‘No pictures. Tired of being sick,’ wrote Margaret on 28 June. By that weekend, she had recovered well enough to see The Ne'er Do Well at the Crystal Palace. If she had enjoyed The Rosary earlier in the year, it would seem to follow that The Ne'er Do Well would also be to her taste, as the third in a series of films featuring the same major cast, director and production company, Selig.
Based on a novel by Rex Beach, who also wrote The Spoilers, The Ne'er Do Well is the story of Kirk Anthony (Wheeler Oakman), “an irresponsible, but likeable young male animal of good nature and heavy sex-punch,” according to the Sunday Times. One night, he is drugged and finds himself on a ship bound for Panama. Here, he meets the unhappily married Mrs Cortlandt, played by Kathlyn Williams and described as “a pretty woman, at what [playwright] Karen Michaelis termed 'the dangerous age’” The two begin an affair.
Amidst picturesque scenes of the Panama Canal under construction, young Kirk undergoes various tests of character, eventually meeting and falling in love with a Spanish girl. Things end happily for Kirk, but not for Mrs Cortlandt.
When describing the risqué affair between a young man and a married older woman, reviews tried hard to have it both ways. Kathlyn Williams’ performance was both “a masterful, reposeful study, so faultless in deportment that no censor can reasonably delete a foot of her,” and one “ablaze with the dammed-up passion of an over-healthy woman, prisoned in humdrum.”
It is clear that American critics considered The Ne'er Do Well a major achievement. When most of their reviews were two paragraphs long, Moving Picture World dedicated a page and a half to discussing the film in detail. It was also lavishly praised in Australian reports. “The picture is a thing as big and fine as The Spoilers of two seasons ago, which at that time was the world's best photoplay,” said the Sunday Times. “The film production actually improves on the story. It is in nine reels, every foot of the line reels is interesting, and in these days of much presentation and small satisfaction, any thing that, holds one past five reels must be great.”
How well the film had justified its length was a major theme of many reviews, at a time when film-makers were facing increasing accusations of stretching thin material with long passages of eye candy or unnecessary subplots. 'He has built a photoplay of great length virtually without padding,’ wrote Motion Picture News of the film’s director, Colin Campbell. “It is action - action - action all the way.” “It is a film well worth spending an evening on,” agreed the Sunday Times.
Nevertheless, the fact that one reel was excised for Australian release - leaving a film that was still very long for the time - suggests local distributors feared audiences were not quite ready to dedicate so much time to a single feature. It seems they need not have worried, as the Crystal Palace reported long queues for every showing of The Ne'er Do Well.
Perhaps Margaret was still feeling out of sorts, as this was one case when she disagreed with both the critics and the crowds, describing The Ne'er Do Well as a ’rotten programme’. The Ne'er Do Well survives, and is in the collection of the USA’s Library of Congress.
Sources: Picture Palace Architecture of Australia - Ross Thorne.
The Crystal Palace had always been the centrepiece of George Street’s ’Picture Block Theatres’. As The Ne'er Do Well made its debut, there was a major announcement that the Picture Block, now under the control of Union Theatres, would be rebadged as the Union Picture Theatres. At the same time, the company divested itself of the Colonial, which was picked up by rival distributor Hoyts, and the Glacarium, which went to Waddingtons and was transformed into a continuous house - that is, a theatre whose program was repeated all day, rather than just a few evening shows as had previously been the case. This method of exhibition became increasingly popular over the course of the year, as troubled wartime audiences had even greater reason to forget their troubles at the movies. Union Theatres were a rising entity in the local distribution market. In less than a decade, they would become the most powerful single organisation in the Australian film industry, making forays into exhibition, distribution and production, under the energetic leadership of managing director Stuart F. Doyle. The Union Theatres logo can be seen on the Crystal Palace’s curtains in this early photograph.
10th July 1916
Parramatta Road, as Margaret would have known it. Source: State Library of NSW
With her illness worsening, Margaret’s nerves were further shaken on the 10th of July. “Met with accident, a tram and a dray on Parramatta Rd”.
