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RETHINKING SCANDINAVIA — CSS Publications Web Quarterly
Volume II, Issue 1 — "Looking In, Watching Out"
Published in July 2018

Selling Scandinavia at the Ends of the Earth

Nordic Silent Film in Australasia

Julie K. Allen, Brigham Young University

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In the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan, a small detachment of U.S. soldiers in France in June 1944 encounter a German soldier defending a radio tower. The Americans require the German soldier to dig graves for the American soldiers he had killed during the assault on his position. As he is completing this task, it becomes clear that they will likely shoot him and bury him in that same grave. To make the case for mercy, the German soldier offers his familiarity with—and affection for—American culture, pleading, “Please, I like America! Fancy schmancy! What a cinch! Go fly a kite! Cat got your tongue! Hill of beans! Betty Boop, what a dish. Betty Grable, nice gams.” He sings the first line of the American national anthem and invokes Steamboat Willie, the debut appearance of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse in a 1928 short, with a “Toot! Toot!” The captain does ultimately show mercy and set him free, but it is unclear whether his protestations of his affinity for American film stars contribute to that decision.

What this brief scene makes very clear is how film sells culture. It illustrates how the global spread of American film in the wake of World War I made it possible for a German soldier, who spoke almost no English, to know and adore iconic American film figures. Betty Boop first appeared in the 1930s cartoon short Dizzy Dishes, while Betty Grable rose to such prominence in the American film industry in the early 1940s that she was the number-one box-office draw in the world in 1943. Film’s function as a medium of cultural communication manifests itself not only in the circulation of films themselves, but also, perhaps especially, in the circulation of ideas, conveyed through the films. Audiences react to the faces they see on screen, to the stories they witness, to the values those stories convey, and learn to associate certain traits and priorities with the countries that produce the films they watch.

The early cinema industry capitalized deliberately on this culture-marketing potential, as Will H. Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), announced to an audience in London on October 5, 1923, “We are going to sell America to the world with American motion pictures.”1 John Trumpbour, Selling Hollywood to the World (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002), 17. In The Media are American, Jeremy Tunstall confirms the success of this strategy, noting that Hollywood films “have carried U.S. values (individualism, the success ethic, social and geographical mobility supposedly unaffected by class) and U.S. market orientations (directed to the migrant in urbanizing societies, to the modern urban woman with contradictory roles, to the newly affluent urban youth) into economically dependent cultures.”2 Jeremy Tunstall, The Media are American (London: Arnold, 1977), 81.

By the same principle, the global circulation of Scandinavian films must have helped to disseminate a popular image of Scandinavia and Scandinavian culture, even as far afield as Australia. In the early years of the twentieth century, long before television or the Internet made information (and misinformation) easily accessible with a few keystrokes, familiarity with Scandinavian culture spread to the far corners of the earth through the movement of people—primarily sailors and settlers—and culture, in particular film. The circulation of Scandinavian silent film in Australia and New Zealand between 1910 and 1928 sheds light on the question of what image of Scandinavia films conveyed to the largely white settler colonial population of Britain’s remotest colonies. The kinds of Scandinavian films that were shown in Australasia in the silent era, their origin, their distribution and exhibition, their audiences, and the changes in the way Scandinavian silent film circulated in Australia before and after World War I can illuminate changing perceptions of Scandinavia at the ends of the earth in the early twentieth century.

Silent Film and Cultural Marketing

The longstanding global dominance of American film, which lends American stars and American cultural norms the pervasive influence that the scene from Saving Private Ryan illustrates, tends to obscure public awareness of the fact that the international film market was very different in the 1910s, during the golden age of silent film. By its very nature, silent film avoids the linguistic barriers that often limit the movement of literary texts (this problem persists today—books in translation from foreign languages made up a paltry 2% of the vast American publishing market in 20083 Motoko Rich, “Translation is foreign to U.S. publishers,” The New York Times, 17 October 2008, C1.), and its intertitles could be easily adjusted to accommodate the local vernacular. Moreover, many of the earliest pioneers of cinema were European, from the Lumière brothers, Charles Pathé, and Alice Guy in France to Ole Olsen, Benjamin Christensen, and Asta Nielsen in Denmark.

