More gumbo than pastiche, director Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend (1971) over-baked the featherweight plot of Sandy Wilson’s 1953 toast of Broadway and, at its original road show length of 137 minutes became a more complex, and in many ways more unnecessarily convoluted show within a show for which Wilson’s unabashed and simple homage to twenties stage musicals was, as inexplicably, revamped by Russell into an evocation of 1930’s movie musicals a la Busby Berkeley. Disastrously overblown, and directed with a frenetic chop-shop editing style that belied this simpler age of kitsch and coo, Russell’s fearless attempt at a movie musical further compounded this insult by adding girth and guile to an already gilded lily; the director’s yen for garishness, smearing a patina of 70’s raunch over everything and transforming what on stage had been innocence personified into an oft grotesquely ribald sex farce. This, to be sure, only muddies the gloss of the original show: none of it a part of Wilson’s tender-hearted milieu. MGM had purchased the property back in 1956. Alas, owing to its simplicity and the studio’s then already sad state of steady decline, The Boy Friend was allowed to languish in their script vaults for decades while changing audience tastes and the entire back lot climate of making movie musicals continued to erode its popularity and staying power. Undaunted by the fact musicals had hopelessly fallen out of fashion by 1971, Russell delved into writing a new scenario himself to rival his aspirations for the musical sequences; determined at the considerable expense of $3 million to achieve something quite unique, if not entirely successful, on the big screen.
It all looked mind-bogglingly colorful with impeccable Production Design by Tony Walton, sumptuous and authentic costumes by Shirley Russell and David Watkin’s luminous cinematography filling the peripheries of the vast anamorphic screen. Alas, with ambition knowing no master, the picture, co-funded by EMI and MGM (by the early 1970’s already on life support, with Las Vegas financier, Kirk Kerkorian about to unofficially pull the plug) sank under the weight of an unanticipated rank amateurism, or rather, the absence of that ephemeral quality for which no amount of lipstick applied to any pig can transform it into a mink-lined purse – star quality. It must have seemed like a surefire bet, casting Lesley Lawson – better known to the world as Twiggy, and then the biggest name in runway high fashion super models – for the lead in The Boy Friend. And to be fair, the model cum movie star was to prove her merit; of fair voice and impressive competency during the dance routines. Alas, Twiggy is no actress, and neither it seems is Christopher Gable; the English ballet dancer who not only costarred as the eponymous ‘boyfriend’, but also choreographed these occasionally impressive routines. Though unexpectedly gifted when they took to the floor, the pairing of Gable and Twiggy possess virtually zero on-screen romantic chemistry; the one essential to salvage everything from becoming just another empty-headed and over-produced bon-bon. Worse, Gable’s classically trained balletic gravitas lacked the fundamental ‘stud quality’ of a matinee heartthrob, making his breathless appeal to his heart-palpitating costar something of a truly bizarre joke or grand mystery.
In support, Russell cast the curiously asexual and occasionally effete Tommy Tune; all six and a half feet of him, doing a robust buck and wing, and later, electrifying Charleston opposite Antonia Ellis; as Maisie, giving over to a thoroughly wicked impersonation of the superficial and back-stabbing sex kitten/flapper. Again, zero on-screen chemistry between these two, despite Tune’s mesmeric transformation into exactly the sort of novelty hoofer one would expect to find right at home in Vaudeville or, more directly, London’s musical hall mélange of aspiring hopefuls with more salable cheek than talent. The chief problem with The Boy Friend is Ken Russell cannot decide whether to evoke the 1920’s or 30’s, and toggling between these very stylishly distinct and diametrically different epochs is more discombobulating than anything else; particularly since the movie’s production design manages to vet, but then blur these artistic lines over and over again, and finally, into a fundamentally vulgar bit of camp that does justice to neither. Worse, there appears to be very little distinction between the lowbrow and stage bound sketches being performed in this West End theater by a Brit-born repertory company of old hams and young hopefuls, and, the over-inflated re-imagining of their acts in tandem by De Thrill (Vladek Sheybal); the oily Hollywood producer, come to see the show but looking, in his pinstriped zoot suit and fedora, far more like a cheap knockoff of the speakeasy gangster than thirties merchant of dreams from that town made of tinsel.
It ought to be pointed out the movie’s plot does not parallel the stagecraft; the latter entirely set on the French Riviera at the Villa Caprice where Maisie, the girls (Dulcie, Nancy, Fay), Hortense, the maid and Mme Dubonnet, proprietress of a finishing school for young ladies, all plan to attend a carnival ball; a rife spot for meeting eligible bachelors. One of Mme Dubonnet’s pupils, Polly Browne is a shy wallflower desperately hoping to fall in love with…hmmm. She has concocted an imaginary ‘boyfriend’ to keep all basic inquiries at bay. Only now, she has to produce the fellow she has built up into a veritable paragon of virtues. Meanwhile, Polly’s widowed dad, Percy, arrives, only to learn Mme Dubonnet is an old flame whose passion for him never entirely cooled. In desperation, Polly bribes Tony, an errand boy at the hotel she is staying at, to be her date. But she later lies to him about being poor. The couple are about to kiss when Hortense discovers them. Polly implores Hortense to remain silent and, after some cajoling, she agrees.
