Published in Filmink Magazine 2010
In the late fifties Hollywood came to Melbourne in the form of producer/director Stanley Kramer’s haunting post apocalyptic classic ‘On The Beach’ starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins and Donna Anderson. That collision is now the stuff of legend…
It’s now fifty years since American filmmaker Stanley Kramer – a producer and director of note who would come to define the concept of social commentary in cinema, with credits like ‘The Defiant Ones’, ‘Judgement at Nuremburg’ and ‘Guess who’s coming to Dinner’ – arrived in Melbourne to film the big screen adaption of local novelist Nevile Shute’s ‘On The Beach’. Set in the shadowy aftermath of a nuclear war, the film locates the distant Australia as the planet’s last vestige of society.
With the rest of the world destroyed or dying, Australia will soon fall prey to the winds that carry lethal doses of nuclear fallout and radiation. Looking over the precipice into destruction, the population continues on in a kind of living eulogy, grimly aware of their collective and fast approaching fate. The powerful delivery of the film’s cautionary and apocalyptic tale was unprecedented. But the Melbourne based production of the film eventually became epic in its own right.
Stanley Kramer directs extras out the front of the Melbourne State Library as the radiation cloud moves in. As published in Philip Davey’s ‘When Hollywood came to Melbourne’, from The Karen Sharpe Kramer Private Collection incorporating the Stanley Kramer Collection at UCLA (Los Angeles, California).
“When you see such a dire warning of apocalypse filmed in your own city with familiar every day surroundings it is extraordinarily close to the bone” says Philip Davey; historian, cinephile and On The Beach authority extraordinaire. Davey’s research has faithfully followed the footsteps of production, the ghost of Aussie Newsman Ted Madden (editor and publisher of News Weekly) his spiritual guide. American Director Stanley Kramer coaxed Madden into the engine room of Hollywood then inviting him along for the ride. “Kramer originally approached him to do a feature, and ended up inviting him to become part of the crew. Madden wrote a blow-by-blow description covering the 3 months. It must have been sensational.”
Kramer’s constellation of luminaries – Peck, Gardener (knuckle-swinging Sinatra in tow), Fred Astaire (in his first dramatic role), a young Anthony Perkins and starlet Donna Anderson – certainly alighted our shores with the bombast of a highball. The myths and folklore surrounding the convergence of two wildly different frontiers – and the hauntingly poignant film created – continues to fascinate. For Australia in particular the experience of Kramer’s masterpiece stands as rare vision.
Rum, Radiation and Death Sweats
It is one of the more lighthearted moments in the Pastoral Club as the city slowly winds down:
“How much of this Gould Campbell have we got left?” one old gent asks the barkeep.
“About four-hundred bottles, sir.”
“And in its prime. Shocking. Four-hundred bottles of vintage port in the cellars and barely five months to go. How can the club members be expected to get through four hundred bottles with five months to go?”
“I think it needs another year actually” replies the other gent, sipping on his port.
Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire on location at Canadian Bay, Melbourne. Photos by W.John Haysom, from the W. John Haysom Collection, La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria.
Nevil Shute’s story is strikingly devoid of the violence and mayhem implicit in most post-apocalyptic neighbourhoods. In fact, in 2009 On The Beach could almost be a nostalgic portal onto an Australia of the 1950s. Ice tinkles about the clubhouses, pool cues clatter. Downtown shoppers in high heels and pillbox hats swarm about Flinders Street Station. People frolic at the beach and yacht races are skippered in the sun. Some critics were initially scathing of the denial inherent in the characterisations. Davey says this was a fundamental misunderstanding. “To me the story of a nuclear war without any obvious destruction or carnage or anarchy just made it more realistic. The idea that people are carrying on and planting a garden that will never come actually makes it more devastating.”
It was Donna Anderson’s first major role. She and Anthony Perkins play Mary and Peter Holmes – a young Australian couple with a newborn, striving to carry out daily rituals in the face of imminent doom. As the radiation cloud draws nearer their predicament becomes heartbreaking. Perkins is forced to decide whether to issue his young family the suicide pills or wait for the inevitable. The slow unravelling of routine turns the pitch from brooding ominous to near macabre. The wilting quaver of signage (“There Is Still Time…Brother”) in front of Melbourne’s State Library, and the ever-diminishing Salvation Army band beneath it, brilliantly convey the double-edged tone characterising this remarkable film.
Stanley Kramer directs Donna Anderson and Anthony Perkins.