The global film industry was much more nationally diverse in the pre-WWI era than it became in the 1920s, with films from at least a dozen countries occupying a market niche that would eventually be filled almost entirely by American films. Audiences from Moscow to Minneapolis and Brighton to Brisbane had their pick of Italian, French, German, Danish, Swedish, Russian, Japanese, British, and American films. The majority of film-producing nations at the time were European and American, but since market share, particularly in Europe, was finite, film companies had to look farther afield for film markets, particularly along the path of European and American colonial and imperial expansion. As James Burns has documented in Cinema and Society in the British Empire, 1895-1940, cinemas flourished in European colonies from Bridgetown, Barbados to Dar es salaam, Tanzania, and Mumbai, India to Capetown, South Africa, so export-oriented production companies in Europe and the United States competed fiercely for a share of the most lucrative overseas markets.

Prior to World War I, European film companies controlled a significant share of global film markets. In fact, the second largest exporter of films in the world in 1913 was the Copenhagen-based Nordisk Films Kompagni (hereafter Nordisk),4 Laura Horak, “The Global Distribution of Swedish Silent Film,” A Companion to Nordic Cinema, ed. by Mette Hjort and Ursula Lindqvist (Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2016), 457. second only to Paris-based Pathé Frérès. Given the small domestic film market in Denmark, the bulk of Nordisk’s production was aimed at an international market, a strategy that helped the company vault into a leading position in the global film industry at a time when the Swedish and Norwegian film industries were still getting off the ground. In the early 1910s Nordisk sent 98% of its films abroad.5 Isak Thorsen, “The Rise and Fall of the Polar Bear,” 100 Years of Nordisk Film (Copenhagen: Danish Film Institute, 2006), 59. When Ole Olsen, founder and director of Nordisk, was asked in a 1913 interview whether other Danish film companies had a chance of matching Nordisk’s global success, he replied, “If they have good managers and if they can find some empty gaps in the world market. But to find room for their films, I believe they will have to populate the South Pole.”6 “Anker,” “Men hvad siger Ole Olsen,” Politiken, 10 April 1913, qtd. in Thorsen 59. Australia was somewhat more populous than the South Pole, but it lies at the farthest geographical extreme from Europe, roughly 17,000 kilometers from London, Stockholm, and Copenhagen, so it might be helpful to explain why Australia was an attractive target market for Scandinavian film exports.

Cultural Competition in Australia

Once the first British explorers happened upon Australia, at around the same time as the American colonies rebelled against the British Empire and declared their independence, the immense distance between Europe and Australia did little to discourage European settlement. Australia’s colonial history began with the establishment of a British penal colony in 1788 and continued with waves of not only British convicts and soldiers, which made up the majority of settlers until 1830, but also gold prospectors, farmers, laborers, and other settler colonists from Ireland, Germany, China, and Scandinavia, among other places, who began arriving in large numbers after the discovery of gold in New South Wales and Victoria in 1851. While the earliest Scandinavian settlers in Australia had consisted of a handful of sailors, Scandinavians soon became the second largest non-English immigrant group in Australia, after Germans. Swedish settler Corfitz Cronqvist “estimated the number of Scandinavians in Australia in the 1850s to be approximately 1500 Swedes, 1000 Danes and 300 Norwegians.”7 Peter Birkelund, “Danish Emigration to Australia,” Danish Emigration to Australia, ed. by Kristian Hvidt and Helle Otte. 34-53. Special issue of Emigranten. Årsskrift for dansk udvandrerhistorisk selskab. Nr. 4. 1988. 38. The tendency to categorize Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians together as “Scandinavians” was both a pragmatic one, since their individual numbers were not statistically significant, and an expression of solidarity, in the face of the much larger majority British Australian population.

Although British settlers were most in demand, settlers from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway were also recruited by the Australian government to populate the continent, in part because of a belief in the hardiness of Scandinavians. From approximately 1870 to 1901, with periodic gaps, the Australian colonies offered “assisted passage schemes” to British and Northern European immigrants as a means of recruiting farmers and artisans to thinly-settled territories, in particular Queensland and Tasmania. The attractiveness of this offer is reflected in the 400% increase in the number of Danish settlers in Queensland over a ten-year period, from 554 in 1871 to 2223 in 1881, along with an increase from 118 to 442 Norwegians and 253 to 583 Swedes.8 Birkelund, 39. Small Scandinavian settlements were also established in Victoria, New South Wales, and South Australia, made up primarily of young, working-class Danes. Danish police emigration records indicate that of approximately 5741 Danes who left for Australia between 1868 and 1899, 63% were working-class. Within this group, 75% were young people under 30, and two-thirds of them were male, though 43% of the emigrants were part of a family group.9 Birkelund, 40. Between 1900 and 1918, another 4092 Danes immigrated to Australia, nearly seventy percent of whom were under 30 and eighty percent of whom were male.10 Birkelund, 43. Yet while the movement of people from Scandinavia to Australia has been relatively well documented in numeric terms, it doesn’t tell us much about how Australians regarded their Scandinavian neighbors or the region of the world from which they came. By contrast, the circulation of Scandinavian film in Australia can offer much more detailed insights into how Scandinavia was perceived on the far side of the globe in the early 20th century.

