The Moving Image:
The History of Film and Television in WA 1895-1985

Edited by Tom O'Regan and Brian Shoesmith

Early WA Film Producers

Ina Bertrand

In November 1896, the Perth public were invited to view for the first time 'the wonder of the XIX century', 1 the cinematograph. This was less than 3 months after the first such exhibition in Australia. By February 1897 West Australian audiences could view an Australian production - a film of the Melbourne Cup held three months previously. From then on, Australian productions were warmly welcomed in the west, and it seems surprising that it was nearly ten years before any were attempted here. However, when the attempt was made, in December 1905, it was once again a horse race - the Perth Cup. By now there was a standard format for the filming of such a race, and the preview in The WestAustralian suggested that the Perth film would be to formula:

The film, it is stated, will show the betting ring, the race, returning to the scales, the winner and a grand panorama of the course.2

The excitement generated by any race comes from not knowing who will win - when a race is replayed after the result is known, this tension no longer exists. Why, then, was the race filmed, and why did the people of Perth flock to see it? The review gives a hint:

... the film on the Perth Cup is decidedly an excellent one and a good idea is given of the two runs along thc straight, the crowd on the flat and in the grandstand, and the 'weighing out'. 3

There is little new information to be gained from the film about its ostensible subject - the actual race: what the film provides is the voyeuristic pleasure of seeing familiar people and places ('the crowd'). This was to be a feature of much of the film production of the next decade.

The most obvious case was the use of film to advertise itself. An exhibitor would arrange that filming would occur at a specified time and place, and invite the public to take part:

Mr T.J. West will arrive by the Oraya today. He is cinematographing popular scenes in Australia to be presented in London, and the Homeland, and proposes to take, weather permitting, a local scene in Perth. Tomorrow, Tuesday May 29. At about 1 o'clock p.m. from the corner of Hay and Barrack Sts. Be in the Picture. It will be produced during the Perth season. 'See yourself as others see you!'4

This, of course, guaranteed an audience for the finished film, as every person who thought they might be on the screen wished to see themselves, and point out others.

Soon this became a little too obvious, so variants were developed, for instance the beauty competition for Perth shopgirls run in February 1911. Starting with drapers' assistants, competitors were filmed and the audience invited to vote for their favourites on screen. There was a double chance of identification here - with the familiar backgrounds filmed, and with the contestant who had won your support: again, the exhibitors found the scheme effective in drawing in an audience.

A further extension of the concept were the productions intended to promote the Commonwealth of Australia, and Western Australia specifically, on film. Even the very first film, of the Perth Cup, was advertised as 'for presentation in England and America', and West's film (referred to above) was to be shown in the 'Homeland'. In September 1906, a programme called A Round Trip through Australia was presented at His Majesty's Theatre. This 30 minute 'journey' began in Queensland, and travelled through New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, visiting the Kalgoorlie Cup before finally arriving in Hay Street, Perth.6 This concept of promoting a state by depicting scenic and sporting highlights on film, was adopted by both the state and federal governments in 1909, when they engaged Pathe Freres to prepare films to advertise in Britain the attractions of Australia. In the west, it was the timber industry that was chosen to represent the state to the rest of the world. In February 1912 two companies were producing such films about Western Australia: Pathe Freres, for Vic's Pictures, were making another of their series on primary industries (this time the jarrah industry), and Cozens Spencer for the West Australian government was making two films for exhibition in London (In and Around Perth and The Coming of the Immigrant). All of these did well with the Western Australian public, who could identify strongly with their subject- matter.

For, as well as presenting them to the outside world, such films allowed West Australians to see more of their own immediate environment, and that more immediately, than had any other medium. Technology, too, improved with amazing rapidity, so that a blaze in a city store could be on the screen of a city theatre that night.7 The voyeuristic motive is clearly apparent again here, and it could even be linked with the personal in the crowd scenes of the Agricultural Show,5 or the children's displays for the Coronation,9 or the opening of South Beach. l¡ So film became a news medium, and West Australian (and specifically Perth) news became a part of that: from reporting the dlelvastation of a railway accident at Claremont, to representing on film the unveiling of the statue of C.Y. O'Connor at Fremantlel2 or the ceremon~ of the consecration of the Bishop of Perth. Sports reporting remained a favourite, with the Perth Cup filmed every year, and many other sporting fixtures regularly presented, inc}uding football matches, running, and water sports.'6

So West Australia produced much the same film forms as did other parts of the world, including advertising films, news gazettes and scenics. But one form is conspicuously absent from the repertoire - dramatic narrative.

In this pre-war period, there was only one such film produced - The Bashful Mr Brown, in 1907. This was a short dramatised farce, which:

depicted the awkwardness of a young bachelor in his endeavour to help his hostess to dispense afternoon tea, and after many accidents, his flight from the garden with the afternoon teacloth attached to this coat- tails. 17

Fortunately, this short film survives in the State Film Archive, though we cannot be sure just how complete is the version we can now see. However, the film is clearly similar to films of the period from other parts of the world, and can easily hold its own with them technically, no matter how primitive its presentation now seems. So, why was it the only film of its kind at that time?

