Shirley Thompson versus the Aliens

(Note: this synopsis contains spoilers)

Shirley Thompson (Jane Harders) is a nineteen fifties 'widgie' who hangs with bikies and receives a visit from aliens from outer space.

She and her gang try to convince 1950s Menzies era folk that the aliens have landed, but no one believes her. Instead she's considered insane, and locked away in an asylum where she can tell her story to the psychiatrists … spending ten years trying to convince the shrinks that one night in 1956, while having fun at Sydney's Luna Park with her 'bodgie' mates, she saw a group of aliens in the 'tunnel of love' ride.

Somehow an alien-controlled wax model of the Duke of Edinburgh comes to life, and is controlled by the aliens, and it turns out that the real aliens are the suburban dwellers with their dull conservative notions of comformity, including Rita's mother  (Marion Johns), who wants Shirley to make a "safe" marriage with Harold (Helmut Bakaitas).

Shirley escapes this world with the help of the The Wild One Johnny O'Keefe providing the  music on the juke box, but even her boyfriend Bruce (John Ivkovitch) finds her story hard to swallow.

When Shirley claims that the Duke of Edinburgh - in Melbourne to open the 1956 Melbourne Olympic games - has been taken over by the aliens, she is considered terminal and beyond help, and she ends strapped to a spinning gurney ...

Exec producers:
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Production Details

Production company: Kolossal Piktures

Budget: A$50,000 (Oxford Australian Film - David Stratton puts it at $17,000, other sources - a Cinema Papers' interview with director Jim Sharman - puts the figure at $20,000)

Locations: Sydney and suburbs, Luna Park

Filmed: three week period, 1971 (Jane Harders in a press interview says it was two and a half weeks of very long days, David Stratton places the shoot in "early 1971")

Australian distributor: self-distributed, co-ops

Theatrical release: preview National Film Theatre London March 1972; Sydney Film Festival premiere on June 6th 1972 at the Wintergarten Theatre, Rose Bay, then through the co-op movement. Re-edited in 1976 down to 79 minutes, and distributed through co-ops and National Library lending unit.

16mm    colour/black and white (tinted)     Ektachrome for colour scenes 

Running time: 104 mins, 79 mins (Oxford Australian Film - Stratton puts the cut down version at 80 minutes). 

VHS copy in circulation: 1'11"37

Box office: minimal. This sort of film was more a calling card than a revenue raiser, and never broke out of the alternative, indie circuit. It did however develop something of a cult reputation, no doubt helped by Sharman moving on to direct The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Opinion

Awards

None known

 

Availability

The film has long been unavailable, but a heavily cut print (sometimes with time code) circulates amongst collectors.

The image is of poor quality VHS standard, and the sound isn't much better, but the usual rule - it's better than nothing - applies. It's a pity that the DVD release of The Night the Prowler included the short film Freestyle, rather than a release of Shirley Thompson. A cleaned up version should be more generally available, and might well renew the film's cult following.

The film occasionally enjoys archival screening revivals, and if your idea of watching a feature film is to watch a few clips, the ASO site has three here.

1. Source:

Director Jim Sharman put the script together with Helmut Bakaitis, a fellow NIDA student, then active in the theatrical scene, and with a lead role in the then recent Tim Burstall/David Williamson feature film Stork to his name. Baikatis has a short wiki here. Sharman's more detailed wiki is here.

In the interview with Sharman for Cinema Papers March-April 1979, he summarised the genesis of the film:

It was made quite impulsively and not without passion.

Looking back it is hard to imagine how it was made, but I remember being very impressed by a remark Joseph von Sternberg made when he passed through Australia to attend a film festival. Most people, as soon as they step off a plane, are asked: "Well, what do you think of Australia?" In Von Sternberg's case, he was asked, "Why doesn't Australia have a film industry?" His repy was, "I don't know; you have cameras, haven't you?" There is still a lot in that remark.

David Stratton in his 1980 survey of the 1970s revival, The Last New Wave, provides a more detailed evocation of how the flm came about:

In 1971, Jim Sharman was living in a house at Surry Hills and a neighbour was Helmut Bakaitis, his old friend from NIDA days. One evening they got to talking about the good old days of B-movies (Billy the Kid Meets Frankenstein) and bemoaning the fact that such films weren't being made any more. Eventually they decided to concoct a screenplay and they came up with a crazy mixture of psychological thriller, science fiction, fanatasy and fifties rock musical. In the end they were so happy with their achievement that they decided it would have to be made. Sharman, Bakaitis, designer Brian Thomson (who had worked on both Hair and Superstar) and Matt Carroll formed a company called Kolossal Piktures, and the film's miniscule budget ($17,000) was provided wholly by Sharman himself (he did apply to the Creative Development Branch for money, but when they told him a decision would take time, he decided not to wait but to go ahead.) He worked from a storyboard, employed David Sanderson to shoot the film (shoooting lasted three weeks) and stage actress Jane Harders to play Shirley Thompson. The film was made in almost complete ignorance of film techniques but, as Sharman now says, "being ignorant meant we had no fear".

