George Wallace is the forgotten comedian of Australian film. He portrayed working class, jovial and laconic characters ready to ‘take the mickey’ out of anyone who let them. As a star of film, stage, radio and vaudeville, for over 40 years he is one of Australia’s biggest stars and greatest legends – not to mention extremely funny!
He was born George Stevenson Wallace in Aberdeen, New South Wales on the 4th of June 1895. As the legend goes, George was said to have been born in a tent in the middle of winter and only survived freezing to death by the midwife feeding him hot porridge to keep him warm. His ancestry and nature made him born for the entertainment industry, with his father and grand-father both regulars in the local vaudeville scene. As soon as he was able to walk George was performing, he began – aged 3 – on stage with his family act and a year later dancing and singing for sailors docked in Sydney. For the next few years stage roles became scarce and he began working in a number of trades, such as, dairy farming, cane-cutting, horsemanship, blacksmith and even as a boxer. By aged 16, George – bored, employed at a sugar mill in North Queensland – was given his big break as a comic in a traveling show under comedian Harry Salmon.
From there George worked his way in performing solo and in acts, several as the top billed performer, in dozens of halls and theatres around the country. He was an ingenious slapstick artist portraying a ‘blue collar everyman’ to the delight of working class Australian audiences. His talents didn’t end at comedy he was also an exceptional dancer (as scene in the clip below), singer, musician and painter. In the 1920’s he had become famous and renowned among audiences and other performers being named one of the “Big Three” most popular entertainers – the other two being Jim Gerard and Roy Rene.George Wallace showcasing his tap-dancing abilities in "The Dance of the Startled Fowl"
In the early 1930’s (The Australian version of the Precode era), George, encouraged by the new sound technology and the waning popularity of vaudeville theatres, took a leap and entered Australia’s film industry. The once booming sector, which created around 150 films during the early 1900’s to 1928, was in a sharp decline when George made his first full length movie, ‘His Royal Highness’, in 1932. It proved to be a success and his style of comedy attractive to a society still recovering from the loss of World War 1 and fearing the future of a depression-era Australia. He starred in 4 more films: ‘Harmony Row’ (1933), ‘A Ticket in Tatts’ (1934), ‘Let George Do It’ (1938) and ‘Gone to the Dogs’ (1939) and was a supporting role in two others. Although uneducated, George was instrumental in the creation of the plot and story ideas for many of his films and was credited as a writer in four of them.
On the eve of World War II in 1940, George’s career faltered with all movie productions called to a halt by the presiding government. He continued on with more work on stage and radio even penning the popular nation boasting anthem ‘A Brown Slouch Hat’. After the war he appeared in two more films one in 1944 and 1951 before heading for England for an unsuccessful comedy tour. It seemed Australia’s older brother didn’t understand or appreciate Wallace’s humour, performance style or heavy accent. He continued quite successfully on radio until his death in 1960 from emphysema and bronchitis.
The Many Faces of George Wallace: