Francis Shayle Gardner’s was a life of unusual adventure, beginning rather chaotically towards the close of his parents’ marriage. Shortly after, his father left the marriage, taking his children to their paternal grandmother’s care in England, before he left for America and a new Australian-born wife. At some stage, Shayle was sent to join him; as a nine-year-old he was selling newspapers on the streets of San Jose. But two years later his father left him there and went to South Africa with his new family, only to die soon after of African fever.
The 11-year-old Shayle worked his way back from San Francisco to New Zealand as a pantry boy on the steamship Sierra. Back in Auckland, he attended King’s College and Auckland Grammar School, and became an architect. In 1912 Auckland newspapers reported his return from a Continental tour, and his departure to London for a career on stage.
Gardner made his first stage appearance at His Majesty’s, London, in 1913, walking on in play Joseph and his Brethren. At the time he was studying at the forerunner of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Over the next two years he won favourable reviews as a “stalwart and dignified” actor on the London stage. His career was interrupted by the First World War.
Back in New Zealand Gardner enlisted in 1915, and embarked for war the following year. Just before leaving, he organised a fundraising concert for the poor and needy of Auckland, advertising the concert with glowing reports of his successes on the London stage. In Britain in 1918 he was appointed Officer in charge of the NZ Divisional Theatre, including the Kiwi Concert Party. Gardner also spent time with the Tui Pierrot Troupe in France (see image under 'photos' tab), and occasionally performed solo numbers for them. Discharged in England in 1919, he lived mainly in London from the early 1920s until his death in 1945.
Best known as a Shakespearean actor on the live stage, Gardner also played small parts in about 30 films between 1923 and 1939, mainly for British film studios.
Perhaps his most significant British screen role was as the main actor in silent movie Comin’ thro the Rye (1923), directed by British film pioneer Cecil Hepworth. The London Express placed the film at the top of their list of ten “greatest English made productions of 1923”. Shayle played the part of Paul Vasher, a rival for the love of the heroine. The British Film Institute later argued that the film “stood out conspicuously at a time when British production generally was uninspired and facing its most difficult period”. Gardner contracted typhoid fever during filming, and production was halted for several months until he recovered. Nevertheless Comin' thro' the Rye was released without his part being filmed as fully as originally planned.
He also played St Elmo, in Rex Wilson’s 1923 silent film based on popular novel St Elmo, first published in 1866. Though British, the film revolves around a proud American plantation lord of the South, and his final reformation because of the woman he wishes to marry. And he received favourable comment for his role in Tommy Atkins (1929). The Sydney Morning Herald write that Gardner “enacts the role of blackmailer to the earl. His performance is certainly forceful, and as a characterisation, is convincing”. There were further positive notices for The Three Passions (1929), whose locations included the French Riviera. He played a shipbuilder, a self-made man who desires that his son should carry on the business.
Gardner’s films ranged across comedy, drama and crime movies, including at least two low-budget ‘quota quickies’ directed by Michael Powell. For 12 months in 1929 he lived in Hollywood; during that time he played parts in George Arliss film Disraeli (an Academy Award nominee for best picture), The Return of Dr Fu Manchu and Three Live Ghosts. He is said to have voiced over for American actors “whose nasal accents had aroused some adverse comment”. The Auckland Star later wrote that for Disraeli , “the actor playing the role of the doctor was merely moving his lips while Mr. Gardiner [sic] proclaimed the rolling periods offstage”.
He loved the Hollywood life, but to his regret, visa regulations meant he was unable to stay for longer. A September 1929 article in the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser reports his anecdotes from Hollywood, including a meeting with Gloria Swanson to discuss a part. When he asked if they would be doing any lovemaking, she replied “not in the film”.
At Gardner’s suggestion the NZ High Commission in London organised an event in 1923, bringing together all New Zealanders living in London and involved in the arts. In 1940 he organised a New Zealand Centenary performance, showcasing NZ musicians and writers, in aid of New Zealanders serving in His Majesty’s Forces.
Gardner died in the Oxfordshire town of Banbury on 17 May 1945. His obituary appeared in The London Times six days later. His will bequeathed his Bedfordshire cottage to his friend Eric Younger, then serving with British forces in East Asia. The will requested cremation, with his ashes to be scattered from the Devonport ferry into Auckland Harbour. In December 1945 The Auckland Herald reported: “The ceremony was inconspicuous, and it is doubtful if any of the passengers realised it was occurring as the Venerable Archdeacon P Houghton, Vicar of St. Marks, and a handful of mourners stood for a moment beside the rail of the vessel and the urn was dropped into its wake”.
Profile written and researched by Barbara Lyon
Illustration of Shayle Gardner: Alexander Turnbull Library, Image Eph-A-DRAMA-1922-01
Diary of Oliver Foote. Alexander Turnbull Library. Reference Number MSX-4334
Papers Past website. Accessed 19 December 2014
Lantern Media History website. Accessed 19 December 2014
Trove (Australia) website. Accessed 19 December 2014
Kathleen Ussher, 'European Jottings. Shayle Gardner's Work. Stage and Screen Roles' - The Auckland Star, 4 January 1930, Page 5
'Hepworth Film for Broadway' - Exhibitors Herald, 1 March 1924, Page 53
'New Films - "Tommy Atkins"'(Review) - The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 February 1929, Page 8
'In Filmland.' (source of main Daily Mail quote) - The New Zealand Herald, 6 July 1929, Page 12
'Hollywood on Diet' - Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advisor, 20 September 1929, Page 4
National Film Library catalogue (London: The British Film Institute, 1938)
'Last Request to Scatter Ashes - Ceremony on Harbour' - The Auckland Star, 28 December 1945, Page 6