The Boy Friend (1971 film)

The Boy Friend is a 1971 British-American musical comedy film directed by Ken Russell and starring Twiggy, Christopher Gable, Tommy Tune, and Max Adrian with an uncredited appearance by Glenda Jackson.[3] It is an adaptation of the musical The Boy Friend by Sandy Wilson. It was released on DVD on April 12, 2011.

The Boy Friend
Directed byKen Russell
Produced byKen Russell
Harry Benn
Written byKen Russell
Based onthe musical by Sandy Wilson
Christopher Gable
Max Adrian
Tommy Tune
Brian Murphy
Barbara Windsor
Vladek Sheybal
Music byPeter Maxwell Davies based on the original score by Sandy Wilson
CinematographyDavid Watkin
Edited byMichael Bradsell
Distributed byMGM-EMI (UK),
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (US)
Release date
  • 16 December 1971 (1971-12-16) (New York, US)
Running time
137 minutes (original)
109 mins (US)
CountryUnited Kingdom
United States
Budget$2.3 million[1][2]
Box office$3 million (in US)[2]


The plot exists on three levels.

First there is the frame story, where, in the south of England in the 1920s, a struggling theatrical troupe is performing a musical about romantic intrigues at a finishing school for young women in the south of France. As well as weathering ongoing backstage dramas, and audiences that are smaller in number than the cast, two extra stressors arrive: a famous Hollywood film producer turns up to see the show, and Polly, the mousy assistant stage manager, is forced to go on when the leading lady breaks a leg. As Polly struggles to keep her cool while acting opposite the male lead who she secretly loves, the rest of the company backstab each other as they try to impress the impresario.

Next there is the musical itself. Four of the girls at the school are very forward and acquire boy friends, but Polly is shy and has nobody to take her to the carnival masked ball that night. Tony, a messenger boy from a dress shop, brings her a costume and the two young people are struck with each other. They meet again in the afternoon and reach an understanding, she pretending to be only a secretary, so as not to seem above him socially. He comes to the ball and, when unmasked, is recognised as a peer's son. So Tony and Polly are both rich and can marry openly.

Thirdly, there are extensive fantasy sequences in the film, during which the characters' dreams and hopes are enacted in music and dance without words.




The musical premiered on stage in November 1954 and had been a notable success, running for over five years in London and helping make a star of Julie Andrews. MGM bought the film rights in February 1957. Ernie Martin and Cy Feur were attached to produce with the cast to possibly include Debbie Reynolds and Carol Channing. New songs would be added and some of the script changed.[4] In January 1958 they announced the film would be made that year with Debbie Reynolds.[5] However the film was not made. In February 1961 Reynolds said the project was one of three at MGM she would "love to do" (the others being Jumbo and The Elsie Janis Story) but "they're just not making musicals these days."[6]

A few years later Ross Hunter, who had tried to buy the project originally but been outbid by MGM, offered to buy the rights off the studio but they wanted $450,000 for it. Hunter decided to make his own musical in the same vein resulting in Thoroughly Modern Millie.[7][8]

In June 1970, MGM and EMI announced they would make four films together, with each company putting in £1 million. The movies would be Get Carter, The Go-Between, The Last Run and The Boy Friend.[9] Robert Littman was head of MGM's European operations.[10] The film was made after Get Carter and The Go Between and was the first movie from a newly formed company, EMI-MGM Film Productions Ltd.[11]



Ken Russell was friends with the model Twiggy, who wanted to get into films. (In 1968 they announced she would star in The Wishing Tree directed by Russell but it was not made.[12]) Twiggy had been the most famous model in the world but had retired from that for 18 months before the film.[13]

She had seen a revival of The Boyfriend and suggested that Russell direct her in a film version. Russell says he told a journalist as a joke that he was doing it, and an executive from MGM contacted him saying they had the rights for years but could never figure out how to do it. The executive felt that the "twenties stylisation" of the musical worked on stage but not on film. "It's mannered and stilted and the cardboard characters never come alive".[14] They asked Russell if he was interested in trying an adaptation and he agreed. "Honestly that's how it all came about," said Russell.[15]

MGM were concerned about Twiggy but Russell said "give me three months and I'll have her dancing like Ginger Rogers and singing like Judy Garland."[16]

Her boyfriend and manager, Justin de Villeneuve, acted as producer. "Justin swears she can do anything," said Sandy Wilson before filming began, "and I would think he's probably right."[17]

"The dancing nearly killed me," said Twiggy.[18]

Christopher Gable

The male lead was Christopher Gable, who suffering from a chronic condition in his feet, had left the Royal Ballet to pursue a career in acting.[19]

Gable recalled. "Twiggy was just great; she may be skinny but she's tough. The musical itself was not enjoyable. By a musical's very nature, one has to be relentlessly cheery, the kind of person who always smiles, and, therefore, always dances. After four months, you don't feel like it."[20]

Ken Russell

Dan Ireland thought Russell was motivated to make the film in part in response to the controversy of The Devils (1971).[21] Russell admitted he did it "to prove to people I'm not totally deranged. I love the innocence and charm of musicals."[15] Filming started in April 1971, only ten days after Russell finished work on The Devils. During filming Russell said the film was "supposed to be a holiday after The Devils - just entertainment. It's turned out to be the hardest picture I've ever made."[22]


