Friday, 30 July 2021

Muriel Box, scriptwriter-director

Muriel Box, scriptwriter-director (continuation)

If you read the classic work on British Cinema of the 1950s, they say that there is a 1951 film called White Corridors which is the best of the time because it continues the documentary style, and expands it into drama which also deals with the welfare state and the new society. It is morally mature and not rushing off into nostalgia and fantasy. But, the BFI decided to restore the very old and perishable negatives first, so they won’t get around to White Corridors for a long time. So it was a lost film, you couldn't see it. I posted about this several years ago. But – White Corridors is now on You-Tube. The first thing I noticed about it was that it was scripted by Jan Read, who wrote the story for Street Corner. Then – this is a great film. God knows how it comes to be on You-tube. It overlaps with “My Brother Jonathan”, if you like that kind of thing. And, yes, they are both films about the Welfare State, and explaining why it is a good thing.
Two of Muriel Box’s films seem to be about the nature of fantasy – so “The Passionate Stranger is a gentle satire on the conventions of the romantic novel and the perils of confusing reality with fiction. Directed in inventive fashion by Oscar winner Muriel Box, (sharing writing credits with husband Sydney Box), this hugely engaging comedy is made available here in a brand-new transfer...” and Simon and Laura [1955] “stars Peter Finch (in one of his first British lead roles) and Kay Kendall as an unhappily married couple who decide, for strictly financial reasons, to play idealised versions of themselves in a kind of quasi-fictional soap opera for the newfangled medium of television. The final act anticipates reality TV by around half a century, as a Christmas special broadcast live turns messily chaotic thanks to the machinations of mischievous child-performer Timothy”. This belief that fantasy is unreal is a sort of critique of conventional romance which sounds like the critiques you got in 70s feminism, or leftism in general. This is not to say that a Rank Film could ever be just like an essay in Screen, but the idea of staging the story in a pleasurable way while also analysing its remoteness from reality sounds like a brilliant solution to well-known problems. It sounds a bit familiar, as a lot of professional screen-writers want to tell a story which exposes screenplay conventions as brain-damagingly artificial. So Box accepted that fantasy had to play a role in film.
I now have a DVD of ‘Strangers’ and it is effectively unwatchable. Too much the Fifties Rank film. It definitely is a critique of romantic fantasy – and this is what we can connect with the Seventies. In the film, the female lead is a romantic novelist who has run out of ideas. A new chauffeur arrives, young and good-looking, she has the idea for a romance about an illicit love affair between a bourgeois heroine and a chauffeur. By accident the real chauffeur gets to read the novel. He tries to take her up on it. Just before this point the film shifts into colour and we see the novel story. The cleverest part is the adjustments the novelist (Margaret Leighton) makes to reality. She becomes a concert pianist – a few steps above silly romantic fiction. For her husband, the heightening invovles him trying to stop her from playing the piano – she is now in the right and has a Grievance. The maid, kind and demure in the scenes of ‘reality’, now becomes sexy, scheming and forward – heightening her role as Threat to the lead figure. All this is very good, exquisite even, but it is the kind of thing which appeals to writers rather than making for real cinema. The fact that the heroine has a total of three servants makes it difficult to take her seriously. Leighton has no personality. Patricia Dainton, as Emily the maid, produces the best and most contrasting performances- out-acting Ralph Richardson, in this case. She is also a lot prettier than Richardson. I admit to being an admirer of Dainton – although I am not sure she ever appeared in a good film. With “Passionate Strangers”, the content certainly involves the critique of art itself, the creative control certainly comes from a Left feminist – but the film is thoroughly conservative and reinforces marriage, wealth, and the status quo.
My conclusion, for the Seventies – if people in 1975 thought that a ton of reforms were inevitable and long overdue and utterly obvious, it is because popular art had been frozen for 20 or 25 years. It’s not that the new ideas were wrong, more that they had been available for a couple of decades and the business of popular culture had failed to do anything with them. Left culture was underdeveloped, although developing fast by 1975, because of funding problems – the culture industry conspired to block and repress it. ‘Strangers’ turns out to be pretty much a film about The Servant Problem.
Box’s film “The Truth about Women” may be the only feminist feature film made in the 1950s. I haven’t seen it and, frankly, it sounds pretty dire. But, as I suspect, every woman who graduated during the 1950s could have made a series of convincing and modern-sounding feminist arguments. It’s just that these weren’t seen as cinematic. Jill Craigie's 1950 short documentary about equal pay for women has got all the arguments, even if the Equal Pay Act took another 25 years. You could find ten Fifties films about the servant problem for every one about the Employer Problem. This is just not a reflection of reality.
An actress called Julia Lockwood played a teenage fantasist figure in two films, 'Please Turn Over' and 'No Kidding', where her fantasies are a significant part of the plot. I think this idea may have been copied from 'Passionate Strangers'.
“Muriel Box described The Truth about Women, at 107 minutes by some way her longest work, as “the film personally significant to me above all others”. It is a portmanteau affair in which an elderly aristocrat (Laurence Harvey) reminisces about the numerous ladies in his life, each episode making unambiguous assertions about gender equality and the wrongs of patriarchal oppression. The days of submissive spouses are over: a woman can and should be “an equal partner in the business of life”, as one character puts it.“
I really don’t much want to see this.

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