“City images are historical creations, and are often more resistant to change than the modernisers anticipate, although the resistance may be stronger at some times than others.”– Graeme Davison1

Abstract >>
Stanley Kramer’s fizzingly apocalyptic On the Beach (1959) dominates and defines popular understandings of Melbourne’s cinematic representation in the 1950s. Shot in the city and its surroundings from January to March 1959, and released internationally towards the end of the year, both the film and Nevil Shute’s source novel have been highly influential in reinforcing and promoting specific understandings of 1950s Melbourne as a staid, sleepy, uneventful and architecturally conservative metropolis. This hard-to-shake view of Melbourne has been further compounded by the lack of comparative feature film images of the city (a brief view in 1952’s Road to Bali excepted) and its appearance in such international documentaries as The Melbourne Rendezvous (1957). But Melbourne does appear more dynamically in a range of less noted and disparate short films, mini-features and documentaries produced by government funded entities like the Australian National Film Board and the State Film Centre of Victoria, small production entities formed around the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Melbourne (often made by major Melbourne architects such as Robin Boyd and Peter McIntyre) and the Melbourne University Film Society, and such maverick independent filmmakers as Giorgio Mangiamele. Many of the works also provide a more critical, though at times celebratory, view of the changing cityscape of Melbourne (height limits for buildings were “exploded” by the completion of ICI House in 1958), the tentative embrace of modernity and internationalisation (e.g. the impact of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics) and the changing ethnicities of the inner city and suburbs. This essay maps and challenges broader understandings of Melbourne’s filmic representation in the 1950s by exploring the various ways in which the city is figured in unjustly forgotten or marginalised films like The Melbourne Wedding Belle (1953), Your House and Mine (1954) and Sunday in Melbourne (1958).

Stanley Kramer’s whimperingly apocalyptic On the Beach dominates popular understandings of Melbourne’s cinematic representation in the 1950s and beyond; including the call for papers for the “Screening Melbourne” symposium (2017) that led to this special dossier. Both the 1959 Hollywood film, featuring a glittering array of stars including Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire, and Nevil Shute’s 1957 source novel have been highly influential in reinforcing particular notions of 1950s Melbourne as a staid, sleepy, uneventful, self-satisfied, uncritical, monocultural, overwhelmingly Western and architecturally conservative non-metropolis.2 The film’s traversal of inner urban, hinterland, outer suburban and beachside terrain also plays into Shute’s vision of Melbourne as an “every city”, a relatively indistinct, almost mid-Western town that could be easily recognised by international audiences. These images are reinforced by the marked depopulation of the film’s early and final images as well as its conscious favouring of Victorian-style edifices – such as Flinders Street Station (that actually opened in 1910), the State Library of Victoria and the General Post Office, the last situated at “ground zero” in Elizabeth Street – and suburban dwellings and landscapes, in places such as the outer beachside suburb of Frankston, over the more modern buildings and public projects starting to remodel the cityscape.

The State Library of Victoria at the end of On the Beach (Stanley Kramer, 1959)

These palpable changes are projected in the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works’ (MMBW) 1954 Melbourne Metropolitan Planning Scheme report, which produced its own tinder-dry, model-crazy informational film, Planning for Melbourne’s Future (Geoffrey Thompson, 1954).3 They are also demonstrated by the only just completed ICI House; a 70-metre tall glass curtain-walled skyscraper built in the wake of council changes to the 45-metre height limit that had helped bring to an abrupt end the late nineteenth-century boom in development and construction that led to Melbourne’s long-lapsed reputation, by the 1950s, as a “marvellous” beacon of modernity. Despite these very real changes to the city’s topography, combined with the transformations wrought by large-scale European migration, a newsreel made by Sydney-based Cinesound at the time of On the Beach’s production in late summer and early autumn 1959 still blithely announced Melbourne’s transformation into a “Dead City” as if it were an astute piece of typecasting hardly requiring a performance at all: “This is Melbourne on a Sunday afternoon”. The overarching shadow of Shute’s novel and Kramer’s film, as well as the resilient discourses of “conservative” Melbourne that each feeds into, have consolidated ways of reading the city that have been difficult to shake even when re-examining works that precede On the Beach’s release.

