Ken G Hall
22 February 1901 – 8 February 1994
- Academy Awards
- silent films
- The Great Depression
- war camera operators
- Bert Bailey
- Charles Chauvel
- Stuart Frank Doyle
- Frank Hurley
- Cecil Kellaway
- Raymond Longford
- Roy Rene
- Helen Twelvetrees
- George Wallace
- 1928 Director Ken G Hall calls 'action' for first time
- 1932 Cinesound Productions established
- 1940 Cinesound halts feature production
- 1942 Kokoda Front Line!, Australia's first Academy Award Winner
- 1945 British Rank Organisation acquires 50% share in Greater Union
- 1946 Columbia Pictures finances Smithy
Ken Hall made hit movies and never pretended to be an artist, yet his movies at Cinesound bear many signs of his strong creative personality. Feature film curator Paul Byrnes re-examines a brilliant career.
From one perspective, Ken G Hall is the most successful Australian filmmaker of any time. He made 18 features between 1931 and 1946, none of which lost money. The least successful was Strike Me Lucky (1934), which broke even. All the rest made a profit, and some were enormous hits. When the country was in the grip of a terrible Depression, he kept a studio in production, almost continuously, for ten years. The films he made saved the parent company, Australasian Films-Union Theatres (which became Greater Union), from going under in the early 1930s.
Hall was not a movie mogul in the Hollywood sense because he was never in charge. He reported to corporate bosses at Greater Union, who kept a tight rein on both his budgets and the flow of profits back to his studio. But Hall was the closest thing Australian cinema then had to a creative mogul, in the tradition of DW Griffith or Cecil B De Mille. Hall ran a studio, in which he was the only director. He conceived most of his own projects, after the first three films, and co-wrote or adapted most of the scripts. He devised the promotional campaigns (because he was a veteran of publicity), recruited technicians and championed their innovations, such that Cinesound by the mid 1930s was the most efficient and technically advanced production team in the country.
His prowess as a director was remarkable, given that he had no real apprenticeship or even mentoring. His first two films were crude but successful; the later ones are sophisticated but successful, showing how rapidly he was maturing as a director. In his own time, he had no equals. Charles Chauvel did not reach maturity until 1940, when he made Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940). Raymond Longford’s career was virtually over before Hall started to direct. In the 1930s, Ken G Hall was the Australian film industry, as far as most of the public was concerned. A new Cinesound Productions film was, for most of the decade, the only Australian film that many of them would see.
It’s true that Hall had one major advantage over the others wanting to make films: Greater Union owned its own theatres, so whatever he made got released. That was an enormous structural difference between him and everyone else, but it doesn’t fully explain why all his films worked with audiences. It’s a difficult comparison, but if Chauvel or Longford or FW Thring had run Cinesound, it’s hard to imagine them being as successful. Hall’s great gift was his unerring instinct for the public taste. It was also perhaps his limitation, because he was rarely prepared to challenge that taste. It’s impossible to think of him making Jedda (1955), the first film to feature Aboriginal actors in the lead roles. If a film would not ‘go over’ at the box office, Hall felt it was his duty not to make it. That meant that originality was not his strong point; nor was strong drama. Hall preferred melodrama, although he was hardly the only one. As he would point out in later life, melodrama had been the dominant form of theatre for at least 100 years, and that persisted into silent film, where he got most of his early education in cinema. Nor did it disappear with the coming of sound.
Hall also said in later life that he was never an artist: he gave the people what they wanted. But it’s clear that there was a distinct artistic vision behind the best of the films and a distinct Australian tone. Cinesound’s films expressed a curious mix of rural egalitarianism and urban working-class conservatism. Part of that came from actor and writer Bert Bailey – the friend of the battling farmer – and part from Hall’s own bourgeois urban upbringing. He was what we might now call ‘aspirational’ – and so are many Cinesound films. They are hostile to money and title, inheritance and aristocracy; sympathetic to those who toil on the land; suspicious of high culture and high people; and more comfortable with battlers, yokels and even con men. In many Cinesound films, the have-nots become the haves, through luck or hard work, but they do not become members of a ruling class. Dad Rudd in parliament is still a salt-of-the-earth character. Artists have airs, and Ken Hall did not wish to be seen as having airs. Therefore, he was not an artist if an artist sets out to express a vision. Hall didn’t set out to do that; he just couldn’t help it.
