The Picture Show Man Review

In Memoriam Rod Taylor (1930-2015)


Australia, the 1920s. Maurice Pym (John Meillon) and his son Larry (Harold Hopkins) travel the Australian countryside as "picture show men", projector and film cans in tow, they set up cinema showings for rural audiences who would not otherwise get to see pictures that moved (if not yet able to talk) unless they moved to the cities. The Pyms are accompanied by piano tuner turned accompanist Freddie (John Ewart). However, the Pyms have a rival in the shape of American showman Palmer (Rod Taylor) and his sidekick Lou (Garry McDonald)...

The Picture Show Man is inspired by the memoirs of Lyle Penn, who worked with his father in the 1920s as travelling picture show men. In the 1970s, Penn had written a book, then titled Penn's Pictures on Tour: The Biography of an Old-Time Showman, but had not found a publisher. Joan Long had begun her career in the 1950s at the Commonwealth Film Unit, starting as an assistant, originally under her maiden name of Joan Boundy, finally working her way up to direct four documentaries, then leaving after six years to start a family. She resumed her career in the early 1960s, as a writer, at first for documentaries on the history of the Australian film industry, then into fiction. After seeing her on television talking about the film industry's history, Penn approached her with his manuscript. Liking the material, Long began the process of developing it into a feature film screenplay. Penn's memoir was later published under the same title as the film: the opening credits list both titles.

By then, Long had gained considerable attention for her screenplay for Caddie (also a period piece based on a memoir) in 1976. Her screenplay for The Picture Show Man does deviate from Penn's stories, not least in changing the family name from Penn to Pym. Freddie is a composite of several real-life characters, and Parker and Lou were fictional. An incident when the Penns tried to pass off a silent print of The Jazz Singer as the talkie version had to be excluded due to the cost of licensing extracts from that film being too much for the budget. We see extracts from four films, all of which were in the public domain. The only one listed in the credits is Raymond Longford's 1920 version of the much-filmed comedy On Our Selection. The other three are The Grand Duchess and the Waiter (1926) and two others which no one seems to be able to identify. One appears to be a silent western and the other is clearly an early talkie, apparently Australian though set in India and the male lead in the extract is called Dick. If anyone can identify these, please let me know.

Tony Buckley, the producer of Caddie, read Long's first draft and encouraged her to continue, which she did as producer as well as writer. Long declined to direct as well, feeling she lacked the experience to do it. Donald Crombie, who had directed Caddie, was approached but was unavailable. The eventual director was John Power, who had made well-regarded television films but had not made a cinema feature before. Power collaborated with Long on the final draft of the screenplay, though she is the only one credited for it.

It was Power's idea to approach Rod Taylor for the role of Pym's rival Palmer. Taylor had been born in Sydney and had made his film debut in Australia with King of the Coral Sea (made for Chips Rafferty's company) and the locally-shot Hollywood production Long John Silver, both in 1954 . He soon headed off to Hollywood and established himself as a handsome leading man in such films as The Time Machine and Hitchcock's The Birds. His years in the United States caused his part to be rewritten as an American, as by then Taylor had lost his native Australian accent.

By the time the film came out, there was a growing image of a typical Australian film as a rather genteel period piece, often from a literary source. This was the basis of a backlash, often coming from people who would much rather the renascent film industry had made more overtly commercial films. In the words of the documentary Not Quite Hollywood (directed by Mark Hartley, who contributes the Rod Taylor featurette to this DVD), what in other countries would have been arthouse fare became the mainstream, and avowedly genre films, what would later be known as Ozploitation, were marginalised and looked down upon. While I think that is something of a straw man argument (see my review of Not Quite Hollywood for more on this), such films do exist, some of them among the best films from Australia in their time, some less good. The Picture Show Man is very pleasant, but it never becomes overwhelming, certainly not cinematic. Long's screenplay is somewhat shapeless and episodic (a common problem in an industry at the time barely ten years after its rebirth). Many of the scenes and some of the characters feel like digressions, although they're entertaining digressions. Power's direction illustrates the material rather than shapes it. There are plenty of compensations, though, in some delightful performances, the good humour and warmth of the film, much of it from the script, drawing on Long's knowledge of the early history of the cinema Down Under. The film is a valentine to a lost era when the silent era gave way to talkies and there was no longer a need for travelling picture show men. Production and costume design (David Copping and Judith Dorsman respectively) are fine, and Geoff Burton's cinematography glows.

