Like a time capsule of white Australian society in the 50s, They’re a Weird Mob shows the challenges faced by immigrants in a culture that will give anyone go, as long as they’re a good bloke.Nino (Walter Chiari), Italian immigrant, innocent and good bloke, arrives in Sydney to join his cousin’s Italian language magazine as sports editor. He arrives as the office is being dismantled after his cousin has fled after its first, disastrous issue. Nino is distressed but becomes quickly enamoured of the businesslike landlord Kay Kelly (Claire Dunne), whose father Harry (Chips Rafferty) owns the building. She shames him at his inability to repay his cousin’s debt, exhorting him to do as her Irish immigrant father had done a generation before and become a labourer if that’s all that is available. Good bloke that he is and erstwhile ladies man, he takes it as a challenge to get any kind of work he can in order to make reparation and win her heart.
When Nino answers an ad by gruff but friendly Joe Kennedy (Ed Devereaux), he quickly learns the very rough and ready trade of builders labourer. In an era before unions, work health and safety and technology, this means being handy with a pick and shovel and not faltering in the midday heat. Good bloke that he is, Nino soon wins the friendship of his fellow workers and is introduced to the leisure pastime of drinking a lot of beer.
Based on the book by Anglo Australian John O’Grady – writing under the pseudonym of Nino Culotta to add false authenticity – this 60s film by Brit Michael Powell is a who’s who of Australian actors from the big and small screens. There is a glimpse of Graham Kennedy playing himself, Jackie Weaver and Tony Bonner in ‘blink and you miss them’ bit parts and Jeanie Drynan decades before she became Muriel’s mother. It is also a chance to see the Sydney of 60 years ago, with undeveloped land and an opera house still under construction.
What is most interesting about this film, from a contemporary context, is its depiction of racism and sexism. The ugly face of racism is personified through a drunk man on a ferry (Keith Peterson), ranting at a handsome young Italian family and telling them to go back where they came from. Their lack of English makes them targets and signifies a lack of willingness to assimilate.
Putting the words into the mouth of a belligerent drunk softens the blow, making it the view of the extreme, not the norm. For everyone else, their racism is a thin and genial veneer, easily dispensed with for those who show willingness to adopt white Australian culture and ways. In this cinematic Australia, this seems to largely consist of using slang, drinking beer, working hard and being a bloke. Not much has changed in the past 60 years except the drunk man on the ferry now has a louder voice, given legitimacy by politicians and the media.
Gender representation, on the other hand, is shockingly parochial. Australia is clearly a world of men with women as barmaids, girlfriends and wives. The exception is Kay Kelly who is unapologetic about her business skills and aspirations. She is an anomaly though that must be brought down. She is told that she is sexless and too masculine, that she will be a real woman the day she is late for a business meeting because she is getting her hair done. And so she does, sauntering in late and simpering at the contractor who is rendered a giggling adolescent at her perfectly coiffed womanly charms. Sigh.
From a perspective 60 years later, we know that the racism that Southern European migrants faced was not benign. This film was made as the White Australia Policy, that had long barred non-European immigration, was effectively being dismantled. In the film we see one Asian face, the Chinese neighbour of the land that is the building site. He has no words and does not even rate inclusion in the credits but he seems to be a good bloke too.
When author O’Grady was revealed a few years after the books publication to not be Italian, there was not a great outcry. In reality this is how the Australia of the time wanted to see itself – willing to give anyone a fair go and not racist, just preserving a decent way of life. And the story hasn’t changed. We still see ourselves as ordinary battlers and ignore our oppression of people who are just like us.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.