Raymond Longford’s The Sentimental Bloke: The Restored Version

Raymond Longford’s The Sentimental Bloke: The Restored Version.
Madman/NFSA/ATOM, 2009
(Review copy supplied by ATOM

The Sentimental Bloke is a classic of Australian – and even world – silent cinema: Bill Routt and I are quoted on the cover of this package, calling it “among the very best films made anywhere before 1920”. So I welcome this package, which hopefully will enable many more people to see and appreciate this gem.

The package contains two DVDs and three booklets. The smallest of the accompanying booklets is a ‘pocket cinema’ – a flip book showing one of the two-up players escaping from the police over the stable roof. This is a gimmick, that would provide endless amusement to children and so would also be very useful to media teachers wishing to illustrate the way film is perceived. Another slim volume contains the original script, and the largest of the booklets is a treasure trove of commentary and information.
The DVD format allows for much more than just the film. On the discs, there is a photo gallery of those involved in the production, a brief interview with director Raymond Longford, and a longer interview with composer Jen Anderson, as well as the most important part of the package – the film itself in a reconstructed version with musical accompaniment.

The verses on which the film is based were written by C. J. Dennis, known always as ‘C.J.’ or ‘Den’ because he hated his first name as much as Bill (the ‘Sentimental Bloke’) hates to be called ‘Willie’. Dennis was born in 1876 in South Australia, where his father operated several country hotels. He was raised by two maiden aunts after his mother died when he was 13, and left home at 21, living mostly on his own till he became part of a literary and artistic circle in Kallista, 25 miles from Melbourne. He worked only occasionally, as a public servant, while he wrote prolifically, mainly from his careful observation of life and people, rather than from personal experience. His early poems and short prose were published in various literary journals, including the Bulletin, the Critic and the Gadfly. The first ‘Songs of a Sentimental Bloke’ appeared in these journals, and were included in his first book (Backblock Ballads, 1913). He then enlarged on the character, producing twelve ‘Songs’ which were published in the Bulletin over 1913 and 1914. The whole fourteen finally appeared as a book in October 1914, telling a simple story of a working-class ‘bloke’ who turns his life around when he meets his ideal woman – Doreen.

The book was extraordinarily successful, went into a fifth edition within 3 months, had sold 50,000 copies within 9 months and has been continuously in print ever since. A ‘Pocket edition for the trenches’ was produced, and recitals of the verses were popular both among servicemen and at home in Australia. Critical reception was rapturous, and Dennis soon produced sequels, using the same and related characters: The Moods of Ginger Mick (1916), Doreen (1917), Digger Smith (1918), and finally – much less successfully – Rose of Spadgers(1924). It was this critical and popular success that paved the way for the success of Raymond Longford’s film, produced in 1918 and released in 1919, after the war had ended.

Longford had been given a copy of the poem to read, by American entrepreneur (and one of Australia’s best-known exhibitors) J.D. Williams, and was immediately convinced that it would make a great film. At first, Dennis resisted the sale of the rights, but eventually agreed, after payment of £1000 – half the film’s budget, and a huge sum for Australia at that time. He even agreed to appear in a cameo during the opening credits, though he refused further participation in the production. Finance was raised through an Adelaide firm, Southern Cross Film Company, for whom Longford had made The Woman Suffers (Australia 1918). The Sentimental Bloke was made when Longford was at the peak of his career, and proved to be his masterpiece. The script shifted the location of the film from the back streets of Melbourne to the slums of Wooloomooloo, but retained much of Dennis’ verse as intertitles. Longford’s own script is reproduced in facsimile as one of the booklets in this package, and it is fascinating to compare this with the finished film.

Longford obviously adapted the script during production, sometimes adding intertitles, sometimes removing or abbreviating them. There are also subtle and not-so-subtle changes to the action – every one of them an improvement. Longford (or possibly Lottie Lyell) had an eye for what would enhance the story without recourse to spoken words or intertitles. One example is the two occasions in the early part of the film (before Bill meets Doreen) when Bill and Mick exit from the hotel and briefly discuss which way to go. Both times, Bill has his way, but when the same thing happens with Doreen it is Bill who reluctantly capitulates. Lottie Lyell as Doreen and Arthur Tauchert as the Bloke were perfectly cast, and both responded completely to Longford’s demand for naturalistic acting.

The box-office potential of the film, however, was at first not recognised. Just as Dennis had been knocked back when he first approached a publisher with the verses, so Longford found distributors reluctant. The film was privately screened at Adelaide’s Wondergraph in November 1918, and eventually bought by E.J. & Dan Carroll, who arranged the public premiere also in Adelaide in October1919. C.J.Dennis recorded his own feelings at the preview:

They were very solid doubts indeed that I took along with me to the screening. I went expecting at best a burlesque; at worst a fiasco. I came away almost believing in miracles. The fidelity with which the written story has been converted into what may be termed a visual narrative is amazing to me.

After its release in Melbourne and Sydney, it was a huge success throughout Australia, with all box-office records broken. In Sydney, patrons paid 3/3 for standing room at the Theatre Royal, in a time when film tickets were usually 3d, 6d and 1/-. It then toured Britain successfully, and was prepared for release in USA, with intertitles re-written in a more American form of slang.

This story of the film’s production and distribution is presented in several ways in the largest of the package’s booklets. There you will find narrative and commentary by Anthony Buckley (who interviewed Raymond Longford towards the end of his life), and by film historian Andrew Pike. There is also a filmography of Raymond Longford and Lottie Lyell, a selection of facsimile documents from the State archives, and a number of extracts reprinted from contemporary journals. Particularly valuable is a chart of four versions of the film’s intertitles: colloquial intertitles from the original 1919 Australian release, intertitles translated into ‘modern’ English by Stephen Wells (2006), intertitles translated into Italian by Dr Gino Moliterno (2006), and slang intertitles from the 1921 United States release.

After sound arrived, the film was forgotten until a complete tinted 35mm nitrate print survived a Melbourne fire and was forwarded to the Films Division of the National Library in Canberra. It was sent to a Sydney film lab for repairing and resplicing – a job undertaken by a young Tony Buckley, who describes this part of the story in his contribution to the booklet. After repair, a new acetate negative was struck (losing the original tinting) and the nitrate print was destroyed. One of the prints made from the new negative was screened to renewed enthusiasm at the 1955 Sydney Film Festival, and Longford was discovered to be still alive, working as a nightwatchmen on the Sydney waterfront.

Prints began to circulate among film societies and festivals, and the film’s reputation grew once again. In 1973, Ray Edmondsen of the Films Division of the National Library discovered a pristine negative of the American version at George Eastman House in New York state. The ‘reconstructed version’ which we see in this package, was created by combining the (poor quality) surviving Australian print with the American negative, using the (better quality) images from the latter and the (more authentic) intertitles from the former. The original tinting was also replicated as far as possible. How all this happened is described by Ray Edmondsen and Dominic Case in their contributions to the larger booklet.

This is a package that should be in every school library, and on the shelves of every genuine film buff. It is guaranteed to both educate and entertain. The participants in this project are to be congratulated, and hopefully this will be just one of many such packages.

Ina Bertrand,

Created on: Thursday, 10 December 2009

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 →