Shirley Ann Richards

  • The Memoirs of J. Alan Kenyon or Behind the Velvet Curtain (Part 5)


    Scenic artist J. ALAN (GEORGE) KENYON’s memoirs continue. In this installment, after taking time out from film work, he returns to the studio where among other things he is tasked with the creation of an underwater reef for the film Lovers and Luggers. Read Part 1» | Read Part 2» | Read Part 3» | Read Part 4»

    J.A.K. of All Trades

    It so happened that I did again forsake the theatre, fairly early on, to take up an entirely different job. I had been introduced to the game of lacrosse by a friend, a Doctor Callister who lived next door to me in Brighton, Melbourne. We did our practice by throwing the ball over the fence to each other. Going out onto the field one afternoon to play a match against one of the senior grade teams, I found myself marking a player who introduced himself as Stanley Myers, and we found time for a chat as the play was not coming our way too often. He was a business-man, running an advertising agency. He asked a lot of questions. How long had I been in Australia, whether I had ever been interstate, did I know many people, etc.? He advanced the opinion that a man should not settle down in the first place at which his ship dropped him. The sensible thing was to see as many of the states and cities as he possibly could, and then decide which appealed to him most as a good place to settle.

    He came forth with a very attractive proposition. He told me he had a vacancy for someone to go up North on his business. As luck happened, it was again a slack period in the theatre and there seemed nothing to prevent me from taking advantage of his offer. Anyhow, I went along to Mr Coleman to get his advice. He agreed that it would suit him if I took some leave right then. So I made arrangements with Mr Myers to commence work for him the following Monday. I was first of all to go on a training tour with him. We drove to Ballarat, and I stood at his elbow whilst he did his ‘sales talk’. There was a great variety of clients—some old, some new and we dealt faithfully with all except one, whom he said was ‘rather difficult’. He said he thought it might be personal antipathy, so suggested I should have a go and see how I worked it out.

    Myers himself was in the top bracket class as a salesman, so I tried to imitate his approach and general manner. Whatever the reason might have been, the ‘difficult client’ listened to my spiel and allowed me to book him up for twelve months. Mr Myers voiced his congratulations and departed forthwith to Melbourne. I was on my own, with a long list of people to interview in a dozen different towns. During the next two weeks the result was better than I had anticipated—evidently the routine I had been at pains to learn, worked. My teacher was very definite about the importance of three things: before approaching a new client, you must get a dossier on him from the local press, who seemed to be always willing to co-operate. You paid particular attention to what was said about the client's business, his background, his solvency and general reputation as a man who settled his debts promptly. The second rule was that you stayed in the best hotel available, in whatever town you were in, and the third was that you always travelled first class on a train.

    I thoroughly enjoyed my coverage of Victoria and New South Wales—I even got as far as Bourke. My figures continued to be quite satisfactory. My last client was one of the original tough guys, so I was jubilant when I booked him up for five years. By this time I was saying to myself “Enough is enough”. So when I returned to Melbourne and was offered the job of going to New Zealand and opening the business there, I turned it down. Instead, I went back to the theatre.

    However, I remained exceedingly grateful to Stanley Myers for putting in my way such a wonderful opportunity of seeing the country, and meeting a lot of Australian people. With all expenses paid.

    For some reason connected with one’s regenerate self, it is always a source of pleasure to remember that one was not found wanting and tongue-tied when it was necessary to make a suitable rejoinder to a hurled insult. Because I was not prepared to ‘play ball’ with a lady, I incurred her very considerable displeasure. Then something happened to persuade her that her enemy was delivered into her hands. We were on location and someone, with an idiot’s sense of humour, hid her handbag. Unfortunately in the bag were the pay envelopes of all the other women. When it had gone long past time for the bag to be returned by the joker, I told her not to worry because it would be sure to turn up, as someone must be playing a practical joke. She was a charming girl—before everyone, with all the dignity she could muster, she opened up with all guns going full blast! 

    “Oh, so now I know,” she said scornfully. “I've wondered about you, what you were before you had this job. I imagine you have a shady past, just a common thief and pickpocket.” My reply “Don't be so damned meretricious.” I wondered a bit grimly if she would have to look up the meaning of the word, and what she would think when she did. We never spoke to each other again and I did not even get an apology when the fool who hid the bag in the first place decided the ‘joke’ had gone on long enough, and confessed to his stupid prank.

