As recounted in the excellent making-of documentary (ported over from the Region 2 DVD, released in 2007), when Genevieve was completed, neither company CEO J. Arthur Rank nor anyone else in the upper echelon of the Rank Organization had any faith in the film, but instead of breeding dust on the shelf, the picture was hastily put into distribution when another film bombed.
During its premiere engagement, audiences quickly warmed to the film’s utterly charming sense of humour and surprisingly frank adult innuendo, and the little film, for which its director had mortgaged his house to ensure completion, won a BAFTA for Best British Film, and earned two Oscar nominations for Best Music Score and Best Writing.
And yet until now, Genevieve has remained elusive to the North American home video market, perhaps because few distributors here felt anyone would care about a simple film in which two rival couples decide to transform their annual trek of driving vintage cars with fellow antique auto lovers from London to Brighton and back into a race, with 100 pounds cash awaiting the winner.
Screenwriter William Rose, an American, had written a very British picture, yet he also tested the limits of cinematic mores on both continents by creating a realistic couple who fight and complain and mock each other, yet never wave in their genuine devotion. Wendy McKim (Dinah Sheridan) finds the two-day odyssey to be cold and dull, yet she tags along with husband Alan (John Gregson) because she knows he needs her support, and the trip will undoubtedly offer more quality time than their daily working week.
Joining them is Ambrose Claverhouse (Kenneth More), Wendy’s former fling, who consistently berates Alan’s vintage auto, and teases him into a bet which could ultimately ruin their oddly functional friendship. The men are competitive, but also quite mean towards each other if left alone together, which is probably why Wendy joins Alan each year; Ambrose, perhaps to protect himself, brings along a pretty girl – Rosalind (Kay Kendall) and her big slobbering dog - to keep him distracted from Wendy.
That Wendy and Alan are a realistic couple is quite surprising for a film from 1953, and the sexual innuendo is hardly kept under the covers. In one scene, More’s eyes flip back & forth between Kendall’s crisply made-up face and bosom, and in a rival scene, Sheridan asks Gregson twice to make love to her, as both are position on a single bed – breaking more than a few rules in Hollywood’s own Production Code.
The maturity of the characters also extends to their sense of fun, and Rose was spot-on in capturing the camaraderie and teasing that’s inherent to close friendships. Realism is also counterbalanced with a few now-classic sequences which are beautifully choreographed, including Rosalind’s trumpet playing during a festive post-race dinner, and Alan and Wendy’s night in a horrible, horrible hotel that’s managed by the equine-jawed Joyce Grenfell (Stage Fright, Laughter in Paradise).
Director Henry Cornelius (Passport to Pimlico) beautifully staged & timed the comedic elements, and the superb quartet of actors deliver verbal and sight gags with wonderful precision.
Car enthusiasts will love the realistic driving scenes (Cornelius wanted no rear projection usage and had all actors out in the open road), as well as the two vintage cars: the eponymous Genevieve, driven by the McKims, is a 1904 Darracq, and Claverhouse drives a 1905 Spyker – both still in good working order, and seen in the making-of closing scene with their adoring collector / owners.
While the film may be slight too genteel for some, Genevieve is a perfect film that has aged extremely well – not the least due to its timeless story of ordinary car fans driving vintage vehicles cross-country as part of a big social gathering.
VCI’s DVD includes a crisp transfer that finally shows off Christopher Challis’ superb Technicolor cinematography, and the making-of featurette includes interviews with Sheridan, cinematographer Challis, editor Clive Donner, and composer Larry Adler, whose score was nominated for an Oscar in spite of the composer being blacklisted by the Hollywood establishment & HUAC, and having his name removed from American film prints during the film’s original theatrical release.
Cornelius, a former editor (The Drum), would only direct a quintet of classic films before his sudden passing in 1958, whereas after editing Cornelius’ I Am a Camera (1955), editor Donner would switch to directing, of which his best work includes The Caretaker (1963), What’s New Pussycat? (1965), and A Christmas Carol (1984).
Writer Rose would go on to write the classic Ealing films The Maggie (1954) and The Ladykillers (1955), as well as the fluff piece The Smallest Show On Earth (1957) before moving to Hollwyood, where he’d pen It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World [M] (1963), The Flim-Flam Man [M] (1967), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).
Whereas Kendall would star in several memorable comedy films before her untimely death in 1959, Sheridan chose to step away from films at her peak in 1953. When she returned to the acting in 1968, the British film industry was slowly going through it’s toughest period, and much of her work then and now remains in TV.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan