Steve Rattle has amassed and researched a database of some 700 names of Australian born entertainers and has written articles for On Stage on Leon Errol, Ada Crossley, Len Luscombe, Jessie Masson & Emse Dawson.
A Trainer and Assessor in Business and Management by career, Steve is musically minded and collects and restores reproducing pianos, gramophones and clocks.
Remembering Hollywood's Favourite Grandmother
Did you realise that veteran actress May Robson was born in St Kilda, Victoria? Hollywood's perennial grandmother of the 1930s specialised in playing crotchety old ladies with hearts of gold. Remember her in the original A Star Is Born (1937) as granny to Janet Gaynor's Esther Blodgett? Or as Aunt Polly in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938) and her comment to Tom: 'Land o'Goshan, your hair looks like a hornets' nest.' Or as Aunt Elizabeth questioning Cary Grant as to why he was wearing women's clothing in Bringing Up Baby (1938)? His reply and her reaction has become Hollywood history: 'Because I just went gay all of a sudden.'
Mary Jeanette Robison was born on 19 April 1858, the fourth child to Captain Henry Robison and his wife Julia. Retired to Australia for his health, Captain Henry never saw his daughter on stage – he died when she was seven. Mother Julia, now a widow, decided to pack up and return her family to London. Educated in England, Brussels and Paris, Mary met visiting US cattle baron Edward Charles Gore. A romance developed and they were married on 1 November 1875 (Mary was just 17) and soon after moved to Fort Worth in Texas to run a cattle ranch. Three children resulted from the marriage. A later move to New York city occurred sometime before Gore's sudden death in 1883.
Widowed in New York, Mary turned her hand to anything that raised much-needed family funds. Embroidery, painting lessons, tailoring, seamstress, jewellery design and interpreter were added to her resume during this period. Soon the Broadway stage came calling for her talents, but Mary had no initial intentions of becoming an actress. Tragedy came with the death of two children – only Edward Junior survived. By now familiar with 'theatricals' and the industry, Mary was prompted by friends to try her luck – and she never looked back.
May Robson appeared on stage for the first time on 17 September 1883 at the Brooklyn Grand Opera House. Her name was badly misspelt in the program; no matter, she saw the omen as a sign of good luck. As a comedienne and character actress, May flourished and found herself in continuing demand. A chance meeting with Broadway manager and producer Charles Frohman (1856-1915) led to a productive, long term collaboration. Marriage came knocking in 1889 when May wed police surgeon Dr Augustus Homer Brown on 29 May. Both busy with their prospective careers and raising a son, they remained happily married until Dr Brown's death on 1 April 1920.
May's popularity with New York theatregoers meant Frohman wasted no time in casting her in stellar productions during the 1890s. She learnt quickly, took direction well and enjoyed her new vocation. In 1893, for example, May appears in four major productions: Americans Abroad, The Family Circle, The Poet and the Puppets and Squirrel Inn. In 1895 she appeared in the first American production of The Importance of Being Earnest at age 37. Maybe too young to play Lady Bracknell, too old to play Gwendolyn or Cecily, she was the first American Miss Prism.
By 1911 May had established her own theatrical touring company as part of Frohman's New York Theatrical Syndicate. She now ventured further afield than Manhattan Island, finding other US city and provincial audiences just as enthusiastic for quality drama. But soon came the next phase in May's career – motion pictures. By 1915 the 'flickers' had matured into a serious art form and could no longer be dismissed by theatrical performers. May's first silent was titled How Molly Made Good, filmed at Long Island. It was followed by A Night Out in 1916. Details of further silent films are sketchy – May grabbed the work so long as it didn't interfere with her stage and touring company commitments.
By 1926 California was beckoning. She was a widow once more and her son Edward had long left the nest, and the movies needed her talents. So 68-year-old May headed west and entered the final stage of her life and career – Hollywood character actress. Pals in Paradise was her first Hollywood venture – a drama concerning a gold mine and a crooked lawyer. Her second, a significantly greater epic – Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings in 1927, in which she played the mother of Gestas.