    Just to try and set my story straight, as I realize I have jumped around quite a bit, due to memories resurfacing in unexpected places, in 1935 Efftee Films folded, after the death of its founder, Frank Thring. The following year I found myself joining a team at Ken Hall’s Cinesound, along with a newly appointed assistant director, Ronald Whelan, the Australian architect Eric Thompson—who had Hollywood experience, and chief of cinematography George Heath, who had succeeded Frank Hurley, now heading up a new documentary film unit. And in 1936 back projection was being used for the first time, and after an enormous amount of trial and error, somehow we manage to master it. Since I had first moved into motion pictures, in the early 1930s, I found I was able to paint to a standard of detail which was photographable, and get away with it. I painted backgrounds, even buildings, that were filmed from ten or twelve feet, my early training had certainly paid off—with ‘glass shots’ particularly, and also with ‘matting’. When production costs could well be prohibitive with the building of a very elaborate roof or ceiling, the glass was used as a means of getting the result, at very small cost. I shall explain!

    When the walls of the set have been constructed and put up on the sound stage, the camera is placed in position and in front of the camera, at about nine or ten feet, a sheet of optical clear glass of roughly seven by four feet. The procedure from then on is very exacting. Looking through the camera and using the thinnest of silk threads, the vertical lines of the set’s walls are projected upon the glass. Remember, you are looking through a 35mm aperture and one hundredth of an inch error will be magnified enormously upon the screen. When all the lines are marked on the glass, the artist then draws the ceiling or top part of a building, for instance, on the glass, matching exactly to match up with the under structure. It is then painted. With the people on the set, and of course behind the glass and also below any painting, the result can be remarkable—relying on the quality and realism of the painting’s execution.

    Another technique is to matt in on an enlargement such additions as required. This is the routine: the cameraman matts off the top of the film so that having exposed the bottom half, the top half is still unexposed. The scene required may be of a building in another country, or a landscape. In a building scene the walls would be built only sufficiently to be above the heads of the actors. After shooting, an enlargement is made from a frame of the film, which shows the scene with a blank top half. Into this top part is painted whatever is required to complete the building. Landscapes can be altered similarly—very careful drawing and painting is necessary, but it saves much in costs.

    Reverting to 1929, when the Regent Theatre in Collins Street was about to open, Frank Thring (Senior) asked Mr Coleman to lunch. When he came back to the Paint Room at His Majesty’s it had been arranged that I was to take over the scenic department at the Regent. For six months I painted non-stop stage presentations, which got bigger and better, competing with the State Theatre (now the Forum) in Flinders Street—but which eventually were scrapped. I still had six months of my contract to run.

    The manager Bert Cowan (Louise Lovely was his wife) asked me to colour some photographs of the banners in the Plaza Theatre. Asking why, I was told they were to be sent to America for reproduction of similar banners for the New Plaza Theatre in Sydney. Saying that there were artists in Australia who were very capable of the execution of these, I requested the cost of getting one made, with the idea of painting it myself. It was agreed and I had a banner made and I painted a knight on a white charger with a castle background. Bert Cowan didn’t believe it, because the original banners had been executed by a famous studio in America. It was shown to Mr Thring who immediately said “You paint them for Sydney Plaza!” They hang in the theatre today.

    With the completion of this job, Frank Thring suggested that perhaps I would like to manage a theatre—and that is how I was made assistant manager of the Gardiner Theatre in South Camberwell. One very hot night I was standing outside, getting a little of the slight breeze that had come with a change, and one of the supervisors caught me in this ‘frightful disregard for the rules’. He started to remonstrate, but before he got too far I told him I had the last word in the matter. He disputed this until I made it quite clear that I hadn’t really wanted the job and that I had resigned. I left and went home.

    Shortly after I joined John and William Rowell at Luna Park, where we were involved in the rush production of a Luna Park for Adelaide. All the animals, props, etc. were made in Melbourne, and I painted all the lions, tigers, polar bears and suchlike. When construction of the site was ready in Adelaide we went over to supervise the building of the caves and other departments. Anyway, the park was eventually finished and opened, but it was not a financial success and was dismantled and shipped to Sydney, where it was re-erected and still operates.

