A 1916 Film Diary: ‘Never Went To Movies For Once’
March 1916 proved to be a difficult month for Margaret. She had recently been very busy at work in preparation for an audit, sometimes not getting home until 11pm at night. ‘Never went to movies for once,’ she notes on the first Saturday of March. For various reasons, she found it difficult to set aside time for the movies for several weeks.
Late in February, the Higgins family had begun to pack up their home in Bridge Street in order to move to a house on nearby Westmoreland Street. This, like their previous house, is still standing.
The new house was much smaller than their previous one, but it was also emptier. By now, brothers Jack and Arthur Higgins were in Egypt, where Australian troops were participating in the conquest of the Sinai Penninsula and the defence of the Suez Canal. Margaret and her family eagerly awaited letters and photos from the two brothers and their close friend, Frank McKay.
"Letters from Egypt," she notes on the 22nd of the month. "Jack seems full up, poor little kid." And indeed, Jack had only just turned eighteen when he enlisted in September the previous year. Throughout the year, Margaret would record a constant stream of male friends and relatives enlisting and setting out for the battlefield.
Another brother, 21 year old Cecil, remained at home. This was the result of a family decision that one of the brothers should not enlist - an idea fuelled by as much by practicality as by compassion. Margaret’s father had been injured in an industrial accident a few years earlier, and the family were largely being supported by its older children. Sparing two breadwinners was difficult enough. They could not afford to spare three.
The matter of which brother would stay was settled with the drawing of straws, of which baby sister Grace, almost three years old, was given responsibility. Cecil’s was the straw she drew, and so he remained in Australia. He worked as a labourer by day, but by night, he continued to build up his profile as one of Sydney’s best-known amateur boxers, under the name of ‘Eddie Corrigan’. The previous year, he had even boxed a fundraising exhibition match alongside the legendary Les Darcy.
Quite aside from the war, Margaret was beginning to feel the strain of her busy workload. On the 8th of March she visited a Dr Whiteman at Lewisham Hospital to find out why she had been feeling so run down. The hospital’s strong connections with the Catholic church may have suggested it to her, but she was not impressed, complaining about the doctor’s ‘very old fashioned methods. Not up to RPAH [Royal Prince Alfred Hospital].’ She became sicker as the month passed, eventually returning to RPAH, where she was diagnosed with bronchitis and prescribed bed rest.
There were also more mundane worries to deal with. The walls of the new house had to be ‘kalsomined’, or painted with whitewash, a job Margaret clearly loathed. She also spent much of the month making clothes for her sister Grace and Mollie, a child who was a ward of the Wilkins family and a de facto family member, who would shortly be going to boarding school in Mittagong.
In short, it was a tense month for the Higgins household, and it left little time for pleasant diversions.
A 1916 Film Diary: The Outer Edge
The Outer Edge was a film about a difficult topic. Perth’s Daily News summed up its storyline:
A physician is dragged down to the depths by the drug habit, losing position and wealth. After pawning every available possession (except a revolver) to satisfy his craving for the drug, he returns to his cheap lodging house to end his life. Half stupefied, he enters the wrong room, where he finds a woman and daughter almost starving. He takes his revolver and pawns it to buy food for them. His own act of kindness gives him a new view of life and he struggles to break the habit. Many times he almost falls again, but he is helped by a nurse whom he had known years before. Finally he throws off the yoke altogether and wins back to manhood, through the love of a woman.
Drug addiction was an emerging societal ill in the early 20th century. Articles quietly discussed the ‘morphia habit’ and the competing new theories on how to cure it. Cautionary films with titles such as The Devil’s Needle (1916) began to appear. Depictions of morphine injection in films of this period would sometimes be quite graphic, even by modern standards.
The matter was not taken quite so seriously by everyone. Douglas Fairbanks’ The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916) includes a drug addicted character - even named ‘Coke Ennyday’ - as a figure of fun. The following year, in Charlie Chaplin’s Easy Street (1917), Chaplin’s ‘Little Tramp’ mistakenly sits on an addict’s needle, which gives him an extra burst of pep with which to rescue a damsel in distress.
