Lottie Lyell had her work cut out when she agreed to appear as the love interest of The Sentimental Bloke (Raymond Longford, 1919). The film was, and has usually been admired, as a bloke-ish affair. Its reputation – it was the highest grossing Australian film during the silent era, and has been called the ‘Great Australian Film’ – has been attributed to its (male) director.1 Raymond Longford is revered as “the only genuine creative talent the Australian cinema has produced” and “a remarkable filmmaker” with “unique vision”.2 His characteristic fusion of high Victorian melodrama, natural light and outdoor shooting, pacy realism, and dynamic cinematic techniques, led to comparisons with D.W. Griffith, then the most famous film director in the world.3 

The film’s source, the wildly popular verse-novel The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke (1915), is acknowledged in the first scene, which shows masterful author C.J. Dennis at his desk summoning inspiration and conceiving the narrative we are about to watch. For all its ‘low’ subject matter, Dennis’ book – published during the Gallipoli campaign of World War I, six months after thousands of troops from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps were killed or wounded fighting for the British Empire on ANZAC Cove – was in truth a hymn to both local and national masculine self-confidence. It was such a morale booster that a special “Pocket Edition for the Trenches” was published in 1916.4 The film had its first (private) screening two weeks after the war ended. 

And then there is The Sentimental Bloke himself (unforgettably played by ‘ugly phiz’d vaudevillian Arthur Tauchert): ex-con Bill or Billo or The Kid (but never Willy, if it is the same to you). An unprepossessing man with, nevertheless, such power that his recondite rhyming slang shapes the narrative with the long (and long-held) slabs of dialect that comprise the intertitles. This is a film about a Bloke, (ostensibly) made by blokes – what Dennis’ wry glossary glosses as “A male adult of the genus homo”. 

The main female character is not really a character at all. This is a world where women are diminished as “tarts”, “toms”, “cliners”, “peaches”, “bits o’ fluff”, and “skirts”.5 The book famously begins with “A Spring Song”, as Bill expresses a very literary longing, citing the emotional void in his life: 

The world ‘as got me snouted jist a treat;
Crool Forchin’s dirty left ‘as smote me soul;
An’ all them joys o’ life I ‘eld so sweet
Is up the pole.
Fer, as the poit sez, me ‘eart ‘as got
The pip wiv yearnin’ fer – I dunno wot.6

At this point Doreen doesn’t exist – and you could argue that it was necessary for Bill to invent her. Doreen, a name with etymological links to the words “gift” and “gold”, is the Bloke’s prize. She is the goal of his redemptive journey from urban thug to rural gentry. She embodies certain ideas – the genteel, aspirational, responsible, but precarious middle-class, gendered as female, towards which Bill moves, abandoning his macho, marginal, libertarian, anti-authoritarian world of drinking (“gittin’ shick”), gambling (“eadin’ browns”), and police-bashing (“stoushin’ Johns”).7 Doreen enables Bill to cross the ethnic, class, and gender divide, from Irish, nihilistic negligence, to English, entrepreneurial prudence. In the book, Doreen has no agency, she is entirely the creation of Bill’s first-person narration, his rhetorical language, and his constructed desire. Just like the unseen Rosaline, in fact – figment of the hero’s verbal wit in Romeo and Juliet, the “swell two-dollar touch” Doreen and Bill attend.8 Bill recognises both the imaginative power of the play – to the extent that he starts to cheer on the brawling characters as if he was at one of his beloved boxing matches, to the mortification of Doreen and chagrin of the audience – and the relevance of its story to his own life. Unlike Juliet, however, Doreen never gets to speak her own desire. Significantly, in her first scene in The Sentimental Bloke, Doreen is shown talking, but it being a silent film, we cannot hear what she says, and neither Bill nor Longford show much interest in the matter.

