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The whole affair, indeed, is so middle-aged and fustian that a general torpor overcomes all
Happy Go Lovely
Happy Go Lovely
The Tales of Hoffmann
Lady Godiva Rides Again
The often-vaunted special relationship between Britain and the USA might have guaranteed a friendlier critical response to Associated British Picture Corporation’s Happy Go Lovely, produced by Marcel Hellman and directed at Elstree by Bruce Humberstone, who stood by his assertion that ‘there is no reason why typical American musicals cannot be made in England’; indeed, he was proud of ‘a musical in colour to challenge Hollywood’. Kinematograph Weekly played along, proclaiming it a ‘platinum-plated light entertainment, with a fascinating tartan finish [that] clearly outpoints the Yanks at their own particular game. No praise can be too high.’ This, of course, is nonsense, but also begs the question: why would a British studio want to make a musical that looked like an American musical? This seems to have been a long-ignored problem. Mr Humberstone explained that ‘my intention was to have a maximum of four musical numbers designed for simplicity with a Continental flavour. I believe large choruses have been overdone and, generally speaking, I think that the public is tired of them.’
The screenplay by Val Guest and experienced writer of intimate revue material Arthur Macrae, based on the ‘film story’ of F. Dammann and Dr H. Rosenfeld, could hardly have been less original, or indeed less appropriate for a film that would be coinciding with the Festival of Britain. For the MFB, ‘the story dwindles to a tedious backstage affair, eked out with corny lines and corny jokes’. Even the Hollywood-type set piece ‘Piccadilly Fantasy’ (a sort of British equivalent of Hollywood’s ‘Slaughter on Tenth Avenue’) was ‘enclosed within the conventional framework and pseudo-American, synthetic in style, lacking a spontaneous flavour’. As David Shipman recognised, the dancing star imported to head up this enterprise ‘took a risk and did a British musical […] dancing round a painted Piccadilly with young men in bowler hats (it was all on that level)’.
Nevertheless, Humberstone and his colleagues clearly hoped to turn a corner while being chronically hampered by the tiredest of plots about theatrical misunderstandings, a heroine longing for stardom, and a very so-so score from Mischa Spoliansky, with sparse musical numbers arranged by Angela Morley.
There were any number of young British composers who, given the opportunity, might have jumped at the chance to write the score
As Long as They’re Happy
As Long As They’re Happy
You Lucky People!
Value for Money
Man of the Moment
Oh … Rosalinda!!
Gentlemen Marry Brunettes
An Alligator Named Daisy
All for Mary
The mid-1950s selection of musical films painted several reasonably dismal pictures, of ambition overreached and misdirected (Oh … Rosalinda!!), a third attempt to make an Ivor Novello stage hit work on the screen with a famous Hollywood refugee and two leading ladies who couldn’t sing, a Norman Wisdom vehicle whose individuality was subsumed into the industrial regularity of his comedies, a pedestrian comedy taken from a West End play and saved only by its cherished star, and three comedies with vague pretensions to the zany, the first to appear being Rank’s As Long As They’re Happy, ‘a patchy but sometimes funny star vehicle’ according to Halliwell, ‘a feeble farce’ according to Shipman.
Kinematograph Weekly, ever ready to cheer, found its tunes ‘haunting and certain to join the hit parade’, a hope doomed to disappointment. The MFB thought Alan Melville’s tepid screenplay, adapted from Vernon Sylvaine’s songless play, ‘a script deficient in humour’ through ‘a sprawling series of “big” scenes, few of which come off. The basic joke […] has lost much of its edge, and is scarcely in itself sufficient to carry a film of this length.’ For Variety, the story was ‘told with full force in scenes which are reminiscent of the bobbysox demonstrations witnessed here in the past few years’, although it is unlikely that it made much impression on American audiences with its parade of British character actors and artists plucked from stage revues: Dora Bryan, Joan Sims, Ronnie Stevens, and Vivienne Martin, and ‘guest stars’ Diana Dors, the professionally grumpy Gilbert Harding (a blatant sop to the British television audience), and, in the last frame, the arrival of no less than Rank’s very own Norman Wisdom plugging his ‘Don’t Laugh at Me ’Cos I’m a Fool’.
