Ken Russell and The Boy Friend

by Steven LaVigne

Following his career as a photographer, Ken Russell (1927-2011) began directing for television. Among his projects are short biographies of Isadora Duncan (played by Vivian Pickles, Harold’s mother in Harold and Maude) and documentaries for Omnibus. He made his mark on cinema with his renowned adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. Glenda Jackson won an Oscar for her performance and costarred with Alan Bates and Oliver Reed whose nude wrestling scene is a highlight of this film based on D. H. Lawrence’s novel. Russell reveled in controversy after his films The Music Lovers, starring Richard Chamberlain as Tchaikovsky, and The Devils, based on Aldous Huxley’s novel, divided critics and audiences. He decided this next film should be a family picture, possibly a musical.

By the late 1960s, musicals were considered passe in Hollywood. They were expensive to make and didn’t always turn a profit. After the success of The Sound of Music, the studios attempted to duplicate the history created after the invention of the soundtrack, casting non-singers in such films as Paint Your Wagon starring Lee Marvin, Jean Seberg and Clint Eastwood; Peter O’Toole in both Man of La Mancha and Goodbye Mr. Chips, and Albert Finney as Scrooge.  Released as reserved seat roadshow attractions, against trendy films like M*A*S*H, Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider, musicals couldn’t compete.

Many of the early musicals from the 1930s were altered in some way, usually by adding songs from other composers. Irene, produced in 1919, was filmed in 1940 with only its title song and “Alice Blue Gown” remaining from the original score; in its 3 film versions, the plot for No, No, Nanette (1930, 1940, 1950) strayed further from the 1925 original with each new adaptation; by the time A Connecticut Yankee was filmed in 1949 with Bing Crosby, none of the Rodgers and Hart score remained.

In the early 1950s, Sandy Wilson (1924-2014) created The Boy Friend, a loving tribute to 1920s musicals. A hit in London, it moved across the pond, where Julie Andrews made her Broadway debut. MGM bought the rights, planning at various times to film it with Carol Channing and Debbie Reynolds.

When this new movie musical surge came along, producer Ross Hunter tried to make it with Andrews recreating her stage role. MGM wouldn’t surrender the rights, so instead, he cast Andrews in Thoroughly Modern Millie, a story also set during the 1920s and given more of a silent movie treatment.

It was around this time that Russell settled on The Boy Friend. He was friends with Twiggy (now Dame Twiggy), the famous model and her manager Justin de Villeneuve. After seeing a West End revival, Twiggy, who wanted to branch out, suggested the project. Christopher Gable, a former dancer with Sadler’s Wells Ballet was cast in the male lead and doubled as choreographer. He worked with his co-star for several months before shooting began.

Released in 1971, this British movie musical, with a screenplay by Russell also stars Tommy Tune and Max Adrian (The original Dr. Pangloss in the stage musical Candide, this was his last film) and it honors the work of director and choreographer Busby Berkeley (1895-1976).

Following the Great War, Berkeley became a dance director who based his choreography on military patterns. His style of cinematic geometry changed movies when he shot sequences with his camera high above the soundstage as girls performed remarkable dances. His best work can be found in such works as Gold Diggers of 1933, 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Dames, Girl Crazy and Lady Be Good.

For me, the documentary That’s Entertainment III is worth seeing just for the sequence where Eleanor Powell dances to “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” from Lady Be Good, in one take. The documentary shows how the sequence was done, with crew moving the set as Berkeley’s camera followed the remarkable Powell.

The plot for The Boy Friend is fairly simple, a highlight of classic 1920s musical.  It was shot on location in Portsmouth, using a flea-bitten firetrap named the Theater Royal, which was destined for demolition. An actor-manager troupe led by Max (Max Adrian) is performing The Boy Friend, but the matinee audience is sparse. When the star of the show, Rita Monroe, breaks her leg after catching her heel in the train tracks, Assistant Stage Manager, Polly (Twiggy) has no choice but to cover for her.

Things get dicey when the cast learns that famous film director De Thrill is in a box seat. The cast begins upstaging one another as De Thrill fantasizes how things would look as an elaborate movie musical in Busby Berkeley style. The audience is treated to spectacular musical numbers which Russell famously shot using only 24 girls while Berkely was famous for using a hundred, many of them such future stars as Joan Blondell, Ginger Rodgers, Una Merkel, Virginia Bruce and others.

The stage story is set at a Girl’s School on the Riviera. Because Polly doesn’t want anyone to know she’s from a wealthy family, she pretends to be a secretary. When she meets Tony (Christopher Gable), a wealthy young man posing as a delivery boy, she’s smitten, as the others prepare for a ball to be given that evening.

Such notable British performers as Bryan Pringle (Pringle), Georgia Hale (Fay), Antonia Ellis (Maisie), Barbara Windsor (Hortense) and Moyra Fraser (Mme. Boubonnet) play it in the style of the 1920s, with lupins on tracks moving across the stage, a cartoonish Riviera beach and sequences featuring two revolving phonographs, a black and white outdoor scene that includes men in wheelchairs being pushed by pretty nurses, human playing cards climbing ladders and a children’s fantasyland, all played against Wilson’s beautiful melodies.

Adding to the mix and making it look more like a genuine old-fashioned MGM musical, “You Are My Lucky Star” and “All I Do is Dream of You” two studio standards by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, heard in Singin’ in the Rain were added to the score. Due to the climate of the times, The Boy Friend opened to mixed reviews and was trimmed after its premiere for general release. Fortunately, when the film was reissued, several sequences were restored, and that’s the version now available on DVD.

The Boy Friend is an absolute delight from beginning to end. Twiggy is charming (she later appeared in such films as Madame Sousatzka, The Blues Brothers and on television appeared opposite Robert Powell as Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion as well as  in episodes of Absolutely Fabulous). She’s a marvelous singer and dancer as well, later starring with Tommy Tune on Broadway in My One and Only and releasing three recordings of songs.

Gable is perfectly cast and equally talented as Tony, with Windsor, Ellis and in an unbilled cameo, Glenda Jackson as Rita making this one of the best movie musicals from this period. Check it out on DVD or stream it online. This film is a genuine treat. Four years later, Russell will make another musical, The Who’s Tommy. It included Roger Daltrey in the title role; Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Jack Nicholson, Tina Turner Eric Clapton, Elton John and others. The movie was far more successful and the material would find its way to the Broadway stage 15 years later. However, while Tommy is a visual delight, it can’t compete with the joy that Ken Russell brought to The Boy Friend!