On the rare occasions we do get a glimpse of an inner life – when Doreen rebuffs Bill’s initial advances or shows polite interest in the “Stror ‘at Coot” (Harry Young), she unleashes The Kid’s jealousy and violence. Her song at the “beano” is the one occasion in which her ‘voice’ is given centre stage, and reveals to Bill the depths of her passion for him. It is undermined, however, when the words appear onscreen for us the audience to join in singing, doubtless with raucous results. Her private pain becomes a public joke. As feminist critics like Ina Bertrand have noted, once Doreen is married, she is shunted out to the countryside to make babies. 9 She must cause no more anxiety for the Sentimental Bloke. The descriptor “sentimental” – like Dennis’ use of bathos, intertextuality, and self-referentiality, to undermine Bill’s bluster throughout the book – has a parodic function in the narrative.  It generally means a mild-mannered, refined, “sappy” sensibility, but it can also have darker, more aggressive connotations, like “grievance” and “over-emotional”.  It is these darker sentiments that Doreen can arouse in Bill, and which must be suppressed or controlled.

Faced with such a non-character, what is an actress to do? An actress as intense as Lottie Lyell, one valued for her uncommon naturalism? Well, she does a Lottie Lyell, of course.  First of all, Lyell was always more than an actress – usually without credit, she often served as writer, editor, and art director (performing all three tasks on The Sentimental Bloke), as well as assistant director and producer on the films of Longford, her professional and life partner.10 Such multi-tasking led Bertrand to posit Lyell as the real “creative genius of the partnership”.11 And then there are those Lottie Lyell eyes. These are not the luminous, limpid, passive eyes of the 1920s or ’30s Diva, carefully frozen by toplighting for the worship of fanboys. These are blazing, black-rimmed eyes, scorching a hole in the film, smouldering fury at the reactionary charade she is trapped in, even in scenes requiring her to be meek and yielding. They burn like the sun that provides the film’s most dazzling imagery, but also the “worshipped”, “all-seeing”, “burning”, and “garish” sun of Shakespeare’s play – remember that “Juliet is the sun” liable to “kill the envious moon”.  This may be a reactionary trope – woman as nature – but Lyell turns it to rebellious ends. With Lottie Lyell’s Doreen around, The Sentimental Bloke had better be careful he doesn’t get singed.

The Sentimental Bloke (1919 Australia 106 mins)

Prod Co: Southern Cross Prod, Dir: Raymond Longford Scr: Raymond Longford & Lottie Lyell, based on The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke by C.J. Dennis Phot: Arthur Higgins Ed: Lottie Lyell 

Cast: Arthur Tauchert, Lottie Lyell, Gilbert Emery, Stanley Robinson, Harry Young, Margaret Reid, Charles Keegan, William Coulter, C.J. Dennis


  1. David Boyd, “The Public and Private Lives of a Sentimental Bloke,” Cinema Journal, Volume 27, Issue 4 (Summer 1998): 3.
  2. John Baxter, The Australian Cinema (Sydney: Pacific/Angus & Robertson, 1970), 15, 46.  Of course, Baxter was writing just before the directors of the New Wave would bring Australian cinema to world attention.
  3. Boyd, p. 17 n. 11; Anonymous, “Early Australian Films: Actor’s Reminiscences,” Sydney Morning Herald, 29 January 1934, 6.
  4. C.J. Dennis, The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1916 reprint), page 3 of advertising section at the back.
  5. Dennis, 14, 15, 20, 22, 35, 58, and passim.
  6. Dennis, 13.
  7. Dennis, 14, 15.
  8. Dennis, 39.
  9. Ina Bertrand, “The Woman Suffers” in The Cinema of Australia and New Zealand, Geoff Mayer & Keith Beattie, eds. (London & New York: Wallflower, 2007), 21-28.
  10. Baxter, 15; Bertrand, 22.
  11. Bertrand, 22.

About The Author

Darragh O'Donoghue is an archivist at Tate and a contributing writer for Cineaste. He recently completed a PhD on the Stephen Dwoskin Archive at the University of Reading, and contributed to the 'Beyond Bollywood' event at Tate Modern in April 2022.

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