Filming began swiftly; the stage production of Melville’s play had closed in May 1954. If it served any purpose, the film could be identified as a harbinger of the changing trends in British musical films, while keeping its mild but unmistakable middle-classness on the ground.
a rare glimpse of British Rail catering in the late fifties
The Golden Disc
The Duke Wore Jeans
A Cry from the Streets
The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw
Life Is a Circus
By any standards, Butcher’s tribute to the coffee bar culture of the late 1950s is a dismal piece of work that somehow made it to the screen despite battling its crushing budget constraints. Nevertheless, The Golden Disc has much to offer, and for those susceptible to its naïve charms, it remains vastly entertaining. It is a wonderful example of what we may call demi-choreography, rather than dancing as we know it. Naturally, hand-jiving plays its part, being especially handy as it doesn’t take up much studio space, a distinct advantage in a film in which characters are forever coming through suspiciously curtained areas that no doubt hide a multitude of production sins (it was produced at Walton studios by W. G. Chalmers). Director Don Sharp and Don Nicholl provide a screenplay based on a story by Gee Nicholl.
Dennis Lotis, a considerable catch for Butcher’s Film Services, obligingly starts the film off by singing Philip Green and Ray Mack’s attractive ‘I’m Gonna Wrap You Up’ to a theatre full of screaming teenagers. One Lotis enthusiast has ‘Denis’ (wrongly spelled) writ large across her top. Some time later, we see her again, with ‘Terry’ writ large on her top, a clear indication that allegiances in the pop world can swiftly shift, and that Mr Lotis may not be exempt from the effect.
These, after all, are changing times, in a cinematic era where the British public have already been offered The Tommy Steele Story and Rock You Sinners. Now young Terry Dene continues drawing what passes in Butcher’s Films for a crowd with Green and Mack’s restful ‘Charm’ and Len Paverman’s jaunty ‘Candy Floss’. Later, we move to the recording studios, where Phil Seaman’s Jazz Group perform his ‘Lower Deck’ complete with manic drummer, and Murray Campbell performs Green’s sub-Eric Coates ‘Balmoral Melody’. It falls to Sheila Buxton to have the most interesting number of all, Green and Mack’s ‘The In-Between Age’.
The romantic scenes between Neagle and Flynn border on the grotesque
Lilacs in the Spring
The Gay Dog
Lilacs in the Spring
One Good Turn
The year was half through before cinemagoers caught a glimpse of a British musical film. Some made do with Wilfred Pickles and Megs Jenkins repeating their husband-and-wife partnership in the Piccadilly Theatre stage production of 1952 in Coronet Films’ warm-hearted The Gay Dog. Not surprisingly, Pickles (a superb but consistently under-rated actor) won MFB’s praise for ‘an interesting character study of a hard-working miner, whilst retaining his customary mannerisms’. The musical titbit was Joe (Mr Piano) Henderson’s ‘A Long Way to Go’, sung by Petula Clark. Modest fare in a year lacking distinction, the best the British musical film could come up with was a patched-together half-hour musical revue, a supposedly lush theatrical romance based on the West End Anna Neagle vehicle The Glorious Years, and more Norman Wisdom.
Small but neatly proportioned, Harmony Lane is a curiosity worth exploring. Presented by Daniel M. Angel, produced by Morris Talbot, and directed by Lewis Gilbert (holidaying as Byron Gill), this miniature revue was made in 3D at Gate Studios, Boreham Wood. Visually, it’s a delight. The cartoonish design by Michael Stringer is tasteful and inventive, even beautiful when it presents its ballet segment, with the various ‘turns’ enacted in Harmony Lane’s shops, linked by a prancing policeman (Jack Billings). The Television Toppers welcome us with Billings’s neatly choreographed street dancing before lining up for their expected high-kicking routine, complete with performing dog. We see a snatch of The Skating Sayers before the Jack Billings Trio’s spanking tap number invigorates the display; these dancers are at the top of their game. Another notable ‘spesh’ artist, Jack Kelly, dazzles with some complex juggling, although the most impressive feat of his stage act (throwing a lighted cigarette up from his heels and catching it in his mouth) is missing. Gilbert sensibly moves the various segments on before we grow weary of them.
