[19 July 2010]
The actor Diana Dors was Britain’s answer to Hollywood’s ‘blonde bombshells’ of the ‘40s and ‘50s, and this new double-bill DVD from the BFI (in Dual Format DVD & Blu-ray) contains two of her early comedy performances, made at a time when her star was in the ascendant and she was setting many hearts aflutter.
Looking at the span of her entire career, Dors seemed to be on the cusp of international stardom for several years, but her promise and potential were never totally fulfilled. Even during her peak period she had to content herself with looking on from the substitutes’ bench as her American peers – among them Marilyn Munroe – notched up career goal after goal, slowly solidifying cinematic reputations and laying the foundations that made them icons.
Dors, unfortunately, was rarely indulged with the quality of scripts, directors and budgets that would have aided her global profile, yet she was a very charismatic figure, with beauty and talent, and she was certainly in possession of some serious – and criminally underused – acting chops. Both films presented here are mildly diverting and very different beasts, and while they both try to be something they’re not, they also provide a glimpse of Dors at the beginning of her prime, before it became clear that her Hollywood dreams would remain unrealised.
The first film is 1953’s Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary (question mark optional, apparently), which concerns Laurie Vining (Bonar Colleano), an American airman in Britain, who is looking forward to a London break with his new bride, Gillian (Diana Decker). All is fine and dandy until his ex-wife Candy (Dors) appears, claiming they are still married. As Vining attempts to keep the two women separated in the apartment suite, his lawyer, Frank Betterton (David Tomlinson) gets unwillingly drawn into the chaos, as does Vining’s wise-cracking air force colleague Hank Hanlon (Sid James).
So begins a rapid-paced bedroom farce that possesses an ambition that outweighs its means. While Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary has appealing aspects, it also typifies the type of quaint ‘50s British production desperate to imitate the sharp, zingy, achingly glamorous and thoroughly out-of-reach Hollywood romantic comedies of the same period. The film strives to be an urbane, ménage à trois romantic comedy—of the type Cary Grant excelled in—but its aspirations are misguided, its narrative ersatz. It is, artistically speaking, a million miles from the sophistication and quick-fire witticisms of a Grant vehicle, or a sparkling Billy Wilder production.
Part of the problem, particularly for UK viewers, is that throughout the film there are ample signifiers indicative of the modest, low-rent British comedy it embodies. The Carry On series (for the record, I love Carry On films, but hey, they know their place within the family tree of quality comedy) is very well–represented; the film’s screenwriter is Talbot Rothwell, who went on to pen almost 20 Carry On films, each a similar mix of simple bawdiness and innuendo; the Carry On regular Peter Butterworth makes a short cameo appearance as a lift operator; and James, here playing a major role as Vining’s right-hand man, ended up as one of the foremost Carry On stars (incidentally, James’ ‘Noo Yoik’ accent is a peach in this; with his attempts at squawking Brooklynese, he appears to be channeling Bugs Bunny).
In some respects, the film now seems like a precursor to that peculiar strain of British comedy that was a feature of the ‘60s and early ‘70s: simple, fun, fairly titillating, and unashamedly lowbrow (which is fine, but perhaps not what you’re after if you’re going for Howard Hawks).
The performances, despite a script that’s light on creative laughs, are good. The American Colleano—presumably recruited to give some transatlantic appeal—delivers an appropriately flustered and stuttering performance as he darts from room-to-room keeping the women apart, and Tomlinson is as great as ever, his impeccable English charm and patience constantly being tested, teased and poked by the awkward situations he is forced into.
The star turn here is Dors, of course, and she looks terrific. Even at this early stage in her career (she was only 21 when this film was shot) she manages to pitch her confident performance somewhere between a kind of faux-innocence and a knowing and playful sexiness, and it works very well.
From My Wife’s Lodger
The second film on the disc is My Wife’s Lodger (1952), a contrived Northern English familial comedy that makes Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary seem like a towering cinematic achievement by comparison.
Based on the play by Dominic Roche, the film is colloquial and clunky, and follows the fortunes of middle-aged Willie Higginbottom (Roche, in the lead), a recently demobbed soldier who returns home to his family after many years active service to find that his prickly and flighty wife Maggie (Olive Sloane) has taken a shine to the spiv lodger, Roger (Leslie Dwyer). To add to Willie’s problems, his young adult children Eunice and Norman (Dors and Vincent Dowling) seem completely disinterested in their father’s return, preferring instead to indulge in the new-found social freedom their age allows.
