The Proud and True-Blue Australian
Best remembered for producing and directing Australia’s first colour motion picture and Australian cinema classic, Jedda in 1955, as well as number of proudly nationalistic films such as The Rats of Tobruk, Queensland-born Charles Chauvel began his distinguished career in the silent era and worked with another outstanding Australian; the legendary showman, Rex “Snowy” Baker. Chauvel is also credited with discovering legendary screen star, Errol Flynn, casting him as Christian Fletcher in his 1933 production of In the Wake of the Bounty.
This is his story:
Charles Chauvel boasts unusual and distinguished ancestry far from his native Australian shores, namely as descendents of a French Huguenot family that fled France for England in 1685, then began a family tradition of serving in the British Army. One of these Chauvels retired from the Indian army and came to Australia in 1839 where he was a pioneer in the New England region. It was from this branch of the family tree that Charles Chauvel was born in Warwick, Queensland in 1897.
Despite his colourful and illustrious ancestry, Charles Chauvel was a loyal and proud Australian, having become recognized as one of Australia’s most influential – and definitely most patriotic – film producers and directors alongside the other two great Australians, Raymond Longford and Ken G Hall, each one dominating a decade or two in the early 20th century.
After finishing school, Chauvel worked on several Queensland properties as well as his own family’s property before going to Sydney where he studied commercial art and took drama classes when he became fascinated by moving pictures. Having befriended the great athlete and showman, Rex “Snowy” Baker, he landed minor roles in two Australian silent films which starred Baker, namely Shadow of Lightening Ridge and Jackeroo of Coolabong, both of which are unfortunately presumed lost.
Chauvel also appeared briefly as an extra in Robbery Under Arms, made in 1920 and available at Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive. Shortly thereafter, Chauvel accompanied Baker to the United States at his own expense in order to continue working in films. His varied work included jobs as a lighting technician, a publicist and a stunt double, as well as a few more minor acting roles in the American productions Fly By Night (1921), The Man from the Desert (1922) and Strangers of the Night (1922), all of which are presently also presumed lost.
Sydney-born Reginald Leslie Baker, whose light-coloured hair gave him the nickname of “Snowy”, rose to fame at the turn of the century, dominating various popular sports, in particular boxing in the 1908 Olympic Games in London. He was also an expert swimmer and equestrian, and late - in 1944 - he performed stunts in National Velvet as well as teaching a young Elizabeth Taylor how to ride. He had turned to the burgeoning film industry in 1918 when boxing declined in popularity, and starred in several successful Australian silent films which were also the first stepping-stones into the film industry for Charles Chauvel.
Returning to Australia in the mid 1920s after a successful education in film-making with Snowy Baker, Charles Chauvel was ready to embark on his career as producer and director of authentic Australian films. He obtained finance from Queensland businessmen to make his first two films, Moth of Moonbi and Greenhide. Both were filmed in Harrisville, Queensland, using locations around his own family property on the town’s outskirts, and employing many locals as extras.
Moth of Moonbi was based on a novel, “The Wild Moth” by Mabel Forrest, about a country girl who thinks she will find excitement and happiness in the big city, only to lose all her money but eventually find true love back home with her father’s trustworthy stockman. Chauvel wrote the screenplay and directed this romantic melodrama which featured the much-loved actor of The Sentimental Bloke fame, Arthur Tauchert, in one of the lead roles. Chauvel himself played a minor role in Moth of Moonbi as an Aboriginal stockman, and the film was successful in Australia at its release in 1926.
Chauvel’s second film, Greenhide also featured the rural Queensland life of his youth, this time about a city girl struggling to cope on a cattle station. Eventually she finds love with a bushman who appears to be her complete opposite. It was during the making of this film that Chauvel met actress Elsa May Wilcox, whom he married a year later, and who assisted him in his work on all films thereafter.
Chauvel’s first sound film in 1933 featured Errol Flynn in In the Wake of the Bounty, after which he began making films with a strong national Australian theme, beginning with Heritage in 1935, then 40,000 Horsemen, about the Australian Light Horse cavalry which fought in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign during WWI. This was followed by the highly-acclaimed Rats of Tobruk in 1944, starring Chips Rafferty and Peter Finch, depicting the siege of Tobruk in Libya during WWII. Chauvel’s final film, Jedda, was not only the first colour production in Australia, but also the first to feature two Aborigines in the lead roles.
Charles Chauvel’s passion for Australia and his patriotic sense of pride radiated through his films, giving Australian audiences a sense of identity and national pride, as well as setting the new benchmarks for other filmmakers to strive to attain. His foundation in the film industry was firmly set during the silent era, at which time skills and techniques were firmly developed and established.
Charles Chauvel was born in Warwick, Queensland on October 7, 1897 and died in Sydney on November 11, 1959; a few years after making Jedda.