Caddie: 'Life's a bugger'
Caddie (Helen Morse) calls off her relationship with bookmaker Ted (Jack Thompson), after she is warned off by Ted’s steady girlfriend. At the boarding house where she lives, the landlord and his wife (Pat Evison) tell her she’ll have to go, because her children are misbehaving. On the tram home, her friend Josie (Jacki Weaver) tells Caddie of the outcome of her visit to an unlicensed abortionist.
Summary by Paul Byrnes
The film has a remarkably frank approach to discussion of difficult social problems, which is why the two women are shown discussing Josie’s abortion while they’re travelling on a tram (in the days when Sydney still had them). There’s also a strong sense of the film’s female cameraderie in this scene, and of the richness of working-class language, which Caddie is learning to use.
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