Bushranging with Stingaree – Hollywood imagines Australia

For some time this writer has been intrigued by the handful of films made about Australia, but NOT made in Australia, before World War II. They all borrow some familiar Australian icons, yet not surprisingly, they were usually directed, scripted and acted by people who had no direct experience of Australia at all. A handful of bushranging films were made in Hollywood’s Golden Age – three used E.W. Hornung’s character Stingaree. Here they are:


Stingaree 1915 and The Further Adventures of Stingaree 1917

Stingaree, 12 part silent Serial, 1915, directed by James W. Horne. The Further Adventures of Stingaree, 15 (or 12) part silent Serial 1917, directed by Paul Hurst. Based on stories by E. W. Hornung. Starring True Boardman, Paul Hurst. Kalem Pictures. (Both serials are considered lost)


English writer E.W. Hornung‘s fictional character Raffles is well remembered. Less well known is Stingaree, his gentleman bushranger. Hornung had spent several years (1883-6) in Australia and this character first appeared in his 1896 novel Irralie’s Bushranger, and in 1905 in a collection of short stories. In 1915, the Kalem Company took the character on and filmed it, entirely in California.

E.W. Hornung’s “Stingaree The Dandy Bushranger”, in The Sacremento Bee, 23 December 1905. Via Newspapers.com

The inspiration for the character was supposedly, the Ned Kelly gang. The Kellys “were as gallant…as Stingaree” stated a report in “The Moving Picture World. It went on to claim “…the Kelly brothers were unusually chivalrous… Frequently they aided the woman in distress.” Well, possibly. Even today, Australians struggle to agree on the culpability of the gang.

Still from the Australian film The Story of the Kelly Gang, 1906. Via Wikimedia Commons.

About ten years before this serial was made in the US, the first Australian made feature-length film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, was released. It chronicled some of the highlights of the Kelly gang’s exploits. Made less than 30 years after the real gang’s final shoot-out with Police and Ned’s capture and execution, the film heralded the start of a very long tradition of Australian pictures set on similar turf – and Kelly, who quickly became a national figure, has been revisited on the screen many times since. You can watch the remnant of the 1906 film here.

Stingaree, Hornung’s university educated, violin-playing, monocle-wearing gentleman, was nothing like Ned Kelly or any other Australian bushranger, on screen or off.

In January 1916 Stingaree was being welcomed as an upcoming cinema feature by Sydney papers. The 12 part serial (each Chapter or weekly episode was about 20-30 minutes in length) was popular enough to warrant a sequel with the same stars in 1917 – The Further Adventures of Stingaree.

Sadly, no episodes of either serial are known to survive today, but a few photos, episode titles and descriptions do. A typical episode – “The Black hole of Glenranald” involved Stingaree avoiding a secret trap door covering a deep hole set into the floor of the Glenranald Bank. There are some ensuing double crosses and a short battle with the Mounted Police, before Stingaree and his sidekick Howie escape again. Designed as stand-alone stories, these “Chapters” would form part of a cinema’s weekly program, and the intention was, of course, to entice the audience back.

True Boardman, a popular Californian-born star of stage and screen, died a year after completing the second serial, during the Spanish flu pandemic.


Stingaree 1934

Directed by William Wellman. Based on the story by E.W. Hornung. Screenplay – Becky Gardiner, Lynn Riggs, Leonard Spigelgass. Starring: Irene Dunne, Richard Dix, Mary Boland. RKO Studios.


Stingaree was revisited by RKO in 1934, with a screenplay written by one of Hollywood’s few female writers of the time – Becky Gardiner. Possibly the studio felt the subject of bushrangers was still fertile ground. There had been a Tim McCoy bushranger film in 1928, and a Universal bushranger serial in 1929. However, the finished product might best be described as a musical western or musical melodrama, as Irene Dunne sings several songs.

Irene Dunne and Richard Dix in Stingaree. Silver Screen Magazine, May-Oct 1934. Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

Richard Dix (Stingaree) and Irene Dunne (Hilda Bouverie) were both popular stars who had already appeared together in the very successful Cimarron in 1931. RKO hoped they could repeat the success. The film’s title suggests it is about Stingaree, but it is really the story of Hilda Bouverie’s rise as a singer, a sort of Nellie Melba journey. Hilda is the maid of Mrs Clarkson (Mary Boland) until she is discovered. Mrs Clarkson is a humorous figure – she too has hopes of a musical career, but none of her servant’s talent. Andy Devine as Stingaree’s sidekick, is also there for laughs.

Partly filmed on a Californian golf-course, Stingaree‘s scenery gives a passable impression of South Eastern Australia. A few Australians are also included in the cast, although it’s not clear why – as they have nothing to do. These include Snub Pollard as a sleepy shepherd, Billy Bevan as a Scotsman and Robert Greig as a barman. However, the key performances are firmly in the hands of RKOs bankable stars.

Australian audiences probably baulked at the appearance of 1870s policemen wearing contemporary policemen’s summer-helmets and the film’s lapses in plot – which included Stingaree galloping off with Hilda in his arms (not once but twice) and the unlikely impersonation of the Governor by Stingaree. But Australian reviews were forgiving, Table Talk reporting it was a “good old meaty melodrama”. The Melbourne Herald felt that it was “a pleasant trifle.” US reviews were less enthusiastic – “a preposterous tale”, “a thin picture”, “an elegant horse opera.” It was not a success at the box office.

Banned!
It is notable that one Australian state government chose to ban the 1934 version of Stingaree. The Chief Secretary of New South Wales stated that “No cinematograph pictures shall be exhibited… which represent… successful crime, such as bushranging… or other acts of lawlessness… which might be considered as having an injurious effect upon youthful minds.”

The Chief Secretary was ridiculed by Smith’s Weekly for the decision and despite the ban, the film was shown in Broken Hill, in Western New South Wales. Interestingly, the 1915 serial had been shown in New South Wales. The fate of the 1917 serial seems unclear. It seems the ban on bushranger films was remarkably inconsistent.

Stingaree poster. Silver Screen Magazine May-Oct 1934. Via Lantern Digital Media Project

William Wellman, Andy Devine and Irene Dunne enjoyed long careers. Sadly Richard Dix’s battle with alcohol came to an end with his early death in the 1940s. Of the pioneering Becky Gardiner’s later career, this writer can find no information at all. She seems to have entirely disappeared after Stingaree. The film is available through TCM.


Further Reading

Text

* Peter Rowland, E.W. Hornung (2016) Stingaree Rides Again. Nekta Publications
* Richard B. Jewell (1982) The RKO Story. Octopus Books
* Kalton C. Lahue (1968) Bound and Gagged, The Story of Silent Serials. Castle Books.
* Ken Wlaschin (2009) Silent Mystery and Detective Movies: A Comprehensive Filmography. McFarland

Online

Turner Classic Movie
* Stingaree (also has some clips from the 1934 film)

Lantern, Digital Media Project

National Library of Australia’s Trove

Newspapers.com

  • The Sacremento Bee, 23 December 1905

Nick Murphy
June 2020

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