Presented in association with ScreenSound Australia, with the support of Film Australia and the ABC Archives.

Further details on this program will be included with program notes available at the time of screening.

Eulogy for Joan Long (by Jennie Boddington)

It is exactly ten weeks since Joan went into Intensive Care. The cliche describes it well – she put up a gallant fight – as indeed she would who was always dauntless, positive, brave.

I met Joan fifty two years ago in 1947 or perhaps 1948. I was a gormless girl of 24 with a husband and three-year-old child, desperately seeking a job at the DOI film unit with no qualifications. There was this gorgeous redhead sitting at a typewriter outside Stanley Hawes’ office in King Street (Sydney) where the film unit was housed until the Burwood School of Arts was made ready. She was 21, a History graduate from Melbourne, and she too was mad keen to work on films in the newly set up government film unit. She had superb white teeth and a shapely mouth, turquoise eyes and a flaming mass of red hair. She was stunning.

Eventually I too got a job at the film unit, by then located in Burwood. In those days women were only employed as Assistants (“F”standing for Female), were restricted to the cutting room, and not allowed on location. I think we got four pounds a week, or maybe five, but the male production assistants with career paths stretching ahead, while we had none, got seven pounds ten.

Early in 1950 when my first marriage came to a very dramatic end, Joan was staying at my house and Martin Long, whom she would shortly marry, was visiting. In the event I fled with my son to Melbourne leaving Joan to cover my trail. Thereafter, she always referred to it as “The Long Night”.

It broke my heart to return to Melbourne, but was necessary for Tim, who needed my extended family. Without Joan’s fascinating letters, always offering support, gossip and loving friendship, I don’t know how I’d have survived the next six years. In a letter of 1955 where she divagated on my future she reverted to the absorbing topic of clothes and looks:

“My dear I am now 31! It appalls me. As for your saying I have no worries about looking old, lines are simply appearing on my face at a giddy rate., I rushed off and bought the new Elizabeth Arden cream, hoping to stave off the ravages of time, and I’m trying to cultivate a pleasant, charming expression, because I keep telling myself that the time is not far off when that will be all I have left.”

In September 1962 after some five years at home having her children she wrote:

“You will he staggered to hear that I did a script for the DOI. The film was about tuberculosis for the Department of Health. They didn’t have any case histories so it’s much duller than your cancer film. I sent Tim to kindergarten which he loved. I got a wonderful girl to come in the mornings, so that gave me three hours. Then I did more work at night if I wasn’t too exhausted. The Department seemed genuinely pleased with it. It could be very nice on the whole, made the way I imagined, but some clot will get hold of it I suppose.”

Using her characteristic phrase, “some clot”, I knew exactly what she meant. She continued.

“How I appreciated your paragraph about mother-hood… No longer are they babies, but devils with independent minds which they pit everlastingly against your tiredness and weak points. That’s my Alexi.”

In April 1967 she was offered a casual writing job at the film unit:

“Oozing charm” she writes, “he buttered me up – I was thorough, reliable, always did a good job etc. etc., but they felt the job was too much for one person (I quite agree from the ad) and they felt that no one applicant had all that they wanted. They wanted to appoint two. He explained in the trickiest way why I wasn’t being offered the staff job – I was too stunned to take him up on it. He said the ‘young man’ they were appointing was ‘brilliant and volatile’ and had ‘Minimal knowledge of films’, but was full of ‘…creativity.’ (Implication – I’m not?). I suppose it was too much to hope that a committee of men would appoint a woman, and a married one at that, to a staff job which, incidentally is paid better than a director. (Although women still get only 85% of the male rate.). I said to Martin before the interview: ‘May the best man get the job. But I’ll be annoyed if some smooth-talking Englishman gets it – it’s time Australia stood on her own feet creatively.’ The first week nearly killed me. The 1964 Holden – culmination of expensive driving lessons – arrived on the Sunday. I started work on the Monday. The housekeeper arrived on Monday night. My period arrived on Monday morning, 2 weeks early! I have so much to tell you … I do enjoy going to work so much more than staying at home. But I am on a really foul job now, a re-write of somebody else’s cliche-ridden commentary.”

In October that year Joan began work on the early history of Australian film script, which was a major turning point, and more than anything else probably led to the public career she carved for herself. She would become an influential Australian film identity.

After having three more sons and some very bad ups and downs my husband and cameraman-partner died in 1970. Two years later I got a job as the first curator of photography at the Melbourne gallery, and our careers diverged for some fifteen years at the time when Joan was doing her most significant work in Feature films. We still saw each other but there were no more long letters.

