The Wonderful Miss Wilford

Posted by on

We always love seeing our own on the silver screen. Think Anna Paquin, Jane Campion, Peter Jackson, perhaps even Strathmore's finest, Russell Crowe.

But have you heard of Robert Julian, Shayle Gardiner, Colin Tapley, Rupert Sinclair or Melva Doney? They are just some of the New Zealanders from the early years of film featured in a new exhibition - The Limelight Moment: Rediscovering our World Screen Stars - now on at the Turnbull Gallery in Molesworth Street.

Included is Isobel Wilford, Wellington's very own star of stage and screen. She was an upper-class girl, daughter of a wealthy Wellington lawyer and politician. Her career began as a teenager in amateur patriotic theatricals during the first world war, and she was soon notice as a talented actor and dancer. Good looks helped too.

After the war she set off to try her luck in Hollywood, California. She just had bit parts at first but was soon working her way up the billboards into several co-starring roles. None of her films were big hits, but Wellingtonians were still very proud. This publicity shot is from one of her westerns, Fair Fighting. That is her on the right, of course. It seems to have been the only one of her films that made it to New Zealand. In Wellington it opened at the Queen's Theatre in Cuba Street. "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."

She preferred stage work though and soon returned home. Later she sailed to England to try her luck in London. There, her big break came in 1927. She was understudy to a famous actress in a West End show. 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, finally given up when she married a wealthy English businessman in 1934.

The Turnbull Gallery is on the first floor of the National Library building in Molesworth Street. The Limelight Moment runs until 4 July.

Isabel Wilford cropped

Isabel Wilford and other cast members from the film Fair Fighting, photographer unknown, PAColl-6232 (detail), Alexander Turnbull Library

Leave a Comment