Australian Dictionary of Biography

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

by Graham Shirley

This article was published online in 2018

Ken Hall, by Robert McFarlane, c.1982

Ken Hall, by Robert McFarlane, c.1982

National Library of Australia, 53834948

Kenneth George Hall (1901–1994), journalist, film-maker, and television executive, was born on 22 February 1901 at Paddington, Sydney, youngest of three children of Victorian-born Charles Thomas Hall, linotype operator, and his New South Wales-born wife Florence Edith, née Rix. Ken saw his first picture show at an outdoor screening at North Sydney Oval. At primary school he showed a ‘strong leaning towards writing’ (Hall 1977, 22) and won a school essay competition. After completing his education at North Sydney Boys’ High School, he joined the Evening News as a cadet reporter in 1916. The next year he became a film publicist for the linked companies Union Theatres Ltd and Australasian Films Ltd. He wrote press publicity paragraphs and devised campaigns to advertise the mostly American films screened in Australian cinemas. After six months as manager of Union Theatres’ Lyceum Theatre, he became national publicity officer in 1921.

Hall was appointed publicity director for the Australian branch of the American company First National Pictures Inc. in 1924. In this role he developed film-editing skills, when he revised and rewrote the intertitles for imported silent films to satisfy Australia’s stringent censorship laws. The next year he was described as ‘one of Sydney’s best-known and most popular young journalists’ (Sunday Times 1925, 6). He sailed for America in March, where First National had arranged for him to study films. In Hollywood and New York he observed production methods and learned the importance of subject choice. Back in Australia, he married Irene Myra Adison, a clerk, on 4 November 1925 at St Thomas’s Church of England, North Sydney. They had no children. Three years later, he had his first practical experience of film-making when he directed replacement sequences for an imported German film, Unsere Emden (1926). The original film’s re-creation of the 1914 battle between HMAS Sydney and the German cruiser SMS Emden was, according to Hall, a ‘pretty poor joke’ (1977, 43), so he filmed a more authentic version at Jervis Bay, using the Sydney and its crew. The revised film, released as The Exploits of the Emden (1928), was well received.

Returning in November 1928 to Union Theatres (from 1931 Greater Union Theatres Ltd), Hall became publicity director for the new State Theatre in Market Street, Sydney, and personal assistant to the managing director, Stuart F. Doyle. In 1930 he supervised the development of the Cinesound sound-on-film recording process, invented by the technician Arthur Smith, which Hall then used to add sound to several silent short documentaries. He also directed a short film with sound synchronisation, That’s Cricket (1931). Hall’s first feature, commenced under the auspices of Union Theatres, was On Our Selection (1932), starring Bert Bailey. Inspired by Steel Rudd’s short stories and adapted from Bailey’s long-running play, the film premiered in August and was a spectacular success, earning £46,000 by the end of 1933. While agreeing with some critics that its rural characters were ‘grotesque exaggerations’ (West Australian 1933, 2), Hall attributed the film’s success to the realism of its backgrounds.

In June 1932 Doyle had been sufficiently confident of the box office prospects of On Our Selection to form Cinesound Productions Ltd, with Hall as producer-director of feature films and supervisor of documentaries and the newsreel Cinesound Review. By 1940 Hall had produced seventeen features for Cinesound, directing all but one. None of them lost money. He had an unerring sense of what his audiences wanted, which derived from the ‘showmanship’ he had learned in film publicity. ‘Pride and a spirited nationalism’ (Buckley 1994) were key ingredients in his features and newsreels. Hall chose the subject of Cinesound’s fourth production, Strike Me Lucky (1934) starring the stage comedian Roy ‘Mo’ Rene, which barely covered its costs and frightened Hall ‘back to the treadmill’ (Hall 1979). He subsequently made three more Selection-influenced comedies featuring the same bucolic ‘Dad and Dave’ characters, but he tackled other genres in the children’s film Orphan of the Wilderness (1936), the adventure melodramas Tall Timbers (1937) and Lovers and Luggers (1937), the musical The Broken Melody (1937), and the comedy of Anglo-Australian differences, It Isn’t Done (1937).

