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"Kelly Gang" Film Began Era Of

"Feature" Pictures


[ The Storr of Pioneer Films ]|

The cinema is now the world's chief means of entertainment. In Australia alone the cinema theatres take £12 million annually, have 200 million customers a year. But few of the Australians who go to the "pictures" once a week---or several times a week-realise that an early Australian film profoundly influenced  

the international development of the industry.

THE world's first full-length

feature film was not made   in Hollywood, California, but in backyards and paddocks in


It was a venturesome, rough- and-tumble affair, "The Kelly Gang."

To-day it would probably be called a "horse-opera."

But whereas present-day feature films cost anything up to £ 1 mil- lion to produce, "The Kelly Gang" was made 41 years ago for £400.

W. A. Gibson, "father of the Australian motion picture indus- try," was the producer.

. . .


hibited throughout Australia   -mostly on vacant allotments be- hind hoardings.

There were no picture theatres in those days with cushioned seats, deep-piled carpets, air-conditioning, uniformed usherettes and guards- man-like commissionaires.

The success of "The Kelly Gang" played a notable part in the foun- dation of the large city and subur- ban cinema circuits, which since have built palatial entertainment centres complete with such moder- nities as milk bars and crying rooms for babies.

Back in 1900, when Mr. Gibson was projecting his first flickering "kinematographics," his projection machine cost £40, ."stars" £1 a day, theatre rent a few shillings nightly, and people such as produc- tion managers, directors, film edi- tors, scenario writers, art directors, sound engineers and lighting ex-

W. A. GIBSON Pioneer film-maker

During this action-packed scene in "The Kelly Sang," an extra had to intrude to hold a scared horse while the Kellys fought it out.

This is claimed to be the first interior scene photographed in an Australian production. The beer scene in the GLENROWAN

HOTEL during the making of "The Kelly Gang."

perts, who to-day draw salaries which would satisfy a maharajah, had not been thought up.

To-day an Australian "A" feature production can cost up to £150,000, production and sound equipment between £2,800 and £4,500, and a not too pretentious suburban theatre (if yon can get a licence) about £250,000.

. . .

IT began in 1900, when a sign over a door in a St. Kilda   street stated that Messrs. Johnson

and Gibson were open for business

as chemists.

An Englishman was a frequent visitor to the shop. He wanted  

materials for one of the headline acts of a none too successful vaude- ville show. The act used a magic lantern to show "motivated figures"

on a screen.

The manager of the vaudeville show disappeared with the takings after an evening performance and left his "acts" with the grim pros- pect of walking Melbourne's Poverty Point (where unemployed show people congregated). The Englishman sold his magic lantern to Mr. Gibson for £40.

. . .

MR. GIBSON bought the magic

lantern to entertain his friends. At nights he took them to the roof of his shop and projected 50-foot lengths of film on a makeshift screen, beneath the stars.

Unknown to the roof-top audi- ence, the show could be seen from

the street.

One night so many stood watch- ing the show from the road below that they caused an irate police- man to clamber to the roof and demand that the performance

should cease.

That was when Mr. Gibson first sensed the public interest in movies.

Later he moved his projection outfit and films to St. Kilda Beach, where he gave public performances.

The success of the St. Kilda Beach exhibitions interested other showmen. They persuaded Gibson

to hire out projection machines and  


Johnson and Gibson became what was later to be known as a film exchange. They were fore- runners in Australia of such firms as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Fox, Paramount, other American film exchanges, and British Empire films, who rent films and accessories to exhibitors.

. . .

THE firm supplied and repaired projection machines. They also  

hired trained "pro- jectionists" to ex- hibitors. These

projectionists were usually men who

had another job during the day, and earned a few extra shillings at night in this way.

The business prospered, and it was not long before Johnson and Gibson had 40 operators and pro- jection machines "on circuit."

Many of the operators and machines "played" two shows nightly. It was not unusual for Mr. Gibson himself to give an early performance at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, move over to the Temperance Hall for the second show, and then return to the Cricket Ground for a final perfor-


Mr. Gibson secured the rights for an "extended scenic" titled "Living


This film was a box-office success until it met with a series of disasters when it was "booked" into towns simultaneously with a "flesh and blood" show called "The Kelly Gang."