Enter the ‘aging roué’, Lord Hubert Brockhurst with his overbearing wife and the rigidly mannered best friend, Percival Browne. These characters are strictly played for comic relief and have little, if anything, to do with the central plot – such as it is. Alas, the Brockhursts recognize Tony too. Embarrassed, he runs off. Inexplicably, everyone assumes he is a common thief. At the carnival ball, Bobby proposes to Maisie. Tony and Hortense run into each other again. She scolds him for running away and furthermore, explains that Polly’s devotion to him is genuine. Tony endeavors to see if this is the case. He disguises himself and attends the carnival ball, asking Polly for a dance. When she replies she cannot proceed to the promenade with a stranger, he gingerly kisses her before revealing his true identity. From across the room, Lord and Lady Brockhurst recognize Tony as their long lost son who left home to make his own way in the world. Polly is elated, as Tony will now be quite acceptable to her family. She reveals to Tony that she is rich too. As the clock strikes midnight, Percy and Mme Dubonnet announce their own engagement, having rekindled the embers of their long-ago romance. Earlier, Maisie, Dulcie, Nancy and Fay rather standoffishly refused to entertain similar proposals of marriage from some very eligible suitors. Now, perhaps fearing the specter, to remain the only ‘old maids’ in the bunch, they willingly throw themselves at these boys’ heads. The play concludes in merriment and a reprise of several of the hit songs.
To this musical mélange, Ken Russell has added an unnecessary backstage minuet of even more badly bungled courtship dances; Twiggy’s Polly is now the mousy assistant stage manager of this bumbling theatrical troop, treated with general disdain by these tired old hams; Percy Parkhill (Bryan Pringle – who also doubles as the show within a show’s Percival Browne) is the sideshow who thinks himself the whole circus. Toward Polly he is contemptuous and salty. Parkhill’s wife, Moyra (Moyra Fraser, a.k.a. Madame Dubonnet, is more forgiving, perhaps knowing something of a young woman’s perceived place in the outside world. Likewise, stage manager, Max Mandeville (Max Adrian – doubling for Lord Brockhurst) is caustic and condescending, repeatedly usurping Polly’s faith in herself after the show’s star, Rita (Glenda Jackson) tearfully reports in with a broken ankle. It will be a very poor show indeed, Max reasons, although perhaps not as disappointing as the audience turn out – or lack thereof - for their performance. More’s the pity for Max, since he has it on good authority Hollywood producer/director, De Thrill has come to take in their little golden afternoon matinee, presumably with plans to buy up the property and turn it into a big and splashy Hollywood musical. Maisie immediately launches into her passion play for De Thrill’s affections; unaware he is gay and thus hardly interested in her, either as the lead for his new movie or romantically, despite her pretentious flirtations with him in French. Maisie convinces Tommy to abstain from his usual full-on performance of the Charleston, rather insincerely hoping to wow De Thrill with her moves. But fellow player, Alphonse (Murray Melvin) exposes Maisie’s ruse and thus, the dance off between these two bitter rivals begins. Interestingly, Christopher Gable’s Tony and Twiggy’s Polly are the least fully fleshed out of these backstage characters; she, incessantly pining for his attention; he, congenial with his praise, but actually somewhat more interested in exploring multiple ‘friendships’ with the other chorines.
Russell might have even had his way here, convincing the audience of the double exposure in these charged flagrante delictos, if only he did not deviate as frequently into a series of often bizarre pantomime ‘dream sequences’; meant, presumably as representations of each character’s genuine feelings, otherwise guarded and/or masked by reality. The most grotesquely mismanaged of these is the overplayed and overly long Grecian bacchanal, taking place in a pastoral wooded glen, populated by virtually all of the stage show’s cast; Tommy, the winged and arrow-slinging Cupid-esque purveyor of love; Maisie up to her old tricks in her grand seduction of Tony, pouring drugged wine down his gullet, and Max, curiously misrepresented as a pan-fluted satyr, carrying off an inebriated and unconscious Polly to his grotto; Polly spared deflowering by Zeus’ impromptu pelting of the cast with thunderbolts. Russell’s other ‘dream sequences’ – ‘Poor Little Pierrette’ and his ‘around the world in 80 days’ homage staged in tandem with the stagecraft’s performance of the title tune throw everything but the proverbial ‘kitchen sink’ at the screen; a real hodgepodge of dead ended, if thoroughly ambitious snippets to boggle the mind with their spellbinding loudness.
