Friday, May 6, 2011

THE BOY FRIEND 1971


The decision to use a still from Ken Russell's "The Boy Friend" as the representative image for this blog's homepage was an easy one. From the time I first saw the movie in 1971 at age 14 at the Alhambra theater in San Francisco, it has remained, unchallenged in all these years, the one film that epitomizes all the magic, artistry and creativity that lie at the core of cinema's unique capacity to inspire dreams and feed the imagination.
Twiggy as the "Spirit of Ecstacy" hood ornament on a vintage Rolls Royce
A surprising, if not shocking, "G"-rated departure for the director who, during this time was making a name for himself (that name being “enfant terrible”) with his exuberantly impassioned, censorship-baiting, historical dramas; "The Boy Friend" is "based on" a 1954 musical comedy by Sandy Wilson that spoofed 20s theatrical fluff like "No, No, Nanette."  I place "based on" in quotations because, as imagined by Ken Russell, this adaptation of  "The Boy Friend" bears scant resemblance to its source material. In fact, it's really like no musical I've ever seen. Refashioning this precious little musical comedy (which afforded Julie Andrews her Broadway debut) into a scathingly trenchant commentary on show biz clichés, theatrical pretensions, thespian vanity, and Hollywood dream-weaving, Russell creates something akin to a cinematic Russian nesting doll: a spoof within a satire within a pastiche within an homage. A droll valentine to Hollywood musicals, it somehow manages to be terribly sweet and sprightly while also  being howlingly bitchy.
Above, from top to bottom, the wonderful ensemble cast of "The Boy Friend" : Twiggy, Christopher Gable, Glenda Jackson, Tommy Tune, Antonia Ellis, Barbara Windsor, Max Adrian, Vladek Sheybal.

The plot, as reworked by Russell is this: A seedy theater company in 1930's Portsmouth, England is putting on a production of "The Boy Friend" when they learn that the great Hollywood director, Cecil B. DeThrill (Vladek Sheybal), is in the audience. Onstage, amidst technical disasters large and small, members of the troupe attempt to sabotage and upstage one another for DeThrill's attention. Backstage, rampant egos, rivalries, and romantic intrigues compound the drama presented by the inexperienced stage manager (Twiggy) having to go on in place of the show's ailing star (Glenda Jackson!) who is laid up with a fractured ankle. Throughout (in large-scale set pieces), DeThrill imagines what his film version will look like, while, in turn, the cast members project their personal wish-fulfillment fantasies onto the material they're performing. Whew!
The striking of archly theatrical poses serves as a device to distinguish the stage acting from all the insincere play-acting going on backstage

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
"The Boy Friend" just may be the first deconstructionist / auteurist musical. Ken Russell rather brilliantly takes an innocuous, sweet-natured musical — with nothing more on its mind than idealized nostalgia — and uses it as a vehicle through which to explore the themes of the demythologizing of popular art, the artifice of romanticism, and the passion of creativity; the very themes he returns to in film after film. The way in which Russell turns his lens on the glamour images of 30s Hollywood (as popularized in its musicals and the promise held forth in their romantic clichés)--and contrasts these with the  shabby dreams and unglamorous realities of a tatty theater troupe, makes "The Boy Friend" a cheerier, but no less piercing , thematic companion-piece to those other Depression-era masterpieces of deconstructed Hollywood myth: The Day of The Locust & They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
In this musical sequence, Maisie (Antonia Ellis) attempts to convince movie director C.B. DeThrill that taking her to Hollywood with him would be no gamble...if you get my cruder meaning.

All in Fun? - The elaborate recreations of Busby Berkely-style production numbers evoke the escapist entertainments of the past. When fantasy was king and Hollywood was known as the Dream Machine
The more humdrum reality
"The Boy Friend" is such a fun movie that it is easy to overlook the fact that Russell rather ingeniously uses Hollywood musical  clichés to comment on the way in which these Depression-era escapist fantasies fed (and mislead?) the penny-ante dreams and illusions of the populace. This is years before Dennis Potter would cover similar territory in the BBC TV drama, "Pennies from Heaven."

