Australasian Cinema > producers > The Combine
The 'combine' was formed in November 1912 by the merger of several production, distribution and exhibition companies into Australasian Films/Union Theatres. Australasian Films was primarily a distribution company, while Union Theatres managed cinemas. In 1931, Greater Union Theatres later took control, losing Australasian Films, and establishing Cinesound as a production subsidiary. GUO's greatest competitor during the 1920s and 1930s was Hoyts: they were forced into a merger as the General Film Corporation. In 1958 another merger created Amalgamated Holdings Ltd. And so on.
... Amalgamated Pictures, a new company formed in March 1911 by the producer/exhibitor combination of Johnson and Gibson, and J and N Tait. The company produced numerous newsreels and features during 1911 and early 1912, before withdrawing from feature production and merging with its main competitors in the combine of Australasian Films in November 1912. Pike & Cooper: 14.
The effect of the combine was monopolistic. Small independent production companies could not get venues to release their work, with the result that some went to the wall.
Australian Photo-Play Company
Australian Life Biograph Company
Crick and Finlay
W. J. Lincoln
Bertrand, Ina & William Routt 1989, 'The big bad combine: some aspects of national aspirations and international constraints in the Australian cinema, 1896-1929', in Albert Moran & Tom O'Regan eds, The Australian Screen, Penguin, Ringwood: 23-7.
The Australian Screen, eds Albert Moran & Tom O'Regan, Penguin, 1989.
[introduction by the editors]
The popular image of early Australian film is an Edenic one. Local film-making occurred, it is thought, in happy isolation from the rest of the world. Australian audiences loved their own films which spoke to them in a direct, indigenous way. The Sentimental Bloke (1919) was merely the tip of an iceberg of fine films produced in this period.
However the actual situation was more complicated than this. Even the earliest film-making and projection equipment was imported and along with it came foreign films and showmen. As Bertrand and Routt show in this chapter, even at the very beginning Australia was part of an international industry. There never was a time when an Australian film industry could develop in happy and splendid isolation. It was always integrated into a global system. What happened in the years around 1908-16 was that this global system was transformed.
The major transformation occurred in the United States. This saw the development of vertical integration between production, distribution and exhibition, the emergence of the feature film with strong, linear narrative, the development of a star system, and the establishment of the studio system for the systematic production of films. Australia never had the population base that would have supported this kind of system, but the years just before the First World War did see the emergence of one vertically integrated local company, Australasian Films, the 'big bad combine’ of Bertrand and Routt’s title.
As the authors show, the negative image that the company had in Australia in these years, one with which most Australian film historians have since concurred, was not in fact deserved. Hollywood had now become the dominant market supplier and it was this that led to the decline in local film production, not the activities of the combine. Australasian Films were perhaps guilty of a failure of economic nerve in not expanding their exhibition interests into the Pacific and into Asia, but that is the only charge that Bertrand and Routt press against them.
============ [introduction ends; article begins]
Australia is an island at the end of the world, necessarily insular and isolated. Its people identify themselves accordingly: constantly seeking to be the same as everyone else - denying the insularity and isolation - and at the same time different, in aggressive celebration of those same conditions. Simultaneous similarity and difference, and the tensions created thereby, have affected both the organisation of the Australian film industry as a socio/political/industrial institution and the ideology of the films which are made here. Similarity and difference structure the debates that have raged for so many years around the issue of whether the production industry should be aimed primarily at an international or a national market, whether Australian films should speak of whatever may be specific to Australia or only of what might have 'universal appeal’.
This was not always so. There was a time when Australia fitted comfortably, both industrially and ideologically, into a world film market.
Australia in the world film market.
Before the First World War, although France dominated the market, the cinema could have been considered a multinational institution, truly ‘world cinema’. Films made all over the world were shown all over the world. This so-called ‘open market’ was generally unaffected by government legislation or industrial combination. During these years some films, like the Italian epics produced by Arturo Ambrosio, used national culture and settings as ways of luring audiences in New York, Paris or Perth into the cinemas, but the more common practice was for film-makers to ignore such things. Not to efface them,
certainly, but to forget them - to make films first for a home market where audiences might recognise what was familiar, but films which were expected also to be sent abroad where national origins were usually of less importance than perceived entertainment value.
At first the cinema was merely part - a minor part - of a much larger entertainment business that included spectacles, like cycloramas and tableaux, as well as stage performances from pantomime to music hall, melodrama, grand opera and Shakespeare. Programs of films were slotted in to a bill of entertainment acts, surrounded by singers, comedians and magicians.
The first film exhibition in Australia was exactly that. On Saturday 22 August 1896 the stage magician Carl Hertz opened his Australian tour at the Opera House, Melbourne, with an act which included a demonstration of R. W. Paul’s film projector, the Kinematograph. Hertz, like many another entertainer, was ‘a foreigner’ - a German. The world entertainment business in those days, perhaps more than now, drew on an international pool of talent and depended on international agencies to ‘keep the show on the road’.
By the early part of the new century programs - like J. C. Williamson’s Bio-Tableau - were touring Australian theatrical circuits, offering a whole evening’s entertainment of films alone. However films were also still being presented as one ‘act’ on a variety bill, as they had been in the beginning.
Individual films were now circulating throughout the international entertainment system. French and Italian chase comedies (which preceded Mack Sennett’s famous Keystone comedies), Danish ‘social problem’ films, British crime melodramas, American cowboy pictures might all appear jumbled together on the same programs, along with non-fiction ‘scenics’ (travelogues), ‘industrials’ (depicting industrial processes) and ‘gazettes’ (newsreels) - and, as they say, much, much more. Sometimes, especially for films of topical interest, the advertising made a point of the foreign origin of this or that film, but mostly there was little or no indication of the national origins of the fiction films which increasingly made up the bulk of the programs.
