Monday, 14 December 2020

The Memoirs of J. Alan Kenyon or Behind the Velvet Curtain (Part 3)

Written by J.A. Kenyon; edited by Judy Leech

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Scenic artist J. ALAN KENYON continues his account of his life working in Melbourne and Sydney during the 1920s and 1930s. In this chapter, he recalls his time working on film sets for two important Australian film makers of the 1930s, Ken G. Hall and Frank W. Thring.

Film Interlude: Cinesound and Efftee Films

A GREAT MANY PEOPLE HAVE deplored the making of ‘Dad and Dave’ films by Ken G. Hall, Cinesound's producer-director (1931–1956). They are needlessly embarrassed by them—they fear that wrong impressions abroad could be created by their showing. I am certain they do not give the Australian a poor image, as is feared. Just consider how many ‘silly ass’ English pictures have been made for export. The English, however, have never been averse to laughing at their own eccentricities; hence their unrivalled success in comedy plays and films. (On Our Selection was the first Dad and Dave film, made in 1920, and Rudd's New Selection appeared a year later—my involvement, when I moved from Melbourne to Sydney, was not until 1935, when Grandad Rudd was produced.)

Entertainment value is undoubtedly the chief ingredient of any Show presented to the public, be it stage or film. These old films certainly had that, however corny their productions may have been. Two of these films with Bert Bailey and Fred McDonald as leads in the ‘Dad Rudd’ series played with a change of titles on Broadway and in the West End of London. These films were Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938) and Dad Rudd MP (1939/40). By this time we had learned that perhaps the old image of Dad Rudd should be presented differently. In the MP picture Dad Rudd was shown ploughing—a long straight furrow. When he went into Parliament he was still—straight—and any Australian could be glad and proud of their image in Dad Rudd.

Apropos of Broadway—I saw in an issue of the American theatre publication Variety that our Orphan of the Wilderness (a film made around the same time as the above films) with its cast of twenty kangaroos had been the main feature of a program with the second release of The Great Waltz as its support. At that time the picture of the life of a joey kangaroo was recognized as the finest film of animal life made up until then. The film was made in 1936 and had its American release in 1938 entitled Wild Innocence. (The original film was initially banned in the UK but released after cuts also in 1938.) It is interesting to note that when the human element was introduced, ratings dropped abruptly.

The actual shooting of the animal scenes took months of painstaking work. Every action of each animal ‘star’ followed the script faithfully. Because these were of course completely natural reactions on the part of the kangaroos, with no rehearsals possible, scenes were shot over and over again until perfection was attained. Only two definite actions had any human assistance: in order to produce an appearance of reality, the mother of the young joey which was supposed to be killed by the hunters was given an injection by a veterinary surgeon under RSPCA supervision. The script called for a certain completely spontaneous action by a huge buck too. When the hunters made their entry onto the ‘outdoor set’ in the studio the leader of the herd had to give warning and communicate it to the resting does. They were supposed to react violently, jumping into the ‘scrub’ for shelter. This big buck ’roo was seven feet tall and required every available man on its tail in order to manoeuvre it into position on the set. It was a case of 'never the time and the place' and the kangaroo ‘at any moment jumping out of camera’.

It was an impasse. Then I had the idea of concealing a sheet of iron under the leaves on which the ’roo stood or sat in position for the reaction shot. Then, at the required instant, a very mild electric current from a shocking coil did the trick. It would sit up startled and shoot off giving warning to the herd of does which were peacefully sleeping. At least that was the general idea, but we again struck trouble. The sleeping does who were, by this time, so accustomed to any noise we used to rouse them in order to cause them to scamper off, slumbered on. Neither shotguns, kerosene tins hammered vociferously or drums banged disturbed their dreams of the silent bush. They slept peacefully on. Help came from a visitor just as we were almost passing out with fatigue and frustration. He was a big bluff hearty man and when he had sized up the situation let out a loud bellow of laughter. This was a completely new sound which had a magical effect—the does awoke from their dreams and scampered off.

On the set we had used an emu which had been hired from a Fauna and Flora Show Garden down the coast from Sydney. When it was no longer required, the Production Manager was asked to return it to the Park. It was a Saturday afternoon and the shooting was almost finished. He asked me if I would drive him—he wanted some human companionship, he said. We had made a cage trailer for the purpose of transporting animals and we judged this would do for our long-legged passenger. We put him in and away we went.

