Most people consider Melbourne in the 1950s a dull and empty place and time. Any story of that city a hundred years from now will simply report that consensus—no further evidence would be called for. Yet each time I come across that judgement I know it doesn’t fit my experience. I have decided to question the received history, even if that risks a memoir hinting of ‘the education of (another) young Donald’.
Born in 1930 in St Kilda into an ordinary lower middle-class, half-Catholic family of moderate education, I reached twenty the year the fifties began. I want to revisit some of the exciting moments from 1949 to 1955: those six years adequately stand as synecdochic for the decade. I write this from memory.
Starting with music, I touch down on my particular curiosity with twentieth century music, which dominated my attention at that young stage of life. I heard my first full opera on radio. I often listened on Saturday nights to New Music on the ABC, presented by Kevin McBeath. Once, probably in 1949, he played Alban Berg’s Wozzeck in full. I was engrossed, fascinated. It was powerful. Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night also had an impact. That program over a few years was my grounding in musical taste.
In 1950 my family acquired our first record player—a big piece of furniture. I therefore bought my first record: it was to be something I had not already heard. I settled for Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite, and was very pleased with the pick.
For a few years an Argentinian, Juan Castro, conducted the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. He steadily introduced a collection of modern works. I vividly remember my first Bartók—Concerto for Orchestra—and the moment of first hearing the triumphant brass in the final passages. One of the most memorable musical experiences of my life was Castro’s conducting Hephzibah Menuhin in Bartók’s second piano concerto. It was an intense living in the moment. Reinforcing the aural sensation was that beautifully physical woman, her bare arms rippling as she displayed the dramatic percussiveness of the piano.
Only on two occasions in my life have I ever gone to the stage door to greet an artist. I did that night. Was it Bartók or Hephzibah who seduced me more? She didn’t appear. As (small) compensation I bought the three piano concertos the next week.
Even though Stravinsky and especially his Rite of Spring seemed so ‘right’ to me, it was Bartók who continued to haunt me. I had a subscription for several years to Musica Viva, then more commonly known as Paul McDermott’s String Quartet. Near the end of 1954 it played Bartók’s second string quartet. It is a difficult piece but I knew I wanted to grapple with its density so I bought the record the same week. With a bit of cheek I invited my philosophy tutor home to listen to it. He promptly bought the set of six.
The fifties set me off on a glorious journey of discovery. But it wasn’t till the sixties that I found Bach.
The second time I stood outside the stage door of the Melbourne Town Hall was to farewell and thank Juan Castro for all the pleasures he had given me over the years. He also failed to appear.
The stage played a smaller emotional role for me. Between 1949 and 1951 I went to most ballet performances. No one ballet stands out now, but one dancer does. After her first solo performance with the Borovansky Ballet I decided that Kathleen Gorham would soon be recognised as a great dancer. I was right. She was acclaimed wherever she danced. Although she was ‘classical’, her smiling face betrayed something seemingly incongruous—a spirit made for comedy. She was matchless in later years larking around with the inimitable Robert Helpmann.
Theatre was more challenging and satisfying, and the Arrow Theatre in Middle Park, run by Frank Thring, became my main focus. He was very talented, in a fulsome manner, as his several later roles in Hollywood confirmed. He was essentially a sensationalist with taste, and his productions at the Arrow always reflected that. He had a superb leading actor, Zoe Caldwell. She acquired an international reputation in later years but she thrilled the audience in the inaugural Arrow play, Oscar Wilde’s Salome, in which she played the title role. Herod was played of course by Thring.
I remember well two Christopher Fry plays, performed within a few years of their London premieres, and Jean Anouilh’s Antigone and, I am sure, some Shakespeare. It was I think at the Union Theatre at Melbourne University that I saw Peer Gynt in the fifties. It made me realise, for the first time, how ‘complicated’ life can be. I felt awed by that discovery.
Peter O’Shaughnessy struck me as the giant of theatre those years. He was both actor and producer, highly educated and sensitive in all things theatrical. I saw him perform several times. He introduced me later to that special world of Beckett’s, with Waiting for Godot. He also produced a remarkably successful revue at the New Theatre in Flinders Street in 1955. Peter Carver was impressive, but another neophyte by the name of Barry Humphries was certainly noticed. His performance was pre-Edna. Without using the name Sandy Stone, he sympathetically introduced that old man’s harmless musings to Melbourne.
From 1950 I regularly visited a few city art galleries, in particular Peter Bray’s in Bourke Street. The next year Georges and Mirka Mora arrived from France and quickly established their first Mirka’s Cafés, this one in Collins Street—a friendly hub for the Melbourne art world, especially on Friday evenings.
One exhibition at Bray’s in 1953 had an enormous impact. It was Arthur Boyd’s ceramic paintings on biblical themes. The boldness of primary colour excited and shocked me; and for the first time I felt a strong urge to buy a work of art. But I couldn’t afford it: they were perhaps 100 or 200 guineas each. The other obstacle was that I had recently left the Catholic church and, I confess, I had to struggle with the notion that a (brand new) atheist might still buy and live with a ‘religious’ work of art. I’m not clear how I appeased my (new) guilt; anyhow under the circumstances the debate was academic.