    Perhaps my time sequencing may be at fault but it was back to the theatre then, but to make moving pictures. His/Her Majesty's Theatre in Exhibition Street in Melbourne had been burnt out. Efftee Films (Frank Thring) took over and the first production was Co-respondents Coursewith John D’Arcy and Elaine Hamill. It was followed by The Haunted Barnwhich had Brett Randall, of St Martin’s Theatre, in the cast, along with several other old timers. Then came Pat Hanna’s Diggers(1931) and Diggers in Blighty(1933). For the latter I had my first experience of making a model which was actually to be used on location. This was erected in front of the camera and then merged into the unmade road. With a deploy of troops moving up this road, my ruins and the models of a bombed church and dwellings were really quite effective.Arthur Higgins the camera-man did some very successful running matt shots.

    After the Diggerfilms, we made, I think, four with George Wallace. His Royal Highness(1932), Harmony Row(1933), Ticket in Tatts(1934),etc.—they may not have been top Hollywood class but they were damned funny and when shown the audience thoroughly enjoyed them.

    In 1937 we made a film called Lovers and Luggers—often referred to as Buggers and Boats—a story of pearling luggers. The exterior sequences were concerned with four or five luggers lying ready to set out for the oyster fields. Shooting—always dependent on the weather—was held up by the sun sulking behind clouds. Everything got behind, including the underwater scenes, which we had arranged to shoot in an Olympic Pool. Because of the delays, by the time we got around to these shots, summer had come and the pool was open to the public—consequently full of swimmers and bodies. This was the reason for the decision to build a tank in the studio. It was quite a big one—thirty feet square—and unfortunately I allowed myself to be talked out of what I believed to be a necessary addition—some sort of filtering system. When the tank was half full of tap water, it became evident that shooting scenes in it was impossible: penetration was practically nil!

    It was suggested by someone that sea water could be the answer—it was very clear. Remember—I had wanted to filter the tap water. To transport the sea water to the studio, we hired a petrol wagon, and at the end of the day it suddenly dawned on me that I had a problem. What to do—leave the sea water in the tank overnight or pump it out of the tanker into our tank? Whichever I did—the inside of the tanker would rust—so we emptied the water into the tank. Sure enough, next morning, the inside of the tanker was rusty and useless for further transporting of water—or anything else! So, another rush job, making a wooden tank which was fitted to a lorry. It was something like 14 feet by 4 feet by 3 feet. This was trundled backwards and forwards to the sea and the tank gradually filled to the required level. And - when it was full we could see right through those thirty feet. Of course everyone was happy and arrangements were made to shoot the underwater scenes the following morning.

    Alas, next morning when I looked through the glass windows the water was as opaque as the previous tap water had been—but instead of a murky colour, it was a nice green. The infinitely small marine-life had grown again and again the works were clogged up. A little knowledge of chemistry helped: I made a solution of magnesium sulphate (Epsom Salts) and sodium carbonate and when this was thrown into the tank of sea water it formed a layer of ‘snowflakes’ which gradually sank, taking with it all the impurities in the water to the bottom. We could again see right through to the other side of the tank.

    Everything was set—arrangements for the divers to come in tomorrow—our troubles would be over. They were —until next morning when the divers entered the tank when they, of course, stirred up all the sludge on the bottom. It was hopeless! Another fiasco and I’m left again ‘holding the baby’—what do we do now?

    I was very dogmatic—scrap the tank and cut our losses—because without a filter it was useless persevering. So back to the original location—the Olympic Pool. I went out to see the Manager of the baths—he was a retired Navy man. It was a long argument for the baths were open and it was not anyone’s intention to close down so that we could use the pool. After all kinds of suggestions, the Manager was persuaded to rope off half of the baths, giving us use of the deep end. Then another major problem presented itself! Somehow I had to build a thirty by forty foot platform and get it to the bottom of the pool. The only entrance to the venue was a standard doorway and no space for building on the surrounding edges of the pool.

