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Sunday, 30 May 2021

C.J. Dennis and his Empire Typewriter: Bringing The Sentimental Bloke* Back to Life

*In Australia, a bloke is a unique masculine archetype associated with the country's national identity. The "Aussie bloke" has been portrayed in important works of art and associated with famous Australian men. "He's a good bloke" literally means "he's a good man".

I hadn’t realised, until after watching a brilliantly restored version of the 1919 Australian silent movie The Sentimental Bloke, that the verse novel upon which the movie is based was written by C.J. Dennis on an Empire thrust-action typewriter. The screenplay was also typewritten, in part by the movie’s female lead Lottie Lyell, using a Remington.

C.J. Dennis typescript.

It turns out that in early November 1988, West Australian media magnate Kerry Stokes (a former rugby teammate of mine, and owner of The Canberra Times when I joined it in 1997) paid $8500 for Dennis’s Empire typewriter at a Leonard Joel auction at the Malvern Town Hall in Melbourne. How the South Yarra company had come by the Dennis typewriter is unknown, but the provenance is beyond doubt. That Dennis used the Empire at his home in Toolangi in rural Victoria was confirmed by his illustrator and friend, Harold Frederick Neville (Hal) Gye (1887-1967). The Empire is now part of the Kerry Stokes Collection, and features prominently in a video of Australian actor Jack Thompson reading excerpts from The Sentimental Bloke at

Clarence Michael James Dennis (1876-1938) published The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke in October 1915. It was an immediate success, requiring three editions in 1915, nine in 1916 and three in 1917; by 1976 57 editions had been published in Australia, England, the United States and Canada, covering 285,000 copies. A very human story, it was simply and humorously told in dialect verse which could be as easily spoken as read. Dennis said of this verse “that slang is the illegitimate sister of poetry, and if an illegitimate relationship is the nearest I can get I am content”. He had “tried to tell a common but very beautiful story in coarse language to prove - amongst other things - that life and love can be just as real and splendid to the ‘common’ bloke as to the ‘cultured’." The timing of the publication was important, as it reached a public depressed by enormous  casualties at Gallipoli.

Our renewed interest in The Sentimental Bloke was piqued when we got the chance to see the restored movie last weekend at the National Film and Sound Archive's theatre in Acton in Canberra. What a brilliant job the NFSA has done with what it describes as our first rom-com. The images are crystal clear, the acting is wonderful, and the new narration by Rhys Muldoon is fantastic, as is the new score by Paul Mac. The film is mostly set in Woolloomooloo, Sydney

The movie was directed by Raymond John Walter Hollis Longford (1878-1959), but much of the credit for it must go to his long-time partner Lottie Edith Lyell (real surname Cox, 1890-1925), who plays Doreen, the Sentimental Bloke's love interest. Bill 'The Kid' is played by Arthur Michael Tauchert (1877-1933), and his friend “Ginger Mick” by Gilbert Charles Warren Emery (1882-1934), who moved to Los Angeles in 1921 and stayed there for the rest of his life, teaching in an acting school.

For the newly restored version of the movie, the NFSA had to search for and identify multiple sources to work from - including a digital scan of a pristine fine grain print from the George Eastman Museum in New York. The film was painstakingly brought back to life by NFSA experts and postproduction partner Vandal.

1 comment:

David Lawrence said...

Another wonderful piece of real journalism from the inimitable Robert Messenger!

A nicely constructed article bringing to our attention to something that we are richer for the knowledge thereof.

I am sure that now many will rush off and read

and enthuse to friends & family about a 'freshly discovered' (at least to them) talent!