In 1935 at the age of 37, Jack O’Hagan was at the height of his success. Already the most successful Australian songwriter with sales of over two million copies of his music, he had written the scores to six lavish revues, two pantomimes, a play with music, contributed additional songs to an English musical, and written the score for Australia’s first musical film. He was also a successful radio broadcaster and recording artist. The next step in his prolific career was to write a musical comedy.
Flame of Desire opened at the Apollo Theatre, Melbourne, on 19 October 1935, in a production by flamboyant showman, Ernest C. Rolls. (Rolls had taken over as lessee of the Palace Theatre, at the top end of Bourke Street in early 1934, and after extensive refurbishment, renamed it the Apollo. The show was billed as a ‘glorious musical romance’, with music and lyrics by Jack O’Hagan, book by Ernest C. Rolls and J.L.Gray, and a starry imported cast from the United States headed by Ethelind Terry, William O’Neal, Lester Allen, Nellie Breen, and Bert Mathews.
All five performers had impressive Broadway credits: Ethelind Terry had played the title role in McCarthy and Tierney’s Rio Rita (1927) and Romberg’s Nina Rosa (1927), William O’Neal had been in Romberg’s The Desert Song (1926), and The New Moon (1928), George White’s Scandals of 1928, and Berlin’s Shoot The Works (1931), Lester Allen had appeared in six editions of George White’s Scandals from 1919 to 1924, plus Friml’s The Three Musketeers (1928), and Kalmar and Ruby’s Top Speed (1929), Nellie Breen had been in Mercenary Mary (1925), and The Desert Song (1926), and Bert Mathews in a 1930 revival of Herbert’s Babes in Toyland.
Prominent Australian performers in the cast of 60, included William Perryman (father of Jill and Diana), Nancye Cocking, Mabel Gibson, Les King, Les Woods, Harvey Adams, Reg Hood, Harold Meade, R. Barrett-Lennard, and Rosa Pinkerton. Musical direction was in the hands of Maurice Gutteridge, choreography by Jan Kowskey, Buddy Roberts and Nellie Breen, with direction by producer Rolls.
The story was set in a Ruritanian kingdom. In the mythical country of Serovia, Captain Carl Liebenau (O’Neal) of the Royal Guards, is in love with Marietta (Terry), the Crown Princess. The country, in a financial crisis, is awaiting the arrival of foreign advisers to help them out of their predicament. Two adventurers, Adam Sweet (Mathews), and Oscar Low (Allen), descend upon the country by parachute and, mistaken for the advisers, immediately begin to promote a lottery. Later, in the palace ballroom with her maid Tina (Breen), Marietta is courted by a visiting foreign dignitary, Prince Frederick of Wittenbach (Perryman). When she accepts his hand in marriage, Carl is incensed, casts off his uniform, and leads a band of rebels in an uprising that sees him become president of the republic. Marietta and Frederick flee to Paris, but later, realising her true love is Carl, she returns to Serovia to marry him.
The plot gave plenty of opportunity for set designers, Joan Scardon and Erica Huppert, to create a host of colourful scenes: the palace courtyard, rose garden and ballroom, the civic square, the Place Vendome, Glocken cabaret, and a spectacular transformation scene as the finale of Act 2, from the interior of a Gothic cathedral, to an outdoor wedding reception. Jack O’Hagan’s score, which was more operetta than musical comedy, contained rousing marches, up-tempo dance numbers, point numbers, and several ballads.
Critical reaction was good: ‘Exquisite dance ensembles, marvellous frocking and tuneful and catchy music,’ said the Age (21.10.35), with the Argus (20.10.35) equally laudatory: ‘The Harry Grahams of the play world have not produced a more attractive ‘book’ than that contrived by Mr J.L.Gray and Mr Rolls, nor have the Irving Berlins of this amusing age composed music any sweeter than that invented by Mr Jack O’Hagan.’
They liked Ethelind Terry but carped that her voice was ‘weak’ and not up to the demands of the score, but they loved William O’Neal and thought his singing of the title tune was a highlight of the show. Nellie Breen was noted as being ‘pert, vivacious, and clever on her feet’, while Bert Mathews and Lester Allen ‘speed the comedy on with an air of reckless abandon’.
