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Stiffy and Mo Stiffy and Mo i(A105578 works by) (a.k.a. Nat Phillips and Roy Rene)
Gender: Male
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BiographyHistory

OVERVIEW


One of the most popular and influential comedy duos in Australian entertainment history, Stiffy (Nat Phillips) and Mo (Roy Rene), were among a small number of comedians who dominated the revusical era in Australia (ca. 1915-1930) - the others being Bert Le Blanc, Jim Gerald and George Wallace. From the start Stiffy and Mo were seen by audiences as two larrikin mates who exemplified the national identity and popular culture attitudes then being circulated by Australians – including those serving overseas with the Australian Imperial Forces. The original Stiffy and Mo scripts held in the Nat Phillips Collection clearly demonstrate, for example, the promotion of mateship, loyalty, egalitarianism, larrikin attitudes (including practical joking), self-deprecation, and an outright refusal to bow to authority figures.

Each of the Stiffy and Mo revusicals, written and directed by Phillips, were typically billed according to the jobs or situations the pair found themselves in - for example, Stiffy and Mo as Plumbers. Over the years they appeared as Shopwalkers, Wharfies, Confidence Men, Surfers, Waiters, Jockeys, Soldiers and even Bullfighters. Other popular productions were located in a harem, beauty parlour and sanitarium. Phillips and Rene also garnered much acclaim for their feature engagements in the Fullers' annual Christmas pantomimes, beginning in 1916 with The BunyipThe Bunyip.

As the first truly urban Australian characters to be developed on the variety stage Stiffy and Mo not only captured the Australian popular culture's imagination but also played a significant role in boosting the popularity of the new Australian revusical (one act musical comedy) genre which had begun to emerge around 1914/1915. In all, Phillips and Rene worked together for eleven years - 1916 to 1925, and 1927 to 1928.



DETAILED BIOGRAPHY


1916-1919 : Towards the end of June 1916 Nat Phillips was recalled to Sydney from Brisbane by Sir Benjamin Fuller and asked to take over a revusical company previously run by Albert Bletsoe and his sister Maude. Phillips had only recently returned from a seven month engagement in the East, and had arrived in Brisbane via Perth and Adelaide. The Bletsoes' troupe, which included Roy Rene, disbanded in Rockhampton on 24 June after their leaders had made the sudden decision to retire. As the company had been booked to play Sydney's Princess Theatre in a week's time Phillips was considered the best person to take over at such short notice. He and Merritt made their last Brisbane appearance on 30 June and returned to Sydney by train with several members of the Bletsoe troupe, including Roy Rene. Research into the career movements of both men indicates that the two comedians had met briefly in March 1913 while on the same bill at Fullers' Gaiety Theatre, Melbourne.

When he arrived in Sydney Phillips put his troupe through an intense series of rehearsals. The line-up comprised both former Bletsoes artists and leading veterans from the Fullers circuit. For his shows he drew on some of the Stiffy sketches he had been developing over the past few years, filling them out with songs and spots for 'improvised' business. The Nat Phillips Collection script for What Oh Tonight indicates, too, that he originally intended his Jewish off-sider to be called Sol. Rene was given this role largely because he had already established his reputation as a good Hebrew comedian.

Although vastly less experienced that Phillips, Rene was confident enough to suggest that his character have another name, but at the same time didn't have particular one in mind. He explains in Mo's MemoirsM that with the opening night almost upon him, Bill Sadler, the Princess Theatre's stage manager and doorman spontaneously suggested "why don't you call yourselves Stiffy and Mo" (p. 63).

Billed initially as Nat Phillips' Tabloid Musical Comedy Company, the troupe made its debut on 16 July 1916 with What O Tonight.The initial response to the company's debut season was above all expectations, with critical attention shared largely around the ensemble, although Nat Phillips as writer, director and co-star was generally given the greatest space. What Oh Tonight was followed by five more original revusicals, the extent of their repertoire at the time. Such was the success garnered by the troupe that the theatre's lessees, Harry Sadler and Jack Kearns extended the season until late October.

In December 1916 the Fullers presented The Bunyip at the Grand Opera House in Sydney. A pantomime with an original Australian story line by young Victorian variety performer, Ella Airlie, Phillips contributed additional material while also directing the production and making a feature appearances as Stiffy alongside Rene's Mo. The Bunyip was a monumental success for the Fullers and further established Stiffy and Mo as the most popular Australian comedians of the day.

The Bunyip toured the country following its eventual closure in Sydney in 1917, being regularly staged as part of each Stiffy and Mo season over the next few years. The Fullers' also revived it without Rene and Phillips on a number of occasions up until at least 1924. The pair featured in two other pantomimes during the late-1910s - The Babes in the Wood (1918) and Cinderella (1919). In the latter production Mo was a 'bailiff who follows his job without malice' while Stiffy portrayed 'his cobber who butts into cottage and palace' (Theatre Magazine March 1921, p14).

