KEN G. HALL was the last of Australia's great film pioneers. He won Australia's first Oscar, gave Peter Finch his first film role and, with 19 feature films to his credit, remains the country's most prolific producer-director.
Fifty years before the latest revival of Australian cinema began in the 1970s, Hall was producing films whose hallmark was entertainment. He had contempt for much of Australian cinema's new wave, the government funding which supported it and directors who tried to give their films 'messages'. Hall summed up his philosophy: 'Give the audience what they want.'
Like his fellow pioneers Raymond Longford and Frank Thring, Hall was a man of great stature and commanding presence. I used to speak to him on Sunday mornings, the time when he liked to catch up on industry gossip. Just three weeks ago I spoke to him, knowing he had not been well, to bring him up to date with planning of our new version of Steele Rudd's On Our Selection, Hall's first hit feature film from 1932. When I pointed out that I thought it a good idea for him to stay around for the centenary of Cinema next year, he groaned loudly and said, 'Oh, no] Son, I'll leave that to you.'
Hall was the third child of Charles Thomas and Florence Edith Hall. His grandparents arrived in Australia from England in the mid-1850s. In his autobiography, Directed by Ken G. Hall (1976), he noted that his generation was born with the movies, electric light, ice cream, the aeroplane, celluloid collars, ragtime, the motor car, iceboxes, the gramophone and, much later, radio and television ('with world wars the positive worst achievement of the century').
Ken Hall saw his first movies with his parents, sitting on the grass at North Sydney Oval behind a sheet which had been erected 40 feet from the grandstand which housed the projector. People watched the moving images from both sides of the sheet. Jerdans Moving Pictures came to North Sydney every week, and Hall was hooked. In 1916, at the age of 15, he became a cadet reporter for the Sydney Evening News and, a year later, he joined the publicity department of Union Theatres and Australasian Films as assistant to Gayne Dexter. Hall also had to service the publicity of First National Pictures, which awarded him a study tour of Hollywood and New York in 1925.
In 1927, when Hall's boss, John C. Jones, acquired the German film The Exploits of the Emden, which featured the sinking of HMAS Sydney, Hall was given his first film-making task of Australianising the sequences featuring the Sydney. It wasn't long before Bert Bailey, the actor, walked into Hall's office and said, 'I believe we're going to make a film together.' So commenced the highly successful 'Dad and Dave' series of Australian rural comedies: On Our Selection, Dad and Dave Come to Town, Grandad Rudd and Dad Rudd MP.
To avoid the enormous royalty payments due to American sound- recording manufacturers, Hall persuaded Stuart Doyle, head of Union Theatres, to take on an Australian optical recording system invented by the Tasmanian Arthur Smith. This led to the birth in the 1930s of Cinesound which, under Hall's leadership, became the largest production company in Australia. Cinesound produced 17 features for the Union Theatre group, all commercial successes. They included The Squatter's Daughter, Orphan of the Wilderness (featuring a kangaroo) and Lovers and Luggers, all of which introduced distinctively Australian country themes to city film audiences for the first time.
The arrival of Fox-Movietone newsreels in Australia from the US so incensed Doyle that he instructed Hall, in the middle of filming On Our Selection, to start a weekly Australian newsreel. Before shooting on their first feature was completed, Hall had the first Cinesound Review on the screens of every Union Theatres cinema in Australia, where it was to play for the next 40 years until television finally killed it. Cinesound also produced a wealth of shorts and documentaries on such diverse subjects as cricket, the outback, flying doctors and Australians at war.
If there is an Australian 'identity', Hall certainly brought it to the screen in his features and newsreels. The scripts for both were filled with pride and spirited nationalism. Hall brought an Australia to the screen which Australians had not had the opportunity to see before, and would not again until the renaissance of the Seventies. He won for Cinesound Australia's first Oscar with the production of the Second World War documentary Kokoda Front Line, filmed by Damien Parer, which shared the 1942 Academy Award for Best Documentary. Hall introduced Australian stars to the screen: Bert Bailey, George Wallace, Shirley Ann Richards, Peter Finch, Ron Randell, Jocelyn Howarth, Roy Rene and Cecil Kellaway. He directed his last feature, Smithy, for Columbia Pictures, in 1946.
I joined Cinesound in late 1955 to work for Hall. Working as a projectionist and assistant editor, I watched Hall's production of the Cinesound Review which was still then fervently Australian. Unlike the opposition Movietone News and the overseas newsreels, Hall's commentaries had a distinctive editorial style and opinion, unusual for the time and not evident even in today's television news.
It was in 1956 that I first saw grown men cry. The staff at Cinesound were summoned into the theatre around three o'clock. I remember it very clearly, the stunned shock on the faces of everyone as Hall announced he was leaving. The oldtimers and many not so old openly wept. Sir Frank Packer, Kerry Packer's father, had invited Hall to take over the running of Australia's first television station, Channel Nine. Hall pioneered Australian light entertainment on television with its own stars, Bobby Limb and Dawn Lake.
The Cinesound connection stayed. Cinesound produced the film coverage for the Channel Nine evening news for the next 10 years, transporting the edited film to the television station about 12km from the studio through Sydney's congested evening peak-hour traffic. The news quite often didn't arrive until just before air time.
Until he suffered a serious stroke last year, Hall continued to take an active interest in the fate and fortunes of Australian cinema, forever lambasting politicians and bureaucrats for what they were not doing for the industry. He had strong opinions about the type of films we should be making: first and last they should be commercial, aimed at filling cinemas. 'The market for Australian films is flooded with mediocre to weak product. Too many of these films cannot stand up to the competition and will drown. The crisis could have been averted before production. Just someone with professional background, and the guts to say 'No'.' This was Hall in 1979. It still applies today.
The Cinesound Review, with its jumping kangaroo on the title, was Hall's signature. Its trademark was 'The Voice of Australia'. For the artisans and technicians of our industry, Ken G. Hall was that voice. I shall miss the Sunday morning calls.