Nudity was not an option for previous child stars attempting to make the leap into adult roles. Shirley Temple in the 1930s and Margaret O’Brien in the 1940s were kids when they played kids and when they outgrew their cuteness audiences were indifferent.
Being older when playing younger characters increased the chances of career survival. Silent movie superstar Mary Pickford was 22 when she first tackled child heroine Tess of the Storm Country (1914) and 30 for the remake and she made an absolute fortune from these kinds of roles. Judy Garland was 17 when The Wizard of Oz (1939) appeared and managed another 15 years at the top before drugs and drink took their toll, still worthy of supporting roles after A Star Is Born (1954) and even star billing in her last film I Could Go On Singing (1963). But she was fired from Valley of the Dolls (1967), ironically enough given the film’s subject matter, due to alcohol and drug dependency.
Hayley Mills was 14 when her first Disney picture Pollyanna (1960) was released and for the next five years at that studio never played anyone approaching her true age. She was protected from studio abuse because this was Disney and because her father was actor John Mills, who often appeared in her movies. When the Disney contract ended, Sky, West and Crooked (1966), her father’s directorial debut, attempted to refashion her screen persona with a more challenging role.
But The Family Way forced audiences to set aside all preconceptions. Not only did she show her naked derriere, but this was a film essentially about sex. No sex is actually shown because newly-weds Mills and Hywel Bennett have not consummated their marriage. You can thank the Carry On films for the snigger-snigger British mindset to sex. The promiscuous and often predatory characters of Darling (1965) and Alfie (1965) occupied a different world, almost a foreign country as far as the inhabitants of this solid working-class town were concerned. They would have looked askance at such permissiveness. Here, at this particular point in history, both sexes were still expected to be virgins when they married. Sex in Darling (1965) and Alfie (1966), for example, carries little emotional overtones. The Family Way is novel in treating sex as fundamental to happiness within marriage.
The subject of impotence would not be first on your list when you set out to make a warm-hearted drama. But here screenwriter Bill Naughton (Alfie) in adapting his play All in Good Time uses the theme to explore family values. But where recrimination – and subsequent confrontation – might be the first port of call for another writer, Naughton foregoes that obvious route to concentrate on the way impotence eats at a man’s self-worth. Two secrets drive the plot but the second is preserved right to the end, resulting in possibly the most moving finale you will ever watch.
In documenting working-class life it is superior to the earlier Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). It is life without inbuilt bitterness. Families are still crammed into small houses, a visit to the housing department an invitation to humiliation, but there is full employment and enjoyment to be found in simple pleasures.
Family dynamics are expertly explored. Bennett, with a shelf load of books and penchant for classical music, is diametrically opposed to his down-to-earth but exceptionally obtuse father John Mills, and there is a wonderful scene early on where Bennett seeing how badly his father takes defeat allows him to win an arm-wrestling competition. Mills is the standout, devoted to the memory of a long-departed childhood pal and struggling with his position as patriarch especially in the face of perennial sniping by wife Marjorie Rhodes. Mills is wonderful doing nothing, a face so expressive of longing and emotion, and it is he who has the heart-breaking final scene. The older characters are fully rounded, bluff exteriors concealing fragile emotion. Hard-faced Rhodes appears almost fey when she recalls a moment of love. Hayley Mill’s burly father (John Comer) cannot cope with her departure from his household, especially as that leaves him at the mercy of his shrewish wife (stand-up comedienne Avril Angers).
Hywel Bennett begins a successful movie career with a difficult part, an introspective role calling for him to contain his emotions – not venting his spleen like the endlessly complaining Arthur Seaton of Saturday Night – until they erupt in a spectacular fist fight that does not go at all the way you would expect.
Barry Foster (later television’s Van de Valk) has the showy part as the rough-edged workmate and Murray Head (later part of the love triangle in Sunday, Bloody Sunday, 1971) also makes his debut in an equally showy role as Bennett’s brother who makes advances to his frustrated sister-in-law.
Even without the nudity, Hayley Mills, the denoted star, makes the transition to movie adulthood with ease. In part, all she had to do was drop the unnatural excitement that appeared essential to her Disney portfolio. Her delivery, her reading of a line, had always been good and she had clearly worked out she was going to be an actress not a sex symbol so there was no exaggerated use of her physicality.
Even the nudity worked in her favour, startled to be disturbed emerging from a bath, genuinely shy, not the mock-shy or revelling in her naked state that was de rigeur in Hollywood. She was also helped by being a light foil to the brooding, gloomy Bennett, her natural bright personality, while affected by their problem, still capable of enjoying harmless pleasures. .
This was a distinct change of pace for the fraternal producer-directing team John and Roy Boulting, stalwarts of British production since the 1940s with a host of well-regarded dramas and comedies, often with Peter Sellers, to their name. Generally, they took turns about in the director’s chair – the former putting his name to thriller Brighton Rock (1948) and comedies Lucky Jim (1957) and I’m Alright, Jack (1959), the latter claiming credit for drama Fame Is the Spur (1947), thriller Run for the Sun (1956) and comedy A French Mistress (1960). Occasionally, they shared the directing chore as with thriller Seven Days to Noon (1950), comedy Heavens Above (1963) and in this contemporary drama.
Their approach to The Family Way went against the grain of the gritty working-class dramas in the vein of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and This Sporting Life (1962). Nobody here has a job they hate or comes home covered in grime. In fact, since the central thrust (pardon the pun) of the movie is about pleasure (sexual, that is), it is set against a background of enjoyment. Both principals have jobs in entertainment, Bennett an assistant projectionist in a cinema, Hayley Mills working in a record store and also seen at a disco and a motocross event. Alcohol plays a role, of course, but not to the extent of over-indulgence, not drinking yourself to oblivion like Arthur Seaton, and its main purpose is to present the father as an amiable host.
What impact the burgeoning affair between Hayley Mills and Roy Boulting (33 years her senior) had on the production is anyone’s guess but possibly it helped steady the star’s nerves when it came to the nude scene. From today’s perspective, the nudity appears gratuitous. And certainly back then it was shocking, ensuring an X-certificate (although the subject matter probably already guaranteed that).
Actually, it was social comment. While living in a decent-enough house, the family lacked one particular amenity – an indoor toilet. Washing took place at a communal sink or in the privacy of a bedroom with a bowl of water. A bath was a mobile unit, a zinc item dragged out of the scullery into the living room, filled with endless pots or kettles of hot water. But for a young woman to take a bath demanded privacy. So when Hayley Mills is interrupted in her ablutions, males and females in the audience had opposite reactions. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that males simply enjoyed the sight of the naked posterior. Women, on the other hand, would wince. Aversion to nudity may have played a part but more likely women would feel deeply the humiliation at the lack of privacy in such a household, that someone could come upon you at your most vulnerable at any time. Sure, nothing went hidden in such houses, the sounds of any activity would carry through walls, but such a deep personal activity as exposure while taking a bath said far more about the brutal congestion of family life than jokes about hearing someone urinating into a container in the next room.
Paul McCartney contributed a very hummable melody as part of his debut movie score.
American audiences did not respond so well to Hayley Mills’ emergence as an adult actor and the movie failed to click at the box office there. But by that point it was already in profit, a runaway British hit (among the top twelve films of the year) and set the female star up for an adult career, pointed Hywel Bennett in the right direction and gave John Mills one of his most memorable turns. And very entertaining and enjoyable with terrific acting.