Inside Story

“Unfounded attack on Dad and Dave comedies!”

By the time Ken G. Hall filmed Dad Rudd M.P., his film-making had come to reflect international popular culture as well as Australian traditions, writes Julieanne Lamond

Julieanne Lamond 9 October 2013 2642 words

Swept up in a version of our national story: Bert Bailey as Dad Rudd MP.
Australian Screen

IN 1940 one of Australia’s most enduring fictional characters, Dad Rudd, was dragged into politics in more ways than one. On 30 April, E.M. Horsington MLA was on his feet in the NSW parliament asking questions about a proposed government overdraft to support local film production. “Does the guarantee cover the ‘Dad and Dave’ type of picture, which may misrepresent country life in New South Wales?” he asked. It did indeed – the first of four films to receive a £15,000 overdraft from the NSW government was Ken G. Hall’s Dad Rudd, M.P. (1940). In this film, Dad Rudd, who began life as a struggling farmer, enters parliament.

Dad Rudd, M.P. is one particularly strange point in the long history of adaptation and appropriation, myth-making and ticket-selling, surrounding the fictional family headed by Dad Rudd. First appearing in a series of episodic stories of a family on a struggling bush property by “Steele Rudd” (Arthur Hoey Davis) in 1895, the Rudd family went on to feature in no less than nine short story collections (1899 onwards); one of the most popular stage plays in Australian theatre history (1912); seven films (1920–95); a long-running radio serial (1937–52); and a television series (1972). The Rudds haunt the history of Australian popular culture like a family joke that refuses to die, their ubiquity cause for both celebration and handwringing. Horsington was not the first – or the last – to worry about the Rudd family and how its members might represent Australia.

Dad Rudd and his family were positioned as nationalist icons early in the piece, despite becoming massively popular in forms – stage comedy, cinema, television and radio – that were heavily influenced by American culture. Davis’s stories were first published in the Bulletin, an influential journal renowned for its overt nationalism and championing of realist writing about the bush. This was also a publication attuned to, and influenced by, international developments in literature, politics and journalism, as evidenced by its commitment to literary realism towards the end of the nineteenth century. Bulletin editors J.F. Archibald and A.G. Stephens were responsible for collecting Davis’s stories for book publication. The first collection, On Our Selection! (1899), ordered the stories into a narrative of poverty to prosperity and included a dedication declaring “Good Old Dad” to be the inheritor of the qualities of the “Pioneers… who gave our country birth.” The meaning of “pioneer” is purposefully vague here, stretching to include explorers, settlers and those working on the goldfields.

So, almost from their inception, the Rudds were swept up in a particular version of our national story. They were asserted to represent rural Australia or, as some would have it, the “real” Australia, with all the gravitas and representative weight that carried. But as a result of their growing popularity they also became engulfed in another story – of the global burgeoning of various forms of popular culture at the beginning of the twentieth century. These two stories have quite different trajectories. The first posits Dad Rudd as the inheritor of the “pioneer” spirit in a straightforward handing-down of cultural values from one generation to the next. The second, represented most clearly in Dad Rudd, M.P., sees Dad as a creature of his audience, responding to shifts in taste and values that are influenced as much by international popular culture and economic necessity as they are by any literary or national tradition.

In that second manifestation the Rudd family have played a key role in the development and definition of popular culture in Australia. They were involved in the beginnings of mass paperback production and readership with A.C. Rowlandson’s Bookstall Publishing Company, the flourishing of bush comedy on the early twentieth century stage, and the influence of American film comedy on Australian cinema. They have accordingly been the focus of worries about what form this popular culture might take, who might consume it, and what all this might say about its Australian consumers. Thus we find Horsington in April 1940, continuing his questioning: “Will he [the colonial secretary] take steps to ensure that any [film] purporting to represent country life in Australia does to some extent represent the true conditions of country life in New South Wales?” The secretary replied, sensibly enough, that “the films to be produced are of a fictional, not documentary, type.” The two have been often confused in Australia because realism has been understood not as a literary or cinematic mode but rather as truthful representation of Australian life and history.

