William D. Routt
Dad And Dave Come To Town is perhaps the quintessential ‘pre-Renaissance’ Australian film. Yet since the Renaissance of the 1970s most cine-literate Australians who have seen the Cinesound bush comedy, have found it awkward, unfunny and a little embarrassing - at least this was the reaction of students and teachers in my classes over twenty years. Serious critics dismissed it and all its kin (see Molloy 1990: 32). The 1970s Renaissance inaugurated an Australian tradition of well-crafted, good-looking features conforming to accepted international conventions and tending to invite discussion worldwide as ‘art’, but in the process of elevating the present, these worthy films have had the effect of making most of Australia’s screen past look scrappy, cheap, and second-hand.
In world cinema terms, Dad And Dave Come To Town is a run-of-the-mill late 1930s B feature. Apparently it looked good enough to play the West End after it had been cut by 19 minutes under the title of The Rudd Family Goes To Town, and it was the first Australian feature to do so (Shirley and Adams 1989: 139). Adolph Zukor liked it (Hall 1980: 124), and it was released in the United States as The Farmer Goes To Town (1943). On the other hand, it belongs to the genre of rural comedy - and everyone knows that by 1935 STIX NIX HIX PIX, that is, in the United States at least, rural movies were out of fashion. Its years, its production values and its dumb comedy have conspired to make the film even less acceptable to cultivated tastes these days than it might have been back then.
Here is the story that viewers see. Down on the farm two young men (Dave and Joe Rudd) have set a noose to trap a fox. The eldest daughter of the family, Jill, arrives back from a fortnight away. Yelling from off screen signals that Dad Rudd has been caught in the fox trap. Before long he has also fallen into a gate to avoid a shotgun blast, been caught in an automatic fence, chased by a runaway car and watched one of the farm’s haystacks go up in flames. A timely letter tells Dad and Mum that Dad’s brother Alfred has died, and they are mentioned in the will. This means a trip to the city - and Dave and Jill come along to look after their parents.
In the city Dad and Dave behave like unsophisticated hicks in matters of traffic, etiquette, rising times and indoor plumbing. Dad finds he has inherited a ‘fashion emporium’ called Cecille’s. As it happens, running a modiste is what Jill really wants to do, and she has a flair for it. However, the current management has conspired with the owner of the frock shop across the street to keep Cecille’s from reaching its full potential, and when Dad and Jill learn of this, they get rid of the man responsible and determine to go head to head with the competition - which they do with the help of a floorwalker named Entwistle and Jill’s love interest, Jim (who is a publicity agent). Plans are laid for a grand gala opening featuring ‘the Farmer Dressmaker’, but at the same time a crucial bill held by their rival comes due on the night of the opening. In one room the ‘Royal Show of Fashiondom’ unfolds, displaying tableaux of garments intended for ‘everyone’ while in another all the rival’s attempts to spoil things are foiled by Dave, Entwistle and a model named Myrtle. In the end Dad’s worst enemy from back home pays off Dad’s debt in the name of ‘mateship’ and rescues Cecille’s from catastrophe. A coda sees the whole Rudd family back on the farm for Christmas. The lights go out and all the youngsters pair off. Finally, Dad and Mum decide perhaps they too should join the movement to ‘populate or perish’.
But in a popular film, particularly if it is a comedy, the story usually counts for very little. It is a scaffolding for moments, performances, set pieces, and the creation of affect. The best scenes in Dad And Dave Come To Town have nothing to do with the plot. One of these occurs when young Bill Ryan comes to ask Dad for the hand of his daughter, Sarah, and Dad is misled by Dave to think that Bill wants to buy his dog, Sally. The resulting exchange, with Dad’s references to ‘hopping into anyone’s bed’, kicks in the ribs and ‘the best bitch in the district’ must have been old hat fifty years before it made it into this film, but Bert Bailey, as Dad, and Peter Finch, as Bill, do it to a turn.
