Monday 8 November 2021

ON DVD - John Baxter looks back at THEY'RE A WEIRD MOB (Michael Powell, Australia, 1966)

Walter Chiari, Michael Powell on the set of 
They're a Weird Mob
Ph: Robert McFarlane
It's a Weird Movie

               When The Australian Cinema was published in 1970, Angus and Robertson chose for the cover a publicity shot from They’re a Weird Mob. In the light of the book’s skepticism about prospects for a self-sustaining local film industry, Michael Powell’s film seemed to highlight what looked, at the time, the only way forward:  co-productions using foreign directors and stars, with locals in support. (It only occurred to me later that Angus and Robertson, having turned down John O’Grady’s original book and thus having missed a bonanza, were hoping to claw back a scrap of what they’d lost.)

            With hindsight, films like They’re a Weird Mob proved less a solution than part of the problem, but the faces of Chips Rafferty, Walter Chiari, Ed Devereaux and author O’Grady, alias Nino Culotta, beaming from the cover implied otherwise. They were working on a major feature with a world-class director. What was not to like?

            More than half a century has not diminished the improbability of archetypal Brit Michael Powell filming a satire on Australian manners. That the film should owe its existence to Stanley Kramer’s dour parable On the Beach adds to an already tortuous genealogy. Gregory Peck read the book while on location in Melbourne and, perhaps influenced by his success in The Big Country, a not-dissimilar fish-out-of-water story, paid £10,000 for the rights,intending to make  his directorial debut with the film.   

Walter Chiari, A view from down under      

            Back in Hollywood, wiser heads dissuaded him from this potential disaster The rights passed to Powell, largely unemployable since the disaster of Peeping Tom. Passionate for the British landscape, he had given up his London home and elected to live in a caravan, which he parked in a succession of beauty spots around the country.  Nobody seemed less likely to find inspiration in the Australian character – except, perhaps, his long-time collaborator, Transylvanian-born Emeric Pressburger, who, as “Richard Imrie”, wrote the screenplay for They’re a Weird Mob.

            Assuming, with some justification, that foreign audiences would not know Australia from Austria,  Pressburger begins the film with a scene of children staring at a giant world globe on which Australia is ostentatiously outlined. (Rand McNally, as suppliers of the globe, receive a prominent credit before even the title, as odd a product placement as the acknowledgment to Bri-Nylon in Fellini’s Giulieta degli Spiriti.

            The commentary explains that, despite living on the opposite side of the earth, Australians (“like flies on the ceiling,” it inaccurately and unflatteringly suggests) do not risk falling off. It further reveals that they are devoted to sport (cue a cartoonish hunting sequence), enjoy a drink (scenes of beer-guzzling) and admire “sheilas, also known as ‘beaut sorts’” (footage of competitors for “Miss Gold Coast”.)  Having left no cliché unembraced, it concludes in satisfaction “They’re a weird mob.”

            Weirdness, however, is more evident in the film than in the book, a pedestrian account of how Italian journalist Nino Culotta, sent by his publisher to write about Australians, decides to research them by taking a job on a building site. 

Ocker vulgaris, John Meillon (l), Ed Devereaux
(2nd from right), Slim DeGrey (r)

            Pressburger, faced with long passages of social commentary, understandably exaggerates his characters. The film’s Nino is a bumbling innocent, lured to Sydney by an offer of work on his brother’s magazine. He arrives to find a deserted office heaped with unsold copies. After squatting there for a few days, he takes up the pick and shovel simply to survive.  The Australians who befriend him (John Meillon, Slim DeGrey and Ed Devereaux), are, of course,  prime specimens of Ocker Vulgaris, uniformly gifted with unslakeable thirsts and hearts of gold.

             Slim and a little effete, Chiari comes on more as lounge lizard than ditch digger. He joined the film after visiting then-lover Ava Gardner during the production in On The Beach. By the time shooting started, he’d transferred his affections to Alida Chelli, who has a featured role as Nino’s second-string love interest. Claire Dunne, an Irish-born speakerine plucked from TV for her first (and last) film appearance, is ludicrously mis-cast as the girl who wins Nino’s heart – but only his heart, since Dunne apparently forbade any but the most discreet displays of passion, leaving sex appeal to her voluptuous bestie Dixie (Judith Arthy).

            Rather than the epic showdown that enlivened The Big Country, Nino wins over his building tycoon father-in-law-to-be (Chips Rafferty) not with duelling pistols but by pointing out, with a nod to a prominently displayed portrait of Pope Pius XII, that not all Eyties are deadbeats. He’s last seen standing on a million dollar building site overlooking Sydney Harbour, shortly to be occupied by his home - a stirring illustration of the dictum that the son-in-law also rises. 

Walter Chiari squats in the magazine office

            They’re a Weird Mob  did well in Australia but failed everywhere else. Three years later, Powell would make Age of Consent, a film with a heartfelt sensitivity to the Australian landscape and a central performance of uninhibited eroticism from the young Helen Mirren. To champions of an indigenous cinema it had all the same fleas as They’re a Weird Mob: imported cast and crew,  Australians in supporting roles, not to mention sheilas and beer.   Yet the elements that They’re a Weird Mob parodiedare depicted in Age of Consent with good humour, even relish. Did Powell change, or the audience? Do foreign film-makers reflect truths about Australian life and landscaspe to which nationals are blind? Is there, then, a place in indigenous cinema for the outsider’s point of view? It’s a conundrum that still remains to be solved.

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