Investigating the Origins of The Rose of Rhodesia, Part I: African Film Productions

Abstract The Rose of Rhodesia (1918) has received short shrift in film history because it was made by a company independent from, and crushed by, the South African entertainment business monopoly controlled from Johannesburg by I. W. Schlesinger from 1913 up to his death in 1949. Schlesinger recruited Harold M. Shaw to script and direct the “super-films” De Voortrekkers (1916) and The Symbol of Sacrifice (1918). After a bitter quarrel with Schlesinger, Shaw resigned before the latter was completed and set up Harold Shaw Film Productions Ltd at Cape Town, using the services of a rival distributor. His company produced two films: the drama The Rose of Rhodesia (1918) and a comedy, Thoroughbreds All (1918). The Rose of Rhodesia was filmed in part with Mfengu (Fingo) leading actors at Bawa Falls in the Eastern Cape. Harold Shaw Film Productions Ltd was then the victim of a distribution/exhibition war with Schlesinger who owned or controlled every large movie theatre in southern Africa. But Shaw should be recognised for introducing (albeit briefly) a more humane presentation of Africans as leading actors in South African movies.

A mere footnote in Thelma Gutsche’s much-admired The History and Social Significance of Motion Pictures in South Africa 1895-1940 (1972) briefly dismisses The Rose of Rhodesia as being “of very poor and amateurish quality”, adding that it “survived only a few showings at various Town Halls” (Gutsche 192, 316n). In Cape Town, she asserted, “a disappointed audience adopted a truculent attitude at its conclusion.”

The Rose of Rhodesia was one of two movies produced and directed by Harold Shaw Film Productions Ltd, based in Cape Town. Harold Marvin Shaw (1877-1926) (Fig. 2.1) was an American producer/director who had previously been recruited by African Film Productions of Johannesburg (Killarney) to direct two super-films that were intended to rival D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) in cinematic scope and national significance for South Africa. But, after completing De Voortrekkers (1916), Shaw had abandoned work on The Symbol of Sacrifice (1918) after he quarrelled with African Film Productions’ imperious owner Isidore William Schlesinger (1871-1949). Schlesinger was an American big businessman who became known as “the uncrowned king of South Africa” but who always “kept the closest contact with the land of his birth” (Rosenthal 1968, 218)

Isidore Schlesinger builds an empire

Schlesinger’s parents were Hungarian Jewish immigrants from the Bowery in New York. His father started out as a cigar-maker, associated with the pioneer trade unionist Samuel Gompers, and ended up as a successful small banker making loans to other immigrants. In later years, Schlesinger maintained and extended the family business in New York, and never gave up his American citizenship despite spending most of his working life in South Africa. His stationery was always headed “I. W. Schlesinger, American citizen” (“Yankee Doodle” 1953).

In 1894, at the age of twenty-three, Schlesinger sailed for the goldfields of South Africa, where he moved from selling American novelty products, such as chewing-gum, to managing an agency for the U.S.-owned Equitable Insurance Company. Within two years, he had risen “from abject poverty to affluence” by tirelessly travelling to sell insurance, from Swaziland in the east to German territory in the west, earning up to a thousand pounds a month in commission (Arkin 1972). Just before the outbreak of the 1899-1902 South African War, he returned home to New York to show off his new fortune. Although he was appointed Equitable Insurance regional manager for southern Ireland, the business opportunities in postwar South Africa were too good to be missed, and he returned to Johannesburg to run his own real estate firm (“Schlesinger” 1983; Rosenthal 1966; “Diamond” 1932; “His father’s son” 1963).

Schlesinger developed the new suburbs of Orange Grove, Killarney, and Houghton in Johannesburg, and Mount Pleasant in Port Elizabeth. The secret of his success was “giving salary earners an opportunity to buy their own homes on an installment basis” (Cartright n.d., 192). He imported building materials, such as pressed steel ceilings from Chicago, opened a mortgage bond and loan office, and backed the loans by establishing his own life insurance company and buying a bank that specialized in small business loans. This involved such high-pressure salesmanship against older rivals that “it would probably be better to draw a veil over the next few years during which the African Life [insurance company] was the subject of a whispering campaign that finally led Schlesinger to sue for libel and win” (Cartright n.d., 193). Schlesinger was:

Of stocky stature, always immaculately dressed, and an avid reader of miscellaneous literature, “I. W.” as his associates and staff called him, was a man of tremendous physical energy who liked working long hours, especially on ventures that provided a test for his salesmanship and astonishing business acumen. He enjoyed the excitement of launching new enterprises, which he planned down to the minutest detail. He maintained close personal control over all his companies, and hated delegating authority. (Arkin 1972)

Schlesinger moved his business interests beyond real estate and insurance into fruit production and packaging (Zebediela Citrus Estates, where he was eventually buried), merino sheep ranching, American-style drugstores, hotels and catering, bus lines, and shipping. Most conspicuously, Schlesinger began in 1913 to develop what was to become a virtual monopoly on popular entertainment in South Africa. During the First World War, he acquired variety theatres, “bioscope” cinemas, and film production companies, and, after the war, he gained control of South Africa’s first national radio network (Arkin 1972; Gutsche 1972, 115-116). Schlesinger’s involvement in the entertainment business was prompted by the British vaudeville artiste Ada Reeve, “a hard-headed business woman” who periodically toured South Africa and Australia (Gutsche 1972, 86, 132, & 312). As she writes in a memoir of 1913:

I found that Schlesinger had a remarkable fondness for my society. He and his car seemed to be always at my disposal for long drives around the countryside…. [But] he was, in short, trying to pump me about theatre matters, about which he knew nothing. At the end of my visit he said: “It is entirely due to you that I have taken an interest in the theatre—and before you come back to this country I will own every theatre in South Africa”. (Reeve 1954, 138)

