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50 Shades of Miss Blandish

 Tomorrow (Sunday the 19th), TCM will be wallowing in filth. Yup, they’re going to be screening a movie that the Monthly Film Bulletin labeled “the most sickening exhibition of brutality, perversion, sex and sadism ever to be shown on a cinema screen.” Sight and Sound deemed it “a piece of calculated nastiness,” the Daily Mirror called it “as fragrant as a cesspool,” and Sunday Pictorial raved “a piece of nauseating muck.” And if that isn’t enough blurbs to fill out your movie poster with, let’s also add that the Daily Express declared it a “wicked disgrace to the British film industry,” the Star pronounced it “one of the most undesirable pictures ever turned out by a British studio,” and the Sunday Times proposed inventing an all new rating just to classify this one film: “D for Disgusting.”

So, what are we talking about here? A piece of hard-core pornography, perhaps? A snuff film? A work of Soviet Socialist Realism full of secret communist propaganda?

Nope—it’s a 1948 film noir with the unassuming title of No Orchids for Miss Blandish.

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Critics don’t bother getting this lathered up over something nobody’s going to see, and when critics do get themselves this lathered up it only encourages people to go see what all the fuss is about.

So when various members of Parliament took to the House of Commons to decry the film as a threat to public morals demanding immediate government action, the only measurable consequence of their hysteria was to make the film a blockbuster sensation. The filmmakers could not have orchestrated the panic any better had they tried.

Producer George Minter had made a film that hit every nerve of every possible censor. “I don’t think I overlooked anything,” chuckled Minter.

Call it beginner’s luck. Minter was a newcomer to the film business, and if his quip implies this was all the masterplan of a canny showman, let’s dispel that myth.

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Our story begins in 1939, when the novel No Orchids for Miss Blandish first appeared in bookstores. Its author was James Hadley Chase (born Ren Raymond), a crime novelist sometimes billed as England’s answer to Raymond Chandler.

The cover blurb promised “the toughest novel you’ll ever read,” which actually manages to undersell it. The story involves a young socialite who witnesses the murder of her boyfriend, is kidnapped by a criminal gang and held for ransom, then kept drugged and imprisoned by a savage monster whose protracted sexual attacks leave her a mindless vegetable.

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What makes Chase’s novel such rough going is not just its grisly content, but the matter-of-fact tone with which it is told. Chase ambles through his catalog of nightmares as if this sort of thing happens every day.

George Orwell was so incensed by the book’s bleakness he felt compelled to personally condemn No Orchids in a magazine article. “Sordid and brutal,” he seethed. Orwell’s mind boggled at the fact that in just a few years, this nasty little thing had sold a half million copies. Here were ordinary, right-thinking citizens of the British Empire, waging a war on Hitler’s Germany and enduring the Blitz. Yet living daily through a real-life amoral hell, these seemingly sane people were choosing to spend their leisure time with cheap sensationalism. As far as Orwell was concerned, the book signaled the advance of Fascist ideals into Britain.

Them’s fightin’ words. They are also, it must be said, misguided ones.

Orwell made the mistake of many moralists who found themselves unable to distinguish between a book that describes amorality, and one that endorses it.

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By way of illustrating the distinction, let’s consider William Faulkner’s Sanctuary from 1931. In broad outlines, Faulkner’s novel tells the same story–so similar, in fact, Chase found himself dodging accusations of having stolen Faulkner’s plot.

Sanctuary differs in some important details, but perhaps the most important of these is that it features scattered moments of human empathy and idealistic altruism. Where Faulkner depicts the terrifying lynching of an innocent man, Chase offers up no one you could identify as innocent; where Faulkner celebrates a brave lawyer working on behalf of his conscience, Chase offers no one brave, none with a conscience. Chase took Faulkner’s book and stripped away its humanity. Faulkner’s book is a literary classic, and Orwell would not have attacked it. Although Chase’s book is no more horrifying, it lacks an obvious point of identification within the novel to stand in for the author’s viewpoint.

