A 1916 Film Diary: “Poor Frank Never Answered His Roll Call Today”
If a month of miserable illness were not enough, Margaret received the very worst news from the battlefields of France on the 20th of July - news so terrible that she uses red ink to record it in her diary:
"Poor Frank never answered his roll call today."
Frank McKay was a close family friend - so close, that it seems the Higgins family regarded him almost as a son. His service papers reveal that he worked as a motor mechanic prior to his enlistment. Though he lived at Glebe - possibly even with the Higgins family - his family hailed from ‘Oakwood’, a rural property at Ariah Park near Temora, in the Riverina. According to another soldier, the 23 year old was large and powerfully built, and gained for himself the nickname of ‘Big Mac’.
Much as the two comrades at the centre of the film Gallipoli (1981) shared a passion for running, McKay and the Higgins brothers had a talent for boxing - one which Frank, Michael and Jack continued to indulge even on the troop ship as they together set out for Telakebir in Egypt. Like Margaret’s brother Cecil ‘Eddie Corrigan’ Higgins, who remained home from the war as a result of a family decision, Frank boxed under a pseudonym, and was known in the ring as ‘Frank Deane’.
Cecil Higgins wrote a heartfelt tribute to his lost friend to the editor of the Sydney sporting journal, The Arrow - one that perhaps betrays some of his own mixed feelings at not going to battle:
"On Sunday we also received the bad news that poor ’Frank Deane’ was missing since July 20. You will remember him asking you by letter the best way to get into the boxing game at Brisbane, and on your advice went up North and won three contests, knocking out his opponents in the second, third, and sixth rounds. He also won the heavyweight division of the R. and T. tourney and was runner-up in the middleweight division of the £1500 Olympia Club’s tourney. On the way to Egypt he won both middle and heavy divisions.
The Saturday Referee and Arrow's report of the aforementioned tourney at the Olympia Club in Newtown suggests that McKay might have had a big future ahead of him as a professional athlete:
MIDDLE-WEIGHTS. Frank Dean, of Tommy Hanley’s gymnasium, created a great surprise by knocking-out Jim McMahon, a pupil of Jim Barron, in the third round. In the absence of his tutor, McMahon fought very wildly— so wildly, in fact, that one could hardly credit he had received lessons from anyone, to say nothing of such an instructor as Barron. Had ‘Sunny Jim’ been present, he would, no doubt, have had a beneficial effect, although his charge would probably have been beaten by Dean, who is a cool, calculating youngster with a kick, as was evidenced by the manner in which he crossed his right with sufficient force to drop and out the superbly built young North Shore boxer.
It is interesting to note that both Frank McKay and the Higgins brothers would have been well acquainted with the manager of the Olympia Stadium, the multi-talented sportsman Reg ‘Snowy’ Baker - in fact, there is at least one fight on record between Baker and ‘Eddie Corrigan’. Within a few years, Baker would retire from sports and attempt to establish himself as Australia’s first major star of local film. Ultimately, he made his home in Hollywood, counting such people as Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks amongst his close friends.
Cecil continues his tribute to his fallen comrade:
My elder brother, Arthur Higgins, is also a boxer. He was beaten in the semi-final of the R. and T. middle division. He must have come through all right, as they say no news is good news. He trained Jack, Frank, and myself for all of our contests. Frank’s correct name is McKay. The three of them lived together, boxed together, enlisted together, went away together, fought together, fell together, and yet people say boxers are shirkers and Stadium cowards. They went away with the Sportsmen’s Battalion, but on the field of battle were gunners in the Machine Gun Section.”
The weekday Referee also contained a short tribute:
Frank Dean, a lad who was well known at the Newtown Olympia among the middleweights, was killed in France in recent fighting, according to a cable received during the latter part of last week. He was one of Bluey McCarthy’s protégés.
Further newspaper tributes to McKay appeared as far afield as Forbes, Wagga Wagga, and Singleton.
Such was the confusion of the war that the young man’s death could not even be immediately confirmed. In such cases, a Court of Inquiry was convened, and witnesses interviewed about the soldier’s possible whereabouts. The Red Cross also conducted its own separate inquiry. Several other members of Frank’s company had been taken as Prisoners of War. There was still some slim hope that he might be amongst them. It was not until 17 September 1917, after over a year of agonised waiting, that what everyone had feared was confirmed, and Frank was officially declared killed in action.
Corporal Albert E. Howard provided the Red Cross with the details of his friend’s demise, which took place at Fleurbaix, shortly after the 14th Machine Gun Brigade had been ordered to retreat:
The morning of the 20th of July last when we had a raid, he and I were together all the time; we were over in the German lines and when the order came that we had to retire to our own front line, we came back as far as the German front line together, but I got into the sap leading across No Man’s Land first and he stood up on the parapet, and said he would hop down in a minute. Well, I walked about 50 yards away from him and looked back, and he was missing, but just where I had left him a shell had fallen … you can rest assured that Private F.W. McKay met his death on the 20th July 1916, fighting for his country.”
The two days of intense fighting in which McKay perished became known as the Battle of Fromelles. Over 1,700 men were killed in his brigade alone, one of the most deadly days for the Australian forces during all of World War I.
Notices soon appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, Arthur and Jack Higgins contributing a tribute that was simple but genuine: "Our cobber, one of the best."
The Higgins family continued to publish annual newspaper memorials to Frank for several years. Margaret, meanwhile, treasured the photo that Frank had sent her from the battlefields, and held on to it for the rest of her life.
