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On The Beach Essay Feature Image On The Beach (1959)
  • When Hollywood Came To Melbourne


    Posted on: 17/12/2009

    By Philip Davey

    It's hard to believe that 50 years have elapsed since producer/director Stanley Kramer and his Hollywood team turned Melbourne upside-down when curious crowds, anxious to catch a glimpse of Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner or Fred Astaire, constantly interrupted filming around the city streets, Berwick, Canadian Bay, Marysville and Phillip Island.

    The seaside village of Frankston was no exception.

    "Give us a few steps, Fred," someone in the crowd shouted at the entrance to Frankston Railway Station. And that's exactly what Fred did, right across the forecourt to the station ramp, to the stunned amazement and then cheers of onlookers.1

    The great Fred Astaire - megastar of countless Hollywood musicals viewed by generations of Frankstonians. What a thrill that must have been!

    And while the affable Astaire delighted onlookers on one hand, a rather prickly Ava Gardner, in a scene with Gregory Peck, reduced the crowd to stunned silence after they were treated to perhaps the most unladylike language ever heard at Frankston Station, at least in those halcyon days!

    "It was effing this and effing that" after the hot and bothered actress fluffed her lines as she slipped and fell on the step of her buggy in the station forecourt. Even Stanley Kramer was clearly gob-smacked and perhaps sensing this, Gardner's pixie-like face appeared over the top of the buggy and, with a delightfully sheepish smile, uttered the word 'sorry'.2

    Essay Image 01

    Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner

    In the meantime, as hundreds looked on, dozens of extras, made up of some of the town's most prominent citizens, complete with tweed suits and Sunday best, learned something of the meaning of perfection as they were put through their paces in the boiling heat; by 2.30pm the mercury had hit 110 degrees.

    Memories such as these surrounding the filming of On the Beach on that scorching Sunday in January 1959 have become folklore in Frankston, and fondly remembered as having etched a place on the world stage for the then sleepy Port Phillip Bay town of 24,000 residents.

    There was another element to On the Beach that helped put Melbourne on the map for all the wrong reasons - the infamous urban myth that Ava Gardner supposedly insulted our city. Gardner, as many will now realise, did no such thing, although when questioned some months later, noted that she certainly felt like it at the time.

    With media coverage at saturation level, the press drove the stars to distraction, following them around 24 hours a day both on and off location. While most of the personalities handled this diplomatically and responsibly, Gardner waged a constant battle with the press and photographers to the point where it became a public relations nightmare for Kramer when she was thought to have said: "On the Beach is a story about the end of the world, and Melbourne sure is the right place to film it!"

    This nefarious headline caused a storm at the time and even 50 years later, many people automatically associate On the Beach with this infamous non-quote that was actually penned by frustrated Sydney cadet journalist Neil Jillet. Unable to snare an interview with the femme fatale, Jillet took advantage of the situation to insult Melbourne by drawing upon the rivalry between Australia's two largest cities with a contrived story about locations and the actors. In his final paragraph Jillet wrote: 

    It has not been confirmed that Miss Gardner, as has been rumoured at third hand from a usually unreliable source, if given the chance, would seriously consider whether, if she managed to think of it, would like to have put on the record that she said: 'On the Beach' is a story about the end of the world, and Melbourne sure is the right place to film it.

    Fully expecting this tongue-in-cheek prank to be chopped, the sub-editor reduced the preamble to "Miss Gardner said" and the erroneous 'quotation' retained. Jillet confessed in The Age 28 years ago!3

    In what was perhaps symptomatic of the cultural cringe that pervaded Australia in those days, people who followed Kramer's crew around were more concerned about the Hollywood glamour and stars than the actual purpose of the film itself, which few seemed to acknowledged or realise until the premiere. As such, it's important to recall the thematic significance of On the Beach, along with Nevil Shute and his novel, Stanley Kramer and many interesting behind-the-scenes aspects of the film.