Some film companies traded on exotic associations. In Penh touring film groups included Heller’s Mahatma Co. from India, in October 1900, and the Great Japanese Cinematograph Co., under the direction of Y. Okawa, in May 1906. However the film programs they presented seemed little different from the rest. Language gave
no clue, for in the early days of silent film there were few, if any written titles on the screen, and often a spoken commentary accompanied these variety-show images. Later, beginning in 1906-7, the substitution of intertitles in the language of the audience was a simple and relatively inexpensive business.
Australia - in spite of, or perhaps because of, its isolation and insularity - constituted a lucrative segment of this international film market from the very beginning and attracted entrepreneurs from all over the world.
Such early showmen as Scotsman Cozens Spencer, Briton T. J. (Thomas James) West, and American J. D. (John Dixon) Williams all dealt competitively within an international market, differing only in their respective approaches to that market. All of them set up production enterprises of one sort or another, initially to supply their own cinemas and film exchanges. 1 Moreover, some at least had contacts for both purchasing and distributing films abroad. West, for example, was himself in London, while by 1910 Williams had a London agent, two American agents and a distribution outlet in China. 2
Films, at this point, moved freely to and from Australia. Marius Sestier, the first Australian agent of the pioneering Lumiere company of France, shot films here which were sent back to Paris and thence distributed throughout the world. As a result, the earliest surviving film made in Australia - a record of the 1897 Melbourne Cup -was found in the French Cinematheque in the 1950s, not in Australia. The Australian 1906 production of The Story of the Kelly Gang toured successfully for many months in England. Showbiz announcements like that of T. J. West on his arrival in Perth in May 1906, that he would be ‘cinematographing popular scenes in Australia to be presented in London, and the Homeland' 3 were not mere hype, but meant exactly what they said.
At the same time, the ease with which films and personnel circulated from country to country in those days seems to have encouraged a certain laissez-faire attitude about international distribution and marketing in both Australian-born and Australian-based entrepreneurs. While production industries of other countries were opening distribution exchanges (and sometimes production companies) in other parts of the world, Australian firms failed to grasp the nettle, and indeed seem to have been content to retreat within national boundaries. International distribution was the key
to making a solid foundation for film production in countries with smaller audiences, like Denmark and Sweden, and the Australian failure in this area meant that when extraordinary opportunities for expansion into international markets arose, as happened during the First World War, there was no distribution network to effect such an industrial move.
The story of the Kelly Gang
These industrial developments were paralleled in the ideology of the films produced. In the earliest period of film production in Australia, because films were being made primarily for a home market 'Australianness’ was taken for granted. A production like the 1906 The Story of the Kelly Gang is unabashedly local’. It was the first of a cycle of bushranging stories which for a short while became the staple of the Australian film industry (until the New South Wales government banned all such films in 1912). Although the film had been partly inspired by popular Australian stage plays, it was shot ‘on location’, taking advantage of Australian landscape and climate, and it featured sequences of hard riding, celebrating the skills of Australian horsemen and women, just as many Australian films do even to this day. John and Nevin Tait, who financed and promoted the film, took hill advantage of these specifically ‘Australian’ marks of identity in the publicity for it, and its extraordinary popularity indicated that audiences then, as now, were pleased by this sort of representation of ‘the myths inside their heads’.
In its subject The Story of the Kelly Gang was an original blend of old and new. Films which enlisted some of an audience’s sympathies on behalf of criminal underdogs were certainly being produced elsewhere at the time. The best known of these is the English drama by Walter Haggar, The Life of Charles Peace (1905), which plays on our admiration of Peace’s skills and daring as well as the idea that justice must be done. It is constructed in a series of tableau scenes, much as The Kelly Gang appears to have been. The runaway American success, The Great Train Robbery (1903), a cowboy adventure told in tableaux, screened in Melbourne in 1905 and definitely influenced the Taits in deciding to film the saga of the Kellys. 4 Yet the combination of crime and outdoors action into a ‘Robin Hood’ story, as well as its quick establishment as a genre popular with audiences (who, of course, were as familiar
with bushranging stories as Americans were with stories of train robbers like Jesse James), is peculiar to Australia at this time.
But there is another way in which The Story of the Kelly Gang was an important film for Australia and perhaps for the world. Advertised as comprising some 4000 or more feet of film, it may have been the longest fiction film made anywhere to that date. Such a length would suggest a screening time of between 40 and 60 minutes, which is only exceeded by the screening time of some of the non-fiction films of famous boxing matches which had a certain vogue at the time. Although the advertised length is so unusual as to provoke some legitimate suspicion (we all know that publicity agents like to stretch the truth), and it may be an exaggeration to call the film ‘a feature’, its presentation occupied the major part of a full evening’s entertainment, which lends some credibility to the advertised length.
Audiences both here and in England seem to have accepted this special long program, but the film appears to have had no influence on the production and exhibition of longer films or of films about romantic outlaw heroes anywhere in the world except Australia. Even here it was presented as a passing novelty, like the occasional synchronised sound or colour films which were from time to time featured in film presentations of the day.
The period from 1911 to 1916 saw even greater numbers of films over 1000 feet in length being made worldwide, and so the production of longer films in Australia during those years is not entirely without world precedent. 5 However, of the seven films made from 1907 to 1910 listed by Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper in their indispensable Australian Film 1900-1977, no less than four are claimed to be of more than one reel (1000 feet) long. 6 This seems a very high percentage indeed. Fiction films as long or longer than The Story of the Kelly Gang seem to have been made in Australia several years before they become common elsewhere, somewhat sporadically to be sure - at least one in 1907, one in 1910, eleven in 1911 and two in 1912. In 1911 there would seem to have been a concerted effort to get exhibitors and/or the public in Australia to accept these longer films (and thus, fewer films in an evening’s program and greater control over the program by producing and
distributing companies), spearheaded by Amalgamated Pictures and John Gavin - an effort which apparently tailed, since the number of films of 4000 or more feet does not rise substantially again until 1915, when features were coming to be recognised internationally as the staple of the industry.
