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Monthly Programme for the Electric Theatre Burton-on-Trent

Date: 1925
Display dimensions: 155 x 475 mm (open)
Medium: Paper
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Object Name: Theatre program
Object No: 00046744

User Terms

    'Venus of the South Seas’ (1924) was Annette Kellerman's final film. She played the dual roles of Shona, daughter of a pearling fleet owner and a mermaid. Although this adventure-romance was set in the South Sea islands it was filmed on location in New Zealand during Kellerman's 1922 vaudeville tour of Australasia.
    SignificanceThis program advertises Annette Kellerman's final film, 'Venus of the South Seas' and places it in the context of other silent film features showing in the United Kingdom in the mid 1920s. Kellerman was a former swimming champion and vaudeville performer and major star of silent film. At the height of her career in 1916 she starred in 'Daughter of the Gods' which had a USD $1,000,000 budget. Kellerman was a contemporary of stars like Gloria Swanson, but did not make the transition to talking films, instead returning to vaudeville.
    HistoryMuch has been written about the mystique and heroism of the star who was christened the ‘Diving Venus’, ‘Neptune’s daughter’ and ‘the perfect woman’. Annette Kellerman was born in Darlinghurst, Sydney in 1886. She spent part of her childhood in Marrickville before catching what she called ‘mermaid fever’ when she learned to swim at Cavill’s Baths in Lavender Bay, North Sydney. As a teenager, she won her first NSW championship in 1902 and performed swimming demonstrations in Melbourne Aquarium, inspiring one journalist to proclaim, ‘she will become the rage of the town’.

    In 1906 she went to the USA where she performed a range of diving and swimming techniques for audiences in Chicago and Boston. The media interest she attracted fuelled her ambition to take her aquatic talents even further, to a stage career in vaudeville theatres and then in silent cinema where she performed a range of roles including the mythical mermaid, mysterious beauty and assertive heroine.

    Kellerman reached the height of her fame starring as the exotic beauty Princess Anitia in 'A Daughter of the Gods' (1916). Although the film itself has not survived, at the time it was the most expensive film ever made and it is today considered to be the first movie to feature a major star, that is Kellerman, in the nude. Media reports during Kellerman’s career reflect her flourishing celebrity status. Described as the ‘wonder woman of the water’, journalists praised her ‘versatile’ and ‘original’ performances. Dr Dudley Sargent, a lecturer at Harvard University, famously concluded she was physically ‘the perfect woman’ and ‘a good model for young women’.

    Despite the media hype, Kellerman’s mermaid routine waned in popularity. One reviewer cynically described her film 'Queen of the Sea' (1918), as ‘rather poor entertainment’ and an ‘impossible fairy tale’ designed to display Kellerman’s aquatic talents which were, by that point, outdated and earned no more than ‘a wan hand’. But as Kellerman would go on to prove right up until the late 1920s, there was still ‘none more shapely or talented than Annette’.

    There are a range of photographs of Kellerman in her numerous guises, usually emphasising her athletic prowess. This publicity still depicts Kellerman at her most direct, confident and sensual, staring unflinchingly at the viewer. Despite her sensuality, such promotional images were also designed to appeal to women. Kellerman was proposed as the physical standard for all women, and what she wore was an important aspect of her publicity machine. Kellerman encouraged this exposure, commenting in a 1910 interview: ‘I believe in being original…People used to stare and laugh – but they paid attention….’

    Provocative images of Kellerman acquire even more significance within a social and cultural context that espoused moral decency, propriety and a tightly defined femininity. Kellerman played a significant role in objecting to what she termed ‘prudish and Puritanical’ ideas about women’s swimwear. She criticised ‘Dame Society’ and the ‘pseudo-moral’ restrictions placed on women, and advocated more practical swimsuit designs such as the one depicted in this studio still. Her customised ‘union suit’ and the one-piece men’s swimsuits she promoted, embodied the clash between traditional values and the spontaneous drive for individuality. Early in her career, she tapped into a market teeming with women who she claimed were ‘mad on the beauty question’, and lectured on women’s health and fitness. In 1918 she published two books, 'Physical Beauty and How to Keep It' and 'How to Swim'. While often self-referential and self-congratulatory, there are other messages to be gleaned from their pages centring on the importance of women’s health.

    Though not quite a rebel, Kellerman created her own vocation and spoke to her audiences in a way that confronted real issues for women. She acknowledged the fickle nature of the film industry and the necessity to reinvent herself and what she called her ‘vogue’. This carefully fabricated image was fed by the print media disseminating the mythology that surrounded the swimming star. One widely reported myth is that Kellerman was arrested at a Boston beach in 1908 for indecent exposure. There is no recorded evidence of the arrest, even though newspapers reported – well after the event allegedly occurred – a ‘shocked howl’ ‘went up and down the land’ and made ‘world-wide headlines’ resulting in Kellerman being ‘denounced as a wanton’. Given the sensationalism it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction.

    Though undoubtedly a talented swimmer, Annette Kellerman was the consummate performer, morphing into many personas to suit the context and audience. She captured the mystery of the female form, which she used to her advantage through revealing costumes and clingy swimsuits. Underneath the surface, however, were messages about women’s health and the need for practical swimwear designs. Whatever the truth or fiction behind the persona, one fact remains clear: Kellerman challenged social and cultural boundaries.

    For her, swimming fed the ‘imagination’ and allowed her to escape and ‘forget a black earth full of people that push’. Through various media, she displayed how the streamlined swimsuit or the exotic costume represented freedom and vitality.

    Nicole Cama, 'The mermaid from Marrickville', Signals 99 (June - August 2012): 60-61.
    Nicole Cama, 'Object of the Week: The Mermaid from Marrickville', ANMM blog 16/03/2012.

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