The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Beauty & the Beast

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Boy Friend

December 16, 1971   MGM   136 minutes
With the undoubting conviction that only resides in Youth seeking Truth, I strode into DeAnza's drama dept. that autumn, ready for the Smell of the Greasepaint, the Roar of the Crowd. And tho I met no Bway-centric nerds like myself, found a tribe I quickly resonated with. There was already a sophmore clique, which I observed from the sidelines, helping build scenery for the fall production, Medea, starring Judith B.--a middle-aged woman in school ostensibly to play leading roles on stage, and sleep with the department head, Ellis--a transparent secret. But in the winter session we newbies were given boost by Ellis, cast as leads in that semester's show, Jules Feiffer's black comedy, Little Murders. Which explains how I got my first (and only) starring part (the Elliot Gould role) in a stage play. I was beyond dreadful--irredeemable. Given that just about everyone in theater first harbored acting desires, it feels a bit strange that I didn't aspire to performance. But I was never comfortable on stage.  From the beginning I wanted to be David Merrick not Robert Preston. DeAnza's theater Queens were Elaine, Laura & Mickey--two lesbians and a hippie, as it turned out. Elaine, whose idol was Lily Tomlin, and who could execute a perfect Ernestine, played my mother-in-law in the play, and her wonderful comic instincts had me helplessly breaking up in full view on stage thruout the show. Laura & Mickey were relegated to running lights and sound, and made a boozy party of it. It was another party that secured my position within the group. Shortly after rehearsals began Elaine had the whole crew over to her house on a Friday night. She was a good 8 years older than the rest of us 19 & 20 year olds; had a solid job with MaBell and a house of her own, with an ex-Mormon girlfriend, while the rest of us still lived with our parents. It was a party unlike any I'd been to before, full of like-minded hedonists, unfamiliar but pretty great music, and lots of intense bonding. I got very drunk (perhaps for the first time) on cheap red wine--a sweet, sublime intoxication, enuf to unleash my id; declare my love to one and all, and rename myself as the "Soul on Manhattan." It was many moons later before I learned virtually everyone there had taken LSD--viewing me thru another lens entirely. In any case I was set after that, not just with the core of the group, but soon to become its major artistic player as well. I turned 19 that December of '71 and thought I was discovering the world. At 19, the world--and by that I mean Bway--discovered Julie Andrews, who came over from England to star in The Boy Friend--the first English musical imported to American shores since New Yorkers lost interest in Noel Coward operettas. But this was hardly an example of a new breeze from Britain--but a throwback to a now defunct style of 1920's entertainment.

And tho it skewed very British, in actuality it was based more on the style of American musicals--in particular No, No, Nanette, which serves The Boy Friend a singular template. Each number seems to have a corollary in the other show, often barely disguised: Nanette's "I Want to Be Happy" becomes BF's. "I Could Be Happy With You"; "The Call of the Sea" turns into "Sur la Plage"; The simple pleasures of "Tea for Two," are equally expressed in "A Room in Bloomsbury," Both have zippy title tunes; a blues aria for an older woman; and "You Can Dance With Any Girl At All," but "Won't You Charleston with Me?" And so on. 
Parody is a dish best served small. As often happens, Boy Friend began as a short spoof done for a variety show; but the reception encouraged an expansion and bigger venue; which then exploded into a full West End transfer for a run longer than anything since Chu Chin Chow. Even so, the orchestra was but three pieces: piano, drums, violin. It was all so shamelessly twee, and the British ate it up; gluttons for their own nostalgia in midst of a lingering post-war austerity. Bway producer Ernie Martin, summoned his partner, Cy Feuer from California to see the show; which they quickly snapped up to import to New York--on condition that it be recreated exactly as it was done in London. But Feuer & Martin quickly found that untenable; and resorted to firing the original director, Vida Hope and barring author & composer, Sandy Wilson from rehearsals. Aside from a tweak in tone, the major change F&M brought to the show was to replace the English tea trio with a zippier Twenties jazz band. With the raves the show received it was hard to argue against their improvements. But tho the musical enjoyed a year's run on Bway, Londoners kept it around for half a decade.