Ava Gardner heads towards Flinders Street Station in On the Beach (Stanley Kramer, 1959)

The “Last Outpost”: Melbourne as Non-Place

This hard-to-shake view of Melbourne in this period and beyond, reinforced and crowned by On the Beach at the end of the decade – as a non-place of not-quite catastrophe – was further compounded by a lack of comparative feature film images of the city. The years between 1950 and the late 1960s are often regarded, hyperbolically, as a “void” or “interval” in Australian feature film production.4 This situation is compounded once again in Melbourne where very few images of the city appear in fiction features or even international documentaries between the early 1930s and the large-scale production of On the Beach. The one truly Melbourne-set and financed feature film completed in the 1950s, the very low-budget and little seen Night Club (A. R. Harwood, 1952), provides a particularly desiccated view of Melbourne mostly contained to the interior of the suburban Park Orchards Cabaret. This depiction draws it close to the highly interior, stage and variety theatre-derived films made by Frank W. Thring, often staged exclusively within the Princess Theatre, in the early to mid-1930s. The series of eight features and numerous short subjects created by Thring for Efftee Film Productions across this four-year period, represent the only sustained feature film production occurring in Melbourne across this 30-year stretch of time.

The few images of the streets of Melbourne contained in Night Club resonate with the single and unspectacular elevated panning shot across the largely deserted inner north-eastern city that economically establishes location in the opening of Paramount’s Road to Bali (Hal Walker, 1952).5 This is one of a small number of Hollywood and British films made in the 1940s and 1950s that feature brief passages either filmed in Australia or that simulate it as a location.6 These include the outback-set but studio-filmed The Man From Down Under (Robert Z. Leonard, 1943), starring Charles Laughton, the almost completely interior Kay Kyser vehicle, Around the World (Allan Dwan, 1943), John Farrow’s Botany Bay (1952) and The Sea Chase (1955), the latter opening on a majestically widescreen Sydney Harbour, and Geordie (Frank Launder, 1955), the fanciful and very mildly “futuristic” tale of a Scottish hammer-thrower competing at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Tellingly, Road to Bali’s only other Melbourne view – which featured actors Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, who most certainly didn’t trouble the city with their “actual” presence – is of the two stars performing a very dated soft-shoe routine immediately after an ironically stentorian voiceover has proclaimed Melbourne as the “last outpost of the art and culture of the Western world”. This deflating moment links this Hope-Crosby vehicle to the contemporaneous Night Club and the earlier Thring productions. The “last outpost” drabness and perceived cultural inferiority of Melbourne – alongside the curiously colonial docks of Darwin in northern Australia, where the boys quickly flee to – are set in explicit contrast to the garishly artificial “colour” of the subsequent scenes set in the tropical island paradise of Bali.

Getting to Melbourne in Road to Bali (Hal Walker, 1952)

A similarly dismissive and disquieting view of the inflated global “pretensions” of Melbourne is found in the opening passages of The Melbourne Rendezvous (1957), the official international Olympic Games feature documentary made by the French company, CSA Film Productions, and directed and written by René Lucot.7 Before anachronistically and hauntingly calling Melbourne “the world’s youngest city… with miles and miles of suburbs spreading in all directions”, it declares the latest Olympic host “hardly more than a provincial town… named after a British Prime Minister. It’s just a town. Improvised. Adlibbed by an English traveller.” This American-sounding voiceover (in translation, at least) is deployed to introduce a film meant to celebrate and officially document the event. Meanwhile, the rest of the images of Melbourne – including some stunning aerial footage over the city – emphasise a lack of urban density and iconicity as well as the spatio-temporal-cultural distance between this antipodean city and the world’s “proper” cultural and political centres. For example, we see athletes disembarking from airplanes framed to look as if they are landing in isolated paddocks of non-urban Australia. At the conclusion of the film’s portrait of the “Friendly Games”, as we see the final gathering of athletes at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the documentary takes a last, belittling swipe at the incongruity of holding this global event so far away from the more fitting and adequately cosmopolitan sites of New York, Moscow and Paris: “And now 5000 athletes say goodbye to Melbourne. The Olympic Games will probably never be held here again.” In these moments, this documentary draws upon a global imaginary of Melbourne as a remote outcrop “at the end of the world” only just reachable by intercontinental modes of modern transport.