. . .

GIBSON'S reply was charac-

teristic. He drew £400 from

his bank and began filming "The Kelly Gang" as a full evening's


These extras got £1 a day.

When the idea leaked out, it was scoffed at.

Nowhere else in the world had a five-reel film been made. Audiences, it was claimed, became restless towards the end of the then standard one-reelers, which took 20 minutes to screen-providing there were no breaks in the film and no fires in the machine.

Mr. F. Marden, who later worked at what is now known as Cinesound Studios, Ebley Street, Bondi Junction, and at the film studios next to the White City Tennis Courts, became production


Mr. S. Cruse was appointed property master.

Sets were built in paddocks out- side Melbourne, actors were hired from Cole's Dramatic Company at £1 a day, and the big spectacle, the Glenrowan Hotel conflagration, was staged in a Melbourne back

A GROUP of Melbourne

"toughs" was hired for a brawl   scene in the bar of the Glenrowan Hotel. An additional lure was "as much as you can drink in the bar


The "toughs" disposed of quarts at a rate which sent up production costs alarmingly.

Horse-play began, and a bucket

of water was thrown.

There was an unrehearsed fight,

in which the "toughs" joined. When-blood began to flow they "pulled" the revolvers which had been issued to them by the pro- perty master, and "shot up" the place with blanks to such an extent that the gunfight was reported in the Melbourne newspapers, and police inquiries were made.

"The Kelly Gang" not only made history in world film produc- tion, but also established box-office records-except in Sydney. The film opened on a lot in Sydney's Haymarket to a Saturday night premiere audience of 3,000. The rent for the lot was £ 8 a night. On Sunday it began to rain, and the drizzle continued for weeks.

. . .

RECORDS of the earnings of   "The Kelly Gang" have been  

lost, but old-timers in the film trade estimate it grossed about £25,000.

Its box-office receipts were so convincing that it induced the Car- rolls and the Taits to become inter- ested in the possibilities of local film production. ,

The Taits became financially associated with Mr. Gibson in a  


subsequent film production, "The Luck of Roaring Camp."

By 1912 the importance of the feature film was becoming obvious.

But a Mr. Spencer bought the Australasian rights of "Quo Vadis" for £4,000, while The Thanhouser Company worked abroad with 200 people for four weeks to produce "The Star of Bethlehem" for £1,600.

From £5 to £10 was the aver-

age price paid in America for scenarios. In England the rates were much lower.

When, in 1927, Gibson's com- pany made the Australian film, "For the Term of His Natural Life," the cost was £40,000.

. . .

GIBSON was quick too, to re-

alise the importance of the


One of Australia's most famous early newsreel items pictured Diver Hughes going down a flooded mine in Western Australia to take food to a trapped miner.

This heroic incident was such a sensation in its day that Mr. Gibson decided to make a 500 feet news "special." Pony expresses rushed the copies between exhibition


Gayne Dexter, internationally known Australian film man (now with Warner Bros, in London) says:

"Gibson erected a tarpaulin tank and hired diving apparatus to show the frantic miner in a cavern being

rescued by the diver at the last moment.

"George Coates played the diver,

and he was kept at the bottom of the tank by heavy weights attached to his body and legs.

"Frank Marden took charge of the pump and commenced to turn.

"His impression was that a man under water needed all the air that could be forced through a pipe. Mr. Gibson cranked the camera.

"Then, with a tremendous splash, a huge balloon shot to the surface. It contained the gallant rescuer with his suit so inflated that hundred- weights of lead wouldn't keep him down. For two hours Marden hid in the fastnesses of St. Kilda."

WARNING: Anyone who hopes to emulate Gibson and make a for- tune out of a backyard production of "The Kelly Gang" should take warning from the experience of one Australian producing group about 20 years ago.

This group made another "Kelly Gang" film (at a cost of about £27,000) and the Chief Secretary promptly banned its presentation in N.S.W., using powers under the Theatres and Public Halls Act.

The reason: The police con- sidered this version offended against "good manners and decorum." .

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