Two men help save a piece of Australian cinematic history (transcript)
Reporter: Michael Smyth
IAN HENSCHKE: Now for trip back in time, and the remarkable story of two men who helped save a piece of Australian cinematic history.
In 1927 a silent film called the ‘Kid Stakes’ was released, bringing to life the popular comic strip ‘Fatty Finn’.
Today it’s regarded as an Australian classic, and it will be a key attraction at this week’s Adelaide International Film Festival.
But as Michael Smyth reports, the fact the film exists is quite a story in itself.
MICHAEL SMYTH: It was Sydney, 1953, and like a scene from the Australian classic ‘Newsfront’, university student David Donaldson slipped into a newsreel theatre to catch up on world events, but he left with a mission.
DAVID DONALDSON: So there I was, just in the newsreel, and I really had no idea that this film was going to appear.
I still can feel the total thrill.
It was just such a thrill to see this wonderful picture.
It was just pictorially beautiful and it was dinky-di Australian, and in among all those conventional newsreels and American stuff — the thing just spoke to me instantly.
MICHAEL SMYTH: What David Donaldson had just seen was a cut-down version of the ‘Kid Stakes’, a 1927 silent film directed by Tad Ordell.
It brought to life the popular comic strip ‘Fatty Finn’.
But the 20-minute version of the film wasn’t enough for the young film fanatic.
He was determined to find the rest of the 70-minute feature and piece it back together.
DAVID DONALDSON: Yes, it developed a mission in me.
I had to do something about this wonderful thing that I, at that moment, had never heard of and didn’t know about and almost didn’t know there were such things.
MICHAEL SMYTH: Before too long, the owner of the film was found, along with the missing pieces, and David’s enthusiasm soon spread to other members of Sydney University’s film group.
JOHN BURKE: When we first saw the film we were all bowled over by it and couldn’t believe that it was an unknown treasure from the past.
MICHAEL SMYTH: John Burke, who later went to work at the SA Film Corporation, was one of about a dozen students who took on the ‘Kid Stakes’ project.
Working without a script, they resurrected the feature from four cannibalised prints, and soon discovered the old-fashioned yarn had stood the test of time.
JOHN BURKE: Syd Nicholls was just a very good writer, as well as being a good illustrator.
And it’s just a very human observation, and he didn’t try to do anything artificial with it, and it’s also very funny.
MICHAEL SMYTH: ‘Kid Stakes’ centres on Fatty Finn entering his pet goat, Hector, into a race, and the calamity that follows.
KATRINA SEDGWICK, FILM FESTIVAL DIRECTOR: It’s absolutely hilarious and charming and the kind of joie de vie and freshness and the kind of young larrikin, I suppose, that’s so much a part of the Australian identity at that time, so I think it’s a good reflection of the kind of best of cinema.
MICHAEL SMYTH: But unlike this version of the film, when ‘Kid Stakes’ is screened here next week, it’ll be accompanied by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra with a score by South Australian composer Graeme Koehne.
JOHN BURKE: Anybody who’s gone to see a silent film with a new orchestral accompaniment will, I think, agree that there is something magic about the combination of the two.
Even the best soundtrack in the world can’t compare with a real live orchestra.
That’s a lovely shot of Fatty, isn’t it?
He’s on the doorstep, very worn, very old building in Woolloomooloo.
MICHAEL SMYTH: So for David Donaldson and John Burke, Wednesday night’s performance will be something of a trip down memory lane, back to the early ’50s, when Australia was more concerned about modernising than preserving its past.
DAVID DONALDSON: The funny thing was that the National Library of Australia was bringing in from the British Film Institute 16mm prints of what were called the classics.
We said if you’re holding these English, and typically European classic films, you should have an Australian classic film.
That’s when the trouble started.
That was a battle that went on long after 1954 to get the National Library to take an interest.
MICHAEL SMYTH: So had the film group not worked so hard to reconstruct the film, it would have been lost for all time?
JOHN BURKE: Probably.
MICHAEL SMYTH: How does that make you feel?
JOHN BURKE: Well, it makes me feel very pleased we did what we did.
Originally published on the ABC website
Via the Internet Archive