Australasian Cinema > films > The Kelly Gang, 1920

The Kelly Gang

Kelly Gang, The* (Harry Southwell, 1920) Southwell Screen Plays, prod. wr. Harry Southwell, dp Charles Herschell; Godfrey Cass (Ned Kelly), V Upton Brown, Horace Crawford, Jack McGowan, Robert Inman, Thomas Sinclair, Harry Southwell, Cyril Mackay, Adele Inman, Maud Appleton, Frank Tomlin; 7500 ft.

kelly gang

Harry Southwell was a Welsh-born actor and writer who spent several years in America before coming to Australia in mid-1919 with his Australian wife. In 1917-18 he had adapted numerous short stories by O. Henry into scenarios for a series of two-reelers produced by Broadway Star Features in America. This screen-writing experience tended to be represented by Southwell in Australia as experience in production and direction, and he was quickly able to impress enough businessmen to gain backing for a local production company. With a koala as his trademark and promoting himself extensively as 'the Welsh Wizard', he announced plans for five Australian features and for the construction of a studio in Sydney. The first production was The Kelly Gang, a subject with a supposedly ready-made audience and ample scope for cheaply staged outdoor action. Shooting began late in 1919 using a temporary outdoor studio in the Melbourne suburb of Coburg. Southwell's inexperience in production is clearly evident in the footage that survives today in the National Film and Sound Archive: the sets are grotesquely under-dressed and are exposed to the full glare of sunlight, with heavy shadows across the roofless studio interiors. Other scenes were shot in the countryside on the outskirts of Melbourne. The production was almost naively ambitious and took an unusually long two hours to project. The burning of the Glenrowan Hotel was staged both at a real hotel near Melbourne and in the Coburg studio, where the set was burnt down. The cast included several experienced stage and screen actors, including three members of the Inman family - Robert, his wife Maud Appleton, and their daughter, Adele.
For reasons unknown, the film escaped the standing opposition of the New South Wales censors to bushranging stories and opened without delay at the Lyric Theatre, Sydney, on 21 February 1920. Although the Lyric was a minor cinema, it did specialise in action movies, and commercial results seem to have been good enough to warrant a transfer to two other theatres in the following week. The Picture Show, 1 April 1920, expressed regret that Southwell had chosen 'the exploits of notorious bushrangers as the subject of his first Australian film. A criminal record can only have a limited appeal as entertainment and ... the producer's experience and ability would have been better seen through a different medium.' Such moral objections were probably anticipated by Southwell, for the film carried a laborious warning against the temptations of outlawry, and the message was presumably explicit enough to mollify the censors.
After his next film, The Hordern Mystery (1920), Southwell's plans for continuous production unexpectedly collapsed. He attempted to set up another company, Southwell's Ideal Productions, in mid-1921, but this also failed, and early in 1922 he ran for cover with a low budget re-make of the Kelly story, When The Kellys Were Out. Southwell turned to Kelly twice again in his career (in 1934 and 1947) but at no stage did the story help him out of trouble. He remained throughout the rest of his life on the shadowy fringes of Australian production, except for a period spent in Europe after 1923, where he made a biblical drama, David (1924), and Le Juif Polonais (1925), a story that he later refilmed in Australia as The Burgomeister (1935). Pike & Cooper: 102.

Meanwhile, Harry Southwell had endeavoured to establish his own company in Australia and followed up his production of The Kelly Gang with The Golden Flame. Godfrey Cass, Claude Turton, and Thomas Sinclair from the Kelly picture also appeared in the second feature. It had a trial run one morning in August at the Theatre Royal, Sydney, then re-appeared as The Hordern Mystery at the Shell Theatre in October. It was described by the critics as 'a weak film, with poor acting, and a jumbled plot'. The reference to poor acting is hard to understand as both Cass and Turton were experienced performers. Reade: 99-100.

References and Links

Pike, Andrew & Ross Cooper 1998, Australian Film 1900-1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production, OUP, Melbourne: 95-96.

Reade, Eric 1975, The Australian Screen: A Pictorial History of Australian Film-making, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne: 99-100.


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