The larrikin character of Bill, the Sentimental Bloke, also known as the Kid, formally debuted in a four-poem sequence in C. J. Dennis’s first collection, Backblock Ballads and Other Verses, in 1913, although the individual poems had appeared episodically in the Sydney Bulletin since 1909. The poet then developed Bill as the focus of a longer series of verses which was published as The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke in 1915. The book made Dennis a national figure and has rarely been out of print to this day, with over 900,000 copies sold by the 1980s alone (Butterss, Unsentimental 216). It is by far the most popular book of Australian poetry ever published. So embedded was its popularity that, in the not-so-distant past, a now departed generation of Australian men was apt affectionately to utter, upon their wife entering the room, ‘’Er name’s Doreen…’ (Dennis 13) – even if her name was Alma, Beryl or Joyce.
Although it is called The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, the poems are less a lyrical sequence than a kind of verse novel that tells of Bill’s reformation through marriage to Doreen, his ‘precious bit o’ fluff’ (Dennis 46), who works pasting the labels on bottles in a pickle factory. The main tension in both Dennis’s poems and Raymond Longford and Lottie Lyell’s 1919 film adaptation is between Bill’s longing for domestic life with Doreen and the temptations of his larrikin past: the homosocial world of his disreputable friends, his ‘push’, involving drinking, gambling and getting up to no good. As in many popular romances, then as now, once the heteronormative couple is formed it comes under threat, except here the threat is internalised through Bill himself in old-fashioned terms as his own moral weakness. Though this is a comic tale, it follows a well-worn Christian, and decidedly Protestant, path of sin, repentance and redemption. At the end of their story, Bill and Doreen are allowed to re-enter Eden in the Australian bush, in the form of a deus ex machina, Uncle Jim, who offers the couple his ‘little fruit-farm’ where they can settle down and enjoy ‘the mooch o’ life’ (Dennis 53, 61). Bill becomes a domesticated, and thus ultimately a civilised, man. Doreen has brought him in from the push world of stoushing cops and getting on the shick, in order to share the genteel poor aspirations of her and her ‘Mar’, slowly gentrifying him in the process.
The term ‘larrikin’ originally referred to a member of a late nineteenth-century urban gang, or push, who was likely to be involved in street violence and mostly petty crime, so that larrikins had at first a decidedly bad reputation. Yet by around 1910, the time Dennis began writing his Songs, ‘larrikin’ had largely lost its association with an aggressive subculture and broadened to take in any rumbustious male who liked alcohol, gambling and women, usually in that order. This is the period Melissa Bellanta, who has written the standard history, calls ‘the demise of the flash larrikin’ (Larrikins 155), when humour and anti-authoritarianism became key attributes, becoming attached to the behaviour of Australian diggers during the First World War.
Larrikins had long been an object of humour. Bellanta observes that no sooner had the word entered journalistic parlance in the 1870s than newspapers began to caricature the larrikin image as a way of puncturing its machismo. Preparing the way for Dennis’s Bill and Doreen, Melbourne Punch ‘featured larrikin couples in faux-romantic repartee, mining a vein of humour about lowborn courting habits that had long been popular on the stage’ (33). Comic theatrical conventions continued to shape the popular representation of larrikins, in particular the figure of the stage Cockney which came into fashion in the 1890s. Bellanta believes that ‘burlesque-style acts’ and ‘Cockney routines’ from vaudeville informed the Bulletin’s cartoons of larrikin life at this time, in which ‘monstrously unfeminine’ (35) donahs overshadowed their diminutive beaux. Post-Federation, not only does the Bloke owe his rhyming slang to London’s East End, but his most conspicuously sentimental trait, genuine affection for his ‘ideel tart’ (Dennis 10), is one introduced by the greatest stage Cockney of them all. Albert Chevalier’s 1892 hit song ‘My Old Dutch’ (from duchess, OED), in which an uxorious costermonger sings in praise of his wife of forty years, remained a popular standard well into the twentieth century; so much so that in 1915 it was turned into a highly successful film featuring Chevalier himself.
Dennis discovered Bill’s voice in ‘The Stoush o’ Day’, which appeared in the Bulletin on 1 April 1909. Through the conceit of an interracial boxing match between Day and Night that recalls the famous Burns-Johnson fight in Sydney from the previous December, the poem eulogises the topos of diurnal change in suitably pugilistic, if also racist, larrikin patois: ‘Refreshed wiv sleep day to the mornin’ mill/Comes jauntily to out the nigger, Night’ (Dennis 17). Dennis included it among the final Songs, but there the extended metaphor becomes a longueur. In ‘Doreen’, however, published in the Bulletin on 30 September that same year, he made a better start, hitting upon the germ of his scenario with the prospective lovers on their very first date at the beach. Bill has already protested his love, for the opening words are Doreen’s, ‘I wish’t yeh meant it, Bill’. Withholding the Bloke’s declaration allows him to explain his feelings at length in other terms to himself, to the reader and, implicitly, to Doreen, with his untutored language generating the right comically ‘sentimental’ effect:
She knoo. I’ve done me block in on ’er, straight.
A cove ’as got to think some time in life
An’ get some decent tart, ere it’s too late,
To be ’is wife. (Dennis 21)
Dennis soon had a further romantic model in the hunchbacked anti-hero of Louis Stone’s 1911 novel, Jonah, another larrikin who turns his life around. If Stone’s is a darker narrative, it contains the following passage describing Jonah’s experience of falling in love:
Jonah marked with an extraordinary pleasure every detail of her face and dress. The stuff was a cheap material, but it was cut and worn with a daintiness that marked her off from the shopgirls and others that Jonah was most familiar with. And as he looked, a soft glow swept through him like the first stage of intoxication. Sometimes at the barber’s a similar hypnotic feeling had come over him, some electric current stirred by the brushing of his hair, when common sounds and movements struck on his nerves like music. Again his nerves vibrated tunefully, and he became aware that she was speaking. (108)
The beauty of Stone’s language lies in its ability to render an uncommon experience in common terms by way of Jonah’s consciousness. Jonah is not a poet, and his class position means his range of experience is limited to the working-class world surrounding him. His response to his first glimpse of Clara is initially rendered in the clichéd simile of feeling drunk with her beauty, but it quickly shifts into a wholly original metaphor based on the synaesthetic frisson he feels when his hair is being groomed. Dennis would never make a leap like that. Though the Bloke discusses his feelings at great length, we never look very deep inside his consciousness.
