Seeking 'The Sentimental Bloke': A Location Search
The Sentimental Bloke (1919), released to the public on 4 October 1919, has long been considered Australia's best and most enduring silent film. It is not an epic, not a great nationalistic story of noble deeds and important figures, but a very human slice-of-life - a tale of ordinary, lower-class Australians that still retains its essential Australian-ness a century after its release.
The film was based on an outstandingly popular narrative poem by C.J. Dennis, released in 1915. According to director Raymond Longford, it was J.D. Williams - future head of America's First National studios - who first lent him the book with a suggestion that it might make good screen fare. Longford's partner in life and in business, actor-screenwriter Lottie Lyell, agreed and would play the story's romantic interest, Doreen. Vaudevillian Arthur Tauchert was selected to play the title character. Filming took place in 1918, and the film was previewed in November of that year.
Though Longford and Lyell made few changes to the original poem, it made sense to quietly alter its setting from Melbourne to Sydney, where he and Lyell lived. To quote Longford: "The exteriors were shot in the “Loo” (Woolloomooloo) and other parts of the City and the interiors we set up in the open at Wonderland City, Bondi [a former amusement park]." It is in no sense an attempt to capture the nature of Woolloomooloo in the same way as The Kid Stakes (1927) did a decade later; cinematographer Arthur Higgins keeps his shots tightly framed, providing a general sense of a down-at-heels neighbourhood rather than its specific flavour. Nevertheless, Sydney-based audiences would have found several shooting locations very familiar.
How much of the world in which the Bloke and Doreen lived survives to the present day? The answer is - not much, but some. Where the physical fabric of the locations has not survived, we can still find some echoes of 'The Bloke's world both in Woolloomooloo and in the neighbouring suburbs of Sydney.
Mild spoilers ahead for those who have not seen The Sentimental Bloke ... and if not, please do!
The Streets of Woolloomooloo
It is difficult to name many other parts of central Sydney that have changed as markedly as Woolloomooloo, as illustrated by the image above. There is not a single structure in common between the two, seen on the intersection of McElhone Street and Harnett Street nearly a century apart. It appears that most of the street scenes were shot on McElhone Street (then known as Duke Street) and its surrounding streets and laneways.
Solidly working class in 1918, Woolloomooloo is today the home of millionaires. The finger wharves on which the Bloke and his ilk once toiled are now multi-million dollar apartments and expensive restaurants. Essentially constructed on a hillside and connected by a series of stairways and steep streets, it is one of the oldest European settlements in Sydney, and has always been a chop-and-change area. Streets abruptly start, end, and start again a few blocks later; multiple roads have since become narrow pedestrian laneways and vice versa, and so on.
Add to this the fact that much of the suburb was virtually obliterated by development in the late 1960s and early 70s, as well as being partially given over to a highway and carved in half by a railway track, it is a miracle that anything survives of the world of The Sentimental Bloke - and sadly, very little does. In many cases, we have to settle for the flavour of the area as it can be found in surrounding suburbs, because the actual fabric is long gone.
It helps to understand urban design in Sydney during this era. Streets were lined with rows of terrace housing, backing on to a shared laneway that could be accessed by garbage collectors, deliverymen and 'night soil' men, who collected human waste at a time when a sewer-connected toilet was a luxury. The genteel facade that faced the main street sometimes concealed a more seedy truth in the laneway behind it - sly grog, illegal gambling, clandestine affairs, and old-fashioned fistfights.
None of these contemporary pictures show an actual location as seen in the film, but they do demonstrate that many laneways and other echoes of the Sydney of 1918 remain today. Aside from the odd lawn chair, street sign or plastic garbage bin, you might easily be strolling a laneway of 100 years ago.
Closer to Woolloomooloo Bay, the suburb was heavily industrial, and many old mercantile and industrial buildings still exist, often converted into housing or other facilities.
Though enough features do not match to conclude that this distinctive commercial building is not the actual location of the above sequence, the building known as the Gunnery is as close as one will get to it. At the time of filming in 1918, it was a warehouse used by the Sydney Morning Herald.
The Bloke's House
This location presents a mystery. In the screenshot, we see the Bloke walk from the door of his house towards the house of his friend, Ginger Mick (with dog standing on doorstep).