Enter sound – 'talking pictures' arrived in late 1927, ruining the careers of many, but stage-trained May found herself in even greater demand. Appearing in three features in 1932, May didn't rest in 1933, with directors waiting for 'the granny with a heart of gold' to become available. An impressive ten films were made that year, culminating in Frank Capra's Lady for a Day. As Apple Annie, May delivered an Oscar-nominated performance as a mother pretending to be a society 'dame' to her daughter living in Spain. When the daughter suddenly decides to visit, some necessary social camouflage is quickly acquired. Frank Capra's film received four Academy Award nominations for Best Actress (May) – she was the oldest nominee and the first Australian, Best Picture, Best Writing – Adaption (Robert Riskin) and Best Director for Capra. Sadly it didn't win any, but it did much for May, proving she could carry a picture as leading lady at age 75 and at only 5'2" (157 cm).
Her last role was as Mademoiselle Rosay in Joan of Paris in 1942. Starring Paul Henreid and Michele Morgan, it was released after May's death (natural age causes with neuritis). After a Hollywood funeral, her remains were taken east to New York and buried with her second husband at Flushing Cemetery in Queens, New York. Her New York Times obituary described May as the 'dowager queen of the American screen and stage'. Two obituary notices are reproduced below – one from the Melbourne Argus and the other from the San Francisco Berkeley Daily Gazette. I shall let them sum up the amazing life and career of St Kilda's May Robson.
Melbourne: The Argus – Thursday 22 October 1942
Death of May Robson
Hollywood – Wednesday AAP
The death is announced from Beverly Hills of May Robson, the Melbourne born stage and screen character actress. Despite failing health and eyesight, May Robson had been active in moving pictures until a few months ago. Her last picture was Joan of Paris.
Since the death of Marie Dressler, May Robson (in private life the wife of Dr A.H. Brown, of New York) has been the veteran actress and gracious lady of the films. Born in St Kilda in 1865 [sic], she was the daughter of Capt Henry Robison RN. She was educated in England, France and Belgium and at an early age she went with her parents to live in New York.
Fifty-nine years ago she made her stage debut in New York, and soon became a successful actress. In 1910 she made her first stage appearance in London. She commenced her screen career in silent pictures in 1926. Her first talking picture was Mother's Millions and ever since she has played prominent parts in many talkie successes.
Berkeley Daily Gazette – 23 October 1942
FIND MAY ROBSON 84 AT DEATH – FILM FOLKS PAY TRIBUTE
Hollywood – Oct 23
Hollywood paid its last tribute today to May Robson, 'grand old lady' of stage and screen and marvelled at the announcement that she was 84 years old at death.
Previous reports had revealed her age as 78. At her last birthday the beloved actress announced her age as 72, explaining that she had decided never to get older than 75 and so she subtracted a year on each birthday.
The death certificate disclosed Miss Robson was 84, born in Melbourne, Australia, April 19, 1858.
In 1937 she announced her age as 72 and said 'there's no use fibbing about my age because my mother printed the date in red ink on the back of all my baby pictures.'
Long before the services started today in the Little Church of the Recessional at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, scores of floral pieces were placed in the chapel. The Episcopal service was conducted by the Rev Neal Dodd before a large crowd. Honorary pall-bearers were Franklin Pangborn, Allan Walker, Charles Boyer, Arthur McArthur [most likely Charles MacArthur, who wrote Lady for a Day], E.J. Mannix and Louis B. Mayer.
Cremation followed the services and arrangement s were made to return the ashes to Flushing NY to be placed beside those of Miss Robson's second husband, Dr Augustus H. Brown, former New York police surgeon.
Steve Rattle recounts the memorable life and work of an adopted Aussie, and his triumphs on stage and screen.
Cecil Lauriston Kellaway (27 August 1890 – 28 February 1973)
The cousin of Academy Award winning actor Edmund Gwenn was also nominated twice for the award, but sadly didn't win. That didn't deter him from having a long term Hollywood career. Leaving Australia in the late 1930's, he appeared in such movie classics as Wuthering Heights (1939), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), The Luck of the Irish (1948) , Harvey (1950) and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967). South African by birth, adopted by Australia and a resident of Los Angeles, California and Arizona, let's look at the career of Cecil Kellaway.