But all was not rosy. The major fault of the work was the second act. According to the Age: ‘Nearly all the musical comedy eggs have been placed in the first act basket, and Flame of Desire develops inevitably into free and easy revue. Failure to unify the story and link up the comic situations in a coherent script is apparent.’ This is easy to understand, as Rolls, Gray and O’Hagan had never written a ‘book’ musical before.
Although the show played 57 performances, Ethelind Terry only appeared in 23 of them. On Saturday, 9 November, popular Australian soprano Strella Wilson replaced Ethelind Terry as Marietta and played the role until the show closed on 7 December. It was the end of the road for this ambitious undertaking which, unlike previous Ernest C. Rolls productions, did not tour. All of the American actors returned to the US except William O’Neal and Bert Mathews who stayed on and worked in revue and musical comedy for some years, Mathews doing a string of musicals: Jill Darling (1936), Balalaika (1937), revivals of The O’Brien Girl 1936), Lady Be Good (1936) and Funny Face (1936), and O’Neal working in the revues Serenaders (1937), Coronation Revelries (1937), and the play Idiot’s Delight (1939), and both doing 1937 Variety Show (1937), the J.C. Williamson pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk (1938), and Ernest C. Rolls’ Folies d’Amour (1939). They later returned to the United States and picked up their Broadway careers, O’Neal memorably creating the character of Colonel Buffalo Bill in the original Broadway production of Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun (1946), and Mathews appearing in Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon (1951).
Allan’s Music (who had originally hired Jack O’Hagan as a song plugger in 1922 and had published all of his previous work) published a Vocal Gems Selection which contained 12 of the songs from the score: ‘Princess Marietta’, ‘The Rebel Song’, ‘Someday Sweetheart’, ‘Kinky Kat’, ‘We’ll Start a Lottery’, ‘Calm is the Night’, ‘Two of the Bright Young Things’, ‘I Belong to You Dear’, ‘Tina’, ‘Song of Love’, ‘The Guard Song’, and the title tune. They also published four songs as single sheets, ‘Song of Love’, ‘Princess Marietta’, ‘The Rebel Song’, and ‘Flame of Desire’. All of them featured head shots of Ethelind Terry, William O’Neal and Lester Allen, the title of the show, with book, music, lyrics, and musical director credits. A fifth song, ‘Calm is the Night’, was also published as a single sheet, but with a non-show cover.
No commercial recordings were released of the score, although Strella Wilson recorded the duet ‘Song of Love’ with William O’Neal with piano accompaniment, for Columbia (X 107–1) in 1936, but it was never issued. Several songs turned up on radio transcription discs. An Australian Compositions Program (3DB 16-inch radio transcription disc) featured ‘Flame of Desire’ sung by Webb Tilton with chorus, and ‘Calm is the Night’ sung by Patricia Howard, with orchestra and chorus conducted by William Flynn. A Library of Australian Compositions (AWA 16-inch radio transcription) included ‘Princess Marietta’ sung by George Burns. The same song was also featured in the Humphrey Bishop Bright Horizon radio series (AWA 16-inch transcription), sung by Edward Smith, and again in the Humphrey Bishop Australia Show (AWA 16-inch transcription), sung by George Brown. The Australia Show series also featured original cast member William Perryman and male chorus singing ‘The Rebel Song,’ although Perryman did not sing it in the show.
A publican’s son, Melbourne-born O’Hagan had his first songs published in 1917 when he was still a teenager, but it wasn’t until 1921, when he wrote ‘Down Carolina Way’, that he had his first hit. He followed with several songs to accompany popular silent screen movies: ‘Anatol’ for Gloria Swanson’s The Affairs of Anatol (1921), ‘Sheba’ (1922) for the film of the same name. ‘In Dreamy Araby’, for the Valentino classic The Sheik (1922), sold a phenomenal 50 000 copies.
But he struck gold when, on the strength of the success of ‘Down Carolina Way’, Tivoli entrepreneur, Hugh D. McIntosh, suggested he write something local, and O’Hagan came up with the blatantly nostalgic ‘Along The Road to Gundagai’. It was a hit not only in Australia but overseas, and became his signature tune and calling card for the rest of his life.