Yet at the same time film-going was becoming an increasingly popular form of entertainment - so popular indeed that it became difficult for exhibitors to find sufficient films for the frequent changes of program necessary for their growing number of outlets. In response to this situation rationalisation of investment and specialisation of function within the industry became the order of the day. The ‘open market’ was moving towards something more controlled, via the sophisticated hegemony of heavily-capitalised, locally-based companies.
The rise of the distributor and the making of ‘the combine’
An early sign of this change was the rise of the distributor, the middle man who bought or leased films from producers and hired them out to exhibitors, replacing an earlier system wherein films had been purchased outright from producers. Pathe Frères was the first production company to hire rather than sell its films, and its agencies quickly spread throughout the world: the first Australian branch was established in Melbourne in 1909. 7 In Australia the first film distribution organisation which was not also either a producer and/or exhibitor was Baker and Rouse. However entrepreneurs like West had been distributing foreign films as well as their own virtually from the inception of their companies and so, arguably, understood the film business in rather a different way from those for whom, like Cozens Spencer, production became the major focus of interest and investment.
This was, however, not the only rationalisation taking place within the industry. Perhaps inspired by attempts at consolidation in the United States from early 1909, the Australian industry entered on a critical series of amalgamations. 8 West’s Pictures took over the Australian branch of Pathe Frères early in 1911. In March of the same year the Amalgamated Picture Company Ltd was formed by a merger of the film interests of the two companies which had first co-operated in the production of The Story of the Kelly Gang:
Johnson and Gibson (industrial chemists who ran a profitable sideline hiring out film projectors, films and operators in the Melbourne suburbs) and J. and N. Tait (theatrical entrepreneurs whose touring programs included films). The new company announced its intention to produce long films and opened Melbourne’s most up-to-date studio.
In November 1912 Amalgamated joined with West’s Pictures and Spencer’s Pictures in the General Film Company of Australasia, and in January of the next year the J. D. Williams Amusement Co. was added. The new company was the largest in the country, bringing together production and distribution (under the name of Australasian Films) and exhibition (the Union Theatres chain of cinemas). It became known as ‘the combine’. 9
Nowadays we think of this kind of ‘vertical integration’ in connection with the American film industry, but apparently the first American company to attempt vertical integration, Triangle, did not do so until 1915, and it failed. 10 There is also no British precedent for such an early consolidation of all three branches of the film industry.
It is just possible that some ideas for this fateful combination were derived from contemporary British experience. In Britain at this time the various branches of the film industry were experimenting with voluntary associations in attempts to dominate the market. Their efforts were not always successful, but when two or more elements of the industry acted together (producers and distributors, for example), they seemed able to effect a measure of control. 11 The people who formed Australasian, then, had a model of the power of industrial consolidation from Britain as well as an example of high-handed efforts to establish a monopoly by the Motion Picture Patents Company in the United States.
The combine lowers the curtain
The next few years were of crucial importance to the world’s film industries. This was the period in which feature films were established as foci of commercial and public interest, in which block and blind booking became common methods of film distribution, and in which the First World War effectively interrupted European production and export, creating that phenomenal opportunity for industrial expansion and consolidation in the world
market mentioned previously. Australasian Films engaged only peripherally with the first circumstances, assiduously cultivated the second and resolutely turned its back on the third.
Some time between 1913 and 1916 Australasian Films stopped making films longer than 1000 feet. 12 Despite access to the major studios in Melbourne (Amalgamated) and Sydney (Spencers), it released no company-produced multi-reel films in the ten years between How We Beat the Emden (1915) and Painted Daughters (1925).13
Yet surely no national film industry outside the United States was better poised initially to take advantage of the international situation than Australia’s, vertically integrated at home and with access to Asian and Allied markets internationally. The combine’s withdrawal from feature production is much more than a lost opportunity for Australian film, considered purely locally: it may have been a lost opportunity for the world. Then, as now, the viability of Australian film production was dependent on international markets and audiences, and the combine’s inaction thus had a worldwide effect.
Explanations of this mysterious decision have been vague and few. Australian film-maker Raymond Longford thought there was an Australasian Films conspiracy. His charges were officially discredited by the Royal Commission of 1927, which may not have been entirely disinterested in the matter. Film historian and sociologist John Tulloch offers a more detailed and sophisticated refutation of the conspiracy theory than the commission’s, 14 but does not attempt an explanation of why the combine might have adopted such a policy in the first place.
Longford himself seemed to believe that Australasian Films’s motive was, as Pike and Cooper put it, ‘the blind pursuit of power’, 13 along with the destruction of Raymond Longford professionally. But surely those ends would have been efficiently achieved by launching full bore into a production program that froze the cantankerous director out. Greed, pusillanimity and quisling subordination to Hollywood hegemony were suggested, more or less plausibly, at the time. 16 And these allegations are not too different in tone and substance from certain more recent positions stressing the international activity of monopoly capitalism. 17 The film historians Graham Shirley and Brian Adams take what seems to be a less dogmatic line: ‘From now on, it was easier for the exhibitor to
regularly book imported films from the distributor than it was to pour comparatively large amounts of money into local production’, 18 but they are making fundamentally the same point: that people in the film trade (exhibitors and distributors) believed that there were greater and more secure profits to be made from showing foreign - that is, American - films than from producing films locally.
Yet these assertions of economic forces which were undoubtedly at work during the 1920s fail to take proper account, we think, of the particular situation from 1913 to 1918. On the one hand, it is not accurate to characterise the American film industry at that point as an instance of ‘monopoly capitalism’, although it may have been moving in that direction. But on the other, the prognosis for profitable production just then, because of what the war was doing to the major European film industries and even because of the preoccupation of American firms with their domestic battles, was very good. Australasian Films/Union Theatres comprised the first fully-integrated film industry in the English-speaking world, yet it threw away a chance at local and international profits from production which would not have jeopardised profits from distribution and exhibition. No wonder notions of conspiracy gained such currency, for what ‘the combine’ did seems to fly in the face of reason.
