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mentary and news on silent and early sound film, with an Australian focus. All material..." />
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Brooksie's Silent Film Collection

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The Film Preservation Blogathon 2015

It’s Film Preservation Blogathon time again!


This year, we’ve been assigned the tricky topic (for silent film fans, at least) of ‘science fiction’. Why was there not more science fiction during the silent era? Lumiere demonstrated that a screen voyage into the fantastic was entirely possible in A Trip to the Moon, and yet aside from Metropolis, a genuine sci-fi classic is hard to find prior to the sound era.

That is not to say that more general themes of the 'fantastic’ did not find their way into silent films - and that is what I’ll be concentrating on in my post.

This year’s Blogathon is in aid of the restoration of a one-reeler, Cupid in Quarantine (1918), which is being repatriated from the Netherlands in order to be restored and streamed absolutely for free< /i> - or at least, thanks to the generosity of those who make a small donation. So why not donate now, and come back in the next few days for my post?


And don’t forget to visit Ferdy on Films (May 13-14), This Island Rod (May 15-16) and Wonders in the Dark (May 17) to read the other entries.

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Rudolph Valentino Blogathon: Valentino’s Popularity in Australia


Please head over to Timeless Hollywood today to read the other posts for today’s Rudolph Valentino Blogathon!

On the evening of Saturday 26th February 1922, The Sheik, starring Rudolph Valentino, made its Australian debut. The Globe Theatre, which sat just across the road from the Queen Victoria Markets in the heart of Sydney’s George Street entertainment district, had been newly redecorated for the occasion, and an exotic perfume floated through the lobby. A humid late summer night had made the theatre every bit as balmy as the deserts of North Africa in which The Sheik was set. Audience members, shown to their seats by an army of ushers in Middle Eastern garb, settled in to enjoy a cornucopia of stage delights before the lights went down for the main attraction.

Union Theatres had been preparing for this moment for many months. As the exclusive distributor of Paramount Pictures in Australia, they had closely watched the cult of The Sheik grow in America. Would Australians feel the same way? The company laid the groundwork for what might be a major hit.

Central to their strategy was a recent decision to designate the Globe Theatre  an ‘extended play’ theatre. Patterns of distribution usually demanded that a film play for only one week, or two at most if it was extraordinarily popular. At the Globe, seasons would be open ended, playing for as long as audiences kept coming. If The Sheik pr oved as popular as it had in America, the film could be given a much longer run - perhaps five or even six weeks!


Not in their wildest dreams could Union Theatres have predicted that this late summer evening was the beginning of one of the most extraordinary seasons in Australian cinema history.

“Day and night outside the Globe Theatre in George Street people formed a double line in a slowly shuffling queue that awaited its turn for admittance to the holy of holies - perfumed with Indasia soap, fragrance of the Orient!” remembered Sue Crowley, a sixteen year old at the time. After much begging and cajoling, she was finally permitted to see The Sheik - so long as she agreed to give her parents some peace by taking along her younger brother.

“So we two joined that seemingly endless queue, eventuall y to be ushered into the hot darkness reeking of the perfumes of Arabia, and fumbled our way to our seats,” she recalled. “Before the screening, a majestic figure stepped from behind the heavy folds of the curtains. A well known baritone of the day, Frank Charlton, clad in the robes of a sheik, sang with feeling in deep, fruity tones:

I’m the Sheik of Araby,

Your love belongs to me,

At night when you’re asleep,

Into your tent I’ll creep.

And the stars that shine above

Will light our way to love…

"Gripping the arms of my seat, I was mesmerised by the rhythm of hoof beats as Rudolph, in one sublime movement, swept that lucky, lucky Agnes Ayres boldly into his arms. Noisily thumped my heart. And that fool of a woman actually resisted! Five times I sneaked in to see The Sheik, and if I hadn’t run out of pocket money it might well have been five hundred.&r dquo;


Sydney had never experienced an obsession like the one which grew up around The Sheik. Typists, shop assistants, teenage schoolgirls, respectable married women, young and old, high society and working class - all clamoured to see what all the fuss was about. And once they had found out, they returned - again, and again, and again. Even when it was only a third of the way through its run, The Sheik was being described as the most popular film ever to be shown in Australia. 

The Globe Theatre eventually played host to The Sheik for an unprecedented twenty-four weeks - nearly six months in total, representing some 835 showings. Even as this season concluded at last in August, audiences were not ready to let the film go, and it was transferred to another city theatre, the Empress, for a further month. In late 1923, it made a return to the Globe, playing for yet another month. Nothing had ever come close to its success. It is fair to say that The Sheik was Australia’s first cult film.

Integral to its triumph was its swarthy, almond-eyed leading man, Rudolph Valentino, a star entirely unlike anyone who had come before him. Several of Valentino’s earlier films had been shown in Australia, though it was not until Uncharted Seas (1921) that he was singled out in reviews. The Sheik, however, turned Rudolph Valentino into the hottest name in Australian cinema.

