Earlydays of the big screen
A passionate pioneer of New Zealand film started his career in Palmerston North.
One day in 1920, passers-by in Palmerston North saw two men run out of a building, jump into a car and careen around the Square, chased by angry shopkeepers.
A robbery? Then they noticed a young man recording the action with a hand-cranked camera, mounted on a tripod.
Cinematographer Edwin Coubray, projectionist at the nearby Kosy Cinema, was filming The Motor Bandits, a 10-minute silent film he and friends hoped would attract investors to their planned movie company.
The Motor Bandits was Coubray’s first production, but his passion for film dated back to the day he saw his first motion picture, aged six.
Born in Southland on October 19, 1900, Edwin, known as Ted, was the third of four sons born to railway worker Nicholas Coubray and his wife, Minnie. About 1914, the family moved to Palmerston North, where Ted worked as trainee mechanic at a motorcycle shop. After World War I, his brothers, Nicholas and Arthur, bought a bakery in Rongotea, and Ted delivered the bread.
Later, HE Bennett, manager of the Kosy cinema in The Square, hired him as movie projectionist, and Ted quickly mastered the Simplex and Ernemann projectors.
He even started his own picture showings at the Rata Hall, Rongotea, and with Arthur, he travelled around the district in a truck equipped with an electric generator for country screenings.
Prospective shareholders liked The Motor Bandits and New Zealand Cinema Enterprises Ltd was launched in August 1921, offering 12,000 shares at £1 each. HE Bennett bought 100.
The company could now afford to make an epic silent movie: The Birth of New Zealand.
Ted was stills photographer and assistant cameraman to Frank Stewart for this production, a historical epic described as the first New Zealand film classic.
On the set, Ted met actress Nellie Lindvall, daughter of a scenic artist and set builder. They married on November 25, 1925.
Now in Wellington, Ted was the Paramount Theatre projectionist and worked with Frank Stewart at New Zealand Films. After shooting Under the Southern Cross in 1926, he founded New Zealand Radio Films, making short documentaries and newsreels, and created Moa Films to write, produce and direct Carbine’s Heritage, the story of a famous racehorse.
During 1928 to 1930, ‘‘community comedies’’, featuring heroines from provincial towns, became popular.
The local versions were: Mary of Marton, Frances of Feilding and even Patsy of Palmerston.
While Ted didn’t shoot these, he did make similar short comedies and advertising features, including Luna Park in Auckland in 1928.
‘‘The film was shot by my brother, Fred,’’ he wrote in a letter. ‘‘The interesting thing is that it was shot with a hand-cranked camera. How Fred managed to keep his camera firm on the ups and downs of the Big Dipper is beyond me.’’
‘‘Talkies’’ arrived in 1929. Ted developed his own sound-on-film system, the first of its kind in Australasia. But disaster came during the movie Hei Tiki. Its American director, Alexander Markey, sacked Ted, alleging he had been ‘‘posting away copies of film, the property of Markey Films’’.
Almost overnight, Radio New Zealand Films folded. Ted, broke and in debt in the Depression, sold his Coubray-tone sound system to a Dunedin film-maker, Jack Welsh, who perfected the invention.
Ted sued Markey for £500 for ‘‘malicious persecution’’ and although he was successful in court in December 1930, he was awarded only £10, plus 20 guineas costs and disbursements.
He found work as an assistant cameraman on Rudall Hayward’s 1940 talkie version of the earlier silent, Rewi’s Last Stand, and then went back to his old profession as a film projectionist.
Gordon Lawrence, media studies tutor and editor of Script, the magazine of the National Association of Media Educators, knew Ted and Nellie when he was a pre-teen and Ted was projectionist at Lower Hutt’s De Luxe cinema.
‘‘At that time [about 1950], I was a regular visitor to the projection box. Ted seemed happy to give the time to answer my many questions and generously share his knowledge.
‘‘[In Rewi’s Last Stand] he described how a piece of smoked glass was placed in front of the camera lens to create the appearance of fog.
‘‘However, on a pan, the glass moved with the camera and the fog moved too, giving the show away.’’
When the film was sent to England to be re-edited and have work done on the soundtrack, ‘‘Ted was disappointed to find the sound effects included English bird sounds, which were out of context for the film’s historical setting’’.
Ted’s camera was ‘‘hand-cranked, made from wood and gleaming brass. It had a single lens and a viewfinder. There was a wooden tripod. At the time, I remember Ted complaining about the price of film stock – about 30 shillings per 100 feet for the camera negative, plus processing and printing.’’
Mr Lawrence says the volume of early, low-budget silent films ‘‘all stopped when sound on movie film developed’’.
‘‘Not until the 1980s did New Zealand film-making again become as active as in the silent days.’’
Charlie Chaplin was just starting out when Edwin Coubray’s film career began.
‘‘Chaplin kept making films, but Ted ended his career projecting them. I feel privileged to have had contact with such a pioneer of New Zealand cinema.’’ Nellie Coubray died in 1958. About a year later Ted married Lydia Glen, the widow of his brother, Fred. The couple retired to Sydney in 1973.
Edwin Coubray died in 1997. His surviving films, a 1995 audio interview, photographs and papers are preserved at the New Zealand Film Archive in Wellington.