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British Cinema, Melodrama, Womens Film

Fifties British Cinema: Woman in a Dressing Gown (UK 1957)

Yvonne Mitchell (foreground) as Amy in Woman in a Dressing Gown with (from left) Andrew Ray (Brian), Roberta Powell (Christine) and Anthony Quayle as ‘Jimbo’

Woman in a Dressing Gown was re-released on a DCP (digital cinema package) and Blu-ray/DVD discs in the summer. This re-release is slightly more significant than most since the film has been out of circulation for some time – not seen in cinemas, nor as far as I know, on DVD. It’s an important film, representing commercial British cinema of the 1950s at the Berlin Film Festival where its lead actor Yvonne Mitchell won a Silver Bear. Its director and cinematographer Lee J. Thompson and Gil Taylor were leading figures of mainstream genre cinema at a time when the UK’s industry was still operating a studio system. This marked the film out as a different kind of submission to a film festival to which it was usual to send ‘quality pictures’ from David Lean, Carol Reed or Michael Powell – or perhaps Ealing Studios.

However, Woman in a Dressing Gown also marked the beginning of the end of ‘studio British cinema’. UK cinema admissions started to nosedive in 1956 with the appearance on TV screens of ‘commercial television’ and this film was an adaptation of a TV play by Ted Willis previously seen on the new ITV channel. It isn’t evident from the film which is imaginatively shot (although it is possible to imagine it as a TV play in terms of the limited number of locations).

My main reason for writing about the film, apart from wanting to encourage readers to watch it if they can –  because it is very good – is to question the assertions around its status. Very well received and well-reviewed, the re-release has been most often taken as giving us a chance to see a precursor to the ‘British New Wave’, usually argued to begin with Room at the Top just over a year later. I can see that this makes sense, but I’m more open to the argument that it is part of a much longer-running idea about ‘kitchen-sink drama’ related to theatre and TV during the 1950s and 1960s. A few weeks ago I introduced a screening of the film on this basis and you can download a pdf of the notes for that session here: WIDGNotes

Since the screening I’ve had a look at the new digital archive for Sight and Sound magazine (which perhaps we’ll review in the next few weeks). I went to the online viewing copy of the journal from Autumn 1957 and read John Gillet’s contemporary review. I was interested to see that he immediately picked up the TV connection, which must have been ‘live’ at the time since Hollywood films were just beginning to appear on television. He notes that Ted Willis had clearly learned from the Paddy Chayefsky plays that had made the jump from US TV to cinema films (Marty (1955) with Ernest Borgnine was probably the best-known). Gillet likes the film, but he’s not as enthusiastic as critics today. He thinks that Yvonne Mitchell tries too hard at times and he doesn’t like the ‘tricksy’ camerawork of Gil Taylor and Thompson’s cluttered mise en scène. Ironically, the formal properties of the film are now what make it stand out as a good example of 1950s commercial cinema with a real sense of adventure. (The film was shot in academy format 1.33: 1 – which marks it as visually different to the New Wave films that followed in 1.66:1.) I think that serious film studies is also now more accepting of melodrama and therefore Mitchell’s performance.

The DVD of the restoration is well worth getting and the interview/presentation by Melanie Williams of the University of East Anglia is one of the best I’ve seen on DVD. She discusses some of her own research into the responses of female audiences to what was an important film offering a discourse about women’s lives in the period.

The milieu for the film is not ‘working-class’ as many of the reviewers of the re-release suggest. Nor is it a ‘middle-class’ block of flats as Gillet suggested in 1957. Instead, the couple at the centre of the story are lower middle-class – an important distinction in British society. You can see this in the clip released by StudioCanal on YouTube in which Amy, shocked by her husband’s demand for a divorce, rings him at work – where the ‘other woman’ (Sylvia Sims as Georgie) answers the phone. It’s an odd clip to choose as none of Taylor’s cinematic style is evident:

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