by Iain Wilson.
One of my favourite Australian films is They’re a Weird Mob (1966) – although like that other recently restored classic, Wake in Fright (1971), it was made by a foreign director.
I’ve become interested in this film for a number of reasons: growing up, I had always liked horror films, and strangely enough, my favourite filmmaker, George A. Romero, was a big fan of the British director Michael Powell. It was Powell’s style of filmmaking that had influenced Romero when he came to make his low-budget masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead (1968).
Secondly, I didn’t learn to drive until I was in my late-twenties, and my driving instructor, who was originally from Sicily, told me about how much he liked the Nino Culotta books, the first being They’re a Weird Mob, which was published in 1957. He had found them funny but they had also helped him to learn a bit about Australia.
An outsider’s view of Australian culture
Although the books had been written from an Italian immigrant’s point of view, they were in fact the work of an Australian born-and-bred journalist, John O’Grady (which my instructor also mentioned), who had supposedly written the books after having a bet with his brother, Frank O’Grady.
Although the film’s plot was slightly different from the book, the gist of the story was still the same: Nino Culotta, a sports journalist from Italy, arrives in Circular Quay on a passenger ship after having his fare paid by an entrepreneurial cousin who has invited him to work on an Italian magazine he has set up. But after discovering that the magazine has folded due to bad debts, and that his cousin has shot through, Nino is forced to takes up a job as a brickie’s laborer.
He saves all his money in an attempt to pay off his cousin’s debt to Kay Kelly (Clare Dunne), an Anglo-Australian girl of Irish ancestry, whose father owns the building in which the magazine was housed. Despite Nino’s honourable intentions, she treats him shabbily; but Nino proves to be a resilient soul and doesn’t let her put him off.
In the course of his new job, Nino meets some very “Aussie” characters: particularly the trio of Joe, played by Ed Deveraux, who employs him, and his immediate work mates, Pat (Slim DeGrey), who fought in Italy during WWII, and Dennis (John Meillon), who instructs him in the basics of brick-laying. But Nino also befriends an Italian family on the Manly ferry, after they bond during a racist affront from a drunken passenger.
A Window on the Past
The thing that is most shocking about They’re a Weird Mob is just how much Sydney has changed in terms of place and people – in what is relatively a short amount of time. The phrase “the past is a foreign country” completely applies here.
You also begin to realise that this was a very confident time for Anglo-Australians who had just entered a period of prosperity and growth, with a self-esteem boosted by a moral victory in WWII. It was also the later stages of the post war immigration scheme, which Prime Minister Ben Chifley had set in motion just after the war, which saw thousands of migrants from countries like Greece and Italy arrive on Australian shores.
Essentially, the film is a comedy of errors, a conceit O’Grady used to make a sociological study of what was at that time, a predominantly Anglo Australian way of life, looking at how absurd some of its rituals must have seemed to outsiders, particularly to cultured Europeans.
There are a few uncomfortable moments in the film, which probably comes with the territory – a look into race relations. When Kay’s father, Harry Kennedy (played by the legendary Chips Rafferty) first meets Nino, he makes an assessment of him as “a dago – bit bigger than most, but a dago just the same.” This would make most modern Australian viewers squirm in their seats.
The circumstances behind the creation of They’re a Weird Mob also said something about the colonial relationship that Australia still had with England at that time – that a British director could easily come to Australia and make an “Australian” film, that Australians would embrace, despite it not always showing them in a flattering light (particularly a final scene that has them breaking out kegs of beer and drinking like I swear you’ve never seen on film before!).
Quirks and Cameos
The film has many quirks which make it fascinating to watch. It captures the long-running rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne with a brief cameo by Graham Kennedy, who pulls up in his car on George Street to ask a Sydneysider the way to the Channel 7 studios. The passerby, recognising who he is, tells him that his kind isn’t welcome in Sydney, and that he should just keep driving and not stop until he reaches Queensland.
There is also a very strange scene – a long sequence where Nino is hoeing the earth of the Greenacre building site, where some of the story is set, and he is sweating profusely. As the music rises, the viewer suddenly finds themselves in something like a weird kind of slipstream.
The film was also made in the mid-sixties in the midst of a growing surf culture; there is a night-time “beach party” sequence in the style of the AIP produced films, Beach Party (1963) and Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello – possibly a ploy to make the film more attractive to a youth audience.
Without a doubt, however, Walter Chiara is the great talent of this film, and he has many touching moments.
In one of them, he visits Guiliani (Alida Chelli), the beautiful daughter of the Italian family he had befriended earlier on, at their family business, an Italian restaurant. Nino has a rose behind his back, ready to give it to her, to see if she would like to date him – however, the first thing she does, without realising his plans, is to excitedly show off the engagement ring on her finger; calling her fiancé out of the kitchen to introduce him to Nino – who congratulates them both sincerely. In the next scene, Nino is singing an Italian song “I Kiss You, You Kiss Me” that Chiari had written in real life.
They’re a Weird Mob is a film that leaves you wishing that Nino was a real person, and that the book had been written by an Italian immigrant, and not an Australian journalist. Chiari brings to life such a likable character that you instantly know that he is the sort of person who makes a great contribution to life, wherever he goes.
Finally, I just want to say that there is a great website called They’re A Weird Mob, Then and Now, http://jsarkozi.blogspot.com.au/ whose author has chased up all the original locations to see if they still exist (– and surprisingly, many do, which I think would make a great walking tour of Sydney). Also thanks to Steve Crook from the Powell and Pressburger Pages http://www.powell-pressburger.org who provided me with the after party picture below. Lastly, watch out for Jeanie Drynan, the Australian actress who played the mother in Muriel’s Wedding, who is a nice surprise – she is seen here as the host at Nino’s first Saturday brunch with work friends.
You may also be interested in:
- An overview of They’re a Weird Mob, clips from the film and curator’s notes by Paul Byrne at Australian Screen.
- NFSA programmer Quentin Tournour’s essay ‘Contexts in which to place They’re a Weird Mob and in which you might never have placed it before” in online journal Senses of Cinema.
- Brian McFarlane’s essay ‘How weird does this mob still seem?’ in Inside Story.
About the author:
Iain Wilson runs the website www.fotwaudio.com, where you can find his audio stories, as well as a blog about film and music. He is currently working on two audio documentaries –“John Harrison and the Music of Creepshow” about the creation of the soundtrack to the classic Stephen King/George Romero horror film, and “That Dr Who Sound: Descendants of the Radiophonic Workshop” about musicians influenced by the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop. You can find out more about these projects here.