A 1916 Film Diary: The Song of the Wage Slave
By amazing coincidence, the next film Margaret saw, The Song of the Wage Slave, was also directed by a woman, Alice Guy Blaché.
In contrast to Lois Weber, Madame Blaché’s name appears to have been virtually unknown in Australia, though her achievements in filmmaking were arguably even greater than Weber’s.
Born in France as Alice Guy, she became one of Europe’s most innovative and successful early film-makers in the early 1890s. She had been Head of Production at Paris’ Gaumont Film Company for a decade by the time she married the British-born film director Herbert Blaché in 1907. The pair immigrated to America, where they established Solax Pictures at Fort Lee, New Jersey, one of the country’s first major purpose-built film facilities. At this time, it was the East rather than West coast of America that dominated film production. Though the venture was an outstanding success, the transfer of the industry’s focus to the more temperate California contributed to the downfall of Solax, as did the dissolution of the Blachés’ marriage.
Though she was regularly credited alongside her husband, there is ample evidence to suggest that Guy was the greater contributor to the partnership - a suggestion that has also been made of the relationship between Lottie Lyell and Raymond Longford, whose A Maori Maid’s Love Margaret saw earlier in the year.
Even in the late 1920s, actress-screenwriter Marion Mack (most famous as Buster Keaton’s leading lady in The General) recalled having to demand a screen credit for her work, after being told by studio executives that a man’s name would be ‘more impressive’ to the audience. And indeed, there is not a single mention of Madame Blaché in Australian publicity for Song of the Wage Slave.
It was not until she had been retired from film-making for nearly thirty years that Alice Guy was recognised as the great pioneer that she was, receiving the French Légion d’honneur for her outstanding contribution to the movie industry in 1953.
Whereas several of the films Margaret had seen during 1916 were based on popular songs, The Song of the Wage Slave, which she saw at the Piccadilly Theatre on Saturday 15 April, was inspired by a famous poem by Robert W. Service, which began:
When the long, long day is over, and the Big Boss gives me my pay,
I hope that it won’t be hell-fire, as some of the parsons say.
And I hope that it won’t be heaven, with some of the parsons I’ve met —
All I want is just quiet, just to rest and forget.
Given her busy month, it is a sentiment with which Margaret may have been able to sympathise. A few days later, on the 18th, she would note ‘My holidays in view. Feel I need them, as I have been off colour of late’.
Despite the implied narrative of the poem, the film used a more conventional love triangle as its basis. Ned (Edmund Breese), a lowly but noble worker in a paper mill, falls in love with Mildred, the daughter of a co-worker (Helen Martin, also known as Helen Marten), who is herself in love with Frank, the rich son of the plant’s owner. Frank leaves Mildred pregnant and alone, and it is up to Ned to preserve her honour and set things right, even when she does not return his love.
It was not in a factory job that star Edmund Breese was seen for most of the film, but a series of manly pursuits, including miner and lumberjack in the Alaskan wilderness. According to Moving Picture World, Breese was “thoroughly at home in these heroic parts, his characterisation of them being an artistic triumph … the fine highlights and shadows of emotion are faithfully portrayed by this capable actor.” The scenery was also nominated as a highlight of this production, shot on location in Fairbanks, Alaska. The film is said to exist in a European archive.
A 1916 Film Diary - So Long Letty (Stage Play)
On April 11, Margaret skipped the movies and instead joined her friends Daisy, Liz and Nancy to attend a second performance of the stage play So Long Letty, which she had first seen back in January and was now approaching the end of a very successful four-month run.
Star Dorothy Brunton was known as the ‘Diggers Delight’, and many young Australian soldiers, or ‘diggers’, adopted So Long Letty's “Good Bye and Good Luck” as their marching song. Dorothy loved the diggers as much as they loved her, and worked hard throughout the war on charitable enterprises, many of which went entirely unpublicised.
"The soldiers have helped me to do my best,” she said in mid 1917. "They do seem to enjoy the theatre. The ‘Soldiers’ nights of So Long Letty were marvellous for enthusiasm. They remember, too. Some soldier friends wrote to me from Egypt that in a very out-of-the way spot they found one of my portraits from an illustrated paper stuck on the stem of a palm-tree, with a verse from ‘The Sentimental Bloke’ written under it. In France, my brother Jack came across another soldier, all mud[dy] from the trenches, who asked him, ‘Did you ever see a girl named Dorothy Brunton?’ Jack was too shy to own up.”
