One hundred years after its first release The Story of the Kelly Gang has made its return to the big screen. In this essay, written for the commemorative program for the Parliamentary and public screenings of the film on 29 and 30 November, the NFSA's GRAHAM SHIRLEY and SALLY JACKSON track the journey of this remarkable film from glory to rubbish tip to restoration.
It's 100 years since The Story of the Kelly Gang opened in Melbourne on Boxing Day 1906 and went on to enthral audiences across the country. At over an hour long, this Australian-made production is thought to be the world's first feature-length narrative movie.
Yet few in 1906 could have predicted the impact moving images were to have on global culture, and no-one thought about their preservation. Despite raking in thousands of pounds and being celebrated as a landmark Australian film, by the end of World War Two all known prints of The Story of the Kelly Gang were thought to have vanished. Until the mid-1970s, some publicity material and a few photographs were all that remained. Thanks to some lucky finds and painstaking work by the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA), nearly a quarter of this extraordinary film has now been pieced backed together and restored for contemporary and future generations of Australians.
At the time of its initial release, The Story of the Kelly Gang was an unqualified commercial success. Having run for seven weeks in Melbourne, the film enjoyed a long and successful national tour. Queensland entrepreneur EJ Carroll made his fortune by touring the film around that state, and according to one of the film's producers, William Gibson, the film eventually returned £25,000 to its backers. By late 1907 the film had screened in New Zealand and England, where it was billed as "the longest film ever made."
Reports of crime and censorship followed screenings around the country. In May 1907, the film inspired five local children in the Victorian town of Ballarat to break into a photographic studio to steal money, after which they bailed up a group of schoolchildren at gunpoint. In April the Victorian Chief Secretary banned the film from Benalla and Wangaratta, two towns with strong Kelly connections.
Since 1879 the sensational Kelly gang story had been the subject of at least five popular plays, and films of re-enacted historical events were also crowd-pleasers. Audiences were accustomed to sitting through plays that ran for more than an hour, so it must have seemed logical to the theatre-seasoned filmmakers to produce a dramatised film running for the same length. The Story of the Kelly Gang was produced by John and Nevin Tait in association with Millard Johnson and William Gibson. The Taits ran theatres throughout Australia and New Zealand, and from 1904 they had been screening the latest films from Europe, Britain and America in Melbourne. Films at this time were generally not more than 10 minutes long and were usually interspersed with the latest sound recordings of the biggest artists of the day. The Taits had made good money with the travel film Living London, and had been impressed by the enormous success of a rival exhibitor's presentation of Edwin S Porter's landmark US short drama, The Great Train Robbery (1903).
Johnson and Gibson were also film exhibitors, as well as cameramen and film lab people. They had recently ventured into production with Living Hawthorn (1906) and coverage of a Squires-versus-Kling boxing contest. The Taits joined forces with Johnson and Gibson to fund The Story of the Kelly Gang, with the former working on the creative side while Johnson and Gibson handled camerawork and other technicalities.
Charles Tait is most often credited as the film's director, and his brothers Frank and John as the scriptwriters. Camerawork has been consistently attributed to Millard Johnson, and his co-cinematographer may well have been William Gibson, who also processed, printed and tinted the film, and projected its earliest screenings. In the years that followed, Charles Byers Coates and Charles Cutler also claimed to have shot the film.
More than thirty people are claimed to have appeared in the film, including Tait family and friends, professional actors and circus performers paid £1 a day. The only individuals who have been positively identified are Lizzie Tait, who was the stunt double for the actress playing Kate Kelly, and John Forde in the role of Dan Kelly. As to who played Ned, there is much evidence that the actor was one Frank Mills. Certainly, photos of Mills strongly resemble the film's Ned Kelly.
During shooting, the production unit travelled out to the film's locations on Wednesdays and Sundays, the traditional days off for theatre people. Advertisements and reviews say the film was shot on actual Kelly gang locations including Glenrowan, but it is more likely the locations were closer to home. Much of the action appears to have been filmed on the Charterisville Estate near Heidelberg, now a Melbourne suburb. This large property was leased by Lizzie Tait's family as a dairy farm. The nearby Rosanna railway station may have been the location of the Glenrowan Hotel scenes, but there is little conclusive evidence of this.
