Julie K. Allen (Professor of Comparative Arts and Letters at Brigham Young University) is interviewed about her newly published book, Screening Europe in Australasia, by Richard Maltby (Exeter Studies in Film History’s founding series editor and Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor of Screen Studies at Flinders University, South Australia).
Richard Maltby: You’re a historian of Scandinavia by training, and have written quite extensively on the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen...so this subject falls outside your usual fields of research. How did you come to be interested in this subject, and interested enough to write a book on it, and why did you choose Australasia as your study location?
Julie K Allen: The red thread that ties all my research together is the question of how culture, especially as conveyed through literature, films, religion, folklore, etc., helps people know who they are and where they belong. Silent film is particularly interesting in that regard, since it was able to circulate so widely without language barriers, connecting people across the globe. I’ve worked a great deal on the Danish silent film star Asta Nielsen (who is one of the primary subjects of my first book, Icons of Danish Modernity), and it was in search of Asta that I first turned to the Australasian cinema market, since the Danish literary critic Georg Brandes had claimed her name was praised “at the ends of the earth” and Australasia is as far away as you can get from Denmark. I initially intended simply to trace the movement and reception of Asta Nielsen’s films in the Antipodean market, but I soon found that the story behind when, where, and why her films were popular there was much vaster and more complex than I had realized. Since none of it had ever been told, I had to expand the scope of my explorations to include the other European film producers and stars who played such a critical role in the cultural landscape of pre-World War I and interwar Australia and New Zealand in order for the reception of Asta’s films there to really make sense. She was just one, albeit a very important, player in a much bigger game, in which the stakes for both European producers and Australasian audiences were very high.
Portrait of actress Asta Nielsen ca. 1911. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress. Wikimedia Commons.
How did your sources enable your research, particularly your use of the Australian and New Zealand digital newspaper archives?
Digital newspaper archives were an essential part of this project and saved me about a hundred years of searching through microfilm. Being able to see at a glance when and where a particular company, star, or film’s name was mentioned allowed me to track the circuits of film circulation, even though nearly all other traces of the films’ passage—in many cases including the films themselves—have been lost. The fact that both Trove and Papers Past are available with open access is a marvellous gift to the world and makes Australasia a compelling place to study, since it is possible to peek inside the historical narrative so easily, from anywhere, even during a global pandemic. Newspaper accounts only tell part of the story, though, so I did have to supplement and contextualize the information I found in them with primary source documents from more than a dozen archives in ten countries. This story has so many moving parts that it took a lot of sleuthing to get the pieces to fit together, particularly with regard to people like Mary Norton Mason, an early woman pioneer of film distribution in Australia, who didn’t get a lot of press coverage but still played an absolutely vital role in shaping the Australasian cinema landscape.
In traditional film history narratives, the transnational dynamics of cinema are often overshadowed by a focus on national cinemas that privileges a history of production, producers, and authorship in a particular country. Why do you argue that it’s important to challenge the focus of these accounts?
It’s easy to see why cinema histories are so often dominated by narratives of national production—it’s simple to identify where a film was made or who paid for it and thereby claim it for a particular country’s cultural heritage. Yet as soon as you scratch the surface of a film’s production, you discover that the national classification is hopelessly superficial, since the original story, the director, producer, actors, cinematographers, and so on, could all have come from different places, making each film a transnational endeavor from the outset. Even more importantly, however, the place a film was made or for has little or no connection to what films people in that same place end up watching. The history of film production is thus a very different one from the history of film consumption, which gives us a much better idea of what ideas and cultural impulses audiences were exposed to in a particular time and place. Both of these types of cinema history are important, since they tell very different stories and illuminate different aspects of the ways that film and society interact with and influence each other.
Photograph of West’s Queen’s Hall cinema, 99 William Street, Perth, c.1910. State Library of Western Australia. Public Domain.
As you mention in your book, Kristin Thompson’s book Exporting Entertainment maps the networks of global distribution that the US film industry developed in the silent era, but nothing comparable exists for the major European producers, so the scope and sociocultural impact of the international circulation of Continental European films in the silent era is largely unknown. Is it possible to rectify this gap in our knowledge?
