Thursday, 02 September 2021

Thus Far: The story of my life (Part 7)

Written by Madge Elliott

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After their successes in London, Madge Elliott and Cyril Ritchard returned to Australia. Not without qualms, as MADGE ELLIOTT told us in the last chapter of Thus Far, for in a way they were making an Australian come-back. They had been away some time, and they wondered if, perhaps, they had been forgotten. They had not. They found themselves among an Australian public that welcomed them, not only as fine artists, but as friends. Following a successful tour of just under two years, they sailed for America (en route to London) where they spent time visiting friends and seeing the sights in the Los Angeles film capital of Hollywood. Now read on. Read Part 1» | Read Part 2» | Read Part 3» | Read Part 4» | Read Part 5» | Read Part 6»

On my second visit to New York I felt less like a stranger in a strange land, despite the fact that it was winter; and Arctic winds swept the streets. Even the dingy theatres seemed more friendly than when I first saw them in 1925, and this feeling was further enhanced through my meeting with people whom I had known in Australia and England.

One of my first London acquaintances was Mr. John Van Druten, author of Young Woodley, Theres Always Juliet, and other successful plays, and here he was in New York for the premiere of Most of the Game, with Herbert Marshall and Edna Best in the leading roles. [1]

After the first night on Broadway he had plenty of time on his hands, and with Cyril we made a trio of sightseers. In short trips about the city I learned something of the real depression affecting America. Crowds of out-of-work men and women thronged the streets day and night, aimlessly parading, and seemingly with all hope gone. They were mostly hard looking types, all of them with that ‘Yeah" and ‘So what?’ expression on their faces. Broadway was a favourite ‘beat’ . . . yet only a few blocks further East was Fifth Avenue with all its splendour and signs of wealth. There were no hungry looking men here. Instead glittering motor-cars purred along the street with well-dressed, clean-shaven gentlemen and beautifully gowned, bejewelled, and admirably made-up ladies as their passengers. Women visiting New York for the first time get the money-spending habit so badly in Fifth Avenue that they have to ask a policeman to remove them while they still have their car fare home.

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The Russian Ballet was in season at this time, and Cyril and myself spent many dollars at the box office. [2] There were two ballets new to us The Beautiful Danube, set to the music of Strauss, and The Ballet School, with choreography descriptive of dancing. Danilova, whom I met some years previously as premiere danseuse in Waltzes from Vienna, was a member of the company.

My greatest thrill, however, so far as entertainment was concerned, was in an attempted visit to the premiere of Cecil B. De Mille’s picture, Four Frightened People. [3] New York, which takes its films very seriously, turned out in thousands and stormed the theatre entrances. Cyril and I managed to get in one doorway, and there we were jammed. I have never in my life seen such a vast crowd, nor such a huge auditorium. We seemed to be a mile from the screen in this wonderful theatre in Times Square. We had trouble about our seats, and after a terrible struggle with hordes of humans in a like predicament, eventually found ourselves in the street. Cyril fought his way to the ticket office and demanded his money back, and was quite disappointed to have it returned without a murmur of protest ... It is a way they have in America, and are seemingly used to the procedure on first nights.

Frank Lawton, who was playing in The Wind and the Rain, [4] Ethel Morrison, and Dorothy Purdell, well remembered by Australians, were others who visited me at the Gotham.

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London. Back once more! The mere business of unpacking reduced the two years away by at least 20 months. From now on I carry a banner ‘Travel Cunard.’ The service is simply amazing. After the usual posing for photographs and waving at the cameramen, Cyril and I were introduced by a Cunard man to the chief of the Customs, and we were really so social that he blushed at the very thought of asking us to open our luggage. Instead he wrote mysterious little signs all over the trunks and things, and these acted like magic and just dissolved barriers right and left. [5]

The trip from Southampton to London was unbelievable for February. We had full sunshine all the way. It must have been a mistake—or perhaps the Cunard people were using their influence again. But even they could not alter dear old London, and sure enough we had glorious fogs and cold and sleet. In short, we were back!