Vaudeville theatres showing films, such as those run by the Fisher family of Cape Town, proliferated in 1910-11. They were followed in 1911-13 by “picture palaces” or cinemas, charging higher admission prices and requiring heavier capitalization, but the latter were hard hit by economic downturn of 1913. (The term “bioscope” for cinema was already well-established in the region, and continued to be used in southern African languages for the rest of the century.) The slump was especially acute in Johannesburg, where, unlike Cape Town, popular entertainment was restricted to whites only. When the city’s main variety venue, the Empire Theatre, came close to going under, its owners turned to Schlesinger, who saved the Empire in April 1913 by buying it for £60,000. That June, he bought out African Amalgamated Theatres and the Palladium, the last independent theatre in Johannesburg (Gutsche 1972, 96, 99, 101-4, 117-19, 121-4, 126, & 129-30). As Schlesinger’s new African Theatres Trust (ATT) expanded voraciously, buying up theatres in other cities and gradually swallowing up all the “independents”, it became known as the “octopus” of the theatrical business (Cartright n.d., 193). Schlesinger is reported to have said, “What do I know about theatres? I won’t buy any theatres unless I can control the whole theatrical business in South Africa, and put it on a decent business basis” (Stage and Cinema, 8 July 1916, 2).

In taking over the assets of Africa’s Amalgamated Theatres (AAT) in 1913, Schlesinger inherited Johannesburg’s glitziest bioscope-vaudeville theatre, the Orpheum, and apparently also the Springbok Film Company that made films for the Orpheum. AAT’s film distribution arm became Schlesinger’s African Films Trust (AFT), while in 1915 Schlesinger founded African Film Productions (AFP), which retained the springbok emblem (Gutsche 1972, 117-19). In 1911 (not 1910 as stated in some sources), the Springbok Film Company had made the only previous “attempt at bioscoping a South African drama” (Rand Daily Mail, 12 December 1911, 8). The Great Kimberley Diamond Robbery, alternatively titled The Star of the South, was filmed around Kimberley with South African actors, black as well as white, as the robbers were ambushed by African warriors (Rand Daily Mail, 8 December 1911, 4; 11 December 1911, 6; The Star, 12 December 1912, 13). Gutsche strangely classified the movie as a “foreign” or “overseas production” (1972, 112-19, 229, 222, 124-26, 309-10, 335), presumably because AAT was Australian-owned, but it was no more or less foreign than the products of the American-owned Schlesinger entertainment empire.[1]

Another AAT asset was The African Mirror, a short film newsreel whose first issue had been screened on 5 May 1913. From July 1913, it was produced by Schlesinger’s company and shared material with the London edition of Pathé Gazette. Twenty-one year old Joseph Albrecht (Fig. 2.2), a veteran newsreel cameraman who had already covered the Turko-Serbian war of 1912, was recruited from London. As well as the monthly (later weekly) African Mirror newsreel, Albrecht began to make “scientific” (agricultural and industrial) and “scenic” short films, such as The Pineapple Industry and Through Swaziland, which both premiered in early 1916 (Gutsche 1972, 309-311; Stage and Cinema, 5 February 1916, 5, 29 April 1916, 4, 28 April 1917, 2).

Schlesinger’s African Films Trust sought to monopolize the regional importation and distribution of films. By 1915 Schlesinger’s own African Theatres Trust owned fifty of the one hundred and fifty bioscope theatres from Cape Town to Elizabethville in the Belgian Congo, while AFT supplied films to most of the rest (“Schlesinger” 1983; Arkin 1972; Gutsche 1972, 114-117, 137). During the war, the drastic decline of movie production in Europe, especially France, and rising costs for American imports opened up import-substitution possibilities in movie-making, prompting Schlesinger to found African Film Productions (AFP) as a separate company in 1915. Film production, one commentator has noted, was to “cost Schlesinger a great deal of money…. But in after life he probably counted it as money well spent for [it] introduced him to Mabel May [an actress from a theatrical touring company] … who became his wife” (Cartright n.d., 195).

Killarney Film Studios

Schlesinger chose for his future film studios a twenty-six-acre lot on his property at Killarney (Figs. 2.3 and2.4), formerly Cook’s Farm, just north of Johannesburg, and invested in the latest film equipment from America. Early in 1916, he hired two well-established American film directors (then generally referred to as “producers”). Tennessee-born Harold Marvin Shaw (1877-1926) came from London Films in England. Kentucky-born (George) Lorimer Johnston (1858-1941) came directly from the United States, where he had made more than thirty films for Vitagraph—the latest being Life’s Harmony (1916), co-directed with the neophyte Frank Borzage. Johnston was the first to arrive in South Africa, and brought with him his wife, the film star Caroline Frances Cooke. In early 1916, technicians from overseas were assembled at Killarney, together with up to seventy actors, many temporarily drawn from local touring companies, and some on long-term contracts (Gutsche 1972, 311-12; Bushnell 1993, 308; “Lorimer Johnson”).

Stage and Cinema, Schlesinger’s popular entertainment magazine, announced in its 29 April 1916 issue that African Film Productions “will shortly be in a position to place on the motion-picture market of the world a continuous supply of dramatic, comic, scientific and scenic films, all of South African interest” (Stage and Cinema, 29 April 1916, 4; Gutsche 1972, 139). AFP’s first one-reelers were filmed simultaneously in 1916. An Artist’s Inspiration, which premiered in Cape Town on 8 May, featured cartoon characters drawn by Rand Daily Mail artist Denis Santry, which came to life within a drama played by human actors. A Zulu’s Devotion, which premiered a week later, was billed as South Africa’s first “photo-play drama” (Stage and Cinema 6 May 1916, 4) (Fig. 2.5).

