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Australian Cinema Part II – 1921-1940

At the beginning of the 1920’s, the Australian movie industry was facing new challenges following the aftermath of World War I. Back in 1912, production companies had merged to form the Australasian Films and Union Theaters, a body which effectively controlled which movies were shown and where. However, it soon became apparent to distributors that there was a decreasing market for Australian movies, a belief that was exacerbated by the relatively cheap cost of importing, say, American movies that had already recouped their budgets in their home market. With local movies being passed over in favour of these imports, the industry began to dwindle. By 1923 this meant that 94% of all movies shown in Australia were American imports.

Movies did continue to be made though, and directors such as Raymond Longford and Beaumont Smith maintained their own standards against the influx of American product. Longford made several well-received movies during the early Twenties, including The Blue Mountains Mystery (1921) and The Dinkum Bloke (1923), but with the death of Lottie Lyell in 1925 his career began to flounder and he never regained the status he’d had in the 1910’s. Beaumont Smith made comedies, quickly and cheaply produced, and this practice earned him the nickname “One Shot Beau”. He too made several movies during the early Twenties, including While the Billy Boils (1921) and The Digger Earl (1924), but like Longford his career began to flounder and he retired officially in 1925 thanks to dwindling profits.

With the US continuing to dominate the market, especially in terms of the emerging “talkies”, Australian movie production maintained a reasonable level but not every movie was as successfully received as they had been in the past. New movie makers arrived on the scene, writer/directors such as Norman Dawn and Paulette McDonagh, and though they too faced an uphill battle to make an impact (or a profit) with their movies, nevertheless they succeeded. Dawn made one of the most impressive Australian movies of the late Twenties, the historical drama For the Term of His Natural Life (1927), yet another movie that showed Australia was just as capable as Hollywood of producing intelligent and compelling movies.

For the Term of His Natural Life

For the Term of His Natural Life (1927) / D: Norman Dawn / 102m

Cast: George Fisher, Eva Novak, Dunstan Webb, Jessica Harcourt, Arthur McLaglen, Katherine Dawn, Gerald Kay Souper, Marion Marcus Clarke, Arthur Tauchert, Mayne Lynton, Compton Coutts

1827, England. A row between Sir Richard Devine and his wife Ellinor (Clarke) leads to the revelation that their son, also Richard (Fisher), is illegitimate and the result of a brief affair with Lord Bellasis. Sir Richard banishes his son, while at the same time Lord Bellasis has an argument with his son, known as John Rex (also Fisher) that leads to John killing his father. Richard chances upon the body but is discovered by some of Lord Bellasis’s men. Accused of his murder, but thinking that Sir Richard has committed it, he remains silent (and helps to keep his mother’s shame from being exposed as well). He gives his name as Rufus Dawes and allows himself to be tried and sentenced to life imprisonment in a penal colony in Australia.

On the voyage a mutiny is organised by none other than John Rex, with the aid of his fiancée, Sarah Purfoy (Harcourt). Purfoy is travelling as nurse to the daughter of the new governor, Major Vickers (Souper) and his wife (Dawn). Rufus overhears the plans for the mutiny and alerts the crew. The mutiny is foiled but the mutineers guess that Rufus informed on them, and they have their revenge by claiming he was the leader. When the ship reaches Macquarie Harbour, Rufus is left in isolation on a nearby island.

Six years pass. The governor’s daughter, Sylvia (Novak) has grown into a beautiful young woman, and has attracted the attention of Captain Frere (Webb). Frere was in command of the penal ship that brought them all to Australia; his distrust of the convicts has made him cruel and merciless. His arrival at the harbour is to inform Major Vickers that he is to decamp to Port Arthur, along with all the convicts. This coincides with Rufus’s decision to end his life by jumping off a high cliff on his island; however, he survives. Meanwhile, Vickers travels with the prisoners on one ship while his wife and daughter, accompanied by Frere, travel on a second ship. This ship is hijacked by Rex and the trio are left on a beach, witjhout supplies, to fend for themselves. Rufus is washed ashore and sets about trying to return them all to the governor. He builds a makeshift boat and they set off, but not before Sylvia’s mother succumbs to a fever. It’s all too much for the young woman, and by the time they’re rescued, Sylvia also has a fever, but one that robs her of the memories of what has happened. Frere takes advantage of this and has Rufus re-imprisoned, and takes the credit for their being alive.

