By Stephen Vagg
When I was a student at AFTRS many moons ago, I wanted to do a paper on a classic Australian film. Our lecturer, the very lovely and passionate Jane Mills was all for it, “as long as it wasn’t bloody Dad and Dave Come to Town again”. I remember thinking at the time, “Jeez, Jane, what brought that on?” but I never asked why. I don’t think Jane hated the film – although that’s always a possibility – I think she was just sick of its position in the Australian cinematic firmament: a pre-revival comedy that people actually enjoyed watching. Well, I was talked out of it twelve years ago, but the time has come to bring this film back under the spotlight.
Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938) was the third Dad and Dave film from director Ken G. Hall. You don’t hear much about Dad and Dave nowadays, but there was a time – the first half of the twentieth century, to be precise – when Australians couldn’t get enough of them: the comic antics of these Queensland farmers were eagerly consumed by the public through scores of short stories, several magazines, best-selling story collections, a phenomenally successful theatre adaptation and its sequel, two popular silent movies in the ‘20s, four even more popular sound films in the ‘30s, comic strips, and a radio show that ran for 15 years, not to mention inspiring countless rip-offs (The Hayseeds, The Waybacks, Possum Paddock). For a while there, Dad and Dave was the most blue-chip flop-proof franchise in Australian show business. Several actors played Dad Rudd but the one most identified with the role was New Zealand-born Bert Bailey, who essayed the irascible farmer in thousands of stage performances from 1912 to 1929, and a tetralogy of movies for Ken G. Hall the following decade.
You don’t often hear the word “heart” used in discussing Hall’s films, even by Hall. But the best of Hall’s movies had heart in spades, most of all Dad and Dave Come to Town.
Hall launched his directing career with a Dad and Dave film, On Our Selection (1932), and although he went on to make sixteen more movies over the next decade, he always returned to the Rudds whenever he needed a sure-fire hit. In 1938 this was particularly urgent since the English government had ruled that Australian films no longer counted as British under local quota laws. Hall could no longer rely on overseas sales for his films; profits needed to be made in the domestic market, and in Hall’s mind the best way to ensure that was to make a comedy with a popular star – and no Australian star was bigger than Bert Bailey as Dad Rudd.
Hall’s own favourite of the Dad and Dave films was Dad Rudd MP (1940), but Dad and Dave Come to Town remains my favourite of the series – indeed, of all Hall’s movies – because it has the biggest heart. You don’t often hear the word “heart” used in discussing Hall’s films, even by Hall. He would talk about stars, publicity, production value, female interest, the importance of a good climax, special effects, the public always being right, character actors, showmanship and sound recording equipment, but rarely emotion. This put him apart from filmmakers who wore their hearts more obviously on their sleeves, such as Raymond Longford and Charles Chauvel, and who (therefore?) enjoy greater artistic reputations. But the best of Hall’s movies had heart in spades, most of all Dad and Dave Come to Town.
There’s probably a lot of people who haven’t seen the film (it’s bewilderingly difficult to get hold of today – brushing up for this article, I had to see a copy at the NFSA office in Sydney), so I should give a quick synopsis: Dad (Bert Bailey) is engaged in various comic shenanigans at his farm when he learns his brother has died and left Dad a house and woman’s fashion store in the city. Dad travels there to investigate, taking his wife (Connie Martyn) and two eldest children, Dave (Fred MacDonald) and Jill (Shirley Ann Richards), with him. The house, Bellavista, is under the regime of the housekeeper, Miss Quince (Marie D’Alton) while the store, Cecille’s, is being deliberately run into the ground by the treacherous manager, Rawlins (Cecil Perry), who is secretly in cahoots with Pierre (Sidney Wheeler), the owner of a rival store. Dad installs Jill as manager, and she updates the stock, gets rid of Rawlins, promotes the floorwalker Entwistle (Alec Kellaway), and hires a new publicity agent, Jim Bradley (Billy Rayes). Jill decides to completely refurbish Cecille’s and host a major fashion show; Dad agrees to finance it all but has to mortgage his farm to cover the costs. Pierre then reveals he lent Dad’s brother a thousand pounds and sends in the bailiffs to repossess the store during the fashion show, but Dave fights them off with the help of Entwistle and his new girlfriend Myrtle (Muriel Ford). The show is a big success, Pierre arrives to call in the debt – only for Dad to be bailed out at the last minute by his old neighbour, Old Ryan (Marshall Crosby) and all ends happily.