PERFORMANCES:
A true ensemble piece, "The Boy Friend" is one of those rare films (like "Young Frankenstein") where everyone is so perfect in their roles that you can't single out an individual performance. Like many directors in the 70s, Russell often worked with the same actors, creating a kind of film-to-film repertory company. "The Boy Friend" was my first exposure to Ken Russell so the pleasure of seeing gloomily dramatic actors from "The Devils" or "Women in Love" exhibiting such gleeful dexterity in singing, dancing, and comedy, was  a pleasure I had to experience in reverse. Quite deservedly, Twiggy received above-the-title billing and was promoted heavily on the film's release, but the movie is full of sensational actors.
There's No Business Like Show Business: The entire cast of "The Boy Friend"
Standouts: Max Adrian as the beleaguered company manager; the wonderful Murray Melvin...looking as if he hadn't aged a day since 1961's "A Taste of Honey"; my personal fave, the beautiful Georgina Hale; that pint-sized, scene-stealer Barbara Windsor; and of course, the dynamo that is Antonia Ellis, who almost walks away with the film. Providing the film's splendid choreography and plenty of dreamboat appeal is former ballet dancer Christopher Gable. He and Twiggy display a genuine likeability and chemistry together, which is welcome since their scenes are the anchors of sincerity necessary to stabilize all the cuthroat boat-rocking of the other characers.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Ken Russell's films rarely cease to dazzle the eye. In "The Boy Friend" the meticulous period detail of Shirley Russell's ingenious costumes and Tony Walton's witty and breathtaking set designs make for one eye-popping experience.
Sur Le Plage
Jellyfish perform a sand-dance while starfish sway in rhythm!
I'm sorry, but this is just brilliant. I don't know what kind of mind would think of such a thing, but I wish I had one just like it
Perfect Young Ladies- An example of Shirley Russell's keen eye for period costuming
Another peerless Tony Walton set design
 The late Shirley Russell (Ken's first wife) designed the costumes for every Ken Russell film from"Women in Love" to "Valentino"

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
What played a significant factor in my early fascination with "The Boy Friend" was that I was unfamiliar with the work of Busby Berkeley at the time. Sure, I watched a lot of old movies on TV, but I had an elder sister who tended to monopolize the channel selector - she hated musicals and had a penchant for "black & white-shoe" pictures (her name for 50s teenage-delinquent movies. The "black & white shoe" sobriquet, a reference to the compulsory 50s accessory of saddle shoes). Consequently, I grew up with a vast awareness of the entire Mamie Van Doren oeuvre, but little knowledge of cinema choreography. I've since seen almost everything Busby Berkeley has had a hand in, and though I wouldn't have thought it possible... not after seeing Carmen Miranda cavorting amongst a sea of oversized bananas in "The Gang's All Here"... but in "The Boy Friend" Ken Russell, as some critic must have certainly noted, really manages to out-Berkeley, Berkeley.
My lasting favorite and the most beautiful sequence in the film is the number that takes place atop a giant gramophone turntable. It's a homage to a sequence in "42nd Street" and it's an absolutely smashing piece of filmmaking. I've never forgotten it.

"The Boy Friend" ranks top among my "comfort movies": those films I return to time and time again for that feeling of familiar pleasure they always guarantee. Like a child who giggles anew at the same “knock-knock” joke endlessly repeated, there is something so delightfully soothing about revisiting a beloved film that has the power to always cheer you up. Every known line of dialog, each dependable laugh, all the recognized pleasures…they reignite my sense of nostalgia (which has really increased now that I’ve reached the age of having something to actually be nostalgic about) and invite me to surrender to the long-ago-discovered charms of an old acquaintance and friend.

