When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
Early Aussie Cinema

Henley Beach

Henley Beach

HENLEY BEACH, ADELAIDE, SOUTH AUSTRALIA — Back in the early 1980s during the battle for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, the last 2 states to vote were Florida and Missouri. Wanting to do my part, I drove to Florida for an ERA rally at the state capital. I knew there should be some celebs speaking at the rally but, instead of Gloria Steinhem or Betty Friedan, the keynote was actress Esther Rolle, who played the maid named “Florida” on the sitcom MAUDE with Bea Arthur.

The amendment wasn’t ratified; the ERA died; but at least I could write in my journal “I Saw Florida in Florida.” I was hoping to top that entry on this trip by writing “I Saw AUSTRALIA in Australia.” But none such luck. On morning TV in Melbourne, the Hollywood reporter Australian Broadcasting said that — due to the preview audience’s response to the 3+ hour length of the movie and its non-Happy Ending, the film was being re-cut and the release date pushed back. The show’s anchor (a guy with grey at the temples) jokingly called the preview audience “young whippersnappers,” referring to when he was young movies such as LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and DOCTOR ZHIVAGO were long and ending with some tristesse.

In tandem with the hype for AUSTRALIA‘s release, my Qantas flight had a selection of classic Aussie films in the same vein as the new Luhrman release for viewing. Knowing virtually nothing of pre-Peter Weir Aussie cinema, I devoured the two offered: LOVERS AND LUGGERS (1937) & THE SQUATTER’S DAUGHTER(1933), both directed by Ken G. Hall.

First, some translation and my deductions as to why these films were chosen. A “lugger” is a type of sailing vessel (I thought the word was a diss coined by Popeye or Long John Silver); a “squatter” is quite the opposite of what we consider a squatter to be in the U.S., where it means someone who is living illegally in abandoned private housing. An Australian squatter is someone who owns a ranch: the big boss / the landlord / the squire / the honcho. LOVERS AND LUGGERS is set in an actual Northern Territory location: Turtle Island in the Torres Strait. (Nicole Kidman’s land in the new film is located in Northern Territory.) And — like Baz Luhrmann’s film — THE SQUATTER’S DAUGHTER deals with a sheep ranch (or as a ranch is called in Australia, a ‘station’).

Director Ken G. Hall was far more than competent. A casual reading of the films could dismiss the works as seeming to have been wrought on a Monogram Studios level of production (mainly due to the quality of existing prints), but there is an expansion of vision and largesse in shot-count that shows these were A-Budget works. LOVERS has some Sirkian use of bric-a-brac in the opening London scenes. And the young lovers in DAUGHTER have some Borzage-esque moments of tenderness and wonder amongst natural surroundings. But to go back to the Monogram analogy, that’s partly due to the broad acting craft (or lack of craft) and lack of psychological tuning in the direction of performances (more than anything else, Poverty Row productions display the price-tag of their budgets via their stagy and cliche-ridden acting). But the other benchmarks of B-Movies are absent in these films: boom shadows, cramming too much action into single takes, flimsy and sparsely-decorated sets. No, these films were A-List.

LOVERS AND LUGGERS stars Arizona-born Lloyd Hughes as Daubenay Carshott (I ain’t making that one up!!), a classical pianist from London who decides to chuck it all and move to a village in Northern Australia. (Hughes had been the romantic lead in Willis O’Brien’s 1925 animated dinosaur masterwork THE LOST WORLD.) Leading lady Shirley Ann Richards’ first appearance is in a cross-dressing scene where she tries to pass herself off as a man to Hughes (the motivation behind this is never explained). Since this is the beginning of the sex angle / B-Story, director Hall makes these moments both seductive and kinky. THE SQUATTER’S DAUGHTER is a multi-character bush drama at a sheep station. Narratively-speaking, it had sweep. But the direction — while tender in the love scenes — didn’t carry the expansion of vision to balance the visual dynamics to the narrative ones. (But historically speaking, just about all the outdoor epics of the early talkie era didn’t have that painterly sweep of the camera.) Still, it’s a commendable work from the Sydney movie industry, and Hall could burnish images that were key plot points.

Oh, yeah: as for entries in my journals such as the Florida quote above, my favorite sentence was entered during a time I was backpacking in Mexico. Arriving at a bus station, I wanted something to eat and found a chewy nutty paste of a candy. I then walked over to the bus system map to see which towns I could get to from my current location. As the travel fatigue wore off, I noticed the type of candy I was eating, and looking at the map I noticed what Mexican state I was standing in. When I put them together, I was able to write in my journal:

I Ate My Marzipan in Tabasco.

Doug / PostModern Joan

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1 Comment to “Early Aussie Cinema”

  1. Paul Joiner says:

    Far better in Tabasco than with Tabasco.

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