Sandy Wilson's 1920s-style music was arranged by Peter Maxwell Davies, who had provided the score for The Devils. Davies added music for a dream sequence. Russell added two numbers from Singing in the Rain especially for Twiggy, "You Are My Lucky Star" and "All I Do Is Dream of You".[23]


Filming took place over eighteen weeks, finishing in September. The big production numbers were shot at Elstree Studios in London and the rest at an old theatre in Portsmouth.[22]

"I know The Boyfriend will be one of the greatest musicals of all time," said Russell. "I only have 24 girls instead of 300 but the Busby Berkeley musical numbers and dream sequences will knock you out. I'm directing it like a tacky stage play in the provinces that is being visited by a big Hollywood director. You see the big fantasies as he visualises them in his head. It will be fantastic!"[15]

"His main problem is containing himself," said associate producer Harry Benn. "He has so many ideas going through that brain of his, his problem - and ours - is to contain himself."[22]

Russell said during filming that de Villeneuve was feeling jealous and left out, affecting Twiggy's performance, so Russell tried to keep him away from the set. He says at one stage de Villeneuve threatened to pull Twiggy out of the film. This caused tension between Russell and Twiggy, although they would eventually reunite while Twiggy ended her relationship with de Villeneuve in 1973.[24]

When the film was over Russell said "I'd always wanted to do" a musical "but never again. It's like trying to rebuild the pyramids when everyone's forgotten how they did it. The simplest things confounded us like those marvelous dark glossy Hollywood floors. We had to try so many materials to paint the floors. We'd get the color the girls would dance on them and they'd be ruined."[25]

Proposed Follow Up

De Villeneuve wanted to star Twiggy and Tommy Tune in a follow up, Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance, but the film was never made.[13] Twiggy and De Villeneuve broke up in 1973. Twigger and Tune reteamed on the popular show My One and Only.

MGM Edits

Head of MGM James Aubrey ordered 25 minutes be removed from the movie for its US release.[21] Michael Laughlin, director of the film Chandler which was also cut by Aubrey, claimed Russell said he was going to Los Angeles to "murder Jim Aubrey". Russell denied this, saying he said he was going to Los Angeles to murder Rex Reed (a columnist who had been critical of Russell), and pointing out he was making his next film, Savage Messiah, for MGM. He said if Aubrey wanted to cut the film that was his prerogative.[26]

Among the material cut for the US release was:

  • two songs, "It's Nicer in Nice" and "The You-Don't-Want-to-Play-With-Me Blues,"
  • a seven-minute sequence where the character played by Twiggy imagines the entire cast in a bacchanal, and
  • a running gag involving the wife (Anna Jameson) of a two-timing actor.[27]

Russell wrote the cuts meant "all the relationships in the last reel became completely meaningless."[28]

He later claimed he should have cut the film "during the script stage but, determined to be faithful to the original show, I kept in everything! It was left to MGM, who financed the film, to do the job for me. A gorilla in boxing gloves wielding a pair of garden shears could have done a better job."[29]

Russell was one of many directors unhappy with changes made to their film by Aubrey at MGM during this time.[30]


The film had simultaneous premieres in London and New York.[31]

Box Office

In January 1972 the Los Angeles Times reported the film was "raking in big grosses already in New York and LA."[26] In October 1972 Russell said "what the public wants its sex and violence, not family films. I made The Boy Friend and no one went to see it." However by that stage the film had earned $3 million in the US.[2]

In June 1974 Jack Haley Jr of MGM said the film had made the studio "several hundreds of thousands of dollars" in profits. He put this down to the fact that the film only cost $2.2 million. "The property wasn't that expensive because it had a nice score but no hits. Twiggy was an international personality but other than her there were no major expenses for talent." It also helped the film was made in England. Haley thought if it had been made in Hollywood "the cost would have run to more than $5 million on which MGM would have taken a good sized loss."[32]

In his memoirs Russell called the film "a flop".[29]

Critical reception

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, "Even when he’s not deliberately doing Berkeley takeoffs, (Ken Russell's) camera is so joyless that it undermines every scene".[33]

Roger Greenspun wrote in The New York Times: "I am surprised to find that it is rather greatly to my taste; partly because it is often as witty as it is elaborate, partly because it works its variations on the fully recognizable and still quite wonderful Sandy Wilson words and music, and partly because it is supported by a charming and energetic cast".[34]

In 1973, Fred Astaire said "I don't like it when they rib the old movies and make them look silly," specifically referring to The Boy Friend.[35] However according to director Richard Quine Astaire "fell in love with" Twiggy watching the film and recommended that Quine use Twiggy in W (1974).[36]

Sandy Wilson said in a 1994 interview that he disliked the film. "I recognise some of the tunes. If it made a star out of Twiggy, well... But she's faded out long since. To give Russell his due, it didn't belong on the screen at all."[37]

Russell later wrote of the film in his 1994 memoirs The Lion Roars:

Despite the big Busby Berkeley routines, the novelty value of the stage show, the great singing and dancing by the cast... plus the brilliant designs of Shirley Kingdon and Tony Walton, the film was a flop. The acting was too broad, the gags too laboured and the pacing too slow. I should have cut it during the script stage, but, determined to be faithful to the original show, I kept in EVERYTHING![29]

Awards and nominations

The National Board of Review voted Ken Russell best director, and Twiggy won 2 Golden Globe Awards as best newcomer and best actress (musical/comedy).

