Since his death a few weeks ago, the BBC (but not any of the other channels) have shown several films, two of his brilliant musical biopics made for television, and a documentary in tribute to the flamboyant British director Ken Russell. I have had mixed feelings about his feature films, previously only having acquired copies of "Billion Dollar Brain" (1967), "The Devils" (1971), and "Tommy" (1975) from his best British period, plus two unusual and fascinating movies from his brief flirtation with Hollywood: "Altered States" (1980) and "Crimes of Passion" (1984). I did, not long ago for curiosity only, acquire a copy of "Lisztomania"(1975) which I found nearly unwatchable. He remained prolific, against the odds, but unfortunately most of his more recent output, like "Fall of the Louse of Usher" (not a typo!) in 2002, was underfunded and amateurish. However I took the opportunity during the recent showings to revisit "Women in Love" (1969) -- Oscar glory for Glenda Jackson -- and the above film which I'd not seen in years.
Gosh I was pleasantly surprised. On its release the critics turned against him en masse, accusing him of not only ruining Sandy Wilson's nostalgic, period stage musical (the breakout performance for Julie Andrews), but of singlehandedly jeopardizing the progress of British filmmaking. It's actually a fine piece of work, as Russell opened out the original script to incorporate his own peculiar tribute to Hollywood musicals in general. One reviewer on IMDb said that this movie is to musicals as "Blazing Saddles" is to westerns -- a good analogy. The basic story of a fourth-rate seaside troupe in the 1920s performing their cliched drama to a scant audience is supplanted by dreams of the lavish production that it might have been under the eye of someone like Busby Berkeley. One critic went so far to criticise having Berkeley-like extravaganzas with their synchronised patterns in a period before they were 'invented'. What nonsense, since Russell's dipping into the Busby heritage is nearly every bit as good as the work of the Master.
MGM originally acquired the rights to the stage show for a straight movie adaptation which was never made and no one was prepared for what the imaginative Mr. Russell could do with the same basic material. While possibly a little too long with one too many musical numbers (the film was cut by nearly half an hour for its original release -- now thankfully restored), it is vintage and typical Russell with blazing wit and ultimately charm. He was also criticised for his choice of cast, but model of the day Twiggy is actually remarkably good with a fine singing voice and not overly clumpy dancing when accompanied by the Royal Ballet dancer Christopher Gable, who also did the choreography. The larger than life stage actor Max Adrian is great fun as a has-been pompous performer. The charismatic (normally villain) Polish actor Vladek Sheybal -- also showcased in "Women in Love"-- plays a visiting Hollywood producer whom the players strive to seduce with their not-so-remarkable talent. The long-legged American dancer Tommy Tune is here part of the minor cast which also includes a number of British stalwarts, with only 'National Treasure' Barbara Windsor being a grating presence. Finally as favour to Russell, having refused a role in "The Devils" Glenda Jackson has a priceless cameo as the injured diva whose accident gives the assistant stage manager cum understudy Twiggy her first stage role. You know the saying -- "go out there a youngster, but come back a star" or somesuch.
All of the 30s musical cliches are present and correct, but Russell gives them such a cheerful spin that the movie ranks with his very best. The man was capable of taking nearly any subject and presenting it in ways that would just never occur to lesser talents. He may have been somewhat underestimated and dismissed in the past, but I think his creative reputation will continue to grow.