Saturday, 4 September 2021

The Australian Cinema's Hidden Heroes - A new series devoted to bringing to the light - Snowy Baker, Tom Cowan, Ian Dunlop, Robert Herbert, Tina Kaufman, Henry Lawson, Adrienne McKibbins and Brian Robinson

In these homebound days distractions are few and far between so here is something that might assist you to put the thinking cap on.  

I am inspired by the current (or at least latest delivered paper) copy of Sight and Sound which devotes some 38 pages of its “Huge Double Issue” to 100 Hidden Heroes of Cinema”. I was then prompted on the course I have embarked upon by the fact that I searched high and low for the name of a single person from the Antipodes. In fact there is only one person named from the entire southern hemisphere (Gilda de Abreu, a Brazilian screenwriter, singer, producer director and actor


There were a few names from India and Japan, one from Iran, a couple from Hong Kong and the rest were resolutely drawn from Euro/American sources. Which may well be what the history of the cinema is for most.


The remit of the S&S list (dont you love lists, no?) was to turn the spotlight on 100 of the undersung geniuses who make film possible, from casting directors to layout artists to stunt people to publicists. Among those who make the grade in S&S’s list are the usual unsung writers, photographers, producers, editors and other key people but also an archivist, a librarian, sketch artists, title designers, Foley persons, a choreographer (Jack Cole) a montagist (Slavko Vorkapich), a festival director, poster designers, an agent and some casting directors. All are part of the "army of other ‘hidden’ individuals making up the supporting pyramid”.


So I invited people to localise it, to come up with one or more or as many as wished and I’ll publish, possibly in tranches, as posts on this Film Alert 101 blog. I’ve sent an email to a lot of people, professionals, enthusiasts and others in between, including quite a few who might be nominated for inclusion by their friends and peers. Nominations are welcome especially if accompanied by some supporting text or directions as to where the Film Alert research team might start looking.


Here goes…..(each tranche will be in alphabetical order)




Reginald “Snowy” Baker (1884-1953)

When Snowy Baker appeared in The Enemy Within (1918), a couple of careers already lay behind him, one as Olympic athlete, holding records in boxing, swimming, fencing, rowing and riding and another as entrepreneur, part-owning and operating Sydney’s notorious “tin shed”, the Rushcutter’s Bay Stadium, where he staged bouts for star boxer Les Darcy, whose career he also managed. After Darcy fled Australia for the United States, supposedly to avoid military service, and died there in 1917, Baker shook off the bad publicity by forming Carroll Baker Productions with E.J. Carroll to make movies.                        

Snowy Baker (r) and Hollywood friend

Baker’s craggy Daniel Craig good looks and natural athleticism proved him a screen natural on the model of Western star Tom Mix. After an American distributor bought his first two films,  The Lure of the Bush andThe Enemy Within, a US visit to promote them alerted Baker to the larger market.  Meeting veteran actor/director Wilfred Lucas and young wife Bess Meredyth, already an experienced writer (and later to marry Michael Curtiz), led to a three-picture deal which brought the couple to Australia in 1920, accompanied by ingenues Agnes Vernon and Kathleen Kay, to make The Man from Kangaroo, The Jackeroo of Coolabong and The Shadow of Lightning Ridge. 

The Man from Kangaroo  cast Baker as a former boxer turned pastor who offends stuffy parishioners when he demonstrates his diving prowess, coaches local kids in how to box, and clashes with a crooked financier (played by Lucas) over the woman he loves. A bravura stunt scene shot in Sydney’s Rocks area sees him climb lamp posts, clamber over tall fences and, with perfect timing, jump from a bridge onto a moving van, then a cart. (The film also boasts titles by Fatty Finn’s Syd Nicholls.  As a thug prepares to mug Baker, his mate notices the clerical collar and counsels reasonably “Did you ever see a wowser with any sugar?”)            

Retitled The Better Man, the film won an American release, as did The Jackeroo of Coolabong  (retitled The Fighting Breed),and Baker moved to California. At forty, however, and in a market over-supplied with cowboy stars, he struggled. When not even the acquisition of a “wonder horse” named Boomerang caught the public imagination, he retired to manage the newly opened Riviera Country Club. He also played polo with the stars, advised directors and actors on matters of athletics, was horsemaster on Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, coached Douglas Fairbanks Snr. and Rudolph Valentino in the use of a bullwhip, and taught Elizabeth Taylor to ride for National Velvet.  

Champions of the nationalist agenda deprecate Baker’s films with their American creative personnel as sterile hybrids but their professionalism highlights the deficiencies of many exclusively local films of the time.  They and he deserve better than their present obscurity. (John Baxter)


Tom Cowan

Tom Cowan is one of the most versatile of our cinematographers and almost certainly the most resourceful. He did not set out to be a cinematographer, he set out with a passion to make films. This he realised early with the self-financed short The Dancing Class (1964) which won an AFI award.


