The first commercial, public screening of moving pictures occurred in Paris in December 1895.
A year later, New Zealanders saw moving pictures for the first time at the Opera House in Auckland, October 13, 1896.
It is not entirely clear when the movies first arrived in Rarotonga.
Takeuchi (1979; 14) records an origin story, (probably apocryphal, since an identical story was told about the introduction of talking movies) which claims:
“(In the) 1890's, just a few years following the introduction of the commercial cinema, competition was so intense that a prominent theater family on Tahiti, when it learned that the incoming Union Steamship boat from California had a cargo of Rarotonga-bound projectors, managed to get at the crates when the ship was in Papeete. When the ship finally docked in Rarotonga, the excited Cook Island cinema entrepreneur discovered, to his horror, that the crates were filled with rocks. The projectors were busy making money on Tahiti.”
The first documented report of cinema in Rarotonga appears in an interview with Sir Robert Stout, former Premier and Chief Justice of New Zealand, who visited Rarotonga in June 1911 and recorded: “The people are happy and pleasant, taking life easily. Recently they have been brought into contact with the kinematograph, run by one Tarapo (Taripo), a half-caste Chinaman” (Waikato Independent July 8, 1911).
The author WH Percival interviewed Anapa Teore Taripo in 1965 when the old man was around 90 years old. He writes that Taripo was of Tahitian-Chinese parentage and arrived in Rarotonga in 1895 at the age of 20.
“For a time Taripo lived with a Chinese, named Amene in a section of the Avarua district called Marairenga (Maraerenga).” In 1900 he and Ah Foo established a store and bakery (Ah Foo & Taripo) next door to Donald and Edenborough’s branch at Avatiu (Land Board Records, March 2, 1900).
He married Tauvira Uriarau and they had five children. One of these, John Salmon Taripo, was adopted by Tinomana Mereana and Te Ariki Tapurangi John Salmon M.P.(Cook Islands Gazette 31 March 1905).
Taripo later set up the kinematograph business that Stout observed in 1911. The Taripo family interest in cinema continued well into the 20th century. The Pacific Islands Monthly (18 August, 1947) reported the death of John Salmon Taripo, taken ill in 1947 while building a new cinema (‘The Empire’) in Avarua.
George Crummer was also an early cinema operator in Rarotonga. Pacific Islands Monthly (October 18, 1946), reported that George “Tioti” Crummer, “was the first cinema showman in the Cook Islands. His show was, of course, of the ‘silent’ variety operated according to requirements by a motor driven generator and a limelight set. His patrons had to sit upon planks, or, in the case of Europeans, bring their own chairs; but no-one minded things being a little rough. The screenings were always crowded”.
Crummer exhibited films from the US film studio “Biograph”, the home of early director DW Griffith and stars Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore and Lillian Gish.
Biograph quickly became a generic name for early film shows. In 2009, Crummer’s grandson Oliver Peyroux recalled that the “Biograph” was set up in the Crummer home in Turangi with George cranking the projector through an open window to an audience of around 12 (Interview with Marie Melvin, 2009).
The popularity of the movies was such that, by 1912, it was reported that a labour shortage (“owing to the prosperous condition of the natives there was difficulty in obtaining labour for shipping and plantations”) had been resolved and plans to bring more labourers in from the outer islands were abandoned.
According to the Resident Commissioner “the introduction of picture shows, no fewer than four of which have been established on the island of Rarotonga”, meant that “The native now chooses to amuse himself by attending every night, and additional money being therefore required to satisfy his desire, he is more anxious to seek employment in the shipping and in other directions, in addition to which he gives attention to his own plantation” (New Zealand Herald, September 11, 1912).
The population of Rarotonga at this time was around 2500 and, as a further indication of the island’s prosperity, there were between 300 and 400 horse-drawn buggies here, mostly imported from America.
In 1913 yet another money-consuming attraction arrived: the motor car. The New Zealand Herald reported (November 3, 1913) “Two taxicabs are kept running night and day. The charge for the circuit of the island - about 20 miles – is one pound and a golden harvest is being reaped by the enterprising gentleman who has introduced the cars.”
In the outer islands, the New Zealand Times (June 22, 1914) reported that “itinerant picture shows move constantly”.
On some islands such as Mauke, entrance to the moving pictures could be purchased with fruit or chickens. But on Atituaki, the dual presence of movies and motor cars resulted in an outburst of financial profligacy.
