Long before famous Australian actresses shook up Hollywood, these pioneering legends of cinema were showing their talent to the world.
The early days of the Australian film industry were heady days indeed. Among our first movie legends are champion swimmer turned actress Annette Kellerman (1887-1975), who was the first major actress to bare it all on screen in the 1916 fantasy film A Daughter of the Gods, and Louise Lovely (1895-1980), who is regarded as the first Australian actor to have had a successful Hollywood career. She’d been acting in Australia since she was a child, but when she moved to Los Angeles in 1914 she quickly picked up work at Universal Studios, appearing in a number of films with the legendary Lon Chaney. Louise appeared in some 50 Hollywood silent films and was as popular as Hollywood’s biggest female star, Mary Pickford. She retired from acting at the age of just 30, after which she became involved in screenwriting, editing and producing—a weighty achievement for the times. Other early Australian actresses also made significant contributions to our cinematic history. Here are two of our many extraordinary pioneering cinematic heroines.
Lottie Lyell (1890-1925)
In the 1918 silent film The Woman Suffers, Lottie Lyell plays a girl whose life is ruined because she’s unmarried and pregnant. The movie is often referred to as Australia’s first feminist film because it calls out society’s double standards: in this situation, as usual, it’s the woman who suffers, the father somehow remains blameless. The film also touches on issues like domestic abuse and suicide. Lottie Lyell herself wrote the bold screenplay. She was by then considered our finest actress, our biggest star, but she was also very active—if largely unacknowledged—behind the camera. Screenwriter, script editor, art director, film editor, producer and director, Lottie Lyell was the whole impressive package.
She was born in Balmain in 1890, and by her teens was acting in a travelling theatre troupe with her mentor and later lover, director Raymond Longford (1878-1959). They formed a formidable partnership and their inestimable contribution to the development of Australian cinema has long been recognised with the Longford Lyell Award which is presented annually for lifetime achievement at the annual Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts awards.
In 1911, Lottie Lyell starred in The Fatal Wedding, followed by The Romantic Story of Margaret Catchpole, which brought her international fame. It was from that time that she became known as Australia’s very first bona fide movie star, and although sometimes her acting (like all silent film actors) seems a bit clunky to modern eyes, she was considered a natural in front of the camera. Today she is possibly best remembered and loved as Doreen in the 1919 tour de force The Sentimental Bloke. Directed by Longford, it’s considered the best Australian silent film ever made and among the best films in all Australian cinema. Lottie worked alongside Longford as an artistic equal although she was rarely credited as such. But she co-wrote, co-directed and co-produced films like The Mutiny on the Bounty (1916), Ginger Mick (1920), The Blue Mountains Mystery (1921) and Peter Vernon’s Silence (1926). Longford and Lyell made 28 films together, Lottie appearing in 21 of them.
Lottie Lyell’s desire and ability to take on all aspects of the film-making process at a time when women in cinema were actors or assistants and to create strong assertive female roles was quite revolutionary. She had an extraordinary impact on Longford’s career and reputation and even accepted the fact that he could never divorce his Catholic wife and marry her. Her influence on Australian cinema has been enormous. Imagine how much more she might have achieved had she not tragically succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of only 35. Lottie Lyell was an artist of the first order, an Australian feminist trailblazer.
May Robson (1858-1942)
Not many people know the name May Robson, but in 1933 she became the first Australian ever to be nominated for an Academy Award. She was 75 years old at the time and to this day remains the oldest Australian ever to be nominated for an Oscar. She played Apple Annie in Frank Capra’s comedy/drama Lady for a Day, a rare starring role for which she received a Best Actress nomination, losing to Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory.
For May, it was a circuitous route to Hollywood. She was born in 1858 in the Riverina district and later lived in Melbourne before the family relocated to London. When she was 17, May eloped to Paris with her first husband; two years later, they moved to Texas to set up a cattle ranch, but life was tough on the land and they went to New York City in hopes of a better life. When her husband and two of her three children died, May decided to try her hand at acting, debuting on stage in 1883 and thereafter securing plenty of character and comedic roles. In 1927, at the age of 69, she made the move to Hollywood, an excellent decision as it turned out because she was always in work.
May often played grandmothers, crotchety old biddies or posh society women, and was immensely popular with studios and audiences alike. Over her career she appeared in more than 60 films in supporting roles, including as Janet Gaynor’s grandmother in the original film version of A Star is Born (1937). At the age of 82, she again had a starring role, this time in the 1940 comedy Granny Get Your Gun. She’s often remembered for one particular scene in the 1938 comedy Bringing Up Baby where she asks Cary Grant why he’s wearing a woman’s peignoir. His answer: “I just went gay all of a sudden.” Priceless.
May Robson died in 1942 at the age of 84, a grand dame of stage and screen, one who not only embraced getting older but used it to her advantage. That she became a history-making Australian would have made her very proud.
Happy International Women’s Day to one and all.