history / people / women filmmakers

Muriel Box 1905-1991

While Box is not featured in any significant way in the magazine, her name appears among many others in Sharon Smith’s article ‘Women Who Make Movies’, an excerpt from her 1975 book of the same title. Here is some biographic info taken from the BFI’s website. I’d really like to read her autobiography, Odd Woman Out, listed below.

Box, Muriel (1905-1991)
Director, Writer
Main image of Box, Muriel (1905-1991)Muriel Violette Baker was born in New Malden on the outskirts of London in September 1905, the third child of a family she described as Respectable Poor. Influenced by her mother’s progressive, left-wing ideas, Muriel developed a passion for writing, theatre and cinema, attempting unsuccessfully to become a professional actress and ballet dancer. She gained low-level employment in the film industry, including work as a continuity girl for British International Pictures, but the key event was her marriage to Sydney Box in 1935, which nurtured a mutual talent for playwriting. They completed nearly forty short plays before the outbreak of war in 1939. During the war, Muriel assisted her husband in runningVerity Films, gaining her first experience of directing with The English Inn(1941), a typical Verity propaganda short produced for the British Council. The Boxes moved into features, achieving a spectacular hit with The Seventh Veil, the highest grossing British film of 1945, which won them an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.On the strength of this success, Sydney was invited by the Rank Organisation to take over Gainsborough Pictures, where Muriel ran the scenario department. The emphasis was on volume production, but many of the Boxes’ screenplays – such as The Years Between (Compton Bennett, 1946) or Good Time Girl (David Macdonald, 1948) – emphasise the problems women face in their struggle to gain recognition or independence. Muriel occasionally assisted as dialogue director, or re-shot scenes that needed attention in post-production. On The Lost People(1949), about the plight of European refugees, she was credited as co-director for the very substantial reworking she deemed necessary.When Sydney left Rank to set up London Independent Producers in 1951, Muriel was allowed more opportunity to direct. The majority of her films were stage adaptations: The Happy Family (1952), To Dorothy a Son(1954), Simon and Laura (1955), This Other Eden (1959), Subway in the Sky (1959), Too Young to Love (1960) and Rattle of a Simple Man (1964). Her directorial energies were channelled into eliciting strong performances from the actors; visually the films are competent and unfussy, with a preference for medium shots, allowing the audience to concentrate on dialogue and the telling glance or gesture. The films have a stage-bound feel, and rarely venture out on to location. The most successful, precisely because it thrives on such artifice, is Simon and LauraAlan Melville’s acerbic satire of early television ‘soaps’, where Kay Kendall and Peter Finch play an idealised couple who are actually the reverse of their real selves.

Box’s films are notable for their strong, often topical and controversial themes. This Other Eden raises a number of complex issues about Irish politics, commemoration, hypocrisy and illegitimacy. Too Young To Love, which addressed the problem of teenage sex, abortion and syphilis, was sufficiently contentious to be banned by several local authorities. The semi-documentary Street Corner (1953), based on Muriel and Sydney’s original screenplay, was a complement to The Blue Lamp (Basil Dearden, 1950), emphasising the courage and capabilities of women police officers. It formed part of Box’s repeated attempts to foreground women’s experiences, her most important subject.

In her version of the famous Somerset Maugham tale The Beachcomber(1954), it is the pluck and tenacity of the missionary Martha (Glynis Johns), that dominates the film. Simon and LauraThe Passionate Stranger (1957), The Truth About Women (1958) and Rattle of a Simple Man were all comedies about the gulf that exists between the sexes whose needs and aspirations are quite different, and between fantasy and reality. Box described The Truth About Women as “the film personally significant to me above all others”, a “comedy with serious undertones concerning the status of women in various societies from the turn of the century until today”. She was dismayed when the distributors, British Lion, refused it a West End premiere, an indication that its subject was uncomfortable for a patriarchal industry.

