This month marks 30 years since the death of Muriel Box, Britain’s most prolific female feature director and the first British woman to win an Academy Award for best original screenplay. That script, for 1945's The Seventh Veil, was inspired by recent developments in mental health treatment, and Box's interest in current affairs and social issues was a major influence on her work.
Her career took off in the postwar years when the industry was turning away from morale-building films and exploring the grittier side of British life. The government was becoming concerned about the levels of violence on screen, with films like Brighton Rock (1948) and No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948) provoking an outcry due to their perceived depravity. Against this backdrop, Muriel and her producer husband Sydney Box often found themselves having to negotiate with government bodies to get their films made.
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A delve into files in The National Archives’ (TNA) collection reveals some of the problems the couple faced in relation to two of their films, which came to the attention of the state for very different reasons: Good-Time Girl (1948), which Muriel co-wrote, and Street Corner (1953), which she co-wrote and directed.
Good-Time Girl (1948)
Directed by David MacDonald, noirish crime drama Good-Time Girl was based on a novel by Arthur La Bern and follows 16-year-old Gwen Rawlings (Jean Kent) as she leaves her unhappy home, falls in with small-time criminals and ends up being sent to a reformatory, or ‘approved school’, by the juvenile court. Here, she gets involved in a fight, is seen drinking, smoking and intimidating a younger girl, and finally absconds during a riot in the dining hall. After further escapades, she meets two deserters from the American army and gets mixed up in a murder. The film is available to watch for free in the UK on BFI Player.
The film came to government attention before it was completed when, in May 1947, the magazine Picture Post printed a two-page spread of photographs of a riot scene at the approved school. This provoked several angry letters to the Home Office, with the files at TNA revealing official disquiet with the way the film portrayed such schools.
Run by the Home Office, the schools were designed to remove young offenders from bad influences or dysfunctional home lives, giving them education and training in the hope that they could be steered away from crime. But, in the film, the reformatory is depicted as a place where girls, far from being rehabilitated, are further corrupted by their fellow inmates. In addition, the Picture Post article explicitly linked the film with the actual case that had inspired La Bern’s book, the ‘cleft chin murder’ committed by a Swedish-born deserter from the US army and a young English waitress, Elizabeth Jones, in 1944.
One letter to home secretary James Chuter Ede, written with the permission of Jones’ parents, objected to the film’s obvious parallels with her case, while one women’s organisation wrote: “it is felt by people dealing with the delinquent girl that this film gives a completely untrue picture of their treatment and will be extremely harmful to any young people seeing it.”
The Home Office sent representatives to see the finished film, and their conclusions did nothing to allay concerns. The consensus of opinion was that the approved school scenes were “a complete travesty of the truth”. The home secretary went over the Boxes’ heads and wrote to J. Arthur Rank, head of the Rank Organisation, which was financing and distributing the film, to try to get changes made. He expressed his disappointment:
“the film conveys that the girl … got no effective assistance from the institutions which are provided … to help young people who have gone astray” [and] “bears no resemblance to approved schools as they are now; and draws a wholly misleading picture of the girls and the staff.”
Of course, it was never the intention of Box and her co-writers to cast aspersions on government institutions, and the idea that cinema would be viewed by audiences as anything but fiction may seem patronising. Nevertheless, the pair wrote an extra scene to try and off-set the damage.
In the new scene, a matron (played by Nora Swinburne) highlights the need for better teachers to apply to such schools. This actually made things worse by implying the problem was due to inadequate staffing, which was the responsibility of the Home Office. The association with Elizabeth Jones was equally hard to tackle since raising the matter before parliament would draw more attention to it and could cause her parents more distress.
The home secretary had no authority to ban films, so Sir Alexander Maxwell of the Home Office met with Sir Sidney Harris of the British Board of Film Censors to consider whether they could refuse to pass the film. Although Harris appreciated that the film was damaging to the efforts of approved schools and juvenile courts, the BBFC couldn’t justify rejecting it on the grounds that it misrepresented the approved school system or that it drew a link with Jones.
