Pennies For Eileen

A strange little Eileen Joyce biopic from 1951 perfectly captures Australian values from a bygone era.

Faulkner was right about the past. The clues are small, bite-sized, imperfect. The monkey bars some council hasn’t yet replaced (playsafe-and-plastic); Patrick White words like yairs; someone who’s called their kid Barry; scallop pies; the neighbour who still insists on mowing his lawn every Saturday morning. To some, refuse from a cold, unreliable, lead-scented past. Fibro houses, three o’clock bank closing. But what if, after we’ve removed the asbestos, binned the Seekers, and given up on Australian music, plays and films, we’re left with a sort of, empty feeling. What if we forget who we are, or were? The 1951 black-and-white biopic Wherever She Goes was the only feature directed by British editor Michael Gordon. It told, and tells, the story of a young Eileen Joyce, one of Australia’s greatest pianistic talents of the mid-20th century. The story starts in Tassie. Young Eileen and her brother, John, live in the bush, pet kangaroo and all. There are Skippy moments, but no simulated twitching, thank god. Eileen is running barefoot through the scrub when she hears Daniel the welldressed swaggie (John Wiltshire) playing a mouth organ. Formulaic, perhaps, but we suspect this is the beginning of a long love-affair with music. Young Eileen was played by Suzanne Parrett, who never made another film. Her brother, John, was artist Russell Drysdale’s son, Tim. Cultural synchronicity. Ten-year-old Tim had flown to the West with his family on the way to London, where Drysdale, having just won the Wynne Prize for Sofala and the Melrose Memorial Prize for Woman in a Landscape, had a new exhibition opening at the Leicester Galleries in August 1950. Soon Mrs Joyce gathers her kids for their own journey west. They join husband-father Will Joyce (Nigel Lovell), who’s promised manna in the wilderness. Instead, they get a tent and a share of his strike-it-rich delusions. There are a few Back of Beyond moments with the mine truck. The accents are all strine, broad, except for Mrs Joyce, whose hopes of upward mobility dehydrate in the desert sun (although she does try to get the tent looking nice). We’re left with the feeling that she thinks she’s had to settle for the leftovers: Will Joyce as week-old bread. It’s all here: Australia as it was, sort of. A few details tacked on, for the Pommies’ sake, but nothing compared to what Mick Dundee did 35 years later. Mrs Joyce tries to convince Mr that things need to change. But, we find (and still do), Australian men don’t like working for a boss. They’re independent, proud, determined to live life on their terms. Mrs tells Mr: “You never were one to work for a boss, Will.” To which he replies: “I wasn’t, wasn’t I? Now, see here, I can work for a boss the same as the next man, and twice as hard if it’s to keep my family.” So, independence is one thing, but new shoes are another. Soon the family moves to Kalgoorlie, a tinsided shack with two rooms and a jar of jam for John to eat when his parents are out. Will has found another mine. His mate, Bob, keeps telling the Joyce kids there’s plenty of gold. It’s just a matter of finding it. “She’ll come good… I’ll have the finest string of racehorses in Kalgoorlie this time next year.” A touch of the Micawber, but more; the pioneer spirit: a belief the land will yield nit common-wealth. Too dry for grain, but nor for gold. That was the Promise, generally unfulfilled. A seed-burr caught in the bloke psyche. That fortune was just a day away, and only fools gave in. In the great gold pan of Australian optimism, Will keeps telling Bob: “There’s a bit of colour there.” Meanwhile, the kids are sent to school. John doesn’t see the point. On the way, he says, “Hope the truck breaks down half-way.” Eileen, though, has the look of destiny in her eyes. She daydreams through arithmetic at St Joseph’s Convent (always the `Joeys’ as a civilising influence), and eventually convinces Sister Augustus to give her piano lessons. The ending has already arrived, but we want to read the clunky script of these people’s lives. We know the real Eileen did well, and want to think it was (and is) because of the spirit of the outback, and its people. Now the film hits its straps. The desert landscapes are all Drysdale. A few black stumps, a pile of old iron, a poppet head, elongated figures leaning on wonky posts of pub verandahs. Blokes with beer. Someone singing a song, somewhere, words remembered from Dublin childhoods. Hope, sharing, and