While many extant buildings closely resemble Ginger Mick's house (for example, the pictured house at 180 McElhone Street, featuring the same stoop, the same narrow door, a similarly located vent to the left of the stairs and even a similar sewer pipe vent to the right of the door), the structures in the background cannot have existed in the same location in 1918. It meant this could not be McElhone Street, nor any of the parallel streets which lead to the busy main thoroughfare of William Street.
The doors on the mystery structure are of the style often seen in buildings from the 1880s (the nearly identical example here, photographed in a country town, dates from 1885). The use of sandstone rather than brick or render would suggest a similar date for the buildings in the foreground.
Rae Place, which extends from McElhone Street, was a promising possibility. The series of row houses closely resemble those seen on screen, and one can imagine a small cul-de-sac that would see little foot traffic being an attractive location for filming. Once again, the structure on the perpendicular street puts paid to this theory.
On the basis of current evidence, we must conclude that this location no longer exists. Possibly, it was once located in one of the parts of McElhone Street that have since been erased by later developments, or one of the nearby T-intersections.
Though we only glimpse the interior of the Bloke's house in passing, here is a lovely small detail which provides a perfect shorthand to his social class: a small newspaper memorial portrait of the legendary Australian boxer, Les Darcy. Acclaimed the greatest fighter of his day prior to his sudden death in 1917, he was a hero to working class Australians, and boxing a closely-followed sport, akin to rugby league or AFL today.
It seems clear from its elevated position that Doreen's house once stood at Pott's Point, the area north of Woolloomooloo. This is one of the few times during the film that we are able to see the famous and still-extant Finger Wharf, brand new at the time of filming. Grantham Street is the most likely candidate, with a small access road still running off one side, where the road merges with St Neot Street.
Due to the fragility of the material and surrounding development, is very rare to find a timber house like Doreen's surviving from this era. However, a similar format of house with its familiar picket fencing remains a common site in nearby suburbs such as Glebe and Balmain.
'Pinched' - The Gaol
Although Raymond Longford described this location as an 'old watch house', he may have been referring to the interior shots, which are clearly filmed at a real location rather than a set. The exterior was the Woolloomooloo Police Station, pictured here in a roughly contemporary photo, as revealed by the distinctive Greek columns on the facade. The building, constructed in 1876, was demolished in 1936.
'Just Mooching Round' - The Royal Botanic Gardens
Famously, Raymond Longford was unable to obtain official permission to film inside the Royal Botanic Gardens, which sit to the northwest of Woolloomooloo Bay. Appropriately, the Bloke enters via the so-called 'Woolloomooloo Gates, which are virtually unchanged today from their appearance in 1918. The same is true of the main pond, which still has a seat in the approximate position as seen in the film.
'The Boshter Day' - Central Train Station
Sydney's Central Train Station is another location that remains very recognisable today, and is still commonly accessed by Railway Colonnade Drive, as seen in the film. At the time of filming, it was only twelve years old.
Two historically interesting aspects can be spotted in this shot: firstly, the large sign advertising war bonds. Soldiers disembarked at Central to set off for war service, marching the short distance to Garden Island at Woolloomooloo, from whence they sailed to Egypt or the Western Front.
Secondly, the famous clocktower is seen under early construction, to the right of the image. Due to wartime delays, it would not be completed for several more years, opening on 3 March 1921.
'Pastin' Labels In A Pickle Joint' - Doreen's Jam Factory
The pickle factory at which Doreen works is easily identified, as the real-life name of the IXL Jam Factory briefly appears on the screen. For decades, the enormous complex dominated a corner of King St Newtown, in an area which was known as Golden Grove. Many residents of the surrounding area worked at the factory, or at the nearby Everleigh Rail Yards. The scenes above were shot on the western side of Golden Grove Street. The third shot, taken after a factory expansion in 1937, is by Sam Hood.
The neighbouring Sydney University purchased the IXL site in 1973, and the majority of the structures on it were demolished during the 1970s and early 1980s. Today, housing sits on this location.
Scenes were also taken on the eastern side of Golden Grove Road, outside an office/warehouse building (pictured above in 1980). This was demolished some time in the 1980s, but the building that took its place was constructed on a similar footprint. It is now known as Darlington House and is used for student accommodation.