Feuer & Martin found Julie Andrews in a play in Yorkshire, where it was clear she had something special. Still she wasn't expected to be the breakout star. The Boy Friend is an ensemble piece, with songs to go around. 
Polly is the ingenue, but Maisie can steal the show as well (as did Sandy Duncan in 1970 Bway revival that starred then-current Brit bird, Laugh-In's Judy Carne), not to mention Mme Dubonnet and Hortense--all roles with room for stealing. But Andrews' charming sincerity and pure soprano proved a Star-making combination. By the show's close she was in the sights of the decade's greatest Bway phenomena, My Fair Lady. And that was only the beginning.

MGM acquired the show in 1957, intended as a vehicle for Debbie Reynolds--fair enuf. Julie was still years away from a movie camera, and tho it's hard to imagine now, Debbie had quite a busy screen career for two decades, and was a good enuf mimic to fake a British accent. For whatever reason it was never made, and a decade later Arthur Freed tried to revive it, with a cast of young unknowns. This too was shelved until several years more when the project was turned over to, of all people, Ken Russell. A relatively unknown commodity in America, Russell had made a number of documentaries for the BBC, many of them intriguing and original conceits on the lives of composers and artists. He made his breakthru in features with an icy but lurid Women in Love--forever known for its nude wrestling scene with Alan Bates & Oliver Reed (for which I suspect we must really thank screenwriter, Larry Kramer). Glenda Jackson won an Oscar, (which I never quite understood) and Russell was nominated--which made him suddenly hot. He plunged headlong into a lavish bio fantasia of that tortured homosexual, Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers) and then an even more hysteric drama about church, sex, and murder, The Devils--which proved so controversial it was never released unedited, and threatened to sink Russell's film career, even as it established his claim as the British Fellini. So how to tamper down his notoriety? Well, how about that old British chestnut, The Boy Friend?

Sandy Wilson adroitly captured the spirit of Nanette, but with Vincent Youmans' 1925 score back on the boards in the surprise smash 1971 revival, the original put the copy in the shade. Still, MGM was no doubt salivating over the prospect of cashing in on the big "nostaliga" craze that was drummed up by Rialto publicists. But how to do this as a film? It's a spoof on stage, but Russell had to find a cinematic context for the naïveté and silliness of the non-existant story. He found it backstage: "The Boy Friend" becomes the show within the show. The cast performs a matinee in a huge theater, in Portsmouth, to a handful of patrons (I counted 27)--excluding a surprise drop-in from a Hlwd director. The show's cardboard characters are given exaggerated offstage personalities, and the time frame has been moved into the 1930s. There's plenty of backstage chaos, including the Ruby Keeler understudy trope. Clichés, yes, but then the original conceit was a candy box of clichés. But by taking the musical outside its hermetic stage parody there's some freshness and light into what would otherwise be a dubious prospect by 1971. 
It certainly feels the right approach as you sink into the movie; not merely a spoof of an obsolete musical style, but all the theatrical machinery behind it, as well. Tony Walton's eye-popping stage sets are fanciful riffs on Art Deco designs unique to the '20s. (I especially love the moving botanical garden from which they pluck bushels as they pass). In a way these stage sets cloud our understanding of the venue. Just what sort of production is this supposed to be? A tacky provincial mounting, or a lavish, still-aborning tryout hoping for West End transfer? The sets and costumes suggest the latter, while the audience and crude performance lean toward the former. I suspect Russell thought it didn't matter. He adds still another dimension, spinning fantasies out of the musical numbers from the character's imaginings; giving license to ape '30s Busby Berkeley formations--this time in Technicolor.

