and Lottie Lyell (1890-1925)
by William M. Drew
| Although only a few of his films are extant,
Raymond Longford is recognized as the leading director of the early Australian
cinema. For most of his career, he worked in partnership with actress Lottie
Lyell. So closely were their lives and careers intertwined that any serious
attempt to evaluate their separate contributions must first take into account
their work as a creative team. Their common dedication to cinematic naturalism
had a profound effect on filmmaking in Australia.
Raymond Hollis Longford--the name he chose when he entered the theatre--was born John Walter Longford on September 23, 1878, in Hawthorn, a section of Melbourne, Victoria. When still a child, he moved with his parents to Sydney, where his father found work as a prison warder. In his youth, Longford was a sailor and served in the Boer War, then returned to Sydney, where in 1900 he married Melena Keen. The couple had a son, Victor, but later separated. By 1907, Longford had become an actor on the stage and for several years, toured Australia and New Zealand.
Lottie Lyell was born Lottie Edith Cox in Sydney on February 23, 1890. She grew up in a middle class family and may have known Longford and his family since childhood. In 1909, she went on the stage, working with Longford from the beginning. The two enjoyed great success in their tours of Australia and New Zealand in 1909-10 and likely became lovers at that time. Indeed, by 1912, Longford was living with Lyell and her family in their house. The two continued to live together until Lyell’s death and were husband and wife in everything but name, unable to marry only because Longford’s Catholic wife refused to grant him a divorce.
Film production was booming in Australia in 1911 when Longford acted in three films for Spencer’s Pictures in Sydney. He soon graduated to director with The Fatal Wedding (1911). Adapted by Longford from a popular stage melodrama in which he had toured with Lyell the year before, it was filmed in a local artist’s studio with the roof removed to allow light from the sun. Lyell recreated her stage role, and Arthur Higgins served as cinematographer (and would continue to do so for the majority of Longford’s productions).
Longford’s next film was one of the most popular Australian films of the period, The Romantic Story of Margaret Catchpole (1911). Dramatizing the true story of an Englishwoman who was transported to Australia for horse stealing in 1801, the film gave Lyell in the title role an excellent opportunity to demonstrate her athleticism, especially the riding skills for which she would become famous. Longford followed up this success with a number of other films displaying Lyell’s ability as an equestrienne. Often, she portrayed that distinctively Australian heroine, the girl of the bush who was a man’s equal in courage and resourcefulness.
It is difficult to now properly assess the early Longford-Lyell films which included both shorts and medium-length features. Sadly, of all the films they made prior to 1918, only two at this time are believed to survive in fragmentary form, The Romantic Story of Margaret Catchpole and Trooper Campbell (1914), with Lyell as a would-be bushranger’s sister. Some like the 1913 feature, ‘Neath Australian Skies, are not even represented by existing stills. The films were often made quickly, with limited budgets and a small crew. Financing alternately came from theatrical enterprises and businessmen seeking to invest in the new field of film production. The cinematic techniques in the two extant fragments are functional but limited compared to what was being achieved at the same time by Griffith and others in America and Europe. Longford maintained in later years that he had been among the first to use close-ups in his early films. Certainly, by utilizing Lyell’s skills as an athlete and actress in films shot on location, Longford surpassed the limitations of stage technique to achieve a greater realism in these cinematic adaptations from popular melodrama. For her part, Lyell, who from the beginning avoided using elaborate make-up for her screen roles, seemed to have an intuitive understanding of the kind of naturalism that the cinema required. In the field of content as well, Longford began to experiment with grittier themes, notably his 1914 success, The Silence of Dean Maitland, based on a novel about a clergyman who murders the father of the girl he seduced.
In 1915, Longford traveled to New Zealand to film A Maori Maid’s Love, again starring Lyell in the title role. Longford now enjoyed the advantages of a larger budget and longer running time. The result was a film that apparently made effective use of the local scenery and authentic Maori customs. Following its release in early 1916, Longford and Lyell returned to New Zealand to film a large-scale historical drama, The Mutiny of the Bounty, the first filmic depiction of the epic confrontation between Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian. The surviving screenplay indicates the great advances Longford had made in his use of editing and close-ups. As with A Maori Maid’s Love, Lyell was credited as assistant director and she may have also co-authored the scenario. She later reedited the film for the British market. Marilyn Dooley in her excellent study of Lyell, Photo Play Artiste, points out that, thanks to the informality of early Australian film production, Lyell was able to expand her range of talents beyond acting and stunting to encompass producing, directing, writing, editing, and art direction.