That is because the success of the Songs lay in its humorous language as much, if not more, than in its narrative, which is essentially a late-Victorian morality tale about the virtues of industry and temperance. In that regard, Dennis may have been encouraged by the success of English poet John Masefield’s The Everlasting Mercy, also published in 1911. This is a long confessional poem – another verse novel avant la lettre – similarly about a reprobate who finds redemption, and told in a racy working-class doggerel that shocked many contemporary readers:
From ’61 to ’67
I lived in disbelief of heaven.
I drunk, I fought, I poached, I whored,
I did despite unto the Lord,
I cursed, ’twould make a man look pale,
And nineteen times I went to jail.
Now, friends, observe and look upon me,
Mark how the Lord took pity on me. (89)
But there are few if any jokes in The Everlasting Mercy, which is positively evangelical.
In Dennis’s work, on the other hand, the comic deployment of a working-class register ironises the more earnest or uplifting elements of the ‘sentimental’ plot – a legacy of the larrikin’s stage heritage – or, when it does not, works to convince the reader of the narrator’s heartfelt pleasure in his new-found domestic arrangements. The Bloke is a man in love, and his language, for all its crudity, is highly emotive, even while seeming to deny or make fun of emotion. Bellanta writes that, ‘The work treated Bill’s lack of glamor [sic] and suavity as a boon; proof not just of the genuineness of his romantic intentions but his Australianness’ (‘Masculine Romance’ 14).
As Dennis’s biographer Philip Butterss has argued, the Bloke’s ‘Australian’ language is in truth a confection:
Dennis does not accurately record larrikin speech; instead, he creates a larrikin effect by combining examples of street slang, stage-cockney, some phonetic spelling, and various representations of non-standard pronunciation, such as dropped initial h’s and final consonants, and v for th. Part of what so delighted wartime and later readers was the mingling of this larrikinese with vocabulary that came from other registers. (Unsentimental 84)
In other words, the Bloke speaks in a way that someone who is not working-class might fancy that he did, should he speak in rhyming verse. Butterss has argued that much of the success of the discursive melange that comprises Bill’s voice is down to the fact that, by ‘humorously compounding incompatibles’, it helped to ‘imagine’ a national community, in Benedict Anderson’s sense, at a time of deep social and political division during the First World War: ‘Class distinctions, sectarian differences, the divide between the city and the bush, popular culture versus high culture, the clash between different models of masculinity, even gender differences, are all smoothed over or accommodated’ (‘Compounded’ 27). That many of Dennis’s words and usages are not in fact everyday Australian English is implied by his need to include a glossary of them at the end of the book – a practice continued and expanded in Neil James’s 2001 edition of The Complete Sentimental Bloke.1
Outside their historical circumstances, The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke can appear more innovative, even more natively ‘Australian’, than they really are because a patina of nostalgia surrounds them and the lost working-class world that they depict. This has been enhanced by the rediscovery and restoration of the 1919 film version which, along with recognition of its status as the finest surviving example of Australian silent cinema, gives lively visual evidence of that world. Still, the roots of Dennis’s Songs lie less in the actualities of life for the urban poor than in a post-Federation desire to reimagine the white Australian Everyman, not so much through his landscape as in the bush tradition, but through a humorous syncretism of urban registers, as Butterss rightly argues. For all the pastoral bliss he eventually enjoys, Bill’s eruption onto the literary scene in 1915 marked a shift from the sturdy bushman as Australian folk hero to the emergence of the comic larrikin as a national type. In the Bloke’s knockabout, salt-of-the-earth character, Dennis’s hero may channel aspects of the Bulletin school of vernacular balladry, but the individual poems themselves are not ballads. The dominant measure throughout is iambic pentameter in a variety of rhyming patterns, often interspersed with shorter lines for lyrical variety and comic effect. For Dennis’s pseudo-sociolect of the Australian city is also a product of the ostensibly contradictory relationship between elocutionary culture and the traditions of popular theatre, each of which, in their different ways, were preoccupied with matters of class and race as these were expressed through sublanguages and dialects. No larrikin – no-one ever – spoke like the Bloke, except in poems and on the stage. As Bellanta notes, the fact that Dennis called his book Songs ‘[foregrounds] its connections to musical theatre’ (Larrikins 37).
White settler literary nationalism has long striven to speak in a local vernacular. So, with their eyes on publication in a nativist journal like the Bulletin, bush balladists mostly wrote their verses with a demotic inflection but would flick the switch to vaudeville when they affected broader rural dialects, often with comic, but also with consciously nostalgic, intent. This is how Henry Lawson depicts the old bullock-driver, Joe Swallow, recalling his life on the frontier before the arrival of the railways:
But in spite ov barren ridges an’ in spite ov mud an’ heat,
An’ the dust that browned the bushes when it rose from bullicks’ feet,
An’ in spite ov cold and chilblains when the bush was white with frost,
An’ in spite of muddy water where the burnin’ plain was crossed,
An’ in spite of modern progress, and in spite of all their blow,
’Twas a better land to live in, in the days o’ long ago. (76)
Joe’s relatively minor lapses from standard English to a broad rural register are the mark of his authenticity as a bushman, and thus as a genuine Australian. ‘Banjo’ Paterson knew this well, and dramatised it in ‘Clancy of the Overflow’, which famously begins:
I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better
Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the Lachlan, years ago,
He was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,
Just ‘on spec,’ addressed as follows: ‘Clancy, of The Overflow’.
And an answer came directed in a writing unexpected,
(And I think the same was written with a thumb-nail dipped in tar)
’Twas his shearing mate who wrote it, and verbatim I will quote it:
‘Clancy’s gone to Queensland droving, and we don’t know where he are.’
The poem’s narrator is an office-bound city-dweller who would ‘like to change with Clancy’ and go droving around the semi-literate bush, but his use of the Latin verbatim implies the enormous, ultimately unbridgeable cultural differences involved. Part of the lure the country holds for him lies precisely in the presumed absence there of civilised literacy, being a place where nature itself can speak to the bush worker, as he later says, ‘In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars’ (13-14).
