In the days of early film production “scenics” or “gazettes” were seminal in establishing urban film-going as “big business”. Most popular between 1903 and 1912, they coincided with the development of city film exhibition, which The Bulletin in March 1908 reported to include over a dozen Melbourne cinemas either in the form of auditoriums permanently built for film watching or existing buildings renovated for “special film events” (1). Although local dramas such as The Story of the Kelly Gang (Charles Tait, 1906) were popular in Melbourne, the city documentaries caused the largest sensation because they allowed audiences to see their life and city as represented. Cozen Spencer’s Marvellous Melbourne: Queen City of the South (1910) surveyed how Melburnians took advantage of expanded leisure time and a reduced working week. Segmenting a variety of “scenics” that producer Spencer and camera operator Ernest Higgins had shot over the previous year, it was promoted as the metropolis’ “first” documentary, celebrating the “wonders of the City of Melbourne”. Condensing its footage to hone in on the city’s iconography and landmarks, the documentary presents an illuminating panorama of Melbourne town when it was not just the nation’s capital, but also the major entry point into Australia from England.
In Cozen Spencer’s film, Melbourne is represented as an expansive space that relies on a contemporary transport infrastructure, which, in the form of a cable-tram (or streetcar) network, commutes its passengers from one end of the town to the other. Melbourne’s public transport even assisted in the film’s production as Higgins spectacularly filmed from the interior of cable-trams. Surveying the iconography of Melbourne’s monuments and its bustling crowds, the film further captures the sense of “city film” production during this earlier period in Melbourne’s urban history. Illustrating a modern and complex binary relationship to the usual bucolic countryside (and wildlife) that dominates early Australian film production, the only wildlife shown in Marvellous Melbourne (apart from the image of a kangaroo on an intertitle) are taxidermied animals inside the museum. In Marvellous Melbourne iconic Australian animals are remembered as phenomena of the pre-settler and indigenous Australian past.
Considering that Cozens Spencer was a Londoner and Ernest Higgins was Tasmanian, and both lived in Sydney, Marvellous Melbourne could only ever offer a touristic “imagination” of the city. This quality certainly validates the filmmakers’ decision to shoot the film as a travelogue. Yet, as much as the film creates a glossed portrait of the city, its grand and theatrical style sets it apart from the typical “ethnographic” films of its day, mostly shot by inexperienced film practitioners. It is also different from other Australian scenics, such as Buffalo Mountains (1909) and Australia at Work (1911), which fetishise the “workingman” ethos of Australian legend. Marvellous Melbourne highlights a civilised social order in which women, children and men join together to enjoy local sport (such as a rugged game of Australian Rules football at the Melbourne Cricket Ground).
The most striking element of Marvellous Melbourne are Higgins’ “tracking shots” taken from a variety of moving trams as they travel along the major city streets (St Kilda Road, Swanston Street, Collins Street, and Elizabeth Street). Even today this footage is quite exhilarating and perfectly captures the experience of riding aboard this form of transport. In contrast with the train’s association with distance and rurality, the tram is urban and cosmopolitan. Contrasted against earlier forms of transport we see in the film, including horse-drawn Cobb and Co. passenger coaches and trains at Richmond Station, the tram dramatises the infrastructure, affluence and growth of a sizable metropolis dependant on a modern inner-city network equipped to commute its dwellers across the town.
Marvellous Melbourne is an interesting, nascent example of how the city has been repeatedly introduced and re-imagined throughout the history of Melbourne filmmaking. Yet crucially, it provides a sense of identity and focus not only for Melburnians but a wider cinema audience. Spencer’s film was often included in England (in 1911) on the same programme as Charles Urban’s enduring and resilient Living London (1903), a work that was still popular eight years after its production. In addition to working as a topographic document that illustrates the design and architecture of a now historical city, Marvellous Melbourne demonstrates the way in which Spencer introduced and represented the city as a cultural hub of festivity and modernity.
Marvellous Melbourne: Queen City of the South (1910 Australia 15 mins)
Prod Co: Spencer’s Pictures Dir: Cozens Spencer Phot: Ernest Higgins