“In October (1913), two motor cars arrived by the (Union Steamship) ‘Talune’, and plied their hire for four weeks and the result was that £1000 was taken away by the owners …. from Tahiti. The picture show, after three month’s operation, took away £500 in cash from the island. The natives, being in funds after the copra and fruit season, simply threw their money away on these luxuries, not thinking of the dull months to come, and now they are almost penniless” (Otago Daily Times, December 19, 1913). The Aitutaki Council responded by imposing a tax of £50 on motor cars and picture shows.
In addition to diminishing island and church revenues, there were fears among missionaries and colonial administrators that the movies would have a morally corrupting influence on ‘the native mind’.
A ‘special Rarotonga correspondent’ of the New Zealand Times (22 June, 1914) reported that the islander - “does not realize that the dramas shown on the screen are all fictitious. To them, all those stirring pictorial stories of crime or anything else, are real and as a result they form entirely erroneous ideas of what goes on in other countries. By far the most popular films shown here are those depicting the doings of cowboys. The basis of these stories is generally some crime - theft, abduction, murder – all leading to a very exciting chase. The natives revel in these stories. They imitate the dress of the cowboys down to almost the last detail.”
In an act of lèse-majesté (the crime of violating majesty) “At the celebrations arranged in honour of (Lord Liverpool) the Governor’s visit, there were several men who would not don the native garb, but swaggered round in cowboy costume….”
Rather than conforming to European imaginaries of ‘the native’ attired in ‘native garb’, ‘the natives’ were busy constructing their own Hollywood imaginary in cowboy gear.
In June 1914, the New Zealand Times breathlessly reported “an outbreak of petty thieving during the past few months (in Rarotonga) and no explanation can be given for it but the deplorable influence of the pictures. The danger is recognized by all the white residents, including the Resident Commissioner, and it has been suggested that a very strict censorship should be enforced.” (New Zealand Times, June 22, 1914)
There was additional concern that European authority might be undermined if white women of low moral standing (the cinema ‘vamps’) were exhibited on screen. In 1925, Dr SM Lambert reported of Rarotonga: “The Hollywood movie had become the popular notion of European behavior. Imitate clothes, imitate morals. The local girl had acquired a craving for silk stockings and high heels…” (1941; 254).
Until the early 1920s, Willie Browne and George Crummer, by now the islands twin cinema proprietors, had a working arrangement to exhibit pictures on alternate nights of the week. Crummer sourced his movies from the New Zealand Picture Supplies. These arrived pre-censored by NZ authorities.
Browne, on the other hand, sourced his pictures from The British and Continental Film Company in Australia and more sensationally from Tahiti “having entered into a contract with a half cast Frenchman.”
Few of these movies were censored. Browne “always assures the police that the pictures come from New Zealand” but the Inspector of Police found it “suspicious… that the literary portion of the picture [captions] is in the French language.” Browne’s ‘sensational pictures’ gave him the competitive edge. As competition intensified, Crummer and Browne began showing pictures on the same nights. Eventually Crummer’s Rarotongan movie business was bought out by Willie Browne, though Crummer’s itinerant picture shows continued in the outer islands.
In 1921, the Government passed the Cinematograph Ordinance requiring the censorship of films before their exhibition, with picture shows limited to Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday in Avarua, plus 2 nights a week in any of the villages around the island.
The Inspector of Police on Rarotonga Mr WH Simister was given the role of censor. Instructions came from the Secretary of the Cook Islands Department in Wellington, to ensure that “no highly sensational films, no shooting and knifing or vulgar buffoonery, or pictures showing the white man to disadvantage as against the coloured are passed.” According to Dick Scott (1991: 176) of the 212 films censored by 1927 (260 in 1928) eight were rejected as “unsuitable for natives” and 13 were cut.
One of the unintended consequences of the 1921 Cinematographic Ordinance was to give Willie Browne a monopoly on the movies. This became clear when Raitia Tepuretu applied for a cinema licence in October 1929, with the intention of building a new cinema exceeding the dimensions of Willie Browne’s ‘Royal Hall’ (then 81 feet long by 36 feet wide by 22 feet high). The application was disallowed by Resident Commissioner Ayson on the grounds that the law permitted only one performance on the specified nights, and that Willie Browne already held a licence for those nights and would be unwilling to forgo any to Tepuretu.