Sydney’s newspapers were regularly peppered with reports of such calamities between the new-fashioned public transport and the slower and older vehicles that were still common on the city’s streets. Though fatalities were common, it appears that no lives were lost in this case. The scene still left Margaret "very shaken up indeed.“
Her illness shows no signs of abating, and she remains bedridden for most of the rest of the month, even missing her fiancée Fred’s birthday on the 12th. ”If my head does not ease aching, I will go silly,“ she says on the 17th. "Dr Litchfield at night.”
Dr Litchfield was the neighbourhood doctor, his residential practice on Glebe Point Road sitting only a few blocks away from Margaret’s home. He was an expert on childrens’ health, and an advocate for better standards in babies hospitals and foundlings homes, and Margaret would already have known him very well through her advocacy of the Royal Alexandria Hospital for Children. Despite the doctor’s best efforts, Margaret lost her voice to bronchitis for most of the remainder of the month. Eventually she is prescribed medicine and a throat spray which, to her shock, costs a whole pound - an enormous amount equivalent to a week’s rent. This does the trick - but worse is yet to come during July.
15th July 1916
"Saw 'Case of Becky', Mary Minter 'Emney Storks'"
Though still suffering the throes of headache and flu, Margaret roused herself for her regular Saturday movie session, enjoying not one but two features - the Paramount/Famous Players production The Case of Becky, starring Blanche Sweet and showing at the Globe Theatre, and what was correctly titled Emmy of Stork's Nest, starring Mary Miles Minter and produced by Metro. This was playing at the new Australian Picture Palace, one of the many picture theatres that opened in Sydney during 1916.
Source: Sunday Times (Sydney) - 9 July 1916
The Case of Becky
Adapted from a popular stage play, this unusual drama allowed Blanche Sweet to exercise her acting muscles in not one but two roles. Under the influence of a sinister hypnotist, Balzamo (Theodore Roberts), the virtuous Dorothy develops a second evil persona known as 'Becky'. Her case is taken up by a more principled hypnotist, Dr Emerson (James Neill), who seeks to rid Dorothy of 'Becky' and give Balzamo a taste of his own medicine.
Some reviewers feared that the novelty of the film's theme had swamped its dramatic appeal. "To many, The Case of Becky will prove exceptionally interesting because of its psychological theme and its clever treatment. But The Case of Becky does little more than highly interest. It refuses to thrill, entrance or absorb," said Motion Picture News' Peter Milne, who found the persona of 'Becky' more humorous than frightening. However, it appears that the movie helped to start a trend. Perhaps also influenced by serials, which sought ever more unusual forms of peril with which to subject their heroines, hypnotism, dual personalities and other psychological (and sometimes para-psychological) and phenomena made popular screen fare in the teens. Some of it had a slim scientific basis; other, such as the idea of pre-natal influence helping to form the human personality, considerably less so.
Source: Photoplay, January 1918
Blanche Sweet had begun her career with D.W. Griffith, typically playing a more robust counterpoint to the stereotypically fragile Griffith heroine exemplified by Lillian Gish, she had recently moved to Famous Players-Lasky Advance publicity predicted that the film, her second for Famous Players, would finally make a major star out of the actress, who would later be considered one of the most skilled of her era. Offscreen, Sweet - whose name was her own and not a pseudonym - was somewhat saltier and more outspoken than some of her contemporaries, and referred to herself as 'Miss McBlunt'. As noted in reviews for The Case of Becky, Sweet was virtually unique in having made her fame primarily on the screen rather than serving a long apprenticeship on the stage, as Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish had.
The Case of Becky is an extant film, as is a 1921 remake starring Constance Binney.
Source: The Sun (Sydney), 16 July 1916
Emmy of Stork's Nest
Emmy of Stork's Nest provided Mary Miles Minter with yet another whimsical role in the Mary Pickford mode. Minter played the title character, an illiterate 'mountain girl' who feels more at home with her pet bear and hog than with humans, having never been in contact with civilisation. That is, until the arrival of city slicker Benton Cabot (Niles Welch), who has inherited Emmy's farm from his father. He soon realises that Emmy's caretakers, the Storks, are not all they seem. After he is rescued from a flooded river by Emmy, there is a happy ending. Publicity claimed that the cast had undergone all manner of privations to obtain authentic thrill scenes on location at the Poconos Mountains, including riding their wagon over a patch of quicksand that almost sucked them under for real.