Dialect poetry in the United States became popular after the Civil War, notably in the frontier verses of Bret Harte which influenced Lawson, and in the homelier midwestern idiom of Indiana-born James Whitcomb Riley, the so-called ‘Hoosier Poet’. Riley was responsible for such formerly well-known poems as ‘Little Orphant Annie,’ ‘When the Frost is on the Punkin’ and ‘The Raggedy Man,’ seemingly written in the idiom of local farming people, including their children:
O the Raggedy Man! He works fer Pa;
An’ he’s the goodest man ever you saw!
He comes to our house every day,
An’ waters the horses, an’ feeds ’em hay;
An’ he opens the shed – an’ we all ist laugh
When he drives out our little old wobble-ly calf;
An’ nen – ef our hired girl says he can –
He milks the cow fer ’Lizabuth Ann. –
Ain’t he a’ awful good Raggedy Man?
Raggedy! Raggedy! Raggedy Man! (63)
Riley was also a renowned performer of his own work and, while this broadened his appeal among unschooled audiences, one should be wary of conflating such verse with folk poetry. Nadia Nurhussein states, ‘Rather than courting an illiterate or minimally literate reader or listener, as an understanding of dialect poetry as oral or inclusive would suggest, the dialect poem targets a highly literate reader’ (33). So that idiomatic words in what is called ‘eye dialect’ – which is to say words spelt as they would be pronounced rather than corresponding to standard orthography (like fer, an’, nen, ef and ’Lizabuth in the example above) – still require advanced reading skills to be able to decipher their deviations on the page. Mark Twain’s literary representation of the argot of Pike County, Missouri, as spoken by the titular hero of Huckleberry Finn is part of the same cultural moment, and discussion of that novel has often focused on how much an educated reader is meant to see through Huck’s supposedly unlettered words, especially in connection to race and his relationship with Jim, the runaway slave who is his companion along the Mississippi.
But the ironies implicit in a faux-naïf lingo can also work in the other direction, as unfamiliar spellings and highly localised words may present their own challenges to the silent reader. Nurhussein says of dialect verse such as Riley’s that, ‘The competent reader, as a result of the poem’s disruption of literacy through bad spelling, is returned to a state of semi-literacy’ (31) where, like an early learner, they may be forced to sound out the syllables. By pretending to represent ‘pure’ uneducated speech at a time of rising mass literacy, Riley’s use of dialect in a way restages for the educated the experience of learning to read again, thereby compounding the nostalgia of his downhome subject matter by casting his readers back to their own earliest encounters with the printed word. Nurhussein’s study of American dialect poets is called, significantly, Rhetorics of Literacy, and in it she argues:
how an art form that appears to be most closely linked to the vernacular is in fact preoccupied with investigating its distance from it. As a genre cultivated in order to mimic oral performance and to fashion authentic personalities, dialect poetry lays bare its own construction. Late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American dialect poetry is in essence the mingled product of enduring oral art forms and increased reading and writing practices. (211)
At the historical moment when more and more people were educated to read, the pretend orality of dialect verse gave the impression of access to the voice of purportedly artless, salt-of-the-earth characters unaffected by literary learning. The tendency to privilege the truth value of speech over writing because it is embodied in the speaker and seemingly more closely expressive of the self has been called phonocentrism by Derrida, which is why this kind of poetry offers the illusion of genial candour to the extent it does. But dialect verse can be very hard to read, thus presenting ‘a simultaneous graphic difficulty and emotional sincerity’ (Nurhussein 211). So that newcomers to such a well-loved, perfectly serious poem as Robert Burns’s ‘To a Mouse’ usually require marginalia that unpack its Scottish terms. In a local context, I can also testify that undergraduates these days find the slang and contractions of The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke mostly impenetrable without a glossary. A century ago, however, Nurhussein says, ‘both readers and writers found an edifying pleasure in laboring through that illegibility’ (214). Even so, the labour involved emphasises the fact that the same apparently ‘authentic’ voice is necessarily written – self-consciously crafted, and in that sense literary – precisely because its seeming artlessness is belied by calculated orthographic challenges.
One small example may be taken from Dennis’s Songs, ‘The Play’, where Doreen takes Bill to a performance of Romeo and Juliet, the narrative of which he then summarises in larrikinese. This scene proved such a hit with readers that Dennis later considered a larger ‘Bloke Shakespeare’ along these lines, travestying ‘a dozen or so’ of the Bard’s other plays in Bill’s voice, but never got around to it (Butterss, Unsentimental 168). Although Doreen’s attraction to Shakespeare is a mark of her more bourgeois, Anglophilic cultural interests, his works, staged in often lavish productions by prominent actor-managers, were nonetheless genuinely popular during the Victorian and Edwardian periods, in Australia as much as in Britain and the US. The linguistic games involved in Dennis’s verbal mash-up therefore rely on his reader’s assumed familiarity with Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers. Even a short passage such as this, in which Bill paraphrases Romeo finding Juliet in feigned death, asks us to think through at least three registers:
Then things gits mixed a treat an’ starts to whirl.
’Ere’s Romeo comes back an’ finds ’is girl
Tucked in ’er little coffing, cold an’ stiff,
An’ in a jiff,
’E swallows lysol, throws a fancy fit,
’Ead over turkey, an’ ’is soul ’as flit. (Dennis 26)
Firstly there’s the deflating, conversational level of words like stiff, jiff and fit (in the sense of a ‘turn’), below which sit Bill’s more proletarian larrikinisms, such as ‘’E swallows lysol’ (Lysol was a brand of disinfectant whose ready availability made its consumption a once common means of suicide), to which is added the pure Cockney of ‘coffing’ for ‘coffin’ (Lawson’s Joe Swallow would have said ‘corffin’). While pretending to sound above these, the cod poetic phrase ‘’is soul ’as flit’ also seems comic, rhyming with fit, and a crude substitute for flown, but the usage is correct, if obsolete (OED). Changes in theatre practice in the early twentieth century, along with mounting incursions on the text of Shakespeare’s plays by literary scholars, saw his work lose much of its broader appeal. In effect, ‘The Play’ is situated on the cusp of this transition, for its humour is principally based on the more educated reader’s awareness that the verbal intricacies of Romeo and Juliet are beyond semi-literate Bill’s capacity to properly express them. Yet the estranging language of ‘Bloke Shakespeare’ such as this also poses challenges. Less educated readers may well have found in Bill’s bewilderment a mirror of their own.