    "If a paper plague was about to descend upon the world - with all books, all records and archives about to disintegrate and disappear - but with time still remaining to devise some means of preservation, then Nevil Shute's best-selling novel On the Beach should be among the first Australian books preserved,"4 said Historian and writer Gideon Haig in his 50th anniversary dissection of On the Beach aptly titled Shute the Messenger.

    Although Haigh is not a big fan of Shute's storytelling techniques, he goes on to say that Shute "published arguably Australia's most important novel, important in the sense of confronting a mass international audience about the possibility of humankind's thermonuclear extinction. Although, as many physicists have noted, Shute's premise of creeping radiation from the northern hemisphere was technically flawed, the myth this perpetuated did what Shute intended to do. His story told the world, in language that everyone could understand, that nuclear war means death. And the world listened."5

    The same could be said about Stanley Kramer's transfer of Shute's novel to the screen, which the iconoclastic producer/director mirrored as closely as possible. While it is perhaps not the greatest film ever made, and certainly attracted a great deal of criticism, the warning this film conveys about the horrors of nuclear war suggests that On the Beach should also be among the first films preserved should all the films on earth face disintegration.


    Donna Anderson, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins

    Described by Stanley Kramer as "the greatest story of our time", the production of On the Beach took place in and around Melbourne between 15 January and 2 April 1959 during a scorching summer not unlike the calamitous heatwave experienced early in 2009. Produced during the height of the Cold War at a time when nuclear war was possible, even probable, the film employed a totally different approach to subsequent 'bomb' movies such as 1964's Failsafe and Dr Strangelove and the full-on apocalyptic horrors demonstrated in 1983's The Day After, Threads and Testament.

    On the Beach reaches out to its audience at a very personal level, as was Shute's intention. There is no obvious destruction, no human remains, no overt remnants of anarchy and decay in society. Instead, at the film's conclusion, the wind blown newspapers, the deserted State Library of Victoria forecourt, the silent streets, and the tram that will never reach its destination are diabolical metaphors of what might be.

    To see such a terrible scenario unfold in my own city, in everyday familiar places, at the State Library of Victoria where I have spent many hours researching, adds a surreal personal dimension to this film. The film's climax, which must surely be one of the most depressing ever screened, has haunted me for over 30 years, and, aware of the impact this film had on Melbourne, I enjoyed researching its production. When Hollywood Came to Melbourne: The story of the Making of Stanley Kramer's On the Beach was the outcome.

    This work provides a behind-the-scenes, location-by-location snapshot of a fascinating period in Melbourne's cultural history when so many locals found themselves intertwined, in some way, with the Hollywood personalities on location, while also examining the trials and tribulations Stanley Kramer experienced making the film. To help contextualise On the Beach, a look at Nevil Shute's methodology and thematic approach helps us understand the way in which he wrote his most famous work.

    Deeply concerned about the Cold War and the propagation of more and more powerful nuclear weapons, Nevil Shute Norway - recently inducted into the City of Frankston's Hall of Fame - wrote his best selling novel in 1956 at his majestic hilltop property in Robinson's Road near Langwarrin, Victoria. Shute tackled his story in a way that was unrealistic to many critics but strangely alluring. His characters, right to the very end, go about behaving as though they are immortal, although subconsciously facing their inevitable doom.6

    They are extraordinarily good people, perhaps too good, but because Shute rather conveniently eliminated the conflicts in society that one would expect in such a dire situation, he managed to portray a degree of love and dignity in an otherwise pessimistic novel. Shute's characterisation was based on his experiences during the WWII bombing raids in London and the stoicism and bravery demonstrated by Londoners.

    According to Shute: "The dramatic impact of this story depends upon the fact that perfect, inoffensive characters have a disaster descend upon them which they have done nothing to merit or create. This thing can happen to very good, serious, pleasant people. To create this dramatic impact, I created a set of characters who were better, pleasanter, and more meritorious than they would be in real life."7

    This is the underlying emotional concept of On the Beach that has eluded critics of both the book and the film.