Some reasons for the Australasian Films policy International conditions, however, do suggest some grounds for the decision. Throughout the world distribution was moving into an ascendent industrial position. For Australasian Films and literally hundreds of distribution exchanges like it, the aim of the film business was to obtain the best possible product in the greatest quantities at the cheapest price, and the producers with whom such exchanges preferred to deal were any firms anywhere in the world that were able to help to fulfil that aim. In the United States the development of distribution in tandem with continuous production meant that distribution agencies were given the specific task of finding markets for American productions. 19 But in Australia, as in Britain, distribution had already separated itself from production, and in Australasian’s case neither West’s nor Amalgamated had released locally-produced fiction films for half a year before they merged with Spencer’s Pictures in November
1912. The Greater J. D. Williams Amusement Company, the last element to be put in place, had rarely, if ever, been involved with fiction film production at all.
Foreign distribution companies (American and European) were already operating in the Australian market, and a national firm like Australasian Films seemed well positioned to keep distribution control of the Australian market within Australia. For that very reason it may have seemed like good sense to concentrate the new company’s attention and efforts on distribution and leave the dubious profits of production alone.
Moreover, the greatest challenge facing independent distributors seemed to be coming from producers trying to bypass them. Agreement and co-operation with producers were matters of the highest priority and urgency. Australasian Films undoubtedly felt itself under a certain pressure to demonstrate its control of the market, lest the producers with which it dealt decide that it would be easier and more profitable for them to set up their own exchanges in Australia. Towards this end the combine began to exploit the possibilities of regional expansion and soon had distribution offices in key points of the Pacific region.
At the same time, as we have said, Australia was part of an international industry. In 1913 the most consistent quantity and quality of films, and the cheapest, were available from abroad - from the United States, France and Italy in the main. Australasian Film’s vertical integration, then, integrated foreign producers into a local distribution and exhibition network. Australasian Films was in effect a multinational operation, modelling itself after a pattern of co-operation between producers and distributors which seemed to be paying off worldwide and was, through its control of theatres, plainly in advance of business practice in Great Britain and the United States.
The combine’s decision was taken before the outbreak of the First World War and clear American domination of the world market - in ignorance, then, of the opportunities for Australian expansion it was effectively pre-empting. Subsequent events at home may have only seemed to confirm the wisdom of the original decision, as the risks of production, the limits of the local market, and Australasian Films’s power as a distributor forced one after another Australian producer to the wall. Indeed, only those who gained some measure of co-operation from the combine, like
Beaumont Smith, who released his cheap films to Union Theatres, achieved any consistent success. So while Australasian made profits from local production, it avoided risks, and if a chance to become a world force in the cinema had been thrown away, so too had a chance to be utterly destroyed by the American juggernaut - for, as everyone knew even then, only the Americans had the secret of making films which ‘appealed to the masses’.
Hollywood strikes back
However even if that carefully-fostered publicity hype about American movies were true, the American secret was backed up with aggressive international marketing. Shirley and Adams say that ‘the first American film exchange was opened in Australia during 1915 and by the end of the war Paramount, Fox, First National and Metro had all opened offices in various Australian state capitals’. 20 The opening of these American exchanges is the beginning of the challenge to Australasian’s dominance which would eventually, in the 1930s, move that company into an emphasis on British films and a renewal of production. For at the same time as it was curtailing local production, Australasian was fighting a losing battle for local hegemony in distribution.
The practices of blind and block booking by American distribution exchanges worldwide were introduced in 1915. 21 These forced exhibitors to guarantee to show ‘packages’ of films, sight unseen, up to a year or eighteen months in advance. They were the key elements in the market strategy which was to work so well for the American film industry and they, in turn, were dependent on that industry’s having switched mainly to feature-film production.
In 1915 Australasian Films produced and released three features, at least two of which (The Hero of the Dardanelles and How We Beat the Emden) proved popular with local audiences. The latter even attracted attention abroad. 22 In spite of Longford’s testimony to the contrary, it looks to a disinterested observer as if the combine were gearing up for full production. But that is precisely what did not happen. Instead 1916 saw the beginning of Australasian Films’s longest withdrawal from feature-film making - eight years. It rather seems that if Australasian was going to implement the blind and block booking policies of its foreign producer clients, there was going to be no place for any features produced by Australasian
Films, not to mention any other Australian producers, on its own distribution lists.
Yet by the beginning of the 1920s the pattern by which Hollywood came to dominate world markets had been repeated in Australia in spite of the combine.
The effects of the Australasian Films policy
What were, then, the effects of Australasian’s policy? Film historians seem agreed that it harmed the industry. Tulloch, for example, speaks of a ‘decline’ from 1919 to 1929. 23 Pike and Cooper put things in more roundabout fashion: ‘it soon became a recurrent charge that the Americans had suppressed Australian production, but the Americans did no more than maintain a position that had already been established by Australian businessmen after 1912’. 24
But Pike and Cooper also assert that production in the period 1914-18 ‘continued at a consistent though reduced rate’, 25 a statement which contains the seeds of doubt about the combine’s adverse effect on production. For, although the consistent rate of production straight through from 1914 to 1928 is quite clear - an average of more than nine features per year, never less than seven after 1914 (and never more than eighteen) - the case for seeing this as a ‘reduction’ is not. The year of the combine, 1913, witnessed seventeen Australian releases, a figure not out of line with this trend. However, only three of the 1913 films could be called, at 4000 feet, true ‘features’. By that standard, the four features of 1914 actually represent an increase on the previous year, not a reduction, and the 1914 figure is the smallest till the next crisis year, 1929. Whichever way you look at it, Tulloch’s claim of a ‘decline’ does not seem warranted.
