The Broken Melody

  • aka The Vagabond Violinist (UK)

Violin-playing, musical John Ainsworth (Lloyd Hughes) helps Sydney University win a rowing race against Melbourne University.

He celebrates in a night club by playing his own composition on a violin and by flirting with a girl Ann Brady (Diana Du Cane).  But a brawl erupts, he's sent down from university and is rejected by his father Michael (Harold Meade).

John wanders Sydney, homeless, penniless and unemployed in the middle of the great depression. One night he saves an impoverished girl from attempting suicide by jumping into Sydney harbour. It turns out it's Ann.

John has befriended a pickpocket Joe Larkin (Alec Kellaway) who's invited him to live in Sydney domain. Ann joins him in the cave-dwelling on the Harbour shore, and inspired by her, John begins to play the violin again for his fellow vagrants. 

He steps up from street corner to cabaret, and a French entrepreneur Jules de Latanac (scriptwriter Frank Harvey) becomes his patron, sending him to England, where he finds fame as a conductor and a composer.

He returns to Australia as the conductor of a touring company performing his own operetta. But when the tempestuous prima donna soprano Madame de Lange (Rosalind Kennerdale) refuses to sing, her local understudy takes to the stage, and John sees that it's Ann.

The operetta is a huge success, John is forgiven by his dying father, and he is happily reunited with Ann …

Production Details

Production company: Cinesound Productions

Budget: c. £20-22,000 (Director Ken Hall claimed in his memoirs that he never made a film more expensive than the £22,000 spent on Dad Rudd, M.P. but The Broken Melody was a relatively expensive production)

Locations: Interiors Cinesound studios, Bondi, exteriors Sydney and suburbs, including the Orion, an Orient Line ship Sydney dockside.

Filmed: October-November 1937

Australian distributor: B.E.F. (British Empire Films, then also known as Associated Distributors) 

Australian release:  Embassy Theatre, Sydney, 17th June, 1938, other cities thereafter.

Released late in 1938 in England by R.K.O. under the title The Vagabond Violinist (a 1934 British crime show had used the title The Broken Melody).

Rating: Not suitable for general exhibiton

35mm   black and white   

Running time: 89 mins (Oxford Australian Film)

Box office: "an easy profit" (Oxford Australian Film). The film was given a staged release around Australia, with publicity from capital cities used to leverage up rural and regional screenings. Hall appreciated the challenge of selling such a difficult mix of high culture and depression era drama.

The film was also sold into the UK where it was distributed by RKO.

 

Opinion

Awards

None known

Availability

Not known outside the archive. There are some clips available online at the ASO here if your idea of watching a ninety minute feature film is to watch a couple of clips.

1. Source:

The film is based on F. J. Thwaites' best selling novel, which he claimed he wrote at the age of 17 (or at the age of 19 and a half, according to other various versions of the story), and which he self-published in 1930, acting as his own commercial traveller and selling the book in the Riverina.

Thwaites' was a mediocre but popular and a determinedly professional writer, with a taste for romance and melodrama. He was also an astute businessman and eccentric. The ADB has a detailed biography of Thwaites here.

 

(Courier-Mail 5th July 1938)

The book is still available in various editions:

 

 


In his autobiography, Directed by Ken Hall, Hall brooded about the way Hollywood could afford best-selling books, while Australia was bereft, with impractical authors who never thought of screen rights sales, and with the Maurice Wests and Jon Clearys yet to come:

There was one writer in this country to whom the critics were practically always unkind but who had written, and sold, many books. His name was F. J. Thwaites and his first book The Broken Melody, which he has said initially failed on the bookstalls and which he personally promoted by selling door to door in the early Depression days, had by the mid-thirties enjoyed a quite big sale. Because of that, I'd had my eye on it for some time and finally bought the rights from Fred Thwaites. We made changes in the story; they were necessary. Thwaites, ahead of his time by thirty-five years, had his hero thrown out of college for taking dope - in the early thirties for God's sake! And a Catholic college to boot. This episode might easily have canned the whole film and we would have had no public support.