Comic faux dialect verse like Riley’s or Dennis’s was a function of the public, highly performative nature of popular poetry before the First World War. Its humorous deviations from standard spelling and grammar suggest, not so much empathy with the various ‘others’ so represented, or even a broader tolerance for dialects in general, as a desire to make light of differences in ways that imply an underlying faith in standard, or a standard, English. By and large, from their position of linguistic superiority, readers are meant to find amusement in the speakers of dialect poems. The elocutionists and prescriptivists might then be said to have succeeded in their aims with the newly literate majority. As Michael North puts it in The Dialect of Modernism: ‘As “broken English,” dialect was the opposite without which “pure English” could not exist. In fact, “pure English” could never adequately be represented except by implication, so that dialect, slang, and other forms of linguistic slovenliness had to be kept in currency to keep “pure English” alive’ (24).
Picturised and Directed
That The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke was written to be performed is evident in its swift adaptation into two forms of contemporary popular entertainment: the poetic recital and the silent movie; the one long established, the other just then coming into its own. It is remarkable that the first to recite Dennis’s verses professionally was the renowned elocutionist Lawrence Campbell, who in 1916 received the author’s own endorsement, although others soon followed (Butterss, Unsentimental 96–97). Campbell was evidently convincing in these performances – Clay Djubal, in his exhaustive Australian Variety Theatre Archive, thinks they may have continued into the 1930s – but in his first season he was accused by one reviewer of overdoing things in ‘a series of Gawdstruths and Strikemes linked together by strips of unaspirated English, or rather Cockneyisms’ (‘The Bloke’). More accustomed to correcting the errancies of Australian speech, the English-born Campbell was determined to show that he could slum it with the best of them, even performing the Songs at the Sydney Tivoli. But no larrikin ever spoke as Bill does, even if those with an institutional investment in correct speech like Campbell thought that he might. In this he was not so far removed from the mass audiences who actively embraced the poems and their characters, identifying with them via the popular conventions of dialect verse and vaudeville stereotypes. As Butterss suggests, Dennis’s success lay precisely in his ability to artfully combine pre-existing elements, ‘humorously compounding incompatibles’ in such a way that the Songs enjoyed cross-class appeal. The poet Les Murray expressed that appeal more positively when he wrote: ‘Australian and New Zealand readers were enchanted to see an inventive colloquial language that was familiar and native, even if they did not themselves speak quite that way, and by the comic tension between harsh street argot and tender sentiment’ (8).
Aiming to capitalise on his creation, Dennis drafted a rudimentary film script soon after obtaining a contract from Angus & Robertson, but nothing came of it (Butterss, Unsentimental 73–74). He also adapted it into a three-act play in 1922, which enjoyed a successful run, but in it the poems appear to have been largely relegated to a secondary role in favour of a prose treatment. Though Dennis later used this as the basis of his script for F. W. Thring’s 1932 talkie version (see below), it was never revived on stage.2 In any case, the vernacular qualities of the original verse are better realised in Raymond Longford and Lottie Lyell’s adaptation, whose true-to-lifeness socially situates its characters and disarms the patronising edge of Dennis’s dialect. Though its opening frames declare that The Sentimental Bloke (as it was titled) was ‘picturised and directed’ by Longford, it now seems clear that Lyell was an equal in their creative partnership and co-wrote the scenarios for their films (Nash). Production was completed in 1918 but, owing to distribution problems and the closure of theatres due to the Spanish influenza pandemic, The Sentimental Bloke was not released until the following year. It quickly became a hit both here and in the UK, where audiences were au fait with Dennis’s Cockneyisms, but never secured release in the US, despite adaptation of the intertitles into American slang (Pike 52).
Apart from shifting the setting from inner-city Melbourne to Darlinghurst and Woolloomooloo in Sydney, Longford and Lyell followed the book’s narrative closely. Lyell, who was already a star of the Australian screen, took the role of Doreen. Bill was played by vaudeville comedian Arthur Tauchert who, at forty-one, represented an unlikely romantic lead. His performance nonetheless has great subtlety and wit, qualities enhanced by Longford’s insistence on realism, with many scenes filmed on the streets of inner Sydney and featuring the local inhabitants, for which the cinematographer, Arthur Higgins, should also be credited. Interviewed in 1920 in the wake of his film’s success Longford said: ‘The true art of acting is not to act … and that’s what I have dinned into the ears of my characters, and I think it has had its effect in the naturalness of my pictures. If I am producing Australian stuff, I want it to be Australian, and the average Australian is a casual, carelessly natural beggar’ (30). The film enhances the comedy generated by Bill’s ingenuous aspirations to middle-class culture, not least of which is the romance narrative in which he finds himself. It moves from physical comedy in its opening scenes involving a police raid on a two-up school into something closer to a comedy of manners during the Bloke’s awkward courtship of Doreen. The action correspondingly shifts from urban spaces into domestic space and, ultimately, to a farm – filmed in then rustic Hornsby – far from the temptations of larrikin life. In David Boyd’s words, ‘the Bloke’s progress is from the public world to the private, with all the attendant social repositioning that implied at the time’ (12).
The great popularity of Dennis’s Songs and the simplicity of its narrative made it an obvious choice for adaptation to the screen. So much of the poems’ humour lay in the artful novelty of Bill’s larrikin patois, though, that its inclusion was essential, since cinemagoers would have expected it from their own experience as readers or at recitations, and many would have known whole passages by heart. In a ‘foreword’ to the failed American adaptation of the film in 1921 the filmmakers went so far as to claim that Dennis’s verses ‘have been pronounced by the foremost English-speaking writers as the greatest dialect poems ever written. While purely Australian in every particular they are universal in their application’ (‘Four Versions’). Even in 1999 William D. Routt could claim that: ‘Without Dennis’s writing, the film could not weave its charm. The dialect makes the film; it seems to me that The Sentimental Bloke is the film of Dennis’s dialect’ (18). But Dennis’s poems are not immediately ‘dramatic’, in the sense of depicting characters interacting; rather, events are reported by Bill only after they have taken place, and always through his perspective: a case of telling rather than showing. The voices of other characters are only minimally quoted. How to create intertitles that ensured narrative flow while preserving the flavour of Dennis’s language within the time constraints of the audience’s reading abilities?
