One Man – Three Women – and a Mother’s apartment!
Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers opened on 28 December 1969, at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, New York. It ran for over two years and subsequently was performed throughout the world, including Australia. It has remained one of Neil Simon’s most regularly performed comedies of urban New York life.
This satiric comedy-of-(American-Jewish) manners was initially a response to the ‘sexual liberation’ of the late-1960s, exemplified by the ground-breaking musical Hair, which had opened on Broadway only the year before. Last of the Red Hot Lovers joined other notable productions in 1969, the first year of Richard Nixon’s presidency, that questioned and challenged numerous contemporary conservative values and institutions. This included Leonard Gershe’s Butterflies are Free, and Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers (Marriage), Robert Marasco’s Child’s Play (Roman Catholic education), and Arthur Kopit’s Indians (History and Native-Americans). This rebelliousness was complemented in some of the most outstanding and influential American films of the year, which included John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, and Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.
All these works are celebrating their respective 50th Anniversary in 2019. It is somewhat sobering to think and reflect that many of the issues raised in these works in 1969 are still concerns in 2019. Dated? I think not.
Within Neil Simon’s considerable canon of work, Last of the Red Hot Lovers is the second in a quartet of plays that charts a particular evolution of Neil Simon dramatic concerns, skills, and artistry. From the farcical Plaza Suite (1968) and the satiric romance of Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1969) to the serious dramas of The Gingerbread Lady (1970), and The Prisoner of 2nd Avenue (1971). Collectively, these plays form a quartet with similar themes, characters, situations, and dramatic techniques, including setting the entire action in the same room but with three different stories (Plaza Suite and Last of the Red Hot Lovers). There is a growing sense of middle-age and middle-class fear, isolation and complete ‘bafflement of the individual’. This ‘bafflement’ with the modern world is also reflected in the film The Out of Towners (1970), one of Neil Simon’s best film works.
What gives these plays (and screenplay) an added depth is the poignancy of the humour. Clive Barnes, the influential New York Times theatre critic, noted the shift in Neil Simon’s humour in his review of the original production – “He is as witty as ever…but he is now controlling that special verbal razzle-dazzle that has at times seemed mechanically chill… There is the dimension of humanity to its humour so that you can love it as well as laugh at it.” (NYT. 29 December 1969).
Whilst Last of the Red Hot Lovers deals with a middle-age crisis of confidence the play also deals with more universal issues such as ‘broken dreams’. From today’s perspective, the play could be regarded as relatively conservative. It challenges the now accepted convention of ‘do your own thing’ on a moral and ethical basis. As the characters express, it makes one also question whether or not one is ‘decent’.
Are you? Are you ‘decent’? Who else in your life would you call ‘decent’? Or do you think that mankind is basically selfish and ‘indecent’? What can you do if essentially you are a ‘romantic’ and believe in the best of people rather than the worse? How do you cope with modern ethics that proclaims ‘do your own thing’ and be ‘honest’ to yourself when invariably that involves hurting other people?
This is what makes Last of the Red Hot Lovers still so relevant and pertinent as these issues are still part of living in so-called ‘modern times’ and can be baffling. What makes the play special and very much exemplifies the best of Neil Simon is that he doesn’t judge his characters. These are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people but individuals with whom we can empathize as they struggle with a world that seems to demand behaviour that doesn’t sit comfortably with them, particularly in regards to sex.
Like most of Neil Simon’s work, Last of the Red Hot Lovers the characters are wonderful for actors to play. The original (and subsequent productions) invariably have been performed by one male actor and three female actors. The original cast was James Coco (Barney), Linda Lavin (Elaine), Marcia Rodd (Bobbi), and Doris Roberts (Jeanette). The great American caricature artist, Al Hershfield, did one of his famous theatrical portraits of the original cast. Other actors who have performed in this play include Dom DeLuise, Sid Caesar, Alan Arkin (Barney), Rita Moreno, Sally Kellerman (Elaine), Paula Prentis (Bobbi) and Renee Talor (Jeanette). The Australian cast included Harry H. Corbett (Barney), Lelia Blake (Elaine), Anne Lucas (Bobbi), and Betty Lucas (Jeanette), and was directed by Alfred Sandor.