In 1969 Tom, had travelled to Calcutta to meet Satyajit Ray, at Ray's earlier invitation, to find he was away. Cowan then travelled south where he was introduced to well-known Telugu poet Pattahbi Rama Reddy who had plans to make a film based on a novel with a controversial theme set in the Brahmin community in Karnataka and was looking for a cameraman. Samskara/Funeral Rites(1970) was a breakthrough award-winning film for the then emerging parallel cinema in India. Prime mover and lead actor, Girish Karnad, acknowledged that the project “was fired by the enthusiasm of a number of its contributors” who were reliant for its realisation on the commitment and technical skills of Cowan as cinematographer working on “a paltry budget” over 30 days at the average rate of 30 shots a day. This also involved the stress of accessing locations which would have been immediately refused if the real subject was known. Several years later Cowan returned to India where he photographed, co-wrote and directed another feature with Reddy as producer, Chanda Marutha/Wild Wind,a politically charged thriller. It was completed only weeks before Indira Gandhi's 'emergency' crackdown in 1975. The print was seized and Reddy's wife jailed for 8 months. Recent attempts to find the print have failed.


On the Oz 'underground classic', Pure Shit (1975)with the writer-director Bert Deling, a non-professional cast and a $28,000 budget, Cowan filmed at night with only two banks of lights and no time for retakes. He has said that  “Pure Shitwas teetering on the edge of being out of control...I was probably the only one on location who wasn't stoned.” As Megan Spencer comments “Pure Shit could have been nasty to look at. Instead it's a controlled view of an out of control situation.”


Through the 70s Cowan wrote and directed 3 features: The Office Picnic (1972) “a first feature of great promise” as David Stratton describes it, characteristically for Cowan's films with “a loose structure, gentle understatement and great visual beauty” on an $11,000 budget (“I lived for a year on the proceeds from a two week season in Sydney's Union Theatre”), followed by Promised Woman (1974) and Journey Among Women (1975)The latter, like his debut feature, filmed in the bush, on which he took risks in combining an experimental narrative with action feature – he described it as 'an extraordinary learning experience' – which was rewarded with $800,000 at the box-office. Tom wrote and directed a very personal feature, Sweet Dreamers (1982) with Lesley Tucker as producer. Following negative audience response at a single screening, it was rejected by the AFI for release in their cinema when, even if it failed to ignite as a love story, it should have had a place as a rare self-examination of dreams and aspirations in Oz cinema – a reminder of an earlier time when, at the mercy of the cringe, Tim Burstall's 2,000 Weeks (1969)suffered a not dissimilar fate. It was more than two decades before Cowan directed another film.


He worked in “support,” as he termed his cinematographer's role, of low budget features such as Bonjour Balwyn (1968), The Love Letters from Teralba Road(1977), Third Person Plural (1978) and a four film collaboration with John Duigan beginning with Mouth to Mouth (1978). At the other end of the spectrum Cowan was entrusted with the cinematography on one of the early IMAX features, Antarctica (1991), which grossed $US100 million worldwide. He also worked on the American series, Survivor, a format dramatically structured for TV, Cowan acknowledging that “it was interesting, but Survivor manufactures a facile story. I wanted to capture something deeper about our lives.”


Like the best cinematographers Tom has always aspired to be more than a successful technician.  He expressed “the need to be in tune with the ebb and flow of energy and power from one person to another with the camera.” He greatly values spontaneity – “the tension between the person in the foreground and their background caught in the frame. This naturally results in revealing the social conditions of the place where we are feeling.”


Orange Love Story (2004) is Tom Cowan's labour of love. There is more about him on Bill Mousoulis's Innersense website  and in David Stratton The Last New Wave:The Australian Film Revival 1980, Ch.13. (Bruce Hodsdon)


Ian Dunlop

In 1958, Ian Dunlop directed Balloons and Spinifex. His first film for the Commonwealth Film Unit (later Film Australia), it detailed the construction of a remote weather station at Giles in Western Australia. His encounter with the local indigenous Australians was revelatory. Filming them becamehis life’s work.            

Grey-bearded, shaggy-haired, amiable but abstracted, usually in khaki shirt and shorts, Dunlop was an enigmatic presence in the corridors of the CFU’s suburban Sydney studios. His incognito survived until 1967 and the release of Desert People, a fifty-minute condensation of his 19-part People of the Australian Western Desert, shot over the previous three years. His compassion for the two indigenous families it studied was articulated with characteristic reticence in a few sparse comments that constituted the film’s only sound track. 

After it was honoured at the Venice Film Festival, international distributors expressed interest – with a few reservations. Could he add a little music? Maybe a guitar, or a lone harmonica?             