Anderson vividly recalls her memories. “I had been under contract to Stanley Kramer for 3 years,” she tells Filmink. “He saw me in a dance show when I was 15 and signed me to a contract, and I continued my dance classes and studied with my drama coach Nina Moise. I had occasional meetings with Stanley for him to review my progress. At one meeting he mentioned he was going to do a film called On the Beach and he was thinking of casting Debbie Reynolds in one of the parts – or he might consider me for that role. The story was incredibly powerful – we truly believed it might happen. People were buying and building bomb shelters all across America. I believe it is as powerful today – an analogy of man’s relentless self-destruction.”
“Shute based his experiences on the Blitz in London” says Davey. “They got on with things regardless of the awful blitz and carnage. He wrote about good people who had something forced on them who had done absolutely nothing to deserve this”.
Kramer felt that it was a perfectly crafted expression. “Tension between the US and the Soviet Union was constant and ominous” commented Kramer later in his career, “Many people expected nuclear war to begin at any moment and end within half an hour. The world and everything in it is either dead or doomed to die”. Kramer had in fact acquired the rights for the book before it had even been published. Australia was to be the place where a final ensemble ruminate their loss. Living as an expatriate near Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula it was probably not an incredible flight of imagination for Shute to imagine the outside world had gone silent.
From this mute world family man Captain Dwight Towers (Peck) charters the Swordfish into Melbourne’s final pocket of humanity; where scientist Julian Osborne (Astaire) rues the stupidity of mankind, the garden of Mary and Peter Holmes (Anderson and Perkins) wilts before it has sprung and Moira (Ava Gardner) – former beau of Osborne, soon hopelessly hooked on Towers – drinks to forget.
Gregory Peck as Captain Dwight Towers. From The Karen Sharpe Kramer Private Collection incorporating the Stanley Kramer Collection at UCLA.(Los Angeles, California).
As Astaire immortally tells Perkins (after Perkins admits he has been trying to persuade his wife to kill herself and their baby): “I envy you. You have someone to worry about.”
If you’re going to make a film about the end of the world – Australia’s the place to do it
It was journalist Neil Jillett from the Sydney Sun who penned the controversial line famously attributed to Fiestress Ava Gardner. But, to be fair, it wasn’t wide of the mark. “You have to remember that for them at the time, it was being on the moon,” says Davey. “It was the other end of the universe”.
It was amongst the middling jostle of tramlines and churning pub belts that the Trojan behemoth of Hollywood wheeled its wares. At the time Melbourne was something of a backwater – barbells jangled for last drinks before 6pm, the meat pie with fish and chips provided cornerstones and the calendar hinged upon Cricket, footy and horse racing.
Donna Anderson remembers it fondly. “This was my first experience away from home and family and I found Melbourne fascinating. I seem to remember sheep running right down the middle of a city street! I loved all the fresh fish at from the small cafes. I was surprised at some of the whinging from colleagues longing for the easy comforts of home. I thought they were missing the adventure of this new experience. I also remember the different expressions like “I’ll ring you in the morning”. Tony and I assumed our driver meant he would telephone us, but he always ended up ringing the doorbell! I was treated so well by, but the celebrity part was sudden and strange. We had a lot of interviews. It was hard to figure anyone really wanting my opinion about anything.”
Hollywood heavyweight Gregory Peck agreed it was a story that needed to be told. He was also fascinated with the character of Dwight Towers – a man of duty who desperately missed his family. Peck saw many possibilities in this conflicted character and immediately began working on the script, sending incessant notes to Kramer. Casting the dance legend Fred Astaire as nuclear scientist Julian Osborne was, on the other hand, an inspired but risky choice for Kramer. It was one that would pay off. Astaire is a revelation.
Anderson: “I First I met Fred on the plane to Melbourne. He went out of his way to make me comfortable. Anxiety, and maybe the sleeper berths on the plane, caused me to have laryngitis so when we arrived in Sydney he did all the talking. Which was fine by me! We had a week of rehearsal and I met Tony at the studio. Tony was also staying at the Savoy Hotel. I was in a suite and he had taken a humble single room at the back. I was overwhelmed by all the space, especially after growing up and sharing a bed with my sister. Tony and I enjoyed sight-seeing Melbourne together – we ate constantly.”
From The Karen Sharpe Kramer Private Collection incorporating the Stanley Kramer Collection at UCLA.(Los Angeles, California).
Peck meanwhile stayed with his family in the lavish confines of the Kurneh estate in South Yarra. The sprawling house contained antiques formerly owned by Napoleon. “Gregory Peck seemed short on humour to me,” admits Anderson “although I spent very little time with him. But the cast and crew found his over-long pauses between his lines abundant material for good natured imitation.”
