Following on from our last post about the film adaptation of The Boy Friend, it might be fun to briefly turn attention to some of the other films from the mad, mad world of Ken Russell…and make them even madder still with a Julie makeover!

As far as is known, other than the cameo role in The Boy Friend mentioned in the last entry, Julie was never directly asked to appear in a Ken Russell film and, on paper, the combination might seem an improbable one. Commonly known, and just as commonly derided, as the self-proclaimed enfant terrible of seventies British cinema, Russell was a filmmaker noted for outrageous excess and anti-establishment iconoclasm. In a series of attention-grabbing films—including Women In Love (1969), The Music Lovers (1970), The Devils (1971), Mahler (1974), Tommy (1975) and Lisztomania (1975)—Russell openly courted controversy with his brand of brash taboo-breaking sensationalism, pushing the seventies cinematic envelope, and equally pushing the buttons of censors and moralists the world over. Coupling highly mannered visuals with outrageously provocative subject matter, usually of a sexual and/or religious nature, his films keyed in to the anti-conformist zeitgeist of the seventies and established the blue print of “the Russell style,” described by one commentator as “a broad gaudy combination of directorial flourish, overblown performance, and lurid, sledgehammer imagery; skulls, crucifixes and scantily clad women are de rigueur Russell” (Allon et al, 296).

The resulting notoriety earned Russell a cult-like pop celebrity that he parlayed successfully, for a few years at least, into surprisingly solid box office receipts, but it also fostered an entrenched resistance to his work amongst the critical establishment. Mainstream reviewers were routinely antagonistic to the point of hostility—to wit, John Simon’s (1975) likening of Russell to “a plague of locusts that…makes its subjects ridiculous and then devours them” (76) or Pauline Kael’s oft-cited description of him as “one of the most reckless movie directors who has ever lived” (Lanza, 5). Moreover, film scholars and historians tended to dismiss Russell as a self-indulgent showman, failing to take him or his work seriously. As Barry Keith Grant (2007) writes: “Unlike many other arthouse auteurs, most notably Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti, with whom he is often compared (or more accurately, contrasted), commentators commonly see Russell as vulgar, tasteless, excessive, peurile, misogynist, and even misanthropic” (182).

There has however been a small, and steadily expanding, chorus of critical support for Russell. Even in the seventies he attracted his share of acolytes with no less an influential figure than Raymond Durgnat (1977) championing Russell as a daring proponent of Rabelaisian grotesquerie and inheritor of the grand British tradition of fantastic anti-realism. It’s a dissenting appreciation that has gained muster in recent years with the appearance of several retrospective studies that aim to rehabilitate the filmmaker’s reputation and his significance to British, if not world, film history. Reframed as everything from “England’s last Mannerist” (Flanagan) to its greatest “absurd surrealist” (Spicer; Lanza), Russell is recast in this work as a pioneering figure, “a unique stylist” and “true original” with an “individual cinematic voice” which was at once “inimitable and unmistakable” (Allon et al, 296).

These retrospective commentaries underscore how Russell’s visual flamboyance, intertextual allusionism, and iconoclastic mixing of high and mass cultures was arguably ahead of its time, anticipating the pop pastiche stylings of later postmodern cine-aesthetes such as Tim Burton, Baz Luhrmann and Quentin Tarantino, and even helping establish the visual grammar of the music video. Of particular note, it is claimed, is the way Russell reworked the popular traditions of narrative genre cinema through imaginative, and ofttimes perverse, stylization. The biopic, the historical costume drama, the horror film and the musical were Russell’s principal field but all were given an ironic twist and contemporary recoding, generally via Russell’s trademark obsession with subverting the decorous surface of social life to expose its seamy underside, complete with mandatory lashings of sex, blasphemy and madness.

It’s at this point that one can possibly begin to peg the stakes of an imagined intersection between the careers of Ken Russell and Julie Andrews. Throughout the seventies and beyond, Julie was openly keen to move beyond the cloying ‘sweetness and light’ image that had dogged her film career since its original incarnation as the world’s favourite nanny and to establish a more capacious image better suited to the rapidly changing spirit of the times. She was especially anxious to distance the asexual wholesomeness of the received persona—what a 1982 New York Times profile described as “the public perception of her as brisk, prim and squeaky-clean” (Bennett)—and reassert a mature and healthy eroticism attuned to the era’s burgeoning liberationist ethos. As she quipped wryly in the aforementioned newspaper profile, ”Does Mary Poppins have an orgasm? Does she go to the bathroom? I assure you, she does”.

Julie’s principal collaborator in these professional attempts to update—and resexualize—her screen image was of course her principal collaborator in life, husband-director Blake Edwards. Blake made few bones about his “personal want to see the sexless Mary Poppins image transform[ed]” and, starting from his and Julie’s first joint effort, Darling Lili (1970), he embarked on a series of films that were centrally invested in promoting what Sam Wasson (2009) terms “his wife’s erotic development” on screen (250). How successful Blake and Julie were in those endeavours is a matter for debate—and other blog entries—but, in the context of the present discussion, it inspires consideration of how a gung-ho iconoclast like Ken Russell might have helped augment these attempts to overhaul and ‘sex up’ Julie’s star persona.

