Production company: Columbia Pictures
Budget: initially estimated at A£53,000 (Oxford Australian Film). However by the time the Sydney premiere came around, the Sydney Morning Herald was estimating the budget at £80,000. This was more than twice the budget of any Cinesound feature, and was funded by American company Columbia Pictures, using film hire revenue frozen in Australia by federal government restrictions on the export of capital. Producer Pery was quoted in the Hobart Mercury as saying that the budget was £80,000 and according to Australian producer Eric Porter it might have reached £81,000.
Hall in his autobiography put the budget at £73,000, comparing it favourably to The Overlanders at £80,000 and Chauvel's Sons of Matthew at £120,000. Budgets are always rubbery, with breakages. Take your pick, but likely in the higher turf.
Locations: Sydney and surrounds, Cinesound studios Bondi junction
Filmed: second half of 1945 (the scene with W. M. Hughes was filmed in September 1945, the scene of Smith being given the Military Cross in the studio in July 1945)
Australian distributor: Columbia
Australian release: 26th June 1946, State Theatre Sydney
Rating: For general exhibition
35mm black and white
Running time: 119 mins (Oxford Australian Film) (some twenty minutes shorter for US release).
National Film and Sound Archive VHS time: 1'54'25
Box office: The film was a major commercial hit, doing good business in the domestic market, and achieving useful business in re-badged form in UK and US releases.
A report in the Adelaide Mail on 4th January 1947 by Mary Armitage suggested the film was amongst the top ten popular movies for 1946 (National Velvet was the biggest money-maker).
The film was subsequently revived during the nineteen fifties and became part of the staple diet of uplifting school viewing. None of this did any good for Cinesound, as it had no share in the profits, and it became the last feature film Cinesound produced and Ken Hall directed.
The film has been released on VHS by the National Film and Sound Archive, with copies perhaps still available within the Australian domestic library network.
Collectors sometimes circulate DVD copies derived from this source amongst themselves. It otherwise hasn't been made available on DVD at date of writing. The tape includes newsreel coverage of the gala opening at the State Theatre.
For those who think a few film clips is the best way to approach a feature film that in its NFSA tape form ran just five minutes shy of two hours, the ASO site has three here. Others will wonder why this iconic film about an Australian aviator icon isn't part of a box set of Ken G. Hall's amazing output for Cinesound, with this, the last of his works, revealing both his skills and his limitations as a director.
1. The Concept and Source:
N. P. Pery, a flamboyant American salesman and local head of Columbia, persuaded Columbia's head office to invest its rapidly accumulating Australian capital (which couldn't be repatriated to America because of Australian government post-war regulations) in an Australian production. The idea was to produce a film which would work in international markets, and so sales and returns could then head back to the United States.
Pery asked producer/director Ken Hall for a list of names of great Australians known outside the country. Don Bradman was discarded because no one in the United States knew anything about cricket.
Ned Kelly was discarded because previous films had not been a commercial success, and there might still be censorship issues in relation to filming a bushranger.
Dame Nellie Melba was rejected because of the cost of finding an appropriate voice, the cost of staging opera, the marketability of opera in feature films already dominated by conventional genres, and because Melba had in later life done a series of farewells which became a joke ("more farewells than Dame Nellie Melba"). She had also died of septicaemia after facial surgery. (Lewis Milestone would go on to make a hash of his Melba biopic in 1953).
Hall was also quoted in the press as having considered former PM William Morris Hughes as a subject, surely only a ploy to flatter Hughes, who did the right thing by turning up in Smithy to show he still could cut the rug.
Charles Kingsford Smith was selected because his end - flying off into the void - could be construed as romantic, and with Cinesound's rear projection system, constructing flying sequences would be relatively economical. His flying feats connected him both to the UK and the United States, and therefor to large English-speaking markets.
Hall commissioned a number of writers to develop a treatment for the film. They included Jesse Lasky Jr. an American stationed at Cinesound with the U.S. Signal Corps, Josephine O'Neill, a Sydney film critic, and Australian playwright Alec Coppel, who eventually shared the screen credit with Ken Hall, who gave himself the pen name of John Chandler for developing the story. Max Afford was given a story credit, and Norman Ellison earned a research credit.
Hall in his autobiography outlined the process:
The immediate problem was a story-line writer with imagination and he was, as usual, very hard to find. The facts of Smithy's life from the time he joined the British Royal Flying Corps and was wounded in a foot during a dog-fight over France in 1917 - which was as far as we could go back and then only briefly - were in the historical records. But it all had to be woven into a smooth, interesting and entertaining story to run around 120 minutes.