Perhaps the answer is in the people involved. The very first films were taken by exhibitors. Herbert Wyndam filmed the Perth Cup in 1905 for local exhibitor C. Sudholz. T.J. West did his own camerawork on his visit to the state in 1907, when he filmed local scenes in the city. So, too, did the Taits, who toured with Living London in 1906, and produced local versions in Living Perth and Living Fremantle. But the Corricks, who produced The Bashful Mr Brown, were a touring company of entertainers. Their repertoire included songs (serious, pathetic and comic), bell ringing, and from February 1907 a selection of moving pictures. Leonard Corrick, who provided the film segment of the programme, used the medium like other exhibitors, to make films of events current in the districts in which they screened.l8 But the company also had the talent from within their own ranks to provide both the cast and the crew of a dramatic film, and by using locations they avoided the need for an expensive studio setup, which in any case did not exist in Perth. This was still the period when the novelty of 'being in the picture' had not yet faded, and part of the success of the film was the crowds drawn to the streets where the final chase took place:

Pursued by a number of small boys, this individual was seen running along Hay St East, down Irwin St, and eventually in Murray St, where he managed to climb into a passing cart and take refuge in a barrel labelled 'FAT'. l9

But, in the nature of touring companies, the Corricks moved on. Though they returned to Western Australia in l909 and again 1912-3, they did not produce another narrative film there. Sudholz had problems enough with his exhibition interests, and did not pursue the idea of production. T.J. West and the Taits returned to the east.

The people who provided some continuity to film production in the west became the newsreel cameramen - stringers for the eastern companies (A.J. Moulton for Pathe from 1908, Finlay for West from 1909), or local photographers interested in entering the business independently. Dennis Dease had entered exhibition with occasional screenings in public venues,20 and then more permanently at King's Picture Gardens in October 1909. He soon was producing short local news items for his exhibition venues,2l and continued to do this into the twenties. Fred Murphy began his career with the filming of the 'Busy Bee' (a voluntary working bee on the Perth to Fremantle road in May 1914), some of which survives in the West Australian Film Archive. A talk given by Fred Murphy to the State Film Centre Historical Films Committee, on 1 October 1969, explains that the main cinematography was done by Booty and Farrant, for a newsreel they had started, called the West Australian Gazette. Murphy was allowed to use their camera, one manufactured by Booty himself, and it was this experience which convinced him to enter cinematography. He went on to make many more such newsreels, and in the next decade to again produce dramatic narratives in the west - but that is another story.

Before the war, then, there were plenty of skilled cinematographers capable of keeping the public of Western Australia abreast of events in their own state. Their efforts were advertised as separate productions locally, and were also distributed to the national companies, which in the years from 1908 to 1913 were very fluid, until the emergence of the Union Theatres/Australiasian films group in 1912. It was only after this that newsreel production settled down, with two major rivals - Pathe's Australian Gazette, and the Australian (later the Australiasian) Gazette produced by Australasian films, each distributing a weekly compilation of film reports from all over Australia. West Australian contributions to these, and to their successors of the twenties and thirties, continued.

The period just before and during the First World War was a time of excitement and optimism for the men (and the few women) with hopes of establishing a West Australian motion picture industry. The exhibitors had their optimism rewarded, with for instance five hardtop cinemas constructed in the city centre during the war itself: the producers found the road much harder, as the later history of people like Dease and Murphy demonstrates.

Footnotes

  1. The West Australian, 2 Dec. 1896.

  2. Ibid., 27 Dec. 1905.

  3. Ibid., 1 Jan. 1906.

  4. Ibid., 28 May 1906. There were also many other such examples, for instance in June, September and December 1906.

  5. Ibid., 27 Dec. 1905

  6. Ibid., 15 Sept. 1906

  7. Ibid., 25 Apr. 1907.

  8. Ibid., 23 Oct. 1909, 5 Nov. 1909, 9 Nov. 1909.

  9. Ibid., 17 July, 1911.

  10. Ibid., 20 Nov. 1909.

  11. Ibid., 17 Jan. 1910.

  12. Ibid., 17 July 1911.

  13. Ibid., 1 Sept. 1911.

  14. Perth v. East Fremantle, ibid., 29 Sept. 1906: Perth v Subiaco, ibid. 12 June 1911.

  15. Marathon, ibid., 12 Oct. 1909; Day-Postle race (Kalgoorlie), ibid., 2 Sept. 1907.

  16. Ibid., 3 Jan. 1910, 25 Feb. 1911.

  17. Ibid., 11 Mar. 1907.

  18. e.g. the Day-Postle race, screened in Perth in September 1907: or the Perth show screened in November 1909.

  19. The West Australian, 11 Mar. 1907.

  20. e.g. at the Perth Cricket Ground on 24 Jan. 1904.

  21. e.g. the Claremont railway accident, screened at the King's Picture Gardens in January 1910.