Immortality for ‘Along the Road to Gundagai’ was assured when it was chosen as the theme for Dad and Dave (1937), the George Edwards Players Production’s radio series based on the On Our Selection stories by Steele Rudd. It ran for 16 years. During this time O’Hagan penned many more songs associated with Gundagai and the series: ‘Where the Dog Sits on the Tuckerbox’ (1938), ‘Snake Gully Swagger’ (1939), ‘Snake Gully Home of Mine’ (1940) and ‘When a Boy From Alabama Meets a Girl From Gundagai’ (1942).
1922 was also the year ‘Along the Road to Gundagai’ was interpolated into J. & N. Tait’s Christmas pantomime, The Forty Thieves (23.12.22), Kings Theatre, Melbourne, with a cast headed by Mona Magnet, Jack Cannot and Joe Brennan. It was the start of O’Hagan’s career in the theatre. Still working in pantomime, he later contributed songs to J.C. Williamson’s production of Aladdin (26.12.25), at His Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, which featured Bruce Green, Jennie Benson, Gus Bluett, and June Elvidge. Please Get Married (9.6.28), a Broadway farce at the Palace Theatre, Melbourne followed—with a score by O’Hagan, and a cast headed by actor—producer Frank Neil, Mary Gannon, Field Fisher, Jefferson Tate, Betty Bright, and Lily Molloy. Neil had added songs for its Australian presentation. ‘The majority of the numbers were tuneful’ said the Age (10.6.28).
O’Hagan’s next theatrical compositions were additional songs for J.C. Williamson’s London musical comedy Turned Up (26.12.29), at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, with Gus Bluett, Leo Franklin, Cecil Kellaway and Mary Lawson.
According to The Age (27.12.29) Lawson sang ‘one of the “successes” of the evening “Start the Day Off with a Smile”. Added interest was lent to the tuneful lyrics by the fact that an Australian, Mr. J. O’Hagan, had had a hand in their composition’. He followed a year later with a score for the pantomime The House That Jack Built (20.12.30) at the same theatre. The Argus (22.12.30) claimed, ‘The House That Jack Built is essentially the house that Jack O’Hagan and his fellow song-writers built … The songs are excellent.’ The show starred Roy Rene (Mo), Sadie Gale, Arthur Stigant, and Dan Agar.
Two years later saw O’Hagan’s first production with Ernest C. Rolls, when some of his material was interpolated into a short- lived (eight performances) revue, All Stars Revue (1.8.31) at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, with a cast that included Jennie Benson, Athol Tier and Stan Foley. The following year O’Hagan, Rolls, and J.L. Gray wrote book, music and lyrics for the pantomime, Dick Wittington and His Cat (24.12.32), at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne. Jennie Benson again headed the cast that also featured Stan Foley, Mabel Gibson, and Don Nicol.
Honi Soit (11.2.33), a spectacular Ernest C. Rolls vaudeville revue, opened in February at the same theatre with Renie Riano, Charles Norman, Byrl Walkley, Colin Crane, and O’Hagan himself. Book and lyric credits went to Rolls, Gray and O’Hagan, with O’Hagan supplying all of the music.
The show played a Sydney season at the Theatre Royal (3.6.33) before transferring to the Criterion Theatre, (3.7.33).
Rolls followed with an even more spectacular revue, Tout Paris (17.6.33), which starred Clarkson Rose, Olive Fox, Ambrose Barker, and Jack and Sylvia Kellaway, and had an impressive first act finale, ‘Birth of a Melody’. Arranged and scored by Maurice Gutteridge, it was a pseudo-concerto, built around a song of the same name by Rolls and O’Hagan, which told the story of the growth of melody from the primitive drumming of a Red Indian through to the trumpeting of the archangels. Scored for five pianos, two harps, eight violins and a full orchestra, the finale had Liszt, Bach, Chopin and Beethoven each seated and playing elevated grand pianos, looking down on Gershwin, also on piano, with the ballet swirling frantically in the foreground. The Age (19.6.33) called it ‘astounding’.
