BOOTLEG FILES 395: “The L-Shaped Room” (1962 drama starring Leslie Caron).
LAST SEEN: The full film is posted on YouTube in a multi-part installment.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It appears to have slipped through the cracks.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It is available on Region 2 DVD, so a Region 1 release may be in the future.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the British film industry turned out a large volume of dramatic features that emphasized the dismal aspects of life in working class England. These so-called “kitchen sink” dramas excited critics and audiences with their daring view of sex and harsh consideration of the British class system.
By contemporary standards, however, most of these films are pretty tame and a bit stale. Bryan Forbes’ 1962 film “The L-Shaped Room” is particularly notable for dating very badly. But, then again, the film never seemed to get off on the right foot.
“The L-Shaped Room” is based on a 1960 novel by Lynne Reid Banks. The book focused on Jane Graham, a young Englishwoman from an upper-middle-class family who rents a dreary flat in a seedy London boarding house. The young woman has a secret: she became pregnant after her first sexual encounter and she has no intention of marrying the baby’s father.
With its plot of unmarried pregnancy and consideration of abortion (a previously taboo subject back in the day), “The L-Shaped Room” seemed like an ideal addition to the kitchen sink genre. However, in creating the film, Forbes made some significant changes to the original text.
Realizing that the film would need a well-known star to bring in audiences (especially in the U.S. market), Forbes cast Leslie Caron to play Jane. Caron was best known for bringing a gamine quality to lush MGM musicals, including the Oscar-winners “An American in Paris” and “Gigi,” but her previous attempts at straight drama were mostly unsatisfactory.
Caron, who was born in 1931, played a similar role an unwed mother in the 1961 Technicolor feature “Fanny,” and she managed to create the youthful aura of a teenaged girl forced to grow up quickly. Yet in the black-and-white surroundings of “The L-Shaped Room,” she clearly looked her age. This clashed with the notion of a character that only just lost her virginity – the youthful effervescence Caron showed in “Fanny” was replaced with an inappropriately icy maturity in the Forbes film.
Of course, Caron’s French accent required that Jane Graham become Jane Fosset, a Gallic transplant who arrives in London with two suitcases full of designer clothing. Caron’s chic demeanor was completely at odds with her character – in the scenes where she is working as a waitress in a dingy diner, her movie star beauty and poise are totally out of whack with her surroundings.
Forbes also decided to play around with loosening societal attitudes towards homosexuality by offering some lavender shading to a pair of supporting characters. Forbes invented a new character for the film in an elderly one-time music hall performer (played by Dame Cicely Courtneidge) who briefly acknowledges that she is a lesbian. With another character, a West Indian jazz trumpeter (played by African American actor Brock Peters), Forbes goes further than the vague wisecracks of Banks’ novel by clearly suggesting that the character is gay. (Mercifully, Forbes toned down the blatant racist language of the Banks book, which compared the character’s appearance and behavior to a chimp.)
For those who prefer heterosexual engagements, the film also includes a pair of prostitutes who live in the basement flat of Caron’s rooming house. To his credit, Forbes retained the original story’s subplot about the possibility of an abortion. The one genuinely fine performance belonged to Emlyn Williams, who played a “specialist” who carefully yet casually that talked around the subject.
But the worst aspect of the film was Caron’s love interest: British actor Tom Bell is cast as an aspiring writer who works as a laborer and lives in the flat below Caron’s L-shaped room. His character’s endless verbosity and pomposity recalls the old joke about being vaccinated with a phonograph needle – he literally talks the audience into annoyance.
Despite its many, many problems, “The L-Shaped Room” had the good fortune to come in an era when anything British was considered cutting-edge. Despite miscast stars and a well-worn plot, the film was considered sensational in its time. The film opened in London in 1962, and Caron won the BAFTA Award (the British equivalent of the Oscars) for her performance. Caron was not present at the awards ceremony, but co-star Bell was present and created a major gaffe: a speech by Prince Philip was part of the ceremony, and a well-inebriated Bell heckled the royal by repeatedly yelling, “Give us a joke, Philip!” The prince, after initially ignoring Bell’s jibes, finally turned to the actor and stated, “If you wanted jokes, you should have hired a comedian.” The audience applauded and Bell’s career went into a decline following that evening.
Columbia Pictures picked up “The L-Shaped Room” for its U.S. release and engaged Caron for an extensive cross-country publicity tour. Critical praise for the film centered almost entirely on Caron – perhaps the critics were stunned that Caron could perform without breaking into song and dance. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times stated what most critics felt: “The actress pours into this role so much powerful feeling, so much heart and understanding, that she imbues a basically threadbare little story with tremendous compassion and charm.”
Columbia’s promotional efforts paid off, with Caron winning a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress and an Academy Award nomination. Caron, however, was in the Oscar competition against another angst-rich performance in a British kitchen sink drama – Welsh actress Rachel Roberts in “This Sporting Life” – and the British double play cancelled each other out in favor of Patricia Neal’s relatively mild performance in “Hud.” (The other nominees were major stars in fairly minor vehicles – Natalie Wood in “Love with the Proper Stranger” and Shirley MacLaine in “Irma La Douce.”)
Over the years, as film subject matter became more frank and sordid, “The L-Shaped Room” lost a great deal of its ability to shock. Many people today know the film for musically campy reasons: Cicely Courtneidge’s rendition of “Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty” was borrowed by The Smiths for their 1986 album “The Queen is Dead.”
To date, “The L-Shaped Room” has been unavailable in any U.S. home entertainment format. The film has been released in the U.K. and is currently available on a Region 2 DVD. Bootleg DVD copies are easy enough to locate, and the full film is available in an unauthorized multi-part posting on YouTube.
“The L-Shaped Room” is probably best recommended for rabid movie lovers trying to see as many Oscar-nominated performances as possible. For the rest of us, however, it is strictly a C-plus movie.
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