DID YOU KNOW AUSTRALIANS WERE . . .
Pioneers Of The Cinema
The people whe ought to know are now prophesy- ing for Australia a great future in film production and the prophecies are being received by the gen- eral, cynical public with a slightly-raised eyebrow.
But, after all, why not? The general, cynical public forgets that Austra- lia helped pioneer cinematography in the days when moving pictures were considered like motor cars, mere expensive toys for crackpots ...
In 1896, only a year after the Lumiere brothers showed their first films in Paris, Aus- tralia's first newsreel shot was made by Edward Sager berg.
lt was the finish of the Melbourne Cup; and the audience at the Melbourne Tivoli, then Rickards' Opera House, duly saw Newhaven
win the race.
But the most important event in Australia's cinema history did not happen until 10 years later. It was an en- tertainment milestone for the World - the production of the first feature-length film play The Story of the Kelly Gang.
The story of the Kelly Gang was the work of a St. Kilda chemist, Millard John- son, and his film partner since 1896, W. A. Gibson.
The two had invested in a projector and some films, and used to give quarter-hour shows at concerts. The films were mostly comedies running for 5 or 10 minutes, always ending with a chase and the throwing of the villain into a horse pond.
First real film plays had been The Great Train Rob- bery and The Life of Charles Peace. Both were 15-minute thrillers, and were produced in 1903, within a few weeks of each other, in America and England respectively.
Until 1906 this remained the usual length for plays, though a few had been made which ran up to half an hour.
The Johnson and Gibson
plan to produce a two-hour play was then a tremendous advance. The only long films so far made had been docu- mentaries, notably Our Navy, Queen Victoria's Funeral, and Living London.
Most of the shooting of The Story of the Kelly Gang was done in the country around about Mitcham, Lilydale and Croydon. The landlord of the Mitcham Hotel - which was location headquarters - and members of his family played parts.
* * *
WHERE was, however,
A one difficulty in cast- ing. None of the actors who played the Gang could ride, and Frank Mills as Ned fell off the hunter provided for him with such regularity, and spoiled such a footage of film, that he was finally mounted on a light draught.
This saved the situation even at the cost of the equine "verisimilitude."
Shooting was done on Wed- nesdays and Sundays, the rest of the week being given over to processing and test projetions of the film at the pharmacy. The burning of the Glenrowan Hotel and in- door shots were made behind a high corrugated iron fence at an amusement park called Dreamland, on the site now occupied by Luna Park.
The Kellys rode their not so-remote country location for 16 months before the film was finished, and it wasn't a bad production either. In fact, it
not only drew houses for 44 months, at the Melbourne Town Hall and the Athen aeum, but as late as 1936 a travelling showman told me he had a copy of it-consider- ably cut by that time-which he still showed occasionally to enthusiastic audiences.
Next of the notable films to be made by Johnson and Gib- son was The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, Fergus Hume's thriller of the nineties which became a world-wide best-
The story being set in Mel- bourne, there wasn't any trouble about location. Out- door shots were made early on summer mornings, mostly on Sundays, to avoid curious
A second Kelly film was made in 1917, and when it was shown at Melbourne Town Hall the eager crowd stormed the doors. It was made by another small syn- dicate, and is said not to have been as satisfactory as the original version.
Another Australian film classic, so far as popularity went, was On Our Selection. Several versions were made using casts assembled from the recurrent stage produc- tions.
* * *
MOST of the early Aus tralîan films had a local setting like the drama- tisation of Adam Lindsay Gordon's The Sick Stockrider in which 600 Scotch College boys fought for the limelight in the school expulsion scene.
Then there was Robbery Under Arms, produced not long after the first Kelly film with much the same tech nique - the rehearsals for only the big scenes, and end less trouble about keeping the horses in camera range with out such luxuries of equip ment as long-focus and tele photo lenses.
Meanwhile newsreels were becoming firmly established and in 1910 Pathe's ace cameraman Henri Heriot, made his big documentary, Australia at Work.
Snowy Baker and Snub Pollard starred in local ath letic thrillers before going
J. P. Williams
Hollywood, and in 1917, saw production of The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell, the first local contribution to World War I filmics.
Later there came a couple of South Sea pictures shot by Frank Hurley, and a film version of Louis Essen's Tall Timbers - somewhat dreary, but, for that time, distinctly arty.
In the latter days of the silent film came more sophis- ticated efforts like For the Term of His Natural Life.
First of the sound films
came in 1930. It was made by Paulette McDonagh, al- ready responsible, with her sister, for Those Who Love and the Far Paradise.
First Australian sound film, The Cheaters, had been plan- ned as a silent, and when the change was decided on, there wasn't a sound-film recording unit in the country.
Those were the days when sound-on-film was fighting it out with disc systems as used on the early Warner Brothers productions.
Miss McDonagh had a re- sourceful camera-man, and he rigged up an outfit of syn- chronous electric motors and a gramophone recording head that looked like a Heath Rob- inson device, but worked all right. (In any case, even the Warner Brothers often had embarrassing moments in those days - with the dia- logue wandering gradually away from the action.)
The result was by no means technically bad
* * *
AND so we come to the
1948 scene, with the great technical, financial and artistic resources of the Rank organisation at work here.
So far its work has followed the American Western tradi-
tion - as did our own early efforts.
But there is scope for a breakaway, from the pastoral gold - seeker - bushranger ?
convict tradition, into some-
thing of the light, amusing social comedy of our early days - if Mr. Rank's men
only seek out those who can
supply the facts and the at- mosphere.
Pioneers have been urban too, and none the worse at film material, for that.