The Art of Percy Benison: In April 1928 the Melbourne and Sydney Release of Fritz Lang's Metropolis Was Marked by a Media Campaign Which in Many Ways Mirrored the Modern-Day Hollywood Blockbuster Equivalent

Article excerpt

Books, posters, newspaper and trade magazine advertisements, in-store promotions and advance reviews appeared in the weeks leading up to the 7 and 14 April premieres at Melbourne's Auditorium and Sydney's Regent theatres. A novelization of the film, penned by Lang's wife and co-screenwriter Thea von Harbou, had been published in London in 1927 and was well known in Australia upon the film's local release. (1)

During those first weeks of April 1928, hyperbole gushed forth on this epic German production. Local reviewers and distributors proclaimed Metropolis 'The eighth wonder of the world ... An ultramodern film spectacular set in the world of the future ... Stupendous! Marvellous! Indescribable!... Futurist! Amazing!' (2) specially edited and tinted prints were supplied to the Australian and New Zealand markets by the German film giant UFA, through local distributor Cinema Art Pictures.

The initial four-week Sydney and Melbourne seasons were marked by record-breaking crowds and a continuing flurry of promotional activity and comment. (3) In Sydney, Metropolis ran with Charlie Chaplin's six-reel comedy The Circus, in a double-bill proclaimed 'the most stupendous program in the history of any theatre in Australia'. (4) The then new Regent Theatre, managed by F.W. Thring, was able to attract on average 50,000 Sydneysiders a week to this strange marriage of slapstick comedy and science fiction spectacle. The audience was presented with stunning tinted visuals on 35mm nitrate film, and a cacophony of sound from producer Byron Bidwell's orchestra and sound effects team. The thirty-two different effects included high explosives, a shot gun, steam whistles, three men lifting and dropping heavy chains on an iron sheet, tympani, gongs struck with steel hammers, bricks thundering down a narrow chute, and the banging of drums over the roar of a Wurlitzer. (5)

In Melbourne, Metropolis was the star attraction, accompanied only by a stage production entitled 1928, featuring twenty artists and a full orchestra.

The local trade journal Everyone's noted that after four weeks Metropolis was 'still pulling phenomenal business' in Melbourne, prior to moving on to the other capitals. (6)

Reviews were generally good, with comments such as:

Unlike any film so far screened ... Remarkable for wonderful photography, excellent acting, and an exceedingly gripping story ... Probably the finest film yet shown in Melbourne ... An impersonal and intellectual triumph ... The ultimate in screen wizardry. (7)

Print advertisements in both cities combined a mixture of UFA-sourced posters and stills with local material, though there were distinct differences between Sydney and Melbourne. The Victorian newspaper and trade magazine campaign was grim, emphasizing the theme of worker revolution and calling upon the citizens of Melbourne to experience life in the city in the year 2028, and look upon the future of work. (8) In Sydney there was a decidedly lighter tone, featuring the often comic and fanciful black and white artwork of 'Benison', 'John P. Davis' and 'SS'.

One line drawing by 'SS' portrayed a bejewelled vamp alongside a stiffly saluting female robot, somewhat eerily foreshadowing the goose-stepping Nazi battalions that would overrun Germany a decade later. (9) But by far the largest number of original works--nine in total--were by 'Benison' and appeared in Sydney's Sun, Daily Telegraph and Evening News throughout April.

Uncanny Modernity

'Benison' was Percy Benison (1881-1972), a well-known commercial artist whose line and wash drawings had, since the turn of the century, graced the pages of Melbourne and Sydney newspapers and magazines such as The Bulletin, Table Talk and The Lone Hand. Benison's work was lively and cartoonish, bright and optimistic. It was distinguished by a fine draughtsmanship much in the style of Norman Lindsay, Livingston 'Hop' Hopkins and B. …


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