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Caption: Isabel Wilford and other cast members from Fair Fighting (detail), photographer unknown, PAColl-6232, Alexander Turnbull LibraryWe 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.

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