A Film Trifecta of the 1930 Melbourne Cup

BY SIMON SMITH

On the 90th anniversary of Phar Lap’s famous 1930 Melbourne Cup victory, we revisit the surviving footage to discover a new multi-camera race ending.

Big Red Wins Again

The 1930 Melbourne Cup is arguably the most memorable in the race’s 160-year history.

Containing all the drama of a cinematic thriller, its central protagonist was Australia’s wonder horse. Phar Lap was the champion chestnut thoroughbred whose exploits on the racetrack had lifted a nation’s spirits during dark times. A notable third placing the year before, as a three year old with an unfamiliar jockey in the saddle, was the precursor to an incredible year in 1930. Sixteen wins from eighteen races later, and the four-year-old gelding found himself at the shortest-price odds of any favourite in the race’s history.

An infamous attempt to shoot Phar Lap three days before the race generated even more interest, with a public desperate for a good news story. In a smaller than usual field of 15, ‘Big Red’, as he was known, ridden by jockey Jim Pike, powered down the home straight to win comfortably by three lengths. A large contingent of moving image camera operators filmed every stride, caught in their own race to be first on the big screen.

Multi-camera Presentation

Compiled for the very first time, here is a multi-camera presentation of the closing stages of the 1930 Melbourne Cup, incorporating the different angles captured in the three surviving films of the race. The accompanying audio is excerpted from The Mighty Conqueror (Neville Macken and Paulette McDonagh, 1931):

Movietone News Vol. 1, No. 52

At least three companies had set up 35mm moving image cameras near the winning post in anticipation of capturing the historic moment on Tuesday 4 November 1930. Among the most visible was Fox Movietone, whose film record of the 1929 Cup was only the second newsreel with an accompanying soundtrack produced in Australia.

Filming the race from a vantage point at the end of the Members Stand and 50 metres forward of the winning post, Fox Movietone’s crew captured not just the final moments of the race, but also the sound of the excited crowd:

Ad for a screening of Phar Lap's Melbourne Cup at Melbourne's Hoyts Regent Theatre. The Age, 7 November 1930.

Through the American Fox Film Corporation’s acquisition of Hoyts Theatres earlier in the year, Australian Fox Movietone News editions were seen widely across the country and an entire edition would be devoted to the race (Vol.1 No.52), with screenings at Melbourne's Hoyts Regent Theatre advertised in The Age just days after the event.

Unfortunately, the complete 410 foot 35mm (4.33mins) original film does not survive at the NFSA.

However, a truncated British Movietone segment running to less than two minutes is held which incorporates only the latter part of the race, some crowd shots, a brief interview with jockey Jim Pike, and footage of trainer Harry Telford’s son Gerald feeding Phar Lap.

The Melbourne Cup 1930 (silent)

Though Fox Movietone’s national networks ensured their Cup newsreel was the most widely screened at the time, they still faced competition from less-resourced rivals. Amusements notices in Melbourne’s afternoon newspaper The Herald proclaimed 'exclusive pictures of the Melbourne Cup taken today shown tonight at the State, Princess and Majestic Theatres. See the finish in slow motion.' 

It is unclear which company filmed this same-day production as advertisements both in Melbourne and later in other states’ listings provide no credits. The absence of any mention of the film being a ‘talkie’ or having a soundtrack would suggest this is the silent film, The Melbourne Cup 1930:

Running at just over nine minutes, the most comprehensive surviving film record of the race includes slow-motion footage of Phar Lap crossing the line and has become the most widely seen in subsequent years. Clearly identified by its camera positioning on the winning post, Neville Macken would incorporate the last two-and-a-half furlongs (500 metres) of the race from this film in his 1931 Phar Lap documentary The Mighty Conqueror.

In 1985, newspapers reported the discovery of a 16mm print of the 1930 race in Wellington, New Zealand, in the possession of retired journalist Joe Lorigan. A copy later acquired by the NFSA confirmed this to be the same film photographed on the finishing line.

The Melbourne Cup 1930 (with narration)

The most obscure and rarely seen of the three films is also titled The Melbourne Cup 1930. Though a different film, this shorter five-minute production borrows liberally from the more lengthy silent film version.

Whole sequences have been lifted and incorporated but with the addition of a narrator, sound effects and post-synced race call. Scenes of the betting ring, the large crowds around Flemington Racecourse and the ground-level, slow-motion camera vision of the race’s conclusion are identical.

A significant point of difference from the other two films is the filming of the race at least 20 metres beyond the winning post, from a camera positioned above the long-demolished 'Bagot’s Cowshed' grandstand, and close-range footage of Pike acknowledging the crowd after his victory:

Interestingly, examining the closing stages reveals the camera operator struggling to capture Phar Lap crossing the line, with evidence that the actual moment may have been spliced out, if indeed it was captured in the frame by the indifferent panning skills of the operator! 

Ad for screening of the Melbourne Cup race at The Palais Theatre in St Kilda. The Herald, 4 November 1930.

Given the scant production details, it is difficult to establish where and when this third title was screened.

The identities of both narrator and producer remain unknown as the surviving film print finishes abruptly before revealing any end credits.

One screening possibility is the Palais Theatre in St Kilda, which simply mentions 'Cup Film Shown Here Tonight' on the night of the race in a separate advertisement to that of the silent film (see right). As Fox Movietone’s film was not ready for another two days, precisely which film screened here is uncertain.

In each of the above three films, the NFSA holds as its preservation copy only a single 35mm black-and-white nitrate print. No original picture or sound negatives have yet been recovered.

The NFSA acquisition in 2014 of the only-known surviving nitrate print of The Mighty Conqueror provides hope that other films of Phar Lap are awaiting rediscovery.

Thanks to the Victorian Racing Club Historian Dr Andrew Lemon, Mike Trickett and Anthony Buckley AO for their research assistance; Chris Long’s article on Movietone News in Cinema Record (No. 45, 2004); and Glenn Eley at Cinesound Movietone Productions.

You can discover more about the champion racehorse in our Phar Lap Curated Collection, including the complete 1930 Melbourne Cup race and the final trip to Flemington of Phar Lap's famous hide to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this iconic win, in 1980.