Carpetbaggers, Roadshows and Another Nation's Problem:'The Birth of a Nation' in Australia
Newspaper Advertisement. Source: Sunday Times (Sydney), 23 April 1916
1916 was a tumultuous year for the young Australian nation. The shock of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign remained fresh on every mind. Another battle was being fought on the home front over the issue of conscription. Women were entering the workforce in record numbers. The world was changing rapidly, with film just one of many new forms of affordable entertainment for an increasingly enfranchised working class.
It was also a nation which was, owing to the so-called 'White Australia' policy (the Immigration Restriction Act 1901), institutionally racist, even if the situation on the ground could be somewhat contradictory. Amidst the working-class terraces of the Sydney suburb of Glebe, for example, sat the Sze Yup Temple, one of several which catered to a significant Chinese population that had remained a feature of Sydney since the Gold Rush of the 1850s and which was, by and large, regarded with something between wary acceptance and grudging tolerance.
Since the first appearance of feature-length films in Sydney only eighteen months earlier, attendance had boomed. Audiences had well over 100 theatres to choose from in the city and its suburbs. 430,000 Sydneysiders spent an average £10,700 ($US 53,500) per week at these cinemas - staggering figures at a time when Sydney's population barely topped 700,000.
Most of the films shown during this period are long since lost or forgotten, though the one that is best remembered today is also the most controversial. At the time of its production, D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) was considered the greatest technical achievement the young industry had yet produced. Both then and today, no discussion of the film can avoid the thorny topic of its egregious portrayal of race. What happened when this landmark film arrived in Australia, during a period in which the White Australia policy was at its height?
It is said that when pioneering American showman J.D. Williams departed Australia in 1916, it was because he hoped to build as strong a film culture in his homeland as the country he had just left. Australian film fans would have been well aware of The Birth of a Nation in advance of its arrival, including the records it had broken overseas, and the astonishing statistics of its production. According to marketing, The Birth of a Nation marked the arrival of film not as popular entertainment, but as a legitimate art form.
A bidding war took place for the rights to the film’s Australian release, which was to be mounted as a joint venture with D.W. Griffith’s own Epoch Producing Company. Though Hugh D. McIntosh of the Tivoli vaudeville circuit posted the highest bid of £20,000, the rights were instead given to Hugh J. Ward of theatrical firm J.C. Williamson. McIntosh had made a great success showing the Italian epic Cabiria (1914) in a format similar to that envisioned for Griffith’s film, but he was considered what Australians disparagingly branded a ‘skite’ - a relentless self aggrandiser who had risen to prominence via the insalubrious world of boxing promotion. This would sit uneasily with the notion of The Birth of a Nation as high art.
By contrast, J.C. Williamson was the largest and most respected theatrical organisation in the country. Temporarily transforming their flagship 1,600-seat Sydney Theatre Royal into a picture house, they had recently begun a policy of prestige film screenings, beginning with Fox's Carmen, starring Theda Bara, in February 1916, complete with an orchestral accompaniment of excerpts from Bizet’s opera. These presentations offered Australian audiences an unprecedented level of quality and luxury.
“Periodically, we offer to the public some attraction in which we take special pride,” explained Ward. “Looking back over the record of the firm, you will see such outstanding offerings as Sarah Bernhardt, H. B. Irving, Oscar Asche and Lily Brayton, Margaret Anglin, Adeline Genee, the Melba and Quinlan Grand Opera Companies, to mention just a few. Well, with these I place The Birth of a Nation. It is in the motion picture field what the big star attractions I have mentioned were each in their separate sphere.”
The Birth of a Nation would also provide Australia with one of its first experiences with the ‘roadshow’ format of exhibition. Instead of debuting in the city and moving to the less expensive suburban cinemas, as was the norm, the film would be an exclusive engagement, playing only at a single venue in each major town. A premium experience would incur a premium ticket price: 6/- for the best reserved seats (approximately $US1.50), with others charged on a sliding scale basis that ended at 1/- (US 25c).