Gardner meanwhile had recently been released from a five-year contract with MGM and was keen to re-establish her career with a suitably powerful role. Her involvement was an exciting but potentially fraught venture. Aware of the signature tumult that followed Gardner, Kramer wrote a morals/penalty clause into her contract in which she could be dismissed for any indiscretion bringing the Stanley Kramer Corporation into disrepute. Following her rejected income-tax application, he also sent a legal team to Canberra to explain why the star’s involvement was in Australia’s economical interests.
From The Karen Sharpe Kramer Private Collection incorporating the Stanley Kramer Collection at UCLA.(Los Angeles, California).
Donna Anderson remembers Gardner fondly. “I didn’t spend much time with Ava either, but I did spend one looong night with her and one of our still photographers – bar hopping. She kept one bar open all night where I did a table dance, if I remember correctly, before going to her apartment where she made scrambled eggs. She suddenly wanted no more pictures taken and developed a change of attitude toward the photographer. She threw him out before breakfast after which I went back to the Savoy for much needed sleep.”
Ava Gardner fronts the crowds while at work. From The Karen Sharpe Kramer Private Collection incorporating the Stanley Kramer Collection at UCLA.(Los Angeles, California).
Not surprising, according to Davey. “The media treated Gardner appallingly. They’d be outside her flat at about five in the morning when she came out with her hair in rollers, ready to be made up on set. She had a clause in her contract that said all photos had to be vetted by her. But rags like The Truth would have people hiding in the Tea Trees at Canadian Bay taking distorted photos of her, so it’s little wonder that she reacted the way she did. She actually went to Sydney a few times to escape it all. But then again, it was there that she threw a glass of champagne over a reporter.”
Madden concurs: “I was particularly appalled by the attitude of some of my colleagues at the press conference Ava held at Essendon Airport. This is the one thing about this assignment so far that is getting under my skin.”
Tony Charlton, Kramer’s Australian Media Liaison Officer, (later celebrated sports commentator) recalled the press conference in Davey’s When Hollywood Came to Melbourne: “Ava stepped off the plane looking gorgeous and went into a less than pretentious VIP lounge. One of the first questions was “Are you still in love with Frank Sinatra?”, which nearly ended the press conference as Ava went bananas (Gardner had recently divorced Sinatra). It was then a difficult job trying to get her and the media together. She wouldn’t talk to anybody after that”.
Davey comments: “There was a pub where they were filming in Berwick, and the story goes that they were making these gin cocktails by the bucket load for her. But she was a consummate professional and never turned up drunk on set. She did her job and she was well liked by most of the team. It was just that the media got up her nose.”
Hollywood heavyweights – Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire. From The Karen Sharpe Kramer Private Collection incorporating the Stanley Kramer Collection at UCLA.(Los Angeles, California).
Gardner’s ruffled state-of-grace probably wasn’t aided by Frank Sinatra’s fleeting visit, in which he famously punched a journalist. Davey recalls: “Frank still had his attachment to her at the time, when he came to do his 1959 tour. I was actually chatting with Gardner’s chauffeur and he told me that he took her to the Chevron – which was where they had a bit of a big night that ended up in Frank decking one of the press. That was just before the show Sinatra did at Melbourne’s Festival Hall, which Ava followed him to. Sinatra said he wanted to dedicate a song to someone in the audience. The song was ‘The Lady is a Tramp’”.
Spectacle was clearly in the can well before any camera was mounted.
You mean to tell me this whole damn war was an accident?
The mammoth infiltration and mobilisation of Melbourne remains testament to Kramer’s tenacity. As he worked his way through echelons of authority he gradually roused not only the interest, but the support of institutes such as The Royal Australian Navy, The Victorian Railways, The Victorian Police and Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies.
Due to the grim anti-war sentiment of On The Beach’s, efforts at acquiring armed carriers, a nuclear submarine and naval officers from the US Navy had fallen unsurprisingly shy. Firstly, the US Navy told Kramer, he would have to get facts straight. If there were atomic apocalypse only 500 million would die – not the entire world. One of Kramer’s prime contacts in Australia was Victorian Promotions Committee member Don Chipp (who later founded The Australian Democrat Party). While showing Kramer about town Chipp introduced the director to a wide range of influences.
Peck relaxing in Canadian Bay. From The Karen Sharpe Kramer Private Collection incorporating the Stanley Kramer Collection at UCLA.(Los Angeles, California).
