Margaret's second house of 1916, dubbed 'Anzac'. Source: Google Maps
"Never Went To Movies For Once"
March 1916 proved to be a difficult month for Margaret. She had recently been very busy at work in preparation for an audit, sometimes not getting home until 11pm at night. ‘Never went to movies for once,’ she notes on the first Saturday of March. For various reasons, she found it difficult to set aside time for the movies for several weeks.
Late in February, the Higgins family had begun to pack up their home in Bridge Street in order to move to a house on nearby Westmoreland Street. This, like their previous house, is still standing.
The new house was much smaller than their previous one, but it was also emptier, with two brothers on their way to the French battlefield. "Letters from Egypt," Margaret notes on the 22nd of the month. "Jack seems full up, poor little kid.” And indeed, Jack had only just turned eighteen when he enlisted in September the previous year. Throughout the year, Margaret would record a constant stream of male friends and relatives enlisting and setting out for the battlefield. Letters from Jack, Arthur and their close friend Frank McKay were eagerly awaited.
Another brother, 21 year old Cecil, remained at home. According to family legend, this was the result of a family decision that one of the brothers should not enlist - an idea fuelled by as much by practicality as by compassion. Margaret’s father had been injured in an industrial accident a few years earlier, and the family were largely being supported by its older children. Sparing two breadwinners was difficult enough. They could not afford to spare three. The matter of which brother would stay was settled with the drawing of straws, of which baby sister Grace, almost three years old, was given responsibility. Cecil’s was the straw she drew, and so he remained in Australia.
Cecil worked as a labourer by day, but by night, he continued to build up his profile as one of Sydney’s best-known boxers, under the name of 'Eddie Corrigan’. Though only Cecil would make a career out of it, all three of the brothers were keen participants in the sport, which is also likely to be how they met and befriended Frank McKay, who boxed under the pseudonym of 'Frank Deane’.
Les Darcy was amongst the acquaintances of McKay and the Higgins brothers, having begun his Sydney career at the same time and at the same venue, the Olympia Athletic Club on King Street, Newtown. In 1914, 'Eddie Corrigan' had even boxed in the preliminary match to Darcy's famous bout against Fritz Holland.
Quite aside from the war, Margaret was beginning to feel the strain of her busy workload. On the 8th of March she visited a Dr Whiteman at Lewisham Hospital to find out why she had been feeling so run down. The hospital’s strong connections with the Catholic church may have suggested it to her, but she was not impressed, complaining about the doctor’s 'very old fashioned methods. Not up to RPAH [Royal Prince Alfred Hospital].’ She became sicker as the month passed, eventually returning to RPAH, where she was diagnosed with bronchitis and prescribed bed rest.
There were also more mundane worries to deal with. The walls of the new house had to be 'kalsomined’, or painted with whitewash, a job Margaret clearly loathed. She also spent much of the month making clothes for her sister Grace and Mollie, Fred Wilkins' niece, who was being brought up by his parents and would shortly be going to boarding school in Mittagong.
In short, it was a tense month for the Higgins household, and it left little time for pleasant diversions.
12th March 1916
The 7th Reinforcements of the 20th Battalion, photographed prior to departure for the Front. Source: Australian War Memorial.
'Neptune's Post Bag'
Margaret’s brothers were members of the 7th Reinforcement of the 20th Battalion, and can probably be found somewhere in the above photograph. It may have been their reputation as skilled amateur boxers that gained them a place in the 7th Reinforcement, described a ‘sportsmen’s company’ and boasting the greatest luminaries of the sporting world, including at least one Olympic rower, past members of the Wallabies rugby union team, soccer players, boxers, cyclists, tennis players and champion swimmers.
Three of Jack and Arthur’s comrades-in-arms are the subject of an interesting tale, reported in Victoria’s Gippsland Times newspaper. A gentleman named Mr G. Traill made a visit to Ocean Grange in coastal Victoria in March 1916. Taking a walk on the beach, he noticed a bottle, covered in moss and other debris, as if it had been in the water for a long time.
He found that the bottle was corked, still airtight, and tied with a faded yellow ribbon. To his surprise, upon removing the cork he discovered a series of three letters, each in different handwriting:
“Dec. 24th, 1915. Troopship Suevic. To the finder of this note, please send this to Mrs Keogh, Spit road, Mosman, N.S.W. This was dropped over near the Victorian coast, and all on board are doing well. Private A. Keogh, No. 3157.”