Box experienced other forms of prejudice. Michael Balcon doubted her competence to direct a large-scale feature film, a modern Romeo and Juliet story that she had written in 1950, and the project was aborted. In 1952 the Boxes pretended that the direction of The Happy Family was a joint affair, but when word leaked out that Muriel was directing on her own, one of the principal financial backers, John Woolf, withdrew. She was particularly hurt when other women, Jean Simmons in So Long at the Fair (1950), and Kay Kendall in Simon and Laura, wished to have her replaced as a director. Simmons was powerful enough to get her way andTerence Fisher was given the director’s slot. In the press her position as one of the very few women directors in the British film industry was frequently noted, but usually condescendingly.

However, she was a role model for young women. Her chequered career illustrates the difficulties for a woman working in the film industry, and also its volatility, particularly in the 1950s and 60s when she and her husband struggled to retain a measure of independence and integrity. She left film-making after the tepid reception of Rattle of a Simple Man, but continued to write novels and she set up a successful publishing house, Femina, which offered a more rewarding outlet for her feminism. She died in London on 18 May 1991. If Muriel Box never directed a masterpiece, her oeuvre remains the most significant achievement of a women director in the British film industry.

Bibliography
Aspinall, Sue and Robert Murphy, (eds), Gainsborough Melodrama(London: British Film Institute, 1983)
Box, Muriel, Odd Woman Out (London: Leslie Frewin, 1974)
Harper, Sue, Women in British Cinema: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know(London: Continuum, 2000)
Merz, Caroline, ‘The tension of genre: Wendy Toye and Muriel Box’, Re-Viewing British Cinema, 1900-1992, Wheeler Winston Dixon (ed.), (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994)
Spicer, Andrew, Sydney Box (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005)

Andrew Spicer, Directors In British and Irish Cinema

 

 Film & TV credits

Film credits
ALIBI INN 1935 screenplay
SWEET SUCCESS 1936 assistant director (as Muriel Baker)
THE ENGLISH INN 1941 director (as Muriel Baker)
THE SEVENTH VEIL 1945 original story and screenplay
29, ACACIA AVENUE / THE FACTS OF LOVE 1945 screenplay
DAYBREAK 1946 screenplay
A GIRL IN A MILLION 1946 screenplay
THE YEARS BETWEEN 1946 screenplay
THE BROTHERS 1947 screenplay
DEAR MURDERER 1947 screenplay
EASY MONEY 1947 screenplay
GOOD-TIME GIRL 1947 screenplay
HOLIDAY CAMP 1947 screenplay
THE MAN WITHIN / THE SMUGGLERS 1947 screenplay
WHEN THE BOUGH BREAKS 1947 screenplay (uncredited)
THE BLIND GODDESS 1948 screenplay
CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS 1949 screenplay
PORTRAIT FROM LIFE / THE GIRL IN THE PAINTING / PORTRAIT OF HILDEGARD / JOURNEY INTO YESTERDAY 1949 screenplay; dialogue director (uncredited)
THE LOST PEOPLE / COCKPIT 1949 additional scenes writer & director
THE HAPPY FAMILY / MR. LORD SAYS NO / LIVE AND LET LIVE / THE SOUTH BANK STORY 1952 director; screenplay
STREET CORNER / BOTH SIDES OF THE LAW / POLICEWOMAN / THE GENTLE ARM 1953 director; screenplay
A PRINCE FOR CYNTHIA 1953 director
THE BEACHCOMBER 1954 director
TO DOROTHY, A SON / CASH ON DELIVERY 1954 director
SIMON AND LAURA 1955 director
EYEWITNESS / POINT OF CRISIS 1956 director
THE PASSIONATE STRANGER / A NOVEL AFFAIR 1956 director; screenplay
THE TRUTH ABOUT WOMEN 1957 director; screenplay
SUBWAY IN THE SKY 1958 director
THIS OTHER EDEN Eire, 1959 director
TOO YOUNG TO LOVE 1959 director; screenplay
THE PIPER’S TUNE 1961 director
RATTLE OF A SIMPLE MAN 1964 director
Television credits
PLAY OF THE WEEK: The Years Between ITV tx 18/6/1956 script
FIFTIES FEATURES – THE WOMEN BEHIND THE PICTURES: Romance and Reality
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