As Union Theatres expedited the release of his upcoming films, other distributors who held the rights to Valentino’s unreleased earlier pictures now rushed to clear their backlog. Sydneysiders saw no less than six new Valentino features during the remainder of 1922 - Moran of the Lady Letty in June, 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse in Se ptember, Stolen Moments in October, Beyond the Rocks in November, and Blood and Sand and The Delicious Little Devil in December.


The most popular of these was Blood and Sand, which succeeded The Sheik at the Globe Theatre, helping to boost its credentials as the unofficial Sydney headquarters of the Valentino fandom. After an eight week season, it played a further month at other city theatres, sometimes at more than one simultaneously. Though this seems paltry behind The Sheik’s blockbuster run, it was still considered a phenomenal performance at the time. Blood and Sand was also revived at the Globe in November 1924 - the last film that would ever play there, in fact. Union Theatres already had a surplus of city theatres and the Globe, slightly smaller than the others, was closed and turned into a radio studio.

Metro were somewhat slower in exploiting Valentino’s newfound Australian fame, though this was not entirely their own fault. Their presence in the Australian market was minor compared to Paramount’s, and their films were distributed by a small company, the Co-Operative Film Exchange, which controlled only one city theatre, the Piccadilly. For 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse, they were able to broker a deal with the larger Union Theatres, allowing the film to appear at their most prestigious cinema, the Crystal Palace, at which it was shown for seven weeks before moving on to other city theatres. 

Co-Operative were unable to sign a similar deal for Metro's The Conquering Power, which they released themselves and promoted as best they could, with a competition that promised three guineas to whoever could best answer the question 'Why is Rudolph Valentino the perfect lover?’

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The release of Camille in September 1923, however, was so low-key that many fans missed it altogether. Advertisements were almost non-existent, and the film seems to have played only a single week in Sydney. Months after it had already come and gone, letters continued to pour in to magazine columns, asking when it would be arriving. The apparent lack of faith on the part of its promoters may have to do with the film’s poor performance in America, where it was considered too artsy and mannered for even Valentino’s charisma to rescue it. Internal problems at Co-Operative would not have helped. The distributor went out of business in 1925, unable to compete with its larger rivals. 

One thing was certain - Australians were hooked on Rudolph Valentino, or Rodolph, as they were confidently informed was his preferred spelling. Sydney’s most comprehensive cinema coverage was to be found in The Sunday Times, which published a column known as 'The Movie Know-All’ during the period of Rudy’s greatest popularity. Aside from the huge number of questions to the anonymous 'Know-All’ about Valentino’s life, marital status and upcoming films, the sheer number of correspondents who gave themselves pseudonyms such as 'Sheik’, 'Rudolph’ or 'The Young Rajah’ testifies to his popularity.

“I’ve chosen this name, as The Sheik, which I saw 17 times, is in my opinion, the best film ever displayed,” explained one fan. “Next comes The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which I saw five times … He has been a favorite of mine ever since I saw him in Once to Everywoman, long before The Sheik. Anything you may publish, re Rodolph Valentino or my other favorites will meet with my very greatest approval . I have about 70 photos of him now.”

As in America, there were a few jealous dissenters. “I hate the Sheik. I think he’s a "he-vamp,” and I hate the way he rolls his eyes,“ wrote another correspondent, who signed himself only as 'Man’. "I know Sydney girls have got Rudolphitis, and I know that my young wife sees the Sheik in everything - the grilling steak holds his image - the wringer holds his spirit - the meat safe is redolent of him. But I hate him … Girls who see romance in the Sheik would see romance in the butcher’s boy. They represent decadent Flapperitis in its most advanced stage. Give me a man like 'Bill’ Hart, who represents manhood in its greatest sense.”

Other readers rushed to defend their idol. “I think 'Man’ is cruel to attack Rudolph Valentino in the way he does,” said the one woman. “I can imagine him as a smug, suburban-minded prig with as much romance in his soul as a bus horse. To me, Rudolph Valentino is divine. I have been forced to a blighted life in which the only romance has been borrowed from books and pictures. And that is why I love Rudolph Valentino. He is beautiful and romantic and every girl’s heart must respond to him … I think the Arabian desert, the Sheik himself, the glorious air of adventure in the picture must give any girl a thrill, and all I can say is that "Man,” with a temperament as revealed in his little article, must be as dull as a tomb stone.“

In any case, "Man” found himself far outnumbered. Paramount’s representative in Australia, Frank Deane, returned from an overseas tour in 1925 to report that Valentino received more fan letters from Australia than from any other foreign country.

By 1924, the supply of current Valentino movies had slowed to a trickle. Australian distributors were eventually forced to dip very low into the backlog, releasing such minor effort s as All Night (1918), and A Society Sensation (1918) - one of several films that were recut in the wake of Valentino’s stardom, in order to bring greater prominence to his minor role.


