Celebrating Britain's most prolific female director via the BFI's wide-reaching season across May, Meg Walters writes on the quiet radicalism and subtle feminism of Muriel Box.
At the end of the 1942 classic Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman's Ilsa gets on a plane, leaving behind passion for loveless stability. As Meg Ryan's Sally argues in Nora Ephron's When Harry Met Sally, any woman would do the same. "Women are very practical," she states. "Even Ingrid Bergman, which is why she gets on the plane at the end of the movie." Billy Crystal's Harry can't wrap his head around it.
British filmmaker Muriel Box died in 1991, two years after the release of Ephron's seminal rom-com. There's a chance she may have seen it – and I like to think she would have loved this scene. Though her career took place four decades earlier and on the other side of the Atlantic, Box was, like Ephron, a fearsomely prolific screenwriter and director working in an industry dominated by men that had always painted women as the softer, more emotional sex – but Box, like Ephron, knew just how practical we could really be. In a time when reductive tropes and tired stereotypes reigned supreme on screen, Box pushed against the tide, daring to represent women with refreshing nuance and dimension.
Born in 1905 in a London suburb, Box grew up fascinated by film, attending silent film screenings religiously and pouring over the pages of Picture House magazine. She landed a job in the script department of a film production company and worked her way up, working as a continuity girl and later as a secretary to Michael Powell, the influential director. Meanwhile, she was writing her own scripts. She soon teamed up, both professionally and romantically, with the writer and producer Sydney Box.
Even in her early days, Muriel had a clarity of purpose: busting up the gendered inequality she saw as endemic in society and cinema alike. "Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own made such an impact on me in my 20s that I had been possessed ever since, with a strong urge to support the cause of equality between the sexes," Box later wrote in her biography. "Unable to chain myself to the railings, I could at least rattle the film chains!"
But even with a husband in tow (who often served to soften the deal for film executives), Box's cause would not be an easy one. There are numerous anecdotes about the barriers she faced throughout her career. "Always when I did anything in pictures, I was a woman director, there had never been one before, at that time, there were tons afterwards. I had to fight that everywhere," she said in a 1991 interview.
Sydney had to promise acting agents that he and Muriel would co-direct her first feature, The Happy Family. One female star was so uncomfortable working with a female director that she tried to get Muriel fired. In the run up to the release of The Truth About Women, arguably Muriel's biggest film, the production company chose to give it little marketing and a quiet release. Even after a three decades-long career, Muriel still faced sexist discrimination. "Right into my last film," she said, "they didn't want a woman director on that last one."
Still, she persevered, consistently finding ways to sneak in both her inherently female perspective, along with a more purposeful feminist agenda within the trappings of what might appear to be a typical, commercial film of the time.
The Seventh Veil (1945), for which Box won her first and only Academy Award for the screenplay, was a wild commercial success. The melodrama follows a pianist (Ann Todd) who has attempted suicide after a lifetime of living under the controlling influence of her misogynistic guardian (James Mason). Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that throughout her life and career, she sought freedom from him, which could only be afforded in the form of other men, who initially appear more generous, but ultimately, prove to be just as controlling. She ends up choosing to stay with her guardian (now in a romantic capacity). For the modern feminist, it is a disappointing, even regressive denouement. And yet, she is only able to love him after he finally puts her needs first, by encouraging her to receive therapy – a very progressive plotline for the time.
In her official directorial debut, The Happy Family (1952), Box explores the importance of the working-class domestic space. When the government demands a shopkeeper (Kathleen Harrison) and her husband (Stanley Holloway) hand over their home for the construction of the Festival of Britain, the family creates a makeshift barricade to protect their property. The film must have been an influence for the 1997 Australian cult classic The Castle, which features an almost identical premise. It's a charming, lighthearted film with a healthy marriage of equals at its centre.
Box's second directorial effort, Street Corner (1953), is perhaps her most obviously feminist film. The documentary-style drama follows an all-female team of London police officers as they work on three separate cases: a neglectful young mother, a girl who is accused of shoplifting, and a woman who has fled the army for love. Box finds sympathy and nuance within each case, creating room for reflection on a society that was and is so often inhospitable to working class women.
