Winter Hall was one of New Zealand’s little-known but successful early international actors, appearing in over 100 Hollywood films.
Named because of his midwinter birth, he was one of 12 children in a musical family, his father being at one time the first mayor of Kaiapoi, near Christchurch. Winter’s sister Louisa Maynard Hall was the first official piano accompanist for Christchurch radio station 3YA, and his brother Robinson acted in amateur theatre.
Winter’s dream of a professional stage career conflicted with his mother’s strict Methodist beliefs. So at first he worked as a teacher (initially at Sydenham Borough School, later at Christ’s College) and gave elocution recitals to satisfy his thespian inclinations. His performances were well received; The Ellesmere Guardian declared in 1906: “Mr Hall’s capabilities as an elocutionist are well known ... he thoroughly brought down the house, and conclusively proved himself an artist of great histrionic ability”.
In April 1908 he made his first appearance with a professional company, and for the next few years performed with companies in Australia and New Zealand. In 1915 he toured NZ with Harry Plimmer in their Plimmer-Hall Company, raising money for patriotic funds.
In 1915 his mother died, and the next year Hall worked in film for the first time. His first roles were in Australian productions, in 1916: The Pioneers, The Woman in the Case, and The Joan of Arc of Loos.
With those films under his belt, he decided to make a move to America for the "purpose of devoting his energies to moving pictures in Los Angeles”. In 1926 he recalled having been "fortunate in possessing letters of introduction to various officials in the studios, and I commenced work ten days after I arrived”.
One of those letters may have been obtained through New Zealander Rupert Julian, who Hall had acted with in the Julius Knight Company. Julian had arrived in LA first in 1913, and fast found his footing there. In fact Julian directed the first American film Hall appeared in, 1917's The Gift Girl. Hall also worked under director Elsie Jane Wilson (Julian’s wife) in three films in 1917, and played the uncle of Mary Pickford's character in A Romance of the Redwoods, the first of a number of films he did for Cecil B DeMille.
Other directors who used him in 1917 included Canadian innovator Henry MacRae and future Oscar nominee Robert Z Leonard (The Great Ziegfeld). The following year Elsie Jane Wilson gave him parts in two more of her films, and he appeared in Rupert Julian’s breakthrough movie The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin. In 1919, he was in The Turn of the Road, King Vidor's first feature, and crime comedy The Dub. As it happened another New Zealander, young Christchurch-born Nina Byron, was in the Dub cast. Winter Hall was emerging as an expert in playing typical supporting roles as a father, uncle, priest, bishop, doctor, railroad president or judge — the sort of roles he stayed with throughout his film career.
One of his notable roles was in the 1925 silent blockbuster Ben-Hur, as Joseph, Mary’s husband. In landing this role, it may have helped that the film’s director was Fred Niblo, an American actor who had earlier toured Australasia on the JC Williamson circuit, before returning to the States. Hall may have made his acquaintance then.
Ben-Hur was the 85th American film in which Winter Hall had appeared, after a decade in Hollywood. And so he could be said to have reached an acceptable level of success. A photograph published in 1925 shows Cecil B DeMille bidding “a fond farewell to his friend Winter Hall, well-known character actor” before his trip back to Australia and New Zealand.
While in New Zealand in November 1925, Hall talked about his decision to work freelance rather than on contract: “You see, if … you enter into contract to work for a certain corporation you must be prepared to play any sort of a part in any sort of a picture, you are subject to a call at any time. … I am a type and am carefully docketed away in the memories of producers as one who in appearance may figure as a good father banker, senator, professor, minister of the gospel, scientist, and so on. … I get plenty to do, yet am in the happy position of playing only such parts as those I approve. I do not play dirty bad men; I aim at being on the screen the good man, clear cut and dignified. That is how my screen friends know me, and it accords with my desire to be so known”.
Australian newspaper The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate commented in 1931 that Winter Hall had "'buttled' more pictures than almost any other actor in motion pictures, and has been called “the perfect butler … Incidentally he has received several offers to act as butler in real life from people who have seen him on the screen, but he finds acting much more profitable and enjoyable."
The “poised, distinguished” Hall continued film acting well into his 60s, playing bit parts such as judge, major domo, ship’s captain, chaplain and doctor, at a rate of around half a dozen films per year. His lengthy stage career and elocution experience meant an easy transition from silent films to talkies. In all, he appeared in 127 films between 1916 and 1938.
Winter Hall died in Los Angeles in 1947. In 1909 he had married a Christchurch pianist Katie Young in Melbourne, and their son Desmond Winter Hall became a science fiction writer living in New York.
Profile written and researched by Barbara Lyon
Illustration of Winter Hall: Alexander Turnbull Library, Image B-158-009
Papers Past website. Accessed 3 September 2014
Trove (Australia) website. Accessed 3 September 2014
Lantern Media History website. Accessed 3 September 2014
Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision - Jonathan Dennis Library
BJO, 'Plays and Players' - The Weekly Times, 4 November 1916, page 8
AF Rodie, 'Behind The Curtain. The Unnamed Player.' - The Morning Bulletin, 1 April 1930, page 10
Writer unknown, 'Concert' (Review) - The Ellesmere Guardian, 29 September 1906, page 2
Writer unknown, 'Cecil De Mille' - Exhibitor’s Trade Review, August 1925
Writer unknown, 'Free Lance of the Films. No Deep Dyed Villain.' The Auckland Star, 25 November 1925, page 10
Writer unknown, 'In The "Movie" Game. Life In Hollywood.' (Interview) - The Auckland Star, 8 February 1926, page 10
Writer unknown, 'Road to Paradise' - The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 10 August 1931, page 6