The idea, however, of having all three female characters performed by the same actress was initially inspired by a highly successful 2005/06 Chinese production featuring husband and wife team Xu Zheng (Barney) and Tao Hong (Elaine, Bobbi, Jeanette).
This production of Last of the Red Hot Lovers by STARC PRODUCTIONS complements and continues our ever-evolving ‘aesthetic’ of 2-hander plays in which the acting has precedence over design and concept: ‘STARC by name – ‘Stark’ by Nature’. Each of these four productions – Gardner McKay’s Toyer, Jim Cartwright’s Two, Suzie Miller’s Reasonable Doubt, and now Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers – whilst maintaining our essential dramatic ‘aesthetic’, nonetheless, are widely different in ‘style’.
What is ‘Style’? Michel St. Denis defined ‘style’ as the ‘dramatic reality’ or ‘dramatic truth’ of each individual play – even though written by the same playwright. The world of Last of the Red Hot Lovers may have certain similarities with other plays by Neil Simon, but it is remarkable different – even the three Acts are different, even though set in the same place.
These are the artistic challenges for STARC PRODUCTIONS, challenging our talent and skills against different ‘styles’ within one ‘aesthetic’. Furthermore, it complements and continues STARC PRODUCTIONS artistic mission – Quality Entertainment at Affordable Prices.
We are determined to establish another full-time professional theatre company in Adelaide. It’s Time! The talent and skills are here – but not always the opportunity. It’s Time!
“It’s come to my attention that you don’t know who I am” – is a line that Cate Blanchett delivers with deep and devastating effectiveness when she first enters THOR RAGNAROK. Could it be that she is referencing her old acting teachers, Kevin Jackson and myself? Not certain – but what this line does reflect is the subject of ‘identity politics’ that has come to dominate so much of modern theatre and film.
So – here we are – at the end of 2018 – that brief time in which we reflect on what we have seen and done over 2018, amidst the plethora of ‘Best of’ lists. I am not necessarily into the ‘Best of ’ etc. I have a fervent dislike of art becoming a kind of superficial competition, which is why I don’t watch a lot of TV. My lists are far more personal and revealing, reflective of those productions that affected me in one way or another, and have stayed with me for various reasons. I have my favourites, certainly, but they are not necessarily the “Best” of anything. I like the respective following works – because they moved me – that’s all.
I feel very fortunate to be living and working in Adelaide, partly because I am able to see a relatively vast range of national and international productions each year. This is primarily due to the respective festivals, such as the Adelaide Fringe Festival, the Adelaide Festival, the Adelaide Film Festival, the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, and (my favourite) the Oz-Asia Festival.
So – here we go. However, let me first state that I did not see any opera this year, nor did I see much dance and ballet, so these kind of productions are not on my list. All the theatre productions listed below were different in their own way, yet each profoundly moved me as well as enlightened and thrilled me.
THEATRE (in roughly chronological order)
JOHN BUCCHINO: IT’S ONLY LIFE – Davine Productions (USA/AUST. – Fringe Festival)
FLESH & BONE by Elliot Warren – Unpolished Theatre (UK – Fringe Festival)
KING JACK QUEEN by Baboab Tree Theatre Company (UK – Fringe Festival)
SMOKING WITH GRANDMA (Threewords Playwright (China – Fringe Festival)
KINGS OF WAR based on the ‘History’ plays by William Shakespeare – directed by Ivo von Hove and produced by Toneelgroep Amsterdam (Adelaide Festival)
US/THEM by Carly Wijs and BRONKS, Belgium (Adelaide Festival)
FLA.CO.MEN – Israel Galvan (Spain – Adelaide Festival)
MEMORIAL by Alice Oswald – directed by Chris Drummond with Helen Morse (Brink Productions) (Australia – Adelaide Festival)
PATTI LUPONE (USA – Cabaret Festival)
JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL (USA – Cabaret Festival)
NASSIM by Nassim Soleimanpour (Iran – Oz-Asia Festival
SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND by Stan Lai (China – Oz-Asia Festival)
SUTRA by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (Netherlands/China – Oz-Asia Festival)
FAITH HEALER by Brain Friel – directed by Judy Davis with Colin Friels, Alison Whyte and Paul Blackwell. (State Theatre of South Australia.)