I laid out the facts of Smithy's life on paper and we put them before many more writers than we wanted to, seeking from them at that stage, only a four- or five-page 'treatment' of the story; but we were not satisfied with any of them. Getting desperate, I tried a seasoned newspaper critic, the well-known Josephine O'Neill, then critic for the Sydney Daily and Sunday Telegraph, later with the Sydney Morning Herald. She had more than ten years' experience behind her, could write, had seen a thousand films. But her training had been in analysis of other people's creations, not construction. The gesture in asking her, as a friend, to have a shot at it rebounded in a way that made us sorry we started it in the first place; but we'll reach that with the release of the film.
Kenneth Slessor, whom I've previously mentioned as a long-time friend, who was at that time leader-writer of the Daily Telegraph, was another we tried. He had been an outstanding film critic with Smith's Weekly, a publication richly endowed with talent, both literary and artistic, in the twenties and thirties.
'It's just not my cup of tea,' he said. But he agreed finally. It was not his cup of tea. What he turned in was factual and, of course, beautifully written. But it was not the visualisation of a man's life building, with important side-issues operating as counter-plot to the greatest climax I can imagine: Smithy's death at the peak of his life, a death still largely surrounded by mystery. Finally, Max Afford, the South Australian author, playwright, radio dramatist and I got together and wrote the long treatment of the story ready for the screenplay writer.
Jesse Lasky Jun., son of the famous co-founder of Paramount with Adolph Zukor, was at the studio as a lieutenant in the American Signal Corps. He had a number of screen credits on De Mille pictures but we did not get what we wanted. Then the Australian playwright, Alec Coppel (later to write the marvellous screenplay for The Captain's Paradise, staring Alec Guinness), became available and he did a good proportion of the screenplay.
The ADB has biographical notes on Josephine O'Neill, then perhaps Australia's most well-known film critic, here, and Kenneth Slessor, one of Australia's best poets, here. Max Afford is also represented in the ADB here. Norman Ellison is given a head credit for research.
As for the actual subject of the film, there are all sorts of resources about Charles Kingsford-Smith available online. As always, the ADB's biography here is a good starting point, while the ADB also has a biography of Charles Ulm here, while Sir Patrick Taylor scores one here. Finally the notoriously difficult and recalcitrant PM who turns up for a cameo in the film, William Morris "Billy" Hughes, is given a reasonably detailed portrait by the ADB here.
Hall's first step was to seek the co-operation of the federal government and the RAAF, and to hunt out Kingsford-Smith's famous aircraft, The Southern Cross:
The Southern Cross, that famous old aircraft, was lying in crates at Canberra airfield. She'd been there since she was dismantled after her last flight and bought from Kingsford Smith for 3,000 pounds by the Commonwealth Government - because the national hero of a few years back needed the money. She'd lain there neglected for the best part of ten years. But the RAAF put her back together again, still with the one 'wonky' motor which had almost cost Smithy, Captain 'Bill' Taylor and John Stannage their lives in that dramatic flight to New Zealand from which they had to struggle back to Mascot airport on one good engine, one failing and the third dead. With direct broadcasts from the stricken plane, it was a real cliff-hanger which had all Australia holding its breath until they reached safety.
The motors fitted to the Fokker were of 1920s vintage, were no longer available and could not be duplicated except at prohibitive cost. So it was decided that the Cross would be flown with the unreliable motor, but carefully and only by pilots who knew and understood her idiosyncrasies. They were 'Bill' (later Sir Gordon) Taylor and Harry Purves, both cobbers of Smithy's, both great airmen.
Jack Kingsford Smith, a nephew of Sir Charles, who had been on Cinesound's technical staff through the latter part of the thirties, was in air force reserve, went in at the outbreak of war and was now Wing-Commander Kingsford Smith. He, with Flight-Lieutentant Bill Chaseling, were appointed our liaison officers with the service and proved towers of strength. Nothing was too tough. Whatever we wanted we got.
Very many air-to-air shots of the Cross were needed obviously and we had unexpected difficulties getting them. First in finding a camera plane slow enough to stay with her (she was flat out at seventy knots), then to get her into beautiful cloud formations which I particularly wanted. These formations were usually high, 15,000 to 20,000 feet, and the Cross's 'ceiling' was about 12,000. She just could not be pushed or whipped any higher. So we had to wait for the clouds to come down to her.
