Australian Cinema > history >


On this page is Pike & Cooper's introduction to this period from their definitive book, followed by a list of films made during this period.

Pike & Cooper:
Australian feature films made little direct reference to the Depression, except belatedly with a stylized picture of poverty in The Broken Melody (1938). A large number of films, however, made oblique references, for example with Dad and Dave in On Our Selection (1932), struggling against forces beyond their control (drought, financial debt, evil land-owners). There were also a number of films about the urban little man’ with his everyday worries about job security, and his fantasies of sudden wealth. These included Mr Chedworth Steps Out (1939) and the comedies of George Wallace. Escape from the Depression was offered by musicals, made possible by the advent of sound, and by a series of exotic romances set on idyllic islands or in the tropical north. Few films were overtly nationalistic and there was a trend away from the distinctive Australian bush to an amorphous city life. Even Dad and Dave were progessively urbanized during the decade, and the city in Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938) was an anonymous and stereotyped metropolis.

Australian film-makers had for a long time experimented with sound. In 1928 talkies made their first major bid for the world market, and by early 1930 Australian film-makers were attempting to transform their silent films into partial-talkies, usually employing a sound-on-disc system, which was soon outmoded. The first commercially viable sound feature was Diggers (1931), made by Efftee with expensive optical sound equipment imported from the U.S.A. Soon after, the construction of an efficient sound apparatus by Arthur Smith in Sydney became the technical basis for the Cinesound studio. Smith’s equipment was used on feature films throughout the 1930s and for many years after on newsreels and documentaries.

Early in the decade production began to consolidate in the hands of big business. The higher production costs involved in sound, the increase in technical sophistication demanded by audiences, and continued distribution and exhibition difficulties, led to a reliance on intensively capitalized studios with specialized facilities. For both financial and technical reasons, feature production became inaccessible to the amateurs and the social groups who had been active in the silent era; women, too, virtually disappeared from production, other than as actresses and continuity girls.

Hollywood models became the basis for much of the industry in the 1930s. A studio on Hollywood lines was established by Cinesound Productions in 1932; the company employed its own regular troupe of actors and technicians, it ‘discovered’ stars and groomed them, and it supported the whole operation with a large-scale publicity machine promoting the name of the studio as well as the personalities employed by it. National Studios attempted to establish a similar studio at Pagewood in Sydney in 1935, with the construction of large production resources and the mustering of international talent and capital. One film, The Flying Doctor (1936), was made before the venture failed for lack of competent management and commercial success. Hollywood writers, directors and actors were sought by the industry, and Clarence Badger, Victor Jory, Charles Farrell and Helen Twelvetrees were among those who worked on local films.

Other producers in the 1930s sought to emulate Cinesound’s success, but stable financial backing proved elusive. Charles Chauvel imitated Hollywood conventions in Uncivilised (1936) in an attempt to reach the American market, but he had yet to reach full maturity as a director. Later, during the Second World War, he achieved a happier balance between overtly Australian subjects and the conventions of Hollywood genres.

Some of the best or most ambitious actors and actresses were lured away to Hollywood, among them Mary Maguire, Cecil Kellaway, Errol Flynn, Shirley Ann Richards and Jocelyn Howarth. In their absence, local producers were forced to rely heavily on radio and the stage for acting talent. Frank Thring, at his Efftee studio in Melbourne, tied his productions closely to the stage, with a series of seven features between 1931 and 1936.

Unlike the Hollywood orientation of Hall and Chauvel, Thring conceived of cinema primarily as a means of recording stage productions. Rarely in his films did images dominate words, and rarely were attempts made to modify stage performances, settings or even make-up for the screen. His films depended almost entirely for their commercial appeal on the presence of top-ranking stage stars, including Pat Hanna, George Wallace and Dorothy Brunton.