Russell cast a number of veterans from his recent films, including Max Adrian (as the impresario); Vladek Sheybal (as the director, looking more Cinecitta than Hlwd); and blonde tousled-top, Christopher Gable as the male ingenue and dancing star. And later a Star cameo from a recent Oscar winner. The noisy Maisie (vs. demure Polly) is Antonia Ellis--a name and a face that seem familiar but really aren't. It's a fittingly British cast, (no Debbie Reynolds's) with a soupcon of American provided by Tommy Tune, after his film debut in Hello, Dolly! and the last film he'd make. But the real coup was Twiggy. The former Lesley Hornby had a four year reign as the world's most famous model--her stick figure, boyish bob and thickly-lashed eyes came to define the look of the '60s. She shot to International fame at age 16, but judiciously retired from modeling in 1970 (along with the Beatles breaking up--was the whole British Empire coming apart?) to transition into acting and singing. The Boy Friend was a perfect entree. If her wispy vocals aren't up to Julie Andrews' crystaline soprano; she otherwise has the right quality of innocence and sincerity, as well as the perfect figure for a '20s wardrobe.
The film starts without fanfare (or credits) on a doe-eyed Twiggy, wistfully singing "I Could Be Happy With You..."; and then the entrance of the cast thru the stage door as the few customers enter the stalls. A hint of personality telegraphed by each character and then the stage show begins. Russell shows the curtain-rise from the top of the second balcony. It's a charming touch, reminding those of us whose youngest theater-going days were sitting in the last two rows of the highest perch, just what it was like--and how little it dampened our enthusiasm. Most of the opening song, "Perfect Young Ladies" is filmed from a mid-orchestra view; again letting us see it as an actual theater audience would. He gets the arch acting style down pat, and the dance concludes in a thunderous tap dance (on an unreinforced wooden stage), with fleshy-hipped chorines (a nice period touch) pounding their tootsies onto the boards. 
They're hysterical later, when Twiggy (an unwilling understudy shoved on stage) begins the refrain of "The Boy Friend" at a quarter the usual tempo, thwarting their runaway impulses. Soon the song shifts to cinematic technique; overhead shots, jump cuts, oversize sets, bigger chorus lines. It's well done but scarcely original. But we know the formula of the screenplay now. Tommy Tune, all seven feet of him, stepping out of a John Held Jr. illustration, along with Antonia Ellis (as an overexuberant Maisie) turn "Won't You Charleston With Me?" into a competition of frenetic strutting--both bidding for the scouting (or is he slumming?) Hlwd director's attention. It's an entertaining workout. We're on the right track. Or so it would seem. But the next fantasy begins as a ballet in the woods, Twiggy and Christopher Gable enact Afternoon of a Faun in short Grecian togas to music not from the score. This is departure enuf but soon it curdles into a sylvan Bacchanalia--with that signature Russell touch: excess and vulgarity--a hair-raising nine minute sequence. What seemed up to then rather promising, has stunk up the movie like a skunk in the basement. Returning to the show, "Fancy Forgetting" is mostly forgettable except for its rich, black velvet set. 
But "I Could Be Happy With You" sets the movie back on course. The silver corridored Deco set is peachy but the fantasy sequence that follows utilizes a mammoth soundstage turntable on which Twiggy & Gable dance on a giant vinyl record--more Berkeley allusions, and lovely at that. In the meantime the felled Star has arrived backstage in the guise of Glenda Jackson, sporting a hip-to-ankle cast. She seems a liitle old to be playing Polly--and acts as if she's a Star attraction--adding to the confusion about the production's real bona fides. But Glenda--despite my usual distaste for her--is actually a bit of delight here. Russell initially wanted Julie Andrews (now also too old for Polly) to play the cameo--and it would have been a real kick given that all of Julie's stage musicals were made into movies, bizarrely, without her--a top box office star. But Glenda makes the most of her few bits watching from the audience--her shushing the applause is especially funny.

The movie has two needlessly added Nacio Herb Brown tunes: "You Are My Lucky Star" and "All I Do is Dream of You"--both widely familiar from Singin' in the Rain (Debbie Reynolds seems determined to be connected here somewhere); the first song opens the second half with Twiggy sitting backstage looking at Gable's (Chris not Clark's) photo. The Hlwd director, named a bit too obviously, DeThrill, pays a backstage visit during the show's intermission, and here's a scene Russell invented that is rather charming; the obsequious attention he's given by the company who surround him in a cluster is quite amusing. "Sur la Plage" is perhaps the best number in the stage tradition; Walton's cute ocean-wave setting and the fanciful dancing makes this a real delight. Next comes my favorite tune from the show "A Room in Bloomsbury" one of those rare songs with a bridge that sounds like the beginning of a new refrain. The tune is so felicitous, it's easy to listen to endlessly, something Russell obviously counted on. It begins modestly on, of all things, a minature golf course set. but soon flips to an attic room with oversized chairs where they dance ala Fred & Ginger. Twiggy's pearl-satin gown is stunning and moves with a shimmering grace (kudos to Shirley Russell--Ken's wife--all around for her costumes, which if you ask me, were more deserving of Oscar recognition than either Bedknobs & Broomsticks or What's the Matter with Helen?) The number would've been fine had it ended here, but after their ballroom sweep, the duo plunge thru the window and land. . . in a cross between Oz and Wonderland, dressed as some sort of minature elves, or insects? It's hard to tell, and from there they romp through a giant mushroom forest while the number gets goonier and goonier. 

