Happy endings in conventional melodrama inevitably meant marriage. This was in keeping with societal conventions in the 1920s. The fate of Lorna, the main character in A Girl of the Bush (1921), is inextricably tied to her suitor, Tom and marriage. This is despite her obvious economic and emotional independence.
Unmarried women were still not regarded as fulfilled as human beings, and were not entirely respectable. Lorna, as the heroine and representative of true Australian womanliness, must marry. This was the only way she could fulfil her ‘natural’ destiny as a wife and mother, irrespective of her considerable strength of personality and competence in her chosen career.
Several of the scenes in A Girl of the Bush emphasised the conventional femininity of Lorna. The first depicted Lorna demurely bathing with her friend in a river in the outback. Oswald, who has returned in the hope of also marrying Lorna and thus inheriting the property, stumbles upon the two women. Consistent with his characterisation, we see Oswald acting unscrupulously as a voyeur of the bathing scene. Lorna cries:
This is most ungentlemanly conduct, Oswald.
As in The Woman Suffers (1918), the woman is the victim of the predatorial gaze of the man. The man is the instigator of the look and the woman is the reluctant recipient. Annette Kuhn argues, that this sequence of shots eroticises the sexual innocence of the girl. 1 It places her and her sexuality in the passive position of a victim who must rely on the honour, or otherwise, of the man. In A Girl of the Bush, it takes the intervention of the chivalrous Tom to rid the idyllic scene of Oswald:
Get out of here you rotter!
Similarly, in the romantic scenes between Lorna and Tom, Lorna’s identity is firmly locked into standard melodramatic form. Tom says, by way of inter-title: ‘I have to make my report in the city, but I shall come back as soon as I can – then you are going to marry me.’ Reminiscent of the seduction scenes in The Woman Suffers, the shot of Lorna immediately following shows her turning her face demurely away from Tom before she submits and embraces him. Dressed in a feminine dress, the power Lorna displayed in supervising the station is visibly absent when she is faced with her own sexuality. She reverts to the passive role of the virtuous innocent heroine who must be ‘won over’.
I have to make my report in the city, but I shall come back as soon as I can - then you are going to marry me. Tom in 'A Girl of the Bush' (1921)
In contrast to the characterisation of Lorna, Mary as the deserted mother has already ‘fallen’. The sub-plot of Mary can be read as further condemnation of Oswald. However, it is also in effect, a condemnation of Mary herself. Although she too is an innocent bush girl, she is clearly separated from Lorna by economic circumstances. She lives in a shanty house, not a station home. Unlike old man Keane who was responsible for his property, her father is frequently absent in the search for gold. Unlike Lorna, Mary has been seduced, however unfairly, before marriage.
E. Ann Kaplan, in ‘Mothering, Feminism and Representation’, saw motifs of noble illegitimate motherhood as strategies attempting to sanction female desire, escape regulation and remain within the law of society. 2 However, Annette Kuhn pointed out in The Power of the Image that disgrace inevitably follows for these women who have been initiated into pre-marital sex. 3 For Mary, death at the hands of an Aboriginal party ensues, completing her despair and ostracisation.
In the scenario, Lorna comes across the remains of the party and her ‘black tracker’ discovers that Mary had taken her baby and run to escape. She hid the baby under a piece of bark – ‘White woman throw Joey away same as kangaroo’. The baby is found by Lorna who vows to take care of it until the police can find its relatives. When Tom finds out that Lorna has a baby, he immediately jumps to the conclusion that it is hers. Tom’s reaction in spurning Lorna as a ‘fallen woman’, impugns her purity. She responds by politely but coldly asking him to leave her station.
The audience, having realised that the baby is not hers, is invited to identify with Lorna as the heroine who is beyond reproach, and yet has had her virtue brought into question. Lorna remains in control because her innocence and virtue remain intact. Yet as a woman, she is still subject to such an attack.
The end of the film is dramatic. Evidence is given at the courthouse of Tom’s public fight with Oswald in the main street of Bundallili. Oswald had declared: ‘Suppose you’re going out to see the beautiful baby Lorna has all ready for you’. Tom, further exemplifying his chivalry, defended Lorna’s reputation: ‘I’ll kill you Keane the next time you insult Miss Denver!’.
The vital witness arrives at the courthouse just in time to clear Tom’s name – the murderer was Mary’s father who had discovered Oswald as the cause of his daughter’s shame. Tom is released and finds out that the baby’s mother is the ‘unfortunate’ Mary Burns. He is elated and the final scene is of the reuniting of Tom and Lorna. Tom sits next to Lorna with her hand in his. Lorna slowly turns her head toward him as convention dictated and they embrace.
Franklyn Barrett’s A Girl of the Bush presented its audience with a distinctive view of Australian life and with a picture of ideal femininity in Lorna – ‘a real Australian girl’. Like The Woman Suffers, the characterisation and treatment of the plot of A Girl of the Bush reveal a strict moral code which operated in the film to shape the depiction of womanhood.
This code was influenced by conventional society and mapped out by the dictates of melodrama. It prescribed the suffering and ultimate death of Mary Burns as an unwed mother. And it rendered Lorna’s sexual innocence and her marriage to the hero, despite her obvious independence, inevitable.
Hero image: A Girl of the Bush (1921) via Flickr Public Domain
- Annette Kuhn, Cinema, Censorship and Sexuality, 1909-1925, Routledge, London and New York, 1988 ↩
- E. Ann Kaplan, ‘Mothering, Feminism and Representation: the maternal and the woman’s film 1910 – 1940’ in Christine Gledhill (ed.), Home is Where the Heart is: studies in melodrama and the woman’s film, BFI Books, London, 1987, p. 154 ↩
- Annette Kuhn, The Power of the Image, Essays of Representation and Sexuality, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1985 p. 114 ↩