Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Meet Rupert Kathner and Alma Brooks

Trailblazing film makers Rupert Kathner and Alma Brooks made a number of films in the early days of Australian cinema, but are not well remembered. 

Film maker and historian Alec Morgan made Hunt Angels, a documentary-drama about the pair. He describes them as the Bonnie and Clyde of Australian film making. ‘Rupe’ Kathner was known to forge checks and operate under different aliases to get money to make movies. Alma often abbreviated her name to Al Brooks to disguise her gender, as the film industry was exclusively for men. They also invented names for the credits of their movies to make it look as though they had a large company. 

Rupe and Alma met when he was pitching a film to the National Studios, where she was working as a secretarial assistant in the hopes of becoming a filmmaker herself. Striking out with Rupe, she realised that dream. Rupe was married, but the two began a love affair that was to last until his death.

The Pyjama Girl newsreel is probably the best remembered of their work today (they also made The Glenrowan Affair, a Ned Kelly picture) and it established the crime scene re-enactment model that has been embraced by Australian true crime shows ever since. 

(You can also access the video at Australian Screen Online.)

Rumour has it that Alma and Rupe broke into the Sydney Anatomy School to film the body of the Pyjama Girl after the police declined to give them permission. But, failing to get the shot they needed, and knowing they wouldn’t be able to get in a second time, they instead hired a room at a bath-house and Alma posed as a ‘stand-in’ for the body. Both Alma and Rupe made cameos in their films, as they often couldn’t afford to pay actors. In the Pyjama Girl newsreel, Alma is the woman who models the dress, and Rupe is one of the men who views the body and shakes his head. 

Rupert Kathner once said ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’ and this was certainly true of the Pyjama Girl film, which claimed to show footage of the actual pyjamas found on the body. This was not true. Prior to the film’s release (and prior to the filmmakers obtaining permission from Commissioner Mackay, who had a say in film censorship) Rupe also went to the newspapers to say he had received a threatening letter, warning him not to make the film. This of course, resulted in a lot of publicity, and the desired cooperation from the police. Up until that time, films about the activities of police officers were limited to road safety—there was little depiction of the criminal underbelly of the era. Rupe and Alma’s ambition was thus achieved: Australia’s first serious newsreel.

Rupe died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage in 1954 when he was just 49. Alma largely disappeared from public life and never made another film.

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