The relatively late advent of Valentino’s fame in Australia had the effect of compressing his period of exile from the movie business, but fans still had to wait nearly a year for his next production, Monsieur Beaucaire. In July 1925, it began an exclusive season at the prestigious new Prince Edward Theatre, known as 'The Theatre Beautiful’, which had a policy of hand-selecting films of unusual quality to play extended runs. Besides the now customary lavish stage prologue, 'Stereoscopiks’, an early form of 3D film, was the supporting feature. 

In America, Monsieur Beauca ire was a notorious flop. In Australia, it was a smashing success, playing the Prince Edward for ten weeks - almost certainly the most successful run it had anywhere in the world.

Why did Australians embrace Monsieur Beaucaire where American audiences did not? For one, the stage play on which it was based was well known and beloved to Australians, hugely successful productions having toured during 1903-1904 and 1914. It remained so popular that it was not uncommon to read of Monsieur Beaucaire-themed parties amongst the society set during the early 1920s. In turn, the popularity of the film prompted a new stage production in 1926, starring Frank Harvey.

It seems that Australians also had a particular predilection for the sort of sophisticated costume fare that Monsieur Beaucaire exemplified. The operetta Viennese Nights (1930), for example, another film that most world markets had dismissed as too fey, would also find its greatest success in Australia.


Though Valentino’s output slowed, his movies continued to attract enthusiastic audiences, The Eagle and Cobra both showing at three major city theatres simultaneously. After the arrival of A Sainted Devil in December 1925, fans faced another agonising wait for The Son of the Sheik, which was not scheduled to reach Australia until the end of 1926.

Only a month after The Son of the Sheik’s American debut, flappers across the nation opened their Sunday newspapers to be met with the news that the star had collapsed and was gravely ill in hospital. 

Conflicting reports in subsequent days lent hope and despair to Australian fans in equal measure. Dreadful rumours began to filter through late on 24 August. By the following day, major newspapers confirme d that 'the Flapper’s Idol’ had passed away at only 31 years of age. 

The ripple of devastation that was felt across Australia was as great as anywhere else in the world. "While a stunned world mourned, I in my little corner read through tear brimmed eyes a poem I had written after first seeing The Sheik,“ remembered a heartbroken Sue Crowley:

"Your dark eyes, speak, command, insist,

A heart of marble could not resist

Eyes that flash passion, love and fire,

Filling me with a hopeless, insane desire …”


The Son of the Sheik, released in Australia in November 1926, was as big a success as might be expected, playing for ten weeks at the Crystal Palace. As this season came to a close, it appeared that it would mark the end of the great Valentino cult. Little did anyone know that this was only the beginning of an international fandom that would continue to the present day, nearly a century after Valentino’s debut.

“Some may say that Rudolph Valentino was not a great man—that he was but a play-actor of parts somewhat above the average; but greatness no,” wrote The World’s News, in one of the more thoughtful Australian tributes. “Well, who shall say what greatness consists of? None, save he who understands "this scheme of things entire"—and where shall we find such a man? That man is great who, with the eyes of imagination, conceives some beautiful work of art which, carved in stone, or painted on canvas, is acclaimed by the world as a work of genius … there are great men in every walk of life, and certainly that man who succeeds in giving real pleasure to a jaded world, as Rudolph Valentino did, has some claim to greatness.& rdquo;

“Though he was but thirty-one when he died, he had given pleasure to millions of people, and it is, perhaps, not too much to say that he was the most popular figure in the whole world. Few men had made more money (or spent more) than had this man whose whole life only lasted for thirty-one years. Few live so ardently. Few bring such pleasure to their fellow-men; and it is because of this that New York has witnessed such unprecedented scenes, that the whole world mourns the passing of an old familiar friend. To have achieved this is surely to have achieved greatness.”

Newspaper images are courtesy the National Library of Australia. Sheet music is from the author’s collection.

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Time to get into the mood for Timeless Hollywood’s Rudolph Valentino Blogathon, with the Ray Miller Orchestra’s version of The Sheik of Araby.

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Rudolph Valentino Blogathon - 15 March 2015


This coming 15 March 2015, fellow film blog Timeless Hollywood will be hosting a Rudolph Valentino blogathon. I’m going to be writin g on the topic of Valentino’s popularity in Australia, which was immense - bigger, I’ll argue, than practically anywhere else in the world! So please don’t forget to visit back here on the 15th for my entry. 

And, if you happen to be a film blogger and a Rudy fan yourself, why not pop over to Timeless Hollywood and join in the fun? Participants are still being invited to suggest a topic for discussion. Get in quick! 

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D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of A Nation’ - 100 Years On


This month, the 100th anniversary of the release of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation has been noted - if not exactly celebrated - in the news media across the world. In some cases, the commentary has been thoughtful and insightful. In others, it has been superficial, but perhaps no more than most commentary around silent film tends to be. It is, and always will be, a film that is very difficult to discuss in a measured fashion, but I will attempt to do so.

