The Kid Stakes Review

The Kid Stakes Review

Sydney. Six-year-old Hubert “Fatty” Finn (“Pop” Ordell) leads a gang of kids in the suburb of Woollomooloo. Fatty has a pet goat called Hector who is entered in the annual goat race derby. However, rival gang leader Bruiser Murphy (Frank Boyd) has other ideas. With his own goat, Stonker, entered in the same derby, he arranges for Hector to be set free. Fatty’s gang have to find Hector and get him to the racetrack in time.

The Kid Stakes is a film of considerable charm, and one of the few films of the early Australian cinema aimed at a young audience. Any country which had a film industry in the silent era will have much of its output from then now lost, and Australia is no exception. Fewer Australian silents survive complete, but this is one that did. In fact, it was thought lost for many years, but was rediscovered in 1952. (An account of its rediscovery and its subsequent restoration by students in the then Sydney University Film Group, can be read here).

The Kid Stakes is based on Fatty Finn, originally Fat and His Friends, a comic strip by Syd Nicholls which began in 1923 in The Sydney News. Nicholls continued to write and draw the strip until his death in 1977. The film begins with a metafictional touch, showing Nicholls drawing the strip, with his cartoon dissolving into a live-action shot of Fatty, and the film starts. An intertitle tells us that Fatty is so called because he is not actually fat, and neither is the six-year-old who plays him. That boy was Robin Ordell, nicknamed “Pop” and so billed, and the son of the film’s director Tal Ordell. Nicholls wrote the intertitles, which feature a fair amount of Aussie vernacular. Both gangs have girls in them, though as everyone’s age is in single figures, romance is not much on the cards. When Fatty is accused of being sweet on Kitty Kelly (Joyce Hazeldine) he’s nicknamed “The Sheik”, which is a topical reference which may need explanation nowadays. (Clearly Rudolph Valentino’s film The Sheik made as big an impression in Australia as it did elsewhere, particularly among audiences of the heterosexual female persuasion.)

Made on a budget of £4000 (Australian pounds, that being the country’s currency at the time), The Kid Stakes was shot in January and February 1927. Most of the film was set in Woollomooloo and the neighbouring and noticeably more well-to-do Potts Point. Much of these areas has long ago changed in more than ninety years, but you can still walk up the eighteen-metre-high McElhone Stairs, which links the two suburbs and which features in several scenes. For the climactic goat race, the production moved over the state line to Rockhampton, Queensland, as goat racing was then illegal in New South Wales.

This was the only film as producer, writer and director of Tal Ordell, who appears as the race caller, and who spent most of his career as an actor, starring as Dave in the two silent Dad and Dave Rudd films (less well known than the talkie versions of the 1930s) and in the 1932 sound version of The Sentimental Bloke. He died in 1948 aged 68. The cinematographer, who shares the same credit slide as Ordell, was Arthur Higgins, one of his era’s most pre-eminent Australian DPs, with the classic (1919) version of The Sentimental Bloke among his credits and a career which began in 1911 and ended in 1946 – he died in 1971 aged 72. As for the film’s young cast, most of them never acted again, though one who did was David Nettheim, making his debut at the age of one and a half as a baby in a pram, and would go on to enjoy a long career as an adult actor. This was Robin Ordell’s only film, but he became a radio star in the following decade. During World War II he served in the Royal Australian Air Force and died when he was shot down over the Netherlands in 1945, aged about 24.

The film premiered in Brisbane on June 9, 1927 and went on to tour the country, making a small profit. Ordell was in discussions to make a talkie version in the UK in 1930, though this came to nothing. You had to wait until 1980 for another film of Fatty Finn to be made, directed by Maurice Murphy.

There was no official film ratings body when The Kid Stakes was released, but in 1992 for a VHS release it was given a G rating. That’s the equivalent of a British U, though the film has never been submitted to the British censor. The only issue it would have now is some potentially dangerous imitable behaviour: the children drawing their own blood to sign a contract. The National Film and Sound Archive’s restoration displays some damage to the source in the form of scratches and speckles, but nothing too distracting. The stream, in the correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio, is PAL-format, with speed-up from 78 minutes to 73:37 in the version viewed. The piano score is by Jan Preston.

The NFSA’s restoration of The Kid Stakes is available to stream worldwide at Ozflix.

Overall

Ninety-three years after it was made, The Kid Stakes remains a charming and funny silent comedy.

8

out of 10

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