John Batman diorama above Coles in The Melbourne Rendezvous (René Lucot, 1957)

Although this French documentary presents a particularly harsh view of Melbourne’s international standing, it does resonate with many of the other cinematic representations discussed in this essay. Nevertheless, as I’ll go on to examine, there are also a collection of locally produced short films from this era that do reflect some of the changes wrought by Melbourne’s increasingly international outlook, its progressively more Americanised orientation and patterns of urban and industrial growth. This is a perspective that was emboldened by the Olympics themselves: “The Games were pivotal to the process of self-definition through which the city, and especially its business and political élite, adjusted to this new paradigm”.8

Vernacular Melbourne

In this period before television started to fully colonise and populate the audio-visual representation of the city through such seminal series as Homicide (Crawford Productions, 1964-1977),9 Melbourne does appear more positively and even boldly in a range of less noted and disparate short films, mini-features, uncompleted movies and documentaries. These were often produced by or with the assistance of government-funded entities like the Australian National Film Board (which became the Australian Commonwealth Film Unit in 1956) and the State Film Centre of Victoria. They were also made for small commercial companies, the annual Revue of the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Melbourne (often guided by major Melbourne architects, graduates and cultural commentators such as Robin Boyd and Peter McIntyre), the Melbourne University Film Society (MUFS), the Brotherhood of St Laurence-supported Realist Film Unit (a leftist cooperative which ceased production in the early 1950s and often highlighted social and housing problems in the inner suburbs), and such maverick independent filmmakers as Italian migrant and photographer Giorgio Mangiamele. Mangiamele’s key neo-realist-influenced work of this decade, the uncompleted Il Contratto (“1953”), remained largely unseen until the 1990s and provided a unique view of the centrifugal forces of the city and their effects on migrant life. It looks and feels like no other Melbourne film of this period, focusing on the claustrophobia and horizontality of the inner northern suburbs before opening out to the market gardens situated on the city’s hinterlands.10

Many of these works provide a more critical view of the changing cityscape of Melbourne – though many are also promotional or focused on particular social problems such as slum clearance and substandard housing – the tentative embrace of modernity and internationalisation (e.g. the impact of the 1956 Olympics and the unusual focus on the construction of modernist architecture in the city centre in the opening sections of Gil Brealey’s 1958 A Queen Who Returned) and the changing ethnicities of the inner city and suburbs. These films have often been difficult to see, are generally in a perilous archival state, and don’t tend to get written about in the fiction-feature-centric histories of Australian cinema. Much work still needs to be done to trace the various contours of Melbourne cinema in the 1950s and beyond as well as its comparatively rich vein of promotional, travelogue, social, essayistic, institutional, domestic and independent production. These works also need to be examined alongside the full emergence of cultural forces such as the film society movement, the state film centres, festivals, and art-house and foreign language film distribution in this era.

The 1950s is one of the most significant and truly transformative periods in Melbourne cinema and the city’s cultural and social life, but one gets little sense of this when looking at the paltry feature-film ecology. This decade sees the emergence of the Melbourne Film Festival in 1952, the hosting of the 1956 Olympic Games, the introduction of television in the same year, the massive transformation of Melbourne’s demography and population size wrought by post-war migration, and the further development and prioritising of radial, car-focused transport systems. It is nevertheless difficult to get a proper sense of these developments from the piecemeal collection of films that now “represent” this era. Although some of this transformation is addressed or just glimpsed in particular moments and even specific omissions, these works still mostly sit within existing frameworks for representing Melbourne on screen.

I will now go on to start to map the broader terrain of Melbourne’s filmic representation in the 1950s by exploring the various ways in which the city is represented in three of these largely forgotten, under-discussed or marginalised films: The Melbourne Wedding Belle (Colin Dean, 1953), Your House and Mine (Peter McIntyre, 1954), and Sunday in Melbourne (Gil Brealey and Paul Olson, 1958). All three films rely on an unusual combination of tones, styles and forms to provide a more complex and incorporative vision of the city than found in most other public or corporate-sponsored documentaries of the period. They also experiment with sound and image combinations, populating their soundtracks with a range of voices, recording techniques and modes of address that foreground their mercurial approach to the subject of Melbourne.

“Melbourne, As Usual, With Clouds in the Sky”: The Melbourne Wedding Belle

The Melbourne Wedding Belle was made by Colin Dean for the Australian National Film Board (ANFB) and the Department of the Interior and was designed to test the particular qualities of Ferraniacolor – a cheaper Italian alternative to Technicolor – prior to its full-scale deployment in the ANFB’s feature, The Queen in Australia (Frank Bagnall, Colin Dean and Stanley Hawes, 1954). It is a film that is difficult to place. A playfully and refreshingly experimental hybrid made with the increased freedom of a “test” that draws on the travelogue, promotional film, dramatised documentary, operetta and the musical – all in the space of ten minutes. But it is also a film made within the context of a government organisation that fulfils and reiterates many of the requirements and expectations of the form, along with the upper-middle-class (the film is very much enamoured with the leafy climes of Toorak and the “Paris End” of Collins Street) and stentorian sensibilities (though the sung voice is shared by a range of characters) typical of many “official” documentaries of the era.