It wouldn’t be drawing too long a bow to suggest discernible parallels between the directorial careers of Russell and Edwards. Both were uncompromising mavericks with a penchant for lowbrow vulgarity and carnivalesque excess, coupled with a fierce intelligence and (over)active visionary style, and both had a reputation as difficult, if not abrasive personalities with a long history of studio conflict (even, as in the case of MGM’s James T. Aubrey, with the same studio exec). Both also drew polarised critical responses with even their most devoted advocates despairing at the increasing solipsism of their late-career oeuvres. While they worked in ostensibly different generic traditions, Russell and Edwards shared a common investment in what narratologists call “body genres”, populist forms such as comedy, horror, and erotica that aim to evoke physical effects in an audience and that are, as a result, typically devalued as vulgar and sensationalist. Indeed, to see the similarities, one only need look at an Edwards film like S.O.B. (1981) where the revised porno version of “Night Wind”, with its hallucinatory mix of half-naked women, leering carnival barkers, and oversized phallic symbols, looks for all the world like a parody of a Ken Russell extravaganza.

Unlike Edwards, however, whose oeuvre was largely male-centered—if only because his preferred genre of slapstick comedy has been an almost exclusively male-dominated forum—Russell made films in which women routinely occupied the central limelight. Even in his early days as a photographer and documentarian, Russell exhibited a definite predilection for female subjects and concerns. As Joseph Lanza (2007) notes, in an era when British culture was obsessed with “angry young men”, Russell “was also interested in the angry young women” (29). This is not to say that his films were necessarily female-positive. Russell’s obsessive hypersexualization of female bodies and his thematic preoccupation with female neurotics, hysterics, and nymphomaniacs don’t exactly jibe with button-wearing schools of liberal feminism. Neverthless, women assume a privileged position in Russell’s cinematic world and the director afforded ample scope for his female actors to stretch their thespian wings. Indeed, Russell had a marked reputation for working with strong female stars, especially British, and the cast list of his films reads like a veritable roll call of the major female acting talent of post-war British cinema: Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave, Jennie Linden, Dorothy Tutin, Vivian Pickles, Georgina Hale, Helen Mirren, and Natasha and Joely Richardson to name just a few.

Of these acting collaborators, Glenda Jackson was undoubtedly the most significant. Not only did Russell helm Jackson’s big screen debut in Women in Love (1969), a starmaking turn that earned Jackson that year’s Best Actress Oscar, but the two would go on to make three other films together—it would have been more but Jackson turned down a few of Russell’s offers including The Devils (1971)—and they would maintain a lifelong, if rocky, intimate friendship. In certain respects, Jackson offers a suggestive corollary to Julie. Though a radically different kind of screen performer—RADA-trained, Jackson was firmly of the grande dame school of theatrical Acting with a capital A—Jackson, like Julie, was saddled with a public image of middle class English propriety, no nonsense brittleness, and awkward, slightly androgynous (a)sexuality (Williams, 2010). Her work with the roguish Russell among others helped Jackson attenuate that aura of bourgeois respectability to reveal a game bawdiness and effervescent levity that she would leverage across a string of hit comedy films—A Touch of Class (1973), Nasty Habits (1977), House Calls (1978)— playing the kind of prim-Englishwoman-letting-her-hair-down role that would have been tailor-made for Julie in this era. Had Julie made a few forays into the mad world of Ken Russell, who knows where it might have led…

Sources:

Allon, Yoram, Cullen, Del  and Patterson, Hanna, eds. Contemporary British and Irish Film Directors. London: Wallflower, 2001.

Bennetts, Leslie, “Julie Andrews: Prim and Improper,” New York Times , 14 March 1982.

Durgnat, Raymond. “The Great British Phantasmagoria.” Film Comment, May-June 1977, pp. 48-53.

Grant, Barry Keith. “The Body Politic: Ken Russell in the 1980s.” Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism. Ed. Lester D. Friedman. Rev. ed. London: Wallflower, 2006.

Simon, John. “Madness, Watchable and Unwatchable.” New York Magazine. 27 October, 1975, pp. 76-79.

Spicer, Andrew. “An Occasional Eccentricity: The Strange Course of Surrealism in British Cinema.” The Unsilvered Screen: Surrealism on Film. Ed. Graeme Harper, Rob Stone. London: Wallflower, 2007.

Wasson, Sam. A Splurch in the Kisser: The Movies of Blake Edwards. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009.

Williams, Melanie. “Staccato and wrenchingly modern: reflections of the 1970s stardom of Glenda Jackson.” Paul Newland (ed.), Don’t Look Now? British Cinema in the 1970s. London: Intellect Press, 2010.