At its heart, My Wife’s Lodger represents a brand of long-dead British regional comedy. The poor gags – both sight and verbal—come thick and fast, always complemented by all manner of amateur dramatic-style gurning, although to be fair this film is also hampered by a very low budget. As a consequence of the film’s meagre production values, the narrative’s sparse theatrical origins are inevitably magnified by the film’s low-key, unimaginative and claustrophobic staging.
Interestingly, if you actually forget the rather anaemic comedy, My Wife’s Lodger is actually more engaging as a document of British post-war austerity and social difficulty, exemplified by the script’s tantalising hints at the social trauma wrought by military service, patriarchal absenteeism and the problem of returning jobless and penniless to civilian life.
It’s in this context that the lonely, alienated figure represented by Willie’s character is most ripe for analysis. Perhaps drawing parallels between the hapless Willie and John Rambo in First Blood is admittedly a tenuous cinematic link too far, yet nevertheless the idea of a former serviceman struggling to initiate meaningful post-military human contact, and the repercussions such loneliness can wreak, is perennially engaging and has, with good reason, been examined repeatedly in various genres (think Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Fred in The Best Years of Our Lives, Frankie Dunlan in Combat Shock, John Eastland in The Exterminator and so on).
OK, so the bumbling, harmless Willie isn’t wandering the New York City streets of the ‘70s looking to blow someone away, but it’s still a pertinent comparison. Never mind that My Wife’s Lodger comes across as a hybrid of British music hall farce, Marxesque slapstick, and Coronation Street-style domestic strife, because there are still tiny glimpses of darkness and heartache just visible through the cloying veneer of pantomime silliness.
For example, in his liner notes for the disc, the BFI’s curator Vic Pratt notes the sadness of a scene during which Willie presents some unwanted, ill-judged and childish gifts to his now fully-grown children. It’s a gesture indicative of the extent to which the passing years spent away have robbed him of domesticity and family life, and the chance to see his offspring grow.
Also, during a later scene, the cuckolded Willie and an American G.I., Tex (Alan Sedgwick), get sloshed on whisky, in an attempt to blot out their romantic woes. Indulging in some playful banter, the drunken pair clamber around the dining table, pretending to machine-gun the enemy. Willie, climbing off a chair, gets his leg stuck around the backrest, his panic slowly rising as he clutches below his knee for the ‘missing’ limb, momentarily perturbed by the vision of a combat amputation that never was. With Willie still dressed in his army fatigues, it’s a powerful moment (a version of the same gag appeared years later in the Pryor and Wilder comedy Stir Crazy).
However, despite any allusions to deeper meaning and subtext, the film should be judged primarily as a light comedy, and it certainly falters in this respect. The comedic situations are too slight and reliant on simple wordplay and basic physical slapstick (of the falling-flowerpots-landing-on-heads-as-doors-slam variety) and subsequently the whole exercise never rises above mediocre.
The actors’ performances range from very good (the excellently dodgy Dwyer, latterly Hi-De-Hi’s hilarious Mr. Partridge) to contrived and very mannered (Sedgwick, Sloane and Roche himself). Despite the billing, Dors doesn’t have a great deal to do (although she was clearly enlisted as the requisite eye candy, this isn’t her star vehicle), and she seems out of place and too good for the film. Whereas the other performers generally overact and indulge in all sorts of ‘Ee-Bah-Gum’ histrionics, Dors delivers a subtle, sexy and eye-fluttering performance – even performing a sweet song towards the end - and although her Lancashire accent slips here and there, it’s not a bad performance from the beguiling Swindon lass.
Watching even these minor Dors performances, it’s clear she had genuine talent, and it’s therefore unfortunate that she was unable to sustain any sort of meaningful cinematic career after the success her early work. Sliding quietly and gently into middle age, Dors enjoyed something of a renaissance on the small screen, as a much-loved figure on game and chat shows, and very charming and pleasant she appeared to be too.
Sadly though, much like several of those glamorous contemporaries across the pond, Dors died young, at 52. Although she didn’t enjoy the international status she’d have wished for, she has nevertheless left a good body of films, although Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary and particularly My Wife’s Lodger cannot claim to be representative of her finest work.
There are no extras on the disc, but included are extensive and informative booklets about both films, and their stars and producers too, plus a short and touching article by Dors’ son, Jason.