The Salvation Army’s Limelight Department was formed in 1892. Named after the light source used in lantern slide shows, it would become Australia’s outstanding pioneer film producer. The Limelight Department and the Australian Kinematographic Company (the first film production company registered in Australia) that it spawned in 1901 made more than 300 films between 1897 and 1909. These included records of events of national significance, feature-length documentaries, and epic religious and historical multimedia productions.
The Salvation Army was founded by Christian missionary William Booth in London in 1878. While the Army experimented with lantern slide projection to promote its activities and raise funds, this practice did not spread to Australia until local Salvationist and amateur photographer Joseph Perry, with the support of the Army’s special projects officer Major Frank Barritt, initiated Australian Salvation Army screen activities, which were consolidated by Herbert Booth, son of the Army’s founder.
While ministering in Ballarat in the early 1890s, Perry established a commercial photographic studio and acquired a slide projector to screen advertising as an income supplement. While promoting General William Booth’s 1891 Australian visit, Barritt called upon Perry’s photographic capacities. The successful advertising experiment inspired them to create a more ambitious slide-based Salvationist lecture, which was toured along Australia’s eastern seaboard during 1892. This venture was formalised as the Limelight Department. Upon Barritt’s departure, Perry became the department manager, a role he held throughout its 17-year history.
Through the early 1890s, Perry presented his slide shows across Australia and New Zealand, returning a healthy profit. In 1896, the activities of the Limelight Department were embraced by new Australasian commander, Commandant Herbert Booth. Exhibitions of imported films began in Australia, and Booth instructed Perry to invest in the new medium.
In October 1897, Perry produced his first film, just a year after Lumière cameraman Marius Sestier and photographer H. Walter Barnett made Australia’s first film. Booth authorised an expansion of the department, including the construction of Australia’s first film studio in Melbourne. In July 1898, the department completed Social Salvation—its first major film and slide presentation.
The Limelight Department began accepting production commissions in 1900, and the NSW government engaged it to document Federation celebrations in 1901. The Inauguration of the Commonwealth, running for over 30 minutes, was Australia’s first feature-length film and the first to include simultaneous multi-camera footage. Many consider this film the Limelight Department’s crowning achievement. But misguided speculation that the department’s ‘passion play’ Soldiers of the Cross (1900) was the world’s first feature-length film has tended to overshadow it.
Through the first decade of the 20th century, the department continued to shoot, acquire, distribute and present films across Australia and abroad. In 1909, the department opened a new studio in suburban Melbourne in anticipation of considerable production activity. But James Hay, the new Australasian commander, took a dim view of the Army’s involvement in cinema, noting that it ‘had led to weakness and a lightness incompatible with true Salvationism’. He closed the department in 1910.
REF: C. Long, ‘Australia’s First Films’, 20-part series for Cinema Papers (1993–96).
CHRIS WILSON and ANETA PODKALICKA