Movie History: The Birth of the Feature Film
If you read my previous articles on The Birth of the Movie Studio and Birth of the Box Office, you got a glimpse of the how the movie business all started. Thomas Edison built his Black Maria Studio in 1893 and began making short film strips on speculation that this new technology had commercial value. In 1894 the Holland brothers became the first to exhibit them in their Kinetoscope parlor in Manhattan and proved him right. Entrepreneurs from all over the country and the world immediately began buying Kinetoscopes and film strips from Thomas Edison and opening their own parlors.
One group of such entrepreneurs on the other side of the world were the 5 Tait brothers in Australia: Charles, John, Nevin, Ted, and Frank. The brothers exhibited film strips made in London and the U.S. and made a small fortune showing them in Australia and New Zealand at their Kinetoscope parlors at the turn of the century.
The first films were 10 – 20 seconds long. Then 30 – 60, 1 minute, then 2, then 4, and some as long as 10 minutes. All films were reality or imitation of reality. People doing jumping jacks, juggling, magic tricks, ballerinas dancing, or people walking down the street to name a few. Before the age of airports and cruise terminals, people were not well traveled. Cities like London, Paris, and New York were only heard about. Now for the first time, common folk could see there was a world around them full of life. Films of busy Paris streets and New York City lights were fascinating the world. Far more filming was being done outside the studio to capture glimpses of the real world.
Then in 1903, The Great Train Robbery was released, an 11 minute film depicting a group of armed bandits robbing a train. This would inspire the idea of the fictitious story to be told on film. Back in Australia, the 5 Tait brothers exhibited this film and were inspired by its success. The film gave them the idea to do something that had never been done before. To take film making and the business to the next level. They had the idea to make a feature film. Brothers Frank and John Tait began working on what would be the first feature length screenplay. They wrote the tale of the infamous Australian outlaw Ned Kelly. There had already been 5 successful full length plays of the Kelley gang, so it seemed the perfect tale to transition into features. They figured audiences were already accustomed to sitting through 1 hour or more performances, so why wouldn’t they sit through a full length film. The writer John and his brother Nevin produced the film and other brother Charles is credited as the director. This was going to be huge task, so they partnered up with two other entrepreneurs: Millard Johnson and William Gibson, who were experts with the camera and developing film.
In 1906, the filming began on the first feature film ever: The Story of the Kelly Gang. The film was shot all on location, including some actual locations used by the Kelly gang. Even actually Kelly gang costumes and armor were worn in the film. The Taits used all of their family and personal friends in the film and a few professional actors which were paid as much as 1pound a day. By today’s standards, that would have been around $40 a day. Filming took six months to complete. Over 30 actors actually appeared in the film, including stunt doubles. When the film was finally finished and edited, it was about 70 minutes long. The total budget was over 1125pounds, or about $45,000 today.
On December 26, 1906, the film was released in Melbourne, Australia, at the Town Hall. It became an instant commercial success. People lined up to see the longest film ever made. The screenings were as epic as the film with standing room only. Actors stood behind the screen and delivered dialogue and sound effects. Musicians played live music while the film was narrated by a lecturer.
It was also very controversial for the time. Gangsters being depicted and shootouts on screen were something never seen before. And that’s the way society wanted to keep it. Politicians condemned the film for glorifying the ruthless cop killing robbers. People were urged not to see it, and you know how people listen to pleas like that. It just makes them want to see it more. And they did.
It was so controversial, that at a few screenings, police barged into the theatre and stopped the film from being shown. It was even banned in two local towns of Benalla and Wangaratta where the actual Kelly gang roamed. It turned out the politicians were right. It glorified the gangsters and was said to have influenced certain armed robberies. In one instance, 5 school age children wanted to mimic what they had seen in the film and held fellow classmates hostage at gun point.
After a nice run of 7 weeks, the controversy was too much and the film was pulled from theatres. The Tait brothers then took the film to New Zealand and on to Europe where it was also a hit. The film raked in a fortune of over 25,000pounds, or around 1 million dollars today.
Over time, the original film print deteriorated and by 1940, the film was assumed to be lost and destroyed. In 1976, an Australian film collector found a small film strip of the original film, 11 frames, or less than half a second. A search began for more. In 1978 more footage was found in Melbourne by a film collector, this time an entire reel. Then again in 1980 and for the last time in 2006 pieces of the film were found. In all, a total of about 6 scenes were found and restored, leaving 17 of the original 70+ minutes left.
The lead of Ned Kelley in the film was played by actor Frank Mills. Before filming was completed, Frank Mills mysteriously disappeared and couldn’t be found. A stand in was used to complete the last scenes. Mills later resurfaced and went on to have a prominent career in acting that spanned 14 more years. But things went bad for Mills as he was suffering from mental illness and was committed to an asylum in Michigan where he died an insane man at the age of 51. Although the movie business is notorious for driving people insane, or being driven by insane people, Mills was apparently ill for many years, possibly explaining his mysterious disappearance back in 1906.
With the exhibition of The Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906, a new era in film had begun: The feature film was born. At least 10 more movies were made about Ned Kelly. The last being in 2003, in which Ned Kelly was played by the late Heath Ledger. It also starred Orlando Bloom, Rachel Griffiths, Geoffrey Rush, and my favorite Aussie Naomi Watts.
The Story of the Kelly gang is officially recognized all over the world as the first feature film. And you can see 4 minutes of it right here: http://archive.org/details/TheStoryOfTheKellyGang-FragmentsFromTheFinalReel
Myke J. Friscia