Shirley and Adams quote sympathetically from Henry Fletcher who, by the middle of 1915 (surely too early by several years), was lamenting the chance which had been lost for the establishment of ‘a great industry’ because of the combine’s activities. 26 But no ‘great industry’ could have found a solid base for itself in Australia alone - the audience was simply not big enough to sustain it. For Australia to have created a solid and successful production industry in these years there would first have had to be created a solid and successful international distribution network. The First World War provided the opportunity for an aggressive, vertically-integrated
company to do just that, and, by not taking it, Australasian, it seems to us, made security the better part of valour. That lost opportunity may well have been the most serious ‘effect’ of the combine’s policy.
But it is hard to estimate what other, if any, ill-effects can be attributed to the combine’s determination to discourage feature production in Australia. There is a considerable problem here in determining what might have been, for the worldwide shift to an emphasis on features occurs at the same time as Australasian begins to downplay its feature production, and it is just not possible to know how a different combine policy on production alone might have affected the situation. Might Australasian-produced features, for example, have had the effect of discouraging other local producers, making it an effective production monopoly? The combine’s was a mean policy, no doubt, but was it a significant one as well?
Outside the combine
Of course Australian feature production could not be terminated by Australasian Films acting single-handedly. Of the many people who first involved themselves with film-making after the combine’s policy took effect, it seems to us that Beaumont Smith and Snowy Baker are of particular significance to understanding Australian aspirations within the context of the world market.
Besides churning out an extremely popular series of rural comedies about the Hayseed family, Beaumont Smith turned his hand to almost any sort of film that looked as though it might make a profit on the cheap. Today he would be called an ‘exploitation’ film-maker (his Satan in Sydney (1918) surely carries one of the all-time ten best Australian film titles). Doubtless because he could afford to charge low hire fees, Smith succeeded in distributing the films he made himself, often to Australasian’s Union Theatres. He became something of a darling of the trade because of his commercial success. 27 But at the same time it took a certain cultural acumen to recognise the local cinematic potential of the rural family farces which had made such a hit on the stage and, later, of the ‘new chum’ plotline which Smith re-used so often from Townies and Hayseeds (1923) to Splendid Fellows (1934).
Smith’s productions resemble those of the pre-war period in that they were not conceived for any market outside Australia. Those
films which starred Snowy Baker, on the other hand, seem - with the possible exception of the first, The Enemy Within (1918) - to have been made with an eye to their international potential. In this they constitute a break with what had gone before. Where previously ‘Australianness’ had been assumed to be almost wholly a matter of local interest, now the landscape and customs of the country were seen as commodities for an international market. To this end, foreigners (first an Englishman, Claude Flemming, then an American production team headed by Wilfred Lucas and Bess Meredyth) were brought in - presumably because foreigners knew best what foreigners would like.
Baker was an action personality in the somewhat cardboard mould of Tom Mix, and the films in which he starred were full of super stunts, expensively produced, and generated huge amounts of local publicity. By the end of 1920 the athlete star had left the country for what turned out to be almost no Hollywood career at all. The Carroll brothers, who had been involved with distributing all but the first of Baker’s films, said that high production costs cut seriously into the profits, but it seems possible that if Carroll-Baker Picture Productions had been able to back up its investment in the international potential of Australian images by establishing effective distribution abroad, £50 000 a picture would not have seemed nearly so prohibitive.
Production during the war was almost equally divided between subjects which were ‘international’ in the sense of having little or nothing to do with Australia (like The Silence of Dean Maitland (1914) or J. C. Williamson’s films of its American stage productions) and those which used ideas of Australia or Australianness to attract local audiences (like The Hero of the Dardanelles, about the landing at Gaba Tepe). The wartime films made by Raymond Longford and Lottie Lyell (The Silence of Dean Maitland, A Maori Maid’s Love, The Mutiny of the Bounty, The Church and the Woman and A Woman Suffers) would seem to suggest that this well-known partnership had determined that its particular forte was melodrama in which the Antipodean setting was, if anything, a little downplayed.
Thus it does not seem quite in character for Longford and Lyell to have undertaken production of a romantic comedy of the underclass in 1918 after three years of trying to raise the backing. Yet if The Sentimental Bloke represents a change for Longford and Lyell, it also represents an exception to both Australian and world
production at the time: a film beyond category, outside expectation - something new.
The best Australian film ever made
The Sentimental Bloke’s particular, unaffected combination of love story, social comedy and class setting seems, in films of its times, as unique and unexpected as Star Wars' particular blend of adventure, fantasy and science fiction was in the cinema of the 1970s. That the Southern Cross Feature Film Company was willing to take a chance on this radical change of direction must have been due as much or more to the remarkable local popularity of C. J. Dennis’s book, The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, published in 1915, as to Longford and Lyell’s track record.
We do not wish to over-emphasise the film’s unconventionality. Movies about the working poor and the unemployed were by no means unknown at the time. Indeed, they enjoyed some popularity. The closest parallels to The Sentimental Bloke which we have been able to find were both originally released in 1915: My Old Dutch, an English film produced by Larry Trimble, and Chimmie Fadden, an American film directed by Cecil B. DeMille.
My Old Dutch was based on the music hall songs of Albert Chevalier, a remarkable, if not exact, parallel in source material. The British film historian Rachel Low says of it that ‘a slender and largely extraneous story was woven through scenes in the life of a Cockney couple’. Florence Turner and Albert Chevalier in the stills reproduced in her The History of British Film 1914-1918 do seem to prefigure Lottie Lyell and Arthur Tauchert. 28
The character of Chimmie Fadden originated in a book written by an American newspaperman, E. W. Townsend, and had appeared on the American stage. He was a New York Bowery tough played by Victor Moore, a small, robust man who, like Arthur Tauchert and Albert Chevalier, looked like the fictional person he was playing. DeMille was proud of the film because he felt it achieved ‘humor as distinct from slapstick’ - that is, what happened in it was the result of convincing characterisation and the re-creation of situations rather than relying on the formalised gags and characters which were associated with the Sennett and Chaplin school of film-making. 29
There is, as can be seen, quite a bit in DeMille’s memory of this film (and in contemporary reviews of it) which overlaps with
The Sentimental Bloke. However, what distinguishes Chimmie Fadden, and indeed every other American social comedy we have been able to track down from this period, from The Bloke, is its deliberate juxtaposition of only the highest and the lowest classes: the story has Fadden and his family installed as servants in a house of swells where a comedy of class difference and collaboration is played out. 30 Extreme class difference is the engine which seems to motivate many of the comedies of Mary Pickford, among others (Poor Little Rich Girl (1914), Stella Maris (1918), and so on).
