Despite being one of the greatest Australian films ever made, the 1919 silent movie The Sentimental Bloke was almost lost to the audiences of today. So how was it recovered?
Warren Brown visits the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia in Canberra to bring you this tale from the vault.
Investigating National Treasures with Warren Brown is also available for purchase from the NFSA Online Shop.
The classic 1919 silent picture The Sentimental Bloke is regarded as one of the greatest Australian films¹.
It's the story of The Bloke — his life among the toughs and swells of the inner city and his quest for happiness with his true love, Doreen.
If it wasn't for some great detective work, this film treasure might have remained buried.
Screensound Australia in Canberra is the home for The Sentimental Bloke.
Talk about tales from the vault. Have a look at this place! I'm surrounded by the most comprehensive collection of films and tape in Australia. And it all started with this — The Sentimental Bloke, which is based on CJ Dennis's tale of working-class life and love in the backstreets of Melbourne.
It was brought to the big screen by cinema pioneers Raymond Longford and Lottie Lyell.
Ray Edmondson is an expert on film history and restoration.
The magic thing about The Bloke is the use of lines from Dennis' poem as the titles in the film. You hear the words in your head, with an Australian accent. You don't have to hear it from the screen. That's why it works so superbly.
Only 67 of 250 Australian silent feature films still survive. Luckily, an incomplete version of The Sentimental Bloke was discovered in the 1950s.
In 1955, this only surviving version of The Bloke was screened in Sydney and Melbourne, and this kicked off a huge interest in unearthing other old Australian films, and that, in turn, led to all of this — the National Screen and Sound Archive. But these discoveries weren't only limited to Australia.
When I was a young archivist, in 1973, I was doing a study tour of film archives around the world. And I'd heard from my then boss, Rod Wallace, that he thought there was a copy of The Bloke in George Eastman House — an archive in New York. When I got there, we trudged out through the snow to the nitrate film vault. We fossicked around there for a while. And I came across six cans that were labelled The Sentimental Blonde.
It didn't have Marilyn Monroe in it?
No, no. Just 'Sentimental Blonde'.
What a great thing.
And I thought, ‘This is too coincidental’. So I just opened the can of reel one, reefed off a bit, held it up to the light. There was the title — The Sentimental Bloke — 'The Story of a Tough Guy'. I realised I was holding the original negative of The Sentimental Bloke.
This would have been like finding the Dead Sea scrolls!
It's an incredible feeling. I'll never forget the moment!
Well, wouldn't you know it — when the film went to America, those flamin' Yanks changed the captions because they didn't understand Aussie slang. And they also censored the kissin' scenes.
Thanks to a major restoration of the American negative, we can now enjoy the entire film, complete with the original verse. So, you've got to dip your lid to CJ Dennis and Raymond Longford and all them folks who helped preserve The Sentimental Bloke, a bonzer National Treasure.
¹ Correction: The Sentimental Bloke was filmed in 1918.