I spoke of the director Muriel Box (1905-1991) in last week’s Saturday Night Spotlight post when I mentioned that actress/director Mai Zetterling was in one of Box’s movies, The Truth About Women (1957). Now I am turning the Spotlight on Box. I consider her one of the most overlooked names in English cinema history as well as in the history of women directors. She has fourteen feature films to her credit, directed between 1949 and 1964. Box was also a distinguished screenwriter, winning an Academy Award for her original screenplay The Seventh Veil (1945, directed by Compton Bennett), a script co-written with her husband Sydney Box. Another of Muriel’s most famous screenwriting credits was when she collaborated with her husband and with Cyril Roberts to adapt Rafael Sabatini’s novel Christopher Columbus for the screen in 1949, a production which starred Fredric March and Florence Eldridge as Columbus and Queen Isabella. I don’t know if there has ever been a Muriel Box retrospective in any American museums or theaters, but I think it’s high time for one. Her interest in the day-to-day lives of the working-class woman ought to be better remembered.
Street Corner (aka Both Sides of the Law) (1953) – Tackling a subject centered on the female experience in a male-dominated field, much like her own identity as a female director, Box directed a story about women police officers. The leading ladies in the film were all mainstays of English cinema at the time: Anne Crawford (who would pass away from leukemia just a few years later), Peggy Cummins (best known as the “bad girl” from the 1950 noir Gun Crazy) and Rosamund John (whose husband was John Silkin, a Labour MP and Cabinet Minister in the 1960s-80s). Many other notable actors appear in the film as well, including Barbara Murray, Ronald Howard (son of Leslie Howard), Michael Medwin, Dora Bryan, Michael Hordern, Maurice Denham and Thora Hird. As was the case with a number of Box’s other films, Street Corner was edited by a woman, Jean Barker.
To Dorothy a Son (aka Cash on Delivery) (1954) – Box’s comedy of inheritance, a sort of a twist on Seven Chances by needing a person to stay unmarried in order to earn the dough, stars one of Hollywood’s most popular and versatile actresses, Shelley Winters. Based on a play by Roger MacDougall, Winters’ character stands to get millions of dollars from her uncle so long as her ex-husband doesn’t have any offspring. The fly in the ointment is that her former spouse has remarried and his new wife is on the brink of giving birth. Winters must decide whether to steal her ex away from his new family or to somehow convince a judge that the new marriage is not legal. The film co-stars John Gregson as the ex-husband, Peggy Cummins as the new wife (the “Dorothy” of the title), Wilfrid Hyde-White and Mona Washbourne.
Simon and Laura (1955) – This charming comedy stars two notable figures from British cinema at that time, Peter Finch and Kay Kendall (the latter soon to be Mrs. Rex Harrison, although the marriage would be cut short by Kendall’s death in 1959). The duo plays the title characters, whose marriage serves as the inspiration for a television drama that they agree to star in, a kind of precursor to modern-day reality TV. The show presents them as a happy couple but of course there are complications in their lives off the set. Muriel Pavlow, Maurice Denham, Ian Carmichael, Thora Hird and a young Jill Ireland also appear in the film and once again Jean Barker worked for Box as the film editor.
Rattle of a Simple Man (1964) – Here Box directed one of the most beautiful actresses of her day, Diane Cilento, who had just gotten married to Sean Connery in December 1962 and was already an Oscar nominee for her supporting role in Tom Jones (1963). Cilento plays a prostitute, but unlike usual movie conventions, the film is not a tragedy nor is the character a cliché. The story is quite a sweet little romance between Cilento and her shy suitor, played by Harry H. Corbett (later the son in the British sitcom “Steptoe and Son”). As in some of Box’s earlier films, Thora Hird and Michael Medwin have supporting roles, as well as Charles Dyer, who wrote Rattle’s screenplay. This was Box’s swan song when she was not yet 60 years old, but as swan songs go, the film is a beloved one.