Kenneth Slessor and the Sound Cinema: The “Chief Film Critic whose Reviews are Accepted as the Most Reliable in Australia”


Australian film critics have not been well represented either by Australian film studies, or by Australian letters, the two branches of scholarship we might expect to attend to them. While a number of film critics are featured in that compendium of notable Australians, The Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), [2] in many entries film criticism is mentioned sparingly, sublimated to the writer’s other achievements in letters.[3] Australia’s first wave of significant film critics, who came to prominence in the 1930s – Beatrice Tildesley, Erle Cox, Josephine O’Neill, and Kenneth Slessor – are now with the exception of O’Neill not usually remembered as film critics.[4] In the case of Kenneth Slessor there is no mention whatsoever of film criticism in his ADB entry. Moreover there is no film criticism collected in the anthologies of Slessor’s journalism, and there is scant mention of film criticism in the oral histories and biographies that cover his journalistic life.[5] It is ironic that, of any of these names, Slessor’s film criticism in particular should be so neglected. As we will show in this article, Slessor has a compelling claim to being Australia’s first great film critic.

While Australians of a certain age might know of Kenneth Slessor – either as Australia’s foremost modernist poet, as a prolific journalist and writer of light verse in Australian newspapers, or as the official Second World War correspondent – few know that Kenneth Slessor was Australia’s foremost film critic between the wars.[6] Film criticism was central to Slessor’s tenure as a journalist at the popular and populist independent national weekly newspaper, Smith’s Weekly, from 1927–1940.[7] He was the named editor of its film pages from early 1931. Here he wrote on film at a length and depth that was not only unparalleled in the Australian print culture of his own time, but that would not be rivalled by any individual in any medium until the explosion in film discourse of the post-war era. Smith’s film pages were not only remarkable in their own time, they still represent the most devoted coverage of the cinema in the history of Australian newspaper publishing.

Through Smith’s Weekly, Slessor was able to improvise a new relation to the cinema in the Australian context through a combination of forms of engagement. This included Slessor’s and others’ film criticism, a film grading system, industry journalism, cinema-related light verse, satire and parody, and black-and-white art. In each of these areas Slessor’s pages agitated for – and held the cinema to account against – a developing international aesthetic of sound cinema, which unfolded dynamically over the 1930s.

This combination of activities and level of sustained attention allowed Slessor and Smith’s to innovate in film criticism, providing a much more extensive and multifaceted engagement with film than had hitherto been undertaken. As the sample of film criticism represented in this issue of Screening the Past shows, Slessor cultivated a distinctive critical persona with a national reach. Part of this was the promulgation of Smith’s film grading scales, which were used to not only rate individual films, but also to survey the year in film, measuring cinema’s progress in realizing the possibilities of sound cinema.[8] He also extended the newspaper’s existing “media watch” functions to the Smith’s film pages, providing a running commentary of film criticism in print media that highlighted wherever possible the inadequacy of Smith’s rivals.[9]

But Slessor’s engagement with the cinema extended beyond film criticism. He improvised a film journalism – which had previously been the province of trade publications – for a general readership. This allowed Slessor the scope to comment on everything from the state of the Australian film industry to the pettiness of Australian censorship.[10] Slessor also encouraged Smith’s readership, the films’ audiences, to talk about the cinema. He actively elicited and published feedback and comment from his readership both on films and on his own film criticism.[11] Slessor’s and Smith’s film coverage also had a more playful or poetic register, treating film in light verse and other forms of written satire.[12] This verse was accompanied by, and accompanied, black-and-white drawings of cinema stars and scenarios. These diverse practices participated in, but also took a critical distance from the industry and celebrity gossip culture of the trade publications, fan magazines and the “women’s pages”.

Attending to Slessor-the-film-critic affords us an opportunity not only to examine the work of one of Australia’s most notable film critics, but also to think more generally about the place of the cinema in a media environment where print was dominant, radio was growing, and cinema was changing dramatically. It provides an opportunity to think about film criticism and its role: its relation to a dynamic medium; its participation and accommodation of a “continuous stream” that Stanley Cavell would later identify with television;[13] its development of a critical ethics of responding to and being part of this stream; and its rigorous and vigorous development of an explicit ethics of criticism for an Australian cinema,[14] much of which is still with us today.

This research is designed to extend Philip Mead’s discussion of Slessor’s film criticism in his study of Slessor’s poetry in Networked Language. In that study Mead was concerned to show how Slessor’s poetry was shaped by his extensive engagement with the cinema as an avid viewer and reviewer. Mead sees Slessor’s poetry as a form of “cinematism”:[15] a poetry informed by and responding to the expressive possibilities opened up by the cinema. Here, by contrast, we are concerned with Slessor’s film criticism and his engagement with the cinema – in Smith’s Weekly’s pages – in its own right. We want to present and assess Slessor’s response to the new circumstances and aesthetic possibilities wrought by the advent of the sound cinema in his film criticism as an achievement of national and international historical significance.

Slessor’s Context
Slessor’s film criticism did not emerge in a vacuum. His work in the film pages at Smith’s Weekly was a continuation and extension of emerging trends in film reviewing in general interest publications, which he took in new directions and to new heights. Its film pages were shaped not only by Smith’s broad routines, practices and commitments but also by the newspaper’s adjusting, reformatting and extending the practices of film reviewing and reporting of competitor publications. Smith’s consolidated a new form of newspaper film criticism in Australia that featured longer reviews, extended film coverage, and distinctive, identifiable critical voices.

During his time as a cadet and junior journalist in the early to mid 1920s Slessor worked for several of the generalist publications that were experimenting with new ways of writing on and displaying film.[16] These were all publications that offered “popular journalism along the Northcliffe model” in contrast to the dour approach of the newspapers of record at the time. This has been characterized by R.B. Walker as a move from “newspaper” to “funpaper”, with a commitment among such publications to entertainment and great writing, organised into discrete sections.[17] It is in these publications that we begin to see film treated as its own separate domain, becoming the film review as we know it today.

Slessor started his journalistic career at the Sydney Sun in 1919 where film was being foregrounded as one of that newspaper’s points of difference with competitors. The Sun ran extensive coverage of film releases under the page heading “’The Moving Row of Magic Shadow Shapes’ – Omar Khayyam”. By 1926 Egyptianate art-deco trappings along the lines of picture palace architecture visually complemented and framed the film writing.[18] From the Sun, Slessor was lured to Melbourne in 1924 as chief sub-editor for Punch magazine[19] where he was exposed to further generalist publications, weeklies crucially, that also covered the cinema in a dedicated fashion.[20] Slessor returned to Sydney in 1927 to take up his post at Smith’s Weekly. Slessor brought with him from Melbourne an experience of film coverage that consisted of a fairly stabilised language and style of film reviews: about a paragraph in length; in a film and theatre section with dedicated sub-sections for each; and cordoned off from the coverage of other amusements.[21] This film criticism still repeated the rhetorical form of the theatre review in that it was principally concerned with performances and, most particularly, notable moments of acting performance in a film. However, this form provided Slessor with the basis to build a specific “film as film” type of film criticism upon formally assuming charge of Smith’s film pages in early 1931.

As late as 1929 Smith’s Weekly, like the traditional daily newspapers, was covering film in broadly conceived entertainment and amusement sections that combined the commercial theatre and film. This mixed format reflected silent cinema’s status as a corollary to live performance. In these pages it was something like potluck whether an item on a new film took the form of a review or something more akin to a publicity announcement for a new show. This began to change at Smith’s in 1930 as Slessor became more involved. The entertainment section was renamed Screenery (sometimes Screen’ry), denoting the pre-eminence of the cinema in this entertainment mix. In the issue dated 28 March, 1930, issue these film pages became stabilised as Through Smith’s Private Projector – Conducted by Kenneth Slessor. This framing of Slessor’s film criticism as something more than Smith’s institutional speech was unusual for the time as even the “funpapers” tended to have their critics speak with the undifferentiated voice of the masthead.[22] At Smith’s, however, film criticism became an activity “conducted by” a named individual: Kenneth Slessor. The “private” in Through Smith’s Private Projector suggested both the individual, personal voice (Slessor’s as editor and main writer, as well as others) and the role of the paper in providing unbiased information on films to its readership.

