Kenneth Slessor, Selected Film Reviews, 1933-36

It is daunting to provide a sample of film reviews to represent Slessor’s approach to cinema. Every omission seems like a travesty. So we have tried here to be indicative not exhaustive. Slessor’s reviews form an extensive archive of response to the cinema exhibited in Australia during the 1930s. It will be the job of a book-length anthology of his film writing to represent this work more comprehensively.

Still, we have tried in the limited sample provided here to fairly represent Slessor’s take on what was for him a new kind of cinema – the sound cinema. Our first selection priority was to provide the full text of those reviews we discuss in our accompanying essay. This was so that readers could see the pieces we quote from “in the original”. To this list we added other pieces to give a rounded sense of the range and scope of Slessor’s criticism.

All of our selections are drawn from the pool of reviews marked with Slessor’s by-line. These tended to be the lead reviews of each issue, which were most often devoted to a film that Slessor felt deserving of praise, or of some note. Because “Through Smith’s Private Projector conducted by Kenneth Slessor” spoke and authoritatively recommended films to its readerships the KS byline was often used to signal that the stance taken in the review was Slessor’s individual rather than Smith’s general institutional assessment. For this reason the reviews in this sample are almost uniformly approving. This is in contrast to the very mixed evaluations of films that comprised the “Private Projector” pages week to week. But even in this more laudatory mode these reviews reveal a nuance and depth of insight not usually associated with this sort of tabloid journalism.

Finally, we have presented the reviews in chronological order rather than grouping them by theme or genre. We have done so in order to replicate to some degree the experience of reading Slessor in “Through Smith’s Private Projector”, where C.B. DeMille, F.W. Murnau, and Shirley Temple could plausibly sit side by side, each being considered on their own merits.

Two Minutes’ Silence
A Farewell To Arms
Telling the Truth About Squatter’s Daughter – When Critics Must Be Cruel To Be Kind
Belle Of The Nineties
The Merry Widow
Les Miserables
The Informer
The Crusades
Curly Top
China Seas
Modern Times
A Night at the Opera

Two Minutes’ Silence
21/1/33, p.10

This is easily the most impressive Australian film that Smith’s Weekly has so far witnessed. The distinction is not due merely to the fact that it has been treated generally, instead of particularly, thus opening the world as a market, but also to the remarkably fine acting of the players. Indeed, no contemporary Australian production has had such a splendid array of actors.

Once again, the film proves at its outset that local producers can achieve technical and mechanical results equal to those of the best imported pictures. With this merit most other Australian talkies have begun and ended. We have welcomed them as exercises in the use of laboratory-equipment, and have overlooked the paucity of their story-material or the crudity of their direction.

But Two Minutes of Silence goes further than any of the others. On a foundation of superb photography and sound reproduction, it presents a powerful, and convincing story, intelligently directed, and capable of challenging comparison with world standards. Thus, 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. This is a significant achievement. For in the analysis, Two Minutes’ Silence emerges as a definite triumph. It has a quality that will move audiences in New York or London just as genuinely as those of Australia. Leslie Haylen’s stage play, from which the picture is taken, has already received a tribute from Smith’s Weekly. This has been intensified by the camera. The narrative stream is, of necessity, broken by interruption, for the play is actually a series of shafts let into the human soul from varying angles. But the whole effect of these dissections is one of beauty and strength. There is nothing cheap about the theme, nothing rubbed or shop-soiled; and the treatment is surprisingly free from banality.

The acting of Marie Lorraine, Leo Franklin, Campbell Copelin, Frank Leighton, and the rest of the long cast, is beyond criticism. This is especially noteworthy in view of the fact that few of the players have ever done screen work before. Smith’s will reserve further commentary until the occasion of the picture’s public release, but, in the meantime, the McDonagh family is to be congratulated on a really excellent production.

A Farewell To Arms
1/7/33, p.21

Official imbecility in the Customs Department having proscribed Ernest Hemingway’s masterpiece in Australia, it is improbable that many people who see this picture will have had an opportunity of reading the original book. In the circumstances, therefore, the fact that the film is merely a faint and inaccurate refraction of the real Farewell to Arms is not of major importance. At the same time, one wonders why the book should have been filmed at all. The beauty and power of Hemingway’s novels are founded, not on the narrative, which is a slight thing, but on the surgical austerity, the half-statement and the photographic detail of the prose style. Nothing of this can be conveyed to the screen, except here and there in a dimmed echo of conversation, and the picture therefore has to rest on its background of war, and the bare bones of the plot.

The fact that the picture, having been sentimentalised, conventionalised, and censored, is nothing like the book, is not sufficient to damn it. The film is not A Farewell to Arms, but it is an absorbing and interesting picture. This is due as much to the freshness of Frank Borzage’s direction as to the superb acting of Gary Cooper, Helen Hayes, and Adolph Menjou. As an instance of Borzage’s original use of the camera, the hero’s journey through a hospital on a stretcher is an intensely interesting piece of work. The scene 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.

Gary Cooper has never done such flawless work as this, and Helen Hayes also rises to the heights. Adolph Menjou’s role has been distorted into that of a semi-villain; he is not at all the Rinaldo of the book, but he plays the part with imagination and gusto. Many of the most powerful passages of the novel have been lost, as for instance the great Italian retreat and the adventures which followed it, and also the flight with Catherine in a rowing boat. The ending has been left unstated, so that those who wish may drag the heroine from the death which pointed and poisoned the bitter irony of the novel.

At least, it may be said that A Farewell to Arms is an unusual and beautifully-acted film. One more pitiable curiosity of the censorship-system remains to be observed – Australian exhibitors are not allowed to hint that the film is from the book by the dreadful Mr. Hemingway!