I first saw the film as an undergraduate at the University of Sydney, as part of a course that represented my first substantial exposure to silent film (yes, I was hooked!) The lecturer issued some special instructions prior to our viewing. We were not to read any commentary or synopses of the film until after we had actually seen it. We would notice a certain dis junction between the first and second halves of the film. We would discuss our observations about this after the showing.

To my mind, this was a very intelligent way of introducing us to Birth of a Nation. It ensured that, as far as possible, we came to it without preconceptions. Instead of challenging it to offend us, we were able to focus upon Griffith’s artistic and technical achievements, which remain significant. 

The first half of Birth of a Nation is nearly as long as a modern feature film, and yet I do not recall it lagging for a single second. Its staging, its costuming, and its dramatic thrust were just as compelling as they must have been for audiences in 1915. As this section concluded with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, there was no shifting in seats, no glancing at watches. What happened next?


The second half began to unfold. It is this portion that transformed the film into a pariah, thanks to its now comprehensively discredited portrait of a post-Civil War south in which the white man is subjugated by a black population that has been permitted by circumstances to rise above their ‘natural’ inferiority.

There were audible gasps in the room as the Ku Klux Klan made their first appearance - even baffled laughs. Could this be real? The enjoyable first half gave way to a second that was nightmarish in its absurdity; that felt almost like a dreadful pastiche of the first. Now we understood the 'disjunction’ of which we were warned. We watched the remainder in horrified silence, until our lecturer - an Indian woman, by the way - reached for the light switch. It was one of the strangest moviegoing experiences I have ever had.

Today, the film remains such a sensitive topic that even a major classic film website such as Nitrateville has had dif ficulty in deciding how to mark its centenary - or even whether to mark it at all. It is a film that quite rightly inspires intense debate. Would it be better to simply pretend it had never been filmed?

Were it merely a routine studio production, we may have had that option. In the Clutches of the Ku Klux Klan, for example, made only two years earlier (and, ironically, providing a far more equivocal view of the Klan than Griffith’s film), is almost entirely forgotten today, and is thought to be lost. Griffith’s picture, considered the greatest filmic innovation of its age - even the first 'true’ feature film by some - demands our attention. It is impossible to airbrush from history. Were it not such a landmark, nor would its impact on American society have been anywhere near as significant, as the example of In The Clutches of the Ku Klux Klan indicates.

Noting the film’s innovations is certainly not to minimise its appalling racism - all the more dreadful because of its casual nature. Last year, I suggested that the lack of furore over the film’s release in Australia exposed the national vein of racism in a more troubling fashion than riots and demonstrations might have done. In its own way, the very casualness - the very way in which one race was held unquestionably superior to another - is more insidious than the idiotic, theatrical bravado of the modern Ku Klux Klan, because it invites not challenge but the mindless acquiescence under which the world’s most evil regimes have flourished.


This too is not to minimise the unspeakable barbarity of the Ku Klux Klan itself. It is simply to say that their recourse to extremism is in itself a manifestati on not of power, but of desperation. They have found themselves - and rightly so -  on the wrong side of history. If their views had not already been comprehensively condemned by society, they would not feel the need to advocate for them. The fact that mainstream attitudes to race have changed so markedly in the past century is a vindication of how far we have progressed. The best that can be said about Birth of a Nation is that it represented a step in this progression. Those who fought so hard against the film in 1915 would be heartened to know that the result of their struggle is that today, their view is no longer in the minority, but the vast majority.

Of all the commentary around the film’s 100th anniversary, the observation that resonated most came from an article at, also from a university lecturer, who describes a viewing similar to the one I had attended:

My own thoughts on these questions involve a recollection of teaching Birth a few years ago to a class of bright undergraduates at a Southern university, as part of a survey course on the history of film. Aware that young viewers today are notoriously resistant to anything old, black-and-white, and (especially) silent, I was expecting yawns and annoyed fidgeting. Instead, the film — its hypnotic power intact after nearly a century — held the class riveted for three hours, few students even taking bathroom breaks. Afterward, I asked: Should this movie be shown today, in this class or anywhere? Some white students, shocked and embarrassed by the film, said i t shouldn’t be shown, at all. African-American and Asian students, on the other hand, felt just the opposite, saying it must be seen — as widely as possible.

This sums up my own feelings towards the film. I respect that many people choose not to watch it. It is an unsettling and unpleasant experience. I do not, however, believe that avoiding it or dismissing it as mere propaganda is the best way of addressing its prejudices. Suppressing The Birth of a Nation does not change anything - not its message, not its power as a filmic experience. It’s a movie that must be met head-on, its controversial elements confronted and interrogated rather than shoved into the shadows. 

We like to hold ourselves aloft from the prejudices of previous days; to imply that we would have done things differently, and yet it is quite likely that there is some recent film or piece of literature of that is considered fairly unremarkable today, but which pe ople 100 years from now will hold up as a symbol of the unenlightened past. Plotting and recognising the transformation of attitudes over the course of a century is one way of ensuring we never, ever repeat them.