Even during their heyday, the use of intertitles was much debated within the film industry. They could be seen as compromising the ‘universal language’ of images offered by movies and thus anti-cinematic by their very nature. After all, by breaking into the story, they are inescapably non-diegetic, even – indeed especially – when representing the speech of characters. In fact, the word intertitle only came into being with the coming of sound; subtitle was the more typical term used to describe them during the silent period, maybe as a way of understating their interruptive effect. As the possibilities of the medium began to be explored, the growth of ‘subtitles’ was a direct function of the rise of narrative cinema, and they existed in two basic forms: those containing expository or continuity elements, such as summaries of action, changes in location or the passage of time, and those containing dialogue. A third, related kind was the insert, a shot of a piece of written text – a letter, a note or part of a book – that served to advance or explain plot points while remaining part of the film’s diegetic world but might, in the style of a letter, say, contain aspects of a character’s voice (Nagels 368–69). Intertitles containing dialogue evolved later than those involving exposition, and came increasingly to prominence after around 1910, ‘presumably’, as Gregory Robinson writes, ‘because dialogue titles furthered the film’s narrative in a way that was ostensibly less obtrusive’ (39). By the time The Sentimental Bloke was in production, though, the ways in which titles were designed and deployed remained more fluid than in the 1920s, when classic Hollywood cinema emerged as the paragon. Routt notes that, while in some films certain characters may ‘speak’ in slang while interacting with other characters, ‘there are very few silent films in which the expository titles are in any kind of dialect at all’ (18).
So much is often made of the radical modernity of moving pictures in the late nineteenth century that it is easy to forget that the Victorians were wholly familiar with projected images and their combination with words through the medium of the magic lantern show. As early as 1825 Thomas Babbington Macaulay began to make the connection, when he wrote that ‘Poetry produces an illusion on the eye of the mind, as a magic lantern produces an illusion on the eye of the body’ (15). Mike Chasar has written that ‘many lantern slides facilitated relationships between print, orality, photography, and projection while simultaneously presenting the device as an improvement on them’, and that ‘poetry was central to this process’ (29). By the end of the century, recitations of popular poems were often accompanied by specially designed illustrative slides, many of which began to include sequenced extracts or whole verses of the work being performed. As Chasar observes: ‘Punctuated by the pause of the line break and using stanzas as an ordering mechanism, poetry’s emphasis on suspensions and breaks between discrete units of text mapped well onto the serial, slide-by-slide sequence of many lantern shows’ (34).
It is to be expected, then, that narrative poems should be among the earliest and most popular stories to be filmed. Chasar records that American film trade journals in the period 1908 to 1915 ‘reported on or mentioned more than seventy-five poems by a diverse range of writers being adapted in one way or another to the screen’ (83–84). Paradoxically, many of the poems adapted for films were chosen precisely because their narratives were so well-known that they could be restated in more purely cinematic terms, where the role of text could be minimised and subordinated. Unsurprisingly, Longfellow was popular, with several adaptations each being made of ‘The Village Blacksmith’, Evangeline and The Song of Hiawatha, as well as Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ and Enoch Arden (Chasar 80). In 1925 Longford and Lyell also freely adapted Enoch Arden in The Bushwhackers, transposing the hero’s disappearance in the outback for Enoch’s shipwreck (Shirley and Adams 72).
Even before an intertitle introduces Tauchert as ‘The Sentimental Bloke’ and he emerges from behind the grubby door of his Woolloomooloo lodgings, another intertitle, ‘C. J. Dennis’, introduces the author himself, depicted puffing at his pipe and scribbling away, as if what follows issued directly from his pen. As the film unfolds, however, most intertitles are in Bill’s voice which, at first glance, present as ‘dialogue’, but in adhering so closely to Dennis’s text they are instead non-diegetic, being situated ‘above’ the story. In the main they are past-tense expository, making Bill both the narrator of, and yet a character within, his own account – although he also quotes fragments of the speech of others. As a result, in terms of literary narrative, the intertitles are strongly ‘focalised’ through Bill’s first-person perspective, just as the original poems are, propelling the story as a kind of extended vaudeville sketch. For audiences used to recitation, Tauchert-as-Bill presents as a comically constructed ‘character’ who might be said to ‘recite’ the story, because the intertitles inevitably retain their non-diegetic character as verse throughout. Indeed, Tauchert himself went on to recite the poems at screenings of the film and, later, on radio (Ritchie).
While the film retains the episodic character of the Songs, much editing and some relocation of text was required to allow for ease of transition between each scene, and a number of scenes have been invented for the same reason. The action begins by introducing Bill and his best mate, the rabbit-oh Ginger Mick, played by Gilbert Emery, who is dressed more like an old-style flash larrikin from the 1890s. The pair meet up, go to the pub, and then to a two-up school, which is raided by police, who then pursue the players as they escape in various directions. All this slapstick action, which includes a convincing fight between Bill and one of the police, has been skilfully introduced by the film-makers.3 Just three simple, expository intertitles signal the key events – ‘The “Two Up” School’, ‘The Raid’, and ‘Pinched’ – and these are interspersed with short, expository titles which introduce Bill’s own voice: ‘I spen’s me leisure gittin’ on the shick’, ‘Jist ’eadin ’em an’ doin’ in me gilt [money]’, ‘Ginger’s luck was in’ (because he escapes by hiding under a pile of hay), and ‘I gits a stretch fer stoushin’ Johns [police]’. Most of these phrases appear in the very first poem in the original book, ‘Spring Song’. Our hero then appears in mid-shot behind bars, raises his eyes to heaven, and begins to ‘speak’ its opening lines in earnest, lineated as follows within the film’s standard 4:3 aspect ratio:
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.4
At this point Bill is not commenting on his circumstances in an expository manner so much as expressing his feelings directly, but it is a fine line and one that is maintained throughout. After his release from gaol, Bill decides to reform while sitting on a bench in the Botanic Gardens. As we see him expertly roll a cigarette from a scrap of paper picked up off the ground and shards of tobacco disgorged from his shabby vest pocket, Tauchert’s acting is the very opposite of theatrical: it looks like lived experience. In being relatively less intercut with titles, these early scenes convincingly ground his wayward character within the milieu which gave rise to it. A comfortable adjacency has been thus established between the world that he inhabits in the film’s present and the past tense in which he ‘speaks’ to us from outside it.
