Forgotten Movies: Ken Russell's "The Boyfriend"

by AnomalousArtist

In 1971 Ken Russell shocked the film-going world with his subversive vision...a G-rated musical comedy!

Ken Russell was a filmmaker known for his unique style and excessive vision. By "excessive," most critics (and even some fans) are referring to his tendency to use jarring, often profane images, outrageous costume and set designs and eye-popping editing and sound techniques to create film moments that may have be rude, vulgar, upsetting or even obscene but are certainly never dull.

He was little understood in his day and now that he's gone may be appreciated even less. He will be remembered primarily as the director who got Alan Bates and Oliver Reed to wrestle naked in "Women In Love" (1969), or perhaps his "The Devils" (1971) will go down in history as a film that upset a lot of people, particularly censor boards. He may be remembered for the box-office success of the sparkling rock film "Tommy" (1975) or the mind-melting visuals of "Altered States" (1980).

What he will NOT probably be remembered for is his delightful, sassy, extremely clever and endlessly creative film adaptation of a Broadway hit show, Sandy Wilson's "The Boy Friend," and this is a shame indeed.

Farewell, Engraved by Henri Reidel, 1920 (Litho)
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1) Ken Russell

Mr. Russell began his film career shooting commercials in his native Britain.  He went on to direct television movies for the BBC and pioneered a new form of biography along the way, creating his unique style as he went.

This led to Russell directing 1967's "Billion Dollar Brain" featuring Michael Caine and then box-office success with his adaptation of "Women In Love," based on the book by D.H. Lawrence ("Lady Chatterly's Lover").

Russell was given a bit more clout to do his next filim and chose the touchy subject of corrupt religion and witchcraft in the 17th century.  "The Devils"  was a "Ken Russell Film" from beginning to end.  The director established techniques he would use on most of his "big" subsequent films: shock value, heavy symbolism, grotequery and, yes, outrageousness.  Critics and audiences were divided on the film and still are, but it made everyone stand up and take note. 

After  the exhausting "The Devils" Mr. Russell decided to go a different direction and direct something lighter in tone, a filmed version of a successful musical play.  However Russell couldn't help adding his own "mad genius" touch to the project...

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2) Sandy Wilson's "The Boyfriend"

The original London production of "The Boy Friend" opened in 1954 and ran over 2,000 performances.  Author and librettist Sandy Wilson wrote the piece as a gift of hommage to his relatives who had grown up in the 1920s.

A decidedly light piece of entertainment, the story chronicles the developing romance of a young woman and man who may or may not be able to get together and the friends they run around with who are also similarly "twitterpated." 

Containing several simple, catchy, toe-tapping tunes, the show was an immediate success.  The version that opened on Broadway introduced the world to a young Julie Andrews. 

3) A film verison of a successful show...what could go wrong?

Film musicals were a staple of cinema up until the 1950s ("Singin' In The Rain").  The genre hit a snag when television sets became affordable but had a revival with the 1960s "epic musical." 

In the wake of "Sound Of Music" most studios scrambled to come up with a project similar in scope; most of these films ended in truckloads of wasted cash and disappointing box office receipts, and the musical film genre seemed poised to die at last. 

MGM studios had been the reigning champions of the 50s musical, with talent like Gene Kelly and Judy Garland in stock.  However, by the late 60s the "old guard" were out and MGM was ailing.  It's likely the powers that be at MGM were looking for a pioneer to carve a new path for MGM and decided to take a gamble on a fresh, new hotshot director...Ken Russell.

Upon receipt of the simple project Russell set to work trying to figure out how to "complicate it."  He simply couldn’t imagine anyone finding a straight rendition of the source material interesting so he concocted a vision of the film that added layers of interest and intrigue to the original storylines:  He conceived of the film as being a real-time chronicle of a series of amateurish actors PERFORMING the play in a tatty theater, and all the behind the scenes complications that ensue, including the arrival of a famous Hollywood producer who may--or may not--be interested in turning the show the actors are perfomring ("The Boy Friend!") into a movie. 

Russell had to work with a low budget and was required to use 60s fashion model "Twiggy," a newcomer to films who had never sung or danced before, in the lead role!

Mr. Russell had his work cut out for him but approached the challenge with the same enthusiasm he tackled every project he worked on.  Utilizing the talents of his loyal circle of performer and technician friends, Russell set about constructing a film of unbridled imagination and rich, musical joy that was intended to be smart, witty and lots of fun.

4) What went wrong?

Entertainment is a subjective art; what one person thinks is genius another brands garbage. 

Ken Russell was often criticized for making his films so personal no one but he himself could truly understand them.  This was nothing new at the time; popular 60s "art" filmmakers like Goddard, Bergman and Fellini had made careers out of creating films that were hard to decipher.

Ken Russell created a film that was dense with information and very British in tone.  As a film for fans of the director's work, fans of theater and fans of British humor the picture is a cornocopia.  For audiences unfamiliar with the British class system or those who simply didn't want to have to think while they watched a musical, the film was an endurance test and perhaps even a type of punishment.

Loud, boisterous, full of cockney in-jokes and British references, MGM feared the film wasn't going to play in the U.S. and set about hacking away at it, eventually cutting 20 minutes from the film and rearranging some of the scenes. If the original was perhaps a little too dense for American audiences the studio-cut version of the film was nearly incomprehensible. 

"The Boy Friend" came and went with little fanfare and not much in the way of critical appreciation.  In the wake of Russell's powerful "The Devil's" his new film was considered slight and fluffy, an unimportant and meandering mess that even the director himself would eventually regard as one of his lesser films.  In time the movie was buried, not to be seen again for several years.