While bylines or initials on articles took a long time to emerge within the Private Projector pages, firsthand histories of the paper like Blaikie’s suggest that Slessor wrote an extraordinary amount of the paper’s content.[23] The sheer variety of the cinema-related activity Slessor achieved across these pages is especially notable as he was at the time also acting as Smith’s leader writer and performing other general functions for the paper. What appeared in the Private Projector not written by Slessor would have been subjected to his scrupulous subediting. While some other named critics with distinctive voices and perspectives emerged from the early 1930s in competitor publications — notably Beatrice Tildesley in the Women’s Weekly [24] and Erle Cox (going by the nom de plume “The Chiel”) in the Argus and its weekend edition the Australasian, as well as E.J. Francis and others on ABC radio – none of these presided over a domain as large and varied as that glimpsed Through Smith’s Private Projector. Like Slessor, these critics provided lengthy reviews sometimes running to several paragraphs and filtered through a distinctive sensibility, but Slessor’s pages also provided industry journalism, think pieces, a grading system, capsule reviews of lesser films, illustrations, satire and light verse. All of this combined to make Smith’s the preeminent film coverage in the nation.

Sound Cinema and a Film Critic in a Film World
The achievement of Smith’s film pages and Slessor’s criticism is inseparable from its response to the era’s major media transformation: the transition from silent to sound cinema. Slessor’s time at Smith’s Weekly coincided exactly with this transition, from 1927 onwards. Slessor was acutely aware of the significance of what he was witnessing, and sought to explicate its importance for a wide audience. He considered himself not only to be passing judgment on the cinema of the day, but to be witnessing the rebirth of the cinema, or the birth of a new kind of cinema; nothing less than the emergence of a new art form. For Slessor the sound cinema constituted an aesthetic revolution that required new critical terms, both in language and engagement. The notion that the sound cinema represented film’s finally coming into its own is what warranted the attention Slessor and Smith’s lavished on the cinema: the extended criticism, the coverage of the film industry and cinema’s public uptake, and the formation of the office of the film critic as a particular kind of expert.

Slessor was remarkably unsentimental about the passing of silent cinema. In fact he was disdainful of films that did not take up sound film’s expressive possibilities. Of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) he said that it “represents a stubborn determination not to accept the fruits of modern motion-picture practice, and to hark back to methods of entertainment that are as flagrantly outmoded as the steam-buggy”.[25] When he did feel pangs of nostalgia it was not for silent films but for the live entertainment ecology of which the silent cinema was part. Slessor saw the importance to the cinema of the movie theatre as a special site for consuming films, and the passing of the rich theatrical experience of film-going was for Slessor the unfortunate aspect of film’s ascendance. He recorded an elegy to the old order in Good-Bye – Chorus Lady whose first stanza reads:

Ankles that answered our clapping,
Limbs that rotated like one,
Where do your slippers go tapping
Now that the chorus is done?
Nobody waits in a Yellow,
Bribing the doorkeeper’s growls—
Only the Vitaphones bellow,
Only the Magnavox howls.[26]

But there was much more that was exciting than troubling in this transition to sound for Slessor. This new cinema was engaging in an open-ended media exchange, quoting the theatre and poetry (particularly Shakespeare) and the lyrics of songs, and at the same time reflecting on them, making the original different through filmic techniques of adaptation. For Slessor, the journalist and poet, so attuned to rhythms of language in prose and verse both written and spoken, this was a paradigm shift of especial personal significance. Slessor saw the sound cinema in terms of the “flux, contamination, interconnection and a propensity to the reticular” that Gaudreault and Marion see as characteristic of today’s hybrid media.[27] The paradox of the sound era is that while it saw the cinema come in to further alignment with the existing arts – music, theatre, oratory – it also marked a point where cinema’s synthesis of these elements signalled its emergence as a separate artistic domain.

This domain was not fully realized, but aesthetically developing and dynamically unfolding. In these circumstances it was the critic’s task to chart, evaluate and judge against the yardstick – indeed to set the yardstick – of what it might and should be. Slessor’s criticism proposed the film critic as one knowledgeable about and firmly situated in the film world, understanding film as film. While Slessor later positioned himself as a “man of letters” through his book reviewing, literary criticism and public lectures, his first effort in this regard – his film criticism – was perhaps his most significant. Here he extended literary journalism into film criticism to create a new comportment that we would later call a cineaste.

Slessor’s Reviews
As the limited selection of film reviews following this article demonstrate, Slessor’s film criticism was exemplary not only by the standards of its day, but by contemporary standards. Even next to his most able contemporaries, Slessor impresses with his insight and film literacy. The reviews reference the dynamics of film production and made note of the key contributors to the film text. They foreground scriptwriters, such as Anita Loos, producers, such as Cecil B. DeMille and, most strikingly, recognized the quality of the directors of the 1930s that cineastes would later claim as their own: Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, Ernst Lubitsch, Josef Von Sternberg, and Leo McCarey. These directors were recognized as making particular distinctive contributions in the course of unfolding film oeuvres. For instance, here is Slessor on The Merry Widow:

The director (Ernst Lubitsch) has given it a champagne, dancing quality which is continuously exhilarating. There is a sharp pleasure in the little ironic touches which he has superimposed on the naïve structure of the theme. The picture is, in fact, full of sophistications and subtleties overlaid on the conventional simplicity of musical romance. His treatment should serve as a model for all future essays in the same field.[28]

In the same review he embeds these assertions about the film’s qualities in the specificities of the text, observing,

The richness of Lubitsch’s use of black and white has never been so intensely [sic] before as in the dissolving pictures of the widow’s black skirts floating against white marble walls, the black lapdog in a white boudoir, the black frocks hanging in an ivory wardrobe.[29]

Here Slessor takes pleasure in the synthesis of mise-en-scène and lustrous early sound era photography, attributing this synthesis to the style of the director, observable across his works.[30] If this was not a fully blown director-as-auteur argument, it was a way of thinking about the cinema in which the director took a shaping role. Slessor singles out the director similarly in the following passage, crediting Frank Borzage with an “original use of the camera” in Farewell to Arms (1932):

the hero’s journey though a hospital on a stretcher has been photographed from the level of a stretcher carried along a corridor, the camera pointing upwards, to give the illusion of the wounded man’s eyes. Domes, ceilings, and cupolas float across his vision, faces bend down and peer at him, and finally, as he is laid in a hospital bed. One eye enormously enlarged on the screen, concentrates the embrace of the nurse he loves.[31]

Such close reading of films is uncommon in the reviews of the day, and Slessor’s attention to film style, his ability to recall and record pro-filmic detail and envelop the reader in the film’s specificities, is strikingly singular.

But he was by no means snobbish about his films. While he had his blind spots – he disdained Westerns (though he was capable of reviewing some positively) – Slessor’s tastes were varied. His favourite genres seem to be those that the coming of sound enabled and prioritized: the bio-pic,[32] the mad-cap or screw-ball comedy,[33] the musical in its various varieties,[34] and adaptations of various kinds from the popular novel, through to the literary classic and Shakespeare. These were films that showcased the whole array of sound cinema’s potential; as MGM’s advertising of 1929 would put it: “singing[35] , sound, and talking”. He appreciated spectacle. He called DeMille’s The Crusades (1935) “a rich, rococo delight” that “seethes with honest gusto in the jostling, pushing, swarming, scuffling pictures of”.[36] Slessor always lauded this kind of vitality.

