We always love seeing our own up on the silver screen, making it big in Hollywood. Think of such famous New Zealand stars as Anna Paquin, Jane Campion, Peter Jackson and perhaps even Russell Crowe.
But have you heard of Robert Julian, Shayle Gardner, Colin Tapley, Ronald Sinclair or Melva Doney? They are just some of the New Zealanders from the early years of film who feature in a new exhibition, The Limelight Moment: Rediscovering Our World Screen Stars, currently on at the Turnbull Gallery on Molesworth Street.
Included is the story of Isabel Wilford, Wellington’s very own star of stage and screen. She was an upper-class lady and daughter of a wealthy local politician. Her career began when she was a teenager in amateur theatricals during the First World War. She was soon noticed as a talented actor and dancer. Good looks helped too.
After the war, Wilford set off to try her luck in Hollywood. She could secure only bit parts at first, but was soon working her way up the billboards into several supporting roles. None of her films was a hit, but Wellingtonians were still very proud.
This photograph is from one of her westerns, Fair Fighting (1921). That is her on the right, of course. It seems to have been the only one of her films that actually made it to New Zealand, and in Wellington it opened at the Queen’s Theatre on Cuba Street on 26 May 1922. “After seeing Miss Wilford’s wonderful performance”, gushed the promotional advertisements, “you will leave thrilled… and satisfied as to Wellington’s power to produce the perfect film star.”
Wilford preferred stage work, though, and soon returned home. Later she sailed to England to try her luck in London. There, her big theatre break came in 1927 when she was understudy to famous actress Tallulah Bankhead in a West End show. When the star took ill, Isabel stepped in and was a sensation. At one point, the Evening Post reported, the play had to be halted while the audience cheered for five minutes. In a cable home the next day Isabel wrote, “Audience wonderful. Much photographed and interviewed. Blissfully happy.”
It was the start of a successful West End career for Wilford, finally given up when she married a wealthy English businessman in 1934.
The Limelight Moment is at the Turnbull Gallery, first floor of the National Library on Molesworth Street, until xx May.