Australia’s Oldest Film, Online and in the Vault

Late in October, 1896, Lumière cinematographer Marius Sestier took his newfangled movie camera out into central Melbourne to shoot what is now Australia’s oldest, known, surviving film, Patineur Grotesque.

Performing for a gathering crowd, the bearded, cigar-puffing Humorous Rollerskater (as the film’s title has been translated) stumbles about, struggling to keep his hat on his head, and then to retrieve it from the ground. Adding to the comic effect is that he sports a large, white, hand design on the seat of his trousers.

The brief footage – it is only one minute long, and apparently an excerpt from a longer piece of actuality footage – is now saved in a restored print at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra, the Australian capital. It is online at the NFSA australianscreen website

In March, the Australian arts minister (and former Midnight Oil frontman) Peter Garrett announced the discovery of the key piece of the country’s film history. The footage not only features some of the earliest images of Australia caught on film, “Patineur Grotesque also helps fill a missing link in global cinematic history, acknowledged as a forerunner to the work of two of cinema’s earliest comedians, Charlie Chaplin and Max Linder,” Garrett said.

A March screening at the NFSA marked the film’s first-ever showing in Australia, because while Sestier’s several other Australian films were a fixture of all his shows throughout Australia at the time, Patineur Grotesque was never on an Australian program. It was, however, screened across Europe and as far away as Mexico, and was one of the first films to broadcast images of Australia abroad.

Garrett provided some details about the restoration of the 1896 project. Patineur Grotesque, like 10 other Lumière films held in NFSA’s collection, was shot on a rare 35mm film format which became obsolete in the early 1900s but, he said, “in a credit to their ingenuity, NFSA technicians built special tools and modified standard equipment to copy and preserve the film. Adapting film-copying equipment to run the unique Lumière format had never been done before in Australia, and has only been achieved a handful of times around the world.”

NFSA curator Sally Jackson believes the film was made by Sestier between October 29 and 31, 1896, probably in central Melbourne at the current site of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, just before he filmed the 1896 Melbourne Cup. What is known is that the skating film premiered in Lyon, France, on February 28, 1897, but was never shown in Australian until it was presented at the National Film and Sound Archive in March, 2010.

Categories: Shorts

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