On the Move

When John Heyer heard that Cinesound in Sydney were going into production with a film called Thoroughbred starring an American actress Helen Twelvetrees and Australian icon Chips Rafferty, he hitchhiked the 542 miles in the hope of getting a job there.  His first night in Sydney was spent in Hyde Park under a blanket provided by the Sydney Morning Herald. Next morning, he was delighted to find that Cinesound were as pleased as he was to find someone with some knowledge of just about every branch of film making, unusual in those early days of Australian cinema. Unfortunately, the production of Thoroughbred only took four or five months so John was soon back on the road to Melbourne again.  He recalls “As the last leg of the hitch was on a fish-wagon I was dropped at the city fish market in the early hours of the morning and walked to my mother’s grocery shop in Brunswick – about five miles – and to a welcome bed and breakfast”.

Filming Thoroughbred on location at Scone, John adjusting microphone on Mike Boom Dolly

However, there were no prospects in Melbourne, so after a few months knocking on all possible doors, he decided to hitch-hike back to Sydney. It took several weeks to cross Victoria and southern New South Wales, doing odd jobs on the way for a night’s shelter or a free meal: chopping wood, digging gardens or whatever, with each job taking him closer to Sydney.

When he eventually got to Sydney, it was early morning, cold and raining and rather depressing.  He describes this as “an inhospitable arrival – no prospects and nowhere to sleep; a daunting experience but a common one in the depression days”. On the first night he wrapped himself in newspapers from a dustbin once again and settled down in the porch of a new building in Macquarie Street opposite Hyde Park. As he settled down, he leant against the door and found that it opened. As it was 10pm and still raining, he went inside. It was dark but there was enough light to let him carefully feel his way down to the basement until he banged his shins on what turned out to be a bath. He soon saw there were, in fact, several new baths filled with straw all ready to be installed.  He gathered up the straw from one or two, made himself a bed in one, climbed in and went to sleep. He was awakened by a torch light shining in his face early in the morning. It was the caretaker. Fortunately, he did not make a fuss; realising the depression was on, he sympathised with John’s dilemma and probably admired his initiative.

Next morning he walked to Cinesound studios some two or three miles out of Sydney.  He was delighted to find Damien Parer already there as an assistant in the Camera Department. Unfortunately, Cinesound was cutting down on staff and Damien was soon out of work. However, he made John comfortable with a bed on the floor in his room near the studios.

Damien had a cousin, Ray Parer, who ran a medical equipment agency so Damien contacted him for any kind of job. Ray had just sold a set of X-ray equipment to a distant New South Wales country hospital and needed someone to deliver and install it. He suggested John and Damien go over to the public library and spend a few days learning about X-rays, plus a few hours with him and he would give them the job. When Ray thought they were competent, and after some role play as imaginary patients, they drove in his car to the country hospital with the equipment in the back. John recalls “we had hardly completed the installation when an agitated Sister asked if we could get the job finished as quickly as possible as she had an urgent need for it. The pair worked through the night and all next day and finally, in fear and trepidation, tested it out by putting John’s hand under the ray-tube while standing on a rubber mat and hoping for the best. To their intense delight (plus surprise and relief) the machine worked perfectly. So, soon afterwards, the first patient was wheeled in – a pretty young teenager with stomach pains. The nurses got the girl onto the X-ray table and into position, and they aimed the X-ray where the doctor had marked a large cross on her stomach and pressed the button. John recalls “When they developed the film, we soon saw the cause of the problem. A small pair of artery forceps had been left in the girl’s abdomen – overlooked after an operation!”

John Heyer on the set of White Death

In 1936, Zane Grey, the famous writer of American westerns (and a deep-sea fisherman) visited Australia. Grey’s paperback “Westerns” had made a fortune, but he had left his company and fortune in the hands of his son and estranged wife who, reluctant to see the book’s profits go down the drain on big game fishing along the southern coast of NSW, left him penniless.  Not to be outdone, ‘Zee Gee’ (as his friends called him) decided to raise the money for his return ticket to California by floating a feature film, White Death, with himself as the main star. It was an adventure drama about a mad missionary on an island with a beautiful daughter and a great white shark. With such a story and Zee Gee’s name there was no trouble finding the finance. As Cinesound was to provide the technical facilities they employed John again for the duration of the production (about three months) and he soon found himself on location on Hayman Island on the Barrier Reef. 