Our children grew up as children do and I felt the tug of Sydney, my favourite city, again. So in 1994 I returned here to live. We slid into the comfort of our long friendship as if it was a favourite cashmere cardigan. We exchanged books, went to films and exhibitions, subscribed to the “Belvoir”, exchanged symptoms of ageing, went for walks. Although clothes were no longer a subject for discourse we were never short of conversation.

I remember one night, in the 1960s I think, when she took up her seat at the Drysdale’s dining table, and Bouddi and Tass announced in loud appreciative tones, “Joan you’re a ball of fire”. And so she was. Another time they said, “She’s amazing. You think; she’s a real North Shore woman until she opens her mouth by God, and then she nearly floors you with her acuteness and her subtlety”.

I have no doubt that her upbringing in Victoria, in a Methodist family of five children, with not a great deal of money, imbued in her a spirit of obligation, of service, and of giving herself to the community. And giving also, from a capacious spirit, to family and friends, as she did in rich measure all her life.

It is a dreadful tragedy that we must come together here to say goodbye to our very dear friend, too soon. Far too soon.

Jennie Boddington

Jennie Boddington gave this eulogy at the funeral of her friend, Joan Long, in January 1999. It is reprinted with the co-operation and permission of its giver.

The Melbourne-born Jennie Blackwood (Boddington) began her filmmaking career in the immediate post-war period, along with many others of Australia’s first New Wave of film intellectuals inspired by the achievement of Harry Watt’s The Overlanders (1946) and the local presence of the renowned documentarian Joris Ivens, there to set up the abortive Dutch East Indies film unit. Blackwood joined the newly established film unit of the Department of Information’s Australian National Film Board (the future Film Australia). She subsequently met Joan Long and trained with many of the big names of the “Golden Age” of Griersonite documentary filmmaking in Australia: John Heyer, Colin Dean and Ron Maslyn Williams.

Returning to Melbourne in the early 1950’s she worked as a film diector with the GPO’s small Melbourne film unit, turning out training films. In the late 1950’s, she married Cinematographer Adrian Boddington and together they established the Zanthus Films partnership, together crafting a series of sponsored documentaries that frequently expressed both Blackwood’s humanist voice and Boddington’s skills in colour Cinematography. After the BP-commissioned Three in a Million (1959), their respective tradecraft is best on show in Port of Melbourne (1961) and You Are Not Alone (1961). In these films the then barely-discussed issue of breast cancer treatment and survivability is given a soap-opera air which, perhaps, is even more effective today, with contemporary audiences raised on Douglas Sirk and the cultural theory of melodrama as an instrument of social rupture. All these titles were early Australian Film Institute Award winners, as was the Cyril Pearl-scripted Mourning film Anzac (1959), which pioneered the use of historical stills and rostrum camera effects.

After Adrian Boddington’s death in 1970, Jennie Boddington retired from active film production, becoming the first curator of photography for the National Gallery of Victoria. Returning to Sydney in 1994, she continues to be an active free-lance researcher, currently cataloguing the files and photographic archives of Australian Walkabout magazine in the Mitchell Library.

* * *

Jennie Boddington directing Three In a Million (1959) (photo: Jennie Boddington)

Three in a Million

Aust 1959 49 mins 16mm

Source: Cinemedia Access Collection Prod Co. Zanthus Films Prod, Photo Adrian Boddington Dir, Scr, Edit: Jennie Blackwood (Jennie Boddington), Music: Nigel Butterly

Cast: Emanulle Lazzarotti, Kitty Mc Nicol, Sepp Stadler

This is the Life

Aust 1946 9 mins 16mm

Source ScreenSound Australia Prod. Co: Australian National Film Board Prod: Stanley Hawes Dir, Scr Catherine Duncan Photo Frank Bagnall Music Kurt Herweg

Catherine Duncan was the first credited woman to direct an Australian film after Pauline McDonagh. Already established as a prestige radio script writer she initially became involved in Joris Iven’s abortive Dutch East Indies Film Unit, before being given a high-profile commission with the newly formed Australian National Film Board as a writer-director. In 1947 Duncan directed a series of films – This is the Life, Men Wanted, Christmas Under the Sun – on behalf of the Unit for the Department of Immigration. Her tenure with the Unit was brief and stormy. Some future female employees at the Unit were to blame her for the limited creative opportunities subsequently offered to women during the next few decades. Others saw her departure as a symbol of the inability of senior Department of Information bureaucrats to handle creative women, although Unit Head Stanley Hawes was always acknowledged for giving his female employees a tough but fair deal. Duncan expatriated herself to London in 1948 and then settled in Paris, where she continued to write on culture and film for many decades (she was a frequent correspondent for this journal’s precursor, The Melbourne University Film Society’s Film Journal, in the 1960’s).

