Elsa Chauvel

Elsie May Chauvel (1898-1983), film producer, was born in Melbourne, only daughter of two children of Ada (born Worrall) and Edward Wilcox, actor. With little formal education, Elsie was initiated into the itinerant life of the acting profession, accompanying her parents to South Africa. At age fourteen she became a full-time stage performer appearing with a number of companies including the African Theatres Trust. In 1924 the family returned to Australia where, two years later, Elsie played the heroine in Greenhide, the second film directed by up- and-coming Australian director Charles Chauvel. She married Charles in June 1927, changing her name to Elsa; the marriage appears to have been happy.

Elsa was a capable actress but marriage brought a change in career direction. Charles was of the opinion that a married woman's role should be subordinate to that of her husband's, but he was happy to utilise Elsa's organising and artistic talents. Elsa Chauvel became an energetic collaborator on her husband's productions: assistant director, Uncivilized (1936); co-writer, Forty Thousand Horsemen (1941) and all Chauvel's subsequent features; associate producer, Sons of Matthew (1949) and dialogue director, Jedda (1955). Only in the historical epic, Heritage (1935), did Elsa appear in front of the camera, in the role of Mrs Macquarie.

Elsa and Charles's relationship was the epitome of the companionate marriage but theirs was far from a conventional example of domesticity. Elsa was able to pursue an (often unacknowledged) career involving much travel and business responsibility; the Chauvels went to Hollywood in 1928 in an unsuccessful attempt to crack the American market for Australian productions, and she also accompanied Charles to exotic locations. In 1932, for example, Elsa travelled on location to Pitcairn Island for the making of In the Wake of the Bounty, leaving her only child, Suzanne, in the care of her paternal grandmother.

The Chauvels were nationalists who aimed through their films to enhance a sense of the Australian character with its traditional themes of mateship and pioneering struggle. Their films were competently made, but could hardly challenge the burgeoning Hollywood domination of the local industry. The high point of their commercial achievement was Forty Thousand Horsemen, the epic story of the Light Horse which, partly due to the patriotism and interest generated by war, won widespread international release and recognition. Though the postwar years witnessed the virtual demise of local feature production, the release of the Chauvels' very successful Jedda in 1955 bequeathed to a new generation of Australians the memory of an earlier and more vital period of the Australian cinema, to be rekindled in the 1970s.

Charles's death in 1959 did not stem Elsa's indefatigable labours; in addition to charitable work, she tirelessly campaigned for the perpetuation of her husband's memory as Australia's greatest film director and producer, and encouraged the preservation of their joint work in the National Film Archives. An attractive if somewhat homely- looking woman in her mature years, Elsa Chauvel was noted as a strong if self-effacing personality. She sold herself and the history of women in the Australian cinema short with her recourse to a glib label: Charles Chauvel's 'Girl Friday'.

Diane Collins