BRITISH CULT CLASSICS: Woman in a Dressing Gown / DVD Review

While director J. Lee Thompson's legacy might lie in the thrillers and action films of his post-British work - from the heights of The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Cape Fear (1962) to the exploitation lows of Death Wish 4 (1987) - his reputation, and ability to diversify, was certainly qualified in the post-war films made in Britain and his contribution to the so called 'social problem' genre. Something of a half-way house between this genre - maturing with the introduction of the X certificate in 1951 - and the arrival of the 'social realism' of the British New Wave is his once neglected but now well regarded Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957).

Although the 'social problem' film's origins stretch back to the late 1940s and early 1950s, with Brighton Rock (1947) and The Blue Lamp (1950) as significant examples, the X certificate's introduction gave greater freedom in the articulation of adult themes and the burning issues of the day. Gang thriller Cosh Boy (1953), cautionary tale of under-age exploitation 'Beat' Girl (1959) and several films in the Basil Dearden and Michael Relph canon, Frieda (1947), I Believe in You (1952), Violent Playground (1958), Sapphire (1959) and Victim (1961) are all fine examples of this sub-genre, many of which set out to break certain taboos about delinquency, homosexuality, racism and the impact of institutions such as the probation service and the police. Thompson's own track record with this style of cinema, although perhaps not rendered in as exploitative a manner, began with the blackmail saga The Yellow Balloon (1953), The Weak and the Wicked (1954) and Yield to the Night (1956). The latter two films are the first in Thompson's group about the lives of women  - the former based on the memoirs of Joan Henry, 'Who Lie In Gaol', and the latter based on her novel with its tale of a condemned murderess reflecting the debates surrounding the Ruth Ellis case. Henry would play a vital role behind the scenes and work, uncredited, on the script for Woman in a Dressing Gown and eventually married Thompson.

"... ordinary Britons negotiating the social structures of postwar Britain"
Woman in a Dressing Gown also emerges at a particular period of critical mass gathering in British literature, theatre, cinema and television. It is commonly asserted that the British New Wave in cinema officially commenced with the release of Jack Clayton's Room at the Top (1958) which, although stylistically conventional, was unafraid to attack a stultifying post-war class system, resist the return to deference and explore the raw emotions in relationships between men and women.

It and the films that followed were, as Richard Armstrong notes, "fed by the 'Angry Young Men' of 1950s theatre, the verisimilitude of Italian Neo-realism and the youth appeal of the French New Wave... [and] brought wide shots and plain speaking to stories of ordinary Britons negotiating the social structures of postwar Britain."1 This was an avowed move away from previous cinematic depictions of the working class as tokenistic and patronising and an overdue recognition of regional voices as well as an attempt to build upon the documentary style 'realism' of the Free Cinema movement of Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Jack Clayton, Tony Richardson and John Schlesinger.

Thompson's film was developed from a television play by Ted Willis. Willis was one of many writers attempting to create contemporary dramas for television and had written the original treatment for The Blue Lamp that he'd later turn into Dixon of Dock Green (1955-76) and would then contribute several plays to ITV's Television Playhouse and Armchair Theatre, including 'Hot Summer Night' an interracial romance well ahead of its time and which Roy Ward Baker would remake as 'social problem' picture Flame in the Streets (1961). Woman in a Dressing Gown (TX 28 June 1956), as Lez Cooke indicates, was probably written for Associated Rediffusion's Television Playhouse some weeks or months before the debut of that well-acknowledged New Wave catalyst, Osborne's play 'Look Back in Anger', premiering at the Royal Court in May 1956. Cooke suggests that a greater influence on Willis were the 'live' television plays on US television, such as Paddy Chayefsky's Marty (NBC 1953) and Rod Serling's Requiem for a Heavyweight (CBS 1956) and their emphasis on "naturalistic dramas focusing on ordinary people."2

Willis and Thompson embraced the notion of independent film production and recognised that working as independents within the ABPC studio system would enable them to test the commercial viability of a film "which has been made because someone really wanted to make it and devoted time and talent and salty sweat to its conception". He and Willis formed a partnership with Frank Godwin, a freelance producer and former Rank production assistant, with the intention to make "socially aware films about the lives of ordinary people".3 Their involvement in Godwin-Willis and, later, Allegro to produce Woman in a Dressing Gown and another Ted Willis script, No Trees in the Street (1959), was scuppered by ABPC's Robert Clark whose impenetrable contracts allegedly tempered their radicalism when neither of them saw very much of the money that the films made for the studio.
... the detritus of Amy's status as non-domestic Goddess
Thompson's placement of women at the centre of many of his British films is also seen as vitally important and Melanie Williams, who provides an insightful analysis of the film on this disc, sees Thompson's assertiveness in this regard within the context of "the eclipse of the female stars of British cinema" by male stars (an effect that would continue into the equally male-dominated New Wave) and argues that Thompson's films "often deal with women who find it difficult to fit in with the norms of the age... presenting their world sympathetically from within."4 Woman in a Dressing Gown's use of melodrama and Thompson's exaggerated mise en scène indicate and underscore the subtext of the disintegration of a marriage and a family unit and the dissonance between style and subject that John Hill sees on a parr with the work of Douglas Sirk, who also explored the contradictions beneath American bourgeois society within the framework of melodrama and 'women's pictures'.5