All of Hall’s Cinesound features, with the exception of The Silence of Dean Maitland (1934), had Australian settings, even if they were filmed substantially at the Bondi Junction studio using back projection equipment that Hall purchased in Hollywood in 1935. From the racing drama Thoroughbred (1936) onward, his features were increasingly influenced by American cinema. He hired a new director of photography, George Heath, who replaced ‘the often “hard”, critically sharp look’ of Hall’s previous cameraman, Frank Hurley, with the ‘rounded, beautifully warm images’ of Hollywood cinematographers (Hall 1977, 101). Among the most entertaining of Hall’s films were Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938), Dad Rudd MP (1940), and Mr Chedworth Steps Out (1939), a comedy-drama satirising suburban aspirations.

Norman Rydge had replaced Doyle as managing director and chairman of Greater Union in June 1937. His view of Cinesound’s financial prospects was initially bright, but it dimmed when the films started taking longer to return their investment. In June 1940 Rydge told Hall that Cinesound’s feature production would cease for the duration of World War II. Hall then focused on Cinesound Review and a series of information and propaganda short films for the Commonwealth Department of Information. The most significant of these was the newsreel special Kokoda Front Line! (1942), which captured the urgency of the Australian effort to halt the advancing Japanese in Papua and New Guinea, and shared the 1942 American Academy award for best documentary. At war’s end, and funded by the American Columbia Pictures Corporation, Hall used his Cinesound team to direct his final feature film, Smithy (1946), a soul-searching biography of the aviator Sir Charles Kingsford Smith.

After the war, Hall failed to convince the Greater Union board to revive Cinesound’s feature production, and he devoted another decade to Cinesound newsreels and corporate documentaries. In January 1957 (Sir) Frank Packer recruited him as chief executive of the Sydney television station TCN-9. Reinvigorated by the challenge of the new medium, he created a distinctive identity for the station that lasted for decades. Using locally produced news, variety, comedy, music, and documentary programs, he attracted an audience that had been alienated by the station’s initial focus on imported American product. He bought and screened the work of Australian film directors, including Cecil Holmes and Bruce Beresford, and commissioned works from other film-makers for TCN-9’s Project documentary series.

Following his retirement in 1966, Hall watched with critical interest, and sometimes dismay, the slow rebirth of Australian feature film-making. He could be harsh about government funding of films he regarded as uncommercial and once summarised his philosophy of filmmaking: ‘if that’s what the audience wants, they have a right to get it’ (Pike and Cooper 1980, 211). He formed enduring friendships with a new generation of Australian film-makers whose work he admired, including Anthony Buckley, George Miller, Phillip Noyce, and Peter Weir. Most of his Cinesound features were revived for television by the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1971. The next year he was appointed OBE and in 1976 the Australian Film Institute presented him with the Raymond Longford award for lifetime achievement. He had become the elder statesman of Australian cinema, a persona reinforced by his forthrightness, as well as his tall, imposing stature. Predeceased by his wife (d. 1972), he died on 8 February 1994 at Mosman, Sydney, and was cremated. In 1995 the National Film and Sound Archive inaugurated the Ken G. Hall Film Preservation Award.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Buckley, Anthony.Obituary: Ken G. Hall.’ Independent (London), 17 February 1994. Copy held on ADB file
  • Corrigan, Denise, and David Watson, eds. TV Times: 35 Years of Watching Television in Australia. Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1991
  • Hall, Ken G. Directed by Ken G. Hall. Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 1977
  • Hall, Ken G. Interview by Graham Shirley, 28 August 1979
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Pike, Andrew, and Ross Cooper. Australian Film 1900–1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, with Australian Film Institute, 1980
  • Shirley, Graham. ‘Ken G. Hall: Businessman, Showman, Raconteur.’ Filmnews (Sydney), 1 March 1994, 16
  • Shirley, Graham, and Brian Adams. Australian Cinema: The First 80 Years. Sydney: Angus and Robertson Publishers, Currency Press, 1983
  • Sunday Times (Sydney). ‘Clever Australians.’ 8 March 1925, 6
  • West Australian. 'Australia's Difficulties,' January 26, 1933, 2

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Graham Shirley, 'Hall, Kenneth George (Ken) (1901–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hall-kenneth-george-ken-27403/text34839, published online 2018, accessed online 20 March 2019.

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