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Australian Comedy Part 2: The Early Sound Era

Part two in Paul Byrnes’ series on comedy in Australian film covers the early sound era.

Ken G Hall

The American stranglehold on Australian cinemas was not absolute in 1919, when Longford made The Sentimental Bloke. It had become much stronger by 1927, when Ordell made The Kid Stakes. American studios required exhibitors to ‘block book’ their films months in advance, a practice that made it very difficult for Australian films to find a theatre. There was a Royal Commission that year into the film industry, which examined the dominance of the American studios. Raymond Longford was one of the principal witnesses, and he was strongly critical of both the studios and the Australian companies that owned theatres, such as Union Theatres/Australasian Films, the notorious ‘Combine’. Longford spoke out against their hegemony, virtually ending his own career. The Royal Commission had little effect. The American studios grew to dominate the market even more as sound on film arrived. They controlled the patents for recording sound, and they had the money to convert theatres for sound technology.

Even so, the Australian film industry continued and even grew during the 1930s, largely because of the work of one man, Ken G Hall. Hall is a giant in the history of Australian film, and particularly in the history of Australian film comedy. From 1932 until the outbreak of the Second World War, he produced a string of successful comedies at Cinesound, the studio owned by Australasian films (soon to be renamed Greater Union). They were almost all comedies. He kept Australia laughing through the worst of times, making 18 films, all but one of which made a profit.

Hall was not a movie mogul in the Hollywood sense because 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. He was the only director at Cinesound; he conceived most of his own projects, co-wrote or adapted most of the scripts, devised elaborate publicity campaigns, recruited the technicians and harvested the talent. He made comedy his staple and he worked with the best the country had to offer: Roy Rene, George Wallace, Bert Bailey and Cecil Kellaway, among others. His only failure was when he tried to bring Rene, the biggest vaudeville act of the 1920s, into movies in Strike Me Lucky (1934). Rene, as his famous character ‘Mo’, did not work well without an audience, although we get a good sense of his act in the film (see Strike Me Lucky, clip two).

Bert Bailey

Ken Hall was largely self-taught as a director, coming up through the ranks of film publicity in the 1920s. His first film was a remake of On Our Selection (1932), but this time Bert Bailey did play Dad Rudd, and the film was made with direct sound. It is hard to appreciate now, given how rough the sound is on the film, but it was an almost miraculous production. Hall was able to record sound on location, using a technology invented by an Australian, Arthur Smith. That meant Hall could bypass the American patents, and their high fees.

Bert Bailey and Ken Hall accentuated both the heroism of the lead character and the broad style of ‘backblocks farce’ that Raymond Longford tried to avoid in his 1920 version. Bailey and Hall went on to make three more Dad and Dave comedies in the 1930s, all successful.

Bailey’s bearded and cranky old man was probably the best-known comic character in the country through the Depression. He had very little to do with the original stories by Steele Rudd, and a lot to do with the profits of Cinesound and its parent company. It is no exaggeration to say that the Dad and Dave comedies saved Greater Union during those years and kept an Australian film industry alive, at least until the coming of war.

Cinesound transitions

American silent movies were full of physical comedy, performed by a group of inspired actors whose work has never been equalled. Australian silent cinema produced no-one to compare with Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton, but there were good physical comedians. Watch Bert Bailey and Bill Stewart perform a drunk act, with a horse and a rope, in clip one of Grandad Rudd (1935).

Drunken duo acts had a long pedigree in vaudeville. George Wallace and Jack Patterson performed as Onks and Dinkus in the 1920s. They were partly inspired by Stiffy and Mo, a hugely successful partnership between Nat Phillips and Roy Rene, beginning in 1916.

These were primarily verbal comedians, although each had considerable physical skills. George Wallace was famous for his pratfalls, landing on his left ear. He could sing and dance and play several musical instruments. He might have made a brilliant silent film comedian, but nobody seems to have asked him. He appeared only in sound films, although he performed like a silent comedian in some of those. There is a remnant of his drunk act in clip two from Let George Do It, the first film that Wallace made with Hall, in 1938.

In a real sense, many of the films that Ken Hall made at Cinesound were transitional, with remnants of silent comedy, plots drawn from worn-out melodramas and hoary old plays, and the odd rare attempt to explore the full possibilities of sound cinema. That was not possible within the budgets that Greater Union set at Cinesound, although Hall got close on one or two occasions. The Hollywood musical was in full swing by the mid-30s. They were made with lavish budgets. The Cinesound musical was made on half a shoestring, with pretty girls, maximum enthusiasm and only one big musical scene per movie, if that. Wallace could sing and dance, as we see in this lovely number in clip two from Gone to the Dogs (1939), Wallace’s third film for Hall.

By 1937, Ken Hall had become an accomplished director, and Cinesound was making money. The studio’s weakness was always in scriptwriting. There were no acknowledged scriptwriters in Australia, except those that Cinesound imported, usually unsuccessfully (Hall could not afford to pay Hollywood wages). The best writer at Cinesound was eventually Frank Harvey, an English actor who had arrived in Australia in 1914.

He had a long career in Australia as writer, broadcaster, actor and director. He had worked with Frank Thring and Charles Chauvel in the early 1930s, then took charge of the ‘Talent School’ at Cinesound with George Parker, training young actors for the camera. In 1937, Harvey’s name appeared as writer on three films at Cinesound, the first of which was It Isn’t Done, starring Cecil Kellaway. This film marks a change for the studio, away from the backblocks comedy of Dad and Dave, towards a more sophisticated style of humour.

Cecil Kellaway

In Kellaway, Ken Hall found an actor who could do almost anything: physical comedy, subtle characterisation, pathos and understatement. His talent was quickly noticed in Hollywood, but he made two of the best comedies of the 1930s at Cinesound. In the first, It Isn’t Done (1937), he plays an Australian farmer who inherits an English title and estate. In clip two, Kellaway does his own version of a drunk act while he awaits a posh neighbour. Frank Harvey plays the stuffy visitor.

We are back in the fish-out-of-water genre here, but with an interesting twist. If there is an egalitarian streak in the Australian character and in Australian comedy, it shows up most often in films in which Australians confront ‘the old country’. In most cases, that is England.

There were a number of comedies in the 1930s in which English ‘new chums’ were placed to comic effect in Australia, where their manners and modes of speech could be satirised. Splendid Fellows (1934) is a good example. Peter Ustinov played a later version in The Sundowners (1960). What Ken Hall did in It Isn’t Done was to reverse the direction, taking an Australian to England. It was not a new device in theatre, but it was newer in Australian film. Of course, he didn’t go to England to shoot it: it was made using rear projection and footage bought from the UK.

This is a rare example of the comedy of class difference. Class is almost always present in English comedy and it was often beneath the surface in Australian comedy. We can see a touch of class warfare in Dad Rudd, MP (1940) in which Bert Bailey becomes a politician, fighting the silvertails. Forty-five years later, Paul Hogan would adopt the same approach towards the US, rather than Britain.

Cecil Kellaway was a more accomplished and versatile actor than Hall had ever worked with, and it shows in the two films they made together. In 1939, he returned from Hollywood to play the lead in Mr Chedworth Steps Out, the most sophisticated comedy that Ken Hall ever made – also written by Harvey. This is very much a comedy about class, with a savage portrayal of the social climbing wife, played by Rita Pauncefort. Mr Chedworth is henpecked and harried, already short of money when he loses his job after 24 years of faithful service. The film was superbly put together and remarkably ambitious in its mix of light and dark themes. It is a tragi-comedy, something that perfectly reflected the times, between the end of the Depression and the start of the Second World War.

