Manawatu Standard

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.

 ??  ?? On a reel: Film pro­jec­tors used in the 1940s. Lo­cal hero­ine: A ‘‘com­mu­nity com­edy’’ set in Palmer­ston North.
On a reel: Film pro­jec­tors used in the 1940s. Lo­cal hero­ine: A ‘‘com­mu­nity com­edy’’ set in Palmer­ston North.
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