In light of the recent sixtieth anniversary of Julie’s starmaking Broadway debut in The Boy Friend, it’s possibly timely to consider the long and oft-times tortuous journey faced by that “piece of lace” musical in the transition from stage to screen.  It is a journey that, as we shall see, has more than a few Julie connections.

Plans to film The Boy Friend actually go back several decades. When the show first opened on Broadway in 1954, movie musicals were still big business and Hollywood studios would routinely keep a close eye on the latest Broadway offerings looking out for anything that showed promise as a potential film property. The success of The Boy Friend in both London and New York did not go unnoticed and, in 1956, MGM, the studio most closely associated with film musicals in the era, secured the rights for an undisclosed sum (Eames 1975; Wilson 1975).

Preliminary script treatments were undertaken soon thereafter and there were announcements in the trades throughout early-1957 that The Boy Friend would form part of a suite of new MGM musicals to be helmed by the studio’s resident master-producer of the genre, Arthur Freed. There were even unconfirmed casting reports mentioning, variously, Debbie Reynolds as Polly, Donald O’Connor as Bobby, Gary Cooper, David Niven and then Errol Flynn as Percy, and Kay Kendall as Madame Dubonnet (Wilson 114, Ganzl, 647). However, the once indomitable MGM was suffering an extended period of industrial instability from which it would ultimately never recover.  Longtime chief and head of production, Louis B. Mayer, had been ousted earlier in the decade in an acrimonious boardroom battle and his replacement, Dore Schary struggled to steer the studio to calmer waters, eventually quitting the post himself in 1956. Additionally, throughout this period, many of the studio’s musicals were underperforming with major losses incurred on a string of big budget releases including Brigadoon (1954), Deep in My Heart (1954), It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), and Invitation to the Dance (1956). As a result, MGM’s plans for The Boy Friend stalled.

Meanwhile, over at Universal, famed house producer Ross Hunter was harbouring ambitions of his own. Hunter had seen the original Broadway production of The Boy Friend and was, by all accounts, bewitched, both by the show and its leading lady. Nicknamed “the producer with the Midas touch” (Dick, 154), Hunter was known in the business for highly commercial crowd-pleasers that largely fell into two broad camps (with an emphasis on camp): lavish melodramas with long-suffering, virtuous heroines and light-hearted musical comedies featuring girl-next-door types like Debbie Reynolds, Doris Day and Sandra Dee. As such, it’s not hard to see how he might have been attracted to Julie. In the early to mid-sixties, following Julie’s rapid rise to film stardom, Hunter wanted desperately to work with her and developed a number of projects expressly with her in mind. One of these was a much-hyped but ultimately unrealised film based on Peter Shaffer’s drama The Public Eye, which will be the topic of a future Parallel Julieverse post. The other was a screen adaptation of the musical that had so entranced Hunter a decade earlier. In fact, Hunter’s efforts to realise a film version of The Boy Friend went back several years. As early as 1961, prior to Julie’s entry on the Hollywood scene, he was considering it as a possibility for Sandra Dee and had approached MGM in an unsuccessful bid to secure the rights. He tried again in the mid-sixties with Julie in mind but the studio was not prepared to let the property go. Undaunted, the entrepreneurial Hunter commissioned screenwriter Richard Morris to develop an original Boy Friend-style twenties musical as a vehicle for Julie. The result was of course Thoroughly Modern Millie.

While Millie was not an outright adaptation of The Boy Friend, it drew much of its inspiration and a good deal of its distinctive tenor from the earlier stage musical. Like The Boy Friend, Millie was designed as a sweet-natured 1920s pastiche, complete with Cinderella flapper heroine, masquerading millionaires and impossibly hackneyed romantic intrigues, all wrapped up with a knowing comic wink and a jaunty jazz age score. It even recycled The Boy Friend's conceit of having performers address straight to the audience for added humorous effect. And like The Boy Friend, Millie was a major commercial hit, posting record profits when it was released in 1967 and becoming the biggest money-making earner in Universal’s history to that date (Pickard, 52; Nash and Ross, 3401).

The success of Millie renewed hopes at MGM that something might yet be done with The Boy Friend. Numerous items in the trades in 1967 announced that Arthur Freed had dusted off his decade-old plans for a big screen version of the musical and was now set to make it with a cast of American and European unknowns. However, the rapidly changing industrial complexion of Hollywood was hitting the already beleaguered MGM hard and, by 1970, the studio was on the brink of bankruptcy, forced to dismantle its entire back lot and effectively shut down its production schedule (which, as an aside, ultimately nixed the two big Julie Andrews musicals in the MGM pipelines: Say It With Music and She Loves Me). In December of 1970, with little prospect of work and the cultural tide suddenly turned against the Hollywood “old guard,” Arthur Freed walked out of the gates of MGM, the studio he had worked at for over thirty years, for the last time.