THE PURPLE LIST by Libby Pearson (UK – Feast Festival)
SEUSSICAL by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens– Northern Light Theatre Company
LINES by Pamela Carter (UK) – directed by Cory MacMahon (UK)
GODS OF STRANGERS by Elena Carapetis (State Theatre of South Australia)
Whilst this is really just shameless self-promotion, nonetheless, I am very proud of the productions that STARC the company I have formed with Stefannie Rossi and Marc Clement, produced in 2018. This includes TOYER by Gardner Mackay, TWO by Jim Cartwright, and REASONABLE DOUBT by Suzie Miller. Plus – there was Genet’s THE MAIDS.
Suzie Miller’s REASONABLE DOUBT, Elena Carapetis’ GODS OF STRANGERS, as well as Jada Alberts’ BROTHERS WRECK were the outstanding new Australian plays produced in Adelaide in 2018. I did see other new works in Sydney and Melbourne – but that’s another story, and none of them had the same impact on me as these three works. I may be biased re REASONABLE DOUBT but it was an honour and privilege to direct and produce the Australian premiere of this play.
FILM (not in any order of preference)
SHOPLIFTERS (2018) directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda (JAPAN)
CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) directed by Jon M. Chu (USA)
A STAR IS BORN (2018) directed by Bradley Cooper (USA)
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (2018) directed by Bryan Singer (USA.UK)
HEREDITARY (2018) directed by Ari Aster (USA)
GURRUMUL (2018 directed by Paul Damien Williams (AUSTRALIA)
Films released at the end of 2017 and seen in 2018
SWEET COUNTRY (2017) directed by Warwick Thornton (AUSTRALIA)
THE INSULT (2017) – directed by Ziad Doueiri (LEBANON)
A FANTASTIC WOMAN (2017) directed by Sebastian Lelio (CHILE)
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017) directed by Luca Guadagnini (ITALY)
THOR – RAGNAROK (2017) directed by Taika Waititi (USA/NZ)
DARKEST HOUR (2017) directed by Joe Wright (UK/USA)
THE POST (2017) directed by Steven Spielberg (USA
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) directed by Martin McDonagh (USA)
THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017) directed by James Franco (USA)
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017) directed by Rian Johnson (USA)
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017) – directed by Michael Gracey (USA)
BLADERUNNER 2049 (2017) – directed by Denis Villeneuve (USA)
Rather an eclectic group – and there are others – but these are the ones that have stayed with me.
I was also very fortunate in representing the National Film and Sound Archive in presenting during the 2018 Adelaide Film Festival (which was excellent) the newly restored prints of Gillian Armstrong’s STARSTRUCK (1982) and John Duigan’s THE YEAR MY VOICE BROKE (1987). The latter, in particular, was very well received, and it was marvellous to see the very young Noah Taylor and Ben Mendelsohn who most certainly have gone on to have quite wonderful careers.
2018 also marked the 100th Anniversary of the Raymond Longford’s and Lotte Lyall’s THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE (1918), which premiered in Adelaide on the 26 November 1918. I couldn’t attend the anniversary screening in Adelaide, so I watched this great Australian silent film classic at home.
Re Australian films – I did see a number, including Stephan Elliot’s SWINGING SAFARI, Mark Grenfell’s THE MERGER, Chris Sun’s BOAR, Ben Howling’s CARGO, Marion Pilowsky’s THE FLIPSIDE, and Heath Davis’ BOOK WEEK. I also finally caught up with Simon Baker’s BREATH (2017) and Ben Young’s HOUNDS OF LOVE (2017). A number of these films I admit I watched at home as they either had a limited cinema release and/or went straight to Netflix.
