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.”