It is important to remember that the world of films and plays that Margaret inhabited was one where people sought not only leisure, but solace from a world that seemed to have gone mad. These activities provided those on the home front with a brief but blessed release from the appalling tragedy that was unfolding in other lands.
Frank McKay is one of the many victims of the Battle of Fromelles who is commemorated at the V.C. Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial.
A 1916 Film Diary - The Dog Days of July
Parramatta Rd as Margaret would have known it. Photo courtesy State Library of NSW.
With her illness worsening, Margaret’s nerves were further shaken on the 10th of July. “Met with accident, a tram and a dray on Parramatta Rd”. Sydney’s newspapers were regularly peppered with reports of such calamities between the new-fashioned public transport and the slower and older vehicles that were still common on the city’s streets. Though fatalities were common, it appears that no lives were lost in this case. The scene still left Margaret ”very shaken up indeed.”
Her illness shows no signs of abating, and she remains bedridden for most of the rest of the month, even missing her fiancée Fred’s birthday on the 12th. ”If my head does not ease aching, I will go silly,” she says on the 17th. “Dr Litchfield at night.”
Dr Litchfield was the neighbourhood doctor, his residential practice on Glebe Point Road sitting only a few blocks away from Margaret’s home. He was an expert on childrens’ health, and an advocate for better standards in babies hospitals and foundlings homes, and Margaret would already have known him very well through her advocacy of the Royal Alexandria Hospital for Children.
Despite the doctor’s best efforts, Margaret lost her voice to bronchitis for most of the remainder of the month. Eventually she is prescribed medicine and a throat spray which, to her shock, costs a whole pound - an enormous amount equivalent to a week’s rent.
This does the trick - but worse is yet to come during July.
A 1916 Film Diary: The Ne’er Do Well
'No pictures. Tired of being sick,' wrote Margaret on 28 June. By that weekend, she had recovered well enough to see The Ne’er Do Well at the Crystal Palace.
If she had enjoyed The Rosary earlier in the year, it would seem to follow that The Ne’er Do Well would also be to her taste, as the third in a series of films featuring the same major cast, director and production company, Selig.
Based on a novel by Rex Beach, who also wrote The Spoilers, The Ne’er Do Well is the story of Kirk Anthony (Wheeler Oakman), “an irresponsible, but likeable young male animal of good nature and heavy sex-punch,” according to the Sunday Times. One night, he is drugged and finds himself on a ship bound for Panama. Here, he meets the unhappily married Mrs Cortlandt, played by Kathlyn Williams and described as “a pretty woman, at what [playwright] Karen Michaelis termed ‘the dangerous age’” The two begin an affair.
Amidst picturesque scenes of the Panama Canal under construction, young Kirk undergoes various tests of character, eventually meeting and falling in love with a Spanish girl. Things end happily for Kirk, but not for Mrs Cortlandt.
When describing the risqué affair between a young man and a married older woman, reviews tried hard to have it both ways. Kathlyn Williams’ performance was both “a masterful, reposeful study, so faultless in deportment that no censor can reasonably delete a foot of her,” and one “ablaze with the dammed-up passion of an over-healthy woman, prisoned in humdrum.”
It is clear that American critics considered The Ne’er Do Well a major achievement. When most of their reviews were two paragraphs long, Moving Picture World dedicated a page and a half to discussing the film in detail. It was also lavishly praised in Australian reports. “The picture is a thing as big and fine as The Spoilers of two seasons ago, which at that time was the world’s best photoplay,” said the Sunday Times. “The film production actually improves on the story. It is in nine reels, every foot of the line reels is interesting, and in these days of much presentation and small satisfaction, any thing that, holds one past five reels must be great.”
How well the film had justified its length was a major theme of many reviews, at a time when film-makers were facing increasing accusations of stretching thin material with long passages of eye candy or unnecessary subplots. ‘He has built a photoplay of great length virtually without padding,’ wrote Motion Picture News of the film’s director, Colin Campbell. “It is action - action - action all the way.” “It is a film well worth spending an evening on,” agreed the Sunday Times.
Nevertheless, the fact that one reel was excised for Australian release - leaving a film that was still very long for the time - suggests local distributors feared audiences were not quite ready to dedicate so much time to a single film. It seems they need not have worried, as the Crystal Palace reported long queues for every showing of The Ne’er Do Well.
Perhaps Margaret was still feeling out of sorts, as this was one case when she disagreed with both the critics and the crowds, describing The Ne’er Do Well as a ’rotten programme’.
The Ne’er Do Well survives, and is in the collection of the USA’s Library of Congress.
The Crystal Palace had always been the centrepiece of George Street’s ‘Picture Block Theatres’. As The Ne’er Do Well made its debut, there was a major announcement that the Picture Block, now under the control of Union Theatres, would be rebadged as the Union Picture Theatres.
Union Theatres were a rising entity in the local distribution market. In less than a decade, they would become the most powerful single organisation in the Australian film industry, making forays into exhibition, distribution and production, under the energetic leadership of managing director Stuart F. Doyle.
The Union Theatres logo can be seen on the Crystal Palace’s curtains in this early photograph.
A 1916 Film Diary: The Circus of Death
There could not have been a greater contrast between Esmeralda and the second film Margaret saw on June 26 - one which had appeared in its native Italy under the title L’onore di Morire but was released in Australia as The Circus of Death.