The second read similarly:
“S.S. Suevic, Christmas Eve, 1915. This is written on the Transport Suevic, and we are just off the coast of Victoria. If this note should be picked up, kindly forward it to Mrs W. Burke, 206 Bathurst street, Hobart, Tasmania. We are on our way to carve up the Turks, and all are well. Hope to see you all very soon. Love from Jack, No. 3008, 7th Rein., 20th Battalion.”
A third correspondent lived not far from Jack and Arthur, and might even have been a friend of theirs, given that he lived only a suburb away:
“Christmas Eve, 1915. Transport, Suevic. 7th Reinforcements, 20th Battalion, Australia. Alfred John Smith. Should this be picked up kindly forward to Miss Smyth, 5 Day-street, Leichhardt, Sydney."
A additional note on the back of the last letter revealed the source of the empty bottle - and perhaps also of the whimsical idea to write the letters in the first place:
"Off the coast of Victoria. The whisky good, but the bottle is empty.”
Mr Traill forwarded the letters to the addresses as directed, where delighted family and friends would have received word of their boys’ Christmas Eve only four months after it had taken place - not so much longer than the two months it generally took letters to arrive from Egypt via conventional mail.
It seems that sending a letter home in this manner was a popular way for soldiers to farewell their home territory - popular enough to have its own term, “Neptune’s Post Bag”. Newspapers carried dozens of stories about bottles reaching coastal Australia, with the letters inside them sometimes reaching their intended recipients as early as a month after they were written, others not being discovered for several years.
In the meantime, there were fun and games to be had aboard the SS Suevic as it made its way overseas. Before the ship had even left Australian waters, there was a sensation - a stowaway! And not just any stowaway - a woman named Maud Butler, who had somehow procured a uniform and intended to join her brother overseas on the front line. She was quickly discovered and disembarked by the time the ship reached Melbourne.
The troops penned an admiring tribute to Maud in the newsletter they published aboard the ship, the Sportsman’s Company’s Gazette:
A plucky young lady named Maud. Who wished to go fighting abroad: One day sailed away In Khaki array And said 'Who will think me a fraud ?’
An eagle-eyed captain we had Who soon made poor Maudie feel sad. He made her blush red When next day he said I think you’re a lady, me lad.“ And Maudie’s adventure was o'er;
She’s way back in Sydney once more; She shed a few tears; We gave her three cheers. And wished her good things in galore.
The gutsy Maud did not take the hint, reportedly making a second attempt to reach Egypt a few months afterwards.
Meanwhile, the boxing contingent aboard the ship organised a tourney amongst the men, which earned for Jack Higgins the inglorious record of the company’s first injury: a broken knuckle. Of an evening, the men would retire to their hanging bunk beds, no doubt listening to the waves outside and thinking about the adventure ahead, all the time knowing that there was a chance that they had seen their native shores for the last time.
13th March 1916
Source: The Sun (Sydney), 26 February 1916
"They Saw 'The Woman Who Did'"
Margaret had a habit of adding observations not attached to any particular day to the top of her diary pages. Above the week beginning Monday 13th March, she notes "They saw 'The Woman Who Did'" Possibly, 'they' refers to her Aunt Beck and cousin May, who were visiting the Higgins family to celebrate the third birthday of Margaret's sister Grace and, along with her sister Rose, are mentioned in Monday's entry. Margaret may have been eager to emphasise that she did not attend herself because the movie itself was extremely controversial in nature. It was screening at Waddington's Grand Theatre.
The 1895 novel The Woman Who Did was a cause célèbre, becoming so notorious that title fell into common parlance to describe an independent-minded modern woman. University student Herminia (played by Eve Balfour), believes so strongly in the emancipation of women that she refuses an offer of marriage from Alan Merrick (Thomas H. MacDonald), despite being in love with him. Instead, he accepts her scandalous suggestion that they live together in a common-law marriage. All goes well, until Merrick's sudden death leaves Herminia an unwed single mother. Herminia elects to raise the child, a girl named Dolores, alone and without financial assistance, as a way of showing that a woman need not be reliant on a husband or any other man. Rather than admiring her pluck, Dolores comes to resent her mother's disregard for convention, and when she discovers the truth about her parents' relationship, Herminia makes a tragic, drastic decision. Reviews suggest that an additional element was included in the 1915 film, describing Herminia as a 'suffragette.' Leading lady Eve Balfour - also known as Eva Balvour - received much favourable coverage in Australasian sources, having been born in Christchurch, New Zealand.
An early product of Britain's pioneering Broadwest Films, The Woman Who Did was expensively and lavishly produced, with sequences shot on location in Italy as well as at the company's studio at Esher. An edited copy was rediscovered in Russia in recent years.
