Written, produced and directed by Ken Russell, The Boy Friend isn’t merely one of his most exuberant films, which is already saying plenty, but it’s his happiest and most joyful.
Russell began with a solid structure provided by Sandy Wilson’s hit stage musical of the ‘50s, itself a self-conscious pastiche of ‘20s musicals. The original West End production became one of England’s longest-running shows, while the Broadway version introduced Julie Andrews to America. The year before this film was made, a Broadway revival starred Judy Carne and Sandy Duncan. It was part of a schizophrenic wave of ‘20s nostalgia that was hitting the culture with such items as the 1967 film Thoroughly Modern Millie (with Andrews) and the 1971 Broadway revival of No No Nanette at the same time that taboo-breaking projects explored contemporary themes.
Russell presents the show as a cheap production in a run-down, poorly attended seaside theatre, although even Tony Walton’s tattiest set designs look improbably spectacular, not to mention Shirley Russell’s costumes, which dress women as dice and lanky Tommy Tune at one point as a skyscraper.
The hoary clichés of the understudy (Twiggy) who goes on in place of the broken-legged star (uncredited Glenda Jackson) and the various backstage romantic mix-ups are handled as briskly and winkingly as possible, and indeed everyone gives elaborately theatrical winks to the big Hollywood director (Vladek Sheybal) who comes to see the show as a possible inspiration for one of his Busby Berkeley-esque movies. Thus, Russell injects nods to everything from 42nd Street (1933) to Singin’ in the Rain (1952). The latter is mentioned by name, and Russell interpolates two of its recycled songs, “You Are My Lucky Star” and “All I Do Is Dream of You”, two actual ‘20s ditties.
As a lover of creativity and fantasy, Russell lavishes details of the production’s mistakes and shortcomings, presenting these flaws as lovingly as the increasingly elaborate and surreal numbers that mix what’s happening on stage with how various characters imagine them to be, until it’s impossible to separate the levels of reality. Numbers even occur backstage where the audience can’t see them. The key to Russell’s attitude is that even though the whole thing is a send-up, he loves the homely spit-and-bailing-wire reality just as much as the perfectly polished eye-popping fantasy, for one always contains the other. You just have to be willing to see it.
Christopher Gable plays the pretty co-star mooned over by our heroine while Murray Melvin plays another actor mooning over her from the sidelines. Max Adrian is the impresario, Antonia Ellis the bitchy rival, and Bryan Pringle and Moyra Fraser the older acting couple with their own problems. This is the second of only three films for stage legend Tune, previously in Hello Dolly (1969); he and Twiggy reunited in the Broadway hit My One and Only (1983).
Russell’s output has commonly been criticized for excess and unevenness, which he didn’t think were flaws. This film is among his most consistent, although MGM cut 25 minutes from its original release. What’s now on a Warner Archive Blu-ray, upgrading their old on-demand disc, is the full 136-minute version with intermission, and it looks glorious. The non-glorious extras are the trailer and a contemporary promotional short that interviews Russell and Twiggy.