Bushrangers in slouch hats – Hollywood imagines Australia

Above: Tim McCoy and Ena Gregory in MGM’s The Bushranger (1928)

Three more Hollywood films that deal with Australian Bushrangers, but all made in California.

The Bushranger, 1928

Directed by Chester (Chet) Withey. Script by Madeleine Ruthven, George C Hull, Paul Perez. Starring Tim McCoy, Ena Gregory (Marian Douglas), Frank Baker, Dale Austen. Produced by MGM. Silent.

MGM’s silent film The Bushranger was made in 1928. Completed as cinemas were rapidly being fitted out for sound, there was probably never much likely-hood it would be re-reun or survive for very long. From written accounts it appears to be very much like any other Tim McCoy Western, 60 minutes in length but set in Australia, apparently to add some variety to his usual cowboy fare.

Above: Ena Gregory with Tim McCoy as “Captain Hazard” but looking suspiciously like the cowboy he usually played. The Policeman at right may be Frank Baker. A still from MGM’s The Bushranger. (1928) Author’s collection. Note Ena’s shoes.

The film’s plot seems to contain elements of the familiar “convict story”- wrongful conviction in England – transportation as a convict, eventual redemption, very much in the style of For the Term of His Natural Life, which had been filmed in Australia only a year before. Sydney’s Sunday Times left us with this description;
” McCoy plays the role of a young English soldier who suffers transportation to Van Dieman’s land for his brother’s crime. He escapes from the settlement, and… embraces the life led by Starlight, Thunderbolt, the Kelly Gang etc. He appears on the highway leading to Ballarat… and by robbery under arms has a high price set on his head by the police. By a clever turn in the story, his father is appointed a Commissioner to inquire into the ineffective administration of the colony’s Police Department, and…is journeying by coach to Ballarat when ‘Captain Hazard’ holds up the coach — and thus father and son meet again!”

Not surprisingly, McCoy’s “Aussie hat” attracted derision in Australia. Worn by Australian soldiers in World War I with increasing pride – the slouch hat was and remains an Australian icon. McCoy’s over-sized version was described as “a movie absurdity” and a “ridiculous travesty” by the Sydney Sun. Only ten years after the War’s end, Australian audiences would have be acutely aware that McCoy’s hat was “wrong”.

Ena Gregory (using the name Marian Douglas) played Lucy, the bushranger’s love interest and Dale Austen her best friend. Austen, a former New Zealand beauty contest winner, made this one film in Hollywood before returning home. Ena Gregory, (an Australian who had been active in Hollywood since 1920) appeared in a few more films, then pursued other interests. Tim McCoy continued acting until the mid 1960s. The Bushranger appears to have been Chester Withey’s final film as a director.

A Final Reckoning, 1929

Directed by Ray Taylor. Based on an 1887 novel by George Henry. Script by George Morgan and Basil Dickey. Starring Jay Wilsey (aka Buffalo Bill Junior), Louise Lorraine, Newton House. Produced by Universal. Silent. 10 twenty minute episodes.

This is another lost serial. We are dependent on studio PR and a few reviews for an understanding of the plot. Fortunately, a short trailer for the series also survives. (See it here) . The film starred Jay Wilsey, a cowboy favourite, as Sergeant Wilson. Wilsey preferred to be known as Buffalo Bill Junior, although he was not related to the real William Cody. The plot concerned the map to an Australian gold mine, sent to the Whitney children in England by their father. (The children were played by Louise Lorraine and Newton House). The children travel to Australia, discover their father has been murdered by bushranger “Black Jack” but make friends with Sergeant Wilson. Each episode seems have revolved around Black Jack’s schemes to get the map.

Surviving photos and footage emphasizes that this was an action serial that moved along at a cracking pace. People are thrown over balconies, out of coaches and off roofs. (The IMDB has somehow found 50 stills from the serial that can be viewed here). Unfortunately, this serial also made the slouch hat mistake again, or even worse – for the Police characters were all in World War I Australian Army uniforms, their hats adorned with the Army’s Rising Sun badge. (It’s the equivalent of dressing nineteenth century Texas Rangers in US World War I doughboy uniforms)

That’s what a real “slouch hat” looks like with its “rising sun” or General Service badge. The badge reads “Australian Commonwealth Military Forces”
Sgt Wilson and the Whitneys, tied up in Black Jack’s lair. He is still wearing his slouch hat. Universal Weekly, April 6, 1929. Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

A Final Reckoning was shown as a supporting item for sound films – as sound systems were installed across the world’s cinemas. There is no evidence this serial was shown after late 1930 in the US and its final showing in Australia seems to be in early 1931. In the example, at left, from an Australian town, the first two listed items were sound films. The other three films were silent – there to bulk up the program. (From the Casino and Kyogle Courier and North Coast Advertiser Wed 4 Mar 1931, via National Library of Australia’s Trove)

Newton House and Louise Lorraine all struggled to find work in the sound era.

