Original reel deal

Australia was way ahead of Hollywood 100 years ago

It may have been the year that Canberra was officially created, but something else was also happening in Australia in 1913.

The feature film - even as we know it today - was finally hitting its straps. And believe it or not, Australia's film industry was booming.

The clouds may have been gathering, and the world poised for the inevitable, tragic transformation that the First World War would bring, but 1913 is today recognised as an international milestone in modern cinema.

It had taken a good 20 years for filmmakers to really master the form, but feature films - films of more than 40 minutes - had become popular in Europe. Instead of the short comedies and melodramas of yore, these were proper stories told through the cinematic medium, culminating internationally with the first Hollywood blockbuster, D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation in 1915.

In fact, although it would come to dominate the world movie scene by the end of the First World War, in 1913 Hollywood was behind the times. Until that time, feature films were being produced by only a small number of industries - Italy, France, Scandinavia and all the way over here in Australia.

Isolated as we were, even back then we just couldn't get enough of the movies.


Australians consumed movies and made even more, becoming one of the most prolific film industries of the time.

As part of the Enlighten Festival, which ends March 9, the National Film and Sound Archive is celebrating this other centenary - the first great age of cinema - with a festival of films from that era.

Programmer for Arc Quentin Turnour says the timing of Canberra's 100th birthday is a happy coincidence, and the perfect opportunity to celebrate a time when Australians from one side of the country to the other were consuming local and international cinema every bit as voraciously as we do today.

"The world's first dramatic narrative feature film, it's generally accepted - there were earlier feature films, boxing films and passion plays were popular - was The Story of the Kelly Gang from 1906," he says.

"But, more remarkably, following the success of that, between around 1909 and 1913, we just went crazy here and were just making dozens of 60-minute or longer feature films in this country."

Not surprisingly, they were primarily bushranger or convict epics, as well as the odd remake of British society melodramas.

"In 1911, the country produced over 40 identified feature films, which is equivalent to Norway, to Denmark and Italy and those kinds of countries. No one else was doing it, Hollywood wasn't even there yet."

This "golden summer" of Australian cinema ended quite abruptly, in 1913, due largely to a business decision by the small number of Australian producer-distributors to merge into a single company.

"That single company decided it was cheaper to import Hollywood movies than to produce here. So our productivity went from being 40 or 50 a year down to about two or three," Turnour says.

A lot of good things would come to an end after 1913, but the centenary festival pinpoints a time in history before cinematic conglomerates became the norm.

"This program is to celebrate this centennial, of literally a golden summer in Australian cinema - referring back to the 'golden summer' of the Australian painters of the 1890s - and also to extend it by putting it alongside what are the best of the films that survived internationally," Turnour says.

The festival will open with the Italian great and a local favourite - Dante's Inferno from 1911, followed by Quo Vadis, a selection of Danish films, and Atlantis, possibly the first cinematic recreation of the sinking of the Titanic.

It will be the first time many of these films have been seen in Australia, although they're part of an international revival. Unfortunately, Turnour says, few of the Australian-made films from the period have survived, but records show that, for those few years, the rate of production barely kept up with the local appetite for movies.

"They were typically convict melodramas or adaptations of popular plays. For the Term of His Natural Life first got done in [19]08, and was redone a number of times both legally and illegally, because they used to basically steal the story from other films," he says.

"The Story of the Kelly Gang was so successful they wore the negative out and had to basically remake it in 1909, shoot it all over again. This was in the day when you couldn't copy negatives, so once you wore the negative out, you had no film any more."

He says that although the story is yet to be told internationally, this period of Australian history is widely known among local film historians.

Archive director Michael Loebenstein says there's an entire generation of filmmakers, editors and producers in Australia who are aware of the country's cinematic history, and are working to preserve it.

"You could say it's of academic interest, basically, you look at what has survived. You sometimes look at fragments and contextualise it, but where's the relevance for contemporary audiences?" he says.

"I think it all ties in with something that we see now, particularly with the younger generation, a huge interest in being able to actually understand the past, more from an experiential, if you like, point of view.

It's the richness of the actual film history, or even the social history of what entertainment meant in that era, that is really surprising."

Turnour says the first decade of the 20th century was a time of significant technical innovation for cinema, through both sound and colour (albeit via hand-tinted film reels) and the depth of field in otherwise static frames.

And the relationship between cinema and other media was also reminiscent of the type of convergence that's happening in the digital era today, in a time when newspapers came out up to three times a day.

But everything would change. By the end of the war, the industry was dominated by Charlie Chaplin and the local outposts of Universal and Paramount studios. Cinema's Golden Summer is a chance to look back on that final time before Hollywood ate the movies.

The program draws on the collections of film archives in Europe and the US, as well as surviving fragments from Australian movies from the era. There will be lectures and conversations with film historians about the time, and a sample of newsreels that heralded the start of Australian documentary making. Several of the films will be screened in their original 35mm format, with live music accompaniment.

Cinema's Golden Summer at Arc, at the National Film and Sound Archive, begins tomorrow, and runs until March 9.