John Walter Hollis Longford was born in Hawthorn, a suburb of Melbourne, son of John Walter Longford, a civil servant originally from Sydney, and his English wife, Charlotte Maria. His family soon started referring to him as "Ray". By 1880 they briefly moved to Paynesville, then went to Sydney when Longford's father became a warder at Darlinghurst Gaol.
Longford became a sailor and spent his early life at sea. He started acting on the stage in India under the name Raymond Hollis Longford. In the early 1900s he toured Australia and New Zealand with Edwin Geach's Popular Dramatic Organisation, and Clarke and Meynell companies. He was a stage manager for the Liliam Meyers Dramatic Company. Longford often appeared alongside a young actress called Lottie Lyell, who would become Longford's key creative partner.
He was an early member of the Australian actors union, a forerunner to actors equity.
In 1907 Longford worked on a film produced by Charles Cozens Spencer about the fight between Tommy Burns and Jack Johnson, probably the first movie Longford was involved in. He then began appearing in movies for Spencer as an actor under the direction of Alfred Rolfe such as Captain Midnight, the Bush King (1911).
Rolfe eventually left Spencer's company to make films elsewhere so in 1911 Spencer hired Longford to direct his first feature, The Fatal Wedding, adapted from a play in which Longford had appeared on stage and starring Lyell. Made quickly, with a limited budget and small crew, it was a major financial success and launched his career behind the camera.
Longford followed this up with several other play adaptations for Spencer including The Romantic Story of Margaret Catchpole (1911), Sweet Nell of Old Drury and The Midnight Wedding (1912); Longford also wrote an original for the screen The Tide of Death. Lyell appeared in most of these and also made increasingly important contributions behind the scene as a writer, editor, producer and co-director.
Charles Cozens Spencer eventually withdrew from Australian film production due to the formation of "the Combine" (which absorbed Spencer's old company). This left Longford without his main backer and he found it increasingly difficult to secure funding for a time.
He went to work for the Fraser Film Release and Photographic Company for who he made a feature and a number of shorts, however they eventually ended the contract after Longford became involved in a lawsuit following the making of the highly popular The Silence of Dean Maitland (1914).
Longford had an operation in March 1915.
He made another number of shorts for a variety of companies and taught film acting. He then made two films in New Zealand and also became embroiled in another legal battle over The Church and the Woman (1917).
In September 1916 he worked for Crick and Jones preparing scenarios.
Longford's career revived towards the end of World War I when he helped establish the Southern Cross Feature Film Company in South Australia. He enjoyed a large box office success with The Woman Suffers (1918) (despite the film being banned in New South Wales) which enabled him to get finance for an adaptation of the poetry of C. J. Dennis, The Sentimental Bloke (1919). This was an enormous critical and popular success, and is regarded as one of the greatest Australian films of all time. Longford followed it with another hit, On Our Selection (1920), from the stories of Steele Rudd.
The popularity of these two movies saw Longford move away from melodramatic convention to more realistic treatment of subject matter. Both Bloke and Selection led to well-received sequels which were also directed by Longford. He and Lyell had another hit with The Blue Mountains Murder Mystery.
As the 1920s went on, Longford again found difficulties securing finance and/or distribution for his films. He and Lyell formed a company and he made some for Australasian Films but the collaboration was not a successful one. In 1925 Lottie Lyell died of tuberculosis and Longford's career never recovered.
In 1926 it was announced Longford would serve on the board of the film company Phillips Film Productions Ltd, but little seems to have come of this. He gave evidence at the 1928 Royal Commission on the Moving Picture Industry in Australia where he urged the introduction of a quota for local movies and complained about the influence of the Combine of Australasian Films and Union Theatres on local production.
Longford appeared in bankruptcy court in 1929 but managed to tour Europe the following year, spending 18 months touring various filmmaking facilities. "Naturally the talkies have revolutionised everything", he said. "And to some extent I now feel as if I am returning to my original occupation — the talking stage."
He returned to Australia in February 1930 and told Gayne Dexter that :
For years and years I fought for the English industry. For years and years I battled and agitated against the Americans. But now, after seeing the English film men at work, I am sorry to say that I backed the wrong side. It was only through the kindness of the American executives in London — the very men against whom I had fought — that I was able to visit studios and get an insight into production conditions. I am convinced that it is impossible for anybody to teach England to make pictures: the producers don't want to learn: the English distributors don't want Australian films: and if we ever get a market there, our productions will have to be through Australian channels. That has already been demonstrated by the fact that English distributors have not accepted a single Australian film, even under the quota laws, whereas the American distributors operating in the British Isles have taken eight or ten — and paid cash for them!