Around the World (22.12.34), was an Ernest C. Rolls Youth Revue (the cast was all boys between the ages of seven and 14), with a score by O’Hagan and Rolls, and some special material by J.C. Bancks (creator of Ginger Meggs). It opened at the Criterion Theatre, Sydney, before transferring to the Apollo Theatre, Melbourne (12.1.35). The cast featured Billy [Bill] Kerr, George Nichols, Ian Burgis, Conway Searle, and Colin Croft who was noticed: ‘His Mae West impression brought the house down’ (Age 13.1.35). Following the Melbourne season, the show did a world tour starting in South Africa.
This was followed at the same theatre by Rhapsodies of 1935 (2.2.35), and Vogues of 1935 (1.6.35), both Ernest C. Rolls revues and both with scores by O’Hagan. Rhapsodies featured Roy Rene (Mo), Strella Wilson, William Perryman, and Renie Riano, while Vogues’ cast was headed by Jennie Benson, Gus Bluett, Thea Phillips, Octave Dua and William Perryman. Rhapsodies played an Adelaide season at Wests Theatre (16.8.35), followed by a season of Vogues (31.8.35), and Tout Paris (3.9.35). For the Adelaide season Vogues featured Roy Rene (Mo), Strella Wilson and Jennie Benson.
In 1931 Jack O’Hagan penned the songs for Australia’s first musical film, Showgirl’s Luck. Directed by the legendary Norman Dawn, and starring Susan Denis, Arthur Tauchert, Arthur Clarke and Fred Bluett, it premièred at the Lawson Theatre, Redfern, Sydney, and followed with a week’s run at the Arcadia Theatre (later Esquire and Town) in Pitt Street, Sydney. Critical response was poor, which was mirrored when it was released in England in 1933 by Universal.
Apart from Flame of Desire, O’Hagan wrote another four full-length musicals: Goodnight Ladies, Passion Flower, Night Night Mitzi, and The Romany Road. None was produced, but The Romany Road did turn up as a mini-musical, ‘A Romance of Romany’, as the first act closer of It's Foolish but It’s Fun (9.10.44) at the Tivoli Theatre Melbourne, and later at the Sydney Tivoli (26.12.44). The Melbourne season featured Dick Bentley, Rebla, Desmond Tanner, Clem Dawe and Eric Edgley, while Sydney starred Roy Rene (Mo), Mike Connors, Celestine Connors, Nick Morton and Bentley.
Except for another Ernest C. Rolls revue in 1939, Folies d’Amour, which played seasons in Adelaide (Theatre Royal, 18.3.39) and Melbourne (King’s Theatre, 8.4.39) with a cast that included William O’Neal and Bert Mathews O’Hagan virtually turned his back on theatre after Flame of Desire.
Royalties were pouring in from his series of Aussie heroes songs: ‘Kingsford Smith (Aussie’s Proud Of You)’ (1928), ‘A Lone Girl Flyer (Amy Johnson)’ (1930), and ‘Our Don Bradman’ (1930), and with the success of the Dad and Dave radio series, ‘Along the Road to Gundagai’ had been embedded in the psyche of the nation.
But Jack O’Hagan’s reign of popularity was coming to an end. Although he continued to write songs throughout the ’40s, they were lean times. ‘Red Cross Nurse’ (1942) and ‘Ginger Meggs’ (1948), made a brief impression—his biggest hit during this period was ‘When a Boy from Alabama Meets a Girl from Gundagai’ (1942)—but little else captured the public’s attention.
He joined the Melbourne advertising agency O’Brien Publicity in 1951 where his gift for melody saw him create over the following 14 years some memorable radio and television jingles: Gilbey’s Gin, Lipton’s Tea, Tuckerbox Dog Food, Biddy Peas and Vynex upholstery fabric.
Using ‘Along the Road to Gundagai’ as his blueprint, O’Hagan, throughout his three-decades career, wrote many more place names and bush songs: ‘Blue Mountains’ (1921), ‘By the Great Big Billabong’ (1931), ‘Down By the Murray’ (1923), I Gotta See a Man About a Dog’ (1961), ‘I’m an Aussie Through and Through’ (1924), I’m Gonna Hump My Bluey’ (1926), I’m Off to Woop-Woop’ (1925), ‘Let’s Take a Trip to Melbourne’ (1934), ‘There’s a Part of My Heart in Wonthaggi’ (1934), ‘Things is Crook in Tallarook’ (1952), and ‘We’re All Cobbers Together’ (1940). He even had one last try at a hero song in 1952 with ‘Our Marjorie’ which was dedicated to Olympic sprinter Marjorie Jackson, but alongside the hits of the day, is sounded quaint and old-fashioned.
