Travelling Mass-Media Circus: Frank Hurley's Synchronized Lecture Entertainments
Dixon, Robert, Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film
At the height of Sydney's summer theatre season in 1921, the Australian photographer and film maker Frank Hurley was presenting his latest entertainment, the Melanesian travelogue Pearls and Savages, to record houses at the Globe Theatre in George Street (Plate 1). On 10 December he wrote to Douglas Mawson, who in 1911 had taken Hurley as his 'camera operator' on the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Hurley had a deal to put to him. He'd been back from 'the land of Headhunters' for a couple of months now and was bursting with ideas for a new show. 'Briefly,' he wrote, 'my project is this. To produce an Evenings "Antarctic Memories" using Shackleton & your film in conjunction.' Not given to modesty, Hurley went on, 'I would lecture with an assistant, & will have the presumption to say that there is no one will make a bigger success of the picture than myself, as I am well in with the Union Theatres & press & public.'1
Three months later, and still on tour with Pearls and Savages, Hurley was staying at the Oriental Hotel in Melbourne's Collins Street and had received a positive response from Mawson. Hurley replied, 'I will be back in Sydney in a fortnight & will have an agreement drawn up. . . . The rights I presume will include N[ew] Z[ealand]. About the rest of the world - continental, UK & US. . . .As I expect to be over there in the near future fine business could be done.'A seasoned showman, Hurley now got down to details: 'To prepare & make slides, compose lecture, arrange music etc will take me at least three months hard going & I reckon to secure the most powerful "adventure & unique film".' 'The past experience of exploiting these attractions,' he boasted, 'has shown me the best means of getting the best money.' When, he asked, would the negatives be available? The point was that Mawson still held copyright on the expedition's negatives and the show could not be produced without them: 'Slide making will take considerable time especially the colouring . . . in addition to the slides I will run off a few hundred enlargements for Window Show Cards & I was thinking of producing a high quality album of Antarctic scenes to be sold in the theatres.' 'Also,'Hurley asked, 'could you loan me sledges, tents or equipment of any description . . . for display purposes.'2 Finally, Hurley was worried that Mawson might try to take control of the project. 'It is imperative for the best results,' he warned, 'that the entire show be left entirely in my hands - I have had wide experience now in this form of synchronized lecture entertainment & of "putting it over".'3
As things turned out, Hurley never did mount a show called 'Antarctic Memories' - it was just one of many such schemes he cooked up from time to time - although in 1925 he did publish a travel book that had grown out of the idea.4 What interests me, though, about his correspondence with Mawson in the early 1920s is that it allows us to begin re-imagining the media landscape in which he was working at that time. One historian of early photography has described it as 'fluid and polyvalent,' 'complex and fragmented,' an ever-changing mix of established media and emerging,'cutting edge' technologies.5 In certain respects it forms the horizon of today's mass-media landscape and yet there is also much about Hurley's world that belongs to the more distant past, to the traditions of late nineteenth- century urban entertainment.
But what exactly were these 'shows' he had become so expert at putting on? It is common to refer to Hurley's major works by the titles of his 'films': The Home of the Blizzard, In the Grip of the Polar Pack Ice, Sir Ross Smith's Flight and Pearls and Savages. But the stage and screen practices of the early twentieth century were very different to those of our own time. Hurley did not work in just one medium. He was, as Julian Thomas argues, and old-fashioned 'showman' whose repertoire included both traditional and modern media, which he used in both old and new ways. …