A banned film: The Woman Suffers (1918)

The Woman Suffers (1918) was a contemporary Australian film that dealt with issues of motherhood, sexuality and domestic violence. It used the theatrical medium of melodrama, and in this way, operated within the conventions of a society which valued maternal devotion and sexual naiveté. However, for a time when single mothers were wide open to criticism, The Woman Suffers, did show an understanding of the plight of these women in a society that shunned them.

It was perhaps this empathy that prompted certain censorship authorities to ban the film.

The melodramatic characterisation in the film – emphasising the heroine’s innocence and the villainy of its protagonists – was easily recognisable to an audience in 1918. The Woman Suffers, while presenting two heroines who are both victims of villainous passion and revenge, was seen to be unconventional in other respects:

The plot of  ‘The Woman Suffers’, while well developed to an interesting and dramatic climax, presents features which are somewhat unusual and on the whole not overly strong. There are for instance two love affairs with a qualified villain, but without what might be called a qualified hero. Philip gets approximately near to the achievement in the final episode, but it is not the act of a chivalrous gentleman.1

In this way, The Woman Suffers appears to defy audience expectation. A hero was a standard in melodrama of the theatre. Critics seemed concerned that film should follow this convention. Wider social attitudes, as discussed by Mark Giroaurd in The Return of Camelot, mirrored the desire for a man to be chivalrous.

A revival of medieval chivalry in a time of industrial upheaval resulted in the ‘chivalrous gentleman of Victorian and Edwardian days who can be watched at work from the public schools to the Boy Scouts, and from Toynbee Hall to the outposts of the British Empire. 2 Values of chivalry reveal some of the logic behind the need in the The Woman Suffers to protect a sister’s virtue as opposed to ruining another woman’s reputation.

The Woman Suffers was a great box-office and critical success. A reviewer in The Critic declared that ‘the Adelaide public can never be accused of non-support of a local production….The Woman Suffers has been screened twice daily to absolutely packed houses.’ 3 The fact that The Woman Suffers was an entirely local production featured prominently in critical reviews of the film. A partial explanation would be that it was heavily promoted as ‘purely Australian from start to finish’, and advertisements focused on the depiction of ‘the beauty of our great Australian Bush’.

This strong pride in the Australian setting was enthusiastically supported by many critics. The critic of The Advertiser wrote:

‘The Woman Suffers’ is absolutely Australian in its general creation. All the incidents happen within the Commonwealth and the redolent atmosphere of the healthy bush permeates the film from beginning to end. The stations, the wattle, the boundary rider and his hut, the swagman and his ‘billy’, the kangaroo and the rabbits are inseparably connected with this land. 4

While the Adelaide hills are certainly in the film, the kangaroo, swagman, ‘billy’ and rabbits are less evident. The sentiment of the piece clearly displays a nationalistic pride in an indigenous film industry. Much of this pride was directed toward the argument that Australian films could be just as good, if not better, than their imported counterparts.

Promoters of the Australian-produced films would doubtless have been aware of the heavy competition from overseas, particularly the United States, and aware of the need to appeal to Australian audiences.

The review reveals the embrace of a wider myth of Australian life. Indeed, this period in Australian artistic life was marked by a resurgence in literature and art of romantic notions of the bush. From the 1880s, a conscious and distinctively national culture arose, which Richard White in Inventing Australia, attributed to the rise in European nationalism, the growth of local manufacturing and the emergence of an urban bourgeoisie. 5

Enmore Theatre, Sydney, 1920s

Enmore Theatre, Sydney, 1920s. Photographer: Sam Hood

Along with the new image of city dwellers came an idealised view of bush life and a new generation of artists expression. The Heidelberg School of painting, particularly with its commitment to naturalism, prided itself on depicting the ‘real’ Australia. By the 1920s, Arthur Streeton was seen as representing sanity against the decadence of overseas art movements. 6 The Bulletin, founded in the 1880s, fostered local artists and writers and was the publisher of the popular ‘Rudd family’ sketches, the archetypal pioneering bush family. Moving pictures represented a unique opportunity for filmmakers to express and market this growing national sentiment.