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Here is another sweet little epilogue to the 1916 Film Diary that I discovered recently.

Most serious silent film fans will have a copy of Daniel Blum’s classic reference book A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen (and if you don’t - find one!)

Here is my copy, which was originally a present from Margaret Higgins (‘Mum’) to her husband, Fred ('Dad’). 

Both remained film buffs all of their lives, and when they began to hire film prints to show their own children the pictures they had loved when they were younger, the first feature they selected was a William S. Hart western - possibly even one they had first seen in 1916.

I’m taking a little break now, but I’ll return soon with a new project. In the meantime, what better time to revisit the 1916 Film Diary?

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A 1916 Film Diary Christmas Present: Knit Your Own Authentic World War I Soldier Socks


When Margaret’s brothers Arthur and Jack marched into battle, it was a strict requirements that each soldier always have three clean pairs of socks on hand, not only because it was cold, but because the wet and muddy conditions were an ideal breeding ground for ‘trench foot’. This condition was not only painful and debilitating to men who must sometimes march many miles per day, but in some cases fatal, if it progressed to the point of gangrene.

Women in Australia - and many men and children - took to the task of supplying the soldiers with gusto. It was not only a means of distraction, but a way to make a genuine contribution to the war effort. Socks were knitted by the thousand, and Margaret makes mention of working on a pair many times in her diary during 1916.

Sometimes, knitters would slip in a note with a patriotic or sentimental message to the eventual owner of the socks. According to one newspaper, at least one cheeky digger sent his own piece of doggerel back to the well-meaning knitter who was responsible for his pair:

“I’ve got yer socks,
They’re an all right fit,
One I use as a helmet,
The ot her as a mitt.

I’d like to meet yer
When I’ve done me bit -
But where the @#$% did
Yer learn to knit?”

For the knitters with a little more know-how, here is the pattern Margaret followed, which she jotted down in the front few pages of her 1916 diary, possibly borrowed or adapted from one of the many patterns published in newspapers. 

Margaret Higgins’ Authentic World War I Sock Pattern

Cast on 60 stitches, 20 on each needle.

Do 1 row plain, then about 5 inches ribbing. Pur l, plain then plain until length desired (10 or 11 inches).

Make a seam stitch down centre of sock by knitting last stitch purl.  Divide stitches for heel as follows:

30 on back heel & 15 on each front.

Do heel as follows: 

1st Row, slip 1, knit 1 to end.

2nd Row, purl to end.

Now on right side do until 9 stitches are left. Then knit 2 together until leaving only 7. Then turn and purl until 9 stitches are left. Then purl 2 together, leaving 7 at other end.

Then continue these 2 rows, taking 1 off each end until only 14 stitches are left.

Then pick up 20 stitches at side of heel flap.

Then knit the 2 lots of 15 stitches on to 1 needle, then pick up the 20 more stitches on other side of heel flap.

Divide the 14 stitches, giving 7 on each side, thus having 27 stitches on each sock needle and 30 on the front needle.

< p>Decrease every second row until 15 stitches are left on each back needle. Plain knit [until] 9 ½ inches in length.

Then decrease for toe every 2nd row until 10 stitches are left on each of 2 needles, and finish off.

(The following is added as a note, and might have been a practical modification of the original pattern)

Measure 4 inches or 3/12 inches in purl, 8 ½ altogether before decreasing for toe. 11 inches before the heel.

Merry Christmas on this, the 100th anniversary of the Christmas Truce, and may you all enjoy a New Year t hat is filled with peace and goodwill.

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A 1916 Film Diary Epilogue: The Making of ‘The Murder of Captain Fryatt’


Occurring during the period during which Margaret was ‘too busy to enter up’ but still worth recounting is one last film-related incident for the year.

Earlier in 1916, a patriotic Australian film called The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell was produced by director Jack Gavin. The story capitalised on public outrage over a notorious wartime act, the 1915 execution of the British nurse Edith Cavell, despite her demonstrated compassion for injured soldiers on both sides of the conflict. The film was a potent piece of anti-German propaganda, and it is no coincidence that the story’s next major onscreen appearance was in late 1939, shortly after the beginning of World War II.

The success of The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell allowed Gavin to make plans for continuous production, renting a stu dio in North Sydney and placing a second film, The Murder of Captain Fryatt, into pre-production. The execution of the Captain, who had attempted to ram a German U-Boat, had inspired a similar outcry to that of Nurse Cavell, and Gavin anticipated that its telling would prove just as popular as the earlier film.

“Despite the world-wide horror excited by the cold-blooded butchery of Britain’s mercantile marine hero, Captain Fryatt, the complete details of that judicial murder never yet have been fully told,” boasted advance publicity. “At last, after elaborate and exhaustive research, and from authoritative sources, personal and documentary, those details have been completely pieced. They will be fully unfolded in a motion picture of historic value.”

