Ken Russell had two false starts in the cinema. French Dressing is sublime but was a commercial failure so he retreated back to television. Later he directed a Michael Caine thriller. This was a commercial and artistic disaster and Ken was again out of cinema.
Ken Russell's first cinema film French Dressing from 1963 is dismissed by almost everyone including Ken, but it is a minor classic. It is an innocent British story about a deck-chair attendant who arranges for a famous French film star to open the local film festival. But actually the plot is an excuse for a series of sketches centred around the hero and heroine, with a rite of passage for both before they realise their love is more powerful than their ambitions.
She is played by newcomer Alita Naughton who is seriously cute, wearing a sailors costume and looking like a female Tadzio from Death in Venice- "the carnival is fancy dress- come as a girl". The sailors costume frequently appears in Russell films.
The film is black and white and has all of Ken Russell's eye for imagery. The editing and pace, and the good non-professional acting, are similar to Dick Lester's Beatles work. The film was scripted as a light comedy, and the set jokes don't work, but this gives the film a charm, as two innocents share the events that unfurl around them.
John Baxter in An Appalling Talent makes comparisons with Jean Vigo and Jacques Tati. Also on the commercial lack of success says "French Dressing might have gained a moderate success had the producers given it adequate distribution. Instead it is bundled out largely without promotion, cut to an hour for double-billing in countries like Australia, and in the USA never released at all. Russell rashly attends the London critics' screen to answer questions- none are asked..."
Ken Hanke says "Beating the British Film Invasion proper by a few months, this charming little seaside comedy romance is very, very British, but it also underscores the immense impact that the French New Wave had on British Invasion cinema" (review, Mountain Xpress, 30 Jun 2015 click here).
On imdb.com it says that when the film flopped Russell "later announced that he never wanted to do a feature again and started working for the BBC." The writer doesn't seem to know of Ken's career at the BBC before the film.
Ken (on the right) filming French Dressing- from
the DVD image gallery, other images from the DVD of the film.
Bryan Pringle, James Booth and Roy Kinnear, television actors, star. They were all well-known British comedy actors.
Alita Naughton is the newcomer. Later she appears in Ken Russell's Isadora Duncan television film. Ken met Alita when filming the documentary Watch the Birdie about photographer David Hurn, as she was then Hurn´s girlfriend. Bryan Pringle, playing the mayor, also appears in The Boyfriend, and Sandor Elés would later appear in Isadora.
Ken Higgins (cinematography) in an interview on The History Project (here) says Ken was "having problems with actors- apparently not giving them any direction, as he wasn't experienced with dialogue... it was a disaster of a film "[Iain: I disagree].
Merisa Mell plays the French film star, though she was actually born in Austria (from DVD image gallery).
Shirley Russell is costume designer. Cinematography Kenneth Higgins (Elgar), Editor Jack Slade. The screenplay was by Peter Brett who Russell chose because he knew him as an actor from Elgar. Ronald Cass and Peter Myers also worked on the screenplay, as well as on the similar Summer Holiday.
The deckchairs floating face down in the water...
...closely followed by Alita on
the beach using her typewriter, framed into the entire
screen. Both highly visual scenes.
The opening sequence on
the pier. The courage of a newcomer to hold the shot as
the bicycle rides into the distance-David Lean edited
down his famous long shot in Lawrence of Arabia because
he thought the audience wouldn't take it. The pier is still there
(in Herne Bay) but is now much shorter, about a third of the original
The French film star seems to escape disguised as a nun. She sits at the railway station smoking a cigarette.
Holocaust (the inflatable dolls). Baxter in An Appalling Talent says "Only after a long discussion [with Ken] of the visual similarities of scenes in The Devils and French Dressing and a number of attempts to evade the question did he agree that the tumbled corpses in the plague pit [of The Devils] resemble the plastic dummies in French Dressing and the bath or corpses in Billion Dollar Brain."
There is a film within the film.
The elements water, fire, earth and air (including lightning) play a central role in the plot. The band and mayor are soaked by seaside thunderstorms.
The parade of wheelchairs.
Other films released in the same year include My Fair Lady (Oscar), Dr. Strangelove, A Hard Days Night and Mary Poppins.
Click title for film French Dressing * Billion Dollar Brain * Women in Love * The Music Lovers* The Devils * The Boy Friend * Savage Messiah * Mahler * Tommy * Lisztomania * Valentino * Altered States * Crimes of Passion * Gothic * Aria * The Lair of the White Worm * Salome's Last Dance * The Rainbow * Whore
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