Telling the Truth About Squatter’s Daughter – When Critics Must Be Cruel To Be Kind
7/10/33, p. 6

The time has come when, in their own interest, Australian talking pictures must be examined with as dispassionate and searching a scrutiny as that which is applied to films from any other country.

This, in itself, is a tribute to the stage of improvement reached by local film-producers. Their pictures have long since passed the point where they can be regarded somewhat sentimentally as curiosities or historical souvenirs. They enter the same field as the imported film, and must be judged by identical standards.

Nor, indeed, if the Australian film-industry is to survive, could any other process of criticism be of the slightest value.

Bearing this in mind, it would be absurd to say that The Squatter’s Daughter (Cinesound’s latest production, released this week) is a successful film, or even a tolerably good film.

Australian technicians have already proved that, in all mechanical respects, they are capable of producing pictures of the highest standard. We look now for some advance in story-material: some indication, however small, that other studio-authorities, besides the technicians, are beginning to grasp the elements of the modern film. The Squatter’s Daughter, on the contrary, carries us back, in theme and treatment, to the darkest days of the “Kelly Gang” technique.

The plot is heavily-labored melodrama, the dialogue pitiably crude, and the acting, in the main, deplorable. Against all this, there is the excellence of the photography and sound-recording. Further, in many fleeting scenes, some really impressive pictures of Australia’s sheep-country have been included. Against this beautiful and simple background of sheep, sky, and horses, the story material seems wretchedly tawdry.

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.

Surely some simple, dignified and moving story could have been found to ennoble such material! If the theme of The Squatter’s Daughter represents the mind of an Australian producer, there can be no hope for Australian films.

Smith’s has no pleasure in making these strictures, but it would be mistaken kindness to deceive both public and producers with foolish praise. The Squatter’s Daughter, it is stated, will be followed by The Silence of Dean Maitland, another hoary melodrama. This is not the road, and the sooner Australian companies realise it the better.

On Our Selection was at least downright slapstick, but the others make a pretense of reality, and must be assessed by different standards. Low-class melodramas may mean a little easy money, but they are a poor foundation for any permanence in the Australian film industry.

For this reason alone, regardless of its threadbare machinery, its antiquated stage-devices, and its naïve acting, full of prehistoric staring at the camera and heavy “registering” of emotions, The Squatter’s Daughter saddens, instead of entertaining us.

Australia’s sound-engineers, photographers, and film-processing technicians have risen to the heights. It is time that Australian screen-authors, screen dialogue-writers and directors did their part or made some intelligent effort.

Smith’s Weekly hopes that The Squatter’s Daughter and similar throw-backs will soon be forgotten, and that the day is not far distant when Australian picture-goers will be able to take a real pride in the achievements of their own film-studios.

Belle Of The Nineties
2/2/35, p. 20

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.

Such is the grand and glorious potency of advertisement that a good many more than 10,000,000 trusting noodles genuinely consider that she is the embodiment of all that is desirably female. Her ballooning hips, her rolling eyes, her massive figure, far from functioning as the agents of burlesque or exaggeration for which they were no doubt intended, have now become the attributes of stunning femininity.

If many more of her pictures resemble Belle of the Nineties, however, it is my timid opinion that Miss West is likely (in the language of her press-agents) to become, a busted flush. Or a busted bust. Whether Belle of the Nineties, in the stage in which it was released in Sydney, is a tribute to the recent American business revival in purity, or to the hawk-eye of our own dear censor, I do not know. But the fact remains that it has been watered down and sliced about until it has lost both coherency and personality. Mae West, it is true, still trails an atmosphere of plush divans and artificial diamonds. But her conduct is as ostentatiously virtuous as that of a heroine of the ancient melodrama.

Perhaps the story may have suffered because Miss West insisted on writing it. It is weirdly true to the canons of ancient melodrama. This applies even to the incredible method by which Mae West drugs a boxer, after the 26th round, by tipping a small bottle of dope into his water-bottle. The fact that no boxer swallows from his water-bottle makes the immediate collapse of this unfortunate pugilist as difficult to understand as anything in the ancient melodramas.

And yet, despite the absurdities of the story, there is a comic fascination about Mae West which gives the film some of the singular quality which has marked all Miss West’s appearances. Emboldened by the purity drive, I now look forward eagerly to seeing Mae West in better and purer versions of such worldly successes as Cradle Songs, Little Women, and Anne of Green Gables.

The Merry Widow
13/4/35, p. 22

This must not be confused with another work of the same name by a man called Lehar. People who expect to find a replica of the musical romance which has swept the stage since 1908 will be disappointed; they would, perhaps, be even more disappointed if a faithful copy of the stage-show were provided. For the gulf between the methods of screen and stage is so immense that it is impossible for one to mirror the other.

The Merry Widow on the screen, therefore, must be approached as an utterly fresh work, not as the mere recital of an old memory. And as a new and original creation, a musical sugar-work with the far-away, fantastic beauty of a dream, I must say here that I enjoyed The Merry Widow more acutely than any other musical-show which the screen has so far offered me. 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.

For, unlike the over-gorgeous Taj Mahals and Albert Memorials of recent musical spectacles, The Merry Widow does not depend on mirror-glass or spiral staircases. Unlike the straight-forward singing-shows, too, it does not depend on its music alone. Its charm is to be found in its fluidity, its irony, its minor shafts and its consummately skillful photography. The richness of Lubitsch’s use of black and white has never been so [sic] intensely 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.

