Down Under

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following story may contain images and names of deceased persons.

I have something which Australia has been wanting for a long time, a contract with the W. and F. service, the largest film distributors in England, for six Australian pictures for screening in England.
[11 February 1926]

The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950); 11 February 1926; Page 8; Australian Films
Harry Southwell

Harry Southwell’s announcement while aboard the Commonwealth Mail Steamer ‘Esperance Bay‘ came as a surprise to Australians but was nevertheless excitedly received. An Australian film industry set to rival the Americans. He had further decided to base himself in Western Australia. Was Perth destined to become the new Hollywood?

The films had to have a minimum length of 6,000 feet, had to be uniquely Australian and contain “Australian scenery, sentiment and types…” Footage of the outback was particularly popular in England and it was noted “…there was no better setting than that afforded by the magnificent scenery of Western Australia.

Before filming began, locations were scouted. In April 1926, Harry and his wife, Madeline (who once lived in Perth) visited “many of the beauty spots in and around the metropolis.” Along with visiting beauty spots, they had to find a filming location in Perth. They eventually settled on White City; sets and lighting equipment were constructed and installed within the confines of the open-air amusement park at the foot of William Street.

White City in June 1926.

A company named Anglo-Australian Films was established, and in May, the prospectus was issued. A capital of £12,000 was required and divided into 12,000 shares. There were 6,000 shares available for public subscription, 4,700 shares held in reserve, and 1,300 shares kept aside for Harry for when the first film was accepted by a London buyer.

Establishing the company and producing the first film was expected to cost no more than £4,500. If the film was up to the required standard, a sum of £3,000 was payable immediately by the London buyer. For those wishing to invest and wanting to know the details of the financial return, it was estimated that a film could make £25,000 to £30,000.

Soon the industry should be in full blast. Mr. Southwell finds that the atmosphere of Perth is splendidly adapted for the purely photographic portion of the work, for in this favored clime it is possible practically to take pictures all the year round.

Truth (Perth, WA : 1903 – 1931); 29 May 1926; Page 10; Film Construction Industry in Perth
Ivy Deakin/Lynette Lawrence

In July the leading lady was announced. Ivy Deakin of Mount Lawley (choosing the stage name Lynette Lawrence) was to star alongside Harry who was playing the leading man, Walter ‘Nabby’ Nabbage. Other roles were also filled by locals and included: Alexander Lawson Weir (Nabby’s friend), Herbert Millard (station manager), Albert Raven (station manager’s son), Alex Porter (station director), Cuthbert Porter (overseer of sheep paddocks), Nancy Mills, Jimmy Hale, James Hennessey (Doctor), John Southwell (son of the trainer’s daughter), Mrs Compton, Miss J Austin, Mr G Colter, Martin Richter (trotting driver), Leopold Walton (trotting driver), George Temple Poole and Master D Brown.

Harry Southwell as ‘Nabby’

The film was called ‘Down Under,’ and one of the crucial aspects of it was the outback scenery. At the invitation of John Wood and Alex Porter of Erlistoun Station, Harry, along with Alexander Lawson Weir (manager), Commander Connolly (producer’s assistant), Herbert Millard, Masters Lean and Southwell and Madeline, travelled from Perth to Kalgoorlie via train. They then took the express to Laverton to conduct preliminary work at Erlistoun Station. Satisfied as to its suitability, they returned to Perth to start filming.

On Tuesday, 17 August 1926, the first scenes were filmed at the trotting track, with the permission of the Western Australian Trotting Association and the Western Australian Cricket Association. The race started at 10 am and members of the public were invited to attend as extras. The weather was “dull and cloudy” however it was said to be ideal for the effect they were hoping to achieve.

The particular feature of the story which introduces the “trots” is brought about by a visiting American, who owns a wonderful trotter, challenging the hero, who also possesses a performer of no mean ability, to a race for a substantial side-wager.

The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950); 19 August 1926; Page 7; W.A. Movies

Cameramen Lacey Percival and Cliff Thomas were positioned at different spots on the track to enable them to film various parts of the race. To film the last straight, Lacey and his camera were strapped into a car, and it raced down the track just ahead of the horses. As the car rounded a corner, it was reported that Lacey came close to being thrown out.

Filming the trotting scenes.

On Saturday, filming continued at the trotting track and involved “stirring scenes.” An older man and woman abused Harry, and he delivered some strong language in return. Not long after a “violent struggle, ending in the dust” erupted between two other men. These moments were nothing more than shots for ‘Down Under.’ ‘The West Australian’ proclaimed that if other scenes were equally as exciting, then “the film should be a thriller.

