Silent film heroine: A Girl of the Bush (1921)

A Real Australian Girl in a Real Australian Picture – to see her is to like her – to know her is to love her – to lose her is Hell! 1

The responsibility of portraying ‘ a real Australian girl’ in Franklyn Barrett’s A Girl of the Bush ironically was given to New Zealand-born actress, Vera James. The film, made in 1920, told the adventurous tale of Lorna Denver, a girl who inherited her adopted father’s property in the outback. She runs it single-handedly and is forced to defend it against the evil machinations of Oswald Keane. Oswald, who has no interest in outback life, is determined to marry Lorna and thus inherit the property himself.

With her character, Lorna Denver, a symbol of the pioneering, independent spirit of Australia, Vera James was required to learn the art of branding cattle and dipping sheep. She later recalled also having to learn to ride and swim. Ironically, her first riding lesson was taken wearing a ‘turbaned hat with a quill’ and a ‘city suit with very high heeled shoes’. 2

An analysis of the portrayal of Lorna as the bush heroine in A Girl of the Bush reveals certain contradictions evident in the film and in its critical appraisal. While Lorna is depicted as a strong and capable woman who runs a station, it is by her femininity and sexual innocence that she is judged. The setting of the film reveals a nostalgia for the bush in an era of increasing urbanisation. It also provides the perfect backdrop for an illustration of the virtue of bush life and the purity of the bush heroine.

A Girl of the Bush was a very successful film, breaking several records in attendances in New Zealand, Brisbane and at Union Theatres in Sydney. Picture showmen, today referred to as exhibitors, were urged that the film was one that ‘the whole family can see with pleasure’ 3, and if they wanted to ‘make their cash-box “bust” with joy, to book A Girl of the Bush for a longer run than usual.’ 4

While the film clearly appealed to city audiences, the depiction of ‘real’ Australian life in the film was of life in the bush. Director and producer, Franklyn Barrett, believed that there was a market for motion pictures which dealt with essentially Australian subjects, not only in Australia but overseas as well.

Theatre Magazine, a monthly publication providing detailed information on theatre and film, reported an interview with Barrett in 1917. He declared that with the exploration of the ‘virgin Australian material in our sheep and cattle stations…and our bush life generally, Australia would break new ground in the picture field and make a bid for success in other countries that there would be no resisting.’ 5

A Girl of the Bush was shot on location a few hundred miles out of Sydney. Franklyn Barrett had worked successfully as a cinematographer for some years, and strived in this film to make the settings as realistic as possible. A real station at Kangaroo Flat, called ‘Fremantle’ was placed at Barrett’s disposal. Every phase of shearing time was used as a background to the dramatic plot. 6.

The film-magazine monthly, The Picture Show, declared:

And so, when you are seeing a mob of cattle being mustered into the yards by a gang of yelling horsemen, you are not watching something which is merely acted. The scene is a real one out West, and Barrett saw to it that the and his camera were on hand at the right time. 7

Images of the bush had proved very popular with Australian audiences. Indeed, plays dealing with essentially Australian subject matter had been performed with favourable response in Australian cities and rural areas since the mid-nineteenth century. Early plays were mainly concerned with bushranging or convict stories of adventure and romance. In Australian Melodrama, Eric Irvin reveals that a slow but steady demand for ‘Australian’ plays as opposed to English ‘drawing room’ melodramas began in the 1880s. These were plays in which audiences could recognise the settings, characterisations and dialogue as distinctly Australian. 8

On Our Selection was one of the most successful plays of this kind to emerge in the early twentieth century. It was based on a series of comic sketches published in 1899. The sketches paid tribute to the pioneers who battled the harsh droughts and bushfires and ‘made good’.

On Our Selection - Steele Rudd - Book cover

Film producers did not take long to realise the popularity of depicting ‘Australianness’ on the screen. One of the earliest Australian feature films to capitalise on the success of the bushranging plays was The Story of the Kelly Gang made in 1906. Many other successful stage productions were made into films in the following years, including On Our Selection produced in 1919 by Raymond Longford.

All of these productions exalted bush life as admirable, virtuous and representative of true Australian sentiment. Russell Ward argued in 1958 in The Australian Legend that the propensity to derive the Australian spirit from the isolated people of the bush was part of a ‘wider Romantic myth’.

This myth, he argued, was symptomatic of the expansion of industrial civilisation and revealed:

  • a need for escape from the drab and constricting urban lifestyle;
  • compensation and self-justification for the exploitative evils of expansionism; and
  • the need for a new nationhood and identity. 9

John Tulloch, in his analysis of the bush legend, asserted that the depression of the 1890s compounded views of the vulgar ostentations of the city, and placed them in marked contrast to the perceived simple rural values of the bush. 10

The dichotomy between the bush and the city began to appear in the storyline of films of the silent era. The depiction of the bush and the city on the screen did not displace typical melodramatic plots but rather was interwoven within established conventions.

The American producer D.W.Griffiths added the city/country dichotomy to the traditional elements of seduction and rejection in films like True Heart Susie made in 1918. 11

True Heart Susie 1919

By D.W. Griffith Productions via Wikimedia Commons

As displayed in The Woman Suffers, the bush setting proved particularly successful in reinforcing the melodramatic characterisations of its heroines as pure and innocent: ‘the little bush girl’. The city, meanwhile, seduced its villains with drinking and gambling. Barrett , in looking to overseas markets for success, would have most likely realised the potential of displacing the action of a simple melodrama to a rural setting.

Bush heroines were instrumental in the operation of plots which depended on the legend of the pioneering, virtuous Australian spirit. Their popularity with audiences was undeniable. As a promotion for A Girl of the Bush exalted:

A pretty girl always invites a second glance – a dare-devil girl makes you stagger – but a pretty girl in a dare-devil role in a thrilling picture of your own native-bush? Why it’s a glorious opportunity to put happy tingles in the hearts of your audience. 12.

Audiences at the time were certainly not arguing with this sentiment.

Feature image:  The Shearing Shed at Kangaroo Flat, A Girl of the Bush, 1921, National Film and Sound Archive.

Show 12 footnotes

  1. Promotion of ‘A Girl of the Bush’, in The Sun, 1 May 1921, p20
  2. Helen Frizell, ‘Out of the silents, a flashback to 1921’ in The Australian, 1975 in Vera James’ scrapbook held by the National Film and Sound Archive.
  3. The film was approved for general exhibition on 7 March 1921 under the Cinematograph Film Censorship Act 1916. The certificate appears at the beginning of the film.
  4.  The Picture Magazine, 2 May 1921, p31
  5.  Theatre Magazine, 1 January 1917, p14
  6.  The Picture Show Trade Supplement, 1 December 1920, p67
  7.  The Picture Show, 1 March 1921, p33
  8. Eric Irvin, Australian Melodrama, eighty years of popular theatre, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1981, p60
  9. Russell Ward, The Australian Legend, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1958
  10. John Tulloch, Legends on the Screen, the narrative film in Australia 1919-1929, Currency Press, Sydney, 1981 p350
  11. Christian Viviani, ‘Who is without sin? The maternal melodrama in American film 1930-39’ in Christine Gledhill (ed), Home is where the Heart is: studies in melodrama and the woman’s film, BFI Books, London, 1987, p89
  12.  Theatre Magazine, 1 April 1921

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.