Intertitles are also used to generate fresh ironies between the dialect’s literary humour and the everyday realism of Tauchert’s performance. As Bill begins to reform he ‘gits a job at hawkin’’ – just like a Cockney costermonger – which thus creates the occasion for his first encounter with Doreen at the markets, where he finds her ‘Inspectin’ brums [cheap jewellery] at Steeny Isaacs’ stall’. Note that Bill is never a hawker in the poems; this is more Ginger Mick’s ‘lurk’. Only after Tauchert lewdly eyes Lyell up and down from behind does he observe the gold-wire brooch that spells her name, which prompts the famous line ‘’Er name’s Doreen’. She, however, spurns his opening move, ‘Wot O! It’s been/a bonzer day’, which leads him to exclaim, ‘The sorter look she gimme!/ Jest becors/I tried to chat ’er, like you’d/make a start/Wiv any tart.’ Which is precisely the issue: Doreen is not ‘any tart’. After dismissively looking him up and down in turn, she walks off. It is the first of his many lessons in gentlemanly behaviour.
Bill subsequently arranges an introduction and, while selling vegetables in the ’Loo, Doreen’s image appears comically superimposed over the heart of a pumpkin he has just sliced open for sale. This is immediately followed by an intertitle that looks forward to their first date at Manly: ‘’Struth ’ow I ’ug that promise/she give me fer the beach./The Bonzer Peach!’ That first date is introduced with the expository title ‘Sunday Night. The Meet.’ – whereupon we see Doreen coming up behind Bill waiting on a street corner. Bill’s surprise and satisfaction at this state of affairs is marked by the spontaneous way he lets his cigarette fall from his lips and then doffs his hat, actions followed by lines taken from the preceding poem, ‘The Stoush o’ Day’, which more bluntly cut to the chase: ‘An’, square an’ all, no matter/’ow yer start,/The commin end of most/of us is – Tart’. This humorous tension between the emotional sincerity of his actions, their very ‘sentimentality’, and the exaggerated vulgarity of his words will run throughout as a continuous dramatic irony.
In contrast to the close attention paid by Longford and Lyell to the verse of The Sentimental Bloke, when Dennis himself wrote the screenplay for the 1932 talkie version directed by F. W. Thring he adapted his own stage play from a decade before. Along with cutting back the poetry, Dennis added a sub-plot involving some city crooks trying to cheat Uncle Jim out of a prospective goldmine on his farm. For all these unhappy changes, Thring still affirmed his movie’s authenticity with textual references to the now classic book. So, in the opening credits the main characters literally walk out of its pages, while extracts from some of the best-known verses appear as twenty-seven intertitles superimposed at key moments over the action they illustrate – a curiously hybrid effect in a sound film. Indeed, the fact that it was a talkie based on a sequence of dialect poems created its own problems. As Butterss remarks, Cecil Scott who played Bill, despite ‘dropping a few consonants … sounded as if he had taken elocution lessons’, and ‘there was a vast gulf between … the larrikinese on the intertitles’ and the Cultivated Australian accent of Ray Fisher as Doreen (Unsentimental 189). Foreshadowing these mannerisms, the music over the opening credits is ‘In the Good Old Summer Time’, a popular US song from 1902 that introduces a note of conspicuous nostalgia throughout – as if larrikins in the style of the hero now belonged firmly in the past.
In their intertitles Longford and Lyell cleverly adapted the past tense of Dennis’s poetic text in ways that comment on the unfolding present of the film, neatly pivoting between Bill’s consciousness and the world around him. In the light of the film’s relationship to Dennis’s text, it is worth considering how differently it depicts two episodes based on adjoining poems, ‘The Play’ and ‘The Stroor ’at Coot’.
Putting In the Boot, Wording the Coot
As adapted by the filmmakers, ‘The Play’ unfolds by intercutting medium close-up shots of Doreen and Bill in their theatre seats reacting to excerpts from the unfolding drama on stage. The boxed-in scenes of Romeo and Juliet, which give the impression of being performed on stage, recall an older, more primitive style of cinema when films were often made of cut-down versions of current theatrical shows. The Shakespearean actors are uncredited, but it is possible they belonged to the Allan Wilkie company, which had performed Romeo and Juliet at Sydney’s Adelphi Theatre as recently as 1916 (‘Romeo and Juliet’). If the Shakespeare scenes belong to an ‘archaic’ film aesthetic, as David Boyd has suggested (8), the intensive use of intertitles recall the film’s own origin in print. The whole play sequence lasts about seven minutes and includes nineteen intertitles in all, some more text-heavy than is usual so as to retain the dominantly verbal ‘Bloke Shakespeare’ humour.
Through his gentrification, Bill manages to accommodate high culture, but on his own terms, through his own eccentric rendition. In 1919 just as today, when audiences read Longford and Lyell’s intertitles they, in effect, translate Bill’s linguistically estranged account back into standard usage. But watching a performance of Romeo and Juliet is a more unusual experience for our hero, as the language of Shakespeare is itself estranging. Furthermore, we are invited to read the intercut scenes from Shakespeare as a reflection, or rather mise en abyme, of Bill’s own life and his relationship with Doreen, as when Romeo ‘swears ’e’s done with lash [violence], ’e’ll chuck it clean./(Same as I done when I first met Doreen.)’. Bill’s retelling of the play through the intertitles thus constitutes an act of what Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence would call ‘misprision’, a creative misreading of the text which renders it from tragedy into comedy. For Bill can only understand the lofty stage business in connection to his own social context, most notoriously when Romeo runs Tybalt through: ‘“Put in the boot!” I sez, “Put in the boot!”’ It is a justly famous line, and Longford and Lyell fittingly insert just that single phrase between images of a highly excited Bill being pacified by Doreen. Yet the violence of his outburst is disarmed because his dialect also serves to infantilise him, emphasising his child-like innocence in a site of ‘’igher things’ so remote from his former life in the push. As Bill quotes from or paraphrases Romeo and Juliet, the cinema audience is also, in Nurhussein’s words, ‘returned to a state of semi-literacy’ vis-à-vis Shakespeare, whose words are subject to Bill’s apparently naïve – but, in reality, Dennis’s highly sophisticated – rewriting. The dominant comic mode across this episode is therefore bathos, based on the assumption that even bogus lower-class language such as this is unsuited to tragic action. With the death of Juliet, the scene culminates in a punchline across two intertitles that resolutely bring us back to the reality of Bill’s world. The first follows Juliet’s discovery of Romeo’s body:
‘Dear Love,’ she sez,
‘I cannot live alone!’
