The Memoirs of J. Alan Kenyon or Behind the Velvet Curtain (Part 4)

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

Kenyon 

During the 1930s, scenic artist J. ALAN KENYON worked on film sets for legendary Australian film maker Ken G. Hall. In addition to designing sets for several George Wallace feature films, he returned briefly to the theatre for Beloved Vagabond.

Film Interlude Number Two; or, Just Let George Do It!

In ken g. hall’s (cinesound) 1939 Dad rudd mp production, the script called for a dam to burst and overflow the semi-constructed retaining wall. This never happens in reality, the engineers are always building above water level.

Again, it was a model, but this time the simulated dam wall was of rather large proportions and it was constructed on the studio lot at Pagewood, Sydney. The wall was twenty-five feet long and every detail of a real dam was exactly copied on the model. The uneven wall construction, showing the mortising of the poured concrete, the gangway and catwalks, the flying foxes and the surrounding terrain were faithfully copied, because the camera went from an actual dam to the model. A tank holding 100,000 gallons of water was constructed, out of camera range—a sluice and race leading to the platform behind the wall. There would be enormous pressure on the platform when the water was released for the flooding.

We used steel scaffolding for this platform. Incidentally, I used the very first imported experimental consignment in Australia. Below the wall the creek bed was dug out with the outlet pipes etc. built in. A hundred feet or more below the wall was a bridge which had to wash away just as the last car made it to the other side. The bridge was constructed in its wrecked condition, then joined together and held in position with wires.

The sequence of events was—first rain pouring down over the area, then the collapse, with the foundation being washed away with the flying foxes. Then the water in the tank was released, filling the dam behind the wall until it overflowed in a great cascade of boiling turbulence. Logs, let loose at intervals, were washed over the wall, rushed down the creek and finally banked up against the bridge, forcing it to capsize and be swept away. The six inch model car was pulled down a slope and over the bridge by silk threads. It was a breath-taking spectacle on the screen—but still a fake! The calculation of strength, stresses and strains of the wall, the platform and the judgement of water from the tank needed to be absolutely exact. The timing of the car pulled over the bridge so that its wheels ‘feathered’ the rising water was precisely timed, and at the right moment, I, myself, axed the holding wire which allowed the bridge to float away down-stream.

We did have one rehearsal with the water flowing over the wall, which emptied the tank. It then took all day to fill it again. The Director Ken Hall was, I think, hypnotized and forgot to call a halt, or—it could have been the ‘take’.

This spelt ‘finale’ to our struggles with storms and floods and washed away bridges—with the advent of rear projection within the studio. The next collection of odd bits and pieces belonged to a picture starring George Wallace and Alec Kellaway, Let George Do It—1939. Naturally this was a comedy with Wallace in the principal role. The script called for a motor-boat to vanish up a big outlet pipe into Sydney Harbour. We searched for days for a suitable hole but had no luck. We simply could not find one. Finally we overcame the difficulty without a great deal of trouble. A large circle of black velvet was stretched over a fairly smooth cliff face, and the edges 'modelled' into the rocks. By simply running the boat up to the apparent hole, represented by the black fabric, and then, when sufficiently close, cutting the camera, we got our effect. The actual entrance into the tunnel was done in the studio.

The same motor-boat cut a racing eight in halves in the middle of the harbour. Also, when the waves became somewhat rough and high, a few fish found their way on board. Just to cause the maximum amount of disturbance, a confused fish was to dive down Letty Craydon’s blouse. When the desired effect was obtained, the screams and contortions as the cold little fish wriggled frantically in its unfamiliar element inside Letty’s blouse, were frightfully funny to everyone—except poor Letty.