Like all film critics and filmgoers he had soft spots, but he never abandoned his critical acumen when exploring these tastes. Like many a 1930s filmgoer he liked Shirley Temple films and gave an interesting account of her appeal:

there is something so starkly simple about this little girl, something that enjoys life with such intensity, that she reaches unconsciously, or with only dim perception, a pitch of acting that great players have toiled to attain with conscious genius.[37]

At the other end of the innocence spectrum, he said of Mae West that

the detached philosopher may find something exquisitely funny in the fact that Mae West, having, (it appears) set out to caricature the mass-notion of “sex appeal,” has by this time been established in the mass-mind as an imperishable symbol of the very thing which she essayed to parody.[38]

Slessor is best understood as a firmly journalistic film critic: a reviewer. This is a comportment that entails a certain kind of relationship to audience, and orientation to object. Again his negative review of Modern Times is instructive. He criticises the film not only for being formally retrograde, but for being, simply, not funny enough. He says:

those illuminati of the higher criticism, who affect to see Russian subtlety in this picture, or a diabolic assault on the social system, are welcome to whatever enjoyment they can discover in these fields. The general public will go to see it as a comedy.[39]

While he was by no means anti-intellectual in his approach to cinema, for Slessor film-as-high art was just one of the many ways of looking at a film, not necessarily the most important one. Slessor was more likely to decide on the merits of a film in terms of its aspirations for itself, and to judge it against others of its type. For Slessor, Modern Times was a comedy, and as a comedy it is “full of continuous amusement” but of the “chuckling sort, and not the rib-dislocating, belly shaking order”. For this sort of debilitating hilarity, Slessor would recommend The Marx Brothers, whose humour, he said, “is as solid as a public monument”.[40]

In his hostile response to Modern Times we can perhaps see traces of Slessor and Smith’s political and cultural conservatism, eschewing (left wing) political filmmaking and alternative, elaborated film aesthetic systems.[41] But the more significant impression left by Slessor’s film criticism is of what we might call “sound cinema-mindedness”. This situates the cinema unambiguously as a changing aesthetic medium in its own right – the talking pictures – with its own medium specific ambitions to marry the voice and music of the stage with the mobility of the camera and its specific possibilities.

Australian National Cinema
Slessor played a large role in conceptualising the terms for an emerging Australian national cinema reshaped to the circumstances of sound. Slessor was concerned with what we would now call the cultural policy of Australian filmmaking and also with developing a particular “ethics” of Australian filmmaking. He identified the pressure points of Australian cinema across production, distribution, exhibition, and reception, which endure in the discourse on Australian cinema to this day.

Smith’s coverage of Australian cinema varied under Slessor’s guidance. Some films were given extensive coverage, others minimal coverage and short shrift. Two films that were given extended, positive coverage from production to reception were Ken G. Hall’s On Our Selection (1932) [42] and the McDonagh sisters’ Two Minutes Silence (1932). [43]  These films, though very different to each other, were each symbolically important steps for an Australian sound filmmaking.

On Our Selection was a well-capitalized production based on a blockbuster theatrical property: the 1912 stage adaptation of Steele Rudd’s Dad and Dave stories by Bert Bailey and Edmund Duggan.[44] In Australian theatre history the On Our Selection stage play is akin to contemporary productions of Les Miserables or The Lion King, such was its enduring appeal and bankability. Although its bush setting and bumpkin characters put it at odds with Slessor’s own tastes for the urbane and cosmopolitan, its popularity was such that Smith’s could not ignore it. Each of its eight principal actors were presented in line drawings: a rare privilege accorded to any film let alone an Australian film.

Meanwhile, in The McDonagh’s Two Minutes Silence Slessor found an alternative vision of the future of Australian filmmaking and one that was nearer his own predilections. This was not farce but drawn melodrama. This was not a piece of parochial Australiana, but a film whose sympathies and connections ‘the rest of the world will be able to appreciate’.[45] For Slessor Two Minutes Silence passed that ultimate cineaste’s test of the national cinema product: it could be valued without any form of handicapping:

for the first time in the history of the Australian screen, a film has been produced that can take its place with the films of other countries on an impartial footing. There is no necessity to remember, with a pang of condonation, that Two Minutes’ Silence is an Australian effort. It may be viewed, quite coldly, as a simple piece of screen drama. It may be weighed and analysed exactly as we would weigh and analyse a film from an American studio.[46]

Slessor was far from an Australian cinema wet. While he was sympathetic to On Our Selection, writing what might be described as an extended review article, Slessor took Hall and Cinesound to task for The Squatter’s Daughter (1933).

The plot is heavily-labored melodrama, the dialogue pitiably crude, and the acting, in the main, deplorable. […] Where the camera has been allowed to dwell on the sweep of hill and valley, the slow tide of sheep moving on the plains, the grace of men and horses on the skyline, something truly and peculiarly Australian is achieved. But these are mere interpolations; the narrative itself paints a false and tinselled picture of the Australian bush which insults the scenery it is set in. [47]

It would take a long while for Slessor to be reconciled to Cinesound films under Ken Hall’s direction, but he did come around in his reviews of Thoroughbred (1936)[48] and the Smith’s review of Broken Melody (1937) [49] (probably written by Slessor). Later he championed Charles Chauvel as a filmmaker of promise and talent who could rewrite the national story with films like Heritage (1935) and Uncivilised (1936).[50]

Yet for all of Smith’s and Slessor’s desire for an Australian filmmaking assessed on its own merits these reviews were quite upfront about the gradings inflation given to Australian films. What is notable about this reviewing is that it establishes a discourse of “making allowances for the local cinema”. But in this Smith’s was doubtless on the side of its readership, who would have wanted to see the re-emerging Australian cinema succeed and would therefore be willing to grant it a concession or two, to forgive some degree of unrealisation that it would find unacceptable in other filmmaking. This was the fiercely nationalistic “diggers’ paper” after all.

Smith’s Grading System
One of the prominent features of Slessor’s editorship of the film pages for Smith’s Weekly, and one that became a hallmark of the publication, was its grading system. Begun in June 1930 it was codified by January 1931 in to a six point letter scale with a whimsical iconography for each grading: the fair cow (BBB), a raspberry (BB), a bee (B), two hands clapping (A), a bouquet (AA), and a gold cup (AAA)

Today critics are likely to bemoan the very existence of a grading system, seeing it as a simplistic, reductive shorthand that doesn’t cut it as proper criticism. However, looking at the unfolding of the grading system in Smith’s, reading the editorials that rationalise its introduction and use, and the correspondence from Smith’s readers demonstrating its uptake, allows us to see what was useful, innovative, and progressive about a grading system. An editorial from 1932 summarises some of the aspirations and functions of Smith’s grading system:

“SMITH’S WEEKLY’S” GRADING-SYSTEM has, during 1932, become firmly established. Australian picture-goers have recognised it as a unique guide to the screen; their letters of appreciation fill a special file at Smith’s office. Perhaps two other papers in Australia attempt to give candid and unbiased reviews of current releases. The rest of the press-criticism is blatantly ruled by advertising-concessions, and no picture-goer, consulting a review of this class, can hope to find the least clue as to the worth of a picture. Because Smith’s Weekly fearlessly answers the one question which picture-goers are concerned with -“Is this film worth my money?” – its grading-system has become almost a national institution.[51]

There is less hyperbole in this claim than one might imagine. Smith’s framed the grading scale as a public service offering the public unbiased, free, independent, critical information on new films. A grading system was a way in which the publication could take an unequivocal stance in relation to a new film, to set out its worth in straightforward terms. That Smith’s said some films were worth your time and money while others weren’t was a radical innovation. While Smith’s film pages may still have been reliant on the institution of the commercial cinema and its day and date releases, the review would no longer be a promotional blurb.

Over the first half of the 1930s stories about the gradings and their public uptake were a fixture of the Private Projector pages. There were stories of regional exhibitors using them as a means of selecting titles; of exhibitors using them to “sell” their films to their local community; of readers holding the reviewers to account, talking back to the gradings and complaining when they felt errors had been made; and one amusing story of a wag in the audience heckling a stinker by yelling “BBB!” While they were still a qualitative evaluation, the gradings allowed Smith’s and its readership to systematise the cinema in new ways.

Smith’s used the data produced by the grading scale to compare this year’s films to the previous year’s in order to keep track of the cinema’s canon and trajectory. The studios were organized into league tables to determine which was producing the best quality pictures, or which stars were appearing in highly or lowly rated films. On a week-to-week basis the paper would keep a running tally of which films had received which gradings, along with capsule reviews. In an age before Leonard Maltin or IMDB these lists were clipped and kept, with Smith’s only too happy to send you out a fresh copy of its more definitive end-of-year lists as part of its “free service”. This service made the trade accountable to its public in a new way. We see here the beginnings of an empowered consumer making choices on the basis of genuinely independent information.

Smith’s Services to the Filmgoer
Another area of advocacy for Smith’s was its trenchant opposition to censorship. When Slessor returned to Sydney and Smith’s he returned to a news organisation that shared his views on censorship and was implacably opposed to what it had begun to call from the late 1920s “wowserism”. Slessor’s liberal politics and libertine lifestyle shine through in his many articles attacking Australian censorship practices in Smith’s. With the advent of Screenery in 1930 and Private Projector in 1931, this anti-censorship stance became more organised and effective. It sought to shift the terms of the debate from the “social”, “care for children” mooring, towards a more adult-oriented “film as film” mooring, whereby Australian audiences would be allowed to see films in the form they were seen in the UK and America.

