Theatre in Film Series: The Boy Friend (1971)
Written by Ashleigh Gardner
July 22, 2016
Though theatre was my first love, film has stolen my heart in recent years. In Part II of our ongoing Theatre in Film series, we explore the latter years of Classical Hollywood Cinema when Technicolor was new and movie musicals, filled with rich color and vibrant acting, lifted off the screen. For our fourth film in Part II, we feature The Boy Friend from 1971.
The Boy Friend (1971)
Director: Ken Russell
Starring: Leslie Lawson (aka “Twiggy”), Christopher Gable, Antonia Ellis, Caryl Little, Vladek Sheybal, Moyra Frasier, and Glenda Jackson
In the south of England in the 1920s, a lowly assistant stage manager, Polly (Twiggy), must step into the lead role after the starring actress (Glenda Jackson) gets into an accident. The plot exists on three tiers:
- The first deals with the struggling theatre, its inner drama, and the love that Polly has for the show’s leading man Tony (Christopher Gable).
- The second deals with the plot of the play, which takes place in the south of France at a finishing school for young women. Polly Browne, a shy girl, doesn’t have anyone to go to the carnival masked ball with, and when Tony Brockhurst shows up, the two fall in love. Later, when both of them are unmasked in front of their parents, the parents, both rich, agree that Polly and Tony are fit to marry each other.
- The third deals with a vast array of dream sequences in which the characters live out their fantasies.
Because Polly, as ASM, must understudy on a whim, she must step in and perform, albeit improv, most of the lines and blocking. What’s worse, producer De Thrill (Vladek Sheybal) is scheduled to visit the theatre that evening, so everything must go right. She also endures passive aggressive bullying from Maisie (Antonia Ellis) and Dulcie (Caryl Little), the girl who may or may not be dating Polly’s beloved Tony. In what could be a recipe for disaster, Polly manages to power through the performance with the help of Moyra (Moyra Frasier) and Fay (Georgina Hale).
Why it matters:
Unfortunately, the trailer doesn’t do the quality of the film (or its plot) any justice. What looks like a fun romp through a musical is actually a carefully orchestrated film successfully juggling a heavily layered plot. I would venture to say that The Boy Friend isn’t even necessarily about the responsibility of an ASM. Sure, it’s about that at surface level, but, honestly, it’s more than that. The Boy Friend captures what it’s like to have your real life intersect with your role.
The lead characters use their own names for the production: ASM Polly is Polly Browne and handsome Tony is Tony Brockhurst in the musical. So, when the lovers are onstage, Polly calls Tony by his real name, and Tony calls Polly by her real name. It’s no wonder Polly becomes so intent on winning Tony’s heart — her brain fuses the relationship they have onstage with a relationship she imagines for her own reality. Polly becomes unable to focus in most scenes because she’s so smitten with Tony. This often happens with film and theatre actors, though we try to curb the cross-pollination of our own personalities with the personalities of our characters. Our roles and the world of the play become real to us despite being completely fictional.
Other than the “step in when you’re needed” and psychological lessons this film offers, The Boy Friend chronicles the (very short, one-night) journey of a terrified theatre professional who, though totally unprepared and unqualified for the role, steps in and grows as a performer. The hidden lesson in The Boy Friend? When an opportunity comes our way, we should take it, no matter how terrified or underqualified we think we are. We may discover hidden talents — and make a few friends along the way.
Below is a preview scene from the Warner Archives depicting Polly and Tony onstage as well as in a dream sequence. Like the duet? Find the sheet music here on PerformerStuff.com.
This film is the first featured in Part II of “Theatre in Film”. See below for the others in Part II.
- The Band Wagon (1953)
- The Good Companions (1957)
- The Producers (1967)
- Opening Night (1977) (Coming soon.)
Want to start with Part I? Check out 42nd Street (1933).