Spotlight: Muriel Box
‘Perhaps she will be one of the great ones…’
An art dealer has travelled a great distance to track down a painter who he believes could be the next Cezanne. Upon his arrival, he’s informed by her widowed husband that the painter in question has recently died in childbirth. Already a mother to three young children, she had continued to paint in their crowded family home but the canvasses that remain carry the traces of perpetual domestic interruptions, unfinished and annotated with apologetic explanations like ‘Susan had measles’, ‘Before I could finish it Katherine arrived’, and most poignantly of all ‘I shouldn’t have begun it – the twins will arrive quicker than I can finish it’. The art dealer leaves, crestfallen.
This moment, from Muriel Box’s lavish episodic epic The Truth about Women (1957), muses on the precarious interrupted nature of women’s creative labour, which has to take second, third or fourth place to her other duties. This is a sacrifice Helen (Julie Harris) has made gladly, taking joy in her children and her marriage to dashing young diplomat Humphrey (Laurence Harvey). Nevertheless, the sense of unfulfilled potential is palpable as the camera tracks in towards those scribbled expiations on each canvas, interspersed with the numbed reactions of the art dealer Otto (Marius Goring).
In The Truth about Women we are presented with two men grieving over different versions of a single woman, one over his lost wife and mother of his children, the other over an artist of whom he thought ‘perhaps she will be one of the great ones’. Muriel Box recounted later that one of her inspirations for the film was Virginia Woolf’s foundational feminist work A Room of One’s Own which, she said, ‘made such an impact on me in my twenties that I had been possessed ever since with a strong urge to support the cause of equality between the sexes.’ Here, Woolf’s ‘Shakespeare’s sister’, an imagined symbol of female talent thwarted by the patriarchy, is reimagined by Box as ‘Cezanne’s sister’, an equally vivid portrayal of truncated creative powers.
The Truth about Women is full of such moments of piercing feminist insight. It may be structured around a man’s memories of the (many) women in his life but the film uses that framework as a vehicle for exploring female experience and the various constraints imposed upon women. The film’s opening credits roll over a reproduction of the Rokeby Venus, a painting that was infamously the subject of suffragette vandalism (its slashing by the protester Mary Richardson would later also become the subject of Lezli-An Barrett’s 1982 short film An Epic Poem). Just as with the complex interplay of looks in Velasquez’s painting of Venus, showing a woman simultaneously being displayed to be looked at but also looking back, via her mirror, at those who would survey her, so The Truth about Women is both about Humphrey’s romantic career from boyhood to senescence, but also about the women who he gets involved with. One sequence hinges upon the invisible value of female labour, as a court case unfolds through which a woman’s financial worth is exposed via her estranged husband’s machinations (that the woman at the centre of this episode is played by Mai Zetterling, the Swedish actor turned filmmaker who would later become known for directing cult feminist classic The Girls (1968), adds another layer). In another the gender politics of the harem are compared to the position of women in English society.
The time period and the jewel-like colour palette of The Truth about Women brings to mind Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) but whereas all the important women in the life of Blimp’s hero are all iterations of the same woman, played by Deborah Kerr, in Box’s film the emphasis is instead on female variety and heterogeneity. There is no single ‘truth about women’ other than their desire to be, in the words of Humphrey’s first and last love, the suffragette Ambrosine (Diane Cilento), ‘a person, an equal partner in the business of life, free to do what is right and best for herself.’
How did she do it? That’s the question that inevitably comes to mind when watching such moments of feminist audacity in a film written and directed by a woman working within the mainstream British film industry of 1957. It seems impossible and yet we have the evidence of the film, which was no tiny indie arthouse number but, in Muriel Box’s own words, ‘the most expensive picture I had so far directed… in colour, with forty sets and a star-studded cast dressed by Cecil Beaton,’ made for a budget of £183,000. It spoke of a certain standing within the industry. By this point, Box had several decades experience in film, first as a secretary, script reader, continuity girl, then as a screenwriter (for which she was to win an Oscar), head of the scenario department at one of the biggest studios in Britain, producer, and finally feature director.
Much of this happened in collaboration with her husband Sydney Box, whose indefatigable industriousness and stalwart support enabled Box’s entry into direction at a time when this was thought an untenable position for a woman, particularly after the passing of wartime exigency. Like many of her female contemporaries, including Jill Craigie and Kay Mander, Muriel Box’s first go at directing was in documentary shorts – her film The English Inn (1941), credited as Muriel Baker, is now available on the BFI’s fantastic box set The Camera is Ours. But when she wanted to fully direct her first feature, The Happy Family (1952), Sydney acted as the necessary invisibility cloak for her to do the job, nominally a co-director with his wife to please their backers but surreptitiously slipping into the background on set and allowing her to do the role for which she was amply qualified.
Indeed, it had been Muriel who had facilitated Sydney’s initial entry into films, when she was already working in them whereas Sydney had been a struggling but aspiring dramatist. By 1952, Sydney held the more powerful position, and he was able to ensure that Muriel not only got to direct The Happy Family but had a directorial credit at the end of it too. The film, a sparky hilarious comedy that out-Ealings Ealing, ended up a success and once it had been proved that Muriel could do it, there was no good reason why she couldn’t keep on doing it, at least under the protective umbrella of the family firm. Her response to Ealing’s The Blue Lamp (1950), the police women drama Street Corner (1953), demonstrated the professionalism of female officers even in the face of male suspicion and demonstrated Muriel’s facility for creating suspense in a sequence where one police woman has to edge her way across a high building to rescue a toddler from a high window ledge. Box also notably worked recurrently with the editor Jean Barker, part of her drive to employ women technicians to her films wherever possible.