Boyd had a lasting impact on me, but in the short term he was more like an infection: he produced an itch to buy a piece of art. I soon had my chance, when I entered the Victorian Artists’ Society Spring Show, saw an oil that pleased me, noted it was fifteen guineas, and immediately told the lady at the desk I wanted to buy it. We walked back together to a work entitled Composition by someone called Dorothy Braund and I boldly asked, ‘What do you think of it?’ She replied, ‘I painted it.’ A few minutes later I walked out with my first painting (metaphorically) tucked under my arm. What an extreme contrast with the Boyd’s dark, dense, menacing primary colours. Braund was brightly, cheerfully colourful in a gentle way, economic, with a modernist flatness, like a Matisse. It is still pleasurable—and nostalgic.
In 1956 the Australian Galleries opened with a constant flood of new, great Australian art. Names keep rolling: Boyd, Nolan, Blackman, Brack, Percival, Tucker, Dickerson and so on. The fifties witnessed one prolonged display of Melbourne modernists—individual, confident, assertive.
Inge King, the diminutive German creator of huge metal sculptures, and her Australian printmaker husband Grahame, settled in Melbourne around 1951. Four years later I approached her to make a copper and silver wedding ring. How did I reach such an odd idea? A little ring from Inge! I don’t know. However, she willingly agreed; but a year later we had to replace it with brass and silver after the copper ring was crushed by a ladder. I had ignored one of its qualities—softness. Once I casually commented on an attractive oval ceramic plate with a cheeky rooster motif in Inge’s kitchen. It had a horizontal crack from one end to the other. She gave it to me. It was some time before I discovered that ‘M Preston’ on the plate stood for Margaret Preston.
I cannot recall exactly when I decided that: a) film was the most exciting art form there was; b) it had endless possibilities beyond all other art forms; and c) my appetite for devouring ‘good’ film was insatiable. It wasn’t until I had experienced non-English-language films that those revelations struck me. From 1949 to 1955 I wallowed in its pleasures and challenges. Film remains my great love.
Les Enfants du Paradis, which screened in 1949 in the Australia Cinema, Collins Street, was my baptism. Oh, that last scene as the Pierrot, mimed by that beautiful actor Jean-Louis Barrault, stares in anguish as the woman he aches for strides away, gradually being swallowed by the crowds until we spot nothing other than her red hat, and then little more than a red dot bobbing in and out of view, as he plaintively calls out her name ‘Garance, Garance’.
My world changed on the spot. From that moment certain films gave me experiences and excitations I had never witnessed elsewhere. More often than not these were non-English language films: others came across as essentially false and superficial. (Apologies to those wonderful English-language films I have loved so much.)
I remember seeing films by Bergman, Pagnol, Fellini, de Sica and Rossellini during the 1950s at the Savoy. In those days Melbourne had three cinemas specialising in foreign films: the Australia, the Savoy and the Lyceum. Today Melbourne has none. The last one, the Lumiere, died of public neglect several years ago. All the Italians’ work had a certain sun-drenched, raw, unsentimental hardness and pathos about them, and always a certain integrity.
Then there was the New Theatre. In 1952 or 1953 it screened all the Russian revolutionary classics, especially the works of Eisenstein and Pudovkin. I was awed by the dramatic, powerful distinctiveness of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and its numerous memorable scenes; by the power and economy of the silent film, with the challenge of knowing where to cut and what to join. I remember Eisenstein’s first sound film, Alexander Nevsky, with the music of Prokofiev, the Teutonic Knights after the sacking of the city of Pskov. Has brass ever so brilliantly, horribly evoked human evil? The impact of all these films was profound, and complemented by a stimulating book of essays by Eisenstein. I became engrossed in speculating on the unique attributes of film, and on what exactly determines a great one.
The Melbourne Film Festival started in 1951, one of the world’s earliest. The first two years were weekend affairs in hillside Olinda. I started attending in 1953. The world seemed at our feet. Luis Buñuel and Andrzej Wajda were two of the many new names to which we were exposed. What a thrilling collection. Possibly the biggest ‘shock of the new’ was to experience Japanese film for the first time. Kurosawa just bowled me over. He made audiences see, as if for the first time, raw nature at work: wind, rain, heat, sweat. Film was suddenly visceral.
What a fascinating contrast between the physicality of Kurosura and the quiet yet stormy inner life of Bengali filmmaker and writer Satyajit Ray. Ray’s eventual recognition was said to have been born in Melbourne in those years.
Jump ahead to the University of California, Berkeley in 1968. While I was there a retrospective was held of about fifteen films by the splendid, scandalous Jean-Luc Godard. Only one had not already been screened in Melbourne.
To borrow an expression favoured by certain national leaders at the moment: Melbourne in the fifties was ‘punching above its weight’. It was an exciting decade of endless discovery and pleasure. It was a wonderful time to be. Life, in its many possible representations, just opened up. It could have been otherwise.© Don Miller