…That Certain Thing Called “The Boy Friend”

15 Aug

Three years after the 1958 musical Gigi won a record breaking 9 out of 9 Oscars, including Best Picture, West Side Story earned a whooping 10 out of 11 including Best Picture as well.

The movie musical was a Hollywood staple throughout the 1930s, the 1940s, and the 1950s; however, by the 1960s, as film historians like to point out, the social upheaval of the times set off a change in the tastes of moviegoers who clamored for the likes of, say, Blow-Up (1966), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Darling (1965), Easy Rider (1969), The Graduate (1967), Midnight Cowboy (1969), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Suddenly, musicals seemed quaint, or so goes the theory. Certainly, there is ample evidence to suggest that the historians’ claim is solid, which makes it all the more ironic that the 1960s also saw more musicals win the Oscar for Best Picture than in any other decade–four in all–beginning with West Side Story (1961), on through My Fair Lady (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), and Oliver! (1968). Furthermore, these winners were all huge hits. The Sound of Music even soared to the number one spot on the list of Hollywood’s all-time biggest moneymakers, besting longtime champ Gone with the Wind (1939). Additionally, there were other great big musicals that made scads of money, earned good–if not uniformly great–notices, and achieved some level of Oscar recognition, including Mary Poppins (1964), The Music Man (1962), The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), and Funny Girl (1968). Still again, there is no use in denying that the there were some colossal failures as well: Dr. Dolittle (1967), Sweet Charity (1969), Star! (1968),  and Paint Your Wagon (1969) among them. Meanwhile, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and Hello Dolly! (1969)  are examples of film musicals that reportedly managed to earn spots among their years’ top earners while still being written off as failures due to their stratospheric costs.  Of course, all of these films doubtless have their admirers and have continued to stay in the public consciousness thanks to repeated viewings on TV and the advent of home video.  I know that Hello Dolly! is a huge personal favorite, a guilty pleasure if you will, and a major Oscar contender, but I digress.

It was into this confusing morass that dauntless British film director Ken Russell released 1971’s The Boy Friend, his frequently brilliant adaptation of Sandy Wilson’s 1950’s stage hit of the same name–but perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s backup: set in the 1920s at a girls’ finishing school on the French Rivieria, Wilson’s show is a parody of musicals from that innocent era before Oklahoma! (1943)–or even Showboat (1927)–in which the plots were barely more than agreeable reed-thin excuses upon which to lavish scores chock-full of hummable tunes along with splashy production numbers featuring leggy chorines in pretty costumes. In this case, the story centers on a lovesick poor little rich girl (Polly Browne),  a messenger boy, a dash or two of subterfuge, a case of mistaken identity, a pair of long lost lovers reunited at last, and a masquerade ball in which all misunderstandings are resolved and everyone lives happily ever after. Wilson’s show was a smash when it opened in England in 1953, and when it transferred to Broadway in ’54, it  provided a significant career boost to Julie Andrews and paved the way just a few short years later for her triumph as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. A 1970 revival starring Judy Carne similarly worked wonders for Texas born Sandy Duncan (in the showy role of Maisie), who not only earned a Tony nomination but also enjoyed a brief run as the “It” girl of television and movies.

Ken Russell's The Boy Friend: newly released on DVD from the Warner Archive Collection

Russell’s version ups the ante by turning Wilson’s original into a show within a show, that is, a movie about a second rate theatrical production unfolding in a dreary English town in which the frequently inept onstage antics are intercut with scenes of backstage conflicts. These desperate, strictly small-time, performers plot to sabotage each other in their bids to catch the attention of a famous movie producer; meanwhile, the Cockney assistant stage manager (60’s supermodel Twiggy in her leading lady debut) finds herself playing the role of Polly after the original star (deliciously tongue-in-cheek Glenda Jackson) suffers a foot injury.  In a 1971 featurette included on the recent DVD release, Russell is described as having three goals in translating the material from stage to screen: “a typical stage musical of the 20s, an affectionate salute to the cinematic musical fantasies of the 1930s, and a takeoff on all the backstage Hollywood musicals of all time.”   Happily, Russell achieves all of that and a bit more. Wilson, of course, provides the means to the first goal, and Russell plays up the stage show aspect by setting much of the action on an actual proscenium stage full of mostly flat cartoon colored sets and props while the actors over-enunciate and mug wildly as they play to the back row. The second end is achieved  when the visiting director (“De Thrill” played by Vladek Shayball) fantasizes about how he would restage the musical numbers for the silver screen, often to deliriously kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley effect. He’s not alone as at least two other numbers are grandly reconceptualized in the imaginations of their participants. Finally, Russell realizes his idea of a backstage musical with the framing device of the visiting director and the ensuing competition among actors, similar to Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland’s “Let’s put on a show” spectacles, while Twiggy’s unlikely, “You’re going out there as an understudy, but you’re coming back as a star” routine echos the likes of  Ruby Keeler in 42nd Street. Finally, the backstage drama is given a meta-kick by the inclusion of a love story in which Twiggy’s character–also named Polly–nurses a crush on her male co-star, played by actor-choreographer Christopher Gable.