Dunlop refused.

A few sound effects at least: some wind; the rustle of trees?             

“No” again.          

His resistance had nothing of the diva. To Dunlop, such interference would equate to spitting in his soup. Moreover, it would ruin not only this soup, but all soups thereafter, in perpetuity.             

Desert People  inspired UNESCO to choose Sydney for a Colloquium on Ethnographic Film in the Pacific Area, and Dunlop was tasked with assembling an accompanying retrospective. “Racist ragbag” sums up the bulk of films about Australia’s original inhabitants, but his flinty insistence on authenticity turned up some treasures, including footage shot in the early 1900s by British biologist and explorer Walter Baldwin Spencer.  His ancient Warwick camera, its split mahogany repaired with spinifex gum, survived in the Melbourne Museum, but Dunlop also discovered his original negatives, forgotten in a draughty out-building.  The ammoniated effluvium from nearby lavatories had preserved them better than climate control.                        

Briefly a celebrity, Dunlop was invited to France, where he was feted by ethnographic film’s eminence grise Jean Rouch and the Cinematheque Française’s Henri Langlois, and to the United States, where a host university, having promised “transport”, provided a crimson Mustang, startling to someone whose pace seldom rose above an amble.           

Two ambitious projects occupied the remainder of Dunlop’s career. The seven-part Towards Baruya Manhood documented initiation rites in a remote Papua/New Guinea tribe, while Beniyala: The Yirrkala Film Project recorded in 22 short films the changing lifestyle of an indigenous Arnhem Land community. He might have done more had the government not ceased funding ethnographic films in the mid-eighties, citing high cost and political controversy.             

In retirement, Dunlop’s antipathy towards personal publicity became more entrenched. If he remains an obscure figure, it is almost entirely of his doing and, given the nature of his films, not surprising. For men of the desert, whatever their ethnicity, it comes with the territory.  (John Baxter)

Ian Dunlop’s work was honoured in 2018 when four of the nineteen episodes (approx. 150 minutes) of  People of the Western Desert  were screened at the first season of Cinema Reborn.


Robert Herbert (1961-2017)

Robert Herbert was an award-winning short film-maker, and AFTRS graduate, whose finest achievement was the curation of the film program at the Art Gallery of NSW for 18 years. The SMH obituary by Elizabeth Knight noted that Robert developed the program almost from scratch using drive, intellect, imagination, encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema history and cultural sensibility.


The films were cinema classics, and he chose them to reflect themes in the gallery's exhibitions. He accessed them in their original celluloid format – a challenging and time-consuming job. He wrote the brochures, negotiated the release of the prints, checked their quality – and then he projected the films himself. Robert's programs offered cinema lovers a rare chance to see these classics on the big screen. He ran a tight ship in his cinema at the art gallery, demanding respectful behaviour from his audiences: no plastic bag rustling, no talking, no eating, no mobile phones, no late arrivals.


The AGNSW noted his passing: Without Robert Herbert, there simply could not have been a film program at all. Robert did it all single-handedly: he was at once curator, manager and projectionist. When Robert began working at the Gallery in the late 1990s, the film offerings were limited to the occasional educational art documentary. As a filmmaker himself, Robert was committed to championing cinema as an art form. In late 1999, he staged an inaugural film study day. This program gradually swelled into a year-round festival of cinema”. (Proposed by Jane Mills)


Tina Kaufman

Tina Kaufman was the editor of the Sydney Filmmakers Coop monthly newspaper, Filmnews for seventeen years. The newspaper covered all aspects of screen culture, policy and practice, which Tina continued to write about for various screen publications including Metro magazine and the online publication Screen Hub. A board member of the Sydney Film Festival for 25 years, a founding member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (both of which she is now and honorary member) and of Watch on Censorship. She is the author of Wake in Fright in the Australian Screen Classics series (Currency Press)

Beyond her working life, Tina Kaufman was and remains one of the staunchest cinephiles in Sydney. Now she is somewhat less mobile but in times past it was nothing for her to go from her home in the inner west to far and sundry places, always by public transport, in search of the latest film from India, Korea or China. During the Sydney Film Festival she could be seen at session after session down in the deeply cinephiliac front rows of the State Theatre, queuing in George Street or making it to the Quay or Newton. Her insights are always precise, her enthusiasm rivalled by few. (Proposed by Jane Mills)

Tina Kaufman (front centre) and the Filmnews
Editorial Board

Henry Lawson and his early screenplay. The Australian Cinematograph. 1896.


The Australian Cinematograph is a remarkable example of cinematic writing, and possibly the world’s first screenplay.