A number of famous stage actors were engaged, including Elsie Prince, Augustus Neville, Clara Stevenson, Charles Villiers, Harrington Reynolds in the title role, Olive Proctor as his wif e, and Jack Gavin himself as the German spy who betrays Fryatt. Gavin’s wife Agnes was the scenarist, and the cinematographer was Franklyn Barrett, also one of Australia’s most prolific and talented early film directors.


Jack Gavin and Franklyn Barrett.

Jack Gavin encountered some unusual difficulties in bringing The Murder of Captain Fryatt to the screen. The shooting of a relatively innocuous sequence at a neighbourhood store in North Sydney almost prompted a full scale riot. Seeing men in German army uniforms, it did not occur to onlookers that they were not the real thing, and police had to be summoned to protect the actors from being attacked by an angry mob. There was a similar confusion during filming at Darlinghurst Gaol. 

Gavin now faced a crisis. Even after demanding and winning a pl ea for extra pay, many actors in the production now feared for their personal safety, and decided to abandon their roles. There was a desperate search for anyone who was willing to take the risk.

It is likely that this was the point at which Margaret’s fiancée, Fred Wilkins, made his first and only known bid at film fame.


It is probable that Fred’s scenes were shot some time in late December 1916, or early the following year. The haste at which the film was put together was not unusual for the time, but it is likely that a concern for capitalising on the public mood was given a higher priority than the 'exhaustive research’ claimed by publicity. 

Very few stills survive from The Murder of Captain Fryatt, which is a lost film, but assuming that he was in fact one of those who volunteered to don the dreaded uniform of the Hun, it is quite likely that Fred Wilkins is one of the soldiers with his back to us in this picture.


The four-reel picture was complete and ready for submission to the censor by 7 February the following year. Previews were held shortly afterwards at Sydney’s Piccadilly Theatre and Brisbane’s Pavilion Theatre, before a full release at the Lyric Theatre in Sydney, on February 26th. Advertisements, heavy on anti-German sentiment, attempted to whip audiences into an indignant and patriotic frenzy.

Reviews were overwhelmingly positive. “As an Australian production it is well above the average, and carries the same appeal as did the previous Gavin film, The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell,” reported Sydney’s Evening News, also noting 'the introduction of the art titles along the lines of those adopted in Triangle plays.’

America’s Motion Picture News considered it “a very good production on patriotic lines … the production is all that could be desired, while artistic subtitles, designed locally by Syd Nicholls, add greatly to the general tone of the picture.” Nicholls contributed illustrated film titles to a number of later Australian films, including The Sentimental Bloke (1919), and the film adaptation of his own beloved comic strip 'Fatty Finn’, The Kid Stakes (1927).

Early reports suggested The Murder of Captain Fryatt would be an even bigger hit than < i>Nurse Cavell. Alas, though the picture was shown all over eastern Australia, it failed to capture the public imagination in the same way as its predecessor had. In the course of only a year, with the bitter struggle over conscription in mind and the worsening situation overseas, sentiment had turned against propaganda, and towards more escapist fare. The film was considered a financial disappointment.

Though there were initial plans to show the film in England and South Africa, it appears nothing came of them. Jack and Agnes Gavin were forced to abandon the ambitious slate of films they had planned after the completion of one last production, A Convict Bride (1918), a version of the famous Australian novel For The Term of His Natural Life. Gavin later found work in Hollywood as a knockabout comedy actor with the Hal Roach company, of Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang fame.

As for Fred Wilkins, it was much to his disappointment that&n bsp;The Murder of Captain Fryatt represented both the beginning and end of his brief film career. He remained a film buff for the rest of his life, which was a long and interesting one which included such adventures as becoming a successful businessman, taking a flight with the legendary Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith, winning the lottery, and meeting your author several times before his death at the ripe old age of 96.

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A 1916 Film Diary: “Too Busy To Enter Up”


Though Sydney’s cinemas continued showing films right up to and including Christmas Day, on which a program of revivals of recent hits such as Cabiria (1914) and The Spoilers (1914) were shown, Margaret’s days were beginning to fill with other duties as Christmas approached. Her younger brother Frank arrived home from the boarding school he attended in Newcastle, as did the Wilkins family’s ward, Molli e, who went to school in Mittagong. Three letters arrived from France from Margaret’s brother Jack, and there were hijinks with Fred, who had bought - and soon fell off - a brand new motorbike. By the following Tuesday, she wrote ’too busy to enter up’, and ruled a line down the remainder of the year.

It is unknown whether Margaret ever kept another diary. She was no doubt aware that the momentous nature of the world events that she was living through would be of interest to her descendants. It is less likely that she thought her cinema-going habits would inspire a similar interest, so many decades later. Other ephemera relating to her life has survived, preserved by her eldest son Fred - letters, film programmes, and a photo of a young soldier, Frank McKay, which remained in her possession all her life, before being passed on to her descendants and, in only the past few months, back to the descendants of this young soldier who gave his life in 1916 and was so fondly remembered by Margaret and her brothers.

