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“The story of the Kelly Gang”, The first full length feature film in the world – Made in Melbourne

The story of Kelly Gang
A scene from the Movie

“The story of the Kelly Gang”, the world’s first feature length narrative movie was made in Melbourne and was opened in Melbourne on Boxing Day 1906. The movie was a commercial success, ran 7 continuous weeks in Melbourne and had a successful national tour and was even showed in England and New Zealand. The movie that was made for £1000, believed to have eventually returned £25,000 to its backers. The movie was made a Pro – Kelly movie, depicting the bush ranger as a victim of the system and a folk hero, reflecting the popular sentiment of the day.

The Story of Kelly Gang Movie
A scene from the Movie

Australian concert, film and theatrical entrepreneurs, Charles Tait and his 2 brothers, John and Nevin Tait joined hands with Millard Johnson and William Gibson to produce “The Story of the Kelly Gang” which premièred on 26 December 1906 at the Athenaeum. In 1902 John, Nevin and Frank founded J. & N. Tait, concert promoters. The Tait family owned Melbourne Athenaeum Hall and they used to organise film shows and concerts at the Hall.  Johnson and William Gibson were expert in photography and film processing, and they were responsible for technical aspects of the production. Charles Tait directed the movie. Credit for writing the film scenario is generally given to brothers Frank, John and sometimes Charles Tait.

The movie was over 4,000 ft. (1200 metres) in length and occupied nearly an hour and a half in representation. This was at a time when films used to be 5 to 20 minutes long. Such long duration for a movie was never heard of on those days. Though its status as world’s first feature length movie is still debated, in 2007, it was inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register for being the world’s first full-length narrative feature film.

The Story of Kelly Gang Movie
A scene from the Movie

 Ned Kelly was executed on 11th November 1880 at the Melbourne Gaol, but at the time of the release of the Movie, Ned’s mother Ellen and younger brother Jim were still alive. The film was monochrome but was colour tinted on parts.

For six months over 60 people had been engaged in making the movie. Most of the scenes were shot at Charles Tait’s wife Elizabeth’s family property located in the suburb of Heidelberg. The old artist colony, ‘ Charterisville’, which Elizabeth’s father leased for diary farming. The train wreck was shot near the Rosanna Station with the help of Victorian Railways. The Glen Rowan Hotel scene was also shot there. Millard Johnson’s father owned a chemist shop at St Kilda. William Gibson started out working at the Chemist shop. Some of the shooting were done at the backyard of this Chemist shop.

 Other scenes were shot at Eltham, Mitcham and Greensborough. The production of the film has engaged the constant attention of several biograph experts and a large staff or assistants for months. The newspaper reports in 1907 after the film was released gives a picture of the story line as stated below.

The picture had around 50 actors, and the film took around 6 months to produce. The story of the Kelly Gang is divided into 9 scenes and takes an hour and forty minutes to show.

The story of Kelly Gang
A scene from the Movie

The picture gives a life-like representation from the first shot. The first scene shows the Kelly homestead, where Fitzpatrick comes to arrest Dan for cattle stealing. He insults Kate and promptly shot in the wrist by Ned. The gang are then outlawed and  retired to the vastness of Wombat ranges, where they surprise the Police camp and shoot them all except the trooper McIntyre, who escapes on jumping on a horse that was galloping past. The movie also depicts such scenes as the sticking up of Euroa Bank and Young Husbands Station, the murder of Arron Sherrit, a former friend of the gang, who turned out to be a traitor. The closing scenes are shot at Glenrowan Inn. The rescue of the train by school master Curnow, the rescue of the wounded by Father Gibney from the Inn, the extermination of the Gang and the eventual capture of Ned Kelly clad in his armour surrounded by Police. In the movie, Ned Kelly wore, Joe Byrne’s (A member of the Kelly Gang) armour, which was mistook as Ned’s on those days. The Armour was borrowed by the producers from ‘Cliveden’, William Clark’s East Melbourne Mansion. Superintendent Francis Augustus Hare, who oversaw catching the Kelly Gang, spent time at Rupertswood Mansion in Sunbury owned by the Clark Family, recovering from being shot by the Kelly Gang at the siege at Glenrowan. Sup Hare’s wife Janet Snodgrass was an aunt of Janet Lady Clarke, Sir William Clarke’s wife. Superintendent Hare gave Janet Lady Clarke a suit of Kelly armour and the rifle Ned Kelly used at the siege at Glenrowan. Other costumes were borrowed from E. I. Cole’s Bohemian Company, which specialised in Wild West Shows and members of his troupe  also performed in the movie. The actors were paid £1, which was a very good pay on those days.

“Evening News”, in Sydney published an article on the film after the death of William Gibson, who put £400 of his own money into the production, on 8th October 1929. As per the article, Gibson considered his actors as very good, except when it came to horsemanship.  In William Gibson’s own words, “When it came to horsemanship, they were partial to merry go rounds. They commandeered chairs to mount their steeds, and in the middle of an exciting chase, I remember my Ned Kelly galloping past the camera yelling, “What do I do, when I want to stop my horse?”.

The article continues,

“Nominally the job of property master, wardrobe man, and scenic artist fell to Sammie Cruse, and there was nothing he would not try to do. When the Glenrowan hotel had to be burned down, Sammie volunteered to light smoke bombs in the building. The camera cranked; the priest made heroic attempts to rescue, according to the scenario; but the man who needed rescue was forgotten. Right at the thrilling point of the rescue, however Sammie staggered out and fell unconscious – suffocated by his own smoke bombs.

The original actor who played the role of Ned Kelly left before the shooting was finished and the final scenes were played by doubles hiding their face behind the armour.

The Kelly Gang, film made Box office History in Melbourne. In Sydney, initially no theatres were available for screening. Eventually a location was leased in the vicinity of Haymarket, where Capitol now stands. The film opened there one Saturday night to about 3000 people in the open air. For such a start, no one can blame the sponsors for believing their fortunes were made; then on Sunday morning it commenced to rain and never stopped for 9 weeks.

It is generally believed that E.J.Tait and his brothers – the powerful Taits of J.C Williamson Ltd – acted in The Kelly Gang. This is not so, but the picture opened their eyes to the possibilities of local production.

E.J. Carrol, who had never thought of pictures before, travelled from Brisbane to Melbourne to convince himself that the stories he heard of Kelly Gang’s success were correct. He saw crowd waiting to get in at all hours. He bought the Queensland rights and went onto become power in the Australian entertainment world.

In May 1907, the movie was banned by Victorian Chief secretary in Benalla and Wangaratta, the towns with strong Kelly connection after reports that the movie inspired five school children in Ballarat to break into a studio to steal money, after which they bailed up a group of school children at gun point.

The film that was lost and then found

The film was believed to have lost completely until the mid-1970. In 1976, five frames of the film were discovered when Adelaide film collector Vic Reeve identified them in a collection, he acquired few years before. A further few roles were found by cleaning contractors from the house of late Ernest Goldhawk, a film collector and silent-era exhibitor in 1978. In 1981, around 400 feet of decomposed release print was discovered in a Melbourne rubbish dump by children, some of which were saved. The hostage scenes at Younghusband homestead, was found in the UK in 2006. National Film and Sound Archive, in collaboration with technical labs in Amsterdam, digitally restored, frame by frame, The Story of the Kelly Gang in 2006 and it was released on DVD in 2007. The restored film is around 17 minutes long. The rest are lost forever.


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