Monday 3 April 2023, London.
Muriel Box remains Britain’s most prolific female director and was also the first woman to win an Oscar for best original screenplay for THE SEVENTH VEIL (1945), shared with her husband Sydney Box, yet is little remembered today. MURIEL BOX: A WOMAN’S TAKE, programmed by BFI National Archive curator Josephine Botting, at BFI Southbank this May, will be a month-long season that seeks to right that wrong – illuminating audiences about a pioneering filmmaker who led the vanguard for women battling industry prejudice to become a director and used her position to convey her radical ideas about women’s place in society.
Women in post-war Britain were determined not to lose the freedoms gained during the conflict. A key screenwriter of the period with her husband Sydney, Box used her scripts to explore the domestic sphere, underscoring her belief that women could be strong and independent while retaining their femininity. Deftly couching her message in popular entertainment, she subtly shifted the way British cinema portrayed women, giving audiences much food for thought. Always pushing boundaries in her determination to bring controversial subjects to the screen, Box came into conflict with male-run authorities like the Home Office and the censors.
The BFI Southbank season selects 15 films celebrating Muriel Box’s powerful contribution to the British film industry, showcasing her screenwriting and directing talent from a body of work that explored new ways of representing women on screen and helping to shape British cinema through the 1940s and 50s..
The season kicks off with MURIEL BOX: THE ODD WOMAN OUT, on 2 May. In this introductory event, filmmaker Carol Morley, journalist Rachel Cooke and academic Melanie Williams will join season curator Josephine Botting to discuss Box’s career and reflect on the difficulties women still face in making their mark on the industry; despite her trailblazing career, 60 years after she directed her last film, Box’s 13-feature record as director has yet to be beaten.
Films screening in the season include THE SEVENTH VEIL (Compton Bennett, 1941), which saw Box become the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (shared with her husband Sydney); GOOD-TIME GIRL (David MacDonald, 1947) on which Box locked horns with the Home Office when they tried to censor her script; Box’s official directorial debut THE HAPPY FAMILY (1952); and STREET CORNER (1953), which Box recalled as her most pleasurable directing job, employing nearly as many women behind the cameras as in front.
The season includes a Free Seniors’ Matinee: THE MAN WITHIN (Bernard Knowles, 1947) on 22 May, a Technicolor period drama starring Richard Attenborough adapted by Muriel and Sydney Box from Graham Greene’s first novel plus in the regular Projecting the Archive screening slot on 23 May, 29, ACACIA AVENUE (Henry Cass, 1945) in which Muriel Box’s script gently pokes fun at the conventions of marriage and airs her more liberal views on pre-marital sex. Plus Member Exclusive: Library Lates Presents: Muriel Box on 15 May offers the opportunity to quietly discover, research and explore the extraordinary filmmaker’s career through a fantastic collection of books and artefacts.
FILMS SCREENING IN THE SEASON
With a story inspired by Muriel Box’s fascination with new methods of therapy, THE SEVENTH VEIL (Compton Bennett, 1945), co-written by Muriel Box, follows a young pianist whose treatment by hypnosis after attempting suicide reveals what is behind the ‘seventh veil’ of her subconscious and helps her choose between the four men who are in love with her. Jean Kent is perfectly cast as GOOD TIME GIRL (David MacDonald, 1947), a wayward teen whose yearning for pretty things leads her into bad company and down a path of crime. Muriel Box locked horns with the Home Office when they tried to censor her script, which she adapted from a novel by Arthur La Bern.
Muriel and her husband Sydney Box wrote the script for EASY MONEY (Bernard Knowles, 1947), portmanteau film of four stories, each exploring the perils of acquiring ‘easy money, with someone who gets rich by winning the football pools. Box’s scripts often varied a film’s pace and mood by weaving together a combination of dark and humorous stories. The location of HOLIDAY CAMP (Ken Annakin, 1947) makes an ideal backdrop for this, showing the British public learning to enjoy itself again after the war, whilst in contrast focusing on two women
who have lost their partners to war, each coming to terms with it in different ways. Based on Bridget Boland’s play Cockpit, THE LOST PEOPLE (Bernard Knowles, Muriel Box, 1949) focuses on a group of displaced persons who fetch up in an abandoned theatre in Germany after the war. With the conflict over, national tensions soon resurface. Box’s first experience of feature directing consisted of reshooting parts of this film after the star was recast.
THE HAPPY FAMILY (1952), Box’s official directorial debut, is an Ealing-esque adaptation of a topical play, set during the Festival of Britain. The film is also available to UK audiences on BFI Player. Based on anecdotes from real life women police officers working the streets of London, Muriel Box went on record saying STREET CORNER (1953) was her most pleasurable directing experience, employing nearly as many women behind the cameras as in front. Peggy Cummins is terrific as a young mother bored of domesticity. One of the most visually exciting and joyous British films of the 1950s, SIMON AND LAURA (1955) directed by Muriel Box was also an early depiction of the perils of reality TV. The casting of Peter Finch and Kay Kendall as the theatrical couple is inspired – their caustic banter rivalling the best Hollywood screwball comedies.
Set in part on a hospital ward, Box has fun with the diverse group of women in EYEWITNESS (1956), affectionately and astutely portraying female relationships and solidarity in the hospital setting. Comedy film, THE PASSIONATE STRANGER (1956), was Box’s most adventurous cinematically, employing Technicolor fantasy sequences to contrast with the black and white everyday reality. When an Italian chauffeur is taken on by a married couple, the novelist wife writes him into her new book. He finds the manuscript and, believing she’s in love with him, tries to woo her.
Directed from her own original story, THE TRUTH ABOUT WOMEN (1958) is perhaps the ultimate expression of Muriel Box’s feminist ideals, conveying the message that a happy marriage is an equal partnership. Based on Louis D’Alton’s play, which was staged by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, THIS OTHER EDEN (1959) features the cream of Irish acting talent and was the first Irish feature to be directed by a woman. Box’s final film, RATTLE OF A SIMPLE MAN (1964), once again saw her opposed by censors, who found the sensitive tale of a liaison between a football fan, played by Harry H. Corbett and a prostitute, Diane Cilento, highly problematic.
Studiocanal UK have recently restored THE PASSIONATE STRANGER (1957), THE TRUTH ABOUT WOMEN (1957) and RATTLE OF A SIMPLE MAN (1964) and will be releasing them on their Vintage Classics label on 29 May
MURIEL BOX: A WOMAN’S TAKE runs at BFI Southbank throughout May
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