An’ wiv a moan,
She grabs ’is pocket knife,
an’ ends ’er cares…
We then see the actor front-on pretending to ‘stab’ herself in a histrionic manner by thrusting the knife against her side: an obvious piece of theatrical fakery. The curtain comes down, and only then is the couplet closed:
‘Peanuts or lollies!’
sez a boy upstairs.
As a comic highlight, ‘The Play’ had to be included in the film, but it resists a more purely cinematic depiction because both texts, Shakespeare’s and Dennis’s, need to run side-by-side. Just as Dennis’s lower-class dialect verse is set against Shakespeare’s ‘pure’ English, the verbal humour of the intertitles and Bill’s growing excitement must contrast with the costumed hyperbole of the stage production.
That inclusion of ‘The Play’ posed a problem for the 1932 talkie version is evident in the fact that either Thring or Dennis himself relocated it to just before the final act, when Bill and Doreen move to the country. There it might be said to cap off Bill’s larrikin career, but it adds nothing to our understanding of the couple’s relationship, which is already established. It is also the only section of that film in which the text of Dennis’s poem is intrinsic to the comic action. Only two short extracts from Romeo and Juliet are featured, the balcony scene and the fight scene. Unlike the earlier film, there are no cutaways to Bill and Doreen, his reactions being rendered through seven superimposed intertitles. The scene concludes as duelling characters in the play dissolve into Ginger Mick in a punch-up with a fellow larrikin, the shift marked by two succeeding titles:
Wot’s in a name? Wot’s in a string o’ words?
They scraps in ole Verona wiv the’r swords,
An’ never give a bloke a stray dog’s chance,
An’ that’s Romance…
But when they deals it out wiv bricks an’ boots
In Little Lon., they’re low, degraded broots.
Dennis’s text has been so attenuated that it has to be literalised to be made funny. When Bill rises and cries ‘Put in the boot!’ Doreen is passive and he is pushed back into his seat by a fat man sitting behind him, none other than F. W. Thring himself. The joke is now wholly on Bill, rather than on him and Shakespeare. (One nice touch, even so, is that Cecil Scott as Bill also appears to play the on-stage Romeo.)
‘The Stroor ’at Coot’ immediately follows ‘The Play’ in Dennis’s Songs and is largely given over to Bill’s anguish over what proves to be a temporary break-up with Doreen, an incident which is triggered by the appearance of the titular Coot (he’s given no other name): a middle-class dandy who provokes Bill to jealousy. The Coot himself is essentially a MacGuffin, a figure whose sudden, urgent significance proves transitory. The substance of the poem is Bill’s inner turmoil over his inability to live up to Doreen’s expectations, and his underestimation of her love for him. As part of several changes to Dennis’s original book he is wholly absent from the 1932 film, but in Longford and Lyell’s version the role of the Coot is fleshed out by Harry Young, as slightly built an actor as Tauchert is solid. When Bill and Doreen go into a café after the play they find him in company with Ginger Mick, and his attentions to Doreen generate a brief argument, followed by a reconciliation, as Bill walks her back home: action invented for the film. In the very next scene, set a week later, however, we see the Coot hanging around Doreen’s, where he attaches himself to her as she goes off to meet her man. In the original poem, Bill claims to have ‘met ’im on the quite [quiet]’ and ‘lays ’im ’cross me knee, the mother’s joy,/An’ smacks ’im ’earty, like a naughty boy’ (Dennis 29), which might have made for good slapstick but, with a finer sense of comedy, the filmmakers show all three characters interacting together. Bill’s quiet word now plays out in front of Doreen as he physically intimidates the Coot and lands a right hook on his left ear, much to her disgust.
The original poem comprises a hundred and thirty-eight lines in twenty-three verses, so there has been a good deal of cutting to get down to eighteen titles over nearly five minutes (depending on projection speed). These are less text-heavy than in ‘The Play’ and are cued directly to the characters’ exchanges, physical as well as verbal. The pentameter has mostly been preserved despite the formatting of lines into seeming quatrains, but this is only noteworthy when rhymes appear and highlight key moments of the action: Bill’s pretend innocence – ‘I only jerks me elbow/in ’is ribs,/To give the gentle office/to ’is nibs’ – and then Doreen’s defence of the Coot’s ‘pore “wounded pride”’, which leads to a proper row, ‘Wiv ’ot an’ stormy words/on either side’. Most significantly, across the scene the irony shifts from the Coot to the Bloke: from the Coot’s absurd fashionability and cowardice, to Bill’s lack of self-awareness as to his jealousy and the true nature of Doreen’s affection. Then, as often in Shakespeare, a couplet closes the scene: “Oh! I ain’t much to look/at, I admit./But ’im! The knock-kneed,/swivel-eyed misfit!...’.
Sent packing by Doreen, Bill proceeds to get drunk: ‘An’ then I gits on the shick’. Tauchert plays a drunk beautifully, and no text is needed as he exits the pub, staggers home to the amusement of three street urchins, and inelegantly prepares for slumber. The dream sequence which immediately follows imagines Doreen and the Coot sitting together on a cliff by the sea just as Bill appears, like the villain in a melodrama, to wreak his revenge: another quotation from an ‘archaic’ style of filmmaking. This plays as a parody of the kind of histrionic acting style that Longford considered outmoded, with the Bloke and the Coot wrestling together and then tumbling from the cliff, as Bill tumbles out of bed. A short scene of hungover head scratching ensues. Only one ironic expository intertitle is employed, and it announces Bill’s violent dream as ‘The Tragedy’ – a witty counterpoint to the Romeo and Juliet scene, which also played as comedy. Like the opening raid on the two-up school, this whole drunken nightmare scene displays something of Tauchert’s background as a physical comedian and is one of the most ‘purely’ cinematic in The Sentimental Bloke, probably because it is not in Dennis.
These very different scenes show how the filmmakers work both on and off Dennis’s book. In the Romeo and Juliet episode they keep very close to the author’s text, offering what might be called a filmic recital of a well-known set piece by juxtaposing its vernacular poetry against a Shakespearean performance. The use of intertitles in the scene involving the Coot, on the other hand, is more characteristic of their deployment overall, showing how Longford and Lyell extend the narrative beyond Bill’s point-of-view through dramatic irony to focus on interactions between characters.