A gorilla was needed in the 1939 film—again with George Wallace and with John Dobbie—Gone to the Dogs. We obtained a batch of skins and gave them to a leading taxidermist with instructions to make them up into a suit. It was intended to transform one of our top heavyweight wrestlers into a reasonable facsimile of a gorilla. I duly picked up the finished job and opened it out in the studio, but to my dismay, found it to be a skin-tight fit. When worn, it would simply look like a man in a fur suit. In no way would it resemble a gorilla. Two of my property men, along with myself, worked non-stop over the weekend, unpicking the skins and remaking it nearer to requirements. We had to lengthen the arms, and make false 'hands' as well as false feet. It had to have a mobile mouth, with teeth and eyes that could roll. At least it no longer looked like an ad for the well-dressed man at the North Pole. Then we finally dressed the actor who was playing the part of the gorilla. The two men who had assisted me in the remaking of the skin were his dressers. They were in sharp contrast to each other: one was an international rugby player, the other was a dyspeptic with a hacking cough.

Before the skin was put on, shoulder pads, pads for chest and abdomen—altogether roughly four pounds of kapok—had to be put in place. With the temperature around 80 degrees the man inside was anything but comfortable. Getting the legs and arms into the skin was comparatively easy, but fastening the long zippers up the back was far from that with Fred Adkins, our gorilla, fidgeting all the time. Except for what was possibly unavoidable, wrestler Fred was an extremely fit and co-operative bloke. With much fumbling with the zipper, accompanied by a lot of mumbling, the small thin dresser finally lost his patience. In tones of extreme exasperation he muttered “Listen Fred, if you don't stand still, I'll drop you, I will.” Fred further complicated the situation with his laughter from inside the head.

When final shots were taken, except for a few incidental bits and pieces, it was the custom to hold a party in the studio to celebrate the successful completion of yet another picture. This particular party with George Wallace and John Dobbie turned out to be one of the best we ever held. These two performers who had played together many times on the stage performed a little sketch, especially written for a private party. George asked me to dress John up in a sheet. He was supposed to be the Mother Superior of a convent. George dressed himself. We rigged a flat of scenery with a door in it and George, when he was ready, came and knocked upon it. He wore a black straw boater, with a long-stemmed rose stuck in the crown, and a feather boa which circled his neck and trailed on the floor. A tight-fitting black coat, women's size, was buttoned up cock-eyed over his big paunch. His skirt was pulled up to show red—what in a bygone age were called—drawers. His face was made up and his lank hair flapped in all directions.

After knocking a few times, Dobbie, as Mother Superior, appeared at the door to see what the trouble was. Dobbie was a huge man, well over six feet and weighing at least twenty stone. The following patter ensued after some pantomime of Dobbie’s, pretending to be unable to locate his caller, always looking over George’s head. Eventually George grew impatient and pulled hard at Dobbie’s sheet to draw his attention down to him.

“Hi Mum,” said George.

“Well, you tramp, what can I do for you?”

“You see Mum, it’s like this. I've had a bit of bad luck.”

“You always do,” returned the Mother Superior. “What is your trouble my girl? Don't tell me—let me guess.”

“You couldn’t this time. It so happened I was walking down Little Bourke Street, minding my own business, when ...”

“All right, all right.” interrupted the Mother Superior, “I know the routine. I'll give you refuge, but you will have to behave yourself. Please proceed through these holy portals.”

“Oh, goodoh! Ta ever so Mum! You're a real lady.” And George walked through the door. Then John turned to follow. There were horrified shrieks from the girls and loud laughter from the men, when everyone saw the sheet only covered the front of Dobbie. It was quite indecent.

Back to things theatrical and the next episode also concerned George Wallace (1895-1960). On the opening night of The Beloved Vagabond at The Princess in April 1934 George was doing a ‘Napoleon number’. In those days the chorus men had to be tall as well as having to possess good voices. At this point in the show they were all lined up on the O.P. (Opposite Prompt) side of the stage when George made his appearance on the verandah, having walked through the French windows at the back. He stood at the top of six or eight steps making a comic speech, finishing with “Men! Forward march!” He tripped over his sword and somersaulted down the steps to land in the middle of the stage. At rehearsal he had always got up in time to march at the head of his soldiers, but alas! He was still down when the marching men reached the centre of the stage, and they marched all over him. The audience loved it and screamed with laughter. The unfeeling management implored George to keep the incident in, but he was adamant. There was to be no repeat performance. He swore that he was bruised all over and that he could not be bribed to make it happen again. After this he timed his fall more accurately.

