The A to Z of Non-White Aussie Movies and TV in White Australia

May 25, 2020
The White Australia policy was not officially repealed until 1967, so it’s no surprise that Australian entertainment was heavily caucasian-orientated until then (it’s not exactly a United Nations foyer now).

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following article contains images of deceased persons.

It wasn’t entirely that way, though – the contributions of POC Australians pre-1967 has often been overlooked, so the admittedly-very-white Stephen Vagg has prepared an A to Z – which is not meant to be definitive, he stresses, especially to any academics who might stumble upon this… but it may shed some extra light on performers, films and shows that should be better known.

A is for Albert Namatjira – the legendary painter whose life was captured in the documentary Namatjira the Painter (1947) directed by Lee Robinson, who subsequently gave Namatjira a role in the Chips Rafferty meat-pie Western The Phantom Stockman (1953). I think this made him the first Australian artist to have a cameo in a feature film. Where’s the Namatjira biopic, by the way? If anyone had a life full of drama, incident and actor-bait roles, it was him.

B is for blackface – the technique by which the majority of POC characters were depicted in pre-1967 times – the speaking roles, at least. Famous examples include Ed Devereaux in Journey into Darkness (1967), Reg Livermore in Whiplash (he went the full paint – that was blackbody more than blackface), and Paul Reynall in Jedda (1955). Yellowface and brown face were also common. Whiteface, not so much.

C is for Charlie Chan – not the famous detective but a Hong Kong migrant to Australia who had a small role in Ken G Hall’s pearling epic Lovers and Luggers (1937)… making him one of the few Chinese Australians to appear in an Australian film at the time, even if he did play a Japanese character (there were quite a few Chinese roles in early Australian cinema – normally comic-relief- on-the-gold-fields-type stuff – but they were normally played by white actors in yellowface).

D is for drivers, Afghan camel – who popped up in old Australian films with surprising regularity such as The Squatter’s Daughter (1933) and Uncivilised (1936), not to mention the documentary Back of Beyond (1954). I am still surprised no one has yet made a film out of The Battle of Broken Hill (1915).

Watch The Squatter’s Daughter.

E is for evangelical Christianswho financed a feature film in the wake of Billy Graham’s 1959 “evangelical crusade” through Australia and New Zealand. Shadow of the Boomerang (1960) was a Christian meat-pie Western about a man overcoming a prejudice towards a black stockman – played by music legend Jimmy Little – due to the inspiring words of Graham. Why does Australia make no Christian-themed films anymore? There’s a market for them. We have Christians here. They don’t have to star Kirk Cameron or be boring.

See Jimmy sing the title track on Bandstand.

F is for Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels – the nickname given to Papua New Guineans who helped Australian troops as guides and porters in World War Two. They pop up in war documentaries all the time and Charles Chauvel even announced in 1943 that he would make a dramatic feature called Fuzzy Wuzzy. It was never made and to my knowledge, there’s never been a decent three-dimensional New Guinean character in any Australian film or TV show, an indication that Australian dramatists really do see people from that country – which was ruled by Australia until 1975, remember – as anything other than porters or spear-wielding savages, even ones set there like The Devil’s Playground (1928) and Walk into Paradise (1956). The exception was native girls who were allowed to fall in love with the white hero, provided they eventually died, eg Jungle Woman (1926), or turned out to be white, eg The Adorable Outcast (1928).

In the (otherwise excellent) 1944 documentary Jungle Patrol you can hear Peter Finch – who was quite progressive on the topic of race – refer to New Guinea locals as “b*ongs”.

You can read a whole book online about Australian cinema’s uneasy relationship with Pacific Islanders here.

G is for Gardner, Chris – white author of Dark Under the Sun, a 1960 Australian TV play about a marriage between an aboriginal man (played by Edward Brayshaw in blackface) and a white woman. It was well-meaning social realist stuff, creaky but gutsy for its day – I mean, how many interracial relationships do we show now?

H is for Henry Murdoch – charismatic aboriginal stockman who, along with colleague Clyde Combo, was cast in a support part for The Overlanders (1946) leading to a decent acting career for over a decade, popping up in films like Bitter Springs (1950), Kangaroo (1952), The Phantom Stockman (1953) and the TV series Whiplash, though his fame has been outshone by Robert Tudawali, who Murdoch teamed with memorably in Dust in the Sun (1958). It was Henry Murdoch who personified a specific type of role in the 1940s and 1950s, the aboriginal stockman who was a sidekick/tracker to the white hero – Johnny Cadell played the Henry Murdoch role in Robbery Under Arms (1957), as did Clarrie Woodlands in The Kangaroo Kid (1950) and Neza Saunders (a kid version) in Bush Christmas (1947).

