Our visions of history are drawn from diverse sources: not just from the narratives of history books but also from photographs and historical novels, from newsreel footage, comic books and, increasingly, from electronic media like the Internet. Out of this kaleidoscopic mass of fragments we make and remake patterns of understanding which explain the origins and nature of the world in which we live.
– Tessa Morris-Suzuki, 2005 (1)
Hunt Angels (2006) is a feature-length non-fiction film about two maverick Australian filmmakers, Rupert Kathner and Alma Brooks, who, in the late 1930s, took on the Hollywood monopolies, a corrupt police commissioner and the cultural cringe in their passionate attempts to make Australian films. Based on a true story, Hunt Angels uses digital composite techniques to create a synthesis of actors filmed today, and archival photographs and footage taken nearly seventy years ago. Even though I researched, wrote and directed the film, I find it difficult to describe exactly the form or genre. Perhaps, screen commentator Latauro best sums up the difficulty of categorising the film in his review:
The style in which [Hunt] Angels is told is a very strange one […] It’s almost a doco-drama, but given the hyper-stylised way the story is told (half [Frank Miller’s] Sin City, half Zelig (2)), I think that boxing it into any pre-determined genre is selling the film short: it really does something new. (3)
My decision to use a hybrid of cinematic styles and technical innovations evolved from a range of considerations: a desire to utilise different storytelling techniques, æsthetic choices, the restrictions imposed by economic realities and the omissions I discovered in the historical accounts of Australian cinema. This article will focus on the latter and how these absences in the historical narratives influenced the making of the film.
Tripping Over a Lost Film Maverick
I discovered Rupe Kathner by accident, a kind of blind date with destiny that would consume the next seven years of my life. It happened in 1998, while I was scripting an episode on Australian crime for the television history series, Our Century (1999). A researcher brought me a short documentary that had arrived from the National Film and Sound Archive called The Pyjama Girl Murder Case, made by Kathner in 1939. Although I had never heard of the film, I did know about the crime the title was referring to. In 1934, a young woman’s body was found inside a country drain. Her face had been terribly mutilated and she could not be identified. The only clothing the victim wore was a pair of yellow oriental pyjamas. The police took the body to the Sydney University Medical Faculty, placed it in a zinc bath filled with formalin and then placed the bath on public display, hoping to identify her. Over the next decade, “the Pyjama Girl” held a morbid fascination for a nation struggling through the worst economic collapse in recent history.
On viewing the film, I was immediately struck by the graphically presented details of the crime. During the twenty years that I had been researching Australian archival film, I had never seen a non-fiction film about a real crime committed in this country made as early as this one. Nor had I ever heard of Rupert Kathner. One week later, purely by chance, I viewed another Kathner production. It was a pilot for a proposed feature film, a comedy called Falling For Fame. The scene was set inside a tacky film studio where a frustrated director desperately tries to elicit a performance from an inept actor whose father had funded the production. I was fascinated to learn more. The only reference I could find to Falling For Fame was a few intriguing lines in Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper’s Australian Film 1900-1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production. According to the authors, the story depicted “the phonies, who came from overseas and wasted the [film] industry’s money” (4). The “phonies” referred to were the Sydney-based Hollywood agents who controlled most of the film distribution outlets to Australian cinemas and owned many of the larger cinemas, thereby dominating the making and exhibition of local films.
Kathner’s proposed feature never got made; he could not convince local financiers to back the film. His failed attempt, however, resonated across six-and-a-half decades. The story was strangely synchronistic with the state of Australian filmmaking in the late 1990s. In Sydney, where Kathner had worked, the film landscape was dominated by the long shadow of a large Hollywood-owned studio. American movies continued to rule the box office while local producers struggled to find distributors and exhibitors willing to take a risk with an unknown local film. It appeared little had changed, except that the industry now relied on government subsidies. The words of the writer, William Faulkner, rang true: “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” I was convinced that Kathner’s story would speak to today’s cinema audiences and decided to make a film about him.
