Our latest fantastic blog is from stipend holder Melanie Williams, Professor of Film Studies at the University of East Anglia. Melanie explored our collections, especially the Rank Scripts we acquired in 2020, for her research on Muriel Box, Britain's most prolific female filmmaker, but discovered other stories about women working in the British film industry, including another Muriel...
Earlier in the summer, I was lucky enough to be able to spend a few days at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, exploring a range of materials related to women’s work in British cinema (made possible by the Museum’s visiting researcher stipend). I was there partly to continue my ongoing work on the filmmaker Muriel Box, only recently garlanded with a long-awaited BFI retrospective of her films and a wonderful BBC radio documentary by her great advocate Carol Morley. Accessing the museum’s collections, I was able to read materials relating to Muriel’s screenplays for the socially-conscious melodramas Good Time Girl (1948) and Portrait from Life (1948), her jointly-written screenplay adaptation of Graham Greene’s Across the Bridge (eventually made into a 1957 film directed by Ken Anakin, with a screenplay credit for Guy Elmes and Denis Freeman, but very close to Muriel and Sydney Box’s take), and her scripts for her standout directorial achievements, both from 1957: the metafictional meditation on romance, The Passionate Stranger and the feminist exploration of different women’s lives through their common paramour, The Truth about Women.
Publicity still of Muriel Box on the set of Easy Money with Sydney Box and Greta Gynt. (EXEBD 53830)
It was great to be able to think about script development through comparing different versions of the same film; for example, the Italian chauffeur who causes a stir in The Passionate Stranger had begun life as a Frenchman, with attendant differences in his representation as an idealised foreign lover in the narrative. I was also able to consult coverage of Box’s productions in the postwar trade press as well as in popular movie magazines Picture Show and ABC Film Review, including a report from the set of Box’s police drama Street Corner (1953) that found her ‘in businesslike slacks seated on the mobile camera, watching every movement, determined to squeeze the last drop of emotion out of player and scenario.’ (Edith Mepean, ’Round the British studios’, Picture Show, 10 January 1953, p. 11)
Advert for The Passionate Stranger (Daily Film Renter, 8 February 1957 EXEBD 34825). The featured image at the top of the blog is an advert for The Truth About Women (The Daily Cinema, 22 January 1958 EXEBD 68971)
Muriel Box’s draft screenplays are not a stand-alone collection at the museum but instead constitute a small part of a much larger archival holding of scripts from the Rank Organisation, one of the key cinema empires of 20th century Britain. As Anna Rose Craig highlighted in her earlier blogpost (recently reblogged by the Women’s Film and Television History Network, UK-Ireland), there is a wealth of fascinating material there, including lots of work by women scriptwriters. There is also a lot of screenplay work that never made it to full fruition on the screen, and sometimes considerable overlap between the two categories, prompting thoughts towards Alix Beeston and Stefan Solomon’s concept of ‘the feminist incomplete’, as set out in the introduction to their recent edited book on unfinished films Incomplete. If film history is littered with the bones of dead projects, promising projects that nonetheless for some reason found themselves held up, halted, ignored or deliberately quashed (or stolen and repurposed), then that applies doubly so to the work of women filmmakers, whether writers or directors or both, who were frequently denied agency and a voice in an industry arranged along deeply patriarchal lines.
I was keen to look at as many script materials of female provenance in the Rank archive as I could squeeze in over a few days, made and unmade, the good, the bad, and the ugly, from brief initial treatments through to fully mapped out screenplays. In the course of this intense deep dive, I read many fascinating pieces of work and intriguing fragments pointing towards films often not made but richly realized enough to run in my head as I read the script. Some highlights were former Ealing studios employee Diana Morgan’s lyrical 1955 adaptation of Dodie Smith’s novel I Capture the Castle, Penelope Mortimer’s adaptation of her own 1954 novel A Villa in Summer (which already signalled the writer’s ongoing interest in women’s restricted lives, with this outburst from the frustrated young housewife and mother: ‘I drudge away in this beastly little box!’), and Bridget Boland’s 1947 treatment for Tired of Love (a.k.a. Face Value), about one young and one middle-aged woman of different classes in fin-de-siecle Paris magically swapping bodies. I was also fascinated to read the work from Gillian Freeman – of later Leather Boys fame - on a film entitled The Gooseberry Bush, about a group of pregnant women of differing backgrounds and situations attending the same antenatal classes, and finding their lives becoming intertwined. Freeman’s script notes, dated 4 April 1957, are remarkably clear-sighted about all the humbug attendant on the cult of maternity that reigned supreme at the time, promulgated in classes and literature for expectant mothers, noting with a delicious side-eye how phrases like ‘glory of motherhood’ and ‘moment of joy’ to describe childbirth were ‘indoctrination’ in which ‘mysticism and anatomy are interwoven’. Medical comedy was all the rage in the fifties – from Doctor in the House to Carry On Nurse – but it seems an honest comedic look at pregnancy and childbirth may have been a little too far beyond British cinema’s comfort zone at the time.
