Australian films of the 1950s: The Dark Ages Continue

After the decline and difficulties of the 1940s, the Australian film industry limped along in the 1950s, with few locally produced films made to entertain Australians. Due to government restrictions on financing for local films and lack of support from local film distributors and other entrepreneurs, most locally produced features were made on tight budgets and suffered in comparison to overseas films. Even the two most famous surviving Australian directors: Charles Chauvel and Ken G. Hall (and his company Cinesound), found it more difficult in the 1950s. Chauvel managed to get overseas finance to make one last film (Jedda). However, Hall had a frustrating decade and was unable to make another film, instead moving to television in 1956 as the general manager of Channel Nine.

Instead, it fell to overseas film companies to make features in Australia, drawn by our exotic landscapes, fauna and flora, as well as the chance to make faux-Westerns in Australia’s immense and underpopulated outback. British companies Ealing Studios and Rank made eight films in Australia during the decade, including some very successful ones. Hollywood companies also made five features with even bigger budgets and foreign stars but with somewhat less success. It fell to a few determined local directors to make at least a few local films. The main local film-makers of the 1950s were the actor-director team of Chips Rafferty and Lee Robinson, who made three local films plus another three co-productions with a French company in New Guinea and the Pacific.

So it was another decade of low production, which did leave behind a few good films nevertheless. Let’s look at the films made in Australia in the 1950s (and I must again acknowledge my debt to the OzMovies website, which is a great source for information and amusing comment on older Australian films):

Bitter Springs (1950)

bitter springsThe first film released in the 1950s was predictably another British Ealing production, Bitter Springs, directed by British-based Australian/British director Ralph Smart who’d had previous success with Bush Christmas in 1947. The film dealt with a land-rights clash over water rights between farmers and the local Aboriginal tribe, and starred Australians Chips Rafferty (the only top leading man not to have left for the US or UK), Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell, and Henry Murdoch (in yet another of his Aboriginal bushman roles), as well as English comedian Tommy Trinder who provided light relief. The film made some money but was disappointing after the success of Ealing’s previous productions, and was Smart’s last film in Australia.

The only other film from 1950 was a US-Australian co-production The Kangaroo Kid. This was an American-style western about a US detective who follows criminals to Australia to arrest them. The film, though co-produced by the McCreadie brothers who made two films in the late 40s, was essentially an American venture with US lead actors, director and writer. The film did include some Australian-based actors in supporting roles: Guy Doleman, Alec Kellaway, Alan Gifford, Grant Taylor, Frank Ransom and Clarrie Woodlands. It was released in the US before Australia, but did poorly.

In 1951, two local films were released, without troubling the box office. The first, The Glenrowan, Affair, was an amateurish retelling of the Ned Kelly story and the last film by the incorrigible Rupert Kathner. The other, Wherever She Goes, a biopic of Tasmanian pianist Eileen Joyce, was another British Ealing production directed by British director Michael S. Gordon. Neither film was successful.

Kangaroo (1952)

kangarooKangaroo (aka Kangaroo: The Australian Story) was the first big-budget US production in Australia, but was not a great success. An Aussie-fied Western (‘Ozwestern’), the film by Twentieth Century-Fox brought US stars Maureen O’Hara and Peter Lawford along with other well-known actors from the US and Britain to play Aussie characters in (you guessed it) the bush again. The film had an American director and writer, but predictably included Chips Rafferty as the local copper, a young Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell as a poverty-stricken stockman, Aboriginal actor Henry Murdoch in another of his many appearances as a stockman. The story was a complex one of two city conmen out to swindle Maureen O’Hara’s dad out of his cattle station. The film ticks the boxes for Australian wildlife and exotic people, but was not liked by critics for its clumsy script. It failed at the box office in both countries.

Following Kangaroo, a number of local productions were completed.

  • Night Club (1952) was a low-budget musical comedy by a veteran Australian director from the 1930s, A. R. Harwood, but it was only released as a support feature and made little money.
  • Mike and Stefani (1952) was a dramatised documentary about the experiences of two Ukrainian refugees in Europe and Australia, made by the Australian government. It was seen at the Melbourne International Film Festival June 1952 and various arthouse cinemas the next year.
  • Captain Thunderbolt (1953) was a low-budget locally-produced bushranger film directed by New Zealand-born Cecil Holmes, and filmed around Armidale, where the real-life ‘gentleman’ bushranger was active in the 1860s. The film was shown at previews in early 1953, but failed to gain proper distribution and had a limited run in Armidale in 1955 and Sydney in 1956, eventually losing money and discouraging further local production.
  • The Phantom Stockman (1953) was the first of several local films financed by a company formed by Chips Rafferty and director Lee Robinson who were concerned about the lack of local films. The film, directed by Robinson, and starring Rafferty and Jeanette Elphick (an 18-year-old from Sydney who made her debut with this film but went on to a successful career in Hollywood and American TV shows as Victoria Shaw), was another bush yarn, made in Alice Springs. The film had a tiny budget so it made money although it didn’t do very well at the box office.
  • The Queen in Australia (1954) was a government documentary about … the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1954. It was the first feature-length Australian film shot and financed by Australians in colour to be given a theatrical release, and was released only six weeks after the tour finished, showing first in London and later in Australia.