A crowd gathers to watch ‘Down Under’ being filmed in Perth.

Throughout the next month, cast and crew shot footage on location in Kings Park, Government Gardens, Mundaring Weir, and Serpentine Falls. On 21 September 1926, they travelled northwest to Laverton to begin shooting the outback scenes at Erlistoun Station.

Testing for the film in Government Gardens.
The Club Scene in Down Under.

The first few days involved filming “scenes incidental to the underlying theme” of the movie. They spent some time finding the perfect location, and, once they made a decision, they instructed stockmen to muster over a thousand head of cattle for the shots.

The first work was done on the sheep run where shearing was in progress and where several exciting incidents were worked into the scenario. A large herd of cattle was mustered and droving and branding were given their part in the story…

The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954); 13 October 1926; Page 10; Film-Production
Erlistoun Station

In addition to filming on Erlistoun Station, they shot footage at Harry Raven’s King of Creation mine as well as at Laverton, where Wongi people performed ceremonial dances.

With the co-operation of the local police a corroboree was called at Laverton and for days native fires were to be seen gradually drawing nearer until on Tuesday in last week the whole of Laverton turned out to witness the camera at work…

The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954); 13 October 1926; Page 10; Film-Production
Harry Southwell with Wongi people.

The weather throughout filming was considered ideal, and while there were some issues with dust when the cattle were branded, overall, it was thought to have added atmosphere to the final shot.

Filming concluded with a house party at Harry Raven’s home where 79 guests had “a most enjoyable time.” It also enabled the cinematographers to shoot the final outback scenes for inclusion in the film.

A total of 85 scenes were shot in the Laverton district, with the most beautiful said to be of a pool on Erlistoun Station near The Granites. On 7 October, the cast and crew caught the train back to Perth. They developed the film and shot more footage on the set at White City.

Nancy Mills, Mrs Compton, Mr Hale and Harry Southwell (far right) in Government Gardens.

In November 1926, cinematographers filmed the final scenes in Kings Park. A reporter from ‘Truth’ was invited to watch and they interviewed Harry, still dressed in character as Nabby. Unconcerned about spoilers, the newspaper printed the entire plot.

The atmosphere of the picture is all West Australian, and the story is a clean, romantic tale of the great out of doors such as might have been written by Adam Lindsay Gordon, or Henry Lawson himself.

Truth (Perth, WA : 1903 – 1931); 27 November 1926; Page 7; “Down Under” – A Tale of Two Tosses

The story was about the life of Walter ‘Nabby’ Nabbage, an English aristocrat who immigrated to Western Australia. He gambled too much and drank too much, but was popular with Perth people. When he met the daughter of an old trotting trainer, he fell in love and started attending the trots.

Meeting the woman and taking an interest in trotting did not change his gambling habits. During one race, he bet £500 that the old trainer’s horse would beat an American’s horse. He won the bet, went on a drinking binge, and then visited the woman while intoxicated. She was horrified, and Nabby left, feeling ashamed of himself. He decided to toss a coin.

Heads he will go to her, tails – well, that way lies the flask and ultimate damnation. And the coin falls tails.

Truth (Perth, WA : 1903 – 1931); 27 November 1926; Page 7; “Down Under” – A Tale of Two Tosses
Nabby meets the Station Manager.

He chose the flask. The years passed, his wealth diminished, and he lived the life of a swagman. While sitting under a tree in the outback, he threw his flask in frustration, and it disturbed a lost child (played by John Southwell). Nabby returned the child to his home. Grateful, the station owner offered him a job, and he accepted it after tossing a coin.

While working at the station, Nabby had a revelation: the boy’s mother was the woman he had loved. To redeem himself, he devoted his life to the child.

Nabby and the child grew close. On the mother’s deathbed, she entrusted Nabby with the care of her child. He did his best, but, unfortunately, one day the boy wandered off into a herd of stampeding cattle and was injured. There was only one hope of saving him: a doctor who lived seven miles away if Nabby went around the ford or half a mile away if Nabby crossed the deep creek. He crossed the creek and suffered extensive injuries.

Upon his arrival, Nabby worried that the doctor might try to help him instead of the boy. He wrote a note and acted drunk in order to trick him. The doctor was fooled and immediately left to save the boy. When he returned, he found Nabby by the creek and near death.