Somewhat later, the funniest sequence in the film puts Dad and Dave on the radio as part of the publicity campaign for the ‘Farmer Dressmaker’s’ fashion show. In a simply edited progression fuelled by well-written dialogue and spot-on delivery by Bailey and his partner of many years, Fred MacDonald, the planned programme progressively falls to pieces, replaced by ‘bad’ dialogue delivery (‘Good even-ing, Fa-ther’), pronunciation gaffes (‘a tailor-made coat trimmed with stables’), personal messages (with cutaways to their recipients) and bickering (‘Are you phonin’ or are you broadcastin’?’). Just as Dad, relishing the chaos they are causing, seems about to climb down the microphone and into the airwaves, the programme finishes.
It seems to me that the production still that heads this chapter perfectly illustrates the film’s virtues. It is an amusing still, quite apart from whatever might be going on in the story at the time it was taken. Dad, in the kitchen with Mum, is listening to an egg. I suspect that there is a good reason for listening to an egg (perhaps to discover if there is chicken in it), but it is not something that any of us sophisticated city dwellers are very likely to do. In the film itself, however, this precise moment never occurs. Instead, Dad casually shakes an egg next to his ear while he and Mum are talking quite seriously about the difficult day ahead, when the debt will be foreclosed and the Rudds will lose everything. The still, like the film itself, makes incidental byplay, not narrative action, into a reason for seeing the movie: it is a figure of how the film wants to be read.
Dad And Dave Come To Town is the third film in a series of four ‘Dad and Dave’ comedies produced by Cinesound in the years from 1932 to 1940. All starred Bailey and MacDonald as Dad and Dave. All were directed by Ken G. Hall, Cinesound’s house director, and at least partly written by Bailey. There had been two earlier films featuring the Rudd family, both directed by Raymond Longford. The Rudds had also inspired a radio serial, Dad and Dave from Snake Gully, which had begun to appear the year before Dad And Dave Come To Town was released. No doubt the radio skit described above was partly a homage to and partly a dig at the serial, which was a sort of proto-The Archers in which neither Bailey nor MacDonald had any part at all.
Cinesound’s first Dad and Dave feature, On Our Selection (1932), was also its most financially successful film. It was based on a 1912 stage play written by Bailey in collaboration with his theatrical partner, Edmund Duggan (and possibly one other), in which Bailey had played Dad and MacDonald Dave. On Our Selection had been a fantastic theatrical success, constantly toured, revived and supplemented by other Rudd plays. It had a profitable run in London in 1920.
On Our Selection was, in turn, based on a collection of stories published under the same title by Steele Rudd (Arthur Hoey Davis), but the play took Davis’ low key ‘realistic’ stories and turned them into knockabout farce spiced with old fashioned melodrama. The first of Davis’ Rudd stories had appeared in 1895, and their popularity in Australia and abroad elevated their author to the stature of exemplary bush story teller and condemned him to the Rudds for the rest of his life.
The popularity of Bailey and Duggan’s On Our Selection created a new, specifically Australian, subgenre of rural comedy. The Australian theatrical historian, Margaret Williams, calls this subgenre ‘bush comedy’. It is sometimes known as ‘backblocks farce’ and was called ‘farce-bucolical’ by at least one critic at the time (Williams 1983: 255). This subgenre upended the conventional format of leavening melodrama with occasional flashes of comedy and instead used melodrama - and its narrative line - as an occasional intrusion into a plotless series of broadly comic skits of rural life, exploiting Australian rural dialect, vulgar folk humour and moronic (but nobly stubborn) characterisations of the rural poor.
A theatrical entrepreneur named Beaumont Smith was the first to make a bush comedy film. Smith’s name had been included as a co-author in some publicity for On Our Selection, although it was gone by opening night. In 1916 he adapted two of Henry Lawson’s short stories into a theatrical bush comedy called While The Billy Boils. The next year he made his first film, Our Friends, The Hayseeds, the initial entry in a series featuring a bumbling backblocks family who were quite clearly based on Bailey and Duggan’s version of the Rudd family. There were eventually seven Hayseeds films, every one cobbled together fast and on the cheap. (Smith was known as "That’ll do Beau" in the trade). Of all of these, only one survives, The Hayseeds (1933), the last and most expensive, in which Cecil Kellaway, makes his first screen appearance, as Dad Hayseed.