Ken Hall was born on 22 February 1901 in Paddington, Sydney, the son of Charles and Florence Hall. All of his grandparents were English. Charles Hall worked as a linotype operator in newspapers, and he helped his son to win a cadetship on the Sydney Evening News in 1916. Hall was only 15 and a good student, but he was anxious to be in the workforce, earning money. The war had begun and many older men went away to fight. After less than two years on the newspaper, Hall joined the publicity department at Union Theatres, under the tutelage of Gayne (Bob) Dexter (who would work with him later at Cinesound). Hall was still only 17, but he was clearly ambitious and quick-witted. He learned his trade fast.
Film publicity in 1918 was very different. Each film could have its own local campaign, dreamed up by a local team. Films were allocated to specific theatres, which had their own profiles and audiences. The young publicists at Union Theatres would watch hundreds of films to select those they would get behind. On Monday nights, two projectors ran simultaneous films, side by side. Hall grew adept at following both films simultaneously. He told an interviewer in 1974 that he did the ‘plug writing’ for Raymond Longford’s The Sentimental Bloke, released in 1919. By 1922, Hall was in charge of publicity for Union Theatres. He was 21 years old, which tells us something about how good he was at publicity. He had also done six months as manager of the Lyceum Theatre in Sydney. ‘I used to start work at 8 o’clock and finish at 12 every night. But I learned show business. First of all you’ve got to learn about your market, the people. What do they want? Never mind about the art and the craft and the culture and all that. First of all know what you should be making to please the people you’re going to be selling to, because if they don’t buy your goods, brother, you’d starve in a garret.’ That was Hall in 1974, quoted in a long interview with Philip Taylor, in Cinema Papers.
That is Hall’s commercial attitude in a nutshell: film as an industrial commodity first, a cultural commodity a distant second. He came into film as a salesman, unlike Longford (who was an actor), and Chauvel, who wanted to be an artist. Except that that’s not the whole story: both Chauvel and Hall studied painting with Dattilo Rubbo, one of Sydney’s most prominent teachers in this period. Hall was interested in theatre, literature and music before he joined Union Theatres. He knew by 1922 that he wanted to become a director, although he thought the chances were slim. It’s clear that he had a desire to make films, not just commercially successful films. His temperament was perhaps more artistic than he liked to admit in later life. In part, his hard-nosed commercialism was a reaction to the snobbery he witnessed in audiences later in his career, who thought his films low-brow. He saw that as typical of the deadening ‘cultural cringe’ of Australians at the time – people who worried what ‘they’ would think, ‘back home’ in Britain. Charles Chauvel is usually, and rightly, described as the nationalist of Australian film, but Ken Hall was in many respects a cultural nationalist. Initially, he made his films for Australians about Australia, and they were rough domestic comedies that hardly sought to flatter – which distinguishes him from Chauvel. The films did become more export-oriented and flattering later, but Hall never forgave the snobs. His antipathy towards ‘high culture’ films in the 1970s was acute.
In 1924, Hall jumped ship to First National Pictures of America, working for their Australian boss John C Jones, where he gained experience cutting and re-titling foreign films for Australian release. One of these was a German film called Unsere Emden (1926), which Jones bought because the sinking of the raider Emden by HMAS Sydney in 1914 was a source of great pride in Australia. Unfortunately, the film was ‘terrible’. Hall told Jones it would be a disaster to release, so Jones told him to shoot new sequences and re-cut it. This was Ken Hall’s first real directing job. He went to Melbourne and secured permission from the Minister for the Navy to borrow the Sydney. Hall had just returned from a visit to Hollywood, so he shot a series of scenes with the ship off Jervis Bay. ‘It was shot in dramatic style based on what I’d seen in Hollywood and what I knew from my own background.’ The Exploits of the Emden was released in September 1928 after a thorough publicity campaign, and it did well. Ken Hall’s directing career had begun, just as the film industry and the world economy were about to suffer a complete decline.
When Warner Bros took over First National, Hall returned to Union Theatres. The managing director, Stuart Doyle, was about to open the State Theatre, a 2,600-seat movie palace in Market Street, Sydney, so Hall became publicity director for the State, the flagship cinema of the company. In 1930 he was working as personal assistant to Doyle when Bert Bailey walked into Hall’s office at 49 Market Street and said, ‘I believe we’re going to make a picture together’. Hall later wrote that he had no idea that he was about to become a director, nor that the project had already been decided. They were to film Bailey’s version of On Our Selection, a play based on Steele Rudd’s stories.