Following the worldwide success of Cabiria (1914), Italy’s film industry had earned a reputation for screen extravaganzas of a scale that was unrivalled even by Hollywood. The Circus of Death was no exception, featuring detailed circus sequences containing hundreds of performers, and a dramatic Big Top fire.
Even these paled beside the film’s highlight, described as one of the most horrifying and unusual scenes ever captured on film.
Through various plot convolutions, a member of the circus abandons his wife and baby. The couple’s pet monkey is disturbed by the cries of the distraught mother, and steals the child, carrying it with him to the summit of a massive smokestack. The baby struggles free, and begins to crawl perilously close to the lip of the chimney. The fire department arrives, but even their tallest ladder cannot reach the top.
A female acrobat, having recently lost her own baby, volunteers to climb up and rescue the child. As she reaches the top, the chimp begins to attack her - an element some reports claimed was not in the script, but which the circus performer, real-life acrobat Mademoiselle Evelyn, was forced to take into her stride. However, “She soon mastered the ape, a kick sending him with a terrible shriek down the inside of the stack.”
It was claimed that the crucial sequence employed no special effects whatsoever, and was shot from a neighbouring smokestack using a telephoto lens. When the film was released in America in re-edited form as The Masque of Life, even more extravagant claims were made. Three humans and nine animals had lost their lives in the course of production! The chimp had been given a doll to carry up the chimney - which had now grown to 350 feet (105 metres) - but threw it away, taking the real baby instead! The director had been so horrified by the baby’s peril that he had attempted to commit suicide!
All of this is extremely unlikely, but the claims themselves demonstrate the way in which such thrill sequences were sold to an audience eager for ever-increasing spectacle. The idea that the participants were in genuine danger only added to the excitement.
Unfortunately, animal cruelty was not uncommon in Italian epics of the time. Early reports admitted that the poor chimpanzee, badly injured in the fall, had had to be put down. This did not stop a number of entrepreneurs in both America and Australia bringing different trained chimps to vaudeville, hyping them as the one that appeared in The Circus of Death's famous stunt.
Circus of Death marked the opening of the newly renovated Empress Theatre, and proved a sensation, with long queues reported for each session. After finishing at the Empress, it was transferred to the larger Lyric Theatre for a further week.
It is tempting to speculate that the smokestack sequence sat in the back of the mind of producer Meriam C. Cooper, only to emerge when he began to plan his famous epic of the 1930s - King Kong (1933).
A 1916 Film Diary: Esmeralda
The cold Margaret had contracted earlier in the month proved hard to shake. With a new system of accounting to be introduced at the brushwork factory, she managed to drag herself in to work, but ended up spending several days bedridden with bronchitis.
To celebrate her emergence from the sickroom, Margaret attended no less than two films on the same day - Mary Pickford’s Esmeralda at the Globe Theatre, and Circus of Death, at the Lyric Theatre.
Esmeralda was one of a number of Pickford’s films that were based on works by Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of The Little Princess and The Secret Garden. Famous Players-Lasky reported having received many requests to transform Esmeralda, a popular stage play, into a starring vehicle for ‘Little Mary’.
The rags-to-riches storyline of Esmeralda was cautionary rather than aspirational. When valuable ore is discovered on her family farm, Esmeralda’s mother (Ida Waterman) begins to scorn their former life. Rather than see her marry her humble childhood sweetheart, David (Charles Waldron), the mother claims that he has died, and instead pairs her with a slimy and secretly impoverished Count. David discovers the ruse on Esmeralda’s wedding day, and a dramatic confrontation ensues.
It seems that Esmeralda was emblematic of the difficult transition from shorts to feature films. Several critics noted the thinness of the story - it took four reels to tell but, according to one critic, might easily have been compressed into one - while Variety felt the film ended abruptly and without a proper resolution.
It is possible that audiences were expected to be so familiar with the source material that the subtleties of the plot need not be spelt out - a relatively common practice at the time, and one which can make some early features difficult to follow today. In any case, Variety concluded that ”Esmeralda as a feature picture could be called as of the old school. Feature picture making has passed beyond it.”
As was so often the case, it was the charismatic presence of Mary Pickford that lifted Esmeralda above the realms of the average. “Such a sympathetic characterisation does Miss Pickford render in the title role that Esmeralda and Little Mary will forever appear as one in our eyes,” said Motion Picture News. Audiences seemed unconcerned with any deficiencies in filmic technique; Moving Picture World reported that attendances at its initial season at New York’s Strand Theatre were second only to Pickford’s first enormous feature hit, Tess of the Storm Country (1914).
Though Margaret does not mention it, Esmeralda shared a bill with a comedy short, Charlie Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen, with Chaplin’s longtime leading lady Edna Purviance making a parody of the role that Margaret had so recently seen Theda Bara play.
Though she once considered destroying her older films in the fear that they may appear out-dated, Mary Pickford was ultimately a scrupulous stewardess of her own work, meaning that the vast majority of her feature films are still extant in good copies. Sadly, Esmeralda is a notable exception, the last known copy having been lost to decomposition during the 1950s.
Margaret judged the film “v[ery] good.”
A 1916 Film Diary: Martha’s Vindication
Like Let Katy Do It, which Margaret is likely to have seen earlier in the year, Martha’s Vindication was a five-reel Triangle Picture, directed by the Franklin brothers, though with D.W. Griffith’s name again featured prominently in advertisements despite his actual participation being minimal. Once again, Margaret saw it at the Audley Theatre.
