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Life Story Of John Lee, The, or,
The Man They Could Not Hang

Or: the story of three films.

In 1885 an Englishman, John Lee, was found guilty of the murder of his benefactress and sentenced to be hanged. Whether because of divine intervention or because of faulty carpentry, the gallows failed to open at the moment of execution. Three attempts were made to hang him and each failed, at which point his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. After serving twenty-three years, he was released from prison and allowed to rejoin his wife and mother. Later, a dying woman confessed to the murder and Lee's name was finally cleared.
This story, with its supernatural overtones of a benign force at work in the universe, and its ample opportunity for heart-rending sentiment, became by far the most extraordinary 'sleeper' of Australian film history. The story was supposedly based on fact, but the film probably owed its direct inspiration to a stage play first performed in Australia by Phillip Lytton (real name Charles Phillips) in February 1912. Pike & Cooper.

Life Story Of John Lee, The, or The Man They Could Not Hang (Robert Scott, 1912) wr. prod. Phillip Lytton, dp Herbert Finlay; Mervyn Barrington, Edna Phillips, Robert Scott, Robert Henry, Fred Cope; 4 reels

According to Scott, the film cost less than £300, and was shot in a tiny studio in North Sydney ... He described the result as 'crude' and Smith's Weekly, 8 January 1921, recalled it as 'about the worst ever'. Despondent about its commercial prospects, Lytton shelved the film without release, and later passed it on to a former employee, Arthur W Sterry, reportedly as a 'present' for his long service (Everyones, 4 March 1925). Pike & Cooper: 37.


Life Story Of John Lee, The, or The Man They Could Not Hang (Arthur W. Sterry, 1921) Sterry and Haldane, wr. Arthur W. Sterry; dp Tasman Higgins; Rose Rooney, David Edelsten; 6 reels; remake of the 1912 film of the same name

Arthur W Sterry and Frederick Haldane had earned a fortune with the 1912 film of The Life Story of John Lee. In 1921 they sought to rejuvenate their means of livelihood by making a new expanded version, including scenes of Lee's happy childhood to sweeten the grim events ahead. ... The crude sentimentality of the scenes of motherly love and self-sacrifice, and the studied cuteness of the children, are thickly evident in the film preserved today in the National Film and Sound Archive, and date the film far more than its crude technical standard. Pike & Cooper: 110.

Man They Could Not Hang, The (Raymond Longford, 1934) Invicta Productions, wr. Lorrie Webb from a 'dramatisation' by Rigby C. Tearle, dp George Malcolm, George Heath; Ronald Roberts, Arthur W. Sterry, Ethel Bashford, Olive Sinclair; based on true story of John Lee; 78 min.

In 1934 the story still carried enough reputation for Raymond Longford to try to salvage his career by making a talkie version, and Sterry was cast in a leading role. Again, despite a film of very doubtful quality, box-office records were easily broken. Pike & Cooper: 110.

Garry Gillard | New: 12 September, 2013 | Now: 28 November, 2019