Sound arrived at a bad time for the industry. The Depression affecting the whole of Australian society was aggravated for the film industry by depressed conditions in the exhibition trade. The construction of luxury cinemas by both Union Theatres and Hoyts contributed to a ‘film famine’, with a shortage of films for the major city theatres. Stuart Doyle of the Australasian Films-Union Theatres combine (re-formed as Greater Union Theatres in 1931) decided to revive production in the hope of winning local audiences back into his theatres and of helping to satisfy some of the insatiable demand of the exhibition trade for ‘specials’. The establishment of Cinesound in 1932 as a subsidiary of Greater Union marked the beginning of Australia’s most profitable production venture. Under the management of Ken G. Hall, the studio produced a continuous stream of commercially successful features and provided other producers with experienced technicians, studio space and equipment at its three locations—at Bondi and Rushcutters Bay (the old Spencer studio) in Sydney, and at St Kilda in Melbourne.

Cinesound’s first production, On Our Selection (1932), was enormously rewarding financially, and production continued throughout the 1930s on a self-supporting basis, with the income from one film providing the finance for the next. Meanwhile Greater Union Theatres remained in severe financial difficulty, and the pressure on Stuart Doyle culminated in July 1937 with his replacement as managing director by a young accountant, Norman Bede Rydge. While Doyle had encouraged production and taken risks to initiate it, Rydge was wary of the large-scale gamble inherent in making feature films. Rydge saw his primary responsibility as the protection of the investments of shareholders, and he regarded the ‘bricks and mortar’ of theatres as far safer than production. After continuity in production at Cinesound was broken by the war, Rydge saw no need to renew it in 1946, and plans for feature films in post-war years were not supported by the Greater Union executive until the 1970s.

Following the failure of the Commonwealth government to provide effective support for the industry after the 1927 Royal Commission, pressure continued to grow for effective government action to rationalize distribution and exhibition and to help producers. In 1934 the New South Wales government instituted an inquiry into the industry, out of which came legislation for an Australian film quota, a fixed percentage of Australian films that theatres were obliged to show. The quota legislation lacked adequate enforcement measures and within two or three years had virtually lapsed, despite several legislative attempts to strengthen it. The quota did, however, have a strong initial impact on production; in expectation of favourable effects flowing from the Act, new production activities mushroomed in 1934-35. The Act carried a quality clause intended to prevent the emergence of ‘quota quickies’ on the British pattern; films deemed by a committee to be of insufficient quality could not be registered as Australian productions, and accordingly, no theatre could count them as part of its quota. Failure to register as a quota production meant financial disaster, and several of the new production companies in the mid-1930s did not survive their first film.

The British Quota Act of 1927-28, under which films from Empire countries were given favoured treatment in Britain, had a greater impact on the production industry. Until this legislation was amended early in 1938, Australian producers continued to find ready sales of their films on the British market. The withdrawal of the British quota market in 1938 forced the cessation of production by at least one director, A. R. Harwood, who had relied on obligatory sales to Britain to cover as much as half of the production costs of his low-budget features.

Apart from feature films, the main production achievements of the 1930s were in newsreels, with the emergence of two sound news magazines in creative competition with each other. Cinesound’s news magazine, Cinesound Review, revived the tradition of the silent Australasian Gazette, which had been produced from the earliest days of the combine until 1929. Supervised by Ken G. Hall and produced by an efficient team of technicians and writers, the weekly Cinesound magazine was designed as an entertainment, and its best episodes were witty and fast-moving, with signs of social conscience in editorial statements on some of. the news stories. Its rival, Movietone News, managed by Harry Grattan Guinness, was an offshoot of American Movietone; like Cinesound, it employed some excellent local cameramen. It survived side by side with Cinesound Review until the two newsreels merged in October 1970.

Documentary production in Australia in the 1930s saw little of the excitement then transforming non-fiction film in England, where John Grierson had founded a new documentary school with film-makers like Harry Watt, Alberto Cavalcanti, Basil Wright and Humphrey Jennings. Frank Hurley remained the dominant Australian documentary filmmaker, pursuing his own idiosyncratic style, apparently oblivious of Grierson’s philosophies. Hurley’s nature portraits became a model for many local film-makers who tried to emulate his high technical standards and grand romantic manner. Cinesound effectively exploited Hurley’s personal popularity in Australia by setting him up as a one-man documentary unit in their Sydney studio, making short industrial films for government and private sponsors, such as Treasures of Katoomba (1934) and A Nation is Built (1937).