Martha’s Vindication was the tale of two best friends, the virtuous Martha (Norma Talmadge) and the intransigent Dorothea (Seena Owen). When Dorothea gives birth out of wedlock, Martha promises to keep the secret. Some years later, Martha is accused of being the actual mother, and Dorothea, now married, refuses to admit to the truth. Martha becomes the subject of a moral witch-hunt before the truth is revealed.
The Mirror of Australia called it “one of the best and most enjoyable pictures yet shown by Triangle. The story works up to a fine, gripping climax in the last reel, which keeps excitement at high pitch.” Moving Picture World noted that the story, while complex, was skilfully wrought - a great advantage when many features suffered from being padded out to the length that audiences now demanded - but Motion Picture News considered that it relied too heavily on intertitles to spell out its story, an indication that the art of feature film writing still had some way to go.
It seems that the film had much in common with Lois Weber’s The Hypocrites, Moving Picture World noting that it contained “a strong undercurrent of protest against religious bigotry, particularly that of organisations which arrogate to themselves the privilege of making a superficial examination of the lives of members and of bringing about social destruction where social helpfulness would be more in accord with the spirit of Christianity.”
Sydney’s Sunday Times considered the film ‘superbly acted. It is a combination of many of the dramatic elements of Peggy and Tess of the Storm Country.’ Aside from Tully Marshall as the master of an orphanage and Josephine Crowell as his sanctimonious wife, two of the era’s loveliest stars appeared in the main roles of the two friends.
Seena Owen was born in Spokane, Washington of Danish and American parents. An unusually large number of future silent film stars lived in this area, and it was through one, director Marshall Neilan, that Seena gained her start in films. Later in 1916, she would make a notable appearance in the Babylonian sequences of D.W. Griffith’s follow-up to Birth of a Nation, Intolerance.
Norma Talmadge was widely considered one of the most beautiful women of the era, though it was not still photographs but moving pictures that showed her to her greatest advantage. This is ironic, because only a small proportion of Norma’s pictures survive today, and even fewer are widely available. Martha’s Vindication is another of her lost films.
By now, Triangle Pictures had established a policy of showing one film from each of its contributing producers on the same bill - a Mack Sennett comedy short, an Ince drama, and a Griffith romance. The notion of showing more than one feature on the same bill was quite revolutionary at the time, and yet it would become more popular in Australia than perhaps any other market.
Once the films moved to the suburban cinemas, only the Mack Sennett short was retained in support. It is likely that Sennett’s two-reel short, The Village Blacksmith, appeared alongside Martha’s Vindication as it showed in smaller cinemas. Either the Audley Theatre departed from this practice or Margaret did not think the film worth mentioning, as it does not appear in her diary.
A 1916 Film Diary: “Syd Saw ‘It Pays to Advertise’ “
Margaret was very busy during the early part of June, several times staying back at work after hours, or coming in to work on a Sunday. Before she knew it, another nasty cold had begun to take hold. This, combined with another late evening, might have been why she did not accompany Fred’s brother Syd to a performance of It Pays To Advertise, which was playing at the Criterion Theatre. The play marked the return of Hale Hamilton and Myrtle Tannehill, whom Margaret had seen earlier in the year in Twin Beds.
The Sunday Times suggests that Margaret missed a good night’s entertainment: “It Pays to Advertise is a comedy that is responsible for more hearty laughter than has been heard at the Criterion Theatre for a long time. This play has many moments of unadulterated farce, but it bubbles on unconcernedly from one act to another, carrying the audience with it by reason of the droll sayings and the infectious humor of the situations.”
Featured in a small role was Nancye Stewart, daughter of two of the Australian theatrical world’s most prominent figures: the legendary actress Nellie Stewart, sometimes described as Australia’s Sarah Bernhardt, and George Musgrove, the theatrical promoter who had passed away earlier in the year. Nancye’s career would extend well into the 1960s, and extend to radio and television.
It Pays To Advertise, a satire on the modern advertising industry, provided material for two films - a silent in 1919, and a sound film in 1931, which is today best known for providing Carole Lombard with one of her earliest sound roles, and Louise Brooks with one of her last.
Fred, Margaret, Syd, and Fred’s mother, 1919.
A 1916 Film Diary: Cora
Great naval battle in North Sea reported, writes Margaret on Monday 5 June, indicating that she had probably just read the lead story of the previous day’s Sydney Morning Herald, which began:
"A great naval battle between the British and German fleets occurred off the coast of Jutland, Denmark, on Wednesday afternoon."
This was the Battle of Jutland, the largest naval battle of World War I, and one in which many Australians participated. It was a contentious battle and remains so today, with opinions divided on which side won the greater tactical advantage. Nearly 10,000 sailors lost their lives in the battle, out of over 70,000 who participated. Such tragic figures were not uncommon at this stage of a dreadful war.
Margaret had more heartening things to think about on Wednesday, when she saw the five-reel Cora at the Piccadilly Theatre, which she described as “a good picture”. According to the Sunday Times, the storyline was as follows:
Cora, the daughter of a fallen operatic artist, being left destitute and taken care of by an artist’s model and being compelled to earn her living, also becomes a model. The artist falls in love with his beautiful model. Then comes the jealously of her rival, who plans her downfall, but fails through the devotion of the lover. A most exciting scene is shown in the last part — a fight between the lover and the rival.