The decision was astonishing, given the times. Union Theatres was haemorrhaging money. Sound-on-film was in its infancy but no-one here was thought to know much about how to record sound for film, and the cost of refitting cinemas for sound was huge. Hall had only directed replacement sequences in his reworking of the Emden film, not a whole movie. And On Our Selection was a 20-year-old play that had been constantly revived – hardly a new idea to tempt audiences back into the theatres. The key to this decision was sound. Arthur Smith, a young Tasmanian radio technician, came to Bert Cross, head of the Australasian Films laboratory at Bondi, claiming to have invented his own way to put sound on film. This was hard to believe – American studios had spent millions to perfect this process and they were charging a lot to anyone who wanted to buy the technology. Smith’s process bypassed them, and it worked, which meant that Australasian Films-Union Theatres could start making sound films without buying American equipment. Hall was later to say that, ‘There would have been no Cinesound without him (Smith)’.
The production of On Our Selection (1932) would present enormous technical obstacles, chiefly because Hall and Bailey wanted to record sound on location. They needed mains power, the microphones were old and insensitive, which meant that the actors had almost to shout, and flies kept buzzing around the microphone, ruining the takes. In the middle of production outside Penrith, Doyle recalled Hall to head office and told him to start a newsreel, to compete with Fox’s Movietone News. This was to be up and running within three weeks, despite the fact that Hall had no spare staff or equipment with which to film newsreel stories. Astonishingly, Hall and Bert Cross were able to do it, without halting production of On Our Selection (1932). Hall and Bert Bailey shared the direction on the film, although Hall is the only one credited. ‘Bert produced the dialogue and I was in charge of everything else’, Hall said in the 1974 interview. ‘He knew where the laughs came in, how they should be gotten out, but when it came to the dramatic sequences, they were miles overplayed. He hadn’t yet learned, as I hadn’t, the vast difference between the stage actor and the screen actor.’ The film was an enormous popular success bringing Australasian Films-Union Theatres back from the financial brink. ‘Doyle formed Cinesound as a subsidiary of Greater Union Theatres after the success of On Our Selection (1932) and I was appointed General Manager and producer and director. I was 30.’
Hall was now editor-in-chief of the newsreel, as well as head of the Cinesound laboratory, which was fast turning into a makeshift studio. It was based inside an old building in Bondi Junction, Sydney, that was still being used by day as a skating rink; this was quickly converted into a sound stage. Production began immediately on The Squatter’s Daughter (1933), based on another old play owned by Bert Bailey. Again, this was not Hall’s choice. He had not really wanted to do On Our Selection (1932) either. ‘I couldn’t tell him (Bailey) but I was immediately against making On Our Selection. I was one of those high-minded young men who didn’t want to see Australia “degraded” by any of those dreadful Dad and Dave things. Oh no! Not for me!’
On The Squatter’s Daughter Doyle insisted that Hall use an old actor, George Cross, as dialogue coach. ‘He was far stagier than Bert’, Hall said in 1974. ‘A lot of the stuff on The Squatter’s Daughter was overacted to hell. But that was the way it was and nobody objected to it at the time.’ The film was shot by the famous cinematographer Frank Hurley, veteran of Shackleton’s Antarctic voyages and filming on the Western Front in the First World War. Again, Hall had no choice: Hurley was a friend of Stuart Doyle’s. The Squatter’s Daughter (1933) was another enormous success, partly because of the sensational bushfire sequences in which cast and crew were lucky to escape serious injury (see clip three, The Squatter’s Daughter).
Cinesound was now becoming a better-equipped studio, due partly to the ingenuity of its technical staff. Editor George Malcolm found a way to double-print sound, so that On Our Selection (1932) could use background music in its closing moments. Malcolm also built a projection printer – ‘out of Meccano parts and an old camera’, said Hall – that allowed the studio to incorporate wipes, dissolves and fade-outs in the editing, right from the first feature. Hall was also recruiting talented staff members. Cinesound now employed Bill Shepherd and Phyllis O’Reilly in the editing room, and Frank Bagnall joined Hurley on the camera team. Jack Fletcher and Joe Stafford came in as cameramen on the newsreel, working with talented newspaperman Tom Gurr, as writer and editor. At the same time Hall was looking for writers and new actors, which wasn’t easy, as there were no theatrical agents in the early 1930s. There were radio actors but Hall found them ‘next to useless’ on film.
