Franklyn Barrett tours The Ten Commandments

BY JEANNETTE DELAMOIR 

Stage set with a fantastic rendering of ancient Egypt painted on curtains and backdrop. Actors move about the stage

From the Franklyn Barrett Collection. NFSA: 764861

Hollywood, local filmmakers and regional Australia intersect in the story of Franklyn Barrett’s touring of a live prologue to Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments in Far North Queensland, 1925.

Jeannette Delamoir researched the NFSA Franklyn Barrett Collection as part of her Scholars and Artists in Residence Fellowship at the NFSA in May 2011.

Right: The stage setting for The Ten Commandments live prologue, theatre unknown. Click image to enlarge.

This is the first in a three-part series. Read Part two and Part three.

Introduction

During 1925-26, one of Australia’s most important pioneer filmmakers, Franklyn Barrett, travelled through Queensland, promoting the 1923 Cecil B DeMille silent production The Ten Commandments. As an ‘exploiteer’ for the huge Hollywood studio Paramount, his role was to organise maximum publicity for the film. An important aspect of the hoopla was the presention of a live ‘atmospheric’ prologue with locally recruited actors, and local musicians’ renditions of the original Hugo Riesenfeld score.(1) Barrett rehearsed the actors and musicians as well as encouraging newspaper editors to cover the event, and ensured the distribution of posters and flyers around each town.

This short period of his life took place several years after Barrett made his final film, A Rough Passage (1922). In a four-page, typewritten manuscript headed ‘A Town A Week’, held in the NFSA’s Franklyn Barrett Collection, Barrett spins an entertaining yarn about his mishaps in an unidentified Far North Queensland town.(2) Beyond amusement value, the manuscript also offers a rare detailed glimpse of exhibition practices and audience reactions in isolated areas of Australia, and an intriguing intersection of local, national and international cultural currents.

 

A town a week

‘A Town A Week’ begins with Barrett’s arrival in the unnamed town:

The train was running late, a chronic disease in Queensland, but the usual swarm of Taxi’s [sic] had waited with the stolid indifference to time that is the characteristic of the Far North. What appeared, at first sight, to be a Red Indian in a dust coat, approached me. It appears that he was one of the Taxi Drivers disguised in a coating of red dust accumulated in the drive from the township to the Railway … The last luggage to be roped on is the first off, and the passengers are delivered in that order. My luggage being first on was responsible for the five mile drive round the town that was accomplished before I reached the hotel less than three quarters of a mile from the station.(3)

Franklyn Barrett in Cairns. From the Franklyn Barrett Collection. NFSA: 764027

 

I suspect the location may have been Babinda or Gordonvale, but the evidence is circumstantial. They just happen to be small sugar towns that Barrett is known to have visited, and they have red soil to create the dust Barrett mentions. But then, red soil is characteristic of many places in northern Australia, and he may even have distilled these misadventures from experiences in a number of different places.

Whatever the case, Barrett’s manuscript describes a locale where things were done differently. This accurately reflects attitudes about Far North Queensland in 1925. It was a post-colonial frontier, the furthest reaches of an enormous state that was sparsely populated and highly decentralised. The 1925 Commonwealth Yearbook notes a total state population of just 755,000, with almost one third of the population concentrated in Brisbane.(4)

Furthermore, demographic profiles differed from those in metropolitan centres. Men outnumbered women, the imbalance setting a certain raw tone that made the state ‘less attractive to women and less conducive to the rearing of families than the conditions existing in the more settled States.’(5) In addition, the 1921 Census showed that the state’s proportion of ‘non-Europeans’ was, at 1.8 per cent, twice that of the national average.(6) The proportion was even higher in the north: while Brisbane’s population was 1.1 per cent non-European, the Cairns figure was 5.1 per cent. And rural areas had even higher proportions: Johnstone Shire, around Innisfail, was 8.4 per cent non-European.(7) This racial profile added to the sense that Far North Queensland was beyond the pale of civilisation in Australia, a country that at Federation proudly declared itself ‘98 per cent British, more British than any other dominion’.(8)

As for religion, the common joke was that the northern half of the state was so ‘uncivilised’ that there was no God above the Tropic of Capricorn.(9)

 

Hollywood in Australia

The British-born Barrett, a veteran filmmaker with many Australian and several New Zealand short films(10) and 28 Australian features to his credit(11), had not given up hope of returning to filmmaking.(12)The reality, however, was that Australian feature production had been almost completely halted by Hollywood’s ‘stranglehold’, with only seven feature films made in 1925.(13)Australian production simply could not meet the needs of the nation’s filmgoers; even a theatre that played a program for a week required 104 features per year for their double bills.

Barrett was part of the Paramount sales team. From the Franklyn Barrett Collection. NFSA: 764748

 

Thus, in 1925, Australia imported 674 features from the United States.(14)In that country, film companies had adopted business models influenced by chain stores: centralised, streamlined, vertically integrated. ‘Scientific management’ lowered costs and increased profits through economies of scale, aided by energetic publicity and advertising. In exhibition, the most successful adoptor of these approaches was Balaban and Katz in Chicago. ‘[S]mall regional chains’ of theatres were gobbled up(15), and the larger survivors grew enormous.