King of the Coral Sea (1954)

king of the coral seaKing of the Coral Sea (1954) was the second local production by the Chips Rafferty/Lee Robinson company (now called Southern International). The film, a sailing adventure story set in the Torres Strait, starred Rafferty as well as Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell and Rod Taylor (a young Sydney actor who made his debut with this film before moving to Hollywood for a long successful career in film and US TV). The film was better received by critics, especially for its underwater photography, and did better at the box office, although it was not a huge hit.

The Back of Beyond (1954) was a famous beautifully-filmed documentary, made by the Shell Film Unit and directed by John Heyer, about the epic trips of the outback mail truck which travelled vast areas of semi-desert in remote NSW and Queensland every week along the famous Birdsville Track to bring mail and deliveries to outback communities. While not released as a commercial film, it was widely viewed by hundreds of thousands of Australians at independent venues.

Long John Silver (1954), a pirate adventure, was another US production, with a US writer and director and a mix of US and UK lead actors. Though filmed around Sydney, the story was set in the Caribbean. The film does have a number of Australian actors, including three Taylors (veteran Grant, Rod from King of the Coral Sea and debutant Kit whose career in Australian film and TV extended into the 1990s) and Muriel Steinbeck. Though it was the first Australian film in Cinemascope, it left the critics underwhelmed and underperformed in the US.

Jedda (1955)

jedda_wideweb__430x269The film of the decade came from veteran Australian director Charles Chauvel. Jedda was the story of an Aboriginal woman torn between two worlds. This film set many landmarks for Australian cinema: it was the first Australian feature film to employ Aboriginal actors (Robert Tudawali and Ngarla Kunoth) in leading roles, the first by an Australian director to be shot entirely in colour (the American-made Kangaroo beat it by three years to being the first colour feature shot in Australia), the first film to be invited to the prestigious Cannes Film Festival and probably the first film to take the emotional lives of Aboriginal people seriously. While flawed and insensitive in many ways, Jedda was a vital first step on the road to White Australian society’s understanding of Aboriginal people. The film was fraught with difficulties, such as the loss of much of the film in a plane crash which necessitated the reshooting of the final scenes in the Blue Mountains instead of the Northern Territory. The film received only mixed reviews and did not do well at the box office. This was the final film Chauvel made as he died four years later.

Smiley (1956)

SmileySmiley, a children’s adventure, was the next British-produced film made in Australia, and was directed by veteran English director Anthony Kimmins. The film starred nine-year-old Aussie Colin Petersen, as the cheeky country kid who got up to no end of mischief, while trying to earn enough money for a bicycle. It also starred mainly Australian actors including the usual suspects – Chips Rafferty, Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell, Guy Doleman and Reg Lye, plus famous British actor Ralph Richardson as the local vicar. Australia’s favourite TV cop of the 60s and 70s, Leonard Teale, also made his debut in this film. The film was a hit, both in Australia and England. Heartened by its success, Ealing and Kimmins made a sequel, Smiley Gets a Gun (1958), with a different child actor playing the red-headed young tearaway. The sequel did not do so well, but did see comic actors Gordon Chater (of My Name’s McGooley, What’s Yours?) and Ruth Cracknell (of Mother and Son) make their debuts as a vicar and an eccentric church organist respectively.

A Town like Alice (1956)

A Town Like AliceA Town like Alice, the story of a romance between an Englishwoman and an Australian man in Japanese POW camps in Malaysia in WW2, was essentially a British film. It did, however, have a number of small but important connections to Australia which justify its inclusion here: the film’s name refers to Alice Springs (in Australia); the story was taken from a book by Englishman Nevil Shute who had settled in Australia; the main male character in the film/book is an Australian; in the film Australian Peter Finch plays the lead role; and the later scenes in the film were set in and filmed in Australia. So although the film is a British (Rank) production, with a British director (Jack Lee), mainly British actors and substantially filmed in Malaysia and England, the Australian connection was felt by the public who went to see it in droves. It also did very well in the UK and elsewhere.