    I remember going back to the studio, sitting quietly and thinking out the possible ways and means of doing this particular job. It came eventually—I located the architect and borrowed the plans of the pool from him. We drew on the studio floor the curved bottom of the section and from this drawing, ‘legs’ were made to fit the shape of the pool floor to the height required—ten of them thirty foot long. These would go through the door and together with planks, rocks, etc. they were transported to the site. Before putting the legs into the water, a sandbag was tied to the end of the central leg which ensured that the leg would float upright. All the legs were placed in the pool and tied off at equal intervals along the side. Then with a dinghy, the other ends were evenly and similarly spaced. The planks were then placed on the upright floating legs, the tarpaulin then stretched over this platform and the rock pieces put into position. From the dinghy we emptied dozens of bags of sand onto the platform so that it gradually sank, and eventually when the sand equalled the buoyancy, it came to rest gently on the bottom of the pool. The set was then dressed, the fish dumped in and the camera bell lowered into position.

    All the shots with the divers, including the fight underwater, were photographed—all had been successfully completed. It was then that the director, Ken Hall , had an additional—not in the script—shot he wanted. He would like a shot of a completely flat sea bed, minus the rock pieces. I explained that the rocks were holding the platform on the bottom and without them the whole thing would float to the top. Well, he insisted—so I was to try and give it to him. I sought the help of the divers who, when I explained the idea to them were by no means happy, but would do their best to help. I suggested that they went below and with the greatest care, try to manoeuver the rock pieces off the platform, but so that they caught on the edge of it and held it down.

    They went into the water and I got into the dinghy so that I could watch from above. They staggered along with the first rock and moved it to the edge where it held the platform down, but they were out of luck with the next, and the next—then things did happen... The platform started on its see-saw journey to the surface—the cameraman left his camera and dashed up to the top of the bell—the divers were lying flat on their backs, their air-pipes and life-lines all a-tangle. My dinghy overturned and I got shot into the churned up mess of sand, seaweed and fish. But, within minutes the crew had the divers on shore and their helmets off—only slightly ruffled.

    When all the excitement was over, I looked around, but everybody apart from my crew, had silently stolen away. It took a long time to dismantle the platform, clear the rocks from the bottom of the pool and then clean up the mess on the pool floor which was thick with sand and dead fish. This the divers did with a vacuum cleaner. I would like to mention that the filtration plant of these particular baths was constructed of many tanks of different sands, coarse to fine, and the water pumped through them at the rate of 12,000 gallons per hour. It took at least six hours of pumping and filtering for the water to be sufficiently clear for shooting underwater. After that it would start to cloud up.

    Late that night my dinner was interrupted by the Assistant Director, Ron Whelan, phoning to say—the set as intended was wanted for nine o’clock next morning. After a few seconds, I told him the pool was cleaned up, everything had been dismantled and was back in the studio. I then rang off and continued by delayed dinner.

    We faked the shots in the studio with miniature divers in a tank. Because there was acting on board a pearling lugger, I had built a full-size one in the studio. This was to be wheeled in front of the rear projection screen where action on the lugger was to be photographed. During the move onto the sound stage, things started to happen. Trying to economize, I had used sets of cheaper castors, and these were too flimsy to cope with the weight and one by one they collapsed, until the lugger was sitting flat on the stage. It was quite a job to lift that whole boat up, using jacks, and to then replace the castors with more expensive but much stronger ones. So much for false economy.


  • The Memoirs of J. Alan Kenyon or Behind the Velvet Curtain (Part 7)


    In late 1936, production started on Tall Timbers, Ken G. Hall’s tenth feature for Cinesound. J. ALAN (GEORGE) KENYON  recalls some of the incidents surrounding the making of the film in this instalment of his memoirs. Read Part 1» | Read Part 2» | Read Part 3» | Read Part 4» | Read Part 5» | Read Part 6»

    George Pulls the Strings; or, TIMBERRRRRR!!!!!

    For the Ken Hall film Tall Timbers (Cinesound, 1936) Frank Hurley was responsible for the storyline, Frank Harvey was the screenwriter (and actor) and George Heath was the Director of Photography. The script called for a Timber Drive and the location chosen was thirty miles or so outside Gloucester, in New South Wales.

