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Jewelled nights

by Dr Anne Sanders, 6 March 2017

Louise Lovely feeding gulls in a park, 1969 Unknown photographer
Louise Lovely feeding gulls in a park, 1969 Unknown photographer

A petite, attractive older woman, scarfed, gloved and wrapped in a woollen coat, is captured in an instant with her hand and eyes raised, feeding two of the fluttering seagulls that encircle her.  Labelled simply ‘Louise Lovely feeding gulls’ in the National Film and Sound Archive’s (NFSA) trove of stills portraits, the significance of the photograph was to emerge later as I rummaged through the Marie Bjelke Petersen archive in the Tasmanian Museum and Gallery Collection in Hobart. The picture of Lovely – ‘a forgotten darling of the silver screen’, standing in front of the Tasmanian Government Treasury building – was reproduced in a 1969 New Idea article, the torn fragment of which appears in Hobart author Bjelke Petersen’s scrapbook.

What was the connection between these two extraordinary and – even by 1969 – almost forgotten Australian women? The magazine article, headlined ‘Louise Lovely is alive and well and living in Tasmania’, reveals the intriguing link through a brief reference to Jewelled Nights. This was the title both of Bjelke Petersen’s popular fourth novel, published in 1924, and Louise Lovely’s first film in Australia following her return from Hollywood, released in 1925. A copy of the novel, replete with notes in Louise Lovely’s hand, sits in the NFSA’s Documents and Artefacts Collection; it is the genesis of the script for the film. 

Jewelled Nights is one of Australia’s lost early movie masterpieces. Along with Lovely and Bjelke Petersen’s scrapbooks, the film’s on-set and publicity portrait stills have become particularly resonant as extant evidence of the film and its development. The uncovering of such documents came about as part of research for the forthcoming joint exhibition – between the National Portrait Gallery and the National Film and Sound Archive – titled Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits, scheduled to open at the Portrait Gallery in November 2017.

In mid 1920s Australia, both Lovely and Bjelke Peterson were celebrities in their respective fields, and participants in transnational cultural networks – one theatrical and connected to the movie mecca of Hollywood, and the other literary, with its publishing hub in London. At the time of their meeting in late 1924, both women were on a mission. Lovely announced in an interview at the time, ‘Everyone said that good pictures could not be made in Australia. I have set out to prove that they can.’ She and her then husband, director and screenwriter Wilton Welch, had returned to Australia intending to use their accumulated Hollywood movie expertise to secure backing to establish a major film studio. Bjelke Petersen, for her part, was committed to the preservation of Tasmania’s beautiful natural environment, and promoting it through her novels. The stimulation of her adopted state’s economy via the promotion of tourism aligned nicely with Lovely and Welch’s dream of establishing a major local film production studio. It was boosterism all round then, with proclamations made of Hobart becoming the ‘Hollywood of the South’.

When asked why she had entrusted the film rights of her book to Louise Lovely, Bjelke Petersen replied: ‘Because she is the exact type of girl in Jewelled Nights. Not only has she great personal charm and unusual beauty, but she is a woman of lofty ideals, high courage and strong determinations ... the kind of woman I believe I can work with.’  In Louise Lovely, she perhaps saw a kindred spirit. Both women enjoyed their celebrity, and controlled and contributed to the publicity necessary to maintain it.

The apparent similarities between Bjelke Peterson and Lovely found visual synchronicity in the author and actress’ publicity portraits. In a 1930s shot taken by Athol Shmith, Melbourne’s celebrated studio portrait and fashion photographer, Bjelke Petersen gazes away from the camera with an expression that is less dreamy than determined. Swathed in a high-collared fur coat and bedecked with pearls, the author presents as a confident, ambitious and stylish woman. While Bjelke Petersen may have denied her reading public the intimacy of eye contact, a Fox Films publicity photograph of Lovely from her 1921 film, Partners in Fate, shows the actress looking directly down the barrel of the camera. At first glance, Lovely’s fresh face and wide eyes make her appear the opposite of the more aloof Bjelke Petersen. However, in Lovely’s unflinching gaze, the viewer finds clear hints of the author’s poise and resolve.

Danish-born Marie Bjelke Petersen emigrated to Tasmania with her family in 1894, aged seventeen. After initially working as a physical education teacher, she turned to writing, with her first (very successful) novel, The Captive Singer, published in 1917. In all she had nine novels published over the course of twenty years, with total sales of 250,000 copies in several editions, and translations into six languages. Eschewing British colonial attitudes towards Tasmania, Bjelke Petersen brought the natural beauty of the state’s landscape and the lives of its inhabitants to the attention of her readers, with vivid descriptions of scenery and social mores alike.

