Production company: Artaus Productions Ltd.
Budget: n/a, low
Locations: south Sydney sandhills, Kensington area, Sydney (for Palestine), western New South Wales (camel trains), studio Sydney
Filmed: first months of 1930, in order to be completed March 1930 and be eligible for entry into the Commonwealth Government's film prize, with entries closing March 31st.
Australian distributor: self-distributed, director Higgins hired the Theatre Royal, Sydney for the film's premiere run.
Australian release: 23rd August 1930, two week season Theatre Royal Sydney
35mm black and white silent/talkie
Running time: 8,000 feet (Oxford)
Box office: minimal ("an indifferent season" - according to lead actor in the film Arthur Tauchert). After the opening run, the film thereafter largely disappeared from view.
3rd prize, in the first Commonwealth Government Australian film competition prize 1930 (1st and 2nd prizes weren't awarded), with a cash prize of £1,500.
The production company declined the award, protesting at the decision of the judges - members of the Commonwealth Film Censorship appeal board. They argued that the film had earned enough points to be awarded second prize, but the acting Minister for Customs, Mr. Forde, refused to overturn the decision.
Not known outside or within the National Film and Sound Archive. A lost film.
The bulk of the film was shot in the sandhills south of Sydney, described by the Sydney Morning Herald as being in the Kensington area. The film-makers went to western New South Wales to film long camel trains, and advertisements for the film promised 4,600 horses and 3,000 camels, and a cast of several hundred principals and extras to represent the war.
The silent sequences where shot by Arthur E. Higgins, a professional photographer of Pitt Street Sydney, while Austin Fay directed the talkie sequences. Higgins continued to work in the industry as a cameraman (with Tas Higgins), shifting to Victoria to work for Frank Thring senior's Efftee Studios.
In initial screenings, only the last reel of the film was synchronised with a few minutes of dialogue and a song. It was carefully described in publicity as having synchronised music, with "sequences of spoken dialogue".
The magazine Everyones dismissed this as "in no way important; moreover the recording is irregular. At one moment the voices come over excellently, only to blur a few moments later". The rest of the film was silent, with a recorded music score as accompaniment.
The Sydney Morning Herald in a 'catch-up' addition to its initial review on 24th May 1930, was scathing on 25th August 1930 about the music that was added:
The music which has been synchronised to the Australian film, "Fellers", since it was reviewed in the "Herald" on May 24, does nothing to pull the production out of its hopeless ineptitude. In the first place, the instruments have been recorded much too loudly, so that the score obtrudes itself. Secondly not only is the tone inclined to be harsh, but at times the pitch flattens in a manner that will torture sensitive ears. Thirdly, the music is far too turbulent, providing for the most commonplace scene a background of such vivid emotion as would be in place only at a grand opera climax, and thus inevitably heightening the absurdity of the visual action.
The stage entertainment which preceded "Fellers" at the Theatre Royal on Saturday was in the worst possible taste, both cheap and vulgar.
2. The first talkie?
The film entered the record books by claiming to be the first Australian "talkie". Some give this honour to the McDonagh sisters The Cheaters, which was completed as a silent film in early 1929, but then had 'talkie' scenes added in Melbourne in March 1939 using a sound-on-disc system. This version was entered in the Commonwealth competition, with entries closing 31st March 1931, as was Fellers.
The Cheaters did not win a prize, Fellers won third prize (no other prizes were awarded).
The Cheaters was given a trade screen showing on the 1st June 1930 at the Roxy Theatre Parramatta, but there were few commercial screenings thereafter.
Fellers did get a commercial screening, because the film-makers four-walled the Theatre Royal in Sydney for a couple of weeks, but only from 23rd August 1930.
As both films were ready for the Commonwealth competition by the end of March, it might be called a draw.
If the definition of an Australian talkie is the first invited trade and press partly synchronised screening, then The Cheaters wins.
If the definition is the first commercial partly synchronised season, then Fellers wins.
