A key moment in Australian film is the screen debut of Evie Hayes in Ants in His Pants. An American-born comedian singer and actress, Hayes became a prominent figure in post-war Australian theatre and television. In Ants in His Pants, she has a supporting role alongside her husband, US vaudeville star Will Mahoney. This is the only feature film in which Hayes appeared.
Ants in His Pants is unusual among Australian films. Its production during 1939 spans the disjunction between the periods before and after Australia’s entry into World War II. The only Cinesound film that was not directed by Ken G. Hall, it was originally released as Come Up Smiling and had little success, before Hall re-released it in a different version as Ants in His Pants. Although the film went on to be profitable and was released in England, it has received little historical attention. Ants in His Pants is difficult to reconcile with contemporaneous Australian films such as the Dad and Dave series and George Wallace’s comedies. This is partly because it is an overt vehicle for Will Mahoney, whose American pronunciation is incongruous with the film’s local settings and his portrayal of a self-described Irishman named Barney O’Hara. Although Mahoney and Hayes had careers abroad before migrating to Australia, they spent much of the remainder of their lives in their adopted country.
As gym instructor Kitty Katkin, Hayes embodies some of the attractive aspects of inter-war American cultural imperialism: healthiness, assertive femininity, fashionable attire and dancing. As principal of the Beauty through Health School of Deportment, Kitty is recruited to train Barney for a boxing match but is unaware that her involvement is a smokescreen contrived by the unscrupulous boxing promoter. These shady dealings are overshadowed by Hayes’ vivacious performance, however. We are introduced to Kitty during a musical number in which she teaches a class of young women how “to handle your man” by demonstrating dance styles from France, Spain, Russia and Switzerland. Kitty then teaches the class to jitterbug, an American dance that was then at the height of its popularity.
Sporting a mini-skort and a matching bolero with polka-dot trim, Hayes brings to this Australian film the athletic vigour of modern American women. With a wardrobe of fashionable suits, trousers, furs and hats, she rivals the glamour of Cinesound’s prominent star, Shirley Ann Richards, who appears in the film as one of Kitty’s pupils. In contrast to Richards’ demure persona, however, Hayes’ performance is in the spirit of American screwball comedy. When she trains the hapless Barney, for instance, his athletic ineptitude is comically contrasted with Kitty’s energetic assertion. “You’re soft!” she exclaims, and issues an order to “Hit me!” When Barney mimes a feeble punch to her stomach, she reciprocates with a blow that knocks him off his feet. In exasperation, she abandons her ineffectual pupil, dons boxing gloves and proceeds to pummel a nearby punching bag.
Characteristically warm and charming, Hayes would star after the war in the long-running Australian stage version of Annie Get Your Gun. She was described in the 1950s as “the most popular box office attraction in Australian musical comedy”. Hayes would form part of the absorption of American influences into an increasingly international, post-war Australia. With Mahoney, she received an Australian government citation for raising money during World War II. She also performed on radio, hosted her own television program, The Evie Hayes Show, in 1962, and appeared on other variety programs, including Graham Kennedy’s In Melbourne Tonight and Johnny Young’s Young Talent Time (1).
- The following sources were consulted in the preparation of this article: “Melbourne Newsletter”, The Cairns Post 2 April 1954, p. 6; and Frank Van Straten, “Hayes, Vina Evelyn (Evie) (1912–1988)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hayes-vina-evelyn-evie-12610/text22715>.