Bjelke Petersen had met Sylvia Mills in 1898; she was to be her intimate companion for the next thirty years, sharing Marie’s love of hiking and her cultural interests. In Mills, Bjelke Petersen had a supportive partner – unusual for women writers at that time – and regular royalty cheques and income from rented real estate provided sufficient income for them to travel regularly, including on research trips. The author’s research for Jewelled Nights was extensive, with her initial interest sparked in 1922 by the osmiridium mining boom in Tasmanian’s rugged North West; her detailed notes about the mining process, the living conditions and the miners’ vernacular provided the material for the meticulous observations in the book. Published in early 1924, the publisher noted it was selling 1,000 copies a week in its first release. However, it was the novel’s cross-dressing plot that sparked Louise Lovely’s interest when she arrived in Hobart on her Australian tour of A Day at the Studio.

Nellie Louise Alberti (later stage names: Louise Carbasse, Louise Welch and Louise Lovely) started acting at the age of eight, and starred in a number of Australian films in her mid-teens, including A Tale of the Australian Bush, A Daughter of Australia and The Ticket of Leave Man. She married fellow vaudeville actor Wilton Welch just before her seventeenth birthday, in 1912, and the two then wrote their own vaudeville acts before leaving for America’s West Coast and the Orpheum touring vaudeville circuit in 1914. A contact arranged a screen test for Louise with Carl Laemmle, known in Hollywood as the innovator of the Star System; he changed her stage name from ‘Louise Carbasse’ to ‘Louise Lovely’ and her star ascended in the Universal firmament until she was blacklisted for refusing to renew her contract. Like Mary Pickford, ‘America’s Sweetheart’ and her direct competitor, Lovely’s star persona was in the vein of the wholesome ‘girl next door’. Wilton shrewdly kept the Australian public up to date with her growing celebrity, sending press releases and publicity photographs back to metropolitan newspapers and film and stage magazines.

Fox Films picked Lovely up at the end of 1918 to star opposite Hollywood’s leading Western actor, William Farnum. Her star rose again and she enjoyed this more robust approach: hard-riding horses through the desert (The Lone Star Ranger, 1919) and doing her own shipwreck stunts (The Man Hunter, 1919). However, 1920 and 1921 were difficult years in Hollywood; a number of salacious scandals aroused calls for censorship, and the American recession resulted in many directors, producers and actors being laid off. Lovely made only two films for Fox in 1921; the rest were made with independent companies, Quality Pictures and Goldwyn Picture Company. 

From 1922 to early 1924, Lovely and Welch devised a vaudeville and personal appearance routine to tour America and Canada; this was to promote her last starring film, Life’s Greatest Question, as well as a novel live act involving audience participation called A Day at the Studio. Travelling with their own cameraman and electrician, Lovely and Welch conducted audience screen tests in the search for ‘screen personality’. This popular act became their ticket to return to Australia in mid-1924. Lovely’s scrapbooks include revelatory itineraries of these touring shows. They include the promotion of the star’s glamorous, sophisticated and worldly persona in advertisements for luxury products; personal appearances at major department stores; talks at community organisations, including church pulpits; and radio interviews.

In an interview in Los Angeles for an Australian newspaper, Welch outlined his intentions: ‘My idea is to make cosmopolitan pictures in Australia, as pictures having a distinctly Australian setting would not have a big enough market. Also I would endeavour to use the beautiful homes which abound in Sydney – and the equally beautiful girls – rather than construct sets and import stars. That is the way that the industry was built [in Hollywood] in the early days.’

A Day at the Studio saw Lovely and Welch tour Australia-wide, with some 23,000 hopefuls auditioning. The extensive pre-publicity coverage alerted Marie Bjelke Petersen to their planned arrival in Hobart; she approached Lovely directly, giving her a copy of the recently published Jewelled Nights. Clearly the book and Miss Petersen struck a chord; on 13 December 1924 a ‘Memo of Agreement’ was signed by all three for an option on the worldwide rights for Jewelled Nights and first option rights on all the author’s other publications.

The plot of Jewelled Nights – both book and film – follows a narrative trope that was specifically Australian in the 1920s and 1930s: that of the father-daughter relationship underpinning the portrayal of strong, independent female characters. Jewelled Nights’ leading female character, Elaine Fleetwood, is described in the novel as the classic ‘bush woman’: ‘Bonza girl … Tall, upstanding daughter-of-a-hundred-earls sort of air, full of dash and life. Nothing she can’t do on horseback or at anything else for that matter.’ Elaine’s mother and brother are spendthrifts. Following the untimely death of her father, she moves to Melbourne and becomes a socialite, eventually agreeing to marry a man she does not love whom she then jilts at the altar. Disguised as a boy called ‘Dick’, Elaine disappears to Tasmania to restore her family fortune by working in the osmiridium mines. After various tribulations, Dick proves himself and is unmasked in the process.