Commonwealth government production was relegated during the decade to a small unit in Melbourne; operating with only the most basic technical resources, much of the unit’s work was narrowly functional and allowed little scope for film-makers with new ideas about the medium. Exceptions did, however, occasionally appear, and in 1934, Lacey Percival made for the government one of the finest of all Australian documentaries, Among the Hardwoods, a brief survey of the timber industry in Western Australia, making use of the natural sounds of the bush in place of conventional commentary and music, and capturing a series of striking images of light and shade in the forest.

Through the 1930s, then, the production industry underwent profound changes, not only technologically with the introduction of sound, but also in its structure, with a growing dependence on studio bases and large capital investment. The failure of the National Studios venture demonstrated that capital and hardware alone did not guarantee commercial viability. Ken Hall’s contrasting success at Cinesound showed both an astute business sense and a philosophy of showmanship that stressed the responsibility of the film-maker to the paying audience. The readiness with which each Cinesound feature became a commercial success deceived many ambitious producers and susceptible investors, who were lured into feature production without really understanding the basis for Cinesound’s success, and none managed to emulate it on the same scale, with or without the support of major distributors or exhibitors.


Cheaters, The (Paulette McDonagh, 1930) McDonagh Productions, wr. Paulette McDonagh, dp Jack Fletcher, art director Phyllis McDonagh; Marie Lorraine [Isobel McDonagh], Josef Bambach, Arthur Greenaway; made as a silent, with sound inserts added later, so considered one of the first sound films in that sense

Fellers (Arthur Higgins, Austin Fay, 1930) Artaus Productions, wr. Ashley Durham, dp Tasman Higgins; Arthur Tauchert, Jean Duncan, Les Coney; Aust Light Horse in Palestine during WW1; early talkie; comic adventures of three mates; 8000 ft

Romance of Maoriland, The (Edward T. Brown, 1930) wr. Edward T. Brown, dp Edwin Coubray; Patch Mason, Tom Campbell; was to be NZ first talking feature but was never released; 11300ft; 30 min. remains

Tiger Island (Gerald M. Hayle, 1930)


Co-respondent's Course, A (E. A. Dietrich-Derrick, 1931) prod. Frank W. Thring; John D'Arcy, Adele Inman, Norman Lee; among the earliest talkies; first production from Efftee Films; extensive use of locations; 'featurette', short; marital comedy

Diggers (Frank W. Thring, Pat Hanna, 1931) Efftee Film Productions, wr. Pat Hanna, Eric Donaldon, dp Arthur Higgins; Pat Hanna, George Moon, Edmund Warrington, Cecil Scott, Norman French, Guy Hastings, John Henry, Joe Valli; comic adventures of Chic (Hanna) and Joe (Moon) based on Hanna's stage show; followed by Diggers in Blighty and Waltzing Matilda; opened 6 November 1931; 61 min.

Haunted Barn, The (E. A. Dietrich-Derrick, 1931) Efftee Film Productions, prod. Frank W. Thring, wr. Gregan McMahon, dp E. A. Dietrich-Derrick; Josef Bambach, Phil Smith, Donalda Warne; 62 min.

Isle Of Intrigue (A. R. Harwood, 1931) Dorothy Stanward, James Alexander, Helene Best, Darcy Kelway; pearling schooners of a trading firm are being robbed by a mysterious pirate; opened 26 September 1931; 50 min. (?)

Out of the Shadows (A. R. Harwood) not released [1931] because the only copy was destroyed when the wax (sound) disks melted

Showgirl's Luck (Norman Dawn, 1931) aka Talkie Mad; Susan Denis, Arthur Tauchert, Arthur Clarke; comedy musical; full-length talkie; opened November (Shirley) or December (Pike) 1931

Spur Of The Moment (A. R. Harwood, 1931) dp Leslie McCallum, Ed Wintle; James Alexander, William Green, Guy Hastings talkie, static indoors melodrama; opened 26 September 1931, together with Isle Of Intrigue; 50 min. (?)