From her debut feature onwards, comedy was a key genre for Box, and indeed for 1950s British cinema in general; all but one of her next five films, leading up to The Truth about Women, functioned within the genre’s parameters. The Beachcomber and To Dorothy, A Son (both 1954), Simon and Laura (1955) and The Passionate Stranger (1957) all deal with gendered miscommunication and misunderstandings of various kinds, with Simon and Laura perhaps the best of all in its witty anticipation of reality television and how people can be induced to fake it for the cameras (in this case a battling theatrical husband and wife persuaded to play the perfect couple on screen). The Passionate Stranger was equally formally bold, using shifts between black and white and colour to suggest the juxtaposition of everyday reality and the embellished fantasies of the romantic novelist protagonist. By utilising a plot centering a gullible man (rather than the usual cliché of a duped woman), the film offers a playful reversal of the archetypal gender dynamics of British light comedies of the time, although its original name A Novel Affair offered a far better representation of the drama than the title it ended up saddled with.
This brings us back to how Muriel Box built and sustained a career in the 1950s, an era more readily associated with the embrace of domesticity, although historians such as Rachel Cooke (who has written about both Muriel and her film producer sister-in-law Betty Box) have queried this simplistic trajectory back to the home post-war. Yes, she did it but at what cost? Her diaries and correspondence (held in the BFI Special Collections) suggest the mental and physical strains attendant on summoning up the confidence to command cast and crew, and also reveal that some of the women who had great parts in her films, Shelley Winters and Kay Kendall among them, were highly resistant to being directed by a woman. The screwball elan of Simon and Laura had earned comparisons to Lubitsch in the press, and this film and others had been box-office successes, but there was never a sense of surety in Muriel Box’s directorial career, even as she became the most prolific woman director in British films, a title she still retains. She couldn’t take anything for granted. The distributor British Lion didn’t bother to organise a press show or a West End run for The Truth about Women, much to Muriel’s disappointment (it still got good reviews from critics who sought it out, and who declared themselves baffled, bewildered and infuriated by ‘the mental processes of the men who book films for Britain’s cinemas’).
Box soldiered on but became increasingly weary of having to argue the case that she should be permitted to do a job that she had proven numerous times she was more than well equipped to undertake. Her achievements were being purposefully forgotten almost as soon as they had happened, and any slight deviations from unbroken box-office success were treated far less indulgently than her male peers and read instead as a ‘truth about women’; that they couldn’t and shouldn’t direct a film. This deliberate downplaying of Box’s achievements as a filmmaker has consequences for the historiography of British cinema. As Carol Morley reflects in her moving recent radio documentary about the filmmaker, the path which Box managed to carve out for herself, which could have been an inspiration for other women, was simply concreted over, rendered invisible and impassable. As with the rediscovery of other women filmmakers, a story like Muriel Box’s shows it can be done, even in the most unprepossessing of circumstances, and that there might be tactical lessons to be learned from the way it was achieved even if that took place in other times and places.
Morley’s impassioned advocacy for Muriel Box has been hugely important in sparking interest in her films, and now along with DVD releases of several of her films, there is a substantial season of Box’s films at the BFI Southbank in London across May (expertly curated by Jo Botting), taking in many of the aforementioned films as well as her final film as director, the realist comedy Rattle of a Simple Man (1964), and numerous films she contributed to as screenwriter, including the all-time record-breaking international hit The Seventh Veil (1945) which turbo-charged hers and Sydney’s twinned trajectories in British cinema.
It is not a complete retrospective of her work but what would that look like anyway? The film scholar Melanie Bell suggests that in order to have a better sense of women’s sizeable contribution to cinema we need to encompass a wider understanding of what constitutes creativity in filmmaking beyond ‘above-the-line’ roles. If we follow this suggestion, then Muriel’s filmography should include those productions she worked on as continuity supervisor for British Instructional and Gaumont, the numerous films she script-edited or script-doctored, uncredited, and the full range of film-work she did before the moment when she became a fully-credited director, remarkable as that achievement is, and still all too rare. Hopefully the films that are being shown in the BFI season will vividly demonstrate that not only did Muriel do it, but that she did it with style, crafting productions that repay careful attention to their complexities, their ironies and their formal experimentation, achieved within the constraints of post-war commercial British cinema.
In 1991, Muriel reflected on the masculine recalcitrance that had dogged her progress right to her final film:
It's so odd why they can't have the grace to say, "We know we have all the good opportunities as men to direct and do everything." Why they can't give women a chance? They haven't any confidence at all in them, they never say to women let us try and see what she's done. Right into my last film, which is interesting, they didn't want a woman director on that last one, so Sydney dug his heels in, and he said, "I'm very sorry" - he was approaching the starting date - "If Muriel's not going to direct it I'm afraid I'm not going to make the film." If you don't have support as strong as that you don't get any jobs.
Sydney Box facilitated his wife’s directing career, using his masculine privilege, but this was merely a necessary piece of positive discrimination in a world that wouldn’t give a woman a chance otherwise, even one (especially one?) as experienced, adept, creative and insightful as Muriel.
Melanie Williams is a film historian specialising in examining British cinema with a particular emphasis on issues of gender. She has written widely on subjects such as David Lean, female stardom, Ealing Studios and A Taste of Honey. She is currently Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of East Anglia.
Muriel Box: A Woman's Take runs at the BFI Southbank from 2 - 23 May 2023.