Born in Cape Town and a godson of African empire builder Cecil Rhodes, young Kellaway was educated at Normal College in Cape Town and in the United Kingdom at Bradford Grammar School in West Yorkshire. Interested in engineering, adolescent study pursued such a career path. A return to South Africa after graduation saw him employed in his chosen field, but as with most frustrated thespians, the call of the stage beckoned.
Interested in the theatre since childhood, a restless Cecil joined a touring theatrical troupe around the commencement of the Great War. Tours of Africa and Borneo, China, Japan, Malaya and Siam (Thailand) resulted. Honing his stage talent and acting skills, Cecil garnered a fine reputation as a reliable and popular stage comedian. In 1921 this South African comedian landed himself a contract with J.C. Williamson Ltd. in Melbourne.
'A Night Out' commenced on 21 January 1922 at the Melbourne Theatre Royal, with Cecil playing the role of comic father to four adventurous daughters. Melbourne audiences loved it – and Cecil loved Melbourne. 'The Firm', as J.C. Williamson's had become known, also loved Cecil and he joined their New Musical Comedy Company – staying for an impressive 16 years.
Cecil had married Doreen Elizabeth Joubert in Johannesburg back in November 1919. Mrs Kellaway was reportedly keen to settle after three years of touring and was most probably relieved when 'The Firm' made her husband such an offer.
A Night Out was revived in 1924, 1926 and 1931, with Cecil reprising his role. Audiences took to this 'round-faced South African with a cherubic smile and twinkling eyes' and he found continuous work in such 1920s and 1930s productions of Katja, The Belle of New York, Sons of Guns, Blue Roses, Hold My Hand, Florodora, The Gipsy Princess, A Southern Maid and The Merry Widow, starring opposite Australian favourites such as Gladys Moncrieff, Madge Elliott and Cyril Ritchard. Critics noted that whatever the part, Kellaway played it with 'aplomb and careless grace'.
Enter into Cecil's life the Australian film industry, having recently acquired a voice as 'talking pictures'. Frank Thring's Efftee studios in Melbourne and Ken G. Hall at Cinesound in Sydney started turning out home-grown product which found an enthusiastic local audience. The Hayseeds, although shot at Cinesound's Bondi studio, was produced by Beaumont Smith and released in 1933. The seventh and first talking version of the popular story, The Hayseeds followed the Cinesound success of On Our Selection from 1932.
Paul Brynes writes of Cecil's performance in The Hayseeds: 'Most of the film centres on comedy, and that is carried mostly by Cecil Kellaway's lovely performance as the slow-talking but wise Dad Hayseed. Kellaway makes a lot more of the character than one expects, shading in Dad's prickly nature, his disappointment with his dopey set of children, but also his overwhelming generosity of spirit and stoic resolve against adversity. He has a couple of rousing speeches, calculated to appeal to nationalistic self-delusion, but Kellaway manages to convey a fundamental decency in the character that's much more poignant than words'.Screenwriting was next added to Cecil's creative talents with a screenplay forwarded to Cinesound in 1936 for their next film It Isn't Done (1937). Cecil played Hubert Blaydon who becomes the long-lost heir to an English estate. As Lord Blaydon, he and his family sail to the UK but don't fare well dealing with class consciousness and snobbery. A great financial success for Cinesound, it also came to the attention of one Phil Reisman, the general manager of RKO Pictures Export Division. Here's what The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Saturday 5 June, 1937:'Mr Cecil Kellaway, the actor, will leave shortly for California under contract to RKO Radio Pictures. Mr Ralph Doyle, managing director of RKO Radio Pictures (A'sia), Ltd, said yesterday that Mr Kellaway's work in the Australian film It Isn't Done had attracted the attention of Mr Phil Reisman, general manager of the RKO Export Division, when Mr Relsman was in Australia recently. At that time screen tests of 'Mr Kellaway had been sent to New York.'Almost 47 years of age and Hollywood was beckoning. Cinema's golden years were in full swing but sadly no one knew quite what to do with another Australian import – gangster films were all the rage so inevitably 'cherubic smile and twinkling eyes Cecil' became badly miscast in bit parts. Double Danger, Law of the Underworld and Smashing the Rackets are hardly remembered