Prime Minister Menzies was at first reticent about helping Kramer. But he soon realized the value of having such a high profile film with Australia as the backdrop. “There is no doubt,” Menzies wrote to the Minister of the Navy “that some decent measure of co-operation is called for when a reputable company makes a reasonable request. If the company is prepared to meet all the Navy’s out of pocket I cannot see why full co-operation should not be extended.”
Kramer meanwhile succeeded in recreating the Swordfish using several gargantuan metal shells and a structure of plywood within the generous brackets of Melbourne’s Royal Showgrounds.
“Moving a Hollywood production to the backwater of Australia to produce a film of this quality was amazing,” says Davey. “At the time the Australian film industry was right down the toilet. There was no infrastructure, and Kramer had to bring most of the equipment in by ship. He also had to turn the Showgrounds into sound stages, which was almost a hopeless cause because of all the noise to contend with. You had an airport up the road, and a train station in the Showgrounds. And then there was the dog racing and trotting calls going on the entire time. By all accounts the sound guy was tearing his hair out.”
And there were other pressing problems. Despite screenwriter John Paxton’s faithfulness to the novel, the relationship with author Shute rapidly had hit an irredeemable low. Shute vehemently objected to the script’s insinuation that Towers and Moira become more than friends. But Kramer knew that he would be “lynched” by cinemagoers if he didn’t offer them something more emotionally substantial amid the gloom. Peck agreed. Meanwhile, Shute fought tooth and nail to regain control of the characters and reinvest them with moral fibre.
Kramer’s driver Robert Brown recalled Shute’s final meeting with Kramer at the author’s home in Langwarrin: “There was a hell of a blue. Kramer blew his top. I think it was the way Shute was talking.”
Says Davey: “Most people suggest that Shute was a very difficult man. Madden’s widow showed me an arch file of several hundred reams of notes – they suggest Shute never appeared on set because of his unfortunate relationship with Stanley Kramer.”
The Beach of Destruction
From a local perspective the groundswell of interest was unprecedented. “My father was actually working at the Showgrounds building phone boxes there, and one day he saw Fred Astaire” continues Davey. “Dad had grown up in the era of Fred and Ginger Rogers so he was completely blown away.”
One of the biggest problems soon became crowds of onlookers. Gregory Peck’s Personal Secretary drew a glimpse of madness in his diary: “The people here are most demonstrative when the personalities of Hollywood go anywhere. They applaud and cheer and practically tear the house down. It’s heart warming to see and hear but it can also be frightening at times. They have never had anything like this here, and the people are in a mad frenzy trying to get a glimpse of one of them.”
Peck and fans outside the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital. From The Karen Sharpe Kramer Private Collection incorporating the Stanley Kramer Collection at UCLA.(Los Angeles, California).
“The experience had a kind of ‘other-worldliness’ to it,” says Anderson. “I was suddenly in a strange country and experiencing sudden celebrity. At first, rather than enjoying it, I found that it was kind of frightening. The only person I have seen that seemed to have accepted it with relish was Cary Grant. Fred Astaire seemed quite uncomfortable with the attention.”
One woman who skirted this nexus of stardom was Rena Pope (now Rena Grantham). Australian model, society figure and Chief Instructress at the Elly Lucas School of Elegance (charges included Olivia Newton-John in the 1970s) Grantham had been cast as an extra in the pivotal party scene alongside Peck, Gardner and Astaire. “Firstly, to be an extra in that movie at the time was like being a movie star today” says Grantham. “Melbourne had nothing in it at the time, and to be involved in a big movie like this with all these movie stars was fantastic. The atmosphere was electrifying.” Grantham found Gardner particularly enchanting. “She was beautiful, absolutely beautiful.”
Evidently so was Grantham. Within a day she was being courted by Astaire. “I remember Fred came and sat next to me and introduced himself. And I said ‘No need for introductions!’. He was very charismatic, but also very lonely. His wife had died and he was also worried that he would have to go back home to his daughter who was ill at the time. When sat next to me and said “What lovely soft hair you have”. I was taken aback. I said to him “your hair is very nice too”, and he leaned over and said “It’s a toupee!”. Gregory Peck saw him with me and he was very pleased to see Fred talking to somebody.
After enjoying several evenings dining with Fred Astaire at the salubrious Hotel Ciros, Astaire asked Grantham how she would feel about accompanying him back to the US. It was an offer she declined – but often wonders what fate may have had in store had she accepted.
Astaire and Perkins in the infamous club scene. Rena Grantham is to the right in the background. From The Karen Sharpe Kramer Private Collection incorporating the Stanley Kramer Collection at UCLA.(Los Angeles, California).