No sooner had Freed left the scene when a new and most unlikely figure emerged to take over the reins in The Boy Friend's protracted transition to the big screen: Ken Russell. The self-avowed enfant terrible of the British film and theatre world, Russell had started his career as a photographer and a house director of arts programmes for BBC television before bursting through to global notoriety at the close of the sixties with a series of increasingly unorthodox attention-grabbing films—notably, Women in Love (1969), The Music Lovers (1970), and The Devils (1971). With their mix of wild, almost hallucinogenic, visual excess and shockingly graphic content,  these films tapped perfectly into the era’s iconoclastic pop sensibilities and earned Russell a reputation as an aggressively flamboyant, anti-establishment cineaste. “This is not the age of manners!” Russell crowed with characteristic flourish in a 1971 Time magazine profile, one of many such staged media moments where the director sought to expound his artistic modus operandi. “This is the age of kicking people in the crotch and telling them something and getting a reaction. I want to shock people into awareness. I don’t believe there’s any virtue in understatement” (Lanza, 119).

It came as something of a surprise, therefore, when it was announced that, following the deeply dissident nature of his preceding three films, Russell’s next effort would be a film adaptation of The Boy Friend. To hear Russell (1998) tell the story, the whole thing actually started as a bit of a bluff. At a party hosted by the supermodel and darling It girl of the Carnaby set, Twiggy, Russell claims he was cornered by a nosy journalist to whom he drunkenly blurted that he wanted to make a film star out of the fashion icon by directing her motion picture debut in, mentally reaching for what seemed the most far-fetched proposition, a big screen version of Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend. What had started as a throwaway joke was reported in the following day’s newspapers, prompting a call from MGM-EMI, who still held the rights to the musical, with an invitation for Russell to come in for a planning meeting. Other commentaries (Lawson and Denning, 1998) suggest a more sober backstory, claiming that Twiggy and her then partner-manager, Justin de Villeneuve, had seen a revival of the Wilson musical and thought it might be an ideal vehicle for the model’s acting ambitions and they proposed the project to Russell accordingly. Either way, in April 1971, production started at Elstree Studios on Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend starring Twiggy.

In a visit to the closed set of the film, critic Rex Reed teasingly said to Russell that he feared the maverick director might be “going soft” by choosing to make such an old-fashioned feel-good musical and star vehicle. “Don’t be insulting,” the director retorted archly, “I haven’t begun to shock people yet. I’m just doing therapy” (Lanza, 129). While it is true that, on paper at least, The Boy Friend signalled a radical departure for Russell and it certainly remains one of the most ‘family-friendly’ efforts in his oeuvre, the film still bears many of the director’s trademarks of aesthetic excess and avant-garde iconoclasm. Indeed, Russell’s version of The Boy Friend is less a filmed adaptation of the Wilson musical than a revisionist deconstruction of it.

Employing a ‘chinese box’ show-within-a-show structure, the film revolves around a staged matinee performance of “The Boy Friend” by a B-grade English rep company at a shabby Portsmouth theatre in the late-1920s. Word comes through to the cast that a major Hollywood producer is in the audience scouting for talent. The film then cuts between the on-stage show, backstage machinations, and extended musical fantasy sequences in which various characters live out their dreams through the Wilson numbers, and a few other interpolated songs from the era, which are all reimagined as big time Hollywood spectaculars. Building on the pastiche spirit of Wilson’s show, this multi-levelled narrative structure is used by Russell to develop a probing deconstruction of the classic Hollywood musical’s formal profile, as well a frequently acerbic critique of its core values.

Of particular interest to us here is that, as part of his revisionist flight of fancy, Russell wanted Julie, the original Broadway Polly Browne and also the most recent Queen of Hollywood musicals, to appear in The Boy Friend in a small but crucial cameo (Russell, 162; Lanza, 133). In the film’s backstage subplot, the female star of the company, Rita Monroe, is suddenly incapacitated with a broken ankle and is unable to go on. In a pointed allusion to 42nd Street and other such backstage musicals of the thirties, nervous assistant stage manager and understudy, Polly Browne (Twiggy) has to go on in Rita’s place and, well, come back a star! Russell desperately wanted Julie to play the part of Rita but when, not surprisingly, she proved unavailable, he cast his friend and frequent collaborator, Glenda Jackson.

There is, however, a Julie connection of sorts in The Boy Friend in that the film’s marvellous set design was done by none other than Tony Walton, Julie’s first and, by this point in time, former husband. In an interview exchange that gives a sense of how, for all its surface commercialism, The Boy Friend remained true to Russell’s reputation for artistic flamboyance, Walton recalls that, making the film, he felt “like a child let loose in a candy store. I never dreamed I would have the opportunity to create such things as an Arabian Nights extravaganza, an airplane with dancers on the wings, a giant revolving gramophone turntable for another number, and even a complete Pixieland” (Lanza, 131). Elsewhere, Walton also relates that Russell’s original plan for the film was a much more straightforward transfer of the Wilson property and that the multi-levelled theatre troupe framing device didn’t come to him till a week or two prior to the commencement of shooting, requiring some major overhauling of the art direction.