The film’s mixed mode also needs to be placed within the broader trends of the period. At this time, as Tom O’Regan argues while citing Albert Moran, “documentary production itself incorporated a hybrid mixture of drama and documentary absent in later documentaries of the 1950s and early 1960s”.11 This claim isn’t completely accurate, as The Melbourne Wedding Belle does have a true lightness of touch that separates it from its contemporaries.  As I will also go on to discuss, the independently-produced Sunday in Melbourne introduces a lyrical dramatic component while trying on a range of styles and tones; while the later From the Tropics to the Snow (Jack Lee and Richard Mason, 1964), also made at the Australian Commonwealth Film Unit (ACFU), uses the pitching session for a travelogue to critique the conventionally promotional representation of Australia and specifically Melbourne. Nevertheless, as Deb Verhoeven has claimed, Dean’s Gilbert and Sullivan-styled film is “[s]omething less ambitious than a City Symphony”; while Melbourne itself emerges as “a City of Patter Songs. A Metropolis-in-Minor”.12 Although The Melbourne Wedding Belle offers a curious and surprising take on the creative documentary, particularly for those of us familiar with the stultifying bulk of the ANFB’s output, it also reinforces, while gently pricking and self-consciously playing with, particular views of conservative Melbourne life. For example, in its portrayal of an upper-class Melbourne framed around the fated marriage of “Jane Alma Rhode” and “Hugh Collins Street”, it hardly offers a cosmopolitan view of the city’s changing demography. Although the film’s soundtrack affords a gentle parody, it also relies upon a musical form and intonation, as well as a catalogue of largely depopulated, prettified and ordered views of the city that provide a bracingly monocultural and strikingly “British” vision of Melbourne.

Flying into the city in The Melbourne Wedding Belle (Colin Dean, 1953)

Nevertheless, The Melbourne Wedding Belle fashions a link between the institutional film and the more independent strand of documentary emerging in 1950s Melbourne. But what is the film’s view of the city beyond its mercurial weather (to quote: “Melbourne, as usual, with clouds in the sky”)? Partly due its reliance on a lightly sung score composed by Dulcie Holland, featuring jauntily rhyming couplets, the film’s editing draws upon a relatively wide catalogue of shots, landscapes, urban views and perspectives that take in the top end of Collins Street, the stereotypical aerial views that mark the uncle’s arrival by plane, the Dandenongs, the St Kilda Sea Baths, the upmarket suburb of Toorak (where the wedding takes place), trams, the Royal Exhibition Building, the Royal Botanical Gardens, the Shrine of Remembrance and a range of other less-than-surprising locations.13

The happy couple in The Melbourne Wedding Belle (Colin Dean, 1953)

But although the film seems to breezily celebrate iconic Melbourne while drawing on conservative notions of class (the couple are married in Toorak and the family reeks of untroubled privilege), classical-style architecture, leisure (the bride’s uncle spends time “preparing” at Flemington Racecourse) and transport (the grandfather of the bride jaunts around in an old motor car and the bride’s uncle arrives by plane), The Melbourne Wedding Belle combines these with gestures that gently undermine such triumphalism as well as provides, at one point, a more dynamic portrait of the busyness of the inner-city grid. Although the various members of this “landed” family seem able to command and freely traverse the commercial, geographic and social space of the city, their sense of privilege and uniqueness is questioned by small moments that prick their pretentions: the silly and one-of-a-kind hat the bride’s mother purchases is quickly replaced in the Collins Street store-window display by an exact copy; a nurse who works with the groom at the hospital, disappointed by his predictable choice of blushing bride, deflatingly sings, in a markedly flatter Australian accent: “I say you’re a skeleton under the skin, so what does it matter if I didn’t win”. In its playfully conformist fashion, The Melbourne Wedding Belle reinforces conservative views of Melbourne while suggesting other, burgeoning possibilities and tensions.

An Australian Ugliness: Your House and Mine

During the 1950s and 1960s, a series of documentaries and self-conscious parodies reflecting on Melbourne’s urban design and the deficiencies of its architecture were made for the annual Revue of the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Melbourne and by its Graduates Society. The first of these, “Mouldies” (1953), was a lampoon of institutional documentary and packaged cereal advertising that provided a rare vision of homelessness in Melbourne in this period. The university itself was a key base for the development of a more independent and critical filmmaking community in the 1950s both through these films and the activities of the Melbourne University Film Society (MUFS). MUFS was a significant force as a curator of film programmes, consistent producer of a small number of movies, and instigator of the Melbourne Film Festival. It provided early film production experience for key figures such as Gil Brealey and Barry Humphries on films such as Ballade (Brealey, 1953) and Le Bain Vorace (Dial P for Plughole; Colin Munro, 1954).14 Both of these exploratory but volatile (particularly in terms of personnel) organisations or initiatives gave key figures in film, architecture and other areas such as theatre and writing a platform to express particular visions of Melbourne and reflect on the city’s peculiar combination of American, European and localised influences and references.