Henry B. Walthall was the distinguished actor who played the film’s main role. Earlier that year, Australian film fans voted Walthall their favourite dramatic actor in the Mirror of Australia's popularity poll. In a few months, they would be able to see him in perhaps his best known role today: Colonel Ben Cameron in D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation.
It may have been the participation of Walthall that inspired Margaret to attend a film that would not have interested her otherwise. Moving Picture World saw the film as being ”peculiarly adapted to the temperament of Henry B. Walthall and [leading lady] Warda Howard … Mr Walthall brings out with intense realism all the agonies of the victim suffering from the lack of drug’, while The Mirror of Australia went one step further, stating that ’This three-reel Essanay drama depends too much upon the acting and popularity of Henry Walthall for its success.”
The Outer Edge was no doubt a dramatic tour-de-force for Walthall, but Margaret concluded it was ‘not my style of picture’.
The Globe Theatre sat across the road from the Queen Victoria Building on George Street, easily recognisable by the large globe on its roof. It is best remembered for its sensational six-month season of Rudolph Valentino’s The Sheik in 1921-22. The theatre became synonymous with Australian Valentino fans, who also ensured Blood and Sand, The Son of the Sheik, and a 1923 revival of The Sheik, were huge moneymakers for the Globe.
By this time, the theatre was part of an area of George and Pitt Streets that contained so many theatres that it was dubbed the “White Way Block”, echoing the famous ‘great white way’ of Broadway, New York. Perhaps because of market over-saturation, or the fact that it was quite small compared to its competitors, the Globe Theatre closed at the end of 1924. Its lower levels were converted to retail, while the upstairs auditorium operated for many years as a radio studio.
Though its signature globe has been gone for nine decades, the Globe Theatre building still exists today, one of the few surviving relics of both the Waddingtons cinema chain and the era in which dozens of different theatres sat within a few blocks of one another in central Sydney.
A 1916 Film Diary: ‘Rotten Pictures at the Lyric’
Margaret returned to the cinema for the weekend of 19 February, but again found that her choice was not ideal. “Rotten pictures at the Lyric,” she grumbles in her diary, not even bothering to name the films in question.
Newspaper reports reveal that she saw a three picture program: Selig’s The House of A Thousand Candles, Thanhouser’s The Conductor’s Classy Champion, and an edition of Topical Budget, the British newsreel. According to other advertisements, that week’s edition of the Budget featured war news, including ‘recruits at physical training and in marching order.’
Earlier that day, Margaret had attended an address by the New South Wales Premier, William Holman, at Glebe Town Hall, not far from her home. Holman was unveiling a Roll of Honour for local soldiers fighting in the Great War. The Sydney Morning Herald recorded his address:
They were now doing honour to men nearly all of whom were still fighting - men whom they hoped to welcome back to Australia. (Cheers) They were now well advanced in the second year of the war, and he [Holman] was sure their feelings, like his own had been expressed by the French War Minister, who said recently: “Eighteen months ago France longed for peace; today it longs for war.” (Cheers).
Margaret called the event a “crowded spectacle. Very good.” However, knowing that her brothers Arthur and Jack were amongst the names on the roll, and amongst those on their way to the Egyptian battlefield, may have given her some very equivocal thoughts.
The Conductor’s Classy Champion was a two-reel film telling the story of Conductor 786, nicknamed Con, who ‘has a peculiar facility of being lucky at the right time,’ according to Moving Picture World. Con is warned he will be fired unless he can contain the rowdy behaviour of his train passengers. He enlists the help of ‘the great Cordelia’, hammer throwing champion of America, who ‘proceeds to make a new long-distance hurling record’ out of the criminals and, giving Con the credit, thus saves his job.
This sort of farce was not to Margaret’s taste, and it is no surprise that she did not enjoy it, particularly if she was in a melancholy frame of mind.
Moving Picture World - 28 August 1915
The House of a Thousand Candles, on the other hand, seemed to have much to recommend it. It was a prestigious feature-length production, and gained good reviews. Moving Picture World's reviewer, Margaret I. Macdonald, described the source novel an ideal choice for the screen, well adapted by writer Gilson Willetts, and shot with a high degree of technical polish. The cast was also praised; leading lady Grace Darmond was 'particularly charming'. Setting aside a few minor flaws, Macdonald declared the picture 'one of the best'.
