Mystery of a Hansom Cab

Third time lucky
 Helen Tully

The 2012 telemovie of ‘The Mystery of a Hansom Cab’ premiered on ABC1 on Sunday 28 October 2012 at 8:30pm.
Still frame from the 'modern film advertising’ for 'The Mystery of a Hansom Cab’ in Melbourne, 1911; Gaumont Film Library newsreel c1911 (NFSA title 33518 – see clip below)

Fergus W Hume would have been pleased to learn that his 1886 novel The Mystery of a Hansom Cab would have yet another life as a telemovie in the year 2012. As he states in the foreword of the revised edition of his book, he wanted to be a dramatist:

"The writing of the book was due more to accident than to design. I was bent on becoming a dramatist, but, being quite unknown, I found it impossible to induce the managers of the Melbourne Theatres to accept, or even to read a play. At length it occurred to me I might further my purpose by writing a novel. I should at all events secure a certain amount of local attention. Up to that time I had written only one or two short stories, and the “Cab” was not only the first book I ever published, but the first book I ever wrote." The Mystery of A Hansom Cab by Fergus W Hume (revised edition)

After initial self publication the book became hugely popular, published across the world and produced as a stage play. The book was also taken up by the fledgling Australian film industry, adapted into feature films, firstly in 1911 by Amalgamated Pictures and again in 1925 by Arthur Shirley Productions.

Whilst Trove lists 884 entries for the book and it can be sourced from a number of libraries and copies even readable online, the 1911 or 1925 feature film versions of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab are not as readily available.

The commercial nature of films, their nitrate cellulose ‘flammable’ base, the lack of a film preservation strategy at that time, have resulted in the loss of many of our Australian silent, pre-1930 films.

The only way we have of seeing and learning about these early films is often from surviving paper-based items such as scripts, newspaper reports and photographic stills and promotional items from newsreels. This is an example of one of the images held on NFSA online catalogue of the 1925 version of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (right).

The description from The Mercury (Hobart, Tasmania) on Thursday 14 March 1925 of a forthcoming screening of the 1925 version of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is tantalising and indicates the film’s popularity with audiences.

The coming of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab to His Majesty’s next Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday will have a special appeal for Hobart for many reasons, the principal of which is that it was produced by the well known Hobart actor, Arthur Shirley, who also takes the leading part. The story was adapted from the well-known novel by Fergus Hume, which was so popular upon publication that its sale reached the enormous total of 550,000. It is founded upon facts, the tragedy, which is its theme, actually occurred in Melbourne some years ago. The picture is claimed to be the most pretentious that Australia has as yet attempted, as over ten months was spent in the making of it. Which necessitated an outlay of £10,000. Sir James 0’ Grady has signified his intention of being present at the opening of the season next Monday night. Its stay in Hobart is limited to three days only. It will be recalled that Mr Shirley who is a member of a well-known Hobart family has featured in several successful American productions, including Modern Love, with Mae Murray, and Branding Broadway: The Mystery of a Hansom Cab has already enjoyed great popularity in Melbourne, while in Sydney it ran for over four weeks, a record for an Australian production.

This 27-second clip from a Gaumont Film Library newsreel refers to the ‘modern film advertising’ methods used to promote a Melbourne screening of the 1911 version.

Advertising has come a long way since then. This is the trailer for the new telemovie, produced by Burberry Entertainment and starring John Walters, Oliver Ackland and Jessica De Gouw. It will premiere on ABC1 on Sunday 28 October 2012 at 8:30pm.

We are indeed fortunate that this time, the third the book has been brought to the screen, will be fully preserved by the National Film and Sound Archive, with HD Cam video masters, DVDs, scripts stills and promotional material being delivered to us so that future generations can see this popular Australian story’s translation to the screen.


Main image: Still from the 1925 version of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (NFSA title 357963)