Tony’s Top Australian Films: #8 – IT ISN’T DONE (1937)

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Ken G. Hall’s It Isn’t Done (1937) was one of the most successful Australian films of the 1930s. It was based on a story by Cecil Kellaway and written by Frank Harvey and Carl Dudley. Cecil Kellaway was a South African born actor who lived and worked in Australia during the 1920s and 1930s. He would eventually move to the USA where he would establish himself as a major character actor, featuring in such films as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), The Luck of the Irish (1948), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). This was also Shirley Ann Richard’s first feature film.

The story involves an Australian farmer called Hubert Blaydon (Cecil Kellaway) who suddenly inherits a baronet in the UK. He and his family travel to England to take up the inheritance but run up against British snobbery. Eventually, Hubert arranges to get rid of the inheritance, giving it to a young writer, Peter Ashton (John Longden), who has fallen in love with Hubert’s daughter, Patricia (Shirley Ann Richards). Hubert and his wife return to Australia leaving Patricia who marries Peter.

 

Whilst mostly set in the UK, the film was entirely shot in Australia, in the Cinesound Bondi studios. This is a truly delightful ‘comedy of manners’ contrasting contemporary Australian social ways and ethics with British ones. It was a big success in Australia as well as the UK and USA and is still as funny and engaging as it ever was.

Tony Knight

Tony’s Top Australian Films: #7 – THOROUGHBRED (1936)

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TONY’S TOP AUSTRALIAN FILMS: #7 – THOROUGHBRED (1936)

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Ken G. Hall’s Thoroughbred (1936) is a sometimes thrilling Australian film.  It is very loosely based on the story of one of Australia’s greatest racehorses, Phar Lap. Unfortunately, it has suffered from comparisons with other similar films, such as Frank Capra’s Broadway Bill (1934). However, it is a delightful film and is part of a small group or genre of Australian films that is about the popular Australian sport of horse racing. Furthermore, like virtually all the Australian horse racing films the climax is the famous Melbourne Cup – the Australian horse race ‘that stops the nation’.

thoroughbred_novelisationThe story centres on a horse called Stormalong who is owned and cared for by Joan, a young Canadian horse trainer living in Australia. She is helped by Tommy Dawson and together they start winning races. Eventually, Stormalong becomes a favourite to win the Melbourne Cup. However, a group of corrupt gambling syndicates plot to destroy Stormalong. First, they arrange for his stable to be burnt down; then they kidnap Tommy; and finally, at the Melbourne Cup whilst the race is on there is a life and death race to try and stop a sniper from shooting Stormalong. Helen_Twelvetrees_1934

In 1935 order to help finance the film and secure a US distribution Ken G. Hall traveled to the US and signed American actress Helen Twelvetrees to play Joan. Helen Twelvetrees, as well as Frank Leighton who plays Tommy, is terrific in the film. There is also a back-stage drama here as Helen Twelvetrees. She came to Australia with her 220px-Helen_Twelvetrees_during_filming_of__Thoroughbred_,_Sydney,_1936_Sam_Hoodhusband and child but had an affair with Frank Leighton who was playing Tommy. Her husband found out and threatened to kill Frank Leighton. Ken G. Hall had to hire detectives to help gently but firmly get the husband and child out of the country.

I thoroughly recommend this wonderful little gem in the Australian film canon.

Tony Knight

 

 

TONY’S TOP AUSTRALIAN FILMS: #6. THE SILENCE OF DEAN MAITLAND (1934)

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Tony’ Top Australian Films: #6. THE SILENCE OF DEAN MAITLAND (1934)

Silence_of_Dean_MaitlandKen G. Hall’s The Silence of Dean Maitland (1934) is not a great film, but it has something rather intriguing about it that makes compulsive viewing. Furthermore, it throws a particular mirror up to its contemporary society with certain issues still relevant today.

The film is based on the romantic melodramatic novel of the same name by Maxwell Grey (a pseudonym for Mary Gleed Tuttiett) that was first published in 1886. It was a best-seller, adapted into a play, and later two silent films in 1914 and 1915. It involves a minister, Dean Maitland who is seduced by the local sex-pot, Alma Lee who becomes pregnant. Ben Lee, Alma’s father, when he finds out physically attacks Dean Maitland, who then accidentally kills Alma’s father. Rather than confess, Dean Maitland allows his best friend, Dr. Henery Everard to take the blame. Everard goes to jail for twenty years, whilst Dean Maitland enjoys a successful life. Eventually, however, all is revealed.thumb_1083_poster_small

There is a story that Ken G. Hall and his friend Stuart F. Doyle went to see a production of the play by The Rockdale Amateur Society in Sydney, and ended up in fits of giggles due to its overt melodramatic sentimentality. Nonetheless, Hall sensed there was something about this story that would appeal to contemporary audiences – and he was right. Despite reserved contemporary critical assessments, the respective film versions were popular successes, particularly Ken G. Hall’s 1934 film.

