Westerns were all the rage after World War II.
Most were filmed within 30 miles of Hollywood, but some filmmakers thought that a change of scenery might stop the popular genre from becoming stale. Many of the Spaghetti Westerns made in Europe are well known including A Fist Full of Dollars (1964) and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966).
But the Meat Pie Westerns made in Australia that pre-date Spaghetti Westerns may be less familiar.
A good example is Australia’s first Technicolor film, Kangaroo: The Australian Story (1952). The film featured Hollywood stars Maureen O’Hara, Peter Lawford and Richard Boone, alongside an Australian supporting cast including Chips Rafferty and Bud Tingwell – all filmed in Port Augusta, South Australia.
Twentieth Century Fox believed the easiest way to make a Western in Australia was simply to swap the prairie for the bush, cowboys for stockmen, Native Americans for First Australians and bison for kangaroos.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple and they faced quite a few unanticipated hurdles at almost every stage of production.
For example, the weather was so hot one day that a tiger snake fainted and had to be revived with iced water halfway through a dramatic scene—or so the story goes. Meanwhile, the flies on set were so bad that they had to spray the actors with DDT using only a handkerchief to protect their faces. There was no workplace health and safety in those days.
Another problem was Australia’s post-war housing shortage.
There was nowhere to accommodate the cast and crew until the Premier of South Australia, (Sir) Thomas Playford, stepped in to assist.
“It so happened that housing facilities were soon to be built for an electric power project near Port Augusta,” Kangaroo’s American cinematographer Charles G. Clark said.
“The Premier purposely moved this building program ahead so that it would become available for our use. He also made it possible for us to obtain the construction materials necessary for our sets.”
They completed the 24 houses on the outskirts of Port Augusta in less than a month. The locals named it ‘Hollywood Park’, but the cast and crew renamed it ‘Zanuckville’ after their studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck. They knew which side their bread was buttered.
Each house had a lounge room, three bedrooms, a bathroom with a kerosene hot water system, a laundry and a toilet connected to a septic tank. The floors were covered with lino, not carpet.
As the star of the film, Maureen O’Hara also had air conditioning, an electric hot point, an electric jug and a Hills Hoist clothesline outside her backdoor.
“Whenever she can, Maureen O’Hara attends to all the usual domestic chores,’ the clothesline manufacturer declared in its advertising. ‘She was trained to be practical and, like many thousands of Australian housewives, selected the Hills Hoist Rotary Clothes Hoist for convenience and efficiency.”
Zanuckville’s most impressive building was the mess hall where everyone ate breakfast and dinner together. It was eighty feet long and twenty-two feet wide and built on stilts with a Baltic pine floor, walls consisting of Masonite at the bottom, flywire at the top and a canvas roof.
Next to it was the kitchen, fifty by forty feet, equipped with four oil-burning stoves, an eight-gallon deep-fryer and a cool store, twelve by ten feet.
The mess hall was also used for Kangaroo’s cast and crew’s Christmas and New Year parties and even the wedding of its Australian publicity officer, Thalia Lawson.
Lunch was usually served to the cast and crew on location in the bush. About ninety people would line up for, say, “heaped platefuls of crisp salads or beautifully cooked crumbed cutlets and vegetables”, followed by fruit salad and cream, washed down with iced fruit juice or milkshakes served from huge thermos flasks.
“All those with the company have put on weight and are brown as lifesavers,’ The News observed.
But, given that Kangaroo’s cast and crew were used to living in luxury in Hollywood, Zanuckville had shockingly few mod cons. They could cool off in the metal swimming tank, twenty-five feet round and six feet deep.
“Then some idiot named it “Polio Plunge,” and the inviting pool was little used thereafter,” one frustrated resident lamented.
But even more inconvenient was Zanuckville’s one telephone – located in a phone box on the main street, often with long queues of Americans waiting to call home.
Once the film had wrapped in early 1951, Elder Smith & Co Ltd auctioned hundreds of goods and chattels from Zanuckville, including buildings, kitchen appliances, motor vehicles and even “the bed that Maureen O’Hara slept in”.
More than 1,000 people attended the sale. “All goods were practically new and bidding was keen,” The Advertiser said.
However, most theatregoers weren’t as keen on the film. Most critics damned Kangaroo with faint praise.
B.G. of The Age, for example, said: “A second sight of the film only confirmed my impression after the preview – that Kangaroo is about the calibre of a Western – and not a particularly good one at that.”
But what distinguishes Kangaroo from most American Westerns of the era is its emphasis on a sense of place and overcoming adversity instead of non-stop action and violence.
As for Zanuckville, the settlement fell into disrepair after Hollywood left and in 1964, it was reported that those buildings still standing were sold off to be “converted into church halls and sporting club rooms” around the country.
Dr Groves’ latest book, Australian Westerns in the Fifties: Kangaroo, Hopalong Cassidy on Tour, and Whiplash, is published by Palgrave Macmillan and will be available from bookstores and online at Amazon.
Banner: Picture: 20th Century Fox