Just one part remains - a structure that is still known as the IXL Garage, which sits directly to the right of the former site of the building seen above, on the eastern side of Golden Grove St.
Though its construction in 1937 post-dates The Sentimental Bloke, it is an interesting relic of the site's former use. Many of the older industrial features remained in place until 2012, when the building was completely renovated. It is fortunate that these photos were captured in time.
'The Band Was Playing Some Soft, Dreamy Toon' - The Bandstand
At the beginning of one of the film's best remembered sequences, we see the dramatisation of a line from C.J. Dennis' 1915 poem:
The wet sands glistened, an' the gleamin' moon Shone yeller on the sea, all streakin' down. A band was playin' some soft, dreamy toon ;
The bandstand we see sits not on any Sydney beach, but thousands of miles away at Henley Beach, a coastal suburb of Adelaide. Why? Easy - Raymond Longford had recently completed The Woman Suffers (1918) in the city, promoting it as 'the first star photo-play to be directed and filmed in South Australia', when he first proposed filming The Sentimental Bloke to his financial backers. The film was financed by the Adelaide-based Southern Cross Feature Film Company.
It is probable that the bandstand was captured by cinematographer Arthur Higgins during this period, in the realisation that such beachside bandstands were not to be found on any of Sydney's major beaches.
The bandstand stood on the approximate location of the modern-day Henley Square at Henley Beach. A concrete structure on a similar footprint existed prior to the square's redevelopment in 2015.
The remainder of the beach sequence is said to have been shot at Manly Beach - compare the matching rock formations, seen from a slightly different angle in this panoramic photo from 1928. The same rocky outcrop remains much the same today, although the surrounding hills are considerably more built-up.
'We Went To See A Show' - The Theatre
The theatre at which the Bloke and Doreen see a production of 'Romeo and Juliet' was the Palace Theatre, which once sat on Pitt Street in central Sydney, on the current location of the Hilton Hotel. Opened in 1896, it was decorated in an elaborate Moorish style, as seen in these historic photos. Much of its interior embellishment was removed only a few years after The Sentimental Bloke was filmed, in 1923. It spent much of the remainder of its life as a cinema before being demolished in 1970. It is not clear whether the interior sequences were filmed at the same location.
Of particular historical interest is the fact that many of the audience members spilling out of the theatre are soldiers in uniform. World War I was in its closing stages as filming took place, and men in uniform would remain a common sight in Sydney for some time yet.
By coincidence, a stage adaptation of The Sentimental Bloke, starring future Australian film star Bert Bailey, debuted at the Palace Theatre in 1923. The film version remained so popular that advertisements needed to describe it as 'The Play, Not The Film'.
The 'Stror 'At Coot's Tea Shop
The clue to this location lies in the phone number prominently displayed in the window - 705 WAV. Though a search of contemporary phone directories reveals that this was the phone number for 255A Oxford Street, Paddington, it is 256 Oxford Street that is listed as a confectionery store, managed by a Mrs E. Myles. Possibly, a street renumbering or other anomaly accounts for the discrepancy.
This building is extant, and although the shop frontage has since been altered beyond recognition, one of a very similar appearance and vintage miraculously survives just up the road, at 267 Oxford Street.
'Our Little 'Ome' - The Bloke and Doreen's House
The house into which Doreen and the Bloke move upon their marriage is very typical of its era, its name - "Preston" - signalled by a gilded sign. Many such signs can still be found adorning their original homes in Sydney.
A search of the Sands Directory for the relevant period reveals that there were a number of houses known as "Preston" in the greater Sydney area, including two in Bondi. The first, at 6 Fletcher Street, is the most likely candidate, standing so close to the former Wonderland City amusement park that an adjacent street has since been named 'Wonderland Avenue'.
Unfortunately, if this was the correct house, it appears to have been replaced by flats some time in the 1920s or 30s, though small Federation-style cottages still do exist in the area. A property whose decorations are very similar can be seen at Glebe, in the photos above.
Countless other prominent locations remain unidentified - the church in which Doreen and the Bloke are wed, the two distinct pubs the Bloke frequents, various streetscapes and so on. If you have any theories or evidence for these locations, please drop me a line!