Australian Screen

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The Picture Show Man (1977)

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clip 'Damned yankee' education content clip 1, 3

Original classification rating: G. This clip chosen to be G

Clip description

Mr Pym (John Meillon) sees an unexpected and unwanted visitor as he struggles with a bogged wagon – his former protégé Pete Palmer (Rod Taylor), now his chief rival. Disgruntled piano player Lou (Garry McDonald) decides to join the opposition.

Curator’s notes

Meillon establishes his whole character in a few seconds of indignation – Pym is proud, haughty, a little precious, but he values loyalty and the traditions of showmanship, which may be why he can’t really see what’s coming.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip shows an encounter between the 'picture show man’, Maurice Pym (John Meillon), and his former protégé and now rival, Pete Palmer (Rod Taylor). Pym, his son Larry (Harold Hopkins) and the pianist Lou (Garry McDonald) are bogged on an isolated track when Palmer appears on the horizon in his fancy wagon. Palmer stops and, during a barbed exchange with Pym, makes it clear that he is moving his own picture show business into Pym’s territory. Palmer moves down the track but is pursued by the disgruntled Lou who asks for a lift and then accepts Palmer’s offer of a job. Pym observes wryly that Lou could never play in time anyway.

Educational value points

  • The clip depicts a travelling picture show in the 1920s. In the early days of cinema, entertainers known as picture show men toured in horse-drawn wagons, and later motor vans, to Australian country towns and remote areas to exhibit films, setting up a projector and canvas screen in the local hall or in summer in the open air. Most of the picture show men had a vaudeville background and devoted the first part of the show to vaudeville acts, and screened films in the second part. Film was the most popular form of entertainment in Australia in the 1920s.
  • As indicated by the clip, a pianist was part of the travelling picture show. In the 1920s, films were silent but were accompanied by a pianist or organist, and in larger cinemas by an orchestra. The pianist played an important part in travelling picture shows, accompanying vaudeville numbers and films with appropriate music, sometimes using a supplied score but more often improvising. The music also disguised the sound of the hand-cranked projectors.
  • Palmer’s move into Pym’s territory symbolises the decline of the Australian film industry in the 1920s. Palmer is American and Pym is Australian. Between 1906 and 1912 Australia’s burgeoning film industry produced more feature-length films than Britain or the USA, but in 1912 Australasian Films and Union Theatres established a monopoly over production, distribution and exhibition and shut out smaller producers. That opened the way for US distributors in the 1920s to sign exclusive deals with Australian cinemas to exhibit only their products, thereby crippling the local film industry.
  • The Picture Show Man was part of Australia’s film revival in the 1970s and early 1980s, a period now referred to as the 'new wave’ or renaissance of Australian cinema. About 400 feature films were produced between 1970 and 1985, which was more than had been made in the industry’s entire history. The revival was aided by the introduction of government-financed film-funding bodies and tax concessions for filmmakers, and by the launch of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in 1973.
  • The film was inspired by a true story. After seeing Joan Long interviewed about The Passionate Industry (1973), her documentary on early Australian cinema, E Lyle Penn sent her an unpublished manuscript about his experiences as a youth travelling with his picture show man father. Long used the manuscript, as well as her own extensive research into Australian cinema history, as a basis for her fictional screenplay.
  • The film was produced by Joan Long, a deeply-committed advocate of Australian cinema who made two documentaries about the industry, The Pictures That Moved (1971) and The Passionate Industry (1973). Long worked as a director and scriptwriter for the Commonwealth Film Unit (now Film Australia) before forming Limelight Productions in 1975. She produced Silver City (1984) and Emerald City (1989), and co-produced Puberty Blues (1981). Long was instrumental in establishing the National Film and Sound Archive to preserve Australia’s film history and in 1980 was made a Member of the Order of Australia for services to the Australian film industry.
  • The clip showcases actor John Meillon (1934–89). Meillon began acting at the age of 11 in the radio serial 'Stumpy’ and at 16 joined the Shakespeare Touring Company. In the 1960s there were few opportunities for actors in Australia, so he went to England. His return home coincided with the revival of Australian film and he appeared in The Cars that Ate Paris (1974), The Fourth Wish (1976) for which he won an Australian Film Institute Award for Best Actor, and Crocodile Dundee (1986). Long wrote the role of Pym with Meillon in mind.
  • The clip includes Australian actor Rod Taylor as the rival showman. Taylor had a very successful career in US television and film, appearing in more than 90 productions, but took the role of Palmer to show his support for the nascent Australian film industry and in the hope that his profile would help with international distribution of the film. The critical response to The Picture Show Man in the USA was favourable and it was chosen as one of the ten best films of 1977 by the American National Board of Review of Motion Pictures.

Larry and Lou are sitting at the front of Mr Pym’s caravan. Larry is looking out into the distance with an eyeglass.
Lou What’s upsetting him?
Larry Chap who used to be Pop’s projectionist.
Mr Pym climbs down from the top of the caravan to join them.
Mr Pym I gave him his first chance in show business, as a spools boy. I taught him projection, I taught him how to handle louts, I taught him how to evade the taxman – the whole art of showmanship.
Lou He’s got his own outfit, has he?
Larry We thought he was working a different territory.
Mr Pym Damned yankee.

Pete’s horse-driven caravan approaches, pulled by two horses. Mr Pym looks deeply unhappy. He gives Pete a little wave. Pete draws his horses to a stop and smiles at Mr Pym.
Pete Palmer Ooh, up, steady.
Lou and Larry come over to stand beside Mr Pym.
Pete Well fancy meeting you, Mr Pym.
Mr Pym What are you doing in these parts?
Pete Oh, just passing through.
Mr Pym It’s a long way from anywhere to be just passing through.
Pete Well, you just look around you. This is real nice country.
Mr Pym If you’re thinking of moving into this territory, my boy, you think about moving out – right now.
Pete Oh now, Mr Pym. What’s the harm in me picking up a couple of little towns here and there?
Mr Pym It’s been mine for years and you know it.
Pete Well, just what in the hell are you gonna do about it?
Mr Pym I’ve spent many years building up a following here.
Pete You’re going to spread rumours about me? Like you did about Old Man Parker during the war?
Mr Pym moves towards Pete, as if to strike him, but then thinks better of it.
Pete What was it you said? That he did time in Long Bay Jailhouse? Anyway, it’s been a real pleasure, Mr Pym. See ya.

Pete drives off. Lou is sneaking his suitcase out the back of Mr Pym’s caravan. He calls after Pete.
Lou Mr Palmer! Oi!
He runs after the caravan which has stopped.
Lou Oi!
Pete Yeah, what do you want?
Lou Would you be able to carry a passenger?
Pete You’re his pianist, aren’t you?
Lou I was.
Pete Could it be you’re looking for a job?
Lou As a matter of fact, I am.
Pete Why don’t you just climb aboard, son?
Pete pulls Lou’s suitcase up onto the caravan. Lou scrambles up.
Pete Easy now.

They ride away, watched by Larry and Mr Pym.
Mr Pym Hey, Palmer! He can’t even play in bloody time!
Mr Pym chuckles.
Larry But he was our pianist!
Mr Pym Well, we shall get another in town.
Mr Pym’s smile fades and he looks worried.

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