The principals – Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier – have never been better. Chevalier, swaggering in Marshovian uniform, with sword, sash and helmet, is the centre of the orgiastic adoration of a thousand Kikis. Jeanette MacDonald (curiously like Mae West in close-ups) is large and lovely. The real and vanished excitement of Victorian underclothing is revived in her foaming pantalettes and ribboned stays. Similarly, I found the wicked skirt-dance of Maxim’s, with its rotating legs, its black silk stockings waving out of billowing petticoats, more intriguing than the nudest parade of contemporary Follies.

As for the music, even the most wistful recollection of “Villa” and the waltz-songs will not be disturbed by the rich and creamy singing of Jeanette MacDonald. The Great Waltz is danced as the Great Waltz should be, with due reverence and complete beauty. The film ends with its sweeping, swinging rhythm. The only disappointment is that “Little Horseman,” though used as an accompaniment, is not sung. The rest of the cast – particularly Edward E. Horton (Popoff), George Barbier (Achmed), Herman Bing (Zizipoff), and Sterling Holloway (the orderly) – are brilliant. I recommend The Merry Widow as a delight; and I would like, in all humility, to counsel Australian producers to observe its lessons in the art of making musical comedy exciting but not expensive. – K.S.

27/4/35, p. 22

It is a depressing commentary on the lack of outlet for the unorthodox or “uncommercial” film that such a picture as Tabu has had to lie in a cellar for 3? years before its public screening in Australia could be arranged. After all these years it has been fished out of oblivion, and it is to be seen at the Sydney Variety Theatre. I hope that arrangements will now be made to show it in the other capitals as well. For an opinion of Tabu, I cannot do better than to quote from my review of the private screening in September 1931:

“Unearthly beauty, as remote from studios as the mountains of the moon. A picture such as this at once extends and prophesies the qualities of the camera; it takes us into a new and lovely world that is like a child’s story-book sprung to life. The very tranquility of the film, its dreamlike splendor, and its lack of studio-machinery, may possibly prejudice its commercial success. The players are unknown, not even European; the movement is slow and grave; the ending is ‘unhappy.’ But as a poem of South Sea photography, Tabu deserves to be ranked with White Shadows. There is a lyric beauty about the water-frolics of the first reel which provides a fresh adventure for the screen. We don’t suppose any director has tried to photograph a naiad; but if he did, he could scarcely hope to achieve anything more enchanting than these pictures of waterfall and pool, with their curious quality of wetness, of running water, and of beautiful human fish.

“Unlike many records of elemental life that have been attempted, there is a strong and coherent narrative running through the film. The fact that it is acted throughout by natives, unspoiled by celluloid tradition, and full of a strange, almost childish sincerity, makes the picture quite exceptional. A series of synthetic moons, obviously superimposed in the laboratory, comes as a jarring note. But nothing can impair the impression of fresh loveliness which Tabu leaves. The directors were Murnau and Flaherty. The first is now dead, at the height of his fame. (The latter has recently made Man of Aran.) They might rest on this picture as their masterpiece. Whether it will please the crowd is a more doubtful question. But to anyone who desires a holiday from Hollywood, Smith’s Weekly recommends Tabu as a new and exhilarating experience.” – K.S.

Les Miserables
20/7/35, p. 22

This picture is not a mere sugar-castle for the amusement of an idle hour; a fact that will be suggested by the title even to those people who are not already familiar with Victor Hugo’s sombre masterpiece. The book was written at white heat, to serve an urgent purpose; there was no room in it for sugar, no factor that was not intently humanitarian.

The film, too, has the terrible interest of its original. It does not offer, nor does it seek to offer, the light confectionery with which most audiences are accustomed to be regaled. Indeed its effect is designed not to lull, but to awaken. Witnessing Les Miserables is not, therefore, the mere passing of a pleasant hour; it is an emotional experience that can be as painful, even as exhausting, as any human experience. Yet the power of the film is so sweeping, its very agony so intensely fascinating that one’s life is enriched, obscurely but certainly, by the dreadful spectacle.

This, I think, is the sixth time that Les Miserables has been put on the screen; the last talking-version, by a French company, was released in England a little more than a year ago. But the Twentieth Century version differs from its five predecessors in one curious and important respect. This may be summed up by the bare statement that Charles Laughton plays the part of the policeman, Javert. There have been efficient and conscientious actors in this part before, and they have played it (as it should be) efficiently and conscientiously. But Javert, though one of the principal protagonists, has remained in the shadows. One remembers Valjean, not the policeman. With the latest version, I think it may be claimed that, in ten years’ time, we shall remember Javert, and not Valjean. This, when the relative area which each character occupies is considered, may seem an enormous prophecy. It is an enormous prophecy; and it is made credible by an enormous actor.

Charles Laughton is a great deal more than the Perfect Policeman; he presents the part as the very epitome of blind, mechanical, but passionately faithful, officialdom. All officialdom, all departmentalism, all red tape and blue paper, every servant of rule and regulation in the world, from Canberra to Canton, is expressed in this extraordinary figure. You may condemn this Javert, you will certainly detest him, but in the end you will be compelled to find reluctant admiration for the blind principle which he represents. For the end of Javert’s job is the end of Javert. This broadening of a particular part to a general world-type is part of the genius of Laughton. Once again he is a being as distinct from Ruggles as Mr. Barrett was from Henry VIII. The close-cut, bullet-shaped head has been adroitly emphasised; every gesture has been created from deep thought, from the quivering of his lip to the rasping of his round chin. So, like a large, smooth bloodhound, he strides through the picture.

