The reel-life gang-star

BY TENILLE HANDS

In the early 1920s, Melbourne society was a seething hotbed of entrepreneurial con artists and ambitious personalities, self-made gangsters and amateur film directors. Near the peak of Squizzy Taylor’s notoriety, one such producer-director by the name of Eric Harrison met with Taylor and his then girlfriend Ida ‘Babe’ Pender. He convinced the pair to star in a ‘sporting comedy drama’. At a reported 4500 feet, the final film would have screened at just under an hour, with many of its scenes set at Caulfield and Moonee Valley, in inner-city Melbourne.

Utilising Taylor’s previous experience as a jockey, Harrison created a plot centred on Taylor as an heroic jockey who saves his lady love. Pender, starring as the the daughter of a horse trainer, was rescued by Taylor from a criminal gang determined to stop him from riding the race favourite to a win. The film was titled In Emergency Colours, and marketed the notorious Taylor as a modern day ‘elusive pimpernel’.

The tongue-in-cheek irony was not lost on the local authorities. Already fearful of the increasing popularity of films depicting crime and criminals, film censors worked quickly to ban the film from public screening. Victoria’s Chief Commissioner and NSW’s Chief Secretary’s Office gazetted new regulations under the Theatres and Public Halls Act to prohibit any motion picture deemed objectionable in its depictions of criminal activity.

Despite Harrison’s last-ditch attempts of preview screenings, by November 1922 NSW Chief Secretary Oakes had officially banned In Emergency Colours on the basis that it was ‘representing two persons who figured recently in Criminal Court proceedings’.

Magazine advertisement for 'Emergency Colours' photoplay featuring Eric Harrison as Squizzy Taylor.

In Emergency Colours advertisment in Everyones magazine, 11 October 1922

Unable to screen in either Victoria or New South Wales, Harrison’s production company EH Pictures and Squizzy Taylor finally found an audience in Queensland in 1925. More than two years after production had finished, and now retitled Bound to Win, a newspaper story about the Majestic Theatre in Brisbane states that ‘large numbers of people visited the Majestic yesterday to obtain a glimpse of ‘Squizzy Taylor’.

We know very little of the film’s box office or public reaction. Taylor himself was killed in a fatal gunfight less than two years later. Unfortunately, no remnant of the original film exists and In Emergency Colours/Bound to Win (also known as Riding to Win) is considered to be one of Australia’s many lost films.

Squizzy Taylor’s charisma, infamy and horrific crimes have continued to inspire Australian creatives over the years. As in his original film, each portrayal ignites debate about the ethics of portraying crime on film.

In 1969, director Nigel Buesst reconstructed Taylor’s life and crimes in the compelling documentary The Rise and Fall of Squizzy Taylor. In 1982, director Roger Le Mesurier cast David Atkins and Jacki Weaver in his feature film Squizzy Taylor, rendering Taylor as a popular hero and the originator of Melbourne ganglands.

This year, Squizzy Taylor lives again, in Screentime’s much anticipated Underbelly: Squizzy. The series is a continuation of the Underbelly franchise, the popularity of which again highlights Australia’s fascination with crime on screen. Somewhat appropriately, actor Jared Daperis – who played real-life jockey Frankie Dettori in Simon Wincer’s 2011 film The Cup – is playing Squizzy Taylor, who played the role of a jockey in his film debut and farewell.

Whilst Squizzy Taylor’s film debut is lost to the world, the NFSA continues to collect and preserve works of directors, producers and actors inspired by the Melbourne underworld of the 1920s – the new Underbelly: Squizzy included.