Film Greats: Fatty Finn arises as comic character zooms into film world

“2FC speaking … listen folk! The greatest race of the year is about to start.” It was a billycart derby. An excitable radio announcer was cheering on the goats and riders. This coveted race, critic Judith Adamson says,” earned the film’s racegoers title”.

By Frank Morris
The first Australian comic strip character to be elevated to film stardom was Fatty Finn. Chief kid-staker Fatty, and his gang of weedy lads, made their debut in Kid Stakes in 1927. “Kid Stakes brings back the Sydney of the 1920s,” said the defunct weekly-pictorial, Pix. “They were all on parade; the ragged urchins, the brawling and the free-fisted characters of the waterfront.” Aside from Fatty, there were Headlight Hogan, Bruiser Murphy, Algie Snoops, and many others, and Hector the goat.

Kid Stakes has been described as “a happy, irreverent piece of suburban Australiana with series of lunatic subplots”.

The film was shot entirely on location at Wooloomooloo, Potts Point and Rockhampton, Queensland, which was a region, at the time, teeming with goats.

Created by Sydney Wentworth Nicholls, Fatty first appeared in the Sunday News in 1923 as Fat and his friends.

Nicholls changed the title to Fatty Finn in 1924.

Kid Stakes, still hailed as “the film that everybody loves”, is today considered somewhat of a classic.

“The director, Tal Ordell, showed unusual skill in translating the new medium of comics into live action film, “writes comic buff and collector John Ryan in his book, Panel by Panel.

Nicholls never changed his style of drawing. For fifty years he went on drawing the strip in exactly the same 1920s style, till his untimely death in 1977.

Writes Ryan: “By the late 1920s Fatty Finn had become, perhaps, the most visually pleasing strip in (Australia).

“Nicholls” fine draftsmanship and experimentation with long sweeping panels and tall, column-like frames were complemented by vibrant colouring.”

In the late 1920s, Nicholls published the Fatty Finn Weekly. Containing eight pages and selling for a penny, it is today recognised as the first comic book published in Australia.

Fatty Finn was later published in the Sunday Guardian from 1934. When the Guardian folded the strip re-emerged in 1951 in the Sun-Herald. And there it stayed until May, 1977, when Nicholls died.

The comic was set in the 1930s when times were tough and kids wore hand-me-down clothes.

Monty Wedd, one of Australia’s leading black and white comic artists (Bold Ben Hall, The Making of Australia, Captain Justice), worked with Nicholls in the halcyon days of comic book publishing.

In an interview in 1980, Wedd told me that Nicholls “was a dinky di Australian”.

“He was a real Australian in every way. He just loved his country and everything about it.

“To my mind Nicholls was a legend. And Fatty Finn was the King comic of its day.”

(Fatty Finn was remade in the early 1980s starring Ben Oxenbould as Fatty, Bert Newton, Noni Hazlehurst, Gerard Kennedy and Lorraine Bayly.)

The Rocks -- Where old Sydney starts to unfold

Adapted by Frank Morris
Argyle St and Miller’s Rd, at Millers Point, are two of the highpoints of The Rocks. The Australian Gas Light Company built its Gas Works at Darling Harbour in 1841. Coal was used in the production of gas and less expensive than the oil and tallow people previously used. There were 181 households connected on the first night in Sydney and they were charged according to the number of gas outlets fitted in their homes. Meters were introduced later. Gas lighting was introduced to city streets in 1846 although it was fairly sparse in The Rocks, limited to street corners and in front of pubs. Electricity was available in Sydney from 1878 but only for commercial purposes in public buildings. Electric street lights were turned on in Sydney in August 1904 even though the gas lamps still burned. Electricity rapidly replaced gas as a form of street lighting as it was much cheaper and more efficient. Two electric arc lights replaced ten gas lamps, their brightness reducing the shadows to such an extent that muggings were less common. [The booklet, The Rocks at Federation, features C.H. Bertie Collection.] * The Rocks: The loss of old Sydney. Painting, drawing and photographs. Museum of Sydney. November 28, 2010.

SPECIAL: Classic Les Miserables coming to Australia -- but on screen

By Frank Morris
The classic musical Les Miserables will come to Australia as a screen production. More than 500 actors and musicians will perform in Les Miserables – the 25th Anniversary Concert. The producer, Cameron Mackintosh, will also screen in Europe, North America and Japan. In the production, Jenny Galloway plays Madame Thenardier and Matt Lucas as Thenardier. Thenardier, a steetwise urchin who slept surrounded by giant rats in his hideaway, protected himself, and others, by erecting a wire net around the bedding every night. He was the family villain. He was left to fend for himself. He developed compassion, loyalty, generosity and sacrifice. He gave his life at the barricades. If the screen production projects the same dramatic tension as the stage play I saw back in 1988, it will be toast the town. Here is a part of the review: Vive Les Miserables! … The spectacular and powerful production of Les Miserables does better that live up to it’s calling as not greatest the musical sensation of the decade, or the century … but of a lifetime. Forget the hype, Les Mis is a stirring, emotion-charged event; it will make your palms sweat and bring tears to your eyes. I’m not too ashamed to admit the fact … I wanted to jump from seat and join the fray, even though it would turn into a bloodbath. Les Mis is flawless theatre. * Screens at Greater Union, Event and certain independent cinemas from October 21. Tickets, $25.




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