Dance Hall and Picture Palace: Sydneys Romance with Modernity

Jill Julius Matthews,
Dance Hall and Picture Palace: Sydneys Romance with Modernity.
Sydney: Currency Press, 2005.
ISBN: 0 868 19755 6
Au$32.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Currency Press)

This is a tale of modern romance, of heroic adventures and impassioned desire. It is set in the city of Sydney over thirty tumultuous years of prosperity, between the two great depressions of the late 1890s and the late 1920s. Its characters are the city itself and its people, and two bands of heroes, one riding under the banner of glamour, the other of civilisation. (1)

This opening paragraph really does encapsulate the subject of the whole book, as well as providing an intriguing taste of the style of writing and the ambitions of the argument.

The first section of the book addresses ‘the romance of city life’ – the attractions of consumerism and the enthusiasm with which these were embraced by young women. ‘The romance of business’ describes how entrepreneurs kept up with technology and with new trends in advertising. ‘The romance of civilization’ considers how reformers tried to correct the social ills that they perceived to be creeping in under the banner of glamour.

The story starts with architecture and town planning – taller and more ornate buildings than ever before, and iconic structures such as Sydney Harbour Bridge. It includes the vast new department stores, as well as the splendid dance halls which housed the ultra-modern crazes for new dances such as the tango, and picture palaces which invited patrons into the glamour world of film. All these are part of ‘modernity’ – a term which the writer acknowledges to be problematic, but which she applies to the overwhelming social and industrial changes brought about in those years by advances in machines (both producing and reproducing) and their spread around the globe by new methods of transport and communications.

In the early sections of the book, Matthews holds these threads together brilliantly, though there are times when this requires moving in repetitive circles. As the story progresses, some of this complexity is lost, as film – established from the beginning as one of the major examples and engines of modernity – takes over the stage almost completely.

When the canvas is as huge as this, it is sensible to limit the discussion to one city – Sydney. At this time, Perth and Darwin (and to a lesser extent Brisbane) were the entry points to Australia from Asia. Perth and Melbourne (and to a lesser extent Adelaide) were the entry points from Europe. Sydney faced the Pacific, and was the major entry point to Australia for all things American – goods, people, ideas… The story Matthews tells links modernity with America, to the point that those who resisted modernity were likely also to fear the Americanisation of Australia.

There is another book implicit here – one about the spread of modernity across and around Australia. But this is not what concerns Matthews, who never loses sight of the geographic specificity of her story. When that story leaves Sydney, it is to look away from Australia and towards the rest of the world, particularly America. So, she describes the international career of Vernon and Irene Castle who had such a huge influence on dance crazes in Sydney, or she follows local ‘heroes’ (like J.D. Williams, who pioneered modern film exhibition practices in Sydney) into their later life outside Australia.

The research here is scrupulous, building on what others have done but also reaching into sources not previously explored. This is postmodern history at its best – not concerned to provide a single narrative trajectory, but rather relating diverse elements (people, events, ideas) to the central concept of Modernity. The fluid writing style carries the reader forward, enjoying the twists and turns as one might enjoy reading a novel.

This book signals a new direction for study of the history of film in Australia, while it also tells a ripping yarn about a key period in Australia’s social history more generally.

Ina Bertrand,

Created on: Thursday, 17 July 2008

About the Author

Ina Bertrand

About the Authors

Ina Bertrand

Ina Bertrand is Principal Fellow, Cinema Programme, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. She was foundation editor of Screening the Past.View all posts by Ina Bertrand →