Young Bill Ryan (Peter Finch) comes to see Dad Rudd (Bert Bailey) about marrying his daughter Sarah (Valerie Scanlan). Unfortunately Sarah has always been known as Sal in the family – the same name as the family dog. Dad thinks Bill wants to buy a dog and answers with matter-of-fact advice about animal husbandry. Dave (Fred MacDonald), who is listening in the background, can’t contain his laughter. Summary by Paul Byrnes.
This was the first real appearance on film of one of the greatest Australian actors of the 20th century, Peter Finch. He had appeared in The Magic Shoes (1935), a fantasy 'quickie’ made earlier at the new National Studios in Pagewood, Sydney, but that film failed to find a distributor. In this scene, he appears opposite another Australian great, the veteran comedian Bert Bailey, who was probably the biggest star of the 1930s in Australian film. The scene gives a great sense of Bailey’s superb comic timing, and is unusually ribald for the time.
Cinesound was always careful about offending audiences. Australian stage comedy of the 1920s – especially in vaudeville – was much bluer than Australian cinema of the 1930s. Cinesound had been stung by the relative lack of success of Strike Me Lucky (1934), featuring Roy Rene, who was the bluest of the vaudeville acts. Ken Hall believed strongly in visual humour but in Bert Bailey, he had an actor of consummate timing in verbal, as well as physical, comedy. This scene is like a throwback to the vaudeville routines of the 1920s. It’s also a sign of Hall’s increased confidence in directing dialogue.
An epidemic of romance has broken out among the Rudd children. Bill Ryan (Peter Finch) wants to marry Sarah Rudd (Valerie Scanlon) but Dad Rudd (Bert Bailey) wants nothing to do with the Ryan family. Old Mr Ryan (Marshall Crosby) is always pestering him to sell his bottom paddock, but Dad refuses. A letter brings the sad news of the death of Dad’s brother, whom he hasn’t seen for 20 years. The reading of the will brings further shock – Dad has inherited his brother’s business, a Sydney shop selling expensive women’s clothes. The shop is performing badly because of a corrupt manager who’s in league with the competitor Pierre (Sidney Wheeler). Dad installs his eldest daughter, the sophisticated and educated Jill (Shirley Ann Richards), to run Cecille’s. The shop’s effeminate floorwalker Mr Entwhistle (Alec Kellaway) becomes her offsider, and Jim Bradley (Billy Rayes) resigns from Pierre’s to become her publicity manager.
Dad soon becomes a celebrity as the farmer who sells fashion – while son Dave (Fred MacDonald) finds himself taken with Myrtle (Muriel Flood), one of the store models. To counter the dirty tricks of Pierre, Dad closes Cecille’s for a major renovation. They are about to re-open with a major fashion show when Pierre presents his trump card – a debt of £1,000, left by Dad’s brother. As the fashion show begins, Pierre’s hired goons start stripping the shop but Dad is saved by his old sparring partner, Mr Ryan, who offers £1,000 for the bottom paddock. The show is a great success, and the scheming Pierre is routed.
By 1938, Australia had been in the grip of the Depression for more than eight years. Australia and Germany were two of the worst hit countries. As Hitler rose to power, there was much speculation that another war with Germany was inevitable. Ken G Hall, boss of Cinesound, who was always sensitive to the public mood, responded by concentrating solely on comedies. 'We had proved something in 1932’, he wrote in Directed by Ken G Hall (1977), his autobiography. 'When times are tough, make comedy. I was wedded to the policy – now particularly, when it was obvious people wanted to laugh, to be cheered up in a glum world.’
There was also a more practical reason – movie attendance was down in Australian cinemas and Cinesound’s parent company Greater Union desperately needed cash. The company was £50,000 in debt by 1936. The managing director, Stuart Doyle, was supplanted after 30 years in the industry by chartered accountant Norman B Rydge, who became chairman. Doyle resigned in June 1937 and left for London, where he tried to entice Ken Hall to join him in a production venture. Hall refused. He was in the midst of the busiest two years in Cinesound’s history, making three pictures a year (in 1936 and 1937). This was the state of 'continuous production’ he had always wanted to achieve. He feared that if he left, Greater Union would cease production and close Cinesound. 'Cinesound was my baby and I was not prepared to let it die if I could help it. And anyway, I wanted to do it here, not there (in the UK).’
The first film in the new all-comedy regime at Cinesound was Let George Do It (1938), featuring much-loved comedian George Wallace. The second was Dad and Dave Come to Town. From 1938, until production was suspended by the Second World War in 1940, Cinesound produced six comedies – the others being Mr Chedworth Steps Out (1939), Gone to the Dogs (1939), Come Up Smiling (1939) and Dad Rudd, MP (1940). All were successful, although not on a par with Cinesound’s biggest hits of the early years – On Our Selection (1932), The Squatter’s Daughter (1933) and The Silence of Dean Maitland (1934). Dad and Dave Come to Town was the third of Hall’s four Dad and Dave films. Only the characters bore any resemblance to anything written by Arthur Hoey Davis (Steele Rudd). The plot was Ken Hall’s, with the script fashioned by Cinesound’s resident playwright-performer Frank Harvey, in collaboration with Bert Bailey, reprising his role as Dad.
The film takes the Rudds to the city, after a series of comical interludes on the farm. This allowed Hall to keep production largely in the studio, and to introduce elements of unbridled glamour, as befitting a Depression-era comedy. The influence of Hollywood glamour comedies is obvious in the film’s rich art deco settings and costumes, and beneath that, the film poses some intriguing questions. It’s basically a fish-out-of-water comedy, in which Hall both lampoons and celebrates the Rudd’s family country values. They are ill-at-ease with city sophistication, the pace of street life and the mores of city women. There is a sense in which these are somewhat 'foreign’; the Rudds are by the same sense native to the soil. At various points in the story, Dad Rudd loses confidence in his ability to function in the city, but he’s bolstered by his children’s desire to be modern, and his wife’s belief that he has what it takes to make the dress shop profitable. The question the film is really asking is whether Australians have the confidence to be modern in the context of the wider world of 1938. Many of Cinesound’s earlier films, and those of contemporaries such as Charles Chauvel, were about whether the white pioneers could conquer the land. The Rudds, in these last two films, are testing themselves on wider stages, because their hold on the land is deemed relatively secure.
There’s also a hidden agenda in the story of this film, which is to do with Ken Hall’s belief in the power of publicity. Hall had come into the business as a publicist and all the Cinesound films were made with a heavy and often ingenious program of promotion that started before production began. One change of the Rydge era at Greater Union was the departure of HG Hayward, chief of publicity for the theatre circuit. 'He was a widely experienced, creative publicity director’, wrote Hall. 'The man who replaced him was not.’ Hall was concerned that Cinesound’s films under the new bosses were not being properly promoted. It seems too much of a coincidence that the message in Dad and Dave Come to Town is all about the importance of good promotion. The final parade, melds fashion and film in a series of beautiful tableaux that seem to be meant to ram home the message: promote or perish.
Notes by Paul Byrnes