Precious remnants of the silent film era survive to this day thanks to equal measures of hard work and dumb luck. On the eve of the Australian Silent Film Festival, Simon Foster discovers the painstaking process involved in restoring an Australian classic to its former glory.
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12 Oct 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

The Bloke
An Australian ode to working-class love and hardship, the C.J. Dennis' poem 'The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke' became an instant classic when published in 1915.

In recounting through verse the lives of a larrikin named Bill and his one true love, Doreen, 'The Sentimental Bloke' spoke directly to an innocent nation suffering the impact of the Great War. To boost morale, pocketbook versions of the poem were distributed to diggers stationed in the world's warzones, to ensure that its rich prose and life-affirming message struck a resonant chord with an entire generation of soldiers and their families.

Raymond Longford was Australia's best known and most-respected maker of silent films. Longford set about adapting Dennis' defining work with backing from the Adelaide-based Southern Cross Feature Film Company, and cast business partner and lover Lottie Lyell as Doreen, and vaudevillian Arthur Tauchert as Bill.

Though set in Melbourne, the action was transformed to Sydney's dockside suburb of Woolloomooloo, a tough precinct at the time that was indicative of the class struggle depicted in Dennis' poem. On October 4 1919, Raymond Longford's The Sentimental Bloke premiered at the Melbourne Town Hall to rapturous acclaim. It would go on to become a legitimate box-office sensation and garner a reputation that places it amongst the greatest achievements in the Australian film industry. It was a major success in New Zealand and the United Kingdom, but failed to endear itself to U.S. audiences, despite the addition of new title cards that replaced the thick Australian slang that was used.

In 1959, Raymond Longford, then 85 years of age and working as a watchman on the docks, spoke of his love of Australian stories being told in Australian films. “I would like to see the good Australian stories, indigenous stories, move ahead in leaps and bounds,” he said to Bob Sanders in a short interview that is included on the DVD extras of the remastered film. “Stories full of sentiment. After all is said and done, aren't we all sentimentalists?” A broad smile fills his face, anticipating the words of memory to come. “As for me, well, I'm the sentimental bloke.”

The Boy
A Sentimental Bloke's enduring legacy was assisted in no small measure by the tenacity of a young film industry technician named Anthony Buckley. Buckley grew into an accomplished film editor (he cut the seminal outback thriller, Ted Kotcheff's Wake In Fright) and then a producer, responsible for such renaissance films as Caddie (1976), The Irishman (1978), The Killing Of Angel Street (1981) and Bliss (1985), and impassioned industry advocate. But it was the young Buckley who, at 15 years of age and working at Automatic Film Laboratories in the early 1950s, would stumble across some rusted, damaged canisters that contained the nitrate negative of Australia's greatest silent film, The Sentimental Bloke.

Resplicing and restoring the negative became an obsession for the young Buckley, as did meeting Longford, who was then living in the northern Sydney suburb of Wollstonecraft. Correspondence by mail led to a series of meetings between the 15 year-old novice and Australia's legendary filmmaker – meetings that Buckley has since recounts with glee and clarity in material accompanying the DVD release. “Mother insisted I wore an inherited brown double-breasted suit, which I loathed with a vengeance”, recalls Buckley. “ 'Hello, I'm Tony – Mr Longford?' How stupid of me – of course it was him – why does one do such things?” Buckley was duly impressed by the man. “He had great presence.”

Buckley met with Longford on three occasions, listening intently as a young man does when in the presence of a source of admiration and inspiration. “I left for overseas in October 1958 and learned later that Raymond Longford had died on 2 April 1959,” reminisces Buckley. “Those three afternoons will forever stay in my memory and have influenced my dedication and devotion to the preservation of our cinema; three Saturday afternoons when I met with Raymond Longford.”

Buckley's work in restoring The Sentimental Bloke proved triumphant – it screened to packed houses at the 1955 Sydney Film Festival. But whilst Raymond Longford's film received a standing ovation from a packed house, the man himself was at work on Sydney's docks. Sydney Film Festival chair, Professor A.K. Stout, issued this statement: “We are very sorry Mr Longford was not asked, we did not know he was still alive.” “Pioneers are forgotten men,” said Longford in one of his last interviews.

The Blonde
Ray Edmondson was a young film archivist in 1973. On a study tour that incorporated the American east coast township of Rochester, New York, Edmondson visited the legendary curator, James Card, at his office in George Eastman House (GEH), a film archival facility of great history and industry standing. Rumours had circulated for many years that, for reasons unknown, GEH might have a nitrate negative of The Sentimental Bloke.

“We trudged through the snow to one of the nitrate vaults and rummaged for a while,' recollects Edmondson in the extensive book that accompanies the DVD version. “Eventually I came across six cans called 'The Sentimental Blonde'.” Thinking the coincidence was too improbable, Edmondson opened the first can and unspooled the 50 year old film. “I unreeled it down to the main title, and saw the credit for Raymond Longford. It was the original negative for The Sentimental Bloke.” It was a watershed moment in what would become a long career for Edmondson. “Every archivist treasures the moment of great finds.”

Unfortunately, most film archives are overworked and underfunded and the Rochester facility was no exception; efforts to recover the negative moved very slowly. It was not until Paolo Cherchi Usai took over as Senior Curator of Film at GEH that arrangements were made to send a pristine negative-reproduced print to Australia's National Film and Sound Archive on loan. This print formed the basis for all subsequent restoration efforts.

It was far from perfect, however. As it was the American print, it was the version of the film that had been altered to suit American tastes. Scenes had been edited, shortened; intertitles (the cards that show the dialogue between actors in silent films) were in American slang! Much work in the intervening years had to be done to bring it back to the original version of the film.

It was at this point that two of the corporate giants in the Australian film industry pooled resources to ensure the ongoing integrity of the film's print. The team from post-production leader Atlab (under the stewardship of one of the industry's most respected technicians, Dominic Case), and stock supplier Kodak undertook the task of restoring The Sentimental Bloke to its former glory.
Case is a veteran of many restoration projects, including Norman Dawn's landmark 1927 production of For The Term Of His Natural Life, one of the last silent films made in Australia. But, as he documents in the DVD release material, Case was anything but sentimental for the ...Bloke project. “What I had seen of The Sentimental Bloke had not endeared the film to me. It was typical of the worst stereotype of old archival material: soft and blurry, lacking shadow or highlight detail.”

When the new print was screened to Case for the first time, it was a revelation. “Everyone in the theatre gasped,” he remembers fondly. “It was as though 80 years had rolled away and we were seeing a brand new print of a brand new film. The actor's faces were so much clearer. Even the brand name on a chocolate wrapper could be read for the first time!”

By 2004, the National Film and Sound Archive Senior Curator of the Moving Image, Graham Shirley, and his team, in conjunction with Atlab, Kodak and the GEH, had reconstructed and restored The Sentimental Bloke to its former glory, utilising the two most recent prints. It premiered at the Sydney Film Festival to a standing ovation.

“I went expecting at best a burlesque, at worst a fiasco. I came away almost believing in miracles.” C.J. Dennis, author 'The Songs Of The Sentimental Bloke'.

“Sittin' at ev'nin in this sunset-land
Wiv 'Er in all the World to 'old me 'and,
A son, to bear me name when I am gone...
Livin' an' lovin' – so life mooches on.”

- Final intertitle card, Raymond Longford's The Sentimental Bloke, 1919.

The grand print of The Sentimental Bloke is set to screen at this week's Silent Film Festival, in a joint session with the restored fragment of the world's feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang.

The Silent Film Festival will place at the State Library of NSW, and the program features some of the most iconic films of the silent era, including: Douglas Fairbanks Sr in The Mark of Zorro; Buster Keaton in The General; Fritz Lang's 1921 epic Destiny, and in a rare treat, a special session devoted to George Melies, The First Wizard of Cinema. Most of the sessions will be presented with live musial accompaniment from musicians such as Sharolyn Kimmorley, Ian Bloxsom, Mauro Colombis and Professor Robert Constable.

See www.ozsilentfilmfestival.com.au for full program and venue details.

**** GIVEAWAY ****

The Silent Film Festival organisers and SBS Film are giving you the chance to win a double pass to the following session of your choice:

Sunday, October 18
The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) & The Sentimental Bloke (1919)

Saturday, October 24
Destiny (1921) – directed by Fritz Lang

Sunday, October 25

Georges Méliès, the First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1912)

Please note the desired session (and a back-up option) in an email to film@sbs.com.au, along with your contact details. Winners will be notified by return email and their names will be given to festival organisers in order to reserve two seats that session