The musical numbers in The Boyfriend are boffo; they never fail to excite me. If I could only list one favorite, it would have to be “I Could Be Happy with You,” a duet between Twiggy and Gable. The bit begins as a simple tap dance with accompaniment provided by a windup record player, and then it morphs into something much more thrilling in which the pair  twirl and glide across a giant record as it spins atop an equally giant turntable, Twiggy’s white chiffon contrasting with the disc’s shiny black surface. If that weren’t improbable enough, the two are then joined by a few dozen chorus girls wearing Art Deco metallic outfits with fan-like headpieces. An elaborate tap routine follows with intricate choreography and overhead photography. The scale of another rousing show stopper, “Safety in Numbers” simply has to be seen to be believed. No spoilers. Two other numbers highlight the dark side of Russell’s vision although they both serve up a few laughs in the process. In  the energetic “Won’t You Charleston with Me?”  scheming Antonia Ellis (as Maisie) furiously attempts to upstage her more than capable partner, Texas titan, Tommy Tune. Slow to catch on, Tune eventually snaps into action, giving as good as he gets. Similarly, in “It’s Never Too Late to Fall in Love,” knockout Caryl Little bumps and grinds her way all across the stage, leaving her partner (Max Adrian) flailing in a prop wheelchair.  As songs, both “Won’t You Charleston with Me?” and “It’s Never Too Late to Fall in Love” are catchy in their own right, but they are certainly given greater dimension when their light heartedness is underscored by the manipulations of the actors, and Russell does not back away from revealing the the desperation in their faces. These characters are so worn out by their bleak, small-time gig that they would rather take a risk and seize the day–even if it means failing or ruining the same chances for their fellow players–than make nice and share the spotlight. This tension is what gives the numbers their kick, so to speak.

"Now Twiggy, listen to me: you're going out there an iconic 1960s supermodel, but you're coming back a two-time Golden Globe winning movie star!"

In a year which also saw Best Actress winner Jane Fonda in Klute, as well as such nominees as Julie Christie in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and Vanessa Redgrave in Mary, Queen of Scots, or even iconic Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude, it would be hard to make a case that Twiggy was somehow denied an Oscar, or even a nomination, for her performance for The Boy Friend, so I won’t; however, she did win the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Actress-Musical or Comedy, besting Gordon and Sandy Duncan (Neil Simon’s Star Spangled Girl) in the process. She also won a Globe for Most Promising Newcomer.  Twiggy’s performance is utterly delightful–better than what the prejudice against models-turned-actresses would suggest, especially if said model-actresses are required to sing in their film debuts. Twiggy’s singing voice is sweet and clear. Sure, her delivery is tentative, but that quality actually works in her favor since her character is not a polished performer but rather a shy, wide eyed innocent thrust into a situation for which she is entirely unprepared. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the camera loves her. One of the most most charming things I think I’ve ever seen in a movie happens early on when she launches into the title tune while swaying to and fro in a rose covered swing. She also becomes radiantly alive when she’s backstage nursing her crush and singing old fashioned ditties, such as “You Are My Lucky Star” and “All I Do is Dream of You” to herself. For these interludes to work, Twiggy need not be a polished song stylist, she need only be emotionally honest and unaffected.