The role of Pym was written with John Meillon in mind. Born in 1934 (four years younger than Taylor), he had had a long career, starting on radio at the age of eleven and continuing his career on the stage and, when the medium arrived in Australia in the 1950s, television as well. You can see him in small roles in overseas productions shot in Australia, such as On the Beach (1959) and The Sundowners. Like many Australian actors of his generation, he worked in the UK on film and television in the Sixties, due to the greater opportunities there. But he was there at the start of the Australian Film Revival, with small but significant roles in Wake in Fright and Walkabout. This was a rare leading role for him, and he seizes it with both hands, certainly upstaging Taylor. Meillon's impromptu song and tapdance routine when the projector breaks down is a highlight. Harold Hopkins was only ten years younger than Meillon, but does well as the shy, rather dominated son – a far cry from the lecherous Cooley (a role originally intended for Paul Hogan, believe it or not) he had played in the film he made immediately before this, Don's Party. Judy Morris has a nice, though somewhat digressionary, scene where she leads a dance class Isadora Duncan style, and there's nice work from John Ewart, Sally Conabere (in a role originally intended for Jacki Weaver) and Jeanie Drynan. Yelena Zigon (a Serbian actress, still with us) and Patrick Cargill turn up as a stage mind reader and her rather campily sinister Svengali. Cargill was of course an Englishman, best known at that point for his television sitcom and its feature-film spin-off, Father, Dear Father. The following year, he made an Australian version of the sitcom, in which Conabere and Meillon made appearances.

John Power continued to work, mostly in television, up until 1998, when he was sixty-eight; he's still alive as of this writing. His best-known television work is probably the 1993 miniseries of Stephen King's The Tommyknockers. His only subsequent cinema feature was Father in 1990. Lyle Penn lived to see the film released and died in 1979. Joan Long continued to work as a producer in the 1980s, on Puberty Blues, Silver City and Emerald City. (Those last two are not otherwise related, despite their similar titles.) She died in 1999 at the age of seventy-three.

The Picture Show Man won Australian Film Institute awards for John Ewart as Best Supporting Actor, for Peter Best's music score and for Best Production Design and Costume Design. It was nominated for Best Film (which it lost to Storm Boy), for Joan Long for her screenplay and for John Meillon and Judy Morris. The film was a moderate success at the local box office, but not enough to earn back what had been one of the larger budgets for an Australian film to that date, and critical response was mixed. It did sell to the USA though. After a successful showing at the 1977 London Film Festival, bypassed a UK cinema release and was bought by the BBC, premiering on television on 28 January 1979. It has one further BBC showing in 1982 but not since, and to this day has not had a UK commercial release on VHS or DVD.


The Disc

Umbrella Entertainment over the last decade and a half have done a good job releasing Australian cinema's back catalogue onto DVD, and the present DVD of The Picture Show Man was released in 2005 and is still available. It's dual-layered and encoded for all regions.

The Australian G rating this film and DVD bears is the direct equivalent of the British U certificate. While the film is certainly family-friendly (though more likely to appeal to older rather than younger audiences, I suspect) by present BBFC standards it would most likely get a PG if it were ever submitted, due to some mild language, fisticuffs in a couple of scenes and brief nudity in a skinnydipping scene – Harold Hopkins that is, fleetingly in long shot, as Sally Conabere made quite certain she would not appear topless on screen. (The film had a PG rating in the USA.)

The DVD transfer is in a ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced, opened up slightly from the intended ratio of 1.85:1. This transfer does show its age, as even on DVD we are used to HD masters for films shot in 35mm. Burton's cinematography often has a bias towards orange, especially in the interiors, a common look for a period film of its time. Grain is certainly noticeable, as it should be, and there are traces of scratches and other film damage here and there and some noticeable colour fluctuations, especially during the opening credits.

The soundtrack is the original mono, and is clear and well balanced. Unfortunately there are no subtitles for the hard-of-hearing, as per Umbrella's regrettable policy on their English-language releases.

The extras begin with an audio commentary, featuring and mostly led by production manager Sue Milliken, plus Sally Conabere, Harold Hopkins and Judy Morris. This is an entertaining conversation which feels like a reunion of old friends – literally so in the case of the latter two, as they had grown up locally to each other in Queensland and had gone out with each other for a while. There are plenty of anecdotes about Rod Taylor and his drinking buddies on set. There were strict rules on Australian films about alcoholic drink (or indeed other substances) during the working day on a film set, but John Meillon was an exception to that, as if he hadn't been allowed to drink you wouldn't have had him at all. (Sadly, Meillon's alcoholism contributed to his early death at fifty-five from cirrhosis of the liver.) All four clearly hold the film in great affection, and that comes across.

"Rod Taylor: Return to Oz" (16:30) is a featurette built round an interview with Taylor, which covers his career as well as specifics about The Picture Show Man. Some of the anecdotes are repeated by Milliken in the commentary, especially the one about a woman who had promised to invest in the film if she could have a job on it, so she was hired as Taylor's driver – and turned up to work in distinctly eye-catching attire. The featurette ends with brief tributes to those who had passed away by that time: John Meillon, John Ewart and Joan Long, to whom Taylor blows a kiss. (Harold Hopkins has also since died, in 2011.)

Also on the disc is a rather battered and faded trailer (3:19) and the usual Umbrella Propaganda, trailers for four others of their releases, Travelling North, History of Australian Cinema 1896 to 1940, The Fringe Dwellers and We of the Never Never.

6 out of 10
6 out of 10
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