Check out this sensitive headline about Murdoch from the Singleton Argus.

I is for Ion Idriess – hugely popular Australian writer whose works, fiction and non fiction, often dealt with non-white Australians, particularly aboriginals and Torres Strait islanders. The books were full of action and colour and would seem to be a natural for the screen but he’s never, not once, been adapted for the movies or TV, not even seemingly-film-friendly ones like Madman’s Island, The Drums of Mer (once optioned by Sandy Harbutt), Gold Dust and Ashes (once optioned by Cinesound), Forty Fathoms Deep, Lasseter’s Lost Reef, Isles of Despair, The Wild White Man of Badu and Nermaluck King of the Wilds (which kind-of inspired Jedda).

J is for Joe Jenkins – black American ballet dancer who came to Australia with a dance troupe and decided to settle in Melbourne. He performed on some TV variety shows and starred in several straight dramatic TV plays including a 1960 ABC adaptation of The Emperor Jones (playing the title role).

K is for Kamahl – Sri Lankan singing star who played an aboriginal in Journey into Darkness (1967) showing Australian films could be just as insensitive on casting issues as Hollywood, where African-Americans were cast as aboriginals in Botany Bay (1953) and the Rawhide episode “Incident of the Boomerang” (1961) (Woody Strode plays an aboriginal in the latter). Kamahl actually had a decent screen presence and it’s a shame he didn’t do more acting.

A clip is here.

L is for Lloyd Berrell – part-Maori New Zealand actor who was a tremendously busy in radio and stage in Australia in the 1940s and 1950s, including appearing in the premiere Sydney production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. He pops up in films like His Majesty O’Keefe (1953), Long John Silver (1954) and The Shiralee (1957), often stealing the show – in Silver he goes ham vs ham against Robert Newton and is not disgraced. Berrell looked much older than his actual age and died only 31 years old while travelling to London to further his career.

M is for Moora Neya, or the Message of the Speara 1911 movie directed by Alfred Rolfe which was arguably the first Australian movie to feature aboriginal actors (scenes were shot out at Brewarrina).

N is for Ngalra Kunoth – female star of Jedda (1955) who later became a nun, then a noted activist and politician. Her immediate post-Jedda life was fictionalised in the play Burst of Summer written by…

O is for Oriel Grey – white writer, for a time perhaps best known for coming equal first in a playwright competition next to Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. She had a fine career in her own right including The Torrents, lots of Bellbird episodes and Burst of Summer, a play about an aboriginal woman who becomes a film star. It was adapted for TV in 1961 starring three indigenous actors, Robert Tudawali, and the singers Georgia Lee and Candy Williams.

P is for Puppetoons – the animation technique used for the ABC TV series Wambidgee (1962) about the adventures of an aboriginal man. A bit culturally insensitive by today’s standards but why not make a culturally sensitive version? Puppetoons rock!

Q is for Queenslands Great Palm Island – an island on the Barrier Reef which since the 1910s was used as a place to settle aboriginals from all over Queensland. In the 1930s, island inhabitants were used as extras in the film Uncivilised (1936), Charles Chauvel’s nutty Tarzan knock-off, with Margot Rhys swimming nude, the resolutely-unhandsome Dennis Hoey playing the sing-happy white leader of a black tribe, and a tragic half-caste woman in love with the white hero (a very common trope from the time) played by a French actor.

Some Palm Islanders also appeared as extras on the feature White Death (1936) starring Zane Grey.

R is for Robert Tudawali – the electrifyingly charismatic actor who, unlike most people in this article, is still a bit famous, due to the one-two punch of his starring role in Jedda and tragic end. He also pops up in Whiplash, Burst of Summer and Dust in the Sun, and his life was dramatised in a 1988 biopic with Ernie Dingo.

S is for Saunders, Neza – aboriginal boy cast in Bush Christmas (1947) – he gave a brilliant performance, then seemed to disappear from show business.

T is for Thursday Island – even during the White Australia years, this was a very multicultural part of the country, but cinematic depictions of the island tended to focus on white characters eg The Hound of the Deep (1928), Lovers and Luggers (1937) and King of the Coral Sea (1954) – the latter at least was mostly shot on location there, and has some POC in the cast, such as Lloyd Berrell and the Chinese-Australian Frances Chin Soon.