Nat Phillips' Stiffy and Mo Revue Company toured the country with few breaks between 1916 and their first separation in 1925, playing in some instances seasons of more than six months at a time. The war years were especially critical to their success, given the decreasing presence of foreign variety performers and the increasing Australian-wide variety industry growth, which included expanding national circuits, the building of new theatres, increasing circulation of specialist variety magazines (notably Australian Variety and the Theatre Magazine) and the huge number of local performers being drawn to stage as the need for entertainment grew exponentially. Having established themselves during the early years of the revusical's development, Stiffy and Mo essentially raised the bar in terms of presenting Australian larrikin humour and improvised mayhem, and were rivalled in this respect only by Bert Le Blanc and Jake Mack during the late 1910s and George Wallace in the 1920s.

In 1923, at the height of their popularity, Rene and Phillips also put together a book of humour. Titled, Stiffy and Mo's Book of Fun, the material comprised a combination of original jokes and some that had been published in English and American collections over the previous years (Theatre Magazine February 1923, p25).

1920-1925 : Although the troupe's original membership had remained remarkably stable during its first four to five years, with only minor and infrequent changes to the principal ensemble, by the early 1920s a few new faces began to appear in the line-up. Notable, for example, were Mike Connors and Queenie Paul, Keith Connolly, Ida Merton and Gladys Shaw, who all joined the troupe in 1922. Two additional Fullers pantomimes also featured Stiffy and Mo, as well as most of the members of the company. These were Dick Whittington and His Cat (1921) and Mother Goose (1922). One of the more significant aspects of this period was the 16 months the company spent in New Zealand. The Dominion tour began at Auckland's Opera House on 28 March 1923 and contininued through until early August 1924. The last season played was in Wellington.

Despite being Australia's most popular comedy duo, some level of tension also began to rise between the two comics around 1924/1925 - although there was never as much animosity as some people have later claimed. Indeed, when the split came in mid-1925 it was essentially the result of two men with quite different personalities having shared nine years together in close proximity and in need of some time apart. As the consummate professional who demanded from his troupe similar attitudes, Phillips was renowned for his attention to detail, high work ethic and efficiency, and maintained regular rehearsals so that each forthcoming production (even though most likely a revival) was given suitable preparation. Rene on the other hand was a more spontaneous, carefree and relaxed individual who had a particular dislike of rehearsals.

The fundamental difference between the two men is explained in Mo's Memoirs, whereby Rene mentions several instances where his practical jokes and their disagreements over personal issues were not taken lightly. In reading Rene's autobiography, however, there is no indication that the two men ever had a serious falling out, and indeed Rene's memory of his 'old mate' is one of endearment, not of distance. Sadie Gale supports this assessment of the relationship between Phillips and her husband, recording in an oral history interview that there was never any acrimony between them (National Archives of Australia, ABC Tape CA6879 / C528741-1, 1975). Not only did Phillips later become godfather to Rene's son, but the two men had also agreed shortly before Phillips death to reunite for a second time (ctd. Jon Fabian correspondance).

1925-1926 : [For further details regarding this period see the individual agent entries for Nat Phillips and Roy Rene]

1927-1928 : The Stiffy and Mo reunion began in Brisbane in late February 1927 during the last few weeks of Phillips' Whirligig season at the Empire Theatre. With Jack Kellaway still a principal member of the troupe the initial shows were advertised as Stiffy, Mo and 'Erb. When the company opened in Sydney on 19 March, however, the billing was not unsurprisingly just Stiffy and Mo. In reviewing the second week of the Sydney season Just It records that the return of Stiffy and Mo 'almost overshadowed the Royal visit,' such was the public's interest (31 March 1927, p28). By August the same magazine reported that in the 21 weeks Stiffy and Mo had been playing in Sydney 'there has never been the slightest let-up in the attendance- afternoon [or] evening' (11 August 1927, p28). In mid-September the company played its 300th consecutive performance, a house record (Just It 15 September 1927, p28).

Despite the success which the reunion achieved in terms of critical opinion and box office records, the partnership only lasted a little over 18 months. While the reasons for the split were never made public, Sadie Gale indicates that it was due to a combination of factors, notably Phillips anger at the Fullers when he became aware that Rene was being paid more money (an issue she says did not have an overly negative impact on his relationship with Rene, however); and his own perception that the Stiffy and Mo formula had run its course and that he and Rene were simply repeating themselves rather than moving into new directions. Gale also says that Phillips' interest had by then begun to turn more to songwriting and revue, believing that the revusical format had also run its course.

The Phillips and Rene partnership ended after a brief season in Sydney following the company's return from New Zealand. The Bulletin's 'Sundry Shows' page describes the night they returned to play Sydney:

The return of Stiffy and Mo to Fullers' Theatre on Saturday night was hailed with wild acclaim. There were yells to greet the appearance of each of the re-united partners and the roof cracked when Mo addressed the audience as "Yous mob," or made a reference to the "tarts" present. The audience was so delighted at renewing acquaintance with its old favourites that it laughed at everything. It is a triumph of an extraordinary kind' (24 March 1927, p34).

Most Referenced Works

Notes

  • 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):

    • Stars of the Australian Stage and Radio : Volume 1. Larrikin, CD, LRH 429. [Series : Warren Faye Presents Yesterday's Australia] ('Tit Bits').
    • Stars of the Australian Stage and Radio : Volume 2. Larrikin, CD, LRH 430. [Series : Warren Faye Presents Yesterday's Australia] ('Eucalyptus Baby').

  • 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.

On the Web

  • Nat Phillips and Roy Rene.
Last amended 11 Jul 2016 12:29:44
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