Moving Picture World’s extremely detailed summary gives the impression of a rather complicated plot. A sort of proto-horror movie, the story concerned an eccentric old baron who lives in the house of the title, which is full of ’secret passageways, gloomy vaults and hidden panels.’ After his apparent death, his will leads his grandson on a mysterious and bizarre adventure in search of a million dollar bequest. A twist ending was carefully omitted from most reviews.
Maybe the program that night truly was ‘rotten’. Maybe Margaret was distracted by more serious matters. We will never know, as not a single one of the films that were shown that night has survived.
The Lyric Theatre (1911) was situated some way away from the other theatres within the ‘Picture Block’, sitting at the unfashionable end of George Street in the district of Haymarket, a short walk from Railway Square, the transport hub of central Sydney. The site of the Lyric is now home to a combined apartment and shopping complex, the Capitol Terrace.
As its name suggests, Haymarket had been Sydney’s major marketplace since the early days of European settlement. The site was chosen because of its close proximity to the waterside, allowing shipments to be easily transported to market for a quick sale. Theatres and pubs inevitably sprang up in the area for the entertainment of shoppers.
One such theatre was not much more than a month away from completion when Margaret visited the Lyric Theatre. The former Belmore Market building was in the process of conversion to an elaborate indoor circus-cum-cabaret venue known as Wirth’s Hippodrome. The Wirth family of circus performers operated the Hippodrome for about a decade, before its conversion to a lavish ‘atmospheric’-style cinema, renamed the Capitol Theatre. Thankfully, the Capitol not only still exists but has been lovingly restored. An echo of 1916 can still be seen in both its facade and in its curved orchestra pit - a relic of the time when it once formed the edge of the Wirth’s circus ring.
A 1916 Film Diary: Under Fire (Stage Play)
After finding no favour in Little Miss Brown, Margaret skipped the movies the following week, instead visiting the Criterion Theatre for a performance of the play Under Fire. Following the season of Twin Beds that she had attended the previous month, the theatre had been closed and redecorated, and now featured an attractive new colour scheme described as ‘old ivory and crushed rose’.
Under Fire's war-themed story was set in the present day:
The first act of ‘Under Fire' introduces a German spy, Henry Streetman. Though he has a wife and children in his own country, he goes through the ceremony of marriage with an English girl, Ethel Willoughby. Ethel is governess in the home of Sir George Wagstaff, and one of Streetman’s plans is that through her he shall obtain possession of Admiralty secrets officially known to Sir George.
An Irish Guardsman whom the girl once loved makes Ethel aware of her new husband’s true nature. The action ranges across German-occupied Belgium, the British trenches, and the battle-scarred French front, as the German spy is thwarted and the girl reunited with her former paramor.
The play was extremely well received. “It was significant that the crowded audience reserved most of its applause for the terminations of the acts, when it came with a will,” reported the Sunday Times. “The reality of the play was too deeply felt for scattered recognition.”
It was a major production with more than forty characters, complete with very realistic stage effects - perhaps a little too realistic for some. The night before Margaret attended the play, there was a sensational incident involving an audience member who was a survivor of the Gallipoli landing. After being knocked unconscious by a shell explosion, Gunner D. Dunn had remained in a coma for three weeks, awaking to discover that he had lost the ability to speak in anything above a whisper.
A mock bomb explosion during Under Fire's third act must have brought back horrific memories, and Gunner Dunn fainted from the shock. Carried from the theatre by his friends, he came to - and then found that he had spontaneously recovered his voice.
The play was an unusual choice for Margaret, who had steered clear of propaganda films such as the Australian-produced The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell, which was then creating a sensation in Sydney. Nevertheless, she deemed it ‘a good programme’.
The play’s star, Frank Harvey, had been brought to Australia from his native Britain two years earlier by the J.C. Williamson company. Equally talented as an actor and a playwright, he would, during an English sojourn in the 1920s, give a young Laurence Olivier a breakthrough role in his play, The Last Enemy.
