One of the worst – and certainly among the most repellent – films ever made. A hymn to misogyny under the guise of the not very difficult task of exposing Victorian hypocrisy, it labors under the bizarre thesis that all women want to be prostitutes. Screenwriter Denis Norden’s befuddled sense of history is awash with the same kind of contempt for audiences. Elizabeth Barrett (of Wimpole St fame) rubs shoulders with Lord Alfred Douglas (Oscar Wilde’s illicit lover) even though they lived half a century apart, the Chinese Opium Wars and The Indian Mutiny feature despite being separated by 15 years.
Sex workers had proved the basis for many good (and occasionally excellent) pictures in the 1960s ranging from Butterfield 8, Never on Sunday, Irma la Douce and Go Naked in the World at the start of the decade to Midnight Cowboy at its end, but these all featured well-rounded characters facing understandable dilemmas. But here the cynical and demeaning plot – more Carry On Up the Brothel than political satire – makes you wonder how this concept was perceived as either plausible or an acceptable subject for comedy
Feminist philanthropist Josephine Pacefoot (Joanna Pettet) – a character based on the real-life campaigner Josephine Butler – has set up the Social Purity League to rescue fallen women. Walter Leybourne (David Hemmings) is hired as a publicist to bring the issues raised to a wider audience. When Josephine inherits the fortune of Uncle Francis (George Sanders) the pair come up against the nefarious Benjamin Oakes (also played by Hemmings), her cousin and his half-brother, who has purloined his uncle’s mansion in Belgravia as the premises for London’s first brothel – The Libertine Club. This venture is backed by the Home Secretary (John Bird) as a way of getting streetwalkers away from upmarket shopping streets where their presence discourages wealthy females. Josephine also has to deal with a caricatured “evil” Chinaman (Wolfe Morris) through her uncle’s investment in opium. There’s also for no particular reason apoplectic airship inventor Count Pandolfo (Warren Mitchell).
All the women rescued from the oldest profession by Josephine are soon recruited by Oakes and a good chunk of the middle section of the movie involves various excuses to give the viewers intimate glimpses of what goes on in the brothel, involving an abundance of nudity. Oakes also aims to seduce Josephine while the shy Walter struggles to entice her into romance.
Excepting Josephine and Oakes’ mistress Babette (Dany Robin), the women are uniformly stupid. The story begins with Oakes’ duping a woman in a hot air balloon into removing her clothes on the grounds that it was the only way to reduce height enough to land. And it does not get any better. Women supposedly forced onto the streets after bad experiences with men turn out to be the seducers. Walter has the devil’s own job getting any of the girls to agree they had been raped. Walter, hoping to sell a story to The Times, is no less crass: “I can get five columns for a good rape.” Flora (Carol Friday), rescued much to her displeasure, is “gagging” for it. And there’s just an awful scene where a young girl sings about her “pussy” which even in the 1960s surely raised adverse comment.
The humor is largely of the sniggering variety. The brothel girls wear monocles instead of manacles, the only game on display in the Card Room is strip poker, and naturally there is a peeping tom, lawyer Sylvester (Willie Rushton).
As if to display his erudition, but without raising the laughter quotient, Norden chucks in literary cameos by the score – Charles Dickens (Arnold Diamond), Alfred Lord Tennyson (Hugh Burden), the aforementioned Elizabeth Barrett (Suzanne Hunt) and Lord Alfred Douglas (George Reynolds), Sherlock Holmes (Peter Jeffrey) and Dr Watson (Thorley Walters), plus explorer David Livingstone (Neil Arden) and department store entrepreneurs Fortnum (Arthur Howard) and Mason (Clement Freud).
That the movie actually gets one star is thanks to a number of excellent visual jokes: one scene of Uncle Francis defying the mutineers by raising the Union Jack cuts to the blood-splattered flag decorating his coffin; Sylvester frustrated at the keyhole but still hearing the moans of seducer-in-chief Oakes is followed by the sight of the wannabe lover struggling to get out of his bonds, having been attacked by Chinamen.
There’s not much difference, beyond hair color, between the characters essayed by David Hemmings (Alfred the Great, 1969). Both are one-dimensional, the pop-eyed virgin astonished by the goings-on at the brothel, the suave villain who might as well be twirling his moustache for all the depth he brings to the role. Thankfully, Joanna Pettet (Blue, 1968) is at least believable though even she could not act her way out of scenes where she was suspended by the Chinaman above a vat of boiling acid.
George Sanders (Sumuru, Queen of Femina aka The Girl from Rio, 1969) has a ball as the hypocrite-in-chief who knows how to monetize vice while Dany Robin (Topaz, 1969) brings some finesse to an otherwise one-dimensional part. But everyone else is a cipher which is a shame given the talent on show – John Bird (A Dandy in Aspic, 1968), John Cleese (A Fish Called Wanda, 1988), Warren Mitchell (The Assassination Bureau, 1969), Bill Fraser (Masquerade, 1965) and Maurice Denham (Some Girls Do, 1969). Among the girls, you might spot Veronica Carlsen (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, 1968) , Margaret Nolan (Goldfinger, 1964) and Rose Alba (Thunderball, 1965).
Director Philip Saville (Oedipus the King, 1968) should have known better and certainly made amends later in his career with among other projects BBC series Boys from the Blackstuff (1982). But Denis Norden (Buona Sera, Mrs Campbell, 1968) never wrote a more misguided piece in all his life.
For sure, a film like this is not going to do down well in these times but I was surprised how vilified it was on release, critics like Roger Ebert insulted by its endless attacks on women, the public no less hostile and it died a death at the box office.