Comedy continues to evolve

This film was made early in 1938, almost 20 years after Longford made The Sentimental Bloke (1919). Comedy had come a long way in that time in Australian film. The emphasis now was on characterisation, rather than caricature, satire rather than farce. The acting style had changed completely with the coming of sound. The influence of American cinema, especially American comedy, was growing and the sound of Australian accents was less obvious.

Cinesound had long had dreams of selling its films overseas. For that to happen, the strident sound of someone like George Wallace would not work, even in the UK. When he tried reviving his career in the 1950s on the London stage, audiences found him hard to understand. No one outside Australia understood us, but even Americans could understand Cecil Kellaway. The way forward was clear and the future bright for Australian film. Or so it seemed early in 1938. In fact, the Australian film industry was virtually dead by late 1940.

Ken Hall made Dad Rudd, MP (1940), and was then told he had to shut up shop. Feature film production at Cinesound was suspended for the duration of the war and never recovered. Charles Chauvel did succeed in making Forty Thousand Horsemen, a major success in 1941, and The Rats of Tobruk in 1944, but Ken Hall devoted himself and his studio to making war newsreels (see Kokoda Front Line!, 1942). When film stock ran scarce and actors became soldiers, comedy disappeared, at least comedy with an Australian accent.

Go to Australian Comedy Part 3: 1950s–1980s »
Go to Australian Comedy Part 1: The Silent Era »

Titles in this collection

Dad Rudd, MP 1940

Dad Rudd, MP truly signals the end of an era, the last gasp of the cycle of rural comedies featuring yokels and livestock that went back 30 years in Australian cinema.

Forty Thousand Horsemen 1940

Chauvel introduced a very young and fresh-faced Chips Rafferty, who modelled his performance in part on the comical digger created by Pat Hanna in Diggers (1931).

Gone to the Dogs 1939

The second comedy that George Wallace made with Cinesound features a musical interlude with dogs, children, dancing girls and backing singers on bicycles!

Grandad Rudd 1935

Some of the comical sketches are old-fashioned while others are beautifully designed to get audiences laughing during the Depression.

It Isn’t Done 1937

1937 was Cinesound’s golden year – the studio’s films now boasted wittier scripts, more attention to performance, and a series of strong leading players.

The Kid Stakes 1927

The Kid Stakes is one of the greatest comedies of the silent era, although it was largely dismissed at the time as simply a children’s film.

Kokoda Front Line! 1942

This iconic and Academy Award-winning newsreel shot by Damien Parer contains some of the most recognised images of Australian troops in the Second World War.

Let George Do It 1938

Although reliant on the comic sketches Wallace made famous in his vaudeville act, the film is pushed along by the thrilling outdoor action sequences Ken Hall knew how to direct.

Mr Chedworth Steps Out 1939

Cecil Kellaway was probably the best actor that Ken G Hall ever worked with. He returned from Hollywood to play the titular little man who learns to assert himself.

On Our Selection 1932

This film was technically innovative and, when it opened in 1932, a box office sensation, rejuvenating the local film industry.

The Rats of Tobruk 1944

The Rats of Tobruk may not be Charles Chauvel’s best movie, but it deserves serious consideration as his best movie about war.

The Sailors 1927

A theatrical comedy routine by vaudeville performers Stiffy (Nat Phillips) and Mo (Roy Rene) recorded in 1927.

The Sentimental Bloke 1919

Director Raymond Longford and leading lady Lottie Lyell wrote this together and it is probably their most successful collaboration.

Splendid Fellows 1934

Famous Australian aviator, Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, and his famous plane, have cameo roles in this comedy adventure.

Strike Me Lucky 1934

The Holocaust made vaudeville star Roy Rene’s Jewish caricatures unacceptable in later years, but this wasn’t the case in 1934.

The Sundowners 1960

The Sundowners is remarkable for the number of Australian actors it showcases. Chips Rafferty plays Quinlan, the contractor at an outback shearing station.