The friendly local bobby turns to the ‘Ballet Shoes’ shop for the central sequence of the picture. A young woman (Svetlana Beriosova, soon to be prima ballerina of Sadler’s Wells) is trying on the stock, helped by the shopkeeper (David Paltenghi). As he turns away to the window, she steps through a curtain.
When, at curtain call, Archie sings ‘Hide Your Face, Mum’ to the disinterested huddle in the stalls, it is as if the last trumpet has been blasted on a whole regiment of light entertainment
Let’s Get Married
Girls of the Latin Quarter
Climb Up the Wall
In the Nick
Too Hot to Handle
Anthony Newley’s gregarious career mined deeply into the British musical film industry in a year that offered no other major opportunities to young male artists beyond Tommy Steele in Light Up the Sky (barely qualifying as musical) and Adam Faith in Beat Girl, while Newley had three bites of the cherry: Jazz Boat, its sequel In the Nick, and Let’s Get Married. For some, Warwick Films’ Jazz Boat had its own identity issues, the MFB labelling it a ‘lively’ and ‘muddle-headed’ affair in which ‘The general farce and fantasy mix uneasily with the spirited caricaturing of David Lodge and Al Mulock (playing The Dancer) in the gang’, leaving Newley ‘a most ineffectual hero’ in ‘a juvenile crime story barely strong enough for a B-feature’. Newley’s biographer recognised the dichotomy, deciding that ‘its explicit and random scenes of violence made it reminiscent of Brando’s The Wild One, but in the midst of this were songs staged by Lionel Blair, turning the whole into a lesser West Side Story’. Equally confused, Kinematograph Weekly found it ‘a bit short on emotional appeal and suspense’.
Its beginnings were in a story by Rex Rienits, worked into a screenplay by John Antrobus and director Ken Hughes. Their hero, electrician Bert Harris (Newley), persuades a gang of leather-jacketed thugs that he is a cat burglar, so persuasively that he is brought in to take part in a jewel robbery. The screenplay skitters between moments of considerable violence, lingering shots of Newley smooching The Doll played by Anne Aubrey with sultry intensity, quirky humour, riotously choreographed sequences, punch-ups, and musical numbers by Joe Henderson that just about do service: a title song, the instrumental and dance number ‘I Wanna Jive Tonight’ played by Ted Heath and His Music in clubland, ‘Take It Easy’ (its lyric by Henderson and Hughes) as the gang moves through a street market causing chaos, and Newley’s especially mournful lament ‘Someone to Love’ as he wanders alone by the dockside.
There may be no more musical post-war musical film than Launder and Gilliat’s
The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan
Valley of Song
The Wedding of Lilli Marlene
The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan
The Beggar’s Opera
Always a Bride
The Limping Man
It’s a Grand Life
Trouble in Store
Associated British Picture Corporation’s Valley of Song began as a radio play by Cliff Gordon, a self-styled ‘storm in a Welsh tea-cup’, broadcast on the BBC Home Service in 1946 with no less than Ivor Novello (himself a Welshman) as ‘Llewellyn the Choir’. A BBC Television production with a ‘television script’ by Gordon and Michael Mills followed two years later, without Novello but with Rachel Thomas repeating her radio performance as the redoubtable Mrs Lloyd, around whom this gentle comedy revolves.
The problem erupts when one of the favourite but long-absent sons of Cwmpant returns to the village. Geraint Llewellyn’s reappearance is timely: the community’s choir master has just died, and Geraint (Clifford Evans) is unanimously applauded as his successor, preparing the choir’s annual performance of Handel’s Messiah for the national eisteddfod. All is set fair until he selects Mrs Davies (Betty Cooper) for the contralto solo. Unknown to him, that role has always been taken by Mrs Mair Lloyd, wife of the undertaker. Affronted and hurt to have been replaced, she walks out of the choir practice, and the battle lines between the Davies and Lloyd families (and so between factions in the village) are drawn. This is particularly difficult for young Cliff Lloyd (John Fraser) and Olwn Davies (Maureen Swanson), in love and wanting to marry.
