The film: Possum Paddock (1921)

Possum Paddock began as a stage production which opened at the Theatre Royal in Sydney on 6 September 1919. It enjoyed a run of seven weeks, then ran a further season at the Grand Opera House.

The popularity of the play was undeniable, however, critics displayed some reservations towards it. One critic was of the opinion that ‘had the script been submitted to the average metropolitan expert actor-manager or press critic, it would have been turned down without the least hesitation, due to the overwhelming amount of dialogue in proportion to the slight dramatic movement.’ Yet even he was forced to admit its success with audiences:

The old playhouse was uproariously rushed, eager holiday-makers tumbling over one another to get in and after the curtain had been drawn up their paroxysms of laughter would have put a circus crowd on the outskirts of the Never-Never to the blush! 1

Other reviews declared it was ‘exceedingly funny…the crowded house laughed and laughed, scarcely being able to breathe before it had to laugh again’ and that ‘its success was a foregone conclusion.’ 2 The critic of The Sydney Morning Herald, however, found the plot somewhat repetitious in parts. In relation to the comedy, critics appeared to be concerned with the more mechanical aspects of a production such as its length and the amount of repetition and dialogue.

Theatre Royal, Sydney, 1892

Theatre Royal, Sydney 1892 Photo: Albert James Perier

The ‘Australianness’ of the bush farce, however, was warmly received by audience members and critics alike. It was conceded that Possum Paddock was ‘beautifully and correctly staged’, describing the ‘vista of gum trees with their golden autumn tints on gracefully massed foliage’ and ‘the kangaroo and possum skins nailed up on the doors, or out to dry on fences with real kookaburras chuckling over the comedy from the roof of the woolshed.’ 3

The play’s director, Kate Howarde, was so enamoured by the public reception of Possum Paddock that she printed a letter in The Sydney Morning Herald thanking her audience for their interest and generous appreciation. Her sustaining thought, she wrote, was the very capable cast and ‘the absolute conviction that an Australian audience always has “time” for an Australian effort.’ 4 Howarde was a veteran of the stage and renowned theatrical entrepreneur.

She had first become associated with the stage in 1885 when she was just sixteen years old. A year later, she had organised her own theatrical company which toured New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Throughout her career, Howarde was a prolific author of vaudeville acts and stage-plays and remained active in stage production until four years before her death in 1939.

Like many film producers who borrowed themes from successful stage-plays, Kate ventured into film-making and borrowed from her own work. The screen adaptation of Possum Paddock represented her only foray into film production and it earned her the honour of being the first woman to be officially credited as the director of an Australian feature film. While some producers saw the opportunity presented by film to engage the sympathy of an audience by the use of camera angles, close-ups and inter-titles, Howarde’s attempt at film-making made less use of these techniques. The conventions of stage production were directly transferred to the screen.

Kate Howarde

The film, Possum Paddock, opened at the Lyric Theatre on 29 January 1921. Many of the stage cast were retained for the film and Howarde had hired the actor, Charles Villiers, to help her with the screen adaptation. Possum Paddock has unfortunately not survived in a complete form for viewing today. 5 Nonetheless, its characterisations, themes and narrative structure are still discernible for critical analysis.

The characters in Possum Paddock tend to dominate the film at the expense of the plot. Indeed, the emphasis placed on the homely bush life and characters of “Possum Paddock” render the plot of a pioneer settler battling to safe his land relatively insignificant. Like the play, the promotion and reaction to the film of Possum Paddock exalted the film’s all-Australian production and cast. Here was a story that was ‘Australian from start to finish’ and was described by one reviewer in the Sydney newspaper, The Sun, as a ‘good advertisement for local industry.’ The same newspaper included a short piece which related that everyone connected with the production of the film version of Possum Paddock remarked upon ‘the beauty of this country’s scenery.’ 6

Indeed, the scenery and photography of the film was found to maintain the Australian atmosphere well, from the kookaburras and the possums to the bad roads. Table Talk, the critical journal that was incorporated into the Melbourne Punch magazine, even found the film to be ‘redolent with the scent of gumleaves.’ 7

However, the scenery and production were not the only aspects of Possum Paddock which, in the eyes of critics, rendered the film distinctly Australian. It was the characters portrayed in the tradition of Steele Rudd’s comic sketches who revealed what was seen as the ‘true’ character of Australia. Andrew McQuade, as Dad, was typical of the ‘Dad Rudd’ character of On Our Selection.

Dressed in ill-fitting, paint-covered trousers and a cardigan with the buttons missing, he represented the gruff but good-natured pioneer of the backblocks. While he suffered droughts and famines battling on the land, he is always in good humour:

Dad forgets all about the cows and chickens and makes one dash for his daughter. All his troubles are forgotten for the time, but troubles come back – and Dad’s were no exception, except they never seemed to bother Dad. 8

He and his family typified the resilient bush folk who were seen as the backbone of the nation living ‘away out in the heart of our bushland, where smiles and misfortunes go hand in hand.’ 9

The Australia depicted by Kate Howarde in Possum Paddock was quite different to the Australia depicted by bush heroine films such as A Girl of the Bush. The difference lay in the comic treatment of the characters. The audience was invited to laugh at the homely, bush nature of ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ and particularly at the romance of their bumbling son, Bob with Anastasia. Audience enjoyment of the play reached a climax, we are told by the critic of The Sydney Morning Herald, when Bobby McQuade’s sausage stuck out of his mouth at an afternoon tea, until the united efforts of his brother and the girls tore it from his throat:

Then did the Theatre Royal stalls wave like a cornfield in the wind! It was a strange, weird spectacle…the people were rocking to and fro, digging each other in the ribs and slapping each other on the back! 10

The comic aspects of Possum Paddock removed it from the traditional characterisations of melodrama, as displayed in The Woman Suffers and A Girl of the Bush. However, melodramatic convention still dictated the behaviour of the heroine and the other main woman character of the film. The portrayal of these women was still governed by a standard melodramatic sub-plot involving Nancy and the unwanted attentions of the villain, and an unmarried pregnant woman who has suffered at the hands of the villain.

Next: The plot of Possum Paddock

Feature image: Promotion for Possum Paddock in The Sun (Sydney) 30 January 1921, p21

Show 10 footnotes

  1. The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 September 1919, p4
  2. Sunday Times and Sunday Sun in The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 September 1919, p4
  3. The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 September 1919 p.4
  4.  The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 September 1919 p3
  5. Although not assembled entirely in sequence, the copy of the film held at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra is substantially complete.
  6.  The Sun, 30 January 1921, p20
  7.  Table Talk, 31 March 1921, p22
  8. Promotion of the film in The Herald (Melbourne), 2 April 1921, p11.
  9. The Sun, 30 January 1921, p21.
  10. The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 September 1919, p4.

About Sara Cousins

I am a Melbourne-based creative producer and writer interested in storytelling across all media. I have worked in digital education for many years. I am particularly interested in helping people to create and share their own stories.