The first ‘photoplays’

Film has long been recognised in our society as a serious art form worthy of critical analysis. As a form of representation throughout the twentieth century, film was unrivalled in its ability to transcend the bounds of time and space. Like other forms of artistic expression, film is a document of its time. It is not simply reflective of society. Yet, film can reveal much about a society’s conventions, anxieties and moral attitudes.

The era of silent film, ranging from 1894 to the late 1920s was unique in the history of Australian film. These silent ‘photoplays’ were wholly indigenous productions. Australian filmmakers were able to explore Australian themes without relying on overseas models for success.


Hulton Archive-Getty Images via PBS Learning Media
1896: R W Paul's Kinematograph Camera

Hulton Archive - Getty Images.

The impact of cinema on Australia and the world can never be fully appreciated today. As the Age remarked at the time, ‘for influence, history can provide only one parallel. The invention of printing is remotely comparable. But even the appeal of printing was, and today is, to an infinitely smaller constituency.’ 1

The cinema was at first part of the larger business of entertainment. An evening of popular entertainment may have included a short film, pantomime, melodrama or excerpts from a grand opera. However, it did not take long for film to command audiences large enough to warrant its own theatres.

By 1920, Union Theatres had estimated that there were 808 cinemas nation-wide with a weekly attendance of just over one million. The Argus reported that weekly attendances at the pictures exceeded 350,000, meaning that on average, every inhabitant of Melbourne paid 23 visits a year to the picture theatre. 2

While audiences were perhaps used to the darkened room and beam of light associated with slide showings, this in no way prepared them for the delight at seeing the pictures move in such a way that they mirrored real life. The first demonstration of moving pictures being projected on to a screen came to Australia under the auspices of a magic show. In August 1896, Carl Hertz opened his Australian tour with a demonstration of R.W. Paul’s film projector called the Kinematograph.

By the early 1900s, silent film in Australia was appealing to the emotions of its audience in a way no other form of entertainment had. Major Joseph Perry of the Salvation Army was one of the first filmmakers to realise the potential of the new medium of film in conveying ideas, and appealing to the emotions of its audience. 3

Soldiers of the Cross, produced in 1900 in Melbourne, was deliberate in its play on the emotions with the intention of motivating its audience for Good, not Evil. The film was a series of short episodes, unconnected by narrative, which sought to shock audiences into an awareness of the terrible suffering endured for the sake of Christianity. Only stills survive today to depict the gruesome sights of beheadings, crucifixions and maulings at the Colosseum.


Crowd at Cook's Pictures Palace, Brisbane c.1910
Crowd at Cook's Pictures Palace, Brisbane c.1910

Photo: NFSA

By 1910, specific film techniques used to elicit a response from audiences were evident in silent films. Film actors had emerged with a new generation of directors whose skills were shaped by film rather than by stage. Between 1911 and 1913, there was a noticeable shift world-wide in the narrative structure of films. The use of an uninterrupted frontal stage perspective derived from the live theatre was modified to include a variation in camera angles and the use of close-ups to enhance the pace and involvement of the audience in a story. Music was used to heighten the dramatic intensity of the images. Audiences were encouraged to enjoy longer features.

Alongside these technical advances, a recognition emerged within the wider public that film constituted its own specific medium and offered new opportunities for artistic expression, not possible on the stage. Hugo Musterberg, a German psychologist and philosopher working in America, published a study of the silent photoplay in 1916. He observed that film was ‘really a new art which long since left behind the mere film reproduction of the theater and which ought to be acknowledged in its own aesthetic.’ 4

Musterberg also argued that:

The photoplay tells us the human story by overcoming the forms of the outer world, namely space, time and causality and by adjusting the events to the forms of the inner world namely, attention, memory, imagination and emotion.’ 5

Similarly, a writer in The Argus, declared with some anxiety in 1921 that ‘now it has been discovered that it [picture producing] is an art which is taxing all the resources of the human intellect before it can be perfected.’ 6

Critics too were becoming more aware of the aesthetic value of film as an art form. Previously, reviews in contemporary newspapers and film journals tended to concentrate on a retelling of the story and quite often the ‘Australianness’ of a production. The Picture Show, a film monthly, ran an article in 1919 which espoused Australian production:

We shall view our own pictures, providing our own Australian sentiment, enshrined in our own delicious and magnificent scenery and satisfying our own keen artistic taste…Why should we be content with the deeds of American cowboys when we have our own stockmen to show us their remarkable skill? 7

By 1921, a more critical analysis of the technical as well as dramatic qualities of film was emerging. Discussing a Red Cross film, a critic in The Argus complained about the ‘wearisome number of subtitles’ and commented that ‘unlike the speaking stage, silent drama depends on constant space between the individual performers, especially when the camera is brought close-up.’ 8

Modern film and film criticism was just beginning to flourish.

Main image: Still from Melbourne Cup 1896 footage courtesy of Australian Screen

Image: R.W. Paul’s Kinematograph is courtesy of PBS Learning Media

Show 8 footnotes

  1. Age, Feb, 1921 quoted in Diane Collins, Hollywood Down Under: Australians at the Movies, 1896 to the present, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1987, p181
  2. The Argus, 14 March 1921, p5
  3. Ross Cooper, Origins of Film in Australia, 1896-1913, BA Honours thesis, A.N.U. 1982, p10
  4. Hugo Musterberg, The Film: a psychological study, the silent photoplay in 1916, Dover Publications, New York, 1970, p16
  5. Ibid., p74
  6. ‘The Pictures – Sign of the Times, The Argus, 24 March 1921, p8
  7. ‘Our Own Screen Dramas’, The Picture Show, Nov 1919 quoted in Albert Moran and Tom O’Regan (eds)An Australian Film Reader, Currency Press, Sydney, 1985, p22
  8.  The Argus, 30 May 1921, p3

About Sara Cousins

I am a Melbourne-based creative producer and writer interested in storytelling across all media. I have worked in digital education for many years. I am particularly interested in helping people to create and share their own stories.