Building Melbourne in Your House and Mine (Peter McIntyre, 1954)

The Architectural Graduates Society produced Your House and Mine in 1954 as “an account of domestic architecture in Melbourne”. It provides an ambitious attempt to critique the polyglot imported styles of Melbourne’s suburban homes while promoting a vernacular modernism (which it calls the “Port Phillip idiom”) responding to the particularities of the environment and influenced by the simplicity and lack of adornment of colonial architecture. The key figures involved in the film were emerging architect Peter McIntyre (director)15 and Robin Boyd (writer), a tutor at the University of Melbourne and probably the city’s most prominent public commentator on architecture. Boyd published a regular column in The Age, wrote numerous influential books such as Australia’s Home (1952) and The Australian Ugliness (1960),16 designed important and commonly domestic buildings, and would go on to become a familiar face on Australian television. As David Nichols has argued, although a “nexus between social critique and advocacy for a new architecture” characterises the film, there was also “a measure of self-interest involved in the film’s creation and its message”.17

Opening credits from Your House and Mine (Peter McIntyre, 1954)

Your House and Mine is loosely structured in three parts that move from an historical account of Melbourne’s piecemeal formation – opening troublingly with shots of the bush accompanied by indigenous music and a plummy voiceover that states, “In the year 1835, in the last days of the Aborigines…” – to a call for a truly responsive, environmentally conscious and “appropriate” urban and suburban architecture. An architecture designed to merge with the landscape, embrace a low-key ‘image” of the city and sit in contradistinction to the spectacle of its major northern rival: “Melbourne is no Sydney. She can offer her architects no drama, no spectacle, no challenging obstacle.”

The central part of the film remains preoccupied with the deficiencies of Melbourne’s suburban architecture and its reliance upon an inarticulate combination of styles and forms. As if in rhyming response to this unwieldy and incoherent grouping of structures, the film itself moves clumsily across a range of somewhat static filmic styles from public service documentary and the personal essay to montage-driven agit-prop and lightly dramatised farce. As in the other two films discussed in more detail in this essay, Your House and Mine presents both a progressive and conservative, even sexist vision of Melbourne that reinforces conventional forms of documentary while suggesting the emerging possibilities of a more open, playful and essayistic form of practice.

Bringing the City Back to Life: Sunday in Melbourne

Brealey and Olson’s Sunday in Melbourne is a film that is self-consciously preoccupied with the possibilities and tensions that run through The Melbourne Wedding Belle and Your House and Mine. Shot on numerous Sundays over a six-month period in 1958, and utilising a small crew and long lenses that allowed a certain degree of candidness in and distance from the filming, Brealey and Olson’s proto-essay film follows the conventional structure of the city symphony by poetically documenting a day in the “life” of the metropolis (from dawn to early evening). Although the film’s soundtrack recognises the peculiarity and even singularity of its subject – the “stolen” activities of the city’s inner-city inhabitants or visitors on the notoriously shuttered Sabbath – the pointed choice of the infamously inactive and closed Melbourne “Sunday” rhymes with broader imaginings of the city by numerous commentators including Graeme Davison, Virginia Trioli, Paul Fox and myself.18 With a soundtrack of competing voices and atmospheric sounds partly inspired by Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood (1954), Sunday in Melbourne provides a sceptical view of the city that highlights its perceived emptiness and lack of dynamism. The film is densely populated by images of deserted streets, fleets of unused parking meters, small groups of people who wander aimlessly about window shopping, old men who gather around the GPO, closed-up shops and arcades. We are even shown the exterior of a closed cinema, the Lyceum in Bourke Street, expectantly showing – but not on this day – Sam Fuller’s China Gate (1957): “A woman hungry gun runner on hell’s hottest strip!” blares the film’s lurid poster. Although China Gate turned out to be one of Fuller’s more disappointing films, the pulpy orientation of its publicity and the way Sunday in Melbourne tries to recapture its dynamism though a quick exchange of close-up shots and whip pans of posters and stills adorning the cinema’s exterior suggest the forbidden allure of “foreign” practices of modern mass entertainment (on a Sunday, at least). It is as if Sunday in Melbourne, in these brief moments, is trying to find a visual and aural (we hear a simulation of the film’s proximate soundtrack) manner in which to “break into” the cinema.