14th March 1916
Source: The Sun (Sydney), 5 March 1916
After several weeks of illness, the first film Margaret was able to see in March was a British London Films production. Known in most other markets as A Man of His Word, in Australia it was titled Jelfs, after the well-known play by H.A. Vachell on which it was based. The picture was playing at the Lyric Theatre at Haymarket, after a successful week's season at the Crystal Palace.
Jelfs was a fish-out-of-water story about Richard Jelfs, a Canadian cattleman who is suddenly called upon to return to Britain to manage the major bank that his ancestors started some six generations earlier, because 'the head of Jelf's has always been a Jelf.'. Beholding the big, uncultured cattleman, the professional bankers snicker to themselves and plot to get rid of him, but London falls in love with his straightforward charm, which sees him take some snobbish local customs and personages down a peg. He soon attracts the attention of the aristocratic but secretly impoverished Lady Fenella (Mary Dibley). When there is a run on the bank, it is the dependable 'man of his word' who steadies the ship and wins Lady Fenella from a rival banker.
It was not challenging stuff, but most accounts suggest it was well-made, amiable entertainment. The Sunday Times called it 'a fresh, wholesome story of the way in which an honest, courageous character makes its power felt." The fish-out-of-water theme is a one that has always carried a particular appeal for Australian audiences - sometimes in the form of a pompous British 'pommy' confronting the more casual Australian character; sometimes a naive Australian finding their feet in sophisticated London or New York - that can be found from the very earliest days of local films (for example Pommy Arrives in Australia (1913), The Adventures of Algy (1926)) through the 1930s, (It Isn't Done (1937), Dad and Dave Come To Town (1938)), right up to Crocodile Dundee (1986), still Australia's most commercially successful film of all time.
Saw "Jelfs", very good, Margaret recorded in her diary. It is a lost film.
22nd March 1916
Source: Sunday Times (Sydney), 23 January 1916
Margaret was a Catholic and a devoted churchgoer, and her diary contains many references to attending mass or confession. However, there is good reason to believe that when she notes ‘The Rosary, Glebe’ in her diary for 22 March, she is actually referring to the viewing of a film called The Rosary, at the Glebe Theatre.
Selig’s The Spoilers must have been popular in Australia, as advertisements promote The Rosary as a 'co-feature’, enacted by the same cast and director. Both The Spoilers and The Rosary were produced under the company’s prestige 'Red Seal Stories’ label, reserved for feature-length productions. The leading lady was Kathlyn Williams, one of Selig’s top stars, who had been known in earlier days as 'The Selig Girl’.
The Rosary, which is extant in the collection of the British Film Institute, tells the story of Father Kelly (Charles Clary), an Irishman who gives up the love of a woman to join the priesthood. Later, he becomes a surrogate father to the same woman’s son, whose own story is followed into adulthood. The story ranges over many other characters and incidents. “By his noble character [Father Kelly] became a pattern not only to his fellow-clergymen, but the world generally,” read one review.
At approximately one and a half hours, The Rosary was much longer than the average 1916 film. Screenwriters were still coming to grips with the effective telling of a long-format story - Cecil B. DeMille had made Hollywood’s first feature length film, The Squaw Man, only two years previously - and it appears that the promoters were anxious that viewers might find The Rosary hard to follow.
Advertisements contain long descriptions of each character, and reviews are careful to assure viewers that "There is not the slightest fear of any one losing the grip of the story. On the contrary, the longer the picture runs the greater is the fascination it exercises over its beholder.“ 'Seven Reels: And Not A Bit Too Long!’ added another advertisement. In a sense, it was the difficult transition to features that would become the Selig company’s downfall. Recognising the demand for longer films, Selig joined with other pioneering producers Vitagraph, Lubin and Essanay in an organisation called V-S-L-E, designed exclusively for feature distribution. A number of factors, including consistency of quality and the intervention of World War I, played a part in the quick demise of V-S-L-E. Selig’s stars were gradually lured to newer companies, and by 1918, it became the latest of the pioneer studios to close its doors for good.
Source: The Newsletter (Sydney), 15 July 1911
Given that the Glebe Theatre sat within a short walk of Margaret’s home, it is surprising that she did not attend it more often. The theatre was opened on the day of King George V’s coronation (22 June 1911), with an orchestra, vaudeville pre-show entertainment, and accommodation for between 800 and 900 patrons. In the early 1920s, a school for dancing and screen acting operated out of the theatre.