She would depart So Long Letty to make her film debut in Fred Niblo’s Seven Keys to Baldpate (1916), before departing for America and Britain in mid 1917, spending the rest of the war in the latter country. The vocal approval of Australian servicemen was sometimes so enthusiastic as to disrupt her stage appearances, much to the irritation of some famous British co-stars, bemused at being upstaged by a mere colonial upstart.
It is interesting to note the identity of the authors of this piece of music. Andrew MacCunn would later operate an acting school in Sydney for many years, while Claude McKay would help found the long-running Sydney periodical Smith’s Weekly in 1919. Much as film, television and journalism are often controlled by the same entities today, Sydney’s theatrical and journalistic worlds were highly entwined in 1916. Margaret’s preferred Sunday newspaper, the Sunday Times, was owned by the operator of the Tivoli theatre chain, Hugh D. McIntosh.
A 1916 Film Diary: Sunshine Molly
At a time when women office workers were sometimes regarded with suspicion or contempt, women filmmakers were even fewer, and those that did exist were often carefully kept out of the limelight. Writer, director and actress Lois Weber, producer of Sunshine Molly, which Margaret saw on April 5 at the Audley Theatre, was a notable exception. Australian publicity proudly trumpeted Weber as the most talented woman in Hollywood.
Weber’s films were phenomenally popular in Australia, The Hypocrites (1915) reportedly becoming the top film to be shown since Quo Vadis? (1912), in spite of - or perhaps, because of - the controversial appearance of the allegorical figure of Truth, played by a nude woman.
The film, and the character’s appearance, were a powerful and progressive indictment of the ‘hypocrites’ of the title, personified in the film by those who condemn immorality while indulging in it themselves, or who affect religious fervour to camouflage their own lust for money. ”I heard the coarse laugh when the Naked Truth first appeared on the screen,” said Weber. “But in an instant that mockery died away, for Truth turned her mirror on to their own soul, revealing to the world the heart of the pretender. It was a chastened body of scoffers who left the theatre. The Naked Truth, and the figure that represents it, are pure except to those whose warped and twisted minds seek immorality in everything.”
Weber would fearlessly address many other controversial issues throughout her career, including birth control, racism, antisemitism, prostitution, infidelity and society’s growing materialism. Sydney’s Sunday Times did not shy away from Weber’s achievements, or her status as a woman:
"When ‘Hypocrites' startled Australia a few months ago the most profound impression it left was one of respect for the ability of the woman who not only conceived the idea but actually put it into effect. That woman was Miss Lois Weber, who in her short career has been responsible for some of the biggest achievements in filmdom. She is really the brains of the Bosworth studios, and many of the unique ideas of producing which have made Bosworth films popular have come from her.”
The follow up to The Hypocrites, Sunshine Molly, was a very different film to its predecessor. Described as the story of ‘the love of a bad man and a good woman,’ it was somewhat lighter in tone and featured some gentle battle-of-the-sexes comedy, starring Weber herself as an uncultured, good-hearted girl who works as a waitress on the tough California oilfields.
Molly meets her match in the rough ‘Bull’ Forrest, the only man whose is unmoved by her good cheer, played by her husband and collaborator, Phillips Smalley. Through a number of adventures, including the fluctuating fortunes of a fellow miner who finds that the ‘big smoke’ is less attractive than the humble life he left behind, Forrest’s heart is eventually melted.
Reviews suggest there was more psychological depth to the scenario than its simple outline implies. "As is the case with most Bosworth productions, the exterior scenes possess scenic splendor,” added the Sunday Times. ”The big spectacles— the fire in the oilfields, for instance — have a quickening sense of reality.” This sequence was achieved by setting fire to an actual oil well at the La Brea oilfields in Los Angeles.
Margaret would have been well aware of Weber’s remarkable achievements - and probably more than a little jealous. Today, Weber is recognised alongside D.W. Griffith as one of the great masters of early American cinema. Margaret judged Sunshine Molly to be ‘V[ery] good.’
The majority of the film survives at the US Library of Congress.
