Australian Screen

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Jewel of the Pacific (1932)

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The rat's tale education content clip 2

This clip chosen to be PG

Clip description

Rat tails bring a reward of sixpence each (equivalent to about $5 today) and Lord Howe Island locals join the hunt for the pests. Two women take their three fox terriers to smoke out a family of rats hidden in the hollow of a log. One of the women lights some straw and makes a fire to smoke the rats out and the terriers wait at the other end ready to pounce. The second woman grabs the rats from the terrier’s mouths. The women chop off the tails, collect them in a batch and send them to the island executives who tally them up in their book and credit their accounts accordingly. The rat tails are then discarded and burnt to ensure that they aren’t counted more than once.

Curator’s notes

In 1918, rats were introduced by accident to Lord Howe Island when a cargo ship ran aground on its shores. The introduction of the rats had an adverse impact on the palm seed industry, as rats fed on the seeds of the palm. From 1920, in an effort to combat this, islanders were rewarded for hunting rats, receiving payment for each tail handed in. Although an innovative way to keep the rat population under control, this method of pest reduction was not incredibly effective. Hurley’s narration in this clip displays his cheeky side and his playful use of words adds humour to the depiction of this unusual outdoor activity.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This black-and-white clip from a travelogue on Lord Howe Island features scenes of a rat hunt for a ‘sixpence a tail’ bounty. Filmmaker Frank Hurley’s animated narration and his plays on words add humour to footage that provides detailed observations of a rat hunt by two women and their dogs as well as close-ups of two men counting bundles of tails and entering the tallies in a ledger. The final shots show the tails being incinerated to prevent re-counting.

Educational value points

  • This clip depicts the hunting of rats, an activity that many Australians engaged in to help support their families at the time of the Great Depression. Obtaining bounties from hunting feral animals would have been a useful source of income. At the peak of the Great Depression in 1932 almost 32 per cent of Australians were out of work, one of the highest rates in the world. Farmers were hard hit as a result of severe drought and a collapse in wool and wheat prices.
  • Black rats became a pest on Lord Howe Island following their introduction from a ship that grounded on the island in 1918. In 1920, after rats had eliminated five species of birds and threatened Lord Howe’s main source of income, the palm seed crop, a bounty of 1 penny (1d) per tail (equivalent to about $5 in 2008) was introduced, rising to 6d by 1930. With all islanders expected to spend one day per fortnight hunting rats, 20,000 were killed annually.
  • The clip demonstrates the skill of Frank Hurley (1885–1962) as a cinematographer. The rat hunt and the tally counting that follows display Hurley’s eye for the exotic and his skill as a visual storyteller. The careful staging of the camera ensures that every grisly detail of the hunt from the smoking out of the rats to the chopping off of the tails is seen. The curious spectacle of the ‘island executive’ counting the bundles of rats’ tails unfolds like dramatic action in a movie.
  • Hurley’s jovial light-hearted narrative is full of allusions that would have communicated with his audience at the time but have less meaning for people today. References to Diana (goddess of the hunt), Dante’s 'Inferno’ and ‘Old Nick’ rely on knowledge of mythology and literature for their effect. Everyday references such as the children’s nursery rhyme and Don Bradman’s batting score may also be unfamiliar to many contemporary viewers.
  • This entertaining travelogue is typical of Hurley’s commercial work. Best known as the cinematographer on Shackleton’s ‘Endurance’ expedition to the Antarctic in 1914 and as an official war photographer during the First and Second World Wars, Hurley also made documentaries of New Guinea and of lesser known locations within Australia in the 1920s and 1930s to be screened as part of film programs in cinemas.

This clip starts approximately 14 minutes into the documentary.

This black-and-white clip from a travelogue on Lord Howe Island features scenes of a rat hunt for a ‘sixpence a tail’ bounty. Filmmaker Frank Hurley’s animated narration and his plays on words add humour to footage that provides detailed observations of a rat hunt by two women and their dogs as well as close-ups of two men counting bundles of tails and entering the tallies in a ledger. The final shots show the tails being incinerated to prevent recounting.

Two women carrying small axes wander down through a beautiful forest with a bunch of excited small dogs running ahead. They come across a hollowed out log and the dogs swarm excitedly around it. The two women prepare a fire at one end of the log.
Frank Hurley, narrator Now, come and let us follow on the heels of these charming Dianas and their dogs. Now, how would you like to be a rat, especially as each tail secured carries a reward of sixpence? Tally ho, tally ho, tally ho! Yoicks, yoicks, yoicks, yoicks. Rats, rats, rats, rats, rats. Aha! Some wily rodent have concealed themselves in this log! But the foxies have smelt a rat, and the Dianas are pretty hot on the scent too. A warm reception awaits at the front door, and a real Dante’s inferno is being prepared at the back.

One of the woman fans the smoke at the other end of the log as the dogs keep watch at the end while the other woman catches the escaping rats. The two women promptly cut the tails of the rats of with their axes.
Frank Hurley, narrator Old Nick is keeping watch. The ladies of Lord Howe evidently enjoy a good smoke. The more deadly and fumid, the better. And so do the dogs. There’s a musky whiff in that nip that tells Nick the inhabitants of that log cabin are growing pretty desperate. Now, watch this as closely as the foxies. They’re going to make a dash. Get ready, Nick, old chap. Now, they’re coming out. Here they come. No, not this time. They’ve doubled back again. Now, watch very, very closely. Well caught, Nick. Worthy of Oldfield. Two at a bite. No rat can escape the lightning alertness of these foxies or the foxy alertness of these fast women. Trapped twixt foxies and flame, the refugees prefer the lethal chamber. Now, what lady in my audience would do this, for even the reward of a rat’s tail? Evidently, there’s another tail-ender in the woodpile, and it hasn’t got even the third of a dog’s chance. A few hollow death knocks and the game is up, or rather, the game falls down. Yes, another prize, another tail, another sixpence. (sings) Did you ever see such a sight in your life, cutting off tails with a carving knife of five blind mice. Now I will show you to what stern purpose these tails are put.

The scene cuts to two ‘executives’ sitting around smoking and tallying up the tails in clumps of ten into match boxes and the number credited in a journal.
Frank Hurley, narrator Tenderly packed and addressed, each hunter’s catch is tallied by the island executives. To assist counting, tails in tens are clamped in matchboxes. The matches have been removed lest the smouldering aroma – pooh! – might explode. Anyhow, I suppose these hard times, one cannot afford to sniff at even a rat’s tail. So many tails representing so many sixpences are credited to the ratters in this journal. To avoid further possible re-tailing, the boxes of tricks are tipped into the incinerator, and here you see the monthly average of 2,400 stumps going up in smoke. Why, it even excels Bradman’s average.

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