35 comments:

  1. YESSSSSS This is wonderfully insightful and brings out what I think are the film's rather brilliant qualities.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks so much for the comment and for visiting the blog! I've always thought that "The Boy Friend" was essentially misunderstood. It's fun, to be sure, but it's far from mindless escapism. It's a very smart movie built on some very clever ideas.

    ReplyDelete
  3. another hard to find movie!! but the good news is we'll soon be able to find it on amazon - may 27! can't wait to watch it....

    ReplyDelete
  4. The DVD business is crazy...you can readily find the entire Adam Sandler library on DVD but you have to wait decades for a Ken Russell or Robert Altman film to make it to the format.
    Hope you enjoy "The Boy Friend"

    ReplyDelete
  5. thanks! i will! i've actually been searching for it since i first saw your blog (the sidebar). i've had the same gripes with the dvd business - not only can you NOT find some really great stuff (try finding cavani's 'beyond good and evil'), you CAN get 'the leprechaun 2' on DVD AND streaming. UGH!

    ReplyDelete
  6. To KathryNova
    I'd never even HEARD of "Beyond Good & Evil" but I loved (or was disturbed by) "The Night Porter." Also, Dominique Sanda was every film schoolboy's crush back in the 70s so I guess I have to start scouring ioffer for that film now. Thanks for the inadvertent tip!

    ReplyDelete
  7. I first saw this film in 1972 when I was a 14 year old boy sailing to Bermuda with my mother on a Cunard ocean liner. It was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen. My first trip on a big ship - imagine watching movies in the middle of the ocean! The movie theater was packed when the film started, but by the end my mother and I were the only ones left. I've never forgot the thrill of seeing this movie - I've been in love with it ever since.

    According to this
    http://youtu.be/3FSVwAudhkU
    its been remastered and is now available on DVD. Finally.
    (I just stumbled across this info. yesterday. I wore out my VHS several years ago.)

    Thanks for your great post.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thanks so much for visiting my blog. I envy you your first viewing of "The Boy Friend." Sounds pretty exotic! Glad to hear from someoen else who fell in love with this film in adolescence. Thanks for the link. I ordered my DVD copy the moment I heard it was available.
    It's about time!

    ReplyDelete
  9. I just happened to see The Boy Friend on TCM this weekend. I had never actually seen it, and had forgotten that I was obsessed with it when it came out. I guess I was 13 when it was released. I must have seen a Life magazine story or something with key images like the Rolls Royce hood, the overstuffed chair scene, the phonograph dance, the playing cards/ladder number. These were engraved in my head, but I had forgotten until Thursday evening. I don't know what would have happened if I had actually SEEN this film when it was released. I had been enamored with Twiggy from the beginning of her career. Seeing her again in this film, I was reminded of how I had merged her incredible face and physicality with idealized images of my 2 older sisters and at least 1 older cousin. And there they all were. I was also obsessed with the 20's and the Depression. I had almost forgotten about John Held, Jr. whose illustrations I could (sort of) imitate, and DID on numerous high school bulletin boards, posters and calendars. I had an argyle sweater (of dubious quality) that I wore happily for years. This was in upstate South Carolina in the mid 1970's. Again, I don't know what would have happened if I had actually SEEN this film in 1971 or 72. My best friend (and distant cousin) Nancy and I hosted a 1920's dance for the youth group at our Presbyterian church(!?) in maybe 1972, carrying obsession into the public realm and forcing it on other (mystified?) teenagers and adults. (We also hosted a 1930's Dance Marathon for the same group a year later.) So, finally seeing this film (I missed maybe the first 20 minutes) pretty much blew me away. I still love it all (as well as few other decades and centuries) and was happily astonished that it's such a good movie and so clever. It reminded me a lot of Mike Leigh's "Topsy Turvy" which everyone should also see. I could go on: the Erte references, Tommy Tune, the beautiful, smoky/flat cinematography, the mushroom scene. I have to stop, but thank you for your post and the opportunity to share.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hi Anonymous (I know...this Google thing makes it difficult to leave your name)!
    Thank you so much for sharing your memories of "The Boy Friend." Your response to the film echoes my own, and speaks to what I love about all film: its ability to and inspire dreams and provoke an interest and fascination with the arts and self-expression. Your statement "I don't know what would have happened if I saw it at the time" is one I have used in many instances referring to films I currently love so much that they probably would have made my head explode had I seen them during my impressionable adolescent years when I first became fascinated with them. I really enjoyed your memories and appreciate so much your sharing them with me here. They are the sort that represent, 100% of what this blog is about. You're lucky you got to see "The Boy Friend" in it's resorted, 138 minute length. In 1971, the American theatrical version was shorter by almost 30 minutes. Your post made me smile. I can SO relate. Thanks for reading!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Ahh, my absolute favourite film [that no one has ever heard of]!