It concerns the death by thirst of a stockman in the outback, the laconic acceptance of his fate by his mates and the suffering of his widow and children. Lawson knew the reality of the situation well. In 1892 he had seen the suffering of people in the drought-wracked plains of western New South Wales.


While retaining descriptive and narrative aspects of the short story form, The Australian Cinematograph is framed for the screen, uses filmic terms and directions, and anticipates the advent of sound by 32 years with a theme song and underlying music. If not the first ‘screenplay’ as such in the world, it must be one of the earliest examples of cinematic script. 


Incidental to the evidence of ‘screenwriting’ in the title, cinematic style and terminology, there is some interesting historical context around Lawson’s extraordinary decision to write in cinematographic style.  


Lawson may have already seen early moving pictures presentations in the mid 1890s. In September 1896, Marius Sestier, one of the 23 roving representatives of the Lumière brothers, opened Australia’s first cinema, the Salon Lumière, in Pitt Street, Sydney to huge acclaim and large audiences. He presented films of the Lumiére Cinématographe and his own films shot in Sydney and elsewhere. Lawson wrote The Australian Cinematograph in September 1897, exactly a year after Sestier’s movies began at the Salon Lumiere. That also suggests Lawson had had enough time by late ’97 to see plenty of other films. 


In 1972, Gil Brealey produced and Keith Gow directed Where Dead Men Lie,using the original ‘script’ of The Australian Cinematograph. (Storry Walton)


Adrienne McKibbins

A lifelong cinephile Adrienne McKibbins has labored for decades well out of any spotlight but a constant presence. Her current major task is the organization and management of the Film Critics Circle of Australia, described by David Stratton as ‘stalwart work over so many years’. 

Adrienne has lived and breathed cinema since a teenager, working in the film culture sector for most of her working life (in both paid and volunteer positions) in a variety of Australian film bodies. She has worked as programmer, film researcher, writer and critic, publicist, administrator, and consultant. Adrienne has worked as a delegate co-ordinator at local film festivals and specialist film seasons. She has been a diligent promoter of Asian cinema in Australia for many years, organising imported seasons, of HK Cinema, Japanese director Shōhei Imamura and Chinese cinema. Adrienne also hosted a radio program on Cinema and movie soundtracks, has served on various local and international film juries. Whilst pursuing other film activities for the last two and a half decades she has been the Awards Manager and Administrator of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia.

In fact she has been near totally preoccupied with the the presentation of the annual Film Critics Circle awards, an evening of raucous revelry and much fine speechmaking, no more so than the evening when Rolf De Heer, in accepting his award for Charlie's Country  gave an impassioned speech about the announcement just that day of the Liberal Government's disgraceful proposals to introduce new oppressions on the Indigenous population of the Northern Territory. These have been nights to remember. (Proposed by David Stratton)


Brian Robinson (1934-1991)

Most of what follows is derived or directly quoted from the online entry on Brian in the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Brian was recruited to Swinburne Technical College as a lecturer in the school of art. He began teaching commercial design and illustration, but soon shifted his focus to the moving image. From 1966 he was in charge of the diploma of art (film and television) and in 1976 he was appointed inaugural head of the school of film and television. Later he served as dean (1987–89) of the faculty of art, a role he did not enjoy. He was happier working with students, especially the talented ones, on conceptualising and scripting their films. Professing no technical skills, he left talented colleagues to work with the students on their projects.

Robinson and Phillip Adams also made the pioneering self-funded local feature Jack and Jill: A Postscript (1969) which received a silver award from the Australian Film Institute, the first local feature film so honoured. Robinson made other experimental films such as A Fine Body of Water (1968) and Some Regrets (1971), which expressed a romantic sensibility and explored everyday life in an avant-garde way.

As an adviser to Prime Minister (Sir) John Gorton in 1969, Adams had urged that Robinson’s Swinburne film school become the basis of a proposed Australian Film and Television School, but in 1970 the school’s interim council recommended that it be located in Sydney. Adams later described Robinson as ‘tall, bald, and white bearded’ with an ‘oceanic generosity of spirit’. 

The ADB entry notes that Brian was “a confirmed bachelor who was discreetly homosexual, Robinson had a wide range of friends, who found him an engaging and amusing host, and an excellent cook.” 

When I advised Phillip Adams of my plan to nominate Brian he added this: When I couldn’t persuade Gorton to base the National school at Swinners I start offering Brian all sorts of jobs – e.g. helping me run the Australia Council’s Film Radio and Television Board when Gough took over.  But could never budge him.  Even my suggestion he run the new shebang in Sydney didn’t persuade him.  Finally, he was strangely self-effacing.He always lived in dread of being ‘outed’ at the school - but not enough to avoid risky decisions. Including a tendency to have pretty young men over-represented in the annual intake!” (Proposed by Geoff Gardner)  

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