Exactly what jalopy-driving college kids, majorette-clad chorines tapping against a backdrop of the American flag, or Twiggy, re-fashioned as the living embodiment of The Spirit of Ecstasy; a Rolls-Royce hood ornament, have in common or, more importantly, contribute to the lyrics of Sandy Wilson’s charming little tune, remains open for discussion. Clearly, Russell is going for some sort of visual tome, neither painterly nor prescient, but simply ‘out there’ for conspicuous consumption. Yet, Sandy Wilson’s lithe lyrics tend to fair far better when left to their own accord, a simple setting, either confined to the stage show within this show, and, finessed mostly by Christopher Gable and Twiggy’s rather refreshingly naive musical stylings, as in the rather charming, ‘A Room in Bloomsbury’. Given the girth of Sandy Wilson’s score, it also seems rather incongruous of Russell to have added two Nacio Herb Brown/Arthur Freed ditties from the twenties; All I Do Is Dream of You, and You Are My Lucky Star – especially since his satire increasingly bends toward extolling the virtues and vices of thirties movie musicals.
There was a time when MGM’s clout and courage alone would have been sufficient to mount such a production as this. But in April, 1970, after an aggressive takeover of Associated British Picture Corporation and the lucrative acquisition of shares in Warner Bros., with their fingers in a lot of other pies (ITV, Thames Television and Elstree Studios), EMI signed a co-production agreement with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Ever since Metro’s takeover by Las Vegas financier, Kirk Kerkorian in 1969, the studio had been looking for ways to streamline its own sprawling worldwide facilities and shore up its badly hemorrhaging debt. In Hollywood, this meant dismantling the once titanic studio, selling off its back lot to condo development and props to the highest bidder in a heart-breaking auction of nostalgia, and, as Kerkorian later put it to his stockholders, rebranding MGM as “…a hotel company and a relatively insignificant producer of motion pictures.” In England, MGM sold off its Borehamwood production facilities, moving quietly into EMI's Elstree Studio. Both companies planned to co-distribute and co-produce films partly financed by MGM. And although the aggressive marketing plan, at least on paper, included six to eight movies per annum, the eventual trickle of product and profits that emerged as a direct result from this teetering alliance yielded less than three yearly; The Boy Friend among them.
If only the movie version of The Boy Friend had been a resounding success. Alas, artistically it is a real mixed bag, full of only occasionally interesting anomalies, a lot of false starts and the sporadic misfire. Ken Russell’s ambition to reinvigorate the Hollywood musical by giving it the artistic equivalent of an electrical cardioversion jolt has the exact opposite effect; placing Sandy Wilson’s lissome deference for the 1920’s on perpetual life support. While the cast is often inspired, they tend to play down and muddy the innocence and sweetness of the piece as more outlandish sex-starved vulgarity than sublime exaltation and/or tribute. We get a lot of noise and some colorful staging. But the very heart and soul of this fragile story has been excised with excruciating surgical precision; Russell telescopically focused on always unearthing its crass lampoon where the real lump in the throat of human tenderness ought to have emerged. Twiggy can sing and she can also dance. But she is tragically incapable of emoting anything beyond a pout. Christopher Gable shows off his stunning capacity to stage and execute the dances. Yet his efforts are hampered by Russell’s constant toggling between the imaginative choreography gleaned from one image, incongruously pasted onto – and worse – decidedly plastered over the next. His multi-perspective approach to both songs and story does not offer variety of perspective per say, as much as it dilutes Sandy Wilson’s light-hearted live show into a top-heavy, rather than top flight movie entertainment. In the end, The Boy Friend fails because it lacks that essential kernel of humanity behind all its grandiloquence and cleverness.
We have virtually no complaints about The Boy Friend on Blu-ray; the Warner Archive (WAC) achieving another stunner in 1080p. The movie was shortened by 25 minutes for its U.S. theatrical release. But this new to Blu restores virtually all of that excised footage; also the picture’s Intermission and entr’acte. If you are a fan of this film, then you will sincerely want to snatch this one up tout suite. The Boy Friend has been given an immaculate and eye-popping transfer. Colors are rich beyond measure, and we get some gorgeous detail in costumes, hair, and close-ups. Contrast is superb and a light smattering of film grain only adds to the splendor in David Watkin’s gorgeous cinematography. Age-related artifacts are absent. Apart from an occasionally shimmer in the fine pin-stripes of De Thrill’s suit, there is really nothing to complain about here. Wow!...and thank you! WAC has also gone the extra mile for a new 5.1 DTS audio, sounding fresh and bombastic as ever. Extras are limited to a very grainy vintage featurette produced as a promo while Russell was still shooting the picture; presented in 1080p also – nicely done. We also get an original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: while I am not a fan of The Boy Friend, I am, as ever, a champion of WAC’s efforts to bring forth both movie gems and some of their fallen idols from their extensive back catalog. So, bravo, kudos and keep ‘em coming!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)