Smith’s journalists sought to effect this shift through frequent, virulent attacks on both film censorship and the Commonwealth chief censor, Cresswell O’Reilly. A favoured Slessor target, he was ‘a miniature Mussolini of the Movies [who] wishes to place a ban on newspaper discussion of the acts of censorship and their consequences’.[52] By documenting it incessantly and lampooning it through light verse, Slessor’s and Smith’s activism[53] was able to limit to some extent a draconian censorship regime that was later claimed to be the harshest in the western world. Its crusade against film censorship would not be matched until the anti-censorship cineaste campaigns of the 1960s so well documented by Ina Bertrand.[54]

This anti-censorship campaign was just one example of the many ways that Smith’s and Slessor would promote itself as thinking and acting on behalf of its readership in relation to an improved experience of the cinema. It also condemned the inferior conditions under which audiences had to put up with film viewing – going in particularly strong on cinemas in Sydney and Melbourne. It faulted theatre management and distributors’ failures in the provision of up-to-date sound systems, seating, and other arrangements, just as in the transition to sound it had lambasted particular theatre managements for playing inappropriate musical accompaniments. It advocated on behalf of the smaller and less powerful players like the regional and suburban exhibitors who sought to secure for themselves a better deal from the Hollywood majors, the big Australian exhibitors, and equipment suppliers.[55] It advocated for a broader range of sources for film and against monopoly control of sound systems. In all of these ways it sought to establish and maintain standards of exhibition on behalf of the viewing public who it said deserved better consideration than they were getting.

Smith’s also provided a public forum on the cinema of a sort that anticipates today’s online forums. Contributions from the general public were part of Smith’s DNA. They were actively solicited, and (unlike the internet) contributors were often paid for their troubles. An example of this pre-Through Smith’s Private Projector writing was Zana’s contribution about the woman who recently sat next to her in the cinema. This woman did not seem interested in the advertisements, didn’t notice her handkerchief fall because she was so eager for the program to begin and admitted, “I love the talkies. I don’t miss a word and I follow the story from start to finish. It’s just wonderful. I never used to go to pictures, but since the talkies have come, I never miss an opportunity”.[56] The punch line, of course, was that she was blind. With the advent of Through Smith’s Private Projector this became an even greater focus. In July-August 1936 for instance it ran a competition to ‘improve Australian films’ by seeking reader feedback on their shortcomings, creating a number of articles from these responses.[57]

By both advocating for the public and giving them a voice of their own in relation to their everyday experience of the cinema, Smith’s took these matters out of the trade paper and elevated them to the level of general public discourse in a national newspaper. Smith’s becomes a prime example of the power John Hartley identifies in the three-way relationship between ‘”textmakers” (publishers, photographers, writers, etc.), the medium in which they appear (journalism, cinema cultural studies, pornography, etc.), and a readership (the public construed as citizen, audience, voyeur, expert, policymaker, moralist, etc.)’[58] to create popular reality. Smith’s made film matters general public matters, and thus made a “politics” of entertainment.

Visualising and Otherwise Responding to the Cinema
Smith’s preoccupation with film at the coming of sound did not end with the Private Projector pages; it in fact permeated the entire paper. The extension of the cinema pages in the early 1930s was achieved through the concentration and amplification of practices that had long characterised the paper. These practices were either cinematic in themselves, or were conducive to a cinema-related angle. Through the late silent and early sound period films provided Smith’s Weekly with a “cinematising” discourse, which was used not only to speak of the cinema itself, but of other things in the world, such as business, politics, and aspects of daily life.[59]

When Slessor took over Smith’s film pages these irreverent uses of cinema discourse became systematically applied to the cinema itself, resulting in a more focussed, but no less political, satirical coverage. This was conducted through Smith’s favoured tools: reviews, satire black and white art, jokes, light verse, and other forms of playful prose. In August 1931, for instance, the Private Projector pages featured a series of satirical “Impossible Conversations with the Stars” purporting to be interviews with Greta Garbo, Wallace Beery, Clara Bow, and Maurice Chevalier. All written by Slessor these mercilessly sent up the star personae. The “interview” with Garbo played upon her noted reclusiveness by having the interviewer do almost all of the talking. At one point the interviewer says

I think, Miss Gustafson, that you are a very normal person and a very abnormal star. I think that if motion-pictures had not been invented, you would probably at this moment be serving up corned beef and cabbage to a golden-whiskered Viking in a middle-class cottage in a second-rate Stockholm suburb.’ Garbo replies ‘Proceed. You my [sic] possibly become interesting’.

More than just a whimsical aside, this parody was tied in to Slessor’s tastes and critical evaluations. His film reviews were initially unkind to Garbo, comparing her unfavourably to Marlene Dietrich, though his estimation of her acting capabilities grew over the decade. Scenes from movies in release and under review were even more regularly replayed, usually with an irreverent twist, as not only satirical writing, but also in light verse, and black and white art.

Smith’s black and white art served as a point of difference with its competitors and was especially integral to the paper’s identity. This of course extended to Smith’s cinema coverage, which entailed an extraordinary commitment to visualising the cinema. Smith’s black and white artists drew cinema’s personalities, stars, industry figures, the chief censor and audiences in sometimes flattering and sometimes profoundly unflattering light. Some of this artwork relating to the cinema began prior to Slessor formally taking over the cinema pages. In 1929, for instance, artist Virgil Reilly started contributing his flattering and sensuous pen portraits of Hollywood stars in “Smith’s Screen Celebrity Series”, so beginning a series which would extend over several years.[60] His first drawing was of Clara Bow and was accompanied by a poem. By contrast his colleague, Jim Russell developed his own signature “Russellgraphs”, invariably casting Hollywood stars and industry figures in grotesque and sometimes disturbing caricature.[61]

Smith’s staff of artists were – at least according to Smith’s – the envy of Fleet Street, the best of its kind in the world, and even for some the highest paid.[62] This visual element was integral to Smith’s and words and pictures would be conceived side by side in joint editorial meetings. Slessor played a key role in these meetings, and led them on assuming the paper’s general editorship in 1936. Dutton quotes artist Jim Russell as saying that Slessor “was as much a part of the artists as he was a writer”.[63] The result was a closely planned connection on the film pages between the writing – variously reviewing, journalism, jokes and satire – and the black and white art. So when for number 20 in Reilly’s series the star portraits included for the first time a male pinup Maurice Chevalier (complete with his adoring women-fans fawning over him), the poem – in this instance written by Slessor – underscored the visual:

‘He’s the Pride of the pictures in
The darling of feminine eyes—
Diana and Doris are mad about
They drown out the Talkies
With Sighs!

In this issue of Smith’s the poem and drawing played off the theme of the advertisement for Chevalier in the film Innocents of Paris (1929) on the same page. Its copy began with: “For years he has been acclaimed the idol of Paris”. In this way Slessor and Virgil were turning ads, journalism copy, and images into a connected text.

