Unmade Cinesound

August 10, 2019
Ken G Hall was Australia’s most consistently successful director at the box office – he made sixteen feature films through Cinesound Productions in the thirties and forties, only one of them a flop. Like all filmmakers, though, he had projects he wanted to make but was unable to.

FilmInk looks at his top ten, in this extremely hardcore Australian film buff article by Stephen Vagg.

1) Robbery Under Arms

This was a proposed adaptation of the famous Rolf Boldrewood novel, which Hall once described as the film he wanted to make more than any other. He tried to get RUA happening from the time of his first feature, On Our Selection (1932), buying the film rights from Raymond Longford and announcing in 1933 that it would be his third film, following The Squatter’s Daughter (1933), with John Longden to play Starlight from a script by Edmund Barclay. You can see the appeal to Hall – a well-regarded source material, a story with plenty of action, strong roles and excitement – but there were barriers: it was period, it would be expensive, and there was uncertainty about whether the bushranger ban of 1912 (legislation which prevented the exhibition of films about bushrangers in key states) was still in place.

Hall developed the project throughout the thirties, constantly announcing it, but never getting around to filming. When Hal Roach announced his intention to do a version of the novel in Hollywood, Hall did some legal sabre-rattling which resulted in Roach coming up with his own bushranger story, Captain Fury (1939). World War Two put feature films on ice, but Hall made several attempts after the war to get things happening again. He faced obstacle after obstacle, though – apathy from distributors, fear of period films after the cost blow outs on Sons of Matthew (1949) and Eureka Stockade (1949), the financial collapse of Pinewood Studios, restrictions on raising capital, etc. Eventually J Arthur Rank elected to make his own version in 1957 with Jack Lee directing. It wasn’t very good, and Hall was understandably bitter. This was the great lost movie of his career.

Would this be worth making today? Absolutely. You’d have to do a strong adaptation but the novel has plenty of action and interesting characters. It’s in the public domain too.

2) Overland Telegraph

Hollywood studios enjoyed success in the thirties cranking out epics about the “taming” of the West via the railroad, like Union Pacific (1939). In 1939, Cinesound announced plans to make a movie of the creation of the Overland Telegraph from Adelaide to Darwin in the 1870s, based on a book by Frank Clune. It was described as an “epic of Australian development” or a “Cavalcade of Australia” – Cavalcade being a Noel Coward play about several generations of a British family (the film adaptation won the 1933 Oscar for Best Picture). William Freshman and Lydia Hayward, who were imported from England to help Hall at Cinesound, were assigned to the project. It was still being discussed as a prospect in June 1940, but Cinesound wound up shutting down its feature arm during the war and the film was never made.

Would this be worth making today? I would have thought this backdrop was a natural in the eighties when they were making all those historical miniseries, but the Overland Telegraph saga remains undramatised. It’s probably too politically tricky today and would be expensive to make. But if Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman wanted to do it, I’m sure they’d find the money…

3) The Haunted House

In 1938, Hall announced he would make five films over the next year: Mr Chedworth Steps Out (1938), Gone to the Dogs (1939), Robbery Under Arms, The Further Adventures of Dad and Dave and The Haunted House. The first two films were made, the third has been discussed, the fourth became Dad Rudd MP (1940). But what of The Haunted House? What was it? To be honest, I haven’t been able to find out much about it. It was probably a comedy – Hall mostly made comedies in the late thirties, and there was a haunted house sequence in Gone to the Dogs. It may have been a proposed vehicle for George Wallace, Will Mahoney or even Dad and Dave. The story could have been incorporated into Gone to the Dogs. It feels like the sort of project Hall would put on his slate to help secure finance – a comic in a haunted house is a fairly safe bet.

Would it be worth making today? Don’t laugh but Hamish and Andy in a Haunted House or Hannah Gadsby in a Haunted House would make money. (An aside: are any Australian producers working on Hannah Gadsby vehicles and if not, why not?)

4) The Life of Melba with Marjorie Lawrence

In August 1939, Hall announced he would make a biopic of Dame Nellie Melba starring another famous Australian singer, Marjorie Lawrence. Lawrence actually signed to do it saying “I am delighted at the idea. It is something I would really love to do.” She was meant to sail to Australia on September 15, but Hitler had other ideas and the film was postponed. Hall considered re-activating the project towards the end of the war, though not with Lawrence, who had contracted polio in 1941. However, he ultimately decided that the high costs involved in re-creating Melba’s concerts would be prohibitively expensive, and instead he made a film about Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, Smithy (1946).