The Glebe had just been converted for talking pictures when its interior was devastated by a fire in mid 1930. The hard work of the local fire brigade was credited with ensuring the flames did not reach the projection room, in which 22,000 feet of highly flammable nitrate film was stored, but damage was still in excess of £1,500. Tenders were called for the theatre’s restoration, but the Depression seems to have put an end to its days as a cinema. The building is still extant, making it probably one of the oldest surviving purpose-built suburban cinemas in Sydney.
Owned by the NSW Department of Housing and home to the non-profit Glebe Youth Service for at least twenty years, it was controversially shut down in late 2013. Its future unclear, a community campaign saved the service from eviction, allowing the building to once more service the community of Glebe for whom it was built.
26th March 1916
Source: Sunday Times (Sydney), 26 March 1916
Always in the Way
Margaret does not mention the name of the film she saw on the 26th of March at the Piccadilly Theatre, but advertisements reveal that it was Always in the Way, starring Mary Miles Minter.
Like My Old Dutch, Always in the Way took its inspiration from a song, this time a heart-rending ballad sung in the voice of a neglected child. Her mother has died, and her new stepmother is unsympathetic:
Always in the way So they always say, I wonder why they don’t kiss me, Just the same as sister May, Always in the way, I can never play, My own Mamma would never say I’m always in the way.
Though the song suggests an obvious narrative, the film took the story much further, first portraying the unhappy childhood of the waif, played by child actress Ethelmary Oakland, before moving on to the same character as a teenager, played by Mary Miles Minter.
It seems that the young woman has been adopted away from her step-family by a pair of kindly missionaries, and is now in deepest, darkest Africa. Here, she undergoes a series of hair-raising adventures - scenes which, according to Moving Picture World, "are novel, dramatic, and intensely interesting.“ The film only began to lag in its final segment, set in New York, when the girl is reunited with her father and finds love, which the publication found "too full of stage tricks, and lacks the sincerity of most of the other incidents."
The Mirror of Australia’s critic agreed that the film ‘starts off well, but later on becomes slightly vague.’ To the future career of Mary Miles Minter, the critics looked forward with interest. One placed her in the exalted company of Mary Pickford and Marguerite Clark, the latter voted the Mirror’s second favourite female dramatic star of 1915:
Mary Miles Minter is more like Marguerite Clark than she is like Mary Pickford, though she has undoubtedly profited by studying the methods of the latter. She is said to be only 15 years of age now, and there appears to be evidence for believing the story, though she undoubtedly looks older. Without question it is her beauty which is responsible for the position she holds. Still, for her age and experience her acting, is really wonderful. There is not much she misses, and at times her instinct for the right thing is surprising.
Source: Author's Collection
Mary Miles Minter is primarily remembered today for her implication in the mysterious unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor. In 1916, this was all in the future, and it would have been hard to imagine scandal attaching itself to the wholesome star. Always in the Way, only her second major film, served as Australia’s introduction to the rising talent.
Had it survived, Always in the Way might have made for particularly interesting viewing today. Appearing in a minor role was Minter’s mother, Charlotte Shelby - the woman who, according to some theories, was actually responsible for shooting the unfortunate Taylor. Whether or not Mrs Shelby was an assassin, she was certainly notoriously pushy. In 1923, her daughter pushed back, turning her back on her lucrative screen career.
Source: Evening News (Sydney), 17 December 1915
The Piccadilly Theatre was brand new when Margaret visited, having opened only in December the previous year. It boasted a luxurious interior, including private boxes, and a program of feature length films, exclusively provided by Metro Pictures.Despite all of this, the theatre would have a short and troubled history. In 1923, an electrical fault in the marquee sign caused a fire. The theatre’s owner was involved in a damaging court case a few years later, and the property changed hands no less than four times before it was converted into a storefront in 1929. Today, Pitt Street is synonymous with shopping, and though very few Sydneysiders today would know that the Piccadilly Theatre ever existed, most would be familiar with the Piccadilly Arcade shopping centre into which it was transformed, which has since been replaced with a modern shopping arcade. Further down Pitt Street, it is still possible to spot some of the sandstone buildings Margaret might have passed on her way to the Piccadilly.
27th March 1916
Source: Sunday Times (Sydney), 19 March 1916
Margaret saw a second, very different Metro production in late March - The Vampire, starring Olga Petrova. Despite its title, The Vampire was not a 'vamp' film like the ones Margaret had seen in January. Indeed, as a production authored by one woman and directed by another, it might be interpreted as a commentary on the misogyny lurking beneath the appeal of the vamp genre - a feminist picture in a femme fatale's clothing.