Hall’s increasing sophistication as a director becomes fully apparent in his third feature, The Silence of Dean Maitland (1934). Again, the subject was chosen by Doyle, probably because Joe Lipman, who owned the rights to a very old English play, was another friend of Doyle’s. ‘When I read the manuscript Lipman delivered, I was pretty shaken. It was hoary with age, impossible unless it was completely rewritten, and had dialogue no actor could speak without sending the audience into gales of laughter’, Hall wrote in his autobiography. Hall rewrote the play with his old friend Bob Dexter, who had recently returned from working in New York and Hollywood. Hall then called in an ABC radio scriptwriter, Edmund Barclay, to add some comedy. The chief problem, as well as the attraction, was that the story was risky, as it involved a minister of religion who gets a girl pregnant, then allows his best friend to go to jail for a murder he did not commit. ‘That was a pretty daring story to make in 1933’, wrote Hall. It became more daring still when Hall injected a degree of nudity – the celebrated opening sequence with English actress Charlotte Francis cavorting naked on Whale Beach, north of Sydney. Hall said later that he pushed this beach scene, in which Alma Lee (Francis) tries to seduce the young minister (John Longden), as far as he could, while staying within the bounds of being ‘tasteful’.
He finished the film and was taking a short holiday at Bowral when a major censorship row erupted. The censor Cresswell O’Reilly objected to the Dean’s on-screen kiss. Cinesound’s publicity machine was ready with pictures for the newspapers. ‘We lost very little in the cutting – the censor reduced the length of the kiss somewhat, and we got cartloads of publicity.’ The film was a major hit, the third in a row for Cinesound. More importantly for Ken Hall, it was a technically advanced film, with a proper film score and a lot of sophisticated visual techniques, such as extended montage sequences and travelling shots on location (see The Silence of Dean Maitland (1934), clips two and three).
The film was sold to the UK for a large sum. Hall says in his autobiography that Charles Munro, the head of Hoyts, later told him it sold for ₤40,000, an extraordinary figure. ‘He was one of the most knowledgeable men in the industry and had no reason to misinform me. Such a large sale did not appear in the gross figures I saw as a result of my percentage arrangements. A much smaller figure appeared. I never did inquire about it, but often wondered whatever happened to it.’ That’s a revealing story, because it shows how far removed from the workings of the parent company Hall was, and how little power he thought he had. He is alleging that he was cheated of his percentage, and that he did nothing about it. That’s perhaps a good indication of how lucky he felt he was already – he had a job, in the middle of the Great Depression, and he was doing what he had always wanted, directing movies. It’s also likely that he did not want to challenge Stuart Doyle, who was a formidable personality. The partnership was working for both their interests, at least while Ken Hall’s movies were making money. That was about to change.
Roy Rene had been a huge star in vaudeville in the 1920s, in Sydney and Melbourne. Hall thought he could build a comedy around him, but Strike Me Lucky (1934) was a failure, at least in comparison with the rest of Cinesound’s output, both before and after. It eventually broke even, but Hall considered it an artistic failure as a comedy. ‘We did not get the best out of Mo (Rene’s character) overall, mainly because the material was not there, and he was rather at sea himself.’ Hall realised too late that Rene needed an audience to make him perform at his best. ‘In rehearsal of a funny scene the crew would laugh the first time they saw and heard it, but on the next rehearsal and the next and the next … nothing. It depressed Mo tremendously.’ The film opened strongly but fell away quickly, with bad word-of-mouth. Hall then suffered some kind of breakdown. ‘Exhausted and deeply depressed after three years of concentration – and very long hours – I came close to a crack-up and was sent off on a cruise to Cairns’, he wrote in his autobiography. Interviewed in 1983 by directors George Miller and Phillip Noyce, with film historian Graham Shirley, Hall said this, ‘It knocked me down. I had too much success. I was not cocky. You never get cocky in this business, but it depressed me greatly. I knew we had missed a chance with Mo. It was wrong in the script and I accept responsibility for that.’
