On my recent visit to the USA, I visited the Moving Image Center of the Library of Congress in Washington DC, hoping to discover some vintage film footage relevant to Australia’s circus history. Following up on a tip from veteran American circus historian, Richard Flint, I located a screen test that May Wirth, the great Australian bareback rider, gave for a Hollywood studio.
The screen test, about four minutes long, was a part of the George Kleine Collection but there was little other identifying information. However, I believe the test was taken in 1917, not long after May and her troupe returned to the USA after their tour of Australia, 1915-16.
The test may well have been done for the 8-reel silent film Polly of the Circus produced in September 1917 by Goldwyn Pictures Corporation. May did not get the gig – or maybe she did not accept the gig, being too busy with her starring role in Ringling Bros Circus. The title role was given to an established screen star of the silent era, another “May”, Mae Marsh.
Nevertheless, the discovery of screen test is a valuable addition to Australia’s performing arts history. It is the earliest filmic record we have to an Australian circus artist in action. Here are some screen shots I took as I played through the screen test. These show May in both conventional dress and circus attire and even turning a few somersaults for the camera.
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