The Production Manager, Jack Souter, kept an eye on the emu and trailer, turning around every now and then to check. Souter had a round face, big eyes, altogether the face of a cherub, which belied his keen efficiency. As he turned to make another inspection I was startled to hear him shout ‘Stop the car George! We’ve lost the bloody emu!’ I pulled up and sure enough the big bird was gone. It had managed to force the conduit bars apart. Apparently it had just stalked off because we found it a quarter of a mile down the road, holding up the traffic. Cars in a hurry had to drive around it, a few had pulled up out of curiosity. We hastily reloaded his birdship before worse befell us. We had horrible visions of him walking haughtily into a car.

More about film but for a different company and in the early 1930s, and before I left Melbourne to work in Sydney—Frank W. Thring’s Efftee Films. When preparations for rebuilding His Majesty’s Theatre were under way, after the 1929 fire, we had to vacate our temporary studio there and move to the Wattle Path Dance Palais in St Kilda. There Efftee made more films. For one set, for Aimee and Philip Stuart’s Clara Gibbings (released in 1934, this was the last film shot at the studios), we had to have the interior of a stately home of England. I had borrowed from a department store a terrestrial globe, on condition that I would be personally responsible for its safe return. Whilst backing the utility out of the lane, I was staggered to see this valuable antique go over the side with a crash. I felt as if my comfortable world had smashed along with the mahogany frame which was splintered into a hundred pieces! What is more, the globe had flattened where it had hit the ground. That seemed to be disaster enough, even if it was ever to be put right!

I personally undertook the repairs for the globe. I had first to get out the dent, then it needed patching in order to return it to its spherical shape. The faded old parchment effect was very difficult to match up, but finally I was overjoyed to see that the damage was now practically undetectable. But I was still not out of the woods. There were figures still to be drawn—Neptune was half hidden under my patching—and lines of latitude and longitude. There was very fine lettering to be done, and only the apprehension of the wrath to descend on my head inspired me with the genius of the original draughtsman.

Meanwhile, the head carpenter was doing his best with the frame, and what a best it had to be! A game of hide and seek developed with tiny splinters of wood—the quarry of the seekers. He had to try infinitesimal pieces here and there and—everywhere! Where did a piece of inlay half-an-inch by one-thirty-second fit? Infinite patience was required but at last the job was done. This time we made sure the precious antique was safely tied down. Then I wheeled it from the store's lift as nonchalantly as my quaking bones and shaking nerves would allow. One final push landed it in front of the floor manager who regarded it casually and murmured ‘Oh, thanks.’ It seemed like walking a hundred miles through purgatory as I walked away from him to the lift.

On another occasion I had borrowed a very large vase. It was extremely costly—but this one was exactly what I wanted for an interior. There had once been a pair of these vases, but one had been purchased by a client of the store. Right in the middle of a shot of the interior, with the vase absolutely vital as a focal point, this client arrived at the store saying she desired the second vase. Then ensued a period of masterly delaying tactics: somehow, responsible people were unable to come to the telephone because they could not be located. Meanwhile, we worked feverishly to complete shooting. Finally, we had used up all our obstructing resources and we could put the lady off no longer. She duly arrived at the Studio to be met by wreathed smiles, explanations and assurances that her precious vase was quite safe. She succumbed, and we were able to finish the sequence with the owner watching.

We also had stage productions to get ready. We did Christa Winsloe’s Children in Uniform with Coral Brown (no final ‘e’ at this stage of her career) at the old Garrick Theatre across Princes Bridge. The play was produced by Frank Harvey and was an outstanding success. Even in those early days Coral Brown gave evidence of her extraordinary ability as an actress. No one who saw her in this play doubted that she would have a great career, which has indeed been proved in many, many later plays.

Then we did Dion Boucicault’s period melodrama Streets of London and after that Patrick Hamilton's Rope which was played at what was the Metro (Palace Theatre) in Bourke Street. Then Efftee, Frank W. Thring, decided on a ‘grand coup’. He brought out Alice Delysia, a famous French star, to play in the Princess Theatre. She opened with A.P. Herbert’s Mother of Pearl (1934) and enchanted large audiences with her performance. She had had Paris and London at her feet for years, and Melbourne was quick to respond to her charm. Soon everyone was singing the play's lyrics—you heard ‘Every Woman thinks she likes to Wander’ and ‘When Anybody Plays or Sings I Think of You’ being whistled in the streets, a sure sign of the success of a production. What a superb actress Delysia really was.

On the opening night I was standing on the stage when the star left her dressing room. As I said ‘Good evening’ to her, she smiled. ‘Please hold these for me.’ I was left clutching two handfuls of her personal jewellery. From then on a guard was put at her dressing room door.

