The Life Story of John Lee, or The Man They Could Not Hang (1912 film)

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The Life Story of John Lee, or The Man They Could Not Hang
Directed by Robert Scott
Produced by Philip Lytton
Written by Philip Lytton
Based on play by Claude Murrell
Cinematography Herbert Finlay
Distributed by Arthur W. Sterry (1917 onwards)
Release dates
Country Australia
Language Silent film
English intertitles
Budget £300[1]
Box office £50,000[2] or £20,000[1]

The Life Story of John Lee, or the Man They Could Not Hang is a 1912 Australian silent film based on a stage play about the true life story of John Babbacombe Lee.

It was the first of three films (to date) on this story, and is considered a lost film.

Original Play[edit]

The Man They Could Not Hang
Written by Claude E. Murrell
Date premiered 1911
Original language English
Genre Melodrama

The film was based on a popular four-act play, which was adapted from Lee's true life story. The newspaper Lloyd's Weekly had published Lee's story, contributing to the re-opening of the case and Lee's release. Lloyd's then suggested to Lee that he dramatise his story to make some money; Lee agreed and Claude Murrell was commissioned.[3][4]

Rights for perform the play in Australia were obtained by Philip Lytton. At one stage Lytton wanted to bring Lee to Australia on a lecture tour but Lee was too ill.[5]


John Lee returns home to Babbacombe after a number of years service in the navy. He becomes engaged to his childhood sweetheart Kate Merton but his rival, Fred Masterville, tries to frame him by depositing twenty pounds in his bed. However he is stopped when Lee's friend Dicky Dood sees this and takes the money for his own use.

Masterville breaks into Miss Cleveden's house with an accomplice, Jim Wells, intending to commit robbery. He is spotted by Miss Cleveden and kills her, putting the bloodstained knife in Lee's room. Wells accidentally sets fire to the room. Lee is arrested, tried, found guilty and sentenced to death. Three times he is taken to the scaffold but three times it fails.

Lee is given a life sentence. Masterville presses his claim but Kate remains true. Twenty two years later Masterville and Wells are caught attempting to rob Kate's house. Wells turns in Masterville, Lee is released and marries his old sweetheart.[6]


After the film was completed, producer Phillip Lytton was unenthusiastic about the film's commercial prospects and passed it on to an employee, Arthur W. Sterry, in 1917.[7] Sterry and his partner, Frederick Haldane, distributed the film themselves throughout Australia, New Zealand and England, often giving a lecture to accompany screenings.

It was estimated the film earned £50,000 before 1921 when Sterry and Haldane remade the movie. This means it could arguably be one of the most profitable Australian movies of all time.[2] (Another account puts the gross at £20,000.[1])


  1. ^ a b c "£100,000 SPENT." Advocate (Burnie, Tas) 5 Jan 1928: 6 accessed 6 December 2011
  2. ^ a b Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900–1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1998, 37.
  3. ^ "AMUSEMENTS.". Kalgoorlie Miner (WA : 1895 - 1950) (WA: National Library of Australia). 20 April 1913. p. 6. Retrieved 7 December 2012. 
  4. ^ *Autobiography published 1910 - April 23, April 30 Pt 1, April 30 Pt 2, 7 May Pt 1, 7 May Pt 2, 14 May, 21 May, 28 May, 4 June, 11 June, 18 June
  5. ^ "PHILLIP LYTTON DRAMATIC CO,.". Port Pirie Recorder and North Western Mail (SA : 1898 - 1918) (SA: National Library of Australia). 25 January 1913. p. 1. Retrieved 7 December 2012. 
  6. ^ ""THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG.".". Singleton Argus (NSW : 1880 - 1954) (NSW: National Library of Australia). 2 September 1911. p. 4. Retrieved 7 December 2012. 
  7. ^ Robert Sterry, 'Arthur Sterry' Sterry Worldwide

External links[edit]