A Zulu’s Devotion was directed by Lorimer Johnston, with scenario and camera work by Joseph Albrecht. It introduced Goba, South Africa’s first black film-star (our sources give no other names for him), in the tale of “how a faithful Zulu farmhand frustrates the scheme of a couple of half-caste stock-thieves and rescues his little mistress from their clutches”. The film attempted to surpass D. W. Griffith’s The Zulu’s Heart (1908), produced in New Jersey for Biograph, by featuring real Zulu people filmed in real African villages—in pointed contrast to Griffith’s racist insistence on white actors in blackface. Albrecht also produced a spin-off, a short scenic or ethnographic film titled A Visit to the Natives of Zululand which was first shown in May 1916 (Stage and Cinema, 6 May 1916, 4-5; Cape Times, 15 May 1916, 6; Rand Daily Mail, 29 May 1916, 6).[2]

By the time he returned to the United States in October 1916, Lorimer Johnston had directed as many as eight popular dramas and light comedies for AFP. Although their central story typically featured white characters, his films were notable for their use of African actors in African rural settings. Like Shaw, Johnston recognized the filmic potential of unique landscapes and people too often ignored by South African filmmakers, who aped what they saw in overseas movies—namely, white actors in drawing room interiors and city street exteriors.

By August 1916, AFP’s studios at Killarney in northern Johannesburg included an open-air set and tented accommodation, and a substantial stone-walled office block with film-processing facilities in its basement (Stage and Cinema, 26 April 1916, 12, and 2 September 1916, 13). Meanwhile, with its acquisition of Southern Rhodesian theatres in June 1916, Schlesinger’s entertainment empire could now boast that it controlled “a complete circuit of theatres, music halls and picture palaces, stretching literally from the Cape to the Zambesi” (Stage and Cinema, 3 June 1916, 6, 10 June 1916, 4-5, 24 June 1916, 12-13).

Schlesinger recruits Harold Shaw

Harold Marvin Shaw was recruited to fulfil Schlesinger’s grandiose ambition of producing AFP’s own super-spectacle. Even if Schlesinger himself did not manage to see Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (premiered in Los Angeles in February 1915, and in New York in March) on one of his periodic overseas trips, Schlesinger kept in close touch with American developments as an avid newspaper reader. He would have known all about the impact of this “big dramatic film”.[3] (Though the movie itself took another two decades to be shown in South Africa, arriving with added sound and its most blatant racism expurgated.)

Schlesinger decided to match The Birth of a Nation with an equivalent epic, initially defined as the 1830s tale of “Dingaan, the Zulu King; or, The Battle of Blood River”. Harold Shaw would adapt and direct a scenario (i.e. detailed scene descriptions with dialogue for intertitle captions) written by the leading Afrikaner nationalist historian Gustav Preller (Stage and Cinema, 29 April 1916, 4; Cape Times, 12 Oct 1917, 4).

Gustav Schoeman Preller (1875-1943) was white South Africa’s equivalent of the white American South’s Thomas Dixon, author of The Clansman book upon which The Birth of a Nation was based (Hees 2003, 55). Preller was a journalist, and a former prisoner-of-war of the British, who had made it his life’s work to promote Afrikaans (i.e. African-Netherlands) language, history, and cultural identity. Seen as the retrospective “inventor” of the Great Trek (the story of Boer or Afrikaner migration into the interior), he “established a semiotics of Afrikaner history involving key events of ‘black barbarism’ and ‘British perfidy’, personified in great, strong men whose names could be invoked like talismans” (Hofmeyr 1987, 110). Among Preller’s many talents, he had founded his own Afrikaans theatre company in 1906, touring rural areas, and had translated the play Charley’s Aunt into the small town hit Piet s’n Tante (Fletcher 1994, 138).

Harold Shaw arrived in South Africa in May 1916, trumpeted as “one of the three greatest film-producers in the world” (Stage and Cinema, 15 April 1916, 10), who had “pulled British film-producing out of the slough of despond and placed it not only on a level, but actually ahead of, the producing of America, France and Italy” (Stage and Cinema, 20 May 1916, 6). (By contrast, the Britannica Year Book for 1913 (Middleton 1913, 234) ranked filmmaking countries in order of importance as France, the United States, Italy, Great Britain, and Germany.) There is no doubt that Schlesinger saw Shaw as South Africa’s answer to D. W. Griffith.

Shaw’s theatrical career had begun in San Francisco at the age of sixteen. Between 1909 and 1912, he appeared as an actor in more than forty Edison films in New York City and New Jersey, turning to film direction in 1912—including The Land Beyond the Sunset (Edison 1912, 14 minutes), since considered “culturally significant” by the Library of Congress, about an urban boy discovering the fresh air of the countryside. Shaw left Edison for Carl Laemmle’s IMP (Independent Moving Picture Co.). From there he and his fellow IMP director George Loane Tucker were recruited across the Atlantic in mid-1913 by the London Film Company (LFC). In little more than two years, Harold Shaw directed thirty-three or thirty-four movies (one- to five-reelers) in the Twickenham studios of LFC. The first, an adaptation of Conan Doyle’s The House of Temperley (1913)—reportedly “the first British motion-picture to be accorded an American showing” (Los Angeles Times, 30 November 1924, pt. 3, 19)—was perhaps the best known.

Shaw became as proficient in writing scenarios as in directing actors and camera operators. His LFC films included Trilby (1914, with Sir Herbert Tree as Svengali), Brother Officers and The Firm of Girdlestone (1915), and Me and Me Moke (1916, U.S. title Me and M’Pal). LFC’s success, however, was short-lived, as actual income from distribution and exhibition (in its own theatres) did not match the expectations of heavy capital investment and a full production schedule. Employees became disheartened and looked for opportunities elsewhere (Low 1950, 76, 110-112; “Harold Shaw”). Hence Shaw was open to Schlesinger’s profferings.