Against this current, Fredric March, as Valjean, performs creditably, but without noticeable fire. It would be unfair to match him against Laughton. His work, as always, is dignified, sincere, and painstaking. There is not much interest left from the terrible drama of the major theme for the junior love-interest; the young people, too, seem intensely American, though this cannot be argued as a fault. The long narrative starts in a cage of wild beasts, rowing their galley to gong-beat, and ends (as most good French melodramas do) in the sewers of Paris. Not once does it lose its power. The intrinsic fascination of the acting has been fortified by the splendid photography, which ranges from interior scenes, with the soft beauty of a painting, to the smoky panorama of a street-battle. The touch of the director (Richard Boleslawski) is at its best here.

Finally, don’t go to see Les Miserables if you want to see something like The Gold Diggers of 1935; Smith’s Weekly recommends you to see it as an experience in life. – K.S.

The Informer
RKO Radio
24/8/35, p.18

Whether or not the crude alcohol of The Informer is in danger of dismaying those cordial-loving and ticket-buying masses on whom, I am assured by experts, the picture industry is built, there can be no question about its native strength, its disturbing realism, and its authentic play of tragedy and humor. I can go further than this, and say that personally I think The Informer is the finest picture that I have so far seen in this year of abnormally good pictures.

With the exception of one passage at the end (and it is hard to understand how this can have been joined to the consummate perfection of the rest), there is literally nothing on which even the most citric critic could base depreciation. The story is by Liam O’Flaherty, who (as you will guess) is not an Armenian, and who offers no compromise to reality. It is a hard, harsh story, simple in outline, as with the outline of most tragedies. It moves on a predestined, inevitable course; from the motive of a moral crime through a reactive interval of mad jubilation to the only ending. The “Informer” is not a vicious or a criminal type; the tragedy is that he is a human being, moved by instincts and circumstances to a fate that is inexorable, if unforeseen. In this awful study of a tormented man, driven by starvation to betray his friend, it is difficult to say whether most credit should be paid to the book by O’Flaherty, the direction by John Ford, or the astonishing acting of Victor McLaglen.

Thanks to these three, the picture is something more than entertainment. It has the odor of raw life. You cough in the fog, feel physical pain, smell the reek of whisky and fish. The film, in fact, has the feeling of true poverty – intense, miserable, aching poverty – not the sentimental poverty of tradition. The dreadful days of Dublin in 1922 are explained, perhaps for the first time, as no newspaper could explain them.

The genius of the director begins to work without flourish or ornament in the very first reel. There is hardly a word of dialogue for the first ten minutes. But gesture and symbol build up the emotional scene on which the picture is founded. The smoking mist, the wind and fog, the flaring street-lights, all these serve to speak for the players. And here there is an exquisite touch of metaphor; for the police-bill of the “wanted” man, flying in the gale at the feet of the “Informer,” symbolises the shameful thought which keeps flying at his mind. The director is rich with these effects; as, for example, the exaggerated ticking of the police clock, whilst soldiers are on their way to kill their quarry. The shooting of Frankie McPhillip is almost shockingly realistic.

Victor McLaglen staggers all previous ideas of his ability by the strength of his performance as the “informer.” The “informer” is shown as a simple, childish, stupid giant, without even the cunning of the traitor, but somehow terrible or pathetic in his human stupidity. He is soaked in whisky, the drug that fogs his own remorse; he scatters fried fish and his blood-money with a child’s generosity; there are some terrific scenes of drunkenness. The interlude in the shebeen might have been painted by an Irish Hogarth. Here, too, the splendid acting of the minor players is at its best, particularly the performance of the loathsome hanger-on (played by Neil Fitzgerald), who crowns the drunken Croesus as “King” with true Irish hyperbole. From these scenes to the dramatic trial of Gypo is a coldly and terribly related process. It is hard to forget the struggles of this rat-brain, caught in a merciless trap.

And here, with the agonised confession, “I don’t know why I did it, I don’t know why,” the picture should have ended. That it trails on to a theatrical anti-climax, with the “Informer” dying before an altar, does not impair the power of the whole – though the ticket-buying masses whistled to keep their spirits up at the first night in Sydney. An astonishingly good picture this (so good that it is not damaged by the curtain), and one that belongs to the curious history of the screen of 1935. – K.S.

The Crusades
26/10/35, p. 22

Cecil B. de Mille has repeatedly shown his passion for a combination of spectacle and religiosity. In this respect, he is a sort of lesser Gustave Dore, with a facility for the covering of huge areas with intricate decoration. The theme of his works, from The Ten Commandments to The Sign of the Cross, has mainly concerned itself with indomitable human courage, fortified by religious faith and by the more spectacular external manifestations of religious faith.

He is on his favourite ground in The Crusades, a subject which not only permits him to liberate an enormous surge of pictorial splendour, but which also justifies a typical concentration in the dramatic religious elements of the holy wars – for, it must be remembered, the Crusades in the main, were just as particularly a war by the Islamic religion against the Christian religion as by the Christian religion against the Islamic. The Crusade selected by de Mille is the third, possibly the most stirring and eventful of all, and affording by its inclusion of Richard the Lion-Heart, and 12th century Europe, a rich opportunity for pictorial magnificence. The merits and the faults of The Crusades are mainly the merits and the faults of most of de Mille’s earlier films: that is to say, the surface-splendor has been asked to play the principal function. One feels, in the presence of these overpowering pageants, that they have the two-dimensional beauty of a proposition by Euclid or Pythagoras. But when the gorgeous enamel is scratched, one cannot escape from the conviction that there is little underneath.

To let criticism rest at this would be churlish in the case of The Crusades , for the film is so packed with interest and splendour, every rift is so loaded with glittering ore, that it becomes, in fact, one of the pictorial masterpieces of the year. Seldom before has even de Mille contrived such sweeping effects with the camera. The whole picture has been photographed in a rich tone of sepias that gives it the effect of a medieval tapestry itself.

