The NFSA has discovered, preserved and released rare footage of one of Australian Rules football’s greatest players, Essendon forward John Coleman.
Coleman features in the five-minute silent, colour 16mm film of the Victorian Football League (VFL) First Semi Final between Footscray and Essendon at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) on 5 September 1953.
Coleman was arguably the greatest VFL/AFL full forward of all time. The annual AFL Coleman Medal for the leading seasonal goal-kicker is awarded in his name and his bronze statue was recently unveiled outside the MCG.
Only fragments of Coleman in action survive on film, his career ending prior to the introduction of TV transmission into Australian homes in 1956. The only other known playing footage of Coleman dates from 1949 and 1950, making this newly discovered film the last known surviving moving images of the Essendon champion’s playing days.
The NFSA acquired the film in late 2013 as part of a collection of approximately 80 cans of 35mm and 16mm film via the deceased estate of a Melbourne film collector.
Several unmarked cans of 16mm film feature brief but unique action from a handful of 1950s VFL games, believed to have been filmed for, and exclusively screened at, The Star Newsreel Theatrette. The Star, located at 34 Elizabeth Street in the heart of Melbourne, opened in February 1951 but by the 1970s, was trading as Melbourne’s first sex theatre. Today known as The Crazy Horse X-Rated cinema, the venue is now credited as Melbourne CBD’s longest continuously operating cinema! In the 1950s, VFL games were a major selling point of The Star Newsreel Theatrette’s screening packages and the theatrette actively promoted its film program through advertisements in the weekly VFL Football Record (see image above).
When Coleman played this game on 5 September 1953, he was four shy of his goal-kicking century, his 4th in only 5 seasons. However, having spent the latter part of the week bed-ridden with the flu, Coleman’s poor physical condition was obvious, The Argus reporting his appearance as ‘ashen and gaunt [and] palpably unfit’.
Kicking only a solitary goal for the game, a below-par Coleman, a tough opponent (Herb Henderson) and a howling gale on the day, all conspired to end Essendon’s season, bowing out of the finals race with an eight point loss. As Bombers players trudged from the ground, no-one could have guessed at the time that the 24-year-old goal-kicking ace had just played his last final. This was game number 92 of a career that ended six games later with an untimely knee injury sustained in Round 8 of 1954.
This film includes some of the clearest footage of Coleman in action, particularly in slow motion. Although Coleman was not playing his best, he clearly remains the central subject of this newsreel ‘highlights package’. Coleman aside, the discovery of the reel is also memorable for Footscray/Western Bulldogs supporters who tasted their team’s first ever finals victory.
Despite visible splices in the film, this was probably as complete as what was originally screened back in 1953. Given that the two newsreel companies of the day – Cinesound and Movietone – both filmed in black-and-white, and rarely more than a minute’s worth of each season’s Grand Finals, this footage shot on vibrant 16mm kodachrome colour film stock is one of the highlights of the NFSA’s diverse sporting film collection.
We are still searching for the great lost Coleman footage from the top of the table, Round 15 match between Essendon and Geelong on 8 August 1953 (see advertisement, right). Coleman biographer Doug Ackerly (Coleman: The Untold Story of an AFL Legend, published in 2014) would note that the great No. 10’s display of high marking that day was one of the most spectacular of his career. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any information.
Watch the footage in full:
With thanks to Doug Ackerly, Col Hutchison and Mark Davidson at the AFL; David Kilderry; Mike Sexton; the State Library of Victoria; Edward Lansdowne and Brian Miller’s detailed article on The Star Newsreel Theatrette in Cinema Record (November 1996); and Dean Brandum’s Technicolour Yawn website for their assistance in the preparation of this article.
For other rare Australian Rules football films held in the NFSA collection, see Earliest surviving Australian Rules footage and 1911 Tasmanian State Premiership football match on the NFSA Films YouTube channel.