A 1916 Film Diary - Carmen
By April 1916, Margaret had recovered her health sufficiently to resume her busy rounds of filmgoing. The first was Carmen, starring Theda Bara, which she saw either at the Strand or Majestic Theatre.
The debut of Carmen represented a number of firsts for Australia. It marked the arrival of the Fox Film Corporation, a company that would later play a major part in the local film industry. In 1930, Fox purchased a half share of Hoyts, one of Australia’s two major film distributors, also producing a successful weekly newsreel, the Fox Movietone News, for many decades.
Carmen was also the first foray into film presentation by theatrical producers J.C. Williamson, marking a new attempt to ally what was still seen by some as an inferior art form with the prestige of legitimate theatre. Carmen had its Australian premiere not in a cinema but the famous Theatre Royal in Sydney, complete with a full orchestral accompaniment under the direction of Monsieur G. Slapoffski, playing excerpts from Bizet’s famous gypsy opera.
This was a new kind of luxury presentation. The theatre’s stage was dressed and lit to complement the production. “A gorgeous scene leads the eye right up to the screen,” reported the Sunday Times. “Softly lighted, the cleverly-blended colors serve to effectively bridge the gap between this work-a-day world and the country of romance into which the audience is soon carried. The orchestra, an excellent one, is concealed beneath ‘a lattice fair,’ and the airs of the opera so sweet and familiar steal out and enter into the picture as the story is unfolded.”
Carmen also introduced Australian audiences to the exotic Theda Bara for the first time. The company employed a much lower key approach in promoting her Australian debut than it had in America. There were no outlandish tales about Bara’s birth being foretold in hieroglyphs on the walls of the pyramids. Instead, in keeping with the attempt to promote Carmen as high art, publicity played up Bara’s credentials as an experienced tragedienne - which were actually no less fantastical. Australians were told that Bara was a famous French stage actress, a veteran of Paris’ Theatre Antoine and a worthy successor to Sarah Bernhardt.
Articles began appearing in Australian newspapers as early as July 1916 that explained the truth - the former Theodosia Goodman was born in Cincinnati, had begun her career as a “five-dollar-a-day extra”, and was in real life “one of the most home-loving and demure of young women.” Film fans may well have found this rags-to-riches tale just as romantic. Once her popularity was established in Australia, her earlier films received a steady release. Her first big international hit, A Fool There Was, did not arrive until 1918.
Of Bara’s Carmen, the Sunday Times said: “She has invested the character with a potency that makes one forget the film part of the business. This Carmen is not the opera Carmen; it is the living realisation of Merimee’s original heroine.” Melbourne’s Punch was not quite so convinced, particularly when they witnessed Bara in the more typically vampish role which became her Australian follow-up to Carmen, The Devil’s Daughter (1915): “Theda’s wild eyes and heaving corsage seem appropriate to Carmen; but as Satan’s offspring, she glowers and grimaces in a manner that isn’t far removed from pure burlesque.”
In providing the first photo of the star to be published in an Australian newspaper, J.C. Williamson also ran a competition, asking participants to answer the question ‘Would you marry Theda Bara?’ One entrant was inspired to poetry:
"Her kiss is death, her love red flame,
That scorches like a white-hot brand,
But living lightning in her eyes,
Beckons to that forbidden land,
Where blasted lives, like hollow sculls,
Lie whitening on the sun-bit sand.”
Another was more prosaic, and more humorous: “I would like to marry Theda Bara, and manage her business. It would be an ideal combination!”
Like the vast majority of Theda Bara’s pictures, Carmen has not survived. Margaret’s verdict on the film? One word: “Unique”.
A Film Diary for 1916: Always In The Way
Margaret does not mention the name of the film she saw on the 26th of March at the Piccadilly Theatre, but advertisements reveal that it was Always in the Way, starring Mary Miles Minter.
Like My Old Dutch, Always in the Way took its inspiration from a song, this time a heart-rending ballad sung in the voice of a neglected child. Her mother has died, and her new stepmother is unsympathetic:
Always in the way
So they always say,
I wonder why they don’t kiss me,
Just the same as sister May,
Always in the way,
I can never play,
My own Mamma would never say
I’m always in the way.
Though the song suggests an obvious narrative, the film took the story much further, first portraying the unhappy childhood of the waif, played by child actress Ethelmary Oakland, before moving on to the same character as a teenager, played by Mary Miles Minter.