Some of the scenes are of a kind and a scale that will remain among the mind’s impressions of the year in films – such scenes as the taking of Acre, with battering-rams, fireballs, wooden bridges, and cauldrons of boiling lead (good, hearty cut-and-thrust stuff this); or the triumphal departure of the Crusaders from England, with pennons, panniers, blades, flags, and cross-bows, the scenes of tourney, glowing with mail and cloth-of-gold; the conference of the Kings and Saladin, curiously like a passage from Marlowe; the swordsmith’s ecstatic cry, after being knocked down by Richard; “Laid his fist to me Jaw, he did – a fair king that!”

Richard, indeed, is presented as a man’s man of a king; almost a Royal roughneck. But there is an air of manliness about Henry Wilcoxon’s acting, which makes the part alive. Loretta Young, in a more romantic role than de Mille usually permits, is not cast for heroic drama, and her teeth seem enormous. But pictorially she is as lovely as ever. Ian Keith really dominates the picture as Saladin; he makes this part overshadow even that of Richard. A minor gem is contributed by Alan Hale as Bloodel, the minstrel.

It would be impossible in a whole page of Smith’s Weekly to give any idea of the sprawl of detail and the magnificent background which make up the chief glory of The Crusades. It represents de Mille at his most flamboyant; it seethes with honest gusto in the jostling, pushing, swarming, scuffling pictures of battle and it expounds a moral and romantic tale which should fascinate every picture-goer. And, at the end, even Saladin is revealed as Not A Cad after all, and, for a change, the curtain falls on happiness. A rich and rococo delight this, and certainly among the big pictures of the year. – K.S.

Curly Top
21/12/35, p. 22

The curls (valued, I should say, at about £25,000 a curl) belong to that enchanting atom, young Shirley Temple. 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.

It would be foolish to suppose that by this I mean that young Miss Temple is a fully-equipped dramatic actress of genius. What I mean is that she expresses her own tiny share of life with such complete sincerity and joy that she passes beyond acting into living – even when she is performing tricks, as she does here, that are patently synthetic. To pass from acting into living is an achievement which calls for a great actress – or a completely unembarrassed and perfectly natural little girl. When a screen-player makes you feel that he isn’t really working in a job, but is finding some of the fun of living, even in a cockpit of light and lenses, that player has passed beyond acting, even as Shirley Temple passes here.

The Sydney Regent Theatre showed great wisdom in selecting Curly Top for its Christmas season. There are no pantomimes in this age of loud-speakers, but Curly Top comes as close to one as modern nurseries are allowed. It is, in effect, a fairy-tale without the fairies. The story, which revives the favorite old “Daddy Long Legs” recipe for sentiment, would be syrupy if it were not considered in this light. But it is, indeed, a fairy-tale; Shirley Temple is the little girl for whom the world stops spinning, and does tricks, and if there is no Fairy Queen, with spangles and a wand, there is John Boles, acting as a Fairy Prince of whimsy. I don’t know whether John Boles is fond of whimsy, but he waves his wand here with as much magical effect as the Fairy Queens of our youth. The narrative, in fact, doesn’t matter much; indeed, it really doesn’t begin to move until the film is about three-quarters of its way through. It serves merely as an excuse, like the conventional fairy-tale framework, for the joys and graces of a little girl. It contains, too, all the traditional storybook things that have charmed children ever since the days when their fathers drew pictures for them on the walls of caves.

There is a pony, for instance, which gets into Shirley’s bed; and everywhere that Shirley goes the pony’s sure to go. She is followed by her Pony and her Duck throughout the picture, as cockatoos or monkeys follow the characters in comic strips. All the miracles of a child’s dream come true for her; she is whisked away from the everyday realities of an orphanage to the castle of a Fairy Prince. Only, being Shirley Temple, one feels that life wasn’t so bad in that orphanage either. Then, as the advertisements proclaim, she sings, she acts, and she dances – and says, “Oh, my goodness” about once every five minutes. We see her in golden frames as the embodiment of famous paintings – the Blue Boy, Bubbles, and Grace Darling. We see her imitate old age, and a string of other characters, in a vaudeville-turn. The interpolated songs slow up the action to nothing, of course; but we’d sooner have one of those songs than a whole bookful of story.

Australia will enjoy this little girl in the latest, and certainly the most lavish, of the pictures which American technicians, working in a race against adolescence, are inventing for her. Every Australian child will find pleasure in Curly Top – and most Australian grown-ups. It looks, in fact, as if box-office records are going to be assaulted once again. We can’t see Sydney Regent taking the show off for a long time to come. – K.S.

China Seas
4/1/36, p. 29

After a steady examination of this picture, I have decided against taking a rest-cure in Chinese waters. Woy Woy will do me. What with the typhoons, hurricanes, pirates, torture, and sudden death which seem to be chucked in with a pleasure-cruise in China Seas, it must all be very galling and exasperating. The remarkable thing about the travellers in this film is that, having survived the typhoons and pirates, they don’t seem to care two hoots – no more than travellers on the Bellevue Hill tram-line care about such minor annoyances as a hold-up at the power-house.

As you can see, the film is highly-coloured; it is, in fact, full of vigorous rough-and-tumble, pungent humor, and sentimental moonlight. And the players enjoy themselves with a gusto which will transmit itself to you. The star-system has its drawbacks as well as its advantages. One of the principal defects is that a popular player appears in each new role trailing clouds of ancient glory behind him, so that it is hard to dissociate him from the last two parts, or last half-dozen parts, in which he has acted. It comes as a bit of a shock, certainly, to find, when all the passengers have marched up in the gangway here, that the boat holds in close proximity none less than our old friends, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, and C. Aubrey Smith. You feel like saying, as each remembered face comes down the deck, “Fancy meeting you.”

