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|CLASSIC DIVE BOOKS - Noel Monkman.|
THE FILM-MAKING CAREER OF NOEL MONKMAN AND KITTY GELHOR.
Husband and wife teams that endure are rare in the ego-ridden world of cinema and television. For more than thirty years, commencing in the early 1930s, Noel Monkman and his wife Kitty Gelhor, embarked on a career in film production.
Monkman was the last male descendant of a family of early European pioneers of New Zealand. Kitty Gelhor was ofRussian/Polish ancestry and they were brought together in New Zealand by careers in music. They emigrated to Australia, immediately after the First World War, to study at Sydney Conservatorium of Music, the only professional school of music in Australasia. The 'Con' as it became known, had just opened in what had been the stables of Government House, in the Botanic Gardens, adjacent to Macquarie Street, Sydney.
Monkman had endured a childhood
that would have left many another scarred. In Monkman's case, isolation
and privations taught him steely self-reliance and developed in him a love
of marine biology and a talent for photography and for music. For
years, his puritanical father fostered out the child to a succession of
boarding houses and families, to hide him from his mother and isolate him
from her ajudged evil influence. His mother had committed the sin, unforgivable
in the eyes of late Victorian New Zealand, of maintaining her career as
a musician and singer after
In Sydney, Monkman and Gelhor made a career playing in the orchestras and ensembles that accompanied the 'silent' cinema in the movie houses and, occasionally, backed international stars such as Pavlova, on tour in Australia. Late at night, after work, Monkman attended his laboratory where he developed techniques of microphotography and micro-cinematography and made two experimental films, one on the life cycle of the mosquito, the other on the aquatic organism, the hydra.
In their original form, at least, these films have been lost. While scientific cinematography had brought the couple into film production, it was not their exclusive interest. Monkman was seen as arising talent in the film industry and was contracted to direct two feature films. ‘Typhoon Treasure' (1938) was produced for the Commonwealth Film Laboratories and ‘The Power and the Glory' (1941) for Argosy Film, both Sydney-based companies. ‘Typhoon Treasure' made extensive use of Queensland coastal and island locations, in lieu of New Guinea. It was subsequently released in Britain in 1943 in a slightly abridged version.
The Power and the Glory's anti-Nazi themes and aggressive aerial combat scenes ensured that it attracted an audience and received encouraging reviews when it opened at the Mayfair, in Sydney, in April 1941. However, there were no further opportunities to direct features during the general production hiatus caused by the Second World War.
In the received history of the Australian film industry, Monkman and Gelhor hardly rate footnote status. This is because in part and, in Monkman's words:
"We won our way to financial security by pioneering a new Australian business-ghost filming. We produced film which we sold outright for immediate payment, and overseas buyers put their names on them as producers and took the credit for having made the films."
One must also consider that, though Monkman directed two reasonably well received feature films, Monkman and Gelhor's principal output was scientific, educational and natural history film. Such films are held to demand more technical than creative skills for their making and so, in the pantheon of film production fame, Monkman and Gelhor's reputation remains out on the porch.
Noel Monkman died in May 1969, just as the Film Committee of the Australian Council for the Arts was meeting to plan the revival of the film industry. In the seven months leading up to Prime Minister John Grey Gorton's speech at the Australian Film Institute awards, in Canberra, in December of that year, the framework of the first phase of the federal governments' support for the Australian film industry was designed. Monkman was survived by his lifetime partner, Kitty Gelhor. She lived to see some of their hopes, in the 1930s, for an Australian film industry, realised in the 1970s.
Copyright: Vincent O'Donnell, Melbourne, 2002.
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