This tension between more distanced and engaged modes of documentary is central to the film’s critical and fondly observant view of the city. Its mix of the modern and Victorian, the contemporary and more conservative modes of practice, is a common trope in many of the accounts of Melbourne’s specific and pointedly non-specific identity. For example, both Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness and Your House and Mine combine a zealous passion for modern forms of architecture that are nevertheless still grounded in “indigenous” (read colonial or Georgian) practices of design:

Despite his modernist pretensions, Boyd was never able to entirely free himself from his past… Boyd did what the pioneers of modernism like Le Corbusier or Gropius never did; he read modernism in terms of Georgian architecture, even though he saw it as “the symbol of good taste and breeding” for those “most anxious to display their Englishness.”19

Boyd’s palpable distaste for Victorian-style featurism disguises a complex embrace of the modern and the traditional, the industrial and the homemade, the urban and the bush.

As Jake Wilson has argued, Sunday in Melbourne “might be the first film to treat the city as a non-place defined by its absences”. But as Wilson has also claimed, Brealey’s “early works [including this and other films such as Late Winter to Early Spring (1957)] now look like efforts to find the pulse of Melbourne, to bring the city back to life”.20 So Sunday in Melbourne’s portrayal of this “non-place” does find pockets of variegated activity in areas like the museum and gallery, the jazz clubs and gardens, and, most strikingly, in the changing demography of the city’s population. The film’s self-conscious attempts to vary its approach to its subject also embrace the city’s increasingly multicultural reality – we see Italian, Greek and Asian migrants in the Melbourne General Cemetery, in the gardens, and marking “their” territory in the depopulated city. We also start to hear their faltering voices on the hybrid, poly-vocal soundtrack. In its desolate view of an unoccupied or bored city, particularly in its early sections, Sunday in Melbourne resonates closely with On the Beach, which it precedes by over a year, but it also provides a set of possibilities, tensions and arguments that suggest the emergence of a more complex vision and city. It is this play of specificity and indistinctness, presence and absence, staid perspectives and emerging visions, place and non-place that is integral to Melbourne’s cinematic imaginary in this period and beyond.

Brealey and Olson’s documentary was produced with the support of the State Film Centre of Victoria (SFC) and the Melbourne Repertory Film Unit. It is a work partly made in response to a request by the SFC but that also expresses a more open, personal and ambivalent view than those produced by such government organisations as the ANFB and the MMBW. It feeds into common debates during this period about the city’s restrictive by-laws and its sleepy character: “Melbourne’s puritans, or ‘wowsers’, as the locals called them, fought hard to ward off the dangers of the so-called ‘Continental Sunday’, a phrase that survived into the 1950s as a synonym for all that right-minded Anglo-Saxons deplored in their neighbors over the Channel”.21 Although Brealey himself later suggested that he “felt sorry”22 for Melbourne when making this film, the reasons for choosing the “Continental Sunday” as his subject were equally critical, celebratory and pragmatic:

The diversity of activities so strangely removed from everyday life was particularly appealing. Melbourne’s Puritanical Sunday is almost unique. There was a practical reason as well: the entire film could be made on weekends, the only time available for members of the Melbourne Repertory Film Unit. Above all, there was the profusion of character, searching through a city steeped in an atmosphere of loneliness, which seemed to epitomize humanity today.23

The film expresses – both in terms of what it captures and in its formal composition – this tension between a conservative and modern representation of the city as well as its local and universal implications. As Davison has argued, the Protestant image of Melbourne “was a vision of the city dominated by ideas of suburban segregation and domestic seclusion, in contrast to European ideals of concentration and sociability”.24 The true significance of Sunday in Melbourne is its willingness to speak directly to the tensions generated by these opposing visions of the city.


