Sarah Slade on a rediscovered classic of British film.
In cinema, marriage is the happy ending. Hero and heroine are joined together after many adventures, kiss for the first time, and everything is as rosy as the sunset behind them. Marriage is the ultimate destination, and even an adulterous liaison ends up with the protagonists returning to the marital home, chastened and penitent; or maybe an inconvenient spouse dies so that the golden couple can…well…get married. Because it worked so well the first time, didn’t it?
Woman in a Dressing Gown features the classic triangle, a troubled family man, clingy, inconvenient spouse and a radiantly beautiful other woman. But in this film the wronged wife is neither a passive victim or a superbitch, and the mistress is a kindly, well-meaning blonde who doesn’t get murdered in the second reel, and doesn’t try to persuade the husband to kill anybody else either. The husband is powerless, and spends most of the film in a state of frustrated inertia.
Jim Preston: a shipping clerk played by Anthony Quayle, attractive without being dashingly handsome, nice bloke. He lives with his wife and teenage son in a modern council flat in post-war London: exactly the sort of family the flats were built for, respectable, lower middle/upper working class with no unpleasant habits or problem children. The son, Brian (Andrew Ray), wears sports jackets, likes trad jazz, and enjoys evenings at the debating society with his pleasant girlfriend. Jim has no interests beyond his job and the occasional night down the pub. He’s solid, respectable and a bit dull. Hardly leading man material.
Beautiful, composed young Georgie (Sylvia Syms) says she can see that Jim is too good for the life that he has settled for. A dowdy, disorganised wife who never washes up, and talks too loudly and too fast. A tiny flat cluttered with tatty furniture and an ever-increasing pile of ironing. A job in a shabby office, dominated by an unseen tyrannical boss. Georgie wants to take him away from all this, and make something of him before it’s too late. What Georgie wants to make of Jim is never discussed, but for Georgie, Jim is a lost soul in need of pushing in the right direction, and the opening scenes of the film put us squarely in Georgie’s corner. Jim leaves home one morning with a button missing off his shirt, and breakfastless. Amy, his wife, even manages to ruin his last pack of cigarettes with her clumsy gestures of love. Jim and Amy’s home is a modern flat in a tower block, with thin walls and constant interruptions from the neighbours. Georgie’s neat little bedsit, with its tasteful ornaments and spotless net curtains, is a safe, ordered haven away from the noise and chaos of family life. She produces delicious roast dinners from a tiny gas cooker, and their Sunday afternoon clinches barely ruffle the antimacassars.
Georgie is everything she thinks a wife should be. Amy (Yvonne Mitchell, who won the Golden Bear at Berlin for her work here) is an actual wife: a dowdy slattern who positively shivers with love for her husband, despite the petty domestic tyrannies and almost constant criticism. Amy’s life begins and ends with her family, and yet somehow she plays against the conventional working-class housewife beloved of pre-1960s British film. She never appears in a headscarf, she can’t cook, shop or keep house – she quotes poetry and cries at Tchaikovsky and gets things horribly wrong while also startling us with her mental acuity. Yet while she fizzes with ideas and is obviously bored despite her frantic attempts to accept her lot, the one excursion the film shows her taking beyond her boundaries ends in disaster. She appears to lose in every way to Georgie, except that she knows her husband inside out, and still loves him – something Jim does not understand until the moment he has to leave her. “You know a thousand things about him,” she tells Georgie, ” I know a million. That’s what being married means “.
Woman in a Dressing Gown was released in 1957, and anticipated the new wave of British cinema that later produced the more well-known Angry Young Men movies such as Look Back in Anger (which also features ironing quite heavily, come to think of it). What makes Woman in a Dressing Gown more radical than Richard Burton playing a trumpet and moaning, are the two strong female leads battling over a fairly nondescript man, and in doing so, challenging every assumption about the notion of a happy ever after.
Woman in a Dressing Gown is released in cinemas today, and will be available on DVD through Studio Canal on 13 August.
The 2.30 p.m. screening at the Curzon Mayfair this Sunday 29 July will be introduced by Sylvia Syms
Sarah Slade (@sladey66 on Twitter) is married with one child. She gets dressed every morning, and believes that her marriage was saved by a dishwasher.