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Hall, Kenneth George (Ken) (1901–1994)

by Graham Shirley

from Filmnews (Sydney)

Want a fight?" was the question Ken Hall usually asked as you entered his house during his last couple of years. Even after 1990. when the first of two strokes impaired the quality of life, his sense of humour and the occasional feistiness were undiminished.

He didn't suffer fools gladly but was always diplomatic and generous with his time. Students, filmmakers, historians, journalists and old friends were all given an equal welcome and the benefit of his willingness to give feedback on scripts, film titles and industry histories, and to draw from the lessons of his long career. Kindness lay behind all of his dealings – a lesson learned from actor producer Bert Bailey when they were co-directing actors on his most successful film, On Our Selection (1932).

Two years before I first met Ken, I had recorded an interview with former Cinesound feature editor Bill Shepherd, then had the audacity to publish it in Cinema Papers, without first running it by Ken for comment (see CP, December 1974). But the comment certainly came, in a forthright reply published in the next issue of the magazine. The reply contained much that was characteristic of Ken – his immense vigour when challenged, his determination to set straight the facts as he saw them, and his wanting to give credit where it was due to others. "You were misled, boy", was the worst reprimand I got from Ken on our first meeting. From then on a good friendship developed, and through Ken I got to meet the other members of his Cinesound "family" – technicians and actors who over a quarter of a century had helped him to make eighteen feature films, along with innumerable newsreels and documentaries at his studio at Bondi Junction, later at Balmain. I was astonished at the strength of family spirit uniting these people into the seventies and beyond. This explained much about Ken's success, especially his ability to encourage the very best out of his team. But so did his own personality, a blend of businessman, showman, and (although he would have shuddered at the words) artistic sensibility, with a linger on the pulse of popular culture.

Like the McDonagh sisters before him. Ken had learned about filmmaking by studying American films. Like Charles Chauvel he included distinctive Australian ingredients in his films – but it was on a quieter level than Chauvel's work, appealing to what Ken saw as an inherent rather than overt nationalism in the Australian public. He had the chance to keep on making features not, as many have said, through a guaranteed release through Cinesound 's parent company Greater Union Theatres, but by making entertainment that could attract a wide audience on its own merits. "Showmanship" in Ken's terms meant putting into practical use the lessons he had learned as a film publicist in the twenties – targeting his audience, publicising the film from the first idea to release, and never letting the public down. From the age of fifty-six Ken forged a new career as a TV executive. His film career faded from public memory until 1971 when it was spun back into the limelight by the screening of most of his features on ABC TV. The nationalism of most of Ken's films caught and possibly even enhanced the new era of Australian nationalism that was starting to awaken in the early seventies. Central to this sense of Australianness were the four Dad and Dave features. Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938) and Dad Rudd MP (1940) are among the most often revived of Ken's films, and one of the great nights of his life was to attend an outdoor screening of the latter to four thousand people at the Sydney Opera House early last year.

Ken overcame many practical obstacles as a filmmaker – such as filming the underwater scenes from Lovers and Luggers (1937) in the clarity of North Sydney's Olympic Pool when the foulness of Bondi's water supply made filming in a purpose built studio tank impossible. In 1976 Phil Noyce was able to harness this kind of practical ingenuity when he followed Ken's advice to recreate Newsfront's Maitland floods by building his sets on the edge of Narrabeen Lakes, churning the waters with outboard motors and shooting from a high angle. In 1983 Ken was still very much the raconteur, showman and entertainer when Dr George Miller, Phil Noyce and I recorded a fifteen hour interview with him at AFTRS. Supplemented by additional filming in 1991, this interview forms the basis of a documentary I am now making on Ken's life and career.

In early 1992 I sent Ken a compile of the documentary's rushes, having carefully assembled the moments where people had said kind and complimentary things about him. This, however, was not good enough. Ken called me across to his house and made it very clear he didn't want to be the subject of an undiluted eulogy. If dissenting voices had been filmed, he wanted them to be included. If I was going to extract drama from the rise and fall of Cinesound, then I should milk the story for all it was worth. He then picked out a photo of himself sitting on the State Theatre staircase with hands clasped. "If you want to use that", he advised, "you'll have to cop the hands. They're far too much the centre of attention".

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Citation details

Graham Shirley, 'Hall, Kenneth George (Ken) (1901–1994)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/hall-kenneth-george-ken-27403/text35174, accessed 26 March 2019.

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