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It Isn’t Done (1937)


An English solicitor, Mr Potter (Leslie Victor), arrives at the Blaydon farm at Stony Creek, near Sydney. He tells Hubert Blaydon (Cecil Kellaway) that he’s the long-lost heir to an English estate. Now known as Lord Blaydon, Hubert sails for England with his wife (Nellie Ferguson) and 22-year-old daughter Pat (Shirley Ann Richards). The two women take easily to life on the estate, but Hubert finds the new rules and social snobbery a trial, especially when his family is snubbed by the neighbour, Lord Denvee (Frank Harvey). Pat falls in love with her cousin, Peter Ashton (John Longden), but he promises her father not to propose until his prospects improve.

For the inheritance to become legal, Hubert sends for a photograph of his mother, to prove his identity. Knowing that Peter Ashton is next in the line of inheritance, he doctors the photo’s signature, to disqualify his own claim. Peter inherits and marries Pat, which allows Hubert and his wife to sail back to Australia – where they want to be, anyway. The butler Jarms (Harvey Adams) sails with them, rather than staying on in class-ridden England. Besides, he knows that Hubert is the real Lord Blaydon – inheritance or not.

Curator’s notes

This was probably the busiest year in Ken Hall’s working life. He premiered four films, all of which he directed, in 13 months – from Orphan of the Wilderness in December 1936, to It Isn’t Done in March, Tall Timbers in August and Lovers and Luggers in December 1937. There had only been one Cinesound film in 1935, partly because Hall closed the studio down after Grandad Rudd, in order to spend several months studying production techniques in Hollywood. His major innovation was to acquire the skills and equipment to do efficient and convincing back projection. He began using these on Thoroughbred (1936) and in most subsequent Cinesound films.

The advantages in increased speed of production can be seen in 1937, Cinesound’s golden year. Not only were the films able to be made faster, they were in many respects better than the pre-1935 films, with wittier scripts, more attention to performance, and a series of strong leading players, such as Cecil Kellaway and Hall’s new discovery, Shirley Ann Richards. The humour in these films is more verbal and less reliant on the broad sight gags of the early 1930s talkies, although those never quite disappeared.

Australian cinema was generally much slower than American cinema at shedding the styles and mores of silent cinema. Melodramatic plots and physical comedy characterise most productions up to 1935, not just those of Ken Hall. In fact, he was probably quicker to shed the old techniques than the rest, partly because he was younger than most of them. Hall was born in 1901. Charles Chauvel was only slightly older (born 1897), but some of the prominent silent era directors who continued into the early 1930s were considerably older, such as Beaumont Smith (born c1881) and FW Thring (born 1882). Both Smith and Thring made their last films in 1934. Raymond Longford (born 1878), certainly the most talented director of the silent era, directed his last film in the same year, The Man They Could Not Hang (1934).

None of them had the financial backing that Hall had from Greater Union, which included direct access to their extensive theatre chain, but that backing was not unconditional. Ken Hall, in his autobiography Directed by Ken G Hall (1977), writes that Stuart Doyle, the head of Greater Union, was overseas trying to save the company by refinancing it when It Isn’t Done was approved by the Greater Union Story Board. When he returned, three weeks into production, Doyle tried to shut the film down, because he believed the film was too ambitious. Previous Cinesound films had largely been set in Australia – with the exception of The Silence of Dean Maitland (1934). It Isn’t Done called for English country house settings and English countryside – including a fox hunt. Doyle told Hall, 'It’s not the sort of film we should be making. We’re out of our depth.’ Hall was able to persuade him that the locations in Camden, near Sydney, would stand in convincingly for England, and that closing down would be disastrous, because more than half the budget had been spent.

It Isn’t Done became one of Cinesound’s greatest successes, '(It) made up for the brink of disaster we came to with Strike Me Lucky (1934) and the moderate success of Grandad Rudd (1935)’, wrote Hall. It also helped to launch the international career of South African-born Cecil Kellaway (spelled 'Kelleway’ in the film’s credits). Hall says that Kellaway was contracted by RKO, a major Hollywood studio at the time, on the strength of It Isn’t Done, which was based on Kellaway’s own idea. He would appear in one more Cinesound production, two years later (Mr Chedworth Steps Out, 1939), returning from Hollywood at Ken Hall’s request. Between the two Australian films, Kellaway appeared in 13 Hollywood films including Wuthering Heights (1939) and Gunga Din (1939). By the time he died in 1973, he had appeared in 144 films, making him one of the most successful character actors ever to have come out of the Australian film industry.