Moral code: Possum Paddock (1921)

Melodramatic convention dictated the behaviour of the heroine, Nancy McQuade, in the film Possum Paddock (1921). The opening scene is particularly illustrative of the moral code that applies to Nancy. Dressed in the jodhpurs and riding boots of a typical ‘bush girl’, Nancy sits by the side of the river. Her demeanour is tired and depressed.

As she turns toward the river, the villain, Fred Deering, approaches her. He sits himself threateningly close to Nancy. Her reaction is obviously fearful and she attempts to move away from him. Fred however seizes her hand with the words: ‘Nancy, I love you madly and want you to marry me’. Despite or perhaps because of Nancy’s obvious apprehension, Fred grabs a hold of her and forces a kiss.

Bush dwelling, State Library of Queensland

Bush dwelling, State Library of Queensland

The struggle that ensues is quite disturbing in its violence. As she pulls herself free, Nancy is repeatedly overpowered by the superior strength and speed of Fred. Even as she falls to the ground in her desperate attempt to escape, Fred again pulls her up and pushes her roughly toward an isolated bark hut. The hero, Hugh Bracken has meanwhile learned from an Aboriginal servant of the threat to Nancy’s wellbeing and presumably her virtue and rushes to her aid. The suspense is mounted through the use of parallel shots of Nancy’s struggle and Hugh’s fervent pursuit.

Finally, Nancy faints and appears helpless as Fred carries her into the hut and bolts the door. Particularly frightening is the shot that depicts Fred roughly throwing Nancy to the ground and then laughing at her fear. A close-up shot of Nancy, who is wildly dishevelled with shirt and tie undone, reveals her backed into a corner yet defiant in her struggle, as befitting a heroine defending her virtue. Fred threatens her further:

‘You’re helpless and alone with me. Tomorrow you’ll be sorry you refused my offer’.

The scene is interrupted fortuitously by the hero, Hugh, who bursts in to save Nancy’s honour. One feels sure that rape would have otherwise followed.

The violence is surprising in that the film was promoted and reviewed as one which ‘the youngsters will love as much as the grown-ups’. The scene is not mentioned in contemporary reviews and it seems likely that it was dismissed as part of the conventional melodramatic plot of the film. This is in itself significant for it reveals that reviewers, and perhaps audience members, did not find the violence unacceptable.

Seduction and sex in Possum Paddock are characterised by violence and fear. While more subtle, the gestures and expressions of the heroines in The Woman Suffers and A Girl of the Bush also indicate a certain trepidation. In The Woman Suffers, Joan is seduced by Ralph, who presents no threat at the time. Yet, she lets her hand go limp and head fall before succumbing to his advances. Similarly, Marjory turns away and anxiously wrings her hands before her ultimate resignation, indicating to the audience that her seduction will not be pleasurable, but will lead to fear and disgrace.

In A Girl of the Bush, Lorna is the victim of the voyeurism of Oswald as she bathes in the river. Lorna displays similar trepidation at being seduced by Tom. Both films, in depicting the desertion of women who have discovered their pregnancy, display a different form of violence – an emotional and psychological violence characterised in the films by despair, sorrow, devastation and even death. Sex was used in these films as a form of control – the woman’s fate completely in the hands of the man.

1920s wedding portrait, State Library of Queensland

1920s portrait, Queensland

Possum Paddock, like A Woman Suffers and A Girl of the Bush, portrayed the desperation of an unmarried mother. Maggie has discovered that she is pregnant. Her desperation is conveyed in a distressing scene that shows Maggie at home, pacing and wringing her hands. She has begged Fred Deering to do ‘the square thing’ and marry her, and although he agreed, she has heard nothing from him. Our hero chivalrously intervenes by refusing to let Fred go at the hut, unless he did ‘the right thing by Maggie’.

Indeed, ‘doing the right thing’ is all it takes to relieve Maggie’s anxiety. When she receives the letter: ‘Maggie – will you overlook my folly and become my wife? If you will, believe me, I will atone for the past. Your repentant Fred’, she declares, ‘I am the happiest girl in the world’.

