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White Death* (Edwin G. Bowen, 1936) wr. Frank Harvey; Zane Grey financed and starred; adventure about great white shark; Barrier Reef Films, prod. Edwin G. Bowen, wr. Frank Harvey, dp H.C. Anderson, Arthur Higgins; 81 mins; Zane Grey (himself), Alfred Frith, Nola Warren, John Weston, Harold Colonna, James Coleman, Peter Williams, Frank Big Belt
Late in 1935, Zane Grey, the prolific author of Western adventures, came to Australia on a deep-sea fishing expedition, which was closely followed in the press and on radio. The first feature film in which he had ever acted was a quickie, apparently designed to exploit the awe with which the Australian public regarded his visit.
Grey had brought with him three American photographers to record his fishing trip including H C Anderson, who co-directed the photography on the feature. Grey's general manager, Edwin G Bowen, was assigned director of the film; it was his first production, although he claimed to have 'grown up' in Hollywood. A sound technician, equipment, and full studio and laboratory facilities were hired from Cinesound, and even a Cinesound writer, Frank Harvey, was engaged to provide Grey with a story-line.
In the story Grey figured as himself, in a quest for a great white shark. In his travels, he visits an island in the Great Barrier Reef where he meets a half-crazed missionary whose son and wife were taken by a shark known to the local Aborigines as 'White Death'. Eventually Grey manages to land the shark and rid the island of its monster.
A comic sub-plot parodied Grey's problems in Australia with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: this organisation had done much to embarrass Grey with criticism of his fishing exploits, and he gained vengeance through the character of Newton Smith, a member of the Society for the Protection of Fish. Smith became the butt of many jokes, from an encounter with a temperamental camel to his capture by wild Aborigines. The role was played in Buster Keaton style by an experienced stage comedian, Alfred Frith, who was virtually the only professional actor engaged on the film.
In May 1936 the production crew departed for Hayman Island in the Barrier Reef for nearly three months of location shooting. Few expenses were spared: a diving bell for underwater photography was built to Grey's specifications, and Aboriginal extras were brought from Palm Island (some of them already with film experience in Chauvel's Uncivilised). White sharks proved elusive throughout the shooting period and the props master, Jim Coleman, made one out of wood and canvas to meet the demands of the plot. Additional scenes were shot later at Cinesound's Bondi studio, and Grey returned in mid-August to America.
With distribution through BEF, the film was premiered in October at Moruya and Bateman's Bay on the New South Wales south coast, where Grey had been based for much of his time in Australia. In November it opened in Sydney at the Mayfair, and early in 1937 was released by MGM in England. Although it was initially successful at the box-office, critical reactions were poor indeed; the Sydney Morning Herald, 9 November 1936, dismissed it as 'a rambling and rather ramshackle film... almost bare of dramatic action'. Pike & Cooper: 174.
Pike, Andrew & Ross Cooper 1998, Australian Film 1900-1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production, revised edition, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.