As I argued in 1995, when writing on The Meeting Place (1), Duncan’s filmmaking as both director and writer (she also provided the clarion-like nationalist scripts, more manifesto than voice-over, for John Heyer’s agit-prop Native Earth and Journey of a Nation, both 1947) is the most blatant expression of the ideological core of national reconstruction, and of the founding agenda of the federal government film unit’s National Program: the call for communal unity through consultation and goal identification. (2) Duncan wrote on the making of these films for Sight and Sound in 1948, protesting her distrust of the hyperbole and U-Beaut-Country arcana which the Department wanted to present to European migrants, whilst identifying a post-war, Griersonite, vision of what propaganda should do and how post-war Australian intellectuals saw its communalist and reconstructive uses:

… the faith has gone out of governments and somehow we have to rediscover it for ourselves. And to me a vision of possibilities seems the better propaganda because it attracts the kind of immigrants Australia most needs… We are suspicious of organised information. To us it smacks too much of… an instrument of destruction… Yet the quality of this weapon lies in the hand that controls it, and its strength can be used for constructive as well as destructive ends… there is a constant need to revise outworn ideas and philosophies and to promote new understandings, to let others see us as we really are, and to see others in their true relationship to ourselves, is the main task of an information service. (3)

This is a kind of primitive Multiculturalism, or at least indicates the antecedents of Multiculturalism’s Australian practice. In all her films Duncan evaded Australia’s major cities in search of overt units of community responsibility: the country hamlet or a yeoman suburbia where family and national interest intersect. The Meeting Place and Christmas Under the Sun deal with community as family, whilst This is the Life‘s holiday-Campishness stands out from an era of documentary-making often beguiled by the dynamic of heroic outdoor male employment, with its representation of (single) women’s working lives. Literarily (as Judith Adamson has pointed out) a difficult matter for film production to represent due to pre-Verité slow film speeds and cumbersome lighting apparatus.

Duncan’s vision is not so much Fordian as Holdenist. The case for reconstruction is as nationally corporatist as the Snowy Mountains scheme, The Commonwealth University Commission or even the industrial self-reliance represented by the manufacture of the Holden car (but also like GMH, I suspect, a subtle cultural import dressed up as dinkum). There was no discernible tradition of the middle-class, middle-sized “Our Town” in Australian feature cinema up until that time: Cinesound and its processors are always either City or the Bush, urban decadence or the Selection. Arguably, Duncan’s and similar Unit films were newly poignant for Australian audiences through their familiarity with the imported tradition of Hollywood family drama: It’s a Wonderful Life or Best Years of Our Lives. An American cultural construction had colonised our notions of Australian Place, filling the vacuum in our popular imagination left by the absence of a local film memory.

Endnotes

  1. Quentin Turnour: “The Meeting Place” Annotations on Film, 1995.
  2. This is the documentary production and funding strand devoted to a general examination of Australian society and culture, as opposed to corporate and departmental sponsored films that have often been Film Australia’s staples. The first federal government film funding scheme, it is still operated by Film Australia – for example, Sadness (1998).
  3. Catherine Duncan: “As Others See Us” Sight and Sound, Spring, 1948.

* * *

Suicide Trail

Aust 1960 3 mins 35mm

Source Film Australia Prod. Co: Commonwealth Film Unit Prod: John Martin-Jones Dir: Rhonda Small Scr: Marcia McEwan Photo: Ted Cranstone

Under Stress

Aust. 1964 25 mins 35mm

Source: Film Australia Prod Co: Commonwealth Film Unit Prod: Frank Bagnall Dir: Rhonda Small Photo: Reg Pearse Music: Peter Sculthorpe

Cast: Stuart Legg, Nigel Lovell

Rhonda Small is the most interesting film-stylist amongst women directors in this period. Indeed, she was perhaps the best director in the otherwise aesthetically lacklustre interregnum in filmmaking at the Commonwealth Film Unit occurring between the Golden Era of the 1940’s, which featured docudrama stylists Colin Dean and John Heyer, and the reinvention and grooving up of the Unit under the production supervision of Gil Brealey and Richard Mason in the mid 1960’s. In both of those parenthetic eras, there was a great deal of slack given to filmmakers in allowing their sponsorship brief to flex into an expression of personal style (formerly in films like Capacity Smith [1950]; later in films like From the Tropics to the Snow [1964] or Peter Weir’s Whatever Happened to Green Valley [1973]).