George Heath on camera and Jack Kingsford Smith, with Harry Purves or 'Bill' Taylor flying the Cross, got the really fine aerial photography in the film. A vintage bomber, an old Anson 'Aggie' - the type of bomber with which we went into World War 11 - was slow enough as a camera plane to stay with the ancient Southern Cross.
Ken Hall noted in his memoir that "we had almost every actor in Australia battling for the name part in the film".
The battle resolved down to a fight between Peter Finch and Ron Randell. But after testing, Finch was thought too thin, after three years in the army, and didn't photograph well, while tests of Randell against Muriel Steinbeck saw people come down heavily on the side or Randell "as having far greater romantic and therefore woman appeal".
Randell would attact the attenton of Columbia head, Harry Cohen, who once he saw the film put Randell under contract. Randell would go on to a lengthy career in Hollywood.
Hall was pleased that he attracted three key players without Actors' Equity membership cards, Captain 'Bill' Taylor, who had a long association with Smithy, and John Stannage, the radio operator on the ill-fated Tasman flight which had nearly cost all three on the aircraft their lives.
But Hall was perhaps most titillated by persuading William Morris Hughes - Australian's former Prime Minister - to front the camera, playing himself as a younger man interviewing Smith in London in relation to a London to Australia air race for which Hughes had offered a ten thousand pound prize.
His appearance involves the considerable novelty of making a very old and deaf Hughes impersonate his younger self, with even a photo in a newspaper showing the old Hughes in place of his youthful and period correct image. Hall took up the story in his autobiography:
I had an amusing brush with my cobber Billy Hughes. He agreed to play himself readily enough, but of course he wanted to see the script. Billy was deaf as a post and in 1919 used a cumbersome, box-on-the-table hearing-aid with a wire to his ear. It was no secret. The press discussed his problem frequently. So Alec Coppel wrote an amusing scene in which, whenever Smithy seemed to be getting on top with his Prime Minister in the argument about why he should be permitted to make the flight to Australia, Hughes merely switched off his hearing-aid and sat there stolidly while Smithy raved on.
I sent the script section to Billy's private secretary - the irascible little man had a series of some sixty secretaries all told - and arranged to call next day to discuss the matter with (so it turned out) my most difficult directorial assignment. Despite all the press publicity over the years about his hearing-aid, I discovered that Billy was super-sensitive about his deafness. (And if anyone wants to get touchy about that remark, let it be said that I've worn a hearing-aid for years).
It is impossible to put Hughes's manner of speech on paper. He spoke in the flat tones of the man who cannot hear his own voice and to that was added his characteristic verbal flamboyance.
He tossed the script over to me. 'No, Hall, old man,' he said without anger. 'I'd - ah - like to do you a favour but - ah -' (pointing at the offending script) 'I won't do that. Why in the name of the Almighty, do you have - ah - to point to my hearing - ah - problem? Tell me that.'
I told him that we we felt it made him the human being rather than the politician destroying the hopes of an earnest young man.
'That's all very well - ah - Hall, old man ... It reminds me of the story of the - ah - little boys throwing stones at - ah - a frog in a pool. Very - ah - amusing for the little boys. But no bloody fun for the frog!'
We rewrote the scene with no reference to deafness, and when he came on the set, by now wearing a reasonably small, then modern, aid in his right ear, I had to angle the shot so that the aid could not be seen. Half a dozen times he said, 'Now you're sure that you can't see the - ah - bloody thing?'
I assured him, George Heath on camea assured him - and Billy then proceeded to take over and damn nearly run the show. He switched the dialogue to suit himself, ad-libbed to the extent that Ron Randell nearly went up the wall trying to keep up with him. When in desperation I called 'cut!' he looked off me and shouted, 'Don't stop now man; I'm just getting wound up.'
What a big little man! A frail piece of human dynamite. A bite like a viper - and a charm which could take the bird off the bough.
Another cameo of note is the presence of Charles 'Bud' Tingwell, an RAAF pilot who scored his first screen role in an airport control tower because he could supply his own uniform, or so the story goes. Tingwell would go on to a long career in film and television in the UK, and then back in Australia.
4. The Release:
The film had a substantial budget - more than twice any previous Cinesound Production - and this was matched by a substantial publicity budget, another novelty for an Australian film.
The publicity concentrated on Ron Randell and Muriel Steinbeck, two new actors who had gained experience in radio, theatre, and war-time propaganda films, and who had acted together in Eric Porter's soap A Son is Born, which was shot before, but released after, Smithy.