A survey of Margaret’s diary reveals just how important a period of transition 1916 was for the growing film industry. The era of the short film was ending, and the feature film was gaining precedence. Pioneer companies such as Selig and Lubin, who had been at the forefront of the industry just a few years ago, were on their last legs. New organisations such as Metro Pictures and the Fox Film Corporation, which would soon replace them, were producing their first films.


The Lyceum Theatre, Sydney, decorated to promote Triangle Pictures.

Other high-profile ventures did not prove so successful. Triangle Pictures, producer of the majority of the films Margaret enjoyed during the year, was cited as the future of motion pictures, but like later co nglomerates such as Time-Warner-AOL, it virtually collapsed under its own weight. Servicing its own large distribution network required a relentless pace of production, and quality soon suffered. Mack Sennett and Thomas Ince departed in mid 1917, and by 1919, the company had gone into receivership. Fellow conglomerates, the World Film Company and V-S-L-E, suffered the same fate. Within a decade, the constellation of major Hollywood studios was set - Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount, Fox, and Warner Bros, to be joined in the sound era by RKO, Columbia, and Universal.


On the home front, the various networks of smaller exhibitors were already giving way to two behemoths - Union Theatres (later known as Greater Union) and Hoyts, the duopoly that dominates Australian exhibition to this day. Union, which dominated the New South Wales film market, had been in th e process of assimilating smaller pioneer companies, including West’s, Amalgamated Pictures, and J.D. Williams. It was largely under their aegis that more theatres were opened in Sydney during 1916 than any year in the city’s history. With the advent of the multiplex, and the construction of the massive George Street complex in the 1970s, these single-screen cinemas were destroyed, one by one, until almost none remain today.

We can also get some idea of Margaret’s tastes, as much by what she chose not to see as the film’s she did attend. She largely avoided the cycle of propaganda films that appeared during the year. As already discussed, cases in which a comedy is known to have been on a bill she attended but is mentioned nowhere in her diary suggests that she had no great love for slapstick. There is much textual evidence to suggest that she was highly influenced by advertising and promotion, particularly by the Sunday Times, which at the time boasted Sydney’s best film section, which would be expanded and eventually spun off into a separate magazine, The Photoplayer, in the early 1920s.

This form of analysis can be carried only so far, however, as the fact that so many of Margaret’s local cinemas were controlled by Union Theatres meant that her choices were restricted. Still, there is also evidence that when she really wanted to see a particular picture, she would go to trouble to find it, such as when she went to the obscure Alhambra to see A Maori Maid’s Love, or to the Haymarket to share in Louise Lovely’s success. Of the feature films she is known to have seen during 1916, a little under half survive today.


As the year drew to a close, many newspapers were wary of sending readers the customary wish of ‘Merry Christmas and a H appy New Year’. The following year seemed to promise little to be merry about - a deepening crisis in Europe, and civil unrest at home. The prospect of 'Peace on Earth, and Goodwill to All Mankind’ had never seemed more remote.

Even those who had not lost loved ones in the war faced the prospect of another year of agonised waiting, wondering, and hoping against hope that their brothers, sons, fathers and husbands would make it home.


Fred (front row, left), Margaret (front row, middle), friends and family celebrate the end of the Great War, Manly, 1919

The following year, Margaret would finally marry Fred, and the lifestyle she describes in this diary changed forever. The couple moved to a cottage known as 'Myall’ in the nearby suburb of Haberfield. The year would also mark many less happy occasions. Margaret’ s cousin, Claude Richardson, was one of nearly 7,500 Australians who perished in the futile defence of a town of strategically negligible importance, in the second Battle of Bullecourt in May 1917.

In September, word arrived that both Jack and Arthur had been wounded during the fiercest day of fighting at the Battle of Polygon Wood. Even less information flowed to the family than it had when Jack was hurt in 1916, and desperate letters from Margaret’s parents, asking after their welfare, are still preserved amongst her brothers’ military papers. In the end, however, the family had the good fortune to welcome home both of the brothers, Arthur as a Company Quartermaster Sergeant.

Less than a fortnight after Germany formally surrendered and put an end to the Great War, Margaret’s first son Fred was born, soon followed by sons Sydney and Tony, and a daughter, Therese. All three sons would follow in their uncles’ footsteps and serve in World War II, and Margret was amongst the fortunate mothers to see all three return.


Jack, Grace, Arthur and Margaret in the early 1960s

Margaret could scarcely have imagined the Glebe that her great-granddaughter (your author) would call home for a decade, dotted with vegetarian cafes, secondhand bookstores and youth hostels in place of utilitarian grocery stores, and trams and drays. The old Victorian terraces that past generations looked upon as slums are now worth over a million dollars each, and today, Glebe is drifting ever further away from the sometimes harsh working-class town that Margaret knew, nearly 100 years ago, and occasionally sought to escape in favour of riding the wild plains with William S. Hart, or revisiting her childhood with Mary Pickford.