“It is not often that we go to the public with a statement like this,” continued Ward. “We do, however, for two reasons. In the first place, the public will perhaps be inclined to wonder how it comes about that 6/- is being charged for reserved seats. Those who attended will realise how it is. They will realise that here is no ordinary picture. It is something to leaves all other pictures as far behind as Madame Melba vocally leaves the vaudeville soubrette." In other words, the patron’s experience at the best cinema now equalled that of the best stage play or opera. Why should it not incur a similar fee?
Though not unheard of for especially sought-after events - Hugh D. McIntosh had been able to charge up to 10/- for entry to the fabled international heavyweight title fight between Tommy Burns and Jack Johnson in 1908 - 6/- was an unprecedented amount for a picture show; the equivalent to a day’s wage for the kind of female workers who formed the bulk of a typical screen audience, and far in excess of the maximum 1/6 currently charged for the best seats for a major film screening.
An usherette in costume as a Civil War 'curtsey girl' for the film's Adelaide season. Source: The Mail (Adelaide), 24 June 1916
A representative for D.W. Griffith’s Epoch Producing Company, George Bowles, was dispatched to Australia to supervise The Birth of a Nation's Sydney release, planned for Easter Saturday, April 25th. No expense was spared in preparations. The Theatre Royal was decorated in a Civil War theme. Programmes were to be distributed by ‘curtsey girls’ in full crinolines. A new projection booth was constructed at distance from the screen judged optimal for image quality and size, and new projectors specially imported. In all, 51 cases of additional equipment were reported to have accompanied the film to Australia, along with a stage director, musical director and three technical assistants. After the initial Sydney season, four touring companies - three for Australia, one for New Zealand - would embark on separate regional circuits.
A further innovation was introduced in the method of Birth of a Nation's projection. Audiences were currently used to seeing a film proceed in ten minute bursts, interrupted by gaps of a few minutes' duration in order to change reels. The Birth of a Nation was to be shown with a single mid-film interval, allowing audiences to become thoroughly immersed in the action. "This is accomplished by the use of two machines, which are automatically regulated so that one reel melts into the other without the slightest interruption,”explained Mr Bowles. At a phenomenal duration advertised precisely as two hours and forty three minutes, audiences might have found it difficult to keep the thread of the story otherwise.
A 25-piece orchestra was engaged to perform the same specially composed score that had accompanied the film’s season in New York. Like Carmen a few months earlier, the conductor was J.C. Williamson’s musical director, the distinguished Gustave Slapoffski. Born in London to a Russian father and Australian-born mother, he had worked at several major British theatres before being brought to Australia in 1900 by impresario George Musgrove, of the Tivoli vaudeville chain. Slapoffski had since built a solid reputation in his adoptive land, introducing Australia to the operas of Wagner and conducting the orchestra at the opening of Australia’s first Federal Parliament. With 860 separate musical cues, the accompaniment was no ordinary undertaking, and Epoch Productions sent its own expert, a Mr Zimmerman, to educate Slapoffski and help train the orchestra.
The film was also marketed as being of particular interest to Australians as ‘a tremendous argument for a White Australia.' George Bowles certainly seemed to believe that its racial depictions would find favour in Australia, and demonstrated little reticence in discussing the controversy the film had engendered in America. There is no evidence of any widespread outcry against Birth of a Nation's exhibition in Australia, and yet nor were there vocal demonstrations in its support. The brutal truth is that Australian racism of the time tended to be casual and passive; there was no urgent need to defend a race whose dominance was so widely considered an article of faith. Indigenous Australians were so severely disenfranchised that the very idea of an uprising seemed absurd, much less the need for a citizen militia to quell one. Indeed, when the independent production The Birth of White Australia (1928) later attempted to cover similar territory from a local perspective, the result was a commercial failure in the few places in which it was even able to obtain a release.
It was only in moments of flashpoint, such as the sensational defeat of the white Tommy Burns by the black Jack Johnson in the aforementioned prize fight of 1908, that the ugly underbelly of Australia’s latent racism became exposed. To Australian viewers, Birth of a Nation told the story of another nation's race tensions, and provided no such flashpoint. Accordingly, the 'White Australia' advertising angleseems not to have proven particularly useful, and was largely dispensed with in favour of a more general emphasis on the scenes of spectacle and, in particular, the film's realistic depiction of warfare - a matter of more immediate interest to many Australians.
