The Kid Stakes gets the Jan Preston treatment

© Jane Freebury

Boogie woogie and blues pianist Jan Preston often has a twinkle in her eye. When she accompanies the early Australian silent comedy classic, The Kid Stakes, her music definitely means mischief. She has composed a score for this 1927 black and white film, and taken it on tour to appreciative audiences in Australia and New Zealand.

The Kids Stakes tells the exploits of comic strip characters Fatty Finn, his gang of pint-sized street urchins, and Hector the ‘champeen gote’ that is let loose before he can be entered in the goat derby, and finds his way into a garden of prize plants. All the while, the scruffy, brawling kids act out their own brand of dockland ‘gangster’ culture, in irreverent slapstick style.

This classic Australian silent film was a faithful adaptation of the Fatty Finn comic strip drawn by Syd Nicholls originally published in 1923. Nicholls was a prolific cartoonist and the designer of art titles for many Australian silent films, including The Sentimental Bloke and On Our Selection. He appears in person in The Kid Stakes’ opening scene, drawing a sketch of Fatty that comes to life line by line, until the boy asks ‘What sort of job do you have for me to do today, Mr Nicholls?’.

Six-year-old Robin (Pop) Ordell, son of writer-director Tal Ordell, has the role of the lead character in this live-action comedy. In the peculiar tradition of Australian nicknaming, Fatty is called Fatty simply ‘because he isn’t’.

The film’s intertitles are also the work of Nicholls. With expressions like ‘right oil’, ‘bonzer’, ‘wireless’ and ‘loop the loop’, they are a record of an Australian vernacular that has almost disappeared, and may need some explaining to the youngest members of the audience.

The Kids Stakes was Ordell senior’s one and only feature, though he was otherwise extensively involved in the entertainment industry, notably as an actor (Ginger Mick, and The Sentimental Bloke). He also plays a small part in his film, as the race commentator in the big finale.

Scenes were mostly shot on location around Sydney’s Woolloomooloo. One location in particular, the McElhone Stairs, features on several occasions. Its hundred or so stone steps once connected the grand mansions of Potts Point to the Woolloomooloo slums, but today the ‘Loo is not what is used to be in the 1920s. On one level, The Kids Stakes is a wonderful document of a Sydney dockland suburb, its people and the way they used to live.

The final goat-cart derby was filmed in Rockhampton, Queensland, as goat racing was (surprisingly) prohibited in NSW at the time. Hector the very plump goat that demonstrated prodigious appetite chomping his way through clothes on the line, posters on the fence, and hundreds of prize orchids and roses, makes a surprising dash for it.

There’s more than a touch of class consciousness in The Kid Stakes. The word ‘comrade’ appears in the intertitles and Hector’s escapade in the fine gardens of Mr Twirt’s Potts Point home extracts a bit of fun at the expense of privilege. It’s not that surprising to read that cartoonist Nicholls was a radical in his day who drew cartoons for the International Socialist, The Australian Worker and The Australian Seamen’s Journal.

Preston feels ‘a great responsibility’ to be true to the spirit of the The Kids Stakes, its setting in suburban Sydney, its characters and its irreverent, breezy comedy. Indeed, she has a portfolio of silent film live music compositions, including Raymond Longford’s On Our Selection, another class comedy of the Australian silent era.

As she plays her piano accompaniment, Preston is joined by percussionist Mike Pullman on a range of traditional instruments, including kazoo, tin drum, snare and plastic bags, as they bring Fatty, his friends and enemies, and the residents of the historic waterfront suburb back to life.

Published in the Canberra Times 13 June 2015