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Merrily we go to the movies

A scene from Vĕra Chytilová’s Czech New Wave film Daisies 1966

Today, the Wesley Mission building on Sydney’s Pitt Street provides a handy shortcut to Castlereagh. However, in 1908, it was the site of the city’s newest picture palace, the 3000-seat Lyceum. After a decade of pop-up screenings in vaudeville halls and nickelodeons, cinema was finding a permanent home in purpose-built theatres. Wander down any block in the Sydney CBD and you’d find the Regent, the Plaza, the Paramount and the Hippodrome. Yet it was only at the Lyceum where you’d meet Señora Spencer, the world’s first female projectionist.

Born in 1871 in Scotland, Mary Stuart Huntly migrated to Australia in 1905 with her film mogul husband, Cosens Spencer, and the latest motion picture projector, the Great American Theatrescope. Upon arrival, Stuart Huntly – who’d spent a few months in Buenos Aires as a child – became Señora Spencer, ‘projectioniste’ extraordinaire. When the couple took up residence at the Lyceum, Señora’s exotic nom de plume matched her unusual profession. Then, as now, it was rare for a woman to work the projector. Cosens Spencer boasted to the press that his wife was ‘a better manipulator of the machine than any man’.

Silent-era exhibitors commanded a surprising degree of autonomy in determining a film’s final form. In articles from the period, Señora is admired not just as a technical operator but as an artist whose creative interventions were central to the Lyceum’s popular evening bills. When new slapstick shorts, actualities and caper serials arrived, they were first ‘criticised most severely’, and often received a rigorous re-edit. Señora had little patience for tedious plots: ‘any unnecessary padding is at once cut out’. Savvy to the public’s appetite for on-screen novelty, she later co-directed films with titles such as Fighting the flames and Zoological gardens.

A newspaper clipping shows the world’s first female ‘projectioniste’, Señora Spencer, at work

In the 1910s, projectionists were not enclosed in a booth up the back of the theatre but installed amidst their audience. Señora was notorious for her nightly performances. Take the following news report: ‘Mrs. Spencer used to sweep down the dress circle aisle, spotlighted in a black evening gown to do a noble duty of turning the handle of the machine for two solid hours’.

This ‘noble duty’ made the Spencers rich. In 1916, Señora became a cinema proprietor, opening the Strand Picture Theatre in Newcastle. Again, the press was captivated by her artistry, applauding a design sensibility that clearly skewed to the Rococo. As one journalist wrote: ‘The ornamental tympanum [the semi-circular or triangular decorative wall surface over an entrance, door or window] is appropriately representative of the Muses, with a cartouche in the center, bearing the monogram of the proprietress.’

The story of Señora Spencer is just one example of the kind of histories we can begin to tell when we orient our attention to the myriad roles women have occupied in the film industry since its earliest days. Across the globe, curators, historians and scholars are uncovering their own city’s trailblazing film workers. Spend an hour on Columbia University’s fabulous online resource, Women Film Pioneers Project, and you’ll encounter Filipino art director Isabel Acuña, Mexican producer Mimí Derba and Denmark’s first stunt designer Emilie Sannom, all of whom were active in the silent era alone.

Ida Lupino, a renowned actor who formed an independent production company to tackle taboo social issues

In June, the Gallery launched a three-month celebration of women in film. In collaboration with the Sydney Film Festival, we’ve hosted a retrospective of Australian female directors and paid tribute to the late, great French auteur Agnès Varda. Now, 35mm prints are arriving at the Gallery from LA, Prague and Jakarta for the latest film series, Merrily we go to hell.

The season presents a global survey of female-directed films from the 1930s to today. Every Wednesday and Sunday, we’re giving visitors the chance to get to know the work of directors who should be household names: Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, Věra Chytilová, Elaine May, Claudia Weill, Leslie Harris, Lynne Ramsay, Carolee Schneemann, Sally Potter, Lucrecia Martel and Mouly Surya.

What unites Lupino’s classic Hollywood film noir The hitch-hiker, a 1970s black comedy A new leaf and Indonesia’s first feminist spaghetti western Marlina the murderer in four acts? Each filmmaker in this series revels in a distinctive devil-may-care approach to genre conventions.

Dorothy Arzner, the only female director working in the golden age of Hollywood’s studio system, transforms the rom-com into a scandalous study of adultery in Merrily we go to hell. Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends reworks the hallmarks of 1970s neurotic New York comedy from the perspective of two best friends. Meanwhile, Věra Chytilová’s milestone of the ’60s Czech New Wave, Daisies, merges the insurrectionary energy of the Prague Spring with carnivalesque surrealism.

We might say the films in this season channel the spirit of Señora Spencer: quick-paced, whip-smart and awaiting rediscovery by new Sydney audiences. Their formal irreverence is matched by a certain chutzpah on the part of their protagonists. These are stories where conflict or hardship is met with exuberant displays of dance, wit and sass. As the young troublemakers of Daisies proclaim before their gleeful revolt: ‘Everything’s going bad in this world. If everything’s going bad, we’re going bad too!’

See you at the cinema.

A version of this article first appeared in Look – the Gallery’s members magazine

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June 23 2019, 5pm
by Ruby Arrowsmith-Todd
Curator, film