As Kinematograph Weekly percipiently understood, the film ‘provides much genuine amusement without a hint of malice’. It’s a total delight, produced by Vaughan N. Dean and directed with obvious affection and an eye to every nuance by Gilbert Gunn. Much of its charm is due to its utter Welshness and the exhilarating comedy from such as Rachel Roberts as Bessie the Milk, an almost Wagnerian Boudicca of the dairy, hilariously roaring from house to house in her milk-float chariot as she dispenses village gossip; John Glyn-Jones as bed-ridden Ebenezer Davies, avid for his space-age comic; Madoline Thomas never missing a chance as muddlesome Auntie Mary. To add gravitas, there is always Mervyn Johns, repeating his radio role of Revd Idris Griffiths.
It’s the final recognition of Baxter as British cinema’s Henry Mayhew
Song of Paris
Sing Along with Me
Mother Riley Meets the Vampire
Meet Me Tonight
Down among the Z Men
Alternately romantic and farcical, played at speed with attractive musical sequences, Song of Paris is an effective exemplar of international relations enacted by its three leads: French Anne Vernon as cabaret star Clementine, Dennis Price as stiff-necked Matthew Ibbetson, head of Ibbetson’s Stomach Pills dynasty, and Russian Mischa Auer as Marcel, con-man pretender to the title of Comte de Sarliac. An Adelphi production filmed at Nettlefold Studios (budgetary restrictions prohibited a visit to Paris), the light-headed comedy, based on a story by William Rose, was produced by Roger Proudlock and written by Allan Mackinnon with additional material by Frank Muir and Denis Norden. The results have a fresh sense of fun about them, as when Mrs Ibbetson receives a bunch of flowers from an admirer: ‘Take off your things and I’ll put them in water.’ Its director John Guillermin pronounced it ‘a piece of nonsense’.
Romance between Matthew and Clementine blooms with her recommendation ‘Let’s Stay Home’ by Francis Lopez, but a well-constructed development gathers its skirts for a very funny finale when Marcel challenges Matthew to a duel. Jean Dréjac’s ‘Chanson de Paris’ evokes a Parisian atmosphere that finds perfect expression in Vernon’s lively, warm characterisation. The MFB judged that ‘Though it comes close to buffoonery at times [it does, wonderfully], both characters and presentation have life.’ Curiously, it also pigeon-holed it as ‘a comedy in the Wilcox–Neagle tradition’, which some may have taken as a negative comment. Viewers can be assured that its air of mischievousness is far removed from any Wilcox production.
Under the thumb of his disapproving, dominating mother (Hermione Baddeley on top form), Matthew is obliged to go to visit Paris, under strict instructions from mother that he will remember he is visiting a ‘sink of iniquity’ and must not stay the night. He does, after seeing Clementine beguile her audience with Rudolf Goer’s ‘Just a Song of Paris’. Almost at once, Matthew relaxes. Clementine follows him to London with Marcel, who means to marry her, and Matthew passes them off to his mother as aristocrats.
By and large, critical brickbats were aimed not at Sidney’s film or the performances within it, but at the musical itself
Half a Sixpence
Half a Sixpence
Red and Blue
Two a Penny
What was it about Gilbert (W. S.) and Sullivan (A.) that held Britain in their grip from the beginning of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in 1879 until the company’s closure in 1982? For 103 years, without pause except for a brief annual holiday, the operas of William Schwenck Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan (both became Sirs) were performed nightly (plus two matinees each week), filling forty-eight weeks of each year, in London, in the provinces, and frequently abroad. This is an unequalled achievement in theatrical history. The facts and figures and dates and locations and changes of cast and the noting of understudy replacements are painstakingly available in the extraordinarily detailed volume Record of Productions 1875–1961, with even more mind-boggling information in two loose-leaf supplements, respectively for 1961–66 and 1966–71. This exemplary documentation is pure oxygen for the Gilbert and Sullivan geek.
