Melbourne Film Walking Tour

Melbourne Town Hall, 90/120 Swanston Street

Discussions to construct an official town hall for Melbourne began in the 1840s. However, after a few false starts the first stone for the hall was not laid until 1867 by the Duke of Edinburgh. The hall officially opened in 1870 and became a central hub for civic and arts activities. It was at this site that the Australian film industry was given its first audience. On September 13, 1900, Soldiers of the Cross was first exhibited (Cox, 2000, p. 2; Reade, 1979, p. 3). Produced by the Salvation Army, there is considerable debate surrounding the film. Argued by some to be the first feature-length film, its director Joseph Perry only had one projector available at the time of the screening. Because of this, Perry used lantern slides intermittently to “retain interest, while he threaded the second and succeeding reels” (Reade, 1979, p. 3). Lindsay Cox, Territorial Archivist for the Salvation Army, argues that the use of lantern slides places Soldiers of the Cross in the category of multimedia presentation (2000, p. 2). Regardless, in 1900 the Melbourne Town Hall gave audiences the first opportunity in the world to experience costume drama and stylised violence in feature-length, cinematic, presentation format.

Old Opera House (renamed New Opera House in 1901, renamed Tivoli in 1914, closed in 1966), 249 Bourke Street.

Now the Tivoli Arcade, at one time this site was the Old Opera House, one of a chain of theatres owned by vaudeville manager Harry Rickards. The theatre was renamed the Tivoli after Rickards’ death in 1911. However, in August of 1896 the Opera House was the site of the first projection of film by American magician Carl Hertz (Shirley & Adams, 1989, p. 5). Hertz debated whether to exhibit the projection first in Sydney or Melbourne, before deciding on the contentious theatre as his preferred venue. The films were a collection of actualities from around the world and gave audiences in Melbourne their first glimpse at the projected moving image.

Temperance Hall Film Exchange (now the Billboard music venue), 170-174 Russell Street.

This building was once the production house for Johnson & Gibson, who were responsible for the filmed aspects of the production of the Story of the Kelly Gang (Reade, 1975, p. 5). This film originally began as a stage show written and performed by J. & N. Tait. It represents more than one landmark in Australian film. Not only is it in competition with Soldiers of the Cross for title of first feature film, but it also inspired the first act of film censorship in Australia after it was banned in New South Wales (Graham & Shirley, 1989, pp. 18-19). Thanks to the efforts of the National Film and Sound Archive we have access to fragments of the film. Eric Reade, in his landmark book on early Australian cinema, laments Johnson & Gibson’s efforts, deriding their choice of Ned Kelly as a subject because it led to Australia’s first major genre: the bushranger film (Reader, 1975, p. 5).

Salvation Army City Temple, 69 Bourke Street.

Home to Australia’s first film studio, the Limelight Department studio.

Princess Theatre, 163 Spring Street

There is a popular misconception that the first scenes of Australia exhibited were of the Melbourne Cup. However, according to Graham Shirley and Brian Adams it was actually “the A. J. C. Derby at Flemington Racecourse” that was captured (Shirley & Graham, 1989, 8). The confusion may have arisen from Carl Hertz’ proclamation that he intended to film the Melbourne Cup. Ultimately, he was unable to find a camera and it was left to Lumiere agent Marius Sestier to film a different race. Regardless, the scenes captured are now known as Melbourne Cup, as this was ultimately the title given to them for its subsequent exhibition at the Princess Theatre. Filmed on the 31st October, 1896 the camera’s focus was not up to the task of capturing the horses, but instead mostly captured prominent racegoers, such as Governor Lord Brassey (ibid.).

According to an article from The Age in 1896, the films segments were introduced as a special addition to a pantomime production entitled Djin, Djin, which had been playing at the threatre during the Cup season. The images captured from the cup were accompanied by actualities of “Leicester-square London, Pulling Down a Shed, A Boxing Contest, Serpentine Dance” among others (The Age, 1896, p. 4).

The race was not the first scene of Australia captured on film. Sestier had previously filmed and edited together a series of moments entitled Passengers Alighting from Ferry “Brighton” at Manly (Shirley & Graham, 1989, 7). However, Sestier refrained from exhibiting this actuality until after the exhibition of the Flemington race scenes, giving Melbourne, and the Princess Theatre, the honour of presenting Australians with the first filmed view of their life, nation and culture.

Suggested Melbourne Film Walking Tour compiled by Veronica Ward, a PhD student in the School of Communication and Cultural Studies, Deakin University. Veronica completed her BA (Hons) Degree from the University of Queensland in 2015, majoring in Film and Television.