The star of the piece was the beautiful Emily Stevens, the Broadway stage actress who was most famous for her portrayal of the title role of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. She was a cousin of the celebrated stage diva Minnie Maddern Fiske and, similar in appearance and acting style, was anticipated to be her natural successor.
Cora, made by the Rolfe Film Corporation for Metro Pictures, represented Emily’s film debut. All signs pointed to a glittering future. “Emily Stevens as ‘Cora' stands alone,” reported the Sunday Times. Photoplay's Adela Rogers St John named her amongst such exalted personalities as Eleanora Duse and Ellen Terry. Despite such anticipation, Emily remained in the movie industry for only five years. Making an inglorious return to the theatre in the early 1920s, her overwrought style was now seen as out of date. Reports attributed her death in 1928 to pneumonia, exacerbated by 'an overdose of medicinal narcotics'.
Alongside the main feature was shown the customary Australasian Gazette, a short entitled ‘Australian Recruits in the Making,’ and a episode of an exotic six-part serial, The Purple Iris. The star, Ola Humpreys, had been briefly but sensationally married to a real life member of the Turkish nobility, Ibrahim Hassan, fleeing only after he insisted on her adoption of a strict Islamic lifestyle. The series was hyped as an essentially autobiographical tale of ‘real life in a harem’.
Viewers of the serial were reminded of Humphries’ extensive appearances on the Sydney stage only a few years earlier, touring with the Charles Waldron Company’s production of The Squaw Man. It is very likely that either Margaret or Fred - or both - saw this production, as their son inherited from them a number of souvenir postcards from the show.
The Purple Iris, known in America as Under the Crescent, is thought to be entirely lost, though a novelisation by the pioneering actor-screenwriter Nell Shipman gives a good impression of what it was like.
Photo courtesy State Library of New South Wales
The Piccadilly Theatre, which is the building labelled ‘Public Benefit’ in this photograph from the 1930s, sat directly adjacent to the famous Lyceum Theatre - the venue for Sydney’s very first exhibition of motion pictures in 1896, and which would later host the Australian debut of The Jazz Singer. It was destroyed by fire in 1964. The present buildings on the two sites were constructed in 1991.
Of the gracious sandstone buildings in the older photo, only the City Tattersalls Club building, at left, and the Bank of New South Wales building, in the distance, survive today. It is easy to imagine that it might have been one of the banks at which it was Margaret, as bookkeeper at the Wilkins brush factory, would regularly visit to drop off cheques and doing other banking.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2014
Loath as I am to interrupt the 1916 Film Diary, it would be remiss of me to not include a run-down of the highlights of the 2014 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which concluded yesterday. So here they are!
It was wonderful to see a full house and an enthusiastic reception for Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the WWI-themed film that propelled Rudolph Valentino into the stratosphere. I liked the Mont Alto Picture Orchestra’s stark treatment of the war scenes, which often consisted of little more than percussive beats to imitate marching or gunfire - but it was difficult to create the same sense of menace that a big orchestral accompaniment can provide.
The Song of the Fishermen (1934), a lyrical Chinese film, tells with simple elegance the story of a pair of impoverished siblings, the gutsy ‘Kitty’ (Wang Renmei) and her sickly brother ‘Monkey’ (Han Langen), and their attempts to escape their life of poverty in a rural fishing village, with the help of the kindly son of the master for whom they were once servants (He Ziying). Donald Sosin’s piano accompaniment cleverly incorporated lead actress Wang Renmei’s rendition of the theme song, which was a Chinese hit of its day.
Midnight Madness (1928), one of the previously lost films repatriated from New Zealand, is the competently made but rather thin tale of a shopgirl (a cute Jacqueline Logan) who agrees to marry a rich diamond miner (Clive Brook) rather than the crooked boss whom, for unaccountable reasons, she really loves (Walter McGrail). Overhearing the ruse, Brook pretends to be penniless in order to teach the girl a lesson as they venture out into deepest darkest Africa, complete with lions. The cast does their best with a scenario that presents them with some flimsy plot points and inconsistent motivations, and the result is entertaining enough without feeling very substantial.
The Parson’s Widow (1920) - Imagine casting and production design by Bruegel and a scenario by Franz Kafka, and you’re halfway towards capturing the unique tone of this delightful early work by Carl Theodor Dreyer. The story concerns a young man (Einar Rød) in a strange dilemma: in order to marry his lady love, her father insists he must become a parson. If he becomes a parson, however, he is obliged to marry the late parson’s elderly and thrice-married widow - who may or may not be a witch. Matters work themselves to a warm and strangely poignant conclusion, and Dreyer shows himself as a real artist even at this early stage of his career. Matti Bye’s accompaniment might have seemed too sombre for any other comedy, but it was just right for this one. One of my favourites of the festival.
For those who have always wondered if they’d ever see it, the newly rediscovered and restored Ramona (1928) should not disappoint. It’s a slick, well-made and enjoyable slab of soap, short on psychological depth but long on pictorial beauty, with numerous shots composed as if they were paintings come to life. In the title role, Dolores del Rio is the high-spirited ward of a stern Spanish-American mother, who, upon falling in love with an Indian, discovers that she herself is part-Indian. The racial angle is not covered in any great depth, although an Indian massacre is surprisingly brutal. Though Carewe’s eye is firmly on the epic, there are a number of lovely minor touches that push the film above the average.