Smith’s output effectively flooded the market for bush comedy in 1917-18 and again in 1923. On Our Selection (1920) and Rudd’s New Selection (1921), Longford’s Rudd films, may well have been prompted in part by Smith’s success with the genre as well as Longford’s own ambitions for a respectable Australian cinema. They were explicitly made as attempts to correct Bailey and Duggan’s vulgarisation by returning to the sense of Steele Rudd’s original ‘bush realism’. And in their turn, Longford’s films would seem to have inspired Smith to return to production in 1921 with a film version of While The Billy Boils, only to put the genre aside for nearly a decade two years later.
These dates define bush comedy’s ‘moment’ in Australian film production (1917-23). Two other bush comedies were released in 1918, following Smith’s initial four-film flood - clearly attempts to cash in on the genre. In 1921, after Longford’s more serious films, the Australian theatrical producer, Kate Howarde, made a film version of her popular bush comedy, Possum Paddock, in which she seems to have tried to emulate the latter director’s approach by suppressing most of her play’s vulgar comedy and bringing melodrama to the fore. Smith then replied to all the seriousness with two Hayseeds movies in 1923. We must assume that Prehistoric Hayseeds, the last of these, did not attract much business for there are no other bush comedy films until 1932 - when Cinesound effectively captured the genre and turned it into something else.
Cinesound may have initially agreed to make On Our Selection only to gain access to another Bailey and Duggan property, a popular rural melodrama called The Squatter’s Daughter, which they were allowed to rewrite and update drastically. Certainly Ken Hall was not overly enthused at the prospect of filming such a tired old warhorse as the Bailey-Duggan play (Hall 1980: 11). Moreover, the film itself appears to have been made in an even more slapdash manner than its circumstances as Cinesound’s first feature might have lead one to expect. Yet On Our Selection was an overwhelming box office hit and, ultimately, Cinesound’s most profitable picture ever (Hall 1980: 47). Its success virtually demanded a Rudd family series, which etched itself on the memories of a decade of Australian film audiences, but Cinesound’s market dominance meant that even That’ll Do Beau’s final Hayseeds film could not compete. The bush comedy genre had been reduced to a series of ‘Dad and Dave’ movies.
As one looks at the 1932 On Our Selection today, one suspects that its success had more to do with the impact of Bailey’s characterisation of Dad than with the bush comedy genre itself. Bailey is a ham of the old school who commands a cinema screen as readily as he does the stage. His performance, raw and bibulous as it is beside what was to come, exudes the familiar charisma of an obstreperous relative whom no one likes but everyone obeys. The dramatic highpoint of the film occurs about a third of the way through when Bailey delivers a long, emotional speech about what Australians even today recognise as ‘the pioneer spirit’. In it Dad Rudd metamorphoses temporarily from a tightfisted windy patriarch into the Aussie battler who is beaten down to nothing and starts all over again. This speech, which was imported whole cloth from the play, is still one of the defining moments of Australian popular culture. It is what very many of us imagine ourselves to be, or would prefer ourselves to be.
The second of Cinesound’s Rudd family films was also based on Bailey and Duggan material. At least in its surviving form, Grandad Rudd (1935) develops some gaping narrative holes near the end, but the visuals are sharper and continuity is smoother throughout. Bailey’s performance is much more controlled and assured. As is the case in most other bush comedy , the screen time given over to set pieces far outweighs that devoted to the narrative. These set pieces include a runaway tractor which Dad stops with a commanding King Canute gesture and a cricket match in which Dad handily - and freakishly - tops any score to which Bradman might have aspired. There is no big speech for Dad in this film and he wins out in the end through trickery, not hard work or perseverance.
On Hall’s own testimony, Dad And Dave Come To Town was the first film of the series to have been conceived entirely without reference to Bailey’s (or even Steele Rudd’s) earlier work (Hall 1980: 119-120). However, it is also the one closest to the work of Beaumont Smith (even the title is borrowed from The Hayseeds Come To Town, a variant title for the second Hayseeds film). Hall does not mention Smith in his memoirs, but Smith had used the premise of country folk in the city so many times that it was almost a signature.
There is a big speech for Dad in this film about not being beaten, and he triumphs in the end because of his straightforwardness (even his enemy, Ryan, knows that Dad is a man of his word). That is, Dad is much more respectable, and far more admirable, than he has been before - and Bailey works on being irascible and lovable instead of mercurial and devious. When Dad first appears in a morning coat and top hat the other characters are amused, but Bailey looks so perfectly patrician that the joke is lost.