The opening of the film establishes the family at the centre of the narrative, the scruffy Amy (Yvonne Mitchell) in her stained dressing gown, husband Jim (Anthony Quayle) preparing to shave and son Brian (Andrew Ray) getting ready to go out. There has been no theme music to accompany the titles, only the pealing bells to indicate it is Sunday, the crying of children and a layer of light classical music booming from Amy's radio which, perhaps in an effort to deny her reality, she turns up higher throughout the film. There is no dialogue. Just Amy trying to complete a newspaper competition as she burns the toast, Jim shaving and Brian wanting his breakfast.

Thompson picks this out through a combination of close ups and shooting through various structures. We get unappetising close-ups of the burnt breakfast, cuts to Amy momentarily picking some burnt crumbs off her self and the rituals of washing and dressing. Thompson frames these through the cooker, hanging washing, unmade beds and the detritus of Amy's status as non-domestic Goddess.

However, Thompson's style was attacked at the time by Jean-Luc Godard for its 'maddening' 'lunatic' and 'pretentious' qualities but, as Williams suggests, the entire point was to emphasise the chaotic domestic environment and behaviour that Amy exhibits. There's a feverish, restless quality to these scenes that suggests the chaos that Amy surrounds herself with is simply the projection of underlying problems in a marriage that has slipped into suspended animation. Amy is full of unresolved promises to do something about clearing the house up and continually feels she must provide evidence that she works hard and 'has been on her feet since seven'. The constant soundtrack of syrupy music seems to paper over the cracks, reinforcing the view that the music, which is a constant reference in the film, is a prop for Amy to reassure herself and her family that on the surface everything is fine. This chimes with Williams's view that the film captures a sense of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, a proto-feminist study of the lot of the so-called 'happy housewife' published in 1963, and "the disparity between image and reality that Friedan sees as the cornerstone of women's discontent".6

Intentionally, Amy is quite an annoying, often unsympathetic character at the start of the film, hectoring over the music she plays too loudly and pushing into Jim to sew a button on his shirt as he tries to eat his breakfast. The look on Anthony Quayle's face and the developing tension is enough to foreshadow the crisis that is about to play out. Jim is not going to work and is actually having an affair. Later, when she throws Jim's cigarettes to him and they end up in a puddle at his feet and when she detects a grey hair and claims she's 'not as old as all that', Thompson foreshadows her tragi-comic fate after she learns about the affair and attempts to win back her husband by getting her hair done and wearing a nice dress. Our sympathies shift from Jim's desire for a quiet, settled life with another woman to Amy's emotional rites of passage as her attempt to rescue her marriage is constantly thwarted through no fault of her own.
... the emotional and physical encumbrances of marriage
The woman Jim is seeing is Georgie (Sylvia Syms) and initially Thompson only lets us glimpse her through the door, her back to us, as she answers the phone - suggesting a cool, clandestine, femme fatale - before revealing her to be a clean, tidy, immaculate ideal and the calm antithesis to Amy. Thompson glamourises Georgie with a big close up on Syms's face as she embraces Jim. As they discuss why Georgie is attracted to him, Thompson dissolves to another sequence where, as the sound of church bells dominates the soundtrack, he frames Jim and Georgie preparing Sunday dinner through a set of bars over the window, slowly dropping down until it begins to rain before another dissolve to a shot that frames them through the shelves of a bookcase.

This is symbolic of the domestic claustrophobia that constrains all these lives and the sheer baggage that accompanies and obscures them and is a motif that crops up again and again throughout the film as the pressure builds on the relationship between Jim, Georgie and Amy. There is an interesting parallel here too as Georgie asks Jim to confess about the affair to Amy and we learn that he has promised to do so "over and over" just as Amy has promised constantly to put her own house in order. Georgie's apartment is elegant but spartan, a signature of a young life not yet lived, not yet cluttered with the emotional and physical encumbrances of marriage. It is also an incredibly quiet space and their conversation is only accompanied by the rain on the window. This places emphasis on the way music is used as a contrasting liet-motif in the scenes with Amy, scoring her emotional disturbance.

Amy's world is one in which she is distracted by her pride in chaotic multi-tasking. In a poignant scene where Jim struggles to tell her about Georgie, she seems oblivious to his introversion and is more concerned about a depressed neighbour's deteriorating relationship. Jim also finds that his love for Amy has become obscured and devalued by the accretion of objects and tasks that Amy surrounds them with. To generate this effect a theatrical performance from Yvonne Mitchell is harnessed to Thompson's bold visual style and Steve Chibnall notes that Thompson was keen to work with actors who had this sort of range and that her theatrical extremes were a result of his own direction at a time when naturalism and 'method' were beginning to have an impact with emerging young actors.

