Let me start with a somewhat daring statement: If the Australian silent film THE MAN FROM KANGAROO were the only silent film you had ever seen, it would only enlighten the history of the artistic traditions of Australian silent cinema for you a little. In many ways, it was such an unusual project, one that differed significantly from most other silent films there, that it barely fits into the historical trajectory of the silent era of Australian cinema at all, either in terms of style, storytelling, genre - or simply in using its main protagonist as a film star. Still, for several reasons, it is a remarkable film.
Based on the surviving Australian films of the 1910s and the existing research into the aesthetic tendencies of this period, it is not surprising that critics of the period perceived the film as inadequately Australian. Nevertheless, Rex 'Snowy' Baker - the initiator, co-producer and lead actor of the film - purposely conceived the film as one capable of succeeding in the international marketplace. Moreover, he went to America to learn how to make films - and he hired most of THE MAN FROM KANGAROO film staff there (director, screenwriter, cinematographer, production assistant).
So, is THE MAN FROM KANGAROO “just” a Hollywood film in an Australian environment? Indeed not; in fact, quite the contrary. It is a work straddling diverse traditions, yet in its unclassifiable quality quite fascinating. It does not follow the conventions of any of the dominant Australian film genres of the period, such as "bushranging films" or "backblock comedies” about rural families./1 In comparison with American cinema traditions, THE MAN FROM KANGAROO ones depends much more on significant genre models such as melodramas about a small-town, westerns, or adventure films with chases. However, the basis of these genres is the pursuit of individual characters' goals - and strong causality.
And what about THE MAN FROM KANGAROO? The narrative power of causality is somewhat weakened in it - and its protagonist is surprisingly passive in pursuing his goals. His individual goals are instead subordinated to the goals of broader communities. The film profits significantly from the Australian social order and highlights differentiated urban or rural environments. The plot is thus somewhat unpredictable, because from our experience with Hollywood narrative we expect different patterns of development than we finally get. Instead of one coherent story, we get three parallel ones, of which the first two do not end in the way we would expect.
In sum, THE MAN FROM KANGAROO is artistically unusual for a set of collisions: between the individual and the collective; the active and the passive; the causal and the casual; the urban and the rural... the Australian and the American. On one hand, negotiating between two such traditions is aesthetically exciting; on the other, it will only be apparent as an aesthetic principle if the viewer is already familiar with both traditions.
While the "non-American" aspects of THE MAN FROM KANGAROO may be relatively easy to recognise, the "non-Australian" ones are less clear. Raymond Longford's famous Australian film THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE (1919) may provide a key to understanding them. It is an eccentric but straightforward story in which a (quirky) guy meets a (quirky) girl, falls in love with her, gets married and moves to the countryside - with intertitles in highly specific slang (told in the first-person). Thus, against the background of THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE, we can easily understand in what ways THE MAN FROM KANGAROO represented a departure from established Australian cinema's own poetics, explicitly defined against the classical dramatic logic of American films.
Nevertheless, what if we are not film historians and do not see the pleasure in analysing specific techniques of art-making? Even so, THE MAN FROM KANGAROO remains a remarkable work, thanks to the admirable personality of Rex' Snowy' Baker. Baker represented a crucial element behind the film as well as in the film, and especially in his scenes we can see how significant the involvement of the American staff was, even though it was not an experienced team. Even almost 50-year-old Wilfred Lucas was more respected as an actor than as a director (as an actor he had already made 89 films with D. W. Griffith, what might be a clue why there is a vast crosscutting sequence in the climax of THE MAN FROM KANGAROO).
Along with his role in Australian film, Reginald Leslie 'Snowy' Baker was both an Australian sports star and an extraordinary businessman with his "personal brand". According to David Headon in the article The Legend of Reg ‘Snowy’ Baker, "[b]y age thirteen, in the late 1890s, he had won state open swimming championships and, in the coming years, he would excel in an array of sports — among them, rugby, diving, boxing, fencing, track sprinting, water polo, wrestling, shooting, tent-pegging and rowing."/2
During World War One, Baker prudently moved his attention to the film industry. In 1918, he played action-roles in two films in which he used his sporting talent - and subsequently, together with E. J. Carroll founded Carroll-Baker Australian Productions. In the end, they only made three films (all directed by Wilfred Lucas), the first of which was THE MAN FROM KANGAROO. However, as a product of national cinema, their ambitious project, being not adequately "Australian", failed, and Baker moved to the United States in 1921, where he again began another successful career.
In this context, however, THE MAN FROM KANGAROO remains the showcase of Baker's possibilities as a film star. As a pastor in the film he loves life too much, which is why children and the main heroine adore him; but he is rejected by the community and others. However, Baker's sports sequences give the episodic film more coherence and represent the highlights of each of the three "stories": a majestic diving scene; an elaborate chase through the city; and an action scene with a stagecoach. At the same time, each of these scenes is more genre and exciting in the Hollywood sense.
So, although in terms of THE MAN FROM KANGAROO's storytelling, it is a film straddled between different traditions, thanks to the action scenes, the stunts and the personal charisma of Rex 'Snowy' Baker, this seemingly unbalanced film eventually becomes balanced... and highly impressive even after a hundred years.
1/ Cf. Zielinski, Andrew. Silent Cinema: Archetypes and Cliches. Screen Education. 2007, no. 45, pp 130-134; Routt, Bill. The Emergence of Australian Film. In Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (ed.). The Oxford History of World Cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1996, p. 423.
2/ Headon, David. The Legend of Reg 'Snowy' Baker: An Australian Story with a Hollywood Ending. Kunapiri. 2001, vol. 23, no. 1, p. 29.
Many thanks to my Lithuanian friend Aleksas Gilaitis for the offer to write this piece for his extraordinary Early Film Festival in Vilnius. I am very sorry that I could not visit the festival in person due to the infamous circumstances of this year. I would also like to thank my friend Charlie Cockey, who refused an evening with films due to his precise proofreading of this article.