When it was finally released in London in December 1971, Russell’s The Boy Friend met with a typically divided reception. Many in the critical establishment who were, for the most part, already hostile to Russell’s firebrand style sharpened their knives. Sight and Sound’s Jan Dawson complained that Russell’s film over-indulged the director’s “caricatural vision,” bemoaning how “in a uniquely perverse process, [the film’s] source material is first trivialized, then—in its newly impoverished form—inflated to epic proportions” (Lanza, 131). Dilys Powell of The Sunday Times concluded her review of the film with the memorable put-down: “the talent is there all right. But somehow it is an appalling talent” (Flanagan, 98). While across the pond, Pauline Kael of The New Yorker lamented that “the glittering, joyless numbers keep coming at you: you never get any relief from Russell’s supposed virtuosity” and New York magazine’s Judith Crist carped that the film drowned in “globs and globs of creamy camp overproduction.” Leslie Halliwell simply dismissed the “whole thing [as] an artistic disaster” (Lanza, 135). 

There were positive reviews, however. Writing for the Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel assessed The Boy Friend as a “mostly entertaining, always dazzling trip through Campsville” and John Coleman in the New Statesman praised it as “the perfect objective correlative for [Russell’s] extravagant turn of image” (Lanza, 135). And most everyone had generally warm things to say about star Twiggy with The New York Times reviewer, Roger Greenspun, writing that “Twiggy succeeds beyond all expectation. She dances well, sings well enough, acts with a natural grace, and offers a face that perfectly resists the sometimes exploitative exaggerations of Mr. Russell’s camera”. Indeed, Twiggy’s performance in the film earned her two Golden Globe awards as best newcomer and best actress (musical/comedy) and helped launch the doe-eyed model on a new career as a musical performer. The film also received a solitary Academy Award nomination for Best Music Score but lost to Fiddler on the Roof, a hugely successful film which showed, contrary to the new industrial wisdom, that there was still a strong audience for traditional film musicals.

The awards were not enough to save The Boy Friend commercially, however, and while it posted reasonable box office receipts in the UK, possibly on the back of Russell’s huge public notoriety there at the time, it bombed at the all-important US box office, despite, or possibly because of, being trimmed by MGM of some 26 minutes from its original bloated 134 minute running time. Even Russell largely deemed The Boy Friend a failure. Looking back on the film he wrote:

Twelve reels are too long to tell such a slim tale, and Sandy Wilson’s music, however tuneful, has diminishing returns… Despite the big Busby Berkeley routines, the novelty value of the stage show, the great singing and dancing by the cast…the film was a flop. The acting was too broad, the gags too laboured and the pacing too slow (Russell, 1993: 134).

Nevertheless, The Boy Friend has its share of fans and the film’s certainly not without its fascinations and charms. Retrospective critical commentary has tended to cast a more appreciative light on many aspects of the film (Feuer, 1993; Flanagan 2007). Some suggest The Boy Friend was simply ahead of its time, pointing out that its ironic multileveled structure and intertextual allusionism presage later postmodernist musicals such as All That Jazz (1979), Pennies from Heaven (1981) and Chicago (2002).

It was probably only ever an impossible pipe dream on Russell’s part that Julie might appear in his version of The Boy Friend and, given the film’s generally poor reception at the time, it likely wouldn’t have done her many professional favours career-wise. Nevertheless, it could have been an interesting sidenote to her career and who knows what other opportunities might have presented themselves as a result. Maybe Julie would have become a Ken Russell favourite, appearing in a long line of the eccentric director’s outlandish flights of fancy. Hmm, now that’s an idea for the Parallel Julieverse…

Sources:

Dick, Bernard F. City of Dreams: The Making and Remaking of Universal Pictures. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2007.

Eames, John Douglas. The MGM Story: The Complete History of Fifty Roaring Years. London: Octopus, 1975.

Feuer, Jane. The Hollywood Musical. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Flanagan, Kevin M., ed. Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England’s Last Mannerist. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2007.

Fordin, Hugh. MGM’s Greatest Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996.

Gänzl, Kurt. The British Musical Theatre: 1915-1984. London: MacMillan, 1986.

Lanza, Joseph. Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2007.

Lawson, Twiggy and Denning, Penelope. Twiggy in Black and White: An Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.

Nash, Jay Robert and Ross, Stanley Ralph, eds. The Motion Picture Guide, 1927-1984. Vol. 8. Chicago : Cinebooks, 1985.

Pickard, Roy. The Hollywood Studios. London: Frederick Muller, 1978.

Russell, Ken. Fire Over England: The British Cinema Comes Under Friendly Fire. London: Hutchinson, 1993.

Russell, Ken. A British Picture: An Autobiography. London: Southbank, 2008.

Wilson, Sandy. I Could Be Happy: An Autobiography. London: Joseph, 1975.