His Royal Highness (Frank W. Thring, 1932) aka His Loyal Highness; Efftee Film Productions, wr. C. J. Dennis from story by George Wallace, dp Arthur Higgins; George Wallace (feature debut)

On Our Selection (Ken G. Hall, 1932) aka Down on the Farm, Cinesound Productions, prod. Bert Bailey, wr. Bert Bailey, Ken G. Hall from works of Steele Rudd, dp Walter Sully, sound Arthur Smith, Clive Cross, technical support Bert Cross; Bert Bailey, Fred MacDonald, Alfreda Bevan; 99 min.

Sentimental Bloke, The (Frank W. Thring, 1932) Efftee Film Productions, wr. C. J. Dennis, dp Arthur Higgins; Cecil Scott, Ray Fisher, Tal Ordell; 92 min.


Diggers In Blighty (Pat Hanna, 1933) Pat Hanna Production, wr. Pat Hanna, dp Arthur Higgins; based on sketches used in the Diggers stage show; while serving in France in 1918, Chic and Joe abscond with rum from the quartermaster's store...

Harmony Row (Frank W. Thring, 1933) Efftee Film Productions, wr. George Wallace, dp Arthur Higgins; comedy; George Wallace (Constable Dreadnought), Phyllis Baker (Molly); Bill Kerr (as Willie Kerr); 78 min.

Hayseeds, The (Beaumont Smith, 1933) J. C. Williamson Picture Productions, wr. Beaumont Smith, assoc. dir. Raymond Longfor, dp Tasman Higgins; Cecil Kellaway; characters from Smith's six silent films with the Hayseed family

In the Wake of the Bounty (Charles Chauvel, 1933) wr. Charles Chauvel, dp Tasman Higgins, sound Arthur Smith, Clive Cross; Arthur Greenaway (narrator), Mayne Lynton (Bligh); Errol Flynn (Fletcher Christian); dramatised history, filmed Tahiti and Pitcairn; introduces Errol Flynn, in the fictionalised part of the movie, as Fletcher Christian; he will later be a big star in HW

Squatter's Daughter, The (Ken G. Hall, 1933) prod. Ken G. Hall, Cinesound Productions, wr. Gayne Dexter, E. V. Timms, play by 'Albert Edmunds' (Bert Bailey & Edmund Duggan), dp Frank Hurley, George Malcolm; Owen Ainley, W. Lane Bayliff, Dorothy Dunkley, Jocelyn Howarth, George Lloyd, Grant Lyndsay, Fred Macdonald, Claude Turton, Katie Towers, Les Warton, John Warwick; 35 mm, 104 min. Romeo and Juliet story

Two Minutes Silence (Paulette McDonagh, 1933) McDonagh Productions, based on play by Leslie Haylen, dp James Grant, art director: Phyllis McDonagh, sound Jack Bruce; Marie Lorraine; last McDonagh sisters film; 75 min.

Waltzing Matilda (Pat Hanna, 1933) Pat Hanna Productions, wr. Pat Hanna, assoc.dir. Raymond Longford, dp Arthur Higgins; comedy with the boys from the Diggers films; Hanna's last film, Coral Browne's first and only Australian film


Clara Gibbings (Frank W. Thring, 1934) Efftee Film Productions, wr. Frank Harvey, dp Arthur Higgins; Dorothy Brunton, Campbell Copelin, Harvey Adams; 81 min.

Man They Could Not Hang, The (Raymond Longford, 1934) Invicta Productions, wr. Lorrie Webb from a 'dramatisation' by Rigby C. Tearle, dp George Malcolm, George Heath; Ronald Roberts, Arthur W. Sterry, Ethel Bashford, Olive Sinclair; based on true story of John Lee; 78 min.

Secret Of The Skies (A. R. Harwood, 1934) Centenary Films, wr. Laurence Brewer, dp Stan Pentreath; John D'Arcy, Norman Shepherd, Ella Bromley; drama, 56 min.

Silence of Dean Maitland, The (Ken G. Hall, 1934) Cinesound Productions, prod. Ken G. Hall, wr. Gayne Dexter, Edmund Barclay from play by Maxwell Gray, dp Frank Hurley; John Longden (Dean Maitland), Charlotte Francis (Alma Lee), Jocelyn Howarth, Bill Kerr (Cyril Maitland Jnr); clergyman murders the father of his pregnant lover and then allows his best friend to be convicted for the crime; 97 min.

