Scorpion Releasing and the PICTURE SHOW MAN give us a picture of the bygone days of traveling silent picture shows in Australia with their new DVD.
Based on the autobiography of Lyle Penn (originally published as "Penn's Pictures on Tour" but republished under the film's title), PICTURE SHOW MAN is the story of Maurice Pym (John Meillon, CROCODILE DUNDEE) who travels in a horse-drawn van with his projectionist son Larry (Harold Hopkins, DON'S PARTY) and long-suffering pianist Lou (Garry McDonald, the Australia-shot remake of DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK) exhibiting silent films in small towns in the New South Wales territory. A most traditional "showman", Maurice refuses to upgrade to modern conveniences like a motorized carriage and electronic projection (preferring limelight) embraced by cowboy-hatted traitorous ex-projectionist turned rival P. Palmer (Rod Taylor, THE BIRDS) who is now poaching his territory. When Lou literally jumps onto Palmer's bandwagon, Pym and son seek out a new pianist and find one in amorous piano tuner Freddie Graves (John Ewart, RAZORBACK). On the road, Palmer repeatedly shows up Pym, and his stubbornness eventually has Larry yearning to strike off on his own (pursuing his father's fantasy of settling down and founding a picture house); but the advent of talking pictures (which Pym dismisses as a "passing fad") could mean the end for their livelihood and gypsy lifestyle.
Although a comedy, PICTURE SHOW MAN is more of a prestige drama – with soft-focused cinematography by Geoff Burton (WIDE SARGASSO SEA) and sets and costumes by PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK's David Copping and Judith Dorsman, respectively – than a laugh fest. It doesn't really succeed at eliciting pathos for Pym as the representative of a dying tradition, but Meillon's performance is appropriately blusterful (Taylor gets preferential billing above the title but has little to do apart from turning up at odd points to needle Pym). It's more of a road movie made up of vignettes, including an extended one in which Pym and Freddie try to compete with Palmer by recruiting a broke, drunken magician (Patrick Cargill, HELP!) and a mindreader (Jelena Zigon, THE DARK SIDE OF THE SUN). Ewart's Freddie provides some comic interludes as he romances widows who need their pianos tuned while Hopkins and Sally Conabere (ALVIN PURPLE) – as Lucy, the daughter of landowner Major Lockhart (Don Crosby, THE CHANT OF JOHNNY BLACKSMITH) – play the young lovers (and provide some skin in a bathing sequence). Judy Morris (THE PLUMBER) has little to do as Lucy's aunt but demonstrate her dance skills. Peter Best (CROCODILE DUNDEE) provides a jaunty title song while Meillon sings "Tap Tap on My Window" a few times onscreen when the films experience technical difficulties. Grant Page (STUNT ROCK) is credited as the film's stuntman.
Scorpion's dual-layer disc features an attractive although uneven progressive, anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen transfer. The image is often softish (and not always dreamily so) and some edge enhancement appears to be part of the master, but the colors are frequently lovely even in some of the more subdued settings. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is in good condition. Extras reproduce the Australian DVD package starting with an audio commentary featuring production manager Sue Milliken (who would later produce SIRENS) and actors Harold Hopkins, Judy Morris, and Sally Conabere. Milliken describes the film as part of the "golden era" of Australian filmmaking, with the end credits being a roll call of industry regulars, as well as producer Joan Long's creative funding solutions. The cast affectionately recall Meillon and Ewart, as well as the differences of vision between Long – who they think wanted to direct it – and director John Power (TV's THE TOMMYKNOCKERS). Milliken and the cast also share some chuckles over the continuity errors created by Hopkins and Conabere's nude bathing scene (the director assure her she wouldn't be seen topless, so the front views of her in the water are up above her breasts while the scenes shot from the rear have the water lower down her back). When the commentary is selected, the presentation is prefaced with a text screen citing sync problems since the track was recorded to a PAL master; as such, whenever the feature audio is audible under the commentary voices or during pauses, the voices are out of sync with the image. This is not really distracting since you're not really following the plot of the film while listening to the commentators' recollections.
Also included is "Return to Oz" (16:24), an interview with actor Rod Taylor. The actor recalls his start in Australian radio (also the background of Meillon and Ewart), and how it was a great training ground for actors since they would have several leading roles in different projects per week utilizing a variety of accents. He only started in one Australian film (KING OF THE CORAL SEA) before heading off to Hollywood (LONG JOHN SILVER was a US/Australian co-production). PICTURE SHOW MAN was the first Australian film he was offered upon returning home, and he was happy to get to work with Meillon and Ewart but a bit dismayed that he would be playing an American. He shares some amusing anecdotes about the shoot and his love of Australian film crews, as well as his feelings about Australian filmmaking's failure to compete internationally before and after that brief period in the seventies and eighties (he also feels that his then recent film WELCOME TO WOOP WOOP  was ruined by the distributors). The disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer (3:15), as well as trailers for the Australian films WINTER OF OUR DREAMS (with Bryan Brown and Judy Davis), THE LAST DAYS OF CHEZ NOUS (from MY BRILLIANT CAREER's Gillian Armstrong), and SHAME, as well as trailers for PAPER TIGER (with David Niven), Lina Wertmuller's BLOOD FEUD, WOMBLING FREE (a feature based on the British TV series), QUEST FOR LOVE (with Joan Collins), and Volker Schlöndorff 's VOYAGER with Sam Shepard (under its original HOMO FABER). (Eric Cotenas)
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