KILLARNEY FILM STUDIOS, JOHANNESBURG’S FIRST MOTION PICTURE INDUSTRY GIANT by Deborah Painter

Typical Hollywood-style ballyhoo describes the characters and their exploits in The Jackals.

Typical Hollywood-style ballyhoo describes the characters and their exploits in The Jackals.

Did you know that the South African film industry is one of the oldest in the world, and the first large studio for feature films in South Africa, Killarney Films, was built in 1916?  I did not know this until I did some additional research after seeing some entertaining films released by the Killarney Film Studios,The Jackals, The Cape Town Affair and Fratse in die Vloot.

The studio was founded and funded in the Johannesburg suburb of Killarney by Isidore W. Schlesinger.  A native of New York City, New York, Schlesinger was a young man in his twenties when he arrived in South Africa around the turn of the 20th century with an almost empty bank account.Determinedto prosper in this land, Schlesinger established careers in insurance and real estate and then teamed up with other entrepreneurs to form the African Film Productions (AFP) in May of 1913.   Their first film ventures were the African Mirror newsreels.  To manage the production of the newsreels Schlesinger brought in British director Joseph Albrecht. Responding to a need for international films during the 1910s, Schlesinger purchased Africa’s Amalgamated Theatres, established just a few years before, and the almost new Empire Theatres Company, and thus formed the African Theatres and Films Trusts. In this way Schlesinger obtained a monopoly over film importation and distribution throughout Southern Africa which was to last for several decades.

Purchasing one hundred and three acres of the old Cooks Farm just outside Johannesburg, AFP constructed a large studio for the kind of feature films Schlesinger wanted most for Killarney Film Studios to provide for South Africans and for the worldwide market.This was a boost to the local economy, created jobs for electricians, carpenters and set designers and stimulated the establishment of film laboratories in the area.   The producer hired American-born director Harold Shaw to direct the very first animated film ever made in South Africa, Artist’s Dream.  It was a “drawtoon” in which the artist (Dennis Santry) is shown in the act of sketching a beautiful woman in a park and dreams about her drawing coming to life.  Mabel May, the mogul’s own wife, plays the beauty.  Unfortunately, like so many other silents, it is lost.

The first epic film to be produced there was the 54 minute long De Voortrekkers, which survives and can be purchased on DVD.  The ambitious film

Director Harold M. Shaw chats with Sam Zulu on the set of De Voortrekkers.

Director Harold M. Shaw chats with Sam Zulu on the set of De Voortrekkers.

garnered controversy by telling the story of the four hundred and seventy disgruntled colonists who left the Cape and journeyed north to battle thousands of Zulus at the Ncome River in 1838. De Voortrekkers  employed a cast of hundreds of mine employees to play in the picture,filmed in Pretoria, Bloemfontein and Johannesburg.    The film’s stars were British matinee idol Percy Marmont, Edna Flugarth, the wife of director Harold M. Shaw, and Tom Zulu asDingane, King of the Zulus.

Between 1916 and 1925 Killarney Studios produced approximately 43 feature films and animated films.  Some animated releases were Don’t You Believe It and Crooks and Christmas.  Killarney continued to use animation in many films’ title openings. The first sound film about African traditional life, In the Land of the Zulus, was released by Killarney Films/African Film Productions, Limited in 1930.  During the 1930s the studio became best known for action films, comedies and a number of industrial films and advertisements for products like Joko Tea.     Some specialties were travelogues and propaganda films that promoted unity between Great Britain and South Africa.   Strict censorship prevailed for all films screened at theatres and the censors discouraged, among other things, horror films.  Killarney built a special effects department in 1949 and continued to produce films with relatively large budgets.

Isidore Schlesinger died in in 1949 just as the studio was gaining tremendous momentum. Another first for Killarney was the first musical produced in South Africa in Afrikaans, Kom Saam Vanaand (Come along Tonight), released that year.  Tall Al Debbo and short Frederik Burgers sang in the film, but they are best known in the string of comedies Pierre de Wet continued to direct for them, such as Hier’s ons Weer.  Attired like twin Sherlock Holmes, Sergeant Diddervogel (Debbo) and his subordinate Van As (Burgers) help a sweet girl (Hanlie van Niekerk) and her orchestra on their opening night at a modest rural hotel and ballroom, The goofy detectives are meanwhile chasing criminals coming to retrieve stolen money from a hollowed out bedpost in a nearby dilapidated house said to be haunted.  This film is available on DVD.   On You Tube, thanks to the South African Department of Arts and Culture, you can see the full movie Fratse in die Vloot, the sequel to Dis Lekker Om Te Lewe.  Compelled to leave the Army at the end of the previous picture because of their bumbling, Stoffie (Debbo) and Fanie (Burgers) audition one day for an act in which they play dancing admirals.  Rejected and dejected, they are spied outside the theatre by a Navy chauffeur who assumes they really are admirals because they are still in costume.  He give them a lift to the base, where they continue the charade until their own buffoonery exposes them.  They enlist as stewards and try to cope with life on board where they cannot get adjusted to anything, including the proper way to dispose of dinner scraps and the proper way to sleep in a hammock.  On shore they befriend pretty Linda (Vera Gibson).  She is really part of a ring of diamond smugglers.  They hide the diamonds in Stoffie’s suitcase.  Fanie and Stoffie’s ship anchors in Angola, where the duo pose as an old gent and his matronly wife touring the ship. They sneak ashore with the pretty girl, who wants that suitcase!  A hilarious scene has Stoffie and Fanie breaking in on a ballet performance while trying to keep the suitcase from Linda.  Even if one cannot speak Afrikaans, the comedy of Debbo and Burgers is able to transcend language.

