THE STIFFY AND MO PARTNERSHIP:
1. During their time together Stiffy and Mo's wardrobe changed little. Mo's attire was typically a singlet, an old pair of pants, a waistcoat, boots and anybody's hat, while Stiffy sported a South Sydney Guernsey, an ancient pair of pants, an old vest and out-sized boots. 'If the lot caught fire,' Phillips once noted in an interview, 'we wouldn't lose five bob between us;' although Rene was just as quick to point out to Phillips that 'for insurance purposes he should keep in mind that the clothes represented at least several hundred quid in terms of their importance to the show!' (Theatre Magazine January 1919, p4).
2. It has long been assumed that the Stiffy and Mo partnership was based on the traditional comic/straightman relationship, with Rene, typically referred to as the 'comic genius' and Phillips as his 'foil' or 'feeder.' There is abundant evidence from a variety of primary sources, however, which contradicts this belief, and indeed demonstrates that both men shared the principle comedian role equally. A Theatre article from 1919 notes, for example:
Ignoring precedent in comedy doubles, neither Stiffy nor Mo works straight. Both play for laughs. There is this difference, however - Stiffy is "a head", and Mo is a "would-be-sport". Stiffy relies on slang and Mo attempts it and gets tangled up in the lingual meshes so to speak' (January 1919, pp3-4). Eight years later Just It noted the same pattern in their on-stage roles. 'The custom of stage partnerships is a comedy man and a straight man. The purpose of the latter is to feed the former. In this respect Stiffy and Mo are undoubtedly a rarity. Both are comedians... In turn, explains Phillips, "we feed each other. Sometimes he is the feeder allowing me to score off him; and at other times I am the feeder - allowing him to score off me. Personal feelings - the jealousies that actuate so many actors go by the board' (7 April 1927, n. pag.).
It is likely that the myth surrounding Rene's dominance of the partnership came about only in respect of their last year together, a period when Phillips had become tired of the revusical format and frustrated by the fact that he and Rene were essentially repeating themselves. According to Rene' wife, Sadie Gale, this period also marked the beginning of Phillips' dissatisfaction with the Fullers. Phillips' main grievance with the company, an issue which eventually saw him split from Rene following the end of their New Zealand tour in 1928, concerned the company's decision to continue raising Rene's salary above his own (National Archives of Australia, ABC Tape CA6879 / C528741-1, 1975). Although his friendship with Rene (according to Gale) continued despite the money issue, it is not implausible that a gradual withdrawal into the background took place as he began losing interest.
Evidence that a change in the onstage dynamics began to occur only during the final year comes from several reviews published during the Stiffy and Mo season at the Bijou Theatre in Melbourne. Comments by critics from the Age and Argus suggest that the partnership had begun resembling the traditional comic/straightman format - a perspective that does not emerge in any reviews prior to that time. The Age records, for example:
The inimitable Roy Rene (Mo) is seen at his best in a number of bright and humorous sketches. His facial grimaces and absurdly comical make-up, coupled with his original brand of humour, sets the house laughing whenever he appears. The subdued drollery of his partner in fun and frolic, Stiffy (Nat Phillips), tends to make an excellent laughter-making combination (12 December 1927, p14).
Similarly noting that 'Stiffy's comedy methods have been improved by the exercise of more restraint' the Argus critic also reports that 'his burlesque of "The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God" [was] excellently done' (31 October 1927, p24). There is certainly no evidence available to support any suggestion that Phillips was Rene's foil between 1916 and up until at least mid-1927.
HISTORICAL NOTES AND CORRECTIONS:
The long-held assumption that Roy Rene's propensity for 'blue' humour was an issue that not only raised the ire of many critics, the Fuller's management and various public groups, but also led to the break-up of Stiffy and Mo in 1925, is again an exaggeration bordering on myth. An examination of the reviews published in the major metropolitan newspapers of the period indicates that the issue was raised only in a few instances, and then mostly towards the end of their partnership (ca, 1927-1928). Furthermore whenever the 'doubtful nature of the humour' is raised, neither comedian is singled out, suggesting that Nat Phillips was equally to blame in pushing the boundaries of acceptable humour. An item from the Bulletin's 'Sundry Shows' page in 1927 explains one reason for the occasional lowering of the comedy tone:
On Saturday Stiffy and Mo kept the crowded audience at Fullers' Theatre in a roar of hilarity with matter which had few objectionable features ; the stuff that calls for managerial interference appears to creep in on some of the week nights, in an endeavour to play up to a section of the audience that least deserves consideration. The pair are good enough comedians to do without stuff of this sort; and the management should insist that they shall do without it (7 April 1927, p52).
Interestingly, during the 1924/1925 period no reference to 'blue' or morally contentious humour can be found in any reviews published in either the Sydney Morning Herald or the Argus. It is only the Age which appears at this time to have questioned the comedians' delivery, and then only on a couple of occasions during the company's four month season at the Bijou. In one review for example, the paper's theatre critic writes : 'Their work is as fresh as ever but there is still a tendency to create a doubtful type of humour' (23 February 1925, p11).
STIFFY AND MO TOUR CHRONOLOGY: See Nat Phillips Stiffy and Mo Revue Company.
RECORDINGS: [The following recordings are available commercially and/or through various Australian libraries]. See also Roy Rene's agent record in AustLit.
Compilations (compact disks):
Entries connected with this record have been sourced from historical research into Australian-written music theatre and film conducted by Dr Clay Djubal.
For further details regarding the Stiffy and Mo partnership see Clay Djubal 'What Oh Tonight' : The Methodology Factor and Pre-1930s Australian Variety Theatre', Ph D Thesis, 2005, Chapter 6.