In 1966, the company was still in fine fettle. The Mikado remained the most popular work in the repertoire (from which some of the lesser-known operas such as Princess Ida and The Sorcerer had fallen away). Much travelled and no doubt physically shabby after its tremendous journeying, Gilbert’s Japanese fantasia was singled out by the management as due for refreshment: a rare decision, as many of the operas remained almost unaltered from their original productions. The new, spruced-up Mikado had the benefit of new décor by Disley Jones, as in his sylvan setting for Yum-Yum’s ‘The Sun Whose Rays’ in Act II, which perfectly framed Valerie Masterson’s liquid singing. In fact, Anthony Besch’s new stage production in 1964 refreshed the work rather than reimagined it, and it was this version that Stuart Burge filmed for BHE Presentations’ The Mikado, produced by Anthony Havelock-Allan and John Brabourne. It seems clear that Burge’s intention was not to adapt Besch’s production for the screen, but to film it as a ‘live’ performance, given ‘cold’, as it was re-enacted on stage at the Hippodrome, Golders Green, without benefit of an audience.
Why were aeroplanes being built in the studio where the put-upon Mr Ruggles was trying to make a major British musical film? Did the hammering never stop?
Under New Management
George in Civvy Street
I’ll Turn to You
Meet the Navy
The Laughing Lady
Walking on Air
The generous contribution of the Mancunian Film Corporation to the nation’s welfare had catapulted George Formby to prominence with two cheaply produced entertainments, Boots! Boots! (1934) and Off the Dole (1935), after which he never darkened Mancunian’s doors again. Although the company would not find another performer with so much potential, Mancunian went on building modest pictures around some of the most dependable comedic artistes of the 1930s and beyond, among them Nat Jackley, Norman Evans, Sandy Powell, Betty Jumel, Douglas Wakefield, Tessie O’Shea (like Formby, an enthusiast for a ukulele), and, most prominently, the uncontrollably anarchic Frank Randle. A regular repertoire of actors peopled Mancunian’s ‘Somewhere’ series begun in 1940 with Somewhere in England, followed by Somewhere in Camp and Somewhere on Leave, both in 1942, and, very much along the same lines, Demobbed (1942). Unashamedly offered as low comedy, the usually pantomimic proceedings were often flavoured with musical items provided by such middle-of-the-road purveyors of culture as husband-and-wife team Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth, and piano duettists Rawicz and Landauer; such acts threatened Mancunian productions with something similar to sophistication.
The first post-war product, Under New Management, proved that even Mancunian could come up with a neat title that might as well describe the times, had the advantage of a well-established, tightly knit team that worked almost as a family made up of people who knew what sort of pictures its customers wanted, and knew how to make them. At the helm was the untiring John E. Blakeley, not the finest of British film-makers but certainly one of the least pretentious. Nevertheless, the young Blakeley aspired to greatness, and under the umbrella of Song Films Limited produced twelve two-reel ‘Cameo Operas’ in the 1920s, the bravest of enterprises before film sound had been officially invented.
It was not known how long the craze for coffee would last, or how quickly the craze would grow
The Tommy Steele Story
The Good Companions
Let’s Be Happy
The Tommy Steele Story
Rock You Sinners
After the Ball
These Dangerous Years
Seen in the context of the mid-, approaching late, 1950s, the British musical film presents what can only be described as a bland response to the confluence of social change when the tectonic plates of domestic life were skidding beneath the nation’s feet. Change seemed to be everywhere, in a country that, remarkably, had only recently disposed of its ration books (meat was the last commodity to be restricted, in 1954), but the country’s severe housing problems, exacerbated by the slum properties that proliferated throughout the country during the Depression of the 1930s, and the war-shattered buildings that scarred London and other cities, persisted as a grim reminder of what the country had been through.
The social whirl so favoured and promulgated through to the end of the decade and beyond by Herbert Wilcox and Anna Neagle was so entrenched in the British cinemagoer’s expectation of what films were that nothing seemed to threaten its continuance, even though Mr and Mrs Wilcox did their bit in recognising that the landscape beyond the studio floor had altered. Their trick was to preserve the status quo by acknowledging, as if out of the corners of their eyes, shades of a perplexing modernity that they had no hope of representing. They spoke, as it were, for the Opposition, so desperately off-piste that they seemed to suggest that the star of their These Dangerous Years might even be a teenager.
