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Australian Comedy Part 3: 1950s–1980s

Part three in Paul Byrnes’ series on comedy in Australian film covers the 1950s through to the 1980s.

Into the modern era

The Australian film industry did not recover for another 25 years. What few feature films there were during the 1950s and 1960s were imported productions made by foreign directors. Some of them were great and interesting films, such as The Overlanders (Harry Watt, 1946) and The Sundowners (Fred Zinneman, 1960) but Australians got used to seeing themselves through other people’s eyes. A new Australian caricature emerged, usually played by ‘Chips’ Rafferty, the tall, raffish, no-nonsense bushman. He was laconic, proud, resourceful, just the kind of hero Australians wanted to see in this period of self-conscious nation-building, but he wasn’t particularly funny (see Chips Rafferty portrait). Australian-made comedy shifted to television after 1956, albeit slowly: the first home-grown sitcom was not till 1967, with My Name’s McGooley, What’s Yours? There is a rich tradition of comedy in Australian television, but I am concentrating here on feature films.

The film that helped to restart the Australian film industry, and our sense of comedy, was also made by a foreigner. They’re a Weird Mob (1966) was based on a book by an Australian, John O’Grady, writing as if he were an Italian migrant called Nino Culotta. The director, Michael Powell, was a major figure in the British film industry but most of his career was behind him. In Australia, he found rich possibilities for satire. This was new for Australian audiences. We were used to seeing ourselves flattered by visiting filmmakers, but Powell was more merciless. The film was partly an attack on racism in Australia, as we see in clip three, where ‘Chips’ Rafferty, as the father of a young Australian girl, puts her ‘New Australian’ boyfriend played by Walter Chiari through an aggressive initiation.

This is the start of the modern era in Australian comedy. The country had changed markedly since the Cinesound era. Australia was no longer largely British. Mass migration since 1946 had brought millions of European migrants and they would soon be followed by large numbers of Asian migrants, many of them refugees after the Vietnam War. The sense of isolation from the rest of the world was disappearing.

More Australians could afford to travel and both film and television were pushing boundaries in censorship. A new generation of filmmakers was about to have their say, and they were less polite than their forebears. New funding measures were introduced in 1970 by the Liberal government to kick-start the Australian film industry. This was after 21 years of conservative neglect of the film industry. The new measures set up a film school, an experimental fund and an investment corporation. Those young Australian directors who had gone to London 10 or 15 years earlier for training came back, full of new ideas.

Sex and satire

from Stork

The new frontier was sex. European and American cinema had both crashed through barriers of censorship and Australia followed close behind. New writers and actors found each other on stages in Melbourne and Sydney, and that flowed through to cinema, as seen in clip one from Tim Burstall’s second film, Stork (1971), written by David Williamson.

Williamson brought a powerful new satirical voice to both Australian theatre and Australian film in the early 1970s. His writing was more political and savagely funny than any Australian film had dared to be. In Stork, Petersen (1974) and The Removalists (1975), Williamson turned his own plays into an accusation about the kind of society we had become. He was not the only writer to do this, especially in theatre, but he was the most successful in bringing that aggression and political analysis into film.

This is comedy as sandpaper, rubbing at the tensions in the society. In The Removalists, it is the relationship between the old and the young, experience and youth, and it is unlike anything from the first 70 years of Australian film. The style is a form of heightened realism, where the humour is not so much in a punchline as the characterisation. The actors here make you laugh in the way they look at each other, as much as what they say. The comedy of The Removalists is about power and corruption; it’s dramatic comedy, aiming to discomfort as well as entertain. It is also still largely filmed theatre, a distant relative of what we see in His Royal Highness (1932), with George Wallace talking about his pigs.

Australian comedy in the 1970s was much bolder than it had ever been, and bolder than it is now. There was a new freedom and much to talk about: feminism, environmentalism, alternative lifestyles, freedom in sexual roles, freedom of expression. There were new satirical magazines, new directions in theatre, new ideas in politics that came with the election of a Labor government in 1972, headed by Gough Whitlam. People could swear, blaspheme and take their clothes off, on stage or film. Films were now rated, rather than banned outright, so adults could see an R-rated film if they chose. That was new, a recognition of a demand for a freer society.