He was engaged as assistant cameraman, assistant soundman and to do any other job required of him, the most memorable of which was to attach an electric wire to one of the front teeth of a crocodile!  John describes the experience: “the crocodile had been refusing to move as intended when Alfred Thrith, the comedian, sat on it – it just did not object at all and remained, as the actor supposed it to be, a dead log. There are many jobs that go into the making of a film but probably no film technician before or since White Death has ever been asked to go up to a crocodile and ask it to `open wide’! But this is what I was asked to do and did. However, when Alfred sat on it and I gave it a jolt of 24 volts from the sound batteries, the crock didn’t move. It didn’t even blink until the frustrated Alfred stood up and it shot off into the water and there was no catching it.”

In 1937, John made an important contact which came through his mother’s grocery shop. The local baker, ‘Mac’, who delivered the shop’s daily bread supply had a mining engineer uncle who was about to explore an area around Broken Hill. As a result of Mac’s praise of John’s film ‘abilities’, the uncle was successful in persuading the powers that be to have him make a film on a Broken Hill mine. It was called 2000 Below (15 minutes) – which John photographed, directed and edited. It was his first film assignment and was followed by work on a ten minute series called It Wasn’t Luck produced by Joe Stafford.

With no further film work in sight, John returned to his mother’s shop to sell insurance and fix radios again. When his Aunt Julia died, his mother inherited enough from her estate to enable her to sell her grocery shop and move into a small house near the river Yarra at Hawthorn. As his birthday present that year she gave him an 18ft canoe in which he and his best friend, Freddie McNaughton, an aspiring out of work actor, decided to paddle up the Yarra to a deserted hut that Freddie knew about to write a screenplay. It took them 2 or 3 days of fording rapids and adventurous hiking to reach the hut which was unlocked and empty. It was beautiful mountain country; there was plenty of firewood and a stove and blankets in the hut. They made their own fishing spinners and flies and lived off the fish they caught in the river and the large bags of potatoes and apples they had bought at the Melbourne market.  It was a perfect setting for them to write the script for Man from Monaro which Freddie’s girlfriend typed for them.  They tried to sell the idea to every entrepreneur they could think of – Frank Tilling, Frank Harvey, Noel Monkman and others - and, finally, they met a man called Barrington who convinced them that he could raise the money. Freddie’s girlfriend typed a super copy and Barrington had it bound but he never managed to sell the story or get it into production.

Still looking for a way to make some sort of income, John met up with a man who had the agency for a German mini-camera called a “Midas” – one of the first 8mm combined camera-projectors. While the agent went round trying to sell the Midas, John developed his customers’ films by rigging up two large wooden discs held together with dowelling to form a drum around which he wound the film and turned it in his mother’s bath. As the developer was expensive, the bath drainer was diverted (with pieces of rain gutter) into a basin so it could be saved, and the fixer then poured back into the bath and the solution used again. There seemed to be a future in it until the Midas agent disappeared with the stock and cash in hand. John was broke again.

So it was back on the road for Sydney again – another 542 mile trek – to stay with his cousin Barbara Perry.  It was through Barbara that he met Berkeley Cook, another very important contact.   Berkeley had been a square-rigger sailor and knew all about sailing which was to be of great importance to him a few years later. Berkeley had been Distribution Manager for Cinesound but was unemployed at that time.  

A clipping from the Sydney Morning Herald 1938
A clipping from the Sydney Morning Herald 1938

In 1938, American hamburgers were all the rage in Sydney so Berkeley and he decided to open a Hamburger restaurant offering : ‘Eat here or take away’. Once again, his mining friend ‘Mac’ came to the rescue and lent them £100 to get started – to be paid back in monthly instalments.  They found an empty shop in Liverpool Street, bought some timber, built benches and cubicles, and acquired a stove and cash register on Hire Purchase. They did the cooking in the front window where John donned a chef’s hat and became an instant Master Cook: ‘one with a round (egg) or a strip (bacon), whatever you prefer’.  They called it ‘The Brown Derby’ after the famous Hollywood restaurant and had a large neon sign made and mounted over Liverpool Street (opposite what used to be Mark Foy’s superstore).

There was already another ‘hamburger joint’ in town so they watched how they did it.  Their opening night, a Friday – the weekly late shopping night – was a bumper night.  John recalls “We couldn’t cope with the demand; soon there were derisive grumblings, `Where’s my hamburger?’, which became more and more strident as patience became strained”.  The next day, a Saturday, wasn’t very good, Sunday was reasonable but on Monday there was hardly anyone. Each week they only just managed to hang on until the prolific Friday. During their first week, a sailor who had jumped ship, came in and asked for a job. They told him that they couldn’t pay him anything but they could feed him.  At the back of the shop they had put up a partition to keep their stores so they told Bill he could sleep there. He was an American boy, about twenty. It was excellent casting because, being an American, he gave their hamburgers a genuine touch and brought in customers. To help them cope, they took on an attractive waitress (for three meals a day and pocket money) – only to discover, before long, she was handing out their tins of pineapple and peaches to her mother through the back door of the shop. So she had to go. As they couldn’t find anyone else who would work for a few pounds and meals, it became increasingly difficult to cope, especially with the Friday night crowd. Invariably there would be drunks who would cause a scene. A couple of times John had to go to the police station for help leaving Bill and Berkeley to run the place. In the end they had to give it up. They just closed the door and left.