Metro pictures was still a relatively minor concern in Australia, and lacking a major distribution deal, its features received less publicity than their competitors. It is probably a mark of Margaret's admiration for Mary Miles Minter that she sought out her films, which seemed to be doing much to establish the Metro brand in Australia. 'Mary Miles Minter has rapidly jumped into very wide popularity,' reported the Mirror of Australia. 'As a picture Emmyof Stork's Nest is not quite up to the usual high standard set by Metro. Possibly the star part could have been enlarged upon to the general improvement of the character. There is really too little of Miss Minter." Margaret nevertheless rated it 'Very Good'. Like the great majority of Minter's features, Emmy of Stork's Nest is thought to be lost.
Source: Mirror of Australia, 12 February 1916
The Australian Picture Palace was yet another of the new Sydney theatres that opened in 1916. Like the nearby Majestic Theatre, the Picture Palace hoped to build a clientele of working-class Hyde Park shoppers such as Margaret. The management was the same as the American Picture Palace, which Margaret has visited earlier in the year.
The distinctive rounded building was a feature of Liverpool Street until the late 1970s, when it was one of many victims of the establishment of the nearby George Street cinema complex. It is now the location of the Hyde Park Plaza.
20th July 1916
Source: Sydney Mail, 13 September 1916
“Poor Frank Never Answered His Roll Call Today”
If a month of miserable illness were not enough, Margaret received the very worst news from the battlefields of France on the 20th of July - news so terrible that she uses red ink to record it in her diary:
“Poor Frank never answered his roll call today.”
Frank McKay was a close family friend - so close, that it seems the Higgins family regarded him almost as a son. His service papers reveal that he worked as a motor mechanic prior to his enlistment. Though he lived at Glebe - possibly even with the Higgins family - his family hailed from ‘Oakwood’, a rural property at Ariah Park near Temora, in the Riverina. According to another soldier, the 23 year old was large and powerfully built, and gained for himself the nickname of 'Big Mac’. Much as the two comrades at the centre of the film Gallipoli (1981) shared a passion for running, McKay and the Higgins brothers had a talent for boxing - one which Frank, Michael and Jack continued to indulge even on the troop ship as they together set out for Telakebir in Egypt. Like Margaret’s brother Cecil 'Eddie Corrigan’ Higgins, who remained home from the war as a result of a family decision, Frank boxed under a pseudonym, and was known in the ring as 'Frank Deane’.
Cecil Higgins wrote a heartfelt tribute to his lost friend to the editor of the Sydney sporting journal, The Arrow - one that perhaps betrays some of his own mixed feelings at not going to battle: “On Sunday we also received the bad news that poor 'Frank Deane’ was missing since July 20. You will remember him asking you by letter the best way to get into the boxing game at Brisbane, and on your advice went up North and won three contests, knocking out his opponents in the second, third, and sixth rounds. He also won the heavyweight division of the R. and T. tourney and was runner-up in the middleweight division of the £1500 Olympia Club’s tourney. On the way to Egypt he won both middle and heavy divisions.
Source: Saturday Referee and The Arrow, 14 November 1914.
The Saturday Referee and Arrow’s report of the aforementioned tourney at the Olympia Club in Newtown suggests that McKay might have had a big future ahead of him as a professional athlete:
MIDDLE-WEIGHTS. Frank Dean, of Tommy Hanley’s gymnasium, created a great surprise by knocking-out Jim McMahon, a pupil of Jim Barron, in the third round. In the absence of his tutor, McMahon fought very wildly— so wildly, in fact, that one could hardly credit he had received lessons from anyone, to say nothing of such an instructor as Barron. Had 'Sunny Jim’ been present, he would, no doubt, have had a beneficial effect, although his charge would probably have been beaten by Dean, who is a cool, calculating youngster with a kick, as was evidenced by the manner in which he crossed his right with sufficient force to drop and out the superbly built young North Shore boxer.
