"They say you are always drunk. You're not, are you, Daddy ?"
This plaintive plea was used to promote The Warning, an ambitious five-reel production by the Equitable Features-World Film Company, headed by Lewis J. Selznick, father of future producer David O. Selznick.
Henry Kolker made his film debut in this story of a businessman who falls prey to alcoholism. Margaret seems to have preferred lighter fare, but perhaps it was the highly promoted presence of actress Lila Leslie (billed as Lily Leslie), born in Scotland but raised in Australia, that encouraged her to attend a screening.
Equitable Pictures boasted that diversity of topic and approach was what distinguished their product from their rivals, including an unusually large quantity of allegorical and fantasy sequences. Advertisements for The Warning that promised 'a crashing vision of Heaven and Hell in a man's own soul' were to be taken literally. In the film's later sequence, Kolker's character appears to descend into a literal hell, complete with 'stalactites, stalagmites, grotesque land gyrations and the myriad queer freaks of underground tunnel and grottoes,' which, according to Moving Picture World, was filmed on location at the Mammoth Caves in Kentucky with four hundred costumed extras playing lost souls under punishment for various kinds of sins. The surprise conclusion to the sequence provides the film with its title. "'It is a fair enough observation to say that the allegory in this picture will make an impression upon anybody who witnesses it," said Motion Picture News, which gave a reasonably positive impression of the film, though noting Henry Kolker's tendency towards over-theatrical gestures. In time he was able to elminate this, enjoying a career as a stalwart character actor well into the sound era.
The Warning was hardly cheery material for a wartime audience, and yet it was sufficiently popular to transfer from the Crystal Palace to a second week at the nearby Lyric Theatre. Advertisements suggest that Margaret saw it at the Enmore Theatre a few weeks later. Presuming that this was the case, she would also have seen the latest episode of The New Exploits of Elaine, "The Watching Eye", and Pathé's Animated War Gazette. A copy of The Warning survives at the British Film Institute.
Within less than a fortnight, public drunkenness would be at the top of Sydney's headlines. 'Soldiers rioting, all Sydney excited,' Margaret records in her diary for 14 February, describing an incident later known as the Liverpool Riots. 15,000 war recruits, disgruntled over poor conditions and pay, went on a drunken rampage across central Sydney, vandalising businesses and destroying property. One soldier was shot dead by police . The riot was instrumental in a successful June 1916 referendum banning the sale of alcohol after 6pm, resulting in the notorious 'Six O'Clock Swill' that was a feature of Sydney's pubs for decades afterwards.
The Enmore Theatre in the early 1920s. Source: State Library of NSW. Photo by Sam Hood.
The Enmore Theatre was not especially far from Margaret's home, and she visited it several times during 1916. Like many of Sydney's permanent picture shows, it began life as an open-air, all-weather exhibition space. Bought by the Szarka Brothers, who would soon become prominent in Newtown and Enmore's civic affairs, it was given a roof in 1912 and gradually transformed into something more civilised - although one source from 1920 still described it as a “tin-walled, uninviting-looking enclosure.” Though very different in appearance thanks to an Art Deco renovation in the mid 1930s, the Enmore Theatre survives today as a live performance venue.
4th February 1916
Source: Sunday Times, 30 January 1916
Little Miss Brown
After a quiet start to the year, work at the F.W. Wilkins brushwork factory was clearly picking up. “[Ran] all around town for Syd’s cheques,” Margaret complains on 1 February. “Temp 100 degrees.” For most of the month, she would restrict her film viewings only to Friday and Saturday nights. So many of the films that Margaret selected throughout the year were featured in Sydney's Sunday Times newspaper that it seems that she was a regular reader, maybe buying a copy each Sunday and scanning its entertainment page for recommendations for the coming week. This is probably how she decided to see Little Miss Brown on Friday 4 February.
The Sunday Times review sounded promising:
Vivian Martin, the winsome heroine of ‘The Wishing Ring,’ leads as Betty Brown — sweet and pretty to look at, but who is an egregious coquette and flirt. She fools with a pair of lovers, and as the result of her indecision she lands herself into a pretty mess at a Harford Hotel, where she is cajoled into passing herself off as the wife of a man whose real wife is on her way to meet him. Betty just butts into a sea of trouble.
Many reviews described the film as a farce. Margaret seems to have preferred more naturalistic drama and comedy, and her verdict on Little Miss Brown was blunt: ’Not 2 good’.
Little Miss Brown was one of many popular Broadway plays that found their way onto the screen during this period. The sophistication of a wordy stage comedy did not always translate well to the silent screen. "Outside of a goodly amount of publicity for Hartford, Connecticut, and a bit of a mix up in a hotel in that city, there is little to it,“ said Variety of Little Miss Brown. Other reviews suggest the beauty of the film’s setting in the Adirondack Mountains was its chief virtue.
