Having previously collaborated on twelve low-budget (short and feature) films together, by 1917 Raymond Longford and Lottie Lyell were now wanting to work on larger scale feature productions. Support for this ambition came from Adelaide’s newly formed Southern Cross Feature Film Company, with their own aspiration to produce five dramas and three comedies within the first 12 months. The first of these productions would be The Woman Suffers (1918), and Southern Cross would continue to produce Longford’s great run of feature productions with Lyell including The Sentimental Bloke (1919), Ginger Mick (1920), On Our Selection (1920), Rudd’s New Selection (1921) and The Blue Mountains Mystery (1921), until 1923 when Longford and Lyell broke ties to form their own company, Longford-Lyell Australian Productions. 

The Woman Suffers was marketed as “South Australia’s greatest film production”, and was the first feature in the state. It was filmed in the surrounding cattle and sheep country, and on the banks of the flooded Murray River. It was hailed as a commercial and critical success, especially in South Australia where it played continuously for several weeks, premiering with vice regal patronage at the Adelaide Theatre Royal on Hindley Street, on 23 March, 1918. Had it not been for the success of The Woman Suffers, Longford and Lyell may never have been given the opportunity to direct their follow up feature, The Sentimental Bloke (1919).

Reviews applauded the “flawless” photography of the South Australian backgrounds and “outback” scenes with their “strong colours of sunset”. Longford took full advantage of his surrounding South Australian locations. The film was shot in part on James Henry Aldridge’s property at Richmond Park, now Regis Marleston (formerly St Martins Aged Care Facility). Scenes were filmed at Waterfall Gully, the Bridgewater Hotel and a church thought to be in the Adelaide Hills, as well as Morphettville Racecourse.1 

After its successful run in Adelaide, the film moved to Sydney in August and played daily until October before the NSW Chief Secretary banned further screenings without any public reason given. Longford claimed the decision was due to the “Combine”, the powerful distribution-exhibition partnership of Australasian Films and Union Theatres. Longford argued the Combine was a nefarious effort to book out local cinemas with imported films (in what became known as ‘block bookings’), and therefore shut out the opportunities of local productions to have theatrical exhibition. Interestingly, it appears that NSW never repealed its ban and therefore its screening in this state is perhaps still technically prohibited. 

Nevertheless, questioning the validity of Longford’s claim, screening the film in Victoria and other states was not a legal issue, with no ban in place. Perhaps a more convincing reason for this ban was the subject matter involving the seduction and pregnancies of unmarried women. The plot is sheer melodrama: Ralph Manton (Roland Conway) discovers his sister Marjory (Lottie Lyell) has been seduced. Vowing vengeance he demands to be told the man’s name. Marjory, faithful to her lover, refuses to name him. Ralph discovers the name anyway and confronts him. He discovers the man is Phillip Masters (Boyd Irwin) who had previously seduced and impregnated his sister, Marjory. 

Albeit sordid in story it was no more risqué than other melodramas from the time. Another reason for this ban may very well be accusations of plagiarism from a Mills and Boon novel published in 1917. This suspicion has more validity when considering Longford’s 1917 film The Church and the Woman was earlier banned by NSW for not acknowledging its source material, “A Priest’s Secret” by Edmund Finn.2 There have been further ethical questions about Longford not fairly or accurately crediting the work of Lyell on his films. Lyell received an assistant director credit on Mutiny of the Bounty (1916), in addition to screenwriting and editing credits. Although Lyell starred in The Church and the Woman and The Woman Suffers she is not (initially) credited as a writer on either of these films. The plots of both seem very Lyell informed: young women unjustly accused of crimes, poorly treated by cads they have loved and trusted. 

In The Woman Suffers, Lyell’s unmarried character is seduced, impregnated, and seeks an abortion. The film has consequently been coined “Australia’s first feminist feature”, and for many including Australian film producer Anthony Buckley to deny Lyell’s involvement and influence on the production is unimaginable: “Without question the Lyell fingerprints are over everything”.3 Filmmaker and historian, Margot Nash has found further evidence that Lyell was involved in the art direction of at least The Woman Suffers: it is her handwriting in the on-screen letters that different characters read.4  Some posthumous industry acknowledgment came in 2014, when Buckley successfully campaigned to have the AFI/AACTA Raymond Longford Award changed to the Longford Lyell Award. 

For many years The Woman Suffers was considered lost before its rediscovery in an Adelaide film archive in 1983. The film that can currently be viewed was restored and reconstructed by the National Film & Sound Archive in 1992 with a new musical score added. Today nothing is known of any particular score or sheet music selected by Longford and Lyell to be played in accompaniment with the film’s screening. Not everything from the original film exists, with most of the first two-reels and part of the final reel gone. Remaining is 61 minutes (surviving 4,189 ft) from the originally advertised running time of 77 minutes (8,000 ft). The film is only one of four Longford’s films known to still exist, marking its existence as even more significant and crucial to the preservation and appreciation of Longford/Lyell and Australian silent film history. 

The Woman Suffers (1918 Australia 62 min)

Prod Co: Southern Cross Feature Film Company Dir: Raymond Longford Scr: Raymond Longford, Lottie Lyell Phot: Arthur Higgins, Ernest Higgins Prod Des: Lottie Lyell (uncredited) Mus: Donald Hollier 

Cast: Lottie Lyell, Boyd Irwin, Roland Conway, Connie Martyn, Paul Baxter


  1. “The Woman Suffers”, cited on 6 August 2023, https://www.westtorrens.sa.gov.au/Council/Local-history/West-Torrens-Local-Highlights/The-Woman-Suffers#:~:text=Though%20not%20Oscar%20material%2C%20The,lady%20and%20lover%20Lottie%20Lyell.
  2. Tim Lloyd, “SA May Hold the Pieces to a Silent Movie Jigsaw Puzzle”, The Adelaide Advertiser, 22 October 1988, 6.
  3. Nash, Margot. “Lottie Lyell.” In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds.  Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2018.  https://academiccommons.columbia.edu/doi/10.7916/d8-82dq-w121
  4. Nash, Margot. “Lottie Lyell: The Silent Work of an Early Australian Scenario Writer.” Screening the Past 40. Special Dossier: Women and Silent Screen (2015): n.p. http://www.screeningthepast.com/issue-40-first-release/lottie-lyell-the-silent-work-of-an-early-australian-scenario-writer/.

About The Author

Stephen Gaunson is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Media & Communication at RMIT University.

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