As everyone knew, the baggy trousers, tartan shirt and slouch hat were the trademark of this really great comedian. Sometimes, however, he told his inimitable stories in a dinner suit, but I always thought that when he dressed in conventional fashion something was missing. His wonderful tale of little Aggie playing with a death adder in her backyard, and the one of Grandpa accidentally setting fire to his beard, causing a bushfire. These were funny.

During the making of one picture with Wallace, he had to fall from a plane and come to earth by parachute. The actual fall was produced in the studio. But it was one of George's bad days—the fall was so lacking in reality that it took very many takes before the director was satisfied. In the same picture was a cockatoo. It was a most grotesque looking bird. Although it was quite young it did not look a day less than eighty as it was entirely denuded of feathers. To add to its unfortunate appearance its beak had a malformation. Really, it was a very miserable specimen of the ornithological species. The upper and lower portions of its beak were overgrown and crossed into the bargain. The feet of this wretched bird were badly deformed, the claws being unduly long as well as tangled. It was an attraction as a freak at a Fauna Flora Park and because of this was very valuable to its owner, and it took a great deal of persuasion on the part of the production manager before he would consent to part with it. Great care was taken of this sinister bird.

The idea in the picture—George Wallace was supposed to have wandered by mistake into a laboratory and drunk a certain brand of spirit. The result of this was to give him uncontrollable hiccoughs. After leaving the lab and passing a garden wall, he saw a parrot perched upon it. The simple act of breathing on it was supposed to transform a perfectly ordinary feathered bird into the hideous freak we had borrowed. The transformation was affected by means of a puff of smoke. That seemed to be quite simple, but the property man who had undertaken the care of the bird had put a mattress on the other side of the wall so that if the bird took fright and toppled from the wall, it would not injure itself on the hard floor. As an extra precaution this careful props man lay down on the mattress himself in readiness to catch the bird if it became frightened when George hiccoughed at it. The bird was undoubtedly startled but the result was quite unforeseen. It did not fall but its droppings found a perfect target on the face of the outraged props man. The same crew member was given the job of keeping the highly polished floor in that same pristine condition. Unhappily a milkmaid, leading a real cow over it in one of the sequences, left a cowpat behind her charge. After cleaning up several times, he just stood with a bucket, until the camera was ready to roll. A day in the life of a property man was rarely without incident.

Talking about cows, I had never heard the expression ‘It's a fair cow!’ before I came to Australia, but I can still remember an unintentional use of the same word which to Australians would have been hilarious. It happened during a confirmation service in the Orkneys, where the Grand Fleet had its home and where the scuttling of the German fleet took place after World War One. The Bishop of Aberdeen was giving the address and he emphasized the greatness which originated in small beginnings. He gave as an instance the acorn as one of the small things which later attained greatness. He said “It falls from the tree and then, some cow treads it into the earth.” Imagine the mirth of an Australian congregation on hearing that pearl of wisdom. It just goes to show that the colloquialism of one country may be a profundity in another.

In 1937 we, Cinesound, made a picture called Broken Melody. It was a story of people living in the area known as ‘The Rocks’, in Sydney. A violinist is practising before an audience of down-at-heel inhabitants of the rock caves, grouped sitting round the mouth of their habitation. As he plays, he sees the figure of a girl coming towards the group down a flight of steps cut in the rock. She is singing as she descends. The violinist pauses to listen. For some time the music for the finale of an opera he was creating had been eluding him. Now he thinks that the sight of this beautiful girl will give him the inspiration for which he has been searching in vain.

For the finale of his opera, which of course is set on a stage, I had erected in the studio a flight of steps that divided two rows of houses of European architecture. These steps reached right to the studio ceiling. Diana du Cane came down these steps, singing the final number with the chorus lining the steps outside the houses where they lived. Some of them stood on little balconies with their wrought-iron balustrades.