In the early 1910s, cinema-going was a national pastime among British, German, and Scandinavian settlers in Australia—in major cities, mining towns, and even out in small towns in the bush. Average wages in Australia were relatively high, so a significant percentage of the population could afford to attend the cinema regularly. As a result, cinema attendance in Australia in the early 20th century was among the highest per capita in the world. By 1913, there were about 650 permanent and several hundred more temporary cinema theatres across Australia, which had at that time a population of approximately 4.8 million people.11 Argus (Melbourne), 17 March 1913 Australians were, as the Melbourne newspaper Argus declared in 1913, “as regular in attending picture shows as in having breakfast,” with approximately 1/8th of the population of the entire country spending every Saturday night “at the pictures.”12 Diane Collins, Hollywood Down Under. Australians at the Movies: 1896 to the Present Day (North Ryde, NSW, Australia: Angus & Robertson Publishers, 1987), 5. Such robust demand meant that even small towns could support several different theaters and films could circulate on different circuits for years.

A combination of high demand and low domestic supply made Australia an attractive market for Scandinavian film companies. Pathé Frérès was the first overseas company to establish a distribution agency in Australia,13 Graham Shirley and Brian Adams, Australian Cinema. The First Eighty Years ([Sydney]: Angus& Robertson Publishers, 1983), 22. which it did in Melbourne in 1909. According to Richard Abel, Pathé was the world’s first global film empire and it “distributed more films to more places in the world than any other company.”14 Qtd. in Horak, 458. (FIND ORIGINAL SOURCE!) After opening a branch office in Stockholm and establishing cooperative endeavors with local talent, Pathé agreed to distribute selected Svenska Bio films abroad. According to Laura Horak, “Pathé distributed at least 13 Svenska Bio films, including six under the name Phoenix,” between 1912 and the end of 1915.15 Horak, 459. The Swedish films that were sent Australia in this period through Pathé included På livets ödesvägar (On the Fateful Roads of Life, Mauritz Stiller, 1913) and Stormfågeln (The Stormy Petrel, Mauritz Stiller, 1914). This decision to carry Nordic films seems to have been part of Pathé’s strategy to revitalize its Melbourne office, which was not consistently profitable in 1910-11, with the value of the merchandise shipped far exceeding receipts. However, based on the complete absence of newspaper ads for them, none of the Svenska Bio films appear to have been screened in Australia, or at least not very widely. After a period of considering closing its branch office, Pathé decided instead to accept a buyout by T.J. West’s in 1913, that gave its films direct access to West’s extensive network of cinema houses.

This buyout was part of the consolidation of the Australian distribution and exhibition system in early 1913 that should have made the circulation of Nordic silent film in Australia more streamlined and more profitable. Since it cost far more and was financially risker to produce films than to import them, so at around the same time as Australian film production was really taking off, several of Australia’s most successful film entrepreneurs—the Scotsman T.J. West, the Englishman Cozens Spencer, Australian brothers John Henry and James Nevin Tait, and eventually the American J.D. Williams—decided to shift their focus from production to distribution. Australian film historian Ina Bertrand explains,

In November 1912, the interests of West’s, Spencer’s and Amalgamated Pictures were merged, and in January 1913 J.D. Williams also joined. The new company (which became known—without any affection at all—as ‘the combine’) had an exhibition wing (Union Theatres, controlling twenty-nine cinemas throughout the country) and a distribution wing (Australasian Films).16 Ina Bertrand, Cinema in Australia: A Documentary History (Kensington: New South Wales University Press, 1989), 41.

This decision, while financially advantageous for the firm’s proprietors, had the effect of depriving Australian filmmakers of the necessary capital to sustain such a high level of production and leading to the gradual decline of Australian film production.