Apparently when an American film determined to stay more or less within the boundaries of the lower working class, it was usually either a slapstick comedy, like any number of Keystone or Chaplin films, or a weepy melodrama, like DeMille’s Kindling (1915) and The Dream Girl (1916), or possibly The Derelict (1915) and Pickford’s The Eternal Grind (1916). Serious ‘social’ novels had been filmed, including Frank Norris’s McTeague, the book from which Greed was later made, Crime and Punishment, Les Miserables and Oliver Twist - but almost certainly all in melodramatic fashion. 31 This may not have been the case with English films, in which a certain ‘sentimental’ mode had established itself in the work of Henry Edwards, among others. 32 In any case, the 1915 release dates for both these films may have some significance in influencing, however slightly, Longford and Lyell to believe that their film had some chance of being made.
Just as much to the point are certain tendencies in serious European film production, notably in the Italian and Swedish cinemas. The Italians, with Sperduti nel Buio (1914), Assunta Spina (1915) and, possibly, I (1915) were already making films about ordinary people set in ordinary urban settings, often shot in situ. Victor Sjostrom’s early work in the Swedish cinema, notably Ingeborg Holm (1913), Terje Vigen (1917 - taken from a long poem by Ibsen) and Berg-Ejvind och Hans Hustru (1918), fits into the general prewar pattern of ‘social’ films. Of these European films, however, only Sperduti nel Buio was a comedy. All of them may be characterised as having artistic ambitions, if only because they were recognisably ‘different’ from the norm of the time, just as The Bloke differed from the Australian norm. 33
Sjostrom in particular is praised today for his ability to unite setting and character filmicly, certainly one of the virtues of Longford’s work as well. The Bloke, just as much as Terge Vigen,
is a film of ‘atmosphere’ - and indeed, this is one of the principal traits distinguishing it from American films of the lower class. Writing some decades after the fact, the French film historians, Maurice Bardeche and Robert Brasillach, attribute to wartime Swedish cinema a particular importance for the development of film, using words that might also apply to The Sentimental Bloke:
Only in Griffith’s most beautiful passages had anyone at this time ever seen daily life devoid of poeticising, the thousand details of the everyday. The life of an entire people was made to move us, to draw us in far more effectively than a story or an anecdote. With Sjostrom, with Stiller in a different way, the cinema understood that it was before all else an art of atmosphere. 34
Bardeche and Brasillach testify to a sense of difference between these films and what was common at the time - particularly to a feeling that what was created in the Swedes’ symbiotic use of character and setting was something new and exciting. We do not believe that Longford and Lyell had necessarily seen, or been influenced by, any of the films we have mentioned, but surely the international film culture which surrounded them nurtured some of the conditions within which they worked. In any case, they did not need to have seen Sjostrom’s films to have re-created the principals of his direction, for Dennis’s words, his story, the actors and the settings of The Sentimental Bloke virtually demanded that sort of ‘atmospheric’ directional treatment.
It must be clear that we like and respect this film very much, but perhaps it needs to be put in the baldest possible manner: The Sentimental Bloke is among the very best films made anywhere before 1920, and it is currently the world’s loss, not Australia’s, that it is so poorly known internationally. The Bloke is the one most certain entry this country has in the world’s gallery of great films. Its existence is proof that the cringe which denies that Australia has had anything worthwhile to offer internationally (to the cinema as to other cultural pursuits) is thoroughly unjustified.
Moreover, all The Bloke lacked for international success in its own time was a determined and sympathetic advocacy by a locally-based distribution company with permanent representation abroad and the marketing skills to develop promotional strategies appropriate to a film as innovative as this one was. Other national
industries - the German, the French, the Swedish - had such things, but Gayne Dexter, The Bloke’s representative in the United States, seems to have spent his time trying to alter the film to suit his preconceptions of what American audiences wanted to see. 35
Longford and Lyell followed The Sentimental Bloke with two sequels, Ginger Mick (1920) immediately after, and The Dinkum Bloke (1923). Although these films are lost, there is no reason to suppose that they tampered with the winning formula of the original. Yet no one else attempted to reproduce that formula, and those Australian films of the twenties which were set among working-class people, like Sunshine Sally (1922) and The Kid Stakes (1927), employed the tried-and-true international contrast of extreme class difference.
Having established the possibility of creating a profitable, popular film from vernacular stories about ordinary people, the Longford-Lyell team went on to film On Our Selection (1920) and a sequel, Rudd’s New Selection (1921). Although Longford claimed that he rejected the elements of rural simple-mindedness and slapstick which were prominent features of Bert Bailey’s popular stage adaptation of Steele Rudd’s stories (and of Beaumont Smith’s Hayseed series), the film relies a great deal more on physical comedy, melodrama and the portrayal of mental retardation than The Bloke. 36 Yet there seems to be as little cinematic precedent for the farcically unsentimentalised Rudds as there is for The Bloke’s gentle class romance. 37 Twice in as many years the partnership had found in Australian popular writing something new for the cinema, and something audiences were enthusiastic about.
A satellite industry
By now the Australian film industry was, like that of Latin America and most of Europe (but not the Soviet Union), a satellite industry, caught in the web of Hollywood’s contract systems while it struggled with the arachnidan identity crisis outlined in our opening paragraph.