So – a wacky combo of romantic comedies and horror. None of these films was ‘brilliant’, but they were OK; in fact, more than OK. I particularly liked and appreciated the romantic comedies, perhaps the most difficult of all film genres to successfully pull off.
It was, however, Paul Damien Williams’ documentary GURRUMUL and Warwick Thornton’s SWEET COUNTRY that were the stand-outs – especially SWEET COUNTRY.
Warwick Thornton’s SWEET COUNTRY is terrific! And yet – I don’t know anyone who has seen it. Seriously. I saw it at the movies in Mitcham and I was one of three people in the session. Rather depressing – especially for such an excellent Australian film, but the reality is that it has been a bit of a disaster at the box-office, and continues to be an unknown despite good reviews etc.
SWEET COUNTRY, however, did trigger and inspired me to explore in more detail the nature of Australian ‘westerns’, and the ‘Western’ as a film genre in general.
The ‘Western’ is arguably the most common form of film in World Cinema, beginning with the Tait’s THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG (1906), the first feature film in World Cinema, and the shorter THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903).
Subsequently, it is possible to argue that it was the ‘Western’ that began cinema and feature film. There are so many sub-genres in regard to ‘Westerns’, including musicals, comedies, horror, and science-fiction. Virtually all major ‘stars’ have at least one ‘Western’ in their body of work – and often more than one. Nor is the ‘Western’ confined simply to US film – they are everywhere; for example, the influential Italian/ Spanish ‘spaghetti westerns’ of Sergio Leone. Australian ‘Westerns’ have the strange title of ‘meat-pie’ Westerns.
There is not the time nor space to elaborate on this wonderful conundrum (what does the ‘West’ mean? Etc), but SWEET COUNTRY certainly joins the pantheon of great Australian ‘Westerns’ that includes WAKE IN FRIGHT, THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER, THE TRACKER, THE PROPOSITION, MYSTERY ROAD, GOLDSTONE, as well as earlier films such as ROBBERY UNDER ARMS, BITTER SPRINGS and even JEDDAH.
The ‘Western’ is also very much a part of contemporary US films. Here is a list of some of the modern US ‘Westerns’ that I have watched. John McLean’s SLOW WEST (2015) and Ti West’s IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (2016) being two in particular that I enjoyed and would thoroughly recommend.
THE HOMESMAN (2014) – directed by Tommy Lee Jones
SLOW WEST (2015) – directed by John McLean
BONE TOMAHAWK (2015) – S. Craig Zahler
THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015) – Quentin Tarantino
IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (2016) – Ti West
BRIMSTONE (2016) – Martin Koolhoven
Looking back – WOW – quite pleased with myself that I have actually seen so much.
Finally – did Ms Blanchett wickedly reference either Kevin Jackson or myself in THOR RAGNAROK?
I don’t really know – but it certainly has been suggested. No matter – but if and whenever I see this wonderful ex-student of ours I do intend to say to her in a rather deep voice – It has come to my attention that you don’t know who I am (Kevin), quickly followed by – Have you been listening to a word I’ve said!!! (Me)
Bring on 2019.
Ken G. Hall’s Tall Timbers (1937) is a romantic melodrama that is highly watchable, particularly for its spectacular bushfire climax. Ken G. Hall had longed to make a film about the timber industry in contemporary 1930s Australia. The original story by Frank Hurley was adapted into a screenplay by Frank Harvey. Much of the joy of Tall Timbers, however, lies with the cinematography by George Heath who one was one of the prolific D.O.P’s of Australian cinema in the 1930s and 1940s.
The story centres on a young woman, Joan Burbridge (played by Shirley Ann Richards) whose father owns a timber company. She is saved from drowning by a young man, Jim Thorton (played by Frank Leighton) who joins her and her father in dealing with treachery within and without the timber company. There are a number of complicated romantic relationships within the plot, but it all comes together and is resolved in the awesome bushfire climax of the film.