The best job John could get was washing cars in William Street (6 pence a car). This involved taking the ferry from Lavender Bay on the north side, where rooms were much cheaper, to the City on the south side. One day, as the ferry left Lavender Bay, its bow wave washed across a half sunken 44ft yacht. There, surely, lay the answer to John’s housing problem! – a sunken yacht lying just below the water line at her berth. All he had to do was raise her, live on her rent free, refurbish her and `Hollywood – here I come!’

The raising of the ‘Southwind’ – as he christened her – is a story in itself:- making a deal with the marine owner, whose berth she was on (and for which her owner had never paid the rent), learning about sailing from Berkeley, and how to raise the boat by collecting empty kerosene cans to lash around the hull and pumping it out. The first exploration below Southwind’s deck was quite eerie: food in the lockers and clothes on the bunks that had been under water for months. They towed her across the harbour to a mooring in Rushcutters Bay with the help of a small launch he was able to borrow.  It was about a month before he could live on her – though she smelled for weeks, the product of rotting food and stagnant water. 

In 1938, John only managed to find two very short film jobs – a few weeks work as a general assistant on Show Business directed by Dick Harwood at Pagewood Studios and one day’s filming on February 1st for Charles Chauvel’s epic film Forty Thousand Horsemen  which followed the fortunes of  the Australian Light Horse during World War 1.

John Heyer on the set of Forty Thousand Horsemen

The film wasn’t released until 1941 but on 1st February that year, Chauvel was able to borrow the 500 members of the Light Horse who were parading in Sydney to mark the 20th anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Beerbsheeba . Shooting took place on location on the sand dunes of Kurnell which were filmed to look like the Sinai desert.  There were four cinematographers involved in the filming on the beach that day, Tasman Higgins, Bert Nicholas, Frank Hurley and John. 

In 1939 he submitted the idea of making two three-minute comedies for cinemas to General Electric advertising Osram lamps – with comedians Jack Davey, June Mills and George Blackshaw (ex Radio and Tivoli stars) but this also didn’t come to anything.  However, he did manage to get a regular job writing four pages of 50 to 100 word “scatters” every week for some 20/30 ‘Talkie Slides’ for Chas E. Blanks – cinema advertisers in Sydney. Blanks would give him a list of their slide advertisers and he would then write one or two minute jingles or announcements (scatters) that were recorded and played on the cinema’s loud speakers synchronised with the relevant slide. The work only took him a few hours and brought in four or five pounds a week.

Needing more income, he replied to an advertisement for a partner in ‘Camberwell Fibrous Works’ and got the job only to find that the company had no problem making the sheets and cornices, but they couldn’t sell enough to make any profit.  Splashed with plaster from setting wall boards and moulding cornices, he stayed only a few weeks because there seemed no future in it.

Not long afterwards, the Milk Marketing Board commissioned him to make a 15 minute documentary film for theatrical release to encourage the sale of pasteurised milk instead of ‘raw milk’. At that time there was a lot of resistance to pasteurised milk because consumers thought it killed the milk’s nutritional value. Many dairies even put up large signs ‘GET YOUR RAW MILK HERE’ which meant, in fact, that the milk was likely to be infected with T.B. The film was called New Pastures and was John’s first major documentary, a two reeler with dialogue and sync sound. He wrote the script and directed and edited both picture and sound at Supreme Sound Systems, using Grieg’s ‘Morning’ for the lyrical opening sequence.

Supreme Sound Systems had been set up by Mervyn and Gwen Murphy just before the war.  The business started with a small delivery van converted into a mobile recording unit complete with 35mm camera. They based the unit at Mervyn’s parents’ home in Paddington, then graduated to converting two rooms on the third floor of 300 Pitt Street, Sydney complete with studio lighting, recording and editing facilities. Small as it was, everything was there from 100% studio sound shooting to titles and mixing sound tracks, effects, dialogue and music. You name it – they could do it.


They made all their own film handling and editing equipment (sychronisers and sound players) with the lathes and drills they had. Supreme Sound became a very important element in the birth of the Australia film industry. John writes that this “provided production services that enabled many budding film makers to realise production – which otherwise would have been restricted both technically and economically without their warm and generous participation. I know that I, for one, would not have received the experience and good start I enjoyed without them. Thank you Gwen and thank you Mervyn”.