Australia’s first feminist film? The Woman Suffers (1918)

The woman suffers...while the man goes free! Throughout the ages the woman has paid for her own sin and the sin of the man. She is the victim of that moral code that man has made - and this big drama asks: Is it fair? Promotional material, The Advertiser (Adelaide), 1918, NFSA documentation collection

Billed as ‘the greatest problem-play ever screened’ and a film which ‘imparts a universal and moral lesson’ 1The Woman Suffers invited comment and debate.

The Australian silent film premiered in Adelaide on 23 March 1918. It concerned the story of two women of the bush who were forsaken by their men. Victims of misplaced love and trust, they suffer tragedy and disgrace.

The film was also a story of revenge – the revenge of a man whose sister, rather than face the prospect of unmarried motherhood, drowns herself in the river. While remaining close to melodramatic traditions evident in the theatre of the day, the film raises complex issues of morality, sexuality, abuse and illegitimacy, which were shaped quite distinctively by the form of film and its presumed appeal to an audience.

Audience involvement with The Woman Suffers was encouraged by the film’s producers. As part of their promotional campaign, the Southern Cross Feature Film Company launched a competition in which participants could voice their opinion as to what they thought the main character, Phillip Masters, should have done in the circumstances. Imagine if they had the social media tools of today. The winning opinion was to be projected on to the screen as a title slide at the Theatre Royal, and doubtless would have been, but for a public notice from the manager of the Southern Cross Feature Film Company:

Owing to it having been advertised that the Winning Opinion was to be shown on the screen at the Theatre Royal on Friday night, we now desire to announce that the Winning Opinion was submitted to the Chief Secretary of South Australia, who immediately issued an order prohibiting us from Screening the Letter on the Sheet. 2

Characteristic of censorship authorities of the time, no reasons or explanations were offered for the decision. The reaction of Victorian censors, and New South Wales censors in later banning the film, reflected how effective film had become in communicating to an audience significant sexual and moral issues and, to some extent, questions of national identity.

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The Woman Suffers (1918)
The Woman Suffers (1918) http://aso.gov.au/

While film-makers were appealing to audiences of the early twentieth century with contemporary issues, they were still greatly influenced by the narratives and dramatic techniques of the theatre. The theme of seduction evident in The Woman Suffers was part of a strong tradition of melodrama in the theatre, and had been prevalent in literary and dramatic tradition long before the cinema came into being.  

Particularly popular was the figure of the sentimental victim, inevitably a woman, who falls in love at the wrong time and with the wrong person. 3 A writer in The Argus described what audiences enjoyed at Melbourne’s Alexandra Theatre:

…they like plenty of incidents, strong situations, local allusions, and sensational climaxes. They also demand a considerable amount of villiany of a thoroughly atrocious character. 4

The director of The Woman Suffers, Raymond Longford, would have been aware of an audience’s taste and expectations. He began his career on the stage, having toured New Zealand and eastern Australia in the early 1900s. Longford appeared in melodramas such as An Englishman’s Home.

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Alexandra-Theatre-Melbourne
Alexandra Theatre, Exhibition St, Melbourne (Photo: Charles Rudd, State Library of Victoria, 1892-1900)

His directorial debut in film came in 1911 with a production of The Fatal Wedding 5 As a film-maker, Longford was aware of the need and importance of engaging the sympathy of the audience in a production. He articulated his perception of melodrama and its effect on an audience, particularly the women, in 1920 in an article in Lone Hand, an illustrated monthly under the control of the Bulletin: 

You see, one might say that three parts of your picture audience is composed of by women, and women , above everything else, are impressionists. It is the human and not the spectacular side of a film that captures their attention and wins their sympathy and admiration.

A man coming out of a picture show will be heard to remark to his mate: “s’wonderful the way they get these things up, ain’t it, nowadays”. He has been looking at it in a speculative light, but not so the woman.

She says nothing, but she wipes the tears from her eyes, tears of real sympathy indicative of pure appreciation, and for days thereafter, thinks not of the construction of the plot, nor its cleverness, but of the varied experiences and emotions through which the hero and heroine have passed.6

It is probable that some of Longford’s insight into the responses of an audience to melodrama came from Lottie Lyell, the star of The Woman Suffers and Longford’s partner in professional and private life. 7 Lyell had appeared, often alongside Longford in such romantic melodramas as Why Men Love Women and Her Love Against the World. 8

Andree Wright has argued in Brilliant Careers, that apart from playing the lead role in countless features made by Longford, Lyell also worked extensively as director, producer, editor and screenplay writer. Although she was not credited as director until their 18th film together. 9

On the basis of her professionalism and experience, as well as her close relationship with Longford, it is probable that she had a considerable influence on the style and content of the film they worked on together. This would have extended from an understanding of melodrama to a depiction of characters and settings with which an audience could identify.

Elements of the storyline of The Woman Suffers can be traced back to their theatrical origins. However, the techniques and narrative form of the film, offered audiences an experience far removed from the stage. Through the inventive use of the close-up, the flashback and the intertitle, Longford and Lyell were able to intricately guide audience response toward the climax of the film.

Only a detailed analysis of The Woman Suffers will reveal to what extent the influence of melodrama and cinematic technique shape the characterisations and the issues of morality of the film. And so, an analysis of whether The Woman Suffers, can given this context, be called Australia’s first feminist film.

Next: Love and Tragedy, the plot of The Woman Suffers

Show 9 footnotes

  1. Promotion of the film in The Advertiser (Adelaide), Mar-Apr 1918 in National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) documentation collection
  2. The Critic, April 1918 NFSA documentation collection
  3. Kristina Straub, Sexual suspects, eighteenth century players and sexual ideology, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1992
  4.  The Argus, 23 Nov 1891 quoted in Eric Irwin, Australian Melodrama, Eighty Years of Popular Theatre, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1981, p69
  5.  Mervyn J. Wasson, entry on Raymond Longford (1875-1959) in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol 10, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne 1986, p137-8.
  6.  Lone Hand, 2 March 1920, p30
  7. Lottie Lyell, on her death, left her property “Ngurang” to Longford absolutely. Longford described her as “deeply religious and possessed of an extraordinary personality and was loved by all who came in contact with her.” Letter written on 23 March 1958 to Commonwealth National Library, Canberra in Longford Papers, NFSA documentation Collection
  8. Mervyn J. Wasson, entry on Lottie Lyell (1890-1925) in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol 10, p171-2
  9. Andree Wright, Brilliant Careers, Women in Australian Cinema, Pan Books, Sydney, 1986, p2. She quotes Ambrose Adagio who interviewed Lyell in The Picture Show Magazine in 1921 as decaring that ‘she is modest about her acting, modest about the help she gives in directing and editing a picture (and) yet has done so much for Australian production.’

About Sara Cousins

I am a Melbourne-based creative producer and writer interested in storytelling across all media. I have worked in digital education for many years. I am particularly interested in helping people to create and share their own stories.