Today it is very awkward at times to watch, nonetheless, there is something about this story. Furthermore, despite all the melodramatic sentimentality The Silence of Dean Maitland had, and I think still has, the power and capacity to upset numerous people in religious communities and government institutions. Raymond Longford wrote and directed the 1914 film version, and ended up in court over distribution problems. It is perhaps the issue of decadence, hypocrisy, corruption, and betrayal by a supposed respected religious leader that is why The Silence of Dean Maitland has its appeal and fascination, and would, if re-made, probably be as successful and popular with Australian audiences as it has always been. A curiosity, perhaps, but there is something there….?

TONY KNIGHT

 

TONY’S TOP AUSTRALIAN FILMS: #5. THE SQUATTER’S DAUGHTER (1932)

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TONY’S TOP AUSTRALIAN FILMS

#5. The Squatter’s Daughter (1932)

220px-The_Squatters_DaughterOne of the most popular Australian ‘melodramas’ in the first decades of the 20th Century was The Squatter’s Daughter (1907) by Bert Baily and Edward Duggan. The story essentially involves a dramatic love-triangle between two male rivals and the feisty heroine – Violet, the ‘Squatter’s Daughter’. Partly why this film is in my ‘Top Australian films’ is because it exemplifies the creation of a particular type of Australian female persona – the Aussie ‘shelia’.

These days, to call a woman a ‘shelia’ would be taken as a relatively derogatory label. That was not it’s original intention; rather the contrary, as it was a term that was essentially affectionate and complementary. The ‘shelia’ roles, such as Violet in The Squatter’s Daughterwere primarily masculine creations, nonetheless, the character was firmly embraced – feisty, independent, smart, beautiful, sometimes rich imagesand sometimes not – she was seen as the ideal companion to the idealized romantic persona of the contemporary Australian male. These characteristics are also found in Sybylla Mervyn in Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (1901), who to a certain extent prefigures Violet in The Squatter’s Daughter (1907), and many others to follow – such as Barbara in Lawson Harris’ A Daughter of Australia (1922).

The success of the play led to Bert Bailey directing a silent-screen adaption in 1910. Unfortunately, there are no surviving copies and is now regarded as a ‘lost film’.

Squatters_Daughter_posterIt is, however, Ken G. Hall’s 1932 film version that perhaps gives the best glimpse of how thrilling contemporary Australain audiences found The Squatter’s DaughterHall’s film, however, although based on the original play, is considerably different. The characters have been renamed – Violet is now Joan – and certain characters and situations completely removed. For example, the sub-plot in the original play involving the bushranger Ben Hall has gone; its place is a sub-plot involving racism.

Another reason why this film is in my ‘Top Australian films’ is the spectacular and frightening bush-fire that is the climax of the film. Very impressive – and dangerous – film-making.

Tony Knight

 

 

TONY’S TOP AUSTRALIAN FILMS – #4 ON OUR SELECTION (1932)

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TONY’ TOP AUSTRALIAN FILMS

#4 ON OUR SELECTION (1932)

e000951h-01Steele Rudd’s On Our Selection (1899) was one of the most popular works in Australian fiction for nearly fifty years. It was a series of satiric ‘sketches’ involving a rural Australian family, the Rudds,  battling the elements, neighbours, politicians, and themselves. It marks the beginning of a number books by Steele Rudd about this lovable family of ‘country bumpkins’. The original group of ‘sketches’, On Our Selection, in 1912 became a highly successful play, written by Edmond Duggan and the then popular Australian actor Bert Bailey who also played the central character of Dad Rudd.

download-1The play became the basis for the 1920 silent film version as well as Charles Chauvel’s 1932 ‘talkie’ On Our Selection. This was the film that really launched Charles Chauvel’s career. He was initially reluctant to do it, considering it as ‘old-fashioned’, however, based on the success of the play and the 1920 film he was persuaded that it would be a big hit with the Australian public – and it was.

Bert Bailey co-wrote the screenplay as well as reprise the role he created, Dad Rudd. Bailey, and Fred MacDonald as Dave Rudd, as well as the film, were such an enormous hit that it subsequently triggered off a series of films – Grandad Rudd (1935), Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938), Dad Rudd MP (1940).  Whilst ‘film series’ are not unknown in the Australian film canon, nonetheless, the ‘Dad and Dave’ films are the most successful.

It is perhaps lamentable that the world and humour of On Our Selection and the ‘Dad and Dave’ films, in general, are relegated to the ‘old-fashioned’ dismissed bucket. However, Yes – they could be regarded as ‘old-fashioned’, but there is also an engaging whimsical charm, and they have moments that are genuinely funny. Furthermore, they do not shy away from social and political comment, and have more in common with the contemporary US films of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges than is generally credited – but with a uniquely ‘Australian’ voice.