Nowhere is this seamless interconnection between visuals and writing more evident than in Slessor’s remarkable partnership with Virgil Reilly. Reilly had been making sensuous black and white drawings of women since the 1920s, having come to prominence through his cinema posters and advertising copy. By the late 20s, his work had formed an iconic type – the Virgil Girl. They became enduring points of reference in the culture in the same way as the Petty and Gibson Girls did in the US. [64]

The partnership between Slessor and Virgil was a significant creative force, and a potent example of the “cinematism” that Philip Mead attributes to Slessor’s poetry more generally. In Slessor’s light verse the poetry and the art were conceived and created together. A selection of this illustrated light verse drawn from Smith’s was republished as the book Darlinghurst Nights in 1933, co-authored by the two men. This example, “Tete-a-Tete”, sees a couple on a date emplot themselves and their relationship into a movie during their night out:

Oh, please don’t address me as “Horace,”
It’s something I want to forget—
Imagine you’re dining with MAURICE,
And you (let us say) are JEANNETTE.
And Pitt Street is part of the Lido
Where princes eat partridge and ham,
And 95 miles on the speedo
Is better than taking the tram.[65]

Even when it wasn’t explicitly referencing the cinema this light verse and illustration sought a narrative image: a kind of captured moment in performance along the lines of a key scene in a film, a well observed stereotype, a part for a character actor, a gesture to be lingered on and contemplated in a vignette that resembles a film’s story board. Slessor’s milieu of King’s Cross, Darlinghurst’s flats, cafes and nightclubs, its affluent and its destitute, would be given the ‘cinema treatment’ in verse and line drawing. This work is strikingly ‘cinematic’ at multiple levels: its subject matter; its manner of realization; its collaboration between wordsmith and image creator; its stock characters. These provided not only another way of being with the cinema, but another way of performing the cinema and the expressive opportunities it afforded. In this process the gap between the cinema and its Sydney and Australian audiences was being creatively abolished. The Sydney office girl did not play at being Clara Bow; she was Clara Bow:

When skyscrapers burst into lilac,
And Burgundy foams by the tank,
And nightingales carol their joy by the barrel,
Or meet in the Commonwealth Bank;
When constables fain upon duty,
And ‘buses collide with a sigh—
By tokens of similar beauty,
You’ll know that it’s Clara—
Adorable Clara—
The Girl who has IT passing by.[66]

A New Way of Being with the Cinema
To appreciate Kenneth Slessor’s particular contribution to film criticism it has been necessary to first understand the context in which it unfolded. Slessor’s film criticism was enabled by changes in newspapers, and by concomitant changes in cinema. In the late 1920s newspapers were increasingly dividing their coverage into distinctive sections, films were being treated as a discrete category rather than being lumped in with theatre and other amusements, and films were beginning to be regularly “reviewed” rather than simply “announced”. These changes were occurring in tandem with changes in the form and status of film itself: the coincidence of the Great Depression and the coming of sound saw cinema transform in to a new medium, an unrivalled form of entertainment, and an ever more consuming public preoccupation. These changes to newspapers and film were, of course, interrelated. Each shaped the other.

In this broader context we have seen Slessor’s film pages in Smith’s Weekly as an extended, elaborated response to these trends and transformations; it was a response to the aesthetics of this new expressive medium, and the media vehicle that conveyed it shaped the form of the response. But it is not enough to say that Slessor’s film writing is simply the logical extension of emerging trends in newspapers and films. The work that he produced was unprecedented and without parallel in terms of its type, quality, and variety. He reshaped the newspaper with dedicated film pages “conducted” (we would say “curated” in today’s new media vernacular) by a named individual. These pages contained: regularised criticism – from long review articles to capsules – accompanied by a grading scale; industry journalism and gossip; black and white illustration of the cinema and its stars; light verse and other satirical writing. Slessor inaugurated at Smith’s a comprehensive inventory of diverse ways of thinking about, responding to and being with the cinema.

It is instructive to consider whether Slessor could have produced this kind of response to the cinema anywhere other than Smith’s, as Smith’s Weekly and Slessor are in equal parts responsible for the character of the Private Projector pages. Smith’s Weekly certainly had considerable limitations: as the “Digger’s” newspaper it was masculinist, nationalist, casually racist, ethnocentric, xenophobic, and sexist. It was a vehicle for popular conservatism,[67] and while there is markedly less that offends contemporary mores in the Private Projector pages than in the rest of the paper, Slessor-the-journalist was an intrinsic part of the publication and its project. While these shortcomings should not be excused, it would be a mistake to consider them in isolation from the paper’s great strength: its iconoclastic, independent, campaigning character. From this vantage Smith’s film coverage was very much in keeping with the rest of the paper.

As an organising principle this fierce independence and irreverent tone allows us to see all of the diverse treatments of film in the Private Projector pages as “of a piece”. Slessor’s critical response to film was in service of readers, who deserved to know which were the best films coming out each week; the best films being those that showed the new expressive medium of the talking picture to best effect. Likewise its film-world gossip, industry journalism, illustrations, commentary, and satire would all act on behalf of the public, Smith’s readership. Smith’s independent, iconoclastic, irreverent spirit would licence a decoupling of film coverage from the interests of the picture trade, except for instances where its interests and the public’s coalesced. Where trade discourse would tell the public what they wanted, Slessor and Smith’s would instead advocate on their behalf, exploring their tastes (via his), simultaneously basking in and speaking truth to the power of a totalising obsession with cinema.

Yet this was a very particular kind of distance to take from the picture trade, one strictly limited by the predicates of newspaper journalism. This is a film criticism conceived at the service of, defined in relation to, and limited by both the popular apprehension of the cinema and the terms under which commercial cinema exhibition and distribution are provided. While this was the limit of the cinematic imaginary imposed by newspaper journalism, there is no indication that Slessor would have been interested in taking greater distance from the commercial trade, even if he had had the latitude to do so.

While “non-commercial” forms of film distribution, exhibition, and making – such as the amateur cine-club and the film society – were developing worldwide, including Slessor’s Sydney, at the time of his film critical practice, Slessor showed no interest in these new ways of being with film, or the new kinds of film criticism they entailed. Slessor was not interested in razing the institution of the commercial cinema, or even in substantially reshaping it. Indeed he loved this cinema and its accompanying rhythms, routines, and rituals. Slessor took the fact of this cinema for granted, but held it to an exacting standard, taking it seriously. He didn’t want a new kind of cinema, but the very best version of the existing kind of cinema. He didn’t want audiences to see a different cinema, but to see the cinema they were already attending differently.

Attending critically to this kind of commercial cinema was, and continues to be, a way of being a film critic in and of itself. With cinema attendance sitting at well over 20 cinema visits per person annually over the decade – it peaked at 29 cinema visits in 1929[68] – cinemagoing had the evanescent, emergent and ‘in time’ characteristics Stanley Cavell would later see as constitutive of television. It was a simultaneous current constituted in an unfolding, dynamic and quotidian fashion, for which the mode of “monitoring” would not only be the appropriate, but would be the required, aesthetic response.[69] The job of the critic was to be in this flow, be aware of it, be in step with it, and to be capable of articulating it. The critic needed to be comprehensive in coverage, alive to the diverse ways of addressing and enjoying cinema, and capable of sifting it for the benefit of its audience, the newspaper readership.

Slessor’s involvement with Smith’s came to an end in 1940 when he became the official war correspondent for the AIF (Australia’s armed services). After the war Slessor would never again write film criticism. Coincidentally, his career as a poet was also largely at an end by this point. But while his growing stature as Australia’s premier poet between the wars precipitated public interest in his prose writing from this period of astonishing productivity, none of the anthologies published in the 1960s included or made any mention of his film criticism. While it had been the greatest focus of his journalistic output, there is every reason to believe that this neglect of the film criticism was as much a result of Slessor’s attitudes as it was a result of those of his editors and publishers: if journalism and light verse were seen as a second-order priority compared to his poetic “literary” output, then film criticism, particularly as Slessor conceived of it and practiced it, must have seemed hopelessly ephemeral decades after the fact.

In the moment of its writing Slessor’s film criticism was passionate, acute, and devoted to serious, extended forms of engagement with cinema. In the moment of its writing both the object of criticism and the criticism itself were given a new impetus and standing by virtue of being “conducted by Kenneth Slessor”. However, neither in the moment nor with decades’ perspective, could Slessor’s journalistic conception of film criticism stretch to imagining reviews of old films as constituting a significant contribution to letters. The irony is that, as we have shown here, Slessor’s film criticism is in fact his greatest and most significant contribution to Australian letters.

It is customary in film studies (as in other arts disciplines) to keep journalism at a distance when considering criticism. Film studies tends to want to see criticism as something other and more than the “mere journalism” of the film review.[70] From this vantage, Slessor’s claim to significant film criticism is all the more specious given that it came packaged with various forms of non-criticism: journalistic reports and op-ed pieces; satire and light verse; and black and white illustration. But rather than finding something else to call it, we need an alternative aesthetic account that can admit Slessor’s film criticism and reconcile the elaborated responses that accompanied it.