Petrova, who was also credited with the scenario, stars as Jeanne Lefarge. Far from courting disaster in usual vamp style, she is a victim of circumstance. Badly injured in a car accident, she is leered over by the male guests at a nearby hotel. It is not until she is seduced, illegally married and then abandoned by one of the hotel patrons that she embarks on a career of revenge against the male sex. Genuine love for her intended 'victim' - the son of the man who abandoned her - encourages her to rethink her path.
The story's superficial similarities to the prototypical vamp film A Fool There Was (1914) - whose working title was The Vampire - are likely no mistake, and at least one reviewer believed Metro had sold its film short by giving it a title that allied it with the waning 'vamp' craze. "Such a title conjures up thoughts of a play centring on some woman whose beauty and wickedness are alike diabolical— a play for the tired business man to see with his typist, the title giving him an opportunity to leave his wife and daughter at home," said Sydney's The Sun. "As a matter of fact, The Vampire is nothing of the sort. It is a clean, straight film without a suspicion of naughtiness about it ... To give the impression that a film is frightfully wicked may attract a few, but the loss is greater than the gain, and The Vampire can well stand on its own merits." Petrova's performance was considered sympathetic and naturalistic - something that could rarely be said about an actual 'vamp' film. It is just another example where Margaret - and, it seems, audiences in general - preferred naturalism over a studied theatricality that was already falling out of fashion.
The Vampire survives in its entirety in several US archives. Margaret rated it 'V[ery] G[ood].'
Source: Shadowland, December 1919
According to some early sources, Olga Petrova was born in Poland to an English mother; others gave Hoboken, New Jersey as her birthplace. "The more places I was born in, the better I like it," she stated cryptically. In fact, she had been born plain Muriel Harding in England, acquiring her exotic pseudonym while working in vaudeville in the early 1910s.
A stern and unyielding father turned her into a lifelong outspoken feminist. She scorned the typical passive feminine roles of the day, the paucity of strong starring vehicles for modern women inspiring her to begin writing her own screenplays and eventually start her own production company, Petrova Productions.
While many of the films she worked on may seem stereotypical examples of the vamp genre, with lurid titles such as The Panther Woman, The Soul of a Magdalene and The Scarlet Woman, a closer examination of their content reveals a clever deconstruction of the genre. If anything, Petrova was the anti-vamp. A number of her roles focused on the changing role of women in society, suggesting that domesticity was not a woman's inevitable lot, but also strenuously resisting the suggestion of bartering her virtue for personal gain. Though expectations of the day usually demanded a conventional ending, her characters often had an interesting way of arriving at it.
Her film career was short, spanning less than half a decade, and all but three of her films are lost. Always a wary convert to the screen, she exited filmmaking in 1918, at the height of her fame. She continued acting onstage - often in plays of her own authorship - published articles in fan magazines, and wrote her memoirs in the 1940s.
Alice Guy Blaché in 1913. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Born in France as Alice Guy, Alice Guy Blaché began working in the film industry in the early 1890s. Before long, she became one of Europe’s most innovative and successful early film-makers. She had been Head of Production at Paris’ Gaumont Film Company for a decade by the time she married the British-born film director Herbert Blaché in 1907. The pair immigrated to America, where they established Solax Pictures at Fort Lee, New Jersey, one of the country’s first major purpose-built film facilities. At this time, it was the East rather than West coast of America that dominated film production. Though the venture was an outstanding success, the transfer of the industry’s focus to the more temperate California contributed to the downfall of Solax, as did the dissolution of the Blachés’ marriage.
Though she was regularly credited alongside her husband, there is ample evidence to suggest that Guy was the greater contributor to the partnership - a suggestion that has also been made of the relationship between Lottie Lyell and Raymond Longford, whose A Maori Maid’s LoveMargaret saw earlier in the year.
Madame Blaché’s name appeared almost nowhere in Australian publicity for The Vampire, despite her formidable achievements. Nor was Olga Petrova's contribution to the scenario made not of. Even in the late 1920s, actress-screenwriter Marion Mack (most famous as Buster Keaton’s leading lady in The General) recalled having to demand a screen credit for her work, after being told by studio executives that a man’s name would be ‘more impressive’ to the audience.
It was not until she had been retired from film-making for nearly thirty years that Alice Guy was recognised as the great pioneer that she was, receiving the French Légion d'honneur for her outstanding contribution to the movie industry in 1953.