2. Raymond Longford
Raymond Longford (1878-1959) was certainly one of the early industry's most iconic figures. The son of a prison warder, Longford had actually seen some of the adventure that the movies loved portraying. He had joined the crew of a windjammer at age 17, was caught in the middle of a Chilean insurrection, served as a volunteer medical orderly in the Boer War—and then with the Indian Medical Service peddling pills with his scant Hindustani—before finally returning to Sydney and becoming a stage actor.
He made his debut as a film actor in 1908, and soon had his chance to direct, under the patronage of London-born film entrepreneur Cozens Spencer. His directorial debut was A Fatal Wedding in 1911, an auspicious event, being also his first time working with Lottie Lyell (1890-1925), an adventurous-minded actress whose talents as a horsewoman as well as a screen presence made her Australia's first true movie star. She and Longford soon became an inseparable filmmaking team, and their work together proved epochal.
Longford's fourth film, The Midnight Wedding (1912), utilized an unfamiliar amount of interior shooting, an innovation enabled by shooting in a house with the roof torn off to let in enough light for the cameras. Spencer later built for him and Lyell a special studio with a glass ceiling. Longford's experimental bent and personal aesthetic desire for realism led him to produce The Silence of Dean Maitland (1914), which featured a much-celebrated use of a close-up of lead actor Harry Thomas' face in a climactic confession scene, proving that Longford was at the forefront of novelty in cinematic grammar, even if some later claims for this, such as its being the first ever close-up, were over-inflated. Wedding and Silence were both crucial popular successes, and held the genuine promise that the industry could sustain itself and even, perhaps, rise to the international forefront of this new art.
Longford produced his most famous and assured film in 1919, The Sentimental Bloke, based on a narrative poem by C.J. Dennis. The Sentimental Bloke was the simple story of a big-hearted spiv (played by vaudevillian Arthur Tauchert) who, following a short spell in jail for brawling with policemen, and addicted to the popular form of gambling "two-up," falls in love with barmaid Doreen (Lyell). After many a twist of fate, the Bloke evolves into a reliable father and prosperous fruit farmer. Longford's sleek filmmaking and clever utilization of the Dennis poem in title cards entailed a newly sophisticated melding of basic cinema, native literary style, and populist realism. But The Sentimental Bloke wasn't only a success in itself. It was also a seminal work that more properly defined Australian cinema culture, and the kinds of characters and situations often portrayed on screen.
Dennis' story presented an all-too-human but stalwart, working-class Aussie hero in a contemporary, urban setting, and the comic but down-to-earth narrative left behind the basis of earlier movies in transcribed penny dreadful and stage melodramas. The film's impact inspired Longford to move onto another, similar literary subject about lovable, decent, dry-witted but unsophisticated heroes, or "ockers" in Aussie slang. This time, it was the indomitable Rudd family, in On Our Selection (1920), based in the writings of Steele Rudd, and a sequel, Rudd's New Selection (1921). In defining the screen version of the ocker, the laconic ordinary Aussie, the influence of works like Bloke and Selection echoes down through Bruce Beresford's The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972) to The Castle (1997), in detailing the foibles of commonplace, humorous, yet somehow archetypal figures. The Sentimental Bloke also anticipates another, distinctive strand of street-level veracity that would take a long time to find renewed expression.
The story of the Australian film industry is one of recurring calamities and eternal nemeses, and one of these is the perpetual peril offered by the popularity of American movies. In 1923, Hollywood product accounted for 94% of the films appearing on Australian screens, after a brief government dalliance with a tax on imported films fizzled out in 1918. Hollywood companies could force Australian theatre groups hungry for top attractions to block-book a whole studio's output, in essence squeezing out any screen space for local films.
Simultaneously, a near-monopolistic dominance had been imposed on exhibitors and filmmakers by the infamous "combine" of Australasian Films, the production arm of Union Cinemas, an entity which had long since swallowed the legacies of the Taits and Cozens Spencer, and which would mutate into Greater Union. This had a terribly corrosive effect on the efforts of independent producers like Longford, who was also continually irked by a lack of government aid and interest in helping out filmmakers, and by the slapdash censorship process of the era. His cause was not helped by Lottie Lyell's death from tuberculosis at the age of 35. Longford struggled along for several more years, making his last film in 1934, before ending up working as a waterfront patrolman until his death.
3. The Post-WWI Silent and Early Sound Era
Plagued by difficulties though it might have been, the Australian cinema nonetheless put on a robust show during the 1920s, producing over sixty feature films in the course of the decade. Although the bushranger ban was not to be eased until the 1940s, more historical and rusticated romantic adventure films were produced after the war. The Man from Kangaroo(1920) was exemplary of this genre, directed by Canadian-born Wilfred Lucas and starring fitness trainer and boxer Snowy Baker (1884-1953), who, like John Gavin before him, went to the US to become a minor Western star.
Franklyn Barrett (1874-1961) is often cited as an early auteur of Aussie cinema, with his roster of films held to be visually strong and detailed with uncommon realism and accuracy, of which only The Breaking of the Drought (1920) and A Girl of the Bush (1921) survive in entirety today. A wider variety of genres began to appear in this time, too: Charles Villiers took a stab at making a prototypical horror film (The Face at the Window, 1919) and Arthur Shirley made a pair of mysteries (Mystery of a Hansom Cab, 1925; The Sealed Room, 1926). In spite of the emphasis on manly adventure in a rugged outback, by far the majority of Australians at that time lived in the suburban bungalows and terrace houses of the major cities, so domestic melodramas appealing to female audiences—like F. Stuart White's Painted Daughters (1925)—became the major counterpoint to eucalypt westerns.
