Did Robert Steele’s Missing Movies Go Up in Flames?

As part of our search for the missing early films of Robert Steele, we received a slew of tips and insights. We discover a cast of intriguing characters and ask whether these New Zealand noir films came to a fiery end.

The report makes for sobering reading. ‘When a fire broke out in the two storey concrete premises of Neuline Studios, Ltd., 41, Wakefield Street, Auckland, last night, damage to the extent of approximately £2,500 was caused.’ So notes the 10 August 1945 issue of the Auckland Star. It wasn’t the biggest news story of the day – that would be the atomic bombing of Nagasaki – but this small item on Papers Past might prove the solution to the mystery of three missing films.

Auckland Star, Volume LXXVI, Issue 188, 10 August 1945. Via Papers Past.

We’ve shared previously unpublished images below – can you piece together the plots?

Earlier this year, documentation archivists at Ngā Taonga were examining a set of photographs deposited by Geoff Bertram, whose late mother Antoinette worked behind the scenes on several film productions. No records could be found of the films’ existence, and things got even more interesting when staff realised they seemed to have been made by Robert Steele, a significant industrial filmmaker of the mid-20th century. In September we published a blog post about the photos, asking the public for tips – if you haven’t already, it’s worth reading that first.

The newspaper continues: ‘The projection room, on the second floor, in which the fire started, was completely burned out. The theatrette was extensively damaged and an area of ceiling above the processing room was also burned. The fire was under control within a few minutes and there was no damage to the ground floor. Amongst the equipment destroyed were two film projectors and about six cameras, as well as a complete library of 16-millimetre films’ (emphasis ours).

Choir group from A Mild Case of Murder. This image has not been fully preserved.

The fire was a major setback, which closed Neuline for the rest of 1945. On the night it occurred, Steele was at a party for British entertainer Gracie Fields – a fact which may help date the mystery films. According to film historian Clive Sowry:

‘The “Missing Movies” were most likely made in 1945 between the time Robert Steele left the Army to return to his portrait photography studio business (January), and the day he hosted an informal farewell party for Gracie Fields (9 August).’

However, Sowry also notes that Australian stage and film actress Ethel Gabriel, who appears in the credits for A Mild Case of Murder, was actually in New Zealand the previous year:

‘She was in Auckland with the J. C. Williamson Comedy Company in the periods 6 April to 6 June, and 2 December to 16 December, 1944. This may be when the film A Mild Case of Murder was made. This is assuming that Steele had leave from his army duties or had been discharged by then; his service record (which I haven’t seen) might throw light on this.’

This tracks perfectly with what Geoff told us – that his mother had to have worked on A Mild Case and The Wife Who Knew some time between 1940 and 1947. After the fire, Steele made 60 industrial films between 1946 and 1950, then closed Neuline for good. A 1949 catalogue contains no reference to A Mild Case of Murder, The Wife Who Knew or Happy Honeymoon – A Near Tragedy, meaning that for some reason they weren’t available at the end of Neuline’s existence. It seems likely this previously unknown collection was lost to the flames. As Sowry notes, ‘not so much A Near Tragedy as an actual one!’

Promotional shot for Happy Honeymoon – A Near Tragedy. This image has not been fully preserved.


There had been a definite buzz in the office as this story was developed, and it’s especially pleasing that readers responded in the same way. We received an array of tips, suggestions and helpful thoughts. The story was also well covered in the media, with articles on RNZ, Stuff and The Spinoff.

After an interview, one media outlet phoned us back to check that this was a hoax. Were we ‘having them on’? It’s understandable there would be questions about films that had no other known records – a real Forgotten Silver scenario. Indeed, the lack of leads and the number of dead ends at almost every turn had the staff flummoxed.

Colleagues were quizzed for more info and our extensive catalogue records were pored over – different names for films, actors and crew members were tried. The same approach was brought to searches with the fantastic Papers Past. Confoundingly, no mention of the films themselves were found. Some mentions – notably in the social pages – of people involved satisfied us that these were real people who worked on these films.

Jim and May Lovatt in The Wife Who Knew. This image has not been fully preserved.

Two people confirmed that one of the actors was Sheila McGuire, later Sheila Taylor. McGuire’s name is misspelled Maguire on the credits page, which helps explain why we couldn’t find her previously. McGuire was a fashion model in the 1940s and 1950s, whose clients included the lingerie brand Silknit – Digital NZ has more than 20 photos of this blonde bombshell. She was photographed several times by Clifton Firth, an important photographer of the day who worked at 110 Queen Street, Auckland. Firth’s fashion and advertising photography, plus his portraits of artists and performers, offer a fascinating window into this period.

Sheila McGuire, modelling for Silknit. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 34-S486P, photographer Clifton Firth.