Around 1988, Ted Turner's production company caught up with the movie and released the "Director's Cut" at a time when such things were just coming into vogue.  The film played on Turner's stations, Showtime and even had a small theatrical run. 

At last viewers could see the unique, original film and, separated from the time of its release, appreciate it for what it was--a sumptuous journey through a brilliant, and slightly mad, director's imagination--and forget what it was supposed to be, a type of "Singin' In The Rain 2." 

While the film certainly didn't become popular it was appreciated in ways it had never been before. 

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5) The film

I have seen "The Boy Friend" many times and with each viewing I notice another level of intrigue to it.  Literally, every frame is stuffed with information--in-jokes, clever asides, subtle foreshadowing of plot points.  Russell makes it look easy as he sets up tier upon tier of plot/character while never losing sight of the joy of a musical, which is the grand production numbers.

The story begins with the arrival of the performers to the run-down theater where they are performing "The Boy Friend" for an audience that is smaller in number than the cast on stage.  Twiggy's character "Polly" is an assistant manager who is forced to cover the role of the star of the show (an un-credited Glenda Jackson).  Polly begins as a mousey dreamer and ends up stealing the show, and the leading man.  Meanwhile everyone in the cast is trying to one-up one another to get the attention of one Mr. "DeThrill," a famous film director sitting in the box seat above the stage.  There are double-crosses, mysteries, pratfalls, burlesque routines, romance and several memorable songs, leading to the expected happy ending. But the REAL reason to see the film involves the big production numbers.

Long before the movie version of "Chicago" popularized the effect, Ken Russell had his characters envisioning fantasy versions of the musical numbers on stage; where there was a sloppy crew of amateurs on a run-down stage with piano and drums for accompaniment in the "real" world, Russell used his plot device as an excuse for his characters to dream up wild, Busby Berkeley phantasmagorias that are not only visually spectacular but intrinsic to the storyline.  Each number tops the last and is carried out with humor, confidence and excitement by the game cast. 

The movie itself works not unlike Russell's later film "Tommy," as a series of inter-connected music videos (some claim his "Tommy" was the father of the modern music video). The film can be enjoyed on at least three levels: as a film about actors putting on a show, as a film of a show and as a series of wildly creative music videos.  Most unique in Ken Russell's canon, it's a genuine "feel good" film that is (mostly) safe for all ages and a genuine good time from beginning to end.

Regardless, the film is so rich with detail it is impossible to get it all in one viewing and deserves to be studied.  In fact, I did a college paper on the editing techniques of just one of the many numbers in the film, a scene involving hundreds of individual cuts.

I consider "The Boy Friend" an art film more than the fluffy entertainment it was pitched as and it saddens me that few people have ever "gotten" the work; it has never really gotten the appreciation it deserves.

"The Boy Friend" finally saw a release on DVD, at least from Warner's "on demand" service.  The print they used isn't as good as it might be but it's better than nothing. 

Aside from the release of some of Russell's films on DVD when he passed away in 2011 I fear the majority of his work is doomed to fade into obscurity, which is heartbreaking. 

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6) My connection to the film

In 2010 I was planning a trip to London for a vacation.  One of my stops was going to be Portsmouth.  It was the location of many scenes from my favorite film, Ken Russell's "Tommy."  My second favorite film, "The Boy Friend" had been filmed at the New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth. 

I was determined to at least see the theater, if I couldn't get inside, and was overjoyed to find out that a screening of "The Boyfriend" was planned to happen...in the actual theater used...the weekend I was going to be in town! 

I was ecstatic when I wrote to the director of the event, which was being put on to raise money to restore the theater (it had been gutted in a fire around the time "The Boyfriend" had been made). 

The event director told me as I was coming all that way to the event it "might be nice" if I could meet some of the guests, including Ken Russell and Twiggy.

I got to attend a private party in the actual theater before the film and got to rub shoulders with the cast, crew and friends who were assembled for the event. 

The crowning moment for me was getting my picture taken with Mr. Russell. I wasn't quite sure what to say to him so I whispered a simple, "that you for your films."  I was rewarded with a sincere wink, and knew I could not possibly have had a more rewarding moment with a film that I have loved most of my life, and was eternally grateful to the people who set up the event, the people who attended it, the director who created "The Boy Friend" and the film itself for existing!

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Updated: 06/02/2013, AnomalousArtist
 
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AnomalousArtist on 06/03/2013

Thank you so much for your kind words, Mira! I'll be curious to see if you can find his films! :)

AnomalousArtist on 06/03/2013

Thank you so much for your kind words, Mira! I'll be curious to see if you can find his films! :)

Mira on 06/03/2013

This article was so wonderful. Love your enthusiasm and knowledge about the film, and what a great ending to the story of your involvement with it (not that it ended with that lovely photo :)... Thank you so much for sharing. I will try to find his films at the British library here in Bucharest, see if I get lucky.

AnomalousArtist on 06/03/2013

Oh cool, another Russell fan, ha! It's hard for me to recommend his stuff to the uninitiated (and even to the experienced!) as he can be so polarizing sometimes. But this one, i thought, was just a hoot, and then it really grew on me, now it's one of my faves (obviously!)

EliasZanetti on 06/03/2013

Excellent recommendation! Ken Russell was (and I guess still is:) one of my favorite directors. I remember back in the 90s before the advent of the dvds when all you could find were the vhs in you local video club I had seen many of his craziest 70s - 80s films (Altered States, The Lair of the White Worm) along with his most 'popular', infamous ones (The Devils, Women In Love). Even if some of them were just mediocre I loved the Russell style.
Never saw 'The Boyfriend' though but your review here has sold me so i'll give it a chance!

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