British director Ken Russell earned his bad-boy bona fides with his breakout movie, Women in Love (1969), a posh literary adaptation infamous for its scene of nude male wrestling. And though he seemed intent on continuing down the road of sexualized content with The Music Lovers (1970) and his first 1971 release, The Devils, he instead took the exact opposite tack with his second 1971 release. Adapted from the 1954 stage musical that made Julie Andrews a star, The Boy Friend is so chaste it could have been made in the 1930s—and, indeed, the strongest scenes feature Russell’s tributes to the work of Depression-era musical-movie auteurs like Busby Berkley. Loaded with flapper-styled costumes, opulent sets, and outrageous compositions that turn actors into elements of candy-colored tableaux, these sequences are visually resplendent. Unfortunately, the film containing these highlights is frothy and meandering, so The Boy Friend becomes quite dull as it sprawls across 137 repetitive minutes. Those who savor coordinated chorines and tricky tapping will find much to devour, but those craving a potent narrative will be left starving for substance.
Finding a clever-ish way to give playwright Sandy Wilson’s storyline added dimension, Russell (who also penned the script and produced the picture) turns Wilson’s The Boy Friend into a play-within-a-movie. Thus, Polly Browne (Twiggy) is not just the lovestruck girl in the play, longing for sparks with a handsome delivery boy (Christopher Gable); she’s also an actress playing the lead role in a stage musical titled The Boy Friend. This device allows Russell to balance Wilson’s trite onstage patter with more realistic vignettes taking place offstage. Equally helpful is Russell’s addition of a theatrical star (played by an uncredited Glenda Jackson) whose injury forces Polly to take the stage in her place; this gives the Polly character a poignant underdog quality. Russell’s third big gimmick is the unexpected appearance of a Hollywood producer (Vladek Sheybal) on the very night Polly steps into the spotlight, filling all the stage performers with excitement about the possibility of big-screen stardom.
Yet even though Russell’s efforts to toughen up the narrative are admirable, The Boy Friend is still just a compendium of 20 forgettable songs. Furthermore, leading lady Twiggy, a former model, is endearing but not particularly compelling (although she somehow managed to win two Golden Globes for this movie), so she’s regularly upstaged by livelier performers. In particular, long-limbed ’70s Broadway star Tommy Tune is impressive whenever he puts his gangly frame to the task of blazing tap-dance performances. The Boy Friend looks gorgeous, not only because of the impressive production design but also because of delicate photography by David Watkin, and it’s interesting to see Russell’s over-the-top style presented without his customary vibe of juvenile perversity. At more than two and a half hours, however, The Boy Friend is a slog for anyone but diehard movie-musical fans. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)
The Boy Friend: FUNKY