However, one of the most intriguing writers whose work I read was one with no screen credits at all. This was another Muriel, Muriel Sly, who worked on a number of film projects in the late 1940s, none of which seemed to go forward into production. This is in spite of the liveliness and verve in her writing, and apparent match with the public tastes of the time. I read two draft scripts of Smugglers’ Rest , a yarn that tried to do for the Essex marshes what Daphne du Maurier did for Cornwall in Jamaica Inn (although not mentioned in the scripts, it looks like it may have been based on Bruce Comyn’s 1946 novel of the same name). It centres on two very different sisters, plain and put-upon Anna, forced to work hard at the family’s inn, and pretty but self-regarding Sarita, sent away to school to become a proper lady. Both sisters become entangled with handsome strapping smuggler Jake, and Sly conveys Anna’s desire for him very compellingly in her script: ‘She looks out of the window and sees Jake, stripped to the waist, sluicing himself under the pump in the yard. Once again, adoration shines in her eyes.’ (p. 21 of first draft). A revised version spent more time with Sarita as a rebellious schoolgirl expelled for bad behaviour and made clearer Jakes’s preference for Anna over her duplicitous sister. It had all the makings of an atmospheric Gainsborough bodice-ripper but it never went forward onto the floor, perhaps because it would have been too much of an overlap with 1947’s intense smuggling melodrama The Man Within (adapted by Muriel and Sydney Box from Graham Greene’s first novel – at the time when Sydney had been placed in charge of production at Gainsborough studios). Another lively historical romance Sly scripted was Child of My Sorrow (possibly from Neil Bell’s 1944 novel), featuring an even more audaciously desiring heroine, Barbara (the same name as Margaret Lockwood’s Wicked Lady) who tells the hero outright she wants him as her lover. She is also an older woman, and a Svengali figure who gives her handsome protégé a new aristocratic identity, the Comte D’Artois, and fashions him to become the talk of Regency society (‘you are pleased with your… creation?’, one character euphemistically asks her). All goes well until the Comte falls in love with another woman, to Barbara’s fury. There are scenes in ballrooms, and in travelling circuses, and in Newgate prison, and although it may be tosh, it is superbly engaging tosh. I found it impossible to read without envisaging Stewart Granger in the lead male role, and Barbara would have offered a wonderful opportunity for a performance of female vengeance and power from one of the great British actresses of the period. But it was not to be. Nor was Sly’s work on a Shakespeare biopic, possibly drawing on but also expanding Clemence Dane’s 1920s stage play Will Shakespeare (broadcast on BBC television in 1938 and on radio in 1940). This version of the great man’s life refuses to ignore or disparage Anne Hathaway, but makes clear Shakespeare’s frustrations and need to break away, while also treating Mary Fitton, the alleged dark lady of the sonnets, as a steadfast, self-sacrificing heroine, striving to save Shakespeare from religio-political ignominy, rather than the rather fickle figure she’d previously been depicted as. It moves along at a clip, and is full of intrigue and incident while also making space to honour some of Shakespeare’s most powerful speeches and sonnets. But perhaps again, it was unfortunate overlap in the production slate that caused it to stay in development hell. The Boxes’ biopic of another great writer, The Bad Lord Byron (1949), was not a success, so depending on the timing of the project, it may have been nixed because of this flop, or called off to prevent too much of a literary biopic glut. There is no accompanying correspondence to verify this, or even to be certain of exact dates of all the screenplays or if they were to be Gainsborough productions, although it seems likely.
Muriel Sly has proven an enigmatic figure. Doing good work on a range of projects, nonetheless she was never able to see one of her scripts enter production (as far as I know, but the possibility of her working under a pseudonym means that this is hard to confirm). Further research on her suggests a much broader writing career than screenplay work alone – and I must express my thanks here to Matthew Bailey and Richard Farmer for helping me with further investigation into the mysterious Ms Sly. A Putney resident, second of two daughters in what appears to be a solidly middle-class family, Sly was an aspiring writer from her school days onwards, entering poetry competitions and getting work published in New Stateman and Society (including a ribald rhyme about chimpanzees), and during the war was a writer in the photographs division of the Ministry of Information. She also worked as a freelance writer during the 1940s, with assignments ranging from mooted biographies of comedian Tommy Handley and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and a radio drama on the composer Berlioz. A production of her play The Stranger was broadcast on the BBC Home Service in 1957. Under what we strongly believe to be her married name of Muriel Pike, she wrote about caring for tortoises for The Times in 1969, and in 1980 edited The Piddle Valley Book of Country Life, about her adopted home since her relocation – in retirement? – from Putney to Dorset. This Muriel Pike, if indeed it is the same woman as Muriel Sly, died in 2009.
The comparison between the two Muriels is interesting. I am by no means suggesting that one is well-known while the other toiled in obscurity; rather that there are different degrees of visibility at work in understanding their different careers in British cinema around the same period. Muriel B has at least been interviewed, and got to write an autobiography, had papers she could donate to the British Film Institute, and above all else, got to make some films, most of which we can see (more easily now they’ve been made available on blu-ray). All we have left of the film career of Muriel S, which was clearly just one component of a broader portfolio career as a writer, are some archived scripts for films that never got made, and whatever else can be gleaned through other sources. But she too is worthy of our attention, especially if we want to understand with greater nuance and granularity the operations of the film industry ecosystem in Britain in the 1940s, and the relative wins and losses of the many women working within it.
Caption: a resonant image reminding us of the range of women’s script-related work, usually anonymous, including typing and printing scripts, from the back page of Rosemary Anne Sisson’s 1960s screenplay for the historical romance Weep No More My Lady.
- ← Previous: ‘Make them work for the gold.’ A few notes on the visual style of Bill Douglas, as illuminated by his working papers by Rastko Novakovic
- Next: The History of Campus Cinema according to the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum By Lewis Merritt →