In the Johannesburg offices of the African Theatres Trust, above the Empire Theatre, Harold Shaw expressed his delight at being in a country with such excellent climate and light, and with business people open to innovation: “The Board of African Film Productions are such liberal-minded men that they want everything done in a way that will equal the productions of any other film-producing firm in the world.” AFP’s Springbok emblem, he said, would soon become as well known as the Beefeater of London Films (Stage and Cinema, 20 May 1916, 6).

That said, Shaw was off on a month’s tour of the Union of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). The rationale for such a trip appears to have been to develop a second “super-film” scenario that would feature British South African rather than Boer history. On his way back from the Victoria Falls, in June 1916, Harold Shaw stopped at Bulawayo and put the idea of a movie on the life of Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) to the Administrator of Southern Rhodesia, Drummond Chaplin. The key scene of the film would have been when Rhodes personally negotiated the peace that ended the (Ndebele) “Matabele rising” of 1896.[4] The Rhodesian administration’s response was terse: it could not permit the re-enactment of violence between black and white. Negotiations continued over the next three months, but were not helped by portrayal of African warriors in other AFP movies. The authorities became even more insistent that a Rhodes biopic would “injure European prestige” (Stage and Cinema, 3 June 1916, 3; Burns 2000, 108-26). The 1896-97 risings in Southern Rhodesia were but twenty years past; and the recent 1915 rising led by Rev. John Chilembwe in Nyasaland (Malawi) had underlined colonial weakness with so many troops away fighting in German East Africa.

De Voortrekkers/Winning a Continent

On his return to South Africa, Harold Shaw worked with Gustav Preller on the scenario for the grand movie that was initially called “The Voortrekkers” but was given the dual language title De Voortrekkers/Winning a Continent by the time of its release in South Africa. The result was a compromise of Preller’s celebratory and popularizing vision of Afrikaner heritage with the values of Shaw and, no doubt, Schlesinger. Coming from Scotch-Irish Protestant origins in America, Shaw said he felt at home in the colonies: “Do I like Africa? Yes, I do. I like its people. The Colonial [man] always appeals to me. His cheery hail-fellow-well-met style just suits my temperament” (Stage and Cinema, 30 December 1916, 2). But his years in England had also given him a fundamental respect for metropolitan British ideals.

Shaw deleted all anti-British propaganda from Preller’s scenario. The new Afrikaans national history propagated by Preller regarded the British authorities at the Cape, egged on by missionaries, as the real villains who had propelled the Voortrekkers (Boer pioneers) northwards into the interior in 1837-38. Instead of blaming the British, the first English-language caption of Shaw’s film simply refers to the farmer Piet Retief leading “a great emigration” to buy territory from “natives” in the north. Of the missionaries portrayed, two are American, and the British one is shown (historically incorrectly) as having been friendly to the Boer heroes. Preller, however, got his own back in the parallel Afrikaans version of the first caption: referring to “commandant” Retief as “despondent and dissatisfied with a bad government [slegte regering]…at the Cape”, leading a “Great Trek” to buy land from “kaffirs” (Van Zyl 1980, 5; Hees 2003, 56). The agents provocateurs of the movie are fictional (Catholic) Portuguese traders, vaudeville villains with dark unshaven chins and heavy black eyebrows. They incite King Dingane into massacring Piet Retief’s Boers, which in turn justifies the Voortrekker massacre of Zulu hordes at Blood River (Ncome). (The treacherous Portuguese trader, mixing undesirably with Africans, had already appeared in John Buchan’s universally popular 1910 novel Prester Johnas well as in other AFP films.)

A mistake has crept into South African cinema historiography that Schlesinger’s African Film Productions was somehow “a British corporation” and that “the film was produced for a British market”; Hannes van Zyl stated that AFP was a company controlled by English money, and that Harold Shaw was “a British director” (Van Zyl 1980, 26). Keyan Tomaselli corrected Shaw’s nationality to American, but elaborated on the idea that De Voortrekkers reflected the “semiotic hegemony” of “English-dominated capital” that coopted Afrikaner nationalist sentiment, adding that “the film was aimed at an international, primarily British audience” (Tomaselli 1985, 18). This has been taken further by Edwin Hees, claiming that I.W. Schlesinger was “an American with extensive British-based business interests in South Africa” (Hees 2003, 49).

However, there is as yet no evidence for the latter statement. Schlesinger might be referred to as “English” in the South African context (i.e. English-speaking and white), but he was American by origin and South African by domicile, and had no engagement in British-based capitalism until an ill-fated venture of 1926-27.[5] Secondly, Schlesinger’s business model was the same as Hollywood’s: the primary cinema audience to cover costs was domestic, in South Africa, while the overseas market was the secondary bonus where almost pure profit could be made. To achieve this, as Tomaselli indicates, Schlesinger had to balance himself between the interests of Maize and Gold, between politically powerful Afrikaans-speaking farmers and economically strong English-speaking industrialists (Tomaselli 1985, 18; Legassick 1977).