    Stanley Kramer was well known for tackling controversial motion pictures and subjects dominated by thoughtful and powerful messages. While many critics misunderstood his motives and dismissed his work as "self-righteous and self-congratulatory", Kramer rejected this criticism. Believing very strongly in social conscience issues, Kramer used motion pictures as a weapon against discrimination, hatred, prejudice, greed and excessive power.

    As a producer, Kramer's earlier successes included The Wild One, High Noon and The Caine Mutiny. As an independent Producer/Director, Kramer experienced great success with The Defiant Ones, Inherit the Wind, Judgement at Nuremberg, It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner; all message-driven films.

    Like most people, Kramer was acutely aware of the atomic hysteria so prevalent during the 1950s: "The tension between the United States and the Soviet Union was so constant and ominous, that many people expected nuclear war to begin at any moment and end within half an hour with everyone dead or dying," he wrote. So when Kramer read On the Beach, he intuitively felt that a film adaptation would help world governments and leaders understand more fully about the danger of radioactive fallout.8

    Getting the film up and running involved a number of gambles on Kramer's part. For a start, his backer United Artists didn't want anything to do with such a miserable scenario. They, and indeed most of Hollywood, thought he was mad. But by loading the film with stars such as Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire and Ava Gardner, along with pre-Psycho Tony Perkins and nineteen-year-old protégé Donna Anderson, United Artists relented.

    However before leaving for Australia, Kramer had to face two serious hurdles - the acrimonious relationship that had developed with Nevil Shute and the deep reluctance of the US Navy and Department of Defence to have anything to do with a film that questioned government policy and the national interest.

    On The Beach Essay Still, Ava Gardner

    Ava Gardner, On the Beach

    Having paid Shute a fortune for the rights to the film, Kramer was under no obligation to involve the writer in screenplay development. But out of courtesy and believing Shute would be of assistance, Kramer sent the author an early version of writer John Paxton's script. It took three complete readings of Paxton's work before Shute totally dismissed the script, alleging significant variance from his book. Shute deplored the 'Americanisation' of his work and suggested that cultural differences had influenced the 'bastardisation' of the script.9

    Kramer, ever the peacemaker, made several suggestions in a series of letters - and even brought in another writer - in an attempt to pacify Shute while retaining various aspects of the script for commercial imperatives. However various issues in the book - such as euthanasia, public drunkenness and the implication of anarchy - had to be toned down at the behest of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and American League of Decency in accordance with the censorship regulations of the times.10

    As the months progressed the relationship between the pair deteriorated markedly. When Kramer visited the writer at Langwarrin in November 1958, Kramer's driver recalled a massive argument taking place with Kramer storming off in complete exasperation.11 Shute then refused to visit any of the on-location shooting and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise.

    There is no doubt Shute was a very difficult man; even his family agree on that fact. His primary concern with the final script, even after Kramer had accommodated many changes, was Peck and Gardner's scene in the country hotel room and the implication of intimacy. This does not happen in the book - with Captain Towers remaining faithful to his dead wife right to the end. But in Kramer's view, this seemingly minor change was completely justified, given the depressing nature of the story. "The audience would have lynched me if I hadn't provided some romance," he said, "and it was completely unreasonable to expect any person to behave so righteously given the circumstances".12Even Peck, at the time, agreed with Kramer on this point.

    After attending a private preview of the film, Shute was morally outraged and subsequently boycotted the film's premiere at the Regent Theatre stating publicly that Kramer's production was by far the worst adaptation of any of his novels.13 However the truth of the matter is that Kramer and Paxton followed the book more closely than anyone had expected. The critics uniformly agreed; Shute was clearly out of order in his scathing yet petty criticism.14 The issue certainly seems quite ridiculous 50 years later.