Peter Finch makes a wonderful feature film debut as Bill Ryan, looking like he stepped straight off the farm, skinny as a rake with his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down like a yo-yo.
Why do I love this movie? For starters, it’s a very good script, well-structured and tight. “Well-structured” isn’t a back handed compliment – as a writer, I know how hard that is to achieve, and is a something many films fail at time and time again. The action moves along briskly and logically, stopping several times for comic set pieces, which were usually written by an uncredited gag team. Some of these creak (Dad and Myrtle sabotaging Pierre’s front display), some are obscure (I’d love someone to explain the busman’s holiday joke to me) but others are first rate, such as Bill Ryan (Peter Finch!) asking Dad for Sarah Rudd’s (Valerie Scanlan) hand in marriage when Dad thinks he wants to buy their dog. There is also some of the best rom-com dialogue in Australian cinema history (admittedly not a very big field) in the exchanges between Jill and Jim Bradley, which are bright, snappy and clever. The script is certainly far superior to any in Hollywood’s Ma and Pa Kettle series, which tended to be repetitive, and ranks up with the best of the Andy Hardy series at MGM in the ‘30s and ‘40s.
I’ve always enjoyed Dad and Dave Come to Town for it’s acting, too. Bert Bailey and Fred MacDonald had been playing Dad and Dave since 1912 and could have done it in their sleep by now (they probably did at times), but Hall kept them lively. Peter Finch makes a wonderful feature film debut as Bill Ryan, looking like he stepped straight off the farm, skinny as a rake with his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down like a yo-yo; Finch was dreadful in some of the British comedies he later made like Simon and Laura (1955), but he’s very funny here.
Jill Rudd is easily the best role Shirley Ann Richards ever had. Richards had an appeal similar to that of the young Olivia de Havilland – she looked like a good girl, but there was always a twinkle in the eye; virginal but with the promise of a lively honeymoon. Throughout her career Richards usually had to play against handsome elder lunks or gentlemen players, even in Hollywood – this film marked the one time she was matched against a spirited actor who seemed her contemporary, Billy Rayes. Rayes was an American touring the country with his juggling vaudeville act when cast as Jim Bradley (Hall frequently press-ganged touring foreigners into his films) and this seems to be his only movie – a great waste, for his scenes with Richards snap and crackle.
But the really great thing about this film for me isn’t its script or acting, it’s the fact it’s so warm and inclusive. The Rudds may bicker, but deep down everyone loves and supports each other: all the Rudd kids work for their father; Dad hires Jill to manage Cecille’s and puts her in charge of all decisions; Mum is supportive of her husband and daughter. Outsiders, too, are brought into the family fold: Bill Ryan is a moron but Dad allows him to marry Sarah because they love each other; Jim Bradley is a cocky city slicker, but Dad likes and respects him, and he becomes part of the Rudd family circle; so, too, do dimwitted but loyal sales girl Myrtle, gay Entwistle, and reformed-bad-girl-model Sonya (Leila Steppe). In fact, the only really nasty people in the whole film are Pierre and Rawlins (both of whom have pencil moustaches – make of that what you will). Yokels, gays, press agents, farmers, models, feminists, all under the one roof – it’s not SBS but this is pretty multicultural stuff for 1938.
It’s also remarkably progressive. Okay, yes, Entwistle is a gay stereotype with fluttering wrists and obsession with women’s clothes, but he is clearly out, which was unusual for the time (“all he can think about is frocks – why, he can’t even see the woman inside them,” cracks Rawlins) and while he’s mostly played for laughs, he’s also a brave, loyal friend of the Rudds, with a kind heart and good ideas how to run the store; he works hard, and puts his body on the line to fight off Pierre’s bailiffs at the end. Entwistle is definitely camp but he’s no camper than Jonathan Kurtiss (Damien Bodie) on the TV show Winners and Losers (2010-) and was even more popular with audiences – indeed, he was brought back to the series in Dad Rudd MP (1940).
