Australian Film Musicals You Probably Didn’t Realise Existed

December 23, 2019
The release of Cats has the movie-going public talking about musicals again – not in a flattering way, but still talking – which made FilmInk reflect on the history of Australian film musicals.

Everyone knows our nation’s famous contributions to the genre – Happy Feet, Bran Nue Dae, Moulin Rogue, Strictly Ballroom and so on – and most buffs are aware of the cult movies – Star Struck, Oz, The Return of Captain Invincible, ABBA: The Movie, etc. However, we’ve made more musicals over the years than even film nerds might realise.

Stephen Vagg compiled this list of the top ten most obscure ones.

  1. The Sentimental Bloke (1975)

C.J. Dennis’ novel had been filmed magnificently in 1919 and adequately in 1933, then turned into a stage musical in 1961. The latter was filmed by the ABC for Australian TV starring Graeme Blundell (at the height of his Alvin Purple fame) and Geraldine Turner. They didn’t really adapt it for TV much – it still feels like a stage show – but it is of interest and the tunes are sweet.

A clip below.

  1. Don Quixote (1973)

Do ballet films count as musicals? Stuff it, I’ll include this – an adaptation of the famous ballet by Marius Petipa and Ludwig Minkus, it was shot in Melbourne with local crew, American finance, and the Australian Ballet Company, headlined by the legendary Rudolph Nureyev and our own Robert Helpmann. British DOP Geoffrey Unsworth shot it beautifully. There is a market for such movies (The Tales of Beatrix Potter, The Red Shoes) and we have superb ballet companies in Australia – why don’t we make more? It would at least vary the Screen Oz slate a little.

A clip below.

  1. Marco Polo Jnr versus the Red Dragon (1972)

The success of Disney films showed how animated features could work as musicals, so it was no surprise that Australia’s first full length animated feature included some songs. American sixties pop star Bobby Rydell headlined the cast and warbles some tunes. This movie had a bad wrap for a long time, in part because it doesn’t tell a particularly Australian story, but it’s a sweet tale with plenty of charm, and the National Film and Sound Archive raised its profile via organising a decent DVD release in 2015.

Some clips below.

  1. Stockade (1971)

Most dramatisations of the Eureka Stockade story flop, whether dramatic films, mini-series, stage plays or musicals. This was a stage musical that was adapted for a film that was not widely seen – although it received some publicity when an MP protested that government money was invested in it (it had scenes set in – gasp – a brothel). The film is extremely hard to source today – I’ve never seen it – even though it stars Rod Mullinar and Max Cullen and was made by Hans Pomeranz, one-time husband to Margaret, and head of legendary Spectrum Films.

  1. Don’t Let It Get You (1966)

This is, admittedly, more a New Zealand film than an Australian one – it was made with Kiwi talent and predominantly features acts from across the Tasman – but some of it was shot in Sydney and the cast includes Carmen Duncan and Normie Rowe so I’m including it, because it should be better known. It’s a mad-cap musical comedy in the vein of A Hard Day’s Night, featuring a number of singers including Rowe, Howard Morrison…. And Kiri Te Kanawa! (Who is so charismatic and beautiful you wish she’d made more movies).

A clip below.


You can see Kiri singing below.

  1. Funny Things Happen Down Under (1965)

Most people think Olivia Newton John’s first movie was Grease (1978) but before that she made a movie for Harry Saltzman, Toomorrow (1970), and before THAT she appeared in this cheapie musical, a follow up to the Terrible Ten TV series. It’s about a bunch of kids who invent a formula that makes sheep grow coloured wool. Ian Turpie plays the romantic lead, Olivia sings charming songs, and some very camp shearers do a high kicking dance number that has to be seen to be believed.

The film is below.

  1. Fisher’s Ghost (1963)

Do operettas count as musicals? The ABC broadcast a lot of operas and operettas back in the day, mostly Australian productions of well-known European pieces, but this one was an adaptation of a 1960 Australian operetta about the once-famous ghost story. It’s extremely hard to source – very little is known about it. But it existed – it was broadcast on television. Why don’t we preserve our cultural heritage better? Especially in this digital age?

  1. Pardon Miss Westcott (1959)

Lola Montez (1958) had been a reasonably successful stage musical so the team who wrote it – Peter Benjamin, Alan Burke and Peter Stannard – were hired by Channel Seven to write Pardon Miss Westcott, Australia’s first television musical comedy. A tale of love and hijinks in colonial Australia during the time of the Rum Rebellion, it sounds corny and fun and I would love to see it, but like far, far too much of Australia’s early TV output, it is extremely hard to source a copy, although it rated well and a cast album was released. Lola Montez was filmed for TV as well, in 1962.

  1. George Wallace films of the 1930s

Wallace was a one-time cane cutter who became a hugely popular stage comic during the 1920s and 1930s. A tubby man with great physical agility and superb comic timing, he specialised in playing plucky battlers in a series of “revue-sicals”, shows which were really musicals – a bunch of songs and sketches linked together by a vague story. Wallace appeared in five film vehicles in the 1930s which roughly followed the template of his revue-sicals: High Royal Highness (1932), Harmony Row (1933), A Ticket in Tatts (1934), Let George Do It (1938) and Gone to the Dogs (1939); the first two were based on actual stage shows, the last two (both directed by Ken G Hall) are easily the best.

A complete copy of High Royal Highness is below. It’s a movie of its time, and the musical numbers are fairly ropey, but Wallace’s tremendous talent remains evident.

  1. A whole bunch of random musicals from the 1930s and 1940s

Ok, yes, I admit this is cheating, but these films aren’t that great, and they’re all obscure, so I thought I’d put them in one bunch. They include Showgirl’s Luck (1931), Australia’s first musical, from imported American director Norman Dawn; The Hayseeds (1933), a rip-off of On Our Selection (1932), with some musical numbers inserted (including one with dancing hikers); Cinesound Varieties (1934), a revue of various acts made as a support feature, that director Ken G Hall admits he was embarrassed by; Show Business (1938) a flop cheapie from the non-legendary poverty row director A.R. Harwood, who remade it as Night Club (1952), which also flopped; That Certain Something (1941), directed by American Clarence Badger, who had emigrated to Australia. All have some historical interest. Only The Hayseeds enjoyed any sort of popularity when it came out, helped by starring Cecil Kellaway (a popular stage actor who later had a long Hollywood career).

Australians love a musical, but they definitely do not love all of them.

See some singing pirates in Cinesound Varieties and dancing hikers in The Hayseeds.

Australian film musicals. Even more obscure than you might think.

Comments

  1. Lana

    Just watched Miss Westcott after reading this article- it’s actually really quite good!

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