today, but were the usual RKO Radio Picture fare churned out in 1937/38. Here was Cecil getting regular film work and earning good money, but feeling somewhat discouraged and disappointed. While pondering his Hollywood future, a cable arrived from Ken G. Hall at Cinesound back in Sydney. His next production Mr Chedworth Steps Out (1939) needed Cecil's talent to play an everyday man transformed from henpecked to assertive. Cecil jumped at the chance and he and Doreen sailed back to Australia.Something unexpected happened in Sydney while filming. Hollywood heavyweight William Wyler had spotted him, and requested Cecil play Earnshaw for his next production – Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. With nothing further planned in Australia, back to Hollywood sailed Cecil.Again The Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday 2 March 1939 reported his activities:
'Air mail advices from London yesterday to Mr Hunter, managing director of Paramount Pictures, announced that Cecil Kellaway, the Australian star, has been signed for a picture by Paramount. Cecil Kellaway recently came from America and made Mr Chedworth Steps Out in Australia, directed by Ken G. Hall. On his return to America he was immediately placed in the star cast of Man About Town. The cast now includes Jack Benny, Dorothy Lamour, Edward Arnold, Binnie Barnes and Cecil Kellaway.
A recent cable from America announced that 'Mr Kellaway would appear in Wuthering Heights with Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon and Flora Robson.
A new studio, a break from gangster pictures at RKO, and approaching 50 years of age, Cecil commenced 30 productive film and television years. This time Hollywood recognised his talents, type and style. Man About Town, a typical Jack Benny–Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson picture, was made while waiting for Wuthering Heights to commence production.
Over these 30 years, Cecil's film tally totalled 144 pictures, making him one of the most successful Australian character actors to appear in Hollywood. An easy transformation to television commenced with The Magnavox Theatre in 1950. Cecil could still be found popping up on Disneyland 20 years later. Some memorable appearances can be found in TV repeats such as: The Ann Southern Show (1959), Twilight Zone (1960 & 1963), Ben Casey (1962 & 1963), My Favourite Martian (1964), Bewitched (1964), The FBI (1965) and Nanny and the Professor (1970).
And to answer our earlier question – Cecil was Oscar-nominated for The Luck of the Irish (1948) and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (1967). As Monsignor Ryan, Cecil matches screen legend Spencer Tracy in the later film – surely a masterclass session delivered by these two old veterans.
Privately Cecil enjoyed horse racing and described himself as an 'incurable gambler'. During and after World War 2, Cecil kept open house at his home in Los Angeles for Australian servicemen. This eccentric 'roly-poly' was last seen as Lord Basil Hyde-Smith in Call Holme, a movie made for television in 1972. Death came early in 1973. The Los Angeles papers reported in typical fashion:
'Cecil Kellaway, adopted Australian character actor, died of arteriosclerosis in Beverly Hills, California. Survived by his wife and two sons, he was cremated with his ashes being interred at Westwood Memorial Park.'
Mention should also be made of Cecil's two talented brothers – siblings Leon (Harold Lionel) (1897-1990) ballet dancer and teacher, and Alec (1894-1973) actor and teacher.
Leon is best remembered for his work in Australian ballet. From his own company, Ballet Nationale, to the National Theatre Ballet in Melbourne, Leon was a supportive mentor to young students and a ballet enthusiast until severe arthritis forced him into retirement.
Actor Alec is best remembered for his highly camp portrayal of effeminate floorwalker Entwistle in the films Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938) and Dad Rudd, MP (1940). A music hall producer, Alec also helped run the Cinesound talent school for many years.
Rutledge, Martha – Kellaway, Cecil Lauriston Kellaway, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, 1983
Brynes, Paul - Australian Screen, Curator's Notes: The Hayseeds, 1933
Brynes, Paul - Australian Screen, Curator's Notes: It Isn't Done, 1937
The Sydney Morning Herald (Newspaper) – entertainment articles from 5 June 1937 & 2 March 1939
International Movie Data Base – Cecil Kellaway https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0445523/?ref_=nv_sr_1