Teenagers, of course, had much to answer for, having been invented (and in America, too) only in the mid-1940s before becoming an identifiable, viable reality in 1950s Britain. Their relevance to economic prosperity was recognised, apparent from an awakened interest in teen fashions in a society that for decades had forced British men to wear distressingly unattractive apparel. Trousers out, jeans in. The sales of sheet music (unrivalled since the age of the parlour song) declined as sales of gramophone records sold to teenagers soared. Throughout the country, the listening booth was a direct call to the teenage market, a place of refuge, sanctuary.
Audiences of the day would have been unaware of the performers’ emotional complications
Old Mother Riley at Home
Old Mother Riley at Home
Sweethearts for Ever
Here Comes the Sun
What Do We Do Now?
Already an experienced director of the often-shambolic Arthur Lucan comedies, with MP and Overseas behind him, Oswald Mitchell was rehired for British National’s Old Mother Riley at Home, produced by Louis H. Jackson and filmed in December 1944. The last of the wartime series before Lucan and Kitty McShane returned four years later with Old Mother Riley’s New Venture, Mitchell and George Cooper’s screenplay, with ‘original story and dialogue’ by Joan Butler, made no reference to the conflict that Britain had been enduring since 1939 beyond the appearance of some land-girls turning hay as Kitty and boyfriend Bill (Willer Neal in highly unsuitable correspondent shoes) stroll through an unconvincing countryside singing Percival Mackey and Donald O’Keefe’s ‘Let’s Pretend We’re Sweethearts’. Lucan’s biographer understandably labels this ‘a particularly nauseating duet between the “young lovers” […] The lovers in question were fifty-two and forty-eight years old.’
Neal had previously played in Overseas billed as Billy Breach. The Monthly Film Bulletin (MFB) decided that Neal ‘must, one feels, have been chosen for the part on the strength of a moderately tuneful singing voice rather than for any pronounced acting ability’. In fact, Neal had long been Kitty’s on-stage and off-stage boyfriend; the triangular relationship between Arthur, Kitty, and Neal would persist until Arthur’s death. Audiences of the day would have been unaware of the performers’ emotional complications; now, the complexity lends a certain prurience to what we have on screen. O’Keefe and Mackey also contribute the rousingly jolly ‘Cheer Up and Smile If You’re Feeling Blue’, performed by Kitty with her customary blankness and total lack of cinematic technique.
To herald the dawn of a new post-war era for the British musical film, direct from the bargain basement came the ‘spectacularly untalented’ American writer-director Frankland Atwood Richardson, who ‘perpetrated some of the most incompetent quickies of the 1930s’.
Richardson was responsible for the 1932 Don’t Be a Dummy and a steady supply of hastily assembled entertainments such as the 1945 Cabaret, and 1946 Amateur Night featuring the Borstal Boys and the grotesque gurning of comedian Ernest Sefton.
This was musical self-flagellation at its most intense
Can Heironymous Merkin …
Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget
Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?
What’s Good for the Goose
Oh! What a Lovely War
Goodbye Mr Chips
Almost certainly worthy of an award for the most unmemorable title of any British musical film since the beginning of sound, Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? is nevertheless one of the most interesting and daring. Whatever its qualities or lack of them, it cannot be criticised for its lack of originality if considered as a British musical film, but how original is it as a work per se? Not very. Newley’s theatrical apprenticeship involved his participation in John Cranko’s somewhat surrealist entertainment Cranks (1955), which experimented with varying degrees of success with the genre of intimate revue. An art form that has been more or less dormant since the 1960s, Cranko’s distinctive material must have had its effect on Newley’s development as writer and performer. Introspection featured largely in Cranks, and has been no inconsiderable part of Newley’s subsequent work. In partnership with Leslie Bricusse, his excursions into musical theatre thrived on it. Not only was Newley the writer and sole male performer of their 1961 stage musical Stop the World – I Want to Get Off; he seemed to throw the mirror of life back on himself throughout it. This was musical self-flagellation at its most intense. This autobiographical formula was used again for the next on-stage Newley-Bricusse stage musical, The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd and subsequently for The Good Old Bad Old Days. It is not accidental that the central figure of each of these was in effect Newley himself, a self-obsession that continued in, and was magnified by, the adventures of Mr Merkin in the complex and sometimes baffling screenplay by Newley and Herman Raucher.