Mitchell's performance is all shrill denial until Jim finally announces to Amy that he is leaving her, then Mitchell dials the whole effect back and a rather wounded woman emerges. There's a particularly moving scene which tips the film over into full blown tragedy as Amy crumbles emotionally in the dimly lit bathroom while, in juxtaposition, her son and his girlfriend dance to a raucous jazz record. Mitchell then uses the meeting with Syms's Georgie to finally disgorge a few home truths about Jim, allowing Amy to burst into life and snarl away at her replacement and a husband on the defence. It is consistently good and at some moments finely tuned with a great use of physical tics and body language and as Syms explains, in her interview on the disc, women hadn't really been portrayed like this on the screen before.

One of the stand out sequences is, of course, when Amy sets about making the flat clean and tidy and opts to pawn her engagement ring to afford a hair do. After she pleads with the stylist to make room for her that afternoon and then leaves the salon with her new style, the stylist and her assistant exchange a look that suggests they too have experience of the situation that Amy is coping with, the struggle to keep a marriage or relationship alive while at the same time coping with the weight of society's ideal of the domestic housewife. It is here that your sympathies for Amy are cultivated because despite her best efforts ("I was going to be so cool") to face Georgie with dignity, external factors conspire against her - the travails of missing a bus in the pouring rain and then tearing her best dress compounded with drowning her sorrows in whisky. Significantly at this point, the stained dressing gown, that symbol of domestic imprisonment, slips back onto her shoulders and the dining table collapses and spills its contents across the floor, negating her efforts to tidy the flat and demanding she remain locked into domestic depression.

In the end, Georgie and Jim do leave together but Jim returns, realising that a life with Georgie would likely be a brief one and, as Amy rightfully points out, he would be living with a woman who still has to learn to know "a man inside out and still love him", and the family is patched back together. However, as Melanie Williams notes, the film ends with many questions left to be answered. The trust between a man and wife has all but evaporated and one wonders what effects will this have on their teenage son and his relationships with women. Will Amy conform to the role of domestic Goddess and will Jim remain faithful if she doesn't? And is that what this man really wants from his wife - "the habit of living together"? Judging by Amy's insistence on cranking the radio up - "let's have a bit of music" - as Jim and Brian contemplate their lot, this could be a long process, especially when Thompson zooms in on Jim's face as for a moment he seriously considers what he may have lost by returning to the status quo.

Ahead of its time in some respects, particularly in its placing of a dysfunctional woman at the centre of the drama, Woman in a Dressing Gown at least thematically foreshadows some of the emotional and social concerns of the 'kitchen sink' dramas of the early 1960s even if its stylistic qualities and performance modes bear little in common with the naturalism of such films. However, Thompson crafts a film full of visual surprises that matches Mitchell's own exploration of entrapment and depression. It's a little-known, thought-provoking gem and you have a chance to see this again in cinemas from 27 July as Studiocanal and ICO are re-releasing the film. Here's a full list of play dates.

Notes:
1 Social Realism - Screenonline
2 British Television Drama - A History
3 British Film Directors: J. Lee Thompson
4 Prisoners of Gender: Women in the films of J. Lee Thompson
5 Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1956-63
6 British Cinema of the 1950s - A Celebration

DVD Special features
Interview with Sylvia Syms (8:17)
Interview interspersed with caption cards asking specific questions about how she became involved in the project, the portrayal of women and working class people in the film, how she felt about the character of Georgie.
Interview with Melanie Williams (20:52)
Williams has written extensively on the film and on women in British cinema of the 1950s. She spends some time unpacking the origins and meaning of the film, it's importance as a social drama about women, Thompson's work prior to Dressing Gown and the film's subsequent success.
Audio interview with producer Frank Godwin (6:15)
Godwin sheds some light on his meeting with Ted Willis and their developing partnership at the Unity Theatre which nurtured the talents of Lionel Bart, Michael Gambon and Warren Mitchell in plays that were political and contra to the 'who's for tennis' productions in the West End. He also talks about Willis's TV version of Dressing Gown and the adaptation of it for cinema. He also mentions the film's disastrous handling in the US by Warner Bros and the long-term financial consequences.
Stills gallery
A small selection of mainly behind the scenes production stills of Thompson at work.
Trailer

Woman in a Dressing Gown
ABPC / Godwin-Willis Production 1957
Studiocanal DVD Catalogue No: OPTD2359 / Release date: 13 August 2012 / Cert: PG / Running Time: 95 mins / Region 2 / B&W PAL / Feature Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 / Feature Audio: Mono 2.0 / English Language

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