In the context of the Cinesound series, another noteworthy characteristic of the film is the prominence it gives to Dave. I suspect that this may have been due to the popularity of the radio show (which made no mention of Steele Rudd and gave no family name to Dad, Dave and Mum). In fact, this is the only Rudd family film with the words ‘Dad and Dave’ in the title. Dave has far more to do on his own here than in any of the other films. He moves from being Dad’s principal nemesis on the farm to his principal accomplice in the city, and he gets a chance at a comic flirtation with the very funny model, Myrtle (Muriel Flood).
‘Dad and Dave’ took on a life of their own after 1937-38, overwhelming the bush comedy genre as well as the bush realism of Steele Rudd’s originals. ‘Dad and Dave’ persisted on radio until 1953, and ‘Dad and Dave’ were revived briefly in 1972 for a television series. In 1995, when a thoughtful homage to the characters, the genre and the stories was released in the form of a feature film, it was called Dad And Dave: On Our Selection. And the phrase ‘Dad and Dave’ is recognised by some Australians today.
Cinesound, however, did not use ‘Dad and Dave’ in the title of the next, and last, Rudd family film. Instead it was called Dad Rudd, M.P., moving the spotlight firmly back onto Bailey alone. At the end of the 1932 On Our Selection Dad had been elected to Parliament, and apparently the idea of making a film about Dad in politics had been suggested shortly after that film’s success (Pike and Cooper 1998: 190), but neither of the next two entries in the series contains any reference to Dad’s political career. At the same time, there is a distinct, and expected, populist tinge to all three. In addition to embodying the politically charged figure of the stubborn battler, Dad can always be counted on to champion the cause of the common man against the machinations of the rich and powerful. In Dad Rudd, M.P. the political implications of this characterisation are made explicit, as Dad decides (for the first time, it seems) to stand as an independent candidate against a greedy neighbour with a posh accent and upperclass lifestyle. The film follows the campaign and climaxes with what is supposed to be a spectacular flood that ultimately ensures a narrow victory for Rudd.
Hall proudly declares that the story of this film was ‘more modern and believable’ than the others and that ‘there was much less burlesque of the types’ (Hall 1980: 125). Another way of putting it is that Dad Rudd, M.P. ignores the particular formal innovation of the bush comedy genre which Bailey and Duggan had pioneered and harks back to a commonplace narrative-driven model, in which a melodramatic story is mildly diverted by set pieces of comedy, spectacle and drama. Finally nothing funny or even supposedly spectacular about this film sticks in the viewer’s memory. What remains is Bailey’s fervent and accomplished delivery of a four minute Parliamentary speech about bush pioneers and Australia’s commitment to the Second World War which ends the film - a minor masterpiece of its kind.
Dad Rudd, M.P. was the last Cinesound feature, just as On Our Selection had been the first. For nine years Cinesound had operated a studio in Australia, with a standard of production somewhere between that of Hollywood’s Tiffany Pictures and George King’s British quota quickies. It had released 17 features and acknowledged only one flop. It ‘made" a few actors, two of whom appear in Dad And Dave Come To Town, and crowned a few careers, like Bailey’s and that of the expat English comedian, George Wallace.
Nowadays if you type Dad And Dave Come To Town into a good internet search engine you will get a surprising number of hits (many more than you will for On Our Selection, for example). There is a simple reason for this and its name is Peter Finch. Dad And Dave Come To Town was Peter Finch’s first film, and virtually every internet site with a Finch bio cites it. Another international star appeared in that film, (Shirley) Ann Richards, but you may never have heard of her. In 2004 there were perhaps 81 sites on which she was mentioned, compared to over 24,000 for Finch - but it was Richards who was Cinesound’s contracted big ‘discovery’, not Finch.