It is interesting to note that both Frank McKay and the Higgins brothers would have been well acquainted with the manager of the Olympia Stadium, the multi-talented sportsman Reg 'Snowy’ Baker - in fact, there is at least one fight on record between Baker and 'Eddie Corrigan’. Within a few years, Baker would retire from sports and attempt to establish himself as Australia’s first major star of local film. Ultimately, he made his home in Hollywood, counting such people as Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks amongst his close friends.
Cecil continues his tribute to his fallen comrade:
My elder brother, Arthur Higgins, is also a boxer. He was beaten in the semi-final of the R. and T. middle division. He must have come through all right, as they say no news is good news. He trained Jack, Frank, and myself for all of our contests. Frank’s correct name is McKay. The three of them lived together, boxed together, enlisted together, went away together, fought together, fell together, and yet people say boxers are shirkers and Stadium cowards. They went away with the Sportsmen’s Battalion, but on the field of battle were gunners in the Machine Gun Section.”
The weekday Referee also contained a short tribute:
Frank Dean, a lad who was well known at the Newtown Olympia among the middleweights, was killed in France in recent fighting, according to a cable received during the latter part of last week. He was one of Bluey McCarthy’s protégés.
Further newspaper tributes to McKay appeared as far afield as Forbes, Wagga Wagga, and Singleton.
Such was the confusion of the war that the young man’s death could not even be immediately confirmed. In such cases, a Court of Inquiry was convened, and witnesses interviewed about the soldier’s possible whereabouts. The Red Cross also conducted its own separate inquiry. Several other members of Frank’s company had been taken as Prisoners of War. There was still some slim hope that he might be amongst them. It was not until 17 September 1917, after over a year of agonised waiting, that what everyone had feared was confirmed, and Frank was officially declared killed in action. Corporal Albert E. Howard provided the Red Cross with the details of his friend’s demise, which took place at Fleurbaix, shortly after the 14th Machine Gun Brigade had been ordered to retreat:
The morning of the 20th of July last when we had a raid, he and I were together all the time; we were over in the German lines and when the order came that we had to retire to our own front line, we came back as far as the German front line together, but I got into the sap leading across No Man’s Land first and he stood up on the parapet, and said he would hop down in a minute. Well, I walked about 50 yards away from him and looked back, and he was missing, but just where I had left him a shell had fallen … you can rest assured that Private F.W. McKay met his death on the 20th July 1916, fighting for his country.“
The two days of intense fighting in which McKay perished became known as the Battle of Fromelles. Over 1,700 men were killed in his brigade alone, one of the most deadly days for the Australian forces during all of World War I.
Notices soon appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, Arthur and Jack Higgins contributing a tribute that was simple but genuine: "Our cobber, one of the best.”
Source: Sydney Morning Herald, 19 July 1918
The Higgins family continued to publish annual newspaper memorials to Frank for several years. Margaret, meanwhile, treasured the photo that Frank had sent her from the battlefields, and held on to it for the rest of her life.
It is important to remember that the world of films and plays that Margaret inhabited was one where people sought not only leisure, but solace from a world that seemed to have gone mad. These activities provided those on the home front with a brief but blessed release from the appalling tragedy that was unfolding in other lands.
July had been a dreadful month for Margaret, marked by illness and tragedy. Her mother must have had a particular treat in mind when she took her daughter to a screening of Madame Butterfly at the Theatre Royal on 31 July. Since the introduction of Triangle Pictures double feature bills earlier in the year, the Waddington’s chain, which was now in alliance with J.C. Williamson, was the latest to feature the innovation, pairing the main feature with Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat.
Like Birth of a Nation earlier in the year, Madame Butterfly was a luxury presentation, for which a premium 2/- was charged for the best seats. This time, the Theatre Royal was decorated to resemble a picturesque Japanese tea house, with attendants costumed in kimonos. This was not just a film - this was, according to promotions, a ‘photo-opera’, with the redoubtable Gustave Slapoffski and his orchestra not only providing highlights from the Puccini opera of the same name, but Madame Slapoffski contributing vocals for two songs that were sung during the film - 'The Garden of My Heart’ and 'One Fine Day’. ’Other picture managements might pay more attention to this side of the show,’ noted the Mirror of Australia.
