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Forgotten Box set. Muriel Box, the first woman to win a screenplay Oscar, was once neglected. Now she’s back in the limelight. By Valerie Grove

Features | By Valerie Grove

Action! Muriel Box wrote 22 films

Muriel Box, the first woman to win a screenplay Oscar, was once neglected. Now she’s back in the limelight. By Valerie Grove

It’s high time there was a box set of Muriel Box films.

In 1945, Box (1905-91) was the first woman to win an Oscar for best original screenplay, for The Seventh Veil.

She wrote 22 films and directed a dozen of them in the 1950s, when she was the one of the only female directors. Sometimes she got a double credit – Muriel and Sydney Box – until her husband ran off with a leggy blonde. People would assume a film was by Sydney (1907-83), a producer and screenwriter, even when the work was mostly hers.

I met Muriel in 1974, when she’d written a vivid memoir called Odd Woman Out. Her films reflect her personality: intelligent and original.

With her amused face and smiley eyes, she seemed not too bothered that few remembered her films (the last was Rattle of a Simple Man, 1964). She was happily re-married to the Lord Gardiner, the Lord High Chancellor under Harold Wilson from 1964 to 1970. As Gerald Gardiner QC, he had defended Penguin Books in the 1960 Lady Chatterley trial.

As Lady Gardiner, Muriel was no longer just a name in the fleeting screen credits on movies shown on TV (as they rarely were then). Her Oscar became a toy for her grandchildren, she cared so little.

To avoid confusion: Betty Box was her husband’s sister, producer of the Doctor films; she married the producer of the Carry On films, Peter Rogers. But Muriel (née Baker) got into films before the Boxes. At 15, she met a man on a train who turned out to be Joe Grossman, studio manager at Elstree. ‘Come and work in films,’ he said.

Since she loved cinema, she leapt at the idea. By 1925, she was working with film-maker Michael Powell. When she met Sydney in 1932, he was a showbiz reporter; she was editing scripts. After they married, they ran Gainsborough Studios on the banks of Regent’s Canal.

Muriel and I revisited her childhood home in Surbiton. She’d been a restless, ambitious teenager, ‘slowly stifled in a suburban brick-box from which there seemed small chance of escape’. Her parents had bought 354 Ewell Road (now three flats) in 1906.

The bickerings over money between her mother (schoolmistress, suffragist) and her railway-clerk father, developed into savage rows and even blows. Muriel’s early view of marriage informed her films. ‘I was a feminist from the word go,’ she said.

Childhood was punctuated by drama. At six, she was deflowered by a playmate. She had a tonsillectomy at home, her tonsils fed to the cat. She witnessed her older brother upturn a pan on the stove, covering himself in boiling oil. He survived to become a crack-shot soldier. A next-door neighbour was lost on the Titanic.

The Kingston Kinema, with its cliffhanging serials, slapstick comedies and flickering newsreels, became Muriel’s refuge. She left home with a cinematic flourish, leaving a note on the dining-room table: ‘Gone to the devil.’

Her films – The Passionate Stranger (1956) and The Truth About Women (1957), both newly remastered by Canal+ – feature backdrops of immaculate, wisteria-clad houses in the sunlit Home Counties. Filmed with exuberance and mischief, every scene sparkles with luminous colour.

The scripts are ironical and satirical. The women (Ann Todd, Diane Cilento, Mai Zetterling), with their tiny waists, are chic and feminine but indomitable. The men (Michael Denison, Wilfrid Hyde-White, James Mason) are suavely supercilious, debonair but often idiotic.

In The Passionate Stranger, Margaret Leighton tells her husband, ‘I’m supposed to be rather a good pianist, you know.’ ‘You’re supposed to be my wife,’ snaps back Ralph Richardson.

Laurence Harvey is perfect in The Truth About Women, but he was the most difficult actor Muriel ever worked with. ‘I don’t know whether his stardom had gone to his head,’ she said, ‘or whether he was just like that.’

Until her mid-40s, despite her film experience, Muriel was not allowed to direct – even a film she’d scripted called Road Safety for Children, for the Ministry of Information. Not until 1952 did she direct her first feature, The Happy Family, about a working-class family fighting to save their house from demolition.

When she wrote and directed Street Corner (1953) about policewomen, a retort to The Blue Lamp (with a mainly female crew), the great critic Dilys Powell sang its praises. Male critics made nudge-nudge remarks such as ‘It would be a pleasure to be arrested by any of them (hurr hurr)’.

Box died in 1991, but at last there’s a Muriel Box season at the British Film Institute, thanks to the efforts of the film-maker Carol Morley and BFI curator Jo Botting.

Lovers of old movies can enjoy 14 scripted and directed by her, including The Passionate Stranger, The Truth About Women and Simon and Laura (1955) – in which a TV company makes a series ‘mirroring the life of a normal married couple’. The marriage of the chosen couple, Peter Finch and Kay Kendall, proves quite hellish. What a prescient foretaste of reality TV from this forgotten titan of 20th-century film.

The Muriel Box season is at the BFI Southbank from 1st to 31st May

This story was from Spring 2023 issue. Subscribe Now