However, the identification of anyone’s personal style, let alone voice, within the drabber, more constrained production culture of the late 50’s and early 60’s is an almost a lapidarian task. What does a curator of a program such as this do with a short such as Life in Australia: Wagga Wagga, Rhonda Small’s 1960, apparently off-the-rack, tourist promo of typical Wagga-ites at work and play? Small used it to conduct a startling, parametrically disciplined experiment with graphic match-on-action cuts between scenes and associative narrative flow. The lesson in style is exciting – the package is utterly turgid. The pleasure remains one for Cinema studies, not theatrical presentation.

The two titles screened here may offer fewer pleasures for the aesthetician but still demonstrate Small’s ability to put craft in her sponsorship briefs. Suicide Trail was one of a short, anonymously directed, series commissioned by the Road Safety Council of Australia in 1960. The distance between these little bits of drollery (another title about pedestrian safety?: Dead On Your Feet [1960]) and the current generation of TAC neo-realism reveal much about the differences between Australian car culture then and now.

It is odd how little-known Under Stress is. This might be explained by its history as a typical example of the internal censorship mechanisms of government film bureaucracy: mysterious, random and an eccentric response to the apparently innocuous. Commissioned and funded by the Victorian Health Department’s Mental Health division in the early 1960’s, it is mentioned in that department’s Annual Report for the year 1964 and then promptly disappears from view, circulation and the cultural memory of any of those for whom it was meant to be seen. The immaculate state of Film Australia’s 35mm print and even of most surviving 16mm prints suggest it had little circulation. Why? Albert Moran has argued that the work was suppressed at Ministerial level, by bureaucrats concerned about its admission of the reality of mental illness in Australia, but the exact case of how and why remains anecdotal for the moment. (1)

Those who now find Under Stress a sop rather than a provocation on the issues of mental illness in society should remember that it remains the first proper statement of the realities of the Asylum in Australian cinema, rather than its exploitation as a Gothic terminus for melodrama. As always in Commonwealth Film Unit films, the tone is less authoritarian than a uniquely Australian one of reconstructed officialdom (“… we got it wrong in the past; we’re getting it right now…”). But oddly, instead of obfuscating their plight, Small’s instinctive narrative and dramatic filmmaking helps to de-institutionalise its subject-victims. The narrative imperatives of character differentiation and identification in her dramatised group-encounter sessions importantly help to convert the usual grotesque representations of the Mad into a gallery of character tics not that far from the Godly-stroked suburban irregulars of Patrick White’s fiction. More odd, but less affecting is the awkwardly captured Actuality towards the end of the film. Intended to provide a dramatic jolt of The Real, instead, it has lost all its catharsis. Recorded with wild sound and 1930’s cinema sound technologies, it seems like a situation-in-waiting for the sync-sound technology of Australian Cinema Verité.

Small’s 1966 experimental short, Workout, was the first of the Outlook series of lyrical documentaries; a conscious venue created by the reinvigorated Commonwealth Film Unit for young Unit filmmakers to conduct well-padded, 35mm experimentation in jazz-form. These were Actuality-poems: a sort of on-the-job version of the irrelevantly-high production valued “experimental” work now annually generated by AFTRS under-graduates. Workout‘s mythic centaur imagery and its experiment with synthesised music caused a stir at the Melbourne and Sydney film festivals – the way that the event of a distinctive Australian short could then. It suggests that her style was finally permitted to have a form; but the trouble caused in realising even this contributed to her self-removal to the British film industry in the mid 1960’s.

Endnotes

  1. Albert Moran: Projecting Australia: Government Film Since 1945 (Sydney, Currency Press, 1991)

* * *

A Changing Race

Aust. 1964 VHS

Source: ABC Tape Sales and Archive Prod Co. ABC-TV Prod,Dir: Therese Denny Photo: Robert Feeney Edit: Hans Pomarantz

Cast: Jimmy Little, Milton Libble

The English BBC-TV director Therese Denny was commissioned to make a documentary on contemporary indigenous Australia whilst on a brief Australian sabbatical in 1964. Although her career path and nationality does not exactly make her a peer of Joan Long’s generation of filmworkers, her outsider’s eye-view on the plight of indigenous Australians deserves this opportunity to be seen in full and in its original context. Especially as the work is now so often cannibalised for stock footage, without adequate acknowledgment, for generic images of pre-1967 indigenous society (the scenes of children calling their maths lessons out by rote will be familiar to many viewers). A Changing Race remains the outstanding screen document of a time when assimilationist policies were clearly beginning to be questioned in Australian society and in our documentary cinema. Denny’s decision to expunge any voice of white authority or mediation from her film was a major challenge to the terms of debate about these issues at the time. Writing in Nation in 1964, Sylvia Lawson captured its vitality and tone of voice exactly, in a way worth quoting at length:

Miss Denny’s film pulls no punches. It is the straightest possible brand of reportage, the sort of thing filmmakers tend to say isn’t much of a film, but Denny’s lightning-swift, frantically busy cutting from stockmen’s camps to reserve, to mission. factory, backyard steps and back again, cramming the viewer’s head with aboriginal faces, feelings and words, to me had its own brand of cinematic excitement. This is propaganda of an almost incendiary energy; Miss Denny flings us the sourest part of the present situation and tacitly challenges us to digest it. She notes the past – “They were hunted from the land more brutally than animals” – then the camera takes in the dust and galvanised iron of settlements, children playing among flies and litter, and the settled resignation of faces like that of the stockmen whose words – “there’s nothing to work for, only bread and meat” – counter the usual charges of dirt and stupidity and laziness. All the film’s words are spoken by Aborigines, who speak for themselves; and they add up, not to complaint or accusation against whites and their Government (“the Government’s doing its best, really – they just don’t consult the people themselves,” says one wide-awake housewife) but to a plea, from the speakers to other aborigines and to themselves, that they take more of their own destinies on their shoulders, stop looking for hand-outs, prepare themselves for life better than the reserves can prepare them … The film contains wretchedness and pathos, but also pride and realism, and on the parts of underdogs and fringe-dwellers, some astoundingly clear judgments. That being so, I find it hard to guess why the ABC is – evidently – so reluctant to get A Changing Race into circulation. It has had no publicity that I can discover (I, the Aboriginal was comparatively well promoted) and so far only one (Sydney) television screening; nor are copies yet available to borrowers from the National Film Library or State Film Centres and Councils. Yet if there is a local documentary that most of us might profitably look at, this is it. (1)

Endnotes

  1. Sylvia Lawson: “Miss Denny’s Aborgines”, Nation, November 14th,1964. This has been extracted and reproduced with permission of its author.

* * *

This is Their Land

Aust. 1969 9 mins 16mm

Source: ScreenSound Australia Prod Co: Fraser Films Prod,Dir, Scr: Lillias Fraser Photo: Herry Britton, Richard Keys, Music Alan Dean Narr James Condon

Walkabout With Charles And Else Chauvel: Sydney.

Aust/U.K. 1958 25 mins 16mm.

Source: Screensound Australia Prod Co.: Charles Chauvel Productions/BBC Prod, Dir, Scr: Charles Chauvel, Elsa Chauvel. Photo,Sound: Harry Closter. Edit: Charles Chauvel, Alan Sleath.

In the wake of a current fascination by film historians and cultural theorists with the sub-textual echoes in Charles Chauvel’s final feature Jedda (1955), “his” following and less-known ultimate project and only work for television, Walkabout, becomes an even more important document. By moving in such a personal, eponymous fashion, into the territory of the television “real”, no work in “his” career is more revealing of the mythic structures, ideologies and social attitudes behind a life of filmmaking. Rather, behind “their” work. For Walkabout explains and affirms the contemporary tendency of film historians to refer to the Chauvel’s oeuvre in the plural, acknowledging the critical importance of Charles’ wife Elsa to the work he produced. Equally, it makes explicit the manner in which this partnership informed the images and constructions of Australian gender relationships that dominate the films of their shared career.

The story of Walkabout‘s production is “told” (or mediated by the Chauvels’ perspectives, as Stuart Cunningham argues in his study Featuring Australia) in their companion book Walkabout, and in Elsa’s telling memoir, My Life with Charles. (1) The BBC commissioned the Chauvels to do a television series based on the ratings success of an interview they had done early in their 1956 publicity tour for Jedda (during which they were accommodated, apparently, in Victor Mature’s London apartments). In her memoir, Elsa makes the po-faced comments that although Australia lacked the usual stuff of adventure documentaries such as lions and elephants, BBC producer Cecil Madden “pointed out that there is a race of people (in Australia) whose age went back beyond thinking…”. Another producer had added that “…the average British housewife would rather get a kick out of the fact that a homely, middle-aged house-wife like yourself could take on these adventures.” (2)

Production took a full year across 1957 and into 1958 – production and post-product problems being as arduous as the journey itself. This is pre-Verité: location sound was still even more technically daunting an exercise than location shooting, and the Chauvels went through many technicians, ultimately relying on their unit manager Harry Closter for much of the series image and sound production. Incomplete film and sound coverage was welded together by Sydney sound studio-shot close-ups, performed by the Chauvels to camera on a set created from a lager of landrovers (with an at times disconcerting, one-take off-handedness, as this episode shows). The BBC provided a representative editor to oversee post-production and enforce a BBC house style and visual sanitation, including the depiction of dead or killed animals, which explains Elsa’s (self-reflexive) remarks during the series that “we shan’t look at that anymore…” .