Margaret specifically notes the participation of 'Viv Martin’, it may have been the star, who had made an Australian popular success of her first film, The Wishing Ring (1914), who attracted Margaret to the film.Variety certainly deemed her the best thing in the picture: "Miss Martin easily takes first honours. She is of the dainty type of screen artists. Her personality is screenly perfect.”
Source: Stars of the Photoplay (1916)
Vivian Martin was yet another of the many actresses whose gentle looks and girlish persona ensured that she remained in vogue during the reign of Mary Pickford. Like the real Pickford, Vivian had made her start as a child stage actress, and like Marie Doro, a desire on the part of other studios to develop their own rival to Little Mary likely had much to do with her move to the screen. After the short-lived World Film Company for whom she worked was dissolved, Vivian joined Pickford at the Famous Players company. By the early 1920s she briefly headed her own production company, but returned to the stage not long afterwards.
Whether it was the film, the star, or perhaps just the heat that was making her feel irritable, Margaret did not remember Little Miss Brown fondly.
8th February 1916
The American Picture Palace (centre).
"Good Prog. At The American"
On the afternoon of Tuesday 6th February, Margaret accompanied her sister Rose and their cousin Claude into Sydney's central business district. Claude, the eldest son of her mother's sister Vivian. The trio probably caught a tram from Glebe to Sydney Town Hall. As they walked up Park Street, Rose and Claude headed one way, to the Criterion Theatre for a performance of the stage play Under Fire, while Margaret turned across the road to the American Picture Palace for a night of movies. Aside from generally preferring film to theatre, Margaret seems to have steered clear of propaganda plays and movies, such as the Australian-produced The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell, which was then creating a sensation in Sydney. Her parents attended a screening on 12 November, but she was apparently not interested. The American Picture Palace had opened in 1911 as a so-called 'continuous house', showing the same series of short films on rotation from 11am to 11pm each day. The exact films that Margaret saw is unknown, but the theatre held contracts with Pathé, Lubin, Gaumont, Edison and Thanhouser Pictures, also showing the comedies Charlie Chaplin had made for Kalem. By 1916, virtually all of these studios were on the way out, and features had already begun to supplant the mode of exhibition upon which the theatre relied. The theatre closed in 1919 and was known in later years variously as the Shell Theatre, the Arcadia and briefly the Egyptian Theatre, before being demolished in 1929 for the construction of 'Park House', the building that remains there today.
Source: The Mirror of Australia, 12 February 1916
'Claude and Rose to 'Under Fire'
Margaret's sister Rose and cousin Claude spent the evening taking in some weightier fare - the stage play Under Fire. Following the season of Twin Beds that Margaret had attended the previous month, the theatre had been closed and redecorated, and now featured an attractive new colour scheme described as ‘old ivory and crushed rose’.
Under Fire’s war-themed story was set in the present day:
The first act of ’UnderFire’ introduces a German spy, Henry Streetman. Though he has a wife and children in his own country, he goes through the ceremony of marriage with an English girl, Ethel Willoughby. Ethel is governess in the home of Sir George Wagstaff, and one of Streetman’s plans is that through her he shall obtain possession of Admiralty secrets officially known to Sir George.
An Irish Guardsman whom the girl once loved makes Ethel aware of her new husband’s true nature. The action ranges across German-occupied Belgium, the British trenches, and the battle-scarred French front, as the German spy is thwarted and the girl reunited with her former paramor.
The play was extremely well received. “It was significant that the crowded audience reserved most of its applause for the terminations of the acts, when it came with a will,” reported the Sunday Times. “The reality of the play was too deeply felt for scattered recognition.”
It was a major production with more than forty characters, complete with very realistic stage effects - perhaps a little too realistic for some. The night before Rose and Claude attended the play, there was a sensational incident involving an audience member who was a survivor of the Gallipoli landing. After being knocked unconscious by a shell explosion, Gunner D. Dunn had remained in a coma for three weeks, awaking to discover that he had lost the ability to speak in anything above a whisper.
A mock bomb explosion during Under Fire’s third act must have brought back horrific memories, and Gunner Dunn fainted from the shock. Carried from the theatre by his friends, he came to - and then found that he had spontaneously recovered his voice.
Claude may have wished he was across the road with Margaret, given that he was shortly due to depart for active duty. Tragically, he would lose his life in the Second Battle of Bullecourt.
15th February 1916
Source: Sunday Times (Sydney), 30 January 1916
"Saw 'Gaby Deslys'" Margaret records in her diary for 16th February, referring to the Famous Players film Her Triumph, starring Parisian stage actress and dancer Gaby Deslys. Having proven such a hit in its weeklong season at Waddington's Globe Theatre, it had been transferred to the Majestic and Grand Theatres for a second week.
