Steele Rudd 1868 – 1935
- Steele Rudd 1868 – 1935
Steele Rudd 1868 – 1935
One of 13 children, Arthur Hoey Davis was a blacksmith’s son, born at Drayton, near Toowoomba, Queensland, on 14 November 1868.
In 1895 The Bulletin published his ‘Starting the Selection’, a short story in which Rudd introduces the characters in his legendary family, and sets the pattern for further adventures.
On his selection
‘Steele Rudd was not at all the large, exuberant humorist I expected,’ recalled Australian authorVance Palmer. ‘He was a modest, quiet-spoken fellow, with a way of fixing his brown reflective eyes on you as if what you were saying was quite new to him and very important. He was a little sardonic about the role of the funny man that had been forced on him. He hadn’t intended his Dad to be regarded as a comic figure in the beginning; he had merely set out to describe the experiences of a typical cockie family from the point of view of one of them. And he meant to rub it in to townspeople how hard life on the land was. “I don’t think comedy’s my line,” he said. “If I let myself go I’d be gloomier than Lawson at his worst.”’
Dad and Dave first faced the footlights on 4 May 1912, when the play On Our Selection premiered at the Palace Theatre in Sydney. How they got there and how they have stayed in our collective consciousness is a story of triumph and tragedy – triumph for Bert Bailey, who played the ubiquitous Dad on stage and screen and had written the play in collaboration with Edmund Duggan, and tragedy for Arthur Hoey Davis, the Queensland writer who had created the Rudd family and their legendary ‘selection’.
One of 13 children, Arthur Hoey Davis was a blacksmith’s son, born at Drayton, near Toowoomba, Queensland, on 14 November 1868. He grew up on his family’s selection at Emu Creek, left the local school before he was 12, and took odd jobs as a station hand and stockrider. At 18 he got a clerical job in Brisbane. There his interest in rowing led to a literary sideline: he contributed a column of rowing news to a Brisbane weekly paper. This necessitated a pseudonym. He chose ‘Steele’ as a tribute to the English essayist Sir Richard Steele, and ‘Rudd’ – as in ‘rudder’ – for its connection with boating.
In 1895 The Bulletin published his ‘Starting the Selection’, a short story in which Rudd introduces the characters in his legendary family, and sets the pattern for further adventures. In 1899 this and 25 later stories were published in book form as On Our Selection. By 1903 it had sold 20,000 copies. The follow-up, Our New Selection, was similarly successful. Retrenched from his job, Rudd determined to make a living as a writer, and he established the monthly Steele Rudd’s Magazine. He was also aware of his stories’ stage potential: in 1904 he started work on a dramatic version that he called In Australia. Alfred Dampier’s announced production of it never materialised.
In 1907 Rudd and Beaumont Smith, a journalist who had contributed articles to Steele Rudd’s Magazine, collaborated on a new version of In Australia. It was optioned by J.C. Williamson, but not produced. In 1908 Smith organised a reading at the King’s Theatre in Melbourne, the theatrical haven of Bert Bailey and Edmund Duggan. This seems to have been the start of an acrimonious split between Smith and Rudd. Smith claimed the dramatic copyright for himself, while Rudd submitted yet another version to Williamson, again unsuccessfully. In the end Bailey and Duggan reshaped the earlier Rudd/Smith On Our Selection and Rudd signed over the stage rights to Bailey for what turned out to be a fraction of their worth. His naivety robbed him of a considerable fortune.
Stoically Rudd rewrote his own version under its original title, In Australia, but, again, producers were not interested. Eventually, in 1919, E.J. Carroll paid him £500 for the film rights. Raymond Longford wrote the screenplay and directed a cast that included Percy Walshe as Dad and Tal Ordell as Dave. Their portrayals were sympathetic and realistic – a world away from the caricatures that Bailey and Macdonald had created. Walshe, tough, thin and sprightly, was far closer to Rudd’s original conception than Bailey’s portly, blustery know-all. This On Our Selection premiered in July 1920 and was so successful that Carroll immediately embarked on a sequel, Rudd’s New Selection. This time Longford and Ordell were back, but there was a new Dad, J.P. O’Neill. Longford’s partner, Lottie Lyall was cast as Dave’s sister, Nell, and was given plenty of opportunities to demonstrate her horse riding skills.