    I was lucky enough to attend a screening of this in the theatre where it was filmed, and both Ken Russell and Twiggy came along and answered questions (such an amazing day).

    I hope you don't mind, but I have saved these pictures (just for personal use) as it's difficult to find any online!

    Thanks again for this post!
    :)

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thanks, "Little..."
    I am so jealous you had the opportunity to experience seeing "The Boy Friend" in that terrific theater and getting to see Twiggy and Ken Russell. Wow! I would have been so excited I'd have had a nosebleed or something. Always happy to hear from others who like this amazing film. As for the images, please feel free to use them on your blog. If it offers an opportunity for more exposure to this film, I'm all for it! Thanks for stopping by to comment! hope others visit your blog
    http://little-did-you-know.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
  13. I am a friend of both the young lady second from the left in photograph number 20 and her husband and I can tell you that she is just as lovely and charming today as she was in the film.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello, Tonbridge guy Wow! You know Caryl Little (as Dulcie, Twiggy's mistaken rival for Christopher Gable's affections) in "The Boy Friend"? That's fabulous! It's nice that her character was one of the sweetest of that theater troupe, but to have worked with Ken Russell on a film that at last seems to be finding its audience...well, she must have some wonderful anecdotes to tell. To use one of her expressions from the film: "How perfectly ripping!" Please pass on to her that I've always thought she had the cutest smile, and I'm so jealous that she got to be a dancing jellyfish! Thanks so much for writing.

      Delete
  14. Watched 'The Boyfriend' the other night and was so happy to see darling Antonia Ellis. She gave me my first job after doing my apprenticeship in hairdressing. I worked for her in Maddox Street. Love to track her down. Kathy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. She is wonderful, isn't she? I suppose she remained pretty visible in the UK, but here in the states I've only seen her in Ken Russell's "Mahler" and some Tommy Tune TV special from the 70s where the adversarial pair from "The Boy Friend" disco danced. What I wouldn't give to see that show today!

      Delete
  15. This is great - thanks so much. I recorded The Boy Friend a while back and just got around to watching it and was horrified that (BBC4 of all people) showed it cropped to 4:3 - seeing your lovely grabs is showing me how much I missed (nearly half the frame!!) I really must get to see the full thing soon!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, Andy...you need to see "The Boy Friend" on widescreen or at a theater. 90% of its appeal is visual!
      We in the US had a severely edited down TV version that literally cut about 50 minutes out of the film. It was like a commercial for "The Boy Friend." Thanks for writing!