The film’s success prompted the Rank company and Jack Lee to return to Australia to make Robbery Under Arms the following year (1957). This film was based on a classic 1880s bushranging novel by Thomas Alexander Browne (aka Rolf Boldrewood). Australian Peter Finch played Starlight, a famous bushranger, but most of the main cast came from Britain. The film was shot in Bourke and finished in England. Though it was reasonably successful, it was not the hit that A Town like Alice had been.

The Shiralee (1957)

ShiraleeThe Shiralee was another British Ealing Studios production, directed by English director Leslie Norman (who had been an editor for Eureka Stockade). Based on a novel by Australian D’Arcy Niland, the film is about the relationship between an itinerant worker and his five-year-old daughter who travels around rural Australia with him. The film starred Peter Finch and seven-year-old Sydney girl Dana Wilson, and was very popular in Australia and did reasonably well abroad too. The film was remade as a TV film in 1987, starring Bryan Brown.

Walk into Paradise (1956)

Walk into ParadiseWhile the British and Peter Finch were making successful films in Australia, Chips Rafferty and Lee Robinson went into partnership with the French company Discifilm to make three interesting features in the Pacific. The first, Walk into Paradise (aka Walk into Hell (U.S.A.) aka L’Odyssée du Capitaine Steve (France)), was filmed in New Guinea and co-directed by Lee Robinson and French director Marcel Pagliero, who shot two versions of each scene, one in English and the other in French. Chips Rafferty starred as a river-boat captain taking a UN scientist, played by French actress Francoise Christophe, and an Australian adventurer up the Sepik valley where they encounter problems with the local tribes. The film was successful, making money in Australia, England, France and other countries. It was also the first Australian picture to go into competition at Cannes for the Pris D’Or (Jedda was shown at Cannes but not in competition).

The next co-productions with Discifilm were The Stowaway (1958 aka Le Passager Clandestin (France)), co-directed by Lee Robinson & Ralph Habib and The Restless and the Damned (1959 aka L’Ambitieuse/The Ambitious One aka The Dispossessed/The Climbers) directed by Yves Allégret. The Stowaway was an adventure film set in Tahiti and with French, British and European lead actors and a couple of Australians (but no Chips Rafferty) in minor roles. The film was hardly seen in Australia and didn’t do well overseas either. The Restless and the Damned was also shot in Hawaii and was a crime/romance film with even less Australian input – the director was French, the lead actors American and French and the writers were French. Australia only contributed some of the finance and a couple of support actors. When the film failed to get a release in Australia and bombed overseas, the French-Australian partnership ended.

In-between all these foreign productions and co-productions, a couple of small local films were also made. The first was Three in One (1957), a trilogy of Australian stories, directed by Cecil Holmes, who had directed Captain Thunderbolt in 1953. Holmes and his writers adapted famous stories from Henry Lawson and Frank Hardy plus one from less-known writer, Ralph Peterson. However, the film failed to get a proper release and failed to recoup even its modest budget, ending Holmes’ directing career.

The second local production was Dust in the Sun (1958), made by the Chips Rafferty/Lee Robinson company Southern International. The film was another outback story set in the Northern Territory, this time involving an Aboriginal man arrested for a murder he did not commit. The film was Southern International’s first not to star Chips Rafferty, and suffered at the box office with only moderate returns in Australia and even less abroad.

As the fifties drew to a close, three more films were released, all foreign productions of at least partly-Australian stories. The first was the British Ealing production, The Siege of Pinchgut (1959), which was a thriller about a group of escaped convicts to take over Fort Denison (also called Pinchgut), a tiny fortified island in the middle of Sydney Harbour. Directed by Harry Watt, who had previously directed The Overlanders and Eureka Stockade in the 1940s, the film had mainly British lead actors with Australian support actors. Unfortunately, Ealing Films in the UK collapsed before the film was distributed and the film did not fare well at the box office. This marked the end of Ealing Films contribution to Australian cinema during this period. It had made five of the best films to be made in Australia between 1946 and 1959.

The film was followed by an American production of the hit Australian play about the relationship between a seasonal cane-cutter and his seasonal girlfriend, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1959 aka Season of Passion (USA)). Directed by British director Leslie Norman (who had had success with The Shiralee) and starring Americans Ernest Borgnine and Anne Baxter as well as Brits John Mills and Angela Lansbury, the film was not liked by Australians for the changes made to the play and its inauthentic accents and not liked overseas either. The film was at least a rare attempt to portray Australian city life (most of the play takes place in Sydney) rather than the bush.