One of the problems was that Hall felt isolated as the only director. ‘I was lonely at Cinesound, because you can’t talk to technicians. You were out on your own like a shag on a rock. You had nothing to lean on, no books, no instruction until I got to Hollywood in 1935. Because my previous experience was in the silent days, and it was not much use in sound.’ After his break, Hall decided to return to safer ground. He persuaded an always-reluctant Bert Bailey to make one more picture. It was to be based on another of Bailey’s Dad and Dave plays, but Bailey warned him that Grandad Rudd had never been as successful as On Our Selection with audiences. Hall was somewhat desperate. ‘The moment you have a studio you have an overhead, a never-ending and usually expanding cost factor that can and does become a voracious monster which has to be fed.’ Every week the studio was dark meant a larger debt that the next Cinesound film had to pay. ‘The only solution to the problem, Doyle and I both knew, was something we called “continuous production”, the constant operation of facilities and personnel with minimum waiting time.’ Ideally this would mean other directors would use the studios while Hall prepared his next picture, but there were few directors, and one of the main ones was using another studio. Charles Chauvel shot his interiors for In the Wake of the Bounty (1933) at Cinesound, but then moved to National Studios, a new and better equipped studio at Pagewood, Sydney. That kept enormous pressure on Hall to shoot back-to-back features.
Grandad Rudd (1935) went into production in late 1934 with most of the cast from On Our Selection (1932). As Bailey predicted, it wasn’t as successful, but it was a success nonetheless. ‘It didn’t have as much comedy in it, although it had some very good comedy’, Hall said in 1974. Once it was finished, Hall closed Cinesound temporarily while he and his wife Irene went to Hollywood on a four-month sabbatical. Charles Munro arranged complete access for him at 20th Century Fox. Hall and sound engineer Clive Cross learned the basic techniques of back projection, and bought the equipment. Hall learned also that he could never afford to bring established talents to Sydney, either actors or writers. Top stars were earning $10,000 a week. Screenwriters were paid between $1,000 and $2,000 a week, and Cinesound could only afford to hire one writer, at $500 a week (which was then ₤100). He got Edmond Seward, a former Disney writer who was prepared to come to Australia for a small salary. ‘He didn’t know all that much as it turned out’, Hall said in 1974.
Seward came up with the storyline for Thoroughbred (1936), and for the first and only time, Hall imported an American ‘star’, Helen Twelvetrees. She had appeared as the lead in some major Hollywood studio films, and numerous ‘B’ movies, but her career was already fading, which is why she agreed to come to Cinesound. Nevertheless they mounted a major publicity campaign, part of which was to keep secret the fact that she was coming with her baby. ‘Film stars just did not have babies. If they did they never talked about them’, Hall wrote in his autobiography. When she and her husband arrived in Sydney, Hall estimated that there were 6,000 people on the dock to greet her. A nurse had been hired to take the baby off the ship, unnoticed. Wherever Ms Twelvetrees went in Sydney, the traffic stopped. Hollywood celebrities almost never visited Australia in those days, partly because they had to come by ship. Ms Twelvetrees helped to ensure Thoroughbred’s rousing box-office success. Only later, Hall realised that Seward’s plot bore a strong resemblance to an American film he claimed he had not seen, Frank Capra’s Broadway Bill (1934).
Still, he kept Seward employed on the scenario for the next film, Orphan of the Wilderness (1936), based on a story published in Collier’s magazine. This required the building of an extraordinary set inside the Bondi studios, a full-scale patch of bushland inhabited by Australian animals. This was built by the studio’s new art director, English artist J Alan (George) Kenyon, who joined the team before Thoroughbred (1936). This was the first Australian feature film about native fauna, the direct forerunner of TV series like Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1966-68), made 30 years later. Needless to say, Orphan became another great success for Cinesound.
The style of film at Cinesound was changing with each film, and with the coming of new members to the team. George Heath had been Hurley’s assistant on Grandad Rudd (1935). He then became chief cameraman on Thoroughbred (1936), and every subsequent Cinesound feature. His style was different to Hurley’s – much softer edged, with less harsh lighting. Hurley was a stickler for sharpness, which required lots of light. Heath was a more modern technician, influenced by the great Hollywood cinematographers, such as James Wong Howe. Hall hired English playwright and actor Frank Harvey after Orphan, and he would become a major contributor to all subsequent Cinesound films, as chief writer (and, usually, as an actor). Hall also now had an assistant, Ronald Whelan, who helped to smooth out the scheduling of each film (as well as acting in most of them).
