Under the Southern Cross: Australian Cinema in the 1950s

1950s Australian cinema was a decade that transformed the country’s film industry. Despite facing stiff competition from television and tight financial constraints, this era witnessed the rise of iconic actors and innovative cinematic techniques that captivated audiences worldwide. It’s a story of resilience, creativity, and cultural evolution under the Southern Cross. Now, imagine delving into the roots of Australia’s filmic breakthroughs and the pivotal moments that heralded a new dawn in storytelling. Let’s explore together how this golden age set the stage for the vibrant film scene Australia enjoys today.

Key Takeaways

  • The 1950s saw the introduction of color films in Australia, with ‘The Queen in Australia’ and ‘Jedda’ as pioneering examples.
  • Australian cinema faced challenges from television’s emergence in 1956, leading to a decline in cinema attendance.
  • The decade was marked by international recognition of Australian actors like Charles Tingwell and Rod Taylor.
  • Innovations and cultural shifts in the 1950s laid the foundation for the Australian film industry’s revival in the 1970s.
  • Significant events, such as the First Melbourne Film Festival in 1952, highlighted the industry’s commitment to film excellence.

The Decade’s Start: 1950-1952

Rod Taylor

As the 1950s dawned, the Australian cinema scene faced challenges and saw significant cultural contributions. Despite restrictions on capital investment that led to a decline in feature film production, Australian cinema found ways to shine. You’d see actors like Charles Tingwell and Rod Taylor making waves internationally, proving that talent could indeed cross oceans for greater opportunities.

In the midst of these challenges, the Waterside Workers Federation Film Unit took a unique approach by focusing on documentaries, spotlighting the Australian working class’s struggles and stories. This move not only enriched Australian Cinema but also highlighted the power of storytelling in sparking conversations about societal issues.

Then came a milestone in 1952, the First Melbourne Film Festival, organized by the Federation of Victorian Film Societies, marking a pivotal moment in the cultural landscape of Australian cinema. This festival became a beacon for cinephiles, showcasing the richness and diversity of film.

Another highlight was the release of ‘Mike and Stefani’ in 1952. This documentary offered a realistic glimpse into the lives of a Ukrainian couple migrating to Australia, embracing a neo-realist approach that added depth and authenticity to Australian filmmaking. This period, though challenging, underscored the resilience and ingenuity of Australian cinema.

Cinematic Innovations: 1953-1955

The years between 1953 and 1955 marked a vibrant period of innovation for Australian cinema, introducing the nation’s first color films and storytelling techniques that captivated audiences worldwide. This era showcased the Australian feature film industry’s shift towards color and narrative storytelling, making a significant mark on both local and international stages.

Year Milestone
1953 The release of ‘The Queen in Australia’, the first 35mm color documentary feature in Australia.
1955 Premiere of ‘Jedda’, the landmark Australian color feature film directed by Charles Chauvel.
1955 ‘Jedda’ becomes the first Australian film to compete at the Cannes Film Festival.
1953-1955 A period marked by significant advancements in Australian cinema.
1950s The era symbolizes a shift towards innovative color and narrative storytelling in Australian filmmaking.

These years weren’t just about introducing color; they were about telling stories that resonated, bringing Australian narratives to the forefront of the global stage. ‘Jedda’, in particular, not only broke ground by being in color but also by competing at Cannes, showing the world what Australian cinema was capable of. This was a time of bold moves and creative storytelling, setting the stage for the future of the Australian feature film industry.

Television’s Emergence: 1956

You’re stepping into an era where television reshaped the cultural landscape of Australia in 1956, marking a pivotal shift from traditional cinemas to the living room’s comfort. This new medium not only brought the excitement of events like the Queen’s visit into homes but also sparked a competition that led cinemas to innovate or face closure. As you explore TV’s cultural impact and the unfolding cinema versus television saga, you’ll see how this period set the stage for modern Australian entertainment.

TV’s Cultural Impact

Television’s arrival in Australia in 1956 drastically reshaped the nation’s cultural landscape, leading to a decline in cinema attendance and the closure of several theaters. This shift didn’t just impact where people spent their evenings; it also influenced the film production scene. As audiences turned their attention to the small screen, the industry had to rethink its strategies. Despite these challenges, the period saw the establishment of the Australian Cinematographers Society in 1957, recognizing the talents behind both film and television. Additionally, TV Week’s launch in 1957 provided a new platform for showcasing what was on television, further embedding TV’s role in Australian culture. This era marked a pivotal moment, steering the entertainment industry toward a more diverse and dynamic future.

Cinema Vs. Television

Facing the advent of television in 1956, Australian cinema found itself in a pivotal battle for audiences. You might think this spelled doom for the big screen, but it was also a call to action. The Australian film industry, including the Commonwealth Film Unit, saw this as an opportunity to innovate and adapt. Television’s emergence led to a decline in cinema attendance initially, and by 1959, many cinemas in Sydney and Melbourne had closed. However, this wasn’t the end. The industry began to explore new ways to captivate audiences, blending traditional storytelling with fresh, engaging content. Television might have showcased its potential to reach a wide audience quickly, especially during the royal tour in 1958, but it also inspired the film industry to evolve and find its unique space in the Australian cultural landscape.