This alternative account is one that writes journalism and the journalist back into the trajectories of the cinema, and into the terms of any understanding of the development of an aesthetic education in the cinema. Slessor in Smith’s is not, of course, the film criticism of the serious stand alone film magazine then coming into being in London with Sight and Sound (1932) or its first Australian equivalents – Monthly Film Guide (1948) and Film Monthly (1949) – that would emerge a decade and a half later. While it would be tempting to see these kinds of film-specific, film-world publications as inaugurating a trajectory that takes us to film studies via the British Film Institute, urban repertory cinemas, film festivals, film societies, and associations like the Worker’s Education Association (WEA), this would be inaccurate. By providing a dedicated space in a generalist context for the extended consideration and study of film, and by having this work conducted by a named man of letters of considerable standing and ability, Smith’s created a space for film appreciation and therefore film education that these publications and practices built upon.[71]

An attention to Slessor and his criticism helps reveal a journalism-derived ‘aesthetic’ appreciation of the cinema as an alternative locus for film appreciation and its origins. It was popular journalism and its dynamics that were responsible for sustaining Australia’s first fully-elaborated, and multifaceted aesthetic response to the cinema. Moreover, this mode of film appreciation is still practiced, and continues to be the most prevalent form of critical engagement with the cinema. Film criticism improvised through and as journalism for generalist publications is important, and Slessor’s work in Smith’s reminds us of this. But quite apart from being emblematic of the once and ongoing significance of journalistic film criticism, Slessor’s work on the cinema in Smith’s is outstanding in its own right: as pioneering critical film reviewing, as a comprehension of the properties and potential of the sound cinema, and as a radical public reconfiguration of ways of thinking about, and being with, this cinema.

Most of all, in keeping with Slessor’s journalistic criterion of value, what follows remains excellent and exciting writing. What Slessor himself wrote to excuse his selection of his collection of prose work in 1970 we might use to excuse our collection of his film criticism:

Sometimes, in many years of writing for bread-and-butter, there are occasions when the oaten diet of the daily typewriter becomes enriched and fortified, as if the bread had been dipped in wine. These are the experiences of enchantment, pathos, wonder, rage or belly laughter which turn the labour of writing into a kind of pleasure. The ephemerae of bread-and-butter journalism quickly stales into crusts but the exhilaration of such moments survives a little longer. It is a fact, of course, that easy writing makes cursed hard reading and that the converse does not necessarily hold true. But no honest writing is easy, whatever the pleasure of its source.[72]