The film, as you will have gathered, belongs to the vehicular series. Sometimes this sort of story takes place on an express-train, sometimes in a passenger-aeroplane or a luxury-liner. There have been scores of pictures made on the same design, and of these, Shanghai Express bears a rough resemblance to China Seas, with the difference that a steam-boat is substituted for a railway-train. But, in this vehicular series, China Seas goes up very near the top. It moves so quickly, the excitement is so cleverly transferred from scene to scene, and the characters themselves have been so broadly, yet so deeply, painted, that for an hour or so you find yourself sailing with the pirates from Hong Kong.

The director (Tay Garnett) has packed the color of Crosbie Garstin’s book into the picture with astonishing realism. As the boat slides away from Hong Kong you can almost smell the East; and smelling the East, as experienced travellers have remarked, is one of life’s major experiences. As usual, a wildly assorted section of humanity is flung together on board. There is Clark Gable, the skipper, who actually makes his first appearance with a three-days’ growth of whisker; there is Jean Harlow, the “China Doll,” a lady of that mythical type which enlivens the works of Robert C. Service; and Wallace Berry, as an adventurer, and C. Aubrey Smith, the perfect ship-owner, and Robert Benchley, as a mythical drunken novelist (no practising novelist can afford to be drunk); and Rosalind Russell as a snooty English beauty. All of them fit their frames, though the transformation of Beery from a genial boozer to a bloodthirsty villain, and back to a Heart of Gold again, is rather inconceivable. Clark Gable acts with his usual brisk neatness. He’s English here, but the transatlantic idiom creeps shyly through. Jean Harlow is excellent in spots, where her scratchy, rending, zinc-like voice suits the situations. But she has her limitations as a dramatic actress, and in some of the loudly-yelled emotional passages her voice becomes a little trying. Robert Benchley, better-known as a humourist, lurks humorously at the edge. He is drunk continuously (you can’t blame him, what with the typhoons and one thing and another), and makes a series of abrupt vertical exits down holds and shafts.

But these criticisms don’t destroy the fact that everybody in the picture plays with the richest unction. Take a team of first-class players, with a galloping good adventure-story, and let them enjoy themselves like this, and the result won’t be in doubt. You’ll enjoy China Seas. – K.S.

16/5/36, p. 20

In many respects, this is the best and easily the most significant film that an Australian picture-production company has so far released. The sudden stride in improvement is to be noticed first in the direction of Ken G Hall, who, of all local directors, must be accepted as Australia’s principal bid. Not only has this Australian been responsible for by far the greatest number of Australian-made talking pictures manufactured to date, but he has shown a steady betterment of his own resources, an improvement in his own grasp of screen-technique, and a readiness to respond to the inspiration or stimulation of the old masters at work overseas. And a complete readiness to accept the fruit of an experience which it has not so far been Australia’s privilege to enjoy is, as I see it, the primary essential in the foundation of our own industry.

In grading Thoroughbred as AA, I have paid it the supreme compliment of discarding my own Australian telescope, and assessing it on the scale which I have so far reserved for pictures as pictures, irrespective of their places of origin. What this grading means may be expressed briefly, I regard Thoroughbred as a film whose capacity of entertainment, not merely in Australia, but in Orwisburg (Pa.), is on a line with that of other films I have graded as AA – such, for example, as Anything Goes, The Guv’nor, Sylvia Scarlett or So Red the Rose, to mention only a few of Smith’s Weekly’s more recent AA ratings. In short, with Thoroughbred, the critic can afford to forget that the picture has been made by his own country, and can regard it with the same searching (and, as some of my correspondents have it, malignant) gaze that he exercises on the films of America and England. To say this about Thoroughbred is, I think, the highest praise that can be given it. I am not inclined to hysteria, and I say it calmly, BUT, this picture, like any other picture, has its faults. And I am allowing for the fact that I was called upon to view it at a screening which began at midnight, and finished at 3 a.m., an hour at which I am not at my sunniest. But to disguise the faults of Thoroughbred would be as unfriendly to the sincere purpose which produced it as to ignore its merits.

To begin with, the film suffers from disjointed continuity. It jerks from the obscurest doldrums to bursts of rapid action; it interpolates long and proportionately unnecessary passages between scenes of the most vital importance to the narrative, that are passed over perfunctorily, and, in places, without sufficient attention to the elementary requirements of sound-reproduction. The story is far too involved and too melodramatic; for example, the early sequence explaining the heroine’s past is wordy and perplexing enough to have been delivered in a series of asides at an old Bland Holt performance. Then, again, it depends on a far-fetched foreign plot to nobble the favourite for the Melbourne Cup. All I can say is that if I were a crook stationed in Paris or Peru, I would be able to think of better rackets for my enterprise than such an idea as this. There is far too much conversation and slackening of movement between the bursts of action. Again, the picture of a foreign gangster machinating in luxury from the state-room of a liner in Port Phillip will excite guffaws from any Australian audience. Also, why must such conventional Australian accessories as a two-up school and the cry of the kookaburra be introduced, quite so self-consciously?

Well, the worst is now over. I pass from a rapid deploring of the use of red paint on celluloid, to depict a bullet-wound on a horse (dating back to the naïve old practice of tinting fire-shots) to a really genuine appreciation of the merits that are in Thoroughbred. The film opens with some extraordinarily fine glimpses of horses running wild through the bush. There is a sense of freedom and sharp air here which should point a road to Australian photographers. For the story is based entirely on the theme of Frank Capra’s Broadway Bill, a splendid model to have followed – splendid enough to make one wish that the human plot had the simplicity of horses.