His hero was a musician who played the 'cello, which proves what I've been saying. Australian authors never thought of a screen sale. How do you get a musical climax, or any sort of climax, out of a hero who plays the 'cello? The answer is that you don't and almost in the twinkling of an eye Thwaites's man had lost his 'cello and found himself a violinist-conductor. Here again I had looked first for the big, spectacular climax and worked back.

Hall was being slightly combative. He took the same attitude to critics as the likes of Tim Burstall and David Williamson would later do.

Not all the critics were unkind to Thwaites. His first novel was well received in a 1931 review in The Sydney Morning Herald, which, while noting faults, praised the incidental staging of the action, the local colour - "highly interesting" - and the "picturesque flavouring", "As an Australian book it is to be welcomed."

Hall was comparitively much more critical of the work and its appropriateness as a plot for a film, but he was wise to be critical. 

The dope angle would have killed the movie, and a hero 'cello player was also unlikely - it would have rendered his planned lavish climax a bust, as the 'cello player sat and sawed away with the instrument between his legs.

The other major change saw the conflating of the suicidal girl and the hero's love interest into the one character (in the novel the suicidal girl is killed in a hit and run accident).

The changes to the storyline rely heavily on coincidence, but were of no great weight in a story which was already deeply melodramatic. Thwaites was reported as enjoying the result, but it is likely he would have been politic even if he hadn't liked the film.

2. Production:

Hall turned the production into a lavish one by Australian standards, following a Hollywood trend towards musicals, and employing Australia's leading composer, Alfred Hill, for the job.

Instead of the slapstick of his previous pictures, he included a lengthy scene from the opera as the climax to the drama, and combined it with a traditional romance of 'down and out turned success story' composer getting together with suicidal turned successful soprano.

Then to keep the mood commercial, he allowed Alec Kellaway to do some familiar comedy stylings, along with lashings of sentimentality, in the Frank Capra style.

The notion - reinforced in the advertising - was that there was something for everyone. Drama, music, romance, comedy and acting!

The studio set for the staging of the opera was extremely ambitious for an Australian production, as was the production of the music, with Hall using the new Hollywood technique of filming to playback.

Hall recalled Lloyd Hughes, who had done a good job for him in Lovers and Luggers, but did not cast Shirley Ann Richards.

The excuse was offered in the press that she was taking a holiday, exhausted after doing three films in a row for Cinesound, but the reality was that Hall needed a singer for the leading role, and so actress singer and musical comedy star Diana du Caine scored the part. 

3. The release:

The Premier of New South Wales, Mr. Stevens, attended the production, and his words praising it as "a very excellent production" immediately found its way into the block advertising.

Stevens made a speech in the vestibule of the Embassy Theatre after the screening of the film:

"I am sure," he said,"that we have all greatly enjoyed this magnificent production. I am greatly interested in the production of Australian films. Mr. Ken Hall and his associates and those people who have taken such wonderful parts and acted such a wonderful play have not only done a good thing for Cinesound Productions. Ltd., but also for Australian production in general. I congratulate them."

The film was one of a proposed slate of five pictures with a total budget of £100,000, but several never made it into production, including Hall's pet project Robbery Under Arms. 

The six last Cinesound films were comedies, partly the result of internal changes to Cinesound, which saw bean counter Norman Rydge succeed Stuart Doyle as managing director. This increased the pressure on Hall to generate box office returns to cover the 'nut', the cost of running Cinesound studios.

It was also partly due, despite denials by Cinesound, to the British government excluding Australian films from the British quota. This meant Hall had to make films which first of all worked in the domestic market, and ever since their first film, On Our Selection, turned over more £50,000 at the box office, Cinesound and Hall had been adept at manufacturing comedies that generated ticket sales.

Hall would not direct another drama, despite his preference for the form, until his last film Smithy, in 1946.

4. Gough Whitlam:

In relation to matters political, the film now often attracts comments because it featured future prime minister Gough Whitlam as an uncredited extra in a night club scene. Whitlam is in the middle of the far table:

 

 

Richard Tauber also praised the film, and in particular Alfred Hill's music, and his words were also widely circulated. (See the music credits pdf on this site for more details about the music).