Balaban and Katz merged, in 1925, with Adolph Zukor’s Paramount company, which brought to the alliance its own 500 theatres and successfully completed the vertical integration of production, distribution and exhibition. Two years later, this new entity, named Publix Theatres, was ‘the world’s largest, most profitable, and most imitated’ film company.(16)

Publix centralised and controlled publicity, focusing on city venues and promoting the idea that:

The same Paramount films would transform any Main Street theatre into Broadway, Paramount pledged, and change sleepy villages into ‘centres of metropolitan animation during the hours that used to yawn’.(17)

These business strategies were imported into Australia, along with the American films, when the US companies set up Australian distribution centres, or exchanges as they called them. Australian employees, whether they worked at the exchanges or were competing against them, strove to emulate industry best practice. They were inspired by motivational materials sent from the US. American managers came to Australia, and Australians, especially those working in publicity, undertook training in the United States.(18)

Barrett frequently clashed publicly with the exchanges, because in 1925 he represented the Australian film industry through his role as Honorary Secretary to the Australasian Motion Picture Producers Association. He wrote, in a letter to the editor of The Sydney Morning Herald that, ‘the exhibitor has very little choice in the programmes screened at his theatre … the foreign distributor controls the industry’.(19)Two years later, speaking to the Royal Commission into the Moving Picture Industry in Australia, he explained the impact of the exchanges on filmmakers: ‘The difficulty with which the Australian producer is faced is not so much the making of a picture as the handling of it’.(20)

 

The Ten Commandments

Theatres in Far North Queensland showing Paramount films during ‘Paramount Week’. Cairns Post, 1 September 1925, p 3. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

So how was it, then, that Barrett was employed by Paramount, the largest and most efficiently organised of the US companies? Perhaps the answer lies partly in Barrett’s personable nature, enabling him to build and maintain good relationships across the board. His daughter Todds explained: ‘All the exhibitors liked Dad, and all the exchanges liked Dad. My Dad wasn’t at loggerheads with them … He believed that … they should be in harmony.’(21)

For Paramount, Barrett managed ‘exploitation’ in Queensland(22), ‘exploitation’ meaning publicity and public relations. A note in the back of Barrett’s 1926 diary says: ‘Hundreds of people do not patronise pictures. Exploitation gets them there.’(23)This approach was particularly associated with the ‘roadshow’ form of promotion that was saved for the ‘super films’ like Paramount’s The Ten Commandments.

 

The Ten Commandments was certainly an extraordinary film. Working on an idea suggested in a public competition(24), Cecil B DeMille and screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson structured the film in two sections. The first tells the Old Testament story of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, and was followed by a

modern story about two brothers, one of whom defiantly declares that he will deliberately break each of the Ten Commandments.

The film’s final cost was almost $US1,500,000.(25)Australian newspapers reported on the ‘colossal’ production details, laying a foundation of publicity before the film was even close to completion: ‘some 2,500 screen performers, and nearly twice that number of domestic and wild animals, to say nothing of truck loads of chariots, costumes, make-up, and properties’ had arrived in Guadalupe, California to shoot the Egyptian portion of The Ten Commandments, reported The Mercury (Hobart), on 17 August 1923.(26)

The film also impressed with its advanced techniques. The entire first section was shot in two-strip Technicolor.(27)Scenes such as the parting of the Red Sea set new standards for special effects as well as editing.(28)

By contrast with DeMille’s budget-breaking expenditure, none of Barrett’s films cost more than £1,000. Their production was a true cottage industry. Barrett used an oak table in the family home as an editing desk, cutting the film with a penknife, and rigged up a back room for printing.(29)‘The film stars of the day never got any fancy salaries,’ Barrett said in 1961. ‘[T]he extras were on a flat rate of a quid and a bottle of beer a day.’(30)

Ironically, on 10 January 1925 – that is, before The Ten Commandments even reached Queensland – DeMille was pushed out of Paramount, the company he helped to found, because his extravagance angered Adolph Zukor.(31)

This is the first in a three-part series. Read Part two and Part three.

