The first feature length film was made in Melbourne in 1906. Its subject: Australia’s most famous folk hero.
There have been films screened in Melbourne, almost as long as there have been films.
The Lumiere brothers, French photographic pioneers, invented the medium in 1895. Their innovation was the ‘Cinematographe’, a box-like device that allowed moving pictures to be projected on a large screen.
Movies came to Melbourne the following year, as part of the act of stage magician Carl Hertz (you can read about this in detail, here). Before they became an entertainment in their own right, films were presented as a novelty, often as part of a variety show or vaudeville night.
But they proved instantly popular. The year after their Melbourne debut, the city had three dedicated cinemas.
The first films were short, and largely depicted everyday events.
The Lumieres also produced movies; one of their earliest simply showed their workers, leaving the factory at the end of the day. Another featured a train pulling into a station, the legend (likely false) is that naïve viewers fled the cinema, unaware that they weren’t in danger.
The first film footage shot in Australia also occurred in Melbourne, in November 1896.
The Lumieres sent one of their camera operators, Maurice Sestier, to Australia to record that year’s Melbourne Cup. Sestier filmed ten sixty second reels, showing highlights from the race, and the trophy being presented to the owners of the winning horse, Newhaven.
Sestier’s Melbourne Cup films would be shown in Melbourne and Sydney, before heading overseas.
Cinema in Australia was advancing rapidly. Among the promoters who sought to utilise the new medium, was Charles Tait.
Charles Tait was born in Castlemaine, in November 1868.
His father was a tailor, and he had four younger brothers: John, James, Edward and Frank. In 1879, tired of life on the goldfields, the family moved to Melbourne and settled in Richmond.
Tait left school the same year. He was drawn to the local entertainment industry, and took a job as an usher at one of the city’s many theatres.
This was the era of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, where the last of the gold rush combined with sky high agricultural prices to turn the city into a boom town. Many grand buildings were erected across Melbourne, to serve as the homes and businesses for the newly wealthy.
The thriving city had an almost insatiable demand for entertainment. Scores of theatres sprung up, to provide venues to musicians, actors, circus performers, magicians, and comedians.
Movies took their place among this lively scene.
Tait worked a variety of jobs at some of the city’s most prominent venues, including the Athenaeum, The Royal Exhibition Building, and Town Hall.
In 1884, he took a job as a messenger for Allen and Co., one of the city’s foremost music promoters. Tait worked his way up the ranks, assisting with the organisation of local shows, then touring overseas with a group of acts in 1893.
By the time movies arrived in 1896, Tait had established himself as a live entertainment promoter in his own right.
Tait’s brothers all started out on different career paths, but would eventually join Charles in the entertainment business. Together they programmed concerts and variety nights, most often at the Athenaeum.
Having seen the popularity of Hertz’s first film screenings, which premiered at the rival ‘Melbourne Opera House’, Tait soon sourced films to add to his own events.
Movies were popular, but also scarce.
There was fierce rivalry among Melbourne’s entertainment promoters, as they sought new and exotic acts. Films were no different; the latest movies were eagerly sought, agents in Europe and America competed for new film reels.
To combat this, some local promoters looked to produce their own films.
Enter W.A. Gibson.
William Alfred Gibson was born in London in 1869.
He studied science at Ilford College, and migrated to Australia in his late teens, lured by the opportunities of Marvellous Melbourne. Once in the city he found work as a chemist, which provided a steady income.
Gibson was married in 1898, and settled south of the river, in prosperous Albert Park. In 1900 he opened his own pharmacy in nearby St Kilda, with his friend Millard Johnson.
Both men had seen movies at local venues, and were fascinated by the medium.
Turn of the century St Kilda was also an entertainment hotspot. A number of popular venues could be found in the area, a row of theatres ran along the beachfront, on Beaconsfield Parade.
Gibson became friendly with some of the performers, who patronised his shop.
One of these was an Englishman, who projected films as part of a vaudeville act. When the show closed unexpectedly, and the projectionist found himself short of money, he sold his film equipment to Gibson for 40 pounds.
‘Mr Gibson bought the Magic Lantern to entertain his friends. At night he took them to the roof of his shop and projected films onto a makeshift screen, beneath the stars.
Unknown to the rooftop audience, the show could be seen from the street. One night, so many stood watching from below that an irate policeman demanded that the performance should cease.’
– ‘The Story of Pioneer Films’, Jack Percival, Sunday Herald Sun
Gibson had stumbled into a lucrative side-line.
The following summer, Gibson began holding public film screenings on St Kilda beach. Large crowds turned out for these events.
Gibson moved on to regular screenings at venues around the city. For a time he lived a kind of double life: pharmacist by day, film promoter by night.
But as his film business grew, it gradually usurped his original career.
Gibson purchased more projection equipment, and trained additional projectionists to help manage demand. He began organising screenings in regional areas, state-wide.
His film company became so successful, Millard Johnson also left the pharmaceutical business and joined Gibson again as a partner.
One early film Gibson screened was called ‘Living London’. This was a type of movie known as a ‘scenic’: essentially a snapshot of life, somewhere else.
Living London was popular in Melbourne, but when it toured the regions, Gibson was met by surprising news. In some areas it had not done as well as expected.
His projectionists reported: a stage show, based on the life of Australian bushranger Ned Kelly, was touring at the same time, and had drawn crowds away from the film.
This turn of events gave Gibson an idea: he would make a movie version of the Ned Kelly story.
Gibson imagined his film on a grand scale.
Films in this era ran for anything up to 20 minutes, approximately the length of one reel of film. Gibson planned to tell Kelly’s story over an unprecedented 5 reels, which would give a running time of 90 – 100 minutes.
Ned Kelly’s life story was well known, and a certain amount of time would be required to include the key incidents. Gibson also reasoned that such a long film would likely generate a lot of publicity and excitement.
The first feature film would also be the first blockbuster.
Gibson would produce the movie, providing the finance (approximately 1 000 pounds), and the equipment.
Charles Tait, who Gibson knew from the local film circuit, was hired as director. Actors were sourced from Cole’s Dramatic Agency, and paid 1 pound per day.
Filming would take place in a variety of locations.
Many of the rural scenes were shot on farmland near Heidelberg, or in the Wombat State Forest near Macedon. This area was also used in the film’s most spectacular sequence: a recreation of an attempted train derailment, which featured a real locomotive contributed by the Victorian Railway Commission.
The climactic showdown outside the Glenrowan Hotel, where Kelly wore his famous armour, was filmed in a large Melbourne backyard.
A group of extras were hired for this scene, and plied with booze to make them rowdier.
‘The toughs disposed of quarts at an alarming rate. An unrehearsed fight broke out, and a bucket of water was thrown (over the actors).
When blood began to flow, they pulled the revolvers they had been given and shot up the place with blanks to such an extent that police enquiries were made.
The ‘gunfight’ was reported in the Melbourne newspapers.’
– Jack Percival
The film took six months to complete.
‘The Story of the Kelly Gang’ premiered on Boxing Day, 1906, at The Atheneum Theatre. Screenings were held there during the afternoon, followed by evening sessions at Melbourne Town Hall.
The film was immediately popular. Live audio effects were added to heighten the experience.
‘The first screenings were jam-packed, with one reviewer saying audiences would be lucky to get standing room.
The film was initially screened without intertitles but with a lecturer to explain the action, often accompanied by sounds from behind a screen, including dialogue from actors and sound effects such as gunshots and hoofbeats.
Some performances were so filled with sound one reviewer complained of the ‘Kelly Bellowgraph’!’
– National Film and Sound Archive
After a successful run in Melbourne, Gibson and Tait took the film on the road.
It was so popular in Sydney, that established venues struggled to handle the large crowds. A makeshift outdoor cinema was set up on a vacant lot in Haymarket, that could accommodate audiences of up to 3 000.
The film toured regional areas, playing throughout Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. Later it headed west, screening across South Australia and West Australia. By 1907 the film was in New Zealand, by the end of that year in England.
Promotional materials for the film called it: ‘the longest, greatest, and most expensive film ever made!’
The film was usually accompanied by supplementary presentations: displays of still images from the movie, or public talks about Ned Kelly. Large crowds turned out wherever the movie went.
Box office receipts are difficult to calculate, but Gibson estimated the film earned about 25 000 pounds in receipts. He and his partners were well pleased.
Other film makers would follow with long form presentations.
In France, a filmed play titled ‘L’Enfant Prodigue’ (‘The Prodigal Son’) was produced in 1907, and an adaptation of the Victor Hugo classic ‘Les Miserables’, premiered in 1909. Both were about 90 minutes long.
Other early features include the Russian made ‘The Defence of Sevastopol’, and the Italian ‘L’Inferno’, both released in 1911.
Also in 1911, Gibson and Tait would re-team to produce ‘The Luck of Roaring Camp’, a feature length adaptation of a short story set in the California Gold Rush. While not reaching ‘Kelly Gang’ heights, this film was also successful.
During the First World War, film production largely focussed on newsreels; another new innovation.
Post war, Gibson would eventually become tired of the cost and complexity of film production. While he continued to produce films occasionally, he focussed on importing films from overseas. His influence was such, that in the late 1920s he was investigated for suppressing the local film making industry.
Tait and his brothers would largely return to managing venues in Melbourne and Sydney, and promoting live acts.
Despite its success, ‘The Story of Ned Kelly’ was for many years thought lost.
Film technology continued to advance rapidly, ‘Kelly’ was succeeded by more sophisticated and professionally made movies. Film preservation was also not considered important.
In 1976, Adelaide film collector Vic Reeves found five short fragments in a bundle of silent era films he purchased.
Two years later, a longer stretch of film was found in the effects of Ernest Goldhawk, a Melbourne film historian who had recently passed away. Simply labelled ‘Nitrate Film’, the cannister was nearly thrown away by contractors who had been hired to clean out Goldhawk’s house.
In 1980, an even luckier find was made; an anonymous person stumbled across more film fragments at the Melbourne tip.
Finally, in 2006, a significant section of the film was discovered at the National Film and Television Archive in England.
These pieces eventually all made their way to the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) in Canberra.
Working with contemporary reviews and a promotional guide written by Frank Tait, the NFSA digitally restored the available material, and assembled it in the correct order. The surviving sections of the movie run for 17 minutes.
I saw them this year at ACMI in Melbourne, as part of the 70th Melbourne International Film Festival.
Viewed in 2022, ‘The Story of the Kelly Gang’ is basic, and rudimentary. It is largely filmed by a static camera in wide shot, with the actors walking in and out of screen.
It is also wonderous.
There are moments that remain dramatic, and funny. An escalating robbery becomes a comedy as more people stumble into it; the scene where Kelly appears in his armour is absolutely spine tingling.
Watching it, you are aware of not just watching a film, but the beginning of something. It is rare that the origin of anything is captured so well.