Returning to Australia, where he settled permanently in the early 1930s, Harvey became a significant figure in the Australian film industry both as a performer and primary screenwriter for two local companies, Efftee and Cinesound.
A 1916 Film Diary - Little Miss Brown
After a quiet start to the year, work at the F.W. Wilkins brushwork factory was clearly picking up. “[Ran] all around town for Syd’s cheques,” Margaret complains on 1 February. “Temp 100 degrees.” For most of the month, she would restrict her film viewings only to Friday and Saturday nights.
So many of the films that Margaret selected throughout the year were featured in Sydney’s Sunday Times newspaper that it seems that she was a regular reader, maybe buying a copy each Sunday and scanning its entertainment page for recommendations for the coming week.
This is probably how she decided to see Little Miss Brown on Friday 4 February. The Sunday Times review sounded promising:
Vivian Martin, the winsome heroine of ‘The Wishing Ring,’ leads as Betty Brown — sweet and pretty to look at, but who is an egregious coquette and flirt. She fools with a pair of lovers, and as the result of her indecision she lands herself into a pretty mess at a Harford Hotel, where she is cajoled into passing herself off as the wife of a man whose real wife is on her way to meet him. Betty just butts into a sea of trouble.
Many reviews described the film as a farce. Margaret seems to have preferred more naturalistic drama and comedy, and her verdict on Little Miss Brown was blunt: ‘Not good’.
Little Miss Brown was one of many popular Broadway plays that found their way onto the screen during this period. The sophistication of a wordy stage comedy did not always translate well to the silent screen. ”Outside of a goodly amount of publicity for Hartford, Connecticut, and a bit of a mix up in a hotel in that city, there is little to it,” said Variety of Little Miss Brown. Other reviews suggest the beauty of the film’s setting in the Adirondack Mountains was its chief virtue.
Margaret specifically notes the participation of ‘Viv Martin’, it may have been the star, who had made an Australian popular success of her first film, The Wishing Ring (1914), who attracted Margaret to the film. Variety certainly deemed her the best thing in the picture: “Miss Martin easily takes first honours. She is of the dainty type of screen artists. Her personality is screenly perfect.”
Vivian Martin was one of the many actresses whose gentle looks and girlish persona ensured that she remained in vogue during the reign of Mary Pickford. Many studios attempted to develop stars to rival ‘Little Mary’; like the real Pickford, Vivian had made her start as a child stage actress.
After the short-lived World Film Company for whom she worked was dissolved, Vivian joined Pickford at the Famous Players company. By the early 1920s she briefly headed her own production company, but returned to the stage not long afterwards.
Whether it was the film, the star, or perhaps just the heat that was making her feel irritable, Margaret did not remember Little Miss Brown fondly!
A 1916 Film Diary: ‘Some Cinema News’
For the 28th of January, Margaret simply notes that she saw ‘some cinema news’ at the Empress Theatre. Whether she didn’t stay for the remainder of the program or didn’t feel it worthy of remarking upon, we don’t know, though she was usually very vocal when she wasn’t impressed by what she saw.
Presuming she did remain for the whole program, the main feature she saw was a Selig two-reeler film that was advertised as Shadows of the Shade but was actually named The Shadow and the Shade.
Though Moving Picture World provided a detailed summary, Pictures and the Picturegoer captured the essence of The Shadow and the Shade very succinctly: ’How a silhouette at a window makes it appear to a jealous husband that a faithful wife is in another man’s room,’ adding that they considered it ‘an unusually strong subject’. Though it was advertised as a ‘special’, shorter films such as this would soon decline in importance as the full length feature film attained dominance. Neither of its stars, Lamar Johnstone and Stella Razetto, are well remembered today, though both were quite prolific.
Although advertisements for the Empress Theatre often made note of which news items would be shown, the news that so interested Margaret remains a mystery for the moment.
The Empress Theatre was part of a series of theatres on George Street Sydney that was so dense it was known as ‘the Picture Block’. It also included the Lyric Theatre, the Colonial, and the Crystal Palace. All four were operated by the early film mogul, J.D. Williams. By 1916, Williams had returned to his native America, where he was a founding member of First National Pictures, the pioneering production company that was later absorbed into Warner Brothers.