Splendid Fellows (Beaumont Smith, 1934) Frank Leighton (as Hon. Hubert Montmorency Ralston); also promoted in NZ with the subtitle The Hayseeds at the Melbourne Centenary; Beaumont Smith's last film; buddy movie; cameo by Charles Kingsford Smith

Streets Of London, The (Frank W. Thring, 1934) Efftee Film Productions, wr. Frank Harvey, dp Arthur Higgins; Frank Harvey, Ethel Newman, Leonard Stephens; 85 min.

Strike Me Lucky (Ken G. Hall, 1934) dp Frank Hurley, George Heath; vehicle for Roy Rene (Harry Van der Sluice aka Henry van der Sluys) as Mo McMackie; Roy Rene's father was a Dutch Jew and and his mother Anglo-Jewish

Ticket In Tatts, A (Frank W. Thring, 1934) Efftee Film Productions, wr. George Wallace, John P. McLeod, dp Arthur Higgins; George Wallace, Frank Harvey, Campbell Copelin; 88 min.

When the Kellys Rode (Harry Southwell, 1934)


Burgomeister, The (Harry Southwell, 1935) aka Hypnotised [previously made as The Bells] from the play Le Juif Polonais

Down on the Farm (Stewart Pitt, 1935) Hamner Nine Syndicate, dp Lee Hill; George Claridge, Daphne Murdoch, Florence Hastie, Ra Hould; first NZ sound fiction film, if The Devil's Pit is discounted

Grandad Rudd (Ken G. Hall, 1935) aka Ruling the Roost, wr. Victor Roberts, George D. Parker from the play by Bert Bailey adapted from stories by Steele Rudd, Cinesound Productions, prod. Bert Bailey, Ken G. Hall, dp Frank Hurley, George Heath; Bert Bailey, Fred MacDonald, George Lloyd; 90 min.

Hei Tiki (Alexander Markey, 1935) aka Primitive Passions, aka Hei Tiki: a Saga of the Maoris; Markey Films, A First Division Picture, wr. Alexander Markey, dp Howard Bridgman; Nowara Kereti, Ben Biddle; NZ; drama

Heritage (Charles Chauvel, 1935) Expeditionary Films, wr. Charles Chauvel, dp Tasman Higgins, Arthur Higgins, asspro Ann Wynn [Elsa Chauvel], sound Alan Mill; early days of colonial Australia; 94 min.


Flying Doctor, The (Miles Mander, 1936)

On the Friendly Road (Leonard P. Leary, 1936) NZ Film Guild, prod. Leonard P. Leary, wr. George Altier, Leonard P. Leary, idea Rudall Hayward, dp Rudall Hayward; Rev. C.G. Scrimgeour, Stanley Knight, John Mackie, Jean Hamilton; NZ; 7592ft, 84 min.

Orphan of the Wilderness (Ken G. Hall, 1936) aka Wild Innocence; prod. Ken G. Hall, Cinesound Productions, wr. Edmond Seward from story by Dorothy Cottrell, 'Wilderness Orphan', dp George Heath, sound Clive Cross; Brian Abbot, Gwen Munro, Ethel Saker, Harry Abdy; family story about a boxing kangaroo; 85 min.

Phar Lap's Son (Dr A. L. Lewis, 1936) aka Phar Lap's Son?; South Seas Films Ltd, technical advisers Jack Welsh, Lee Hill; Harry V. Smith, Peggy/Peggie Collie; NZ; 5623ft, 63 min.

Rangle River (Clarence G. Badger, 1936) aka Men With Whips; wr. Charles Chauvel, Elsa Chauvel, story Zane Grey; Victor Jory, Margaret Dare, Robert Coote; western

Thoroughbred (Ken G. Hall, 1936) prod. Ken G. Hall, Cinesound Productions, wr. Edmond Seward, dp George Heath, sound Clive Cross; Helen Twelvetrees, Frank Leighton, John Longden, Nellie Barnes; 89 min.

Uncivilized (Charles Chauvel, 1936) Expeditionary Films, wr. Charles Chauvel, E. V. Timms, dp Tasman Higgins, music Lindley Evans, assdir Frank Coffey, Ann Wynn [Elsa Chauvel]; Dennis Hoey, Margot Rhys, Ashton Jarry; adventure; woman kidnapped by Aborigines led by white man; northern Qld; 82 min.