To Dorothy a Son (1954) takes a more farcical approach. Myrtle (Shelley Winters) learns that her uncle has left her 2 million dollars on one condition – that Tony (John Gregson), her now ex-husband, doesn't produce a son by a certain date. As the will states, "Men were made to wear the pants and pants were made to carry the dough." Tony, it turns out, has remarried. His new wife (Peggy Cummins) is expecting a child any day. After an increasingly ludicrous series of events, Myrtle wins the money and, surprising everyone, magnanimously decides to share. To Dorothy a Son reframes the age-old question of “what women want”, offering a multitude of potential answers. For Myrtle, it is expensive furs. For Dorothy, it is a family. Of course, both require money, and Box is only too keen to suggest that they should have it.
Simon and Laura (1955) had the foresight to imagine the TV revolution and how it would transform the nature of celebrity culture. Simon (Peter Finch) and Laura (Kay Kendall) are married actors who agree to star in a fictionalised soap opera chronicling a sugar-coated scripted version of their lives. With this extreme glimpse into the dichotomy of our public and private lives, Box presents the dilemma of womanhood. Here is a woman who is effortlessly witty and sharp, and also stuck in a frustrating domestic pattern – while her husband makes little effort to find acting work, she pays the bills and keeps the house.
The Truth About Women (1957) was Box's favourite of her own films. The episodic tale is told through flashbacks as Humphrey (Laurence Harvey), an old man, recounts to Anthony (Derek Farr), a younger relative, his many love affairs. As such, we see, through his masculine gaze, a parade of women. Although the film follows the classic epic hero's journey structure, Box flips the trope, turning Humphrey into a mildly foolish anti-hero – a hapless romantic who never quite grasps that the women he meets aren't quite satisfied with romantic love alone. Instead, they are the ones whose minds constantly turn to the practicalities of life – when love doesn't fit, they leave it behind. "The truth about women today is they don’t want to be women at all, they want to be men," grumbles Anthony after hearing Humphrey's tale. "They want to be women alright," replies Humphrey's now elderly wife. "The fact is they have a different definition of what the word means. To a woman it means a person. An equal partner in the business of life." The line resonates as a kind of thesis statement that could apply to any of Box's films.
Too Young to Love (1960) is a sobering courtroom drama tracing the downfall of a working-class 15-year-old girl, Elizabeth (Pauline Hahn), who has begun sex work. When she is found with a 47-year-old man, a trial ensues. Although this film feels undeniably dated – today, it would undoubtedly be framed as a story about the grooming and rape of children – Too Young to Love remains progressive in its own way, examining the social injustice that led her down this path. Box is subtle in her critique of the system, presenting the legal and social realism of the time. In a running subplot, two men working in the courtroom place bets on a horse named Elizabeth, sneering, "It oughta be a fast filly with a name like that." The silence of their two female colleagues speaks volumes.
In Box's final film, The Rattle of a Simple Man (1964), a Northern football fan, Percy, (Harry H. Corbett) meets a sex worker, Cyrenne, (Diane Cilento) during a trip to watch the FA Cup final in London. Instead of a night of passion, the pair end up talking, his simplicity and naivety rubbing up against her apparent worldliness. Much like the women in Simon and Laura, The Truth About Women, and even To Dorothy a Son, Cyrenne refuses to fit into any female stereotypes. Percy is, like Humphrey of The Truth About Women, something of a lost sheep who, despite his kindness, has no real understanding of the world around him. Naturally, the unlikely pair end up together.
Box was unafraid to let her stories end with a romantic happily ever after – to tidy up her quiet battles of the sexes with a tidy, inoffensive little bow. Her own life didn't end quite so neatly. After learning that Sydney was something of a serial cheater, the pair split. Box continued her feminist fight on her own, launching Femina, the first women's imprint. She also wrote novels, including The Big Switch, which imagined a gender-reversed world.
By today's standards, Box's films may not, at first glance, appear to be particularly feminist. She was, after all, balancing her own quiet social revolt with the pursuit of commercial success. But upon closer inspection, Box offers a unique neutrality of perspective, neither screaming about the strengths of women nor bemoaning the flaws of men. Instead of drawing battle lines and pitting the sexes against each other, she strives for the resolution of a unified and equal society. Hers was not an indignant, wrathful feminism – but that doesn't mean it wasn't potent. Rather, she slowly transformed British cinema with her own brand of quiet radicalism.
Muriel Box: A Woman's Take runs at the BFI Southbank throughout May.