The mercurial view of the city presented by these short and sometimes experimental documentaries provides a refreshing counterpoint to Kramer’s monolithic and downbeat opus. Of this disparate selection, On the Beach is the work that has survived and fed into the public imagination. It presents a bifurcated and dominant view of Melbourne that highlights both the city’s peripheral location and its status as the final repository of Western civilisation. The quiet, stoic and ordered manner in which Melbourne and its occupants see out the end of the world provides a seemingly neat correlative for a metropolis that Keith Dunstan recalled as “a curious, inhibited city, suffering from an inferiority complex”.25 This view was supported by the long-term restrictedness of the city’s building codes, draconian licensing laws and “popular” images of its grey but comfortable conformity (spiced with verdant and leisurely staged views of the city’s many parks and gardens) promoted by the “official” documentaries made in this period. These documentaries, such as Melbourne – Olympic City (1955; shot in CinemaScope) and even Sunday in Melbourne, provide a “shopping list” of views that incorporate a necessary but somehow less-than-iconic set of locations: the Royal Botanic Gardens, the carefully cropped skyline viewed across the Yarra, the Shrine of Remembrance, the Royal Exhibition Building, Parliament House, the “Paris End” of Collins Street, etc. One of the most celebrated and influential paintings of this era, John Brack’s Collins St, 5p.m. (1955), reinforces this staid vision with its uniform “widescreen” composition of trudging, inexpressive and trench-coated workers mutely differentiated by a limited tonal range of blacks, beiges, browns and off-whites. The “facelessness” suggested by the immediate foreground of this painting – and the whole composition draws on cinema’s sense of deep space and framing – is literalised in the nondescript shapes and featurelessness of the background hordes. These dominant visions and clichés of Melbourne are determinedly hard to shake.

It will not be until the early-to-mid-1960s that alternative and livelier visions of the city start to fully emerge on screen in the work of filmmakers such as Brian Davies, Nigel Buesst and the increasingly inner-suburban fixated Mangiamele. In this period we can see the emergence of a “school” of Carlton-based filmmakers eulogised by Buesst in his documentary Carlton+Godard=Cinema (2003). As mentioned earlier, the production of the massively successful Homicide by Crawford Productions from 1964 onwards provides a further liberation of the ways in which Melbourne would appear on the “smaller” screens of the nation’s homes. But as I’ve also discussed and started to address here, the seeds for these shifting and increasingly incorporative visions of Melbourne’s demographically varied and progressively more urban/suburban identity can be found in some of the short-form documentaries, independent productions and unreleased features of this previous, seemingly underpopulated and, for some, unappetising period of production.