Cinesound was now at its zenith as a creative force. In 1936, Hall and his team completed three features – Thoroughbred, Orphan of the Wilderness and It Isn’t Done. They did it again in 1937, with Tall Timbers, Lovers and Luggers, and The Broken Melody. Every film was successful at the box office, and some were critical successes as well. It Isn’t Done (1937) introduced probably the best actor Hall ever worked with, Cecil Kellaway, and it is one of the high points of Ken Hall’s career as a director. His confidence is obvious, both with the structure and pace of the story and his control of the actors and dialogue. Cecil Kellaway soon moved on to a successful career in Hollywood, but he returned to make one more film with Cinesound, in 1938. Mr Chedworth Steps Out has a strong claim to be Hall’s best film, at least in an artistic sense. It has a haunting mixture of drama, pathos and comedy that gives Kellaway an unforgettable role, as a man who has lost his job. This was unusually close to social realism for Hall and Cinesound, a comment on the plight of ‘the little man’ caught up in great events. The Depression is almost never mentioned in any Cinesound film, although most of them were made during its worst years, but it’s ever present in the thinking behind these films. In only one film does it become specific: The Broken Melody, from 1938. The main character loses his social position and becomes homeless, sharing a rock overhang on the shores of Sydney Harbour with an impoverished girl and a con man. From here on, Cinesound made only comedies, because Hall felt that comedy was the only thing audiences wanted to see in such dark times.
And yet, it’s true that Cinesound’s comedies often reflected a strong sense of class consciousness. Right from On Our Selection (1932), they are against the landed gentry and squattocracy. Many of the Dad and Dave films reserve a strong scorn for the high and mighty. It Isn’t Done (1937) is a fairly direct attack on British snobbery and there are similar class distinctions in many of the films. It is reasonable to assume that this came from Hall, and that it was not simply his commercial instincts at work. Australian audiences certainly did like films that took the mickey out of ‘the Poms’, but it’s clear that this also reflected Hall’s strong antipathy towards those in Australia who looked down their noses at his ‘low’ comedies. In the context of the Depression, the films are full of class warfare in the guise of egalitarianism, as in clips 1 and 2 of Hall’s last Cinesound film, Dad Rudd, MP (1940).
The comedy-only years at Cinesound stretch from late 1937 till 1940, when Greater Union halted production of features because of the war. They coincide with Hall signing George Wallace, and with his discovery of brothers Cecil and Alec Kellaway. Wallace had made three films in Melbourne with FW Thring – all crude, but full of Wallace’s great comic energy. After Thring’s unexpected death in 1936, Hall invited Wallace to work with Cinesound, promising better scripts and more action-oriented plots. Let George Do It was released in June 1938, Gone to the Dogs in September 1939. When he was asked to compare Wallace and Roy Rene (in 1974) Hall said there was no comparison. Wallace ‘was a visual comic and easily, in my opinion, the best comedian that this country has produced. He was a pantomime comedian in the Chaplin tradition, which belongs on the screen … In saying this I am not decrying Roy Rene, the great Mo. He was a very funny man, wonderfully talented, but he wasn’t a “family comic”. You didn’t take the kids.’ Both Wallace comedies were enormous hits, and both reflect Hall’s increasing ambition as a director. Clip 2 of Gone to the Dogs (1939) is the biggest song-and-dance number in any Cinesound film, rivalled only by the operatic finale of The Broken Melody (clip 3), made the previous year.
The comedy continued in two more Dad and Dave pictures, both of which were quite sophisticated, a deliberate move by Hall to get away from the low bush comedy of the earlier pictures (see Dad and Dave Come to Town, 1938, and Dad Rudd, MP, 1940). ‘We were coming close to the end and we didn’t know it’, Hall said in 1974. ‘The war was closing in all around us, it was obvious it was going to happen and we didn’t know that Cinesound was coming to its end too.’ Dad Rudd, MP (1940) was ‘probably the slickest of them all’, he would say later. ‘The direction was more sophisticated and so was the acting, which was now down to earth, not overstressed or exaggerated.’ The final moments of the film have Bert Bailey in a rousing speech about the coming crisis (see clip 3). Hall had been struggling with a new regime at the parent company, since the ousting of Stuart Doyle. ‘I knew that the regime that had been in for the past four years didn’t want film production at all. Norman Rydge had his faith in theatres, brick and mortar.’
