ABC: The 'un-reel' journey to preserve the cultural 'relics'

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ABC: The 'un-reel' journey to preserve the cultural 'relics'

Unread post by silentfilm » Fri Oct 10, 2014 6:21 am ... lm/5804130

On the road: The 'un-reel' journey to preserve the cultural 'relics' of Australia's film history
702 ABC Sydney
By Georgia Wilson

Behind the wheel of his caravan, emblazoned with slogans like "Nitrate Won't Wait", Michael Cordell began his journey around Australia in search of missing film reels.

It was 1982 and the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) had just established a taskforce titled The Last Film Search, aimed at locating and preserving nitrate film.

The Story of the Kelly Gang, made in 1906, had established Australia as the producer of the world's first feature film.

By 1910, Australia was just about leading film production around the world and produced 90 feature pictures over the next 10 years.
Michael Cordell Photo: Michael Cordell at the start of The Last Film Search, one of the first initiatives of NFSA after it gained its independence from the National Library. (Supplied)

Today, the NFSA celebrates its own 30-year history and Mr Cordell has travelled back to the 1980s to reflect on his involvement with the film search taskforce and the impact it had on national records.

"Film in its early days, from about 1890 through to 1950 or '51, was shot on cellulose nitrate film stock," he explained to 702 ABC Sydney.

"We were placed in a situation where nitrate film stock, still out there in the world - in people's cupboards and sheds - had a very finite life.

"The challenge was to charge around the country [and] appeal for old films that might be in cupboards.

"Or [ask] old projectionists or film collectors to lend them to the archives to copy onto modern film stock and effectively ensure their survival."

In his caravan, Michael Cordell travelled to numerous country towns and each time put out a plea to the public for lost films.

"It was an absolute job to die for," he said.

"I saw so much of the country and met some extraordinary people.

"Part of my job was to find these old film collectors and convince them that lending us their films and letting us copy them would be of great benefit."
The first recording in Australia's film history

According to Mr Cordell, Australia established its global importance early on in the film industry years.

He said that even recently a sense of history was still very much being discovered.

"We found a film which turned up in Hungary," he said.

"It apparently is the very first film, they think now, that was shot in Australia."

Mr Cordell said Sydney's Prince Alfred Park had providing the backdrop for the 30-second clip, reportedly titled The Burlesque Rollerskate.

"It's a short clip of a bloke in a top hat, smoking a cigar, doing some fancy manoeuvres on roller skates," he said.
Blue Walsh Photo: Michael Cordell met with Blue Walsh of on his travels for The Last Film Search and found a treasure trove of old silent films, stored in a milk shed. (Supplied )

"A lot of those earlier films were novel. It was fixed cameras," Mr Cordell said.

"The Melbourne Cup was one of the first things we filmed but very quickly, we moved on to more advanced and sophisticated forms of film making.

"We're perhaps best known for the feature film story of the Kelly gang."

Just how The Story of the Kelly Gang was preserved ultimately fell to Mr Cordell and his team.

"That film was promoted at the time as the longest film ever made," he said.

"It cost 1,000 pounds to make - it made a 25,000 pound profit for the Tate Brothers who made it.

"Bizarrely, for a film that was so popular, the NFSA had virtually none of it."

A film can found on top of a Melbourne tip proved to be the needle-in-a-haystack saving grace for the Kelly Gang flick.

"Someone opened it up, found some footage and because they had awareness about our lost film heritage, sent it in to the NFSA," Mr Cordell said.

"It turned out to be a missing two or three minute segment of the Kelly Gang.

"They are absolutely priceless, cultural relics for Australia."
Revisiting our film history, one reel at a time

Giving thanks to the many who provided Mr Cordell with material, he said there was one Australian character that he would never forget from his time on the road.

It was a "magical old man" named Blue Walsh, a former film projectionist who resided on the outskirts of the Merriwa, in the Hunter Valley.

"He lived in a shed with no electricity," Mr Cordell said.

"Outside in the milk shed and wrecks of cars that surrounded his house, he had hundreds and hundreds of old, silent films."

News reels, snippets of feature films and Fatty Arbuckle films were amongst the bonanza that Mr Cordell discovered.

"You can't expect to walk in and take all of their films off them," Mr Cordell said.

"Then began a long process of winning his confidence and getting the Archive to copy some of what he had."
Lottie Lyell Photo: Silent film star and creative partner of Raymond Longford, Lottie Lyell. Most famous for The Sentimental Bloke (1919), the hunt continues for many of Longford and Lyell's lost films. (supplied)

As for Mr Cordell's favourite period of early film, he is quick to nominate the work of director Raymond Longford who made around 40 films with his wife and actress Lottie Lyell.

Longford's 1919 film The Sentimental Bloke has become a passion project for Mr Cordell who hopes to remake it one day.

"They had an extraordinary partnership and only a handful of their films exist," he said.

"She (Lottie Lyell) was a wonderful actress [with] wonderful empathy and expressive eyes.

"That film, even as a silent film, still resonates very strongly today."

While Mr Cordell admits that our modern day film and television industry has at times been "muscled out" by the Hollywood block-buster machine, he remains a firm believer in the power of local stories and great storytelling.

"We all feel the might of Hollywood and the Hollywood studios and it's sometimes very hard to get a look-in with Australian stories," he said.

"Despite the pressure of one million ways we can view content, the power of great Australian stories is still paramount."

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Re: ABC: The 'un-reel' journey to preserve the cultural 'rel

Unread post by Spiny Norman » Fri Oct 10, 2014 7:35 am

This story reminds me of that documentary about the forgotten New Zealand film pioneer, Colin McKenzie... What was the documentary called again... Oh yes: "Forgotten Silver". That was it. :D
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Re: ABC: The 'un-reel' journey to preserve the cultural 'rel

Unread post by Brooksie » Sat Oct 11, 2014 5:05 pm

What an amazing coincidence, my grandparents lived in Merriwa for years. It's a tiny little country town - small enough that they almost certainly knew that former projectionist.

There is a short excerpt of that footage that was found in Hungary here.

The article omits the most interesting thing about it (aside from being Australia's oldest film, of course) - that it was probably shot by Marius Sestier, who spent some time in Sydney in the late 1890s.

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