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Box, Muriel (1905–1991)

Box, Muriel (1905–1991)

English writer, director, and producer. Name variations: Violette Muriel Baker, Lady Gardiner. Born Violette Muriel Baker in Surrey, England, in 1905; died in 1991; attended Holy Cross Convent, Wimbledon, Right Street Polytechnic, Surbiton High School, andPitman's College; married Sydney Box, on May 23, 1935 (divorced 1969); married Sir Gerald Gardiner, a Lord Chancellor, on August 28, 1970; children: (first marriage) Leonora (b. November 5, 1936).

Filmography—as screenwriter:

Alibi Inn (1935); The Facts of Love (1945); The Seventh Veil (1945); The Years Between (1947); Here Come the Huggetts (1948); Holiday Camp (1948); The Smugglers (1948); The Brothers (1948); Dear Murderer (1948); Easy Money (1949); The Blind Goddess (1949); Daybreak (1949); The Girl in the Painting (1949); Christopher Columbus (1949); A Girl in a Million (1950); Good Time Girl (1950); The Lost People (1950); Mr. Lord Says No! (1952); Street Corner (1952); Both Sides of the Law (1954); A Novel Affair (1957); The Truth About Women (1958).

Filmography—as producer:

The Smugglers (1948); Dear Murderer (1948); The Brothers (1948); A Girl in a Million (1950); The Truth About Women (1958).

Filmography—as director:

Mr. Lord Says No (1952); Street Corner (1952); A Prince For Cynthia (1953); Both Sides of the Law (1954); The Beachcomber (1955); Simon and Laura (1956); Cash on Delivery (1956); Eyewitness (1956); A Novel Affair (1957); The Truth About Women (1958); This Other Eden (1959); Subway in the Sky (1959); Too Young To Love (1960); The Piper's Time (1962); Rattle of a Simple Man (1964).

From age ten, when she "took impish delight in bursting into outrageous mime," Muriel Box knew she was destined for a career in show business. At 16, most likely against her parents' wishes, she talked her way into a job as a motion-picture extra. At 17, as a rebellious teenager, she left a not-so-cryptic note to her parents that said, "gone to the devil," then set out to make a name for herself. For the next 40 years, Box wrote, co-wrote, produced, or directed some 70 plays, numerous documentaries, and over three dozen feature films, making her one of the most prolific talents of the British stage and screen.

Her career was launched in 1929 when she started working as a shorthand-typist in the scenario department for British Instructional Films. She learned to write movie scripts on the fly when the paid scenarists, accustomed to writing silent movies, had difficulty writing dialogue. Box was only too happy to offer dialogue suggestions to the delight of grateful writers. For the next few years, her jobs ranged from continuity "girl," to casting assistant, to reading scripts, a position that would later be termed "director of development." The variety of her experience gave Box the opportunity to learn the nascent industry from the ground up.

In 1932, she met and fell in love with Sydney Box, an established journalist who moonlighted as a playwright. Married with two children, Sydney divorced his wife and married Muriel on May 23, 1935, beginning a personal and professional collaboration that would last three decades. Though their first screenplay, Alibi Inn, was well received, the Boxes remained tied to the theater; by 1939, the team had written more than 50 one-act plays, several full-length plays, and the librettos for a number of musicals.

With the advent of World War II, Sydney took over a failing production company called Verity Films. From 1939 to 1945, the Boxes wrote, and Muriel directed, documentary films for the British war effort. Sydney's sister Betty Box joined the duo as their producer.

Muriel and Sydney worked exclusively in features following the war. Their first effort, 29 Acacia Avenue, was passed over by critics as too simplistic or "just entertainment," but it heralded a long line of films made by the couple that were financially and popularly successful. In retrospect, Muriel Box's work has been considered pioneering. In 1952, she made the extremely popular Street Corner, a realistic portrayal of women on the police force, one of the first to deal with that subject matter. She followed it with another success in the same genre, Both Sides of the Law.

In 1958, Box directed and co-wrote with Sydney her favorite film, The Truth About Women. The movie was humorous, openly feminist, and the most expensive she ever directed. Costing £183,000, it was shot in color, had 40 sets, and lavish costumes designed by Cecil Beaton. The film opened to mostly upbeat reviews. In Films and Filming (April 1958), reviewer Derek Conrad found it: "excellently acted, beautifully photographed … and well directed." Philip Hartung writing in Commonweal called the film a "tour de force." Much to Box's dismay, however, The Truth About Women did not fare as well at the box office as was hoped.

In 1959, Sydney had a breakdown brought on by stress. Though Muriel continued her work, her husband handed over his part of the business to brother-in-law Peter Rogers. Though the couple was unaware at the time, Sydney's collapse signalled the beginning of the end of their collaboration.

Muriel Box's last feature film, Rattle of a Simple Man, concerned an innocent and lonely working-class man who has a chance encounter with an equally lonely, if not so innocent, prostitute. The film was taken to task for treating the subject matter too simplistically. Wrote Commonweal's critic: "Muriel Box has directed her characters well but Rattle, in spite of its occasional poignant moments, has to be chalked up as just another fanciful movie." If Box was ultimately disappointed by the way her films were received, it never seemed to deter her.

In 1964, she published her first novel, The Big Switch, to glowing reviews. Not long after, the Boxes separated. Sydney relocated to Australia while Muriel co-founded a publishing company, Femina Books, with fellow writers Vera Brittain, Anona Winn , and Anne Edwards . Box wrote the first book published by the company, a biography of feminist pioneer Marie Stopes . In 1969, she divorced Sydney, and, on August 28, 1970, married Sir Gerald Gardiner, a lord chancellor, thus becoming Lady Gardiner. In 1974, she wrote her autobiography, Odd Woman Out. Muriel Box died in 1991.

Winn, Anona

Australian-born radio singer and revue artist.

Trained as a lawyer, Anona Winn found fame as a singer with the help of Nellie Melba . Following World War II, Winn was a popular member of the game-show panel on the BBC's "Twenty Questions."

Though often criticized for making popular, rather than artistic, films, the Boxes dominated the British film industry when it came to mass producing entertaining movies that consistently made a profit. Whereas a man who directed such films might be praised as a "master of entertainment," the few women directors of Box's day were held to a different standard. For her part, Muriel Box was ahead of her time when it came to writing leading roles for women. The number of movies she co-produced, scripted, or directed remained unmatched by any other woman filmmaker at the close of the 20th century.

sources:

Box, Muriel. Odd Woman Out. London: Leslie Frewin, 1974.

Heck-Rabi, Louise. Women Filmmakers: A Critical Reception. London: Scarecrow Press, 1984.

Deborah Jones , Studio City, California

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