Elsa Chauvel seemed concerned that the BBC inhibited her and Charles’ ability to bring the “realities” of Australian outback life to the screen; but today, understanding the Chauvel’s own house brand of power fantasy naturalism for what it was, we recognise that the Beeb’s and the Chauvels’ practices were not really at odds. Walkabout is entirely consistent with what Cunningham has described as the “locationalism” of their features (a quality he extends to Walkabout). Throughout their career, this goo of panoramic spectacle and idealistic melodrama was also typically tinted with a southern hemisphere version of national Manifest Destiny social vision. In the case of Walkabout – where a more explicit statment of Australian identity was required – it is awash with it.

What, however, is of more interest today and in the context of this program, is their unnerving presentation of gender and racial social roles, acutely depicted in this first episode of their Sydney-based preparations. These divisions are strict, but not necessarily (as Ronald Conway was to argue in regard to Australian gender roles in the 1960’s) always disempowering to Elsa: the Chauvel’s production house is a patriarchy, but there is also a matriarchal pole to this universe, one which watches with detached amusement as “the boys” tinker with landrovers, guns or the other industrial technology which so preoccupies Charles throughout the series.

However, sometimes their private gender sub-culture surfaces in the series in oddly unpoliced ways (reminding one of William Routt’s argument that the Chauvels’ was a Naive Cinema): in a later episode we are allowed to quite unselfconsciously watch Charles’ putdown of one of Elsa’s map-reading introductions to their journey. Yet, Elsa’s own episodes of narration seem just as interested in preserving and presenting the strict middle-class sex/labour territories, whatever the harshness of environment (particularly in a later episode on life within the opal miner’s underground dwellings). In time we come to realise that we are on two journeys, as much into the landscape of public and private gender power as into the Australian heartland. For students of the Chauvel’s feature cinema, these are journeys that should be made. This succession of Australian places becomes a series of perfect, isolated, little communities to which the Chauvel’s can extend the theory and practice of their sexual and domestic cosmology: the Homesteads episode, when they shadow indigenious tribal sex-labour divisions (Elsa follows the adolescent girl’s hunting and gathering whilst Charles learns the patriarchal responsibility of fire-lighting); or the forementioned episode set in the Copper Pedy opal mining community where, I think, the fact that it is a town of cave dwellers is unintended irony.

As a whole, it is difficult to make formal judgments about the quality or cinematic achievement of Walkabout, as you would for Chauvel features. Walkabout should not be seen as a harbinger of the Golden Age of Australian television documentary following in its wake in the early 1960’s. It is rather in the “Roadshow” tradition of Exploration documentary and the particular Australian venacular version of it that runs from the Chauvels through to the Leylands, Malcolm Douglas, Albie Mangles and the surf and ski movies. To review Walkabout is also to open the argument that their feature work also has more of a proto-role in this rogue tradition than in engendering that of its theatrical feature mainstream. What is good in the series is consistent with the dynamic and panoramic pleasures of all locationist Cinema, but you cannot escape the place of Charles and Elsa Chauval as an acute manifestation of certain issues in Australian popular culture and its forms of social representation (compared, say to that of Ion Idress in our pop literature). There are in Walkabout no powerful scenes, only acutely, problematically, telling ones

If you can get that far. Not enough amongst those who continue to ride on the case for the Chauvels, as our great National filmmaker have, I believe, have taken on the task of evaluating 6 hours of Charles, Elsa and Walkabout. I have noticed how few I know who are otherwise fluent in discussing the Chauvels’ Cinema have had the patience to sit through more than odd episodes of the series (even though episodes are comparitively accessible). It is something of an arduous critical expedition in itself. I suspect the obstacles of some of Walkabout‘s early sequences – such as here, in Elsa’s domestic elaborations of provisions and packing – quickly put most off the journey. But it remains a key piece of evidence in their case.

Endnotes

  1. Stuart Cunningham: Featuring Australia (Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1991); Elsa Chauvel: My Life with Charles (Shakespeare Head Press, Sydney, 1973)
  2. My Life With Charles, p.148.

* * *

How to Play Cricket with Don Bradman

Aust. 1932 35mm 7 mins.