I found my flat at Hanover Square full of flowers and friends, with a lift-man, a porter, a housemaid, and the manager all smiling welcome in the background. Things began to move at once. Vivian Buckley—who wrote that very successful book With a Passport and Two Eyes [6]—gave a large cocktail party for us. He had very thoughtfully gathered a great many of our old friends together. Everyone seemed very pleased to see us, and refused to believe it was two years since we had left. Not very flattering, perhaps, but London is like that. Time flies, people disappear for months and return, and you resume a conversation that was commenced before they left.

We were also bidden to a cocktail party given by Mrs. Claude Beddington. As usual, there were at least six languages being spoken very loudly in one room. Fortunately the room was gigantic. Then Leslie Henson gave a party for us at the Green Room Club. Everyone on the London stage was there, and our welcome started with

the gallery girls, who were assembled outside. It was all very cheering, as Cyril and I had been suffering a little from the feeling that perhaps we had been quite forgotten.

It was charming, too, when we went to the theatre and perfect strangers came to tell us how very glad they were to see us back. I am not writing this in any spirit of boastfulness, but to point out that the same loyalty exists in London as I always found in Australia. Much as I loved America, I do not think you would find that in a theatre there.

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The first plays I saw were Mr. Whittington, with Jack Buchanan, [7] which disappointed me a little, though London seemed to like it, and Fred Astaire in Gay Divorce. [8] This was the piece that Billy Milton played in Melbourne. Then I saw Marie Tempest in The Old Folks at Home, which Melbourne recently found rather naughty, but very amusing. [9]  Marie looked younger than ever. Also In the cast were Graham Browne, Margaret Rawlings, Frank Allenby, and Ronald Ward—all of whom will be remembered at odd times in Australia by some of the people who read this story of mine.

Cyril and I had two or three rather interesting suggestions about appearing in London. The main trouble was the little time at our disposal before we would once more be Australia bound. The newspapers every day were mentioning the Melbourne Centenary. The fact that Prince George then intended to go out undoubtedly gave the whole thing an added importance in London's eyes. I had an odd chuckle when I read that a prize offered for an Australian novel had been given, according to the Daily Mirror, by ‘Mrs. James Dyer, daughter of the Lord Mayor of Melbourne!’ I am sure no one appreciated that joke more than Sir Harold Gengoult Smith. [10]

After a week in London I found the queer old place was getting hold of me again. My first reaction to it had been annoyance at its mixed climate and its lack of what the Americans so love to call ‘creature comforts.’ In any case spring in the offing, and the certainty of summer in Australia when London was next wrapped in its winter blankets, drove such thoughts away.

The thing I had to fight most hard at that moment was an almost terrifying wanderlust. After more than two weeks I was still not quite unpacked, and I hesitated about taking the smallest trifle from my trunks and putting it in a permanent looking wardrobe.

I had to exercise the greatest control and fairly run past a Thomas Cook’s office, and my breakfast often grew cold while I read of winter cruises. The south of France called so strongly—so very strongly. And Spain was quite a new country to me, with the exchange in my favour. I found that for £27 I could go to Madeira and back. For less than £50 I could go to Portugal, to Brazil, and a thousand miles up the Amazon! The luxurious motor vessel Columbia could take me from Dover for a seven weeks’ sunshine voyage to the British West Indies, and the Spanish Main, including St. Lucia and Jamaica. I had to stop thinking like that before I threw everything to the winds.

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Interesting contrasts were presented in two plays I saw at that time. The first was Richard of Bordeaux, with John Gielgud, [11] and the other was Reunion in Vienna, with that incomparable pair, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. [12]

Richard of Bordeaux disappointed me a little. It really was a beautiful production, but it could not live up to its advance publicity! I felt, too, that Shakespeare had said the final word about Richard II, and the music of his language made the other version rather trite. And I am not really a highbrow.

For the Lunts I had nothing but praise. They are a grand pair, and can give anyone lessons in stage craftsmanship. ‘Finesse’ is the word to be applied to them.

The people who took Cyril to Reunion in Vienna had to use a great deal of influence to get seats. We had tried several times without success. We had been on our knees to ticket agencies just bristling with banknotes, trying to get in to that show, to the first night of Magnolia Street, [13] and to Escape Me Never, [14] with Elisabeth Bergner.