The anniversaries are coming thick and fast here in the Parallel Julieverse and this week marks another major milestone: the Sixtieth Diamond Jubilee of the Broadway premiere of The Boy Friend at New York’s Royale Theatre on 30 September, 1954. As has been discussed in previous posts and as numerous commentators frequently proclaim, The Boy Friend was a watershed event for Julie, marking her big trans-Atlantic move to America and her debut on the Broadway stage. Even Julie herself routinely singles out The Boy Friend as one of the three major career-making breaks in her life, sandwiched between the other two: her childhood debut at the London Palladium and the launch of her juvenile career on the English variety circuit, and her later casting by Walt Disney in Mary Poppins and the subsequent transition it afforded to Hollywood superstardom. The Boy Friend signalled, in an appropriately dramatic fashion, the launch of Julie’s relatively condensed but hugely influential decade-long career as the Queen of Broadway. A charming twenties-themed musical pastiche by Sandy Wilson, The Boy Friend had already become a huge hit on London’s West End in 1953/54, with Anne Rogers in the lead ingenue role of Polly Browne, and the decision was made to transfer the show to New York. Rather than disturb the existing London company which was still playing to record-breaking houses every night, the producers decided to assemble a completely new second company and set about casting an all-English troupe of relative unknowns, with the young eighteen year old Julie Andrews tagged for the plum role of Polly Browne. The Broadway production had well documented problems during rehearsal but it opened on September 30, 1954, the eve of Julie’s nineteenth birthday, to glowing reviews, with special fulsome praise for Julie, ultimately earning her a Theatre World Award for Outstanding Broadway Debut. In the year that followed, as she performed nightly in the season’s new hit show, Julie garnered a good deal of media attention—such as here and here and here and here—much of it trumpeting her as the latest toast of Broadway. The Boy Friend in turn led to Julie’s casting in the even bigger hit show, My Fair Lady and, well, the rest as they say is entertainment history.
Apart from its significance to her professional fortunes, The Boy Friend also holds a special place in Julie’s personal affections as well. She speaks very fondly of her time in the show and forged several important lifelong friendships during its run: notably, with costar Dilys Laye, who was Julie’s New York flatmate and who would remain a close confidante right through to her passing in 2009, with producer Cy Feuer who described being so struck by Julie’s “glorious soprano…poise and…raw talent that it sorta took my breath away” (Feuer and Gross, 193), and with composer Sandy Wilson, who remained in regular touch with Julie for decades until his own recent passing in August of this year and who, as discussed in an earlier post, even attempted to develop another show for Julie in the form of a musicalization of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories.
Julie’s affections for The Boy Friend were so strong and enduring that she chose the show as the vehicle with which to make her directorial debut, some fifty years later, when she helmed a 2005 summer production of the musical for the influential Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. By all accounts, the experience was a memorable one for Julie and the production met with considerable acclaim. It enjoyed a very successful national tour and there was even talk of a possible Broadway transfer but it didn’t come to pass.
So this week won’t you please Charleston with me as the Parallel Julieverse marks the Diamond Jubilee of the Broadway show that helped give Julie Andrews to the world. “We scheme about and dream about and we’ve been known to scream about that certain thing called The Boy Friend!”
Sources:
Feuer, Cy and Gross, Ken. I Got the Show Right Here: The Amazing True Story of How an Obscure Brooklyn Horn Player Became the Last Great Broadway Showman. New York: Applause Books, 2003.
Wilson, Sandy. I Could Be Happy: An Autobiography. New York : Stein and Day, 1975.

The anniversaries are coming thick and fast here in the Parallel Julieverse and this week marks another major milestone: the Sixtieth Diamond Jubilee of the Broadway premiere of The Boy Friend at New York’s Royale Theatre on 30 September, 1954. As has been discussed in previous posts and as numerous commentators frequently proclaim, The Boy Friend was a watershed event for Julie, marking her big trans-Atlantic move to America and her debut on the Broadway stage. Even Julie herself routinely singles out The Boy Friend as one of the three major career-making breaks in her life, sandwiched between the other two: her childhood debut at the London Palladium and the launch of her juvenile career on the English variety circuit, and her later casting by Walt Disney in Mary Poppins and the subsequent transition it afforded to Hollywood superstardom.

The Boy Friend signalled, in an appropriately dramatic fashion, the launch of Julie’s relatively condensed but hugely influential decade-long career as the Queen of Broadway. A charming twenties-themed musical pastiche by Sandy Wilson, The Boy Friend had already become a huge hit on London’s West End in 1953/54, with Anne Rogers in the lead ingenue role of Polly Browne, and the decision was made to transfer the show to New York. Rather than disturb the existing London company which was still playing to record-breaking houses every night, the producers decided to assemble a completely new second company and set about casting an all-English troupe of relative unknowns, with the young eighteen year old Julie Andrews tagged for the plum role of Polly Browne. The Broadway production had well documented problems during rehearsal but it opened on September 30, 1954, the eve of Julie’s nineteenth birthday, to glowing reviews, with special fulsome praise for Julie, ultimately earning her a Theatre World Award for Outstanding Broadway Debut. In the year that followed, as she performed nightly in the season’s new hit show, Julie garnered a good deal of media attention—such as here and here and here and here—much of it trumpeting her as the latest toast of Broadway. The Boy Friend in turn led to Julie’s casting in the even bigger hit show, My Fair Lady and, well, the rest as they say is entertainment history.