The sentiments of De Voortrekkers, and of the pro-British (and French) film that Shaw was planning, were summed up in the words of a Transvaal politician encouraging army recruitment during the war:

to consolidate the foundations of our great South African nation which were securely laid in the Act of union … we look forward to a brighter day, when racial antagonism and animosity [between Afrikaner and English] shall disappear, and we shall all call ourselves true South Africans—true to our country of birth or adoption, true to the great [British] flag which stands for liberty, equality and fraternity, which we hope to maintain in its proud position for ages to come. (The Cape Times, 7 March 1918, 5)

Shaw attributed his success as a film director to an eye for detail: “Nothing incongruous must be allowed to enter a picture” (Stage and Cinema, 20 May 1916, 6). Preller and Shaw were obsessed with the historical authenticity of costumes, weapons, and wagons (see Figs. 2.6 and 2.7). But the filmic style of the day played to audiences’ taste for melodrama—“Everything had to be spelt out in black and white; deep-dyed villains and the purest possible heroes and heroines” (Brownlow 1979, 41)—with perhaps the addition of a little subtlety or restraint designed to appeal to more critical viewers.

Preller had to reassure friends in high places in Pretoria that the film’s black extras would only be equipped with collapsible wooden spears (see Hofmeyr 1988). Some Afrikaners might still have recalled with dread the attack on Holkranz by massed Zulus in 1902, which had pushed the Boers to make peace with the British. Others would have recalled vicious suppression of Bambatha’s Zulu uprising against colonial taxation in Natal in 1906-7. All would have been aware of the so-called Black Peril that obsessed South African newspapers just before the war, and that was still reflected by headlines such as “Black Peril case: young woman assaulted” (The Star, 22 April 1916, 7). Partly a psychosexual anxiety about black domestic workers among white men, it also reflected the fears of “poor whites” about being overwhelmed by rising classes of black workers and intelligentsia. (The peril was to be “solved” by a police state for blacks under a democratic government for whites, and by the replacement of male servants by females in white households.)

The cast of De Voortrekkers was drawn from AFP’s stock company of actors, including Goba in the pivotal role of a Zulu man who is cast out by his king and throws in his lot with the Boers. (Significantly, this “collaborator” is called Sobhuza in the film, the real name of the actual infant king of the Swazi, who were traditional enemies of the Zulu as well as longstanding friends of Schlesinger.) The part of King Dingane was played by another black star, a statuesque man called Tom Zulu; a photograph taken of him chatting amiably on set with Harold Shaw (Fig. 2.8) was to find an echo half a century later in stills from Stanley Baker and Cy Endfield’s 1964 movie Zulu (see Hall 2006, vi, 406).

The Battle of Blood River, which was re-enacted on hills at Elsburg near Johannesburg using six thousand, mostly Zulu-speaking mineworkers, had to be filmed twice. On the first occasion, in October 1916:

Trouble commenced when a young white man playing a small part prematurely discharged his musket. Taking this for a cue, several others followed suit, and the natives thought they were going to take part in a scene they had rehearsed a week before. They broke loose, swept over the kopjes, crossed the [artificial] river, and stormed the laager. Hand-to-hand fighting took place and a great many of the natives and some of the white men were injured. (Stage and Cinema, 2 December 1916, 11)

After careful rehearsals under the oversight of H. M. Taberer, the chief labour recruiter for South Africa’s mines, the scene was re-staged on 18 November and proved a “complete success”. Four hundred mineworkers, under the control of their compound managers, charged trustworthy whites who were already “known to the natives” (Gutsche 1972, 313-15).

De Voortrekkers was widely publicized among Afrikaners by the South African government (see Fig. 2.9). It toured small towns for years, was shown annually on 16 December, the anniversary of Blood River, and brought cinema to a previously neglected audience of Afrikaans-speaking rural whites. The discovery of an ancient survivor of the battle named Klaasina Le Roux in an impoverished shanty outside Krugersdorp, alongside “half-naked coloured children,” helped to raise consciousness of the “poor white problem” that was the focus of an Afrikaner Congress held at Bloemfontein in October 1917 (Stage and Cinema, 16 December 1916, 6; The Cape Times, 12 October 1917, 5).

Audience reaction elsewhere differed. The Gatooma Mail in Rhodesia (where a few Africans could to get into cinemas) argued that the film showed the need for strict censorship to prevent “the taking and exhibition” of films showing black violence (Burns 2002, 6-7). There was a similar response to AFP’s next film, The Border Scourge (Fig. 2.10), which was filmed in Swaziland and showed not only white traders being murdered by Africans but also a white woman being carried off to a “native” homestead (Burns 2002, 6-7). Overseas, Winning a Continent was seen as an African “Western”, with Zulu warriors attacking the wagons instead of Red Indians. Indeed, it has been claimed that the film had a significant impact on the development of the Hollywood Western by inspiring the classic The Covered Wagon (dir. James Cruze, 1923) (see Harrow 2008).

The Symbol of Sacrifice and Shaw’s disillusion

Having failed to set up a biographical movie about Rhodes—a pro-British South African movie to follow a pro-Boer movie—Harold Shaw turned to the celebration of the British victory over the Zulu nation, forty years after the events portrayed in De Voortrekkers. He found a collaborator in F. Horace Rose, editor of the Natal Witness newspaper in Pietermaritzburg, with whom he developed a scenario for another big “history-teaching picture” to be titled The Symbol of Sacrifice.

The scenario of The Symbol of Sacrifice was centred on the death of the only son and heir of the Emperor Napoleon III while serving with the British army during the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. The film would thus also be a celebration of the current wartime alliance between Britain and France. (The prince was given four companions in death: a Welshman, a Irishman, an Englishman, and a Scotsman.) Shaw put his stamp on the scenario by incorporating not only a “bad” Zulu character, the witchdoctor who ambushes the prince, but also the intertwined love stories of two couples, one black and one white (Stage and Cinema, 1 September 1917, 3, 30 March 1918, 4).[6]

Meanwhile, Shaw had other diversions: “Mr. Shaw spent a total of two years in South Africa where de divided his time between shooting pictures and shooting wild game” (Los Angeles Times, 1 April 1923, 33). In 1917, he helped Norman H. Lee, the cartoon filmmaker from Killarney, with a scenario for The Second Adventures of Ranger Focus. After filming campaigns against Germany in Africa, cameraman Ranger Focus is sent overseas to make a boring movie titled “Birth of a Dairy”, only to fall asleep and dream of Zeppelins on the battlefields of Flanders (Stage and Cinema, 7 July 1917, 4, 8 September 1917, 4, 27 October 1917, 4).

