MOVIE REVIEW : UNCUT VERSION OF ‘THE BOY FRIEND’
When “The Boy Friend,” Ken Russell’s inspired film of Sandy Wilson’s tongue-in-cheek ‘20s musical, was released in America during the 1971 Christmas season, MGM had already trimmed its two-hour, 14-minute running time by 26 minutes. That didn’t prevent it from making the 10 best lists of eight prominent critics or from being Oscar-nominated for best-score adaptation. Yet critic Andrew Sarris complained at the time that “the cuts in ‘The Boy Friend’ are particularly injurious in that they lop off running gags so they are left dangling pointlessly, the surest way I know to make any movie seem longer, with a shorter running time.”
Those cuts have now been restored by MGM/UA Classics’ Michael Schlesinger, and the original version premieres at the Nuart, Sunday through Saturday. It’s a delight, one of the high points of Russell’s extravagantly uneven career. But truth to tell, it does seem a bit lengthy. Had Russell himself chosen to sweat out a reprise here and there from his countless, vivid production numbers he might have avoided the front-office tampering with his continuity and, at the same time, come through with a tighter, punchier film. Even so, “The Boy Friend” is very special to begin with. Those who are going to go with it at all are also likely to go the full distance, as they did with George Cukor’s restored “A Star Is Born.”
When Russell took Twiggy, the pencil-slim Cockney model who was to make her film debut in his movie, to an amateur production of “The Boy Friend” (in a place called Chingford, Essex), the cast got wind of his presence and played to him, to the hilt. From this experience came the concept for his film: turning it into a backstage musical in direct homage to “Forty-Second Street.”
Russell then added two more twists. He has the eager understudy (Twiggy)--who goes on when the leading lady (Glenda Jackson, in a delicious tough-but-tender unbilled cameo) breaks her leg--already in unreciprocated love with the curly-topped juvenile (Christopher Gable). Then he has a Busby Berkeley-like Hollywood director, Cecil B. De Thrill (Vladek Sheybal) show up unexpectedly at the whole amusingly ragged performance: a sparsely attended matinee at Portsmouth’s glorious but seedy Victorian-era Theatre Royal.
The sincerity of Twiggy’s emotion gives poignance to Wilson’s deliberate silliness. So does the presence of De Thrill, which allows us to see much of the musical in his imagination as a Berkeleyesque extravaganza. As a result, “The Boy Friend” plays lots like Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo”: a loving memento of what the movies meant in a Depression-ridden world. It’s also an affectionate tip-of-the-hat to those sturdy provincial troupers who’ll never make it to London’s West End.
Production designer Tony Walton and costume designer Shirley Russell (neither of whom were Oscar-nominated) gave “The Boy Friend” (rated G) the wonderful gaudy look of a ‘20s dance card. (You may recall that the Wilson musical is set on the Riviera at a finishing school for British girls).
The restored footage includes two songs, “It’s Nicer in Nice” and “The You-Don’t-Want-to-Play-With-Me Blues,” and a seven-minute Grecian fantasy in which Twiggy imagines the entire cast in an outrageous yet innocent bacchanal, most of which MGM had cut. This sequence is the most typically Russell-ish portion of the entire film, and its campiness does indeed threaten to push over the top what is already a pretty precious entertainment. Also restored, along with other bits and pieces, is a running gag involving the wife (Anna Jameson) of a two-timing actor.
For all her wistful radiance here, Twiggy did not go on to a major screen career. But several seasons ago she conquered Broadway in “My One and Only” with lanky Tommy Tune--one of the chorus boys in “The Boy Friend.”
‘THE BOY FRIEND’
An MGM/UA Classics release of a Russflix production for MGM-EMI. Writer-producer-director Ken Russell. Based on the Sandy Wilson musical. Associate producer Harry Benn. Camera David Watkin. Music arranger-conductor Peter Maxwell Davies. Choreographer Christopher Gable et al. Production designer Tony Walton. Costumes Shirley Russell. Film editor Michael Bradsell. With Twiggy, Christopher Gable, Tommy Tune, Antonia Ellis, Max Adrian, Barbara Windsor, Vladek Sheybal, Moyra Fraser, Bryan Pringle.
Running time: 2 hours, 14 minutes.
MPAA rating: G (general audiences).