Apart from its significance to her professional fortunes, The Boy Friend also holds a special place in Julie’s personal affections as well. She speaks very fondly of her time in the show and forged several important lifelong friendships during its run: notably, with costar Dilys Laye, who was Julie’s New York flatmate and who would remain a close confidante right through to her passing in 2009, with producer Cy Feuer who described being so struck by Julie’s “glorious soprano…poise and…raw talent that it sorta took my breath away” (Feuer and Gross, 193), and with composer Sandy Wilson, who remained in regular touch with Julie for decades until his own recent passing in August of this year and who, as discussed in an earlier post, even attempted to develop another show for Julie in the form of a musicalization of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories.

Julie’s affections for The Boy Friend were so strong and enduring that she chose the show as the vehicle with which to make her directorial debut, some fifty years later, when she helmed a 2005 summer production of the musical for the influential Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. By all accounts, the experience was a memorable one for Julie and the production met with considerable acclaim. It enjoyed a very successful national tour and there was even talk of a possible Broadway transfer but it didn’t come to pass.

So this week won’t you please Charleston with me as the Parallel Julieverse marks the Diamond Jubilee of the Broadway show that helped give Julie Andrews to the world. “We scheme about and dream about and we’ve been known to scream about that certain thing called The Boy Friend!”

Sources:

Feuer, Cy and Gross, Ken. I Got the Show Right Here: The Amazing True Story of How an Obscure Brooklyn Horn Player Became the Last Great Broadway Showman. New York: Applause Books, 2003.

Wilson, Sandy. I Could Be Happy: An Autobiography. New York : Stein and Day, 1975.

As anyone in London or, for that matter, just about anyone in the world who reads entertainment news would know, the legendary cult British pop singer, Kate Bush is currently undertaking a record-breaking run of live concerts at the Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith. The reclusive Bush has not given a live performance in over thirty five years since her last gig, also at the Hammersmith Apollo or as it was then known Hammersmith Odeon, in 1979, so understandably the buzz has been extraordinary. Tickets for the 22-show “season” sold out in barely fifteen minutes when they went on sale in March and there has been a huge groundswell of renewed interest in the singer’s recorded backlog, with Bush setting new records as the first female artist in UK history to have eight albums in the top 40 at the same time.

Here in the Parallel Julieverse, we adore Kate Bush…not in quite the same borderline-obsessive way we do Julie, of course, but adore her, nevertheless…and these two, seemingly disparate, musical artistes share a few interesting commonalities. For a start, there are the voices. Though she has never possessed Julie’s purity of tone and, God knows, certainly not her crystalline diction—has anyone honestly ever understood the words to “Wuthering Heights" without recourse to a lyrics sheet?—Kate Bush has an extraordinary voice with an impressive range, claimed by some sources to match Julie’s four octaves, and was especially noted in her earlier career for her extremely high, bird-like soprano.

Like Julie, Bush sires from a southern English, middle class family and sports many of the hallmarks of that particular cultural background: RP Estuary accent, emotional restraint, fierce domestic privacy and general bourgeois “niceness”. Indeed, Ron Moy (2007) argues that Bush is “one of the most resonant exemplars of Englishness in popular music” (58), placing her as part of, among other things, the cultural lineage of the English pastoral tradition of Handel, Elgar, Delius and Butterworth (61) that was equally crucial to Julie’s formative musical training. Also like Julie, Bush started her career at an early age and was catapulted to stardom at just 19, the same age as Julie’s star-making turn in The Boy Friend, when her debut album, The Kick Inside, was released to rave reviews and platinum sales.

And if all that weren’t striking enough, both performers made highly publicised comebacks after a 35 year absence from the stage—in Julie’s case, it was her return to Broadway in Victor/Victoria in 1995…we’ll just conveniently gloss over the fact that, where Julie’s return met with a warm but muted critical response, reviewers have been outdoing each other in the superlatives for Bush’s comeback. And, wait for it, barely three months before Kate Bush hit the Eventim Apollo stage, Julie was treading those very same boards with her two show London stint in An Evening with Julie Andrews, on 30-31 May!

Mere coincidences…or is it, as we fancy here in the Parallel Julieverse, some kind of, hitherto unrecognised, celestial connection? As if the cosmos itself were trying to impart that these two singing goddesses were secretly destined to have been paired. Well, ye gods of the musical heavens, we hear your call and so here they are, together at last: Julie and Kate…and it’s supercalifragilis-babooshka-ya-ya!

Sources:

Moy, Ron. Kate Bush and Hounds of Love. London: Ashgate, 2007.

Thomson, Graeme. Under the Ivy: The Life and Music of Kate Bush. London: Omnibus Press, 2012.

This week marks another significant anniversary in the world of Julie Andrews’ fandom and, ergo, another red-letter day here in the Parallel Julieverse: the centenary of the birth of Robert Wise.

