When New Zealand pioneer film-maker Rudall Hayward (1900-1974) arrived in Napier in September 1928, 90 years ago, he brought with him a "half a ton of film paraphernalia for making films in the latest methods"– and much excitement.
Hollywood, in the form of Hayward, his wife Hilda (1898-?) and a small team of assistants, had indeed come to town.
Rudall Hayward was on location in Napier to make a community silent film called Natalie of Napier, based on his generic comedy A Girl of Our Town.
The idea was clever ─ hold auditions for the "town's prettiest daughter… a villainous young reporter of a local paper … our best-looking outdoor man" (who would rescue the pretty girl from the villain), and thousands of the townsfolk would complete the cast.
Rudall's plan was to shoot the film in several days and get it onto the big screen at a local theatre within a week of filming ─ while interest was still high ─ and pack out the cinema with curious and excited patrons wanting to see themselves on the silver screen. It worked.
Rudall Hayward remarked in an interview in 1962 that it was only necessary to have a moderately good film to attract large audiences, adding: "You couldn't keep them out of the theatre with iron bars."
Community films were not a new idea or unique to New Zealand. The concept started in the United States and then spread to Australia, and these films had attracted large audiences.
Rudall Hayward would make approximately 23 of these films in New Zealand.
The films were cheap to produce, with Natalie of Napier costing only £80 (2018: $7800). Actors were not paid, and they were not charged by the Haywards for "tuition in film acting".
While Rudall Hayward was editing the footage of his previous community film, Hamilton Husbands, his wife Hilda arrived in Napier on Thursday, September 6, 1928.
With Majestic Theatre manager Walter Gray, Hilda would be involved in "marshalling a cast of local amateurs to take part in the local production ..."
Hilda would also explore the town for suitable and beautiful filming locations, for which she had an excellent eye.
The advertisement seeking people to audition for Natalie of Napier appeared on Friday, September 7 in The Daily Telegraph.
Twenty girls would be required – young and attractive, of course – one of whom would be the leading lady, Natalie, a pretty young schoolteacher. There were also two leading men ─ a villain and a hero.
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A cast of thousands from the town would be needed as extras (3000 later took part in one scene). The United Fire Brigade, the local Central School and the military's Hawke's Bay Rough Riders would also take part.
Hilda Hayward also offered the incentive that success in the auditions "… might possibly result in high screen honours for some of those engaged".
Dreams of being on the silver screen and moving to Hollywood would have no doubt been on the minds of many lining up at the auditions.
The Daily Telegraph reporter was confident that the Haywards would have "…quite a number of good-looking people to choose from … and the leading roles should not be difficult to fill".
This production was taken very seriously by the people of Napier. This was no bogus screen test ─ whoever was successful would be appearing on the silver screen.
Walter Gray and Hilda Hayward made up their audition shortlist, and Rudall would arrive in Napier on about September 12 to select from the hopefuls.
Florence Carpenter (1909-1985) was chosen by Rudall to play the lead role of the schoolteacher Natalie. Florence was described as "… blonde, petite and 19".
She also "… has an excellent photographic face, devoid of lines and shadows ..."
The role of the villainous reporter called Freddy Fishface was given to Eugene Murphy (1905-?), and the hero Tom Cowcocky was played by Stanley Gleadow (1906-1996).
Hilda Hayward would now demonstrate another of her many skills, assuming the role of makeup artist, to make her husband's choices fit for the silver screen. Filming would start on Friday, September 14.
A brief synopsis of the plot of Rudall Hayward's A Girl of Our Town films, such as Natalie of Napier, is: A pretty schoolteacher moves to town, gets kidnapped by the villain Freddy Fishface and taken away in his car. Tom Cowcocky, the hero, rides to her rescue by leaping from his horse into the open-top tourer car driven by Fishface. Tom overpowers Freddy, and then a multitude of horse riders arrive to help Tom give Freddy a bit of "biffo" for kidnapping Natalie.
Scenes filmed around Napier included the Botanical Gardens, featuring 20 of Napier's prettiest young ladies; the Caledonian Hotel, where Natalie stayed on her arrival in town; and Central School (intentionally involving children, so they would want to see themselves on film).
The Caledonian Hotel scene provided an amusing incident. Freddy and Tom were being filmed outside the hotel, arguing over who should carry Natalie's bag inside. A distracted hotel porter, busy with his duties, came straight out of the building. He noticed an attractive woman standing near a heavy suitcase looking helpless.
The Daily Telegraph reported: Whether his heart had melted at the sight, or whether his sense of duty prompted him will never be told, but suffice to say that immediately afterwards he made his debut on the films. Before the eyes of the astonished producer he descended the steps at a hard gallop and seizing the bag, made to usher the young woman into the hotel, leaving the two main male figures frozen with amazement and the crowd, sensing the joke, in a state of great merriment.
The final movie scene involved Stan Gleadow (Tom Cowcocky) chasing on horseback Eugene Murphy (Freddy Fishface) and the kidnapped Florence Carpenter (Natalie), who were in an open-top car.
Over 60 years later, Florence would recall an incident regarding the chase. When Stan got close to the vehicle, he was supposed to dismount and jump in the car to overpower Eugene and rescue Florence.
Stan unfortunately on his first attempt landed on top of Florence: "… he landed fair and square on top of me and nearly finished me off!"
Napierites had been entranced with the filming of Natalie of Napier. Twelve days after filming was completed, the movie would show at the Majestic Theatre on September, 26, 1928.
The film was advertised in The Daily Telegraph as "2000 feet of fun".
Full houses were recorded, and three performances were screened from the Wednesday to Friday, September 18. One special matinee performance was also screened, proceeds going to Napier's unemployed.
There would be no more silver screen experiences for any of the main actors in Natalie of Napier. Florence, known as Bunny to her family, married Frederick Ericksen in 1930. She married again to Ralph Lowry in 1964. Bunny passed away at Whangaporoa in 1985 aged 76.
Stan Gleadow spent his life in the insurance industry, and passed away in 1996 aged 90.
Eugene Murphy married Winnie Hare, and was a school principal in Havelock North in the late 1930s. In 1939 he shifted to Auckland where he became principal of Otahuhu College. It could not be determined when he died.
Florence Carpenter, Stan Gleadow and Eugene Murphy were for a week or two stars in their own town. Napier had embraced them and their roles wholeheartedly.
The Great Depression was beginning and a deadly earthquake lay in wait. Natalie of Napier would soon be forgotten. Sadly, no copies of the film are known to exist.
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• Michael Fowler FCA (email@example.com) is a chartered accountant and contract researcher and writer of Hawke's Bay's history.