    Viewing a small mountain that appeared thickly covered with big trees, we agreed it should be ideal for the purpose. The Production Manager was to engage sufficient men to cut away all the scrub and small trees, leaving, we hoped, only the big ones to give us our Timber Drive. On our drive out of Gloucester to this location, called Craven Plateau, we came upon an extensive plain in the middle of which radiated five tracks. Not knowing which one to take we stayed put until we saw a puff cloud of dry track made by a car coming over the hill. We sat and waited. Eventually a car, an old model Ford, pulled up at our outstretched hands. You may believe it or not, but from that moment hysteria overtook the five of us in the car.

    As the old Ford stopped, we saw the exact duplicate of Bert Bailey’s Dad Rudd at the wheel. He switched off the engine, put his head on his hand at the wheel and apparently fell asleep. From the car then stepped Fred McDonald’s representation of Dave. With not a word spoken, our car was trembling with the suppressed laughter of five people nearly in convulsions. It must have been market day—Dave was dressed up.  He took off his porkpie hat and the effect was staggering. Dave had his hair plastered down with grease, brushed forward and then up in a quaff. He was cross-eyed and sported a Clark Gable moustache, a butterfly collar with a shoe-string tied in a bow. I for some reason was still able to speak—the others were nonplussed. I asked the way to Craven Plateau.

    “Well,” said Dave, “Yer take that track. Yer go a mile or so and y’ come to a gate. Don’t worry about shuttin’ it, it’s been off its ‘inges for years. The next gate y’ come to y’ won’t have to shut—it’s open with a dead cow jammed up against it. Another mile or so y’ go through another gate. Be careful of that one, I did me courtin’ on it. Another one has a bit of history—old man O’Malley swallowed his false teeth tryin’ to open it one day—he choked.”

    So did I at this point, and I have never been able to put together the remainder of Dave’s descriptions of the other gates to be encountered on the way to Craven Plateau. As Dad and Dave drove off, there was an explosion of laughter from our car. It was ill-mannered but it was also one of the funniest things that ever happened: and we had discovered our Dad and Dave in real life.

    Returning to the Timber Drive, I went to the location a few days before the unit was to leave to make sure everything was ready for shooting. After climbing the very steep hill and arriving breathlessly at the top, I could only second the conclusion of the foreman of the timber-cutters that there could not be a Timber Drive. The trees, when revealed after the cutting away of all the small ones and the undergrowth, were so far apart that the drive was impossible. On phoning Sydney, I was dismayed to hear that the unit was already on its way.

    We did not attempt the Drive but we felled, dynamited, etc. many individual trees and got some magnificent shots which were later of great use in the film. To take these shots was a precarious job for after we had set off the explosive, the tree had not always fallen. As we proceeded through the forest, one would hear a crack or a creak and look around wondering which tree, and which way the erring monster would fall, and would we be clear. They were big trees. One gigantic mahogany we had put six charges of dynamite around the base and it was still standing. Some trees persisted to lean at a dangerous angle but to not fall, but we got all we wanted of trees crashing. And we had to have a Timber Drive, and, being the Art Director and Special Effects, it fell to me to produce one. No sapling or small tree will deputize for a two-hundred foot Black Butt, so they had to be manufactured. Lorry loads of small trees and branches were collected from the bush and in the studio we went to work building tapering trunks from many pieces, attaching branches to them—making miniature trees four feet high to represent two-hundred foot ones! Eventually a few hundred trees had been created. For foliage I sliced up small sponges which I had dyed various strengths of green and attached them to the trees’ branches. To the camera they resembled branches of eucalyptus leaves.

    Next, a platform eighty feet long by thirty was built at an angle of about thirty degrees. This was dressed with undergrowth, boulders and a small waterfall. The trees with a scar cut in them were then fixed on the ramp, spaced so that each row when falling would hit the one below—the domino effect. Each tree had a wire attached and this wire, with five other wires, led to a single one which, in its turn, was made fast to a lever. A series of levers each side of the platform would control the felling of the trees. In addition, each lever had a length of cord attached to the next one to be certain—as calculated—that when one row of trees had been pulled down, the next row would fall.

    When it came to it, the miniature trees would not of course fall naturally and the requirements of slow-motion photography had to be worked out for speed purposes.

    On each side of the platform a slide had been built and this was to take a toboggan with cameraman and camera riding down, photographing the trees from the side as they fell. Eventually the job was finished—all trees in position, wires checked, the slides greased and the cameras and operators in position. There were ten slow-motion cameras in use. Any rehearsal was out—it had to be right the first time. With a final check we gave the okay, and the Director gave the words—“Cameras—action!”