Cultural Shifts: 1957-1958

As you explore the years 1957-1958, you’ll notice a significant evolution in social dynamics within Australian cinema, reflecting broader cultural shifts. The global influence on cinema began to reshape its landscape, despite the challenges posed by television’s rise. These years marked a pivotal point, with initiatives like the founding of the Australian Cinematographers Society and the launch of Bandstand, showcasing the resilience and adaptability of the industry.

Social Dynamics Evolution

Between 1957 and 1958, Australia witnessed a transformative shift in its social dynamics, primarily due to the rapid rise of television and its impact on the film industry. This period marked a significant downturn in cinema attendance, with Victoria experiencing a drop by 5 million admissions. Yet, it wasn’t all bleak. The film community responded creatively. Film producers began exploring the formation of public companies, aiming to innovate and adapt to the changing landscape. This era also saw the birth of the Australian Cinematographers Society in Sydney, expanding the professional network for those behind the camera. Additionally, the launch of TV Week heralded a new chapter in entertainment journalism, further solidifying television’s role in shaping Australian culture. This was a time of adaptation, resilience, and reinvention in the face of new challenges.

Cinema’s Global Influence

The cultural landscape of Australian cinema underwent a dramatic transformation during 1957-1958, influenced heavily by global cinematic trends and the burgeoning television industry. You witnessed a shift towards feature production and the embrace of colour film, reflecting a vibrant era of innovation and adaptation.

  • Television’s rise led to a decline in cinema attendance, pushing filmmakers to explore new creative frontiers.
  • The establishment of the Australian Cinematographers Society highlighted a focus on the artistry of filmmaking.
  • Advancements in television broadcasting technology showcased during the royal tour inspired cinematic techniques.
  • The competition between TV Week and TV Times underscored the growing influence of television on public entertainment choices.

This period marked a pivotal moment, steering Australian cinema towards a more dynamic and visually rich future.

Landmark Events: 1959

In 1959, the Australian film industry faced significant challenges, particularly a sharp decline in cinema attendance in Victoria. Despite these hurdles, the year was not without its highlights. The Australian Cinematographers Society, founded just two years prior, was making strides in enhancing the visual quality of Australian films. This organization’s emergence was a clear indication of the industry’s importance and its commitment to excellence in film-making.

Moreover, the television landscape was evolving with the launch of Bandstand on TCN9 Sydney in 1958, providing a new platform for Australian music talent. This innovation, along with the collaborative effort for the Royal Tour broadcast in 1958, showcased the industry’s capability in large-scale productions. The use of OB vans for the Queen Mother’s tour was a demonstration of the technological advancements being embraced.

Amid these developments, prominent figures like Lee Robinson and Chips Rafferty continued to leave their mark on Australian cinema. Their contributions during this period were vital in keeping the spirit of the industry alive, demonstrating that even in challenging times, creativity and collaboration could lead to remarkable achievements.

Chips Rafferty

Toward a New Era: Looking Forward

Reflecting on the challenges and achievements of the 1950s, it’s clear that Australian cinema was on the brink of an exciting new era. This period served as the foundation for what was to come, setting the stage for an innovative and flourishing film scene. The 1950s were not just about what happened then; they were a launchpad for the future.

  • The transformative period saw the birth of new film styles and themes, connecting past and future in a dynamic way.
  • Innovations in film production heralded a new age for Australian features, promising richer storytelling and more sophisticated techniques.
  • The decade’s close relationship with other cultural spheres hinted at a more integrated approach to art and film, with Film Australia playing a pivotal role.
  • Understanding the 1950s allows us to appreciate the roots of the Australian film revival in the 1970s, recognizing it as an important conceptual and institutional pre-history.

As you look forward, imagine a vibrant film industry, enriched by its past and poised for future success. The foundations laid in the 1950s were just the beginning, promising an exciting journey ahead for Australian cinema.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is the Highest Grossing Australian Movie of All Time?

It’s ‘Crocodile Dundee’! Released in 1986, it raked in over $47 million in the U.S. alone, making it a global sensation.

What and When Was the First Movie Ever Screened in Australia and How Did Audiences Watch It?

It was the Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe in 1896 at the Melbourne Athenaeum. Audiences were mesmerized, watching films like ‘Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory.’

When Did Australian Cinema Start?

Australian cinema kicked off in the early 20th century, with its first film, ‘The Story of the Kelly Gang,’ screened in 1906. You’d have seen silent films back then, marking the start of a rich film tradition.

What and When Was the First Projected Movie Shown in Australia and How Long Was It?

The first projected movie in Australia was shown on October 23, 1896, at the Athanaeum Hall in Melbourne. It featured short films by the Lumière brothers and lasted about 20 minutes. You’d have loved it!


You’ve journeyed through the transformative 1950s in Australian cinema, witnessing challenges and innovations that reshaped the industry. From the rise of iconic actors to the birth of the Melbourne Film Festival, this era marked the beginning of a vibrant film scene. Embrace the legacy of this decade as it propelled Australian cinema into a new era, promising richer stories and global recognition. The foundations laid then continue to inspire and influence the films we cherish today. Keep looking forward, the best is yet to come.