From 1910 until 1975, newsreels produced in Australia captured the most consistent moving image representation of the day-to-day life of the nation. With a duration of about 10 minutes, each edition presented between one and five segments carefully structured to keep viewers absorbed with a blend of information and entertainment.
In 1910, two years after Pathé Frères had produced the world’s first regular newsreel in France, the earliest regular Australian news film items appeared alongside overseas stories in West’s Journal of Daily Events. From 28 November 1910, the first newsreel with entirely Australian content was Pathé’s Animated Gazette (Australasian Edition), renamed Australian Gazette in 1914 and Australasian Gazette in 1916.
Australian newspapers like the Sydney Sun and Melbourne Argus often supplied Pathé and Australasian Gazette with story ideas, and newsreels generally dealt with events that allowed coverage to be pre-planned. Cameramen mostly worked alone, determining a story’s approach through its shooting style. Each story was constructed like a mini-feature. Following the segment title, inter-titles between the visual coverage would explain each story’s events, locations and personalities. Early Australian cameramen who filmed newsreels included Alf J. Moulton, Bert Cross, Maurice Bertel, Lacey Percival, Al Burne and Walter Sully. During World War I, cartoonist and caricaturist Harry Julius produced a series of popular propaganda segments called Cartoons of the Moment for Australasian Gazette.
Australian Gazette and Australasian Gazette were produced by the Sydney-based Australasian Films, and they screened nationally on the same programs as newsreels imported from the United States and United Kingdom. By the 1920s, the Gazette’s rivals included the Australian editions of the US-based Fox News and Paramount Gazette as well as regionally made newsreels. But where Australian newsreels from Fox and MGM combined local items with mostly overseas material, Paramount’s Australian Gazette (1918–30) featured exclusively Australian stories.
The ‘talkie’ revolution of the late 1920s was as profound for newsreels as it was for the rest of the film industry. In the United States, the Fox-produced sound-on-film (as distinct from sound-on-disc) Movietone News premiered in October 1927, first screening in Australia in January 1929. The silent Australasian Gazette finished in March 1929, and Australia’s first Movietone truck arrived in Sydney in August. The first edition of an occasional Fox Movietone News (Australian Edition) appeared in November, and was screened weekly from January 1931.
Between 1930 and 1932, the Melbourne branch of Australasian Films combined with Vocalion Records to produce a sound-on-disc Australian Talkies Newsreel. Keen to see Australasian Films embark on sound-on-film newsreels, the company’s Sydney laboratory manager and veteran cameraman Bert Cross encouraged radio engineer Arthur Smith to develop a soundon-film system that would sidestep the high cost of imported recording technology. Smith’s system was used on Australasian Films’ (soon to be Cinesound Productions’) newsreel Cinesound Review, which premiered on 7 November 1931. From 21 September 1931, Cinesound Review had a Melbourne competitor, the Herald Newsreel, produced with imported sound-on-film gear by Herschells Pty Ltd in association with the Melbourne Herald. In September 1932, Cinesound Review absorbed the Herald Newsreel, and for some years the Cinesound newsreel in Victoria was called the Herald Cinesound News Review.
Sound brought greater prominence to newsreels. The Cinesound and Movietone newsreels developed flagship narrators who specialised in comedy—Charles Lawrence at Cinesound and Jack Davey at Movietone—and others (such as Jack Lumsdaine, Ernest Walsh and Harry Guinness) who handled the serious topics.
Cinesound and Movietone were friendly competitors. Paramount (which still filmed occasional Australian sound items), Movietone, Cinesound and the Herald Newsreel covered the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in March 1932, but only Cinesound’s Bert Cross captured the moment when Captain Frank de Groot prematurely slashed the ceremonial ribbon. The newsreels’ political items included newly elected Prime Minister Joseph Lyons introducing his Cabinet in 1932, and a story from 1933 in which Burraga, an Indigenous leader from Thirroul, called on the Indigenous people of New South Wales to petition King George V for representation in federal parliament. ‘Novelties’ included the 1937 item Meet the Girl Who Became a Man, featuring transsexual Peter Alexander.
From 1939 to 1945, newsreels made little attempt to hide the realities of World War II. Taking advantage of lighter cameras, they intimately captured the war’s drama and desperation. While audiences at home could share a sense of what loved ones endured overseas, Australian newsreels reinforced the message that people at home needed to take the war more seriously. Some of the Cinesound and Movietone staff joined the wartime Department of Information (DOI) to film Australia’s war effort overseas. The DOI made its footage available to both companies, which occasionally used the material in very different ways. In 1942 Movietone used footage shot by combat cameraman Damien Parer to edit a routine newsreel called The Road to Kokoda. Meanwhile, at Cinesound, producer Ken G. Hall and editor Terry Banks blended the same and similar footage with a riveting to-camera report by Parer to produce a 10-minute special, Kokoda Front Line!, which in 1943 won Australia’s first Academy Award, for documentary. Other newsreel combat cameramen included Roy Driver, Frank Bagnall, Frank Hurley and Bill Carty. As audiences queued to see war news, capital city newsreel theatres (which had opened in the 1930s) experienced a boom.
In the late 1930s, the maverick filmmaker Rupert Kathner launched an independent newsreel, Australia Today, whose stories included true crime, poverty and drug smuggling. In 2006, his exploits formed the basis of the feature film Hunt Angels.
A strong editorial viewpoint, especially as articulated by Cinesound Review, continued into Australian newsreels’ post-war years. In the 10 years before the arrival of television, Cinesound covered such topical issues as Australia’s surge in immigration, housing shortages, slum clearance, health, Aboriginal welfare and land conservation. In the early to mid-1950s, anti-communist propaganda seeped into the newsreels, culminating in coverage of Soviet diplomat Vladimir Petrov’s defection to Australia, the attempted abduction of his wife Evdokia and the ensuing Royal Commission into Espionage in 1954.
Over the years, the Australian government also produced newsreel-like series for cinema exhibition—for example, Know Your Own Country in the 1920s and the Australian Diary (1946–70) and Australian Colour Diary (1954–73) series.
With the start of Australian television in September 1956, Cinesound shot, edited and delivered news film for the first station to go to air, Sydney’s TCN9. After Ken G. Hall became chief executive of that station in December 1956, he instigated the format for television news bulletins that drew on his 25 years of experience with Cinesound Review. Former newsreel cameramen, writers and editors joined news staff of the public and commercial television stations around Australia, bringing decades of expertise to the new medium and training younger colleagues. For some years, Australian television stations ran stand-alone newsreel segments after their main bulletins, the most durable being the ABC’s Weekend Magazine (1958–85).
Despite the fact that television’s popularity caused many cinemas to close, Cinesound and Movietone kept producing newsreels until 1970, also making sponsored documentaries and commercials. Both reels now placed more of an emphasis on magazine stories than news, and some issues—such as Bill Carty’s award-winning Symphony in Steel (1970)—were in fact documentaries rather than traditional newsreels. In October 1970, Cinesound and Movietone merged as Cinesound Movietone Productions, continuing with the weekly Australian Movie Magazine until 27 November 1975, when the last issue appeared nine months after the introduction of colour television in Australia.
REFs: T. FitzSimons, P. Laughren and D. Williamson, Australian Documentary (2007); B. McFarlane, G. Mayer and I. Bertrand (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian Film (1999); G. Shirley and B. Adams, Australian Cinema (1989).