      Delete
  16. Wow! So someone else who loves this brilliant film as much as I do!? Amazing write-up, you managed to touch on just about every aspect of genius in this movie, and there are so many!! Here's my very personal one, from a while back: http://retroactivecritique.blogspot.com/2009/05/my-alternate-reality-experience-with.html At the moment, I'm finishing up a 'condensed' edited version of the film, trying to bring it down to 20-30 mins because I've felt rather alone in my adoration of it, anyone I ever tried to share it with just did not have the patience to watch it all the way through for some reason. Since it is long (and I'm the one who can watch it over and over tirelessly) I figured this edit might at least allow more folks to see the sheer brilliance of Ken Russell's vision.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Klara
      I just finished reading your wonderful piece on "The Boy Friend" and feel I've found a kindred spirit in this case. Our initial exposure to the film couldn't have been more different, but the impression the film made on each of us has been near-obsessive. You even mirror my desire to dedicate your entire blog to "The Boy Friend"!
      I had always thought I was the only one who thought the film's original 2-hour cut was too short, so I was thrilled with the lengthier director's cut that came out on DVD. But like you, when I try to expose others to "The Boy Friend" nearly everyone finds it an embarrassment of rices: overlong and exhausting in it's spectacle.
      Thus, I think it's a wonderful idea for you to try to create a Reader's Digest version to share with friends. "The Boy Friend" could be quite dazzling in a "best of" format.
      Thanks for sharing your personal fondness for this film. I always get a kick out of it whenever I hear of someone surrendering themselves over to a film experience and letting it enter your heart and imagination. It's rare...treasure it!
      Thanks for leaving a comment and sharing your link.

      Delete
    2. Thank you, Ken! It is great to find a kindred spirit when it comes to such a unique and under appreciated film. And I have an update: I just finished the video, I'm just in the process of uploading to my YouTube channel. It came down to just under 30 mins. Couldn't bring myself to cut it down any more, and I managed to keep almost all of the best moments. There are so many :)

      Delete
    3. Hi Klara
      When you upload your video, please share a link, won't you? I'd love to see it. It must have been hard to settle on just 30 minutes worth of images! Thanks

      Delete
  17. It WAS tough, Ken -- it's all so charming, silly and beautiful! So I hope you'll like what's there. I think the quality looks great, and that's a major plus for such a visual film. Here's the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBGffWmnleo

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Bravo! I seriously don't know how you managed to do it, but you captured the essence of the entire film in a very seamless "best of" compilation that is sure to entice the uninitiated into exploring this marvelous film. In our ADD times, this might be the best advertising "The Boy Friend" could ever hope for. Very impressed, and not at all sure how you did it!

      Delete
    2. Wow, Ken, thank you so much! It was honestly more grueling than I'd expected! I'm so glad the effort proved worthy of a thumbs up from a such a genuine fan and devotee of The Boy Friend like yourself! Happy New Year!

      Delete
  18. I think I've already mentioned that Ken Russell is my favorite director. I could go on and on about this film, though not as eloquently as you. Great post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Thom
      I honestly don't think I knew about your liking Ken Russell, although, knowing your terrific taste, I would have taken it as a given. :-)
      I can't say enough good things about "The Boy Friend" and "Tommy"...Ken Russell was among the best!
      Thanks, as always!

      Delete
    2. I'm a bit of a fanatic about all of his films, so don't get me started! My faves are Salome's Last Dance and The Devils, followed by everything in between! Many years ago, when the internet was fresh and new, I had a website devoted to his work. These days, one of my favorite things to do is to introduce young people to his films. It always blows their minds!

      Delete
  19. I saw this film at an east side theater in New York during its initial release (and loved it).

    I remember that the when the musical numbers came on the soundtrack went to STEREO. I have never again seen a version where this happened.

    (A year or more ago it was screened at the American Cinematheque / Aero Theater in Santa Monica. It was in honor of art director Tony Walton who attended and talked about his work with Russell).

    Anyway, does anyone else remember a stereo version?

    Also, a British friend once took me Portsmouth to see the exterior of the Theater Royal where parts of the film were shot. So I'm a major fan.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Rosscompose
      Although I saw the film in its initial run, I would have gone through the ceiling had the musical numbers shifted to stereo! That sounds amazing! Whenever I recall that happening in movies of the 70s (That's Entertainment comes to mind) I always remember it as making the film feel like an event.
      I missed the Aero Theater screening of "The Boy Friend" but would have loved to hear Walton talk about his (considerable) contribution to this film. And to have seen the Portsmouth theater...well, that must have been fantastic. I wonder if anyone else HAS seen a Stereo screening of the film? I'd love to find out. When it opened in SF, it was sort of dumped into theaters and not given a proper kickoff.
      Thanks a heap for sharing your memories of the film.Always great to hear from a fan of this movie.