Although much has been claimed for the particular 'Australianness’ of some of the other films of the twenties, and certainly the assertion of Australian identity was regarded by many film-makers, like Smith, Lawson Harris and Charles Chauvel, as an effective local market strategy, nothing in this period matches Longford and Lyell’s cultural
insight and daring. In virtually every case, from Franklyn Barrett’s two surviving films, The Breaking of the Drought (1920) and A Girl of the Bush (1921) to the all-but-unreleased racist ‘epic’, The Birth of White Australia (1928), Australian landscape and culture serve as decoration overlaying standard international plots of the time.
So even those films which were most aggressively ‘Australian’ and aimed at local audiences, like Around the Boree Log (1925) and The Kid Stakes, had something of an ‘international’ flavour. They exist at one extreme of a line of productions which are clearly indebted to world trends, the other extreme of which is defined by works like Painted Daughters and The Far Paradise (1928), which efface almost all marks of their country of origin.
Of the latter, Painted Daughters seems especially striking today because of its resolute adherence to the surface of things. Belying its occasionally ‘metaphoric’ visuals, this film has no hidden meanings, nothing which is not expressed directly. The story it tells is wholly devoid of suspense, of character, of feeling itself. Even questions of good and evil play no part in it. The pleasure that it offers is, then, only a pleasure of looking, of stimulating the eyes, registering actions, sets and costumes. There is nothing to find in it, nothing really to see, to make out, to ponder in the heart. The fact that Painted Daughters survives today only partially in a print showing great patches of amoeba-like deterioration, and with confusion in continuity, only adds to its rodomontade postmodernist charm.
Painted Daughters was, of course, the film which marked Australasian Films’s return to feature production. It was undertaken in an atmosphere full of portent. The devastating effect of Hollywood’s takeover of film markets all over the world had provoked a variety of national reactions. From 1921 there had been threats of federal government intervention to protect film production in Australia, and Longford’s charge of an Australasian Films-headed conspiracy to kill Australian production was being given wide airing. 38
The combine again denied such accusations and went on to make a total of seven features, including the costly super-production, For The Term of His Natural Life, the international failure of which was used to help justify closing down feature production for another four years. Aside from the much-publicised Term, none were outstanding local (or international) box office successes, and
perhaps it needs to be pointed out that Australasian Films, which claimed to reject most Australian-made films on the basis of their lack of popular appeal, actually showed little ability to judge such things, particularly when it came to its own production. Even when it employed Raymond Longford to make films (The Pioneers and The Hills of Hate in 1926), it apparently insisted upon tarting up the laconic qualities which had so appealed to audiences with tacky melodramatics and quickie production values which did not.
By 1927, when the federal government’s Royal Commission was enquiring into monopoly in the Australian film industry, Australasian Films was already reduced to a minor position in a field dominated by Hollywood. When later historians and commentators reviewed the hearings and decisions of the commission, they did so in the light of their own current concerns, which were arguments about government support of a national film production industry, rather than in the terms which our discussion deploys - that is, the place of the Australian industry (production, distribution and exhibition) within an international context. 39 This was a mistake which the Royal Commissioners themselves did not make: their recommendations followed almost exactly the guidelines of an Imperial Conference held in October 1926, which hoped, naively, to create an empire market to challenge American hegemony. 40
That imperial hope, too, was doomed to failure. The Australian film trade remained a satellite of Hollywood, and the film industry, in its attempts to capture a place in an empire market, remained as caught as it ever was - and still is - on the horns of an ideological dilemma.
1 West filmed as he toured and produced a regular newsreel, as did Williams from 1912. Spencer made shorts and news items from 1908 and more ambitious productions from 1910, opening a ‘state of the art’ studio at Rushcutters Bay in 1912.
2 Theatre, 1 September 1910, p. 13.
3 West Australian, 28 May 1906.
4 Graham Shirley and Brian Adams, Australian cinema: the first eighty years, Angus & Robertson, n.p., 1985, p. 16.
5 See David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: film style and mode of production, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, p. 398.
6 Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1980, pp. 10-16. All information on release dates and film lengths contained in this chapter is taken from Pike and Cooper’s book.
7 Kristin Thompson, Exporting entertainment: America in the world film market 1907-1934, British Film Institute, London, 1985, p. 5.
8 In the eyes of some Australian entrepreneurs the key enterprise in the American saga of consolidation may have been the centralised distribution arm of the Motion Picture Patents Company. This was the General Film Company, formed in 1910 to purchase or drive out of business all the MPPC’s 69 licensed distribution exchanges as part of the latter’s effort to monopolise the film industry in the United States (see Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson, op.cit., pp. 397-8. The General Film Company’ was, perhaps by chance, the name chosen for one of the mergers leading to the formation of ‘the combine’ (see below).
9 The rival national cinema chain, Hoyts Pictures, founded in 1908 by Dr Russel in Melbourne, was not at this time interested in entering either production or distribution.
10 The first successful vertical integration in the United States was achieved by Famous Players-Lasky in 1919 (see Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson, op.cit., p. 399.
11 This account generalises and drastically condenses what is in Rachel Low’s The History of the British Film 1906-1914, Allen & Unwin, London, 1948, pp. 75-84.
12 The company never publicly announced such a policy, of course. It simply put it into effect, together with a refusal to supply films, either imported or local, to exhibitor clients who showed local independent productions. One reason why we know about it is that in 1914 Raymond Longford challenged tire combine in the courts, through its nominee, Henry Gee, claiming restraint of trade. In a long and acrimonious hearing, the company never sought to deny that it had implemented such a policy, and the court’s decision was that this was legitimate trading practice in a ‘free market’. (See the report of the case in Theatre Magazine, 1 December 1914, pp. 47-8 and 50, reprinted in Ina Bertrand (ed.), Cinema in Australia: a documentary history, New South Wales University Press, in press, Sydney, 1989.) Australasian Films’ production policy may have changed briefly in 1915 (see below).