In 1972, Bruce Beresford and Barry Humphries made The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, based on a comic strip written by Humphries, the most original new voice in Australian comedy since the war. Barry McKenzie was a savage satire on the Australian character but audiences loved him, not just in Australia, but in Britain. The character played by Barry Crocker was a beer-guzzling feral fool, a gormless twit. Barry had very little intelligence, even less education and an absolute certainty of his superiority, both moral and physical, to anything in old England. He confirmed most British cliches about Australians and many Australian prejudices about Britain. The ‘Poms’ were up themselves, penniless and pompous, as seen in clip one from the film.

But wait, haven’t we seen his type before? He is a fish out of water, just like Cecil Kellaway in It Isn’t Done (1937), poking fun at the Poms, but his character is more like a mixture of the boobs established in the silent era. He wears a bush hat, like someone from Dad and Dave, and a city suit, like The Bloke. He is both city and country, an update of the working-class heroes from 50 years earlier, but with nastier habits. He drinks to excess, chases sheilas and insults the English with a series of well-honed vernacular epithets, none of which Australians had ever heard. He seemed very new, but that was mostly packaging. Barry came from long traditions of Australian comedy, managing to be both satirical and nationalistic at the same time. Quite a feat.

The new classification system allowed film to explore the lucrative territory of sex. This was scary but tantalising. In Alvin Purple (1973), Graeme Blundell dropped his daks and hopped into bed with a series of women who found him unaccountably irresistible. The Australian rating system had been approved in late 1971 on the basis that we were now grown up enough as a nation to view adult material. Alvin Purple was conceived as a deliberate test of the new limits. It was hugely popular at the box office, because nudity was relatively new. Alvin Purple proved that Australians had the right to be as puerile and silly as they wanted to be, as long as they were over 18. The influence of British sex comedy television, particularly The Benny Hill Show (1955–91), is particularly obvious in clip one.

The sex farce was common in the 1970s, but something of a dead-end. The rise of feminism helped to chase it off our screens, assisted by the new funding mechanisms, which were administered by government-appointed bodies that did not quite approve of films like Alvin Purple (1973). The era of Australian films for export had begun, and with that came conservatism.

Max and Mick

In the late ’70s, Australian film was already showing signs of what some cultural commentators have called ‘the AFC genre’. The Australian Film Commission was the major source of funding for Australian film, and it preferred to fund films that might get selected at the Cannes Film Festival: prestigious productions, usually dramas, often with historical settings. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) had established the Australian art film with a bang. The naughtier side of the industry found themselves out of favour, so they went into television or found new ways of financing, such as private money.

from Mad Max

Mad Max (1979) came out of that development. It was made on a low budget without government money, which allowed George Miller to do exactly what he wanted, as long as it was cheap. Mad Max was not quite a comedy, but not quite straight either. It had a sense of fun, coupled with speed and violence. It was in every sense an expression of Australian culture, even if derived from the low-budget genre tradition in American cinema. It was a comedy of brutality, far more kinetic than anything that had been made here up till then.

Australian film of the early ’80s had become somewhat jingoistic, concerned with flattering the audience rather than challenging them. Australians were comfortable and somewhat complacent, with a high standard of living that was the envy of other countries. Paul Hogan arose in television in the mid-70s as a clever expression of the new comfortable realities. He was a throwback to the working-class urban bloke with a good heart, but he wasn’t stupid. He was unschooled, but he had lots of native smarts, unlike his sidekick Strop (played by John Cornell). They were nothing new, in one sense, another comic duo in the tradition of Stiffy and Mo or Onks and Dinkus. What Hogan was doing on TV was almost new vaudeville, with pratfalls, innuendo and verbal ingenuity.

In his first movie, Hogan unveiled a full renovation of that persona. Michael J ‘Crocodile’ Dundee was a combination of the bushman and the city-dweller, smarter than Bazza McKenzie, Dave Rudd and Bill the Bloke put together. He could make animals bend to his will, charm beautiful American ladies and scare off muggers (‘That’s not a knife’). In this character, Australian comedy had come full circle.