The Curse of an Aching Heart
There is another, actual recital in the film. This occurs at the halfway mark, not long after ‘The Tragedy’, when Bill is invited to a party where he hears Doreen sing what the relevant intertitle calls ‘one ’o them/sad, mournful things/That ketch yeh in the/bellers ’ere, and brings/Tears to yer eyes’. The song in question is ‘The Curse of an Aching Heart’, a Tin Pan Alley hit from 1913 described, on an insert shot of the sheet music, as ‘The Moral Song with a Blessing’. Tauchert sits slumped in the foreground, looking as miserable as a lost dog, and fails to join in the chorus along with the other guests. In fact, the film invites the cinema audience to sing along as well by superimposing the words over the party scene. At a time when exhibitors increasingly expected audiences to maintain a genteel silence, David Boyd reads this as the eruption of an older, interactive form of spectatorship now associated with unruly working-class – one might say larrikin – behaviour, ‘the sort of cinematic spectatorship prevalent less than a decade earlier’ (7–8). This is precisely the kind of spectatorship that Bill displays during Romeo and Juliet, and Boyd sees ‘the two scenes enact[ing] a sort of spectatorial chiasmus’ (6). Be that as it may, what the party scene also highlights is the way in which ordinary people were still able to generate their own entertainments in a performative popular culture that was slowly being eroded by recorded music, cinema and, soon enough, radio. It is precisely the kind of social event at which amateur reciters would also have strutted their stuff. But already, at the end of the Great War, the very notion of a ‘Moral Song with a Blessing’ seems as comically old-fashioned as the dour Victorian portraits in Doreen’s mother’s family album from a later scene, and both Lyell’s tear-jerking rendition and Tauchert’s blubbering response consciously play this up.
As Boyd suggests, The Sentimental Bloke contains a number of ‘archaic’ aspects of popular spectatorship and of cinema itself, and this would seem to be deliberate on the part of the filmmakers. Faced with adapting a suite of famous dialect verses, Longford and Lyell had to factor in their audience’s encounters with popular recitation and figure out how to translate, but also transform, that experience into a convincing cinematic narrative. We should not be surprised, then, to find traces of older and more familiar stage and screen cultures incorporated into the film’s structure. Overarchingly, the confected vulgarism of Dennis’s dialect verse counterpoints the naturalism in which the romance plays out, and so generates the film’s characteristically comic, dramatic irony. Its progression from the early slapstick of Bill’s larrikin career to the comedy of manners of his entry into Doreen’s middle-class expectations might even be said to reenact the evolution of movie comedies themselves. The police raid on the two-up school, for example, recalls Mack Sennett’s Keystone Cops, introduced in 1912, and still popular in Australian cinema programs at the time. What delights, however, is the way the film synthesises these older elements into something wholly new, wholly modern.
In 2009 the National Film and Sound Archive released on DVD a virtually complete reconstruction of the original film. In an essay published as part of that release, film historian Andrew Pike has written: ‘The film … achieves a visual and emotional fluency that the written text, with its elaborate phonetics and colloquialisms, cannot achieve: the film feels at ease, is relaxed and flowing, qualities that differ markedly from the way the language is expressed in the original verse narrative’ (Pike 50). But this is to wish away its intertitles as unconnected to the Bloke’s success, an irrelevance that compromises its potential as ‘pure’ cinema. Susan Dermody was more on the mark when she praised the ‘relative agility of Longford’s camera in its Woolloomooloo locations’ which ‘permitted far more equivalence to the agility of Dennis’s rhythms, vernacular figures of speech and verbal imagery, particularly when the imagery was so much used to indicate the reality beneath the speech, to rub against its grain’ (47).
Except perhaps on the vaudeville stage, no Australian ever really sounded like Dennis’s protagonist. This is probably why, even in their heyday, only short phrases from the poems – ‘You could er knocked me down wiv ’arf a brick’, ‘I dips me lid’ (Dennis 13, 15) – rather than sequences of lines or whole verses became idiomatic. When Cecil Scott as Bill in the 1932 talkie opens his mouth the incongruity becomes all too apparent: a brilliantined matinee idol who articulates in a studied way like a Cockney costermonger, thereby returning the larrikin performance to one of its earliest sources. By then, the prospect of using the poems in telling the story, let alone reciting them aloud on film, would have seemed absurdly passé. For this reason it is unlikely that further adaptations of The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke will be forthcoming. There have been Bloke musicals and ballets that have proven successful,5 possibly because music abstracts language and dance does away with it altogether, but these days it is hard to imagine a dramatic version that could be anything but camp. To that extent, silence is golden, as the attraction of Dennis’s poems is now almost entirely lost to cultural memory, along with the taste for dialect verse and magic lantern shows. As a result, Bill and Doreen’s best chances of survival – and Dennis’s too – now depend on Longford and Lyell’s incomparable film.
This includes four sequels connected to characters in the original Songs: The Moods of Ginger Mick (1916), Doreen (1917), Digger Smith (1918), and Rose of Spadgers (1924).↩
My assumption that the poems occupied a reduced place in the stage play is based on how they appear in the 1932 talkie version of The Sentimental Bloke, as Dennis’s 1922 play text has not been located and may be presumed lost. Philip Butterss to Peter Kirkpatrick, email, 21 Mar, 2023.↩
Such action is only sketched in the original scenario of the film, a facsimile of which is included with the DVD of the 2009 restoration. Scene 9, for example, reads: ‘The interior two-up school. The police enter – Fight follows which results in the Bloke being taken to Police Station.’ Raymond Longford’s The Sentimental Bloke: Original Annotated Script (sic), 1.↩
Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations from The Sentimental Bloke follow the lineation and punctuation of the film’s intertitles rather than Dennis’s poems.↩
The best-remembered of these, a 1961 musical version by Albert Arlen, with a book by Lloyd Thomson and Nancy Brown, was revived as part of a season of ‘Neglected Musicals’ by the Hayes Theatre in Sydney in October 2019, but it had only five performances. ‘Neglected Musicals: The Sentimental Bloke’, Hayes Theatre, https://www.neglectedmusicals.com.au/show/the-sentimental-bloke/.↩