Caring for the Corrick Collection

‘What is the Corrick Collection?’ (NFSA, Australia, 2011)

Over 100 years before the modern ‘mashup’, the Australian-based Corrick Family Entertainers were showing repackaged and complete versions of the latest special effects, comedy and actuality (non-fiction) films in black-and-white and dazzling colour. Screened with live musical accompaniment provided by the family, ‘Leonard’s Beautiful Pictures’ formed part of a variety act which toured Australasia, South-East Asia and Europe from 1897 to 1914.

Lantern slide advertising the Corricks’ slide and film screenings, c1905

NFSA: 530196

A painstaking five-year project to restore the troupe’s surviving 130 films has uncovered films once considered lost and shed light on the way Australians experienced moviegoing in the early 20th century. Film collections of this age are rare. Few come with the wealth of documentation found in the Corrick Collection, including photographs, tour memorabilia and oral history interviews with Leonard and his son John.

From the surviving footage film curators Meg Labrum and Sally Jackson have identified and pieced together short and long versions of rare original nitrate films from Britain, the USA, France and Italy, as well as a number of Corrick family productions. Says Labrum, ‘It’s a treasure trove of black-and-white, tinted and hand-coloured stencilled films.’

Each print has been carefully restored and copied using techniques developed at the NFSA and at Haghefilm Conservation, in Amsterdam. Since 2007, the restored films have been progressively relaunched at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, the pre-eminent festival of silent film, in Pordenone, Italy.

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Listen to Leonard Corrick talking about his life with the Corrick performing troupe, c1966 NFSA: 419142   Transcript

On the road with the Corrick Family Entertainers

New Zealanders Albert and Sarah Corrick and their eight children burst onto the Australasian variety performance circuit in 1897. The Corrick Family Entertainers, later known as the Marvellous Corricks, promised regional and metropolitan audiences wholesome family fare spiced with ‘Vim, Verve, Vivacity, Variety’.

Their two-hour shows were a multimedia extravaganza of vocal and instrumental pieces, bell ringing, dancing, comedy sketches, poetry recitals and – a precursor to karaoke – singalongs using illustrated lantern slides. In 1901, the Corricks introduced a short program of silent films projected by 14-year-old Leonard – ‘Biograph expert’, clarinet soloist, dancer and mechanic.

'Les Fleurs Animées’ (Pathé, France, 1906, 'Living Flowers’) NFSA: 717497
Please note this clip is silent.

Later billed as ‘Leonard’s Beautiful Pictures’, the increasingly popular segment showcased excerpts from the latest newsreels, trick films, dramas, travelogues and comedies produced by leading film houses Pathé, Edison, Gaumont and Itala. The Corricks displayed a taste for innovative special effects films, including RW Paul’s The Hand of the Artist (1906) and morality tales such as Pathés La Poule aux Oeufs d’Or (1905, The Hen that Laid the Golden Egg) and Les Fleurs Animées (1906, Living Flowers), which the Corricks advertised as ‘The finest “Color” Film of the Twentieth Century’.

For many in the audience, films such as Pathé’s Du Caire aux Pyramides (1905, From Cairo to the Pyramids) offered a rare glimpse of the outside world, while others hinted at the dramatic technological and social changes that marked the early 20th century.

'Leonard’s Electric Engine and Dynamo’, 1909.
Photograph: Leonard Corrick

NFSA: 755810

Keen to stay ahead of the competition, the Corricks were quick to embrace new technology. In 1906, they bought an electric generator to run their projector, fans and lighting – leading to their claim to have introduced electricity to some country towns. ‘Leonard’s Electric Engine and Dynamo’ reduced projection flicker, greatly improving the viewing experience. Another innovation was a portable metal bio box designed to reduce injuries caused by nitrate film fires.

With the purchase of a motion picture camera in 1907, the family started making and appearing in their own films, some of which survive in the Corrick Collection. Street Scenes in Perth (1907), shot, edited and screened in one day, is one of a number of Corrick films designed to lure local audiences in whichever town the troupe was performing. Typically, the family would advertise their intention to shoot a moving picture at a given location, along with details of where the film would be shown that evening.

'The Bashful Mr Brown’ (Corrick, Australia, 1907), NFSA: 760807
Please note this clip is silent.

Consummate self-promoters, the Corricks acted in, and publicised, the family firm in their films. In the chase comedy The Bashful Mr Brown (1907) – possibly the first narrative film made in Western Australia – the unfortunate Mr Brown, pursued by children, dashes past a billboard advertising a Corrick concert.