“I couldn’t go along with him to the US when he asked me. Unfortunately the Finishing School where I worked was my religion at the time, so I missed out on a lot, which I later regretted very much. But at the time I thought – what can you do? At least I was in one of the most important scenes of the film.” Grantham also recalls the gruelling shoot days. “At the time I thought ‘Goodness, is this how movies are made?’ It was very tiring and exhausting. For one whole day we were shooting a particular scene with Fred where he had to recite one particular line.”
Casting opportunities meanwhile provided a doorstop for a range of colourful Australian talent. Nancye Yeates, Director of The Australian Casting Agency in Melbourne, recalled: “One persistent, stout, grubby lady of about sixty, had a cardboard suitcase of ‘jewels’ for props. Another fellow, clearly disturbed, demanded an audition with Kramer. After being told for the second time Stanley was not holding auditions he pulled a knife and threatened to cut my throat. I talked him out of it on the basis that he would never get the role if he was jailed for murder”.
Last dance? Peck and Gardner. From The Karen Sharpe Kramer Private Collection incorporating the Stanley Kramer Collection at UCLA.(Los Angeles, California).
It was in a Kings Cross Bar in Sydney that Kramer met the more established spectrum of Australian TV, Film and Radio, including hard-edged theatre legends such as John Tate, Harp McGuire and Guy Doleman (Dangerous Summer, Shiralee and Thunderball). John Meillon, subsequent Aussie treasure in over forty-five films (continuing to haunt as the “hard earned thirst” voice for VB) was cast Peck’s Navy Ensign Ralph Swain.
The Swordfish makes a reconnaissance of a desolated US coastline. It is this breaking-point that eventually turns Towers into Moira’s arms and Swain into madness. Swain breaks from the submarine, swimming towards the radiation-soaked ghost-town of San Francisco. For contractual reasons this was doubled by Bill Hunter. Hunter went on to play Prime Minister in the dubious On The Beach 2000 (starring Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward. “Which was awful,” says Davey). Another cut scene featured a drunk Swain wrecking a bar. With Meillon on hand this was destined to be authentic. Six prop mirrors were set up. Meillon hurled his beer bottle. He smashed a real one. The set had to be rebuilt.
From The Karen Sharpe Kramer Private Collection incorporating the Stanley Kramer Collection at UCLA.(Los Angeles, California).
Grantham also remembers one scene featuring another iconic Aussie. The scene was later also cut – possibly because it was a little too light-hearted in tone. “It was a moment in the party scene where Gregory Peck lights my cigarette and everyone is dancing. Graham Kennedy was talked into coming along and he sat at the table near where Gregory and Ava dance, where everyone was having a good time”. Kennedy ended up chatting with Astaire about dancing, vaudeville and films.
The performances from the cast are remarkable. Peck’s immersion into his character contributes to one of the film’s most heart wrenching moments with Gardner, right on platform one of Frankston Station: “In the navy during the war” he struggles “I got used to the idea that … I might not make it. I got used to the idea of my wife and children being safe at home, no matter what. What I didn’t reckon on was in this kind of monstrous war something might happen to them and not to me. But it did. I can’t cope with it.”
The End is Nigh
Final word should rightfully go to Gardner, who claimed the ‘consummate’ kiss with Peck at the end of the film (following suicide pill handout and blackout of Melbourne) is one of cinema’s finest. “As I run towards him on the dock you can see our two profiles come together as the sun sets between our lips. It was a shot that everyone had said was impossible as the cinematographer was shooting straight into the sun. But he made it work. I personally think it is one of the greatest of all time.” A special filter was also to cast an iridescent hue of radiation around the 360-degree shot. Haunting images of deserted St Kilda Road and Swanston Street were filmed early one morning, a wind machine whirling their autumn leaves. The final shot of an empty city was shot from the top of the Carlton Brewery.
The film’s Premier was as sprawling as its production. Celebrities, dignitaries, and politicians participated in a co-ordinated screening with Peck in Moscow, Gardner in Rome, Astaire, Perkins and Kramer in LA. Shute stayed at home. Meanwhile, back in Australia, the Salvation Army actually counselled people disturbed by the film outside the cinema. Following the 50th anniversary interest in On The Beach remains a powerful classic with interest still riding high. It’s dark message, and the riveting story of a time when Hollywood met Melbourne, has meant it is sometimes regarded as a curio. But there is no doubting the message is as significant and relevant as ever.
With many thanks to Philip Davey. Images sourced from his book ‘When Hollywood came to Melbourne’. Please email me for any queries.