The Boy Friend was nominated for exactly one Academy Award: Best Music, Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score for the team of Peter Maxwell Davies and Peter Greenwall. Okay, fine, but what about the exquisite costumes by Shirley Russell (Mrs. Ken Russell at the time) and the magnificent production design by Tony Walton? Do I think it would have been grand for Ken Russell to have been Oscar nominated for this ambitious film? Absolutely. Is it a crime that he wasn’t?  Maybe. After all, he was named the year’s Best Director by the National Board of Review. He was also nominated by the Writers Guild for his screenplay. On the other hand, for members of the Academy to overlook Shirley Russell and Walton is maddening. Of course, Mrs. Russell has a wonderful mannequin in Twiggy, and she knows how to move beautifully in order to show the various gowns to their best effect, but of course, Twiggy is not the whole show. There are scads of fantasy costumes, and even some of the more low-key offerings are not without a witty detail or two, such as a black and white pullover sweater that features a martini glass, complete with an olive. Of course, both designers work in two realms: the obvious limitations of stage, and the unlimited luxury of surging imagination. Besides that giant record player, there’s a nifty bit in which an army of dancers appears to hover in front of an American flag, a feat achieved by a cleverly painted set of risers. Another choice bit of scenic design is the “Poor Little Pierette” sequence in which shades of blue, silver, black, and white work together to evoke a picture-perfect twinkly nighttime setting. Of course, credit for the film’s look also extends to cinematographer David Watkin.

In the DVD “making of” featurette, production designer Tony Walton describes how he was inspired to create the look of the “Poor Little Pierette” number by a collage made of “fabrics, and acetate, and paint, and silver paper” he found in a Portobello antique shop.

The Boy Friend was hardly a box office sensation when it was released. My guess is that moviegoers flocking to the likes of The French Connection (the 1971 Best Picture winner) and the X-rated A Clockwork Orange (a Best Picture nominee)–or even Russell’s own The Devils–simply couldn’t relate to a movie about an ingenue who gets a showbiz break and dances on a giant record. A tad too corny to be taken seriously, as it were; likewise, older audiences–and that includes Academy members–who grew up on easy-breezy family friendly musicals might have taken offense at Russell’s post-Modernistic sensibility as though he were making a mockery of the musical-comedy genre, and, by extension, the people who love them. After all, wasn’t Russell being a little nervy when he cast a leading lady with little or no acting experience and a voice far removed from the likes of songbirds such as Julie Andrews and Barbra Streisand?  Actually, my take is that the skill and artistry so apparent in The Boy Friend show Russell’s enormous affection for musicals as well as a desire to make them relevant to the era’s hip young crowd.  In contrast, in the same year, United Artists enjoyed great success with the big screen version of Broadway’s then longest running hit, Fiddler on the Roof: robust ticket sales, eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director (Norman Jewison), and three wins–among them Best Cinematography (Oswald Morris) and Best Music, Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score (John Williams). Of course, it is also easy to argue that Fiddler‘s success can be attributed to its more literal approach, moreover, the tale of Russian-Jewish peasants features a dramatic undercurrent that appears organic as opposed to the obvious contrivances in Russell’s  film. Also, as Fiddler was still playing on Broadway, it had undeniable built-in audience appeal. Even so, the following year director Bob Fosse’s widely heralded cinematic reworking of Cabaret  fared much better than The Boy Friend, earning a total of eight Oscars, including Best Director, Best Actress (Liza Minnelli), and Best Supporting Actor (Joel Grey); the movie was nominated for a total of ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Its eight wins still hold the record for the most Oscars awarded to a movie that did not also claim Best Picture (which went to The Godfather). What’s significant about Fosse’s Cabaret in comparison to Russell’s The Boy Friend is that Fosse similarly rethinks much of the original material such that with one exception all the musical numbers are relegated to the stage of Berlin’s seedy Kit Kat Klub, generally providing commentary–ironic or otherwise–on the action occurring outside the club. Furthermore, 2002’s highly successful, Oscar grabbing big screen transfer of Chicago is conceptually similar to both The Boy Friend and Cabaret in that the musical numbers spring from the imaginations of the characters, specifically showbiz wannabe Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), and are generally contained within the make-believe recreation of Roxie’s favorite hangout, the Onyx club. Maybe Russell was just ahead of his time. That noted, in the years between Cabaret and Chicago, director Herbert Ross’s Pennies from Heaven (1981), wherein lavish song and dance routines are the projections of characters plodding through the Great Depression, flopped at the box office though it did earn a trio Oscar nominations, including Best Costumes (the one and only Bob Mackie). By the way, I happen to enjoy Pennies from Heaven as much as I also enjoy The Boy Friend, Cabaret, and Chicago.

The soundtrack cover of the My One and Only cast album starring Twiggy and Tommy Tune. That's presumably 6'7" Tune on the left in the foreground with Twiggy to his right. The show ran for 767 performances. When Twiggy left after a year's run, she was replaced by Sandy Duncan, who had earlier appeared on Broadway in The Boy Friend.

