuse for me to group the Australian movies that were banned for screening in their home country: all bushranger films after 1912 to the 1950s, Sea Dogs of Australia (1913) (because it had footage of a war ship), The Woman Suffers (1918) (too racy), The Blonde Captive (1931) (a particularly racist documentary).

Y is for Yinson Lee, William – a Chinese merchant who led protests against the advertisement for the Australian melodrama Satan in Sydney (1918) which tells the story of a German sympathiser who uses an opium den in Chinatown to lead Australian soldiers astray. Some posters were removed but the censor had no problem with it and the film was a hit. (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article174833016)

Z is for Zelma Roberts – a screenwriter whose credits included Always Another Dawn (1948), whose husband was killed in action in World War Two. (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article46448257)


If you liked this story, be sure to read these by the same author:

50 Meat Pie Westerns

Australian Movie Stars

Unsung Aussie Actors

Australian Singers Turned Actors

Unsung Aussie Filmmakers: Ivan Goff – a Top Ten

Unsung Aussie Filmmakers: Don Sharp – A Top 25

60 Australian TV Plays of the 1950s & ‘60s

Unmade Cinesound

Films Hollywood Almost Made About Australia



  1. moviepasKenneth Henderson

    You did not mention radio announcer/actor Walter Pym, and, the affair of Raymond Longford & his actress/helper(if you like) Lottie Lyell which ended with her death from TB in the 1920s and he is buried alongside her, I believe.

  2. David Donaldson

    “Most interesting” (The 39 Steps, I think it was). Thank you.

Leave a Comment