12 Oct 2016

120 years of New Zealanders at the movies

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 1:35 pm on 12 October 2016

New Zealanders saw moving pictures for the first time 120 years ago today, when Sandow the Strong Man screened at the Opera House in Auckland as part of a vaudeville performance.

Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision is marking the anniversary with the special event Films That Shaped New Zealand in Wellington from 12-22 October.

Sarah Johnston from Ngā Taonga shares sound recordings from the very early days of film-going in Aotearoa.

The first films seen in New Zealand – on 13 October 1896 – were shorts produced by Edison Studios and the Lumière Brothers. They were screened on a kinematograph, alongside live musical items, in a show by Charles Godfrey’s Vaudeville Company, which toured the country from Auckland to Dunedin that year.

The first film experience of Southland woman Marian Rowe was a double-feature of the slapstick silent comedy Fun in the Kitchen and some footage filmed from a train. She describes the reaction of the audience in the 1968 radio documentary A Silence Filled with Sound:

 “A machine stood in the centre of the floor and after lights were put out there appeared a moving picture called ‘fun in the kitchen’. There was no doubt about movement. Two very galvanic men, a large box and a great deal of crockery were presented for our gaze. Those men chased each other in and out of the box in the craziest manner. One would get in and then reappear – no-one knew how – and then push the other in.

They knocked the dresser over and broke every piece of china. They threw pies and custards in each other’s faces. They created a shambles of that kitchen, then bowed to show they were still intact. No matter that a continuous rain seemed to run down the screen, but they jerked rather more than a little. Everyone clapped and stamped at the end. The best was to come, however.

This was a journey on the bumper of a train. We were rushed along highways, up mountains and down valleys, into tunnels, which took our breath away. We passed meadows with fleeting glimpses of sheep and cattle. I still remember the snow-capped mountains, deep ravines and forests, all in a magic dream.

Mrs Brown, who sat in front of me, clutched her hat on her head with both hands. Her thin anxious face had a do-or-die expression on it. When that breathless journey across America was over, she looked as though she had seen visions.

After the show was over we were loath to separate. The men gathered round the machine eager to see how it worked, just so in a few years’ time they would be found with their heads under the bonnet of a car.

As was the custom, the women came together to talk it over. The general view was that now they could believe anything. Mrs Harris, who had what it is misnamed a comfortable figure, declared you could have knocked her down with a feather.”

A Silence Filled With Sound also includes an interview with a lad employed to create sound effects behind the screen in the early 20th century. His repertoire included shaking a tin of dried peas (for the sound of rain), clomping coconut halves (for horse’s hooves) and rustling sandpaper (for the sound of the sea).

The 'Serpentine Dance' seen in the film below was popular in the 1890s and a frequent subject of early motion pictures.

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