The film was a success in Australia and in the UK and US, where it was renamed Thundering Forest and Timberland Terror. What makes the bushfire climax special is that it was mostly done with miniatures in a studio. Whilst the melodramatic aspect of the film is a little over-wrought, which Hall acknowledged, nonetheless, it is still a thrilling piece of Australian cinema.
Ken G. Hall’s It Isn’t Done (1937) was one of the most successful Australian films of the 1930s. It was based on a story by Cecil Kellaway and written by Frank Harvey and Carl Dudley. Cecil Kellaway was a South African born actor who lived and worked in Australia during the 1920s and 1930s. He would eventually move to the USA where he would establish himself as a major character actor, featuring in such films as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), The Luck of the Irish (1948), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). This was also Shirley Ann Richard’s first feature film.
The story involves an Australian farmer called Hubert Blaydon (Cecil Kellaway) who suddenly inherits a baronet in the UK. He and his family travel to England to take up the inheritance but run up against British snobbery. Eventually, Hubert arranges to get rid of the inheritance, giving it to a young writer, Peter Ashton (John Longden), who has fallen in love with Hubert’s daughter, Patricia (Shirley Ann Richards). Hubert and his wife return to Australia leaving Patricia who marries Peter.
Whilst mostly set in the UK, the film was entirely shot in Australia, in the Cinesound Bondi studios. This is a truly delightful ‘comedy of manners’ contrasting contemporary Australian social ways and ethics with British ones. It was a big success in Australia as well as the UK and USA and is still as funny and engaging as it ever was.
TONY’S TOP AUSTRALIAN FILMS: #7 – THOROUGHBRED (1936)
Ken G. Hall’s Thoroughbred (1936) is a sometimes thrilling Australian film. It is very loosely based on the story of one of Australia’s greatest racehorses, Phar Lap. Unfortunately, it has suffered from comparisons with other similar films, such as Frank Capra’s Broadway Bill (1934). However, it is a delightful film and is part of a small group or genre of Australian films that is about the popular Australian sport of horse racing. Furthermore, like virtually all the Australian horse racing films the climax is the famous Melbourne Cup – the Australian horse race ‘that stops the nation’.
The story centres on a horse called Stormalong who is owned and cared for by Joan, a young Canadian horse trainer living in Australia. She is helped by Tommy Dawson and together they start winning races. Eventually, Stormalong becomes a favourite to win the Melbourne Cup. However, a group of corrupt gambling syndicates plot to destroy Stormalong. First, they arrange for his stable to be burnt down; then they kidnap Tommy; and finally, at the Melbourne Cup whilst the race is on there is a life and death race to try and stop a sniper from shooting Stormalong.
In 1935 order to help finance the film and secure a US distribution Ken G. Hall traveled to the US and signed American actress Helen Twelvetrees to play Joan. Helen Twelvetrees, as well as Frank Leighton who plays Tommy, is terrific in the film. There is also a back-stage drama here as Helen Twelvetrees. She came to Australia with her husband and child but had an affair with Frank Leighton who was playing Tommy. Her husband found out and threatened to kill Frank Leighton. Ken G. Hall had to hire detectives to help gently but firmly get the husband and child out of the country.
I thoroughly recommend this wonderful little gem in the Australian film canon.
Tony’ Top Australian Films: #6. THE SILENCE OF DEAN MAITLAND (1934)
Ken G. Hall’s The Silence of Dean Maitland (1934) is not a great film, but it has something rather intriguing about it that makes compulsive viewing. Furthermore, it throws a particular mirror up to its contemporary society with certain issues still relevant today.
The film is based on the romantic melodramatic novel of the same name by Maxwell Grey (a pseudonym for Mary Gleed Tuttiett) that was first published in 1886. It was a best-seller, adapted into a play, and later two silent films in 1914 and 1915. It involves a minister, Dean Maitland who is seduced by the local sex-pot, Alma Lee who becomes pregnant. Ben Lee, Alma’s father, when he finds out physically attacks Dean Maitland, who then accidentally kills Alma’s father. Rather than confess, Dean Maitland allows his best friend, Dr. Henery Everard to take the blame. Everard goes to jail for twenty years, whilst Dean Maitland enjoys a successful life. Eventually, however, all is revealed.