The blonde and blue-eyed Mary Pickford would seem an odd selection to play Cho Cho San, the tragic Japanese heroine who falls in love with an American soldier (Marshall Neilan), only to find herself abandoned and alone with a new baby. Reviews played up the novelty of the atypical role, noting that it was also Pickford’s 'first Oriental part’. She had played many different ethnicities earlier in her career, something which was not considered at all unusual at the time.
Pickford, always one of the most eloquent defenders of the silent cinema art, saw the silent film as an ideal venue for a story of Madame Butterfly’s nature. "The little shadowy Cho-Cho San suffers as only a real Japanese maiden can - in silence,“ she told Film Fun. "I had not only the stage to compete with, but the opera standards as well; but I felt, after my study of the Japanese femininity, that the screen play is the best medium of all - the silent heart ache.”
Pickford was particularly taken by the part Japanese, part American baby who played her son. “In the scene in which I wash the baby, we all laughed so much that it almost ceased to be a rehearsal and became just a baby frolic.” Once the film came out, Moving Picture World proclaimed that the unnamed baby “'hogs the show.’ He is great. The mothering he gets from Cho-Cho-San seems more like life than art.”
Setting aside the ethnicity of his leading lady, director Sidney Olcott was determined to avoid silly mistakes that would mark the film as inaccurate to anyone in the know. Members of the Japanese community were consulted for assistance in set decoration and the presentation of such things as an authentic Japanese tea ceremony.
'The Orient’ simultaneously occupied two mutually exclusive parts of the public mind in countries such as America and Australia. On one hand, it was a world of romantic feudal societies, beautiful scenery, gorgeous costuming, and quaint customs, as conjured by such stage confections as The Mikado.
On the other hand, it would not have been seen as contradictory for someone whose entire house had been decorated in the popular 'Japonisme’ style to be a passionate supporter of the White Australia policy, or for the same women who had cooed over Cho Cho San’s cute baby to be appalled by the idea of a child being born of mixed race in real life. In some ways, the storyline of Madame Butterfly itself symbolised this anomaly. Japan was a pretty plaything; its people were decorative but not quite real. Even despite the large Asian population of Sydney, Asian culture was seen to sit outside the Australian mainstream. A symbol of this separation existed not far from Margaret’s home. The Sze Yup Temple, established by Chinese immigrants in 1898, sat nestled amongst typical suburban housing where, as a curious schoolgirl, Margaret may well have peered over its fence, or smelled the incense that constantly burned at its altars, wondering at this symbol of exotica in her midst.
Source: Sunday Times (Sydney), 23 July 1916
To a modern viewer, the casting of Pickford would seem all the more ironic given the choice of supporting feature, Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat. The success of this rather sensational film turned its leading man, Sessue Hayakawa, into Hollywood’s only major star of Japanese descent. Hayakawa plays a sinister loan shark with designs on a wealthy socialite (Fannie Ward), whose stockbroker husband (Ward’s real-life husband, Jack Dean) has fallen into financial trouble. The scene where Hayakawa 'brands’ the socialite as his property using a hot iron became the most talked about in the picture, which was considered De Mille’s first great success and, according to at least one Australian review, a superior work to the main feature.
As an Asian man in Hollywood, Hayakawa was forced to stride the two Asias - the imaginary and the real. He soon tired of playing stereotypical tyrants or semi-mystical heroes, independently producing several films that attempted to give a more realistic view of Japanese society and foster a true sense of understanding between races.
Completing the bill was the now customary Topical Budget newsreel, plus a curious short named The Artful Dodger, featuring a unique animal star known as 'Jack Spratt’s Parrot’. Miraculously, both of the features that were shown that evening survive today. Madame Butterfly is held by several archives, while a 1918 reissue version of The Cheat is available on DVD from Kino Lorber.