Some Significant Women in Australian Film-A Celebration and a Cautionary Tale

By Chapman, Jan | Metro Magazine, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Some Significant Women in Australian Film-A Celebration and a Cautionary Tale


Chapman, Jan, Metro Magazine


IMAGINE LOTTIE LYELL BECAME A producer for much the same reason I did--she wanted to ensure that an idea would really become a feature film. For it is the producer who is ultimately prepared to take responsibility for a film--to find the money for a script to be written and to support the writing of it, to find the budget needed to actually make it, to employ the director, the actors and the crew and to be there at the end to make sure the film finds a distributor so it can be seen in theatres. Lottie Lyell Cox (1890-1925), along with her acknowledged acting talents, was a film-maker.

Her contribution to the films, made always with Raymond Longford, encompassed the crafts of screenwriting, editing, art direction, producing and directing. A 1921 interview opens with 'Meet Lottie Lyell--Director' and continues; 'She is helping Raymond Longford now in directing instead of acting and is enthusiastic over her new work'. The actress Marjorie Osborne said of Lottie; 'I like brains in a woman and she has them. Her work on this picture is more on the directing side than the acting. She assists Mr Longford and the two of them have plenty of healthy argument when their ideas about a scene are different'. Lottie herself says, 'We are just cutting and titling The Blue Mountains Mystery and haven't been able to think of anything else for ever so long. It is nearly finished though. Of course it has taken a good while to make, but it's a very big picture, and you can't rush through a production like that without spoiling it'. (1) How that obsessive enthusiasm reminds me of my own intense relationships with every film I've produced and, of course, of the single minded visionary determination of the women directors with whom I've had the pleasure of working--of Gillian Armstrong, of Jane Campion, and of Shirley Barrett. Lottie says, 'Ten years I've been in pictures and hope to be always in some way or other'. (2)

In 1922 Raymond Longford and Lottie Lyell formed the Longford-Lyell Australian Picture Productions Company. Lottie was co-director, co-producer and co-writer. This was the first great wave of independent film-making in Australia--a time when Australian stories found their voice--albeit in silent films such as A Woman Suffers (1918), The Sentimental Bloke (1919) and On Our Selection (1920). However in 1927, two years after Lottie's untimely death, minutes of evidence to the Royal Commission into the Moving Picture Industry in Australia revealed a fear of the local industry being swamped by imported films and Australian independent productions being refused screenings in favour of overseas (Hollywood) films.

Ironically the results of the Royal Commission gave an incentive to local production but the coming of sound led to more technological and financial barriers. As the silent era closed in 1929, the first major prosperous and culturally expressive era for Australian film had ended.

In the 1920s there were no boxes or barriers to women working in film, as evidenced by the life of Lottie Lyell--a single woman who pursued a profession. In the late 1920s Louise Lovely had spoken out for an Australian film industry with wholesome family appeal, saying that women were establishing themselves as economically independent, not as an alternative to marriage and raising a family but as a necessary fall back post-war and to make their lives more interesting. (3) The McDonagh sisters went further and used their own money--at least initially. Isabel McDonagh addressed the Royal Commission: 'Who produced your picture?' 'My sister and I were responsible. We engaged Mr Reshner as director, my other sister Miss Paulette McDonagh wrote the scenario. We started against great opposition. All our friends advised us not to proceed with the venture but having confidence in ourselves we persisted and I think succeeded.' She goes on to say that the amount stated as the cost of the film--1000 pounds--'did not include lighting, the use of our own home as a studio or any salaries for myself and my sister but the remaining cast were paid'. …

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