The Man from Kangaroo – and Hollywood

BY NATHAN SMITH

The NFSA has recently restored three films starring Australian silent film star Snowy Baker through our NFSA Restores program. 

At one time Snowy Baker was an Australian household name; today he is an icon of early 20th century sport and world cinema history. How did he blend the two to become an international success?

Olympic medallist turned actor

Portrait of Snowy Baker and Charlie Chaplin

Snowy Baker (r) was given a personal tour by Charlie Chaplin of the Chaplin Studios, 1919. NFSA title: 1529649

Reginald 'Snowy' Baker (1884–1953) was an expert in both land and water polo, cricket and diving. His other sporting strengths were in surfing, fencing, hockey, rowing, yachting and equestrian events.

At the 1908 Olympics he competed in swimming and diving events, winning a silver medal in boxing.

Snowy combined these athletic skills to great dramatic effect in the films he made and starred in. He trained others in stunt work and made friends with many of the high flyers of Hollywood in the 1920s.

The Man from Kangaroo

Advertisement for The Man from Kangaroo

Advertisement for The Man from Kangaroo, 1920. NFSA title: 638896

 

In 1917 Snowy began his film career, teaming up with writer-director Roland Stavely to make The Enemy Within (1918), followed by The Lure of the Bush (Claude Fleming, Australia, 1918).

A promotional tour to America to sell these films brought Snowy in contact with Charlie Chaplin who gave him a personal tour of the set of his current production, Shoulder Arms (Charles Chaplin, USA, 1918).

Snowy’s other significant encounters were with Hollywood veterans Wilfred Lucas and Bess Meredyth, resulting in a three-picture deal bringing them and cinematographer Robert Doerrer to Australia to collaborate with Snowy and his partner EJ Carroll.

Their first production was The Man from Kangaroo (Wilfred Lucas, Australia, 1919), an adventure film full of stunts, action and romance. Snowy plays John Harland, a former boxer turned reverend posted to the town of Kangaroo. John teaches the local children how to box and falls in love with heiress Muriel Hammond (played by Agnes Vernon).

John encounters many obstacles and ultimately has a run-in with Red Jack Braggon (Wilfred Lucas) after he kidnaps Muriel. The film offers many chances for Snowy to show off his athletic prowess and indefinable sexual allure – which causes the female lead to fall in love with him within seconds!

Of all the stunts the most memorable is Snowy chasing a thief through the streets of Sydney. In this clip from the new NFSA restoration of the film, he scales walls, leaps over fences and jumps off a bridge onto a moving horse and cart before apprehending the criminal:

Snowy’s other sporting skills are also showcased when he puts on a display of dives for the local boys in the area including 'The Porpoise', 'The One-and-a-half', 'The Runaway' and 'The Throw-back':

Hollywood and after

The Man from Kangaroo was a big hit for Carroll-Baker Productions as were the other two pictures: The Shadow of Lightning Ridge (Wilfred Lucas, Australia, 1920) and The Jackeroo of Coolabong (Wilfred Lucas, Australia, 1920), both now considered lost films. They obtained an American release but the collaboration between Baker, Lucas and Meredyth finished and everyone went their separate ways.

In August 1920, Snowy moved to Hollywood and continued to make pictures. Two of Baker's Hollywood films – The Empire Builders (Duke Worne, USA, 1924) and The Sword of Valor (Duke Worne, USA, 1924) – have also been restored by the NFSA. In The Empire Builders, 'a thrilling story of the African veldt', Snowy shares top billing with his trusty horse from Australia, billed as 'Boomerang the Wonder Horse'.

When his film career was over Snowy turned his skills to training actors such as Elizabeth Taylor, Shirley Temple and Rudolph Valentino in horseriding and stunt work.

His final career move was to become manager of the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades in California. It was here that Snowy pursued his love of polo, mingling with the Hollywood stars that walked through the doors of the club.

Snowy Baker was a star in every sense of the word, excelling in every activity he pursued. He never forgot about Australia, returning in 1952 with the hope of someday returning here permanently but died the following year.

The Man from Kangaroo, The Empire Builders and The Sword of Valor will have their world premiere NFSA Restores screenings at QAGOMA on 25 April. Each film is accompanied by a new score performed live by pianist Mauro Colombis. The Man from Kangaroo also screens with a live score at Arc cinema in Canberra on 6 May followed by The Empire Builders and The Sword of Valor in June.