      Delete
  20. Hello Ken, The Boyfriend is also a big favourite of mine. It always makes me smile. It's wonderful to see the actors really enjoying themselves performing the characters of the theatre troupe, especially the most selfish ones. I love Antonia Ellis in this. She's like a mad dancing Chechire cat.

    I love how Ken Russell created a small world of nutty characters in the environment of that run down seaside theatre. I never get tired of the silly flapper dances, the costumes, the camp scenery and the very arch delivery of the lines.

    I've seen the film in its various lengths. First in a long version and then, to my horror, in a much abreviated cut that also seemed to be the most available. The long version was impossible to track down for ages but I finally got my hands on the Warner Brothers edition which is complete with two of my favourite numbers: "Nicer in Nice" and "I got the you don't want to play with me blues"!

    I am always amazed and bewildered that there are people who don't love this film. I try to understand why this can be. The film might be a bit too much but it can never be enough for me.

    Why wasn't it a hit?? Why didn't Twiggy's career take off after it? She is so sweet in and dances rather well in it, don't you think?
    Wille

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Wille
      That description of Antonia Ellis is PERFECT! I really enjoy this film a great deal as well, but some I have shown it to have expressed a feeling of being overwhelmed and worn down. So many musical numbers, so many of them full-on spectacles...I guess a little of Ken Russell can be a bit much, but a LOT can be hard to take.
      The version of "The Boy Friend" first released theatrically in the US was about 20 minutes shorter than the version released in the UK. When it aired on TV, they cut so much out of the already shortened film, i couldn't watch it. The version available on DVD today is so much different (and better) that the one I saw in 1971. More is not too much in this case.

      I've always considered Twiggy such an underappreciated screen talent. She certainly had a good run of theater projects, but I wonder, too, why she didn't take off after this. Some years later she appeared in an absolutely dreadful Tommy Smothers movie in which which she played a 20s flapper named Polly (as she is here), and she danced in that as well...but as I said, it was dreadful. it was shelved and eventually showed up on bargain bin DVDs.
      Happy that we have this wonderful record of her singing and dancing debut! Thanks, Wille!

      Delete
    2. Yes, you are right about the musical numbers being "full-on spectacles". That's why I love them!

      It's a shame that this isn't universally loved but most of Ken Russels films are an aquired taste. It's better sometimes not to show films like these to people who can't appreciate them...

      I had never heard of that Smothers film and I thought it couldn't be that bad -Twiggy's in it! But I suppose some films are impossible to watch for even the most open minded people!
      Wille

      Delete
    3. Well, if you ever get a chance to see the film it's titled (at least her in the US) "There Goes the Bride" and was released in 1980. Twiggy is the best thing in it, but she's hardly used at all. A real waste!

      Delete
  21. Thank you for this great article. I first came across The Boy Friend on Turner channel, looking for my usual dose of old MGM musicals, and the first time I was totally confused. Do they still make big tap musicals in the 70s? Without watching the first act of the movie, I didn't know how to string together all the scenes --- where is the audience, why doesn't Polly know her lines, where is the line between acting and regular dialog... But I could not change the channel, the movie was just charming enough to suck me in. It had a mad vibe of familiarity and crazed logic at the same time, like Alice in Wonderland and the over-the-top of the movie Brazil. Catching the movie again for the second time, I was able to finally understand the plot and characters -- this is a movie that you need to jump around the POV point of view of each character rapidly, as every lavish dance number happens entirely in that POV moment. So I guess the main reason why this fail to catch the mainstream is that it relied too much on a focused, intelligent audience with long attention span, the kind that are probably extinct. Anyway I enjoyed it very much, I am searching for more musicals done post MGM in the same homage style, and love to find more.

    ReplyDelete