In Part 8 of J. ALAN KENYON’s memoirs, he recalls (among other things) working on the 1940 epic film Forty Thousand Horsemen, the story of Australian Light Horsemen, directed by Charles Chauvel.

We'll Give It a Go, Mate!

The teahouse of the august moon (1956) had sets which were quite complicated and heavy. When it went on tour, it cost so much in transport and time that I was asked if I could reduce the sets without losing the spectacle. I first scrapped all those that had been built, then painted them on the flat, and was very gratified when I was told they looked better that way. This might possibly have been so, but the important thing, and this is very much so from a business angle, the costs for transport and erection were infinitesimal compared with the original costs. Maybe that fact gave a valeur de la rose to the statement that the appearance of the sets had improved. Incidentally, the man in charge of the transportation and building of the sets, after it had left Sydney, rushed to Newcastle for the opening. There he had a heart attack and died on his way home. Percy Reid was a fine and conscientious member of the profession.

Perhaps this is the right place to mention some of the real people of the theatre who received no fanfares, no curtain calls, but who gave everything they had to the theatre. They were humble people, but they had a gallantry and high spirit all their own. One of these was an old property man named Bill Lincoln, who had an accident falling from a high rostrum, injuring his feet so badly that they were permanently deformed into little more than stumps. To make matters worse, he insisted on continuing to do his job, thereby ruining any hope there was of his feet healing into normal shapes. He helped set out props, crawling on his knees, dragging his mutilated feet behind him whilst they were still in bandages.

Another property man was Bill Richards. He suffered from lumbago and when he was in the throws of a severe attack, which made any bending exceedingly painful, he would get one of his boys to tie a length of board up his back and around his thighs. Which meant he was prevented from bending and his part of the show could go on.

One of the electricians truly had the sense of humour William Locke has described as the ‘bubble on the cup of courage’. This man, another Bill, surname Hunt, had undergone a major operation for cancer. Directly he was out of hospital he was back at the theatre and on the job again, and never missed a day—until the end came. It must have taken a lot of guts for him to say at the end of one particular night’s performance ‘Well boys, you’d better get your two bobs ready’. He died two days later.

Another electrician, Reg Jones, who never missed a day or a performance, had the worst kind of heart trouble. It never prevented him from rushing home at 5 pm and back again at 7.30, although he was head of his department. I remember saying ‘Cheerio’ to him one lunch hour as he was off to Adelaide. He arrived there, but in the middle of greeting his conferees/confreres he dropped dead.

These are the unsung heroes of the theatre. I wonder—does any other job have such a hold on its servants …. My old master, William R. Coleman (1864-1932), in hospital with a cancer just removed from his throat, had only one worry. ‘I must get out of here soon. I have Waltzes from Vienna to paint, and it is only a month to opening night.’ He never saw the opening night and George Upward was the one to paint those sets. It is not easy to understand so much devotion beyond and above the call of duty. There is no glory attached to it, and not much money; but there it is. If one is bred in the tradition of the theatre, one is irrevocably of it!

I have never been conscious of any change in my attitude since the day I first began in the theatre, but something happened to give it a boost in rather odd circumstances. It happened to me at Cinesound the first week I was there. At that time Stuart F. Doyle was the chairman of directors of Greater Union Theatres. One afternoon I received a telephone call from his secretary saying Mr. Doyle would like to see me at his Point Piper flat at seven o’clock that evening. I went along, rather mystified, and after the usual sherry and small talk, I was handed a document. ‘This is my itinerary while I am overseas,’ he said. ‘If you ever run into any trouble cable me to the address here, opposite the date.’ I did not in the least understand but I was profuse in my thanks. However, I never had any cause to do any cabling to the address he had indicated. Maybe my guardian angel had stood guard during the period and averted all evil.

At one time, during my early days in the theatre, in the 1920s, we were very slack. The forthcoming show had already been painted—there was a lot of standing about, or cutting numerous stencils—so I answered an advertisement by an American Motion Picture Director who required a secretary and assistant.  I got the job and found that he was hoping to start production in Australia. He was Gerald F. Bacon, and he was married to a one-time actress Lilian Meyer. They had brought, by cargo ship, their son and daughter, all their furniture, their car and a large collection of films which had been directed by Mr. Bacon. They settled into a large house in Caulfield that Mrs. Bacon owned, opposite the race-course. I was given a room there, in case pressure of work made it necessary to stay overnight.