O’Hagan, in the ’20s, slavishly followed the trends of the day. If Hawaiian songs were popular, then he wrote Hawaiian songs. Even ‘Along the Road to Gundagai’ came after Neil McBeath had written the enormously popular ‘I’m Going Back Again to Yarrawonga’ (1919). But there’s no doubt for a time he had his finger on the pulse of what the public wanted.
Like Irving Berlin, O’Hagan was first and foremost a songwriter. He could write catchy melodies, but frequently his lyrics were run-of-the-mill.
As the Age (4.2.35) claimed in its review of Rhapsodies of 1935: ‘In lyrics it is weak and uncertain; in music it is light and entrancing—and for these Jack O’Hagan must be blamed and warmly praised’. It’s an indictment that could be levelled at most of his work. Flame of Desire’s score was a pleasantly surprising notch above his usual standard. It had rousing choruses (‘Princess Marietta’), melodic love songs (‘Song of Love’), and occasional flashes of wit (‘Two of the Bright Young Things’), the latter missing from most of his work.
The strength of the score proves there was no doubt he could write good theatre music. It’s such a pity none of his other full-scale works were produced.
Sixty-two years after its première, Flame of Desire had one last hurrah. David Mitchell and Melvyn Morrow used a condensed version of it as an operetta send-up in their Jack O’Hagan compilation show Here Comes Showtime (1997) at the Marian Street Theatre, Sydney.
As Mitchell and Morrow could only find the script of the first act, their plot was mainly their own invention, but they did use four songs from the score: ‘Princess Marietta’, ‘We’ll Start a Lottery’, ‘Song of Love’, and the title tune.
Sung with gusto by the six member cast, Georgie Parker, Derek Metzger, Robyn Arthur, Rod Dunbar, Jason Langley and Judith Wright, the songs came across as good examples of the genre.
For later productions the show reverted to its original title, Jack O’Hagan’s Humdingers. A fuzzy video survives of the performance.
It’s ironic that unlike his contemporaries who wrote musicals with Australian settings—among them Varney Monk (Collits’ Inn, The Cedar Tree) and Charles Zwar (Blue Mountain Melody)—O’Hagan, who was known for his jingoistic ditties, chose to set his one show in Ruritania.
Of the 600 songs that Jack O’Hagan, wrote, 160 were published. He also used the pseudonyms Dean Flintoft, J. Francis Quinlan, Ferguson Noakes, Wilson Jeffries, Al Sparks, Ted Whiting and Pamela Therese, throughout his career.
He retired in 1965, was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1973, and died in 1987.
Although Flame of Desire barely made a blip on the theatrical landscape and has long been forgotten, Jack O’Hagan’s name never will be. In the annals of Australian popular music he will always be known as the man who wrote the quintessential Aussie ‘going back’ road song, almost a second national anthem: ‘Along The Road To Gundagai’.
Special thanks to
EMI Music, National Library of Australia, David Mitchell, Melvyn Morrow, Peter Burgis, Peter Wyllie Johnston, and Frank Van Straten. Books, articles and newspapers sourced for this article: Currency Companion to Music and Dance in Australia (Currency, 2005), The Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre, (Kurt Ganzl; Blackwell, 1994), American Musical Theatre (Richard C. Norton; Oxford, 2002), Tivoli (Frank Van Straten; Lothian, 2003), Australian Popular Music (Kenneth R. Snell; Quick Trick Press, 1991), Australian Film 1900–1977 (Andrew Pike, Ross Cooper; Oxford, 1981), Australian Performers, Australian Performances (Peter Pinne; PAM, Victorian Arts Centre, 1987), The Age, The Argus, The Bulletin, The Sydney Morning Herald, Adelaide Advertiser, theatre programs, sheet music.