    The explosion of the top row of trees—called King trees—was the signal to start pulling the levers. The toboggans were released down the slides. In six or eight seconds the weeks of work lay in a tangled mess. This was all a fake, but on the screen it was a magnificent spectacle with the individual trees added and a separate shot of some larger modelled trees crushing all about it. It was all worth the headache and the painstaking work of playing Mother Nature and creating trees.

    The film got rave notices from the Press, one critic going so far as to add “Nothing to surpass this has come out of Hollywood.” A letter of complaint was published by an indignant timber-cutter who, stating he had been cutting down trees all his life, was very critical and deplored deceiving the public into believing hardwood timber could be crashed by a drive—but he never mentioned that it had been faked!

    Other incidents I recall from the time: the camera I had been using was at the top of a hill. When the day’s shooting was over, I sent one of the boys up to cover the camera up for the night. Sitting down to dinner—I remember it was good Captain Salmon that the cook had turned into a fish stew—awful—and it was evident that one of the crew was missing. It was the chappie I had sent up the mountain.  There was absolutely no hiding place in the uninhabited and dilapidated hut in which we were dining. We finished our meal, having decided to give Tommy Dalton another half hour, but still he failed to materialize. So, as it was dark by this time, we had to organize a search party and go find him.

    First going to the timber-cutters’ camp, we told them of a man lost. The foreman was an ex-soldier with a Distinguished Conduct Medal, and had left a leg in France. He assured us that there was no need to worry, we’d find Tommy okay. He got a torch and we fell in behind him, arriving at the starting point, the place where I’d sent Dalton up the hill. Flashing his torch on the ground now and again, we made progress by the clues only he, the old bushman, could see. We kept up a yell and a coo-wee/coo-ee when after half an hour we heard a return shout. The foreman said “He’s in the creek!” Losing his way, Dalton had reasoned that the creek meandered past the camp, therefore, if he followed it he would come out eventually at the camp. It was a very hot night and Tommy had stripped off for a cooler and when we found him—in the beam of the torch—he was frantically trying to pluck off hundreds of blood-sucking leeches that had nearly totally covered his naked body. We were all very sorry for him, but he had given us a lot of trouble—although it did break the monotony of one night.

    These timber-cutters are a valiant breed of men, usually skinny, but with unlimited stamina and energy to swing an axe all day without showing tiredness—no job for weaklings. I stared at the lunches which they drew out of their sugar sacks at midday—the bread of their sandwiches was an inch thick and the filling a great slab of meat. On the last day of shooting we had sent the lorry into Gloucester for a cask of beer—this was for the timber men. When we were packing up we sent it over to them and the last we saw of it was balanced over a head, with the last dregs dripping into a mouth.

    All packed up and ready to move off, we started on the journey back to town and our next location at Stroud, where we were to take shots of the timber mill in action. As we started off, every timberman mounted his pony—consequently they were all just ahead of us on the one-way bullock track.  They cantered ahead, we were behind in a cavalcade, until after a mile of slow progress we tooted the horn. The horsemen moved over to the side—but not the safe side—over to the edge of a five hundred foot drop. I don’t suppose anyone has ever seen a display of horsemanship to equal that last run before they were passed.

    Bareback—everyone of them—with rope halters and their sugar sacks slung over their shoulders, they rode the edge of that track at the gallop and in single file. I am still convinced that only two of each horse’s legs were on the ground—the other two were thrashing the air over the edge!

    To conclude, an episode—which still gives me a belly laugh—occurred during the filming of what was intended to be the Timber Drive described earlier. We had engaged a cook for the camp, a nice, polite young man with no knowledge at all of the culinary arts. As I have explained, the Drive was the most ghastly failure and when this had been proved beyond all doubt, and we were all dismally surveying the wreckage, each occupied with his own gloomy thoughts, a small polite voice cut across the silence. “Shall I serve afternoon tea now, sir?” piped up the cook. With an explosive “Christ!” Ken Hall took off his hat and, reminiscent of a well-known sea captain named Kettle, jumped on it. He was heard to mutter “God forgive me for what I am thinking.”

    IMG 0729 Tall Timbers 2 bigger