Friday, 22 December 2017

Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly (1970)

Director: Freddie Francis
Writers: Brian Comport, based on the play, Happy Family, by Maisie Mosco
Stars: Michael Bryant, Ursula Howells, Pat Heywood, Howard Trevor and Vanessa Howard

Index: 2017 Centennials.

I’ve enjoyed Freddie Francis movies for almost as long as I can remember and I’d be rather surprised if you can’t honestly say the same thing. He won two Oscars for his cinematography, almost thirty years apart: the first for Sons and Lovers in 1961 and a second for Glory in 1990. He was also nominated for awards for shooting such notable pictures as The Elephant Man, The French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Straight Story, some of which he won; he also shot Room at the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Innocents, The Executioner’s Song, Dune, Martin Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear and even Princess Caraboo. I don’t remember him primarily for any of those films, though, or indeed for his cinematography. I know him best for his films as a director, working mostly in the horror genre for the legendary British studios Hammer and Amicus. I used to watch those movies late at night on my sister’s tiny television, titles like The Evil of Frankenstein, The Skull and Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, and they helped to shape my life.

While it’s hardly unusual for a cinematographer or other prominent member of the crew to eventually progress up to director, a road that many editors seem to be taking nowadays, Francis continued both sides of his career mostly simultaneously, working as a DP from 1956 to 1999 and as a director from 1962 to 1989. That’s not to say that he didn’t progress. His career in film began as a stills photographer, working for Associated Talking Pictures, the studio that later became Ealing. He rose through the sort of jobs that film fans generally don’t recognise, like clapper boy, camera loader and focus puller. World War II inevitably interrupted that, but seven years doing anything that was needed to make training films for the Army Kinematograph Service gave him a fantastic education on how motion pictures were made. He became a camera operator, working for Powell & Pressburger, John Huston and others on films like The Tales of Hoffmann, Moulin Rouge and Moby Dick, and eventually a cinematographer and a director.

Of all his many films, though, the one that was most personal to him was a little known comedy thriller with the bizarre name of Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly, released in 1970 in between Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, which he inherited from Terence Fisher, who had been injured, and Trog, featuring Joan Crawford’s very last, highly uncharacteristic role. Disappointed with many of the films he’d been hired to direct, often because of what he felt were subpar special effects, he had long ached to make a feature on which he would have complete creative control. This was that feature and he built it around a location, one which he had shot in earlier films. That location is Oakley Court, the exterior of which can be seen in a number of earlier Hammer horrors, before that studio moved to the nearby Down Place and turned it into Bray Studios. While it’s perhaps best known for The Rocky Horror Picture Show today, you can actually stay ‘over at the Frankenstein Place’ nowadays because it’s been turned into a luxury hotel.

Francis puts it to great use in this film, though ‘luxury’ is not a word that will come quickly to mind when watching. It has clearly seen better days, but then so have the family that reside there, a family that don’t so much live as play their roles in a permanent LARP. We aren’t let in on the reasons why they do this, though they must be psychologically blistering. The only clues come from the inspiration for the screenplay, an off-West End play by Maisie Mosco called Happy Family, itself apparently inspired by Shirley Jackson’s final novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and the American film, Baby Doll, adapted by Tennessee Williams from his own play, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. Francis and his scriptwriter, Brian Compton, both hated Happy Family, with its sexual focus on incest, lesbianism and sadomasochism, all stemming from a forced hysterectomy on a woman by her abusive husband. However, they saw the potential for a different story with a similar non-sexual idea. Maybe the background remains, unspoken. Maybe not.
Whatever the reasons, this small and isolated family choose to live as if nothing had changed in the last decade. The kids, who go by nothing except Sonny and Girly, sleep next to each other in oversize cots in ‘the dear children’s nursery’, wear school uniforms and play children’s games, even though they may well be legal adults. The actors certainly were: Howard Trevor turned 18 in 1970 and Vanessa Howard was 22. They begin the film at the zoo, which is closed, prancing around like eight year olds and tormenting the zookeeper, ably played by Hammer regular Michael Ripper. Girly sings nursery rhymes and skipping songs, while Sonny films things on a little Bolex camera. And they find New Friends, capitalised because that’s another role in their perpetual LARP, one to fill from the population of drunkards, tramps and others whom society professionally ignores. They take New Friends home, play their games with them and, eventually, when they object, put them on a train to the angels. Yes, that’s a euphemism.

