Australian myth: A Girl of the Bush (1921)

Bushranging stories were the first to introduce the appealing figure of the resourceful silent film heroineThe Story of the Kelly Gang depicted, not only the bushranging hero, but also a fearless Kate Kelly who held a trooper at gunpoint while the Kelly Gang escaped.

The tradition of the bush heroine was continued in the cinema by the companies of Alfred Dampier and William Anderson and the plays they filmed. The Squatter’s Daughter appeared on the stage in 1907 and was filmed in 1910. While some sceptical reviews pointed out that the new play by Albert Edmunds contained elements of English and American plays that had simply been localised, audiences loved the spectacular bush scenery, scenes of shearing and Eugenie Duggan as the horse-riding heroine 1.

As the skilled heroine, her character became an ideal of Australian melodrama. Scornfully rejecting an unworthy lover, her character proclaims:

You forget, Dudley, that I am an Australian girl. I’ve been accustomed to station life from childhood, and when I am thrown upon my own resources, you will find me quite capable of managing my own affairs without your assistance 2.

Andree Wright argued in Brilliant Careers that the banning of bushranging films in 1912 by the New South Wales Police Department due to their depiction of successful crime and their disparaging portrayal of the police, and the absence of any other strong male character, pushed the female heroine into the leading role. She also relates that this was indeed a time when some women did own and run single-handedly their own pastoral properties 3.

World War I had opened up new employment opportunities for women in Australia. Feminists of the 1920s were searching for a new identity and independence. Many women were asserting their place in pursuits formerly reserved for men, including as portrayed in A Girl of the Bush, the management of properties.  Appreciation of these new pursuits however was tempered by continued reference to womens’ traditional sexual roles. As more women moved into the workforce, ‘fears were expressed that factory and shop work, in particular, would unfit women for the requirements of marriage and motherhood’ 4.

Australian feminists, while pioneering moves toward equality in public life, also quite consciously wished to retain and strengthen the family 5. The Australian actress, Louise Lovely, articulated a view acceptable to the society of the day when she said, in 1921, that women were establishing themselves as economically independent, not as an alternative to marriage and raising a family, but as a necessary fall-back position and to make their lives more interesting 6.

Louise Lovely 1920 Who's Who on the Screen

Louise Lovely, 1920 Who’s Who on the Screen via Wikimedia

As Anne Summers wrote, these feminists ‘fought for the dignity of womanhood but their ideal of womanhood was one which still depended heavily on the Victorian characterisation of women as pure and noble 7. Rather than argue that sexual freedom should accompany advances made in legal, economic and political arenas, feminists of the 1920s maintained that men should achieve the same chastity with which they believed women to be blessed. Although significant changes after the war allowed women to be more active in public life, their sexuality was still subject to the moral code of a conventional society.

This conventional prescription of womanhood lasted into the 1930s and was particularly evident in reactions to successful women. They had to be seen as retaining essential elements of their femininity. An article in 1930 in The Sun recounted the achievements of Amy Johnson, a pioneer aviator, in these terms:

However great the Portias in various departments of life may become, at heart they remain very simple, lovable women. That is why we can honour Miss Johnson more than we could have done if she had been a cold, impersonal superwoman, for she is truly feminine, yet she has done this thing 8.

Amy Johnson, aviator

Amy Johnson, Aviator, via Wikimedia

A similar attitude can be seen to have influenced the portrayal of the independence of the heroine, Lorna Denver, in A Girl of the Bush. According to the scenario, Lorna runs the station single-handedly, able to ‘brand a steer in ten seconds and rob a sheep of its wool while you’re winking’ 9. However, this makes no difference to the treatment of her character in scenes which are removed from the stockyard.

The core of the narrative remains strongly influenced by melodramatic convention and by society’s conventions regarding femininity, marriage and family, despite economic independence. Although portrayed by the inter-titles and visuals of the film as a capable, strong woman as she runs the station, critical reviews seized, rather, upon her appearance. The Picture Show wrote for example:

Even if she hasn’t that classical and cultivated loveliness, she is still good to look upon – a living, human creature, who is expert at branding, at mustering, at doing a thousand other station jobs….[she is] one of those nice girls who make good pals for lots of people and a good wife for some lucky man 10.

The reaction of critics in stressing the femininity of Lorna has much to do with melodramatic traditions of plot and characterisation and therefore with the expectations of audiences. Audiences, when going to the cinema in the this period, expected a story which had an emotive appeal. A film writer of 1918 remarked that ‘the public clearly and definitely decided that it [film] must have good stories with a real appeal to the emotions’ 11.

Another writer in The Argus of 1921 described the movie experience: ‘There is no strenuous demand on the intellect. One is amused and entertained from the time one goes in till the last exciting or sentimental finish’. He goes on to recall a conversation he overheard one night between two girls: ‘What I always do say about pictures is that you know that it will end happy’. ‘Yes’, her friend replied, ‘I like it for that too’12.

An analysis of A Girl of the Bush will reveal to what extent cinematic technique, society’s conventions and the conventions of the plot shape the development of the female characters.

Next: The plot of A Girl of the Bush.

Feature image:  Branding, A Girl of the Bush, 1921, National Film and Sound Archive.

Show 12 footnotes

  1. Katherine Brisbane, Entertaining Australia, an illustrated history, Currency Press, Sydney, 1991, p149
  2. Katherine Brisbane, Entertaining Australia: an illustrated history, p149
  3. Andree Wright, Brilliant Careers, Women in Australian Cinema, Pan Books, Sydney, 1986, p4-5
  4. Kereen Reiger, The Disenchantment of the Homemodernising the Australian family 1880-1940, Oxford University Press, Melbourne 1985, p40
  5. Anne Summers, Damned Whores and God’s Police, the colonisation of women in Australia, Penguin Books, Ringwood, Victoria, 1975, p368
  6.  The Picture Show ,January, 1921 quoted in Sally Speed, Women Film-makers in Australia (1920-1933), B.A.Honours thesis, Australian National University, 1984, p50
  7. Anne Summers, Damned Whores and God’s Police, p373
  8. The Sun, 25 May 1930, p3 quoted by Julian Thomas in ‘Amy Johnson’s Triumph, Australia, 1930’ in Australian Historical Studies, vol.23, no.90, April, 1988, p80
  9.  Green Room, 1 March 1921 in Andree Wright, Brilliant Careers, p5
  10.  Green Room, 1 March 1921 in Andree Wright, Brilliant Careers, p5
  11. ‘Film fashions’ in The Argus, 14 February 1918, p5
  12. Philip Ray, ‘The “Movies”‘ in The Argus, 3 September 1921, p8

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.