The film was given a Royal send off with the world premiere at the State Theatre in Sydney attended by the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, the Governor-General, the Premier of NSW, Mr. McKell, all the key cast and crew, various celebrities and potentates, including Australian/U.S. celebrity Sister Kenny, star Ann Richards, and a crowd of more than five thousand gawkers, many of whom waited until after 11 p.m. to see the Royal Party leave.
Hall was presented to the GG, the HRH, the Duke of Glocuester:
After the show, Nick Pery, Randell, Muriel Steinbeck and I were presented to His Royal Higness, the Duke. We knew the drill: you did not address Royalty until Royalty spoke to you. So I shook the proferred hand - and waited.
The Duke's face carried a fixed and, I thought, somewhat glassy smile. But he did not speak. The silence, the non-pregnant pause, became unbearable. He kept that glassy smile fixed on me. I heard myself smashing protocol and saying, 'I hope you enjoyed the film, sir.'
Another long pause, then he giggled, still smiling. I retreated backwards. And I still don't know whether he liked the film, hated it or had passed the evening having a quiet nap.
Before the second world war, Cinesound had used the profits from its previous films to develop, generate and cash flow new productions.
While it received much reflected glory for its role in the commercial and critical success of Smithy, Cinesound received no profits, all of which returned in the usual way of Hollywood studios, to Columbia.
Hall was sent to the UK to court interest from the Rank Organisation in helping finance Australian-based productions, but struck out, and received no joy at all when he went to Hollywood in 1947.
Instead Hall discovered what it was like to be screwed over by Harry Cohn, as many in Hollywood had already been screwed. And as many Australian producers would later be screwed by Hollywood.
In his memoirs, Hall recounts how Cohn had no interest in allowing film-makers to roam, making films away from the control of head office. Hall blamed Cohn for the severe re-editing of Smithy, with some twenty minutes deleted, and new credits added, including a new title.
Pery's name was removed, as well as any credits indicating the film's origins as an Australian production, including acknowledgements to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the R.A.A.F.
Mr Cohn was irritable, which anybody would tell you was his normal form. 'Hall,' he said without any preamble, 'who prodooced Smithy?'
Unexpected as his opening gambit was, I caught the drift immediately. 'Nick Pery,' I answered.
'Come on, Hall, don't give me that bull.' His temper was obviously rising fast. 'Pery's a goddamned salesman and salesmen don't prodooce pictures. Now who prodooced Smith?'
I repeated my answer, adding, 'His name is on the credits; he produced it.'
'I know goddam well what's on the credits,' he said, and the atmosphere was frigid. 'Let me tell you this, Hall: we'll make all the pictures Columbia needs right here in Hollywood. We don't need any outside help. Understand?
Before you could say, 'Hail Columbia,' I was outside the office and being escorted to the studio entrance. I had not given Mr Cohn the evidence he apparently needed in a war he was conducting with his foreign department. He was after Nick Pery's blood for a start.
It was the end of Pery's dream to shift from salesman to producer, a vision he'd announced in 1944:
Although I represent an American company, I have no hesitation in saying that I firmly believe the production of British films will blossom out, and will in time take its place side by side with the production of American films. Furthermore, I do not think I am indulging in Utopian fancies when I say that Australia, or rather, some spot in Australia, could be made the Hollywood of the British Commonwealth.
Not in Harry Cohn's lifetime.
After the cutting and the re-titling and the bruising encounter, Hall noted:
You cannot do that to any worthwhile film without seriously damaging it ...
They released it in the theatres and later on television as Pacific Adventure. The American Press gave it a cool reception and no bloody wonder!
Hall was at one point quoted in the press saying that Columbia was planning further large scale-productions of top quality films in Australia, with Pery announcing that the first picture should be before the cameras in four months, and some would be in technicolor, filmed in the modern studios Columbia was planning to build in Sydney.
Cinesound would not make another feature, and Hall would shift over to television to run the fledgling Channel Nine during the nineteen fifties, helping turn it into a solid, reputable long term free to air broadcast brand.
It was, in terms of a very small and struggling feature film cottage industry, the end of an era, and the next twenty five years would be grim.
6. The significance of Ken Hall:
There is a persistent myth in relation to early Australian cinema, as expressed by director Gillian Armstrong in a story for the Sydney Morning Herald on October 1st 2012:
US distributors had killed off our early flourishing cinema industry at a time of technical change. That little change was called sound.
Armstrong also wrote of how:
... a young Australian went to a cinema in Carlton in 1968 and was horrified to hear Australian voices on the big screen. So odd, so weird, they thought. This is not a real movie; movies have American voices.