This is only the introduction to the story. I had also designed Diana’s costume for this scene and, as I remember, it was a gown which had a figure-fitting undergarment buttoned from neck to hem, a full tulle overskirt with appliqued bands of dark velvet at decreasing intervals from the hem to the waist. Her head was framed in a starched lace collar. The frock was designed to fit in with the set and its architecture. I was very pleased with it. But—she never wore it. It was considered too sombre, too out-of-date. The one she wore was a Dolly Varden flouncy affair with a large picture hat.

The picture was previewed at the State Theatre in Sydney. As I parked my car outside Farmer’s I looked across to the show windows. They were completely curtained, while they dressed them for their Autumn show. At that time Farmer’s were definitely ‘on top’ for their window displays. After the show and supper, my wife and I strolled to our car. The curtains on Farmer’s had disappeared and the display was fully lit, showing their imported models of Autumn gowns. There, in a prominent position, was a model wearing my dress. I had had no previous view, and of course no contact with the designer, Molyneaux, but there it was, exactly as I had designed it. I had dreamed up an up-to-the-minute frock, with the added virtue that it blended with my scenery.

Occasionally something happens in the theatre which could very easily have turned into a tragedy. One such event occurred after the Gladys Moncrieff Company had taken a great many curtain calls at the finale of a performance. At last the applause died down as the curtain descended for the last time. The company moved off to their dressing rooms and just as the last member left the stage, the huge crystal chandelier parted from its straightener hook and fell with a mighty crash onto the stage. It actually hit the spot where only a few moments previously the company had been standing. It was very nearly the last curtain call for some of them.

Sometimes things do not happen in such a ‘fortunate’ way. After the 1929 fire in Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, there was a great deal of dismantling to be done. I happened to be standing near an electrician who had his arm resting between the bars of the switchboard. I suppose it was a case of familiarity breeding carelessness—perhaps he pushed his arm in too far, or maybe the screwdriver slipped. Anyhow, there was a blinding flash, and his arm a horrible mess. Another electrical fatality took place in the studio which was used by Efftee Films at Wattle Path. An electrician was on top of a high gantry securing a connection to the overhead wiring system which was simply suspended along the ceiling. He had the misfortune to take hold of a live wire and he was powerless to let go. The head electrician was faced with a shocking choice—if the current was switched off, there was the merest chance of his falling back onto the small gantry platform, but without all the luck in the world he would crash twenty feet down onto an ironized floor. The alternative was electrocution. The main switch was pulled, but the poor fellow was out of luck. He fell to the floor and although he lived, he never walked again.

I remember another incident—it was not very serious, but the result was a truly remarkable example of technicolour. The occasion was the Pacific Crossing in the 1944 film Smithy, a film owned and financed by the Americans but directed by Ken Hall. It was during the night when the Southern Cross was winging its way across the Pacific. This was, of course, a sequence where a replica of the plane was used in the studio. The reaction of the crew during a storm made it necessary for the film to be shot when the studio was in darkness, except for the lights in the cockpit. The area was roped off as a precaution against anyone walking into the revving propellers. It has often been noted that when the call of action comes, people are apt to forget all danger warnings. This happened at this time to the Assistant Art Director. Someone yelled out “Something's wrong!” Something was very wrong. An electrician had picked up a wire that was lying in a pool of water that had been made by the rain machine. As a consequence he received some unplanned ‘shock treatment’. The Art Director unthinkingly went to his aid, actually rushing beneath the rope and into the whirling propeller. Miraculously the blades skinned up his arm, pushing him away at the same time. He was not too badly hurt, but from hand to shoulder his arm was a wondrous medley of yellow, green and mauve.

Whilst on the subject of the Southern Cross it was at the time of a show (in 1931) called Sons o’ Guns that the Southern Cloud, a three-engine aircraft, was lost. The girl playing the lead was Bertha Riccardo. The news leaked out during the performance—Bertha's husband was on the Southern Cloud. Like a real trouper, she finished the show—but fainted as the show ended.

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