Treading on the Thin Crust of History
Foolishly or luckily, I rushed in without knowing how little information there was about Kathner in the written historical surveys of Australian cinema. Alma Brooks, his equal partner in their movie-making ventures, rarely gets a mention at all. What there is of Kathner focuses almost entirely on the five feature films that he (and Brooks) made between mid-1935 and 1951. He is quickly dismissed in a few lines, such as: “Rupe Kathner is a strangely appealing figure at the margin of Australia’s film history.” (5) Although the feature films have an alluring Ed Woodian rawness about them, obviously the result of making them with little money, the storylines are unexceptional and not very well executed. (6) The film critics of Kathner’s time were as dismissive as the current historians. One reviewer wrote of finding herself in a “dazed condition” after attending a preview of Wings of Destiny (1940), a spy thriller. Going by what I viewed in these five features, I would have probably agreed with both the critics and the historians and stopped researching Kathner.
However, I was still intrigued to learn more about The Pyjama Girl Murder Case. I had a suspicion that it was of historical importance. However, apart from Pike and Cooper’s brief reference, I could find virtually nothing about the film in other written histories. Then, I discovered inside the National Film and Sound Archives eight editions of a newsreel series made by Kathner called Australia Today (1938-40). Some of the editions contained items on contentious social issues of the times: inner-city slum housing, poverty, unemployment, illegal gambling, cocaine smuggling and drug addiction, nazi spy rings, juvenile delinquency and alcoholism. This was the first time I had viewed any cine-news items addressing local social problems in any Australian newsreels made in the 1930s or any earlier period. I learnt later from an eyewitness that The Pyjama Girl Murder Case was part of this series. Again, I could find virtually nothing about Australia Today in any of the studies on Australian film.
The Ins and Outs of Popular Visual Memory
My research into Kathner’s films had revealed that the majority of published surveys done on the 1930s and earlier focus primarily on Australian feature productions, to exclusion of documentary and newsreels, Back in 1983, film historian Stuart Cunningham argued that this singular representation of feature films is detrimental to the development of an Australian film historiography because it displaces from consideration “the complex interrelationship amongst feature, documentary and newsreel production, and leads to an overly narrow conception of the past” (7). The position of the pre-World War II Australian newsreel and documentary in screen studies today appears to me to have changed little. In Kathner’s case, this omission had led to what I considered his more significant work being overlooked.
One can only fully understand Kathner’s motives for starting the series within a historical context that includes the newsreel. In his day, talkie cine-news was extremely popular. In every major city, cinemas and theatrettes were built exclusively to screen them and more audiences probably viewed Australian newsreels than they did local feature films. Yet, what they saw on the screen was a selected and sanitised version of events. The two newsreel monopolies, Fox-Movietone News, owned by Hollywood’s Fox Corporation, and Cinesound News, practiced an almost identical in-house form of censorship. In 1931, when Fox-Movietone News established a branch in Sydney, it introduced a news policy that was identical to the one recently announced by its head office in America. This policy stated that none of Fox’s cinemas would project newsreels of a “controversial nature”.
The unscreenable material included “all political speeches that take sides on matters of public interest, clips showing breadlines, economic discussions on which patronage reaction may be divided”.
– Raymond Fielding, 1979 (8)
The only locally owned competitor, Cinesound News, slavishly imitated Movietone’s content policy. In neither are to be found any images of Australian social issues and problems that racked the nation during the Depression era. As film historian Diane Collins remarks in her study of Australian cinema: “Most [Australian] newsreels contained nothing more objectionable than pure banality […] as a wit once remarked, a newsreel was a series of disasters ended by a fashion parade.” (9)
I discovered an unpublished letter that Kathner had sent to the press criticising the news monopolies, referring to them as “the weakly news that clogs our cinemas” (10). I later learned from an eyewitness, the actor Stanley Mount, who once worked with Kathner, why he started the newsreel:
The idea arose out of his failure to raise the money to make Falling For Fame. He saw the newsreel series as a way of making enough money to produce his features. He also wanted to produce a newsreel that offered an alternative to the bland junk that the two monopolies offered up as news. The stories that the others wouldn’t show us. (11)
During the next three years, I searched file cards of newsreels produced in the 1930s and earlier, viewed hundreds of cine-news items held in the archives, trawled through trade magazine and newspapers, and spoke to eyewitnesses. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that the first Australian newsreel or documentary items that contained local social issues were to be found in Kathner’s Australia Today.