When the prevailing wisdom was that it was best not to foster a theatre-style star system in the motion picture industry for fear of fostering similarly high salaries and diva behaviour, Adolph Zukor took the opposite view. He named his motion picture company Famous Players, gave it the slogan 'Famous Players in Famous Plays' and promptly hired Sarah Bernhardt, one of the most famous stage actors of all time. Though a sensation upon release, Bernhardt's Queen Elizabeth (1912) showed that her talents were ill suited to the subtlety of the screen, and she made no more films. Zukor persisted with his policy. Occasionally - most notably, in the case of Mary Pickford - he discovered someone whose innate understanding of film allowed them to modify their style to the new medium. In other cases, such as that of Gaby Deslys, the sheer novelty of seeing a well-known name onscreen was enough to turn a profit.
Filmed on location in Paris in 1914, Her Triumph had to be smuggled out of the country with the onset of World War I, and did not debut in New York until the following year. The film was marketed as a thinly-veiled biopic of Deslys' own rise to fame - which it may or may not have been, as her origins are obscure - with her real-life dancing partner Henry Pilcer playing the equivalent fictional role. As an impoverished dancer named Gaby, she is plucked from a chorus line and made an understudy to the leading lady, Helene. Gaby soon attracts the attention of Helene's real-life leading man Claude (Henry Pilcer) and is elevated to lead the show, where she causes a sensation. Claude's near-shooting by the jealous Helene and the attempted kidnap of Gaby's blind sister added some spice to the proceedings.
Many rumours surrounded Pilcer and Deslys' own relationship. It was widely acknowledged to go beyond the professional, but the pair denied that they were married. By most standards, Her Triumph was fairly formulaic, but reviews frequently mentioned the performance of the Danse des Apaches and her own Dance Deslys as highlights, along with the lavish gowns for which she was equally famous. In Sydney, the film was promoted in a manner considered very novel for the time, with Ms Deslys appearing in advertisements that provided advice on her beauty secrets.
Her Triumph would be Deslys' only American-produced picture. After making several French films, she lost her life in February 1920, a victim of the Spanish Flu epidemic. Many observers suggested she and Pilcher might have gone on to challenge the great Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had the partnership survived. We are unable to judge, as not one of Deslys' films is known to survive.
19th February 1916
Source: Sydney Morning Herald, 19 February 1916
'Rotten Pictures At The Lyric'
Margaret returned to the cinema for the weekend of 19 February, but again found that her choice was not ideal. “Rotten pictures at the Lyric,” she grumbles in her diary, not even bothering to name the films in question.
Newspaper reports reveal that she saw a three picture program: Selig’sThe House of A Thousand Candles, Thanhouser’s The Conductor’s Classy Champion, and an edition of Topical Budget, the British newsreel. According to other advertisements, that week’s edition of the Budget featured war news, including ’recruits at physical training and in marching order.’ Earlier that day, Margaret had attended an address by the New South Wales Premier, William Holman, at Glebe Town Hall, not far from her home. Holman was unveiling a Roll of Honour for local soldiers fighting in the Great War. The Sydney Morning Herald recorded his address:
They were now doing honour to men nearly all of whom were still fighting - men whom they hoped to welcome back to Australia. (Cheers) They were now well advanced in the second year of the war, and he [Holman] was sure their feelings, like his own had been expressed by the French War Minister, who said recently: “Eighteen months ago France longed for peace; today it longs for war.” (Cheers).
Margaret called the event a “crowded spectacle. Very good.” However, knowing that her brothers Arthur and Jack were amongst the names on the roll may have given her some very equivocal thoughts. The 7th Reinforcement of the 20th Battalion had proven a short lived company, and only a few days earlier the brothers and their friend Frank McKay had joined the 56th Battalion. Soon, they would be on their way to the battlefields of France.
The Conductor’s Classy Champion was a two-reel film telling the story of Conductor 786, nicknamed Con, who ‘has a peculiar facility of being lucky at the right time,’ according to Moving Picture World. Con is warned he will be fired unless he can contain the rowdy behaviour of his train passengers. He enlists the help of 'the great Cordelia’, hammer throwing champion of America, who 'proceeds to make a new long-distance hurling record’ out of the criminals and, giving Con the credit, thus saves his job.
This sort of farce was not to Margaret’s taste, and it is no surprise that she did not enjoy it, particularly if she was in a melancholy frame of mind.
Source: Picture Palace Architecture of Australia - Ross Thorne
The Lyric Theatre (1911) was situated some way away from the other theatres within the 'Picture Block’, sitting at the unfashionable end of George Street in the district of Haymarket, a short walk from Railway Square, the transport hub of central Sydney. The site of the Lyric is now home to a combined apartment and shopping complex, the Capitol Terrace. In 1916, it was a second-run house, showing the films that appeared successfully at the more upmarket Crystal Palace the previous week. Margaret would often wait for a film to screen at the Lyric rather than pay the premium to see it up the street.
