Even the title connoted admission of having lost one’s relevance.
The “lady” the title referred to was actress Anna Neagle, by way of the character she portrayed. The film was her last screen appearance, and also the final film directed by her long-time lover and eventual husband, Herbert Wilcox, for whom she made all except one of her films after 1932.
Produced at the same time and released a couple of weeks after Jack Clayton’s ROOM AT THE TOP — which included post-coital pillow talk and previously taboo language — this film, its star, its script and its director all seemed to acknowledge their awareness of being trapped in a distasteful era beyond their comprehension.
Neagle was in her mid-fifties at the time, Wilcox almost seventy. Their final film collaboration, with its story of an overnight rock ‘n’ roll sensation coming to the aid of a widow and her financially-troubled classical symphony, telegraphed the veteran team’s dawning realization that the Wilcox/Neagle audience was disappearing. It was an earnest effort to discover some means of co-existing, contributing and dialoguing with an era in which there no longer existed any cultural space for their talents.
A decade earlier, the Wilcox/Neagle team broke box office records and garnered shelves of awards with frothy confections such as SPRING IN PARK LANE, which gave the U.K. temporary escape from its post-war economic hardships. Before the war, Neagle and Wilcox were brought to Hollywood by RKO to create a string of dramas and musical comedies. (Commemorating their Hollywood arrival in 1939, an English Walnut tree was planted on the studio lot with much attendant ballyhoo.)
Yet, by 1959, watching the on-screen Miss Neagle worrying over the dwindling ticket sales for her orchestra due to changing tastes in young people created an almost Pirandellian situation where the dividing line between the fantasy of the film and the truth of its production frequently vanished.
The film did attempt to create synthesis from the abyss. With an opening river-level view of the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey as Berlioz’ Roman Carnival soared on the soundtrack, fading-in the film’s hip title over this stately and panoramic visual generated one of the film’s witty situations of incongruence.
Over the years, Wilcox’s gifts as a director often waxed and waned in relation to the calibre of his scripts. His output was always uneven, as Wilcox’s early 1950s series of films — ODETTE, LADY WITH A LAMP and DERBY DAY — testified. Perhaps his strongest and most watchable film, ODETTE (with Neagle in the title role), the true story of a French resistance fighter, was shot in a semi-documentary style in the actual locations where events had occurred. Wilcox followed this with a trite, fawning portrait of Neagle as Florence Nightingale in THE LADY WITH A LAMP, carrying all the dramatic tension of a school pageant. Then with DERBY DAY Wilcox put to work his understanding of multiple genres in a GRAND HOTEL-type film where a spectrum of narratives unfolded through the day, from the melodrama of criminals eluding the police through the racetrack crowds, to the comedy of a couple who can’t find their seats and end up listening to the race on a car radio in the parking lot, to the tender meeting and second chance at love between Neagle and Michael Wilding. (DERBY DAY was Wilcox’s final pairing of Neagle with Michael Wilding, a romantic teaming in six films that was as popular with post-war British audiences as Doris and Rock later were on the other side of the Atlantic.)
Wilcox was very good at the early to mid-twentieth century school of solid, invisible narrative filmmaking (in the vein of Hollywood masters such as Victor Fleming and Clarence Brown), using subtly effective and fluid tableaux drawn from his delicate choreography of blocking and understated camera moves. Yet his methods seldom got as energetic as the work of his U.S. counterparts. “As slow and ponderous and well protected as a steam-roller,” was how Graham Greene described Wilcox’s methods. (When Wilcox could be stodgy, he could be very stodgy — yet when he was good, he could influence Hitchcock.) THE LADY IS A SQUARE took less cinematic risks than usual: e.g., there were very few closeups, probably as a strategy to preserve the illusion of Neagle’s youthful looks. His strong approach, however, to drawing-room dramatics kept a decent pace punctuated with visual moments of tension and rest (such as the triangulation in the shot above). Yet overall the film was among his most lethargic.
Perhaps Wilcox could have done more if the scriptwriters had conceived a clearer vision. The three credited with the script had long associations with the director and star; no fresh talents or ideas were brought into the mix. At least by the late 1950s, Wilcox’s unit had lightened up in its view of rock ‘n’ roll: three years earlier, Wilcox put Neagle through the anguish of dealing with a juvenile delinquent daughter in MY TEENAGE DAUGHTER (released in the U.S. with the much more delicious title of TEENAGE BAD GIRL), in which the daughter’s exposure to rock ‘n’ roll led to en plein air sex romps and homicidal holdups of elderly people. (You can probably guess that, in a perverse way, this was the more entertaining movie.)
However, in THE LADY IS A SQUARE, pop music didn’t lead to ruination. The popularity and financial success of rock ‘n’ roll actually came to the aid of classical music, like a Boy Scout helping an old woman cross the street. The rock star in this film was Frankie Vaughan, an athletic and virile, early Tom Jones-ish music stud from Liverpool. Previously, Wilcox had produced a film for Vaughan that coincided with his first number one song, then followed it up with two more star-maker vehicles. (Wilcox was always looking for emerging talent: Sean Connery was given his screen debut in a romantic comedy that paired Anna Neagle with Errol Flynn.) THE LADY IS A SQUARE was to unite his newest and most famous discoveries.
Unknown to Vaughan, Wilcox and also Neagle, their plans for the future were booby-trapped. Wilcox hoped to continue making star vehicles for Vaughan, who broke his contract when recruited to star opposite Marilyn Monroe in LET’S MAKE LOVE. The Hollywood experience must not have suited Vaughan (or vice versa) because he was showcased in the first half-hour of the movie, then mysteriously written out of the story and quickly faded off the screen. Back in London, he continued to record but made only one more film.
While Neagle was to retire from the screen, Wilcox was to continue his previous success in producing historical films. He had invested a significant amount of his own fortune into a film on the sinking of the German battleship Bismark; unknown to him, another company made and released SINK THE BISMARK!, beating his unrealized film to the cinemas, causing him to abandon the project and absorb the losses. Then Wilcox pushed on by spending money developing a film about T. E. Lawrence of Arabia, not knowing that across town David Lean was…well, you get the picture.
Broke and deeply in debt, it was Wilcox who now went into seclusion while Neagle returned to work on the London stage. Refusing to declare bankruptcy, Neagle sang and danced for six years in the West End until all debts were settled, while additionally earning herself a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for 2,047 continuous theatrical performances.
Despite the consensus (both then and now) that THE LADY IS A SQUARE was not an easy view, it did have its payoff: for the finale, Anna Neagle said goodbye to her cinema audiences in a consciously self-orchestrated blaze of glory.
The film had a title tune (which Neagle’s character contemptuously dubbed “My Square Lady”) that closed the film. Watching Vaughan swing dance to that song with her daughter (Janette Scott), Neagle put forth that she wouldn’t mind “having a bash” at dancing to the new music. Vaughan’s business manager (Anthony Newley) took her up on her whim, which led to the final image Neagle bequeathed her cinema fans: cutting loose on a dance floor while maintaining her regal bearing. It was a beautiful keepsake, full of bold defiance and a fearless assertion of only being as old as you feel. The music continued, the dancing went on even as the scene faded and the closing credits rolled. No farewells, no grand exits, no finale. The audience was sent home, but out there somewhere Neagle was still dancing.
For their loyal fans and admirers, Wilcox and Neagle gave a final gift in perpetuity: a dance without end.
This post is part of “The Late Films Blogathon” at David Cairns’ Shadowplay. Parts of the essay are from a book in development on the cinema work of Neagle and Wilcox. ~ DB