Betty Bryant features in the exhibition Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits, developed by the NFSA in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery, and now open at HOTA Home of the Arts on the Gold Coast.
When a member of the public found a movie scrapbook in a charity shop and donated it to the NFSA, the documentation revealed an unprecedented portrait of the professional life and career of Betty Bryant, once Australia’s most famed film ingénue.
The biggest discovery since Errol Flynn
Bryant was said to have been discovered by screenwriter Elsie Blake-Wilkins, who took her to Herc McIntyre, the American head of Universal Pictures Australia. She subsequently had a Cinesound Productions screen test and was introduced to filmmaker Charles Chauvel and his wife Elsa.
Chauvel made much in the media of his discovery of Australian stars, including Errol Flynn, Chips Rafferty, Peter Finch and Michael Pate. In promoting his 1940 feature film Forty Thousand Horsemen, in which the 19-year-old Bryant played a ’vivacious French girl’, the director declared that she was ‘the most important film personality discovered in Australia since Errol Flynn’.
In fact, clippings from the scrapbook reveal that, before Horsemen, Bryant had background parts in earlier films The Broken Melody (1938) and Gone to the Dogs (1939). She had also had long stints on radio serials like The Jack Davey Show and The Youth Show.
In a clipping from a Singapore newspaper in 1941, Bryant credits her film discovery to a film test shot by George Heath. A famed Australian photographer, Heath was the principal cinematographer for Ken G Hall at Cinesound. Heath found portraiture ‘a fascinating part of the motion picture photographer’s work’ and stated in an interview that ‘light properly used can make a face or scene lovely to look at or, misdirected, it can ruin a picture.’