British Cinema of the 1950s: A Celebration

By Ian MacKillop; Neil Sinyard | Go to book overview

Housewife's choice:
Woman in a Dressing Gown

MELANIE WILLIAMS

What was the first sexy British film Frears remembers? `Woman in a Dressing Gown,' he says without hesitation. `Actually, I don't think I ever saw Woman in a Dressing Gown, but its title always gave me a powerful erotic thrill.' 1

TO ANYONE WHO has seen it, Stephen Frears's response to Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957) seems laughably inappropriate. The dressing gown of the title is not the flimsy négligé of a seductress but a decidedly unerotic shapeless old housecoat worn by middle-aged housewife Amy Preston (Yvonne Mitchell), whose inability to find time to dress in the morning illustrates her poor organisational abilities, rather than a déshabillé sexuality. Amy aspires to be the perfect housewife but, despite several frantic attempts to get her house in order, never quite manages it. The mise-en-scène acts as a constant reminder of Amy's failure, showing her home crowded with piles of unironed laundry, unwashed plates and unfinished mending, all of which prompted Raymond Durgnat to describe the film as `a rhapsody of bad housekeeping'. 2

Furthermore, Amy's husband Jim (Anthony Quayle) is having an affair with a young woman at work, Georgie (Sylvia Syms), who is neat, tidy and efficient; the absolute antithesis of Amy. On the surface, Woman in a Dressing Gown is a drama that counterpoints two different kinds of women: if Georgie is the ideal of 1950s femininity, serene, sexually attractive and `mature', then Amy is its unacceptable face, scatty, scruffy and loud. 3 However, what prevents any simple reading of the film as purely an indictment of Amy as a bad housewife is, as Marcia Landy has argued, its insistent focus on `the sights and sounds of Amy's life … the visualization of her milieu'. 4

____________________
I teach film studies at the University of Hull. I have written on British film for the Quarterly Review of Film and Video, the Journal of Popular British Cinema and the Journal of Gender Studies and I am currently completing a doctorate on the representation of women in the 1950s films of J. Lee Thompson. This interest sprang from spending countless afternoons watching the Channel 4 matinee when I should have been doing something more constructive with my time. I also harbour a secret crush on Stanley Baker, especially in Hell Drivers. Melanie Williams

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