Sharman points out that the film was made "impulsively and in some rage about prevalent attitudes which I felt to be suffocating any notion of change. Its springboard was the perennial provincial paranoia induced by working in a repressive environment. Instead of taking the obvious art house choice of a serious treatment of the subject, we concocted an absurd plot (flying saucers, cosmic warnings in Luna Park) in an attempt to construct a standard B-picture treatment where a superficial structure glossed a strong driving idea. It was actually seven weeks from the start of the idea to the completion of shooting." Setting the bulk of the film in 1956 was also a key decision: this was the year of the Melbourne Olympic Games, the Maitland floods, the Duke of Edinburgh's visit, flying saucer sightings, Suez, the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Rock Around the Clock. All these elements found their way into the film, with the aliens coming - not to take over - but to warn of ecological disasters. As for poor Shirley, trying to warn us all - well, in Australia in the mid-fifties, no-one could hear you scream.

2. Production:

Shirley Thomson was produced on a very low budget on 16mm using Kodak's base grade newsreel stock, Ektachrome.

As noted by Stratton, Sharman has said a number of times that he made the film on impulse. The team grabbed 16mm gear and other equipment from cheap sources, and went out and shot the film around Sydney. The result is a grab bag of visual ideas about the suburbs, lightly dressed up in science fiction guise (with the sci fi element done cheaply, no doubt for budget reasons, a bit like John Carpenter's beach balloon).

Shirley Thompson was the sole film produced by the team of Sharman, Matt Carroll, designer Brian Thomson (who would work frequently with Sharman in the theatre), and Helmut Bakaitis. They dubbed themselves Kolossal Piktures.

Sharman would turn to Luciana Arrighi for production design on his next foray into suburban lifestyles, the upmarket upper middle class eastern suburbs featured in The Night the Prowler.

3. Release:

(a) A Cult Movie is Born:

Even in its cut down form, Shirley Thompson didn't do any business, and it isn't listed by the Film Victoria report on Australian box office business.

It only toured the indie/alt/film society/university/film co-op circuit, but it did develop a cult reputation, even if in subsequent years, it became harder and harder to find a copy of the film.

Director Sharman called the result a "psychological thriller cum 50's rock musical/science fiction/fantasy movie … the only A-grade B-movie loathed by underground, art-house and commercial managements alike."

Sharman is quoted by ASO as remembering "What we did was pretty startling because no-one had made (an Australian film) in that kind of buccaneering way where you just picked up the camera and did it".

This isn't true - Giorgio Mangiamele had been picking up his buccaneering camera as long ago as the 1950s and making his own movies, including one, Clay, that he even managed to get to Cannes.

The Carlton push had also been picking up cameras for a few years by this stage, making a number of short features before Shirley Thompson, and thereby helping get the Australian film revival get on the move.

The mythologising is understandable, but it does give an idea of the fragmented film scene between the two major cities at the time.

It also fits the film's anarchic tendency to shove a finger at the film business, the audience and whatever else you've got.

Sharman was on safer ground when he claimed to have made the first Australian feature to point the finger at the boring world of conventional 1950s mainstream culture.

Shirley Thompson was made as an underground film and it developed a sort of cult reputation on a small scale. Curiously, one of the original criticisms of that film was over its setting in the 1950s. It was one of the first films to see that period as a watershed for a post-war generation. Since then, of course, nostalgia has accelerated to a point where you are expected to be nostalgic about yesterday. (Cinema Papers, March April 1979)

Set against the stultifying world of Prime Minister Robert Menzies long reign, the stated aim was the "mass production of B-grade movies, serials or anything else away from the treacherous art, underground, or worst of all commercial circuits."

The film-makers achieved their aim by producing a movie that received only fitful distribution, along with a cult reputation.

The show features a large amount of rock and roll,  led by songs by "Wild One" Johnny O'Keefe, fifties era memorabilia in terms of design and dressing, newsreel footage of the Melbourne Olympics, and many satirical shots at life in the suburbs in the 1950s.

It now seems as if it was done in a style much closer to the pop art and psychedelic schools fashionable in Australia in the late sixties and early seventies.

Director Sharman had already entrenched himself in the theatre deploying these styles in rock musical productions like Hair (Australian premiere 4th June 1969) and later Jesus Christ Superstar (Australian premiere 4th May 1972).

(b) The Revised Cut:

After the bewildered response to the film, Sharman spent some time fiddling with the cut.

As a result, the 104 minute (some databases say 105) cut is no longer available, and the re-issued 1976 version running 79 minutes is now the version available through conventional channels. An even shorter version - more like 71 minutes - circulates amongst collectors.

David Stratton, in his 1980 The Last New Wave, recorded Sharman's impression of the result of his re-working of the film:

After its initial screenings, Sharman cut twenty-four minutes from the film to reduce it to eighty minutes, and he thinks this final version is an improvement. "I deleted the rather self-indulgent borrowings from European cinema - extended tracking shots during meandering monologues." He is also surprised, looking back, that few people commented on how very pessimistic the film is: "It's about somebody being driven mad by their environment" - although there is considerable ambivalence as to whether it is a film about paranoia and madness or whether Shirley Thompson was sane and the people around her were mad. "I'm sure she was mad. Though with good reason. It's a film about paranoia as much as about anything else."

(c) Producer Matt Carroll:

Matt Carroll, who worked as the associate producer on the film, would go on to a long and successful career as a feature film and television producer and executive, beginning with Sunday Too Far Away, and including shows such as Storm Boy, Money Movers, The Club and 'Breaker' Morant.