| The Longford-Lyell films were hugely popular
with audiences in Australia and New Zealand and, on the strength of this
continuing acclaim, the team turned to depicting social problems after
the success of The Mutiny of the Bounty. The first of these films,
Church and the Woman (1917), dealt with the forbidden love of a Catholic
and a Protestant and complications that lead to murder. It was followed
by Longford’s most notable film to date and one which has fortuitously
been rediscovered and restored, the first of only three of his silent features
that have survived the ravages of time. The Woman Suffers (1918)
was filmed in Adelaide and the surrounding countryside for the Southern
Cross Feature Film Company. While the first two reels have been lost and
some parts suffer from nitrate decomposition, enough remained for Marilyn
Dooley’s fine reconstruction, aided by stills from the missing scenes and
a specially arranged musical score. The Woman Suffers is melodrama
in the grand tradition with its story of a wronged girl driven to suicide
and her brother’s revenge on her betrayer when he in turn seduces the man’s
sister (Lottie Lyell in a memorable performance). For all its melodramatic
complications, the film is skillfully made and the question implied in
its title, The Woman Suffers ("While the Man Goes Free," as a contemporary
ad put it), challenged the sexual double standards of the day albeit without
the power of Griffith’s later Way Down East. Promoted as "The Greatest
Problem Play Ever Screened," The Woman Suffers, while hailed by
the critics and the public, aroused controversy over its treatment of sex
and was banned in New South Wales. Yet beyond the discussion over its social
theme, The Woman Suffers is a landmark in Australian film. Despite
the classic twists and turns of its plot, Longford tells his story with
cinematic realism, devising a wider canvas than had been seen in earlier
Australian films. As reviewers noted, the film placed on the screen the
way of life in the bush country, a depiction vividly juxtaposed with the
portrayal of the decadent city. As such, The Woman Suffers had a
tremendous influence on subsequent Australian silent films. For example,
the contrast between the city and the outback would be taken up again and
developed further in The Breaking of the Drought
(1920) and A
Girl of the Bush (1921), classics directed by Franklyn Barrett, a former
cameraman for Longford. A seminal work, The Woman Suffers thus helped
to define the Australian cinema, both in its realistic settings and its
Longford and Lyell’s next venture was a dramatic turning-point in their careers and a film that emerged as a masterpiece. Longford and Lyell had read C. J. Dennis’s popular book of verses, The Sentimental Bloke, and Lyell, convinced it would be ideal for the screen, encouraged Longford to pursue the project. Following the success of The Woman Suffers, Longford and Lyell obtained backing from the Southern Cross Feature Film Company for The Sentimental Bloke. After a prolonged search for the male lead, Longford chose a vaudeville performer and former laborer, Arthur Tauchert, to play Bill, the "sentimental bloke." Lyell co-starred as the heroine, Doreen, and is also believed to have co-authored the screenplay, written the titles, edited the film, and helped with the overall production including art direction. Much of the film was shot on location in the Sydney working-class suburb of Woolloomooloo. The narrative is a striking departure from films like The Woman Suffers. Instead of a succession of melodramatic episodes, the story is a natural progression of comic incidents relating how the working-class hero abandons his gambling and drinking for love of a girl who works in a pickle factory. Whether reacting to a performance of Romeo and Juliet as though it were real; quarreling with his girl friend, Doreen, over a straw-hatted dandy’s attentions to her; having tea with Doreen and her "Mar" in his stiff new suit; or relapsing into his former life when he gambles away his pay check after the couple are married, the protagonist remains the awkward, bumbling, lovable larrikin. Yet in the end, he succeeds in life when he settles down with Doreen on a fruit farm. Throughout the film, the intertitles are taken from C. J. Dennis’s verses written in Australian slang. The naturalistic settings, beautifully photographed by Arthur Higgins, and the remarkable performances of Tauchert and Lyell were a revelation in the development of realism in the cinema. The film’s sense of the flow of life, plain and unvarnished for the camera, stood in sharp contrast both to the glamour of Hollywood and the conscious aestheticism of many European films. Filmed in 1918 while World War I was still raging in Europe, The Sentimental Bloke did not find a distributor for over a year, until the theatrical entrepreneur, E. J. Carroll, agreed to handle its release. From its first presentation in October 1919, The Sentimental Bloke was a solid critical and popular hit in Australia, a success that was repeated a year later in Britain. The triumph of Longford’s film, usually considered Australia’s greatest silent film, was a watershed in the formation of the Australian identity, with a focus on the working class that seemed to embody the democratic spirit of the new nation.