every man for every other man (and woman). No one having more than anyone else. Which is why the Joyces’ new neighbour, Mr Hallohan (Syd Chambers) donates a couple of chairs “to get them started”. At fi rst, Will’s too proud to accept them, but eventually sees the necessity. It’s not about sympathy, or anyone having more. Just a fair go. Which is what Mr Hallohan comes to represent. Later, when the Joyces buy Eileen her own piano, she practises night and day. Rocks on the roof. The Joyces go outside to fi nd Mr H standing, fuming. He says he can’t sleep for the noise. Will tells him to mind his own business, and instructs Eileen to go back in and play. Instead of calling the police or posting his bile on Facebook (or the 1920 equivalent), Mr H takes a deep breath, listens, and eventually says: “Every time me and the missus hear that we always stop and listen. It’s that pathetic music…” This is enough of a compromise for Will, who calls for Eileen to stop. But no, Mr H says, “Go on, let her practise will yer, she’s a keen little worker.” Will admires his neighbour’s geraniums and all is good. And there it is, Australia. Before we became convinced other things were more important than the people over the fence. Eileen soon works out how to raise money for sheet music. Playing her mouth organ outside the pub, the miners throw her coins. She joins the two-up, and wins. When Will finds out he’s livid. “If they’d gambled with you properly you’d have lost.” Pubs were bloke places. Only the trashiest types would let their kids in (despite Eileen secretly practising on the pub piano). A man has to have his pride. By now, Will has given up on Bob and his racehorse-dreams and their mine and taken a job which he regularly tells his wife (in a tradition that comes down to the present day) he really can’t stomach. Still, there is a feeling that most Aussies have always sensed the importance of education, and culture. Christmas morning. It’s been a stinker of a night. The Joyces have slept in the now-nearly civilised back yard. Someone, probably John, has hung socks on a fruit tree in anticipation of sweets. And the kids aren’t disappointed. Mr and Mrs take them inside, and there, newly-tuned, cleaned-up: the pub piano. This, it seems, is what comes from a man holding down a job. The chance for the kids to have something better. To be something better, perhaps. To rise above tin huts and bare feet and move into a world of endless possibilities. This is the promised gold mine. So, Eileen’s off and running, banging on the ivories day and night, until she sneaks into a piano contest. The manager, George Wallace, tries to throw her out, but his stage business is matched by hers. The small part didn’t offer the veteran much scope to improvise. “She sneaked behind my back,” he says, although, in truth, no one upstaged Wallace. He was nearing the end of his career, the only one of the three great Australian comedians (including Roy Rene and Jim Gerard) who built a career in film. He revived flagging spirits after the Great War, wrung his hands and lifted his eyebrows through the Great Depression, and survived the last gasp of vaudeville in the late `20s. His first film, 1932’s His Royal Highness, drew heavily on vaudeville traditions, and over the next 20 years he cultivated an adoring public that was eventually sold to Lewis through Stiller. Today, Aussie audiences laugh at very different gags. It’s been a slow, terminal drift. Eileen wins, of course. Then it’s a case of raising enough money to get to Perth for her studies. Again, the pub comes to the rescue. The miners buy a round for Eileen, but the publican still shouts 10 schooners. Then, the film collapses in a flurry of newspaper headlines and concert programs that fill the gaps, the actual Eileen is seen playing and the credits roll. And as they do, we’re left with the feeling that these were the only years that mattered in Joyce’s development. If Daniel hadn’t given her his mouth organ, if her parents hadn’t bought the piano, if the miners hadn’t dug deep, if Sister Augustus, even, hadn’t sweltered through dozens of Kalgoorlie summers to make it all happen. In the end, it wasn’t about the years at the Con, the struggle to find an audience, the overseas career-building. It was about the post-leaners, the schooner-swillers, the green-and-gold bakers (to me, the players of Nana Mouskouri, the watchers of Ted Bullpit, the mowers of Santa Anna). Going, going, gone. Like a 1951 classic no one watches any more.

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