Alvin Purple was the direct result of a change in censorship laws in Australia. The Commonwealth Minister for Customs, the late Don Chipp, had set up a classification system in late 1971, to try to move away from the practice of banning films outright. The new ‘R’ rating meant films could be restricted to people over 18. Alvin Purple was made to take advantage of that liberalisation.
Director Tim Burstall and Alan Finney of Village Roadshow had worked together successfully on Stork (1971), a film that pushed the boundaries of the contemporary comedy. Alvin Purple was made by their new partnership, Hexagon Productions, a joint venture between Village Roadshow, Burstall, and the producers of Stork, David Billcock and Robin Copping. The theme of censorship became part of the new film’s subject and a target for its satire, along with many other contemporary concerns.
Alvin Purple is a cheerfully sexist sex comedy, made at a time when feminism was a hot media topic. Its premise reverses the feminist polemic of men oppressing women – Alvin is the one pursued, a victim (albeit mostly a willing one) of a series of predatory women. He is victimised even more when he refuses sex. The repressed psychiatrist Dr Sort, played by Penne Hackforth-Jones, is a classic example of what was then called a ‘humourless feminist’.
The film’s most typical scene is a chase, usually with Benny Hill-style music – Alvin pursued by schoolgirls, or angry husbands, or women of all ages who rip his clothes off in the middle of Melbourne. Within the cheeky, larrikin humour, there’s a strong sense that Alvin fears women and possibly sex. The only woman that he really loves, he feels no sexual desire for – Tina, the friend, played by Elli Maclure. At the same time, the film was reacting against entrenched puritanical attitudes in Australian society. To some it was prurient farce; to others, it was exposing the repression that produced such prurience.
The film was hugely popular, partly because it makes fun of many powerful institutions (the press, the courts, marriage, psychiatry). The courtroom scenes show that no one in the room takes the proceedings seriously, including the judge, and that most would like to see sex on screen, given a chance. The film’s box office seemed to confirm that: Alvin Purple was the most commercially successful Australian film between 1971 and 1977. It took over $4 million, from a budget of just over $200,000.
Tim Burstall: ’Alvin Purple…was Australia’s first R-certificate movie. It is the film for which I’ve never been forgiven by the critics, and for which I am best known by the public. The public saw it as high spirits. It was a huge box-office success (we took over $4 million in the days when tickets cost $2.50). But to the critics it was “Carry-On Sex Mania”, “Soft Porn,” etc. Hexagon had merely hit on a lucrative sexploitation formula.’