Also evident in the promotion of The Woman Suffers was its realistic expose of what was called ‘a problem of today’. Among the reasons listed by a promotion for going to see the film were:

Because it’s a story full of pathos, passion and fire.
Because it’s a drama of life and woman plays despair.
Because it’s a problem of today. 7

Because the film explored ‘a problem of today’ meant that it also attracted the attention of censorship authorities. Raymond Longford found himself in 1918 in the curious position of being the director of a film, banned in New South Wales and being shown to rave reviews and packed houses in other states.

Even more curious was the fact that the film was not banned straight away. After applying to the Chief Secretary of New South Wales, responsible for State censorship, for permission to screen The Woman Suffers, Longford received the following reply:

Dear Sir,
In reply to your letter of 18th July, I have to say that no objection will be raised, so far as this Department is concerned, to the public exhibition throughout the State of the Australian Photo-play entitled ‘The Woman Suffers’.
Signed E.B. Harkness, Under-Secretary.8

The film opened at the Lyric, one of Union Theatre’s Sydney cinemas on 26 August. After a few weeks of successful screening however it was banned without explanation by the Chief Secretary, George W. Fuller, pending review by the Board of Censors. The minutes of the meeting held by the State Board on 22 October 1918 state:

The members present viewed the film entitled ‘The Woman Suffers’…after discussing the picture, the Board unanimously decided to recommend the Minister to prohibit the public exhibition of the film in this state. 9

As was the policy, no reasons were documented.

Longford later alleged that representations had been made to the Chief Secretary by the Australasian Films-Union Theatres combine to get the film banned, not because it was morally unsound but because it was too successful. 10 The system of block-booking ensured that the combine had an interest in showing American films. If local films became too successful, they would start to dominate screenings at the exclusion of these imported films.

The Royal Commission on the Motion Picture Industry in 1927 did not find sufficient evidence to support Longford’s claim and the mystery as to why The Woman Suffers was banned remained. Questions were put to Parliament regarding the matter in November 1918. The Chief Secretary however simply relied on the authority vested in him by the Theatre and Public Halls Act of 1908. When pressed further, later in the month, Chief Secretary Fuller declared:

When I find the censorship so lax that pictures appear on the screen which in the opinion of the New South Wales Censorship Board and myself ought not to be shown, then, in the interests of public morality, and particularly of the young people of the State. I intend to exercise my undoubted power, and have those pictures suppressed. 11

The State Censorship Board, appointed in December 1916 was purely official. The inclusion of the Chairman of the Art Gallery was considered but ultimately rejected by Chief Secretary Fuller who saw no necessity for his inclusion. The fact that artistic representation was even considered indicates how far, as an art form, the film industry had come by this time.

The ultimate exclusion of the Chairman of the Art Gallery however does reveal that the operation of film censorship was not to include any discussion of the artistic merits of a film. The appointed members, all male, consisted of the Chief Secretary, the Minister for Education, the Under-Secretaries of both those departments, the Director General of Public Health and the Inspector-General of Police. 12 The concerns of these men in their capacities was to ascertain what effect a film would have, on young people in particular, toward morality and toward the rule of law in society.

Lottie Lyell, The Woman Suffers 1918

Lottie Lyell, The Woman Suffers 1918

Normal procedure was for a synopsis of the film to be examined by the Police Authority. Those that were unexceptionable would immediately pass. In instances where doubtful features were shown, the cases would be referred to the Censorship Board. 13 In considering a film, the Board would have had reference to guidelines set out in the Theatre and Public Halls Act 1908. Under the Act the Board refused to register for exhibition any film which in its opinion was:

  • blasphemous, indecent or obscene, or
  • likely to be injurious to morality or encourage or incite to crime, or
  • likely to be offensive to any Ally of Great Britain, or
  • depicts any matter, the exhibition thereof, in the opinion of the Board is undesirable in the public interest.

What constituted a film ‘likely to be injurious to morality’ or ‘undesirable in the public interest’ was clearly up to the discretion of the Censorship Board. The Act had two main concerns:

  • the subject matter of the film; and
  • the presumed effect on its audience.

