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Still from The Sentimental Bloke

Still from The Sentimental Bloke 1919, National Film & Sound Archive of Australia

There’s so much to see at Australia’s second oldest festival, the Sydney Film Festival, with both international and Australian films being showcased in various venues across the city. How did our love affair with film and cinema begin? I spoke with Mitch on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney.

It turns out, the presence of a film culture in Sydney dates back almost as far as the invention of modern cinema. In 1894 in a little shop opposite the Strand Arcade in Pitt Street Sydneysiders witnessed Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope, the first time it was brought to Australian audiences. Viewers paid five shillings at the door and looked through a peephole at the top of the device to see a 20-second collection of images which created the illusion of a motion picture. Not quite the huge screen, surround sound cinematic experience we’ve become accustomed to! Twenty-two thousand people flocked to look through the ‘mystical machines’ in its first five weeks and newspapers reported it featured ‘four of the liveliest specimens exhibited’ – ‘The Boxing Cats’, ‘Blacksmith’s Forge’, ‘Cock Fight’ and ‘the Shaving Match’.


Edison’s Kinetoscope, Wikimedia Commons

Some of the earliest forms of Australian cinema tended to feature scenes of city life. In 1896 people gathered to watch a film titled Passengers Alighting from Ferry ‘Brighton’ at Manly, but sadly there is no known surviving copy of this film. For the first time, watching a film had become a shared experience. Some of the first picture theatres were little more than tin sheds; temporary spaces hired out for special evenings full of entertainment which usually consisted of newsreels, actuality films or comic sketches.

From the early 1900s, the cinema was found more commonly in Sydney’s suburbs, providing locals with cheap and accessible entertainment. These cinemas introduced continuous screenings, running films non-stop between 11am and 11pm. And the six o’clock closing for public bars during World War I drove people even more to the cinema. For young women, it was a safe place they could go to unchaperoned.

Lavish cinema ‘palaces’ were built, including the Crystal Palace Theatre in George Street, which had slot machines, a soda fountain, ice-cream bar, air conditioning, a gymnasium, and a cafe with an electric fountain and tables with telephone connections. Of course there was also the State Theatre on Market St, which was built in 1929, with its lavish marble staircase, velvet lounges, Romanesque statues and huge chandelier. In 1921, there were 18 movie theatres in the city centre alone, with a further 96 in the suburbs.

Crystal Palace Theatre

Crystal Palace Theatre, c 1920. State Library of NSW

Between 1907 and 1912, at least 90 Australian feature films were produced, with many set in Sydney. In stark contrast to representations of the Australia bush, the city came to be depicted as a hotbed of dissipation and vice. In the 1920 film The Breaking of the Drought, Sydney features cigarette-smoking temptresses and corrupt tricksters. In another film, titled The Sentimental Bloke, Woolloomooloo is depicted as a shabby suburb plagued with gambling dens and slum areas, as a couple escape the city to find happiness in the idyllic countryside.

During the late 1920s, the introduction of the ‘talkies’ further revolutionised the Australian cinema-going experience. By 1927, 90 per cent of all films screened in Australia came from America and independent film production all but ceased during the 1930s. Many of the films produced during this time were used to promote tourism, trade and immigration to international audiences. And Sydney was at the heart of this strategy, with its sparkling harbour and famous landmarks, including the Harbour Bridge which opened in 1932.

Check out the original article at the Dictionary of Sydney and listen to my segment at 2SER radio. For other interesting segments, see my Dictionary of Sydney project post and visit the Dictionary of Sydney blog.