Caddie Review

Sydney, Australia, 1925. A young woman (Helen Morse) discovers that her husband is having an affair with one of her friends. She walks out of her comfortable home, taking her young son and daughter with her. She finds a place to live in a seedy boarding house I and takes a job as a barmaid…

Caddie is a true story. The book, Caddie: A Sydney Barmaid was published anonymously in 1953. Caddie’s real name was Catherine Elliott-Mackay, who died in 1960 and whose identity was not discovered until the 1990s. She was given the nickname “Caddie” by Ted (Jack Thompson) because, he says, she has “beauty and class” just like a Cadillac. And the name stuck. The “Aussie battler” is a prevailing national self-image, and Caddie is the epitome of it. Whatever life dumps on her – and it dumps on her a lot – her spirit remains unbroken and she carries on fighting.

In 1970, Anthony Buckley was a film editor working on the kangaroo-hunt sequence of Wake in Fright. Searching for light relief, he picked up a paperback copy of Caddie’s autobiography. He immediately saw its possibilities as a film, despite the fact that he had never produced one before. Even so, he took out an option on the film rights with the book’s London publisher. By that time Buckley had moved into making documentaries, where he met writer Joan Long and he asked her to write the screenplay. She agreed, despite not having written a dramatic feature film before. (Then again, this was 1973 and not many people in Australia had.)

To a first-time producer and screenwriter add a first-time director. Donald Crombie had worked on television when Buckley approached him to direct the film. At first doubtful, he was won over by Long’s script. Finding an actress to play Caddie was the next hurdle, not helped by some financiers wanting a big star, say Julie Christie or Faye Dunaway. After seeing many actresses and going through some elaborate screen tests, it came to a choice of two, one of whom was Helen Morse. Even then, Buckley and Crombie could not decide. What settled it was the opinion of the man from the film laboratory, who said that Morse had “class”…just as Ted says of Caddie in the film.

Filming began on a A$391,000 budget (with some funding help from International Women’s Year) and a six-week schedule that proved too tight, so some scenes from the script were edited out. The film premiered in April 1976 and was a critical and commercial hit, playing for over a year at one cinema. It won Australian Film Institute Awards for three of the four acting awards: Morse for Best Actress, Drew Forsythe for Best Supporting Actor and Melissa Jaffer and Jacki Weaver sharing Best Supporting Actress. It lost out Best Film to Fred Schepisi’s The Devil’s Playground.

Over thirty years on, Caddie stands up pretty well as one of the classics of the 1970s Australian Film Revival. Script weakness is a charge often levelled at many Australian films of the time, even some of the best ones, and there’s some truth in this. The film does tend to fall into a series of episodes – in four acts, each announced by a caption – which are linked only by the figure of Caddie. But that, and Morse’s superb performance, is enough to hold the film together. It’s a moving story that keeps sentimentality at bay. It’s easy to be on Caddie’s side and you stay there until the end.

English-born Helen Morse had only made three previous films. She had had small roles in Petersen and Stone, going on to marry the director of the latter, Sandy Harbutt. More noticeably, she had played Miss Poitiers in Picnic at Hanging Rock, the French teacher who disappeared. The success of Caddie meant international work, namely a role in 1979’s Agatha. However, she hasn’t made a feature film since Far East in 1982, apparently preferring stage and occasional television work. She no doubt had her reasons, but it’s Australian cinema’s loss. [Update: since this review was written, she has returned to the cinema screen after a long absence, in Fred Schepisi's 2011 film The Eye of the Storm.]

Donald Crombie is still active, working mostly on television for the past two decades. His other films, which include The Irishman and The Killing of Angel Street, tend towards the kind of gentle character-led film that’s not really in fashion nowadays, which may explain why very little of it has been released in the UK. Like the late Ken Hannam, with whom he codirected the Sam Neill-starring Robbery Under Arms, an expensive flop, he’s in the second rank of Australian directors and probably has the one classic in him. Caddie is that classic.

The rest of this review contains plot spoilers. If you wish to avoid them, please skip to “The Disc” below.

