When then Premier Jeff Kennett gleefully announced that Melbourne’s municipal revival would be conjured through nothing less than a marathon of high-end musicals, he couldn’t have realised there was a witty and subversive precedent lurking deep in the archives.
Colin Dean’s magisterial micro-musical, Melbourne Wedding Belle, anticipated Kennett’s faith in the urban power of light opera by almost 40 years. Its marriage of song and satire continues to speak volumes, albeit in the idiom of a Gilbert and Sullivan styled libretto, of Melbourne’s “acquisitional” classes. It is a film all the more remarkable for anticipating by several years the pretension pricking parody of Barry Humphries’ Edna Everage, though it shares her penchant for rhyming delivery.
In Dean’s expressive depiction of the preparations made for the marriage of “Jane Alma Rhode” to “Hugh Collins Street”, Melbourne is revealed formally as a conurbation of sound and image. Something less ambitious than a City Symphony, his Melbourne is a City of Patter Songs. A Metropolis-in-Minor. This short film, slicing through the upper crust of Melbourne society, enunciates a crisply sung world in which “H’s” are crafted with care and rolling “R’s” resound with abandon.
Lyrical documentaries tend to draw our focus to the formal elements of film language, to juxtapositions of space, the patterning of time. But in this case there was also the explicit question of colour (still a relative novelty for Australian audiences especially in relation to Australian subject matter).
According to Colin Dean, who spoke about the film at the 1996 International Documentary Conference, Melbourne Wedding Belle was in part a camera test, created to better understand the properties of Ferrania Colour. This particular 35mm stock was also slated for use on Stanley Hawes’ monumental documentary, the first local colour feature film, The Queen In Australia (co-directed by Colin Dean and Frank Bagnall, 1954). By 1953, Ferrania Colour (part of the family of film stocks derived from Agfa processes such as Anscocolor and the later Fujicolor) had been widely used in Italy, featuring in some 20 productions and winning awards for the quality of colour, but was only just beginning to be used outside its country of manufacture. Much cheaper than Technicolor, Ferrania Colour’s convenience was tempered by limitations in reproducing some colour ranges. Such as (bridal) white.
These experimental motives simply further highlight just how innovative the Australian National Film Board (the Commonwealth Film Unit from 1956) could be and was in the early 1950s. Melbourne Wedding Belle is a concentrated constellation of invention. Combining the talents of Dean himself with producer Maslyn Williams is inspiring enough. But then to add as composer the redoubtable Dulcie Holland, perhaps at the height of her creativity, and the renowned Savoyard, Evelyn Gardiner (aka Gardner), to sing the contralto is evidence of the influential role government sponsored film production played in identifying and employing talent during this period.
As a commentary on class and urbanity the film is complex. The City itself provides the signposts to a series of quests which play out during the day of the wedding ceremony. The Bride’s Mother is fixated with finding the right hat; her Grandfather gripped with locating a perfect white flower; her Uncle focused trackside on picking the right filly. The Groom warbles, with disconcerting conceit, his winning ways: “My search for perfection was not in vain and you’ll never find me alone again”.
Yet every “win” is subtly undermined – the hat prized for its originality is replaced in the shop window almost immediately; the splendid flower must be surreptitiously “beheaded” to be of use; for every winning horse there must be a multitude of losers. And so the Groom’s “success” is simultaneously the embittered nurse’s loss (“I say you’re a skeleton under the skin so what does it matter I didn’t win”). And if the “marriage” of sound and image then is not without conflict and compromise, perhaps the evident aspirations of these motion-picture Melburnians are also revelatory? Is the film suggesting in its cacophony of a conclusion, that Melbourne’s correlate search for perfection is also a complicated cadence made up in part of perceived losses, rivalries and comparisons? Or is it enough that we simply lend our voices to the happy couple’s chorus: “The wedding bell has rung, and I hear an angel singing, I’ve won, I’ve won…”.
Melbourne Wedding Belle (1953 Australia 12 mins)
Prod Co: Australian National Film Board Prod: Maslyn Williams Dir: Colin Dean Phot: R. G. Pearse Mus: Dulcie Holland