Critics threw bouquets and brickbats. In the New York Times Vincent Canby reported that in this debut ‘as an all-purpose movie man he so over extends and overexposes himself that the movie comes to look like an act of professional suicide … as self-indulgent as a burp’. For Roger Ebert ‘the film is critic-proof […] The result may be more of a juggling feat than a directorial triumph, but it’s a good act while it’s on stage.
It may be that the cinema was never going to be the right place for Mankowitz’s affectionate inspection of the underbelly of show-biz
The Lady Is a Square
Make Mine a Million
Idol on Parade
The Heart of a Man
Tommy the Toreador
Follow a Star
Writing of the new Anna Neagle film, The Times considered that ‘The productions of Mr Herbert Wilcox are generally designed with considerable shrewdness to make the best of a variety of different worlds. Here [he] metaphorically speaking, marries Miss Anna Neagle to Mr Frankie Vaughan, thus ensuring the approval of the middle-brows […] and of the shriekers and swooners.’ Philosophical matters had never really come within the compass of Herbert Wilcox’s films; the lack of them probably encouraged their often enormous success at the box office, but there might be a suspicion of imponderable quandaries lurking within his productions, each to be dealt with as superficially as possible. His ‘serious’ films made with Neagle, with her impersonations of Nell Gwyn, Florence Nightingale, Amy Johnson, Queen Victoria (twice; having made one film about her, Wilcox enjoyed it so much that he made another), Edith Cavell, and Odette, suggested that the frothiness of their other work had been put aside for the duration. Throughout a long and distinguished career, Neagle’s professionalism and sheer hard work were unquestionable, and the British cinemagoer had kept her prominently at the coal face for thirty years.
As the 1950s drew to a close, the Wilcoxes needed to place themselves advantageously at the beginning of a new decade, fifteen years after the end of a war that had in no way damaged their progress. Looking over their shoulders, they must have realised the difficulties that awaited them. David Shipman has succinctly described the final phase of Neagle’s work in pictures after Lilacs in the Spring and King’s Rhapsody. Wilcox
then put her into an ‘up-to-date’ story, My Teenage Daughter, cruelly referred to as ‘My Stone-Age Mother’, and – in another attempt to re-interest the public – loaned her to ABPC to play a hospital matron in No Time for Tears. But it was: The Man Who Wouldn’t Talk played just a week in a small West End cinema and didn’t make the circuits; and many cinemas showing her last film The Lady is a Square, omitted her name.
If only the British musical film of so many past years had opened itself up to such joy as can be found here
The Rise and Fall of Nellie Brown
A Hard Day’s Night
Just for You
UK Swings Again
Rhythm ’n’ Greens
Mods and Rockers
Every Day’s a Holiday
Ballad in Blue
Ferry Cross the Mersey
The Rise and Fall of Nellie Brown
‘For sheer youth and vitality this film knocks spots off Richard’s Wonderful Life. It doesn’t advance the technique of film-making, but it should be an object lesson to the film world in what makes for genuine personality.’ For New Musical Express,
Scripted, slapstick and in thrall to Ealing comedies, A Hard Day’s Night is nevertheless the closest we have to a true-to-life document of Beatlemania […] whip-smart witticisms abound, stone cold Merseybeat classics arrive every ten minutes or so and the random plotlines […] only tend towards the ludicrous rather than diving in mop-top-first.
The MFB acclaimed it as ‘streets ahead in imagination compared to other films about pop songs and singers’. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s tempered enthusiasm decided that the film,
broken down into its individual components, is pretty poor and insipid stuff […] About the only good single aspect of the film is the songs, which are musically and verbally among the best that the group has produced. It is utterly slapdash, but it is consistent with itself. It works as a whole. It is coherent and has a sense of direction to it and a point.
On this occasion, director Richard Lester confronts his young stars with a considerable number of old codgers, fronted by Wilfrid Brambell, recently propelled to television stardom via the BBC’s Steptoe and Son, as Grandfather. Lester seems to delight in employing senior Equity members. These include the wonderful Edward (Eddie) Malin, the small-part player of many films perhaps best remembered as the steward who consoles a child during the sinking of the Titanic in Roy Baker’s A Night to Remember, and as the silent Walter in the television comedy series Nearest and Dearest, with Hylda Baker forever solicitous as to his well-being (‘Has he been?’). In sharp contrast to the apparently carefree attitudes of The Beatles, Alun Owen’s inventive screenplay has roles for other traditionally stolid older British establishment types: Deryck Guyler, Michael Trubshawe, and Richard Vernon.
