There has been a resurgence of interest in The Harder They Come (Jamaica 1972) this last summer, primarily because of the 60th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence from British colonial rule. I’ll try to come back to The Harder They Come at a later date but here I want to explore the second Jamaican film to get a UK cinema release, Smile Orange (Jamaica 1976), which seems to have been generally ignored in the celebrations in the UK this year (at least the ones I have been aware of). Smile Orange is an adaptation of his own play by the writer Trevor D. Rhone (who also co-wrote The Harder They Come). The play was first seen in the UK in 1972, I think, as part of the 10th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence promoted by the Jamaican High Commission and notably featuring Mona Hammond (1931-2022), the wonderful Jamaican actress who died recently. It was expected to play in several venues in London, but so far I’ve only found its opening in Acton Concert Hall. I believe it was revived in Birmingham in 2013. The Harder They Come film was also seen in the UK in 1972. In the case of both film and play, they were seen only in areas with a Jamaican/Caribbean potential audience as far as I can see from newspaper listings. The reason for this was probably that the film and play featured Jamaican patois and the assumption was that dialogue would be incomprehensible to other audiences. It is worth remembering also that The Harder They Come featured Jimmy Cliff in the lead and a magnificent soundtrack showcasing the best of early reggae – the soundtrack was later seen to have helped promote reggae to a larger audience in the UK. The new popularity and respect for the music might have helped the re-release of The Harder They Come in 1977 and the film of Smile Orange in 1978.
Smile Orange focuses on one crucial aspect of post-colonial reality for many ex-colonies and especially those in accessible tropical paradises – tourism. The origins in a stage play are all too evident in the film which takes place largely in a tourist hotel. The central character is Ringo Smith (Carl Bradshaw), a different kind of ‘rude boy’ who revels in his abilities as all-round conman and lothario. At the start of the narrative he sneaks out of his house in the hills, clearly attempting to escape his wife and her two brothers with whom he has major problems. Stopping on the way to have a brief encounter with an attractive young woman, Ringo eventually makes it to his workplace, a hotel by the beach. From this point, all the action takes place in and around the hotel. Ringo sets out to make as much money as he can by fleecing the guests, fiddling the hotel system and attempting to seduce any attractive woman he can find. There is a small group of characters including the kitchen manager Joe (Stanley Irons) as Ringo’s partner in crime and a new ‘bus boy’ Cyril (Glen Morrison). A new receptionist Mae (Robin Sweeney) and the assistant manager (Vaughn Crosskill) are the other two central characters in the cast list. Several of the hotel guests are picked out for particular stories but none are listed in the cast. I should point out that this is a Jamaican film, distributed in the UK by another independent company, listed as ‘Babylon Films’. Details on IMDb and elsewhere are hard to come by.
Monthly Film Bulletin in the UK described the film as a “dismally unfunny and excruciatingly overplayed farce”. But the few other reviews still available are more encouraging. Time Out recognised “a genuinely hilarious politicised farce; a satire on tourism” and the New York Times did seem to understand what the film might be about while warning readers of the general ramshackle nature of the whole production. I did see the film in 1978 in London but I remember little of that experience forty years later. Prompted to look for the film online, I found two copies, both poor prints with muddy sound, but still watchable. I can’t claim to have followed all the dialogue, partly because of the poor sound but also because of the patois which was once more familiar to me. My first observation is that there is comedy that works and there is a political discourse despite all the failings in the adaptation from the play. Most of the cast apart from Carl Bradshaw had little experience of feature films. The reviews at the time also raise other issues. Time Out suggests that Rhone has borrowed ideas from British comedies and picks out the Fawlty Towers TV sitcom as an example for British viewers. It did occur to me, rewatching the film, that it resembles Carry On Abroad (1972), except that it is told from the perspective of the hotel staff rather than the guests. There is the same mixture of ‘seaside postcard humour’ and casual sexism. But I also thought of later American comedies of the 1970s and 1980s since the guests are mainly Americans. I’ll come back to the sexism.
The most important point about the film is the difficult question of how do you respond to the realities of postcolonial exploitation? Jamaica in 1976 was still a poor country with a colonial hangover. Tourism promised at least a form of employment and a source of foreign currency. But it also meant a continuation of servile behaviour in catering to the demands of tourists. Ringo’s approach is to attempt to screw as much money out of the tourists as possible and to do this he declares that Jamaicans should learn to play a role and they should stick together. A feature of the script is the way that Ringo acts as a mentor for the naïve bus boy Cyril, teaching him how to wait tables and how to exploit rich white American women looking for sexual action. Ringo, of course, also plans to profit from Cyril’s attempts to carry though his teachings. But Ringo also risks spoiling his relationship with Joe (who does indeed cover for his colleague) by attempting to con him too. The other two characters picked out in the cast also refer to the social and political issues in Jamaica. Mae targets wealthy tourists who may offer her a chance to leave the island and move to the US. She is extremely attractive and is quite prepared to use her charms and her story provides a form of balance to the more common (in these kind of narratives) example of American women seeking ‘romance’ with the local young men. The assistant manager (who is in charge for the whole of the narrative) is a light-skinned Jamaican with speech patterns that suggest he has been privately educated. He is therefore presented as Ringo’s number one target to be duped. He also has a beautiful white wife who becomes a different target for Ringo and this is a surprisingly undeveloped part of the script.
The film has undoubted political commentary but it is weakly constructed. The intriguing question is why it has been ignored in some UK/US histories. This was the question I started out with. I don’t agree that it is simply a ‘bad film’. I did wonder if its sexism was the problem? The five or six women depicted in the film are mainly objects of comedy or are simply functional in presenting the comedy. The camera also appears fixated with the breasts and buttocks of many of the women. This is also evident in some of the other Jamaican films I’ve seen – but then it is also true of British and American comedies of the ‘seaside postcard’ type. I was a little surprised that the New York Times review notes that it is PG rated but: “It is quite harmless; there’s some talk about sex but no action”. I’m not sure this is true. The British Classification Certificate was an ‘AA’ (adults and children over 14), so close to PG in the US. Why then did Birmingham City Licensing Authority in the UK slap its own ‘X’ rating on the film? I suspect some pressure from ‘community leaders’. I think the film is worthwhile because of its social/political commentary, but should be critiqued for its sexism. Interestingly it has been followed by a much better film on similar themes, Heading South (France-Canada 2005), set in Haiti, based on stories written by a Haitian and focusing on American women flying to a hotel where they develop long-term relationships with local men.
Although it doesn’t contain the reggae hits found on the soundtrack of The Harder They Come, the music of Smile Orange is local, I think, and there are samples from the soundtrack LP on YouTube. Melba Liston and Marilyn Curtis (with the ‘Ringo Smith’ song) are featured. It is ironic that there are at least three tracks led by women in a film I’ve labelled sexist. I’ve seen a claim that the film is now something of a cult among second generation Jamaicans in the UK. There is a DVD available and the film was listed for UK digital download but I haven’t found it anywhere. If you are wondering about the title, I assume it refers to the colour of the hotel uniforms and the command that all the staff should ‘smile’ in serving the guests – a perfect summation of the postcolonial exploitation.