Ken Hall’s direction shows a distinct change: it has been sharpened and even sophisticated, and marks a definite advance in finish, polish, subtlety and smoothness, though he is still, I think, under the temptation of the obvious. He is at his best in his handling of the scenes of action; and certainly attains the highest pitch in the passage showing the Cup favorite’s collapse after the race has (of course) been won. The Cinesound interiors, though still in the period which might be described as Early Bebarfald, also show an improvement; at least, in some of the more ambitious here, the rest of the world may imagine that Australia has got some houses with decent plumbing, wallpapers, windows and walls.

The acting, though not a display of fireworks (and, since most of the players have come direct from the stage, this is not to be expected), is perhaps more uniformly satisfactory than that of any other Australian talking-picture. Helen Twelvetrees, in the most dazzling of the roles, plays with a practised charm which oozes Hollywood; she is always graceful, always pretty, ready to extract the minutest asset from her lines, but (due mainly to her limited scope) undeniably insipid. Much more vital is our own Nellie Barnes, though I am still wondering exactly what she has to do with the story, or who she is supposed to be anyway. Frank Leighton seems to be the sort of film-discovery which excites American producers; he has everything that is wanted, and the fact that he wears some hideous clothes goes to the credit of Australian realism. Ronald Whelan makes a distinct success of his bad-man role; John Longden is far behind his “Dean Maitland” performance, but acts with spirit; Nellie Ferguson, Harold Meade and Arthur Cornell, are all excellent; and Antique, as the thoroughbred of the piece acts as faithfully as any racehorse might be expected to act. And, by the way, a special word for the riding of Violet Skuthorpe, who doubles in the horse-scenes for the star.

A lot more could be said about Thoroughbred, but there isn’t room. My concluding advice is to see it by all means – you can go to it with the assurance with which you would visit a picture from England or America – it’s AA – and worth it. – K.S.

Modern Times
United Artists
18/4/36, p. 22

To put it briefly, my impression of this film is that, if it had projected not the great Charlie Chaplin, but an unknown and unsung picture-actor, it would have received only a fraction of its applause and none of its publicity. It might, indeed, have received active condemnation, inasmuch as 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.

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 – and it must not be forgotten that a large section of this general public has never previously seen a Charlie Chaplin feature. Well, then, straight-forwardly as a comedy, my verdict is that Modern Times is full of continuous amusement – but amusement of the chuckling sort, and not of the rib-dislocating, belly-shaking order. To tell the truth, I have exercised my stomach with infinitely more abandon over the Laurel and Hardy frolics.

The silent technique – for, in the main Modern Times is resolutely set in it, has to-day the quaint, sentimental flavour of an old fashioned daguerreotype. There is a curiously lost and melancholy, dreary ghost-like feeling about this resuscitation of the silent film process, with its over-emphasised and speeded-up action. As for the superior suggestion of social satire, if the film is to be taken as a valid and slightly muddled, complaint about the mechanisation of our age, it may at least be argued that this humour is mechanised itself.

So much for the worst that can be said about Modern Times. On the other side of the scale, there is the fact, as I have mentioned, that it is, in fact, continuously amusing. There are some intensely comic passages, in a deliberate fashion, about life in a modern factory with its jungles of cog-wheels, its impersonal efficiency, and its ruthless application of science. You’ll laugh at the mechanical feeding-machine, and at the sequences when Chaplin’s mate gets lost in a wilderness of wheels and rollers. The later chapters, away from the factory, get closer to the old Chaplin style, and the humor here is less contrived, more human. It would not, of course be Chaplin humor unless it provided such vulgarities as radio-static mistaken for abdominal rumbles, and the tableau of Chaplin wafting away the fumes of garlic from a drunk’s breath. Other scenes are gay, flowing and full of the unexpected. There is, it is true, some attempt to present pathos, but it is by no means the ironic pathos which distinguishes City Lights. Highlights are Chaplin’s remarkably clever roller-skating on the brink of an abyss, and the scenes in a decrepit shack, falling to pieces about his ears.

As usual, Chaplin is presented as the eternal waif – though, in his opulent private life, he is anything but this. And the picture ends, in a delightful rondo movement with a view of a modern road sharply regimented with a white line, marking left and right as inflexibly as the cog wheels regimented the earlier factory-scenes. However, Modern Times is to be enjoyed without a suspicion of these reflections. As a comedy, it richly achieves its purpose. As a “masterpiece” of comic art, it is left far behind by several recent comic films. – K.S.

A Night at the Opera
6/6/36, p. 22

It has become usual to compare the Marx Brothers to fricassee of frogs’-legs – either you like them, or you don’t like them; if you do, good, if you don’t, bad, and that’s the end of it. Argument about taste in humor is just about as futile as argument about taste in poetry, or Cleopatra’s Needle or the Archibald Fountain. For the Marx kind of humor is as solid as a public monument.

I have said this before myself, on the occasion of earlier Marx demonstrations, but, after having exercised certain laughing-muscles for the first time for weeks, at A Night at the Opera, I begin to wonder whether this eclectic view does the Brothers justice. Of one thing I am reasonably certain – if you can’t laugh at them here, you need an operation. The film may be approached, not as a merely specialised essay in a certain kind of wit, but as ordinary downright slap-up elemental low comedy. The peculiar passions which some people feel, either for or against the Marx Brothers, do not enter into it. The film is as simply and honestly funny as a circus-clown. Nonetheless, if you want to compare it to surrealist art, there is a crushing naivete of life at its face-value behind every wise-crack. And there are, indeed, firework-showers of wisecracks, many of them bursting into colored stars so rapidly that the picture must be seen twice before they can be entirely assimilated.