This is partly exemplified in Dad and Dave Come to Town (which is my personal favourite) by the character of Mr. Ernstwhislte, played by Alec Kellaway. This character is what was called a ‘sissie’ role; in that, he is very effeminate and obviously ‘gay’. What makes this character and Alec Kellaway’s excellent performance important is that it is quite possibly the very first positive presentation of a homosexual man in ‘world cinema’, as opposed to being villainous, decadent, pathetic, psychopathic outcasts. Alec Kellaway’s Mr. Ernstwhistle is none of these, but is ‘good guy’ and helps Dad and Dave in their battle against the real villains in the film. Even more surprising, and a delightful paradox in regards to Australian audiences in comparison with English and US audiences, Mr. Ernstwhistle was so popular with the Australian public that he subsequently came back in later films.

These films may well be just of ‘historical interest’ now, however, I would argue that if viewed they would still garner laughs and be extremely popular.

Tony Knight

TONY’S TOP AUSTRALIAN FILMS – #3 – FOR THE TERM OF HIS NATURAL LIFE (1927)

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Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life (1874) is the greatest of all ‘convict’ novels. It is epic in scale and sweep, with multiple characters, locations, situations, and whilst there are major inconsistencies and wild melodramatic flourishes, nonetheless, it is a truly thrilling adventure story. The novel is still in print, although I’m not too sure how many ‘modern’ 21st Century Australians have actually read, or even know about it. However, after it was first published it was probably the most popular and well-read work of Australian fiction in the late-nineteenth century.

For the Term of His Natural Life was virtually immediately adapted for the theatre, and there were two early silent film versions in 1908 and 1911. It is, however, Norman Dawn’s 1927 silent film epic that was and remains the best dramatic realization of the novel – even though what remains of the original feature film is incomplete.

At the time it was the most expensive Australian film ever made. The film was produced by Australasian Films and was to be directed by Raymond Longford. Australasian Films, however, desiring an American release instead employed American director Norman Dawn, and imported American silent film ‘stars’ to play the major roles of Rufus Dawes (George Fisher) and Sylvia Vickers (Eva Novak),  amongst others. The film was a great success in Australia but did not repeat that success when shown in the UK and USA. It was actually not released in the USA until 1929, which by that time was already going through its film revolution with the introduction of ‘sound’, subsequently making For the Term of His Natural Life seem old-fashioned and out-of-date.

For some it may still be regarded as such, nonetheless, there are some truly extraordinary scenes, particularly those depicting convict life in Port Arthur, Adelaide. The film-makers went to great lengths and expense in authentically re-creating convict life in Port Arthur, including location shooting at Port Arthur, as well as borrowing clothes from Tasmanian museums and duplicating them for the film. Some of the Port Arthur footage from the final film was used by Charles Chauvel in a 1932 ‘travelogue’ called Ghosts of Port Arthur. 

It is primarily due to these extraordinary Port Arthur prisons sequences that For the Term of His Natural Life earns and deserves its place amongst the ‘Top Australian Films of All Time’.

TONY KNIGHT

TONY’S TOP AUSTRALIAN FILMS: #2 – THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE (1919).

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TONY’S TOP AUSTRALIAN FILMS:
#2 – THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE (1919).

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Raymond Longford’s film version of C. J. Dennis’ SONGS OF THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE (1915) is truly an Australian ‘classic’ film, and deserves to be always in any list of ‘Top Australian films of all time’.

There are a number of things about this film that makes it special. Firstly, there is Raymond Longford (1878-1959) who produced, directed and co-wrote the screenplay. Longford is possibly the greatest of the Australian silent filmmakers. His career and life is a roller-coaster of ‘boom to bust’. His early film career is linked to his partner Lottie Lyell who co-wrote THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE with him, as well as many others, and appears as Doreen in THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE. Longford was already married when began his relationship with Lottie Lyell, but his wife refused to grant a divorce. Lottie Lyell died on T.B in 1925. From then on Longford’s career and life was gradual and humiliating decline. He ended up being a night-watchman on the Sydney wharves, dying, virtually in poverty, in 1959 at the age of 80 and largely forgotten. However, Raymond Longford was true ‘pioneer’ of Australian film, in directing, producing, writing, and fighting for an authentic Australian voice in film. He was highly critical of the influence and dominance of films and film-makers from the UK and the USA. He eventually softened his criticism of the Americans, preferring them due to their technical skill and artistry, as well as their sensitivity and encouragement of establishing an Australian film industry. Whereas the English were less technically skilled and regarded Australians as mere ‘colonials’ and ‘convicts’.

THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE is Raymond Longford’s masterpiece. However, there are many others that are noteworthy, and perhaps more indicative of Longford’s aesthetics and style. THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE, and its sequel, GINGER MICK, were highly successful, but they are not necessarily atypical Longford films. Longford was a bit of a maverick and a rebel, as befitting someone who is basically inventing feature films making in this early period of silent films. A more typical Longford-Lyell film is THE SILENCE OF DEAN MAITLAND (1914), which was highly controversial for its time, and involved a number of legal battles.

Another reason why THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE is special is the naturalistic acting that is unique to ‘world cinema’ of the time. This is most evident in the performances of Arthur Tauchert as ‘The Bloke’ and Lottie Lyell as Doreen. The naturalistic nature of this romantic comedy is enhanced by the given circumstances, which are essentially out-door locations in post-WW1 Darlinghurst, Sydney. Furthermore, perhaps due to the influence and presence of Lottie Lyell, but as he later admitted he was developing a particular aesthetic that was directed towards women as he regarded Australian women as more empathetic than Australian men to human drama.

THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE also has a special place in my affections as it was my father who introduced the poem to me, especially the ‘The Play’. In this poem, ‘The Bloke’ takes Doreen to see a production of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. It is one of the funniest versions of Shakespeare’s famous play, and it is wonderfully realized in the film. THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE has an Adelaide and South Australian connection. C. J. Dennis was born in Auburn, about 100kms from Adelaide, and the first screening of THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE took place in the Adelaide Wondergraph on 26 November 1918.

For many years it was thought that this film had been lost. However, in 1952 a complete copy was found, restored and screened at the 1955 Sydney Film Festival. Raymond Longford was not invited because the organizers thought he was dead. An original negative print was discovered by accident in the USA in 1973. This American version was a better print than the one found in 1952. It was this version that was the basis for the 2000 restoration of the entire film by the Australian National Film and Sound Archive. This restoration is available as a two-set DVD, with an accompanying booklet about the film and its recovery and restoration. THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE needs to be reclaimed and rescreened so that it once again can take its place as on the ‘Top Australian Films of All Time’.

Tony’s ‘Top Australian Films of All Time’ – #1 – THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG (1906)

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TONY’S TOP AUSTRALIAN FILMS OF ALL TIME:
#1 – THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG (1906)
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Emboldened by the recent excellent list of ‘Top Aussie Films of All Time’ put out by the Adelaide Film Festival, I am going to present my Top Australian Films of All Time’. This is not to denigrate the AFF’s list, which was based on popular votes. Subsequently, however, it omitted a number of extremely important and influential films. The oldest film on the list is Charles Chauvel’s JEDDA (1955), which scraped in at #100. There is no other Australian film from the previous 50 years. This is my attempt to address this, beginning with Charles Tait’s THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG (1906),
This is not a great film, but it is an extremely important and influential one. At the time of its first screening and release in Melbourne’s Athenaeum Hall on 26 December 1906, with a running time of approximately 60 minutes, it was the longest running film narrative in world cinema. Subsequently, it claims to be the first feature film as we known them today. It paved the way for what followed. Even the French, who regard themselves as the founders of film, acknowledge the importance of THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG.
Its influence can be seen in a number of ways. This includes being the first of what can be called the genre of ‘bushranger’ films, particularly those about Ned Kelly, of which there are numerous films from 1906 to today. Also, with its locations ranging from the Victorian countryside to the streets of Melbourne, it offers an insight into an early era of Australian history and identity.
To be frank, I am a bit ambivalent about Ned Kelly – mainly because he did kill in cold blood. There is a psychopathic element that I find disturbing. Others see him as an Australian patriot. Whatever the case, he is an Australian icon, holding a mythic status of our own making, which makes him important and unique.
A couple of years I was in ‘Kelly country’ and went to Glenrowan where Ned Kelly and his gang met their fate, and where the final sequence of the film was shot. We were the only ‘white’ Australians visiting the respective sites. Others were ‘new Australians’, including a large Indian family, a couple of whom who were instructing their younger members about Ned Kelly. Why? I don’t really know – but the fact remains that Ned Kelly still has this fascination and compelling force, that is also evident in this film – the first Australian film that deservedly should be in the ‘Top Aussie films of all time’.
The National Film and Sound Archive a number of years ago published a beautifully restored print of what remains of THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG, with an accompanying booklet about the making and reception of the film. This is still available.
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DANCING TREES

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I have been neglectful of my WordPress website. I have recently had a very successful exhibition of my photography for this year’s South Australian Living Artists festival, a number of which have been sold. Thank you.

I have started a new series called DANCING TREES. This is an attempt to capture the movement and character of trees. I will post a few of them – the story so far. This one from Brown Hill Creek, Mitcham, Adelaide, has already been sold. My photos are available for sale on the BlueThumb web site.

dancing trees