As its name suggests, Haymarket had been Sydney’s major marketplace since the early days of European settlement. The site was chosen because of its close proximity to the waterside, allowing shipments to be easily transported to market for a quick sale. Theatres and pubs inevitably sprang up in the area for the entertainment of shoppers.
One such theatre was not much more than a month away from completion when Margaret visited the Lyric Theatre. The former Belmore Market building was in the process of conversion to an elaborate indoor circus-cum-cabaret venue known as Wirth’s Hippodrome. The Wirth family of circus performers operated the Hippodrome for about a decade, before its conversion to a lavish 'atmospheric’-style cinema, renamed the Capitol Theatre. Thankfully, the Capitol not only still exists but has been lovingly restored. An echo of 1916 can still be seen in both its facade and in its curved orchestra pit - a relic of the time when it once formed the edge of the Wirth’s circus ring.
26 February 1916
Source: Sunday Times (Sydney), 20 February 1916
The Outer Edge
The Outer Edge was a film about a difficult topic. Perth’s Daily News summed up its storyline:
A physician is dragged down to the depths by the drug habit, losing position and wealth. After pawning every available possession (except a revolver) to satisfy his craving for the drug, he returns to his cheap lodging house to end his life. Half stupefied, he enters the wrong room, where he finds a woman and daughter almost starving. He takes his revolver and pawns it to buy food for them. His own act of kindness gives him a new view of life and he struggles to break the habit. Many times he almost falls again, but he is helped by a nurse whom he had known years before. Finally he throws off the yoke altogether and wins back to manhood, through the love of a woman.
It may come as some surprise that a Sydney filmgoer of 1916 could easily see pictures featuring drug addiction, birth control (Lois Weber's Where Are My Children?), and a fully nude woman (The Hypocrites, also directed by Weber). The notion of film censorship was new, and different jurisdictions across the world were still in the process of creating frameworks to deal with it. In Sydney, film censorship fell under a 1912 amendment to the Theatres and Public Halls Act 1908 which empowered police to prevent the screening of 'any picture representing scenes such as would have a demoralising effect on young persons.' In practice, this could be very generously interpreted, and films of a controversial nature continued to screen for many years, until the imposition of a national censor, the conservative Cresswell O'Reilly, in the mid 1920s. Drug addiction was an emerging societal ill in the early 20th century. Articles quietly discussed the ‘morphia habit’ and the competing new theories on how to cure it. Cautionary films with titles such as The Devil’s Needle (1916) began to appear. Depictions of morphine injection in films of this period would sometimes be quite graphic, even by modern standards.
The matter was not taken quite so seriously by everyone. Douglas Fairbanks' The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916) includes a drug addicted character - even named 'Coke Ennyday’ - as a figure of fun. The following year, in Charlie Chaplin's Easy Street (1917), Chaplin’s 'Little Tramp’ mistakenly sits on an addict’s needle, which gives him an extra burst of pep with which to rescue a damsel in distress.
Source: Moving Picture World, June 1916
Henry B. Walthall was the distinguished actor who played the film’s main role. In a recent poll taken by newspaper The Mirror, Australian film fans voted Walthall their favourite dramatic actor. In a few months, they would be able to see him in perhaps his best known role today: Colonel Ben Cameron in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.
It may have been the participation of Walthall that inspired Margaret to attend a film that would not have interested her otherwise. Moving Picture World saw the film as being "peculiarly adapted to the temperament of Henry B. Walthall and [leading lady] Warda Howard … Mr Walthall brings out with intense realism all the agonies of the victim suffering from the lack of drug’, while The Mirror of Australia went one step further, stating that ’This three-reel Essanay drama depends too much upon the acting and popularity of Henry Walthall for its success.“
The Outer Edge was no doubt a dramatic tour-de-force for Walthall, but Margaret concluded it was ’not my style of picture’.
The Globe Theatre sat across the road from the Queen Victoria Building on George Street, easily recognisable by the large globe on its roof. It is best remembered for its sensational six-month season of Rudolph Valentino’s The Sheik in 1921-22. The theatre became synonymous with Australian Valentino fans, who also ensured Blood and Sand and a 1923 revival of The Sheik, were huge moneymakers for the Globe.
By this time, the theatre was part of an area of George and Pitt Streets that contained so many theatres that it was dubbed the "White Way Block”, echoing the famous 'great white way’ of Broadway, New York. Perhaps because of market over-saturation, or the fact that it was quite small compared to its competitors, the Globe Theatre closed at the end of 1924. Its lower levels were converted to retail, while the upstairs auditorium operated for many years as a radio studio.
Though its signature globe has been gone for many decades, the Globe Theatre building still exists today, one of the few surviving relics of both the Waddingtons cinema chain and the era in which dozens of different theatres sat within a few blocks of one another in central Sydney.