A British film manufactured in Australia.
Production company: Children's Entertainment Films (later the Children's Film Foundation)
Locations: Blue Mountains, N.S.W., and Burragorang Valley, Warrigal ranges and Wolgan valley (one newspaper claimed that director Ralph Smart's cottage at Church Point in Sydney had also been used as a set).
Filmed: filming was well under way when Marjorie Beckingsale turned up to prepare a front cover special film edition location filming report for the Australian Women's Weekly on 18th May 1947. All work on the film, including post-synching the dialogue and the music score was completed in Sydney by June 1947.
Australian distributor: Rank Organisation
Australian release: 19th December 1947 Embassy Sydney and other screens for the Christmas New Year holiday season; released in the UK in the children's club circuit in June 1947. It even managed to open at Park Ave. Theatre in New York on Wednesday 26th November 1947 (Smithy also opened at the New York Theatre the same day, thought to be the first time two Australian films were shown simultaneously in New York).
Rating: For General Exhibition
35mm black and white
Running time: 1'14" (NFSA), 76 minutes (Oxford Australian Film, The New York Times)
Region four DVD time: 1'13"40
Box office: solid, especially relative to budget.
The film ran for eight weeks in its opening season in the Embassy Theatre Sydney, and it was popular in regional and rural screenings. It was then frequently revived for Christmas and holiday sessions.
It had a secure audience in the UK via the Rank/Odeon/Gaumont/CFF Saturday morning club, and received a favourable response in its New York release. There were also newspaper reports it had sold to some 41 countries.
Selected for exhibition at the Brussels Film Festival, and awarded a prize as the 'film of the year 1946-47'.
The film appeared on one US critic's 'top ten best films' for 1948 list, and was warmly commended by the Chief Censor of Australia, Mr. J. O. Alexander. It was voted as the picture of the month for February 1947 by the Protestant Motion Picture Council in January 1948.
The film also won the 1948 John Bull Award - the Royal Empire Society's version of the Oscars - for the best British film made in Australia (according to some newspapers, the award was shared with Douglas Hardy's film End of the Rainbow).
The film has been released on a barebones DVD by Magna Pacific as part of the J. Arthur Rank library in region four, and in region two, by Rank for the UK and by MGM in the United States, and it remains widely available on DVD.
The film inspired a re-make in 1983 under the same title, which is also available on DVD.
1. Source and Spin-offs:
Director Ralph Smart came up with the story and screenplay for the film.
It was planned as a feature, though the original idea for CEF films had involved short moral tales, until it was realised that this would be a commercially unsustainable way to reach an audience
The result produced an early example of the serialisation and spin-off potential of Australian movies, with Ralph Smart's screenplay being novelised and with the story being serialised in magazines and the children's section of newspapers. The book was also translated into several languages. A fourteen year old John Meillon turned up in the radio version for the ABC.
It was credited as a film story by Ralph Smart, retold by Mary Cathcart Borer, and was published in London by Pitman and sons in 1947 (108 pages), with illustrations from the film. This version was subsequently turned into an audio version which remains available within the Australian library system and in the market-place.
The film inspired a 1983 re-make under the same title. The second version has higher aspirations in terms of plotting and performance, but many viewers might find the innocence and fragile charm of the original, with its authentic period feel, more attractive.
2. The Production:
Director Smart ran a tight ship and made the film to schedule, losing only four days to weather, something of a feat for a film involving children, animals and many exteriors. One press report suggested a 16 week shooting schedule.
The film traded off on its Overlander connections. Smart had worked on that show, as had the key villains Chips Rafferty and John Fernside, and femlae lead Helen Grieve. The Yardley brothers (Michael and Nicky) had radio experience, as did Morris Unicomb, who had some stage experience, while Neza Saunders was discovered by Chips Rafferty. Saunders came from a mission station near Rockhampton.
Nicky Yardley would do other features, such as the 1950 Bitter Springs.
3. Parliamentary screenings:
On May 20th 1947 the film was screened to members of the House of Lord and the House of Commons to rally support for the argument that British children under 12 should be allowed to work in films intended for other children.
Members were reported to have stayed to watch because they enjoyed the film as good entertainment, and were engaged by the sight of grub-eating and black trackers. One report noted:
"Viscount Bruce, reminiscing about black trackers, soon had a big crowd of interested listeners gathered round him. The film was shown in the private committee room of Westminster Hall. Striped-trousered, black-morning coated M.Ps. against a background of carved oak panelled walls and doors seemed somewhat incongruous as they discussed the best ways to eat snakes and grubs, and other insects".
Neza's cheerful eating of a witchetty grub would become part of many Australian screen rites of passage.
J. Arthur Rank, in concert with Odeon and Gaumont, had set up hundreds of cinema clubs throughout England to screen product on a Saturday morning to children.
Bush Christmas was the first feature production by Children's Entertainment Films (later the Children's Films Foundation), an organisation designed to make product for the club circuit.
Under the direction of Mary Field, and with Rank funding, and bolstered by the success of Bush Christmas, it went on to make a lot of product for the UK market, though it would not be until Bungala Boys in 1961 that it would return to Australia - despite the Rank organisation talking, in the immediate afterglow of Bush Christmas, of making half a dozen children's movies in Australia, including one set in the Barrier Reef. None eventuated.
With a circuit established by all the theatres owned by the Rank organisation, there were some 400,000 children who were club members, and it was estimated that some 200,000 British children would see the film.
The film was so successful in the UK that Rank arranged for screenings outside the club circuit, in general exhibition.
5. Tailoring the product:
As noted by Oxford Australian Film, the film managed to combine several key elements which would resonate down the years in Australian films and television series designed for children, now an important part of the Australian production industry.
The children were selected to be representative and symbolic of the demographic, ranging from six to twelve and with a cheerful, smiling Aboriginal child (these days there's often children from a co-producing partner country); the villains were more comical than real or frightening; and there was a willingness to exploit Australian elements, ranging from accents to bush scenery to eating snakes and witchetty grubs.
Adventures and the defeat of the baddies by skilful clever children ran at a pace which allowed younger viewers to keep up, and while fanciful, were imbued with a kind of ersatz credibility that maintained interest without generating too much fear.
In this particular case, the children finally get caught and external forces are needed to save them, but this aspect of the formula would be refined over the years.
By having the baddies hoist the children on hooks in an abandoned building in a ghost town, the baddies satisfied the need for a dramatic resolution by way of muted violence (as opposed to say shooting the children out of hand and spoiling the mood), and by having the inept villains then give up without a fight, the threat of violence from the .303s they carry disappears.
Smart and his creative team were cunningly aware of how to pitch the product, offering exotic locations, horsiness and bush kids with a touch of a realistic working class bush Christmas to help the show seem at home for kids in the Christmas holiday season.
Cue in due course Skippy, the most enduring and still one of the longest-running examples of the application of this formula in Australia.
6. Ralph Smart:
Smart was born of Australian parents in London in 1908. He began working in the British film industry in 1927, working as a documentary director and comedy writer. In 1940, when he came to Australia, he directed short films for the R.A.A.F. and the federal government production arm, the Department of Information (Island Target, 1945).
He worked on The Overlanders in 1946, and after Bush Christmas he returned to the UK to direct features, but then came back to Australia in 1949 to direct Bitter Springs. He eventually settled in North Queensland ...