Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) -- May 26, 2018

This post is part of the Springtime Silent Movie Challenge: In the Beginning..., hosted by Fritzi at Movies Silently. "Here’s the challenge. Before June 21, 2018, you will:
"Watch 5 movies made between 1906 and 1914
"Watch 5 movies made in 1905 or before
"Share your experience on your blog, on social media or here in the comments (I will set up a special post for the purpose to publish on June 21)"

For my five movies made between 1906 and 1914, I thought I would continue to look at some pioneering efforts.

My seventh film, my second from 1906-1914, may be the first feature length film and it is certainly one of the earliest surviving fiction films made in Australia.  The Story of the Kelly Gang was directed by Charles Tait.  It ran for over one hour.  It made its premier at Melbourne's Athenaeum Hall on 26-December-1906.

History of Australian Bushranging by Charles White, 1901
Bushrangers were outlaw gangs who lived in the Australian bush country and robbed stagecoaches and banks and committed various other crimes.  The last and most famous of the bushrangers, before their capture and killing in 1880, were the Kelly Gang, led by Ned Kelly and his brother Dan.  In the years since Dan died, probably a suicide, and Ned was hanged, the Kellys have been regarded by many as folk heroes with some of the traits of Robin Hood.

History of Australian Bushranging by Charles White, 1901
Ned Kelly had been a member of other gangs in his youth.  In 1878, a policeman came to the family home to arrest Dan Kelly for horse stealing.  Ned Kelly shot the policeman and subdued him with the help of Dan, their mother, their brother-in-law and another man.  Ned and Dan escaped to the bush, but the policeman later had their mother, their brother-in-law and the other man arrested.  They were all convicted of attempted murder.

History of Australian Bushranging by Charles White, 1901
While on the run, the Kelly Gang killed three policeman, robbed banks and murdered an informant.  The police caught up with them at a hotel in Glenrowan, where the gang held several hostages.  The gang had made helmets and suits of armor to protect themselves during robberies.  Ned attacked the police wearing his armor.  The police bullets bounced off until they started shooting at his unarmored legs.  The police captured him alive.  After the hotel caught fire, police found the bodies of Ned and another man, who may have killed each other to avoid capture or burning to death.

Ned was convicted of murder and hanged on 11-November-1880.  Some people have regarded him as a symbol of Australian nationalism, or as a Robin Hood-type, the way Jesse James in often looked at in the United States.

Plays about the Kelly Gang became popular almost immediately.  In 1906, Charles Tait directed a feature-length film about the Kellys.  I first saw it when I attended the San Francisco International Film Festival's program of early Australian films.  The film survives in fragments, but some of the fragments are compelling.

Some of the surviving footage suffers from nitrate decomposition.  We are lucky we still have it.

The first surviving scene is set outside of a cabin on a farm.  A police trooper in a fancy uniform accosts two women, Ned's sister Kate and his mother Ellen.  He waves a warrant at them.  Ellen enters the cabin and the policeman grabs Kate, attempting to molest her.  She resists until Nate runs out of the cabin and shoots the policeman.  Other men come out and grab their horses and ride away.  In a closer shot, Kate holds the policeman at gunpoint until they get away.

The next scene begins with a beautiful shot of the gang on their horses, facing the camera.

We see two policemen in their camp at Stringybark Creek.  They shoot at birds.  The gang attacks them from the surrounding bushes.  In a missing bit of film, they kill one policeman, but the other surrenders with his hands up.  The members of the gang drink their coffee and eat their food.  One member of the gang enters to say other policemen are coming.  The gang hides after Ned warns the captured policeman to trick the other policemen.  The gang shoots another policeman and the captive races away on a horse.

In the next scene, the gang approaches a stone building and rob a large group of inhabitants.  This is probably Younghusband's Station.  When the people go back in, the bandits tip their hats to the ladies.  Then they hide and wait for an approaching wagon, which belongs to a hawker, a travelling salesman.  They rob the hawker.  He argues and resists while they loot his wagon. When they are done, one gang members takes the wagon away and the others make everyone hide and they wait for a buggy which carries three people.  They rob the passengers, one of whom seems to be carrying a fishing rod and a creel.  A man rides up on a horse and they hold him at gunpoint.  This scene runs over seven minutes, all in one shot with some panning.

In the next scene, we see the gang in a bar, perhaps at the hotel in Glenrowan.

The scene shows signs of nitrate decomposition.

They pull their guns and appear to shoot out the window.

We see the first intertitle.  There is some controversy over whether the original release had intertitles, or they were added for a rerelease.  Joe Byrne was a member of the gang.

Nitrate decomposition makes it hard to see, but a member of the gang appears to fall.

Police surround the hotel in another scene beset with nitrate decomposition.  The policemen exchange bullets with the gang on the porch.  A man in a black coat and hat runs in front of the police and tries to get them to cease fire.  He runs to the hotel.  He must be Father Matthew Gibney.

We see another intertitle.  I like the style of the lettering.

The shot is now tinted red, and we see flames rising from the hotel.

We cut back to the bar.  The scene is tinted red because of the fire.  Steve Hart and Dan Kelly shoot each other, either to avoid capture or avoid burning to death.

Father Gibney enters the bar, finds the bodies of Steve and Dan, and helps a wounded hostage out the door.

In a reverse shot, we see Father Gibney carry the wounded hostage out of the burning hotel.

In the final scene, Ned Kelly has donned his armor and shoots at the police in a medium shot  The scene has quite a bit of nitrate decomposition.

In a shot from behind the police, we see Ned Kelly in the far background.  The policemen flee and Ned walks forward, still shooting.

After Ned steps over the eucalyptus branch in the foreground, he staggers and falls.

The police rush in and arrest him.

In a closer shot, marred by nitrate decomposition, the police remove Ned's armor and drag him away.

The film was mostly shot in the suburbs of Melbourne.  No one is certain of the name of the actor who played Ned Kelly.

Melbourne Herald, 24-December-1906
An ad from the 26-December-1906 Melbourne Herald promotes the Boxing Day premiere at Melbourne's Athenaeum Hall.

Melbourne Herald, 27-December-1906

The production was a big hit, which toured all over Australia in 1907.  In 1907 the film was banned in areas where the Kelly Gang had roamed.  I n1912, bushranger films were banned in large part of Australia.

"The Story of the Kelly Gang" was considered a lost film until bits were found in 1975 and 1978.  Part was found in a garbage dump in 1980.  The long scene at Younghusband's Station was found in 2006 in the UK.
Ned Kelly and his gang remained a popular topic in Australia.  Despite the ban on bushranging films, Harry Southwell made The Kelly Gang (1920), When the Kellys Were Out (1923), When the Kellys Rode (1934) and the unfinished A Message to Kelly (1947).  In the 1970 musical Ned Kelly, singer Mick Jagger played the lead role.  There was controversy because people thought an Australian should play the part.

Coming Next Saturday: The first the first fully hand-drawn animated movie.

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