There is a story that Ken G. Hall and his friend Stuart F. Doyle went to see a production of the play by The Rockdale Amateur Society in Sydney, and ended up in fits of giggles due to its overt melodramatic sentimentality. Nonetheless, Hall sensed there was something about this story that would appeal to contemporary audiences – and he was right. Despite reserved contemporary critical assessments, the respective film versions were popular successes, particularly Ken G. Hall’s 1934 film.
Today it is very awkward at times to watch, nonetheless, there is something about this story. Furthermore, despite all the melodramatic sentimentality The Silence of Dean Maitland had, and I think still has, the power and capacity to upset numerous people in religious communities and government institutions. Raymond Longford wrote and directed the 1914 film version, and ended up in court over distribution problems. It is perhaps the issue of decadence, hypocrisy, corruption, and betrayal by a supposed respected religious leader that is why The Silence of Dean Maitland has its appeal and fascination, and would, if re-made, probably be as successful and popular with Australian audiences as it has always been. A curiosity, perhaps, but there is something there….?
TONY’S TOP AUSTRALIAN FILMS
#5. The Squatter’s Daughter (1932)
One of the most popular Australian ‘melodramas’ in the first decades of the 20th Century was The Squatter’s Daughter (1907) by Bert Baily and Edward Duggan. The story essentially involves a dramatic love-triangle between two male rivals and the feisty heroine – Violet, the ‘Squatter’s Daughter’. Partly why this film is in my ‘Top Australian films’ is because it exemplifies the creation of a particular type of Australian female persona – the Aussie ‘shelia’.
These days, to call a woman a ‘shelia’ would be taken as a relatively derogatory label. That was not it’s original intention; rather the contrary, as it was a term that was essentially affectionate and complementary. The ‘shelia’ roles, such as Violet in The Squatter’s Daughter, were primarily masculine creations, nonetheless, the character was firmly embraced – feisty, independent, smart, beautiful, sometimes rich and sometimes not – she was seen as the ideal companion to the idealized romantic persona of the contemporary Australian male. These characteristics are also found in Sybylla Mervyn in Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (1901), who to a certain extent prefigures Violet in The Squatter’s Daughter (1907), and many others to follow – such as Barbara in Lawson Harris’ A Daughter of Australia (1922).
The success of the play led to Bert Bailey directing a silent-screen adaption in 1910. Unfortunately, there are no surviving copies and is now regarded as a ‘lost film’.
It is, however, Ken G. Hall’s 1932 film version that perhaps gives the best glimpse of how thrilling contemporary Australain audiences found The Squatter’s Daughter. Hall’s film, however, although based on the original play, is considerably different. The characters have been renamed – Violet is now Joan – and certain characters and situations completely removed. For example, the sub-plot in the original play involving the bushranger Ben Hall has gone; its place is a sub-plot involving racism.
Another reason why this film is in my ‘Top Australian films’ is the spectacular and frightening bush-fire that is the climax of the film. Very impressive – and dangerous – film-making.
TONY’ TOP AUSTRALIAN FILMS
#4 ON OUR SELECTION (1932)
Steele Rudd’s On Our Selection (1899) was one of the most popular works in Australian fiction for nearly fifty years. It was a series of satiric ‘sketches’ involving a rural Australian family, the Rudds, battling the elements, neighbours, politicians, and themselves. It marks the beginning of a number books by Steele Rudd about this lovable family of ‘country bumpkins’. The original group of ‘sketches’, On Our Selection, in 1912 became a highly successful play, written by Edmond Duggan and the then popular Australian actor Bert Bailey who also played the central character of Dad Rudd.
