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Stanley Gilbert Hawes (1905–1991)

by Graham Shirley

This article was published:

Stanley Gilbert Hawes (1905-1991), documentary-film producer, director, and film industry advocate, was born on 19 January 1905 at Battersea, London, elder of two sons of Gilbert Hawes, dairyman’s manager, and his wife Helen, née Foxall. Educated at Christ’s Hospital school, Stanley developed an early interest in theatre and appeared as an amateur actor with the Birmingham Municipal Players while working as a clerk for the City of Birmingham Corporation (1922-34). In his twenties he became captivated by film, and in 1931 he and Florence Jessica Ragg, a typist, were among the co-founders of the Birmingham Film Society. On 28 May 1932 he married her at the register office, Birmingham South.

Keen to become a documentary filmmaker, Hawes returned to London, where he worked with Quelch’s Film Studios and at the studios of Gaumont-British Instructional Films. At G-BI and in particular at Strand Film Company between 1936 and 1939 he made his name as director of documentaries, the most notable of which was Monkey into Man (1937), made in collaboration with the evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley. Early in 1940 he joined the National Film Board of Canada, where he worked under that organisation’s commissioner, John Grierson, a highly influential documentary producer and theorist. Hawes produced and directed numerous films for the board, besides training new directors in the essentials of scriptwriting, direction, and editing.

On 26 April 1945 the Australian government established the Australian National Film Board, and in May 1946 Hawes arrived in Sydney to be the first producer-in-chief of the board’s film division (later the Commonwealth Film Unit). He eventually produced or supervised more than five hundred films, although he seldom directed any after School in the Mailbox (1946), which was nominated for an Academy award in the United States of America. Remembered by colleagues ‘as a firm, determined man with an iron will [and] a commanding manner but gentle interior’ (Gill 1991, 7), Hawes followed Grierson in favouring a classical style of documentary filmmaking, in Grierson’s words, the ‘creative treatment of actuality’ (Lyle, Politis and Stell 1980, 9) as distinct from dramatised films or those that experimented with visual or narrative style in their observation of social events. Although Australian film historians view the late 1940s as a period of innovation for the film division and Australian documentaries, by the mid-1950s the classical style—educational, instructional, and promotional—held sway in the division’s productions. Through these years and into the 1960s, Hawes fought with every diplomatic and negotiating skill he could muster to keep the film division alive in the face of lobbying by independent producers who asserted that they and not a government body should be making films for the government. Helped by his spirited defence, the division survived several government inquiries at a time when its output of films for government departments was surging upward. His other major achievement during the 1950s was to supervise the making of the first Australian-funded feature-length colour film, The Queen in Australia (1954), an ambitious nationwide record of the 1954 royal tour.

‘A perfectionist in baggy pants’ (Gill 1991, 7), Hawes was by the early 1960s sometimes criticised for his lack of innovation. He did nevertheless encourage a new generation of Australian producers (and through them, young directors) who formed the basis of the Australian film renaissance of the next decade. He later defined this period as one of ‘breakthrough, when we started to get away from the conventional approach which had been expected of us’ (Barry 1979, 185). One of the decade’s several milestones was From the Tropics to the Snow (1964), a dramatised and experimental film that satirised institutional filmmaking and for which Hawes was executive producer.

In 1968 Hawes was a member of the Australian Council for the Arts, which recommended federal support for features, experimental films, and a national film school. He subsequently served on the interim council of what became the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (1970-73) and chaired the National Film Theatre of Australia (1969-77). Appointed MBE in 1970, he received the Australian Film Institute’s Raymond Longford award that year. His final project for the Commonwealth Film Unit was to produce a nine-screen, nine-track, 360-degree film for the Australian pavilion at Expo '70 held in Osaka, Japan. After retirement in April 1970 Hawes remained active in the film community, serving as the first chairman of the Cinematograph Films Board of Review (1971-78). In 1979 he produced a documentary about planning for retirement, The Challenging Years.

Hawes died in Royal North Shore Hospital, Sydney, on 20 April 1991 and was cremated. His wife and two daughters survived him. Since 1997 an annual Stanley Hawes award has been presented by the Australian International Documentary Conference to individuals and organisations that have made an outstanding contribution to Australia’s documentary sector.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Barry, Graham. ‘Stanley Hawes.’ Cinema Papers, No 19 (January-February 1979): 182-85, 243
  • Gill, Alan. ‘A Pilgrim to the Shrine of Fine Film-Making.’ Northern Herald (Sydney), 2 May 1991, 7
  • Lyle, Valda, Tom Politis, and Ross Stell. Stanley Hawes: Documentary Film Maker. Sydney: WEA Film Study Group, 1980
  • Molloy, Susan. ‘Take 74, and the Cameras Keep Rolling.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 18 June 1979, 7
  • Moran, Albert. ‘Documentary Consensus: The Commonwealth Film Unit: 1954-1964.’ In History on/and/in Film. Proceedings of the 3rd History and Film Conference, edited by Tom Regan and Brian Shoesmith, 90-100. Perth: History and Film Association of Australia, 1987
  • Shirley, Graham, and Brian Adams. Australian Cinema. The First Eighty Years. Redfern: Currency Press, 1983.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Graham Shirley, 'Hawes, Stanley Gilbert (1905–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2014, accessed online 15 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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