It Isn’t Done: Drunk as a lord

Title:
It Isn’t Done: Drunk as a lord
NFSA ID:
7577
Year:
1937
Category:
Access fees

Lord Blaydon (Cecil Kellaway) has taken up residence in his English country estate. Lady Blaydon (Nellie Ferguson) and their daughter Patricia (Shirley Ann Richards) have adapted well to the new surroundings, but his Lordship finds it hard to cope with the butler Jarms (Harvey Adams), and an oppressive family history characterised by centuries of Blaydon men dying in great English battles. Jarms offers his new master a 60-year-old whisky, while the Blaydons await a social visit from their neighbours, Lord and Lady Denvee (Frank Harvey and Bobbie Hunt). By the time they arrive, with the solicitor Mr Potter (Leslie Victor), Lord Blaydon is considerably the worse for wear. Summary by Paul Byrnes.

This is probably the routine that made Cecil Kellaway an international star. It’s the first time in the film that we see clearly how good an actor he was, particularly in comic roles. His impression of a koala remains a classic moment in Australian cinema, but the routine is perfectly timed throughout. His mention of 'varlets’ and the Battle of Sissy refer to tales of his ancestors at the Battle of Cressy, recounted earlier in the evening by Jarms the butler.

Hubert’s imbibing has an unconscious sense of inadequacy beneath it – he has not been a great soldier, as his forebears were. The scene is also meant to show that his wife and daughter have bought into the snobbery of upper-class English life in a big way. Patricia’s gown is enough to give us a sense of her galloping schoolgirl’s delusions of grandeur (although the character she plays is supposed to be 22). This was Shirley Ann Richards’s first role, at the age of 19. She too would go to Hollywood, where she had a short but not unsuccessful career, as Ann Richards. Between 1942 and 1952, when she retired, she appeared in a dozen films, several by major directors (King Vidor’s An American Romance, from 1944, was one). She became a poet in later life and died in California in August 2006.

 

It Isn't Done synopsis

An English solicitor, Mr Potter (Leslie Victor), arrives at the Blaydon farm at Stony Creek, near Sydney. He tells Hubert Blaydon (Cecil Kellaway) that he’s the long-lost heir to an English estate. Now known as Lord Blaydon, Hubert sails for England with his wife (Nellie Ferguson) and 22-year-old daughter Pat (Shirley Ann Richards). The two women take easily to life on the estate, but Hubert finds the new rules and social snobbery a trial, especially when his family is snubbed by the neighbour, Lord Denvee (Frank Harvey). Pat falls in love with her cousin, Peter Ashton (John Longden), but he promises her father not to propose until his prospects improve.

For the inheritance to become legal, Hubert sends for a photograph of his mother, to prove his identity. Knowing that Peter Ashton is next in the line of inheritance, he doctors the photo’s signature, to disqualify his own claim. Peter inherits and marries Pat, which allows Hubert and his wife to sail back to Australia – where they want to be, anyway. The butler Jarms (Harvey Adams) sails with them, rather than staying on in class-ridden England. Besides, he knows that Hubert is the real Lord Blaydon – inheritance or not.

 

It Isn't Done curator's notes

This was probably the busiest year in Ken Hall’s working life. He premiered four films, all of which he directed, in 13 months – from Orphan of the Wilderness in December 1936, to It Isn’t Done in March, Tall Timbers in August and Lovers and Luggers in December 1937. There had only been one Cinesound film in 1935, partly because Hall closed the studio down after Grandad Rudd, in order to spend several months studying production techniques in Hollywood. His major innovation was to acquire the skills and equipment to do efficient and convincing back projection. He began using these on Thoroughbred (1936) and in most subsequent Cinesound films.

The advantages in increased speed of production can be seen in 1937, Cinesound’s golden year. Not only were the films able to be made faster, they were in many respects better than the pre-1935 films, with wittier scripts, more attention to performance, and a series of strong leading players, such as Cecil Kellaway and Hall’s new discovery, Shirley Ann Richards. The humour in these films is more verbal and less reliant on the broad sight gags of the early 1930s talkies, although those never quite disappeared.

Australian cinema was generally much slower than American cinema at shedding the styles and mores of silent cinema. Melodramatic plots and physical comedy characterise most productions up to 1935, not just those of Ken Hall. In fact, he was probably quicker to shed the old techniques than the rest, partly because he was younger than most of them. Hall was born in 1901. Charles Chauvel was only slightly older (born 1897), but some of the prominent silent era directors who continued into the early 1930s were considerably older, such as Beaumont Smith (born c1881) and FW Thring (born 1882). Both Smith and Thring made their last films in 1934. Raymond Longford (born 1878), certainly the most talented director of the silent era, directed his last film in the same year, The Man They Could Not Hang (1934).

None of them had the financial backing that Hall had from Greater Union, which included direct access to their extensive theatre chain, but that backing was not unconditional. Ken Hall, in his autobiography Directed by Ken G Hall (1977), writes that Stuart Doyle, the head of Greater Union, was overseas trying to save the company by refinancing it when It Isn’t Done was approved by the Greater Union Story Board. When he returned, three weeks into production, Doyle tried to shut the film down, because he believed the film was too ambitious. Previous Cinesound films had largely been set in Australia – with the exception of The Silence of Dean Maitland (1934). It Isn’t Done called for English country house settings and English countryside – including a fox hunt. Doyle told Hall, 'It’s not the sort of film we should be making. We’re out of our depth.’ Hall was able to persuade him that the locations in Camden, near Sydney, would stand in convincingly for England, and that closing down would be disastrous, because more than half the budget had been spent.

It Isn’t Done became one of Cinesound’s greatest successes, '(It) made up for the brink of disaster we came to with Strike Me Lucky (1934) and the moderate success of Grandad Rudd (1935)’, wrote Hall. It also helped to launch the international career of South African-born Cecil Kellaway (spelled 'Kelleway’ in the film’s credits). Hall says that Kellaway was contracted by RKO, a major Hollywood studio at the time, on the strength of It Isn’t Done, which was based on Kellaway’s own idea. He would appear in one more Cinesound production, two years later (Mr Chedworth Steps Out, 1939), returning from Hollywood at Ken Hall’s request. Between the two Australian films, Kellaway appeared in 13 Hollywood films including Wuthering Heights (1939) and Gunga Din (1939). By the time he died in 1973, he had appeared in 144 films, making him one of the most successful character actors ever to have come out of the Australian film industry.

Notes by Paul Byrnes

Production company:
Cinesound Productions
Producers:
Ken G Hall, Stuart Frank Doyle
Director:
Ken G Hall
Writer:
Frank Harvey
Music:
Hamilton Webber
From an original story by:
Cecil Kellaway
Acknowledgements:
Cinesound-Movietone Productions owns all copyright which may subsist in this footage