AUSTRALIAN MOVIE HIT OF
silent screen start
19, playing the part of Sarah Purfoy.
Young and unknown,
she was chosen to star in a costly production
now regarded as an epic
When Jessica Harcourt
Thwaites goes on stage at the opening of the Sydney Film Festival, audiences will no doubt warm to her just as they did 54 years ago.
Then she was a young girl of 19. Decked in a crinoline dress and a wavy black wig, she was doing a routine on the stage to promote a silent movie that was a hit at the time. The audience loved her and she received rounds of applause.
The movie, "For the Term of His Nat- ural Life," adapted from a novel of the same title by Marcus Clarke, was about an Englishman (played by the American actor George Fisher) who was wrongly convicted of murder and transported to the convict settlement of Van Diemen's Land, the old name for Tasmania. It told of the hardships of life as a convict and the Englishman's unrequited love for the daughter of a prison governor. Jessica starred as Sarah Purfoy, a rather villain- ous woman, and the wife of a convict.
Why the sudden interest in a 54-year old film? "Term" is an important movie in the history of the Australian film-making industry. It had cost £60,000 ($110,000) to produce, making it the most expensive movie of its time. Because Americans were brought in to make it, and the major members of the cast were Ameri- cans, it was believed that Hollywood had finally arrived in Australia.
When the movie, produced by Australasian Films, premiered in New- castle, it was a huge success. However, before it could be introduced to the Am- erican market, "talkies" arrived on the scene. Last year a copy of "Term" was found in America, and has been expertly
restored by the National Library film ar- chives. Now, a 30-minute introduction to the movie has been made. Called "Epic" by Film Australia, the producers, it tells the story of how Australia's first full length film was made. The entertaining documentary consists of interviews with personalities involved in the making of "Term" - cinematographers, publicists, and the only surviving actress of the cast, Jessica, who was also the only Australian female lead.
"Epic" and "Term" will be shown at the opening of the Sydney Film Festival on June 5 and at the end of the Mel- bourne Film Festival on June 20. "Term" has also been accepted for screening at the San Francisco Film Festival to be held later this year.
When director Graham Chase ap- proached Jessica about doing "Epic," she was thrilled. "I love making movies more than anything else. Filming in Tasmania was delightful ... I just stepped into my role as Sarah all over again," she said.
In those days "Term" went on location in Tasmania, as well as different parts of NSW. The lavish production involved the burning of a ship in one of the scenes. For this, a timber hulk was recon- structed, anchored in Sydney Harbour, and set ablaze with oil and dynamite.
Typical of silent movies, the acting was rather melodramatic. Wherever the cast went the vital three-piece orchestra went, too. "In some scenes actresses were expected to cry," says Jessica. "The or- chestra's job was to play music that would induce tears."
Jessica's publicity appearances at theatres were a hit, too. Songs were sung on the stage but Jessica's miming was so perfect that nobody guessed that some- body else was doing the actual singing behind the screen.
For Jessica, the invitation to do a screen test for the part of Sarah Purfoy was a fantastic break even though she hadn't expected to get the part. "I hadn't read the book," recalls Jessica, "so I got a copy of it and read it. I was horrified at Sarah's part. But when they offered it to me I was astounded ... I still am. Most of the best actresses in Sydney wanted it and there I was, 19, with no acting ex- perience, and I got it!" Jessica was paid £25 ($45) a week. Eva Novak, leading lady and an American, received £300 ($551) a week, worth more in those days.
Jessica has led a varied and exciting life. At the age of 15 she was a manne- quin for department stores like Farmers and Buckleys. At 17, her portrait was
painted by Sir John Longstaff, a well known portrait artist, and it now hangs in the Art Gallery of Victoria beside that of Dame Nellie Melba. Jessica was also in the chorus line of J. C. Williamson mus- sicals. She was an entrant in the first Miss Australia contest and was one of the six finalists. "I pulled out of it," said Jessica. "Everyone said I wouldn't win because I was too English-looking."
After "Term," Jessica went on to make two more movies, "The Adorable Out- casts," and "The Russell Affair." After the arrival of "talkies" she and a partner launched her own line of cosmetics.
In 1937, on her way into a radio station to do a broadcast, she was in- troduced to Fred Thwaites, a novelist. "He asked me out to dinner," said Jessica. "I told him I'd already eaten. I hadn't, I was just playing hard to get."
Six months later they were married. "Fred didn't approve of my acting," said Jessica, "so I gave it up." She devoted the rest of her time to typing manuscripts for Fred and raised two sons, Roger
Thwaites, a successful entertainer, and Gary, his elder brother.
Fred died in 1979 of cancer. "My role
in 'Epic' seemed to be heaven-sent," said Jessica, who now lives in Fairlight, Syd- ney. "I've been very much alone since Fred died. Being involved in the movie business has kept me terribly busy and it's made me laugh again."
- LINDA JODRÜ
RIGHT: Jessica Harcourt Thwaites. Picture taken by David Wallace.
BELOW: With George Fisher. BELO«
RIGHT: With Dunstan Webb and the child who played Sarah's charge.
"eturns to the limelight
rHE '20s FOR FILM FESTIVAL SCREENING