On the Beach (1959)

On the beachThe last film, released days before the end of the decade, was a big-budget American film set in Melbourne at the start of a nuclear war. It was On the Beach (1959), an adaptation of Australia-based British writer Nevil Shute’s recent novel. The film starred Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner, as well as Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins, and was directed by American Stanley Kramer. The film was shot in and around Melbourne, and included a number of Australians in supporting roles, including John Tate, Lola Brooks, Ken Wayne, Guy Doleman, John Meillon and Grant Taylor (it was the last Australian film for the star of Forty Thousand Horseman who moved to England to become a TV actor during the 1960s). The film did well in Australia and overseas, though it was not the big hit the film-makers had hoped for.

So of the 24 films made in Australia or by Australians during the fifties, there were eight local productions (including three from the Chips Rafferty/Lee Robinson company), eight British productions (four from Ealing and four from Rank), five American productions and three joint French-Australian productions (filmed in the Pacific). The British films fared best with Smiley, A Town like Alice and The Shiralee all being successful. The American efforts all disappointed with bigger budgets, though On the Beach at least made a profit. Of the Australian films, Jedda was the most significant, though Chips Rafferty and Lee Robinson’s King of the Coral Sea and Walk Into Paradise both did quite well.

Things looked grim for Australian cinema at the end of the 1950s: the last of our great early directors, Charles Chauvel, had died; Chips Rafferty and Lee Robinson’s company (responsible for six films in the 50s) had virtually wound up; Britain’s Ealing Films company, which had made a number of fine films in Australia, had gone bankrupt; and Australian actors were increasingly looking overseas or television for work. The sixties would prove even more difficult, but even this darkest decade would also have some bright moments.

List of films made in Australia in the 1950s (By year and then alphabetically)

Notes:

  • This list contains links to information about the film at the IMDb website (click on the film name) as well as the Wikipedia and Ozmovies websites. Other information is added according to the Key below the list.
  • The list also includes three Australian-French productions filmed outside Australia in New Guinea and the Pacific by Lee Robinson and Chips Rafferty’s company – these are marked [AUFR]
  1. Bitter Springs (1950) (Ralph Smart) [WikiOzmovies]  [UK]
  2. The Kangaroo Kid (1950) (Lesley Selander) [WikiOzmovies] [US]
  3. The Glenrowan Affair (1951) (Rupert Kathner) [WikiOzmovies] (#)
  4. Wherever She Goes (1951) (Michael S. Gordon) [WikiOzmovies] [UK]
  5. Kangaroo (1952) (Lewis Milestone) (5.6) [WikiOzmovies] [US]
  6. Nightclub (1952) (A. R. Harwood, 1952) [WikiOzmovies] (#)
  7. The Phantom Stockman (1953) (Lee Robinson) [WikiOzmovies] (#)
  8. King of the Coral Sea (1953) (Lee Robinson) [WikiOzmovies]
  9. Long John Silver (1954) (Byron Haskin) [WikiOzmovies] [US]
  10. Captain Thunderbolt (1954) (Cecil Holmes) [WikiOzmovies] (#)
  11. Jedda (1955) (Charles Chauvel) [WikiOzmovies]
  12. Smiley (1956) (Anthony Kimmins) [WikiOzmovies] [UK]
  13. A Town Like Alice (1956) (Jack Lee) [WikiOzmovies] [UK]
  14. Walk into Paradise (1956) (Lee Robinson & Giorgio Pagliero) [WikiOzmovies]  [AUFR]
  15. The Shiralee (1957) (Leslie Norman) [WikiOzmovies] [UK]
  16. Robbery Under Arms (1957) (Jack Lee) [WikiOzmovies] [UK]
  17. Three in One (1957) (Cecil Holmes) [WikiOzmovies] (#)
  18. Smiley Gets a Gun (1958) (Anthony Kimmins) [WikiOzmovies] [UK]
  19. Dust in the Sun (1958) (Lee Robinson) [WikiOzmovies]
  20. The Stowaway (1958) (Lee Robinson & Ralph Habib) [WikiOzmovies] [AUFR]
  21. The Siege of Pinchgut (1958) (Harry Watt) [WikiOzmovies] [UK]
  22. The Restless and the Damned (1959) (Yves Allégret) [WikiOzmovies] [AUFR]
  23. The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1959) (Leslie Norman) [WikiOzmovies] [US]
  24. On the Beach (1959) (Stanley Kramer) [WikiOzmovies] [US]

Key

  • [UK] UK Production filmed in Australia
  • [US] US Production filmed in Australia
  • [AUFR] Australian French co-production  filmed outside Australia
  • (#) Low budget & low box office

Further Reading:

Next: Darkest Before the Dawn: Australian films of the Sixties

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