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Smiley (1956)


Smiley Greevins (Colin Petersen) is a poor but wily boy, growing up in a small country town. His father (Reg Lye) is a drunken drover; his mother (Margaret Christensen) is a workhorse. Smiley is constantly getting into trouble with his mischievous pal Joey (Bruce Archer). The schoolmaster’s son taunts Smiley for being poor, so he determines to work hard, so he can buy a bicycle and be somebody. The local policeman, Sergeant Flaxman (Chips Rafferty), rewards him, as does the vicar, Reverend Lambeth (Ralph Richardson). The new schoolteacher, Miss Workman (Jocelyn Hernfield), takes a shine to him and the publican, Jim Rankin (John McCallum), pretends to. Rankin is secretly selling opium to the local Aborigines, using Smiley as an unwitting courier.

When Smiley’s father gambles away his son’s savings, Smiley runs off into the bush, where he collapses in exhaustion and despair. The whole town turns out to search. A boundary rider (Guy Doleman) rescues him but Smiley is bitten by a snake. Sergeant Flaxman and Reverend Lambeth foil the opium ring, as the boy recovers in hospital. His reward is a brand new bicycle, paid for by a collection from the town.

Curator’s notes

The two Smiley films, made in 1956 and 1958, were international successes, at a time when few Australian films were being made (see Smiley Gets a Gun, 1958). Whether these were Australian films is a more difficult question. They were based on books by an Australian writer, Moore Raymond, but the films were made for British companies by British writer-director Anthony Kimmins, using mostly American money. Twentieth Century Fox partnered with Alexander Korda’s London Films on the first film as a way of ‘thawing’ their frozen cash assets in Australia (the Commonwealth Government’s wartime restrictions on exporting dollars were still in place).

The question of nationality becomes important in this case because Smiley is a classic example of what is sometimes called ‘colonialist cinema’. It appears to be a simple, sun-drenched children’s film about a likeable larrikin boy in the Australian bush. It certainly is that, but the film is freighted with all sorts of ideologies, most of which are Anglo-centric. In essence, it’s an English film about Australia, and a very curious one. It was made at a time when Australia’s ties to England were shifting, in favour of closer relations with the US, and the film reflects a certain anxiety about the chick straying from under the mother country’s wing.

Moore Raymond was born and grew up in Queensland but spent most of his writing life in the UK. He wrote radio plays and series for the BBC in the 1930s and worked as a film critic for the Sunday Dispatch. Smiley was published as a novel in 1945 and Raymond appeared uncredited in 1946 in a George Formby comedy, George in Civvy Street. Anthony Kimmins wrote and directed a number of Formby’s popular comedies before the war, so it’s possible that Kimmins and Raymond knew each other even before Smiley was published.

It’s likely that Kimmins decided soon after the book came out that he wanted to film it, but it took him almost ten years to get the production underway. Kimmins was an experienced writer and director with a distinguished war record in the Royal Navy. His films before the war were mostly comedies; after the war they were mostly dramas, with varying degrees of success. None of them was a children’s film, which makes his determination to film Smiley the more unusual.

Moore Raymond was writing about his own childhood in Queensland in the 1910s, which is why the film has horses and buggies and vintage cars. The period is not quite clear in the movie: transport is that of a rural town in the 1920s, but the costumes are from the 1940s or ‘50s. The town is thus a kind of movie fantasy of what a rural Australian community was like (the town settings were constructed from scratch on the famous Camden Park estate outside Sydney).

The film establishes strict class divisions within Smiley’s community – and these are key to understanding its subtle meanings. The school’s headmaster is upper class and genteel (played by ‘Bud’ Tingwell) and Smiley is underprivileged, partly because his father is a drunk. The local policeman is somewhere in the middle – and a guardian of public morals, as we see in clip two, when he scolds the drinkers and the new teacher for allowing Smiley to sing in the pub.

The other moral guardian of the town is the less conventional Reverend Lambeth, played with typical eccentricity by the great Ralph Richardson. The villain of the film is Rankin, the sleazy publican who’s also selling opium to the local Aborigines – whose camp on the edge of town is ‘out of bounds’ to whites. The film is partly about the fight for Smiley’s soul. Will he succumb to the dark side, represented by his father the drunk and Rankin the drug runner, or will he become responsible and upright, working hard for his money and saving to buy the material rewards of his honest labour – in this case, a bicycle?

In one sense, Smiley sees this drama in the same terms as much writing on Australian history – as a conflict between the English and Irish influences – order or rebellion, sobriety or drunkenness. Smiley is primarily a moral lesson in favour of temperance, rectitude and religious principles, situating itself firmly on the English side. Not just any religious principles, either. The Reverend Lambeth is clearly a Protestant vicar, not a Roman Catholic, albeit one with an unconventional approach to violence (he approves of fisticuffs in the right situation). Casting Richardson as the vicar gives the role considerable weight, but the theme of religion was already strong in the script.

