Charles Chauvel - Australian Silent Star of October, 1998
by GLen Pringle
In 1685 Simon and Margaret Chauvel fled their home country of
France, escaping the bloodshed which destroyed the rest of their family
during the French Revolution. They set up home in England with several
becoming officers in the Indian army and later emigrating to Australia
in the late 1830s. They were pioneers on the land, initially in New
South Wales, and later also in Southern Queensland. On 7 October, 1897
Charles Chauvel was born in Warwick, Queensland. His
early life was a tough outback life, rising at 3am to milk the cows,
clean the sheds then ride to school. Charles and his older brother,
John, both had an interest in acting, however, Charles always had to
play second fiddle to the bigger John. Following his completion of
school, Charles worked at an outback sheep station as a jackeroo (a
novice on a sheep or cattle station). At the age of 17 his father
called him home to look after the property while he volunteered for the
Australian Light Horse in
Sinai. Following his father's return, he moved to Sydney to study art,
later studying drama.
Rex "Snowy" Baker who was signed by E.J. Carroll. Desperate to enter
the movie making business, Charles begged for any job.
"Where in the world could you fit in, young man?" Snowy asked.
"Horses," the determined young Queenslander replied, "you will be using
horses and I know all about them and can ride."
When offered a job as horse and stable hand that was intended to
discourage him, Charles eagerly accepted. During that time, he drove
coaches to location and looked after the horses for Snowy's films such
The Shadow of Lightning Ridge and The
Jackeroo of Coolabong. Snowy went to America to fulfill his
contract and Charles followed his idol, initially supporting himself by
writing articles for a magazine. As part of the publicity tour for a
forthcoming film Snowy was to perform some whip-cracking stunts and
needed someone to hold a lighted cigarette in their mouth while he
whipped it out. Charles volunteered and nightly showed that his faith
in Snowy's abilities were not misplaced. His career then moved into a
stream of odd-jobs, including work as an extra and "stunt man" in
low-budget films. After securing a position at MGM, he played some
small roles in the films
Captain Fly-by-Night and
Harry Carey Snr.'s The Man from the Desert.
Fred Niblo helped Charles out, making him his assistant
in the 1923 film,
Strangers of the Night. After
two years in Hollywood learning movie making, Charles returned to
Australia. He spent some time raising money to form a film
unit and at the age of 24 was a producer-director, claimed to be the
youngest in the film world.
With funding mainly from family, friends and local pastoralists,
Chauvel made his first film, Queensland's first feature film,
The Moth of Moonbi in 1926. It was a romantic
melodrama based upon Mabel Forrest's novel The Wild Moth.
The story is of a simple country girl who goes to the big city, where
she is exploited and eventually runs out of money. On returning home
she is attacked by a former colleague of her father, but is rescued
by a suitor who had looked after her when she was younger. Charles
chose to use genuine bush settings in this film. One location required
a difficult "safari" up an almost completely inaccessible trail at
Spicer's Gap, one of the highest points in Queensland. This began a
tradition of Chauvel's where many of his films, always filmed in the
outdoors whenever possible, were often at exotic and remote locations.
Through his work, he attempted to show the beauty of his country to
Later in 1926 Chauvel was looking for a girl for the leading role in
his next film,
Greenhide. A young lady named
Elsie Sylvaney who was completing a season in the
theatre in Brisbane caught his eye. He asked her to take a film test
but after having agreed to it for the following day, she never turned
up. However, Chauvel was able to track her down and after the film
test, talked the still reluctant Elsie into the signing a contract.
Once again, Charles used remote country locations for the country scenes
(Walloon Station was about 500 miles from Brisbane), but it was in the
Brisbane studio that he and Elsie fell in love, eventually marrying in
June 1927. From then on Elsie was known as Elsa Chauvel.
Greenhide was a success, showing to packed out
audiences in both Sydney and Brisbane, however Charles and Elsa had to
take the film around country locations and show it themselves as the
American distribution companies were reluctant to show an Australian
Despondent with the difficulty in marketing their film, Charles
and Elsa took the two films to USA in an attempt to sell them there.
Their timing left something to be desired, arriving at the dawn of
the talkies era. Elsa landed a role as the second lead in
Conway Tearle's stage production of Mid Channel
but after it's run completed they had difficulty in extending their
stay and had to return to Australia.
Suzanne was born in 1930 and for the next 14 months the Chauvels
focused their attention on her before moving to Sydney. Charles'
fascination with the history of the Bounty lead to the
formation of the film company "Expeditionary Films", whose first film
was to be
In the Wake of the Bounty. Insisting on
authenticity, Charles dragged his wife and crew all the way across the
Pacific to Pitcairn Island for some filming of background shots before
they returned to Tahiti to complete the main filming. On returning to
Sydney to complete the interior shots of the Bounty Charles
was faced with the problem of finding an actor for the part of Fletcher
Christian. He noticed the picture of a handsome young man in the
newspaper, who had been shipwrecked off th coast of New Guinea and had
swum ashore. When approached to take the role, he agreed. After the
film's release, Warner Brothers cabled Chauvel to ask where they could
find the leading man and that was the turning point of
Errol Flynn's career.
When the Australian Government offered a prize of 2,500 pounds for
the best Australian-made film, Chauvel rose to the challenge, planning
an historical epic tracing 150 years of Australian history. He managed
to convince the board of "Expeditionary Films" to provide funding and
soon began filming, a large scale process which ended up spanning all
three Eastern mainland states of Australia. Naturally, incredible
attention to detail in the historical authenticity was made by all
involved in the making of this film. In 1935,
Heritage was released, and it went on to win the prize for best film for
Uncivilised was Chauvel's attempt to break into
the American market. It was a major financial success for the small
distribution company which bought the American rights for a pittance
from Chauvel's company. However, none of the profits came back to
The war film
40,000 Horsemen released in 1941
proved to be a major world-wide and Australian success, breaking all
box-office records in Australia. But the second world war led to the
Australian film industry almost closing down, and Chauvel's only film
work over the next few years was a serious of documentary war films
made for the Department of Information. These included Soldiers
Without Uniforms, The Power to Win, While There is
Still Time, A Mountain Goes to Sea and "Russia Aflame".
Then in 1943 he put together a full production to make a film about the
Aussie diggers who had fought against Rommel's forces in North Africa.
The Rats of Tobruk drew praise from returned
soldiers for its accuracy in portraying their experiences.
Chauvel's last two feature films,
Sons of Matthew
Jedda were both largely filmed in the
Australian outback. Sons was another safari film, while
Jedda was the first Australian colour film. It
was ground-breaking in another way, being possibly the first Australian
feature film based around Australian Aborigines. It received sound
praise at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival.
In 1959 Charles Chauvel died of a sudden heart attack. Behind
him he left a legacy of films and not a few actors who can thank
him for starting their careers.
|| Elyne Mitchell. Chauvel Country: The Story of a Great
Australian Pioneering Family. The MacMillan Company of
|| Stuart Cunningham. Featuring Australia: The Cinema of
Charles Chauvel. Allen & Unwin, 1991.
|| Elsa Chauvel. My Life With Charles Chauvel. Shakespeare
Head Press, 1973.
|| Susanne Chauvel Carlsson. Charles & Elsa Chauvel: Movie
Pioneers. University of Queensland Press, 1989.
|| Mabel Forrest. The Wild Moth. Cassell and Company Ltd , 1924.
Glen Pringle /
Copyright © 1998 by Glen Pringle