Next week sees the release of Criterion’s stunning Blu-ray restoration
of the film that launched a thousand Smiths lyrics (I nearly fell of the couch when I heard Paul Danquah say “I dreamt about you last night. I fell out of bed twice.”) Morrissey credits half his career as a writer to Shelagh Delaney, the nineteen-year-old Manchester playwright whose 1958 play and subsequent film were a worldwide sensation. The rare kitchen-sink classic that centers on a woman rather than an angry young man, the main reason for the film’s success—though it is excellent in so many ways—was the then-unknown Rita Tushingham. Chosen from among thousands of girls, her star-making performance blew all the remaining cobwebs off British film acting and skipped away with the Best Actress award at Cannes (where, as recounted in a lovely interview with the now 74-year-old Tushingham on the Blu-ray, she and co-star Dora Bryan were not allowed into the opening party because they didn’t look like the Riviera’s idea of movie stars.)
In the Life magazine feature that was reprinted as a poster, Tushingham is described thus: “with a plain Jane face, crooked teeth, no figure to speak of, Rita has nothing—except unvarnished talent. Her eyes are uncannily expressive. Her voice has a penetrating warmth. From her ungainly demeanor comes a world of childishly honest charm.” Torn between its expressive charms and its plain-Jane-ness, film marketers either featured Tushingham’s face front and center or hid it away. In Jon Gray’s cover for the Criterion release—albeit one of the best recent Criterion designs—he hides Tushingham’s face in silhouette behind the bare light bulb that is one of the film’s recurring motifs. And the French poster by Gilbert Allard, above, while aesthetically one of the best posters for the film, again hides Tushingham’s face behind her co-star’s, gives her a figure to speak of and renders the whole thing as a torrid romance. One thing I do love about Allard’s poster is that it highlights its industrial urban setting, a major feature of the film which Richardson opened up from the play’s cramped interiors into the rain-slicked streets, canals and shipyards of Salford that cinematographer Walter Lassally captured with Antonioniesque beauty.
Another thing Allard’s poster hides is race. It is possible to see Tushingham’s partner in the poster as dark-skinned, but also possible not to notice it. The play and film were controversial in their day (X-rated in the UK) because, in one of the cinema’s most delightful dalliances, its 17-year-old heroine Jo falls in love with, and becomes pregnant by, a black sailor (Danquah) before starting a domestic relationship with her gay best friend Geoffrey (Murray Melvin, who also won Best Actor at Cannes). In fact, though it would have you believe otherwise, the image in the French poster actually comes from a scene between Tushingham and Melvin (you can see a photograph of it in one of the German posters below).
The American posters for the film focussed above all on Tushingham, centering on a pencil sketch similar to the ones Geoffrey does of Jo—or Jo of herself—and on the film’s rapturous critical acclaim:
The original UK poster—made before Tushingham was recognized as a break-out star—takes another motif from the film: the hole in the wallpaper:
And a subsequent review-based poster from the UK re-imagines the torn wallpaper as newspaper clippings:
The East German poster is one of the few to feature Danquah, the film’s ostensible romantic lead, while fudging the interracial aspect of the film by making their faces purple and yellow:
Another version of the East German poster and a lovely Japanese poster that also features the industrial urban backdrop:
A West German poster and a Danish poster which again uses the image of torn wallpaper:
A Hungarian poster by László Bánki, and a Romanian poster that may be adapted from it:
The beautiful Czech poster by Vera Nováková and an unusual Polish design by Andrzej Onegin-Dabrowski, neither of which even try to capture Tushingham’s face:
And the cover of an Italian program that is again one of the few pieces of advertising to feature Danquah and address the film’s interracial romance head on:
And, finally, Jon Gray’s Criterion cover which I love for its '60s graphic vibe:
Many thanks to Criterion and to Ben Crossley-Marra of Janus Films. Posters courtesy of Heritage Auctions, Cinematerial, Terry Posters, CinemaPoster.com, KinoArt.net, Una Pagina de Cine and EBay.