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Faulkner’s novel had made the transition from literature to film back in 1933, during the Pre-Code era, as The Story of Temple Drake. In Stephen Roberts’ film, Miriam Hopkins plays the kidnapped socialite oppositeJack La Rue’s charmingly seductive brutality. An inhuman monster in the book, he was tempered somewhat for the screen and made into a dangerous but not wholly loathsome creature. It was an example closely observed by the makers of No Orchids.

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But before we get to the No Orchids movie, there are other detours.

First we find a 1942 stage version in London starring Linden Travers as Miss Blandish and Robert Newton as her sociopathic tormentor, Slim. Movie producer Sydney Box licensed movie rights, and in 1944 prepared to film a version of the play. The British Board of Film Classification rejected the script, concluding that what was acceptable on the London stage was not acceptable on movie screens.

The main point of contention had to do with the portrayal of Slim. The theatrical script followed the book in presenting Slim as a mentally challenged and sexually immature monster. This could not be approved, said the BBFC. So, Box took a page from The Story of Temple Drake and rewrote the script.

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Instead of Slim keeping Miss Blandish as a drugged zombie, the film would find the girl actively falling in love with her captor, siding with him willingly. Not only would this placate the censors, but made the characters into juicier parts for actors to play.

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It was at this point that Box received a promotion to the head of production for Gainsborough Films, a subsidiary of the Rank Organization. He was now one of the most powerful men in British film, but he was also now deeply embedded in an institution known for high morals. Chase’s lurid story would have no place there. Box surrendered the project to a new up-and-coming aspirant, George Minter. In turn, he hired as director St. John Legh Clowes, an itinerant maker of 1930s era quota quickies, whose past works are so obscure that most sources wrongly state that No Orchids was his first–and only–film (he died shortly after its making).

Clowes planned to bolster the film’s faux-American setting by casting some conspicuous American leads. George Raft had tentatively agreed to take the role of Slim, contingent on Jane Russell being cast as Miss Blandish. Russell was under exclusive contract to Howard Hughes, who refused to let the star of The Outlaw take any outside gigs. Without Russell, Clowes also lost Raft.

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In their places he cast two actors whose prior experience made them obvious choices. Linden Travers had already played Miss Blandish in the stage version, which made for both excellent preparation and effective publicity. Opposite her was Jack La Rue as Slim. In an ironic coincidence, back in 1933 the producers of The Story of Temple Drake had wanted George Raft for their lead villain, lost him, and cast La Rue in his place. Fifteen years later, La Rue was hired to all but reprise his role!

It’s here that the story takes a turn. Minter and Clowes submitted their finished film to the BBFC in 1948 for final classification. So they’ve got a film about a rape victim falling in love with her gangster attacker, and they’re putting it before a notoriously censorial institution to see if it will be approved to be shown to general audiences.

But… the BBFC was in a crisis of leadership and was falling into disorganization. The distracted board members figured, yeah sure, this is one nasty piece of cinema, but everything objectionable about it was in the script and we approved the script, so… I guess it’s OK. And they approved it without any debate or any calls for cuts.

The BBFC approval was not the final word on the matter, though. Local districts had their own censors, each of which started to demand their own cuts, while the press went to town—as noted in the above-the-fold press clippings at the top of this post.

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Much of the controversy was grandstanding on the part of people who hadn’t even seen the movie they were so scandalized by.

Underneath that ran another undercurrent–one of fear that British culture was becoming Americanized. The postwar era marked the peak of British movie-going. The cinema was a culturally respected and industrially prosperous locus of public life. But British theaters were more often than not going to be showing Hollywood imports–and British films were more often than not unable to find significant distribution abroad. The competition from America was fierce. As a consequence, many British filmmakers inevitably turned to copying American genres in an effort to find the same audience. Just as inevitably, a cadre of critics were ready to ruthlessly indict those filmmakers who diluted British culture by so doing. Even aside from the questions of its sex and violence, the fact that No Orchids for Miss Blandishpresented itself as an American crime film was enough to ruffle feathers.

