Elizabeth Bryant - Rondo Hatton’s Australian Connection

In the history of cinema there has rarely, if ever, been a man more suited to horror films than Rondo Hatton. Hatton’s impact came not from his acting ability, which was dubious at best, but rather his looks. Hatton suffered from a rare physical disorder called acromegaly, a disorder that distorted and disfigured Hatton’s head and face, turning him from a young man once described as the Handsomest Boy in his class to an incredibly unique and wildly ugly man. 

Hatton’s early life was spent in journalism, where he worked for newspapers as a sportswriter, but after being noticed by film director Henry King, who cast him in a bit part in Hell Harbor (1930), he was convinced to move to Hollywood where his looks were exploited, appearing in bit parts or as an uncredited, but instantly recognisable extra. Hatton toiled away, coming to the Australian publics notice in Moon Over Burma (1940), which, when released in 1941, he was name checked in ads. The presence of Basil Rathbone, a favourite with Australian audiences, helped the movie gain exposure. His next film, a Sherlock Holmes potboiler, The Pearl of Death (1944), also did good business at the box office, again thanks to the presence of Rathbone and his Holmes sidekick Nigel Bruce. His 1945 film, The Jungle Captive, would suffer an entirely different fate. 

Elizabeth 'Betty' Bryant, 1941

News of The Jungle Captive had taken Australia’s interest as early as 1944 when the English-Australian actor, Elizabeth Bryant, better known as Betty, signed a contract with Universal Studios. Bryant, who was born in England and had immigrated with her family to Australia at the age of 4, was well known to Australian cinema audiences after her star turn in 40,000 Horsemen (1940). She then built a reputation for her wartime charity work, dubbed ‘The Red Cross Queen’, Bryant visited as many Australian army camps as she possibly could in the early years of WWII, often venturing into potentially dangerous locations, such as Singapore. She had missed a significant role in Mrs Miniver after she fell pregnant but was determined to make her mark as an international film star. To that end she organised a screen test with Herc Macintyre, the head of Universal Australia. Macintyre sent the test to Universal USA who liked what they saw and offered her a contract. She promptly flew to America, stopping off to visit her husband, who was serving in the Pacific theatre with the American armed services at the time. Once in America Universal wasted little time in casting her in The Jungle Captive. 

It wasn’t to be. Shooting had only just begun when she was struck down by a mystery illness. She was removed from the film and her contract with Universal was quietly ended in September 1944. The mystery illness was pregnancy. Bryant was replaced and filming continued. By January 1945, the movie was ready for release and was duly shipped over to Australia for exhibition. As the film had been passed by the American censors, it was considered a formality that it’d be cleared in Australia. 

The Chief Censor, J. O. Alexander, viewed the film and considered it unsuitable for release. Normally a film so labelled would be sent to the local branch of Universal and cuts made to bring it ‘up to code’. In this case the Alexander didn’t suggest any cuts, he banned the film outright. Universal had the right of appeal, but declined to do so, choosing to shelve the movie in Australia on the grounds that it was a ‘horror film’. “We fully concurred with the Chief Censor’s rejection and made no appeal,” an unnamed studio representative told the media. “The story was very grim, about a girl who turned into a monkey – real horror stuff.” Also banned during 1945 were the films Dillinger and Black-Market Babies, both made by poverty row studio Monogram. It would take until April 1946, before the public were told of the bans. 

Hatton’s next two films were box office successes, although he wouldn’t live to know it. Hatton passed away after a heart attack, directly attributable to his condition, on the 2nd of February 1946. His death didn’t stop his films from being released in Australia though and reviews talked about him as if he was still alive – indeed there was no mention of his passing in any of the newspapers of the day. 

Coming shortly after the ban on The Jungle Captive had been finally announced, the film that should have seen Hatton reach the heights of a Lon Chaney was released. House of Horrors (1946), which featured Hatton in his most famous role as The Creeper, was issued in Australia, albeit renamed The Sinister Shadow. The Chief Censor wasn’t about to allow any film with the word ‘horror’ in the title to be exhibited on general release, so Universal happily acceded to the name change. Described as, “…the ugliest man to ever prowl onto the screen,” Hatton’s performance was singled out for praise. While The Sinister Shadow enjoyed its run at the cinemas, Hatton’s penultimate movie, The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946), was released. 

Australian audiences took to The Spider Woman Strikes Back, ensuring that it made a healthy profit. While the film didn’t break box office records, it turned over enough, steady, business to keep it showing for years to come. Part of the film’s success was down to Hatton. For Spider Woman, Hatton was described as having a “conspicuous role,” whatever that might have meant. Both films would run for the next few years. 

Paired with The Cat Creeps, Spider Woman featured another first for Hatton in Australia – the first time his face appeared in trade ads in newspapers. There was a certain irony in Hatton becoming known, both for his movies and as a visual foil, well after his death. In Australia, people might not have known his name, but they began to recognise his features. 

The Jungle Captive, 1945. This should have been Betty Bryant's Hollywood debut

No matter how successful with audiences that Hatton had now become, his last film, The Brute Man (1946), was not released in Australia. The film saw Hatton reprise his role as The Creeper, but this time the Chief censor decided not to allow it to be shown to Australian audiences. Again, Universal didn’t appeal the ban, electing to accept it; such was the animosity that surrounded horror films in Australia at the time. No reason for the ban was forthcoming and, unlike The Jungle Captive, the ban was never formally announced in public. The movie was quietly shelved and there it remained. Despite the ban on horror films being lifted in 1969, there is no evidence that The Brute Man was ever given a cinema release, unlike several other movies banned between 1948 and 1969. 

Rondo Hatton would live on though, predominately at drive-ins, where he terrified adolescent males and females who assembled for midnight horror screenings and movie marathons. Hatton finally hit small screens in Australia on the 28th of March 1960, when The Pearl of Death became a Saturday night feature film. After its premiere, it became a regular on TV, but its popularity was more due to the presence of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce than Rondo Hatton. In September 1973, The Spider Woman Strikes Back finally premiered on television, highlighting, for a new generation, Rondo Hatton in his most sinister role. 

Betty Bryant and friend, 1941

Betty Bryant would only make five movies for her entire career and would never fulfil her potential, on screen at least. She didn’t fade away into obscurity though. To use an old cliché, she married well. Her husband, Maurice Silverstein, became the President of MGM International, and, no longer needing to work to live, she quietly retired from the screen and promptly dedicated her life to charity work. She visited Australia often, coming back to fanfare, as her new station deserved, and her fundraising brought back memories of her wartime efforts. Towards the end of her life, she was awarded a Humanitarian Service Award from Hilary Clinton for her work with the Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific. 

Bryant passed away, in Seattle, on the 7th of October 2005.

Today Betty Bryant is known for her starring role in 1940s Forty Thousand Horsemen (dir. Charles Chauvel).


Photographs of Betty Bryant courtesy State Library of New South Wales


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