(I confess I love the orchestration, which incorporates such pieces as mandolin, calliope, Jew's harp and hand saw along its merry journey). But what to make of this? Whose fantasy is it, and what exactly is the fantasy? The film feels so derailed at this point, its hard to come back with something so generically dull as "It's Nicer in Nice," imagined in a Folies Bergere mode. Feuer & Martin cut the song for New York, but it was retained in London. Russell has his offstage characters rather than Mme. Dubonnet & Percival sing "You Don't Want to Play Me With Blues." Given how dreadfully Moyra Fraser sings--and it is truly beyond endurance--you'd think it would be chucked altogether. Russell seriously missed out on this one, when he could've cast another of his previous players, 
Eleanor Bron, who made such hysterical histrionics out of Hermione in Women in Love. Not quite a looker in the usual sense (she's what's called a "handsome" woman) with her dark brown eyes and menacing eyebrows, Bron was in a quintet of late '60s British classics, beginning with her film debut, as the exotic Ahme in the Beatles Help!, She was Michael Caine's stern doctor in Alfie; an obnoxious parent in Two for the Road, and the goddess of Dudley Moore's unattainable dreams in the much-underrated Bedazzled. Her presence is so authoritative, so effortlessly funny, she became a goddess to me as well. She'd have made a much better Mme. Dubonnet than Fraser.