Since there was not enough domestic production to enable an Australian equivalent to the American Motion Picture Patents Company’s protectionist policies, this new system supported a nationally diversified cinema market. Foreign film companies like Pathé and Nordisk, which were able to work with the combine, had an advantage. In 1913, less than half of the films imported to Australia were American, 26.3% of films were British,17 Mayer and Beattie, 2. and the remainder were European, including French films from Pathé Frérès, German films from Deutsche Bioscop and Messter Films, Danish films from Nordisk, Italian films from Cines and Itala, and Swedish films from Svensk Bio. Particularly in the prewar years, Australia absorbed a steady, even if not numerically spectacular, stream of Scandinavian films—at least 13 films from Nordisk alone in 1911.

Scandinavian films held their own on the Australian market in the early 1910s, but the outbreak of World War I had a devastating impact on European film exports, including those from Scandinavia. As products of neutral countries, Danish and Swedish films continued to circulate internationally during the first few years of the war, although (sometimes justified) British suspicions that German films might be hidden among the Scandinavian films distributed by Nordisk to Britain and its colonies resulted in delays and temporary bans, but the disruption of global shipping and material shortages meant that far fewer films were sent abroad from European producers.

After World War I, Scandinavian silent film gained renewed currency in Asia and Australasia, but was handicapped by the increasing dominance of U.S. film exports, the rise of UFA, and Nordisk’s financial collapse. Instead of large numbers of Nordisk films being screened across the country, a much smaller number of Scandinavian films were in circulation in Australia. Aside from a few Nordisk films, they were primarily Svenska Bio films imported by the Clement Mason Company, including Mauritz Stiller’s Erotikon (1920), which was marketed as Bonds that Chafe in 1923; Victor Sjöstrom’s Mästerman (1921), translated as A Lover in Pawn; and Sjöstrom’s Körkarlen (1921), which is most commonly known in English as The Phantom Carriage but which ran in Australia under the title Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness.

Screening Histories

So how do we know what Scandinavian films were being shown, where, and to whom? There are a number of challenges to tracing the circulation of silent films. As Richard Maltby explains, individual films’ exhibition histories are highly transitory, in part because the film industry was built on a model in which “motion pictures were understood to be consumables, viewed once, disposed of and replaced by a substitute providing a comparable experience.”18 Richard Maltby, “New Cinema Histories,” Explorations in New Cinema History: Approaches and Case Studies, ed. by Richard Maltby, Daniel Biltereyst, and Philippe Meers (London: Blackwell, 2011), 7. To complicate matters, very little tangible evidence remains from the early Australian film industry—few company records, cinema logbooks, even publicity materials.

However, there is a wealth of information available from contemporaneous newspapers, most of which have been digitized and made available online by the Australian government. Australian newspapers from the early 1910s reveal that Nordic silent films were regularly screened not only in major Australian cities, but also in small towns throughout rural Australia. Data from these newspapers illustrates just how far Nordic film was able to circulate beyond its domestic markets and for how much longer. Despite the fact that most cinemas changed their program once or twice a week, which allowed each film a run of only a few days in a given city, the sheer size of the Australian market gave rise to several different cinema circuits—first in metropolitan areas, then in smaller cities, and finally in tiny rural towns—which meant that Scandinavian films had a potentially much longer life at the end of the earth than they did at home.

To illustrate this pattern, let me focus for a few minutes on a single film, the three-reel Danish film Ved Fængslets Port (Temptations of a Great City, August Blom 1911), which Moving Picture World credited in 1911 with being the first feature film anywhere.19 Isak Thorsen, Nordisk Films Kompagni 1906-1924. The Rise and Fall of the Polar Bear (John Libbey, 2017), 113. Directed by August Blom and starring Valdemar Psilander, Clara Wieth, and Augusta Blad, Temptations of a Great City premiered in Copenhagen on March 6, 1911 and was exported to Australia very shortly thereafter, either through a British distributor or directly from Nordisk. As a high-quality feature film from an established production company, generally known as a “star picture,” Temptations of a Great City was a welcome addition to the Australian cinema market for both businessmen and audiences, for the former as a reliable source of revenue, for the latter as an entertaining picture.

Valdemar Psilander in Temptations of a Great City. Image courtesy of the Danish Film Institute. Valdemar Psilander in Temptations of a Great City. Image courtesy of the Danish Film Institute.

Newspaper ads and reviews reveal that the film was screened in Sydney, Hobart, Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide, and Brisbane during the summer of 1911, under the auspices of a variety of Australian cinema exhibitors. In-country distribution seems to have been handled initially by the Greater J.D. Williams Amusements Co.