At that time I met two of the most interesting people I have ever known. They were Jerome Kern and Hassard Short. Kern wrote the music for Sally, The Cabaret Girl, Sunny, The Cat and the Fiddle, Show Boat, Music in the Air, and for Roberta, which we have recently done in Melbourne.  Short was the producer of Waltzes in Vienna and Roberta—the best man at his job in New York and London.

 

To be continued

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Published in The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld.), Thursday, 11 April 1935, p.19, https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article182036348 and The Mercury (Hobart, Tas.), Wednesday, 31 July 1935, p.3, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/30098474

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Endnotes

Compiled by Robert Morrison

  1. On 21 December 1933, The New York Times reported (on p.24) that: ‘John Van Druten, English playwright, arrived yesterday on the White Star liner Olympic in connection with the presentation next month of his play, Most of the Game, in which Herbert Marshall and Edna Best will have the leading roles. The author said he hoped to present here his play, The Distaff Side, before long.’ However Madge was mistaken in her assumption that the play received its Broadway premiere around the time that she and Cyril arrived in New York in mid-January, as The New York Times subsequently reported on 8 March 1934 that Basil Sydney would produce ‘John Van Druten’s Most of the Game, now being rewritten, with Herbert Marshall and Edna Best … probably … in the Autumn.’ In fact the next of his plays to open on Broadway was The Distaff Side, on 25 September 1934, and Most of the Game did not arrive there until 1 October 1935 (without Marshall or Best) when it flopped after a mere 23 performances. (Ref.: ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/john-van-druten-6910 )
  1. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo’s New York season played at the St. James Theatre from 22 December 1933 to 25 March 1934. In addition to Alexandra Danilova, the company’s principal dancers included Leonide Massine, Tatiana Riabouchinska, Leon Woizikowski, Nina Verchinina, Tamara Toumanova, Irina Baronova and David Lichine. Its repertoire of ballets included La Concurrence, Les Presages, Le Beau Danube, Petrushka, Prince Igor, Les Sylphides, Beach, Jeux d’Enfants and Scuola di Ballo. (Danilova had been the principal ballet dancer in the London production of Waltzes From Vienna at the Alhambra Theatre in 1931.)
  1. Cecil B. De Mille’s picture, Four Frightened People was released in the US on 26 January 1934. It received its New York premiere at the Paramount Theatre, Times Square on that date.
  1. The Wind and the Rain (by Merton Hodge) premiered at the Ritz Theatre, New York on 1 February 1934.
  1. Passenger lists for the Cunard line of the period note that Madge and Cyril sailed from New York City on the S.S. Berengaria on 14 February and arrived in Southampton, England on the 21 February 1934.
  1. British travel writer, photographer and lecturer, Vivian Charles John Buckley was born on 26 June 1901 in Brompton, London, the elder of two children of Charles Mars Buckley, a brewer, and his wife, Ida (née Fennings). He was the grandson of Mars Buckley (1825–1905), an Irish businessman from County Cork, who had emigrated to Australia in 1851, and co-founded the prominent department store, Buckley & Nunn (with Crompton John Nunn) in 1852, which operated in Bourke St., Melbourne for over 130 years, until it was taken over by David Jones in 1982. Charles Mars Buckley (1870–1946), the youngest of his eight children (who was born at the family mansion ‘Beaulieu’ in Heyington Place, Toorak) emigrated to England in the 1890s, marrying Ida Fennings at St Saviour, Chelsea in 1898. (Ref.: https://www.badseysociety.uk/people/buckley/vivian-charles and https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/200143915)
  1. Whittington (music by John W. Green, Jack Waller and Joseph Tunbridge; book and lyrics by Clifford Grey, Greatrex Newman and Douglas Furber; additional lyrics by Edward Heyman) received its West End premiere at the London Hippodrome on 1 February 1934 for a total run of 300 performances, which included a transfer to the Adelphi Theatre, where it concluded on 20 October 1934.
  1. Gay Divorce (music and lyrics by Cole Porter, book by Dwight Taylor) had its London premiere at the Palace Theatre on 2 November 1933 for a run of 180 performances concluding on 7 April 1934. Fred Astaire and Claire Luce reprised their lead roles from the original New York production, which had premiered at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on 29 November 1932 for a run of 248 performances. Its Australian premiere was given by J.C. Williamson Ltd. at the King’s Theatre, Melbourne on 23 December 1933 for a season which ran until 16 February 1934 in a production directed by Charles A. Wenman with dances by Edward Royce, jun. British star Billy Milton made his Australian stage debut in the male lead role of ‘Guy Holden’ and Sydney actress, Mona Potts stepped up from the chorus to take on the female lead role of ‘Mimi’ at two days’ notice when British leading lady, Iris Kirkwhite fell and sprained her ankle at a rehearsal. (In his opening night curtain speech, Billy Milton paid tribute to Miss Potts for having mastered five dances, forty pages of dialogue and three songs in two days.) Miss Kirkwhite recovered from her injury in time to re-join the production for the Adelaide season at the Theatre Royal (from 21 to 27 April), the Perth season at His Majesty’s Theatre (from 19 to 26 May), the Kalgoorlie Town Hall on 29 May and the Brisbane season at His Majesty’s theatre (from 9 to 22 June) which played in repertory with revivals of The Girl Friend and The Quaker Girl.) Local cast members on the tour included Frank Leighton, Leo Franklyn, Elved Jay and Gus Bluett. (On their return to Australia, Madge Elliott and Cyril Ritchard subsequently took over the lead roles for the Sydney season at the Theatre Royal from 28 July to 12 September 1934.)