[1] This title is drawn from an undated pamphlet issued as a publicity flier by Smith’s Weekly some time in the 1930s. It is reprinted opposite.
[2] See The Australian Dictionary of Biography entries on Josephine O’Neill, Erle Cox, and Beatrice Tildesley. On O’Neill see Julia Horne, ‘O’Neill, Josephine (1905–1968)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 22 January 2015.
[3] The exception to this is O’Neill. Cox is more indicative, belonging to posterity as the author of Australia’s first major contribution to the science-fiction genre with his novel Out of the Silence, which was first published in 1919 as a serialized novel in the Melbourne daily paper, The Argus. It was subsequently published as a novel in 1925. See Erle Cox, Out of the Silence (Melbourne: Edward A. Vidler, 1925). It went on to be published in the UK (1925), US (1928) with a French version appearing in 1974.
[4] When scholars have engaged with these film critics, such as Jill Julius Matthews on Beatrice Tildesley and Philip Mead on Kenneth Slessor, have positioned their scholarship as contributions to Australian cultural history and poetry respectively. Consequently they have not been taken up as much as they should in film studies. See Jill Julius Matthews, “Beatrice Maude Tildesley Goes to the Pictures.” Screening the Past no. 16, 2004. Accessed 22 December 2013; Philip Mead, “Ut Cinema Poesis”, Networked Language: Culture & History in Australian Poetry (North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008)
[5] Slessor published a selection of his newspaper and magazine writing and lectures in Kenneth Slessor, Bread and Wine: Selected Prose (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1970). It contained none of his film criticism. The biography by Geoffrey Dutton, Kenneth Slessor: A Biography (Ringwood, Vic: Viking, 1991), makes scant reference to his film criticism. Haskell’s authoritative collection of Slessor’s prose and poetry contains no film criticism (see Dennis Haskell, ed., Kenneth Slessor: Poetry, Essays, War Despatches, War Diaries, Journalism, Autobiographical Material and Letters [St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1991]). The most complete edition of his poetry, which includes his light verse minus the accompanying artworks of Virgil Reilly is Dennis Haskell and Geoffery Dutton’s edited collection Kenneth Slessor,Collected Poems (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1994).
[6] Phillip Mead drew attention to Slessor’s role as film critic and ‘conductor’ of Smith’s Weekly’s cinema pages in his recent chapter on Slessor’s poetry: Philip Mead, “Ut Cinema Poesis”, Networked Language: Culture & History in Australian Poetry (North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008). Here Mead argues that Slessor’s poetry is best regarded as a form of cinematism – a response in poetry to the cinema, and uptake of cinematic epistemology in poetry. Mead also included samples of Slessor’s film reviews in his book’s appendix arguing that a serious consideration of Slessor as a film critic was long overdue. Our collaboration together is the result of his observation.
[7] George Blaikie’s 1966 memoir/“biography” of Smith’s Weekly provides a useful window onto the form and character of this populist nationalist publication and Slessor’s extraordinary contribution to it. Blaikie, who worked alongside Slessor at Smith’s in this period, described him as one of Australia’s ‘all-time great journalists’ (George Blaikie, Remember Smith’s Weekly? A Biography of an Uninhibited National Australian Newspaper, Born: 1 March 1919 Died: 28 October 1950 (Adelaide, Rigby 1966), p.49). Both Blaikie and Dutton also give us a sense of Slessor’s important role there from 1927 to 1940, first as Frank Marien’s editorial associate and ‘right hand man’, then after Marien’s unexpected death as the newspaper’s editor and editor-in-chief. Slessor on this evidence was integrally involved in all aspects of the paper. Slessor also filled in as a boxing-wrestling correspondent, was involved in all the artists’ conferences, wrote leaders, reviews of books and films, humorous articles, commentary and feature articles, and other sundry journalism.
[8] For Slessor’s discussion of the year in film and the progress of the ‘talkies’ see his “A Flashback for 1931 – Looking Over the Talkie-Year – Analysis of Smith’s Barometer,” Smith’s Weekly, 3.1.1931, p.21; “Smith’s Sums up the Offerings of 1932, Bird’s Eye View of Film History in Australia’, Smith’s Weekly 31.12.1932, p.8; “What does the big show of 1936 hold in store? Looking Back Over a Record Year of Pictures,” Smith’s Weekly, 4.1.1936, p.2
[9] Smith’s took particular glee in pointing out snobbishness and reviewing inconsistencies at the Sydney Morning Herald (see ‘The Lower Classes’, Smith’s Weekly, 25.1.1930, p.7). It also made much of the copying of Smith’s ideas by other newspapers: “The “Syndicated,” or, as the “Worker” puts it, the Vested Interest Press, as represented by the Adelaide Advertiser, will adopt or copy anything. Not content with using the same news, line for line, as the Melbourne Herald, also their cartoons, now they adopt, without even a credit line, Smith’s system of grading pictures according to entertainment value” (see “Following Smith’s”, Smith’s Weekly, 11.4.31, p.6).
[10] Smith’s and Slessor’s contest with Australian censorship authorities was something of a leit motif for the paper. It extended from film journalism simply covering the problems the censor created for Charles Chauvel in getting Mutiny on the Bounty screened (see “Mutiny Passed’, Smith’s Weekly, 4.3.1933, p. 10; to his linking of film censorship to book censorship in “Customs Officer Defends Film-Censorship: Children As Arbiters of Books and Pictures,” Smith’s Weekly, 14.9.1935, p.9; to his satirical light-verse, “Sally in our Alley” penned after the Commonwealth Film Censor, Cresswell O’Reilly, “cut the song ‘I wonder What is Really on his Mind” from the talkie Paris”. In this poem he rewrote a number of “song-classics” to give, he claimed, “producers of future talkies a line on what’s wanted” for songs to be ‘”passed by Mr O’Reilly”. See Kenneth Slessor, “Sally in our Alley”, reprinted in Kenneth Slessor, Collected Poems (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1994), pp. 221-222.
[11] In ‘Critics get a BBB’, Smith’s Weekly, 28.3.1931, p.6 a disgruntled reader wrote in at length to take Smith’s film critic (presumably Slessor) to task for his AAA review of von Sternberg’s Morocco. Periodically it solicited feedback as part of broader campaigns such as that it conducted on behalf of the McDonagh sisters’ films encouraging readers to write in to blast the competitor (Sydney) Sun’s film review. See Kenneth Slessor, “Sunday Sun’s Ignorant Attack on Australian Film – Criticism of Two Minutes Silence makes Public Indignant”, 4.2.1933, Smith’s Weekly, p.18; and Kenneth Slessor, “What the Public Thinks – Resents Sun Article”, Smith’s Weekly, 4.2.1933, p. 18.
[12] Selections of Slessor’s light verse from Smith’s Weekly republished with their accompanying illustrations (mostly) by Virgil Reilly are represented in two collections. See Kenneth Slessor and Virgil Reilly, Darlinghurst Nights: And Morning Glories/Being 47 Strange Sights/Observed from Eleventh Storeys,/In a Land of Cream Puffs and Crime,’ By a Flat-roof Professor,/And Here Set Forth in Sketch and Thyme/by ‘Virgil’ and Kenneth Slessor (London: Angus &Robertson, 1981); Facsimile of 1st ed. published by Frank Johnson: Sydney, 1933; and Kenneth Slessor, Backless Betty from Bondi, ed. Julian Croft (London: Angus & Robertson, 1977. 1st ed. 1972).
[13] Stanley Cavell, ‘The Fact of Television’ Daedalus, 111: 4 (1982), pp. 75-96.
[14] See Slessor’s review of The Flying Doctor (1936) where he wrote “The highest compliment that can be paid to Australian producers today is to say that their efforts demand to be assessed without sympathy or patriotic prejudice: or, in other words, that their pictures have reached a stage where they may be compared, and, indeed, in common fairness, must be compared, with the most formidable overseas productions.” Smith’s Weekly, 26.9.1936, p.22.
[15] Mead, Networked Language, pp.48-9.
[16] Mead, Networked Language, pp. 52-54.
[17] R. B. Walker Yesterday’s News: History of the Newspaper Press in New South Wales from 1920 to 1945, Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1980, p. 227.
[18] Mead, Networked Language, p.55.
[19] Geoffrey Dutton describes Punch as a “venerable magazine of literature and social commentary”. While Melbourne-based it had a strong Sydney component and strove for a national readership. Dutton notes that it provided “excellent coverage of the theatre, the outback, motoring, business, and gossip columns from all the capital cities”. It also had a regular film column. Dutton writes that Slessor wrote a weekly humorous dialogue or article, light verse, theatre and book reviews. He also observes that Punch employed some of the same talented graphic artists with whom Slessor would later work alongside at Smith’s Weekly (See Geoffrey Dutton, Kenneth Slessor, pp.88-89). As Punch did not use bylines for its cinema coverage it is not clear how much of this cinema coverage was written by Slessor.
[20] Punch, a publication in the Herald and Weekly Times group, collapsed at the end of 1925 and was incorporated into Table Talk. At that point Slessor went to work for The Herald.
[21] While you would not know it from Dutton’s description of it, Punch significantly centred the cinema. In 1924 and 1925 Punch was a large format weekly magazine that combined coverage of theatre and film under the generic title of “The Playgoer” – a subsection of which was titled “In Movieland” – it also had a separate standalone section titled “In Theatreland Principally Pictures”. The innovative Melbourne weekly magazine Table Talk, which took over Punch, was experimenting with its film coverage throughout 1926, Slessor’s last year in Melbourne. By October 1926 it had settled on a capsule film review form consisting of a dedicated paragraph length discussion under the film’s title to better act as an “at a glance” guide for readers. While this film criticism still repeated the rhetorical form of the theatre review with its focus on performances, it nonetheless provided a basis for the specific “film as film” film criticism Slessor later used to good effect as Smith’s film critic soon after.
[22] There were exceptions, however. Around the same time (August 1930) that Smith’s was reconstructing its film criticism the Melbourne Argus and weekly Australasian was repositioning its film and theatre criticism along similar lines. One of its regular columnists, Erle Cox, created the Chiel column for The Australasian’s theatre and film reviews providing the newspaper with short, opinionated film reviews.
[23] Blaikie, for instance, describes Slessor in 1939 as not only editing the paper but writing ‘the front pages, the leaders, the satire, the verses to go with the weekly caricature, the film reviews’ all the while answering ‘the phone to all who wished to register a grouch against the paper’. Blaikie, Remember Smith’s Weekly, p.49.