With his next film, On Our Selection (1920), the third of his extant features, Longford created another classic. This time, however, Lyell was not in the cast nor did she take any production role during filming, although she may have done some work on the scenario and editing. She had developed the first signs of tuberculosis and was recuperating in the Blue Mountains while Longford was making the film. Based on Steele Rudd’s stories about life in the bush, On Our Selection, like The Sentimental Bloke, blended a rich vein of warmhearted humor with often-poignant realism. In this tribute to Australia’s pioneers, Longford again eschewed standard plot construction in favor of a series of incidents depicting the experiences of a farming family as they settle on their land or "selection." The film has an unforgettable gallery of characterizations, including the quick-tempered patriarch, Dad Rudd (Percy Walshe); his patient, kind-hearted wife (Beatrice Esmond); his bumbling older son, Dave (Tal Ordell); his mischievous younger son, Joe (Arthur Wilson); and his independent daughter, Kate (Evelyn Johnson). Along with the delightful comedy, the film also includes harshly realistic depictions of the drought that the settlers endure. Longford shot On Our Selection entirely on location in New South Wales, much of it on bushland that he bought for the production and the cast helped clear. The bush fire was taken on another location and was staged especially for the film by the townspeople. Longford, who insisted on his players’ naturalness, included several non-professionals in his cast, notably Arthur Wilson, who was discovered selling newspapers on the streets of Sydney. Financed by E. J. Carroll, On Our Selection was first shown in Melbourne in February 1920 and was generally released in Australia in the summer of that year, scoring yet another hit for Longford.
Unfortunately, none of Longford’s subsequent silent films survive, with the exception of a fragment from his 1926 feature, The Pioneers. His films continued to enjoy critical and popular success into the mid-1920s. After recovering from her initial bout with tuberculosis, Lyell resumed her active partnership with Longford. The reception of The Sentimental Bloke and On Our Selection had been so overwhelming that each inspired a sequel. Ginger Mick (1920) brought back Lyell in the role of Doreen opposite Arthur Tauchert’s Bill, while Rudd’s New Selection (1921) gave her a chance to reprise her riding skills in another film about the Rudd family. In 1921, Lyell for the first time was credited as co-director of The Blue Mountain Mystery, which she also wrote and edited. Lyell did not act in the film, however, appearing in front of the camera only one more time in The Dinkum Bloke (1923), on which she also served as co-author, co-director, and co-producer. Another portrayal of working class life, The Dinkum Bloke was the first film made by the team’s new independent company, Longford-Lyell Australian Picture Productions. Lyell continued to write and produce films for Longford into 1925, although by then her tuberculosis had returned and grew progressively worse. On December 21, 1925, Lottie Lyell died of her illness in her home in Sydney at the age of 35.
Although Longford continued to direct for another year, he was devastated by Lyell’s death, and the films he made at that time may have been affected by his state of mind. In many respects, he never recovered from her tragic passing. More and more, too, he opposed trends he felt were negatively affecting Australian production. In 1913, a "combine" had been formed between the distributors, Australasian Films, and Union Theatres, an association that Longford believed had prevented proper distribution of Australian-made productions in favor of imported films, particularly American. He expressed his bitterness about the practices of the "combine" and the Hollywood competition he saw as ruining the Australian cinema during his 1927 testimony before a Royal Commission on the industry. He directed only one more film after 1926, The Man They Could Not Hang, a talkie made in 1934. Otherwise, his film activities in the 1930s and early 1940s were limited to assistant direction and playing character roles in Australian films. Having finally obtained a divorce from his first wife shortly after Lyell’s death, in 1933 he married a young woman named Emilie Anschutz.
During World War II, he was a clerk for the U.S. military stationed in Australia. Always wanting to stay active, no matter in what capacity, in the 1950s he worked as a night watchman on the Sydney wharves. He emerged from obscurity in his last years when a print of The Sentimental Bloke was rediscovered and he was interviewed a number of times by the local media, receiving belated recognition for his pioneering contributions to Australian film. He died in Sydney on April 2, 1959, at the age of 80. His second wife arranged for him to be buried in a Sydney cemetery next to the love of his life, Lottie Lyell.
The work of Longford and Lyell has had a lasting influence on the Australian cinema. In their films, rich with humor and insightful observation, they revealed to the world for the first time on screen the plucky, resourceful, democratic national character of the Australian. Their unaffected, naturalistic filmmaking marked a new approach to cinema at the time. The Sentimental Bloke and On Our Selection, ranking among the outstanding comedies of the silent era, also anticipated the techniques of neorealism by several decades in blending fictional narrative and documentary-like settings. Among the great instinctive artists of film history, Raymond Longford and Lottie Lyell belong not only to Australia but also to world cinema.
REFERENCES: Marilyn Dooley, Photo Play Artiste (ScreenSound Australia, 2000); Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977 (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1980); Bruce Hodsdon, "A Different Kind of Cinema: The Silent Years," National Library of Australia, 1996; William D. Routt, "’Shall We Jazz?’--Modernism in Australian Films of the ‘20s;" "Salute to Australian Film," Sydney Film Festival.
"Shall We Jazz?" - Modernism in Australian Films of the ‘20s:
Screen Sound sells video cassettes of Australian silent film classics:
Copyright © 2002 by William M. Drew. All rights reserved.
This site is intended for educational purposes
[home | top of the page]