Reviewed by Richard Waterhouse
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The subject of modernity, its nature, origins and influence, has come to increasingly pre-occupy Australian historians in recent years. In a perceptively argued study of Victoria’s 1934 centenary celebrations Frazer Andrewes suggested that Melburnians were both excited and anxious about a modernity that shaped new ways of thinking and reflected a world transformed by technology. Jill Matthews’ beautifully written and tenaciously argued study of the impact of modernity on early twentieth century Sydney is both more narrowly and more widely conceived than Andrewes’ thesis. It is broader because it covers a longer time span, an approach which allows her to detail how ‘the promise of the modern world’ in the form of ‘amusing gadgets, scientific marvels and diverting ideas’ (p. 1) changed the cultural outlook of Sydney’s people. Yet it is also a narrower study because the focus of her attention is almost exclusively on the impact of dance hall and more especially of cinema culture on young women, who she suggests were the incarnation of the jazz age. Such an approach has clear strengths and advantages. Most notably it allows her, whilst acknowledging that modernity was fluid and elusive, to argue that its impact through the conduits of dance hall and cinema was so thorough and extensive that by about 1935 modern popular culture was ‘fully ensconced in the public domain as American and commercial’ (p. 248). Certainly, non-American and far less commercial culture was available ‘but only as an elite activity (p. 248). But it also has weaknesses, because in neglecting to locate dance halls and cinemas within a wider context of popular culture she fails to acknowledge that many influential institutions and values remained determinedly traditional and British.
One of the real strengths of this book lies in the way Matthews has carefully examined her cultural texts both at the point of production and the point of consumption. Using the transcripts and reports of the NSW Board of Trade and the Federal Royal Commission on the Basic Wage she carefully maps the consumption patterns of working class women. On the other hand, using the J Walter Thompson Company Archives, she also shows how the advertising companies sought both to measure and shape public taste. Moreover, the men who came to dominate the film distribution market in Australia turned the cinema industry into an efficient monopoly, one that promoted both glamour and respectability. They were ruthless too. The truly unlikeable Ralph Doyle committed United Artists to a contribution of £435 to defeat the Bruce-Page Coalition because of its concern to impose strict film censorship. Indeed, her analysis of the role of the film executives in relentesslessly promoting their product without concern for local interests is detailed and illuminating, and invites depressing comparisons with contemporary contexts. After all, we live in a world in which the Australian film and television industries are struggling to survive.
This is a very well written and eloquently argued book. It is filled with sentences like: ‘Through Sydney Australia exported the Bush and imported the modern city’ (p. 42). Again, in the conclusion she suggests: ‘ The modern was no longer a glorious, giddy future to be embraced enthusiastically, nor was it the feared sign of the end of civilisation. It simply was’ (p. 248). These are perhaps a little too sweeping, but sentences like this make for enjoyable and entertaining reading.
I am persuaded that Sydney ‘s cultural values and institutions, the way Sydneysiders saw and understood the world, changed in the first thirty years or so of the twentieth century. Perhaps this is reflected in the fact that before 1914 Australians associated modernisation, and future prosperity with the Bush: by the mid twenties they identified modernity and a higher living standard with city life. But I am not convinced that the changes were as sudden and dramatic as she suggests. For example, cinema, which she arguesplayed a vital role in promoting modernity, simply took over the advertising and organization structures previously used in theatre. ‘The Firm’ predated ‘The Combine’. Moreover many of the modern values and characters that she identifies in cinema were already to be found in vaudeville songs and melodrama heroines. I am also convinced there were many aspects of popular culture in Sydney, particularly those that related to sport and the pub that remained traditional, English rather than American. Nor were these activities confined to men, for drinking and horse racing increasingly became women’s pastimes in this period. Matthews often cites the work of Lawrence Levine, but it was he who defined culture as a process involving a dialogue between past and present, old and new.
I may not agree with all the arguments in this book. But I would certainly acknowledge that Matthews has made a powerful case for the impact of modernity on Sydney ‘s city culture in this period, especially as it related to the values and activities of working-class women. In its careful attention to the producers and consumers of culture and through its development of a beautifully phrased and tenacious argument it constitutes an exemplary study in Australian cultural history.
Dance Hall and Picture Palace; Sydney’s Romance With Modernity by Jill Julius Matthews($32.95 paper) was published by Currency Press, Sydney in 2005.
Richard Waterhouse is Bicentennial Professor of Australian History and Head of the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry at the University of Sydney.