Though not a hit at the time, The Boy Friend did not seem to permanently damage the fortunes of anyone involved. Russell’s career continued on an erratic track with such highs as 1975’s Tommy (based on The Who’s rock opera), Altered States (1980), and Lair of the White Worm (1988). His only Oscar nomination is for directing 1969’s Women in Love. Now in his 80s, Russell has not directed a feature film in a few years. While Twiggy did not conquer Hollywood, she did not vanish from the scene either, racking up a few dozen credits in film and television on both sides of the Atlantic. Furthermore, in the 1980s, she and Tommy Tune enjoyed major Broadway success in My One and Only. Twiggy was nominated as Best Actress in a Musical while Tune won Best Actor in a Musical as well as Best Choreographer, besides being nominated for Best Director.  More recently, Twiggy spent a few seasons as one of the judges on America’s Next Top Model and currently has a line of clothing sold on the Home Shopping Network. Speaking of Tune, he has fared best of all: a nine time Tony award winner for his work as an actor, director and choreographer for such shows as Seesaw (1973), Nine (1982), Grand Hotel (1989), and The Will Rogers Follies (1991)not to mention 1978’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas for which he earned a pair of nominations.  Costume designer Shirley Russell went on to Oscar nominated glory for the likes of Agatha (1979) and Reds (1981) while Tony Walton, already a previous nominee for Mary Poppins (starring his then wife, Julie Andrews) did double duty as the production designer and costume designer of the hit adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974), garnering an Oscar nomination for his wardrobe work. He actually co-won an Oscar for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration for Bob Fossee’s 1979 semi-autobiographical hit All that Jazz.  Cinematographer David Watkin worked on 1981’s Best Picture winner Chariots of Fire and won an Oscar in his own right for 1985’s Out of Africa. Glenda Jackson, who filmed her brief role fresh on the heels of winning the Best Actress Oscar for Russell’s Women in Love, earned her second Oscar just a few years later for A Touch of Class (1973). She eventually abandoned acting in favor of politics and was elected to Parliament in the early 1990s. Finally, The Boy Friend marks the last film of British character actor Max Adrian in the role of the kimono wearing harried stage director/harried over-the-hill actor. He snared a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the British Academy Awards for his performance; he passed away in 1973 at the age of 70.

I have written a lot about The Boy Friend. Why is that? After all, I didn’t even see it way back in the day though I saw plenty of publicity stills in the movie and fashion magazines of the time. I did not catch up with it until I rented it on VHS during the summer of 1990, and it more than lived up to my expectations. Believe me, I’d waited a long time to see Twiggy and Christopher Gable dance on that giant record. I spotted The Boy Friend on cassette in a clearance bin at my neighborhood discount chain a short time after that, but I opted to purchase another movie–the name of which I no longer remember–instead. I have often regretted that decision ever since then, or at least since the introduction of the DVD, because it did not seem like The Boy Friend would ever be released in that format. The message boards of the IMDb and Amazon.com have been full of comments for years from people such as myself, dying to own a copy to no avail. There was talk at one time of releasing it as part of a Ken Russell boxed set, but that never happened either. Happily, thanks to manufacture-on-demand technology, this 1971 gem is now available through the Warner Archive Collection. This new arm of the Warner conglomerate is a great way to make rare titles available to aficionados without incurring the huge overhead needed to produce–and market–a mass run of titles that might have only limited appeal. In this day and age of the instantly disposable blockbuster that’s quite an astute plan. Of course, there are some disadvantages in that these selections are usually priced a bit higher than more current, more popular, releases, but there are also some good sales every now and then. Furthermore, in most instances there is no remastering involved (the discs are made from the most available print in the best condition), the cover art tends to be generic, and there are no extras most of the time. The Boy Friend is a real find in that it is remastered, does not feature generic cover art, and actually includes a short “making of” featurette. Wow! The Warner Archive Collection has helped me secure at least four other movies that I thought I’d never see again, including a guilty pleasure from the 1970s and another–not guilty–favorite movie from 1990 that I plan to write about soon. MGM has also now jumped into the act, releasing some of its more obscure titles in the “on demand” format. That’s also worked out well for me. I’m hoping Paramount falls in line sooner rather than later because my VHS copy of a nifty mystery-comedy from 1985, starring a future Oscar winner, is on life support.  You can find the Warner Archive Collection by googling it easily enough, or you can look up a movie on Amazon to find whether it’s available through Warner Archive.

Thanks for your consideration…

Btw, you can find out more about all the movies mentioned in this article by going to the Internet Movie Database; you can possibly look for more information on Box Office Mojo though it’s a better resource for movies made after 1980. Additionally, you can also learn more details about Broadway shows by referring to the Internet Broadway Database.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: