10 Great Movies About The Theatre
At the moment the theatre world is turning to old films for inspiration, but what about the other direction? Once, a huge number of movies were made from plays. In cinema’s early years there was a rush to shoot the classics and the great historical stories in this country; after all, the nation was steeped in the theatre.
Arguably, the first great English film is Alexander Korda’s ‘The Private Life Of Henry VIII’ (1933). It was followed by films about Nell Gwyn, Rembrandt, Queen Victoria, Henry V, Caesar and Cleopatra, Isadora Duncan. Between them were social comedies, morality plays, dramas, musicals, filmed versions of the great Dickens novels, the plays of Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward, work from Shakespeare, D.H. Lawrence, A. J. Cronin, Graham Greene, Terrence Rattigan, John Braine, H.G. Wells, Nigel Kneale and Joe Orton.
And there were a huge number of films about the theatre itself. Obviously there were American classics like ’42nd Street’ and ‘All About Eve’, but in the UK we concentrated more on the idea of the closed world that existed behind the proscenium arch. You’d think that perhaps the idea of a story set in a static dark environment wouldn’t appeal, but there have been a surprising number. I could have chosen many others like ‘Bullets Over Broadway’, ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ and ‘Champagne Charlie’, but here are ten worth digging out.
Mrs Henderson Presents (2005)
Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins are business partners in the Windmill Theatre (built near the real windmill that used to exist in Soho) – a saucy nude review that famously advertised ‘We Never Close’ and continued through WWII.
Stage Beauty (2004)
Billy Crudup stars in the story of what happened when women were finally allowed to perform on stage in the 17th century, and how they forced out the traditional ‘male actresses’. Neglected on release, it’s actually a terrific film about gender politics.
Shakespeare In Love (1998)
Whatever happened to Joseph Fiennes? The story of Shakespeare and the Globe is a witty delight, about to become a stage play this year, and was huge hit thanks to a sparkling, anachronistic script.
The Good Companions (1933 and 1957)
The epic story of a theatre troupe, the Dinky Doos, and their fortunes was filmed first with Jessie Matthews, then with Celia Johnson – the latter is best. It was also a handsome Granada TV series and a musical, from the Priestley book.
The Dresser (1983)
Powerhouse acting from Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney in a claustrophobic films about the camp personal assistant of a deteriorating veteran actor and his struggles to get him through a difficult performance of King Lear – it’s the one where Finney stops a train with a shout.
The Boy Friend (1971)
Ken Russell’s multi-levelled love letter to provincial theatre in the 1920s stars Twiggy and is packed with knowing one-liners about theatre lore. ‘Let’s face it darling, the closest you got to the West End was Harrow-On-The Hill.’
An Awfully Big Adventure (1995)
From the Beryl Bainbridge novel, this is a dark, troubling film about a young girl who joins a production of ‘Peter Pan’ only to find herself drawn into the sinister sexual politics that exist in the dressing rooms – one of the only films to tackle the subject.
Shakespeare Wallah (1965)
The story of a troupe of English actors in India who give performances of Shakespearean plays. Through their travels we see the changing face of the nation as the Maharajas become hotel owners, sport replaces culture and the theatre is replaced by Bollywood movies.
Mike Leigh’s beautiful recreation of a particularly painful period in the lives of Gilbert and Sullivan as they prepare for their greatest hit, ‘The Mikado’ would make a perfect double-bill with ‘The Story of Gilbert & Sullivan’, newly out on DVD.
The Producers (1967 and 2005)
The life of the low theatre impresario (Mel Brooks once worked for the man upon whom Zero Mostel is modelled) played as a fantastic Jewish bad-taste farce, first with the wonderfully neurotic Gene Wilder, then remade as a musical. ‘I’m not going into the toilet, I’m going into show business!’
Worst – Noises Off (1992)
What should have been one of the best tales of backstage battles ever, based on Micahel Frayn’s smash-hit play, is ruined by Peter Bogdanovitch’s ham-fisted direction, his decision to bring in a new writer (!) and some horribly miscast performers.