Ten Stories About Australian Screenwriters You Might Not Know

September 29, 2019
Think Australian screenwriters are boring? You’re probably right. But not always. Stephen Vagg, a screenwriter himself and an aficionado of the history of the Australian film industry, put together this top ten of list of ten unusual stories about Australian screenwriters.

EV Timms

He wrote novels, radio plays and film scripts (including 40,000 Horsemen (1940)). In World War Two he joined the army and scored every writer’s dream, a bludge posting that ensured he had plenty of time to write… guarding Italian POWs in the country. Unfortunately for him, like every writer’s reality, the dream blew up in his face: it was Cowra and he had to fight off a suicidal attack from Japanese prisoners during the 1944 Cowra breakout. Like every writer, he turned it into material.

Moral of story: every time a screenwriter tries to bludge, it doesn’t work. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try!

Errol Flynn

The legendary Australian movie actor fancied himself as a writer – he wrote a bit of journalism, several autobiographical novels (Beam Ends, Showdown)… and some screenplays that were filmed including The Adventures of Captain Fabian (1951) and the story for his abandoned William Tell movie as well as Cuban Rebel Girls (1959). He also wrote The White Rajah, a biopic of Sir James Brooke which was going to be filmed by Warners in the 1930s but ended up being pushed back, and back, and was eventually cancelled (Jonathan Rhys Meyers is playing Brooke in an upcoming TV series). Flynn always wanted to be a writer more than actor but never had the discipline to turn it into a career.

Moral of story: if you want to be a writer, there’s lots of distractions when you’re a constantly broke alcoholic film star with a taste for underage women.

Casey Robinson

One of the greatest screenwriters in Hollywood’s Golden Age. Even now his adaptations of Captain Blood (1935), Dark Victory (1939) and King’s Row (1941) are a marvel of characterisation and structure. He married an Australian woman and retired to Sydney. He came out of retirement to show the Aussies how it was done, writing and producing… Scobie Malone (1975) with Jack Thompson, one of the worst Australian films of all time.

Moral of story: if anyone’s going to stuff up Australian films it may as well be Australians.

John Farrow

Grew up in Sydney, went to Fort Street High School, ran away to sea and became a screenwriter then director of many good films (Wake Island (1942), Calcutta (1947), The Big Clock (1948), Hondo (1953)) some of which had an Aussie connection (The Sea Chase (1955), Botany Bay (1953)). Married Maureen O’Sullivan, Jane to Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan. Big time Catholic/womaniser/sexual harasser. Kids included Michael (died in a plane crash), Patrick (committed suicide), Mia (the actor/Woody Allen muse), John (convicted pedophile), Prudence (the inspiration for the song “Dear Prudence”), Stephanie (unsuccessful actor), and Tisa (unsuccessful actor lusted after by Woody – she was inspiration for Barbara Hershey character in Hannah and Her Sisters). Nominated for a screenwriting Oscar for Around the World in 80 Days (1956), a film from which he was fired as a director.

Moral of story: screenwriters don’t have to be boring.

Michael Pate

Very good Aussie actor. Went to Hollywood after Sons of Matthew (1949). Did lots of brownface acting. Also wrote a few scripts including Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) and The Most Dangerous Man Alive (1960). Returned to Australia where he acted, directed and wrote… including the scripts for Tim (1979) and most importantly helped devise the concept for the TV show Taurus Rising, Australia’s attempt at a Dallas-style soap… starring a young Damon Herriman.

Moral of story: just keep plugging away.

Joy Cavill

Broke into the industry in the 1950s doing continuity, became a producer and writer for Lee Robinson and Chips Rafferty, notably on Dust in the Sun (1958) and Skippy. She wrote and produced a biopic of Dawn Fraser, Dawn (1979)… and totally hooked up with Dawn in real life.

Moral of story: screenwriters can get Olympic legends into the sack, but it probably helps to be making a film about them.

Philip Lytton

You won’t have heard of him. He was an actor, playwright and producer who specialised in touring shows around Australia in the 1910s. Occasionally he would film some (this wasn’t uncommon at the time). One film was The Man They Could Not Hang (1912) based on the real story of an English guy, John Lee, they tried to hang three times but failed, then gave up. The film didn’t do much. In 1917, Lytton sold the rights to an underling, Arthur Sterry, who toured the film around the country. For some reason the film became a blockbuster. Made for 300 pounds it earned over 50,000 pounds. It is arguably the most profitable Australian film of all time. (It was remade in 1920 and 1934). Why? Why did the punters turn out for this hokey melodrama? Was it because after three years of war people liked the idea of a true story about someone who couldn’t be killed? Still, if you’re looking for some public domain IP to adapt maybe it’s worth considering…

Moral of story: don’t give away your films.

John Dixon

Writer of The Man from Snowy River (1982), one of the most popular Australian films of all time, ANZACS (1985), one of the highest rating mini series, and Running from the Guns (1987) which, um, did less well. Came to screenwriting after a long career in docos and advertising, including making the 1972 film about Sunbury… and the first VB ad from 1968.

Moral of story: there’s more than one way to make a legacy.

John Dighton

Not an Aussie. But in the 1950s given a plumb gig – adapting Summer of the Seventeenth Doll for the screen. No one likes this film version, most blaming the happy ending, miscasting and change of locale. But Dighton’s screenplay stuffs a superb source material. This is what this patronising English git told the press as he was writing it, saying “The two barmaids and the old woman are good characters, but a little more colour is needed in the development of the relationship between the two cane-cutters. In its construction Lawler’s play runs downhill all the way. This, I feel, was a weakness. I intend to give the film version what I regard as a necessary build-up to a dramatic peak in the middle.”

Ugh, his script was so bad. He had some good credits up to then (always in collaboration), but none after. I think he was one of those writers who got away with it for a bit then get found out.

Moral of story: if you’re lucky enough to get a gig adapting a classic, just do the classic.

The writers for George Edwards

Don’t know him, right? He was a vaudevillian who was washed up in the Great Depression… but his career was revived by a new marriage and radio in part because he was known as The Man of a Thousand Voices. He ran a production company, starred in Dad and Dave, became a millionaire (stay with me on this). His team was powered by four writers, all of whom had very different career trajectories after radio drama went into decline:

  • Maurice Francis was a super fast writer – he would dictate the scripts to four stenographers. He went into advertising without skipping a beat.
  • Eric Scott was very quiet, very conscientious, saved his money, retired to Bowral… and promptly dropped dead of a heart attack.
  • Lorna Bingham struggled to make a living at anything other than writing and killed herself.
  • Sumner Locke Elliott moved to New York, became a top TV writer, then a bestselling novelist (Careful He Might Hear You, among others).

Moral of story: which writer will you turn out to be when the jobs stop coming? A Maurice Francis, an Eric Scott, a Lorna Bingham or a Sumner Locke Elliot?

(Aside: George Edwards’ last wife was a much younger woman, writer Coral Lansbury. He died of a heart attack not long after the marriage, she married again, gave birth to Malcolm Turnbull – yes, the Malcolm Turnbull – then abandoned him and the husband, and went overseas to be a top academic and novelist. So that’s another alternative career path for you.)

 

If you liked this story, be sure to read these by the same author:

50 Meat Pie Westerns

Australian Movie Stars

Unsung Aussie Actors

Australian Singers Turned Actors

Unsung Aussie Filmmakers: Ivan Goff – a Top Ten

Unsung Aussie Filmmakers: Don Sharp – A Top 25

60 Australian TV Plays of the 1950s & ‘60s

Unmade Cinesound

Films Hollywood Almost Made About Australia

A to Z of Old Time Aussie Film Scandals

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