Any list of the best films from this time would certainly include the second adaptation of For the Term of His Natural Life [watch it here], directed by Norman Dawn and released in 1927, groundbreaking in the scope of its style and production. Clarke's novel, a signal dramatic account of the convict era, was classic Victorian melodrama in many ways, with a victimized hero, endangered maidens, hidden identities and beastly villains, all interacting in a series of amazing coincidences. But Clarke's narrative had colossal sweep, his sense of detail often brutal and entirely convincing. The tale's inversions of sympathy, sporting a wrongly convicted hero and a brutal military officer and jailer engaged in a Victor Hugo-esque battle of wills, also readily appealed to a characteristic of Australian audiences long ingrained since the colonial era: resentment of authority. Dawn's cinematic set-pieces, like a group of chained convicts attempting escape through a colossal cliff-top blow-hole, or the final storm that gives the hero and lady love a deus-ex-machina deliverance, are still effective.
Another gem of the period is 'Tal' Ordell's The Kid Stakes (1927) [watch it here], taken from the popular comic strip "Fatty Finn" penned by Syd Nicholls. Ordell, who had been an actor before trying his hand at direction, having played Dave Rudd in the silent On Our Selection and its sequel, now cast his son Robin 'Pop' Ordell as Fatty, the ironically named, exceedingly slim and sandy-haired hero who tries to win a derby of goat-pulled racing karts. In some ways a junior-league version of The Sentimental Bloke, Stakes likewise sported fascinating verisimilitude in its photography of a long-lost inner city Sydney landscape, as well as being a well-done juvenile comedy close in spirit to the Our Gang series. Ordell's film was in all essences remade in 1980 as Fatty Finn by Maurice Murphy, but it was Ordell's first and last stab at feature film directing, before moving on with Robin to become a star radio duo.
A less auspicious movie that reflected the still-bubbling xenophobia and triumphalist sense of British history in Australia was reflected by Phil K. Walsh's reprehensible The Birth of White Australia (1928), portraying such diverting interludes as the attempted rape of a gentlewoman by Chinese coolies. Comparisons to The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915) are apt only in shared racial grotesquery.
The second half of the '20s also saw the emergence of—gasp!—lady directors. Lottie Lyell had been credited as co-director, with Raymond Longford, of The Blue Mountains Mystery (1921). Next to follow her lead was Louise Carbasse (1896-1980), who was all of eighteen when she immigrated to Hollywood in 1914, having already starred in a few Aussie films. She became a minor star for Universal Studios, rechristened Louise Lovely by Carl Laemmle, before returning home in 1926 to take a stab at directing, with the collaboration of her first husband, Wilton Welch, her own starring vehicle, Jewelled Nights (1925). She then retired, after divorcing Welch and remarrying a cinema manager, to Hobart. The firmest impact by a female filmmaker in this era was made by Paulette McDonagh (d. 1978). She and her sisters, Phyllis and Isobel, came from a wealthy Sydney family. Paulette had speedily learnt some of the craft of filmmaking to take advantage of the name Isobel had made for herself as an actress, having starred already in several films under the name Marie Lorraine.
The energetic trio started their own production company, McD Films. Their main asset was their family mansion, which provided a ready setting for their movies. Isobel was the star, as Marie Lorraine. Paulette, in addition to directing, also wrote and produced, whilst Phyllis provided the art and set decoration, managed the production, and did publicity too. For their first effort, Those Who Love (1926), Paulette brought in as co-director former acting coach and director Percy John Ramster, who had made several, mostly short subject, films with titles such as A Naughty Elopement (1923) and Should a Girl Propose? (1926), but Paulette went it entirely alone for her subsequent films.
The Far Paradise (1928) broke box office records when it was released, and Paulette's direction gained some critical admiration. The Cheaters (1930) was begun as a silent, and then reedited with some sound sequences. The sisters only managed to make one more film, Two Minutes Silence (1933), a work with an interesting narrative gimmick of unfolding within the minds of a family during the two minutes' reflection on Anzac Day, before Isobel moved to London and Phyllis turned to work as a journalist in New Zealand. Paulette never gave up hopes of making another movie, but such project never came to pass.
The premiere of The Jazz Singer in Sydney in October 1928 heralded the end of the silent era in Australia as it did everywhere else. As in the very early days, a short period of experimentation saw documentaries, newsreels, and short films work with sound. The first all-talking Australian picture to go into production, in mid-1930, was Showgirl's Luck, directed by Norman Dawn. A trouble-plagued shoot saw its release delayed until 1931, a year from which also sprouted Frank W. Thring's Diggers and A. R. Harwood's Spur of the Moment. Meanwhile, to prod Aussie filmmakers into rising to the challenge of a new era, the Commonwealth Government offered, in June of 1929, a fat prize of £5000 to the best sound production of the following year. The entries included the McDonaghs' The Cheaters, but the judges declared that none of the handful of entries received deserved the prize, instead awarding a consolatory prize of £1500 to Arthur Higgins and Austin Fay's wartime comedy-drama Fellers (1930), which, like The Cheaters, only featured interpolated sound sequences, and, like Showgirl's Luck, starred Arthur Tauchert, who remained one of the top Aussie stars until his death at the age of 55 in 1933.
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