There were also frustrations. Some were financial, as can be seen in a court statement given by Shaw in April 1918: “He had not been satisfied with the conditions under which he was working with the African Film Productions because he was not permitted to work, and therefore he was not making the commission he had looked for …. [Schlesinger] said he only wanted his name for the super-productions” (Rand Daily Mail, 20 April 1918, 6). At London Films, he had been paid £1,000 in the first year and £2,000 in the second, plus ten per cent of the profits on each of his numerous films; in his second year he had made perhaps £6,000. At African Films, he had been paid £2,000 for the first year and was being paid £3,000 for the second, but he had had to devote all his time to the super-spectacles De Voortrekkers and The Symbol of Sacrifice. Despite Johnston’s having left Killarney, Schlesinger did not permit Shaw to make the smaller movies that had been his bread and butter in London. Other frustrations were artistic. “A producer is an artist, who worked largely when the mood was on him,” his advocate told a court in 1918, to which another colleague, Henry Howse, added: “Temperament had everything to do with the making of a picture. Lacking the artistic temperament a man could never make a successful picture. Shaw was a producer of very great reputation…. he worked under inspiration” (Rand Daily Mail, 20 April 1918, 6).

There was also the question of his wife, the actress Edna Flugrath (1893-1966). They had become lovers while working for Edison in New York: “‘I was preparing for a picture,’ [Shaw] explained, ‘and was looking for an ingenue. Johnny Collins, who was afterwards married to Viola Dana [Edna’s younger sister, already an Edison actress], came in and said, “I’ve got just the girl for you!” She turned out to be Edna Flugrath, and our romance began the first moment we met’” (Los Angeles Times, 31 May 1923, Pt. 3, 11). Sixteen years Shaw’s junior, Edna had come with him to London in 1913 while her two younger sisters, working as Viola Dana and Shirley Mason, had followed the American film industry westwards to Hollywood (Stage and Cinema, 8 July 1916, 4, 6).[7] Although she had starred in her lover’s films in London, Edna got only limited recognition at Killarney studios, where Johnston’s wife Caroline Frances Cooke and, later, Schlesinger’s new wife Mabel May (Fig. 2.11) got the pick of the parts. For most of the next decade, Mabel May was boosted by her husband’s publicity machine as South Africa’s greatest film star. It would hardly be surprising if the women were jealous of each other, and if that jealousy was transmitted to their husbands. Worse still for an industry sensitive to being portrayed as immoral, tension would have arisen over the fact that Harold and Edna lived together openly before finally marrying in a civil ceremony in a Johannesburg magistrate’s office in January 1917 (Stage and Cinema, 13 January 1917, 3).

Beneath all this, Shaw had political misgivings. He had embraced the British cause in the war, and one of his most highly regarded British works was a propaganda film titled You (1916), which asked audiences “What are YOU doing for your country?” On arrival in South Africa, Shaw made it clear that he was a firm supporter of the war effort against Germany, telling a journalist in May 1916 that he refused to set foot in the United States until his native land fulfilled its debt to civilization by taking up arms against “the Teutonic sea-murderers” (Stage and Cinema, 20 May 1916, 6). Schlesinger, on the other hand, is said to have had no political principles beyond one—“to support whatever government was in power” (Fletcher 1994, 131).

Filmmakers in South Africa strongly supported Afrikaner political leaders Botha and Smuts, who were backing Britain. But developments in the industry in 1917 would have aroused Shaw’s suspicions that Schlesinger, far from being an Empire loyalist, was merely a profiteer seeking to make a fast buck.

Fisher’s challenge to Schlesinger

In May 1917, the greatest rival to the Schlesinger monopoly, A. M. Fisher and Sons of Cape Town, revealed to the press that Schlesinger’s African Film Trust would cease supplying films to any movie theatre or “bioscope” that showed British War Office films. These were distributed by the South African government, with all proceeds going to war funds, after the government had turned down Schlesinger’s “generous offer” (Gutsche 1972, 155n) to distribute the films in return for a cut of the proceeds: “A popular outcry was raised which the [African Films] Trust made no attempt to combat but a very unpleasant impression had already been created” (Gutsche 1972, 155n). (The Johannesburg newspapers, in deference to Schlesinger, ignored the controversy.) Instead of showing the films in regular cinemas or movie theatres, the government was obliged to use the Fishers’ film distribution network of town and community halls (Gutsche 1972, 155n-157n).

Shaw would have been acutely aware of the “bioscope war” that exploded in July-August 1917 between Schlesinger and the Fishers. In December 1916, the Fisher family in Cape Town had begun importing and distributing movies, such as the super-patriotic British The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell. In consequence, Schlesinger’s AFT not only withheld its own imports from the Fishers’ screenings at Cape Town (Rondebosch and Wynberg town halls, and the Railway Institute) but also punished other independent bioscope exhibitors in South Africa who showed Fishers’ films, by denying them all features to which AFT held the distribution rights.