    Essay Image 04

    Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck

    While Kramer battled with Nevil Shute, the United States Navy and Department of Defence reacted with a great deal of indignation to Shute's premise that nuclear war would obliterate the human race. In displaying staunch opposition to Kramer's submission for assistance with the film's production, Kramer was told in no uncertain terms that such a notion was clearly incorrect; only 500 million or so of the world's population would fall victim to the atomic blasts and fallout.

    Responding with anger and incredulity, Kramer suggested that the prospect of over 500 million fatalities seemed incentive enough for the Navy to support a film that warned of the dangers of nuclear weapons.15

    Kramer anticipated tough negotiations, given the unpalatable subject matter on offer, but if Shute's story was to be accurately portrayed, US Navy cooperation was imperative in order to facilitate three fundamental requirements for the production - the authentic reproduction of the interior of a nuclear submarine, the availability of a nuclear submarine for external scenes along with advice concerning technical accuracy and the customs, practices and protocols of the US Naval Service.

    After negotiations lasting many months, the US authorities refused to provide a nuclear submarine and have anything to do with the film on the basis that such a theme "does not meet the basic stipulation of Defence policy for cooperation, 'in the best interest of national defence and the public good'". Kramer countered by arguing that "this motion picture will not argue the right or wrong of the nation's nuclear policy. It will simply point out the possibility that the use of nuclear weapons in a war, by any nation, is a threat to the existence of all mankind." It was to no avail.

    Fortuitously though, Kramer and his team were unofficially allowed to visit the nuclear submarine USS Sargo at Pearl Harbour during which they meticulously documented and photographed the sub's command centre and quarters albeit under close supervision.

    Kramer, in the meantime, hired 68-year-old retired Vice Admiral Charles Lockwood as Technical Adviser on nuclear submarines, US Navy protocol, and to assist Production Designer Rudy Sternad and Art Director Fernando Carerré accurately replicate the interior of a nuclear submarine, using real parts they were able to source back in the States. So the interior scenes seen in the film, meticulously replicated by Kramer's production crew, was nothing but a shell held together by scaffold in the old Hall of Manufacturing at the Royal Melbourne Showgrounds.

    The boat seen in the film was the British diesel submarine HMS Andrew, dressed up to look like a nuclear submarine, and on loan to the Australian Government which, incidentally, had no problem in giving Kramer the carrier HMAS Melbourne for several days at Williamstown.

    Filming on location in Australia was a big gamble for Kramer, but going to the source, in his words, "somehow gives you greater authenticity, a greater emotional impact and a feeling of total integrity." So after sending a forward scouting party in 1958, Kramer found that the unprecedented levels of support he was promised from Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, government officials, countless organisations and the general public made the project feasible. The Victoria Promotion Committee, of which Maurice Nathan was Chairman and Don Chipp a member, was also pivotal in convincing Kramer to film in Melbourne.16

    So, in October of 1958, Kramer set off for Melbourne where he set up Stanley Kramer Productions at the Royal Melbourne Showgrounds, a ramshackle conglomeration of assorted offices and exhibition buildings that he converted into makeshift sound stages. And because the Australian film industry was in a state of decline, a great deal of bulky and expensive equipment had to be shipped in from California. Along with Kramer went many of his trusted Hollywood department heads from previous films who would soon whip into shape a contingent of Aussie actors and local production staff.

    In addition to the five lead American actors, Kramer hired the cream of Australian actors, many of whom were former radio actors making the transition to television. These included John Tate (father of well know actor Nick Tate), John Meillon, Keith Eden, Brian James, Stuart Finch, Lola Brooks, Richard Meikle, Lou Vernon, Grant Taylor, Guy Doleman, Richard Meikle, Frank Gatliff, Kevin Brennan and Ken Wayne. Not exactly household names these days but faces that would appear in various ABC plays and Crawford Productions' television drama serials such as Consider Your Verdict, Homicide, Hunter,Division 4 and Matlock Police for years to come.