U is for Utan – a Torres Strait Islander who played a sidekick role in Typhoon Treasure (1938). One review said he “shows natural acting ability which should ensure for him a part in future films of this type”. Another paper called him “quite a dusky matinee idol, even if his wardrobe is only a loin cloth.”  Utan did not go on to make more movies, but he clearly got a lot of journos turned on back in the day.

V is for vanished from history – something pre-1967 entertainments often did when it came to POC Australians… Captain Thunderbolt’s aboriginal partner Mary Ann Bugg (the most notable thing about that bushranger) is entirely missing from the biopic Captain Thunderbolt (1953), there’s few Chinese in the gold rush town of Eureka Stockade (1949), it’s hard to find POC Anzac soldiers like Billy Singh or Caleb Shang in any Aussie wartime tale, and Black Caesar’s status as our first bushranger has been ignored while most other bushrangers got at least one film each about their adventures. On an international scale was the black Australian boxer Peter Jackson (dad was Jamaican), who in real life had a famous bout with boxer “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, but Jackson is missing from the Hollywood biopic Gentleman Jim (1943) starring Australian Errol Flynn… indeed dramatisations of Jackson’s life are, to my knowledge, nowhere to be found in Australia, despite a career full of action, drama, and international co-production opportunities.

W is for Willis, Harry – a black Australian-born entertainer (his grandparents were from the West Indies), a popular musician and who turns up performing calypso in the Australian-shot, Caribbean-set pirate adventure Long John Silver (1954).

The complete film is here – Harry is not in it until the very end… (he, his band and Lloyd Berrell are the only POC in the whole movie, by the way.)

X is for xenophobia – a fear that has dominated Australian politics since white settlement. Sometimes the concern is of white invasion (eg Wings of Destiny (1940), The Power and the Glory (1941)) but mostly it’s the yellow peril eg Australia Calls (1913) (which depicts an actual invasion by Chinese), The Birth of White Australia (1928). Villains during the pre-1967 years tended to be heavily dominated by swarthy foreigners – even the otherwise-cuddly Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938) has a Jewish Frenchman as the heavy.

Y is for Yinson Lee, William – a Chinese Australian merchant who led the protests against the depiction of Chinatown as a haven of opium dens in the movie Satan in Sydney (1918). He didn’t have much luck, but then sticking up for the Chinese has only recently become a vote-getter in Australia. An excellent thesis on Chinese in Australian films is at https://researchoutput.csu.edu.au/ws/portalfiles/portal/44288007/The_Chinese_in_Australian_feature_films.pdf. They were traditionally depicted as comic relief/threats on the goldfields/bush such as Gentleman Bushranger (1921), A Girl of the Bush (1921) which is why The Man from Hong Kong (1975) was such a big deal.

Z is for ZZZZZZ – the response you often get from people when talking about a POC in Australian cinematic history. Thanks for making it this far.

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Comments

  1. Colin

    About time for a little ‘Chinese xenophobia’ now don’t you think…perhaps a re-run of a few of these movies would be timely…

  2. Saz

    In The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) professional trackers were engaged by the Taits for the film. Both Charles Chauvel and Snowy Baker engaged indigenous actors for various roles – mainly support roles. What is quite interesting was the casting of white women in the roles of black women. Frank Hurley’s Jungle Woman springs to mind.

    1. Stephen

      I knew about Chavuel but had no idea about Snowy Baker… which film was that?

  3. Janet

    Oriel Gray’s play ‘The Torrents’ did not come second to ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’. Both plays tied for first place.

    Also, in ‘The Birth of White Australia’, the Chinese of Lambing Flats were played by white men with stockings over their faces to achieve that taped eyes look.

    Dennis Hoey apparently got a little too far into his role and it all went to his head.

  4. David Donaldson

    Captain Thunderbolt has indeed elements of Vanished. A more important film than is commonly recognised. Not so much a bio-pic as an adventure variant. The aboriginal girl in this film story is attached to the off-sider, Alan Blake, not to Thunderbolt. Originally played by Loretta Boutmy, this was a major role for an aboriginal character. The only version now extant is 20% shorter, leaving her out almost entirely, along with a story twist that was challenging in its day.

    1. Stephen

      thanks for drawing my attention to Loretta Boutmy, she is someone who deserves to be better known… and you make a valid point about Captain Thunderbolt.

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