9. The Old Folks at Home (by H.M. Harwood) premiered at the Queen’s Theatre, London on 21 December 1933 and played for 203 performances concluding on 23 June 1934. J.C. Williamson Ltd. presented its Australian premiere at the Criterion Theatre, Sydney on 25 October 1934 for a season concluding on 22 November. Its Melbourne season opened at the Comedy Theatre on 5 January 1935 and concluded on 21 February.

 Old Folks at Home Tonight

Theatregoers are to see a large number of modern plays this year. The 1935 programme will open at the Comedy tonight, when The Old Folks at Home is given its Melbourne premiere.

An interesting fact is that this three act comedy is produced by Grace Lane, who also enacts the central character, Lady Jane Kingdom, a role in which Marie Tempest achieved a notable success on the London stage last year.

The play is a sophisticated drama of human life, with broad situations and exceedingly frank conversation. The theme underlying the whole story is that ‘the old folks at home’ know as much and are as capable as the young people who are apt to regard their elders with a good humored contempt for their tack of worldly knowledge.

Lady Jane Kingdom sees her strong-willed daughter (enacted by Jane Wood) and her son's empty-headed wife (Kathleen Goodall) whirling hopelessly in the frantic and purposeless eddies of young modernistic society, and saves them from themselves by her tact and understanding of life.

The Herald (Melbourne, Vic.), Saturday, 5 January 1935, p.24, https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article245436944

  1. Mrs James Dyer was the sister of Sir Harold Gengoult Smith, the Lord Mayor of Melbourne from 1931 to 1934. She served as Lady Mayoress on her brother’s behalf until his marriage to Cynthia Brookes (the daughter of tennis player Sir Norman Brookes) in 1933. As Lord Mayor, Smith chaired many of the organising committees for the 1934 Centenary of Melbourne. In her own right, Mrs. James Dyer founded the Victorian branch of the British Music Society in 1921, and acted as honorary local representative for the parent society (based in London) as well as honorary secretary of the Victorian branch. In addition she was president for five years of the Alliance Français in Victoria, and was one of the first Australian women to be awarded the Legion d’Honneur by the French government (amongst other such honours.) (Ref.: https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-sir--harold-gengoult-15901; https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article140842392 and https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article10957710 )
  1. Richard of Bordeaux (by ‘Gordon Daviot’ pseud. of Elizabeth Macintosh) premiered at the New Theatre, London on 2 February 1933 in a revised version (having previously previewed at the theatre for two Sunday performances on 26 June and 3 July 1932) for a run of 463 performances concluding on 24 March 1934.
  1. Reunion in Vienna (by Robert E. Sherwood) had its London premiere at the Lyric Theatre on 3 January 1934 and played for 196 performances concluding on 23 June. The Lunts reprised their roles from the original US production, which had played at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York for a run of 264 performances from 16 November 1931.
  1. Magnolia Street (by Louis Golding and A.R. Rawlinson, based on Goldings’s novel) premiered at the Adelphi Theatre, London on 8 March 1934 for a run of 36 performances concluding on 7 April.
  1. Escape Me Never (by Margaret Kennedy, adapted from her novel) premiered in London at the Apollo Theatre on 8 December 1933 starring Viennese actress, Elisabeth Bergner in her West End debut, and ran for 232 performances concluding on 12 April 1934.