Source ScreenSound Australia Prod Co: Standtone Prod: Neville Mcken Dir; Pauline McDonagh Scr Kenneth Slessor

Cast: Don Bradman

Paulette McDonagh directing, c.1929

The Cheaters

Aust.1930-31 35mm 10 min extract

Source ScreenSound Australia Prod Co: McDonagh Productions Dir, Scr: Paulette McDonagh Photo: Jack Fletcher Art Dir: Phyllis McDonagh

Cast: Marie Lorraine, Arthur Greenaway, John Faulkner, Josef Bambach, Nellie McNiven

(notes by Ken Berryman)

In June 1986, a Bondi resident brought to the National Film and Sound Archive office in Sydney a roll of 35mm feature film in a rusty can he had found in a laneway at Bondi Junction in 1985. The significance of this material was not appreciated until it was viewed by archive staff. To their amazement and delight, the can contained a 10 minute segment from the opening sequence The Cheaters – a full sound version – thereby becoming the only surviving piece of sound feature film made by the McDonaghs. The reel of film is believed to be the sisters’ second and more successful attempt to convert the film to sound in the difficult transition period between silent and “talkie” eras.

The Cheaters was bedeviled by problems which gave it little chance to emulate the critical and modest commercial success of their earlier features such as The Far Paradise (1928). Conceived initially as a silent film, The Cheaters did not commence production until August 1929. (1) According to Graham Shirley’s account (2), the sisters had already lessened its release prospects by turning down an offer from Frank Thring Senior, then Managing Director of Hoyts Theatres, to take on both the distribution and exhibition of The Cheaters with all attendant publicity. By the time the film was ready for distribution in December 1929 (3), imported talkies had already made such inroads into local exhibition that silent features were already becoming outmoded.

The McDonagh’s now felt that the film’s commercial prospects could be enhanced by converting it to a partial talkie with three synchronised talking sequences and synchronised music recordings on disc (the same method used in the popular US talkie, The Jazz Singer in 1927). Their decision was hastened by the announcement of a Commonwealth Government film competition with a cash prize of £10000 pound to be awarded in mid-1930.

At that stage, no equipment for the recording of sound pictures was available in Australia and the sisters were faced with the prospect of shipping the negatives to America to be synchronised. But the importation of a 33rpm disc recorder for talkies by the Melbourne company Vocalion Records in October 1929 (4) gave the McDonaghs the opportunity to have the recording made locally, in time to complete their sound-on-disc version before the closing date for the Commonwealth prize, March 1930. Accordingly, in that same month, Paulette and Isobel motored from Sydney in a day and a half, “…travelling all night without a break…”, to arrange the recording at Vocalion – only to find that the Musicians Union of Australia, in its fight against canned music, refused to furnish an orchestra for the sound version.

Undeterred, the sisters fought the ban by advertising for musicians in Melbourne. Despite threats of a union picket, the existing sections of The Cheaters sound track were eventually completed with music on disc and three extra dialogue scenes recorded through the use of specially constructed soundproof box, and a Pretwych camera and synchroniser, devised for Vocalion by Sid Guest. (5)

The Arthur Higgins/Austin Fay feature Fellers (1930) had already utilised the Vocalion facilities to produce a partial talkie for entry in the Commonwealth Film Prize and, principally, because of its patriotic nature as a war film, it was awarded the third and only prize of 1500 in May 1930. The Cheaters, despite the efforts made by the McDonaghs to embrace the new technology, received no prize money.

A preview screening of the sound-on-film version of the film took place at Sydney’s Roxy theatre in June 1930. Few critics were kind to what had been, to be fair, a rush job forced on the sisters by the lure of the prize. The Sydney Morning Herald slammed it for its slavish copying of American models: poor, badly told story, weak acting and for the bombastically sentimental style of the dialogue. (6) Indeed the crude quality of the sound recording system was a great disappointment to the McDonaghs, and its monitoring at the preview screening was something of a nightmare, as Neville Macken recalled:

On that evening it died a horrible death. We had shocking trouble. All the film up to and around the dialogue was padded out with music… I was placed in charge of running the discs from the projection booth and in order to maintain a constant level Phyllis was seated in the audience with a buzzer on the arm of her chair. If the sound was too soft, she’d buzz once and I’d turn the volume up, if it was too loud I’d then receive two buzzes. The crucial dialogue scene arrived – the love piece on the terrace between the hero and the heroine at breakfast. At the height of the True-Heart confession, Phyla’s buzzed twice for the sound to be decreased and I , misunderstanding her, upped the volume – so that when one of them tapped an egg, it sound just like the Anvil Chorus… there was a roar of laughter from 1700 people and there was no keeping them quite after that. (7)

Not surprisingly, plans for a general release of the sound-on-disc version did not eventuate. Macken and camera operator Jack Fletcher went onto develop the sound-on-film recording process at his Standardtone Recording Studios in Woollahra, and his partnership with the McDonagh sisters continued into the early sound era.

