Posted by KC on Mar 13, 2017
Director Ken Russell's take on Sandy Wilson's stage musical, The Boyfriend (1971), is cheerful and bright to the point of insanity. It's full of colorful sets and vigorous toe tapping, while mod British supermodel Twiggy shines as the effortlessly sparkling center of it all. This unusual film is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.
Twiggy is Polly Browne, a seemingly awkward stage assistant at a small time theater. When the leading lady of the current production breaks her leg, the errand-running ingénue is pushed into the spotlight; apparently it is part of her job duties. Her director gives her the same pep talk Warner Baxter gave Ruby Keeler in 42nd Street (1933), but instead of prancing onstage to entertain the masses, she faces an uninspiring sprinkling of bored daytime patrons.
No matter though, because there is a Hollywood director sitting in a box above the stage who is looking for new talent. Everyone but Polly performs directly for him (even Russell's camera), which of course makes her irresistible to him. The newly-minted stage star is oblivious to it all though, focusing all her attention on her dreamy blonde co-star Tony (Christopher Gable), on whom she has a devastating crush.
Whatever shape this big and boisterous musical took onstage, it has fully translated to the screen as a Russell production. The wild-eyed boldness of his style is a good fit for the always-on energy of show people. Supernaturally long and lean Tommy Tune clicks his heels in impossible ways as he dances down the hallway of the theater, demonstrating the inborn drive to perform, but it is also simply fun to watch this unusual dancer at play, and Russell seems to know it.
The action is divided into three parts: backstage intrigue, the company's stage production, and a series of larger-than-life dream sequences. The backstage bits glue everything together, setting up alliances and rivalries. Onstage, you get not the glamour, but the effort of performance: scenery squeaks, makeup is garish and you feel every bit of the strain on the dancer's calves and strenuously grinning faces. The fanciful joy of musicals, where you have distance from any sense of effort on the part of the players is in the fantasy elements, where boisterous woodland frolics are alternated with the kind of kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley-style dances that could never work in a theater.
This juxtaposition of intrigue, sweat and glitter is presented with outrageous costumes, dramatic sets throbbing with color, and chorus girls with enormous wide-open eyes. Watching it is to gorge yourself on sensation. The Boyfriend may be G-rated, but it still has the sensual, overblown thrust of a Russell production.
While the spectacle has its appeal, it can also be disturbing. When you can see the seams in a production, it begins to lose its charm. Uneven floorboards and the sound of stomping, rather than lightly tapping feet dilute the magic. While having all the elements of a musical, this is also a rebellion against its artifice.
Though she is the focus of the film, Twiggy seems almost untouched by the insanity. Polly has not been seduced by the spotlights and the bone-thin model seems much the same. She is an unaffected and natural performer. It's delightful to watch her run through the hallways of the theater with a little spring to her step, very much the flapper.
It must have been a surprise to see how a woman famous for her long eyelashes and pixie persona was also an intensely charismatic performer and delightful vocalist (she sings in a simple, but smooth way that is a lot like Janet Gaynor's style in her early 1930s musicals) . There's a subtle, entrancing confidence to her that is unusual in any actress, let alone one who had so little experience.
For the most part the Blu-ray image is good, though in some of the outdoor scenes the color is a bit washed out. The bold colors and bright silvers of the costumes and stage sets are presented to satisfying effect. The sole special feature on the disc is an entertaining vintage featurette about the movie filmed at the time of production.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.