The play became the basis for the 1920 silent film version as well as Charles Chauvel’s 1932 ‘talkie’ On Our Selection. This was the film that really launched Charles Chauvel’s career. He was initially reluctant to do it, considering it as ‘old-fashioned’, however, based on the success of the play and the 1920 film he was persuaded that it would be a big hit with the Australian public – and it was.
Bert Bailey co-wrote the screenplay as well as reprise the role he created, Dad Rudd. Bailey, and Fred MacDonald as Dave Rudd, as well as the film, were such an enormous hit that it subsequently triggered off a series of films – Grandad Rudd (1935), Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938), Dad Rudd MP (1940). Whilst ‘film series’ are not unknown in the Australian film canon, nonetheless, the ‘Dad and Dave’ films are the most successful.
It is perhaps lamentable that the world and humour of On Our Selection and the ‘Dad and Dave’ films, in general, are relegated to the ‘old-fashioned’ dismissed bucket. However, Yes – they could be regarded as ‘old-fashioned’, but there is also an engaging whimsical charm, and they have moments that are genuinely funny. Furthermore, they do not shy away from social and political comment, and have more in common with the contemporary US films of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges than is generally credited – but with a uniquely ‘Australian’ voice.
This is partly exemplified in Dad and Dave Come to Town (which is my personal favourite) by the character of Mr. Ernstwhislte, played by Alec Kellaway. This character is what was called a ‘sissie’ role; in that, he is very effeminate and obviously ‘gay’. What makes this character and Alec Kellaway’s excellent performance important is that it is quite possibly the very first positive presentation of a homosexual man in ‘world cinema’, as opposed to being villainous, decadent, pathetic, psychopathic outcasts. Alec Kellaway’s Mr. Ernstwhistle is none of these, but is ‘good guy’ and helps Dad and Dave in their battle against the real villains in the film. Even more surprising, and a delightful paradox in regards to Australian audiences in comparison with English and US audiences, Mr. Ernstwhistle was so popular with the Australian public that he subsequently came back in later films.
These films may well be just of ‘historical interest’ now, however, I would argue that if viewed they would still garner laughs and be extremely popular.
Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life (1874) is the greatest of all ‘convict’ novels. It is epic in scale and sweep, with multiple characters, locations, situations, and whilst there are major inconsistencies and wild melodramatic flourishes, nonetheless, it is a truly thrilling adventure story. The novel is still in print, although I’m not too sure how many ‘modern’ 21st Century Australians have actually read, or even know about it. However, after it was first published it was probably the most popular and well-read work of Australian fiction in the late-nineteenth century.
For the Term of His Natural Life was virtually immediately adapted for the theatre, and there were two early silent film versions in 1908 and 1911. It is, however, Norman Dawn’s 1927 silent film epic that was and remains the best dramatic realization of the novel – even though what remains of the original feature film is incomplete.
At the time it was the most expensive Australian film ever made. The film was produced by Australasian Films and was to be directed by Raymond Longford. Australasian Films, however, desiring an American release instead employed American director Norman Dawn, and imported American silent film ‘stars’ to play the major roles of Rufus Dawes (George Fisher) and Sylvia Vickers (Eva Novak), amongst others. The film was a great success in Australia but did not repeat that success when shown in the UK and USA. It was actually not released in the USA until 1929, which by that time was already going through its film revolution with the introduction of ‘sound’, subsequently making For the Term of His Natural Life seem old-fashioned and out-of-date.
For some it may still be regarded as such, nonetheless, there are some truly extraordinary scenes, particularly those depicting convict life in Port Arthur, Adelaide. The film-makers went to great lengths and expense in authentically re-creating convict life in Port Arthur, including location shooting at Port Arthur, as well as borrowing clothes from Tasmanian museums and duplicating them for the film. Some of the Port Arthur footage from the final film was used by Charles Chauvel in a 1932 ‘travelogue’ called Ghosts of Port Arthur.
It is primarily due to these extraordinary Port Arthur prisons sequences that For the Term of His Natural Life earns and deserves its place amongst the ‘Top Australian Films of All Time’.