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With all the publicity about the film’s salacious content, censors in the US geared up to confront the import. Richard Gordon had just set up shop as an importer of British films, and No Orchidswas to be the first film he would distribute in America. Hearing that Customs had plans to confiscate the film upon its arrival, Gordon cleverly re-routed it to arrive by slow boat at a New Orleans port, away from publicity and official attention. He was still obliged to make significant cuts to the picture to get it into American theaters (American censors ironically turned out to be even more puritannical), but at least it was not moldering in a Customs warehouse (Gordon has since seen to it that the picture has been restored to its original uncut length, thank you very much).

As in England, coverage of the controversy amounted to free publicity. When No Orchids premiered in Times Square, it did so to sellout crowds.

8 Responses 50 Shades of Miss Blandish
Posted By Autist : April 18, 2015 2:37 pm

Just a piece of trivia: “No Orchids for Miss Blandish” was remade in 1971 by Robert Aldrich as “The Grissom Gang”, with Kim Darby as Miss Blandish. I haven’t seen the original movie, but I did like Aldrich’s remake, which leavens the more sordid material with humor.

Posted By Tom S : April 18, 2015 4:16 pm

As I’ve read the Orwell article in question- I don’t think I’d agree that he was a moralist, so much as someone who assumed that all art was ultimately political in nature, and bearing a political message- and his particular revulsion towards No Orchids wasn’t so much the density of the brutality as the implicit idea that the audience should celebrate the police detective heroes, who were utterly fascistic in their methodology, simply because they were the characters with the most power. I haven’t read Sanctuary, so I can’t speak to it in particular, but it’s certainly not true that Orwell would have refused to attack something because it had literary merit- he was fairly savage towards Mark Twain, of all people, and gave Dickens something of a mixed review.

At any rate, I think his analysis of the creeping fascism of the action genre is a reasonable one, however much one or another particular work may have redeeming characteristics, and certainly the upsetting appeal of works in which sexual violence and brutality and ended by further brutality, and the worshipping of police based on the power they possess (with the implication that anything they do is righteous by default, because of that power) are things that remain worrying in the world now, with significant consequences in a number of cases.

Posted By george : April 18, 2015 9:11 pm

I’m a GRISSOM GANG fan, too. And I love those lurid old paperback covers. Check out the image gallery here:

http://www.vintagepbks.com/index.html

I’m glad to say that Hard Case Crime is keeping the salacious tradition alive.

Posted By Jeffrey E. Ford : April 19, 2015 6:16 pm

I would just like to note that another, much later, condemnation of the film came from the pen of British boor Leslie Halliwell, who declared it: a “hilariously awful gangster movie” and “one of the worst films ever made.” After having seen the film for myself, I can only say that those statements prove beyond a doubt that poor Mr. Halliwell just did not see enough films.

Posted By tdraicer : April 19, 2015 8:03 pm

>I don’t think I’d agree that he was a moralist, so much as someone who assumed that all art was ultimately political in nature,

Personally I find the idea that all art should be viewed through a political lens far more fascistic than any lurid melodrama.

Posted By george : April 19, 2015 8:52 pm

“I can only say that those statements prove beyond a doubt that poor Mr. Halliwell just did not see enough films.”

He saw a lot of films, but seems to have hated everything but Laurel and Hardy comedies. At least he was on target there!

Halliwell was of a generation of British writers who hated most British movies. I still remember Denis Gifford’s comment that Hammer Films “have yet to reach Monogram” in quality. Even at 14, I knew that was bunk.

Posted By swac44 : May 4, 2015 9:26 pm

Just watched the film via the VCI DVD, which looks fantastic (although I had to fiddle with my TV frame rate controls to get it to play smoothly), but I had a question about it, regarding a scene involving Sid James’ barkeep. I hear there was a scene of him having his eye gouged out, but don’t recall seeing it in the film, or that this had been censored from U.S. prints. Does anyone know if that scene has been reinstated somewhere else?

Posted By swac44 : May 4, 2015 10:04 pm

Never mind, the scene is there on the VCI DVD, must have been out of the room when it happened.

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