It would appear that their second attempt to produce a sound version of The Cheaters was made after November 1930, using the same equipment, sets and personnel as Norman Dawn’s Showgirl’s Luck (1930). It is this version which has survived. However, few press references to the film appear beyond this date. By the time this new version was ready the film was even then as Paulette McDonagh later acknowledged “hopelessly out of date…When a talkie plant was procurable in Australia, fashions has charged. By that time, Dame Fashion was lowering her dresses and raising an ironically eyebrow at brevity in skirts.” (8)

Graham Shirley speaks of “the care and dramatic unity” evident in the silent print and how these seem to have been thrown out of balance by the added sound sequences in the sound-on-disc version. (9) The same problems are apparent in the recently rediscovered reel of the Standardtone optical sound versions. In the scenes that survive – depicting Bill Marsh swearing vengeance on his boss Travers, Sydney Harbour and street views, and the jewellery shop heist by Paula Marsh and “Lady Worth” – the intertitles of the silent version have been replaced by reshot closeups of the principles with lip-synced and post-dubbed voice tracks. The wide shots from the silent version have been retained with overdubbed dialogue, music and sound effects. Some visually sophisticated split-screen footage – to convey the passage of “twenty years of progress” – has been added prior to the scenes of the partially completed Sydney Harbour Bridge, city streets, etc. From what we know of the sound-on-disc version of The Cheaters, the newly discovered footage compares more than favourably and gives the viewer added respect for the sister’s brave attempt to create a workable hybrid from another art form – the Silent film.

After The Cheaters, the McDonaghs’ work with Neville Macken at Standardtone produced a number of short sound films in 1932, including Australia In the Swim (featuring Boy Charlton) How I Play Cricket, The Mighty Conqueror (about champion racehorse Phar Lap), and a short documentary on Aboriginal race relations entitled Stranger In His Own Country. Until the early 1990’s, only the Phar Lap film seemed to have survived, however most of the other short titles have emerged from private collections and collection development work by the Archives in the last decade. As yet, no trace has been found of Two Minutes Silence, the anti-war feature based on Les Hayden’s stage play, which the McDonagh’s considered their best work. This was made with the same gear and personnel as the later Standardtone shorts and financed by Isobel McDonagh’s soon to be husband, business person, Charles Stewart.

Ken Berryman, Melbourne Manager of ScreenSound Australia

This is truncated and slighly updated version of an article which first appeared in Filmnews, August 1988. Thanks to Chris Long, Graham Shirley, Karina Cameron and Michele Parsons for their assistance in compiling information at that time.

Endnotes

  1. “Another Film From the McDonaghs” Film Weekly, August 22nd, 1929
  2. Graham Shirley: “The McDonaghs of Australian Cinema” Filmnews, December, December, 1998, p.15-18
  3. “Standard Film Laboratories” Film Weekly, November 21st, 1929
  4. “Marconi Sound Reproducer for Talkies” Film Weekly, October 10th, 1929
  5. Chris Long (with Graham Shirley): “Australian Talkies Before Showgirl’s LuckNFSA Newsletter, No.8, December, 1987, p.3-4
  6. Sydney Morning Hearld, June 2nd, 1930.
  7. Neville Macken, interview with Graham Shirley, 1971 (reprinted in Andree Wright: Brillant Careers, Pan Books, Sydney, 1986)
  8. Macken, 1971.
  9. Shirley, p. 15

* * *

In Harbour

Aust. 1952 16mm

Prod. Co: Commonwealth Film Unit Prod: Thompson Dir: Joan Boundy (Joan Long) Photo: Ted Cranstone Music: Martin Long Narr: Leonard Teale

Joan Boundy (soon to take her husband Martin Long’s name) was the first woman allowed to direct films by the Commonwealth Film Unit after writer-director Catherine Duncan. This stint in 1951-52 was unfortunately almost entirely limited to a cycle of short children’s education shorts such as Richard Take a Train Ride (1952) which showed little room to move for personal voice or flair. She would not direct again until 1972 with The Passionate Industry (and then only after her success in reworking Alan Anderson’s project on Australian film history from study film into The Pictures That Moved (1968) and its theatrical triumph).

In Harbour stands out amongst the films of this career false start: an Actuality-poem to Harbour life, littoral and its bilge-water and rust vernacular, supported by an evocative, if primitive, sound-design of errant Sydney voices and clangs.

The Passionate Industry

Aust. 1972 35mm 50 mins.

Source: ScreenSound Australia Prod. Co: Commonwealth Film Unit Prod: Frank Bagnall Dir, Scr: Joan Long Photo: Mick von Bornemann, Michael Edols Edit Ian Walker, Judith Adamson Music Al Franks

About The Author

Quentin Turnour is Programmer with Australia's National Film and Sound Archive.