The wave of burlesque starts even with the famous Metro-Goldwyn trademark; instead of the customary lion, the Brothers’ heads appear, roaring, woofing, and tooting a motor-horn. The absence of Zeppo from the team, reducing it to three, is (as Groucho has already modestly pointed out) an improvement. Groucho’s eye is as sly and drooping as ever, Harpo’s curls as crazy, but Chico has suddenly developed a personality. It would be hard to pick out the juiciest passages from such a tumble of comedy: but I still find myself chuckling over the scene, when one large cabin trunk, three stowaways, five stewards, and Groucho are wedged into one small cabin: and the scene where the Opera House orchestra slides suddenly from a Verdi overture into the chaste strains of “Let’s All Go to the Ball Game,” while Harpo and Chico toss a ball to and fro over the grandees in the stalls, and Groucho trips down the aisle selling peanuts. These Opera House scenes are exquisitely amusing, and boil over into some of the funniest comic-chase stuff that I have enjoyed for years.

Subdued, of course, by the general lunacy are Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones. The lady has a surprisingly charming voice, and so, too, has Mr Jones, who, however, is too dimply and curly in the Carl Brisson manner. The direction (by Sam Wood) and the photography are flawless, and there is one shot of an Italian festa on board a liner which, with its dancing figures and whirling skirts, offers an enchanting flow of movement. There isn’t much else that can be said about this delicious picture except that I honestly think it’s the best that the Marx Brothers have so far done. – KS

Expeditionary Films
3/10/36, p. 22

Once again it is possible to pay an Australian-made film the compliment of conscious comparison with the current production of England or America. Uncivilised, on this severest of assessments, is by no means the sort of picture which Australian studios have dreamed of making; yet, in its own field, it comes very close to the top.

For my part, I may say that I thought more of it than any Australian film since Heritage, and, compared with Heritage, it shows an obvious improvement. On this score, it is perhaps the best Australian film that has so far been made. More than this, in certain isolated passages, it is as good as anything that the overseas producers have achieved. The obvious comparison is with Sanders of the River, inasmuch as both pictures are concerned with the penetration of white race into black kingdom; yet, in several of its scenes, both in their excitement and their suggestion, the film, I think, is more closely associated with Trader Horn – a picture which (speaking for one) excited me a good deal more intensely than Sanders.

On thing, at least, emerges from a study of Uncivilised, and that is that in Charles Chauvel, Australia has a film-producer and director of the most brilliant promise. My chief complaint is that, possibly from his very superiority in an area that is so far without many rivals, Chauvel has elected to carry too much on his own shoulders. I don’t know what the proportions of responsibility are, so far as the story of Uncivilised is concerned, but between them Chauvel and E.V. Timms have sponsored a glaringly inadequate story. It is the merit of the direction, production, and background that they are able to lift such a decrepit theme into genuine significance.

For example, the story suffers from the common fault of many amateur works, in its attempt to cram too many plots and sub-plots into a normal frame. The picture is far too convoluted in this respect: it would have been better to have left the opium-running theme out altogether, especially as it is so crudely gangsterish and (even worse) transparent from the start. It would be a poor picturegoer who would fail to pick the Afghan’s real mission ten minutes after his first appearance.

But this is not the gravest fault. What really drags the film down from an even higher grading is the insistence with which the hero (supposedly a white man living with a native tribe) is compelled to sing songs of a musical-comedy order. Time after time the carefully-accumulated air of realism is almost totally destroyed by this launching into incongruous song. For instance, there is a really fascinating view of an Aboriginal corroboree – possibly the best that has ever been photographed, and certainly worthy of comparison with anything in the same field that has been offered by British or American films. The rhythm of these natives, stamping their feet to the drone of bullroarers, with white cones on their heads, and white stripes and feathers across their bodies, is unforgettable. But almost immediately the effect is ruined by a silly musical-comedy song. In effect, this turns an exciting piece of realism into something in the same category of The Gold Diggers of Broadway.

So much for the more striking defects of the film; there are, of course, other minor faults, such as the miraculous ability of the heroine to appear perfectly groomed and immaculately-coiffured even, indeed, in a modish Parisian nightgown, in the Australian wilds. But, as with The Flying Doctor, attention has purposely been turned to the film’s shortcomings, in the belief that criticism of this sort is more valuable to the working-department than facile praise.

Considered broadly, Uncivilised is a splendid Australian achievement. It strikes boldly away from the beaten track; it is adroit technically; its cutting is quick and nervous; its photography, by Tasman Higgins, is excellent; and its acting on the whole, is first-class. Perhaps the best performance is given by Ashton Jarry as the Afghan but Dennis Hoey does splendidly with a highly difficult part, and Margot Rhys improves vastly on her work in Heritage. Marcelle Marnay gives unmistakable promise, but she is handicapped by an indifferent role and an obvious lack of schooling.

As for the swimming-scene, censored for export, instant applause from the first-night audience, after its beauty had been appreciated, showed what average Australian picture-goers thought of the workings of Mr Creswell O’Reilly’s mind. This scene, perhaps pictorially the loveliest in a film notable for the beauty of its backgrounds, demonstrates that the title of the picture, Uncivilised, might more aptly be applied to a nation which is ashamed to let the rest of the world see such a passage.

One further criticism suggests itself – why, for heaven’s sake, should aborigines, conversing among themselves, be forced to speak in ludicrous pidgin-English? And why should the white hero have to express himself in this bizarre lingo? But this is nothing against the general achievement. Smith’s Weekly’s advice to all Australian film-goers is to see Uncivilised without fail. KS

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 →