After the recent surge of star-filled African travelogues, The Pennywhistle Blues is pleasant entertainment indeed. Keeping the camera on actual natives in a small suburb outside Johannesburg, director Donald Swanson has uncovered something more absorbing than rushing rhinos and garish headdresses. And unlike his Hollywood counterparts, Swanson has commuted a warmth to the film beyond the Zulu temperatures.
But most of Pennywhistle's charm comes from the easy movements and expressions of the citizens of Alexandra in the Union of South Africa. In a sense, every actor is an "extra" for none of them have ever appeared in a movie before. Except for the six "leads," the natives are following unaffected lives, and their reactions to the incidents of the slightly improbable plot come off with a spontaneity seldom found on the screen.
Quite aware of the potential of the locale and its personalities, Swanson has chosen a piece of ironical whimsey for his script. A wiry youth with the agility of a Douglas Fairbanks and the garb of a Broadway bopster steals a 40 pound donation from the coffers of the local church. After a Keystone cops chase he hides the money under a pumpkin soon to be found by a woman who needs cash urgently to feed her hungry children. When the thief shrewdly steals the money back, the whole village of Alexandra pursues him until he seeks out a plausible hiding place--first for the money and then for himself. Since the film's humor and poignancy rests with the actions and grimaces of the performers, the trite English dialogue and amateurish delivery is but a slight deterrent to the whole effect.
Punctuating each scene are two lilting jazz melodies played alternately on a pennywhistle and a guitar. Although the several musical numbers are unrelated to the plot, they provide a refreshing change in the pace of the entertainment.
But the quality of the film lies in Swanson's ability to catch the innate humor in his cast. Pennywhistle Blues takes the South African native out of a loin cloth and puts him into the Western clothes he's accustomed to wearing. It is a film in which the natives amuse rather than terrorize. With its inventive photography and a crew of natural performers, Mr. Swanson has come up with some sensitive anthropological touches that Margaret Mead never thought about. And nobody flings a spear all evening.