The film was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Music, Adaptation and Original Song Score, losing to Fiddler on the Roof.


In 1987, a version of the film was released with the 25 minutes cut out put back in. The Los Angeles Times called this version "a delight, one of the high points of Russell's extravagantly uneven career. But truth to tell, it does seem a bit lengthy."[27]

See also


  1. Twiggy--an Elegant Cockney Elf Haber, Joyce. Los Angeles Times 13 Feb 1972: v15.
  2. McGovern Buys Tux in Beverly Hills Haber, Joyce. Los Angeles Times 18 Oct 1972: e13.
  3. "BFI | Film & TV Database | The BOY FRIEND (1971)". 2009-04-16. Retrieved 2014-03-08.
  4. 'Boy Friend' Musical Will Have Star Cast Hopper, Hedda. Los Angeles Times 26 Feb 1957: 22.
  5. MGM to Make Huge Schedule of New Films Los Angeles Times 22 Jan 1958: B20.
  6. 2 FILM STARS POST BUSY SCHEDULES: Debbie Reynolds, Stewart Granger 'Well Booked' -- 2 Premieres Set Today By HOWARD THOMPSON. New York Times 8 Feb 1961: 25.
  7. Movies: A Sweet Young Thing or Two By PETER BART. New York Times 17 July 1966: 81.
  8. THREE CHEERS FOR ROSS HUNTER Norma Lee Browning. Chicago Tribune 28 Apr 1968: g40
  9. EMI in £2M film deal with MGM The Guardian 27 June 1970: 12
  10. Gower Firming a Musical Pulldown Haber, Joyce. Los Angeles Times 4 Nov 1970: i17.
  11. MGM, EMI Form Film Firm Wall Street Journal 22 Apr 1971: 8.
  12. Twiggy Throws Out Chest, Bravely Faces Film Career Dorsey, Hebe. Los Angeles Times 8 Feb 1968: d2.
  13. Twiggy: 'interviewing a daffodil': Hard to get an answer By Louise Sweeney. The Christian Science Monitor 4 Dec 1971: 18.
  14. Russell p 141
  15. Russell--England's resident mad genius Reed, Rex. Chicago Tribune 12 Dec 1971: k7.
  16. Russell p 141
  17. It takes a worried man Woodward, Ian. The Guardian 14 Sep 1970: 8.
  18. Twiggy and Her Boy Friend Are Having the Last Laugh: Twiggy and Her Boy Friend By CHRIS CHASE. New York Times 2 Jan 1972: D9.
  19. "Obituary: Christopher Gable". 1998.
  20. A dancer escapes Godfrey, Stephen. The Globe and Mail 16 Nov 1977: P.18.
  21. Dan Ireland on The Boyfriend at Trailers From Hell accessed 2 August 2012
  22. Director Russell With 'Boy Friend': Ogre in a Nursery? Blume, Mary. Los Angeles Times 19 Sep 1971: c18.
  23. Russell p 142
  24. Russell p 142
  25. The Oscar of His Dreams Is Wilde Haber, Joyce. Los Angeles Times 30 Apr 1972: d15.
  26. Ken Russell Tells His Side of Story Haber, Joyce. Los Angeles Times 11 Jan 1972: g8.
  27. Thomas, Kevin (19 June 1987). "MOVIE REVIEW UNCUT VERSION OF `THE BOY FRIEND'". Los Angeles Times. p. 12.
  28. Russell p 112
  29. Russell, Ken (1994). The Lion Roars. p. 134.
  30. What's Going On in the Lion's Den at MGM?: What's Going On Warga, Wayne. Los Angeles Times 26 Dec 1971: q1.
  31. Two Premieres for 'Boy Friend' Los Angeles Times 10 Dec 1971: j25.
  32. ... in a memory worth $250 million Siskel, Gene. Chicago Tribune 23 June 1974: e9.
  33. Jordan, Scott (8 February 1972). "The Boy Friend Movie Review & Film Summary (1972)". Roger Ebert. Retrieved 8 March 2014.
  34. Greenspun, Roger (17 December 1971). "Movie Review - The Boy Friend - Film: 'The Boy Friend':Twiggy Plays Polly in Russell Screenplay". Retrieved 8 March 2014.
  35. No white tie, tails, or taps, but Astaire's still Mr. Style Kramer, Carol. Chicago Tribune 6 May 1973: e10.
  36. Twiggy, Justin Split After 8 Years Haber, Joyce. Los Angeles Times 27 Sep 1973: e12.
  37. Sweeney, John (3 Apr 1994). "Forty years on and feeling awful Sandy Wilson wrote 'The Boy Friend' 40 years ago". The Guardian.


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