 

Cyril Ritchard Filmography

  • Danny Boy (1934) (British Dominions Films)—screenplay by A. Barr-Carson, Oswald Mitchell and Archie Pitt. Directed by Oswald Mitchell. Original music by Eric Spear, with lyrics by Frank Vincent. Cast included Frank Forbes-Robertson, Ronnie Hepworth, Dorothy Dickson, Archie Pitt, Fred Duprez, Denis O’Neil and Cyril Ritchard.

In production in May of 1934 at the Cricklewood Studios, the picture was first released in London in July 1934 and in Australia in May of the following year. Local critical reaction to the film was mixed, although Cyril Ritchard received praise for his acting in a supporting role, which gave little scope for his talents.

Picture Theatres

A tip-top programme of British films was screened at the Athenaeum on Friday, consisting of The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes and Danny Boy

Danny Boy proved to be a musical film with a strongly emotional story, and as a film it bears evidence of a cinema quality which has not been sustained in some of the more recent British productions. This popular picture gives us glimpses of Cyril Ritchard in a straight role, and as a theatrical magnate he fills the bill with smoothness and poise. No doubt we shall see more of Mr. Ritchard as an actor in the future. As Pat Clare, Frank Forbes-Robertson is a romantic and vagrant violinist, and Ronnie Hepworth, as Danny, is delightful characteristically English in contrast with the too precocious types of boys which Hollywood has developed. The last close-up of him in the cabaret scene is irresistible. Dorothy Dickson plays the role of Danny's mother, Jane Kaye, the actress, and Leo Newman is cast as the manager. Musically, Danny Boy is interesting, but the recording is not up to the best standard.

The Age (Melbourne, Vic.), Monday, 20 May 1935, p.10, https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article204354539

‘Danny Boy’

A well-drawn but inadequate sob-story, deficient in action and humor. A musical genius, estranged from the wife who loves him, wanders forth with their boy of 12 to fiddle in the streets. The streets treat him as they usually treat geniuses; meantime, the wife has become a Great Star. Her continued efforts to find her husband and child failing, she is tempted to love another man, when suddenly somebody finds the husband, tells everybody he is a genius and everybody believes it. All are happy, except the noble-minded lover, who goes forth like the Boy Scout, content with his day’s good deed. The acting is worthy of a better story. Frank Forbes-Robertson never faults as the genius. Ronnie Hepworth is another of those wonderful child performers who have come into the lime-light of late. Archie Pitt as the tough proprietor of the penny doss-house is the real thing. [Dorothy Dickson as] Jane Kaye looks well as the heroine. Cyril Ritchard, as the lover who wasn’t, has little to do, but does it well.

‘Shadow Shows’, The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), 22 May 1935, p.40

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Additional sources

Raymond Mander & Joe Mitchenson, Musical Comedy: A story in pictures, Peter Davies, London, 1969

Ernest Short, Sixty Years of Theatre, Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 1951

J.P. Wearing, The London Stage, 1930–1939: A calendar of productions, performers, and personnel, 2nd ed.; Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland, 2014

Internet Broadway Data Base, ibdb.com

Internet Movie Data Base, imdb.com

The New York Times on-line Archive

‘The Shows of 1934’, Everyone’s (Sydney, NSW)—(Vol. 14 No. 772)—12 December 1934, p.112, https://nla.gov.au:443/tarkine/nla.obj-571101604

‘The Shows of 1935’, Everyone’s (Sydney, NSW)—(Vol. 15 No. 310)—11 December 1935, p.124, https://nla.gov.au:443/tarkine/nla.obj-552304594

 

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