Just what “truths” Dad Rudd might be seen to represent have changed dramatically over time. In the 1899 stories he was a gruff, bumbling, angry, occasionally violent and generally inept farmer. His sole preoccupation was his own patch of land and how he might make it pay. By 1940, in Dad Rudd, M.P., he had become a solemn wartime politician, concerned for the good of the entire district, and capable of pontificating in public about “the rights of man.” How did this change come about?

The usual suspects are actor and theatrical entrepreneur Bert Bailey and film-maker Ken G. Hall. Bailey embodied Dad Rudd on stage and screen for almost thirty years, and his production company was responsible for the first, controversial adaptation of the stories. The stage melodrama, On Our Selection (1912), drew an estimated audience of one million people between 1912 and 1916 in Australia and New Zealand and was, according to Richard Fotheringham, “the greatest success the Australian live stage would ever know.”

When Hall went to make his film adaptation of On Our Selection (1932), he turned not to the stories but to the play, following the script closely and keeping many of the same actors. Hall’s subsequent adaptations, Grandad Rudd (1935) and Dad and Dave come to Town (1938), continued to emphasise the idea of these characters as traditional Australian types while presenting them in contexts he knew would appeal to contemporary audiences.

Dad Rudd, M.P. (1940) was Hall’s final Rudd family film. It is a bizarre amalgam of Australian nationalist cliche, bush comedy, American cinema, romantic sub-plot and wartime nation-building posturing. This mix produced an international success, doing well at box offices in both Australia and Britain. If you lived in a major Australian city during the first part of 1940 you were very likely to encounter advertising for the film, which involved billboard trucks, gramophones, themed dances and posters featuring the disembodied head of Bert Bailey as Dad, with the catchphrase, “give him your first vote for fun!” By 1940 Bailey’s hammy squint was instantly recognisable as Dad Rudd, as he had mediated the character’s amazing transformation throughout the first half of the twentieth century. By the time Dad Rudd, M.P. was launched, Dad was a creature not just of the Bulletin-style bush realism of the 1890s, but also of stage melodrama, American cinema and wartime politics.

IN Dad Rudd, M.P. Dad enters politics in order to protect the interests of small farmers against the scheming of a villainous politician, Henry Webster, who is standing in the way of improvements to the local dam. The film’s drama is driven by the question of whether Dad will be able to beat Webster at the election, as Webster uses his money and connections to pull a variety of crooked tricks to prevent his opponent from speaking to the people. The climax to the film is Dad’s stirring five-minute maiden speech, in which he positions himself as representative of the “plain people,” contemporary inheritors of the values of the “pioneers.”

This film was not the first, or the last, time that Dad Rudd would enter politics. He initially entered public life in a 1908 collection of stories, Dad in Politics, which takes an entirely cynical view of the political process. “Smith, the member for our district, died one day, and we forgot all about him the next…,” it opens. “Politicians are mostly better dead, so far as other people and their country are concerned.” Dad is represented as a populist candidate who speaks the language of the people, as opposed to the lying and obfuscation of other politicians. Bailey and Hall plumbed Dad’s speeches in this volume for their theatre and film adaptations, and his career as a politician has formed part of nearly all subsequent adaptations of Davis’s stories.

In Dad Rudd, M.P., however, we see quite a different attitude to politics. A local candidate’s death is met with a taking-off of hats and a shaking of heads: “Poor old Bill, the best member this district’s ever had.” Whereas Dad’s entry into parliament in Dad in Politics is a tale of accident, mistaken identity, embarrassment, bluster and hand-to-hand violence, in Hall’s film, Dad stands in parliament as the very vision of the grand old man of politics and gives a stirring speech that meets the nodding, serious approval of the gallery and politicians alike. This difference can be attributed to two powerful influences – the wartime context and American film comedy.

Earlier in 1940 another film about a small-town politician who takes the good fight up to the powerful in the legislature over the issue of a dam, and featuring a set-piece speech, was released in Australia. This was Frank Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington. As critic Andrew Pike has pointed out, Hall’s films owe much to Capra’s comedies. It is apparent that Hall’s Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938) was indebted to Capra’s Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and the extent of the similarities between Mr Smith Goes to Washington and Dad Rudd, M.P. suggest that Hall had either seen the American film prior to its Australian release, heard about it in detail from others working at Cinesound, or at the very least encountered some detailed pre-release marketing material. In creating Dad Rudd, M.P., it seems that Hall was influenced by the optimism that characterises many American narratives about politics and by the political inflection of American nationalism, and that this more positive view of politics in relation to nationhood would have resonated with a wartime Australian audience.

The influence of Capra and American political narratives is particularly clear in Dad’s maiden speech, which draws on and expands speeches given throughout his career, including in Dad in Politics and the stage play, as well as reproducing some of the 1899 dedication:

Some members have spoken about the cost of increasing the height of this dam another fifty feet. I want them to think of the people who made this work necessary. The pioneers who crossed the plains in their dragging, creaking drays, who strove through the silence of the bush and made it ours.

Many of their names are not engraved on tablet or tombstone, and they have no place in the history of our country so far as it is yet written. But they are the men and women that gave our country birth. They had faith, a magnificent faith which is our heritage…

My mind looks back over the years, upon the unforgettable picture of the plain people who have fought and won and lost and always carried on… it is the plain people who are the heart and soul and backbone of our country.

In his autobiography, Hall admits that “because of the outbreak of war, we gave the speech a new patriotic twist halfway through” and this twist is indeed abrupt – suddenly Dad is talking about “the drums of war”:

In the name of these men, who are risking their lives, and all the future holds for them, I ask you to put aside bitterness and enmity, to let the blood of true nationalism run fast in your veins, and by unity and strength of purpose act so wisely that in peace may come prosperity, honour and great nationhood to this our land.

It is in this speech that we see the true extent and nature of Dad Rudd’s metamorphosis. In 1940, he carries with him the inheritance of the “pioneers,” a view of Australian history that glorifies settlement and exploration and elides any acknowledgment of Indigenous ownership of land, onto which he bolts a tone of solemn patriotism that is part Capra, part wartime rhetoric. The real force of the speech comes from the use of the term “plain people.” In Dad in Politics we hear that Dad uses “plain language” and is “plain and honest” – in comparison with the other politicians, he is intelligible to his constituency, the country folk. Hall takes this up a notch. In the film, Dad explicitly describes contemporary people – those who need the dam, and soldiers and their families – as inheritors of the virtues of the pioneers. He describes “his” people as “the plain people” who are “the backbone of our country.” This prefigures, eerily, the words used by Liberal prime minister R.G. Menzies to describe his “forgotten people,” the middle-class, two years later in a famous 1942 radio broadcast. Hall and Menzies both understood the power of the language of the ordinary, the unrecognised, to create potent images of an inclusive national public.

Horsington’s complaints about what “Dad and Dave” comedies were doing to the image of rural Australia would have probably sunk without trace if it were not for the inspired defence of the films launched by Hall in the pages of Film Weekly. Headlined “Unfounded Attack on Dad and Dave Comedies!” Hall’s argument defends not so much the films themselves as their audience: “Mr Horsington may urge the Government ‘not to approve Dad and Dave pictures’; but HE CAN’T STOP DAD AND DAVE!” Placing authority squarely in the hands of the punters, Hall argues that evidence for the legitimacy of the characters and stories is found in

the popularity of the Dad–Dave stories in book form; next, the huge money they made over a long course of years as stage plays; and, finally, the immensely greater fortunes they have netted through the screen… Does this mean that Mr Horsington – and the comparative few who think with him – are right, and 98 per cent of Australian entertainment-seekers are half-wits?

Side-stepping his own role in their presentation, Hall describes Dad and Dave as a cultural force, powered by an Australian audience defined in opposition to politicians and “intellectual snobs.” He has no qualms in describing Australians, as he knows them, as “entertainment-seekers.”

This is not the national public as imagined by a nationalist literary tradition, and it is an idea of the Australian people that unsettles the very prospect of such a tradition. In 1940 Dad Rudd was the focus of contention about the role of popular culture in representing Australia because of his roots in a literary tradition that was defined by realism and emphasised the role of literature in creating the nation. Hall, however, realised that the Rudd family represented not the circumstances of Australian life and history, but the tastes of the Australian public. These tastes are, and long have been, deeply influenced by Australian’s enjoyment of stories – in books, plays, films and TV shows – that have been shaped by other nations and their traditions of literature and entertainment. •