This is part of the mythology of the 1970s mob that they invented Australian cinema - one-time producer Phillip Adams is another serial offender.
This writer first saw Ken Hall's Smithy in primary school, and was moved. I also remember seeing On Our Selection in the nineteen fifties, in the lovely old silent picture palace, the Capitol Theatre in Tamworth (now demolished), in a full house with people sitting in the aisles, surrounded by laughter, and marvelling how someone had managed to put my rural family up on the screen.
And in the nineteen fifties, if you watched an ostensibly Australian show like Smiley, what's remarkable is how British the Australian voices up on the screen sounded.
The Americans didn't kill off the industry at the start of the talkies. To say that is to do dirt on Ken Hall's heroic achievements - running a studio, providing steay employment for a trusted team of regulars, making 18 pictures in a little over a decade.
And it's to do dirt on the others who made feature films, like F. W. Thring, or the subversives like Herc McIntyre from Universal who helped out Charles Chauvel despite his propensity to spend months shooting, and running his budgets into overages, with sometimes dubious box office prospects the only reward.
It's true American and English distributors and studios did their best to de-gut Australian production during the nineteen thirties with unfair deals, and by the end of the decade, government had begun to listen to domestic film-makers and offer some assistance, though the NSW government's 1935 quota act proved singularly useless. And it was the federal government which killed off the cottage industry entirely for the duration of the second world war by denying it essential resources, deemed better applied to the war effort.
But Hall survived. How did he do it? By making films viewers were willing to pay to see, films which made a profit, films which generated the finance for the next outing. It was a miracle of 'lifting by the bootstraps' production.
It was the second world war that brough Hall's and Cinesound's run to an end, and saw Australia in the nineteen fifties become an away location for British (like Ealing's forays into Australian mythology, such as Eureka Stockade) and US producers (Kangaroo, On the Beach).
It's true these days that Hall's comedy would be considered broad, and his drama inclined to melodrama. His infatuation with artificial rear projection was unfortunate, but understandable given his desire to do more in story-telling terms on a limited budget.
Instinctively he understood that popular films would benefit from a rousing finale - a timber drive, a boat chase across Sydney Harbour, a bushfire, a horse shot at the climax of the Melbourne Cup.
He didn't do art - he knew he couldn't afford it - but he did popular art, and he captured voices, landscapes, performers and insights that otherwise wouldn't be available to Australians today, including memories of vaudeville, such as Roy "Mo McCackie" Rene in Hall's one flop, Strike Me Lucky.
In any other country, Hall's films would long ago have been restored and released as a box set on DVD and Blu-ray, and they would regularly turn up on television as part of the great repertory mix of old movies.
He would be fondly remembered as a singular pioneer who accomplished extraordinary things, who, from within the Greater Union nest turned the system to his own purposes, to make movies that would explore Australia and its varied faces.
He didn't make films about indigenous issues or about the role of women in society, but he made a lot of talkies, and he should be remembered, not wiped from the slate. That would be the real triumph of British and American interests, done in the interest of people wanting to peddle a mythology that the nineteen thirties was a barren ruined wasteland and what the industry now requres is continued, ongoing and increased government support.
Ken Hall did almost all of it without the help of government, and ran a studio and made films that mostly made a handsome profit. Few Australian film-makers, the likes of George Miller and his studio partially excluded, can say the same today.
In the first issue of Cinema Papers, January 1974, Phillip Taylor asked Hall would like to be remembered, and Hall's reply was revealing:
Taylor: Ken, how would you like to be viewed by history? You've described yourself as a showman, and you've described yourself as an industry man, would you describe yourself as an artist?
Hall: If I'm viewed by history at all, 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.
Taylor: Were you always restrained by the box-office?
Hall: Always, always. I felt myself bound to it. I felt it was my duty to stay with that. I knew that if I didn't make successful films not only me, but all those people I had a great regard for, would have been out of work. One big flop and we would have been out. Now this is a great responsibility Phil, this is a great responsibility. I really cared for the people I had around me. I'm still loyal to them and I think they're still loyal to me. This is important. This is why we were able to get results because the people were loyal to me and I was loyal to them. I didn't try to earn a lot more money than they had. I didn't care about money at all. I wanted the industry to succeed and so did they all. Take Arthur Smith, somebody said to him in an interview I read the other day, "Why did you work like this?" And he said, "Well we didn't think about money. When production closed down they cut me down from $15 to $12 a week. We didn't think about money". And we didn't.
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. One that gives a fair return to its backers and thus helps retain their support for the future...