The delights of Muriel Box

A retrospective at San Sebastian reveals Britain’s most prolific female director to be one of its best, especially when it comes to the ambitious satire of The Passionate Stranger or the magical realism of Happy Family.

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Muriel Box at work

Muriel Box at work

At some point this present century, a British woman will direct her thirteenth fictional feature film. Until that day, the astonishing record of Muriel Box – who single-handedly directed a dozen such pictures from 1952 to 1964 – will stand intact. To put Box’s achievement into context, her closest ‘competitor’ is Sally Potter, whose eight features to date span 34 years from 1983 (The Gold Diggers) to 2017 (The Party). Box, taking full advantage of the last real boom-period for British filmmaking and cinemagoing, by contrast churned out her first octet in a mere half-decade.

But while the sheer quantity of Box’s directorial output is a matter of record, the quality of her films – most of which were produced on very limited budgets in cramped time-frames – has seldom been appreciated. That this may be about to finally change is primarily due to the San Sebastian International Film Festival (SSIFF) in Spain’s Basque Country. This September, the 66th SSIFF dedicated its annual Classic Retrospective section – which in recent years has showcased such acknowledged eminences as Joseph Losey, Jacques Becker and Nagisa Oshima – to the woman born Violette Muriel Baker in 1905, and who died as Lady Gardiner, widow of the former Lord High Chancellor, in 1991.

The San Sebastian organisers, who compiled the sidebar in conjunction with the BFI and Lyon’s Institut Lumière, were inspired to turn the spotlight on Box (“a forgotten pioneer rescued from oblivion,” according to their catalogue) following a warmly received 2014 tribute at the Basque Country resort to Dorothy Arzner. Box’s closest American counterpart in numerical terms – she directed 16 films in Hollywood from 1927 to 1943 – Arzner, via the likes of Christopher Strong, Dance Girl Dance and Craig’s Wife, has long been enshrined in the canon of feminist cinema. Box arguably has more in common with Americanised Brit Ida Lupino: her films were all shot quickly and relatively cheaply, with second-tier stars, aimed squarely at the mainstream of commercial domestic cinema. And they made little impression internationally, nor on serious critics either at home or abroad.

The SSIFF retrospective provided a unique and long overdue chance to assess nearly all of Box’s career. A total of 28 films were shown, mostly from digital materials of regrettably variable quality, with only a small handful on 35mm. The dozen solo features were the core of the programme, plus The Lost People (1949, co-directed with Bernard Knowles) and the Children’s Film Foundation featurette The Piper’s Tune (1962). In addition, San Sebastian presented 14 films that Box wrote – usually in collaboration with her husband and regular producer Sydney Box (the pair were also very prolific and oft-performed playwrights in the 1940s).

Ann Todd and James Mason in The Seventh Veil (1946)

Ann Todd and James Mason in The Seventh Veil (1946)

Their biggest success came in 1946 with The Seventh Veil, a torrid psychiatry-themed romantic melodrama starring Ann Todd and James Mason, for which they won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Their competition was illustrious: Ben Hecht for Notorious, Jacques Prévert for Les enfants du paradis, Raymond Chandler for The Blue Dahlia.

The Seventh Veil was a genuine sensation in its day, however, taking more than a million dollars in the USA alone on a budget of just £92,000. At home, it sold nearly 18 million tickets – making it, according to a 2004 BFI survey, the UK’s tenth biggest draw of the sound era. The picture’s roaring success saw Sydney Box appointed to run Gainsborough Pictures; his sister Betty (whose knack for hits saw her nicknamed ‘Betty Box Office’) became its leading producer, and Muriel ran the story department.

When Gainsborough was wound up by its parent company Rank in 1949, Sydney and Muriel struck out on their own as independent filmmakers. After The Lost People, Muriel was set to make her solo directorial debut with a high-profile adaptation of Anthony Thorne’s bestselling novel So Long at the Fair – until star Jean Simmons insisted that she be replaced, foreshadowing similarly ‘unsisterly’ stances taken by Box’s subsequent stars Kay Kendall and Muriel Pavlow.