Likewise, where Dolores Del Rio could have gotten away with sitting around looking staggeringly beautiful (which she does), she contributes a spirited performance that largely avoids straying into cutesy-poo. Warner Baxter is nearly unrecognisable as her Indian love, Alessandro. Top marks to the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra’s lush score, and also for dispensing with the famous theme song in a fun singalong prior to the actual film (though it still remained lodged in my head for days).
I already reviewed The Good Bad Man (1916) when it played at Cinecon last year; I have not much to add to my earlier review except to say that this new restoration looks great and has been put together with loving care and attention to detail.
Serge Bromberg’s Treasure Trove comprised three shorts: a work-in-progress preview of a restoration of Chaplin’s A Night In The Show(1915) from the original camera negative; David Shepherd’s reconstruction of the two-reel version of Fatty Arbuckle’s The Waiter’s Ball(1916) and, in the presence of Fernando Peña, who made the gobsmacking discovery we were privileged to see: the ‘new’ version of Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith (1922).
I was not prepared for this to be such a revelation. A few extra gags? Well, that will be fun enough, thought I - but it’s so much more. It turns out that the version of The Blacksmith with which we’re all familiar was merely a sketch. This is the finished drawing - a better and more coherent film which not only includes some funnier gags than the ones we know, but ties the whole thing up into a proper narrative. It’s exciting enough to discover this new material, but even more so to be able to say that we need no longer automatically rank The Blacksmith amongst the lesser Keaton shorts.
As an added bonus, we saw another fascinating new discovery - a previously lost 1908 cartoon by Emile Cohl, thought to be his second film - and therefore the second ever animated film in existence - an even more surreal and abstract work than his famous Phantasmagorie (1908). It was found on Ebay by Serge Bromberg, and purchased for $7!
The Epic of Everest (1924)’s hypnotic images were greatly enhanced by an eerie accompaniment by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockus that gaves something of the sense of spiritual quest with which the tragic 1924 expedition was regarded. As the film continues, the figures before us - captured at a great distance away using telephoto lenses - begin to shrink. Smaller and smaller they become, until it is almost no surprise that two are destined to blink out all together, a moment that is chillingly captured on film.
From figures being swallowed by nature, we move to figures being swallowed by the great metropolis of London in Underground (1928). It’s a quintessential late silent - a simple story, strongly and evocatively told with an evident debt to German Expressionism; The Crowd (1928) might form a good basis for comparison. Four people meet in the London underground and are subsequently linked by fate - an amorous but ultimately sinister Cockney electrician (Cyril McLaghlen), the shopgirl for whom he nurses an unrequited love (a beautiful and understated Elissa Landi), the sweet-natured porter whom she prefers (Brian Aherne), and the lovelorn girl the electrician has spurned (Norah Baring, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Mrs Danvers). When matters turn sour, we are plunged into an unexpected but genuinely edge-of-your-seat chase that leads through a power station and into the bowels of the great Underground itself.
It is astonishing to note that this excellent film was critically lambasted upon release; I can only assume that the British critical fraternity suffered from the same self-flagellatory tendencies as their equivalents in Australia. Highly recommended.
The German film Under the Lantern (1928) has ultimately feels like a noble but failed experiment in social realism. In a Diary of a Lost Girl-style plot, the essentially virtuous good-time girl Else (Lissy Arna) struggles to escape from a spiral of degradation, drifting first to the cabaret and later to streetwalking, with her lover and his best friend fruitlessly attempting to arrest her fall. Glimpses of lost landmarks such as the Kaiser Wilhelm Church make it is an interesting document of Weimar Berlin, but a circuitous plot means its ninety minutes feel interminable, and the main character’s frustrating passivity as she tumbles towards her fate makes it is hard to sustain interest in her character.
A Max Linder double opened Sunday’s viewing - the short Max Wants a Divorce (1917), followed by the more substantial and amusing feature, Seven Years Bad Luck (1921). A series of very funny set pieces and distract us from the fact that there isn’t much to the plot - to my mind, the mirror sequence is even more cleverly achieved than the more famous Marx Brothers version. Linder’s zany bug-eyed persona is appealing, and it is a shame that more of his work does not survive.
The intriguing Dragnet Girl (1933) is certainly not your typical Yasujiro Ozu film - a stylishly shot, smartly paced and entertaining dispatch from the front lines of a juvenile delinquency epidemic that never occurred, in a fetishised pseudo-American Tokyo that never existed. An impressionable young boxer (Koji Mitsui) falls under the influence of faded boxer-turned-crook Joji (Joji Oka), much to the concern of his innocent sister (Sumiko Mizukubo). The Dragnet Girl of the title is Joji’s lover, the appealing Kinuyo Tanaka who, inspired by the sister’s virtuousness, decides to try and find a way out of the hoodlum’s life. Guenter Buchwald contributed an effective jazzy score.
The wryly humorous Swedish film The Girl in Tails (1926) was one of the great delights of the festival. The lovely but downtrodden Katja (Magda Holm) is neglected by her father, who is happy to lavish money on expensive suits for her brother (Erik Zetterstrom) but refuses to lay out a penny on an evening dress for a swanky graduation ball. Sick of her mistreatment, Katja takes matters into her own hands in dramatic fashion, arriving in her brother’s most expensive suit. The incident creates a scandal amongst the small-minded local townspeople - the most formidable of which is played by the film’s director, Karin Swanstrom - but also leads to her emancipation.
