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Longford, Raymond John Walter Hollis (1878–1959)

by Mervyn J. Wasson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Raymond John Walter Hollis Longford (1878-1959), actor and film director, was born on 23 September 1878 and named John Walter, at Hawthorn, Melbourne, second surviving son of John Walter Longford, Sydney-born civil servant, and his English wife Charlotte Maria, née Hollis. The family moved to Sydney in the 1880s, his father becoming a warder at Darlinghurst gaol. Educated at St John's Parochial School, Darlinghurst, as a youth Longford was apprenticed to sail and at 18 held a third mate's ticket. He gave his occupation as able-bodied seaman and had added Raymond to his names when he married Melena Louisa Keen at St Luke's Anglican Church, Concord, Sydney, on 5 February 1900. They had one child, a son born in August.

According to legend Longford's theatrical career began in India, where he acquired a working knowledge of Hindustani. He joined Edwin Geach's Popular Dramatic Organisation in the early 1900s and as Raymond Hollis Longford toured country towns in eastern Australia and New Zealand for some ten years with the Geach, and Clarke and Meynell companies. He frequently played the villain but also more sympathetic roles in melodramas such as Camille, Her Love Against the World, The Midnight Hour and The Power of the Cross. He distinguished himself as the patriotic hero Mr Brown in An Englishman's Home in 1909. Tall, long-faced, brown-haired and clean-shaven, he had a commanding presence and a resonant voice.

Lottie Lyell's parents entrusted the young actress to Longford's care and they featured in several plays. The most successful was The Fatal Wedding, much noticed for its famous children's 'tin can band'. A romantic attachment developed between them; his marriage with Melena had failed but she did not divorce him until 1926.

In 1910 Longford left the stage to appear in two bushranging films released in 1911, Captain Midnight and Captain Starlight, and as the convict Gabbett in The Life of Rufus Dawes (based on Marcus Clarke's novel, For the Term of his Natural Life), made by Alfred Rolfe for Cosens Spencer. That year Longford successfully directed The Fatal Wedding, in which he and Lyell starred, and was appointed director of production for Spencer's Pictures. He completed two more films in 1911, The Romantic Story of Margaret Catchpole and Sweet Nell of Old Drury, featuring Lottie Lyell and Nellie Stewart respectively. Next year he made two melodramas including The Midnight Wedding, shot by Ernest Higgins. In 1913 Longford directed Australia Calls, a patriotic film showing a 'Mongolian' attack on Sydney, filmed by Ernest, Tasman and Arthur Higgins, and reflecting contemporary fears of the 'yellow peril'. Between shooting, he and E. Higgins made a valuable documentary, the Naming of the Federal Capital, for Spencer.

Despite his successes Longford had to seek work elsewhere after Spencer's Pictures merged with other firms to form Australasian Films Ltd. Henceforth his career as a director was seldom untroubled, but between 1913 and 1921 he made sixteen feature films for various short-lived companies. The Silence of Dean Maitland (1914), although popular, was beset by exhibition difficulties and litigation. Denied studio facilities in Sydney, he made A Maori Maid's Love (1915) and most of The Mutiny of the Bounty (1916) in New Zealand, but found exhibition no easier there. The Church and the Woman (1917) was the subject of an unsuccessful copyright case, and The Woman Suffers (1918), shot in South Australia, was banned without explanation in New South Wales after running for two months. Longford had nevertheless entered upon his best period, creating a screen classic in The Sentimental Bloke (1919) and directing a less effective C. J. Dennis adaptation, Ginger Mick (1920). Then followed the honest, if exaggerated, Steele Rudd dramatizations, On Our Selection (1920) and Rudd's New Selection (1921) for E. J. and Dan Carroll.

Lottie Lyell, already consumptive, was Longford's co-director for The Blue Mountains Mystery (1921). They formed their own companies, to make The Dinkum Bloke (1923), Fisher's Ghost (1924) and The Bushwhackers (1925). Their partnership ended with Lyell's death in December 1925. As a director, in his creative years Longford was notable for 'his calmness and openness with actors' and the length of time he took in production, especially in choosing his cast, the writing of scenarios, and long journeys for crews and casts for the most authentic backgrounds possible. His films were praised by critics for their 'human qualities' and his blending of 'melodrama with naturalism'.

In 1923 Longford had made two immigration films for the Commonwealth government for display at the British Empire Exhibition in London. He made one more film under the Longford-Lyell name, Peter Vernon's Silence (1926), and was then engaged by Australasian Films to complete Sunrise. He also made two melodramas in the expectation that he would direct For the Term of His Natural Life for Australasian Films. When an American, Norman Dawn, was appointed, Longford never recovered from the blow. For the next fifteen years his life in cinema was tenuous. He went abroad to learn the new sound technology but except for one poorly received 'talkie', The Man They Could Not Hang (1934), he never again directed. In the 1930s he helped to produce several sound movies and was forced to accept minor acting parts. He last appeared on the screen in 1941. On 19 July 1933 he had married a 28-year-old stenographer, Emilie Elizabeth Anschutz, at North Sydney.

Over the years Longford had led a bitter and unsuccessful fight by local producers to secure an effective quota system and fair distribution for Australian feature films. He alleged that he was persecuted by Australasian Films—'the combine'. In evidence to the 1927 royal commission on the moving picture industry he claimed that 'I have been, and still am the outstanding figure in the industry, I, mainly, have been made…the subject of attack by Australasian Films Ltd'. However, lacking business acumen, he was genuinely bewildered about his perennial difficulties in getting his films released.

During World War II Longford found employment as a tally-clerk on the Sydney wharves, and later as a watchman. On the waterfront he was noted for his care in dressing and proud independence of the pension. He died at St Leonards on 2 April 1959, survived by his son and his second wife, who arranged his burial with Anglican rites in the same grave as Lottie Lyell in Northern Suburbs cemetery.

The discovery of a print of The Sentimental Bloke in 1958 prompted some belated understanding of Longford's work, but another decade passed before the extent of his contribution to the Australian film industry was generally recognized. The Australian Film Institute's Raymond Longford award is named in his honour.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Pike and R. F. Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977 (Melb, 1980)
  • J. Tulloch, Legends on the Screen (Syd, 1981)
  • Commonwealth of Australia, Royal Commission on the Moving Picture Industry in Australia: Minutes of Evidence (Canb, 1928), and Report, Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1926-28, 4, p 1371
  • Report of Enquiry into the Film Industry in New South Wales 1934, Parliamentary Papers (New South Wales), 1934-35, 3
  • R. F. Cooper, ‘And the Villain Still Pursued Her’. Origins of Film in Australia, 1896-1913 (M.A. thesis, Australian National University, 1971)
  • archival films excerpts and Longford records (National Film and Sound Archive).

Citation details

Mervyn J. Wasson, 'Longford, Raymond John Walter Hollis (1878–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/longford-raymond-john-walter-hollis-7226/text12511, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 24 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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