The difference between what was expected of these two back then and what we think of them today is partly historical and partly cultural. In the late 1930s throughout the English-speaking world the really big movie stars were women. Fan magazines, advertisements, publicity campaigns and the like tended to treat the cinema as women’s business, and it was generally accepted that women made the decisions about what films to see and that they liked to see movies featuring women. But in Australia this skewed situation was exaggerated further than it was say, in Hollywood. There are simply no charismatic good-looking young men in Australian films until 1940. Even those whom one would expect to register strongly, like Errol Flynn, are directed in such a way as to appear wooden. Peter Finch would play some attractive, magnetic parts in later years, but his role in Dad And Dave Come To Town is a moronic adolescent, and in the next film he did for Cinesound his character is selfish and morally weak
Richards, on the other hand, played a series of independently-minded women for Cinesound. In Dad And Dave Come To Town Richards’ Jill Rudd knows what she wants and how to get it. She is fearless, determined and honest - her father’s daughter in every way that counts. Although such characters are not unusual in early Australian films - and there are three others in that film alone - Jill is probably the top of the heap. One of her lines became the title of a pioneering feminist documentary about the treatment of women and women’s images in early Australian cinema: Don’t Call Me Girlie (1985).
Nearly twenty years later the Melbourne Queer Film Festival featured Dad And Dave Come To Town - but not because of anything to do with Peter Finch or Ann Richards. What interests historians of queer imagery in film about Dad And Dave Come To Town is the character of Entwistle, the floor walker of Cecille’s. Entwistle is played in a broadly camp fashion by Alec Kellaway (who also apparently ‘discovered’ Peter Finch for Cinesound). At one point Dad remarks enigmatically of him that ‘he would make a good milker’, but the film itself not only gives the Entwistle character a lot of screen time, it treats him as the Rudd’s ally and friend - in short, as a mate. Entwistle was even brought back in the final Rudd film to manage Dad’s campaign for Parliament - this time almost as one of the family.
But, however foresighted this film may have been in its images of women and of gay men, it was a product of its times. The villain of the piece is Pierre, the owner of the rival dress shop. His name suggests he ought to be French, but his character, appearance and accent intimate a more sinister stereotype. Many more Australian moviegoers in 1938 would have picked Pierre as Jewish than would have been able to put a name to Entwistle’s sexual preference or would have disapproved of Jill’s independence.
In the most serious and sustained treatment of our film in the literature, the Australian film historian, Bruce Molloy, has pointed out that Dad’s metamorphosis from bushman to showman parallels Ken Hall’s own career (Molloy 1990: 57) - which makes Dad And Dave Come To Town another one of the seemingly endless series of ‘double vision’ films about film. But if this is the case - and I think it is - the film is also explicitly about how the cinema sees better.
Twice Dad complains that people in the city leave behind them a twisted trail where there ought to be straight furrows. From the opening gag with the fox trap Dad And Dave Come To Town undertakes to expose to us, the viewers, what is hidden from some other characters. The cinema enables us to see better than they do (when Dad is caught by the trap he is cinematically wiped onto the screen). But Dad’s own ‘Royal Show of Fashiondom’ is a series of purely cinematic trick shots in which the cinema leaves off exposing the truth, and makes us witness instead to its display. That is, this film, like Dziga Vertov’s The Man With A Movie Camera, can be glossed as a celebration of the power of the ‘kino-eye’.
If, as I claimed at the outset, Dad And Dave Come To Town is the quintessential Australian film of its period, it is because it wears all of this background and potential for interpretation so overtly and yet so unselfconsciously. It is an unapologetic popular film from an industry that made nothing but popular films for more than half a century. From The Story of the Kelly Gang, the world’s first secular narrative feature, in 1906 until Cecil Holmes’s Three In One in 1957 not one Australian feature tried to be ‘art’. There is not one Ingeborg Holm or Broken Blossoms, not even anything that aspires to be Comin’ Thro’ The Rye - much less Potemkin or Citizen Kane. Since the Australian Renaissance this circumstance has been regarded as a source of shame, when it is noted at all - but I believe that it is a form of cultural resistance. Australia’s aggressively populist, aggressively cheap movies, like Cinesound’s Rudd family series, seem to be made in defiance of the mother country’s conventions of what good art ought to be, which were equally the standard for Hollywood’s idea of well-tooled production. Their emblematic badness is not the badness of a failure to make good, but the badness of a refusal to make good - not ‘can’t’ but ‘won’t!’.