It seems that the young woman has been adopted away from her step-family by a pair of kindly missionaries, and is now in deepest, darkest Africa. Here, she undergoes a series of hair-raising adventures - scenes which, according to Moving Picture World, ”are novel, dramatic, and intensely interesting.” The film only began to lag in its final segment, set in New York, when the girl is reunited with her father and finds love, which the publication found “too full of stage tricks, and lacks the sincerity of most of the other incidents.”
The Mirror of Australia's critic agreed that the film 'starts off well, but later on becomes slightly vague.' To the future career of Mary Miles Minter, the critics looked forward with interest. One placed her in the exalted company of Mary Pickford and Marguerite Clark, the latter voted the Mirror's second favourite female dramatic star of 1915:
Mary Miles Minter is more like Marguerite Clark than she is like Mary Pickford, though she has undoubtedly profited by studying the methods of the latter. She is said to be only 15 years of age now, and there appears to be evidence for believing the story, though she undoubtedly looks older. Without question it is her beauty which is responsible for the position she holds. Still, for her age and experience her acting, is really wonderful. There is not much she misses, and at times her instinct for the right thing is surprising.
Mary Miles Minter is primarily remembered today for her implication in the mysterious unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor. In 1916, this was all in the future, and it would have been hard to imagine scandal attaching itself to the wholesome star. Always in the Way, only her second major film, served as Australia’s introduction to the rising talent.
Had it survived, Always in the Way might have made for particularly interesting viewing today. Appearing in a minor role was Minter’s mother, Charlotte Shelby - the woman who, according to some theories, was actually responsible for shooting the unfortunate Taylor.
Whether or not Mrs Shelby was an assassin, she was certainly notoriously pushy. In 1923, her daughter pushed back, turning her back on her lucrative screen career.
The Piccadilly Theatre was brand new when Margaret visited, having opened only in December the previous year. It boasted a luxurious interior, including private boxes, and a program of feature length films, exclusively provided by Metro Pictures. Despite all of this, the theatre would have a short and troubled history. In 1923, an electrical fault in the marquee sign caused a fire. The theatre’s owner was involved in a damaging court case a few years later, and the property changed hands no less than four times before it was converted into a storefront in 1929.
Today, Pitt Street is synonymous with shopping, and though very few Sydneysiders today would know that the Piccadilly Theatre ever existed, most would be familiar with the Piccadilly Arcade shopping centre into which it was transformed, which has since been replaced with a modern shopping arcade. Further down Pitt Street, it is still possible to spot some of the sandstone buildings Margaret might have passed on her way to the Piccadilly.
A 1916 Film Diary - The Rosary
Margaret was a Catholic and a devoted churchgoer, and her diary contains many references to attending mass or confession. However, there is good reason to believe that when she notes ‘The Rosary, Glebe’ in her diary for 22 March, she is actually referring to the viewing of a film called The Rosary, at the Glebe Theatre.
Selig’s The Spoilers must have been popular in Australia, as advertisements promote The Rosary as a ‘co-feature’, enacted by the same cast and director. Both The Spoilers and The Rosary were produced under the company’s prestige ‘Red Seal Stories’ label, reserved for feature-length productions. The leading lady was Kathlyn Williams, one of Selig’s top stars, who had been known in earlier days as ‘The Selig Girl’.
The Rosary, which is extant in the collection of the British Film Institute, tells the story of Father Kelly (Charles Clary), an Irishman who gives up the love of a woman to join the priesthood. Later, he becomes a surrogate father to the same woman’s son, whose own story is followed into adulthood. The story ranges over many other characters and incidents. “By his noble character [Father Kelly] became a pattern not only to his fellow-clergymen, but the world generally,” read one review.
At approximately one and a half hours, The Rosary was much longer than the average 1916 film. Screenwriters were still coming to grips with the effective telling of a long-format story - Cecil B. DeMille had made Hollywood’s first feature length film, The Squaw Man, only two years previously - and it appears that the promoters were anxious that viewers might find The Rosary hard to follow.
Advertisements contain long descriptions of each character, and reviews are careful to assure viewers that ”There is not the slightest fear of any one losing the grip of the story. On the contrary, the longer the picture runs the greater is the fascination it exercises over its beholder.” ’Seven Reels: And Not A Bit Too Long!’ added another advertisement.