The producers worked for six months and spent £1,000 to complete the film before it officially premiered at Melbourne's Town Hall. The first screenings were jam-packed, with one reviewer saying audiences would be lucky to get standing room. We believe the film was initially screened without intertitles but with a lecturer to explain the action, often accompanied by sounds from behind the 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"!
Despite the film's commercial success, by the mid-1940s it was thought lost to history. The first remnants resurfaced in 1976, when Adelaide film collector Vic Reeve found five short fragments in a collection he had acquired some years previously. The longest was only 11 frames long, from a 35mm nitrate release print. Friend and colleague Ron Praite used a publicity photo from the film to identify the frames.
In 1978 the Melbourne contractors Peter Weinstock and James Swan were employed to clean the house of the late Ernest Goldhawk, a film collector and silent-era exhibitor. During the clean-up, Weinstock found and pocketed a small can labelled 'nitrate film'. After leaving the house, he visited his friend Ken Robb and showed him what he had found. Robb recognised the film, when projected, as The Story of the Kelly Gang from stills he had seen, later confirming the film's identity with film historians Eric Reade and Ina Bertrand.
In 1980 further footage was found on a Melbourne rubbish tip and delivered to the office of Cinema Papers film magazine, before finding its way to the NFSA. The donor wished to remain anonymous.
No more fragments surfaced until 2006 when, during research for the NFSA's centennial restoration, a new piece of footage was located at the National Film and Television Archive in the UK. The authenticity of the footage was confirmed when its content was found to be identical to a photograph in a poster for the film. The new footage, set on Younghusband's Station, is by far the longest surviving sequence, giving us our most sustained look at the film's shooting style.
Like many other films of its day, The Story of the Kelly Gang was filmed mostly in wide shot, duplicating the perspective that audiences were accustomed to from live theatre. Several years were to pass before a more fluid screen grammar emerged through the work of key overseas directors like DW Griffith, giving audiences a variety of wide shots, medium shots and close-ups. In only two of The Story of the Kelly Gang's scenes - a priest carrying a wounded railwayman out of the Glenrowan Hotel and police escorting a captured Ned Kelly at the end of the film - do characters move from wide to closer shot, then past the camera and out of frame.
The NFSA's centennial restoration of The Story of the Kelly Gang incorporates the newly discovered footage, and is as faithful as possible to the original film. To guarantee the restoration's accuracy, the NFSA carried out research into the film's background, including the examination of contemporary reviews and publicity, and a program booklet written for the original release by Frank Tait, which provided essential information on content and structure. For the first time the Wombat Ranges scenes have been placed in their correct order, while the frame fragments discovered in 1976 have been incorporated into the final scene, replacing damaged frames from the footage found in 1980. A few scenes (Dan Kelly and Steve Hart shooting each other for instance) had been printed in reverse at some stage in the film's history, rendering all the actors left-handed. Since stills of these characters show them to have been right-handed in the original film, their scenes have been optically 'flipped'.
The centennial restoration has also allowed The Story of the Kelly Gang to be digitally restored for the first time. The surviving fragments were digitally scanned by Haghefilm Laboratories in Amsterdam using the DIAMANT digital restoration system. This allowed major cleaning to remove dirt, scratches and other blemishes, and eliminated the jitter characteristic of the original footage. This digital approach also allowed for the re-creation of frame content which had otherwise been lost through physical deterioration. To achieve this, the Haghefilm restorers copied and modified content from adjacent frames to replace missing information in damaged ones. The result is the cleaner, clearer and much more detailed film we have today.
This new restoration of The Story of the Kelly Gang testifies to the vital work of the National Film and Sound Archive in preserving Australia's fragile heritage of moving images. The archive's work has ensured that this valuable piece of Australia's film history can now be enjoyed in the closest possible form to the one seen by audiences a century ago.
Sally Jackson, International Specialist, Moving Image
Graham Shirley, Senior Curator, Moving Image
National Film and Sound Archive