Margaret died in 1971 and was described by her son Fred, who took the trouble to preserve and transcribe her diary of 1916, as “a remarkable woman.

Thank you for following the 1916 Film Diary this year! My gratitude in particular to readers who have contacted me with further information or simply to express their enjoyment in following the stories of Margaret, as well as learning a little about the wartime experiences of Jack, Arthur and their cobber Frank.

If you would like to revisit the Film Diary in its entirety, clicking this link will allow you to read it from the beginning, in chronological order.

Stay tuned for a little epilogue to the diary in a few days’ time.

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A 1916 Film Diary: Louise Lovely, ‘Peg O’ The Ring’


When Margaret attended the movies on 16 December, the last Saturday before Christmas, advertisements once again played down the main feature in favour of its ostensible support, the first episode of the serial The Adventures of Peg O’ The Ring, starring Grace Cunard and Francis Ford.

Ford and Cunard, whose professional partnership began in 1912, were pioneers of the serial form, writing, directing and starring in numerous episodes during the decade. Their first collaboration, Lucille Love, The Girl of Mystery (1914), had apparently been so popular in Sydney that they still appeared appeared in advertisements not under their own names but that of their characters in that series, Lucille Love and Hugo Lobeque.

The episode of Peg O’ The Ring that Margaret saw, enti tled The Leopard’s Mark, was describe in detail by Motography:

‘The Leopard’s Mark’ opens with the arrival of the circus in town. The manager, Barnen, is anxious to learn whether Flip is really the father of Peg o’ the Ring, a beautiful aerial performer. Flip refuses to tell Barnen anything about Peg, so the manager instructs his henchman, Polo, to cause a distraction during Flip’s act, which will put Flip out of the way. He is fatally injured and determines to tell Pierre about Peg. Barnen listens to the conversation and hears Flip tell Durand the beginning of a long story. Flip was in love with La Belle, an animal trainer, who was the wife of Dr Lund, owner of the show. La Belle was injured by the animals. The episode closes at this point, leaving one with the question, “Who is Peg?”

The meaning of the episode’s title is made clearer in other reviews, which mention that Peg h as a strange compulsion to lash and physically claw at people when she is emotional. Apparently, the leopard who attacked her mother passed on some of its personality to the child!

There was almost as much drama behind the scenes of Peg O’ The Ring as there was on the screen.When the series was first announced it was fellow serial stars Eddie Polo and Ruth Stonehouse, recently arrived from Essanay, who were to take the leading part, leaving only supporting roles for Francis Ford and Grace Cunard, who was to play Stonehouse’s mother.

This, combined with various management changes at Universal, did not sit well with the pair, who resigned from the production after having already shot several episodes. There was a period of tense negotiations with studio head Carl Laemmle, and many and contradictory media reports about the fate of the serial. Universal eventually saw matters their way, Miss Stonehouse’s existing scenes were sc rapped and re-filmed with Miss Cunard, and a story was put out that Miss Stonehouse had been forced to withdraw after being injured in a trapeze accident. Eddie Polo was removed from the production at the same time.

Whatever the true story behind its making, it is nearly impossible for us to judge the quality of Peg O’ The Ring today, as incomplete versions of four of the serial’s fifteen episodes are all that remain.


From Motion Pic ture News, 15 July 1916

Where other studios had attempted to get ahead with the expensive policy of hiring highly-paid stage actors such as Kitty Gordon and Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Universal Pictures made a virtue of looking to literary successes for the stories in their elite Bluebird Photoplays. Bettina Loved a Soldier was based on L'Abbe Constantin, a 1882 novel by French author Ludovic Halevy, which told the gently comic story of an impoverished young soldier who was in love with a Frenchwoman whose wealth makes him shy of confessing his feelings.

If Bettina Loved a Soldier had performed poorly in America, as its lack of promotion in Australia suggests, the reasons are mysterious. It was often referred to as a high water mark in reviews for less distinguished Bluebird Photoplays, and Lovely herself had recently told at least one fan magazine that the part of Bettina was her favourite to date.

It boasted what Moving Picture World called 'two of the prettiest girls in photoplays,’ Louise Lovely and Francelia Billington, picturesque French settings and costuming that were widely admired. By coincidence, its director and leading man, Rupert Julian, also hailed from the Antipodes, having emigrated to America from New Zealand in 1911.

If anything, it was this 'prettiness’ that may have counted against it. Many reviews described the film in such colourless terms such as 'sweet’, 'nice’, and 'which suggested an emptiness at its core that Motion Picture News summed up in their description of the play as 'appealing almost solely to the eye’, and Variety as 'nice in story, playing, detail, direction, setting and photography, without excelling in any one’.

The title may also have proven problematic. Advertisements were at pains to emphasise that it was not a story of the current conflict, sug gesting that there was a public fatigue for military subjects of any sort.

Like the overwhelming majority of Louise Lovely’s films, it is now lost.

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