Now, we might think that we just have a couple of crazy kids, except that Mumsy and Nanny are no different. In an outrageously overgrown conservatory, they try to outdo each other in cutesy politeness, though there is a dark undertone which we see when they start to knit together and Mumsy firmly points out that Nanny isn’t allowed to get ahead of her. Mumsy is, of course, the one in charge and Nanny does what she’s told, from cutting Sonny’s toenails to making sure Miss Girly does a hundred brush strokes every night on her hair. As we soon discover, Nanny even sleeps on a day bed at the end of Mumsy’s much larger and obviously much more comfortable bed, but they’re both blissfully happy about it. All four of these characters appear blissfully happy about everything, except when a New Friend refuses to fall down during Ring a Ring o’ Roses. After the most telling line of the film, ‘If you don’t have rules, where are you?’ Mumsy has them play Oranges and Lemons so they can chop off his head. With an axe.
The thrust of the film follows one New Friend that they pick up leaving a private party. He’s apparently a male prostitute and as drunk as the lady who hired him. He reacts as you might expect when he discovers Sonny in his car, but he calms down when he sees Girly on the back seat. Off to the park they all go, to play in the playground, at least until the kids tire of the naysaying lady and push her off the top of the slide. They blame New Friend for her death, of course, loudly, and so take him home with them, ostensibly to hide out, but really to torment him, with a jack in the box inside the toilet and pillows under his bedclothes to look like the corpse. Of course, when he realises that everything’s a joke, it isn’t, because then they really do put the corpse in there, with an accompanying sign: ‘Rule no. 1: Play the game.’ Now, the reason we’re watching this New Friend, rather than any of his predecessors, is that he’s the one who decides to play the game and win, gradually turning them against each other.

If what I’ve written thus far makes it sound like this is a bizarre mixture of Downton Abbey and Lord of the Flies, you’d be partway to how strange this movie gets. I can say that and I’m English. I’m used to the black humour exhibited in classic British comedies like Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Loved One or The Ladykillers, and TV shows like The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. This picture could not be mistaken for the product of any other country, just from its humour alone, but it’s so seeped in English culture that I’m rather surprised that it became a cult hit in the States, albeit under the simplified title of Girly and with a new poster that focused on the obvious charms of Vanessa Howard, on the grounds that Americans wouldn’t understand it otherwise. I wonder how much those fans actually got, because it’s less accessible than the double entendres of Are You Being Served? or the surrealism of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I didn’t recognise half the nursery rhymes and I grew up on that stuff. Maybe some were made up for the movie.
The end result is fascinating. Initially, it’s almost abhorrent in its cuteness. It’s like being at a party with a couple mooning at each other with lovey dovey language or on the bus opposite an old lady cooing at her little dog like it’s a baby girl. Here, it manifests in a number of ways. It’s in the dialogue, which is full of the diminutives suggested by the title, all ‘drinkies’ and ‘brekky’ and ‘choccy biccies’. It’s in the relentless cheer of the Happy Family; when the first New Friend we see isn’t happy about the cutesy party they put on for him, they refuse to let his mood change theirs, laughing and giggling even as he calls the whole affair stupid. It’s also in the way they interact. ‘Bless their little hearts,’ sighs Mumsy about the children only for Nanny to correct her. ‘Their darling little hearts,’ she replies, rather daringly given that they all have their own very defined places in this game. ‘Just remember,’ reminds Mumsy with a wry superiority, ‘you’re only the nanny; I’m the mumsy.’

It all makes us wonder what we’re watching and why. We can’t look away, of course, because it’s a trainwreck of epic proportions. It’s easy to imagine Oakley Court as a giant dollhouse, the Happy Family as vintage dolls and the scriptwriters as a couple of seven year old girls, high on sugar, playing Victorian Mansion. Why Freddie Francis, the director of Torture Garden, The Creeping Flesh and Tales That Witness Madness, has anything to do with this, we have no idea. But, even from the opening narration, as we’re taken on a smooth tour of this unusual house, there’s a little edge to it that confuses us, haunts us and makes us wonder just where Francis and Compton are going to take us. We know that it’s not going to be anywhere that seven year old girls would go, but it’s so wildly different that we’re completely open to the possibilities. I have no idea when I stopped staring in bewilderment at how incessantly nice this is and started staring in bewilderment at the twisted imagination that brought this rare gem to light.
One reason it works so well is that everybody plays it utterly straight. This is so different, I hesitate to label it ‘camp’, though I can easily see the drag queen community adopting it; it’s rather like a comedy of manners was wooed by a slasher and gradually gave it all up—in private, of course, because what would the children think? All the actors are far more appropriate for the former than the latter, sourced from British stage tradition. Ursula Howells, who plays Mumsy, couldn’t have been more perfect for the part: a girls’ school educated daughter of a music teacher, who married a theatre director and ran a society dedicated to the work of her father, publishing and promoting church music. Oh, and she shone in high society in The Forsyte Saga and as a polite psychopath in Miss Marple: A Murder is Announced. For all the traditional titles in her filmography, Francis had directed her in segments of Torture Garden and Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors. She’s the knowing bedrock of this picture but she’s not going to tell what she knows.