The previous night, at the dress rehearsal, I had collided with one of the male leads as we both tried to enter the stage door at the same time. He seemed to be in a frightful hurry, but our collision caused sufficient delay for his taxi driver, in full pursuit of him—to catch up and demand his fare. The driver flatly refused to accept the proffered overcoat as a deposit, alleging that he had been caught that way before. To end the impasse and save the actor further embarrassment I paid the amount owing. He thanked me with a nonchalant ‘Much obliged, old boy’ and went on his way, quite unruffled.

The curtain went up and this actor, who was playing the part of a press correspondent, was awaiting Delysia. As they came in close contact during the interview, the lady drew back and administered a sound slap to his face, all the while assaulting him verbally in rapid and explosive French. I knew enough French to understand the epithets she was applying to him, but could not grasp what had aroused her anger. Curiosity impelled me later on to ask him. ‘Oh,’ he said in an indifferent manner, ‘She resented me breathing stale beer and garlic all over her.’ That was Campbell Copelin, an English actor who had come to Australia in 1923 at the age of 21.

The first show which Efftee produced at the Princess Theatre (in 1933) was Varney Monk's Collits’ Inn. Gladys Moncrieff, Claude Flemming, George Wallace and Campbell Copelin starred in the cast. It was the very first time a revolving stage was used in Australia. It was thirty-five feet in diameter and was motivated by manpower, with just one man under the stage turning it. It was constructed of angle iron with castors turning on iron tracks. Signals were given by word of mouth. As a matter of fact, it worked like a charm. There was never any over-shooting as later happened with electric motor control.

The set for the opening scene was all bushland. There were saplings and tall gumtrees, and as those tree set-pieces came to the back, others replaced them, and for the first five minutes the audience saw only a changing scene. Then the soldiers marched on from the back of the stage with very short steps and then were very slowly brought round to the front of the stage. Additions and changes were meanwhile being made behind, even though the stage was still revolving. Naturally, timing was all important. At last the Inn appeared and with perfect and precise timing, the troops caught up. The command to ‘Halt!’ rang out, and there they were, right outside the exterior of Collits’ Inn. Throughout the production the revolving stage worked most efficiently as a means of changing scenes.

The librettist was Thomas Stuart Gurr (Varney Monk wrote the music and lyrics) and he was the father of Thomas Johnson Gurr, journalist and documentary film maker. I came in for a lot of publicity as Scenic Director (the designer was W.R. Coleman). I thought it was somewhat exaggerated but was told to pipe down and take what I was given. Anyhow, I knew that by any standards Collits’ Inn was good, and as I had painted most of it, I felt I had earned at least some of the plaudits, and let it go at that. This publicity was given an extra boost by some very spectacular shots of a horse race in a picture (the film was Thoroughbred with Helen Twelvetrees in the lead). This was obtained by a simple arrangement: the cameraman had his camera on a toboggan, towed by a car. The toboggan was practically under the horse’s hooves. It was also my responsibility to find a way of safely ‘crashing’ the leading horse in the race as in the script it fell dead just as it passed the post. Somehow we achieved the miracle of managing this, without injuring either the horse or the catapulting jockey.

After each picture was completed it was always the custom to have a cocktail party and a ball in the Studio. Everything was cleared from the floor, but any decorative sets were distributed around the walls to give the place some atmosphere. The capacity for tables around the sound-stage and the size of the dancing area determined the number of guests who received invitations. Applications for invitations were always double the number it was possible to accommodate. They were always highly enjoyable affairs—everyone came with the intention of enjoying themselves—and I guess everyone did just that.

Often I have taken in the milk, still dressed in tails, my wife in her evening gown, cooking breakfast, eggs and bacon for some friends. For one party we chartered the new ‘Curl Curl’—the new Sydney Harbour ferry, just arrived from England—all night, up and down the Harbour. It was a most successful party.

For the party which came after a Dad Rudd picture had finished, leaping ahead to my later ‘stint’ with Cinesound, we asked the guests to come in fancy dress. The costumes had to have a definite Rudd family flavour. The following doggerel constituted my special invitation to our guests. The date was Saturday, August 5th, 1939. World War II had not yet cast its shadow over everything and we could all still be gay on occasion.

Hey! Coming to Town with Dad and Dave?

Don’t bother to dress, don’t even shave.

Wear a beard or Dave’s ‘Clark Gable’,

Pad up for Mum, or slim down for Mabel.

We’re all to meet at Cinesound’s Place,

Ebley Street, Waverley, and just in case

You come to Ruddville minus a ticket,

There ain’t no chance of being admitted.

We’ll hop off at eight to this grand shivoo,

And drive the cows from the paddock round about two.

The Rudd family supplies the tucker to youse

But if you think you’ll be thirsty,

Bring your own booze.

RSVP This is urgent so please remit

Because 400’s the limit we're going to admit.

 

Read 591 times Last modified on Saturday, 02 October 2021