Originally known as the Colonial Number 2, the Empress received its new name in 1913. In 1939, it was given a stunning Art Deco remodelling. Known for many years as the Victory and later the Rapallo, it was demolished in 1984 to construct the immense complex of modern cinemas which is today all that remains of Sydney’s busiest cinema district.
A 1916 Film Diary: Siren’s Reign
Perhaps Should A Wife Forgive? gave Margaret a taste for vamp-themed films - the very next day she saw another, Siren’s Reign. The film was produced by the New York-based Kalem company, in response to the popularity of yet another proto-Vamp film, The Vampire (1913).
Motography provided a summary of Siren’s Reign, a film which appears not to have survived:
Upon the death of her brother, Marguerite Morrison (Anna Q. Nilsson) takes his place as a member of the firm of Blake & Morrison. She secretly loves Blake (Harry Millarde), but he is blinded by the beauty of Grace (Alice Hollister), a chorus girl, and marries her. A year passes and the firm is in financial difficulties, due to Grace’s extravagance. Even her child does not interest her.
Grace soon returns to the stage, and begins an affair with another man. Openly taunted when he confronts her, Blake strangles Grace in a fit of rage, and prepares to commit suicide. As Marguerite arrives, the dying Blake at last learns of her love for him, and entrusts his orphaned child to her care.
The contrasting roles of Marguerite and Grace make for an interesting commentary on the changing role of women in the early 20th century. Modern women had begun to step outside their traditional roles as mothers and caregivers, making forays into academia and business.
Like Marguerite, Margaret was a high ranking staff member at a busy factory. Several times during 1916, she proudly records being praised for her versatility at work. However, she also mentions being the prey of an office pest, who ‘undoes my hair, etc’. Many men of the time would have felt threatened by the presence of an attractive and smart young woman in their workplace.
The vamp represented the most paranoid reaction to such trends: the fear that the liberated woman may one day strike man from his ‘natural’ position at the head of society. Actresses such as Grace were particularly mistrusted: it was their job, after all, to deceive; to affect to romance many different men, and to live outside convention. Such societal pressures ensured that Margaret’s family would never permit her to pursue a stage career of her own, though she often performed in amateur and charity events.
Exactly where or how Margaret saw Siren’s Reign is a mystery. It had first been released in Sydney more than half a year earlier, and had since toured to regional areas. One of the many smaller suburban cinemas that did not advertise in metropolitan newspapers must have hosted this showing, possibly the nearby Glebe Theatre.
Though Alice Hollister is not as well known today as Theda Bara, she became so synonymous with vamp roles that she was described in 1916 press as ‘the original vampire woman’. It was the other lead actress that Margaret took note of in her diary: Anna Nilsson, later better known as Anna Q. Nilsson.
Nilsson, a Swedish emigre, played her first role in Molly Pitcher (1911), going on to become one of Kalem’s most popular leading ladies. She retained her popularity well into the later 1920s, but a serious horse riding injury and the arrival of sound film restricted her later work to character parts.
Some 35 years after she had played Marguerite, Anna would take her place alongside fellow silent veterans Buster Keaton and H. B. Walthall as Norma Desmond’s bridge partners, dismissed by William Holden’s Joe Gillis as ‘waxworks’, in Sunset Boulevard (1950).
A 1916 Film Diary: Should A Wife Forgive?
Former Ziegfeld Follies star Lillian Lorraine was the main attraction in what was described as a ‘sex problem film,’ Should A Wife Forgive?, which Margaret saw at the Audley Theatre on January 26. The film was an early work by director Henry King, who would go on to a distinguished Hollywood career, and here played the key role of the weak-willed husband who found himself seduced away from his loving wife by a vampish cabaret dancer known simply as La Belle Rose, and is later implicated in her death.
Since the smash success of A Fool There Was (1915) the previous year, the ‘vamp’ film had evolved into an entire genre. Reports from America suggest a note of novelty was introduced in this one: in an intertitle, the audience itself was asked to answer the question posed by the film’s story. Should the husband be found guilty, or should he be forgiven? Differences between Australian and American reviews suggest that the version Margaret saw may have been considerably bowdlerised for local release.