All the other characters in the story have small roles, but they’re mostly vivid and well played by a very distinguished cast. Australian film was only just finding its feet, and Buckley and Crombie were able to entice some high-powered names to appear in small roles, for the experience. So we see Robyn Nevin as a prostitute and Lynette Curran as Ted’s girlfriend Maudie, to name but two. A recurring theme in the film is Caddie’s relationships with men: a promising one with Ted that is snuffed out when Maudie warns Caddie off, a definitely romantic one with Peter (Takis Emmanuel, a Greek actor who had been in the country to make Kostas for Paul Cox – according to the commentary at least, as Kostas wasn’t made until 1979) and a platonic, supportive one with Bill (Ron Blanchard) and Sonny (Drew Forsythe), two “rabbitos” plying their trade during the Great Depression. Interestingly, while her affair with Peter – which ends when he has to go back to Greece because of family illness, but with a promise to return – dominates most of the middle section of the film and the possibility of his return hangs over the last part, it doesn’t resolve the film. Instead, it goes full circle with a meeting with and implied forgiveness of Esther (Kirrily Nolan), the friend who had an affair with her husband, and the final scene shows Caddie happy and implicitly complete with her two children. Peter’s return is confined to a caption – and not even then in the international version, of which see below.

It was maybe that lack of a conventional happy ending that meant that the USA was one major territory the film did not sell to. The international release version omits this final caption and the penultimate scene with a solicitor as it was considered too downbeat, as it reveals that Peter did return but died shortly afterwards in an accident. This DVD contains the full Australian version of Caddie.

While I doubt that this film will have much appeal to young children, parents should be advised that the M rating is for some moderate language and sexual references. The BBFC gave the film an A (equivalent to today’s PG) certificate in 1976, but I suspect this will be 12 material now, particularly for some dialogue relating to one character’s backstreet abortion.



The Disc


Caddie is released by Roadshow on a dual-layered PAL disc, encoded for Region 4 only.

The film is presented in its original ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. This disc is now five years old, and it’s fair to say the bar has been raised since then. The image is overly soft and lacking in shadow detail. Also the print bears some scratches and spots in places. It’s certainly watchable, if you make due allowances for it. Since this was and still is the only DVD release of this film that I know of, it’s acceptable for what it is. The running time includes about a minute of play-out music over a black screen.

The soundtrack is the original mono. Nothing to test your sound system, but Peter Flynn’s score shows up nicely. And full marks to Roadshow for including hard-of-hearing subtitles, as far too many Australian DVDs do without them.

The main extra is a commentary by Anthony Buckley and Donald Crombie. This is very informative, helped no end by the fact that even twenty-five years on their memories of the shoot are intact. I liked the story that they wanted to put Jacki Weaver’s line “Life’s a bugger!” on the poster, but the Australian censor said no.

Buckley also comments on some home-movie footage (12:22) of the film’s making. This was shot by the focus puller, David Williamson, who has now become a DP in his own right, and should not be mistaken for the screenwriter and playwright of the same name. This footage is unusually presented anamorphic, with thick black bars at the sides, giving a ratio slightly wider than the presumably original 4:3. Buckley’s gives a very interesting talk here, though makes one factual error in saying that Picnic at Hanging Rock was Helen Morse’s first film. He mentions at one point that Michael Powell visited the set, but sadly this isn’t captured on film. Also included is the theatrical trailer (2:13) which is narrated by Jack Thompson.

The remaining extras are text-based. First off is an extensive cast-and-crew listing. Many of the names are indicated by a dot: press this and you go to that person’s filmography.

A further selection of extras is gathered as “The Caddie Files”. “Caddie – The Movie” is a brief piece on the real Caddie and how Anthony Buckley came to produce the film. “The Director’s Working Script” is a reproduction of some pages of the screenplay, with Crombie’s notes in the margin. You can link to three scenes: “The Ladies’ Parlour”, “Harbourside Beach” and “Botanical Gardens Day”.

Two interviews follow, both dating to 1975. There are nine pages of interview with Helen Morse and five with DP Peter James. James’s use of orange filters to suggest period was influenced by the look of the then-recent Chinatown. Also included are a gallery of Australian advertisements and another one of international press cuttings. The review from the London Times of 7 October 1977 is unattributed but names Caddie as the best film in an intriguing week that also saw the releases of Valentino, Slap Shot and Suspiria. Finally, “Words on Caddie” is a series of text pages containing extracts from articles on the film.

It’s not the fault of Caddie that Australian cinema soon became typecast in certain quarters as pretty, well-acted but rather tepid period pieces, like Down Under Merchant Ivory, rather lacking in action or excitement. It may represent a type of filmmaking which is out of fashion, but Caddie is a film which is thoroughly engaging, clearly made as a labour of love with a great lead performance, a warm story with honest sentiment rather than sentimentality. Caddie deserves its classic status.

Film
9 out of 10
Video
6 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
6 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

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