Stumbling Towards a Sobering Realisation
It was a long archæological process piecing together the Rupe Kathner and Alma Brooks personal story, but a rewarding one. A picture slowly emerged from eyewitnesses, archival documents, court records, newspaper items and reports of two passionate filmmakers who shared a vision of making Australian films that would be seen by the whole world. People regarded them as “legends” because they refused to bow to the conventional wisdom that it was too hard to make and screen local movies. They kept going, using any means possible, some of it illegal. They defied a warning by the New South Wales Police Commissioner, William Mackay, not to make a film about the Pyjama Girl Murder and were chased out of Sydney by gangsters who had invested in their failed attempted to make their version of The Rats of Tobruk. They were even shot at while making a film about Ned Kelly. The memories I heard about them were strikingly funny and audacious – our very own movie outlaws.
My first attempt to tell the Kathner and Brooks story on screen was to write it as a drama, based on my research. The first draft was full of scenes about ruthless Hollywood agents bullying small cinema owners into submission, a corrupt police commissioner who banned bushranger and real-crime movies from cinemas while Sydney was in the midst of a crime epidemic, Rupe and Alma on the run from both the law and the underworld. When I sent the script to readers, the project immediately hit a wall. The problem was that no one believed the story was real. They all commented that I was imitating movies like Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994), L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997) and Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967). These American historical narratives were more familiar to the readers than our own past.
With this feedback came the sobering realisation that I would need to provide a lot of documentary ‘backstory’ in my movie so that Australian audiences could understand the historical context in which Kathner and Brooks adventures took place. Not only that, I would have to create a kind of visual context for an audience who were unaware that their visual memories of the 1930s had been censored. Because of the exclusion policies of Fox and Cinesound, moving images of the poorer, noir world of Sydney that Kathner and Brooks inhabited and filmed are missing from our popular memory. Generations have grown up seeing a Depression-era Sydney depicted as a sunny, prosperous place with beaches full of happy bathers and bronzed lifesavers. Even today, because of their easy access, the Fox-Movietone and Cinesound News collections are the most extensively used sources of factual footage of that era. Their images are used repeatedly in television news, current-affairs programs, serious documentaries, light entertainments, national celebrations and commercials. Many of these images have become visual icons, holding significant places in our cultural memory and used to identify us as a nation. But they provide only a selected fragment of the picture of Australia during those years. The trouble is, many of us today are unaware of what is missing, what has fallen into this visual ‘black hole’ of our past. In her work on media and history, historian Tessa Morris-Suzuki examines the problem of representation in popular memory:
popular media, by their silences as much as by what they present, shape our imaginative landscape of the past. Popular culture tends repeatedly to return to certain events and images, making particular parts of history familiar and vivid, while rendering others distant and unknown. (12)
Filling in the Blanks: Uniting Lost Pasts
These ‘blanks’ in our visual popular memory played a vital role in shaping the form and style in which I would eventually make Hunt Angels. For months, I was stumped as to how I could present Kathner and Brook’s world in a way that would seem ‘real’ to today’s audiences. I searched for darker, moodier moving images of the era that could contrast with the sunny exteriors filmed by rivals Fox and Cinesound, but I could find very little. One day, the solution came swiftly, via the internet. The New South Wales State Library had recently digitised nearly 340,000 historical still images onto their picture website, Picman. (13) Trawling through the collection, a Sydney I had never seen before emerged: black-and-white photographs of 1930s shop-window displays, alleyways and side streets, department stores and nightclubs, all taken at night; slum houses, cheap hotels and sly-grog dens; gaudy cinema floats and colourful movie displays. Many of these images were taken by commercial photographers commissioned by corporations and department stores to provide visual records for company archives and annual reports. The photos were never intended for public viewing and, to this day, most have not been published. The most extraordinary find was a collection of photographs of Hollywood agents arriving on ships to take over the film distribution industry. One of them, clutching a huge cigar in a fist full of rings, went by the name Frank Buick. There were rows of agents dressed mafia-like in black tuxedoes, seated at stupendous banquets, celebrating their windfall profits. If I had created them as fictional characters, no one would have believed me. But here was historical documentary evidence preserved on 35mm that had been returned some seventy years later by means of a new development in technology. On the computer were the images missing from our popular memory.
