Lyell, Lottie (1890–1925)

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Lyell, Lottie (1890–1925)

Australia's first female star, screenwriter, and director, whose films are considered classics of the silent-film era. Born Charlotte Edith Cox in Sydney, Australia,on February 23, 1890; died on December 21, 1925; daughter of Charlotte Louise (Hancock) Cox and Edward Cox (a real estate agent); married Raymond Longford, in 1925; no children.

Filmography—as writer:

Australia Calls (1913); The Sentimental Bloke (1919); Ginger Mick (1920); Rudd's New Selection (1921); (also director) The Blue Mountains Mystery (1921).

Selected filmography—as an actress:

The Fatal Wedding (1911); The Romantic Story of Margaret Catchpole (1911); The Tide of Death (1912); The Midnight Wedding (1912); 'Neath Australian Skies (1913); Australia Calls (1913); The Silence of Dean Maitland (1914); Taking His Chance (1914); Mutiny on the Bounty (1916); A Maori Maid's Love (1916); The Church and the Woman (1917); The Woman Suffers (1918); The Sentimental Bloke (1919); Ginger Mick (1920); Rudd's New Selection (1921).

Lottie Lyell was a major pioneer in Australia's nascent motion-picture industry. She began her film career at age 21 and, by the time she died 14 years later, she had become Australia's first female box-office attraction, having starred in over 20 films. She had also become Australia's first woman screenwriter and had directed, or co-directed, films that are considered classics of the silent-film era.

Lyell was born Charlotte Edith Cox in 1890 in Sydney and grew up in Balmain. Having studied elocution as a child, she made her stage debut in 1907, taking the name Lyell. She then joined the Edwin Geach Popular Dramatic Organization and toured Australia and New Zealand, establishing her reputation as a dynamic actress. Raymond Longford was a fellow thespian on the tours. Though he was already married, he and Lyell began a professional and personal relationship which would last until Lyell's death.

In 1911, Lyell and Longford began working for Spencer's Pictures. With Longford as director and Lyell as the star, they had their first commercial successes as filmmakers with the release of The Fatal Wedding, followed by The Romantic Story of Margaret Catchpole (both 1911). An expert equestrian, Lyell pioneered the image of the independent "bush woman," a swashbuckling film heroine who saved the lives of her hapless male co-stars.

Lyell was the first Australian woman to work behind and in front of the cameras. Her signature film, The Woman Suffers (1918), concerns two young pregnant women who have been abandoned by their lovers. One commits suicide; the other, played by Lyell, decides to raise the child as a single mother, after an unsuccessful abortion attempt. Ultimately, her lover returns, and the two marry. Depicting the "fallen" woman as a survivor who ultimately finds happiness was a clear departure from other films that addressed similar themes, most notably Lois Weber 's Where Are My Children?

In 1919, Lyell and Longford became internationally recognized with the release of The Sentimental Bloke, based on a popular novel written by C.J. Dennis. Lyell starred in the film, co-wrote it with Longford, and, though she most likely co-directed it as well, received only an on-screen acting credit. Far removed from her earlier heroines, the role she played was that of Doreen, a young city woman who works in a factory. The tale of seduction and revenge was hailed for its "naturalistic" performances, briefly banned by the New South Wales chief secretary, and is still considered one of Australia's best silent films. A reviewer for Triad, a journal of the arts, wrote in November 1919:

Doreen in the book charms us so little that we feel like throwing things at her; but the little Australian girl who plays Doreen on the

film is so sprightly and honest, so womanly and sweet, so unaffectedly Australian and human, that we find ourselves really believing in Doreen … and that is a great miracle.

Lyell also scripted and co-directed The Blue Mountains Mystery (1921) and The Dinkum Bloke (1923); the latter was the first Longford film for which she was officially credited as co-director. Andrée Wright maintains in Brilliant Careers that Longford was fearful of scandal, since back then "women's role was supposed to be confined largely to child-bearing and child-rearing."

Lyell's brilliant career was cut short when she contracted tuberculosis. Though she and Longford had carried on a 17-year affair, he would neither divorce his wife nor publicly acknowledge their relationship until it was clear that Lyell was dying. They were married just a few weeks prior to Lyell's death, at age 35, on December 21, 1925. Raymond Longford's career was never the same without Lottie Lyell.


Foster, Gwendolyn. Women Film Directors: An International Bio-critical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Long, Joan, and Martin Long. The Pictures that Moved. Hutchinson of Australia, 1982.

McFarlane, Brian. Australian Cinema. NY: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Porter, Hal. Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Sydney: Halstead Press, 1965.

Wright, Andrée. Brilliant Careers. Sydney: Pan Books, 1986.

Deborah Jones , Studio City, California