Sunday 22 February 2015

Casual moments involving race in two early Oz movies

In Rangle River (1937), directed by a down on his luck American, Clarence Badger, (once the star-maker of Clara Bow, having directed her in the sensationally sassy comedy It (1927), the opening sequence starts with a close-up of an Aboriginal playing a tune on a gumleaf. The camera pulls back to reveal that he is one of a group of five (I think) all harmonizing in the same way. The Aboriginal even changes to a new leaf at one point in the music. A horseman is picked out and he rides towards us, the camera shooting him from a low ground level angle as he approaches all-powerful, and towards the group of Aboriginals. He pulls out a large stockwhip and cracks it in the direction of the musicians and they promptly scatter into the nearby bush. The horseman rides off. Soon we will learn that he is Dick Drake, the no nonsense foreman on a cattle property somewhere in outback Queensland. He is played by Victor Jory, like Badger an American working here at the behest of Columbia Pictures on a film of a story, the barebones of which were written by the American western pulp novelist Zane Grey while visiting Australia to do some big game fishing. Though not credited it is claimed that Charles and Elsa Chauvel worked up the script based on Grey's work.

In Seven Little Australians (1939), directed by Arthur Greville Collins who also did the adaptation of Ethel Turner's famous novel, the stepmother Esther gathers the seven children around her after they have disrupted a fancy formal dinner party and declares "You were acting like a bunch of Aboriginals". (If I haven't got the exact words right forgive me but I didn't expect to be taking notes.).

Neither of these moments involving race (I'm putting this as neutrally as I can) is mentioned in Pike & Cooper's Australian Film 1900-1977 nor in the entries on the individual films in McFarlane's Oxford Companion to Australian Film nor in the Companion's entry on Aboriginality and film. The films were screened in a double bill at the WEA Film Group on Sunday 22 February using DVD copies obtained from the National Film & Sound Archive.

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