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Ken Russell early films

Ken Russell French Dressing title

"In many ways, French Dressing is a rather shoddy affair- huge chunks of the film have been crudely ADR’d, the plot is thin and the characters are under-developed. But it’s also a film with a surprising amount of charm, and although under written, the main characters are all surprisingly likeable" (David Flint,  25 Oct 2019,  The Reprobate, click here)

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.

Alita Naughton and James Booth in French Dressing

French Dressing Ken Russell

Ken Russell French Dressing

French Dressing

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.

Alita Naughton in French Dressing

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 (1973, chapter 2) 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." (imdb.com, last accessed 11 Dec 2023, click here)  The writer doesn't seem to know of Ken's career at the BBC before the film.

Ken Russell on set of French Dressing

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

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.

French Dresing

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 in French Dressing

Merisa Mell plays the French film star, though she was actually born in Austria (from DVD image gallery).

Ken Russell French Dressing
The poster doesn't really reflect the film.

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.

Best Image

Deckchairs in water in French Dressing

The deckchairs floating face down in the water...

French Dressing by Ken Russell with Alita Naughton with typewriter

...closely followed by Alita on the beach using her typewriter, framed into the entire screen.  Both highly visual scenes.

Best Scene

The pier in French Dressing

The pier in French Dressing

The pier in French Dressing

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 length.


Marisa Mell

The French film star seems to escape disguised as a nun. She sits at the railway station smoking a cigarette.

French Dressing Ken Russell

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."

French Dressing Ken Russell

French Dressing Ken Russell Marisa Mell

There is a film within the film.

French Dressing rain

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.

French Dressing Ken Russell

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.

My Fair Lady  Dr Strangelove  A Hard Days Night  Mary Poppins

More films

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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