Tepuretu travelled to Auckland to engage a barrister to appeal Ayson’s decision in the Supreme Court. At that point, the Minister of the Cook Islands, Sir Apirana Ngata intervened, chiding the barrister for allowing ‘natives’ to use legal authority in New Zealand to challenge the authority of the Resident Commissioner in Rarotonga. The Barrister dropped the case on 19 March, 1930. If Tepuretu had won, the authorities argued, “there would be movies every night in Rarotonga”. Meanwhile Browne moved to outflank Tepuretu by acquiring a lease over the land on which Tepuretu planned to build his picture palace.
Away from the politics of business, for most Rarotongans, the movies were an occasion for parading, performance, and entertainment. A visitor to Rarotonga, Mr. Ch. C. Smith captured this in an article entitled “Under the Palms; Island Night Thoughts - The Cinema in Rarotonga” (The Evening Post May 17, 1918).
The movie show, he wrote, was heralded by the tokōra teata: “a drumming, commencing moderately, but ending in a riotous crescendo of rolling, punctuated by full throated yells from the drummers” followed by the “blare of brass instruments. Loaded on the only motor-lorry on the island – a vehicle cunningly contrived out of a Ford car – comes the Rarotonga Imperial Brass Band….From one end of the settlement to the other this curious contrivance conveys its muscular brown crew ….the drumming is at the hands of small boys manipulating wooden tom-toms, bass drums, kerosene tins and such like, who by this means summon the pleasure-seekers to the local picture palace….The band similarly hails the islanders to this entertainment, which seems to be the hub of social life in this pleasant and beautiful retreat.
“This picture show is surely unique…. An unpainted old barn of a place which this merry crowd fills with alternating laughter and sighs every evening. At first sight the picture palace can scarcely be recognized as such. What similar theatre ever had a market place spring up around it every evening?
“Native stalls set up in a few minutes line each side of the road and are grouped around the building. Laughing Maoris dispose of native-cooked delicacies; fruit, water-melon and drinks. Light native traps arrive, drawn by diminutive native horses which are stabled by the roadside, while their owners seek diversion in the hall.
“One buys a ticket for the stalls and finds himself hard up against the screen…. The pakeha sits amongst these Maoris without constraint …True to the old civilization, there is the ‘gods’, a balcony at the back crammed with small boys, and that inestimably august body, the Rarotonga Imperial Brass Band which has been playing furiously since we entered. Such a din! Popular songs many times repeated in the native tongue. The urchins hanging in festoons from points of vantage round the walls and on the balcony kick up their heels and sing as if their lives depended on it.
“A shrill whistle hushes the music and the lights go out.
“The pictures begin…. at every hitch, and these occur with laughable profusion, the Rarotonga Imperial Brass Band booms and blares to the rescue with nerve-shattering zeal. At every incident containing the germs of humour the audience sways with laughter.
They join the heroine in genuine sorrow as she conjures up the pearly tears with the aid of a spring onion. To watch the expressions mirrored in their faces is to see how easily their feelings are moved.
“The central figure of the evening, however, is the precentor. His qualifications; a throat of brass, a voice like a fog-horn; the imagination of a Jules Verne, and the dramatic instinct of an (Henry) Irving. Here you have the native who translates the story into Maori, but not only translates, because he never stops dilating on the subjects. His hearers hang on his words in drama, and drown him with hilarity in comedy. He owns the show, and helps along the fun till it is like no other entertainment met with elsewhere.
“The bursts of singing grow even more spirited and thus encouraged, the Rarotonga Imperial Brass Band lays back its ears, roils up the whites of its eyes, and with bulging brown cheeks and apoplectic countenance pours forth more thunderous melody. Charlie Chaplin is greeted with laughter which drowns out even the voluble interpreter, and the same CC effaces himself with the responsibility of having reduced half of the settlement to the verge of hysteria.
“The seedy-looking hero of the drama folds the object of his young affections to his hollow bosom, amidst sighs and gurgles of ecstacy, while the villain writhes his last amidst hoots and howls of execration from an indignant native populace, and wild, frantic cadences from the Rarotonga Imperial Brass Band. It is marvelous. You ought to see it.”
Lambert, S.M., 1941, A Yankee Doctor in Paradise, Grosset and Dunlap, New York
Scott, Dick, 1991, Years of the Pooh-Bah : A Cook Islands History, CITC Rarotonga and Hodder and Stoughton, Auckland.
Takeuchi, Floyd K. (1979) A Status Study of Commercial Cinema in the Pacific Islands, Miscellaneous Work Paper, University of Hawaii.