Shot in challenging conditions – steep rainforest-covered slopes, heavy rain, flash flooding, mud, and a lively snake season – the on-set stills in the mine ravine offer a portrait of steely resolve in character and reality. In one image captured by Jewelled Nights on-set photographer, John H. Robinson, Lovely and Welch stand on the banks of Tasmania’s rugged Savage River, lining up filming angles and checking director’s notes for the day ahead. Dressed in character as ‘Dick’, Lovely stands confidently behind the camera, slightly in front of her husband. By encouraging the viewer to appraise the actress’ assured posture and masculine dress, Robinson’s still presents an insightful portrait of Lovely as a powerful, assured participant in the making of the film.

The book and film touch upon sensitive gender issues in the rough male domain of the mines, such as homosexual coupling and rape. Elaine finds love in the leading male character, Larry Solarno (played by Gordon Collingridge), marrying him in a Tasmanian field rather than a Melbourne society wedding. It was a change to the book’s ending that Bjelke Petersen agreed to, saying she preferred it to her own. For Lovely, there was a powerful autobiographical recognition in the film’s narrative arc: Elaine must succeed as a man in a male-dominated world before she can return as a woman to the world she knows, on her terms. Lovely’s willingness to upset gender norms is evident in another of Robinson’s on-set stills, which shows Collingridge and Lovely sitting cheek to cheek, gazing into the distance. Costume-wise, there is little difference between the two – both are dressed in white collared shirts, and wear their close-cropped hair swept back from their brows. However, Lovely’s striking profile dominates the photograph, and dramatic lighting creates the impression that the actress has been superimposed upon her male co-star. Just as Elaine rejects the gendered trajectories of conventional romantic storytelling, the costuming and construction of Robinson’s still shows Lovely as having transcended her Hollywood starlet persona in favour of her new identity as director, producer and dramatic lead.

Welch and Lovely were unprepared for the challenges of filming in the primitive conditions of north-west Tasmania, and were forced to depart from their original plan to make Jewelled Nights using existing locations and local actors plucked from obscurity. Although twenty hopefuls from A Day at the Studio were included in the cast, the main characters were played by well-known Australian actors. Moreover, the need to film some scenes off-site in specially constructed sets in Melbourne cruelled hopes of Jewelled Nights returning a profit. The film went significantly over budget, taking nine months instead of the planned three, from filming to release.  Lovely’s stress was compounded by the crumbling farce of her marriage to Welch. By the time the couple returned to film in Melbourne, they had taken separate rooms in the Menzies hotel. By the end of filming, they were living in different hotels. Lovely’s divorce affidavit stated they had ceased co-habiting in 1924, the year of their return to Australia.

The film, although acclaimed as breaking box office attendance records, received mixed reviews and did not achieve anything like the success Lovely and Bjelke Petersen had anticipated, especially internationally. Both women had staked their reputations upon the venture. The film’s failure was a bitter disappointment, followed closely by real tragedy – for both. Lovely’s beloved mother died in August 1926, following the promotion of Jewelled Nights around Australia. In September, she applied for divorce from Welch. The divorce was finalised in late 1927, following her presentation at the Royal Commission into the Australian Moving Picture Industry, where she stated that everyone made money out of the picture except the producers. Lovely returned to the stage, eventually marrying Bert Cowan in 1928, a theatre manager at Hoyts Regency Theatre in Melbourne. Jewelled Nights was her swansong in film.

Bjelke Petersen’s fifth novel, The Moon Mistrel, was published in early 1927 to moderate acclaim. However, the author was never able to enjoy its release. During a visit to Melbourne Sylvia Mills collapsed and died suddenly. Bjelke Petersen’s grief was coupled with a prolonged period of illness. She spent increasing amounts of time away from Tasmania in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane where she had family, friends and a receptive audience. Her penultimate novel, Silver Knight, was published in 1934 in her 60th year. She dedicated the novel to ‘My friend Louise Lovely, in memory of the many interesting hours we have spent together’, indicating an enduring friendship despite the major disappointment of Jewelled Nights.  
From 1937 Lovely virtually disappeared from public record, until 1946, when the Cowans move to Hobart following Bert’s acceptance of the manager’s role at the Prince of Wales Theatre. She opened a sweet shop next door, selling treats to cinema-goers. Lovely was keen to move away from Bert’s Melbourne gambling mates. Perhaps the suggestion of Hobart, and its lesser temptations, was made by Marie.

Marie Bjelke Petersen lived long enough to see her favourite nephew, Johannes, become Premier of Queensland, while Louise Lovely was able to witness the renaissance of Australian film in the 1970s – the very thing she had championed in the 1927 Royal Commission. Although both women died in relative obscurity, their creative partnership is a testament to their passionate commitment to Australian cinema, against eventually insurmountable odds.

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