The suggestion is that marriage, no matter what the circumstances, will ultimately solve all Maggie’s problems. Only through marriage to Fred will she avoid the considerable stigma attached to an unmarried mother. Indeed, a reviewer in The Sun declared, in an example of the transfer of art into real life, that the part of Maggie Masters was ‘not one that many actresses would care for’ 1

The part of Maggie was to include a scene in which she imagines herself throwing her unwanted baby into the river. While there is no record of any censorship connected with the play, this scene was cut from the film by the New South Wales Censorship Board. 2 A letter signed by the Licensing Inspector and the members of the Board declared:

The story is one showing the habits and conditions of bush life. It also depicts the close friendship of a man and a woman in which the sub-title suggests that the woman has fallen to the dishonourable action of the man, after which she requests him to do the correct thing and marry her. Later the film depicts that the woman has become a mother and in a fit of desperation she casts the baby into the river and the body is shown floating about [emphasis reproduced from the original]. Mr Deering and I considered this portion objectionable so the Manager deleted it by cutting it out and handing it to me. The film is now fit for Public Exhibit. 3

The letter reveals the expedition and ease with which censors carried out their duty in the 1920s. Possum Paddock was not viewed by the whole Board, only the Under-Secretary of the Chief Secretary’s Department, Mr Deering and the District Licensing Inspector, Mr Fullerton, who were not obliged to provide any reasoning behind their decision.

It is probable that a scene depicting the deliberate abandonment of a baby, if only in a dream, was nevertheless realistic enough to pose a threat to the sanctity of motherhood and family values and thus be considered ‘objectionable’. Particularly as traditional maternal and family values were threatened at this time by womens’ use of birth control, abortion and even infanticide to limit their families. Infanticide proved for some mothers to be the solution to disgrace or to desperate poverty.

Evidence at the 1903 Royal Commission into the Birthrate closely linked the change in family size to poverty, brought on by the structure of an urban industrial society. The President of the Sydney Labour Council reported that when men’s wages are so low ‘you cannot expect them to bring up a family when they cannot get enough to keep themselves alive’. 4  Infanticide was found to be widespread at the turn of the century. Judith Allen documented that every year in Sydney, dead babies were found in the streets who had been strangled or otherwise asphyxiated. 5 She also related that the disposal of babies was much easier in rural areas where fewer babies were found. Many infanticides only came to light if someone chanced to see the woman burying her child or throwing it down a well. 6

Parramatta Cinema in 1920s

Photo: Sam Hood, 1920s

The influence of film on its audience was considered during this period to be much greater than a play or novel. A writer in the Melbourne Punch, an illustrated humorous weekly, suggested in 1921 that it was ‘a foregone conclusion that the motion picture today surpasses all other mediums as a moulder of thought. The sense of sight is our most primitive, most compelling influence.’ 7 The emphasis placed by the censors on the image of ‘the body shown floating about’ suggests that they agreed with this sentiment.

Indeed, the Commonwealth censor’s report of 1930 further articulated this view:

…the devices of cinematography, close up views, shots of detached portions of the action, the flashback etc…together with the conditions of exhibition, grip the attention and appeal to the imagination, giving a more heightened reality than either the literary or the theatrical form.’ 8

1920s children on horse, State Library of Queensland

1920s children, Queensland

The report also stated that in a form of entertainment ‘so popular as to be almost universal, there seems to be a duty cast upon the authorities to ensure that it shall be as clean and as wholesome as possible.’ Censors were especially concerned about the effects of images on young minds, and this often governed censorship decisions. A letter dated 30 May 1921 from the Metropolitan Superintendent to the Chief Secretary of New South Wales stated that the policy of the Department was to interfere as little as possible with the spoken play ‘for the obvious reason that the audiences attending entertainments of this nature are comprised almost wholly of adults.’ 9

The image of a dead baby floating in the river conveys a complete disregard for a young life. In the context of notions of the power of film, and the disturbing reality of infanticide, it is probable that a scene depicting a mother turning her back on her responsibilities toward her child in this manner would have been considered ‘injurious to morality’. 10 Particularly, as the presumed audience of Possum Paddock, being first and foremost a comedy, would have included young children.

The conventions of melodrama that govern the portrayal of Maggie and Nancy do not appear to govern the behaviour of the comical characters of Possum Paddock. This is depicted vividly in the film by interposing scenes showing young Bob and Anastasia on the porch having tea and Nancy and Hugh in the drawing room. Typical of melodramatic fare, Nancy’s demeanour indicates her unwavering virtue. She has her hair up and is dressed in a feminine dress with lace collar. Nancy turns her head away, although she does allow him to sit next to her on the sofa. She escorts him outside, smiles politely and shakes his hand. Hugh is not satisfied however and grabs a kiss. Nancy immediately pulls away, horror on her face, and runs inside. Meanwhile, Hugh tips his hat and saunters away.