One or two local authorities did ban the film, but this generated publicity that risked creating more of a buzz and encouraging filmgoers to seek it out. J. Arthur Rank was a very religious man, from a Methodist background, and he maintained that the aim of the film was to educate the country’s youth about the dangers of pleasure seeking. Conversely, it was the view of some women’s groups that the film revelled in its protagonist’s decadent lifestyle. The question of whether cinema had a corrupting effect on impressionable minds was very much at the core of the debate.
The correspondence on Good-Time Girl demonstrates that government was anxious to protect its institutions from criticism, and the Boxes came up against resistance to other projects that year. Muriel Box was summoned by Sir Sidney Harris to discuss an original screenplay by J.B. Priestley called Tober and the Tulpa, submitted to the BBFC in November 1947. Despite her insistence that it was “a film with something important to say”, it had to be abandoned over Harris’s objections to the portrayal of a psychiatric institution.
However, a file concerning one of their later films, Street Corner, shows that the government was prepared to actively support the Boxes if a film could be used to present a more favourable image of state institutions and promote government interests.
Street Corner (1953)
Street Corner was to be a female version of Ealing film The Blue Lamp (1950), following the work of women officers in London’s Metropolitan Police. By now, Box had graduated to directing, despite the prevailing view that women could not command the respect necessary to head a film crew. This was her second sole feature directing credit.
Sydney Box sought approval for Street Corner from the authorities well before filming began. As well as maintaining good relations, they needed police support to ensure accuracy and to keep the budget down by providing access to locations and equipment.
Collaboration on Street Corner began in early December 1951, with the police commissioner laying out the conditions on which assistance would be given. One key stipulation was an involvement at the script stage, leading to protracted negotiations as the producer’s desire for lurid and melodramatic events came up against the police commissioner’s insistence on authenticity. Shooting didn’t start until the following September, partly due to “innumerable battles with Scotland Yard” over the production.
TNA’s file includes no less than four treatments and various script iterations peppered with comments from the Met’s public information officer, Percy Fearnley, and Chief Superintendent Elizabeth Bather, who were keen to facilitate a realistic and sympathetic portrayal of modern policing.
From these notes, it’s clear that the Met had little patience with screenwriters and found much to quibble with, from the number of shifts officers did to their tea-drinking habits. More importantly, it was observed ”the stories are, in the most part, so completely improbable and in no way give a true picture of our work.” The writers were felt to be heavily influenced by Hollywood gangster films: “the dialogue is ‘smart alec’ and I don’t think any of the policewomen have the manner and approach of the real women.”
To try and address this, Box was assigned a police advisor, WPS Lambourne, and the Met also loaned props and equipment such as radio cars and uniforms. The inclusion of a police dog called Rap was suggested by the force itself, with a dramatic scene written in for him. Rap’s CV shows that he had assisted in 12 arrests since finishing his training, and the intrepid Alsatian appears in a climactic chase scene, apprehending the villainous Ray (Terence Morgan) as he tries to escape across a London bomb site.
One of the commissioner’s reasons for supporting the production was the hope that the film would encourage more women to apply to the force, hence his desire for realism rather than a depiction of it as a glamorous occupation. Just as women film directors told ‘women’s stories’, female police officers mainly dealt with women and children who got involved with the law. Thus, the events concocted for Street Corner include a young mother caught shoplifting, a female army deserter guilty of bigamy and a neglected toddler.
Box’s contribution can perhaps be detected in the film’s emphasis on the compassionate side of policing embodied by the female officers, who try to get to the heart of the social problem behind the crime rather than demonising the guilty.
Whether or not Street Corner was a successful recruitment tool is not recorded, but the government files held by TNA tell a fascinating story about the state’s views on cinema and its attempts to control it, whether to avert negative publicity or promote its own aims.
This was just one of the obstacles that hampered Box’s efforts to get her ideas on the screen in the form of feature films reflecting postwar society and the importance of women in building it. Trying to make a mark in a man’s world was a challenge in itself, but Box’s strength of character and belief in her own talents made her a trailblazer in changing the fortunes of women in the British film industry.