To a certain extent, yes, I do think it is possible to rectify this ignorance, even though a staggering amount of knowledge about early European film has been lost. As I discovered in working on this book, it takes a tremendous amount of dogged detective work to find the scattered pieces of the puzzle, but they do exist. Reassembled, they offer exciting new insights into what film meant to people a hundred years ago and what roles it played in society. The century-long domination of the global film landscape by American film has made most people unaware that any other country played a significant role in the development of the film industry, but the groundswell of scholarship about early film in recent decades has made it clear that international cooperation and competition was integral to that period. The whole tapestry of film’s origins and youth becomes richer and more vibrant when we are able to identify those distinct strands within it—it’s like moving from black and white film to colour!
There’s a general understanding among cinema historians that American films’ dominance of the worldwide market originates during World War I, and that European film industries never recover the ground they lose during the war. How does your work challenge or qualify that account?
It is obviously incontestable that American film companies used the opportunity presented by World War I to take control of film markets around the globe, in terms of the percentage and profitability of films shown in those markets, but numbers only tell one side of the story. In this book, I show how the dominance of American film in the interwar period actually heightened public interest in European film as something distinct, generally in positive ways, from American film and lays the foundation for the belief, still prevalent today, that European film is more sophisticated and artistic than American film. Since those few European narrative features that were imported to the Antipodes after World War I were generally the best their countries of origin had to offer, audiences were readily able to appreciate their quality, in favorable contrast to mass-produced American films. In some ways, the scarcity of European films increased their visibility and significance, unlike in the pre-World War I era when they were so common that no one paid particular attention to where they came from.
Photograph of Spencer’s Theatrescope, Lyceum Theatre, Sydney, April 1908. State Library of New South Wales. Public Domain.
Cinema historians disagree about the extent to which audiences in this period were indifferent to the specific films being shown, with some arguing that it was the activity of cinemagoing that was of primary importance to them. What does your research add to this discussion?
When I started my research for this book, I accepted the common premise that audiences simply showed up at the cinema and watched whatever film was being screened, but the facts simply didn’t bear it out. Newspaper ads made it clear that the cinema industry in Australia and New Zealand was so profitable and dynamic that exhibitors went to great lengths to entice patrons into their theaters, offering trinkets and beauty pageants and various creature comforts, in addition to competing fiercely for the films they thought would be most successful. The speed with which European feature films were adopted in Australasia, their incredibly quick releases there relative to their European premieres (sometimes preceding them!), and the immense hype surrounding “exclusive” and “star” pictures proved that audiences had a choice and voted with their wallets. Even though Antipodean audiences were new to the cinema in the early twentieth century, they were already sophisticated consumers of the theatrical arts and they rewarded exhibitors who catered to their expectations that the cinema could provide an artistically satisfying experience, at many different price points.
Your account describes several of Australia and New Zealand’s early theatres as being quite luxuriously appointed. Did Australasia largely skip the nickelodeon phase that was so important to the development of cinema in the US. If that’s so, why do you think that happened?
You’re absolutely right that Australia and New Zealand don’t seem to have relied on the American model of nickelodeon theatres, at least not for very long. Mobile cinemas did travel from town to town across Australasia with programs of short films for more than a decade, but massive, elaborate cinema houses made their appearance down under much sooner and in more places than in the US. This was due in part to transnational entrepreneurs like T.J. West, J.D. Williams, and Cosens Spencer, who translated their experience in live theatre into the field of cinema very aggressively and effectively, emceeing performances and making film screenings into a cultural event, not just a novelty. They competed with each other for market share, building ever larger and more extravagant cinema palaces in urban centres, though suburban and rural communities often had to make do with Mechanics’ Halls and other multipurpose public venues. Another factor was the Australasian audiences’ eager acceptance of narrative feature films, which supplanted short films there much earlier than in the US. The relative immaturity of the domestic film industries in the Antipodes prevented the emergence of heavy-handed organizations like Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company in the US that used nationalistic rhetoric to limit the access of European producers like Pathé to the American cinema market. Those producers found a much friendlier reception in Australasia, which meant that prewar Australasian audiences got easier and faster access to European features than American audiences did.
Pathé Freres publicity poster, 1898. Designer: Adrien Barrere. Wikimedia Commons.
To what extent were European films always seen as being “art” cinema?