By the time we get to "Safety in Numbers" and "It's Never Too Late to Fall in Love" they feel repetitive; the constant over-playing to DeThrill becomes tiresome; the sequences too long by half. "Safety" turns its "Numbers" into dancing dice and another Berkeley homage--with diminishing returns. Tho surely Russell didn't intend it, his Busby burlesques pale in creativity and scale next to the original. They also put into relief how much more interesting are the primitive theatrical effects of the stage presentation. "Never" is capped by a silent movie, inserted by hammy impresario, Max Adrian, absurdly into the middle of the show; or rather as the coda to his big number. This home-movie, which in film stock and technique looks more '70s than '30s, has nurses pushing old men in wheelchairs in more formations ala Berkeley. Its only contribution to the movie is length. Fortunately "Poor Little Pierette" serves up a tasty dessert. Another stunning Walton set has Polly "floating" upstream, while standing dead center as an Erte-inspired garden glides across the stage. 
After that, DeThrill imagines himself directing the finale, "The Riviera," and here we go with the chorines on double-deck airplane wings, flying thru...snow? But we end on the "real" play--the one with a three piece band (as in the original show). The movie gives us a post-show coda--the cast in repose between shows. Maisie mistakes DeThrill's interest for herself, but it's for his long lost son: Tommy Tune. And Polly & Tony overcome the thinnest "obstacle" in musical history; Polly mistakes Tony's attentions to Dulcie for romance, while he's conspiring to surprise her with a cake. She's so happy to land her beau she tosses away DeThrill's invitation to Hlwd.    
Russell had immeasurable assitance from his cinematographer, David Watkin.. There are sections of beautiful movement; the way the cast dances each costumed face into view at the Ball; the groupings around DeThrill backstage at intermission; the show seen from every angle, front, back and onstage. I've come to respect the filmmaker's approach more this time around. There's a feeling of something new, a move beyond the 60s-style Roadshow dinosaur. And yet there still was bloat--mixed, with Russell's métier: excess. The movie premiered in London, clocking in at 136 minutes. MGM's new president, ex-TV exec, James Aubrey came into power in '69 wielding a budgetary axe. Austerity was the name of his game, and quickly shelved were She Loves Me (even with Julie Andrews) and the long-aborning Irving Berlin songfest, Say it With Music. Aubrey saw Russell's edit of The Boy Friend, and demanded 25 minutes cut for release in AmericaNew York saw the film down to 109 minutes. Truthfully, it isn't hard to see where a good half hour is easily dispensable from the uncut version. Let's start with the nasty Grecian Ballet--the whole thing can go and there's 9 minutes already. Do we need the Singin in the Rain songs? "Bloomsbury"s bizarre Bug's Life section could easily disappear; the home- movie tag to "It's Never Too Late;" the whole of "You Don't Want...Blues." And there could be more. This sort of show needs no intermission. At 68 minutes in, it barely deserves one. The cast is uneven. Twiggy & Gable make a pretty pair. She has a whisper of a singing voice, but it suits the character; and he's a golden boy and proficient tapper. Max Adrian and Bryan Pringle (Percy) are too hammy by far; Vladek Sheybal makes a puzzling Hlwd director, but Antonia Ellis makes Maisie vivid, and Georgina Hale (at least I think it's she--the blonde) channels Joan Greenwood's smoky voice. Perhaps best featured is Tommy Tune, who gets plenty of bits scattered about to strut his stilt-length legs. It was goodbye to film roles after that and on the road to becoming one of the best Bway musical stagers; occasionally back on stage himself, as he was in '83 reunited with Twiggy for the hit Gershwin reboot, My One & Only--a drop of water in the growing desert that was Bway in the '80s.
A sense of damaged goods seemed to cling to The Boy Friend movie as it played America. But what were its chances? Recent Bway hits were flopping on screen; who'd want to see one in a style so archaic? There was no fancy New York premiere; it opened at the RKO 59th St. Twin (on one screen) among the Christmas releases, and sank under the ranks of A Clockwork Orange, The Last Picture Show, The French Connection, The Hospital, The Garden of the Finzi-Contis and, yes, also Fiddler. Thru '72 it made a paltry $1,240,000 in film rentals. It also sank from my must-see list and I didn't see the movie until August '78, and then only on my protable B&W TV. It didn't make much impression then, or on the second viewing, also on TV in '82. I finally saw it on screen in LA's Nuart revival house in '87--of which I have no memory--and not again until now. Time has been kind to it, tho not to the moments of excess; nor to the now-overly-familiar '30s movie musical tropes. But there's some exceptional scenes of stagecraft and a solid structure of on and off-stage activity. There's a wonderful movie buried in there somewhere--which itself is a pretty impressive achievment, given that the source material is so thin and not inherently cinematic. All I know is wide, cuffed bell bottoms came roaring back in style that fall of '71, and tho I'm sure they'd like the credit, The Boy Friend had nothing to do with it. Mine were brown plaid, and they felt divine.

Next Up: Cabaret

Report Card:   The Boy Friend
Overall Film:  B
Bway Fidelity:  B
Songs from Bway: 12
Songs Cut from Bway:  1  "Carnival Tango"
New Songs:  2 interpolations by Nacio Herb Brown
Standout Numbers:  "Won't You Charleston?"
               "Sur la Plage""Poor Little Pierette"
Casting: Properly British, hit & miss
Standout Cast: Twiggy, Tommy Tune
Sorethumb Cast:  Moyra Fraser
Cast from Bway:  None
Direction:  Creative, vibrant, excessive
Choreography:  Humorous, effective
Ballet:  D  "Grecian Bacchanal"
Scenic Design: Stunning Deco stage sets
               Less impressive Hlwd overkills
Costumes: Pitch perfect
Standout Sets: Walton's stage sets esp.
     Mme Dubonnet's salon, Carnival Ball
Titles: Full post-film credit crawl
Oscar noms: 1: scoring
Weird Hall of Fame: "A Room in Bloomsbury"
               (Romp of the Mushroom elves)

1 comment:

Ken Anderson said...

Thoughtful assessments of motion pictures are surprisingly hard to find despite the plethora of film-related blogs around. I have to say that I got quite a kick out of your thorough, amusing, and points-well-taken look at "The Boy Friend."
I very much enjoyed both your writing style and your ability to so clearly delineate the pros and cons of this, one of my favorite Ken Russell films.
Thanks for a very pleasurable read!