Caddie: The Great Depression
With the country in the grip of the Depression, Caddie (Helen Morse) has to be smarter and quicker than everyone else if she wants to secure a job. She rises before dawn to read the 'situations vacant’ ads, posted outside the newspaper office, then hurries to be first in line for an interview.
Summary Paul Byrnes
The film was made only 40 years after the events portrayed, but it was a revelation to younger audiences, raised on postwar prosperity. There was a considerable amount of Australian writing dealing with the struggles of the urban poor – from writers like Ruth Park and Kylie Tennant – but very few films had approached the topic by the mid-1970s. Anthony Buckley went on to produce some highly successful television based on Park’s novels (Poor Man’s Orange and The Harp in the South, both from 1987) but few films have dealt with the lives of the urban poor in the 30-plus years since Caddie. This scene has superb rhythm and economy, almost like a silent movie.
In Sydney in 1925, Caddie (Helen Morse) gets a job as a barmaid, after walking out on an unfaithful husband. She has no money and two children to feed. The working conditions are appalling, but she learns the trade, with help from fellow barmaid Josie (Jacki Weaver). A brief affair with Ted, an SP bookmaker (Jack Thompson), ends badly, but she falls in love with Peter (Takis Emanuel), a charming and sophisticated Greek immigrant, who’s also still married. He is called back to Greece as the Depression hits, but he promises to return soon. Caddie is once again alone, without a job or the money to feed her children. Her struggle continues.
The identity of the real ‘Caddie’ is still a closely guarded secret. The book upon which the film is based was published in 1953, and was written by a woman who worked one day a week as housekeeper for the writers Dymphna Cusack and Florence James. As they were writing their classic novel of war-time Sydney, Come in Spinner, ‘Caddie’ was writing her memoir, with their encouragement. It took her seven years to complete. Cusack edited the book, but she did not write it, contrary to rumours to that effect. ‘Caddie’ died in 1960, and the book remained popular. Producer Anthony Buckley bought a copy in a Sydney newsagency in the early 1970s and asked writer Joan Long to adapt it.
The resulting film remains one of the highlights of the renaissance of Australian film in the 1970s, for several reasons. It’s a powerfully emotional statement of the ways in which women outside marriage were socially and economically disadvantaged in the period between the wars. Caddie receives no child support from her husband, no welfare payments, and she can’t afford a lawyer to pursue a divorce. The movie is also a vivid depiction of working-class life in the inner city. Caddie leaves a ‘respectable’ home in the suburbs to enter a much less respectable milieu. Having never been in a pub in her life, she is confronted with the horrors of the ‘six o’clock swill’, as desperate men cling to the bar, vomiting and urinating where they stand, rather than lose their place. This was no place for a woman, so by extension, any woman who would work in such a place was considered of low repute.
The film’s masterstroke was to cast Helen Morse, an actress of immense poise and elegance, as a visual contradiction of this idea. Morse plays Caddie as a genteel woman who has fallen on hard times – a change from the more working-class woman of the book. Jacki Weaver’s character is much more at home in a working-class pub, but that doesn’t help her escape ‘a woman’s lot’. One of the film’s most candid and affecting scenes shows Weaver’s character waiting for a miscarriage to take effect, after she has visited a backyard abortionist. The film was made partly with funding from the Australian National Advisory Committee of the International Women’s Year – and it remains a strongly feminist statement – even if directed by a man, Donald Crombie.
Caddie can be seen as part of the loose trilogy of genteel historical films of the 1970s that deal with women freeing themselves – the others being The Getting of Wisdom (1977) and My Brilliant Career (1979), although Caddie is the only one with an urban setting and mostly working-class characters. Helen Morse won the AFI award for best actress for her performance.
Notes by Paul Byrnes