In 1986 historian and author Richard Fotheringham discovered a copy of In Australia, or, The Old Selection in the Australian Archives. It was subsequently published and has been produced commercially as The Old Selection. In 1991 George Whaley created and directed a musical version, The Selection, for the Melbourne Theatre Company at the Arts Centre Playhouse – but this retained very little of Rudd’s original. Peter Cummins had the Dad role and Ben Mendelsohn played his son. Peter Best supplied the music and lyrics.
Steele Rudd’s second play was Duncan McClure. Its genesis was a story called The Poor Parson, published in 1907. The ‘selection’ setting was familiar, and the eponymous hero, an ebullient Scots settler, was the counterpart of Dad in the earlier stories. Rudd himself financed a series of amateur performances in the Toowoomba Town Hall in August 1915. The play’s allusions to the contemporaneous tragedy in Gallipoli moved audiences deeply, and just before opening night, one of Rudd’s sons enlisted.
Duncan McClure was received benignly, and Bert Bailey obligingly bought the rights and the sets. By the time he produced it attitudes to the war had shifted, so a sub-plot involving a German spy was excised and references to the war all but disappeared. What remained was a broad bucolic farce. With Bailey in the lead and its title expanded to Duncan McClure and the Poor Parson, it premiered at the Theatre Royal in Sydney on 5 August in 1916. Audiences liked it – but it was no On Our Selection.
Rudd’s next dramatic project was Gran’dad Rudd, an adaptation of a series of stories published asGrandpa’s Selection in 1916. The grandfather of the stories is a mean spirited bully, but by 22 September 1917, when Bert Bailey portrayed him at the King’s Theatre in Melbourne, he was the same old Dad that audiences loved, albeit a generation older. It was revived at the Grand Opera House in Sydney in 1923. With its title relieved of its annoying apostrophe, the play was filmed by Ken G. Hall in 1935.
In 1927 Rudd restarted Steele Rudd’s Magazine, and in it published a new series of stories called The Romance of Runnibede. He sold the film rights to an American producer, Frederick Phillips, and used one of the stories as the basis for the screenplay. He also invested heavily in the production. Not only the producer, but the director and the star – Eva Novak – were also American. Novak had previously starred in the 1927 epic For the Term of His Natural Life. The Runnibede shoot was dogged by inefficiency and bad luck, and the film turned out to be a box office disaster. Rudd lost most of his money and the Great Depression did the rest: he was virtually destitute.
There was some relief in 1928 when William Anderson produced The Rudd Family, with Edmund Duggan as director and star. The play had its origins back in 1917 when Rudd had called it On Sibley Settlement. After it was rejected by J.C. Williamson’s in 1921, Rudd retitled it On Grubb’s Selection and organised an amateur company to present it in Toowoomba and Brisbane in 1924. Anderson’s production drew excellent houses, but, like most things theatrical, it withered once the Great Depression started to bite. Again Rudd was impecunious, living alone in Brisbane in a ‘sunless, cheerless’ room. He struggled with alcoholism and subsisted on a Commonwealth Literary Pension of one pound a week.
With E.J. Carroll’s help, Rudd managed to contrive some modest royalties when Ken G. Hall filmed Bert Bailey’s On Our Selection in 1932. In 1935, when its sequel, Grandad Rudd was released, Rudd was completing a new screenplay based on his autobiographical piece The Miserable Clerk. It was never filmed. Steele Rudd – Arthur Hoey Davis – died in Brisbane on 11 October 1935. A few months earlier he had been awarded the King’s Silver Jubilee Medal. His papers are scattered though five Australian archives.
Dad and Dave have, of course, survived him: the Bert Bailey films, the George Edwards radio series, the comic strips and the seemingly endless permutations on stage and screen. There are bronze statues of Dad and Dave at the Snake Gully Tourist Centre at Gundagai on the Hume Highway. At Drayton there’s a memorial cairn near the site where Arthur Davis was born. Nearby, at Emu Creek, the site of the family’s original selection, there’s a monument and a replica slab-walled, shingle roofed hut built by members of a rural youth club. There’s a Steele Rudd College at the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education (ironically, it was originally called the A.H. Davis College), and the Queensland Government sponsors an annual Steele Rudd Award for the author of a collection of short stories. It’s extremely doubtful that the destitute Arthur Hoey Davis would have appreciated the irony, but it’s valued at $15,000.
Frank Van Straten, 2007
Richard Fotheringham: In Search of Steele Rudd, University of Queensland Press, 1995
Richard Fotheringham: ‘Steele Rudd’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Photograph courtesy National Library of Australia