Captain Fury, 1939

Directed by Hal Roach. Script by Grover Jones, Jack Jevne, William C. deMille. Starring Brian Aherne, Victor McLaglen, Paul Lukas, June Lang. United Artists.

Why would Hal Roach decide Captain Fury was a suitable film to make in 1939? As Roach Studio biographer Richard Lewis West explains, in May 1938 Roach had ended his relationship with MGM and signed on with United Artists. This film was one of several action-adventures, made in financially precarious times for the studio, and directed by Roach himself. It was reported that Roach originally wanted to film Rolf Boldewood‘s Robbery Under Arms, but it appears he could not obtain the rights. What he hoped to make was a “rugged, romantic saga of Australian colonisation.”

Against a stirring musical prelude, the film commences with a map of Australia, then a wordy introduction tells us “The ink that records a nation’s progress comes from the life-blood of its pioneers.” The film is an anthem to a now dated concept of pioneer life – and it might just as easily be set in the US. Escaped convict Captain Michael Fury (Brian Aherne) rouses small settlers to defend themselves against the wicked big land owner, Arnold Trist (George Zucco). Like the experienced filmmaker he was, Roach used all the techniques he knew to ensure we are on the side of the small farmers and Michael Fury. In the end, compassionate British justice prevails, Fury is pardoned and order is restored.

Hal Roach, centre, in hat, on the set of Captain Fury. Silver Screen July 1939. Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

Former vaudevillian Billy Bevan and former boxer Frank Hagney were two Australians in the cast, in roles small enough to miss. Frank Baker advised on the film.

How did the film go down? The Los Angeles Times described the film as an exciting “Robin Hood” style of adventure. Not surprisingly, with its cowboy clothing, unfamiliar buildings and landscape, the film was treated with some amusement in Australia. Brisbane’s Courier-Mail quoted Frank Baker as saying “Australian audiences will probably get a lot of fun out of those bushrangers’ clothes, but they must realise that the picture is intended for the world market, and that the rest of the world won’t see anything wrong. If we had stuck to the real thing we would have had a drab picture.”

“ENOUGH to make Ned Kelly go out and stick up another bank – just to save his reputation.” Cartoonist unknown. Courier-Mail, Thursday 30 March 1939, page 10. Via National Library of Australia.

In his 1969 biography, leading player Brian Aherne suggested that Roach improvised much of the dialogue as the film went on. “He would point to us in turn, ‘Now you say this, you say that, and’ – pause for thought – ‘What could you say then?’ Aherne thought Captain Fury was “a farrago of nonsense” but was delighted by its success at the box office. Years later, he recalled being followed through the streets of Naples by crowds of small boys, crying “Capitano Furio!”

A teen-aged Briton called Richard Burton very much enjoyed the film. He recorded in his diary for May 28, 1940;” It was a jolly good show. Illustrating the liberation of the settlers in Australia by Captain Fury who was a convict…” Thirteen years later, and by then an up and coming actor, he starred with some real Australians in another “jolly good show” produced by Hollywood called The Desert Rats.

Not Banned!
Despite the controversy around Bushranging films, and the fear they would have “an injurious effect upon youthful minds”, all three of these films were released in New South Wales, which was infamous for banning the 1934 version of Stingaree. The Bushranger (1928) and Captain Fury (1939) were distributed throughout Australia, apparently without trouble. It seems the ban was applied remarkably inconsistently across Australia, and perhaps mostly to home grown films.

Further Reading

  • Text
    • Brian Aherne (1969) A Proper Job. Houghton Mifflin
    • Richard Burton (2012) Chris Williams (Ed) The Richard Burton Diaries. Yale University Press.
    • Richard Lewis West (2006) A History of the Hal Roach Studios. Southern Illinois University Press
  • Lantern Digital Media Project.
    • The Moving Picture World, May 12,1917
    • The Moving Picture World. June 30, 1917
    • The Moving Picture World. July 28, 1917.
    • Universal Weekly, 6 April 1929 A Final Reckoning
    • Silver Screen, July 1939.
    • Independent Film Exhibitors Bulletin, 1939.

Nick Murphy
June 2020

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