Newspaper advertisement for the film's Melbourne season, placing special emphasis on the pricing structure - lower than Sydney's, but still expensive for the time. Source: The Argus (Melbourne), 13 May 1916
Given the painstaking preparations for its release, was Birth of a Nation an Australian success? In fact, the film’s initial performance fell well below expectations. To most Australians, American history was an obscure topic, and three hours was a daunting amount of time to dedicate to a film when fifty minutes was considered plenty. According to America’s Motion Picture News, there was also a prevalent view that, after such lavish build-up, the film itself was somewhat of a disappointment - or, to use the local parlance, “not as good as it was cracked up to be.”
Above all, there was the fundamental challenge posed by the exhibition format. Anticipating that the film would eventually make its way to the less expensive suburban theatres despite all claims to the contrary, audiences continued to stay away. By early May, promoters were forced to slash ticket prices to a top 2/6 (US 60c) for an evening show - incidentally, the same price that had been used for Cabiria the previous year.This remained expensive when a film could be seen elsewhere for as little as sixpence, but the cut had the desired effect, ultimately permitting a total of 160,000 people to see Birth of a Nation during its Sydney run. Another of the four prints was pressed into service to allow the Sydney season to continue for a further month, and the Melbourne season to begin on schedule. Prices there remained lower than initially planned, but high enough that advertisements clearly remained anxious to justify them. The separate touring units then proceeded on their circuits of regional Australia, each town enjoying a comparable experience - and ticket price - to that of the city.
The pricing adjustment undoubtedly resulted in larger audiences, but the commercial viability of the venture remained of concern. In October, a projectionist sued for breach of contract, revealing that the South Australian leg had failed to cover costs, leading to the remainder of that roadshow being curtailed and his services being terminated. Moving Picture World also reported that a major tour of Queensland was cancelled due to poor attendances. By the end of 1916, the roadshow format was quietly abandoned. The Birth of a Nation at last began appearing in the suburban outlets it had previously promised to avoid, and playing repeat engagements in cities at which it had already been shown. These showings dispensed with the expensive orchestral accompaniment and introduced ‘popular pricing’.
Epoch’s George Bowles attempted to put a good face on the failure of the roadshow strategy when speaking to the Australian media. To his home market, he was more indiscreet. A rather impolitic article appeared in the New York Morning Telegraph, in which Bowles expressed his desire to get home as soon as possible, grumbling that an Australia impoverished by war had not proven sufficiently profitable.
A number of unflattering stories about Mr Bowles began to appear in Sydney’s Sunday Times and Referee newspapers. Not coincidentally, the editor of both was none other than Hugh D. McIntosh, whose rejected bid for The Birth of a Nation clearly still rankled. At length, McIntosh urged the man he mockingly branded ‘Birth’ Bowles to “pack up his carpet bag and get away,”which he did in due course, in order to handle the Chicago release of Griffith’s follow-up, Intolerance (1916). Ironically, Bowles' main charge against McIntosh was one of racism. He was accused of 'sneering at Americans, jeering at their flag, and calling them disgruntled foreigners and Yankee bounders.'
This bitterness ran deeper than mere rivalry. America, which would not join World War I for another year, was unconstrained by wartime shortages as Australia and England had, and local showmen resented the way this had permitted the nation to solidify its standing as the international leader in the motion picture business. As such, there could not have been worse timing for Bowles’ comments, and a fraught correspondence between the two men continued in McIntosh’s newspapers before being set to rest - McIntosh still permitting himself the last word:
"The public ran for a while to see his picture, although we had had many better pictures in regard to dramatic coherence and artistry of presentment. But Bowles was a person of the slightest importance, personally and otherwise, and people soon discovered that. The discovery stung him, and so he began to sting Australia. Australia scarcely noticed."
In America, the achievements of The Birth of a Nation were considered numerous - technical, artistic, commercial, and historical. It also carried the far more dubious distinction of reviving a moribund Ku Klux Klan and inflaming racial tensions across the nation. Though appreciating its artistic and technical achievements, the Australian reception of The Birth of a Nation was demonstrably more equivocal than popular histories have previously suggested.