Life in front of the camera: the Bennett Family Films

Sir Arnold Lucas Bennett was born in Toowoomba in 1908 and educated at Toowoomba and Brisbane Grammar schools. He graduated from the University of Queensland in 1931, completed his Barrister’s Board examinations in 1932 and soon after was admitted to the bar and commenced practice. Sir Arnold went on to have a distinguished career as a barrister, serving as president of the Bar Association of Queensland (1957-1959) among other positions.  He also had a prolonged passion for home movies.

Members of the Bennett Family, Fairthorpe, Auchenflower, ca. 1956. Still from 30192 Bennett Family Films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Members of the Bennett Family, Fairthorpe, Auchenflower, ca. 1956. Still from 30192 Bennett Family Films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

In 1956 Sir Arnold purchased a Bolex 16mm movie camera and for the next two decades avidly documented his family life. These films, recently donated by the Bennett Family, provide a fascinating view of mid-century family life in Brisbane in a well-to-do household.

Still from 30192 Bennett Family Films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Still from 30192 Bennett Family Films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

The films are in good condition, and as Sir Arnold mostly used a tripod, and evidently had a good eye for a scene, the footage is of high quality.

Still from 30192 Bennett Family Films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Still from 30192 Bennett Family Films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

A number of the films take the form of humorous episodes and short adventure stories starring members of the Bennett family, especially the children, with Sir Arnold experimenting with every trick the camera had to offer. Stop motion stunts, reversed footage, disappearing tricks, ghostly apparitions and psychedelic scenes all feature.

Members of the Bennett Family at Fairthorpe, Auchenflower. Still from 30192 Bennett Family Films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Members of the Bennett Family at Fairthorpe, Auchenflower. Still from 30192 Bennett Family Films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

https://vimeo.com/195539834

At other times the footage is more of a simple documentary device, recording family occasions, recreation, road trips, and interstate and overseas travel.

Still from 30192 Bennett Family Films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Still from 30192 Bennett Family Films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Sir Arnold also documents the world around him, with segments showing every day Brisbane street scenes, prominent buildings and sporting events. There is footage of people at work - firemen, traffic police, dock workers, whalers at Tangalooma, and employees at a brick-works and the Golden Circle Cannery. Then there is the Ekka, the 1974 floods, street parades and the visit of the Queen Mother in 1958. These segments capture poignant images of what is now a ‘lost’ Brisbane. The family house ‘Fairthorpe’, on Coronation Drive, Auchenflower, also features heavily in the films. Tellingly, it has now been replaced by a high-rise residential block, also named ‘Fairthorpe’.

Firemen on the Brisbane River. Still from 30192 Bennett Family Films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Firemen on the Brisbane River. Still from 30192 Bennett Family Films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Brisbane streets. Still from 30192 Bennett Family Films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Brisbane streets. Still from 30192 Bennett Family Films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

The Ekka. Still from 30192 Bennett Family Films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

The Ekka. Still from 30192 Bennett Family Films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Whaling at Tangalooma. Still from 30192 Bennett Family Films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Whaling at Tangalooma. Still from 30192 Bennett Family Films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

The Bolex camera seems central to the Bennett household, present at most family occasions, for more than twenty years. The Bennett children grow up in front of the camera. In the early footage they are keen to show off for the camera, having water fights in the back yard, spinning hula-hoops, swimming in creeks, climbing trees and running wild at the family property at Tamborine Mountain. Gradually through a succession of birthdays and Christmases the children become adults, eventually marrying and presenting their own children to the camera.

Still from 30192 Bennett Family Films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Still from 30192 Bennett Family Films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

In 1988, Merilee Bennett, the youngest of Sir Arnold’s children, used this footage as the basis for a documentary ‘A Song of Air’ in which she explored her relationship with her father through the prism of these home movies. The film was included in the "Un Certain Regard" section at the Cannes Film Festival.

Still from 30192 Bennett Family Films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Still from 30192 Bennett Family Films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

The Bennett Family films are available for viewing though our One Search catalogue. A copy of the documentary ‘A Song of Air’ is available for viewing in the John Oxley reading room at the State Library of Queensland.

R. Hillier – Original Materials Librarian, State Library of Queensland

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Thank you for digitizing these films and making them available online. As a former owner of a Bolex H16, and as someone who remembers seeing and admiring the Bennetts' house as I travelled along Coronation Drive, I find these films wonderfully evocative.The experience of viewing the films online would be much improved if you presented them as separate works, rather than as whole reels with the different films spliced nose to tail. Or, at the very least, add the timestamps for the beginning of each film to the finding aid.

Hi PeterThank you for your comments. I've passed your suggestion on to our team for their consideration.Kind regardsMyles Sinnamon - blog editor

I loved the old movie film. Arnold Bennett was married to my Dad’s 1st cousin Nancy Mellor so I get to see some of my cousins!