Lawrence managed a comeback, which she wrote about in a book which was turned into a highly successful film by MGM, Interrupted Melody (1955), starring Eleanor Parker as Lawrence. It did far better than the biopics about Dame Nellie that were made, Melba (1952) and the mini series Melba (1988).

Would it be worth making today? No – Melba’s life wasn’t that interesting. But Marjorie Lawrence’s life has a natural three act structure and would make a fantastic film. Paging Cate Blanchett…

5) Big Timber

The timber industry offers obvious opportunities for filmmakers – plenty of conflict, heroic parts and pretty visuals. In 1935, Hall announced he would make Big Timber from a novel by William Hatfield, with the screenplay assigned to Edmond Seward, an American writer imported from Hollywood to help improve scripts. Eventually, Hall decided to junk the Hatfield material and instead make Tall Timbers (1937), based on a story by Frank Hurley and a script by Frank Harvey.

Would it be worth making today? No. People aren’t likely to get excited about a film that celebrates chopping down trees.

6) Yellow Sands

In 1936, Cinesound announced five films: Orphan of the Wilderness, It Isn’t Done, Tall Timbers, Robbery Under Arms, Pearl of Great Price (which became Lovers and Luggers) and Yellow Sands. All of these were made except Robbery and Yellow Sands, the latter described as a “thrilling tale of Australian sport and manhood”. A leading writer, Max Afford, came up with a scenario in 1937 but the movie was never made. It may have inspired the beach scenes at the beginning of Tall Timbers.

Would it be worth making today? Hard to tell because so little is known about it. It doesn’t sound very exciting.

7) Eureka Stockade

The story of the 1854 rebellion is one of the few big pitched battles between Europeans that took place on our shores in post-1788 history. It’s acted as a magnet for filmmakers, including Cinesound, who announced in 1939 that they wanted to make a version with imported stars (John Loder was mentioned). Maybe it’s best for them that they didn’t – every version of this story has flopped – in 1908, 1915, 1949, 1972, and 1984 (television).

Would it be worth making today? Not if you told a stock version. Australian audiences have traditionally not particularly liked local stories about revolutionaries. But if you looked at it from a fresh angle – say the women involved, as described in Clare Wright’s book The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka – it could work.

8) For the Term of His Natural Life

In 1933, Cinesound announced that they would make four films following The Silence of Dean Maitland (1934):  Rudd’s New Selection (which became Grandad Rudd), Tall Timbers (filmed in 1937), The Man They Could Not Hang (filmed by Raymond Longford in 1934 with Cinesound crew though not an official Cinesound movie) and “probably”, a talking version of For the Term of his Natural Life. The latter never happened, which is a shame, because Marcus Clarke’s story is a natural for cinema. I’m not sure how serious Cinesound were about making it – occasionally they would announce a remake of films produced in the twenties by Australasian Pictures, the fore-runner to Cinesound. Other similar ideas floated included remakes of The Adorable Outcast (1928), The Pioneers (1926) and Tall Timber (1927). Ken Hall made his own timber film, but the others seem to have been vague ideas rather than definite projects.

Would it be worth making today? Absolutely. They should so re-film this novel.

9) A story of the Newcastle steel industry

In 1935, Cinesound announced that they would make a drama with the background of the steel industry with a script by Edmond Seward. It was never made.

Is it worth making today? Do you get excited about the Australian steel industry?

10) A Billy Thorpe Musical

This came late in the day – so late, in fact, it was after Ken G Hall had left Cinesound to help run Channel Nine. In 1966, Cinesound announced that they wanted to make a teen musical starring Billy Thorpe for $70,000. They had originally intended to do one around Normie Rowe, but could not come to terms with his management, and wound up with Billy. It’s likely this never came close to being made – though mind you, Ian Turpie and Olivia Newtown John appeared in Funny Things Happen Down Under (1966), so it wasn’t impossible. And the thought of Billy Thorpe in some Elvis Presley type piece of silliness is just too cute.

Is it worth making today? Well, Billy Thorpe is dead, but I’d love to see a musical starring an Aussie teen idol. Who is big enough though? How about 5 Seconds of Summer a Go-Go?

Leave a Comment