This article has been peer-reviewed


  1. Graeme Davison, “Images of Modern Melbourne, 1945-1970,” Journal of Australian Studies 22.57 (1998): p. 146.
  2. For a more detailed discussion of the representation of Melbourne in On the Beach and how this feeds into broader discourses around the city, see Adrian Danks, “Don’t Rain on Ava Gardner Parade”, Twin Peeks: Australian and New Zealand Feature Films, ed. Deb Verhoeven (Melbourne: Damned Publishing, 1999), pp. 173-85. A revised version of this essay can also be found in Senses of Cinema 59 (June 2011), http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/melbourne-on-film/dont-rain-on-ava-gardner-parade/.
  3. Although Planning for Melbourne’s Future is concerned with the potential growth of Melbourne’s population and the city’s lack of adequate infrastructure, it still resorts to a standard range of Melbourne views that commence with the stereotypical image of the chaste skyline from across the Yarra. The film does make claims for the industrial dominance of Melbourne but also serenades it as “a gracious and beautiful city”. From a contemporary perspective, the most striking moments are those when the film critiques the unchecked congestion of the city’s streets and the inner city slums.
  4. See, for example, the provocative title of Bruce Molloy’s survey of mid-century feature film production in Australia, Before the Interval: Australian Mythology and Feature Films, 1930-1960 (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1990). Although a significant number of features were made in Australia during the 1950s, they were mostly produced and financed by Hollywood, British and French companies and studios. They also generally avoided significant or extended representations of the city.
  5. As Federico Passi points out in his recently completed PhD thesis, The City Unseen: Iconography, Specificity and Mise-en-scène in the Cinematic Representation of Melbourne’s Urban Space, 1896-1965, this shot replicates very similar views found in early Melbourne films. Although the period from 1896 until the early 1910s does, in many ways, provide a richer repository of film images of Melbourne, the patterns outlined in this essay still predominate. As his supervisor, I’d like to recognise the importance of Federico’s work to my thinking on this topic.
  6. This represents a distinct tradition from those large-scale offshore productions made in Australia during this period such as Bitter Springs (Ralph Smart, 1950), Kangaroo (Lewis Milestone, 1952), Robbery Under Arms (Jack Lee, 1957), On the Beach and The Sundowners (Fred Zinnemann, 1960).
  7. The battle between progressive and conservative forces in the city was reflected in the design and architecture of the Olympic Games themselves. Commercial imperatives also hampered decisions around media rights to the Games. As a result, the Melbourne Olympics were poorly represented internationally, with close to exclusive rights being given to a small Australian company and the makers of the French documentary. This documentary also feeds into a particularly European and specifically French cultural imaginary of the antipodes. For a discussion of this “mythologisation” of Australia and its impact on French understandings of Australia cinema, see Amanda MacDonald, “French Film-Crit Takes a Holiday: Les Cahiers Do Desert-Island Discourse,” Metro 103 (1995): pp. 57-65.
  8. Graeme Davison, “Welcoming the World: The 1956 Olympic Games and the Re-Presentation of Melbourne,” Australian Historical Studies 28.109 (October 1997): p. 65.
  9. Crawfords’ Homicide and subsequent crime series like Division 4 (1969-75), Matlock Police (1971-76) and Ryan (1973) helped to shift these audio-visual perceptions of Melbourne.
  10. Mangiamele’s work is most commonly discussed in relation to Italian-Australian migrant experience. His films, such as The Spag (1962) and Ninety-Nine Percent (1963), are also remarkable for their portrayal of inner suburban life in Carlton and Clifton Hill. For a detailed discussion of Mangiamele’s career, see Gaetano Rando and Gino Moliterno, Celluloid Immigrant: Italian Australian Filmmaker, Giorgio Mangiamele (St Kilda: ATOM, 2011).
  11. Tom O’Regan, “Australian Film in the 1950s,” Continuum: An Australian Journal of Media 1.1 (1987): p. 10.
  12. Deb Verhoeven, “A City of Song and Satire: (The) Melbourne Wedding Belle,” Senses of Cinema 59 (June 2011), http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/melbourne-on-film/a-city-of-song-and-satire-melbourne-wedding-belle/.
  13. This documentary can also be seen as one of a broader suite of “city” films produced by the ANFB and ACFU in the 1950s and 1960s that utilise playful soundtracks incorporating rhyming couplets, complex atmospheric sound beds and varied musical scores. For example, Another Sunny Day in Western Australia (Ian Dunlop, 1961) features a voiceover entirely composed of rhyming couplets. These creative elements and approaches are also parodied in From the Tropics to the Snow.
  14. Brealey went on to become a key figure in the Australian film “revival” of the 1970s and 1980s. Although his directorial work is significant, and includes productions such as the AFI award-winning Annie’s Coming Out (1984) and important contributions to television, his truly seminal impact was as the founding Chairman of the South Australian and Tasmanian Film Corporations.
  15. McIntyre was also amongst the architects responsible for designing the Olympic Pool, one of the few truly modernist buildings constructed for the Olympic Games.
  16. See Robin Boyd, Australia’s Home: Its Origins, Builders and Occupiers (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1952); Boyd, The Australian Ugliness (Melbourne: Text, 2010) (originally published in 1960). In many ways, Your House and Mine provides an early presentation of many of the ideas and arguments about suburban architecture and design refined in the seminal The Australian Ugliness.
  17. David Nichols, “Your House and Mine,” Senses of Cinema 59 (June 2011), http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/melbourne-on-film/your-house-and-mine/.
  18. See, for example, Davison, “Welcoming the World”; Virginia Trioli, “Do Not Bother to go to Calcutta,” Imagining the City: Documents, ed. Penny Webb (Melbourne: Centre for Design at RMIT, 1992), pp. 69-73; Paul Fox, “Stretching the Australian Imagination: Melbourne as a Conservative City,” The LaTrobe Journal 80 (Spring 2007), http://latrobejournal.slv.vic.gov.au/latrobejournal/issue/latrobe-80/t1-g-t16.html; Adrian Danks, “Melbourne: City of the Imagination,” World Film Locations: Melbourne, ed. Neil Mitchell (Bristol: Intellect, 2012), pp. 6-7; and Danks, “Don’t Rain on Ava Gardner Parade”.
  19. Fox.
  20. Jake Wilson, “A Very Slow Coming of Age,” The Sydney Morning Herald (16 July 2011), http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/a-very-slow-coming-of-age-20110715-1hh8i.html.
  21. Graeme Davison, “The European City in Australia,” Journal of Urban History 27.6 (September 2001): p. 781.
  22. Brealey quoted in Wilson.
  23. Gil Brealey, “Sunday in Melbourne,” Film Journal 10 (June 1958): p. 44.
  24. Davison, “The European City in Australia,” p. 781.
  25. Dunstan quoted in Davison, “Images of Modern Melbourne, 1945-1970,” p. 150.

About The Author

Adrian Danks is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and Media in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published hundreds of articles on various aspects of cinema and is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley-Blackwell) and American-Australian Cinema: Transnational Connections (Palgrave).

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