Both involved very arbitrary and personal judgements and both assumed a correlation between moving pictures and real life. This was, to some extent, born out by certain cases where young offenders revealed they had been inspired by seeing the crime on the screen. 14 Judge Murray of New South Wales expressed the opinion in 1914 that:

Our Board of Health is empowered by law to stop the sale of physical poisons, yet by the aid of Picture Shows moral poisons are being disseminated. There is no doubt about the demoralising influence of some of the films screened and the sooner some people are prevented from making fortunes at the expense of the morals of the community the better. 15

Chief Secretary George Fuller described his philosophy on censorship in a reply to a deputation of representatives of the Council for Civic and Moral Advancement. He said that he was prepared to use extraordinary power to suppress anything which he considered ‘struck at the morals of people’ and that “to do a great right, do a little wrong” was a Shakespearian motto which he kept in view in connection with any objectionable advertisements.’ 16

It is likely that the subject of unmarried motherhood would have been considered ‘injurious to morality’, particularly in the light of moves within society to edify the family. Although the plight of the women in The Woman Suffers is depicted as great tragedy, the portrayal is sympathetic. Perhaps this was seen by the Board as threatening to the ideal of married life and therefore not in the public interest. 17

This particular concern does appear to be supported by a deputation made a year later to Chief Secretary Fuller about the Birth-Rate Commission of Britain. This Commission stated that the influence of film lowered the standards of women and lowered the ideal and sacredness of motherhood. The Chief Secretary agreed that ‘the lowering of the ideal of married life and the condition of women is due to some extent to the publication of films.’ 18

The Woman Suffers was a film which employed the conventions of melodrama, in turn reflective of wider attitudes in society, to explore contemporary issues. The women in the film were shaped by theatrical tradition as well as influences from an early twentieth century society which enforced a strict moral code. For women, it dictated purity, maternal devotion and condoned sex only within wedlock.

While the characters of Joan and Marjory undoubtedly are made to suffer in the film due to their status as ‘fallen’ women, the depiction is sympathetic. It is perhaps this fact which presented a threat for censorship authorities toward the acceptable morality of the day and resulted in the banning of The Woman Suffers in New South Wales – a ban which is presumably yet to be lifted.

Show 18 footnotes

  1. The Advertiser (Adelaide), March 1918, documentation collection, National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA)
  2. Mark Giroaurd, The Return to Camelot, Yale University Press, London, 1981
  3.  The Critic, 27 March 1918, p16
  4.  The Advertiser (Adelaide), March 1918, documentation collection, NFSA
  5. Richard White, Inventing Australia, Images and Identity 1688-1980, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1981, p85
  6. Richard White, Inventing Australia, p106
  7. The Advertiser (Adelaide), 23 March 1918
  8. Mervyn J. Wasson, ‘”The Woman Suffers” Why ever was she banned?’, Cinema Papers, o.46, July 1984, p159
  9. The Minute Book of the Official Board of Film Censors, NSW State Archive, 7/3715
  10. Longford in evidence at the Royal Commission on the Moving Picture Industry in Australia, June16 1927, Government Printer, Canberra, 1928 (Minutes), p152-3
  11. Wasson, ‘”The Woman Suffers” Why ever was she banned?’, p161
  12. Government Gazette, 15 December 1916
  13. Minister’s minute leading to the appointment of the Board, signed by George W.Fuller and dated 11/12/16 in the Minute Book of the Official Board of Film Censors.
  14. For example a case reported in The Argus, 2 May 1912, p 11 and in Everyone’s, 2 May 1928 quoted in Ina Bertrand, Film Censorship in Australia, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1978
  15. Judge Murray reported in The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 March 1914
  16. 19 July 1920, Chief Secretary’s Investigations of indecent and obscene publications, NSW State Archive, Item no.4/6633-4
  17. The first film viewed by the Board on 20 December 1916 was banned because it was ‘considered to be a misrepresentation of “twilight sleep” and may induce women to insist on twilight sleep in cases where it was unnecessary or even injurious to the child. Minutes of the Official Board of Film Censors
  18. Deputation to Chief Secretary from the Council for Civic and Moral Advancement, 12 September 1919, Chief Secretary’s Investigations of Indecent and Obscene Publications

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.