The Fishers began legal proceedings for breach of contract against the AFT. Six months later, in December 1917, they lost their case. Ironically, this spurred them on in setting up a nationwide import and distribution network. In collaboration with South Africa’s importer of perennially popular Charlie Chaplin movies, they serviced a rival distribution network that “greatly embarrassed African Theatres” (Gutsche 1972, 144n; Cape Argus, 7 December 1917, 3). On 28 July 1917, as Joe Fisher neared Cape Town on a transatlantic liner with a cache of American movies for which the Fishers had exclusive distribution rights, the Fishers to great fanfare launched the controversial film Enlighten Thy Daughter as “the greatest of all dramatic morality plays”. Described by Gutsche as one of several “sordid sex films masquerading as ‘moral dramas,’” it was shown over the protests of those whom Fisher, Sr. dismissed as “mischief-making prudes and faddists” (Gutsche 1972, 144-46, 152, 293; The Cape, 12 October 1917, 2-3).

On 10 August 1917, The City of Athens sank within sight of Table Mountain after hitting a free-floating German mine (Fig. 2.12). Joe Fisher suffered a leg injury but was rescued. Subsequent events suggest that he might have been clutching the reels of just one film—The Fall of a Nation, written by Thomas Dixon as a sequel to The Birth of a Nation—but all the other Fisher imports were lost; and it would take months to replace them. The Fishers scored a “phenomenal success” in town halls across the country with Enlighten Thy Daughter, which a limping Joe Fisher sometimes introduced with an account of his adventures. The film played to packed audiences in Johannesburg City Hall from 31 August to 12 September (Gutsche 1972, 144-45, 152; Stage and Cinema, 18 August 1917, 9; The Cape, 16 November 1917, 29, 18 Jan 1918, 8).

The Fishers profited from their importation of more “moral dramas”, such as Parentage, which reviewers described as “a worthy successor to Enlighten Thy Daughter”, and gained kudos from the fact that they exhibited official British war films such as Sons of EmpireTanks in Action, and Scenes in the Navy free of charge in their distribution network (Cape Times, 16 October 1917, 4, 5, 10 December 1917, 6, 11 December 1917, 5, 7 March 1918, 4; Cape Argus, 15 December 1917, 1, 19 December 1917, 7). And yet the Fishers’ greatest coup—securing the rights to Metro’s production of Romeo and Juliet (1916) in January 1918—was to be the cause of their downfall when it was shown six months later (Cape Argus, 26 January 1918, 9).

Shaw breaks with Schlesinger

Matters came to a head between Shaw and Schlesinger on 12 September 1917. Arriving at Killarney studios, Schlesinger “spoke in a loud voice and struck the counter with his fist” when a cab driver asked him to pay for driving Harold Shaw and Ralph Kimpton (Fig. 2.13) around:

Schlesinger: Mr. Shaw and Mr. Kimpton get damned well half-drunk and bloody well don’t know what they are doing. They take broads to Craighall for joy-rides and charge it up to the company’s expense. I am bloody well not going to pay for them. Shaw is good enough. He will pay you. (Rand Daily Mail, 20 April 1918, 6)
Later that day, Schlesinger used similar language to another driver, adding that, if his passengers refused to pay, the driver should take them to a police “charge office” and then “I will give you a new hat”:
Schlesinger: Every Tom, Dick and Harry is driving in our cars, and then we have to pay for it. When Mr. Shaw has a few drinks he does not know what he is doing, and he drives about only looking for a girl to go out for a ride with. (Rand Daily Mail, 20 April 1918, 6)
When word reached him about the exchange that evening, Shaw stormed into Schlesinger’s presence at the Carlton Hotel:
Shaw: How dare you slander me in the way you have done? How dare you bring [sic] my name in connection with thieves and drunkards? I am a clean-living, decent man, and you have said things about me that I do not permit any man to say; damn you.
Schlesinger: Don’t be a fool. What I said stands until we can discuss it in business hours. I did not mean you. I meant that [word deleted] Kimpton.
Shaw: How dare you bring my name in connection with a thing like this. I am going to see [my solicitor A. S.] Benson. (The Rand Daily Mail, 20 April 1918, 6)

More than once, Schlesinger tried to deflect the libel charge by claiming that his choleric words applied only to Kimpton and not to Shaw. But he declined to give a written apology to Shaw who resigned from African Film Productions in October 1917 and began setting up his own company at Cape Town in collaboration with the Fishers.


Though he had to abandon his pet project, The Symbol of Sacrifice, to the Schlesinger organization, Shaw was now free to pursue his own destiny with like-minded and cinematically experienced colleagues in the nascent world of South African cinema. Restrained by lack of capital on the scale of African Film Productions, he turned back to his previous wont in England of producing mid-length feature films that could be made in a matter of weeks or a few months, rather than pouring all his resources into a “super-film” that would take many months to produce. The first two subjects that he chose were to be a comedy that could be filmed in its entirety in Cape Town, and a more ambitious drama to be shot in the Eastern Cape, which would stand in for the long-preferred location of “wild” Rhodesia that had been denied him.


Frontispiece. Undated photograph of Harold Shaw in San Francisco during filming of Held To Answer (1923).

Fig 2.1. Harold Shaw. Stage and Cinema, 20 May 1916, 6.

Fig 2.2. Joseph Albrecht. Stage and Cinema, 28 April 1917, 2.

Fig 2.3. Killarney Studios. Stage and Cinema, 1 September 1917, 4.

Fig 2.4. Killarney Studios. Stage and Cinema, 1 September 1917, 5.

Fig 2.5. Goba in A Zulu’s Devotion. Stage and Cinema, 6 May 1916, 5.

Fig 2.6. M. A. Wetherell, Mabel Rushton, and Edna Flugrath in De Voortrekkers. Stage and Cinema, 16 December 1916, 4.

Fig 2.7. Edna Flugrath and Holger Patersen in De VoortrekkersStage and Cinema, 23 December 1916, 4.

