Woman Lyell, Lottie Edith (1890 - 1925)

Balmain, New South Wales, Australia
21 December 1925
New South Wales, Australia
Actor, Art director, Director, Editor, Film writer and Producer
Alternative Names
  • Cox, Lottie Edith (birth name)

Written by Bronwyn Coupe, National Film and Sound Archive

In a tragically short life, Lottie Lyell made an extraordinary contribution to the early development of the Australian feature film industry, as well as establishing herself as one of Australia's first film stars. Committed to developing films in her own country, her career highlights included making and starring in one of the landmark silent features of the era - The Sentimental Bloke.

While now acknowledged as a pioneer of Australia's feature films, Lottie Lyell's long association with Raymond Longford both enabled and obscured her part in their many joint productions. The loss of many early Australian films, the inconsistency of records for early film credits and the lack of her own account has made it difficult to establish Lyell's exact roles. Lyell was credited for a few screenplays, as co-director on The Blue Mountains Mystery and assistant director on The Dinkum Bloke. However, the testimony of contemporaries, press reports, letters and production documents make it clear that as well as being a highly regarded actor, she was widely acknowledged and admired as a film screenwriter, editor, art director, producer and director. Her career spanned 18 years, commencing with acting in the theatre and concluding with the posthumous release in 1926 of Peter Vernon's Silence, a Longford Lyell production co-written by Lyell and Longford and The Pioneers, for which she is credited with adapting the screenplay from Katharine Susannah Pritchard's novel. In a productive personal and professional partnership Lyell and Longford made 28 films together, with Lyell performing in 21.

Lottie Edith Cox was born in Balmain, Sydney in 1890, the middle of three daughters to estate agent Joseph Cox and his wife Charlotte. She had adopted the stage name of Lottie Lyell by the time she appeared as Maggie Brown in the play An Englishman's Home in Maitland in 1909. Working initially with Edwin Geach's troupe, alongside family friend Raymond Longford, she toured throughout Australia and New Zealand in theatre productions for two years. Following her first appearance in Captain Midnight, The Bush King in 1911, her film career began in earnest with Spencer's Pictures where she first reprised her stage role of Mabel Wilson in The Fatal Wedding on film, directed by Raymond Longford in 1911. This was followed with a star role in The Romantic Story of Margaret Catchpole, the first of a number of roles in which Lottie demonstrated her considerable athleticism and horse-riding prowess.

Lyell worked hard on stage and screen. In 1913 she recounted how a long tour of Australia and New Zealand was held up when the company was stranded by floods in country Victoria and housed in the local lockup. She also talked of the riding, fencing and rowing required by film work and stunts such as jumping thirty feet off a cliff into water dressed in period costume. Later in her career Lyell combined performing with writing, directing, titling and editing, concentrating her energies on production work in the early 1920s as she suffered bouts of tuberculosis.

Demanding physical work was not the only challenge Lyell and filmmaking partner Raymond Longford would face. From January 1913 the film distribution and production 'combine' between Australasian Films and Union Theatres began to dominate what had been a thriving film industry based on smaller independent Australian production companies making feature films for local audiences. Longford's and Lyell's increasingly sophisticated films still won both critical and popular acclaim in an era when the combine's preference for importing cheaper films from the US and Europe threatened the Australian feature film industry leading to its collapse shortly after her death.

From the beginning, Lyell's acting was praised by critics, who often singled her out from the cast, noting her unaffected, natural style. Surviving footage of Lyell's films attest to her powerful on-screen presence. Lyell's experience in front of - and behind - the camera seems to have informed her performances, as she quickly adapted to a less theatrical acting style - resulting in an engaging realism on the screen. This is particularly evident in sequences and photographs from later films where closer shots reveal her restrained gestures and expressive eyes. Lyell was also remarkably versatile, convincingly playing a spirited bush heroine, wronged innocent, dutiful wife or sister as well as down-to-earth working girl. She was a talented dramatic player as well as an entertaining comedienne. As co-directors, she and Longford were innovative in preparing casts by mixing with the community they would be portraying and instructing actors to pull back from the more exaggerated stage acting that most were trained in.

As well as portraying strong female characters, a number of the screenplays attributed to Lottie Lyell challenged social conventions by presenting issues from a woman's point of view. In particular, The Woman Suffers, made in South Australia in 1917 is claimed as Australia's first feminist film for its well promoted moral message about the hypocrisy and inequity of the moral 'double standard' for men and women. The complex, melodramatic screenplay dealt with the harm caused by domestic violence and the injustice of unmarried pregnancy, which ruined the life of a woman with little impact on the life of the irresponsible father. Unlike similar films of the time, the character played by Lottie Lyell wins back her erring lover and both are redeemed in marriage.

The 1919 film The Sentimental Bloke, based on C J Dennis's much-loved poem, also turned the tide in its sympathetic portrayal of city and working class life. In Australian features up to this point virtuous women often came from wholesome country backgrounds, with their move to the city leading to them to corruption and bad habits. In contrast, Lottie Lyell's factory girl Doreen is sweet, hardworking and funny, and is the moral compass that guides the larrikin 'bloke' to a life of sober happiness. The film was released and praised internationally for the quality of its acting, the engaging blend of humour and pathos as well as and the charm and authenticity of its characters and locations. Lyell's contribution to the film included production, screenplay and editing as well as playing the female lead.

Lyell continued to work on films although from 1920 illness interrupted her career. She played a smaller role in Longford's On Our Selection. In 1921 she co-produced and performed in the sequel to The Sentimental Bloke - Ginger Mick - then concentrated solely on producing & directing the Blue Mountains Mystery before performing in Rudd's New Selection. In 1923 Longford and Lyell formed a new production company - Longford Lyell Productions - and they worked on a further 6 films together, two of which were released after her death, at 35, from tuberculosis on 21 December 1925. She is buried in the Northern Suburbs cemetery in Ryde, NSW alongside Raymond Longford.

Lottie Lyell's death coincided with the close of the first dynamic era of Australian feature film production. The 1927 Royal Commission into the Moving Picture Industry was ineffective in implementing measures that would prevent the industry's decline in the face of imported films. Lyell's dedication, talent and willingness to work outside of traditional women's roles contributed enormously to the flowering of cinema production in Australia at the beginning of the 20th century.

Additional sources: THE WOMAN SUFFERS: ORIGINAL RELEASE (1918), NFSA Title No: 4112. THE WOMAN SUFFERS: [RECONSTRUCTION : NFSA PRODUCT] (1991), NFSA Title No: 274544.

Archival Resources

National Film and Sound Archive

  • The Woman Suffers: [Reconstruction: NFSA Product], 29 October 1991, 274544; National Film and Sound Archive. Details
  • The Woman Suffers; Original Release, 1918, 4112; National Film and Sound Archive. Details

Published Resources


  • Dooley, Marilyn, Photo-play Artiste: Miss Lottie Lyell 1890-1925, ScreenSound Australia, Chisholm, Australian Capital Territory, 2000. Details
  • Wright, AndrĂ©e, Brilliant Careers, Women in Australian Cinema, Pan Books, Sydney, New South Wales, 1986. Details

Book Sections

  • Speed, Sally, 'Voices from the Silent Era', in Annette Blonski, Barbara Creed and Freda Freiberg (eds), Don't Shoot Darling! : Women's Independent Filmmaking in Australia, Greenhouse Publications, Richmond, Victoria, 1987. Details

Online Resources

Digital Resources

Lottie Lyell in The Woman Suffers (Australia, 1918)
Audio Visual
National Film and Sound Archive