Hall threw himself into wartime propaganda for the duration of the war. His team edited newsreels, with Hall as producer. Kokoda Front Line! (1942) won Australia’s first Oscar, and made the name of cameraman Damien Parer. Norman Rydge sold half of Greater Union Theatres to the British studio, The Rank Organisation. The Australian head of Columbia Pictures asked Hall to make a film about ‘a great Australian’. Columbia had money tied up in Australia because of government wartime restrictions. Making a film was a way of exporting that money, if the film could be shown in the US. Ken Hall chose the story of Charles Kingsford Smith the pioneer aviator, precisely because he was well-known in the US. Smithy was made in 1945, as the war ended, and released in 1946. It was Ken G Hall’s last film as a director.
Cinesound’s demise was fuelled by several factors, chiefly the lack of enthusiasm of Norman Rydge to risk money in Australian feature production. He had been persuaded to invest ₤15,000 in Charles Chauvel’s Sons of Matthew (1949), and the cost blow-outs on that film may have cured Rydge of the desire to risk more money – even though that film eventually made considerable money. Hall tried to get production going through Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios in the UK, but Ealing preferred to send its own directors to make its own films. The Australian government put restrictions on new companies being formed, and declined to listen to Hall’s representations on behalf of the film industry. After ten years of frustration Ken Hall left Cinesound in 1956, having devoted most of his energy to the production of newsreels since the war. He left to take charge of Frank Packer’s new television venture, Channel Nine. He was chief executive at Channel Nine until his retirement in 1965. As the film industry rose again in the 1970s, Cinesound’s films were rediscovered through being broadcast on television. Hall became a valued mentor and friend to a new generation of filmmakers, such as Phillip Noyce, whose film Newsfront (1978) features a character loosely based on Hall (AG Marwood, played by Don Crosby). Hall was often outspoken in his criticism of the new Australian industry, because he believed many of the films had no chance of financial success – and thus, should not have been made. He died in 1994, aged 93.
In the 1974 Cinema Papers interview, Philip Taylor asked him how he would like to be viewed by history, and whether he saw himself as an artist:
I wouldn’t describe myself as an artist. I would like to have been an artist. During the war I made a few films that were quite artistic in my view, because I didn’t have to worry about the box office … No, no, I’m not an artist. I’m a man with a strong sense of showmanship. I have a good sense of the public, I think I know what they’ll go for. In honesty I must try to pick a film that will succeed. Not one that will merely enhance my personal reputation.
Hall’s record at doing exactly that has never been repeated. His successes were far more than industrial. Although it’s true that he had exhibition and distribution channels that no-one else had, they did not guarantee the success of each picture. Hall started at Cinesound with virtually no directing experience; for almost ten years he kept it going, during the worst economic conditions on record. Cinesound’s technicians were the best in Australia and Hall always gave them credit for what they achieved. The films themselves are an extraordinary cultural resource, both as a record of Australia in that time, and of Ken Hall’s creativity. There is no question that the films project an artistic vision of Australia, even if Hall was reluctant to claim the mantle of artist. This was partly his insistence that the films were made by a team, not some all-powerful ‘auteur’ pursuing a personal vision. That’s certainly true, but it is not an argument against Hall’s artistic contribution. John Ford and Vincente Minnelli worked inside major studios that were controlled by powerful producers and New York industrialists, but no-one argues that they were not major artists in the medium of film. In an Australian film context, Ken Hall was the major creative force of the 1930s and the early part of the 1940s. Many of his films are still hugely enjoyable, 70 years later. It’s fair to say that Ken Hall at his best was an artist, whether he wanted to be or not.
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Hall, Ken G
Publisher: Melbourne : Lansdowne Press ISBN 0701806702
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Cinema Papers, No. 5, pp 46-49, 90
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Cinema Papers, No. 99, pp 12-15
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Pike, Andrew and Ross Cooper
Melbourne: Oxford University Press ISBN 0195507843
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Sanders, Mark, director
Australian Film and Television School
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Shirley, Graham and Brian Adams
Sydney: Currency Press ISBN 0868192325
- Ken G Hall interview (1974)
Cinema Papers, No. 1, pp 71-91