The witty intertitles, a number of quirky elements, such as the ‘herd of learned women’ who have formed a kind of rural sorority, and a sense of genuine empathy amidst the comedy ensures that a concept that might have been thin and gimmicky in other hands remains good to the last. Katja’s emergence from her shell drew genuine cheers from the audience. A really fun experience, with no little thanks to another quality Mont Alto accompaniment.
The Sign of Four (1923) is a solid and serviceable adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes tale, shot on location in London and starring Eille Norwood, reportedly Arthur Conan Doyle’s preferred Holmes. Norwood’s interpretation of Holmes is light on the quirk and heavy on the quiet watchfulness and razor-sharp intellect. The story deviates from the original, but a terrific speedboat chase along the Thames provides the action climax.
Like all the best late silents, the exquisite Harbour Drift (1929) is based around the simplest of tales, told with sensitivity and visual style. An elderly beggar, a young dock worker and a world-weary streetwalker are yoked together in their pursuit of a pearl necklace, dropped by a haughty wealthy woman, which could provide all three with a ticket out of their crushing poverty.
What Under the Lantern sketches in crayons, Harbour Drift renders in vivid pastels. Its vision of city life is grim, but it’s drawn with compelling beauty. Lissy Arna is superb as the streetwalker; within the first five minutes, she gives ten times the performance she gave in Under the Lantern. Shot in high Expressionist style, it’s visually stunning, emotionally resonant, and also unflinching. Aside from the customary glimpses of gay couples of both sexes, we see a drug addict snorting cocaine, and a realistic pre-sex scene that continues for some time past the point many other films would have faded to black.
Harbour Drift is a real discovery - a beautiful and beautifully sad film. The gem of the festival.
The Navigator concluded proceedings in style, with a full and appreciative house that contained several Keaton family members. The Matti Bye Ensemble’s accompaniment, though a little too foley-heavy for my taste, was particularly effective during the underwater sequences.
A 1916 Film Diary: Birth of a Nation
A special report on the Australian release and reception of this landmark film.
D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is a film of two parts. Firstly, it is a story of the American Civil War, told through the eyes of both a Northern and a Southern family, and culminating in the dramatic assassination of president Abraham Lincoln.
Had the film ended there, it might have been remembered for its technical innovations, its all-star cast, its elaborate staging, its scenes of vast spectacle - in fact, anything other than the second and very different storyline that is introduced in Part 2: a tale of the South’s postwar reconstruction which portrays the Ku Klux Klan - absurdly, as we know today - as the noble saviours of a besieged South. This view of the period has long since been dismissed as historically inaccurate, and highly influenced by ingrained prejudices of the early 20th century.
Thus, Birth of a Nation became one of the most controversial films of all time, lauded for its technical achievements but despised for its egregious approach to race relations.
Attempts were made to ban the film in a number of major American cities. The Chicago Tribune published a lengthy editorial on the issue, suggesting that while it generally opposed censorship, the immersive nature of the motion picture warranted caution:
"The moving picture not so much makes it spectators know more about the period; it makes them live through it, vicariously but intensely, and the city government has said, in effect, that the citizens of Chicago ought not to live through it, and they ought not, as a matter of policy, to enter a theatre from which they must come with prejudices and race hatreds inflamed."
The fact that the movie’s release coincided with a revival of the Klan, an organisation that had previously been dismissed as a sinister irrelevancy, suggests that these concerns were not misplaced.
A representative for Griffith, George Bowles, was dispatched to Australia to supervise Birth of a Nation's Easter release, a joint venture between Griffith's Epoch Producing Company and Australia's J.C. Williamson theatre company.
The film was to be one of Australia’s first experiences with the ‘roadshow’ format of exhibition. Instead of debuting in the city and moving to the less expensive suburban cinemas, it would be an exclusive engagement, playing only at the city’s prestigious Theatre Royal. A premium experience meant a premium ticket price, justified by the extraordinary expense of the film’s production and presentation, but also designed to demonstrate that the cinema, having now attained the same quality as the best live theatre, should incur a similar fee.
In explaining the film’s genesis to local audiences, Bowles demonstrated little reticence about publicising the elements that had caused such controversy in America, and which Griffith himself would spending the rest of his career attempting to live down:
"The Rev. Thomas Dixon, of South Carolina, must be credited with the idea. Fifteen or 20 years ago he wrote two books, called ‘The Clansman’ and ‘The Leopard’s Spots.’ These were made into a play which was called ‘The Clansman,’ and which was one of the biggest popular successes that the American stage ever knew. It told the story of the American Civil War from the viewpoint of the defeated South, and it showed the horrors of the domination of the black man over the white which came when the slaves were freed and were given the franchise. Mr. Griffith saw in it an ideal theme for a great photo-play. So the Rev. Dixon and he got together.”
Though he did not resile from mentioning the controversy the film had engendered in America, Mr Bowles’ admission that in many major cities, police had to be brought in ‘for protection against the negroes’ sounded more in the nature of a boast than a warning. While some Australian advertisements promoted the film as ‘a tremendous argument for a White Australia’, the fact that these are comparatively few suggests it did not prove particularly useful as an advertising angle.
Questions to newspaper advice columns about the true nature of the Ku Klux Klan suggests that not all Australians unquestioningly accepted their positive portrayal in Birth of a Nation or the film’s picture of race relations, particularly given that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was already known and beloved in Australia. The average person’s prior knowledge of the organisation was likely to have derived from In The Clutches of the Ku Klux Klan (1913), a short that had shown in Australia less than two years previously, and which included a far less flattering portrayal of the organisation.