Several European film producers, especially French and Italian companies, capitalized on the prestige of the European theatrical tradition from very early on, branding their films as “art films” from at least 1908 onward, but that designation wasn’t applied to all European films, which included plenty of crime dramas, detective stories, comic shorts, instructional films, and light comedies. The close rhetorical association between certain European film actors and reputable British and Continental stages was, however, pivotal in establishing an early appreciation for movie “stars”, well before the star system emerged in the US. Before the war, ambitious, innovative, big-budget productions like Les Misérables, Quo Vadis?, and Cabiria broke box office records and helped establish the single- and double-feature program as the new norm. It wasn’t until the interwar period, though, that the association between European films and art films was transmuted into a fundamental quality of the films by virtue of their national origin. It proved to be an invaluable marketing strategy for justifying the continued (albeit numerically constrained) import of European films and offered what many viewers regarded as a welcome alternative to mainstream American fare.
How much was the success of European films in Australasia before World War I a result of their earlier adoption of multi-reel narratives – or what came to be known as the feature film?
Unlike short films, which primarily aim to thrill, startle, or amuse viewers, multi-reel narrative feature films tell stories that allow viewers to immerse themselves in the action and identify with the actors on screen. European producers led the way in the shift from the cinema of attractions to narrative cinema, which gave them an edge in Australasia and New Zealand, where audiences responded enthusiastically to the new, longer films. Since feature films were also more expensive to make, they needed to circulate longer to recoup distributors’ costs, which gave audiences across the region a chance to see the same films and develop a shared familiarity with certain production houses, actors, and genres. The prestige of feature films even led the Empress Theatre in Sydney to brand itself “the Home of the Nordisk Feature,” a brand audiences could rely on, “like the hallmark on silver,” for an aesthetically and emotionally satisfying cinematic experience. American film was only able to compete with these European products abroad after fully embracing the feature film, which they did in 1913.
Still of Sarah Bernhardt in Film d’Art’s La dame aux camélias/Camille (1912). Wikimedia Commons.
What role did the introduction of censorship in Australia and New Zealand play in the decline of European films’ prominence in the market?
Despite inflammatory rhetoric about the questionable morality of German films from a few industry leaders at the time, censorship doesn’t actually seem to have played an outsize role in the decline of European films on Australasian screens. Trade embargoes due to the war, which lasted into the early 1920s, had a much more inhibiting effect on the import of European films, as did the blind- and block-booking contracts that bound exhibitors’ hands. The centralization of censorship in both Australia and New Zealand in the mid-1910s did ensure a certain level of innocuousness and uniformity among the films that were allowed in, but there were some surprising exceptions, such as two highly body-positive educational UFA films—The Golden Road to Strength and Beauty and False Shame—that were shown for months at a time by the Blavatsky Lodge in Adyar Hall in Sydney, with no apparent objections from anyone to their extensive nudity and extreme candor. They didn’t make it to New Zealand, which newspaper critics there quite bitterly lamented.
You write about a number of characters who have so far been unsung or ignored in cinema history. Who did you find to be the most interesting of these people?
The early Australasian cinema entrepreneurs—who built the industry more or less from scratch—really won my heart. They’re all larger-than-life characters, with limitless dreams and egos to boot. As I learned more about their backstories, their rivalries, and their fates, they became very real to me. The less that had already been written about them, the more interesting I found them, so I’d have to highlight Clement George Mason and his second wife Mary Norton Mason, as two of the most extraordinary individuals I discovered. Educated as an electrician in London, Clement Mason was “imported” to Australia for his flickerless projection skills but went on to pioneer film distribution across the Tasman Sea region. He was always the underdog, with a constant stream of bold advertising slogans and ambitious ideas, and he fought fiercely against the consolidation of the Australian film industry in 1913. I dedicate an entire chapter of the book to his desperate, doomed quest to hold back the tide of cinema corporatization, followed by another that pieces together the story of his enigmatic wife, who referred to herself in public documents so consistently as “Mrs. Clement Mason” that it took me years to find out her real name, let alone any of the details of her life. She spent nearly three decades navigating the global film trade, taking over her husband’s businesses on his early death, crisscrossing the ocean, and establishing a string of companies, but she has been completely written out of Australasian film history. Late in my research, I made contact with Clement Mason’s granddaughter, who still lives in Sydney. She knew almost nothing about what the two of them had accomplished, so it was a highlight of my scholarly career to get to share their story with her.