Pat Heywood, as Nanny, was also well versed in both aspects of this film: her big screen debut was in Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet in 1969, earning a BAFTA nomination for playing Juliet’s nurse, but I last saw her as serial killer John Christie’s wife Ethel in 10 Rillington Place. Her matronly features led her to play a succession of maids, nurses and mothers, but she effortlessly alternated Wuthering Heights or Young Winston with hagsploitation pictures like Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? Similarly, Michael Bryant, who plays the most prominent New Friend, was a Shakespearean actor who won multiple London Drama Critics Circle Theatre Awards and Laurence Olivier Awards. His screen career is highly varied, from playing Lenin in Nicholas and Alexandra to the voice of God in The Miracle Maker, via A Night to Remember, Gandhi and Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. His genre background includes a segment of Torture Garden, the 1972 ghosthunting television play, The Stone Tape, and a Dirk Bogarde drama thriller called The Mind Benders.
The kids were less experienced, of course, Howard Trevor only having two prior TV plays to his credit and nothing more to come. Vanessa Howard, however, is a revelation as Girly, rendering it highly unsurprising that she would become the focus of marketing efforts in America, where this was pushed as an exploitation film. Girly is at once sexless and highly sensual, as if she doesn’t know what sex is but, once she finds out, she’ll be a porn star. Howard became something of a cult figure, partly because she quit movies after a highly promising start and abruptly vanished. Her star rose through horror flicks like The Blood Beast Terror and Corruption, and led her to a set of films that look fascinating today but underwhelmed commercially at the time, like The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer, as Peter Cook’s trophy wife; a Warren Mitchell comedy, All the Way Up (reuniting her with Pat Heywood) and What Became of Jack and Jill?, an Amicus horror movie keen to establish her as a scream queen. But she was done.

While rumours spread that she had died, she had merely adopted a quiet life out of the public eye as the wife of producer Robert Chartoff. She didn’t learn of the cult popularity of this film in America until work was ongoing to bring it out on DVD in 2010. She agreed to record a commentary track, but was dying at the time and proved unable to do so. Five years later, an event was set up at Oakley Court, where fans could explore the shooting locations and eat a meal themed around the Happy Family’s party dinner with New Friend. Journalist Preston Fassel, who had researched Howard’s life for Screem magazine, answered questions about her and the film and a bench was dedicated in her memory. It’s fantastic to see obscure gems brought back to our attention, whether they be movies like this one or those associated with them, like Vanessa Howard. As that happens, they reclaim their place in film history, often highlighting inspirations, like a scene here surely inspiring the famous ‘Here’s Johnny’ door scene in The Shining.
Freddie Francis would be happy to know that people are watching Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly again, whatever title it happens to wear. Of all the Oscar-winning films he shot and all the genre pictures he directed, this is the one that he repeatedly maintained was his best work and his personal favourite of his own films. However, it was initially little seen in his native England, because of unfortunate coincidence. The swinging sixties had stuck in the craw of the conservative media, which started to crusade against indecency in film, latching onto this and a later 1970 film, Goodbye Gemini, because of their inclusion of incest as subject matter. It has to be said that, while the latter picture was absolutely about incest, this one isn’t because Compton had decided to omit all the sexual elements of the play that inspired him and Francis to begin with. However, before he made that choice, they had shot one scene in which Girly suggestively sucks Sonny’s finger and, naturally, that became the whole film to the press.

With few cinemas willing to screen the movie in that sort of climate, it quickly vanished, soon resurfacing on the other side of the pond as an exploitation picture called Girly which found approval both from a cult audience and, of all places, Variety, which gave it a short but generally favourable review, describing it as ‘a macabre combo of Disney and Hammer films’. While it was released on VHS in the States, it remained elusive to British audiences until 2006 when bootleg copies began to show up on the internet, that great nemesis of obscurity. Two years earlier, suggests Wikipedia (though without citations), organisers of a Freddie Francis film festival (say that five times fast) in 2004 were unable to turn up a copy anywhere and so believed that it might have become a lost film. Whatever you might think of it, and it’s the epitome of a polarising picture, one that people will either adore or despise, I’m very happy to say that it’s not lost, it’s commercially available once more and, once seen, it will not be easily forgotten.

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