As La Belle Rose, Lorraine’s character was described in one review as ‘a gypsy trollop with a heart that is cold and calculating in a voluptuous body’. Theda Bara had established the stock figure of the vamp: exotic, seductive, fascinating, liberated; the possessor of a cold heart and eccentric habits, such as adding perfume to her tea.
Lillian Lorraine would have been seen as an ideal candidate to follow in Theda’s footsteps. She had been a favourite of Florenz Ziegfeld - far more than just a favourite, according to several of the impresario’s subsequent wives - and her reputation as a heartbreaker filled many a newspaper column. Until Should A Wife Forgive? her film appearances had mainly been restricted to serials, such as Neal of the Navy. Her offscreen behaviour was rumoured to be erratic, and though she was named a WAMPAS Baby Star of 1922, she made her final film that year.
Moving Picture World judged Should A Wife Forgive? ‘very good work done on a subject not of the highest.’ Criticising the character of the husband as an “outline of a type, rather than a type - whose inner heart is not shown to us,” it instead reserved its praise for Mabel Van Buren’s more understated performance as the wronged wife: “If Miss Van Buren’s work is not so “artistic” as Miss Lorraine’s, it is much more pleasing. It rings true emotionally and is full of dignity.”
Should A Wife Forgive? survives in a film archive, a rare remaining product of Long Beach’s Balboa Studios. Once a flourishing concern known as ‘Hollywood by the Beach’, Balboa had closed by 1918, at around the same time that many of film’s earliest companies were either dying out or being consolidated into larger studios.
A 1916 Film Diary: Cinderella
Mary Pickford’s Cinderella was already two years old by the time Margaret saw it on January 22nd 1916. It was originally produced as a Christmas attraction for 1914, and it is quite likely that it was held back from the Australian market until the holiday season.
Cinderella was the main attraction for the opening of the newly remodelled Strand Theatre on Pitt St, Sydney, but was also showing at the Majestic Theatre at Hyde Park. Margaret does not record which of the theatres she attended. Both were owned by Waddingtons, an early theatre chain whose holdings also included the extant Globe Theatre on George Street.
Reviewers judged Cinderella an ideal vehicle for Pickford’s talents, as well as a welcome modernisation of a favourite old tale. ”It has been so enriched in the film version, so many new features have been artistically blended with the old … the romance of the handsome and courageous prince with the little maid of the cinders is so originally and exquisitely portrayed, that the picture promises to be as great a treat with the grown-ups as with the children,” reported Moving Picture World.
Margaret’s family recalled that Mary Pickford was amongst her favourite of all stars, and she was not alone - The Mirror of Australia's 1915 readers' poll not only named her their top female dramatic star, but their third favourite girl star of comedies, behind Mabel Normand and Fay Tincher.
The extraordinary thing to note is that both Mary Pickford and Mabel Normand were relatively new names to the Australian public. How could this be?
The answer is intriguing. When Pickford made her debut with the early production company, Biograph, the company were not keen to publicise the names of their actors, fearful of the formation of an expensive star system like that seen in the theatre. Nevertheless, the public soon clamoured to know the identities of their established favourites.
In response, British publicists made up their own names for all of the stars that Biograph refused to publicise. Mary Pickford was known as either ‘Dolly Nicholson’ or ‘Dorothy Nicholson’. Her co-star and husband, Owen Moore, was called Bob Gorman. Mabel Normand was known as Muriel Fortesque. Blanche Sweet was Daphne Wayne. Mack Sennett was Walter Terry, and so on. It was not until Mary signed her contract with Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players company that her true identity was revealed.
The situation gave rise to some bizarre stories. Some skeptical fans compared the performances of Dolly and Mary and, while conceding their physical similarity, concluded that they were definitely not the same person! “Mary Pickford started her stage career in Australia,” asserted another article. “Mary came from Dunedin, N.Z., where she attained some prominence as an amateur under her correct name, Dolly Nicholson. Dad being interested in the fruit industry, the family migrated to California.”
Even as late as 1916, Australian advertisements occasionally continued to refer to ‘Mary Pickford (Dolly Nicholson)’.