The first scene is Smiley’s baptism, where his father arrives late from the pub, declaring that the boy be called ‘Smiley’. Smiley is shown praying to God for help in getting the bike ‘before dad gets home’; the Sunday church service is shown at some length, followed by Smiley’s ringing of the bells (the ‘tintinnabulations’ as the Reverend calls them). The church is more noticeably central to the town’s life than is usual in Australian films, either before or at the time. It’s one polarity of the story – the other and opposite pole is the hotel, where all evil and corruption is centred.

Smiley is often described as unusually frank in its depictions of Australian life, especially for a children’s film. That is true, but the frankness is largely confined to the way the film shows the impious – the drinkers and stockmen, and the urbanised Aborigines living in a town camp. Smiley delivers a package of opium to an Aboriginal man called King Billy, thinking it’s just chocolate. This allows Kimmins to depict the Aboriginal camp, which is highly unusual in any film of the period. The dwellings are pitiful, the inhabitants surly, although it’s also clear that Smiley is friendly with one of the Aboriginal boys of similar age – called Jacky (see clip three).

This scene is unprecedented in Australian films of the time. When they were seen at all, blacks were usually shown as ‘wild’, living a traditional lifestyle to a large extent – as in Bitter Springs (1950), or Jedda (1955), made the previous year. The depiction of a town camp in a film for children tells us that Anthony Kimmins and Moore Raymond wanted to make a point about living conditions for Australian Aborigines at the time. Connect that to the film’s accent on religion and we begin to see a distinct agenda in the film – a concern for social justice, coupled with a strong disapproval of intoxicants.

The vicar is the key figure in this conflict – he holds the connection to the mother country, to England. Smiley is like Australia, in this conception: young, brash, full of promise but susceptible to temptation and errant behaviour. He needs a steadying hand, a father figure, and the film offers a couple of examples in the muscular Christianity of Reverend Lambeth, the gruff but dinkum Sergeant Flaxman, or the kindly and upright headmaster. Anybody but his real father – the feckless drunken drover who’s so degraded he steals his own son’s savings in order to continue gambling.

That kind of figure, the hopeless working-class father, would become a fixture in Australian films of the 1950s – most of them ‘visiting’ productions. Peter Finch plays one in The Shiralee (1957); Robert Mitchum does another in The Sundowners (1960). The ‘demon drink’ is associated with all of them, as is gambling. The road leads eventually to Wake in Fright, made in 1971, the ultimate denunciation of Australia’s parlous moral state.

Smiley is much more optimistic. Part of what audiences around the world responded to was the sense of freedom and possibility in the story of a boyhood lived without shoes, in beautiful natural surroundings. Smiley was our own Huck Finn, although clearly influenced by more local scallywags like Ginger Meggs. At the same time, the film gave English audiences in particular a reassurance that the spiritual and moral guidance needed for a young boy in a young country was not lacking. Jehovah and the Reverend Lambeth were watching out for both.

Smiley was released in Australian cinemas on 18 October 1956. It was released in the United Kingdom on 28 June 1956 and the United States on 12 June 1957.

Secondary curator’s notes

by Liz McNiven

Smiley appears at first glance to offer a romanticised version of Australian settler folklore. It’s a story with a strong Christian backbone set in a place where good triumphs over evil, hard work always pays off, and most importantly where a young boy’s dreams may be realised even against the greatest odds. But beneath its cheery title, sits a not-so-innocent film about a not-so-innocent boy.

As the film gently rocks and lulls its audience, it provides a subtle and insightful critique of Australian society, in the first half of the twentieth century, by non-Australian (English) filmmakers. Smiley subtly exposes the existence of apartheid in Australia. It presents white Australians enjoying life in town while the Aboriginal people, excluded from the community, are shown living in squalid conditions in makeshift camps on the outskirts of town. This stark contrast reflects the inequality between the two groups and highlights the plight of Aboriginal people existing on the periphery of Australian society.

The illegal trade in opium marks the only exchange between the two communities, with the crooked publican supplying opium to the Aboriginal camp. In an effort to raise money to buy a bike, the lead character Smiley undertakes odd jobs including the delivery of a package for the publican to ‘King Billy’ at the Aboriginal camp.

The schoolteacher, in conversation with Smiley on the veranda of the local hotel, warns the boy to stay away from the ‘Abo’ camp. Her derogatory reference to Aboriginal people unmasks a commonly-held racist attitude and brings to light an entrenched division between the settlers and the Aboriginal peoples in Australia.

The film may be read as a metaphoric representation of Australia as a young working-class boy, a rascal with a good nature, struggling to stay on track as he strives to achieve his goals. He is guided by his 'mother’, Britain, represented by the upholders of law and social order in the town: the police sergeant, school principal and church pastor.

This film charms its audience with charismatic performances coupled by a sweet storyline laced with crime and misadventure. For me, the importance of Smiley resides in its unique reflection on Australian society and particularly for its portrayal of discrimination, disadvantage and exclusion.