The delicacy of Wilson’s work and the vivid affection for period nuance that Vida Hope’s direction instilled into it suggested that turning it into any sort of film might be like putting a butterfly into a killing bottle
The Boy Friend
The Boy Friend
And so to Ken Russell’s reworking of Sandy Wilson’s pastiche musical of the 1920s The Boy Friend. One of the most successful British stage musicals of the 1950s, this most modest and delicate of confections began life at the tiny Players’ Theatre in 1953. The delicacy of Wilson’s work and the vivid affection for period nuance that Vida Hope’s direction instilled into it suggested that turning it into any sort of film might be like putting a butterfly into a killing bottle.
There was general agreement that Twiggy made for a delightful Polly Browne, the heroine pupil at a school for young ladies in Nice. Those considered for the film through the years were Liza Minnelli (patently unsuitable), Julie Andrews (who had played Polly in the original Broadway production), and (surely not?) Debbie Reynolds. Twiggy, at the very least, breathed fresh air into the endeavour. She and Christopher Gable as boyfriend Tony Brocklehurst brought charm and lightness to their roles, alongside others often associated with West End revues, notably Max Adrian as Max Mandeville and Moyra Fraser as Mme Dubonnet. In fact, Wilson’s translation from stage to film set Wilson’s story at an uncomfortable adjunct as a show within a show in which two of Dubonnet’s girls, madcap Maisie (Antonia Ellis) and Fay (Georgina Hale), were now revealed as lesbians, although this relationship does not materialise in the finished film.
It was punctilious of Russell to use so much of Wilson’s theatre score, now rearranged by Peter Maxwell Davies and incorporating the title song and ‘Perfect Young Ladies’ introducing the students of Mme Dubonnet, ‘Won’t You Charleston with Me?’ performed by Tommy Tune and Ellis, and ‘Fancy Forgetting’ performed by Fraser and Bryan Pringle. There were two duets for Twiggy and Gable: ‘I Could Be Happy with You’, clearly reminiscent of Vincent Youman’s ‘I Want to Be Happy’, and ‘A Room in Bloomsbury’.
Here was the whole of life personified by unimportant little Littlechap, enduring an unsatisfactory existence of fornication and failure before beginning to realise what kind of fool he was
Stop the World – I Want to Get Off
Stop the World – I Want to Get Off
Secrets of a Windmill Girl
Just Like a Woman
In a dreary year for the British musical film, the filming of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s stage success Stop the World – I Want to Get Off probably counts as the dreariest, notwithstanding that it was assuredly the British stage musical hit of 1961; commercially, there was in that year no competitor. It was vivid with pretension, the story of one man’s life in an amalgam of song, dance, and that least urgent and most unloved of theatrical forms, mime. It declared itself allegorical and of social significance, with Newley as Littlechap, a sort of cross-breed Charlie Chaplin and Norman Wisdom, the star made up to look like an escapee from commedia dell’arte. Here was the whole of life personified by unimportant little Littlechap, enduring an unsatisfactory existence of fornication and failure before beginning to realise what kind of fool he was.
Much of Stop the World’s appeal had been visual, courtesy of Sean Kenny’s spectacularly ordinary set, a stark circus background with a group of female chorines doing for Littlechap what a Greek chorus had done for Euripides. The daring was that the show went back to theatrical basics while exhibiting bravery in what it set out to demonstrate. It was indeed something new in British musicals, which by 1961 were in a pretty deplorable state. The London and Broadway productions were notable successes, but Philip Saville’s decision to film a stage performance destroyed the spirit of it, serving up neither fish nor fowl. We seem not to know why Newley isn’t there to steer the piece into port; instead, we have his understudy and take-over Tony Tanner, a name that would have meant little to the British cinemagoer. His Evie is Millicent Martin, never associated with the stage version.