If the definition is the first fully talkie film given a theatrical release, other later contenders emerge. Since the sound systems used by both The Cheaters and Fellers were judged to be only partial and execrable by contemporaries, another winner might be A. R. Harwood's 1931 films Spur of the Moment and Isle of Intrigue - released in tandem - which just pipped - by a couple of weeks - F. W. Thring's Diggers into the theatres on 26th September 1931. Thring's film used a more competent - if still rough - sound system, but was entirely synchronised.
The only reason to know any of this is to win a pub quiz competition dedicated to useless and arcane information. Set the question correctly, and win.
3. Box Office:
Arthur Tauchert complained bitterly on 5th September 1930 at the Theatre Royal at the lack of interest in the film, which had "experienced an indifferent season".
Mr. Tauchert said that while possibly his production did not come up to the standard of the best American pictures, he believed that it held its own on the average level. It represented a struggling young industry, which appeared to have earned contempt for no apparent reason. There could be no doubt that Australia had ideal conditions for the making of motion pictures. His answer to the pessimists on that point was that an American company who had recently acquired considerable interests in picture houses planned to produce in the country on a large scale. The infant local industry had been badly let down. At the present only one company was at work in New South Wales on a picture. (Sydney Morning Herald, 6th September 1930).
4. The Commonwealth Government Australian Film Competition:
The Commonwealth Government announced a competition to stimulate the development of the motion picture industry in Australia in 1930. Prizes offered were £5,000 for first prize, £2,500 for second, and £1,500 as third prize (and with other prizes in relation to best scenarios). The judging was conducted according to a definition of what constituted an Australian film, and according to a points scheme for quality, with judging by the Commonwealth Film Censorship Appeal Board.
The board advised the Acting Minister of Customs (Mr. Forde) that the films fell short, and that only the prize for third should be awarded to Fellers (the other films were rated in order of merit The Cheaters, Tiger Island and The Nation To-morrow).
Austin B. Fay indignantly announced his company's intention to refuse to accept the third prize, claiming that under the conditions, Fellers should have obtained sufficient points to be awarded the second prize. Fay asked for an explanation, and after being told that the matter was in the hands of the Appeal Board, announced that he would appeal, but the government remained firm.
The controversy spread far and wide, and was noted in a feature article in Perth's Sunday Times on 15th June 1930:
Wherever politics enters into business, it seems impossible to avoid confusion, neglect, and general foolishness. In the manner of conducting the competition to discover the head Australian-produced films we can see all this illustrated anew.
The competition has just ended with the amazing announcement that the Artaus Ltd, film, "Fellers," a part-sound effort, dealing with the story of the Light Horse in the Great War, had been adjudged the winner of the competition with the third prize-money as its reward. Why third prize money and not second prize money? Such a question could only be answered by officialdom or politicians. The plain citizen would be quite unable to achieve it …
As to the main award that governing "Fellers." While the board may be able to justify the refusal to grant the first prize-money, £5,000, to Artaus, the makers of this picture, it is inconceivable that it can explain why second prize-money, £2,500, was not awarded instead of £1,500, the reward for the film placed third. As the position stands, it appears to be a piece of priceless official parsimony. The public will find it hard to understand why prize-money totalling £10,000 as reward for Australian enterprise, art, and industry, should suddenly become £1,500.
It must be admitted that 50 points were stipulated as necessary before first prize-money could be awarded, and that "Fellers" was given only 43 points. But it was also stated that 40 points must be obtained before the second or third prize would be qualified for.
"Fellers" received three points more than was necessary to obtain second prize-money.
In effect, it means this, that the Film Censorship Appeal Board has said to the producers of "Fellers": "We had to give someone's film the premier position in the competition, but we think it should be given the lowest possible prize-money, and we cannot help it if picture exhibitors take their cue from our decisions and refuse to buy your film." While those who have seen this film exhibited may have discovered many faults in it, due to lack of capital, it is a monstrously unjust thing for a board appointed by a Government to foster an Australian industry to attempt to kill it …
if the Commonwealth authorities are really anxious to build up the moving picture industry in Australia, they have proceeded about the initial steps in an extraordinary fashion. Up to date, their efforts appear to be more designed to the diverting of the Commonwealth Government Film Prize towards balancing the Budget.