13 A feature was made in 1919, usually called Why Mabel Learned to Jazz, but it was not released.
14 See, for example, pp. 119-22 and 170-3 of his Legends on the screen: the narrative film in Australia 1919-1929, Currency Press, Sydney, 1981.
15 Pike and Cooper, op.cit., p. 64.
16 See the comments quoted in Shirley and Adams, op.cit, pp. 42-3 and Tulloch, op.cit, p. 75.
17 For example, Ruth Megaw, The American image: influence on Australian cinema management 1896-1923’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. 54 part 2, June 1968, pp. 194-204, reprinted in Albert Moran and Tom O’Regan (eds). An Australian Film Reader, Currency Press, Sydney, 1985; Sally Stockbridge, ‘Monopoly capitalism: the case of the Australian Film industry', Australian Journal of Screen Theory, no. 5/6, 1979, pp. 17-35; and Tulloch, op.cit, passim.
18 Shirley and Adams, op.cit, p. 43.
19 By 1910 those markets were being actively sought internationally according to Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson, op.cit., p. 398.
20 Shirley and Adams, op.cit, p. 45. However, the Australian trade journal Picture Show commented four years later that ‘The arrival of three representatives of Selznick Pictures to open a branch office in Australia may be taken as the start of an influx of overseas concerns to conduct their own business here instead of selling their film to an exchange as has been done in the past’ (quoted in Tulloch, op.cit., p. 76-emphasis ours), which suggests that the trade saw no threat until that time. Thompson says that Fox opened a branch in 1916, Paramount in 1917, and United Artists in 1921, by which time Universal had no less than four Australian offices (Thompson, op.cit., pp. 204, 206, 208).
21 Low, op.cit., pp. 43-7, details the steps which the American firm, Essanay, took during this year to attempt to change the conditions under which their films were distributed in Britain, and these included block booking contracts. By 1916, she says, blind and block booking were a serious issue for the British trade.
22 According to a letter quoted in Pike and Cooper, op.cit, p. 75.
23 Tulloch, op.cit., p. 76.
24 Pike and Cooper, op.cit, p. 115.
25 ibid., p. 64.
26 Shirley and Adams, op.cit, p. 43.
27 On the evidence presented in Tulloch, op.cit, pp. 204-42.
28 See Low, op.cit, p. 188 (illustrations in Inset II following p. 160). Later, on p. 199, Low describes a short-lived genre of films based on songs which followed the success of My Old Dutch. Like The Sentimental Bloke, but apparently with greater success, My Old Dutch was remade in 1934.
29 C. B. DeMille, The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, 1959, p. 137.
30 Gene Ringgold and DeWitt Bodeen’s The films of Cecil B. DeMille, Cadillac
Publishing, New York, 1969, gives a plot synopsis for Chimmie Fadden 79), as well as for Kindling (p. 83) and The Dream Girl (p. 119) refers to later. Neither of us has seen these films.
31 Daniel Blum’s book of photos, A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen, Grosset & Dunlap, New York, 1953, contains stills of some of the productions mentioned here which, in the absence of more certain data, we have considered representative.
32 Low discusses these films on pp. 199-200 of her 1914-1918 volume, but does not include My Old Dutch among them. Apparently Edwards’s films and perhaps all of the others she mentions, drew on middle-class settings.
33 The early Italian 'realist’ films are mentioned in Pierre Leprohon’s The Italian Cinema, Praeger, New York, 1972, pp. 40-3. The information on the Swedish cinema here is taken from Maurice Mardeche and Robert Brasillach, Histoire du cinema, Les Sept Couleurs, Paris, 1964 and two monographs by Bengt Idestam-Almquist, ‘Sjostrom’ (Anthologie du cinema, vol. 1, L’Avant Scene, Paris, 1966, pp. 494-557) and ‘Stiller’ (Anthologie du cinema, L’Avant Scene, Paris, 1968, pp. 221-76). The former contains evidence that the Swedes were producing quite a few working class dramas each year, but that they were not distributing them widely abroad (pp. 522-3). The same source asserts that Ingeborg Holm was the first film to be considered seriously by intellectuals as ‘art’ (p. 510).
34 Bardeche and Brasillach, op.cit, vol. 1, p. 196 (our translation).
35 His description of his efforts on behalf of the film was given to the 1927 Royal Commission (Minutes of Evidence, pp. 872-3, reprinted in Bertrand, op.cit.). Dexter’s most notorious remarks on the subject have to do with what he saw as a general Australian ugliness, exemplified in Tauchert and Lyell. The Bloke did considerably better in Britain, without him.
36 In ‘Early Australian film history: evaluating the evidence’, a paper delivered at the Fourth History and Film Conference, held on 3-6 December 1987 at the University of Queensland, Richard Fotheringham pointed out that some of the plot elements of the film are, in point of fact, taken from the play and not from Rudd’s stories.
37 Beaumont Smith’s Hayseed family, inspired by Bailey’s version of the Rudds, is, in the one surviving Hayseed film (The Hayseeds, 1933), an altogether sweeter and more conventional group of people.
38 Tulloch, op.cit., pp. 170-1, suggests that these threats of federal intervention may have been a result of Longford’s plotting as well.
39 See, for example, the discussions of the Commission in Tulloch, op.cit., passim, Ina Bertrand and Diane Collins, Government and Film in Australia, Currency Press and the Australian Film Institute, Sydney, 1981, pp. 25-32, and Shirley and Adams, op.cit, pp. 74-99.
40 Diane Collins cites the effect of the conference on the government’s decision to intervene (Bertrand and Collins, op.cit., p. 27), as do Shirley and Adams (p. 76). Our claim of its effect on the commission’s recommendations is based on Rachel Low’s summary of the recommendations of the conference report. (The History of the British Film 1918-1929, Allen & Unwin, London, 1971, p. 96).
Garry Gillard | New: 29 December, 2012 | Now: 20 November, 2019