Our first job was to produce a script. Just about this time, the Tye-Corteen scandal concerning the racehorse Purser, winner of the 1924 Caulfield Cup, was occupying a lot of space in the newspapers. We made this the leitmotif of our story, but giving it a Melbourne Cup background. I accompanied Bacon to all his meetings with business men whom he was endeavouring to interest in investing in picture production. On occasional nights, we arranged with certain people—who had considerable social value—to loan us the grounds of their stately homes as settings for Gerald Bacon’s films. We would have a screen erected in the garden and the underlying idea was to interest the guests whom each host had gathered together in the prospectus of a company which Bacon hoped to form.

It was all very charming, very dignified, very much appreciated—and a complete waste of time. Melbourne was not ready to start up a motion picture industry. It seemed doubtful it would ever be. You can lead a donkey to water ...

The Bacons threw in the towel, decided to fold their tents and return home. One day before their departure Gerald said to me ‘Let’s drive down to the Docks. I want to see the ship which brought us over from the States.’ We drove to the Docks and found the captain in his cabin. We had a drink and arrangements were made for the transportation of the entire Bacon household back to America. When we left to return to the house in Caulfield, Gerald said ‘I’ll drive. You sit in the back with the captain.’ After chatting about this and that for a few minutes, I nearly shot through the roof at his next remark. ‘I hear that you are thinking of going to America. If you do decide to go, keep an eye on my ship’s movements and then come and see me when I am next in Melbourne. I’ll sign you on as something and you can have a free passage.’ I suppose I should have known what to expect, because both Gerald and his wife had quite strongly expressed the wish that I should go back to the States with them. They seemed to consider that I had some potential which, with Gerald’s help and influence, would launch me on a career in the American theatre or picture production. I was in my late 20s at this stage and I have, naturally enough, often though of what might have been, if I had been able to establish myself in the rat race of Broadway or Hollywood. Both Gerald and Lilian Bacon came back to Australia during the Second World War. He was in an official capacity, and she was in the uniform of the American Red Cross. They stayed on permanently, and I attended, much later, their respective funerals.

When we were making the film Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940) we had an original Sergeant of Light Horse on the job, in charge of the riders and their horses. These men were recruited from absolutely anywhere—quite a number were found hanging around pubs, willing to take a chance on anything to earn a few shillings. Most of these men had never been on a horse before but did not seem to mind risking their necks in what to them was a new adventure. They were, naturally, not among the elite who rode in the production’s famous Charge of the Light Horse segment.

These men were only used for trekking across the desert at a slow pace. All they had to do was to stay on their horses. If they could manage not to separate themselves from their mounts they were doing all that was required of them. One day Charles Chauvel, the director of the film (for ‘Famous Feature Films’), told the sergeant that he wished him to gather all the men and horses together at dawn the following morning. He wanted to get a silhouette effect by taking them up a great sandhill and down the other side. The route upwards was not steep, just a long and easy ascent. That involved no difficulties for our warriors, but when it came to the other side, it required horsemen of another calibre. This descent involved an angle of perhaps 45 degrees.

‘Blimey!’ exclaimed the sergeant, dismay clearly visible on his face. ‘Have a heart! These blokes can only just manage to stay on—you’ve seen what they can do. They’d never make the climb up without falling over backwards, and as to going down that steep decline, it will look like the Battle of Waterloo—men and horses lying all over the place. It will be a shambles ...’ He concluded.

‘That’s exactly what I’d like to film, Sergeant,’ the director surprised him with. ‘You go and have a talk with the men. Tell them what I want and ask them if they think they can do it.’ The conversation among the temporary troopers when the message was passed on to them could best be described as ‘very flowery indeed’. Eventually the bolder among them overcame the protests of the more timorous and finally all the blokes made a decision. ‘Okay, we’ll give it a go, mate!’ And contrary to all expectations, they made the journey up the hill without mishap; but the descent was quite unforgettable. The horses came down in every conceivable way—on their rumps, their noses and their knees—but by some miracle those inexperienced riders stayed with them. It was wonderfully effective.

I recall the end of shooting Forty Thousand Horsemen: we had begun to film at dawn and had gone straight through without lunch, hoping to finish up everything that day. The horses, as well as the men, had had nothing at all and were both hungry and thirsty. When the last shot was in the camera, the sun was sinking below the horizon and everyone’s thoughts were turning gratefully towards making camp for the night. There is always a feeling of thankfulness when all the location shots have been taken. The sand-dunes on Botany Bay’s Kurnell had been blown so far inland that practically every acre of ground was covered in sand. This was where we had made our camp and had corralled the horses.