Longford said UFA were the most advanced studio he saw.
On his return to Australia Lonford sought financing for a film about the Australia Light Horse in World War I, Desert Legion, with a budget of £50,000. He was unable to secure this and started lobbying for a quota for local films.
In the early 1030s Longford worked steadily as an actor and assistant director on such films as Diggers in Blighty. He assisted Beaumont Smith with the direction of The Hayseeds (1933) and Splendid Fellows (1934) (according to contemporary reports he directed The Hayseeds).
He managed to direct another feature, The Man They Could Not Hang (1934) – although he missed the premiere due to illness which required hospitalization.
That year he was elected head of the New South Wales Talking Picture Producers Association with the aim of promoting a quota for Australian films.
In 1935 he established Mastercraft Film Corporation Ltd to take advantage of the 1935 NSW Quota Act but the hoped for boom in production did not eventuate and Matercraft never received the subscribers they needed to become viable and made no movies. The company was eventually bought out Stuart F. Doyle.
In 1939 Longford sued some Mastercraft executives for libel and settled out of court.
Longford managed to stay employed in the film industry during the 1930s but found this impossible with the advent to World War II, which brought local production to an almost complete halt. During the war he was a clerk for the U.S. military stationed in Australia, then he became a night watchman on the Sydney wharfs.
In October 1950 Longford was profiled by Ernest Harrison for AM magazine, then in 1955 a complete 35 mm print of The Sentimental Bloke was discovered and screened at the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals, bringing renewed attention to Longford. He died on 2 April 1959 at the age of 80.
Longford married Melena Louisa Keen at St Luke's Anglican Church, Concord, Sydney, on 5 February 1900. They had one child, a son, Victor Hollis Longford. Longford and Melena later separated and he started a relationship with Lottie Lyell but could not marry her as Melena would not give him a divorce until 1926 – the year after Lyell died. Melina would not agree to a divorce because her father, William Henry Keen, did not approve of divorce. William Henry Keen died in 1922.
Longford married for a second time in 1933 to Emilie Elizabeth Anschutz.
Named in Longford and Lottie Lyell's honour, the AACTA Longford Lyell Award is the Australian film industry's highest accolade for an individual based on their contributions to "unwavering commitment over many years to excellence in the film and television industries and has, through their body of work to date, contributed substantially to the enrichment of Australian screen culture". Since the introduction of the award by the AFI in 1968, winners have included Ken G. Hall, Peter Weir, Tim Burstall, Bud Tingwell, David Stratton, George Miller, Phillip Adams, Barry Jones, Jack Thompson, Geoffrey Rush, and Cate Blanchett.The Life and Adventures of John Vane, the Notorious Australian Bushranger (1910)
Captain Midnight, the Bush King (1911)
Captain Starlight, or Gentleman of the Road (1911)
The Life of Rufus Dawes (1911) as Gabbett
Diggers in Blighty (1933) as Von Schieling
The Avenger (1937) as Warren
Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938) as Policeman
Wings of Destiny (1940) as Peters
Dad Rudd, MP (1940) as Electoral Officer
Racing Luck (1941)
Burns and Johnson Fight (1908) – 4,000-foot film
It's a Long Way to Tipperary (1915)
The Sentimental Bloke (1932)
His Royal Highness (1932)
The Power of the Cross
Saturday Night in London (1907)
The Worst Woman in London (1907)
The Heart of a Hero by Lingford Carson (1908) – Edwin Geach Dramatic Organisation
The Midnight Hour (1908)
The Woman Pays (1908)
The Greatest Scoundrel Living by McLeod Loder (1908) – starring May Renno – also played with A Woman's Honour (1908) and The Professor's Dilemma (1908) – Longford directed
Who is the Woman? (1909) – directed for the May Renno Company
An Englishman's Home (1909) – with Lottie Lyell
The Midnight Wedding (1910) – with Lyell
Her Love Against the World and Why Men Love Women (1910) – with Lyell
The Fatal Wedding (1910)
Every Inch a Man (1910) – toured with The Fatal Wedding
Officer 666 (1922)
Treasure Island (1932) – Melbourne
Among the projects Longford planned but did not film included:a screen version of Robbery Under Arms;
The Desert Legion, a tale of the Australian Lighthorse in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign during World War I;
four unnamed projects for Mastercraft films in the 1930s, which were to be made under Longford's supervision.