Following Albert’s death in 1914, and the marriages of several Corrick children, the family ceased touring and settled in Tasmania. Their films and projection equipment were stored in Sarah Corrick’s garage and used by her grandchildren to practise cutting and splicing for their own backyard screenings. Leonard’s son John became the family archivist, eventually donating hundreds of reels of nitrate film to the NFSA and equipment and assorted memorabilia to the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, in Launceston.

Restoring the Corrick jewels

When restoration began in 2006, an initial examination of the nitrate prints indicated that while there was surprisingly little image decomposition, some fragments were missing, others were brittle and had suffered significant shrinkage and buckling. Repeated screenings had resulted in scratches, missing perforations, tears and damaged heads and tails.

The first step in the restoration process was to identify the original films. ‘It was a real challenge to sort out exactly what was what, then order and match around 140 complete films and fragments,’ says project manager Sally Jackson. ‘In many cases there were no titles and the films ended abruptly. After a lot of detective work, we managed to identify most titles, but sometimes there just wasn’t enough film left.’

‘Living London’ (Urban, England, 1904) NFSA: 748390
Please note this clip is silent.

In 2007, NFSA curators showed an unidentified fragment from the Corrick Collection to British film scholar Ian Christie. After extensive research, Christie confirmed his initial suspicion that the ten-minute edited footage was from Charles Urban’s travelogue Living London (1904) – a film previously believed to have been lost. The scenes of daily life in the British capital caused a sensation in Australia, with an estimated audience of 500,000 seeing the film only months after its 1906 release.

John Taylor uses a winder to examine the contents and condition of a film, NFSA Canberra, 2010

Once identified, films were forwarded to the NFSA’s audiovisual conservation unit for repair, frame by frame. The next step was to determine, given the fragile condition of the footage, which processes would best support the film-to-film copying required to produce negatives and high quality release prints suitable for screening.

The task of copying and printing each film was entrusted to the NFSA’s Motion Picture Laboratory (MPL). The original footage was run through a customised Debrie optical wet gate archival printer to generate two 35mm black-and-white polyester negatives. One negative was used to make screening prints and the other stored for preservation.

Tank testing the aniline dye on a sample film, NFSA Canberra, 2011

The poor physical condition of aged film, combined with thick overlapping splices and smaller perforations than the modern standard, necessitated some creative copying solutions and modifications to the printer. In the case of Pathé’s Cache-toi dans la Malle! (1905, Keep it Straight!) the heads and tails had to be printed separately and passed backwards through the printer to avoid breakage. Says MPL’s Trevor Carter, ‘It’s a nerve-wracking process which can take up to two hours for 300 feet (over 90 metres) of film, with two people coaxing the fragments through the machine.’

The copied fragments were then meticulously cut and spliced to ensure that the negative reflected the frame order of the original print. Next, the film was graded to ensure accurate picture quality and transferred, along with the grading file, to a BHP contact printer for the production of a polyester release print.

To mimic the luminous colour of the original titles and intertitles of the black-and-white films in the Corrick Collection, Carter and laboratory manager Steve Clark went back to early Kodak manuals and drew on contemporary research. Through a process of experimentation they were able to use the aniline coal dyes of 100 years ago to replicate similar effects on the polyester release prints.

Trevor Carter prints black-and-white negative to positive film,
NFSA Canberra, 2011

Prints containing long segments of toned, tinted or stencilled colour were copied to black-and-white negative film before being sent to leading film restoration specialist Haghefilm Conservation in Amsterdam. Haghefilm produces 35mm colour prints using the Desmet method – the most accurate process available for re-creating the colouring effects typical of silent films.

‘It’s a compromise’, says Carter. ‘It’s our job to replicate exactly what we find on the original print, but modern colour film can’t capture the vibrancy of tinted and hand-stencilled film. It will always be an approximation.’

Nonetheless, the restoration process has bridged the gap between past and present, bringing the new media of another era to contemporary audiences, filmmakers and artists. The NFSA will continue to work with Leonard Corrick’s son John to research the films and the story of the Marvellous Corricks.

More about the Corrick Collection and the Corrick family:

Marvellous Corricks on australianscreen.
The Corrick Collection at the NFSA – search our online catalogue for films, photographs and documentation
‘The Corrick Collection: A Case Study in Asia–Pacific Itinerant Film Exhibition’ (1901–1914), Leslie Anne Lewis, NFSA Journal, Volume 2, No. 2, 2007
My Bicycle Loves You, Legs on the Wall theatre company interpret films in the Corrick Collection
Program notes – Le Giornate del Cinema Muto
‘The Living London Boom’, Sally Jackson, Senses of Cinema, Issue No. 49, March 2009
Trove – Corrick family musicians