Fig 2.8. Harold Shaw with Tom Zulu (playing King Dingane) on the set of De Voortrekkers at Killarney Studios, Johannesburg. Stage and Cinema,16 December 1916, cover.

Fig 2.9. Marketing De VoortrekkersStage and Cinema, 1 September 1917, 7.

Fig 2.10. Advertisement for A Border ScourgeStage and Cinema, 7 April 1917, 12-13.

Fig 2.11. Mabel May. Stage and Cinema, 16 March 1918, 15.

Fig 2.12. S.S. City of Athens. Stage and Cinema, 18 August 1917, 9.

Fig 2.13. Harold Shaw and Ralph Kimpton. Stage and Cinema, 1 September 1917, 18.

Works Cited

Arkin, M. 1972. Isidore William Schlesinger. In Dictionary of South African Biography, ed. W. J. Kock and D. W. Krüger, 631-2.Cape Town: Tafelberg.
Blum, Danie. 1981. A Pictorial History of the Silver Screen. London: Hamlyn.
Brownlow, Kevin. 1979. Hollywood: The Pioneers. New York: Knopf.
Burns, James M. 2000. “Biopics and Politics: The Making and Unmaking of the Rhodes Movies.” Biography 23, no. 1: 108-36.
———. 2002. Flickering Shadows: Cinema and Identity in Colonial Zimbabwe. Athens: Ohio University Press.
Bushnell, Brooks, comp. 1993. Directors and Their Films: A Comprehensive Reference, 1895-1990. Jefferson: McFarland.
The Cape (Cape Town).
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Cartright, A. P. South Africa’s Hall of Fame. Cape Town: Cape Times. Undated.
Davis, Peter. 1996. In Darkest Hollywood: Exploring the Jungles of Cinema’s South Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press.
———. 2003. “Against the Odds: In Search of a National Cinema in South Africa.” H-Net book review To Change Reels: Film and Culture in South Africa, edited by Isabel Balseiro and Ntognela Masilela (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2003), (accessed 20 February 2004).
“Diamond Cut Diamond”, Time, 29 February 1932, (accessed 19 January 2008).
Fletcher, Jill. 1994. The Story of Theatre in South Africa: A Guide to its History from 1780-1930. Cape Town: Vlaeberg).
Gutsche, Thelma. 1972. The History and Social Significance of the Cinema in South Africa, 1896-1940. Cape Town: Timmins.
Hall, Sheldon. 2006. Zulu, with Some Guts Behind It: The Making of an Epic Movie. Sheffield: Tomahahawk Press. Revised edition.
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Hees, Edwin. 2003. “The Birth of a Nation: Contextualizing De Voortrekkers.” In To Change Reels: Film and Culture in South Africa, ed. Isabel Balseiro and Ntognela Masilela, 49-69. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
“His Father’s Son,” Time, 2 August 1963, (accessed 19 January 2008).
Hofmeyr, Isabel. 1987. “Building a Nation from Words: Afrikaans Language, Literature and Ethnic Identity.” In The Politics of Race, Class and Nationalism in Twentieth Century South Africa, ed. Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido, 95-123. London: Longman.
———. 1988. “Popularizing History: The Case of Gustav Preller.” Journal of African History 29, no. 4: 521-35.
Legassick, Martin C. 1977. “Gold, Agriculture, and Secondary Industry in South Africa, 1885-1970: From Periphery to Sub-metropole as a Forced Labour System.” In The Roots of Rural Poverty in Central and Southern Africa, ed. Robin Palmer and Neil Parsons, 175-200. London: Heinemann, 1977.
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Mendelsohn, Richard, and Milton Shain. 2008. The Jews in South Africa : An Illustrated History. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball.
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[1]  The Australian connection merits further research. Africa’s Amalgamated Theatres was owned by Rufe Naylor, an Australian, and The Great Kimberley Diamond Robbery could be seen as belonging to the “Bushranger” tradition of numerous Australian films since The Kelly Gang (1906-07), whose producers, J. & N. Tait, were Australian impresarios who also supplied performers to South African theatres.
[2] On Kimberley audiences’ apprecation of Goba as a film star, see Stage and Cinema, 2 June 1917, 19, and 1 June 1918, 30.
[3] Premiere dates at (accessed 12 February 2006). I go along with Davis 2004 in dismissing uncertainties about whether The Birth of a Nation was a direct influence on De Voortrekkers’ producer Schlesinger and director Shaw. Shaw would have seen and studied The Birth of a Nation in London. Though Shaw seems to have forgotten some of its lessons learnt from that film by the time he made The Rose of Rhodesia, there are many stylistic similarities between De Voortrekkers and The Birth of a Nation, e.g. the mise-en-shot of filmed scenes as “facsimiles” of still pictures.
[4] Edgar Wallace had failed to put on a biographical play about Cecil Rhodes, titled An African Millionaire, with the same focal scene featuring many African actors, at Cape Town in 1904 (Fletcher 1994, 124)
[5] Schlesinger did maintain an agency for recruiting stage performers in London called the IVTA, the International Variety and Theatrical Agency, which also dealt with AFP film distribution overseas (Stage and Cinema, 24 May 1919, 3). After his venture into the British films industry in 1926-27, he “returned to his power base in Johannesburg” (Sweet 2005, 77).
[6] The “undue flag-wagging” (The Cape, 10 May 1918, 23) of the final movie, in which a dying soldier wraps himself in a Union Jack, may not have been intentional on Shaw’s part. Davis even attributes the scenario of the finished movie to Schlesinger and Rose, rather than to Shaw and Rose (Davis 1996, 136).
[7] For a photo of Edna Flugrath as an Edison star in 1913, see Blum 1981, 41.

Created on: Thursday, 23 July 2009

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Neil Parsons

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Neil Parsons

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