Our film specialist Gerard Elson looks at the lack of early Australian cinema available on DVD and 1919's adaptation of the C.J. Dennis verse novel - The Sentimental Bloke.
Considering this country produced what’s widely consented as the first-ever narrative feature film in 1906’s The Story of the Kelly Gang, the relative lack of interest in Australia’s early cinema seems perplexing. Recently, the silent-era yields of many foreign industries have enjoyed a welcome return to eminence thanks to the popular success of The Artist (which apes silent movie tropes, as well as making Hollywood’s adoption of ‘the talkies’ crucial to its story) and Hugo (which pitches its animating mystery about one of the form’s true pioneers).
Yet for every budding film buff who’s been sufficiently moved to swot up on their Murnau, Lang, Dreyer, Lubitsch, Vidor, Griffith, Eisenstein, Paul, Méliès, Pabst, Browning et al, how many, after inevitably arriving at the watershed of the Ned Kelly movie, have then been inspired to investigate Australia’s own pre-sound cinema as a result?
Availability is no doubt an impediment here. Learning about these films is one thing. But actually viewing them? Another entirely, in most cases. Many are lost, or survive only in incomplete form. And of the few that remain essentially intact, next to none are available on DVD.
Thanks to Madman and the NFSA, however, The Sentimental Bloke (1919) is. Directed by Raymond Longford, it’s a jaunty adaptation of poet C.J. Dennis’s verse novel The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke and was a major homeland hit in its day, spawning a sequel, Ginger Mick, the following year, and a talkie remake in 1932. (And here we talk about the technologically-prompted rehashing of popular favourites as if it were a modern phenomenon.)
It centres on Bill (Arthur Tauchert), a boozy larrikin who has to give up the drink and his partiality for two-up if he’s to woo the lovely pickle factory worker Doreen (Lottie Lyell). The film essentially mooches along as a series of vignettes, stitched together by intertitles excerpted from the poem and, ergo, voiced in deeply idiosyncratic Aussie slang ('An’ I kin take me oaf I wus perlite!' is typical). Indeed, when the film played to test audiences in the US, baffled Americans could barely decipher a word of it. The film was recut with Americanised Americanized intertitles supplanting Dennis’s text and released as the altogether more noir-ish Story of a Tough Guy, but it still failed to take. Not all stories travel.
Bill’s moral education provides the film its dramatic momentum: will he sufficiently quash his ocker-ist inclinations to become the dependable provider Doreen requires? Could this everyday bloke ever be marriageable? Like most cultural artifacts from its day, the message might seem near-antediluvian to modern sensibilities. But, happily, the film actually proves a dash more nuanced in this respect than was typical of its time. When Bill venerates Doreen for her chastity and innocence, she chides him: 'I’m no angel' - the implication being, 'I’ve been around the block a few times, same as you!' Happily, this does nothing to dampen Bill’s affections. Look to many other films of the day and you’ll find young women habitually lumped into either of two categories: virginal beauty, or vampish, 'promiscuous' conniver.
That said, I’m still at a loss to make much sense of what’s proved, for me at least, to be the film’s most durable vision:
It looks like a particularly unfortunate cross-fade, but in fact, it’s a superimposition: Doreen’s aloof visage emerging from the pulpy innards of a pumpkin, split and halved on the back of a farm cart. Bill’s been ambling about the fresh produce market, pining away for his cherished Doreen, when the sight of the pumpkin mush sends him into out-and-out reverie. Precisely why this quaggy slop should summon his beloved so vividly to mind is a mystery I worry I’ll take to my grave. And you know it means something as it’s about the only shot in the film that in any way gestures toward the poetic.
If not all stories survive travel, some associations, quite clearly, are just as susceptible to the ravages of time.
The Sentimental Bloke is out now.