Years pass. Frere and Sylvia are due to be married, while Rex has been apprehended and is to be tried and expected to hang. Purfoy reappears and blackmails Frere into getting his sentence reduced. At the trial Rufus is called to testify, but when it becomes clear that Sylvia doesn’t recognise him, his accusations against Frere go unheeded. With his life spared, Rex plans another escape and asks Rufus to go with him. Rufus declines the offer but asks Rex to take a letter home to his mother. The escape plan is a success, and with Purefoy’s help, Rex gets to Sydney, whereupon he reads Rufus’s letter and discover the truth about their relationship. Realising that this is the reason why they look so much alike, Rex determines to go to England and impersonate Rufus and live his life in the way he’s always wanted…

For the Term of His Natural Life - scene

Based on the novel by Marcus Clarke, and previously adapted for the screen in 1908 and 1911, For the Term of His Natural Life is the most expensive Australian silent movie ever made, and also one of the most gripping. Its tale of doppelgängers, murder, mutinies, dangerous convicts, a scheming captain, a young woman in peril, the twin burdens of shame and regret – all combine to make a movie that grips from beginning to end, and it’s a movie that’s so well filmed for the time that it makes some modern day movies look amateurish in comparison.

The budget aside, Dawn’s adaptation aims high and rarely falls short, capturing the agony and despair of the convicts’ lives and the conditions they’re forced to live in. In this sense the movie doesn’t pull any punches, and as a record of the period it’s remarkably faithful, with the makers’ decision to film in the actual locations depicted adding to the credibility of the outdoor scenes (the Inca, an old sailing ship, was renovated and used for the scenes in Sydney harbour). With such an effort made to make the background as realistic as possible, and with exact copies of contemporary clothing made as well, Dawn’s grounding of the narrative pays off in dividends. It’s like looking through a window into the past.

Dawn is aided immeasurably by his cast, with Fisher a standout as the anguished Rufus and the malicious Rex. The viewer is never in any doubt as to which character is on screen, and even though there are few scenes where the two characters interact, it’s a testament to the efforts of DoP’s Len Roos, John William Trerise and Bert Cross that when they do it’s as seamlessly as possible. Of the two characters, Rufus is the more sympathetic (as you’d expect), but Fisher makes sure Rex’s dastardly behaviour isn’t entirely objectionable. It’s a delicate process, but you only have to look to the scene where his relationship to Rufus is revealed to see the desperate need to be accepted that has driven Rex onwards.

Novak is exquisitely lovely as Sylvia, and displays her character’s amnesia with aplomb, keeping her expressions natural and free from hysteria (or the declamatory style of acting that still afflicted some silent movies of the era). As the cowardly, villainous Frere, Webb is eminently hissable, while Harcourt, formerly a fashion model, is entirely convincing as Purfoy, using her feminine wiles to good effect as she charms and entices a variety of the male characters into doing what she wants. In smaller roles, The Sentimental Bloke‘s Tauchert pops up as a prison warden, while Dawn’s wife, Katherine has a touching death scene as Sylvia’s mother (she was also the movie’s editor).

There’s enough here to make a mini-series, but Dawn apportions the appropriate time needed for each scene and development of the storyline, so that no scene outstays its welcome or feels truncated. There’s a natural rhythm and flow to the narrative, and Dawn handles the crises and lulls with equal attention and commitment. In fact, so confident is he with the material that, when it’s over, you don’t realise just how quickly it’s all happened… and how rewarding it’s all been.

Rating: 9/10 – some very minor quibbles aside – such as Coutts eyeball-rolling performance, or an unnecessary reference to a secondary character’s claims of cannibalism – For the Term of His Natural Life is an exciting, character-driven historical drama that succeeds by virtue of its cast and crew’s commitment to the overall tale; one to be seen both for its confident, considered approach and its exacting take on both the material and the period evoked.

Movies such as For the Term of His Natural Life weren’t common however, and as the Twenties drew to a close, movie production resumed a more familiar pattern of homegrown comedies such as the Dad and Dave series along with turgid dramas such as Tiger Island (1930). It was in 1930 that exhibitor F.W. Thring established Efftee Studios in Melbourne, a production company that made the first Australian talkies, movies such as Diggers (1931), The Haunted Barn (1931), and the generally well received remake of The Sentimental Bloke (1932). But with the Australian government refusing to implement quotas for Australian movies it was difficult for any studio or production company to make a profit, and in 1935 Thring was forced to cease making movies; it was estimated he lost A$75,000 of his own money.

Another movie company, Cinesound Productions was more successful, making seventeen features between 1932 and 1940. Cinesound based their productions on the American model and promoted them well enough that each feature either broke even or made a profit. But while other movies continued to be made independently – e.g. In the Wake of the Bounty (1933), which introduced the world to Errol Flynn – the decline that had begun in the Twenties continued unabated. As fewer movies were made each year, and were less and less profitable, the Australian movie industry was dealt a further blow when the UK decided that Australian movies would no longer be included in the local movie quota, thus causing the loss of a previously guaranteed market.

In the Wake of the Bounty

As the Thirties drew to a close with World War II looming on the horizon, the industry began to implement a kind of self-imposed shutdown, recognising that feature length movies would prove too costly to make in the new economic climate. But the future was already uncertain, and though the War did have an impact on movie production, a break was perhaps just what the industry needed.