Stanley Holloway and Kathleen Harrison in The Happy Family (1952)

Stanley Holloway and Kathleen Harrison in The Happy Family (1952)

Despite the social changes sweeping Britain in the immediate post-war era, the idea of a woman directing a feature film was seen as a freakish novelty. Indeed, when The Happy Family (1952) – an Ealing-ish satire about a plucky clan whose shop stands in the way of construction for the Festival of Britain – initially went into production, it was presented as a joint effort between Muriel and Sydney. When the film was released, however (complete with magical-realist finale in which Dandy Nichols’ daffy psychic Ada levitates into the London sky), the direction was credited to Box solo.

The Happy Family’s healthy takings opened a door of opportunity through which the 47-year-old Muriel Box – who had dreamed of such a career since her movie-mad childhood, and doggedly toiled her way up through the industry from extra to typist to personal assistant (to Michael Powell and Anthony Asquith) – now confidently strode.

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17 years after her death, by far the best known of Box’s 12 solo directorial efforts is The Beachcomber (1954), based on Somerset Maugham’s 1931 short story Vessel of Wrath, which had previously been filmed by Hollywood with Charles Laughton in 1938. A period comedy about a colonial governor (Donald Sinden) and the odd characters he meets in the fictional Welcome Islands, the film showcases a typically extravagant turn by Robert Newton as a dissolute expat redeemed by the love of a devout Welsh missionary played by Glynis Johns. With its relatively starry cast, Technicolor palette and exotic locations – footage shot in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) alternates somewhat awkwardly with studio-set sequences – the film has frequently popped up on British television and has long been available on DVD.

This is in depressing contrast to the bulk of Box’s directorial oeuvre, which has remained tantalisingly inaccessible and therefore invisible, contributing to her persistently low profile both at home and abroad. That said, not all of Box’s films have stood the test of time with uniform aplomb: Berlin-set Cold War drama Subway in the Sky (1959) and Too Young to Love (1960), a lurid, courtroom-bound tale of wayward New York teenagers – both of them filmed in Borehamwood – stodgily betray their theatrical origins.

Thomas Mitchell, Pauline Hahn (back to camera) and Jess Conrad in Too Young to Love (1960)

Thomas Mitchell, Pauline Hahn (back to camera) and Jess Conrad in Too Young to Love (1960)

But while Too Young to Love is in dramatic terms frustratingly inert, its subject-matter – which led to trouble with local councils and certification boards – remains startling. The protagonist is Elizabeth, a sweet-looking 15-year-old girl played, in her only film role, by Broadway-trained Pauline Hahn (who, like Box, would become an ardent, campaigning feminist after the end of her showbiz career). After drifting into a scene of marijuana, alcohol, all-night parties and casual sex, Elizabeth has liaisons with a 47-year-old debauchee and, to the absolute horror of her white-bread parents, contracts syphilis.

Time and again, Box used her films to explore social matters and contemporary problems – often foregrounding the role of women. Her first self-directed original screenplay, Street Corner (1953), is a fast-moving ensemble piece shot mainly on real London locations, examining the new phenomenon of female police officers. Her second, Eyewitness (1956) is similarly crime-oriented, an entirely nocturnal affair which – mainly set in and around a hospital in its second half – is as much a tribute to nurses as the earlier picture was to WPCs.

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Her final two films based on her own original screenplays – The Truth about Women and The Passionate Stranger, both co-written with Sydney Box, both released in 1957 – are her most ambitious and complex achievements. After this the Boxes scaled back to more modest theatrical adaptations in black and white, most notably the County Wicklow-filmed This Other Eden (1959), which provided Milo O’Shea with his first proper big-screen role. Dismissed at the time and now almost unknown, this tale of a well-meaning Englishman (Leslie Phillips) bungling into a village dispute over a memorial to a heroic IRA leader plays like a startling collision of John Ford’s The Quiet Man and Jorge Luis Borges’s ultra-short story The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero.