    Essay Image 05 Fred Astaire, Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner

    Casting Fred Astaire was viewed as another big gamble. To many people, the idea seemed totally inconceivable. But Kramer stuck to his guns and insisted Astaire was an excellent choice for the role. Sir Laurence Oliver was at one stage considered as was Alec Guinness but with the latter indicating reservations about the motor racing aspects of the script, Astaire was offered the role in June 1958.17

    Casting Astaire as a non-dancing, non-singing scientist was the result of a 'hunch' on Kramer's part after seeing him in a rare dramatic performance on TV. A call was put through to the TV station and Astaire was offered the role on the spur of the moment. At 59, Astaire felt that the time was right for him to try a serious dramatic role, and accepted immediately.18

    As a disillusioned, morose, and alcoholic nuclear scientist subconsciously seeking redemption for his contribution to the imminent demise of mankind, Astaire's performance in several moving key scenes was, to many, a highlight of an otherwise depressing, although enormously significant motion picture.

    During the last quarter of 1959, United Artists and Stanley Kramer Productions - utilising all possible media - orchestrated one of the most extensive, penetrating and exciting pre-selling campaigns that any picture had enjoyed in a very long while, even by today's standards. The promotional campaign - underpinned by the theme: "If you never see another motion picture in your life you must see On the Beach"19 - was truly worldwide, with its climax being simultaneous premieres in 18 major cities. Melbourne was literally the first due to the time difference.

    The Melbourne premiere of On the Beach was one of the 'dressiest' seen in Melbourne for many years with the scene of colour and sparkle watched by hundreds of people in Collins Street. As the audience of 3,200 streamed up the front steps of the Regent Theatre, they were greeted by the flags of all 17 major world cities hosting the premiere, along with the accompanying slogan "Never before has the world been linked together by one motion picture."20 All proceeds from the Melbourne premiere were donated to Melbourne Legacy.

    But for the gala audience at Melbourne's famous Regent Theatre, the unfolding of such a terrible and heartbreaking event against the background of their own city proved both sobering and devastating. In essence, after being seduced by all the hype, the grainy black and white portrayal of their city as dying and decaying defied expectations.21, 22

    The Salvation Army, having agreed to play a prominent part in the film as a significant forum for witness, naturally did not believe that the world would end in the way portrayed by Kramer. Waiting for the rather shell-shocked and less exuberant patrons as they left the theatre, the Salvationists' witness offered "a message of radiant hope", in contrast to the film's defeatist atmosphere of death.23

    While critics where predominately supportive and effusive, many criticised the perceived 'unrealistic' sedate behaviour of characters facing certain death, Peck's stodgy performance, the 'soggy' love affairs and, in some cases, the absence of a religious element.

    The main criticism, however, came from the US Eisenhower Administration, defence forces, intelligence agencies and scientists, who countered with an 'anti On the Beach' propaganda campaign along the lines that the film was factually inaccurate, scientifically flawed and defeatist. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller even suggested that the movie was subversive in that it would break the people's will to resist. "So many people I know came out movie saying, 'there is nothing we can do!," he said.24

    On the Beach, however, seemingly had the reverse effect and was influential in shifting the complacency of the "what the hell, there is nothing we can do" complacency of the 1950s to the political peacemaking and anti-nuclear activism of the 1960s. It is also known that future President John F. Kennedy read both the book and viewed the film. One wonders therefore, as he agonised over the Cuban Missile Crisis three years later, what influence On the Beach had on his world-saving deliberations.

    Cold War film historian Charles Mitchell argues that "On the Beach was either praised or criticised largely on the basis of the political interpretation, and political leaning of the reviewer rather than the film itself, seen through the prism of the contradictory 'Better Dead than Red' and 'Better Red than Dead' philosophies."25

    The context in which On the Beach was made - the fear of Communism and the Cold War - has long since passed. But as 18-year-old Canadian media undergraduate Katherine Lawrie wrote in 1997, "there is something transcendent about the film which allows it to remain resonant almost four decades later, with trigger-finger paranoia and family bomb shelters having been replaced."26 by the terrors of global terrorism, amongst other horrors.