These qualifications aside, the sobering fact remains that if there was any widespread outcry against Birth of a Nation's exhibition in Australia, it appeared nowhere in the mainstream media. It seems that Australians largely accepted the film's portrait of the reconstruction as historically accurate.
No expense was spared in ensuring the quality of the film’s presentation. The Theatre Royal was decorated in an American Civil War theme. Programmes were distributed by ‘curtsey girls’ in full crinolines. A new projection booth was constructed at distance from the screen judged optimal for image quality and size, and new projectors specially imported. In all, 51 cases of additional equipment were reported to have accompanied the film to Australia. Four touring companies - three for Australia, one for New Zealand - would allow exhibition to take place simultaneously in different major cities.
A significant innovation was introduced in the film’s projection. Owing to the need to change reels, films of the time would usually proceed in ten-minute intervals, with a short gap between each. This was not the case with Birth of A Nation, which allowed the audience to become thoroughly immersed in the action. ”This is accomplished by the use of two machines, which are automatically regulated so that one reel melts into the other without the slightest interruption,” explained Mr Bowles. At a phenomenal duration advertised very precisely as ‘two hours and forty three minutes’, audiences might have found it difficult to keep the thread of the story otherwise.
A 25-piece orchestra performed the same specially composed score that had accompanied the film’s season in New York. Like Carmen a few months earlier, this was conducted by the distinguished Gustave Slapoffski. Born in London to a Russian father and Australian-born mother, he had worked at several major British theatres before being brought to Australia in 1900 by impresario George Musgrove, operator of the Tivoli vaudeville chain. Slapoffski had since built a solid reputation in his adoptive land, introducing Australia to the operas of Wagner and conducting at the opening of Australia’s first Federal Parliament.
Given all of these painstaking preparations, was Birth of a Nation an Australian success?
In fact, the film’s initial performance fell well below expectations, for a number of reasons. American history was not a subject that many Australians knew or cared to know about. Three hours was a truly daunting amount of time to dedicate to a film when fifty or sixty minutes was considered plenty. According to America’s Motion Picture News, there was a feeling amongst many Australian viewers that after such heavy promotion, the film itself came as a disappointment.
Above all of these were the challenges posed by the roadshow format. The Theatre Royal were contractually obliged not only to provide an exclusive engagement but to charge an unheard-of six shillings for the best seats in the house - an amount equivalent to a day’s wage for Privates such as Margaret’s brothers. Anticipating that the film would eventually make its way to the less expensive suburban theatres despite all claims to the contrary, audiences stayed away.
By early May, attendances remained so poor that the theatre was forced to slash its ticket prices, charging a top cost of 2/6 for an evening show, and 2/- for a matinee. This was still relatively expensive when a film could be seen elsewhere for as little as sixpence, and the best seats at other major theatres such as the Lyceum cost only 1/6.
However, the price cut seems to have had the desired effect. A second print was pressed into service, allowing Sydney to see the film for a further month and the Melbourne season to begin on schedule. Prices there remained lower than promoters had initially planned, but high enough that advertisements clearly remained anxious to justify them.
The three touring units then proceeded to take the film to small towns across Australia, each of which enjoyed a comparable experience - and ticket price - to that of the city.
There is no doubt that these tweaks resulted in larger audiences, but the film’s commercial performance remained of concern. In October, a projectionist sued for breach of contract, revealing that the Adelaide leg had failed to cover costs, leading to the remainder of the roadshow being curtailed and his services being terminated. Moving Picture World also reported that a major tour of Queensland was cancelled due to poor attendances.
By the end of 1916, it appears that the roadshow format had been largely abandoned. The film at last began appearing in the suburban outlets it had previously promised to avoid, and playing repeat engagements in cities in which it had already been shown. These showings dispensed with the expensive orchestral accompaniment and introduced ‘popular pricing’.
George Bowles attempted to put a good face on the failure of the roadshow strategy when speaking to the Australian media. To his home market, he was more indiscreet. A rather impolitic article appeared in the New York Review, in which Bowles expressed his desire to get home as soon as possible, grumbling that an Australia ‘impoverished by war’ had not proven sufficiently profitable.
A number of unflattering stories about Mr Bowles began to appear in Sydney’s Sunday Times and Referee newspapers. Not coincidentally, the editor of both was prominent showman Hugh D. McIntosh, who had failed in his own attempts to secure Birth of a Nation for its Australian season, after having made a great success showing the Italian epic Cabiria (1914) in a similar format. McIntosh urged the man he mockingly branded ‘Birth’ Bowles to “pack up his carpet bag and get away” as soon as possible.
Hugh D. McIntosh
America, which would not join World War I for another year, was not constrained by wartime shortages as Australia and England were, and local showmen were bitter about the way this had permitted America to solidify its standing as the international leader in the motion picture business. As such, there could not have been worse timing for Bowles’ comments, and a fraught correspondence between the two men continued in McIntosh’s newspapers for some time before being set to rest, McIntosh still permitting himself the last word:
The public ran for a while to see his picture, although we had had many better pictures in regard to dramatic coherence and artistry of presentment. But Bowles was a person of the slightest importance, personally and otherwise, and people soon discovered that. The discovery stung him, and so he began to sting Australia.
Australia scarcely noticed.
Margaret must have found that the experience was worth the extra cost, as she described Birth of a Nation as ’something wonderful’.
With thanks to Donald Binks for photographs and additional information about Mr Slapoffski.