In a sense, it was the difficult transition to features that would become the Selig company’s downfall. Recognising the demand for longer films, Selig joined with other pioneering producers Vitagraph, Lubin and Essanay in an organisation called V-S-L-E, designed exclusively for feature distribution. A number of factors, including consistency of quality and the intervention of World War I, played a part in the quick demise of V-S-L-E. Selig’s stars were gradually lured to newer companies, and by 1918, it became the latest of the pioneer studios to close its doors for good.
Given that the Glebe Theatre sat within a short walk of Margaret’s home, it is surprising that she did not attend it more often. The theatre was opened on the day of King George V’s coronation (22 June 1911), with an orchestra, vaudeville pre-show entertainment, and accommodation for between 800 and 900 patrons. In the early 1920s, a school for dancing and screen acting operated out of the theatre.
The Glebe had just been converted for talking pictures when its interior was devastated by a fire in mid 1930. The hard work of the local fire brigade was credited with ensuring the flames did not reach the projection room, in which 22,000 feet of highly flammable nitrate film was stored, but damage was still in excess of £1,500. Tenders were called for the theatre’s restoration, but the Depression seems to have put an end to its days as a cinema. The building is still extant, making it probably one of the oldest surviving purpose-built suburban cinemas in Sydney.
Owned by the NSW Department of Housing and home to the non-profit Glebe Youth Service for at least twenty years, it was controversially shut down in late 2013. Its future unclear, a community campaign saved the service from eviction, allowing the building to once more service the community of Glebe for whom it was built.
A Film Diary From 1916: “Neptune’s Post Bag”
Margaret’s brothers were members of the 7th Reinforcement of the 20th Battalion, and can probably be found somewhere in the above photograph. It may have been their reputation as skilled amateur boxers that gained them a place in the 7th Reinforcement, described a ‘sportsmen’s company’ and boasting at least one Olympic rower amongst its 320 men.
Three of Jack and Arthur’s comrades-in-arms are the subject of an interesting tale, reported in Victoria’s Gippsland Times newspaper. A gentleman named Mr G. Traill made a visit to Ocean Grange in coastal Victoria in March 1916. Taking a walk on the beach, he noticed a bottle, covered in moss and other debris, as if it had been in the water for a long time.
He found that the bottle was corked, still airtight, and tied with a faded yellow ribbon. To his surprise, upon removing the cork he discovered a series of three letters, each in different handwriting:
"Dec. 24th, 1915. Troopship Suevic. To the finder of this note, please send this to Mrs Keogh, Spit road, Mosman, N.S.W. This was dropped over near the Victorian coast, and all on board are doing well. Private A. Keogh, No. 3157.”
The second read similarly:
"S.S. Suevic, Christmas Eve, 1915. This is written on the Transport Suevic, and we are just off the coast of Victoria. If this note should be picked up, kindly forward it to Mrs W. Burke, 206 Bathurst street, Hobart, Tasmania. We are on our way to carve up the Turks, and all are well. Hope to see you all very soon. Love from Jack, No. 3008, 7th Rein., 20th Battalion.”
A third correspondent lived not far from Jack and Arthur, and might even have been a friend of theirs:
"Christmas Eve, 1915. Transport, Suevic. 7th Reinforcements, 20th Battalion, Australia. Alfred John Smith. Should this be picked up kindly forward to Miss Smyth, 5 Day-street, Leichhardt, Sydney.”
A additional note on the back of the last letter revealed the source of the empty bottle - and perhaps also of the whimsical idea to write the letters in the first place:
"Off the coast of Victoria. The whisky good, but the bottle is empty.”
Mr Traill forwarded the letters to the addresses as directed, where delighted family and friends would have received word of their boys’ Christmas Eve only four months after it had taken place - not so much longer than the two months it generally took letters to arrive from Egypt via conventional mail.
It seems that sending a letter home in this manner was a popular way for soldiers to farewell their home territory - popular enough to have its own term, “Neptune’s Post Bag”. Newspapers carried dozens of stories about bottles reaching coastal Australia, with the letters inside them sometimes reaching their intended recipients as early as a month after they were written, others not being discovered for several years.
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.