In contrast, the treatment of Anastasia, described as a ‘queer-looking bush girl’ is more overtly sexual in its nature. Anastasia sends Bob a note requesting a rendez-vous on her verandah. They meet and have afternoon tea. Far from the overly modest Nancy, Anastasia is quite flirtatious with Bob as he has trouble cutting the bread and as she, distracted, pours tea into his hat. The couple are removed from the conventions of seduction by comedy and perhaps also by their rustic characterisations.

A Girl of the Bush, 1921

A Girl of the Bush, 1921

As in A Girl of the Bush, an economic hierarchy appears to govern the behaviour of the characters. In A Girl of the Bush, Mary Burns lives in a shanty home and has a father who is a gold-digger. As such, she is not governed by the strict mores of virtuous behaviour demanded of the heroine, Lorna. Mary Burns has already ‘fallen’. Similarly, the characters of Anastasia and Bob in Possum Paddock are removed from the well-furnished home and etiquette of Nancy.  Virtue, while necessary for the heroine and her more middle class aspirations, is not so vital to the love-making of two unrefined bush larrikins.

Nancy’s aspirations seem to be fulfilled by the end of the film. Hugh Bracken has saved “Possum Paddock” from sale to the villainous neighbour, Dan Martin, and Fred Deering just in the nick of time. Dad finds out that his land is actually worth a lot of money, as a railway is to be build across it, and that Dan Martin had known this all along. And virtue triumphs with, as one reviewer put it, ‘wedding bells appearing to be not too distant’. 11

Kate Howarde’s venture into film, Possum Paddock, is unremarkable in its melodramatic plot. What it reveals is that, despite moves away from melodrama with the use of more comedy and uniquely Australian characters, the film still employs melodramatic convention in its construction of the narrative. Audiences still expected to see a villain, a hero and a heroine who was beyond reproach. The heroine’s character and actions are still strictly bound by an irrefutable moral code, imposed by conventions which viewed womens’ sexuality purely in terms of maternal love within marriage. Sex in silent films was an act of power, revenge or control and the heroine remains helpless in the face of its complete domination.

In Possum Paddock, when the woman character of Maggie Masters, steps outside the moral bounds of society and dreams of abandoning her baby, the rule of censorship deemed the scene unfit for public exhibit. In this way, the dramatic art of film-making and the depiction of women and their sexuality in the 1920s was prescribed, not only by audience expectation, melodramatic convention and societal convention shaped by film, but also by direct government regulation.

Feature image: Promotion for Possum Paddock in The Sun (Sydney) 30 January 1921, p21

Show 11 footnotes

  1.  The Sun, 30 January 1921, p20
  2. No objection was raised in response to a letter from W.A. Price to the Chief Secretary dated 19 January 1921, requesting a permit to produce “Possum Paddock”. Chief Secretary’s Correspondence, Item no. 5/8265, New South Wales State Archives
  3. Letter to the Chief Secretary dated 31 January 1921 signed by Mr Fullerton, District Licensing Officer, Chief Secretary’s Correspondence. Item No. 5/8261, New South Wales State Archives
  4. Edward Riley quoted in Kereen Reiger, The Disenchantment of the Home, Modernising the Australian family 1880-1940, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1985, p119
  5. Judith Allen, ‘Octavius Beale reconsidered. Infanticide, baby farming and abortion in New South Wales, 1880-1939, Sydney Labour History Group (ed.) What Rough Beast? The State and Social Order in Australian History, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1982, p115
  6. Judith Allen, ‘Octavius Beale reconsidered’, p115
  7. J. Barrington Cowles, ‘The Influence of the Screen on the World’s Thought’ in Melbourne Punch, 24 February 1921, p41
  8. Report prepared for the Imperial Economic Conference, 30 June 1930, Film Censorship in Australia, Australian Archives, CP46/4/105, p7
  9. Letter 30 May 1921, from Metropolitan Superintendent to Chief Secretary concerning the censorship of the play, “Scandal”, Chief Secretary’s Correspondence, New South Wales Archives 5/8270
  10. Theatre and Public Halls Act 1908 (New South Wales)
  11.  The Sun, 30 January 1921, p20

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.