After work was over, it was the accepted thing to grab yourself a horse and ride back to camp. By ill-chance, I happened to be standing on the offside of a big black which must have been all of seventeen hands. Without thinking, I swung myself up into the saddle only seconds before intuition told my mount it was a case of ‘Home, James!’ and with a snort, it wheeled on its hind legs, making for the camp and nourishment. It was now almost dark and the terrain was anything but level or safe. My mount was thirsty and starving and off we went, with me clinging frantically to the pommel. My only concern—staying in the saddle. As the camp had been made at the base of a high sandhill we both simply slid down and at the bottom I disassociated myself from my mount by slipping off his rump. I hastened to do this before he rose from the sitting position he had adopted to descend the hill. He then went on his way, and I went on mine—with no regrets.

We had tents—one was for dining, the other served as a kitchen. The plumbing had a certain simplicity.  One day during the lunch period there was a feminine shriek from outside. As I was nearest the entrance I rushed out to find Betty Bryant, our leading lady in Forty Thousand Horsemen, lying in a drain which was a ditch dug outside the kitchen tent where the used water could run away. After he had washed the dishes, the cook simply threw the water into this ditch.  It was both smelly and slimy, and as Betty had attempted to jump across the ditch she had slipped and fallen headlong into this ill-smelling slime. She was wearing her fur coat over her costume of drab rags at the time and she was covered with grease. I stood her on her feet and hosed her down. Later in the shoot, during the bombing of the set, Betty Bryant had a very narrow escape. Charges of explosives had been set in the houses, to simulate bomb hits upon them. One of these was placed within a solid arch which threw lumps of concrete over a very wide area. One large piece just missed Betty by inches.

Another incident, years before, which even today, just recalling, makes me shudder—it happened at the theatre in 1925 during the show Kid Boots. This was a musical with a golfing story. The golf sticks were kept at the top of a ramp, leading down to the backstage door.  One day when I was walking across the stage, I took an iron down from the rack. I had almost finished a cigarette which I upended on the floor at the top of the ramp. The big doors, which opened onto the street through which the scenery was unloaded, were closed. A small wicket gate in the doors was used when the main doors were shut. I addressed the butt on the floor and took a mighty swing with the club. At that exact moment the wicket door opened and a man came on through and at that identical split-second of time when his head was silhouetted in the opening, with only a few inches to spare either side, the head of the club left the shaft. It was propelled with the speed of a bullet towards the door, and by the greatest luck, passed between the man’s head and the narrow opening in the door. If there had been a deviation of only one inch towards his head, well ... as I say, I still shudder to think of what might have been the outcome.

But back to film production and Forty Thousand Horsemen. One afternoon the director Charles Chauvel changed horses in mid-stream. He decided he would prefer a white Arab pony to the roan he had. After telling this to the production manager, he said it was to be ready on the set at 9 o’clock tomorrow morning. The production manager, Jack, looked at me saying ‘Coming?’ I fell for it and we both got into a car, had our dinner and then set off, now quite dark and raining. We called on all the riding schools and racing stables around Sydney, at last arriving at the outlets of the city. We now had the open country before us. All Jack Souter’s contacts had no idea where we should find a white pony—Arab strain! Eventually we were miles out in the country—our torch given out, we were wet, fed up, and had little hope of finding our pony.

We were at least thirty miles from Sydney when we got a lead from an old circus hand. He had a white pony in a paddock—if we could find it—and he was also fed up, being pulled out of bed at one in the morning. With no torch, some damp matches, our task was becoming worse and worse. Tramping over uneven ground, over fences, and stumbling in ditches in the dark was just too bad, but luck was finally with us when a white blob appeared before us. Striking our last matches, we saw more or less what we wanted—a white pony, and by all the luck, it did have an Arab strain!

Returning to the house we got the help of the owner who assisted us to catch the horse and to tie it up. Next we had to find a horse-float—which meant knocking up someone else at this ungodly hour. Anyway, we thought, horse people are early risers and at four o’clock we found the owner of a horse-float who was nearly up. Telling him the whereabouts of the pony and stressing the fact that it was wanted in the studio before 9 o’clock, we got back into our car and went home to an early breakfast.

The white Arab pony was on the set at nine precisely—just another night in the life of picture production.