When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand

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. 

Wilcox and his 'discovery' (Anna Neagle) in the 1930s.  During World War II, Wilcox's second wife agreed to a divorce, allowing the couple to wed.

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.)

Frankie Vaughan sings the title song from THE LADY IS A SQUARE.

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.

Neagle said goodbye to cinema with a sassy exit.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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

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8 Comments to “THE LADY IS A SQUARE (1959)”

  1. […] Boiling Sand, Doug Bonner delves into Herbert Wilcox’s THE LADY IS A SQUARE, exploring how a somewhat […]

    • Hi, I just found your post regarding “The Lady Is A Square” while looking for films featuring Janette Scott, and would just like to say what an interesting and well-written piece it is. (Although a minor disagreement would be your description of Frankie Vaughn as a “rock star” – neither rock music (as distinct from rock’n’roll) nor rock stars existed then, “rock’n’roll stars” or “pop stars”, yes)
      More to the point; I had no idea that there was this level of interest in, and appreciation of, old films in general. These films were generally regarded as being old and unwatchable when I was a teenager in the 70s, but I now find them far more interesting and with a genuine charm, lacking in more modern films. Your post also answers another question that I have sometimes wondered about – was/is there any appreciation of old British films outside the UK, or did people in other Anglophone countries simply find them incomprehensible ? Margaret Rutherford, Alastair Sim, Ian Carmichael, Janette Scott, Terry-Thomas, Dennis Price etc etc in such films as “The Happiest Days of Your Life”,”Murder at the Gallop”,”Kind Hearts and Coronets” etc are wonderful to watch, and there is a special pleasure in spotting favourites in the minor parts – eg, Guy Mitchell’s man-about-town character, whether as Hyde-Brown the sports-master in “The Happiest Days…” (“I must say – you girls are bang-on for 17!”) or as philandering Simon Russell in “Laughter in Paradise” or even his brief appearance as “Uncle Hector” – ie, Mother’s boyfriend – in “Now and Forever” always lift a film, as does a glimpse of Miles Malleson, for instance ( was he ever better than in “The Naked Truth” ?)or Irene Handl. For me, “School for Scoundrels” is the perfect British b/w comedy, and would be my candidate for being as close as the British film industry ever got to having our own “Some Like it Hot”, and Janette Scott as Miss April Smith is the absolute embodiment of the ideal “English Rose” – who could possibly resist this lovely girl stepping onto the terrace at the tennis club in her flared white summer dress and calling out “Lovely day, Henry!” to Ian Carmichael’s Henry Palfry – a lost world indeed…May I put a couple of questions to you ? where can I find sites/film clubs/articles etc to find out more about this genre of film, (2) what happened to these people’s careers – was it simply that the likes of Janette Scott and Ian Carmichael were just seen as too “square”, middle-class, b/w and 50s, in the 60s world of pop music, jeans, colour film, Carry On films and caper movies ? This leads me onto another hobby-horse of mine – the effect of the arrival of bigger budgets seemed at times to have a deleterious effect on the quality of the film – a sort of “Never mind having a script – just have lots of props, shoot it in colour, and put in plenty of big orange explosions to keep the proles happy.” Has anyone ever written an article on this ? As a minor example, I recently watched “Those Magnificent Men….” not having seen it in 30+ years and expecting to enjoy it, but while it leaves plenty of images in the memory, the script is so lame that I can barely remember a word – surely a comedy should contain at least a few memorably funny lines ? To bring that theme of big budgets vs actual film-making up to date, I heard a review of the latest Bond film where the script was being praised for such stunningly dull dialogue as – Bond: “I came here to kill you.” Villain: “I thought you came here to die.” – a ten year-old could do better. But to get back to where we came in; your review of “The Lady is a Square” also holds out every hope that it is actually accurate – I came to your review straight after reading several on the slightly later Janette Scott film “Now and Forever” and disagreeing with most of them: “A man and a woman elope…” – no, they’re teenagers, “Rich society girl” – no, she’s from a well-to-do middle-class family, but not rich, and she certainly isn’t a socialite – she’s a 17-year old school-girl and the local dance is the first she has ever attended, etc etc.
      Still not as bad as those reviews where the reviewer hasn’t even understood the basic plot, eg a favourite of mine from a different genre, era, and country – “The Last Seduction” where some reviewers don’t understand that Linda Fiorentino’s character doesn’t murder anybody – the whole point is that she pretends that she has carried out a contract killing – and shows the stolen money she is trying to hang onto as “proof” – in order to pressure her boyfriend to carry out another in “his turn” not knowing that his target is her inconvenient husband.
      Regards, Phil

      • Doug says:

        Thanks so much for stopping by my site, Philip. Your comments are welcome. So much in common in our appreciations of older films. In the USA in the 1970s, there was a revival of interest in older movies largely because of the cult that developed around the tough-guy image of Humphrey Bogart. Almost any weekend you could see young people queuing for midnight showings of CASABLANCA at alternative cinemas. As for British Cinema, there has always been a small percentage in America who appreciate the classic comedies (I still haven’t seen SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS), and in my household growing up there was a TV show every afternoon of classic British films which my mom would watch. The stars you mention are ones that I cherish too, in works such as THE NAKED TRUTH (just watched that one again last week!) and KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS. I’ve been studying Herbert Wilcox’s contribution to the British film industry (almost enough material for a book) and found many interesting insights. I agree with you on THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN… — watching that film and others like it as a kid made me an old movie fan. I felt so disappointed watching that film, then came home and the next day saw the Marx Brothers in an old film on television and laughed more in 5 minutes than I had all day before at the cinema. Thanks for dropping by and leaving such a well-informed comment!

  2. Marilyn says:

    What a beautiful post. I’m only now catching up on my reading, Doug. Your writing and subject matter are always first-rate. I don’t know anything about this pair, but now I want to see this and several of the other films you have mentioned. How did you discover them?

    • Doug says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Marilyn. I was led to Wilcox / Neagle through my love of Margaret Rutherford. I taped a wartime thriller from the team because it featured Rutherford (YELLOW CANARY), which set off lots of questions and ideas while I watched it: its narrative, imagery and gender issues generally foreshadowed Hitch’s NOTORIOUS. I started researching the team, read their memoirs, and did a presentation on them at the annual Popular Culture Association conference in Albuquerque. (A great event, BTW.) A couple of small academic publishers there encouraged me to build it into some sort of book, which I’m glacially working on. (And I know nothing of the publishing world.) Meanwhile, I put up a longer article on them at my parent site, postmodernjoan.com, where my more high-fallutin’ and academic articles appear.

  3. Marilyn says:

    I shall go over there and read it directly! All roads lead to Margaret Rutherford!

  4. Chris Jarratt says:

    It was a very pleasant surprise to read your article about Herbert Wilcox, who was my Grandfather. Indeed he was more tha that to me as a chold since my father (who was also in the film world as Director of British Lion) died when I was very young.
    Please tell me where I can find any mor of your articles involving HW, I would be most gratefull
    Many thanks in advance

    • Doug says:

      I’m honored and flattered that you stopped by and read my piece. As you probably gathered, I’m a true admirer of your grandfather’s work.

      I’ve been working on a lengthier piece, based on some statements by Mr. Wilcox and by those who worked with him, that hypothesizes Wilcox was a personal and creative role model for Alfred Hitchcock. It can be found at this blog’s parent site: http://www.postmodernjoan.com

      The direct link to it is http://postmodernjoan.com/pomoYCWEB01.htm

      Or you can Google “Hitchcock, Wilcox and the Yellow Canary”

      Best regards,

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