He spoke like an ‘authentic’ Aussie, with a ‘Striny’ twang, but he wasn’t so broad that Americans couldn’t understand him. He was rugged and sun-hardened to appeal to men, charming and virile to entice women. He did not seek to dominate the country but live within it, like a Greenie, and he was friends with the Aborigines, who had initiated him into a powerful language group, the Pitjantjatjara. No white comic character had ever crossed that divide. He was all things to all people, devastatingly attractive and funny, but with a remnant of innocence and unworldly charm, such that he could not understand the bathroom in a New York hotel.

Coming full circle

Crocodile Dundee (1986) became the biggest Australian movie at the box office, and the most successful non-American comedy of all time, anywhere. It appealed in every country of the world, partly because it was so cleverly crafted as a universal statement. It announced to the world that Australians had a sense of humour about themselves, were afraid of nobody and had the game of life more or less worked out. A man had to be hunter, lover, joker, shaman and protector; he could be a hedonist too, if he kept it in proportion. He could understand the Yanks but he didn’t want to be one. He didn’t bother thinking about the Poms, because the mother country was now irrelevant.

He was an astonishingly clever creation, who seemed completely new. He wasn’t quite that, as we have seen. He was the distillation of all the comedy that came before him, almost a compendium of his roots in the working-class heroes of silent film. To some extent, this character answers the question I asked at the outset: is there an Australian form of comedy, something homegrown and authentic? It is reasonably obvious that Dundee could not have come from another culture, so the answer is yes, but the form of the comedy was neither new, nor particularly Australian. He was another fish out of water, just a very different kind of fish. Paul Hogan and his producer John Cornell took Australian film comedy to a height it has never been able to repeat – but then, it’s not over yet.

Go to Australian Comedy Part 1: The Silent Era »
Go to Australian Comedy Part 2: The Early Sound Era »

Titles in this collection

The Adventures of Barry McKenzie 1972

The Adventures of Barry McKenzie was a hugely popular satire with Australian and British audiences, partly because it conformed so well with each country’s view of the other.

Alvin Purple 1973

Alvin Purple was hugely popular, partly because it makes fun of powerful institutions like the courts, the press, marriage and psychiatry.

Crocodile Dundee 1985

This is not just the most commercially successful Australian film ever made, but also one of the most successful non-Hollywood films.

It Isn’t Done 1937

1937 was Cinesound’s golden year – the studio’s films now boasted wittier scripts, more attention to performance, and a series of strong leading players.

Mad Max 1979

Mad Max was a piece of impolite, independent cinema that had a profound effect on audiences and filmmakers across the world.

My Name’s McGooley, What’s Yours? – End of the Line 1967

McGooley, starring Gordon Chater and set in Balmain in the ’60s, was Australia’s first homegrown sitcom success.

The Overlanders 1946

As the Japanese threaten northern Australia in 1942, a drover takes a mob of prime beef cattle across 2,600 kms of hazardous country to Queensland.

Petersen 1974

Though promoted as a lusty yarn, the frequent and fairly explicit sex scenes between the film’s unhappy characters are hardly titillating.

Picnic at Hanging Rock 1975

On St Valentine’s Day 1900, three schoolgirls from an exclusive English-style boarding school go missing, along with a teacher, at Hanging Rock, in central Victoria.

The Removalists 1975

The story is a savage microcosm of Australia, rather than just a look at the then-topical issue of police hypocrisy and brutality.

Stork 1971

Stork was important in a business sense: its success lead to the formation of Hexagon Productions, which became a major force in film.

The Sundowners 1960

The Sundowners is remarkable for the number of Australian actors it showcases. Chips Rafferty plays Quinlan, the contractor at an outback shearing station.

They’re a Weird Mob 1966

An Italian sports journalist arrives in Australia to find his cousin’s new magazine for migrant Italians has folded. He soon gets a job as a builder’s labourer, learns to talk and drink like an Australian, and falls in love with an Australian girl.