He is almost gone when they reach him, but he still thinks of the boy. He wants to know what was the first thing the boy said on recovering consciousness. “Where’s Nabby,” they told him. That was his reward. It is in his last moments that his real identity is disclosed.

Truth (Perth, WA : 1903 – 1931); 27 November 1926; Page 7; “Down Under” – A Tale of Two Tosses

Filming wrapped, and many people considered that the story and the film would be a credit to Western Australia. The mission was to show Australia in a “broader and more romantic light” to the people of England to “let them see the country and its great spirit for themselves.

While there was enthusiasm for the film, an article in ‘Truth’ indicates that it also had its share of critics. In particular, one person writing to the ‘Mirror’ took great offence at the name of the film, and described the term ‘down under’ as “…an old cockney bogie that civilised people should be ashamed to mention.” They also criticised the scenes and places shot for the film, referring to them as a “hot-potch of scenery and incidents.

It’s not known if such criticism affected Harry. He was, however, plagued with continual delays. On 25 January 1927, Harry announced that the film should be ready to screen in early February. In mid-February, the film was still not complete. Regardless, a reporter for ‘The West Australian’ had seen some samples and stated that “the photography leaves nothing to be desired.

It appears to be clear and consistent throughout, and the taking of some of the scenes, such as those of a cattle stampede and a trotting race, which are important features of the story, must have involved a considerable degree of skill and patience on the part of the photographer.

The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954); 18 February 1927; Page 12; A Western Australian Film

Finally, on 22 March 1927, ‘Down Under’ was screened privately at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Perth. The audience consisted of the Governor (Sir William Campion), Lady Campion, the shareholders of Anglo-Australian Films, members of the film trade, the press, and other guests.

The Prince of Wales Theatre circa 1922. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (BA533/13).

High praise was bestowed upon the film as well as the actors within it. At the end of the screening, the audience erupted into “hearty and spontaneous applause,” and quite a few people looked visibly moved.

While ‘Down Under’ was a feature film for entertainment purposes, it also seems as though there was a desire to use it to promote Western Australia. Opening scenes showed the Premier’s secretary, Louis Shapcott, drawing Premier Philip Collier’s attention to the “great story of Western Australia.” Knowing the story was quintessentially Western Australian, the Premier opened the book, and the story of Nabby began.

It is not known if Harry envisioned the film starting that way, or if there was outside encouragement for its inclusion. The Western Australian Government had endorsed the fledgling film industry, with an emphasis on films showing the state’s industries and generally “depicting life in Western Australia, for screening in Great Britain.” Perhaps that opening was agreed upon as the ‘stamp’ showing the Government’s endorsement.

After the film screened privately in Perth, it was sent to England for final editing touches. Hopes that it would be picked up for screening in Great Britain, and would screen simultaneously in Western Australia, soon faded. There was no publicity for the film in English newspapers throughout 1927, 1928 or 1929. One would assume that meant that Harry Southwell or his representative was unable to obtain a London buyer for Western Australia’s first feature film.

What happened to ‘Down Under’ after filming wrapped and editing was completed was a mystery even to those in Perth. In 1927 and 1928, ‘Truth’ twice asked, “Where’s Down Under?” The film had seemingly vanished and no one had any answers as to what had become of it.

Three years passed since filming began in 1926. Finally, ‘Down Under’ reemerged and Western Australians were given the opportunity to view “Westralia’s first movie production.” For three days in September 1929, the Hoyts Majestic Theatre in Perth played the film. Following that, it showed at Fremantle, Pingelly and Collie.

After ‘Down Under’ played in 1929, it once more fell into obscurity. While I was able to piece together some of the film’s history, large gaps (and questions) remain. What is clear is that it did not achieve the level of success that was hoped for. The reasons can only be speculated. Was it the story or the acting? Was the film skewed towards publicity for Western Australia, which affected the outcome? Did Harry Southwell oversell the English market for the film? Without watching the film, we can’t fairly criticise it. Without more information or records, we can’t say for sure why it was unsuccessful.

Harry Southwell never produced the other five films that were expected. In November 1930, Anglo-Australian Films entered voluntary liquidation and in May 1931 the “negative and reconstructed positive of the W.A. produced film, “Down Under”” was offered for sale by tender. There are no details of the buyer. There are no details as to where the film ended up. No copy of ‘Down Under’ appears to have survived, and, according to the National Film and Sound Archive, it remains one of Australia’s lost films.

Can you contribute more to the story of ‘Down Under’? If you have any photos, records, oral history or even the film itself, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Sources:

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