The film is quasi-feminist, too, with Dad handing over the reigns of the business to his daughter Jill, who calls the shots, tells Jim “Don’t call me girlie”, says she doesn’t want to be “stuck away in a little country town” for the rest of her life, is her boyfriend’s boss, and shows female solidarity with Sonya. She’s a far better feminist role model than Sarah Hardy in the Andy Hardy series, who was always mocked whenever she expressed a desire to find a job, or any of the daughters in the Kettle movies, who just wanted to get married. Mum Rudd isn’t much of a role – it never has been (her arc in this film consists of reclaiming the kitchen at Bellavista from Miss Quince) – but at least she has a brain, encourages her daughter’s ambition, and inspires her husband by telling him to man up rather than using the blathering, absent-minded idiotic platitudes of Ma Hardy over in MGM land.
“Where I come from, a man sticks to his mates,” explains Ryan, in a scene that never fails to move me.
I also like it how Dad and Dave Come to Town supports capitalism with a heart. The Rudds appreciate the value of a buck: Jill’s ambition is admired, modernization is important, Dad makes sure he checks the books of any business he’s involved in, and extols the virtue of hard work. But it’s not capitalism of the unrestrained Thatcherite kind: Jill lets Rawlins resign even after his duplicity has been exposed to make it easier for him to get a new job; Jim criticizes Pierre for trying to crush “the little guy” in business; Jill lets Sonya keep her job despite knowing she’s a thief because she’s basically a good person; Dad goes into debt to expand the business when he thinks it’s worth it. And the film makes the rarely-made-but-valid point that making something isn’t enough, you need to publicise it, too. (Indeed, Jim Bradley is one of the most positive depictions of a publicity agent in cinematic history – handsome, bright, loyal, and smart – and surely ex-publicity man Hall’s fantasy version of himself.)
I love the coda of this movie, where Dad realises that city folk are just like country people down deep (“whether it’s poured out of a tin pot or a billy, it’s tea just the same”), and the Rudds have a Christmas Party where all the kids make out. Dad not only takes this in stride, he pulls Mum on to his lap and announces he’s going to join in on the fun, making this one of the few Australian movies to end with implication of characters over fifty having sex.
But my favourite bit of all comes in the climax. Pierre turns up after the fashion show, demanding one thousand pounds. Dad, by then deeply in debt, can’t pay it – but he’s bailed out by his neighbour and sparring partner, Ryan, who writes Pierre a cheque on the spot. “Where I come from, a man sticks to his mates,” explains Ryan, in a scene that never fails to move me. I love this moment because it says a lot about what I’d like Australia to be – a place where you squabble with your neighbours but when the chips are down you help each other out.
Dad and Dave Come to Town isn’t Citizen Kane (1940). It’s a bit creaky, some performances whiff of ham, there are a couple of jokes I just plain don’t get, and the pacing occasionally feels off. And if you don’t like old movies, or old Aussie humour, you probably won’t like it at all. But I love it. It’s got yokels loose in the city, two great juveniles, witty dialogue, comic dogs, Bert Bailey acting up a storm, a young Peter Finch making his mark, slapstick, Shirley Ann Richards and Billy Rayes lighting sparks off each other, and that great feeling of inclusiveness, tolerance, family and mateship that marks the best of Australian populist entertainment – the same sort we later saw in The Overlanders (1946), They’re a Weird Mob (1966), Crocodile Dundee (1986), Neighbours (1987-), Packed to the Rafters (2008-) and The Sapphires (2012). And the fact that the the film is not commercially available on DVD is a downright scandal.
About Stephen Vagg: Stephen is an AFI-nominated writer whose credits include the feature films All My Friends Are Leaving Brisbane and Jucy, as well as the TV shows Home and Away and Neighbours. He is the author of the biography Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood as well as several plays. His most recent play, Sidekicks, is playing at the Old 505 Theatre in Sydney from November 2-18, 2012.
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