[24] Tildesley was the inaugural film critic for the Australian Women’s Weekly from 1933-1935. For an account of Tildesley, her film criticism, film activism and her cultural politics see Jill Julius Matthews, “Beatrice Maude Tildesley Goes to the Picture”, Screening the Past, no. 16, 2004. Accessed 22 December 2013.
[25] Kenneth Slessor, “Modern Times”, Smith’s Weekly, 18.4.1936, p.22.
[26] Kenneth Slessor, “Good-bye – Chorus Lady!”, Darlinghurst Nights, p.46.
[27] André Gaudreault and Philippe Marion, The Kinematic Turn: Film in the Digital Era and its Ten Problems (Montreal: caboose, 2012), p.5
[28] Kenneth Slessor, “The Merry Widow”, Smith’s Weekly, 13.4.1935, p.22
[29] Slessor, “The Merry Widow”, p. 22.
[30] In his later review of Desire (1936) he wrote how Lubitsch treated the heist theme ‘with characteristic sauciness and wit … as brilliantly presented as anything he has managed in his long career of brilliance.’ (“Desire”, Smith’s Weekly, 6.6.1936, p.22. Other directors were afforded this treatment most notably Frank Capra. Indeed Slessor opened his review of Broadway Bill (1934) with “The name of the director (Frank Capra) is sufficient indication of the sort of delight which this picture offers”. See “Broadway Bill, 27.4.1935, p.22.
[31] Kenneth Slessor, “A Farewell to Arms”, Smith’s Weekly, 1.7.1933, p.21.
[32] Two of his most notable bio-pic reviews are for The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), Smith’s Weekly, 23.5.1936, p.22 and Phineas Barnum in The Mighty Barnum (1934), Smith’s Weekly, 27.7.1935, p.23.
[33] See Kenneth Slessor, “A Night at the Opera”, Smith’s Weekly, 6.6.1936, p.22; “Here Comes Cookie”, Smith’s Weekly, 11.1.1936, p.16; “Milky Way”, Smith’s Weekly, 25.4.1936, p.23.
[34] For Slessor signed Musicals see “Showboat”, Smith’s Weekly, 20.6.1936, p.20; “Fra Diavolo”, Smith’s Weekly, 29.7.1938, p.20; “Broadway Melody of 1936”, Smith’s Weekly, 8.2.1936, p.22; “Evensong”, Smith’s Weekly, 9.3.1935, p.20; “Love me Forever”, Smith’s Weekly, 4.1.1936, p.29; “Metropolitan”, Smith’s Weekly, 1.2.1936, p.22.
[35] This advertisement appeared in Smith’s Weekly, 12.1.1929, p.17.
[36] Kenneth Slessor, “The Crusades”, Smith’s Weekly, 26.10.1935, p.22.
[37] Kenneth Slessor, “Curly Top”, Smith’s Weekly, 21.12.1935, p.22.
[38] Kenneth Slessor, “Belle of the Nineties”, Smith’s Weekly, 2.2.1935, p.20.
[39] Kenneth Slessor, “Modern Times”, Smith’s Weekly, 18.4.1936, p.22.
[40] Kenneth Slessor, “A Night at the Opera”, Smith’s Weekly, 6.6.1936, p. 22.
[41] From 1923-4 Slessor was editor with Jack Lindsay and Frank Johnson of the literary magazine Vision, described by David Carter as “the first magazine in Australia to launch itself into the world with something like a modernist manifesto”, yet it was also the magazine that aggressively denounced “modernist art”. See David Carter, Always Almost Modern (North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2013), p.89.
[42] Kenneth Slessor, “Down on our Selection with Real Whiskers and Everything”, Smith’s Weekly, 10.10.1931, p. 8.
[43] Kenneth Slessor, “Two Minutes Silence”, Smith’s Weekly, 20.8.32, p.10
[44] See A. F. Pike, ‘Bailey, Albert Edward (Bert) (1868–1953)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 January 2015. Raymond Longford’s 1920 screen incarnation of On Our Selection had deliberately bypassed the broad, populist Bailey and Duggan stage version in favour of the more realist source material of the original Steele Rudd books.
[45] Kenneth Slessor, “Two Minutes Talk about Two Minutes’ Silence: First Australian Talkie with International Theme”, Smith’s Weekly, 20.8.1932, p. 10.
[46] Kenneth Slessor, “Two Minutes’ Silence”, Smith’s Weekly, 21.1.1933, p.10.
[47] Kenneth Slessor, “Telling the Truth about Squatter’s Daughter – When Critics Must be Cruel to Be Kind”, Smith’s Weekly, 7.10.1933, p.6.
[48] Kenneth Slessor, “Thoroughbred”, Smith’s Weekly, 16.5.1936, p.20.
[49] See “Broken Melody”, Smith’s Weekly, 20.6.1938, p. 19.
[50] See Kenneth Slessor, “Heritage”, Smith’s Weekly, 20.4.1935, p. 14; and “Uncivilized”, Smith’s Weekly, 3.10.1936, p.22.
[51] Kenneth Slessor, “Smith’s sums up the Offerings of 1932, Bird’s Eye View of Film History in Australia,” Smith’s Weekly, 31.12.1932, p.8.
[52] Smith’s Weekly, 20.9.1929, p.1.
[53] The anti-censorship stance was not limited to Slessor with many Smith’s writers and independent intellectuals contributing. A notable article was Elizabeth (Betty) Riddell’s 1929 piece “Censorship Gags the Film Industry”, Smith’s Weekly, 20.4.1929, p.18. Her target in that article was the censorship on political grounds of the Soviet cinema of Pudovkin and Eisenstein.
[54] Ina Bertrand, Film Censorship in Australia, St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1978.
[55] Smith’s offices were rung up by the manager of the Gladstone (Qld) Theatre who had been unable to get a replacement transformer for his ‘talkie plant’ and asked Smith’s to use its influence with the Sydney manufacturer. They interceded with the part arriving in time for the ‘gala week’. See “Service – And Speed,
Smith’s to the Rescue”, Smith’s Weekly, 27.6.1931, p.6.
[56] Zana, “A Sidelight of the Dark”, Smith’s Weekly, 3.8.1929, p. 7.
[57] “Letters Poured in for Smith’s Weekly’s Competition”, Smith’s Weekly,
29.8.36, p.24
[58] John Hartley, Popular Reality (London: Arnold, 1996), p. 5.
[59] The questionable dealings of an Australian miner, Charles F. Chaplin, proved an opportunity too perfect pass up. The headline “Charlie Chaplin II: Gropes in Dead Diggings for Ghosts of Dead Values, Comedy King of Mica Country” led to a story peppered with cinematic allusions such as Chaplin’s business practices being described as “4 reel comedy” (See Smith’s Weekly, 8.1.1927, p. 11.). Similar treatment was given to Australia’s federal political leadership in 1929 with “Hollywood at Canberra”. The Prime Minister Stanley Bruce became “Valentino Bruce” and the leader of his conservative coalition partner, Earle Page, became “Mary Pickford Page” in an unseemly romance titled “Death of a Nation”.
[60] In these portraits, mostly of Hollywood and British film actresses, stars were getting the kind of treatment that Reilly had been applying in his drawings of women for Australian newspapers and magazines since the 1920s. For an overview of Reilly’s career see Kevin Patrick “Virgil Reilly: From Pin-Ups to ‘Punch’ Perkins”, Comics Down Under, post 15.12.2006. Accessed 7.2.2015.
[61] While capturing what Peter Kirkpatrick describes ‘as the sardonic soul of the paper’, this art-work usefully extends and confirms Nancy Underhill’s contention that modernism came into Australian culture via line art in newspapers and magazines: “[m]odernism in Sydney was primarily accepted as a style for advertising, the applied arts, and as the pursuit of the fashionable, and the chic”. Underhill is at pains to point out how it was often the black-and-white artists of this period who fostered the ‘links between the various arts’. See Peter Kirkpatrick, Sea Coast of Bohemia, Sydney: Network Books, 2012, p.103; and Nancy Underhill, Making Australian Art 1916-49: Sydney Ure Smith, Patron and Publisher, South Melbourne, Oxford UP, 1991, p.223; p.140.
[62] Blaikie claims that at its peak Smith’s employed ‘the largest and most highly paid permanent staff of black-and-white artists in the world’ (Blaikie, Remember Smith’s Weekly?, p.43.
[63] Jim Russell quoted in Geoffrey Dutton, Kenneth Slessor, p. 116.
[64] The Virgil Girl drawings were similarly used by readers as pin-ups and became enduring points of reference in the culture. For a discussion of the Virgil Girl in Australian popular culture see Dutton, Kenneth Slessor, p. 120; and Blaikie, Remember Smith’s Weekly?, p. 85.
[65] Kenneth Slessor, “Tete-a-Tete,” in Darlinghurst Nights 1983, p.32.
[66] Kenneth Slessor, “It, If and Also”, Darlinghurst Nights, 1981, p. 16.
[67] Kirkpatrick calls it “Smith’s ratbag patriotism” which was notable for accommodating “loyalty to the King and to the Empire” while mocking “the English ruling class and local Anglophilic pretentions”. It also “staunchly upheld the White Australia policy, managing to be both passionately egalitarian and aggressively racist… [in] an outlook defined by all the bugbears it stood against, prominent among which were communists, Asians, southern Europeans (‘Dagoes’) and so-called ‘Bad Jews’, which were contrasted with ‘Good Jews’.” See Peter Kirkpatrick, The Sea Coast of Bohemia (Sydney: Network Books – Australian Scholarly Classics, 2012), p.107.
[68] Diane Collins, Hollywood Downunder: Australians at the Movies 1896 to the Present Day, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1986, p. 16.
[69] Stanley Cavell, “The Fact of Television”, Daedalus, 111 (4), 1982, pp. 75-96; p.86. As Cavell tellingly puts it: “My claim about the aesthetic medium of television can now be put this way: its successful formats are to be understood as revelations (acknowledgments) of the conditions of monitoring.”
[70] In their introduction to The Language and Style of Film Criticism Alex Clayton and Andrew Klevan contrast the “film criticism that can do a great deal more” with that of “an opinionated journalist … who tells you whether a film is worth seeing” and who tends towards the “announcement of judgements” in “superlatives and hyperbole’”. See Alex Clayton and Andrew Klevan eds., The Language and Style of Film Criticism (London: Routledge, 2011), pp. 1-26, p.1
[71] For the best discussion to date of the impact of film societies, film festival, repertory and co-op screenings and discussions, and the pivotal role organisations such as WEA (established in Sydney in 1913 but attending to film significantly from the late 1950s), see Barrett Hodsdon, Straight Roads and Crossed Lines: The Quest for Film Culture in Australia? (Shenton Park, WA: Bernt Porridge Group, 2001)
[72] See Kenneth Slessor, Bread and Wine: Selected Prose (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1970), p. iv.

About the Author

Huw Walmsley-Evans, Tom O’Regan and Philip Mead

About the Authors

Huw Walmsley-Evans

Huw Walmsley-Evans was recently awarded his PhD from the School of English, Media Studies and Art History at the University of Queensland. His thesis is titled “Crisis and Continuity: Film Criticism as a Cultural Institution”. He is the essays editor of online film criticism magazine Screen Machine.

Tom O’Regan

Tom O’Regan is Professor of Media and Cultural Studies in the School of English, Media Studies and Arts History at the University of Queensland. His books include Local Hollywood: Global Film Production and the Gold Coast (with Ben Goldsmith and Susan Ward), The Film Studio (with Ben Goldsmith), Australian National Cinema, and Australian Television Culture.

Philip Mead

Philip Mead is Professor of Australian Literature in the School of Humanities at the University of Western Australia. In 2015-2016 he is the Visiting Professor of Australian Studies at Harvard University. In 2010 his book "Networked Language" on Australian poetry won the New South Wales Premier's Prize for literary criticism. He is an expert on the poetry and writings of Kenneth Slessor.View all posts by Huw Walmsley-Evans, Tom O’Regan and Philip Mead →