The making of a silent film star

‘One Shot Beau’ and ‘Mexican Jack’ created movie stars across Australia back in the days of silent films. Young men and women from regional centres were captured on celluloid while holding dreams of Hollywood. This story from Ipswich in Queensland is representative of many towns across the country. I told this yarn on West Bremer Radio.

Beaumont Smith was Australia’s most successful producer of silent films. He was famous for making his movies on a low-budget and quickly, and that’s why he was known as ‘One Shot Beau’. His many films included adaptations of Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson and The Hayseeds comedies.

Beaumont Smith

In 1925, the producer went searching in regional Queensland for the next Australian movie star. On Saturday the 4th of July, he arrived in Ipswich west of Brisbane.

‘One Shot Beau’ had been to Ipswich before – that was back in 1912 during his showman days when he brought to the Ipswich Town Hall his Tiny Town circus and vaudeville troupe. His publicity promised that every performer was over twenty-years-old and under thirty-five inches tall.

This time, however, he came with his camera and lights to the new and impressive Wintergarden Theatre. There he filmed screen tests for everyone who wanted to be a movie star, and he guaranteed that anyone who met his requirements would be given a contract.

The screen tests were done and then publicly shown at the theatre. But coming to Ipswich was the beginning of the end for ‘One Shot Beau’ because he stopped making films. He did release two more movies in the mid-1930s but the talkies were taking over, and his reviews were mixed, which meant his career was finished.

So Ipswich hopefuls had to wait for their next chance at stardom until 1932 and the arrival of Texas filmmaker Jack Mexeldo St Ledger.

He was a former circus sharpshooter known as ‘Mexican Jack’. His act included riding a horse and shooting while bending over backwards, backwards using a mirror, and at glass balls thrown up by Indians. He claimed to have first come to Australia as a twelve-year-old with the Sells Brothers Circus in 1891. He even said that he joined the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show at about the same time as Annie Oakley, and worked with actor and cowboy Will Rogers.

Sells Brothers Circus

By 1932 ‘Mexican Jack’ was a prolific filmmaker in Australia. He produced thirty to forty local versions of the silent movie ‘The Adventures of Dot’. It was a comedy about a new schoolteacher who comes to a sleepy town by train and is romanced by two local lads. It always featured local talent and scenes.

Ipswich screen tests were shot and the lead role of ‘Dot’ was then chosen by the public from thirty would-be stars. During the second fortnight of February 1932, filming was done right there in the streets of Ipswich.

The world premiere was at the Alpha Theatre on Station Road in Booval on the 2nd of March 1932. It was there that Ipswich’s first ever movie star became eighteen-year-old Esther Marrion who starred as Dot. Esther was born in Brisbane, grew up in Oakland in California, and lived in the main street of Ipswich. She retired to Margate north of Brisbane, and would be one hundred and five years old and known as Esther Dodkin, if she’s still alive today.

Esther Marrion

Then there were Esther’s supporting actors who were the rival lovers ‘Bill’ and ‘Andy’. One was nineteen-year-old Roy Wilkinson who was a pantomime actor and a scout master in North Ipswich. The other was seventeen-year-old Alex Sanger from Dinmore who was a champion cyclist – the year after he made the movie he won his fifth consecutive Queensland dirt bike state championship.

There were at least forty-seven versions of ‘The Adventures of Dot’ produced. Only four copies still exist today and are all held at the Australian National Film and Sound Archive. Sadly, Esther’s Ipswich version is not among them. They’re from Grenfell, Temora and Young in New South Wales, and Glenelg in South Australia.

‘Dot’ in the Glenelg version

‘Mexican Jack’ produced high quality versions of the film and so Ipswich would have been very proud of young Esther as its first movie star.


Photo credits:
Twenty Funny Felt-crowned Fools poster for Forepaugh Sells Brothers 1899 – Wikipedia Commons
Beaumont Smith – Pike and Copper, Australian Film 1900-1977
Sell Brothers Circus – Red Bubble
Esther Marrion – Queensland Times, Ipswich, 27 February 1932, page 7
Glenelg South Australia version of The Adventures of Dot 1938 – National Film and Sound Archive via Royal Australian Historical Society

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