    Having said that, one notes rather anxiously Russia's apparent attempts to restore its superpower status while upgrading its nuclear capability, the possibility of Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs along with the existence of ICBM's in Israel, India and Pakistan!

    So whatever the context, the legacy and impact of On the Beach remains strong and reminds us of the preciousness of human existence. All of the stars in the film were deeply concerned about the Cold War abyss facing humanity and enthusiastically supported Kramer's determination to stimulate the consciousness of the world with such a controversial film.

    "There is Still Time.Brother", the Salvation Army banner featured in those final riveting scenes outside the State Library of Victoria, was Stanley Kramer's last great message of the 1950s.


    Thurgood, Nevil. Mt.Macedon, Victoria. Letter to P.Davey, 11/9/2000.
    2 Ibid.
    3 Jillett, Neil. "We Were All Wrong Ava", The Age, Melbourne 14/1/1982.
    Haigh, Gideon. "Shute the Messenger", The Monthly, June 2007.
    Haigh, Gideon. Op Cit.
    6 Martin, David. "The Mind That Conceived On the Beach," Meanjin, University of Melbourne, No 81, Volume 6, No.2, 1960.
    Shute Norway, Nevil. Letter to Stanley Kramer 21/8/58, Stanley Kramer Production files, Department of Special Collections, UCLA, Los Angeles.
    8 Kramer, Stanley with Coffee, Thomas. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World - a Life in Hollywood, Harcourt Brace and Company, USA, 1997, pp 156-157.
    9 Shute Norway, Nevil. Op cit.
    10 Shurlock, Geoffrey, Motion Picture Association of America, Letter to Stanley Kramer 28/10/58, Margaret Herrick library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, USA.
    11 Brown, Robert, Melbourne, Australia. Interview with P.Davey, June 2002.
    12 Kramer, Stanley. Letter to Nevil Shute Norway 18/7/58, Stanley Kramer Production files, Department of Special Collections, UCLA, Los Angeles.
    13 Smith, Julian. The Biography of Nevil Shute Norway, 1976.
    14 Browne, Lindsay, Sydney Morning Herald, quoted in The Sun, Melbourne, 18/12/59, P.6.
    15 Kramer, Stanley with Coffee, Thomas. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World - a Life in Hollywood, Harcourt Brace and Company, USA, 1997, p.160. Kramer, Karen, Los Angeles. Interview with P.Davey, 1/5/2003.
    16 Chipp, Don, Melbourne. Interview with P.Davey, July 2000.
    17 Shute Norway, Nevil, Langwarrin, Victoria. Letter to Stanley Kramer, Hollywood, California, 9/7/58, Stanley Kramer Production files, Department of Special Collections, UCLA, Los Angeles. 
    18 ___ "Are Fred's Dancing Days Over?", New Screen News, Australia, 11/12/59, p.19.
    19 ___ "UA, Kramer Study 'Tough Sell' Angle of On the Beach", Variety, Los Angeles, 26/8/59, p.4
    20 ___ "Beach Premiere Tonight", The Sun, Melbourne, 17/12/59, P.1.
    21 Baker, Ainslie. "Premiere of On the Beach", The Australian Women's Weekly, Melbourne, 6/1/60.
    22 Charlton, Tony, South Melbourne. Interview with P.Davey, 14/2/2000.
    23 ___ "On the Beach Crowd Sees Army ON THE STREET," The War Cry, Melbourne, 16/1/60, P.5.
    24 Griggs, John. The Films of Gregory Peck, Citadel Press, New Jersey, 1984, P.168.
    25 Mitchell, Charles. Unpublished review and critique of On the Beach, Millinocket, ME, USA, 2000.
    26 Lawrie, Katherine. Essay The End of the World, Queens University Film Studies, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, May 1997.

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