By the late 1950s Schlesinger no longer had a monopoly on film production.  In 1956, 20th Century Fox bought AFP.When DarrylF. Zanuck of 20th Century Fox bought the studio, some animators left to form their own companies.

Typical Hollywood-style ballyhoo describes the characters and their exploits in The Jackals.

Typical Hollywood-style ballyhoo describes the characters and their exploits in The Jackals.

In 1967 20thCentury Fox produced at Killarney two pictures that were remakes of earlier films the major American studio had released years previously.  Yellow Sky was remade as The Jackals.  Directed by Robert D. Webb, the film starred Vincent Price as “Oupa” Decker, a farmer in the Transvaal during the peak of the gold rush eking out a living with his granddaughter Wilhelmina (Diana Ivarson). Their peace is disturbed by criminals fleeing from a bank holdup, led by Robert Gunner as “Stretch” Hawkins.  The men ask for some water and a place to campwhile resting from their near fatal escape through the desert.  One of the criminals shoots Oupa in the leg when the Deckers inadvertently reveal that they have a small gold mine, their security against starvation.  It is the robbers’ way of making certain the old man confesses the location of the gold.  Hawkins feels remorse for what his fellow thief did, falls in love with Wilhelmina and joins forces with the Deckers and a local tribe to fight the men.

Pickup on South Street was remade as The Cape Town Affair with James Brolin as a pickpocket who lifts a tiny package out of the purse of pretty young bus passenger Candy (Jacqueline Bisset).  She does not know that the microfilm tapes she was to deliver to her boyfriend’s business associate are secrets he is selling to the Communists.  Neither did Brolin, but when Candy attempts to buy both back he withholds one, figuring the two are worth a fortune to him.  What he does not figure on is that the Communists intend to kill him when they get the microfilm.  Claire Trevor, a tie salesperson who makes extra money by “squealing” on petty criminals to the police captain, is murdered by the Communists.

20th Century Fox’s ownership did not last, for the Schlesinger family had to take back their company due to nonpayment in 1969.The African Mirrornewsreels continued.The newsreels were a standard feature of theatres throughout eastern and southern Africa.   One of the more famous ones announced the first successful human heart transplant performed by Cape Town surgeon Dr. Christiaan Barnard.  The establishment of television broadcasting in South Africa made the African Mirror obsolete.

Gold(1974) was a British picture filmed at Killarney Studios and released by Allied Artists.  Roger Moore is Rod Slater, supervisor at a diamond mine,

Roger Moore romances Terry (Susannah York), the wife of his Allied Artists employer, not knowing the mine disaster he is planning in Gold.

Roger Moore romances Terry (Susannah York), the wife of his Allied Artists employer, not knowing the mine disaster he is planning in Gold.

who falls in love with Terry Stegner (Susannah York), wife of his boss Manfred Stegner (Bradford Dillman). Rod is set up by the boss to be the fall guy for a disaster.  Stegner is working with a crime syndicate to flood the mine, make it look like an accident, drive up gold prices and make an additional profit.  The film was based on a real life incident in 1968 when a mine was flooded.  Goldwas nominated in 1975 for an Academy Award (Best Music, Original Song) and for a BAFTA (Best Sound Track).

In the 1970s the Sanlam Corporation bought AFP from the Schlesingers.  South African Screen Productions was the new name.  With a new name came a new location.  The Killarney Studios was no more.

It is perhaps fitting that if the studio was to ever be torn down, it would be John Schlesinger, Isidore Schlesinger’s son,who directed the demolition.  Johannesburg’s first shopping mall, Killarney Mall on Riviera Road, was built years ago over the site of South Africa’s first movie studio.Its multiplex cinema house screens many of the latest South African and international film releases.  Sadly, a fascinating piece of history and architecture is gone, but the mall fortunately does honor its grand history on its web site:

http://www.killarneymall.co.za/index.php/mall-info/about-the-mall