As I gazed at photographs taken at night of Sydney streets, my imagination began to play tricks. I saw Kathner and Brooks, camera and tripod under their arms, passing through the frame only a moment after the photographer had taken the snap. They were on their way to the Sydney University Medical Faculty to illegally film the preserved body of the Pyjama Girl. How different our historical perspective would be if that photographer had delayed taking the picture by one second and captured these mavericks on photographic negative. I came to the realisation that, in certain circumstances, the difference between what becomes a historical document, even a significant icon, and what gets eliminated from visual history is only a matter of timing, the split second it takes to click the shutter. Why not then, I thought, place these ‘lost’ filmmakers back into these ‘lost’ picture? Suddenly, the shady forgotten world of Kathner and Brooks and the images on the computer synchronised. I had finally found the solution to my problem of how to make Hunt Angels.
Using advanced digital compositing programs, it is now possible to create scenes with the two characters, played by actors, walking down a ‘virtual city’ constructed from the photographs found on the Internet. Given that the photos are on 35mm negative, they could be projected onto a full-sized cinema screen in their original glory, without losing definition. It was an exciting idea, but first I needed to find out if it was economically feasible. It would be difficult to raise a large budget to make a movie about two unknown Australian filmmakers. I designed storyboards using photocopies of the street shots and took them to a Digital Effects Convention being held at Darling Harbour. The experienced digital designers I met with were very positive: the technology to do what I had envisaged was financially accessible. Soon after, I consulted with recent graduates of digital effects courses being run at the film schools. Many of them were making a living working on big-budget commercials and the occasional Hollywood blockbuster being made at the Fox studios. They were excited by the idea of being able to help realise one of our forgotten stories on the screen. I spent the next six months gathering images from the internet. With these and the other materials gathered over the five years of research, I sat down and began to script the final version.
A Footnote of History
Some two years later, the film’s producer, Sue Maslin, and I sent the script out to television executives seeking a pre-sale in order to begin raising the finances to make the film. Shortly after, we were called into the offices of a commissioning editor at a national broadcaster to discuss the proposal. She informed us that Kathner was merely “a footnote of history” and we were foolish for attempting to make a film about “such an insignificant person”. It took another six months to raise the pre-sale. The problem with history is that we forget that it is only an interpretation of an available past. The words of the British cinema historian, Pam Cook, sum up my views borne from the experience of making Hunt Angels:
history requires us to constantly reassess priorities and positions. One aspect of the process of reassessment engendered by the current moment is the need to think again about how history is to be approached and presented. (14)
This article has been refereed.
- Tessa Morris-Suzuki, The Past Within Us: Media, Memory, History (London: Verso, 2005), p. 2.
- Frank Miller’s Sin City (Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez, 2005), Zelig (Woody Allen, 1983).
- Latauro, Latauro @ MIFF. Hunt Angels, posted on “Ain’t It Cool News: the Best in Movie, TV, DVD, and comic book news”, 5 August 2006, www.aintitcool.com/display.cgi?id=24093.
- Quoted in Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 234.
- Ina Bertrand (Ed.), Cinema in Australia: A Documentary History (Sydney: New South Wales University Press 1989), p. 217.
- The five Rupert Kathner features are: Phantom Gold (1937), Below The Surface (1938), Wings of Destiny (1940), Racing Luck (1942) and The Glenrowan Affair (1951).
- Stuart Cunningham, “Australian Film History and Historiography”, Australian Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, May 1983, p. 3, published on-line at wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/serial/AJCS/1.1/Cunningham.html.
- Raymond Fielding, The American Newsreel 1911-1967 (Oklahoma City: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979), p. 233. The original quotes are from the article, “Inside Stuff-Pictures”, published in Variety, 22 September 1931.
- Diane Collins, Hollywood down Under: Australians at the Movies 1986 to the Present Day (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1987). pp. 68-9.
- Rupert Kathner, an unpublished letter sent to The Sydney Morning Herald, dated 7 July 1936, and held in the personal collection of Bren Brown, Sydney.
- Stanley Mount interviewed by Alec Morgan, July 1999.
- Morris-Suzuki, p. 17.
- The website for the image collection is www.sl.nsw.gov.au/picman.
- Pam Cook, Screening the Past: Memory and Nostalgia in Cinema (London: Routledge Press, 2005), p. 199.