10-year-old Ben Oxenbould – a schoolboy “untainted by acting” – was chosen to portray the titular scamp from a famous comic strip which was published in Australian papers between 1923 and 1933, making a comeback in 1951 and appearing until the death of its Tasmanian creator Syd Nicholls in 1977.
The idea for turning the Nicholls’ comics into a movie came from writers Bob Ellis and Chris McGill.
Screen newcomer Oxenbould shared the film credits with another feature film first-timer, Aussie television stalwart Bert Newton who played Fatty’s father, John Finn, with Noni Hazelhurst as Mrs Finn, Gerard Kennedy in the role of Tiger Murphy and Lorraine Bayly as crime queen Maggie McGrath.
Set in the 1930s, the simple film revolved around Fatty trying to make “fifteen bob” – all that stood between him and the crystal set radio in the local pawnbroker’s, which would allow him to stay up all night and listen to Don Bradman “spiflicate” the Poms in the cricket tests on the other side of the world.
But there was many a slip ‘twixt being flat stony-broke and amassing fifteen bob, and with two bob fortunes ebbing and flowing, the story ran from one money-making escapade – including selling bottles and collecting horse manure – to the next losing bout with the despicable blue-jacketed flat-foots.
The gang wars between Finn and his weedy gang (and his dog, Pal) and his arch-rival Bruiser Murphy (Greg Kelly) and his gang of all the big kids – and his ne’er-do-well SP Bookie father, Tiger – were enjoyable childhood fantasies embracing itching powder raids, fixed billy cart races, homemade circuses, frog leaping contests and mishaps planned for the dopiest geezer in every neighbourhood – the night cart driver.
Supporting characters such as Tilly, Lolly Legs, S’easy, Snootle, Headlights and Skeet were as funny and two-dimensional as their names.
The film climaxed in a goat race with the gangs driving the goats from tiny carts harnessed behind. The crew discovered the hard way that goats apparently will not race in a straight line – everything from lady goats to cabbages was tried but to no avail.
Fatty Finn was produced by the Children’s Film Corporation which received a $120,000 grant from the Australian Film Corporation.
The movie was primarily filmed on location in the inner-Sydney suburb of Glebe, selected for the narrow back lanes and the workingman’s terraces where fathers struggled to make ends meet while their wives struggled to maintain face.
The production attempted to re-create the tone of the original comic strip, so the characters wore colours that came from an artist’s brush rather than a clothing store and lived in a world of “fighting fair” where the dirtiest word in the lexicon was “bum”.
The beloved Aussie children’s character had previously appeared in a film called The Kidstakes, which was filmed in Woolloomooloo, Sydney, in 1927.
Hubert ‘Fatty’ Finn