Wagon and the Star, The (J.J.W. Pollard, 1936) aka The Waggon and the Star, wr. J.J.W. Pollard, dp Lee Hill, sound Jack Welsh; John Peake, Faye Hinchey, William Buchanan; NZ

White Death (Edwin G. Bowen, 1936) wr. Frank Harvey, dp Arthur Higgins; Zane Grey financed and starred; adventure about great white shark


Avenger, The (A. R. Harwood, 1937) New Era Film Productions, wr. Bert Hollis, dp Arthur Higgins, Tasman Higgins; Douglas Stuart, John Fernside, Karen Greyson; crime melodrama; 55 min.

It Isn't Done (Ken G. Hall, 1937) prod. Ken G. Hall, Cinesound Productions, wr. Frank Harvey, Carl Dudley, story by Cecil Callaway, dp George Heath, sound Clive Cross; Cecil Callaway, Shirley Ann Richards, John Longden, Frank Harvey; comedy about social class; 90 min.

Lovers and Luggers (Ken G. Hall, 1937) aka Vengeance of the Deep (US title); scenario Frank Hurley; dp George Heath, Frank Hurley; Lloyd Hughes, Shirley Ann Richards, Sidney Wheeler; 99 min.

Mystery Island (J. A. Lipman, 1937) thriller

Phantom Gold (Rupert Kathner, 1937) Harry Lasseter's reef

Tall Timbers (Ken G. Hall, 1937) prod. Ken G. Hall, Cinesound Productions, wr. Frank Harvey from Frank Hurley story, dp George Heath; 89 mins., 35 mm.; Frank Leighton, Shirley Ann Richards, Aileen Britton, Campbell Copelin, Letty Craydon, Peter Dunstan, Frank Harvey, George Lloyd, Joe Valli, Ronald Whelan


Below The Surface (Rupert Kathner, 1938) Australian Cinema Entertainments, wr. Rupert Kathner from story by Stan Tolhurst, dp Tasman Higgins; two miners compete for an important coal contract

Broken Melody, The (Ken G. Hall, 1938) prod. Ken G. Hall, Cinesound Features; wr. Frank Harvey from the novel by F J Thwaites; dp George Heath, ed. William Shepherd, 89 mins; Lloyd Hughes (John Ainsworth), Diana Du Cane (Ann Brady)

Dad and Dave Come To Town (Ken G. Hall, 1938) aka The Rudd Family Goes to Town; Cinesound Productions, prod. Ken G. Hall, wr. Ken G. Hall, vaguely based on stories by Steele Rudd; Peter Finch's first film; Bert Bailey, Shirley Ann Richards, Fred MacDonald; 97 min.

Let George Do It (Ken G. Hall, 1938) aka In the Nick of Time; George Wallace; speedboat chase on Sydney Harbour; 52 min. OR 79 min.

Nation is Built, A (Frank Hurley, 1938) dramatised documentary to celebrate sesquicentenary of white settlement; see Pike & Cooper: 151, third column

Show Business (A. R. Harwood, 1938) New Era Film Productions, prod. A. R. Harwood, wr. Frank Chapple, dp Arthur Higgins; Bert Matthews, Joyce Hunt, Fred Tupper, Jimmy Coates and his band, the Pathe Duncan Ballet; same story as his Nightclub; 90 min.

Typhoon Treasure (Noel Monkman, 1938) aka The Perils Of Pakema Reef


Come Up Smiling (William Freshman, 1939) aka Ants In His Pants; prod. Ken G. Hall; Will Mahoney (Barney O'Hara), Shirley Ann Richards (Eve Cameron), Chips Rafferty (man in crowd) first appearance; 77 mins.

Gone to the Dogs (Ken G. Hall, 1939) George Wallace; comedy; greyhound

Mr Chedworth Steps Out (Ken G. Hall, 1939) Cecil Callaway

Seven Little Australians (Arthur Greville Collins, 1939)

Garry Gillard | New: 17 June, 2022 | Now: 17 June, 2022