Endnotes for part one

1At least, documentation shows he presented live performances along the east coast; his 1926 diary suggests that the prologue was not presented in remote western Queensland towns such as Longreach, Winton and Barcaldine. Franklyn Barrett, Set of 24 Diaries from 1903-1955, Franklyn Barrett Collection, NFSA: 765779. For further information about The Ten Commandments (1923), including synopsis and cast and crew list, see The Internet Movie Database.
2Thank you to the NFSA for permission to quote extensively from ‘A Town A Week’, 1925, Franklyn Barrett Collection: The Ten Commandments Tour: Assorted Papers, NFSA: 763988.
3Franklyn Barrett, ‘A Town a Week’. Excerpts from this document appear throughout the text in italics.
4Australian Government, 1925, Official Yearbook of the Commonwealth of Australia, No. 18, Melbourne: Government Printer, pp 894, 897.
5Australian Government, 1927, Official Yearbook of the Commonwealth of Australia, No. 20, Canberra: Government Printer, p 885.
6Australian Government, 1921, Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, Part V Race, Melbourne: Government Printer.
7Australian Government, 1921, Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, Part XII Queensland. Population of Local Government Areas, Melbourne: Government Printer.
8Richard White, 1981, Inventing Australia: Images and Identity 1688-1980, St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, p 112.
9I haven’t been able to find a source for this, but Rudyard Kipling’s 1892 poem ‘Mandalay’ expresses similar exoticist sentiments: ‘Ship me somewheres East of Suez, where the best is like the worst / Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst’.
10Many clippings and other materials in the NFSA collection verify Barrett’s career as a travelling cameraman for Charles Urban and Pathé Frères. One summary can be found in Peter Spooner, ‘He Cranked a Camera Back in 1896 … And Pioneered Australia’s Film Industry’, The Sun-Herald, 21 May 1961 in Franklyn Barrett: ‘Press Book’, c1906-1987, NFSA: 755785-001 / RDP001536.
11Australian Government, 1927, Commonwealth of Australia: Royal Commission on the Moving Picture Industry: Minutes of Evidence, Canberra: Government Printer, Witness: Franklyn Barrett, p 712. As with many Australian filmmaking pioneers, only a tiny proportion of Barrett’s output is known to survive. The NFSA reconstructed The Breaking of the Drought (1920) (NFSA: 285173), and holds an almost complete copy of A Girl of the Bush (1921) (NFSA: 5575). See also The Breaking of the Drought on australianscreen.
12His daughter Todds Barrett tells of a family discussion in the ‘late twenties’ about raising the money to send Barrett to the US for a year, in order to learn about sound film and purchase equipment to bring to Australia. The family decided they couldn’t afford it. Todds Barrett: Interviewed by Graham Shirley, 1983: Oral History. NFSA: 375239.
13This was a low figure in a very unpredictable sequence. The following year, 1926, was comparatively productive with 14 features; then in 1927, only seven were completed; in 1928, the output was again 14; in 1929, just one. Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, 1998, Australian Film 1900-1977, Melbourne: Oxford University Press (1st edn 1980), pp 124-148.
14Australian Government, 1928, Report: Royal Commission into the Australian Moving Picture Industry, Canberra: Government Printer, p 3.
15Douglas Gomery, 2002, ‘Fashioning an Exhibition Empire: Promotion, Publicity, and the Rise of the Publix Theatres’, in Gregory A Waller (ed.), Moviegoing in America: A Sourcebook in the History of Film Exhibition, Malden: Blackwell Publishers, p 128.
16Gomery, p 125.
17Kathryn H Fuller, 1996, ‘You Can Have the Strand in your Own Town’, in At the Picture Show: Small-Town Audiences and the Creation of Movie Fan Culture, Washington DC: Smithsonion Institute Press, pp 98-114, rpt in Gregory A Waller (ed.), Moviegoing in America: A Sourcebook in the History of Film Exhibition, Malden: Blackwell Publishers, p 95.
18Diane Collins, 1987, Hollywood Down Under: Australians at the Movies: 1896-the Present Day, North Ryde: Angus & Robertson, p 146.
19Franklyn Barrett, Letter to Editor, The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 March 1925, p 19.
20Australian Government, 1927, Commonwealth of Australia: Royal Commission on the Moving Picture Industry: Minutes of Evidence, Canberra: Government Printer, Witness: Franklyn Barrett, p 711.
21Todds Barrett: Interviewed by Graham Shirley, 1983: Oral History. NFSA: 375239.
22Letter to Barrett from C Lane [?], ‘Qld Mgr’, Haymarket Theatres Ltd, 5 September 1925. Franklyn Barrett Collection: The Ten Commandments Tour: Assorted Papers, NFSA: 763988.
23Franklyn Barrett, 1926 Diary in Set of 24 Diaries from 1903-1955, Franklyn Barrett Collection, NFSA: 765779.
24Simon Louvish, 2007, Cecil B DeMille and the Golden Calf, London: Faber & Faber, pp 212-213.
25Robert S Birchard, 1992, ‘“The Ten Commandments” (1923): De Mille Completes Personal Exodus’, American Cinematographer, October, p 77.
26‘The Cinema World’, The Mercury (Hobart), 17 August 1923, p 9.
27‘The Ten Commandments’, Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 16 May 1925, p 7.
28Louvish, p 218.
29Todds Barrett: Interviewed by Graham Shirley, 1983: Oral History. NFSA: 375239.
30Peter Spooner, ‘He Cranked a Camera Back in 1896 … And Pioneered Australia’s Film Industry’, The Sun-Herald, 21 May 1961.
31Louvish, p 241.