Born on September 10, 1914, in Winchester, Indiana, Robert Earl Wise was a classic Hollywood success story and one of the great studio all-rounders. True to the “self-made man” archetype, Wise started his career at the bottom as a messenger boy at RKO during the heart of the Depression in the early-1930s before working his way up to a junior position in the editing department. Cutting his teeth as an assistant to William “Billy” Hamilton, Wise quickly rose through the ranks at RKO before assuming the position of principal editor on such landmark films as Bachelor Mother (1939),  My Favorite Wife (1939) and, most famously, the two Orson Welles’s classics, Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). The latter film proved rather controversial when RKO wrested control from Welles and charged Wise with both re-editing the final cut and shooting some additional scenes: an unenviable outcome that has seen Wise cast unfairly as the villain in some commentaries on the problem-plagued Welles film. Regardless, these early years in the editing suite furnished Wise with an unparalleled appreciation for the technical construction of film shots and sequences, something that would stand him in very good stead later in his directorial career.

Wise received his first credited directing position at RKO when he was called in at the last minute to replace the original director on the 1944 horror film The Curse of the Cat People. The studio was so pleased with his efforts that, over ensuing years, it assigned ever more important directing projects to Wise, including the melodrama Mademoiselle Fifi (1944), the horror film The Body Snatcher (1945), the Western Blood on the Moon(1948), and several popular film noirs such as  Born to Kill (1947) and The Set-Up (1949).

This extraordinary ability to work with equal deftness across a diverse range of genres is something that would come to typify Wise’s directing career as a whole. Striking out as an independent in the 1950s, Wise went on to helm a host of major pictures for various studios such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951),  Executive Suite (1954), Helen of Troy (1955), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), and I Want to Live! (1958). He would find even greater success in the 1960s as both producer and director on a string of award-winning films including, West Side Story (1961), Two for the Seesaw (1962), The Haunting (1963), The Sand Pebbles (1966) and, of course, the two Julie Andrews musicals, The Sound of Music (1965) and Star! (1968).

The astonishing diversity of Wise’s directorial output has been something of a double-edged sword in critical terms. For the longest while, he was unfairly dismissed by many critics as a “hired gun” whose work lacked the kind of distinctive personal “signature” prized by post-war traditions of authorial film criticism. However, in more recent times, critics have reassessed Wise’s oeuvre and come to recognize him as a major talent whose directorial gift was indeed his versatility and self-effacing craftsmanship. As Richard Keenan (2007) writes:

"The feature films that Wise completed since becoming a director in 1944 represent a cross section of American film genre. In his work, Wise maintains an unshakeable fidelity to the narrative; there are few striking camera angles and few visual flourishes that might distract from what the director considers the primary obligation and responsibility—to present the story to the audience. Robert Wise’s role as an artist of the cinema is invariably subsumed by his role as the craftsmen who uses talent and experience to present a story to his audience that engages, informs and entertains." (viii)

It’s possibly for this reason that Wise would prove such a superb complementary fit for Julie, who shares much of this same reputation for self-effacing craftsmanship and a commitment to the needs of the property and the audience rather than an indulgence in artistic ego. Under Wise’s sensitive direction, Julie would deliver two of her greatest screen performances; Maria in The Sound of Music and Gertie in Star! and the two would remain lifelong friends till Wise’s passing in 2005 at the age of 91. “I would say Julie Andrews is the most talented actress I’ve worked with,” Wise reflected warmly in a 1982 retrospective (cited in Gehring, 164). 

On the occasion of the centenary of his birth, the Parallel Julieverse salutes Mr Wise and honours his great legacy as a master of Hollywood fillmmaking at its well-crafted, populist best.

Sources:

Gehring, Wes D. Robert Wise: Shadowlands. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2012.

Keenan, Richard C. The Films of Robert Wise. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 2007.

Leeman, Sergio. Robert Wise on His Films: From Editing Room to Director’s Chair. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1995.

Marymania: Front Page Round-up…and Fleet Street goes wild!

The (Un)Official Golden Jubilee Portrait: Happy Fiftieth Birthday, Mary Poppins!

The (Un)Official Golden Jubilee Portrait: Happy Fiftieth Birthday, Mary Poppins!

Up where the smoke is all billowed and curled, ‘tween pavement and stars is the Mary Poppins Golden Jubilee Dance Party, and this one promises to create the biggest splash in London society since Mrs Whitbourne-Allen chained herself to the Prime Minister’s carriage….so come on mateys, step in time!

Up where the smoke is all billowed and curled, ‘tween pavement and stars is the Mary Poppins Golden Jubilee Dance Party, and this one promises to create the biggest splash in London society since Mrs Whitbourne-Allen chained herself to the Prime Minister’s carriage….so come on mateys, step in time!

The Golden Queen of the Silver Screen…long may she reign!

The Golden Queen of the Silver Screen…long may she reign!

The Mary Poppins Golden Jubilee Plate…practically perfect for rasberry ice and then some cake and tea!

The Mary Poppins Golden Jubilee Plate…practically perfect for rasberry ice and then some cake and tea!