Eva Gabor and Laurence Harvey in The Truth about Women (1957)

Eva Gabor and Laurence Harvey in The Truth about Women (1957)

Muriel Box described The Truth about Women, at 107 minutes by some way her longest work, as “the film personally significant to me above all others”. It is a portmanteau affair in which an elderly aristocrat (Laurence Harvey) reminisces about the numerous ladies in his life, each episode making unambiguous assertions about gender equality and the wrongs of patriarchal oppression. The days of submissive spouses are over: a woman can and should be “an equal partner in the business of life”, as one character puts it.

The Truth about Women – buoyed by vivid turns from Diane Cilento (later to be even more effectively showcased in Box’s final film, 1964’s Rattle of a Simple Man), Julie Harris, Elina Labourdette and Mai Zetterling (who would go on to an important directorial career) – retains considerable charm and humour, and is of impeccably admirable intentions. It is a little undercut, however, by its air of repetitive didacticism, with each ‘life lesson’ experienced by the male protagonist spelled out in large letters for the hard of thinking.

The film has certainly dated much less well than Muriel Box’s other 1957 release, The Passionate Stranger – for several SSIFF visitors including this viewer the highlight not only of the Box retrospective but perhaps of the whole festival. It surely has no serious rival as the most dazzlingly ambitious commercial British film of the 1950s in terms of form and, in its fluent manipulation of meta-fictional levels, now looks several decades ahead of its time.

Peter Finch (centre) and Kay Kendall (right) in Simon and Laura (1955)

Peter Finch (centre) and Kay Kendall (right) in Simon and Laura (1955)

The Passionate Stranger sees Box building on the reality-vs-fiction elements of her knockabout 1955 comedy Simon and Laura. Adapted by Peter Blackmore and Alan Melville from Melville’s play, the latter stars Peter Finch (in one of his first British lead roles) and Kay Kendall as an unhappily married couple who decide, for strictly financial reasons, to play idealised versions of themselves in a kind of quasi-fictional soap opera for the newfangled medium of television. The final act anticipates reality TV by around half a century, as a Christmas special broadcast live turns messily chaotic thanks to the machinations of mischievous child-performer Timothy (a remarkable performance from Clive Parritt).

With The Passionate Stranger, romantic fiction is the target of the satire: Italian handyman Carlo (Carlo Giustini) is employed by an affluent Home Counties couple: wheelchair-bound scientist Roger Wynter (Ralph Richardson) and his wife Judith (Margaret Leighton), a successful novelist suffering a bout of writer’s block. Carlo’s arrival gets Judith’s creative juices flowing and she quickly produces a lurid potboiler in which Carlo and her fictional surrogate enjoy an illicit affair and plot to bump off her inconvenient spouse. When Carlo starts reading the manuscript around the 20-minute mark, the film goes into the fictional universe – and switches from black and white to colour – retelling the whole of Judith’s novel in a rapid-fire 45 minutes. After this, back in monochrome ‘reality’, Carlo now erroneously interprets the novel as a statement of Judith’s true feelings – with amusingly farcical consequences.

Ralph Richardson and Margaret Leighton in The Passionate Stranger (1957)

Ralph Richardson and Margaret Leighton in The Passionate Stranger (1957)

The collision of heightened fantasy and the humdrum realities of 1950s Britain recall the comic peaks of Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours (SSIFF’s 2003 retrospective showcased all of the films Sturges wrote or directed). But Box’s picture is really a true original, one of the most fascinatingly complex and accomplished British films made up to that point. Its status as a forgotten curio now seems as inexplicable as it is unjust: if the San Sebastian Box focus yields no other consequence than the rediscovery of The Passionate Stranger, the retrospective will have been emphatically worthwhile.

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