Keith Giles pointed out that Jim Lovatt’s character in The Wife Who Knew is a dentist, not a surgeon as we guessed from the photo. Darian Zam saw our picture of Sheila McGuire and was reminded of a portrait they had purchased of Rhonda (Rhonnie) Barker, aka Rhoda Lilian Murphy. Rhonda was a dancer at the Civic Theatre in the 1930s, and this photo was also taken by Robert Steele – demonstrating Steele’s work behind the still camera. Zam’s photo is inscribed to somebody called Freddie, which may refer to Freda Stark, who also danced at the Civic around this time. Stark stars in another of Robert Steele’s films, the risqué Curves and Contrasts.

Rhonda (Rhonnie) Barker, aka Rhoda Lilian Murphy, 1956. Robert Steele Studio, Queen St. Photo courtesy Darian Zam.

Another correspondent, Benedict Reid, was also thinking of the page and wondered whether A Mild Case of Murder could be based on a work by Australian author Gordon Brandon. ‘I realise the book with the same name came out in the 50s, but Brandon seems to have died in 1941, so an earlier printing of a story in Coronet in the 30s could fit.’ Brandon was a prolific author of pulp and detective fiction, whose publishers kept releasing new works long after he died. Although no copies of A Mild Case of Murder seem to be available, you can read an extract from another of his books here. At this stage we rely on set pictures to inform our understanding of the plot.

We’ve shared previously unpublished images below – can you piece together the plots?

We also consulted with two of our film experts, Oscar Halberg and Jo Dixon-Didier, for their thoughts on whether extra copies may exist outside the fiery remains. There were a range of possibilities, though this depended on the outcomes Steele was hoping for. Given that there are no records of these film being shown in cinema, it seems likely the films screened privately, to friends and family. In this case, both Oscar and Jo believe he likely would have had only one copy.

If Steele had tried for a commercial release or distribution, a range of film copying processes were available. If he had the film negatives, he may have been able to produce his own copies or could have used a post-production studio like the Film Unit. Again, we’ve not found records of commercial releases or, at this stage, any information about existing copies.

Case closed – for now  

While we hold out hope for some stray film reels hiding in a shed or attic, it’s wonderful that we have some record of these films in the form of the Bertram family’s photo albums. The pictures capture the drama that would have unfolded on screen: tough guys and dames, sinister motivations, domestic settings with dark undertones.

The pictures also show lighter moments as the cast and crew organise for the next scene to be filmed. The sets, lights and equipment provide a valuable insight to this period of filmmaking.

Where to next? Our staff have enjoyed trying to track down these films 80 years on from their creation. It’s gratifying to have the public so engaged also, and we remain thankful for all feedback received. Hopefully soon, though perhaps decades in the future, more information will turn up.

Many thanks

Many thanks to the readers who provided tips: Jan George, Steve Danby, Benedict Joseph Reid, Clive Sowry, Ben Urmston, Keith Giles, Darian Zam, Claire Extrodinare; to Geoff Bertram for depositing his mother’s albums and answering our questions, and to RNZ, Stuff and The Spinoff for taking such an interest.

Images from A Mild Case of Murder. These images have not been fully preserved.

Images from Happy Honeymoon – A Near Tragedy. These images have not been fully preserved.

Images from The Wife Who Knew. These images have not been fully preserved.


Credits for cast and crew

A Mild Case of Murder – From a short story in Coronet Magazine

  • Produced, Directed and Photographed by Robert Steele
  • Associate Producer – Guy Nixon
  • Art Direction and Continuity – Antoinette Bertram
  • Sets – Desmond Beatty
  • Assistant Cameraman – Eric Gray
  • Musical Arrangement and Narration – Guy Nixon
  • Sound Recording – Ray Eaton


  • Warren Lincoln played by Alan Rankin
  • Lina Lincoln – Ethel Gabriel
  • Byron Shoup – Robert F. Steele
  • Mrs Murray – May Lovatt
  • Gardeners – Stephen Chapman and Desmond Beatty
  • Bartender – Peter Colvin
  • Spike Martin – A. E. Whitworth
  • Inspector Michels – James Lovatt

The Wife Who Knew – by Guy Nixon

  • Produced, Directed and Photographed by Robert Steele
  • Art Direction and Continuity – Antoinette Bertram
  • Scenario – Robert Steele
  • Production Manager – Desmond Beatty
  • Musical Arrangement and Narration – Guy Nixon
  • Sound Recording – Ray Eaton


  • Agnes Storey – May Lovatt
  • Jim Storey – Jim Lovatt
  • Nurse – Hazel Holiday
  • Lucy Brewster – Sheila Maguire

Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision website.

Story by David Klein and Una Cruickshank. The images in this story have not been fully preserved – they were taken by our in-house photographer.

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