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They're a Weird Mob

Essay by Peter Krausz, reproduced from 100 greatest films of Australian Cinema with permission.

they're a weird mob
On Bondi: They're A Weird Mob
The tensions of the rich wave of migration to Australia after World War II were satirised and sanitised by the enormously popular adaption of Nino Culotta's (John O'Grady's) comic novel They're a Weird Mob. Using 'strine' as the basis for the satire, the Australian vernacular became a major bone of contention for Italian migrant Nino (played by noted European actor Walter Chiari), who experiences all the highs and lows of Australian culture. The story deals with Chiari, as a sportswriter, visiting Australia to work with his brother, only to find he has absconded leaving a trail of debts. Eventually he is won over by the people of the country, and decides to stay.

Made before the 1970s renaissance of Australian cinema by noted British director Michael Powell, and with a script by Powell and his longtime filmmaking collaborator Emeric Pressburger, They're a Weird Mob became a substantial commercial success in Australia and was successfully exported to other countries. The film combined the notion of Australia being the welcoming lucky country full of milk and honey (and jobs, women, etc) as well as an oddity, due to its strange corruption of the English language and its oddball customs. As an outsider, Powell was able to tap into this cultural phenomenon with enough hunour and tongue-in-cheek observation to satisfy both a local and overseas audience. Powell was a master filmmaker and a socially astute cultural observer and commentator with such notable films as Thief of Baghdad (1940), Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Matter of Life & Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948) and Peeping Tom (1960) to his credit. He became so enraptured with Australia that he returned to make Age of Consent (1969).

They're a Weird Mob features a cavalcade of Australian actors and entertainers, ranging from Chips Rafferty - the archetypal Aussie larrikin, to Ed Devereux, Slim deGrey, John Mellion, Tony Bonner, Barry Creyton and Keith Peterson, as well as Clare Dunne, Jeanie Drynan and Anne Haddy. A cameo appearance by the then very popular Graham Kennedy highlighted the intrinsic Australian humour of the period, as well as the ongoing rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne, and served as an early example of using iconic performers to establish and reference our cultural identity.

Powell located the film in many picturesque settings, including Bondi Beach, in a subtle way to promote Australia as a tourist migration location for the rest of the world. He also retained much of the novel, and the 'strine lingo' to capture the distinctiveness and underlying humour of this country.

Above all, the political aim to assimilate migrants from another country to adopt our ways underlines the intent of the story to increase migration, but only on our terms. Revisiting the film 40 years later provides and interesting reference point for the changing, or arguably static, nature of migration policy and who is or is not acceptable, developing an understanding that Australia cannot accept anyone who cannot accept our culture and customs; an intriguing snapshot of a country finding its way. The larrikin humour in the story predates the more outlandish representations to come in The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972) and Crocodile Dundee (1986).

There was a lot of goodwill attached to this film during production. Locations were made available without any major impediments; the Army loaded the producers an amphibious vehicle for the surf-rescue sequence, and actors commented on the fun that was had on set, despite Chiari's poor English (which actually suited his character).

When the film was released at the State Theatre in Sydney it broke a 37 year record of attendances and went on to similar successes across Australia. In many ways, this film was instrumental in developing more stories and increasing the number of films produced in Australia, leading to the 1970s renaissance of the film industry. Above all, They're a Weird Mob spoke to Australians in a way that was not insulting or patronising; indeed it told us that we are a distinctive country with a sense of humour, demonstrating the iconic and social power of a lively piece of cinema.

Peter Krausz
 
 
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