Cranky Ladies of History guest post: Lottie Lyell

Ann Martin writes: I have been a children’s author for more than thirty years, but a call from FableCroft in 2013 for pitches for an anthology Cranky Ladies of History not only intrigued me, but challenged me to step outside my usual genre and give it a go. I was thrilled when my initial pitch was successful and I was invited to submit my Cranky Ladies story. I’m not through to the finals yet, but one thing I’m sure of; with or without me, Cranky Ladies of History is going to be a fantastic collection of stories.

Who to write about for the blog tour? I wanted an Australian woman, but just couldn’t settle upon which one. Then, as Australian actress Cate Blanchett began winning just about every Best Actress Award going, I recalled an empathy I have felt for many years for another Australian star of the silver screen.

sentimental“Er name was Doreen,” and to the thousands of Australians who crammed into cinemas to watch the 1919 film adaptation of C.J. Dennis’s The Sentimental Bloke, Lottie Lyell was Doreen. With her soft curls and expressive dark eyes, this already immensely popular film actress was the perfect depiction of the sweet-natured young factory girl who turned around Dennis’s larrikin bloke.

Directed by Raymond Longford, The Sentimental Bloke was considered Australia’s first feature film classic and was one of a string of films starring Lyell. Disappointingly, very little footage of her career has survived, except for The Bloke, which has always maintained its legendary status in Australian film history.

Lottie Lyell herself was a similar legend at the time, but was largely overlooked after her death. Born Lottie Edith Cox in Balmain, Sydney, in 1890, she adopted the name Lottie Lyell and headed for a stage career at the age of seventeen. By the time she was nineteen, she had teamed with the actor Raymond Longford, twenty years her senior, and the pair of them toured Australia and New Zealand with a series of stage hits in 1909 and 1910. Longford was to be Lyell’s career partner and lover for the rest of her life, only prevented from marrying by an existing wife, who stubbornly refused to divorce him.

In 1911 a new industry was burgeoning in Australia; motion pictures. After appearing in three films, Longford decided to launch himself into screenwriting and directing. Lyell appeared in almost all of his productions and proved herself to be a movie heroine with a difference.

She quickly realised that the exaggerated gestures of a stage play were not necessary when acting in front of a camera and her screen performances were always natural and believable. Her prowess as a horsewoman and swimmer, as well as her athletic abilities, enabled her to play a very Australian, outdoor-girl heroine, as capable as a man.

Gender roles were also the theme of a controversial, but acclaimed Longford-Lyell 1919 production, The Woman Suffers. The sub-title could well have been “but the man gets away with it”, as the film dealt with seduction, unmarried pregnancy, desertion and abortion – brave topics that served to have the film banned in New South Wales.

As famous as she became as a film actress, what was not revealed in her lifetime was the full extent of Lyell’s contribution to the Australian film industry. She was credited with being co-director of only two of Longford’s films, whereas she had collaborated in scriptwriting, editing, producing and directing in all of his productions. It was only after her death that others who had worked with her expressed the opinion that she had equalled, if not surpassed, Longford as a scriptwriter and film-maker. It was she who had been the driving force behind the decision to produce The Sentimental Bloke and she may well have written the entire screenplay for The Woman Suffers.

Had she lived longer, Lottie Lyell may well have taken her rightful place as an acknowledged Australian film-maker, but as it was, she died of tuberculosis in 1925 at the age of 35. Thankfully, in recent years Lyell’s career has been resurrected in a number of books and articles and we can only hope that history will continue to set the record straight.

Cranky Ladies logoThis post is written as part of the Women’s History Month Cranky Ladies of History blog tour. If  you would like to read more about cranky ladies from the past, you might like to support our Pozible campaign, crowd-funding an anthology of short stories about Cranky Ladies of History from all over the world.